Obama Still Wrong on Race: McCain’s Smears Of a Different Sort

July 31, 2008

Josh Marshall over at Talkingpoints Memo is having a little spat with Jake Tapper at ABC. The subject? Whether Obama is right to imply that McCain has been pushing xenophobia and racist themes in his recent bout of negative campaigning.

As Obama put it:

“But, since they don’t have any new ideas the only strategy they’ve got in this election is to try to scare you about me. They’re going to try to say that I’m a risky guy, they’re going to try to say, ‘Well, you know, he’s got a funny name and he doesn’t look like all the presidents on the dollar bills and the five dollar bills and, and they’re going to send out nasty emails.

But Tapper has it right here.

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Penn & Teller BullS***!: Learn What a Labyrinth Is Jillette!

July 31, 2008

As a skeptic, it’s hard not to like Penn & Teller’s Showtime show BullS***! But it’s also hard to avoid the fact that the show often skimps on the skepticism and science in favor of some seriously self-righteous ranting. The result is a product that’s hit-or-miss when it comes to factual matters and honest debate, but nearly always dead on when it comes to satire.

Their recent episode “Being Green,” in which they poke fun at some truly loopy enviro-hype, is a perfect example. There’s plenty of utterly ridiculous “carbon consciousness” cults and other such fluff out there, all well deserving of a critical eye and a derisive snort. But as is often the case, Penn mixes his bombastic, disdainful style with sloppy science and sometimes even just plain ignorance. He starts the episode, for instance, with the grossly misleading trope about how scientists were predicting an ice age only 30 years ago.

But it’s not the big controversial issues that best illustrate this problem: it’s the sometimes little things that he gets wrong that turn into blowhardery.

As far as I’m concerned, his real crime comes during his otherwise side-splitting coverage of an alt-med therapist who claims to treat the “eco-anxiety” experienced by some truly hapless goofs. After handing her patients “river rocks” and asking them to explain their feelings about their mother, Earth, she takes them on a spiritualized walk through a labyrinth with Jillette’s narration mocking her every step of the way.

But in the midst of it Jillette says something that’s just unforgiveable: (paraphrasing) “That’s not a labyrinth! A labyrinth has choices! This is just a boring walk to nowhere!”

Uh… no, technically it doesn’t. Didn’t the Muppets teach you anything, Mr. Jillette?


Church Killer Adkisson’s Reading List: O’Reily, Hannity, Savage

July 29, 2008

A few more details coming out about what Mr. Adkisson thought he was doing by showing up at a Unitarian church and opening fire with a shotgun.

According to the Knoxville police, Adkisson’s writings expressed that he believed the church was a legitimate target “because of its liberal teachings and his belief that all liberals should be killed because they were ruining the country, and that he felt that the Democrats had tied his country’s hands in the war on terror and they had ruined every institution in America with the aid of major media outlets.”

The church apparently was once attended by his ex-wife at one point, where she no doubt was thought to have picked up or practiced many of the ideas that Adkisson found so detestable. And the Washington Post’s “On Faith” has more on his obsessions:

Adkisson, who had served in the military, said “that because he could not get to the leaders of the liberal movement he would then target those that had voted them in office,” the search warrant states. Among the items seized from Adkisson’s house were three books: “The O’Reilly Factor,” by television commentator Bill O’Reilly; “Liberalism is a Mental Disorder,” by radio personality Michael Savage; and “Let Freedom Ring,” by political pundit Sean Hannity.

All three of these books are, of course, over-the-top, take-no-prisoners partisan screeds. I don’t want to endorse the idea that these writers caused Adkisson to do what he did. But all three of them are books that a madman who hates liberals would find much resonance and comfort in, and nothing to make him think twice.

They don’t counsel thoughtful realism. They don’t endorse moderation or skepticism in their condemnations. They don’t really even acknowledge that liberals might be sincerely mistaken: they instead paint pictures of near-perfect perfidy, depravity, and treason that are destroying and undermining every principle of good society. If you take everything they say seriously (something I don’t think any of those authors actually do themselves), then it’s not hard to see how one could conclude that the stakes are high, and the enemy unredeemable.

