Sunday, May 27, 2007

Tiny baby steps discovered

I am sure that most people have already seen this, but some footprints of two stegosaurus hatchlings have been discovered in Colorado, USA.

The Denver Post has the story.

The discovery adds little to our knowledge as such, though it appears that those tracks are 1/11th of the size of the tracks of adult stegosaurus. A ratio which has also been observed when looking at other hatchling dinosaur tracks. Something which paleontologist Robert Bakker thinks might be "statistically significant". Personally, I'm not convinced.

Morrison Natural History Museum has a news release about the discovery.

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Saturday, May 26, 2007

Odd bits and ends

I've added two, to me, new blogs to the blogroll - Feminist Philosophers and Women in Science. On top of that, I've added This Spake Zuska, who I could have sworn already was on the list.

If people have other good feminist and/or science blog links, please post them in the comments.

Currently I am quite busy at work, which explains my light blogging. Next week I am going on a course in Microsoft Office Sharepoint Server 2007, which is used in my current project. I have no idea of how hard that course is, so there might be some blogging in the evening.

Right now I am working on a post about social/economical mobility in the US, and I am thinking about a post about homobigotry among some Black preachers - a subject covered in an article in the latest Intelligence Report (by SPLC). I am unsure if I can actually write that post to my satisfaction. Anyway, there will probably be some lighter posts before either of these posts go up on the blog.

For those interested in that sort of things, I'm currently reading the following books:
Christopher Hitchens: The Missionary Position - Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice
Katharine Weber: Triangle
Richard Dawkins: The God Delusion

As a last note, I would recommend that everyone read Peter Cashwell's briliant takedown of Newt Gingrich's eulogy for Jerry Falwell.


Monday, May 21, 2007

Are the gods sending signs?

When statues sweat in India, it's a sign of impending turmoil or natural disaster, but when lightning strikes a statue in the US, it's "a freak act of Mother Nature".

Who knew it was so hard to read the sign-language of the deities?

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Why I would support a Gore campaign

Via Readerville, I came to this fantastic1 Time magazine profile of Al Gore.

The Last Temptation of Al Gore

While Gore was in office, I never really got much of an impression of him. This was partly due to the fact that he was in the shadow of Bill Clinton, but it was also because he was more focused on American politics rather than global politics, which made him less interesting for those of us outside the US.

When he ran against George W. Bush, I was hoping for him to win. Partly because I had gotten a more positive view of him during the campaign, but frankly mostly because I detested Bush (and had done that even when he was the Governor of Texas).

After Bush got the presidency, Gore kinda disappeared, until he (re-)started his fight against global climate change. I became aware of this, when it started to draw the attention of the right-wing attack machine, who started to spread their habitual lies about him ("he claims to have invented the internet" etc.).
I read up on his show, and came away impressed. The I saw the movie based upon it (An Inconvenient Truth), and was blown away.

Gore also started to show up in the political debate - denouncing Bush and the Iraq War - and his passion showed. He was saying what he was saying because he felt that way, not because he wanted to get (re-)elected. That's always refreshing, but in this case, what he said also made sense.

In other words, here is the perfect candidate - he is passionated about the issues he consider important, such as global climate change, and is willing to be guided by science and evidence (unlike the current US president).

While he is probably too right-winged for some Democrats, Gore has become a heavy-weight contender, without even being in the race. And looking over the field of candidates, I can't see any real contenders if he choose to campaign - Obama has charm, but lacks the experience, while Clinton rubs too many people the wrong way. The entire Republican field is pretty much a bunch of misfits at this stage.

Let's see how things develop, but if the Democratic party looses it steam, I wouldn't be sorry to see Gore enter the race. Hopefully with a Nobel Peace Prize to his name, on top of the Oscar.

1And it's not only fantastic because it actually doesn't contain any lies about Al Gore.

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School district sued for handing out bibles

The ACLU has sued an eastern Louisiana school district, on behalf of a Catholic family.

The lawsuit was filed in federal court on behalf of the parents of a fifth-grader at Loranger Middle School in Tangipahoa Parish, who were upset that Gideons Bibles were being given to students on school property during class hours.


The lawsuit details an instance in which the girl's class was told by their teacher to pick up their New Testament Bibles in front of the school office. The girl ended up in a line with the entire fifth grade, while two men handed each student a Bible and said, "God bless you."

"With her classmates and teachers looking on, Jane accepted the Bible out of a feeling of coercion and fear that she would be criticized, ridiculed and ostracized," Cook wrote in a statement about the lawsuit.

As described, and I see little reason to doubt the description, this would be a clear endorsement of a religious stance by the school - something that is quite clearly against the 1st amendment, since the school is a public school.

The reason why I see little reason to doubt the description, is that it's the fifth time that particular school district has been sued by the ACLU on a religion-related issue during the last 13 years.

I'm happy that a religious family choose to stand up for the freedom of religion, and the equally important implicit freedom from religion.

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Could the laws of thermodynamics explain life?

We all know how Creationists and neo-Creationists misuses the 2nd law of thermodynamics to explain why life couldn't have been here without an intelligent designer/God.

Well, according to a feature article by John Whitfield in PLoS Biology, some physicists thinks that life can be explained by the laws of thermodynamics.

At first glance, life and the laws of thermodynamics seem to be at loggerheads. Most glaringly, the second law states that over time, any system will tend to the maximum level of entropy, meaning the minimum level of order and useful energy. Open a bottle of perfume in a closed room, and eventually the pool of scent will become a smelly cloud. Organisms do their damnedest to avoid the smelly cloud of equilibrium, otherwise known as death, and a common argument of anti-evolutionists is that the universe's tendency toward disorder means that natural selection cannot make living things more complex. The usual counter to this argument is that organisms maintain internal order and build complexity by exporting entropy—importing energy in one form, and radiating it out in another, higher-entropy form. One of the first physicists to ponder these questions, Erwin Schrödinger, described food as negative entropy: “The essential thing in metabolism is that the organism succeeds in freeing itself from all the entropy it cannot help producing while alive.”

I hadn't heard the counter-argument being phrased like that before, but it's certainly more precise than the usual counter-argument (the 2nd law only applies to closed systems).

But recently, some physicists have gone beyond this and argued that living things belong to a whole class of complex and orderly systems that exist not despite the second law of thermodynamics, but because of it. They argue that our view of evolution, and of life itself, should likewise be based in thermodynamics and what these physical laws say about flows of energy and matter. Darwinian selection, these researchers point out, isn't the only thing that can create order. Throughout the universe, the interaction of energy and matter brings regular structures—be they stars, crystals, eddies in fluids, or weather systems in atmospheres—into being. Living things are the most complex and orderly systems known; could they be part of the same phenomenon? And could the process that brings them about—natural selection, driven by competition between organisms—be ultimately explicable in thermodynamic terms?

Eric Smith, a theoretical physicist at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico, certainly thinks so. “Darwinian competition and selection are not unique processes,” he says. “They're a complicated version of more fundamental chemical competitive exclusion.” In a paper published last year [2], Smith and his colleagues argued that natural selection is a highly sophisticated version of a physical process called self-organization, the still poorly understood means by which energy plus matter can equal order.

Such orderly, self-organized systems are like engines designed to level out energy gradients—while they persist, they produce more entropy, more quickly, than a disordered mishmash of molecules. Weather systems, for example, transport heat from the tropics toward the poles far more quickly than a homogeneous, static atmosphere would. Life does the same thing, Smith points out. Indeed, he believes that this might have been the reason for its origin—that, under the conditions on early Earth, life was the best way to release the build-up of geothermal energy and an inevitable consequence of that energy [3]. Once biochemistry had got going, subsequent chemical and Darwinian selection would each favor the systems best at dissipating Earth's pent-up energy, whether geothermal or, following the invention of photosynthesis, solar.

