I’m NOT looking forward to Bill Maher’s Religulous Film

June 15, 2008

Bill MaherOv vey…

In case you haven’t heard, comedian and Politically Incorrect/Real Time host Bill Maher has a new film headed to theaters: a com-ockumentary of sorts called Religulous, in which he sets out to explore, and generally ridicule, the silliness of religious practice and belief.

Now, it’d be rather silly for me to complain about someone criticizing religious beliefs. Or even poking a bit of admittedly underhanded fun at all things theological. But I still can’t in good conscience look at this film with anything other than apprehension…

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ID Champion William Dembski Declares War on Christians, Children

June 13, 2008

Ok, so I’m not exactly the Onion when it comes to headlines. But what else to make of this post on Uncommon Descent, where Dembski basically demands that all Christians swear loyalty to his partisan movement, or else be labeled as traitors and atheist collaborators? What else to make of his following strategy for “defeating” his enemies:

What’s our strategy. The strategy is multipronged. Let me just give you one prong: WIN THE YOUTH. The release date for Miller’s book is June 12th. I’ve got a book titled Understanding Intelligent Design: Everything You Need to Know (co-authored with youth speaker and high-school teacher Sean McDowell) whose release date is July 1st. It is geared specifically at mobilizing Christian young people, homeschoolers, and church youth groups with the ID alternative to Darwinian evolution. (emphasis added)

Given the highlighted text, it seems like Dembski and crew have pretty much given up on trying to convince the bulk of scientists (both religious and non-religious) of their ideology by, say, penning and publishing some positive evidence for their claims. A simple mathematical proof of Dembski’s various information theory claims would be a nice start. But, as filthy Simpsonian beatniks used to say: they’ve tried nothing, and they’re fresh out of ideas! And now they’re going to take it out on the children instead.

As referenced in the quote above, what’s got Dembski so outraged in particular is Ken Miller’s new book, entitled Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul (out now!). After all the kvetching over people judging Expelled before seeing it, Dembski now seems to agree that advance copy is good enough to gab about, and he’s royally pissed about the book jacket’s implication that ID is crippling science education as well as impoverishing the theological imagination.

Fair enough, though Dembski doesn’t seem to actually be inclined to respond to those accusations at present. Instead, he’s prepared to simply dismiss their concerns and arguments based solely on to what degree Richard Dawkins might agree with them.

And as James McGrath points out, there’s something deeply… well, silly about trying to one-up someone else’s book endorsement from Human Genome Project-leader Francis Collins with his own endorsement from… Ann Coulter, a woman whose own readership was apparently so troubled by her use of complete sentences and paragraphs that she had to publish a book of random quotes to mollify them.

In any case, we’ll have to wait and see what Dembski’s Pied Piper act is all about when his book comes out in July.

Myself, I’m highly looking forward to sitting down with a copy of Miller’s new book this weekend. And I suspect that the dustjacket is about as far as Dembski will ever want to venture, given Miller’s track record for solid, evidential smackdowns of Intelligent Design claims.

Atheists Can Claim Victory Over Bananas, Ray Comfort Concedes

June 13, 2008

Ray Comfort, who with former child-actor Kirk Cameron became famous (or infamous) for declaring that bananas prove God’s design, has finally backed off on his claim that the fruit is the “atheists nightmare.”

Hemant over at Friendly Atheist has all the details and audio. As Comfort is forced to finally admit, bananas were indeed designed for pleasing human beings… but by human horticulturists, not by a god.

This certainly doesn’t make me more likely to take Comfort’s other assertions any more seriously than I do now. But credit where credit is due to him for graciously giving in, even if the whole thing had already become something of a joke (albeit for reasons having much more to do with Freud than with Intelligent Design).

Stein’s Anti-Evolutionary Doc Expelled Trying to Organize a Theatrical Comeback?

June 12, 2008

With Expelled down to just a handful of theaters nationwide, it certainly looked like it’s theatrical run was pretty much over and done with. The film’s blog hasn’t been updated since April, it’s Press Room since early May, and the most recent content about from the film from the producers seems to be a largely irrelevant celebration of their victory in the fair use case against Yoko Ono.

