18 December 2008

Evolution and the Economy, Redux

A few months ago, I wrote a rather incoherent post about the economy. I had a good point, but I made it badly, and it's been nagging me ever since. Well, just now, doing dishes, the answer came to me. Here's hoping it works better this time:

Conservative on the Economy:

"The economy is far too complex for human beings to control effectively. All attempts to create a more perfect economy through design (i.e. Communism) have ended in dismal failure. The only way to create a functional, prosperous economy is to let market forces decide everything."

Conservative on the Origin of Life:

"It's impossible for something as perfect and complex as a human being to exist without an intelligent creator behind it. It is impossible to conceive of how something so complex can work so well together without some element of design. There is no way that dispassionate, natural forces could create something so streamlined and elegant."

An elegant little bit of hypocrisy, innit? The argument from personal incredulity was flimsy enough already -- but to argue that dispassionate selection could never create a human being, but is nevertheless the *only* way to create a functional economy is absolutely galling.

So-called fiscal-conservatives are more Darwinian, methinks, than they would care to admit.

12 December 2008

Merry Christmas

I've said it once before, and I'll say it again: we're doing it wrong.

You might think that taking a pluralistic approach to the holidays is a good idea. The Christmas Tree is a Christian symbol, so for parity's sake, wherever there's a Christmas Tree there also has to be a Chanukah Bush, an 'Eid Palm, a Kwanzaa Rock, a Buddha Bonsai, a Shiva Spruce... And then we start insisting on our own representations and put up an Atheist sign, a Festivus Pole, a Pastafarian Manicotti, and what have you, and then everybody's all up in arms about who gets to be in the public sphere and who's trampling on whose rights and nobody gets to have fun because we're all too busy fighting with each other to enjoy the egg nog.

This is ridiculous.

Problem 1: By siding with the people who insist on equal time for non-Christian religious symbols on public display, we are helping to reinforce the idea that it doesn't matter what religion you are -- as long as you are one. By fighting for the rights of minority religions to have public displays, we're not helping to create a more equal society, we're fighting for the equality of all religions, leaving us freethinkers as the obvious scapegoats when the rest of the faithful unite in self-righteous solidarity.

Problem 2: By fighting against public displays of Christmas Trees and the like, we're effectively reinforcing the Christianization of Christmas. Christmas already is a secular event, and we need to make sure we keep it that way. Take the Japanese, for example: Christmas is *huge* with them, but Christians only amount to about a tenth of one percent of their entire population. Granted, their historical relationship with Christianity has been, on the whole, more desirable than ours, but even in America Christmas isn't really about Baby Jeezus. As I've mentioned before, most Christmas and Advent sermons are all about not forgetting the 'real' meaning of Christmas -- and the fact that people need to be reminded of this by their pastors means that they have other things in mind when they think about Christmas.

We will never win if we try to ban Christmas from the public sphere. Never. It means too much to too many people - especially the secular, apathetic Christians to whom we should be reaching out the most. We need to stand with the moderates on this one. We need to say OK to Christmas Trees, but no to Nativity Scenes. Secular Christmas is something we can and should all get behind - a season of showing people we love them, gathering with friends, and being good to each other regardless of the reason. Let the religious fight about why we do so, and let the rest of us just have some goodwill and holiday cheer.

And don't act like petulant children about words. If English-speaking Christians can call their highest holy day by the name of a pagan goddess, then we freethinkers can bear to call the festival we grew up with by the name of Christmas. It's an accident of linguistic history that we call it Christmas instead of Weinachten, Noel, or Jul - nothing more. Let's focus on what Christmas has come to mean to all of us, instead of what it has traditionally meant to some.

Have a Very Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year.

10 December 2008

Loath to Admit It, but Denyse and I Share Genes

Normally, I don't bother to give Denyse O'Leary and her Shady Valley Link-Farm & Dairy the time of day.  But seeing as how it's the middle of the night, and how her latest prattle at Uncommon Descent contains a particularly glaring nugget of stupid, I'll make an exception.  Don't worry, I'll keep it brief.

Ms. O'Leary regularly tries to make hay of a perceived conflict between altruistic behavior and evolution.  Her strategy seems to consist of alternating between heartwarming tales of good deeds and gross ignorance of actual science.  This time, she invokes acts of heroism during the recent attacks in Mumbai, and then follows it up with some truly ignorant genetics:
[A]ltruism would mean helping one’s own kinfolk in order to preserve one’s own genes - which one shares with them (= Dawkins’s ” “selfish gene”). That really doesn’t apply to situations where people help strangers at the risk of their own lives.
Purely for the sake of this statement, let's assume that altruism evolved so the individual would work to preserve his kin and thereby preserve their shared genes.  Did it ever occur to O'Leary that two strangers might share some genes in common?  Like, the vast, vast majority of them?  We are, after all, all distant kin.  Hell, I'm preserving a fair number of my genes by feeding my cat.1

Poor, short-sighted O'Leary...

1 Though, if that's the goal, getting him neutered was probably a step in the wrong direction...

09 December 2008

Carter and the Dragonslayers

My brother, a college senior aspiring to veterinary medicine, spent four weeks this past summer working on a pair of wildlife reserves in Uganda and Kenya. He had the time of his life, as should any young man seeing the world and fulfilling a lifelong dream to boot. And he managed not to get into too much trouble while doing so. (As he put it, "I promise I was in nearly complete control of almost all of the situations I found myself in some of the time.")

However, all was not beer and skittles and charging rhinoceroses. To manage the trip, he had to put up with the threat of parasites. A particular friend to the little things that creepeth within one's flesh, my brother is not. But I guess when you get the chance to dart lions on the savannah, you deal.

Anyway, at one point he expressed concern that he might have contracted guinea worms. He didn't contract guinea worms (at least, not that we know of), he was just being momentarily paranoid.

In a few years, he might never again have to worry about contracting guinea worms. Former President Jimmy Carter announced this past Friday that cases of dracunculiasis (guinea worm disease) have hit an all-time worldwide low (AP):
Only 4,410 cases were reported worldwide during the first ten months of this year, all in six African countries. Nearly 80 percent were in Sudan, according to The Carter Center, a nonprofit founded by Carter and his wife that helps fight disease and champions voting and human rights around the world.

That total is a dramatic drop from the 3.5 million cases in 20 nations that were reported when The Carter Center's eradication campaign began in 1986. It's also less than half the 9,585 cases reported by individual nations in 2007.

"Our record on Guinea worm for the last few years has been steadily and rapidly downward," Carter said.

Health experts hope that next year may see the last reported cases of the parasitic illness, which would make it the second infection — after smallpox — to be eliminated from the world.
Mind you, there is no vaccine against guinea worms, nor is there any medicine to treat them. The eradication of this disease is being carried out via simple education and sanitation.

The only way to eradicate guinea worms is to interrupt their life cycle. The good news is, since guinea worms only infect humans, not other animals, once the disease is gone from the human population, it's gone for good. There can be no environmental reserves of the parasite.

Infection starts when a person drinks water containing copepods (itty-bitty planktonic crustaceans) infected with guinea worm larvae. Once in the person's stomach, the guinea worm larvae burrow out into the abdominal cavity, where they spend several months growing, maturing, and mating. The males die after mating. The females, now three feet long or so and almost as thick as a spaghetti noodle, need to deliver their young to a water source. To that end, they burrow down the host's leg and form an excruciating blister on the surface of the host's foot. As soon as the foot touches water, thousands of larvae are released to continue the cycle.

There are two main strategies, therefore, to preventing guinea worm disease from spreading:
1) Limit exposure by educating people about the disease and developing safe sources of drinking water (providing water filters, digging wells, etc.)
2) Prevent spread of the next cycle through good sanitation. Teach people to recognize signs of the disease, to identify it early and prevent those afflicted with emerging guinea worms from coming in contact with the water.

Dracunculiasis a devastating affliction. It cripples the host and causes incredible pain. And the only way to remove the worm is to wrap it around a stick (or, nowadays, a piece of gauze) and slowly, over the course of weeks, pull the three-foot worm out through the blister, with the afflicted having to endure burning pain all the while. Hence the worm's nickname, "the fiery serpent," and disease name dracunculiasis, Latin for "affliction with little dragons" and perhaps the most kickass of all parasite names.

Rod of AsklepiosIt is also an ancient affliction. Guinea worms have been found in calcified Egyptian mummies. The symbol of medicine, the Rod of Asklepios, is thought by many to be representative of the method of guinea worm extraction.

And now, it's almost gone. By sheer know-how and concerted effort, a disease that has plagued humans since before the time of the pharaohs is being driven to the brink of extinction.

I'm giddy. I'm eager to hear what the Carter Center has to report next year.

(Tip o' the hat to Effect Measure.)

06 December 2008

Memetics: Firsts of the Firsts of the Months of 2008

It's funny, the things that stick with us. What with Grandpop's funeral and all, I completely forgot to make note of a certain date. Sara and I were at PharynguFest Boston last night at the Cambridge Brewing Company.

