This is the lounge. You can discuss anything you want, but you will do it kindly. I don’t know if it’s a good idea to accept reader suggestions for the image in lounge posts…
Status: Heavily Moderated; Previous thread
May 26 2013
I’m sticking by my guns, though. Stenger thinks that Eric Hedin, a professor at Ball State, should
be fired have his classes cancelled for teaching Christian/creationist nonsense. I don’t.
While agreeing that the course is "bad science" and its material of "abysmal quality," in his April 25 Pharyngula popular blogger and biologist PZ Myers defended Hedin’s right to teach what he wants, citing academic freedom.
Laurence A. Moran, professor of biochemistry at the University of Toronto agreed with Myers in his blog Sandwalk appearing the same day. Moran said, "I defend the right of a tenured professor to teach whatever he/she believes to be true no matter how stupid it seems to the rest of us."
Well, Moran and Myers are wrong. Academic freedom does not imply that an instructor is free to teach material that is demonstrably false. Most campuses provide a "free-speech area" for that purpose.
I think treading on the content of a university-level course sets a dangerous precedent. If we’re going to start firing professors who teach things that are wrong, we’re all going to be vulnerable; there are things I taught 10 years ago that have since been found to be in error. Shall we encourage the right-wingers to start accumulating lecture notes and using every error and revised datum to instigate legal proceedings against professors they don’t like? Shall we inhibit discussion of material that’s controversial or on the very edge of science in our upper-level courses?
I should think we atheist professors should be on our guard against this. I don’t promote atheism in the classroom, but I do present a strictly natural/materialist understanding of biological processes; I advocate for a well-established scientific theory called evolution that a frighteningly large fraction of the general public have judged to be wrong. Do we seriously want our courses subject to review by some podunk Republican lawyer in our towns? Do we really want to open the door to having to think about our course material from the perspective of whether it’s considered actionable by the local priesthood?
Going after a course for its ideology is a terrible mistake. Bringing in outside lawyers to shape the curriculum of a discipline is a disaster.
Hedin ought to be dealt with internally, and not for being a Christian…but for being a bad teacher and colleague. He is not contributing to the education of the students in his class; if we had someone like that at my university, he’d be considered a massive problem who was disrupting the progression of our student’s education. And if the university refuses to deal with it, if the rot spreads, it should be publicized so that prospective students know they won’t get adequate instruction, and it should also be brought to the attention of accreditation agencies.
I want the evaluation of university faculty to be in the hands of our peers, not the local tea party chapter, the local council of churches, or for that matter, the local Democrats or atheist meetup. I’m really surprised that any professor would want their work opened up to criticism by a public that isn’t equipped to understand the topics, and welcomes circumventing peer review.
Scratch my opening comment: he doesn’t want him fired, just to have his class cancelled. That’s less disastrous, but again, that’s also still taking to legal measures to interfere with what should be an internal matter. I’m also not clear on what standing anyone other than a student in the class has to take legal action.
Let me repeat, too, that I’m not saying what Hedin is doing is OK: it’s godawful incompetent teaching and bad science. My concern is with how we take action against it.
May 26 2013
Woe is me and alas! Pity me, for I am a secular humanist and gnu atheist embarked on trying to read the quintessential New Age non-dualistic blueprint for spiritual transformation, Dr. Helen Schucman’s A Course in Miracles.
And it is heavy going indeed. All I’ve done so far is download the free excerpt from kindle (which goes on and on past the 9th chapter at least), I’m 88% through, and I’m not sure if I have the heart to continue. According to the book I don’t, of course – but more on that later.
It’s not that the book is hard to read. Nor is it even particularly hard to understand. I was an English major and now I am old and I have read plenty of books which were far more philosophically and technically difficult, to be sure. But I keep alternating between frustration, boredom, anger, and an almost stupefying astonishment that the book is really as bad as it is. I am, however, learning quite a lot. It’s just not what I am presumably supposed to be learning.
I’m also surprised. A Course in Miracles was not quite what I expected.
May 26 2013
We may have the answer to all of the big problems in physics! Or not.
My money is on “not”.
