Michele Bachmann, professional ghoul

There she goes, claiming God sent Hurricane Irene.

I don’t know how much God has to do to get the attention of the politicians. We’ve had an earthquake; we’ve had a hurricane. He said, ‘Are you going to start listening to me here?’ Listen to the American people because the American people are roaring right now. They know government is on a morbid obesity diet and we’ve got to rein in the spending.

Hey, maybe God’s secret message is that he’s really pissed that Americans are stupid enough to promote Bachmann and Perry as candidates. How would you know?

She’s already straining to do damage control, and her campaign is claiming that it was “just a joke”, that old excuse. Was it funny? Are we to believe that Michele Bachmann now openly mocks the Power of the Lord?

After the event, a reporter asked Bachmann about the comments. She said: “Our hearts and prayers go out to the families of the victims. This isn’t something that we take lightly. My comments were not meant to be ones that were taken lightly. What I was saying in a humorous vein is there are things happening that politicians need to pay attention to. It isn’t everyday we have an earthquake in the United States.”

Well, make up your mind, Michele. Was it not meant to be taken lightly, or was it said in a humorous vein?

And actually, we do have earthquakes every day. There have been 2901 earthquakes in the US so far this year; there were 8493 total in 2010. It looks like, on average, there’s an earthquake above magnitude 4 every day, somewhere in the US.

“Prolonged detention”

Watch the doublespeak dribbling out of Obama’s mouth: he’s making up excuses for the extra-legal prolonged confinement of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, all in the name of the Constitution. He’s sounding more like George W. Bush every day.

This is all in the name of our profligate and pointless anti-terrorism policy. Fear is sown to justify weakening the law…just like the Republicans want it.

Talking about the weather

I’d ask how all of you out East were holding up in the big storm, but apparently three million of you are without power and aren’t going to be able to read or reply for a while. When you do finally get back online, at least you’ll find this entertaining.

Fox News thought it would be clever to invite an atheist on, ask him what he was doing to prepare for the hurricane, and then sneer at his spiritual poverty. Unfortunately for them, they got David Silverman, who proceeded to show that the talk show hosts were cretins. Shrill, angry, obtuse cretins.

And if you really want to see more Fox News inanity, here’s an opinion piece in which a couple of thinktank troglodytes argue that we don’t really need a national weather service. Why? Because it’s sometimes wrong, because if it really was useful then private industry would provide the service, because it’s exploited for political purposes, and because it costs too much. It’s all bog-standard libertarian bullshit.

Weather is complicated and you’re never going to get perfect accuracy: the weather is always predicted with an awareness of the range of error possible. Commercial weather agencies rely on data from the wide range of federally established monitoring stations — not just locally, but internationally, at sea, and in space. The private agencies don’t actually want NWS/NOAA to end, they just want them to stop distributing their information to the public for free (amusingly, AccuWeather has tried to copyright forecasts taken verbatim from the National Weather Service).

The accusation that the NWS/NOAA service is used for political purposes is asserted without evidence, but I can guess what they’re talking about: Republicans and Libertarians hate the fact that there’s all this data pouring out of weather services that supports the fact of climate change. In their minds, reality is a conspiracy to undermine their ideology.

These pundits also expect their audience to be innumerate.

As it stands today, the public is forced to pay more than $1 billion per year for the NWS. With the federal deficit exceeding a trillion dollars, the NWS is easily overlooked, but it shouldn’t be.

Yes? So the cost of the National Weather Service is equal to less than 0.1% of the budget deficit?

These goons are only outdone by Ron Paul, who sees no virtue in forecasting and emergency response plans from agencies like FEMA: he thinks “We should be like 1900“. Hands off, just let people cope as well as they can in areas affected by natural disasters.

They could sit around and pray without federal assistance, after all.

