Gonzales quits, Charles Krauthammer still terrible

August 27, 2007

Better bloggers than I will surely have lots to say about today’s resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

To me though, the most upsetting thing about this man’s embattled tenure is still how unwilling many of my fellow Americans were to even admit that the allegations made about the firings of U.S. attorneys were troubling, if true. Instead, many people just treated us to endless repetitions of the utterly irrelevant point that the President can fire them at will.

Some things, I would hope, should cut across partisan politics. Whether you believed the allegations or not, the very idea of anyone pressuring U.S. attorney’s to file or drop specific lawsuits so as to coordinate with one party’s electoral strategies is a potentially very grave threat to the administration of federal justice. It’s flatly, unquestionably unethical. Deny the allegations if you think they have no merit. But don’t tell me that they are irrelevant.

And just to to re-iterate an earlier point, when you have, justifiably or not, a reputation for lying and/or omission, don’t you think it’s a bad idea to lie to your own spokesman for no discernible reason, especially as the penultimate act or your career?

Mr. Roehrkasse said Sunday afternoon that he had telephoned Mr. Gonzales about the reports circulating in Washington that a resignation was imminent, “and he said it wasn’t true, so I don’t know what more I can say.” (emphasis added)

At this point, he had already submitted his resignation two days prior.

WorldNetDaily: Romans 13 means “Shoot to Kill”

August 26, 2007

WorldNetDaily is currently in a tizzy about a government program that recruits clergy members to help keep the peace in times of national disaster. I can’t say that I blame them for mistrusting these so-called “Clergy Response Teams,” though as with everything WND blows a fuse over, I suspect the program is a mite less sinister than they let on. The real crux of their outrage is the suggestion that the teams will be citing Romans 13 in order to encourage Christians to obey the civil authorities (presumably so that the men in black helicopters can take the guns straight out of people’s gullible, live hands).

Now, for those not familiar, Romans 13 basically says that since all government authorities are in place only by the inscrutable establishment of God, Christians “must submit” to authorities and not rebel against them. WorldNetDaily, however, has come up with a slightly different reading: the passage only applies to “good” government that, as Tony Perkins says, doesn’t [undermine] its very basis of support by trying to remove the Christian ethic, the Bible, the Ten Commandments from the public square. The upshot of this is that WND readers should feel free to shoot those homosexual-loving U.S. government officials right in the face if they ever issue civil orders that WND doesn’t like.

Now, I’m a little loathe to start getting into the scriptural interpretation business, but isn’t there a rather glaring problem with in this argument that someone needs to address?

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CNN profiles Spiritualism camps, ghost stubble

August 25, 2007

Today, CNN covers camp Wonewoc, one of 13 spiritualism camps in the U.S. The article introduces us to Judy Ulch, who passes on messages from the dead for 40$ per half hour (a bargain compared to Sylvia Browne’s rumored 750$/30min rates). It also introduces us to… ghost stubble:

“Sometimes I see them [the dead/spirits] so close, I see the stubble on their face,” Ulch says.

Eww. Ulch probably already knows this, but hair does not actually continue to grow after death: the reality is a little more gruesome. Presumably though, Ulch is referring not to an actual walking corpse but rather some sort of spiritual substance or image.

That, however, just raises the question of why it would have stubble at all. Hair growth is, of course, a complex biological process intricately connected to the reality of having particular cells operating in a particular manner, fed by specific amounts of various molecules and raw materials from the blood, and so on. That such a process would apparently be so closely reproduced in death raises all sorts of fascinating further issues. Do ghosts breathe some sort of spiritual oxygen to power the process? Does discarded hair and other spiritual detritus from this sort of process fall off spiritual bodies? Have mediums ever seen the spiritual dust bunnies that would result?

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Creationist Ed-Board in Texas Bucks the Trend on ID… or does it?