Marcus du Sautoy, a very smart mathematician and the fellow who occupies the chair for the public understanding of science at Oxford formerly held by Richard Dawkins, made a stunning announcement.
Two years ago, a mathematician and physicist whom I’ve known for more than 20 years arranged to meet me in a bar in New York. What he was about to show me, he explained, were ideas that he’d been working on for the past two decades. As he took me through the equations he had been formulating I began to see emerging before my eyes potential answers for many of the major problems in physics. It was an extremely exciting, daring proposal, but also mathematically so natural that one could not but feel that it smelled right.
He has spent the past two years taking me through the ins and outs of his theory and that initial feeling that I was looking at “the answer” has not waned. On Thursday in Oxford he will begin to outline his ideas to the rest of the mathematics and physics community. If he is right, his name will be an easy one to remember: Eric Weinstein.
There are a few peculiarities to this story. Weinstein is a consultant to a hedge fund, not an academic physicist. That’s not a major criticism of his theory, but the fact that he hasn’t shared his ideas with anyone other than one mathematician…that’s a problem.
This is not how anyone does science. No paper has been published or submitted for peer review, not even so much as a copy put in arxiv.
No, my beef is with the Guardian for running the article in the first place. Seriously: why was it even written? Strip away all the purple prose and you’ve got a guy who’s been out of the field for 20 years, but still doing some dabbling on the side, who has an intriguing new idea that a couple of math professors think is promising, so he got invited to give a colloquium at Oxford by his old grad school buddy. Oh, and there’s no technical paper yet — not even a rough draft on the arxiv — so his ideas can’t even be appropriately evaluated by actual working physicists. How, exactly, does that qualify as newsworthy? Was your bullshit detector not working that day?
But wait, there’s more. He was invited to present his ideas at Oxford, but then no one bothered to let the physicists know.
“I’m trying to promote, perhaps, a new way of doing science. Let’s start with really big ideas, let’s be brave and let’s have a discussion,” du Sautoy told The Guardian. Great idea! Except it’s not really a new way of doing science. And as Oxford cosmologist Andrew Pontzen pointed out in a New Scientist op-ed, nobody thought to invite any of the Oxford physicists. You know, the people most qualified to evaluate Weinstein’s work. It’s hard to have a collegial dialogue that way, especially with no technical paper on hand to provide the necessary background information. This seems more like trying to do science via press conference.
Oh, I remember science by press conference: I got to attend Pons and Fleischmann’s big announcement of the discovery of cold fusion at the University of Utah. We all know how that turned out.
Exciting news: all the problems plaguing physics have been solved. Dark matter, dark energy, quantum gravity – one amazing insight has delivered us from decades of struggle to a new knowledge nirvana.
There’s a catch, however: I’m unable to tell you what that insight is. Neither I, nor any of my professional physicist friends, have the faintest clue. In fact, nobody except Eric Weinstein and mathematician Marcus du Sautoy are sufficiently familiar with the claims to venture an opinion.
It’s interesting that just yesterday at this conference I’m attending I was asked a good question: when we’re dealing with high level scientific explanations that are far beyond what our background allows us to assess, how do we judge whether they’re valid or not? Do we have to rely on faith in the scientific authorities?
And I told him no, that we have other means than simple faith. The methods of science are completely open — scientists show their work. You can review the papers describing their conclusions, and even if much of it is beyond your grasp, you can at least see that they aren’t hiding their procedures. They don’t say, “Here’s a miraculous leap,” they instead may show you a pile of incomprehensible math, but it’s available to study, anyway.
And then you can also expect other independent scientists, who do have the background to understand the math, to weigh in and evaluate the evidence. They can explain the steps.
It’s like someone claiming to have been up on a roof, and you don’t see how she could have gotten up there, and you have no personal desire to be up there yourself, but she can point to the ladder she climbed, and you can also see others climbing up it, so you can trust the individual rungs to work. It’s not faith-based at all, but is based on the step-by-step evidence that the procedure actually performs as promised.
