Expelled! Producers Gloat: Claim that the “From Darwin to Hitler” evolved organically!

September 30, 2007

Gloating about the coverage they’ve been receiving, the producers of Expelled! have finally updated their blog with a rambling defense of their production tactics. If you had any doubts at all whether this film would be honest or evenhanded, I think the cackling, sneering tone makes things pretty clear. It’s also written in the same tone as the bizarre post that vanished from the site weeks ago: i.e. distinctively like your standard internet troll. It’s hard to tell whether or not they are outright happily admitting to lying to their interviewees about the film they were making or not, but either way, their behavior and claims just don’t add up.

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Texas Lawmakers break own voting rules to vote on voting rules

September 28, 2007

It’s pure comedy gold as Texas lawmakers from both parties scramble around the legislative chamber to find extra buttons to press, racking up illegal votes from empty desks: all hypocritically defended by a Texas Republican who can’t seem to understand that having a bunch of excuses for breaking the rules does not exactly make her a credible spokesperson “voter integrity.” (and yes, the video is, sadly, out of sync, but still watchable)

My favorite bit is a charmingly flabbergasted fellow named Arnie Weiss, who is interviewed along with his wife while visiting the Capitol and watching the spectacle from the gallery. Less amusing is the fact that the State Reps apparently turn the official chamber cameras elsewhere while they busily break their own rules.

Catholic Church Nixes Naughty Nuns: The Army of Mary Excommunications

September 28, 2007

An apparent end has come to the interesting religious drama that’s been taking place between the Catholic Church and a Quebec-based sect called the “Community of the Lady of All Nations” or the “Army of Mary”: after decades of steadily worsening relations and finally a formal condemnation, the Catholic Church has now officially excommunicated six nuns who refused to recant their heretical dedication to the sect.

I’ve had a hard time finding out what the specific “gravely erroneous doctrines” were that the group promulgated, primarily because most of its writings are in French. But its founder, who may or may not have claimed to be a “mystical incarnation” of the Virgin Mary (when she’s not appearing on garage doors I suppose), certainly seems like the sort of unpredictable charismatic that would threaten the official order. Who knows though: had she been a mite more cryptic and less eager to wander outside of church doctrine, she could have ended up as a modern Lúcia Santos (and then promptly locked away and forbidden to speak to the public).

Ironically enough, one of the central credos of the group is basically “an almost fanatical devotion to the Pope“… but clearly Pope John Paul II was not eager to return the favor. And especially with their longtime foe Cardinal Ratzinger being later elected as the new Pope Benedict XVI, it was only a matter of time before the sect was decisively crushed.

Oliver Sacks Tackles the Mystery & Majesty of Music

September 27, 2007

Wired has a nice little promotional interview with Oliver Sacks about his new book Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain. Every since devouring his The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, I’ve been a devoted fan of Sacks’ work. Human experience and the mind are profound mysteries, and Sacks has always been one of their best and most insightful explorers.

As a doctor who deals regularly in bizarre and obscure disorders of the brain and nervous system, Sacks provides readers with the sort of insight that can only come from reflecting on truly altered mental perspectives: what would it be like to lose your sense of having a body in space? To truly have no ability to form new memories? To suddenly and shockingly be convinced that your own leg is something so alien and offensive that you actually try to push it out of your hospital bed so as to be rid of it? To have your brain split in half and find one hand undoing the buttons on your shirt that your other hand had just finished buttoning?

When I despair at the sheer vacuity of supernatural “explanations” for our minds, experiences, and feelings (or tire of empty or unintelligible concepts like “souls” and “free will”) it’s someone like Sacks that I can turn to for relief. There are no proud claims of final answers. There are instead intriguingly robust and meaty pieces of the puzzle, and much more satisfying for all that.

So, as I said about economist author Steven Landsburg, Sacks provides a truly “high-information content” product: one’s money’s worth of surprise and insight packed into nearly every page. Man Who Mistook… comes highly recommended, and I can’t wait for his latest.

