Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Scott Adams has always been a cowardly idiot

I used to like Scott Adams.  I used to like the Dilbert strip.  It was an accurate representation of life in my particular corporate hell at the time.  My boss was pointy-haired, my co-workers were idiotic and lazy, my clients didn’t know what they wanted and nobody – unfairly - liked me complaining about everything all the time. 

Then Adams started blogging.  It was fun for a while, but….confusing….  He’d put up deliberately controversial posts criticising evolution, for example.  He’d make out that he was yanking everyone’s chain and promoting discord for entertainment’s sake, but it soon became clear that he kind of meant it, but didn’t have the courage to admit it.  He was hiding behind pretence.  His replies to commenters (occasionally me) were often uncomfortable.  We carefully and painstakingly instructed him on how evolution actually works and he simply and childishly dismissed it.  He never said “hm…. you know, I might be wrong, I’ll have to think about that.”  At best, he’d sometimes dig up a press release which badly described an already discredited paper that didn’t say what he said it said and he ridiculed anyone who said he might be wrong.

So I stopped reading his blog, with a sense of disappointment.  I’d enjoyed the Dilbert strip and books for years and I was surprised that Adams had turned out to be such a frustrating baboon in real life.  To be fair, I should have had an inkling.  He’s said a number of times over the years that ‘affirmations’ work.  This idea is that if you write down your goals some arbitrary number of times on a bit of paper, they’ll eventually come true.  Adams went out of his way to say that he didn’t personally attribute a supernatural force to their success, but that he knew the practice worked anyway.  Perhaps - he said – it only works because affirmations make you focus on your goals and are thereby more likely to achieve them.  But in this case, why bother with the ritual at all?  What does the ritual impart that simply focusing on goals doesn’t?  But that’s not what worried me the most.  My disquiet was mostly fed by his closing passage in (I think) The Dilbert Future.  He proposed an alternative theory of gravity, which he said explained gravity as well as Newton’s effort does and that they could  possibly be considered equivalent.  The theory suffered from two fairly major problems: it didn’t explain what gravity explains (orbiting celestial bodies, for example) and there was no evidence at all for it.  It was an alternative explanation of gravity in exactly the same way that Intelligent Design is an alternative explanation of evolution.  Not at all.  Doesn’t explain anything.  Doesn’t hold water.

After a while, I stopped reading the Dilbert strip too.  I felt briefly like I was betraying my geek credentials, but there were a lot more interesting geek comics around by then (xkcd, smbc, bi) and I didn’t miss it.

On March 7th, 2011, Scott Adams made a post which he later deleted.  For someone committed to yanking people’s chains, this seems an odd move.  The whole post can be found here, but let’s examine the highlights.

The topic my readers most want me to address is something called men’s rights. (See previous post.) This is a surprisingly good topic. It’s dangerous. It’s relevant. It isn’t overdone. And apparently you care.

OK, I’m already on the offensive.  The rights of men are just as important as the rights of women and there are a few places in law where I think the skew could benefit from being skewed, but the idea that men have fewer or poorer rights than women in any society is dangerously close to insane.  Most women in the world have very few rights and they’re usually not really rights because they’re granted and administered mostly by men.  We gave you those rights and we can take them away, bitch.  Those are not rights at all.  The mild concerns of People of The Correct Demographic doesn’t compare to ritual rape. routine genital mutilation, beatings, mutilation or death for the ‘crime’ of a woman trying to become educated.  In the west, women are still paid less than men, are treated less sympathetically than are men when they’re victims of crime, are fair game for abuse by idiot football pundits – surely the most worthless job in all society – and generally speaking have further to run to stay in the same place.

Let’s start with the laundry list.
According to my readers, examples of unfair treatment of men include many elements of the legal system, the military draft in some cases, the lower life expectancies of men, the higher suicide rates for men, circumcision, and the growing number of government agencies that are primarily for women.

The ‘according to my readers’ part is typical of Adams.  Oh, he’s not saying these things, his readers are.  OK, Scott.  The fact that female bodies tend to last a little bit longer in pampered, Western societies is somehow a political issue.  It’s a biological issue, Scott.  It’s one dubious advantage that women have over us: a few years gloating in decrepitude.  And there’s only one way, after all, that this balance could be addressed.

You might add to this list the entire area of manners. We take for granted that men should hold doors for women, and women should be served first in restaurants. Can you even imagine that situation in reverse?

Yes, it’s all rather silly and I wish we could dispense with the whole sorry business.  But let’s examine this point in a little more detail.  Opening doors for women isn’t all that hard.  Being asked slightly earlier what you want to eat in a restaurant isn’t much of a problem: ALL THE FOOD FUCKING COMES AT THE SAME TIME ANYWAY.  It’s a silly, anachronistic expectation, but it isn’t harmful.  If I were female I suspect I’d prefer equal pay, opportunities and - in the less-developed world – a modicum of freedom, to people occasionally holding a shop door open for me.

