Entries for September 2011

September 30, 2011

State-sanctioned murder

Reports are coming in that a US drone strike in Yemen has killed Anwar al-Awlaki. If confirmed, this would mean that the US government has murdered a US citizen purely on the orders of president Obama. The media are relaying the anonymous and self-serving claims of the intelligence community that al-Awlaki was a top al Qaeda operative, 'seemed' to have instigated attacks against the US, and was 'reported' to have had links with terrorist groups, and similar allegations. But all skirt the issue of the legality of this act, let alone its morality.

When the dust settles, what we are left with is the stark fact that the US president ordered and carried out the murder of a US citizen without any due process of any kind. He had no trial, no formal charges were made against him, no efforts to extradite him back to the US, nothing. Obama decided that al-Awlaki must die and he was killed by Obama's agents. It has all the hallmarks of kings in medieval times ordering the beheadings of their opponents or mob bosses ordering hits on their rivals.

Back in 2002, another US citizen Kamal Derwish was killed in an airstrike in Yemen but back then in the bad old George W. Bush days, the government felt obliged to say that his death was collateral damage and that they were unaware that he was in the car that was destroyed. But with our Nobel Peace Prize winning, constitutional scholar president, even such transparent excuses are not required because many of those who were on the alert for abuses by Bush now seem quite comfortable if the death sentence is signed by Obama. Even before this event, Jonathan Turley said that the Obama presidency may be the most disastrous in our history for civil liberties. One can only shudder at what further abuses are in store.

What I would like to know is in what way the killing of al-Awlaki differs from the heinous crime of 'killing his own people' which was laid at the feet of people like Saddam Hussein and Muammar Ghadafi and which formed the basis of war crimes accusations against those two people and war against the countries they led.

Glenn Greenwald has more.

Sexism in the atheist community

It is fairly obvious that women are a minority in the atheist community. The high-profile atheists tend to be men, even though there are many women who are making important contributions to atheist thought. This naturally raises the question: Is the atheist movement sexist? Is the atmosphere at atheist gatherings hostile to women? Are female atheists overlooked when it comes to providing high profile platforms as conference speakers?

I ask this because of a long simmering controversy that began when Rebecca Watson, who writes at Skepchick, posted a YouTube video where she recounted her experience, as a woman at atheist gatherings, that male attendees at these gatherings tend to unduly hit on women. She had been on a panel at an atheist conference in Dublin in 2010 and gave an example of an encounter with someone in an elevator late at night after her talk who invited her to his room for coffee. She declined. It was a minor incident and she treated it as such but used it to give generic advice to men to not too readily assume that women at atheist gatherings welcomed such advances, especially if they had given no prior indication that that was the case. The segment that deals with this starts at the 2:45 mark.

What happened next was astounding. Watson received an enormous outpouring of vitriol, presumably from members of the atheist community who form the readership of the blog, calling her names and accusing her of all manner of things. The comments quickly crossed the border from sexism to outright misogyny. What was worse was that Richard Dawkins heard about her post and also chimed in, belittling her concerns, in the form of composing a sarcastic letter to a fictitious Muslim woman in an oppressive country like Saudi Arabia telling her that her dire situation was nothing compared to the hardships that American women faced being propositioned in hotel elevators. And Watson says that she still continues to receive abuse and that people devote entire websites to attacking her.

Dawkins' response to Watson's comment is remarkably obtuse but illustrates the danger that always exists when you start thinking that you are fighting 'big battles' and that 'lesser' battles don't count. The fact is that different people are immediately affected by different things and thus may be aroused to action by different passions and comparing them is generally not productive. For example, the battle for wage equality for American women does not cease to be a valid cause merely because women in many underdeveloped countries experience enormous hardships. My own approach is that as long as you are fighting for justice and equality and basic human dignity and rights, one does not gain much by belittling the efforts of those who are not fighting the same specific battles as you are. We should avoid the temptation to give too much weight to ranking social justice struggles in terms of importance. Instead we should support each other in our different struggles, though we obviously have to choose where we devote our own energies.

For example, I think male circumcision is wrong because it violates the bodily integrity of a child and should not be allowed until the child is old enough to give informed consent. But I am well aware that female circumcision is a much worse practice and is given the more graphic but accurate label of female genital mutilation. Now there are some who would argue that people who oppose male circumcision and try to abolish that practice are wasting time on a relatively minor problem as long as the bigger problem of female circumcision still exists. There are others who are offended that people who oppose female genital mutilation are not equally vocal about abolishing male circumcision. Both these attitudes seem to me to be wrong-headed because they make the assumption that other people should care about the same things that you care about, and with the same intensity. The fact is that people who see a wrong done anywhere are perfectly entitled to take action against it and try and recruit others in their cause without having to justify why that cause is more worthy than other causes. My suggestion is that we should devote our energies to fight for what we believe in and not undermine those who believe in other causes, as long as they all promote justice.

But this still leaves the question of whether sexism and misogyny is commonplace in the atheist community. It is hard for me to judge because I am not a very sociable person and do not hang out much with groups of any kind to notice these things first hand. I do occasionally attend a few freethinkers groups in my neighborhood and though the crowd has slightly more men than women, I have not noticed any overt sexism. I am also the faculty advisor for my university's Center for Inquiry student affiliate. In the early days of that group I was a little concerned because the leadership and membership seemed to be almost entirely male but that has changed in the last year with two women taking leadership positions and doing a great job. But just because I have not noticed anything obvious does not mean that sexism or misogyny does not exist.

There is nothing intrinsic to atheism that would warrant sexism so any that exists must arise because for some reason the atheist movement tends to attract sexist males. This is disturbing and merits investigation. Is the level of sexism the same as in other sectors but that we notice it more and think it should be less because of the heightened social awareness of the community? One recalls a similar situation during the civil rights and antiwar struggles of the 1960s when those movements were also accused of rampant sexism, treating the women in the movements as either support staff or sex objects. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that just because one is fighting one form of discrimination that one has immunity from the charge of discriminating against others.

Whatever the cause, we should work to eliminate sexism and misogyny from the atheist community, as part of the effort to eradicate it completely.

September 29, 2011

Lioness saves her cub

I am a sucker for animal stories that have happy endings.

Another example of altruism in the animal kingdom.

Lewis Black has a good rant

Note that this was before Nancy Grace had her 'wardrobe malfunction'.

The strange case of disappearing color in films

If I walk into a room where someone is watching a film on TV, I can always tell immediately whether the film is a recent one or from a few decades ago, even without clues about the actors. But I would not have been able to explain how I knew this.

It turns out that it is due to the fact that films now look different in the color palette that they use. In earlier days the colors in films were more natural and often quite lush and vibrant and ranged over all the hues. Photographing color is tricky and apparently directors in days gone by paid close attention to the colors that appeared on screen to prevent any jarring effects. But with modern films, it is possible to manipulate color in the post-production phase and thus less attention is paid to this aspect of filmmaking photography.

The trend in modern color films is to drain the colors out and impose a kind of subdued bluish tint. This article gives examples of the change. Look at the stills from some old and new films and you will see immediately what I mean.

Why did this happen? This article explains that with the ability to digitize film and manipulate its color, film makers have during the post-production phase deliberately set about to created the somewhat drab look that is now so ubiquitous.

You see, flesh tones exist mostly in the orange range and when you look to the opposite end of the color wheel from that, where does one land? Why looky here, we have our old friend Mr. Teal. And anyone who has ever taken color theory 101 knows that if you take two complementary colors and put them next to each other, they will "pop", and sometimes even vibrate. So, since people (flesh-tones) exist in almost every frame of every movie ever made, what could be better than applying complementary color theory to make people seem to "pop" from the background. I mean, people are really important, aren't they?

And so we now have this teal-orange dominance in modern films. Although I had not read these articles when I posted the item about old and new film trailers, those two trailers illustrate this point quite nicely.

September 28, 2011

Reading your brains

A new study reports that fMRI machines can roughly reconstruct the images of film clips that test subjects have been viewing.

What I found interesting was that the reconstructed images, while retaining the general shape of the original, seemed to replace the details with what to me seemed like the details of another image.

Brave Saudi women

It looks like scores of Saudi women are challenging the absurd ban on them driving and are willing to bear the barbaric punishment for doing so, which consists of a lashing. I am not sure if any woman has actually received that punishment or whether fear of international embarrassment has prevented the government from actually carrying it out.

The seductive appeal of the mega-rich politician

During the 2008 presidential election and for a brief time during the current election, there was a boomlet of support for billionaire mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg and for windbag Donald Trump to run for president. They were part of an enduring pattern in American politics in which some people yearn for a rich man to ride in and save the nation. The thinking seems to be that since they are so rich, they must be smart and competent and also do not need to seek funding from big money sources and can thus be independent and not beholden to 'special interests'.

A couple of decades ago, H. Ross Perot was the person that elements of a desperate nation turned their eyes to. The Perot phenomenon was a puzzle. Not the man himself, who seemed to be typical of the kind of person who has spent his life acquiring great wealth, used his subsequent power to push people around, and now, in the twilight of his career, wants more power, a bigger stage, and a greater share of the limelight. Nor is it puzzling to observe people with such blatantly autocratic tendencies constantly talking about how much they want to do 'what the people want'. This kind of hypocrisy is so common in public life that it only causes surprise to the most naive of political observers. No, it is not Perot the person that was the enigma. It is the question of why so many millions of people, both in the 1992 presidential campaign and again in 1996, found him so attractive as a leader, just as they do Bloomberg or Trump now.

There is a possible explanation, one that is inspired by a typically lucid essay written by George Orwell over seventy years ago, titled simply Charles Dickens. Orwell analyzed the politics of Dickens as revealed in his writings. He pointed out that Dickens "attacked English institutions with a ferocity that has never since been approached." In that sense, Dickens "was certainly a subversive writer, a radical, one might truthfully say a rebel". And yet, Orwell points out, Dickens managed to be a ruthless critic of many venerated aspects of English society without becoming personally disliked, becoming an English institution himself in his own lifetime. "Dickens seems to have succeeded in attacking everybody and antagonizing nobody'" Orwell notes. How could this happen?

Orwell answers his own question by pointing out that Dickens' real subject matter in his novels was that of the urban middle class, not the working class. While his protagonists suffered enormous hardships, Dickens seemed to imply that their problems were mainly due to the qualities and personalities of the people with wealth and power who controlled the institutions that impinged on his protagonists' lives, and not because of the structure of the institutions themselves. In other words, Dickens' criticism of society was almost exclusively moral, not structural. Orwell summarizes Dickens' message as simply: If people would behave decently, the world would be decent.

Orwell supports this thesis by pointing out that the happy endings in Dickens' books were largely achieved by the timely arrival of a wealthy person who solved all problems by scattering money around to the deserving. Dickens never seemed to explore the possibility that the institutions themselves, by their very nature, might tend to favor the rise of people with the very qualities he deplored. Dickens also ignored the question of how the rich benefactors who finally saved the day could remain so prosperous if they flouted the laws of the currently operating economic system by giving pay raises and gifts all around.

The huge success of Dickens' books, even in his own lifetime, shows how appealing is his view of the world. It provides a simple explanation for society's problems and, more importantly, provides hope that things could be improved quickly, provided the appropriate well-intentioned rich man shows up. The timelessness of that message was nowhere better illustrated than in the enthusiasm that billionaire H. Ross Perot generated. Journalists breathlessly reported on Perot's activities and people all over the country responded enthusiastically to his candidacy. What is interesting is that the support for Perot came before people had even heard exactly what his message was or what he planned to do for the country. Somehow, that did not seem to matter. Perot, an inexhaustible fount of homespun phrases, was going to 'look under the hood, figure out what was wrong, and fix it.' It was that simple.

In many ways, Perot then and Bloomberg now fit the model of the classic Dickens savior, the rich person whose possibly dubious methods of acquisition of wealth are conveniently obscured by the haze of time. Perot liked to be portrayed as a disinterested rich man who was appalled by the way the country was run and simply wanted to make everything right and was willing to use his own money to do so. Even his lack of experience in politics and government was seen as a plus. Given Orwell's analysis, it is perhaps not surprising that many members of the middle-class seized on his presence in politics as the one that provided the most hope for them. If Warren Buffett were twenty years younger, you would see likely similar enthusiasm for him to run for president too.

Ultimately, the most significant aspect of the periodic upsurges of enthusiasm for Perot then, and Bloomberg and Trump now, may be that they provide a measure of the number of voters who feel left out of the system, fearful for their future, and yet unable to see that the root cause of their problems lie with the nature of the institutions of power and the kind of people they nurture and produce. For such voters, the search is still going on for Dickens' good, rich man, untainted by the evils of the system, who will solve all their problems.

September 27, 2011

Five minutes with Philip Pullman

The popular BBC series probes the author's views on writing and religion.

Interfaith dialogues and projects

Religions view each other with either condescension or suspicion. This can make for contentious public discourse and, as we all know, frequently escalates into open hostilities. In order to avoid having things get out of hand, one periodically finds attempts by well-meaning people who think that the problem is due to religious people being ignorant of other religions, and that if they understood each other better they would recognize enough similarities and deep commonalities to defuse the antagonisms. And so we have the emergence of 'interfaith' movements.