The Meaning of Meaning & Why Theism Can’t Make Life Matter

September 27, 2007

It comes up constantly.  Without a god, without an afterlife, how can life have any meaning? Atheists and agnostics have traditionally responded with impassioned, often simply fantastic essays about the meaning they do find in their lives.  You would think that would be answer enough: a brute reality that defies all the accusations.

And yet, hostile theists are rarely convinced by this: they paint such expressions as, at best, their fellow human beings illicitly “stealing” the fruits of their own supposedly special ideology. They want to know, they demand to know how this meaning can be “justified,” implying that they possess the one unique answer themselves.

How can folks find meaning without God?  Instead of another appeal to empathy with my own story, I want to strike at the heart of the argument itself.

Meaning without God?  The question itself is both backwards and premature.  To see why, we must ask how one supposedly finds meaning with God.  I won’t, in fact, be arguing that one cannot. Rather, my contention is that any believer that seriously tries to answer this question will be forced to admit that the philosophical liberties and assumptions they make to reach their sense of meaning are no more or less justified than those they ridicule as insufficient or unjustified in non-believers. We are all inescapably in the same boat when it comes to meaning and purpose.

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Iran: Now Gay Free!

September 24, 2007

Hoo boy. Iran’s “President” Ahmadinejad claims that his country doesn’t “have homosexuals like in your country.” Considering that gay people in Iran face execution and torture, I really and truly wish he was right.

 But sadly, he’s not.

This American Life: How I Will Judge You

September 24, 2007

Some minister in Arkansas named John Terry is under the impression that atheists’ primary mission is, like his, to convert and evangelize people. Nope, not mine at least.

The thing is, in the end, I don’t judge people to be less of a human being they you hold or even push beliefs I think are silly or unjustified. What you do matters morally, of course, and there’s plenty of fights to be had over that, but even the most devoted, obsessive believers are generally still folks with whom we can all share that proverbial beer, or at least iced tea, with. Everyone ultimately lives an ordinary life.

But there is something that will make me think less of you as a person: if you don’t regularly listen to This American Life. It’s completely free. It’s an hour out of your life that will make you laugh, cry, and understand our common humanity a little better every week. Tales of ordinary people, ordinary lives, told in an extraordinary ways.

You won’t go to hell for not listening, like John Terry thinks you will for not believing. But man, you’d be a fool to miss out. And you can’t have any of my iced tea.

CNN covers the Scientology takeover of Clearwater, Florida

September 24, 2007

An interesting story today on CNN covers the gradual transformation of Clearwater Florida into a sort of mecca for Scientologists, the religion invented by science-ficton author L. Ron Hubbard (the town’s non-scientologist mayor, amusingly, is coincidentally named “Hibbard.”)

Notable about it is its discussion of some of aspects of the religion that are often publically treated as “secret” such as the claims of alien Body Thetans, past lives, becoming “clear” and so on: things which mainstream media sources generally do not report on or discuss. It’s good to see CNN doing at little work educating people about what Scientology actually entails: too often this material is left to rumors and skeptic sites, treating the secrets of the religion with an air of undue protection and respect. The article even covers “Operation Snow White,” the bizarre criminal case in which many senior leaders in the religion, including Hubbard’s wife, infiltrated the US government on a mission to destroy incriminating documentation on the Hubbard’s organization and its activities.

It also mentions something I wasn’t aware of: that the church at least claims that it ditched the “it’s morally ok to destroy our critics by any means necessary” rule back in the 70s. I couldn’t be more skeptical on that, but it is one of the rare times I’ve even heard from an actual Scientologist talking about or defending the religion directly. In all my days on various messageboards and skeptical websites, I’ve never come across even a single live Scientology adherent willing to answer, explain, or defend some of the kookier and sinister aspects of the religion. That’s always struck me as sort of odd: I know there are many many of these people out there, but even celebrity adherents like Tom Cruise only seem to tangentially say things based on church dogma (like their alternative medicine and anti-psychiatry claims) without really putting the religion and its beliefs front and center.

Anyway, bravo to CNN for being this frank and detailed about the subject.

