Did Religion Evolve to… Divide Humanity?

August 1, 2008

That’s what two scientists from University of New Mexico are claiming in a recently published study. The gist is that people seem to do better against infectious diseases when they are fractured and isolated into various societies and sects. Thus, we would expect to see a far greater diversity of religious sects in tropical areas with many dangerous infectious diseases. And, apparently, we do.

“Why does Cote d’Ivoire have 76 religions while Norway has 13, and why does Brazil have 159 religions while Canada has 15 even though in both comparisons the countries are similar in size?” they ask.

The reason is that religion helps to divide people and reduce the spread of diseases, which are more common the hotter the country, the research suggests.

Any society that increased its coherence by adopting a religion, and dealt less with local groups with other beliefs as a result of cultural isolation, gained an advantage in being less likely to pick up diseases from its neighbors, and in the longer term to have a slightly different genetic makeup that may offer protective effects, for instance by making them less susceptible to a virus.

Unless there’s more to it, this strikes me as a remarkably weak argument. I can think of a heck of a lot of other factors that set tropical areas apart from, say, Norway, in ways that seem much more relevant to the development of religious sects. Poverty is a huge one. Lack of education. Lack of, well, health care to deal with the misery of disease. Maybe the researchers have controlled for all these other, more plausible effects, but I don’t see any discussion of this critical methodological challenge in the article.

And, of course, there’s always the alternative model of causation: it’s religious differences that cause disease, as the one-true God smites those who try to get too creative in their worship!

Off topic, but can anyone explain what the final sentence of the article means? Is it just a editing oversight? Because it doesn’t seem to make much sense:
In earlier work, the team linked the rise in the numbers of women who worked with left wing and liberal politics.
Linked them… with what? If they just mean that they tracked the rise of women on the left, that would make sense, but “linked” implies some sort of further correlation, no?

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Anti-Evolution Doc Expelled Really Is Trying for a Theatrical Comeback!

July 19, 2008

Looks like those vague hints and rumors were indeed authentic: Ben Stein’s anti-science opus Expelled is going to be re-released later this summer.

The rationale, however, strikes be as pure hype:

“We had many individuals and groups who had planned to see the film, but decided not to because the cloud of doubt this lawsuit brought to the film,” noted one of the film’s producers, John Sullivan.

Riiiiight. Because an obscure lawsuit based on copyright claims that few people outside of nuts like myself that follow these things ever heard about had a chilling effect on ordinary moviegoers.

Now, it might have been reasonable for Sullivan to note that the Ono lawsuit hurt the distribution efforts of the film, which it almost certainly did, and that this hurt their momentum.

But this production has always favored incoherently overwrought rhetoric over honest appraisal. Does Sullivan really expect anyone to seriously believe that any moviegoers at all avoided the film because of the lawsuit? Were they afraid that Ono would have thugs stationed outside the theaters threatening anyone who dared to watch it? Conflicted fans of both the Beatles and Ben Stein that held off declaring their allegiances until the legal issues were resolved?

“We came out of the gate with strong momentum only to have our integrity questioned by this frivolous lawsuit. While we’re thrilled with the film’s having earned nearly $8 million during its first run; we’ve heard from enough people and groups who want to see it in their theaters that we’ve agreed to re-release it this time without an undeserved cloud over its head.”

Because, of course, the only “cloud” over the film’s head was an obscure copyright lawsuit and not, well, you know, most critics panning it, sciencebloggers raking it over the coals for its distortions and slander, the ADL condemning it, and so on.

And this paragraph makes the “cloud” reasoning even more ridiculous. People obsessive enough to demand the immediate re-screening of a film which will likely be out on DVD in a few months are not the sort of people who would have stayed away the first time… based on the mere existence of a copyright lawsuit against the film.

“We will not be silenced. In fact it will have the opposite effect: we will re-release it and allow millions of Americans to go to the box office and register their vote against Ms. Ono and her attempt to keep them from watching our film.”

As John Pieret has pointed out, something is funky with the math here. Given that Expelled made about 7.5 million during its run, and ticket prices were generally in the range of 8 dollars and up, then at best the film got about a million viewers (not counting the fact that some percentage of people would have been repeats). The odds are astronomically low that any hypothetical second run would match that, let alone exceed it.

