Thursday, December 31, 2009

Responses to "Ethical Implosion"

I had a feeling my previous post would get more comments than usual...

I was responding in the comments, but I noticed my response was starting to get longer than the original blog post. So I figured I'd start a whole new post to answer the comments, and elaborate on my situation and where I am coming from.

I'll start with just a couple of quick responses, with the meat of this post below the fold.

gerwitz said:
Someone has to start social change.

Well duh, but that doesn't stop it from sucking for those who do. Someone has to be an early adopter of new technologies too, and those people generally get fucked (e.g. my friend who bought a Series 3 TiVo, only to see the TiVo HD released less than a year later with more features and a third the price). The fact that "somebody" has to do it is cold comfort when you are the one paying the price -- whether we're talking about something as trivial as DVRs or as important as climate change.

Sabio Lantz wonders about one of my remarks:
"I'm a reasonable man."

I just mean, I may have my faults and foibles, but I'm a good dad and a good husband and I pay my bills and go to work, and I'm not a thief or a crackhead or anything. The worst things I do are that I pirate music sometimes, I almost never remember to bring the reusable shopping bags to the grocery store, I lose my temper a little too easily, and I eat and drink a little too much. I'm a reasonable man.

Also, at one point in arguing with my wife I unexpectedly found myself quoting Radiohead...

Joel said:
The idea that air travel is "unethical" because it causes pollution seems bizarre to me. Is there an ethical imperative not to pollute ever?

I'm actually way less worried about that one, and it's not been an issue for my family, i.e. we both agree that flying is necessary sometimes and well worth the trade-off. It was just frustrating stumbling on that comment at Bjørn's blog when I was already undergoing ethical overload. Just as I have posted at least three times about how my visceral need (as opposed to the rational need) to speak out about religion is fueled by the ubiquity of religious exposure, I find it similarly frustrating to find that a lot of every day choices are, if you look beneath the surface, infused with hidden political and ethical implications. In the same way as I feel I can't escape religion, I sometimes feel I can't escape considering the ethics of my choices, even for a day.

Of course, there is an important difference, in that religion is all made up, while many of the ethical and social and environmental problems facing humanity are all too real... But that doesn't make it any less annoying that I find myself constantly confronted with it!

And now on to the tough stuff. Joel also said:
Also, guilt only works if you let it.

Heh, this is true... but I also don't feel I want to be the person who lives any kind of life I want without regard to the effect on society and on the planet. Of course it's a balancing act, and one can only do one's best. One needs to decide what is important to each one of us -- and that's the crisis I'm having right now, is I'm so overwhelmed with all of the factors in play (see my response below about The Vegetarian Myth for just how complicated it can get) that I am having trouble telling what is important to me. Add to that a bitter spousal dispute over household diet, and... yeah, it pretty much sucks right now.

Sabio Lantz continued:
Suggestion: Challenge your wife to read:
The Vegetarian Myth before she insists her whole family follows HER fanatic trip !

So without having read the book, but only reading the description on Amazon... This might be interesting, but I worry this would mean we'd just need to buy more expensive produce :D

I'm already aware that the argument about meat production being inherently inefficient (calorie-wise) is bogus. Humans can't eat grass, and you can't plant human-edible crops on every square inch of land that is undeveloped. Furthermore, massive agricultural monocultures -- be they organic or conventional -- can be just as devastating to the local environment as most factory animal farms (except perhaps pig farms, which are an unmitigated disaster -- but my wife and I long ago mutually agreed to mostly give up pork, except for wild boar and occasionally a bit from local farms where the pigs are pasture-raised).

But the rebuttal to the "efficiency" argument mostly falls apart when you are talking about modern factory farming. Cows fed on corn are most definitely less efficient calorie-wise (even though the varieties of corn fed to cattle is not generally fit for human consumption, that doesn't mean the same land couldn't be used for human-edible agriculture). Which is why -- again, mutually agreed -- my wife and I decided to mostly avoid factory-farmed meat and try to buy from small operations at local farmer's markets.

This was the position held by both my wife and I until quite recently. The problem was that for Christmas she got the book Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer. Foer acknowledges the points above, visits small animal farms raising animals in a sustainable and ethical manner, and agrees that this is a good thing (though he points out -- and I was already aware of this, but had decided this was not enough on its own to make me give up meat -- that all the animals go the same slaughterhouses, the conditions of which are not well-regulated and in many cases are highly problematic).

But Foer goes on to argue that in practice it is virtually impossible to be a meat-eater and never eat factory farmed meat. (And indeed, though my wife and I mostly eat meat from operations where we can feel good about it, in practice it has turned out to be anything but a hard and fast rule) He argues that anyone who wishes to avoid participating in the factory farming industry must for all practical purposes become a vegetarian.

To be honest, I think this is a reasonably solid argument. My only response is to ask, what is the goal? Is it to push for change, or is it to remain ethically pure? Of course, my wife called me out on the fact that my invocation of "purity" was a form of begging the question, but I think, perhaps phrased in a less confrontational way, this is still the central question, and the one my wife and I answer differently. For her, the idea that she is playing a part in unnecessarily unpleasant and unsanitary conditions, that she's supporting an industry with highly dubious (and viscerally disgusting) practices, is the paramount concern. And taking that as a given, I think Foer's argument more or less holds.

I can't actually in good conscience say that my paramount concern is enacting change, though I do feel that, as far as rationalizations go, I've got a pretty damn good one: If you are a vegetarian, the mainstream meat industry does not consider you a potential customer. You're dead to them. On the other hand, if enough people starting buying meat only from local farms with more sustainable and ethical practices, the mainstream meat industry will say, "What can we do to capture this market?"

Still, I must admit my paramount concern is just that I love food and I love cooking. My wife's argument that meats are just a few foods, and that there are a whole world of vegetables, is frankly fucking bullshit. Blue is just a few shades, and there is a whole rainbow of other colors, but if somebody told me I could never see the color blue again, I'd kick them right in the nards. And there's more to it even than that, which I won't bother to go into here since this post is already getting really long.

My wife either backed off from saying she wants me to go vegetarian, or else I misunderstood her. Well, I might argue that her continuing position that she "hopes" I might feel the same way is a de facto request, when it comes from a spouse, but in any case that's not a central bone of contention. Mostly she was upset because she felt that I responded with hostility and derision to one of her aspirations, and she wants me to be supportive. I didn't mean to be hostile or derisive -- mostly I was just glum, because if I'm the only person in the house who eats meat that means in practice I won't be able to enjoy cooking meat the way I have in the past, and furthermore I think it's pretty fucking fair for a foodie to be a little unhappy that his wife is renouncing meat altogether -- but I also need to remember that my wife and I mean different things by the words we use, and often I interpret her comments to be far more definite than they are.

For example, if I say, "I'm ready to go", that means I can walk out the door in less than thirty seconds, or else I'll be apologizing because I forgot something; whereas if I she says, "I'm ready to go", that means sometime in the next ten minutes. By the same token, though, if she says, "Maybe we should consider exercising some more," I tend to hear, "Get off your fat ass now, you lazy slob!", when of course it's unreasonable to interpret it that way. The biggest two lessons I have gotten out of this are a) whenever I think my wife is making a demand I should interpret it as a suggestion, and whenever I think she is making a suggestion I should interpret it as just brainstorming; and b) my first response to any idea my wife has, no matter how shitty I think the idea is, ought to be questions rather than rejection. This latter part is both so that I will be less rude, and also because, as I described above, my wife and I mean different things by the same words sometimes...

The gorilla left in the room is what to do about our son. He's only ten months old right now, so I'm not that concerned if he eats a purely vegetarian (not vegan!) diet. But when he gets a little older, it is really important to me that I be allowed to share with him the full palette of flavors and food experiences, and someday the experience of cooking meat. (I'm sorry, but there is nothing in the vegetarian world that is remotely like the experience of braising a beautiful piece of short ribs or chuck roast, seeing this tough fatty piece of meat transformed into a buttery, savory treat... Braised vegetables are total ass in comparison)

We've discussed some of how this might work, and I think we'll be able to make it happen. My wife would love it if I took him hunting or fishing before consuming our bounty, or take him to a cattle farm (preferably the one we'd be buying he meat from) to meet a cow and explain that it helps transform the grass into something we can eat, etcetera. I agree this would be a lovely experience, though I don't want it to be an absolute prerequisite, and there could be some disconnect about appropriate ages. (Though I do hope to be able to talk frankly to my son about things like the reality of eating animals from as young an age as reasonably possible..)

Luckily, we have a few years to work that one out.

And one last quip from Joel:
Running the heater in the winter pollutes, is that unethical?

Hey, don't laugh, I have a friend who is really worried about this and struggling to find the least carbon-emitting method of keeping their pipes from freezing. He won't even let his wife get a stove with gas burners, because then they'd need to get a propane tank (they live out in the middle of nowhere) and he'd rather use electricity, since around here it mostly comes from sustainable sources (nuke and hydro -- I know hydro in general has it's own problems with environmental destruction, but in this case I'm talking about Niagara Falls, which is pretty much free sustainable power).

