Happy New Year!

I’m saying it a few hours early because when the clock ticks over to midnight I expect you all to be snogging or otherwise partying away, unless you’re one of those sensible types who doesn’t think having to get a new calendar is anything to celebrate, so you’re off to bed for a good night’s rest.

Here at Chez Myers, we shall be taking a middle road with a quiet evening capped with our traditional root beer floats. Whatever your happy choice of the day, have a good 2008.

Silly scurrilousness against the sanctimonious

I’ve been slacking off on Pharyngula lately — I’ve had a week to relax and get caught up on a few other things. Here, though, are a few links to ridiculous religiosity that have been piling up in the mailbox.

All chance, no purpose

That friend to the Discovery Institute and creationist advisor to the Vatican, Cardinal Schönborn, has a new book out, titled Chance or Purpose?. I haven’t read it, but Michael Behe has, and Zeno finds a particularly delicious Behe blurb:

Science cannot speak of ultimate purpose, and scientists who do so are outside of their authority. In Chance or Purpose? Cardinal Schöborn shows that the data of biology, when properly examined by reason and philosophy, strongly point to a purposeful world.

Why should science be incapable of addressing the questions of an ultimate purpose? I hear this all the time: science can’t give us meaning, science can’t explain love, science can’t do this or that. It’s usually said by some clueless git who has his own ideological axe to grind, and wants everyone to line up in support of his or her own dictated decrees about the truth, which are usually obtained by revelation (i.e., whim) or dogma, and which are challenged by a process that actually tries to examine reality in search of a truth. And those ideologies, such as Catholicism, have no legitimate claim for better understanding than any other traditional nonsense.

I say otherwise. We have no other, better tool. If we’re going to discover an ultimate purpose, it will be through the process of studying our universe — through science. The only thing these putative other ways of knowing affect our reach is by impeding us.

As Zeno notes, Behe’s quote is beautifully self-contradicting. He starts by declaring that science can’t tell us anything about our purpose, and then he goes on to immediately declare that the data of biology lead to an understanding of purpose. Behe is an incredibly muddled thinker — he’s got the background that values science, but at the same time he’s bogged down in these peculiar presuppositions that make a mess of his brain.

The data of biology do not point to purpose, but to a history of accidents shaped by short-term utility to replicators. Schönborn is unqualified to assess it — he’s a blithering theologian — and both Schönborn and Behe are blinded to the overwhelming dominance of chance in our biology by their ideological predispositions.

Poor baby

Elle Jacobson is a high school student who is skipping school because she’s afraid of atheists. Some parents are joining in the fear, all because of one little incident:

“This boy got up and his visual aid was a Bible and a book. And he got up and started his speech by saying ‘Now, this piece of crap’ and pointed to the Bible.”

Jacobson said that she quickly felt threatened.

“He took the Bible and he said, ‘I’m going to do this because I can. I’m going to do something that your stupid, little minds aren’t going to be able to comprehend and he took the Bible and started ripping out pages.”

Ripping up a copy of your own book is perfectly legal. Freaking out because somebody tore pages out of a book is silly — while I can’t approve of destroying any books on general principles, the kids at that school learned a valuable lesson: nothing is sacred.


One of my Christmas presents was something just for fun: Superman: The Dailies 1939-1942(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). It’s a collection of the newspaper strips by Schuster and Siegel that were published in the earliest years of the superhero, and they’re both funny and disturbing now.

First off, Superman was always a jerk. It’s actually a bit off-putting: while he has this profound moral goal of helping the little guy, he’s also constantly treating Lois Lane like dirt — he uses his superpowers to get the big scoops at the newspaper, and Lois is always getting demoted to the “advice for the lovelorn” column. When he does let her get a story, it’s always in the most condescending way possible.

And then there’s his solution to crime: over and over, he uses his super-hearing and his super-telescopic-X-ray vision to find out who the big bad guy is, and then he kicks him around like a football for a few days worth of strips until he signs a written confession. Case solved! One begins to wonder how much of a bad influence growing up with a super-bully as a hero has had.

But what I really wanted to share was a subtly different origin story for Superman. The early Superman didn’t fly, wasn’t absolutely invulnerable to everything, and didn’t have the full suite of superpowers that would gradually be added to the canon. He was just an extremely tough guy with the “strength of a thousand men!” who was able to jump long distances; in one episode, he has to end a war in Europe (by grabbing the two leaders and kicking them around, of course), and he has to swim all the way…faster than a torpedo, of course.

But what was proposed as the source of his great strength? It wasn’t the rays of the sun, as we’d be told later. It was…evolution.


That’s right. Krypton had a few million years head start on us, so everyone on the planet had super-strength, super-intelligence, and near-invulnerability, all because evolution had simply progressed farther than it had on earth.

That was the first panel of the newspaper strip. You can guess how I cringed. The story never quite got to the details of how selection worked to generate people with skin so tough that bullets bounced off.

I have to show you one other instance of unintentional humor. At one point, a wealthy bad guy puts a bounty on Superman’s head of one million dollars and recruits criminals to kill him. These new criminals have an interesting style of introducing themselves:


Where do you get a super-science degree, I wonder? Can I just introduce myself this way in the future? “I am P-Zed, the super-scientist. Give me a million dollars.” I am relieved to see, at least, that super-scientists are not required to wear brightly colored tights.