It has long been suggested that self-organized systems do not just level out energy gradients more quickly than disordered ones do, they do it as quickly as possible. Models that assume maximum entropy production (MEP) make good predictions about the climates of Earth [4] and Saturn's moon Titan [5] and about the growth of crystals in solutions [6]. But until recently, MEP was just an assumption—there was no mechanism or theory to explain why such systems should tend to this state. Classical thermodynamics is no help— it explains entropy only in closed systems, with no energy going in or coming out. It says nothing about how much entropy open, nonequilibrium systems, such as organisms, ought to produce.

The article by Smith et al can be found in Journal of evolutionary biology, for those with access to that sort of things.

Smith is not alone in believing this, the PLoS Biology feature also includes interviews with several other physicists, who explains why they think there is a connection between the laws of thermodynamics, and the existence of life.

Quite an interesting read, even if some of the details certainly went over my head.

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Thursday, May 17, 2007

Falwell still dead, Coulter still vile

The always vile Ann Coulter uses the death of Jerry Falwell to once again show what kind of person she is. Warning: the link leads to a TownHall article by Coulter.

She starts off by explaining what lessons can be learned from Falwell in her bizzaro world.

No man in the last century better illustrated Jesus' warning that "All men will hate you because of me" than the Rev. Jerry Falwell, who left this world on Tuesday. Separately, no man better illustrates my warning that it doesn't pay to be nice to liberals.

Falwell was a perfected Christian. He exuded Christian love for all men, hating sin while loving sinners. This is as opposed to liberals, who just love sinners. Like Christ ministering to prostitutes, Falwell regularly left the safe confines of his church to show up in such benighted venues as CNN.

He was such a good Christian that back when we used to be on TV together during Clinton's impeachment, I sometimes wanted to say to him, "Step aside, reverend -- let the mean girl handle this one." (Why, that guy probably prayed for Clinton!)

For putting Christ above everything -- even the opportunity to make a humiliating joke about Clinton -- Falwell is known as "controversial." Nothing is ever as "controversial" as yammering about Scripture as if, you know, it's the word of God or something.

Meanwhile, in the real world, the rest of us remembers the vile remarks that Falwell rutinely made.

Of course, Counter doesn't think that such remarks were vile. Instead, she thinks they were too mild. After 9/11, Falwell said

The abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked. And when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad. I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way—all of them who have tried to secularize America—I point the finger in their face and say 'you helped this happen.

To Counter this is perfectly acceptable, except that he didn't go far enough.

Actually, there was one small item I think Falwell got wrong regarding his statement after 9/11 that "the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians -- who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle -- the ACLU, People for the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America. I point the finger in their face and say, 'You helped this happen.'"

First of all, I disagreed with that statement because Falwell neglected to specifically include Teddy Kennedy and "the Reverend" Barry Lynn.

Second, Falwell later stressed that he blamed the terrorists most of all, but I think that clarification was unnecessary. The necessary clarification was to note that God was at least protecting America enough not to allow the terrorists to strike when a Democrat was in the White House.

Can she sink any lower? I feel the need to quote Welch's immortal words to Senator McCarthy (one of Coulter's great heroes)

You've done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?

Except for the gender pronoun, I feel the same could, and should, be said to Coulter. She is a hateful harpy, who thankfully has a more limited ability to do harm to other peoples' careers, but she still has access to mainstream media.

What does it take to get the media and the politicians tp stop to give her prominence? When can we expect that the newspapers that bring her columns have had enough of her?

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The forced 'Germanization' of foreign children during WWII

As we all know, during the Nazi Reign, there was a sickening obsession about German racial purity. This lead to a reign of eugenics, where the whole society was geared towards promoting what the Nazis perceived as the 'übermensch' - the so-called Aryan race.

Today, I came across an article about how this affected some children in the occupied areas.

Aryan dreams - Nazi's attempts to build master race included kidnapping foreign children

On a sunny April morning in 1944, 6-year-old Alodia Witaszek was combed and scrubbed, sitting in the children’s home that had primed her for membership in Hitler’s master race.

Over the past year she had been snatched from her family, gone hungry in a concentration camp and been beaten for speaking her native Polish. Now she had a German name, “Alice Wittke,” and a new – German – mother.

“Guten tag, Mutti!” she called in flawless German to the young woman approaching her. Good morning, Mommy.

Only years later would she discover the full truth: that she was among some 250 children seized from their families as part of a Nazi attempt to improve the Aryan gene pool in pursuit of a mad dream of racial purity.

I recommend reading the article. It not only describes a rather uncovered part of the Nazi eugenic attempts, it also explains how it affected the children after the war.

Speaking of Nazi Germany, I should probably use the chance to recommend Eric Muller's excellent posts about his Uncle Leopold, who died during the Holocaust. He has collected them all here

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Worldwide descrimination against girls still happening

The Independent has an article about a new study of how girls live worldwide.

Discrimination against girls 'still deeply entrenched'

Almost 100 million girls "disappear" each year, killed in the womb or as babies, a study has revealed.

The report, "Because I am a Girl", exposes the gender discrimination which remains deeply entrenched and widely tolerated across the world, including the fact that female foeticide is on the increase in countries where a male child remains more valued.

The report highlights the fact that two million girls a year still suffer genital mutilation, half a million die during pregnancy - the leading killer among 15 to 19-year-olds - every 12 months and an estimated 7.3 million are living with HIV/Aids compared with 4.5 million young men. Almost a million girls fall victim to child traffickers each year compared with a quarter that number of boys.

Of the 1.5 billion people living on less than 50p a day, 70 per cent are female, with 96 million young women aged 15 to 24 unable to read or write - almost double the number for males.

There is a pattern of discrimination against of women in the 3rd World countries, as the above numbers clearly show, but as the Independent article makes clear, it also happens in the Western World (the article focuses on the UK).

The report can be downloaded from here (click on the 'download report' link, which will give you the report as a .pdf file).

I have only glanced briefly at the report, which is 98 pages long, but it's depressing reading. The goal of the report is to document the current state of affairs, and presumably make people want to change it for the better

Girls are getting a raw deal. Despite having the same rights as their brothers, they face discrimination even before they are born. There are an estimated 100 million missing women because of the practice of female foeticide. As
they grow up girls suffer more from malnutrition, because families feed boys first, affecting girls’ well-being for the rest of their lives. They are less likely to go to school: almost two-thirds of the children of primary school age out of school
are girls. They are more likely to be subject to violence: millions of girls are subjected to daily violence in the home and at school, which should be places of safety. Underinvestment in girls can hold back the economic development of some
of the world’s poorest countries; girls have a real contribution to make.

‘Because I am a Girl’ is the first of a series of annual reports focusing on girls and young women in the world. Produced by Plan, the reports will be published every year from 2007 to 2015 – the 20th anniversary of the 1995 Beijing Conference on Women. This report will provide a wealth of secondary data and case study material on the major issues of concern for girls. It will also demonstrate what is being done at local, national and international levels, as well as highlight the concerted effort needed for real progress.

As the report ambly documents, there is a long way to go before girls and boys (and by extention women and men), are considered equal. We need to work on it both in our own countries, but also on a wider scale. Some foreign aid programs focuses on the education of girls, which certainly is a step in the right direction, but it won't help if those women can't get work afterwards, or, as is the case in some countries, own property or even make decisions.
In other words, we need an attitude change. How this is to come about, is still an open question.

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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Darwin's letters put online

BBC reports that Darwin's letters will be put online.

Darwin's letters archived on web

The Darwin Correspondence project has existed offline since 1974. It has so far published 15 volumes of the scientist's letters as books.

An agreement with the publisher of the books means the new website will offer digitised versions of the texts freely available to anyone four years behind the hard copies.

Nearly 5,000 pieces of correspondence will be fully searchable when the site launches on Thursday 17 May.

I believe the letter can be found at this site, when they are made public.


Reactions on Falwell death

As most people are probably aware, the US right-winged Christian Jerry Falwell died yesterday. He was mostly known for founding Moral Majority and being a major cause of the prominence of right-winged Christianity in US politics these days. After leaving Moral Majority he ran Liberty University until his death.