But some people have apparently been receiving word that the producers want to stage a theatrical comeback of sorts. Various emails and other messages have been appearing over the last week purporting to be from Motive Entertainment, Expelled’s marketing/PR firm, and all are calling on supporters to help lobby the film back onto multiplexes around the country. From one such:

I am in charge of the re-release of our film Expelled…The goal is to gain 1,000 new theaters to release the film….over the summer…We are booking new theaters now…

The caveat is that we need at least one group of 250-300 to support the film with a verbal commitment and then tell me personally what theater is preferred and I will see to it that theater get the film at once…

If this little whisper campaign is legitimate (and I’m still a little skeptical at this point on that score), it’s simply more evidence that the film failed to have the cultural and financial impact that the producers had once hoped. And that, flustered and confused by the lack of impact, they’re trying to find some way to implement a small-scale do-over.

Still, as I said, I’m skeptical. While the name noted in the story, Tripp Thorton, appears to be a real employee of Motive, the email included doesn’t seem to be their corporate domain. And, unless I managed to stare straight at it without seeing, Motive’s website no longer mentions Expelled in any of the places you’d expect.

The only thing that strikes me as really plausible about the messages is that they appeared just after the film’s producers won their lawsuit against Ono, thus freeing them from the injunction that may have hindered previous efforts to expand the film’s distribution.

Other than that, no one seems to be talking so far, so we’ll just have to wait and see.

Unless we do see some miraculous return from obscurity in the theaters, it won’t be until the DVD release, along with the inevitably maddening extras, that there will be much more to say.

Update: On her handful of redundant, self-plagiarizing pro-ID blogs, Denyse O’Leary keeps referring to a “surprise or two in store for Americans.” Could she be referring to something like the above?

Evolution as Observed: Watching Life Generate New Functions in Real Time

June 9, 2008

When creationists claim that evolution cannot create “new information” or that “macro-evolution” has not been observed, they rarely mean those terms in the way scientists use them, or even understand exactly what they themselves mean by them. In general, the overall meaning they are trying to convey is really more along the lines of “evolution can’t generate new and useful traits and functions.”

Indeed, oftentimes even the now-standard admission of micro-evolution is a ruse: instead of new genetic traits developing and getting refined within a species population, creationists really only accept that natural selection can weed out or play favorites amongst already existing traits, never generating anything truly new.

Top-notch science journalist Carl Zimmer has a new book, Microcosm, out, and it contains one of the clearest and best refutations of this creationist canard I’ve seen in a while. As described on Zimmer’s blog, the Loom, the basic setup was a sort of brute force approach: literally watching something evolve over a looong period of time, both in terms of its behavior, morphology, and its actual underlying genes.

A dozen flasks full of E. coli are sloshing around on a gently rocking table. The bacteria in those flasks has been evolving since 1988–for over 44,000 generations.

Lenski started off with a single microbe. It divided a few times into identical clones, from which Lenski started 12 colonies. He kept each of these 12 lines in its own flask. Each day he and his colleagues provided the bacteria with a little glucose, which was gobbled up by the afternoon. The next morning, the scientists took a small sample from each flask and put it in a new one with fresh glucose. And on and on and on, for 20 years and running.

He froze some of the original bacteria in each line, and then froze bacteria every 500 generations. Whenever he was so inclined, he could go back into this fossil record and thaw out some bacteria, bringing them back to life.

The point of all this was to allow the scientists to track evolutionary change directly, era to era, step by step, mutation by mutation. And one of the things they recorded in this fashion was an E. coli bacteria evolving in order to eat an entirely new food source: a radical change in its lifestyle, genes, and cellular machinery that scientists managed to record happening in real time.

As Zimmer notes, defining species in bacteria is an even murkier problem than defining it in sexual species, and though this new strain no longer fits the standard definition of E. coli, its not clear whether it’s important or even relevant to call this a speciation event.

But the point is simply that it’s a great illustration of evolution at work, undeniably generating new “stuff”, caught happening pretty much frame by frame.

The Best Book on Atheism Out Today

May 24, 2008

No, it’s not from Dawkins, or Hitchens, or even Harris.  It’s David Ramsay Steele’s “Atheism Explained: From Folly to Philosophy.”   Presented as a sort of primer on all the common atheist responses to theist claims, Steele’s book bears far more in common with George Smith’s classic “Atheism: The Case Against God” (which itself used to be the token atheist work in Barnes & Noble philosophy bookshelves long before Dawkins came along) than anything else.