In the past, such movements brought together only people from different religions but in recent years, there is growing recognition that skeptics are a significant part of the population and so the umbrella has on occasion been extended to include them as well. But the label 'interfaith' poses a bit of a problem because once you include skeptics, you are no longer talking about faith-based organizations anymore. Atheists shun the word faith because its most common usage is associated with religious faith, which is the acceptance of beliefs that lack any evidentiary support and are even counter to evidence. In fact, the less the evidence in support of a religious belief, the supposedly more admirable that belief is. This is absolutely counter to the rational evidence-based approach promoted by skeptics. But I cannot think of a good word that would accommodate both faith and anti-faith groups.

These interfaith programs usually take two forms. One consists of dialogues to get different religious groups together to share information about what they believe and to clear up any misconceptions that others may have about them. I am all for increasing the general awareness about religious people's beliefs. In fact, I think that the academic study of the world's religions (as opposed to religious education that seeks to indoctrinate children about one particular religion) is a proper part of a school curriculum. I think skepticism and skeptic organizations can play an important role in such discussions, once we overcome the problematic 'faith' label.

The other kinds of programs often involve getting different religious organizations to work together on some community projects. Although well-meant, there is something fundamentally odd about such interfaith projects. Let's face it, each religion thinks that it alone is true and all the others false. They are incompatible at a fundamental level. You cannot have real equality between religions simply because of their divergent truth claims.

These kinds of interfaith projects basically involve asking religious groups to set aside their religious beliefs in order to do worthwhile projects that have nothing to do with religion. So unlike in the case of interfaith dialogues where talk about religious beliefs is explicitly encouraged, when it comes to interfaith projects, people are expected to suppress their differing beliefs but simply work for the common good.

There is nothing at all wrong with that except why bring in the faith aspect at all if you are asking people to then suppress it? Why not invite people to take part in community service and challenge projects for their own sake simply because they are good things? You can send the invitation out to all organized groups (including religious ones) to publicize to their members or to even take part as a group but leave the issue of faith entirely out of it. The goal of getting differing religious groups to stop fighting and killing each other is surely a good thing but that does not have to be coupled with worthwhile non-religious projects.

What does religion add to such community projects, unless religious groups are taking part to show how virtuous they are because of their religion? (In my college days, I was a member of a Christian student group that used to get involved in community service projects and some of the more evangelical members of the group used the occasion to proselytize, basically telling the poor non-Christian people we helped "Look at us! We are doing good works because we are Christians so why don't you become Christians too!" Even though I was a devout Christian in those days, this would drive me up the wall.)

My concerns apply only to the interfaith part of such projects. The other diversity elements such as including intercultural or interethnic groups suffer from no such contradiction since being a member of one ethnic or cultural group does not necessarily imply that one thinks that other ethnic or cultural groups are inferior. It is understood that these are mere accidents of one's birth and thus not obstacles to true equality amongst them. In fact, secular democracies are based on that idea.

September 26, 2011

Trailers for films

It is interesting to see how trailers have changed over time. I recall a few decades ago, they would have fairly long sequences but with a loud, urgent, voice-over narration in the annoying style of old newsreels. Take this one for The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957).

These days that obnoxious narrator is gone, to be replaced by an occasional and more subdued voiceover. But now the trailers have annoying rapid-fire cuts that last for very short times. The goal these days seems to be to show a fraction of every scene of the entire film in the hope that at least something will appeal to the audience. I have got into the habit of playing a game in which I try to identify which bit comes from the climactic scene of the film. Here's a trailer for one of the Pirates of the Caribbean films.

No doubt these trailers are the products of extensive market research but I wonder if showing a few scenes in more depth in the old style (but without the old narrator) might engage the viewer and cause them to want to see the film more than these scattershot montages.

Narrowing the search for the Higgs particle

It looks like the search for the elusive Higgs particle is getting close. The so-called Standard Model of particle led to the existence of the Higgs being proposed 1964 as an explanation of how elementary particles get their mass and it is the final particle of the model to be yet directly detected. If it is not found, that would require us to re-think some important theories of particle physics.

They are hoping for something definite to emerge within the next year. But if the Higgs is not found by then, the search may drag on longer because concluding that something is not there is more difficult than concluding that it is.

The dumbness of crowds

Whoever coined the phrase 'the wisdom of crowds' may have second thoughts about it after seeing the crowd reaction at the Republican debates. Most people do not watch political debates at such an early stage in the process, so what gets registered in the public consciousness is what the media and pundits focus on after each debate. So far, appalling audience reactions seem to have become the story and this cannot be good news for the Republican party.

In the first debate, there were loud cheers for the record number of executions carried out in Texas. In the second, what is remembered was the yelling out that the person without health insurance deserved to die. In the third debate, Rick Perry even got booed for standing by his policy of allowing the children of undocumented people to pay in-state tuition for college, saying "If you say that we should not educate children who have come into our state for no other reason than they've been brought there by no fault of their own, I don't think you have a heart."

Yes, Rick Perry, who got such loud cheers in his first debate for his cheerful attitude towards executing people, got booed for being a softie.

In the third debate we had a gay soldier asking Rick Santorum what he would do as president about gays in the military. Santorum gave a weird answer (to loud cheers) where he not only said that he wanted to bring back 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' (a policy that had long become an embarrassment even for those who opposed equal rights for gays), but seemed to go further and suggest that everyone in the military should not even talk about or have sex of any kind. Good luck with that policy!

But what was astonishing was that the soldier got booed for just asking the question. Yes, the crowd's intense homophobia even overcame their normal desire to grandstand about patriotism and pander to the military, and not a single candidate on the stage spoke out against that awful display. Either they approved of the behavior, were stunned that the crowd reacted that way and were rendered speechless, or did not have the guts to rebuke those who booed because they feared alienating the nutters who seem to be the most energetic segment of their party and the ones who bother to come for these debates.

It is true that noisy mob reactions are rarely representative of the feelings of a large crowd, and reflect merely those of its more vocal elements. But still, the theatrics are not good. I have no idea how this is playing out in Republican homes across the nation but surely it can't be helping? Is the Republican party in increasing danger of alienating even its own supporters? Surely even many Republicans, except for the loonies, must be turned off by their party's image as one of angry haters who revel in death and discrimination?

Who knows what the crowd will do at the next debate but this cartoon suggests that we should be ready for anything.


September 25, 2011

Saturday Light Live on the Republican debates

Baby steps

The Saudi king has decreed that women in that country will be allowed to vote and hold office. Of course, women still face immense restrictions in that repressive and backward country due to the dominance of Islamic law, but this is progress nonetheless.

Abusing the minds of children in the name of god

You may recognize Becky Fischer from the 2006 documentary Jesus Camp as the camp leader who thinks that her mission is to indoctrinate young children into being soldiers for Jesus. Here is a trailer for that film. (Note the appearance by Ted Haggard when he was an evangelical in good standing and a major player in the movement, shortly before his drug-taking gay hijinks were revealed. He is now trying to make a comeback.)

Fischer has now taken her show on the road. In this clip she seems to be bringing her creepy death cult thinking to little children in Singapore, getting them to pretend to die and then 'praying' them back to life. The children are told that since Jesus could do that, they can too.

She even tells them near the end that she actually knows of children who prayed and brought their dead pets back to life. The death of a beloved pet is heartbreaking. To increase the pain by giving them such false hopes is exceedingly cruel because the children will think that the reason their own pet did not revive is because they and their prayers were unworthy.

This woman is a menace who should not be allowed anywhere near young children.

(Via Boing Boing.)

September 24, 2011

Jim Henson (1936-1990)

Today would have been the 75th birthday of Jim Henson who died an untimely death in 1990. In remembrance of his legacy to muppetry and humor, here is a recent Sesame Street parody of Glee.

Highlights of the Republican debate

For those of us who did not watch the last Republican debate, The Daily Beast has compiled a set of what it considers the best moments.

Ridiculous hypotheticals

Rick Perry is taking a beating even from conservatives for his poor showing in the debates. While conservatives have focused on his fluffing of a chance to attack Mitt Romney, others have pointed to is his incoherent response to what he would do if told at 3:00 am that Pakistani nuclear weapons had fallen into the hands of the Taliban.

I have to partly defend Perry on this particular point. Granted, his stringing together of non-sequiturs (what was India doing in that mix?) was Palinesque in its baroque quality. But posing these kinds of ridiculous hypotheticals to people is unfair. Do they expect a candidate to have thought through every possible emergency situation and have a readymade strategy to articulate? If Perry is to be criticized at all, it is for even attempting any specific answer instead of simply saying, whatever the crisis presented, that he would immediately convene a meeting of his national security advisors to devise a response.

Also, why do these questions always have the dreaded phone call coming at 3:00 am? What difference does the time make? Do they think that the president, groggy from being awakened and annoyed at a pleasant dream being disrupted and wanting to go back to sleep would say, "Dammit, just nuke 'em!"

September 23, 2011

The ontological argument for god

Here's an attempt to explain Saint Anselm's original argument that theologians love. Apparently Immanuel Kant pretty much destroyed it in its original formulation. But in this clip, theologians like Alvin Plantinga claim to have resurrected it in a better form that shifts the burden onto some thing that he refers to as a theorem in modal logic.

In this next clip Plantinga tries to explain what this 'new' modal argument is.

I must admit, I just don't get it. As I have said many times, I simply do not see how you can answer an empirical question of the existence of anything using pure reasoning without any supporting data. Just because you can conceive of something or because something is possible to exist cannot lead to any firm empirical conclusions as to its existence.

Another philosopher Colin McGinn tries to explain to Jonathan Miller what the ontological argument is and the problems with it. This part begins at around the 11:30 mark and continues for the first 30 seconds of the second part.

If this is the best argument that theologians can come up with, then god is done for.

Faster-than-light neutrinos?

I came across this BBC report about some observations at CERN that suggested that neutrinos may be traveling faster than the speed of light. If this is true, it would mean that one of the pillars of modern science, the theory of special relativity, would have to undergo serious scrutiny.

I personally was not too excited by the news and was not even planning to comment on it but it seems to be causing a media sensation and several blog readers sent me clippings from various sources and asked for my opinion, so here it is.

I think that this result is unlikely to hold up and so am not too excited. The reason that I am underwhelmed is that I have been around long enough to recall many previous sightings of tachyons (the technical term for faster-than-light particles) that turned out to be false alarms. They are like Elvis sightings in that there is an initial flurry of excitement that then fades under closer scrutiny. The scientists who reported the recent events are aware of this history and are understandably cautious about making any grandiose claims. They can depend on the media to do that. If other research groups study this is some detail and the results hold up, then there will be cause for excitement. This will likely take a couple of years. Until then, I treat this with considerable skepticism.

So my present attitude is captured in this xkcd cartoon that I saw via Jeff at Have Coffee Will Write.

Sorry to be such a downer but if the history of science teaches us anything it is that the great and enduring theories of physics are never overthrown on the basis of a single experiment.

'Poor, ignorant atheists'

Recent results revealed by the US Census Bureau show that the ranks of the poor have increased to record levels in the US.

This should really come as no surprise to any thoughtful observer, given the relentless drive by the oligarchy to squeeze everyone else in order to enrich itself. But Walter Russell Mead, one of those so-called 'centrist' establishment pundits so beloved in the media who can be relied upon to deliver conventional wisdom on any topic, has come up with his own explanation as to the reasons why. He says that the growing inequality in the US is due to the rise in numbers of poor, ignorant atheists. Why? Because when people leave religion, they also leave religious institutions that promote the virtues that could lead them out of poverty.

He bases his argument on a study that suggests that "While religious service attendance has decreased for all white Americans since the early 1970s, the rate of decline has been more than twice as high for those without college degrees compared to those who graduated from college."

Someone named David French over at the National Review comments favorably on Mead's musings that atheism and poverty are closely correlated.

Earlier this week, Walter Russell Mead highlighted disturbing research showing that the poor — far more than the rich — are disconnected from church and religion. While church attendance is dropping among all social classes, it’s falling off a cliff for the poorest and least-educated Americans. In other words, the deeper a person slides into poverty, the more they’re disconnected from the very values that can save them and their families.

French then raised the ante, saying that "It is simply a fact that our social problems are increasingly connected to the depravity of the poor" (my emphasis). Ergo, since the numbers of the poor are increasing, so is depravity.

This astounding statement aroused such a hostile reaction even in the comments section of the same magazine (where one might expect the readership to be sympathetic) that French hastened to write a new post saying that what he said was not what he meant. He used a variation on the old "Some of my best friends are Jews/blacks/Muslims/whatever" defense, dropping various hints that he is a Good and Virtuous Person who Loves the Poor (within a short post he manages to inform us that he is a Calvinist Christian, volunteered to fight in Iraq, adopted a daughter "who was born into absolute poverty in Ethiopia", and mentors at-risk youth) and that therefore he cannot have meant anything bad.