Though, not as prominent in later years, as he was during the Reagan adminstration, he still had some influence on US politics, as the pandering by the current GOP candidates shows.

He left behind a wife, three grown children and some grandchildren, who are undoubtfully saddened by his passing. They have my condolences.

Now, for some of the reactions to his death.

Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue issued this statement (with my comments in between).

“Mary and I join the American people in mourning the passing of Reverend Jerry Falwell. Reverend Falwell founded Thomas Road Baptist Church, the Moral Majority and Liberty University. He built Christian elementary schools, homes for unwed mothers and a home for the treatment of alcoholism.

Let's just say that it's not exactly all the American people who mourn his passing, as demonstrated by Anti-Memorial.

"It was apparent to me in meeting with Reverend Falwell last October that the three most important things in his life were Christ, his family and his students.

And power. Mustn't forget the power.

He never shied away from speaking his mind or fighting for what he thought was right, and he firmly believed that people of faith had a role to play in politics.

That role obviously being pushing their religious views on all others, first amendment be damned. As for speaking his mind, well, let's say that he quite frequently displayed how small-minded he was.

Newsweek had a somewhat balanced profile, though it doesn't in any way do justice to the bigotry of the man.

Clinton Fein has a more honest blogpost about the man.

PZ Myers has a video-clip of Hitchen speaking the truth about Falwell.

Slate repeats some of the worst remarks made by Falwell.

As the above probably show, I am not a fan of Falwell. He was the worst kind of religious bigot, and together with other religious bigots he managed to change the political discurse in the US. While it's generally said one shouldn't speak evil about the dead, I believe that one should speak truthfully, and I truthfully believes that teh world is a better place without him.


Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Be a bacteria overlord

Via a comment in Readerville I became aware of this small game which should be of interest to some of my readers (yes, PZ and ERV I am looking at you)

Biofilm 1.0

Play with the various types of Bacteria in this Real-Time Strategy game based around them! In a soup of bacterial life propagation is the only goal. In Biofilm players are introduced to the hidden complexities and dangers of their world. With massive cell numbers feeding on the nutrients in each level and cell types playing off the skills and weaknesses of others, strategy and foresight are key to success.

I haven't downloaded it yet, but it looks like it can be played on both PCs and Macs.

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Self-inflicted diseases are ignored

PLoS Medicine has an essay about chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and how it's becoming more widespread.

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease: A Growing but Neglected Global Epidemic

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a major and increasing global health epidemic that has received insufficient attention from the health-care profession, governments, and the pharmaceutical industry. Urgent action is now required to recognise the disease, predicted to soon become one of the major causes of death and disability, and to develop more effective prevention and treatment strategies.

COPD is one of the major causes of death (fifth commonest cause of death among diseases) worldwide, and is the only disease that's a common cause of death, that has increased it's rate in the US over the last 40 years (HIV/AIDS haven't been along for that long, so it cannot be compared to COPD).

All of this would make it worth mentioning, but what really caught my attention was the reason why COPD has gotten so little attention from researchers and doctors.

Despite growing recognition as an important international health problem, COPD has suffered neglect from clinicians, researchers, and the pharmaceutical industry [8]. This is largely because COPD is viewed as self-inflicted (by smoking) and also because the underlying disease process is generally perceived to be irreversible.

HIV/AIDS is also generally perceived to be irreversible, yet a lot fo research goes into that disease, so it would seem that there is more to it than this. However, I think the general point is probably pretty correct. Just look at how the media talk about other "life-style" related diseases - it's quite clear that there is less calls for research into diseases that are perceived as being self-inflicted. See how HIV/AIDS was ignored in the US while the victims were predominatly homosexual - something many still think of as a choice - yet there was a call for a cure, when it began to spread among heterosexuals.

Ignoring the moral objects for a moment, I find it irresponsible to ignore diseases when they are only related to a given group. Given what we know about the behaviour and evolution of diseases, we know that any disease that't limited to a group of people, might very well start spreading to other people at any time.

Hopefully diseases like COPD will get more attention in the future, and less weight will be put on how "self-inflicted" they are.

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Monday, May 14, 2007

Townhall can damage your brain

At least, that's the conclusion I reach from this stupidity.

Let's start with the headline.

Atheists Better Pray to God They’re Right

I'm sure that the writer of the piece, Doug Giles, thinks he is being clever, but to everyone else, that headline is moronic. He might have gotten away with the headline if he had left out "to God", but he had to go for full-blown stupidity instead of trivial banality.

The tragic part is, that the headline seems witty and intelligent compared to the rest of the article.

Paul (not the lead singer of the Beatles, but the apostle Paul) states that God has made Himself known, via creation, to all men. According to the apostle, God’s revealed Himself not just to Christians and to Jews, but to every one everywhere (see Romans 1:18-21).

Given the fact that there is no evidence of the involvement of God in the creation of our world, nor of our species, I think it can be safely said that Paul took some liberty with the truth.

This means that from Jo-Jo the Brazilian monkey boy, to the Cameroon pygmies, to the whiny lesbian agnostic smoking clove cigarettes at Starbucks, to the beer swillin’ dillweeds (What’s up, dudes? I’ll see after I pen this column! Keep ‘em cold.), to the brooding British atheists, all people know God exists—even if they can’t really put a finger on some of the finer points of His person.

Yet a majority of the World's population doesn't worship the Christian God. As a matter of fact, a fairly large part of the world's population doesn't believe in any of the versions of God based on the old Testament.

Apart from that, I don't "know God exists" at all - I know that I have seen absolutely no evidence that shows me that there are any supernatural beings at all, and given that I don't think such beings exist. If I could be said to know anything regarding God, or any other supernatural being, it would be that I "know" that there are no such things.
I've stated before that annecdotal evidence is not real evidence, except as counter-evidence to extreme positions, such as Giles' drivel.

Yes, through what has been made, God has plastered on the souls of earth’s citizenry the general revelation that He’s present. In addition, they also know when they’re being a jack ass and when they’re being cool (more on that next week).

I know the above 411 hurts the atheists to hear, seeing that they’ve staked so much of their imago on God’s non-existence. But c’mon, you know there’s Someone “out there,” so cut the crap, shave your goatee and find some other way to pick up chicks—okay, James Dean?

Very few atheists depend on their lack of religion to defined themselves. Without haveing any statistical evidence, I would guess that a larger part of religious people depend on religion to define themselves, than the part of atheists who depend on their lack of religion to define themselves.
Speaking for myself, I don't know that there is someone out there - I suspect that there might be other living creatures out in space, but I certainly don't belive that there are any supernatural beings hiding behind the moon (or some other such notion).

Oh, and cut trying being hip while writing, ok? You just end up looking like a fool.

Look, if Paul’s right and people know that they know Him (even if it’s in some dull sense of the word), why do some trip over themselves and tie their brains in knots in order to curb this knowledge? Why do people go nuts looking for loopholes and supposed contradictions in the scripture, hypocrisies within the church and some shared semblance to an ape in order to convince themselves that God’s not here, there or anywhere and never has been nor ever will be?

Maybe it's because Paul isn't right? Evidence is not exactly on his side - neither for his claim about tehre being a god, nor for his claims that people know.

Is it because . . .

They are Johnny Quest truth seekers looking to answer man’s $64,000 question?

They are evolutionary luminaries uncommonly endowed with more smarts than us poor cattle and are here to help us club foot our way up the Darwinian ladder and away from such primal fairy tales? Or is it simply because . . .

The existence of God, His standards and a day of personal accountability really, really, jacks with their efforts at autonomy and their chances of getting laid tonight?

The apostle Paul states it’s the latter.

