Thursday, May 31, 2007

Art Break

There's a theory that states that anything and everything can be done with duct tape. Need a new kidney? Duct tape. Did your arm get severed? Duct tape. Your car's engine fell out? Duct tape.

Mark Jenkins shows us what can be done with Duct tape's wimpy little brother Scotch.

Bad Science, Bad Theology, Just Bad

The Creation Museum has opened its doors, leading to a blogosphere-wide freak-out over the atrocious "science" represented by Adam and Eve set smack dab in the middle of a Flintstones world.

Personally, I'm just as offended by the mind-blowing theological errors like:
1. G-d doesn't get credit for creation unless He pulled the universe out of His hat like a cheap magician at a children's party.
2. The dispersion of peoples after the Tower of Babel "incident" was brought about by G-d's decision that human's just weren't getting it on fast enough or moving far enough away from one another. (When this still didn't work, G-d created Barry White and Manifest Destiny.)
3. "Evolution" has caused the moral decline in modern society, because we all know there were no signs of moral decay in the Bible, not in Sodom or Gomorrah or Nineveh or Jerusalem. Nope. No moral decay at all. No idol worshipping or baby-sacrificing or mistreatment of the poor or abandonment of the widows or oppression of the workers or drunkenness or adultery or violence or anything. We were all doing just fine until they told that lie about the monkeys.

I am so embarassed for these people and I'm deeply offended on behalf of all reasonable people of faith who believe in a G-d whose greatness isn't threatened by truth but is instead revealed by it.

Sci-Fi to the Rescue!

Science fiction writers are helping the Homeland Security Department predict potential terrorist attack situations and their aftermath in the hopes of preparing better responses. Maybe they should have helped them predict the aftermath of a HUGE hurricane hitting a major port city, but better late than never.

Of course, government agencies have tapped into sci-fi before. The European Space Agencies sought ideas from science fiction seven years ago.

Personally, I think it's a good idea for the government to get advice from qualified scientists with actual imagination. If there's one thing (one thing, yeah.) this government's missing, it's the imagination to predict and prepare responses to large scale attacks.

Okay, Wake Up and Smell the Treason!

The right-wing punditocracy still doesn't get it. Valerie Plame was a covert agent of the Central Intelligence Agency. Period. All of their conspiracy theorizing, backpedalling, and whining isn't going to change that.

The stupidest part is their complete inability to understand why, after having a covert operative's name publicized, the CIA didn't simply come forward with the full and unvarnished truth. So, let me explain this like they're children.

The CIA is a big agency that keeps lots of secrets. You know what secrets are, don't you? Of course, you do. Anyway, even if part of the secret gets told, the CIA doesn't like to tell the rest of the secret. Because you see, boys and girls, if the CIA tells the rest of the secret, people die. So, the CIA was all like, "Nope. Don't know whatcha talkin' about. I ain't seen no covert agent. What's covert mean, anyway?"

Then, they went around and did what grown-ups call "damage control." This is what grown-ups do when bad people leak the name of a top-secret spy. Once the CIA was sure that they could tell the truth without people dying and a whole lot of other secrets coming out and more people dying, they told the part of the truth that they can tell: Valerie Plame was a covert agent working for the CIA, often travelling under a false identity (kind of like Halloween, where you dressed up like Superman).

Of course, Valerie Plame can't work as a top-secret spy anymore, so she lost her job and the CIA lost a good officer. We may never know how much of a boo-boo this has been for the CIA and the country. The CIA keeps secrets, remember? But you can bet that the bad guys who told the secret damaged national security and helped those other bad guys who want to kill us all. That, boys and girls, is called treason.

UPDATE: Read the unclassified proof of Valerie Plame's covert status.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

What the F...udge?

Pure Pedantry brings us: The cow that produces skim milk! No, not in the way that all cows produce skim milk. Really. Jake suggests an oreo-producing squirrel, but as I hate chocolate... (Yes, you read that right.) I'll go for a macadamia nut cookie producing squirrel instead.

Amazing, Simply Amazing!

Imagine a culture with no creation myths, no history beyond two generations, no way of talking about objects that aren't in the immediate experience of those having the conversation, no concept of abstraction, no numbers... The Piraha are those people. Astounding. We think so much is universal, then we are proven wrong. The Piraha are the living falsification of MANY scientific and philosophical theories of what it is to be human.

