Home alone

I have been abandoned. My wife has left me. The kids have all moved out. I’m stuck home alone with nothing to do but work and take care of the annoying cats for a whole week, and I may just go insane.

The Trophy Wife has gone to summer camp! She’s working for a week as a camp counselor at Minnesota’s Camp Quest, the secular place for smart kids to be. I’m thinking I should probably demand, as a price for forcing me to bach it for all this time, some kind of direct report from her at the end of the week that I could post here and get everyone excited about sending their kids (or spouses) away for a while.

I’d say that I should get her to send me daily updates on the events there, but I think she’s going to be busy. As it is, all I’ve heard so far is that they have luxurious new cabins and great food. I had leftover tuna casserole for dinner last night, just sayin’.

Scientology values

Some leaked documents from the Church of Scientology reveal their priorities — these are papers they require new staffers to sign, and there is no way anyone in their right mind would sign them. The gist is that they want your promise that you are financially solvent, so that nothing can cause you to pull back from your “commitment to the church”, and then there are a whole lot of threatening agreements: you’ll have to pay a ‘penance’ to the church if you leave, you can never, ever sue or hold the church liable for anything, and the church is not under any circumstances obligated to fulfill anything they ever promise.

It’s amazing stuff, but I have to give the scientologists credit for at least being honest with their acolytes.

Solution: blame scientists, add fluff

Mooney and Kirshenbaum continue their campaign with an op-ed in the Boston Globe, which, as we all know, has rigorous standards. Their explanation for scientific illiteracy in America is simple: it’s the scientists’ fault for being so aloof and distant. Their solution is also simple: philanthropists and universities need to give more money to employ media-savvy scientists. How…nice.

I will say one good thing about their op-ed, though. It contains the full content of their entire book. Read the essay, now you don’t need to buy the book, since it covers it fully, including all the non-existent details for how to actually implement their solution.

I must offer a significant criticism, however. They start out by pointing out that most scientists accept the evidence for global warming, while only about half the general public does. Right away, the comments start coming in complaining that AGW is wrong. Don’t M&K know they aren’t supposed to feed the conflict or stir up controversy or throw out ideas the public will find disagreeable? Where’s the civility?

Those awful ads

It’s annoying. Garbage is thriving: the Discovery Channel is running ads for the Creation “Museum”, and our very own scienceblogs is intermittently running an ad for creationist literature. There are a couple of things to know about this. One is that the economy sucks, and the media, in particular are struggling. Science media especially are suffering, so everyone is scrambling to scrape up whatever revenues they can. The other thing to notice is that in a down economy, faith-based lies and wishful thinking are cheap to produce and continue to sell, so that’s what’s happening. There isn’t much we can do other than to grab every penny we can from them.

With that in mind, here’s something I’d like you all to do. Go to that obnoxious creationist ad that keeps appearing here, and take them up on their offer of a FREE booklet. Order it, I did, and it really is free — they don’t ask for a credit card number, there are no hidden shipping fees, but they probably will stick your name and address on a mailing list of the gullible (don’t worry, though, you aren’t, so you are contaminating their list).

It says it takes two to four weeks to ship. As soon as I get mine, I’ll open up a thread here with the same title as the book, and we shall all join in a gleeful public evisceration of their crappy little booklet. If you’ve got a blog, put a critical dissection of the book there and send me the link, and I’ll add it to the post. We’ll give them publicity, all right, but it will be the harshest, nastiest, meanest publicity possible — we will do everything we can to make sure that when someone googles their organization or their booklet, all that comes back is a mountain of snarling contempt.

It’ll be fun.

Hang on, some of you are getting this completely wrong. DO NOT HAVE THE BOOKLET SENT TO A FAKE ADDRESS. This is not a campaign to make creationists waste lots of money and generate lots of garbage in landfills—it is an exercise in informed analysis. You are supposed to have the booklet sent to yourself, so you can read it, and you can critique it. We’ll then have a discussion about its failures. You won’t be able to participate if you haven’t read the silly thing, now will you?

Also do not have it sent to random people you don’t like. They won’t bother to criticize it here, either.