Generally speaking, society discourages male behavior whereas female behavior is celebrated. Exceptions are the fields of sports, humor, and war. Men are allowed to do what they want in those areas.

Society discourages male behaviour, except in the areas that dominate society.  Men are ‘allowed’ to do what they want only in certain areas?  How exactly are they prevented from doing what they want at all times anyway?  What’s stopping them?  Feeling that they probably oughtn’t to do it anyway?

Add to our list of inequities the fact that women have overtaken men in college attendance. If the situation were reversed it would be considered a national emergency.

What would constitute a reversal of this position?  If men had been discouraged for centuries from attending colleges and then gradually started to overcome this prejudice, perhaps we’d have something to talk about.  If more women than men are bettering themselves, then - given the societal advantages men already have - it can only mean that women are trying harder or that they’re better. 

How about the higher rates for car insurance that young men pay compared to young women? Statistics support this inequity, but I don’t think anyone believes the situation would be legal if women were charged more for car insurance, no matter what the statistics said.

You don’t think? YOU don’t think?  Insurance is an industry based – necessarily – on risk.  It’s bad luck indeed it you’re assigned to a high risk group by virtue of your birth, but here we are.  I'm a higher risk than some others and have to pay more, but I don’t think this constitutes a meaningful prejudice against me so much as it defines the insurance business itself. Adams seems to be saying that if the world were completely different. the world would be completely different.  I’d only complain if my insurance were more expensive than someone else’s if I were actually less of a risk.

Women will counter with their own list of wrongs, starting with the well-known statistic that women earn only 80 cents on the dollar, on average, compared to what men earn for the same jobs. My readers will argue that if any two groups of people act differently, on average, one group is likely to get better results. On average, men negotiate pay differently and approach risk differently than women.

This is a classically idiotic argument.  The women who – rightly – complain that they’re not being paid as much as men are complaining that they personally can and do the job as well as anyone else, regardless of sex. 

Women will point out that few females are in top management jobs. Men will argue that if you ask a sample group of young men and young women if they would be willing to take the personal sacrifices needed to someday achieve such power, men are far more likely to say yes. In my personal non-scientific polling, men are about ten times more likely than women to trade family time for the highest level of career success.

This assumes that the proper way to achieve success in business is to be a twat.  Isn’t this the problem in the first place? 

The reality is that women are treated differently by society for exactly the same reason that children and the mentally handicapped are treated differently. It’s just easier this way for everyone. You don’t argue with a four-year old about why he shouldn’t eat candy for dinner. You don’t punch a mentally handicapped guy even if he punches you first. And you don’t argue when a women tells you she’s only making 80 cents to your dollar. It’s the path of least resistance. You save your energy for more important battles.

So here we come to the reason Adams deleted his post, I expect.  Extraordinary.  Children are treated differently to adults because they need to be protected.  Handicapped people are treated differently because by definition they can’t do some of the things non-handicapped people can.  Adams seems to think that being female is a kind of handicap or perhaps something you can grow out of.

How many times do we men suppress our natural instincts for sex and aggression just to get something better in the long run?

What? We don’t rape or otherwise attack women because we might expect more sex that way, and then we complain when it doesn’t work? 

If you’re feeling unfairly treated because women outlive men, try visiting an Assisted Living facility and see how delighted the old ladies are about the extra ten years of pushing the walker around.  It makes dying look like a bargain.

If that were true, I suspect it would have more to do with how we treat old people than…..well…what point is Adams making here?  It’s unfair that women live longer, but they don’t enjoy it anyway? 

I don’t like the fact that the legal system treats men more harshly than women. But part of being male is the automatic feeling of team. If someone on the team screws up, we all take the hit. Don’t kid yourself that men haven’t earned some harsh treatment from the legal system. On the plus side, if I’m trapped in a burning car someday, a man will be the one pulling me out. That’s the team I want to be on.

There….are no female firefighters?  I worked for the fire brigade nearly 30 years ago and there were a few female firefighters even back then. In rural north Yorkshire, not known for its progressive outlook.  Would Adams object to being pulled out of a burning car by a woman?  Is that a team he’d rather not be on?

I realize I might take some heat for lumping women, children and the mentally handicapped in the same group. So I want to be perfectly clear. I’m not saying women are similar to either group.

Yes you are, Adams.  This is so fucking typical of your approach to absolutely everything.  You vent your idiotic opinions, then you pretend that’s not what you did.

I’m saying that a man’s best strategy for dealing with each group is disturbingly similar. If he’s smart, he takes the path of least resistance most of the time, which involves considering the emotional realities of other people.  A man only digs in for a good fight on the few issues that matter to him, and for which he has some chance of winning. This is a strategy that men are uniquely suited for because, on average, we genuinely don’t care about 90% of what is happening around us

A person’s best strategy – all other things being equal - is probably to be fairly tolerant of most of the outrage going on around them.  This is not advice that’s unique to men.  Women the world over have a lot more to complain about than men do.  Does Adams really think that women haven’t been forced to take the line of least resistance throughout all of history?

