Monday, March 29, 2010

Why you can never be prepared to argue with an anti-vaxer unless you have a WiFi connection

And even then...

Orac reports on a truly stunning display of intellectual dishonesty from the anti-vax movement... yes, truly stunning, even in light of all the other bullshit that has come from that side.

Namely, some dick called Raymond Obomsawin started with this graph of measles incidence in Canada:

We see, of course, a really noisy graph, because as with many communicable diseases, incidence of measles varied widely from year to year prior to the development of the vaccine. Just think of how some years we have a really bad flu season, others not so much. That's just how diseases are.

In a truly shameless display of -- well, it's basically outright lying -- Obomsawin resamples the graph at specifically chosen intervals to construct whatever curve he wants:

Truly, truly shameless.

On a related note, using Dr. Obomsawin's "innovative" data analysis technique, I was able to prove that this whole "recession" business is a myth. The economy is perfectly healthy!

The Federal Reserve is lying to you! (Click on the image to see the rest of the data in that interval...)

Seriously, though, when the dishonesty rises to this level, how do you combat that? The data he presents is "accurate" as far as it goes, and in any case there's no way of verifying that without an internet connection or a trip to the library or whatever. You have to dig fairly deep to realize the lie, and since of course comments are moderated on the website presenting this shenanigans, thousands upon thousands of people will swallow it uncritically.

You cannot be prepared to debunk every single lie they tell, unless you are willing to lie yourself. The best you can do is say, "Well, I don't have any idea where you're getting that, but I know it's got to be either false or a misrepresentation." But then it sounds like you are arguing that you are right because, well, you know you are right.

When the other side is prepared to lie and deceive at every turn, there can never be a fair fight.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

It's a myth that all atheists worship seitan

Only vegetarian atheists.

Last night my wife made a stir-fry using seitan strips, the first time I had tried it. Yet another new texture to work with! I'm pretty excited about it. It had an almost pork-like texture. I have some ideas on how to use it, but it will take some experimentation...

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Vegan cooking just about deserves to be called a "cuisine" in its own right

So the conclusion of this whole brouhaha with my wife about her going vegetarian and wanting our household to follow is that I am cooking all vegetarian at home, but still eating meat when I go out, and I'll probably still prepare meat at home on special occasions. I also went fully vegetarian for the month of January, but I'm back onto the meat now. Still, it was probably good to do it for a month, just to get me into the swing of things with cooking vegetarian.

I have to say, this has been incredibly worthwhile. I have worked with ingredients I had never even tasted before, prepared dishes I'd never done before, and it's pushed my culinary creativity quite a bit. Still, I would never be willing to give up preparing meat forever -- as I mused in one of my earlier posts on the subject, there is nothing in the world of vegetarianism that is anything like the experience of braising a tough fatty piece of meat full of connective tissue until it becomes a magically tender and delicious indulgence, and there are plenty of other examples like that of culinary adventures that are just irreplaceable. But being restricted for awhile has set me off on all sorts of different culinary adventures, and it's been exciting.

I came to the conclusion early on that the burgeoning world of vegan cooking (I don't think it really existed prior to the 20th century) is in many ways deserving of being called a "cuisine" in its own right.

What makes a cuisine? Well, certainly a multi-century history helps, but I'm not sure it is a requirement. Rather, I think a cuisine is defined by ingredients and techniques that are unique (or at least uniquely emphasized) apart from other cuisines, and by signature dishes or types of dishes. The use of lemongrass as an ingredient immediately calls to mind Thai and other Southeast Asian cuisines. Sauces based on the technique of emulsifying fat with eggs or other ingredients can only trace their lineage to traditional French cooking. And who else would call a dish "bangers and mash" except the British?

By these criteria, vegan food just about fits. It certainly fits the "unique ingredients" criterion. Tempeh might evoke memories of home for those who hail from Indonesia, but for most of us it calls to mind images of crunchy hippies at an organic co-op. And modern inventions like TVP and Quorn (a fascinating ingredient I intend to write a separate post about later) don't even exist in other cuisines.

