Entries for October 2010

October 30, 2010

Fr. Guido Sarducci's benediction at the Stewart-Colbert rally

He subtly makes an important point about religion. I also liked his special thanks for dogs.

File this under 'Clueless'

The September 2010 issue of Awake!, the magazine of the Jehovah's Witnesses, has an article titled Is Atheism on the March? that says right at the beginning:

A new group of atheists has arisen in society. Called the new atheists, they are not content to keep their views to themselves.

I have written before about the absurdity of religious people complaining about the new/unapologetic atheists not keeping quiet about their disbelief when we are swamped with religious messages. But coming from a group that actually comes to your door to proselytize, this surely must win the prize for lack of self-awareness.

October 29, 2010

Stephen Colbert on the self-indulgence of the rich

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Counting calories for the poor

Because people have such negative prejudices about the poor and unemployed as being lazy good-for-nothings who are trying to live off the fruits of other people's hard work, they pay unusually close attention to prevent cheating and fraud by the poor. This explains why some people get more worked up by stories of petty fraud by poor people than by huge corporations and rich people carrying out massive swindles that have a far greater negative impact on almost all of us. People will rail about welfare cheats or workers in the cash economy not reporting all their incomes and thus paying less tax, while ignoring the tax sheltering schemes of the rich.

This is because well-to-do people are making a moral judgment, not an economic one. They think that poor people are somehow inferior in character and their misdeeds are thus seen as springing from character weaknesses, not economic calculation. It is the same mentality that results in society punishing the crimes of poor people proportionately more harshly than those of rich people.

There is also a whole industry devoted to the enterprise of determining exactly how much money people need to live on to meet their most basic needs. This is not an unreasonable exercise for governments to carry out in order to determine the size of the welfare benefits it should provide to make sure that people can survive ill health or the loss of jobs or other personal misfortunes that prevent them from earning a living. But what irks me is that the same government that is so careful with tax money when it comes to allocating resources to the poor spends like a drunken sailor when it comes to the needs of Wall Street or the military or tax cuts for the rich. If they paid as much attention to prevent waste and tax fraud and other forms of cheating in the defense budgets and in corporate sector, they would likely save a lot more money.

What is objectionable is the way people pass moral judgments and lecture poor people on what they should do with their welfare benefits. Some people seem to feel that just because our tax dollars are going to pay for poor people's food stamps, we have earned the right to criticize other their food choices in ways that we would not dream of doing for anyone else. For example, welfare recipients are often at the receiving end of openly disapproving looks, comments, and other negative judgments about their purchases if they happen to use food stamps to buy foods (like cakes and doughnuts or soda) that are eligible but are perceived as luxuries and not wholesome. New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg is even proposing a ban on the use of food stamps to purchase soft drinks.

One of the good changes that happened recently is that food stamps are no longer in coupon form but are now debit cards that can be swiped in cash registers. While this makes for more efficiency in the system, what I like most about it is that it makes it hard for anyone other than the cashier to know if people are purchasing items using food stamps, and thus restores a small measure of dignity to people who might be embarrassed to reveal that they are down on their luck.

Being poor leads to behavior that can seem irrational and inexplicable to the casual observer who is not poor. In The Road to Wigan Pier, his masterful examination of the lives of poor mining families in the north of England written after living with those families, George Orwell described how despite having incomes or unemployment benefits so low that they could barely subsist, the families would still 'waste' their money on frivolities like beer and cigarettes and sweets, leaving them with less money for more wholesome fresh fruits and vegetables. These choices led to them being malnourished.

But such poor choices are not caused exclusively by stupidity or failures of character. In chapter 5, Orwell explains how market pricing systems drive people towards making bad nutritional decisions.

Trade since the war has had to adjust itself to meet the demands of underpaid, underfed people, with the result that a luxury is nowadays almost always cheaper than a necessity. One pair of plain solid shoes costs as much as two ultra-smart pairs. For the price of one square meal you can get two pounds of cheap sweets. You can't get much meat for threepence, but you can get a lot of fish-and-chips. Milk costs threepence a pint and even 'mild' beer costs fourpence, but aspirins are seven a penny and you can wring forty cups of tea out of a quarter-pound packet. And above all there is gambling, the cheapest of all luxuries. Even people on the verge of starvation can buy a few days' hope ('Something to live for', as they call it) by having a penny on a sweepstake. Organized gambling has now risen almost to the status of a major industry.

Orwell wrote this in 1937 but it rings true even now. The cheapest source of calories and the most economical way to satiate your hunger and get your daily caloric needs is to eat a meal of hamburger and fries and wash it down with a soda. Whole wheat bread, fresh fruits, vegetables, and fruit juices may be much better for you but they are more expensive to live on.

But it is not merely economics that drives poor people into making bad food choices. Orwell points out that there are important psychological factors at work too, as I will discuss in the next post in this series.

October 28, 2010

Another theological discussion


What is additionally amusing is that many of the readers who chuckle over this cartoon will be religious believers who will not realize that it is poking fun at them too.

George Orwell on the poor and unemployed

My ideas about what being poor and unemployed must be like were shaped by two books by George Orwell that I read at an impressionable age in my late teens that eloquently recounted his own direct experiences of that condition. One is Down and Out in Paris and London (1933), a semi-autobiographical account of a period in his life when he was really poor and at times homeless. The other is The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), where he recounts his experiences after he was sent on assignment to the north of England for an extended period, and lived in the homes of coal mining families at a time when there was widespread unemployment.

Both books can be read online for free by clicking on the links and hold up remarkably well with time. Orwell's obvious sympathy with the people he was writing about, coupled with his ability to write eloquently but honestly, brings the experience of the people he lived and moved with to vivid life.

What those books taught me is to be much more conscious of my own deeply ingrained class prejudices and not be too quick to judge what poor and unemployed people are like, and that many of my middle-class assumptions about them are not to be trusted. I learned that it was not a case of how different they were from people like me but how similar. I know that I still have plenty of class prejudices but at least I am aware that I have them, which makes me much more careful about making generalizations about the poor. Very few things infuriate me more than to hear well-to-do people (like Ben Stein in the previous post) smugly speak of the working poor and unemployed as if they are somehow and in some mysterious way inferior human beings lacking in the basic virtues.

Orwell writes in chapter 5 of The Road to Wigan Pier about how his own prejudices were confounded by the actual experience of getting to know people up close:

When I first saw unemployed men at close quarters, the thing that horrified and amazed me was to find that many of them were ashamed of being unemployed. I was very ignorant, but not so ignorant as to imagine that when the loss of foreign markets pushes two million men out of work, those two million are any more to blame than the people who draw blanks in the Calcutta Sweep. But at that time nobody cared to admit that unemployment was inevitable, because this meant admitting that it would probably continue. The middle classes were still talking about 'lazy idle loafers on the dole' and saying that 'these men could all find work if they wanted to', and naturally these opinions percolated to the working class themselves. I remember the shock of astonishment it gave me, when I first mingled with tramps and beggars, to find that a fair proportion, perhaps a quarter, of these beings whom I had been taught to regard as cynical parasites, were decent young miners and cotton-workers gazing at their destiny with the same sort of dumb amazement as an animal in a trap. They simply could not understand what was happening to them.

What Orwell's books also taught me is to appreciate the great desire of people to maintain their dignity and self-respect even under conditions of extreme poverty and hardship, and that this feeling becomes even stronger as they slide down the socioeconomic ladder. This is why poor people often dress and otherwise behave in seemingly more extravagant ways than those who are much better off. They feel a greater need to hide their poverty. The fashion industry's success depends on making people desire to distinguish themselves from the less well-off by showing that they can afford to buy new and expensive clothes even when they don't need to. And poor people who want to keep up appearances of gentility get caught in this consumption trap.

For example, I myself am frugal and wear clothes until they are so worn that they become frayed, and sometimes have actual holes in them. I wear shoes until they are so scuffed and beaten up that my feet get wet even in slight rain. My shabby appearance does not bother me. No one has as yet mistaken me for a panhandler and offered me money but if it happened I would not be offended. It would be merely an amusing anecdote that I could share with friends.

So one might wonder why poor people take so much care to look good and even spend money on clothes that they really cannot afford. The difference is that I know that I am not poor and if people think that I am, it is their error and does not impinge on my self-image. But poor people often desperately want to hide the fact of their poverty because they are not sure if they will ever stop being poor and they feel that looking obviously so by not taking care of their appearance is the first step to acknowledging permanent poverty, that they actually belong in the despised underclass and are not merely temporary sojourners there. In Down and Out in Paris and London, Orwell describes the highly complicated extremes he went through to maintain a genteel façade while being homeless, just so that no one would suspect the truth.

In purely practical terms, it is obviously not a good idea to spend money one cannot afford to buy nice clothes or make-up or get one's hair done, and whoever does that is being objectively foolish. But spending money in order to disguise one's poverty springs from a different motivation from that due to vanity or self-indulgence, which is why we should not be so quick to judge the character of people simply by their visible state and actions. People who try to maintain a good appearance, even if they cannot afford it, are more likely to seek work to improve their situation than those who become resigned to their poverty and give up trying, sinking further into apathy and despair.

October 27, 2010

The "One laptop per child" project

Nicholas Negroponte is a real visionary whose project could revolutionize the world.

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The US media's subservience to the government and the Pentagon

I have praised Glenn Greenwald before but today's article on the WikiLeaks releases and the response of the major American media is absolutely brilliant in its analysis. It is an absolute must-read.

Also see a fascinating video of a forum and Q/A with Julian Assange and Daniel Ellsberg. It is long but engrossing. Assange comes across as a very smart and courageous person who is totally committed to continuing the practice putting out official government documents to the public.

I have just made a donation to WikiLeaks. You can also do so here.

Denigrating the poor and unemployed

The current high levels of unemployment in the US, hovering around 10% officially and likely around 20% really, seems to be on its way to becoming perceived as 'structural', an euphemism among policymakers for 'permanent' or close to it. Along with it, the poverty rate has risen to the point where one in seven people are now below the poverty line.

Unemployed people are dangerous to the oligarchy since they are the ones who are most likely to demand changes in the way things are done. What governments try to do to pacify people is make the unemployed feel as if their situation is due to their own fault, that they have no one to blame for their predicament but themselves. One way is to cook the unemployment numbers so as to make the figures seem lower than they really are. Low unemployment rates makes the unemployed feel that they are alone and isolated, and thus make them less likely to organize and protest.

Furthermore, if people think that only a few people are unemployed, they are more likely to blame themselves for their plight, to wonder what is wrong about themselves that prevents them from getting a job. This sense of self-doubt is compounded by the pervasive feeling among the middle and upper classes that their own comfortable situation in life is due to being smarter and harder workers. This results in the corresponding message being sent to the unemployed that their lot is bleak because they are lazy, lack skills and education, and have poor attitudes and work habits.

People who belong to the middle and upper classes can sometimes have extraordinarily patronizing attitudes towards the poor and unemployed. This smug attitude is manifested in people like Ben Stein who says:

The people who have been laid off and cannot find work are generally people with poor work habits and poor personalities. I say "generally" because there are exceptions. But in general, as I survey the ranks of those who are unemployed, I see people who have overbearing and unpleasant personalities and/or who do not know how to do a day’s work. They are people who create either little utility or negative utility on the job.

People like Stein also think nothing of lecturing the unemployed on what their faults are and how they should shape up. Such sentiments are usually precursors to handing out prescriptive solutions, of which one is invariably that giving unemployment benefits merely encourages such laziness by enabling people to not seek work.

Simple habits of prudence will almost save the day, even in a bad recession. People who have meaningful savings, insured retirement plans, diversification of assets, people who do not buy what they cannot afford, people who do not simply assume the money will materialize out of thin air for their next purchase, people who add and subtract and see life plain, these people rarely get in desperate trouble. It is amazing how old-fashioned habits of buying modestly and living within one’s means, and planning for bad times as well as good times, can get one through earth shaking events.

So there's some good advice for you waiters and dishwashers and shop clerks. Stop busting your money on frivolities like food and rent and clothes. Instead save up those pennies and buy rental properties and stocks and bonds, all the while making sure you diversify your portfolio of assets.

Just ponder Stein's words for a minute and the mindset that underlies them. How many unemployed people do you think Stein knows intimately enough to make such sweeping judgments about their personalities or work habits? Despite his grand claim that "as I survey the ranks of those who are unemployed", with its implication that he knows a vast number, I suspect that Stein cannot even name more than a handful of working class poor, let alone have much familiarity with them. Such statements are usually the product of unexamined class prejudices, pure and simple, made with the confident assumption that those prejudices are shared by his readers and will not be challenged.

It turns out that his judgments are arrived at on the basis of knowing people just like him: "I get letters and e-mails from friends of decades standing asking for money every single day. Their common denominator is that they lacked prudence and lived in a dream world." Silly people, thinking that a decades-long friendship with Stein might count for something when they were down on their luck. I am sure that they were pleased to get a lecture from him on their lack of prudence and thrift.

Stein writes as if he himself is an up-by-my-own-bootstraps type but Paul Krugman points out that he must have actually inherited a huge amount of wealth from his parents. What is also interesting is that Stein himself, going by his performance as the narrator in the documentary Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, has an extremely irritating personality, pompous, dour, humorless, and with a grating voice. If I were a boss who fired people according to Stein's criteria, he would be the first to go. If I had to share a cubicle with him, I'd shoot myself. (See Bill Maher on Stein and other rich whiners.)

I have been extremely fortunate in my life in never having been really poor, to the extent of having to worry where my next meal is going to come from or fear that I cannot pay the rent and may become homeless, even during the couple of years when I was underemployed and doing part-time teaching and consulting. As a result, I can never really understand what it feels like to be in such a situation. Even though I grew up in a developing country that had a lot of poor people, and also have poor relatives and friends who have been through hard times, just seeing poor people by the roadside or on an occasional basis isn't sufficient to know what such a life is really like.

