Wednesday, November 30, 2005

More on HIV denialism

Orac writes about other doctors who agree that Eliza Jane, daughter of an HIV-positive woman who refused to get her daughter tested or treated, did indeed die of AIDS.

CotV 167

The 167th Carnival of the Vanities is up at File it Under. Hate to say this, but one of his quotations of a post contains a factual inaccuracy:
John Locke was a fearless philosopher because he dared to challenge the notion of Divine Right and advanced the rights of life, liberty, property, and religious tolerance for all individuals.
Actually, he advanced the religious tolerance for all except Catholics and atheists. Always worth remembering that that someone can be ahead of his time while being well behind ours.

Experiment crunching

Pooflingers Anonymous has the Fourth Edition of the Crunch Squared series. This week's edition looks at experiments meant to disprove evolution in your own back yard:
This section asks the reader to prove that cosmological evolution can't happen by performing in-house experiments such as clearing a room out completely and seeing if something forms (yes, it's that bad).
And my home state gets a reference. Wee!
It also asks that the reader overfill a propane tank to see if gas becomes a solid. First, we need to be a little bit colder, say, by a few hundred degrees Kelvin. That's just not going to happen in your backyard... even if you live in Wisconsin.
On second thought, why do people always use Wisconsin as their example of somewhere really cold? Why not Minnesota? Or, hell, why not Alaska or Canada? I mean, we complain about our weather a lot, but it has to be worse farther north, right? Right?

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Fundies say the Darndest Things

Skeptico has discovered a site called Fundies Say the Darndest Things. I've got to learn some of these to pull out in debate in the form of "I once heard... is that what you're saying?":
One of the most basic laws in the universe is the Second Law of Thermodynamics. This states that as time goes by, entropy in an environment will increase. Evolution argues differently against a law that is accepted EVERYWHERE BY EVERYONE. Evolution says that we started out simple, and over time became more complex. That just isn't possible: UNLESS there is a giant outside source of energy supplying the Earth with huge amounts of energy. If there were such a source, scientists would certainly know about it.

Madison: politically boring, really

Badger Blues has a post called One More Reason Tammy Baldwin will easily win reelection.

Tammny Baldwin is the representative for Wisconsin's 2nd congressional district, centered around Madison. The post is on some criticism from her 2006 opponent, but it doesn't really matter, Madison is so liberal that the Democrats are are considered right-of-center; they won't lose this district except maybe to the Green party. This is on top of the general lack of competition in House races. Based on Madison's reputation, one would think it's an exciting political scene, but I can't say I see much point in voting until 2008.

Losing rank

My TruthLaidBear rank has slowly gone down from "adorable rodent" to "flippery fish." At first, I thought it was just because the links to this site from when I hosted various carivals were passing into people's archives, which TTLB doesn't scan. Now I find out it's really because of revamping of the ecosystem.

Hat tip: a similary depressed Amba

Why I am not a naturalist

In vague terms, I could say I reject the supernatural. I do not believe in God, gods, nature spirits, ghosts, the miracle claims of mainstream religions, or psychic powers. However, its worth pausing to ask what makes all these things supernatural. If it is natural to have five senses, what makes a sixth sense supernatural? C. S. Lewis took this questioning further, and ended up concluding that the Greek gods were not supernatural entities.

In all these cases, though, I think there is a general principle worth following, which is that mere inability to explain a story is not sufficient reason to accept it. This principle, however, should also be applied to claims that extra terrestrials have visited Earth, and our basic idea of an ET is of a natural entity, something that evolved in this universe according to the same natural laws as us, and came to Earth with technology based in natural law (though perhaps involving some aspects of natural law we are not aware of).

The issue, then, is not really about the supernatural. What is it, then?

The classic argument against belief in miracles is that of David Hume, laid out in Part X of his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. The argument runs into trouble with Hume's idea of miracles and natural law. He defines a miracle this way:
A miracle may be accurately defined, a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent.
This ignores the possibility of invisible agents intervening so regularly that nobody thinks their actions miraculous. With regards to natural law, anyone who is familiar with the rest of Hume's work knows he was keenly aware that natural law may fail us entirely, but he resists the idea of revising natural law:
The Indian prince, who refused to believe the first relations concerning the effects of frost, reasoned justly; and it naturally required very strong testimony to engage his assent to facts, that arose from a state of nature, with which he was unacquainted, and which bore so little analogy to those events, of which he had had constant and uniform experience. Though they were not contrary to his experience, they were not conformable to it.
One might ask how anyone can ever have an experience that is contrary to a specific man rising from the dead. This calls into question the contrary/comfortable distinction, and I think that distinction is destroyed by modern scientific advance, by which we have done many things once thought impossible.

In spite of these flaws, I think Hume's argument was basically on target. His point was that belief in miracles must be grounded in testimony, and trust in testimony must be grounded the observation that testimony usually confirms to facts. If this is not clear, observe that miracle apologetics must rely on statements like "legends usually take longer to form" and "two people almost never see the same hallucination." For this reason, we cannot trust testimony without also giving consideration to the inferences drawn from facts like "dead people usually stay that way." Put a little more positively, we may be open to the possibility of a resurrection, but we should also be open to the possibility that there's something we do not understand about hallucinations or legends.

What's more, there definitely are things that the average person does not understand about these things. Here’s just one example from UFOlogy, where the issue is a completely naturalistic one. Many of the people claiming to have been abducted by aliens give a strong appearance of being sane and sincere. People hearing these claims assume that if they are not lying nor totally insane, they must be telling the truth. The reality is that one can be fantasy prone and generate false memories without being stark raving mad.

There are paranormal claims that I find far harder to explain away than anything in the Bible, such as the Pascagoula abduction, where two witnesses stuck to their story even when left alone and secretly tape recorded. Yet I reject the hypothesis that this was an actual alien visitation, and I will similarly require more than inexplicability to accept a religious miracle claim. Naturalism may be nice short hand, but it does nothing to explain why we should reject UFOlogy, and does not provide the best reason for rejecting standard miracle claims.

Go Joe!

Something I like at Joe Carter's Evangelical Outpost:
I have three things I'd like to say today. First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don't give a sh*t. What's worse is that you're more upset with the fact that I said sh*t than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night.
That's quoting liberal evangelical Tony Campolo. Carter then goes off into an uninteresting piece on swearing.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Explanatory power: God v. science

From About Atheism:
Many theistic arguments in defense of the existence of a god involve arguing that certain events that haven't been fully explained by naturalistic science are unexplainable in principle by naturalistic science. Thus, the only "explanation" available is the supernatural, establishing a justification for believing in a god....

It’s always possible, in theory, that naturalistic science won’t be able to explain something — but the chances of this being the case don’t appear to be very significant. We don’t have any examples of science concluding that something isn’t explainable; everything which science has investigated thus far has become more and more explainable. It’s only possible that science might fail because the idea of such failure isn’t logically contradictory; the possibility of naturalistic science being unable to explain nature is not realistic though.

Nevertheless, many theists persist in arguing that some things are unexplainable — but as Johnson points out, this means that they are predicting the future in a way that is simply unreasonable. These theists certainly can’t claim to know enough about science and the universe to know that such events are unexplainable — that would involve them knowing far more than the scientists studying the phenomena.
As good a point as this is for some areas, it misses the point on others. Take the origin of the universe. Betting against the ability of science to figure this one out is risky, but there is a logical paradox here that we *might* not figure out. The real reason for rejecting God as an explanation is that doing so doesn't solve the problem it purports to solve; we are left asking for an explanation for God's existence. So next time God is proposed as an explanation for something, the first thing you should ask is not whether science could explain it eventually, but whether God really explains the thing in question.

Evidence and policy

Overheard at a drug policy meeting:
Yes, it would be nice to have evidence-based policy-making. But even if we can't get that, perhaps we can do away with policy-based evidence-making.
(Via Thoughts from Kansas via Brad DeLong.

Fallacies: "science was wrong before"

On Skeptico:
As well as being a flawed argument, it also shows ignorance of how science works. Yes, science has been wrong, but the scientific method is self-correcting. And it is always scientists who have unearthed new evidence who do the correcting, never people who ignore the scientific method.

Ironically it also shows up the strength of science and the weakness of believer methods. For example, compare the way scientific errors are discovered and corrected, with what happens in, for example, astrology or alternative medicine. In those fields no errors are ever corrected for the simple reason that no one ever critically tests those beliefs to see if they even contain errors. Errors are a permanent feature of those beliefs. Error recognition and correction is a strength of science.

What drives ID

Cathy Young:
My statement that "Darwin was a Christian" oversimplified the complex reality of Darwin's views, and should have been more nuanced. However, the notion that Darwin developed his 'theory of natural selection as a way to "work out his issues with God" is preposterous, if only because he developed his theory more than a decade before he developed his "issues." It also says a great deal about the mindset of ID proponents, who treats scientific inquiry as essentially driven by ideology.