The "unique techniques" criterion is more problematic, although the strong emphasis on substitution and imitation forces new twists on older techniques. For instance, my tempeh "Italian sausage" recipe below can not rightly be called a new technique, but employing the flavor profile of Italian sausage as a marinade/sauce rather than for seasoning meat is somewhat of a new twist, I think. Vegans eschewing of milk and dairy forces the development of alternatives for when those ingredients are used for their prolific chemical qualities, e.g. the use of flour as a binder in vegan burgers when a non-vegan recipe might use an egg.

I am not entirely qualified to talk about "signature dishes", as I am pretty new to vegetarian cuisine, and I'm doing a lot of figuring-it-out-for-myself as I go along. Certainly, veggies burgers have become an entire genre unto themselves, ranging from the mass-produced and passable to the truly inspired. It seems like Buffalo tempeh is a popular dish, and with good reason -- it tastes damn good. (Please don't call it "Vegetarian 'chicken wings'", though... it doesn't taste like Buffalo chicken, it tastes like Buffalo tempeh, and there's nothing wrong with that!) I'm sure there are many other signature vegetarian/vegan dishes that I am not aware of or not thinking of off the top of my head.

All of which brings me to an idea: "Vegan" fusion. Why not take the ingredients and techniques that define vegan cuisine, and mix them up with other cuisines without regard to the conventional restrictions of veganism or vegetarianism?

My current cooking practices already hint at this, in that I use vegan recipes but "unsubstitute" certain ingredients based on the looser dietary restrictions in our household (e.g. Buffalo tempeh is usually thought of as a vegan thing, but I use butter in the sauce and often either milk or eggs depending on how I am doing the breading). But I think it could be taken so much further. Can vegan cuisine's vast experience with imitation inform clever new twists on meat dishes? Could TVP be used in a non-vegetarian context to establish a certain unique flavor or texture? What kind of symphony of ingredients could be composed if one were free to make a "bacon veggie burger"?

Anyway, all reflecting out of the way, here's a couple of recipes I've come up with that really impress:

Tempeh Italian "Sausage"
  • 1-2 Tbsp fennel seed
  • 1-2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil (calibrate for healthy vs. tasty)
  • 2 cloves minced garlic
  • 1 tsp crushed red pepper
  • 1/4 tsp liquid smoke
  • 1/2 package of tempeh, crumbled (not sliced) into bits about 1/4" in diameter
I'm still refining this one, so take the amounts and the technique with a heavy helping of salt (not literally please!). Place fennel seed in skillet over medium heat and toast, tossing fennel seed occasionally, until aromatic. Add extra virgin olive oil, garlic, and crushed red pepper, salt gently, and adjust heat so that garlic and fennel seed are just cooking but not burning. Cook for 5 minutes or so until flavors start to combine. Add liquid smoke, then tempeh, and combine well. Cook another 5 minutes or so and then remove all contents from skillet into a small bowl. Separate tempeh out from the other ingredients (some of the sauce will adhere to the tempeh -- this is a good thing!) and return to skillet. Increase heat to medium-high and cook, stirring occasionally, until tempeh starts to brown and superficially resemble little bits of poultry sausage. Return tempeh to bowl with other ingredients, stir to combine, and let it marinate until you are ready to use it.

You can use this on pizza, in pasta, or wherever. Unfortunately, the seasonings -- especially the fennel seed -- don't penetrate the tempeh very well, so you need to put some of the sauce into your dish as well as the tempeh itself. Alternatively, it might be possible to crumble the tempeh very finely in a food processor, and then before returning it to the skillet for browning, use egg as a binder and form it into the desired shape. That way you could make patties or whatever, and the seasonings would be well-distributed throughout... but I haven't tried this yet, so caveat emptor.

One creative use I came up with for it is to put it in sushi, along with a little bit of diced sun-dried tomato and crumbled feta. Yes, tempeh Italian "sausage" sushi! For real! Everyone is always extremely skeptical, but then they try it and are amazed. I usually coat my sushi with toasted sesame seeds, but for the "sausage" sushi, I toast an extra teaspoon or so of fennel seed and then crush it well, and then I dust the outside of the roll with a little bit of that instead of sesame seeds.

