Thursday, July 29, 2010

Ellis Washington comes clean about his compulsive lying and his violent goat sex fetish

I always wondered about WND columnist Ellis Washington. He seemed to have very little concern over the veracity of his statements, and furthermore, he always seemed to me like the type of person who liked to tie up goats and rape them. Now we have confirmation, right from his own mouth:

"I am a worthless liar with no journalistic integrity. I also like to rape goats, all day long." --Ellis Washington

Although perhaps not Ellis Washington's exact words, do you think they reflect his sexual animosity towards the truth and goats? Remember a quote can be a paraphrase of one's ideas and sentiments.

Update: Washington has now admitted to being a homosexual with a beard fetish. Stay tuned to this blog for continued breaking news about these shocking revelations, which are coming directly from Ellis himself! (Or might as well have, since this is what I imagine he meant to say)

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Guardian epic fail in word choice

The Guardian has a mostly-great article out that describes in gory detail the horror of female genital mutilation (FGM). That's just about the sickest fucking shit I've ever heard. In any case, they fell down hard in this one sentence:

Even girls who suffer less extreme forms of FGM are unlikely to be promiscuous. One study among Egyptian women found 50% of women who had undergone FGM "endured" rather than enjoyed sex.
(emphasis mine)
Oof. I understand the point they are trying to make, and really, "promiscuous" ought not to be a slander. But unfortunately, it is. Some worthless sadistic sexually repressed fucks are going to read this and be like, "Oh, lookie, less extreme FGM is a good thing because it helps girls stay chaste."

Instead, the Guardian should have used a phrase like "are unlikely to have normal biological functions" or something.

Goddamn, I have to stop writing about this right now. There really isn't much about religion that makes me angrier than FGM.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The politics of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs

So my wife is asleep, and I have some serious work to do, so.. even though the American Academy of Pediatrics says "no TV before 2 years old", my son is watching Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. Sue me. Or better yet, teleport me to an alternate universe where my parents aren't old and sick and handicapped, so that way instead of having to tell my mom "no" over and over and over again when she begs to babysit, I could just drop him off at grandpa and grandma's house for a few hours. Anyway, rant over.

The plot of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is that this guy who lives in a town where people don't have any food to eat except sardines, invents this thing that makes it rain food. It's a kid movie, so who cares if it's preposterous. But...

The first food he has fall is cheeseburgers. So... were the skies filled with spontaneously generated cows who then got spontaneously slaughtered?

I suppose ground dead animal being generated sui generis from "mutated hydrogen" (that's the brief pseudoscience excuse they give in the movie) is no more preposterous than vegetables being created the same way... But the problem I have with it is that kids in this country are already really divorced from any understanding of where their food comes from, especially the factory farmed meat. This just seems to perpetuate that unfortunate trend.

I guess it would have ruined the movie if it only created vegetarian (or even vegan) food. And it would be way too dark in a kid's movie to have some subplot where they find out it's actually not cool to use the invention to make meat, because there are chickens and cows forming in the clouds and then croaking... But it bugs me anyway.

When my son is old enough to understand, I intend on taking him to a farm as soon as possible and helping him to understand where the food comes from. When he's old enough to cook with me, I'd like him to help me, or at least watch me, break down a chicken. (Even though I'm very slow at it, I love breaking down chickens... it makes you mindful of where the food came from, and at the same time you get to participate in this magical transformation... I dunno, I just like it) Maybe sooner rather than later I can even have him participate in killing and plucking some chickens...

Anyway, the reason I'm letting my son watch this crap in the first place is because I'm ridiculously busy, so back to work... I just had to say something before I forgot.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

On labels...

I disagree with almost everything Chris Mooney says. Almost. In a recent post at The Intersection, he bemoans the use of the word "accomodationist", observing:

I also am tired of the label “accommodationist.” It seems to imply that there is something weak about my view, as if I’m all ready to just cave to some common enemy. On the contrary, I think that I’m being tolerant and pragmatic.

I actually agree, at least with the first two sentences. I have always had this nagging feeling that using the word "accomodationist" has a pejorative implication, harking back to Neville Chamberlain. Never mind that I think the comparison is at least somewhat apt; when there is serious debate to be had, I do not think it is fair to give the other side a label that contains implicit ridicule. (When there is not serious debate, e.g. when it comes to Intelligent Design-promoting "IDiots", I think a derisive label is quite appropriate -- but, as much as I disagree with them, many of the so-called accomodationists are serious thinkers and they have a point which is worthy of debate. This is why, as hilarious as I find it, I have studiously avoided the term "faitheist".)

A couple folks at Ophelia's blog mention the term "compatibilist", and that is not too bad, but it still leaves our side with either the problematic and over-broad "New Atheist" label, or else "incompatibilist", which I am not fond of because it seems to be a bit pejorative, e.g. implying we are being stubborn or intolerant. (Though it's accurate in a literal sense, in that we believe faith and science are incompatible, but I'm still not crazy about it)

I have a suggestion, though I'm sure I'm spitting into the wind here: "Tacticalist" and "Strategicalist". (sorry for the awkward constructions, the grammatically correct and succinct "tactician" and "strategist" seem to imply the wrong things)

Both schools of thought aim to improve public respect for and knowledge of science; and both recognize there is at present a divide between at least some people's faith as currently practiced, and the goals of furthering science and science education. This is, after all, exactly what the conversation is about.

