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.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Theocracy in Alabama

Bradley Byrne, a GOP gubernatorial candidate for Alabama, recently clarified that he believes the Bible is true. "Every word of it." As depressing as that is, what's worse is that he had to make that statement as a rebuttal to his opponent's primary line of attack.

Last November, he made the mistake of saying, "I believe there are parts of the Bible that are meant to be literally true and parts that are not." Sounds reasonable enough, right? Of course, that won't pass muster with GOP voters these days, especially in the South, so Byrne's busy saying all the right things to soothe Christians' riled feathers. Yeah, that's way better than focusing on, you know, actual issues.

Can the South just hurry up and declare itself a theocracy? It's already there with garbage like this.

Now This Is Refreshing

Personally, I've been more or less pleased with President Obama's performance.  Sure, he hasn't been able to make the sweeping changes we'd hoped for, and he's been rather disappointing when it comes to his refusal to change several Bush policies regarding the prosecution of terror suspects being held by the government.  However, the burden of reform falls on the legislative branch, which has become completely hamstrung with the now routine use of the filibuster in the Senate.

Nevertheless, President Obama said this yesterday in regards to the failure to stop the Underwear Bomber:

I am less interested in passing out blame than I am in learning from and correcting these mistakes to make us safer. For ultimately the buck stops with me.  When the system fails, it is my responsibility.

What a refreshing change from his predecessor.  George W. Bush seemed incapable of admitting any mistakes.  Apparently, he thought it made him look weak.  In reality, it just revealed his cowardice, since it takes real courage, political and otherwise, to own up to one's mistakes.  Good job President Obama for actually being a leader.

On a final note, I cannot stand the chorus of blame being thrown around.  Depending on where they sit on the political spectrum, you see pundits and politicians blaming Obama, the intelligence community, Homeland Security, and so on.  Hey, shit happens.  A terrorist is going to sneak through from time to time.  Stopping all of them is virtually impossible, especially if we want to maintain a free and open society.  It's the cost of having our style of life.  I understand that.  Besides, you're far more likely to die in a car accident or succumb to heart disease than ever experience a terror attack.  Everyone just needs to take a deep breath, and go on with their lives.

Dubai's Shiny New Energy Waster

As you may have heard, Dubai's Burj Khalifa (formerly Burj Dubai) now holds the record as the tallest free-standing structure ever built. At an opening ceremony on January 4th, the official height of the skyscraper was announced to be 828 m (2,717 ft). To get an idea of the size, you would need to stack both of the old World Trade Center towers on top of each other to reach the same height, While I have to admit I always find enormous building projects fascinating (doesn't everyone), this particular record-breaker seems extremely foolhardy.

First off, the building requires almost as much electricity as the rest of the city to operate, a fact that certainly won't help Dubai's largest per capita carbon footprint in the world. Second, the building fills no real need. As the LA Times' Christopher Hawthorne recently detailed, most of the building remains vacant. When the construction company broke ground in 2004, Dubai was in the middle of a huge growth binge fueled with debt in an effort to boost its economy. The reason why is understandable enough because Dubai's oil reserves have been mostly depleted. Since selling sand isn't known for is huge returns, the only remaining option for Dubai was to try and boost tourism through spectacular building projects including manmade offshore islands and luxury hotels. The Burj Khalifa is a huge part of this revitalization as a center for business and luxury residences.

Though Dubai was able to attract wealthy tourists, mostly from Europe, the global recession has brought most of that to a halt. Furthermore, the collapse of the real estate market has left Dubai with far more real estate than its economy can hope to maintain. Furthermore, the city recently had to secure a $10 billion loan from its neighboring emirate, Abu Dhabi, just to pay for the loans on its building projects.

As for Burj Khalifa, most of the residences have been booked, but they were all sold in advance before the economic downturn and few people have actually moved in. Even worse, there is virtually no need for commercial office space in Dubai for the foreseeable future. As a result, most of the tower's 3.5 million square feet sit empty, sucking up energy and resources.