For some reason, people like Mead (and French) seem to think that we atheists won't like the idea that the poor and uneducated are falling away from religion and joining us. Here's Mead again:

Atheists and agnostics like to think of themselves as smarter than the God-bothering trailer trash on Tobacco Road, and deeply dislike the thought that they are losing the argument among the most intellectually qualified and best prepared; religious people have to be concerned for the future of religion when whole social classes are dropping away.

It is a curious argument. The idea that atheists view with disdain the poor and uneducated and do not want them swelling their ranks is absurd. I have felt that it would be harder to dissuade poor people from religion not because they are less smart but because ideas of heaven become more appealing if your life on Earth is hellish. If poor and less-educated people are breaking free from the shackles of religious indoctrination, then religion is heading for irrelevancy even faster than I anticipated. I don't see how this study is anything but unqualified good news for atheism.

Mead also seems to overlook the fact that the study clearly states that religious adherence is dropping for all, which suggests that the atheists are winning the argument on all fronts, not losing it in any. The drop is just faster for the poorer and less formally educated. So Mead's smug assertion that we atheists "are losing the argument among the most intellectually qualified and best prepared" is just flat out wrong.

Another revealing mistake that Mead makes is typical of elite Villager thinking: that more formal education necessarily implies that one is smarter or that material success is correlated with virtue. This is a typical conceit of the intelligentsia and the well-to-do, that they reached their state in life purely because of their intrinsic abilities and virtues. This is why it is so easy for people like Mead and French to associate poverty with depravity.

September 22, 2011

Discussion on the scientific basis for justice and altruism

On Friday, September 23, I will be leading a discussion on these ideas, especially the work of Frans de Waal, Paul Bloom, and Peter Singer on the implications of the theory of evolution.

It will take place from 12:30- 2:00 pm in Nord 310B on the CWRU campus.

The event is free and open to all. Drinks will be provided and you are encouraged to bring your own brown bag lunch.

Elizabeth Warren on Morning Joe

I feel sorry for Elizabeth Warren. Now that she is running for the US Senate in Massachusetts, she will have to deal with an endless stream of preening media personalities who delude themselves that they are journalists.

A prime example is Mark Halperin, who asks her what she would do about the military threat from China. My first reaction was, "What the hell? Why are you asking about something that is so far down the list of concerns?" But the smug expression on Halperin's face answered my question. I recognized immediately the obnoxious student that all teachers have encountered who thinks up a question on an obscure topic because he thinks it will impress his peers if he can stump the teacher. There is, of course, no reason why Warren should have thought deeply about this particular issue since it is clearly not high on her list of priorities and, being a veteran college instructor, she knew exactly how to deal with such smart-alecks.

Similarly another so-called journalist Mike Barnicle framed his question with such a long preamble that one lost interest in it long before he got to the end. What these people want is to get face time on television, not inform and educate the viewer.

Watch Warren answer these questions well enough and with much greater patience than I would have been able to muster.

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

The scientific basis for justice and altruism-part 4

(An expanded version of a talk given at CWRU's Share the Vision program, Severance Hall, Friday, August 26, 2011 1:00 pm. This program is to welcome all incoming first year students. My comments centered on the ideas in the common reading book selection Justice: What's the right thing to do? by Michael Sandel. See part 1, part 2, and part 3.)

In the previous post, I pointed out that experiments with babies suggested that although the theory of evolution supports the idea that the desire for justice and fairness is part of our genetic makeup, it is also limited in that seems to stop with our relatives and immediate community or nation. It is not entirely limited, though. There are many examples in evolution of characteristics that evolved to serve one purpose but then get used for other purposes. Sex is a good example. The pleasure it gives served the purpose of encouraging procreation but now people indulge in it for pleasure alone. Similarly, although the desire for justice my have evolved within the domain of kin and the immediate community to benefit the propagation of genes, it can still drive our relationships with the broader community even when there is no genetic benefit.

But there is another important evolutionary development that extends the drive for justice and fairness. What ethicist Peter Singer points out in an excellent book titled The Expanding Circle (2009) is that evolution has also given us the power of reasoning and it is the use of this power that has enabled us to build upon our biological sense of justice to encompass more and more people within our sphere of concern. In other words, our reasoning power has enabled us to go far beyond the initial biological impulse to seek justice only for our relatives and local community and has helped us to develop the idea of impartiality, which is a core feature of the desire for justice.

The way this happens is that while biology might instill in us a desire to treat just our own relatives fairly, our sense of reason tells us that there is nothing particularly special about our families, that ours is just one among many families and that all of them are equally worthy of being treated as fairly as our own. It is then a natural extension to realize that our own community or nation is also just one among many communities and nations and that they deserve fairness and justice too. Once we start reasoning along those lines, the advance is inexorable and we start increasing the size of the circle that encompasses our concern. Reason can overcome parochialism.

As a result of this process, over time we can see that the circle of concern has expanded greatly. We now think that discrimination towards anyone based on gender, race, ethnicity, national origin, sexuality, etc. is wrong. We are also expanding the circle to include non-human animals, with the realization that they too should have many of the rights that we take for granted. As a result we see the rise of animal rights movements, the increased adoption of vegan and vegetarian diets, the drive to eliminate factory farming to ensure that animals are treated humanely, much stricter controls on animal research, and so on.

So while the basic drive for justice and fairness is innate in us, in the sense that it is hardwired into our genetic makeup as a result of our evolutionary history, it required the further evolutionary development of the sense of reason to bring it to fruition, where we seek to maximize justice for everyone, not just our own group.

In his essay Morals Without God?, primatologist Frans de Waal said that Charles Darwin foresaw that this expanded concept of morality would follow naturally in any species that developed social instincts along with sophisticated intellectual powers:

Charles Darwin was interested in how morality fits the human-animal continuum, proposing in The Descent of Man: "Any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts … would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well developed … as in man."

As Sandel makes clear in the book, it is not always clear or obvious how to decide what is just in any given situation. What is clear is the importance of developing our ability to reason, so that we can break free of, and rise above, our tribal instincts that makes us want to give special privileges and favors to our own group that we deny to others.

This is where all of you are particularly fortunate. For the next four years, you will be in an environment at Case Western Reserve University that is dedicated almost exclusively to helping you develop your sense of reason and all the other critical thinking skills. During this period of your education you will have access to the finest teachers and scholars, incredible knowledge resources in the library, and most importantly, like-minded and concerned fellow students. You should take maximum advantage of this opportunity to equip yourself with the knowledge and reasoning powers to overcome the challenges you will undoubtedly face in your lifetime.

Such a deep education will also enable you to better judge what is the right thing to do. It is important to do so because the quality of our entire civic life depends on having people work for justice. The writer H. L. Mencken put it well when he said, "If you want peace, work for justice."

September 21, 2011

We're #25!

At least as far as internet speeds go, just behind Romania.

If it seems extraordinary to you that the country that pioneered the internet should lag so far behind now, Tim Karr explains that the prime cause is the lack of competition here, thanks to the ability of the telecommunications giants to pressure regulators.

In the years that followed the signing of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, lobbyists working for powerful providers like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon pressured a compliant FCC to tear down all of the important safeguards established by Congress.

While the U.S. blindly followed a path of "deregulation," other nations in Europe and Asia beefed up their pro-competitive policies. The results are evident in our free fall from the top of almost every global measure of Internet services, availability and speed.

The lack of competition has turned America into a broadband backwater. In the aftermath of the FCC’s decisions, powerful phone and cable companies legislated and lobbied their way to controlling 97 percent of the fixed-line residential broadband market — leaving the vast majority of consumers with two or fewer choices of land-based providers in any given market.
The absence of true consumer choice has driven prices up and services down.

Earth seen from the ISS

This time-lapse film of the Earth as viewed from the International Space Station is nice to see.

It also shows that the ISS and the shuttles did not fly as far out in space as people often think, being on average just about 225 miles up. So they are quite close to the Earth.

Elizabeth Warren on the underlying social contract

What she says is absolutely correct. What is sad is that it needs to be said at all.

The scientific basis for justice and altruism-part 3

(An expanded version of a talk given at CWRU's Share the Vision program, Severance Hall, Friday, August 26, 2011 1:00 pm. This program is to welcome all incoming first year students. My comments centered on the ideas in the common reading book selection Justice: What's the right thing to do? by Michael Sandel. See part 1 and part 2.)

There is considerable evidence that the desire for justice and fairness is innate in us. In an article titled The Moral Life of Babies (New York Times, May 5, 2010) child development psychologist Paul Bloom describes how very young children have a strong sense of justice.

A growing body of evidence, though, suggests that humans do have a rudimentary moral sense from the very start of life. With the help of well-designed experiments, you can see glimmers of moral thought, moral judgment and moral feeling even in the first year of life. Some sense of good and evil seems to be bred in the bone.

He reports on experiments in which babies were presented with puppets who either helped or hindered other puppets.

In the end, we found that 6- and 10-month-old infants overwhelmingly preferred the helpful individual to the hindering individual. This wasn’t a subtle statistical trend; just about all the babies reached for the good guy.

We found that, given a choice, infants prefer a helpful character to a neutral one; and prefer a neutral character to one who hinders. This finding indicates that both inclinations are at work — babies are drawn to the nice guy and repelled by the mean guy. Again, these results were not subtle; babies almost always showed this pattern of response.

Sometimes the babies were quite emphatic about their preferences.

Not long ago, a team of researchers watched a 1-year-old boy take justice into his own hands. The boy had just seen a puppet show in which one puppet played with a ball while interacting with two other puppets. The center puppet would slide the ball to the puppet on the right, who would pass it back. And the center puppet would slide the ball to the puppet on the left . . . who would run away with it. Then the two puppets on the ends were brought down from the stage and set before the toddler. Each was placed next to a pile of treats. At this point, the toddler was asked to take a treat away from one puppet. Like most children in this situation, the boy took it from the pile of the "naughty" one. But this punishment wasn’t enough — he then leaned over and smacked the puppet in the head.

The toddlers also watched pairs of puppets in which one puppet did a good or bad thing and the other puppet rewarded or punished the first. Of the four possible combinations of actions and consequences, toddlers overwhelmingly preferred the puppets that rewarded good acts and punished bad acts over puppets that rewarded bad acts and punished good acts. This showed that the babies were not basing their preferences on what they perceived as good or bad actions but viewed the actions in the context of the purpose they served. This is pretty sophisticated thinking about crime and punishment and justice.

The desire for justice is strong and biological but is limited. For example, toddlers tend to prefer people of their own races, who speak their own language and share their taste in food. Bloom writes that:

3-month-olds prefer the faces of the race that is most familiar to them to those of other races; 11-month-olds prefer individuals who share their own taste in food and expect these individuals to be nicer than those with different tastes; 12-month-olds prefer to learn from someone who speaks their own language over someone who speaks a foreign language. And studies with young children have found that once they are segregated into different groups — even under the most arbitrary of schemes, like wearing different colored T-shirts — they eagerly favor their own groups in their attitudes and their actions.

So are babies and little children racists? If you waggle your finger and go "kitchy-coo" at a baby of a different racial group, will it bite you? It might, but the babies are not making conscious decisions to prefer their own, which is the real mark of racism. They are simply reacting instinctively based on their biology. So biology seems to strongly suggest that our desire for justice, though it is biologically based on our long history of evolution, is also limited to our in-group. This difference in the way we treat in-group members versus the way we view those who are 'out-group' members can and does lead to all manner of strife and tribal behavior between communities, religions, castes, and nations.

So does the theory of evolution say that our biological desire for justice stops with our relatives and immediate community or nation? In the next and final post in this series, I will look at how we overcome that kind of parochialism.

September 20, 2011

Bathroom mania

For reasons that are not clear to me, the Plain Dealer wasted a huge amount of the limited space in its front section to a story about a fancy lakefront property that was on sale for nearly $20 million. The item read like a huge, free, real estate advertisement and fell into the category of what is known as 'real estate porn', that showcases the absurdly extravagant homes of the wealthy.

But what struck me was that the 38,000 square foot house built on 160 acres consisted of five bedrooms, nine bathrooms, and seven half bathrooms.

Why would you need sixteen bathrooms for a private home that has just five bedrooms? Do rich people need to go to the bathroom a lot and so must have one handy at any moment?

Surprising showing by Warren

Initial polls show Elizabeth Warren has jumped to a small 46-44 lead over incumbent senator Scott Brown, and that Brown's approval numbers are declining.

The Tea Party mentality

The Plain Dealer had a story on the front page yesterday that summed up perfectly the attitude of the Republican party.

The concrete sound barriers erected along the highways to shield nearby residents from noise were crumbling long before the advertised 20-year life expectancy was reached, presumably because inferior concrete had been used. Repairing them will cost the Ohio transportation department more than $1 million per mile, money that is hard to come by these days when governments are being squeezed by the demand for tax cuts.

What struck me was the comment of one resident who said, "It looks terrible. I know they don't have the money, and I don't want my taxes to go up to fix it. But they need to do something."

