Entries for September 2010

September 30, 2010

Jon Stewart gives Obama, Biden, and the Democrats a well-deserved spanking

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Indecision 2010 - Democratic Campaign Woes
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorRally to Restore Sanity

The evil of homophobia

The denial of equal rights for gays is inexcusable. There is absolutely no justification for it. Homophobia seems to be entirely based on religion or sexual insecurity or both.

The ugly face of homophobia is visible in the vicious and disgusting campaign by the assistant attorney general of the state of Michigan against the president of the University of Michigan student council, as seen in this CNN interview (via Pharyngula.)

One can see within seconds that this guy is a really nasty piece of work. What drives people like this to obsess about other people's sexuality? This guy is positively creepy.

Certain segments of the population seem to be much more homophobic than others. The Christian Science Monitor has an article that says that the allegations that Eddie Long, the anti-gay head of a megachurch in Atlanta, used his influence to entice four young men to perform sex acts on him, has brought the silent issue of rampant homophobia in the black community to the surface.

The number of prominent, religious, obsessively anti-gay people who turn out to be themselves closeted gays is quite impressive.

Book review: The Grand Design (Part 4 of 4: Religious implications)

In part 1, part 2, and part 3 of this review, I reviewed the physics in the book The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow. In this last part I want to look at the book's implications for religion.

The book seeks to address three questions: Why is there something rather than nothing? Why do we exist? Why this particular set of laws and not some other? These are, of course, big questions. Many people will recognize these questions as those on which sophisticated religious apologists have pinned their hopes as being the last remaining mysteries which science cannot answer and for which god is the only answer. What the book argues is that this hope, like similar hopes before it, has been dashed, and that what is called M-theory and the no boundary condition have eliminated any need for god.

It is important to realize that M-theory was not invented in order to eliminate god from the universe, any more than Darwin and Wallace's theory of natural selection was deliberately created to eliminate god from the creation of species. Questions of god's existence play no part in the normal workings of scientists. Despite what some religious people think, scientists do not spend their time trying to find ways to make religious people sad. Scientific theories rise and fall on the basis of how good they are in relation to empirical evidence and data, and their implications for theology are at best an incidental by-product or afterthought. As Hawking says, the "multiverse idea is not a notion invented to account for the miracle of fine-tuning. It is a consequence of the no-boundary condition as well as many other theories of modern cosmology." (p. 164)

In his books, Hawking refers to god a lot. I suspect that this is partly a publicity ploy. He knows how to market himself by pushing people's buttons and whenever an eminent scientist talks of god, people listen and buy their books. The very last sentence of his A Brief History of Time was, "If we find the answer to [why it is that we and the universe exist], it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason – for then we would know the mind of God." This sentence has been widely quoted and led to hope among religious people that the world's most famous living scientist was religious, though those who know him said that he was not a believer and that his use of the word god is in the same sense as Einstein used it, as a label for the laws of nature, not in any sense the way that religious people use the term as some kind of entity that actually exists and can do things. In reading that earlier book, it was not clear to me whether he believed in the existence of a god-like entity or not. I got the sense that he was using the word god in both real and metaphorical senses but tellingly, God was not listed in the index, the way that other people mentioned in the book were.

What his latest book does is definitely eliminate any hope that Hawking believes in god. As the authors say, "Some would claim the answer to these questions is that there is a God who chose to create the universe that way… We claim, however, that it is possible to answer these questions purely within the realm of science, and without invoking any divine beings." (p. 172) This probably explains why this time around, religious dignitaries have been quick to dismiss him. Woo master Deepak Chopra, who has made a career out of mixing quantum physics with religious ideas to create a ghastly mess of confusion that religious people like because they think that god is hidden somewhere in his fog of words, is of course disappointed with Hawking's conclusion.

Cosmologist Sean Carroll has a nice three-minute video that I've shown before that summarizes some of the points made in this review.

Of course, theologians and philosophers will rightly claim that Hawking has not proved that god does not exist. But that is a cheap point since science can never prove the non-existence of anything, whether it be god or Santa Claus or unicorns. What science has shown (even before Hawkng's book) is that god is an unnecessary concept. As Steven Weinberg says, "One of the great achievements of science has been, if not to make it impossible for intelligent people to be religious, then at least to make it possible for them not to be religious."

I would actually put it in a shorter and stronger form than Weinberg. Science can never prove that there is no god but it has shown that there is no need for god. Disbelief in god is far more intellectually coherent than belief and thus should be the natural choice for any thinking person.

Although I said that there would be only four parts to the review, I have some final thoughts on the book and Hawking's views that I will add as a coda tomorrow.

September 29, 2010

Helping silent atheists and agnostics find their voice

In a previous post, I mentioned an essay by John Shook, education director of the Center for Inquiry, where he took a gratuitous swipe at those he called "Know nothing new atheists" without naming any or giving any evidence, thus tarring all of us with the same brush.

He is receiving a well-deserved shellacking in the comments section of his blog. One comment by someone named wbthacker was particularly insightful in pointing out why what the new atheists are doing is much better than the accommodationist stance of feigning respect for religion.

Recognize that there are many potential atheists who are not currently "on our side." They are atheists afraid to "come out", and theists who don't really believe, but claim to be religious because it's easier than being an agnostic.

These people might add their voices to ours, if they hear us saying something that inspires them. When we feign respect for religiosity, we tell these people that they may as well stay where they are: that there's nothing wrong with believing myths, if you're nice about it.

I think that's why the New Atheists, have done more to popularize atheism in a few years than happened in the entire century preceding them. They boldly state that it's NOT respectable to believe in something without good evidence, let alone to make important decisions based on myths you can't prove. And this is logically self-evident.

This certainly angers the theists, who are used to being treated with respect they never deserved. But it inspires atheists; it compels them to follow their rational mindset, instead of burying it.

Good point.

Matt Taibbi on the Tea Party

From the Rolling Stone of October 15, 2010.

It's taken three trips to Kentucky, but I'm finally getting my Tea Party epiphany exactly where you'd expect: at a Sarah Palin rally.

Scanning the thousands of hopped-up faces in the crowd, I am immediately struck by two things. One is that there isn't a single black person here. The other is the truly awesome quantity of medical hardware: Seemingly every third person in the place is sucking oxygen from a tank or propping their giant atrophied glutes on motorized wheelchair-scooters.

A hall full of elderly white people in Medicare-paid scooters, railing against government spending and imagining themselves revolutionaries as they cheer on the vice-presidential puppet hand-picked by the GOP establishment. If there exists a better snapshot of everything the Tea Party represents, I can't imagine it.

This, then, is the future of the Republican Party: Angry white voters hovering over their cash-stuffed mattresses with their kerosene lanterns, peering through the blinds at the oncoming hordes of suburban soccer moms they've mistaken for death-panel bureaucrats bent on exterminating anyone who isn't an illegal alien or a Kenyan anti-colonialist.

You should read the whole thing.

Book review: The Grand Design (Part 3 of 4: The background physics)

In part 1 of this review I discussed the main issues raised by the book and in part 2 I said that the book by Hawking and Mlodinow argued that M-theory and the no boundary condition can provide answers to the three big questions: Why is there something rather than nothing? Why do we exist? Why this particular set of laws and not some other?

To understand what lies at the basis of M-theory, we need to appreciate a key difference between classical physics (which describes the large-scale structure of the everyday world we live in and from which we draw our intuitions about how the world works) and quantum mechanics (which describes the microscopic atomic and subatomic world).

What classical physics says is that if we release an object at some point A, it will subsequently wander off on some trajectory (or path) that depends on its initial state of motion and the forces that act on it. This is what enables good football quarterbacks to throw passes to receivers with such accuracy. If the ball is poorly thrown on a windy day and/or we stop observing the ball, we may not know or be able to predict which path the ball will take or where it will land but our classical intuition tells us that it will go along some specific path that is determined by the initial throw and the wind conditions.

But quantum mechanics has this counter-intuitive idea that once we stop observing the object, the object takes every conceivable path simultaneously. This means that there is no unique location for the object at any given time, that it is everywhere at the same time and could eventually end up anywhere at all. Another way to say it is that an object has many different histories. This is what boggles most people's (including scientists') minds about quantum theory but we have to learn to live and work with it (i.e., develop 'quantum intuition', so to speak) because this theory is phenomenally successful and there seems to be no getting around it at this time. Some people are working on developing alternative theories that do not have its strange features but have not had much success so far.

Now if we detect the object at some later time to be at some point B, this eliminates some of the potential paths we started with because they would not have resulted in the object ending up where we detected it. So the act of detection picks out a subset of the initial set of possible histories, limiting the ones of interest to those that began at point A at the specified time and ended at B at the later time, which still includes an infinite number of paths or histories. An elaborate mathematical machinery (called the 'sum over histories' or more technically 'path integrals') has been created to add up all the possible paths the particle could have taken in going from A to B. The calculated results correctly predict the empirical observations, which is why scientists have confidence in quantum theory despite its counter-intuitive features.

What M-theory does is take this key idea of quantum mechanics and apply the 'sum over histories' approach to the universe as a whole. Building on the idea of the inflationary universe (see part 9 and part 13 of my series Big Bang for Beginners for more details), since the net energy of the universe is zero, there is no restriction on the number of new universes that can 'pinch' off from previously existing universes. Since the Heisenberg uncertainty principle states that you can never have truly empty and inert space (p. 113) but that space constantly has particles coming into existence and disappearing again, any one of those fluctuations in space could form the seed of a quantum fluctuation that triggers the birth of a new universe.

So universes are being created all the time and there are a vast number of possible histories of the universe, of the order of 10500. They each have their own forms of matter and their own laws. According to the 'sum over histories' in quantum mechanics, all these universes exist simultaneously, giving rise to the name 'multiverse theory'. When we observe our universe, we are picking out just those histories that could produce the present state we see. As Hawking and Mlodinow state:

Quantum physics tells us that no matter how thorough our observation of the present, the (unobserved) past, like the future, is indefinite and exists only as a spectrum of possibilities. The universe, according to quantum physics, has no single past, or history. (p. 82)

We seem to be at a critical point in the history of science, in which we must alter our conception of goals and of what makes a physical theory acceptable. It appears that the fundamental numbers, and even the form, of the apparent laws of nature are not determined by logic or physical principle. The parameters are free to take on many values and the laws to take on any form that leads to a self-consistent mathematical theory, and they do take on different values and forms in different universes. (p. 143)

Given the staggeringly large number of possible histories, it was almost inevitable that one of those universes would have the properties that ours has. It is like rain. If you pick a point on the ground, the probability of it being hit by a raindrop is infinitesimally small. But in a rainstorm, there is such a huge number of drops that it is inevitable that at least one will hit the ground there.

Hawking and Mlodinow's book does not shy away from making strong claims, such as that the theory they describe has to be the right one. "M-theory is the only candidate for a complete theory of the universe… M-theory is the unified theory Einstein was hoping to find." (p. 181, emphasis in original.)

That seems hubristic to me. If the history of science teaches us anything it is that theories, however successful at any given time, tend to be later replaced by other theories as the questions that need to be addressed change. However obviously important they may seem, is usually a mistake to think that the questions that concern us now will be the same questions that future generations care about. Also the theory of supersymmetry, which is central to M-theory though not necessarily to the idea of multiverses, has been around since 1970 or so, with none of the exotic partner particles it predicts having been detected as yet. The theory's supporters are pinning their hopes on the Large Hadron Collider that has just started operations, hoping that its energies will be sufficient to produce these particles.

In the last part of this review, I will look at the implications of M-theory for religion and give some of my reactions to other features of the book.

September 28, 2010

It's time to put up or shut up

John Shook, Director of Education at the Center for Inquiry, has written an essay attacking those whom he calls "Know nothing" atheists who supposedly attack religion while being ignorant of sophisticated modern theology. Larry Moran, professor of chemistry at the University of Toronto, has had enough of this kind of vague accusations and issues a very direct challenge [link fixed].

The question before us is whether there is a God or there isn't. So far, I have not been convinced by any argument in favor of supernatural beings. Every single argument that I've encountered seems flawed. Many of them are stupid and nonsensical.

I challenge all theists and all their accommodationist friends to post their very best 21st century, sophisticated (or not), arguments for the existence of God. They can put them in the comments section of this posting, or on any of the other atheist blogs, or on their own blogs and websites. Just send me the link.

Try and make it concise and to the point. It would be nice if it's less than 100 years old. Keep in mind that there are over 1000 different gods so it would be helpful to explain just which gods the argument applies to.

I don't care where they post the argument, just get on with it. I'm not interested in any other details about theology. Those points only become relevant once you've convinced this atheist that you have a rational argument for the existence of God. Don't bother telling me how you reconcile your God with evil, or why you believe in miracles, or why transcendence is important in your life, or how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Don't insult my intelligence by pointing out that religion has done a lot of good things in the past as if that were proof of the existence of the supernatural. Don't be silly enough to try proving god by telling me that religion makes people feel good. So does chocolate, and wine.

That sounds reasonable to me.

"Know nothing new atheists"

A few days ago had a discussion with a philosopher (himself not religious) who railed against those whom he called "Know nothing new atheists" who argued against religion on a very low-level and were not aware of the best of modern theology. I pressed him to name names but the ones he gave (Jerry Coyne and PZ Myers) do not fit this category at all. In fact, they know quite a lot. But I occasionally find the philosopher's attitude among atheists and agnostic accommodationists who seek to separate themselves from people like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Coyne, Myers, and other mean old new/unapologetic atheists (like me), and accuse us of ignorance.

Hence it was amusing to get a link (thanks to reader Norm) to an article giving the results of a new Pew survey that found that atheists and agnostics were the most knowledgeable about "the Bible, Christianity and other world religions, famous religious figures and the constitutional principles governing religion in public life." You can read all the survey questions and the results for each here. (Not to boast, but there was only one question for which I did not know the answer and one for which I was not sure.)

Of course, the philosopher could argue that this survey tested largely low-level factual knowledge and not deep theology. But I am willing to bet that if a similar survey were done on theology, atheists and agnostics would again come out on top. It is because we have studied theology at least to some extent that we realize how content-free it is. In fact, I suspect there is a causal relationship: the more you know about religion, the less likely you are to believe in god. As Dave Silverman, president of American Atheists, said, "Atheism is an effect of that knowledge, not a lack of knowledge. I gave a Bible to my daughter. That's how you make atheists."

Book review: The Grand Design (Part 2 of 4: The basic ideas)

In part 1 of this review, I argued that the lack of a unified theory of gravity and quantum mechanics is what has stymied scientists in their attempt to understand the origins of our universe and even what came 'before', assuming that the question even makes sense. M-theory and the no boundary condition is what Hawking proposes as the candidate for a unified theory that can address the physics of the early universe.

