Friday, March 19, 2010

Quote of the Week

"It has often and confidently been asserted, that man's origin can never be known: Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science."

- Charles Darwin, from the introduction of The Descent of Man

Friday, March 12, 2010

Quote of the Week

"I had no need of that hypothesis."

- Pierre-Simon Laplace, explaining to Napoleon why he did not mention God in his book of astronomy.

They Chose...Poorly

Constance McMillen, a senior at Itawamba Agricultural High School, just wanted to go to the prom with her significant other. What makes Ms. McMillen's desire slightly unusual is that her significant other is also a woman. Plus, McMillen wanted to wear a tuxedo instead of the usual gown. That's nice, you might think, but what's the big deal? I agree. This shouldn't be newsworthy. Oh wait...Itawamba Agricultural High School is in rural Mississippi. Uh-oh.

Naturally, the school immediately denied McMillen's request to dress in a tux and take someone of the same sex as a date, saying it was against the rules. Then the ACLU became involved and tried informally to encourage the school administrators to rethink their position. In response, the school took the most reasonable route possible: they cancelled prom...for everyone. Their reason?

"Due to the distractions to the educational process caused by recent events, the Itawamba County School District has decided to not host a prom at Itawamba Agricultural High School this year."

The district school board also said that their decision took "into consideration the education, safety and well-being of our students."

Of course, the school wasn't shy about who caused this decision, and now McMillen is in the uncomfortable position of being the one "responsible" for ruining that class's senior year. Now the ACLU is formally suing the school district for infringement of McMillen's free speech.

I know this is in rural Mississippi, so it's not exactly the most progressive of lands, but how does this make any sense? Sure, some parents would have definitely been outraged with the open display of "the gay" in their precious, God-fearing community, but does that mean the entire senior class has to suffer? Wouldn't it have been far easier on everyone if the school just turned a blind eye to the whole thing? The night would have passed with a few snide remarks from students and perhaps a handful of angry phone calls from parents that following Monday, but then everyone would forget about it and move on with their lives. Instead, the school has made sure no one will forget about it, and the district will now have to pay a fortune in legal fees, all in an attempt to preserve the fiction that gays don't exist.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Why Science Cannot Measure Morality (but it has nothing to do with God)

On my post about homeschooling textbooks, mlwj left a comment that raised some important point that I intended to address before long. Might as well do so now. Here's mljw's comment in full:

"Science can only deal with the natural. If you can't test it and observe it, then you can't do any science on it. End of story." [quoted from my original post]

I really don't mean to be snarky, but can you prove that statement scientifically? Is that proposition testable and observable?

Would you admit that there are some things you know which aren't testable and observable? How about your moral sense that someone, somewhere, is doing something you believe he should stop doing no matter what his biologically determined brain cells are telling him? Do you have that sense? Could you agree that it is evidence that at least suggests that you ought to believe human life is more than natural?

Did you read Stanley Fish's blog post a few weeks ago at the NY Times?

Fish is obviously not a conservative Christian theist, but I believe his thinking is incisive.

The Bible says in Paul's letter to the Romans that creation testifies to His existence and power. I pray that you will acknowledge this.

First off, being snarky in return, no, I cannot prove that statement scientifically because science never "proves" anything. It only allows us to draw conclusions which either support or falsify a hypothesis.

But yes, I will certainly agree there are things which are not testable or observable. Morality is an excellent example. I say that not because morality is a supernatural property of the universe, but because there's no such thing as morality. I posit that what we conceptualize as morality springs from a far more basic explanation: instinctual empathy.

As a social species, we need empathy to survive, otherwise we would be incapable of working with and living in close proximity to each other. The same holds true for other social animals such as lions or orcas. They show caring towards and a willingness to work with others in their social group, which gives them obvious advantages over their competitors and makes it easier for them to reproduce. I suppose you could argue that these animals are bound by the supernatural and absolute moral laws of the universe, but I find evolution to be a much simpler and more likely explanation.

Now apply the same logic to humans. We call people "good" if they contribute to the overall well being of the social group. Additionally, our brains have evolved an instinctual and automatic feeling of guilt when we detract from the well being of our society. Because this reaction kicks in without conscious thought only after our cognitive functions interpret outside stimuli revealing our transgressions, that feeling of guilt obviously comes from within the brain. You could claim that is comes from the nature of your "soul". However, I feel the more convincing argument is that social creatures with such a response hardwired into their brains would be more successful because they know to seek forgiveness, thereby keeping their place in the society.

In contrast, look at what happens to those who break with our expected norms of empathy and guilt, leading them to harm others and show no remorse for doing so. These transgressors become shunned, imprisoned, or executed by the social group. It makes sense that only those humans who exhibit sufficient empathy and a sense of guilt would be able to reproduce consistently within such an environment, thereby making antisocial behavioral traits less common within the population, which in turn makes constructive behavior more common. In addition, this rise of commonality creates the appearance of "universal" moral beliefs.

Furthermore, we do see occasional mutations where individuals do not display any sort of empathy. We call them sociopaths, and we can actually measure their lack of empathy through fMRI scans because the part of the brain which normally controls empathy shows very little activity compared to normal brains.

To put it simply, our brains have evolved to be empathetic because it allows us to interact constructively with each other. Without it, we cannot function as a society and we would live more like mountain lions, roaming our territories alone, only meeting to mate. Our obvious physical limitations make survival in such a situation unlikely at best. Therefore, like bears hibernating for the winter or sea turtles knowing when to return to their mating grounds, our empathy is an instinct essential to human survival and reproduction.

So where does that leave morality? Just because I'm fairly certain sociopaths have no control over their antisocial impulses, does that mean they shouldn't be held accountable for their actions? Of course not. But that brings us back to science's role in such decisions, which is quite minor because science is a tool, nothing more, nothing less. Used properly, it can tell us how the universe works and why things came to be through naturalistic reasoning. However, it cannot tell us what to do with that information. That's up to us. For example, science can tell us about the potential energy locked within subatomic bonds, but we decide if we want to use it to produce electricity or make nuclear weapons. Similarly, just because science can tell us that a sociopath has little control over his antisocial actions, that doesn't tell us what we should do with the sociopath. That's where philosophy comes into play, which we base upon our instinctual sense of empathy. Even then, our empathy varies. Some prefer revenge, seeking execution for the sociopath. Others advocate finding a way to alter his brain, thereby curing his lack of empathy.

Now, when you boil them down, religions are just philosophies which attempt to tell people how to live within a society. Every religious person will tell you that those proscriptions come from a god or gods because, deep down, we all "know" right from wrong. Sure, most of us feel that urge to be constructive, but is that because God did it or because we've evolved the instincts for it? I lean towards the latter.

Does that mean I think morality has no place? Absolutely not. First, I like to be constructive and contribute to society and treat others well. Just because I know it's simply my instincts talking doesn't mean I'm disinclined to follow them. That's the great thing about understanding why we feel the way we do. We can chose to follow those instincts that make us feel good and help others while also choosing to resist the other instincts which are harmful, even when it might make us feel good. For example, we all feel some degree of prejudice towards others. However, if we know that's a product of our ingrained instincts and competitiveness, we can resist it and refuse to yield to our base emotions. Religion attempts to do the same thing, but it adds artificial constructs such as God, Satan, and Hell as enforcement mechanisms while claiming absolute truth. I see no need to bring extra complexity to the explanation, and I certainly won't claim absolute truth. Frankly, I feel absolute truth is beyond our means to comprehend.

Also, I appreciate the link to Stanley Fish's column because I had not seen that before. While I understand what he's saying, and I agree with him to an extent, I feel the religious foundations he appeals to are simply man-made philosophies as I outlined above. However, there are secular philosophies which can provide the same basis for argument. Sure, secular philosophies don't make claims to absolute truth, but I think the religious claims of such are fundamentally wrong because religion is an unscientific attempt to codify and explain, in the case of morality, an evolved survival mechanism.

As for the last point, I'll acknowledge God's role in creation when He gives me sound evidence to do so. Until then, I have no need for that hypothesis.

I have a post from 2007 addressing some of these topics here.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Yeah, That's About Right...

It's funny because it's true:

Like always, The Onion is spot on.

I never watch cable news anymore because I can't stand the constant sensationalizing and whoring for ratings. It's like yellow journalism all over again (not that I ever experienced it, of course, but you know what I mean).

