Texas Creationists Make their Move: Where is Ben Stein to Defend “Free Speech?”

November 30, 2007

I can’t miss mentioning the biggest story on the sciencebloginterwebz! Remember creationist State Education Board Director Don McLeroy and his assurances that, in the great state of Texas, science education would be about science?

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

Sounded pretty good, no? At the time I was pretty skeptical. Apparently, though, not skeptical enough.

McLeroy and his folks are looking to revamp Texas’ science standards soon, and apparently, are proactively purging state government of anyone who might get in the way of their agenda. Yes, that’s right: for merely forwarding an email on her Texas Education Agency account, science-lovin Chris Comer was booted out. What was the forward? An email merely announcing and recommending a local and upcoming talk by someone who opposes Intelligent Design.

Seems like a job for Intelligent Design pal Ben Stein and his crusade to “protect free speech,” no? I’m sure he’ll get right on it.


Texas Church converts en masse from Christianity to Judiasm

November 28, 2007

This is a truly fascinating story: after careful reflection, discussion, angst, and many painful community divisions, a Christian minister and many members of his congregation convert to Judaism, and discover new insights and heritage to explore. In a world where outspoken evangelical movements like Jews for Jesus get all the press, it’s fascinating to read about a community of believers who instead of being recruited to a religion, reached out for a non-evangelical one instead.

Not that my godless two cents matters, but I’ve still always found Jewish apologetics about what their scriptures really say about the messiah and other matters to be far more convincing than Christian apologetics.  Jewish interpretations just seem more robust, consistent, and scholarly.  Once you really understand what a fundamental repurposing of Judaism that the Christian movement entailed, you’ll understand why speaking glibly about a “Judeo-Christian” anything is far more misleading than enlightening.

Hoodia Hoodoo can’t Scam Skeptics

November 28, 2007

I knew I couldn’t glance over at alt-med megasite NewsTarget and resist ridicule, but there’s simply too much to dash off before work. In the meantime, check out Secundum Artem a where skeptical pharmacy student N.B. does some quick calculations and figures out that there’s something tremendously fishy about popular weight loss supplement “Hoodia”.

Deepak Attack! Choking on Chopra’s Medical Malarkey

November 27, 2007

Deepak Chopra believes in positive thinking, which is why he’ll never ever realize that he’s a fool.

In response to Chopra’s latest medical advice antics, Orac over at Respectful Insolence slices Chopra’s arguments to nice digestible pieces, and then Mark Hoofnagle of the denialism blog goes and chokes on those pieces anyway.

Both bloggers are well worth a read, delivering useful insight beyond merely exposing inanity. Hoofnagle in particular makes an extremely important point regarding how alternative medicine stacks up against the conventional variety:

The last half is again just an example of the selection pressure for ineffective treatments for altie medicine. You probably can trust most quack remedies to do nothing, and therefore be pretty safe. And lots of people each year do die in hospitals, therefore hospitals must be dangerous killers of the innocent! Or, maybe, lots of people die in hospitals because that’s where the sick people are, and you know what? No one lives forever. Eventually, something gets you.

Chopra makes it sound like a 20-year-old who goes into the ER to get stitches is going to die of MRSA. What this ignores is that hospitals are responsible for taking care of people who are actually really sick, often very old, and frequently near death. In other words, hospitals take care of patients that no altie practitioners in their right mind would touch with a ten-foot pole, you know, those with real sickness. If you actually look carefully at the reports that the quacks cite to show how dangerous hospitals are, it’s really a reflection of just how incredibly sick and likely to die the patients were in the first place.

In any case, go read. I may have gotten all worked up about Chopra’s inane musings on Quantum Mechanics and Consciousness, but those sorts of bad ideas are ultimately pretty harmless. Chopra’s rambling diatribes about health and medicine, on the other hand, have the potential to truly hurt and even kill the people who might buy into his alternate reality. The more people are out there armed with the knowledge to counter him, the better.

