Monday, August 30, 2010

The country is in good hands then

See here.  There are some stock arguments you come across without fail from the ignorant oaf in the pub or the even more ignorant tabloid journalist.  George Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury and a member of the House of Lords (for absolutely no reason other than he’s a vicar) seems to have collected every single one of these lunatic positions into an imbecilic whine, which is interestingly published on the News of the World blog site. 

Cary is pleased that the Pope is visiting Britain, but he’s concerned:

But I cannot deny there is vicious intolerance in the air. Unfortunately, a minority have been making noises which go beyond reasonable criticism to hate-filled bigotry.

Well, we don’t want intolerance, do we?  It’s automatically bad, regardless of whether there’s something we can’t and shouldn’t tolerate. But more of that later.  We certainly don’t want hatred and bigotry though, so its a good job Carey spells out what these awful people have been saying:

The world’s most famous atheist, Richard Dawkins, has declared the Pontiff head of the world’s "second most evil religion", while writer Claire Rayner describes the Pope’s views as "so disgusting, so repellent, and so hugely damaging to the rest of us, that the only thing to do is to get rid of him."

Hatred?  Intolerance?  Bigotry?  I’m afraid I can’t see it.  Let’s take Dawkins’ comment first.  It’s hard to argue that it’s unjustified.  Do we need to list the bad things the Catholic church has done?  Systematic child abuse and covering up of same; the horrific effects of teaching people that contraception – and especially condoms – are evil and should not be used even in the face of worldwide (and easily preventable) disaster from overpopulation, poverty, starvation and the explosive spread of AIDS; the subjugation of women, bad enough in it’s own right horrific also because female emancipation is the only known remedy for the aforementioned poverty; the stance that homosexuality is an abomination and that homosexuals should receive fewer rights than others….  Any other organisation that behaved like this would be regarded as unambiguously evil by anyone not indoctrinated, even if it did good stuff too.  Second most evil religion?  It’s not really a stretch, is it?  Catholicism doesn’t fly planes into buildings and these days at least we don’t see too many murders of innocent people in the name of the Catholic faith, so I think Islam certainly trumps Catholicism in the evil stakes, but however horrible the other major religions try to be (and they do seem to try so very hard), none really come close to the Catholics in terms of the global reach of their evil acts.

Is Dawkins being intolerant here?  He’s intolerant of evil behaviour, which seems a fairly reasonable position to me.  Hatred?  Not of the pope, as Carey implies, but perhaps of the bad things the Catholic church does under the Pope’s guidance.  Bigotry?  Not in the slightest.  Dawkins doesn’t deny that the Catholic church does some good things.  He protests about the bad.  As we all should.  A bigoted response to the evil done by that church would be to ignore it or worse to sweep it under the carpet, which is precisely what Carey does.

Now to Claire Rayner, of all people.  According to Cary, she has said that the pope’s views are disgusting, repellent and damaging.  I certainly agree with her on that score, so I think I’m probably one of the ‘rest of us’ she’s referring to.  There’s a pretty big rest of us, I think.  It includes all the people – Catholic and otherwise – who don’t see fit to give religious organisations a free pass to commit evil acts.  I doubt Rayner wants to interfere with people’s rights to believe and worship whatever they like (Dawkins certainly doesn’t), but it doesn’t mean everyone else has to like it.  It doesn’t mean they can’t criticise it.  Rayner’s statement doesn’t show hatred, intolerance or bigotry at all.  It’s a criticism of the pope’s views without ever attacking the man himself (other than insofar as he holds these views) and so Carey’s accusations against Dawkins and Rayner are strawmen and presumably libellous.

There have been rumours, too, of plans to arrest him while he is in Britain and countless groups are attempting to mount protests.

This statement stands alone.  We, the readers, are supposed to infer that this both a bad thing and a sign of intolerance.  I expect Carey is keen on people protesting things that he himself doesn’t happen to like.  Who is the bigot here?

The same intolerance is behind much- publicised cases of banning crosses, marginalising the celebration of Christmas and the sacking of Christian civil servants who won’t bow the knee to the gods of equality and diversity.

These are feebly constructed strawmen.  Assuming, that is, that Cary is referring to the zero cases of crosses being banned (for example, when a nurse and an airline worker were politely asked to wear their crosses on the inside of their uniforms because the rules said no visible jewellery of any kind and trumped up charges of discrimination which had no basis in reality.  Crosses were not banned, uniform codes were enforced.  For everyone). 

And assuming that by marginalising Christmas, he’s referring to the well-known ‘winterval’ business, which was not an attempt to marginalise Christmas, but a simple marketing campaign for a shopping centre in Birmingham.  Even if the celebration of Christmas had been somehow marginalised (whatever that could possibly mean), how would that constitute ‘intolerance’?  Isn’t complaining about the supposed marginalisation of the celebration of Christmas (which in this context can really only mean also celebrating other religious festivals, can’t it?) the epitome of intolerance?  Isn’t Carey saying that his shindig is more important than everyone else’s and the others shouldn’t get publicity?