Every time I pass a Reformed Church of Christ, I think to myself, "I wonder what a Delinquent Church of Christ looks like." I'm not crazy about public debates; they seem to me to give too much power and import to rhetorical tricks rather than honest academic pursuit.

Apologies for the unannounced absence. I considered avoiding comment on this one, but the pun was too good to pass up.

Stumbled across this the other night. It's fairly remarkable... since having seen Dinesh D'Souza in a live debate, I've felt much less compelled to shred the inanity he posts to his blog. How can you live like that?

Miss me? Clockwise from left: the Moon, Jupiter, and Venus.


Tip of the hat to some science bloggers.  If you have a blog of your own, then play along: go through your archives, and post the first sentence of the first post of each month of the past year.

01 December 2008

Planets By the Naked Eye

Moon, Jupiter, Venus Clockwise from left: the Moon, Jupiter, and Venus. Taken from Cambridge, MA, at roughly 5 PM EST, 1 December 2008, with a 1.3-megapixel camera phone.

As astronomy pictures go, this is a pretty darn wimpy one. But so help me, every once in a while I look at the sky, and the sense of what's physically out there really hits me.

27 November 2008

On Nutrition

On one of America's Mighty Food Holidays, a note to any vegetarians (or aspiring vegetarians) out there: Please feed your babies.

26 November 2008

Sharing Skepticism in Chiropractic

I've been wary of chiropractors for almost as long as I've been a self-identified skeptic. I frequented one throughout high school, never bothering to question the principles behind it, nor even its efficacy. I just assumed it was doing me good. Now I know that the practice is founded upon pseudoscience, that at best chiropractors can be physical therapists with delusions of grandeur.

But it wasn't until last spring that I learned that, not only is chiropractic ineffective, it also carries potential for serious injury. Specifically, chiropractic neck adjustment is linked to a specific type of stroke. (For more reading, Science-Based Medicine published further articles on chiropractic and stroke throughout the summer.)

This news troubled me greatly. I had never been warned about the risk by my chiropractor. And even if the risk of stroke is small, the risk is being taken for zero demonstrated benefit. Members of my family still see a chiropractor; concerned for their safety, I shared this news with them. It wasn't particularly well-received; as I feared, I came across as something of a Chicken Little. There was some acknowledgment that it might be a risk for others, but supposedly our chiropractor was different.

Some time later, I got a chance to try again. A friend of mine was having tension in his back, and was persuaded by his boss to visit a chiropractor. He had a good experience, and expressed interest in making a habit out of chiropractic visits.

I simply pointed out to him that the majority of chiropractic is based on pseudoscience, and can put you at risk for anything from wasted money to serious injury. So if he wanted to pursue a chiropractor, I'd recommend consulting Chirobase (a project of Quackwatch) so he'd at least know how to find a good one.

The information on Chirobase was enough to turn him off neck adjustments for sure, and possibly off chiropractors entirely.

I used a different kind of message, yes. But more importantly, I had a different kind of audience. My friend was already interested in learning more about chiropractic. All I did was to point him toward an excellent resource on the subject. But how do we get people to question, who aren't already questioning? Is it even possible, or do we just have to wait them out?

Skeptics have the facts on their side. That's what it means to be a skeptic; we go where the data leads us. That's a major advantage, but it won't do us any good unless we have our audience's attention.

25 November 2008


Dear Unidentified YouTube Algorithm,

I know you mean well. But just because I spend an afternoon watching one or seven "Kim Possible" clips, doesn't mean I'm a 13-years-old girl. Therefore, in the future, please refrain from putting compilations of "Best Animated Kisses of all times" in my Recommended Videos queue, at least while my wife is looking over my shoulder.


18 November 2008

JUST MARRIED (In a Secular Ceremony)!

Mr and Mrs GolasMiss me? ;-)

Okay, so technically Sara and I have been "just married" for over a month now. I wish I could say we've been spending the past few weeks on an extended honeymoon, but alas, there truly is no rest for the weary. We stayed up north for a couple days after the wedding, and then it was back to the ol' grind. I'd have written sooner, but I've been preoccupied with some pressing personal issues, and meanwhile been trying my damnedest to enjoy my marriage in spite of them. However, those issues have since been addressed, so maybe I can finally spare some attention once again for some recreational writing.

Sara and I were married the afternoon of October 11, 2008, in Rollins Chapel at Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH. Our close friend Benjamin Cox here served as officiant.

I'd be lying if I said the day went perfectly. But it was still one of the best days of my life. Family has always been incredibly important to me, especially so since my realization to atheism. I'm so glad my family was there for us, and I can't remember ever feeling closer to them than I did that
day. And I'm so proud to be able to include Sara among them.

Naturally, being atheists, Sara and I weren't interested in a religious ceremony. However, we both have a great affinity for ceremony and tradition. We definitely wanted something more personal than simply bringing witnesses before a Justice of the Peace. Furthermore, we wanted a ceremony that reflected the value we both place upon family.

So, with Ben's help, we wrote our own ceremony, and I think we came up with a damn fine one. I'd like to share it with you, so even if you couldn't be at the wedding, you might at least get a sense of what the ceremony was like.1

And if you're planning your own atheist wedding, congratulations, and I hope that maybe this helps as an example.

  • Entrance
  • Welcome, Presentation of Bride and Groom
  • Introductory Remarks
  • Exchange of Baskets (Cherokee custom)
  • Gifts of Bread, Salt, and Wine (Polish custom)
  • Message to the Parents (reading)
  • Couple Partakes of Bread and Wine (reading)
  • Exchange of Vows
  • Exchange of Rings
  • Oath of Affirmation
  • Pronouncement of Marriage
  • Presentation of the Couple


Guests are seated. Officiant enters.
Groom, followed by Groomsmen, enter from the side.
Bridesmaids proceed down center aisle to music.
Bride enters to music, is escorted down center aisle by her parents.

Officiant: Welcome. Friends and loved ones, we are gathered here today to witness the union of Aaron Golas and Sara Bersché. It is through their deep and abiding love for each other that they stand before you today, and it is through their deep and abiding love for all of you that they have asked you here to bear witness to their heartfelt vows of marriage.
Who presents this couple in marriage?

Parents: We do!

Officiant: Sara and Aaron have chosen an appropriate setting for the public affirmation of love they are about to undertake. Four years ago on this campus, they first found in each other a sense of shared purpose, friendship, and love which has grown so strong that they return here now to unite their lives in marriage. May the love and joy we all share with them today sanctify this place, that it may house their wedding as it nurtured their relationship at the start.

Aaron and Sara, you have come to love each other deeply and sincerely. In this ceremony, you celebrate your commitment and your love for each other and dedicate yourselves to your individual growth and partnership.

For marriage is a partnership, a commitment reinforced by love, of equals who discover that they are more fulfilled together than they are apart. Two people who choose the partnership of marriage need many skills to make it work. They need patience, kindness, generosity, good humor, and the ability to compromise. They need persistence, nurturing, trust, discretion, and the willingness to be vulnerable. But almost nothing offers a greater possibility for living life well. Life is richer when experience is shared, and good lovers bring out the best in each other. In a good relationship, the partners are aware of how much they need each other — of how much they transform each other. Joy, laughter, caring, tenderness, and hope are the gifts of love. In the presence of love, we feel our power and experience life in a new way. And you are partners in love who enjoy life more fully because you have found each other.

In this spirit of partnership, and in keeping with the custom of the bride’s Cherokee heritage, I invite the parents to come forward with baskets, lovingly prepared by the bride and groom as tokens of that which they bring to their union.

Mothers of the Bride and Groom stand and approach the altar, each holding a small basket.

Officiant: [To the Bride:] Sara, what do you provide for this union of marriage?

Mother of the Bride hands the Bride her basket of corn, and stands to the side.

Bride: I provide these things to my husband and home. They are a symbol that I will care for you and love you always.

Officiant: [To the Groom:] Aaron, what do you provide for this union of marriage?

Mother of the Groom hands the Groom his basket of meat, and stands to the side.

Groom: I provide these things to my wife and home. They are a symbol that I will provide, love and protect our family always.

Bride and Groom exchange baskets and lay them upon the sides of the altar.

Officiant: In keeping with the custom of the groom’s Polish heritage, the parents are now welcomed to present gifts of food and drink to their children.

Fathers of the Bride and Groom stand and approach the altar.

Officiant: [To couple:] Your parents offer you this loaf of bread and portion of salt. The bread represents your parents' hope that you will never experience hunger or need. The salt is to remind you that your lives may be difficult and you must learn together to cope with life's struggles.

Father of the Groom hands rye bread and salt to the Groom, who sets them upon the altar.

Officiant: [To couple:] Your parents now offer you a gift of wine. With this wine, your parents hope that you will never thirst and that you will have a life of good health and cheer and share the company of many good friends.

Father of the Bride hands decanter of tokaji to the Bride, who sets it upon the altar.

Officiant: Aaron and Sara’s union brings together two family traditions, two systems of roots, in the hope that a new family tree may become strong and fruitful.