More on the Piraha from:
Guardian Unlimited
New Scientist (Requires a subscription, but if you love science, the $5 is worth it.)

I Can't Resist...

I'll keep this brief. Seed has a profile of John Ioannidis, author of "Why most published research findings are false?" For anyone who likes science but not reading science jargon, the Seed article is much easier to follow.

Adventures in Ethics and Science has an even easier to read explanation of how some of these problems may arise.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Are You a Guinea Pig?

WARNING: This post contains links to materials which are severely disturbing, including information on and photographs of horrific experiments carried out in the death camps of Europe during the Nazi era.

Larisa Alexandrovna's blog at-Largely has a disturbing look at medical experiments carried out on unwitting and thus non-consenting patients at a variety of hospitals throughout the United States. Previous studies have shown an increase in deaths due to the experimental treatments. Patients in critical condition have (without knowledge or consent) been given substandard treatments that have literally cost them their lives.

Despite ongoing investigations of previous such studies, the federal government will undertake a new 5-year study involving as many as 20,000 patients in the U.S. and Canada, who will also be given experimental treatments without their knowledge or consent.

These experiments have been approved under new FDA regulations that partially overturn the 50-year-old Nuremberg Code, which, in light of the human experimentation carried out by the Nazis, instituted regulations requiring patients to grant informed consent before being included in medical experiments.

It would be easy to see the Nazi experiments as singular, unrepeatable events and to view those who carried them out as so inhuman, so psychologically disturbed that their behavior could never predict anything that could happen elsewhere. Unfortunately, we must remember that these men were extensively tested and found to be psychologically normal. We must also remember that horrific human experiments and other medical crimes were also carried out in the United States in Tuskegee, state and federal prisons, and in a variety of hospitals, mental institutions, military instillations, and residential areas. What is more, we must remember that Nazi doctors on trial at Nuremberg cited many of these experiments as justification for their own crimes.

The government's decision to ignore the lessons of our unfortunate history and to go forward with experiments on human beings without consideration of their safety and basic rights and in full violation of the long-standing principles of medical ethics is a crime against not only the American people but against any foreign peoples whose governments may take inspiration and justification from our acts.

For anyone who may be interested, the Alliance for Human Research Protection provides great information on the history of human research, the current conflicts of interest and corruption effecting current research, and the fight to protect informed consent as the standard for all human research.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Those Damned Gay Terrorists

Apparently, gay activists a.k.a. "people who feel they are trying to create a better world" are considered possible terrorists by the Alabama Department of Homeland Security.

So, to my Alabama readers, if you see a very well-dressed man who can really dance or a woman who is strangely good at playing softball, volleyball, basketball, or any sport whatsoever, please call the Department of Homeland Security. We have reason to believe that these people may intend to carry out massive redecorating on major American targets. The female members of these organizations are also suspected of planning to undermine heterosexuality by promising innocent women something they refer to as an "orgasm" or (in some recently decoded transmissions) a "g-spot orgasm." We aren't certain what this "orgasm" may entail, but we have reason to suspect that it may pose a danger to national security and potentially to the future of the human race as we know it.

These people are known to congregate in establishments that sell alcohol, dancing to music they call "disco" and waiving rainbow-colored battle flags. The female members of these possible terrorist organizations are also known for converging at a single location carrying foodstuffs. We believe these "potlucks" as they call them may be used to conceal their plans to infect normal women with a strange virus that makes them want to own tools and wear leather. If you are approached by one of these women, proceed carefully to the nearest exit and if necessary, politely but firmly decline any offer to take you on a road trip where you would be permitted to sleep while she operates the motor vehicle.

If you notice any suspicious activity on the part of someone you suspect may be of the homosexual persuasion or who may be a willing or unwilling accomplice to the machinations of those of the homosexual persuasion, record all relevant details as to the time, date, and place you sighted this potential terrorist and report this information immediately to the Alabama Department of Homeland Security at 1-800-DUM-BASS. Thank you. Your nation appreciates your vigilance.