M-theory is not an elegant theory expressed in a single equation (like Newton's law of gravity) or even a few equations (like Maxwell's equations of electromagnetism) but instead consists of a patchwork of theories, each with its domain of application, and overlapping with other theories so that the whole space of nature is covered. Hawking argues that this patchwork feature may not be due to our lack of imagination or inventiveness but intrinsic to the nature of the laws of science.

It is like the way we create accurate but flat maps of the Earth's surface. Because the Earth's surface is curved, no single flat map can ever do the entire job for us. Instead we are forced to take small portions of the globe and map each region separately. As long as the boundaries match up correctly, we effectively have a global flat map, although such a collection is not as elegant as having a single flat map. The versions of M-theory in each domain are referred to as 'effective' theories and are supposedly as real as those theories can get.

One big problem with dealing with the origins of the universe is how to deal with the so-called 'singularity' problem, in which the gravitational fields are so large due to the compression of the universe into a tiny space that space becomes so warped that the laws of physics we have (which were designed for flat spaces) break down. Hawking suggests that there is a way to overcome this hurdle, which he calls the 'no boundary' condition. He says that, "once we add the effects of quantum theory to the theory or relativity, in extreme cases warpage can occur to such a great extent that time behaves like another dimension of space." (p. 134) This is because of a technical maneuver in which time is treated as an imaginary quantity. ('Imaginary' in the scientific sense has a very precise mathematical meaning and does not have the everyday meaning of existing only in one's head.) "The realization that time behaves like space… removes the age-old objection to the universe having a beginning, but also means that that the beginning of the universe was governed by the laws of science and doesn't need to be set in motion by some god." (p. 135) (In chapter 8 of his earlier book A Brief History of Time Hawking describes the no boundary proposal in more detail and says that its predictions have been borne out.)

The amalgamation of M-theory with the no boundary condition is the central feature of Hawking's argument.

M-theory itself is a combination of string theory (in which elementary particles are assumed to be not point-like but like bits of vibrating string, either open or closed in loops) and supergravity (which itself is a combination of the theory of gravity and a theory of particle physics known as supersymmetry, one feature of which is that every particle we are familiar with has to have a partner particle with specific properties.)

M-theory requires eleven space-time dimensions. We cannot directly determine (at least as yet) the form of the laws of science in the eleven-dimensional space. Since we appear to exist in four space-time dimensions (three space and one time), the absence of those other dimensions need to be explained. The unobservable seven dimensions are assumed to be curled up to be so tiny that we cannot detect them at the present time with our present technology, giving us the illusion that we live in just four dimensions. The way the seven extra dimensions curl up is not uniquely determined and how they do so determines the nature of the laws we perceive in our reduced four-dimensional space. The number of ways in which they can be curled up, and hence the resulting number of potential universes each with its own laws and matter and parameters, can be as high as 10500! This is a staggeringly high number that is hard to even wrap our minds around but, as I will discuss in the next part of this review, it plays an important role in answering the questions raised in the book.

September 27, 2010

Wouldn't want anything to happen to this blog, would you?

The new comments policy has made it much easier for me to monitor for spam. I still get spam comments that begin "Rather nice blog you've got here…" It always reminds of this Monty Python sketch.

How to write like a science journalist

Martin Robbins provides a handy template.

Baxter, the Wonder Dog

He just turned five.


Book review: The Grand Design (Part 1 of 4: The nature of the problem)

This new book by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow has generated some publicity and so I thought I'd check it out. The first part of my review will explain the basic questions that are being addressed by the book, the second will describe the physics behind the solutions that the authors propose, the third part will provide some of the more basic physics background that lies behind those ideas, and the last part will discuss the religious implications of the book, which have received the most attention, and some of my own reactions.

I should warn readers that cosmology and general relativity are not my fields of study, although I am a theoretical physicist and thus familiar with the basic theories of modern physics. So my knowledge of the book's subject matter is likely to be not that much greater than that of an informed layperson. If you want a really authoritative reaction, you will need to ask your friendly neighborhood cosmologist or read reviews by them such as the one by Sean Carroll in the Wall Street Journal.

The book seeks to address three questions: Why is there something rather than nothing? Why do we exist? Why this particular set of laws and not some other? These are, of course, big questions that have long been the province of philosophers and theologians. But modern science has wrestled such questions away from them and made them into empirical questions to be addressed the same way that science addresses any questions about the physical world, making purely philosophical and theological speculations about them superfluous. Needless to say, philosophers and theologians are not happy about this development and are trying to assert that they still have a contribution to make and it is this that largely constitutes the modern science-religion debate.

To begin, we live in a universe that has three space dimensions and one time dimension, which we think of as distinct from the space dimensions. We are comfortable with the idea that there is no 'beginning' to space but with the conventional big bang theory there is the sense that there is a beginning to time, which naturally raises the question of what existed before that time or what triggered the start of the universe.

One answer could well be that the universe began as a quantum fluctuation and that there was no such thing as time before the universe began. The laws of science came into being with the universe and there is no mystery of why they happened to be such as to produce life like ours because if they hadn't been, we would not be here to ponder such questions. The laws had to take some form and the very fact of our existence means that that laws happened to be such as to produce us. Such as answer is sufficient for many people.

But the authors seek answers that go beyond that, hence the book.

At present, our understanding of the physical world is spanned by theories of gravity, quantum mechanics, electromagnetism, and the weak and strong nuclear forces, each successfully working in a specific domain of application. There has been some success in straddling the boundaries of the domains, especially those areas in which quantum mechanics, electromagnetism and the strong and weak nuclear forces overlap.

Gravity has been the tough nut, the outlier, resisting strongly all attempts at combining it with other theories, and its unification with quantum mechanics has been the major challenge. Gravity is important in dealing with massive objects like planets, stars, and galaxies, while quantum mechanics deals with the very small. We use the theories of gravity to explain the large-scale structure of the universe and quantum mechanics to explain the sub-atomic world. For most things, the two domains do not overlap. But the unification of gravity and quantum mechanics becomes important in dealing with cosmological questions because when we speak of the beginning of the universe, we are talking about the entire universe being compressed into a tiny region of space and so we need a theory that combines the two domains if we are to make sense of that early state.

The main difficulty that has stumped scientists for so long is that space and time are not distinct but are intertwined due to the warping of space by gravity. At low speeds and in the presence of weak gravitational fields, the mixing is so slight as to be not noticeable which is why we perceive them as independent. The highly successful theory of quantum mechanics was developed for use in space that is 'flat', i.e., not warped by gravitational effects. But when we are dealing with the origins of the universe at very early times, the density of matter is extremely high. Consequently the gravitational fields are so large and the warping of space so great that the laws of physics, which were developed for use in flat spaces, appear to break down, depriving us of the only tools we have to study the world. As a result, we could not say what happened at times very close to zero or before. This has been a big barrier to progress.

The search for a quantum theory of gravity was the search for a theory that would work even under conditions of the extreme curvature of space that constituted the beginning of our universe. The original hope of Einstein and his successors in the search for such a unified theory was that it would be simple and elegant. But many have failed in this search and that goal has proved to be frustratingly elusive.

This book outlines a solution to this problem that is currently in vogue among cosmologists. It is based on what is known as M-theory and the 'no boundary' condition. The book lays this out in chapter 5, which is the heart of the book. (No one seems to know who coined the name M-theory or even what M stands for. I suspect that it was tossed out casually at a physics conference and became adopted by word of mouth.)

Next: M-theory and the no boundary condition.

September 26, 2010

More on the unbearable whininess of rich people

Bill Maher adds a great 'new rule' to add to my earlier post on this topic

Elite bigotry

Martin Peretz, editor-in chief of The New Republic, is a prime example of the fact that if you are rich and well-connected, there is nothing you can say that will arouse the condemnation of your fellow Villagers as long as you restrict your bigoted speech towards Arabs, Muslims, and blacks.

Harvard recently disgraced itself by honoring him but demonstrators organized an effective protest using his own words to make their point. (Thanks to Balloon Juice.)

For more on Peretz's awful views, see Glenn Greenwald.

Back to the future

Blog reader Norm sent me this link to something called "The first annual conference on geocentrism" to be held in South Bend, Indiana near the University of Notre Dame. It has the title Galileo Was Wrong: The Church Was Right.

My first reaction was that this was an Onion-type spoof but it seems to be legit.

Of course, the choice of any point in space to be the origin of the frame of reference is purely arbitrary. Which frame one chooses depends on one's purpose. For purely practical purposes such as navigation, choosing the Earth to be at rest makes sense. The heliocentric model is the best choice for describing the motions of the planets, and the center of a galaxy is most convenient to describe the motions of stars in the galaxy.

The church was wrong in insisting that the geocentric model was the only choice and it was Galileo's assertion that there were alternatives to it that disturbed them. All this has been well known for some time and so the point of this conference completely mystifies me. Are the organizers really suggesting that there is only one allowed frame of reference and that its origin is at the Earth?

September 25, 2010

The Mystery of the She-Pope

A young Catholic woman dresses up as a man and joins the priesthood (not hard, given that the robes they wear), goes to Rome, and ends up as the pope. She then gets pregnant and delivers the child on a public street during a procession in which she is wearing the full papal regalia. The bystanding worshippers, outraged by the revelation of her deception, kill her and bury her by the roadside. This is the story in a new German film called Die Papstin.

Far fetched? Perhaps, except that the film is based on events that might have actually happened. The September/October issue of The New Humanist has an article by Sally Feldman (not available online) that looks at the story of 'Pope Joan' who supposedly lived in the ninth century. The catch is that even though there are about 500 reports on this episode written from early medieval times to the 17th century, there are no contemporaneous records of what happened during her time, which has rightly called the Dark Ages, and the powerful Catholic Church would have had every reason to expunge any mention of such an embarrassing episode.

The article points out that this story has been investigated by many people and even though unproved is quite widely known and believed. In the course of investigating it, Peter Stanford, the former editor of the Catholic Herald discovered a chair that was used in papal elections in medieval times that had an odd key-shaped hole cut in the seat. According to accounts, before the election of a new pope could be confirmed, the would-be pope was required to sit in it and then the youngest deacon present would have to reach up through the hole and confirm the pope's 'eligibility', if you catch my drift. Such a precaution might well have been the result of the Pope Joan episode.

September 24, 2010

Dean Baker on solving the budget deficit problem

I just returned from a talk by Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, and he said that there is no crisis in social security and the real crisis is the rapid rise in health care costs that, if unchecked, could raise the budget deficits from their current value of around 10% of GDP to disastrous levels of 30%, 40%, and even 50% in the next few decades. But our policy makers, instead of addressing this issue head-on, are instead deflecting attention to other things.

If our per capita health care costs could be made the same as Canada and the UK, the current budget deficits would become surpluses even if we did absolutely nothing else, such as raising taxes or cutting costs in other areas. It is that simple.

This is pretty much what I have been saying for some time, but Baker has studied this issue in great depth for many years and so has way more facts at his fingertips. He is one of the foremost authorities on social security, Medicare, and the budget. You can follow him on his blog.

The accommodationists' best case (Part 3 of 3)

(Part 1 and Part 2)

Continuing with the case for accommodationism as made by the NAS, on page 37 they describe the other group of believers, those who think that science should conform to revealed religion and their holy books. This group is hostile to science but people who believe these things are politically powerful in the US and need to be placated in some way.

Advocates of the ideas collectively known as "creationism" and, recently, "intelligent design creationism" hold a wide variety of views. Most broadly, a "creationist" is someone who rejects natural scientific explanations of the known universe in favor of special creation by a supernatural entity. Creationism in its various forms is not the same thing as belief in God because, as was discussed earlier, many believers as well as many mainstream religious groups accept the findings of science, including evolution. Nor is creationism necessarily tied to Christians who interpret the Bible literally. Some non-Christian religious believers also want to replace scientific explanations with their own religion's supernatural accounts of physical phenomena.

On page 39 of the NAS statement, they do not come out and flatly say that these people are wrong. What is done is to say that their claims are outside the realm that science can investigate and thus they can believe them if they want to. The NAS statement even finds ways to treat the claim that the Earth is 6,000 years or so old with deference!

Creationists reject such scientific facts in part because they do not accept evidence drawn from natural processes that they consider to be at odds with the Bible. But science cannot test supernatural possibilities. To young Earth creationists, no amount of empirical evidence that the Earth is billions of years old is likely to refute their claim that the world is actually young but that God simply made it appear to be old. Because such appeals to the supernatural are not testable using the rules and processes of scientific inquiry, they cannot be a part of science.

On page 49, they address the key question of whether evolution and religion are opposing ideas. And of course, their answer is 'no'. They repeat the non-argument that since many scientists are religious and many theologians accept evolution, they must be compatible. They throw in the obligatory criticisms of 'extremists' on both sides, i.e., people who disagree with the accommodationist case.

Newspaper and television stories sometimes make it seem as though evolution and religion are incompatible, but that is not true. Many scientists and theologians have written about how one can accept both faith and the validity of biological evolution. Many past and current scientists who have made major contributions to our understanding of the world have been devoutly religious. At the same time, many religious people accept the reality of evolution, and many religious denominations have issued emphatic statements reflecting this acceptance. (For more information, see

To be sure, disagreements do exist. Some people reject any science that contains the word "evolution"; others reject all forms of religion. The range of beliefs about science and about religion is very broad. Regrettably, those who occupy the extremes of this range often have set the tone of public discussions. Evolution is science, however, and only science should be taught and learned in science classes.

On page 54, they address the question of whether science disproves religion. Again, their answer is 'no'. They try to support this answer by trying to carve out areas of knowledge that they claim are outside the realm of science, though tellingly, they do not specify what those areas are. They have to leave that vague because as soon as they specify any area of knowledge (say consciousness or the origin of the universe) as being outside the bounds of science, there would be howls of protest from within their own body from scientists who are working on those very questions. (See Carl Zimmer's article in the New York Times on what they are learning about consciousness as integrated information that can be described in terms of bits.)

Science can neither prove nor disprove religion. Scientific advances have called some religious beliefs into question, such as the ideas that the Earth was created very recently, that the Sun goes around the Earth, and that mental illness is due to possession by spirits or demons. But many religious beliefs involve entities or ideas that currently are not within the domain of science. Thus, it would be false to assume that all religious beliefs can be challenged by scientific findings.

