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30 September 2009

International Blasphemy Day!

Just found this humerous bit on the net. Of course, I try to live my life as a blasphemy to religion every day. And it builds off two earlier essays that I copied over to here: Disagreement is not intolerance (despite protests to the contrary on religious ideas). And of course that religious ideas shouldn't get some sort of automatic protection from criticism. So go forth and blaspheme! It's fun!

International Blasphemy Day is not just a day. It is a movement to dismantle the wall which exists between religion and criticism.
The primary focus of the Blasphemy Day movement and indeed this website is not to debate the existence of any gods or deities (there is an abundance of fantastic websites which deal explicitly with that argument all over the internet, check the Web Links section).
The objective of International Blasphemy Day is to open up all religious beliefs to the same level of free inquiry, discussion and criticism to which all other areas of academic interest are subjected.
Why September 30? The last day in September is the anniversary of the original publication of Danish cartoons in 2005 depicting the prophet Muhammad's face.
Any visual depiction of Muhammad is considered a grave offence under Islamic law. The fury which arose within the Islamic community following this publication led to massive riots, attacks on foreign embassies and deaths.
The newspapers which chose to publish these cartoons were in many cases blamed for the outpouring of violence which followed. This unfortunate yet inevitable sequence of events clearly demonstrated a dangerous misconception that had piggy-backed into the 21st century on the shoulders of ignorance, fear and apathy, that all religious beliefs and ideas deserve respect and are beyond criticism or satire.
International Blasphemy Day is a movement, not just a day, to remind the world that religion should never again be beyond open and honest discussion or reproach. Our future depends on it.

The Atheist's Guide to Xmas

I found this over at the Richard Dawkin's forums, and got a kick out of it. Not because of the content of the article, but because of the replies on the forum. I will admit, I do sneer at faithheads from time to time though. It's hard not to when they display such hypocricy and staggering ignorance. But then, I've seen faith heads sneer at people who think the earth is flat, or that the Apollo moon landings were faked... It's the same thing really when it comes to the American Taliban (i.e. christian fundamentalists).

Atheism’s open-door policy

Andrew Brown is wrong: atheism isn’t about class. Anyone can join our club if they don’t believe in God

Ariane Sherine,
Tuesday 29 September 2009 09.30 BST

On Friday, Cif belief editor Andrew Brown wrote, "It is entirely possible that Ariane Sherine's book on enjoying an atheist Christmas will sell this Christmas; but come the new year, it won't be found on the bookshelf in the toilet but in lavatories nicely warmed by Agas." His assertion is that atheists (or "new atheists", as he confusingly calls us – are we the ones who refuse to stay quiet?) are "educated and professional" snobs, and that we use our lack of belief as an excuse to look down on people who are working class: "Obviously, it is no longer done to sneer at the working classes for being idle, brutish, smelly, and breeding too much. But it's perfectly OK to sneer at 'faith heads' for all these things: that shows you're enlightened. It's pure coincidence that the despicable believers are for the most part lower class as well."

This line of thinking is puzzling and wrong on every level. The atheists I know have only one thing in common: we don't believe in God. Beyond that, there are very few generalisations anyone can make – our social class, ethnic backgrounds and political views are often extremely disparate (though there is a definite correlation between atheism and being a liberal – that is, believing that everyone has the right to do and say whatever they like and express themselves as they choose, so long as their actions are peaceful and don't hurt anyone). As he himself has come out on this site as an atheist, it is baffling that the majority of Andrew's pieces seem to lambast atheists, when the sole criterion for being one is merely accepting the truth as science reveals it.

The book I have edited which Andrew refers to, The Atheist's Guide to Christmas, provides a clear example of how different atheists can be. It features 42 freethinking writers (28 men, 14 women), aged between 26 and 79 – many of whom will have little in common other than their kindness and generosity of spirit (each has contributed their time and talent for free). Hopefully it will dispel stereotypes about atheist demographics: 12 contributors are from ethnic minority backgrounds, while four are from the predominantly religious US. Many of the contributors' styles and views couldn't be more different: from Derren Brown to Simon Le Bon, Charlie Brooker to Claire Rayner and David Baddiel to Simon Singh, there is a huge range of uplifting and lighthearted views and ideas for all readers to enjoy, atheist or not.

It is true that some of the contributors, such as Richard Dawkins and AC Grayling, come from very educated backgrounds (yet do not remotely fall into the unrecognisable description of an atheist put forward by Andrew); many do not. I have written before, in this comment on a Madeleine Bunting article, about my childhood and how it contributed in part to my becoming an atheist – and it wouldn't surprise me if many other atheists have had similarly tough experiences.

As book contributor Christina Martin writes in response to Andrew, "You've got me! The reason I am an atheist is not that I was brought up in a freethinking household, it's not that from an early age I realised the world was full of ills which didn't add up to there being a divine plan – my brother being born brain damaged, my father living every day in chronic pain. No, the reason I am an atheist is that I like to deride the working classes. Which is unfortunate, because half my family live on a housing estate in Elephant and Castle. Oh, and my parents struggled for money all through my early childhood. By the time I was a teenager we were fairly well-off, but only because my dad had worked himself so hard for us that he was forced to retire on health grounds. In conclusion, using lazy generalisations to accuse other people of using lazy generalisations is not only ironic but eminently foolish."

