Total Drek

Or, the thoughts of several frustrated intellectuals on Sociology, Gaming, Science, Politics, Science Fiction, Religion, and whatever the hell else strikes their fancy. There is absolutely no reason why you should read this blog. None. Seriously. Go hit your back button. It's up in the upper left-hand corner of your browser... it says "Back." Don't say we didn't warn you.

Friday, October 29, 2010

So, do they eat them or... what?

I don't know quite what to make of this, but damn if it isn't pretty fascinating to watch:

I mean, seriously, who knew that tigers freaking love pumpkins?

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Thursday, October 28, 2010

A quick tip for my fellow sociology instructors out there.

Some of you may be trying to find a way to make your students think about the concept of white/male/straight privilege. Indeed, despite my somewhat troubled view of this concept, it's a useful way to make students consider all the ways they may benefit from their race, or sex, or sexuality, rather than simply the way others are punished for a difference therein. But how to get the idea across to the students who should hear it without turning them off?

It's a hard call but, fortunately, John Scalzi has an answer in the form of his essay Things I Don't Have to Think About Today, and you might want to give it a look:

Today I don’t have to think about if it’s safe to hold my beloved’s hand.

Today I don’t have to think about whether I’m being pulled over for anything other than speeding.

Today I don’t have to think about being classified as one of “those people.”

Today I don’t have to think about making less than someone else for the same job at the same place.

Today I don’t have to think about the people who stare, or the people who pretend I don’t exist.

Today I don’t have to think about managing pain that never goes away.

Today I don’t have to think about whether a stranger’s opinion of me would change if I showed them a picture of who I love.

Today I don’t have to think about the chance a store salesmen will ignore me to help someone else.

Today I don’t have to think about the people who’d consider torching my house of prayer a patriotic act.

Today I don’t have to think about a pharmacist telling me his conscience keeps him from filling my prescription.

Today I don’t have to think about being asked if I’m bleeding when I’m just having a bad day.

Good stuff and moving stuff- just keep reading til the end. It's worth it.

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Wednesday, October 27, 2010

We're coming up on Halloween, so...

Please enjoy these helpful instructional movies:

Remember: Kill the brain, stop the zombie.

And remember: sunken eyelids and bloody mouth = zombie. Sunken eyelids only = Mick Jagger.

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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

When all you have is a hammer...

Here in the United States we have an organization that is typically referred to as the FDA, the Food and Drug Administration. This organization, part of the executive branch of the U.S. federal government, is charged with ensuring that the foods we eat, the medications we take, and the cosmetics we use, are safe. And in the case of our medications, their warrant goes even further- extending from evaluating their safety to include ensuring their efficacy. The FDA is, like any organization whether government or private, not perfect, but it does have a wide ranging set of duties.

But are these duties important? Well, for starters, the FDA is the organization that monitors the blood supply and attempts to make sure that harmful contagious diseases are screened out before they can reach sick patients.* So if you end up in an emergency room and need a transfusion, you can be grateful that the FDA has your back. Likewise, some of us may remember thalidomide, a drug that caused birth defects worldwide- over ten thousand- and yet only resulted in seventeen children born with birth defects in the United States. The reason is that thalidomide was never approved by the FDA and, indeed, the link between thalidomide and birth defects was partly uncovered by an investigation carried out by the FDA. And if you eat food that you don't grow yourself, you can be glad that the FDA sets the standards for nutrition labeling and maximum levels of acceptable contamination.

I've been thinking about the FDA recently more or less because I've learned that there's someone who wants to get rid of it. I refer, of course, to congressional candidate Jesse Kelly of Arizona, who was recently asked whether, if he was elected, he would take steps to ensure that the FDA had enough authority to enforce rules for food safety so as to cut down on salmonella outbreaks. You know, outbreaks like the one that recently required the recall of a half billion eggs. Kelly's response is, if nothing else, instructive:

Or, to quote** the exchange in text:

KELLY: Here’s the thing with that point, that’s the first time I’ve ever had that question. Congratulations on being unique. First shot out of the box, no ma’am. I do not believe that what we’re lacking right now is a lack of regulations on business. [...] You could literally go spit on the grass and get arrested by the federal government if you wanted to right now. [...] More regulation, more federal control, giving Nancy Pelosi more power, is not the solution right now.

QUESTIONER: Who’s protecting us?

KELLY: That’s the thing, ma’am, it’s our job to protect ourselves. Because no one else is going to look out for your best interests except for you. [...]

QUESTIONER: Am I supposed to go to a chicken farmer and say I’d like you to close down because all of your birds are half dead?

KELLY: I’ve not heard a lot about that recently, obviously there’s a new thing that comes along every day. But I know this, every portion of our economy that is heavily regulated doesn’t have fewer disasters, it has more.

And this is not, unfortunately, an isolated incident as Kelly has previously asserted that he would like to reduce the FDA as much as humanly possible:

Now, I know why Kelly is making such arguments: as a conservative he's generally opposed to government intervention. The thing is, if more heavily regulated industries are more prone to "disasters"- and I'm not conceding that they are- is it necessarily the case that it's because of the regulation? Put differently, if more firefighters are called to a fire, and the fire results in more damage, does that mean that the firemen caused the damage? No, it probably just means that the fire was worse to start with, hence both more firefighters and more damage.*** Likewise, if we've regulated food and drugs more heavily, isn't it possible that's because the implications of tainted drugs or blood are a bit more serious than the implications of a defective XBox? I tend to think so. But, conservatives are all for deregulation so Kelly is all for getting rid of the FDA. When your only tool is a hammer, I guess everything really does start to look like a nail.

Now, I don't normally encourage political action on the blog- not directly anyway- but I'm making an exception here because nobody is gonna kill off my FDA without a fight. So, here's what I'd like to encourage y'all to do- Kelly's campaign has contact information on its website, which looks like so:

Or, in plain human language:

Kelly for Congress
698 E. Wetmore Road, Suite 330
Tucson, AZ 85705
(520) 888-VOTE (8683)

Christine Bauserman, Scheduler
(520) 310-9831

Adam Kwasman, Campaign Manager

Stuart McDaniel, Deputy Campaign Manager
(520) 349-5600

John Ellinwood, Director of Communications
(520) 419-8090

Lynne St. Angelo, Grassroots Director
(605) 321-6224

What I want you to do is e-mail those people, tell them that you are in favor of maintaining and strengthening the independence and role of the FDA. Tell them that you want safe food and drugs, that it's insane to expect someone being wheeled into an emergency room to compare the quality of their blood products or for private individuals to conduct their own drug trials, and demand that the FDA continue to be given the funding and power necessary to safeguard us. And when you do it, send along a copy of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle- a book that was instrumental in getting the FDA in the first place. You can download a free copy here. Don't threaten or abuse Kelly or his staff; be polite, be decent, but be firm.

And tell everyone you know, because if we lose the FDA we all just lose.

* Some of you may note that the FDA has also helped perpetuate the unnecessary exclusion of homosexuals from the pool of prospective blood donors. I'll admit I'm not a fan of that but, in truth, part of the FDA's job is to maintain people's confidence in the blood supply as well as its actual safety. So, even though there's no medical need to exclude homosexuals, they may have concluded that the benefit of enlarging the donor pool is outweighed by the potential damage to consumer confidence. Or, put more bluntly, there are lots of implications of a decision like that.

