Saturday, July 30, 2011

Susan Greenfield, you are truly the Baroness of Hearts. Now fuck off.

Seriously, Sue: has it occurred to you recently to stop completely making shit up and do some actual science instead?

You are an absolute fucking disgrace. A humanities undergrad could see through your many piteous cries for undeserved attention.

'It's almost as if people are living in a world that's not a real world, but a world where what counts is what people think of you or (if they) can click on you,' she said.


Friday, July 29, 2011

Bullied to death

Another moving poem by Digital Cuttlefish.  Bullying of children by other children is dehumanising.  It isolates children, making them dread school, dread social events and feel entirely alone.  There’s often nowhere they can go for help. Parents often don’t understand how bad bullying can get or they might unhelpfully tell their offspring to ‘just fight back’.  Telling teachers is often out of the question for obvious reasons.  It can seem to children as though there’s no end to torment in sight and hard to imagine in any case what a life free of torment might be like.

When a child feels so isolated, organisations claiming to care and to offer support have a special organisation to listen, defend, encourage, advise and heal.  Their top priority should be the bullied child, who they should treat with sensitivity and respect. What they shouldn’t do is this.

Over the past two years, a total of nine teenagers have committed suicide in a Minnesota school district represented by Rep. Michele Bachmann—the latest in May—and many more students have attempted to take their lives. State public health officials have labeled the area a "suicide contagion area" because of the unusually high death rate.

Some of the victims were gay, or perceived to be by their classmates, and many were reportedly bullied. And the anti-gay activists who are some of the congresswoman's closest allies stand accused of blocking an effective response to the crisis and fostering a climate of intolerance that allowed bullying to flourish.

Bachmann and her allies have opposed attempts to promote tolerance of homosexuals in schools.  They imagine a ‘homosexual agenda’ which aims to somehow recruit young people into being gay. And their braying, spittle-crusted maws are open wide in howls of protest.  They blocked a proposed Gay-Straight Alliance Club at Fred Moore Middle School (now Anoka Middle School for the Arts) by postponing meetings for months citing the need for legal vetting.  Let’s be clear about this: they were blocking a club which would have provided support for bullied, frightened and lonely children.

At least four of the nine children who killed themselves over those two years were LGBT, or at least perceived as such by their schoolmates and bullied because of it.  However, the Parents Action League and the Minnesota Family Council blame activists against gay bullying for the suicides.  You see, the children were ‘indoctrinated’ into homosexuality by groups promoting tolerance and killed themselves because they were encouraged to adopt an ‘unhealthy lifestyle’.  This is a remarkable piece of logic to say the least.

These groups have worked with schools to encourage children to preach to their gay classmates and tell them they’re going to hell.  They handed out t-shirts to kids promoting a ‘day of truth’.  Fifteen-year-old Justin Aaberg hanged himself shortly after this event: his mother – understandably - blames it for his suicide.

It’s beyond my understanding how anyone could deliberately deny support to an unhappy child, let alone actively hound that child out of school and society and – in some cases – the world.  These people are scum. Their views are disgusting.  They’re using the power handed to them by the unthinking privilege religion enjoys in society to commit evil, evil acts.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

These are the kinds of question that bother me, too

Jerry makes several points here, but the one I want to pick up on is this:

Now Rabbi Yoffie is a Jew, so he doesn’t accept the New Testament.  So what kind of morality can he get from the Old Testament? Well, here are a few of the things that Yahweh approves or sanctions in that book:

  • slavery
  • genocide, including women and children
  • the killing of adulterers
  • the killing of homosexuals
  • the stoning to death of nonvirgin bride

That stuff was okay by God.  Is it not okay by Rabbi Yoffie? If not, why not?  Was it okay back then, but not now? Or if it was never okay, then why doesn’t the Rabbi approve of this stuff? Could it be that Yoffie picks and chooses his Biblical morality based on secular considerations?  Maybe he should read Plato’s Euthyphro.

Why indeed?  It’s such a transparently obvious question that I can’t believe all these ‘sophisticated theologians’ we keep hearing about haven’t thought about it.  But instead, they seem to blithely pretend it doesn’t exist.

Yoni has a stab at the question in Jerry’s comments at the above link.  He begins by entirely missing the point, then just throws out what he calls ‘nuance’, but is in fact just using deeper-sounding words: ‘natural morality’ instead of ‘secular reasoning’.  Even if we accept that ‘natural morality’ has a meaning distinct from a changing zeitgeist or whatever else we might wish to call it, we still face the problem of where that comes from, why it’s there and why it differs so much from scripture.

And MWalton mentions the man who was stoned to death for gathering sticks on the Sabbath (Numbers 14:33) and hilariously wonders whether gathering the stones shouldn’t also carry the offense of stoning…

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Thursday unprofessionalism. What is unprofessional?

While I was looking for something to post, this page caught my eye.  I don’t know the context of why this information exists, but it seems clear that it’s a list of responses to a survey on examples of unprofessional behaviour some group of people has experienced.

It’s quite interesting what we consider unprofessional.  Some of the examples seem pretty straightforward and clear-cut.  For example:

Employee stole some secrets and left the company and made his own company.

That seems fairly transparently unprofessional to me.  He did pretty much the exact opposite of what he was paid to do.  But some of them are harder to call.  For example, there are several complaints about the use of profanity in the workplace.  Is this unprofessional?  It’s easy to see situations where it would be.  If it offended a client, for example, that would be unprofessional.  What if it offends an employee?  Creating an environment in which an employee feels uncomfortable could be considered unprofessional, I guess.  Some of the complaints are about people discussing their drunken adventures outside work.  Is it unprofessional to have riotous nights out or just to discuss them at work?  Why should it be more unprofessional to discuss this than the sunday school picnic?

The concept of professional behaviour is a strange one.  There are some rules of conduct which we’re all supposed to abide by at work, but nobody ever tells us what they are.  And more importantly, nobody ever tells us why we’re supposed to abide by them.  Is swearing at your computer going to cause any loss of revenue?  Do employees work harder if they’re dressed according to arbitrary conventions?