None of them endorse mass murder, of course, and so these authors can legitimately disavow any responsibility for what Adkisson, and Adkisson alone, decided to do. But at least off camera, I hope these authors feel at least a tiny bit of regret for a missed opportunity. At one point, they had his attention, and yet so thoroughly failed to make him think twice about his hatreds.

Instead, they simply gave him a tune to sing along with in his desperation. Nothing but reinforcement in his obsessive belief that all the evils in his life stemmed from a single source. For these authors, the grossly uncharitable and uncompromising rhetoric of political shock-jockery was at least partly just theater. Rants that just sounded too good, and were too effective as political spin, to be slowed down with caveats or compromise.

But, unfortunately, at least one person wasn’t in on the joke.


Are All Toddlers Theists? Researcher Says Yes. I say: Eh?

July 29, 2008

Via Hemant at Friendly Atheist comes a story on the work of Oxford psychologist Olivera Petrovich, who claims in a recent interview that her research has shown that the concept of God is essentially endemic to toddlers, while atheism has to be learned later on. She bases her conclusions on several cross-cultural studies, primarily relying on Japan as a cultural foil to Western theism. Since Japanese culture (by her characterization) “discourages” metaphysical speculation and the idea of a God as a creator, finding children instinctively leaning towards a God-like being as the cause of natural things supposedly implies that children instinctively believe in a God.

As one blogger puts it: Atheism is definitely an acquired position.

Or is it? The main problem I have with her reasoning is that Petrovich seems to conflate the idea of “inherent belief in God as a developmental stage” with “an idea that’s very likely to occur to someone if they are confronted with a particular question.”

That is, she doesn’t actually present any evidence that most, let alone all, children who are not exposed to theistic beliefs as a normal practice, go around regularly and actively believing in God (i.e. seeing a dog, and always then thinking “oh, God made that”) Rather, her research seems to imply that many children will, when presented with the question of ultimate origins, eagerly jump to the offerred conclusion that a powerful, psychological entity would be behind otherwise inexplicable events and causes.

That’s not really the same thing at all.

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Conservapedia’s “Reasonable Explainations” for Atheism

July 28, 2008

Oy. Via Daniel De Groot at Open Left comes a glimpse into the minds of people that cannot win arguments outside of their own little sandbox:

As De Groot notes, it’s not entirely clear what the unreasonable explanations for atheism would be, in light of this list.

But I have an excellent relationship with my father, Conservapedia. Thanks for the concern.


Another Intelligent Design Supporter Enters the “Witless Protection Program” (Casey Luskin Graduate Award)

July 28, 2008

It’s that time of year again: time for the “Intelligent Design Undergraduate Research Center (IDURC)” to announce the winner of the prestigious Casey Luskin Graduate Award for the promotion of Intelligent Design.

Of course, by announce, I mean, announce the mere existence of such a person and not, you know, reveal the name of the winner. That’s because, as I noted last year, the apparent true purpose of the award is to gain press off of the supposedly “protective” anonymity of the recipient:

The recipient of the 2008 Casey Luskin Graduate Award will remain anonymous for the protection of the recipient. The many students, professors, and scientists who have been denied degrees or tenure and removed from positions and jobs for no other reason than acceptance of—or even sympathy to—intelligent design theory is very telling of the importance of keeping these bright young minds out of the crosshairs of those opposed to open-minded investigation and critical thought.

But, just as was the case with the previous recipient, the air of secrecy is sheer nonsense. The winner, as described by IDURC director Samuel Chen, was himself the president of an ID-promotion club (IDEA) and even worked directly with IDURC: i.e. he held a public position supporting Intelligent Design. That sort of gives the game away right off the bat: someone who is openly on record as supporting ID in the first place is not in any serious need of secrecy because of an obscure crackerjack award.

I guess we can all thank our lucky stars that Samuel Chen is not in charge of protecting the covert identities of CIA agents.

But then, CIA agents face real dangers when their identities are exposed. Intelligent Design proponents only face professional problems when they try to repeatedly pass off untestable claims and sloppy arguments as science: the same treatment that any scientist would receive if they did the same in any field. And with countless religious biologists at the top of their fields scratching their heads over allegations of discrimination, that makes the anonymity of the “Casey Luskin” award little more than a PR gimmick.

