Sunday, September 30, 2007

CotG 76

The 76th edition of the Carnival of the Godless is up at a load of bright. Choice posts include You're Just Angry and Deluded about Dawkins. On the second note, I've also noticed that Richard Dawkins has been wondering about the honest of (some of) his critics. I haven't read his particular target in that article, but given their behavior in general my guess is Dawkins is right about that guy too.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Rational illiteracy?

I used to have a quote on my Facebook page, taken from casual conversation with another student, along the lines of "Just because I don't think before I talk doesn't mean I'm stupid."

We need a word for that.

There are just too many instances of people saying things that make reasonable people want to call them stupid, but doesn't really indicate a lack of raw intelligence. The person in question may have done very well in math class back in high school, for all we know. There's a rather nice example that made me decide I had to make this post over at Ed Brayton's place: Brayton got on a kick about how the uppity atheists shouldn't call religious believers stupid, there are smart believers out there, and then turns around and calls one of his commenters a "fucking idiot." It should make people step back and wonder what is meant by these terms, and consider that perhaps a person can be good at math or whatever and have embarrassing flaws in their thinking on religion, and good at math or whatever and post a blog comment as foolish as Ed accused his target of being.

The problem is partly one of not stopping to think, partly one of stopping and trying to think but failing because you can't come up with the bleedingly obvious questions you should be asking about your position. Questions like "do my religious beliefs meet the standards I regularly apply to other religions?" There's often a large dose of reading-comprehension difficulties thrown in.

So what on Earth do we call it? "Foolish" is the best word currently existing, I think. If I remember Orwell's definition of the word "stopcrime" correctly, that's in the ballpark and more evocative, but it implies something more developed than the most common forms of what I have in mind.

As the post title suggests, I had the thought of trying to get "rational illiteracy" some currency, but I can't say I'm totally satisfied. The "illiteracy" part I like, since it implies something embarrassing but which nevertheless can only be overcome by education, which no one is born without. Somehow, though, "rational" and "illiteracy" just don't go together.

The other option would be to name it after the source of the quote I opened this post with, except (1) that would be mean and (2) it would involve a reference that would be meaningful only to me--very different than things like Poe's Law and Godwin's Law, where a sizable handful of people can claim to know the source of the name.


Thursday, September 27, 2007

Russell on anger

In his Outline of Intellectual Rubbish, Bertrand Russell offers up a number of suggestions for freeing oneself of rubbish. I offer up one of them for consideration:
Many matters, however, are less easily brought to the test of experience. If, like most of mankind, you have passionate convictions on many such matters, there are ways in which you can make yourself aware of your own bias. If an opinion contrary to your own makes you angry, that is a sign that you are subconsciously aware of having no good reason for thinking as you do. If some one maintains that two and two are five, or that Iceland is on the equator, you feel pity rather than anger, unless you know so little of arithmetic or geography that his opinion shakes your own contrary conviction. The most savage controversies are those about matters as to which there is no good evidence either way. Persecution is used in theology, not in arithmetic, because in arithmetic there is knowledge, but in theology there is only opinion. So whenever you find yourself getting angry about a difference of opinion, be on your guard; you will probably find, on examination, that your belief is going beyond what the evidence warrants.
This seems at first glance wise. However, I cannot help but note that Russell said this several years before the publication of 1984, and having read it I do not know that we always feel pity when we think of people believing that two and two make five. Reading that book, once you get over your incredulity and accept that Orwell's tyrants are not wholly a product of a paranoid imagination, the feeling is revulsion and hatred. What verdict to we give here?

Against all the recent talk of angry atheists, I think I will begin identifying myself as an exhausted atheist: I no longer know what constitutes an appropriate emotional response to the vast amount of religious rubbish in the world.

As a postscript, I can't help but throw out another good quote from the essay:
The most refined religions, such as those of Marcus Aurelius and Spinoza, are still concerned with the conquest of fear. The Stoic doctrine was simple: it maintained that the only true good is virtue, of which no enemy can deprive me; consequently, there is no need to fear enemies. The difficulty was that no one could really believe virtue to be the only good, not even Marcus Aurelius, who, as emperor, sought not only to make his subjects virtuous, but to protect them against barbarians, pestilences, and famines.

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On Faith on Hitchens

My interest in writing notes on the Newsweek-WaPo project On Faith dried up pretty early in, but via Sam Harris' site I've noticed that this week they're discussing Chris Hitchens. This is one of those things I mean to read through in full some time, though interesting material is somewhat lacking given that the panelists were given a short quote and use it as the occasion for short responses.

Given that Hitchens' book is subtitled How Religion Poisons Everything, a random question pops into my head: Does religion poison Cheetos? Has anyone, ever, say, been prevented from eating Cheetos because of religion? Off the top of my head, I'm not sure. If so, it would make an amusing counterexample to Hitchens' mantra, a legitimate if trivial one. On the other hand, if anyone were to produce a case where religion's reach went so far as to negatively-impact Cheeto-eating, I would be willing to say that the fact that it reaches into something so trivial makes Hitchens' statement too close to the truth for anyone to complain about.

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Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Gay suicide

From Sullivan:
In the course of the study, University of Washington researcher Heather Murphy also uncovered a group of students who previously had not been studied and are at increased risk for suicidal behavior. These students identified themselves as heterosexual, but also reported being attracted to people of the same sex or engaging in same-sex behavior.

This group was three times as likely as heterosexuals to have made a plan to commit suicide in the past year and six times more likely to have actually attempted suicide in the same period.
The original article appeared in ScienceDaily

Recluses, isolationism, adventurism

This summer, The Onion's AV Club ran an article titled 12 famous living recluses. One odd thing about the article is that while some, such as Bobby Fischer, unquestionably fit the "eccentric celebrity" model of reclusion, others feel decidedly out of place: Thomas Pynchon, Harper Lee, Bill Watterson. Those three all seem to fall under Pynchon's quip, "My belief is that 'recluse' is a code word generated by journalists... meaning, 'doesn't like to talk to reporters.'" The Lee case is particularly ironic, given how a central character in her single novel was an actual recluse: didn't talk to anyone, reporter or no.

Occasionally, I hear political chatter about how after Bush there might be a move towards isolationism in the US. This is generally portrayed as a bad thing. Just because Bush did a bad job of being involved in the world, the reasoning seems to go, doesn't mean being involved in the world is a bad thing.

But wait a minute. What does are these isolation fears about? That we'll embargo all foreign trade? Cut off foreign travel? Abolish immigration? Outlaw telecommunication outside the US? No. People who worry about "isolationism" mean none of these things. They are talking exclusively about military matters, about the next president's willingness to send soldiers, sailors, and airmen to muck about in foreign countries. We can parallel Pynchon's phrase exactly: "'Isolationism' is a code word generated by politicos, meaning 'doesn't like military conflict.'"

This is disturbing, because it implies that military conflict is a normal state of affairs, not a problem to be avoided, and that this classification is unchallenged in most cases where it is used. Whatever happened to calling a constant succession of small foreign conflicts as "foreign adventurism"? We'd do well to revive that classification. It places the implied abnormality where it belongs.

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Sunday, September 23, 2007

Technorati, Digg, Google

Does anybody use Technorati anymore? For awhile it was like The big thing, but now, I get no hits at all off my Technorati tags, and it can't be a pure problem of not getting anything from search engines because Google is responsible for a substantial portion of my hits.

On a related note, how on earth do I set up a "submit to Digg" button system on my blog? Or is that useless now too?