One usually learns about people different from you (in say ethnicity or culture) by reading books written by such people who can eloquently convey the experience from the inside. But it takes an improbable combination of means, energy, time, education, and writing skills to convey the full range of their experience, and the somewhat clinical reports about the lives of the working poor and unemployed provided by academics and journalists, however sympathetic (of which David Shipler's book The Working Poor: Invisible in America is a good example), cannot do it full justice. There is always a temptation to make assumptions about what makes people poor and what poor people must be like and think that these unsupported beliefs constitute real knowledge.

Fortunately there are writers who can break through that barrier and provide a more visceral sense of the experience and in future posts I will discuss one who had a profound influence on me.

October 26, 2010

A typical theological discussion

Superduck vs supergoose (language advisory):

More on the WikiLeaks release and US media coverage

In a previous post I described how the US media carefully conforms to meet the needs of the establishment. One sees this on display again with the new WikiLeaks release. Glenn Greenwald compares the worldwide coverage of the explosive nature of the new revelations with the carefully sanitized version given to the US public by the major media outlets here and the focus on the trivial, such as Julian Assange's private life.

Ellen Knickmeyer, former Baghdad bureau chief of the Washington Post, writes about the upbeat press briefings she received from the US government while covering the war and now says that "Thanks to WikiLeaks, though, I now know the extent to which top American leaders lied, knowingly, to the American public, to American troops, and to the world, as the Iraq mission exploded." Of course, it is a safe bet that if she were still at the Post, she would not be allowed to write that.

As I repeatedly said, WikiLeaks is serving the same public service as Daniel Ellsberg did when he leaked the Pentagon Papers, which is why he is such a strong supporter of their actions. If he had tried to leak them to the New York Times today, they probably would not publish them and may even turn him in to the FBI.

Why theology is useless

Critics of the new/unapologetic atheist movement frequently chastise us for our supposed lack of awareness of theology. This criticism can come from surprising quarters such as fellow atheist John Shook, director of education for the Center of Inquiry who recently wrote: "Atheists are getting a reputation for being a bunch of know-nothings. They know nothing of God, and not much more about religion, and they seem proud of their ignorance… Astonished that intellectual defenses of religion are still maintained, many prominent atheists disparage theology."

His article spawned a fierce response, mainly because he did not name or quote a single atheist in support of his charge. Others pointed out that many of the most visible members of the new atheist movement actually do know quite a lot about theology. They just don't think much of it. That onslaught resulted in Shook issuing a sort of retraction and apology, though still not naming names.

If Shook wants the name of an atheist who disparages theology, he is welcome to use mine because as far as I am concerned, studying theology is a colossal waste of time. For example, just look at the kinds of issues that theologians spend their time on. All their efforts to reconcile their holy books with advancing science lead to similar exercises in futility.

But there are also theoretical reasons why theology is useless and in order to expand on that point, I need to make clear what I mean by the word. If one looks at the Merriam-Webster definition of theology, it says that it is "the study of religious faith, practice, and experience; especially the study of God and of God's relation to the world." (Italics in the original.)

It is helpful to split that definition into two parts. The first part 'the study of religious faith, practice, and experience' is better labeled 'religious studies' and constitutes a credible academic discipline. Religion has undoubtedly played an important role in the history of humanity, and how it originated, is practiced, and its consequences for society are not only important topics of study, but I would go further and argue that they are essential. The second part of the definition, 'the study of God and of God's relation to the world', is what we popularly consider to be theology and is what I consider to be useless for the following three reasons.

The first reason is because it seems pointless to study something whose mere existence has not even been conclusively established. We have no evidence that god exists in the first place and strong reasons to doubt it, so what is the point of studying it? As a parallel, no one would claim that 'the study of extra-terrestrial aliens and their relation to the world' is important unless they had first established the actual existence of such aliens. But even if aliens do not exist, studying why so many people believe in them is still worth doing. You can replace aliens with unicorns, leprechauns, ghosts, or any number of imaginary things to make the same point.

The second reason is that theology as 'the study of God and of God's relation to the world' is essentially an attempt to construct a theory of god using the empirical facts of the world as evidence. But any theoretical model of something presupposes that the thing being studied behaves in a law-like manner. For example, we can construct a kinetic theory of gases because the atoms in the gas behave in a law-like way. We can construct a theory of evolution because organisms exhibit law-like patterns of change. We can construct a theory of gravity because freely falling objects have law-like trajectories. The reason that law-like behavior is so important is because it is only then that the resulting evidence has enough systematic features to enable us to inductively assert the existence of an underlying pattern, and thus generate a theory.

But in the case of god, it is asserted that he is not subject to law-like behavior and can do whatever he likes whenever he likes. That is the whole point of being god and why believers say they cannot make any concrete predictions of what he will do in the future. Religious believers stoutly resist any attempt to make god obey laws (whatever the laws are) because they say that then he would not be god. This immediately rules out any possibility of constructing a theory of god. The best that theologians can do is create post-hoc 'explanations' of events.

The final reason that there can be no theory of god is because of his supposed uniqueness. Individual people, like god, also act capriciously and unpredictably, so that it is almost impossible to try and create a theory of any single individual in order to predict precisely how he or she will behave. But because we have so many people, we can hope to build statistical models that exhibit law-like behavior of populations, i.e., people in the aggregate. It is like the uncertainty principle in quantum physics. Because of it, we cannot predict with any great confidence the exact moment when any given radioactive atom will decay but if we start with a large number of radioactive atoms, we can predict with great accuracy what fraction of them will decay in any given time interval. The fields of sociology, political science, and economics are examples of fields in which we can build theories of human behavior in the aggregate. But with god we have supposedly a unique entity that can act capriciously. How can one create a theory about such an entity?

This lack of the foundations for creating a theory of god explains why despite thousands of years of effort by a vast number of very clever and dedicated theologians, there is not even the slightest consensus on what god is like. It seems like theology, like a well-stocked God-mart store, can supply any god for any need. You want a stern and even vengeful god who has no compunction about throwing even minor sinners into the torments of hell for eternity? Theology can supply that god. You want a loving god who will forgive and welcome into heaven all but the worst of people? Theology can provide that god too. You need a god who will console you in times of trouble? No problem, they've got just the god for you. You need a god who controls every aspect of your life? Theology can provide exactly what you need. You need a god who seemingly chooses to work only through the laws of nature? Yep, they've got some of those too. And if you order any one of these gods, they will include free-of-charge a deistic god who created the universe and all its laws at one instant and then retired. But wait, there's more! If you place your order within the next 24 hours, they will even throw in 'the ground of all being' and 'a plenitude of actuality'! So order now!

Is it any wonder that I think there is no field of study as pointless as theology?

October 25, 2010

The Catholic Taliban

The Italian government has given the mayors of their towns new powers to help them crack down on crime and 'anti-social' behavior. So what does the mayor of the seaside town of Castellammare di Stabia want to use these powers for? To ban mini-skirts, low-cut jeans, sunbathing, playing football in public places, and blasphemy.

Of course, a local Catholic priest approves, because when it comes to upholding the highest standards of morality, the Catholic Church is the first institution that comes to mind, no?

Richard Dawkins sues the person who ran his website

Josh Timonen, the person entrusted by Richard Dawkins with running his website, has been charged by the charitable Richard Dawkins Foundation with embezzling $239,000 over three years. Timonen denies the charges. This falling out has come as a shock because the two were close and Dawkins even dedicated his latest book to him.

How Adam and Eve killed the dinosaurs

In my earlier post titled Gen fight at the Baptist corral, I discussed the hoo-ha that is currently going on in some religious circles because of William Dembski's attempt at reconciling the doctrine of original sin with evolution and an old Earth.

The reason that this is a problem for Christians is that they believe that all suffering is due to the fall from grace caused by the original sin of Adam and Eve. If you believe in an old Earth and evolution, then how do you explain the natural disasters and suffering that occurred during the time of our pre-human ancestors? Dembski's book presumably answered this question but since there was no chance in hell that I would buy that book and read it, I thought his solution would be forever lost to me.

But fortunately there is a blogger (who claims to be also an orthodox Baptist) who has written a detailed review of Dembski's book with lots of direct quotes and I am now privy to Dembski's solution which I will share with you, because I am sure that you have been losing sleep worrying over this very question.

Brace yourself for an earthshaking revelation: in Dembski's world, effects can precede causes!

Here's how Dembski's plan works. You start with the big bang and evolution working their way through, all leading up to the time when non-human hominids appeared. All this happened just the way we godless heathens say it happened based on silly old evidence and the laws of science. But "these hominids initially lacked the cognitive and moral capacities required to bear the image of God." Then at some point, these hominids entered the Garden of Eden, "received God's image and became fully human" (whatever that means). They then experienced the famous fall from grace and the consequent punishment of suffering that is inflicted on us all.

But here’s the kicker: All the suffering that occurred before that time was due to god applying the punishment retroactively because he knew the fall was going to happen later. So, for example, god punished the poor dinosaurs by sending an asteroid to collide with the Earth and cause all of them to go extinct because sixty five million years later a couple of hominids would wander into a garden and eat some fruit. Doesn't seem quite fair to the dinosaurs but who are we to questions god's sense of justice?

At this point, I am sure that some of you are saying, "Hold it right there, Bill. Isn't that going a bit too far? Surely you realize that abandoning the principle of causality is to deal science a mortal blow? If effects can precede causes, then is anything in science safe? Have you no sense of decency sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?"

One of Dembski's critics, fellow Baptist theologian Tom Nettles who thinks a young Earth is the way to go, seems to think this is absurd and compares it to a stern father who spanks his child soundly every Sunday evening because he knows that the child will do something wrong during the coming week and so he might as well get the punishment over with.

The problem with you cynics is that you are not looking at things with the eye of faith. After all, once you have given god the power of omniscience and omnipotence and omnipresence so that he can overrule all the laws of science, why hold back? Why not go the whole hog and give him the power to reverse cause and effect as well? As Dembski's says, "Why, in the economy of a world whose Creator is omnipotent, omniscient, and transtemporal, should causes always precede effects?" True, that. Once you have demonstrated a willingness to abandon almost all of science, why cling to some trivial remnant of it merely because it poses an obstacle to your theological argument? As the comic strip Jesus and Mo astutely points out, what gives religion its edge is that it is allowed to make stuff up.

The United Negro College Fund has for decades had as its slogan "A mind is a terrible thing to waste." When I think of all the undoubtedly very clever people over the centuries, even millennia, spending enormous amounts of time tying themselves up in intellectual knots to reconcile their allegedly holy books with rapidly advancing science, it truly does seem like a colossal waste. What make it worse is that the people seeking to solve such problems do not seem to realize that the problems they are grappling with are artificial ones of their own creation and are not able to see a simple solution that stares them in the face,

The only upside is that these contortions provide a source of endless entertainment for people like me.

October 24, 2010

The war on WikiLeaks

As Glenn Greenwald points out, the hatchet job on WikiLeaks and its head Julian Assange has begun with innuendo and character attacks, led by the New York Times, CNN, and the rest of the major media.


Because they were all cheerleaders for the Iraq war and WikiLeaks is making that war look bad by revealing details of torture, civilian killings, and cover-ups. And Assange also makes the media look bad by breaking stories that they were either did not investigate themselves or did not want to report for fear of losing their access to US and Iraq government officials.

This is why we need to support WikiLeaks.

At last, a competition I think I can win

It is to see who can take the longest nap at a busy location.

Perhaps my greatest skill is the ability to take naps anywhere at any time.

October 23, 2010

The ugliness of racism

A homeowner in Missouri put up a Halloween display on their front yard (visible even to motorists going by on interstate I-55) that consisted of a robed and hooded Ku Klux Klan figure standing next to an effigy of a black man hanging from a noose. He seemed to feel that his display showed "white pride".

What is disturbing about this is not that some people have such attitudes. We surely know that such people exist and will always be among us. What is disturbing is that it is a throwback to an undesirable past when ugly manifestations of racism were blatant and overt. If such incidents start to become more common, it will not reflect well on the political climate that is developing in this country.

October 22, 2010

New WikiLeaks release

As anticipated, Wikileaks has released over 400,000 new secret documents, this time on the Iraq war. The Guardian report on the leaks says that it has new revelations of deaths and abuses of Iraqis.

As predicted, the anti-Wikileaks propaganda has begun, with the Pentagon saying: "This security breach could very well get our troops and those they are fighting with killed. Our enemies will mine this information looking for insights into how we operate, cultivate sources and react in combat situations, even the capability of our equipment."

We should bear in mind that similar alarms raised after the previous leaks proved to be highly overblown.

How to identify a Muslim by their clothes

Juan Williams said that he gets anxious when there are Muslims around, whom he can apparently identify simply by the clothes they wear. For those of us who do not have his discerning eye for Muslim garb, this website has provide some helpful examples so that we too can know when we should be suitably terrified.

More on the Juan Williams firing

As I have said before, my delight with the firing of Juan Williams was simple. I thought he was a lousy journalist and I was glad not to have to listen to him anymore. But Jason Linkins captures why the firing was so unusual and it is not because of free speech issues:

Yesterday, NPR cashiered correspondent Juan Williams for doing something that had hitherto never been considered an offense in media circles: defaming Muslims. Up until now, you could lose your job for saying intemperate things about Jews and about Christians and about Matt Drudge. You could even lose a job for failing to defame Muslims. But we seem to be in undiscovered country at the moment.

Glenn Greenwald explains that some are expressing outrage because creating anti-Muslim fear is their goal and the NPR action has threatened their drive towards it by making it seem as if bigotry towards Muslims should be treated the same way as bigotry towards any other group.

The double standard in our political discourse -- which tolerates and even encourages anti-Muslim bigotry while stigmatizing other forms -- has been as beneficial as it has been glaring. NPR's firing of Juan Williams threatened to change that by rendering this bigotry as toxic and stigmatized as other types. That could not be allowed, which is why the backlash against NPR was so rapid, intense and widespread. I'm not referring here to those who object to viewpoint-based firings of journalists in general and who have applied that belief consistently: that's a perfectly reasonable view to hold (and one I share). I'm referring to those who rail against NPR's actions by invoking free expression principles they plainly do not support and which they eagerly violate whenever the viewpoint in question is one they dislike. For most NPR critics, the real danger from Williams' firing is not to free expression, but to the ongoing fear-mongering campaign of defamation and bigotry against Muslims (both foreign and domestic) that is so indispensable to so many agendas.