So yeah... some people DO worry about it all the time. In a way I admire that, but it's not for me. No sir, not at all.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Ethical implosion

First, my wife decides that she wants to be purely vegetarian (we had already tried to mostly eat only locally-raised pasture-fed animals, but that is no longer good enough), that she wants our son to be raised vegetarian until he is old enough to decide himself, and that she'd really like it if we could keep a vegetarian household. As I have mentioned before, I really love to cook, and this pretty much means that a whole section of the palette is now ripped away from me, and I can never paint with those colors again. Oh yeah, and she also wants me to be happy and excited about it. What the fuck. I should at least be allowed to be unhappy about it, right?!?!?!

Then, I'm browsing around over on Bjørn Østman's blog, and I see a comment from someone exhorting people not to travel to the atheism convention in Australia, because of the impact of air travel on global warming.

I can't fucking stand this shit any more. I am a reasonable man, and I do way more than the average American to try and live an ethical life. But it's never good enough. What do I have to show for my efforts? Yet more restrictions and sacrifices heaped on me, more guilt, more politicization of everyday decision, more worry and deliberation -- and the planet is still headed for disaster, animals are still suffering in massive numbers, because nobody else is changing.

I'm really about to have an ethical implosion here. It's too hard, it causes too much strife, and I don't feel like it makes a difference. I'm a fucking sucker, a fucking sap, for trying to live an ethical life when everybody around me is reaping the benefit of doing what is right for them. I'm so sick of this bullshit.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The "New Doctors'" fundamentalism on display

I was reading a post over on Pharyngula discussing an article by a Christian at Salon, where she apparently expresses some embarrassment about her beliefs. This paragraph, which PZ also mocked, made me think of something:

Writers like Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Victor J. Stenger -- and, of course, performers like Bill Maher -- get loads of press mocking the dummies gullible enough to believe some guy a couple thousand years ago was God's son. But come on. It's like shooting Christian fish car magnets in a barrel.

Hmmm, interesting... so some 40% of Americans and a disturbing number of leading politicans are "gullible dummies," and this is so obvious that it shouldn't even be pointed out?

Well, maybe she has a point. I've noticed the same thing about these "New Doctors", who, unlike their counterparts from sixty years ago who had the decency, tolerance, and respect to keep their mouth shut about the dangers of smoking, feel the need to go preaching to everybody that smoking can cause cancer. Like people don't already know.

Surgeons general like Elders, Satcher, Carmona, and Benjamin -- and of course droids like C3PO -- get loads of press warning the dummies gullible enough to pay upwards of $5 for a pack of addictive carcinogens. But come on. It's like shooting diseased lungs in a barrel.

Of course, there are some differences here... Most smokers know cigarettes are bad for their health; smokers comprise about 12% or so of the US population, as opposed to more like 40% who take the Bible literally; and despite the efforts of the Tobacco Vatican, the smoking lobby no longer has a stranglehold on American politics...

I may have to boycott Annie's

So I was making this package of Annie's Macaroni & Cheese, and at the very end of the instructions it says, "And to support family farms, use organic milk, butter, and yogurt."

Wait, wut?

Annie's is based in Napa, CA, and given the volumes that they do, dollars to donuts their shit is coming from massive operations like Cascadia Farms, basically monocultures/factory farms that just happen to be organic. It's probably slightly better for the environment, but not by much.

But more important, by absolutely no means do those places qualify as family farms. Implying that buying organic products from giant corporations like Annie's is a way to support family farms goes beyond disingenuous, it's just plain dishonest. Quite the contrary, a slavish devotion to USDA-Certified Organic products probably hurts family farms on balance, because small farms often cannot afford the expensive and arduous certification process.

This would be like if Apple put a little notice on the back of their iPod packaging that said, "And to support independent software developers, buy a Mac." Um, yeah, Apple may not be Microsoft, but they are still a multi-billion dollar global corporation. HelllLLLOOO!!!

Sorry, that just really pissed me off.

Friday, December 18, 2009

God takes sides in Survivor: Samoa

My wife and I were watching Survivor: Samoa last night (yes, I kind of like that show) and a reward challenge involved a hilarious scene where people on both teams were openly praying for victory. Oh noes, a decision! What's a deity to do?

It started out with Token Hot Blonde Natalie making a comment to her newfound evangelical boyfriend, Brett, along the lines of, "You're a prayer warrior too, right? Let God guide your hand!" gag

You see, earlier in the episode, we had been shown the two lying together with Brett quoting Bible verses and Natalie looking suitably impressed. Despite being in different alliances, a bond seemed to be forming between the two attractive young people over their shared beliefs. Of course, people's beliefs are their own business, and they did not appear to be proselytizing, only discussing a shared belief, and the presence of a nosy cameraman can hardly be blamed on them. So even though I found this to be eye-rollingly lame, I can hardly criticize them for this discussion.

But then we get to the day's reward challenge.

The challenge involved a large number of coconuts suspended in the air by criss-crossing ropes, and each turn a team member had to untie and remove one of the ropes, letting as few coconuts fall as possible. The first team to have 100 or more coconuts fall was the loser. Success involved a combination of choosing the right rope, as well as removing it with a slow and steady hand.

"Did she just say 'prayer warrior?!'", asks my wife? Yes, yes she did. The praying continued in gratuitous fashion. Now there is something worth criticizing. Even viewing this through a completely Christian lens, this was total bullshit. First, there is that Bible verse that mentions that making a big show out of praying in public is a douche-y thing to do (I paraphrase liberally), and terming you and your new boyfriend "prayer warriors" on national TV surely counts.

Moreover, how much more self-centered can you get than begging God to help you win a reward challenge on a game show, with the other team only a few feet away? It's one thing when athletes give praise to God after a game. The inanity of this has been well-discussed. But this would be more akin to the captain of a (American) football team loudly praying for victory during the coin toss. How offensive is that? Downright blasphemous, I would argue, as far as it goes.

Things kicked up yet another notch when a member of the other team, ex-military Christian lesbian Shambo, started closing her eyes, raising her head to the sky, and pointing both fingers upwards with a muttered "Thank you God" every time something went well for her team.

While not coming anywhere close to equaling the lameness of Natalie's genuflections, it created a situation where you had members of each team quite openly beseeching and/or praising God in the name of opposite goals. They were both Christians, so which one was God helping? Rarely, if ever, have I seen the obvious criticism of asking/thanking God for competitive success illustrated in such a stark manner. Classic.

The conclusion was even better. Natalie's team initially had some success, but soon the team Shambo was on caught up. Then Shambo's team fell behind again, with 70+ coconuts having fallen, while the other team was still in the 40s.

Foul-mouthed manipulative oil company president Russell, and judging by some of his comments one of the more godless contestants on the show, pulled off an epic win for Shambo's team by removing a rope very late in the game without a single coconut falling. On the next turn, Natalie approached the place where the ropes were tried, made some pious gestures, and reflected, "God has surely taken good care of me today." She unties the rope and begins to pull...

There was a rain of coconuts.

In a single turn, "God caused" over 50 coconuts to fall, losing the challenge for Natalie's team in one brief stroke. God has surely taken good care of her, indeed. Perhaps Shambo was the more righteous? Or maybe God just preferred her style of prayer?

It was such a slap in the face, one has to wonder to what extent the CBS editors spliced and rearranged to more fully discredit Natalie's gratuitous display of blasphemous faux-faith. In any case, I have to admit it was pretty awesome. Even if you are religious, I would think that it would impart a certain satisfaction to see such a selfish and naive conception of one's place in the universe thoroughly discredited.

Whatever one's thoughts on the divine, the idea of begging a supreme being for your gain at another's expense is just sick.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Why are otherwise sensible skeptics susceptible to AGW denialism?

First it was Penn Jillette, now it's James Randi. Why do otherwise sensible skeptics seem to be prone to buying into the claims of anthropogenic global warming denialists?

Okay, a sample size of two doesn't necessarily mean anything, but I think there is something to this. In my opinion, the reasons are twofold:

First, unlike most of the "hot topics" in the skeptical community, AGW is goddamn hard to understand. When it comes to creationism, anti-vaccination, alternative medicine, religious and paranormal beliefs, even as a layman I can pretty handily explain why it makes no sense. (On a side note, some of the anti-vaccination propaganda is somewhat harder to debunk, which may help to account for folks like Bill Maher) With AGW, on the other hand, pretty much the best I can do is point out that the vast majority of people with legitimate credentials say it's real, so I have to trust them on it. Of course, it helps that when AGW denialists show the graphs that are supposed to show that warming doesn't track with CO2, I think they show a pretty strong correlation given how noisy climatology data is... but I really don't know very much about the topic, and to be able to guess whether the predictive models are accurate or not, well that takes a lot of knowledge I don't have.

