Away Message

July 20, 2007

I’m sorry, I’m away from my blog right now. For the next month I’ll be interning in Washington, D.C. at an undisclosed location (not the same one frequented by Dick Cheney, hopefully) so updates shall be sporadic at best. If you need emotional comfort during my absence, please visit the lovely sites represented on my blogroll. Cheers.

Also, today is the 38th anniversary of the first Moon Landing. Hurrah!


Nary a Whisper

July 17, 2007

Props to Laelaps for a great post on the “Strange Silence About Paleoanthropology from Creationists.” It’s worth a read.


Checklist for Quacks

July 13, 2007

Have you ever sat down and wondered, “Am I a scientific quack?” Well, probably not. But I’ve met enough True Believers in pseudoscience to give myself pause. What I really am the person to come up with a scientific breakthrough? How will anyone ever believe me? Doesn’t science trudge along, a la Thomas Kuhn, in the dominant paradigm until the evidence suggesting otherwise is just too overwhelming to ignore? What if I’m part of the new paradigm that will supplant the old, and I want to get the word out?

After all, weren’t many breakthroughs originally derided? Who believed the Earth actually revolved around the Sun? Who knew that Helicobacter pylori bacteria played a role in ulcers? Who knew that RNA interference played such a large role in cell function? Or that cells were programmed to self-destruct as a natural part of development? Or that a thing as wacky as prions actually existed? (After heliocentricity, these ideas won the Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology in 2005, 2006, 2002, and 1997, respectively).

Luckily for all of us, Cosmic Variance has compiled an Alternative-Science Respectability Checklist. Excerpts follow:

Believe me, I sympathize. You are in possession of a truly incredible breakthrough that offers the prospect of changing the very face of science as we know it, if not more. The only problem is, you’re coming at things from an unorthodox perspective… Perhaps you have been able to construct a machine that produces more energy than it consumes, using only common household implements; or maybe you’ve discovered a hidden pattern within the Fibonacci sequence that accurately predicts the weight that a top quark would experience on Ganymede, expressed in femtonewtons; or it might be that you’ve elaborated upon an alternative explanation for the evolution of life on Earth that augments natural selection by unspecified interventions from a vaguely-defined higher power. Whatever the specifics, the point is that certain kinds of breakthroughs just aren’t going to come from a hide-bound scholastic establishment; they require the fresh perspective and beginner’s mind that only an outsider genius (such as yourself) can bring to the table.

No sarcasm there. Rule 1:

Acquire basic competency in whatever field of science your discovery belongs to.

But! But! Seems a bit demanding, doesn’t it?

Now, you may object that steering clear of such pre-existing knowledge has played a crucial role in your unique brand of breakthrough research, and you would never have been able to make those dazzling conceptual leaps had you been weighed down by all of that established art. Let me break it down for you: no.

Rule 2:

Understand, and make a good-faith effort to confront, the fundamental objections to your claims within established science.

Continuing:

Scientific claims — whether theoretical insights or experimental breakthroughs — don’t exist all by their lonesome. They are situated within a framework of pre-existing knowledge and expectations. If the claim you are making seems manifestly inconsistent with that framework, it’s your job to explain why anyone should nevertheless take you seriously…. If you claim that the position of Venus within the Zodiac affects your love life, you’re not only positing some spooky correlation between celestial bodies and human affairs; your theory also requires some sort of long-range force that acts between you and Venus, and there aren’t any such forces strong enough to be relevant.

And finally, Rule 3:

Present your discovery in a way that is complete, transparent, and unambiguous.

Not likely. But in case someone still needs convincing, have them submit their theory to the Crackpot Index.


Srebrenica

July 11, 2007

CNN has a piece on the re-burial of victims of the massacre in Srebrenica in Bosnia in 1995, worth reading. If you haven’t already, you should check out Sheri Fink’s War Hospital, an excellent account of the siege from the perspective of national and international medical doctors trapped in the Muslim enclave.


All and Enough

July 11, 2007

Humanist Quote of the Day:

Humans are an integral part of nature, the result of unguided evolutionary change. Humanists recognize nature as self-existing. We accept our life as all and enough, distinguishing things as they are from things as we might wish or imagine them to be. We welcome the challenges of the future, and are drawn to and undaunted by the yet to be known.

(from Humanist Manifesto III)


More Than Meets the Eye

July 11, 2007

441824576db674a51f.jpg

Transformers. Great summer movie–amazing effects, good action sequences, and it doesn’t take itself too seriously. And, I used to be in love with the 80’s Transformers movie. So I enjoyed myself tremendously. That said,

1) Did the Air Force underwrite the entire movie or something? It was like the entire movie was product placement for USAF, and it’s probably a good plan since they’re target demographic probably likes action movies about blowing stuff up.