This site has a list of the top twelve unprofessional behaviours, based on complaints they’ve received.  Here they are, I don’t know whether they’re in any particular order:

1. Sexy or sloppy attire – Shirts that show cleavage, low-riding pants, tops that look like underwear, torn jeans, flip-flops, t-shirts with slogans, micro-short skirts

2. Poor hygiene – Body odor, bad breath, greasy hair, dirty clothes

3. Profanity – F-word, S-word, B-word, A-word, and many other colorful expletives

4. Fragrances – Perfume, cologne, aftershave, and any other source of scent 

5. Food odors – Heated leftovers, tuna sandwiches, microwave popcorn (yes, lots of people hate that smell)

6. Irritating noises – Gum popping, knuckle cracking, food crunching, stomach rumbling, nose blowing, whistling, radio playing

7. Loud talking – Speaker phones, hallway socializing, yelling from cube to cube, cell phone chatter

8. Crude jokes – Humor related to sex, bodily functions, racial/ethnic characteristics, gender issues

9. Improper chitchat –  Making public comments about customers, complaining to customers, gossiping about coworkers, spreading rumors

10. Sermonizing – Forcing religious information on coworkers, asking coworkers about their beliefs,  leaving religious literature in public areas

11. Personal slurs – Using derogatory terms related to someone’s ethnic origin, race, gender, age, or any other personal characteristic

12. Cluttered workspace – Messy piles of paper, files stacked on the floor, dozens of knick-knacks, tools scattered around

Many of these complaints seem to be about things that can be annoying when a bunch of people who are connected only by the fact that they work in the same building are forced to spend large amounts of time together.  But some of them are just plain preachy.  Take item 2, for example.  I can see why people might be annoyed by smelly people since it creates an unpleasant environment and in most cases shows lack of thought about or consideration for others. But what about dirty clothes?  How does that affect anyone?  And what about item 12?  Are people concerned because there’s an actual problem with the clutter (it’s getting in the way) or because they don’t work like that and don’t think anyone else should?  And is any of this really unprofessional anyway?

Clearly, when we work with people there’s an implied social contract. We should try not to do things that annoy them.  What annoys people doesn’t depend only on our behaviour, but on the nature and status of our relationship with them.  For example, if we know our coworkers well and particularly if we socialise with them, swearing in our interactions with them might be entirely appropriate. If we don’t know them so well, it probably isn’t.  Why not?  Because it makes assumptions about the nature of your relationship with that person.  It assumes a familiarity they might not be comfortable with.  This is an aggressive act.

So perhaps ‘professional behaviour’ is all about the fact that the status of relationships in the workplace are often ambiguous.  In a crowded office, everyone can see, hear and smell what we do so we cater for the most-easily-offended denominator.  We formalise behaviour so that we’re demonstrably not making assumptions about the status of our relationships with coworkers. 

This accounts for smelling bad, but what about dirty clothes?  Perhaps clean clothes are an ostensible sign that we’re capitulating with the social convention.  We’re saying “look, I’m not being annoying”. Even if we are.  That’s the problem with arbitrary formalisation of social conventions.  People can cheat and still fall within the rules.  The biggest idiots in any organisation are the ones who hide behind ‘professionalism’ while screwing everyone over.

Anyway, those are my random thoughts on what professionalism – at least in the workplace – might be about.  It all seems batshit insane to me.  So presumably I’m the one everyone is complaining about.

Update: I forgot to point out that in item 1, people seem to be complaining about women displaying their sexuality.  For heterosexual males and gay women, sexual cues seem to be largely about things like the shape of the nape of the neck and the curve of the waist toward the hips as well as the more obvious secondary sexual characteristics.  These things are best displayed by uncovering them, which is what the complaints are about.  For heterosexual women and homosexual men, the main sexual cues seem to be about things like broad shoulders, tapered waist, muscular buttocks etc. which – it strikes me – are quite well displayed by wearing business attire.  Jackets enhance shoulder width and hide fat, ties create a visual cue to the waist, which is delineated by a belt, tailored trousers can hide a multitude of flaws.  So here’s my bonus hypothesis on this particularly unprofessional Thursday: the convention has somehow become skewed so that men are encouraged to enhance their sexuality even by default, whereas if women do exactly the same thing, it’s regarded as unprofessional.  Which seems, to my mind, unprofessional. 

Update 2: While I’m at it, fuck, shit, bastard, arse.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Experience the Holy Land. In Florida.

I was told about this place by a man who also insists that the Paris Las Vegas Hotel and Casino is better than the real Paris, which might tell you something about his sense of reality. He’s the perfect model for theme park designers everywhere and he’d definitely find the Holy Land Experience better than the real Israel (although I’m told Bethlehem is almost as gaudy).

The Holy Land Experience has it all!  Take a look at the daily schedule.  That’s right, Jesus is crucified every day at noon, so you have plenty of time to have a spot of lunch first take in The Wilderness Tabernacle, where they’ve recreated the actual mobile tabernacle used in the exodus from Egypt (a journey that historians agree never took place);  do some serious, proper research in The Scriptorium; perhaps drop off your kids at The Smile of a Child Adventure Land featuring this astonishing statue, which would certainly make me smile:

and visit the four prayer gardens, all before Jesus’ triumphant resurrection at 5!  You even get a personal miracle! 

If you can’t make it to Florida, then shame on you.  You’ll miss out on the authentically reproduced Israeli holy sites, including the Bethlehem Bus Loop, the Jesus Boat, and the actual field where the angels appeared to the shepherds at Jesus’ birth.  All authentically reproduced.

But there’s no need to despair if you’re still saving up (don’t forget pastors get in free): you can get a sense of the park’s majesty and life-changing seriousness by watching the video on the front page. I want to experience love, peace and joy! 

On reflection, next time I visit Florida, I might be able to find something better to do with my time.

Monday, July 18, 2011

A tiny bit more on Ruse

As I say, I take a lot of flak for arguing that science in itself does not refute all religious beliefs.

Sorry Michael, but that isn’t what you’ve been saying.  You’ve been saying that religion is compatible with science and ain’t true.

You seem to be slowly changing your story and never once admitting where you were wrong along the way.

Michael Ruse’s confusing life

I’ve criticised Ruse in the past for his accommodationism (he relentlessly pushes the idea that science and religion are somehow compatible) and because of his apparently wilful misinterpretation of arguments to the contrary.   Now he’s written a rather odd article in which he doesn’t change his mind…but seems to go almost all the way toward it, only to balk at the final fence.

