A curious perspective

This interview with a Rabbi Sacks is rather hard for me to wrap my brain around. The first part is about something Sacks is very concerned about: Jewish continuity. He seems strangely concerned about Jewish young people marrying outside their group, and has run ad campaigns to convince young Jews to raise their children in their faith. It’s all very weird; I know my grandmother was concerned that her grandchildren marry good Scandinavians, and I even got admonished about what ethnic groups I could date when I went off to college. I’m afraid that when my Norwegian/Swedish grandmother did that sort of thing, we just called it bigotry and ignored her.

Even now, I can’t quite imagine telling my kids who they are allowed to marry, or being concerned with maintaining an ethnic bloodline. Be different and unique, I say — no one should try to be who their parents and grandparents are, but should follow their own path, and we parents and grandparents should reconcile ourselves to our progeny’s independence.

There is one odd moment in the interview. I don’t sympathize at all with the ethnic purity angle, but this part I actually liked:

In the question and answer session that followed Rabbi Sacks was asked how he would convince someone like scientist and atheist, Richard Dawkins of the benefits of religious identity.

Mr Sacks responded: “We need atheists to remind us things are not God’s will, God does not want hunger, injustice or violence. I am quite happy Richard Dawkins stops us having too much faith. There’s a lot more religion in the world than there was 25 years ago and there’s a lot more violence in the world than there was 25 years ago.”

I suspect that while I enthusiastically agree qualitatively with Rabbi Sacks, we might disagree on how much religion is too much — I’d say anything above zero.

Can someone tell me why gods are so obsessed with wee-wees?

How confusing: remember the story about the convert to Judaism who was trying to compel his adolescent son to be circumcised? I was persuaded by others that the story was almost certainly an urban legend, but now it turns out that there really is a pending court case that fits the particulars. The Oregonian reports the details, but leaves out the names of those involved (the accusation that this was faked was in part based on the similarities of the names to those in a work of fiction with a similar premise; could it be that the fictional names were used because they fit the story?) In addition, they have a quote from an Oregon lawyer defending the father’s right to put his kid through unnecessary cosmetic surgery.

But Julie H. McFarlane, a supervising attorney with the Portland-based Juvenile Rights Project, said that the child’s consent for a medical procedure is not required until he turns 15.

“I think the dad has the legal right as the custodial parent to make those kind of religious or medical decisions,” McFarlane said. “It’s not much different from cosmetic surgery.”

15??? Now they tell me, after my daughter turns 16. Maybe threats to carry out random weird cosmetic operations on her would have been a useful tool for getting her to do the dishes. Now she’s just going to roll her eyes and tell me she won’t sign the consent form, darn it.

I do wonder what has happened to the Hippocratic Oath, though. What doctor would carry out such unnecessary surgery if the child or mother were opposing it? Or is Dad just going to find some quack rabbi who will hack it off under the protection of his synagogue? That’s one easy way around ethical considerations — find someone who will use the imagined word of a god to justify violating them.

Maybe Satan just likes a good enchilada?

We’ve finally found something crazy enough to make a Utah Republican to back away. One of their district chairmen, Don Larsen, has proposed an interesting resolution.

“In order for Satan to establish his ‘New World Order’ and destroy the freedom of all people as predicted in the Scriptures, he must first destroy the U.S.,” his resolution states. “The mostly quiet and unspectacular invasion of illegal immigrants does not focus the attention of the nations the way open warfare does, but is all the more insidious for its stealth and innocuousness.”

Whoa … he’s got Satan herding Mexicans across the border, a contention supported by Scripture, apparently (chapter and verse, please?)! To their credit, the Republican party seems to be a bit embarrassed by it all, but it still exposes this terrifying undercurrent of outright wacky theology that is lurking beneath us here.

(One thing I like about the SL Tribune site I linked above is that their comments have a reader scoring system, and the comments that try to endorse Larsen’s crazy rationale are getting lots of thumbs down. That’s somewhat reassuring — the literate sector of the culture is strongly against blaming Satan for social ills.)

What is a diploma worth?

Larry Moran thinks we need more rigorous admission requirements, and Donald Kennedy is not very happy with the state of creationist textbooks.

Kennedy is currently serving as an expert witness for the University of California Regents, who are being sued by a group of Christian schools, students and parents for refusing to allow high school courses taught with creationist textbooks to fulfill the laboratory science requirement for UC admission. After reading several creationist biology texts, Kennedy said he found “few instances in which students are being introduced to science as a process—that is, the way in which scientists work or carry out experiments, or the way in which they analyze and interpret the results of their investigations.”

Kennedy said that the textbooks use “ridicule and inappropriately drawn metaphors” concerning evolution to discourage students from formulating independent opinions. “Even with respect to the hypothesis that dominates them—namely, that biological complexity and organic diversity are the result of special creation—critical thinking is absent,” he added.

[Read more…]

Information must be free

My little trip distracted me with the perfect timing to miss the amazing fair-use flare-up — I’m back just in time to catch the happy resolution. I guess I’ll say something anyway, but I’ll be brief.

The general question is whether blogs should be restrained from using figures and data published in scientific journals. My position is that we should use them — scientific information should be freely and widely disseminated, anything else is antithetical to the advancement of science. The only constraints I think are fair is that all material taken from a journal should be acknowledged and formally cited, and that dumping whole articles to the web should not be done. It wouldn’t be appropriate for our audiences anyway; we should be explaining and synthesizing, not blindly replicating.

I’m glad it has blown over for now, at least. Let’s hope journals continue to be sensible about letting blogs excerpt portions of published work—they have a specialized audience, we have a more general audience, and we hope that blogging about science will lead to more scientists, which will increase the market for the science journals. Everyone will be happy!