Review: The End of Biblical Studies

I learned two things from Hector Avalos' The End of Biblical Studies: First, the meaning of Psalm 22:16 is a little more than uncertain (which I already knew), since a literal translation of what appears in the text would be "Like a lion my hands and feet." Second, we have what appears to be an original manuscript of a text about Augustus Caesar. These are nice things to know, but it hardly counts as getting my money's worth.

What a letdown. I went into reading the book partially sympathetic to its premise, while wary of the anti-intellectualism Chris Heard has complained about at Higgaion (Heard's review of the book is ongoing: first impressions, chapter one, chapter two). However, I thought that even if Avalos was too quick to call for the abolition rather than massive reform of an academic discipline, he would at least to a good job of illustrating why Biblical studies, as currently practiced, has serious problems with it. However, in terms of seeing bad scholarship, Hector presents nothing more stunning than what I had found on my own by reading and comparing Bart Ehrman's popular work to that of the Jesus Seminar. In terms of providing a description of the culture of Biblical studies, there is nothing that matches
Jacques Berlinerblau's comments in the SBL forum
. I'm not quite sure why this is. It may just be that Avalos is an untalented popularizer, giving detailed discussions of things that might sound like an indictment to another scholar, but don't fit into any broad picture. In any case, it sinks the project.

The anti-intellectualism I worried about is, by the way, very real, even though I could have ignored it if the rest of the book were better. Avalos truly seems to think that Biblical studies needs not to be reformed in a way that gives no deference
to religion, but abandoned entirely. The argument he makes could easily be extended to other other academic departments, as Chris Heard notes in one of those blog posts about Avalos. If Avalos is serious about this, I'd recommend he read Richard Carrier's essay The Function of the Historian in Society, about the need to have good scholarship about the past. Carrier, note, has talked about how he plans to begin publishing articles related to New Testament scholarship as soon as he finishes his Ph.D., which should be any week now. It's an odd sort of contrast: an older scholar of fundamentalist background, wanting to get rid of the field, a younger scholar of secular background, eager to dive into it.

Final Verdict: Two Stars

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Thursday, September 20, 2007

Arsenokoites and Malakos

Monday, some traveling evangelists came to Madison, and I went out with a "Smile! There is no hell" sign as usual. One interesting twist, though, was that a member of a gay Christian organization came out to inform the small crowd that had gathered around the evangelists that the Bible verses taken as condemning homosexuality do not in fact do so. One of the verses of contention was I Corinthians 6:9, which the guy claimed referred not to homosexuality but child prostitution. I decided to do some checking up, starting with Google and its various spin-offs (Google Scholar and Google Books) and came across one exceptionally careful piece of scholarship by one Dale Martin, which had originally been published as a book chapter. Basically, of the two key Greek words--Arsenokoites and Malakos--one meant "effeminate" in a sense that did not necessarily involve homosexuality, and one might have referred to homosexuality, though it isn't really clear what it meant. It's worth reading the article and keeping it in the back of your mind for the next time you hear a debate about whether the Bible condemns homosexuality.

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Dembski nailed by students at University of Oklahoma

Via Jason Rosenhouse, a three-part post (one, two, three) about an appearance by William Dembski at the University of Oklahoma. The creationists gave him a hell of a time--good for them.

Matthew Nisbet begins to sound more reasonable

Early this morning, PZ graced this blog with a link to what I had said about Nisbet. Nisbet made a series of comments in that thread, and I think the most recent one is worth noting:
I stand by my interpretation of Kurtz's latest interview. I never said he didn't offer praise for Dawkins et al. and obviously that is part of the transcript at my blog.

I did, however, call attention to his concerns that Hitchens and Harris have gone too far in singling out moderately religious Americans who share many common values with secular humanists, in the process possibly alienating these allies.

That's the exact same argument I have applied since the original publication of our Science article.

I bought Dawkins book the day it went on sale, enjoyed it, and generally agree with his worldview. I support his right to voice his opinion.

But I also know as a social scientist who studies the media that his message comes with certain risks, specifically in working with diverse publics on solving collective problems.

Indeed, this is the great indirect and unintended consequence of the "Noise Machine," defined as the heuristics, short cuts, frame devices, and fleeting bits of information that moderately religious people might pick up by way of the conflict driven media.

Translated in the press and twisted by opposing interest groups, the low information signal is that science is at odds with what moderately religious Americans value.

By definition if we end up alienating natural allies on issues such as the teaching of evolution, poverty, the environment, or stem cell research, it is an unfortunate self-inflicted wound.
My response in the same thread:
The most recent comment from Nisbet actually comes off as more reasonable, in comparison with his previous attacks on Dawkins. However, if he really liked Dawkins' book and is concerned with Dawkins work being "twisted by opposing interest groups," why on Earth has he promoted such a negative picture--frame if you like--of Dawkins? I'm certainly concerned with twisting of Dawkins' statements too, and my impression is this feeling is shared by PZ, Jason Rosenhouse, and indeed Dawkins himself. However, our response to such distortions is to correct them, not conclude that they somehow reflect badly on Dawkins. If Nisbet actually likes Dawkins and is concerned about how what he's doing is "framed" for the public, he should be investing his energy in disseminated a concise explanation of why what Dawkins is doing is good. Paul Kurtz actually provides a pretty good model of this:

What disturbs us is the preposterous outcry that atheists are "evangelical" and that they have gone too far in their criticism of religion.

Really? The public has been bombarded by pro-religious propaganda from time immemorial—today it comes from pulpits across the land, TV ministries, political hucksters, and best-selling books.
Tags: Matthew Nisbet, Paul Kurtz, Richard Dawkins, science, atheism

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Matthew Nisbet lies about Paul Kurtz

long nose pinocchio

(Cross posted at God is for Suckers!)

Funny thing happened to me yesterday. Two days ago night I downloaded two episodes of the Point of Inquiry podcast, including a recent interview with Paul Kurtz. I listened to it as I walked between classes. A lot of it is focused on the idea of promoting positive humanistic values over merely attacking religion, which seems to me perfectly reasonable, as long as it isn't coupled with the absurd accusation that today's celebrity religion critics haven't done this at all (if you think this, you really need to re-read their books more carefully, or perhaps read them a first time).

Almost immediately after finishing listening to the podcast, in between classes, I sat down to check my Bloglines and found a post by "framing" king Matthew Nisbet, commenting on the podcast and claiming Kurtz as one of his own--i.e., as the anti-Richard Dawkins. Without admitting the validity of naked appeals to authority, I must say this would be something of a coup for Nisbet. As the founder of a bundle of important skeptical organizations, including Promethus Books and the Council for the Scientific Organization of Claims of the Paranormal, Kurtz has arguably done more for skepticism of religion in the late 20th century than anyone else, living or dead. Nisbet's presentation struck me as a little misleading, though, given that he conveniently ignores the fact that Kurtz explicitly affirmed Dawkins' view that religion is a delusion. Worse, when I read the comments, I discovered Nisbet told at least one truly indefensible lie:
Moreover, like Shermer, Wilson, and Kurtz, I strongly believe that when Dawkins et al. attack moderately religious Americans it alienates our natural allies and is a major self-inflicted wound.
Kurtz has never said, and probably never will say, that the work of these religion critics is "a major self-inflicted wound." The truth is that Kurtz has dismissed the notion that they are "too outspoken".