Incidentally, that is what makes ID a fundamentally non-scientific enterprise: not that it is driven by religion, but that it is driven by ideology. That is, its proponents question evolutionary theory not because they dissatisfied with the scientific/factual evidence for it, but because they don't like its conclusions. To be sure, they look for and claim to find scientific and factual holes in the theory, but the main (or only) reason they start looking is that they don't want it to be true. It makes no difference whether a critique of Darwinian theory is motivated by defense of religion or, say, by concern that biological Darwinism easily lends itself to apologetics for social inequality. In both cases, the motivation is ideological, not scientific.
She nails the problem: ID is ideologically driven, whether or not the ideology is religious or not doesn't really matter. Though I wonder if ID proponents might get a clue and begin pitching their case to the courts as "we push this pseudoscience because of a non-religious agenda." Just as reprehensible, perhaps, but Constitutionally kosher.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

No Christian converts?

About Atheism has a link to another discussion of whether any atheists actually become Christians. This sounds like a rather silly question to be asking. If you think maybe there are no such people, ask yourself this: what would you say if a Christian claimed that anyone who abandos Christianity wasn't a Christian in the first place?

What's wrong with science fiction

Joe Mahoney says Sci-Fi needs to stop taking itself too seriously.

More on Adams/ID

Tim at Balloon-Juice has made a good point about the Scott Adams/ID kerfluffle:
Pharyngula compares Adams to Wally, which doesn’t sound right to me....

Have you ever gotten into it with the idiot savants behind six-sigma and hidden-planet conspiracy theories? I have. Don’t bother; there is no authority you can reference that they can’t find some obscure reason to doubt. These guys are often gifted engineers who’ve spent so long knowing practically everything about their particular specialty that it seems like a short leap to imagine that they know everything about everything. The same guys torment mathematicians and physicists tirelessly with inane theories of Everything.

Scott Adams was apparently a very good engineer and while I wouldn’t put him in the six sigma camp (which he has mocked), the same tendency lets him believe that he knows enough about evolution to stick it good to the people who spend their lives studying it.
The analogy Pharyngula made in his initial post on the subject, to a manager who screws up a project because he doesn't know what is going on, still holds, I think. However, it's worth remembering that bumbling fools in one area often know a lot about some other area.


The 28th Carnival of the Godless is up at The Evangelical Atheist. As one of two people who responded to Dr. Myers call to submit something positive, I got top billing. Thanks for that, IAM.

Another crying statue

There's another crying statue of the Virgin Mary, this time in Sacramento:
SACRAMENTO, Calif. - Carrying rosary beads and cameras, the faithful have been coming in a steady stream to a church on the outskirts of Sacramento for a glimpse of what some are calling a miracle: A statue of the Virgin Mary they say has begun crying a substance that looks like blood.

It was first noticed more than a week ago, when a priest at the Vietnamese Catholic Martyrs Church spotted a stain on the statue's face and wiped it away. Before Mass on Nov. 20, people again noticed a reddish substance near the eyes of the white concrete statue outside the small church, said Ky Truong, 56, a parishioner.

What's goin' on in Leo has this observation:
One of the believers thinks this portends a disaster. Oh, gee, a disaster? We don't have any of those unless you count the tsunamis, the earthquakes, the hurricanes, etc.
On a similar line, from La Blogda:
Some believe that this is sign full of major portent, warning us of a natural disaster or an epidemic. It never ceases to amaze how the religious right always get these things wrong: she’s crying because half the country elected W into office yet again. Duh, it’s so obvious.

Or maybe she’s crying because Alias killed of Michael Vartan (I will never forgive the producers for that), and now this is Alias’ last season (might as well be, they killed off super cute hottie spy).
It's one thing when people forget to look for natural explanations for these seemingly miraculous events. But why, why are people so quick to declare they know what God is thinking when he sends these signs? Maybe its because they have to work hard to banish the thought that God's just screwing with us.

The Vatican generally does an investigation of sorts of these things:
The Rev. James Murphy, deacon of the diocese's mother church, the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, said church leaders are always skeptical at first.

"For people individually seeing things through the eyes of faith, something like this can be meaningful. As for whether it is supernatural or a miracle, normally these incidences are not. Miracles are possible, of course," Murphy said. "The bishop is just waiting and seeing what happens. They will be moving very slowly."
Move slowly? You've had a week, guys. It can't take more than a few hours to collect a sample of the substance and send it in to be analyzed. That wouldn't tell us everything there is to know about this, but could tell us a lot. If its something other than blood, we could begin looking at possible sources of the given substance. Wiping the stuff off and secretly establishing video surveillance would be a good move as well. Why move slowly on such things?

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Urban Legends about Iraq war?

Instapundit has a
link labled "Urban Legends About the Iraq War." When you read what they have, these are accusations people made, not weird stories that have been circulating by e-mail. Agree that their wildly false accusations if you like, but call them that, rather than appropriate the term "urban legend" to make them sound like friend-of-a-friend stories.

Sigh. I've thought left-wing Instapundit bashing has been a bit extreme, but this makes me wonder about Glenn's judgment. I suppose, in his defense, one could say that he wasn't the one who first called the "urban legends" and just liked the rebuttals.

Another good Christian blog

When the last God or Not carnival went up at Eternal Revolution, I ended up blogrolling the crew there. Now, thoughts from Kansas brings another worthy Christian blog to my attention: Rereason.

My favorite post of the most recent few there is some advice to bloggers on fact-checking, using the recent fuss over reading the Chronicles of Narnia as his example. He lays out three basic points:

  • Always assume the best of people: check reports to the contrary
  • Don't go off half-cocked
  • Use the internet to get information

Kabalah energy drink

Heard about this on the radio today. Spokeswoman Darin Ezra has probided various soundbites on the rationale for this product. From MSN:
We’re going after the Red Bull market. But Kabbalah Energy Drink tastes better. And it’s infused with Kabbalah water, which is holy water. If it’s successful. There will be more Kabbalah products.
And from New York Metro:
We’re marketing this because it’s cool to be part of Kabbalah today. This is the pop culture right now. There’s nothing more trendy. It’s like Fossil watches when they first came out.
The radio ad was even sillier, if that's possible. It gave trendiness as the main rationale for buying the product - but also mentioned that it's spiritually fulfilling.

I keep telling myself that modern society is not going downhill. And I suppose that this mode of religion is an improvement over believing in a God who damns infidels and occasionally orders their indiscriminate slaughter. But this mixing of mass-marketing and pop culture ideas of "trendiness" with our search for meaning strains my belief in the human ability for self-improvement.

"You'd have to be dumber than Ken Ham"

From an article on Ken Ham:

"But intelligent design advocates probably won't thank Australian-born Mr Ham for articulating what many of them try to avoid saying. That is: for some, the intelligent design movement is essentially a stalking horse for religion and, in the US, a way of getting around the separation of church and state to get into schools and influence children's education."
This led PZ to comment:
You'd have to be dumber than Ken Ham to believe that ID wasn't warmed over creationism. That's setting the bar very, very low, yet still people manage to limbo under it.
PZ posts an example of some T-shirts being hawked by the Intelligent Design movement. What are they like? Let me put it this way: if he's said, "look at this T-shirt making fun of ID," I'd have believed him, and ordered one.

Intelligence Lost

A play in which an angle named Stan comes to question God's intelligence for designing us this way. The funniest take on this issue I've yet seen.

Hat Tip: Panda's Thumb

Friday, November 25, 2005

Murtha gets part of what he wants

One of my friends in the military brought this story to my attention: Bush is planning on reducing troop levels in Iraq from 160,000 to 100,000 by the end of next year. He said this decision will probably keep him from being sent to the country. I think Michael Reynolds has been vindicated.

My other thought on this is it may be a worst of both worlds decision - our troops will still be targets for the insurgents, but we'll be even less able to deal with a situation that commanders are saying we don't have enough troops for. On the other hand, it's a start on the way to a withdrawl.

More on A.D.

In a About Atheism post about the Founding Fathers, a factoid that nicely ties in with something I wrote Monday:
In addition, if a Christian really wants to argue that the use of Christian dating implies a Christian basis to the government, they're in a lot of trouble because the names of the months and days have pagan rather than Christian origins. This was evidently a source of some consternation of Quakers who refused to use the pagan-based names, but the authors of the Constitution refused to employ the Quaker numerical system. This suggests that the authors really didn't read much into such naming conventions, effectively undermining the argument that the phrase "Year of our Lord" has any significance worth discussing.

Crunch Squared Vol 3

The latest edition of Iamb's Crunch Squared - a series refuting a particularly bad anti-evolution book - is up.