The parents may now join in kissing the bride and groom as a welcome to the family and as a sign of their love and unity.

Parents of the Bride and Groom now kiss their own child, then their new child, before returning to their seats.

Officiant: Parents. Through your love you gave your children life, and with your constant love they prospered. They stand here today the fruits of your care, your hard work, and sacrifice, and for these things they are very, truly grateful.

But now, standing here together, having come of their own free will, they must begin their lives anew.

And so I say to you now, in the words of the poet Khalil Gibran:
“Your Children are not Your Children

They are the sons and daughters of life's longing for itself...
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts...
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth...
Let your bending in the archer's hand be for gladness;
For even as he loves the arrow that flies,
so he loves also the bow that is stable.”

Will you, David and Linda, Brian and Lydia, encourage Sara and Aaron in their marriage, celebrate with them the decision they have made to choose each other, and continue to stand beside them, yet not between them?

Parents: We will!

Officiant: Having been presented with these gifts of bread and wine, let us now invite the Bride and Groom to partake of them, together, again in the words of the poet Khalil Gibran:

As the poem is read, the Bride and Groom each pour a glass of wine and offer it to the other. They then break their loaves of bread and offer a piece to the other, sprinkling the bread with salt. They eat of the bread, and drink the wine.

Officiant: Aaron and Sara:
“You were born together,
and together you shall be forevermore...
But let there be spaces in your togetherness,
And let the winds of the heavens dance between you.
Love one another, but make not a bond of love.
Let it rather be a moving sea between
the shores of your souls.
Fill each other's cup but drink not from one cup. ***
Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf. ***
Sing and dance together and be joyous,
but let each of you be alone,
Even as the strings of a lute are alone
though they quiver with the same music.
Give your hearts, but not into each other's keeping.
For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts.
And stand together, yet not too near together.
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress
grow not in each other's shadow.”

Officiant: The Bride and Groom will now express their promises to each other.

Groom: I, Aaron, take you, Sara, as my wife. I do solemnly avow my love for you. I will comfort you, keep you, love you, defend you in sickness or in health, in riches or poverty, in sorrow or joy, seeking only to be with you until my dying day. All these things I pledge upon my honor, and with my earnest and complete devotion, I give you my love.

Bride: I, Sara, take you, Aaron, as my husband. I do solemnly avow my love for you. I will comfort you, keep you, love you, defend you in sickness or in health, in riches or poverty, in sorrow or joy, seeking only to be with you until my dying day. All these things I pledge upon my honor, and with my earnest and complete devotion, I give you my love.

Officiant: Traditionally, the passage to the status of husband and wife is marked by the exchange of rings. These rings are a symbol of the unbroken circle of love. Love freely given has no beginning and no end. Love freely given has no giver and no receiver - for each is the giver and each is the receiver. May these rings remind you always of the vows you have taken here today.

Exchange of rings. Groom receives ring from his Best Men, Bride from her Matron of Honor.

Groom: This ring is a symbol of my love and faithfulness, and with all that I am, and all that I have, I honor you, and pledge to you my love and life.

Bride: This ring is a symbol of my love and faithfulness, and with all that I am, and all that I have, I honor you, and pledge to you my love and life.

Officiant: Do you, Aaron, take Sara, whom you have promised to love and cherish, to be your lawfully wedded wife?

Groom: I do.

Officiant: Do you, Sara, take Aaron, whom you have promised to love and cherish, to be your lawfully wedded husband?

Bride: I do.

Officiant: Intimacy is what makes a marriage. Not a ceremony, not a word, not a piece of paper from the state. A wedding ceremony is only the outward symbol, a public announcement of that which is already within. While the powers vested in me by the State have given me the great privilege of rendering your union legal, yours is a bond that law can neither create nor destroy. May the confidence, trust, and affection you have for each other on this day, and all days, be the testament to your enduring love for each other as you go forth upon your journey of life together with all that it has to offer.

The poet Homer wrote, “There is nothing nobler or more admirable than when two people who see eye to eye keep house as man and wife, confounding their enemies and delighting their friends.” Aaron and Sara, having witnessed the proof of your love for each other in your vows of marriage on this, the eleventh of October, Two Thousand and Eight, all who are assembled here now joyfully invite you to embrace as husband and wife.


Officiant: Ladies and gentlemen, Aaron and Sara Golas!

Organ voluntary (Widor's Toccata from Symphony No.5) as audience applauds. Bride and Groom exit down center aisle. Exeunt omnia.

1 For a real sense of what it was like at our wedding, pretend you've been waiting over an hour for the bride to show up before beginning the ceremony. :-P

05 November 2008

Why Obama is no Buzz Windrip

Wherein I out myself as a rabid merito-classist.

Buzz Windrip, chief villain of Sinclair Lewis' novel It Can't Happen Here, rides a grassroots tidal wave of popular support to the White House. His promises of soft socialism to an economically uncertain American people win him an unprecedented landslide. But his big government quickly turns sour, and before they knew it, Americans found themselves living in a fascist state.

The paranoid middle class seems convinced that Obama's grassroots origins and liberal economic plans are going to have a similar effect.

This is absolute bollocks.

It is only incidental that Lewis' Windrip was a Democrat and a liberal. It is also only incidental that the Nazis began as a socialist party. Fascism does not categorically draw its support from either the right or the left. Rather, fascism feeds on the xenophobic, chest-beating, self-righteous paranoia of the poorly-educated, rural, lower-middle classes. In the 1930's, it just so happened that that segment of the American population voted Democrat. But these days, that same demographic is widely known as the Republican base. It doesn't matter whether you're promising greater individual autonomy or a stronger central government - it matters whether you're turning the uppity busybodies of the nation into a band of nationalist thugs.

Obama didn't win because he rallied the vast unwashed -- weilding the poor and ignorant like a cudgel these days is the Republicans' strategy of choice. Obama won because he managed to mobilize the well-educated and the prosperous in record numbers.

10 October 2008

More Serenity

Waiting for Sara to call me back, so I've got a minute to get a few more thoughts down.

The best thing about all this is, it doesn't feel like anything is really changing.  It'll be a wild, wonderful weekend, but then we'll head back home and pick up where we left off.  I figure that's a really good sign; our relationship is already in the right place.  The rest is just paperwork.

Oh, but there will be a might party, have no doubt about that.

And I think we have a lovely ceremony planned.  That's the one thing that has me nervous; not the marriage, but the wedding.  (Better than the reverse, I know.)  We've written our own ceremony.  Ben here is officiating.  It's a trifle terrifying, not having anyone authoritative to tell us what we're supposed to do (the answer "anything you want" isn't particularly comforting to the chronically indecisive).  But we've done our research, and we've incorporated traditional elements.  I think we've got something really nice worked out.  (There will be details, fear not.)

But all is in order.  Tokaji has been procured.  Rings are packed, and my are they lovely.  My best friend Brendan is here now; he's three months into a year-long
teaching gig in Japan, but he made it back for the wedding.  Tux gets picked up first thing tomorrow morning, and then it's off to Hanover for the rehearsal, and then...

The leaves in are at their peak color this weekend, and the weather should be delightful.  My word, we COULD NOT have chosen a better time to get married in New England.

Okay, time to talk to the bride, then sleep.  Surprisingly tired.  More to come...


Sorry I haven't been posting much lately. I'm afraid I've been rather preoccupied.

I'm getting married in less than 48 hours, y'see...

01 October 2008

Daily Double Standard: God and the Economy

"How can you live like that? How can we be expected to be moral without religion? Is it just every man for himself otherwise? Is it just survival of the fittest? We couldn't possibly live like that."

Sound familiar? If you're out to any of your friends and family of faith, then at some point I'm sure you've gone through this tired old debate. No: social species like humans have developed codes of behavior (read: culture) that ensure our mutual survival and prosperity through cooperation; no, religion is not a necessary precondition for the ideology that in order to survive and prosper we must work for our collective good. Yes, a society built on selfishness and individual gain would absolutely crumble, but religion is not the only reason that people will work together for a common goal - and in fact has often had the exact opposite effect.

So far nothing new here.

But what I find the most hypocritical about this misguided belief is that the people who think that people would have no reason to play nice if it weren't for the constant surveillance and intervention of a great cosmic overlord are often the very same ones who think that regulation of the economy should be avoided at all costs.

How can someone possibly think that the strategy of "every man for himself and to hell with the rest of you" will create a healthy, well-functioning economy, but a chaotic and horrific society? Especially since white-collar crime feels so much more 'victimless' to the perpetrator than, say, assault and battery. Does that mean it's somehow easier to resist the temptation to shift a decimal place than it is to pull the trigger on another human being? "I'm completely above unscrupulous banking, and I would never dream of cooking my books -- but it's sure a good thing there's a God up there threatening me with hellfire, because otherwise I couldn't help shooting orphans in the face!" I don't know about you, but I would find it much more difficult to kill a man than to cheat on my taxes.

Can anyone out there sincerely believe that human beings would casually rape, murder, and pillage each other without God, but that we unfailingly exercise the utmost self-restraint and fiscal responsibility in our business dealings even if there are no serious consequences for dishonest dealing?