Really? No doubt she expects magic elves to do the repair work for free once they have finished helping out the shoemaker.

The biological basis for justice and altruism-part 2

(An expanded version of a talk given at CWRU's Share the Vision program, Severance Hall, Friday, August 26, 2011 1:00 pm. This program is to welcome all incoming first year students. My comments centered on the ideas in the common reading book selection Justice: What's the right thing to do? by Michael Sandel. See part 1 here.)

The primatologist Frans de Waal in his excellent book The Age of Empathy (2009) provides case study after case study of animals displaying a keen sense of justice and fairness, providing convincing evidence that these impulses are innate in us and arise from our common evolutionary history with other animals. In a newspaper article titled Morals Without God? he writes about his observations:

Chimpanzees and bonobos will voluntarily open a door to offer a companion access to food, even if they lose part of it in the process. And capuchin monkeys are prepared to seek rewards for others, such as when we place two of them side by side, while one of them barters with us with differently colored tokens. One token is "selfish," and the other "prosocial." If the bartering monkey selects the selfish token, it receives a small piece of apple for returning it, but its partner gets nothing. The prosocial token, on the other hand, rewards both monkeys. Most monkeys develop an overwhelming preference for the prosocial token, which preference is not due to fear of repercussions, because dominant monkeys (who have least to fear) are the most generous.

It is not only humans who are capable of genuine altruism; other animals are, too. I see it every day. An old female, Peony, spends her days outdoors with other chimpanzees at the Yerkes Primate Center's Field Station. On bad days, when her arthritis is flaring up, she has trouble walking and climbing, but other females help her out. For example, Peony is huffing and puffing to get up into the climbing frame in which several apes have gathered for a grooming session. An unrelated younger female moves behind her, placing both hands on her ample behind and pushes her up with quite a bit of effort, until Peony has joined the rest.

We have also seen Peony getting up and slowly move towards the water spigot, which is at quite a distance. Younger females sometimes run ahead of her, take in some water, then return to Peony and give it to her. At first, we had no idea what was going on, since all we saw was one female placing her mouth close to Peony's, but after a while the pattern became clear: Peony would open her mouth wide, and the younger female would spit a jet of water into it.

Such observations fit the emerging field of animal empathy, which deals not only with primates, but also with canines, elephants, even rodents. A typical example is how chimpanzees console distressed parties, hugging and kissing them, which behavior is so predictable that scientists have analyzed thousands of cases. Mammals are sensitive to each other's emotions, and react to others in need.

A few years ago Sarah Brosnan and I demonstrated that primates will happily perform a task for cucumber slices until they see others getting grapes, which taste so much better. The cucumber-eaters become agitated, throw down their measly veggies and go on strike. A perfectly fine food has become unpalatable as a result of seeing a companion with something better.

We called it inequity aversion, a topic since investigated in other animals, including dogs. A dog will repeatedly perform a trick without rewards, but refuse as soon as another dog gets pieces of sausage for the same trick. Recently, Sarah reported an unexpected twist to the inequity issue, however. While testing pairs of chimps, she found that also the one who gets the better deal occasionally refuses. It is as if they are satisfied only if both get the same. We seem to be getting close to a sense of fairness.

Can we assume that the human species has also inherited this biological predisposition to justice? Yes, because we are all linked by the great tree of life to all other species. If we go back far enough in our lineages, we will find a common ancestor for all of use, which makes us all effectively cousins, and so you can treat this occasion, where all of us have gathered together in this magnificent concert hall, as a family reunion where you are meeting long-lost relatives. In fact, if you and your pet dog or cat trace your lineages back about a hundred million years, you will find that you have a common ancestor, which is a nice thing to realize.

So given that the desire for justice is so widespread among so many different species, it is very likely that we have inherited the desire for justice from deep evolutionary times. In his book, de Waal concludes that studies in the fields of anthropology, psychology, biology, and neuroscience reveal that we are essentially group animals: "highly cooperative, sensitive to injustice, sometimes warmongering, but mostly peace-loving. A society that ignores these tendencies cannot be optimal." (p. 5)

But is there any direct evidence that humans have a biological predisposition that makes them favor justice and fairness? Yes there is, and I will explore that in the next (and last) post of this series.

September 19, 2011

Public opinion on civil liberties and security

Glenn Greenwald points out that the popular claim by politicians and media figures that the public is willing to sacrifice civil liberties in return for security is in fact not supported by opinion polls.

The inexplicable popularity of awards shows

I see from the news today that yesterday was the Emmy awards show. I do not understand the appeal of such shows for viewers and am curious as to why people watch them at all. Surely it can't be to see the stars since we see them all the time in their performances themselves. The shows apparently have some moments of comedy and some music and dance but most of the time seems to be spent announcing the nominees, showing clips from their performances, and the acceptance remarks of category winners. Surely this must get stale about fifteen minutes into the proceedings?

It is true that I do not watch TV or go to many plays much, which may explain my lack of interest in the Emmys and the Tonys. But I do watch films a lot and my disinterest extends to the Oscar awards show as well.

Do viewers of these shows see it as a quasi-sporting event and root for particular people to win, thus enjoying the suspense of seeing if their 'team' won?

I am genuinely curious.

Voting for gay or atheist for president

Gallup released the results of a poll recently that said that the percentage of people who said that they would vote for a well-qualified homosexual candidate for president is 67% while the number who would vote for a well-qualified atheist was 49%. The number who would not vote for such people was 32% and 49% respectively. These were the two lowest ranked, coming in just behind Mormons, for whom 76% would vote for president and 22% would not vote.

It's always hard to know how to interpret these results because how people respond to such questions can be influenced by what people think is a socially acceptable response. What one can look at are trends. In 2007, the figures for gays were 55% yes and 45% no, while for atheists it was 45% yes and 53% no, so the trends are in the right direction.

Michael Nugent has looked at the trends over the long haul and has a graph that shows that in 1978, gays had only a 25% acceptance, even below that of atheists who hovered around 40%. But around 1990 gays overtook atheists in acceptability. One has to think that popular culture, with its mainstreaming of gay people in the media, has played an important role in the rapid rise. The rise of atheism has been slower.

What is also extraordinary and encouraging in Nugent's graph is the rapid rise in acceptability as president of blacks and females over the same time span.

The biological basis for justice and altruism-part 1

(An expanded version of a talk given at CWRU's Share the Vision program, Severance Hall, Friday, August 26, 2011 1:00 pm. This program is to welcome all incoming first year students. My comments centered on the ideas in the common reading book selection Justice: What's the right thing to do? by Michael Sandel.)

This year's common reading book assumes that there is something fundamental about justice that makes its desirability self-evident. What the book discusses are three approaches to justice: the first based on the greatest happiness for the greatest number, the second on respect for the freedom of choice of individuals, and the third on the cultivation of virtue and the common good.

In this talk, I want to examine the very premise that justice is something desirable. What makes us think that people want or seek justice as an end in itself and that the only problem is how to implement that ideal in specific situations? For example, John Rawls's model of justice (as elucidated in his book The Theory of Justice) assumes that when people are given the opportunity to design a society under the veil of ignorance so that no one knows what situation in life they personally will be placed in, they will create one that is based on the idea of 'justice as fairness'. Is Rawls justified in assuming that? Is it self-evident that justice is such an obvious good thing that people will want to use it as a central organizing principle?

We may think that it is obvious but one of the characteristics of academia is to not accept things just because they seem obvious and instead look for underlying reasons.

It turns out that there is a solid scientific basis for the desire that humans have for justice and it arises from the theory of evolution. This may come as a surprise to those who think of evolution as based on fierce competition for survival in which justice and fairness plays no role. But in fact, not just justice but also altruism, which can be roughly defined as an act that benefits someone else at a personal cost to us, has been studied extensively and we think we know how it originated biologically.

In his landmark book On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin carefully avoided all discussions of human evolution, limiting it to just one statement near the end: "Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history." That has to rank as one of the greatest understatements ever. It turns out that the theory of evolution, in addition to providing explanations for the physical features of all life, is increasingly explaining our morality as well. The basic desire for justice is ingrained in us as a result of biological evolution.

The reason for this, as was developed over fifty years ago and summarized by Richard Dawkins in his classic book The Selfish Gene (1989), is that while natural selection acts on the whole organism (whether human or fish or snake), the fundamental unit of evolution is not the whole organism but the individual gene, and evolution can be understood as the means by which individual genes try to maximally propagate themselves. But while organisms are unique in the particular combination of genes they possess, each individual gene is shared by many people, with the closer the relationship, the greater the number of genes being shared. So each one of us shares exactly half our genes with our parents and (on average) half with our siblings, one-eighth of them with our first cousins, and so on, with the fraction shared becoming lower the more distant the kin. As biologist W. D. Hamilton showed, as a result there are circumstances in which can be beneficial for a gene if the organism in which it exists sacrifices its own needs to benefit its relatives. When the eminent population geneticist J. B. S. Haldane, who pioneered a lot of the mathematical studies in this area, was asked if he would give his life to save his brother, he jokingly replied, "No, but I would to save two brothers or eight cousins." In short, the mathematics of genes can favor a limited form of self-sacrifice among relatives and so we should not be surprised if that gene is widely present.

But this kind of altruism, known as kin altruism, is just one form of it. Another important form that was shown by Robert Trivers to be biologically based is reciprocal altruism whereby an organism will do a favor for another that is not a relation in the expectation that in its own time of need the favor will be returned. Take vampires, which seem to have grabbed the public's imagination for some reason and are now all over popular culture. Vampire bats need to drink some blood every day or they will die. But in bat colonies it has been observed that those who return after having obtained a good meal will regurgitate some of the blood to a less fortunate unrelated bat and in return will receive blood from that bat on the days that they are unlucky.

This kind of behavior has been observed in a wide range of animals, and is another source of the idea that our desire for justice has biological roots. Reciprocal altruism only works if people carry out their obligation to return favors. If cheating or other forms of selfishness occur, the system breaks down and so it should not be surprising that quite elaborate structures have evolved in the animal kingdom, of which we are a part, to monitor behavior so as to reward good citizens and punish cheaters, so that the community as a whole benefits.

This sense of fairness and justice even extends to larger groups. For example, there is a remarkable video of penguins in the Antarctic, where temperatures can reach minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit with wind speeds greater than 100 miles per hour. How do they survive in such bitter conditions? They do so by large groups of thousands of them huddling together very closely at a density of about 2 animals per square foot. The temperatures in the inner regions of the group can rise up to our human body temperatures, which is nice and pleasant. Of course, the penguins on the outer rim of the group will be cold but what the video shows is that the density is just sufficient to provide warmth while at the same time allowing for a constant shuffling around. The penguins all face in roughly the same direction and penguins enter at the rear and then slowly work their way to the front and then return to the rear. As a result, each penguin spends a small time on the cold outer rim in return for much longer times in the warmth inside and thus everyone benefits.

Similar cooperative behavior is seen in locusts and fish schools. It is quite remarkable how widespread such practices are in nature.

Next: More evidence from nature

September 18, 2011

Disco scene from Airplane!

I just watched this film for the umpteenth time.

More on the problem of original sin

Stephen Colbert discusses the profound problems created for Christianity and its fundamental doctrine of original sin if the Adam and Eve story is not literally true.

Jason Rosenhouse examines in some detail the attempts by Christian apologists to deal with these difficulties.

Of course, the real absurdity is that anyone in America in the 21st century is talking about Adam and Eve except as a joke.

A prime example of Villager idiocy

The dream world of Villager punditry is truly something to behold. Take William Cohan who has a suggestion in the Washington Post for Elizabeth Warren, who has just declared her candidacy to run for the US Senate seat in Massachusetts currently held by Republican Scott Brown.

Seven weeks removed from the political reality that cost her a job as one of the nation’s best-known — and controversial — advocates for consumers and the middle class, Elizabeth Warren now officially wants to return to Washington as the junior senator from Massachusetts. But if she is really serious about wanting to help working Americans and reform Wall Street, Warren should consider a different line of work: She should get a job as a partner at Goldman Sachs.

The idea isn’t as crazy as it sounds.

No, it is as crazy as it sounds, if not crazier. The idea that Elizabeth Warren, after railing for years at how banks like Goldman Sachs have been profiting while impoverishing the middle classes by taking advantage of deregulation and lax oversight by the government, could simply pick up the phone and ask Goldman Sachs to hire her to reform it, and that Goldman Sachs would offer her a partnership in order to reform itself is doubly bizarre.

The only way that this could happen is if there is cynical collusion between Warren and Goldman Sachs in which Warren is just another cynical academic on the make and agrees to uses her reputation for integrity to get a high-paying job providing cover for Goldman Sachs for the pretense that it is serious about reforming itself. But if that is the case, then this demolishes Cohan's argument that this move would help in reforming Goldman Sachs and Wall Street.

What amazes me is that these Villager pundits actually get paid to churn out this drivel.

September 17, 2011

We're #1! When it comes to campaign-driven drivel

The Daily Show spotlights the stark difference between campaign Obama and governing Obama.