As science continues to advance, it will produce more complete and more accurate explanations for natural phenomena, including a deeper understanding of biological evolution. Both science and religion are weakened by claims that something not yet explained scientifically must be attributed to a supernatural deity. Theologians have pointed out that as scientific knowledge about phenomena that had been previously attributed to supernatural causes increases, a "god of the gaps" approach can undermine faith. Furthermore, it confuses the roles of science and religion by attributing explanations to one that belong in the domain of the other.

Many scientists have written eloquently about how their scientific studies have increased their awe and understanding of a creator… The study of science need not lessen or compromise faith.

To summarize, the NAS's accommodationist argument is as follows:

  1. Divide up religious believers into two groups, those who adapt their religious beliefs to conform to established science and those who try to adapt science to conform to their religious beliefs and texts.
  2. Claim that there is clearly no conflict between the first group and science, since the assumption is that the first group's beliefs are infinitely malleable and able to accommodate all present established science all and future scientific discoveries.
  3. Assert that there is no way to refute any of the claims of the second group either since those beliefs can always be reformulated in ways that involve the actions of 'supernatural' agencies and are thus declared, by fiat, to be outside the realm of scientific investigation which deals with the purely material.

Hence science and religion are supposedly compatible. The problem is, of course, that there are limits to the malleability of the first group. They cannot allow everything to be explained by science since that would make god totally useless. This group is, as we have seen, already balking at the idea that the creation of the universe itself does not require god or that consciousness (and particularly the idea of the soul) has a purely material basis in the brain.

With regards to accommodating the interests of the second group, the NAS has taken a somewhat condescending approach, essentially telling them, "We cannot prove the non-existence of god or any supernatural entity, so you can go ahead and believe in it." It is like allowing little children to believe in Santa Claus, thinking that no harm will come of it. The catch is that these religious beliefs are not harmless. They are anti-science and anti-reason and when such thinking is allowed to propagate unchallenged, they infect everything and result in policies and actions that are harmful.

So the NAS case for accommodationism, which I believe is the best there is, boils down to saying that there are some things science cannot talk about (but does not say what those things are) or that if you bring in god or the supernatural as an explanation for anything, science cannot say you are wrong. That's it.

September 23, 2010

And now, for something completely different from Fry and Laurie

What is a soul?

In a previous post titled The fog of religious language I said that sophisticated religious apologists tend to speak so vaguely and elliptically that it is hard to know exactly what they actually believe, and singled out Marilynne Robinson as one culprit. In an interview in the September/October issue of The New Humanist, she does it again.

Q: You use the word "soul" in your book. What do you mean by this?

A: There is a very primary self, a companion self one answers to, intimate and aloof, keeper of loyalties, bearer of loneliness and sorrow, faithful despite neglect and offence, more passionate lover of everything one loves, the unaccountable presence of joy in quiet and solitude. Soul is one name for this self within the self, which I believe is a universal human possession.

Well, I'm glad we cleared that up.

The accommodationists' creed

The accommodationists' best case (Part 2 of 3)

(See part 1 here.)

The problem with the attempts by theologians to argue that understanding the 'mystery' of human experience lies outside the realm of science is that tools to better understand how the brain works are already at hand, with ambitious plans to map out all the brain synapses. (Thanks to Machines Like Us for the link.) Since the brain is what creates consciousness, understanding how the brain works is the precursor to understanding how we think and experience. (Those who think that consciousness or the 'soul' exist independently of the brain are of course resorting to Cartesian dualism, that there is a mind-body split, an idea which no serious scientist takes seriously and which even Descartes found difficult to justify.)

Harvard scientists have embarked upon an ambitious program to create a circuit diagram of the human brain, with the help of new machines that automatically turn brain tissue into high-resolution neural maps.

By mapping every synapse in the brain, researchers hope to create a "connectome" -- a diagram that would elucidate the brain's activity at a level of detail far outstripping today's most advanced brain-monitoring tools like fMRI.

"You're going to see things you didn't expect," said Jeff Lichtman, a Harvard professor of molecular and cellular biology. "It gives us an opportunity to witness this vast complicated universe that has been largely inaccessible until now."

A map of the mind's circuitry would allow researchers to see the wiring problems that might underpin disorders like autism and schizophrenia.

"The 'wiring diagram' of the brain could help us understand how the brain computes, how it wires itself up during development and rewires itself in adulthood," said Sebastian Seung, a computational-neuroscience professor at MIT.

Because the scientists of the NAS are well aware of what science is capable of, even the most accommodationist among them are likely to roll their eyes at the kind of arguments that popes and theologians roll out because they know that this is nothing but shameless special pleading. This is why I think the NAS statement is probably the best argument you are likely to get for accommodationism. You can read the full statement here but I will highlight the main excerpts that lays out the case, along with brief commentary on my part.

On page 10, they first explain how science works, highlight its successes, and why it progresses so well:

Scientific knowledge and understanding accumulate from the interplay of observation and explanation. Scientists gather information by observing the natural world and conducting experiments. They then propose how the systems being studied behave in general, basing their explanations on the data provided through their experiments and other observations. They test their explanations by conducting additional observations and experiments under different conditions. Other scientists confirm the observations independently and carry out additional studies that may lead to more sophisticated explanations and predictions about future observations and experiments. In these ways, scientists continually arrive at more accurate and more comprehensive explanations of particular aspects of nature…. In this way, the sophistication and scope of scientific explanations improve over time, as subsequent generations of scientists, often using technological innovations, work to correct, refine, and extend the work done by their predecessors.

On page 12, they begin the delicate, but necessary, task for accommodationists, of separating religious believers into two groups: those sophisticated believers who try and make their religious beliefs conform to established science (especially evolution) and those so-called 'fundamentalists' who try to make science conform to their religious beliefs and texts. The first group is seen as important political allies for science. They also bring in the idea that there exist scientists and theologians who believe there is no conflict between science and religion which, although true, is not really an argument for the compatibility of the two worldviews.

Today, many religious denominations accept that biological evolution has produced the diversity of living things over billions of years of Earth's history. Many have issued statements observing that evolution and the tenets of their faiths are compatible. Scientists and theologians have written eloquently about their awe and wonder at the history of the universe and of life on this planet, explaining that they see no conflict between their faith in God and the evidence for evolution. Religious denominations that do not accept the occurrence of evolution tend to be those that believe in strictly literal interpretations of religious texts.

In order to accommodate the interests of this group, the NAS needs to find some space for religion to maneuver while not interfering with science. So they resurrect the tired and untenable 'two worlds' model in which science and religion are supposed to provide answers to different questions.

Science and religion are based on different aspects of human experience. In science, explanations must be based on evidence drawn from examining the natural world. Scientifically based observations or experiments that conflict with an explanation eventually must lead to modification or even abandonment of that explanation. Religious faith, in contrast, does not depend only on empirical evidence, is not necessarily modified in the face of conflicting evidence, and typically involves supernatural forces or entities. Because they are not a part of nature, supernatural entities cannot be investigated by science. In this sense, science and religion are separate and address aspects of human understanding in different ways. Attempts to pit science and religion against each other create controversy where none needs to exist.

On page 15 they trot out a quote by Francis Collins, head of the NIH and former director of the Human Genome Project and perhaps the most high-profile scientist who is also an evangelical Christian, who says in his book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (p. 6): "In my view, there is no conflict in being a rigorous scientist and a person who believes in a God who takes a personal interest in each one of us. Science's domain is to explore nature. God's domain is in the spiritual world, a realm not possible to explore with the tools and language of science. It must be examined with the heart, the mind, and the soul."

You can see immediately the kind of wooly language and thinking that occurs when religious people enter the discussion. What exactly does Collins mean when he says that some things must be 'examined with the heart, the mind, and the soul'? What I think he means is that you should leave out reason and stop using your brain, because he knows that reason is incompatible with religious belief. (I provided a detailed critique of Collins's truly awful book some time ago.)

Next in this series: Continuing the examination of the NAS's case.

September 22, 2010

Here we go again

We are going to see another round of discussions about whether the Bible is literally true. New computer simulations suggest the possibility that winds could have created a temporary land path over the Red Sea.

Of course, there is no independent scientific evidence that any of the Biblical stories earlier than about 650 BCE (which encompasses almost all the period covered the Old Testament) are true but religious people tend to be desperate these days and are likely to seize upon this as 'proof' that the Bible is true.

Of course, this leaves the sophisticated theologians, those who argue that the reason there is no evidence for god is because he exists 'outside of space and time' in a quandary. Does god act within our space and time or not?

What we will see once again is religious people saying that science has no relevance to religious beliefs, except when it appears to provide some support for it.

Update: The lead author of the paper has a Christian website. Why am I not surprised?

The accommodationists' best case (Part 1 of 3)

I have written quite a lot about the conflict between those who say that science and religion are incompatible worldviews (referred to as unapologetic or new atheists) and those who say they are compatible (known as accommodationists).

I definitely belong to the first group. On the other hand, the National Academy of Sciences, the most elite body of scientists in the US, that has gone out of its way to make the accommodationist case. This is somewhat surprising in view of the fact that a whopping 93% of NAS members express "disbelief or doubt in the existence of God." The NAS lays out its accommodationist case most clearly in a 2008 publication called Science, Evolution, and Creationism that is free and online.

Why would people whose own deep study of science has clearly resulted in disbelief go out of their way to assure religious believers that science does not exclude god? I suspect that they fear that if the public concludes that science is inherently atheistic, this will result in reduced financial support for science. Science in the US is heavily dependent on public financing allocated by the Congress and the White House, both or which are fearful of religious voters. He who pays the piper calls the tune and some scientists do not want to alienate those upon whom they depend for support of research.

That does not mean that I think these scientists are cynically saying things they don't believe. There are many skeptics and unbelievers in both the scientific community and the general public who genuinely do believe that the case for some form of compatibility between science and religion can be made, and the NAS has them too. I think they are mistaken in this belief but the case they make for accommodationism is as good as anything you are likely to get anywhere. My point is that there was no imperative for the NAS to take a stand on either side of this issue. It could have simply advocated for good science and left this particular debate to its individual members to participate in. The fact that they felt obliged, as an organization, to weigh in on the accommodationist side is what I think reflects a political calculation.

I believe that the best case for accommodationism is that made by the NAS, because it consists purely of scientists. What you don't want to do in these discussions is include theologians and other religious believers because they end up saying absurd things like 'god exists outside of space and time' or that 'god works through the uncertainty principle' or that 'god must exist in order to produce something out of nothing' or to 'god is necessary to provide meaning to the universe and our existence'. Scientists generally cringe at such arguments, rightly seeing them as relics of outdated philosophical thinking that have no relevance in the light of modern science.

As examples of the woolly thinking that emerges when theologians get into the discussion, consider these statements by current Pope Ratzinger and his predecessor Pope John Paul II on the science-religion conflict. Popes don't usually issue formal statements on such controversial topics until they have been thoroughly vetted by their top theologians, so these usually represent their most sophisticated thinking.

Pope Ratzinger, at a meeting on Monday, January 28, 2008 of academics of different disciplines sponsored by the Paris Academy of Sciences and Pontifical Academy of Sciences tried to put limits to science by saying that it cannot address the 'mystery' of human existence.

Pope Benedict warned Monday of the "seductive" powers of science that overpower man's spirituality, reviving the science-versus-religion debate which recently forced him to cancel a speech after student protests.

"In an age when scientific developments attract and seduce with the possibilities they offer, it's more important than ever to educate our contemporaries' consciences so that science does not become the criterion for goodness," he told scientists.

Scientific investigation should be accompanied by "research into anthropology, philosophy and theology" to give insight into "man's own mystery, because no science can say who man is, where he comes from or where he is going", the Pope said.

"Man is not the fruit of chance or a bundle of convergences, determinisms or physical and chemical reactions," he told a meeting of academics of different disciplines sponsored by the Paris Academy of Sciences and Pontifical Academy of Sciences.

Even earlier Pope John Paul II, in an address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on October 22, 1996, titled Truth Cannot Contradict Truth, also tried to put on limits to science by saying pretty much the same thing, invoking the mystery of human consciousness.

In his encyclical Humani Generis (1950), my predecessor Pius XII had already stated that there was no opposition between evolution and the doctrine of the faith about man and his vocation, on condition that one did not lose sight of several indisputable points.

The conciliar constitution Gaudium et Spes has magnificently explained this doctrine, which is pivotal to Christian thought. It recalled that man is "the only creature on earth that God has wanted for its own sake"… It is by virtue of his spiritual soul that the whole person possesses such a dignity even in his body. Pius XII stressed this essential point: If the human body take its origin from pre-existent living matter, the spiritual soul is immediately created by God… Consequently, theories of evolution which, in accordance with the philosophies inspiring them, consider the spirit as emerging from the forces of living matter or as a mere epiphenomenon of this matter, are incompatible with the truth about man.

The sciences of observation describe and measure the multiple manifestations of life with increasing precision and correlate them with the time line. The moment of transition to the spiritual cannot be the object of this kind of observation, which nevertheless can discover at the experimental level a series of very valuable signs indicating what is specific to the human being. But the experience of metaphysical knowledge, of self-awareness and self-reflection, of moral conscience, freedom, or again of aesthetic and religious experience, falls within the competence of philosophical analysis and reflection, while theology brings out its ultimate meaning according to the Creator's plans. (my emphasis)

What these popes and other religious apologists are trying to do is shift the discussion away from empirical evidence and back to philosophy, where they think they have a chance of holding their own. They do not realize that while philosophy is undoubtedly invaluable in helping us think clearly and use language more precisely, it has become marginal to the study of scientific and empirical questions, even big ones such as the origin of the universe.

Next: What does the NAS actually say?

September 21, 2010

Small steps, big gains

We are often so focused on the big global issues that we can forget that what seems like small steps to us can make huge improvements in the lives of poor people around the world.

The tea party takeover of the Republican Party

Jon Stewart gets it exactly right when he says that the only difference between the tea partiers and the Republican establishment is that the tea partiers really believe the crazy stuff the leadership has been spouting for years and is determined to actually implement them.

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Really lost in translation

Does the existence of the universe violate scientific laws?

Continuing from yesterday's post, I said that some religious people think that since there is matter in the universe that did not exist before the universe came into being, this must constitute a violation of scientific laws and thus requires some agency to create it. But they do not understand that energy comes in many different forms and that they all have to be included in the calculation. The fact is that despite all the matter that exists in the universe, the net energy of the universe is zero because the positive energy in the matter is canceled by the negative gravitational potential energy. So the appearance of an entire universe out of nothing need not violate the law of conservation of energy or any other law. Hence unless expressly forbidden by an as yet unknown law, there is nothing to prevent a vast, even possibly infinite, number of universes to have been created and exist simultaneously with ours, each with its own space-time and laws and matter distinct from ours.