Scott, you were a coward even before you deleted your cowardly post.  You’ve hid for years behind the pretence that the woefully lame ideas you espouse are somehow not really yours.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Bertrand knows best

On WEIT, Greg Mayer quotes Bertrand Russell on the idea of consensus or expert opinion:

(1) that when the experts are agreed, the opposite opinion cannot be held to be certain; (2) that when they are not agreed, no opinion can be regarded as certain by a non-expert; and (3) that when they all hold that no sufficient grounds for a positive opinion exist, the ordinary man would do well to suspend his judgment.

I think he’s right and as usual, he puts it wonderfully.  It’s almost like poetry. As Mayer says, Russell is not talking about how or what to believe, but about when and where to doubt.  We shouldn’t accept that – say - climate change is true just because lots of people say it is, but there’s every justification to accept the consensus of experts if there are demonstrably good reasons for them to say what they say.  That – in a nutshell – is science.

Christopher Hitchens on the presto-changeo deathbed conversion

There are people out there who are gleeful at Christopher Hitchens’ illness.  I’m not surprised, I for one am glad we’re on the same side, he’s formidable.  But Hitchens’ opponents can’t do anything as mundane as being honest, even about something like this, and lots of people around the world have been accusing him – somewhat prematurely – of undergoing a deathbed conversion.  He’s already said that the only way this would happen is if the cancer or the drugs cause a decline in his mental faculties.  Now he has this to say on those ghouls who prowl around hospitals preaching to dying atheists:

’It’s considered acceptable in our culture to approach perfect strangers, as often or not who may be in extremis, and evangelise. I don’t see why that’s considered a normal thing.’ His voice rises in indignation. ‘They’re allowed to roam the wards. They tried it on me.’I know people old and young who’ve been terrified by attentions of this kind.’

He has been thinking of making a short speech along precisely these lines, to the effect that he, Harris and Dawkins may set up a secular equivalent of hospital visitors. ‘We’d go round – “Hope you don’t mind, you said you were Catholic? Only three weeks to live? Well, listen, you don’t have to live them as a mental slave, you know; you could have three weeks of freedom from fear of the priest. Don’t be a mug all your life…” I don’t think it would be considered in very good taste.’

I don’t think it would be a kindness either, I say.

‘I think it would,’ Hitchens says. ‘Absolutely.’

I think it would too.  False comfort is a pale imitation of the real thing and three weeks of knowing the truth is worth one tricky conversation and a restless night.  What could be kinder than to tell someone that they don’t have to bow to a capricious, malevolent tyrant any more?

Members of my family have smugly insisted that I’ll change my mind about god as I grow closer to death.  They take delight in the fact: not because they think I’ll eventually be saved, although I expect that’s part of it, but because they think they’ll somehow be proved right if I do.  There is no possibility that it will happen, unless I lose my mind, and to say that it will is the worst and most profound insult anyone could make to me. 

It wouldn’t be a kindness to convince me to spend my remaining days in servitude to a horror show and woe betide anyone who tries it.

Some strident ranting for y’all

Brendan O’Neill describes himself like this:

Brendan O'Neill is the editor of spiked, an independent online phenomenon dedicated to raising the horizons of humanity by waging a culture war of words against misanthropy, priggishness, prejudice, luddism, illiberalism and irrationalism in all their ancient and modern forms.

Oh dear.  Are you sure you mean ‘phenomenon’, Brendan?  Are you sure you don’t simply mean ‘website’?  I’m not at all sure I want my horizons raised, as it goes: I’m fairly fond of sky and I’m not convinced less is more.  That woeful pretence aside, let’s see what the chap has to say.  The bee in his bonnet is about the British Humanism Association’s campaign to convince people who don’t believe in gods to tell the truth on the UK census by saying they don’t believe in gods.  I’m not sure why so many people have negative opinions about this campaign.  It’s saying if you’re not religious, consider not saying that you are.  The aim is to count the people who are actually religious, regardless of whether they identify culturally with a religious tradition.  It’s important information.  Religion has an enormously privileged position in our society and nobody really knows why.  Painting an accurate picture of how many atheists are marauding about the place surely can’t hurt in fighting injustice, can it?  Lots of people who write newspaper columns disagree, or say they do.  O’Neill is one of them.

It’s Census Day on Sunday, and campaigning atheists are teeth-gnashingly worried that insufficient numbers of people will tick the “No Religion” box. The British Humanist Association is on a mission to encourage as many non-believers as possible to declare their non-belief.

Are we gnashing our teeth or are we politely suggesting that people tell the truth on the census?  We’re not insisting or demanding.  We’re not cajoling or manipulating.  We’re pointing out that if – as a matter of fact – you happen to be irreligious, then it would actually be helpful to say so.  That way, we can count how many people are actually religious and how many aren’t.  If you don’t want to tick the no religion box then by all means don’t fucking tick it.  We just want you to think for a minute before you pick a box.  I can’t imagine anything less tooth-grinding than a polite request to tell the truth.

