Thursday, October 27, 2011

Playground arguments

That guy picked on you every day for years because he was jealous.

Words can never hurt you.

If you refuse to do something stupid – because it’s stupid – then you must be scared.

None of these arguments were convincing in the playground and I’m less inclined to believe them now.  But I’m not a professional philosopher like Daniel Came so presumably I’m wrong.

Came argues that Richard Dawkins’ refusal to debate a fool means that he’s scared.

Because we all know, don’t we Daniel, that if someone challenges us to do something, we’re automatically obliged to do it and if we don’t you’re entitled to make up any shit you want to explain why.

Well, I say Came “argues”.  It’s difficult indeed to locate an argument.

Fuck it, if you can find one, I’ll give you a prize.  Really.

Until there’s a winner, I’m going to go with my gut feeling that if you nock someone for not rising to a stupid attack, you’re a fucking idiot.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The greatest moral force the world has ever known

Yes, I know, I know, I KNOW, alright?  I know that the Catholic Church has been complicit in stealing a generation of Spanish children because they didn’t like the look of the parents.  Some of them were women, for goodness sake.  I’ve just been busy and it’s taken a long time for me to get around to it.  And by now everything’s been said.

This is what happened: 300,000 women were told by nuns that the baby they’d just given birth to had died, when in fact the nuns had sold it to a family they decided was better.  This happened a lot to unmarried mothers.

It apparently began under Franco as political (if it can be called that) move, but the church was complicit throughout and carried on the practice into the 90s, long after Franco had gone.

Let’s just say that again: parents were told that their babies were dead.  Instead, they were stolen and sold.

It’s hard to imagine anything more cruel.

The greatest moral force the world has ever known.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Nice work, Simon: Let’s test Psychic Sally

http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2011/oct/13/sally-morgan-prove-psychic-powers

Sally: all you have to do is say what it is you can do, agree to the protocol that will test what you yourself claim and then go through with the test. And than – and I understand that this might be the part you have difficulty with – stand by the results.

I don’t have any psychic abilities but let me make a prediction anyway: Sally will noisily accept the challenge…. and then never, ever actually take the test.

Stop persecuting yourself

I don’t know what a Centre for Transatlantic Affairs is, but it’s director has written a particularly insipid article for the Huffington Post which says Christians in the UK are being persecuted by an increasingly secular society.  Well he problem is the usual one, isn’t it?  Christians think they’re being persecuted if they aren’t heaped with undeserved respect.  Secular societies are naturally going to strip away some of this privilege in favour of, you know, actual fairness and so Christians will surely decide they are being persecuted.  My heart does not bleed.

For anyone who follows the British media's reporting of American politics, the continuous attempt to run down certain American politicians on account of their faith rather than engaging with their politics has now become a rather boring familiarity.

When I first read this, I had a hard time working out what the guy was on about.

Bush and Palin are crazed evangelical fundamentalists we are forever being told, oh yawn, is this kind of cheap and lazy defamation really what we have to make do with for journalism?

Oh…. Bush and Palin…. Well… I guess we did run them down based on their crazed fundamentalist evangelism…. but they’re hardly very relevant now, are they?  And that’s rather the point: Obama is a Christian, but we don’t tend to attack him for it.  We were disparaging and – let’s face it – scared of people like Bush and Palin because they are batshit insane, not solely because they are Christians. We ran them down because they manifestly wanted to turn the planet into their own personal brand of theocracy.  That’s plainly and obviously crazy and that’s why we found them problematic.

Yet what is far more concerning is what is happening to Christians here in our own country. It is only when one steps back and takes an overview of the litany of cases where Christians have been discriminated against for their religious convictions, that it is possible to appreciate what resembles a sustained assault against the Christian communities in Britain.

These guys never say who’s doing the attacking or why, do they? Nobody’s more atheist than I am, but I have no interest in attacking Christian communities in Britain and I don’t know anyone who does.  But let’s have a look at all these attacks, shall we?

Whether it is the case of the nurse who was suspended for offering to pray for a patient, the van driver who faced disciplinary action if he refused to remove a palm cross from his dashboard, the couple who were prohibited from fostering because of their Christian beliefs or the supply teacher who was dismissed when she mentioned praying for a child's family. The list goes on and on.

Seriously?  The list goes on and on and these are the best examples?  Even if those stories were as true as they are presented here (they aren’t) then they would hardly constitute a ‘sustained attack on Christian communities’.

It is as if there is a systematic effort to extrapolate British society from its Christian heritage and the values that have for centuries served as a basis for British culture and identity.

Well that’s embarrassing.  But in any case, it isn’t like that at all. Nobody argues that Christianity isn’t culturally important.  Nobody’s trying to marginalise Christians.  We secularists want to marginalise the impact of Christianity – and all religion – on public life, but few of us are interested in attacking Christians, Christian heritage or anyone’s values.  The latter claim, by the way, is especially strange.  How can an attack on values be extrapolated (see what I did there) from one man’s employer telling them not to display a cross?  He hasn’t thought this through.