This is known as the multiverse theory. In this scenario, given the large number of universes, it is not only likely, it is almost inevitable that one of those universes would happen to have the form of matter and the laws of science that eventually led to us. The so-called 'fine-tuning' argument that religious people sometimes invoke, that the properties of our universe seem to have just the right values to produce life like ours and thus suggests some deliberate design and hence a designer (which is, of course, our old buddy god) goes away, because those universes that did not have those properties would not have produced our kind of life forms. (There are other solutions to the fine-tuning problem that do not require multiverses.)

The problem is that we do not, at this time at least, know how to make contact with these other universes or have any direct evidence for their existence. But, as is usually the case with scientific theories, scientists are working on the problem.

[Cambridge University astrophysicist Martin] Rees, an early supporter of [Stanford physicist Andrei] Linde's ideas, agrees that it may never be possible to observe other universes directly, but he argues that scientists may still be able to make a convincing case for their existence. To do that, he says, physicists will need a theory of the multiverse that makes new but testable predictions about properties of our own universe. If experiments confirmed such a theory's predictions about the universe we can see, Rees believes, they would also make a strong case for the reality of those we cannot. String theory is still very much a work in progress, but it could form the basis for the sort of theory that Rees has in mind.

"If a theory did gain credibility by explaining previously unexplained features of the physical world, then we should take seriously its further predictions, even if those predictions aren't directly testable," he says. "Fifty years ago we all thought of the Big Bang as very speculative. Now the Big Bang from one millisecond onward is as well established as anything about the early history of Earth."

The credibility of string theory and the multiverse may get a boost within the next year or two, once physicists start analyzing results from the Large Hadron Collider, the new, $8 billion particle accelerator built on the Swiss-French border. If string theory is right, the collider should produce a host of new particles. There is even a small chance that it may find evidence for the mysterious extra dimensions of string theory. "If you measure something which confirms certain elaborations of string theory, then you've got indirect evidence for the multiverse," says Bernard Carr, a cosmologist at Queen Mary University of London.

Support for the multiverse might also come from some upcoming space missions. [Stanford physicist Leonard] Susskind says there is a chance that the European Space Agency's Planck satellite, scheduled for launch early next year, could lend a hand. Some multiverse models predict that our universe must have a specific geometry that would bend the path of light rays in specific ways that might be detectable by Planck, which will analyze radiation left from the Big Bang. If Planck's observations match the predictions, it would suggest the existence of the multiverse.

Physicist Sean Carroll explains the multiverse theory in this three-minute video.

The point is not that we have shown that the multiverse theory is true because we haven't. The point is that there is no shortage of scientific explanations for why our universe exists and has the properties that it has. Like Laplace, what we can say is that we have no need for the God hypothesis. People might want to believe in a god to satisfy some emotional or psychological need, but we do not need such an external agency to explain our being. As Steven Weinberg said, "One of the great achievements of science has been, if not to make it impossible for intelligent people to be religious, then at least to make it possible for them not to be religious."

Will religious people now give up on god as they realize that there really is no hope for finding something that only god or religion can explain? I hope so, but am not optimistic. Although religion has proved itself to be totally useless for anything except as a soothing or scary bedtime story for children and credulous and insecure adults, the desire to believe in a god is so strong in some religious people that they will find some other leaky boat to put their faith in, even as the waves of disbelief wash over them.

September 20, 2010

Hawaii Five-0

They are apparently making a new version of this hit TV show that ran from 1968 to 1980. I don't know if it will reprise the theme music from the original, which was one of the best ever.

Ah, nostalgia! Too bad that the increased demand for commercial time is squeezing out opening theme music.

The unbearable whininess of rich people

This amazing blog post by a University of Chicago law professor complains how unfair it is to characterize people like him as rich and how his family will be badly hurt by letting the Bush tax cuts expire for those earning over $250,000. Michael O'Hare and Brad De Long deduce that the complaining professor earns around $450,000 and deliver much needed rebukes.

[Update: The law professor Todd Henderson has since deleted his post and given up blogging as a result of the response to his post, and also because he says his wife strongly disagreed with him and did not consent to him posting in the first place.]

As the effort to make the rich even richer gets under full swing this fall, we are going to hear a lot of whining like this as the December 31st expiry deadline draws near. A lot of smoke is going to be blown about what constitutes being rich and so it is good to bear in mind the facts of income distribution in the US.

20% of households earn less than $19,178
20% of households earn between $19,178 and $36,000
20% of households earn between $36,000 and $57,568
20% of households earn between $57,568 and $91,705
20% of households earn over $91,705

The median household income is around $50,000. ('Median' means that half earn below and half above that figure). If we break down even further the people in the very top brackets:

10% of households earn between $100,349 and $138.254
5% of households earn between $138,254 and $329,070
1% of households earn between $329,070 and $482,129
0.5% of households earn between $482,129 and $1,401,635
0.1% of households earn between $1,401,635 and $6,473,710
0.01% of households earn over $6,473,710

So the Chicago law professor's family earns about nine times the median income, is in the top 1% or so of income earners in the country, and yet whines about how tough it is for him to get by. This curious combination of greed and entitlement of the rich seems to be getting worse. In a previous post, I showed how the income share of the top 10% has increased greatly since 1979, a period that is referred to as 'The Great Divergence'. Kevin Drum provides a chart that breaks it down even more.


It is clear that the rich have been making out like bandits and they still want more. Anyone still doubt that we have an oligarchy? How bad must it get before people like the anti-tax zealots among the tea partiers realize that they are being played for suckers by the oligarchy?

The last goal post?

One of the fascinating things about watching how the science and religion debate has evolved is to see how religious apologists have been backpedaling, shifting the goal posts, trying to find ways to avoid having god become redundant. This process has been going on ever since scientists no longer saw their role as reconciling science with religious revelations and started pursuing their lines of inquiry wherever it led. This decoupling of science from religion began in the mid-19th century as the new sciences of geology and biology made it impossible to believe in a 6,000 year-old Earth or in the special creation of species.

This began the inevitable process of scientific explanations contradicting the religious ones that had been used as evidence of god's actions. As various inexplicable phenomena and miracles that had been considered evidence of god's actions came under scientific scrutiny, they were found to have natural, physical explanations. And science has the huge advantage over religion in that it is reliable and predictable, unlike god explanations. As Stephen Hawking says in this interview, science will win over religion because science works.

The more sophisticated theologians and religious apologists realized that having their faith depend upon the existence of such gaps in knowledge was a losing strategy that was causing religion to look silly because it required constant shifting of things that were supposedly inexplicable by science ('intelligent design' being the most recent manifestation) and 'the god of the gaps' became a term of derision, with even religious apologists disavowing it. As Isaac Asimov said, "To surrender to ignorance and call it God has always been premature, and it remains premature today."

As an example, in response to the publicity surrounding the book The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow that claims that god is an unnecessary concept, the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams was quoted as saying that "Belief in God is not about plugging a gap in explaining how one thing relates to another within the Universe. It is the belief that there is an intelligent, living agent on whose activity everything ultimately depends for its existence." (I have just started reading The Grand Design and will provide a review when I am done.)

Williams' comments were supported by other religious leaders in Britain. Denis Alexander, director of The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, said "The 'god' that Stephen Hawking is trying to debunk is not the creator God of the Abrahamic faiths who really is the ultimate explanation for why there is something rather than nothing." Similarly, Fraser Watts, an Anglican priest and a scholar in the history of science at Cambridge University, said that "A creator God provides a reasonable and credible explanation of why there is a universe."

These apologists' words signal a shift to what may be the last goal post. Rather than looking for specific inexplicable things to ascribe to god's actions, a strategy that has not worked well for them in the past, they have gone big, for the Hail Mary, saying that the universe itself, either its physical existence or the reason for its existence or both, is inexplicable without god. The cartoon strip Jesus and Mo recent points out one obvious problem with this approach.

(Another response to Hawking's claim that god is unnecessary is to adopt a world-weary 'So what?' attitude, and suggest that these questions are not even interesting. Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said: "Science is about explanation. Religion is about interpretation ... The Bible simply isn't interested in how the Universe came into being." Sacks also tried to pooh-pooh the support for atheism generated by Hawking's book, telling the London Times "What would we do for entertainment without scientists telling us with breathless excitement that God did not create the universe as if they were the first to discover this astonishing proposition.")

So sophisticated modern theologians have been reduced to claiming that god has to exist as the ultimate creator of the universe, which is no different from one of Thomas Aquinas's old proofs of god that said that you needed something to produce the something of our universe out of a prior nothingness. This argument may have seemed plausible at one time. After all, the universe has a lot of stuff in the form of planets and stars. How could all this stuff suddenly appear? Surely their sudden appearance must violate the laws of science and the only way this could happen is because of the actions of some divine being?

But that argument is simply not credible anymore. Theologians think that since there is matter in the universe that did not exist before the universe came into being, this must constitute a violation of currently accepted scientific laws and thus requires some agency to create it, and thus is evidence for god. Of course, as I have argued before, saying 'God did it' is not an explanation for anything in the first place but in the next post, I will show why this hope is misplaced even on scientific grounds because the creation of the universe does not violate any laws.

September 19, 2010

Down with pennies! (and nickels too)

(via Balloon Juice)

Joke contest results

When it comes to jokes, I prefer one-liners and other short gags to the long form that requires an elaborate set-up. The BBC recently reported on a joke contest and here are some of the one-liners that I found funny.

"Why did the chicken commit suicide? To get to the other side."
"How many Spaniards does it take to change a light bulb? Juan."
"As a kid I was made to walk the plank. We couldn't afford a dog."

My personal favorite was: "Hedgehogs - why can't they just share the hedge?"

The joke that won the contest ("I've just been on a once-in-a-lifetime holiday. I'll tell you what, never again.") I did not find particularly funny, while two of the above jokes were selected by the judges to be in the worst jokes category, which shows that when it comes to humor, there is no accounting for tastes.

An inside look at election coverage

Labor Day used to be the traditional kick off for political campaigns though we now live in nonstop, year-round campaign mode. But as we approach election day in November, we should steel ourselves for an even increased focus on the trivial and sensational.

If you want to better understand why election coverage is so vapid, see Michael Hastings's excellent GQ article Hack: Confessions of a Presidential Campaign Reporter on his experience in the 2008 elections.

Hastings is the reporter whose story in Rolling Stone resulted in General Stanley McChrystal being fired from his job in charge of the war in Afghanistan. In 2007, he was assigned by Newsweek to cover the front runners in the 2008 election and although this was considered a plum high-profile assignment, his increasing disgust with the kind of access politics that was required resulted in him quitting midway through and moving to another beat.

September 18, 2010

Ratzinger and Hitler

Richard Dawkins takes on Pope Ratzinger's absurd charge that Hitler's crimes grew out of atheism at the Protest the Pope rally in London which drew about 10,000 people. Hitler was baptized a Catholic and never renounced it.

Dawkins really lets the pope have it. And he deserves it.

(Thanks to Why Evolution is True.)

"Please don't upset me by saying there is no god"

In her regular column in the Cleveland Plain Dealer on September 15, 2010, Connie Schultz demonstrated once again the curious sense of entitlement that religious people have. She began as follows: "Years ago, I criticized atheists who wanted to dissuade believers of their faith. My argument was always the same: Why don't you just leave us alone?"

In response, I wrote her a personal email:

Dear Ms. Schultz,

I read with interest your column today that started by saying that years ago you criticized atheists who did not leave you alone but wanted to dissuade you from your faith.

What exactly were these atheists doing to bother you? Were they coming to your door? Were they stopping you on the street to hand out their literature? Do they have TV and radio shows that preach their viewpoint and warn of dire consequences if you do not convert to their point of view?

As an atheist myself, it doesn't bother me when people express their ideas in the public sphere, or even in the private sphere. Those people think they have the truth and want to convince me and that's their right. Similarly atheists think that they are right and seek to convince others of it. These kinds of exchanges are no different from debates over politics or anything else, where the goal is to win hearts and minds.

It also does not bother me that your newspaper provides almost saturation coverage of religious matters, especially concerning the recent closing of Catholic churches or religious festivals and parades in Little Italy. In fact, after an initial swipe at a few religious people, your entire column today was a paean to the virtues of religion. Despite the cutbacks in the size of the paper, it still has a Saturday page devoted to religious matters, with a column dedicated to advancing religious views. Do you think atheist views get anywhere near that level of coverage? Would they even consider allowing an atheist regular use of that Saturday column space?

So I find it a little odd that when atheists speak out about their disbelief, religious people feel as if they are being imposed upon, as if they have the right to be shielded from opposing views. Are they so insecure of what they believe that they need to be surrounded only by affirming views?

There is no reason why religious beliefs should be privileged and shielded from criticism. Surely we all benefit from a full airing of a wide diversity of views on issues?


Mano Singham

No response yet.

September 17, 2010

Subtitles? We don't need no stinkin' subtitles!

The state of the nation's party politics

Now that the primary season for the 2010 mid-term elections is over, it might be good to revisit the question of where the Democratic and Republican parties are. While the basic pro-war/pro-business one-party oligarchic nature of politics is still intact, there have been some interesting developments in how the two factions have evolved.

The Democrats are still pretty much where they have always been, trying to faithfully serve the interests of the oligarchy while pretending to be concerned about the rest of us. As I warned a couple of months ago, it is the Democrats that the oligarchy use to really stick it to the poor. In this case, we see that Obama has stacked his National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform with people determined to reduce social security benefits. The commission will deliver its report on December 1, conveniently after the elections. The plan seems to be that the Democrats can campaign on 'protecting social security' and then cut the benefits after the election is done.

Republican Party politics has been more turbulent. Immediately after the 2008 election I wrote a series of posts about what its future might look like. In December of that year, I wrote that there were four groups vying for leadership in the wake of their election debacle.

One group consists of the old-style conservatives, people who want smaller government and fiscal restraint, balanced budgets, rule of law, respect for personal liberties, and a non-interventionist foreign policy.

The second group is the rank-and-file social values base for whom guns, gays, abortion, stem-cell research, flag, the Bible, and immigration are the main concerns. Many of these people belong to the lower and middle economic classes.

The third group is the Christianist leadership, people like Pat Robertson, James Dobson, and John Hagee, who claim to speak for the social values base but, as I argued in the previous post in this series, whose overriding allegiance is to a low-tax ideology (especially for the rich) and who vehemently oppose any government programs that provide assistance to the poor.

The fourth group is the neoconservatives. The neoconservatives are the wild card in American politics, wreaking havoc wherever they go. Their interests lie less in domestic policies and more in creating a muscular foreign policy. They dream of America exercising hegemony over the world, using its might to destroy its enemies. They are firmly convinced that America is a force for good in the world and should not be shy about using its military, political, and economic muscle to dominate it.