** Transcript blatantly stolen from ThinkProgress.

*** This is a basic logical fallacy, actually, summed up by statisticians as "correlation does not imply causation."

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Monday, October 25, 2010

I just can't stop laughing.

Watch this and see if you don't have the same reaction:

How can you not love that? I mean, it's warning us all that the forces of evil are coming but goddamn do they sound upbeat and excited about it! Then we have the two "hosts" staring intently at... what? Computer printouts? Mainframes? It's as though they want us to believe that they have some sophisticated computational model that tells them that a Wicca-front is blowing in from the Pacific northwest. And the handy bible prophecy card? Priceless! A pitch to an unbeliever will probably not be aided by the realization that your entire theology can be fit on a 3x5" card that can fit in a wallet.*

Act now and they'll throw in the bible prophecy card, the no-stick oven mitts, and the Showtime Rotisserie Oven for the low, low price of $129.99! WOW!

* And after reading Left Behind, I'm not sure that joke is just hyperbole, either.

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Friday, October 22, 2010

"I dunno, how witchy is she?"

Yesterday I wrote about Christine O'Donnell making an ass out of herself in public and, at the end, concluded by observing that at least we know she's not a witch. For those of you who haven't been paying attention, my comment was not evidence of my burgeoning insanity, but rather a reaction to her own assertion that she is not, in fact, a handmaiden of satan.* In his typical fashion, however, scripto made sure to point out something rather important:

Correction: She says she's not a witch. [emphasis original]

And, indeed, how do we know that she isn't really a witch and is just lying to us? We might ask the same question of President Obama- how do we know that he isn't a secret Muslim?** I mean, I've been to Conservapedia and seen their evidence and, I have to tell you, it's pretty compelling:***

Or, to quote part of this absurdly long "argument":

More than a year and a half into Obama's presidency, a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center found a growing number of Americans believe the president is a Muslim. The poll found only about one-third of adults (34%) believe Obama is a Christian, down sharply from 48% in 2009. Among Democrats, 46% said they think Obama is a Christian, down from 55% in March 2009. The evidence that Obama is a Muslim may include:

Obama declared in prepared remarks, "The United States has been enriched by Muslim Americans. Many other Americans have Muslims in their families or have lived in a Muslim-majority country - I know, because I am one of them."

Obama's wife Michelle does not accompany him to Muslim nations because Sharia law would apply to her there; on a presidential trip she was with him until France, but then returned home.

Obama's background, education, and outlook are Muslim, and fewer than 1% of Muslims convert to Christianity.

Obama's middle name (Hussein) references Husayn, who was the grandson of Muhammad, which most Christians would not retain.

Obama mentioned his religion as "my Muslim faith."

He has said that "Islam can be compatible with the modern world."

Obama said the Muslim call to prayer is "one of the prettiest sounds on Earth at sunset," and recited "with a first-class Arabic accent" the opening lines: Allah is Supreme! ... I witness that there is no god but Allah ...."

Obama stated that the autobiography of Malcolm X, a Nation of Islam leader who became a Muslim, inspired him in his youth.

Obama raised nearly $1 million and campaigned for a Kenyan presidential candidate who had a written agreement with Muslim leaders promising to convert Kenya to an Islamic state that bans Christianity.

Obama's claims of conversion to Christianity arose after he became politically ambitious, lacking a date of conversion or baptism.

In the book Obama,"Renegade" his friends say that "he actually really wasn't much of a churchgoer."

On the campaign trail, Obama was reading "The Post-American World" by Fareed Zakaria, which is written from a Muslim point-of-view.

Contrary to Christianity, the Islamic doctrine of taqiyya encourages adherents to deny they are Muslim if it advances the cause of Islam.

Obama uses the Muslim Pakistani pronunciation for "Pakistan" rather than the common American one.

Obama was thoroughly exposed to Christianity as an adult in Chicago prior to attending law school, yet no one at law school saw him display any interest in converting. Obama unabashedly explained how he became "churched" in a 2007 speech: "It's around that time [while working as an organizer for the Developing Communities Project (DCP) of the Calumet Community Religious Conference (CCRC) in Chicago] that some pastors I was working with came around and asked if I was a member of a church. 'If you're organizing churches,' they said, 'it might be helpful if you went to a church once in a while.' And I thought, 'I guess that makes sense.'" [emphasis added- there was emphasis in the original, by the way, but I was too lazy to reproduce it]

You can read the rest on your own if you like, but I trust my meaning is clear: if we can't even be sure that the President isn't a secret Muslim,**** despite his repeated statements to the contrary, how can we believe that O'Donnell really isn't a witch? I suppose we could try judging her competence to lead based on her actions and her stated intentions, rather than some idiotic label, but clearly that's just crazy. Besides, the well-known and shocking deficit of true Scotsmen makes me think that judging her witchiness based on actions is just never going to work. I could go off at this point on a long discussion of how we pretty much have to take people at their word when it comes to their religious affiliation and what-not, but frankly I just don't feel like tilting at that particular windmill. So, instead, please just enjoy this handy guide to identifying witches:

It's really nice to see how public debate in this country has been taking great strides backwards lately. Just bring a tear to my eye.

No, really.

* Note, however, that she does not deny being a werewolf. I smell a cover-up, and believe that the citizens of Delaware deserve to be represented by someone who does not once a month transform into a monster that slavers for human flesh.

** I think we can safely assume, however, that Obama is not half-human half-fabric (i.e. a werecloth), no matter what some people think.

*** That is, if you've recently suffered severe head trauma.

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Thursday, October 21, 2010

Rule One: Know Your Audience!

Back in the dim days of prehistory, I used to compete on my school's debate team. This means I got an early exposure to public speaking, which initially terrified me, and the experience helped me learn some important life skills. One of those skills, which serves me well as an instructor today, is simply: know your audience. The same speech, pitched the same way, at two different audiences can have wildly varying results. So, make sure you know whom you're addressing before you bust out a given set of talking points.

Fortunately for all of us, however, our old friend U.S. Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell seems never to have learned this lesson as she proceeds to ask- in front of an audience drawn from a law school- where in the U.S. constitution one can find the separation of church and state. And what's more, we have it on film:

Or, to quote an article about the incident:

In a debate at the Widener University Law School, Ms. O’Donnell interrupted her Democratic opponent, Chris Coons, as he argued that the Constitution does not allow public schools to teach religious doctrine.

“Where in the Constitution is the separation of church and state?” Ms. O’Donnell asked him, according to audio posted on the Web site of WDEL 1150 AM radio, which co-sponsored the debate.

The audience at the law school can be heard breaking out in laughter. But Ms. O’Donnell refuses to be dissuaded and pushes forward.

“Let me just clarify,” she says. “You are telling me that the separation of church and state is in the First Amendment?”

When Mr. Coons offers a shorthand of the relevant section, saying, “government shall make no establishment of religion,” Ms. O’Donnell replies, “That’s in the First Amendment?”

If you want to see it yourself without suffering through the entire video (which is, by the way, very funny in its own right) check it out at around 2:50 and 7:05 and you'll see what I mean.

Now, as the article observes, there is genuine debate about the exact meaning of the establishment clause. The first amendment, in its entirety, reads:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The relevant part for this discussion is, therefore, the bit saying that, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," and the reasons for debate are many. For example, does the first amendment mean that state governments can make such laws since the first amendment only specifies that Congress itself cannot? What does "establishment of religion" mean? Just declaring a state church? Promoting a specific religion? Promoting religion in general? And what does "free exercise" mean? Can people sacrifice chickens or smoke hallucinogens as part of their ceremonies? In short, there are actually quite a number of potential legal questions surrounding both what the founders meant by the first amendment, as well as what is most consonant with the spirit of the Constitution. Nevertheless, however, while the phrase "separation of church and state" does not appear in the constitution,* the existence of a clause in the constitution that has the explicit purpose of keeping government out of the religion business, and vice versa, is pretty much beyond dispute.