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Yet More Evidence Creationism Isn't Science

Last Saturday, the AP carried an article highlighting the limited teaching materials secular parents encounter when homeschooling their children. Because the vast majority of parents who prefer homeschooling are evangelical Christians, they're who the market caters towards. The article focused on the fact that the two bestselling biology textbooks explicitly reject evolution in favor of creationism.

While that certainly makes it tough for secular homeschoolers, I'd rather focus on a passage from the "History of Life" Chapter from one the bestsellers, "Biology: Third Edition" by Bob Jones University Press:

Christian worldview ... is the only correct view of reality; anyone who rejects it will not only fail to reach heaven but also fail to see the world as it truly is.

Two things really get to me about this passage. First, in a book supposedly about about science, the book immediately closes itself off to any sort of science. You can't declare your view the only valid one, and wave off the rest. If that were the case, then we'd still believe the Earth is flat and witches caused cancer. I know the creationists would respond that naturalists do the same for those who don't accept evolution, but they'd be wrong. If a viable alternative to evolution arose, it would receive plenty of consideration. Creationism had its shot, and it's still found severely lacking any sort of merit. That's why it's completely dismissed by actual scientists today. Furthermore, you won't see a legitimate science textbook claiming naturalism is the only correct worldview. It will say that science can only deal with the natural. If you can't test it and observe it, then you can't do any science on it. End of story.

Second, this is a biology book geared towards middle schoolers that features threats of hell. Right there, the author gave up rational argument in favor of fearmongering. Kind of clever really. They're basically saying, "You have to believe what's in this book or you'll be tortured forever." Way to succeed on the merit of your arguments.

When the AP asked about that passage, university spokesman Brian Scoles said the sentence made it into the book because of an editing error and will be removed from future editions.

Yeah, right...editing error. Because that's not at all what you meant or what you believe. Right here is just another piece of evidence that creationism is not science. Even the university realizes the need to cover up an honest disclosure.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Pseudonym Change

Just so you know, I've dropped the "Lord" from my screen name. I'm still the same blogger, but I just figured my online gaming screen name wasn't as appropriate for this venue since it felt slightly juvenile. Besides, most of you know me as "J-Bar" anyway. That is all...

Friday, March 5, 2010

Quote of the Week

"Wikipedia is so liberal when it comes to reading articles on 'The existence of God' or on 'Intelligent Design'. Too bad they cover more of the objections to these arguments rather than the proponents of these arguments."

- The Facebook status update of an extremely conservative Christian acquaintance

My response: perhaps the "liberal" objections are far more thoroughly developed. Saying "God just did it" doesn't require much explanation.

This Is What Militant Looks Like

I've complained before about Christians regularly calling atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris "militant", and I've also restrained from applying the same charge back towards Christians. However, I don't think I'm out of line when I call Repent Amarillo a gang of militant Christians. Just take a look at their website (fair warning: be ready for annoying music, sound effects, and excessive graphics that scream, "I'm trying too hard to impress you with my web design skills!").

Judging from the images (the above image is the site's header), you'd think they're a full blown military outfit with humvees, helicopters, and self-propelled artillery. They even call themselves the "Special Forces of spiritual warfare". Don't be fooled. They're little more than a small band of thugs who run around in black shirts and camouflage pants terrorizing those they dislike. Their leader, David Grisham, is a security guard for the Pantex nuclear facility, but he becomes a "pastor" in his spare time who cares far too much about the private activities of others.

The Texas Observer was the first (that I'm aware of) to highlight the group's activities. Apparently, Amarillo is an extremely conservative and Christian city to begin with, but Repent Amarillo fancies itself as the city's enforcers of Christian law. Nevermind what the US Constitution says. Anyway, Repent Amarillo regularly shows up at gatherings and businesses they find disagreeable, which includes the usual Christian gripe list. From their website:

1. Gay pride events.
2. Earth worship events such as “Earth Day”
3. Pro-abortion events or places such as Planned Parenthood
4. Breast cancer events such as “Race for the Cure” to illuminate the link between abortion and breast cancer.
5. Opening day of public schools to reach out to students.
6. Spring break events.
7. Demonically based concerts.
8. Halloween events.
9. Other events that may arise that the ministry feels called to confront.


1. Sexually oriented businesses such as pornography shops, strip joints, and XXX-rated theaters.
2. Idolatry locations such as palm readers, false religions, and witchcraft. Many of the smaller missions listed above may be just prayer oriented missions for tearing down demonic strongholds or they may involve more aggressive use of soldiers and prayer warriors. Some other missions occasionally employed may be “undercover operations” where the groups show up together but are not publicly visible together to effect the outcome of a public meeting such as city commissioners meetings, etc.

Their tactics include harassing private citizens at the above locations and calling the police to report infractions, no matter how mundane. Over the last year, they've became downright frightening with a local swingers' club. They would wait outside in the parking lot with cameras, blaring Christian music, and harassing the swingers when they left. The gangs members would also take down license plate numbers and retrieve the swingers' personal information, which they would then use for a personal smear campaign. In a conservative town like Amarillo, the swingers have lost their jobs and become ostracized from society. David Graham says he's only doing it to save the swingers' souls and drive the devil from Amarillo. Listen David, if you want these people to become Christians, you're doing it wrong.

Now they've set their sights on the favorite target of Christian nutjobs: the gays. Repent Amarillo recently managed to block the showing of Bent, a play about the persecution of homosexuals within Nazi Germany. Um...yeah. When you find yourself trying to cover up some of the more egregious activities of the Nazis, you should really rethink your position.

Many others have already commented on this group, and the usual title for them has been the "Texas Taliban". I can't think of a better way to describe them. They already act like the morality police within several Muslim countries. Thank science they don't have the force of law behind them too. Let's make sure it stays that way.

You can read what others have said about Repent Amarillo here, here, and here.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Quote of the Week

"Isn't it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?"
- Douglas Adams

I Knew It!

Now I have science justifying my prejudices:

Political, religious and sexual behaviors may be reflections of intelligence, a new study finds.

Evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa at the the London School of Economics and Political Science correlated data on these behaviors with IQ from a large national U.S. sample and found that, on average, people who identified as liberal and atheist had higher IQs. This applied also to sexual exclusivity in men, but not in women. The findings will be published in the March 2010 issue of Social Psychology Quarterly.

Hey, it’s science, and you know you can’t fight science! Since all of the above apply to me, I must be a genius. Score!

Seriously though, I wouldn’t read too much into a single study. There could be other factors at work or a mere coincidence. Still, it’s interesting to see someone noticed a correlation. I invite you to make your own conclusions.

On a side note, how long until Fox News throws a temper tantrum about this one?

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Wherein I Lament the Idiocy of an Elected Official

Think Progress had a mildly disturbing quote from Representative Steve King (R-IA) the other day. When asked if he thought the attack on the Austin, Texas IRS building was motivated by the overwhelming anti-tax rhetoric from the Right, he replied:

I think if we’d abolished the IRS back when I first advocated it, he wouldn’t have a target for his airplane. And I’m still for abolishing the IRS, I’ve been for it for thirty years and I’m for a national sales tax. [...] It’s sad the incident in Texas happened, but by the same token, it’s an agency that is unnecessary and when the day comes when that is over and we abolish the IRS, it’s going to be a happy day for America.

Ignoring the fact that he completely dodged the question and saw some sort of justification for the crime, I wonder if Rep. King has ever really thought this out during his "thirty years" of being for the abolition of the IRS. Even if there were a national sales tax, there would need to be some government entity that has to oversee the collection of those taxes. Maybe there's something I'm missing, but I hope he's really not that stupid. Then again, the anti-tax believers have never been amongst those I would consider rational.

On a side note, tax revenue still has to come from somewhere if we want to have a functioning government, whether it's from income taxes, a value added tax, or a sales tax. Besides, I seriously doubt shifting the mode of taxation would do anything to change the irrational tax hatred that dominates the Right. They seem to believe cutting taxes are a magical cure that will allow the ever-benevolent market to save us from all of our problems. It's a pipe dream. Now, I don't enjoy paying taxes anymore than the next person, but it's a price I willingly pay to ensure we still have a generally functional, modern nation where we're not completely at the mercy of those with the most money...some of the time...maybe. Okay, now I'm just depressed. Better work on my novel and imagine happier places.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

I Suppose I Had a Victory of Sorts

I'm afraid my IM discussions with my Christian coworker have gone about as far as they're likely to go. Last night, the Christian started making liberal use of entirely capitalized sentences and then turned openly conceited. It seems he's reached the end of his patience.

