Wanna t-shirt?

Here’s an almost impressive compendium of evolution t-shirts. I say “almost” because, dang it, most of them are variations on the infamous March of Progress image, which I detest.


That thing feeds on and is the source of some of the most common misconceptions about evolution. Please, graphic designers, if you want to create something about evolution, just throw the Zallinger image out and do something different. I know it’s a powerful piece of work with iconic status, but it’s also misleading.

What is wrong with you, Queensland?

Look at this: they’ve explicitly added creationism to the public school curriculum in Queensland, Australia. That’s just nuts.

They’re even doing it in an entirely bogus way — they’re teaching it as a controversy in history classes.

In Queensland schools, creationism will be offered for discussion in the subject of ancient history, under the topic of “controversies”.

Queensland History Teachers’ Association head Kay Bishop said the curriculum asked students to develop their historical skills in an “investigation of a controversial issue” such as “human origins (eg, Darwin’s theory of evolution and its critics”).

This is confusing. It sounds like they’re going to be babbling about whether the earth is 6,000 years old or 4.5 billion years old, but that isn’t history — that’s just lunacy. There is some relevant history that could be taught, such as that from Ron Numbers’ book, The Creationists, which explains how ideas about creationism changed over the years, talks about the major figures in the creationist movement, and describes how creationism itself has changed historically…but I doubt that the people who are backing this want the subject addressed seriously as a series of events in the last 100 years.

It’s clear that they’re just trampling on history as a back door to get pseudoscience into the curriculum. I keep telling people, these creationists are cunning — the science side of the debate has gotten hardened by repeated attacks, and is usually better prepared to resist the foolishness, so they switch targets and catch history or philosophy off guard. Every academic discipline is subject to this corruption.

Give it a few years, and if they’re beaten back by the history professionals, just wait until they try to sneak in by claiming creationism is math, or health, or physical education (oh, wait, they’ve already gotten in there — in lots of schools, it’s the Christian athletes who are often the center of creationist activity).

“Scientific impotence”

John Timmer has written up a relevant paper on the tactics people use to avoid scientific conclusions. When science doesn’t feed your biases, reject science.

A study published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology takes a look at one of these methods, which the authors term “scientific impotence”—the decision that science can’t actually address the issue at hand properly. It finds evidence that not only supports the scientific impotence model, but suggests that it could be contagious. Once a subject has decided that a given topic is off limits to science, they tend to start applying the same logic to other issues.

Francisco Ayala, I’m looking at you. There are some people who are mighty quick to declare that a whole range of topics are excluded from the domain of science.

Timmer points out another common observation, that denialism seems to encompass an entire syndrome.

…it might explain why doubts about mainstream science seem to travel in packs. For example, the Discovery Institute, famed for hosting a petition that questions our understanding of evolution, has recently taken up climate change as an additional issue (they don’t believe the scientific community on that topic, either). The Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine is best known for hosting a petition that questions the scientific consensus on climate change, but the people who run it also promote creationism and question the link between HIV and AIDS.

The DI also has HIV deniers in its midst, too.

Most appropriately named quack ever

He called himself Dr Woo. He was a practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine, and even those quacks couldn’t stand him, and disbarred him. He was bringing in female patients, asking them to get naked, and then poking and prodding in places totally unrelated to their complaints. Here’s one remarkably resonant sentence from the article:

Expert witnesses told the hearing there were no acupuncture points in the vagina.

Well, yeah, we can get a flavor of what Woo was doing from that, but I’m left marveling: there are no acupuncture points anywhere, it’s all a load of hokum, so where do they get off rejecting so unambiguously an assertion from another quack? I see claims that sticking a needle in an ankle will fix a problem in an elbow, for instance, so using their own unsubstantiated illogic, maybe dithering about in the vagina is just the thing to fix a case of dandruff.

How about if crazy Dr Woo is followed into disrepute by the whole shady gang of alt-med practitioners?

The little man in the television set

Jeffrey Shallit has an excellent post on the conceptual failure of creationists to grasp even the possibility of an absence of intent. You probably know the feeling — you are trying to explain some process in biology or chemistry, and your student is struggling to fit the story into his mental picture of molecules or cells with purpose and plan, and he can’t move on to the next stage of understanding until he sheds the preconception of intelligent guidance to the reaction or interaction. Shallit compares it to a poor confused tourist to a computer lab who can’t quite figure out where the people doing the drawings on the graphic screens are.

And then he discusses an Intelligent Design blog, which makes the tourist look like a genius.