What about all these sackings of civil servants for their simple and selfless devotion to their right and proper Christian values?  Do you think Carey might be referring to Lillian Ladele, the bigoted registrar who refused to conduct same-sex civil partnerships?  This wasn’t discrimination against her at all.  It was discrimination on her part against homosexuals.  It seems reasonable to assume that a registrar who refuses to register stuff is failing in her duties and can’t really be expected to continue in that role.  That’s her choice, nobody else’s.  Indeed, it seems as though the council bent over backwards to accommodate her deeply repugnant views. 

It certainly didn’t sack her. Ladele claimed (falsely, as it turned out) that the council bullied and ridiculed her.  But nobody was sacked. 

Perhaps Carey has other examples in mind, but he’s referring to ‘much-publicised’ cases and I’ve been unable to find any more of those.  In any case, why beat about the bush?  Why doesn’t he describe what really happened in these cases and spell out for the slow of thinking like me how they constitute an attack on Christianity?  The answer I’d hazard is that Cary knows perfectly well that he’s flailing at strawmen; that the incidents he’s claiming happened never did; and that he’s relying on the vague outrage and poor memories of his tabloid audience to infer the point for him. 

This is no way to argue and Carey, who is a highly educated man, surely knows this.

Having dispatched his childish arguments, let’s go back to what I said right at the start.  There are some arguments that turn up time and again despite having no merit at all.  There are some people who deliberately perpetuate strawmen even though they surely know that they are strawmen and know therefore that anyone who has looked into any of these cases has caught them in a barefaced, deliberate lie.  AND THEY DON’T CARE.  Well, why should they?  We’re not exactly talking about people who are employed to tell the truth.

Carey hasn’t nearly finished yet, however:

So how should the vast majority of Britons view the visit of His Holiness, Pope Benedict?

I had to read this sentence several times.  It’s an astonishing combination of idiocy and cunning.  The idea that there is a single way that people should view Ratzinger’s visit is as astonishing as it is offensive.  The suggestion that Carey has an answer to this question is as audacious as it is…well…offensive.  It seems on the face of it a blithering statement.  But do you see what he did?  He really did go and put that “vast majority” crack in there and even backed it up with the jingoistic “Britons”.  That’s nice work.  He’s once again hoping that his audience will infer that the Christian view is the ‘official’ one and that these rag-tag malcontents who object to the pope’s embrace of evil are silly, marginal misfits.  He even goes so far as to explain just how holy the pope actually is.  He’s holiness itself, damnit.  It’s great stuff: he should work for a cosmetics company.

So how *should* the majority of people (who naturally agree with Cary) respond?  Read the article.  Carey doesn’t say.  Let me type that again.  After telling us that there’s a way we should respond if we don’t want to be in the supposed minority he has dismissed as a set of hateful bigots, he doesn’t ever tell us what that response should actually be.  Even though there’s still fully half of the article left. 

What does he do instead?

It’s more tabloid pandering, misinformation and outright lies, I’m afraid.  Ah, what the fuck, let’s have a gander, shall we?

Well, let’s acknowledge the positive, to begin with. The Catholic Church is a massive force for good in the world.

Ah, I love this phrase.  A Massive Force For Good.  I’m not sure exactly how it could be called a force or how a force could have a mass, but let’s not quibble about the details.  Let’s embrace the spirit of what Carey is saying and agree that the Catholic church does some good things.  It surely does.

I have seen for myself, in many travels in the developing nations, the leadership displayed by the Roman Catholic Church in tackling Aids and poverty, and in providing education and opportunities to children. Even here, its contribution to our country is immense.

Well, there’s quite an unfortunate appeal to the authority of George Carey in an article by George Carey, but what the hell.  Critical thinking has only been on the scene for a few thousand years so it’s reasonable for people of reason to hobble themselves for a few more millennia until the Catholic church catches up waving a badly forged note from it’s mum.  Let’s give him that one and focus on the astonishing statements he makes next. 

First, tackling Aids (when did AIDS become Aids, by the way?  Is it not an acronym any more?) and poverty.  What has the Catholic church done to combat either?  Well, there are only two ways to tackle AIDS: chastity and condoms (well, and medical breakthroughs of course, but I’m talking about immediate, on the scene stopping more people from immediately being infected).  The Catholic church promotes chastity and actively campaigns against condoms.  It says that people who use condoms are going to hell.  There are anecdotal examples of Catholic (and other Christian) missionaries telling people in developing countries that condoms don’t prevent AIDS.  I can’t quite dismiss these stories as propaganda, although I haven’t done a great deal of research into them.  I don’t need to: the Catholic church prohibiting condom use when it is known that condoms are a very good means of preventing people dying from AIDS is quite enough. 