One of our primary points of contention, and the one we always came back to was whether or not thoughts arise from purely physical processes. I know little about neuroscience, so it was a difficult subject for me to argue. Of course, my coworker knows even less about it, so that was a moot point. Anyway, I maintain that thoughts are the result of physical processes, and I feel the evidence fully supports it. The Christian obviously feels differently. Even when I point out that specific portions of the brain show electrical activity during thought formation or that damage to specific regions will render a person unable to feel the emotions or thoughts generated by that area, the Christian insists that the evidence is only correlation, not evidence of origin:

but if you cannot explain physically where a thought comes from originally (NOT HOW IT'S EXPRESSED) then should you hold to your materialistic beliefs or look for another explanation?

In response, I pointed out that we simply don't understand the workings of the brain well enough yet to properly "read" thoughts. Why dismiss a possible and explanation before it's falsified, especially when there's a strong correlation? In response, the Christian accuses me of taking it on faith that we will eventually be able to read thoughts simply because I have an irrational belief in materialism. As he says it, we can't completely explain the origin of thoughts now, so there's no reason to assume natural causes. We automatically have to go with the supernatural.

While the fact that I have a "belief" in naturalism is certainly true, we can only build judgments based on our beliefs and experiences, I feel the history of science shows that you can't assume anything is unknowable, especially when natural causes have explained so much already. Just because people couldn't imagine or even measure the presence of relativity before the 20th century doesn't mean it wasn't a property of the universe.

Nevertheless, the Christian went into a diatribe that one must consider the supernatural for things we cannot measure, such as thoughts. Really, it was nothing more than a "god of the gaps" argument dressed up in a way that sounded philosophically pleasing enough to make his faith sound science-based. When I pointed the obvious fact that his insistence on the supernatural is wholly dependent on his preferred beliefs, he threw the following down:

philosophical naturalism... not science. I'm honestly kinda disappointed you won't consider intelligent causes

Despite the gross misunderstanding of science, the Christian's declaration of his superiority kind of pissed me off. I didn't say anything about it, and just let him continue on his tirade for a while. I made a couple of attempts to further explain my argument, but the Christian was pretty much done with the debate at that point and decided to call it a night shortly after that. I never expected any sort of victory. We view the world in fundamentally different ways, which means we will never agree on certain aspects.

Nevertheless, the fact that I kept it cool and reasoned, while he was the one to make it personal gives me a small degree of satisfaction. No, it won't change a damn thing, but I'll take it. Still, I think I'm about done talking with him about religion. Now that he's made his disdain open, I see little reason to continue.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Quote of the Week

"The authors of the gospels were unlettered and ignorant men and the teachings of Jesus have come to us mutilated, misstated and unintelligible."

- Thomas Jefferson

Thursday, February 18, 2010

At Least They Picked the Least Useful Means Possible

John Avlon from The Daily Beast has a good article on the current Right-Wing Christian fad, "Imprecatory Prayers". This particular prayer comes from Psalm 109 of the Old Testament, which details the prayer necessary to encourage God to kill someone who has wronged you. Psalm 109:8-9 says: "May his days be few; may another take his place of leadership. May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow." Yeah, very Christian.

Is this really how these clowns want America to be seen? Just because someone not from your party of choice won an election, does that mean he now deserves to die? Of course, all the pastors pushing these downright ghoulish views are also committed Birthers. Pastor Wiley Drake of California recently said:

“I’m known as a birther, you know. I don’t believe Obama was born in this country. He’s an illegal alien and so forth. And so I began to pray what the Bible teaches us to pray and that is imprecatory prayer. An imprecatory prayer is very strong. Imprecatory prayer in Psalms 109, for example, says if you have an evil leader above you, you pray that Satan will stand by his side and you ask God to make his children fatherless and his wife a widow and that his time in office be short… Other Psalms say when they speak evil, God will break out their teeth and when they run to do destruction God will break their legs.”

Let's say Obama was actually ineligible for President...would that be reason enough for him to die? What has he done that is so terrible? He's been more or less a centrist for his entire first year. I really don't get it. Then again I don't believe fairy tales are real, so that might have something to do with it.

Then there's Pastor Steven L. Anderson of Arizona. He's just full of Christian charity:

“I hate Barack Obama. You say, well, you just mean you don’t like what he stands for. No, I hate the person. Oh, you mean you just don’t like his policies. No, I hate him … I am not going to pray for his good. I am going to pray that he dies and goes to Hell.”

Again, what in the hell did President Obama ever do to you Pastor Anderson? Seriously, what is it about Conservative Christianity? They define themselves entirely by what they hate: gays, abortion, liberals, taxes, Muslims, Obama, affordable health care, etc. Where's the love that is supposedly the focus of Christianity? I'm really not seeing it. If nothing else, this is a prime example of people using religion to further their own personal beliefs and views. Why should we believe anything these hate mongers have to say?

I recommend you check out the whole article.

Thanks to Ed Brayton.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Some Random Thoughts About Avatar

I finally saw Avatar last night. In short, I thoroughly enjoyed it...with a few minor caveats.

First, the story was pretty unoriginal, being little more than Dances With Wolves, Pocahontas, The Last Samurai, et cetera repackaged with aliens. Nevertheless, I don't mind familiar stories if they're told well, and I feel this one was told well. James Cameron made a good choice devoting so much time (almost 2 hours) developing the Na'vi culture, and making it something I cared about as a viewer. Once the inevitable conflict with the human colonists began, I was fully engaged in the story and cared very much about the outcome. Plus, it made the final triumph that much more satisfying. It's something any good story should do. Sure, it was nothing new and totally predictable. But with proper development, it doesn't matter.

Then there were the visuals. Simply incredible. I've often read and agree that science fiction isn't about character development or even's about the setting. It's about transporting people to new worlds and making them consider the possibilities. In this regard, Avatar was a smashing success in my book. Though the characters were mostly one dimension and the plot was nothing new, Pandora was an incredible world filled with wonder and possibility. Just the kind of thing I want to see in science fiction. Plus, I love movies with cool creatures, and Avatar was chock full of incredibly well imagined and awesome-looking lifeforms.

For one last quibble, I'm really disappointed the Na'vi were humanoids. I understand why from a story-teller's viewpoint. Make them too alien, and human audiences wouldn't connect, thereby destroying the story's impact. However, the Na'vi share no characteristics with the surrounding wildlife. They weren't hexapods, they didn't have four eyes, and they had hair. It seems they would share more features with their fellow creatures if they were actually native to Pandora (maybe they aren' for thought).

Also, I found the Eywa concept cool, in that all the lifeforms on the planet are linked together, creating a sort of planetary sentience and consciousness. It might seem far fetched, but it's similar to the Gaia hypothesis, which has been around for a while. Though I doubt there's anything like it on Earth, you never know what might be out there amongst the stars, waiting to be discovered. Maybe there's nothing exactly like what was imagined in Avatar, but there could be planet-wide neural networks out there, formed by lifeforms we can't imagine, creating intelligences with perceptions we can't begin to fathom. See? That's what good science fiction should do.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Quote of the Week

To celebrate Charles Darwin's 201st birthday, felt the following is an appropriate quote to mark the occasion:

"There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved."

- Charles Darwin, from the closing of Origin of Species, First Edition

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

A Case Study of Religious Blinders at Work

I was having lunch today with a bunch of my coworkers, and the topic drifted into the subject of religion (I promise, I didn't do it).  The group consisted of three agnostics (including myself), a Catholic, a liberal Christian, and my boss, who is a Mormon.

Overall, the discussion was a refreshing, open exchange of ideas.  No one was out to hurt anyone else's feelings, and everybody kept it respectful.  However, I found one moment particularly eye-opening when we entered the subject of how religions start.  My boss said something along the lines of, "Islam is obviously fake.  Muhammad just went to his cave and borrowed ideas from Christianity and Judaism, and then added his own twist to it."  Now, I more or less agree with this statement, but I was completely blown away by the mental blinders at work here.  As I said earlier, my boss is a Mormon.  Joseph Smith was an obvious charlatan who created a faith with parts of Christianity and Judaism before adding his own twist to it.  I wonder if my boss even noticed the parallel.  I kind of wish I had pointed it out, but I figured that wouldn't be the best idea.