Cornel West also becomes shrill

The occasion of the unveiling of the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial causes Cornel West to decry the oligarchic control of the US.

The age of Obama has fallen tragically short of fulfilling King’s prophetic legacy. Instead of articulating a radical democratic vision and fighting for homeowners, workers and poor people in the form of mortgage relief, jobs and investment in education, infrastructure and housing, the administration gave us bailouts for banks, record profits for Wall Street and giant budget cuts on the backs of the vulnerable.

As the talk show host Tavis Smiley and I have said in our national tour against poverty, the recent budget deal is only the latest phase of a 30-year, top-down, one-sided war against the poor and working people in the name of a morally bankrupt policy of deregulating markets, lowering taxes and cutting spending for those already socially neglected and economically abandoned. Our two main political parties, each beholden to big money, offer merely alternative versions of oligarchic rule.

September 16, 2011

Sexual politics in the US

Michele Bachmann is continuing to take a well-deserved pounding on her irresponsible publicizing of a claim by some person she said she met who said that her daughter had become mentally retarded as a result of taking the HPV vaccine.

What started out as an effective attack on Rick Perry, suggesting during Monday's debate that he had issued an executive order mandating that the vaccinations be given to all young girls in Texas in return from contributions from the vaccine manufacturer Merck, has now become an albatross around her own neck. In doing so, she has deflected attention not only from Rick Perry but from the important question of how drug companies are unduly influencing decisions about health policy.

NPR interviewed Steven Miles, the bioethicist at the University of Minnesota who offered a $1,000 reward if Bachmann could provide "a properly signed medical release form so that these documents can be reviewed by highly qualified neurologists to see if this claim is true." Bachmann has not responded to NPR's queries about this challenge to produce the document. Miles further said that, "If we had a vaccine that would prevent a nonsexually caused cancer that affected 10,000 women a year, this would be a no-brainer. This controversy over the HPV vaccine is about the sexual politics in the United States. It is not about the medicine."

Miles is absolutely right. The thought that somewhere some people might be having sex outside of marriage totally freaks out the religious right.

The end of the US postal service?

In a further sign of the steady deterioration of the US infrastructure, the US postal service may become the next victim of the oligarchy's drive to eliminate anything that does not benefit themselves. The US postal service is an institution that is committed to serving people all over the nation and it delivers mail to even the remotest parts of the country at the same cost to anyone anywhere. So those of us in the cities where the volume of mail is large essentially subsidize the mail services of the more remote areas. It is a socialized system (i.e., one that spreads the cost over the entire population and thus makes it affordable to everyone) and thus targeted by those who oppose any measure that promotes the general welfare. Chuck Zlatkin describes the campaign to destroy the postal service. If it succeeds, the US will be the rare (only?) country that does not have a national mail system.

Phil Rubio explains to Stephen Colbert how the postal service has been shackled and the efforts being made to save it.

Combating religion in politics

Part of the reason that the religious right has been able to achieve its current prominence in national politics is because even those who do not believe that god exists (at least in any personal form) have refrained from saying so openly in the hope that they will not alienate 'moderate' religionists. This accommodationist strategy of trying to isolate the religious extremists has not worked. All it has done is enable the religious extremists to advance their message under the protection of 'respect for religion' that has curtailed the ability to criticize these religious extremists in a fundamental way.

In the long run, the best way to combat the religious message of the Perrys and Bachmanns and Santorums is not to point out that they have the wrong idea about god's intentions, an argument which they can easily deflect, but to tell them that before we can take their religious claims seriously on public issues, they need to explain why they think that a god exists at all. We should not allow them to simply assume its existence and talk about what he/she/it wants.

What I find really revealing is that although politicians love to talk about their religion, no one in the media ever asks them why they believe in the existence of a god at all. This is the case even if the interviewer is unsympathetic to the politician and would like to pose difficult questions. I think it is because journalists know that no answer can be given that does not make you look gullible and that this would become immediately obvious and cause much embarrassment and would cause an outcry and accusations of anti-religious bias. So everyone colludes to maintain the façade that assertions about religion require no substantiation.

Via Jerry Coyne, I came across this interview of Richard Dawkins on BBC in which the interviewer, referring to the 40% or so of Americans who take the Bible literally and think the Earth is 6,000 years old, asks him flatly "Do you really care that there are a lot of stupid people around?" No interviewer in the US would dare ask such a question that so casually denigrates people who believe such things.

It is not necessary to be knowledgeable about science to be a political leader. But one has to be grounded in reality. To assume that religious texts such as the Bible or Koran are literally true and that the Earth is 6,000 years old and that evolution is not the process by which we got here, is to be so deluded that the speaker's grip on reality should be seriously questioned. Such a person is so wedded to dogma that he or she is unfit for any responsible position that requires the weighing of evidence and the integration of expert opinion. But in the US if some belief is based on religion then people still pretend that it is reasonable, however ridiculous it, however objectively absurd, and however much it flies in the face of reality.

If a politician said that they believed in fairies, it would be political suicide because fairies are not protected by the religious shield and people would look askance. Even claims of UFO sightings are treated with scorn and derision though there is nothing about extraterrestrial life and spacecraft that intrinsically violate the laws of science. They simply lack credible evidence. But say you believe in angels and you are asked no further questions, even though one would be hard pressed to explain the distinction between fairies and angels.

Most mainstream journalism in the US is so hopelessly degraded that their idea of good practice is to balance one politician's assertions with another person's opposite assertions. And even this is not done when it comes to religious assertions, which are almost always left unchallenged. One of the rare exceptions was when CBS News's Bob Schieffer asked Michele Bachmann whether she really believed that god used the weather to send people messages. She ducked the question and he allowed her to filibuster. It was clear that she was talking nonsense but US journalistic conventions prevented him from making it explicit.

Journalists should be always asking politicians to back up any assertions with evidence, whatever the topic, and then examine and report on the quality of the proffered evidence and the validity of the inferred conclusions. But I'm a dreamer.

September 15, 2011

Elizabeth Warren for US Senate

She made the announcement yesterday that she will be running for the US senate in Massachusetts. Her website is

The oligarchy will pull out all the stops and pour money into this race to try to prevent her winning. People are going to troll through her past and drag her through the mud. This election will be a good indication of whether an earnest, centrist, political amateur can defeat the oligarchic machine and its professional cadres. I sincerely hope so.

My daughter moved to Massachusetts last month to go to graduate school and will likely work on this campaign. Although I live in Ohio, I gave the Warren campaign a contribution yesterday because improbable candidacies need money early.

Searching for Bachmann's source

Two bioethicists are offering up to $11,000 for the identification and release of the medical records of the person whom Michele Bachmann claimed became mentally retarded after getting the HPV vaccine. These kinds of irresponsible statements can cause great harm if not quickly challenged, as we saw with the claim that the MMR vaccination causes autism, and the media's idiotic 'balanced' approach that treats even empirical questions as matters of opinon ("Some say this but others say that") does nothing to dispel them.

I am glad that in this vacuum, private citizens are stepping up to clear the record.

"These types of messages in this climate have the capacity to do enormous public health harm," [Steven Miles, a U of M bioethics professor] said of why he made the offer. "The woman, assuming she exists, put this claim into the public domain and it's an extremely serious claim and it deserves to be analyzed.

Bachmann is sensing trouble and trying to wriggle out.

Bachmann somewhat walked back her comments Tuesday on Sean Hannity's radio show, where she said she had "no idea" if the HPV vaccine was linked to mental illness. "I'm not a doctor, I'm not a scientist, I'm not a physician," Bachmann said. "All I was doing is reporting what this woman told me last night at the debate."

No, you are none of those things. But you are a high profile elected official running for the presidency, which means that your words get hugely amplified and so should know not to pass along stories that have the potential to cause panic and harm until you have had time to substantiate them. Why is that so hard to understand?

The Daily Show on Monday's debate

I had read that the opening of the CNN-Tea Party sponsored Republican debate on Monday had been over the top but it took The Daily Show to drive home the point, again, of what a ridiculous circus US politics and its media coverage have become.

Cold-hearted libertarians

During Monday night's Republican debate, in response to a hypothetical question from the awful Wolf Blitzer, the audience and Ron Paul seemed comfortable with the idea that a young person who is uninsured but suffers a life-threatening condition should be allowed to die because he chose not to buy health insurance. The alternative of a socialized single payer medical system where everyone is covered without exception, the norm in almost all developed countries, is of course too ghastly to contemplate for these lovers of personal freedom.

It turns out that the question was, at least as far as Paul was concerned, not that hypothetical after all. Kent Snyder, Ron Paul's campaign manager in his run for the presidency in 2008, died at the age of 49 of complications from pneumonia, penniless and uninsured, because the premiums he would have had to pay to buy insurance were too high because of pre-existing conditions. The death of someone who was so close to him, purely because he could not afford health insurance, does not seem to have influenced Paul in the least. Instead, being the true believer he is, he eulogized Snyder as a martyr to the libertarian cause, which I am sure Snyder's bereaved mother, who was also stuck with her son's medical bills, deeply appreciated.

A self-described libertarian posted this comment on the above article about Snyder's death: "My personal belief is that it is not society's responsibility to deal with the uninsured. In extreme circumstances (national disasters for example), perhaps. My tax dollars need to go to basic government services, nothing else. I don't need to fund the NEA, someone's family planning mistake or alternative energy companies, etc, etc. I'm sorry to appear callous but its not my responsibility to take care of a total stranger. We are all adults here, presumably, lets deal with our own issues ourselves."

I am always amused by libertarians' careful inclusion of the 'basic government services' and 'national disasters' exemptions to their general 'keep the government out of everything' policy. It usually means that they want the government to intervene only to help when they themselves are in need. These libertarians tend to be well off owners of property and are self-centered hypocrites, wanting the government to provide only the services that they want and benefit from. So they want things like police and a military and a fire department and good roads because those things benefits and protect their property, and they can afford to pay for everything else. They also want a national disaster exemption because earthquakes and hurricanes do not distinguish between the rich and poor and could hit them too. If you are a consistent libertarian, surely you should support the idea that those services too should also be the product of the free markets? Why shouldn't people organize and pay for their own police and fire departments and pave the roads they drive upon?

Fortunately, not everyone embraces the cold-hearted libertarian philosophy that the wellbeing of total strangers is not our concern. Watch this video in which a motley group of strangers from all walks of life spontaneously come together, risking serious injury, to rescue a motorcyclist who was trapped under a burning car. They are hesitant and frightened, not sure what to do, but something about the plight of a fellow human being drives them to feel they must help and they come together to lift the car and drag him out.

Of course, there is a difference between the way one responds to an immediate need that one sees in front of one's eyes and how one reacts to people who are suffering out of sight. But the difference is not as great as one might think. The impulse to help others in need is universal. News reports afterwards said that the motorcyclist survived. The rescuers did not know what drove them to help but as soon as the woman who looked under the car said that he seemed to be alive, it galvanized everyone to take collective action.

This is why I think that the libertarian philosophy of having the government not take responsibility for the general welfare of the people will never take root beyond the ranks of a small, smug, affluent, minority. There is something deep within most people that causes them to be stirred and respond to the plight of others in need. I believe that it is biological and primeval and cannot be extinguished by the oligarchy and the manipulative politicians who are its servants, who seek to stoke the selfish instincts of people in order to benefit themselves.

I will trust my life in the hands of ordinary people over doctrinaire libertarians any day.

September 14, 2011

Jesus Lover

Happy Birthday to Baxter, the Wonder Dog!


Please talk about me!

As predicted, in an attempt to gain attention, Michele Bachmann has ramped up the crazy, going after Rick Perry by suggesting, without any evidence whatsoever, that the anti-HPV vaccine Gardasil could cause mental retardation.

Who knows where she will end up.

Acceptance of equal rights for gays undermines religion

One reason that religious rhetoric in politics is on the rise these days is because of the uncertain economic outlook. When people are fearful of their future, they tend to lash out and seek others to blame and it is easy for politicians to direct their attention to scapegoats. Blaming economic and social problems as being due to god's dissatisfaction with our behavior has always been popular trope for a certain segment of the public, going back to biblical times. It is easy for politicians to take advantage of the vanity of people thinking that they have a good idea of what their god wants, which always conveniently happens to coincide with what they themselves want. But working against them is the general decline of religion itself. As I explained in my series Why atheism in winning, the signs of decline of religion are unmistakable and I strongly suspect that religious leaders know this and are desperately seeking ways to at least slow down the process.

The most telling sign is that surveys show that people are leaving religion in significant numbers, with the greatest drop being among young people. This is why the stakes have been raised, in a desperate attempt by religious leaders to regain ground by making hysterical claims that the lack of religion is causing America's problems. While they point to general moral decay that is supposedly bringing about god's wrath, one of their key signs is the increasing acceptance of gay people as deserving of the same rights enjoyed by others, including marriage.

