Thursday, December 27, 2007

Religious Wars!

Last night at dinner, a religious argument broke out across the table. It was between my younger (21yo) son on one side, and my older (23yo) son + GF on the other.

They were arguing passionately about which was better: Ubuntu or Fedora.

Friggin' fanatics.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Merry Newton-mass!

God rest ye merry, physicists
Let nothing you dismay.
Remember Isaac Newton
was born on Christmas Day!
His gravity and calculus and eff equals em-ay!
Oh, pillars of physics and math, physics and math,
Oh, pillars of physics and math!

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Baptist declares War on (Dawkins') Christmas

I'm way behind the curve on this one -- PZ and Greg Laden already got in their licks -- but I think I finally figured out just why Albert Mohler has a bug up his butt about Dawkins' celebration of Christmas as a cultural tradition. It's not that Mohler is a "bible-thumping Grinch"(Greg) or has a "smug, ignorant heart"(PZ) (well, not only that).

Basically, it's projection, and an ex-fundy like Your Humble Narrator should remember this. There's a prevalent attitude among fundamentalist Christians that all one's diversions and entertainments should be theologically-correct: they must support (or at least, not contradict) your Christian faith. It comes in varying degrees of course, and not every devout Christian is terminally anal-retentive, but this is where you get the banning and boycotting of Harry Potter (for sorcery) or Pullman (for anti-theism), or any number of other books, movies and TV shows. Ditto Dungeons & Dragons, certain (arbitrarily-chosen) musical genres, and so on. It's also the source of a lot of Christian-themed kitsch -- ordinary knick-knacks sanctified by slapping on a Jesus decal.

Where Mohler, I think, has a problem is in conceiving that there are people in this world who don't feel that way -- we just don't take ourselves and everything we do that neurotically seriously. We can sing songs whose lyrics we don't agree with, but whose melody and harmony we find beautiful (and speaking as a former chorister, I say that anyone -- atheist or Christian -- who tells me my unbelief means I'm forbidden to sing my favorite Christmas carols if I like, is hereby cordially invited to get stuffed), or put up a decorated tree (though we're all too lazy at my house), or observe any number of other little rituals (many of extra-Christian origin anyway) that have syncreted onto this time of year. My agnostic parents -- who, like Dawkins, were "culturally Christian" Brits -- did all that kind of stuff, and I learned my secular Christmas traditions from them, long before I first darkened the door of a church. (Come to think of it, I might even take in a Christmas church service if I damn well feel like it).

But Mohler, apparently, doesn't see any of that. Fine, screw 'im. While he's busy holding his theologically-correct festival, the rest of us are just going have some fun -- in whatever way, and aided by whatever spirit(s), seem best to us.

So: Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays or Really Super-Spiffy Solstice or....ah, hell: have a blast this coming week, with those you love most.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Bits from a CORE dump

Years ago, I signed up to receive the newsletter of Citizens for Origins Research and Education -- or as I like to refer to this missive, the Kwarterly Kreationist Komix, since they never fail to amuse. Noteworthy tidbits from the latest issue:

A Creation Museum Fun House for Ottawa?
Inspired no doubt by the success of their hero Ken Ham, the CORE board wants to build the largest creation museum in Canada. Since our only other known creation museum appears to be a modest-sized bungalow, this is perhaps not too ambitious a goal -- certainly we're not necessarily talking anything approaching the magnitude of Ham's Folly. However, CORE president Ian Juby does promise animatronic dinosaurs, while acknowledging it will take many years and millions of dollars to pull this off.

Too bad the money won't be getting spent on real science education.

Coming soon, to an obscure cable TV spot near you:
Juby is also producing a TV show called Genesis Week, which sounds like it will air in some low-rent religious cable slot. From the website, it appears they get a lot of their material from Carl Baugh and Don Patton. If you've been involved in the C vs. E circus long enough to be familiar with the Rogues' Gallery of creationism, you will know this means bottom-of-the-barrel stuff -- the most fact-free, pulled-from-the-anal-orifice version of creation "science". Baugh (like Kent Hovind) is the kind of creationist who embarasses other creationists.