There are days when, I swear to God, I am all set to enroll under the banner of Richard Dawkins and anathematize all religions and those who subscribe to them.  I take a lot of criticism from my fellow atheists, including my fellow Brainstormers, for arguing that science and religion are compatible.  I still think that, but increasingly I cannot for the life of me see why any decent human being would want to be religious, and increasingly I think one should be ashamed to be religious.

Well, some classic Ruse there.  He just can’t resist having a pop at Dawkins and it wouldn’t be Ruse if there wasn’t a blatant strawman in there somewhere.  But if he’s all set to wash his hands of accommodation, what’s stopping him?  Confusingly, he doesn’t say.  He ‘increasingly’ can’t understand why anyone would want to be religious and ‘increasingly’ thinks it’s a matter of shame.  Why?  Has he found some of his illusions stripped away by current events?  It kind of seems so and he mentions some infuriating things religion has done recently, which I’ll get to in a moment.  But he doesn’t actually say it.  It’s a shame, because that would have been an interesting and probably touching article.

Far be it for me to tell someone what article they should have written, of course, but the one he actually did write seems pretty confused.

On medical grounds—I have blood-pressure issues already—I won’t go into the views of the crop running for the Republican nomination for the 2012 presidential race.  Nor here will I pick up in detail on the news coming out of Ireland.  A new report, the Cloyne Report, says that the Vatican was “entirely unhelpful” when it came to enforcing moral and legal practices by priests towards vulnerable children.  The bishop of the diocese, John Magee—former private secretary to no less than three popes—flagrantly ignored solid evidence that children were being abused, and he himself has admitted to an “inappropriate relationship” with a young man.

I’ve written about Magee and the Coyne report here and here. The situation is infuriating and unforgivable and Ruse seems to agree.  Good man.

Now, however, I want to turn to the Muslims, specifically in the city of Toronto, in Ontario, Canada.

I won’t quote Ruse in full here because the quote would pull in half the article and you can just go and read it yourself instead.  Ruse explains that a school in Toronto runs a prayer meeting for Muslims on Fridays.  I don’t really have much of a problem with that providing it is voluntary.  And by voluntary I mean truly voluntary.  I wouldn’t want those officiating informing students’ parents if they didn’t attend prayers, for example.  But there are two severe problems with this case, one of which Ruse points out.  Women aren’t allowed to sit up front with men.  They have to sit at the back and shut up.  And menstruating women have to sit even farther back and shut up even more, segregated from everyone else.

Ruse mentions the latter and is rightly outraged by it.  Personally, I’m outraged that this practice happens at all whereas everyone else seems to be complaining that it’s happening in a school. But it’s all bad and I’m glad Ruse is incensed by it. Although I suspect he’s got it wrong:

Let me spell it out.  Girls with their periods are not sinful.  They are not sick.  They are not weak.  That anyone would think otherwise in this day and age boggles the mind.

I agree entirely, except that I don’t think the practice is about sin or sickness.  It’s about Ick.  I think there’s a culture of disgust regarding menstruation, probably because it makes sex slightly inconvenient for men for a few days every month.  The sin and the sickness is just a convenient religious veil for the feeling of Ick.  But good man anyway.

Ruse goes on in this vein and makes some perfectly good points:

But the point is not about legality or illegality.  It is not illegal to poop on your living room carpet, but decent people don’t do this.  And decent people, responsible for the welfare of children, don’t allow prejudice against girls with their periods.  They don’t, they really don’t.

Well OK, that’s a rather unfortunate remark because of the equation between pooping on your own carpet and forcing segregation on menstruating women, but I doubt Ruse meant it that way.  It was an appeal to decency and I don’t fault that.

And arguing that allowing the practice ensures that kids don’t go to the mosque and then skip school after the prayers is no answer.  If the prayers are so important, then the Muslim community should provide buses and monitoring.

I don’t know if anyone is making such an argument, but the point that the onus for making prayers work one way or another should be on the Muslim community that insists on it is a perfectly good one, which deserves to be made more widely.

So OK.  Ruse has described some bad things religion has done very recently.  This, he says, sometimes makes him feel that religion as a concept and practice should be discouraged or even railed against. He makes a strong statement along those lines:

Ultimately though, the wimps on the Toronto District School Board are not the villains, nor really are the craven-hearted politicians who are desperately afraid of losing the immigrant vote.  It is religion and religion alone that is at fault.

He’s quite right. Religion infects people and makes them do bad and stupid things.  It’s what makes school boards into wimps and makes politicians craven. It has infected Ruse, even though he’s not a believer. It has infected him so much that he can’t take that final leap and say RELIGION IS BAD! LET’S DO AWAY WITH IT!  He’s seen that religion is at fault for a whole bunch of awful things.  He’s said that he sometimes feels he wants to embrace the Gnu way. But he just can’t quite do it.

Of course there have been, and still are, many people who do good and noble things because of religion.  Read and weep about the young people in the White Rose group in Munich during the war who went to their deaths because, in the name of their Lord, they opposed Hitler publicly.  But there is such a dark side to religion.  Why do people not see this?

Why are you only just seeming to see it, Michael, after we Gnus have been badgering you about it for years?  And why hasn’t it changed your stance on the privileged position of religion which is of course the reason we’re discussing this in the first place?

As I say, I take a lot of flak for arguing that science in itself does not refute all religious beliefs. I also think that it is politically stupid to argue otherwise in a country like America where so many people are religious.

Let’s make this a mantra for New Atheism.  Let’s make it politically stupid to not argue that science and religion are incompatible.

Why should political stupid be different from just plain regular stupid?

Sunday, July 17, 2011


I like contrast.  I’m a computer scientist and what we deal in primarily is abstraction.  We think of worlds in which a whole bunch of conflicting requirements, constraints, madnesses and tantrums make sense, then we make that world so.  Abstractions are about contrast, about drawing lines.  The lines don’t always have to be fine or clear.  The interesting abstractions overlap in many dimensions and differently at different times.  But nevertheless, the point is to say this kind of thing is definitely on this side of the line and that thing definitely on the other, even if we have to sweep some inconvenient mess under the carpet.  It’s how we build complicated stuff.

So here’s a contrast that appeals to me.  On the one hand, we have The Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, claiming that the religious are deserting our shores to gain religious freedom, just like what happened with the Mayflower (he really did actually say that).  He is “alarmed” by the fact that our nation is slowly closing the few final loopholes that enable discrimination on the grounds of things like what sex we are and what sex we like.  He is “concerned” about the “prevailing template of equality” because it doesn’t guarantee special pleading for religious institutions who want the freedom to discriminate.  This is how they seem to see it: they want freeing so that they can oppress other people, an astonishing sentiment.