Second, and I think this is important because Randi alluded to this in his statement, environmentalism is a pseudo-religious endeavor for many of its adherents. For those who view it this way, often their goals end up being laudable anyway, but the reasoning is sometimes sloppy or just outright wrong.

"We taught a lion to eat tofu!"
I watched Wheel of Time the other night, which contains several interviews with the Dalai Lama (incidentally, I think the Lama is a bit of a douche... he pays lip service to a lot of good causes, I suppose, but anybody who refuses to deny that they are a god is pretty much an asshole automatically). At one point, Hertzog asks him what his message would be to the world. Most everything he said was positive, but when he talked about protecting the environment, he pretty much summed up exactly what I am talking about: He said the objective was to "keep the environment pure." I had to roll my eyes at that one... And indeed, it seems to me that for a lot of people who support environmentalism, it's not about sustainability or ethics, it's about a metaphysical idea of purity.

A "supersense" of purity is the driving force behind a lot of religious intolerance, it seems. It also feeds a substantial amount of the appeal of alternative medicine: Don't "pollute" your body with those "unnatural" pharmaceuticals. Flush those toxins which are "contaminating" your health. Etcetera.

So should we really be surprised that some skeptics, as soon as they get a whiff of something being associated with a purity campaign, immediately put their bullshit detectors into overdrive -- to the point that it sometimes scores a false positive?

You could even argue that this may have fed into Jillette's ludicrous denial of the dangers of secondhand smoke (which he has since at least partially retracted). When the subject of smoking came up on the denialism blog, I was shocked at how much vitriol some of the commenters had for smokers. It was as if, rather than smoking just being a public health hazard, they thought it was a horrible sin, and that anyone infected with the sin must be an evil despicable person.

I also think a supernatural sense of "purity" feeds into some of the the stricter outdoor smoking regulations... There is no doubt that prolonged exposure to secondhand smoke is hazardous, but it is weird to me that someone who is bothered being ten feet away from a lit cigarette has no qualms about waiting minutes at a crosswalk at a busy intersection. I'm no scientist, but I have trouble believing the former is as harmful than the latter. (Try this experiment sometime: Ride a bike down a fairly busy road where traffic mostly flows at a pretty decent clip, but where there are a number of widely-spaced traffic lights. Smell the air in between intersections, and at the intersections. Mmmmm, that intoxicating scent of exhaust mixed with burning rubber and melting brake pads -- gotta love it!)

So the moral is: As skeptics, we must be careful not to let the smell of zealotry become a primary indicator of trueness or falseness. Though they may be garner the support of superstitious fanatics using fallacious reasoning, AGW and the risks of secondhand smoke are both quite real.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

"Strong" and "Weak" Accomodationism

I was reading a comment from Bruce Hood over at his blog, and in responding to it I think I had a bit of an insight about the so-called "accomodationism" debate. At least in my mind, it helps me to frame why some "accomodationists" don't bother me (e.g. Eugenie Scott, Bruce Hood, and to a certain extent Michael Schermer), but others (e.g. Chris Mooney, etc.) tend to really annoy me.

It could be said that there are two forms of accomodationism: "Weak accomodationism" is an individual decision to take a more conciliatory approach to religion. Those who subscribe to this philosophy will typically not give voice to direct criticisms of religion, and are unlikely to directly point out the flaw in a theists thinking unless that thinking is directly leading to bigotry or anti-scientific attitudes. (Here I distinguish "unscientific" which would be something like a belief that there is a divine being who loves you, vs. "anti-scientific", e.g. Creationism. Unscientific viewpoints cannot or are unlikely to be true from a scientific perspective, but anti-scientific viewpoints specifically challenge well-known scientific facts.)

I have no problem with the "weak accomodationist" viewpoint, and as I have blogged about before, I think the existence of such folks is strategically necessary to effecting social change.

The "strong accomodationist" position, on the other hand, holds that every nontheist should adopt a conciliatory tone. For instance,Mooney and Kershenbaum recently did the point-a-finger-and-laugh routine at Dawkins, alleging that his previous publication of The God Delusion makes it impossible for The Greatest Show on Earth to succeed in its mission. They have expressed quite clearly on numerous occasions that they think Dawkins would be better served if he would extend an olive branch to the religious -- even if that olive branch comes in the form of an out-and-out lie.

I think this is a very important difference here. In the blog comment I linked to at the start of this post, Bruce Hood describes how he chose to avoid the subject of religion as a simple superstition in order to avoid offense; yet he also makes no secret of what he thinks about religious truth propositions, and, importantly, he declines to criticize Dawkins et al for their more strident approach. He gives reasons why he chooses to take the approach he has, but he doesn't proceed to write, "And I really think that mean old Dan Dennett should act that way too!"

Monday, December 14, 2009

You can't escape it, part III

This morning I was reading through the print version of the Sunday New York Times (yes, we actually get a physical newspaper -- just the Sunday NYT though, but yeah) and I was reading a front page article about custody controversies arising from surrogates. It's a very tricky issue and I'm not sure just how I feel. Ideally people would adopt anyway, but unfortunately that is not an option for many people (gay, not wishing to get married, too old, etc.), and in addition I don't feel comfortable passing judgment on those incapable of having their own biological offspring. I confess that it was fairly important to me -- for completely irrational reasons, of course, but I'm human after all -- to have a biological child, and while I would like to think that if I had proven incapable of doing so that I would be accepting of it, I can't say that for certain.

The anecdote they lead off with is about a surrogate who changed her mind after discovering the adoptive mother had suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, although it had been under control with medication for the better part of eight years. Because
Michigan law is hostile to surrogacy, basically all she had to do was snap her fingers (litigiously speaking) and she regained custody.

Without commenting on the specifics of the story, this evoked an audible groan from me:

“My husband and I would not do something like this unless we thought it was given to us to do,” Ms Baker said. “My belief is that God placed this on my heart for a reason.”

In the fall of 2007, Ms. Baker advertised in saying she would carry a baby for a Christian couple.

Argh. You know, people's beliefs are their business and stuff, but putting this caveat on it being a Christian couple is messed up. Could you imagine if someone posted that they would only carry a baby for an atheist couple?!? Oh my god, how much of an asshole move would that be...

It perhaps belittles the situation, but I can't help but say that maybe the adoptive mother should have known that this woman was susceptible to placing stupid and arbitrary criteria and who she was willing to be a surrogate for.

Anyway, even though the article was on the front page, it was continued much further back, in the National section.1 I looked to the bottom of that page from the national section, and I see an article covering the absurd attempt to bar an atheist city councilman from taking office based on a clause in the North Carolina constitution that has been explicitly nullified by Supreme Court precedent. Or in other words, yet another article about religion messing up the whole works.

So I go to put back the National section, and what's on the front page of that, but an article about California PR companies getting rich making anti-gay propaganda for electoral battles in other states. Apparently a couple of specific companies -- one of them ironically in San Fransisco -- have become the go-to agencies for the badly-misnamed National Organization for Marriage's dishonest advertising. Yes, another article reflecting the negative influence of religion in our daily lives -- even in the daily lives of the non-religious.

You really can't escape it. When people say that atheists should just leave people alone to their personal beliefs, I say, "Yes! Please!" This is exactly what we want. I don't need to convince every single person to abandon their irrational beliefs -- I mean, at the top of this very post, I admitted to a highly irrational desire on my own part. We are humans, and irrationality is part of our existence, and I am totally okay with that as long as we keep it in check. That means that it stays mostly a private thing, and that we keep rationality firmly in the driver's seat when it comes to public policy.

And it also means that people who don't keep it mostly a private thing are subject to whatever ridicule or disdain they bring on themselves. That's how it works. If you want to shout your craziness from the rooftops, I'm going to shout back, "You're crazy!"

1New York Times does this thing where the main section and International section are numbered one through twenty-something, and then the National and Local sections pick it back up with the same numbering, so you can actually have an article continued in a different section. Kind of annoying...

Update: Immediately after posting this, I went poking around and started reading a funny article about bad video games given as gifts by non-gamers... and what do I see at the bottom of the page?

I'll transcribe the oldest featured comment here, since you can't read it without clicking for the larger version:
Regardless of the pagan origins of the season, christians celebrate Christ's birth on this day and I have actually studied this too because of a report I was doing.

Being christian, my family and my church celebrate it because of it's religious significance, but it doesn't mean it's wrong to enjoy other aspects of it. I have no problems with secularists celebrating this holiday too, if it puts a little kindness in everyone's hearts then that isn't a bad thing.

Sure, the guy is apparently getting smacked down, but... why oh why the need to bring up your Christ bullshit on an article that has absolutely nothing to do with that at all?!?

You truly can't escape it.

Friday, December 4, 2009

If Republicans are fiscally conservative, why have they failed to make the one "valid" argument against gay marriage?