Make up your minds, right-wing christo-fascist wackaloons, because you can't have it both ways. Dishonest dealing and murder aren't all that different - people suffer both ways for the uninhibited greed and selfishness of others. So what's it going to be: are we inherently good people, or aren't we? Do we need someone or something telling us to mind all our Ps and Qs by fiat, or should we take Darwin to heart, take as much for ourselves as we can get and let the chips fall where they may?

Or maybe, just maybe, we can all come together and agree on a set of principles - a 'social contract' if you will - whereby we will agree to comport ourselves, in everyday life and in business dealings alike. Compliance with these principles achieves optimal benefits, harmony, and prosperity for all, and deviance is interpreted as a breach of contract and will be punished accordingly. Doesn't that sound nice?

Oh wait. We already have that. They're called laws.

17 September 2008

More Confusion from Dishy Dizzy

It's fairly remarkable... since having seen Dinesh D'Souza in a live debate, I've felt much less compelled to shred the inanity he posts to his blog. I guess it's hard to get angry at someone once you've seen in person just how pathetic they are. It feels, as they say, as though a weight has been lifted, and my "heart pressure" is likely the better for it.

Nonetheless, he continues to spew the stupid (already this month he's creamed his slacks over Sarah Palin and poked PZ with a stick), so what the hecks, let's have a look. Today, D'Souza is extolling the virtues of the latest book to critique the New Atheists, Michael Novak's No One Sees God: The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers. I haven't read the book myself, but from the description it sounds like it's right up D'Souza's alley: No one can know the truth about God, so let's go with Christianity because it sounds nice.

To illustrate the point about everyone's being in the darkness, D'Souza cites a curious example.  He writes:
One of Novak's especially attractive qualities is his ability to find common ground with his opponents. Here he begins by conceding to the atheist that "we are all in the same darkness." No one-not even Moses or Abraham-has set his eyes on God. Novak rejects the certitudes of both the religious fundamentalist and the militant atheist. He intends to explore what he calls "the dark and windswept open spaces between unbelief and belief."
Now, you won't find any argument from me that there's no evidence that anyone in real life has seen God.  But to bring Moses into it? It's unclear whether the reference came from Novak's book or D'Souza, but D'Souza clearly endorses it. 

Ngonongoro bull elephant
I guess Moses couldn't see this elephant, either... (photo by John Spooner on Flickr)
The problem is, according to the Bible, Moses has seen God (for the relevant text, start here). Sure, you may quibble that Moses never got to see God's face, because no man may look upon the face of YHWH and live.  But Moses still got to see God's backside (and they were chatting it up all the while), and that's a far sight better than anyone today can muster.

And even without looking at God's face directly, Moses was a member of God's "Mr. Miracle" brigade. Most of the stuff Moses saw, heard, and did, were it to ever happen in real life, would be good enough to make me convert (to Judaism, of course... I mean, what's so great about Christianity?). Invoking the central priest of a millenia-old desert mythology as an example of a modern, sophisticated theological mind is an odd move.

Furthermore, I'd note that the fact that no one has seen God isn't exactly a problem for atheists. I guess he's trying to demonstrate that both sides come to conclusions in the face of uncertainty and conflicting evidence, but he's only demonstrated conflict for his own side.

The rest is similar to the Courtier's Reply. Novak and D'Souza tell us atheists that we just don't "get" it:
"For a believer," Novak writes, "It does not take a prolonged thought experiment to imagine oneself an unbeliever." The believer knows full well where the atheist is coming from. By contrast, Novak suggests, atheists like Hitchens seem to have no empathetic understanding whatsoever of genuine religious conviction. They have no sense of what belief must be like from within.
This critique is particularly hilarious to see endorsed by D'Souza, who back in April couldn't manage to answer the simple question of what it would take to make him change his position on God. (Barker, on the other hand, had no trouble answering what kind of evidence it would take to get him to believe.)  Though I can't speak for Hitchens in particular, there are millions of atheists who understand very intimately what it's like to feel "genuine religious conviction," because that's what we came from. As for how easily the general believer can see the world from the atheists' perspective, well, let's just say that remains to be demonstrated.

Next comes a likening of religion to literature; both require a suspension of disbelief for immersion in the story and true appreciation. Again: no argument from me that religion requires a suspension of disbelief. And again, and more blatantly: this is just the Courtier's Reply. We're not here to discuss the literary merits of "Macbeth," we're here to discuss whether it's historically accurate. Theology and religion can at times be very interesting, but it's not what this conversation is about.

Digest the rest at your peril (if you can find it... you won't get a link from me). I'll just end with this: kudos to Richard Dawkins for refusing to debate D'Souza. Because at the end of the day, all Dishy's bluster is just about inflating his own ego. In particular, I noted this little bit of projection from D'Souza's post:
Novak expresses admiration for some of the leading atheists, notably Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens. (He seems less enamored with Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris.)
For the record, Harris hasn't (to my knowledge) debated Dinesh, either.

26 August 2008


July 18, a brief little AP article popped up in the New York Times (Pakistan: Polio Found in Baby):
An 8-month-old Pakistani girl has tested positive for polio in an area where militants have opposed vaccination, a World Health Organization official said. The infant, identified as Tanzila, is from Ali Gram in the Swat Valley, where Islamic fundamentalists have beaten polio vaccination teams and the last confirmed case of polio was in 2003, said Dr. Khalid Nawaz of the World Health Organization. Threats to health workers and fighting between government security forces and militants have disrupted vaccinations, he said.
Tragic. Polio is a grainy black-and-white photograph in a grade school textbook, of a room full of children in iron lungs, with a caption to the effect of, "THERE NOW, BUT FOR SCIENCE AND ACTION THEREUPON." It isn't something that's supposed to be happening to 8-month-old Pakistani girls in the twenty-first century. Yet here we are.

And here, it seems, we'll continue to be. At least Pakistan has violence. What's our excuse?

Earlier in July, Orac had reported that measles were, after fourteen years, once again endemic to the United Kingdom. Now this week comes a report that measles cases in the United States are the highest they've been in more than a decade. And the blame rests squarely with pseudoscience.

Growing up, whereas polio was the stuff of history, measles were the stuff of pretend. Old cartoon characters caught measles. Kids in stories would paint little red dots on their faces and claim measles so they could stay home from school. Hell, that's all I knew about the symptoms of measles--little red dots--and I wasn't even sure about that. I guess there was fever? Did it make you cough and sneeze? Did the little red dots itch? We didn't know, because we never caught it. Measles were the perfect imaginary ailment: a real-life contagious disease that anyone could catch. . . but no one ever caught it.

I have vaccination to thank for that.

But now, antivaccinationist cults are undermining one of the greatest advances in preventative medicine since soap.

Of the 131 cases of measles reported by the CDC in the United States in the first seven months of this year, 122 were unvaccinated or had unknown vaccination status. The high incidence of the unvaccinated is disturbing enough. But what really enrages me is the fact that at least nine cases were vaccinated against measles. Vaccination rates in those communities are low enough not only to permit sizable outbreaks, but low enough for the virus to overcome herd immunity.

Public health is truly a public matter. We are in this together. Those who fail to vaccinate aren't just putting themselves and theirs at risk; they're putting us and ours at risk.

Pseudoscience is a scourge wherever it's found, but seldom are its ill effects so immediate and obvious as in the realm of public health.

Vaccines are safe and effective. Anyone who says differently is either grievously misinformed or an Avatar of Woe. The antivax mouthpieces have no excuse; it won't be long before Jenny McCarthy and David Kirby have real blood on their hands.

Speaking thereof, the Huffington Post saw fit to publish the AP's measles article in the same section ("Living," ironically) where they give Kirby and other pseudoscientists a soapbox. If that's some attempt to make amends, it's far too little, too late.

I'm incensed.


My (soon to be) sister-in-law and her husband had a baby recently. They'll be getting him fully vaccinated. At least there's that.

11 August 2008


So, apparently commenting was restricted to users with Blogger or OpenID accounts for a while there? Sorry about that... comments are back to being open to everybody.

09 August 2008

Image and Personality Problems

Matt Nisbet is inexcusable. His latest effort is an absolute hit piece on PZ Myers, disguised as an attempt to give advice to the atheist community: Two Images of Atheism: Hate versus Community

I tried posting a comment there yesterday, but it hasn't made it through moderation yet (and as more than 50 comments have since been posted, I doubt it ever will). So I'll take my points and expand them into a blog post.

My first and most salient point is not just about the attacks on PZ: Nisbet does not appear to have a very high opinion of the atheist community as a whole. Maybe he's just communicating poorly, but the guy is purportedly a communications expert. Nisbet says we atheists have an "image problem," and I doubt most people would disagree, in the sense that atheism is by and large still stigmatized. But Nisbet's whole post feeds into and reinforces those stigmas.