Ice core samples analyzed

650,000 years of ice core samples have been analyzed, confirming much climate science. Read all about it on RealClimate.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

The reliability of the Gospels

Tuesday, Joe Carter blasted Brian Flemming's documentary The God Who Wasn't There, which claims that Jesus never existed. I have to say that I agree with Carter on this one for a few reasons, though the one I'll lay out here is one he isn't going to like much.

Many people don't realize it, but the standard nativity story, performed every year by grade school kids across the globe, appears in no single book of the Bible. Instead, it mixes stories from two books, and specifically contradicts the Bible on one point.

Here's how the book of Luke tells the story: Caesar Agustus gives his order for the whole world to be taxed, causing Joseph and Mary to travel from Nazereth to Bethlehem. There, she gives birth in a manger because all the inns were full. Shepherds show up, then go "spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child." Later (41 days later, if I'm reading Leviticus 12 right) they take him to Jerusalem. Then they go home to Nazereth.

Now Matthew: Joseph takes Mary home as his wife. She gives birth in Bethlehem. What are they doing Bethlehem? This isn't explained, but the reader could be forgiven for thinking they lived there. Lucky we have Luke to correct that misperception. Then, the Magi visit Jesus at a house - not a manger - in Bethlehem. Apparently they found a house to stay in while waiting to take Jesus to Jerusalem. Unfortunately, the Magi have tipped off Herod as to Jesus' location (the shepherds were more discreet when they were spreading the word). Well, Joseph is warned in a dream, they flee to Egypt, and return after Herod dies.

This is the part I don't quite understand. Did God give Herod a heart attack so that Mary and Joseph would be able to return to Jerusalem within the 41 day window? If so, why didn't he do so before they had to flee? Now that I'm on it, would they have even had the time for a two-way trip to Egypt in those 41 days? Maybe Herod was really slow in sending out his soldiers, giving Mary and Joseph time to stop in Jerusalem before fleeing to Egypt? Google could not help me with this issue, maybe someone can explain this to me in the comments.

To finish up Matthew's version, Joseph is afraid of Herod's brother, so the family goes to live in Nazereth rather than Bethlehem. Must have gotten pretty well settled in Bethlehem for Joseph to want to return there rather than where he had been living in Nazereth.

Okay, enought with the sarcasm. What we have here is two stories that cannot be reconciled, making one and probably both false. That such elaborate legends could form by the time the Gospels were written flies in the face of all apologetic attempts to claim that Jesus' miracles could not have been legends.

Why, then, does this cause trouble for Flemming? The one thing the stories seem to agree on is that Jesus was born in Bethlehem and raised in Nazereth. They had good polemical reasons to have him born in Bethlehem, city of David, but probably had heard him called "Jesus of Nazereth" too many times to deny that he was raised there. They were, in other words, not making up a myth out of whole cloth but building one around an inconvenient. Not much comfort for Christians, but one reason for atheists to drop this claim that Jesus never existed.

KD - Kinky Design

PZ Myers responds to a call for facts of biology that call the idea of a begign designer into question:
I suggested... Judson's Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation: The Definitive Guide to the Evolutionary Biology of Sex to show that this putative god would have to have had a deeply kinky streak.
The comments to this post are highly recommended:
The bedbug Xylocaris maculipennis has adapted a curious way of reproduction, that of homosexual stabbing rape.

A few bedbug species make use of a mating plug, which a male inserts post-copulation. Effectively the male seals her vaginal opening upon withdrawal. This has a distinct evolutionary advantage as it prevents other males from mating with her. Some bedbug species thus employ stabbing rape, where the male impales the female via her abdomen and thus circumvents the mating plug.

In Xylocaris maculipennis, the male will at times impale and inseminate other males while they are engaged in the process of copulation. This allows the rapist's genes to enter the bloodstream to be carried to females by the victim. In this way, the rapist conceives by proxy. In A Natural History of Sex, Adrian Forsyth writes, "The sperm of the rapist enters the vas deferens of his male victim and is used by the victim during copulation." This also occurs with fresh water snails of the genus Biomphalaria, that are vectors for schistosomiasis).

Enough to make a body ashamed of the human race

Melee erupts over Xboxes. *Blinks*

When we hear of wars erupting over land, we can be shocked or outraged or stunned. Hearing this, I can only be embarrassed.

Still more Thanksgiving cheer

From The Evangelical Atheist and The Raving Atheist. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Chemical weapons

John Cole has a post on whether White Phosphorous, used by the U.S. military in Iraq, is a chemical weapon. It caught my attention because its a case of expert knowledge being relevant to a political debate that's not evolution. I've come to admire John Cole for his handling of such issues. He shares my dislike of George Bush but is unwilling to let what he sees as a baseless attack pass. (Though if someone has evidence he's wrong on this, I wouldn't mind hearing it.)

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Alternative season's greetings

From a comment at Sadly, No!:
I don't give a crap if a store clerk wishes me "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Holidays," or even "May Cthulhu Grant You A Quick And Painless Death In This Season Of Ice," so long as I get my merchandise and my credit card back.
I'll have to try out that last option sometime.

The virtue of skepticism

Readers of this blog are likely familiar with two senses of the word "skepticism." On the one hand, there is Michael Shermer/CSICOP sense of looking at extraordinary claims and seeing if there is a more mundane explanation. On the other hand, there is the skepticism of Pyrrho and Hume, which doubts whether we are able to know anything at all. I am not primarily interested in either in this post.

What I am interested in here is a more generalized habit of being willing, like Socrates, to constantly question the various claims we find around us, never letting up. This does sometimes lead to asking the global skeptic's question of how we can know anything, along with many other philosophical quandries. It is interesting, though, that some global skeptics have been more skeptical of some claims than others. In Hume's Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, he condems especially metaphysical philosophers who he blames for turning small mistakes into large ones and inflaming passions. What is gained from skepticism is that even when we find ourselves doubting our most basic beliefs, we can find some claims more problematic than others, and perhaps gain a few insights along the way. If we find a way to be justified in any of our beliefs, we can at least discover that the unproven state of evolutionary theory is not reason for rejecting it. If we can not even be sure what a moral obligation is, we can at least know it is not our moral obligation to kill infidels.

Beyond these smaller insights, questioning the answers we get to profound questions puts us that much closer to the truth. So often, the simple answers only push the question back one step further without improving the situation any. What is the meaning of life? Not sure, but focusing on human existence rather than UFOs or ancient superstitions seems the best route to an answer. Just today, I read Skeptic Rant saying we might defend Enlightenment rationalism by trying to make science sound rational and mystical. I have a different proposal. Let's tell people, "We can't give you all the answers, but we can put you on the path to finding out."

Attn: anonymous

I just responded to an anonymous comment here, and was left wondering if this was the same anonymous that has responded to other posts. I would like everyone to please notice that there is an "other" option in the comments posting, which allows you to type in a pseudonym. As a small courtesy to me, would people please use it? I won't be deleting anonymous comments, but I'd like to be able to tell my commenters apart.

All right! We'll teach ID!

Kansas University has thrown up its hands and agreed to teach Intelligent Design - as mythology, to the disapointment of ID advocates:
"The KU faculty has had enough," said Paul Mirecki, chairman of KU’s religious studies department. He said he planned to teach "Special Topics in Religion: Intelligent Design, Creationism and other Religious Mythologies" next semester....

"To equate intelligent design to mythology is really an absurdity, and it’s just another example of labeling anybody who proposes (intelligent design) to be simply a religious nut," [Intelligent Design Network member John] Calvert said. "That’s the reason for this little charade."...
They had to follow up with a response to all the whining from ID advocates:
"It is unfortunate that the course title's reference to 'mythologies' has been misconstrued," Provost David Shulenburger said in a written statement released Tuesday afternoon. "The terms 'myth' and 'mythology' are common in the academic study of religion and not an affront. A myth refers to the common use of stories or rituals to symbolize in a meaningful manner the core beliefs of a religion; it does not refer to any religion as a whole."
I'm a little unsure about this class for a slightly different reason that Intelligent Design advocates: ID's story isn't much of a story: "Life on Earth was designed. How? We don't take a position on that. By who? We don't take a position on that either. Oh, but big-G also designed the universe as a whole." This isn't a story, its a political tactic to get around separation of church and state. But perhaps this could be seen as a ritual attempt for people to persuade themselves that their beliefs are rational.

Is this how Christians think?

Vjack has discovered a rather stunning example of weird Christian mentality. Short version: guy sees an atheist bumper sticker, is unable to believe someone could not believe in God, considers crashing into him to get an opportunity to prosthetize, and prays for the guy instead. Here's Vjack:
Obviously, it would be a mistake to assume that this particular Christian is representative of most Christians. But it would also be a mistake to automatically assume that most Christians do not view their world this way. Rather, investigate to find the truth. Look at the Christians you know and ask questions of those would be willing to respond. I suspect that this sort of thought process is more common than we realize and may explain much of what we encounter.
I'm guess the part about considering crashing into the guy is an anomoly. On the other hand, we already know fewer people would vote for an atheist presidential candidate than a homosexual one. I'm not even sure it takes a fundamentalist to have trouble with the idea of atheism. Good reason to keep up the fight for a basic level of exceptance.