The irony is that the more religious leaders decry the increasing acceptance of homosexuals, the more they alienate young people, the very group that they need to secure their future. As Adam Lee points out:

Over the last few decades, society in general, and young people in particular, have become increasingly tolerant of gays and other minorities. For the most part, this is a predictable result of familiarity: people who've grown up in an increasingly multicultural society see less problem with interracial relationships (89% of Generation Nexters approve of interracial marriage, compared to 70% of older age groups) and same-sex marriage (47% in favor among Nexters, compared to 30% in older groups). When it comes to issues like whether gays and lesbians should be protected from job discrimination or allowed to adopt, the age gap in support is even more dramatic (71% vs. 59% and 61% vs. 44%, respectively).

But while American society is moving forward on all these fronts, many churches not only refuse to go along, they're actively moving backward. Most large Christian sects, both Catholic and Protestant, have made fighting against gay rights and women's rights their all-consuming crusade. And young people have gotten this message loud and clear: polls find that the most common impressions of Christianity are that it's hostile, judgmental and hypocritical. In particular, an incredible 91% of young non-Christians say that Christianity is "anti-homosexual", and significant majorities say that Christianity treats being gay as a bigger sin than anything else.

This rise is similar to the way that acceptance of interracial dating and marriage among the young increased with time as more and more young people did not see any problems with it. Currently 86% of people approve of interracial marriages, up from just 4% in 1958. Again, young people are more accepting than old people, with senior citizens with 66% approval being the lowest group.


Many religious people and groups are locked into an anti-gay stance that they cannot free themselves from. While some are trying to soften their message with variations of the 'hate the sin, love the sinner' circumlocution of the Catholic church, this is widely seen as a sham. Most religious institutions simply cannot escape being seen as intolerant and hateful.

So instead of religion defeating homosexuality, the increasing acceptance of equal rights for gays will accelerate the decline of religion.

September 13, 2011

Salt of the earth

In reading about the things that the audience at the Republican debates booed and applauded most enthusiastically, I was reminded of this scene from the classic Mel Brooks' comedy Blazing Saddles (1974).

An easily frightened nation

In his weekly radio address just prior to the orgy of memorializing on September 11, 2011, president Obama boasted that "They wanted to terrorize us, but, as Americans, we refuse to live in fear."

How long are we going to deceive ourselves that that is true? You may have read about the panic aboard an airplane on September 11 when some passengers were reported by their fellow passengers to have acted suspiciously. Now read the account of one of those people who was deemed to have been acting strangely.

Home of the brave, indeed.

Republican cult meetings

After the previous Republican debate last week, Jon Stewart nailed the development in the Republican party that I wrote about in this post.

Religion in American politics

One cannot help but observe a sharp rise in religious belief and anti-science feeling in American politics. Almost all the candidates for the Republican presidential nomination either wear their religion on their sleeves and proudly proclaim their religious fervor at every opportunity (Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, Herman Cain) or support at least some policies that are counter to science and seem to be religion-based (Ron Paul, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich). Only Jon Huntsman seems to be exempt from this particular feature although his policies in general are extremely pro-oligarchy. The fact that he's getting nowhere, at least in 2012, shows how strong this religious feeling is.

This has created a sense of alarm in some circles, with people fearing the emergence of some kind of theocracy if any of these candidates should win. When people see Bachmann praying lyrically about the end times in the clip below, they get fearful of what she might do if she were to become president.

On the radio program Fresh Air, Terry Gross recently interviewed Rachel Tabachnick about her series of articles on the rise of the Dominionist movement in American politics. This religious strain says that it is the duty of Christians to take over the government and run it on Christian principles. These Dominionist groups are close to Rick Perry and helped sponsor his recent day of prayer. (See the box for links to Tabachnick's articles.)

But despite the increasingly visible and vocal role that religion is playing in politics, I myself am not too alarmed about the seeming rise of the so-called religious right. Rather than seeing it as a precursor to a revival of religious obscurantism or the establishment of a theocracy, I see it instead as the last gasp of a dying movement, a fire that burns brightly just before the flame sputters out. This does not make it harmless because a bright but short-lived flame can still cause serious burns. But it does mean that we can afford to be more measured in our response and not over-react.

The reason that the religious right has been able to achieve the current level of prominence is because their beliefs have been given legitimacy in the public sphere, as if they were deserving of being taken seriously as part of the national dialogue on important questions, rather than as holders of fringe beliefs akin to astrology. The public and media have treated religion talk in politics with kid gloves. If a politician says, "My faith requires me to promote policy X", that is treated as something that cannot be questioned, when the proper response should be, "Why should your faith have any relevance in this discussion?"

It is often the case that movements take their most extreme form when they feel they are under siege and that the end is near. The leadership tends to fall into the hands of the true believers who tend to double down, becoming more rigid and doctrinaire, adopting an increasingly Manichaean mindset that sees the world split between friend and foe, true believer and heretic, with so-called 'moderates' weeded out as being unreliable allies. For a brief time, the movement gains cohesion and purpose and strength, before finally collapsing.

This is what I see happening in American religious politics. The Republican candidates mistook the rabid enthusiasm by some for Sarah Palin and Tea Party ideas as a sign of a mass movement and started catering to them, when in reality they are a minority and an increasingly disliked one at that. While this attracted more true believers, it also alienated others who felt this was too extreme. This has led to a negative spiral where party events have turned into almost cult-like religious events where the candidates who say the most extreme things get the most enthusiastic response, inspiring them to even greater extremism. This is what seems to be happening in the Republican debates and caucuses. This essay by a Republican operative who left/was forced out from the cult (thanks to readers Peter G. and Norm for the link) and this cartoon by August J. Pollack pretty much says it all.

While one reason why I think that truly religious politicians will ultimately be defeated is due to the general decline in religion, the other is that the oligarchy has little patience for this kind of thing. While the oligarchy is ruthless, greedy, and self-serving, they are not stupid. They are quite willing to use religious zealots as foot soldiers in their campaign to get the government to serve their needs, but they do not want these people to actually occupy the seats of power because they want political leaders who take their directions from them and not from god. What we will see in the coming days is a slow and steady campaign to undermine the candidacies of those who seem likely to really believe the religious rubbish they utter, as opposed to someone who adopts a religious stance out of political expediency. (The verdict on where Rick Perry stands on this spectrum is not yet in.) The process has already started with Republican functionaries and even Fox News and other conservative outlets starting to leak negative stories and provide negative commentary about Palin and Bachmann.

If, by some remote chance, a truly religious nutter manages to overcome this internal opposition and actually become the Republican nominee, watch the oligarchy swing its support behind their reliable ally Barack Obama.

September 12, 2011

P. Z. Myers to speak at event honoring Page Stephens

The Northeast Ohio Center for Inquiry is having its 2011 Humanism Award banquet on Friday, September 30th 2011 at 7:00 pm at the Crowne Plaza Independence, 5300 Rockside Road, Independence, OH 44131.

The award is being given to Page Stephens, PhD, "who, as cofounder and seventeen year president of the now-disbanded South Shore Skeptics, was instrumental in cultivating a burgeoning skeptics community on the southern banks of Lake Erie and proved himself a staunch defender of science over pseudoscience."

The featured speaker is the well-known biologist blogger P. Z. Myers.

More details can be found here.

What, me worry about terrorism?

Via Progressive Review, I learn that the chance of:

Being killed by a terrorist is 1 in 20 million
Being struck by lightning is 1 in 6 million
Being executed in Texas is 1 in 1 million
Dying in a bathtub is 1 in 800,000
Dying in a building fire is 1 in 99,000
Dying in a car accident is 1 in 19,000

Until the terrorism threat approaches that of a car accident, I don't see any point in worrying. So let's shut down the national security state and bring back civil liberties and the rule of law.

Advertising campaign to ban all religions

Reader Jeff at Have Coffee Will Write sent me this link to a Australian TV show that seems to have as its premise asking advertising agencies to come up with campaigns for extreme ideas. They usually get a good response but when they asked for campaigns to ban all religions, for the first time ad agencies declined to take part, even though earlier suggestions such as 'Invade New Zealand' or 'Bring back child labor' or 'Euthanize everyone over eighty' had not dissuaded them.

The logic of science-17: Some residual issues

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

Reader Jeff asked three good questions about some of the issues I discussed in my series on the logic of science that I would like to address here. What follows are his questions and my responses.

"First, in Part II you discuss the concepts of Know-How and Know-Why. I am curious as to what extent these concepts might be applied to understanding the differences between the Hard Sciences (Physics, Chemistry, &c.) and the Soft Sciences (Psychology, Sociology, &c.) Are what we call Soft Sciences sciences at all?"

Science has considerable prestige as providing reliable knowledge and as a result many fields of study aspire to that label. But the issue of what distinguishes science from non-science is as yet unresolved. The know-how/know why distinction of Aristotle ceased to be considered viable as a means of distinguishing science from non-science when Newton came along. His laws of motion and gravity were spectacularly successful in explaining the motion of objects, especially the solar system. He thus provided the 'know-why' that had been previously missing from the purely empirical field of astronomy, lifting it into the realm of science.

But Newton's laws had serious know-why deficiencies of their own because they had no explanation for why distant inanimate objects exerted forces on each other. Up until then, forces were believed to be exerted by contact, and the introduction of mysterious forces that acted at a distance was somewhat of an embarrassment. But the immense achievement of unifying our understanding of celestial and terrestrial motion led many to deem that what Newton had done to be unquestionably science, despite its lack of know-why for its major elements. Know-why ceased to be a requirement for science. This development was in some sense inevitable because we now realize that every theory is based on some other theory and that at some point we just have to say 'and that's just the way it seems to be', without being able to elucidate any further.

The search for better ways to distinguish science from non-science went on. To be able to definitely say whether something belongs in some category or not (whether it be science or anything else) requires one to specify both necessary and sufficient conditions for belonging in that category. We can specify some necessary conditions for science. It needs, for example, to be empirical, predictive, and materialistic, and Thomas Kuhn added the condition that it also work within a paradigm. But suitable sufficient conditions are much harder to come by.

If a theory fails to meet the necessary conditions threshold, it means that it is definitely not science, which is why so-called 'intelligent design theory' has been deemed to be not science. But meeting the necessary threshold only allows us to conclude that the theory could be science, not that it definitely is.

This inability to say definitely that something is a science has not proven to be a problem for those areas (the so-called 'hard sciences' such as almost all areas of physics, chemistry, and biology) that are, by broad consensus, unambiguously considered to be science, because nobody except philosophers of science cares whether they meet any criteria or not. But it has proven problematic for the soft sciences, where there is no such unanimity. The scientific status of some areas of physics (such as string theory) has also been challenged on the grounds that it has as yet not generated any predictions that can be tested empirically.

"Second, in Part VII you use the electron as an example of a universal claim that can never be proven because we can never test each and every electron in the universe. I wondered if it would be possible to make the claim that any particle that does not have the mass and charge of an electron is not an electron in the same way that we can state that any atom the does not have solely a single proton is not Hydrogen?"

You can define away the immediate problem by saying that the electron is a particle having a set number of properties. But this simply defers the problem. It does not let us off the hook because we cannot say (for example) that every hydrogen atom has one of these particles because we cannot test each and every atom to see if that is true. We simply have to make the universal claim that it does, and that cannot be proven either.

"Third, in Part X you write “that however much data may support a theory, we are not in a position to unequivocally state that we have proven the theory to be true.” Where does this leave Laws such as the laws of gravity and thermodynamics? Do we no longer speak of Laws as such?"

The terms 'law' and 'theory' do not have any ranking order epistemologically in that there is no sense in which a law is truer than a theory. For example, Newton's laws of motion are known to have limited validity and not be true when it comes to the very small or the very fast, while Einstein's theories of special and general relativity are believed to have no violations.

What gets called a 'law' and what gets called a 'theory' differ in what they imply, though accidents of historical naming can also play a role. A law tends to be an empirical universal generalization of observed relationships between measurable quantities. So the law of conservation of energy says that if we were to measure the sum of all the energy components of a closed system at one time, that total will remain the same if we measure all the components at another time. Newton's laws of motion give us the relationships between forces and mass and acceleration. Boyle's law gives us the relationship between the pressure and volume of a gas. These are all empirical generalizations and none of them try to explain why these relationships hold true.

A theory, on the other hand, consists of a more complicated explanatory structure that specifies the elements of the system that it deals with, as well as how those elements behave and the relationships among them. A theory might be able to explain what undergirds a law, though it rarely proves it because of the many extra assumptions that are needed. So, for example, the kinetic theory of gases tells us what elements comprise an ideal gas and how they interact with each other and their container. Using that theory, we can understand where Boyle's law comes from. Similarly, quantum theory tells us that the conservation of energy is connected to the invariance of laws under time translations, i.e., that the laws of science do not change with time.

September 11, 2011

That was quick

Reading the Sunday papers was really quick today. I skipped over all the articles that had anything to do with 9/11, which resulted in almost the entire front and the forum sections being eliminated, along with good chunks of the others. Even the comic section, my favorite, took less time because some of them took the occasion to voice some sappy sentiment.