Take the very opening to his post:
Atheists have a major image problem. There's a reason that when people ask me what I believe I have to say with a smile: "I'm an atheist...but a friendly atheist."
If actions speak louder than words, then this line renders null everything else Nisbet tries to say. Remember, his whole excuse for this post was to offer his communications expertise to help us solve atheism's image problem. His own personal response, however, accepts and fortifies that very negative frame. It's the "but" that does it. It implies, "I'm a friendly atheist, unlike all the others." It's no different from saying, "I'm a Jew, but not a greedy Jew." He may think himself rather noble, setting an example as a paragon of peace and virtue. But rather than establishing himself as a counterexample to the stigma, he's content to make himself an exception to it. In doing so, he leaves the stigma unchallenged and throws the rest of us under the bus.

But then, it never really was about helping the atheist community, was it? Nisbet just wants to help himself (and maybe a few of his friends, like DJ Grothe), and has cravenly decided to do so at the expense of PZ (and the rest of us by extension).

You see, what Nisbet describes in his post isn't an image problem, it's a personality problem. He thinks religious people view us as mean and nasty because we are mean and nasty. And to illustrate that, he tries to drag PZ through the mud.

First there's that ridiculous picture of PZ looking jolly but disheveled at the top of Nisbet's post. PZ's own take:
My opinion of that photo: it's a bad photo that makes me look even homelier than usual, but it's a picture of me laughing and holding a toy panda.
I'm not angry, I'm not slapping small children, I'm not even stabbing any crackers -- so what exactly is Nisbet's point? That the face of atheism should be pretty and have good hair?
The only other notable thing about the photo is that PZ is wearing his Scarlet A t-shirt. So maybe the problem with atheism is that it identifies itself as atheism? Real helpful. But then, Nisbet's post ends with DJ Grothe in a sport jacket lecturing a bunch of bored-looking teenage girls. So maybe it really is all about the hair.

He calls the "New Atheism's" leading voices "usually angry, grumpy, uncharismatic male loners with a passion for attacking and ridiculing religious believers." Is he seriously trying to call the likes of Richard Dawkins (a smiling figure who's been frequenting British TV, including a guest appearance on "Doctor Who") and PZ Myers (who is at this moment joining some of the world's nicest, smartest skeptics on a cruise to the Galapagos) a bunch of "grumpy, uncharismatic... loners"?! That alone should make Nisbet a laughingstock.

He quotes the National Catholic Register, and buys into the bias instead of asking what we can do to dispell it.

Furthermore, by trying to equivilate PZ with hate for religious people, Nisbet is undermining a vital message that our side has to get across. As PhysioProf put it, expanding upon Greg Laden:

I mention this because it seems to be part of PZ Myers philosophy of critical tolerance. It is this part of his approach that allows vehemence and compassion about the same issues and the same people.

It is really, really, really important to understand that this principle applies in a more general way. One can simultaneously be angry about perceived flaws in something and yet care about it very deeply, and even love it. The idea that expression of harsh criticism entails that one “hates” the thing one criticizes is a pernicious rhetorical trick used to discount valid criticism and marginalize the individual who brings it.

So Matt Nisbet can go soak his head, and enjoy his status as the biggest concern troll of the hour. The image problem that atheism really faces is that we are perceived as being mean and nasty, when we really aren't. If Nisbet really want to help, he needs to offer something better than, "Stop being mean and nasty!

"And get a haircut, hippie!"

05 August 2008

One More for the List

Stumbled across this the other night. From Wikipedia:
Hrafnkels saga ([ˈr̥apncɛls ˌsaːɣa] ) is one of the Icelanders' sagas. It tells of struggles between chieftains and farmers in the east of Iceland in the 10th century. The eponymous main character, Hrafnkell, starts out his career as a fearsome duelist and a dedicated worshiper of the god Freyr. After suffering defeat, humiliation, and the destruction of his temple, he becomes an atheist. His character changes and he becomes more peaceful in dealing with others. After gradually rebuilding his power base for several years, he achieves revenge against his enemies and lives out the rest of his life as a powerful and respected chieftain. The saga has been interpreted as the story of a man who arrives at the conclusion that the true basis of power does not lie in the favor of the gods but in the loyalty of one's subordinates.
So I may have to add this one to the reading list, right next to the Poetic Edda. I've been doing quite a bit of browsing of Norse myth lately. Those guys could tell some stories. I much prefer a good campfire story to nebulous modern theology.

18 July 2008

Host-Age Crisis, or: Mass Hysteria

I considered avoiding comment on this one, but the pun was too good to pass up.*

So some kid smuggled a sanctified wafer out of Mass, a bunch of angry Catholics tried to ruin his life, PZ stood up for the kid, Bill Donohue took notice, and then the Internet exploded?

Like PZ, I'm absolutely sickened over what happened to Webster Cook. For committing a bit of harmless blasphemy, his life and academic career have been threatened. Let's not forget what this affair is originally about.

PZ doesn't need me to defend him, but I need to vent my spleen here. I'm fed up with the arguments levied against PZ. And I'm not just talking about the ones coming from angry Catholics; I'm including a number of prominent bloggers and journalists who have denounced the death threats but have taken the opportunity to scold PZ for being "rude" to Catholics. (I'm not even going to touch on Matt "Scienceblogs.com Would Be Better Off Without PZ" Nisbet.) So at the risk of drawing this fiasco out further by adding another blog post to the mix (ah, no one cares what I'll say anyway... so, sorry in advance for ranting and rambling):

First of all, yes, it is just "a [goddamn/fracking] cracker." Jesus.

But this is not about proving that it's a goddamn cracker. Those who think PZ's threat to desecrate a communion wafer isn't productive because it doesn't address the scientific merit of transubstantiation are missing the point. It isn't about the belief itself, it's about the free expression of disbelief and the right of everyone to their own blasphemy.

And I'm sick of comments to the tune of, "Sure, it's just a cracker, but Catholics think it's the body of Jesus so you need to respect the emotional trauma they could go through if you mock them!" Uh huh, because Catholics are so weak and stupid that they need shielding from any criticism of their beliefs. If I were a Catholic, I'd probably find that more insulting than anything PZ said.

PZ is not a bigot; you can respect a person and their right to their beliefs, without respecting their beliefs.

Defiling the Host is not a hate crime, as that would require some criminal act to be committed.

Was PZ tactless in his defense of Cook? The Catholic League and its backers threatened a kid with death and expulsion, over a sliver of dough. Fuck tact.

Yes, this is just like the Danish Muhammad cartoon foofaraw. (I'm looking at you, Andrew Sullivan!) A radical group is attempting to force their definition of (and ramifications for) blasphemy upon someone who is making a peaceful statement.

Sneaking off with a Host is neither theft nor disruption of the service. It is not akin to stealing Torah scrolls or smooshing a child's birthday cake (both real examples of poor analogies I've seen). I know this, because palming a wafer does not in any way, shape, or form deprive the little old lady next to you from taking and enjoying her communion. Contrary to what Thomas Foley believes, PZ never asked anyone to "accost a priest" to get a Host.

And hey, riddle me this: if the Hosts are so precious, why do they hand them out to any schmuck who walks through the door and knows how to ask for one?

That's what PZ's challenge is about: demonstrating that Catholics don't rule the world, that there are people out here who don't cotton to the idea of transubstantiation, and that we have to share the same space. So Catholics have to either be more careful with their toys, or lighten up about them.

The only charge that can be levied against someone who merely removes a wafer from Mass is that they accepted communion under false pretenses. And the only applicable punishment for such a transgression is excommunication (literally, "no communion for you!"). That would be perfectly fair and well within the rights of the Church. But there is no excuse for threats against a person's life or livelihood.

*deep, cleansing breath*

At least some good came out of this: thanks to PZ's challenge, we get to meet Josh (who, fittingly, speaks in red letters).

You know, I'm contemplating going to Mass this Sunday with an aim to misbehave. Depends on whether Ben (a recovering Catholic) can accompany me as a guide, and whether I feel like spending a Sunday morning in an uncomfortable church pew for no good reason.

I don't reckon I'll take a wafer home with me, though. I wouldn't know what to do with it. I wouldn't want to go all "Aristocrats" on it, that would be crude and unimaginative. Having never been a Catholic myself, I have no personal history with the Host, so it wouldn't be satisfying to just keep it. And I don't know any of the evil secret Jewish rituals that make medievally-minded Catholics so paranoid. So if I go to Mass, I think I'll just perform a simple and grave blasphemy.

I'll take, eat and take, drink. No sleight of hand necessary, just foreknowledge of how the act goes down, which Ben was kind enough to provide:
It's reeeeeal easy. Unless you're taking it in the mouth(hee hee), you just:
-walk up
-stop in front of the priest
-hold your right hand under your left, palms up
-he holds up the cookie, mumbles, puts it in your hands
-you say "amen"
I think I can manage that much.

I wouldn't disrupt the service at all. I'd sit through the service most politely. I'd kneel, sit, and stand when I was s'posed to. I'd eat the wafer on the spot, as expected.

But, oh, I wouldn't be Catholic (not even ex-Catholic). And it's a most heinous no-no to administer communion to a non-Catholic.