And thus I argue that, generally speaking, suggesting that clauses providing for the separation of church and state do not appear in the constitution when sitting before an audience composed of law students is about as big a rookie mistake as we could expect a speaker to make. Few moves could be more reliably counted on to inspire audience laughter.

But hey, I'll give her this: at least she's not a witch!

* The phrase actually derives from Thomas Jefferson's letter to the Danbury Baptists of January 1, 1802. Needless to say this isn't a legal document, and thus conservatives are not incorrect to point out that it is therefore somewhat specious to base legal rulings on it. That said, conservatives have been known on more than one occasion to delve into the letters of the founding fathers in an effort to justify their positions, thus suggesting that Jefferson's views are relevant here. Also, the exact same argument pertains to the Declaration of Independence, which isn't a legal document at all but simply a letter to King George III of England.

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Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A good summary.

The always entertianing xkcd has, once again, read my mind by summing up a major reason why I doubt all kinds of wacky pseudo-scientific nonsense:

So, which do we want to keep? The profit-oriented nature of capitalism or the efficacy of finding water by wagging a stick with your hands? The answer is, I think, quite obvious.*

I just think it's too bad chiropractic didn't make the list.

* I should note, however, that the reverse isn't always true: just because profit oriented corporations DO use something, it doesn't mean that it definitely works.

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Tuesday, October 19, 2010

When you really care, say it with decent writing

By this point there shouldn't be anyone reading this blog who isn't at least somewhat familiar with the notion of internet dating. This is not because the only people who read this blog are desperate and/or single but, rather, because we're all pretty experienced with ye olde intertubes. One such dating site, OKCupid, runs a blog that reports on the research they perform using their members. And no, they don't hunt down the users and inject them with weird substances but, rather, analyze the sorts of things users include in their profiles. Recently they reported on some analyses they performed on users' essays to see what terms appeared most often for each sex and ethnic group. I'll let you look those results up yourselves if you're interested, but I'm not. Instead, what I find more interesting are the results when they look at the reading level of users' essays by the religious affiliation, and religiosity (i.e. degree of religious commitment), of the user. Specifically, I find the pattern of results quite interesting:

And, to explain this chart, let's turn to the report itself:

Note that for each of the faith-based belief systems I've listed, the people who are the least serious about them write at the highest level. On the other hand, the people who are most serious about not having faith (i.e. the "very serious" agnostics and atheists) score higher than any religious groups.

So, in other words, if we look at religious groups overall without attending to religiosity, atheists appear to write essays with the highest reading level. However, if we break each group down into low, medium, and high levels of religiosity, we see a striking pattern. While atheists in general remain at the top (though they are surpassed by the least serious Buddhists), it's the most committed atheists who exhibit the highest reading levels. The same appears to be the case for agnostics- it is the most committed of the agnostics who write the best. In contrast, among the faith-based belief systems, the least committed appear to write the best. I am, as you might guess, reminded of the other recent finding that atheists know more about religion than most theists. In combination, these results seem to say some interesting things about the sort of people who become atheists or agnostics and the sort of people who don't.

Now, should we trust these results? Well, yes and no. On the down side, the OKCupid results are based on a very, very non-representative slice of the population- only those people who have accounts on OKCupid. On the upside, though, you can't fault their attempts to do as well with these data as possible:

We selected 526,000 OkCupid users at random and divided them into groups by their (self-stated) race. We then took all these people's profile essays (280 million words in total!) and isolated the words and phrases that made each racial group's essays statistically distinct from the others'.

So, at least it's a helluva lot of data drawn from a random sample of users. That's helpful, at least. More importantly, however, I think we should not take these findings to suggest that atheists and agnostics are better educated or smarter than theists. Certainly Satoshi Kanazawa would make this argument, and he might even be right, but the results from OKCupid don't say that. Likewise, previous research suggests that the mean education differences between various religious groups are pretty small. No, what I think OKCupid's results suggest is that when atheists want to appear attractive to others, they attempt to show off their intelligence and education, whereas when the very religious want to appear attractive, they do the opposite. What this means depends at least a little on your perspective- either that atheists arrogantly try to play up how smart they are, or that theists shamefully try to hide the same trait- but nevertheless the pattern of results is quite interesting.

I just wish we had data on scientologists.

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Monday, October 18, 2010

Shame of a nation.

So, Christine O'Donnell recently released a campaign ad that can only be described as "unusual":

Now, here's the thing: I titled this post, "shame of a nation," but I'm not referring to Ms. O'Donnell with that. No, in actuality what I'm referring to is the electorate. Because, and maybe I'm a bit crazy here, when a major political candidate thinks that in order to get elected she has to reassure the population that she is not, in fact, in league with the devil?* Yeah, I think that calls for a little embarrassment from all of us.

I'm Drek the Uninteresting, and I believe that Christine O'Donnell is not a witch, because witches don't freaking exist.**

Also, as long as we're on the subject: "I'm not a witch. I'm you"? What the hell is that? You know what, Christine? You're not me! Know how I know? Because I'm me! You're you, and I'm me, and let's just keep that clear, okay?

* Note that I am using the definition of "Witch" that O'Donnell is thinking of. I do not mean to imply that Wiccans are Satan's handmaidens. Hell, people, I don't even believe in Satan- how would that shit even work?

** I do, of course, believe in practitioners of Wicca but, again, not really what we're talking about here.

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Friday, October 15, 2010

Divine Cruelty Part 2: Electric Boogaloo

Yesterday I pointed out how the folks at Conservapedia were chalking the recent rescue of miners in Chile to the power of prayer. The point of my post was not to say that they were wrong- although I did make that assertion along the way- but rather to explain how such a claim for the efficacy of prayer was little more than cruel. By giving prayer credit for the rescue of those men, the Conservapeons are effectively blaming the deaths of other miners the world over on the apparent failure of their families and friends to pray hard enough. So, in short, I basically suggested that not only was invoking the power of prayer factually and theologically stupid, but it was heartless and cruel besides.

Well, that was then and this is now and it appears that Conservapedia has come up with a "new" explanation for the miners' survival:

Or, in standard human language:

Bad news for liberals once again: it was pure capitalism and a free-market economy saved those miners in Chile.
How do we figure that statement? Innovation, risk, and investment that capital provides whittled down to four simple words: Center Rock drill bit. [emphasis original]

I'll let you read the article they're referring to on your own if you like, but my point right now is simply this: yesterday, it was god who saved the miners, but today it's capitalism and human greed. Does this represent a rare change of mind for Conservapedia? Yeah, not so much, because if you page down a bit farther you'll notice that yesterday's headline is still on display:

And what are we to make of this seeming contradiction? For that matter, what are we to make of the recent bizarre news that Glenn Beck has been exhorting people to donate money to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and Conservapedia's eager praise of same:

Or, again, in plain language:

Speak Up And You Can Make A Difference!
Glenn Beck, fed up with unsubstantiated accusations by Barack Obama, Joe Biden and other liberals, claiming the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is funneling foreign money into political campaigns, urged his radio listeners this morning to donate to the chamber.....not only donate, but make it their biggest day of contributions ever. To start it off, Beck donated $10,000. The result? The chamber's servers crashed, they had to re-route traffic and they did indeed get the largest single day outpouring of support in their history. Liberals whine and complain, conservatives roll up their sleeves and get to work finding solutions! [emphasis original]

And it's damned near impossible for me to comprehend, but apparently private individuals are donating shit tons of money to an organization whose explicit purpose is to represent the interests of corporations. I'm no flaming leftie, but I have to admit that I really miss the days when "populism" meant something other than "shilling for big business." But I digress...

