Texas: Our bold leader into the Future!

For many years now, Texas has been carrying out a great experiment: they’ve been pursuing Republican policies to a far greater degree than other states, and Texas is therefore a little glimpse into the American future, if we continue as we have. And that future seems prosperous, with a strong pro-business environment fostered by a government that would do anything to help a millionaire.

So why don’t I want to live in that future?

It turns out that the price Texas pays to prop up business is paid for with the dreams of children. Happy corporate income reports are gouged out of the next generation’s potential for prosperity.

“A sick, uneducated, unskilled work force does not propel a state forward,” Garcia writes in the report’s preface. “The devastating forecasts depict a Texas that few of us would want to visit, let alone call home.”

The bi-annual Texas legislative session opened this month to news of an estimated $27 billion budget shortfall. But even before legislators took their seats in the capitol, Texas lagged every other state in per-capita spending. Before considering budget-cutting proposals, Texas also ranked 50th among states in health care coverage for children, mental health services for children with diagnosed challenges, preventing childhood homelessness, preventing childhood food insecurity, and preventing obesity among adolescent girls, according to the report.

The cumulative impact of previous budget cuts has put Texas children behind the rest of the nation. When compared to children in the rest of the U.S., a Texas child is 93 percent more likely not to have access to health care, 33 percent more likely not to receive mental health care services, 35 percent more likely to grow up poor, and 16 percent more likely to drop out of school. Given that Texas is not a poor state — its citizens’ median wealth ranks 27th out of 50 — the dire status of its children is all the more startling.

Texas ranks third among the seven worst states in overall child well-being, according to the advocacy organization Every Child Matters; the other six states are the nation’s poorest.

In the area of child protection — a fundamental measurement of child well-being — Texas ranks last again. In the last decade, more children in Texas than in any other state have died as a result of abuse or neglect. The state invests far less in prevention than it does in child welfare services, which are provided after the abuse or neglect has been identified.

I’m glad to hear your banks are doing well, Texas; it’s too bad the kids are dying or lacking education, and that your economic well-being isn’t benefiting the actual people living in your state, but if the blood and sweat of of the people is needed to grease the Happy Fun Slide of bidness, well, that’s what it takes.

You can read the full report here.

A death in Uganda

Uganda is currently undergoing conflict over civil rights: a number of influential Christians in the country, under the influence of American evangelicals like Scott Lively and Rick Warren, have been pushing to have homosexuality condemned and people who love other people of the same sex arrested or executed. It’s an ugly place where the dreams of the Christian right are actually being realized, but of course our evangelical leaders are denying their responsibility. Just last night on CNN I caught a bit of a nauseating interview with Joel Osteen, the smirking prosperity gospel pitchman, and he came right out and smilingly declared homosexuality a sin…but his wife just loves Elton John, so it’s all OK. Rick Warren is also similarly a moral coward who will happily trigger the landslide, but refuses to involve himself in the consequences.

But Warren won’t go so far as to condemn the legislation itself. A request for a broader reaction to the proposed Ugandan anti-homosexual laws generated this response: “The fundamental dignity of every person, our right to be free, and the freedom to make moral choices are gifts endowed by God, our creator. However, it is not my personal calling as a pastor in America to comment or interfere in the political process of other nations.” On Meet the Press this morning, he reiterated this neutral stance in a different context: “As a pastor, my job is to encourage, to support. I never take sides.” Warren did say he believed that abortion was “a holocaust.” He knows as well as anyone that in a case of great wrong, taking sides is an important thing to do.

Our good, kind, sinner-loving, sin-hating Christianist monsters have more blood on their hands now. David Kato, a Ugandan civil rights leader who fought for tolerance for gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered people, has been beaten to death. This event followed after many death threats, and after the publication of a hit list in a local magazine.

The fight against the bill has also pushed Ugandan activists to the fore, raising concern for their privacy and safety. These deepened in late 2010 when a local tabloid called Rolling Stone, unconnected to the US magazine, published pictures, names, and residence locations of some members of the LGBT community, along with a headline saying, “Hang Them.” Kato’s photo appeared on the cover, and inside another photo appeared with his name.

Couple religious certainty and an atmosphere in which religious leaders are assuring everyone that certain people are less than human, damned, or criminal, and this is what you get: vigilante injustice. And Uganda loses another force for justice and humanity.

Television alert!

According to Ken Ham, he will be appearing on Anderson Cooper tonight (10pm (9 Central time) on CNN), along with Barry Lynn of Americans United. It sounds a little odd — the day after the state of the union address, they bring on a creationist kook? — and they don’t say exactly what the topic is, although we can probably guess.