I wonder what ol' Donohue would say about that.

* Seriously, is "Crackergate" the best they could come up with for this? The "[Scandal]gate" template has been done to death, and it's so doggone lazy...

26 June 2008

Casting Bones

There are times I wish I could believe in oracles.

Many societies throughout history have tried to find advice in the most unlikely of places. The Babylonians, for example, read liver spots to learn the future; the Shang dynasty Chinese cracked turtle shells; the Israelites cast lots; the Azande poisoned chickens; the Greeks and Romans had their oracles at Delphi. Despite the differences in the methods, the overall plan of an oracle is always the same: you address your question to the gods, you perform an action with an uncertain outcome (what will the liver look like? how will the shell crack? will the chicken die?), and then you interpret the results and act accordingly.

Now, of course the pattern of tea leaves on a saucer isn't going to tell us anything we didn't already know. The oracles are completely random, and the interpretation thereof is completely arbitrary.

But in many ways that's the beauty of the oracle. True: you will bring whatever interpretation to the oracle that you want. Any sufficiently ambiguous sign can always be twisted to suit your purposes. But the fact that you're consulting an oracle means you must now justify your own thought processes against the supposed divine truth of the oracle.

This process, I would argue, can be a great aid to decision-making. If the oracle justifies what you already thought was the correct course of action, then you will pursue it with less temerity, believing that the gods sanction your undertaking. If the oracle shakes your resolve, then you clearly had reservations in the first place and would be wise to reconsider your plans. And if you find yourself changing the oracle's interpretation to suit your own desires, then the decision was already made long before you inquired of the gods.

In other words, oracles are in many ways like Rorschach tests. They are forms without content. Instead of having an intrinsic meaning, their interpretation comes entirely from the mind of the beholder, who by supplying his own interpretation makes transparent certain thought processes that may otherwise have remained invisible. The oracle throws a grain of sand into the indecisive mind around which the pearl of a decision can coagulate.

But of course, it doesn't work at all if you don't believe that the signs are divinely inspired. At the moment, I am personally wrestling with a difficult decision. And, over the past few days, all 'signs' have been pointing to the same answer. But because I know that those signs are coming from my own mind and my own decision-making process, they are of little use to me. Granted, the fact that my unconscious mind seems to be unanimous should be an indication of how to proceed - but I don't know whether that consensus came about because my answer is the right one, or just the answer I want to hear.

A little bit of self-delusion, in other words, can be an antidote for indecision.

19 June 2008

The Morning and the Evening Star

In the time since I last posted (--awkward silence, shuffle shuffle--), I finally sat down to read Sinclair Lewis' novel Elmer Gantry (1927). I can't recommend it highly enough - and not simply because Lewis' lambasting of Fundagelicalism is razor-sharp, which it is, but because the author is a true master at portraying truly, vitally human characters in all their tragic, hypocritical, self-deluded glory.

I also had a chance to watch the film version (1960). Although like most adaptations of great novels it differs considerably from the text, the film isn't just an incomplete, shoddy rip-off of a brilliant original. The film is an artfully, powerfully-constructed whole that is worthy in its own right. Burt Lancaster captures Gantry's infuriating ambivalence, his mercurial hypocrisy, perfectly. You never can tell how much or how often he means what he's saying, how he justifies what he does and how he preaches - and that's precisely the feeling that Lewis created in the original. And the monologue by a (much changed) Jim Lefferts will make you want to stand up and cheer - none the less because of how daring it was to make such a statement in the heart of the red scare.

But of the many things I've taken away from these works of art, I find one to be particularly upsetting. The copy of Gantry that I read was borrowed from the Div School library - and throughout the entire book, I couldn't help but imagine the internal monologues of the seminarians who came before me as they read along with Lewis. They all, I'm sure, went along similar lines. "Oh how dreadful Gantry is. Such a hypocrite. Such a disgusting misuse of the Bible. His interpretation of Christianity is so crass, so self-serving, so puerile. He's not a true Christian like I am. Well done, Sinclair Lewis, for pointing out the follies and excesses of this brand of Christianity -- but I wish he wouldn't take it so far. The author clearly doesn't understand what true Christianity is all about. The poor misguided man. I shall pray for him."

In other words, it's the classic 'no true Scotsman' argument that every liberal theist uses like a get-out-of-jail free card whenever they're confronted by someone doing ugly things with their religion. Now, I'll agree heartily that the New Atheists are not altogether unfairly criticized for focusing their efforts exclusively on the straw man of biblical literalism -- which no 'enlightened' Christian has believed for a century. When we do this, we are guilty of misrepresenting Christianity in toto. But that's not to say that liberal Christianity is blameless. Far from it! By focusing solely on the wackjobs, we've been missing out on an opportunity to hold the liberal religious accountable for their own faults, and allowing them to keep playing the Scotsman card as often as they care to. To my knowledge, none of us has seriously engaged the liberal theists in debate in their own terms, and it's high time we stopped picking on the backwoods pea-brains who most Christians even disavow and started tackling the more polite, urbane superstitions of the more modern, well-educated believers.

It's a shame I don't know any. (Strange, that - since the Div school is crawling with them. Too bad I'm such a crotchety grump.)

But it's a project to keep on the back burner until a good subject comes along.

18 June 2008

For Science!

Zach at Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal never fails to disappoint:

smbc comic 8 Jun 08

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Uncommon Descent. Patrick posted the above comic this morning under the title "Darwinist Behavior in a Nutshell."

Let's see, exploiting the public's general bewilderment with, yet hard-earned respect for, science to promote your own bizarre agenda? Daahhh, yep, that's us Darwinists to a "t".

Oh, and stealing the artist's bandwidth (as opposed to hosting the image yourself) without even providing any mention whatsoever of the source of the comic, let alone a link? That's us, too. We evilutionists are just a bunch of naked thieves.

I laughed at the comic yesterday. I laugh again today!

12 June 2008

Keep Them Bloggies Rollin', Rawhide!

Apologies for the unannounced absence. There were travels and movings and difficulties getting Internet to the new apartment. But I'm back now!

Blog developments were not at a complete standstill over the past month. A link to Mojoey's Atheist Blogroll has been part of our sidebar for some time now. Well, Synapostasy is finally a part of the list! Click on the Atheist Blogroll icon to find out how you can join, or check out these recently updated blogroll members (also available in the sidebar; must have JavaScript enabled):

The Atheist Blogroll

09 May 2008

Chiropractic Warnings, or: Trouble Communicating Skepticism

I get the feeling that I'm very bad at discussing skepticism-related issues with my family. I always fear that either I'm too timid, or in passion and urgency I lose credibility. This is a case of the latter, if either. Maybe you can take a look and let me know what you think.

This is a particularly difficult case, because we know the object of my skepticism personally: Kent, neighbor and chiropractic kinesiologist. I know that some chiropractors are evidence-based and honest about the limits of chiropractic adjustment; Kent is not one of those chiropractors. As far as I know, he subscribes to both Vertebral Subluxation (the idea that body ailments are caused by nerve blockages, which can be cured by mechanical adjustment) and Applied Kinesiology (the idea that muscle strength can be used to diagnose and prescribe treatment for body ailments). I recall he once adjusted my mother, claiming to be treating her allergies. Normally I wouldn't have made too big a deal over this. I'm not likely to use a chiropractor ever again, but Kent's a good person with some probable talents as a physical therapist; I wouldn't begrudge my family's visiting him, despite some of the kooky theories he practices.

But this article from Science-Based Medicine has been staring me in the face for the past week and a half, and I couldn't bring myself to say "what's the harm?" anymore. The article describes a specific statistical correlation (with mechanism) between neck adjustment and basilar stroke.

So today I finally got up the nerve to compose and send the following email to certain members of my family. The damage is already done, but feedback is still appreciated.

And consider this addressed to you, too, if you happen to visit a chiropractor.


Chiropractic adjustment can kill you. I'm not exaggerating.

I've recently learned about a specific risk associated with chiropractic neck adjustment. The vertebral arteries that pass through the neck actually loop through holes on the sides of the neck vertebrae. This tethering kinks the vertebral arteries, and makes them particularly susceptible to injury. If the artery tears, it causes a type of brain stem stroke called a basilar stroke, which often strikes young (average early 40s) and can be fatal.

There is a clear link between chiropractic neck adjustment and basilar stroke. A quick, forceful thrust from a chiropractor stretches the artery rapidly and can induce tearing. Sometimes the stroke occurs immediately and the victim collapses on the chiropractor's table, whereas other times the damage is delayed.

It is estimated that 20% of basilar strokes are attributable to chiropractic adjustment (about 1,300 cases per year in the US). However, the link has not been properly studied; in the past, few doctors asked their stroke patients about their chiropractic history, and so many cases have gone unreported.

I don't know about you, but I've never heard any warning from Kent (or any chiropractor) about the risks associated with neck adjustment.

Maybe the risk is small. But here's a dirty little secret: neck adjustment has NO demonstrable benefit whatsoever. It derives from the chiropractic principle of subluxation (supposed nerve blockages caused by abnormalities of the spine), which is pure pseudoscience. So even the most minuscule risk isn't worth taking.