To return to the central point: how are we to understand Conservapedia's flip-flopping on the Chilean miners? Was it god who saved them or capitalism? Well, as it happens, I think I have an answer: it was both, because to Conservapedia, there's no difference. The longer I watch the more apparent it becomes that the Conservapeons don't worship any version of Jesus with which I am familiar, and instead worship an engine fired by human greed.* And, again, my disgust with the Conservapeons knows no bounds.

But on the plus side, I think I have a new entry for their list of Greatest Conservative Songs:

God money i'll do anything for you.
God money just tell me what you want me to.
God money nail me up against the wall.
God money don't want everything he wants it all.

no you can't take it
no you can't take it
no you can't take that away from me
no you can't take it
no you can't take it
no you can't take that away from me
head like a hole.
black as your soul.
i'd rather die than give you control.
head like a hole.
black as your soul.
i'd rather die than give you control.

bow down before the one you serve.
you're going to get what you deserve.
bow down before the one you serve.
you're going to get what you deserve.

God money's not looking for the cure.
God money's not concerned with the sick amongst the pure.
God money let's go dancing on the backs of the bruised.
God money's not one to choose







you know who you are.

Who knew Trent Reznor was a conservative?**

* I should note here that I don't think anyone should worship Jesus but, that said, I also don't think we should worship the works of man, either. To worship something implies that it is perfect, and such a belief almost always interferes with making it better in the future.

** That's a joke. Trent Reznor is absolutely not a conservative.

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Thursday, October 14, 2010

Divine cruelty

While cruising the various insane rantings that pass for news, insights, or articles over at Conservapedia I happened to notice a headline that, frankly, made me roll my eyes with rather more force than normal. Specifically, this headline pertains to the recent goings-on with the mine rescue in Chile, and reveals Conservapedia's typical spin on events:

Or, in plain text:

The Power of Prayer Demonstrated!
All 33 Chilean miners trapped more than 2,000 feet below the earth's surface for 69 days have been rescued from their subterranean tomb. Ask the people that were is nothing less than God's Divine Intervention! [emphasis original]

Now, I should note that the article they link to over on Fox News does manage to capture the jubilation felt at the rescue of the trapped miners. Moreover, I am very, very glad that these men have been saved. But the first thing that I want to note- and perhaps this is my bias as an atheist coming out- is that if you actually read the Fox News article, you have to be struck by the sheer amount of effort and expense that we humans went through to rescue these men:

The miners made the smooth ascent inside the Phoenix capsule -- 13 feet tall, barely wider than their shoulders and painted in the white, blue and red of the Chilean flag. It had a door that stuck occasionally, and some wheels had to be replaced, but it worked exactly as planned.

Beginning at midnight Tuesday, and sometimes as quickly as every 25 minutes, the pod was lowered the nearly half-mile to where 700,000 tons of rock collapsed Aug. 5 and entombed the men.


The rescue was planned with extreme care. The miners were monitored by video on the way up for any sign of panic. They had oxygen masks, dark glasses to protect their eyes and sweaters for the jarring transition from subterranean swelter to chilly desert air.


Most of the men emerged clean-shaven. More than 300 people at the mine alone had worked on the rescue or to sustain them during their long wait by lowering rocket-shaped tubes dubbed "palomas," Spanish for carrier pigeons. Along with the food and medicine came razors and shaving cream.

Estimates for the rescue operation alone have soared beyond $22 million, though the government has repeatedly insisted that money was not a concern.


The entire rescue operation was meticulously choreographed. No expense was spared in bringing in topflight drillers and equipment -- and boring three separate holes into the copper and gold mine. Only one was finished -- the one through which the miners exited.


The miners' vital signs were closely monitored throughout the ride. They were given a high-calorie liquid diet donated by NASA, designed to prevent nausea from any rotation of the capsule as it traveled through curves in the 28-inch-diameter escape hole.

Engineers inserted steel piping at the top of the shaft, which was angled 11 degrees off vertical before plunging like a waterfall. Drillers had to curve the shaft to pass through "virgin" rock, narrowly avoiding collapsed areas and underground open spaces in the overexploited mine, which had operated since 1885.

President Barack Obama said the rescue had "inspired the world." The crews included many Americans, including a driller operator from Denver and a team from Center Rock Inc. of Berlin, Pa., that built and managed the piston-driven hammers that pounded the hole through rock laced with quartzite, some of the hardest and most abrasive rock.

So, basically, hundreds of people spent millions of dollars to use extremely advanced technology derived from multiple nations to drill a difficult route through rock, sustain surviving miners, and bring them back to the surface intact. If this is divine intervention, it is the sort that is fundamentally indistinguishable from us just doing the damn job ourselves without help. In short, I think the rescue is impressive as hell, but I don't think heaven had anything to do with it.

More fundamentally, however, this crowing about the power of prayer reminds me- negatively I should add- of another mine disaster: the Sago Mine Disaster. In a perhaps especially cruel twist,* in that disaster families were led to believe that twelve of the thirteen trapped miners were found alive when, in fact, twelve of the thirteen had been found dead, Doubtless the sudden surge of hope, followed by despair, was terrible to live through. And yet, during the Sago disaster there was praying. Lots of praying. Huge amounts of praying. And this prayer, apparently, was not effective. Hell, not only was it not effective, but there was even that last twist of the knife before everyone's fate was revealed. So either god loves Chileans, or he hates Americans.

But not necessarily, as my previous dialogue with my now wife reveals, whether someone survives a mine disaster or not, the result can always be interpreted as god's loving will. Sure, maybe that's true, but for someone who lost a loved one in a disaster like this one, claims that the power of prayer saved these men must seem like little more than divine cruelty. If only you had prayed harder, believed more, perhaps god would have saved your loved one too. This is little different than the justification of the faith healer whose "treatment" did not work: "if you haven't been healed, it's because you didn't believe enough, and not because I am a charlatan". It's a cruel trick but, nonetheless, sickeningly common. And frankly, I have little stomach for inflicting such cruelties on others.**

As always, though, I should not be surprised at Conservapedia's half-assed theology. After all, what should we expect from a group of people who think that pretty fall leaves are a disproof of evolution:

And yes, they do mean that:

Or, in human language:

5. evolution cannot explain artistic beauty, such as the brilliant autumn foliage and staggering array of beautiful marine fish, both of which originated before any human to view them; this lacks any plausible evolutionary explanation.

So, really, why should we expect better theology or even better mercy from a website that thinks that the fact that some fish are pretty is unassailable evidence of the divine?

* I should probably note that "especially cruel" should not, here, carry much weight since I imagine that losing one's family to a cave in deep within the earth is cruel and heartrending no matter what you're told about it afterwards.

** Perhaps that's why I'm an atheist.

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Wednesday, October 13, 2010

I am, apparently, in the wrong discipline.