Lastly, though Andrew didn't mention this, The Atheist's Guide to Christmas is the first atheist charity book, with all contributor and editor royalties (along with the full advance) going straight to the UK's leading HIV and sexual health charity, Terrence Higgins Trust, which provides testing, medical and legal advice and emotional support to people living with HIV. Contributor Ben Goldacre suggested we support THT as he has seen the tremendous difference they make to people's lives in practice (and they also seemed a fitting choice, given the pope's unhelpful comments earlier this year suggesting that condoms make Aids worse).

Maybe if Andrew reads the funny and thoughtful contributions in this book, he will stop thinking less of us – and finally feel proud to be one of us. We can only hope.

The Atheist's Guide to Christmas is published by The Friday Project

28 September 2009

Oh, The Hypocricy...

Today I found this article: Christian Group Condemns Zoo's Elephant Sculpture.

Wait for it...

Wait for it...

10 Commandments Monument to be built on Courthouse Lawn.

Okay, two different countries here (Yes, Canada is actually a country to those of you who learned geography in the US...), but seriously, can these christian groups not even see their own glaring hypocrisy? If another group puts something up, they are all up in arms and get their panties in a bunch. However, it's all well and good for THEM to put up anything they please.

I guess if you have intellectually castrated yourself enough to actually believe the bullshit religion peddles, this sort of a dissonance doesn't even register above the noise... As I keep saying, hypocrisy is so ingrained into the entire religious delusion that it's an expected way to operate. And no matter how much you point it out to theitards, they will deny it. They get upset when people put up innoffensive billboards that say such devestating messages as "Imagine no religion." or "There probably is no god, enjoy your life."

I have often pointed out that just because an idea is religious, it doesn't somehow deserve automatic respect or defference. For too long we've let religious ideas just skate without putting any sort of challenge to them. And just because you challenge an idea, don't get all uppitty about it. Disagrement is not intollerance. I am convinced that most theitards are just afraid to actually have to defend their ideas against rigorous logic and provide evidence. Their ideas posses none of those qualities, and they aren't used to anyone actually questioning them. Besides, how many of them have actually read the whole basis for their belief system? Sure, many have read the good parts, and a lot of books highlighting the good parts, but to actually slog through the entire book of fables takes a type of dedication that I don't think most possess. And if they have read the whole thing, and remain theistic, well, there you have that mental castration and dissonance agian.

I'm starting to see how how big a bunch of pussies they really are. The catholic leauge got all up in arms over a Penn and teller episode of Bullshit. Sure, Penn can be abrasive, obnoxious, and downright rude, but to demand that their freedom of speech be impeeded because it may point out more hypociricy is, well, yet even more hypocricy. And when I pointe out that thse theitards are being pussies, wimps, and all around cry babies, the theitards themselves get as childish as the church.

Oh well, just a little rant for today. Sorry that I sort of went all over the place with this one. It's hard when you keep getting interrupted.

21 September 2009

Brain Drain

I ran into this article today in USA Today (hey, it's a shit news papaer, but the hotel leaves it at my door every morning). "More of World's Talented Workers Opt to Leave USA." I wonder why that is? (Before you think I am 100% serious, read the last paragraph of this blog first...)

For a long time, we were a world leader in science and technology. We could kick anyone's ass when it came to innovation, REAL science, and technology. Then McCarthyism and religious indoctrination started hitting our young. When those young started to get into the arena of reality, we saw a bit of a shift in the USA's position for science and technology. We were still the best, but now we were importing as much talent as we made ourselves. Other countries lamented that their best and brightest were heading off to the USA to make their dreams come true. We of course didn't mind.

Then introduce the funamentalization of the US. Now we can't even educate our children about the universe and things going on around them because we get distracted with the religious nutbags that insist the world is 6000 years old, and nothing like evolution ever happened, or will happen. Despite the irrifutable mountains of evidence to the contrary. These people who think they live in the 21st century insist on adhereing to Bronze Age myths and fables, and in the process distract themselves and policy makers from the actual goal of cultivating thinkers. It's no wonder that the US is one of the most illiterate developed nations in the world. Or that we have all the other social ills attached to religion running rampant through our society.

Smart people are abandoning ship if they have the opportunity to do so. I know that I seriously considered emmigrating to another country upon retirement from the Military. Thankfully I am now settled in one of the most secular states of the nation. I barely ever see one of those stupid fucking jebus fish on cars. People I meet here don't discuss their religiosity if they are religious (they have the common sense to keep it where it belongs!). And in general, people are a whole lot more intelligent here! Sorry bible belt folks. You are the epitome of the seven deadly sins anyway, and I'm glad to be away from your hypocritical influences.

Okay, so I am stretching correlations and causations in this whole entry, I will admit that freely. :) But come on, doesn't it make a lot of sense in the context of so many individual bits of data?

On the Theme of Being Consistently Wrong

Since today is supposedly the end of the world as we know it, here's another post. Actually, I am reposting an essay by Austin Cline, but wanted to add in a few of my own comments first. Basically this is about how often theitards challenge science in the court of law. Now, I guess if the basis and foundation of your belief is under threat from reality (i.e. science), then the court of law is as good a place as any to start. After all, unlike science, the court of law has a much more lax standard of evidence. Human actions and presedence not based in reality can be used to sway judge to the side of the plaintifs. All you need is a really charismatic attorney that can convince another human being of their point of view... as long as that point of view isn't full of shit I guess...