More than anything, this is a perfect example of the mindset we need to discard if we want to have a sustainable and productive future. Sure, tall things are awesome, and there are legitimate reasons to build them. However, Burj Khalifa seems to have been built more to stroke the egos of Dubai's ruling family and as a shiny toy they can show off to the rest of the world. And now it sits there, sucking up energy from our planet’s ever diminishing supply of hydrocarbons while serving no real purpose. Thanks Dubai.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Known Universe

If you haven't seen the video below, you really should check it out:

Sure puts things into perspective, doesn't it? And to think, there are people who think all of that is devoid of life and meant solely for us. Man, reality is so much more awesome.

Thanks to the American Museum of Natural History for making that video.

I'm Back on the Atheist Blogroll

Due to my lack of posting, I was removed from the Atheist Blogroll. However, I'm now back on it, and I've added the widget to my blog. You can find it on the right at the bottom under "This Blog is Listed At." Please take some to check out the other atheist blogs on the blogroll. You never know what insights or cool discussions you might find. Furthermore, if you have an a blog that discusses atheism or nonbelief, you should join the blogroll and get your name out there to potentially interested readers.

You Go Irish Atheists!

I know this has been thoroughly covered already, but I wanted to highlight the Atheist Ireland's campaign to overturn Ireland's new blasphemy law.

When the law passed last July, it was buried in a defamation bill, and it seems most of the Irish were uncertain why the blasphemy portion even passed. Nobody seemed to be calling for it. However, I know nothing about how the Irish government works, so I won't even being to speculate. Anyway, the law came into effect at the start of the year, so a group calling themselves Atheist Ireland have published 25 "blasphemous" quotes online in an effort to highlight the stupidity of the law and get it repealed.

My hat's off you Atheist Ireland. Hopefully you can force the removal of this blight on free speech from your nation.

The Soviets' Revenge

Even though I was on an extended blogging hiatus, I’ve kept an eye on the news as closely as ever. Out of everything that’s happened over the past year, what bothers me most is America’s complete inability to fix its growing problems. On issues as wide-ranging as healthcare reform, energy independence, sustainability, and financial reform, we have frighteningly huge problems staring us in the face. I don’t blame Obama, and I’ve been generally pleased with his performance. He’s curtailed the power of his office from the severe overreach of his predecessor, focusing on his constitutionally mandated task of enforcing laws and being generally constructive on foreign policy. All in all, it’s what I voted for. Unfortunately, this retraction of executive power means the legislative branch has the burden of reform. But even with 60 Democrats, the Senate has struggled to pass any substantial legislation this year beyond the economic stimulus and the Senate version of the healthcare bill—and even that had to be severely watered down with tax cuts just to garner enough votes. In many ways, it seems clear the United States federal government has fast become ungovernable.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Quote of the Week

"The bomb blast brings the building crashing to the floor.
Hear the laughter while the children play war.
Funny the way it is, if you think about it..."

- Dave Matthews Band

Book of the Month: Jesus, Interrupted

Since it's a new year and I've been doing a serious amount of reading lately, I think it's time to bring back my old book of the month feature.

January's book of the month is Bart Ehrman's Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don't Know About Them).

If you want a primer on Biblical research from a scholar's point of view, then this is an excellent place to start. Ehrman is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where he specializes in Biblical scholarship. Basically, he knows what he's talking about when it comes to the Bible.

Now the central thesis of Jesus, Interrupted is that the Bible is a historical document like any other, and should be treated as such. Ehrman stresses he is not trying to destroy anyone's faith or convert believers to nonbelief. He simply wants to make well known knowledge available to the masses.

Starting out, Ehrman recounts his experience in the seminary where he first learned about the errors and contradictions and the wrongly accredited books within the Bible, all of which have been well known to theologians for centuries and are not particularly noteworthy. As for why the general public does not know about these basic facts, Ehrman doesn't really have an answer, but his speculations sound plausible enough considering the nature of religious discourse in the US. Generally, he figures most seminary trained pastors have little interest in damaging their parishioners' faiths or delving into scholarship when they have preaching to do.

Then Ehrman gets into the meat of the book, focusing on the differences and inconsistencies of the Gospels. He discusses the timeline of when each book was written and which book was based on the other, including which were based on texts that are now lost. Then he examines the differences in the actual stories told within and how they really don't line up no matter how much hand-waving is done.