Atheists, according to Santo Pablo, have suppressed the truth because God really cramps their style. It’s hard to persistently indulge the appetites of the flesh if there is a holy God to whom you must give account. The truth is that all men, who have not bowed their knee to God and His way, hate Him and are intrinsically geared against God. (I know that’s tight, but it’s right)

If I wrote a piece like the Townhall piece, I would be very careful about using arguments that begs for getting refuted by a reference to Catholic priests and alter boys. Yet, Giles is not stopped by such considerations, and thus he writes the above nonsense.
Now, ignoring the obvious bit, which can easily be addressed with a the above reference, I think I should point out that you don't hate what you don't believe in. Atheists don't hate any gods, though some hates religion, simply because they don't believe in such things. Much like I suspect that Giles don't hate the Fenris Wolf, even though it's said that it will eat the Sun when Ragnarok comes.

I think Giles, and many other religious people, cannot grasp how little god(s) mean to the lives of atheists. Organized religion, especially in the US, is an entirely different matter, since it can influence the daily life of atheists (for example through legistration), but whatever deity others believe in, is irrelevant.

Jesus put it forcefully up fallen humanity’s tailpipe when He exposed why men reject the knowledge of God when He said, “Men love darkness rather than light because their deeds are evil. For everyone who does evils hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed” (Jn. 3.19-20).

This is easy math, folks: A man who has no remorse and thus no desire to repent from his sins is probably not going to be a big advocate for the existence, person and work of God.

Historically evidence would indicate that a belief in a deity is absolutely no guarantee for ethical behaviour. Many religious people have in the past done things which any decent person would consider evil.
I would actually say, that if only the belief in eternal punishment after you die, keeps you from doing "evil" deeds, you are a sociopath, and don't belong in civilized society.

You know that all the various no-God arguments—which, to be sure, are fun to debate and write about and blah, blah, blah—actually stem from the root of the atheist’s refusal to curtsy to what he already internally knows is true. It is this denial and refusal to embrace the general knowledge of God given through creation that officially pisseth off the Lord thy God and puts the atheist in a precarious position. My advice to my atheist buddies is this: you’d better pray to God that you’re right and that He doesn’t exist—because if you’re wrong, eternity is going to be rough.

Pascal's Wager doesn't impress anyone, no matter how it is put. Does Giles also pray to Vishnu that he is right in his choice of deity? I don't think so, yet by his astonishing logic, he should do so.

The first part of the paragraph is pretty much the equivalent to saying "na-na-na I can't hear you".

To be continued . . .

That's the most scary part.

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Internet searches can limit your traveling

A couple of months ago, I mentioned in this post how a former drug or DIU conviction could get you turned back at the Canadian border. Well, it seems like it goes both ways.

The Nation’s Borders, Now Guarded by the Net

Andrew Feldmar, a Vancouver psychotherapist, was on his way to pick up a friend at the Seattle airport last summer when he ran into a little trouble at the border.

A guard typed Mr. Feldmar’s name into an Internet search engine, which revealed that he had written about using LSD in the 1960s in an interdisciplinary journal. Mr. Feldmar was turned back and is no longer welcome in the United States, where he has been active professionally and where both of his children live.

Mr. Feldmar, 66, has a distinguished résumé, no criminal record and a candid manner. Though he has not used illegal drugs since 1974, he says he has no regrets.

The major difference between the US and the Canadian policy, is that Canada requires a conviction, which the US apparently don't. An article about having taken drugs is apparently enough to be denied access to the US.

As the article makes clear, Feldmar has been in the US numerous times since the episode he described, without any incidents. Maybe the US border guards should be a bit more relaxed?

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Saturday, May 12, 2007

HPV vaccines in New England Journal of Medicine

As Nick Anthis, over at The Scientific Activists points out, the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) has a lot of articles about HPV vaccines.

Instead of linking all the articles, I'll refer you to either the frontpage of New England Journal of Medicine or Anthis' post.

Anthis sums up the content of the articles thus:

In short, the vaccine is safe, and it is effective. It's no surprise that it's not 100% effective at preventing cervical cancer, given its limited scope. The fact that it prevents at least 17% of cases of cervical cancer should make its distribution a major public health priority. Given that its effectiveness decreases dramatically if there has been prior exposure to HPV, mandating it for sixth grade females is entirely justified. Also, given that HPV is so strongly linked to throat cancer, and given that males transmit HPV to females, vaccination in males as well should be a priority in the near future.

One of the articles in the NEJM is a perspective piece by R. Alta Charo. It's very interesting even for those of us with no medical training, and it makes some good points.

HPV-vaccination mandates, which are aimed more at protecting the vaccinee than at achieving herd immunity, have been attacked as an unwarranted intrusion on individual and parental rights. The constitutionality of vaccination mandates is premised on the reasonableness of the risk–benefit balance, the degree of intrusion on personal autonomy, and, most crucial, the presence of a public health necessity. On the one hand, to the extent that required HPV vaccination is an example of state paternalism rather than community protection, mandatory programs lose some of their justification. On the other hand, the parental option to refuse vaccination without interfering in the child's right to attend school alters this balance. Here the mandates act less as state imperatives and more as subtle tools to encourage vaccination. Whereas an opt-in program requires an affirmative effort by a parent, and thus misses many children whose parents forget to opt in, an opt-out approach increases vaccination rates among children whose parents have no real objection to the program while perfectly preserving parental autonomy.

Opposition to HPV vaccination represents another chapter in the history of resistance to vaccination and, on some levels, reflects a growing trend toward parental refusal of a variety of vaccines based on the (erroneous) perception that many vaccines are more risky than the diseases they prevent. In most cases, pediatricians have largely restricted themselves to educating and counseling objecting families, since it is rare that the risks posed by going unvaccinated are so substantial that refusal is tantamount to medical neglect. In the case of HPV vaccine, parents' beliefs that their children will remain abstinent (and therefore uninfected) until marriage render it even more difficult to make the case for mandating a medical form of prevention. Even with an opt-out program, critics may argue that the availability of a simple and safe alternative — that is, abstinence — undermines the argument for a state initiative that encourages vaccination through mandates coupled with an option for parental refusal.

But experience shows that abstinence-only approaches to sex education do not delay the age of sexual initiation, nor do they decrease the number of sexual encounters.3 According to the CDC, though only 13% of American girls are sexually experienced by 15 years of age, by 17 the proportion grows to 43%, and by 19 to 70%.4 School-based programs are crucial for reaching those at highest risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases, and despite the relatively low rate of sexual activity before age 15, the programs need to begin with children as young as 12 years: the rates at which adolescents drop out of school begin to increase at 13 years of age,1 and younger dropouts have been shown to be especially likely to engage in earlier or riskier sexual activity.

I hope that these, now demonstrately safe, vaccinations will soon be widely available.

Dr. Charles has more, as does Shelley Batts and Carl Zimmer.

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Can we use this as evidence that the evangelists are wrong?

I am sure that I am not alone in being annoyed at the use of former atheists turned religious as evidence for atheism being wrong. So, I won't claim that the convertion of the president of the Evangelical Theological Society into a Catholic is evidence that the Baptists are wrong.

It could be used as an example of how moronic this kind of argumentation is.

No matter if he is a Baptist or a Catholic, Francis Beckwith is an anti-choice, anti-science creep.


Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Why men don’t get to decide if talk about rape is threatening

In the comments section to Jill’s post about Ciolli’s firing, one commenter, shawn, defended the frequent rape threats at that discussion board thus

you people have a very broad interpretation of the type of serious threat that is not protected speech. However nasty comments are, you have to look at both the message and the context in which it is conveyed.

I didn’t participate in the debate, and only saw the comment a while after it was posted, so I wanted to make some general comments on this general stance.

Men, myself included, don’t get to decide if threats about rape are really “threatening”. Actually, I would even go as far as to say that only the woman that the threat was aimed at gets to decide if it was threatening or not, but right now I am just focusing on why men should just shut the fuck up when it comes to this.

The reason is very simple. We cannot relate to it. Men are not in constant risk of rape happening to them, so it’s quite easy for us to dismiss such threats. Women, on the other hand, are in risk of getting raped (and an all too large number already have), so they can easily relate to such threats.