In particular they want to remake the Middle East, to secure its oil supplies and change the governments of those countries that they perceive as threats to Israel, since they view the interests of America as identical with those of Israel (especially the hard-right spectrum of Israeli politics), and that what is good for one country is good for the other.

The second and third groups were always the ones that brought passion and enthusiasm to the party, who could be counted on to vote in large numbers. They really are the modern Republican Party. For a long time the first group was able to use that energy to win elections while effectively shutting them out from actual leadership. But this group has been steadily driven out of the party, hounded out as not being true believers in the cause, with the last few years seeing the process accelerating dramatically. The neoconservatives, while not driven out, seem to be lying low, waiting to see what is going to emerge from the infighting before tipping their hand.

The new leadership of the party seems to be coming in the form of the so-called 'Tea Party' activists that has seized control of the agenda of the Republican party. This consists of a vague coalition of the second and third groups in an uneasy alliance. The reason for the shakiness of the alliance is that while each group needs the other, they are not quite in sync in their goals. What unites them is an anti-government/anti-tax focus but the original Tea Party faithful seem to have a libertarian focus that puts them somewhat at odds with the ardent social conservatives who want to impose their narrow, intolerant, and sex-obsessed social agenda on everyone. The social conservatives want their social agenda front and center of this new movement but the libertarian faction fears that such issues will be divisive.

The Tea Party is using the Republican party to further its goals but it does not see its role as mainly electing Republicans at any cost. As can be seen in the primary challenges they mounted against the party establishment's candidates, they see having candidates who are 'one of them' as more important than being electable, though their candidates are doing surprisingly well in the polls despite their extreme, and sometimes even nutty, views.

Nowhere has this tension surfaced more than in Delaware where the Republicans selected as its senatorial nominee Christine O'Donnell. While she is well within the mainstream of the party in terms of her views, a few years ago she would not have made it to so far since she is an outsider. What makes her win so striking is that she won in the face of active opposition from within the leadership of the Republican Party. This particular race has truly alarmed the party leadership for that very reason but there is nothing they can do now. Having pandered to the Tea Partiers and the memberships of the second and third groups for so many years because of the energy and votes they bring in, they find they cannot control them anymore. Over time, the leadership have fed this group red meat in the form of a belligerent anti-intellectualism that scorned serious policies and campaigned on inflammatory slogans that appealed to visceral emotions but were empty of any serious content. And their fellow Villagers in the media of course, loved this, since it made for good theater. But their followers took these slogans as serious policy options and the perceived lack of commitment of the Republican party leadership to actually implementing these slogans has caused this revolt. The tiger has escaped and is turning on its masters.

The tension between the Republican leadership and the Tea Party is already clearly visible. The Tea Party is currently a loose federation of local groups, although there is one faction called the Tea Party Express based in California that seems to be well-funded and centralized and is seeking to dominate the agenda of the movement. You can see the tensions within the Tea Party begin to surface between the libertarian faction and the social conservative faction, as this interview yesterday on NPR demonstrates.

How will this all play out? It is hard to say. Historically groups that suddenly sprout up like this have ended up either withering away as their initial energy dissipates and they start infighting or they become absorbed into existing parties or they become unified and institutionalized under a single umbrella as a special interest group that hangs around for some time, like the Moral Majority.

But stepping back and looking at the big picture, what is clear is that there has been a steady shift in US politics over the last few decades so that, comparing the situation now to what it was like during the 1960s, the Democratic Party has become the Republican Party, while the Republican Party has gone nuts.

POST SCRIPT: The Daily Show's take on the primary results

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September 16, 2010

Another sign that we have an oligarchy

Over at Slate Timothy Noah writes about the growing income inequality and the reduced social mobility that now characterize the United States.

In 1915, the richest 1% of the population obtained about 15% of the nation's income. "This was the era in which the accumulated wealth of America's richest families—the Rockefellers, the Vanderbilts, the Carnegies—helped prompt creation of the modern income tax, lest disparities in wealth turn the United States into a European-style aristocracy."

But now the top 1% gets 24% of the income. The rising share of the oligarchy can be seen in this graph of the income share of the top 10% over the last 100 years.


As Noah says:

When it comes to real as opposed to imagined social mobility, surveys find less in the United States than in much of (what we consider) the class-bound Old World. France, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Spain—not to mention some newer nations like Canada and Australia—are all places where your chances of rising from the bottom are better than they are in the land of Horatio Alger’s Ragged Dick…

According to the Central Intelligence Agency (whose patriotism I hesitate to question), income distribution in the United States is more unequal than in Guyana, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, and roughly on par with Uruguay, Argentina, and Ecuador. Income inequality is actually declining in Latin America even as it continues to increase in the United States.

Spanish for your nanny

(Thanks to Norm.)

Book review: Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart

This book is the story of Lenny, the 39-year old son on Russian Jewish immigrants to the US, who falls in love with Eunice, the 24-year old daughter of Korean Christian immigrants, though neither of them are religious. On one level this is the familiar story of cross-cultural tensions: between parents brought up in the traditional cultures of their country of origin and their children who have grown up in the US, and the difficulty for Lenny and Eunice to overcome the cultural baggage of different immigrant backgrounds and ages. (Fresh Air recently had an interview with Shteyngart which is where I heard about the book and was interested enough to read it.)

What fascinated me about the book is the background in which this relationship takes place. The time is a decade or two in the future and the state of the US that Shteyngart describes is what I have been gloomily predicting in my political analyses here. What he has done is take the trends that I have been writing about and extrapolated them to the extreme, resulting in a dystopian vision of what to expect if the US does not change course. In fact, the similarities between his vision and mine were so startling that this could have been a novel that I authored if I knew how to write a novel. In a way, this is a weakness of the author's imagination. He simply extrapolated all the current trends much as I might have done. There was no inspired bit of futurism of the kind that one finds in (say) Kurt Vonnegut's books, like the latter's invention of the concept of ice-nine in Cat's Cradle.

What the book portrays is an America that has collapsed from within. The manufacturing sector has disappeared and all that remains is the credit and retail shopping economy. The country is split between a small group of rich (referred to as High Net Worth Individuals) and many poor (Low Net Worth Individuals), some of the latter living in tent cities in public parks. The country is a one-party state ruled by a corrupt Bipartisan Party that monitors people closely, with checkpoints at all the major intersections with armed security personnel who check your identity and look for any warning signs of deviant behavior.

The immigrants who fled poverty and oppressive governments to come to the US as the land of opportunity decades ago now find that the US has the same kind of poverty and oppressive government they thought they had left behind, while their former home countries are prosperous and much freer. As a result, the more successful immigrants have abandoned the US and gone back to their home countries.

The dollar has sunk to such low values that it is no longer the reserve currency of the world and has been replaced by the Chinese yuan. The Europeans have also decoupled their economies from the US, seeing it as a basket case spiraling into oblivion. The most powerful person in the world is the governor of the Chinese Central Bank. China, Korea, Arab Middle East countries, Western Europe, and other nations are rich and powerful and modern, while the US is decaying everywhere, with crumbling roads and infrastructure and rotten public services, and police, National Guard and other protective services privatized to security contractors.

The US has declined so much that it can no longer win its wars and its latest conflict (with Venezuela) is going badly, with troops returning home injured and finding that there is no health care or jobs for them and becoming homeless.

Privacy has disappeared. The intimate details of everyone's personal life, down to one's income, credit rating, and even medical history can be retrieved by anyone on an iPhone-like device called an apparat that everyone carries around with them and is constantly looking at and communicating with as it streams information at them. People are obsessed with the trivial, such as shopping and monitoring the details of other people's lives and rating themselves and each other constantly using their devices. For example, in addition to giving others your personal history including the most intimate details, the devices can immediately rate your attractiveness, informing everyone nearby both your absolute score as well as your ranking in a room full of people, which is not good for the balding, paunchy Lenny who usually finds himself near the bottom in any group while Eunice is near the top.

Programming on the apparat is provided by ordinary people (like today's video bloggers) who go around showing what they see live and providing running commentary, and the only major content providers are variants of Fox News, with station names like FoxLiberty-Prime and FoxLiberty-Ultra. Newspaper reporters have ceased to exist. Books are no longer published.

This book has been described as a black comedy. Shteyngart does a good job of trying to interweave the personal story of two people with the broader political message. I found the latter aspect more interesting but the book was an enjoyable read. I probably would have found the book funnier if it seemed like a total fantasy and did not so accurately reinforce my own sense of foreboding about where the US is headed.

I have expressed before my puzzlement that the general public does not share my sense of alarm at the seriously wrong direction in which the US is headed. Most Americans seem to be complacent that everything is just fine and that AMERICA IS AND ALWAYS WILL BE THE GREATEST COUNTRY IN THE WORLD BECAUSE IT HAS BEEN CHOSEN BY GOD TO BE HIS SPECIAL NATION, even as their oligarchy pursues policies that are driving it into the ditch. Coming across this book was a relief in a way, to find that someone else shared my sense of concern and that I am not totally nuts. Shteyngart is, like me, an immigrant, the child of Russian Jews who came to the US when he was seven. It made me wonder if there was something about being an immigrant that makes us look more globally and long term, and be more alert to dangerous political trends.

September 15, 2010

Signs of the times


But can they get it on MTV?

When I need a good laugh, the folks from the Westboro Baptist Church never let me down. Their message is so absurdly anti-gay, so over the top, that I have long suspected that they are really a performance art troupe trying to get into the Guinness Book of Records by pulling off the longest-running prank in history.

Now they have decided to create a music video to spread their message. Check out the result.

Frankly, I think it needs work and so here's some advice, Westboro folks. No need to thank me.

First ditch the tune. "We are the world'? Please. Find something that is not so hackneyed and has a decent beat. Also ditch the keyboardist, and get some decent guitarists and drummer.

You also need to rewrite the lyrics to make it more catchy, cut the length in half, and get a better film editor. It would also help to have less mean-looking people as lead singers. Having people who can sing would also be a good idea. And what, your people couldn't take the trouble to memorize those cheesy words and had to read every one? That shows lack of commitment. And what is the deal with that guy waving a Canadian flag at the end?

The present music video is not going to achieve your goal of making people angry. It will make them fall asleep.

One-day conference: Religion Under Examination

The CFINO (Center for Inquiry Northeast Ohio) conference is on September 25 from 9:00am – 4:00pm at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Independence, Ohio

The theme is Religion Under Examination and the program and speakers look really interesting. More information and registration details can be found here.

The danger posed by irrational fear

The flames of fear that I wrote about before among some white, English speaking Christians in the US that they are under siege from Hispanics on the one hand and Muslims on the other has been fueled by xenophobic elements and fanned by media outlets like Fox News that have created a climate that people like Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and Sarah Palin have been able to exploit and whip up, each to serve their own personal goals. The coverage they get from so-called 'reputable' news outlets serve to merely expand the audience for their craziness. The few times I have seen these three people perform (and I use that word advisedly) I get the sense that they seem to be laughing at the stupidity of their ardent fans, at how easily they can be frightened. For such cynical manipulators, the whole thing seems to be a show that they use for their personal gain. Beck and Palin even had the audacity to hold an event on September 11 in Anchorage and charge for tickets ranging from $75 up to $225.

Note how the people at the Glenn Beck/Sarah Palin rally on August 28 can conjure up all manner of fears but when asked for specific facts or actions to back up their claims, are at a loss.

Sam Seder talks to a person at the recent Beck/Palin rally who is articulate and not obviously nutty but yet cannot see that her claims are clearly self-contradictory, an indisputable sign that fear has overtaken reason.

It is easy to laugh at these people's ignorance. But the cost to the country is great. A country in the grip of irrational fears is one that can lash out and harm itself as well as others. As the great Tbogg once said, "If the terrorists are smart, they will give up on trying to attack us and just sit back and wait, because eventually our entire country is going to be so stupid that people will start sticking their tongues in wall sockets just to see what electricity tastes like."

When people say that they think Obama is not an American but is a communist and Muslim, they are carrying this fact-free and ignorant paranoia to its extreme end, trying to make concrete their vague fears. What is ironic is that while these people are obsessing about phantom threats, they seem to be oblivious or unconcerned that the more serious and concrete threats to America come not from outside but from within: the heavy financial burden of two wars and an extended worldwide military presence that is bankrupting the country while fueling anti-American sentiment abroad, the decline of its manufacturing base and the rise of an out-of-control financial sector, the growing power and rapaciousness of the oligarchy that is bleeding the country dry for its own advantage, the danger of high unemployment moving from being a transient state caused by recession to becoming 'structural' (i.e., permanent), and the assault on people's privacy and due process protections by the government.

These fearful people express deep concern about budget deficits while opposing tax increases and advocating tax cuts for the rich, while ignoring the costs of the wars and the bloated military and the out-of-control health care costs, all of which are the main causes of the deficits.

If Obama were a different kind of person he could combat this paranoia and douse these irrational fears. He could reprise Franklin Delano Roosevelt's call, in his inaugural address after his first election in 1932 in the wake of the Great Depression, that 'the only thing we have to fear is fear itself'. The new carpet in the Oval Office actually has this quote as one of many stitched into it. But Obama cannot do that because he too needs the country to be in fear since it is the only way that he can obtain public and judicial acquiescence for his assault on civil liberties and for his military adventures that cover his and the Democratic Party's collusion with the oligarchic interests.

The very fear that Obama exploits for his own benefit is the same fear that is returning to bite him. He has been hoist with his own petard.

September 14, 2010

Anyone want a used Koran?

Now that the Florida church has decided against its Koran cookout, there is a question that I have not seen asked, and that is what the pastor Terry Jones plans to do with the 200 reprieved Korans now in his possession.

He can't give them away or put them alongside the Bible in motel rooms because that might seem like proselytizing for Islam. He can't simply toss them in the trash, which would seem almost as incendiary as burning them. I presume he does not want to hang on to them and risk being struck by a thunderbolt from his god, because these gods get really jealous when they think you are flirting with other religions. His options are really limited.

Anyone know what he is going to do with them?

As The Daily Show points out, this episode illustrates that the religious loonies have taken over the national discourse…

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… so may the best god win!

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Jazzing up the national anthem

I wrote sometime ago about the veneration that Americans had for their flag that bordered on fetishism. This contrasts with the liberties taken with the national anthem. While Americans jump to their feet, remove their hats, place their hands over their hearts, and do all manner of things to show respect, the singers of the anthem are allowed to take all manner of liberties with it.