So, in the spirit of theists being so abhorrently and consistently wrong, I give you:

Evolution & Creationism Court Cases - History of Evolution Court Cases
Major Cases & Rulings on Evolution & Creationism in the Federal Courts

In addition to usually losing political fights, creation science supporters also lose in the courts as well. Regardless of what arguments they try to use, the courts inevitably find that teaching creationism is a violation of the separation of church and state because creationists are unable to avoid the fact that their ideology is fundamentally religious and, therefore, inappropriate to teach students in public schools. Only science is appropriate for science classes and that's evolution.

Supreme Court Decisions
The first case came in 1968: Epperson v. Arkansas was over an Arkansas law prohibiting both the teaching of evolution and the adoption of text books which included the concept of evolution. When a Little Rock biology teacher found that a text book adopted by the local school board included evolution, she was faced with a difficult dilemma: she could either use the book and violate state law or she could refuse to use the text and risk disciplinary action from the board itself. Her solution was to remove the problem by getting rid of the law.
When the case reached the Supreme Court, the justices found that the law was impermissible because it violates the Establishment Clause and prohibits the free exercise of religion. Its only purpose was to prevent the teaching of a scientific concept which conflicted with doctrines of fundamentalist Protestant Christianity. As Justice Abe Fortas wrote:
There is and can be no doubt that the First Amendment does not permit the State to require that teaching and learning must be tailored to the principles or prohibitions of any religious sect or dogma.

This decision prevented schools from banning evolution in public schools, so creationists sought another way to stop "godless" evolution: "scientific creationism." This was designed to challenge evolution in the science classes without appearing to be religious. Creationists worked for the passage of "balanced treatment" laws mandating the teaching of creation science whenever evolution was taught. Arkansas again took the lead with Act 590 in 1981 mandating "balanced treatment" between evolution and creation science
A number of people, including local clergy, sued under the argument that this law impermissibly caused the government to give special support and consideration to one type of religious doctrine. A federal judge found the law unconstitutional in 1981 and declared creationism to be religious in nature ( McLean v. Arkansas).
Creationists decided not to appeal, pinning their hopes on a Louisiana case they thought they had a better chance of winning. Louisiana had passed a "Creationism Act" preventing evolution from being taught unless biblical creationism accompanied it. Voting 7-2 in Edwards v. Aguillard, the Court invalidated the law as a violation of the Establishment Clause. Justice Brennan wrote:
...the Creationism Act is designed either to promote the theory of creation science which embodies a particular religious tenet by requiring that creation science be taught whenever evolution is taught or to prohibit the teaching of a scientific theory disfavored by certain religious sects by forbidding the teaching of evolution when creation science is not also taught. The Establishment Clause, however, "forbids alike the preference of a religious doctrine or the prohibition of theory which is deemed antagonistic to a particular dogma."Because the primary purpose of the Creationism Act is to advance a particular religious belief, the Act endorses religion in violation of the First Amendment.

Lower Court Decisions
The debates continue in the lower courts. In 1994 the Tangipahoa Parish school district passed a law requiring teachers to read aloud a disclaimer before teaching evolution. The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals found in Freiler v. Tangipahoa that the stated "critical thinking" reasons for the disclaimer were a sham. Even if a valid secular purpose for the disclaimer existed, though, the court also found that the actual effects of the disclaimer were religious because it encouraged students to read and meditate upon religion in general and the "Biblical version of Creation" in particular.
Another creationist tactic was tried by biology teacher John Peloza in 1994. He sued his school district for forcing him to teach the "religion" of "evolutionism." The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals complete rejected all of Peloza's arguments in Peloza v. Capistrano. They found that his arguments were inconsistent - sometimes he objected to teaching evolutionary theory, sometimes he objected to teaching evolution as a fact — and held that evolution is in no way a religion and has nothing to do with the origins of the universe.
Webster v. New Lenox School District was decided in 1990 by the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. Ray Webster had been instructed not to teach creation science in his social studies class but he filed suit and claimed that the New Lenox School District violated his first and Fourteenth Amendment rights by prohibiting him from teaching a nonevolutionary theory of creation in the classroom. The court rejected each of his allegations and established that school districts can forbid creationism as a form of religious advocacy.
Creation scientists have failed in their attempts to have evolution legally banned from the classroom or to have creationism taught alongside evolution, but politically active creationists have not given up — nor are they likely to.
Creationists are encouraged to run for local school boards to gain control over science standards, with long-term hopes of diluting and eliminating evolution through slow attrition. This need only happen in a few areas to be successful because some states command a larger share of the market for school text books than others. If the text book publishers cannot easily sell books with a strong emphasis on evolution to large markets like Texas, then they are unlikely to go to bother publishing two versions. It doesn't matter where creationists become successful because. in the long run, they may end up affecting everyone.

Don't These Idiots Tire of Being Wrong?

Yet anothe web page has proclaimed that the end of the world as we know it is upon us. And yet again they were wrong. I don't know about you, but so far my drive in to work was just fine. Nothing catastrophic has happend yet (unless you count the Ptriots losing yesterday).

