The cool/lame quotient

That Anglican archbishop, Rowan Williams, is complaining about the atheists again.

I’m not avoiding the point that the coolness of atheism is very much in evidence. The problem is it’s become a bit of a vicious circle. Atheism is cool, so books about atheism are cool.

They get a high profile, and books that say Richard Dawkins is wrong don’t get the same kind of publicity because atheism is the new cool thing.

It’s difficult to break into that, but plenty of people are trying.

He’s making a very common error of perspective. I hate to break the news to all of you, but atheism is not cool. It’s not cool at all. It’s the domain of nerds and geeks and sciencey weirdos with beards and snarky women who are way smarter than the guys chasing them. We are not rock stars. We are not fabulously sexy (well, except for Brian Cox). We tend not to have loud movie star personalities (well, except for Neil deGrasse Tyson). Nothing personal, but if you put together a line-up of one of the Kardashians, Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber, Daniel Radcliffe, and Richard Dawkins, and showed them to the average person on the American street, most of our citizens’ eyes would light up in recognition at the first four, and look quizzically at the guy on the end. And no, it wouldn’t help much to swap in Brian Cox for Richard Dawkins.

But that’s the point: cool is a relative thing. Coolness depends on what you contrast it with. And that’s really Rowan Williams’ problem.

It’s not the coolness of atheism. It’s the lameness of religion.

Look at me. I’m moderately popular, and I’m a schlubby college professor at a small college. I’ve got a beard and I wear nerdy ties. I’m nobody. But stand me next to a priest, or a creationist, and the contrast makes me look white-hot and super-cool, even though I’m not. It’s been my cunning trick for years.

So the problem for Williams isn’t that atheism is cool at all — it’s that our cool/lame quotient rockets to stratospheric heights whenever we’re in opposition to old geezy wankers who are chanting antique gobbledygook about magic rabbis and dead people. And those apologists trying break into our schtick? All they are doing is making us look cooler.

There’s only one solution. If the priests just fade away and stop looking like such gomers next to us, then atheism will look much, much less cool. We’ll have to compete with Michael Bay and video games and porn for attention, and then there won’t be anyone chattering about how cool we are any more.

OH NO! I just revealed the secret to making atheism irrelevent — for all the religious folk to disappear into the woodwork. Now we’re dooooomed!

No, no, no — this is not bisexuality or homosexuality

This is a beautiful illustration of the flaw in applying human sexual conventions to non-human organisms. researchers studying deep-sea squid found that all of the squid, male and female alike, were speckled with sperm packets — the males just flick these things out at any passing squid, on the chance that it’s a female. It’s silly to call this bisexuality or same-sex mating, though — it’s pretty darned common in invertebrates. Many species of sea urchins, for instance, indulge in synchronized ejaculatory orgies: on one or a few days a year, all of the individuals in a colony simultaneously spew eggs and sperm into the water, to the degree that they can turn the ocean milky white with semen and ova. Do we call that homosexuality? Is it even right to refer to it as an “orgy”? It’s just indiscriminate fertilization.

The authors of the paper, at least, get it exactly right.

In the Royal Society paper the team writes: “In the deep, dark habitat where O. deletron lives, potential mates are few and far between.

“We suggest that same-sex mating behaviour by O. deletron is part of a reproductive strategy that maximises success by inducing males to indiscriminately and swiftly inseminate every [squid] that they encounter.”

It’s every boy’s dream, just hosing everything down with semen, just to be sure.

(Also on Sb)

I get email

I’m not going to post this email I received, simply because it is insanely long, 15,000 words of random caps and peculiar color changes. Just to give you a taste, this is the subject line:

Subject: SCIENCE, AND THEOLOGY {{ Cogent Word for the 100’s of new ears in Science and theology we contacted/called last week around earth }} CHIMERISM, deaths/Wolbachias/satans attack upon Adams Society, ULtra Microbic Life Force/death Force — How does the Harlot called death ride Adams children and cause death and aging??? Listing below — {{ A Brief Word on obamas Buffet taxes, and Word that all most pay their share, Very well stated }} The Holyone has been Shaking Greece trying to tell Germany and all do not feed them any more — Eleanor Mondale and Kara Kennedy Esq; Die at Fifty one, but hours from each other — His Quakes now become stronger to Oklahoma and Canada —- SCIENCE allowed Gamers to finish their Research — “i” gather those of increased knowledge and wisdom…Death and aging now end…..It has begun…Bring home your Missions…Dubai city is soon no longer…..