At any public event, for example, you are never sure if you are going to get a jazz or blues or classic version. The variations that I have not heard so far consist of rock and disco, though maybe even that was done in the 70s. Has anyone ever heard a rap version? Are their some music modes that are considered inherently disrespectful and so are not even attempted for fear of causing outrage?

I can't imagine that this freedom to interpret the anthem broadly always existed and I wonder when people in the US began allowing the anthem to be varied this way.

By contrast, whenever I hear the national anthem of other countries, they always seem to do it straight.

Update: In the comments Scott reminded me of Jimi Hendrix's version at Woodstock in 1969. That counts as a rock version and was pretty wild.

Blog comments policy

Here is the final comments policy. I will repost it periodically for the benefit of new arrivals to this blog.

  1. In the comment box that says 'Name', you must insert a person's name only. The name can be a pseudonym but inserting the name of a product or company or service is grounds for deletion. So 'Ann Jones' or 'Joe' or 'Genghis Khan' is allowable, but 'Acme Roofing Company' or 'Diet Coke' or 'essay writing services' or 'Joe the plumber' is not.
  2. If a comment seems genuine but violates the above rule, I reserve the right to delete it entirely or simply replace the name with a made-up name of my own choosing.
  3. You can continue to insert a link to a company or product or commercial service site in the URL box and this will make the name in the name box into a hyperlink to that site. This will be the only means by which to advertise or drive traffic to a site or product.
  4. Any link inserted in the body of a comment is also grounds for deletion of the entire comment unless the link is pointing to information relevant to the post.
  5. Even if a comment meets all these criteria, I still reserve the right to delete it if I think its chief purpose is to advertise and not advance the discussion. So comments like 'Great post!' and 'I would like to read more on this topic' will get the boot.
  6. The comments will continue to be unmoderated, so almost all genuine comments on recent posts should continue to appear almost immediately, just as before. If your comment does not appear immediately or even after a few minutes, it means it has been flagged as potential spam because of the appearance of some words that trigger the filter (words which in isolation can be quite harmless but in combination with other words can cause the filter to sit up and take notice) and it will appear only after I have got around to checking in on the filtered comments board.
  7. If a comment contains language that might offend, I reserve the right to censor specific words using the common practice of replacing selected letters with hyphens.

The current sad state of the American psyche

America is a big and diverse country so any generalization that treats its people as a single entity with one set of qualities is going to be wrong. But having said that, I do want to make some fairly broad statements about one particular group, that of white, middle class, middle-aged and elderly Americans. Understanding the state of mind of this particular group is important because although it represents only one segment of opinion and class interests, it is vocal, votes disproportionately, and the shallow and sensationalistic media focuses on it and is sympathetic to its interests. Furthermore, as Kevin Drum notes, how responsive politicians are to your concerns is directly related to how much your income is. The sad truth is that the fundamental premise of democracy of 'one person, one vote' has effectively become 'one dollar, one vote'.

My comments about the psyche of this group are based on those events that have received considerable attention in the news recently and the results of recent primary elections running up to the mid-term congressional elections.

The one thing that strikes me is that this group seems to be in the grip of irrational fear and despair, almost to the point of paranoia. One symptom of this is that they look back on the past as a wonderful time, a golden age of peace and prosperity and wholesome living, and the current times as fraught with a vague and inchoate sense of danger. They tend to take real but small current incidents, inflate their significance beyond all reason and evidence to gigantic proportions, and then quake in fear of the monster that they themselves have conjured up.

These people seem to think that the country is under existential threat from enemies internal and external. Externally, they think that al Qaeda or some Islamic equivalent is plotting to launch another attack on targets in the US. This is actually very likely to be true (after all, those groups explicitly keep saying they want to attack the US and its interests) but why does it cause such fear? Even the US government says that there exist less than a hundred such militants in Afghanistan, with the rest (still a small number) in the remoter areas of Pakistan. While such a small but determined group can create some death and destruction, even the remote possibility of one on the scale of another 9/11, it would still be a tiny pin prick for a country like America and not by any means an existential threat. Does anyone really think that Osama bin Laden's forces will defeat the US military and that he will become the ruler of the US? Any mature country and mature people should be able to shrug off the threats of groups like al Qaeda as merely irritants and go about their normal business unconcerned. And yet these people are acting like elephants terrified by mice.

Related to this is the fear that Muslims are infiltrating the country, Christianity is under threat in the US and Islam taking over, and that Sharia law will soon be imposed on everyone. It is true that the number of Muslims is growing more rapidly than the general population because Muslims, like ultra-orthodox Jews and Catholics and Mormons, tend to favor large families, but they are still a tiny minority. The proposition that Christianity will be replaced with Islam in the US is laughable on its face but that has not stopped people from taking it seriously. The fuss over the Islamic community center in New York and the attacks on Muslims and mosques in various parts of the country are symptoms of this irrational fear.

Another fear is that the country is going to be overrun by Mexicans and other people from south of the border and this has resulted in increased anti-Hispanic sentiment, rooted in concerns about illegal immigration. Again, the symptom of the irrationality lies in these people taking the 14th Amendment guarantees that almost all babies born in the US are automatically US citizens and elevating this into fear of a colossal scheme for Mexicans to come to the US purely to deliver their babies here as part of a long term plan to overwhelm the US demographically. A variant of this crazy fear is that Muslims are also coming here to deliver babies so that, in a couple of decades, they can create home-grown terrorist cells.

These trends are disturbing to say the least. When enough people develop paranoid fears, they do stupid things.

Next: How these fears are inflamed.

September 13, 2010

The fog of religious language

When one discusses the science-religion conflict with sophisticated religious apologists, one has to be alert to two things in order to avoid finding yourself in a fog where unsure of what you are talking about.

One fog generator is that sophisticated apologists tend to shift without warning between metaphor and the concrete, something that I have written about before. In order to stay on firm ground, it is good to keep clear what the discussion is about.

The first thing is to ask believers whether the god they believe in exists as a separate material entity, just like a photon or electron. If the answer is yes, then the question of god's existence becomes an empirical question, like the existence of a photon or electron, and they are obliged to provide evidence for why we should believe in its existence. If the answer is no, and their god is some kind of metaphor, then we can stop the discussion right there. The usefulness of metaphors is not something that the methods of science are designed to investigate.

What usually happens though is that they refuse to be pinned down. They assert that god is not material and exists outside of space and time but then proceed to ascribe properties and actions to god that can only be true if god is a material entity existing within our space and time. You should press them as to how they can possibly know that their conception of god exists at all, let alone its properties, if it 'exists outside of space and time', since the speaker obviously lives within our space and time.

What one should be alert for is the sleight of hand that speaks of god as a metaphor in order to avoid having to provide evidence when it is requested and then, when the discussion has moved on, to make assertions ('God wants us to do this' and 'God is like this') that treats god as if it has a material existence.

As an example of the kind of woolly thinking that permeates religion-speak, consider this disappointing interview that Jon Stewart of The Daily Show had with religious apologist Marilynne Robinson. The problem with the interview was not that Stewart made some trivial errors like confusing dark matter with anti-matter. It is that the whole conversation was highly vacuous, reducing Stewart to making absurd statements that science is like faith.

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While watching the interview, I felt there was something familiar about Robinson's name and then I remembered. She had written a review of Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion for Harpers magazine back in November 2006. She did not like the book but that is fair enough. Reviewers are not obliged to give positive reviews. What was bad about the review was that it gave the reader little idea of what the main argument of Dawkins' book was, because of the fog of religion-speak that she generates.

POST SCRIPT: Richard Dawkins on clarity

He makes a good point in that what religious people object to about the new atheists is that we are shunning complicated theological/philosophical circumlocutions about god and stating clearly why there is no reason to believe in him/her/it. Clarity is the enemy of religious apologetics.

September 10, 2010

Light blogging until Tuesday

Because of some personal commitments, the long posts will continue on their regular schedule, but I will not be able to respond to comments until Tuesday.

Is religion good for anything?

As science has advanced, religious believers have been increasingly threatened by the fact that religion may become irrelevant in the sense that god is not actually required for anything, other than to provide comfort to those people who fear death and feel the need to believe in some powerful deity. The response has been to assert that religion and science do not conflict because they provide answers to different kinds of questions. In effect, they are said to occupy different niches in knowledge space. Over time, a cottage industry has grown up devoted to finding different ways to state this single idea. So now we have statements such as that science addresses 'how' questions while religion addresses 'why' questions or that science deals with questions that have a material basis while religion deals with non-material moral and ethical questions, questions of meaning, etc.

In a recent online debate one saw other variants of this with Lord Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of England, being quoted as saying that "Science takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts things together to see what they mean."

This sound good (at least to the accomodationists who want to think that science and religion are compatible) until you stop and think for a moment and realize that it has no content. After all, anybody can ascribe meaning on anything. What makes religious people think that the meaning they bestow on things should be taken any more seriously than any other claim to meaning?

Religions have for a long time got used to making assertions about morality and meaning in the name of god or their holy books and having people accept it as having authority. Religious people tend to think that anything that science cannot give a glib answer to is something for which we should accept religion's glib answers. As the Jesus and Mo cartoon strip astutely points out, what gives religion its edge over science in the popular mind is that is that it has been allowed to make stuff up.

For a long time this practice went largely unchallenged except in a few intellectual circles, but the new/unapologetic atheists have refused to abide by this polite fiction that religion provides specific insights and answers to deep questions that are inaccessible to other forms of inquiry. They have posed the question of why should we take seriously religion's answers to the 'why' or moral or ethical or meaning questions. They refuse to grant religion a privileged role in addressing any question and because they have taken their challenge out of purely academic and intellectual circles and into the popular public sphere they have caused turmoil. Religious leaders are unsettled by having their authority challenged and being asked to provide reasons as to why their assertions should be taken any more seriously than the ranting of any random person in the street who claims to hear divine voices in his or her head.

What should not be allowed is for apologists to postulate unchallenged that religion is the place that one should go to as the source of meaning and morality, and they should be asked to justify why the answers to such questions could not just as well have come from some non-religious source such as the study of psychology or the social sciences or cognitive science or neurology or evolution

Another claim of religion is that it is the source of wisdom. Sacks says, "There is more to wisdom than science. It cannot tell us why we are here or how we should live." Mary Midgley, a frequent writer on religion, says that 'real wisdom' can be found in the Bible. But what exactly is this wisdom of which they speak? When pressed, the answer that is provided is usually some variant of what is known as the Golden Rule, that one should treat others the way that one would wish to be treated. But this precept transcends any particular religion and is something whose value and utility also arises quite naturally out of evolutionary thinking, so claiming that it is an insight arising purely from religion cannot be justified.

It is not that wisdom cannot be found in the Bible (or the Koran or the Bhagavad Gita). Of course it can. Real wisdom can also be found in complex works of literature, including Shakespeare and Tolstoy and Tagore and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. People from all walks of life who have thought long and hard about the nature of the human condition are bound to come up with insights that are meaningful even if not always original.

Religious apologists should be asked what is it that lifts religious insights above those emerging from any other deep thinker. The answer is, of course, nothing. And there is certainly nothing to suggest the usually banal insights that it does come up with originate from the kind of entity that most people identify as god.

POST SCRIPT: Religion! What is it good for?

Replace 'war' with 'religion' in this Edwin Starr classic and the song still makes sense.

September 09, 2010

Why not ignore them?

Ok, this is my last word on this silly Koran burning business.

People have every right to burn the Koran if they want to, just as they have the right to build community centers wherever they want provided they comply with zoning laws. But instead of ignoring such a small issue, we have the absurd spectacle of even President Obama and General Petraeus getting into the act and calling for the priest to desist because of Muslim sensitivities. Don't they realize that you can never placate hypersensitive people? If not this, it will be something else that inflames those who are quick to anger at any perceived affront, whatever their religion.

What is the matter with Obama that he feels he has to insert himself into these trivial issues, like he did before with the Henry Louis Gates affair? Doesn't he have real work to do like deal with unemployment? By speaking on this he is simply begging for some other publicity seeker to think up some new scheme to grab the headlines.

Update: The burning has been canceled.

Getting even stranger

It turns out that the church that is planning to burn the Korans on September 11 is even weirder than we thought.

The New War Between Science and Religion

(This article of mine was published on May 19, 2010 in The Chronicle of Higher Education.)

There is a new war between science and religion, rising from the ashes of the old one, which ended with the defeat of the antievolution forces in the 2005 "intelligent design" trial. The new war concerns questions that are more profound than whether or not to teach evolution. Unlike the old science-religion war, this battle is going to be fought not in the courts but in the arena of public opinion. The new war pits those who argue that science and "moderate" forms of religion are compatible worldviews against those who think they are not.

The former group, known as accommodationists, seeks to carve out areas of knowledge that are off-limits to science, arguing that certain fundamental features of the world—such as the Heisenberg uncertainty principle and the origin of the universe—allow for God to act in ways that cannot be detected using the methods of science. Some accommodationists, including Francis Collins, head of the National Institutes of Health, suggest that there are deeply mysterious, spiritual domains of human experience, such as morality, mind, and consciousness, for which only religion can provide deep insights.

Prestigious organizations like the National Academy of Sciences have come down squarely on the side of the accommodationists. On March 25, the NAS let the John Templeton Foundation use its venue to announce that the biologist (and accommodationist) Francisco Ayala had been awarded its Templeton Prize, with the NAS president himself, Ralph Cicerone, having nominated him. The foundation has in recent years awarded its prize to scientists and philosophers who are accommodationists, though it used to give it to more overtly religious figures, like Mother Teresa and Billy Graham. Critics are disturbed at the NAS's so closely identifying itself with the accommodationist position. As the physicist Sean Carroll said, "Templeton has a fairly overt agenda that some scientists are comfortable with, but very many are not. In my opinion, for a prestigious scientific organization to work with them sends the wrong message."

In a 2008 publication titled Science, Evolution, and Creationism, the NAS stated: "Science and religion are based on different aspects of human experience. ... Because they are not a part of nature, supernatural entities cannot be investigated by science. In this sense, science and religion are separate and address aspects of human understanding in different ways. Attempts to pit science and religion against each other create controversy where none needs to exist. ... Many religious beliefs involve entities or ideas that currently are not within the domain of science. Thus, it would be false to assume that all religious beliefs can be challenged by scientific findings."

Those of us who disagree—sometimes called "new atheists"—point out that historically, the scope of science has always expanded, steadily replacing supernatural explanations with scientific ones. Science will continue this inexorable march, making it highly likely that the accommodationists' strategy will fail. After all, there is no evidence that consciousness and mind arise from anything other than the workings of the physical brain, and so those phenomena are well within the scope of scientific investigation. What's more, because the powerful appeal of religion comes precisely from its claims that the deity intervenes in the physical world, in response to prayers and such, religious claims, too, fall well within the domain of science. The only deity that science can say nothing about is a deity who does nothing at all.