And they have such a pretty web page too! I guess we can add them to the list of other failed predictions of the end of the world as we know it... You'd think that any group of people that are so consistently wrong about so many things, in such a rediculous manner, that they would just crawl under the rock they came from and leave the rest of the rational world alone, but no...

I am interested in what their excuse will be! Will they just recalculate and move the goalpost? Will they insist that the end of the world really did start, and those of us who don't believe just didn't notice it? Seriously, this would be high comedy if there weren't a bunch of idiots all over the world that display the same amount of nurological activity as these idiots. Sure, the flavour of their delusion may be different, and the window dressing to their private padded room is different, but the mental processes are the same. THAT is really the sign that it's the end of the world as we know it.

15 September 2009

Why People Believe in Conspiracies

I always like Michael Shermer's writing style, and the topics he tackles. I know that sometimes I just have to sit and stare open mouthed at some of the incredibly ridiculous and downright insane things people believe. And how desperately they cling to those beliefs! No matter how much data to the contrary is presented, they absolutely refuse to give in. As a matter of fact, they become more convinced of the legitimacy of their conspiracy theory as opposed to actually evaluating the data. So I found this article interesting:

After a public lecture in 2005, I was buttonholed by a documentary filmmaker with Michael Moore-ish ambitions of exposing the conspiracy behind 9/11. “You mean the conspiracy by Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda to attack the United States?” I asked rhetorically, knowing what was to come.

“That’s what they want you to believe,” he said. “Who is they?” I queried. “The government,” he whispered, as if “they” might be listening at that very moment. “But didn’t Osama and some members of al Qaeda not only say they did it,” I reminded him, “they gloated about what a glorious triumph it was?”

“Oh, you’re talking about that video of Osama,” he rejoined knowingly. “That was faked by the CIA and leaked to the American press to mislead us. There has been a disinformation campaign going on ever since 9/11.”

Conspiracies do happen, of course. Abraham Lincoln was the victim of an assassination conspiracy, as was Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand, gunned down by the Serbian secret society called Black Hand. The attack on Pearl Harbor was a Japanese conspiracy (although some conspiracists think Franklin Roosevelt was in on it). Watergate was a conspiracy (that Richard Nixon was in on). How can we tell the difference between information and disinformation? As Kurt Cobain, the rocker star of Nirvana, once growled in his grunge lyrics shortly before his death from a self-inflicted (or was it?) gunshot to the head, “Just because you’re paranoid don’t mean they’re not after you.”

But as former Nixon aide G. Gordon Liddy once told me (and he should know!), the problem with government conspiracies is that bureaucrats are incompetent and people can’t keep their mouths shut. Complex conspiracies are difficult to pull off, and so many people want their quarter hour of fame that even the Men in Black couldn’t squelch the squealers from spilling the beans. So there’s a good chance that the more elaborate a conspiracy theory is, and the more people that would need to be involved, the less likely it is true.

Why do people believe in highly improbable conspiracies? In previous columns I have provided partial answers, citing patternicity (the tendency to find meaningful patterns in random noise) and agenticity (the bent to believe the world is controlled by invisible intentional agents). Conspiracy theories connect the dots of random events into meaningful patterns and then infuse those patterns with intentional agency. Add to those propensities the confirmation bias (which seeks and finds confirmatory evidence for what we already believe) and the hindsight bias (which tailors after-the-fact explanations to what we already know happened), and we have the foundation for conspiratorial cognition.

Examples of these processes can be found in journalist Arthur Goldwag’s marvelous new book, Cults, Conspiracies, and Secret Societies (Vintage, 2009), which covers everything from the Freemasons, the Illuminati and the Bilderberg Group to black helicopters and the New World Order. “When something momentous happens, everything leading up to and away from the event seems momentous, too. Even the most trivial detail seems to glow with significance,” Goldwag explains, noting the JFK assassination as a prime example. “Knowing what we know now ... film footage of Dealey Plaza from November 22, 1963, seems pregnant with enigmas and ironies—from the oddly expectant expressions on the faces of the onlookers on the grassy knoll in the instants before the shots were fired (What were they thinking?) to the play of shadows in the background (Could that flash up there on the overpass have been a gun barrel gleaming in the sun?). Each odd excrescence, every random lump in the visual texture seems suspicious.” Add to these factors how compellingly a good narrative story can tie it all together—think of Oliver Stone’s JFK or Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons, both equally fictional.

What should we believe? Transcendentalists tend to believe that everything is interconnected and that all events happen for a reason. Empiricists tend to think that randomness and coincidence interact with the causal net of our world and that belief should depend on evidence for each individual claim. The problem for skepticism is that transcendentalism is intuitive; empiricism is not. Or as folk rock group Buffalo Springfield once intoned: Paranoia strikes deep. Into your life it will creep ...

Note: This article was originally printed with the title, "Paranoia Strikes Deep."

10 September 2009

Flaws in Reasoning: Repetition - Argumentum Ad Nauseam

This is probably one of my least favorite logical fallacies... Not that I actually have a favorite, but this one just makes me the most angry. It clearly shows that anyone who keeps bringing the same thing up again and again is in no way listening to anything you say. No matter how soundly you refute their argument, they aren't listening, and are in no way interested in listening.