Numbers and Nelson dislocate shoulders with strenuous back-patting

Ron Numbers is a very smart fellow, a historian of science, who has done marvelous work on the history of creationism. Paul Nelson is a Discovery Institute Fellow, a young earth creationist (but an amazingly fuzzy one), and, unfortunately, very long-winded. Bloggingheads has brought Ronald Numbers and Paul Nelson together in a dialog. I can hardly believe I listened to the whole thing — I was working away at other stuff while it was playing in the background, so it wasn’t a total waste of time — but it was incredibly boring. Both parties were so determined to be nice to each other that they spent the whole time agreeing with each other, and never wrestled with their differences. It was an epic collision of titanic marshmallows; no one was bruised or dented, but afterwards, everyone involved was sticky and gooey. It just fills one with a desire to wash one’s hands and maybe take a shot of some good scotch to get back a little sharpness and bite. Conviviality is a fine thing in an appropriate social situation, but in a discussion of matters of substance, it can be a toxic sludge that obscures differences and impedes the achievement of any real understanding.

A few interesting comments managed to untangle themselves from the treacle. Numbers made the useful point that religion achieves compatibility with science when it recedes into the background and simply accepts whatever science discovers as what the gods have been doing. That’s fine with me; he didn’t come right out and say, though, that religion lacks any method to actually determine the truth of any statement about the world.

Nelson brought up a hypothetical (a common tactic of his): if an intelligent designer created and planted the very first cell in the ocean a few billion years ago, could methodological naturalism determine that? His point was that if it had actually happened — whether a deity conjured that cell into existence, or a passing alien spacecraft flushed its space toilets as it passed by — it would be undetectable to the tools of methodological naturalism, and therefore it is a flawed procedure.

Numbers had a couple of answers to that. One was to compare it to his field of history, in which everyone knows some information is always lost over time. That does not mean that history cannot work, but simply that we always acknowledge that we cannot possibly know everything. He also made the pragmatic argument that methodological naturalism has been eminently successful, and is a tool that allows even the most evangelical Christian to be a successful scientist, and that breaking that down is an expense we should be unwilling to pay.

What he failed to mention, though, is that Intelligent Design creationism does not fill the gap in our knowledge. They have no tools in place to detect a great cosmic space poof (or flush) that occurred 3 billion years ago, either. What is their way of knowing that succeeds where science fails? Where is their evidence? The failings of ID creationism were not brought up, however, perhaps because it would breach civility on the spot.

The only point where they got spiritedly critical, but not with each other (they still agreed entirely with each other) was — and you knew it had to be this — was in damning those damned damnable atheists. A major problem here was that Jerry Coyne’s book, Why Evolution Is True, was made the target, Paul Nelson glibly mischaracterized the book, and Numbers obligingly accepted his mangling. They spent a fair amount of time flogging a dead horse filled with straw, or some such unholy metaphor.

Nelson claimed that Coyne’s book is “soaked in theology”, that it was one big theological argument from beginning to end, and compared it to a hypothetical (again!) situation in which aliens landed, asked us to explain evolution, and Coyne begins by telling them the Christian myth, and how it is all wrong.

I’ve read the book. Nelson was not describing any book I’ve read.

His example was to talk about the argument from imperfections, the fact that many of the points Coyne made as evidence of evolution were from sub-optimal adaptations, or historical relics. Nelson has made this argument many times before; he says that it is an attempt to judge what a rational god would do, finding differences from our expectations, and then using those to argue against religion…a purely theological plan and conclusion.

Numbers chimed in to agree vigorously, pointing out that imperfections are no argument against creationism, because creationists believe in a flawed world as a consequence of the Fall. I know this. It is irrelevant.

The argument from biological imperfections is not theological, no matter how vociferously Nelson asserts that it is, because no biologist is simply saying what he claims they are; the interesting part about imperfections like the recurrent laryngeal nerve or the spine of bipeds or mammalian testicles isn’t simply that they seem clumsy and broken in a way no sensible god would tolerate, but that evolution provides an explanation for why they are so. We can build a case that these structures are a product of historical antecedents, and have a positive case for them as consequences of common descent. Nelson is misrepresenting the argument, and Numbers just went along with it.

Then, of course, talking about Coyne leads into some Dawkins-bashing. Coyne and Dawkins are going beyond the conventional boundaries of science, Numbers says, and he doesn’t like theological conclusions being made from empirical work; evolutionary biology doesn’t and can’t tell us much of anything about god.