(Before proceeding, I should be very clear that by "valid" I don't mean that the argument is satisfactory or convincing. I merely mean that it doesn't rely on fallacious reasoning, abject falsehoods, or imagined costs or risks; i.e. I am defining "valid" as meaning an argument which identifies a real cost or risk, no matter how trivial that cost may be when compared to the benefits of doing the right thing.)

One thing I am fond of saying to explain my rabid support of gay marriage is that, unlike the vast majority of political issues, this one is a no-brainer. I have previously claimed that legalizing gay marriage is a rare legislative action that is all benefit and no cost. This differs from other issues on which I have a strong opinion, but where I acknowledge there are significant costs to the position I advocate, making it an issue where reasonable people might differ (e.g. my opinions on abortion rights and the death penalty fit this profile1). We don't even have to figure out the logistics of enacting the legislation -- you just say, "Now all marriage laws are exactly the same as they were yesterday, except the gender of the involved parties doesn't matter." Done.2

So I was contemplating that this morning, and I suddenly thought of an actual, real cost of legalizing gay marriage. Mind you, it's a rather small cost, and even if it were a large cost I would still strongly support gay marriage because it's simply the right thing to do. Denying full civil rights to the LGBT community cannot be deemed acceptable under any circumstances.

Still, since the cost I have identified has a direct effect on the federal budget, it seems odd that a political party that nominally prides itself on fiscal responsibility has so far failed to raise this argument in their attack on gay marriage. (Or, it would seem odd if I actually believed the modern Republican party had any clearly articulated ideals at all, other than providing a haven for bigotry and promoting unapologetic demagoguery)

Without further ado, here it goes:

I'm not exactly sure how the numbers work out, but it seems likely that recognizing gay marriage at the federal level would create a sudden spike in the number of "Married filing jointly" tax returns, with a presumably negative effect on tax revenue. I don't imagine the impact will be large, and as I said, even if it were, it would be irrelevant in a discussion on civil rights. And furthermore, this can't become a reality until DOMA is either repealed or correctly ruled unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment, so the only way it can be applied to legalization of gay marriage at the state level is via the "slippery slope" argument (but we know gay marriage opponents have no qualms about using that usually-fallacious argument...)

But isn't it strange that this argument hasn't been made? Doesn't it seem like a perfect fit for Rush Limbaugh to be blathering on about how "these deficit-happy liberals want to deal a further blow to the federal budget right in the middle of the worst recession in recent memory?"

Could it be that it is beneath even the modern GOP to argue that civil rights should be arbitrarily denied to a certain group in order to increase tax revenue? It doesn't seem like it... The only answer -- and I guess we knew this already, but it is just further evidence -- is that when the GOP has a choice between promoting fiscal conservatism vs. promoting bigotry, they're going to go with the one that they know their audience can grasp.

1My position on those two issues, and why it's not as cut and dry as gay marriage...

On abortion rights: I support full abortion rights with no restrictions on when they are performed or on medical necessity. I recognize that this position would conceivably allow a small number of abortions to occur which reasonable people -- myself included -- might view as hugely immoral, on par with infanticide. I think this cost/risk is justified because a) the vast majority of women seeking a late abortion are doing so for legitimate medical reasons, b) both the government and insurance companies have shown themselves to be completely untrustworthy at discerning what "legitimate medical reasons" are in regards to abortion, and c) good luck finding a doctor willing to perform a 3rd-trimester abortion on a healthy fetus inside a healthy mother, anyway.

We might imagine a distant future when reproductive rights are not so politicized, when regulations might be put in place on late abortions to define parameters when they are acceptable -- but in the near term any attempt to do so is simply going to be used as a foot in the door to deny appropriate medical care to women undergoing one of the most devastating events of their lives. Still, there are real costs here, and (unlike gay marriage) the issue is a bit tricky.

On the death penalty: It's a waste of money, a waste of time, and far too often a waste of an innocent life. But it is still less of a no-brainer than the gay marriage issue, because while the death penalty is a lousy deterrent for violent crimes, there is some suggestive evidence that a person who does not believe proper "justice" is being done in response to wrongdoing is less likely to behave ethically. We might extend that to a whole population, and argue that by failing to execute violent criminals, we contribute to a general nonchalance about unethical behavior.

Okay, that's a stretch. But the other reason I don't feel quite as passionate about the death penalty as I do about gay marriage is that for criminals whose actions are beyond reprehensible and whose guilt is not in doubt, my reaction to their execution is pretty much a big shrug. The recent execution of the DC sniper comes to mind. I don't generally support government-sponsored murder, and I feel like it's wasteful from a practical perspective -- but do I feel a sense of outrage that this guy was executed? Nope, not at all.

Don't get me wrong, on both of these issues, I still feel strongly. But there are major costs and benefits on both sides, so it requires careful thought to come to a conclusion, and opinions could conceivably change over time. With gay marriage, there are simply no (non-trivial) costs to speak of, and I cannot imagine my opinion changing under any circumstances. Nearly unique among political issues, it is a complete and total no-brainer.

2Seriously, legalizing gay marriage is that simple. As we have seen by precedent in areas where it has been legalized, it's not even a big deal if the existing marriage license forms say "Husband" and "Wife". People just cross out the erroneous appellation and replace it with an appropriate one for the time-being, until the local government can get around to printing out "Spouse/Spouse" forms to correct that embarrassment. It's not ideal, but it shouldn't be a barrier to legalizing gay marriage, particularly in cash-strapped locales where expediency might dictate that the old-style forms remain in use until they would have needed to print new ones anyway.

Fixing those little remaining artifacts of prejudice like "Husband/Wife" forms is something that needs to be done, but it is not at all a requirement for legalizing gay marriage. Gay marriage could be legalized across the entire country, today, with nary a hiccup in the bureaucratic administration of marriage laws.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

You can't escape it, part II

I have written previously about how stupid and hypocritical it is to suggest that atheists should keep their (lack of) beliefs to themselves, given the ubiquity of religion in everyday life. Everywhere you turn, people are blathering on or otherwise promoting their religious beliefs, and nobody bats an eyelash. I'm not even talking about fundies and other sanctimonious types, I'm just talking about casual promotion of religious beliefs.

Today, my wife took our 9-month-old son to a "Kindermusik" class, which might be described as "music lessons for infants", but is probably better described as "fun activity that let's mom get out of the house while increasing baby's socialization and exposure to music." In any case, she said it was a real blast and she intends on going back. On the other hand, she also reports:

It is unfortunately held at a Christian school, in a room decorated with Christian affirmations, by a woman who appears to be xtian

Not that this is a huge deal... In theory, none of that should matter (though I find even nominal reverence for a book as horribly violent and hate-filled as the Bible to be deeply disturbing, so I guess even in a perfect world it would matter a little) except that this sort of thing is everywhere; nobody thinks very much of it; and if you imagine the atheist equivalent, people would be all up in arms. I mean, what if it was held in a freethinker school, talk by a woman who appeared to be an atheist, and the room was decorated with humanist affirmations like "You can be good without God" and such? People would storm out. It would be controversial.

Either everybody else shuts the fuck up about their stupid beliefs, or else I get to be as vocal as I want about my stupid beliefs. You can't have it both ways... unless you want to maintain that atheism -- even the quiet, deferential sort -- is inherently evil. People who spew tripe like, "People who talk about their atheism are just as bad as religious fundamentalists," need a serious reality check. At worst, people who talk about their atheism are just as bad as people who talk about their religion -- and the latter is not restricted to fundamentalists, it's situation normal all over the world, all the time.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Bishop Tobin is a slimy little toady

On a recent Hardball, Chris Matthews reams Bishop Thomas Tobin like an altar boy over his hypocritical request that Sen. Partick Kennedy not accept communion because of his voting record on abortion legislation. And yes, I said hypocritical -- I initially thought the Bishop's position was just wrong and stupid and mean, but I now realize it's hypocritical too, after hearing Matthews' clever argument. It goes something like this: "Okay, Bishop, you say Kennedy should have voted a different way. So what should abortion law be? Should abortion be a criminal offense?"

Tobin won't answer. He condemns Kennedy for not legislating like a Catholic, but he can't (or won't) say what that would mean. It takes a minute and a half of badgering by Matthews just to get this pathetic slimeball to say he thinks abortion should be illegal at all. Seriously! He wants to tell other people want to think and feel, but he refuses to actually take a position that might draw fire towards him.

Oh, and his contention that Kennedy attacked him first is just absurd. Yes, Kennedy chose to make Tobin's assholeness public. But Tobin was the one who chose to be an asshole in the first place. I suppose that Bishop Tobin also thinks that it is the abuse victims who attacked the priests and not the other way around, because the priests had the good graces to keep the child molestation a private pastoral matter, while those grandstanding victims went and publicized the whole thing. Right...