That sounds right to me.

James Wolcott has his usual droll but accurate take on the event. He points out that Williams can now fully be the kind of person that Fox News loves, the minority who panders to white resentment by validating their stereotypes about minorities, saying "Well, clearly that day has come and such a relief it must be for Williams, able to capitulate to conservative middle-aged white men without having to fret about whatever flak he might get back home at NPR."

Gen fight at the Baptist corral

A battle has broken out in the genteel world of Baptist theology over the proper understanding of the book of Genesis.

It began with the publication in 2009 of the book The End of Christianity: Finding a Good God in an Evil World by William Dembski. Dembski's name will be a familiar to those who followed the controversy over so-called 'intelligent design' (ID) because he was one of their key leaders. He is a clever and well-educated man, a glutton for formal education whose bio says he has a B.A. in psychology, an M.S. in statistics, a Ph.D. in philosophy, a doctorate in mathematics, and a master of divinity degree. Much of his work during the ID debates was aimed at producing mathematical and statistical arguments for god using information and complexity theories. He is also a prolific writer, churning out books and papers at a prodigious rate, which made him a moving target. By the time scientists and mathematicians had analyzed his latest book and pointed out flaws in his arguments, he would have a new book out where he would claim that he had addressed them.

The high point in his career was when he was appointed head of the Michael Polanyi Institute at Baylor University. Baylor is a research university with Baptist roots and the Polanyi institute was a think tank specifically created by president of the university (himself a theologian) in 1999 to promote ID. But the faculty of the university rose up in revolt at what they considered an end-run around faculty governance on academic matters by their president to advance his personal religious agenda, and demanded the closing of the center. Dembski was removed as the head of the center in 2000 and left Baylor in 2005 to his present home as a faculty member at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. Given that Dembski craves acceptance by mainstream scientists and academics, going from a research university to a fairly obscure regional seminary must have been a blow.

As one can see from the subtitle, his latest book attempts to address the age-old problem of theodicy but Dembski tries to do it within the framework of an old Earth. Why this is a problem is because orthodox Christianity teaches that sin and suffering were caused by Adam and Eve's shenanigans with the serpent and the fruit in the Garden of Eden that resulted in their fall from grace and created the original sin that taints all of us even from birth. It is this belief that leads to the doctrine that Jesus had to die as a vicarious sacrifice to absolve the world of its sins. (Ok, I know that none of this makes any sense but it is what Christians are required to believe so bear with me.)

The doctrine of original sin requires original sinners and thus requires Adam and Eve to be real people who were the first humans and consequently a young Earth. Dembski seemed to have been persuaded by scientific evidence that believing in a young Earth was deeply problematic. But since he wanted to retain the idea of salvation through Jesus's death, he tried to find a way to insert the doctrine of the fall and original sin into an old Earth framework in which evolution had occurred. He also allowed for the possibility that Noah's flood may have been a local phenomenon, not a global flood, again based on the scientific evidence.

Even these slight concessions to what the rest of us might consider incontrovertible science were too much for his colleagues and ticked off the young Earth biblical literalists. He got some strong criticisms from some of his Baptist colleagues, especially a highly negative review from Tom Nettles, a faculty member of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky who claimed that Dembski was rejecting Biblical literalism and inerrancy because of scientific arguments. The idea that scientific evidence should take precedence over the 'plain text' reading of the Bible is a big no-no for these people.

Paige Patterson, president of the seminary where Dembski is a faculty member, is an unabashed young Earther who rejects evolution and thinks Noah's flood was a global one. He was concerned by the possibility that one of his faculty members was straying from the fold, rejecting orthodoxy and espousing an old Earth heresy. Patterson commissioned David Allen, the dean of his school of theology and Dembski's immediate superior, to write a lengthy rebuttal to Nettles' review, in which he argued that Dembski was truly orthodox and that Nettles had misunderstood him.

Patterson also summoned Dembski to a meeting and as a result, a chastened Dembski issued an abject mea culpa, saying that he had not actually thought through some of the things he had written in his book and laid out what he says he actually believes, and outlined what he would have done differently if he were to write the book now. He now says that he does believe that Noah's flood was a global one and that his assumption of an old Earth was not a belief he was committed to but merely a speculative exercise purely for the purpose of seeing how it could be reconciled with ideas of the fall and original sin. It is a great example of a coerced retraction. His apologia ends:

Yet, in a brief section on Genesis 4–11, I weigh in on the Flood, raising questions about its universality, without adequate study or reflection on my part. Before I write on this topic again, I have much exegetical, historical, and theological work to do. In any case, not only Genesis 6–9 but also Jesus in Matthew 24 and Peter in Second Peter seem clearly to teach that the Flood was universal. As a biblical inerrantist, I believe that what the Bible teaches is true and bow to the text, including its teaching about the Flood and its universality.

In writing The End of Christianity today, I would also underscore three points: (1) As a biblical inerrantist, I accept the full verbal inspiration of the Bible and the conventional authorship of the books of the Bible. Thus, in particular, I accept Mosaic authorship of Genesis (and of the Pentateuch) and reject the Documentary Hypothesis. (2) Even though I introduce in the book a distinction between kairos (God’s time) and chronos (the world’s time), the two are not mutually exclusive. In particular, I accept that the events described in Genesis 1– 11 happened in ordinary space-time, and thus that these chapters are as historical as the rest of the Pentateuch. (3) I believe that Adam and Eve were real people, that as the initial pair of humans they were the progenitors of the whole human race, that they were specially created by God, and thus that they were not the result of an evolutionary process from primate or hominid ancestors.

The statement by Patterson, Allen's defense of Dembski against Nettles, and Dembski's apologia can all be seen here.

Nettles, however, is not buying this revisionism. He seems to suspect that Dembski really believes in the heresies he expounded in his book, and wrote a lengthy rebuttal to the Patterson/Allen/Dembski response. Will they fire back? Or will they fire Dembski? The Baptist world waits agog.

In my book God vs. Darwin, I wrote about how the intelligent design people tried to make us think that they accepted all of modern science (including evolution and an old Earth) except for a few biological systems which they said required a designer. They stoutly resisted any attempt to lump them in with religious fundamentalists who took the Bible literally. Many of us had strong suspicions at that time that this seemingly liberal interpretation of the Bible was just a charade in order to disguise their more rigid religious agenda and make ID acceptable to the courts as an alternative to evolution. P. Z. Myers, whose blog first alerted me to this new Dembski story, seems to think that what this recent episode reveals is that Dembski was a common-or-garden creationist all along and that this controversy has forced him to publicly admit it.

I think that what is going on is more interesting. I have not read Dembski's book and have no plans to do so, because life is too short to read books that use biblical texts to address empirical questions. But reading this back-and-forth over the book suggests to me that while Dembski may or may not have been a true-blue creationist at one time, he now finds the scientific arguments against at least a few of its orthodoxies persuasive. Dembski is a clever man, even arrogantly so, and I suspect that it must galling to him that in order to keep his job, he has to publicly recant under pressure from his religious bosses, people whom he must consider to be his intellectual inferiors. Who would have thought that Dembski, of all people, would experience what it is like to walk in Galileo's shoes!

I suspect that what has happened is that Dembski has started down that dangerous road in which he starts to value evidence and reason and secretly tries to integrate science with his religious beliefs. Beware, Bill. That way leads to atheism!

October 21, 2010

Physicists and climate change

In 2007, the American Physical Society issued a short but strong statement stating that the evidence for global warming is incontrovertible. It is no secret that there is a very small but vocal minority within the APS membership that disputes the idea that global warming has a significant human-based cause and who were upset with the APS's strong stand. Because of the fuss they created, the APS issued a longer clarifying statement in 2010 providing some context and the basis of their reasoning. Both statements can be read here.

A minor kerfuffle has now broken out because a physicist named Hal Lewis has resigned from the American Physical Society in protest at its stance on climate change. (Thanks to Chaz for the link.)

I am not sure why it is significant when a retired 87-year old physicist whose work during his research career had nothing to do with climate change resigns from the APS in protest. He is not a 'top' physicist in that although I do not doubt that is competent in his specialized field and known within it, I would guess that most physicists have not heard of him. The claim in some global warming skeptic circles that Lewis's resignation letter is the equivalent of Martin Luther nailing his theses to the church door that sparked the Protestant reformation is laughable. I predict that it will not cause even a ripple within the physics community.

Lewis is not like Freeman Dyson, for example, another 87-year old physicist who is also a global warming skeptic. Although he too has no background in climate science, at least Dyson is very well known among physicists and any theoretical physicist in any field around the world would likely know his name and have some awareness of his work.

I agree with Lewis that money is having a negative effect in general in that it may be distorting the direction of research, but there is no evidence to support his charge that it has influenced the APS's stance on climate change.

The APS has issued a statement in response to the Lewis resignation.

Lynn Anderson sings I Never Promised You a Rose Garden

I always thought that the lyrics must have emerged as the result of a contest to see who could pack the most number of clichés, trite rhymes, corny ideas, and hackneyed metaphors into a single song. "Smile for a while and let's be jolly, love shouldn't be so melancholy"? Really?

I was astounded when it became a huge hit, even in Sri Lanka, and won all kinds of awards.

Bye, bye, Juan

Juan Williams has been fired by NPR for bigoted remarks he made about Muslims on Fox News.

Good riddance, I say, because Williams was simply awful. I am just waiting for the day when Mara Liasson and Cokie Roberts are also canned.

NPR boasts of its 'driveway moments', stories that allegedly compel people to stay in their cars to listen to the end even if they have completed their journey. For me this triumvirate represented anti-driveway moments, because when they came on I would leave the car as soon as I could or if I did not have that option, turn off the radio.

Here's a hint, Juan. When you start a sentence with "I am not a bigot but…" or "I am not a sexist but…" or "I am not a homophobe but…" and so on, you should realize that you have a problem.

Faith healing and me

In yesterday's post and earlier I have expressed my fury with parents who let their children suffer and die because they withheld medical care, believing that their faith will heal the child. P. Z. Myers documents some other abuses inflicted by parents on children. Such acts are nothing short of criminal because they sacrifice the health and even the life of a child on the altar of parental superstition. There is no evidence that faith healers can do what they claim to do and plenty of evidence that they are at best misguided and self-delusional or outright frauds preying on the gullible.

Some believers in faith healing have asked me whether my skepticism is because of my lack of experience with it and urge me to check it out. Actually I do have some experience with faith healers. I had polio when I was six years old that resulted in some serious physical handicaps, though it has not prevented me from having a very full life. My parents were Christians and they did everything they could to improve my life, and that included taking me to faith healers.

I recall a faith healer named Brother Mandus coming to Sri Lanka as part of a world-wide crusade and my mother took me to the church where he was preaching and at the appropriate time told me to walk up to the altar with the others who were seeking cures for various ailments. Although I was a child then (around eleven or twelve) and it was a long time ago, I recall going up and praying fervently and remember him placing his hands on my head and praying for me to be healed. It was all very sincere (at least on my mother's and my part, though I cannot vouch for Mandus) but, of course, nothing happened.

Sometime later, we were in another town away from the capital city and my parents must have heard of another faith healer, a local man this time, and they took me to him. This was a very different experience. This man was not a Christian but more like a witch doctor and it was a private affair just for us. It was night time and I remember lying down on the floor in a candle-lit room that threw long flickering shadows everywhere while this wild looking, long-haired, bare-chested person wearing long chains around his neck chanted and flailed and waved all manner of things around in the air just above me, including swords. It went on for quite a while but again, nothing happened.

This experience was quite spooky and should have terrified me but I was not scared because I must have implicitly trusted my parents, who were also present, that they would never let me be harmed in any way by this wild and crazy guy. I recall only being curious as to what the hell was going on.

What were my parents, pillars of the Christian church, doing dealing with what could be considered black magic? Many Sri Lankans, like people elsewhere (other than religious chauvinists and fanatics), are somewhat eclectic and relaxed in their attitudes towards religion. It is not uncommon to find icons of Jesus and Buddha and the Hindu gods in the same location and people worshipping all of them. While my parents were religious, they were also practical and open-minded people who had their priorities right. For them, having me get better was top of their agenda and they were willing to do whatever it takes. Having me get better would have trumped any allegiance they might have felt towards any religious dogma.

My parents were pragmatists and if they had been Edgardo Mortara's parents, I think they would have converted to Catholicism in a heartbeat if that was the only way that they could have got their child back from the Pope, arguing that a god who would not excuse an act that arose out of pure parental love was not a god worth worshipping. Fortunately for me, their primary efforts were directed towards making sure that I got the best possible medical treatment. They would never have gambled with that. I suspect that their ventures into trying to find supernatural healing were seen by them as extras, done on the off-chance that it might work. In this, they were totally unlike those religious people who will let their children suffer and even die because they think pleasing their god is more important than anything else.

Believers in faith healing will never be convinced that there is nothing there. They always have the option of blaming any lack of success on people having insufficient faith. They would say that the reason why god did not heal me was likely because of my parents' lack of sufficient faith in the Christian god, as evidenced by their commitment to getting the best possible medical treatment for me, as well as their willingness to try non-Christian faith options. Or maybe because 'god could see into my heart' (a phrase Christians love) and discern that although I thought I was a devout Christian, the seeds of my future atheism had taken root and so I was not to be rewarded. Of course, this whole concept of a god who holds back from healing children just because they or their parents are insufficiently devout is truly horrendous, but religious people never seem to see that aspect of it.

When it comes to faith healers, people like the Pope and all other major religious leaders who do not denounce faith healing as a total fraud are also culpable. By encouraging people to think that god can and will heal those with sufficient faith, they are accomplices to all the faith healers who prey on the gullible.

Because religious leaders are shirking this task, we have to delegate the responsibility of debunking these frauds to comedians like The Chasers.