But hey, the show is shot in High-Def, so it's gotta be good, right? I may or may not get around to watching (and having some fun with) the YouTube versions.

Abiogenetic Irrelevance
Under the title"The Mathematical Impossibility of Life by natural processes", someone (presumably also Juby -- in the absence of other attributions, I assume the whole newsletter is written by him) writes:
Many evolutionists attempt to cop a plea by claiming that evolution does not attempt to explain the origin of life. This is nonsense -- the entire point and principle of evolutionary theory is to remove the need for a Creator.
No: the above is nonsense. I'm sure Francis Collins and Ken Miller (not to mention Charles Darwin himself) would be surprised to learn that "the entire point and principle" of their work is to "remove the need for a Creator". The purpose of evolutionary theory is to explain terrestrial biology by the methods of science. Historically, it had the effect of knocking the props out from under a particular class of religious apologetics -- the Argument From Design -- but that is a philosophical by-product, not its intent. By Juby's logic, one might as well claim that the purpose of gravitational theory is to explain the solar system without the need for God to personally push the planets around (which was actually a live argument -- about 300 years ago!).

Juby continues:
But when one looks at the impossibility of life by natural processes, it quickly becomes evident why anti-creationists are avoiding this subject like the plague!
It's very convenient to just be able to make up claims about your opponents' behaviour, isn't it? Yeah, we avoid talking about abiogenesis, except when we don't. We then get Juby's attempt to prove that abiogenesis is impossible, which consists of a calculation of the chance of randomly assembling a particular chain of amino acids 200 units long (ie, a small protein). He correctly points out that the chance of getting this right on the first try is 20200, and that you would have to try some 10242 combinations every second for the entire 20 billion-year history of the universe to "produce one protein".

Basically, it's the Argument From Frighteningly Large Numbers. It's also a case of GIGO: what does forming some particular random short protein from an amino soup have to do with abiogenesis? Pretty much nothing. It's not even an argument. Does any serious scientist postulate that the way to start off life is to assemble some "magic" protein? Over the years, I've noticed that a lot of creationists don't seem to even understand what an argument looks like. For a discussion of abiogenesis probability calculations that deals with the real world (as opposed to creationist straw men), see the t.o FAQ.

Of course, Juby's "solution" to his invented problem is the usual GodDidIt. That's another common characteristic of creationist "argument" -- probably the single central fallacy at the core of all the others: they think "It happened by magic" is a respectable and scientific(!) answer.

Until the next CORE dump.....

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

A blast from the past

Via the Amused Muse, I learn that Matthew Murray, the Colorado church shooter, was raised according to the strict teachings of evangelist Bill Gothard. Back when I was a fundamentalist teenager, some of the local youth pastors were big fans of Gothard and his ideas. The main theme I recall was authoritarianism -- "God's Chain of Command" they called it. Everyone was supposed to be under someone else's authority -- children obedient to parents, wives to husbands, church members to the elders and pastors, employees to employers, everyone to the government, and ultimately to God. Of course, this raises the obvious question: what if your authority-figure tells you to do something wrong? Suppose, for example, you are the wife of an abusive drunk -- do you have to obey him? What if your country is run by a homicidal dictator? (This was the era of Idi Amin in Uganda). The answer: not your problem -- authorities are accountable to God for the directions they give; you are only accountable for how well you obey those God set over you.

Holy Nuremburg, Batman!

Fortunately, I wasn't buying it. For whatever reason, I always believed that your conscience was your own business, or God's -- but definitely not some other fallible human's. In the Church of Christ I was taught what a great thing it was that the Reformation had broken the power of the "infallible" Catholic priesthood, and set us free to approach God as individuals. And here was this Gothard fellow trying to sneak something that looked an awful lot like the old system back in, under disguise? No thanks.

A few years later, a sex scandal broke in the Gothard ministry -- Bill's brother Steve had been boinking female ministry employees. I can't say I was much surprised. I had to wonder: just how much easier were Steve Gothard's seductions in an atmosphere that encouraged people to give up their personal moral responsibility in favour of obedience to their boss?

