A totally futile poll

Here’s a silly poll from Eric Hovind, and we know from experience how it will go: if he doesn’t like the results, he’ll jigger everything around until he gets what he wants. Make him dance anyway.

How do we know God exists?

Without Him we can’t know anything 47%
Um…He doesn’t 35%
Examined evidence 18%

Hovind hasn’t juggled the contents of the poll around (yet), but he has snuck in a redirect to take you away from it. When you follow the link, you’ll end up on a page without the poll; to get to it, either go to the home page for the site, or just paste the address ” drdino.com ” directly into your browser.

Canada needs your help

Prime Minister Harper has come up with a bizarre goal: he thinks so highly of the US’s Fox News that he wants to create a similar propaganda organ up North. Incredible — isn’t Canada supposed to learn from our terrible mistakes?

Here’s an idea: sign this petition. It can’t hurt. But then, the plan was certifiably crazy from the beginning, so I don’t know how much a cry of horror will help. Is there also a petition to have Harper committed anywhere?

What is this abomination called knol?

I’d never heard of knol before, but apparently it was Google’s attempt at creating a competitor to Wikipedia. Wikipedia has its flaws, but wow, it was revealing to see the alternative: knol is awful.

It was brought to my attention because it is infested with woo. To see how bad it is, compare the answers to this question:

Does god exist? (wiki)

Does god exist? (knol)

The Wikipedia query returns a fairly objective article that lists various arguments that different faiths and philosophies have made. The knol query returns a
ghastly article by a creationist that actually uses the argument that if you shake the pieces of a broken watch, they’ll never spontaneously reassemble into a working watch. This isn’t a useful starting point for asking the question; it’s a pile of nonsense that misleads. Other articles returned are, for instance, sectarian testimonials by various churches.

Well, the story is that knol is young, it hasn’t developed a full knowledge base yet, but its supposed to be good for scientific and medical topics. So I gave it a shot, and searched for a familiar term of art, cell signaling, on both.

Cell signaling (wiki)
Cell signaling (knol)

Wikipedia returns a respectable summary article that gives a general overview, brings up some of the key terms, and gives examples. It would be a fine starting point for starting to look into the subject.

The knol search returns a hodge-podge of articles; the top link is to a grad student’s scan of part of a poster on signaling. It’s not at all useful. Otherwise, it’s a mix of fragments, mixed up with a few bits on how mobile phones work. It’s useless.

I tried to help the knol search a bit by adding a few other terms, but discovered that most of them just confused it worse; don’t ever try to include the word “protein”, for example, unless you’re really looking for fad diets.

Here’s the real test: I asked Wikipedia about knol, and knol about Wikipedia.

Knol (wiki)
Wikipedia (knol)

The Wikipedia article presents just the facts; knol returns yet another mess,
some of them OK, others are
incoherent tirades against Wikipedia.

This thing was announced in 2007, and it supposedly has been building up content for a few years. A link to it was sent to me because it really has become the domain of kooks and crazies and fringe ideas, I think with the idea that making it more widely known would help it acquire more credible contributors.

I don’t know. After looking it over, I think the best answer is…let it die. If google won’t do it the kindness of putting it out of its misery, just let it drown in its own toxic effluent.

“to qualify young men for the gallows, and young women for the brothel”

A reader, Sam, sent some fascinating excerpts from a court decision in 1824, Updegraph v. Commonwealth. It was a small case that prompted the judge to write a seventeen page furious rant, and reading it will make you realize what Glenn Beck’s America would like to return to — no, thanks, I wouldn’t like it.

This was a blasphemy trial. The guilty party (and yes, he was found guilty), had said this one terrible, awful, horrifying sentence:

“That the Holy Scriptures were a mere fable: That they were a contradiction, and that, although they contained a number of good things, yet they contained a great many lies.

Mild stuff, I know; much ruder things are said about the Bible here every day. Yet here in the judge’s summary is the context: this was a point made in a debating society, where I’d think such a discussion would be fair game, but here the judge rants that not only were such words far beyond the pale of civilized discussion, but that the purpose of such a group was “to qualify young men for the gallows, and young women for the brothel”.

This verdict excludes every thing like innocence of intention; it finds a malicious intention in the speaker to vilify the Christian Religion, and the Scriptures, and this court cannot look beyond the record… that the words were uttered by the defendant, a member of a debating association, which convened weekly for discussion and mutual information, and that the expressions were used in the course of argument on a religious question. That there is an association in which so serious a subject is treated with so much levity, indecency, and scurrility, existing in this city, I am sorry to hear, for it would prove a nursery of vice, a school of preparation to qualify young men for the gallows, and young women for the brothel, and there is not a skeptic of decent manners and good morals, who would not consider such debating clubs as a common nuisance and disgrace to the city. From the tenor of the words, it is impossible that they could be spoken seriously and conscientiously, in the discussion of a religious or theological topic; there is nothing of argument in the language; it was the out-pouring of an invective so vulgarly shocking and insulting, that the lowest grade of civil authority ought not to be subject to it, but when spoken in a Christian land, and to a Christian audience, the highest offence [harmful to the moral welfare of society]…

I feel sad that the judge is not alive today to witness the internet. I’m also curious about the circumstances of the arrest — did some Christian prig attend the debating society meeting and rush out in horror to call the police?

The judge had to act to prevent the erosion of moral restraints.

It is sometimes asked with a sneer, Why not leave it to Almighty God to revenge his own cause? Temporal courts do so leave it. ‘Bold and presumptuous would be the man who would attempt to arrest the thunder of heaven from the hand of God, and direct the bolts of vengeance where to fall.’ It is not on this principle courts act, but on the dangerous temporal consequences likely to proceed from the removal of religious and moral restraints…

And here’s a part that hasn’t changed a bit in 186 years:

…it is the purest system of morality, the firmest auxiliary, and only stable support of all human laws. It is impossible to administer the laws without taking the religion which the [defendant] has scoffed at, that Scripture which he has reviled, as their basis.