Expelled movie producer exposes the holy hand of Intelligent Design

September 21, 2007
(Note: For those searching for critical analysis of creationist cinema, be sure to check out all of the latest updates on the Expelled! movie. This article may not be the best place to start.)

Expelled! producer Walt Ruloff has published an op-ed about the recent controversy at Braylor University. What’s all the fuss about? Essentially, the university asked a professor not to imply that Braylor officially supports his Intelligent Design and not to host his “research” webpage promoting the cause on their servers without a disclaimer to that effect.

Based on this one act, Walter Ruloff actually starts questioning whether the school’s administration even believes in God (I know: he can barely believe he’s saying something so ridiculous either!). Given that Baylor is a private Christian institution, this is a pretty vicious accusation to lobby at fellow Christians. And given that many Intelligent Design advocates have gone to great lengths to avoid tying the validity of their ideas to anyone’s particular religious beliefs, it’s also pretty clumsy.

Is merely not buying the idea that Intelligent Design movement is doing legitimate scientific research now enough of a litmus test to suspect you closet atheist? Some outright young earth creationists reject Intelligent design because they think it concedes too much to secular science and is unbiblical. Are they secret atheists too, just because they don’t buy Ruloff’s claims about a webpage being “important research?”

Ruloff goes on to say that the university’s account of their decision is “phony-baloney procedural explanations that don’t stand up to scrutiny.” But of course, he never tells us what those explanations are so that we might judge this for ourselves. Somehow, I expect that his upcoming film will rely on a similar tactic: very selectively reporting arguments and events to fit his theme, leaving out any inconvenient context or contradictory facts. It’s going to be like watching a boxing match in which the blows of one of the boxers are digitally edited out, making it look like a vicious unprovoked beatdown.

Ruloff’s op-ed closes with the usual litany of supposedly oppressed ID martyrs: he doesn’t even give a hint of the opposing view that these cases have been grossly misrepresented for PR purposes.

As I noted in my first post on Expelled!, focusing nearly exclusively on victim-hood is a very clever PR strategy: you can work to build outrage in your audience without ever addressing a single substantive issue. Is Intelligent Design really scientific and testable? Are the claims made by its proponents honest scholarship conducted in a legitimately academic fashion? What is the actual evidence?

Those questions are fundamentally relevant to any understanding of the debate, not to mention the question of whether ID proponents have really been wrongly persecuted for their ideas. Ruloff has managed to dodge them almost entirely in this op-ed: not even acknowledging how relevant they are to judging the controversy. We’ll soon see if his movie is equally limber and evasive.

Update: Hemant over at the FriendlyAtheist notes that Baylor has consistently denied the small atheist/agnostic group on their campus any formal recognition. Not exactly the sort of behavior we’d expect from the vast atheist conspiracy.

Months Later: Check out all the latest updates on Expelled! for more.

Life after Theism/Atheism Arguments

September 19, 2007

There’s a great article over at the Secular Student Alliance in which Camp Quest director Amanda K. Metskas talks about how tired she’s become of religious debates, and thinks a little about what might lie beyond them.

As someone who loves debate (including the religious variety) but also knows its limits, I’ve actually been mulling over a lot of these issues myself. We’ve heard, and are going to continue to hear, plenty of of arguments against religious beliefs and religion. And we’re going to see plenty of resulting pushback from believers, who are hardly going to give up their powerful dominance of society without a fight.

But let’s be serious for a second: at least in the short term, little of that is going to change anything: non-believers will be increasingly visible (get used to it!), but still a minority, and believers are not going to dump religion en masse. Given that, I often feel like there’s times and places where the discussion over who believes what and why and whether that’s justified or not just has to stop. It’s not always open for discussion: sometimes the issue is simply “here we are: figure out how to deal with it.”

I think most non-believers have spent their lives learning how to get along with, tolerate, and heck, vote for, believers (not like we have many choices!). Plenty of atheists bristle at religiosity (the likely apocryphal “hand-stabbing” atheists), or are even downright nasty and insulting to belief. But most of us pretty much stick to, at most, expressing ourselves heated words here and there, if we even bother. And we all get along just fine living and interacting with believers in the day to day.

