Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The "Draw Nothing" Protest

The New Humanist reports that "satire appears to be dying, as editors go one step further by displaying a fear of publishing anything that comes close to satirising the widespread fear of publishing anything that comes close to depicting the Prophet Muhammad." A cartoon which did not depict Mohammed, but whose punchline was "Picture book title voted least likely to ever find a publisher… ‘Where’s Muhammad?'" was rejected by upwards of 20 newspapers.

Unfortunately, I am not an influential cartoonist. Or an influential anything, for that matter. But if I were, the protest I would suggest is for established cartoonists to pick a "Draw Nothing Day". For your cartoon that day, turn in an empty panel or panels. That's it.

There are many people who support free speech but who feel uncomfortable drawing Mohammed, not just for fear of getting blowd up, but out of a genuine respect for others' religious sensibilities. (That would not be me, of course) So we would not ask these people to draw Mohammed, and in any case, even if it were realistic, getting major US newspapers to publish cartoons of Mohammed would probably result in copious death and violence. (Fucked up, eh?) But surely an empty captionless frame could be drawn?

Anybody like this idea? How would we get cartoonists on board?

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Unscientific America: Lots of cool facts, but they all support the opposite conclusions!

I don't think I am going to finish Unscientific America. It's getting really frustrating. There are lots of interesting facts, followed by M&K baldly asserting the exact opposite of what a reasonable person might conclude from those facts.

Chapter 4, for example, is about the events that unfolded during the 1990s. M&K characterize the decade as one of contrasting gains and losses for science. On one hand, you have a pro-science president, the dot-com boom, and a proliferation of popular science books. The authors cited by Mooney as being on the forefront of those books are:

Carl Sagan... Stephen Hawking... Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennet, Jared Diamond, Richard Feynman, James Gleick, Stephen Jay Gould, Lawrence Krauss, Steven Pinker, and E.O. Wilson

Notice anything about that list? Virtually all of them are well-known to be atheists, and the few who aren't we can mostly infer their atheism from their writing (e.g. given Jared Diamond's comments about the origin of religion in Guns, Germs, and Steel -- he basically says that religion started as a useful tool for recruiting people to fight and die for your budding nation-state, even when it yields no benefit to them -- it would be difficult to picture him having a kind view of it!). Two of the list are half of the Four Horsemen, and a few others have made openly hostile comments towards religion (e.g. Krauss, Feynman). Now you can even add Hawking to the list of those who fail Mooney's "respect" test. Only a single person on the list -- Gould -- has advocated for faith-science reconciliation.

Granted, M&K seem to acknowledge this -- the picture they paint is of these popularizing scientists becoming overconfident ("hubris" and "triumphalism" are two words that are tossed out) and that in turn causing them to make a grave error in criticizing religion. Then they assert, without any evidence that I've been able to find yet:

...there was also an occasional undercurrent of arrogance and superiority that led the movement in less constructive directions. The third culture's frequent attacks on religious belief were perhaps most damaging.

[citation needed]

Seriously, I'll take a single anecdote at this point which supports the frequent assertion that the Gnu Atheist hostility towards religion has done any damage whatsoever to science. If Mooney can track down a single religious person who says, "Well! I was all set to accept evolution as fact, but then I read The God Delusion, and since Dawkins is such a dick, I became a creationist." I have yet to hear one person make such a claim! Oh sure, I've heard plenty of third parties claim, "I am religious and believe in evolution, but Dawkins/Coyne/whoever is a real dick and that makes me sad." But where is the damage to science? I still don't see it. (A related challenge, which again I have yet to hear an answer to, is: Name one social movement, at any point in history, which was sabotaged because its advocates were too outspoken.)