What about chastity?  Well, it’s the only sure-fire way to prevent the spread of AIDS alright.  But can’t we use condoms to get the infection under control first and then – if we decide we want to – stick to a single sexual partner for the rest of our lives?

No.  You have to do sex the way the Catholic church does.  If you fail in this ideal, it doesn’t matter, because you can say sorry to Jesus and it will all be OK….except for all the people you’ve infected. 

Isn’t is better to say sorry to Jesus for putting a bit of latex on your aad feller than for giving someone a fatal disease?  Catholic doctrine says no.  No it’s not.

But of course Cary has done his weasel trick again.  Did you see it?  He carefully didn’t say that the church was doing a great job actually tackling AIDS.  He said that it was displaying good leadership in that battle.  Now what do you think Cary means by that?  I think he means that the Catholic church is putting up a good moral front by saying I told you so.  Saying I told you so is often irresistible but rarely helpful.  I do it myself on occasion, I freely admit.  I’ve said “I know it’s a pain to pack your phone charger, but your battery *will* run out.”  The satisfaction I got from pointing out that I actually did, for the record, tell him so did not get us fed or out of the rain. 

But it’s rather a different thing to continue to say I told you so when it comes to AIDS.  You have to wonder whether, say, doing something about it, even if you personally don’t agree with the only practical solution, might be slightly better than revelling in the agony of millions of deaths.  Yes, Catholics, you kind of did tell us so (although only after the fact, which probably doesn’t really count).  Do your little victory dance, if you like.  And then do what needs doing to alleviate suffering.  This you will not do.

Poverty.  The only known cure for poverty is the emancipation of women.  The logic isn’t too difficult.  If half the population are stuck indoors having child after child, your economy is going to be at a disadvantage.  Educate that half of the population, allow them to make decisions over who they marry and whether they have children and you know what?  There’s a good chance that you suddenly (really, suddenly) might have a workforce to be reckoned with.  I don’t mean to suggest that the Catholic church encourage poverty or even oppose the education and emancipation of women.  I’m sure it doesn’t in general.  But it discriminates against women.  It doesn’t allow women to do various things, which can only be taken as an official ruling that women are somehow not good enough to do those things.  What kind of message is this likely to spread in an already dangerously patriarchal society?

Let’s move on.  Education…opportunity….immense contribution ‘even here’ (I’m not sure what to make of that last quip).  Does Carey mean that the Catholic church runs some (quite a lot of) schools in the UK?  Those schools would exist if the church didn’t run them.  The government pays for those schools, not the churches.  The churches just exert undue and creepy influence over the students and what they are taught.  Education worldwide?  Well, I concede that point.  I’m sure the Catholic church (and others) help pay for education in places it is needed around the globe.  Good on them.  I say this with the single caveat that I hope this education doesn’t come with any kind of pressure to adopt the Catholic faith.  I have no evidence either way.

Either way, Carey’s arguments for the brilliance of the Catholic church isn’t doing too well.  What’s next?

Take for example, the issue of clerical abuse of children and the chilling cover-ups which have emerged. To a lesser extent other churches are guilty of the same offences. And the same goes for secular institutions too.

It’s hard to express how much I hate this argument.  Shall we call it Guilt by Disassociation?  Let’s create a bit of a strawman to argue this point, then we’ll wonder later whether it’s actually a strawman at all:

If one person in the world commits rape, that’s bad.  If lots of people do it, it’s not so bad.  The amount of badness is inversely proportional to the number of people doing bad things.

Is this a strawman?

Lots of Catholic priests raped children.  But other people rape children too.  So it’s not that bad.

This seems to be what Carey is saying and it is disgusting.  It is also wildly illogical because it fails to take into account the only thing that could possibly be of importance in deciding what’s right and wrong: the suffering of victims.

Tarring others with the same brush doesn’t work unless it is done to highlight some bigoted practice.  Showing, for example, that a group of people who spread hatred about homosexuals contains about the same proportion of homosexuals as any other group can be illuminating and helpful.  Claiming that one group of child rapists isn’t so bad because some other people rape children is disgusting.  But Carey has more to say on this.

Few organisations are without sin as far as the abuse of children is concerned. But it is the scale of these offences in the Roman Catholic Church that is the truly scandalous matter.

Well first I’m going to go right ahead and argue that most organisations are without sin when it comes to child abuse.  Is Carey really saying that the vast majority of schools abuse children (and I think we can take Carey as meaning sexual abuse)?  What about cubs and scouts?  What about charities?  Small businesses?  Does your local post office sexually abuse children?  According to Carey, it almost certainly does.  What about village committees to organise bonfire night or the recycling of Christmas trees?  What about media firms, universities, plumbers?