It argues that only by getting a realistic snapshot of how many atheists and agnostics there are in modern-day Britain (more than we think, apparently) can we challenge such allegedly problematic institutions as faith schools and the privileging of religious spokespeople in various political institutions.

No, it argues that this is a useful bit of data, not that it’s the only tool we have.  We’re two paragraphs in and O’Neill’s hyperbole is already making my eyes bleed.

But if lots of non-believers choose not to tick “No Religion”, I won’t be surprised. Why? Because people generally don’t like to define themselves negatively, by what they aren’t rather than by what they are. “No Religion” – it’s sounds so passive, almost identity-effacing, like “No Comment” or “No Opinion”. The majority of non-believers, of which I am one, see our non-belief in God not as the be-all and end-all of who we are, not as the thing that defines us, but simply as a choice we have made. Our atheism is in many ways the least interesting thing about us. It merely indicates what we don’t believe in, rather than saying anything about what we do believe in (in my case, radical humanism).

O’Neill is terribly confused.  Denying gods is not a negative, passive, identity-effacing thing.  It’s quite the reverse, it’s a rejection of nonsense and wishful thinking.  It’s a destination we’ve all reached by different routes and those routes – and the reason we chose those ones rather than others – have more to do with what our atheism is about than does the dictionary definition.  The reason we’re atheists and the reason atheism is important to us is that we’re committed to rationality, or we hate the unfair privileges religion pointlessly gets, or we despise misogyny, ignorance, hatefulness, homophobia and stupidity.  Or whatever the fuck it is, doesn’t matter.  I’m proud of my atheism because it indicates a commitment to a rational perspective.  Others might be proud of their own atheism for other reasons. O’Neill has apparently never really thought about why he’s an atheist, but lots of other people have and to us, rejecting gods and other idiocy is not a ‘negative’ thing (whatever that means), it’s an affirmation of principles that are important to us.

That’s the trouble with the new atheism of the Dawkinite, occasionally ranting, intolerant variety – it is seeking to create a movement based on a non-belief, based on the absence of something (belief in God) rather than on the presence of something (belief in something else).

Ranting?  Intolerant? I can only speak for myself.  I’m intolerant of wishful and superstitious thinking because it is harmful.  It’s responsible for many ills.  I can and will not tolerate that.  Is that supposed to be a bad thing?  O’Neill seems to think so.  By telling people I’m not prepared to tolerate harmful behaviour, I’m ranting? Let’s remember something about context, Brendan.  We’re advocating that people tell the truth on the census form.  I’m not convinced this is ranting.

I wonder why O’Neill is so adamant that there’s something wrong with basing a movement on the absence of something.  Who made that rule, exactly?  Why is it less valid to rally around the idea that there’s no god than to rally around the idea that there is one?  Because O’Neill says so, apparently.

It has to be the least inspiring movement of recent years. It only tells people what they should not believe, and hectors them for being dumb and gullible if they do believe it.

The out campaign tells people that they don’t have to believe in religion.  In a world where belief is highly valued for its own sake and people are persecuted in lots of ways for simply not believing stupid stuff, the campaign’s message is indeed inspiring.  It reminds us that we can think for ourselves.  That we don’t have to be repressed by religion.  That we don’t have to be subservient to a set of dreadful, arbitrary rules.  I’m not sure I can think of a more inspiring message.

Some good answers here

The URL says it all:

Some less good ones too, but they’re all nicely thought out and carefully stated.  Where is the strident ranting we gnus are accused of ten times a day?  I guess these must be old atheists.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

You fucking scum

It was due sooner or later.  The Daily Mail has outdone even it’s own complete lack of morality by publishing this article:

I don’t think I can say anything about it right now.

Monday, March 21, 2011

What’s going on with you, Apple?

Apple has approved for itunes an app by Exodus International, which it rated as containing ‘no objectionable material’.  The app seeks to ‘cure’ people of homosexuality. Considering what innocent apps Apple has rejected on the grounds of offensive content (perhaps most famously and bewilderingly an ebook reader, on the grounds that it could conceivably – if you specifically searched for it - be used to read a text version of the Karma Sutra), this is an outrage. 

Homosexuality ‘conversion’ is a hateful, intolerant and aggressive stance on a mode of behaviour that is nobody’s business.  Nobody is being ‘helped’ by someone trying to make them straight.  It might, I suppose, superficially alleviate some feelings of guilt in the short term but:

  • These conversions are not going to stop people having sexual feelings toward people of the same sex, and
  • It’s religion that instilled these feelings of guilt in the first place.

There can be positive outcomes to homosexuality conversions, of course.  These are where the subject realises the hatred and hypocrisy of religion, drops it and lives a happy, guilt-free life.