Not that it ought to matter whether Kennedy gets to eat a holy Jesus cracker or not, but this just highlights how despicable the Catholic church is. Yeah, sure, religion provides people with solace -- by attempting to manipulate them through spiritual blackmail. Real nice.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Religious leaders in Belfast object to "Don't label me" billboard

I guess this is no surprise. There is no atheist/humanist billboard innocuous enough that it won't draw protests. If an atheist organization put up a billboard that merely said, "Have a nice day!", I'm sure there would be all sorts of objections. "We don't need that in our community -- God decides what kind of day it is!"

Anyway, the final phase of the BHA's bus campaign, in which a billboard with a picture of a child simply reads, "Please Don't Label Me. Let Me Grow Up And Choose For Myself," surrounded by a bunch of possible "labels" that people might wrongly apply to a child ("Christian child", "Muslim child", "Mormon child", "Atheist child", etc.), is drawing fiery objections from religious leaders in Belfast. You'd think that asking people not to label their children would be uncontroversial, but I guess not.

Most of the objections miss the point -- "How dare you tell us how to raise our children!" -- but one which does take the point head-on also happens to be the most disturbing. From Sheikh Anwar Mady of the Belfast Islamic Centre:

We believe that every child is born as a Muslim. Religion is not given by the family, but it is a natural religion given by our God at birth. The role of the family is to teach the traditions of the faith. But that faith is implanted at birth.

So yeah, his contention is that every child ought to be labelled a "Muslim child". Egads.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

NCSE's "Don't Diss Darwin" flyer strikes the appropriate "accomodationist" tone

The National Center for Science Education has generated a flyer to be passed out at college campuses tomorrow in order to counter the distribution of bananaman Ray Comfort's mangled version of Origin of Species. I noticed in the flyer that the NCSE strike the perfect tone for "accommodating" the religious in the fight for evolution, while not alienating atheists or making explicit theological statements:

Comfort implies that it is necessary to reject evolution in
order to be a good Christian.

Ironically, although Comfort quotes Francis Collins, the geneticist who led the Human Genome Project and is now in charge of the National Institutes of Health, he fails to mention that Collins is a committed evangelical Christian who accepts evolution!

People of all faiths and of none have accepted evolution on its scientific merits. The fact that Comfort fails to acknowledge this suggests that he is arguing in bad faith.

Right on. Notice how they never actually say that there is no contradiction between evolution and Christianity (which would be an explicit theological position, and not appropriate to the NCSE's mission statement). They also put in a positive acknowledgment of atheists ("people of all faiths and of none"), a la Obama's inaugural nod to "non-believers".

This is accomodationism done right. They make only factual statements, not theological or philosophical ones1. They are inclusive. And they don't belabor the point. If this is as far as accomodationism ever went, I would have zero complaints.

1As is often overlooked, prominent "anti-accomodationists" like Jerry Coyne have clearly stated that the NCSE should also not be saying there is a contradiction between faith and science, because that would also constitute a theological/philosophical position. Based on the NCSE's mission, they need to stick to the facts -- and the bare facts merely say that there are Christians and other theists who believe in evolution. End of sentence.

Monday, November 16, 2009


I had a bad cold the end of last week, and before that work was heating up a bit, so that's why there have been no posts. I am finally reading Bruce Hood's SuperSense, though, and I will probably have a lot to say about it shortly. In the meantime, since I have nothing original to say, how about some cool links?

Socialist Fire Departments
I just made a similar joke on the Dispatches blog a week or so ago, but this website carries it much farther. Bravo.

3-D Mandelbrot attempt
So a true 3-D equivalent of the Mandelbrot -- with its simple formula, and its unending and consistent complexity -- is apparently somewhat of the holy grail of 3-D fractals. Here is a remarkable attempt, though they admit it's not quite a true 3-D Mandelbrot. It also introduced me to the idea of hypercomplex numbers. Woah. If I turn out to be totally off base on this whole atheism thing, and end up reincarnated, I'm totally going to be a math major. Well, maybe on the third life -- next time around, I'm going with a lit major, because I am also terribly interested in that, but I'd probably get laid a lot more in college...

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

No surprises there

Yep, Prop 1 in Maine succeeded. No surprise there.

The outcome is "further evidence that although voters have shown tolerance toward same sex couples, they draw the line at marriage," said Jeff Flint, a partner with Schubert Flint Public Affairs in Sacramento, who worked on California's "Yes on 8" campaign in 2008.

No, it's further evidence that making it so that voters can overturn acts of the legislature and pass (state) constitutional amendments with a bare majority is a fucking retarded idea. I'm totally down with a voter veto if a supermajority is required -- that could be a useful check against the possibility of a corrupt legislature. But a bare majority? Insanity.

Referendum 71 does look like it's going to pass in Washington State, but that only extends equal benefits, i.e. it's the old separate-but-equal refrain.

Oh well. Have fun being on the wrong side of history, assholes.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Accomodationists care more about Darwin than the rights of the oppressed

Okay, the title of this post is needlessly inflammatory, but given how nasty the whole accomodationism debate has gotten, I figure I need to be inflammatory to get anybody's attention, right?

The latest volley from the accomodationist side has been Chris Mooney's contention that Dawkins' atheism advocacy is diluting his pro-evolution message -- specifically, that The God Delusion effectively undermined the mission of The Greatest Show on Earth.

There have been various responses to that argument, mostly focusing on Mooney's very premise, which I agree is weak on evidence. However, I want to pose a completely different response to Mooney's argument:

Yeah, so?

Let's assume for a second that Mooney is completely right: The success and visibility of The God Delusion has had a net negative contribution to the mission of The Greatest Show in Earth to bring people over to the pro-evolution side. However, getting people to come around on evolution is not the only goal in the whole wide world... is it?

Jason Rosenhouse points out:

To this point I have been focused specifically on the evolution issue. Obviously, though, I think religion lies at the heart of a great many other societal ills. It is the primary factor in issues like bigotry towards homosexuals, repressive attitudes toward women, assaults on public education, and a political system in which people must profess the strength of their religious faith to have any hope of a future. Those are just a few examples.

Indeed, and in fact I have to criticize Jason just a little bit for failing to follow up on this point as much as he might. I'm going to go out on a limb and argue that bigotry and repression of women and homosexuals are more important issues than evolution education. Not that the latter isn't critically important, and I believe there is synergy between these various goals -- but if I were offered a choice between ending Creationism and ending bigotry, I wouldn't even have to think about that one.

So, as I said, let's say Mooney is right. So what? Is he saying that The God Delusion was completely worthless in all respects, then? That it has not had any positive effect on the public conversation about the false respect accorded to religion and religious prejudice? Well, maybe Mooney is saying that, but I think that's ridiculous.

Rosenhouse says something very similar, that the long-term goal is moving towards a more godless society, but he puts it firmly within the context of the Creationism problem, i.e. he argues that as the American and UK mainstream stop giving so much undue deference to religious belief, ideas like "Teach the controversy" will fade into crackpot obscurity, where they belong.

I think Rosenhouse is exactly right, that there is synergy here. But I'm going to go one step further and say that the goal of tearing down religion's wall of protection is the more important aim even if it had no effect, or even a negative effect, on the fight against creationism. As atheists and other nontheists are further emboldened to speak out, it helps in so many other struggles as well: In countering those who would use religiously-motivated scare-mongering to fight against marriage equality, in deflating the silly faux-liberal belief that equates criticism of misogyny with ethnocentric intolerance, and in combating dangerous nigh-genocidal prohibitions issued by a certain "rat" of a pontiff. All of these things are important -- at least as important as whether evolution gets taught properly in schools, don't you think?

When making grand pronouncements on the wisdom of writing The God Delusion, one cannot take into account only the costs and benefits in regards to evolution education and future books on evolution -- one must look at all the costs and benefits. And I say, even if The God Delusion did have some small deleterious effect on evolution education (an unproven allegation to begin with), it still would be a net positive, because it helped to bring atheism and frank religious criticism into the mainstream. It seems to me that to argue otherwise is rather short-sighted and narrow-minded.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Five years of school and ten years of industry experience: Just jiggle the connector

A couple of weeks ago, my oven stopped working. It's one of those gas range/electric oven dealies, with a smaller second oven where the broiler drawer usually is (the main oven is used for broiling). The control panel stopped working, but the gas burners would still light (not just spew gas, they would light without a match, which takes electricity) and the lower oven -- which is controlled by a dial rather than the digital control panel -- worked fine.

A little bit of googling told me it was most likely what I already suspected: The electronics in the control panel were shot. It is supposedly not too difficult of a DIY job to replace it, but based on comparable parts I found online, it looked like the part itself would cost about $150.

I opened up the stove and googled for what I thought was the part number, but to no avail. So we called GE. They wanted to send somebody out, but of course it's $80 just to even have them look at it. We got an 800 number from GE where we could most likely order the part, but it was already past 5:00 so we had to wait until the next day. In abject discouragement, I put the panel back together, screwed it back in, plugged in the stove, and turned the breaker back on.