A "Tacticalist" doubts either or both the feasibility and desirability of reducing the societal value placed on faith, and therefore seeks a tactical solution to the faith/science divide. This generally takes the form of seeking to emphasize and enlarge common ground, while minimizing or compartmentalizing areas of apparent conflict. It is also relatively focused in scope, generally focusing only on the evolution/Creation "debate" or on other science education issues.

(I have taken pains to try to use the most positive language possible in the above paragraph, but if my personal biases slipped through, I apologize)

A "Strategicalist" on the other hand has doubts about the longevity, scope, and/or intellectual integrity of the tactical approach, and instead favors a strategic solution of seeking to decrease both the role and the value of faith in modern society. Contrary to some people's impressions, the strategicalist does not forsake the exploration of common ground -- but unlike the tacticalist, she does not put any stock into minimizing or compartmentalizing areas of faith/science conflicts. The strategicalist's approach tends to be much broader, encompassing areas such as the moral distortions brought about by faith and the problems of sectarian political influence (the flip side of "broadness" is that it also makes the approach less focused). Her day-to-day "tactics" (after all, there has to be some tactics to any strategy!) are simply to assert what she believes to be the truth, to stand by her principles, and at times to engage in vigorous debate.

Finally, a strategicalist tends to have disdain for what they view as short-term tactical approaches. An example would be what might be called the "God of the Quantum Gaps" argument, i.e. that God could influence physical events by manipulating the apparently-random results of quantum interactions. The tacticalist, whether he believes in such a God or not, observes that this possibility is unfalsifiable and -- at least for now -- does not conflict with currently known scientific fact, and therefore provides a refuge for those who wish to believe in both miracles and empirical truth. The strategicalist points out that many such refuges have existed in the past and then collapsed, and that the same might very well happen for the quantum gap; and moreover, she argues that belief in an unfalsifiable possibility is in direct conflict with the philosophy of science even if it does not explicitly contradict any known facts.

I believe these labels are both descriptive and respectful of both sides. There is nothing inherently superior about strategy vs. tactics (try and win a chess game without any tactical knowledge!) and I do not believe either one has the implication of weakness that bothers Mooney (and myself) in the term "accomodationist".

I know there's not a snowball's chance in the Large Hadron Collider of these terms actually catching on, but I might start trying them out for a week or so and see if anybody likes them. Heh, why not...

Monday, July 12, 2010

This says a lot about the people in whom it inspires outrage

Snopes reports on a rumor going around that the military is now handing out "Courageous Restraint" medals to honor those who bravely avoid firing their weapon in situations in which they feel threatened, thus defusing the situation and saving lives. It's not true -- the proposal was considered but ultimately nixed, and as much as I like the idea, I can see it would have some serious implementation problems. But the outrage in the viral e-mail is just shocking:

The greatest insult to our troops in the field, and the officers who lead them...

Excuse me? The idea of awarding soldiers for not murdering civilians is an "insult" to them?!? What kind of sick sadistic fuck is this person, that he or she would write such a violent thing???

Taken to its logical conclusion, this would imply that "our troops in the field, and the officers who lead them" take great pride in the unnecessary and/or cowardly slaughter of civilians -- after all, if they didn't take pride in it, how would honoring the avoidance of such actions be an "insult"?

The greatest insult of all is from the author of this sick twisted e-mail, who implies that the highest aspiration for a soldier is to be frightened into pulling the trigger on an innocent person.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Quick words on Pepsigeddon

(If you don't follow ScienceBlogs at all, the best summary of this controversy I have found so far is, paradoxically, located at The Loom, a former ScienceBlog that moved to Discover Magazine. Quick summary: ScienceBlogs added a blog sponsored by PepsiCo; people are pissed.)

Seed did a terrible job at managing this -- they should have known there would be resistance to a name like PepsiCo sharing billing on ScienceBlogs, and they should have consulted their bloggers about how to announce it, how to label it, etc. At the very least, they should have given them a heads-up!

I'm also a little puzzled by what PepsiCo is going to talk about. The intro post talks about using "behavioral economics" to "improve health outcomes around the world"... I thought PepsiCo mostly used behavioral economics to sell people stuff?

That said, I do think the reaction is a little overblown. Karl Zimmer eloquently sums up what a lot of the angry SciBloggers are saying:

...Bly seems to justify the Pepsi affair by saying Scienceblogs has hosted blogs from corporations before. Somehow that means this new situation is okay. I can’t stop thinking of the line from As You Like It, “More villain thou.”

PepsiCo is more "villainous" than Shell? I'm not so sure about that, guys... Pepsi might be shortening lives, but they aren't setting us up for an ice-cap meltin' Armageddon...!