Buddha blogging

Pooflinger's Annonymous recently got ahold of a transcript of the Dali Lama's talk at a neuroscience convention. He passed it on to PZ Myers, who posted the whole thing.

Myers shared the ambivalence of many scientists about the talk, but has a generally positive review. Refering to one paragraph, he pays His Holiness this comment:
except for the fifth sentence, these could be the words of a hardcore atheist.

Skeptic's Circle XXII

The 22nd Skeptic's Circle is up at Mile Zero.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Readable now?

I switched to this template for the sake of readability. However, now the blog is painful on *my* eyes. I may darken the color for the quotes. Input here?
UPDATE: How's this template?

Soft theocracy

A poll for BBC radio this month found that 75% of Britons want the country to retain "Christian values" - a view shared by 69% of Jews; 50% of Muslisms, Sikhs, and Hindus; and 44% of those with no faith.
From an Economist article on Britain's ever-compromising "soft theocracy."

More Thanksgiving cheer

Brent at UTI has his Thanksgiving post up on being thankful:
Atheists also celebrate Thanksgiving in America, but we don't give our thanks to an invisible, magical nonexistent being. Instead we give our thanks to those who truly deserve it - our fellow humans.
He has thank-yous for friends, family, people online, and corporations. Rarely hear people thank corporations, but I suppose it isn't such a bad idea.

My first philosophy carnival

The 20th Philosopher's Carnival is up at for those of you at home. I've got an entry there, this is my first time submitting to this carnival - and the host like what I wrote, but forced me to Google "Rylean" in the process.

UPDATE: The carnival's been temporarily taken down to allow late submissions to be added. Good in a way, since the original was kind of short.

UPDATE II: It's back, with an increased dosage of bloggy goodness.

Okay, I'll change my template!

Here's my quiz results from a quiz I got via Josh. I got the same results as him:
Your Blog Should Be Green

Your blog is smart and thoughtful - not a lot of fluff.
You enjoy a good discussion, especially if it involves picking apart ideas.
However, you tend to get easily annoyed by any thoughtless comments in your blog.

I think I'll be going for this template. The change, I admit, is partly from trying to read my blog under different lighting conditions and realizing how hard it is. Of course, I have to preserve my side bar - really not much work, but expect to see the change late today or tomorrow evening.

American culture and the schools

Andrew J. Coulson of the Cato Institute has proposed settling the Intelligent Design debate by abolishing public schools. He's not the first conservative to do so. Red State Rabble comments:
Red State Rabble finds it fascinating that those on the right who rail against multiculturalism --aka religious, racial, and ethnic tolerance -- are for the Balkanization of the nation's school system.

"Parental choice" otherwise known as vouchers will encourage economic, racial, ethnic, and religious stratification in Kansas. Our country was built on our ability to unify a diverse population around common goals, and the public education system has been a key player in that process.

It must be defended.
One of the most powerful arguments for the public school system - that it helps create a common American identity - is something that ought to appeal to conservatives. At other times, they worry about Muslim schools in the U.S. and Europe that let immigrants avoid assimilating into the larger culture. Why, then, are they so often down on public schools?

Monday, November 21, 2005

McCain: teach Marxism in school

Chris Mooney has quotes from an interview with John McCain over at ScienceGate:
No, I support the airing of all viewpoints in America, including Marxism, including socialism, including libertarianism, including--I think Americans should be exposed to all ideas and viewpoints. I don't think they should be excluded. I don't think they should be excluded.
Context, along with previous statements indicate he means this should be done in public schools. This, IMO, makes his previous statement on ID less troublesome but makes him look weirder overall.

Also, he seems to confuse ID and theistic evolution:
I'm not saying they shouldn't be taught evolution. I'm not saying they shouldn't be taught other scientific theories. I'm also saying that they should not be excluded from the viewpoint which I happen to hold, that God created this world, and that is not in contradiction of evolution, because I think God started it all.

It's "A.D.," for Thor's sake!

Pooflingers has a post on the A.D./C.E. issue. Honestly, this is one where I can't go along with secularization. Doing so invites Christians to demand we rename the days of the week so that they no longer pay homeage to pagan gods (Wednesday = Woden's day, Thursday = Thor's day, etc.)

Fighting ID by students

Yesterday, I noted the possibility that schools would reject ID due to college admissions considerations, today, Pat Hayes has found a case of a student willing to fight on those groungs:
Sonia Arora, with a stellar GPA and recognition from the National Honor Society, is exceeding Blue Valley West High School's high expectations for the junior class.

Her school regularly sends its graduates to some of the nation's most selective colleges.

But since the State Board of Education voted last week that public schools should treat evolution as a flawed scientific theory, Sonia has started worrying that going to high school in Kansas could be a liability when she applies to college next fall.

"I can separate science and religion just fine. I mean, I'm Hindu, and we have our own creation story. I believe in evolution, too," said Sonia, 16, who dreams of pursuing a science degree at the University of California at Berkeley. "It's just that now I don't know if colleges will think I know the difference."
He also notes a case of an Alaskan student council rejecting saying ID should not be in science class.


A couple days ago, Dean Esmay claimed it was the gospel truth that the dead daughter of an HIV-positive HIV-denier did not, as the LA coroner concluded, have AIDS. He cited "the pathologists report" in support of his view, it only came out in the comments that the report itself was written by another denier.

I argued with myself over what to do about this one. At first, I thought, "don't give this nut any more attention," and tried posting in his comments rather than here. [EDIT: for some reason, the comment didn't work - I initially assumed moderation, but Dean says that was not the case.] Dean had accused the poster who pointed out the doctor's bias of making an ad homiem attack, I said that he was a hypocrite for making up his mind, pre-pathologist's report, that the coroner was "guilty of a political diagnosis" and that biases do matter for assessing credibility.

After I realized my comment wasn't going through, I considered posting just to look at the issue of assessing credibility. Then, today, Orac rides in with everything I had to say on the subject:
At the risk of being accused of retreating to the "last refuge of the pseudoscientist" (as Dean himself likes to put it), the ad hominem attack, it is nonetheless necessary to take a brief look at Dr. Al-Bayati before addressing the substance of report itself. (Don't worry, I'll get to the substance soon enough.) Given that Dean seems to like to question the motivations of those who don't buy into his "HIV dissident" line and to argue from authority a lot (he is quite enamored of his friend Peter Duesberg's credentials and those of another prominent AIDS denialist, Harvey Bialy and is not at all shy about waving them in front of him--metaphorically speaking--like a talisman to ward off attacks against his pseudoscientific posturing), I consider it entirely appropriate to examine this particular "expert" and his qualifications and motivations before going on to discuss the contents of his report....

If Dean considers it not to be an ad hominem attack to blithely accuse the L.A. County Coroner and L.A. Times without evidence of making "a political diagnosis in order to grandstand," I consider it acceptable to point out the obvious conflict of interest of the source Dean chooses to use to make the case that the autopsy findings were incorrect.

As I've said before, as long as it's not just throwing insults at your opponent, ad hominem arguments are not always inappropriate, particularly when they point out a clear bias that any person evaluating both sides of an argument should be aware of. However, they are not sufficient. The substance of an argument must be addressed as well.
Orac then proceeds to demolish the substance of the report. Wonder if Dean will give that part of Orac's response the consideration he demanded of the pathology report.

He has, however, posted another piece on AIDS in Africa, complaining once about diagnosis techniques:
In the meantime, the dirty little secret is that the vast majority of AIDS cases in Africa have never received any form of HIV test whatsoever. From 1985 to 1994, the World Health Organization used something called the "Bangui Definition" of AIDS, which included a long list of symptoms like cough, fever, diarrhea, rash, and severe weight loss. You can get details here. In 1994, they offered an "expanded" definition that was supposed to clear up this sloppy science... but if you look carefully, you'll discover that the 1994 definition is almost exactly the same as the previous definition, only it says to use "serological testing" (i.e. some form of HIV or HIV-antibody test) if available--and if not available, use the old definition.
This led one idiotic commentor to say:
According to the Bangui definition, I've got AIDS. I got it by because another guy touched my face ... with his elbow. It must be incredibly contagious! We're all gonna die!

(Reality: I was struck in the face, breaking bones and my nose. I have recurrent sinus infections.)