Chris Clarke for President

It’s the only sane choice. He explains why he’s not voting for Obama in 2012, and he makes a good case: in particular, Obama has been disastrous for environmental issues, as Clarke documents. He also posts a minimal list of basic criteria for any good progressive candidate:

  • must neither openly nor tacitly support the use of torture in any circumstance.
  • must pledge to defend women’s access to abortion against any threatened limitation, whether that obstruction be political, religious or economic.
  • must pledge to oppose the enshrining in law of social discrimination against any group of people based on gender, ethnicity, sexuality, language, religious belief or lack thereof, disability, social class, or other arbitrary division.
  • must agree that the rich — who have after all profited most from the country’s natural wealth, infrastructure and financial policy — ought to pay their fair share of taxes.
  • must at least hold as an aspiration the provision of a tolerable standard of living to all people in the US, including shelter, food, clothing, education, health care and access to communication, regardless of the individual’s ability to pay.
  • must support the continued existence of labor unions.
  • must pledge not to punish individual migrants for the failures of the country’s immigration policy.
  • must at least pledge to value the ecological integrity of the United States’ landscapes over the possibility that profit might be extracted from them.
  • must possess at least a high-school level understanding of science, especially regarding but not limited to crucial topics such as climate change and evolutionary biology.
  • must oppose any interference in the routine and proper teaching of science in our public schools by religious groups.
  • must abide by the War Powers Resolution of 1973.

I think I’d add a few, though.

  • must openly and strongly support the separation of church and state — no prayer breakfasts, no faith-based initiatives.
  • his economic advisors should be focused on the lower and middle classes, and not be stocked with bankers and Wall Street cronies.
  • end the drug war, stop the privatization of prisons as big business, and release all non-violent drug offenders.
  • must have a nation-wide plan for standards in science education that ends the petty tyranny of local school boards and the penny-pinching funding based on local levies.

The funny thing is, if you attend local democratic caucuses and conventions, you find mobs of people enthusiastically pushing these kinds of ideas for the party platform. Somehow, though, they all get lost on the long climb upward to our actual representatives, who all end up standing for nothing…other than getting re-elected.

Why did we all vote for that Obama guy, anyway? He’s doing none of the above. Oh, yeah, simply because his opposition was a venal Rethuglican.

TAX THE RICH!

Sam Harris is bemused: he made the simple, obvious statement that the US needs to tax the rich more, and furious readers of his blog stomped off in a huff. He has discovered an easy way to chase away readers!

I fear it won’t work as well here, since my anti-libertarian views are already well known, but I agree entirely with his suggestion “that taxes should be raised on billionaires.” I’d go a bit further — raise them on millionaires, too. Raise them on people making over $100,000 a year, while you’re at it (that comes close to me, too, since we have a two-income family).

But Harris has doubled down. Now he’s pissed off the Randroids.

As someone who has written and spoken at length about how we might develop a truly “objective” morality, I am often told by followers of Rand that their beloved guru accomplished this task long ago. The result was Objectivism—a view that makes a religious fetish of selfishness and disposes of altruism and compassion as character flaws. If nothing else, this approach to ethics was a triumph of marketing, as Objectivism is basically autism rebranded. And Rand’s attempt to make literature out of this awful philosophy produced some commensurately terrible writing. Even in high school, I found that my copies of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged simply would not open.

This could get interesting, if only Harris allowed comments on his blog — I believe he has just pushed the button on the foreheads of the True Libertarians labeled “Frappé” and we can expect some delicious brain smoothies to be dispensed out of their ears any moment now.

The real question, though, is why Americans are so adamantly opposed to sensible taxation — it’s completely irrational and damaging. I blame the attitude that we see expressed by capitalist extremists and that is so well represented by the Prosperity Gospel. It’s a nicely circular tautology: wealth comes to those who deserve it most. How do we know that? Because the rich are wealthy. It leads to the ideas that warp our country and poison our economies, that the rich deserve their money, and it would therefore be unfair to punish them with taxes for their success, while the poor are clearly lazy parasites (because they aren’t rich!) and therefore deserve to be squeezed and punished further. The idea that a poor person might deserve security and stability and a living wage with reasonable work hours simply because they are humans and fellow citizens is alien to people who think like that — poverty is bad and only comes to bad people.

Paula Kirby tells the same story

I don’t know how we can get any plainer than this: evolution really happened and is happening.

Evolution is a simple fact. We can choose to remain ignorant of it, we can stick our fingers in our ears and refuse to think about it, we can even rail against it and shout and scream that it is not allowed to be true. But facts are facts, and will not go away just because we don’t like them. We don’t get to vote for our preferred method of having come into existence as a species, any more than we can choose to have been delivered by stork rather than conceived and born in the usual way.