I have this to say to Nisbet: grow a spine you miserable worm. If you're going to say the things you've said about Dawkins, have the courage to be consistent and take the next logical step of denouncing Paul Kurtz and everything he works for. Indeed, you should be denouncing Kurtz even more strongly than you denounce Dawkins. Dawkins may have put out one book dedicated to attacking religion, but most of his public work has been about explaining science to the general public, but Kurtz's number one goal has always been the promotion of a philosophy that explicitly rejects God, and he founded a publishing house for this purpose which has published more anti-religious books than Dawkins will ever write. This should be more than enough for you, since you aren't just picking a bone with Dawkins use of the word "delusion" (which Kurtz agrees with in any case) but have also insisted "The public cannot be expected to differentiate between his [Dawkins] advocacy of evolution and his atheism." Why aren't you saying the same thing about Kurtz? Your hypocrisy disgusts me.

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Tuesday, September 18, 2007

E-mail from Chris Mooney

In this comments thread, I noted some uncertainty as to what Chris Mooney meant to say in part of his article, so I e-mailed him for clarification:

I have a somewhat pendantic question about an article you wrote for the Washington Post back in April. In it you said:
There will always be a small audience of science enthusiasts who have a deep interest in the "mechanisms and evidence" of evolution, just as there will always be an audience for criticism of religion. But these messages are unlikely to reach a wider public, and even if they do they will probably be ignored...
Here, did you mean to say that:

1) We cannot expect the average person to care about both the evidence for evolution and the mechanisms for evolution. (We might expect the average person to care about the evidence for evolution alone).


2) We cannot expect the average person the care about either the evidence for evolution or mechanisms for evolution. (We cannot expect the average person to care about the evidence for evolution, period).

(2) seems the more natural reading, but also strikes me as extremely pessimistic in a way that (1) is not.

Thank you,

Chris Hallquist

"Truth springs from argument among friends." - David Hume
His response:
I definitely meant # 2. thanks


Chris Mooney

*** Now in Bookstores:
Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle over Global Warming

Monday, September 17, 2007


Two carnival to announce: first, the Carnival of the Godless, at which I learned that D. James Kennedy became an atheist on his deathbed. The other is The Philosopher's Carnival, which includes an interesting, if brief, take on analytic vs. continental philosophy. Oh, and I'm hosting the next philosopher's carnival.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Edis on Europe

Taner Edis, a good observer of Europe and Islam and one of Sam Harris' more credible critics, has put up a post I feel a responsibility to link to given my recent assertion of Europe's feebleness. His post is called W(h)ither Europe? and argues much of what has been said about Europe's decline is a matter of what right-wingers need, ideologically, to be true. Yet he agrees with my main worry about Europe when he says
Europe does have a Muslim problem—even if we reject the bigoted and alarmist views of "Eurabia," it's very clear that Europe's large and rapidly growing Muslim minorities have not been integrated and don't display a lot of interest in becoming more integrated.
Integrated Muslims, I would be quick to say, present no problem, but I wonder if the massive numbers of unintegrated Muslims we see could be a disaster in the making.

Framing: now baffled as PZ

In an argument playing out in the comments thread, I told JJ Ramsey to read PZ's post Framing: still baffled. I'm feeling rather baffled now too, after reading this post made by Matt Nisbet today. It's a complaint about how a science story was covered, and it almost could have been written by PZ, except for a bit of the phrasing: "the article is framed in disastrous and irresponsible ways."

Now, normally, the way to attack an article like that one would be to say it says or at least implies things that go significantly beyond the evidence as a way to boost the hype. And if it were in fact the case that everything in the article is justified by the evidence, there would be no separate question of whether it's "framed" in the right way.

So here's the puzzle: when Nisbet says the issue is framed irresponsibly, does he mean anything other than that it makes or implies irresponsible claims not justified by the evidence? Unfortunately, I suspect the answer is "yes." Everything I've ready by Nisbet and Mooney on framing suggests that they view framing not as something that is forced on you by reality, but something you can choose at will based on tactical considerations. That means that for Nisbet, the debate over the article is a question of whether it supports his agenda, not whether the things it says are justified. That's disturbing. Sure, Nisbet's agenda is broadly one I share: promotion of good science. But what makes good science good in the first place is a respect for evidence.

Of course, I may be wrong in that analysis: much of what motivated this post is that I feel, very strongly, the frustrating vagueness surrounding what Nisbet has written on framing.

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39% of Amerricans support theocracy

From Ed Brayton:
Likewise when asked to agree or disagree with the statement, "People should be allowed to say things in public that might be offensive to religious groups", 60% agreed and 39% disagreed. That's nearly 40% of the public who think that you should not be allowed to say things that are offensive to some religious group; that's frightening.
Yeah, they don't think of themselves that way. But a country without freedom of speech is no democracy. Some people worry about the openly theocratic Bahsen-Rushdoony types, but I worry about these other guys. The interesting twist is that:
Yet remember, 98% of these same people surveyed, when asked to agree or disagree with "the right to speak freely about whatever you want", said that they considered this right either essential or important. In the abstract. When you get specific and ask about things that might offend someone, that support suddenly drops by 1/3 or more. Always a good thing to keep in mind on such surveys.
So do we feel bad that people could be so confused, or good that they support broad principles? In theory, if we can get people to think more rationally, they'll go back on their narrower anti-free speech ideas. I can't feel much comfort in that, though. I'm more inclined to think this just confirms that we are indeed at risk of bleating our way to theocracy.

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A libertarian for Clinton

Of the presidents he worked with, Mr. Greenspan reserves his highest praise for Bill Clinton, whom he described in his book as a sponge for economic data who maintained "a consistent, disciplined focus on long-term economic growth."
-from the NY Times, via Sully, again.

Alan Greenspan, realize, was an original Ayn Rand groupie. Yet he's giving props to a Democrat. Let this be a notice to everyone: party affiliation matters a lot less than willing to be listen to good advice. Of course, in recent years Republicans have made quite the name for themselves as people willing to disregard reality.

Public intellectuals

Via Andrew Sullivan, I've found an interesting critique of the concept of the public intellectual, something of great interest to me as a wanabe public intellectual. On the one hand, the point is so obviously correct that it's embarrassing that the less competent intellectuals don't understand it: the modern state of the knowledge in every area is so complex that no one can understand it all, so it is ridiculous when, "the professor of genetic engineering, for example, pontificates about world politics or public policy." On the other hand, I fear the idea of writing off the idea of public intellectuals, the idea of ones who make good use of their expertise. Say what you will about intellectuals, I prefer them to a world of stupids.

Friday, September 14, 2007


Hey, just found out that some of my friends from the last two years in the dorm started up a group blog to chronicle their time in an apartment together. It's called We're Like a Sitcom; has some mildly amusing stuff. Do me a favor, drop by there and leave them some comments, they've only gotten two so far, and one is from one of the bloggers.

Steve Pinker is awesome

Several days ago I found a Time magazine article by Steve Pinker via the ever-useful Edge. I had been meaning to do something cool with it, but it just sat in my Bloglines marked "keep new" for too long, so now I'll just tell you to read it, and say that last April I missed a chance at a small group chat with him--I didn't know how cool he was at the time!

Actually, one more thing: for female readers, how much do you sympathize with the Jessica Lange character? I'm willing to say her guess as to what's going on in most guys minds is not totally inaccurate. (That's an understatement--whose use on my part kinda illustrates Pinker's point.)

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Europe's feebleness: who's to blame?

This passage from an article reposted at Sam Harris' website caught my eye:
Religious people are better at defending themselves from threats to their survival.

FOR EVIDENCE, we need look no further than the Europeans’ helplessness in the face of the continent’s growing Islamization. Secular Europeans are unwilling to undertake any sacrifice - even if it’s only producing more children - to save their civilization.