Invasion of the Pod Lesbian

My apologies to the few readers I may have left. I was minding my own business one day, when suddenly, out of nowhere, I was imprisoned and replaced by a jargon-spewing science dork. I have wrested my freedom from her cold, dead hands and have returned to once again pick up the duties of blogging in standard English.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Stay Off the Plane!

From News of the Weird:

KUSA-TV reported in March that a Transportation Security Administration undercover team was able to sneak simulated liquid explosives past screeners at Denver International Airport about 90 percent of the time during a three-day test in February, in nearly every case because, though machines detected the explosives, the undercover agents talked the screeners out of personally searching them. [KUSA-TV (Denver), 3-29-07]

You've earned it.

To reward you for sticking with me despite the loads of science talk (quite boring to many of you, I'm sure), I bring you: the first ever recorded incidence of monkey prostitution! Yeah, that's science too, but it's funny science.

What Do Babies Know?

I put this link in an update on my earlier post. But just so you don't miss it, here it is again. Please note that my memory failed me in my description of the experiment earlier. I combined the details/concepts of two different experiments: one where a train changes color as it passes through a tunnel and another where a hinged wooden panel passes through a box. A fault of memory, I hope, not some infantile need to reject the concept of "naive physics."

Yes, I'm on that again....

Back to Bloom and Weisberg and the "resistance" to science. Here's my alternative explanation of why people who believe in creationism aren't just stupid, childlike morons who resist science. First, let me direct you to Pure Pedantry, so you don't think I'm alone in this.

If it's daytime when you read this, look out at the sun or go outside if necessary. What color is the sun? Yellow? Orange if it's near sunset? Wrong. The sun is white. Would you be stupid for thinking the sun is yellow? Let's imagine you live in a remote village somewhere and you've never had a formal science education. Would you be "resisting" science if someone told you that the sun is white because the evidence says so? No, that person would have to explain/demonstrate a lot of facts about the nature of light, the refraction of light, the composition of earth's atmosphere, etc. to get you to accept that the yellow orb in the sky is really white. Why? Because you're a reasonable person.

Too many who argue for evolution simply state (roughly, of course), "Evolution is true. The evidence proves it. If you don't accept it, you're stupid." This argument is similar to, "Alien visitations are real. There's lots of evidence. If you don't accept it, you've been deluded by the government." Any reasonable human being is a Missourian when it comes to accepting something that contradicts previous evidence: Show me! (This is true even in science, where new theories that contradict current theories can be highly controversial upon first introduction. Both Einstein's theory of relativity and quantum physics were originally rejected by a skeptical mainstream scientific community.)

Absent a full understanding of the evidence for evolution, a reasonable person falls back on what is available to the five senses and basic reasoning abilities. These two things show a world that is reasonably consistent and unchanging with respect to most things. (If you think this "need" for consistency is some kind of psychological problem, you might want to read up on the principles of uniformitarianism.)

Therefore, it is reasonable for a person to assume that the universe and life forms are consistent in form through time UNTIL convinced by overwhelming evidence to the contrary. (Admittedly, this belief in consistency arises from inductive reasoning, which is logically invalid but nonetheless cogent and often dependable/functional.) Simply telling this person that there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary is not enough, if this person approached it rationally.

Not everyone approaches such decisions rationally, I must admit. Bloom and Weisberg are right on the human tendency to accept authority on matters where personal confirmation of facts is not possible. But this applies no less to those who accept evolution than to those who don't.

How many people who accept evolution have carefully and rationally examined the evidence? Well, considering that only 27% of the American population is scienttifically literate enough to follow a science story in the newspaper, 45% accept evolution, and accepting evolution rationally requires far more than basic scientific literacy, we can assume that more than half of those who accept evolution probably do so based on nonrational or irrational reasons. If we go further and say that people should only accept evidence they've examined themselves rather than accepting someone else's word for it based on "faith" or trust in the person's authority/reliability, we could probably assume that the majority of people who accept evolution do so for nonrational and irrational reasons.

Ironically, a person who is not fully familiar with the evidence of evolution and the methods necessary to properly interpret that evidence is behaving more rationally if he rejects evolution than if he accepts it.

UPDATE: Many who accept scienctific authority often cite the "success" of science as justification for their decision or for their belief that science is superior. This may count as a confirmation bias when one considers that while much of our modern world is evidence of scientific successes, as much as 99.8% of ideas put forth by scientists may be wrong. I put the number at 98%, but Discover Magazine's Seth Lloyd seems to disagree.