Huh? If he had said, "according to this definition, I have AIDS because I have a cough" he'd be dead wrong, but understandable, how he arrived at the elbow-claim doesn't even make sense. Here's an example of what could actually qualify someone for an AIDS diagnosis, based on the link provided:

  • Abscence of pronounced malnutririon
  • Weight loss exceeding 10% of body weight
  • Continuous or repeated attacks of fever for more than a month
  • Diarrhoea lasting for more than a month
  • Cough

All these things together are needed - if you don't have a cough or any other symptoms beyond the first four, you don't qualify.

As noted in the article on Philip Johnson I linked to in my first tussel with Dean, such definitions have been shown to under-count AIDS cases.

Dean, would you agree that pushing this nonsense about diagnostic criteria does at least as much damage to your credibility as being mistaken about super-AIDS does to the credibility of mainstream scientists?

Related post: Ad hominem fallacy?

Thanksgiving's comming

And Vjack has some thoughts. Personally, I see the holiday as a great way to see far-flung relatives in our hyper-mobile culture. All my non-nuclear relatives live outside Wisconsin, and now that I'm in college, I'm not even in the same city as my parents. Thanksgiving gives me another opportunity to see them.

He's pissed

We cannot forget that when Hitler came to power in 1933, one of the first things that he did was ban gay organizations.
-Eric Yoffie, leader of American Reform Judaism. So much for Godwin's law, oh well. HT: John Cole

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Murtha leads opposition?

As I mentioned in the comments of this post, the Iraq withdrawl resolution the House voted down was a little different than what Murtha proposed: "slimeball tactic or mere political blunder, it makes the vote less conclusive than it could have been." Now I read at Badger Blues that Murtha actually opposed the rewritten version. Any confirmation on this?

UPDATE: Ben, in the comments of Badger Blues says it was "more than a little different." I had heard that Murtha wanted to create a reaction force, but it hadn't clicked that that had gotten removed from the bill as well.

Fighting ID through college admissions

John Cole tells Kansas Highschool Students to pay attention to a story about a boy from an evangelical high school whose courses won't be accepted for college admissions:
A lawyer for the Association of Christian Schools International, Wendell Bird, said the Calvary concerns surfaced two years ago when the admissions board scrutinized more closely courses that emphasized Christianity. In the last year, the board has rejected courses like Christianity’s Influence in American History, Special Provenance: Christianity and the American Republic, Christianity and Morality in American Literature and a biology course using textbooks from the Bob Jones University Press and A Beka Book, conservative Christian publishers.

The officials rejected the science courses because the curriculum differed from "empirical historical knowledge generally accepted in the collegiate community," the suit said. Calvary was told to submit a secular curriculum instead. Courses in other subjects were rejected because they were called too narrow or biased.
Intelligent Design can suffer worse defeats than a simple court ruling saying it can't be taught as science. For one, it can get such a ruling as a result of a backfiring initiative of "unusually clueless champions," as Economist magazine called the Dover school board. But say it is ruled unconstitutional. That could set up a situation where schools that teach it are dismissed by college admissions boards. As long as the admissions process is in the hands of professors who understand science, something like it's bound to happen. A defeat of Intelligent Design in the courts rather than the market place of ideas would be far more satifying than a mere court defeat.

Unfortunately, an Intelligent Design movement powerful enough to force itself on highschool teachers would be a movement powerful enough to force itself on college professors. But we can always dream...

"God likes killing people"

I tend to scan past The Evangelical Atheist's "God is a Dick" pieces, but today's entry is memorable for how many bases it covers - you get citations from across four books if you ever need them in debate. In spite of that, the summary is so simple:
Let’s review. God likes killing people. Maybe that’s why he made so many of them. If you’re the owner of an bull, a homosexual, a Hindu, a tarot card reader or a rebellious teenager, be thankful that god doesn’t make the rules in the USA. Dick.
Especially good if anyone every tries to claim our law is based on the Bible.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

"A ginormous could of bad things hanging over millions of people"

How one of my friends described this site. Shall I post a sample? No, this site is one that has to be taken in in toto.

What kind of humanist are you?

Seeing this at Orac's finally convinced me to post my results to a test that's been all the rage in the skeptical bloggosphere lately:


You go out of your way to build bridges with people of different views and beliefs and have quite a few religious friends. You believe in the essential goodness of people , which means you’re always looking for common ground even if that entails compromises. You would defend Salman Rushdie’s right to criticise Islam but you’re sorry he attacked it so viciously, just as you feel uncomfortable with some of the more outspoken and unkind views of religion in the pages of this magazine.

You prefer the inclusive approach of writers like Zadie Smith or the radical Christian values of Edward Said. Don’t fall into the same trap as super–na├»ve Lib Dem MP Jenny Tonge who declared it was okay for clerics like Yusuf al–Qaradawi to justify their monstrous prejudices as a legitimate interpretation of the Koran: a perfect example of how the will to understand can mean the sacrifice of fundamental principles. Sometimes, you just have to hold out for what you know is right even if it hurts someone’s feelings.

What kind of humanist are you? Click here to find out.
But when I took it a second time, I got Hardhat - i.e. rationalist. After some fiddling, I discovered that any one of three changes between my first two takings would have put me in this camp. So I'm on the border here, just like I was when I took that ideology test. A pretty good description of me, I think.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Taking skepticism one step further

Skepticism of the philosophical sort - not CSICOP style debunking of nonsense, but the claim we cannot have real knowledge - begins with the common sense premise that our beliefs should be justified. The problem occurs when we realize that justification comes in the form of other beliefs, which in turn need justification. This process repeats until we arrive at beliefs like the reliability of the senses. At this point, for the sake of the unimaginative, the skeptic asks for justification for the believe that we aren't brains in vats being fed false sense-data. (My question: why a brain? After all, if all our beliefs are unreliable, thought may occur in the spleen.)

I think we can do better than this, though. After all, we may be brains in vats, but if we've gone about our lives this long, the odds of having the program altered on any given day is probably low. Not that scary, ultimately. And it leaves open the possibility of reasoning our way out of it, a la Descartes, who tried to prove God by reason and then say that God would not allow him to be so deceived.

A stronger skepticism would ask how we can know our memory is reliable - ever. The sense-perceptions of any given moment make up only a tiny fraction of what we know. What can I really deduce from the current sensations of pounding of keys and lines of black symbols on a white screen? Thus doubting memory does not merely unsettle us, making us hope the program won't change tomorrow, but makes us completely helpless to do anything. And it utterly destroys any kind of reasoning. I cannot quite follow Descartes in doubting basic logical truths such as "a square has four sides," but any kind of complex proof requires that I remember what I proved in the various step. Descartes may remember proving that God exists, but unless he can be sure this is not a false memory, it does him no good. Only by condensing the proof to a single step and meditate on it constantly can he be sure of it, and this gives him no mental emery to think about other facts. The minute he turns his attention to other beliefs, he loses all ability to be justified in them.

Now the final step: I remember having forcefully argued that we cannot have justified beliefs, but perhaps this is a false memory. I can only accept the arguments when I meditate on them, and even then, the simplest form I can come up with involved 2 or 3 steps, so memory comes in to play even here. Ultimately, I must conclude that demands for justification lead to incoherence.

The ancient skeptics thought were not driven into catatonia by their arguments, but rather believed in living life according to appearances in spite of not really knowing anything. I seem to have refuted them, but in truth my position is no different: I intend to go on asking for justification in spite of knowing it leads to incoherence. Something just seems wrong with claiming that the universe sprang into existence from nothing in 1921. Mere coherentism cannot be save me from this situation; one may simply claim that all the evidence for an older world sprang into existence at that time. Something more is needed, but I have no idea what.

Mighty Middle back in action

Michael Reynolds seems to be back from hiatus, one post in, I already feel like he's on a roll. In short, he thinks Rep. John Murtha's call for a withdrawl from Iraq has made the end of the war inevitable:
People claim to have been places they never were. Claim to have seen things they never saw. But I remember the night Walter Cronkite pulled the plug on the Vietnam war. What's it been? 37 years? God, I must be old.

It was one of those weird TV-only events. One of those moments when you can say "I was there" and mean only that you had the TV on. I knew immediately, as it was happening, that it was significant.

And now, Congressman Murtha has done for Iraq what Cronkite did for Vietnam. He has cut the balloon.
Not sure he's right, but he seems so confident I just have to agree with him. It is, and any rate, the first thing on Murtha's call that I haven't found booring, and has convinced me this may succeed.

Free speech for Holocaust deniers

Orac writes on the arrest of David Irving for Holocaust denial, with some thoughts on the free speech issues involved:
In fact, although I can understand the sentiment, I find it very troubling to read this quote:
The Britain-based Holocaust Educational Trust congratulated Austrian authorities on the arrest. Trust chairman Lord Greville Janner, noting that Britain has no such laws that make denying the Holocaust a crime, praised the Austrians ``for doing what our law should but does not permit.''

``I hope this will lead to a successful prosecution,'' Janner said.
Am I wrong to find this casual dismissal of free speech troubling?...