According to George Cary, most of these organisations sexually abuse children.  But, again according to Cary, that’s OK.  It’s only if you abuse lots of children that it becomes a prob…no…wait…surely that can’t be right….?  That’s what he says.

There are two issues here, neither of which George seems to understand.  First, the scale of Catholic child abuse is due to the opportunity the church itself created.  Surely I don’t need to spell out this point.  If you’d like me to, I charge by the hour and it won’t be cheap.  Second, the scale isn’t the biggest problem.  The infrastructure was already there and as it happens I’m an expert on how infrastructure – particularly in a changing world – can be abused without knowledge of that abuse being widespread. Who knows, something like that might have happened in the Catholic church  over the last few hundred years.  It wouldn’t surprise me.  There would be nobody in particular to blame, although (sorry George) I think we’d have to blame the way the church behaved in how it arrayed itself, which seems to be about the optimum to limit damage due to scandal.

Note that I’m not excusing child abuse, I’m speculating on how it might….possibly… have become rife without the church community at large knowing about it.  I also don’t believe a word of it.  But my opinion isn’t important.  Let’s forget all this.  Because what’s important is how the Catholic church finally reacted when it found out about these abuses.  What it did was cover them up.  For decades.  Even after cases started to leak into the real world, the church tried as hard as it could to cover them up and silence the victims.  This is what we object to.  Not the scale, although that is horrific.  The response.  The denial, the paying people off, the official documents signed by the now pope that instructed bishops to hush these crimes up, the fact that many bishops and priests actually fucking did hush these crimes up…..

That, Carey, you fucking idiot, is what we object to.

People ask if the Roman Catholic Church can be trusted with their children.

What people, George?  And what exactly does this have to do with Ratzinger’s visit?

The recent gaffe when they revised church law, putting the ordination of women in the same category of ‘crimes’ under church law as clerical sex abuse, reveals a Church with an odd set of priorities.

If we’re talking priorities here, then let’s examine the word ‘gaffe’.  A gaffe is a slip of the tongue or anything said by Prince Philip.  It’s a mistake that might offend some but which is easily rectified among reasonable people.  For example, remembering that Prince Philip (what is his actual name, by the way?  I hate to call people by such hateful titles as ‘prince’ but what alternative to I have?  Even his Wikipedia page doesn’t actually say what his actual name is) is a fucking idiot might mollify the slanty-eyed masses and halt them in casting their evil-eye juju bones. 

An official document from the Vatican that sets into Catholic dogma forever more the idea that female equality carries the same kind of judgement and the same punishment as child abuse seems rather different from the ravings of a family whose members can’t count the number of their own fingers on their own fingers.

George isn’t finished yet.

Disturbingly, no open debate is possible or allowed on the issue of clerical celibacy and its link to abuse.

Who disallows this?  I hereby commission an open debate on this topic.  Presumably the people who disallow such things will delete my blog account and nobody will get to read these words.

Earlier this year the great Roman Catholic theologian, Hans Kung, who in 1979 was stripped of his licence to teach Catholic theology, cited celibacy as a cause of the Church’s uptight attitude to sex.

This comes out of absolutely nowhere.  It is pure granpasimpsoning.  I’m certain he had an onion on his belt. 

Actually, I’m being glib.  Carey has a point.  Funny though, it’s not really in the favour of the Catholics he’s been praising so far.  His fearsome logic has led him to the inescapable conclusion that it’s his own lot that’s right.

It has to be said that the Roman Catholic Church in this country has led the way in responding to clerical abuse with child protection measures. Let’s hope the Pope listens carefully to expertise here.

Hm… led the way because they are the only ones accused of it?  Led the way in pure fiction that suggests that the victims are at fault?  Does this actually “have” to be said?  What child protection measures has the Catholic church actually introduced?  Well, what?  And what is this rather odd dig by Carey at the pope?

The danger of next month’s visit is that calls for a greater openness and engagement between the Roman Catholic Church and the world will be lost amid protests. In turn, these will reinforce the Vatican’s defensiveness.

But I hope for a different outcome. A new openness, a candid recognition from the Holy Father that other Christian churches are equally blessed by God, and an acknowledgement that the priesthood of the Catholic Church has failed so many children.

Marvelous stuff, isn’t it?  These Catholics are people of FAITH for goodness sakes.  It doesn’t matter that they believe COMPLETELY DIFFERENT thing than we do.  It’s the believing part that counts.  Even though we’ve all been at war for around six thousand years because of the things we don’t agree about and show no signs of changing that anytime soon.

Carey finishes:

> So you are welcome, Pope Benedict, to Britain—a land truly

> blessed by the Christian message in which the Catholic church has > played and continues to play a part.
> I believe you are here as a friend. Not an enemy. But if we want

> to change the world the Catholic Church must start with itself.