Speaking of wacky vegetarian sushi:

Buffalo tempeh sushi
  • 2 Tbsp butter
  • Frank's Red Hot to taste
  • Dash of rice wine vinegar
  • Cayenne pepper (optional)
  • Half a celery stalk, very thinly sliced into thin ~4" long sticks
  • 1/4 package of tempeh, sliced into ~1/4" wide ~4" long sticks
  • Blue cheese dressing
  • Sushi rice (whatever recipe you use) and nori
  • 1/2 cup flour
  • 1 can or bottle of beer
  • Enough vegetable oil to fill a deep skillet or Dutch oven to at least 1" deep
Melt butter in microwave in small microwave-safe bowl. Whisk in Frank's Red Hot until it looks and tastes like Buffalo sauce. Add the tiniest dash of rice wine vinegar. If you want it extra spicy, add cayenne pepper to taste. Construct a maki roll filled with tempeh, celery stalks, and a drizzle of the Buffalo sauce and a drizzle of the blue cheese dressing (maybe ~1/2 Tbsp each). Cut roll in half. (Do not slice it yet!)

Place flour in a shallow bowl. Open can or bottle of beer, and add enough beer to the flour so that it forms a nice beer batter. Drink the rest of the beer. Do not omit the previous step! Heat vegetable oil in deep skillet or Dutch oven until it gets to frying temperature, about 375 degrees. If you don't have a candy thermometer, you can tell it's ready when flicking a drop of water in it is likely to get your arm burned by splashing hot oil (if you remembered to drink the rest of the beer like I told you, this seems like a great idea and is not too painful). Dip the roll halfs in the batter, shake off any excess, and then deep fry them until golden brown, turning once, doing the halfs one at a time if you are working in a small-ish skillet so that the oil temperature doesn't drop too much. Place remaining Buffalo sauce and roll halfs in container with sealable lid and shake until roll halfs are well-coated. Slice the roll halfs as you would ordinary maki sushi. Arrange the roll on serving platter and drizzle a tiny amount of blue cheese dressing over the top.

If you want to make this one vegan, there are plenty of recipes on the web for making Buffalo sauce without the butter (use oil for the main fat, but there are other tweaks that help get the consistency right), and you can omit the blue cheese altogether without completely destroying the dish. But it's much better with it.

And sorry to post two uber-unhealthy recipes both with Buffalo sauce, but this last one was so stunning in its verisimilitude of the real thing that I need to post it:

Vegetarian Buffalo "Chicken" Pizza
  • 2 Tbsp butter
  • Frank's Red Hot to taste
  • Dash of rice wine vinegar
  • Cayenne pepper (optional)
  • 2 Quorn cutlets
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 cup Panko bread crumbs
  • Enough vegetable oil to fill a deep skillet or Dutch oven to at least 1/2" deep
  • Pizza crust (purchased, or made according to your favorite recipe)
  • Blue cheese dressing
  • 1/3 lb or so of mozzarella, shredded1
  • 1/4 cup chopped red onion
Preheat oven to 450 degrees or whatever temperature you use to cook your pizza crust. Prepare Buffalo sauce and then heat oil as per previous recipe (since you are not doing a beer batter for this one and so might be completely sober, using a thermometer is strongly recommended). Beat egg well. Place Panko bread crumbs in shallow bowl or on plate. Dip frozen Quorn cutlets in egg, then place in bread crumbs and turn to coat. Fry breaded cutlets until golden-brown, turning once, doing them one at a time if you are using a small-ish skillet. Reserve about 1 Tbsp or so of the Buffalo sauce, and place the rest of the sauce and the fried breaded cutlets in a sealable container and shake until well-coated. Slice cutlets into 1/2" chunks.

Cover crust with thin layer of blue cheese dressing. Scatter Quorn chunks over dressing, then cover with shredded mozzarella. Top with red onions. Place pizza on center rack (or better yet, on a preheated pizza stone if you have one) and cook until cheese is melted and crust is cooked through, about 10-15 minutes. Remove from oven and drizzle reserved Buffalo sauce over the top. Cut into slices and serve.

1Please, please, please buy a block of mozzarella and shred it yourself. It's cheaper, it tastes way better, and it takes like thirty seconds. If you don't have a box grater, get one. Seriously. The only possible excuse for using pre-shredded cheese is if you are cooking for a boatload of people, so that the shredding actually does become time-consuming. Otherwise, please, shred it yourself!