When Holocaust deniers consort with violent right wing extremist groups and break the law, they of course should be prosecuted and locked up, but prosecuting them for their Holocaust denial alone may in fact be counterproductive. What will likely come out in most news reports about their incarceration is not their associations with violent far right extremists, but rather that they are being persecuted and jailed for denying the Holocaust, allowing the most odious and despicable anti-Semites to claim the mantle of persecuted free speech martyrs with some credibility, at least to people who know little about the Holocaust or Holocaust denial.
To that, I add that I am not confident that people will always know when to stop silencing disliked views.

"not a single Republican Senator"

I don't know how many of my readers are fellow Andrew Sullivan fans; it may be that most of you are and I'm wasting my time re-printing this without comment. But this post of his is too good to miss:
In theory, it should be possible for a Republican to be both socially moderate, fiscally conservative, and dedicated to the fight against Islamo-fascism. That's, broadly speaking, my position. But one reason I feel no real connection to today's GOP is that there are almost no people in that position in the party as it now stands. The most reliable fiscal conservative, Tom Coburn, is a rabid gay-hater and a theocon. It's simply a fact that, as a RedState blogger points out, not a single Republican Senator who opposed the Federal Marriage Amendment voted for the Coburn Amendment, and not a single Republican Senator who co-sponsored the latest stem cell research bill voted for the Coburn Amendment. The kind of conservatism I believe in no longer really exists in the Congress of the United States. You have to go to Britain to find it, or back a couple of decades before the Southern fundamentalists took over the GOP entirely. McCain is the best we've got, and God bless him. But it's also undeniable that he has deep suspicions of economic freedom, and often sees the need for government to intervene in all sorts of areas - steroids in sports, for example, - where government, in my view, has no role whatever. Does that mean that social inclusives and fiscal conservatives should despair? I hope not. There are glimmers of hope among fiscally conservative Democrats. A McCain-led GOP would be vastly preferable to a Bush-led one. But these are dark days for individual freedom and fiscal sanity in America, and it's no use pretending otherwise.

Harry Potter and the Cinematic Spectacle

Last night, I went with some friends to the midnight showing of Harry Potter. Thought I'd post some random observations - and yes, mom, I did stay awake through class today.

I've only seen one of the previous Harry Potter movies (Chamber of Secrets), and I have to say this one blew the other away. The one blog review of this movie that I found on Truth Laid Bear (from India, interestingly enough) mentions that Goblet of Fire was the first book written with the movies in mind, perhaps that is the reason. In Chamber of Secrets, the action scenes didn't seem to move to the film well. In contrast, the contests of the Tri-Wizard Tournament rank among the most memorable action scenes I've ever seen, up there with those of the first Matrix and the Yoda fight in Star Wars Episode II. This is partly because of the execution, and partly because the concepts deviate from the standard types. The first contest, for example, somewhat resembles an fighter jet dogfight, only with a dragon and a broom stick.

The comic relief had the audience I was with laughing constantly, and even applauding at one point in the middle. Perhaps this was because it was a midnight showing with lots of hardcore fans; perhaps it was because the rest of the movie was so tense that any bit of comedy got greatly amplified. I was surprised by some of the lewdness of the humor, though. Moaning Myrtle, for example, was turned from a shy ghost girl peeking out from a bathroom stall to one that floats into the bath with Harry and makes a sly remark at the end of their conversation. I think such scenes earned the movie its PG-13 rating, though it's all stuff little kids would be unlikely to understand and the scary stuff is probably a bigger concern with little ones.

I have to agree with the above-linked reviewer when he says that there was, "little time for any acting" in the movie. The movie left so many things undeveloped. For example, when Harry explores one of Dumbledore's memories of the trials after Voldemort's downfall, the inquisitorial atmosphere comes across nicely, but there's no comment, as in the book, on what terrible times they were. Mad-Eye Moody is great, though, even though his excentricities only really get a few minutes of time. And it's hard to notice what's missing when what's there is so well-done.

I was also pleased with Voldemort, though he was not what I expected. His face fit the generally inhuman impression the book gives of him, but I was expecting something more striking, another Darth Vader. However, I think I was expecting something far cheesier than what was delivered - like actor Daniel Radcliffe, I was expecting scales. Voldemort's evil is just a touch subtler.

Four out of four stars, easy.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Evolution talking points.

A few days ago, Scott Adams of Dilbert caught some major flack from PZ Myers for a blog post rather ignorantly passing on an argument that scientists don't have strong evidence for evolution. Adams replied by saying that Myers had misrepresented his post, and that Myers response is a good example of why Adams doesn't consider scientists credible. Try as I might, I couldn't find the misrepresentation in Myers post. Adams then said he would only trust people who know what they're talking about and don't have a "preconceived notion." I wonder how he knows that no scientists lack such a thing. I also wonder what he means by it - will he only trust people who came to the debate last week?

All this isn't why I'm writing, though. What interests me about this one is its a case of someone who doesn't have a religious agenda buying the claims of the ID movement. Adams' motives are more or less pure by human standards (though he seems far to amused with his ability to be agnostic when he talks about not believing anything he can't eat). When I see this kind of thing, I wonder what defenders of science are doing wrong.

Now, I realize many people will say that the problem is with Adams: he's ignorant of biology, he needs to learn to keep his mouth shut when he doesn't know what he's talking about, etc. Both of these things are true. Unfortunately, we can't flip a switch inside his head or anyone else's head with a similar view, so knowing these things doesn't tell us how to fix the problem. I suspect another aspect of the problem may be in the way people try to defend evolution. Consider how you would respond to the following claim:

Intelligent Design advocates accept that we evolved, but believe evolution can't be explain by purely natural processes.

Strictly speaking, there is exactly one falsehood in this sentence that needs correction: the claim that Intelligent Design advocates accept evolution. Therefore, it seems to make perfect sense to address just that issue. Also, the issue of whether natural processes are sufficient has been beaten to death and doesn't need further discussion, right? Try looking at it from the perspective of someone who doesn't understand the debate well. They hear that Philip Johnson doesn't accept evolution, what next? They find out Michael Behe does, and are left wondering about his arguments for design. They might begin thinking that it was rather dogmatic of the evolution defender to ignore Behe's criticisms. Never mind whether such a conclusion makes sense, its how many people on the fringes of the debate are going to think. What's needed in that situation is to rebut not the explicit claim about the ID movement, but the implied claim that natural causes are insufficient.

What I think we need is a list of standardized evolutionary talking points, the things that everyone needs to know about the debate if they are to know nothing else. It may be true that Intelligent Design is creationism in a cheap tuxedo, but its less important for people to know that than to know what's wrong with the arguments of IDers. Here's a draft, I hope to get as much feedback as possible. The first is motivated by Scott Adams' claim of inability to decide:

  • Anyone whose willing to take the time can understand this debate. Try
  • We don't have fossils of every animal that ever existed, but we haven't found a single out of place fossil that would cause trouble for evolution.
  • Common descent is also supported by the way all life fits into a family tree
  • So-called "irreducibly complex" systems can form from parts that originally did other things.
  • We've done lots research on natural mechanism of evolution, but we can't study divine guidance because no one's observed it.
  • Evolution is non-random because of natural selection.
  • New genes can be created by duplication and modification of old ones.
  • Declaring design when we can't give a specific explanation for something is like declaring a light a flying saucer if it can't be identified

Anything I missed? Advice on how to refine points above? I hope to get as much feedback on this as possible.

Help meee... with Bloglines

I'm having trouble with bloglines. Some of the feeds, like the ones for Andrew Sullivan, haven't been updated for a long time. What's going on? How do I make sure my blog's feed gets regular updates?

Narnia reading contest

Via Atheist Revolution, I've discovered Americans United is attacking a reading contest that uses The Chronicles of Narnia. Here's Vjack:
My initial reaction was that this was a mistake by Americans United. Attacking a book because one doesn't like the message reminded me too much of what the Christian right has done with Harry Potter. If reading such a book will encourage children to read, shouldn't we promote it?

After continued reflection, I'm not so sure that this case really parallels the Harry Potter situation. It is well known that the Narnia books have a powerfully Christian message and intent by the author. While Harry Potter is sometimes interpreted as demonic in nature, I found no trace of this when I read the first book in the series.
After reading the story, I have to say this sounds more sensible than it seems at first. The contest is taking place over the entire state of Florida, and the book is the only one being used. All AU has asked for is a more diverse selection, something that would seem like a no-brainier for kids all over the state. Unfortunately, if they win now, it will be viewed less as giving simple variety and more as concession to those damned atheists. Oh well.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Fiddling with colors

So - easier or harder to read? I got one complaint about readability, and Pooflingers recently changed templates for that reason, so I thought I'd try to make some improvements. I don't want to go to a different standard template, though. This will not be the end point, but I want to know if its a change in the right direction.