The bottom line is, chiropractic neck adjustment does no good, but can sometimes do incredible harm. I love you all, and would hate to see you come to any unnecessary harm. Please, I beg of you, do not let any chiropractor touch your neck. Never, ever. Not even Kent. He may tell you the benefits outweigh the risk, but he's wrong, and he can't force you to let him adjust your neck. It's your body, take care of it.

For more information on the link between chiropractic and stroke, see this link: http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/?p=94

Love to you all,

08 May 2008

Not-Monsters Adding Not-Poison to Sugar

Andrew Kimbrell is a goddamn bio-Luddite, one of many.

It embarrasses me that certain liberals can be so staunchly and irrationally opposed to technology, based upon paranoia over corporate interest, a weirdly conservative adherence to the simple purity of "Nature," and their own naked ignorance. One of the major victims of bio-Luddite oppression is genetically modified (GM) foods, sometimes referred to as "Frankenfoods" (but not by me).

In a column today in the Huffington Post, Kimbrell sows paranoia over a specific GM crop, the Roundup Ready sugar beet developed by Monsanto. These sugar beets are genetically modified to be resistant to glyphosate, the active ingredient in the weed killer Roundup.

GM opponents often have a hard time explaining just what makes GM food so dangerous. Sometimes it's argued that the introduced genes themselves are somehow pollutive, despite the fact that it's all the same adenine guanine cytosine thymine, baby. Kimbrell makes a particularly poor argument here, based on glyphosate:
At the request of Monsanto, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency increased the allowable amount of glyphosate residues on sugar beetroots by a whopping 5,000% -- glyphosate is the active ingredient in Roundup. Sugar is extracted from the beet's root and the inevitable result is more glyphosate in our sugar. This is not good news for those who want to enjoy their chocolate morsels without the threat of ingesting toxic weed killer.
He then goes on about how seed farmers could start making seeds from Roundup Ready sugar beets so the GM crop spreads, and how sugar from GM beets gets mixed in with regular beets, and how GM beet pollen could contaminate other crops' genetics, and how there could be a huge consumer backlash, and how Big Science is putting poison in your dear mother's chocolates OMG!!!

Notice a problem here? How about the fact that the glyphosate isn't coming from the beets, moron!

I repeat, these GM beets do not produce glyphosate. What they do is allow farmers to use glyphosate on their crops with greater confidence in killing off weeds and maintaining good crop yield. The GM beets may increase the incentive to use glyphosate, but if that's a problem, then can be kept in check by regulation. Kimbrell's glyphosate beef isn't with the beets, it's with the EPA's change in tolerable glyphosate limits.

But is that even a legitimate concern? He makes it sound as if Monsanto asked, "Could we please put deadly poison on our beets?", and the EPA said, "Sure, since you asked so nicely!" This is just a guess, but I'd bet the EPA actually looked at some of the science behind glyphosate and its associated risks before raising the tolerable limit.

Glyphosate actually appears to be a very safe chemical. (Please forgive me for referencing Wikipedia here, but seriously, it just goes to show that you don't need to dig too deep to uncover the stupid.) It acts by inhibiting an enzyme in plants called 5-enolpyruvylshikimate-3-phosphate synthase (EPSPS). Normally, EPSPS kicks off a pathway to synthesize aromatic amino acids like phenylalanine, tryptophan, and tyrosine. In the presence of glyphosate, this pathway is inhibited, so the plants can't make these amino acids, and therefore die. The GM beets contain a copy of the EPSPS gene found in a strain of Agrobacterium. EPSPS made from this gene is resistant to glyphosate, so the aromatic amino acid synthesis pathway is uninhibited. The gene is already widely used in GM soybeans.

Glyphosate does not have this kind of effect in animals because we don't have that synthesis pathway; we get aromatic amino acids from our diet. And at a glance, the evidence seems to suggest minimal other side effects from glyphosate. The EPA would know better than I.

So Kimbrell is getting his knickers in a twist over genetically modified sugar beets that aren't producing a dangerous chemical that actually isn't that dangerous. Yeah... Next time he wants to play bioethics, maybe he should get the "bio-" part straight first.

06 May 2008

Flyover Country

I recently started reading James (The Amaz!ng) Randi's "Flim Flam", and I'm thoroughly enjoying it. One of my favorite bits of debunktastic trivia so far comes from the chapter on the Bermuda Triangle (p. 45). The promoters of "the Legend" apparently like to cite as an example a British York Transport flight from the Azores destined for Jamaica that went down in 1953. What they fail to mention, however, is that this flight was bound for Jamaica via Newfoundland, and that it was during this first leg of the journey that the plane crashed, 900 miles north of the Triangle!

Anyway, I mention that mostly as a lead-in to this fantastic Onion article: 30 Years Of Man's Life Disappear In Mysterious 'Kansas Rectangle'. I especially love the comments from the token skeptic towards the end.

Head Case

Alison Rose Levy, Huffington Post blogger and self-proclaimed "Ms. Integrative Health", fell down and hurt her poor head last week. She apparently wound up getting eight stitches (that's right, in a real emergency room, from a real health care technician). But her "health" response didn't end there:
. . . I accessed homeopathy to address the shock and bruising and acupuncture to strengthen my body's immune response. I used a natural silver homeopathic ointment to prevent infection, and health coaching for the feelings of sadness and fear that arose from this scary incident, while Gyrotonics helped rebalance my bones, muscles, and structure. Currently, I'm doing followup with DNA supportive nutraceuticals and energy medicine tools to minimize scarring and help the tissues rebuild rapidly.

All of this taken together has diminished the shiner of all times in just a week. . .
I have to admit, that is pretty impressive. Without all that treatment, it could have taken up to seven days for the bruising to fade. Even as it was, she still had to "integrate" concealer (undiluted, I assume... has anyone attempted marketing homeopathic makeup?) into her regimen.

Best to go through all those motions anyway, just in case. Because, after all, " it's not just about sifting through information, it's about learning to discern what works for you. And that is individual." Translation: Anecdotal evidence is the only evidence. Do what you feel like, devil the cost and reality be damned.

And this is far from the worst woo the HuffPo peddles.

01 May 2008


I'm not crazy about public debates; they seem to me to give too much power and import to rhetorical tricks rather than honest academic pursuit.

And any regular readers (and maybe a few passing readers) of this blog probably suspect that I loathe Dinesh D'Souza, not least of all because of the bad name he gives my beloved alma mater.

So it was with great trepidation that I attended the debate at Harvard last week between Dan Barker (author, former preacher, and co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation) and Dinesh D'Souza (contemptible ghoul). But boy, was I happily surprised. Sure, I had to sit through Dinesh's speaking, and I can now confidently say that he is as much of a condescending, pseudo-intellectual twerp (I'm trying to be polite, really) in person as he is in print. But it was worth it to see him make a fool of himself standing next to Barker.

From where I was sitting, Dan Barker mopped the floor with D'Souza. (D'Souza obviously thought differently... I refuse to link to his blog, especially to a post so trivial, but apparently that was "Atheist Bashing Week," which he compared to Black History Month.) I don't merely mean in terms of the arguments made; D'Souza is trying to defend Christianity, and is thus doomed to failure. Dan Barker was well-spoken, humble yet confident, intelligent, professional. D'Souza was arrogant and incompetent. He regularly and repeatedly equivocated and dodged questions. As Rebecca Watson notes, he made a lot of the same crap points he always makes, despite having now been corrected publicly numerous times. He joked a couple times about how he was going to thrash Barker in the debate. He made numerous comments about Barker that bordered on the ad hominem, mostly trying to paint him as a fool or hypocrite for having given up being a preacher. Maybe he was trying to appear confident, but he came across as an asshole. And Barker was there to answer him at every opportunity with calm poise, making D'Souza look even more ridiculous.

One of the most asinine offenses was when D'Souza, in "answering" a question about morality, invented a hypothetical example in which Dan Barker stomped a puppy to death. Here's a tip for would-be debaters: You might be tempted, during a debate, to try building an unfavorable subconscious image of your opponent with a subtly incriminating hypothetical. But if your audience catches on to what you're trying to pull (which is more likely with increasing education of your audience and decreasing subtlety of your example), then chances are it'll backfire and you'll just look like a dishonest dick. (And crying "just kidding," if it comes to that, won't help.)

Oh, and don't forget his crack about how Richard Dawkins is an example of "why biologists shouldn't be let out of the lab" (paraphrased). I really appreciated that. Also, Dinesh apparently doesn't know how to pronounce "agape" (usually ah-GAH-pay, not AG-uh-pee) or "slough"* (sluff, not slŏw (rhymed with "cow")). And he says "if you will" WAY too often. (You know what? No, I won't.) And in case you were wondering: yes, D'Souza plugged his book during the debate.

But it wasn't just his demeanor that sucked. Just about everything out of his mouth was utter swill.