Carlos, by the way, doesn’t really earn the title of “super-scientist.” His scheme to kill Superman is to lure him into a room (with Lois as bait) and then open up vents that release heat into the room, while he looks through a thick heat-proof glass window and gloats. Superman strolls in, the door closes, the vents open, he starts sweating and standing there dumbfounded, while Carlos chortles over the fact that Superman will be reduced to ash in a few minutes. Superman doesn’t know what to do until he suddenly remembers, oh yeah, he can smash down walls. So he breaks down the wall to Carlos’s room, Carlos and his pals are incinerated, and Superman and Lois escape.

From this we can conclude that the entrance requirements to super-scientist school must be really, really low. I’m thinking now that maybe I don’t qualify. But maybe, just maybe, this is the Discovery Institute’s problem — they keep hiring super-scientists instead of plain old ordinary working scientists, and they keep coming up with hare-brained schemes like “irreducible complexity” and “specified complexity” that are so easily ripped to shreds.

Why is Ron Paul so popular?

OK, ‘fess up — some of you know that I thoroughly detest libertarianism, that reactionary political movement that seeks to elevate greed and selfishness as a ruling principle, and I suspect one of you got me a subscription to Reason magazine a few months ago, just to taunt me. If your goal was to persuade me to come over to the side of unbridled anti-social self-centeredness, you failed. The issue comes, I glance through it, find a few little bits and pieces I can agree with, but because they’re all imbedded in this thick tarry fecal sludge of libertarianism, I end up throwing the whole thing away in disgust.

The issue I got today was no exception. The cover story: Ron Paul. Bleh.

I disliked Ron Paul before I learned he was a quack, before I heard him deny evolution, before I learned he was an enabler for neo-nazis. I rejected him when I first read about his proposed policies, the ones he isn’t embarrassed to make public, and saw that he was promoting the same garbage my relatives in the John Birch Society were peddling when I was a young man: isolationism, anti-government, anti-immigrant, generalized hatred of the other and a blind refusal to recognize that culture matters.

The mostly laudatory article in Reason confirms my opinion.

…it’s all classic Ron Paul: Get rid of the income tax and replace it with nothing; find the money to support those dependent on Social Security and Medicare by shutting down the worldwide empire, while giving the young a path out of those programs; don’t pass a draft; have a foreign policy of friendship and trade, not wars and subsidies. He attacks the drug war … one of his biggest applause lines, to my astonishment, involves getting rid of the Federal Reserve.

I actually approve of some of that, like ending the drive to empire and the drug war. The John Birchers of my youth pushed the same agenda, but then you dig a little deeper, and you find the rotting core of their reasoning.

He wants tougher border enforcement, including a border wall; he wants to eliminate birthright citizenship; and he wants to end the public subsidies that might attract illegal immigrants.

Ron Paul isn’t just a small-government obsessive: he’s a no-government radical. And at the same time he wants every positive function of government to vanish, he wants what amounts to a police state in place to keep the rest of the world out, all out of fear of those strangers with different customs and ideas.

So, please, whoever you are: don’t renew my subscription to that awful magazine, and please, please don’t make me live in a Ron Paul America.

Torture — what’s it good for?

One little post about waterboarding seems to have stirred up the mob, but at least the majority seem to agree that it is torture. How could it not be? It’s a process for causing pain and suffering, nothing more. At least the commenters here, even the ones I disagree with most strongly, are more honest than our politicians, many of whom seem to be in a state of denial.

But then the argument becomes whether torture is a useful procedure. I’m going to surprise some people and agree that torture is an extremely powerful tool. It’s just useless for gathering information. There’s just no way you can trust information gotten while ripping somebody’s fingernails off with a pair of pliers — they’ll scream anything to get you to stop.

Here is all that torture is good for: inspiring fear in a population. If you want it widely known that your ruling regime is utterly ruthless and doesn’t care about individuals, all you have to do is scoop up random people suspected of anti-government activities, hold them for a few weeks, and return them as shattered wrecks with mangled limbs, while treating the monsters who would do such a thing as respected members of the ruling clique, who are immune from legal prosecution. The message gets out fast that one does not cross the government.

So, yeah, if you’re a tyrant in Uzbekistan who is holding control through force of arms, fear is a useful part of the apparatus of control, and torture is a great idea, as are barbaric executions, heads on pikes, and bullets to the back of the head.

When the US government announces it’s support for torture, they aren’t talking about intelligence gathering: they are simply saying “Fear us.” They are taking the first step on the road to tyranny.

The real problem is that fear isn’t a good tool to use in a democratic society. We are supposed to be shareholders in our government; when a process of oppression is endorsed by our legislators and president, we should recognize that they are trying to set themselves apart from the ordinary citizenry, and it’s time to rebel…before the goon squads come to your neighborhood. Anyone who supports torture is a traitor to the democratic form of government, and should be voted out of office, if not impeached.

And I know some are going to crawl out of the woodwork to claim it’s OK in this case because the US is mainly trying to torture non-citizens, outsiders and foreigners — but then what it represents is an announcement to the rest of the world that the American superpower is not planning to be a benevolent member of the community of nations.