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27 November 2010

WTF is wrong with Texas?

Okay, Texas, it's not bad enough that you have blatant young earth creationists attempting to run your board of education, and "stand up to the experts", or that you think that cession is somehow a realistic goal...  Now you are embracing teabagging racism at its core?  And I think that the last sentence in the second paragraph of the article pretty much nails it, and why I have such a problem with religiosity:  "they seem to believe that they are immune to anti-Semitism because they are Christians guided by God."  Well, xtians ARE NOT special in any sense.  As a matter of fact, I have noticed a much greater propensity towards being a total douchebag if you are christian than not...

Texas Tea Baggers Push for Judenfrei Republican Leadership

It would be difficult to understate just how bigoted America's Tea Bagger movement really is. It's unlikely that many are consciously bigots, like members of the KKK, but they do subscribe to an extreme form of tribalism in which white, Protestant Christians are the only "true" Americans.

The extremes to which this can be taken are evident in Texas where State Rep. Joe Straus should have the votes to become Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives, but a coalition of Tea Baggers is fighting him -- and one of their key arguments is that he's a Jew. The anti-Semitism of their anti-Straus campaign is evident to everyone but them -- they seem to believe that they are immune to anti-Semitism because they are Christians guided by God.
- "Straus is going down in Jesus' name," said one e-mail, whose origins were unclear.

- Straus "clearly lacks the moral compass to be speaker," said another, written by Southeast Texas conservative activist Peter Morrison. A Morrison e-mail said that Straus' rabbi sits on a Planned Parenthood board and then pointed out that Straus' opponents in the Speaker's race "are Christians and true conservatives." Morrison is a contributor to the white supremacy website VDARE.

- The Tea Party-backed groups are now running anti-Straus robo-calls and e-mails demanding a "true Christian speaker," reports News 8 Austin.

- The Quorum Report, an online newsletter, reported extensively late Monday on e-mails that mentioned Straus' Judaism, his rabbi and the Christian faith of his House critics, who include Rep. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola.

- Patrick Brendel reported that David Barton, leader of the group WallBuilders, has helped organize much of the anti-Straus campaign. Barton is a frequent contributor to the Glenn Beck program.

- Kaufman County Tea Party Chairman Ray Myers sent an e-mail last week praising a Straus opponent as "a Christian Conservative who decided not to be pushed around by the Joe Straus thugs."

Source: Think Progress
It's important to recognize that these aren't just some fringe Tea Baggers at work here. All of these groups have operated alongside other conservative groups without a problem for a while now. They are accepted as being as "mainstream" as a group can get in conservative circles today. What this means is that this anti-Semitism, bigotry, and extreme tribalism are also accepted as "mainstream" among conservatives and Republicans today. Indeed, they are arguably what is driving modern American conservatism.
Myers, Morrison, and others have signed letters and worked in conjunction with major right-wing and Republican groups, like Americans for Prosperity. Americans for Prosperity, funded and financed by billionaires David and Charles Koch, is one of the most prominent conservative organizations in the country. Its leader, Tim Phillips, ran a similarly anti-Semitic campaign before being asked by David Koch to manage Americans for Prosperity.
That anti-Semitic campaign was, interestingly enough, against Eric Cantor in 2000. Today Eric Cantor is one of the leaders of the Republican Party -- and he hasn't wasted a second of his precious time condemning or even mildly objecting to the anti-Semitic tribalism or Christian Nationalism of his political cronies. He doesn't have enough self-respect to complain when it's directed at him, much less enough respect for others to stand up for them -- not even when they are conservative Republicans.
This is the true heart of the American Tea Bagger. Gaze upon it well, for sooner or later it will direct its hatred in your direction. This sort of tribalism always seeks out new targets to attack, until there is nothing left but to turn in on itself and become self-destructive.

22 November 2010 Linking Denialism and Conservatism

An interesting read that I wanted to pass along.  While this is not an ironclad rule (heck, I was a registered republican for 20 years until I just couldn't stand their sellout to the religious right), I do see it as a tendency that if you don't like any change what-so-ever, you will deny it in the fact of all evidence.  I wonder if it stems from some sort of insecurity, or just lack of intellectual honesty...