Could the New Atheists find "common ground" with the Eagletons and Armstrongs?

Yes, really.

No, I still do not "believe in belief." But the case studies on non-believing preachers recently published by Dan Dennett and Linda LaScola suggest a way that those who do "believe in belief" might make common ground with the New Atheists, if they would rise to the challenge. (Okay, they won't, but anyway...)

Most of the preachers examined in the paper (I think three out of the five?) could still be classified as "believing in belief", in that they defined God as the "ground of all being" or felt that "there is room for the use of the word ‘God’ in some context", or viewed "God as a kind of poetry." What really struck me was the way that these preachers rationalized the concealment of their more "refined" metaphorical theology from their flocks. That I find far more hypocritical than those preachers who were disillusioned with religion entirely, but kept on the job because they feared for their social or family life, or their financial future.

Telling lies because you will be completely fucked if you don't might be ethically wrong, but it's very human, and anyway I'm not going to condemn anyone for that until I walk in their shoes. If I had to tell lies for a living, and I feared I'd lose my house and maybe even my wife and son if I stopped, you'd better believe I'd go on dropping bullshit from the pulpit. But telling lies because you are trying to protect the tender delusions of people who trust you for answer to the questions that are most important to them? Or because you think the listeners are too dumb or simple to hear the truth? That's never okay.

What also struck me was how much this internal dialog of the preachers in Dennett's and LaScola's case study echoed a dialog that we see over and over again between the New Atheists and the "New Theologians" like Eagleton and Armstrong and their ilk. Our side criticizes literal beliefs and dogmas, the Eaglestrongs of the world respond that we just don't understand their sophisticated theology, and then they plug their ears and refuse to listen when our side points out that that's not how most of the world practices religion, not even in modern supposedly-secular democracies.

With that in mind, I suggest a new strategy: When this tired old conversation crops up again, don't respond by simply dismissing apophatic theology, or whatever clever apologetics the Eaglestrongs are spewing, as something far removed from the actual practice of religion. Instead, challenge them to help get rid of this divide. Challenge Terry Eagleton to arrange to speak to religious groups, and tell them that a literal belief in Jesus' divinity is backwards and infantile, that the true central narrative of Christianity is understanding how "the ultimate signifier of the human condition is the tortured and murdered body of a political criminal", and not any nonsense about original sins being forgiven or any of that crap. Challenge Armstrong to go into Catholic churches, of which she was once a part, and proclaim to the congregation that "religion isn't about believing things", and that instead of telling Africans not to use condoms, they should focus on "translat[ing] these doctrines into...ethical action."

Or to put it more simply: Whenever someone tells an atheist, "But there is a much more advanced theology than that!", our response should be, "Tell someone who cares." Like you know -- people who actually practice religion and go to church. Maybe they'd like to know about your ideas about God and religion, hmmm? And in fact, they might benefit from it quite a bit!

If the Eaglestrongs of the world really truly believed in their poetic/apophatic view of God, they need to do a helluva a lot more to get that message out to believers. And as far as it goes, we can make common cause on that. If there's one thing that Eagleton and Dawkins might agree on, it's that the idea of the virgin birth being a literal event is fucking retarded. Let's get that message out there first, mm'kay?

Edit: In fairness to Armstrong, I think she does do this to a certain extent. Her message seems to be at least as much about reform as it is about apologetics. For instance, in researching for this post, I discovered that she intended to use a $100,000 TED prize "to initiate an international Charter for Compassion – to help restore the Golden Rule as central to religious practice and daily life throughout the world." While I think the Golden Rule stands on its own just fine without the cloud of religion getting in the way, anything that gets the religious to cleave more closely to, you know, actual ethics as opposed to Stone Age dogma has got to be a good thing.

I'm sort of glad I stumbled on that, because it makes me a little less anti-Armstrong. Eagleton's still an irredeemable douche, but it seems Armstrong is already spending a lot of her time working on this "common ground". So credit where credit is due, at least.

The Flake Equation

XKCD wins again:

Hilarious but sobering. I would think one could extend this to all sorts of crazy beliefs.