On the contrary, I imagine I could mount some evidence that this controversy may have even helped science in the public eye. At the very least, I can provide anecdotes... though it is rare, people have been won over by the books of the Gnu Atheists. It is probably not a statistically significant number, but it does happen. More importantly, perhaps, can we really deny that countless hordes of people read books like The Selfish Gene only because they first became interested by the publication of The God Delusion? (I count myself among that group, FWIW) I was unable to find any direct sales data, but this Google Trends graph is revealing... a short-lived spike when The God Delusion was first announced, and then continuing unabated since its publication. Note that the search term "selfish gene" didn't even register before then.

Instead, M&K go on to cite lots of data bout how terribly creationist and anti-science Americans were during those years... but M&K had already provided a much more straightforward explanation for this not two pages earier: An anti-science Republican-dominated congress led by Newt Gingrich, and a media obsessed with UFO conspiracies and psychics. Oh fuck, but we can't blame politicians and the media! Everybody's already done that! Nope, it's the fucking scientists' fault. Has to be. Never mind that we don't have any data to support that, and our own data that we present even contradicts that. It's still the fucking scientists' fault, because we said so, and we think we can sell a book saying that.


My wife had been picking up the book and flipping through it occasionally, and she went straight to chapter 8 -- after which she said, "You're totally right, this guy is a douche." heh... So I skipped ahead to Chapter 8, and here are my thoughts.

First things first: The primary reason I got this book was to see for myself if Mooney and Kirshenbaum presented Crackergate honestly. They did. All of the relevant details were there. Sure, their spin was different than mine would be, but it was perfectly valid -- I do not feel they distorted the events at all, they simply presented them in a tone which disapproved of PZ and Cook while sympathizing with the Catholics -- and well, that's no different in principle from me employing a tone that disapproves of the Catholics, sympathizes with Cook, and praises PZ. I do not find anything worthy of criticism in their recounting of Crackergate.

Of course, as soon as they are done with the telling, M&K fall into the usual pattern: Assert that the cause of science has been irreparably damaged by these events, with no supporting evidence whatsoever. Did Catholic acceptance of evolution or general opinion of science have a sudden dip after Crackergate? Hell, fuck statistics, do M&K have a single anecdote of a Catholic saying, "I used to just LOVE science! But then that mean old PZ stabbed a cracker, and now I am a Young Earth Creationist and I am serving on the Texas School Board"? No they do not. Not even an anecdote. Just assertions that, well, it made people sad, so therefore it must have been bad for science!

I'm sure Crackergate made many Catholics very sad. And we can debate the ethical/moral/philosophical validity of PZ's protest in that light. PalMD, for instance, has said he found Crackergate "distasteful" even though he seems to agree with the basic point being made. That's a valid position to hold, and while I think the cracker-killin' was awesome, I respect PalMD's opinion as well. But M&K are trying to assert that Crackergate harms the image of science, and that's a whole other kettle of fish. That is not just a philosophical position; you need to support that with data! And they fail to do so -- or at least, if they do, it's buried in some part of the book I haven't read. Meanwhile, they've thrown lots of data at me that contradicts their position...

And once again, we can make the exposure argument. How many people "came for the godlessness, and stayed for the science?" How many people found Pharyngula because they heard about Crackergate, and then discovered an interest in evolutionary and developmental biology? Well, I know of at least one blogger who fits that description... I don't have hard numbers here, of course, but neither do Mooney and Kirshenbaum. So the question is whose speculation you find most plausible, and since M&K have failed to even posit a plausible mechanism or provide a single anecdote, I have trouble taking them seriously.

Most of the rest of Chapter 8 is your usual accomodationist claptrap, and we've heard it all before. "Faith and science must be compatible, because religious scientists do exist!" (never mind that their percentage is much lower than the genuine population, and in any case you cannot make a statistical argument in favor of a philosophical position) "Look at all these famous historical scientists" - M&K list Copernicus, Francis Bacon, Decartes, Kepler, Galileo, Newton, and Boyle - "who were deeply, devoutly religious!" (Never mind that every single one lived pre-Darwin, which totally doesn't count) "Scientists are out of step with the average American!" (no shit sherlock, that's what your fucking book is about! If you want to change the average, then by definition you must be out of step with it. You don't change the culture by agreeing with the status quo, idiot!)