A lack of religious imagination prevents pleasure-loving children of the Enlightenment from grasping the threat of militant Islam. EU bureaucrats consistently treat Islamophobia as a greater danger than radical Islam. They cannot imagine that Islamic terrorists engage in terrorism because that’s what they do best, and not to advance rational, obtainable goals. Nor do they comprehend that Osama bin Laden is deadly serious when he proclaims a war of civilizations, and that there can be no splitting the difference between his goal of imposing worldwide Shari’a and the West’s desire to live in peace and comfort.

When the danger finally slaps them in the face, Europeans respond by assuming a posture of abject deference to Islam, in the hope they will be treated mercifully.
Does anyone seriously think that Richard Dawkins and his allies are encouraging such a posture regarding Islam? I would hope not. The blame for such feebleness in Europe lies at the feet of mushy religious pluralists, not staunch secularists.

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What changed?

Jason Rosenhouse just put up a post with a fascinating lead in:
My first published piece of writing on evolution and creationism was a review of Ken Miller's Finding Darwin's God for Skeptic magazine, published in 2000. In light of my recent posts at this blog, you might find it hard to believe that I actually wrote the following:
Like Miller, I deplore the rhetorical excesses of people like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett who would blur the line between methodological and philosophical naturalism. Though I would quibble with a few of his specific examples, the chapter Miller devotes to these excesses is one of the best in the book.
Needless to say, I no longer believe this. So what changed?
This caught my eye because I recently noticed a similar change in myself. Not too long ago I was imagining what I would do if I ever wrote a general book criticizing religion. When the thought first entered my mind, I thought I would start out by emphasizing things that I thought Dawkins got wrong. Dawkins for example, has claimed "the big war is not between evolution and creationism, but between naturalism and supernaturalism"--which sounds kinda foolish on its face, because it implies he would not want to be allied with Tom Paine were the great patriot alive today. Now, though, I can't find it in myself to worry much about that complaint and related issues. What changed?

It's not that I've changed my mind on that narrow issue. I would note also that I see no clear reason why Jason ought to recant what he quoted himself on above. If Dawkins and Dennett really are guilty of confusing what are in fact two distinct positions (and I'm not saying they are--that may be a product of Ken Miller's imagination) then they do deserve to be criticized for it. No, for me what has changed is that I've seen the critiques of those who would set themselves up as Dawkins' opponents, and their positions and behaviors is so ludicrously indefensible as to make me realize that when you place us in the grand context of American religious discourse, my views and Dawkins' are damn near identical.

What am I talking about, this nonsense coming from Dawkins' critics? I actually found an excellent example from Chris Mooney via a link from Rosenhouse yesterday. Here's Mooney rebutting attacks on what he's said on framing:
Paul Zachary "PZ" Myers, a biology professor at the University of Minnesota at Morris, wrote on his blog, Pharyngula, that if he took our advice, "I'd end up giving fluff talks that play up economic advantages and how evolution contributes to medicine . . . and I'd never talk about mechanisms and evidence again. That sounds like a formula for disaster to me -- it turns scientists into guys with suits who have opinions, and puts us in competition with lawyers and bureaucrats in the media." Myers also accused us of appeasing religion.
Myers' argument here is a straightforward reductio ad absurdum: (1) if Mooney is right, we shouldn't focus on evidence (2) but we should focus on evidence (3) therefore, Mooney is wrong. At this point, the obvious strategy for Mooney is to deny (1). Does he do that? Let's see...
Yet he misses the point. There will always be a small audience of science enthusiasts who have a deep interest in the "mechanisms and evidence" of evolution, just as there will always be an audience for criticism of religion. But these messages are unlikely to reach a wider public, and even if they do they will probably be ignored or, in the case of atheistic attacks on religion, backfire.
Mooney honestly believes evidence must be something for an elite few. I type the sentence not for you, dear reader, but to reassure myself that he said what I think he said, even though I re-read the passage several times. Now the $64,000 question: does Mooney think there good reasons for accepting particular scientific conclusions other than that there is evidence for them, or is he proposing lying to the public about the reasons for accepting scientific conclusions? Frankly, if Jason hadn't given me the extra fodder in the post at the end of my first link, right now you'd be reading a post titled "How dumb is Chris Mooney?"

Can this really be the same Chris Mooney who wrote The Republican War on Science, which I heard such wonderful things about? I guess so... but that raises yet more questions. My natural assumption is that the thesis of his book was that Republicans were ignoring, hiding, distorting evidence, but his comments on the framing issue make me wonder. I haven't read the book, sadly, and would greatly appreciate it if someone who has could fill me in.

This isn't an isolated slip. The Jake Young post in which I found Mooney's comments embedded is a prime example of favoring a general trend to tactics over truth. There's the attacks clearly based on things Dawkins has never said. There's the fake respect for religious people that consists in treating them as too dumb to think critically about their religious beliefs. I'll take Dawkins over all of that any day.

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Quote of the Time Being

It's been a long time since a politician has inspired me like this.
-a young gay Republican, talking about Larry Craig

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

How does the average American think?

This is a question that bugs me a lot. What do most people spend their time thinking about? What do they think is a good way to answer big questions? What do they think a good reason for doing something is?

"Projection" is a much bandied about psychological concept. Usually its applied to bad things, that is to say when one person accuses another person of having some flaw, crying "projection" is to suggest that it's really the first person who has the given flaw. However, the idea has much validity when applied more generally: we tend to assume other people share our qualities, good and bad, to a much greater extent than is warranted.

Trying to apply that idea here, it would mean I have a tendency to overestimate the extent to which other people care about philosophy, overestimate the extent to which they care about logical reasoning and evidence, overestimate the extent to which they think one ought to have high reasons for doing things. Sitting here typing this, I have a hard time believing it and feel like I'm being an arrogant prick to even suspect it might be true. Yet I've seen writers refer contemptuously to asking philosophical questions as an adolescent pursuit, and have been shocked by statistics indicating that a majority of Americans are willing to ignore scientific results that conflict with their religious beliefs. Those are things that I have a hard time believing these things, and my difficulty believing them is surely due to projection. Oh, and don't even get me started on my instincts regarding how willing the average person is to pick up a book in order to educate themselves.

Still, those are just bits of information, nowhere near answering the questions I have. And many of the other bits of information that come to mind on the subject are ambiguous: when a friend tells me how much she cares about intellectual questions, simultaneously complaining about how few people do that, how should I adjust my beliefs about people on average?

I'd really like a systematic way of getting at this question. It matters an awful lot to me, since like a lot of young philosophy majors, one of the things I'd like to accomplish in my life is to do philosophy popularization, try to improve the average person's ability to think about philosophy. To do that, it would be really, really helpful to have a clear idea of how people currently think on those issues.

So, what information is out there on it? If there isn't anything--or even if there is a little--I can almost see myself turning the question into a major academic research project someday. That isn't going to happen anytime soon, though. For the time being, the question will continue to bug me.

EDIT: Since I plan on submitting this to the Philosophy Carnival, let me preemptively invite people coming here from that to check out the Philosophy Blogroll.



I've just discovered that there's an entire blog dedicated to atheist movies. Most of it's old stuff, but the latest post is announcing a new comedy called Religulous, a world made by combining "Religious" and "Ridiculous." And the older stuff is nice to have, too: will try to remember this site when organizing socials for the student group.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

How I spent my September 11th

I'm a student organization leader; the university kicks off every semester with a student organization fair. So I managed a table there. They like to do it early in the semester, the start of fall semester is set by labor day, so making one week into the semester just happen to be September 11th this year. They were originally going to do it on the 10th or 12th or something, but some practical consideration forced it onto the 11th.