I was interested in seeing how the paper would deal with the first game of the football season for our team but in this one area, they did not let the anniversary get in the way and produced a full sports section and a supplement on the coming season.

The paper may wallow in manufactured grief but it has its priorities. Nothing gets in the way of football.

The reckoning to come

In this interview on Canadian television, journalist Chris Hedges, author of the book The Death of the Liberal Class adds texture to the bleak picture that I have been painting of the consequences of the complete oligarchic takeover of the US.

(Thanks to Norm)

The ACLU on the state of civil liberties

Glenn Greenwald's discussion on the ACLU report on the steep decline of civil liberties in in the US in the wake of that event is well worth reading.

The preamble to the ACLU report highlights the four major ways in which freedoms have been seriously compromised.

Everywhere And Forever War

The report begins with an examination of the contention that the U.S. is engaged in a "war on terror" that takes place everywhere and will last forever, and that therefore counterterrorism measures cannot be balanced against any other considerations such as maintaining civil liberties. The report states that the United States has become an international legal outlier in invoking the right to use lethal force and indefinite military detention outside battle zones, and that these policies have hampered the international fight against terrorism by straining relations with allies and handing a propaganda tool to enemies.

A Cancer On Our Legal System

Taking on the legacy of the Bush administration's torture policy, the report warns that the lack of accountability leaves the door open to future abuses. "Our nation's official record of this era will show numerous honors to those who authorized torture – including a Presidential Medal of Freedom – and no recognition for those, like the Abu Ghraib whistleblower, who rejected and exposed it," it notes.

Fracturing Our "More Perfect Union"

The report details how profiling based on race and religion has become commonplace nationwide, with the results of such approaches showing just how wrong and ineffective those practices are. "Targeting the American Muslim community for counterterrorism investigation is counterproductive because it diverts attention and resources that ought to be spent on individuals and violent groups that actually pose a threat," the report says. "By allowing – and in some cases actively encouraging – the fear of terrorism to divide Americans by religion, race, and belief, our political leaders are fracturing this nation's greatest strength: its ability to integrate diverse strands into a unified whole on the basis of shared, pluralistic, democratic values."

A Massive and Unchecked Surveillance Society

Concluding with the massive expansion of surveillance since 9/11, the report delves into the many ways the government now spies on Americans without any suspicion of wrongdoing, from warrantless wiretapping to cell phone location tracking – but with little to show for it. "The reality is that as governmental surveillance has become easier and less constrained, security agencies are flooded with junk data, generating thousands of false leads that distract from real threats," the report says.

September 10, 2011

Web Site Story

(via Eschaton)

'Campaign Obama' returns

After selling out to the oligarchy during his presidency, now that election season is back, expect to see Obama return to his feisty populist campaign mode and try to fool ordinary people once again that he really cares about their interests.

In January 2010, my disgust with Obama had reached the point where I said the following:

It used to be the case that I would detest hearing or watching George W. Bush speak. The disjunct between his smug and lofty words about democracy and freedom and the reality of his crass polices was simply too much to take. During the campaign I enjoyed hearing Obama's speeches because he seemed to be making thoughtful statements about important issues and appealing to the best in people. But now I cannot bear to listen to him either. I find galling the unctuous hypocrisy of his words. If anything, the gap between his words and his deeds is even greater than that of Bush, because he promises more and delivers less.

Now Matt Taibbi has also reached that stage. Recently at an airport he was forced to choose between sitting at a crowded gate with lots of screaming children and another area that was nearly empty and quiet except for a TV showing Obama giving his Labor Day speech. He says he chose the former:

Listening to Obama talk about jobs and shared prosperity yesterday reminded me that we are back in campaign mode and Barack Obama has started doing again what he does best – play the part of a progressive. He's good at it. It sounds like he has a natural affinity for union workers and ordinary people when he makes these speeches. But his policies are crafted by representatives of corporate/financial America, who happen to entirely make up his inner circle.

I just don't believe this guy anymore, and it's become almost painful to listen to him.

I wonder how many people have come to the same realization.

September 09, 2011

Undeserving poor

In Act 2 of George Bernard Shaw's play Pygmalion (which became the hit play and film My Fair Lady), Eliza Doolittle's father Alfred complains to Henry Higgins how 'middle class morality' tends to shun poor people like him because they are the wrong kind of poor.

"What am I, Governors both? I ask you, what am I? I'm one of the undeserving poor: that's what I am. Think of what that means to a man. It means that he's up agen middle class morality all the time. If there's anything going, and I put in for a bit of it, it's always the same story: "You're undeserving; so you can't have it." But my needs is as great as the most deserving widow's that ever got money out of six different charities in one week for the death of the same husband. I don't need less than a deserving man: I need more. I don't eat less hearty than him; and I drink a lot more. I want a bit of amusement, cause I'm a thinking man. I want cheerfulness and a song and a band when I feel low. Well, they charge me just the same for everything as they charge the deserving. What is middle class morality? Just an excuse for never giving me anything."

I was reminded of this when reader Norm sent me this news clipping.


A lawless elite

Glenn Greenwald talks with Chris Hayes about the increasingly lawless class that we have created.

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

What makes a Bible-based marriage?

Betty Bowers, America's Best Christian, spells out what constitutes a traditional or Bible–based marriage.

Pinning down opponents of same-sex marriage

One of the questions that opponents of same-sex marriage never satisfactorily answer is why it matters to them if gay couples have the same rights as heterosexual couples. Why do they care? What harm do they suffer? It is not as if marriage is some limited resource that allowing more people access to would reduce the general availability.

As far as I can see, the opposition to same-sex marriage seems to be almost entirely based on ancient religious texts and their associated homophobia but of course few, other than the religious nutters, want to concede that for fear of being seen as religious bigots. (That distancing from religion is a small sign of progress). Instead they dance around the issue with vague rationalizations that somehow marriage has always been between one man and one woman and has thus acquired the force of tradition or that the purpose of marriage is procreation or that changing the definition of marriage would open the door to polygamy, bestiality, or otherwise destroy civilization as we know it. Of course, none of these 'arguments' stand up to scrutiny but few people are willing to press opponents on this, usually out of the 'respect for religion' trope that assumes that people's faith-based speech and actions should not be questioned. But the legal case involving Proposition 8 in California may finally force them to put up or shut up.

If you recall, in May 2008 the California Supreme Court ruled that same sex couples have, under the state constitution, a right to marry. Opponents then brought Proposition 8 that banned same-sex marriage as a ballot initiative and, heavily backed by the Catholic and the Mormon churches and using lies that allowing same-sex marriage would lead to gay indoctrination of children in schools, they managed to narrowly pass it in November 2008 by a margin of less than 5%.

The constitutionality of Proposition 8 was challenged under the state constitution and its validity was upheld. But it was also challenged under the US constitution and in August 2010, a US District judge ruled that it violated the due process and equal protection clauses of the 14th Amendment, but allowed the ban to stand while the case was appealed to the US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Normally the governor and the attorney general of the state are the people who have the obligation to enforce the laws of California and they have the unquestioned right to appeal any verdict nullifying the laws. But opponents of the ruling were stymied because the then-governor of California (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and the then-attorney general (and now governor) Jerry Brown refused to appeal the district court ruling.

Because of this vacuum, various private parties who had sponsored Proposition 8 then appealed the verdict but this raised the question of whether they had standing to do so. In order to prevent an explosion of third-party lawsuits, one has to show that one has standing to bring about a legal case and one of the means by which standing is established by a private party is that the party has to show that they are directly affected by a law or a court ruling and would suffer direct harm if it were carried out.

The US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, in an unexpected move, ruled that before it could decide on the constitutionality of the issue, the issue of standing had to be resolved and they sent the case back to the California Supreme Court to rule on whether the challengers had standing. This has put the issue of what harm opponents of same-sex marriage suffer directly to the forefront. Ted Olson, one of the lead counsel opposing Proposition 8, puts the matters succinctly.

Olson will argue that to have legal standing the proponents have to show that they would suffer a direct harm if Prop. 8 is held to be unconstitutional.

"Here, the proponents were asked during the course of the trial, what damage would be done to heterosexual marriage if Proposition 8 was held to be unconstitutional and the lawyer for the Proposition 8 proponents said 'I don't know,'" Olson says. "You have to have a direct stake in the matter that's being litigated."

Court cases can very useful in clarifying issues because people have to answer specific questions that are narrowly focused and posed to them by people who have all the facts at their fingertips. They cannot make sweeping generalizations or filibuster or snow the listener the way they can in public debates or when answering reporters. This is what doomed so-called intelligent design. Its advocates managed to obfuscate the issue for quite some time but they came a cropper in 2005 in the US district court in Dover, PA because under cross-examination they were forced to admit many things they had tried to conceal, such as that under their definition of science, even astrology would have to be considered to be science.

So the question of standing that is going to be adjudicated by the California Supreme Court could be quite illuminating in pinning down exactly what harm opponents of same-sex marriage experience by allowing it. But unfortunately, unlike in lower courts where the merits of the case can be exhaustively examined, in superior courts the process is very brief and tends to be narrowly focused. At the hearing on Tuesday, the California Supreme Court judges seemed to be more concerned about allowing the governor and attorney general the sole right to decide what laws to defend rather than with the issue of what direct harm the sponsors of Proposition 8 suffer if same-sex marriage is allowed. Since they have ruled before that ballot initiative sponsors have the right to defend them in court, that seems likely to be the verdict here too, that they will be granted standing by virtue of being sponsors of the initiative rather than because they would suffer direct harm if same-sex marriage were allowed. You can see the full video of the hearing here.

It seems likely that both aspects of this case, the issue of standing as well as the constitutionality of same-sex marriage itself, will go all the way to the US Supreme Court.

But even if the opponents of same-sex marriage win this legal battle, they have lost the public relations war. It is only a matter of time, perhaps five years, before gay people win equal rights.

September 08, 2011

What happened to the others?

I did not watch yesterday's debate, of course, but in reading the coverage today was startled by the fact that it seemed as if only two people, Mitt Romney and Rick Perry, took part. There was practically zero coverage of any of the other six though they presumably said things. Ron Paul, Jon Huntsman, Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, Herman Cain, and Newt Gingrich might as well have not been there, and Buddy Roemer was actually not there, not having been invited in the first place.

It looks like the media has started the winnowing process in earnest by deciding who is worth covering.

This must be particularly galling for yesterday's media darling Bachmann who just a couple of weeks ago was sought after by every news talk show following her first place showing in the meaningless Ames Iowa straw poll. She is learning that media suitors are awfully fickle. She is not one to go quietly into the night so watch for her to ramp up the crazy to try and regain the spotlight.

What 'Speechgate' tells us about the media

The inanity of our national media has become impossible to parody.

Applause for death penalty

Look at what happened during the Republican debate yesterday.

Although I disagree with them, I can understand those who support the death penalty as an unpleasant necessity. What I find sick is enthusiasm for it.

The importance of balancing one's life

One of the odd features of life in the US is the boasting (either overt or subtle) by professional people about how much they work. They seem to seek bragging rights about who puts in the most hours, as if the more hours you work the more important you must be. My daughter worked for a couple of years in the financial sector and sent me this article that illustrates the mindset of many of the people she encountered in that world. The author highlights a trap that young professionals especially can fall into.

Because fulfilling and engrossing work - the sort that is thought to provide the most intense learning experience - often requires long hours or captivates the imagination for long periods of time, it is easy to slip into the idea that the converse is also true: that just by working long hours, one is also engaging in fulfilling and engrossing work. This leads to the popular fallacy that you can measure the value of your job (and, therefore, the amount you are learning from it) by the amount of time you spend on it. And, incidentally, when a premium is placed on learning rather than earning, people are particularly susceptible to this form of self-deceit.

Thus, whereas in the past, when people in their 20s or 30s spoke disparagingly about nine-to-five jobs it was invariably because they were seen as too routine, too unimaginative, or too bourgeois. Now, it is simply because they don't contain enough hours.

Young professionals have not suddenly developed a distaste for leisure, but they have solidly bought into the belief that a 45-hour week necessarily signifies an unfulfilling job. Jane, a 29-year-old corporate lawyer who works in the City of London, tells a story about working on a deal with another lawyer, a young man in his early 30s. At about 3am, he leant over the boardroom desk and said: "Isn't this great? This is when I really love my job." What most struck her about the remark was that the work was irrelevant (she says it was actually rather boring); her colleague simply liked the idea of working late. "It's as though he was validated, or making his life important by this," she says.

Unfortunately, when people can convince themselves that all they need do in order to lead fulfilled and happy lives is to work long hours, they can quickly start to lose reasons for their existence. As they start to think of their employment as a lifestyle, fulfilling and rewarding of itself - and in which the reward is proportional to hours worked - people rapidly begin to substitute work for other aspects of their lives.

Jane, Michael, Robert and Kathryn grew up as part of a generation with fewer social constraints determining their futures than has been true for probably any other generation in history. They were taught at school that when they grew up they could "do anything", "be anything". It was an idea that was reinforced by popular culture, in films, books and television.