UPDATE: This post will be stickied to the top of my blog for awhile, for comments on ongoing template changes. First question: can anyone see my attempt to change the header font to Comic Sans MS? Should I be able to see using Internet Explorer if I did it correctly? How do I do it correctly?

UPDATE II: This post has been un-stuck. I may continue to tweak the appearance, but for anyone who would prefer black-and-white, I recommend Bloglines, a site that automatically checks your favorite blogs for updates and gives you no-frills, black-and-white versions of them. I signed up today just for the former feature. This post gets a permalink at the top of my sidebar.

Oh, and if you have further input on this subject, feel free to post it here.

Evolution and Christianity

Here's a letter I wrote to a campus newspaper today:
Today, the Daily Cardinal ran a letter by Geoff Price saying that while some religions, like Hinduism, may be compatible with evolution, Christianity is not. This is an odd claim to make.

I am no expert on Hindu myth, but I would be surprised if every word of it could be squared with modern knowledge. I believe I once heard a Hindu story involving giants; where do these fit on the evolutionary tree?

On the other hand, evolution can be accepted by people of every faith who do not insist on literal reading of all their religions' stories. Evolution was accepted by no less a Christian than C. S. Lewis. The Catholic Church, in spite of some vague statements that seem designed to placate intelligent design supporters, has yet to reverse its long-standing acceptance of evolutionary theory.

I do not deny that evolution undercuts some arguments for the existence of God – mainly the design argument. However, it does no harm to and of the many other reasons people have for believing. Spreading the myth that people can’t believe in both evolution and Christianity will only drive people away from science and into the arms of fundamentalism.

CotV 165

The 165th Carnival of the Vanities is up at The Examining Room of Dr. Charles. He's got a nice little religion section there, along with a post on what it means to be "libertarian." Quick comment on the latter: I think a lot of people who call themselves libertarians mean "socially liberal, fiscally conservative" and shun ideological libertarianism.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

On C.S. Lewis

The Evangelical Atheist did a post on The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe this weekend, prompted by the movie comming out. He mainly talks about how, re-reading the book, he found it considerably less appealing than he did as a child. I particularly liked the comment about the professor's argument - Lewis meant it to parallel his "Liar, Lunatic, or Lord" argument, when in fact it reads like a witty parody of what's wrong with many arguments regarding Jesus.

That's not what most caught my attention, however. What did was his brief mention of fundies who think Lewis was an agent of Satan. Their complaints are unsurprising in the modern religious climate, but they left one point out where Lewis diferred from many of today's fundamentalists - well, I'm sad to say, Christians in general: Lewis had a fundamentally rationalistic outlook. He presented arguments for what he was saying, and had his mentor-devil in The Screwtape Letters warn against encouraging humans to reason:
By the very act of arguing, you awake the patient's reason; and once it is awake, who can forsee the result?
Aside: this is a book that I read about a month before becoming an atheist. Wonder if there's a connection. And yes, that means there's a smug irony mixed with my approval of Lewis.

Compare to this passage from the recent bestseller The Purpose Driven Life:
Many of our troubles occur because we base our choices on unreliable authorities: [including]... reason... What we need is a perfect standard that will never lead us in the wrong direction. Only God's Word meets that need. Solomon reminds us, "Every word of God is flawless," and Paul explains, "Everything in the Scriptures is God's Word. All of it is useful for teaching and for correcting them and showing them how to live."...

The most important decision you can make today is to settle the issue of what will be the ultimate authority for your life. Decide that regardless of culture, tradition, reason, or emotion, you choose the Bible as your final authority. Determine first to ask, "What does the Bible say?" when making decisions. Resolve that when God says to do something, you will trust God's Word and do it whether or not it makes sense or you feel like doing it.
In summary, Warren (the author) is recommending we jetison reason, and the only reasons he gives for doing so are circular (what the Bible says). In so many areas, religion has become less virulent over the years, but the anti-rationalistic seems to be worse than ever.

Hey Bill! Over here!

One week ago today, Bill O'Reily said the following:
O’REILLY: Hey, you know, if you want to ban military recruiting, fine, but I’m not going to give you another nickel of federal money. You know, if I’m the president of the United States, I walk right into Union Square, I set up my little presidential podium, and I say, "Listen, citizens of San Francisco, if you vote against military recruiting, you’re not going to get another nickel in federal funds. Fine. You want to be your own country? Go right ahead."

And if Al Qaeda comes in here and blows you up, we’re not going to do anything about it. We’re going to say, look, every other place in America is off limits to you, except San Francisco. You want to blow up the Coit Tower? Go ahead.
Normally, I wouldn't bother repeating this. However, he followed up with this:
Some far left internet smear sites have launched a campaign to get me fired over my point of view. I believe they do this on a daily basis. This time the theme is O’Reilly is encouraging terrorist attacks. Unbelievably stupid. Not unusual with these guttersnipes.

I’m glad the smear sites made a big deal out of it. Now we can all know who was with the anti-military internet crowd. We’ll post the names of all who support the smear merchants on So check with us.
So here it goes: Bill O'Reily is an anti-American scumbag who's been encouraging our enemies - no, better yet, giving aid and comfort to our enemies! - and deserves to be fired. But not prosecuted.

Austin Cline, who made me aware of this event, has expressed skepticism that Bill will go through with the list, as it would just draw more attention to his remarks. However, a flash of the remarks is currently at the top of O'Reily's webiste, so there's a chance this list is really happening!

Monday, November 14, 2005

Couldn't have said it better myself

Yesterday, found this on Ambivablog:
Where did Jesus get his DNA? His Y chromosome? [. . .]
[T]here's a problem with arguing Jesus came about through cloning or parthenogenesis - he would have been born a girl. In the past few decades, science revealed that to be male you need a Y chromosome, and the only place you can get one is from a man. [. . .]

Catholics and Protestants seem to agree [. . .] that Jesus was fully human and male, so he must have carried the usual male quotient of DNA. It's not the Y chromosome he needed per se but a gene called SRY normally carried on the Y. [. . .] That fragment of the Y has to come from a father.

Biology professor David Wilcox of Eastern University, a Christian college, said [. . .] ''Of course Jesus had DNA and a Y chromosome - and the source for half of that DNA [and the Y chromosome] would presumably be pure and simple miracle,'' he says.

Theology professor and ordained minister Ronald Cole-Turner said standard Christian thought attributes the virgin birth to God's intervention in the natural order, not a biological anomaly. ''It's not God's sperm . . . but God created something like a sperm and caused it to fertilize Mary's egg,'' he says.[. . .]

[A] natural conception was problematic to early Christian thinkers, [Boston University theology professor Wesley] Wildman said, because St. Augustine and others believed original sin was passed on ''through the male via the loss of control associated with the male orgasm.''
I immediately flashed back to something I had read in Randi's news letter Friday, from a website that takes demons seriously:
Look, we can understand non-Christians calling this [demonology] bunk, but one of the main components of the ministry of Jesus and the apostles was casting out demons. Why do 21st century Christians act as though the Fallen kindly decided to go away and leave us alone after the first century?
I may have to give up my keyboard, some of these people are even better at pointing out the absurdities of their beliefs than I!

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Carnival of the - eh

After a slight delay, today's Carnival of the Godless is up at Pharyngula. Myers had an interesting thought for formating this edition:
on one side, the ungodly would rail against the unreason and oppression of living in a religious society; on the other, we'd have the affirmations, the positive assertions of what it means to be a freethinker
Unfortunately, he only got two on the positive side.

For this reason, he ended his post with a challenge:
I'd like to propose a challenge to the freethought community: for every link you send in to that mocks the foolishness and futility of religion, I'd also like all of the submitters to write one post that doesn't reference religion at all, that highlights the virtues of godlessness, and send that in as well. The next host is under no obligation to heed this challenge, of course, but it would be grand if the next edition were flooded with glorious tales of the righteously secular, rather than only tawdry complaints about the damnably credulous.

Think of it as a writing exercise. One that would be good for us all.
Myers elaborates a little in the comments:
It's about celebrating and appreciating the natural world, rather than old myths and imaginary rules--I'm sure we can write about life, the universe, and everything without any gods. Without even saying without any gods.
It seems a contradiction in terms: to talk about the virtues of Godlessness without even mentioning God. But to borrow from Sam Harris, one needn't talk about alchemy to extol the virtues of modern chemistry, or talk about astrology to extol the virtues of rational decision making. Let me now make a suggestion for Atheist Revolution's project: we'd do much better to talk often of the good things that can come out of skeptical thinking, rather than just the bad it prevents. I'll try to write my response to Prof. Myers writing exercise in a few days time.

ID in philosophy class?