Still, the whole thing blew me away.  It's amazing how easily the human mind adapts itself to sectarian religious belief.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

We Now Know (Some) Dinosaurs' Colors

I find this very cool because most assumed it would be impossible to know dinosaurs' actual colors. However, over the past two weeks, that has changed. Two separate teams of paleontologists, studying the incredibly well-preserved feathers of dinosaurs found in the Liaoning Province of China, have announced the first scientific determinations of dinosaur color.

The first study, published in the journal Nature, concerns the thin feathery filaments covering the turkey-sized Sinosauropteryx (pictured left). The research team was able to locate fossilized melanosomes, the same cellular structures that give modern birds their feather colorations. After studying these melanosomes, the paleontologists were able to determine that the Sinosauropteryx's feathers were a light brown in color.

Another study published this week in Science goes even further. Using more advanced techniques, the paleontological team behind the study analyzed the entire color scheme of the chicken-sized Anchiornis, and were able to create a full body rendering of the creature when it was alive (pictured below).

Just looking at the stark color differences between these two dinosaurs means there must have been incredible color diversity amongst all dinosaurs, just like modern birds. Sure, this technique won't help us with non-feathered dinosaurs such as Tyrannosaurus or Edmontosaurus, but these studies do show that we should never say never. Who knows what science may uncover.

Sinosauropteryx illustration courtesy of James Robbins. Anchiornis illustration courtesy of Michael DiGiorgio.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The End of Constellation

One of the big news items of the day is that President Obama's proposed budget for FY 2011 includes a cancellation of NASA's Constellation program. The program was meant to create a multipurpose vehicle that would replace the soon to be retired space shuttles. Additionally, Constellation was meant to carry astronauts back to the Moon and on to Mars by 2020. While disappointing, I think cancelling this program is for the best.

With the nation's fiscal woes, NASA's budget isn't going to grow much larger (although the 2011 budget does propose a slight increase). Cost overruns for Constellation would have cut into the rest of NASA's budget, thereby forcing the agency to sacrifice more and more worthy projects in the name of manned space flight. Don't get me wrong, I think it would be incredible to send people to Mars. But is it worth it? Look at just some of the incredible work being done by unmanned probes: Cassini has been sending us breathtaking images and measurements of Saturn and its moons. The Spirit and Opportunity rovers have been tottering about Mars for the past 6 years (Spirit recently became stuck, but it can still conduct scientific measurements from where it's at). Kepler might locate other Earth-like worlds around other stars. New Horizons will provide us with our first up-close images of Pluto. And that doesn't even touch on NASA's aeronautical and meteorological research. All told, these sorts of missions provide far more data and benefit than sending a handful of people to the Moon and Mars for brief periods of time.

Sure, the shuttles are nearing their retirement, so NASA won't be able to send humans into space by itself. However, without the huge money hole of the shuttle, NASA can shift funding towards unmanned exploration of more places, finding more efficient means of carrying humans to the stars, and understanding our own planet better. Once space travel becomes more cost effective, or we find something we truly must see first hand (alien life, perhaps), then it will be worth the cost of sending people. Until then, let's cast a wide net and examine as much as we can with our available resources.

I Don't Think This Ended Well

A couple days ago I came across the following question on Yahoo! Answers. Bethany wrote:

My 17 year old son has been very secretive with me lately, recently he has started to refuse to go to church with the family and tonight when I was going through his room I found a magazine with naked men in it. He obviously has a girlfriend that he is hiding from me that brought that magazine into my home and I am afraid they are having intercourse and I am greatly concerned that he is going to get her pregnant.

What should I do about this?

Done laughing? Sure...a secret girlfriend is definitely the explanation. Of course, those posting answers immediately pointed out the obvious: her son is most likely gay. Apparently, Bethany didn't like that answer so much, and felt compelled to add this addition:

He is not a homosexual, we have taught him from the bible and he has learned though our church that this is not in God's plan. I will not teach him about condoms, that is unacceptable, we have always taught him about abstinence and that is what God and his future wife expects from him.

I want to speak to our pastor about this but I am very afraid of what he would think we are teaching our son if he things we are allowing him to sneak a girl into his bedroom. That is clearly inappropriate and we are good parents, I am very afraid what he will think of us.

Got to love it when a parent tries to force feed her child religious beliefs. I feel sorry for Bethany's son. Instead of finding acceptance from his parents, they're going to bludgeon him with religion and try to keep him ignorant of human sexuality. No wonder the kid stopped going to church.

The simple fact is, no human behavior exists strictly one way or another. Instead, the behaviors of individuals within a population fall on a bell curve. Why would sexuality be any different? It easily explains why there are homosexuals, bisexuals, and heterosexuals with the majority of the population falling on the heterosexual end.

Sure, Bethany's son might have been taught that homosexuality is "wrong", but that can't change the way his brain has been wired to operate. No amount of teaching can change that. It's like choosing your intelligence. An individual simply has no control over it. Of course, Fundamental Christians will never accept it. They believe that the mind is not linked to the physical structure of the brain and that the consciousness (read: soul) is free to seek forgiveness or sin. Therefore, they simply cannot accept that being gay is not a choice dependent on physical factors.

It doesn't help that Bethany's entire post is filled with an air of outright fear regarding sex. Her biggest worry is that her son is having sex, but she won't teach anything about condoms. No wonder she immediately blocks out the idea of her son being gay. She can't handle the thought of him having sex with a woman...that he might want to try sex with another man is just too much for Bethany to handle. I just hope this didn't result in another gay teenager estranged from his parents because of their rigid adherence to ancient myths.

By the way, I love how Bethany is terrified of what her pastor thinks about the whole thing. Sheesh. Living in reality is so much easier.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Book of the Month: Collapse

The February book of the month is Jared Diamond's Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.  For anyone who is concerned about sustainability or simply wants to know why we should care about the health of the environment, this book is a perfect starting point.

Collapse comes in four main parts, starting with the changing situation in modern Montana.  Though traditionally individualist in culture, Montana's increasing population is forcing the need for proper land management.  This provides an easy to relate to example for why some cultures resist change even in the face of obvious problems.  More than anything, people do not like change or it may be in their short term interest to resist doing so.

The next part is an in depth analysis of several societies throughout history, both successful and otherwise, that draws on the lessons from Montana.  Diamond starts with several ancient societies that have collapsed, including the Easter Island culture, the Chaco Canyon culture, the Mayans, and the Greenland Norse.  Throughout, Diamond demonstrates how deforestation and the resulting soil erosion caused each society's population to collapse due to lack of a fuel source and severely decreased crop yields.  Then Diamond points out the societies who have staved off ecological disaster, including Tokugawa Japan and the peoples of the New Guinea highlands.  In contrast to the failed societies, these ones recognized the impending danger of deforestation and took drastic measures to stop it in their lands.  Japan, for instance, is now the most heavily forested country in the world thanks to these measures.

Part three is a survey of several modern societies threatened with collapse.  Most frightening was the discussion of China, which could be looking at a major ecological disaster in the not too distant future.  With its massive and still growing population, China needs ever more agricultural land to support itself.  However, rapid deforestation is accelerating desertification, which destroys large swaths of China's farmland every year.  In addition are China's dwindling sources of fresh water and pollution from its rapid industrial growth.  For China to avoid disaster, it must face these problems sooner rather than later.  And if you think it's just China's problem, consider the pollution runoff that enters the oceans, not to mention the danger of over one billion people starving in a collapsing state that possesses nuclear weapons.

Part Four is a slight change of pace and looks at the economic realities that either enhance or diminish a modern society's tendency to adopt sustainable practices.  In a clear, nonpolitical manner, Diamond points out that businesses exist to make money, and will only accept sustainable practices if it is advantageous for them to do so.  More importantly, people need a source of income, and corporations are the primary income providers for the world.  Their existence allows us to enjoy a higher standard of living.  However, that doesn't mean they should not be regulated.  Otherwise, they can become a far greater harm than they are worth.

This brings us to Diamond's final point: the public is ultimately responsible for how the businesses of their society operate.  Sure, corporations can utilize incredibly unethical practices, but if the public is apathetic towards these transgressions, then their businesses will be too.  However, the public can demand government regulation against unsustainable practices and can prefer to buy products that exhibit responsible stewardship, making environmentally-friendly business the more profitable choice for corporations.  At the end of the day, it doesn't matter what your political ideology is.  If we don't take effective action that acknowledges economic realities, then we could find ourselves in the same position as the Easter Islander who cut down the last tree on his island, wondering why his crops no longer grew fast enough to sustain him.  Unlike the Easter Islander, there are no other human societies beyond Earth to carry on our species.  If we want to survive, then we must learn to live within what our planet can provide.