Candidates who stick their fingers in their ears and reject reality simply don’t deserve to hold office.

(Also on Sb)

The strength of Dawkins, and the murk of accommodationism

Richard Dawkins hits this one out of the park: he slams the ignorance of Rick Perry specifically and the Republican party generally. There is no excuse for the foolishness we get from Perry, or Bachmann, or Huckabee, or Palin, or Robertson, or any of the candidates who have sought validation through the Republicans — it’s as if they’re selecting for stupidity.

There is nothing unusual about Governor Rick Perry. Uneducated fools can be found in every country and every period of history, and they are not unknown in high office. What is unusual about today’s Republican party (I disavow the ridiculous ‘GOP’ nickname, because the party of Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt has lately forfeited all claim to be considered ‘grand’) is this: In any other party and in any other country, an individual may occasionally rise to the top in spite of being an uneducated ignoramus. In today’s Republican Party ‘in spite of’ is not the phrase we need. Ignorance and lack of education are positive qualifications, bordering on obligatory. Intellect, knowledge and linguistic mastery are mistrusted by Republican voters, who, when choosing a president, would apparently prefer someone like themselves over someone actually qualified for the job.

Any other organization — a big corporation, say, or a university, or a learned society – -when seeking a new leader, will go to immense trouble over the choice. The CVs of candidates and their portfolios of relevant experience are meticulously scrutinized, their publications are read by a learned committee, references are taken up and scrupulously discussed, the candidates are subjected to rigorous interviews and vetting procedures. Mistakes are still made, but not through lack of serious effort.

The population of the United States is more than 300 million and it includes some of the best and brightest that the human species has to offer, probably more so than any other country in the world. There is surely something wrong with a system for choosing a leader when, given a pool of such talent and a process that occupies more than a year and consumes billions of dollars, what rises to the top of the heap is George W Bush. Or when the likes of Rick Perry or Michele Bachmann or Sarah Palin can be mentioned as even remote possibilities.

A politician’s attitude to evolution is perhaps not directly important in itself. It can have unfortunate consequences on education and science policy but, compared to Perry’s and the Tea Party’s pronouncements on other topics such as economics, taxation, history and sexual politics, their ignorance of evolutionary science might be overlooked. Except that a politician’s attitude to evolution, however peripheral it might seem, is a surprisingly apposite litmus test of more general inadequacy. This is because unlike, say, string theory where scientific opinion is genuinely divided, there is about the fact of evolution no doubt at all. Evolution is a fact, as securely established as any in science, and he who denies it betrays woeful ignorance and lack of education, which likely extends to other fields as well. Evolution is not some recondite backwater of science, ignorance of which would be pardonable. It is the stunningly simple but elegant explanation of our very existence and the existence of every living creature on the planet. Thanks to Darwin, we now understand why we are here and why we are the way we are. You cannot be ignorant of evolution and be a cultivated and adequate citizen of today.

Darwin’s idea is arguably the most powerful ever to occur to a human mind. The power of a scientific theory may be measured as a ratio: the number of facts that it explains divided by the number of assumptions it needs to postulate in order to do the explaining. A theory that assumes most of what it is trying to explain is a bad theory. That is why the creationist or ‘intelligent design’ theory is such a rotten theory.

What any theory of life needs to explain is functional complexity. Complexity can be measured as statistical improbability, and living things are statistically improbable in a very particular direction: the direction of functional efficiency. The body of a bird is not just a prodigiously complicated machine, with its trillions of cells – each one in itself a marvel of miniaturized complexity – all conspiring together to make muscle or bone, kidney or brain. Its interlocking parts also conspire to make it good for something – in the case of most birds, good for flying. An aero-engineer is struck dumb with admiration for the bird as flying machine: its feathered flight-surfaces and ailerons sensitively adjusted in real time by the on-board computer which is the brain; the breast muscles, which are the engines, the ligaments, tendons and lightweight bony struts all exactly suited to the task. And the whole machine is immensely improbable in the sense that, if you randomly shook up the parts over and over again, never in a million years would they fall into the right shape to fly like a swallow, soar like a vulture, or ride the oceanic up-draughts like a wandering albatross. Any theory of life has to explain how the laws of physics can give rise to a complex flying machine like a bird or a bat or a pterosaur, a complex swimming machine like a tarpon or a dolphin, a complex burrowing machine like a mole, a complex climbing machine like a monkey, or a complex thinking machine like a person.