There is one long paragraph, however, which I would like to quote in full, because it presents a novel accomodationist argument, not so much directly in favor of faith-science compatibility, but asserting that scientists are as a group less qualified to judge that alleged compatibility -- and yet I think that with a slightly different spin, it's a rather damning argument against faith-science compatibility!

Meanwhile, there's no question that America's scientific community is far more secular in outlook than the rest of the nation. A 2007 study revealed that whereas 52 percent of scientists at twenty-one leading U.S. academic institutions claimed to have no religious affiliation, that was true of just 14 percent of the broader U.S. public. And whereas 15 percent of Americans self-identify as "evangelical" or "fundamentalist," fewer than 2 percent of the surveyed scientists did. The study also revealed that far more than the general population, scientists tend to come from liberal or nonreligious family backgrounds. In fact, those scientists in the survey who professed religious beliefs tended to have grown up with them; childhood upbringing was a central factor in separating religious and non-religious scientists. The authors of the study concluded, "While the general American public may indeed have a less than desirable understanding of science, our findings reveal that academic scientists may have much less experience with religion than many outside the academy."

Well that just takes the motherfucking cake right there.

Okay, we're talking about faith-science compatibility here, right? And the study reveals that not only are scientists less religious, but that doesn't seem to be a result of abandoning science as a result of religion -- rather, it seems people who are religious are less likely to go into science in the first place. Almost as if their religious beliefs were "incompatible" with a career in science, hmm?

And the conclusion they draw is that since so few scientists were brought up religious, what would they know about faith-science compatibility?!? Wha????? What kind of bizarro world are we living in now?

By the same token, I suppose, we could observe that children who are raised in a non-smoking household are far more likely to grow up to become non-smokers than their counterparts who are raised by one or more smoking parents; therefore non-smokers on average have much less experience with childhood exposure to secondhand smoke; and so we are forced to conclude that non-smokers aren't qualified to talk about the dangers of secondhand smoke!

Oh wait, that's stupid.

Two paragraphs later, M&K make really the only statement that needs to be made on this matter:

The scientific case for rejecting [Young-Earth Creationism, etc.] is indisputable. But that doesn't make it persuasive to creationists or other religiously motivated evolution skeptics.

Correct! You are right! No matter how nicely presented the scientific arguments, no matter what "tone" is employed, they don't work. And this is why some of us have decided to attack the problem at its source: Religious motivation.

And in regards to that struggle, I would like to quote to M&K the words of a certain past acquaintance of Mooney's: You're Not Helping!

Monday, September 27, 2010

A Perfectly Cromulent Inoculation against Plantinga's Proof

I have already tackled Alvin Plantinga's modal form of the ontological argument in a previous post, but I've never been entirely satisfied with my response. I was pondering it again today, and I think I have come up with a better rebuttal -- although it's more an "inoculation" than a rebuttal, as I will explain.

The most controversial aspect of Plantinga's argument is not the S5 axiom -- although, frankly, I apparently don't understand formal logic enough to see how the S5 axiom is possibly supportable, it seems to me to lead to obviously absurd results -- but rather, the acceptance of the possibility premise. To review, Plantinga's possibility premise is that "Maximal greatness is possibly exemplified", where maximal greatness is defined thusly: "It is proposed that a being has maximal greatness if it has maximal excellence in every possible world." (The definition of maximal excellence is not important for the purposes of this post) It has been argued that Plantinga is engaging in a form of begging the question here, in that when the listener agrees to this premise, she is agreeing to far more than she realizes.

Plantinga's response is that one could say this about any logical argument. And admittedly, he has a point: it is usually not fair to agree to a set of premises, and then when those premises lead to a result which one finds distasteful, to go back and revise the key premises until the result no longer holds. Otherwise, one could never mount any sort of logical argument whatsoever -- the premises would just be altered.