And indeed, despite all the hype, it looks like the producers know that, and that the “re-release” is not quite akin to a remastered Star Wars. At the end of the article, they note that they have 1000 prints of the film ready to go. Which is a rather far cry from “1000 different theaters already booked to show the film”: the sort of thing you might expect from an announcement about an impending re-release. As far as I can tell, this is all just hyperbolic way of announcing that the producers, free from the injunction, are now willing to lease out old prints to anyone who wants them.

Which all strikes me as sort of pathetic coming from an outfit that once seemed to sincerely believe that they would be sparking off a vast nationwide movement. We still don’t know whether the filmmakers actually broke even after their production and marketing costs.

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.

Even More Journalists Review Stein’s Expelled! Movie …And Pan it

April 4, 2008

This latest pan comes from Felix Salmon at Condé Nast Portfolio (a relatively new business magazine). He notes yet another “martyr” story that turns out to fall apart rather quickly when you look past what the movie tells you:

My favorite bit, unsurprisingly, was when the film quoted Pamela Winnick thusly:

If you give any credence at all to Intelligent Design, you are just finished as a journalist.

Not at the New York Times you’re not, clearly.

Winnick is presented in the film for all the world as a diligent journalist – a Jewish journalist, no less – who just happened to mention Intelligent Design, en passant, in one of her columns, and ended up getting fired.

Omitted from the film: any indication that Winnick is the author of “A Jealous God: Science’s Crusade Against Religion,” published in 2005 by Thomas Nelson. Or that in her journalism for the newspaper from which she was fired she talked of Darwin’s influence on eugenics and Hitler, and “the serious people –scientists included — who continue to challenge his theories.”

That’s actually even understating it a bit: Winnick is something of a polemicist who took a fellowship grant from a conservative think-tank to write about “why there seems to be little tolerance for teaching creationism in America.” Her repetition of creationist talking points throughout her writing is not exactly subtle (she calls evolution a “secular religion”), and she’s apparently an avid quote miner. As with Carolyn Crocker, the “just one tiny little mention” implication is simply ridiculous when you start to look into the facts.

After reading a lot of these sorts of reviews, it really seems the film is unlikely to break out of core demographic of evangelical Christians. It doesn’t seem to make any serious case against evolutionary theory: or even for Intelligent Design. It just assumes that its audience will buy accusations of witchhunts, gasp at atheists, and tearfully condemn “Darwinism” for making the Holocaust a reality, and just generally all nod in understanding, knowing intrinsically that evolution is ridiculous without having to have it demonstrated to them.

Mainstream journalists and movie-critics have almost universally cringed at the craven manipulation, particularly its exploitation of the Holocaust, and pretty much all of the glowing reviews have come from either right-wing talk show hosts or the very sorts of evangelical religious publications and organizations that have been on board and promoting the film from the start.

Which is not to say that even all conservative Christians are or will be convinced by it either.  It’s one thing to initially win over an audience that’s receptive to your overall message and accusations right from the start.  It’s quite another thing when viewers start digging deeper, beyond the big screen.

More Detailed Expelled! Review/Overview & Lying About the Origins of Life

March 26, 2008

Probably the most in-depth account of the film yet: Josh Timonen has written up his basic summary of how the Intelligent Design film Expelled! tries to make its case.

There’s a lot to digest in his account, but in a way, not very much new to talk about. As I’ve noted, there just isn’t a heck of a lot that’s new to the science/creationism debate in this film: it’s like a recently released greatest hits album from a long-defunct 70s band… and they couldn’t even bother to slap together any unreleased tracks or a new cut or anything.

Just to hit on a single aspect while we’re at it: you can’t get much more pathetic than dragging out the Miller-Urey experiment and then claiming that:

  1. it was meant to create life
  2. nothing happened

Both claims are simply ludicrous. The whole point of the Miller-Urey experiment, the whole reason that it’s in textbooks, is that the result was, in fact, very surprising, especially considering the very modest expectations going into it. To not explain what that result was, or to paint the thing as if it were some sort of Frankenstein-switch-throwing-dud… it’s almost criminal.

As should be obvious, Miller and Urey never purported to be creating life, and no textbook claims that this is what they did. What they discovered were that the distinctive amino acid building blocks of carbon-based life as we know it were, in fact, not the universal rarity that scientists had previously assumed.