In support of its position, the National Academy of Sciences makes a spurious argument: "Newspaper and television stories sometimes make it seem as though evolution and religion are incompatible, but that is not true. Many scientists and theologians have written about how one can accept both faith and the validity of biological evolution. Many past and current scientists who have made major contributions to our understanding of the world have been devoutly religious. ... Many scientists have written eloquently about how their scientific studies have increased their awe and understanding of a creator. The study of science need not lessen or compromise faith."

But the fact that some scientists are religious is not evidence of the compatibility of science and religion. As Michael Shermer, founder and editor of Skeptic magazine, says in his book Why People Believe Weird Things (A.W.H. Freeman/Owl Book, 2002), "Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons." Jerry Coyne, a professor in the department of ecology and evolution at the University of Chicago, notes, "True, there are religious scientists and Darwinian churchgoers. But this does not mean that faith and science are compatible, except in the trivial sense that both attitudes can be simultaneously embraced by a single human mind."

Accommodationists are alarmed that their position has been challenged by a recent flurry of best-selling books, widely read articles, and blogs. In Britain an open letter expressing this concern was signed by two Church of England bishops; a spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain; a member of the Evangelical Alliance; Professor Lord Winston, a fertility pioneer; Professor Sir Martin Evans, a winner of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine; and others. The letter said, "We respectfully ask those contemporary Darwinians who seem intent on using Darwin's theory as a vehicle for promoting an anti-theistic agenda to desist from doing so as they are, albeit unintentionally, turning people away from the theory."

Such solicitousness for the sensitivities of so-called religious moderates is not new. During the run-up to the Scopes trial, in 1925, the accommodationists of that era were similarly uneasy about Clarence Darrow's defending John T. Scopes because they felt that his openly expressed scorn for religious beliefs might alienate potential religious allies. But Darrow's performance in that trial is now viewed as one of the high points in opposing the imposition of religious indoctrination in public schools. "Few Americans have ever done so much for their country in a whole lifetime as Darrow did in two hours," H.L. Mencken wrote after Darrow's withering questioning of William Jennings Bryan.

Accommodationists frequently brand us new atheists as "extreme," "uncivil," "rude," and responsible for setting a "bad tone." However, those accusations are rarely accompanied by concrete examples of such impolite speech. Behind the charges seems to lie the assumption that it is rude to even question religious beliefs or to challenge the point of view of the accommodationists. Apparently the polite thing to do is keep quiet.

Mencken rightly deplored that undue deference to religious beliefs. He wrote in the immediate aftermath of the Scopes trial, "Even a superstitious man has certain inalienable rights," but he "has no right to be protected against the free criticism of those who do not hold them. He has no right to demand that they be treated as sacred. ... The meaning of religious freedom, I fear, is sometimes greatly misapprehended. It is taken to be a sort of immunity, not merely from governmental control but also from public opinion."

Why have organizations like the National Academy of Sciences sided with the accommodationists even though there is no imperative to take a position? After all, it would be perfectly acceptable to simply advocate for good science and stay out of this particular fray.

One has to suspect that tactical considerations are at play here. The majority of Americans subscribe to some form of faith tradition. Some scientists may fear that if science is viewed as antithetical to religion, then even moderate believers may turn away from science and join the fundamentalists.

But political considerations should not be used to silence honest critical inquiry. Richard Dawkins has challenged the accommodationist strategy, calling it "a cowardly cop-out. I think it's an attempt to woo the sophisticated theological lobby and to get them into our camp and put the creationists into another camp. It's good politics. But it's intellectually disreputable."

Evolution, and science in general, will ultimately flourish or die on its scientific merits, not because of any political strategy. Good science is an invaluable tool in humanity's progress and survival, and it cannot be ignored or suppressed for long. The public may turn against this or that theory in the short run but will eventually have to accept evolution, just as it had to accept the Copernican heliocentric system.

It is strange that the phrase "respect for religion" has come to mean that religious beliefs should be exempt from the close scrutiny that other beliefs are subjected to. Such an attitude infantilizes religious believers, suggesting that their views cannot be defended and can be preserved only by silencing those who disagree.

Mencken said of Bryan's religious beliefs, "Not only are they not supported by the known facts; they are in direct contravention of the known facts. No man whose information is sound and whose mind functions normally can conceivably credit them. ... What should be a civilized man's attitude toward such superstitions? It seems to me that the only attitude possible to him is one of contempt. If he admits that they have any intellectual dignity whatever, he admits that he himself has none. If he pretends to a respect for those who believe in them, he pretends falsely, and sinks almost to their level. When he is challenged he must answer honestly, regardless of tender feelings."

While Mencken's use of the word "contempt" is perhaps too harsh, he makes a valid point: that no beliefs should be exempt from scrutiny simply because many people have held them for a long time. It is time to remove the veil that has protected religious beliefs for so long. After all, if we concede without argument that mainstream religious beliefs are compatible with science, how can we argue that witchcraft and astrology are not?

September 08, 2010

More on the Koran burning: Let the games begin

As usual, I agree with the cartoon strip Jesus and Mo . Note the headline in the newspaper.

An inside look at election coverage

Labor Day used to be the traditional kick off for political campaigns though we now live in nonstop, year-round campaign mode. But as we approach election day in November, we should steel ourselves for an even increased focus on the trivial and sensational. If you want to better understand why election coverage is so vapid, see Michael Hastings's excellent GQ article Hack: Confessions of a Presidential Campaign Reporter on his experience in the 2008 elections. (Hastings is the reporter whose story in Rolling Stone resulted in General Stanley McChrystal being fired from his job in charge of the war in Afghanistan.) In 2007, Hastings was assigned by Newsweek to cover the front runners in the 2008 election and his increasing disgust with the kind of access politics that was required resulted in him quitting midway through and moving to another beat.

The attempt to counter WikiLeaks

In order to minimize the impact of the WikiLeaks expose, the government is trying to adopt a 'move along, nothing new to see here' message, hoping that the major media will drop the matter. But Nick Turse lists what he calls five 'jaw-dropping' stories to emerge from WikiLeaks release of documents that he says demand national media attention.

Scott Horton describes how what he calls the 'national-security state' is striking back at this latest threat to its information hegemony. Establishment journalists are tut-tutting about how WikiLeaks is being irresponsible by simply releasing secret documents without 'editing' them (which is just an euphemism for letting the governments decide what should be published) or 'providing context' (which means putting the government's spin on them).

As part of the anti-WikiLeaks propaganda effort, Admiral Michael Mullen, Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, claims that WikiLeaks may have "blood on its hands" because of the leaks. This is truly rich since it comes from someone whose forces have killed tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of innocent civilians in their invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Maximillian Forte has a good analysis on the benefits of the WikiLeaks release as well as on some of the concerns. The most serious one that is being used to discredit WikiLeaks is the lack of redaction of the names of Afghan informants who may now face reprisals at the hands of the brutal Taliban. It is not clear if the sheer volume of documents overwhelmed the small WikiLeaks staff or they were just careless or whether it was deliberate. But it now turns out that WikiLeaks asked for help from the US government to provide reviewers to tell them what names should be redacted and they were rebuffed. WikiLeaks asked the New York Times reporter to act as an intermediary to convey this request and the reporter did so even as the paper condemned WikiLeaks for not doing the redacting. This is typical New York Times behavior, always seeking to ingratiate itself with the government by dutifully relaying their spin.

WikiLeaks has again offered the US government the opportunity to review the second set of documents before their release to enable them to identify the names of informants that should be redacted. It looks like the government has again chosen to refuse the offer. Thus the US government shares considerable responsibility for any danger that befalls their informants. As Glenn Greenwald says:

In the conflict between the U.S. Government and WikiLeaks, it is true that one of the parties seems steadfastly indifferent to the lives of Afghan civilians. Despite the very valid criticisms that more care should have been exercised before that first set of documents was released, the party most guilty of that indifference is not WikiLeaks.

For whatever reasons -- because it wanted WikiLeaks to release the documents with the names of Afghan sources to damage its credibility, because it was indifferent to the potential harm -- the Pentagon simply failed to pursue that option [of reviewing the documents and suggesting redactions], just as it is doing now with the next 15,000 documents. Are those the actions of officials with any genuine concern for the harm to Afghan civilians, other than to the extent it be can exploited to harm its arch-enemy, WikiLeaks?

It seems pretty clear that the US government is lying (as usual) in its efforts to discredit WikLeaks. But its long history of lying is so great that only the establishment US press takes it seriously or at least pretends to do so.

Will the effort to shut down WikiLeaks succeed? There is always the chance that it might, given the power and ruthlessness of the US government. But WikiLeaks is nothing if not resourceful. They have exploited sophisticated computer encryption technology to elude investigators. Assange has also now become now a columnist for a Swedish newspaper, thus giving him journalist status and enabling him to take advantage of the strong protections that country provides journalists.

But whatever happens to WikiLeaks, they have shown the world that there is another model of journalism that is far more powerful than what we have now, and that does not require journalists to ingratiate and debase themselves towards powerful figures. It is interesting that younger people (those under 50) are more likely to see the WikiLeaks disclosure as serving the public interest than those over 50. I am hopeful that young and idealistic aspiring journalists, people who really care about getting the truth out there, will find Assange and WikiLeaks and even Bradley Manning, with their vaguely outlaw personas, hacker histories, and nose-thumbing at those in power, to be far more romantic and appealing role models than the toadying, well-coiffed crop that follows the Watergate model and are the ones that now show up on TV and in government and military press briefing rooms and spout platitudes in support of the government.

If I was an idealistic young man starting out as a journalist, I know which model I would choose.

September 07, 2010

File this under things that are unlikely to turn out well

An evangelical church in Florida is threatening to burn 200 copies of the Koran on September 11, "to honor those who were murdered" in 2001. The priest behind this effort says that the goal is "to send a message to al-Qaida." Of course, the 'message' that will be received is that there really is a war between Christians and Muslims.

We will be lucky if the only retaliation is that some equally crazy Muslims somewhere in the world burn 200 copies of the Bible. But if the Muslims up the ante and burn more than 200 Bibles, we may have an escalation that results in all religious books being burned.

What is it about religion that inspires crazy behavior on the part of its most ardent devotees?

Stephen Hawking on the universe and god

Recently religious apologists have taken to harping on the question "How can something come from nothing?" because they think that science cannot explain how the universe came into existence. Of course, their own answer that "God must have done it!" is not an answer at all since it merely shifts the problem to that of how god could come into being from nothing.

Stephen Hawking has recently published a book that says that we can indeed understand how the universe came into being without invoking god. The idea itself has been known for sometime but when Hawking says it, it generates a lot of media attention. Cosmologist Sean Carroll explains Hawking's ideas in a three-minute video.

In short, science has not proved that there is no god (because such proofs are impossible) but has shown is there is no need for god.

The last word (I hope!) on comments and spam

Thanks to everyone who made suggestions in response to my earlier post about how to manage the spam comments menace. There were some very useful ones from people on all sides of the issue.

The problem that I faced was that people sometimes use the comments feature of blogs seemingly purely to insert hyperlinks to their commercial interests in order to gain visibility for some product or service and to drive up their website rankings, and these pointless comments were cluttering up the boards and wasting the time of people who were trying to follow a discussion.

As the always highly knowledgeable Heidi Cool said, this blog server software already has a filter that flags some comments (using some algorithm) as suspected spam and sends them to me for approval, which may explain to some puzzled readers why their comments sometimes take a long time to appear whereas other people's seem to appear immediately. My problem was that it was getting harder and harder for me to decide which published comments to delete and which unpublished ones that were flagged as possible spam to approve, and I was spending far too much time agonizing over it.

One solution would be to make the comments board entirely moderated so that I would have to personally approve each comment before it appeared. This would take a lot of time (at least initially) because it would still require me to read all the comments but over time the volume should decrease as it should discourage spammers from posting in the first place as they would realize that the chance of it being approved would be small. I don't like that solution because that would cause delays in genuine comments appearing.

Another brutally simple solution that was suggested would be to get rid of the box where people can insert a URL. That would definitely solve the problem but I hesitate to do that because I see no real harm with people who are genuinely interested in the blog's content and want to add something to the discussion also giving a little boost to their own site along the way, even if it is a commercial site. I am sympathetic to the needs of such entrepreneurs and small businesspeople. I have on occasion discovered some genuinely interesting websites because of those links. It is the professional spammers that I want to get rid of.

I think that I have arrived at a policy that manages to achieve a balance and makes it easier for me to police the site. Here are the new comment rules that I am thinking of imposing that will not cause genuine commenters any inconvenience or require them to change anything. I will defer implementing them for a week to allow for knowledgeable people to point out any potential flaws.

  1. The comments will continue to be unmoderated, so almost all genuine comments on recent posts should continue to appear almost immediately, just as before. If your comment does not appear immediately or even after a few minutes, it means it has been flagged as potential spam because of the appearance of some words that trigger the filter (words which in isolation can be quite harmless but in combination with other words can cause the filter to sit up and take notice) and it will appear only after I have got around to checking in on the filtered comments board.
  2. In the comment box that says 'Name', you must insert a person's name only. The name can be a pseudonym but inserting the name of a product or company or service is grounds for deletion. So 'Ann Jones' or 'Joe' or 'Genghis Khan' is allowable, but 'Acme Roofing Company' or 'Diet Coke' or 'essay writing services' or 'Joe the plumber' is not. Heidi says that putting a commercial name does not add to your site's search engine rankings anyway.
  3. You can continue to insert a link to a company or product or commercial service site in the URL box and this will make the name in the name box into a hyperlink to that site, which does contribute to your rankings. This will be the only means by which to advertise or drive traffic to a site or product.
  4. Any link inserted in the body of a comment is also grounds for deletion of the entire comment unless the link is pointing to information relevant to the post.
  5. Even if a comment meets all these criteria, I still reserve the right to delete it if I think its chief purpose is to advertise and not advance the discussion. So comments like 'Great post!' and 'I would like to read more on this topic' will also get the boot.

I hope this new policy will make the site better and my life easier!

As suggested by commenter HP Bryce, here (I hope) is the last word on spam from what triggered the idea of adopting the name of a meat product for this ubiquitous feature of electronic communication.

September 06, 2010

Labor Day musings and some changes in the blog

On this Labor Day I want to wish everyone a great holiday, at least to my American and Canadian readers who are the only ones who celebrate workers on this day, while most of the world does it on May Day (May 1st).