And thus I propose my inoculation against Plantinga's proof. This is a "proof" of sorts, which, via series of arguably objectionable premises, attempts to reach a result which is patently absurd. The point is that if a person rejects any of the premises in this proof, it makes it impossible for that person to agree to Plantinga's possibility premise. Thus, they are inoculated.

I start with a definition:

1. It is proposed that a proposition is perfectly cromulent if that proposition is true in all possible worlds.

And right off the bat, let's toss out our first premise:

2. There exist one or more propositions which are perfectly cromulent. (premise)

So what we are doing here is clarifying what we mean by "possible worlds". I would argue that if we want to take "possible worlds" at its face, then we must reject this premise. And I'm sure it is clear that if one rejects the premise at (2), one must also reject Plantinga's possibility premise -- for, if it maximal greatness were exemplified, then the statement "There exists a maximally excellent being" would be perfectly cromulent, and if (2) is false, there cannot be any perfectly cromulent statements.

But let's say we have a narrower definition of "possible worlds". Let's move on with another suggested premise, this time one we hope the listener will accept.

3a. If we can imagine a possible world in which proposition P is false, then P cannot be perfectly cromulent. (premise)

This really doesn't narrow the definition very much at all, but it does so in an important way. If a person agrees to premise (3a), then in regards Plantinga's argument, they have two choices: She can insist that she cannot even imagine a world without a maximally excellent being (in which case Plantinga's proof is superfluous!), or else she can admit that she can imagine such a world, in which case Plantinga's possibility premise once again breaks down: We can imagine a world with no maximally excellent being, therefore the proposition that "a maximally excellent being exists" is not perfectly cromulent, therefore the premise that "maximal greatness is exemplified" cannot be true.

Okay, so let's say the premise was rejected. Instead, let's substitute the negation.

3b. Even if we can imagine a possible world in which proposition P is false, P may still be perfectly cromulent. In other words, the imagined possible world is not actually a possible world.

I am having trouble imagining that a person might make this argument, but I want to cover as many bases as possible. It seems to me, however, that if one accepts premise (3b), it is rather hard to escape the next premise:

4. If a given proposition P is not proven to be false, then it is possibly perfectly cromulent.

If this premise is rejected, then I submit that the onus is now on the other person to say how we ever would determine whether a proposition is possibly perfectly cromulent. However, a person who has gotten this far and then rejects this premise is now free to agree with Plantinga's possibility premise if they wish.

Of course, if the premise is accepted, then we rapidly reach an absurd result:

5. For any given proposition P that has not been proven to be false, it is possibly necessarily true.
6. For any given proposition P that has not been proven to be false, it is necessarily true. (By that wily S5)
7. All propositions that have not been proven false are true.

Yes, one can still thread the gauntlet and agree with Plantinga's possibility premise. But most people won't -- and that's exactly the point. This forces people to clarify exactly what they are agreeing to before they accept Plantinga's premise.

Please, anyone who actually knows philosophy or logic, tell me where I went wrong!

Monday, September 20, 2010

Does XKCD read my blog?!?

On Friday, I post this, and then on Monday, XKCD posts this. Freaky.

Most likely, it's just that we both read Snopes. Still, it's funny that I had a particular reaction to the Snopes article and then XKCD sees fit to rebut that reaction days later.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Or, just do nothing

Snopes covers the myth that it is the rubber tires that makes cars safer in a lightning storm (turns out it's because the metal frame acts as an ad hoc Faraday cage -- who knew!).

They conclude with a list of tips to protect yourself from lightning strikes, which includes such gems as avoiding doorways (yes, doorways) whenever you hear thunder.

The article also mentions that 58 people per year are killed by lightning. I'm pretty sure at least 58 people per year are killed in auto accidents while they are on the way to the pet store to buy dog food, so therefore nobody should own a dog.