So, in an ironic twist given yesterday's post, today I want to poke fun at a scientific study. This is almost entirely because the news story reporting on the study has a humorous headline, and I'm very immature. Ready? Great- let's start!

The article I refer to is titled- I shit thee not- "In Safety Study, Sheep on Meth Are Shocked With Tasers." Seriously:

And if you don't think they're playing this story for laughs, take a closer look at that sheep photo. That sheep looks more like a sheep on meth than any sheep I have ever seen before. And I have seen a LOT of sheep!* So, to recap, this study apparently entails getting some sheep, hopping them up on meth, and then shooting giant bolts of electricity into them. It basically sounds like something Dr. Evil would do. Now, fortunately, there actually is a valid reason for performing such a study:

Growing abuse of methamphetamines has led to arrest-related deaths in situations where law enforcement officers used their Tasers on drug-intoxicated suspects. The latest study was designed to test whether electronic control devices (e.g. Tasers) can lead to dangerous cardiac responses in meth-intoxicated humans, with sheep standing in for people.

The less-lethal device of choice was the Taser X26, a standard law enforcement tool which can fire at suspects from a distance of 35 feet. Researchers shocked sixteen anesthetized sheep after dosing the animals with an IV drip of methamphetamine hydrochloride.

Some of the smaller sheep weighing less than 70.5 pounds suffered exacerbated heart symptoms related to meth use. But neither the smaller nor larger sheep showed signs of the ventricular fibrillation condition, a highly abnormal heart rhythm that can become fatal.

And this is, indeed, a very good reason for this silly-seeming research. The fact is, in our society using meth is not a capital crime,** so it would be nice if our non-lethal methods of restraining meth addicts were not themselves likely to kill.*** I like it when our tools don't accidentally kill people, so I'm really and truly of the opinion that- at least in theory- this research had a valid purpose and was useful. I make no warranty as to the actual quality of execution, but there was at least a point.

The thing is I just really, really wish I got grant proposals**** for things like this. I mean, hell, the literature review alone would be comedy gold:

"Our proposed research is the latest step in an ongoing research program into the interaction between chemical stimulants and coercive interventions in animal behavior. The most recent such study was performed by Bose et al. (2009) which involved tasing pigs who had been snorting cocaine. This study, itself, built upon earlier work, including Marks' (2007) research on spanking mice who have been dosed with lysergic acid diethylamide, and Johnson's (2003) paper on giving purple nurples to mountain gorillas who are chronic users of MDMA. Of course, all of this research owes a substantial spiritual debt to the regrettably now-discredited work of Brown et al. (1993, 1997, 2001) on yelling angrily at cows who have had twenty cups of coffee." [Contents of literature review entirely fictional]

Seriously, people, those would be some awesome, awesome grant proposals to read. The kind that would be fun to read at parties.

* Wait, that didn't come out right...

** Although it may carry a death sentence. Just say 'no' to meth!

*** I should note at this point that the goals, "Keep the adult human suspect safe," and "Quickly incapacitate the adult human suspect" are somewhat mutually contradictory. Or, more bluntly, anything that can rapidly incapacitate an adult human- drugged up or not- carries with it a non-trivial risk of injury. So, really, even if a weapon is hypothetically "non-lethal" you'd still be well advised to keep clear of it.

**** I should also note that the research on sheep appears to have been done entirely with private money from the taser corporation, so grants were never a factor.

As a final side note: I just want to observe that I am not suggesting that tasing, or drugging, animals is funny. I am more amused by the superficial- if not genuine- absurdity of the project. We can have a discussion about the ethics of using animals in research if you want, but right now I don't want. And I'm the one writing the blog so, NYAH!

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Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Common nonsense

So, over at the horribly prejudiced CNS News I recently noticed a story about research into the causes, and moderators, of bar violence. Well, that's not completely true- take a look at the headline and first few paragraphs and see if you can spot what the article is really about:

Or, to quote directly:

$918,856 Federal Study: Bar Fights Tend to Happen in Darker, Dirtier Bars Frequented by Heavy Drinking, Less Agreeable People

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism paid $918,856 in tax dollars to fund a five-year study of “Alcohol and Bar Violence” that determined, among other things, that bar fights tend to occur in venues that are relatively dark, dirty, noisy, hot, and crowded and that are frequented by a clientele of younger, less agreeable, less conscientious, more impulsive heavy drinkers.

The study also discovered that a woman who gets in a bar fight has consumed on average four times as many drinks as her usual intake.

The $918,856 went to researchers at the Research Institute on Addictions at the State University of New York at Buffalo for a project entitled “Alcohol and Bar Violence.” The project ran from Sept. 25, 1997 to Aug. 31, 2002. [emphasis original]

Right, so, in reality this story is less about the research that was done, and more about the size of the grant that was required to perform the research. Now, before we worry about the size of the grant, I'd instead just like to commend CNS News for being even more half-assed with covering stories that I am. I mean, I routinely cover "old news," but I don't think I've ever reported- as a headline- something that happened over eight years ago. Bravo, CNS! Bravo, indeed!

But moving right along, I'm certain the real story is about the amount of money paid, not just because that's what the first few paragraphs seem to be about, but because of the rather fascinating questions CNS asks later on in the story:

CNS News asked Lorraine Collins how she would explain to the average American mom and dad--who make $52,000 per year, according to the Census Bureau--that taxing them to pay for this grant was justified.

“I think that all research is justified to the extent that it provides us with information that can be used to address public health problems,” said Collins. “I would think that many parents of males and females who are young and using alcohol might want us to understand what’s going on with their behavior.”

“The way that we tend to see research is that to the extent that we understand problem behaviors that we might be able to intervene to change those behaviors.” also asked the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism how it would justify the $918,856 in tax dollars spent on this grant to the average family earning $52,000 per year.

“Problems related to the excessive consumption of alcohol cost U.S. society an estimated $235 billion annually,” said NIAAA Spokesman John Bowersox. “Alcohol use, the third leading preventable cause of death in the U.S. is responsible for approximately 80,000 deaths annually.

“Alcohol-related violence is an important social and public health problem, and a substantial proportion of alcohol-related violence and injury occurs in licensed premises,” said Bowersox. “Analyses of aggression in bars will allow us to better u nderstand the alcohol-aggression relationship and identify specific aspects of barroom aggression for targeting prevention programs.” [emphasis added]

Clearly, there's no agenda here,* although one wonders if this might qualify as an example of Sarah Palin's infamous "Gotcha Journalism."

Now, you might be wondering why I've bothered to mention a silly news story from a silly little news site? Well, aside from the fact that my site is even more silly and little, it's because of the comments that this story has produced, and damn all if they aren't interesting. I can't link to the comments directly, though they're at the bottom of the story page, but as you read you'll notice a rather interesting trend- everyone is claiming that they could have done the research better, and more cheaply, than the researchers. Okay, fine, that often happens when the results of research studies are announced, particularly since people tend to claim that social science results are just common sense. The interesting thing about that being, of course, that common sense is, by and large, horseshit. So, for example, common sense tells us that "Opposites attract," but it also tells us that "Birds of a feather flock together." These two statements, however, make opposite claims and thus, while both can't be right at the exact same time, as long as one is correct people will observe that it's just common sense. It's easy for common sense to always come out on top because it tries to have it both ways. And so, we have to do research in order to determine which of the many, mutually contradictory, aphorisms we regard as "common sense" are actually true, if indeed ANY of them are true. But, that said, some of the commenters achieve truly remarkable levels of weird:

Or, in plain text:

Our Hard Earned Tax Dollars spent so these three idiots can get drunk and write about bars! Sounds like it has Obambi's signature on it! End all Grants such as these. Hell, anyone with a little Common Sense could have came up with the same for the price of a beer! What Idiots Politicians are! [emphasis added]

And thus we have a commenter who seems to be implying that Barack Obama, who is currently in his first term as president, somehow authorized a research project that ran from 1997 to 2002. That's one fancy pen he's got there! And don't even get me started on this guy:

Or, again in plain text:

More wasted Stimulus money.