October 20, 2010

Ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in the occupied territories

Juan Cole describes what is going on in the occupied territories as Israeli settlers set fire to girls schools and mosques, destroy olive groves, take over land, and dump their sewage on Palestinian vineyards, all in the effort to force Palestinians out.

Apology for comment deletion

In responding to a sudden wave of spam comments, I accidentally deleted some genuine recent comments. My apologies.

Why do they hate us?

In an article titled It's the Occupation, Stupid, Robert Pape of the University of Chicago, who has been studying terrorism in many countries for a long time, says that the argument that we hear that terrorists hate us for who we are and what we represent, as formulated bt then president George W. Bush that "They hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other" is simply not true.

New research provides strong evidence that suicide terrorism such as that of 9/11 is particularly sensitive to foreign military occupation, and not Islamic fundamentalism or any ideology independent of this crucial circumstance. Although this pattern began to emerge in the 1980s and 1990s, a wealth of new data presents a powerful picture.

More than 95 percent of all suicide attacks are in response to foreign occupation, according to extensive research that we conducted at the University of Chicago's Project on Security and Terrorism, where we examined every one of the over 2,200 suicide attacks across the world from 1980 to the present day.

Intelligent decisions require putting all the facts before us and considering new approaches. The first step is recognizing that occupations in the Muslim world don't make Americans any safer -- in fact, they are at the heart of the problem.

How religions mainstream insanity

Some time ago, I wrote a post titled Suffer little children about children who are allowed to suffer and even die because of the religious beliefs of their parents. I mentioned the tragic case of a woman Ria Ramkissoon with a child named Javon who in 2006 joined a Christian religious group whose leader, who called herself Queen Antoinette, demanded total obedience from her followers.

Sometime in 2007, Antoinette was angered when Javon did not say 'Amen' after his meals (he was just 16 months old at that time). Antoinette said that Javon was a demon and demanded that food be with held from him until he said 'Amen', and the mother complied with the order. The child died of starvation. Queen Antoinette said that God would bring Javon back to life but only if they had enough faith, and she ordered everyone to pray. But of course, god did nothing of the sort and as the body began decomposing, Antoinette ordered his body placed inside a suitcase where it was eventually discovered in 2008 in a storage shed.

The mother and the group's leaders were arrested and tried and in May of 2010 were found guilty of various charges and sentenced. Ria Ramkissoon received 20 years in jail which was suspended for all except the time already served and five years probation, provided she testified against the cult leaders and undergoes long-term deprogramming and psychiatric counseling in a residential facility. As a result of her testimony, Queen Antoinette was sentenced to 50 years in prison, while her daughter Trevia Williams and aide Marcus Cobbs were sentenced to 50 years incarceration, with all but 15 years suspended.

One curiosity about the case was that the mother was willing to plead guilty only on the condition that she be allowed to withdraw her guilty plea in the event that her son was resurrected from the dead. Julie Drake, division chief in the Felony Family Violence Division of the Baltimore state's attorney's office and one of those who prosecuted the case, explained the prosecution's strategy. It makes for interesting reading.

At Ms. Ramkissoon's insistence, the court agreed that if Javon is resurrected, she can come back to court and withdraw her guilty plea.

Why did I agree to let Ms. Ramkissoon withdraw her guilty plea if Javon is resurrected? If Ms. Ramkissoon's religious beliefs are correct, and Javon resurrects, it would be legally appropriate. That said, I do not share Ms. Ramkissoon's religious beliefs, and I believe the likelihood of Javon's resurrection in my lifetime is too remote to be a concern. I carefully specified on the record that this condition involved resurrection of Javon's body — not reincarnation into another body.

Why did Ms. Ramkissoon receive probation? There are a number of reasons why one co-defendant receives a more lenient sentence than the others, several of which applied to Ms. Ramkissoon's case.

First, it was clear to everyone that the central and most culpable defendant in this case was Queen Antoinette. She was the leader of the cult. She issued the order to withhold food and water from Javon. She warned the others not to feed Javon and removed Javon from Ms. Ramkissoon's control. Our first priority was to convict Queen Antoinette of child abuse and murder and to secure a substantial prison term in her case. In order to do that, it was necessary to obtain eye-witness testimony, and Ms. Ramkissoon was willing to tell the truth.

Second, and equally important, I believe that justice was best served by placing Ms. Ramkissoon in a residential treatment facility rather than in prison. It was clear to everyone who interviewed Ms. Ramkissoon that she had been indoctrinated through classic "brainwashing" techniques into a cult. She had no malice or ill will toward Javon; quite the contrary, she believed Queen Antoinette was acting in his best interests. Nonetheless, she was extremely distraught when Javon began showing signs of distress. After Javon's death, Ms. Ramkissoon spent weeks by his decomposing body, praying for his resurrection. This was not an individual who was acting out of a classic criminal intent (e.g. malice, anger, desire for revenge or gain), but rather a mother who has and will suffer anguish over the result of her inaction.

Almost everyone who hears about this case will come to the reasonable conclusion that Ramkissoon is insane for believing that there is any chance that her child will be resurrected. They will agree with Drake that she has been brainwashed by the cult. You might expect that Ramkissoon could have even been found not guilty on the basis of insanity. What other explanation could there be for someone who starves to death the child she loves, purely on the orders of someone else claiming to speak for god? But Drake provides an interesting coda on how religious delusions are treated differently from other delusions in court trials.

It should be noted that the main reason Ms. Ramkissoon was not found "not criminally responsible" is because her delusions were of a religious nature and were shared by other people; therefore they could not be classified as a "mental disorder." (my italics)

Ramkisson's beliefs are no different from mainstream Christianity. After all, Christians who go to church on Sunday solemnly say the words of the various creeds that outline their fundamental beliefs, all of which include expectations of their own bodily resurrection from the dead. If we consider Ramkissoon to be brainwashed and insane, why don't we treat all Christians the same way?

This is the problem with religion in a nutshell. To the extent that anyone believes in the resurrection of the dead, they too have been brainwashed, just like Ramkissoon. But because mainstream religious beliefs, even crazy ones, are stamped with the label 'religion' and shared by many other people, they are not considered to be mental disorders.

One of the main effects of religion is to launder insane ideas into mainstream acceptance. But in order to do so, religious people have to create a consciously hypocritical world. They have to say they believe in things that one has to be clearly insane to believe in (like that dead bodies will come back to life) while at the same time find ways to discourage those who might actually consider acting on the basis of those beliefs.

No civilized society would be possible if large numbers of people actually acted on the basis of all their religious doctrines. Fortunately for us, civilized societies base their laws largely on science and secular values.

October 19, 2010

Born to Add

Sesame Street music parodies are the best, so clever and good natured and yet educational. Here is Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run being given the treatment.

Pope Joan trailer

Apparently the German film about the female pope may get a US release soon. Here's the trailer (thanks to reader Norm).

The internet as a new media model

An interesting example of the power and utility of the internet was a recent case in England. Simon Singh, in an article in the London Guardian, criticized the British Chiropractic Association "for claiming that its members could treat children for colic, ear infections, asthma, prolonged crying, and sleeping and feeding conditions by manipulating their spines… Singh said that claims were made without sufficient evidence, described the treatments as "bogus", and criticised the BCA for "happily promoting" them."

The BCA sued Singh personally under Britain's absurdly strict libel laws and he faced the possibility of financial ruin. But what happened was that a volunteer army of bloggers swung into action investigating every single claim of the chiropractors and showing that Singh's charge was true. As Ben Goldacre writes:

Fifteen months after the case began, the BCA finally released the academic evidence it was using to support specific claims. Within 24 hours this was taken apart meticulously by bloggers, referencing primary research papers, and looking in every corner.

Professor David Colquhoun of UCL pointed out, on infant colic, that the BCA cited weak evidence in its favour, while ignoring strong evidence contradicting its claims. He posted the evidence and explained it. LayScience flagged up the BCA selectively quoting a Cochrane review. Every stone was turned by Quackometer, APGaylard, Gimpyblog, EvidenceMatters, Dr Petra Boynton, MinistryofTruth, Holfordwatch, legal blogger Jack of Kent, and many more. At every turn they have taken the opportunity to explain a different principle of evidence based medicine – the sin of cherry-picking results, the ways a clinical trial can be unfair by design – to an engaged lay audience, with clarity as well as swagger.

But more interestingly than that, a ragged band of bloggers from all walks of life has, to my mind, done a better job of subjecting an entire industry's claims to meaningful, public, scientific scrutiny than the media, the industry itself, and even its own regulator. (my italics)

As a result, the chiropractors dropped their claim against Singh and may now have to pay his legal costs as well. The claims of the chiropractors have been exposed to the whole world.

Legendary journalist I. F. Stone was probably the prototypical blogger before the internet even existed, doing the kind of detailed analysis that good reporting requires and which requires a passion for the work. It cannot be just a job. Victor Navasky says that Stone,

although he never attended presidential press conferences, cultivated no highly placed inside sources and declined to attend off-the-record briefings, time and again he scooped the most powerful press corps in the world.

His method: To scour and devour public documents, bury himself in The Congressional Record, study obscure Congressional committee hearings, debates and reports, all the time prospecting for news nuggets (which would appear as boxed paragraphs in his paper), contradictions in the official line, examples of bureaucratic and political mendacity, documentation of incursions on civil rights and liberties. He lived in the public domain.

There is still an essential role for journalists to go out and gather first-hand information, questioning people, and obtaining documents. But they are inadequate when it comes to analysis either because they filter the raw information through the establishment lens or they simply do not have the time or knowledge or expertise to do a thorough examination and analysis. It is mostly bloggers who are now doing that kind of thing, picking up Stone's baton and working in the public domain to glean information that the big media journalists cannot or will not do. Of course, there is a huge amount of rubbish on the internet. But as time goes by, bloggers and their readers will become much better at what they do, the former becoming more careful and authoritative, the latter at being able to distinguish good sources of information from the bad.

I. F. Stone's own credo is a inspiration to all independent journalists and bloggers: "To write the truth as I see it; to defend the weak against the strong; to fight for justice; and to seek, as best I can, to bring healing perspectives to bear on the terrible hates and fears of mankind, in the hope of someday bringing about one world, in which men will enjoy the differences of the human garden instead of killing each other over them."

October 18, 2010

The anti-tax mentality

Cartoonist Ted Rall explains the baffling phenomenon of poor people being so protective of the interests of the very rich, at a time the rich don't seem to give a damn about the poor.

Prepare for more anti-WikiLeaks propaganda

The US government is bracing for a fresh release of WikiLeaks documents that is likely to occur soon. When it happens, we will once again be deluged with claims that WikiLeaks has both damaged the war effort on the ground and put innocent people at risk.

Glenn Greenwald reminds us of that past propaganda and how it has proved to be false.

The craziness of astrology

Sometimes even I forget how many stupid things people still believe. When I debate religion with believers, I often use astrology as an example of something that is totally absurd but once was given credence by a huge number of people, to show that just because something is widely believed does not mean that it has any merit. One has to go beyond that and provide evidence. The idea that the configuration of planets and stars could have an effect on people's daily lives is now considered so absurd that to publicly espouse it is to declare oneself to be primitive and superstitious. In the Dover trial on so-called intelligent design, the point where advocate Michael Behe was forced to concede that if their definition of science were to be accepted then astrology could be considered a science too was considered to be a low point for them, discrediting their carefully constructed case that intelligent design was a science.

Hence it always comes as a shock to me when I find that many people still take astrology seriously and determine both big and small decisions on the basis of it. It is to the great shame of my native country Sri Lanka that its political leaders always consult astrologers before making any major decisions, though for a few there were suspicions that they were not true believers and cooked the books (so to speak) by having astrologers provide answers that the leaders had already determined on a more rational basis. Astrology is highly malleable and open to wide interpretation and it is not hard to find an astrologer who will tell you what you want to hear. But the very fact that even these suspected skeptics felt the need to go through this charade of publicly avowing belief shows the power that this particular superstition has on the general public.

For example a new harbor is nearing completion at the southernmost tip of the island to serve as cargo container distribution center. This harbor is being built by Chinese engineers with aid from the Chinese government. A news report says that astrologers had given an 'auspicious' time for the opening of the harbor but it was 10 months ahead of the scheduled completion date. The opening went ahead anyway because what government would want to risk offending the stars and the planets?

Despite the Chinese Company in charge of this Hambantota project objecting to the holding of this ceremony ahead of the completion of the project, the water filling opening ceremony was carried out on the 15th of August owing to the fact that there is no suitable auspicious time (nekath time) in the days ahead for the President.

Answering inquiries made by us, the Chinese Engineers engaged in the Hambantota port project stated the water filling ceremony was really scheduled to be launched about 10 months later.

As a result of this astrology-based stupidity, the engineers now have to work around the premature release of the water, adding to the cost and the time of the project.

For people who believe in astrology, the time of birth is of great importance because the alignment of the stars and planets at that moment supposedly determines the future of the child, even to the extent of predicting whom they will marry, their careers, health and prosperity, etc. So the exact time to the minute is noted when a baby is born so that astrologers have the most accurate information to work with it. (On a personal note, my older daughter was born in Sri Lanka and my younger daughter in the US – yes, we are the proud parents of an 'anchor baby'! – and in both cases there were discreet requests from extended family members as to the time of birth. We of course deliberately did not bother to record this information and since we knew what the purpose of the request was, we refused to give out indications of even the rough time of day, thus foiling their plans to create astrological charts for them.)

Given my awareness of the influence of astrology at least on the Indian sub-continent, I should not have been surprised to read an article by Eric Bellman in the October 5, 2010 online edition of the Wall Street Journal that women in India are using astrology to determine the best time to have a baby and then requesting their doctors to perform c-sections at that time. This is raising serious health and ethical questions because there can be negative health consequences with artificially shifting the date of birth. As Bellman says, "Moving a birth up by even one week can lead to complications such as breathing problems in babies whose lungs have not fully developed. Mothers face increased risk of infection, blood loss and even death from the procedure, which delivers the baby through a surgical incision." But apparently for the mothers who believe, "the large potential benefits of having a child blessed by the stars outweigh concern about potential complications from a caesarean."