I wonder if believers by and large know how to do the same back? Debates aren’t going away, but we can’t neglect the issue of figuring out how to get along better in the aftermaths.

Washington Post: Senator Craig’s arrest was illegitimate

September 16, 2007

A fair number of people scoffed at my article defending Larry Craig and alleging that the Officer who arrested him used blackmail, rather than policework, to elicit money and a plea.

Yesterday, the Washington Post wrote an editorial basically agreeing with that position. Craig is unlikely to win his appeal just on general legal principle, but you don’t have to be someone’s political ally to oppose shady police procedures.

Update: Now the ACLU is coming to Craig’s defense.

Tales of Splenda: Wacky consumer scares and complaints

September 16, 2007

Ages ago, I used to work for the company that made Splenda, a popular artificial sweetener that is basically sugar that’s chemically altered so that it mostly passes through your digestive system instead of being absorbed. My job at the time was to read over and sometimes respond to all sorts of consumer complaints. And as such, I got to see depressing examples of how even adults can be grotesquely ignorant of everything from chemistry to basic material physics.

For instance, we got all sorts of people writing in horrified that Splenda contains chlorine, which is dangerous and caustic gas!!!!! Now, personally, I have no idea whether Splenda is 100% safe healthwise (but then, I have no idea whether natural sugar is 100% safe healthwise either). But I do know that the hysteria over it containing chlorine, which is still being pushed by alt-med “naturopaths” (i.e. people who irrationally believe that chemistry done by human beings is somehow different and more dangerous than chemistry done in nature), is pure poppycock. Our standard response at the time was “well, while it’s true that there are chlorine atoms in the sucralose molecule, the exact same atoms, in a far higher proportion by weight, are found in salt (NaCl)!”

Today, I still just stand in amazement that anyone could be so ignorant of basic chemistry as to think that molecules somehow necessarily have all the same properties as the atoms they contain. Heck, most of the basic atoms found in organic molecules are extremely toxic in ionized or pure elemental form: raw potassium or sodium, for instance, explode when they get wet. Heck, the very things which the chlorine atoms replace in the sugar molecule, Hydroxyl groups, would be crazy bad for you en masse in their free-floating ionized form.

For goodness sakes: the whole takeaway point of molecular chemistry is that the affects and properties of molecules and elements depend crucially on their exact configuration and the sorts of bonds they can make or break. I can understand most people not remembering the exact details of things from high school chemistry, but you’d think they’d at least retain some sense of the the basic idea.

Anyway. The second most common Splenda complaint was from folks who were utterly outraged that their box of Splenda didn’t weigh pound for pound like sugar. Now, it says pretty clearly on the box that Splenda measures “cup for cup like sugar,” and this is done so that people can directly substitute it for sugar in a recipe (Splenda, unlike most other artificial sweetners, holds up taste-wise in baking applications pretty well). Since the Splenda molecule is far sweeter on the tongue than sugar, it takes far less of it to match the same sweetness. This means that it would be flatly impossible for Splenda to match sugar along all three important variables at once: sweetness per volume per pound. The solution was simply to make Splenda exactly dense enough to match sweetness and volume.

Unfortunately, by law, the package also has to say something like “equivalent sweetness to 2 pounds of sugar.” People were apparently looking at that statement, looking at the actual listed product weight, seeing that they were different, and then concluding that they had been ripped off. Somehow, the phrase “equivalent sweetness” never made them stop and think about an alternative explanation.

Of course, having to explain things like the difference between weight and volume to adults is embarrassing no matter how politely you try to phrase it. Sparing their feelings, we mostly just offered to send people more free Splenda.

Speaking of which, my favorite consumer complaint was from a guy who wrote in threatening to sue us because we had sent a free sample of Splenda to his house, addressed to his then ex-wife. His current girlfriend got pissed off when she saw it and supposedly left him.

Not knowing what else to do, I simply wrote back our standard form letter response, which was basically “Well, we hope you at least enjoyed your Splenda, and we’d be happy to send you more Splenda!