A cure for the priesthood’s problems

At last, this sounds like a practical solution:

In an open letter, the girlfriends of more than 40 priests have called for a relaxation of the church’s stance on celibacy to allow a limited range of sexual practices, including the reverse Dutch Steamboat, the Stockholm Slip’n’Slide and the Sorcerer’s Apprentice.

There are more details at the link, but it is not recommended if you are not in a raunch-friendly environment.

Stupid poll

So, Greta Van Susteren, Fox News babbler, got some hate mail telling her how stupid she is. Instead of just chucking it in the trash, or simply making fun of it (the guy made a spelling error, of course), she had to go out of her way to demonstrate that maybe the fellow was right. How? She turned it into an online poll, asking who was dumber, Brian or Greta. The fact that she used a poll made the answer obvious.

Who is dumber?

Greta? 73%
Brian for spending his time watching someone he thinks is dumb 27%

You can see how it is going. Pile on if you want.

I can’t believe she did that. I know that if I ran a poll asking, “Is PZ a poopyhead?”, the yes votes would run ahead of the no votes at least 10 to 1. Is she really that clueless about the nature of the internet beast?

Oh, the inanity! The Dalai Lama and Francisco Ayala vie to be most vacuous

It’s been a great week for vapid defenses of religion…at least for atheists, that is. It’s been a sad week for the godly, given that their paladins are all such flabby purveyors of tepid tea.

First up, let us consider the Dalai Lama, revered all around the world because he’s such a nice guy and is always smiling — and I agree that he is an awfully nice fellow, considering that he’s the representative of a medieval theocracy. He has an op-ed in the NY Times, sadly, which reveals that behind his happy face is a bubble of confused cortex. Anthony Grayling has already dealt with the core of his argument, that the many faiths are all facets of one truth, which is ragingly dishonest. The only equality between them is their entirely comparable falsehood — while there are relatively few ways to answer a question correctly, there is endless diversity in error, and that’s all we’re seeing…swarms of priests vigorously asserting that their weird and substanceless take on the universe is the one truth. And no, you aren’t going to arrive at the truth by splitting the difference between the inmates of an asylum.

I want to focus on one other assertion the Dalai Lama made. What is the central core of all religions? Compassion. I disagree, of course, since the religions I get hammered with day after day here in the US are all militant, evangelical, aggressively hegemonical faiths, and compassion isn’t what you see if you are confronted by them. Even their putative compassionate outreach in such things as missionary work are often attempts at cultural conquest. That compassion business is just a tool to win over minds for the Lord/Prophet/Messiah/Cult.

But also…what is uniquely religious about compassion? I don’t have to be a Muslim to give to the poor, I don’t have to be a Christian to abstain from excess. You don’t have to believe in ghosts to be kind, and what Tenzin Gyatso is doing is more of that hegemonical impulse — he’s seen something he likes, so he rushes to land on it and plant the sacred flag of religion on it, declaring this the property of all the holy people of the world…without noticing all us pagans and infidels already occupying it. Lama go home! We don’t need you, or your pious ilk!

Then there’s that fellow Francisco Ayala, who apparently has been emboldened by that generous Templeton Prize to babble vacuously and frequently. He has two pieces out. The first is in Standpoint, some rag affiliated with the ghastly Social Affairs Unit. Does Ayala know this is the kind of magazine that will blithely claim that “Evolution describes a linear progression from the amino acid to man of inevitable increasing complexity”, and publishes apologists for Intelligent Design creationism like Steve Fuller? At least his drivel is in good company. I was primed with contempt by the first two lines of the article.

Can one believe in evolution and God? Some people of faith and some scientists agree: “No.” They are wrong.

Strawmanning already? That’s what someone like Ken Ham says, all right, but that’s not what the pesky New Atheists have been saying at all. Of course you can believe in evolution and gods. People are not either 100% right or 100% wrong, but can actually be right about one thing and wrong about another. Shocking, I know. It seems to be news to Francisco Ayala, though!

The rest is pure noise in which he mentions internal contradictions within the Bible, but excuses them as irrelevant, and mentions other erroneous factual statements about the world, but says it is OK because the Bible is not a science textbook, and the authors did not intend to accurately describe the natural world. He recites the usual cliches about how it’s a book that is supposed to teach us how to live, how to get to heaven, and the purpose of your life. Which, of course, makes it worse. Has Ayala read that book? It’s a cacophony of vileness, with god’s chosen people raping and murdering for their land, god going off into peevish snits in which he tortures and massacres people, and your purpose is to win a place as god’s eternal slave in a ‘paradise’ where you will spend all your time praising the supreme tyrant. It’s a horror.

And Ayala wants to draft science to prop up god’s evil regime. The problem of evil is no problem for god, because it’s all evolution’s fault!