When I talk about managing a table, I was physically present most of the time, but there was a point where I went and got literature while someone else managed. Getting the literature involved walking to my dorm room, maybe a mile or more, took 45 min both ways. Yeah, more than a mile. I was lugging two boxes of literature. Tiring. And then I stood for a very long time, no chairs, showing people the stuff. I think I was even more tired when the fair finally ended at 8 than when I first plumped the boxes of literature on the floor of the place.

I've been eating pretty late dinners the past couple weeks, even later than 8, but I needed food. I disposed of literature until I thought I had a pretty light one box left, and took it, along with my backpack and our trifold poster board thingy, to the nearest campus eatery. I waited maybe 20 min for my pizza, didn't do any of my normal waiting things, just sat exhausted, dazzled by the sounds buzzing around me. Then I had to get the stuff the rest of the way home, and discovered my "light" one box wasn't so light after all, especially when I needed half a hand for the poster.

When I got home, I didn't feel like doing all the things I had meant to use my time for. Mostly plopping on my bed reading novel I could only half understand because it was written in a phonetic representation of a thick English accent. I found enough energy to briefly scan some blogs, and noticed one of Sullivan's readers complaining that earlier today, he had written a post complaining about his bad day. The reader demanded more respect for the day.

I can't find it in me to care much that today is September 11th. When it first occurred to me to think about what I ought to think about the day, my gut response was that today, I was too busy living my life to notice what day it was. Now though, I begin to wonder: why am I supposed to care, again? It isn't that we need to do something special on this date if we are to remember at all. I remembered the fact of the Sept. 11th attacks at countless points during last year as the situation demanded. Why do we need more than this? I begin to suspect that working ourselves into an emotional frenzy on such dates as this does nothing more than to make us vulnerable to manipulation by those who would exploit such events to their own ends. Let's not give in, shall we?

Monday, September 10, 2007

Good news on the college front

I've just seen at John's blog that religiosity is down among college students. Good to hear--especially in light of the nonsense I've been dealing with here.

Experiences with eyes closed

Eric Schwitzgebel has a fascinating set of posts on asking people what their visual experiences are like with eyes closed. It isn't just immediately after closing their eyes--he had them have their eyes closed for long periods of time and note their experiences at random times. A surprising amount of the time, they didn't report any experiences at all. At least, I was surprised at first, though when I think about it, I'm not sure I have touch experiences when I'm not thinking about them, so maybe it wasn't so odd.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

How crackpots think

Eliezer of Overcoming Bias has an instructive story about almost becoming a math crank. Here's the core, but read the whole thing:
The thought went through my mind: "I'll get that theorem eventually! Someday I'll disprove Cantor's Diagonal Argument, even though my first try failed!" I resented the theorem for being obstinately true, for depriving me of my fame and fortune, and I began to look for other disproofs.

And then I realized something. I realized that I had made a mistake, and that, now that I'd spotted my mistake, there was absolutely no reason to suspect the strength of Cantor's Diagonal Argument any more than other major theorems of mathematics.
P.S. In general, this looks like a really good site. It's going on my Bloglines, at least tentatively.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Rampant ignorance promoted by Campus Crusade, part III

I now continue my odyssey into the strange nonsense promoted by Campus Crusade, this time foraying into the world of Biblical pseudo-scholarship.

I should start out by saying, again, that I'm trying to stick to the blatant falsehoods, though the line is once again blurry. I've previously written about how some Christian apologists have made clear that they will accept any rationalization, no matter how convoluted, in order to protect inerrancy. Where does denial end and lying begin? However, the creators of this site hath been merciful, and have included claims so nonsensical that I have plenty of fodder even while ignoring questions of who wrote the Bible.

Let's start with the section on extrabiblical confirmation of the Gospel story. Some of it is rather misleading, as with the convenient omission of the fact that the cited passage from Josephus is widely thought to be the result of tampering with the text. Ignore that: what's really silly about this passage is the claim that "This is remarkable information considering that most ancient historians focused on political and military leaders, not on obscure rabbis from distant provinces of the Roman Empire." Shall we also marvel at the fact that Josephus describes several other minor religious figures of the time, and in fact spends far more space on the Essenes than he does on Jesus (even on the assumption that what he says about Jesus is 100% authentic)? What rot.

The second section falls pretty clearly in the "criminal stupidity" category rather than the "dishonesty" category, but I resist the temptation to highlight it: they claim the Gospels fit historian's criterion for reliability because they give us multiple versions of the same story. This is also true of everything from the alleged Betty and Barney Hill alien abduction to the Vanishing Hitchhiker urban legend. Obviously historians use no such simplistic criterion. Next!

Next up, Biblical contradictions:
What apparent discrepancies do exist are more curiosity than calamity. They do not touch on any major event or article of faith.
The author goes on to cite, as representative alleged contradictions, variations on how Jesus is quoted. Know what? I don't care how willing the author is to accept convoluted contradictions, the claim that there aren't even apparent contradictions involving major events or doctrines is a lie. To give just two examples: many scholars think that the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke are irreconcilable, and the Epistle of James appears to contradict Romans on whether Abraham was saved by faith or works (the latter is significant, because it strongly suggests James was written as a rebuttal to Romans).

I've saved the biggest whooper of the night for last, though: "Textual scholarship confirms that the books of the Bible have not changed since they were first written." I am amazed that anyone would even try to tell such a lie post-Misquoting Jesus. And that's all that needs to be said about that topic.

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Quote of the Time Being

Jon Stewart, Keith Olbermann and Bill Maher are the only political commentators on television who consistently have something intelligent to say.
-Jason Rosenhouse

The campaign season

Just this week I saw Fred Thompson getting made fun of on the Daily Show (or maybe Colbert Report... damn those shows run together) for not declaring his candidacy. I laughed at the time just like I was supposed to, but Christopher Heard has an interesting post up arguing it should be praised as resistance to over-long campaign seasons. I especially like this part: "We’re all going to be so sick of the 'front-runners' by next November that, who knows, Ron Paul could actually win with write-in votes."

Thursday, September 06, 2007

The unshocking Machiavelli

I don't quite remember when I first read Machiavelli's The Prince. What I do remember, though, is how puzzled I was, reflecting on the actual contents of the book versus its reputation. It had, according to the notes, once been banned by the Catholic Church, but the only reason I could see for that was Machiavelli had the audacity to treat the Church like any other government. The rest of was just a few remarks on politics, made on the unremarkable assumption that politicians do what they do to try to gain power. Which is, I thought, kinda how everyone talks about politics these days. How many news stories have you seen with statements in the form "Members of part X did Y in hopes of gaining an advantage in the upcoming election"? Even campaign managers say stuff like that, at least once the particular campaign season is done. Or, look at Al Gore in the recent Vanity Fair piece on him: "Modern politics seems to require and reward some capacities that I don't think I have in abundance, such as a tolerance for … spin rather than an honest discussion of substance... Apparently, it comes easily for some people, but not for me." The way he says it, it sounds like he thinks its something we just kinda have to deal with.

We like to think that our morality has progressed in the last 500 years. When it comes to things like democracy and human rights, this may be true. This may be an area where we've regressed, though. Even if politicians behaved just as selfishly back then, people were (apparently) shocked by open advocacy of such behavior. I think we need to recapture that.

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Coming out TV show? Go for it!

Bjorn of Bjorn & Jeannette's Blog has done some atheist TV, and is proposing doing one focusing on coming out as an atheist. Given recent blogging here, I'm hoping it does happen. We'll see.