However, this only touches the surface of the wealth of information conveyed within Collapse.  If this topic interests you, pick up a copy to get a better idea of the ecological challenges facing our society and how others have successfully solved them.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

The New World Order Conspiracy: An American Tradition

From time to time, you may hear certain far right elected officials (Michelle Bachmann, for instance) warn about the coming "New World Order". It's been a common conspiracy theory amongst conservative Christians since the 1990s, and it's become an essential component of the popular end times theology that many Christians draw from a literal interpretation of the Book of Revelations. In short, NWO conspiracy theorists fear that the UN is working with a secret society of elites to bring about a single, global government that will subjugate every human on Earth. Within fundamentalist circles, they believe the Antichrist will lead this "New World Order", and he will rule over the planet for the "seven years of tribulation" mentioned in Revelations. Of course, this includes fears that this "One World Government" will execute all Christians and "American Patriots" (I assume those would be the "real" Americans Sarah Palin usually refers to) while forcing everyone to follow a single religion and become completely subservient to the state.

Anyway, I stumbled across a blog filled to the brim with NWO conspiracy theories and unending paranoia about the coming days of martial law called AMERICAN HOLOCAUST AND THE COMING NEW WORLD ORDER. Yeah, in all caps. The author, Pamela Schuffert, claims to be "performing in-depth investigative journalism". However, her idea of journalism is to provide unsourced information from people she meets who are just as paranoid as she is. When Schuffert does provide links, they're always to equally unhinged sites that rely on hearsay and rumor for their information. Here's a small sample of the crazy:


I have previously reported MUCH information about the covert military BLACK OPS in place in YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK (YNP), and reported about military admissions (which I have gathered from reliable sources, including 911 truthteller retired USAF FIELD MCCONNELL, and at least one Pentagon source) of huge amounts of powerful military explosives being covertly planted around the YELLOWSTONE SUPERCALDERA, for what many of us researchers believe will prove to be part of the CREATED CHAOS leading to MARTIAL LAW declaration in the USA for the NEW WORLD ORDER agenda.

For many years , I along with many Americans had been hearing reports about the AMTRAK REPAIR FACILITY of BEECH GROVE, IN, being refurbished/renovated in some areas to be used someday as a FUTURE TERMINATION FACILITY for America under martial law. While it remains true that part of this facility is actively being used to repair AMTRAK trains, it is also true that various parts of this facility have also been renovated to include newly installed gas lines, airtight windows (etc) with huge exhaust fans installed on top of certain buildings, prisoner turnstile entrances installed, etc.

You get the idea. These are the people forming "militia" groups in rural areas, building well stocked survival shelters, and causing ammunition sales to go through the roof. The obvious question is, what would be the point of the whole thing? Why would a One World Government interested in power and order want to create so much chaos? How does that suit their ends? For instance, why would they want to make the Yellowstone caldera erupt? Doing so would render most of the US uninhabitable. What's the point in ruling a wasteland?

I think the answer comes from the fact the the NWO conspiracy is completely intertwined with the Right's "Christian Nation" myth. The central theme of the NWO theory revolves around communistic or non-Christian, foreign armies invading the US and killing its Christian inhabitants with the help of the US government. It contains all the fears of far-right Americans in one convenient package: fears of the religious diversification of America, fear of communism left over from the Cold War, and the toxic distrust of our own government, which the conservative movement has pushed relentlessly for the past 30 years. All of this is fueled by the fact that America is a nation undergoing huge demographic and cultural change. To many white, fundamental Christians, this seems like an all out assault on the America that they believe is the Zion promised in the Bible. However, change has been a constant throughout American history. It was never the Christian paradise so many fundamentalists imagine. In fact, fundamental Christians have been lamenting the moral decay of America and predicting its collapse since before the Revolution, and this idea has been a constant staple of American religious belief. It even extends into secular culture with the popularity of post-apocalyptic fiction. It's certainly one of my favorite genres. More than anything, the NWO conspiracy theory is simply a modern manifestation of an American tradition.

H/T to Ed Brayton

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Dead Ends During a Recent Discussion With a Christian

So apparently one of my coworkers has made it his personal goal to convert me to Christianity. Now to give you an idea, this Christian's entire life revolves around his faith, and he's very much what you'd think of when you picture the home-schooled Christian whose only social interaction comes with those at his church. However, he's a very nice man, and always extremely respectful, so it really didn't bother me at all. Plus, I love sharing my thoughts, especially when it's an opportunity to challenge my assumptions.

So far, most of our discussions have revolved around the historical veracity of the resurrection of Jesus, since believing in the event is one of the foundational creeds of Christianity. The Christian bases most of his knowledge off the work of apologist Lee Strobel. Most of what I know about biblical scholarship comes from Bart Ehrman and my knowledge of Greek and Roman history, which was the focus of my studies in college. Our discussions were all over the place, but what follows were our major sticking points where the Christian diverged so completely from the actual evidence that it was impossible to continue the particular line of argument.

Now, anyone who's done more than a little reading on Biblical scholarship knows that most of the books within the New Testament were not actually written by the authors whose names are attached to them. However, this became the major sticking point because the Christian I spoke with insisted that the authors of the Gospels were in fact Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John, and that virtually no biblical scholar would disagree. I'm sure that would be news to the large body of scholars who feel otherwise. Nevertheless, most of the following discussions revolved around the accounts in the Gospels, and how they verify each other, which is a severely flawed argument in my eyes since we really don't know the authors, and we know that scribes have made changes to the manuscript over the years (for example, Mark 16:9-20 is an obvious addition to the original manuscript). Plus, there are no non-Christian primary sources from the time that we could use to satisfactorily corroborate the tales in the Gospels. The only outside mention of Jesus comes from nearly a century after his death. That's no where near sufficient evidence to verify the resurrection.

Then I pointed out that the Gospels were passed on orally for at least 30 years, which makes it incredibly likely that the legend grew with the telling before it was ever put to paper. The Christian's answer for that was that the Christian communities throughout the Mediterranean were always double-checking what they were told with the original apostles, ensuring they always had the proper story. However, I find this claim extremely dubious because the slow spread of information in those days meant it was virtually impossible for the apostles or their immediate successors to be everywhere. Besides, would Paul really need to warn against false teachings in his letter to the Corinthians if there wasn't other views being spread about? The early history of Christianity is filled with wildly differing beliefs, much of which were suppressed as Christianity's eventual orthodoxy took shape over later centuries. The idea that early Christians were able to perform rigorous fact-checking seems like wishful thinking to me. Plus, we don't have any evidence of what the various Christian communities believed, so there's no evidence that fact-checking was common practice.

Finally, there's the problem of worldview. I'm very much of the naturalistic view, and the Christian has no problem with supernatural explanations so long as it applies to Christians. The supernatural claims of Greek mythology, for example, were always dismissed. Clearly, there's an exception being made here, but it makes it impossible to argue when then least likely explanation is immediately grasped by one side. I tried to argue using other examples of religions arising, including Islam and Mormonism. However, those were always dismissed because of their own problems. Again, the problems with Christianity were always met with hand-waving or clever explanations for which there is no evidence.

Needless to say, I haven't been convinced to join the other side. However, I did enjoy the discussions, even though I know I won't change any opinions. More than anything, it gives me a very good idea of how apologists work in action, always moving the goalposts depending on where the evidence is lacking.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Some Thoughts On the GOP Victory in MA

As I'm sure you know thanks to the unrelenting media coverage, Republican Scott Brown won Ted Kennedy's open Senate seat in a special election last Tuesday. Regardless of how I feel about Senator-elect Brown or the Republican Party, the voters of Massachusetts have spoken, and we have to seat him. Sure, he could derail healthcare reform if the House refuses to accept the Senate bill as is (which is stupid, at least pass something while you have a chance because this opportunity won't come up again for a while).

Anyway, this whole episode highlights a tragic fact of our legislative system: it's broken and no longer following the rules as laid out in the Constitution. The fact that 41 senators are now all it takes to prevent any legislation is asinine. The Constitution clearly states that bills will be passed with a simple majority, and there is no mention of the filibuster, which is a procedural rule that has become more and more common over time. These days, the filibuster makes any vote on a bill require a 60-40 majority. The actual law laid out in the Constitution is now effectively being ignored.