On the other hand, we have Terry Sanderson, the president of the National Secular Society saying this:

“If by religious freedom the Chief Rabbi means religious privilege, it is clear that he would be happier in some kind of theocracy,”

I’d go a little further.  I’d say this is precisely what the Chief Rabbi means and exactly what he wants.

“Rather than fleeing this country, he should thank his God that he lives here and knows that he and his people are safe and free to practice their religion within the law.

“The equality laws that he disparages are a wonderful achievement and something that most people – including many Jews - welcome as progressive, just and long overdue.”

And there’s your contrast.  Those laws are an achievement.  That anyone could regard them as a step backward and actually demand freedom from the laws that protect others is beyond satire.  Secularists want everyone to abide by the same laws.  The religious want special laws for themselves and throw a tantrum if they can’t have them.  Contrast.

You can take your bat in, Sacks, you won’t spoil our game.  You can run crying to your mum and she can tell my mum if she wants, I’ve been dragged home by my ear before.  I’ve never tolerated bullies, though, so pardon me if I grin while your privilege is slowly but inevitably stripped away and I find you cowering in the showers like the rest of us. 

We all know that secularists are going to win so be thankful that we’re not the bullies you lot are.  We won’t deny you any rights we don’t enjoy.  We’ll even let you have a kick of the ball at playtime if you promise to play by the rules.

I bet you won’t, though.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Primate gets in on the not-pology racket

Cardinal Seán Brady has kinda-sorta apologised for the child abuse in Coyne.  Somehow, however, I don’t think he was very sincere.

“It is a very bad day,” Cardinal Brady said in Portadown yesterday when asked what the report meant for the Catholic Church. “It saddens me greatly. I am very upset. I want to apologise – as Archbishop Clifford has apologised – to all the victims of abuse and to their parents and families.

The day the report comes out, laying out the abuse and the lies for all to see, is the bad one.  I don’t think the victims will see it that way. We can only hope that their darkest days are behind them.  Doesn’t Brady think this might just be a little insulting?

“If there is one positive thing to come out of this it is the confirmation that the church structures have been proven to be effective,” he added.

Excuse me?  Effective?  Effective at what, exactly? At protecting the church from scandal, presumably.  Certainly not effective at protecting children.  Again, I’m not sure the victims will see it quite the same way as Brady.

Like everyone else in the church queuing up to apologise, Brady goes in for crazy levels of indirection to make it all seem like a little bit of unpleasantness rather than a horror show.  He’s a master of it:

Welcoming the Cloyne report, he said it represented “another dark day in the history of the response of church leaders to the cry of children abused by church personnel”.

This is a response to the ‘cry’ of children, not a response to the fact that priests are raping children.  Children cry all the time about the least little thing.  Doesn’t sound quite so bad that way, does it?

Evil Bishop Magee lied about child abuse on his watch

The Coyne Report about sexual child abuse in the diocese of Coyne is out and pretty damning. It has prompted the Minister for Justice, Alan Shatter, to announce that the withholding of information about serious offences against a child is to become a criminal offense. 

Because that’s what John Magee, Bishop of Coyne, did: he knew about cases of abuse and not only did he cover it up, he lied about it:

The report found that the Bishop of Cloyne, John Magee, misled the minister for children by claiming the church’s guidelines for handling abuse cases were being fully complied with. It also found he falsely told the Health Service Executive (HSE) that allegations of abuse were being reported to Gardaí.

2/3 of the complaints made between 1996 and 2008 were in fact not reported to the Garda and not a single case was passed to the HSE.

And look at those dates.  This is about what’s happening RIGHT NOW.

“It is truly scandalous that people who presented a public face of concern continued to maintain a private agenda of concealment and evasion,” Mr Shatter commented.

It’s a point a lot of people don’t seem to get. The church claims higher moral authority than the rest of us and yet cares more about itself as an institution than the vulnerable people it has promised to protect.  It’s the very act of the church placing itself in that moral position that has allowed so many vulnerable people to be placed in their care in the first place. This is one of the reasons that abuse by church institutions is worse than abuse in some other professions.  Society insists that we pay church institutions unearned respect and howls at us if we criticise them. And they aren’t living up to that responsibility.

“I am sorry that this happened and I unreservedly apologise to all those who suffered additional hurt because of the flawed implementation of the church procedures, for which I take full responsibility,”

It doesn’t seem like much of an apology.  Even while he’s apologising, he’s playing down serious of what happened and distancing himself from it.  This is not a matter of failing to implement guidelines in a sufficiently enthusiastic manner: it’s about wilfully failing to report cases of child abuse to the authorities and then lying to officials about it.  It’s about his damning children to torment to protect his beloved church, which he cares more about than the people he’s supposed to be protecting.  The torment of these children is an inconvenience to him and even when he’s laid bang to rights by a 341 page report, he can’t bring himself to admit that he had the ability to prevent many cases of abuse.

But he didn’t care.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

This is the kind of drivel we have to put up with

Here is an article from The Irish Times entitled Why Dawkins’s case against religion creaks at every joint.  It’s author, James P Mackey, is a proper theologian and everything (if there is such a thing):

James P Mackey is visiting professor in the school of religions and theology at TCD and professor emeritus of theology at the University of Edinburgh.

It doesn’t make very much sense.

RICHARD DAWKINS sold himself very short indeed in Dublin recently. For he was mainly concerned with securing the claim that “if science can’t get at the truth, nothing else can”; and then with securing not just the equality but the superiority of science over religions and their theologies.

I don’t think that was Dawkins’ chief concern at all – he was answering questions, mostly – but he certainly made the claim, as he has many times, that science is the best tool we have for understanding the universe.  Note that this is a very specific claim: the superiority he was claiming is superiority in finding out what’s true and what isn’t.  It’s a difficult argument to refute. Science really is a very good way of finding out what’s true. We can test its claims and predictions and we throw away whatever fails the test. 