Although beliefs in astrology transcend any specific religion, there is no question that the irrational ways of thinking that religion encourages make people more susceptible to this kind of nonsense. I wonder if there are any atheists who take astrology seriously?

October 17, 2010

How to win over undecided voters

If only this were not so reflective of reality…

Benoit Mandelbrot

The mathematician who founded the discipline of fractal geometry has died at the age of 85. To see some of the beautiful patterns generated by fractals, see here.

How to tell true science from false science

For a long time, scientists and historians and philosophers of science have struggled to try and figure out how we can know which theories of science are true and which are false. It is a very difficult problem, and my first book Quest for Truth: Scientific Progress and Religious Beliefs (2000) focused on this very question.

But Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has found the solution!

Are science and Christianity friends? The answer to that is an emphatic yes, for any true science will be perfectly compatible with the truths we know by God’s revelation. But this science is not naturalistic, while modern science usually is. Too many evangelicals try to find middle ground, only to end up arguing for positions that combine theological surrender with scientific naïveté. [My italics]

Got that? We don't need no stinkin' evidence and reason and logic and math and all that high falutin' stuff to determine which scientific theories are true. The ones that agree with what is in my particular holy book as interpreted by what my particular Magic Man whispers in my ear is what is true. Simple, isn't it?

Of course, this is what the pope told Galileo a long time ago. If we had simply listened to the pope then, we could have stayed at the same level of scientific development as at that time. Wouldn't that be wonderful?

The invaluable cartoon strip Jesus and Mo deserves to have the last word on this topic.

October 16, 2010

It's all cynical political calculations for our media

Over at Slate, Tim Scocca points out how the affected cynical, world-weary, oh-so-savvy media narrative that drives US political reporting infects even their coverage of foreign news stories like the Chilean mine rescue. (Via Balloon Juice.)

The idea that maybe, just maybe, something should be done and is because it is worth doing for its own sake does not seem to occur to them.

The Very Model of a Modern US President

(With apologies to Gilbert and Sullivan.)


If you are ever going to publicly debate a religious person, I recommend that as part of your preparation you watch this 15-minute collection of clips of brutal Christopher Hitchens put-downs, referred to as 'Hitchslaps'. The one he administers to someone defending circumcision (it begins at 11:50 and I think his victim is Harold Kushner) is a thing of beauty.

(via Machine Like Us.)

October 15, 2010

Corrupting the minds and bodies of young children

If there is one thing that the sex scandals in the Catholic Church should have taught us, it is that young boys should not be left unsupervised in the presence of clergy.

But now come reports that the Sri Lankan government, in another shameless attempt to pander to the majority Buddhist community, plans to have 2,600 boys as young as 10 years of age ordained next year as Buddhist monks to commemorate year 2600 according to the Buddhist calendar. This means that the boys will have their heads shaven, be put in robes, and made to live in temples with older monks.

People are protesting on many grounds, one of which is that the boys are too young to make such a drastic decision. The second is that there have long been strong rumors of sexual abuse in Buddhist temples in Sri Lanka, but it is a taboo subject that people are fearful to bring out in the open or investigate. Like with the Catholic Church for so long, the authorities have been hesitant to take the allegations seriously.

Poor parents often give up their children to become Buddhist monks because then they will have food and shelter and clothing and receive some sort of education. There is also apparently a bizarre belief that by 'donating' their children to the priesthood, the parents receive 'merit' that can be cashed in to get a better next life (Buddhists believe in reincarnation) or even gain nirvana, the ultimate goal. It is amazing how children are used as pawns in religious games.

It should come as no surprise that as a result of being conscripted, some Sri Lankan Buddhist priests become venal, showing little resemblance to the ideals preached by their founder Siddhartha Gautama.

Acknowledging our debt to trade unions

In this conversation with Jon Stewart of the Daily Show, writer Philip Dray reminds us of how much we owe trade unions for improving the working conditions of everyone.

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The emerging power of new media and blogs

The new media on the internet provides a way to break free of the blinkered view that the traditional media provides. What the new media offers is a vast array of informed people who are willing to do the meticulous and painstaking work to get to the truth. The traditional media cannot or will not do this either because they want to go with the superficial and sensational in their search for ratings or because they are laying off their investigative reporters or because they do not want to offend powerful interests, because they themselves are part of the corporate elite

This year, investigative reporter Jeremy Scahill received the second annual Izzy Award, named after the legendary investigative reporter I. F. "Izzy" Stone, and given for outstanding achievement in independent media. The first winners were Amy Goodman of Democracy Now and Glenn Greenwald. In an interview, Scahill talks about the potential of the new alternative media made possible by the internet.

I believe that the way independent journalists are most effectively able to conduct their work is by maintaining their independence from the powerful. I don't hob-nob with the powerful. I don't count among my friends executives or other powerful people. I think it's important for independent journalists to not be beholden to any special interests whatsoever.

I think we're at a moment where we have a lot of really good independent journalism that's being produced by bloggers and independent journalists, but we also need to not go far away from that tradition of peer review, editing and fact-checking.

We live in a very exciting time in independent media. Corporate journalists are less powerful now than they were 10 years ago, but their owners are much more powerful. Still, the journalists themselves -- they're no longer these sort of regal kings on a hill. Peggy Noonan represents a dying generation of people that pontificate from a golden palace somewhere, hoping the poor will never get through her gates.

The poor are now journalists around the world. The question is: how do we fund it? How do we keep it viable? How do we keep it credible? And that is our challenge right now.

Glenn Greenwald has a nice piece on the value of blogs that was displayed when the traditional media misrepresented Sonia Sotomayor when she was nominated to the US Supreme Court. The media used an original blog report as the source to present a distorted picture of her and it was the blogs that fought back to correct the record.

Another case where blogs forced a reporter to retract was when New York Times reporter Andrew Ross Sorkin indulged in some gratuitous union bashing in a TV interview, suggesting that unionized companies were all doomed to failure. The counter-examples came thick and fast and quick on the blogs, forcing him to recant. He is unlikely to make that mistake again. This kind of accountability and correction is unlikely to have happened in the pre-internet, pre-blog days.

October 14, 2010

The Daily Show on the triviality of the press

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When Roget sang with the Beatles

The cozy relationship between the press and the politicians

The shameless schmoozing of beltway journalists with the politicians they are supposed to be covering critically continues in the Obama administration. I wrote earlier about how Obama started this practice a week before he was even inaugurated. Is anyone even surprised anymore that the media is so lousy and so pro-establishment and only gets worked up over trivialities?

Glenn Greenwald highlights (item #6) the cozy relationship between the media and the politicians they cover that is on display in this article, detailing how influential Mike Allen of Politico is in shaping the media narrative to the liking of powerful people:

On a recent Friday night, a couple hundred influentials gathered for a Mardi Gras-themed birthday party for Betsy Fischer, the executive producer of "Meet the Press." Held at the Washington home of the lobbyist Jack Quinn, the party was a classic Suck-Up City affair in which everyone seemed to be congratulating one another on some recent story, book deal, show or haircut (and, by the way, your boss is doing a swell job, and maybe we could do an interview).

McAuliffe, the former Democratic National Committee chairman, arrived after the former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie left. Fox News's Greta Van Susteren had David Axelrod pinned into a corner near a tower of cupcakes. In the basement, a very white, bipartisan Soul Train was getting down to hip-hop. David Gregory, the "Meet the Press" host, and Newsweek’s Jon Meacham gave speeches about Fischer. Over by the jambalaya, Alan Greenspan picked up some Mardi Gras beads and placed them around the neck of his wife, NBC’s Andrea Mitchell, who bristled and quickly removed them. Allen was there too, of course, but he vanished after a while -- sending an e-mail message later, thanking me for coming.

Or, as Bob Somerby reports, consider the case when Ted Koppel, alleged journalist, drives to Colin Powell's house, a person whom he supposedly covers, to show him his new sports car and to let him take it for a spin. According to Powell, Koppel frequently drops by for coffee and to chat. Somerby also talks about "Bob Schieffer playing golf with George Bush; Gwen Ifill giving home-cooked meals to Condi Rice; and Tim Russert off at Don Rumsfeld’s Christmas party."

Aw, how sweet! Gwen making sure Condi has a hot meal. How nice and cozy!

Somerby also quotes Richard Leiby on a party thrown by John McCain in 2004:

Sen. John McCain tended to his political base Sunday night: the entire national media. The maverick Arizona Republican, once (and future?) presidential aspirant and press secretary's dream, hosted a hyper-exclusive 68th birthday party for himself at La Goulue on Madison Avenue, leaving no media icon behind. Guests included NBC's Tom Brokaw and Tim Russert, ABC's Peter Jennings, Barbara Walters, Ted Koppel and George Stephanopoulos, CBS's Mike Wallace, Dan Rather and Bob Schieffer, CBS News President Andrew Heyward, ABC News chief David Westin, Time Warner CEO Richard Parsons, CNN's Judy Woodruff and Jeff Greenfield, MSNBC's Chris Matthews, CNBC's Gloria Borger, PBS's Charlie Rose—pause here to exhale—and U.S. News & World Report publisher Mort Zuckerman, Washington Post Chairman Don Graham, New York Times columnists William Safire and David Brooks, author Michael Lewis and USA Today columnist Walter Shapiro. They and others dined on lobster salad, loin of lamb, assorted wines, creme brulee, lemon souffle and French tarts...

Your media, the watchdogs of democracy, at work. (Susan Gardner also weighs in on this topic.)

As for whether such schmoozing violates journalistic ethics, Glenn Greenwald says:

I personally don't think that these types of interactions "violate journalistic ethics" because I don't think such a thing exists for them. Rather, all of this just helpfully reveals what our nation's leading "journalists" really are: desperate worshipers of political power who are far more eager to be part of it and to serve it than to act as adversarial checks against it -- and who, in fact, are Royal Court Spokespeople regardless of which monarch is ruling.

The establishment media defends these practices by arguing that they need to be on good terms with major establishment figures in order to get information. This is not true. You are better off dealing with mid-level or lower-level people who really believe in what they do or remain idealistic or are not really interested in the turf wars being waged at higher levels.

October 13, 2010

The Chile mine rescue

The rescue of the trapped miners in Chile is a truly wonderful story. The careful plan put together by international teams seems to be working smoothly in bringing the stoic miners back to the surface and 21 of the 33 all have been rescued so far, after spending over two months trapped half-a-mile below the surface. See here for how the rescue was carried out. It is a triumph of perseverance, endurance, cooperation, patience, technology, and science.

But apparently three different Christian denominations are claiming it was their prayers that resulted in god intervening that resulted in the successful rescue and are vying to claim credit for the successful rescue. They did not explain why if god wanted the miners rescued he didn't simply lift them out of the mine himself or why their gods were silent when the 29 miners died in the West Virginia in April. It is pathetic to see people so desperate for a sign from god that they clutch at these straws.

In another footnote to this story, NPR depended upon an al-Jazeera reporter to get an on-the-spot report from the mine site earlier this week. NPR frequently uses reporters from other news services like the BBC but al-Jazeera is used only for stories in which either al-Jazeera itself is the story or because there are some situations (like the Gaza aid flotilla) where only they venture to send in reporters. This was the first time I had heard NPR using them for a 'neutral' story. It signals the long-overdue recognition that al-Jazeera, which provides excellent news coverage, is being seen by US news outlets as a legitimate source.

Atheist children of prominent religious parents

A strange and sad story has surfaced. A person claiming to be Michael Behe's son has said that he has rejected his family's Catholic faith and become an atheist. Those who have been following the 'intelligent design' movement will be familiar with Behe. He is the author of Darwin's Black Box, the book that became the Bible of that movement with its claims that things like the bacterial flagellum and the blood clotting mechanism were conclusive evidence of the existence of a supernatural designer.

It is not the son's apostasy that is noteworthy. After all, it is not uncommon for children of prominent religious figures to reject the religion of their parents, switching to other religions or to unbelief. What is sad in this case is the parents' response. The unnamed son (who seems to be close to twenty years of age and one of eleven children) writing under the pseudonym 'salty914' says he has been banished to the basement of their house and prevented from talking to his siblings in private in case he infects them with his heresies. The network of family friends are mostly Catholic and he says that some of his friends in those families have been forbidden to talk to him.

You can read his story by following the thread posts by salty914 where he elaborates on why he became an atheist. He also includes some interesting insights into whether his father is trapped by his long support for ID to continue being an advocate even though he may suspect that ID is wrong. It should be noted that it has not been confirmed that salty914 is who he claims to be and the whole thing might be an elaborate hoax. His first post appeared about a week ago and has received wide publicity and there have been no denials yet from the Behe family as far as I know. [Update: Someone whom I know and trust sent me a private email that says that he has been in contact with Michael Behe and that he acknowledges that salty914 is in fact his middle child and does not dispute the information being put out by him about what is happening.]

I have met Behe several times during the days when I was debating ID supporters and he is a genial man, one of the more reasonable religious people, who accepts almost all of evolution but seems to feel the need to preserve some role for a Magic Man. Although his testimony in the Dover case (which I write about in my own book God vs. Darwin) made him look foolish, he is no fiery fundamentalist. This reported behavior seems out of character. But family dynamics are hard to decipher from the outside and it is never pleasant when families become estranged. People who are able to have a calm and reasonable discussion with strangers who disagree with them may not be as tolerant when the challenge comes from their own children.

The Behe situation is not nearly as bad as that of Fred Phelps, head of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church, whose son Nate also became an atheist and moved to Canada. The elder Phelps (who is a big man physically, towering even above Michael Moore) would take the Bible injunction to not spare the rod seriously and whale away at his children regularly with a heavy yard implement called a mattock and subject them to grueling physical activity. I discovered that Fred Phelps as a much more varied background than I had been aware of. He is a lawyer who got an award from the NAACP for his early work on anti-discrimination civil rights cases but was disbarred in 1979. He is also active in Democratic Party politics, running several times for that party's nomination for governor of Kansas.

You can see an interview with Nate Phelps below, where he recounts what it was like to grow up within the Phelps family, provides insights into his father's background, and narrates his own journey to atheism.