And that’s the problem with Weinstein’s claims. He claims to have been tap-dancing on a high, inaccessible roof, yet so far he hasn’t shown us any way to climb up there, and no one else has even been given an opportunity to climb his ladder. So why should we believe him? That would require an act of faith, and I reject that.
I am not a physicist. I have to wait to see the ladder. And that Eric Weinstein seems to be hiding it makes me very, very suspicious.
May 25 2013
So … PZ is in Romania and the World Clock shows it’s the wee hours of the morning there. Little doubt then that he is probably fast asleep.
What could possibly be more harmless than this? Or a better time to post it …?
May 25 2013
23 years ago yesterday, as my friends Judi Bari and Darryl Cherney were driving through Oakland, California on their way to appear at a Santa Cruz rally against clearcutting California’s remaining old-growth redwoods, a bomb exploded beneath the driver’s seat. Judi was in that drivers’ seat and nearly died of her wounds. She lived in constant pain until cancer took her life seven years later. (Thankfully, Darryl’s injuries were not as severe.)
The bomb was a home-made nail-filled pipe bomb with a motion-sensitive trigger. (The explosion happened as Judi and Darryl were driving past a middle school’s bus stop at Park and Macarthur boulevards in Central Oakland: it’s a wonder no one else was injured in the blast.)
At the time of the bombing, Judi, Darryl, and their fellow Earth First! activists in Northern California had been the targets of a campaign of sustained harassment, including death threats. Mailed leaflets featuring Judi’s face with superimposed crosshairs, for instance. A few weeks before the explosion, Judi had been run off a rural Northern California road Silkwood-style by a logging truck. The local cops told her “if you get killed, then we’ll investigate.”
The context for this was that some time earlier, a local timber company — Pacific Lumber — had been bought out leveraged-style by junk bond trader Charles Hurwitz. Hurwitz and his shell company Maxxam then started to liquidate PL’s holdings to generate cash. Among those holdings were some of the 5 or so percent of remaining old-growth redwood forests in California, which PL had previously been logging slowly enough that some people actually called the company a sustainable timber firm. Those trees started getting cut really quickly, endangering wildlife, the safety of timber workers , and the lives of people who lived downhill from the clearcuts.
Activists countered with a campaign modeled on the Civil Rights movement’s sit-ins, originally called Mississippi Summer In The Redwoods. Before long Judi and Earth First! had become central to the campaign, whose name was quickly shortened to Redwood Summer.
It was a really tense time in Northern California. Maxxam/PL managed to persuade some workers that the hippies were threatening their jobs, and the consequent conflict was ugly. That ugliness made the press fairly often. What didn’t make the press was the fact that Judi was an old-school union organizer: she identified more with the loggers than did most enviros, and she built some serious bridges between the two camps. Among other things, she got Earth First! in Northern California to renounce tree-spiking. She helped unionize a timber firm. Above all, she worked with timber workers to point out that sustainable logging meant sustainable employment, and that Maxxam’s cut and run practices meant mills would be closing as soon as the last tree was cut.
Still, those threats were out there and continuing. As horrified as we were when the bomb went off, it wasn’t particularly a surprise. What was a surprise was that the FBI arrived at the crime scene within minutes, and that the Oakland Police Department arrested Judi and Darryl before they’d been extracted from the ruins of Judi’s Subaru, charging them with transporting an explosive device.
The architect of this legal strategy? Mythbusters’ bomb expert Frank Doyle, then a special agent with the FBI.
Four weeks before the explosion, Doyle had run what was called a Bomb Investigator’s Training Course in Eureka in which law enforcement agents blew up cars with pipe bombs and then examined the wrecks for forensic evidence. There are two things that are especially spooky about this confluence of events. First was that Doyle, on arriving at the corner of Park and Macarthur, told his fellow first responders — four of whom had attended that course — “this is your final exam.” His statement was caught on tape.
The second spooky coincidence was that the bomb’s construction closely paralleled that of the practice bombs used at Doyle’s “bomb school.”