By way of contrast, religion doesn’t do any of that. It makes predictions, to be fair, but many of them are far too vague to be tested properly and any ‘truths’ they reveal are not true in any normal sense of the word.  Besides, many of the predictions made in holy books have turned out not to be true (for instance, the second coming of Jesus “within the lifetimes of some of you here”) and yet they haven’t been discarded from the religion.  They are still considered true even though they are – by their own standards – false.  Tell me again what truths religion reveals?  But I’m drifting off topic.

Dawkins’s case is built on twin platforms. First, that evolution offers a full and adequate explanation of how the world came to be as we now know it; and this makes creator gods superfluous.

Then, second, that creator gods, and especially the Christian version, are nothing short of agents of immorality, both by example and in terms of their actual moral teachings, and the horrendous punishments threatened to enforce these.

This is an astonishing statement. Dawkins’ case against religion was put down very clearly in The God Delusion and he makes neither of these points. 

In fact, not only has he never made the first claim, he has argued repeatedly that it is false.  I suspect Mackey is confused by a few similar claims that Richard has made:

  1. All life on Earth is a product of evolution
  2. Life elsewhere in the universe is very probably also a product of evolution: we know of no other method by which it could have occurred.
  3. This goes for gods too: even if god did create life on our planet or life on all planets or the universe itself, then god would have to have come about by natural selection or something directly analogous.

Richard certainly hasn’t claimed that evolution “offers a full and adequate explanation of how the world came to be as we now know it”.  It’s a piece of the puzzle.  We have no reason to believe that evolution requires any gods.

Mackey’s second point is….incoherent.  Richard has certainly said that gods as depicted in holy books are creatures that display consistently vile behaviour.  He’s also said that religion is capable of making good people do bad things.  He’s also said that threats of eternal punishment are wicked.  Is this what Mackey means?  It’s impossible to tell.

Whatever he means, this isn’t Richard’s case against religion.  His case is that:

  1. It’s not true. We know this because there’s no evidence.  We’ve looked, and there’s no reason to suspect that any of the supernatural claims made by religions are true, and
  2. We’d almost certainly be better off without it.

All of which nullifies any remaining possibility of good moral behaviour on the part of a race already apparently only too prone to immorality, and increasingly so as its powers of destruction grow apace.

This is an outright lie by Mackey. Richard has written one book (The Selfish Gene) which is all about the evolution of altruism and he’s spoken and written about this many times.  He’s also spoken and written many times about how he favours liberal, moral societies and despises cruel and immoral behaviour.  He’s put his own money where his mouth is numerous times by donating large sums to charitable causes and encouraging others to do the same.  These are not the actions of someone who believes there’s no good in people.

After these barely coherent and generally untrue statements, Mackey lets his ignorance run riot.

The first platform for Dawkins’s case against religion – that evolution theory makes creator gods obsolete – creaks at every joint. Since a full understanding of it requires a broad acquaintance with both physical science (especially quantum physics) and metaphysics and few, possibly including Dawkins (a mere biologist, if not just a zoologist) can claim such broad expertise, it is sufficient to note briefly here how those properly endowed do handle it. Then we can pass on quickly to Dawkins’s moral argument; for we are all endowed by nature with a moral sense and an impressive moral repertoire.

Richard doesn’t claim to know everything about how the universe works.  Why on earth would or should he do that?  Is one person’s admitted ignorance of every corner of the universe sufficient to topple the fact that there’s no evidence for god?  The argument just doesn’t make the slightest sense.

First, evolution names a process, not an agent. It simply tells us that whatever agency causes this world to come to be what it now is, did not create the world in the beginning in the form in which we now know it.

Evolution doesn’t tell us that at all.  It says nothing whatever about any such ‘agency’.  The theory explains how life got from it’s starting point to where it is now and makes predictions about what sort of things we should find in the fossil record.  I suspect Mackey is trying to say that evolution doesn’t account for the existence of the universe.  He’s right.  Nobody says it does.  Especially not Richard, even though Mackey claims he does.

Rather did the agency create the world in the beginning in such a manner that a certain randomness in the “units” out of which the world is made, is always combined with it. This is never without sets of laws that govern the cosmic dance of the “units” ever alternatively coming together and breaking apart, until the world we now inhabit continues to come to be.

Who knows what Mackey is on about here.  What ‘units’?  What is the ‘it’ that contains the randomness?  Is it the mysterious ‘units’? Is it the universe itself?  What is this randomness?  Where does it come from and how does it manifest itself?  The ‘laws’ are presumably the laws of physics, but what is it that Mackey is actually trying to say here?  That the universe is different now to how it used to be?  Well….duh….. Why didn’t he just say that? 

And because the randomness in the “units” offers the possibility of virtually infinite combinations and permutations, regulated by laws themselves designed to evolve apace, contemporary science holds out the possibility – for some more than a possibility – of innumerable worlds, according to either the multiverse or the many-worlds formula.

Yes, but so what?  Mackey seems to be stringing together every half-remembered bit of every pop-science article he’s ever read with no clear purpose.  I genuinely have no idea what argument he’s trying to make at this point.

Second, quantum physics challenges the notion that the original “units” consist in atomic particles that are in effect hard balls of solid matter. It suggests instead that these are more akin to pure geometric forms, like one-dimensional strings or triangles for example; and these, like the laws, look more like mental constructs.

What the WHATNOW?  Technically, this kind of argument is called ‘blinding by science’, but I really don’t want to dignify this drivel with that name.  What Mackey is doing here is exactly the same sort of thing people like Deepack Chopra do.  He’s throwing in quantum physics and making it sound all mysterious so he can make the breathtaking non sequitur that sub-atomic particles might be vaguely analogous in some way to ‘mental constructs’ (whatever that means) at some astronomical level of abstraction.

Again, so what? This is what:

So that it is matter that emerges from mind, rather than mind from matter; and Dawkins’s imagination may be the one that is too impoverished to see the full implications of quantum physics.

Um…. Right.  So let me try to follow the argument:

  1. Evolution is a process.
  2. Quantum theory is weird. Therefore:
  3. Matter emerges from mind and so presumably god created the universe.

Does anyone really have to point out the childishness of this argument?  Did Mackey feel pleased with himself for making it?

Scientists who work in quantum physics and regard the mind-born entity called knowledge as the main formative, causative factor in the making of the cosmos, normally assure us it is not as advocates of any religion that they arrive at these views.

Do they?  Are there any such people?  There are plenty of pseudo-scientists who say nonsensical, incoherent stuff like this.  I don’t know of any quantum physicists who talk like that.  Pity Mackey didn’t think to cite some of them.  Almost as if they don’t exist.