Linking Denialism and Conservatism

What's more important in "denialism" -- the denial of science -- ideology or psychology? There are unambiguous ideological trends, with much of denialism being associated with the political right and tremendous overlap among denial of both evolution and climate change. But maybe this is more than just politics because once you buy into one form of denial then the other forms start looking more reasonable as well. Maybe all it takes is one taste...
Debora MacKenzie writes in the May 15, 2010 issue of New Scientist:
Perhaps it is no surprise that some industries are prepared to distort reality to protect their markets. But the tentacles of organized denial reach beyond narrow financial interests. For example, some prominent backers of climate denial also deny evolution. Prominent creationists return the favour both in the US and elsewhere. Recent legislative efforts to get creationism taught in US schools have been joined by calls to "teach the controversy" on warming as well.

These positions align neatly with the concerns of the US political and religious right, and denial is often driven by an overtly political agenda. Some creationists have explicitly argued that the science of both climate and evolution involve "a left·wing ideology that promotes statism, nannystate moralism and ... materialism".

People who buy into one denialism may support others for this reason. Dan Kahan at Yale Law School has found that people's views on social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage predict their position on climate science too. This, he argues, is because social conservatives tend to be pro-business and resist the idea that it is damaging the planet (Nature, vol 436, p 296).

But other denialisms suggest psychology, not just ideology, is crucial. There is no obvious connection between conservatism and vaccine or AIDS denial, and flu denial was promulgated by a left-leaning group suspicious of the vaccine industry.

Nevertheless, some connections exist that hint at a wider agenda. For example, there is considerable overlap in membership between the vaccine and HIV deniers, says John Moore, an AIDS researcher at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York. Both movements have massive but mysterious funding.

Consider, too, the journal of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, a lobbying group for private medicine. It showcases nearly all denialist causes. In the past two years it has published articles claiming that HIV tests do not detect HIV, secondhand smoke does little harm, smoking bans do not reduce heart attacks, global warming presents little health threat and proposals for a US vaccination registry are "not really about vaccines but about establishing a computer infrastructure ... that can be used for other purposes later". It repeatedly published discredited assertions that vaccines cause autism.

It is tempting to wonder if activists sympathetic to climate and evolution denial might be grasping opportunities to discredit science in general by spreading vaccine and HIV denialism.
If it was just psychology, though, I'm not sure that would explain why there is so much more denialism on the right than on the left -- and why the denialism is so much more "mainstream" and common in conservative circles. Even if ideology doesn't play any sort of role (which strikes me as unlikely), there still has to be more going on which creates some sort of affinity...
The conservative character of much denial may also explain its success at winning hearts and minds.

George Lakoff, a cognitive psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, argues that conservatives have been better than progressives all exploiting anecdote and emotion to win arguments. Progressives tend to think that giving people the facts and figures will Inevitably lead them to the right conclusions. They see anecdotes as inadmissible evidence, and appeals to emotion as wrong.

The same is true of scientists. But against emotion and anecdote, dry statements of evidence have little power. To make matters worse, scientists usually react to denial with anger and disdain, which makes them seem even more arrogant.
Concern with and criticism of denialism isn't an abstract, academic exercise. Denial of science kills -- several hundred thousand have died in Africa due to the denial that AIDS is caused by HIV and denial about the role of tobacco in so many cancers killed hundreds of thousands in the West. Denial about the nature and efficacy of vaccines will start killing in larger numbers if it isn't stopped soon. Humanity has never been able to afford the presence of people in denial about reality, but our modern world has become so dependent on science that denial is growing progressively more dangerous.

12 November 2010

The Lay Scientist knocks one out of the park

I just found this article over at the guardian.  I don't think there is anything I could possibly add to it's singularly spectacular deconstruction of science reporting.  The Related Links section is just too true to reality that I can't comment more on it.

This is a news website article about a scientific paper

In the standfirst I will make a fairly obvious pun about the subject matter before posing an inane question I have no intention of really answering: is this an important scientific finding?

In this paragraph I will state the main claim that the research makes, making appropriate use of "scare quotes" to ensure that it's clear that I have no opinion about this research whatsoever.

In this paragraph I will briefly (because no paragraph should be more than one line) state which existing scientific ideas this new research "challenges".

If the research is about a potential cure, or a solution to a problem, this paragraph will describe how it will raise hopes for a group of sufferers or victims.

This paragraph elaborates on the claim, adding weasel-words like "the scientists say" to shift responsibility for establishing the likely truth or accuracy of the research findings on to absolutely anybody else but me, the journalist.