Evolution is not the enemy of religion but, rather, it can be its friend, because it accounts for disease, death, and the dysfunctions and cruelties of living organisms as the result of natural processes, not as the specific design of God. The God of revelation and of faith is a God of love and mercy, and of wisdom.

So if I choose to force you to slave for me and follow my orders with a whip and a gun, I still get to be the good guy, because it isn’t me doing all the harm — it’s my weapons. I love my weapons, they are my great good friend, taking all the blame and still allowing me to reap the fruits of my methods.

So is Ayala claiming that evolution is not a product of god’s actions? Or is he just a goddamned dimwitted airhead?

Ayala’s second article is just as bad. What he claims is that religion has nothing to do with science — and vice versa. It’s that tired old NOMA garbage, with none of the graceful language of SJ Gould to soften me up. It’s simply a series of repeated assertions that science is excluded from decisions about values or meaning, while religion is excluded from saying anything about the natural world, and he allows absolutely no overlap between the two. Ayala’s Venn diagram of the universe is rectangle labeled “everything” with a square labeled “science” filling up the left half and another labeled “religion” occupying the right.

It’s absurd and dishonest because we know that religion makes claims about the natural world — it’s right there in the fabric of the institution of religion, which tells us how we material beings are supposed to act, where we came from, and where we’re going to go when we die. Ayala has to rewrite history to say that “Religion has nothing definitive to say about these natural processes” when the religious themselves babble constantly about how every event from the trivial score fo a football game to the cosmic supernovae are evidence of the hand of their god. Somehow, religion is allowed to claim that we have a purpose in our life (life: it’s a natural process, you know, something supposedly in the domain of science), but science may not, despite the fact that we’ve got a good look at our history and the mechanisms and the drives of life, and can say fairly strongly that there is no evidence of an external driver pushing us along.

Now let us admit that in one respect, he’s right. Science isn’t everything. We don’t use science to appreciate a piece of art (although, fundamentally, it is a material object and our brains are similarly natural); we don’t break out beakers and bunsen burners to determine if we’ve fallen in love; calculators have limited utility in writing poetry. That’s fine, but it doesn’t mean that religion fills in all the spaces! I don’t consult a priest to find out what I think of a painting, prayer has bugger-all to do with love, and there is better poetry in the world than what we find in holy books. You don’t get to simply assume that if science does something poorly, religion must do it well, and that the universe has to be neatly divvied up into these two mutually exclusive domains.

We already know that science does its job well, and even Airhead Ayala would agree with that. We can talk about and measure expertise in manipulating and examining the natural world.

What about religion’s “domain”, values and purpose and its insight into a supernatural world?

It’s all bullshit. There is no evidence, no reason to believe in a supernatural world at all; priests are no better than John Edward or James van Praagh at letting us see this hypothetical after-life, and are just as patently ridiculous. There is no agreement among all the religions, each claiming greater authority than all the others, on what our purpose is, other than the self-serving one of keeping the clergy prosperous. As for values: are homosexuals to be stoned, or treated as equals? Which is more important, the woman or her fetus? What foods are unclean and an abomination unto god? When the foreskin is lopped off, is that mandatory or a defilement of the temple of the human body? Are you allowed to mow your lawn on Sunday? Or on Saturday?

Ayala assumes and asserts and demands that we privilege religion as the final arbiter of those kinds of decisions. As far as I can see, though, there are no good reasons why believing in reincarnation or witches or angels or omnipotent phantasmal overlords makes one better qualified to decide what is right or good for people…to the contrary, it seems to me that such lunacy proudly declared shows that the believers are the wrong people to make real decisions.

I’m embarrassed for Ayala, and my opinion of the guy is spiralling down fast. His entire essay is an exercise in making a false dichotomy and proposing a supernatural, superstitious authority that he doesn’t even try to defend rationally. I guess this is what happens when the Templeton Foundation buys off your integrity.

Catholic teachers are strongly discouraged from thinking

There are no atheists allowed in Catholic schools.

A teacher at a Catholic HS in Iowa was fired because she answered a poll about personal beliefs in a way her employer didn’t like. Apparently, Abby Nurre was surfing around Facebook last summer (before she started her job at the Catholic school) and decided to answer a poll question she found. The poll asked whether she believed in God, angels or miracles – she answered “no”.

Now she’s out of a job because, as the school board put it, she violated “a policy that prohibits employees from advocating principles contrary to the dogmatic and moral teaching of the church.”

That’s a rather low threshold they’ve got — clicking on a poll is now “advocating”? I wonder if pharyngulating is a venial or a mortal sin…