August 24, 2007

Via Ed Darrell at Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub comes a somewhat surprising news story: the Texas State Board of Education, despite being stocked full of creationists, doesn’t think Intelligent Design belongs in the classroom. You might remember the science-education community emitting a collective groan about the appointment of ultra-creationist dentist and abstinence-only advocate Don McLeroy as the chair of this body not long ago. And yet here’s McLeroy, with a definitive educational principle that could have come right out of Panda’s Thumb:

“Anything taught in science has to have consensus in the science community – and intelligent design does not.”

That’s quite an amazing position for someone who said that “Neo-Darwinism” is “not supported by evidence.” Could this be another inspiring example of a principled American citizen who recognizes the difference between their own beliefs and their civic duty?

Maybe. However, Darrell also points out that underneath McLeroy’s declaration we find the distinct whiff of what many have long suspected as the Discovery Institutes’s next move in the struggle over science education:

“When it comes to evolution, I am totally content with the current standard,” [McLeroy] said, adding that his dissatisfaction with current biology textbooks is that they don’t cover the weaknesses of the theory of evolution. (emphasis added)

In other words, it sure seems like the familiar litany of creationist claims are still on the table. Having failed to get them into public education under unified anti-evolutionary banners like Creation Science or Intelligent Design, the next move seems to be to chop them apart and pepper them all over the mainstream textbooks. And as most people familiar with this issue know, Texas has incredible influence over the content of textbooks nationwide, so this is no isolated danger.

The Long Dark Teatime of Mother Theresa’s Soul

August 23, 2007

So it turns out that Mother Theresa didn’t feel the presence of God for most of her career. Hmm.

I generally find that trying to dissect the psyches of others is a quintessentially bad idea; it’s usually just too vague and patronizing to be a useful or informative exercise. Our thoughts, motivations and urges are both accessible only to ourselves, and perhaps not entirely in our control. So I’m mostly content to simply accept at face value what someone claims they feel, want, and even believe. Mother Theresa’s actions, her political and moral claims and arguments, as well as the patina of myth and Western guilt that even today helps shield her from even reasonable criticism: there’s more than enough legitimate debate there to be had. Inside, she was just a person, like all of us, trying to make do with who and what she saw herself as.

This particular case of internal turmoil, however, is simply too interesting to let pass without a little comment.

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Trolling for dollars (more on Expelled!)

August 23, 2007

As predicted, the Expelled! movie blog looks to be a rich man’s Uncommon Descent: incoherently discursive responses to criticism coupled with an embarrassing amount of self-congratulation. That said, the suspicions of folks like Orac and Elsberry that the comment section will model UD’s insofar as the aburdly heavy moderation and random vanishings of embarrassing material are probably missing the sheer grandiosity of this particular production. Don’t forget, these guys are champions of free speech, man!

Instead, I predict that comments will be by and large unmoderated, but on issues of substance pretty much ignored. Their true purpose will be to serve as a source for “nutpicking” so as to spice up their complaints of persecution and periodically provide a tsk tsk to “science” for being so close-minded and emotional. This is an on message promotional vehicle after all.

The latest missive from the film’s blog (now apparently deleted!) fits this pattern, albeit somewhat cryptically. But it does manage to lay out at least one goal pretty plainly:

“It’s good to be hated by the right people.”
— Attributed to Johnny Cash

To which someone or something named “Deacon Blue” (a Steely Dan song? a Scottish pop band?) gives a hearty “Indeed

So, let’s see: setting out to be hated? Isn’t that sort of behavior ordinarily called, well, trolling?

And then there’s this gem of aforementioned back-patting:

And if we re-read Ben Stein’s words here again and again (as I have)…we may still not quite comprehend the full implications of his thoughts. But keep trying, if you misunderstood them…it’s worth it. (emphasis, amazingly, in the original)

Oh boy…

Update: Oh crap. Score one for Orac and Elsberry. It seems that the somewhat loopy post I referenced has fallen down the memory hole, along with all its comments. Additionally, the movie’s associated production company Rampant Films is looking decidedly curious. After someone tried to stop by their offices, only to find residential apartments, their address vanished from the contact section of their website.