This isn't a matter of wanting to see a Democratic agenda passed. I'd be just as upset if Democrats decided en masse to oppose everything in a Republican-controlled Senate. In fact, I'm sure that's what will happen whenever Republicans do retake the Senate. We face huge challenges, and if neither party is willing to let the other try and enact solutions because they want to "win", we are totally screwed.

Monday, January 18, 2010

America's Descent Into Evil

Harper's recently published a lengthy article examining the events surrounding the three supposed suicides at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba on June 9, 2006. It's clear from the glaringly obvious inconsistencies in the reports and the sloppy attempts to cover everything up that suicide was almost certainly not the cause the men's deaths.

Shaker Aamer was tortured on the same day that the other men died, and gave this statement in an affidavit with the federal district court in Washington:

On June 9th, 2006, [Aamer] was beaten for two and a half hours straight. Seven naval military police participated in his beating. Mr. Aamer stated he had refused to provide a retina scan and fingerprints. He reported to me that he was strapped to a chair, fully restrained at the head, arms and legs. The MPs inflicted so much pain, Mr. Aamer said he thought he was going to die. The MPs pressed on pressure points all over his body: his temples, just under his jawline, in the hollow beneath his ears. They choked him. They bent his nose repeatedly so hard to the side he thought it would break. They pinched his thighs and feet constantly. They gouged his eyes. They held his eyes open and shined a mag-lite in them for minutes on end, generating intense heat. They bent his fingers until he screamed. When he screamed, they cut off his airway, then put a mask on him so he could not cry out.

While it's impossible to corroborate this story, the fact that his airway was repeatedly cut off on the same day that the other men died from asphyxiation makes the logical connection all too easy.

Even more disgusting is how the bodies of the men arrived to their families missing the body parts that would show evidence of murder:

[In the official report] The pathologists place the time of death “at least a couple of hours” before the bodies were discovered, which would be sometime before 10:30 p.m. on June 9. Additionally, the autopsy of Al-Salami states that his hyoid bone was broken, a phenomenon usually associated with manual strangulation, not hanging.

The report asserts that the hyoid was broken “during the removal of the neck organs.” An odd admission, given that these are the very body parts—the larynx, the hyoid bone, and the thyroid cartilage—that would have been essential to determining whether death occurred from hanging, from strangulation, or from choking. These parts remained missing when the men’s families finally received their bodies.

All the families requested independent autopsies. The Saudi prisoners were examined by Saeed Al-Ghamdy, a pathologist based in Saudi Arabia. Al-Salami, from Yemen, was inspected by Patrice Mangin, a pathologist based in Switzerland. Both pathologists noted the removal of the structure that would have been the natural focus of the autopsy: the throat. Both pathologists contacted the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, requesting the missing body parts and more information about the previous autopsies. The institute did not respond to their requests or queries.

Obviously, something's being hidden.

But this brings us to the final point. Why were these men killed? What did they know that was valuable? As the article notes, there was no evidence linking these men to terrorist activities, so they were being held without cause. Is that why they were tortured? So that the Bush Justice Department could find evidence to justify holding them with for so long?

We may never know, just as we probably won't know just how far Bush and Cheney went with their torture programs, and the fact that the Obama Administration seems intent on putting all of this behind us is deeply disappointing. The opportunity for justice is fast slipping away.

Regardless, this kind of behavior is what the American Right now sees as acceptable. When you see Hannity or Limbaugh defending the Bush Administration's use of torture, this is what they're defending. They represent a particularly disgusting rot in America's core that has completely compromised our long-cherished position as the world's moral compass. The men who died at the hands of officially-sanctioned American interrogators may have been terrorists, I don't know. They may have been innocent. Either way, what happened on June 9, 2006 wasn't justice. It was petty revenge pure and simple.

Please, read the entirety of the article. More Americans need to be aware of what was done in their name.

The BS of Bias

If you are ever inclined towards locating humor on the blogo-sphere to brighten your day I do recommend CNN’s iReport. On this site armature reporters and bloggers make submissions or iReports, on events in their local areas or comments on issues of national significance. In reading these iReports or the comments from other iReporters on them you cannot go but fifteen seconds without coming across one of the most fabled words in all the News Industry: BIAS. Yes bias, an iReporter proclaims it to the sky that a certain CNN article or post or reporter is guilty of bias. They do this as if they have discovered the Holy Grail. It’s meant as the ultimate “got ya” moment, as if after announcing the identification of said bias, the opponent is meant to shrivel up like the wicked witch of the west.

“What a blessing to finally discover this bias,” the iReporter might think. “A great service was performed here.” But was it? Let us examine. Is this the first example of bias to be discovered? Certainly not. CNN and its iReporters have been accused of bias multiple times over multiple years by FOX News. Both parties have accosted MSNBC of bias as well. The term gets thrown around constantly as a straw man to discredit a competitive news agency or reporter, as if having bias makes whatever report immediately invalid. The book Bias by Bernard Goldberg has been around since 2001, so certainly, nine years later there is no reason to expect un-biased reporting. Back in the late 19th century, yellow journalism was rampant. Biased reporting fostered the Spanish-American War, incorrectly identifying the destruction of the USS Maine as result of a Spanish sea-mine, rather than the boiler room accident it turned out to be. Additionally any scholar of great American cinema will recall Citizen Cane, and how the protagonists newspaper was built on bias and skewing his view of the news and issues. I cite these historical examples to establish one precise point. The notion of bias in the media should not be considered a new discovery, or in any way remarkable to the “I” or any other reporter circa 2010. So, getting back to the original issue, what to make of the continued assertion that someone is “bias.”

Nothing. Seems simple, elementary even, but nothing should be made of it. Isn’t bias only effective when the reader is unaware of the bias? Isn’t it meant only to influence the ignorant? Doesn’t the identification of bias immediately compel one to look objectively at the reporting, and discern facts from opinion there by circumventing the bias? Rather than crying wolf at the identification of bias one should embrace it as a potential point of few. Read and issue reported by CNN and then read it by Fox (or vice versa if that is your preference). The facts will remain constant through both reports and the biases then can be clearly identified. Further such an exercise by then referencing NPR, or the BBC, or MSNBC, or even the Daily Show (John Stewart is kind enough to not even attempt to hide his bias). Such an exercise should serve the express purpose of bringing the truth to the surface.

It would seem people cannot be bothered though. Thus we come to the status quo, of biased new organizations catering to their biased viewers while trumpeting at the top of their lungs the bias present in their competitors with no regard for the bias in themselves. And the system churns on, further stratifying and segregating our population into biased subgroups, ignorant of the opinions the other subgroups. There was a time when it was a positive quality to understand and appreciate the opinions of others. To do so today is criticized as being listening to biased reporting; only the other side is “fair and balanced.” And we see the result, political parties unified only in their disdain for the other side, refusing to budge in even the slightest way to reconcile. They are soldiers of their own biased ignorance, completely convinced of their own superiority over the others who are always the “biased” ones. It is a path to ruination and sensible discourse in this country. But what do I know, I am clearly biased.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Time to Work on the Novel...

My posts might grow a little thin over the next couple of weeks.  I've got about a hundred or so pages to go on my novel, so I need to power through a few more chapters.   Obviously, that's going to take up most of my writing energies.  However, I'll be posting from time to time because I'm sure someone will say something stupid or there will be another awesome science discovery.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

New Horizons

A couple weeks ago, NASA's New Horizons probe reached the halfway point between Earth and Pluto. On June 14, 2015, it will finally reach the planetoid, taking high resolution photos as it flies by. I don't know why, but I'm more excited about this probe than most (I'd say Kepler is the only current one that has me more intrigued). Maybe it's the fact that New Horizons is going to be the first ever flyby of Pluto, and we'll finally have an idea of what our distant neighbor actually looks like. There's nothing quite like looking upon a distant land for the first time.

From the New Horizons website, here's a cool pic showing the probe's current location:

Getting there!

Closed Mindedness and Intellectual Laziness

Today, PZ Myers posted a point by point rebuttal to a recent piece on Ken Ham's blog. If you don't know who he is, Ken Ham is the fundamental Christian who founded Answers in Genesis and the Creation Museum in Kentucky, both of which insist on a literal interpretation of the Bible.

Anyway, Ham's original post decried the meaninglessness of the upcoming Atheist Convention in Australia this year. I might as well reprint the bulk of the post:

Imagine—listening to a meaningless talk at a meaningless conference held on a meaningless planet in a meaningless universe! Now, that would be an uplifting conference!