At least this is a tip off to me that I am better served leaving them to their delusions and moving on to someone who may at least have a functioning sensory system instead of being as intelectually capable as a turnip.


Sometimes, people seem to think that the more they repeat an idea, the more likely it is that someone else will believe it. In other words, they are trying to convince people of something not based upon reasons or evidence, but instead upon sheer repetition. But why do some think that such a tactic will work?

Probably because it does — it’s a common feature of both advertising and politics to repeat the same idea over and over until people believe it. Sometimes it happens quickly and sometimes it takes longer, but in the end propagandists can get quite a lot of milage out of repetition.

Sometimes this tactic is referred to as “argumentum ad nauseam” — argument to nausea, based upon the idea that the position is repeated until people become sick of it. Other times, when this occurs not in the context of a single individual’s arguments but instead in the context of a wider culture, it is referred to as Communal Reinforcement.

In the latter situation, the mass media often plays an important role in the spread of invalid ideas, for example by failing to provide any skeptical arguments or even acknowledging that skepticism exists. When was the last time that a report alien abductions or spiritualism spent anywhere close to the same amount of time on skeptical perspectives? When was the last time an article or program on religion offered any time to nonbelievers?

The reason why this is a flaw in reasoning is that the validity or truth of an idea has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with how often the idea is repeated. You can repeat something dozens of times and it will still be false, while a truth remains a truth even if it is stated only once. Because of this, it is better to avoid repetition as much as possible.

This is not to say, of course, that repetition is always wrong. Sometimes you will find that people don’t entirely understand what you are trying to say. Sometimes you might be legitimately concerned that the primary way you have phrased an idea won’t be understood. In either case, it would not be improper for you to repeat your basic point in different words.

It is also valid to repeat your main point in order to make sure that people remember it. A common piece of advice for formal debating and public speaking is to “Tell ‘em what you’re gonna tell ‘em, then tell ‘em, and then tell ‘em what you told ‘em.” So long as this is accompanied by good reasons to believe that your central point is true, there shouldn’t be anything wrong with this.

Of course, even that can become overbearing if it goes too far: it may not be fallacious to repeat the truth multiple times and in different forms, but it can get annoying over time.

If you encounter someone engaging in argumentum ad nauseam, the best course of action is probably to just point out how often they have repeated their assertion and how little you have seen in the way of support for that assertion. Acknowledge that it is possible that they are right, but explain to them that that cannot be established simply through repetition; instead, you need sound evidence and rational arguments in order to reach that conclusion.

If you encounter a belief or argument which appears to have been created through Communal Reinforcement, your task might be a bit more difficult. When you ask for support for the claim, a person can readily cite all kinds of sources in the media and literature where this claim has been repeated. What you will need to do is explain how and why the repetition of a claim in no way validates it; rather, you need independent support, evidence, and/or arguments which show that it is more likely true than false.

08 September 2009

Stay In School

I am just going to post Dr. Plait's blog entry on this here. I am so saddened and dumfounded by the reactions of the right on this that I probably couldn't say anything even remotely kind... And before you think I am giving the Dems a free pass, no, they showed their fucktardery when George Sr did his bit... Why are the majority of our elected officials such fucking idiots? I'm starting to think they all dropped out of school (right onto their pointy little heads!).

Perhaps you’ve heard all the uproar about President Obama’s speech today. A group of folks is very concerned about a speech of his today, because he’s talking to schoolkids. And hey, didn’t Hitler talk to kids…?

That’s about as good as their logic gets. I wish I were kidding. Read the transcript of Obama’s speech, and see if you can find the alarming parts where he calls for the formation of Brown Shirts, or the extermination of a group of humans, or the invasion of Poland. I must have missed it, instead seeing things like where he says,

Now I’ve given a lot of speeches about education. And I’ve talked a lot about responsibility.
I’ve talked about your teachers’ responsibility for inspiring you, and pushing you to learn.
I’ve talked about your parents’ responsibility for making sure you stay on track, and get your homework done, and don’t spend every waking hour in front of the TV or with that Xbox.
I’ve talked a lot about your government’s responsibility for setting high standards, supporting teachers and principals, and turning around schools that aren’t working where students aren’t getting the opportunities they deserve.
But at the end of the day, we can have the most dedicated teachers, the most supportive parents, and the best schools in the world – and none of it will matter unless all of you fulfill your responsibilities. Unless you show up to those schools; pay attention to those teachers; listen to your parents, grandparents and other adults; and put in the hard work it takes to succeed.
And that’s what I want to focus on today: the responsibility each of you has for your education. I want to start with the responsibility you have to yourself.