And again, let's consider the timeline: was there any stimulus money in 2002? I'm thinking no.

Look, yesterday I wrote that sometimes Conservatives may be accused of being racists because people on the left are being lazy. I stand by that, but the sword cuts both ways. Why should I take someone's political views seriously when they are evidently too lazy to read even the first three paragraphs of a news story? Apparently only because what they're saying is common sense.

Yeah. We know how that turns out, though, don't we?

* Though I'm wondering if their next question was, "So, are you still beating your spouse? A yes or no answer will suffice."

As a side note: Yes, I'm aware this post was stupid. Give me a break, okay? I'm busy and tired.

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Monday, October 11, 2010

The rod in thine own...

As many of you know, I've recently been reading Glenn Beck's new "novel," The Overton Window. If you're curious, I'm about two thirds of the way done and am finding it to be... um... an experience. Regardless, however, one theme that has already jumped out at me is the very self-conscious way that the authors* of that book want to deny charges of racism. Now, let's leave aside for a moment the issue of whether or not the TEA parties or Beck himself are racist. I don't know and, really, am not interested in addressing that point just now. It is, however, easy for me to say that given that I'm a white male and, thus, can probably assume that my direct experiences of being a victim of racism are effectively nil. Anyway, the question might naturally arise: why is it that some folks on the right find themselves being the recipients of racism charges?

To help answer this question, come our helpful friends at Conservapedia who decided to report on a recent incident in California where a would-be school shooter was forcefully detained by some construction workers who were nearby at the time. It's a pretty interesting story, actually:

A construction worker who helped detain a man accused of opening fire at a Carlsbad elementary school spoke out about his experience.

Carlos Partida was working at Kelly Elementary School on Friday and helped subdue Brendan O’Rourke, who is accused of shooting two children at the school.


"I ran to my car and just met him right by his car. He pointed the weapon at me [and] I thought he was going to shoot so I just decided to try to hit him," he [Partida] said.

When the O’Rourke went down, Partida and two other construction workers tackled him. Partida then pulled a .357 magnum from the man's hand.

"It was a big revolver gun... [and a] pretty big gun," said Partida. "It's so amazing how everything came about."

Now, first off, this is a heroic tale. It's frankly heart-warming to see people react with such courage to a terrifying ordeal like this, and it frankly makes me feel like my faith in mankind is justified. I'm honestly reminded of the attack on the white house back in 1994 that was also stopped by random citizens who happened to be present. So, the question arises, how did Conservapedia cover this story? Well, see for yourself:

Or, in plain text:

Man Tackles Gunman at Elementary School. Carlos Partida, (Mexican origin), held down gunman after two young girls were shot and injured. A gunman dressed in black opened fire at Carlsbad (near San Diego) on Friday afternoon, wounding two students before being tackled by construction workers, officials said. [emphasis original]

And the thing is, I wonder, why the determination to point out that Partida is of "Mexican origin"? This is particularly curious in light of the fact that neither the article that Conservapedia links to, nor the one that I quoted above, identified Partida as being Mexican or Mexican-American. As far as I can tell, his "origin" is entirely assumed by the person who posted the news bit. And even if he is of Mexican extraction, the further question is- who cares?

Allow me to be direct: the relevant, and news-worthy, information is that he and some other men stopped a gunman from killing kids. That's really the only thing that's relevant. His ethnicity might be interesting to some folks, but doesn't really matter- certainly not enough to put in a headline. At least, that is, unless you think of Mexicans as being the sort of people who wouldn't risk their lives to save kids from a crazed gunman. If, indeed, you do think of Mexicans as being craven and worthless, then his ethnicity is absolutely a valid part of the headline, for much the same reason that "Man bites dog" is news. And this is probably the conclusion that many of us on the left might reach looking at this news bit: Conservapedia reported it this way because Conservapedia is prejudiced. But as it turns out, the story is even more complex.

You see, the news item was posted on Conservapedia by one Joaquin Martinez, who claims to be from Campeche, Mexico. So, assuming that Martinez is legit,** this looks more like a case of Martinez crowing about the success of one of his countrymen in doing something good. You know, assuming that Partida actually IS from Mexico or of Mexican extraction in the first place.*** Regardless, we might salvage the "racism" assertion by suggesting that Martinez is so hot to emphasize the extraction of Partida so as to demonstrate to his fellow Conservapeons that Mexicans aren't shiftless disease-ridden losers**** but I don't want to make that assumption when simple pride in one's own country can produce the same response. Thus, an apparent case of prejudice transforms into something else with the simple addition of a bit of context.

Now, I'll admit at this point that I set you, my dear readers, up a little bit in this post. I framed the argument like I was going to show why conservatives get accused of racism by demonstrating how conservatives are racist. And hell, some of them definitely are. The thing is, though, that in at least some cases the accusations of racism emerge because we, as their opponents, are misunderstanding the context of what they're saying. Or, to be more blunt, sometimes they get accused of racism, because we get lazy. And don't worry, I include myself in that- my first reaction of the Partida headline was discomfort at how Conservapedia was emphasizing his national origin. It seemed to me that their prejudice and intolerance were bleeding through. The thing is, my impression had to change once I knew more about who it was who had done that emphasizing. Does this mean that Conservapedia isn't prejudiced? Oh, hell no. They're so prejudiced it's actively painful. No, my point is only that sometimes what looks like prejudice may be something else, and sometimes they may get called prejudiced because we're too lazy to know what we're talking about.

So, in short, let's by all means call a spade a spade, but in the process let's make sure that what we're accusing of being a spade isn't a club instead.

* And yes, I do mean authors plural. This sucker was a team effort. But we'll talk more about that later.

** I raise this point only because Conservapedia has long wrestled with parodists. You can see Rationalwiki's profile of him here.

*** I feel the need to emphasize this point because one of my closest friends is an immigrant from Panama who became a naturalized American citizen. When we were both young, however, he was often assumed to be Puerto Rican because he has a Spanish name and most Hispanic Americans in the area were from Puerto Rico. So, in short, just because a lot of immigrants to California are from Mexico does not mean that a dude with a Spanish name is necessarily from Mexico. For all we know, the dude was born in Portland.

**** We all remember when Fox News was constantly talking about how illegal Mexican immigrants were bringing diseases into the U.S., right?

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Friday, October 08, 2010

Less than gleeful...

Some of you may watch the t.v. series Glee and, thus, know that in a recent episode the issue of atheism and religion was at least kinda-sorta addressed. I say, "kinda-sorta," because the real issues behind atheism are rarely, if ever, addressed by any television show, and Glee was no exception. Now, I don't usually watch* Glee but my wife does and she clued me into recent events on the show so that I could take a looksee.