2) I can root for the Air Force with a much cleaner conscience when they’re indiscriminately lobbing missiles and bombs at evil robots (call me a speciesist) than when the targets are people’s houses.

3) Does the “hot girl” in the movie have to wear a gallon of makeup and fry herself in a tanning bed?

4) It’s nice that all the invading alien plots happen to focus on the U.S. Oh wait, this is Hollywood.

5) What’s with the stereotyped Mexican and South Asian characters? And why is the lead always a white male? *Steps off PC soapbox.*


I’m an Addict (II)

July 9, 2007

A trip to a thrift store looking for used dress clothes (for an internship in DC later this summer) turned into another back-alley deal to feed my potentially fatal addiction.

The goods:
War of the Worlds, by H.G. Wells
The Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Douglas Adams
The Aeneid by Virgil (translated by Robert Fitzgerald)
As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

The damage: only $2.00

I don’t have a problem. I don’t have a problem. I don’t have a problem.


Quoting King

July 8, 2007

I’m currently reading Shane Claiborne’s Irresistible Revolution. I’m sure I’ll blog on it more fully once I’ve completed my leisurely perusal, but for now I’d like to highlight some quotes Shane brought to my attention. These are from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “A Time to Break Silence,” a speech given on the Vietnam war in 1967 at a meeting of “Clergy and Laity Concerned” at Riverside Church in New York City. MLK’s concerns went beyond his (incredible) devotion to civil rights in our country, to an even broader view of social justice. And it’s always good to reflect on values that should bring rich and poor, Christian and humanist, theist and athiest together.

mlkbeyondvietnam.jpg

[It became clear that the war in Vietnam] was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population. We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem. And so we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools.

Funny how these words still ring true today:

As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they ask — and rightly so — what about Vietnam? They ask if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government.

And here a call for a brotherhood of man, rooted in King’s own Christianity, though it could as easily be read as a call for a global humanism (in fact, King might have been closer to that than most of the Christians we know):

This I believe to be the privilege and the burden of all of us who deem ourselves bound by allegiances and loyalties which are broader and deeper than nationalism and which go beyond our nation’s self-defined goals and positions. We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation and for those it calls “enemy,” for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.

King also has this quote from a Buddhist leader on the war in Vietnam:

Each day the war goes on the hatred increases in the heart of the Vietnamese and in the hearts of those of humanitarian instinct. The Americans are forcing even their friends into becoming their enemies. It is curious that the Americans, who calculate so carefully on the possibilities of military victory, do not realize that in the process they are incurring deep psychological and political defeat. The image of America will never again be the image of revolution, freedom, and democracy, but the image of violence and militarism.

If you will, rephrase that quote for me with Iraq in mind instead of Vietnam (not the analogy is a perfect one, but analogies never are… this particular quote however makes a useful point):

Each day the war goes on the hatred increases in the heart of the Iraqis and in the hearts of those of humanitarian instinct. The Americans are forcing even their friends into becoming their enemies. It is curious that the Americans, who calculate so carefully on the possibilities of military victory, do not realize that in the process they are incurring deep psychological and political defeat. The image of America will never again be the image of revolution, freedom, and democracy, but the image of violence and militarism.

And here he waxes prophetic. One could make the same claim today about US militarism:

The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality…and if we ignore this sobering reality, we will find ourselves organizing “clergy and laymen concerned” committees for the next generation.

And another gem:

On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.

And here’s another quote, though this time I’ve replaced “Communism” with “terrorism”:

This kind of positive revolution of values is our best defense against terrorism. War is not the answer. Terrorism will never be defeated by the use of atomic bombs or nuclear weapons. Let us not join those who shout war and, through their misguided passions, urge the United States to relinquish its participation in the United Nations. These are days which demand wise restraint and calm reasonableness. We must not engage in a negative antiterrorism, but rather in a positive thrust for democracy, realizing that our greatest defense against terrorism is to take offensive action in behalf of justice. We must with positive action seek to remove those conditions of poverty, insecurity, and injustice, which are the fertile soil in which the seed of terrorism grows and develops.


Letter to a Christian Educator

July 6, 2007

Something special has come into my possession. A student who goes to a private, conservative, Christian school I’m familiar with got upset about some of his terrible liberal professors (all of whom are intelligent Christians who hold at least one position said student simply can’t fathom) and wrote a letter to the president of the university. For some unknown reason, the student then felt compelled to post the letter online for all to see (bragging about his conservative chutzpah, maybe?). Then he got cold feet and removed it… but Google cache is a cruel master and preserves such humorous nuggets in perpetuity. (Edited for brevity and anonymity, but the substance remains accurate.)

This is a copy of a letter I recently sent to [Christian U President] and some other [Christian U] big wigs…. I would encourage all of you to write a letter of your own on any of these issues that concern you. Feel free to copy and paste any of my letter to use in your personal grievance to the “powers that be.”