Translation: Ratty, you are awesome.  You go right ahead and kill millions with your idiotic policies and your billions of supporters.  We don’t mind that because it gives vicarious support to us from people who aren’t quite idiotic enough to support us.  Love and kisses, G.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

On being a dick

It’s a little late, but I’ve been on holiday.  I feel I have to say something about being a dick.  I’d hoped I wouldn’t have to because my default position is to give people the benefit of the doubt, but it turns out that there’s no longer any room for doubt.  Phil Plait’s now infamous Don’t be a Dick talk is now available online.

The talk (at TAM 8) was widely criticised.  Phil himself bemoans this here:

I found a lot of the people were grossly misinterpreting what I was saying […].

In the interest of the benefit of the doubt, I was at least half expecting this to be the case.  Is it?  As we’ll see, it’s rather difficult to tell because Phil doesn’t really go into specifics.  However, at least three big-hitters (Ophelia Benson, Richard Dawkins and Ophelia Benson) seem to have it spot on.  Phil hasn’t answered these particular criticisms yet.

I am fascinated that people who disagreed with me read far more into what I said than was there (for example, many thought I was throwing major skeptics under the bus, which I emphatically and categorically did not do.

Yes….. And to my mind, not naming names is part of the problem.  I’ll get to that.

So what did Phil say that was so controversial?  I’ll start with what Phil himself has written about the affair and get onto the content of the video later:

My first point was that we must keep in mind our goal. If it’s to change the hearts and minds of people across the world, then at least as important as what we say is how we say it. And my second point was pretty simple… but you’ll get to it around 24 minutes in. It’s obvious enough.

The second point he’s referring to is:

Don’t be a dick.

OK, let’s take these points one at a time.  First, what does Phil mean by ‘our goal’?  Who are ‘we’?  He’s referring to the skeptical community as a whole and the goal is to convert as many people to critical thinking as possible.  I’m not sure that the skeptical community has shared goals at all.  I for one don’t consider it my mission to convert people to critical thinking but to promote it as an excellent way of doing business and to help people to understand the errors people make when they don’t do it.  This goal overlaps somewhat with Phil’s - I want to see more of the critical and less of the magical in everyone’s thinking – but I’m not really interested in ‘converting’ anyone, let alone everyone. 

This is one of the things that concerns me about the businesses of framing and accomodationism.  We don’t necessarily share goals and it’s not clear that a party line makes any sense.

Second, I agree with Phil’s point that how we say things is important. However, I can’t go as far as Phil in claiming that it is at least as important as what we say (implying that how we say something could be more important than what we say).  More importantly, it seems that the implication to Phil’s mind is that we should be at all times polite and inclusive and… well…. accommodating, the better to convince those who don’t agree with us.  I feel differently.  The way I say something depends on what I’m saying and who I’m saying it to.  It depends on my goals.  And since my goals are somewhat different to Phil’s, it seems likely that my tone will differ at times too.

Third is the issue of not being a dick.  This seems good advice in general and it’s hard to argue that people should be dicks.  But the problem is that it’s all a bit more complicated than that.  It might indeed be the case that being dickish to someone might not incline them to take your side.  However, I don’t think many skeptics set out to insult the people they are trying to convert.  Rather, I think it is usually a third party we insult, often to show others that the beliefs they hold are silly, insubstantial or not supported by evidence.  Humour – even mean-spirited humour – can be a great tool for this.  We ridicule the likes of Ken Ham and his Museum of Bullshit not in an attempt to convert him, but to show others – usually fence-sitters or people who haven’t given it much thought – that the ‘museum’ is nothing of the sort: it’s a temple to arrogance, ego, fear and above all wilful ignorance.  No doubt Ham and many others others (possibly even Phil) would think I’m a dick for saying so.  But they aren’t my target audience.  Phil already knows that the creation museum is bullshit.  He’s a strong and diligent criticiser of creationism.  Presumably Ham and his followers believe the nonsense of creationism to a greater or lesser extent and are unlikely to be swayed by me, regardless of my tone.  But the fence-sitters might be.  The people who just haven’t given it a great deal of thought might be.  And as a skeptic and critical thinker, this latter group is the one I particularly want to target, not just because they are easier to persuade but because you get the biggest bang for the buck.  I wouldn’t be arguing about creationism vs evolution but about critical thinking vs rather vague acceptance of what authority figures say.  In the UK, Christianity has an enormously privileged position in our society and many irreligious people don’t question it.  They don’t realise there’s anything to question because the assumption of this privilege is so strongly integrated in our society.  Many people I’ve spoken to don’t really understand evolution and when they are told about intelligent design feel – without thinking too much about it – that there might be something in it. 

One of my main goals is to raise the profile of critical thinking so that such people come to understand that there are simple tools we can use to work out what we should and shouldn’t believe, that there are good and bad reasons to believe things and that there’s a large community of people just bursting to help them learn. 