Doyle told the press that the damage to the car showed that it had been carried behind the driver’s seat, therefore was visible to the passengers, therefore they knew it was there and were deliberately transporting it. That lie was thoroughly shredded in a later court case, but at the time the press ran with it. Within two months all charges against Judi and Darryl were dropped for lack of evidence. You still hear people refer to them as the “people who were carrying that bomb.” The act of character assassination worked — a sentiment with which a Federal court judge and jury agreed.
Judi died of metastatic breast cancer in March 1997, leaving behind two young daughters. In 2002, that federal judge ordered Oakland cops and FBI agents to pay $4.4 million to Darryl and to Judi’s estate for violating their civil rights. During the trial agents admitted tracking Judi and Darryl for weeks before the bombing. The forensic evidence was clear. It was pretty much an open and shut case.
I am not saying that Frank Doyle had other than an after-the-fact a role in the attempted murder of my friends, though it wouldn’t shock me if I found out that he did. But Doyle absolutely did thwart an effective investigation of that attempted murder. That’s a matter of established record. He ignored obvious leads, misrepresented evidence, and worked to frame activists for a horrible act of violence against them.
And nonetheless, Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman decided to use Doyle as their go-to guy for explosives on Mythbusters. Despite the fact that Doyle tried to destroy two lives with a myth of his own concoction.
Let me be clear about one thing. Judi was not just targeted for being an environmental activist. The worst harassment, the worst threats that Redwood Summer activists received were directed at women. My friend Karen Pickett got some of those threatening letters too, and they were rife with misogyny to the point of being nearly laughable, before the bomb went off. (The accusation that women Earth First! activists were “box lunch eating lesbians” got used a lot.) One of the prime uninvestigated suspects in the bombing, a blithering godbag calling themself the “Lord’s Avenger,” claimed responsibility for the bombing and said it was in retaliation for Judi doing clinic defense at the Ukiah office of Planned Parenthood. That may or may not be true, though the Lord’s Avenger did apparently possess some interesting knowledge about the bomb’s construction.
Either way, Judi’s feminist activism definitely played a more than significant role in her being targeted. Male Earth First! activists got threats, and some of them were scary indeed. But it was the women who bore the brunt of the threats and harassment, and Judi paid the biggest price.
Which raises a question. For all the criticism it has received for being sensationalist and superficial, Mythbusters essentially serves as a public face of Skepticism to viewers who have never heard of Skepticism. Yet apparently it’s no big deal for Adam and Jamie to support, employ, and publicize a man who may have helped target a feminist environmental activist for unbelievably painful harassment, and who certainly provided effective cover for the people who tried to kill her.
Darryl Cherney, who has plowed some of the proceeds from the court settlement into making a film about Judi, is trying to get Jamie and Adam to explain why they employ Frank Doyle. They’ve been reluctant to answer, even though Darryl went so far as to offer a free screening of the film on the wall of Mythbusters’ building this weekend.
Anyone concerned with the role of women in the Skeptics’ movement ought to ask them for an answer.
May 25 2013
Atheists are not popular. This comes as no surprise to us or anyone, really. As far as I can tell we are dead last in every U.S. poll in which we are included and explicit terrorists, Nazis, and the Westboro Baptist Church are not.
I suppose the cultural assumption that ‘you need God to be good’ should be explanation enough for our banishment from the realm of the acceptable (Would you want your sister to marry one? Would you want to be one? Nuh uh.) But I keep running into a common plea that no, the problem is not really atheism. Atheism isn’t necessarily okay, of course … but after all it’s a free country and people have the right to believe what they want to believe. It takes all kinds. Just be nice and you’re okay.
No, the problem isn’t atheism itself – it’s atheists. But not all atheists. The tolerant believers discern critical distinctions in the group. There are Good Atheists who don’t manage to believe in God themselves but who still manage to show the courtesy to respect those who do. And then there are the ones like Richard Dawkins . The outspoken ones, the militant ones, the shrill ones who won’t shut up and try to blend in and instead write books and articles and letters meant for the general public. The stigma is focused like a laser on the atheists who act ‘just like fundamentalists’ by trying to convert people and thereby change their minds. The arrogant. The not-nice.
It’s an insidious trope which appeals to values like respect, acceptance, and inclusion: why would anyone be so rude as to try to get other people to not believe in God? What about diversity? Diversity is good. We ought to let people be who they are.