Which is, I suppose, perfectly fitting for an award named after Luskin, grand pontiff of pompously confused PR.

(Note: “Witless Protection Program” trademarked by Reciprocating Bill with HT to Quidam.)


Church Gunman’s Anti-“Liberal” Vendetta Confirmed, Note of Interpretive Caution

July 28, 2008

It seemed like a strong possibility from the moment the story broke, but apparently the recent gunman who attacked the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist chuch was, in fact, angry with the percieved “liberal” views of the people he gunned down.

Jim D. Adkisson, 58, ranted that “liberals and gays” taking jobs had prevented him from finding work. He wrote that he expected to keep shooting parishioners until the police showed up and killed him, Knoxville, Tenn., Police Chief Sterling Owen told a news conference.

I don’t think this sort of political violence is common, conventional, or particularly instructive when it comes to judging the character of any normal person on any side of the “culture wars.”

But it is a sad reminder that for some disturbed individuals, imbibing a sufficient degree of politicized character caricatures can make you lose sight of the real people standing in the way between you and your by-proxy “revenge” on whatever larger forces you’ve come to despise.

We’ll surely learn more about Jim Adkisson as time goes on, but whether his problems are psychological, environmental, or ideological, knowing that screwed-up people like him are out there should give us all pause when we feel the temptation of unequivocal condemnation. The vast majority of us can handle overblown political and cultural rhetoric without succumbing to sociopathy. But a scattered few cannot.

And while we cannot reasonably hold people culpable for “inspiring” the unpredictably extreme acts of maniacs, I’d never want to come home to find that someone has gone on a rampage with my angry words inflaming his twisted heart and pouring out of his lips as he pulls the trigger. Morally responsibile or not, it’s still a chilling possibility that, I hope, makes us all think twice whenever we carelessly abandon rhetorical moderation. Whenever we seek, often for mere short-term political gain, to paint even a loyal and sincere cultural opposition as craven and unequivocally evil.

Not everyone who’s listening is in on the joke.

More on this, I’m sure, to come.

Update: Also sounds like wasn’t so hot on the Bible and Christianity either:

She said she was surprised by his reaction when she told him she was a Christian. “He almost turned angry,” she told the newspaper. “He seemed to get angry at that. He said that everything in the Bible contradicts itself if you read it.” She also said Adkisson spoke frequently about his parents, who “made him go to church all his life. … He acted like he was forced to do that.”

Though if he really had a vendetta against Christianity over the Bible contradicting itself and people being forced to go to church as kids, a UU congregation is just about the last organization any sensible person would want to target.


Ben Stein: Everyone I Don’t Like is Hitler, Obama Edition

July 26, 2008

After failing to inspire a national movement of his own with the pro-ID-as-science documentary Expelled, arch-conservative pundit Ben Stein is now hating on people who have the audacity to be, you know, actually popular:

STEIN: I want — I’m glad you brought up this Denver thing. I don’t like the idea of Senator Obama giving his acceptance speech in front of 75,000 wildly cheering people. That is not the way we do things in political parties in the United States of America. We have a contained number of people in an arena. Seventy-five-thousand people at an outdoor sports palace, well, that’s something the Fuehrer would have done. And I think whoever is advising Senator Obama to do this is bringing up all kinds of very unfortunate images from the past.

BECK: Well, yeah, you know what? I’ve been — I’ve been saying that we’re headed towards a Mussolini-style presidency forever. (emphasis added)

I find it utterly amazing that Stein manages to say, with a straight face, that huge rallies are just “not the way we do things in political parties in the United States of America.” Really? Politicians both Republican and Democrat have huge mass rallies (even bigger than 75,000) as a regular order of business in their campaigns, all without a Godwin-esque peep from Beck or Stein. And national convention speeches are, while not exactly the Superbowl, watched by millions of Americans on television. How exactly do we go from millions of viewers to 75,000 people in person crossing some invisible line over into the Third Reich?

And note Stein’s use of one of the most bizarre meta-inanities of modern politics: bringing up a nasty associative smear while at the same time fretting over the supposed poor campaign advice that would give him the chance to make that very same smear! It’s a testament to the strange evolution of cable news coverage, wherein actual political analysts were first put on panels with hardcore partisan pundits (you know, for balance!), and then wholly replaced by them. Now we have the pundits pretending to both give sage analysis of politics while at the exact same time stumping for their party and politics.