But wait, rewind -- I am a computer engineer by education, and while I am more of a software engineer by trade, I still do a lot of low-level work, sometimes on custom hardware. When I had the thing open, you better believe there's one thing I was certainly going to do: Check for loose or bent wires, look for obvious defects on the circuit board, and, most importantly, jiggle all of the connectors. I can't tell you how many $10,000 systems I have seen rendered unusable because of nothing but a loose cable.

Lo and behold, when I turned everything back on, it works fine. Hallelujah!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Mormon guide to lighter skin

I just became aware of a talk given in 1960 by Spencer W. Kimball, future prophet of the LD$ church, in which he actually claims to have seen native Americans turning whiter ("becoming white and delightsome") as a result of activity within the Mormon church:

I saw a striking contrast in the progress of the Indian people today.... The day of the Lamanites is nigh. For years they have been growing delightsome, and they are now becoming white and delightsome, as they were promised. In this picture of the twenty Lamanite missionaries, fifteen of the twenty were as light as Anglos, five were darker but equally delightsome The children in the home placement program in Utah are often lighter than their brothers and sisters in the hogans on the reservation.

At one meeting a father and mother and their sixteen-year-old daughter were present, the little member girl--sixteen--sitting between the dark father and mother, and it was evident she was several shades lighter than her parents--on the same reservation, in the same hogan, subject to the same sun and wind and weather....These young members of the Church are changing to whiteness and to delightsomeness.

Holy fucking shit, I mean, I knew these guys were despicable and retarded, but wow. Putting it in the cultural context of 1960 partially explains the racism, but the idea that taking children away from their parents and indoctrinating them with Mormon teachings could change their skin color... the mind boggles.

Via Jesus' General. And there's more where that came from. Sick...

Monday, October 26, 2009

Raw hatred, tax-exempt style

The Maine anti-gay marriage campaign Yes On 1 released their most recent finance report, covering donations since October 1st. Does the $1.4 million they managed to raise reflect massive grassroots opposition to gay marriage? No, no it does not. It reflects the political and economic clout of two well-funded tax-exempt brainwashing hate groups: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and the Catholic church.

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Portland contributed $167,750, with various other churches contributing another $10,000 or so. This doesn't seem like a large amount until one considers that it is more than all of the legitimate private donors combined.

Wait, that math doesn't work out! How is $167k more than half of $1.4 million?

Well, that's because the National Organization of Marriage, which some (including myself) believe to be a Mormon front organization, contributed a whopping $1.1 million dollars, in three separate donations.

Worse yet, these Liars for Jesus have absolutely no reservations about telling flat-out lies in order to further their bigoted agenda. The falsehoods in the famous Gathering Storm commercial are well-documented. In the Yes On 1 campaign, they are claiming that priests who do not believe in gay marriage will not be allowed to refuse to perform a marriage ceremony for a same-sex couple, and could face a lawsuit or fines -- even though the bill explicitly states that such is not the case1. I mean, you know you've gone negative when there is an investigation by the Attorney General into whether you are telling dirty lies, and she comes back and confirms that you are.

But wait, the opposition (the Good Guys) have raised even more money. Surely, the majority of that money must have come from some sort of powerful special interest group on par with NOM?

Nope. Largest donor to No on 1: The Human Rights Campaign (a pro-LGBT lobbying group) with a total contribution of $155,000. Most of the money is coming from individual donors.

That the Catholic and Mormon churches extort tithe extort2 and then use this money -- concealing the fact to boot, in the case of LD$, Inc. -- to promote hatred, tax-free... the mind reels.

1From the bill:
Sec. 5. 19-A MRSA §655, sub-§3 is enacted to read:

3. Affirmation of religious freedom. This Part does not authorize any court or other state or local governmental body, entity, agency or commission to compel, prevent or interfere in any way with any religious institution's religious doctrine, policy, teaching or solemnization of marriage within that particular religious faith's tradition as guaranteed by the Maine Constitution, Article 1, Section 3 or the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. A person authorized to join persons in marriage and who fails or refuses to join persons in marriage is not subject to any fine or other penalty for such failure or refusal.

That's right, bigots, nobody is going to force you to stop treating other people like dirt. You still have your God-given First Amendment right as a righteous white Christian to shit all over the Fourteenth Amendment rights of everyone else. You just don't get to force other people to shit on those rights too.

But when has the truth ever gotten in the way of some good righteous religious hate speech?

2Yes, "extort" really is the right word. You cannot enter a Mormon temple unless you have a temple recommend, which requires that you are fully up-to-date on your tithing. Mormons aspire to get married in the temple. You might think they'd give an exemption to the temple recommend requirement for family attending a wedding, but then, you'd think that because, unlike the church elders, you have human feelings. So, if your son or daughter is getting married in the temple, if you want to actually be at their wedding, you must have paid the church ten percent of your gross income (Not net! They are very explicit about this...) for at least the past year, or else.

Yep. That's extortion.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Cool new blog

ScienceBlogs just added a couple of new blogs, and one of them -- Tomorrow's Table -- is about organic and sustainable farming from a scientist's perspective.

What a breath of fresh air! Time and again I have been frustrated by the unholy connections between the organic/sustainable farming community and all matter of paranoid insanity, like anti-GMO, homeopathy, Traditional Chinese Medicine, anti-vaccine, and government conspiracies of all types. I'm very interested to hear what Dr. Ronald has to say.

A parameterized approach to self-identification

Bruce Hood (whose book I still haven't read, unfortunately) comes up with a novel solution to the problem of nontheist / atheist / agnostic terminology: parameterize his self-identification based on the other party's definitions.

an AAA (apathetic atheist/agnostic-depending on how you define your god that you want me to reject)

Hah! Love it.

Kale chips

It occurs to me I haven't had a post about cooking in a really long time -- I haven't had a chance to do anything fancy, so it's just been run-of-the-mill everyday feed-your-family cooking. I'm sure nobody needs to hear me blog about boiling pasta and pouring store-bought sauce over it, or a stir-fry composed of whatever vegetables are leftover in my fridge.

So I thought I'd link to this article in our local newspaper, which was pointed out to me by my mother of all people. (I'd say thanks mom!, but I'm pretty sure if she stumbled on this blog she'd already have had a heart attack before she got a chance to read this, so...) Sounds like a neat idea, and I am pretty sure we'll probably get more kale from our CSA in the coming weeks, so I will most likely try it.

Hopefully after next week I will have an exciting new Halloween recipe to share, but I don't want to blog about it until after I try it, in case it winds up being a disaster.

The most unfulfilling aspect of atheism

I think a lot of believers think that us atheists have unfulfilled lives because we lack meaning or purpose, or a higher moral compass, or whatever. Of course we know that is all hogwash. If you can't find meaning in your life without a fairy tale to dress it up, that's kinda sad; and if you can't find it in yourself to be moral without a Holy Prison Warden looking over your shoulder, well, that's just scary.

Similarly, the lack of a paradisaical afterlife doesn't trouble me too much, because the fantasy is rather infantile. It saddens me about as much as the idea that there's no Santa Claus. I guess in theory it would be nice if something resembling the virtual construct I consider my "mind" got to continue existing even after the breakdown of the physical equipment that enables that emergent phenomenon, just as in theory it would be nice if some nice guy with a red suit and a white beard would pay for and deliver all of my family's Christmas presents. But I have trouble working up much disappointment about either one.

But there is one thing about atheism that I do find deeply unfulfilling in comparison to theistic worldviews: The lack of guaranteed vindication.

Let's say a theist and I deeply disagree, and we each are frustrated by the other's obstinance. If the theist believes in the literal heaven-as-a-reward/hellfire-as-punishment mode of afterlife, then she "knows" that she will be proven right when I die -- that there will be a moment just before I start to burn for all eternity where I will be forced to admit some pretty serious egg on my face. I, on the other hand, can bet that she will almost certainly persist in her beliefs until death, and there will never, ever come a moment where she realizes that I was right all along.

Okay, I realize that this is a rather adolescent way of looking at things (right after I criticized the afterlife fantasy as infantile, even!) but I can't help it. I find it particularly frustrating in regards to those who pitch Pascal's Wager, like we haven't heard it before and already dismissed it. I am sorry, but that line of argumentation is just so vapid, so asinine, so utterly devoid of critical thinking, that I can't hear someone recite it earnestly without getting agitated. I suppose it is a weakness of character on my part, but there it is. (In fact, it was a YouTube commenter spouting Pascal's Wager that inspired me to write this post)

I would really like to believe in a universe where every person who accepts Pascal's Wager is guaranteed at some point to have the shocking stupidity of that argument revealed to them in a dramatic and inescapable fashion, something akin to the literal theistic belief that I'll be forced to realize the error of my ways by the most bombastic method of eternal torture. But is there a dogma that will allow me to embrace that comforting delusion?