UPDATE #2: An interesting exercise: Compare Bloom and Weisberg's graph on "public acceptance of evolution in 34 countries, 2005" to the Wikipedia chart on "established churches and former state churches in Europe". Notice something? Most of the countries that have higher levels of evolution acceptance have state religions or have had them until recently.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Resisting Science?

The "culture war" propaganda erupting from the scientific community is really beginning to grate on my nerves, especially since many of the arguments are scientifically and logically unsound. Edge has "Why Do Some People Resist Science?", an attempt to explain a phenomenon that is truly overblown and probably doesn't even exist.

The questionable interpretations of current public polls begin with the first line, "It is no secret that many American adults reject some scientific ideas." It is no secret that some believe that. It's highly questionable that many American adults do, in fact, reject some scientific ideas much less science itself.

Opinion polls like the 2005 Pew Trust poll cited in the article ask people what they believe about x, but cannot give us any real insight into why people believe what they do. It is unfortunate and a bit foolish that beliefs that contradict science (unlike any other field of endeavor) are automatically interpreted as a rejection of science.

For instance, a 2001 Ipsos-Reed poll showed that only 63% of Americans passed a quiz on basic historical facts, when passing meant getting at least half the questions right. (Anyone remember when getting half the questions right meant you failed?) That means that 37% of Americans couldn't even score 50% on a quiz that asked such simple questions as "Who was the first president of the United States?" or "In what year was the Declaration of Independence signed?"

Yet, we've had no uproar over Americans' "rejection" of historical ideas and facts, simply a reasoned debate as to how to improve history education. Similarly, polls that show that many American adults are functionally illiterate or mathematically illiterate (innumerate) never provoke diatribes or even reasoned explanations on why Americans reject literature and math.

Secondly, Bloom and Weisberg, like many ersatz culture warriors, end up comparing apples and oranges in demonstrating why some scientific ideas are "accepted" while others are "rejected", ignoring the tremendous differences between the two ideas compared and the differing standards necessary to get someone to understand them well enough to accept or reject them. For instance, the "round earth" v. "evolution" comparison ignores that the first idea is far easier to demonstrate and thus to grasp than the latter.

Anyone who has ever shown a child a globe or a satellite picture of earth knows that they accept the roundness of our home planet rather easily. The implications of this fact lead to questions, of course. So, kids will ask why we don't fall off, a question easily answered by a quick analogy comparing gravity to magnetism.

Evolution on the other hand requires a bit more in the way of mental gymnastics. What simple visual aid can be placed before the child to allow him to automatically grasp the concept of life beginning with a single cell and becoming ever more diverse until you have millions of very distinct organisms? Even most kids can understand basic inheritance, looking like mom or dad or grandma. Most can get very basic natural selection based on a simplistic example of an animal that can hide surviving predators better than one that can't. But the complexities of macroevolution, fossilization, genetics, the interpretation of evidence, principles of uniformitarianism, etc. (all necessary to truly understanding evolution) aren't exactly "see and learn."

If it were not for the false "rejection" premise, Bloom and Weisberg could offer a way for us to understand why learning some types of concepts is difficult and why our inaccurate common sense will trump poorly understood but more accurate scientific data. They could also provide clues to new teaching methods based on an understanding of our natural perceptions of the world. This potential makes their fundamental error and its deleterious effect on their work all the more disappointing.

UPDATE: Sorry, I had to publish quickly since I was at work. Here are some more scientific problems with the study, problems that call the theory as a whole into question.

The "naive physics" of infants mentioned in the article (par.4) has been questioned as a possible misinterpretation of experimental data. In one study, infants were shown a train running into a wall, then shown the train going through the wall. When the babies were "surprised," the experimenters interpreted this as an understanding of the solidity of objects and the impossibility of one going through another. Later studies seem to have demonstrated that the babies were in fact reacting to novelty rather than reacting from a naive understanding of basic physics. Similar problems have arisen with the naive psychology also discussed. (I'm trying to find net links to the studies, but since I read them in print some months ago, the tracking is slow. Please be patient.)