Next, he covers the evolution of Christian doctrine in century following Jesus' death. In the beginning, Christianity was far more egalitarian and subject to wildly differing interpretations depending on the sect. However, this changed as time progressed and a particular sect or sects (the details have been lost to history) sought a more hierarchical approach, either discrediting rival sects or incorporating them into the growing, centralized church. This evolution is evident within the Bible, if one understands the background of each book and who actually wrote them.

The last few chapters deal with what a historian can actually say about Jesus and early Christianity, based on the available evidence. First off, a scholar can't really say whether or not Jesus performed miracles or was resurrected. Historians must stick with the most plausible explanation when the evidence is lacking. Obviously, miracles and resurrections wouldn't exactly fit. Instead, Ehrman offers a more likely explanation: Jesus was a heretical rabbi who learned his apocalyptic views from John the Baptist. Eventually, he took his end of the world sermons to Jerusalem, where he upset the temple priests, leading to his execution. The rest of the story is simply the work of legend as the tale grew with the telling.

I could keep sharing the nuggets of wisdom contained within Jesus, Interrupted, but you'd be better off reading the book yourself. It's a delicious tonic for biblical literalism.

Am I Back?

Dammit, I intend to be. It's been a crazy year for me while I've been away from blogging. Work was insane and now I find myself in a nice sandy place on the far side of the world. I also got married to a wonderful woman, henceforth known as Lady J-Bar.

As for the time away from blogging, it was nice. I got time to work on my novel (still not done, but getting there). Will it be published? Hard to say. I have no illusions about my chances, but I've had fun writing it, and I have my next tale formulating in my mind.

However, I've come to miss blogging. There was a time after Republicans were swept from power that I had hope and felt less compelled to speak my mind (or ramble, whatever). However, that has been short lived. The Democrats haven't been able to take advantage of their majority, and the Religious Right hasn't gone anywhere. There's plenty of craziness left from them. Then there's the Teabaggers (not gonna lie, best derogatory name ever!), the Birthers, the Antivaxxers, and so much more. Internationally, there's been the ongoing efforts to do something about climate change, and the ongoing revolution in Iran. Yeah, I think there's more than enough to keep me going.

Now I just need to start cleaning up my blog. Seems I've been removed from the Atheist Blogroll...damn. Anyway, I hope you'll join me again as I explore atheism, politics, science, history, and everything else that fascinates me.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

This Is Why We Oppose Them

On Monday, the New York Times published an article concerning the role three American evangelicals played in the Uganda's recently proposed anti-homosexuality legislation.

If you don't know the details of the law (full text here), it basically singles out and punishes gays for having homosexual relationships. More specifically, it levies seven years imprisonment on those who engage in same-sex sexual relationships, regardless of their nature and life sentences for "aggravated homosexuality". Even worse, it requires citizens "in authority" to report observed homosexual behavior to the police within 24 hours. Failure to do so would result in prison time or heavy fines. Earlier versions of this bill called for more prison time or death sentences, but these have since been removed due to international threats to reduce Uganda's foreign aid.

Anyway, the New York Times revealed some interesting details regarding the involvement of Scott Lively, Caleb Lee Brundidge, and Don Schmierer, all American evangelical Christians. Last March, Uganda held a well attended and broadcast conference exposing "the gay agenda", where the three evangelicals spoke as homosexuality "experts." They covered the usual ignorant crap we're used to hearing in the US: gays want to recruit children, they want to destroy traditional marriage, etc. Nothing new, but in a place like Uganda, where education is uncommon and homophobia is already rampant (a Ugandan government minister recently said, "Homosexuals can forget about human rights, and "corrective" rapes of homosexuals are common in an attempt to turn them straight) it yielded unsettling results.

Now that this bill is making its way through the Ugandan legislature, the Americans involved are now acting shocked at the results of their rhetoric, saying they feel duped and that "Some of the nicest people I have ever met are gay people." My question is: what the hell did you think was going to happen? You go around telling lesser educated peoples that the gays are coming for their children and act surprised? And way to repay those gay peoples' kindness, jerks. This is a perfect example of why I oppose fundamentalist efforts to oppose their beliefs on others. In the end, their ideology is going to destroy the lives of innocent people.