Rampant ignorance promoted by Campus Crusade, part II

I've continued looking through the site, one of whose articles Is There a God? I previously critiqued. I've found yet another source of howlers; this time a whole series of articles beginning with one titled Was There Ever Nothing? The claims are less straight forward than the last one, freely mixing bad science and bad philosophy, but I'm going to try to stick to the science.

First, it argues there cannot, at any point in the past, have been nothing, so there must have been some original thing. Then it claims the original things could not have been living, because living things would need an environment. This raises the question of why they ignore the possibility of living things + environment, but I won't say much about the question, because nobody thinks there were originally living things. It's this part that interests me:
So, then, what about non-living things? They don't need an environment, that's true. But then we're in the same predicament we were in with the tennis balls. Non-living matter doesn't produce anything. Let's say, instead of ten tennis balls, you had a trillion molecules of hydrogen. Then what happens? Over time, you still have a trillion molecules of hydrogen, nothing more.
There are two important claims here: first, that a trillion molecules of hydrogen won't produce anything ever, and the claim that non-living matter in general will never produce anything, which implies that no amount of hydrogen will ever produce anything. The first claim is technically true but very misleading: the only reason it's true is because while a trillion molecules of hydrogen sounds like a lot, it's actually a trivially small amount: roughly 1.66 x 10^-12 grams. However, with a much larger number of hydrogen atoms, say the amount believed by scientists to have been present in the early history of the universe, they definitely would produce something given enough time. Gravity would draw them together, and many of the molecules would collide in such a way as to undergo nuclear fusion, producing helium atoms and heavier elements in the right circumstances. This is a very basic point of physics. Once that's done, there is no reason why in principle the atoms could not form complex molecules and eventually life.

I won't bother with a full defense of evolution here, because the author of the piece doesn't object that there's not enough evidence for evolution, or that it is refuted by any of the standard creationist arguments. Rather, the author claims that the modern scientific picture of the universe's history is impossible based on the most flagrant ignorance of science.

Incidentally, the insistence on the importance of live/non-life implies the author holds to the same sort of vitalism that peaks through in the Is There a God? piece.

It only gets weirder from here:
While we're talking about non-living matter, let's also consider what it takes for that to exist. Ever heard of the Supercollider? Years ago the government embarked on an experiment to create matter. The Supercollider was miles and miles of underground tunnel through which atoms would travel at supersonic speeds and then smash into each other, in order to create a tiny particle. All that for the tiniest, most microscopic bit of matter.

What does that tell us? That our illustration of the ten tennis balls is not nearly as easy as it sounds. It would take an AMAZING amount of energy just to produce one tennis ball out of nothing. And nothing is all we have. The room has absolutely nothing in it.

So here's where we are. The Something that existed at the beginning must be able to exist without depending on anything else. It must be totally and fully self-sufficient. For It was alone at the very beginning. And It needed no environment within which to exist.

Second, the Something that existed at the very beginning must have the ability to produce something other than Itself. For, if It could not, then that Something would be all that exists today. But Something Else exists today. You, for example.

Third, to produce Something Else--out of nothing--requires an incredible amount of power. So the Something must have great power at its disposal. If it takes us miles and miles of corridor and the most energy we can harness, just to produce the tiniest particle, how much power would it take to produce the matter in the universe?

Let's go back to our room. Let's say we have a very special tennis ball inside the room. It can produce other tennis balls. It has that much power and energy. And It is completely self-sufficient, needing nothing else to exist, for It is all there is. It, this one tennis ball, is the Eternal Something.
One quibble at this point: technically, it doesn't take any significant power to create matter. You need an amount of energy equal to the mass of the matter times the speed of light squared (plus whatever it takes to compensate for any inefficiency of the equipment). Power is energy over time, so if you're willing to take your time, you can do it with an arbitrarily small amount of power as long as you have the energy. Yes, that's in theory and there would probably be practical difficulties with a slow-acting matter machine, but I make the point because the author quickly proves he has no clear concept of either energy or matter.
Let's say the tennis ball produces another tennis ball. Which of the two will be greater, say, with respect to TIME? Ball #1. It is the Eternal Something. It has always existed. Ball #2, however, came into existence when produced by Ball #1. So one ball is finite with regard to time, the other infinite.

Which of the two will be greater with regard to POWER? Again, Ball #1. It has the ability to produce Ball #2 out of nothing--which also means it has the ability to unproduce (destroy) Ball #2. So Ball #1 has far more power than Ball #2. In fact, at all times, Ball #2 must depend on Ball #1 for its very existence.

But, you say, what if Ball #1 shared some of its power with Ball #2--enough power to destroy Ball #1? Then Ball #2 would be greater, for Ball #1 would cease to be, right?

There's a problem with this. If Ball #1 shared some of its power with Ball #2, it would still be Ball #1's power. The question then becomes: could Ball #1 use its own power to destroy itself? No. First of all, to use its power, Ball #1 has to exist.

Second of all, Ball #1 is so powerful that anything that can possibly be done, can be done by Ball #1. But it is not possible for Ball #1 to cease to be, therefore it cannot accomplish this.

Ball #1 cannot be unproduced, for Ball #1 was never produced in the first place. Ball #1 has always existed. It is the Eternal Something. As such, it is existence. It is life, infinite life. For Ball #1 to be destroyed, there would need to be something greater. But nothing is greater than Ball #1, nor ever could be. It exists without need of anything else. It therefore cannot be changed by any external forces. It can have no end, for It has no beginning. It is the way it is and that cannot change. It cannot cease to be, for BEING is its very nature. In that sense, it is untouchable.
I'm going to take the problems in order of appearance, all on the assumption that it actually is supposed to have some basis in the cited science (an assumption I'll look at at the end).

1) It isn't necessarily true that if one thing can create another, it can destroy it. Might, but there's no guarantee.

2) The stuff about power sharing power and "it would still be Ball #1's power" doesn't make any sense. Aside from the power/energy confusion, when a Supercollider creates matter, the Supercollider doesn't still have the energy in any normal sense of the term.

3) Things can too self-destruct.

4) How on Earth do they make the jump from being able to create a tennis ball to being able to do anything? As already noted, the amount of required energy to create matter is very exact.

It continues on in this vein for two pages. You can look at it for yourself, but I'm done here; it all seems too silly to debunk in detail. In general, though, I can only conclude one of two things. On the one hand, it may be that the author is totally clueless about science. On the other hand, it may be that the author doesn't care about science, doesn't care about having any real justification for his claims, and the science is just window dressing for... I really don't know who it's supposed to fool. The second interpretation gets the author out of being a fool, but he's then a hack and a walking insult to everyone who cares about honestly using science to try to understand the world. Campus Crusade should be embarrassed to be peddling such nonsense.

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Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Coming out advice

From an e-mail:
I was recently surfing the net and ended up on your blog page. I read your blogs about atheism and from what I read, we have the same beliefs. I guess you could call me an in-the-closet-atheist. Two of my close friends, my mom, and my sister are the only ones who know and I'm trying to work up the courage to tell my dad. He was raised by very strict Christians and I'm afraid of how he'll handle the shock of knowing I'm not a believer at all. I'm not confused about what I believe, but I'm confused about how to tell the people I love and care about. I live in hick-town with lots of gay-bashing rednecks who go to church every Sunday. I feel very out of place, but it's nice to know there are people out there like you. My question for you is, how did you "come-out" about your beliefs? Thanks for reading this, A***
Glad to hear you found the site, and glad to know I'm appreciated.