It would be simplistic to just blame Matthew Murray's actions on Gothard's teachings, as such (and it should be noted that Gothard's teachings are controversial within the fundamentalist movement). Shooters are always an extreme case, who act more out of their own twisted psychology than any logical consequence of -- or logical reaction against -- an ideology. But Murray's online ramblings mark him as a bitter, troubled young man, whose anger and confusion arose directly from the conflicts inherent in his upbringing within a rigidly legalistic framework.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Did they find his armour, too?

I seem to be the only one (or else the only one whose mind is trivial enough to care) to notice this coincidence: In the same week as the opening of The Golden Compass, comes the announcement of the finding of the fossil jawbone of a polar bear -- on Svalbard, the arctic island home of Lyra's ursine friend and protector, Iorek.

The significance of this find (I mean, other than amusing me with the "life-imitates-art" schtick) is that it pushes the fossil record of polar bears back about 20000 or 30000 years earlier than was previously known -- back out of the Wisconsin glaciation and into the previous interglacial. This raises hopes that polar bears, having survived warm periods before, may not be as vulnerable to gloabl warming as feared.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Homeopathic medicine as effective as conventional medicine!

There have been a number of news reports recently concerning the use of cold remedies for children, ever since the FDA made a statement in October in which they reported that there was no evidence that these drugs were effective in children under 12, and that there were concerns about safety in children under 6, especially for those under 2.

The response from an OTC drug spokesperson: It would be a Bad Idea to take children's cold remedies off the market, because without them, people would attempt to give their children smaller amounts of adult medications instead, and get it wrong, thus harming the kids. Note that there was no attempt to argue for the effectiveness of these medications, just the presentation of scary bad things that might happen if they were not available. (Interestingly, it looks like parents are not as stupid as the OTC drug pushers think - sales of children's cold remedies dropped 16% in October.)

So, back to my shocking statement about homeopathy (hoping the Ottawa Skeptics don't revoke my membership). Let's get the homeopaths together with the OTC cold remedy manufacturers, and put some nicely shaken water in little bottles adorned with friendly brightly coloured graphics. In the fine print, it will state that the medication is effective for treating a 7-day cold so that it will only last a week. That's much safer than the stuff they have on the market now, and every bit as effective.

Non-American, Non-Christian, Nutcases (for a change)

I feel so bad for my American friends. You've got the Republican front-runner pushing himself as "The Christian Candidate" (with the bass-ackwards slogan "Faith. Family. Freedom."). You've got one of his opponents doing a bad imitation of JFK. And finally, you've got the blatantly political dismissal of an employee of the Texas Education Agency fired for sending an email deemed "not neutral" enough, ie. obliquely endorsing science as opposed to ideologically motivated pseudoscience.

But it could be worse (well, a little bit).

View Larger Map

The GoogleMap above shows the area of sea between Sri Lanka and the Indian mainland. Near the southern margin of the shallows (light blue) is an arc of islands and shoals stretching between the two landmasses (just below the dotted line that marks a ferry route). The Indian government wants to dredge a canal through it to shorten the shipping distance around the bottom of India. Obviously, there are legitimate environmental concerns -- sandy shallows tend to be ecologically interesting, but also fragile. Then there's the cost (US$560m). And then, there's the religious angle: the chain is known as "Rama's Bridge" (though some Westerner later dubbed it "Adam's Bridge"), and Hindu mythology holds that it was constructed by the Lord Rama and his army of monkeys. Scientists, of course, tend to think it was constructed by natural causes like geology, coral reefs, and sand transported by water currents.

And therein lies a problem. Some Hindus take the myth as literal history (sound familiar?), and complain that the canal will destroy Rama's Bridge -- an act of sacrilege -- and this angle has become part of litigation to stop or change the route of the proposed canal. Back in September, the Archaeological Survey of India presented a brief to the Supreme Court arguing that there was no evidence that the army of monkeys ever existed, or that Rama himself was a literal person who walked the earth and did civil engineering mega-projects (note this description carefully skirts the question of whether Rama might exist in some non-material spiritual realm). The reaction:

On Wednesday, Hindu hard-line organisations blocked roads across India to protest against the Sethusamudram Shipping Canal Project.