Even law professors at religious universities are not immune to the poison

An article in Sunday's New York Times talks about the ongoing challenge of reforming child pornography laws to respond to the phenomenon of "sexting", which is needed to avoid the kinds of travesties where teens get classified as sex offenders for life for sending naked pictures of themselves to a boyfriend or girlfriend.

They quoted a number of law professors from various universities on the topic, the majority of whom agreed that reform is needed and most calling for decriminalization of teen sexting. A typical example comes from Witold Walczak, legal director of the Pennsylvania American Civil Liberties Union, who they quoted as saying, "No one disputes that sexting can have very bad consequences, and no parent wants kids sending out naked images. But if you’ve got thousands of kids engaging in this, are you going to criminalize all of them?" Word.

But two of the law professors that were quoted felt that it should still be classified as felony child pornography -- admittedly, only as a symbolic gesture, though they would rely on the disrection of prosecutors (hardy-har-har) to avoid the disaster of teens being branded for life just for being teens. And who were these two proponents of such draconian laws?

Mary Leary of Catholic University, and Jesse Weins of Dakota Wesleyan University. The only two law professors they interviewed who hailed from religious universities.

Perhaps they think that texting pictures of naked teens should be a privilege reserved only for the clergy...

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Hint to Muslims: Jehovah's Witnesses do not have great PR

I happened to be poking around old articles linked to from, and in an article about atheist bus ads in Melbourne, I stumbled across this mostly unrelated but hilarious quote:

The Ahmadiyya community, sparked by a survey that found a quarter of the population regarded Islam as the ''worst religion on earth'', also plans to knock on 3 million doors in a campaign to prove otherwise.

Yeah, good plan, guys. "Our religion has a major public image problem... so in order to fix it, we're going to bother people at home." That's a facepalm if I ever heard one...

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The tedious semantics of "compatible": Empirical or Philosophical?

Oh boy, the ever-tedious accomodationism debate is flaring up again. I don't know who really fired the first shot (sounds like it was Rosenau, but who can ever tell).1 But really, can't we just lay this one to rest? It's really very simple, and the difference between accomodationists and non-accomodationists can be neatly summed up by critical examination of the following quote from John Wilkins:

...the data is that science and religion coexist nearly all the time – most of those who support scientific views are religious.

And herein lies the heart of the confusion, and I can't believe that folks like Wilkins are still putting their fingers in their ears and saying "Lalalalalala I can't hear you." What us non-accomodationists mean when we say that science and religion are not compatible is not an empirical claim -- it is a philosophical claim. Ultimately there are empirical underpinnings that drive this philosophy, but in the end it is a philosophical claim.

And what is that claim? We are asserting that two epistemologies which consistently yield different results for the same truth claims are inherently incompatible. By definition. That is how we are defining the word "compatible" -- for two epistemologies to be compatible, they must usually yield the same or similar answers to the central questions they seek to answer.

Given that definition, there is of course vast empirical support for the contention that science and religion -- and in this case, I mean "religion" to signify a collection of histories and dogma, rather than a vague notion of spirituality or our good old friend apophatic theology or anything -- are not "compatible". We can see time and time again that they yield different values for the same truth claims. Was Jesus born of a virgin? Science says this is impossible2, Christianity says it is true. Did Mohammed ascend into heaven on the backs of winged horses? Science says no, Islam says yes. Are there beings known as avatars running around on earth appearing human but wielding supernatural powers? Science assumes no without extreme proof, Hinduism assumes it must be true because some dusty old books said so.

The accomodationists typically ignore this line of argumentation altogether, and simply point out that lots of people believe in both science and religion. We know that. I'm so tired of hearing that repeated like it is a refutation of the philosophical claim of incompatibility. It would be like if somebody was trying to argue that music piracy was wrong, and the rebuttal was "but so many people do it!" So what? Yes, we agree, many people simultaneously subscribe to incompatible epistemologies, and the human mind has proved impressively deft at reconciling and dealing with this. There's a reason the idea of doublethink in 1984 was so plausible -- we all already do this, all the time.

That goes for me, too, and Larry Moran, and PZ Myers, and Richard Dawkins, and Josh Rosenau, and every other homo sapiens on this planet. We all engage in a bit of doublethink now and then. Some of us do it more than others, but anybody who denies ever doing it is a liar or a fool. Whether it's rationalizing a minor ethical lapse, convincing yourself that a recent expensive purchase was the right choice, or devotion to a family member even when a cold calculating approach might dictate otherwise... holding contradictory positions is part of being human, and that's okay.