How did I "come-out"? I waited until it didn't matter so much anymore. Seriously. When it first hit me that I was an atheist, I was most of my way to getting Eagle rank in Boy Scouts, and I had heard stories about guys getting denied Eagle for religious reasons. Therefore, I kept my mouth shut.

I'm not sure I recommend this approach. It might work for you though. Granted, your reasons for being closeted are rather more general, but hopefully in a few years (two? five? I'm assuming you're in high school or maybe middle school) you'll go off to college, and then everything changes. A college campus is one of the best places in America right now to be irreligious or otherwise annoying to bigots (being gay, for example). The difference probably bigger than you can imagine, certainly bigger than I would have imagined before coming to college.

That's one approach. The other, as far as I can tell, is to just tell people and see what happens. It might help to ask the four people who already know for support in advance, but if you're going to do it, the main thing is to just go ahead and do it. You might be surprised at the results: I had a friend who put off coming out (as bi) to her dad for a long time, but when she finally did, he was totally okay with it. At the time, I think she told me something about wondering whether he had been replaced by an extraterrestrial double. I don't know that your dad will be like that, but he might be.

Oh, and if you'd like a real surprise, it just might help to get prepared in advance to explain to your dad why you believe what you believe. Dan Barker (see this interview) talks about sitting down with his mom to do that, and it caused her to immediately stop going to church. This may be something of a long shot, but think about it.

Also be ready to be surprised how much support you'll find from lesser acquaintances. Wanna bet there are at least a couple atheists in your school who you don't know about because they're in the same situation as you? Even kids who haven't taken the step of thinking of themselves as irreligious have a tendency to, well, rebel. Yet another story: last year, I briefly dated a girl who had most recently lived in Texas, at a public school so red-state that they got away with teaching creationism, where, she said, she was the lone agnostic, isolated along with one neo-pagan friend. She also once mentioned how some of her friends had tried to get her to watch Rocky Horror Picture Show, and she was the squeamish one. After several days of thinking about that one, it occurred to me to ask how that worked, what with almost everyone around her being staunchly religious. She explained her friends were going through a rebellious phase. Yeah.

Now, I just gave you three paragraphs of anecdotal data, which as I ought to know doesn't prove anything. But hey, you could ignore that fact and assume everything will work out in your favor. Or you could do the waiting till college thing. Your choice.

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Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Ethical Werewolf on eating meat

Woo, I'm proud of that headline. Now go read his article, it's good, er... food for thought. I really didn't mean to have a pun there.

Link to Truth, get an iPod

Via PZ, it turns out that by linking to the truth, you can get an iPod. I don't really need the thing, but I'm joining in because the truth is a cool project. Remember, the text of your link must say the truth--that's the whole point of the project.

Rampant ignorance promoted by Campus Crusade

One of the things the Madison chapter of Campus Crusade does on a regular basis is chalk the URL "" at random places around campus. I decided to take a look at the site, and I have to admit, after reading the first article I was impressed by the amount of ignorance crammed into such a short space. The article in question is Is There a God? though I suspect I'd be able to do pieces like this for many articles on the site. I'm going to ignore the vacuous reasoning and focus on the blatant falsehoods.
Water...colorless, odorless and without taste, and yet no living thing can survive without it. Plants, animals and human beings consist mostly of water (about two-thirds of the human body is water). You'll see why the characteristics of water are uniquely suited to life:

It has an unusually high boiling point and freezing point. Water allows us to live in an environment of fluctuating temperature changes, while keeping our bodies a steady 98.6 degrees.
First, unusual with respect to what? Across all substances, there are obvious examples of things with higher boiling and freezing points, such as iron, though water's hydrogen bonds give it high boiling and freezing points relative to its mass.

In any case, the stuff about regulating body temperature doesn't make much sense. Water can help us dump heat through sweat, but it has nothing to do with keeping us from getting too cold; we need exothermic chemical reactions for that. Indeed, those exothermic chemical reactions are a main reason we need to sweat in the first place--even in 90 degree weather, you won't be at risk of going over 98.6 degrees unless there's some factor pushing your body temperature above the air temperature.

Though not stated explicitly, a couple other odd ideas seem implicit in this passage. One, the author seems to imply that the reason water allows us to regulate our body temperature is its boiling and freezing point. The relationship is very tangential at best--sweat doesn't boil, though boiling is dependent on vapor pressure and sweat evaporation is dependent on theoretical vapor pressure plus the amount of water already in the air (humidity). Even then, as already stated, water has nothing to do with preventing ourselves from getting too cool.

The other odd implication is that merely having lots of water in our bodies is enough to regulate our temperature. If this were true, every organism on earth would be good at regulating its temperature, because water is important to every organism, including ones without the temperature regulation systems found in mammals and birds.
Water is a universal solvent. This property of water means that thousands of chemicals, minerals and nutrients can be carried throughout our bodies and into the smallest blood vessels.
"Universal" solvent? Does this author honestly believe that oil will dissolve in water?
Water is also chemically neutral. Without affecting the makeup of the substances it carries, water enables food, medicines and minerals to be absorbed and used by the body.
I was a little thrown by this passage at first, because "chemically neutral" isn't a phrase that's used much in chemistry. It's most obvious meaning is "neutral pH," which would have been clearer terminology, though I suspect the author has some idea that "chemically neutral" means "nonreactive." Perhaps the author thinks that having a neutral pH makes something nonreactive. In any case, the problems here are so numerous that they need to be numbered:

1) Water's neutral pH is unremarkable, because this is a feature water has by definition. One could define liquid ammonia as being pH neutral, and indeed it would be convenient to do so if ammonia were the more commonly used solvent in chemistry. And no, there isn't anything remarkable about the fact that the positive and negative ions in water cancel out--this is true of any material that doesn't have an electric charge built up. The reason there's an imbalance between HO- ions and H3O+ ions in acidic and basic solutions of water is that the balance is compensated for by ions of other sorts. In hydrochloric acid (HCl dissolved in water), for example, the extra H3O+ ions are balanced out by Cl- ions.

2) As for water's reactivity, water does indeed react: hello solid sodium! (Warning: don't try that one at home, kids). At a more mundane level, water reacts with organic compounds readily enough that the organic chemistry TA considered it "the root of all evil." Having water residues on our equipment was to be avoided when possible, we were yelled at for leaving the tops off reagent containers because water vapor might react with the reagents, and in one or two experiments we took special precautions to keep water out of the experimental apparatus.

3) Going back to pH, the balance of ions also doesn't do much to lower water's reactivity: it doesn't prevent them from taking part in reactions, and the fact that such ions form fairly readily in the first place means even ordinary water molecules can accept or donate protons to get a reaction going.

4) Solutions of any pH can reach chemical equilibrium, so having a neutral pH isn't necessary to keep a reaction from happening as molecules are transported--it depends on what you want to transport, really.

5) While cytosol (cellular fluid) sticks pretty close to neutral pH, extracellular fluids such as blood tend to be slightly basic. Neither is pure water; even ignoring macromolecules cytosol has a fair amount of other stuff floating around in it.
Water has a unique surface tension. Water in plants can therefore flow upward against gravity, bringing life-giving water and nutrients to the top of even the tallest trees.
I'm not sure what's meant by a "unique" surface tension. Probably no other pure liquid has the exact same numerical value for its surface tension, but probably that's true of lots of liquids. Water flowing up plant stems is formally known as capillary action, but this isn't limited to water. As a matter of fact, some of the lab techniques I used over the summer depended on using capillary action on organic solvents.
Water freezes from the top down and floats, so fish can live in the winter.
This is true. So she's not getting a 0% in freshmen chem...
Ninety-seven percent of the Earth's water is in the oceans. But on our Earth, there is a system designed which removes salt from the water and then distributes that water throughout the globe. Evaporation takes the ocean waters, leaving the salt, and forms clouds which are easily moved by the wind to disperse water over the land, for vegetation, animals and people. It is a system of purification and supply that sustains life on this planet, a system of recycled and reused water.
The system isn't designed, nor is it something unique to earth, nor is it something unique to water. Any liquid, on any planet, will evaporate to some extent. For a liquid to undergo no evaporation, it would have to have zero vapor pressure, which is impossible, even though some things do have very low vapor pressures. The purification element isn't remarkable either: different parts of a solution will almost always enter the atmosphere at different rates.