Now, to give you a brief summary of the episode: Finn, a Glee club member, manages to create a grilled cheese sandwich that has a burn mark that resembles the image of Jesus. He then proceeds to worship this example of pareidolia, referring to it as the "Grilled Cheesus". Around the same time another character, Kurt, learns that his father has suffered a heart attack and is now in a coma. Now, the Glee club folk have long known that Kurt is gay and are apparently okay with that. After one classmate delivers a spiritual in his honor in class, however, they learn something new: he's an atheist. This produces all sorts of consternation and a half-assed conversation about faith during which none of Kurt's points- including the well-timed invocation of Russell's Teapot- are ever addressed by anyone. Kurt politely asks the Glee club people to please not dump their religious sentiments on him, and they proceed to ignore said request. One glee club member, Mercedes, even goes so far as to essentially coerce Kurt into attending a religious service with her. So, apparently, it's okay to be gay now, but being an atheist is another matter. It's as if the writers got a look at Edgell et al. 2006. Meanwhile, the show's primary antagonist, Sue, turns out to be an atheist as well, and files a complaint with the school board for the inappropriate harassment of a non-religious student. This complaint has little, if any, concrete effect on how Kurt is treated, but does result in a rather gripping conversation between Sue and Emma, the guidance counselor, in which Sue points out that pushing false hope on people is cruel. Meanwhile, Finn makes wishes to the Grilled Cheesus, including that their football team win their first game, that he be made quarterback again, and that he get to touch his girlfriend's boobs. All these wishes come true, although in the case of being made quarterback it's with a rather Monkey's Paw-ish injury to the former quarterback. In the end (I'm skipping a lot of carrying-on here) Finn becomes convinced that the Grilled Cheesus is just a sandwich, Kurt's father wakes up, Kurt and Sue remain atheists, and Kurt learns that you should be forgiving of religious people when they insist on praying for you. None of the theists, however, appear to learn the crucial lesson that when your friend is afraid of losing his father, badgering him with conversion attempts is the absolute antithesis of being kind.

Now, opinions on this episode appear to be quite mixed. Rebecca Watson of Skepchick, for example, is of the opinion that the episode is pretty good, though not without drawbacks:

As awesome as the two atheist characters are, though, the portrayal of atheism could have been better. Both of them give reasons for their atheism, and both reasons are because life was unfair to them and they couldn’t see how a loving god would allow that. That’s a perfectly valid reason for not believing in an omni-benevolent god, but it obscures the main reason why I suspect most people have no religion: because there is no evidence. This is at least briefly covered in Kurt’s referencing of Russel’s teapot, but Sue’s back story leaves us remembering both of them as tortured souls who maybe just haven’t found Jesus yet.

And I pretty much agree with her here: while it was nice to see atheists appearing as real people, it's a shame they had to be depicted as angry, soul-torn individuals who maybe would find god one day. On the plus side, the show did manage to show off how creepy theists can be with the incessant efforts of Kurt's "friends" to inject religion into his life despite his repeated requests for them to stop. I don't know how many people noticed that, or sympathized with Kurt, but it was pretty freakish and y'all know how I feel about forcing prayers on people who don't want them. On the minus side, Sue intervened with the school board because Kurt was being harassed, but the rest of the episode kind of pitched it as Kurt and Sue interfering with everyone else's right to freely exercise their religion. In a public school. By repeatedly confronting an atheist about his lack of religious belief. Right. Frankly, I found myself noticing a rather dreadful similarity between those parts of the episode and Christmas with a Capital C. And that's never a good thing.

And yet, I can in a way forgive the show all its faults because of one scene. You see, at one point Finn (the Cheesus worshipper) goes to visit** Emma (the guidance counselor) to confess that he believes it's his fault*** that the former quarterback was injured. He then spills the whole story about Grilled Cheesus and his wishes. Emma, looking decidedly uncomfortable, proceeds to explain all of the fulfilled wishes as being, essentially, coincidences and then dismissively asserts that god doesn't hang out in grilled cheese sandwiches. And you see, this scene is brilliant because it is essentially a quiet argument for atheism. In providing naturalistic explanations for Finn's wishes, Emma essentially makes the point that apparently fulfilled prayers likely are not actually fulfilled prayers at all, but just events unfolding as they will. More poignantly, however, she forces us to ask: how does she know that god doesn't hang out in grilled cheese sandwiches? And the answer is, we don't, and she doesn't, because we can't even be sure that god exists, much less what such a being would choose to do with its time. The assertion that god doesn't live in a grilled cheese sandwich has precisely as much evidentiary value as the claim that he does live in our blood pumping organs, or in the sky, or anywhere else for that matter. The entire thing is socially constructed and effectively arbitrary and very little can make that more apparent than seeing one theist argue with another theist about the nature of the divine.

So, in the end, the episode had its strong points, but there's a long way to go yet before atheists will get a fair shake on T.V.

* I should note, however, that I do have a certain fondness for musicals. And I'm not just talking about Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog here.

** This bit struck me as a tad odd since when I was in high school we did everything we could to avoid the guidance counselors. That said, one such counselor appeared to paint her eyebrows on with a sharpie and had covered her office walls (literally covered, there was no empty space) in Ziggy posters and photos of Leonard Nimoy. So, hey, maybe my experience was an outlier?

*** Arguably it was, actually, since the former quarterback was injured after taking Finn's advice on a play. That said, I'm pretty sure this wasn't meant to imply that Finn set him up. Nevertheless, it's interesting that instead of going to Sam (the former quarterback) to apologize for indirectly causing Sam's injury, he goes to the guidance counselor to express guilt for sitting alone with a sandwich and asking an invisible friend to non-specifically make him quarterback. There's a lesson here about the redirection, and even dilution, of responsibility that seems to come along with religion. But that's a discussion for another day.

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Thursday, October 07, 2010

Up, up and away!

This has to be the coolest science type project to do with kids that I've ever seen:

Just... wow.*

* And yes, the brevity of this post DOES mean that I'm still really busy. Thanks for asking.

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Wednesday, October 06, 2010

A story about gender...

So watch this, and then we'll talk, albeit briefly:*

Ready? Okay, so, here's the thing: much as I enjoy science-ey YouTube songs, this one does not entertain particularly. I think the reason is because it's rather spectacularly objectifying.** I mean, there's the assertions that she's only interesting because she's hot (and at that, only in comparison to other women in the same lab or on the same floor), the suggestions that she take up less prestigious occupations that cater more to her physical attributes (e.g. modeling, sales), the creepy scene where the singer helps her with a pipette (which, presumably, she knew how to use already), and even the part where her advisor/employer is congratulated for having such a hot advisee/employee. Add it all together and there's a rather strong feeling of, "Hey! You're a hot girl! What are YOU doing in a lab? Hot girls don't work in places like this! They stay home and keep themselves pretty." Danica McKellar would not be pleased.

Just sayin' is all.

* Because I'm still busy. Believe it or not, this is not my day job.

** And I don't use that term lightly. Really, I think it's an over-used term and find that it obscures moe than it clarifies.

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Tuesday, October 05, 2010


Over on BLOG TITLE I recently noticed an intriguing article about TOPIC. And, believe it or not, it turns out that TOPIC doesn't work quite the way we might expect:

In this paragraph I will state the main claim that the research makes, making appropriate use of "scare quotes" to ensure that it's clear that I have no opinion about this research whatsoever.

In this paragraph I will briefly (because no paragraph should be more than one line) state which existing scientific ideas this new research "challenges".

If the research is about a potential cure, or a solution to a problem, this paragraph will describe how it will raise hopes for a group of sufferers or victims.