Not yet, so it's high time I create one. I propose the Church of the Fallacy of Pascal's Wager -- the "Fallacians" for short. Our central belief is that after a person dies, a copy of their body will be reconstructed in some other part of the universe, where there stands a gigantic entryway composed of calcium carbonate, with Voltaire standing guard. Voltaire will then ask the recently deceased to point out at least one fallacy in Pascal's Wager, and if they are successful then they are allowed through the gates and get to spend eternity (or however long they want) in a paradise of their choosing -- perhaps a place where hens lay soft-boiled eggs; an exclusive country club consisting of only 144,400 people; hell, even 72 white raisins if that's what floats your boat.

Those who fail will not be forced to burn in eternal hellfire, of course. I'm not that sadistic. They will also be allowed to live in the paradise of their choosing, except that everywhere they go, an angel will follow them around pointing and laughing. Well, maybe we can be merciful and the angel can ease off after 500 years or so. I just want a good few centuries to make sure the problem's with Pascal's dumb-ass Wager have fully sunk in.

Anybody want to join my church? The only requirement for membership is that you have to deposit $10 in my PayPal account. I know, I know, what evidence is there that depositing money in my PayPal account will lead to eternal salvation? Well, just look at it this way. If I am wrong, we both still die and you are only out ten measly bucks. But if I am right, you get to spend eternity in paradise!

So pay up, sucker.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Post hoc ergo propter hoc

I've had an interesting story to share for some time about just how easy it is to fall into the post hoc fallacy, but I haven't posted it yet because it's also very sad and it helped to have some distance.

Back in July, my favorite cat and my first real pet as an adult suddenly got sick and died under very mysterious circumstances. It seems most likely she ate some kind of poison, but we never identified what it was -- she was an indoor/outdoor cat, so who knows what she could have gotten into? That morning, she appeared totally healthy. I clearly remember refilling the food dish that morning and seeing her chowing away, i.e. completely normal appetite. And then, that evening, her kidneys completely shut down, and even before we got to the vet I knew from her symptoms she was going to die.

She was eight years old, a little past midway point for a cat. I'm mostly over it now, but the one thing that still gets me is when I think to myself, "She could have had another eight years... all those wonderful times with Stash, multiplied by two." I tend to get kind of angry when I think that, so I try not to...

Anyway! Enough with the sad part of the story. So, it turns out that shortly before that we had decided we should put our cats on flea medication. We ordered it online, and it arrived a few days before her death. But despite my wife's helpful reminders, I kept forgetting to give it to the cats. I finally treated our remaining cat a couple weeks after Stash died.

Imagine if I had remembered to apply the medication when it first arrived..! I would be 100% convinced it was the flea medication: I put a chemical on my cat that she's never been exposed to before, and then 48 hours later she drops dead from apparent poisoning. I would have been devastated. I never would have forgiven myself.

And yet, it would all have been an illusion. Pure post hoc. Stash died for some completely different reason. I shudder when I think of the kind of unnecessary guilt and anguish I would have felt, if the chips had fallen just a tiny bit differently...

Pros and cons of H1N1 vaccine

Man, this is a tough call.

(Shamelessly stolen from The Daily Show.

The cost of your bigotry

Well, this is the most depressing story I've heard in a long time. One member of a gay couple vacationing in Florida suffers a brain aneurysm and is rushed to the hospital, where she sadly will not recover. Despite having all the legal documents in place, the hospital refused to admit the grieving partner or give her full information about what was going on.

So, when Mormons cry about how they are being hated on for interfering with the vote for Prop 8... Yeah. Don't get me started.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

In defense of speciesism

I finally got around to reading The Selfish Gene. One of the themes of that book is a purely gene-centric view of natural selection. Dawkins has even spoken in later writing of the idea of "speciesism", that it is irrational to discriminate purely on the basis of species, since a species often has no sharp boundary, and in the end is nothing but a pool of genes that tends to (but doesn't always) congregate together. The analogy is, of course, to racism, which is irrational for multiple reasons -- both because the whole concept of races has been demonstrated to be on shaky biological footing, and because it would be wrong anyway even if there had turned out to be a clear delineation between races and a significant difference in their talents.

I think this analogy between speciesism and racism is completely inapt, and I respectfully disagree that it is irrational to discriminate on the basis of species alone. It is partially other insights from The Selfish Gene that leads me to this conclusion.

I am not going to make an attempt to justify omnivorousness, though I do eat meat. I try to get it only from smaller farms, better yet if I can get a look at how they keep the animals, since factory farming practices multiply the ethical and environmental issues of meat consumption a hundredfold. I simply intend to make a case that it is quite rational to apply radically different standards to an individual of a different species, extending even to putting a significantly lower value on that individual's life, irrespective of any other concerns.

The boring obvious part
The obvious problem with the idea of "speciesism" being a bad thing is that there are massive differences between species, and these do matter.

One recent debate that has continued to fascinate me is the controversy over whether lobsters feel pain -- and therefore, is it cruel to dip them headfirst into boiling water. I think the whole conversation is absurd, or at least barking up the wrong tree, because we have failed to clearly articulate what we mean by "feel pain." If we define "pain" as "the response of a nervous system to negative stimuli, causing the organism to try and avoid said stimuli", then of course lobsters feel pain. Anything with a nervous system feels pain by that definition.

But any attempt to base ethical decisions around this definition will quickly veer into the ridiculous. I could write a computer program that puts a dot on the screen, and whenever the mouse cursor comes within a certain distance of the dot, the computer says "Ouch!" and tries to move the dot away from the mouse cursor. Is this not a "negative stimulus" of sorts? After all, it provokes a reaction from the computer to try to avoid repetition of that stimulus. Does the computer feel pain?

Ah, you say, but a computer's CPU, memory, etc., are not a "nervous system" per se. Exactly right. So, it is not just that a certain thing tries to avoid a certain class of stimuli. The structure of the mechanism engaging in the avoidance response is critical in whether we would consider it to be pain.

So how close does a nervous system have to be in structure before we call it "pain" and actually give a shit? Clearly a computer loses. It seems to me that a lobster loses as well -- it clearly is experiencing something we might call "pain", but it's specific biological embodiment is not much more similar to the phenomenon we experience as "pain" than my hypothetical mouse-avoiding computer program is.

This does not apply only to pain, but in terms of any evaluation of a different organism. I do not mean to revert to the language of the past where animals were by definition viewed as mere automatons -- but in regards to very simple nervous systems, it is hard to reach any other conclusion. Without ridiculous concepts like a "soul" or "life essence", it becomes very difficult to justify the idea that a lobster's nervous system has any special properties that differentiate it from a robot's control system.

I think so far, Dawkins would agree with me. I think the idea of speciesism is meant primarily in regards to bird and mammals, particularly higher primates, where their nervous systems are so similar to ours that it is indeed meaningful to think of their experiences as being analogous to ours.

The interesting part
While I think that absolutely a more complex nervous system entitles an animal to greater protections, I will now argue that it is both rational and ethically defensible to discriminate against an organism solely because they are a member of a different species. This means that if we encountered another sapient species with nervous systems identical to ours, while we would be obliged to treat that species with the same dignity and respect with which we would expect them to treat us, it would be quite acceptable to value a human life over the lives of the organisms belonging to the other species.

In arguing this, I am going to dig into what we mean when we say that apparent "altruism" is the result of selfish genes. As Dawkins expounds on at length, any evolutionarily successful action taken by a gene must be "selfish" from the gene's point of view. But what about from the point of view of the organism? Is it always selfish from the organism's point of view, or can the action be truly "altruistic" in the sense that the organism itself gains no benefit?

At one point in The Selfish Gene, Dawkins postulates that it may be inappropriate to differentiate between symbiotic relationships among different species vs. cooperative relationships within the same species. I could not disagree more, and the reason is because the answer to the question at the end of the preceding paragraph is markedly different depending on whether the participants in the symbiotic/cooperative relationship are drawn from a compatible gene pool.

When considering interactions between two different species, any behavior that is "selfish" for the gene must also be "selfish" for the organism. (This of course excludes misfiring of "selfish" instincts, where by a parasitic species like a cuckoo capitalizes on the "selfish" impulses of another species) There is simply no way that an interaction between two organisms of different species can be, for one of the parties, good for the gene yet bad for the individual. (And thus the previous parenthetical remark is addressed -- subversion of "selfish" impulses by a parasitic species is both bad for the gene and bad for the individual) The highest form of interspecies altruism that can evolve is delayed reciprocal altruism.

Within the same species, the story is entirely different, as a result of kin selection. This is explained at length in Dawkins' book, but for those who are unfamiliar with the concept, in brief: I know that (statistically speaking) my first cousin shares 1/4 of my DNA. If I can take an action that will harm myself, but will benefit my first cousin more than four times as much as it harms me, then on average that will do more to spread my DNA than if I had failed to take that action. So natural selection will select for genes which inspire me to take such an action, even at a net loss to the individual organism in question. In other words, from the point of view of the individual, apparently "genuine" altruism.