Call the Allies! Load the B-29s!
Seriously, read this whole speech. It’s inspiring, wonderful, and designed to inspire kids to stay in school, accept the responsibility of the education, learn things, and then go and and do good for the world.
Of course, there is a lunatic fringe in this country who will go ballistic about Obama no matter what he does; these are the ones saying the speech is indoctrinating children into accepting his socialist health care plan that will mutilate puppies and convert our elderly into Soylent Green. These people may be rabid racists, or simply mentally unbalanced, but we know for a rock solid fact that these people are utterly, completely wrong. Whatever you want to call them, it’s clear they are so far from the norm of the American people that they can’t even see the horizon from where they are. Simply reading the speech transcript shows that simply and clearly. But it’s also a fact that this subset of the population will always be with us.
But you know what? That doesn’t mean we have to give them a voice in the mainstream press. They have a right to their speech, but that doesn’t obligate anyone to pay attention to them, especially on the platform of national TV. I’m looking you right in the eye, Fox News. Not only do you give these people — factually wrong and provably so — a voice, you reiterate their comments and use your own voice to back them up.
This sort of thing mainstreams a view that is charitably called crazy. Again, I urge you to read Obama’s actual speech. It’s awesome, and something every kid should see and hear.
Yet because "news" media like Fox have aired so much invective from the wildly fringe reality-polluting community, even mainstream folks are arguing that Obama’s speech is evil. I saw a news report yesterday about an elementary school in North Carolina where they didn’t air the speech because so many parents complained. I can’t help but wonder what they would would have said if George Bush had made this same speech. Of course, Bush never would have said something like:

You’ll need the knowledge and problem-solving skills you learn in science and math to cure diseases like cancer and AIDS, and to develop new energy technologies and protect our environment. You’ll need the insights and critical thinking skills you gain in history and social studies to fight poverty and homelessness, crime and discrimination, and make our nation more fair and more free. You’ll need the creativity and ingenuity you develop in all your classes to build new companies that will create new jobs and boost our economy.

And maybe if he had said those words, the people I’m talking about would’ve complained anyway. Critical thinking skills? Ha!
If I sound angry, then, yeah, I am. I’m tired of ignorance held up as inspiration, where vicious anti-intellectualism is considered a positive trait, and where uninformed opinion is displayed as fact.
It’s killing any real debate in this country, where the system of government depends utterly on a well-informed public. When rampant idiocy is presented as reasonable discourse without any rebuttal, then we all suffer.
What we need are government officials not afraid to talk like Barney Frank did to such a voice of lunacy. To reiterate, crackpots have a right to air their diseased notions, just as we have the right to tear those ideas to shred when they do. More than that, the news media have a responsibility to do so.
Let me leave you with this revolutionary and dangerous notion from President Obama:

Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it. I do that every day. Asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of strength. It shows you have the courage to admit when you don’t know something, and to learn something new. So find an adult you trust – a parent, grandparent or teacher; a coach or counselor – and ask them to help you stay on track to meet your goals.

I would add that we all need to not be afraid to speak out against nonsense and to call out willful ignorance when we see it.
Never give up. Never back down against evil. Never tire, because this struggle will be eternal.

07 September 2009

The Null Hypothesis

So I was having a discussion about god, science, logic, etc. with someone, and they said:
I still believe in God is that there is no other option that completely satisfies me for existance anyway. Every other theory is full of holes (as you say my belief is) so I have chosen the one with lesser holes.

And this same person had the gem of:
I also dont allow myself to believe in a scientific "fact" (like evolution/big bang) until that fact can be 100% proven to me

This really gave me pause. Not because it was profound, or in any way right, but rather at how wrong and incomplete these type of statements are...

The first statement gets right back at a blog I had a while back. So the fact that we don't know everything yet, and there are still areas left to learn in, is a reason to just dismiss it outright and substitute it with the god hypothesis? Of course there will be holes in stuff because we still have to figure out a lot of stuff. But is that enough reason to just blithely believe in a god? I guess that there are no holes in the god hypothesis, because the entire hypothesis is entirely empty. It can't have holes in it, because the entire thing is a hole! I suppose ONE giant hole is better than lots of little holes by this logic. I just can't get over how intellectually stifling something like that is!

The second quote... Well, that sort of blatantly poor understanding of even the basics of science makes me wonder exactly what holes this person is talking about in the first quote? Could it be that all the holes they see are just a result of a poor education, and no understanding of the things they criticize? As well as a total fear to admit a lack of knowledge? In looking at this person's profile, I did see they attended a religious school. Which would lead me to think they have received a skewed education on many things to say the least. And even if they had pursued further education on their own, the second quote shows they still have not put away some very basic and fundamental misunderstandings on science...

As I said where this discussion started, teaching people about scientific thought is like teaching a Gobi tribesman about deep sea fishing. The entire concept is totally alien to them. I really feel sorry for people who live such intellectually isolated lives. There is so much out there to go after and learn about, but if you have your invisible sky daddy as the default answer, do you really ever actually learn something?

05 September 2009

In Defense of Optimism

I found this article over at Daylight Atheism to be particularly interesting. I guess the thing that really bugs me about religion is how horribly depressing it really is at its root. It's about fear, reprisals, guilt, bigotry, etc. The only time the love (and all the good feelings) comes into play is if you buy into their cult and drink the cool-aid. At its core, religion is exclusionary, not inclusiveness. I guess that's one other reason they are so upset at people who would rather embrace all of humanity as opposed to damn them to hell for not having the same imaginary friends... Anyway, here's the essay (emphasis mine):

Among the writers who oppose the New Atheists, one common theme in their criticism is that we're too optimistic about the possibility of human progress. For example, take this essay by Terry Eagleton attacking Richard Dawkins, in which the sneering condescension drips from every word:

It thus comes as no surprise that Dawkins turns out to be an old-fashioned Hegelian when it comes to global politics, believing in a zeitgeist (his own term) involving ever increasing progress, with just the occasional 'reversal'. 'The whole wave,' he rhapsodises in the finest Whiggish manner, 'keeps moving.' There are, he generously concedes, 'local and temporary setbacks' like the present US government – as though that regime were an electoral aberration, rather than the harbinger of a drastic transformation of the world order that we will probably have to live with for as long as we can foresee [ed.note: this was written during the Bush administration]. Dawkins, by contrast, believes, in his Herbert Spencerish way, that 'the progressive trend is unmistakable and it will continue.' So there we are, then: we have it from the mouth of Mr Public Science himself that aside from a few local, temporary hiccups like ecological disasters, famine, ethnic wars and nuclear wastelands, History is perpetually on the up.