Update2: Walt Ruloff, the movie’s executive producer, has done an interview with Intelligent Design the Future. Another producer, Mark Mathis, is curiously mum about the issue of misrepresenting himself and his production during interviews.

The latest, tedious critics of the “New Atheism”

August 23, 2007

As one might expect, the recent emergence of atheist writers onto the public scene continues to face a hearty backlash. As a non-believer who often finds himself in the widely sneered at camp of “milquetoast” moderation, facing a little backlash and self-criticism is, I think, a healthy thing. And when Sam Harris keeps harping on Francis Collins’ mostly harmless infatuation with a waterfall, I have to admit I cringe a little. Not that I don’t also cringe at Collins’ attempts to “poetically” mash science and religion together, but honestly, let the poor man have his Jesus in the dewy grass.

That said, however, its getting pretty frustrating to see so many criticisms of the “new atheism” that are simply, well, crummy. While there are questionable points of style and substance worth seriously debating, Harris and Dawkins in particular are both literate and measured enough to have by and large kept their arguments and condemnations on point and productive (Hitchens is another matter for another day). Consequently, I find that criticisms of them as “the soccer hooligans of reasoned public discourse” tend to be predictable exercises from the playbook of intellectual laziness. Exploiting the “angry atheist” meme. Complaining that their ideas are not “new” but avoiding entirely the rather more important questions of whether they are correct or specially relevant at this moment in history. Most irritating of all is how rarely these critics ever delve into any actual substantive arguments, or even bother to cite legitimate examples of the author’s supposed crimes: instead we are treated to brief and dubious summaries that reek of straw men.

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Homeopathy fading in Italy

August 22, 2007

Physicist Tommaso Dorigo reports on a study in the Italian press about how homeopathy is on the decline there: a usage reduction in about 15% in just five years. Unless Italians are chronically dehydrated, this is surely good news, even if Mr. Dorigo does offer some reasons to doubt that it reflects any actual public disillusionment with dilution. Of course, this could potentially be good news for homeopathy as well: perhaps the less people who use homeopathy, the more effective it becomes!

More seriously though, Mr. Dorigo also highlights the somewhat troubling finding that homeopathy seems especially popular amongst those with more than just a fraction of high-school education. While this might in part just reflect the prohibitively high costs of alternative medicine as practiced by the higher-end homeo-healers of Europe, there’s definitely something to the idea that alternative treatments seem to appeal more to the white-collar than blue-collar crowd. Well, at least in the West, where many of these treatments are billed as relatively recent doses of savvy counter-cultural wisdom instead of having been a widely accepted local norm.

Ben Stein in Hot-Pants for Intelligent Design

August 22, 2007

Expelled, a slick-looking documentary which looks to put a shiny new gloss on the Intelligent Design movement is due out this coming February. Though it went public a little while ago, the news that the Intelligent Design movement is going the Michael Moore route is starting to trickle through the science and skeptical community.

This is, of course, part of its intended marketing strategy: taglines such as “whatever happened to freedom of speech?” are so ingeniously irritating that most advocates of science will find it hard to resist as a target, adding to the buzz. A movie blog featuring its cranky star Stein is already up as well: we’ll see how open and accepting of “free speech” it is. No comments had passed through moderation as of writing, but I have a feeling that the main function of the comment function will be as a showcase of the nastiest responses and arguments, all of which will be portrayed as more evidence of “the man” trying to keep the film down.

The other, perhaps more interesting, part of selling this film will be the work of Motive, a PR and marketing firm made famous by its highly successful campaign to promote Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ via direct outreach to churches and faith-networks. Since, according to Belief.net’s summary of some early clips and showings the film is going to go straight for the “evolution = athiesm = Nazi concentration camp” school of nuanced scholarly criticism, the film seems rather openly aimed at recruiting your average churchgoing believer into what it portrays as a stark, ideological fight. Outreach and educational efforts by scientists seem positively paltry as competition.