The children's difficulty with the spherical earth (par. 5) is described as "distort[ing] the scientific understanding in systematic ways." Is this really a distortion or the burgeoning attempt to understand? Maybe, it's just semantics, but the term "distort" seems to imply some refusal to accept rather than an inability to fully understand a concept that defies our experience. The children accept that it's a sphere, but still haven't quite grasped that we live on the outside of the sphere and don't fall off. I think any person who has ever taught children, as I have, can relate to the child's habit of understanding something only partially and creatively compensating for what is missing or even merging two incomplete concepts into one.

"In some cases, there is such resistance to science education that it never entirely sticks..." (par. 7) Is it really resistance? Or is there a flaw in how science is taught and how much? Rote memorization, superficial textbooks, and reliance on "authority" over explanation makes science boring and complex ideas more difficult to teach and learn. I found many of my science classes rather boring until I was given permission (in 7th grade Spanish class, no less)to read science magazines piled in the back of the room. I fell in love and that love affair has lasted ever since. Would the passion that made me seek out and learn scientific ideas ever have existed if I'd been confined to my boring science lectures and multiple-choice tests? I don't think so.

As for the ball/tube diagram, I find myself wondering what orientation is to be assumed for the tubes. Lying on their sides, A is correct. Upright, neither is correct. The ball's inertia will give way to gravity, leading to a downward curved trajectory. The hose example given is similarly flawed. Every time I've watered a lawn, the water has obeyed the laws of physics, following a curved trajectory towards the ground.

The next paragraph is particularly special. "Promiscuous teleology," my foot. How many of you began going to Sunday school by the time you were four? Four-year-olds may assign purpose and meaning because they're already being taught that G-d created the world for a purpose. Or simply because impatient adults answer children's many "But why?" questions with silly made up answers. Assigning this to "intuition" or natural tendencies is highly questionable. How would we differentiate between nature and nurture?

And let us not forget that much of what is credited to intuition could come about just as easily through inductive reasoning, like the fact that objects fall. In the early stages of learning to grasp and hold objects, babies drop A LOT of things. These experiences surely make an impression.

"My brain made me do it." (par. 12) is not implying that "some of our decisions have nothing to do with our brains". This legal defense implies that there is some defect or abnormality in the defendent's brain that deprives him of the ability to make conscious decisions about his behavior in a way that normal people with normal brains would. It's a highly flawed theory, but it is not evidence that people don't realize that their actions are controlled to some extent via their brains. I think most human beings simply think that there's a difference between an act controlled by your brain over which you have no control and acts controlled by your brain which you can control. And there is!

The "cultural" difference between the U.S. from Europe (par. 14) is one of many factors and probably the most insignificant. The "culture-specific resistance to evolution" can just as easily be linked to the extremely large gap between the quality of education in Europe v. the U.S.

"...belief in germs and electricity..." (par. 16 on) are a bit different than belief in evolution. Germs/electricity are objects which can be said to exist. Although they are invisible, their effects are readily experienced in daily life. Neither the fact nor theory of evolution has effects which can be experienced in daily life and readily attributed to them. Neither is an object which can be said to exist. Also, germs/electricity were once explicitly asserted, becoming common only much later, as are many ideas that do not derive solely from common experience or natural mental tendencies.

The arguments that common knowledge is never questioned is ridiculous. Even children occasionally think their parents are full of it and look for alternate explanations. Although appeal to authority is common, it is not absolute. (Hence, our acceptance of scientific authority on some things but not others.)

Okay, forgive me. That's it. Error, errors, errors! Grrrrrrr! And this got published (in a different version) in Science! I think I change my mind about their potential.

UPDATE 2: What do Babies Know? Thanks for your patience. It took some time to track this down. I searched the online archives of all of the science mags I read, which is about 10 of them rough estimate. No luck. Then, I remembered that the article was in Time's special issue on the human brain. Enjoy.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Are Things Getting Better?

It's hard to imagine the modern world with all its conflicts and brutality as a sign of tremendous progress, but the science shows otherwise according to Steven Pinker.

Zimbardo Speaks

Edge has an interview with Phil Zimbardo, author of "The Lucifer Effect," the book in my "Even the Lawful Good Can Become Chaotic Evil" post.