Joytv-The Standard-Nate Phelps INVU from Jonathan Roth on Vimeo.

And if you can't get enough of the Phelps horror show (and I have to admit that the psychology of religious fanatics has a definite fascination for me) you should watch this 2007 BBC documentary titled The Most Hated Family in America, where Louis Theroux spent three weeks with the church trying to understand it from the inside. The documentary lasts about an hour and is split into eight parts. The first part is below and the subsequent parts are prompted at the end but the last part seems to be missing from YouTube (at least I could not find it).

Fred Phelps and the most prominent spokesperson in the church, his daughter Shirley Phelps-Roper, can be dismissed as publicity-seeking anti-gay bigots, but what interested me was the psychology of the other members of the church, especially the younger people who are mostly Fred's grandchildren. They seem and look normal even when they start talking, with a smile, about how god hates everyone except the members of their church. They go to the local public schools and are apparently not shy about telling everyone else that they are all going to hell, which must make for interesting lunchtime discussions in the cafeteria. The film provides a chilling window into how effectively children can be indoctrinated into an in-group/out-group Manichaean worldview.

One thing that I had been curious about is that for a church with a tiny congregation, it seems to have quite a bit of money. The budget to take their funeral picketing teams around the country alone costs about $200,00 annually. The homes that the Phelps families live in seem quite bourgeois, occupying a block in a middle class suburb with a big common central backyard containing a swimming pool. I was curious as to where the money came from, especially since the church seems to consist mostly of patriarch Fred's family. Fred has 13 children of whom 11 are lawyers and 54 grandchildren. Four of his children have defected from the church which now treats them as outcasts. Daughter Shirley has 11 children of her own.

Apparently members of the church are encouraged to work regular jobs and give 10% of their income to the church. If the church has 100 members earning the median wage of around $50,000, that alone would provide them an annual income of $500,000 which, under the ridiculous US tax provision that privileges religions, is tax free.

So viewed as a purely business proposition, Papa Fred has quite a nice racket going, getting his family members to support him living in style. Fred is 81 and it will be interesting to see what happens when he dies, since there seems to be no succession plan. The obvious choice to take over would be his daughter Shirley who is the most prominent and active person in the church, a lawyer herself, and clearly very smart and articulate and a true believer. But she cannot take over. Why? Because the leader has to be a man, of course.

It must be strange for someone like Phelps-Roper who despises people purely because they are gay to find herself considered inadequate and inferior by her own group purely because she is female, with both forms of discrimination based purely on the Bible. You might think that the blatant injustice against her might cause her to question the whole idea of taking the Bible at face value. I suspect that that level of self-awareness cannot exist for people like her because it would cause too much cognitive dissonance.

October 12, 2010

"Atheist Philosophies of Death"

Blogger Greta Christina with give a talk on the above topic at a meeting of the CFINO (Center for Inquiry Northeast Ohio) at the Brecksville Library, 9089 Brecksville Rd., Brecksville, Ohio at 7:00 pm tomorrow (Wednesday, October 13).

For more details, go here.

Film Review: The Most Dangerous Man in America

I just saw the DVD of the new documentary about Daniel Ellsberg and the 1971 leaking of the Pentagon Papers, the secret history of the Vietnam war from 1945 to 1967 commissioned by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara to figure out how the US had got into that mess. You can see the film online for free until October 27 by clicking here.

Here's the trailer:

For those who lived through those times and those who did not, the film gives a fascinating inside look at how that drama played out and into the evolution of the thinking of a man who started out being a faithful Pentagon insider and high-level analyst at the Rand Corporation and then became disillusioned by the realization that Vietnam war policy was based on lies by every single administration from Harry Truman onwards. As the Assistant Secretary of Defense told McNamara, the reasons for the US remaining in Vietnam was "10% to help the South Vietnamese, 20% to hold back the Chinese, and 70% to save American face." One wonders what the corresponding proportions are now for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is also sickening to listen to the tapes of Richard Nixon and his total contempt for the public's right to know and for civilian casualties, casually talking to Henry Kissinger about the option of dropping nuclear weapons on Vietnam. It was Kissinger's description of Ellsberg that provides the title of this documentary.

Daniel Ellsberg has written an account about the corrosive effect of knowing high-level secrets, how it shuts you off from people. Ellsberg points out that he and thousands of people like him knew that what the president and others were saying about the war was simply false and that there was this silent collusion to maintain the façade of lies. There was one notable incident where Defense Secretary McNamara heartily agreed with Ellsberg's judgment that the war was going nowhere while they were traveling together on a plane and then stepped onto the tarmac a short time later and brazenly told the assembled reporters that the war was going great. It is only people who are confident that the people around them will collude in their lies, at least for the sake of preserving their careers, that can do such things.

At that time, leaking those papers was an arduous task. The secret history was 7,000 pages long. Ellsberg had to take home a few volumes from the safe each night, photocopy them page-by-page with his young children as helpers, and then return the originals the next day. It took him months. He then had to find someone willing to publicize them and discovered that even elected officials who were outspoken in their opposition to the war were leery of being associated with such an explosive leak. The notable exception was a young senator named Mike Gravel from Alaska who used his congressional immunity from prosecution to read the documents into the congressional record during a filibuster. Although Nixon tried to stop publication of the papers, the floodgates had been opened as more and more newspapers began to print the documents. This film illustrates the importance of open government and the First Amendment.

Nowadays, it should be much easier to leak documents since they are in electronic form and all it takes is a few keystrokes and one does not need major newspapers or high elected officials to bring them to public notice. Outlets like WikiLeaks can do this and also keep your identity secret. In the film, Ellsberg makes the point that I have made repeatedly, that giving the public access to official documents and allowing everybody to analyze them is better than giving a few people access and depending on what they choose to tell you. Ellsberg has appealed to people in government now to not wait as long as he did but to leak information in order to hold the government accountable and to stop the lies about its current activities. WikiLeaks takes this same attitude, which is why I think they perform such a valuable service.

The film is engrossing and should be viewed along with the classic Hearts and Minds (1974) to get a picture of what it was like in those times, both here and in Vietnam. To get a glimpse of the casual racist attitude that existed towards the Vietnamese during the war, see this short clip from Hearts and Minds that begins with a scene from the funeral of a Vietnamese soldier and then cuts to the commander of the US forces in Vietnam General William Westmoreland.

I cannot watch this scene without tears springing to my eyes at the naked emotions on display of the soldier's family, and then being jolted to fury at Westmoreland's words. It is inconceivable to me that the people who planned and executed the war were not prosecuted for war crimes.

October 11, 2010

The slide continues…

Glenn Greenwald points to a study that further documents the steady collapse of the US from within. One indicator is life expectancy but Greenwald points to many others.

In 1950, the United States was fifth among the leading industrialized nations with respect to female life expectancy at birth, surpassed only by Sweden, Norway, Australia, and the Netherlands. The last available measure of female life expectancy had the United States ranked at forty-sixth in the world. As of September 23, 2010, the United States ranked forty-ninth for both male and female life expectancy combined.

The slide is quite rapid. In 1999, the US was 24th.

But not to worry. When it comes to incarcerating prisoners, selling arms, and starting cruel and unnecessary wars, we're still #1! And we have risen to #5 in executions, just behind China, Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. Who would not want to be in such distinguished company?

Science and religion aren't friends

Jerry Coyne has a good article in today's edition of USA Today with the above title.

Is the US a nation of secret socialists?

Dan Ariely of Duke Business School is quite ingenious when it comes to devising experiments to determine how people think and what drives their decision making when it comes to economic matters. In his entertaining book Predictably Irrational, he challenged the traditional notion of economists that people are rational actors on the economic stage, making decisions in their own best interest. Instead he argues that people are irrational (i.e., not really thinking things through to get the best result for themselves) but irrational in a predictable way.

Now in a new paper co-authored with Michael Norton of Harvard Business School titled Building a Better America – One Wealth Quintile at a Time, they demonstrate that people in the US have a wildly inaccurate understanding of how wealth is distributed in the US. (I have already discussed studies (see here and here) showing the rapidly rising inequality in incomes in the US.)

In 2005, they asked a representative sample of 5,522 people from 47 states with median income, age, gender, and voting patterns that were matched to the population to identify which of three wealth distribution models they would prefer their societies to have. All the respondents were given this definition of wealth: "Wealth, also known as net worth, is defined as the total value of everything someone owns minus any debt that he or she owes. A person's net worth includes his or her bank account savings plus the value of other things such as property, stocks, bonds, art, collections, etc., minus the value of things like loans and mortgages."

What they did was show people three pie charts representing different distributions of wealth by quintiles and ask them which society they would like to join, given that they would be assigned to a quintile in that society according to the 'veil of ignorance' model used by John Rawls to determine how to construct a just society. In this case, the 'veil of ignorance' took the form of telling the respondents, "In considering this question, imagine that if you joined this nation, you would be randomly assigned to a place in the distribution, so you could end up anywhere in this distribution, from the very richest to the very poorest."


The three pie charts (as presented to the respondents) were unlabeled. The top right one was constructed using perfectly equal distributions. The top left one was constructed using the actual income distribution in Sweden. The bottom chart was obtained using the actual wealth distribution in the US (with the top quintile having 84% of the wealth, the second 11%, the third 4%, the fourth 0.2% and the bottom 0.1%).

The respondents overwhelmingly (92% vs. 8%) preferred the Swedish distribution to the US and by a considerable margin (77% vs. 23%) for the equal distribution over the US. There was also a slight preference for the Swedish distribution over the perfectly equal one. Who knew that Americans had such an egalitarian mindset?

For the second part of their study, the researchers asked respondents to estimate what they thought the actual wealth distribution in the US is and also what they thought it should be. The results are shown in this chart that again splits the distribution by quintiles. The actual distribution is given the top line and is the same as the pie chart above for the US. The second line is the response when asked what they think the current distribution is. The third line represents what they would like it to be. The results are interesting.


As the study authors say,

First, respondents vastly underestimated the actual level of wealth inequality in the United States, believing that the wealthiest quintile held about 59% of the wealth when the actual number is closer to 84%. More interesting, respondents constructed ideal wealth distributions that were far more equitable than even their erroneously low estimates of the actual distribution, reporting a desire for the top quintile to own just 32% of the wealth. These desires for more equal distributions of wealth took the form of moving money from the top quintile to the bottom three quintiles, while leaving the second quintile unchanged, evidencing a greater concern for the less fortunate than the more fortunate.

In other words, not only do people think that wealth is more equitably distributed in the US than it actually is, their ideal of what the distribution should be would require a considerable redistribution of wealth from the richer to the poorer. Americans are socialists at heart, though they may not realize it.

What was also interesting is that there were not marked differences by age or gender or political party affiliation or income and wealth. As the authors say, "we observed a surprising level of consensus: All demographic groups – even those not usually associated with wealth redistribution such as Republicans and the wealthy – desired a more equal distribution of wealth than the status quo."

What has happened in the US is that the ruling wealthy oligarchy that controls the government and the media keeps repeating the message that the current distribution of wealth is not only good but that there should be even more inequality by giving tax breaks and other benefits to the rich. Given the almost total disconnect between reality and what people think is the reality, it should not be surprising that it is almost impossible to have a reasonable discussion in the US about income and wealth and taxes.

October 09, 2010

DNA coiling and replicating

Via Machines Like Us, here is a wonderful animation of DNA coiling and replicating.

October 08, 2010

Lawyer jailed for refusing to say Pledge of Allegiance in court

Yes, believe it or not, a judge ordered a constitutional lawyer to jail because he refused to vocalize the Pledge of Allegiance, although he stood while others did so.

Judges do abuse the power they have in their courtrooms on occasion, treating it like their own private fiefdoms, but this is going too far. The Supreme Court ruled in 1943 that children could not be forced to recite the pledge but the judge thinks that adults can?

Tim Minchin on the Good Book

Managing the media message

Many people may not realize how carefully scripted talk shows are. When we watch people even yell at each other in seemingly spontaneous ways, we are actually watching a carefully planned show. People are selected to appear on these shows based on positions that they will take. So if you want to have a career as a media commentator, it is best if you have a predictable response to the stock issues that the media covers. It is even better if you can say predictable things in unpredictable ways, like Ann Coulter. But woe to you if you are an original thinker or a thoughtful person who actually responds based on the specifics of the situation. You are of no use to the producers of these shows because you are simply too unpredictable. The best way to understand these shows is to think of them as plays in which the actors are allowed to improvise within the limits of the characters that they play.

John Amato provides a revealing look behind the scenes at how the 'news' shows set up the guests for their programs, selecting guests who will only say what the producers of the shows want them to say. For one show, the producers sent out an email to someone saying, "Wanted to see if you're available today at 4:05 for Neil's show today. The topic is on Obama and his cockiness. We're looking for someone who will say, yes, he's cocky and his cockiness will hurt him." Yes, they can be that specific.

Journalists often 'work the phones', as they like to call it, calling up lots of people on their Rolodexes until they have the quotes they need to flesh out the story that they have already written. I have been interviewed on occasion for some news story. When I read the story later, it is always the case that my comments have been selected to fit into a narrative that the writer seemed to have decided upon even before talking to me. The same is true for the 'person in the street' interviews. They may interview many, many people to get the quotes they need to drive the pre-ordained narrative.

But in order to ensure that the pre-ordained message gets transmitted, truly original or different or dissenting voices have to be marginalized. Glenn Greenwald describes how that is done:

[I]n our political discourse, the two party establishments typically define what is "sane," and anyone outside of those parameters is, by definition, "crazy." "Crazy" is the way that political orthodoxies are enforced and the leadership of the two political parties preserved as the only viable choices for Sane People to embrace. Anyone who tiptoes outside of those establishment parameters -- from Ron Paul on the right to Dennis Kucinich on the left, to say nothing of Further Left advocates -- is, more or less by definition, branded as "crazy" by all Serious, mainstream people.

The converse is even more perverse: the Washington establishment -- which has endorsed countless insane policies, wrought so much destruction on every level, and has provoked the intense hatred of the American citizenry across the ideological spectrum -- is the exclusive determinant for what is "sane."