What I did want to share, though, is that this one is illustrated. Along with the author’s claim that he’s the prophet specifically sent to gather the 144,000 people who get to go to heaven, he included a lovely illustration of his lord and master, Jesus, who just happens to look rather European.

[Read more...]

Humanity’s recent surge

Earlier this semester, I gave my first-year students a thought question. I do this now and then just to wake them up and get them thinking and talking — in this case, I wanted them to speculate and also think hard about how they came up with their answers, and how they would try to evaluate them. Here’s the question:

Anatomically modern humans first appear in the fossil record about 150,000 years ago. The first record of systematic agriculture appears about 10-15,000 years ago. The Industrial Revolution began about 300 years ago. People nowadays seem to be coming up with new ideas at an increasingly rapid pace. What’s going on? Why did it take ancient hunter-gatherers over 100,000 years to invent farming, but going from the invention of the airplane to passenger jetliners took less than a century?

Now The Economist comes up with an interesting chart that might explain some of that.

SOME people recite history from above, recording the grand deeds of great men. Others tell history from below, arguing that one person’s life is just as much a part of mankind’s story as another’s. If people do make history, as this democratic view suggests, then two people make twice as much history as one. Since there are almost 7 billion people alive today, it follows that they are making seven times as much history as the 1 billion alive in 1811. The chart below shows a population-weighted history of the past two millennia. By this reckoning, over 28% of all the history made since the birth of Christ was made in the 20th century. Measured in years lived, the present century, which is only ten years old, is already “longer” than the whole of the 17th century. This century has made an even bigger contribution to economic history. Over 23% of all the goods and services made since 1AD were produced from 2001 to 2010, according to an updated version of Angus Maddison’s figures.

The figure is a little murky: the units and axes aren’t clearly explained. The bars are percentage of the total, so “years lived” actually means the percentage of the total number of human years lived. So when “years lived” for the 20th century reads out as about 27, that means that 27% of all the years lived by all humans occurred in the 20th century.

I might show this graph to the class next year when I ask the question, but I’d still get to emphasize that the how of knowledge is really important: a serious flaw in the chart is that they don’t explain how they came up with, for instance, their estimate of relative economic output in the 5th century.

The 21st century is off to a roaring start, isn’t it?

(Also on Sb)

Last chance for Troy Davis

The state of Georgia is planning to execute a man for murder tomorrow, on the basis of a very shaky case in which most of the witnesses have recanted their testimony, and who have said the police pressured them into their initial accusations. I can’t make any judgments on whether he is guilty or innocent — the case has not been made strongly enough to justify an irrevocable and terminal decision. That is why it is criminally wrong for the state to kill him for this crime.

The Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles is about to commit an injustice. Write or fax them at (404) 651-8502 now.

You can also send a message through Amnesty International. It’s a disgrace that our country is about to do something as horrific as what we condemn Islamic regimes for doing — a barbaric punishment on the most tenuous grounds.

(via RDF)

(Also on Sb)

The strangely schizoid status of the skeptical community

Both Russell Blackford and Ophelia Benson have expressed some surprise at this statement from the JREF.

we at the JREF do take diversity seriously, and it’s something we strive to achieve at our events. If the skeptics community is going to thrive and grow, it’s essential that no one feel unwelcome or excluded due to race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation.

It’s weird, but what it really is is a historical relic and an issue of scope. The JREF piece makes that clear a little further down.

One other point Christian raises is that atheism and skepticism are often conflated, making religious people feel uncomfortable at TAM and other skeptical events. This is a controversial issue within the skeptical community, and there are many facets to the discussion that are beyond the scope of this post. But one fact is certain: the JREF is not an atheist organization. To be sure, we count many atheists among our allies, but our focus is on science advocacy and education. We regularly work with religious believers of many different stripes to further that cause as well.