It’s interesting that Exodus International are…..shall we say….shy? about explaining what the app is actually for.  The page of information on their site talks about access to news, social media, resources etc. but nowhere says what the app is about.  It doesn’t even mention homosexuality.  If it’s all so innocent and aimed at helping people, why is Exodus International so deceptive about the app’s purpose?

Truth Wins Out has organised a petition to pressure Apple to remove the app, which currently has nearly 20,000 signatures.

Personally, I don’t like Apple setting itself up as sole arbiter of what it’s acceptable to run on their hardware, but since that’s the position they’ve put themselves into, they need to be consistent and they need to be held accountable.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Gun me down

I killed and ate a co-worker and I liked it.  I’ll certainly kill again, I’ve got the taste for it.  But I felt a bit guilty and confessed to a Catholic priest.  Because I’d not go to heaven else.

I’m not sure what happens from this point on.

Let’s say I’m a Catholic.  I get forgiven in confession, which is awesome, and I daresay I’ll be urged to hand myself in.  But the priest presumably won’t tip off the filth. We’ll both live our lives knowing about the increasing stack of torsos in my basement.  The main difference between me and the priest isn’t that I’m the one doing the killing, but that I’m the one who recognises it’s probably wrong.  Fortunately, the priest aids and abets me: the less guilty I feel, the more people I can kill.  Let’s say I’m protestant.  Or muslim. Or atheist. 

Presumably the catholic priests hearing my confession would not hesitate to report me to the authorities.  This would divert me from my killing, would save lives.

The clear message is that if you’re going to be a serial killer who feels the need to confess, simply be Catholic. You can’t lose.

Does any of this sound familiar?

Friday, March 18, 2011

Charity isn’t about doing good

Two Catholic bishops from North Dakota have issued a list of charities Catholics shouldn’t support on the grounds that they support – not always directly – things like abortion, contraception, stem cell research or not discriminating against homosexuals.  They don’t seem to care about whether the charities do any good.  The list?  Here it is:

  • The American Association of University Women
  • Amnesty International
  • Crop Walk
  • Church World Services
  • The March of Dimes
  • Susan G. Komen for the Cure
  • Planned Parenthood

Now you know which charities to support.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Evidence for gods

I’ve always maintained that I’m technically agnostic, although I identify as an atheist.  This is the position Richard Dawkins takes in The God Delusion: I’m entirely convinced that there are no gods, but if compelling evidence turned up, I’d spin on a dime.  This position is really a statement that evidence is important.  Play all the masturbatory logic games you want, but the only thing that could convince me of the existence of the supernatural is evidence.

The position is also about habit.  I think about disproving hypotheses as a matter of course in my work.  I expect the religious to have an inkling of what might disprove their hypothesis of god.  Shouldn’t I be aware of what would convince me that a god exists?

I’ve been thinking about this question – what would I count as evidence for god? – for a little while now.  This is infuriating because on two separate occasions recently some of the big guns of atheism have raised (and sometimes argued about) the same question, making it look as though I’m jumping on the bandwagon.  I’ll link to some of these posts later, but I’ll try to clarify my current position first.

I cannot think of a single thing that would make me believe in a god.

This is because the concept is too incoherent to form a hypothesis in the first place.  It’s too slippery to keep hold of and in any case everyone seems to have a different idea of what god is.  They have a different idea depending on the subject in hand or the time of day or what they’ve been eating or who they’re talking to.  The vicar in the pulpit will expound to her flock about Adam and Eve, virgin births, loaves and fishes and resurrections as though these are literal truths.  And then she’ll admit to other audiences that they are metaphors for how we should live our lives.  Not only is this hypocritical, it’s incoherent.  From where does the bible get its authority to tell us how to live our lives?  Why, from stuff like miracles being literally true, of course.  The fundies have it right in that respect: you can pick and choose which bits of the bible you want to believe in, but in doing so you surrender its authority as the word of god.

But in any case, I can’t imagine any evidence that would convince me that god – a supernatural creator and custodian of the universe – existed.  A fifty food Jesus wouldn’t do it.  A voice booming down from the sky announcing that the bible is true, simultaneously heard by everyone on Earth in their own language, wouldn’t do it.  It would be only marginally more convincing than the crazy person on the street who insists he’s the second coming of Jesus.  Clearly we’d be dealing with an entity powerful beyond our understanding, but would there be any reason to suppose it was god?  Let alone any particular variety of god?

Suppose a fifty foot Jesus appeared and handed me verifiable schematics about how to make a universe like this one in a blue folder.  Perhaps the folder also contains some highly advanced physical theory and predictions of the future, which all turn out to be correct. 

That wouldn’t do it for me either.  Clarke’s 3rd law works both ways. 

Now surely this would fit some people’s definition of god.  Surely some people would argue that even if the fifty foot Jesus was an imposter, a member of a highly advanced technological society, then he would still fit their criteria for god.  Well, OK, but the problem is that the conclusion was reached after the fact, like shooting an arrow into a barn wall and painting a target around it afterwards.  Nobody defined exactly what would and wouldn’t constitute proof of god and evaluated the contents of Jesus’ folder against that.  They didn’t do this because the notion is incoherent.  It’s deliberately incoherent because it means any difficulties with any conceptualisation of god can be explained away with a bit more magic.  God is eternal.  He’s outside nature.  He’s not bound by the laws of the universe.  He’s beyond understanding.  Whatever.