Commuters in the capital, Delhi, were stuck in traffic jams for hours as Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council) and Bajrang Dal blocked roads at various places.

Road blocks were also held in Bhopal, the capital of the central state of Madhya Pradesh, on the Delhi-Agra highway and on the Jaipur-Agra highway.

Train services were disrupted in many places across northern India.

The next day, the report was withdrawn and two directors of the Archaeological Survey were suspended (move over, Chris Comer!).

The following week, the chief minister of Tamil Nadu state again questioned the literal existence of Rama the bridge-builder. This time, people died:

On Tuesday Hindu activists angered by the comments set fire to a Tamil Nadu bus, killing two people, police said.

Enraged Hindu hardliners in the city of Bangalore, in neighbouring Karnataka state, also attacked the home of Mr Karunanidhi's daughter, Selvi.


On Saturday, addressing a public rally, Mr Karunanidhi had asked: "Who is this Ram? From which engineering college did he graduate?"

Angered by his statement, Hindu hard-line groups have demanded his dismissal and arrest.

However, a less explosive case in the Indian state of Jharkhand may offer a possible solution: the judge in a dispute over a plot of land on which stand temples to Ram and Hanuman has subpoenaed those deities to appear in court to defend their title. Thus far they are no-shows, however it seems like the Supreme Court could try the same thing in the canal case: summon Rama to testify to his involvement in his eponymous "Bridge". And if he doesn't show up to defend his construction....

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Pullman on the CBC

Proving that the CBC is a cabal of godless commies, the radio programme Writers & Company has devoted two episodes running to a long interview with that fount of atheist evangelism, the man who strikes terror into the hearts of Bill Donohue and Catholic school boards everywhere (OK, a few boards in the 905 belt), Phillip Pullman. Disappointingly, this Corrupter Of Youth turned out to be quite a mild, affable chap and hardly said anything at all bad about religion. A random scattering of some relevant points:
  • The host, Eleanor Wachtel, referred to Pullman as "a Church of England atheist", to which Pullman agreed. He seems to have an affectionate nostalgia for the Anglican Church (so does Dawkins, BTW) -- he loves the language of the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer (but only the old, pre-revision, version). He fondly recalls his grandfather, a vicar, as wonderful story-teller.
  • Contrary to garbled reports that he loathes C.S.Lewis, he thinks Lewis' lit-crit work is excellent, and that he was a good story-teller with an engaging prose style. He likes the Narnia stories until the very end: having taken his Narnia children through many trials and tribulations, growing their strength and character, instead of having them live on in our world to make it a better place, Lewis kills them off. And this, as expressed in the last book, is an outcome devoutly to be wished -- dead and in Heaven is better than living and doing good. Pullman also can't forgive Lewis for condemning Susan for simply growing up and discovering things like a social life and sexual attraction (I don't think I agree with Pullman's interpretation, though I'm not prepared to argue a point which seems to have generated a fair amount of commentary over the years).
  • The authors Pullman really doesn't like are A.A.Milne and J.R.R.Tolkien. I'm not sure what he has against Winnie the Pooh, but he dismisses LOTR as "trivial". It has, in Pullman's view, no real moral ambiguity or struggle. The good and evil are always obvious. Again, I'm not sure I agree, but then I don't have a BA from Oxford, so what do I know?
My take on the His Dark Materials trilogy: the first book was bit "thin" dramatically -- definitely kid-lit -- but they picked up after that. I'm looking forward to the movie.

Oh, and my daemon is an osprey named "Brienne".

Monday, December 3, 2007

IKEA Treads Middle Ground in War On Christmas

While getting a haircut tonight, I heard the following commercial on whatever radio station the barber shop was playing. From memory:
For those of you who celebrate Christmas, IKEA has five-foot Christmas trees for only $20. For those of you who do not celebrate Christmas, IKEA helps you bring the outdoors indoors with five-foot pine-scented air fresheners, also only $20.
Nice try, Ingvar: everyone knows the Swedes are a bunch of pagans, trying to inflict your Jul festival on the rest of us by stealth....