At this point I could start going into the horrifying rape US statistics, but I have already covered those in an earlier post. Instead I’ll try to tell two stories that one of my acquaintances have told me, in the hope of at least conveying at least part of the difference in what men and women risk.

My acquaintance is not Danish, and these stories relate to her home-country (which I won’t specify, other than say it’s not USA).

The first was a story about when she grew up. When she became a teenager she started going out, mostly in a local nightclub, where there was a dance-floor. It was a local place, where people pretty much knew each others, and it was the same crowd hanging out.
One night, a gang came to the nightclub, barricaded the doors, and raped all the women in there.
My acquaintance was lucky, since she wasn’t there that evening, but no woman in that town would ever feel safe again when going out in town, and especially not to that nightclub, which was the only one in town.

The second story is one that has haunted me ever since I’ve heard it.
In her home-country, it’s quite common to travel into the nature to get drunk and enjoy a good time.
Recently, some of her friends went to a lake and got drunk there. While being there, they could hear that there was a birthday party going on somewhere at the shores of the same lake. It was a girl’s 18th birthday party, and they were obviously having a good time.
Then during the night, the sounds changed, and they could hear that the girl got raped for hours by a group of men.
The people hearing this were powerless to do anything – they tried calling the police, but they were too far away for the police to do anything, and trying to stop the rape would most likely get them killed.

Both these stories are brutal and nasty, and while the men, who experienced them, certainly got traumatized, they were not the ones who got raped. And they are not the ones risking getting raped in the future. Men, like me, who didn’t experience it, can certainly get horrified by such stories, but again, we are not the ones risking getting raped in such brutal matters.

So, since we don't live under the same risks, we don’t get to dismiss the fears of women. We don’t get to dismiss rape threats as jokes, because they are not. Not to the women they are aimed at. And we don’t get to joke about rape. Period.

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Uri Geller tries to bend copyright law

I got an interesting newsmail from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).

Spoon-Bending 'Paranormalist' Illegally Twists Copyright Law

Uri Geller Makes Bogus Copyright Claims to Silence YouTube Critic

San Francisco - The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) filed suit Tuesday against Uri Geller -- the "paranormalist" famous for seemingly bending spoons with his mind -- on behalf of a YouTube critic who was silenced by Geller's baseless copyright claims.

EFF's client, Brian Sapient, belongs to a group called the "Rational Response Squad," which is dedicated to debunking what it calls irrational beliefs. As part of their mission, Sapient and others post videos to YouTube that they say demonstrate this irrationality. One of the videos that Sapient uploaded came from a NOVA program called "Secrets of the Psychics," which challenges the performance techniques of Geller.

Despite the fact that only three seconds of the over thirteen-minute video contain footage allegedly under copyright owned by Geller's corporation Explorogist Ltd. -- a classic fair use of the material for criticism purposes -- Geller filed a takedown demand with YouTube under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). That violates the DMCA requirement that copyright holders only send takedown notices for infringing content.

Of course, this is not the only time that Uri Geller has gotten stuff removed from Youtube.

I applaud EFF's fight against such blatant unlawful takedown notices, especially when done by frauds who use them for hiding their dishonesty.

This is part of a larger EFF campaign, as they state in the newsletter.

This lawsuit is part of EFF's ongoing work to protect online free speech in the face of bogus copyright claims. EFF is currently working with Stanford's Fair Use Project to develop a set of "best practices" for proper DMCA takedowns. At EFF's suggestion, media giant Viacom set up an email "hotline" to help users who believe their videos have been improperly ensnared in a takedown campaign.

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Tuesday, May 08, 2007

What do you know? Actions do have consequences.

Even when those actions are inaction when asked to take action on an issue.

I am talking about the story about how a lawfirm withdrew their job offer to a 3rd year law student, who used to moderate a forum, supposedly for debating law related issues, but in reality a free-for-all nest of bigots and misogynists.

The story was covered by the WSJ blog, and was picked up by several other blogs.

To sum the story up briefly, Anthony Ciolli was one of the two executives behind the forum AutoAdmit, the self-billed "most prestigious law school admissions discussion board in the world". While there undoubfully happened real discussion related to law school admissions, the discussion board was more well-known for it's racist content and outright misogyny (Brian Leiter covers that here). Something which the Washington Post wrote about in this march 7th article.

Coilli, and the other person running the board, Cohen, defended the language and behaviour by saying that they believed in free speech. The same reason was given for not moderating comments that published the personal information of female law students, or that linked to pictures that had been used in breach of copyright.
At the same time, the duo of moderators actually did delete posts that posted personal information (such as the identity) of regular posters to the discussion board, or which their friends asked them to delete. A clear double standard regarding their respect of absolute free speech.

Back when the Washington Post article was covered by Jill (who has been frequently targetted by the discussion board) , I wrote this comment:

If there is any justice, there will be absolutely no jobs for Anthony Ciolli and Jarret Cohen when they have finished their studies. Their current and past behaviour shows them completely wrong for dealing with other people, as lawyers obviously have to do. And they obviously have a very limited understanding of the law.

At the time I didn't realize that Jarret Cohen wasn't a law student, but rather self-employed, so my comments didn't apply to him. Ciolli on the other hand is a law student, and it turns out that I'm not alone in feeling that way. He had a job offer from the law firm Edwards Angell Palmer & Dodge, who asked him to explain himself.

On April 11, just over a month after the WaPo story ran, DeWitt sent a letter to Ciolli stating that the firm had recently learned of the controversy involving AutoAdmit, in particular its “off-topic” message board, and that “the information we now have raises serious concerns about your joining our firm.”

DeWitt wrote that the content of the messages on the board are “antithetical” to the values of the firm and the “principles of collegiality and respect that members of the legal profession should observe in their dealings with other lawyers.” DeWitt pointed out that in an online letter to another blogger, Ciolli and his partner Jarret Cohen identified themselves as AutoAdmit’s administrators and defended its “free, uninhibited exchange of ideas.”

DeWitt continued: “We expect any lawyer affiliated with our firm, when presented with the kind of language exhibited on the message board, to reject it and to disavow any affiliation with it. You, instead, facilitated the expression and publication of such language. . . . ” He wrote, his resignation from the site was “too late to ameliorate our concerns.” He asked that Ciolli respond in writing.

DeWitt didn't blame Ciolli for the comments on the discussion board, but instead for not disavowing himself from them, and asked him to explain why he hadn't done so. Something Ciolli obviously didn't get.

Ciolli, in a letter dated April 16, recounted the history of AutoAdmit and his joining as education director to “develop educational content and publications” for the site, including a working paper on which law schools place the most graduates at elite law firms, well after the site was founded in 2004. He played down his ability to control content on the site. “While I was free to give input and act in an advisory manner–which I often did, with mixed results–Mr. [Jarret] Cohen always had final say over all rules and policies related to the message board,” and that Cohen “rarely granted” his requests to remove offensive material.

Ciolli added that he was “still in the process of assessing all the lessons to be learned from this incident,” including “the importance of good judgment and proceeding with caution,” values he would appreciate “to a greater extent than a typical first year associate.” He suggested deferring his start date at the firm by a year to “allow me time to develop a series of positive contributions to the legal community that would go a long way toward strengthening my reputation and allaying your concerns.”

Notice something? Nothing addresses why Ciolli didn't disavow the comments. He does say that he can learn the "importance of good judgment and proceeding with caution", yet he cannot even figure out how to address the points raised by DeWitt, nor even say that he has learned these things (note that he said "to be learned").

DeWitt was obviously not impressed by all this

In a letter dated April 20, DeWitt responded that “none of the information you provided resolves the concerns I expressed in my letter regarding your past affiliation with the site,” and that the firm “terminates the employment offered you” on August 16, 2006.

Now, this might seem harsh to some, but I haven't changed my position on this issue at all. It was the right call by the law firm.

Jill has written about the firing, and she is a much more gracious person that I am.