Warning: If you're emotionally sensitive, you might want to have a tissue handy. The material he covers can be emotionally disturbing.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Science and Poor White Trash

American Sexuality Magazine has an interesting piece on the origins of "poor white trash" as a social classification and its intersections with the eugenics movement.

Please note that although eugenics has been rejected (for the most part) by the scientific community and is now considered a pseudoscience, it was once deemed science, was even taught in many major universities, and was promoted by the most prominent scientists of the Progressive Era. Along with scientific racism, scientific sexism, and scientific homophobia , the eugenics movement provides evidentiary justification for a fair amount of skepticism in regards to science and scientism as well as a general reluctance to simply concede to the "greater wisdom" of scientists in areas of social policy and law.

Although I personally support stem-cell research, the woman's right to choose, etc., I cannot in good conscience condemn those who are completely opposed or merely wary as motivated solely by irrational anti-scientific views. We should, as a society, be skeptical of proclamations from on high and any attempt to erradicate careful moral and ethical deliberation of how science is to be used and what scientific "advances" should be accepted.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Even the Lawful Good Can Become Chaotic Evil

This is one of the studies I noted in my "atheism v. religion" post. The ability of normal, average human beings to turn evil in the right circumstances is called the "Lucifer Effect." The Discover article is well worth reading.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Quirkology has an interesting look at quirky science, the study of human quirks or quirky studies of human behavior.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Science v. Religion?

Approximately 98% of its "facts" and ideas have been proven false. Of the 2% that remain, much is either "useless" or questionable. It has been used to justify slavery and segregation, European imperialism, the subjugation of women, the persecution of homosexuals,interference in private decisions like those about reproduction, and brutal atrocities like genocide and torture.

With the exception of a few on the fringes, the majority of its practitioners now regret the darkness of its past, recoiling with horror at the crimes committed by those who preceded them. These people were a product of their times, they say. You shouldn't renounce the whole system simply for their acts. Don't throw the baby out with the bath water. We're all human. We've progressed!

Some might call anyone who falls for these arguments foolish. Reason and experience should have forced us to abandon this nonsense long ago, right?

Despite the problems, I, for one, still find its ideas (unproven though they may be)elegant, beautiful, and awe-inspiring. I spend hours every week poring over its texts, both ancient and modern. Perhaps, I too am a fool. Maybe I'm an idiot for accepting a system that has failed so often, hurt so many. Maybe I haven't thought it out enough. Maybe I've just accepted what I was told growing up by my authority figures, failed to exhibit a level of skepticism worthy of an intelligent human being.

Maybe, but I can't help it. Science rocks!

Get the point?

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Atheism v. Religion: The false dichotomy?

Isn't atheism v. religion a false dichotomy? Shouldn't atheism and theism be paired instead? Won't that erradicate some of the ridiculous arguments being tossed about?

Personally, I think the answer to all three is yes. Atheism is lacking a belief in deities or actively believing there are none. Theism is belief in a deity or deities, with no qualifications as to the nature of those deities. They are naturally opposed.

On the other hand, it seems the atheism v. religion dichotomy places the answer to a single question in opposition to complete worldviews encompassing positions on perhaps thousands of questions. It also assumes that the term religion excludes any worldview in which there is no deity. Yet there are atheistic religions like Jainism, Bhuddism, Confucianism and Taoism.

What are the effects of this false dichotomy? A phrase oft-repeated in a variety of media (from academic journals to the blogosphere to news stories/documentaries on religion ad infinitum) is "No one has ever killed in the name of atheism."

This statement is intended to invoke the murders committed in the name of various deities or justified in religious language, a product not of theism but of complete theistic worldviews. When defenders of religion, also assuming this false dichotomy, call up the acts of Stalin, Mao, Hitler, or the Sri Lankan Tamil Tigers (the world's first suicide bombers), the response is "but it wasn't in the NAME OF ATHEISM" as if this easily refutes the point. (This little tit for tat has gone on long enough that when a defender of religion enters a discussion amongst atheists, someone is bound to ridicule his having invoked or not invoked these "spectres".) Both sides ignore the fact that no one has EVER killed in the name of theism either.