The venom is even more apparent in another essay by Chris Hedges, which fulminates against atheists for not all being nihilists like himself:

There is nothing in human nature or human history to support the idea that we are morally advancing as a species or that we will overcome the flaws of human nature. We progress technologically and scientifically, but not morally. We use the newest instruments of technological and scientific progress to create more efficient forms of killing, repression, and economic exploitation and to accelerate environmental degradation as well as to nurture and sustain life. There is a good and a bad side to human progress. We are not moving toward a glorious utopia. We are not moving anywhere.

...the New Atheists, like all believers in myth, refuse to listen. They peddle the alluring and enticing fantasy of inevitable moral and material progress. This vision is not based on science, history or reason. It is an act of faith. It is a form of the occult. It is no more scientifically legitimate than alchemy.

Despite the flippancy and the anger of those who issue it, this is a challenge worth meeting on its own ground. Are we New Atheists unjustifiably optimistic? Do we too readily discount the potential for evil in mankind? Have we, as some of these critics would surely charge, replaced the unfounded faith in Heaven with an equally unfounded faith in human progress?

These are legitimate questions. To answer them, I'll begin by citing a few statistics.

If you lived in a hunter-gatherer society prior to the advent of modern civilization, what were your chances of dying by violence? The anthropologist Steven LeBlanc, in his book Constant Battles, estimates that in some primitive societies it was as high as fifty percent. And that's solely from deliberately waged warfare between competing tribes, without counting additional deaths from disease, accident, or starvation. As Steven Pinker puts it in What Are You Optimistic About?:

Most people, sickened by the headlines and the bloody history of the 20th century, find this claim incredible. Yet as far as I know, every systematic attempt to document the prevalence of violence over centuries... has shown that the overall trend is downward [p.4].

The wars of the 20th century caused untold devastation and suffering, but part of the reason for the great loss of life was simply that, due to industrialization and population growth, there were more people around to kill. Yet as a percentage of the total population, the number of people who lose their lives to violence has been declining for centuries. The 17th century's Thirty Years' War, for instance, may have killed as many as two-thirds of the population in some areas, whereas in World War II, even the countries that suffered the most generally lost no more than about 5% of their population.

John Horgan, in another chapter from the same book, puts the comparison vividly:

In War Before Civilization, the anthropologist Lawrence Keeley estimates that in the blood-soaked 20th century 100 million men, women and children died from war-related causes... The total would have been 2 billion, Keeley notes, if our rates of violence had been as high as in the average primitive society. [p.7]

By Keeley's numbers, violence in primitive societies was twenty times as high as in ours. And the trend of decreasing violence is on a path to continue. It's widely agreed that the wars of the future, rather than conventional conflicts between great powers, will be what Charles Kurzman and Neil Englehart call "the remnants of war", asymmetric conflicts between states and non-state actors like terrorist and guerrilla groups. For all their power to grab the headlines with lurid acts of violence, these types of conflicts will incur still lower death tolls than the wars of eras past.

In areas aside from warfare, the statistics still paint an optimistic picture. Over the last few decades, global poverty rates, infant mortality and other negative indicators have steadily fallen, while literacy, life expectancy, per capita income, and other positive indicators continue to rise. One of the more underappreciated factors contributing to this trend may be the ongoing urbanization of the world's population. As Stewart Brand puts it, "cities cure poverty" - consistently producing a drop in birthrate and a rise in economic prosperity among those who migrate to urban centers.

We have completely cured smallpox, and stand on the brink of wiping out several other contagious diseases, like polio, through worldwide campaigns of vaccination. "Soft" indicators of progress, like democracy, transparency in government and protection for human rights, are harder to measure, but in these areas as well, there are significant signs of progress globally (with, of course, many exceptions and local reversals).

None of this, of course, is to say that the world is on a smooth and inevitable trajectory towards utopia. A terrible, genocidal war might begin tomorrow, or next year, or in the next decade. There will still be natural disasters, crime and terrorism for the foreseeable future. Human rights, in all places and times, must be vigilantly defended against those who try to take them away. The looming crisis of global climate change still demands swift and decisive action if we are to avert the worst of its effects. And there will most likely be new challenges we must face in the future that we have not yet thought of or foreseen.

But these events, terrible as they are for those who experience them, should still be viewed against the appropriate background: as frustratingly slow as it is, as halting and zigzag as it is, progress is happening. The world is becoming a better place. The world we live in today is a far better place than the world a hundred years ago, and the world a hundred years from now will in all likelihood be better still. If your eyes are always riveted on the latest sensationalistic news report, moral progress is easy to miss - but it's happening regardless. On the grand scale of history, the human species is rising. (And as an atheist, I might add one more hopeful sign: the ongoing rise in the numbers of nonbelievers throughout the industrialized world!)