From their worldview, wouldn’t atheists see this meeting as a meaningless waste of time? Of course, they would claim they have some purpose and meaning—but it would be all constructed subjectively according to their own determinations! All because they shake their fist at God—but why?

The Scripture tells us they “suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (Romans 1). Basically it comes down to the fact that they don’t want to have to answer to anyone—they want to set their own rules. They generally want to abort babies if they want or make marriage whatever they want to make it to be (or reject it altogether). They want to do what is “right” in their own eyes! Thus, a Creator who owns them, to whom they owe their existence, and against whom they have rebelled, is anathema to them!

It baffles the mind as to why these atheists even bother to try to aggressively convert people to their meaningless religion—after all, what’s the point? The only reason they would even bother is if they are engaged in a spiritual battle. Otherwise they wouldn’t care. They know in their hearts there is a God, and they are deliberately suppressing that, as the Scripture so clearly tells us.

Yeah, pretty much the standard demonization one can expect from fundamental Christians. There's little reason to go after the strawmen presented here because it's already been done so many times (PZ did a fine job in his post, if you do want to read a response to this). However, I do want to comment on this particular line: "They know in their hearts there is a God, and they are deliberately suppressing that, as the Scripture so clearly tells us."

I for one cannot fathom Ken Ham's worldview. He thinks everything he needs to know or should need to know comes from the Bible. Instead of actually listening to why atheists actually believe the things they do, he just goes with what an ancient scribe thought thousands of years ago. It's sad, really. He has blocked himself off from having an original thought that doesn't fall within his narrowly defined beliefs. What's worse is the fact that his beliefs are completely arbitrary. There are plenty of other religious texts he could believe in absolutely. He just happened to be born into a Christian culture, so that's the one he went with.

Furthermore, the world has changed radically since the various books of the Bible were put to paper. Some of it does not apply or shouldn't apply to the modern world. On the other hand, I'll gladly point out that some of its ideas are timeless. The Golden Rule, for instance, is an excellent idea everyone should live by. That's why it pays to be open minded. I'm more than happy to take the best parts of multiple philosophies, so long as they make sense. Ken Ham doesn't have that luxury. He's closed his mind into a small box, terrified that any step outside of it will result in an eternity of torture.

In Ham's post, we see the result of his closed mindedness. He assumes that atheists are simply lying when they explain where they find meaning. Why does he assume this? Because the Bible says so...and God wrote it's true. This kind of thinking encourages intellectual laziness of the worst sort. Instead of doing actual research, Ham just goes with his assumptions, based on his interpretation of the Bible. Even worse, he ignores the wealth of Biblical scholarship--written mostly by Christians, I might add--concerning the Bible, including its likely authorship, its sources, and its inspiration drawn from earlier cultures. As any historian will tell you (myself included), the history behind a historical document is just as important as the document itself.

Regardless, Ham will continue being intellectually lazy because he feels the Bible's words are all he really needs. Or maybe he's just scared to step outside of the box. Whoever came up with the idea of Hell is a genius. It's a prefect enforcement mechanism to keep minds closed and followers in line. The dictators of the world, past and present, only wish they could pull off something like that.

In the end, Ham's post just reminds me of why I completely reject faith. Religion closes people off from their minds, and prevents them from finding their full intellectual potential. Imagine the possibilities if we could only throw off its debilitating effects.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

And Heeeeere's Pat!

Of course, there can't be a natural disaster anywhere without Pat Robertson making up reasons why it's punishment from God. Here's what he said this morning on The 700 Club:

And you know, Kristi, something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it. They were under the heal of the French. You know, Napoleon the third, or whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, we will serve you if you will get us free from the French. True story. And so, the devil said, okay it's a deal.

And they kicked the French out. You know, the Haitians revolted and got themselves free. But ever since they have been cursed by one thing after the other. Desperately poor. That island of Hispaniola is one island. It is cut down the middle on the one side is Haiti the other is the Dominican Republic. Dominican Republic is prosperous, healthy, full of resorts, etc. Haiti is in desperate poverty. Same island. They need to have and we meed to pray for them a great turning to god and out of this tragedy I'm optimistic something good may come. But right now we are helping the suffering people and the suffering is unimaginable.

I'm going to assume this isn't just Pat being blatantly racist, assuming the Haitians were better off under their French masters. It probably has more to do with the distinctly pagan elements of Haitian religious beliefs, including animal sacrifice and the like. Even then, it's not much better. Way to blame the victims, ass. You may remember, Robertson said something similar after 9/11, blaming Americans for the terrorist attack.

Robertson's entire business depends on stoking his followers fears and taking advantage of catastrophe. Every year, he claims to hear from God, who personally warns him of impending catastrophe. Of course, these "prophecies" are always wildly wrong. When disaster does strike (and always in places and ways he never predicted), Robertson is quick to jump on it as proof that God is vicious and vengeful, punishing those who disbelieve. Nevermind God's seemingly arbitrary vengeance.

It's disgusting. Robertson's version of Christianity is built on nothing but fear, fear, and more fear, and he uses the fear of his followers to pump them for money. Sure, Robertson is clearly insane and hearing voices in his head, but why do so many people listen to him? How is this clown influential? It reminds me one of my favorite Star Wars quotes: "Who's more foolish? The fool, or the fool who follows him?" Seriously, what's worth following there? Try living without fear of the celestial dictator for a little bit. It's quite refreshing, and I promise, God's pretty slow getting around to His vengeance.


Haiti's capital of Port-au-Prince has been devastated by yesterday's 7.0 earthquake. With the extreme poverty of the nation (it's the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere), I can't imagine how terrible the destruction must be after a quake that strong. Hopefully, too many weren't killed, but I'm glad to see the US is responding quickly to offer aid.

Quote of the Week

“We have a natural right to make use of our pens as of our tongue, at our peril, risk or hazard…Think for yourselves and let others enjoy the privilege to do so too.”

- Voltaire

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Oh, the Possibilities

National Geographic has short article on their site about a recent study which determined roughly 15 percent of all stars in the Milky Way galaxy may be similar to ours, which increases their likelihood of harboring life.

From the article:

The research is based on surveys of stars with gas giant planets—similar to Jupiter and Saturn—that orbit far from their stars.

As in our solar system, vast distances stretch between these stars and their gas giants. This creates ample room for rocky planets to thrive in the stars' habitable zones, the regions where liquid water can exist.

And that boosts the likelihood that other Earths, and maybe even other forms of life, abound in the Milky Way.

Hopefully, the Kepler Space Telescope and future missions will be able to support this article's conclusions. Unfortunately, it will take a couple of years before we have any answers from Kepler (to see how Kepler works, I recommend Phil Plait's explanation). Being patient sucks!

Anyway, I love imagining the possibilities. There is just so much out there waiting to be explored. I only wish I would be able to see some of it in my lifetime. But who knows? Humanity might be able to send an unmanned probe to some of our nearest neighbors and send back pictures in time for me to see them. Only time will tell.

What Are They Hiding?

As a sort of follow-up to yesterday's post, the first "Tea Party Convention" at Nashville next month will feature speeches from Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann. Interestingly, neither woman has allowed the media to cover their speeches. Of course, one shouldn't be surprised when it comes to Palin. She is particularly careful to keep her well-crafted public image intact. Any unrehearsed moments would probably be disastrous for her.

As the Star Tribune reports:

Convention spokesman Judson Phillips informs us that most of the sessions are closed “at the request” of the presenters. “Given the media interest, I don't want the sessions disrupted and overrun with the media,” he said.

While organizers are offering to help set up interviews with speakers, they said Palin will not be available.

We know why Palin's hiding from the press, but why are the other leading Teabaggers doing the same? If they want a popular revolution like many claim, don't people need to actually know about it? Just sayin'.

On a related note, Sarah Palin just signed a contract to be a FOX News contributor. Yeah, can't wait to see what asinine lies she spreads from there. When will Murdoch just rename the network Conservative Propaganda, and stop the charade?

Monday, January 11, 2010

Sarah Palin: The Ongoing National Embarassment

I'm going to say this very plainly: Sarah Palin is an absolute farce. Her public persona is so well shielded and crafted, that few of her supporters know how horrifically uninformed she really is. What's worse is that she has virtually no desire to learn more. Perhaps her supporters are just projecting their hopes and preferences onto her. She's been so well shielded from the press and from any sort of direct inquiry, that her overall ambiguity makes this projection fairly easy.