On a preliminary look, if you can count a good two years of research as preliminary, this false dichotomy benefits the atheist side of the debate, allowing some atheists to skirt behind mere technicalities and weakening any theistic and/or religious defender that concedes the false dichotomy. Some benefit is given to the theistic/religion side when the false dichotomy permits them to pretend that an atheist can claim no system or philosophy from which morality can be derived.

The fact is that just as one can follow a variety of theistic religions and belong to any number of sects within those religions, one can follow a variety of atheistic philosophies/religions. Many have been killed "in the name of" both theistic and atheistic worldviews for both religious and secular goals. Yes, it seems silly to many to think of an atheist calling out "in the name of noone" when committing a murderous act, but again, the opposite would be a theist calling out "in the name of an unnamed, abstract deity or deities", as theism itself gives no name or characteristics to the deity or deities.

Unfortunately, determining the causative link between ideology and action leads us to murky territory. Human individuals and human societies are often caught up in a complex dance between internal dynamics and external circumstance. One to one relationships between cause and effect would seem limited in such an environment.

Let us concede that a Palestinian suicide bomber prays to Allah before embarking on his mission and calls out his name as he dies. Is he committing this act merely because he believes in Allah and the promise of paradise? Is there a one to one relationship? It would seem that in determining the causes of the suicide bombers act, we'd have to look beyond what he calls out when he dies or what he thinks will happen once he's dead.

In the case of the Palestinian suicide bomber specifically, we would have to look at the fact of the Israeli occupation, the denial of a Palestinian state and thus Palestinian self-determination, the dearth of strong Palestinian leaders, the absence of "normal" means like democracy or a standing military, etc. Would Palestinians use suicide bombers if they had a functioning state and a standing military? Would they use them if the Israelis withdrew the occupation completely or conceded to a power-sharing agreement with the Palestinians? Would they use them if they felt they had the means to effectively alter their future via peaceful protest and the ballot box? Could groups like Hamas so readily recruit the young if they lived full, contented lives in a free society?

We could see any number of situations theoretically eliminating the use of suicide bombing or at least marginalizing those who use it as Western societies have marginalized our own violent extremists. None of these included the elimination of Islam. To be completely honest, however, we must consider Islam's role.

Although Islam itself is far more complex than the Islamist straw man, we can concede that Islamists quote the Koran and the Hadith, that they believe they will be rewarded in the afterlife, and that they believe that they are on a holy mission. Would suicide bombers living in the same circumstances be more or less likely to commit these acts if they were simply Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, atheists, etc.? Probably not. Would they have need of these justifications if the circumstances of recent history were different? Probably not.

Survey both current events and the course of human history and we see that at worst, religion/ideology provide justification for those acts which have a variety of motives and causes. The justification will be religious or secular, theistic or atheistic depending upon the identity of the participants, the nature of the cause, the nature of the enemy, the group's goals, etc. Often, however, religion/ideology are minor compared to circumstances and goals. In order to meet a set of goals in a set of circumstances, humans will always provide justification, regardless of religion or ideology. Compare if you will, the case of the Soviets and the Palestinians.

The Bolsheviks did not invoke Christianity. Hamas will not call upon communist ideology. Obviously, communists invoke Marx and Muslims invoke the Koran. Both "causes" arose organically from people in a position of weakness and oppression when compared to the strength and resources of the enemy: Russians suffering under the despotic rule of the Czars, Palestinians suffering under the unjust Israeli occupation. Both must invoke justifications for setting aside "normal" codes of behavior under "extraordinary circumstances" for a "noble" cause and "justifiable" goals.

Both have no problem finding them, even if they must twist the teachings of Marx or Mohammed to do it. (As Orwell describes the Soviet evolution in "Animal Farm," some rules get erased/ignored while others get changed to fit the moment.) In the absence of communism/Islam, both could simply call upon "objective" justifications like necessity or self-defense. Secular, democratic states like the United States generally justify their bad acts in just this way.

Scientific studies have long delved into the human capacity to revert to brutality in the right circumstances: from being willing to "shock" a person "to death" because a doctor says so or committing acts of horrible brutality against "prisoners" in a simulated prison environment. These along with historical data seem to show that circumstance is far more important than ideology/religion.