Does my being a dick to the likes of Ham prevent this from happening?  Well, no doubt it will turn some people off, at least in the short term.  So many people are indoctrinated with the idea that religion should hold a privileged position in society that they have a natural tendency to be antagonistic when people are rude about the status quo.  However, I would argue that perhaps in the long term, our ridicule and dickishness could start to erode religion’s privileged position, to the great benefit of critical thinking.  Who knows?  Well, as skeptics we need to look for evidence of which is the best approach, which brings me to the most important criticism of Phil’s talk, and finally to the video itself.

Phil begins his talk proper by saying that there are some alarming recent developments in the way skepticism is being carried out these days and a degradation in ‘tone’.  He says that evidence-based reasoning is declining and ad hominem attacks are on the increase.  Evidence-based reasoning, eh?  Presumably Phil has some evidence that this is happening?  He doesn’t cite any, just a general personal feeling.  He goes on (some slight editing):

Let me ask you a question.  How many of you here today used to believe in something, whether it was flying saucers physic powers, religion, anything like that?

He gets people to raise their hands and notes that many if not most hands are up.  He points out that not everyone is born a skeptic.

Let me ask you a second question.  How many of you no longer believe in those things and became a skeptic because somebody got in your face screaming and called you an idiot, brain damaged and a retard?

He notes that most people didn’t put their hands down this time and rather shockingly dismisses the ones who did as joking.

This is the first major bone of contention with Phil’s talk.  I doubt very much that many people have been converted with such a tactic.  Perhaps this is because it doesn’t happen as a rule. I don’t do that.  I don’t know anyone that does.  I’ve never once, in all my long experience, seen this happen.  Phil’s statement has every appearance of being a strawman.  Of course, if Phil had any examples of this happening – or better still, that it is widespread – then it would be a fair point.  But he doesn’t offer any. 

Others have made the same accusation.  Phil says:

The author of this one says I don’t give specific examples, and therefore because he hasn’t seen the insults they don’t exist… and then accuses me of a strawman argument! I find that funny; finding examples about which I was speaking is trivially easy.

Bewilderingly, this rebuttal is itself a strawman.  The author doesn’t say that the insults don’t exist because he hasn’t seen them, just that Phil doesn’t cite any examples.  This means that we have no reason to suspect it’s true so the argument as it stands, unadorned by evidence, is a strawman.  But the evidence is trivially easy to find, according to Phil, so why didn’t he cite any?  It might have been an oversight in his talk, of course, but he could have addressed the criticism head on in his rebuttal of it.  He didn’t.  He just repeated that there were plenty of examples without citing a single one.  Don’t forget that Phil is claiming a general downturn in tone, which he bases on numerous incidents like this, but he doesn’t cite or even describe a single one of them.  What better example of a strawman argument could you hope for?  His own accusation of strawmanary against the author of Atheist Experience is just plain bizarre.

Lack of evidence is the second major bone of contention.  Phil goes on to argue that the best way to win hearts and minds is to not be a dick.  He doesn’t provide any evidence for this, either.  He just states it as a self-evident truth.  As I’ve suggested above, it isn’t clear to me that it’s true at all, especially in the long-term.  This is startlingly odd.  He’s giving a talk about skepticism - indeed about how skeptics should examine their own methods – and he fails to employ the most basic of skeptical tools in his argument. 

Later in the talk, Phil says that we skeptics shouldn’t “take the low road”.  By this he seems to mean that we should emphasise evidence over ad-hom attacks and I naturally agree with that.  But I think this is what skeptics – by and large – do anyway.  PZ Myers is uncompromisingly rude to idiots, but he cites evidence and explains his reasoning.  To me, this is the high road.  I think it’s what Phil thinks of as the high road too, but he seems to conflate rudeness with lack of argument when this is simply not the case.

I’m sympathetic with Phil.  Being a dick isn’t likely to win friends among the offended party.  But I see no reason to believe that it isn’t an effective strategy in the promotion of critical thinking, especially when it is only one strategy among many.  Phil says that we need warriors in time of war and diplomats the rest of the time.  We need more than diplomats, however.  We need agitants. provocateurs, devil’s advocates and comedians.  When we face millions who believe that, for instance, female genital mutilation is either necessary, a good thing or none of our business, then we are at war.  When we face school boards who want to teach children that evolution is false, we’re at war.  We’re at war when we have churches that impinge on our daily lives and discriminate against those who don’t believe their particular brand of bullshit. 

This is the reality of what we face and Phil’s talk has done nothing to convince me that politeness – and politeness alone – is the way to deal with it. 

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Evil flowchart

I’ve no idea if this is intended to be serious:


But my guess is that it is.  I don’t think anyone setting out to do this as a joke would arse it up so badly.  What the hell are the lines with no arrows?  What’s going on inside those stacks of boxes where an arrow leads into the top one and the bottom one and there’s one in the middle that’s connected to the others by a line, some with an arrow and some not?  Are they supposed to be some kind of self-reinforcing loop?  There are a lot less retarded ways of drawing those.