The notion that one can do anything is clearly liberating. But life without constraints has also proved a recipe for endless searching, endless questioning of aspirations. It has made this generation obsessed with self-development and determined, for as long as possible, to minimise personal commitments in order to maximise the options open to them. One might see this as a sign of extended adolescence.

Eventually, they will be forced to realise that living is as much about closing possibilities as it is about creating them.

I grew up at a time and in a country where this mindset was not present, so I did not fall prey to this kind of thinking. Also academia is an area where people do work long hours but because the research involves largely self-motivated learning, it does not seem like work, and since there is already a consensus that the work is worthwhile, academics tend not to brag to each other about the hours they put in.

Now of course, I am in the twilight of my work life, approaching the age when retirement becomes a factor to consider. Getting old is no picnic, mainly because your body starts to fall apart. But one of the benefits, if one is able to recognize it as such, is that you realize that because time is running out, many of the options that you once considered are no longer open to you, and so you begin to think of how best to maximize the benefits of the life you have rather than constantly seeking new fields to conquer.

It is not that one has become resigned to one's lot in life. It is that one sees more clearly what options are realistically available and can then focus on making the most of them.

September 07, 2011

The 'student athlete' fraud

A recent news report says that football players in Division 1A colleges average about 44.8 hours on that sport and less than 40 on academics.

This is crazy. A full time student is expected to spend a minimum of about 50 hours per week on academics (attending classes and doing out of class work). Assuming they sleep 8 hours per day, that means that they have 17 hours per week, or 2.5 hours per day, for everything else in life. It is ridiculous to think that these athletes are sacrificing all the other things and living the ascetic life of a hermit in order to completely meet their athletic and academic demands.

The NCAA, the governing body, is pretending that this shows the commitment of these students to living up to the 'student-athlete' ideal. An NCAA spokesperson Myles brand says, "These young people are very competitive. It's in their fiber… and they will do everything they can to succeed… Frankly, I'd rather have that student go to sleep early, wake up in the morning and do an extra run than I would (him or her) staying up late and going to the bars… The fact that they choose to balance athletics and academics as a primary activity, I think that's fine."

Yeah, right. What is obviously happening is that these student athletes are cutting back on their studies at these big sports schools, which are notorious for finding ways to circumvent academic requirements.

What these students really are are professional athletes masquerading as students, providing income for the schools in return for the small chance of making it in professional sports after they graduate with a worthless degree. Some undoubtedly feel that they are being exploited, hence the periodic scandals involving 'secret' benefits and payments to players, with coaches and school administrators pretending not to notice. Ohio State University is the latest school to be found guilty of such infractions and its football coach resigned but he will merely move on to another position and the cycle goes on.

How religious people debate

Film review: Taxi to the Dark Side

I finally got around to watching Alex Gibney's Academy Award winning documentary Taxi to the Dark Side (2007) which recounts the sordid story of the American government indefinitely detaining, torturing, and murdering people in its custody as a result of the so-called war on terror. I had avoided seeing it, since I knew I would be both sickened and angered by the images and descriptions of the treatment of prisoners. But the recent emergence from under whatever rock he lives in of Dick Cheney, the chief force behind these abhorrent policies, to promote his book made me decide that I had to see it.

The film takes its title from two key themes. One is the story of a young Afghan man named Dilawar who drove a taxi for a living but one day was picked up by Afghan security forces and turned over to the US as a suspected terrorist. He was taken to Bagram base and within five days he ended up dead, his body covered with bruises and his legs beaten into pulp, resulting in homicide being listed as the cause of death by the medical examiner. The other was Cheney's statement that in the war on terror it was necessary for the US to go to the 'dark side' and do things in secret that were necessary to keep America safe.

I am glad that I saw the film but it is not for the squeamish. It vividly reminds one, using still and video footage and re-enactments, of the ghastly horrors that took place in US prisons at the Bagram base in Afghanistan, Abu Ghraib in Iraq, and Guantanamo. Here's the trailer.

The whole torture process was an example of cynical manipulation. Aided by its legal advisors like Alberto Gonzalez, John Yoo, and Jay Bybee, the Bush administration created a policy that allowed even the most heinous of treatment. Yoo even refused to categorically rule out the right of the president to order the crushing of a child's testicles in order to coerce the child's father during interrogations.

This policy also seemed to be designed expressly to protect the high level people in the Bush administration (George W. Bush, Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell, Condoleeza Rice, Paul Wolfowitz, David Addison, Donald Feith, Lewis Libby, and other civilian and military high command) from any repercussions while allowing them, if things got messy, to pin the blame on the low-level people who actually carried out the acts. The way this was done was to let the word go out that the normal rules of operation (such as those specified under the Geneva Conventions and in standard US military guidelines known as the Uniform Code of Military Justice) were no longer operable but not specify in writing what the new guidelines were. Instead the low-level interrogators in the military and CIA were given a wink and a nod, suggesting that anything goes in the drive to get information. As a result, the interrogators were allowed to run amuck. And they did. We saw with the infamous Stanford prison experiment that even ordinary undergraduates can, in just a couple of days, become sadistic monsters when given unchecked power over other students who were just like them. You can imagine what can happen when soldiers in war are given even greater freedom over people whom they perceive as the enemy and are so different from them and who speak a different language.

Even in the face of stiff competition from a morally bankrupt administration, Cheney is clearly the most contemptible, a cowardly sadist, someone who seems to have a weird sense of pride in having caused the suffering and death of others, who has a grandiose image of himself as the savior of the country. This is a man who should be treated as a pariah, shunned by all decent people, not treated as simply another retired politician. While the whole Bush crew deserves to be tried for war crimes, he is the most deserving. Lawrence Wilkerson, who was Colin Powell's chief of staff, now says that he thinks that Cheney, for all his bravado, fears being tried for war crimes and that he would be willing to testify against him at a war crimes trial.

But of course, this will not happen in the US because, as Glenn Greenwald points out, Obama has shown himself to be as complicit in torture and war crimes as any member of the Bush regime and anxious to protect his predecessors and has effectively granted them blanket immunity. He does so because he is continuing and even expanding the detention and torture of prisoners. Obama even claims the right to execute US citizens abroad if he thinks they deserve it. The only way that any of these people will be prosecuted as war criminals is if they go abroad and encounter an independent-minded prosecutor in another country, since crimes against humanity have no jurisdictional or time limits.

As the documentary emphasizes, habeas corpus and the right of an accused to a trial by jury is the bedrock of the rule of law, a foundation of a civilized society, the violation of which was one of the crimes of British rule that was specified in the Declaration of Independence that precipitated the American revolution. Yet the US now casually disregards it. We accept as normal the indefinite detention of people without trial or access to lawyers merely on the government's say so, kangaroo courts that are custom designed to secure pre-ordained verdicts, and the abuse, torture, and even murder of anyone the government decrees to be an enemy.

The moral corruption of the US government is deep and bipartisan. Perhaps the best we can hope for is that some day Americans will look back at the things that were done in its name by the US government in the war on terror and wonder with amazement how it could have been that such acts, though widely known, did not rouse the public into righteous anger at the subversion of all the values that a decent society should hold dear.

September 01, 2011

Short break from blogging

I realized that I have not had a break from blogging for almost two years. Since my daughter will be having a wedding reception this weekend and there will be many friends and family that I will be meeting, I will be taking some time off to enjoy their company.

Regular blogging will return after the Labor Day weekend but I will likely check in from time to time with some short posts and to clean up the spam in the comments.

But until then, here is a photo of Baxter, the Wonder Dog, taking a well-earned rest.


How churches try to retain their flock

Food stamps

From political cartoonist Ted Rall, I learn that 15% of Americans are on food stamps and of those, 40% are employed.

It is interesting how people react to such statistics. My reaction was that it showed that there are a large number of poor people in the US (about 45 million) and that employers are paying a lot of workers (about 18 million) far too little.

But I am well aware that there will be others for whom this same statistics will send the message that the government is far too generous with food stamps and should cut back.

The logic of science-16: Summary and some concluding thoughts

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

The roots of religion lie in deep evolutionary history. The book Why we Believe in God(s) by J. Anderson Thomson with Clare Aukofer (2011) marshals the evidence from psychology and neuroscience to argue that the tendency to belief in supernatural agencies by itself has no survival value but that it exists because it is a by-product of qualities that evolved for other purposes and which do have survival value, such as the tendency to detect agency behind natural events.

There is no question that believing in the existence of a god satisfies a need for some people. But in our modern enlightened times, and especially for sophisticated believers, it is embarrassing to say that one believes in a god merely because it fills an emotional vacuum. People feel that they need to justify their beliefs in a way that would pass muster with modern science and so they try to find more acceptable reasons based on logic and reason and empirical evidence.

But as this series has discussed, logic and reason alone cannot establish the existence of an entity. The only case in which a purely logical argument can be used is if the negation of a proposition leads to a logical contradiction, showing that the proposition is true. In the case of the existence of god, this would require one to show that the proposition that there is no god leads to a logical contradiction. This is clearly not the case. Assuming that there is no god does not cause any logical problems whatsoever.

The next question is whether the assumption of the non-existence of god leads to any empirical contradiction. But empirical evidence is manifestly within the realm of science, and so this question is subject to the investigative methods of science. Does assuming that there is no god lead to any contradiction with the observable world? Again the answer is no. Science has proven itself quite capable of making the world intelligible without the need to invoke any supernatural agency. Furthermore, the attempt by religious believers to find some phenomenon that is currently unexplained by science (the origin of life, for example) and attribute it to god fails because it is never the case that a scientist is faced with only two theories in investigating a phenomenon, as was the case with the issue of whether the square root of 2 is a rational number, and hence ruling out one theory by contradiction does not make any of the alternatives true.

The reasoning is simple. In science, the choice is never between theory A and the negation of theory A, as was the case with whether the square root of two is a rational number. Scientific conflicts are always three-cornered fights that involve comparing theories A and B with data. Since the number of potential theories to explain any given phenomenon is infinite, the reductio ad absurdum methods cannot be used because even if one could prove that any one of them was wrong it does not mean that any of the others are right. This was articulated by Pierre Duhem long ago.

Unlike the reduction to absurdity employed by geometers, experimental contradiction does not have the power to transform a physical hypothesis into an indisputable truth; in order to confer this power on it, it would be necessary to enumerate completely the various hypotheses which may cover a determinate group of phenomena; but the physicist is never sure that he has exhausted all the imaginable assumptions. The truth of a physical theory is not decided by heads and tails. (The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory, Pierre Duhem 1906, translated by Philip P. Wiener, 1954, p. 190)

Science is a lot more complicated than mathematics. To have any empirical proposition accepted as true, one must provide sufficient positive evidence in support of it, not merely argue against a competing theory. Those arguing in favor of the existence of god have failed to do that. The failure is quite spectacular given the immense powers attributed to their god. What this series has tried to show is that the verdict of science when it comes to the existence of god is an overwhelming "No!"

Some sophisticated religious apologists try to argue that the question of the existence of god is outside the realm of empirical evidence and thus outside the range of science. This raises the question of what is the use of such a god. A recent television series Curiosity on the Discovery channel had one program that dealt with the question Did God Create the Universe?, arising from Stephen Hawking's recent assertion that god was not necessary to understand the universe. In a discussion after the program, cosmologist Sean Carroll asked Catholic theologian John Haught how the world would look different if there was no god. This is, of course, the key question. If there is no difference, then god is superfluous. If one can point to a specific difference, then that means that there are empirical implications for god's existence and thus it is a question that can be investigated by science. Haught's reply? If there is no god, the universe itself would not exist!

This reply aptly captures the poverty of theology. How does Haught know this? He cannot, of course. It is just another example of theology simply making stuff up to find something for god to do. Theology really is nothing more than the field that manufactures excuses for why we see no evidence for god. As H. L. Mencken said, "A theologian is like a blind man in a dark room searching for a black cat which isn't there - and finding it!"

In this series on the logic of science, I have said that science is not in the business of proving things to be true or disproving them either. Science is in the business of figuring out what works best in any given situation, using the logical and evidentiary methods that it has found useful. The same reasoning that has led to scientific success is what leads naturally to atheism. As population biologist J. B. S. Haldane said, "My practice as a scientist is atheistic. That is to say, when I set up an experiment I assume that no god, angel or devil is going to interfere with its course; and this assumption has been justified by such success as I have achieved in my professional career. I should therefore be intellectually dishonest if I were not also atheistic in the affairs of the world."

Scientific knowledge is always tentative and subject to change in the light of new evidence and never claims that it has the ultimate truth. Some religious apologists seize on this truism to argue that in the absence of achieving absolute truth, scientific knowledge, like religion, is just another form of faith, on an equal footing with it, and thus that the knowledge obtained from each have equal standing. That this is a false equivalency as can be seen by posing the following question: If you had to roll back all the knowledge gained in the last 500 years in just one specific field, which would you choose: to erase what we have learned from religion/theology or what we have learned from science?

I think the answer is obvious.