As it happens, Miller and Urey were working with what was a very preliminary model of what the early earth was like: a simulation that we now know was likely not representative of the general environment. But, also as it happens, this actually boosts the importance of their find, rather than diminishing it: it’s significant that they didn’t have to endlessly tinker and fine tune their experiment to produce these molecules. They got them even just with a very sloppy early attempt. And, as we now know, these molecules form under a very broad range of possible early earth conditions (including those that we now think are more accurate), as well as other key molecules found to form in the conditions of asteroids and other space debris that the early earth was constantly being pelted with (a simple scientific reality that Expelled! apparently tries to ridicule or avoid by lumping it under the decidedly more speculative and whimsical idea of panspermia).

It’s one thing to note that life on earth is made up of the basic raw materials found in the universe and on planets like Earth (carbon, nitrogen, etc.) That’s interesting, but there’s little in the way of specific structure or organization implied there. What Miller and Urey demonstrated was that much of the distinctive core alphabet of molecules that all life on Earth is now composed of… are found forming naturally in the very times and places were we know life likely began. Not only that, but recently studies into the have found that, guess what, the sequences of modern DNA that seem most ancient contain substantially higher amounts of the very sections of the amino acid alphabet that experiments like Miller/Urey’s have shown most readily form in early Earth conditions.

Again: this isn’t the be all and end all of demonstrating that life began via chemical processes, or even answering the question of exactly how. We most certainly do not yet know how life began: no one does. But for those who are actually interested in someday having an explanation, rather than just an opaque theology, it’s incredibly significant: an extremely suggestive finding that, were it not to imply something about the origins of life, would otherwise have to be a pretty amazing coincidence.

There’s really no way for creationists to spin away the implications. So, as we will apparently see yet again in Expelled!, they simply lie about it.

Addendum: I probably should have linked to it in the original brouhaha over Myers’ expulsion, but his daughter Skatje also has her own write-up of the film available.

Expelled! Producers Scramble Over Bad PR from Myers/Dawkins Screening. Internet: Alerted

March 25, 2008

The folks responsible for Expelled!, our favorite feckless film project, are now busy celebrating the fact that they are being laughed at. Apparently borne of a bout of bitter vindictiveness, producer Mark Mathis’s decision to ban one of his interviewees (PZ Myers) from one of the film’s early showings has finally given them the sort of bad publicity that they’ve been craving. So it’s hard to feel too bad for them.

But the attempt to spin the story is now becoming something of a story in itself (which is good, because honestly, I think the otherwise fleeting incident has been getting more lasting attention at this point than it deserves). The film’s production company has now issued the usual unctuous defense-via-press-release, confusing getting lots of attention by via buffoonery as the same thing as being the most popular kid in school. PZ Myers, the amused anathema himself, picks its claims to pieces. It’s almost unnecessary. Just about every story they’ve put out on this incident has been different, and then all of those interpretations belied by the facts. They keep alleging that their critics are lying… but then failing to explain how and about what.

On the official Expelled! blog, the task of mustering a blustery defense apparently fell to the spacey “Deacon Blue.” This is the same mysterious Steely Dan fan who once posted a diatribe so strange and disjointed that it was actually scrubbed from the blog entirely. In it, Deacon expressed a devotion for Ben Stein’s own jumbled ranting that bordered on the psychotic:

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)

Deacons’ non-defense of the conduct of the producers is of a piece with the rest of their effort: full of innuendo and sneering implications, but seemingly incapable of defending any substantive point or accusation. Instead, it’s all summed up with repeating hinting that because people are laughing at their clumsiness, that this means that their enemies are scared of them.

We’re all beginning to wonder: are striking these poser attitudes all creationists have left at this point? They’re hip rebels. They’re resolute victims. They’re selfless martyrs. Jazz hands!

Ok, but didn’t you guys used to claim that you had, you know, some good scientific arguments? I mean, you still say you do, but it seems almost as if you’re so embarrassed by them yourselves that you can’t do more than occasionally reference them in criticism free venues before quickly moving on to apparently deeper and serious matters like calling everyone Hitler and claiming to celebrate academic freedom without apparently understanding what the “academic” part means or requires.

If you don’t believe me, check out this account of another recent Expelled! screening’s Q&A session, in which security guards roving the crowd of questioners help deflect uncomfortable comments from any non-plant questioners.