A systematic effort would imply that we all get together to work out how best to hurt Christians.  I must have missed the meeting where we all decided to ban that guy’s cross and tell the nurse off.

Those who have been responsible for these moves have often advocated for them on the grounds of creating a more secular and therefore a supposedly more inclusive and pluralistic society for everyone.

Have they?  Is that what the cross-banning employer or the hospital were trying to do?  Besides, how can increased secularism possibly be less inclusive, as he implies?  All it can possibly mean is that the religious end up having the same amount of influence on public life as everyone else.

Yet it is hard to escape the fact that it has often been the very same people who have promoted secular values when it has come to driving out Christian aspects of public life, who have simultaneously lent their support for the establishment of a parallel religious legal system in the form of Sharia law courts.

Who are these people?  I don’t know of anyone who simultaneously promotes secularism and the introduction of Sharia courts.  Neither does Tom J Wilson, apparently, since he doesn’t name names or explain his astonishing claim further.

Instead, he turns it into a case of fatwa envy:

How is it that the media has often lambasted Christian individuals who have found themselves dismissed from work or even in court on account of their views on sexuality and yet concurrent to this we hear so relatively little about those hard-line Islamic preachers who have openly preached hate over issues of gender and homosexuality, issues that the liberal press claims to champion.

He proceeds to compare some apples with some oranges and decides for no particular reason that this is proof of systematic attacks on Christians by unnamed forces.

It is as if Christians and their faith have become fair game.

This is the crux of Wilson’s argument and the basis of his misunderstanding.  Christians are fair game.  So is everyone else.  That’s what secularism is about.  Nobody gets unfair influence and nobody is protected from ridicule or offense because of their religion.

Those who cannot bring themselves to understand this will naturally also prove unable to appreciate what it means to actually be British and our society will continue to suffer from the chronic loss of values and any sense of purpose that currently seems to be at the heart of so many of the social challenges that we now face.

That’s a nice little tidbit to through in at the end as though it were an unassailable fact.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Damned whether you do or not

PZ talks about a couple of incidents.  In the first, a Muslim actress has been sentenced to 90 lashes and a year in jail for acting.  She acted in this film, made in Australia, which describes part of the plight of women in Iran.  I wish I could say that the irony will burn more than the lashes, but it won’t.  Ninety lashes.  Of a whip. On flesh.  And a year in jail.  For doing her job.

In the second, a Muslim student is thrown off a plane for looking Muslim.  This was after a ‘random’ ‘second screening’ and other various hurdles to get on the plane in the first place.  In the end, the captain decided that he couldn’t fly with someone muslim-looking on the plane because it made his crew uneasy.  The idea that pilots can decide to discriminate that way against passengers is news to me, but it probably shouldn’t be.  I can’t help but imagine plane ‘captains’ (a fucking ludicrous title for a pilot) leading passengers in prayer over the tannoy before agreeing to take off.

I have two stories of ridiculousness while attempting to fly.  The first happened not too long after 9/11. I was passing through New York airport on the way to somewhere or other, Chicago, possibly.  I’d managed to fly all the way from the UK with my regulation bottles of deodorant etc. in their regulation plastic bags, but these were confiscated in New York as being dangerous, even though they met the proper guidelines.  Well, OK, a minor inconvenience.  But while I was waiting in the queue to board the plane, there was a sign saying that if I was carrying a gun, I should report it to staff.  Carrying a gun is apparently perfectly acceptable on internal flights – as long as you report it - but a tin of Lynx is dangerous.

The second is more whiny but illustrates the attitude of airport staff.  The last time I flew out of the UK I was selected for a ‘random’ drugs test.  I’m not sure what profiling boxes I ticked, especially now I’m pushing forty, but they wanted to swab my bag for traces of drugs.  That’s fine by me, I’ve never attempted to traffic drugs and if I did I probably wouldn’t elect to use my own hand luggage to do so.  The swab came back clean of course, but the airport staff were clearly disappointed with this outcome. 

“We couldn’t find anything”, they said, huffily.  Not “There was nothing there, you’re innocent, thanks for your cooperation” but “We know you’re guilty, we just can’t prove it…..yet… I suppose we have to let you through security, but we’ve got our eyes on you”

I wasn’t a problem for me and I don’t mind being checked to see if I’m trafficking drugs (although I’m not sure what would have happened if they’d somehow found traces of drugs on my bag even  though there were no drugs inside – would I have been allowed to travel?  Would I have faced other charges? I’ve no idea).  What bothers me is the attitude of airport staff. I was automatically guilty because I ticked some boxes on a profile.  It didn’t occur to them that I might be innocent. 

In my case it was a minor inconvenience because I didn’t have any drugs.  The problem is that people with darker skin or Muslim attire are bang to rights by this despotic regime.  I fully expect to see this kind of bullying discrimination in America, but I mourn to see it here in the UK.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Special pleading?