The War on Christmas… and on the Golden Compass

November 27, 2007

Two things caught my attention tonight:

First, a Guy in the Pew gives the rational Christian’s take on the War on Christmas. We on the non-believer side of things spend a lot of time bemoaning this phony, bullying crusade for its pandering politics, but Mr. Blanchard reminds believers that those trying to pass this off as a truly Christian cause have some real explaining to do. His argument is similar to what’s always struck me as bizarre about religious support for “In God We Trust” or “Under God. Why get so excited about pushing to get some watered down religious graffiti tagged onto the Pledge and pennies when you live in a country where you can pray all you want out loud and undiluted? Neither atheist nor believer alike should take it for granted.

Second, Hemant over at Friendly Atheist notes the explosion of online religious groups all calling for boycotts of The Golden Compass, a forthcoming film based on the work of outspoken atheist author Phillip Pullman. I’m with Hemant as to how overblown the controversy is. We have to hear over and over that atheists are so militant and uppity, and yet I don’t seem to recall atheists similarly on the warpath over Christian evangelist author C.S. Lewis’ Narnia films. Nor are atheists particularly worked up about the film (honestly, talking animals annoy the heck out of me and I have a hard time seeing myself rushing out to go see it). Again, compare our generally blasé attitude to the marketing mania over The Passion of the Christ, where the amount of grassroots organization and hysterical hype made it seem like the very fate of Christianity rested on its boxoffice returns.

The one thing I sort of sadly expect from Compass is that it will make a convenient target for cultural war spin. The film, which was reportedly plagued by production problems, may or may not be any good on its own rights, and with organized boycott campaigns and media talking heads railing against it, its chances of doing well at the theaters seem slim. That’s going to make it a tempting target for endless overwrought pieces about the film’s poor showing means the recent surge of publicly visible atheism is a fading fad. Conservative news filter Matt Drudge is notorious for juxtaposed stories, especially ones that try to make culture war points by comparing some films to others. I’ll be mighty surprised if he doesn’t start up a section linking every dehyping bit of fluff on the film he can find.

In any case: I’m hard at work composing both a sort of “guide for newbies and journalists” on Expelled, complete with some more information from the pro-science folks “featured” in the recent promotional clip (the ones supposedly threatening Ben Stein for “asking questions”). And as I promised after the recent rounds of back and forth with National Review bloggers over stem cells, I’m also working on a rather weighty piece taking on the common claims about their moral status and proposing a better way.  Plus, hasn’t the aptly named alt-med woo-site NewsTarget published dozens and dozens more wacky articles since I last gave them some love?

Intelligent Design’s math whiz William Dembski Doesn’t Like Straw Men? (E.O. Wilson is in for it!)

November 26, 2007

Intelligent Design proponent William Dembski thinks that sociobiologist E.O. Wilson is pushing a caricature of his cause.

Does he have a point?

Here’s Wilson:

The reasoning they offer is not based on evidence but on the lack of it. The formulation of intelligent design is a default argument advanced in support of a non sequitur. It is in essence the following: there are some phenomena that have not yet been explained and that (most importantly) the critics personally cannot imagine being explained; therefore there must be a supernatural designer at work.

And here’s Dembski…

Read the rest of this entry »

Why Political Journalism is Junk & Politicians aren’t that Phony

November 26, 2007

If you’ve ever bemoaned the cesspool of gotcha gossip and empty-headed horse-race nattering that is modern political journalism, Kevin Drum has some thoughts on the issue worth considering: maybe we should feel sorry for them!

No, really.

In fact, as someone who’s worked on the nuts and bolts part of several political campaigns, Drum’s take on just how excruciatingly dull the process can be, especially on the level of “message,” strikes me as pretty dead-on. The way campaigns work isn’t something that anyone involved really wants it to be: it’s just sort of an inevitable competitive outcome of the process. The public loves to hate politicians and their supposed plastic insincerity, but the reality is its mostly the public itself that’s to blame for how politicians act and speak in public. Most politicians are real people and pretty decent for all that, but they live in a culture where reality comes across as fake, and you can only seem real by carefully faking it. The reality of being a modern candidate is a grueling schedule of endless repetition, and the reality of being a political journalist is having to listen to it.