I particularly like the fact that there are no conditionals. The outcome is simply inevitable and this is exactly how it’s going to pan out.

I think I’ll just chill out until legalized genocide starts.  I don’t think we have to worry about the inevitable human extinction until then.


According to an ICM survey, Britain is now the most irreligious country in the world.

63% of us don’t believe in gods.  82% say religion is a cause of harmful division.

According to Johann Hari, that is.  He doesn’t link to the this survey and I can’t find it on the ICM site.  I’ve asked him for a link and I’ll post it if I get one.

Otherwise, it’s a good article.  It talks about the Church of England’s whiny bewilderment about this secularisation:

The Church of England, bewildered by the British people choosing to leave their pews, has only one explanation: Christians are being "persecuted" and "bullied" by a movement motivated by "Christophobia." George Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, says Christians are now "second class citizens" and it is only "a small step" to "a religious bar on any employment by Christians".

And then points out some of the many unearned privileges enjoyed by the CofE and other religious groups, including the astonishing religious bias in our education and political systems, the fact that we’re celebrating (and paying for) the pope’s upcoming visit rather than clapping him in irons and the demands by people like George Cary that Christians be allowed special laws.

It’s good stuff, worth reading.  I’d argue that Hari doesn’t go far enough.  For instance, I’d have mentioned the apparent systemic effort to not prosecute those who participate in the monstrous act of female genital mutilation.  I’d have talked about the furore that results when people like Richard Dawkins dare to suggest that burkas are horrible, offensive instruments of subjugation.

There are only two rational attitudes with which to respond to unearned privilege like this: ridicule and disgust.  Let the religious whine that they're being persecuted.  Laugh at them for doing so while spilling the beans about their monstrous activities.  If the survey is accurate, perhaps we won’t have to put up with this injustice for as long as we expected.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010


Men can receive up to 99 lashes if they sleep under the same blanket ‘unnecessarily’.  I was originally going to write “regardless of whether any sexual contact took place” but I’m trying to avoid traps like this.  It is no less outrageous to punish people for homosexual activity than for sleeping under blankets and I think it’s important to recognise thoughts like that when they pop into your head.  Of course, in Iran, homosexuality is punishable by lashes, hanging or stoning.

There’s also such a thing as “judge's knowledge”.  This is a legal loophole that allows for subjective judicial rulings where there’s no conclusive evidence.

An article in the guardian has a strange quote that echoes my earlier statement about recognising when weird thoughts enter your head.  Peter Tatchell, the co-founder of the gay rights group OutRage said:

"Ebrahim's case is evidence that innocent heterosexual people can be sentenced to death on false charges of homosexuality [in Iran],"

Homosexual people are innocent too and it’s every bit as bad that that can be sentenced to death or anything else.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Christopher, I am childishly unready for you to die

Christopher is about as brilliant as anyone I can think of. Man oh man I hope he doesn’t die yet. I admire him for his intelligence, his knowledge and his joy in hunting idiots.

I admire him for the fact that everyone who has ever written a single thing about him begins with “I don’t always agree with Hitchens but….”

That’s what inspires me. I’m pretty smart. I know many things. And *nobody* gets madder at idiots than I do. But if people eventually say of me “that wanker pisses me off….*but*….”

I’ll feel like I’m finally starting to live up to an impossible standard.


Today in 1945, America did this:

I can't help but think a deterrent could have been demonstrated without killing 200,000 people.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Catholic church spreads more evil

The Catholic church is opposed to sex education in the Philippines.  Sex education, including contraception, is the only reliable and sustainable way to eradicate poverty and to emancipate women in particular.

Monsignor Pedro Quitorio, a “spokesman for the highly influential Catholic Bishops Conference” doesn’t agree:

“He also said he did not agree with the view that a high birth rate traps people in poverty.”

You’d think that on such an important issue, impacting the lives of so many, he’d be able to cite evidence.  But he just states it as a fact and moves on.

"The problem here is the distribution of resources," he insisted.

Well yes.  The bishops have it all to spend on golden palaces.  But it seems likely to me that a family that can make informed choices about its offspring is less likely to experience and remain in poverty.

"Children are fragile creatures. The [education] department should be very, very careful not to teach children about matters they will imitate the following day.”

And here it is.  They set themselves up as sole arbiters of morality purely because of the control it affords them.  They don’t care that people don’t actually need or want to be controlled, that they suffer from others’ control of them or that the methods they use to achieve this control are themselves directly and very greatly harmful.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Some worryingness

There was just a (presumably) police helicopter hovering *directly* above our garden for the best part of an hour. It kept going away for a bit, then coming back, always hovering over the same spot. After a while, it came down really low and started (at least, I think it was the helicopter) issuing the odd random siren.