One wonders at the motivation of those who insist that moral progress is impossible. There's one causal factor that can't be overlooked. Namely, the evidence is unequivocal that happy, contented, economically secure people see less need for religion. Religion always flourishes among the poor, the downtrodden, the underclass - people who console themselves over their lack of power and prosperity in this world by believing that they'll get their just desserts in the next - and understandably so.

But the corollary is that the evangelists of religion have something to lose from moral progress. In a very real sense, they need the world to contain its measure of pain and misery, because the promise of relief from same is one of their selling points. The more peaceful, the more prosperous human society becomes, the less receptive people will be to their message. Small wonder, then, that they insist progress is a fool's dream. Their worldview depends on people believing this to be true!

Granted, it would be too harsh to attribute these sinister motives to every religious apologist. Some of them may just be irrefragable pessimists. But whether their pessimism is a personality trait or whether it's strategic, in either case, there are good reasons to think it's unfounded.

High-Speed Robot Hand Demonstrates Dexterity and Skillful Manipulation

This is just too cool! I give it to you with minimal text or alteration. I suggest just watching the video, and leave it at that:

A few blogs are passing around videos of the Ishikawa Komuro Lab's high-speed robot hand performing impressive acts of dexterity and skillful manipulation. However, the video being passed around is slight on details. Meanwhile, their video presentation at ICRA 2009 (which took place in May in Kobe, Japan) has an informative narration and demonstrates additional capabilities. I have included this video below, which shows the manipulator dribbling a ping-pong ball, spinning a pen, throwing a ball, tying knots, grasping a grain of rice with tweezers, and tossing / re-grasping a cellphone!

Here is the video:

Based on the video, the hand uses high-speed actuators with harmonic drive gears. The hand can close in 1/10th of a second! Personally, I find the tweezers grasping the grain of rice the most entertaining -- very anthropomorphic.

Ishikawa Komuro Lab's high-speed robot hand grasping a grain of rice with tweezers

If you'd like to learn more about this (and other) robots from the Ishikawa Komuro Lab, see their website.

04 September 2009

Grassroots Skeptics Launch!

Grassroots Skeptics Launches

Philadelphia, PA – 9/4/2009: Grassroots Skeptics today announced the official launch of its website, The website is the centerpiece of the group's planned outreach and advocacy in the skeptical community.

“There are a lot of passionate advocates and community groups working diligently to advance critical thinking,” said Grassroots Skeptics founder K.O. Myers. “We want to help increase their effectiveness, by making it easier for them to find new members, share resources, and identify methods for getting their message out.”

The group plans to use the site to gather and organize information about skeptical advocacy. At launch, the site will feature an index of local skeptics groups, information on many skeptical blogs and podcasts, discussion forums, and a calendar of skeptical events. The events calendar is a joint project, maintained in collaboration with the prominent skeptical website

“There is an amazing amount of information out there that could be helpful for people who want to start or join a skeptical organization,” Myers said. “We want to collect and organize it, to make it more useful for the dedicated individuals who volunteer their time to promote an evidence-based lifestyle.”

“Widespread misinformation about vaccines has lead to a resurgence in preventable illnesses; scam artists posing as 'psychics' prey on the grieving; 'alternative medicine' companies sell billions of dollars of dubious treatments, with almost no government regulation,” said Myers. “Critical thinking is more important than ever, and local skeptics groups are working hard to spread that message. With, we hope we can make their outreach more effective.”

Future plans for the site include a skeptical speakers' bureau, a searchable map of skeptics groups and skeptic-friendly attractions, and a development kit for skeptics who want to start new groups. “We're excited about this launch,” said Myers, “but we're already looking forward to making a richer, deeper resource for the organized skeptical community.”

Grassroots Skeptics is a volunteer organization that promotes critical thinking and a reason-centered worldview by helping local skeptics groups to share tools, information and strategies, and connect with skeptical individuals and activists both locally and globally.

K.O. Myers

Great Quote

I found this great quote on Dr. Plaits blog and just had to preserve it:

Americans have shown over and over again that they DON’T want truth; they want the ILLUSION of truth. Truth can be gray, messy, and inconclusive. The illusion of truth provides easy, safe and consistent answers—even if they are dead wrong and do not stand up to close scrutiny.
An interesting case study was referenced in the comments as well.
Not only do we not want actual truth, we will bend new and conflicting information to fit what we already believe to be truth. Search for the Steve Hoffman (et al) study titled “There Must Be A Reason: Osama, Saddam, and Inferred Justification” - it’s in this month’s Sociological Inquiry as well as on the web site for the Sociology department at SUNY Buffalo.
In the study, when people who believed Saddam Hussein was responsible for the 9/11 attacks were shown article after article dismissing the link, and even statements by President Bush dismissing the link, they not only still believed in the Saddam-9/11 connection, but they rewrote and reinterpreted this new information in order to maintain their beliefs.
Stephen Colbert’s joke about the number of neurons in the brain versus the gut is quite unfortunately appropriate. Most Americans prefer to look it up in their guts rather than a book.

Of course, with as fat as Americans are getting, you'd think that with our ginormous guts we'd do better than we are...