Outspoken atheists then are disparaged even by those who claim to be “fine” with atheism because we are seen as breaking the social contract which values diversity and individuality. Atheists attack people’s deepest identity the way racists attack race or bullies attack those who are different than them. When you get right down to it — they’re bigots. Telling people their religion is wrong is being judgmental.
This is apparently a major charge made against us. I feel as if I see and read and encounter variations of it all around. I suspect most of us do. It’s a theme which seems to run more often through liberal communities than the conservative ones (which are usually just fine with the assumption that you can’t be good without God) but many of us live in such communities and engage regularly with those who seem so frustratingly on the edge of rationality.
So I’ve been attempting to figure out exactly what is happening and why, working it out mostly here and there in parts and pieces. Since PZ gave me the keys while he’s away, though, I’ll take advantage and will to try to expand a bit, to see whether people in this forum think it makes sense. Because I think that, once again, theists are making a category error when it comes to religion. And they’re getting a lot of non-theists to go along with them because they are appealing to values which are essentially not religious, but humanist.
Bottom line, there is a sort of equivocation going on with the concept of “diversity” – and it’s helping to fuel the general antipathy towards atheists.
Consider it this way: it might be said that there are two basic frameworks in which we value ‘diversity’ as a modern virtue. One of them is what I call the Diversity Smorgasbord. The other is what we can call the Diverse Problem-Solving Group.
May 25 2013
I’m at the humanist conference on “Education, Science and Human Rights” in Bucharest, sponsored by Asociatia Umanista Romana, the International Humanist and Ethical Union, and the European Humanist Federation…and you’re not. I’m not going to be live-blogging it, I’m afraid — I’m so tired right now I’m going to be using my currently limited cognitive faculties to simply pay attention. But I thought in these moments before the knowledge starts flowing I could at least let you know I’m sitting on lovely leather-bound seats beneath a gigantic chandelier in huge auditorium surrounded by marble pillars. I think my expectations for conference accommodations have now taken a giant leap upwards in opulence.
I’m also looking at the schedule — this is the first I’ve seen it — and feeling a great relief that I think my talk will fit right in with all these other people’s. Well, unless that talk on religious education in Romania is in favor of it…then I might be in trouble.
May 24 2013
Who well deserves it, I think. It’s “presented every year to honor an outstanding atheist whose contributions raise public awareness of the nontheist life stance.” Very laudatory and gratifying press release here.
I just finished reading his Better Angels of Our Nature: Why violence has declined. I thought it a well-reasoned and researched testament to the power of humanism and a excellent resource for rebutting the folks who think the world is worse than it has ever been and people never more wicked. One would think that evidence to the contrary would be welcome … but it’s not. My neo-pagan spiritual friends would have none of it. I hold out even less hope for the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Last year’s recipient was also excellent: Eugenie Scott. Perhaps not quite a ‘mirror’ representative of “the uncompromising nontheist life stance of Dr. Richard Dawkins” — but quite solid on the raising of the public awareness of science. Pinker, then, is a twofer.
He’s also an excellent speaker. I plan on attending the Atheist Alliance of America’s national convention to see him receive the Dawkins. It’s taking place on Aug 30 – Sept 2 … in Boston. The Alliance’s conventions are imo one of the best. Everyone should go. And now there’s Pinker to tempt you.
May 24 2013
Hello, all. Sastra here doing a guest post for PZ, who is toiling hard, very hard, in Romania. Or sleeping. Either; both. Please bear with me then as I try to figure out how to work this thing. Trial and error…
My title echoes an old one from the Onion. The Cracker People are at it again.
Are traditional religions all moving closer to humanism? Is Catholicism? Perhaps.
Two days ago the new pope appeared to come very close to saying that “it doesn’t matter what you believe – as long as you’re a good person.” While giving a short sermon ( a “homily”) during Wednesday’s mass, Pope Francis suddenly began to address the status of the non-Catholic – yea, even the atheist – regarding salvation … and he pronounced it good.
“The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone!”.. We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.”