Here it is argued that scientists should be allowed to check stories about their work before they are published.  Some people from Cardiff University claim that science stories are qualitatively different from other types of story and should be treated accordingly.  As exasperated as I get at science reporting, I don’t buy it.  They lavishly overstate the value, purpose and process of peer review and befuddlingly misrepresent what science journalists are actually trying to do.

To properly represent a body of scientific work, the same journalistic skills are needed whether the work is peer reviewed or not, so their argument that peer review gives scientific work special license that nobody else gets is obviously nonsense. 

I agree wholeheartedly that much science reporting is woeful and probably harmful. But I don’t see – and nor do the authors successfully argue – how allowing scientists to check publications about that work will help.  How would it work?  Would we get to veto negative stories?  Would we spend weeks working with journalists to make an article acceptable, only to find the window has been missed in any case?

It would be preferable to have principled science reporters following a well-established code, which could be easily policed.  Are there primary sources?  If so, they should be provided.  Are the results peer reviewed or not?  They should say so.  Is a controversy being manufactured where none actually exists?  This is where journalistic balance comes in.  I’m no fan of he-said-she-said journalism, but when an extraordinary claim is being made, we really do need more conservative types to explain whether or not it’s something the community really disagrees with (eg intelligent design, vaccines, global warming).

In other words, this is about journalistic integrity and competence (as journalists rather than scientific experts) and the fact that peer reviewed journals have provisional academic integrity has nothing to do with it.

H/T Tracy King @tkingdoll

Damn you, PZ

Well thanks for that, PZ.  I’ve just spent nearly two hours going through your list of banned people and reminding myself of their stupidity instead of doing the million work I have to do. 

It was like friendsreunited.  Remember that annoying little shit at school who wouldn’t leave you alone and then was satisfyingly jailed for sexual assault on 15th January 2005 and ordered to register as a sex offender for 7 years for molesting a seriously ill homeless woman, abusing a position of spurious power he disgustingly manipulated her into because of her desperate circumstances?  No?  Just me?  Well anyway, reading through the banned list and their various offenses is almost as satisfying as that.

{Jason Spayne (perhaps formerly) of Valley Road, Northallerton, North Yorkshire and (definitely) a former guest of Her Majesty: I’m not even slightly surprised.  You were an evil, selfish, stupid little troll at school. It’s a pity you never managed to learn how to be a decent human being and a shame indeed that you hurt someone so badly because of your putrescent sense of privilege.  I wish I could believe you’ve since learned something.}

*ahem*.  Nothing to see here.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Bill O’Reilly crushes Richard Dawkins

He says so and you can’t say it if it’s not true, right?

He does no such thing, of course. He misrepresents the book as some kind of atheist plot to mock god and when Richard says no it isn’t and explains why, Billo just says yes it is.

It’s physically painful to watch Bill O’Reilly in action.  He famously calls his show a spin-free zone, but it’s manifestly festooned with spin.  His claim to have ‘crushed’ Dawkins aside, he begins by claiming that Richard is on a crusade to “convince believers they’re idiots.”  That’s not spin?  How about introducing him as “atheist Richard Dawkins”.  Not “biologist Richard Dawkins” or “author Richard Dawkins” or even just “Richard Dawkins”.  Bill thinks that “atheist” is an unpleasant epithet and will influence his audience’s opinion of what follows.  Isn’t this the very definition of spin?  That’s why I called him Billo earlier: it makes him sound like a clown, which is what it is.  That’s spin.  I just don’t claim I don’t use it.

Bill then says that Richard’s book mocks god. He doesn’t provide any evidence for this.  He doesn’t even provide an example.  In his mind, saying that science can explain something is mocking god.

There’s an extraordinary part where Richard explains the format of the book.  He says that every chapter starts by describing a myth. Billo the Clown points at him and bellows “HA!” and smiles in a self-satisfied way as if that somehow proves his point.  From then, he’s relentless.  The fact that Judeo Christian myths are in a tiny minority in Richard’s book is a matter of ‘semantic games’, according to Bill.  What Richard really wants to do, despite The Magic of Reality not being about that at all, is to tell people they’re idiots if they believe in god.

Well they are, but the book is about science.  It’s about good and bad reasons to believe things.  Bill is just lying.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Dear Emma B: A moving post

I remember this from when PZ first posted it and now it’s been deservedly nominated for an award.  It’s an open letter PZ wrote to a child who was proud of asking a stupid question.  She was proud because it was what Ken Ham taught her to say and she thought she was doing a good job.  The incident threw the horror show of Ham’s ‘teaching’ into sharp relief.  As PZ points out, the question Emma asks is a bad one for all sorts of reasons.  It doesn’t do a thing to determine whether a proposition is true or false.  It was meant (by Ham, presumably not by Emma B) to ridicule; to cast doubt on science in the minds of people who already want to believe it’s wrong.

PZ’s letter is excellent.  It describes why the question is a bad one and offers a better question to ask instead.  It’s a beautiful piece of writing, too.