In this paragraph I will state in which journal the research will be published. I won't provide a link because either a) the concept of adding links to web pages is alien to the editors, b) I can't be bothered, or c) the journal inexplicably set the embargo on the press release to expire before the paper was actually published.
"Basically, this is a brief soundbite," the scientist will say, from a department and university that I will give brief credit to. "The existing science is a bit dodgy, whereas my conclusion seems bang on," she or he will continue.

I will then briefly state how many years the scientist spent leading the study, to reinforce the fact that this is a serious study and worthy of being published by the BBC the website.

This is a sub-heading that gives the impression I am about to add useful context.

Here I will state that whatever was being researched was first discovered in some year, presenting a vague timeline in a token gesture toward establishing context for the reader.

To pad out this section I will include a variety of inane facts about the subject of the research that I gathered by Googling the topic and reading the Wikipedia article that appeared as the first link.

I will preface them with "it is believed" or "scientists think" to avoid giving the impression of passing any sort of personal judgement on even the most inane facts.

This fragment will be put on its own line for no obvious reason.

In this paragraph I will reference or quote some minor celebrity, historical figure, eccentric, or a group of sufferers; because my editors are ideologically committed to the idea that all news stories need a "human interest", and I'm not convinced that the scientists are interesting enough.

At this point I will include a picture, because our search engine optimisation experts have determined that humans are incapable of reading more than 400 words without one.
This is a picture  
This picture has been optimised by SEO experts to appeal to our key target demographics 
This subheading hints at controversy with a curt phrase and a question mark?

This paragraph will explain that while some scientists believe one thing to be true, other people believe another, different thing to be true.

In this paragraph I will provide balance with a quote from another scientist in the field. Since I picked their name at random from a Google search, and since the research probably hasn't even been published yet for them to see it, their response to my e-mail will be bland and non-committal.

"The research is useful", they will say, "and gives us new information. However, we need more research before we can say if the conclusions are correct, so I would advise caution for now."

If the subject is politically sensitive this paragraph will contain quotes from some fringe special interest group of people who, though having no apparent understanding of the subject, help to give the impression that genuine public "controversy" exists.

This paragraph will provide more comments from the author restating their beliefs about the research by basically repeating the same stuff they said in the earlier quotes but with slightly different words. They won't address any of the criticisms above because I only had time to send out one round of e-mails.

This paragraph contained useful information or context, but was removed by the sub-editor to keep the article within an arbitrary word limit in case the internet runs out of space.

The final paragraph will state that some part of the result is still ambiguous, and that research will continue.

Related Links:

The Journal (not the actual paper, we don't link to papers).

The University Home Page (finding the researcher's page would be too much effort).

Unrelated story from 2007 matched by keyword analysis.

Special interest group linked to for balance.

06 November 2010

Happy Carl Sagan Day

November 9th is Carl Sagan's birthday.  Sadly he left this world much too soon.  So as an homage to him, each Saturday prior to his birthday, geeks around the world honor his memory.  I was delighted to see this image:

We should all emulate the thoughtful intelligence of this man.  I know that I generally take a much brasher tone than he ever did on his worst days.  But if you want to reach someone, reach them through Carl.  The world is a smaller and duller place without him.

And if someone wants his quotes, here is a nice list of them:

Some of my favorites:

The truth may be puzzling. It may take some work to grapple with. It may be counterintuitive. It may contradict deeply held prejudices. It may not be consonant with what we desperately want to be true. But our preferences do not determine what's true. We have a method, and that method helps us to reach not absolute truth, only asymptotic approaches to the truth — never there, just closer and closer, always finding vast new oceans of undiscovered possibilities. Cleverly designed experiments are the key.

I would love to believe that when I die I will live again, that some thinking, feeling, remembering part of me will continue. But much as I want to believe that, and despite the ancient and worldwide cultural traditions that assert an afterlife, I know of nothing to suggest that it is more than wishful thinking.
The world is so exquisite with so much love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there's little good evidence. Far better it seems to me, in our vulnerability, is to look death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides.

In science it often happens that scientists say, "You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken," and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion.

You can't convince a believer of anything; for their belief is not based on evidence, it's based on a deep seated need to believe.

A celibate clergy is an especially good idea, because it tends to suppress any hereditary propensity toward fanaticism.