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Monday, May 07, 2007

Stupidity, Thy Name is Frank Pastore

What is it with right-winged religious people and bad book reviews?

Frank Pastore over at has written a book review of four books critical of religion, that utterly fails to make any sense.

Why Atheism Fails: The Four Big Bangs

The books in question are The Atheist Manifesto: The Case Against Christianity, Judaism and Islam by Michel Onfray, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens, Letter to a Christian Nation: A Challenge to Faith by Sam Harris, and The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins.
Of these, I've started on the last, but haven't gotten around to finish it yet.

Their titles sound so confident [...] Yet, like all atheists before them, they still can’t answer the fundamental questions of origins.

As I said, I haven't finished any of the books yet, and I don't even have three of the four he is reviewing. Yet, I am clearly of the impression that the books are not addressing the fundamental questions of origins - rather they are addressing the questions and problems that religion raises. In other words, his objection makes as much sense as objecting to the fact that Winnie the Pooh doesn't address what happened to the Sleeping Beauty after the Prince kissed her.

But let's see if we can address these great questions.

1) What is the origin of the universe? Why is there something rather than nothing? How do you get matter and energy from nothingness? How do you get a rock out of nothing?

To which I could ask, how do you get a deity out of nothing? Most religious people claim that there has always been a deity around, yet Pastore appears to have severe problems with the concept of matter always having been around. And we actually have evidence that matter exist (and can form different kinds of matter), while we seem to be lacking evidence for the existence of a deity, much less for the deity's ability to create matter out of nothing.

2) What is the origin of life? How do you get life from non-life? How do you go from a rock to a tree?

Abiogenisis is the study of the origin of life, and while there are no exact knowledge of how life started, there are some fairly good ideas of how it could have happened, some even backed up by proof-of-concept experiments. Wikipedia currently have a decent article about the subject of origins of life.

3) What is the origin of mind? How does a living thing become a self-conscious being? How do you go from a tree, to an animal, to a human?

How does a dog give birth to a cat? That question makes as much sense as the question "how do you go from a tree, to an animal?" The answer is of course, that you don't.
And the question, "how do you go from an animal, to an human?" makes as much sense as "how do you go from a flower, to a rose?". One is a subset of the other.

Pastore is inprecise in what he means by "mind", but I would suspect it would involve the evolution of a brain. Unless he of course is thinking of something entirely unrelated to brain activities, in which case, I would like to see his definition (and his evidence for it being unrelated to the brain).

4) What is the origin of good and evil? How does an amoral being become morally aware?

Good and evil are human constructs, as are moral. These concepts differ over time, so they cannot be said to be something precise that can be defined universally. For example, it was once considered morally just, and indeed a good deed, to burn people who were considered witches. Altruistic behaviour seems to be tied to certain brain activities, and while I haven't seen research on this subject yet, it might also explain altruistic behaviour in animals.

Atheists respond to all these types of questions with essentially the same style answer. “We know God doesn’t exist. Therefore, since we’re here, though, it had to have happened this way. Thus, like the universe itself, life, mind, and mo-rality all ‘just popped’ into existence out of nothingness.”

That would seem a rather silly answer, considering that the questions can be answered without any reference to the lack of a deity. Maybe Pastore is confused, and don't understand their answers? For example it would seem reasonable for an atheist to answer Pastore that all of his questions can be answered without any invocation of a deity, when Pastore indicates that they cannot.
And atheists rarely state "We know that God doesn't exist" - rather an atheist would say, "there is no evidence for any deity, so it's unlikely that a such exists".

I call them the Four Big Bangs:

Is it just me, or is the intentional misuse of scientific terms one of the major signs of stupidity ahead?

1’) the Cosmological (the universe “just popped” into existence out of nothingness).

Pastore should try to study up on the theories of the origin of the current universe. No one thinks it just popped into existence (love the quotemarks BTW - almost makes you believe he is quoting someone doesn't it?). What does Pastore think the "Big Bang" refers to? The loud "pop" when things just appeared?

2’) the Biological (life “just popped” into existence out of a dead thing).

There were some rather complicated chemical processes involved, but in essence I guess you can say that Pastore is right. Of course, Pastore doesn't seem to have a problem with the reverse process (dead things just popping into existence out of living things), or with similar religious claims (*cough* *jesus* *resurrection* *cough*).

3’) the Psychological (mind “just popped” into existence out of a brain).

Very long-drawn pop wasn't it? And a pretty vague one as well. Mind and brain is interconnected - what we might call mind is the specific type of use of a brain.

4’) and the Moral (morality “just popped” into existence out of amorality).

Is Pastore claiming that there is no amorality around any longer? Or that people are either moral or amoral? Moral is an entirely human construct, and few sane people would claim that it hasn't developed through the human ages. For an example that Pastore might understand, look at the differences in the moral messages of the Old and the New Testaments.

For their many obfuscating words, the authors still don’t improve much beyond the “just popped” thesis, if at all.

Has the man read the books? I haven't, but even I know that their purpose is not to address the moronic objections raised by Pastore.

I was an atheist for 27 years. I used to play on that team. I used to pick on religious people too. I knew the arguments to press and those to avoid.

Sadly he seems to have lost that last ability.

Attack with how unscientific theism is, how religious people aren’t very smart because they don’t chair any departments in the hard sciences at the right schools (it’s really called censorship).

Use a dictionary. Understand the definitions. Censorship has nothing to do with this.

Raise the problem of evil: How could an omnipo-tent, loving God allow evil? Either God is not all powerful and can’t destroy it, or He doesn’t want to. Either way there can’t be a God because evil exists (don’t bring up the existence of good though, it’s too problematic).

I personally don't find this argument particularly good, except when addressing the idea of an all-loving deity.

And, finally, go for the jugular with the hypocrisy of religious believers (You know, mention “all the wars in the name of religion,” and “all the fallen pastors” and especially, “the founders owned slaves” stuff, it’s really a good distraction.)

Wars in the name of religion is relevant in so much that addresses the idea of religious people being inherently more moral than atheists. Otherwise it's not really relevant to wether there is a deity or not.
I wonder where the founders come into it - they were not particularly aligned with Christianity.

Avoid the pesky problem of freewill. If atheism is true, if all that exists is mere matter and energy, then I don’t have a brain, I am my brain. But if the brain is exhaustively physical, then it is just as incapable of acting freely as a computer or any other machine. Which is why the idea of Artificial Intelligence makes for such fun science fiction – the more peo-ple believe that a computer can become a person, the less likely they will have need to believe they were created in God’s image. Thus, more AI, less theism – that’s the game plan. Same with the search for ET. Find life elsewhere so we can dismiss Genesis.

We can dismiss a literate reading of Genesis by looking at the evidence that shows us that it cannot have been true. Or rather, that neither versions of the creation myth could have been true.

The problem of free will is only a problem for some people. Personally I don't have a need for a "free will" as Pastore defines it.
We are the sum of our experiences, environment, knowledge and numerous other things. Basede on all these factors, we make our choices. Given the complexity of the basis for our choices, it's pretty much impossible to figure out in advance what a given person will choose.

But, above all, avoid being cornered and forced to answer the questions of origins. Throw out lots of words that people can’t understand. Talk over them. Blind them with science. Talk about the details of the leaves on the trees but don’t allow them to bring it back to “Why the forest at all?” Assert the fact/value distinction. Claim that only science deals with knowledge. Drop in some postmodern gobbledygook. Distract them with how science deals with the “what, where, how and when” and not the “who and the why.” Especially avoid people who have had training in the philosophy of science – they’re dangerous because they see through us and know who we are – they don’t see the shimmering lab coats that everyone else sees. They don’t see any clothes at all.

Given the fact that most people who had training in the philosophy of science are scientists, that scientists work hard to solve the questions related to origins (of either of the four types he mentioned), that several branches of science actually deals with "who and why", and many other such pesky things, I think I can safely say that Pastore doesn't make any kind of sense at all.