However, the ugly truth has been slowly leaking out. Recently, 60 Minutes featured an interview with several McCain campaign strategists concerning their choice of Palin as the GOP running mate:

Andrew Sullivan did a nice job summarizing the ignorance of Sarah Palin as revealed by her old campaign managers:

Palin had no notion of basic high school history. She barely understood what the Cold War was.
She didn't know what the Federal Reserve did. She believed that her First Amendment rights meant she was protected from press inquiries. She couldn't tell you why there's a North and a South Korea. And she had an inability to distinguish between her own view of the world - which always rationalized everything that Sarah Palin did - and reality.

While her complete lack of knowledge was appalling enough, what's worse is that she was chosen without any real consideration of her credentials or her stances on any of the major issues. When the McCain campaign realized her gross ignorance of even the most basic facts, they moved quickly to shield her from all media scrutiny. She conducted no press conferences and held only a few interviews with friendly media outlets such as FOX News. The only time the campaign managers let her speak on the record with a non-friendly interviewee was for the now infamous Katie Couric interview, where her shortcomings were laid bare for the world to see. Even after the campaign, Sarah Palin has continued her media blackout, refusing to speak with media sources that don't share her partisan views. The only time she divulges anything is through carefully controlled sources such as her book or her Facebook page.

As a result, her fans only know the crafted, fictional version of Sarah Palin. Any attempts to point out her obvious lies or gross ignorance are considered liberal smears. Palin supporters even insist the "smears" are why Palin stepped down from the governorship of Alaska, even though she never gave an actual reason. Besides, if she really wanted to escape the supposedly unfair "liberal" media, she would have dropped out of public life completely. But she hasn't. In fact, she continues to insert herself into the political dialog, holding up her Downs Syndrome child as a political prop (quite disgusting, really). But despite all evidence to the contrary, her supporters continue to believe she is "just like them" and that she would make the perfect president. I think projection is the obvious explanation for this. On most issues, Palin has remained purposely noncommittal except for the few issues that drive the Religious Right, including abortion, gay marriage, and patriotism (read, nationalism). Beyond that, no one really knows where Palin stands (it seems she has no idea either), and that makes it easy for her supporters to assume she shares their beliefs. After all, she unquestioningly loves Jesus and sticks to the party line on the major issues that Fundamental Christians care about. She must be exactly what they want, right?

Before I am accused of being a liberal, partisan hack, let me point out that a lot of liberals were guilty of the same problem with President Obama.  This is also why there's such a liberal backlash against Obama right now.  Too many projected their wishes onto him, and are now deeply disappointed he hasn't been everything they dreamed of.  However, President Obama differs from Palin in the fact that he never hid his views or his stances during the campaign.  He was always open to the press, and has largely followed his proposed agenda.  More importantly, he's knowledgeable of the issues and shows a remarkable degree of open-mindedness.  Sarah Palin is the exact opposite.

Frankly, I fear for the future of America if incompetent know-nothings like Sarah Palin can get anywhere near the presidency just because she's attractive and can convince enough people she's "just like them". It's a sign that America's infatuation with celebrity has risen to dangerous new heights.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Tetrapods Evolved Earlier Than Previously Thought...Cue the Creationists!

Paleontologists recently described a fossilized trackway discovered in Poland that dates to 395 million years ago.

Illustration and photograph by Grzegorz Niedzwiedzki, courtesy of National Geographic

What's cool about it is that paleontologists previously believed tetrapods evolved around 370 million years ago based on finds such as the Tiktaalik rosa which seemed to be a transitional form between fish and amphibians.  However, this new find reveals that tiktaalik was in fact an evolutionary holdover from a transition that occurred at least 20 million years earlier.  Unfortunately, we need more fossil evidence to properly pin down when the transition took place, but at least this find gives us a better idea of where to look in the rocks. Clearly, 395 million years old is too young!

Of course, the usual suspects are tripping over themselves to show that this invalidates tiktaalik's place as a transitional fossil and disproves evolution.  PZ Myers does a nice job explaining why that's simply not the case.  In short, evolution isn't a ladder, but a branching tree.  Creatures that were once transitional forms can continue to survive for millions of years as long as they can continue to reproduce (look at the coelacanth).  In this instance, tiktaalik is the descendant from a population of creatures that were the transition between fish and tetrapods.  Some of that ancestor population continued to survive in their transitional form, eventually becoming the tiktaalik, while others continued changing into tetrapods, including the ones that left their footprints behind in prehistoric Poland.  None of the scientists involved ever claimed tiktaalik was a definite ancestor of all tetrapods.  It was just a prime example of what the direct ancestor might have looked like.

It might be easier to explain using human evolution.  Imagine alien paleontologists are studying the Earth 350 million years in the future, and they have only a rough understanding of human evolution and few fossils to go on.  Then they find a fossilized chimpanzee skeleton followed a couple of years later by a more ancient set of Homo erectus footprints.  Would the alien paleontologists have to rule out evolution entirely because the more human-like footprints come before the apparent transitional form in the geologic record?  Of course not.  As we know, the chimpanzee is little changed from the transitional form between humans and all other primates.  However, we also know it is not our direct ancestor, just a good example of what the common ancestor between apes and us might have looked like.  On the other hand, Homo erectus obviously lived before modern chimpanzees, but was well on its way to becoming human while still living at the same time as the chimp's ancestors.

Applied to the recent discoveries of tetrapod evolution, the tiktaalik is like the chimpanzee.  It's an approximate representation of a common ancestor, which continued to coexist among the ever-changing tetrapods.  When those early amphibians walked across an ancient beach in Poland, somewhere in the shallow waters of the world were the ancestors of the tiktaalik.  They had changed little from the common ancestor to both and would remain virtually unchanged for several million more years.

Anyway, this showcases part of what I love about science.  It's always changing in response to new evidence, bringing us closer to an accurate understanding of the world around us.  Isn't reality awesome?

Saturday, January 9, 2010

I Don't Think They Know What "Militant" Means

I can’t begin to describe how tired I am at of seeing the label “militant atheist”. This meme has made the rounds ever since the surge in vocal atheism started a few years ago (maybe the meme has been around longer, but I never noticed it beforehand). But are Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, PZ Myers, Christopher Hitchens, et cetera really militant?

Sure, all the above mentioned atheists and many others, including myself, feel that humanity would be better off without religion, and we don’t censor our views. The high profile atheists have published a few books, written blogs, and have gone on lecture tours. But…what’s militant about that? None of these “militant atheists” have ever taken up arms against any believers. They’ve never committed acts of terrorism. They’ve never even advocated for bans on religious belief. No, all they’ve done is advocate an atheistic worldview to any who will listen and work through legal means to maintain a separation of church and state.

How is that any different from a Christian who seeks to gain converts to his faith and looks out for his religion’s best interests? When Brit Hume said on FOX News that Tiger Woods should abandon Buddhism and become Christian to receive forgiveness for his sins, was he being militant? Of course not. Sure, he was proselytizing from a wildly inappropriate forum, but he wasn’t being militant. He wasn’t using his faith to justify any sort of violent action. What about the Mormon Church sending millions of dollars to support the successful campaign to ban same-sex marriage in California? Sure, I feel the result was an outrage against civil liberties, but the Mormons were operating within their rights and they were certainly not “militant” about it, orchestrating a violent campaign to ensure their preferred outcome.

If you want to see people actually being militant about their beliefs, you don’t need to look far. Al-Qaeda is a perfectly obvious example since they have regularly killed innocent people in an attempt to achieve their ideologically-driven goals. Another example is the “militia” groups scattered throughout the US who favor and actively prepare for a violent overthrow of the US government. Without fail, you’ll find those groups justify their radical views through their Christian faith. Timothy McVeigh is just one such example. He was what one should consider militant. Nothing the “New Atheists” have done or said comes anywhere near the aforementioned examples.

So, I’d love to know what actually makes vocal atheists “militant”. My wild speculation is that so many believers have become so wrapped up in their faith that the mere existence of someone advocating views antithetical to their own must feel like a direct, personal attack. But that is not the case. I am not going to go out and try to violently end Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and so on. In fact, I find the idea repugnant. Freedom of and from religion should be an absolute right. So unless atheist terrorists start blowing up churches in the name of nonbelief, please stop calling us militant. We just want to make our views heard and respected in a free exchange of ideas, and there’s nothing militant about that.