As noted, some questions he just didn't answer. For instance, both Barker and D'Souza were asked what it would take to change their stance on the existence of God. Barker answered the question easily, listing a number of different possible evidences that, if demonstrated, would support the God hypothesis. D'Souza, on the other hand, talked about how he gave up his faith initially (apparently he gave up what he called "Crayon Christianity" in college, but later discovered "Adult Christianity"), but never gave any indication as to what it would take to make him change his current beliefs.

Occasionally, the debaters were allowed to pose questions to each other. During the "morality" portion of the debate, Barker asked D'Souza (paraphrased), "If God told you, personally, to kill me, kill the unbeliever, would you do it?" D'Souza essentially replied by saying that God wouldn't tell him to do that, so if he heard a voice telling him to kill Barker then he would assume it was the Devil trying to trick him. This, of course, invites the question of how Dinesh chooses any trustworthy source for his inspiration or information about God.

At least a few of his points were of the "whenever you think of something good, Christianity will be there to take credit" variety. For example, as part of his opening statement he trundled out the old canard about how Christians invented science because without God there's no reason to assume a deterministic universe that operates according to rational laws. Never mind the fact that we observe a deterministic universe. (For more, see Rebecca's review above.)

He stuck by the ol' First Cause argument, equivocating around Barker's clear and correct rebuttal that the laws of causality as we know them don't apply to the origin of the universe, since causality depends upon space and time, neither of which existed "before" the universe.

He claimed Albert Einstein as an example of a religious scientist, despite the fact that Einstein stated very plainly that he did not believe in a personal God.

He continued the trend of calling the "New Atheists" intellectual weaklings, instead longing for the good ol' days of Bertrand Russell. Which is funny, because Dinesh seems awfully enthusiastic about debating the "New Atheists" anyway.

He remarked on how the godless atheists are trying to push religion out of the public square, trying to compare a statue of David Hume to a statue of Jesus. Because everyone knows it's safe to, say, name streets after famous atheists, but not religious figures.

On a related note, he accused academics and professors of abusing their roles as a sort of new clergy and arbiters of information to impose secularism upon their students. PZ tackled this "professor as authority" point recently, so I'll defer to him.

He made repeated references to "Darwinian primates," as if human beings were the ONLY creatures EVER to have social rules. This, of all his comments that night, probably made me the angriest. It shows such utter ignorance of and disrespect for humanity and the rest of the animal kingdom, I really don't know how to approach it.

I actually got to meet Dinesh personally after the debate. Well, sort of. Several times when I tried to join the post-debate conversation, Dinesh literally threw his hand in my face. And long before I could ask him any sort of question, he was gearing up to bolt for the door. He did get one jaw-dropping comment in before he ditched us: Apparently, he considers himself a proud advocate for science. Oh, is that why he's allowed to dismiss entire fields of science based on his flawed understanding of one experiment, as he did recently with the Miller-Urey experiment? Is that why he repeatedly rebukes scientists for daring to take a stand against creationism? Is that why science denialist William Dembski has such a hard-on for Dinesh lately (again, no linky for the stupid)?

Anyway, as he was taking off, I shook his hand, refrained from spitting in his eye, introduced myself as a fellow Dartmouth alumnus, and expressed my disappointment that we couldn't discuss some science since they so seldom let me out of the lab.

Overall, the experience was somewhat cathartic. D'Souza has been weighed, he has been measured, and he has been found wanting.

I still can't believe he's more than twenty years my senior. It doesn't look like he's developed a day past his freshman orientation at college.

PS - The debate was hosted by the Harvard Secular Society and others. It was student-moderated, and the students did a fantastic job of keeping things flowing. I'll say, though, that after a year I still think Greg Epstein (the Harvard Humanist Chaplain) seems like a great guy but is clearly not the world's most capable public speaker.

*Best use of the word "slough" I've ever encountered: page 106 of Richard Preston's "The Hot Zone"

24 April 2008

Obuh-buh-bligatory Buh-Buh-Blogiversary

I feel obliged to mention that it's been one year today since Ben and I started Synapostasy.

I'll resist the urge to get all introspective. Partly because I doubt there's much to get introspective over, but mostly because I've already got at least three other posts fighting for supremacy in my head, any one of which would be immensely more interesting than my contemplation of my navel (or Ben's navel, for that matter). I find that the more posts I want to write, the fewer I get around to writing. Maybe I'll overcome that in the coming year. (Oh crap, did that just count as introspection? Bad Aaron!)

Anyway, all I'll say is, if you're reading this, then *thumbs up*. Not just any *thumbs up*, either, we're talkin' like Fonzie *thumbs up*. And if you're not reading this, well, *thumbs up* anyway, because you're still cool.

Here's to another somewhat arbitrary length of time!


15 April 2008

The Blasphemous H

Ever wonder what the "H." stood for in "Jesus H. Christ"?

I betcha it stands for "Hussein."

(Wish I could take credit for that, but it was Sara's idea.)

Something by way of a more substantial post coming soon...

09 April 2008

A Thought

Every time I pass a Reformed Church of Christ, I think to myself, "I wonder what a Delinquent Church of Christ looks like."

29 March 2008

Muslim Declares War on Atheists on Behalf of D'Souza

So, remember a month ago when D'Souza tried twisting a letter from Muslim scholars to the pope as a call to rally against the atheist scourge? Well, to be fair, I never got to read the original letter (since he didn't link to it), so I don't know whether he was twisting their statements or referring to an unquoted passage. But none of that matters now, Dinesh need not twist any longer! King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia is out there saying precisely what Dishy wants him to say. From the Christian Post (emphasis mine):

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia called for a dialogue among monotheistic religions Monday, marking a first for the ultra-conservative Muslim kingdom.

"I ask representatives of all the monotheistic religions to meet with their brothers in faith," Abdullah told delegates to a seminar on "Dialogue Among Civilizations between Japan and the Islamic World," according to the official Saudi Press Agency (SPA).

“If God wills it, we will then meet with our brothers from other religions, including those of the Torah and the Gospel... to come up with ways to safeguard humanity," he added.

Abdullah said the country’s top clerics have given him approval to pursue his idea and that he plans to get the opinion of Muslim leaders from other countries.

According to SPA, the Saudi king also intends to address the United Nations on the subject.

"We have lost sincerity, morals, fidelity and attachment to our religions and to humanity," Abdullah said Monday, deploring "the disintegration of the family and the rise of atheism in the world – a frightening phenomenon that all religions must confront and vanquish."

The funny thing is, the author of the article (Eric Young) calls this a message of tolerance. To a writer for the Christian Post, maybe. And it may seem like a small step forward for Saudi Arabia. But this is neither tolerance nor progress. This is scapegoating, and as such would forever exclude and alienate the atheist community. This sort of rhetoric must be categorically rejected by those to whom King Abdullah is reaching, lest they validate his bigoted position and dirty themselves in the process.

(Hat tip NoGodBlog. Also discussed at Skepchick)

27 March 2008

Fieldwork Ethics: A Hypothetical Problem

Consider the following problem that might arise for an Anthropologist in the field:

In the course of conducting your fieldwork, you manage to develop very important relationships with two native informants, without whom your research would be entirely impossible. One day, these two informants extend an open invitation for you to attend a performance of their culture's main religious ritual. Although there are no restrictions placed on who may attend the ritual, you know that active participation in it is restricted to those members of the in-caste who have gone through the proper rites of initiation. The penalty for violating this taboo is never articulated - largely because only people who have been initiated into the cult ever attend - and you suspect that violating it would cause the natives to be less favorably disposed to you, and might jeopardize the rapport you have built in the community. Luckily, in the course of your prior interviews you managed to learn precisely how to go about participating in the ritual, and are confident that you could pass as a member of the in-group without incurring suspicion (note that learning the ritual does NOT mean that you have been properly initiated, which you have not).

Now, enter the problem: your two informants are of different minds as to the extent of your involvement. Both of them agree that their invitation to attend is a gesture of friendship. However, Informant A believes in the strict adherence to taboo laws, and because he knows that you are not initiated he thinks you should only be allowed to watch. Informant B, however, believes that including you and letting you participate in the ritual is an appropriate gesture of friendship - one which he feels justified in making despite the fact that it is in violation of the rules of his society.

Therefore, if you go ahead and participate in the ritual anyway, your relationship with informant A will be irreparably damaged because you're flaunting the taboo. But a refusal to participate in the ritual on those grounds will be construed as a rejection of Informant B's gesture of friendship, and will irreparably damage your relationship with Informant B. If you refuse to attend as well as participate, then you will damage your relationship with both A and B. Finally, you could also go through the process of initiation - an option which would be acceptable to both A and B - but when you ask what it would entail, you discover that it would require you to engage in behaviors that you are ethically and aesthetically opposed to, and which would set you apart as a pariah in your own society when you eventually returned from the field.

In short, you're stuck between a rock and a hard place with no way out. You either have to ruin one or both of your relationships with native informants - which would be an irrecoverable loss - or you must sacrifice your own principles and lose the respect of your own society for the sake of averting conflict with your informants.

What would you do?