Seriously, for causes of death which are that rare, it does not make sense to change your behavior one iota to avoid them.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Unscientific America: Mooney's historical tunnel vision

Okay, I'm halfway through the first chapter of Unscientific America, so it's way too soon to write a review -- but already, a couple of sentences have hit me right in the chest as being shockingly unsupportable.

First, some kind words. When I first got the book home from the library, I flipped through a few pages (I was mostly looking for the infamous Chapter 8) and actually found a few reasonable observations about the state of the blogosphere as it relates to science. I didn't really see much in the way of anything that could be changed, but Mooney and Kirshenbaum weren't wrong, and some of what was written seemed novel.

Also, I recall at least a couple of reviewers (PZ, I think?) criticizing the first chapter because they said M&K were never clear about exactly what should have been done about Pluto. On the contrary, I feel the chapter was quite clear: IAU should have just let Eros and the rest into the club, or at the very least grandfathered Pluto in, to avoid pissing off the public. So that criticism falls flat.

Of course, then M&K are faced with having to actually defend that position, which they don't really do; they simply assert that the scientists at IAU didn't think about the public fallout, and that if they had, of course they would have done it differently. I maybe agree with the first part of that sentence, but I'm not so sure about the second. Chapter One of UA briefly lists the (all very good) reasons why Pluto was de-classified, and then just hand-waves them like they don't matter. They also fail to make a case -- and I believe others have pointed this out -- that the Pluto controversy actually hurt science. While the adage that "There's no such thing as bad publicity" is clearly not always true, it's not at all obvious in this case whether the Pluto affair really damaged science's public reputation, or if the dominant effect may have actually been to spark a brief public interest in astronomy.

In any case, if M&K's point is just that the IAU didn't consider the public reaction, they have a point. I'll grant it.

Where the book really goes way off the rails is that it seems to have no real perspective on anything dating before about 1999. Perhaps it is because for Mooney -- or at least, for his writing -- the world really began with his first highly-praised book, The Republican War on Science. The picture painted by Unscientific America seems to be of science emerging from a several centuries-long Dark Ages spanning from 2001 to 2008, followed by all the scientists throwing a big party and declaring Science Wins!, with only M&K as the calm voice of reason reminding us we have more work to do.

At least, that is the only way I can explain this desperately-[citation needed] sentence from page 7:

For all these reasons, the rift between science and mainstream American culture is growing ever wider.

This is curious considering that only two pages previous, M&K cite examples stretching back to the 1830s of commentators bemoaning American anti-intellectualism. Yes, there is a deep rift between science and mainstream American culture, and it's true the rift does not appear to be shrinking, certainly not as fast as we would like... but M&K act like this is a new problem. It's almost as if Mooney had assumed all of the problems in science communication in the 2000s were a direct result of the Bush administration's overtly anti-science policies, and that he expected everything to turn rosy once Obama was voted in -- and then when that didn't happened, he decided the world must be going to hell in a handbasket. And indeed, this is supported by the following quote from page 8:

Yet we are deluding ourselves if we think all the problems surrounding science have suddenly been solved [by Obama's inauguration].

Yes, Chris and Sheril, I believing you are, in fact, deluding yourselves. Seriously, who the fuck actually thought that?!?

Maybe Chris felt that way, but I think most people had more perspective. It would be easy to chalk it up to his age -- the 2000 election would have been the first when Mooney was eligible to vote -- but he's actually about a year older than me, so that's no excuse either.

So we already know that M&K's description of a minimally century-and-a-half long American anti-intellectualism contradicts the idea of an "ever wider" "rift" between science and the American public... did they offer anything in support of it?

Chapter One is filled with lots of hard numbers demonstrating the nature and scope of the problem, and M&K are to be commended for this research. But to support the idea that the rift is growing, these numbers can't be a snapshot in time; they must sample at least two data points. I can find only a single example of this type of data in Chapter One:

As for newspapers, from 1989 to 2005 the number featuring weekly science or science-related sections shrank by nearly two-thirds, from ninety-five to thirty-four.