Finally, Dawkins freely admits science still cannot see how life, much less mind, can have emerged from lifeless matter.

This, of course, is another lie.  He’s explained in at least one of his books how life might have begun.  Nobody understands every aspect of it, of course, just as we don’t yet understand everything about minds or their evolution.

But once again: so what?  The lie is particularly stupid because science really is quite ignorant of some of the steps in this process.  It’s no secret.  It’s nothing science should be embarrassed about.  And it doesn’t undermine any case against religion in the slightest.

But that leaves his totally evolutionary explanation of the coming to be of the cosmos still looking at a yawning gap in the evidence offered for his theory; requiring, it would seem, a leap of faith to cross it. But that, surely, could not be science; and one cannot but recall all Dawkins has to say about leaps of faith.

But Richard has never proffered any such explanation of the coming to be of the cosmos, so the entire argument is a strawman from the getgo.  But in any case, gaps in the theory do not require leaps of faith.  They require more evidence.  And the great thing about theories is that they predict what evidence ought to be found if the theory is correct.

Scientific theories aren’t like a chain of inference.  They don’t fall down if there’s a gap in knowledge.  This is because each bit of the theory is independently supported by evidence.  If we find evidence that fills in the gaps, our confidence in the theory’s correctness is increased.  If we find evidence that contradicts the theory, it’s a signal that we might have to modify the theory or throw it away entirely and begin with a new hypothesis.

Mackey’s article makes no sense from beginning to end.  I don’t think he even knows what argument he’s making.  He certainly doesn’t know (or deliberately misrepresents) the arguments Richard makes against religion and he does an astonishingly bad job of trying to debunk even that strawman.

Is this childish nonsense what we should expect from professors of theology?


Monday, July 11, 2011

The book they didn’t want you to read

Richard Wiseman has written a book about the psychology of the paranormal and why we’re so inclined to jump to paranormal explanations of fairly mundane phenomena.  It’s called Paranormality and you can read Richard’s description of it here.

It covers a lot of ground.  It has psychics, spiritualists, ghosts, out of body experiences, prophecy…  It begins each subject as a well-researched story about the claims or practices of some individuals claiming paranormal abilities, then describes some of the psychology behind why those claims can be so satisfying.  Well, the structure is actually a bit more chaotic than that.  It appears to go off at tangents from time to time.  But those apparent tangents are skilfully woven back into the central point and are shown to be devices to help us understand a psychological trait that we might not otherwise have connected with the subject at hand.

This all works very well and is done in a chatty and engaging style as usual.  Experienced skeptics will likely have a broad understanding of the subjects already.  I think few of us would struggle to describe cold reading for example.  But Richard takes the approach of describing cold reading as psychological techniques and then explaining how to manipulate these techniques for cold reading.  This is an interesting approach, which he uses throughout the book.

The book was described by Rebecca Watson as a kind of modern version of Flim Flam by James Randi and that was exactly the impression I got too.  Flim Flam is great, but would benefit from a modern retelling and Richard’s book does a good job of it.

Paranormality has been doing well in the UK and has been taken up by publishers throughout Europe.  However, publishers in the US have declined on the grounds that there’s no market there fore debunking nonsense.  How sad.  Fortunately, Richard is publishing the book himself in the US and it’s now available on Kindle there.

The book also comes with quite a lot of additional material presented as QR codes for those of us with barcode scanners on our phones and URLs for those of us who prefer to use a larger screen.  This includes things like interviews with some of the people referred to in the text.

Read it if you’re a hard-core believer in the paranormal and it will make you feel uncomfortable.  Read it as someone curious about the paranormal and you’ll learn a lot.  Read it as a hard-core skeptic and you’ll still learn something and you’ll be entertained on every page.

Talking ‘bout a revolution. Honesty in scientific reporting

CreationRevolution is actually quite hard to stay mad at.  I mean, it’s bugfuck crazy, no two ways about it, but it’s almost endearing in the way it desperately and almost amiably redefines the world so it can shoehorn bits of it at a time to fit its crazy preconceptions. It might be tremblingly insisting that rabbits don’t chew cud although they do although they don’t or warning us about false prophets such as Andrew Gonzales, who’s a professor of biology at McGill and wrote a paper in Science, which CreationRevolution does not link to, about yeast. There’s some stuff about it here. Gonzales is a false prophet because…..he uses the word ‘evolution’ to refer to…..evolution.  It’s all so clear now.

So you see how I tend to look upon this site as generally delightful.  Its contributors are only looking at the world in a way that isn’t focussed through the blinkers of evolution and of course their notion of truth is just as valid as the evolutionists’ version because it explains things just as well.

And isn’t at all completely wrong, batshit insane and not even internally consistent.

These lovely dears, in the form of R.L David Jolly, wrote an article about Honesty in Scientific Reporting.  Here it is. It’s the sort of thing we’re all worried about, isn’t it?  We sometimes accuse creationists of being a bit less than honest, so it’s nice that they’re making sure that the rest of us live up to the same standards.  Let’s take a look at those standards.

As I was reading this interesting article on another unique design feature in nature, I fully expected to read something explaining the photoreceptors in the sea urchins as being some type of primitive precursor to the evolution of eyes in higher animals.  To my surprise, the only statement made which referred to evolution was:

“Charles Darwin and other evolutionary biologists were bewildered by the eye’s complexity and wondered how this kind of structure could have evolved through natural selection.”

Needless to say, I was quite pleased to see such a statement from a source that regularly reports on nearly every claim made by the evolutionary community.  It’s refreshing to see some honesty in reporting, even if it is just this one time.

I had to wonder whether this was a wind-up.  The notion that Darwin – and later scientists – couldn’t explain eye evolution is probably the most common and most egregious creationist canard around today.  Here’s the relevant quote from On the Origin of Species:

To suppose that the eye [...] could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree.

This sentence is trotted out ad nauseum by creationists. Even Darwin couldn’t explain how eyes evolved, the argument goes, so evolution cannot possibly be true. It’s a stupid argument on many levels. Darwin was wrong about many things, as you might expect.  He didn’t know about genetics and made some (in hindsight) slightly foolish hypotheses about how heredity might work.  None of that has the slightest bearing on whether evolution is true. That’s decided by the evidence we have now, not what one person wrote in 1859.