There’s a potential objection to this position.  It will certainly lead to charges of closed-mindedness.  I’ll be told that my position is dogmatic, inflexible and that I made up my mind before I started.  I’ll be told that I’ll twist my way out of accepting any evidence for god, no matter what it is.

I have two responses to this criticism.  The first is that in all honesty, I don’t care very much.  The second is a bit more helpful.    What is it that should compel me to take – say - a fifty foot Jesus as evidence of god rather than evidence of something else?  Suppose everyone’s prayers suddenly started being answered.  Why should I conclude that god is responsible rather than something else that I just don’t know about yet?  The best I can say is that it doesn’t contradict some particular conceptualisations of god.

As promised, here are some recent posts on this subject.

First, Ophelia Benson, who says the same thing with characteristic succinctness.

Next, PZ Myers, who also agrees with me and likens the theist approach to Calvinball.

And finally, Jerry Coyne has combined discussions between himself, AC Grayling, Richard Dawkins and (implicitly) PZ here.  Jerry’s view is different to mine.  He thinks there’s a possibility of some evidence that would convince him that god exists, although he doesn’t expect any to show up.  From reading The God Delusion and other works by Dawkins and hearing him speak about this kind of thing on several occasions, I gather that his position is similar to Jerry’s.  However, I get the impression that he’s being deliberately over-generous.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Skateboard sex

This book looks pretty good. If you doubt me, check out the negative reviews.  It’s a sex education book for young kids and features magnificent pictures like this:

My first thought on seeing this picture was “look at how much fun they seem to be having”.  The first thing the Christian Institute thought was that it’s obscene and will corrupt our children’s minds.

We seem somehow to have convinced ourselves that the only purposes of sex education are to promote sexual health and prevent teenage pregnancy.  These are very good reasons for sex education, but there’s another one: shouldn’t we also be telling kids that while sex carries consequences, it doesn’t carry guilt?  Shouldn’t we be telling them that sex is supposed to be fun for both parties – as this picture seems to illustrate – and that you can do it whichever way you like (skateboard optional)?

The entirety of my school sex education was as follows:

  • A video that showed a naked boy and girl and - shockingly at the time – a hairy and bored-looking naked adult couple.  The video described the various changes we ought to expect.
  • Another video with an hour long convoluted setup involving teenagers on an improbable camping trip which ends with *AnD tHeN sHe GoT PREGNANT!!!!! PREGNANT!!!!* Without describing how this might have occurred.
  • I think she got sent off somewhere and he ended up in prison or the workhouse or something.
  • There was a handout, which was a photocopy of a photocopy of a colour diagram of a cross section of a penis inserted into a cross section of a vagina. It was so badly drawn and reproduced that it wasn't actually possible to tell where one ended and the other began. We couldn't even work out which way up it was supposed to be. It looked more like a fractal than anything else.
  • We also got one assembly talk about how girls who wear makeup are evil and that boys need to be wary of girls' evil wiles.  Boys are unable to control themselves around girls, who are to be blamed for sex.  You can tell it was a religious school, can’t you?
  • We also, confusingly, had a special school-wide telling-off because we had a teacher called Mr Condon, with inevitable results. This perhaps conveyed more information about sexual health and happiness than the others put together.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

I admit it, I’m a cynic: the Dalai Lama’s politically expedient departure

It’s a mistake to think that cynics can’t enjoy good news.  That lunatic old dictator, the Dalai Lama is giving up his dictatorship and embracing democracy.  I think this has to be good news, although it’s currently unclear how much difference it will make to anyone’s daily life in the short term. 

The current Dalai Lama - Tenzin Gyatsohas been recognised as the reincarnation of the previous one since he was two years old, but has formally been on the job since 1950.  It’s interesting, therefore, that he should choose this particular moment to announce that he’s stepping down as political leader, just as dictators are toppling everywhere.  If I were more charitable I’d say now’s as good a time as any, but I can’t help thinking that 60 years ago would have been a much better time altogether.

To be fair, he announced in the 70s that he’d be the last Dalai Lama.  This – hilariously – caused consternation.  Who was he, his people demanded, to decide not to reincarnate?  Surely they the people should get to decide whether his spirit would magically posses an innocent baby after his death.  It’s difficult to imagine a more stupid complaint.

I don’t know a great deal about it, but that announcement too seemed like a politically expedient decision.  The Chinese government insisted that they approve the appointment of all powerful monks.  Since this would surely influence the selection of the next Dalai Lama, he can hardly be blamed for taking his bat in.

But despite these claimed good intentions, Tenzin Gyatso has been careful to grip onto political as well as spiritual power with his bony fingers until the last possible second.