Steele is clean, concise, and straight to the point, with a refreshing minimum of rhetoric and diverting character assaults.  The result is a nice, nearly encyclopedic compendium of atheistic responses that is well worth a place on the bookshelf, and far better than most slapdash internet sources.

While much of his material might be old hat to old hands at these sorts of philosophical matters (the relatively perfunctory discussion of evolution in my case), this is a weakness borne of the need to be fairly comprehensive in a relatively short work.  There is still a pleasure in seeing the same arguments explained well, particularly when some of his strongest objections to things like the “free will” defense of evil, or the “improbability” of existence, are also some of the rarest encountered in these sorts of debates.  He also includes a much-needed discussion of some of the core belief claims specific to Islam.

Of course, theists now often complain that the philosophical objections that atheists have to god beliefs never change: that the new atheists have little to offer over the old.  But I think there is a far more plausible alternative: it is theists who merely repeat the same arguments, and arguments that are false or unconvincing one day will continue to be for the same reasons tomorrow.  All that matters is the strength of these arguments, and whether critics can really deal with them, as opposed to merely finding ways to dismiss them.

Whether his arguments are old or new, Steele leaves very little wiggle room for apologists, even in the small amount of space he’s allowed himself.  Certainly a single book can never anticipate and respond to every possible objection, and critics of atheism are bound to have plenty.  But what he has down on paper gives me every reason to suspect who’d dominate further rounds of debate as well.

Anti-Evolutionary Expelled Falls Off the Radar?

May 13, 2008

4 weeks in, and Ben Stein’s anti-evolutionary expose Expelled appears to be petering out on its run. Last weekend it only took in 0.3 million from its remaining 402 theaters, bringing its total haul to a respectable $7.2M It’s still not clear how much the film actually cost to make (probably not too much), or how much it cost to promote (probably quite a lot, considering the pricey markets they bought ads in), and thus whether Premise Media will ultimately break even.

More notably, there doesn’t seem to be any signs as of yet that the film has become the sort of cultural sensation its producers had hoped: no students raising their fists in biology classes, and aside from the pre-orchestrated “academic freedom” bills (many of which seem to have lost some steam themselves), little political impact. The movie’s blog hasn’t been updated in 3 weeks.

So what more is there to say at this point? Intelligent Design has a new corporate ally on the block, and for its opening salvo, it butted heads with the mainstream media and scientists, and mostly just ended up replaying the same old battles one more time. All without anyone having much new to say or any side accomplishing much.

Other than that, I really can’t think of anything. The larger debate goes on, unabated, with yet more bad blood between the participants. C’est la vie, I suppose.

Human Dignity: An Ethically Useless Concept

May 12, 2008

Last year Steven Pinker wrote a fantastic article on bioethics that somehow had escaped my notice until a commenter recently brought it to my attention: The Stupidity of Dignity.

The point of his essay is not, as one might fear, that human beings lack an inherent dignity or moral importance. It’s that the term “dignity” has been so constantly abused that it has become almost worthless in moral debates. It’s incoherently defined, capable of having nearly any property, even contradictory ones. And it’s all too often used simply as a proxy for the philosopher’s or theologian’s subjective dislike of some behavior or idea.

Here’s the key point of the article:

The problem is that “dignity” is a squishy, subjective notion, hardly up to the heavyweight moral demands assigned to it. The bioethicist Ruth Macklin, who had been fed up with loose talk about dignity intended to squelch research and therapy, threw down the gauntlet in a 2003 editorial, “Dignity Is a Useless Concept.” Macklin argued that bioethics has done just fine with the principle of personal autonomy–the idea that, because all humans have the same minimum capacity to suffer, prosper, reason, and choose, no human has the right to impinge on the life, body, or freedom of another. This is why informed consent serves as the bedrock of ethical research and practice, and it clearly rules out the kinds of abuses that led to the birth of bioethics in the first place, such as Mengele’s sadistic pseudoexperiments in Nazi Germany and the withholding of treatment to indigent black patients in the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study. Once you recognize the principle of autonomy, Macklin argued, “dignity” adds nothing.