It’s a dishonest argument because it pretends Darwin’s ignorance is evidence that his theory is wrong.  But it’s also dishonest in a much more straightforward way because the quote is unashamedly cherry-picked.  The next two sentences in Origin read as follows:

When it was first said that the sun stood still and the world turned round, the common sense of mankind declared the doctrine false; but the old saying of Vox populi, vox Dei, as every philosopher knows, cannot be trusted in science. Reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from a simple and imperfect eye to one complex and perfect can be shown to exist, each grade being useful to its possessor, as is certainly the case; if further, the eye ever varies and the variations be inherited, as is likewise certainly the case and if such variations should be useful to any animal under changing conditions of life, then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, though insuperable by our imagination, should not be considered as subversive of the theory.

He then goes on to explain in detail exactly how eyes might evolve.  It’s all here.  Look it up, if you don’t believe me. 

There’s really no reason for creationists to keep using this non-argument. They do it either because they haven’t bothered looking at the relevant chapter of Origin themselves or because they know that most of their readers won’t do so. 

Either way, it’s about the most dishonest type of reporting possible. It’s either deliberate, wilful ignorance – which is unforgivable in such a widely circulated book and especially when it is freely available on-line in a fully searchable form – or it’s an outright lie.

But we have some bonus dishonesty.  I posted a comment politely pointing out that the Darwin quote is an obvious rhetorical device.  He’s saying that it might seem crazy that eyes could evolve, but when you think about it in the right way, it isn’t.  And here’s how it might have happened…  I pointed out that the text is available online and anyone can easily look it up.  And I closed by saying that it was good to clear up this matter and now the myth would never have to be repeated again.

The comment has been languishing in moderation since 6th July. So have my follow-on comments explaining why it’s dishonest to ignore the full context of the Darwin quote.

I’m forced to conclude that the article’s author, R.L. David Jolly, is a dishonest reporter of the second kind: a liar. He knows where to find the relevant passage and it seems that he’s deliberately refusing to admit to his readers that he and his argument are wrong. 

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

OK, maybe it’s an over-reaction now

While I’m on Rebecca’s side and I think Richard’s comments were clueless and that he damn well should have known better, I’m not keen on taking my bat in.  Richard has the opportunity to learn something here.  If he does learn the lesson and has his consciousness raised, then he’ll be the better for it and so will lots of other people.  If he fails to learn the lesson, then Rebecca is right and Richard is nowhere near as cool as we thought.

I’m not sure Rebecca is right to say he doesn’t care.  I suspect he probably does, but somehow doesn’t understand the problem.  It’s bewildering, he kinda oughta should and I can’t quite imagine how it’s lost on him, but ignorance is OK.  Refusing to learn is not.

Let’s see how he responds in the coming days.  If he comes to understand the point and changes his tune I’ll admire him all the more. If he doesn’t…. I’m not sure what I’ll think.

OOOOhhhh Gillian (McKeith)

It’s never too late for a bit of good old fashioned Gillian McKeith mockery.

Jury ‘duty’

I wondered about whether jurors in the UK have to swear on bibles or what.  The Current Mrs Latsot knows about this kind of stuff and sent me the answer (from Wikipedia):

Religion Oath/Affirmation Scripture
Roman Catholic, Mainstream Protestant, Orthodox Christian, Jewish, Rastafarian

I swear by almighty God that I will faithfully try the defendant and give a true verdict according to the evidence.

The Bible; New Testament

I swear by Allah that I will faithfully try the defendant and give a true verdict according to the evidence.

The Koran
United Brethren swear:

I, being one of the United Brethren called Moravians, solemnly, sincerely and truly declare and affirm that I will faithfully try the defendant and give a true verdict according to the evidence.

Not all Christian sects believe in swearing oaths.
Quakers affirm:

I, being one of the people called Quakers, solemnly, sincerely and truly declare and affirm that I will faithfully try the defendant and give a true verdict according to the evidence.

Quakers do not believe in swearing oaths.
Sikhs can swear:

I swear by Waheguru that I will faithfully try the defendant and give a true verdict according to the evidence.


I, swear on the Gita I will faithfully try the defendant and give a true verdict according to the evidence.

Atheist/Agnostics; Jehovah's Witnesses

I solemnly, sincerely and truly declare and affirm that I will faithfully try the defendant and give a true verdict according to the evidence.



Two things strike me. The first is that atheists and agnostics are bundled with Jehova’s Witnesses, which is simply extraordinary. The second is that swearing on holy books is given consideration in the legal system.  It doesn’t matter what holy book it is.  And in the case of us Atheist Witnesses, it doesn’t matter whether we have a holy book at all.  But as long as people swear on such a thing, there’s apparently a greater chance that they’re telling the truth.

The very idea of promising to tell the truth is embarrassing, much more so when it invokesreligion.

How should I feel?


Cuttlefish, you’ve done it again

Very nice.

Checking in

I’ve been too busy for skepticism for a few days but in the spirit of procrastination I want to say a few words about Rebecca Watson in a lift.

At the World Atheist Convention in Dublin, Rebecca was socialising with a crowd of people until early in the morning.  She then announced that she was exhausted and was going to bed.  One of the crowd followed her into the lift and propositioned her for sex.

Some other stuff happened after that: she later spoke about the incident, was criticised for it and criticised the critics, for which she was criticised.  But I don’t want to get into all that.

People seem divided on the matter of whether Rebecca was right to be offended by the advance.  Some say it was an honest, if clumsy, request for sex and Rebecca is over-reacting.  Nothing wrong with asking for sex.  Others say it was predatory and unacceptable. 

I fall into the latter camp.   I can see nothing wrong with casual, no-strings sex, but I can see a problem with trying to solicit it out of the blue, especially in a situation where the target is likely to feel vulnerable (such as a lift in a foreign country at four in the morning) and especially when the target is female.  If you want casual sex, there are places you can go to find like-minded partners: people who – in that situation – don’t mind being objectified, since their intent is the same as yours.  They advertise that intent in one way or another.

People using lifts to get to their hotel rooms aren’t advertising availability.  Soliciting sex out of the blue objectifies those people in an unpleasant way. It suggests that the person doesn’t care about the other enough to make some kind of connection before making an advance. People on the whole don’t want to be objectified and so doing it is a form of aggression.  Doing it in a confined space with no means of escape is more so because it can create pressure to accept and be genuinely frightening.