Really? Just “do good?” Does that include intellectual integrity? Say, something along the lines of approaching the existence of God as a hypothesis whilst taking all our scientific evidence regarding cosmology, evolution, and neurology into account? Does that include objectively applying Occam’s razor to God? We atheists are very good at that. It’s a fine form of virtue. One of our finest.
It’s odd, though, if he really does mean that. I suspect not — given that he is the Catholic Pope.
The relationship between Catholicism and humanism is a strange one. While the roots of humanism — with its emphasis on reason and science and its focus on human rights and virtues – go back to classical Greece, the gradual infusion of ancient philosophy into a Church concerned with both scholarship and apologetic lead to contending views regarding the role of nature in theology. “Catholic humanism” may sound like a contradiction, but it seems there is a thin thread of Renaissance liberalism feeding into what is a far more varied religion than its proponents usually say it is. This thread sometimes weaves itself into a culture which is increasingly humanist in sentiment.
Most of my relatives are Catholic. They mostly know I am an atheist, too. But “Don’t worry,” I’m reassured. God is large. God knows my heart. Christ died that all might be saved and surely the virtue in the life that I live will speak for me at the end. And so they calmly rationalize and dismiss what is undoubtedly a very contentious issue within their church. How much of religion is specifically religious? One would think doctrine matters. It can’t all be some sort of literary effort and performance art.
Like most Catholic pronouncements, however, the interpretation of the homily is a bit open. A Father Martin clarified the pope’s position thus:
“Pope Francis is saying, more clearly than ever before, that Christ offered himself as a sacrifice for everyone. That’s always been a Christian belief. You can find St. Paul saying in the First Letter to Timothy that Jesus gave himself as a “ransom for all.” But rarely do you hear it said by Catholics so forcefully, and with such evident joy. And in this era of religious controversies, it’s a timely reminder that God cannot be confined to our narrow categories.”
Uh huh. This clears up nothing. Of course we all know that Christ died “for everybody.” Say it with as much joy as you want and you still won’t match the current general hysteria on this point, an excitement shared by fundamentalist Protestants.
Clarify the terms, padre. The question is whether those who are said to “reject” this bizarre human sacrifice and thus end up damned include everyone who is not Catholic or everyone who is not Christian or everyone who doesn’t believe in God … or just the “bad” people (who are…?) When Francis says that “we will meet one another there” is the “there” supposed to be heaven – or the Holy Mother Church, where the newly converted atheist has been led by his or her good works to finally adopt the religion of the One True God?
My guess is that some will take it one way, others will take it another way .. and each side will think the other side lacks Understanding. Because the pope was “more clear than ever before.”
Perhaps that is not a high bar.
The day after the pope’s apparent inclusion of the nonbelieving damned into salvation, the Vatican went into damage control.
On Thursday, the Vatican issued an “explanatory note on the meaning to ‘salvation.’”
The Rev. Thomas Rosica, a Vatican spokesman, said that people who are aware of the Catholic church “cannot be saved” if they “refuse to enter her or remain in her.”
At the same time, Rosica writes, “every man or woman, whatever their situation, can be saved. Even non-Christians can respond to this saving action of the Spirit. No person is excluded from salvation simply because of so-called original sin.”
Rosica also said that Francis had “no intention of provoking a theological debate on the nature of salvation,” during his homily on Wednesday.
I’ll bet he didn’t. But no fear: the Vatican easily spins it as business as usual. You must still enter into the Church. So no big deal.
Except that this is not how the pronouncement is being spun in the media, is it? From what I can tell one and all seem to be treating it much more along the lines of “it doesn’t matter what you believe … as long as you’re a good person.” Even Dave Silverman is displaying a cautious approval. Well then.
So let us hope this impression is augmented by various Protestants furiously protesting the wickedness of the Papists and their false god.
Works vs. faith. The world moves on. Eventually “works” like saying the rosary and taking communion are going to give way to being charitable and refraining from serial killings. Humanism triumphs and Catholicism turns into a quaint ceremonial term used mostly by history buffs and its rituals are adopted by the goths. Amen.
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