The rest of Pinker’s article basically argues that despite an entire volume full of responses to Macklin’s challenge, the mostly conservative and religious Presidential Council on Bioethics have failed to answer it. In some cases, as with the notorious Leon Kass, they did worse than fail, exposing bizarre theocratic preoccupations that celebrate death and bemoan liberty in life.

A tour de force. Anyone know of any good responses to, or critiques of, this piece from conservative critics?

Best of Pharyngula: Praise for the Platypus

May 10, 2008

Whatever you think of PZ Myers, his writing on biological topics is indispensable when it comes to correcting common misunderstandings and misrepresentations about evolution. His latest article, dissecting the newest draft of the platypus genome and its implications for evolutionary taxonomy, is a must read.

The platypus used to be a favorite of creationists: it was a supposed chimera of different animal kingdoms and supposedly a startling mystery for evolution’s picture of common descent. These days, however, creationists have mainly given it up as a lost cause: getting exposed as so wrong, so many times, gets humiliating. Instead, it’s the modern news media, always awash in its rarely updated panoply of stereotypes and clichés, that still gives us breathlessly confused descriptions of the platypus as a “part bird, part reptile and part lactating mammal.”

Understanding what the various “strange” features of the platypus really are and how they fit into the larger history of mammals is essential for anyone who wants to understand how evolutionary biology really works.

Office of Special Counsel Raided by FBI: The Expelled Connection

May 9, 2008

It might otherwise go without notice that the FBI recently raided the Office of Special Counsel, an agency created in the 1970s to protect federal employees from political retaliation for doing their jobs (which includes acting as whistleblowers on government misconduct).

What’s the core issue under dispute? That director Scott Bloch ran the Office of Special Counsel itself as a highly partisan machine: quietly soft-pedaling investigations of political allies, selectively ignoring or betraying the very whistle blowers the agency supposedly exists to protect (most prominently any and all claims of discrimination based on sexual orientation), and issuing fact-free accusations of misconduct against political enemies.

One of the latter cases involved none other than Richard Sternberg, Expelled’s cause célèbre. In that case, the OSC, despite having no jurisdiction (since Sternberg was not a federal employee in the first place), issued a letter claiming that they could substantiate Sternberg’s claims of persecution. Ed Darrell (who alerted me to this story) notes how that one played out:

The mackarel by moonlight in that story (both shining and stinking at the same time) was a letter from the Office of Special Counsel which, while claiming to have found unspecified evidence of wrongdoing [in the Sternberg case], said that OSC was the wrong agency to prosecute wrong-doers (OSC had an obligation to turn over any evidence of wrongdoing to the right agency, but Stein doesn’t mention that; there never was any evidence turned over to anyone). (emphasis added)

Bloch is currently in hot water because he was part of the apparent Bush administration “coincidence” involving the illegally deletion of millions of e-mails and other computer records, which critics suspect might have contained embarrassing or incriminating evidence. The FBI has focused on Bloch in particular for basically doing to his own employees what his own agency supposedly exists to prevent.

First Things First: Tsunami, Theodicy, and Recycling for Cyclones in Myanmar

May 8, 2008

This wasn’t quite how I wanted to start a series of posts on theodicy, but here we are. In the wake of the recent cyclone disaster in Burma/Myanmar, the conservative religious journal First Things has reprinted any article attempting to reflect on the similarly shocking disaster of tsunami. You might remember First Things from my previous rants on one of the journal’s founders Richard John Neuhaus and his loving fantasies of anguished atheists. Well, a link from Exploring our Matrix led me back there yet again, and this was the result:

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Kenneth Miller’s Editorial on Ben Stein’s Anti-Evolutionary Expelled

May 8, 2008

Kenneth Miller, author of “Finding Darwin’s God,” and the very sort of religious scientist that Expelled’s producers avoided like the plague, has an editorial out today, lambasting the film and Ben Stein’s recent comments that “science leads to killing people.”

Good read from an important voice in this debate. And his new book, “Only a Theory,” which I’m quite excited to read, comes out next month!

HT: Gospel of Karen