I’m not expecting to find much sympathy for the powerful, but maybe a little less glib bemoaning of the way things are would do us all some good.

First Glimpse of Ben Stein’s Expelled, And it Ain’t Pretty

November 25, 2007

The producers of Expelled have released 7 minutes of promotional footage for Expelled, and contrary to all their outraged cooing about how we shouldn’t judge the film before we see it, it looks like we’re pretty much on target.

Let’s quickly run through how this exercise in misdirection and posturing pomposity gets off the ground…

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Paul Davies Has Faith that Science Has Faith: A Finely Tuned Trouncing of Fine Tuning

November 25, 2007

Physicist Paul Davies had an Op-Ed in the New York Times yesterday insisting that even science is taken on faith. His arguments fail to convince, but it sure makes me question whether Paul Davies understands science. If I read him correctly, Davies makes three core claims in his article:

1) That science ultimately and necessarily rests on faith, just like, er, faith
2) That multiverses are ultimately a scientific exercise… in faith
3) That the seeming fine tuning of natural laws is necessarily significant and… something or other about faith, science uses faith

You probably see something of a pattern to those points. I see bad ideas ripe for a riposte.

Read the rest of this entry »

Scientists May Have Already Destroyed the Universe!

November 24, 2007

Uh Oh. Cosmologist Lawrence Krauss has spent a lifetime defending science, but what will he do now that his own discipline apparently poses the greatest threat to the universe anyone has ever imagined since Ming the Merciless? According to Krauss (correction: according to journalists who spoke with Krauss, uh oh), merely by observing Dark Energy, we may have shortened the life of the universe. Or something…

Not Impressed By This Turn of Events:

If you want to console yourself by looking back on more pleasant times, here’s Krauss and Dawkins having a cordial and always interesting debate over whether science can speak to religion.

Update: Krauss himself corrects and clarifies in the comments. Universe outlook upgraded to “unstable,” which is, of course, its natural, healthy state! It’s a fair cop, aye, but shoddy science journalism is to blame.

Bottom line: if a popular media piece on anything even tangentially related to quantum physics is less than the size of an entire People Magazine, it’s probably not too reliable.

Is Persecuting Sex Offenders Really the Best way to Prevent Crime?

November 24, 2007

Last Wednesday, the Georgia Supreme court struck down a law that “prohibits registered sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of day care centers, schools, churches and other places where children congregate.”


I’m always a little dumbfounded to hear about these sorts of laws. They are intelligible and understandable only as a knee-jerk emotional reaction to the danger of sex-offender recidivism. I can imagine parents, fearful for their children’s safety, being comforted by such legislation, and I can empathize.

But outside of emotion, these laws make little practical sense.

Any sex-offender who wants to re-offend is not going to suddenly be prevented from doing so just because their house is only 999 feet away from a school and they have to move two doors down. If the point is to give police an easy pretext to arrest such people without hard evidence, or to make sure they aren’t allowed near kids period, then the parole system in general already has such measures, doled out on a case-by-case basis (and often overseen by a therapist as well). The “church, schools, day cares, congretate” model, on the other hand, makes no sense. There’s just no plausible mechanism in this law itself for better prevention or deterrence.

There is, however, a very plausible case to be made that laws like this make sex-offenders more likely to re-offend. Simply put, the absolute best way to make sure paroled sex-offenders slide back into their old habits is to prevent them from ever creating a stable, relatively normal life. This particular law would have forced them to constantly move based on whatever businesses or buildings went up in their area. If you want people to stay clean after they leave prison, you offer them an alternative to recidivism: a way forward. Offering them never-ending persecution is only going to convince them that they are damned if they do, damned if they don’t.