The only parts of the law that seem to be derived from Scripture are some of the more prudish laws restricting behavior on the Sabbath and, well, blasphemy laws. I think we can dispense with them all.

By the way, the accused was fined 5 shillings and court costs.

Gird your loins, everyone

Oh, my. Tony Blair seems to have declared war against us.

“We face an aggressive secular attack from without. We face the threat of extremism from within.”

Arguing that there was “no hope” from atheists who scorn God, he said the best way to confront the secularist agenda was for all faiths to unite against it.

He said: “Those who scorn God and those who do violence in God’s name, both represent views of religion. But both offer no hope for faith in the twenty first century.”

The spectacle of these pious phonies flailing against the secular agenda could be worth a giggle. “Down with secular public education! More revelation, less science! Get reason and evidence out of our politics!”

How does that loin-girding work, anyway? I keep confusing it with tying a tie and end up with this long dangly bit in front, and it just doesn’t look very rampant, if you know what I mean. Not that it matters much, since we’re going to battle with forces that have spurned secular methods and plan to pray at us or cast magic spells or something, but I’d like to at least look natty.

Colbert is on to us!

Quick, accelerate the campaign of world conquest before anyone else catches on.

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Aqua ThreatDown – Oyster Sluts, Japanese Hackers & Israeli Regulators<a>
Colbert Report Full Episodes 2010 Election Fox News

At least Colbert confesses to having an extensive collection of squid photographs. We could bond over that; perhaps we should bring him over to our side…?

What were they thinking?

Oh, no. Atheists are the arrogant ones, so how can this Irish Catholic write such pretentious nonsense?

Religion unleashes a boundless curiosity in us that elsewhere is afraid to reveal itself for fear of appearing naive.

Yeah, tell that to Galileo, Simplicio.

I guess freethinkers must lack that boundless curiosity — no godless questioners at the forefront of science, then. It’s also a strange sentiment to express in an article by a writer attending a Catholic meeting who asks no questions, reports no answers, and has nothing to offer except to cavil against all those non-believers who fail to see the world as awe-inspiring and mysterious. Oh, and that the answer to that feeling is to just “follow Christ”.

He also cites Flannery O’Connor:

Flannery O’Connor once said that if she had not been a Catholic, she would have had “no reason to write, no reason to see, no reason ever to feel horrified or even to enjoy anything”.

While she was a fascinating writer, I’d never hold up the fragile, sheltered, conservative O’Connor as an example of the liberating power of religion. And that quote, which is often made about her, is absurd — it’s the narrow-mindedness of a faith that can imagine no other, that shows a complete lack of empathy, which is peculiar in such a writer. Perhaps she’s personally limited, but I see no obstacle to non-Catholics having a reason to live.

This is another example of religious asymmetry. Atheists recognize intelligence, curiosity, generosity, charity, kindness, etc., as human traits, and find nothing odd in the fact that people everywhere, no matter what their faith, can express them. Far too many believers, however, ascribe virtues to their particular faith rather than to any universally human properties, which means they rather too easily manage to mentally strip people of other faiths or no faith at all of those virtues. We’re seeing it in action right now here in the US where teabagger-incited mobs are busily pretending that Muslims are all slavering hateful monsters who dream of killing their neighbors.

I owe Nicholas Humphrey an apology

When I critized Mary Midgley the other day for her sloppy critique of Nicholas Humphrey, I also pointed out that Humphrey had apparently indulged in some unfortunate hyperbole himself, saying “So successful has it been that many scientists would now say, and even fear, that there will soon be little left for them to do.” Which is patently ridiculous, of course: every scientist I know is painfully aware of all the stuff that they don’t know.

What I didn’t take into account was that Midgley might have quote-mined him. I shouldn’t have underestimated a woman who can discern the entire content of a book from a glance at the title! Humphrey has sent a letter to the Guardian pointing out a few specific problems with Midgley’s article. It hasn’t been published yet, but here it is anyway:

Mary Midgley has been attacking me in the Guardian for twenty five years or more. But her latest piece (Face to Faith, 28th August) takes the biscuit for misrepresentation. She quotes passages from my 1994 book Soul Searching about how science has sometimes claimed to be able to provide “a sufficient explanation for everything”. What she fails to say is that in these passages I was describing how things looked to over-ambitious natural philosophers at the end of the 18th century, and how this set the stage for a romantic reaction and in particular for spiritualism and psychical research.

She goes on to say that, rather than trying to provide a scientific solution to the mind-body problem we should be trying “to understand the relation between our inner and outer life . . . and how to face life as a whole”. If she had been paying attention she might have noticed that in my own more more recent writings, such as Seeing Red (2006), I have begun to argue that the solution to the mind-body problem lies in the very mysteriousness of consciousness and how this changes our world-view. Since she has quoted at such length from a book I wrote 17 years ago, let me answer with these words from the cover of my new book Soul Dust (Quercus, forthcoming): “Humphrey returns to the front-line with a startling new theory. Consciousness, he argues, is nothing less than a magical-mystery show that we stage for ourselves inside our own heads. This self-made show lights up the world for us and makes us feel special and transcendant. Thus consciousness paves the way for spirituality, and allows us, as human beings, to reap the rewards, and anxieties, of living in what Humphrey calls the ‘soul niche’.”

I’m making a mental note to treat everything I see coming from Midgley with even more doubt and cynicism in the future.