Considering the audience and marketing, the focus of the film is savvy: almost entirely on the meta-issue of the alleged intellectual suppression of ideas, complete with folks like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris as the boogeymen getting ready to man the gulags. Especially with the 2008 elections close by, fanning anger and resentment over alleged oppression serves the political message a lot better than obscure debates over protein formation and embryology. Scientists are stuck having to explain complicated biology and empiricism to defend and explain themselves: meanwhile ID needs only snark and a running litany of supposed slights. Intelligent Design may still be missing a theory to defend, but who needs one when you have martyrs?

Some brief digging on where the movie came from didn’t turn up much. The movie is being produced by a company called Premise Media, which as far as I can tell, was founded in 2005 and for whom this film is their one and only credited film project, though their bio also cites the production and international distribution of DVDs and books. Co-founder A. Logan Craft is a Minister & TV Producer on the board of the Canadian Center for Cultural Renewal (not to be confused with the Discovery Institutes’s Center for Renewal of Science and Culture/Center for Science and Culture), a fairly subdued and scholarly religious think-tank that seems to advocate for “Cooperation of Church and State.” Also based out of Canada is Craft’s partner (and most likely the chief financial muscle behind the project) Walt Ruloff, described as a former software developer who found himself rich and idle in the early 1990s at the age of 32 after he sold his software to Microsoft.

The production is also rather defensively described as not being a product of the Discovery Institute. Maybe so, it’s still highly likely that the film is going to become a major vehicle in an across-the-board relaunch of the Intelligent Design movement, trying to reach popular audiences in a new way and ingrain their claims into popular culture.

I also think it’s very important, in the face of this, to not take the naive view that they will be preaching to the converted. Especially by working through local communities, school groups, and churches, the filmmakers will be appealing to ordinary citizens in places that they trust and care deeply about. For all the worry about the huge numbers of Americans who reject evolutionary science, the reality is that most of these people are still pretty ambivalent in practice, and willing to give scientists and science a shot. There is a battleground here, and plenty to lose.

Update: Marine biologist Randy Olson, maker of the pro-evolution documentary “Flock of Dodosweighs in on PZ’s blog warning folks not to take this flick lightly. I’m inclined to agree. This thing is not likely to be a blockbuster in the theaters, but it most certainly stands a chance of having a powerful cultural and political impact, especially considering who it’s going to be pitched to. If you want, think of its target audience as “school board voters.”

Update2: The Discovery Institute today announces that it’s known about the movie for two years, but was too depressed to get its hopes up. Apparently, though, it has now decided that the film is the sort of fair and balanced take on the subject of evolution=Hitler that they’ve always hoped for.

Update3: Another PZ poster notes that the film’s associate production company, Rampant Films, apparently interviewed none other than PZ Myers without telling him the thrust of the film or who was producing it (which, though that sucks, seems sadly common in the documentary industry). You can officially add Myers to the list of boogeymen, I suppose, confirming the claims in the movie’s press release.

Myers is now celebrating his star turn on the big screen, but wondering why they didn’t just ask him about the interview upfront instead of misrepresenting themselves.

Sal Cordova, easily amused by his own antics…

August 22, 2007

Over at Dispatches, Ed Brayton highlights some of the latest gymnastics by Intelligent Design blogger Sal Cordova to avoid the rather obvious point that the phrase “Intelligent Design” came into its modern popular usage by the anti-evolutionary crowd as a response to the legal defeat of more overt forms of creationism.

Brayton, however, doesn’t put enough emphasis on the cautionary lesson here: when you have something of a reputation as a quote miner and a rather sloppy interpreter of science, perhaps it’s not the best idea to joke about quote mining and even putting misleading concatenations on stickers and T-shirts… particularly when it then turns out that you are half-serious about the T-Shirts. You certainly don’t see accused serial fabulist Scott Beauchamp breaking out of military PR quarantine just to file a report entitled [latest fabrications, tee hee].