Of course, his spiritual power trumps the political hands down anyway, so I’m not sure how or if things will change in the short term.  But let’s hope it really is part of a graceful dismount, that a democratic regime will indeed come about and that the office of Dalai Lama will quickly become an embarrassing memory.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Boldly went

I’m sad for Discovery.  The Space Shuttle was the Sputnik of my generation.  I was nine when the first spaceworthy shuttle – Columbia – flew.  It was a big event at my school and we made a wall chart and watched the launch on TV.  This might surprise you, but I was kind of a geeky kid.  Me and Michael Pike and…. virtually nobody else…. were entirely obsessed with the shuttle for quite a long time.  And why wouldn’t we be?  It was basically Thunderbird 2.

Fun fact: we’d just been learning about the ancient Greek gods, a subject I loved.  It seemed so full of adventure and heroism and it was so very much more interesting than the bland version of Christianity the school and my parents served up.  Odysseus was my hero, partly because he was a bit of a knob, but mostly because he succeeded by thought and trickery rather than lunging at everyone with a flimsy sword.  Also because he didn’t want to be there in the first place and just wanted to go home.  But my favourite part was his defiance of the gods.  Sure, he got punished for it, but he took it in a pretty stoic fashion.  And he won!  He got home!  The gods could not stop him.  To be fair, he did some shitty things on the way, but he beat the gods in the end. 

Could there be a better hero for a bratty, geeky, increasingly atheistic kid?  Well, it turns out there was.  The building of Columbia is one of the things that turned me on to science and engineering.  I was already devouring pop science books but alongside any other book that hoved into view.  Columbia acutely changed my focus.  It made me want to understand things and build things.  It led me – and I know this is going to seem horribly pretentious – to those other Greeks.  The ones who sat around with styluses drawing triangles. I took what I was fascinated with about the ancient Greek culture and poured it into Plato and Archimedes and Euclid and Pythagoras… The proximity of the Greek myths and the Shuttle in my schooling did something to me that might never have happened otherwise and while I have nothing else to thank my teacher Mrs Hall for, I thank her profoundly for taking the Shuttle seriously.  This might be the most difficult thing I’ve ever said: Thank you, Mrs Hall, you horrible, spiteful old bigot: despite all your horrific bullying, you helped me become a scientist. I’ve no doubt you are revolving - as you rot in your grave - to learn that.  Assuming you are dead.  If you aren’t, hey, let’s get in touch!

I cried when Columbia was destroyed on re-entry in 2003.  Of course, I was sad for the crew and their families, but I was also sad for the machine.  By then it had become something like the Flying Scotsman: something iconic that did a whole variety of things nothing else had ever done.  Well, apart from the other shuttles, of course, but at this stage I hope you’ll permit me some sentimentality toward a machine.

So I’m sad that shuttles won’t be flying any more.  I’m sad that nobody really cares.  I understand that our economies have priorities, but – and I might have mentioned this before – I’m a geek.  Space is as close as I can get to a spiritual home.  I mean… it’s SPACE.

And the shuttle project was the apex of the “yeah…..I can probably do that….does anyone have a programmable calculator?” attitude I’ve tried to adopt throughout my scientific career.

I understand the reasons for the Shuttle’s demise, but I’ll miss it.  Anyone who doesn’t has no soul.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Did you ever hear about this?

This article is from 2001.  In the decade that has passed since then, did you ever hear about it?  I didn’t.  I’ve heard stories about Priests raping nuns – there are lots of them – but this specific thing, reported in the mainstream news, didn’t seem to make much of a splash.  You’d think it would be an international outrage.  You’d think it would have had people railing in large numbers against the Catholic church years before this started to happen in earnest.

If this happened today, would it receive as much attention as does the issue of paedophilic priests?  I doubt it.

Let me bullet point it for you, since I’m so anxious to get on with filling in my census form:

  • In 2001, the Catholic church admitted, after much stalling, that priests in at least 23 countries had been routinely raping nuns
  • In most cases, the priests seemed to have chosen to rape nuns instead of other women or instead of employing prostitutes because they were worried about contracting AIDS
  • Members of the Catholic clergy abused their self-appointed authority to coerce sexual acts from nuns.  For example, sex seems to have been the price to allow nuns to work in their diocese or to help them find accommodation and other things the nuns should rightly have felt entitled to by default
  • Nuns have become pregnant because of this.  According to the article, 29 nuns from one congregation became pregnant by priests.
  • Pregnant nuns have been ‘encouraged’ to have abortions
  • Nuns have been ‘encouraged’ to take birth control pills
  • When nuns complained, they were often blamed
  • The accused men were sent off to prey on other people, while the women were drummed out of the church

Forced to acknowledge the problem, the Vatican has tried to play down its gravity. In a statement issued yesterday the Pope's official spokesman, Joaquin Navarro Valls, said: "The problem is known and involves a restricted geographical area. Certain negative situations must not overshadow the often heroic faith of the overwhelming majority of religious, nuns and priests".