Since the pre-Socratics, atheists have been intellectual parasites living off the host of Western Civilization. Able to con-struct so very little of their own that is either true, good, or beautiful, they live on the borrowed capital of their believing intellectual parents. Atheists have been asserting the same basic mechanistic worldview, and with roughly the same suc-cess, for centuries. They sell books and win converts from time to time, sure, especially among those gullible enough to buy the “just popped” thesis. Don’t be gullible.

Project much?

But, for me, the real value of atheism lies in bolstering belief in God. When I doubt, I can begin to doubt my doubts by returning to the Four Big Bangs. And, I eventually fall to my knees and worship, “In the beginning, God.”

Interesting. Many of the rest of us would require some kind of evidence of a deity before believing in it, yet Pastore just need to think of four rather easily answered questions.

Did people notice something about this bookreview? It didn't actually contain anything about the books themselves. It was entirely about Pastore's poorly thought out anti-atheist ideas, and his vile attacks on atheists.

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Religion and the Ivory Tower

There have been two articles recently about religion in academic life.

The first one was in the NY Times on May 2nd, and was about how religion got more widespread among students.

Matters of Faith Find a New Prominence on Campus

More students are enrolling in religion courses, even majoring in religion; more are living in dormitories or houses where matters of faith and spirituality are a part of daily conversation; and discussion groups are being created for students to grapple with questions like what happens after death, dozens of university officials said in interviews.

A survey on the spiritual lives of college students, the first of its kind, showed in 2004 that more than two-thirds of 112,000 freshmen surveyed said they prayed, and that almost 80 percent believed in God. Nearly half of the freshmen said they were seeking opportunities to grow spiritually, according to the survey by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Compared with 10 or 15 years ago, “there is a greater interest in religion on campus, both intellectually and spiritually,” said Charles L. Cohen, a professor of history and religious studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who for a number of years ran an interdisciplinary major in religious studies. The program was created seven years ago and has 70 to 75 majors each year.

Given the fact that there hasn't been any such surveys before, it cannot be said for sure that this is true. Sure, it's the impression that Cohen has gotten (like several other people quoted in the article), but there is actually no evidence for such absolute claims. It would have been nice if the article reflected this, instead of just accepting such claims.
The claims might be right, but there is absolutely no way to know, and it's damn annoying when journalists just reprint unverified claims (no matter the subject).

Having said that, let's see who the quoted people feel are the new religious people.

University officials explained the surge of interest in religion as partly a result of the rise of the religious right in politics, which they said has made questions of faith more talked about generally. In addition, they said, the attacks of Sept. 11 underscored for many the influence of religion on world affairs. And an influx of evangelical students at secular universities, along with an increasing number of international students, means students arrive with a broader array of religious experiences.

Interesting that they would include international students, many of which certainly comes from less religious countries than the US. Or from countries that are not Christian. Somehow, I don't think they are such a major factor as the university officials seems to think.

And notice how they think that the religious right are causing the increase in religious talk - could it be that US students are as religious as they've always been, but because of the religious climate, it has become more legitimate to push your relgion on others? Thus making the religious nature of (some) people more obvious?

Now, besides being a bit skeptical of the overall message in the article, I also find it problematic that the article doesn't at all address the negative consequences of the increased, public, religious nature of students. They don't look at how the increase of evangelical students can have a negative influence on science teaching, or how religious minorities, atheists, gays, and other groups of students, can feel marginalized by such an outright religious environment.

Instead the described trend is only mentioned as something positive.

Three days after the NY Times article, the Washington Post had an article about a similar subject, but with a different twist.

Is There Disdain For Evangelicals In the Classroom?

"On many campuses, if you're an evangelical Christian, you're going to have to go through classes in which you're told that much of what you believe religiously is not just wrong, but worthy of mockery," said David French, a lawyer with the Alliance Defense Fund, which sued Missouri State on Brooker's behalf.

Such accusations have been leveled for years at the Ivy League and other elite private universities. But they are gaining new attention from politicians and educators because of the Brooker case, which took place at a public school in the Bible Belt, and because of two recent, nationwide surveys of professors' views on religion.

The first, by sociologists Neil Gross of Harvard and Solon Simmons of George Mason University, found that college professors are less religious than the general public but are far from the godless horde that is sometimes imagined. Even at the country's 50 top research universities, a minority of the faculty is atheist or agnostic, Gross and Simmons found.

What did they expect? Most top colleges have a theology/relgious studies department, and at least one preacher connected to it. Hardly an environment for godless hordes.

The only reason why anyone would think that universities are so opposed to religion is because they have bought into the lies of the religious right, who claims that all liberals (which they of course claims all, or nearly all, university professors are) and scientists are godless monsters, trying to turn the students "away from God" (or similar such nonsense).

The other survey, by the San Francisco-based Institute for Jewish and Community Research, confirmed those findings but also found what the institute's director and chief pollster, Gary A. Tobin, called an "explosive" statistic: 53 percent of its sample of 1,200 college and university faculty members said they have "unfavorable" feelings toward evangelical Christians.

Tobin asked professors at all kinds of colleges -- public and private, secular and religious, two-year and four-year -- to rate their feelings toward various religious groups, from very warm or favorable to very cool or unfavorable. He said he designed the question primarily to gauge anti-Semitism but found that professors expressed positive feelings toward Jews, Buddhists, Roman Catholics and most other religious groups.

I must admit that I would refuse to answer any questions about how I feel about a group of people solely based upon their religious affiliation. I would be willing to comment on my feelings on the religious affiliations (all negative, but in varying degrees), but those feelings don't map to the people who associate with them (except in extreme cases like people who self-identify as Christian Indentity).

My guess is that the professors who answered were actually answering how they felt about the religious affiliations, rather than the people belonging to them. And it seems that I am not the only one who thinks this.

"When we ask questions like this, we're asking the respondent to say how they feel about an entire group of people, and whatever image they have of that entire group comes through," Tobin said. "There is no question this is revealing bias and prejudice."

Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, disagreed. What the poll reflects, he said, is "a political and cultural resistance, not a form of religious bias."

Nelson, a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said the unfavorable feelings toward evangelical Christians probably have two causes: "the particular kind of Republican Party activism that some evangelicals have engaged in over the years, as well as what faculty perceive as the opposition to scientific objectivity among some evangelicals."

As I said, it's not the people who believe in the religion, but what the religion represents. An example - it's prefectly possible to like individual Catholics, but loathe the Catholic church because of their stance on such issues as abortion and preservations. Much like it is possible to like people who self-identify as Communists, even if you are against everything Communism stands for.

Of course, the pollster doesn't get it.

Tobin, the pollster, acknowledged that his survey did not measure how professors act, only how they feel. But he said the levels of disapproval are high enough to raise questions about how evangelical Christians are treated.

"If a majority of faculty said they did not feel warmly about Muslims or Jews or Latinos or African Americans, there would be an outcry. No one would attempt to justify or explain those feelings. No one would say, 'The reason they feel this way is because they don't like the politics of blacks or the politics of Jews.' That would be unthinkable," Tobin said.

I would guess that quite a few don't feel warmly about the Muslim faith, but don't have a problem with the individual Muslim. When talking about Jews, there are historical reasons why one would (and should) be extremely careful in expressing dislike towards both the religion and the group of people, especially when viewed as an ethnic group, rather than as people belonging to a specific religion. Latinos and African Americans are of course ethnic groups, and cannot be used on an equal level as a religious group, where it is possible to differ between the stance (the religion) and the people believing in it.

Of the two articles, the Washington Post article is definitely the more nuanced, but I would like if either of them had looked into the appropriateness of having religion intruding on academic life (and the effects this has). Personally, I don't care what neither my co-students nor my professors believe, but I certainly feel that religion should be left at the door. Churches, and other places of worship, are more appropriate for that.