This paragraph elaborates on the claim, adding weasel-words like "the scientists say" to shift responsibility for establishing the likely truth or accuracy of the research findings on to absolutely anybody else but me, the journalist.

But all is not well with this new research on TOPIC because, as it turns out, some people disagree... stridently:

This paragraph will explain that while some scientists believe one thing to be true, other people believe another, different thing to be true.

In this paragraph I will provide balance with a quote from another scientist in the field. Since I picked their name at random from a Google search, and since the research probably hasn't even been published yet for them to see it, their response to my e-mail will be bland and non-committal.

"The research is useful", they will say, "and gives us new information. However, we need more research before we can say if the conclusions are correct, so I would advise caution for now."

If the subject is politically sensitive this paragraph will contain quotes from some fringe special interest group of people who, though having no apparent understanding of the subject, help to give the impression that genuine public "controversy" exists.

This paragraph will provide more comments from the author restating their beliefs about the research by basically repeating the same stuff they said in the earlier quotes but with slightly different words. They won't address any of the criticisms above because I only had time to send out one round of e-mails.

Apparently some people never learn because we've dealt with these sorts of absurd criticisms of TOPIC before. But, hey, what do you expect from a group of people who FLIPPANT CRITIQUE?

Damn. That was kinda fun, actually.

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Monday, October 04, 2010


Hey. I'm busy today, and didn't sleep well last night, so in lieu of my usual crappy blogging, please accept some crappy blogging. Specifically, a revealing interview with Natalie Portman:

Yeah, I think we all knew that on some level.

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Friday, October 01, 2010

Deaf ears, it is falling on them.

Pretty much everyone I know personally or who reads this blog and has access to an e-mail account has sent me word* of a recent study by the Pew Research Center that evaluates the degree of religious knowledge that most Americans possess. The reason why people have been sending me this study with such alacrity is, I think, because of one of its core findings- that atheists and agnostics pretty much know more about religion than any other group:

Atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons are among the highest-scoring groups on a new survey of religious knowledge, outperforming evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants and Catholics on questions about the core teachings, history and leading figures of major world religions.

On average, Americans correctly answer 16 of the 32 religious knowledge questions on the survey by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life. Atheists and agnostics average 20.9 correct answers. Jews and Mormons do about as well, averaging 20.5 and 20.3 correct answers, respectively.

Protestants as a whole average 16 correct answers; Catholics as a whole, 14.7. Atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons perform better than other groups on the survey even after controlling for differing levels of education.

Woo-hoo, indeed. This should, one would think, help to dispel the wrong headed notion that atheists are atheists because we are ignorant of religion. To the contrary I would argue, now with the support of this research, that we are quite well informed on religious matters. Yet, it's important to keep in mind that atheists do not come out on top in all areas here:

On questions about Christianity -- including a battery of questions about the Bible -- Mormons (7.9 out of 12 right on average) and white evangelical Protestants (7.3 correct on average) show the highest levels of knowledge.

Thus, when we limit the area of concern to Christianity and the bible, atheists and agnostics, who average 6.7 correct answers, are bested by evangelical Protestants and Mormons. That said, it's important to note that the overall mean is 6.0, and the Christian mean is 6.2. Thus, atheists still score above average in their knowledge of Christianity and the bible, even outscoring most Christians. And this, of course, amuses me because it gives lie to the retort that atheist arguments against god are somehow too unsophisticated: as it turns out, many theists are startlingly ignorant of their own faith, so how sophisticated do we actually have to be?

If you're curious about how you'd do, there's a handy mini-quiz on the site. It doesn't include all the questions, and doesn't influence the data, but is diverting nonetheless. I took it and attained a near perfect score on my first try- 14 out of 15 correct:

I will leave it to you to guess which of the 15 questions I did not answer correctly, though I will add that my wife managed a perfect score. But she's awesome that way.

So why do atheists know so much? Some have suggested that this is because most atheists are converts from another faith. As such, having made a positive decision to become atheist, they most likely spent some time thinking/reading/researching the matter. David Silverman of the American Atheists even want so far as to suggest that the best way to produce an atheist was to educate them about religions. I don't disagree with this notion, but I think it overlooks another important force: proselytizing.

I do not, of course, mean the efforts of atheists to convert others. By and large, and with a few prominent exceptions, that just isn't our gig. No, what I mean is the efforts of others to convert us. If there's one thing I learned very, very quickly as an atheist, it's that there is little respect for our perspective, and little reluctance to try and convince us of the "error" of our ways. As a result, before I even got to college I'd heard a wide variety of "you should believe in god because..." arguments, which in turn necessitated that I consider them and decide whether or not they were valid.** Thus, in a weird sort of turn of events, the entire world becomes to the atheist a course in comparative religions- everyone, no matter how weird their strain of faith, tries to convert you and you both learn about their arguments, and develop responses. If someone could emerge from this process without a fairly solid knowledge of religion, their skill in maintaining willful ignorance exceeds my reckoning.

Given the awesomeness of this research, one might legitimately wonder why I have waited so long to comment. The reason, dear readers, is because I was waiting to see what our good friends at Conservapedia would do with the news. They, after all, hate the hell out of my fellow atheists, so how would they react to the news that in a religious trivia game, we unbelievers could probably own their asses? Well, the answer, as it turns out, is "not well":

Or, in plain human language:

The liberal columnist Clarence Page writes: "A new poll finds atheist and agnostics know more about religion than believers do. Maybe the pollsters weren’t asking the right questions."

Given that many atheists at Conservapedia have great difficulty spelling the words "atheist", "atheists" and "atheism" on Conservapedia talk pages, the competence of the pollsters is certainly a legitimate concern. If many atheists can't spell the word atheism, they surely cannot spell the word theism. Of course, many atheists may have a knowledge of religion that is a mile wide but a quarter inch deep. However, the ultimate test of religious competency for atheists will be when they stand before the judgment seat of Jesus Christ and not some religious trivial pursuit game designed by pollsters.

A note to Clarence Page's editor: You missed the misspelling of the word "atheists". [emphasis original]

Now, for the sake of argument I'm going to ignore the actual content of Clarence Page's article. This is mostly because he advances the bizarre argument that religious people would know more about religion if atheists, agnostics, and (let's face it) theists didn't work so hard to keep religion out of the public schools. There are layers of weirdness there that I just don't want to unravel. What I am going to do, however, is make an observation: when it turns out atheists are not ignorant of religion- that we actually are often more knowledgeable than theists- Conservapedia's reaction is to mock the spelling of a random columnist, imply that all atheists spell poorly, assert without evidence that we are, actually, really ignorant, and then threaten us with imaginary punishment.

Is that supposed to be convincing?

But then, what do you expect from a website whose idea of lampooning evolution is an animated gif of a flying cat? And yes, it's still there.

Atheists are not perfect and are not better than anyone else, but we at least appear to have the virtue of knowing what it is that we are rejecting. Now if only everyone else could be as knowledgeable about what it is that they are accepting, the world might just be an easier place to live in.

For more on this issue, head on over to Brad Wright's blog and get a more reasonable theistic perspective.

* I'm really not exaggerating here, either. There's a guy named mig (Hi Mig!!) who has been reading the entire f-ing archives of this blog from most recent to least recent and even HE sent me an e-mail to let me know about this thing. I have well and truly been informed about this study.

** Given that I am writing this as an atheist, you can probably surmise the outcome.

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