This does not mean that if a particular set of contradictory positions is held by a large number of people that we are forced to stop saying they are contradictory, or else we are being "unscientific" by ignoring the empirical data. That's just inane beyond all comprehension. Yes, absolutely, lots of people are both scientific and religious. This empirical claim is beyond a doubt. The philosophical claim that the two epistemologies are incompatible is a whole separate issue. Care to debate that one, accomodationists? Or do you find the strawman you've constructed too tempting?

1After re-reading Rosenau's original post, I have decided that in one respect he was right on the money: Far too much of the accomodationism debate has centered around who picked the fight. Was it the accomodationists when Mooney et al started saying that Coyne et al were damaging the fight for science education? Or was it Coyne et al when they harshly criticized the NCSE for their stance on science/religion compatibility? I have an opinion about this, but on this point I think Rosenau is right: Who fucking cares. There have been so many shots fired at this point that it is irrelevant who started it. As a result, I regret having commented about that in my original post, and have struck it out.

2Yes, I realize that some people have made the claim that science cannot comment on the truth or falsity of individual claims of supernatural events in the distant past, because there is no way to repeat the experiment or observe it or what have you. Hogwash. By that some logic, science cannot comment on the truth or falsity of the claim that "the sun will rise tomorrow". Nobody has observed that, we can't perform the experiment right now... but I think it's clear that science can say that, in all likelihood, the sun will rise tomorrow, with such a degree of confidence to be essentially true. By the same token, science can properly assert that a virgin homo sapiens cannot become pregnant, with such a degree of confidence that the proposition is essentially false.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Israelites be smokin' the ganj

sherkat, aka Iranianredneck, mines the GSS to examine the relationship between religious affiliation and support for marijuana legalization. Unsurprising: Christians of all stripes were least likely to support legalization, while the majority of the non-affiliated (57%) are in favor. Surprising: Non-Christians in general were nearly as likely as the non-affiliated to support legalization (54%, more or less within statistical noise I would think). Really super surprising: Jews were far and away the most likely to support legalization out of the groups looked at by sherkat, far more even than the non-affiliated -- a whopping 70%!

Weird. Though I'm sure my wife will get a kick out of it.

(Edit: Suddenly Matisyahu makes so much more sense to me...)

Peter Medawar's review of The Phenomenon of Man

I just came across this via Why Evolution Is True, and there are so many choice quotes in this (very old!) book review that I had to capture them:

There is much else in the literary idiom of nature-philosophy: nothing-buttery, for example, always part of the minor symptomatology of the bogus. 'Love in all its subtleties is nothing more, and nothing less, than the more or less direct tract marked on the heart of the element by the psychical converge of the universe upon itself.' 'Man discovers that he is nothing else than evolution become conscious of itself,' and evolution is 'nothing else than the continual growth of. ... 'psychic' or 'radial' energy'. Again, 'the Christogenesis of St Paul and St John is nothing else and nothing less than the extension ... of that noogenesis in which cosmogenesis ... culminates'.

Ha ha, "nothing-buttery," I love it. I'm going to have to try to remember that one. I perhaps have fallen into this same rhetorical trap myself at times, but Medawar is right: It makes the speaker sound presumptuous and ridiculous.

...yet he uses in metaphor words like energy, tension, force, impetus and dimension as if they retained the weight and thrust of their specific scientific usages.

Ah, never have I seen such a damning critique of pseudoscience put so succinctly. It seems Medawar has described a special class of deepity, especially favored by New Age-y types. If I say, "I really feel negative energy coming from you," the metaphorical meaning is true-but-trivial (you are making me feel upset), while the literal meaning is earth-shattering-but-false (you are emitting a very real heretofore-undescribed physical force which I am able to detect).

Just as compulsory primary education created a market catered for by cheap dailies and weeklies, so the spread of secondary and latterly tertiary education has created a large population of people, often with well-developed literary and scholarly tastes, who have been educated far beyond their capacity to undertake analytical thought.

A bit elitist, perhaps, but so very accurate. And frustrating.