Thursday, May 03, 2007

B.Sc. (computer science)

I just got a letter from the University of Copenhagen. The content was about a couple of old subject I took back in the days when I studied economics, and wanted to count towards my current education. The university accepted it, and by a stroke of a pen, I'm suddently a B.Sc. in computer science, since it brings my total number of ECTS points up to 182.5 (180 ECTS points are required)

It's not like I got a lot out of it, but I did shave off a few months of active studying by doing this. Considering that I am working full time (or more) next to my study, it's pretty nice.

Now, I've just filled out my application for studying towards becoming a Cand.Sc. in computer science, which is approved more or less automatically. A Cand.Sc. is similar to the US M.Sc., except it requires that you hold a B.Sc. in the same subject, and thus study the subject for five years in total. This is where the fun starts.

I think I'll head out and grab a few beers.

It's a long weekend in Denmark, and it's a pretty busy one for me, so expect light or no blogging from my side.


Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Talking Points Memo is an All Spin Zone

A study of six months worth, of O'Reilly's Talking Points Memo editorials using propaganda analysis techniques shows that O'Reilly's claims of it being a "No Spin Zone" couldn't be futher from the truth. The study was conducted by three academics from the Indianna University School of Journalism, and was presented as an article in Journalism Studies

Indianna University has issued a press release: Content analysis of O'Reilly's rhetoric finds spin to be a 'factor'

Commentator uses name-calling more than once every seven seconds in 'Talking Points Memo'

Bill O'Reilly may proclaim at the beginning of his program that viewers are entering the "No Spin Zone," but a new study by Indiana University media researchers found that the Fox News personality consistently paints certain people and groups as villains and others as victims to present the world, as he sees it, through political rhetoric.

The IU researchers found that O'Reilly called a person or a group a derogatory name once every 6.8 seconds, on average, or nearly nine times every minute during the editorials that open his program each night.

"It's obvious he's very big into calling people names, and he's very big into glittering generalities," said Mike Conway, assistant professor in the IU School of Journalism. "He's not very subtle. He's going to call people names, or he's going to paint something in a positive way, often without any real evidence to support that viewpoint."

Maria Elizabeth Grabe, associate professor of telecommunications, added, "If one digs further into O'Reilly's rhetoric, it becomes clear that he sets up a pretty simplistic battle between good and evil. Our analysis points to very specific groups and people presented as good and evil."

For their article in the spring issue of Journalism Studies, Conway, Grabe and Kevin Grieves, a doctoral student in journalism, studied six months worth, or 115 episodes, of O'Reilly's "Talking Points Memo" editorials using propaganda analysis techniques made popular after World War I.

The reason why O'Reilly's show was choosen, was exactly because he claims that it's a "No Spin Zone" - as the authors said "The promo of his show as a No Spin Zone -- that's where he opened the door for us."

While the findings are hardly surprising, they are still interesting.

What the IU researchers found in their study, "Villains, Victims and Virtuous in Bill O'Reilly's 'No Spin Zone': Revisiting World War Propaganda Techniques," was that he was prone to inject fear into his commentaries and quick to resort to name-calling. He also frequently assigned roles or attributes -- such as "villians" or downright "evil" -- to people and groups.

Using analysis techniques first developed in the 1930s by the Institute for Propaganda Analysis, Conway, Grabe and Grieves found that O'Reilly employed six of the seven propaganda devices nearly 13 times each minute in his editorials. His editorials also are presented on his Web site and in his newspaper columns.

The seven propaganda devices include:

* Name calling -- giving something a bad label to make the audience reject it without examining the evidence;
* Glittering generalities -- the oppositie of name calling;
* Card stacking -- the selective use of facts and half-truths;
* Bandwagon -- appeals to the desire, common to most of us, to follow the crowd;
* Plain folks -- an attempt to convince an audience that they, and their ideas, are "of the people";
* Transfer -- carries over the authority, sanction and prestige of something we respect or dispute to something the speaker would want us to accept; and
* Testimonials -- involving a respected (or disrespected) person endorsing or rejecting an idea or person.

The same techniques were used during the late 1930s to study another prominent voice in a war-era, Father Charles Coughlin. His sermons evolved into a darker message of anti-Semitism and fascism, and he became a defender of Hitler and Mussolini. In this study, O'Reilly is a heavier and less-nuanced user of the propaganda devices than Coughlin.

Among the findings:

* Fear was used in more than half (52.4 percent) of the commentaries, and O'Reilly almost never offered a resolution to the threat. For example, in a commentary on "left-wing" media unfairly criticizing Attorney Gen. Alberto Gonzales for his role in the Abu Ghraib scandal, O'Reilly considered this an example of America "slowly losing freedom and core values," and added, "So what can be done? Unfortunately, not much."
* The researchers identified 22 groups of people that O'Reilly referenced in his commentaries, and while all 22 were described by O'Reilly as bad at some point, the people and groups most frequently labeled bad were the political left -- Americans as a group and the media (except those media considered by O'Reilly to be on the right).
* Left-leaning media (21.6 percent) made up the largest portion of bad people/groups, and media without a clear political leaning was the second largest (12.2 percent). When it came to evil people and groups, illegal aliens (26.8 percent) and terrorists (21.4 percent) were the largest groups.
* O'Reilly never presented the political left, politicians/government officials not associated with a political party, left-leaning media, illegal aliens, criminals and terrorists as victims. "Thus, politicians and media, particularly of the left-leaning persuasion, are in the company of illegal aliens, criminals, terrorists -- never vulnerable to villainous forces and undeserving of empathy," the authors concluded.
* According to O'Reilly, victims are those who were unfairly judged (40.5 percent), hurt physically (25.3 percent), undermined when they should be supported (20.3 percent) and hurt by moral violations of others (10.1 percent). Americans, the U.S. military and the Bush administration were the top victims in the data set, accounting for 68.3 percent of all victims.
* One of O'Reilly's common responses to charges of bias is to come up with one or two examples of "proof" that he is fair to all groups. For example, in October 2005, Dallas Morning News columnist Macarena Hernandez accused O'Reilly of treating the southern border "as the birth of all American ills." O'Reilly responded by showing a video clip in which he had called Mexican workers "good people." He called for a boycott of the newspaper if it did not retract Hernandez' column.

"Our results show a consistent pattern of O'Reilly casting non-Americans in a negative light. Both illegal aliens and foreigners were constructed as physical threats to the public and never featured in the role of victim or hero," the authors concluded.

The actual study can be found here: Villains, Victims and Virtuous in Bill O'Reilly's 'No Spin Zone'


Oregon governor lives of food stamps

Via Readerville, I became aware of this rather good attempt of raising awareness of hunger.

A Governor Truly Tightens His Belt (NY Times)

Gov. Theodore R. Kulongoski’s decision to live on $3 a day in grocery money for a week, as he had been urged to do in an Oregon “food stamp challenge,” could confound the surest cynic. At 66, he was just elected to his second term, with a budget surplus surpassing $1 billion and a legislature controlled by his fellow Democrats. So just what was there to gain politically?

For a governor who has long pushed to reduce hunger and happens to like eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, maybe that was not the point.

Of course, there is a major difference between living of $3 per day for a week, and having to do so day in and day out, but I still applaud Kulongoski for what he did.

The average monthly individual participation in the food stamp program is 25,641,656 Americans1, and the average monthly food stamp benefit per person is $83.772.
The number of people living in poverty (what is now called "food insecurity") is 35.1 million, of which 22.7 million are adults (10.4% of all US adults) and 12.4 million are children (16.9% of all US children). Of these, 10.8 million people (both adults and children) live in what used to be called “food insecure with hunger”, and what's now called “very low food security” households.3

Anything that calls attention to these things, can only be considered as something positive.

For more about hunger in the US, see the sources below, or either Household Food Security in the United States, 2005 by The Economic Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture or U.S. Conference of Mayors/Sodexho Survey on Hunger and Homelessness (.pdf) by the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

1National statistics (.pdf)
2Facts About Hunger (.pdf)
3FRAC - Hunger in the U.S.

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