Between this and Expelled, Stein really takes the cake when it comes to trivializing the Holocaust.


The Press is at Fault for McCain Campaign’s Funk? Absurd.

July 25, 2008

Polls demonstrate that the American populace, after being told for weeks by the press that the media is too soft on Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama, agrees that the press really is too soft on Obama. But is mere media malfeasance really the major factor in Republican nominee John McCain’s recent woes? That seems a view remarkably divorced from reality: a cheap excuse that for some reason seems to be trumping common sense in this case.

Let’s just look at the major campaign threads from the past few weeks….

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Astronaut Claims UFOs Are Real, Government Conspiracy

July 24, 2008

Former Astronaut Dr. Edgar Mitchell claims that aliens are already among us. And that they’re, like, real tiny-like.

Dr Mitchell, 77, said during a radio interview that sources at the space agency who had had contact with aliens described the beings as ‘little people who look strange to us.’

He said supposedly real-life ET’s were similar to the traditional image of a small frame, large eyes and head.

Chillingly, he claimed our technology is “not nearly as sophisticated” as theirs and “had they been hostile”, he warned “we would be been gone by now”.

Well, that’s good, I suppose. As a person of short stature and large head myself, I’ve always prided myself on having superior technology.

Anyhoo, the biggest claim he makes is that he’s actually been briefed by the government on the existence of aliens. Well… maybe:

“It’s been well covered up by all our governments for the last 60 years or so, but slowly it’s leaked out and some of us have been privileged to have been briefed on some of it.

“I’ve been in military and intelligence circles, who know that beneath the surface of what has been public knowledge, yes – we have been visited. Reading the papers recently, it’s been happening quite a bit.”

The phrasing makes this confusing: in one case he says that he was briefed on aliens, presumably by the government. That’s a pretty incredible claim. But very quickly it sounds like he’s talking about basically just reading some “papers” out in the public (newspapers? tabloids? peer-reviewed journals?) that he interprets as alien encounters. The former is pretty darn important: potential evidence of a real government conspiracy. The latter is just the same old, same old UFO-ologist conspiracy theory stuff. It’s a rather odd transition.

Of course, maybe he’s just confused: maybe he was just briefed on hypotheticals and speculative xenobiology, back when the government still thought it possible that there could be Predators hiding out on the dark side of the moon, and figured they’d better prepare astronauts for anything.

If this guy wants to maintain some credibility, he’s going to have to cough up a lot more details than what he’s claimed so far.


Wafer Desecrated: PZ Myers Makes Good on His Threat & More Besides

July 24, 2008

Well, for better, and probably for worse, PZ Myers has done as he promised and treated a communion wafer in a manner unbecoming of the sacred, all to definitively demonstrate that, indeed, he doesn’t think these things are sacred. For good measure, he trashed not only the wafer, but also some torn pages of the Koran, and even torn pages of Dawkins’ writings.

This is one of those odd situations in which I know what other people will likely think far better than I know what to think.

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When Theism Cannot Explain Anything (Origins Especially)

July 24, 2008

In having a bit of a debate with blogger Eric Kemp, we hit an impasse at which he declared that “God” is a sensible explanation for an otherwise presently inexplicable event (in this case, the nature and/or origin of the universe). It seems like as good a time as any to explore what I see as the intellectual impotence of theistic “explanations.”

Just what is it to explain something, anyhow? It is to come away with more information than you began. To have a set of distinct causes, effects, and overall processes, in place of what was once complete ignorance. It means being able to state what needs to be done for some event to happen: what specific capacities are necessary for something to do it.

To say that the standard theistic God has caused phenomenon X is essentially to say that it was done by a being that is hypothetically capable of doing anything. In short, it is a truly ingenious means of avoiding having to give any specific explanation for how X happens. No ignorance is dispelled.

Using God in this way is much like answering a multiple choice question by filling in every option, and then claiming that you have answered the question correctly. But while you are indeed sure to have filled in the correct bubble at some point in the process (unless of course, we’ve tricked you by simply not offerring the right answer there at all), your “answer” doesn’t actually tell you or anyone else which option was the correct one.

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