Consider again that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar", every "supreme leader", every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there - on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
    The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.
    Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe:, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.
    The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.
    It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.

How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, 'This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant?' Instead they say, 'No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.' A religion old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science, might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths.

Just a couple of my favorites.

05 November 2010

Opinions versus Facts

I'm sure you have all seen it.  Someone says something in a totally authoritative way, and you have to pick your jaw up from the floor because what they said was not only mind-numbingly stupid, but patently wrong.  I'm talking flat earth level of wrong.  Yet they carry on as if they made some sort of profound statement of truth, and the sad part is, they think they  have.

Sadly, as of late (and the media hasn't helped with all their fucking talking heads), people have totally lost the distinction as to what separates a fact from an opinion.  They think they are one in the same (as I mentioned in my lead in here).  Now, the world champions at this sort of dimwittery are the religious (a close second are politicians).  The funny thing is... the religions of the world have only themselves to blame for being in conflict with reality.  Let's start in with a Sagan quote:
How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, 'This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant?' Instead they say, 'No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.' A religion old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science, might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths.

Back when Galileo started  messing with the cosmology of perfect crystal spheres, and showing that the moons surface was jagged and imperfect, the church threw a hissy fit.  But you know who didn't really give a rat's ass?  The common people.  Same thing when Copernicus figured out that the opinion of the earth at the center of the universe may be somewhat wrong, despite the prevailing opinion of the day.  The church has fought and railed against every demotion of humanity from the pinnacle of creation, and has consistently lost.  It's a wonder anyone actually believes the bullshit that comes from the church.  It's like betting that the boxer with a 0-100 record will somehow win the championship fight.  Well, in that analogy, I suppose the incompetent looser could win, by cheating.  And that is the church's chief weapon I suppose.  They lie and distort to their hearts content (or bully, imprison, execute, etc.).  And people seem to let them get away with it...

Another Sagan quote:
In science it often happens that scientists say, "You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken," and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion.
So, this is supposedly some sort of weakness of facts. That actual data can force us to re-evaluate what we know to be true.  Sure, we all used to believe that the earth was the center of the universe.  That didn't stop the earth from orbiting the sun at any time, so the fact was true, despite no one knowing or believing it.  But the important lesson here is that we got better at observing the universe around us, and figured out that we had something wrong, and (with the exception of the church initially) accepted it.  It's the actual strength of science that it has this mechanism for self correction and discovery embedded in its basic process.

Eventually, the theitards will have to accept evolution like they accepted the fact that the earth isn't the center of all.  The evidence is too staggering for us to actually move forward as a society without this as a fundamental fact of existence.  As an aside, one must wonder, how is it that when the initial idea of descent from common ancestors (i.e. evolution) was proposed, and there were many fields that we had no idea about like genetics, cellular biology, microbiology, taxonomy, etc.  If a 19th century scientist was going to make up something, or try to intentionally deceive the scientific community, how could he possibly have pulled it off?  EVERY SINGLE DISCOVERY in biology and genetics supports evolution.  Read that again.  Every single one!  Even Newton's theory on gravity didn't stand up that well to time and subsequent discoveries.  Now, if you head over to another web page I maintain, you'll see that pretty much every argument theitards have made up has been addressed.  In the past 150 years, they haven't been able to come up with anything fundamentally new.

With that, I think I'll leave off with a few more Carl Sagan quotes, because he said things so well:

Who is more humble? The scientist who looks at the universe with an open mind and accepts whatever the universe has to teach us, or somebody who says everything in this book must be considered the literal truth and never mind the fallibility of all the human beings involved?

Think of how many religions attempt to validate themselves with prophecy. Think of how many people rely on these prophecies, however vague, however unfulfilled, to support or prop up their beliefs. Yet has there ever been a religion with the prophetic accuracy and reliability of science? ... No other human institution comes close.

We have designed our civilization based on science and technology and at the same time arranged things so that almost no one understands anything at all about science and technology. This is a clear prescription for disaster.

We've tended in our cosmologies to make things familiar. Despite all our best efforts, we've not been very inventive. In the West, Heaven is placid and fluffy, and Hell is like the inside of a volcano. In many stories, both realms are governed by dominance hierarchies headed by gods or devils. Monotheists talked about the king of kings. In every culture we imagined something like our own political system running the Universe. Few found the similarity suspicious.

And yes, I see the irony of this being an opinion piece!