While all of that is happening, those whom all Serious, Sane people agree are Crazy -- people like Dennis Kucinich and Ron Paul and Alan Grayson -- vehemently oppose most if not all of that and try to find ways to expand the realm of legitimate debate and political alliances beyond the suffocating stranglehold of those responsible. So who exactly is Crazy?

You can read more by Greenwald on this topic.

The media is at its worst when it is implicated in wrongdoing. Then it closes ranks and stonewalls in exactly the same way that the government or businesses do. A classic case is when it was revealed that the so-called 'military analysts' who gave supposedly 'objective' views on the Iraq war were actually being briefed by the Pentagon and paid for promoting a particular view. The news networks knew this and did not reveal the information to their viewers. Even after their lack of forthrightness was revealed, the media did not cover it.

The US is governed by a corrupt and incestuous business (mostly finance sector)-politicians-media oligarchy that is slowly but surely diving the country into the ditch because of its relentless pursuit of private wealth at the expense of the public good. The only silver lining is that all oligarchs are inherently unstable and eventually collapse under the weight of their own greed, as the groups and individual members within it start attacking each other once the public treasury has been thoroughly looted. But while that is going on the general public will suffer.

October 07, 2010

The never-ending war in Afghanistan enters its tenth year

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Ore on Terror
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Why do these people hate the constitution?

Glenn Greenwald provides further evidence of the country's descent into one in which the rule of law and the constitution are treated as inconvenient irritants, to be ignored in the glorious and never-ending 'war on terror'..

What were they thinking?

Young people (and by young I mean under 25) often do stupid things. I know because I did stupid things when I was that young, casually taking risks that could have resulted in injury or even death that I would not dream of doing now. I am amazed when I recall my younger self that I could have been so foolish and am thankful that I have survived.

Research supports my thesis that young people are prone to stupid behavior since they find that the pre-frontal cortex of the brain, the part that is responsible for reasoning, planning, and making judgments, does not become fully developed until around the age of 25, which is a good reason for raising the age for granting driving licenses, since driving safely in one act that requires particularly good judgment. As a result of both the research and my own experiences, I tend to be very forgiving of young people's indiscretions, believing that almost all of them, however irresponsible they seem when they are young, will grow up to be sensible adults.

But while poor judgment can be blamed for things like driving while drunk, performing foolish acts of bravado merely to impress the people around you, walking around in shorts in deep winter, and so on, there are some things that young people do that point to deeper problems than simply poor judgment. I am thinking at this point of the two Rutgers University students (Dharun Ravi and Molly Wei, both age 18) who allegedly set up a webcam to record Ravi's roommate Tyler Clementi (also 18) having sex, and streamed the video live on the internet and tweeted their followers to watch. This ended in tragedy when Clementi was so mortified that he committed suicide.

My reaction to this story was sadness at the death and horror at what those two students had done. What were they thinking? How could they not know that what they were doing was deeply wrong? How could they not have a basic moral compass that would tell them that they had completely lost their bearings? After all, this was not even a grey area where reasonable people could disagree about whether the act was appropriate.

The blatantly wrong nature of what was done suggests that it was not merely an act of poor judgment by Ravi and Wei but points to deeper problems, both personal and societal. The personal one is the homophobia involved. Clementi was gay. If he had been having sex with a woman, I think his roommate would not have streamed the video. It is because homosexuality is still viewed as something outside the norm, a cause for teasing, taunting, and tormenting, that the perpetrators felt that what they did was 'funny' and that they would not face any repercussions.

The societal problem is that we now live in an age where the boundary between the private and the public has become blurred almost to the point of non-existence. Some people think nothing of freely revealing the most intimate details of their lives to the public on venues such as Facebook and YouTube. Such people are still few but the existence of reality TV has amplified their impact and made it appear as if fame, however fleeting, is sufficient incentive for people to reveal everything about their lives to a voyeuristic audience.

The government is not helping here. It claims that it has the right to snoop into our lives in order to 'protect us from terrorists'. Businesses also think nothing of harvesting our personal information for commercial use. All these have added to the pervasive sense that people do not have the right to privacy or the expectation that it will be protected.

TV programs in the old Candid Camera mold or people like Sacha Baron Cohen (in his persona as Ali G or Borat or Bruno) have made it seem acceptable to put unsuspecting people in situations in which they say or do embarrassing things and then broadcast the result to the world. And now the internet has made it possible for reality TV or Candid Camera or Cohen wannabees to try their hand at this, not realizing that this is not a harmless prank, that violating people's privacy is wrong, that there is deep cruelty inherent in their actions, and that the danger is high of things turning out badly. I suspect that this is what lies at the heart of what motivated Ravi and Wei to do what they did.

The harassment that young LGBT people face at the hands of their peers is appalling. And because their knowledge and experience and worldview is so limited, they may think that their entire life is going to be a continuation of their horrible adolescence. It should not be surprising that so many of them commit suicide or are harmed psychologically, with some of them even growing up to be the kinds of hateful closeted anti-gay bigots that keep getting exposed.

Dan Savage has started a great program called It Gets Better aimed at giving hope to young LGBT people that things will improve, to make them aware that if they can weather the tough early years, then as adults life will be much more tolerable. Adults have much more control over their environments, such as where they work and live and whom they interact with, and thus you can avoid the homophobes more easily. I hope Savage's program takes off and also that we become a society that can deal with sexuality in all its diversity in a mature way.

October 06, 2010

UN report on the aid flotilla killings by Israel

The expert panel appointed by the United Nations Human Rights Council to look into the deaths resulting from the Israeli attack on the flotilla of vessels bringing relief supplies to Gaza has issued its report on September 27. You can see my series of posts (scroll down) on this tragedy from June 1 through June 10. Scott Horton at Harper's has read the report and says, "The persons who prepared this report are eminent figures with no obvious prejudices one way or the other on the Gaza controversy. Their report is a model of clarity and masters an impressive body of evidence."

Horton flags this excerpt:

The circumstances of the killing of at least six of the passengers were in a manner consistent with an extra-legal, arbitrary and summary execution. Furkan Dogan and Ibrahim Bilgen were shot at near range while the victims were lying injured on the top deck. Cevdet Kiliçlar, Cengiz Akyüz, Cengiz Songür and Çetin Topçuoglu were shot on the bridge deck while not participating in activities that represented a threat to any Israeli soldier. In these instances and possibly other killings on the Mavi Marmara, Israeli forces carried out extra- legal, arbitrary and summary executions prohibited by international human rights law, specifically article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

two of the passengers killed on the top deck received wounds compatible with being shot at close range while lying on the ground: Furkan Dogan received a bullet in the face and Ibrahim Bilgen received a fatal wound from a soft baton round (beanbag) fired at such close proximity to his head that parts such as wadding penetrated his skull and entered his brain.

Considering that one of the dead (Furkan Dogan) was a US citizen, the lack of outrage from the Obama administration and the Congress and the silence of the media about the report is noteworthy.

Compare this with the fuss raised about the three Americans held by Iran for crossing into that country illegally, even though there is no indication that they were treated particularly badly and one was released on bail and allowed to leave the country for health reasons. Just imagine if Iran had done to them what Israel did to the people on the Mavi Marmara. We would be at war already.

The difference testifies to the fact that Israel can do what it likes to the US and its citizens or even its armed forces (as in the case of the USS Liberty) without fear of repercussions.

The Sound of Science

(via Why Evolution is True.)

The establishment media

One of the big propaganda successes of the right wing conservative movement in the US has been the portrayal of the mainstream media as 'liberal'. They have become so good at driving home this message that the media goes out of its way to have conservatives and extreme right wing people over-represented in its ranks. It seems like there is nothing that a right wing crank (like Erick Erickson, Marty Peretz, Rush Limbaugh, Pat Buchanan, or Glenn Beck) can say that will prevent him or her from securing a perch in the media, while those who lack that protective barrier (like Helen Thomas or Octavia Nasr or David Weigel or Rick Sanchez) can get fired. People who are not right wing usually have to prove themselves to be 'safe' voices (i.e., not say anything remotely insightful, let alone controversial) to get even a toehold.

But whether you are right wing or not, what you have to be is pro-establishment, which means that you never, ever, point out that the US is a one-party state run by an oligarchy.

Edward Herman, emeritus professor of economics at the University of Pennsylvania, an astute media analyst, and co-author with Noam Chomsky of the classic work Manufacturing Consent on how the US media functions writes:

The veteran [New York] Times reporter John Hess has said that in all 24 years of his service at the paper he "never saw a foreign intervention that the Times did not support, never saw a fare increase or a rent increase or a utility rate increase that it did not endorse, never saw it take the side of labor in a strike or lockout, or advocate a raise for underpaid workers. And don't let me get started on universal health care and Social Security. So why do people think the Times is liberal?" The paper is an establishment institution and serves establishment ends. As Times historian Harrison Salisbury said about former executive editor Max Frankel, "The last thing that would have entered his mind would be to hassle the American Establishment, of which he was so proud to be a part."

An example of this was recently revealed in a study of the use of the word 'torture'. The New York Times used to routinely used the word to describe acts that we normally think of as deserving of that label (such as waterboarding) and abruptly stopped doing so when the US government simply asserted that those same acts when done by them were not torture. The justifications given by the paper for these reversions were comical and Glenn Greenwald skewers them (see here and here).

This is not a uniquely US phenomenon. John Pilger describes the same process at work in England in which the BBC politely describes the bloody invasion of Iraq as merely a 'conflict'. He highlights a study by the universities of Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds on the reporting leading up to and during the invasion of Iraq that showed how biased it was towards British government propaganda.

This concluded that more than 80 per cent of the media unerringly followed "the government line" and less than 12 per cent challenged it. This unusual, and revealing, research is in the tradition of Daniel Hallin at the University of California, San Diego, whose pioneering work on the reporting of Vietnam, The Uncensored War, saw off the myth that the supposedly liberal American media had undermined the war effort.

This myth became the justification for the modern era of government "spin" and the "embedding" (control) of journalists. Devised by the Pentagon, it was enthusiastically adopted by the Blair government. What Hallin showed - and was pretty clear at the time in Vietnam, I must say - was that while "liberal" media organisations such as the New York Times and CBS Television were critical of the war's tactics and "mistakes", even exposing a few of its atrocities, they rarely challenged its proclaimed positive motives - precisely Hermiston's position on Iraq.

What is refreshing about the new British study is its understanding of the corporate media's belief in and protection of the benign reputation of western governments and their "positive motives" in Iraq, regardless of the demonstrable truth. (my italics)

The simplest way to understand how the commercial media operates is that it is meant to provide profits to the shareholders. The way it does that is by providing advertisers with an audience. But advertisers do not want just any old audience. The do not want the poor and others they consider riff-raff. They want affluent people who will buy their products. And that group tends to have establishment values. As soon as you limit your target demographic this way, that skews your coverage of news so that it will appeal to them.

POST SCRIPT: The power of the oligarchy

Once in a while the mask slips and people like Chris Hayes are able to tell it like it is.

October 05, 2010

Westboro Baptist Church and free speech

Tomorrow the US Supreme Court will hear the case as to whether the Westboro Baptist Church has the right to conduct their anti-gay protests at funerals.

I think it is misguided to try and use the law to suppress the Westboro group because not only it does infringe on their free-speech rights, it also gives them the kind of publicity they crave and allows them to act as First Amendment defenders.

What should be done is to organize flamboyant counter-demonstrations, the way that the people at Comic Con did in July of this year or as Michael Moore did back in 1999 in his TV show The Awful Truth.

Or as Red State Update did.

Ridicule and humor is the best weapon against hateful speech. We should laugh them out of business.

Why does god hide?

It must be really frustrating to be a thinking person who believes in god because he doesn't help you in the least. Since god does not seem to actually do anything that you can point to as incontrovertible evidence of his existence, believers have to look in obscure corners of knowledge, as was the case with so-called intelligent design. God seems like this passive-aggressive personality who wants you to believe unquestioningly in his existence and worship him but doesn't give you anything in return. As a result, believers have to confront the question of why god is so elusive.

A rabbi by the name of Alan Lurie has taken up the challenge and written an essay titled "Why Does God Hide?" His essay lays out the problem clearly enough:

This notion, that God's presence is hidden, is a significant dilemma for many, and for some is clear proof that God does not exist. Why, one asks, would the creator of the Universe be so difficult to spot? Surely if such a creator exists, there would be obvious evidence. And why wouldn't this creator, in order to silence disbelievers and recruit more faithful, simply appear on the White House lawn, announce his presence, and miraculously end all war, hunger, and disease? For some, this hidden presence is evidence that even if a creator deity does exist, such a being is not worth worshiping. What kind of a god, who religious people say loves us, would stand by as horrible atrocities happen, and silently allow us to suffer? Such a god is either not all-powerful, not all-knowing, or certainly not completely benevolent. Many site [sic] the Holocaust, for example, as clear proof of God's impotence or indifference.

Why yes, rabbi, these are excellent points and exactly what we atheists say. But please go on.

The question of God's hidden presence is not new, and has been an essential theological question for at least 2,000 years. The Bible itself continuously wrestles with this question, and God's apparent capriciousness is the theme of the Book of Job. Of course a simple answer is to say, "The reason for the struggle is that there obviously is no god. Let go of this idea and the struggle disappears." OK, that's a perfectly fine response.

Again, rabbi, you are perfectly right, that answer does solve every single theological problem, doesn't it? So can we simply agree that the problems have been solved and stop the discussion? Alas, no. At this point, the rabbi abandons his reasoning powers and descends into the usual woolly language and thinking of apologists.

He goes on to make four points, presumably to explain why god exists but is so elusive.

  1. A Misunderstanding of the Nature of God

    He says that the popular conception of god "as a person, perhaps like ourselves, only much, much bigger, smarter, etc." is childish and must be abandoned because the "great theologians, mystics, and spiritual guides have all recognized that what we call "God" is not a limited being."

    Ok, but what is his conception of god then? Alas, after that buildup, we are let down because the rabbi punts. "Well, not to be evasive, but this is not a simple answer that can be written in a short blog, and whatever I write will be inaccurate, misunderstood, and radically incomplete."