That's all of the water ignorance. Rather exhausting--I just ran it through my word counter, and it too me 829 words to explain what was wrong with a 256 word section. I'm feeling really good right now about limiting myself to dealing with blatant falsehoods, so I'll ignore the rest save one section:
What Pasteur attempted to prove centuries ago, science confirms, that life cannot arise from non-life. Where did human, animal, plant life come from?
The invokation of Pasteur is rather misleading: what he showed is that if you expose a nutrient broth to air, but not airborne things like flies and bacteria, nothing will grow there in the short term. His experiments have no bearing on what can happen in varying circumstances over a long period of time. Ironically, at the same time Pasteur was doing his experiments chemists were slowly demolishing the idea that there is a vital force that distinguishes living material from non-living material. (The first experiments in this vein happened some time before Pasteur, actually, but the debate wasn't totally settled in his time). Today, we know that there definitely is no such vital force, though the author's italicization of "life" suggests she hasn't gotten the message. We also know a lot more about chemistry than anyone in Pasteur's time did and can give much more precise chemical accounts of what's going on in life. All of this modern chemical knowledge tells us its unlikely that a nutrient broth would undergo all the countless reactions needed to yield a bacterium in the space of a few weeks, but it also tells us that there is no reason in principle why life could not arise from simpler molecules given enough time and the right conditions. (For those interested in a fuller introduction to this subject, I recommend the ever useful TalkOrigins.)

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Monday, September 03, 2007

On human sinfullness

(Cross posted at God is for Suckers!)

Christopher Hitchens once said that "The essential principle of totalitarianism is to make laws that are impossible to obey." Not too long ago I relayed this quote to a friend in the aftermath of a philosophy club meeting, and his response was along the lines of "Well of course--then they can do whatever they want to you." It struck me as strange how detached his "of course" was from the original context of the quote: it's from Hitchens' most recent book, God is not Great, attacking religion.

2000 years of cultural conditioning has gotten us to speak in dignified tones about impossible rules, so long as they occur in the context of religion. To give only the most recent example I know of, when Hitchens and Bill Donohue sparred over Mother Teresa's doubts, and Donohue made a sarcastic comment along the lines of "well, yeah, she was also a sinner." In that context, the gut reaction is to say Donohue had a point, even for someone like me who shakes his head at it a half-second later.

Remove the insubstantial religious trappings, however, and my friend's "of course" becomes the only possible response. Can you imagine an actual government writing laws to guarantee that everyone will wind up guilty, and then making pardons conditional on loyalty to the leaders? Such a government sounds horrific, yet that is exactly the program that has been a major strand of Christian theology since Paul.

A healthy contrast to such dogmas comes in the coda of Bertrand Russell's essay "On the Value of Scepticism," published as the introduction to his anthology Sceptical Essays:
Only a large measure of scepticism can tear away the veils which hide this truth from us. Having achieved that, we could begin to build a new morality, not based on envy and restriction, but on the wish for a full life and the realisation of that other human beings are a help and not a hinderance when once then madness of envy has been cured. This is not a Utopian hope; it was partially realised in Elizabethan England. It could be realised tomorrow if men would learn to pursue their own happiness rather than the misery of others. This is no impossibly austere morality yet its adoption would turn our earth into a paradise.
Notice that none of what Russell says is premised on the claim that humans have no tendency whatever to behave badly. Indeed, Russell knew that they do, and he knew it more keenly than most people have, because he saw through the webs of lies used to tell people that selfish or downright insane behavior is noble. Still, Russell hoped for change. The key difference is that for Russell, behaving badly meant making fellow humans miserable. For orthodox Christian thinkers, to refrain from doing so and to guard against the tendencies that lead people to do so is not enough. If you stare at a woman's chest, you deserve eternal damnation, though of course you can be let off by being a true Christian, whatever that means. This view deserves our contempt, and we must be vigilant in not allowing it to disguise itself as an honest look at human nature. Honestly looking at ourselves can only make the world a better place, but the orthodox doctrine of sin was never good for anything other than controlling people.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

The experience-blendered word

I've been doing a philosophy club here in Madison since early summer. At each meeting, we discuss an essay on philosophy, something available online so no one will have any trouble getting ahold of it. For this week, I've sent out a link to an essay by James Pryor, commissioned by Warner Brothers for their Matrix website. Among other things, it discusses Robert Nozick's thought experiment of the experience machine, which can give people any experiences they want, though the experiences won't be real. Nozick thought that most people wouldn't want to plug in to such a machine, showing that we value doing things rather than just having the experience of doing things.

Here's an added twist I want to throw out there: imagine a world of nothing noteworthy other than experiences. It has all the experiences that exist in this world, in the same amount, and with no extra experiences. However, they have no coherence whatever to them, occurring at random times and places. Nobody notices this, ex hypothesi because the experience of noting how wildly incoherent our experiences are is not part of the real world. Would such an arrangement make the experiences less worthwhile?

CotG 74

The 74th edition of the Carnival of the Godless is up at The Atheist Faq

Hugh Ross Rick Davis lies for Jesus

Correction: On shows like this, it can be difficult to determine who's speaking (especially with four participants, as is the case here). The person responsible for what is described below is the show's host, Rick Davis, not guest Hugh Ross.

A couple weeks ago, John Loftus posted a link to a debate between Hugh Ross and Victor Stenger. I'm just getting around to listening to it, and have only had time for a small part, but I've noticed that Ross Davis lied right off the bat.

Here's what happened: Ross Davis claimed that Ezekiel 26, written in 500 BC, predicted Alexander the Great's destruction of Tyre (Alexander lived 356-323 BC). Stenger's response was that the prophecy didn't sound all that specific, though Stenger obviously wasn't acquainted with that specific prophecy. The truth is that the prophecy was actually more specific than Ross Davis made it out to be: it specifically says that the destruction of the city will be by Nebuchadnezzar, who lived 630-562 BC. Ross Davis lied about the passage.

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Saturday, September 01, 2007

Realizing what's important

There's a fight brewing at ScienceBlogs over poll data indicating that Americans like science, but will chuck it overboard if it conflicts with religion. Chris Mooney claims this means we should downplay conflicts between science and religion, and Jason Rosenhouse and PZ Myers fire back in the expected manner.

The responses are good reading, but one thing seems to get missed in Rosenhouse's emphasis on practicality: a willingness to accept dogma over evidence is bad for reasons that have nothing to do with the evolution debate. Even if Mooney were correct that being nice to religion would increase public acceptance of evolution, he'd still be wrong that we should in fact be nice to religion.

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God or Blind Nature?, part II

The second section of the Internet Infidels e-book, God or Blind Nature, is up. It's Alvin Plantinga vs. Paul Draper on evil and evolution. I found it good reading, even though I found it a touch painful to watch a philosopher as respected as Plantinga get thrashed that badly.