I suppose it feels more dirty co-residing with a shill blog for Pepsi than a shill blog for Shell, because the latter is -- in practice -- more concerned with marketing to lobbyists, while the former is targeting the consumer. It's not like if Shell stops advertising, people are going to stop consuming fossil fuels. But if Pepsi stops advertising... So yeah, I guess I can see that. Allowing Shell to sponsor a blog on ScienceBlogs is not going to make a substantive difference in the public conversation about fossil fuels (unless they go all AGW-denialist, but obviously nobody is going to stand for that on ScienceBlogs). On the other hand, we could imagine PepsiCo influencing the public conversation to their benefit.

In any case, it will be interesting to see how this plays out.

Update: I may have just changed my mind about how serious this is... reading about all controversy is making me crave a cola. Seriously. In fact, I think I might go get one. I rarely drink soda (I'm a coffee and beer guy personally), probably no more than a couple times a month usually. So this is not a typical craving for me. Wow, it's working already...

Thursday, July 1, 2010

A hypothetical ethical quandary

A comment over at Pharyngula inspired me to ponder the ethical dilemmas that will arise as our ability to cure disease starts to encroach on the fine line between "different" and "pathological". In composing a reply, I came up with a thought experiment that I found compelling enough to warrant inclusion on my blog.

Imagine that a few decades from now, as the study of personal genomics advances, we find a mutation on the X chromosome that causes a slight difference in the sequence/amount of hormones that a woman experiences during pregnancy. And let's say this hypothetical hormonal fluctuation has two effects:

1) It makes her sons significantly more likely to be gay (and in fact, to make it interesting, let's say that scientists estimate that 40-50% of gay men's mothers had this particular mutation, whereas less than 10% of straight men's mothers have it, i.e. while not perfectly correlated, it is highly predictive of sexuality)

2) It causes a modest increase in her sons' risk of a rare type of testicular cancer.1

Furthermore, let's assume that a simple, safe, and highly accurate screening process can be done for this, and it is cheap enough to be performed as a matter of course (in fact, the incremental cost is essentially zero, since in this not-too-distant future a mother-to-be's genome is routinely sequenced anyway to check for all sorts of other mutations of interest). And finally, let's say there is a safe, effective, cheap, easy "treatment" (e.g. a one-time hormone injection at a certain point in the pregnancy) that will bring the prenatal hormones in line with the "baseline" average in the majority of women.

So... do you offer it? Do you do it as a matter of course?

On one hand, it seems like the answer has to be a resounding "YES!"... The fetus is incapable of making medical decisions for itself, so if a prospective treatment carries little to no risk of (medical) side-effects, and reduces the fetus' risk of developing cancer later in life, even by a little bit, it would seem we are ethically bound to use it.

On the other hand, employing this treatment as a matter of course would significantly reduce the population of a traditionally-oppressed minority. It feels like an attempt to exterminate gays!

Furthermore, if you offer it as an option to mothers-to-be, is that even worse? Are you now allowing a mother to "hetero-ify" her baby without his consent?

I honestly do not know what my answer is to any of these questions. Luckily, this is (right now) nothing more than a flight of fancy. But I suspect we will be facing similar dilemmas in the near future. We are already facing it in regards to cochlear implants, which -- to the surprise of most hearing people, myself included -- have met with stiff resistance from many elements of the deaf community.2

Another hypothetical I mentioned in my Pharyngula comment is, what if we found a treatment that would cure mild cases of Asperger's -- and then, two decades after it started being used as a matter of course, we found ourselves with a shortage of engineers! As I mentioned in the opening paragraph, the line between "different" and "pathological" is not always clear. And, as the present thought experiment seeks to address, the phenomenon of pleiotropy may give us a single allele that simultaneously causes both a "difference" (and one we want to protect) as well as a "pathology"! These will not be easy questions.

Update: A commenter at Pharyngula points out that there is already an eBook with a virtually identical plot! More proof that there's nothing new under the sun, eh?

1Lest this offend anyone, let me be perfectly clear that this is not a conjecture, nor is it meant to imply anything negative or to suggest that homosexuality is "deviant" or "pathological" or anything remotely of the sort. That ought to go without saying, but I am saying it anyways. I chose this scenario because current research strongly suggests that sexual preference has at least a partial genetic component, other research suggests that sexual preference can be influenced by prenatal hormones, and we also know that some hormones are implicated in certain types of cancer -- so the scenario satisfies a certain baseline plausibility, i.e. it doesn't contradict anything we know about the physical world, and I think that is good enough for a thought experiment.

2After watching a movie about it, I am much more understanding of and empathetic towards the anti-implant position... but I still think that, in cases where the child can expect significant hearing recovery from the implant, it's generally "the right thing to do". I will not pretend that it is an easy call, though, and my heart breaks for deaf parents who have to make this decision. If you were faced with an irrevocable choice that would give your child a valuable new ability, at the cost of possibly reducing the emotional and communal bond between you and her, at the cost of eliminating an entire realm of shared identification, would you do it? I'd like to say I would answer yes, but... I hope I will never have to make such a decision!