When you’ve got a specific theological claim, such as that the earth is only 6,000 years old (or, in Nelson’s uselessly blurry version, is simply much younger than geology says), then science certainly can weigh in on a theological claim. It can say that that specific claim is wrong. We can whittle away at virtually every material claim that religions make, and reduce them to an empirical void — the Catholic Church, for instance, officially goes along with the scientific observations of evolution, and simply adds an untestable, immaterial claim on top of it, that there was some moment of “ensoulment” that corresponds to the literary metaphor of Adam and Eve. Science can’t disprove that, but what it means is that they are diminished to making pointless claims about invisible, unobservable entities being magically added invisibly and immaterially to people at a distant time and place that they cannot name.

It was a frustrating discussion. If either of them had been having a dialog with Dawkins or Coyne, then this would have been an interesting tack to take, because then they would be arguing over differences, and maybe some reasonable arguments would have emerged (entirely from the Dawkins/Coyne camp, of course). As it is, the two simply dodged their own deep differences to find common, non-antagonistic cause in bashing positions neither understood that were not represented by anyone in their dialog.

At the end, Numbers says one thing that really made me roll my eyes: “One thing that is not welcome in the science and religion debates is people in the middle.” It’s so true. When you are debating over straightforward questions, like “evolution vs. creation” or “god vs. no god”, the position in the middle is non-existent, and people who try to waffle about, refusing to answer the question, are definitely not welcome. They’re only there to add noise and confusion.

“Atheist Fundamentalists”

Number one on my list of dead-giveaways that I’m dealing with a moron of the first order: when they start whining about “atheist fundamentalists”, comparing a Richard Dawkins to a Pat Robertson, or babbling about how those atheists are just as fanatical and wicked as the fundagelical zealots. When people start in on that line of unreason, all they’re doing is trying to tar atheists with the taint of the wretched works of the Taliban or the American theocrats, without actually addressing any comparisons of substance.

At least one writer at The Economist recognizes the absurdity of the false equivalence. The article would be very good if it hadn’t fallen for number two on my list of peeves: the old “Hitler was an atheist” canard. No, he wasn’t. He was Catholic, leading a largely Catholic country. Not only can’t you blame atheism for the Nazis, but even if he had been an atheist, it would be as ridiculous to fault atheism for his crimes as it would be to accuse Catholicism of being an explicitly genocidal cult bent on world domination by military conquest.

The writer does have a few criticisms of atheists: he says we can be smug and annoying. That’s a fair cop. When you’re an advocate for what is right among the milling herd of gullible, superstitious jebus-worshippers, though, I think a little smugness is warranted.

A misdirected life’s goal

I’d never heard of Roger W. Babson before, but maybe some of you at east coast colleges have seen one of his monuments. He was an eccentric millionaire who founded the Gravity Research Foundation and donated money for anti-gravity research. He gave money to colleges that would accept one of his granite monuments to “remind students of the blessings forthcoming when science determines what gravity is, how it works, and how it may be controlled.” It was his obsession. Apparently, his concern traces back to one event:

Babson, born in 1875, was a self-made millionaire who founded three colleges and once ran for the U.S. presidency as the candidate of the Prohibition Party. He became obsessed with gravity at the age of 18 when his younger sister, Edith, drowned in Massachusetts’ Annisquam River.

“She was unable to fight gravity,” Babson later wrote, “which came up and seized her like a dragon and brought her to the bottom.”

The fool! It wasn’t gravity that was the enemy, he needed to fund anti-viscosity research!

So predictable…

When I read this opening to an article about a Republican politician, I knew instantly exactly where it was going.

Meet Tennessee state senator Paul Stanley. He’s a solid conservative Republican and married father of two, who according to his website is “a member of Christ United Methodist Church, where he serves as a Sunday school teacher and board member of their day school.” (Check out the religious imagery on the site — the sun poking through clouds, as if manifesting God’s presence — which of course shows Stanley’s deeply pious nature.)

Can you? Take a guess, then look below the fold.

[Read more…]

Zerg the Creation “Museum”!

Did I say 101 atheists were going to the Creation “Museum” four days ago? The updated number is currently at 201, and the Secular Student Alliance is keeping registration open for a while, so you can still get in. This is going to be great — be sure to wear some kind of distinguishingly godless clothing, because I think we’ll want a few photos of the place swamped with atheists.

Just the numbers alone are going to make this a great event. Join the mob!