Darwin explained all of this with one brilliantly simple idea – natural selection, driving gradual evolution over immensities of geological time. His is a good theory because of the huge ratio of what it explains (all the complexity of life) divided by what it needs to assume (simply the nonrandom survival of hereditary information through many generations). The rival theory to explain the functional complexity of life – creationism – is about as bad a theory as has ever been proposed. What it postulates (an intelligent designer) is even more complex, even more statistically improbable than what it explains. In fact it is such a bad theory it doesn’t deserve to be called a theory at all, and it certainly doesn’t deserve to be taught alongside evolution in science classes.

The simplicity of Darwin’s idea, then, is a virtue for three reasons. First, and most important, it is the signature of its immense power as a theory, when compared with the mass of disparate facts that it explains – everything about life including our own existence. Second, it makes it easy for children to understand (in addition to the obvious virtue of being true!), which means that it could be taught in the early years of school. And finally, it makes it extremely beautiful, one of the most beautiful ideas anyone ever had as well as arguably the most powerful. To die in ignorance of its elegance, and power to explain our own existence, is a tragic loss, comparable to dying without ever having experienced great music, great literature, or a beautiful sunset.

There are many reasons to vote against Rick Perry. His fatuous stance on the teaching of evolution in schools is perhaps not the first reason that springs to mind. But maybe it is the most telling litmus test of the other reasons, and it seems to apply not just to him but, lamentably, to all the likely contenders for the Republican nomination. The ‘evolution question’ deserves a prominent place in the list of questions put to candidates in interviews and public debates during the course of the coming election.

That Dawkins took to clearly stating exactly what was wrong with these bad anti-science candidates doesn’t sit well with some people. Jamie Vernon at the Intersection (of course) thinks his opinion piece was an ineffective violation of all that the mush-brained accommodationists hold dear.

In one short paragraph, Dr. Dawkins has violated nearly everything we have come to know about effective science communication. I cannot, for the life of me, understand how Dr. Dawkins believes hurling insults, like “uneducated fools” and “ignoramus,” can advance his position. How far do you think readers of the opposite mind continued into this article?

Oh, man. These clowns always practice industrial grade irony. If describing Perry in unflattering terms in the first paragraph is a barrier, what is the fact that Vernon called Dawkins a “crotchety old man” in the freakin’ title of his post? I don’t mind if the softies want to try their supposedly subtler, more psychologically informed tactics on the opposition, but somehow they never do — Vernon doesn’t do anything to persuade Perry, and doesn’t even suggest alternatives — and instead they always resort to hectoring activists who do speak their mind. It’s impossible to avoid the conclusion that all they want is passivity and silence, and that they just love wallowing in hypocrisy.

So get out there, Mr Vernon. What are you doing to inform people of the disastrous ignorance of Rick Perry? What are you doing to oppose his candidacy? Are you even willing to state that he’s unfit for office, and why? Don’t you think evolution-denial is a very good marker for science illiteracy?

This is precisely what infuriates me. We have a functional moron running for the presidency, and a small crop of presumably pro-science people are busily trying to shush the opposition up so they can work their clever psycho-mojo and gently enlighten Perry by…I don’t know, wiggling their fingers, thinking happy thoughts, or maybe they’re going to use The Force.

Perry is a disastrously bad candidate (as is Bachmann). Call me a radical, but maybe it’s a good idea for the opposition to oppose them, openly, and with thorough, rational explanations? And if the candidate is an ignoramus, as Perry clearly is, SAY IT.

And then Vernon perpetrates this nonsense:

The problem is that the Governor, and many like him, subscribe to a type of thinking that embraces hierarchical authoritarianism. People who participate in this form of thinking are not satisfied with the uncertainty that comes from evolutionary science. They need black and white answers…answers that the existing science cannot provide.