Did Rebecca overreact?  I don’t think so.  I think she was reacting to the fact that a lot of men feel it’s OK to do this kind of thing and are blind to the reasons they shouldn’t.  Some of the reactions at places like this seem to prove her point.  Those of us who are privileged don’t often recognise it.  It’s hard to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes when we can’t even see the things that set us apart from other people. In this case, men have a lot less to be frightened of than women and a long history of being objectified and coerced into complying with male whim. 

I don’t think it’s acceptable to solicit sex in this way, not because of prudery or disdain for casual sex, but because of how it makes the target feel.  And it’s important for people to explain this because so many people don’t get it.

One of the people who doesn’t get it is Richard Dawkins, surprisingly. In comment #75 at the above link, he writes this:

Dear Muslima

Stop whining, will you. Yes, yes, I know you had your genitals mutilated with a razor blade, and . . . yawn . . . don't tell me yet again, I know you aren't allowed to drive a car, and you can't leave the house without a male relative, and your husband is allowed to beat you, and you'll be stoned to death if you commit adultery. But stop whining, will you. Think of the suffering your poor American sisters have to put up with.

Only this week I heard of one, she calls herself Skep"chick", and do you know what happened to her? A man in a hotel elevator invited her back to his room for coffee. I am not exaggerating. He really did. He invited her back to his room for coffee. Of course she said no, and of course he didn't lay a finger on her, but even so . . .

And you, Muslima, think you have misogyny to complain about! For goodness sake grow up, or at least grow a thicker skin.


I don’t much care for the sarcasm, but I’m hardly one to troll for tone.  The real problem is that Richard is committing the fallacy of implying that because someone else’s plight is worse, we shouldn’t be concerned with less egregious difficulties.  He’s also buying into the euphemism of ‘coffee’ with faux naiveté.  He knows perfectly well that coffee isn’t what the man had in mind and pretends he doesn’t, which is rather dishonest.

Lots of people are shocked.  They can’t quite believe it’s really Richard.  I couldn’t, either.  He defends himself:

> Did you just make the argument that, since worse things are

> happening somewhere else, we have no right to try to fix

> things closer to home?

No I wasn't making that argument. Here's the argument I was making. The man in the elevator didn't physically touch her, didn't attempt to bar her way out of the elevator, didn't even use foul language at her. He spoke some words to her. Just words. She no doubt replied with words. That was that. Words. Only words, and apparently quite polite words at that.

If she felt his behaviour was creepy, that was her privilege, just as it was the Catholics' privilege to feel offended and hurt when PZ nailed the cracker. PZ didn't physically strike any Catholics. All he did was nail a wafer, and he was absolutely right to do so because the heightened value of the wafer was a fantasy in the minds of the offended Catholics. Similarly, Rebecca's feeling that the man's proposition was 'creepy' was her own interpretation of his behaviour, presumably not his. She was probably offended to about the same extent as I am offended if a man gets into an elevator with me chewing gum. But he does me no physical damage and I simply grin and bear it until either I or he gets out of the elevator. It would be different if he physically attacked me.

Muslim women suffer physically from misogyny, their lives are substantially damaged by religiously inspired misogyny. Not just words, real deeds, painful, physical deeds, physical privations, legally sanctioned demeanings. The equivalent would be if PZ had nailed not a cracker but a Catholic. Then they'd have had good reason to complain.


There are several problems here.  First, Richard was quite obviously making that argument and it’s surprising that he’s now trying to wriggle out of it.  He plainly compared the two situations and the entire point of his satire was that one was worse than the other.  Muslim women certainly have it worse, a fact Rebecca is well aware of. But Rebecca’s point was about how male privilege blinds us to how women might feel in that sort of situation and Richard unwittingly provides an exemplar.

It’s really not the same thing as gum-chewing because while that implies a certain cluelessness, it doesn’t equate to objectification and it isn’t a potential threat.  A better example might be the two youths on a crowded train last Thursday who thought it was acceptable to play a movie on a laptop at full volume…. but it’s still not quite the same thing.

He’s since written:

Many people seem to think it obvious that my post was wrong and I should apologise. Very few people have bothered to explain exactly why. The nearest approach I have heard goes something like this.

I sarcastically compared Rebecca's plight with that of women in Muslim countries or families dominated by Muslim men. Somebody made the worthwhile point (reiterated here by PZ) that it is no defence of something slightly bad to point to something worse. We should fight all bad things, the slightly bad as well as the very bad. Fair enough. But my point is that the 'slightly bad thing' suffered by Rebecca was not even slightly bad, it was zero bad. A man asked her back to his room for coffee. She said no. End of story.

But not everybody sees it as end of story. OK, let's ask why not? The main reason seems to be that an elevator is a confined space from which there is no escape. This point has been made again and again in this thread, and the other one.

No escape? I am now really puzzled. Here's how you escape from an elevator. You press any one of the buttons conveniently provided. The elevator will obligingly stop at a floor, the door will open and you will no longer be in a confined space but in a well-lit corridor in a crowded hotel in the centre of Dublin.

No, I obviously don't get it. I will gladly apologise if somebody will calmly and politely, without using the word fuck in every sentence, explain to me what it is that I am not getting.


A few weird things here.  I don’t think anyone should apologise for being wrong or for offending people.  But the post shows that Richard still doesn’t get it.  The harm is not zero.  The harm to Rebecca was fairly minimal, I’d guess, but the harm in this attitude being perpetuated generation after generation is significant.  The harm of objectifying people – especially women – speaks for itself.  The harm of feeling coerced or pressured because of the background and environment should speak for itself also.  The ‘escape’ Richard mentions isn’t from the lift, but from the situation.  But the point is that nobody should have to worry about how to escape from a situation like that.  And Richard is being disingenuous in suggesting that the hotel corridors were “crowded” at 4am.

And another weird thing.  A lot of people have lost all respect for Richard over this.  I haven’t.  I think he’s wrong and I’ve explained why. I’m optimistic that he’ll understand eventually and have his consciousness raised another notch.

What is it with people that they insist high profile people agree with them on everything?  I’ll be disappointed if Richard doesn’t change his mind on this issue, but it won’t stop be being a fan of his other work.

I wanted to write something about reactions to the erosion of privilege, but this post is already horribly long.  Next post.

*I* want to go to meatland