Does an expectation of an afterlife on the part of the Palestinians change the equation? Are they more likely to accept death than atheist Bolsheviks? No. Afterlife or not, all who believe themselves caught up in an epic struggle for freedom, justice, the construction of an ideal society, dignity, honor, etc. have a certain expectation of immortality according to their own terms. Whether they die to achieve paradise or die to reinvigorate their cause or die to make the world a "better" place for their descendants, they are expecting a continuation of their life after death, either in a continued existence or a continued effect. Whether they merely risk death or seek it seems to make little difference to this fact.

Ultimately, it seems that religion or ideology, atheism or theism, we are left with human behavior. No ideology, no religion, no ism can separate us from the enduring reality of our humanity, in both its best aspects and its worst.

*Author's Note: This is just a rough sketch of my points. The book will go into much more in the way of dates and figures and citations.

One Trick Pony

I'm starting to feel like a one trick pony here, but you must understand that the debates about science v. religion, atheism v. religion, etc. encompass one of the few parts of my book in which I don't have years of research and dozens of articles, columns, and academic papers under my belt. In other words, this is a part that is taking up much of my research time now, since I can't merely pull sources/data out of my head or out of previous works. So, I'm asking a LOT of questions about the data itself and its reliability as well as about how I can best express this sensitively without falling into yet another ridiculous controversy over my imaginary bigotry.

Why I am saying all this? So that you will hopefully understand the next two posts and have patience.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Blame it on Barry White...

I don't often post about sex, an odd thing considering how much of my published work has touched on the subject, but this was too good to pass up.

Penis snatchers. It is perhaps a poor tribute to my maturity that the term alone provokes evil little snickers that some might confuse with man-hating glee. It's not that at all, of course, just a momentary surprised amusement at the very concept that people once believed that women were out to snatch men's penises.

Then, one remembers Freud's theory of penis envy and the sway it held well into the twentieth century. It isn't that surprising at all, is it? The bread kneaded by a woman's buttocks is far more surprising, at least.

For centuries, men were considered the very center of sexuality. Women weren't supposed to want or like sex, but were, of course, supposed to be perfectly serviceable in ensuring a man's arousal and satisfaction. Sex was a surrender to wifely duty, nothing more. The very idea of a lesbian was unthinkable, because female sexuality simply did not exist in the absence of a man. This myth saved many a lesbian charged with sexual crimes. (There really should be an evil laugh here.)

In the Victorian era, the frustrated female sex drive (which couldn't be fully satisfied in a world where female sexuality was believed non-existent) was often "treated" medically as "hysteria." Treatment involved a doctor using a "dildo" or later, an electric vibrator on the woman's genitals until she reached "paroxysm." Women actually went to the doctor for this. Really. For a Victorian woman, expecting her husband to satisfy her or even admitting she had that need would have been unladylike and, in the culture of the day, a bit whorish. So, instead, she got all of her paroxysms from the friendly family physician. (My theory is that this is where women's obsession with doctors began.)

Incomprehensible to those of us raised in the post-Sexual Revolution era, but true nonetheless and rearing its ugly head still today in far less overt ways. So, while reading this rather interesting review of the history of impotence, keep in mind that men were at least permitted sexual desire and satisfaction.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Oh My G-d No!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Nightline apparently thinks it appropriate to air a challenge between Christians and Atheists, which could be a potentially enlightening debate IF the representatives from each side were even remotely representative of most Christians or most Atheists OR if each side was represented by competent experts.

Instead, we have Kirk Cameron/Ray Comfort v. the Rational Response Squad. A lot of room for fireworks here but seemingly little for substance. I'm cautiously pessimistic. However, it bodes ill for modern discourse when journalistic "balance" devolves into "dueling straw men" to a point where such blatant nonsense can pass for journalism at even one of the most respected news outlets. Even professional wrestling makes a more sincere attempt at creating an illusion that what they do is real and meaningful.

UPDATE: Why do I think Kirk Cameron is a nutball who shouldn't be used as a public representative of Christianity? Read this and note his views on evolution. Even the Pope acknowledges evolution. Although anti-evolution views were once widespread in Christianity, that time has passed with most who still reject evolution doing so mainly through the failures of the education system not through any true opposition to the theory as it stands. You can read my take on that subject here.

And let's not forget Kirk Cameron and the banana as proof of G-d. I'm expecting Cameron and Comfort to argue fruit as theology. Terrifying.