There have been some fierce battles fought in the skeptical community over this: people’s feelings have been hurt, they’ve marched out in a snit, they still occasionally snipe and protest. It’s a tricky balancing act, and for many years they could get away with it: you could debunk UFOs and chupacabras and ESP without pissing off the Catholics in the audience, so the community could grow and encompass a wider audience that included some religious people, because their sacred cow wasn’t the one getting gored.

There really are people in the movement who want religion treated with kid gloves. This is an even sharper example of someone who actively wants religion represented positively in skepticism, which is rather wacky.

The irony of an atheist-only panel on “diversity” did not escape me, but I expected it to pass without comment. The sentiment that skepticism is an atheist club is recent, but it has taken root very quickly. As with other sorts of “do-fish-know-they’re-wet?” privilege in other, larger communities, the assumption of default atheism is rarely questioned in the skeptical subculture. Indeed, the panel set out to discuss diversity in gender, sexual orientation, age, race, class, education, and physical ability—but not religion.

This is especially strange when we consider that scientific skepticism was to a large extent founded by people of faith, including Harry Houdini (still arguably the greatest skeptical investigator of all time, and the model for the investigative tradition embodied today by James Randi and Joe Nickell) and Martin Gardner (the model for the modern skeptical literature). At least one speaker at TAM9 was herself religious (Pamela Gay) and there were, as always, members of multiple religious groups and spiritual traditions in the audience. These skeptics often express that anti-theism is a barrier to participation in our science-based events. Whatever your own feelings about religion, this is obviously a topic which fits under the heading of “diversity.”

So you can well imagine that I was surprised into applause when D.J. Grothe raised exactly that topic: religious diversity in the skeptical community. Nor was I the only one clapping. In any given year, the crowd at TAM includes not only pro-science people of faith (despite the chill) and secularists who will go to the wall for them, but also a great many traditional scientific skeptics who see untestable claims as simply off topic.

That’s changing. Skepticism should and must embrace a wider range of socially relevant issues, and I think the leaders in the movement are recognizing that — showing that dowsing doesn’t work is a useful exercise in training critical thinking, but it’s not a big sociopolitical issue, you know? There was a huge fuss raised when Richard Dawkins was invited to speak at TAM a while back, precisely because he wasn’t going to give religion the exemption from criticism it has always demanded and usually gotten.

My position is partial agreement: JREF is not an atheist organization. It’s primary purpose is not overt criticism of religion, and it does not and should not demand perfect ideological purity of all of its members: if somebody wants to believe in UFOs, but is happy to critically analyze Bigfoot claims, they should have a place…it’s just that if they get on the podium to babble about flying saucers, we get to point and laugh and express our disrespect for that credulous foolishness, just as we can maybe show respect for a serious dissection of cryptozoological claims.

Same with religion. Maybe you’re a religious astronomer; you have a place in the skeptical community telling us about the wonders of the cosmos, but the god stuff is not going to play well. And that you think Jesus is real (or that the aliens are visiting us from Beta Reticuli) does not mean you get to demand that no one dare dispute your delusions.

If we had to blacklist every weird belief that someone in the audience at TAM had, nobody would ever be able to talk about anything. Not even dowsing.

Fairness and reason can be opposed by a poll

I’m impressed. The principal at Edgewater Primary School, Julie Tombs, ended the tradition of reciting the Lord’s Prayer at assemblies after receiving some complaints, and she did it for good principled reasons.

…at this school we have students from a range of backgrounds and it is important to consider all views and not promote one set of religious beliefs and practices over another.

Exactly right! This is a simple decision that schools should not be in the business of promoting sectarian religion. But of course, even in Australia the facts can’t be allowed to stand, so opposition must be gathered in the guise of a democratic poll. And so far, the Australians are disappointing me.

Should the Lord’s Prayer be banned from WA schools?

Yes 26.92%

No 54.78%

In state schools only 10.96%
I don’t care 7.34%

People who read Pharyngula might have a different perspective on this issue. Maybe you should make your views known.