A stark trend, to be sure. But I am not convinced this represents a re-prioritizing of science by the traditional news media. Rather, I think this is a manifestation of an ongoing indifference to science and science reporting, combined with a well-documented crash in print newspaper circulation. From 1980 to 2002, the number of print newspapers in the US declined by 17% (despite no significant decline for the previous three decades). More in line with the staggering drop in science reporting cited by M&K, the number of people employed by print newspapers declined by about 40% or so in the same interval they looked at. All we need to do to explain the drop-off in science reporting is to assume that when times get tough at American newspapers, the science staff are half again more likely to get fired than their counterparts. Does anyone really doubt that has been the case for several decades or more?

The rest of Chapter One makes a fairly convincing case, however, that the aforementioned rift -- whether it is growing, as M&K baldly assert, or if it is business as usual, as I tend to think -- will become more dangerous in the coming years. Really, one need point no further than the politicization of global warming, but M&K do go further, and highlight a number of other areas where a weak public understanding of science jeopardizes America's future and the future of the world.

In summary: The problem with this book so far -- and this seems consonant with other reviewers -- is that the uncontroversial statements are very well-researched and well-supported, yet they are intermingled with controversial and novel assertions that are not. At least in Chapter One, this problem seems to be result of historical tunnel vision. M&K's pronouncements on the past are rarely cited; and when there is data stemming from prior to the 21st century, it tends to support the opposite conclusions of what they are asserting.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Ben Goldacre is right

I just want to highlight this CiF article from Ben Goldacre that was linked to from His first paragraph makes a point that I whole-heartedly agree with, though it's easy to forget:

This week the pope is in London. You will have your own views on the discrimination against women, the homophobia, and the international criminal conspiracy to cover up for mass child rape. My special interest is his role in the 2 million people who die of Aids each year.

Indeed, I have said before that as disgusting as the cover-up of child abuse has been, far and away the worst crime the Catholic church is committing against humanity is their efforts at African genocide. I mean, let's be honest, that's what we're talking about here, is effectively genocide.

Oh sure, they may tell all 1.1 billion Catholics not to use any form of birth control, but let me let you in on a dirty little secret: Western Catholics, especially the more affluent ones, routinely ignore this insane bit of doctrine. Those who actually obey the Vatican's breathtakingly stupid policy on condoms tend to be the poor and those in the developing world. And with AIDS rates as high as they are in Africa, this deliberately ignorant piece of dogma can only have one effect: It will disproportionately kill Africans in comparison to any other demographic, and it will do so by the hundreds of thousands. That's fucking genocide in my book.

As bad as the child rape cover-up is, as much hate and intolerance the Catholic church can manage to spread, the worst thing of all is the destructive campaign to stop condom use in Africa, perpetrated via what are nominally referred to as "charitable" organizations on the continent. Let's not forget that.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

I'm not really supposed to talk about this, but I'm going to anyway

As a white male heterosexual, I know I am afforded a sick amount of privilege, and in ways I don't even realize. In my younger idealistic days, I wanted to deny this ("It wasn't me that did the oppressing!") and it led me to mildly oppose policies like affirmative action, a position which I have now reversed. Given some of my earlier errors in this regard, I try to exercise deep humility when it comes to matters of gender, race, or sexual preference, and pay a whole lot more attention to the people who have historically been shat on than to my own intuitions. And it ought to go without saying that I don't really get to pontificate on how members of these groups should feel or what they should call themselves!

And thus I'm loathe to admit what I'm about to admit. In a sense, this post is me officially letting go -- I've decided that, as much as the following bugs me, I'm just going to forget about it from now on. But before I do, I just have to say it one time in public:

"Person of color". I can't stand that phrase.