After a while I went out and shook my fist at it and - unsettlingly - it went away.

As much as I dislike unresolved questions, I'm not certain I want to know what was going on here. I assume the government has got wind of my work on protecting privacy in ad-hoc public service integration scenarios and is moving to silence me.  It was only a matter of time, I accept my fate.

All I ask is that they send Airwolf to pick me up rather than Blue Thunder. I *do* have standards, you know.  Please…..tell me it’s not going to be Streethawk…


Ta-Nehisi Coates writes here:

I have, in my writing, a tendency to become theoretically cute, and overly enamored with my own fair-mindedness. Such vanity has lately been manifested in the form of phrases like "it's worth saying" and "it strikes me that..." or "respectfully..."

When engaging your adversaries, that approach has its place. But it's worth saying that there are other approaches and other places. Among them--respectfully administering the occasional reminder as to the precise nature of the motherfuckers you are dealing with.

I’m with PZ on this one, I’m not one to give undue respect and to me, fair-mindedness doesn’t automatically mean treading the middle ground.  I prefer to have (and be able to defend) good reasons for the positions I hold and the things I say.  So when I call a motherfucker a motherfucker, you can be sure there’s a good reason.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Geek credentials

It will come as a shock that I’m a fuh-laming geek.  I was the kid in Currys writing BASIC programs on the BBC Micros on display until I got thrown out.  They’d tolerate me for an hour or so, it’s amazing what you can get done in that time if you’re under pressure.  People like me are why the machines in PC World always have their screens locked. 

And I love Star Trek.  Yeah, I know it’s not really proper sci fi and there’s much that is deplorable, including every single frame of Voyager, but I was *desperately* excited when TNG came out and I grew to love DS9 toward the end.  I was unfeasibly excited about Enterprise as well, although it never really seemed to get going.  I saw what they were trying to do, but it was all a bit po-faced and the characters just didn’t seem to work together.  Perhaps it should have been more like the Star Trek movie.  There was no….joy….in it.

But this post is about Gene Roddenberry’s vision.  I always assumed he was a conservative Christian, because the values in Star Trek are often so corny.  In fact, he was a humanist, a liberal and an atheist.  There were several TOS episodes where gods and specifically a Christian god was invoked but there is reason to suppose that this wasn’t his idea, wasn’t his vision and was out of his control.  He was selling a product, after all.  You take your lumps.

However, I saw a bit of a TOS episode by chance the other day and it contained something that stunned me and presumably would have floored Roddenberry.  It was astonishing.  In this episode, Kirk says "It's time you learned that freedom is never a gift. It has to be earned."

High-tech = bad

There’s an article on the BBC’s breakfast programme about how to cope with long car journeys when you’ve got kids.  There’s a very sensible child psychologist who suggests things like planning plenty of stops, taking a ball or something, planning a series of rewards (if there are no fights for an hour, you can have an ice cream at the next stop).  And playing I-spy and numberplate games and so on, of course.  All good stuff.

But the rest of the reporting is insane.  DVDs are automatically assumed to be bad.  I disagree.  In fact, the psychologist disagreed too.  Movies don’t have to be about passive consumption.  Why not watch the DVD and then discuss it?  Why did Woody feel sad when Buzz did whatever it was he did?  On a four or five hour journey, it seems entirely reasonable to watch a DVD, better still if you discuss it.  Why not ask the kids to summarise the movie?  If you have more than one child, they will argue about it.  That’s a good thing, providing they don’t come to blows.

It was generally agreed that colouring books were good but computer games were bad.  Even though neither involve much in the way of interaction with others.  I would think that computer games are probably ‘better’ insofar as these things can be measured.

There’s a clear bias in the media against hi-tech solutions for no reason I can fathom.  Well, I might be able to fathom it: most people seem to want their kids to shut up and stop bothering them.  It’s easy to throw technology at a problem like that.  But I don’t really understand why people blame the technology rather than their own lazy attitudes.

Here’s my suggestion (in addition to the sensible ones already mentioned): if you’re going to an attraction of some kind and you have a mobile Internet connection, get your kids to browse the attraction’s website and get them to help plan what you’re going to do when you get there.  Get them to plan a sensible route between the various parts of the attraction.  This is an example of technology encouraging problem solving, interaction between people, negotiation, planning, language skills and savvy web use.  If you’re going somewhere of educational value, then the kids can probably learn something from the website.  They can teach each other (and maybe other people’s children) about some of the exhibits.

One of my personal hates is when kids ask their parents questions at zoos or museums and the parents read out the plaque, pretending that they knew the answer all along.  Why can’t they say “well, I don’t really know, let’s look at what it says here”?  Better still, why not encourage your children to find out things on the journey and then ask THEM questions and have them educate YOU?

When I have kids, the car will have Internet access.