Let’s see. Perry is an authoritarian who is unpersuaded by science. Isn’t this sufficient to convince Vernon that he must be opposed?

And then, basically what he’s saying here is that evolution is uncertain. It is not. Evolution is an established fact; Dawkins, no doubt intentionally, chose to make that the focus of the title of his piece, “Attention Governor Perry: Evolution is a fact”. There is no uncertainty here. The community of scientists has spoken, and has said repeatedly, in black and white terms, and with near-unanimity that evolution happened.

Vernon is claiming that Dawkins is all wrong because Perry is looking for clarity. But clarity — clarity supported by evidence — is exactly what Dawkins offers. Vernon is full of crap.

What Dawkins does, as do many of us on the side the accommodationists hate, is provide sharp, clear, strong positions. What Dawkins does in that op-ed is play the role of Joseph Welch, confronting wicked folly and stating his position lucidly and with acid contempt for the forces of ignorance and deception.

You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?

If Jamie Vernon had been writing in 1954, he would no doubt have castigated Welch for his harshness, and suggested some compromise…perhaps a few more hearings, helpfully exposing a few more Communists, perhaps asking for a little more respect for the distinguished senator from Wisconsin, Joe McCarthy. Unfortunately for Mr Vernon, history now regards the apologists and the silent as accomplices to a dark period in American government, and the people who spoke up in opposition as the heroes.

(Also on Sb)

The Perry Principles

I’m willing to give Rick Perry credit for one thing: he’s very clear on his objectives as a politician, even if those goals are batshit insane. He’s even published a list of priorities for a Perry presidency. These are actually seven reasons to retire him to some patch of parched desert in Texas and leave him to mummify.

He really hates “activist judges”, that catch-all phrase for judges that make decisions conservatives don’t like. His solution? Bog our congress down in appointment hearings that the Republicans will blindly block.

1. Abolish lifetime tenure for federal judges by amending Article III, Section I of the Constitution.

Also, hey, let’s gut the Supreme Court and give all of its powers to congress! Where precedent can be ignored and the crony capitalists can both make the laws and interpret them!

2. Congress should have the power to override Supreme Court decisions with a two-thirds vote.

Meanwhile, let’s bankrupt the federal government and remove its major source of revenue. We don’t need no central government, after all, just let the states each do it their own way. So why is Perry running for president again?

3. Scrap the federal income tax by repealing the Sixteenth Amendment.

The senate is not elitist enough. Let’s just appoint ‘em all — and just think, the starving government can make a little money by selling those appointments to corporate citizens. Senator Monsanto, Senator Boeing, anyone?

4. End the direct election of senators by repealing the Seventeenth Amendment.

In addition to abolishing all income tax revenue (see #3), Perry will require the government to balance its budget every year. $0 in, $0 out. Easy.

5. Require the federal government to balance its budget every year.

It’s not enough that he plans to tear up the established political structure of the entire country, and destroy the federal government…he then wants to turn around and use that gutted national government to compel all the states to obey his medieval social agenda. Consistency isn’t his strong suit, nor is compassion. So, high on his list of priorities we find…slap the gays down.

6. The federal Constitution should define marriage as between one man and one woman in all 50 states.

And after those gays are shut up, let’s get to work on the wimmin. No abortions! Ever!

7. Abortion should be made illegal throughout the country.

And this deranged conservative maniac is being treated as a serious candidate by the media? Madness rules.

The world is upside down in Kentucky

In a weird reversal of the normal state of affairs, the Democratic governor of Kentucky has long been pushing support for Ken Ham’s ridiculous Ark Park…and now his Republican challenger, David Williams, has come out opposing it. Even more interestingly, he argues that the feasibility study was bogus, and that it simply won’t get built. Of course, Ken Ham isn’t happy with that.

Unfortunately, Williams is far behind in the polls, and isn’t expected to succeed in his bid.

Or rather, fortunately. My brain would melt into a puddle that flowed out my ears if I lived in a country where the crazy social conservatives were the pro-science party, while the social progressives were all NewAgey dingleberries who promoted bad science. It sort of saves my sanity that the Republicans tend to be so unremittingly evil on all fronts that the sickly performance of the Democrats doesn’t cause me any major dilemmas. Just constant despair.

(Also on Sb)