Of all the things wrong with this statement, the wrongest and the most descriptive of the Catholic church is the part about nuns.  NONE of this story called the integrity and faith of nuns into question, especially since they were, you know, the victims.  But this charming man blithely lumps in the victims as equally sinful as their rapists.  And the church backs him up with enthusiasm.

Otherwise, of course, it might have attempted to do something about it.  Which as far as I can tell, it hasn’t.  I think the best these women can hope for is an official notpology in 200 years or so.

Friday, March 04, 2011

If you’re not religious for God’s sake say so

The British Humanist Association has launched a campaign to encourage non-religious people to tick the ‘no religion’ box on the upcoming UK census.  This is necessary: it’s important that everyone knows how many atheists there are in the UK because there are still strong biases in favour of the religious.  The campaign’s site lists some of the policies that were justified by the census figures from 2001:

  • Increase in the number of faith schools
  • The continuation of collective worship in schools
  • The public funding and support of ‘interfaith’ and faith-based organisations above the support offered to secular organisations
  • Suggestions of an increase in the role of faith in Britain under the coalition government
  • The appointments of government advisors on faith
  • Contracting out public services to religious organisations
  • Keeping the 26 Bishops in the House of Lords as of right
  • Continued high number of hours dedicated to religious broadcasting
  • Specific consultation at government and local level with ‘faith communities’ over and above other groups within society
  • Continued privileges for religious groups in equality law and other legislation

The BHA is particularly keen to distinguish between the practicing and the cultural religious.  Many people who were brought up religious but aren’t believers themselves doubtless ticked a religion box in 2001, which skewed the figures. There were probably a lot more atheists around than the numbers suggest.

The BHA produced posters to put on busses around the country with the slogan “If you’re not religious, for God’s sake say so".  However, the Committee of Advertising Practice has decided that this wording could cause “widespread and serious offense” and forced it to change the posters.  This is a worse problem than wasting a charity’s money.  There is no good reason at all for anyone to find this wording offensive and it’s another example of the privileging of religion in our society.  It’s effectively censorship: clearly some individuals wanted to harm the BHA’s message and contrived some complaints.  It is a disgrace that they were allowed to win.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Jerry Bergman lies about Darwin

This is unbelievably stupid stuff. Jerry Bergman is a creationist and an idiot.  He’s of the sort who without apparent shame blames the holocaust on evolution.  But for some reason people still invite him to give talks about crazy stupid shit.  His current tour is an excellent example.  He’s speaking about The Dark Side of Charles Darwin and was kind enough to publish the table of contents.  Here it is:

Part 1:
•Charles Darwin’s major goal in developing his theory was religious, he wanted to "murder" god (his words).
•He was active in "converting" all he could to his theory of origins.
•Darwin plagiarized most of his major ideas.
•Darwin was a racist of the worst kind and believed the lower races (the blacks) would go extinct.
•Darwin was opposed to helping the sick, but realized this idea would not go over well.
•Charles felt a wife was better than a dog (really!).
•He was severely mentally and physically ill, likely an agoraphobic.
•As a young man he was sadistic and loved to kill animals with anything he had: guns, sticks, even hammers!

Part 2:
•It is well known and well recognized that evolution is the doorway to Atheism.
•About 98 % of leading life scientists are Atheist.
•A major reason given to become an Atheist was evolution.
•The whole point of the evolution creation account is to demolish the theistic creation account.
•It takes more faith to be an Atheist than a Creationist.
•Dr. Bergman will cover the Atheist creation story as developed by Hawking and others to document this.
•Orthodox Evolution is defined as from nothing to everything purely by chance, time, and the outworking of natural law (which also originated by chance, time and natural law).

It’s quite hard to know where to begin, but what stands out to me is the fact that the entire lecture is one giant ad hominem attack.  Darwin could have been the nastiest, most unsavoury, immoral and sadistic man in history (he most certainly was not) and of course it wouldn’t make his theory any less true.  Attacking the man rather than his work is just plain sleazy and smacks of desperation.  Can Bergman really think of nothing better to say than Darwin was nasty?

Newton was quite a nasty man.  He held grudges, he sabotaged the careers of his enemies, he used his influence to harm people. But the planets still go about their business regardless.  Apparently, descriptions of reality don’t depend on the moral character of the describer but instead on what actually is and isn’t true.  For that matter, the bible says that god is a lot nastier than Darwin.  He committed multiple genocides; he punished offspring and even animals for the sins of their ancestors and owners; he tormented Job for reasons of pure caprice; he killed everyone on Earth apart from Noah’s family; and he came up with the brilliant idea of original sin.

So given that the entire premise of the lecture is pointless, I’m not sure where we can go, but Bergman’s sleaziness doesn’t stop there.  You see, Darwin wasn’t a particularly unpleasant fellow, so Bergman has to lie to make his already nonsensical point.

I’m not going to expose the lies one by one, they are there for all to see.