BP at CatchingFlies argues, contra PZ Myers, that ID does indeed belong in philosophy class:
  • Clearly philosophy has a critical role to play here. It simply isn't enough to yell more loudly, repeating axioms about scientific method, observation, good explanations and so forth. At some point, someone is going to have to mediate here by turning to critical analysis of the arguments from a detached point of view. Enter the philosophers. Other than Demsky and a few religiously oriented types who don't really know the science very well (and therefore are swayed by ideas such as "irreducible complexity"), most philosophers are able to discern good arguments from bad, and scientific arguments from non-scientific ones. The philosopher's speciality is in determining what kind of argument the argument for ID is. Then we can decide whether, as an argument of that kind, it is successful.
  • Clearly ID is NOT a "scientific" argument. But it is an "argument." What kind of argument is it? Some like to say that Paley has been overcome in ID theory and that we're far beyond watches and machines. If only that were true. Even the most complex ID arguments are, despite their obfuscation and dissembling to the contrary, arguments by analogy. In other words, we begin with an observation about nature, call it "irreducible complexity." Then we conclude that the cause of that complexity must be an intelligent designer. But the only route to that conclusion is that complexity is the kind of thing we are familiar with, and that the causes of complexity are also known to us. That is, we have to argue by analogy: this complexity is like that complexity, only quantitatively and qualitatively more complex. The cause of the first complexity is intelligent design (i.e. carpenters, computer engineers, etc.), and therefore the cause of the second complexity must also be intelligent design (more complex by proportion). The analogy is between "irreducibly complex" things and "complex things," leading us to draw completely unwarrented conclusions about the cause of the "irreducibly complex" things on the basis of what we find to be true about the "complex things." Can Behe, Demsky, and the others really deny this? To affirm or deny this, one must engage in philosophy. And that's interesting (for lots of reasons, not the least of which is that we find, at the heart of all this smarmy spirituality and phony religiousity nothing more than witless empiricism).
  • Finally, philosophy can think in interesting ways about the meaning of ID: why is it so convincing to so many people? Why do majorities in most polls believe ID to be a sensible and interesting hypothesis about the development of life? I've taken a stab at this question in other posts. But THAT is a philosophical answer to a philosophical question (and it is the very philosophical question that the religious right wants to ignore, foreclose, and exempt from any real discussion at all. It's a fear of death, fear of mortality, fear of becoming...and it is a logical extension of their own witless empiricism!).
I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, examining the basic design argument and the question of what sience is is important to the ID debate. On the other hand, I've seen little interest in things like irreducible complexity from philosophers. My philosophy professor ignored the issue in discussing ID, and I think an ID fan could justifiably have complained that he wasn't presenting the arguments in their full. Part of me doesn't blame him. IC is a question of the fine details of evolutionary processes that doesn't admit to evidence-free philosophical analysis.

Though perhaps I focus on IC too much. I tend to focus on it because its stronger than any other argument I've seen - and please note I said stronger, not strong. Many of the arguments in ID literature are far flimsier, and can be subject to easy philosophical demolition. They provide an example of where philosophical reasoning has very good real-world uses, always good for teaching purposes.

47 proposed amendments - who knew?

Thoughts from Kansas just brought this list of proposed constitutional amendments to my attention. All 47 were proposed within the last year.

Actually, seeing "Balanced budget" on the list was kind of heartening - at least there's one Republican somewhere who still thinks a balanced budget would be nice.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Further response to Esmay

After posting his last comment on this post, Dean Esmay e-mailed me to tell him if I didn't think his response was adequate. The post of his I had responed to set up a conflict between Stephen Jay Gould and dogmatic neo-Darwinists, something quite impossible without twisting what Gould believed, or what other scientists believed, or perhaps defining scientists by a few sloppy descriptions of scientific consensus. I wasn't really sure which at this point, so I e-mailed back:
Here's the main thing I want to know, for the moment - is the conflict you talked about in your original post between what Gould believed and what others believed, or what Gould believed and how others have talked about evolution?
His response, reproduced in full least I be accused of leaving out anything important:
Which conflict, the conflict between Gould and the Creation Scientists, or between Gould and some other Darwinists?

If it's between Gould and the Creation Scientists, that's pretty easy: they were (and are) real good about quoting him and others out of context, and on trying to say that inconsistency in the fossil record and gaps in our knowledge was proof that evolution was flawed. Gould was a tireless opponent of this kind of thinking, and rightly so.

If you mean the conflict between evolutionary biologists: the Neo-Darwinists are absolutely convinced that it's genetic mutation & selection Uber Alles, and they tend to get pretty rabidly angry at anyone who says it's not enough. That's what Lynn Margulis and others have attacked, and continue to attack (look through that Scientific American "Evolution Woodstock" article I linked) as comletely inadequate. What's odd is that just saying that genetic mutation & natural selection probably aren't enough was considered wholly unremarkable for quite some time among evolutionary biologists; Gould wasn't making any grand confession when he gave that deposition I quoted, he was calmly explaining something unremarkable.

I sometimes suspect that the Neo-Darwinists have become hardened by their battles with creationists over the last generation, and more interested in beating them down than exploring new ideas. I find it telling, for example, just what tiny short shrift the Talk Origins people give to punctuated equilibria and how vague and general they are about it when they do address it. It's probably the second most interesting question in evolutionary biology and they almost seem to want to wish it away.

My point usually goes to the simple humility of being willing to acknowledge what we don't know, since what we don't know is usually more important; that is where all the biggest scientific advances will come from, after all. And batting down any idea just because it happens to come from someone we have a philosophical disagreement with isn't too healthy either.
Let's focus on Lynn Margulis, shall we? First, Shermer obviously isn't one of these dogmatic defenders of evolution, as in the article Dean mentions she Shermer cites her as an example of legitimate controversy in evolution. Here's Shermer:
In this framework, Margulis continued, all of life's history can be divided into three major eons: Archean (3,500 to 2,500 million years ago), Proterozoic (2,500 to 540 mya), and Phanerozoic (540 to 0 mya). "Most evolutionary biologists deal with the Phanerozoic, which is like saying that history began in 1909 when the Ford Motor Company opened shop in Dearborn, Mich," Margulis quipped. The major steps in evolution involved symbiogenesis, which Margulis described succinctly as "the inheritance of acquired genomes" and more formally in its relationship to symbiosis, "the long-term physical association between members of different types (species)." The problem with neo-Darwinism, Margulis concluded, is that "Random changes in DNA alone do not lead to speciation. Symbiogenesis--the appearance of new behaviors, tissues, organs, organ systems, physiologies, or species as a result of symbiont interaction--is the major source of evolutionary novelty in eukaryotes--animals, plants, and fungi."

There were no direct challenges to Margulis in the discussion period that followed, so I once again queried a number of the experts in this area after the lecture. The overall impression I received was that Margulis goes too far in her rejection of neo-Darwinism, but because she was right about the role of symbiogenesis in the origin of the first eukaryote cells, they are taking a wait-and-see approach. One scientist added that since Margulis was to receive an honorary doctorate that afternoon, it seemed inappropriate to challenge her in this venue.
This doesn't sound like dogmatic dismissal. Searching TalkOrigins and Pharyngula yielded similar mentions of Margulis' ideas as examples of serious controversy over evolution. When I put her name into Google along with that of Richard Dawkins, I found this quote from Dawkins:
I greatly admire Lynn Margulis's sheer courage and stamina in sticking by the endosymbiosis theory, and carrying it through from being an unorthodoxy to an orthodoxy. I'm referring to the theory that the eukaryotic cell is a symbiotic union of primitive prokaryotic cells. This is one of the great achievements of twentieth-century evolutionary biology, and I greatly admire her for it.

Panda's Thumb, however, had something less positive about her - relatively speaking:
* Lynn Margulis’ symbiosis theory is a proven theory in biology.
* The claim in Acquiring Genomes that symbiosis is the main mechanism for creating new species in evolution is an unjustified extrapolation from a number of well-documented cases to all domains of life.
Is saying that she's over-extending some proven cases the dogmatic dismissal Dean's talking about?

Oh, and to anyone who thinks scientists are covering up what they don't know, I reccoment what Dawkins has written on mysteries and controversies in evolutionary science.

In short, the furor is not at disagreement, but claims that proponents aren't trying testing and opponents can't figure out how to test.

Dean commits a particularly grotesque distortion of science when he claims scientists have changed their views in response to creationists. Politicians may change their views for tactical reasons, but science responds only to evidence. Gould and Margulis changed the consensus by presenting evidence. Similarly, when anyone, even a Nobel Laureatte, makes claims unsupported by evidence, they deserve to be rejected. (Related point: I now realize I was wrong to say, "Just because a Nobel Laurate or two thinks something's true doesn't mean it is." What I should have said was, "Just because a Nobel Laurate or two thinks something's true doesn't mean it's even reasonable" - see Orac's comment on Linus Pauling.)