That people refuse to acknowledge this has, I think, a lot to do with increasingly bizarre and incomprehensible ideas about moral responsibility and free will. Somehow, many folks have decided that holding people accountable for their actions means that no one else need be held accountable for the people. In reality, moral responsibility is not a zero sum game: Frankenstein can be held responsible for creating his monster without that admission excusing the monster’s conduct. Once you acknowledge that what other people chose is not just random (a concession necessary for any concept of moral responsibility to function in the first place), you have to also realize that your treatment of someone else can have a predictable effect on their choices. That makes you potentially responsible too.

Preening nitwits like this Georgia lawmaker Jerry Keen would no doubt blame any potential increase in crime resulting from bad laws wholly on the criminals themselves. But this is simply morally unworkable nonsense. If they would praise themselves from passing laws that have positive effects on people’s behavior (like increased deterrence), they can’t then turn around and excuse themselves from the consequences of laws that turn out to have negative effects. You can’t have one without the other.

Addendum: Exactly who gets labeled a “felony sex offender” under these laws also seems bizarre: as the story notes, it lumps a 17-year old woman who gave consensual oral sex to a 15 year-old boy the same treatment as a pedophile or violent rapist. Intelligent lawmakers would have crafted legislation that actually reflected the difference and employed some sense of justice. The lazy “we can do no harm” legislators in this case don’t seem to have bothered.

Bush, Solomon, & Stem Cells: Yuval Levin at National Review

November 24, 2007

Yuval Levin has some more to add on the stem cell debate as well. Like many of his fellows, Levin also rather overplays the science here: painting the currently discovery as any sort of scientific endpoint is simply silly. The technique in question answers some questions and opens new avenues of possibility, but it does not by any stretch negate what there is still to learn. Nor does it, as many have suggested, take embryonic stem cells out of the picture. Despite surely having heard about it by now, he apparently still can’t quite bring himself to tell his readers that this somatic research owes much, and will continue to owe much, to knowledge gained from studying embryonic cells, even those outside Bush’s stand. Researchers in Japan, of course, work outside of American restrictions, and have created and delved into embryonic lines and their mysteries. As such, his picture of how the breakthrough was attained by proudly holding firm against immorality is still a distortion.

But look: if you believe the things Levin and Bush believe, their core position is reasonable and perhaps their Solomonic moderation was indeed laudable. I can empathize with that, and appreciate the back-patting that’s going on as legitimate for how they view things.

Fair enough.

But can they do the same? What if those ethics are mistaken? Then their decision is not laudable, and is, simply put, immoral. It would indeed be wrong to overlook some moral importance to developing embryos, but it would also be wrong to falsely ascribe moral importance to something that doesn’t have it. There’s harm either way.

The best conservatives seem to be able to do in empathizing with our position is in arguing that by avoiding embryonic research, we are “playing it safe.” Maybe they can’t convince us for sure that embryos are morally important, but shouldn’t we acknowledge the possibility and be more careful? They even seem to imply that we should now universally agree that handicapping the research was and is a good idea.

No. There is no playing it safe when it comes to moral decisions. Putting undue value on something leads to harm just as surely as overlooking its value. Reading the Bible such that you believe that blood transfusions are immoral, for instance, can lead to death. There is no “playing it safe” by avoiding blood “just in case” it turns out that it’s wrong to take it.

I can put myself in people’s shoes and see why they feel embryos are worth saving. But instead of doing the same and appreciating the values that suggest to us that they are not, polemicists on the right generally prefer to ignore our values and paint us as nihilists: rapacious scientists who are driven to devalue human life so that we can use it as raw material for our obsessive devotion to experiment. Surely they know that this is precisely the opposite of our position: that in fact it is a deep respect for human life and human dignity that drives us as well. But, they prefer to argue otherwise.

Unfair enough?