The reason it grates on me is because it's overly non-specific, and it doesn't really make any sense. First of all, the color of my skin is still a color. Even if you are of the mindset that white (as in pure white) is not a color, um, dude.. my skin is not actually "white" you know, that's just what we call it. (And incidentally, if white is not a color, than gray and black are also not colors, because the only thing that distinguishes them is relative intensity. Cool experiment: Use a laptop projector to display an image of a black square on a white background, and point it at a typical projection screen. What color is this patch I am pointing at? Black, right? Now turn off the projector. What color is it now? Oh crap, it's white!)

Second of all, how general is the term supposed to be? To whom does it apply? I'm just never quite sure. I guess the idea is to encompass all racial groups which have been kicked around by the past couple centuries' global dominance by white Europeans... but I dunno, it just falls flat with me.

Okay, okay, look, I'm starting to get over it. The main reason is that it appears to be Sikivu Hutchinson's preferred term, and I gotta say, I really love her writing. Her recent piece about mortality and about losing a child to congenital disease is particularly gripping and heart-wrenching. All her writing is just fantastic.

And as such, it seems rather silly if I let an arbitrary descriptive term -- especially one which my white male ass really doesn't have any right to complain about -- interfere with my appreciation of a really fantastic author. So I'm going to let go of it. Fine. "People of color" it is.

Given that I almost certainly make more money for the same work, have an easier time getting loans and housing, and reap all sorts of other hidden benefits just because of the color of my skin, it's rather unbecoming of me to be bothered by a term that sort of implicitly says my skin has no color, even though everybody knows what we mean and I suffer absolutely no discrimination or repercussions as a result of the use of that term.

So here it is: With that hopelessly white over-privileged rant out of my system, I now pronounce that I am officially down with the term "person of color" from here on out.

Edit: My wife points out that perhaps some of the reason why I tend to take the term more literally than I ought is because my job involves working in the same building with a bunch of color scientists. (In fact, it was a 3-day crash course in color science where I encountered the trick with the projector) I suppose it's not that surprising that I might read too deeply into an obvious metaphor in that context... heh... Silly me.

The difference between the book-burning Florida pastor and Crackergate

Much ado lately about the douchebag Florida pastor who is going to burn a bunch of Qurans this Saturday. Inevitably, the anti-gnu atheist crowd has occasionally drawn comparisons to PZ's infamous cracker mutilation. And indeed, the analogy had occurred to me even before I heard it invoked by critics. In both cases, we are looking at the desecration of a religious symbol. If we are going to view one of them as a vicious act of bigotry and the other as a legitimate act of protest, we ought to have our reasoning clear. So I think this is worth examining.

On a purely practical level, it ought to be obvious that one act is simply far more dangerous than the other at the present point in time. At the time of Crackergate, the US was not in the process of trying to extricate itself from a foreign war involving Catholicist guerrillas and terrorists. There was no open war between a militant form of theocratic Catholicism and American universities. And if there had, one probably could have argued that PZ's actions would have been reckless. If there were a serious possibility that PZ's cracker abuse could have resulted in, say, a Catholic terrorist group bombing a university... well, I'm not saying we should self-censor out of fear, but this does factor in.

More importantly, though, is that PZ was specifically protesting something -- the death threats and over-the-top rhetoric surrounding Webster Cook's fateful curiosity about the Eucharist -- in a targeted and specific way. There was a clear message to Catholics: You can believe what you want, but what you cannot do is force the rest of us to take your symbols seriously.

The Florida pastor, on the other hand, does not really seem to have a point, other than "Islam is bad, mmm'kay?" If the protest had a specific goal -- protesting female genital mutilation, or the practice of taking child brides, for example -- then a protest along the lines of what the pastor is proposing might make sense and, though perhaps still ill-advised, would not necessarily be hate speech. (Though surely these cretins must be aware of the history they are invoking when they choose to use book-burning as their medium... Yeesh!)

And that's exactly why I get so frustrated when people leave out the important details of Crackergate. If PZ had just woken up one morning and said to himself, "You know, I really hate Catholics. I'm gonna stab myself a Eucharist!", then I think that might count as hate speech. Though even if that had been the case, the public reaction was still way over-the-top. And surprise, that's exactly the point PZ was making!