    As Jerry Coyne says, Lurie is 'pulling a Fermat' here, saying that although he knows what god is really like, he cannot do so is in the limited space available to him so he won't even try. What a tease! But let's move on to his second point.

  2. A Misunderstanding of the Nature of Religion

    Lurie resorts to the tired, old 'two worlds' model that argues that science and religion address different questions, saying that "Religion is a compilation of humanity's yearning to find meaning and purpose, to document the encounter with the Divine realm, and to help facilitative such encounters for others…. the true purpose of religion is to help us recognize that we are more than our momentary desires, our fleeting thoughts, and our painful sense of separation from each other and nature."

    Here Lurie is pulling a Marilynne Robinson, piling words upon words to convey deep emotion about god as a solution to existential angst without addressing the point of his essay. What has all this got to do with the elusiveness of god? Let's hope he gets to it in point three.

  3. A Misunderstanding of the Means to Experience God's Presence

    Lurie challenges the notion "that evidence for God should be immediately obvious to anyone" saying that "The experience of God requires deliberate and sustained effort, as well. That is why all religious and spiritual traditions teach us to meditate, pray, practice gratitude, and seek God's presence on a regular, deliberate basis."

    In other words, god has decided that you must eat your spinach before you can have dessert, that you must commit yourself to a long and rigorous regimen before you can "experience" some emotional state that you can then interpret as god's presence. God punishes those who are not willing to go to religious boot camp by denying them his presence or, as Ringo Starr might have sung,

    You got to pay your dues
    If you want your god to schmooze
    And you know it don't come easy

    This explanation seems rather self-serving and not convincing. After all, Mother Theresa at the end of her life expressed deep frustration that she had not experienced god and few would argue that she was a slacker who did not put in an enormous amount of effort into trying to experience god. In addition, the experiences reported by believers tend to be indistinguishable from hallucinations. I have written previously about my own "experiences" of god's presence.

    It seems to me that Lurie is saying that you must commit yourself to a state of willful self-delusion, the way people in the charismatic movements like the Pentecostals do, in order to "experience" god.

  4. A Misunderstanding of the Proof

    Lurie seems doubtful of the power of traditional ontological, cosmological, and teleological proofs for god, saying "Few people, I suspect, are truly convinced by any of these "proofs," and all have been rigorously challenged."

    That is true but oddly enough, he then simply moves on and does not provide a defense or an alternative, essentially conceding the point that the arguments used by theologians for centuries are useless.

When someone writes an article with the title "Why Does God Hide?", one expects to find answers. Instead what we get here is one statement saying that he has an answer that it is too complicated to even sketch out its outlines, one in which he says that if we don't personally experience god, it is our own fault because we have not worked hard enough at it, and two irrelevant digressions.

What is truly amazing about theologians is how they can talk and write so much while saying so little.

POST SCRIPT: Ringo Starr and It don't come easy

October 04, 2010

Radio program re-scheduled

The show on the Pew religion survey has been re-scheduled and will not occur at 9:00 am on Tuesday, October 5 as I said before.

I'll post the new date when I hear it.

Book review: Quicksand by Geoffrey Wawro

The title of this book is taken from a quote by British foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey at the dawn of the twentieth century who said that "The Arab question is a regular quicksand" and that, along with the subtitle America's pursuit of power in the Middle East, tells you pretty much what this new book is about. In its 610 pages, Wawro, a professor of military history at the University of North Texas, tries to provide a comprehensive overview of that region, with its complex interplay of tribal and religious conflicts, overlaid with superpower geopolitical meddling because of its oil and other strategic values.

The period covered by the book starts at the end of World War I and the declaration by the then British foreign secretary Arthur Balfour that seemed to promise a "Jewish national home" in what was then Turkish Palestine. That set in motion a complex train of events involving many countries that Wawro tries to weave together into a comprehensive and yet coherent story. He goes into great detail on some aspects and necessarily glosses over others but in the process provides a useful single reference work for those trying to understand what is going on the region.

The first half of the book takes us up to around 1970 and devotes entire chapters to the history of Egypt and Nasser, the Suez crisis, Iran, the creation of Israel, the emergence of oil as valuable energy source and a political weapon, and the Six Day war, leading up to the Nixon era and the 'Nixon Doctrine'. The second half takes us right up to the present and has chapters on the first Gulf war, the history of Iraq and the rise of Saddam Hussein as a US protégé and ally, the rise of Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda, the invasion of Afghanistan, and the second Gulf war against Iraq. Interweaving through all this is Israel's role in the region and its relationship to the US.

The book is, frankly, depressing. One sees the same meddling being done over and over again by the great powers in the region, first Britain, then Russia, and finally the US; one sees feckless rulers of Arab countries imposing authoritarian rule and harsh conditions on their people even as they live in luxury. The worst hit are the Palestinian and Afghan people, whose conditions and prospects steadily worsen over time as they are used as pawns serving other people's agendas.

A central feature of the book is the cynical and cruel policies of Israel as it constantly seeks to expand its territory by force and then drive out the indigenous Palestinian people using terror, oppression, and coercion, a process that continues to this day with its deliberate building of settlements in the occupied territories even as it keeps stalling on negotiations. From the time of President Truman onwards, Israel used its lobbying power in the US to get vast amounts of military and civilian aid and thwart any attempt at establishing a viable Palestinian state. The book documents the amazement of Israeli leaders at how easy it is to get US presidents and other US leaders to take actions that are in the interests of Israel and not that of the US. Even recently, Israeli prime minister Netanyahu was caught on tape saying with contempt how easy it is to manipulate US policy and that repression of Palestinians is a deliberate policy of Israel. Even he thinks that the kind of support Israel receives in the US is 'absurd'.

Netanyahu is quoted as saying:

In the film, Mr Netanyahu says Israel must inflict "blows [on the Palestinians] that are so painful the price will be too heavy to be borne … A broad attack on the Palestinian Authority, to bring them to the point of being afraid that everything is collapsing".

When asked if the US will object, he responds: "America is something that can be easily moved. Moved to the right direction … They won't get in our way … Eighty per cent of the Americans support us. It's absurd."

Just this week Netanyahu let the moratorium on settlement building in the occupied territories expire, a direct slap in the face of president Obama and Hillary Clinton who had asked for a continuation, and all they could say in response was to give a limp statement that they were 'disappointed'. Of course, the entire 'peace process' is a façade designed to stall for time while Israel continues to steadily annex Palestinian lands.

The fact that Netanyahu's brazen contempt for the US government and its people made hardly a ripple in the news here is indicative of the protection Israel receives in the US because of the Israel lobby. For more details on who makes up the Israel lobby and how they operate, the book The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy by John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt constitutes essential reading. I wrote a review of this book some time ago: part 1, part 2, and part 3.

The long-standing and cynical exploitation of the Afghan people is another crime of colossal proportions. The US, smarting from its defeat in Vietnam in 1975, helped lure the Soviet Union into Afghanistan in order to bog them down in their own unwinnable war in a country that is notorious for destroying its enemies and invaders by attrition. If any country deserves to be labeled as 'quicksand' it is Afghanistan. The USSR took the bait and in 1979, like the US in 2001, invaded the country and imposed a puppet government that in addition to serving the superpower's geostrategic goals, sought to at least partially modernize the country by reducing the influence of religion and introducing some reforms and advancing secular and modern ways of thinking such equal rights for women, more freedom of the press, etc.

But the USSR soon became found itself waging a guerrilla war in which they were confronted by the nationalist mujahadeens and the Taliban, al Qaeda, other religious groups, and assorted warlords and murderous thugs, all of whom were heavily supported by the US who provided them with money and sophisticated weaponry and expertise. When the USSR realized that Afghanistan was a hopeless cause and they had to leave, it tried to warn the US that it had created a monster in that country that would later turn against its patrons. Wawro writes that Gorbachev offered to make a deal with the US in which USSR would leave Afghanistan but together with the US they would try to put in place a government that would retain at least some of the reforms and not be a threat to the West. But the US was more interested in having the USSR humiliated and ignored the offer. The end result was an Afghanistan that ended up being ruled by the Taliban who provided a refuge for bin Laden and al Qaeda. We all know where that led.

Political cartoonist Ted Rall, just back from a visit to Afghanistan, says that there have been some definite improvements in that country since the US invasion of 2001, just as there was when the Soviets were there. (Rall's cartoon log of his trip can be seen here in slideshow format as well.) Despite the staggering corruption of the US-backed Karzai government, there are more schools, clinics, and medical services, better roads and communications, some relaxing of restrictions on speech and the press, and more freedoms for women. But what will happen when the US leaves? The history of that country, especially the example of Taliban rule after the USSR left, does not encourage optimism. It will likely revert to a period of ghastly repression because the Taliban now is even worse than the Taliban then.

Quicksand is well written and an easy read, despite its length. As I said before, it is a good reference book to have for a comprehensive summary of the history of a region that is the source of much of the world's conflicts. It is also a chronicle of the cynicism and duplicity of political leaders willing to sacrifice the lives of vast numbers of real people for short-term political gain and to enrich the pockets of the few.

October 02, 2010

A simple solution to all theological problems

There is no god.

On the radio

On Tuesday 9:00am-10:00 am, I will be on our local NPR affiliate WCPN 90.3 on their Sound of Ideas program to discuss the results of the latest Pew survey on the state of religious knowledge, in which atheists/agnostics came out as the best informed.

You can listen live or to a podcast after the show.

[Update: This show has been pre-empted and will be re-scheduled.]

October 01, 2010

The evolution of a mad man

If the people behind the recent Sherlock Holmes film starring Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law made a film about Charles Darwin, this is what it might look like.

Dana Carvey is "DARWIN" - watch more funny videos

What kind of monsters …

… would willfully and knowingly infect people with gonorrhea and syphilis without their knowledge or consent?

The Tuskegee revelations were bad enough. One shrinks with horror at what other abominable past and present secret government programs will be revealed in future.

Book review: The Grand Design (Some final thoughts)

In part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4 of the review of The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, I looked at the science and at the implications for religion. In this last part, I want to tie up some loose ends.

The Grand Design is a very short book. In addition to being only 181 pages, the lines are double-spaced, the font is large, and it has plenty of white space and many illustrations, which makes the amount of actual text quite small. (My own book God vs. Darwin is 192 pages but I estimate that it has about twice the number of words.) The production values are high, with vivid, colorful photographs and illustrations on heavy-duty glossy paper and careful attention to layout.

Hawking's books are curious. They are supposedly aimed at the general reader but even I, as a physicist though not a cosmologist, find them heavy going at times. When reading them, I find that if I know the material, the writing seems lucid and clear, but if I don't know it already, it seems difficult and obscure, which is why I found the popular success of his A Brief History of Time somewhat mystifying. How much did non-physicists get out of it? Is there any truth to the jibe that it was top of the list of unread best sellers?

Although he tries, Hawking does not have Richard Dawkins' gift for presenting technical ideas in a simple form. He does not have Dawkins' elegant writing style either. Instead of humor and wit, Hawking substitutes a steady stream of somewhat sophomoric facetiousness that quickly becomes tiresome. For example, in talking about symmetries he says, "[I]f you flip a donut over, it looks exactly the same (unless it has chocolate topping, in which case it is better to eat it)" and "[W]e have observed that the moon is not made of cheese which is bad news for mice" and so on, almost on every other page.

There is an odd feature of the book that immediately hits you. Although there are two authors, the book jacket puts Hawking's name on the cover in large type and Mlodinow's much smaller, as if the latter were a ghostwriter. But Mlodinow is not an obvious ghostwriter, a role usually played by a freelance journeyman writer hired to produce a book quickly and polish the prose of the main author. He is a physicist at Caltech and himself the author of popular books on science, so it is conceivable that he was more of an actual co-producer of the science content. Furthermore, the style of writing in The Grand Design is similar to Hawking's previous book A Brief History of Time, suggesting that Hawking was the primary author here too. I don't know what to make of this difference in jacket type size, except that the publishers see Hawking as a brand name that sells books and so wanted to highlight it. Perhaps I am making too much of this.

Hawking's knowledge of the history and philosophy of science is shaky, and he states flatly as fact many things that are mostly folklore. He unquestioningly adopts Karl Popper's model of naïve falsificationism as how science works even though it has been pretty convincingly shown by other philosophers of science that the actual practice of science bears little resemblance to that theory. (I discussed this in some detail in my book Quest for Truth: Scientific Progress and Religious Belief.)

He seems to have great disdain for philosophy as a discipline, dismissively saying right in the second paragraph that "philosophy is dead" because it "has not kept up with modern developments, particularly physics." (p. 5) He is basically picking up where he left off in his earlier A Brief History of Time where right at the end (p. 191) he quotes Ludwig Wittgenstein as saying that "The sole remaining task for philosophy is the analysis of language" and describes this as a huge comedown for that discipline from the heights scaled by Aristotle and Kant. But not only did Wittgenstein never write such a thing (as philosophers were quick to point out), there is immense value in philosophy when it comes to clarifying ideas, developing logic, and sharpening language.

What is true (and, putting a charitable spin on it, maybe was Hawking's intent but clumsily stated) is that philosophy's value in addressing empirical questions has greatly diminished. Nowadays if one wants to learn about the origins of life or the universe, one would not consider asking philosophers, the way one might have done (say) two hundred years ago. The situation is even worse for theology since their views on the origins of the universe or the mind or consciousness are seen as even more inconsequential than those of philosophers. This is why the pushback from those two groups has come in the form of them trying to argue that there are still some questions about the world that are beyond the reach of empirical science and thus purely within the domain of philosophy and theology. They are steadily losing this battle.

But no one can have expert knowledge about everything and Hawking's use of history and philosophy of science, though shallow, is meant to provide context and color for the science and to prevent his work from becoming a dreary science textbook. It does not impact the main point of the book. Hawking's strength lies in his deep knowledge of the physics that is most relevant to the questions that he seeks to address: Why is there something rather than nothing? Why do we exist? Why this particular set of laws and not some other?, and that he does not hesitate to state unequivocally what he thinks.