I guess we’ll just have to take heart from the fact that Mr. Cordova’s “quote mine of the day” idea never caught on as a regular feature.

Creationism gets it right again! (unintentionally, again)

August 21, 2007

Sometimes, good ideas come masquerading as bad ones.

The latest example from author and ardent creationist Robert Bowie Johnson, who has recently declared that scientists and others who accept evolution as good science should be ridiculed as “Slime-Snake-Monkey-People.” While his particular taxonomy is all wrong (neither slime molds, nor snakes nor even what most people mean by “monkeys” are actually in our direct line of ancestors, especially since those are actually all terms for modern organisms), the idea of expressing the path of ones evolutionary ancestry with a series of nested groups is basically a sound and ultimately fairly insightful one. In fact, even classical taxonomy is largely in line with this principle, though when it was first formulated, no one had yet recognized the significance of how all living things all seem to group into nested clades.

One reasonably correct expanded name for all human beings (creationists included), for instance, would be Eukaryote- Animal- Vertebrate- Tetrapod- Mammal- Primate- Hominid- Person (though of course we could expand it further, or choose different key groups to recognize). The beauty of such an appellation is that it expresses both what we currently are (we do have eukaryotic cells after all, as well as vertebral columns, the basic four limb skeletal structure, nipples, etc.) as WELL as who our ancestors were: the once novel and distinctive organisms from which we evolved as further sub-variants. When it comes to evolution, these two things are, in fact, by and large one and the same, which is key to understanding what common descent really implies. It’s a pity that Johnson doesn’t understand his own insight!

Indeed, creationists seem to have a knack for such accidental truisms. The classic example is the “fruit flies never evolve into non-fruit flies!” retort to the evolutionary models of speciation. What creationists clearly believe to be a knock-down argument against evolutionary theory is unintentionally a fairly deep and insightful point about it. All the descendants of some creature, no matter how much they change, are still going to be more like their ancestors than any other living thing (in part because of just the sheer unlikelihood of hitting the same distinct mix of millions of different traits twice, and in part because evolution just isn’t all THAT creative: it’s pretty darn conservative, at least compared to what we could imagine!). As such, we’ll always rightly classify them together against all other groups of organisms. We’ll probably even use the same name we once used to describe the once singular parent species. This isn’t simply some definitional chicanery either: it reflects an actual deep understanding about the nature of evolutionary change.

At one time, the earliest of mammals, finally distinct from their quasi-reptilian origins were their own distinctive species. Had some creationists back then scoffed that all their descendants were and always would “still” be mammals, they wouldn’t have known how correct they would be. Here we are, hundreds of millions of years later, and dogs, bears, gerbils, elephants, dolphins, bats and people are all “still” mammals!

Or, rather, all still Eukaryote- Animal- Bilaterate- Chordate- Vertebrate- Tetrapod- Amniote- Synapsid- Therians.

Welcome… and So Long

August 20, 2007

Welcome to The Bad Idea Blog, a skeptical inquiry into everything from the profoundly stupid to the divinely dumb and everything in between.

No one is safe from lousy arguments, bad assumptions, and confused conclusions: the mission of this blog is to make ideas better. Smarter. Stronger. Skepticism is often seen as being purely negative, but just as a sculptor removes stone to reveal a statue, critical thinking removes the logical flaws and self-deceptions to reveal GOOD ideas: thoughts worth thinking, arguments worth considering, information that actually informs instead of making excuses for ignorance.

This blog is dedicated to and inspired by Perry DeAngelis, an outspoken critic of bad ideas who passed away yesterday. Perry was perhaps best known as the gruff, monkey-loving rogue from the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe Podcast. He also, unlike myself until now, actually got involved in the promotion of skepticism and critical thinking. Though I’ve been a longtime commenter (under various silly pseudonyms) in the world of skepticism and science, I’ve time and time again found excuses not to blog myself (despite having developed blog software since the late 90s). Excuses look especially silly in the face of a lifetime. So long Perry.