In fact, if this pastor's point was that people get way too upset about Quran abuse, then although I would still find the planned protest to be ill-advised, I would not necessarily find it hateful. Indeed, it's very silly how apoplectic people get about their religious symbols, and the Islamic reverence for the Quran is no exception. I am wracking my brain to try to think of any symbol that I hold so dear that if someone were to desecrate it I would do much more than call them an asshole. The closest I can think of is if somebody befouled a picture of my family, but that's different because a personal threat is implied.

I think the very closest I can come is an example like Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church. But even then, it's the captive-ish audience that is the problem. (Not technically a captive audience I suppose, but are you going to leave your own son's or daughter's funeral? Please.) If Phelps and his spawn simply planned their disgusting protests on the same day as military funerals, but across town, it wouldn't warrant much more than a shrug at the existence of yet another sick malicious fundie.

There's just no way that somebody could desecrate a symbol, that did not relate to me personally, in a venue where I was not forced to watch it, and really manage to bother me all that much.

But let's remember: That's not the point this Florida pastor is trying to make. He is simply making a blanket criticism of Islam, which due to the protest's violent overtones and undirected nature, translates to a blanket indictment of Muslims themselves. And that's when it crosses the line from legitimate critique into hate speech: When you stop criticizing the philosophy and start dehumanizing or threatening the people.

Kirby explains the Catholic sex abuse cover-up

Paula Kirby, in an article on, provides a perfectly understandable (though still shocking) reason behind the Vatican-ordered cover-ups:

As soon as we understand that canon law deals only with sin and ‘the drama of redemption’, and that its foremost preoccupation when it comes to child sex abuse is the soul of the abuser, closely followed by the perceived need to protect other souls which might fall away if the church were brought into scandal and disrepute, everything about the shameful non-response of the Vatican falls into place and becomes clear.

Damn, she's right. It makes perfect sense: If we assume a priori that leaving Catholicism or failing to repent for a serious sin will result in eternal hellfire, then the rational decision stemming from that a priori assumption is to do exactly what the Catholic church did for decades. The emotional trauma of the victim is trivial compared to the perceived costs.

A conditional afterlife is perhaps the most poisonous religious belief, because it obliterates any proper evaluation of earthly (i.e. non-fake) priorities. Those religions that believe everybody gets to heaven can still distort priorities -- after all, everything in this life becomes less important if it is to be followed by an eternity of bliss -- but since it devalues all priorities by roughly the same amount, it does not have nearly the potential for disruption and hence is not nearly as dangerous.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Importance of Being a Dick

Coyne and PZ are making much of this quote from The Times in reaction to Hawking's proclamation that there is no need for a creator:

When it comes to religion, Stephen Hawking is the voice of reason. Not for him the polemical style that has propelled Richard Dawkins to the fore of national consciousness in the God debates. His argument is likely in the long term to be more dangerous to religion because it is more measured than The God Delusion.

Irritating, I know, since Dawkins' arguments are generally pretty measured. But I have an alternate take on this quote. This quote actually demonstrates just how successful Dawkins and the other Gnu Atheists have been, and reaffirms their importance!

Without books like The God Delusion entering the public consciousness, can you really honestly picture a major newspaper reacting positively to Hawking's proclamation? They'd be painting him as the mean nasty atheist who is spoiling all of the fun, rather than revering him as the wise and humble oracle who perhaps we ought to listen to after all. The public perception of Dawkins, regardless of its accuracy, paves the way for mainstream media to embrace messages like this.

I have written before about the importance of a multi-pronged strategy for social change. This silly little opinion piece from The Times just goes to show how crucially necessary such a strategy is. We need the entire continuum ranging from Mooney to Hawking to Dawkins to, well, someone like Pat Condell.

Without dicks, we are lost.