This is fundamentally different from what takes place between species. While two individuals of two different species might share quite a large number of genes, the fact that the two species represent separate gene pools makes the evolution of "genuine" altruism impossible. The key point is that kin selection doesn't actually work because your first cousin shares 1/4 of your DNA -- it works because, if you have the "help your first cousin" mutation, then there is a 25% chance your cousin has the mutation as well. The other shared DNA that is being propagated does not affect the selective pressure on the gene one whit.

It might be conceivable to artifically create a stable situation where several species shared the same gene for inter-species altruism only among the species who have that gene in their gene pool (I'm not even sure that could be made stable) but you could never have that in the first place because there's no way such a gene could evolve. If a mutation for it developed in one species, there would be no way for it to jump to the other species. No, "genuine" altruism -- in the sense that the individual never reaps any benefit for her altruism -- can only exist within a species.

Now, some might argue cases of "genuine" intra-species altruism are no different from the case of a parasitic species (like the cuckoo) using trickery to exploit intra-species altruism for its own benefit -- only in this case, the parasite is the gene, and the rube is the altruistic individual.


Dawkins closes The Selfish Gene with a call to escape the "tyranny of our genes". I have written in the past about how I find this to be a rather paradoxical exhortation. This to me seems no more meaningful than to say that if I were to install an after-market stereo system in the family's minivan, I would be emancipating it from the "tyranny of Toyota".

Certainly humans are in a unique position to rise above the short-sightedness of our genes. Furthermore, we can say that humans are in a position to empower the individual with respect to the gene pool -- but it would be silly to say that we could empower the individual with respect to genes in general, because what is the individual but the manifestation of a specific permutation of genes, combined with environment?

Our far-sightedness in comparison to natural selection allows us to make decisions that go against the "purposes" our genetic program in startling ways, contraception being a convenient example. But even in the case of contraception, we are not overthrowing the "tyranny of our genes" -- quite the opposite, it seems to me that we should be rather glad that our genes are configured in such a way as to afford so much pleasure.

Only if one gets sloppy with the metaphor (as Dawkins repeatedly promises he won't do, but occasionally does anyway) would one argue that we have subverted the "motives" of our genes by doing so -- genes after all do not have any motives to speak of. They just are. That their ultimate cause was different is somewhat irrelevant today.

Thus I assert: If we are to say that apparent altruism which harms the individual but benefits the genes is parasitic rather than "genuinely" altruistic, then it follows also that sex doesn't "genuinely" feel good. And I for one am not willing to say such a thing.

To restate: We must discard this silly idea of escaping the "tyranny of our genes", and realize that what Dawkins is really exhorting us to do in the final chapter of his book is to 1) rise above the short-sightedness of our genes, and 2) to empower specific permutations of genes with respect to the gene pool at large. But in terms of what is "genuinely" good, the genes -- that is, the specific permutations of genes -- are still very much running the show.

At this point I'm sure some people would say I am engaging in the naturalistic fallacy. But I believe this argument is subtly different. I am not saying that "Our genes make us want to do X, therefore doing X must be good." Rather, I am saying that if our genes make us want to do X, and X is not in conflict -- either short-term or long-term, directly or indirectly -- with anything else that our genes make us want to do, then doing X must "genuinely" be a good thing to do.

I say this because I don't see any other objective way to define what is good. As I blogged about in the post I linked to before, even the Golden Rule, the apparent foundation of higher ethical behavior, is rooted in our affinity for reciprocal altruism -- an affinity we only have because of our genes.1 (It occurs to me at this moment that if one were to really truly escape the "tyranny of our genes" then one would also have to reject reciprocal altruism, and therefore the Golden Rule as well!)

So what does all this have to do with "speciesism"? Well, as I said, "genuine" altruism, i.e. non-reciprocal altruism, can only evolve within a species. Therefore, it is not surprising that we have a strong impulse towards speciesism. In the same way that we find sex quite pleasurable, independent of the gene-selfish ultimate cause, we can also say that we find human life to be worth some apparently irrational sacrifice. We also sometimes find non-human life to be worth apparently irrational sacrifices (my rather large outstanding vet bill being a vivid demonstration of this), most likely because of a "misfiring" (from the gene pool's point of view) of our impulse to make irrational sacrifices for other humans. But it seems fairly clear to me that the impulse to sacrifice for other members of the species is far more powerful than the impulse to sacrifice for other species.

The remaining question is, does this natural impulse have any unforeseen conflict with any other imperatives we have inherited from our genes? If not, I cannot see any basis on which to pronounce this impulse "wrong". In the absence of some unforeseen conflict I am missing, it seems to me that the statement "It is fine to discriminate heavily against members of different species" is as true as the statement "It is fine to have sex for pleasure."

It's worth reiterating in closing what I am not saying: I don't mean this as a defense of eating meat. Factory farming causes so much suffering -- and to species some of whose nervous systems are strikingly similar to ours -- that it is quite rightly seen as an affront to both our impulse towards reciprocal altruism, as well as even our limited impulses towards inter-species non-reciprocal altruism. Even if not, the environmental disaster of modern factory farming is clearly in long-term conflict with a number of our other impulses, e.g. the impulse to NOT FREAKING DIE.

More humane forms of animal farming are much murkier. Our sense of reciprocal altruism may rightly see it as a raw deal for the animal -- "we feed you for a couple years, but then it's choppy-choppy time" -- but I believe this is weighted against a lot of other factors that I would prefer not to get into at this time, since this post is already way too long.

1Of course, as I also said in the previous post I linked to, it is my opinion (and I think game theory backs me up on this) that any organism we might refer to as "sapient" in the slightest must have evolved some form of reciprocal altruism. In this sense I postulate that a limited form of reciprocity may represent a gene-transcendent ethic. However, I do not think this impacts my argument here.

Friday, October 16, 2009

This guy should be a hero to the anti-gay marriage bunch

Justice Keith Bardwell of Louisiana is an American hero and a patriot. At least, that's what the majority of Republicans and other gay marriage opponents ought to think if they want to be logically consistent.

This brave Christian refuses to issue marriage licenses to interracial couples because it goes against his conscience. Bravo to him! Because if there's anything we applaud in America, it's shitting on the rights of other people just because one's backwards and bigoted sensibilities are vaguely offended by what those other people are doing.

So you go, Justice Bardwell! Don't make these lefties force you to sacrifice your conscience and go against your religious beliefs. You have a clear First Amendment right to directly impede other peoples' Fourteenth Amendment rights! At least, that's what I heard...

(Oh yeah, the funniest part about the Judge Bardwell story is that he pulls out the "I have lots of black friends!" card. Helpful advice to those who are tempted to play this card: Anybody who feels the need to say they have lots of <insert ethnicity> friends is going to come across like a racist douche.)

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Why won't Obama upload a video of his birth to YouTube?

It suddenly occurred to me today how Obama could end this entire "birther" controversy in one fell swoop: All he needs to do is obtain a video of himself being born, with sufficient background shots to establish the location as the Kapi'olani Medical Center in Honolulu, and then upload it to YouTube.

Some of you skeptics out there may argue that no such video exists, but since it's also true that Hawaii does not issue long form birth certificates, I don't see how this request is substantially different from the outcries of "SHOW US THE LONG FORM, OBAMA!"

So there it is. What have you got to hide, B. Hussein Soetoro? If you really are who you say you are, how come I can't Google for a picture of your head emerging from your mother's vagina, hmmm? SHOW US THE VAGINA, OBAMA!

Friday, October 9, 2009

Critique of No on 1's new ad

No on 1 has a new ad out:

I'm only being a little bit snarky when I say that exhorting the kinds of people who would be likely to vote yes on Prop 1 to actually read something is a big waste of time.

Seriously, though, from a tactical perspective I'm not sure this is such a good idea. The big fear card that the bad guys are playing is that our children will have to learn that families can include loving gay parents. That's it. It is not the fear that their children will catch teh gay jurmms as a result of this, it's just the fact that their children will learn it exists at all.

See, we on the other side don't get that, because we don't see how that could possibly be objectionable; we assume that more is being implied, and it seems the new No on 1 ad is trying to convince that this is a positive message. It is, of course, but if they want to get this hateful proposition voted down in November's election, that positive message needs to be deferred for another four weeks. Instead, the message needs to be: "Don't worry, your kids will still know absolutely nothing."

They also need to focus way more on this "outsiders" attacking Maine thing. Play up the angle that Maine is being bossed around by states two thousand miles away.

I thought their first ad (the one I have in the sidebar until November) was pitch perfect as an opening volley. It gave people an image of gay marriage that was completely desexualized -- notice the son is always seated between his moms, never the moms next to each other -- and emphasized the negative effect Prop 1 would have on (straight) children, rather than on gay spouses. This was a great reframing of the issue.

When the Yes On 1 assholes started spreading lies about indoctrination in schools and priests being forced to marry gay couples against their will under threat of imprisonment, though, I feel like the good guys needed to go way more on the attack than they have.