“Dr. [Christian U President]:
I am a current [Christian U] student and will be entering my junior year of college this fall. With that said, you should be aware that I have encouraged my classmates to also write with their similar concerns.

Oh, I’m sure the comments are a-flooding in.

Dr. [X]’s online journal is where most of his [Christian U]-hating is done… However, there several inappropriate displays outside of his office, in which he mocks [Christian U] and Conservatism. His comments in class have also been insubordinate and inappropriate.
This man is very clearly anti-[Christian U], anti-Conservative and, in my opinion, anti-American.
Regardless of your personal political views, regardless of the political values held by [Christian U]: this is an embarrassment to our school… What kind of message is being sent about [Christian U]?

Wait? A University can hold political values? It’s an embarrassment to have teachers who don’t all think and teach like zombies?

Many have yelled “freedom of speech” in defense of [X]’s comments, but I do not think his Constitutional rights can save him on this one. As you are aware, he is obligated to uphold the standards and principles held by [Christian U]: after having sat under his teaching, I am afraid he is failing miserably.

This student was probably either sleeping or fuming in anger that anyone could think differently, or think to judge America by the same standards as the rest of the world. In fact, I would say said professor’s views on politics flow more understandably from his faith than said student’s views. If I may speak for him, this professor sees himself as a Christian in an unjust world, and finds it as necessary to buck the trend of big “C” Conservatism when it doesn’t line up with his faith.

The day after learning of Dr. [X]’s outlandish comments…I was blown away by comments made in my Biology class. Dr. [Y], my teacher, told my class that there is overwhelming evidence that shows homosexuality is genetically inherited. After making this large, outlandish, sweeping statement, he proceeded to change subjects. I very politely raised my hand and asked if he would show us some of this “overwhelming evidence.” Dr. [Y] then responded, “If you want to add an extra week to this class, we might have time. Are you interested?” I politely responded, “No, I am not interested—I don’t believe it. I just think that’s a BIG statement to make and not show any evidence to back it up.” Dr. [Y]’s response was a simple “ok” and the discussion was over.

The unfortunate thing about general education science classes is that those who are incapable of understanding specific research (due to ignorance of science and unwillingness to consider arguments) are fed conclusions they will simply brush off as ideologically suspect, and the professors often do not have the time to discuss the evidence. This is sad because it misrepresents the process of science while maintaining its conclusions. That said, an extra week of class probably wouldn’t suffice to give this student the background needed to understand (and certainly not trust) such findings.

This is not my first conflict with the science department: in Spring 2006, Dr. [Z] presented the idea of the “Big Bang,” Evolution, and “Millions of years” to my Geology class. I should have written this letter then.

These concepts were likely introduced from the “here’s what most scientists think happened” perspective, not the “this is true” perspective. I should note that Dr. Z is what could be classified as an Old-Earth Creationist. I understand that he believes the Earth is billions of years old, that some species evolved and such, but that humans were a special creation. What’s the problem with that?

These occurrences, along with the showing of Al Gore’s propaganda film “An Inconvenient Truth” in the [auditorium] last semester, have led me to a place of discontent. While the spiritual mindset seems to grow more and more close-minded, the political tolerance on this campus is out of control! Why is it that the religion of environmentalism is promoted…?

Yes! Down with this Godless tolerance! Down with Godless environmentalism! Let us take the Creation and rape it to fulfill our own lust for wealth, oil, and dead Arabs! (Did I mention this student is pro-anything-military? Yeah).

I am not an administrator; I do not claim to know how to fix these problems. I only know that [Christian U] is not the same place it was 2 years ago when I stepped onto this campus. Attending this school has been a GREAT financial burden on me and my family, but it is a burden I have gladly carried—until this point. My parents have often encouraged me, saying, “We know [Christian U] is expensive, but it’s worth it. Public education is full of liberalism and corruption, but [Christian U] is an alternative.”

I wish I had a transcript of that conversation.

I’m not here to say that [Christian U] is corrupt; I simply feel shortchanged. I could receive a liberal, worldly education for one third of the cost at any public university. That is not, however, what I desire: I want to be educated by Christian brothers and sisters, in a Godly manner.

(I don’t see how any of the professors previously mentioned act in an ungodly manner, promoting things like free inquiry, science, evidence, etc.)

Please work to resolve these issues. Dr. [X] has gone unchecked for years—he needs to be controlled. As for Dr. [Y] and Dr. [Z], I’m sure they feel they can say anything “in the name of science,” but I think they are mistaken. There is a higher standard; there is a higher entity than science.

The last paragraph is really my favorite. It’s one thing to disagree with God’s politics (the Right-Wing side, not Jim Wallis’ book), but quite another to say things in the name of science. God forbid that we look at the evidence objectively and consider what it supports or does not support.

Welcome to conservatism.