Ironically enough, May Day has its origins in the US as the day that commemorates the Haymarket Riot in 1886 in which police in Chicago fired on workers who were striking for an eight-hour workday. The international worker's movement adopted a resolution in 1891 to use the anniversary of the Haymarket event to celebrate workers rights. Following another bloody suppression of workers in 1894, again in Chicago, in which federal troops were sent in to break up the Pullman strike and in which over a dozen strikers were killed, the US government sought to try and make peace with US workers by granting a holiday to celebrate workers. But since they did not want to remind people of its history of brutal opposition to worker rights that a May Day holiday might trigger, the US government and Congress in 1894 made the September Labor Day a federal holiday.

So I am taking the day off somewhat but want to flag some minor changes in the blog that will take place immediately.

Long time readers of this blog know that there is a routine here in which I post a single essay of around 1000 words on some topic each weekday at around 9:00 am Eastern time in the US. My goal of writing a daily long form essay serves largely a selfish purpose. Writing about things in some depth sharpens my thinking about them and forces me to look up sources and evidence for my views and not toss off glib, gut-level reactions. It is remarkable how much I learn by doing this and how often that process makes me realize that what I remembered as having happened or said is not correct and forces me to revise my views, as well as serving as a useful reminder of the fallibility of even strong memories. The essay form also keeps me writing regularly and thus improves my writing skills.

But I am finding that my self-imposed rule is too constraining. In the course of keeping up with the news and researching topics there are many interesting, funny, and quirky things that I come across (or are sent to me) or updates to earlier postings that I want to share with readers. I usually collect them and keep them until I can make them part of a later essay, either in the body of the text or, if it does not quite fit, as a post script. The catch is that there are many such interesting items that do not merit a long essay and which do not relate to anything that I am likely to write about at length. I still include some of those things as post scripts but they keep accumulating faster than I can use them and sometimes even go out of date, which seems a waste.

Since I want to preserve the weekday essay feature of the blog, I have decided to supplement it with occasional short postings that will appear randomly as needed.

From the point of view of the readers, the upside is that there will be more content than before (at least I hope that is viewed as an upside). The downside is that it is only the weekday essays that will appear on a regular schedule and the appearance of other items will be unpredictable. I assume that many people have RSS subscriptions that alert them whenever new content appears.

September 03, 2010

Wikileaks and the role of the messenger

Needless to say, the emergence of the WikiLeaks model is a danger to those who want to be able to control the message, lie to the public, and make sure that only viewpoints that have been filtered by 'respectable' people should be voiced in the marketplace. There are already signs that the leaks have led to a drop in support for the war in Afghanistan.

Hence there is now an organized campaign to shut down WikiLeaks and discredit it. It should thus not be surprising that the establishment media, upset by WikiLeaks exposing its complicity and undermining its gatekeeper role, is eagerly joining up with the Pentagon and the Obama administration in waging war on it.

As part of its war on WikiLeaks, it seems clear that the Obama administration is seeking to make Bradley Manning, the 22-year old soldier accused of leaking to WikiLeaks the Collateral Murder video, into a warning for other potential leakers and it will not matter if the government believes he is the leaker or not. Based on the allegation of a former hacker who claims that Manning told him he was the leaker, the US arrested Manning on May 26 and took him away to jail in Kuwait where he was kept incommunicado before being transferred recently to Quantico military prison in Virginia. He has been charged under the Uniform Code of Military Justice with, among other things, "communicating, transmitting and delivering national defense information to an unauthorized source". Attempts to provide him with independent legal representation have been rebuffed by the Obama regime, which should be no surprise to readers of this blog where I have repeatedly described Obama's contempt for due process. Friends of Manning are trying to obtain due process for him.

Glenn Greenwald has an excellent summary of the curious features of the Manning case, the strange, publicity-seeking person Adrian Lamo who turned him in, and Lamo's journalist friend who broke the story. It should be borne in mind that no evidence has been presented for the common assumption that Manning had anything to do with the Afghan documents leak. He has only been charged in connection with the Collateral Murder video. Jeremy Scahill also writes that Manning's reported words to Lamo indicate that Manning strongly felt that this kind of information should be in the public domain. WikiLeaks provides leakers with the kind of outlet that whistleblowers need.

Meanwhile, there have been various rumors spread about Manning's personal life and motives, trying to portray him as someone who a disgruntled loner and about his sexual life and his mental state. All this by way of trying him in the media before he is even proven to have been the leaker.

We also have the strange on-again, off-again, and then on-again investigation of rape against WikiLeaks editor Julian Assange in Sweden. James Fallows at The Atlantic explores the arguments for and against the theory that Assange was set up, possibly by the CIA

I have no idea of the truth of these allegations which will presumably be investigated thoroughly according to Swedish law. If he is guilty of rape, then Assange should be punished because that is an awful crime. But the point of the Pentagon Papers/WikiLeaks model of journalism is that when you have the release of official documents, the identity and motives and character of both leaker and disseminator are independent of the issues raised by the leaked documents. This is unlike the Watergate anonymous source reporting where everything hinges on whether you can trust the reporter and source to be honest and truthful because you have no documentary record to fall back on.

Jeremy Scahill writes about the new things that the WikiLeaks release has revealed and how having concrete evidence changes the nature of the whole discussion from a fog in which some anonymous sources say one thing to a reporter only to be challenged by other anonymous sources, to actual facts.

Time managing editor Richard Stengel drew the contrast with WikiLeaks in an editor's letter accompanying the story, claiming that the WikiLeaks documents, unlike the Time article, fail to provide "insight into the way life is lived" in Afghanistan or to speak to "the consequences of the important decisions that lie ahead." Actually, the documents do exactly that. WikiLeaks may not be a media outlet and Assange may not be a journalist, but why does it matter? The documents provide concrete evidence of widespread US killings of Afghan civilians and attempts to cover up killings, and they portray unaccountable Special Operations forces as roaming the country hunting people—literally. They describe incidents of mass outrage sparked by the killing of civilians and confirm that the United States is funding both sides of the war through bribes paid to the Taliban and other resistance forces.

Next: Other attempts to counter WikiLeaks.

POST SCRIPT: The Daily Show on the current political dynamic

This was from January of this year but is still accurate.

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September 02, 2010

WikiLeaks expands the Pentagon Papers model

WikiLeaks follows the basic idea of the admirable Pentagon Papers model of releasing official internal documents to the public, and thus undermining the corrupt and sycophantic Watergate model of journalism. But the internet has enabled WikiLeaks to add two important new wrinkles.

The first is that they do not need to find a news organization to agree to publish their material. They can put it on their own servers for the world to see.

The other new and extremely important wrinkle with WikiLeaks is that it is a loosely linked transnational organization made up of volunteers the world over that is not tied to any national interest and thus has much greater freedom to operate. The major media in any country is under pressure to show loyalty to their country, which means being subservient to their governments. WikiLeaks does not have any such constraints.

WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Julian Assange has dismissed the idea that he has an obligation to protect the interests of the US or any other state. He makes no secret of his own antiwar motivations, saying he "loved crushing bastards" and likes "stopping people who have created victims from creating any more."

"It is not our role to play sides for states. States have national security concerns, we do not have national security concerns," he said.

"You often hear ... that something may be a threat to U.S. national security," he went on.
"This must be shot down whenever this statement is made. A threat to U.S. national security? Is anyone serious? The security of the entire nation of the United States? It is ridiculous!"

He said he wasn't interested in the safety of states, only the safety of individual human beings.

"If we are talking a threat to individual soldiers ... or citizens of the United States, then that is potentially a genuine concern," he said.

He also scorns the mainstream media for pulling their punches, giving the government advance warning of what they intend to publish and withholding important information if the government requests them to do so. Can anyone doubt that the reason the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have managed to continue for so long at such a great cost in terms of lives and money without public outrage is because the coverage has been sanitized?

New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen has an excellent piece, with good links to source materials and analyses, on the first release by WikiLeaks of the documents on the war in Afghanistan. He points out that we are witnessing a major shift in news with the arrival of big name 'stateless' news organizations like WikiLeaks that are not beholden to any government and hence cannot be pressured or feel the need to self-censor in order to stay in the government's good graces. He adds that WikiLeaks has a shrewd understanding of how news is valued and used that knowledge to give three newspapers in three different countries exclusive looks at the documents three weeks in advance so that they could study them and prepare stories that were embargoed until Monday. This was done to ensure maximum exposure.

WikiLeaks definitely knows how to get publicity. It gives out what are effectively trailers for forthcoming releases, thus whetting the appetite of the public and the media. It has promised the release 'soon', any day now, of even more explosive documents and this is undoubtedly causing some concern to the government about what those documents contain.

In trying to combat WikiLeaks, the Obama administration has been trying to maintain two contradictory positions. On the one hand, it claims that there is nothing new in the dossier and that 'everyone' (by which they mean 'everyone who matters', i.e., the Villagers) already knew it. On the other hand, it claims that WikiLeaks is threatening national security, and is using that charge to whip up public opposition to the organization and seeking to shut it down.

Daniel Ellsberg has for a long time been appealing to government employees to become whistle blowers and leakers. His own personal regret is that he waited too long to do what he did, and that if he had acted earlier, he might have saved a lot of lives. (I am looking forward to seeing the highly praised documentary The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers which has been nominated for a 2010 Academy Award.) Just recently he listed four documents that he would like to see leaked.

In the wake of the WikiLeaks revelations, former CIA analyst Ray McGovern writes a poignant personal account of how he, in the course of his normal duties, came into possession of secret cables that directly contradicted official US government statements on the strength of the Vietnamese forces. Revealing that secret might have shortened the Vietnam war and saved lives but he kept it secret out of a combination of concern for his career and a misplaced sense of loyalty to the government. He now deeply regrets his inaction and wonders if the equivalent of WikiLeaks had been around then, whether he and other professionals who were sick of hearing their government lying might have been more willing to release documents that told the truth.

The idea of obtaining and revealing official documents so that anyone has access to the raw data and engage in informed analysis is a radical break from current practice where the truth is closely guarded, only selected people are allowed to see and analyze raw information, and we are told to simply trust the analyses put out by the inner circle of establishment journalists who are given access to filtered information in return for favorable coverage. The WikiLeaks Afghanistan War Diary provides a rich trove of raw information for honest and independent analysts, the kind of people who would normally be shut out, and many have seized the opportunity. Phillipe Sands has a good analysis on what the revelations say about the conduct of the war in Afghanistan. Eric Margolis, who has been trying to expose the lies and propaganda concerning the Afghanistan was since 2001 says that the dossier reveals the alleged duplicitous role that Pakistan is being blasted for in the US is merely the result of acting in its own self-interest. Surely this is information that the public has a right to know?

Next: The effort to counter WikiLeaks

POST SCRIPT: Mitchell and Webb on the greatest invention yet

September 01, 2010

WikiLeaks challenges the Watergate model of journalism

The Watergate model of journalism that I wrote about yesterday is one that depends upon high-level anonymous sources to provide information. But here the person providing the information usually has an agenda other than just truth or public interest, and is often seeking to drive the discussion in directions that serve either political or personal ends. There is also almost always a quid pro quo involved. The journalist provides anonymity and lack of accountability and makes the source look good in exchange for information. The problem is that there is no way for the public to judge for themselves the value of the information and has to trust the journalist and the anonymous source.

Unfortunately the glamorization of the Watergate story, fed by books and films starring major Hollywood actors, made the Woodward and Bernstein method the model for aspiring journalists. This has led to the current awful state in which journalists for major news media essentially spend their lives sucking up to those in power, cultivating high-level sources, hoping for a few crumbs to be tossed their way that they can breathlessly report as 'scoops', when what it mostly consists of is spin or gossip. We now have an epidemic of reporting that cites unnamed sources, leaving the reader at the mercy of the reporter's judgment as to the source's veracity and motives. The mainstream media has come to see itself as the gatekeeper and filterer of news. This reached its apex (or more appropriately the nadir) with the practice of embedding journalists with US troops during wars, a process that trades access to the front lines and to senior military personnel in return for muted or even fawning coverage and a sanitization of the horrors of war.

Reporters and their sources have taken this cozy mutual back-scratching relationship so much for granted that they react with shock when someone like Michael Hastings 'breaks the rules' and reports for Rolling Stone magazine what he actually sees and hears about what is going on in Afghanistan. Lara Logan of CBS News delivered a vitriolic attack on Hastings, implying that he was not worthy to even shine the shoes of her hero General Stanley McChrystal, and John Burns of the New York Times said that Hastings has 'spoiled ' things for other reporters because they had a sort of understanding with the people they cover that they would not report everything they saw or heard. As Burns said, "I think it’s very unfortunate that it has impacted, and will impact so adversely, on what had been pretty good military/media relations." See also this article on media response to Hastings

These reactions reveal how immersed these reporters have become in this corrupt practice, that they see it as the new normal.

The emergence of WikiLeaks has given new hope that the current corrupt and sycophantic Watergate model of journalism can be changed and the Pentagon Papers model resurrected. WikiLeaks has been around for a while but it was the release of the Collateral Murder video that showed Iraqi people being gleefully gunned down by helicopter gunships that catapulted them into US consciousness. The subsequent release on Sunday, July 25, 2010 of tens of thousands of internal government documents about the actual state of the war in Afghanistan reveals, as the Guardian newspaper says, "civilian killings by coalition forces, secret efforts to eliminate Taliban and al-Qaida leaders, and discuss the involvement of Iran and Pakistan in supporting insurgents."

This release has further enhanced WikiLeaks reputation as a major player in international media. As WikiLeaks' Julian Assange says: "We publish raw materials without analysis or interpretation. Then it's up to journalists, researchers, and the public to review them", which is exactly the Pentagon Papers model. Whatever the motives of the people doing the leaking, releasing official documents allows everyone to judge for themselves what the government is doing in their name. When you have official documents, the identity of the person who leaked them is unimportant.

(You can see the War Diary on the WikiLeaks website. The London Guardian was one the three newspapers that were given prior access to the documents and its own analysis and follow up stories can be seen here and here. Justin Raimondo also provides further analysis.)

All this has cemented the view that Julian Assange and WikLeaks have become the go-to conduit for those mid- and low-level government employees who for whatever reason think that their government is misbehaving, because the potential recipients of the bygone era like the New York Times and the Washington Post are now seen as too solicitous of protecting government interests. If you release important information to those and other mainstream media, there is a good chance that they will share it first with the government and even suppress it if the government demands it. WikiLeaks will not.

Next: WikiLeaks goes even beyond the Pentagon Papers model.

POST SCRIPT: A new version of Time magazine aimed at grownups

The Onion News Network nails it again.

TIME Announces New Version Of Magazine Aimed At Adults