Ham is asking for prayers. They won’t help him much against Lynn, who is simply an awesome speaker. It could be fine entertainment.

Actually, prayers wouldn’t help him much if his opponent was Big Bird, either.

Barry Lynn was excellent, but then he always is. The best moment for me was after Lynn stated that what Ham was doing was getting subsidies for a ministry, Cooper turned to Ham and simply asked, “Are you trying to convert people?” Of course he is, but Ham can’t be honest about his intent, so he gulped and went into his spiel about how the Ark Encounter is run by a shell company as a for-profit endeavor. He didn’t answer the question at all.

And isn’t this game of separating the profit-making part of the park into a separate company rather devious? The profits will just go to Answers in Genesis, anyway.

Now you can watch it yourself if you missed it:

I get email

At the end of February, I’ve mentioned that a flack from Answers in Genesis will be appearing in Morris. I guess the local hosts of that event are a little worried that I might breathe fire over their little church, so they just sent me a note.

Professor Myers,

I am the local coordinator for the Answers in Genesis conference which will be held in Morris on Feb. 27 and 28 featuring Dr. Terry Mortenson. I realize that there is a lot of real estate between our opinions on this subject. My hope is that we create a respectful discussion about this issue which will be challenging.

I would like to meet with you, at your convenience, to discuss the conference, the schedule, and how we can make it a positive experience for all members of our community.

How odd and annoying. I’ve attended creationist events in town before, and they should know by now that I don’t cause grief, at least not during the talks. So I wrote this back to him. I always believe in being honest and straightforward with people, even creationists.

Hmmm. Well. I can guarantee you that I and the people I will be bringing along to the event will be quiet, polite, and entirely non-disruptive; we’ll do nothing but observe, take note, and possibly ask a few simple questions, and we’ll follow any restrictions you want to place on us. You can ask your friends at Answers in Genesis; I led a group of 300 students through the Creation Museum, and we did not run riot or create any real problems for the staff or other attendees. We’ll do the same here, although we definitely won’t have such a large contingent this time around.

But I have to be honest with you: there will be no respect for this nonsense, and I do not consider bringing in dishonest incompetents to miseducate and misrepresent science to be a positive experience for our community. We will respect your right to have discussions of this sort and will in no way impede your ability to present creationist dogma to your audience, but I will not agree in any way with any of it, and once I step away from your church grounds you can expect that my criticisms will be thorough and fiery and will not include any pretense of respect for Answers in Genesis or the Morris Evangelical Free Church.

I don’t quite see the point of meeting. You know my position, and I know yours and Terry Mortenson’s. It is your event and I do not expect any accommodation for actual, honest science in it, nor do I demand it. Since I have promised that I will create no obstacles to your agenda, there really isn’t any good reason to discuss anything about it.

I hope they weren’t misled by my prior instances of polite behavior into somehow thinking I’m nice, or something.

Hey, maybe Taco Bell is edible after all

At least they’re going in the right direction: Taco Bell is being sued because their meat is mostly non-meat.

The “seasoned ground beef” contains less than 35 percent beef – the other 65 percent of the meat-like mixture is: water, isolated oat product, salt, chili pepper, onion powder, tomato powder, oats (wheat), soy lecithin, sugar, spices, maltodextrin, soybean oil (anti-dusting agent), garlic powder, autolyzed yeast extract, citric acid, caramel color, cocoa powder (processed with alkali), silicon dioxide (anti-caking agent), natural flavors, yeast, modified corn starch, natural smoke flavor, salt, sodium phosphate, less than 2% of beef broth, potassium phosphate and potassium lactate.

The only thing I find objectionable about that is the 35% beef — if they could get that down to 0% I might be tempted to try their food someday.

And doesn’t this just show, since people were happily eating that stuff before, that vegetarian foods aren’t necessarily objectionable?

Substance over sweetness — another New Atheist critique gone askew

Another of those common, erroneous strategies used to criticize those danged Gnu Atheists is to first invent a definition for New Atheism that the Gnu Atheists themselves would find foreign, and then to jump all over it for a prolonged period of time until they’ve convinced themselves they’ve finally defeated their nemesis. It’s the cardboard cutout tactic — it turns out that cardboard versions of us put up much less of a fight than the real thing.

I’m afraid Stephen Asma has committed the same error. He has written a long, meandering essay that accuses the New Atheists of having a narrow worldview because, he thinks, all we know about is Christianity and Islam. What about Buddhism, he asks, or animism? And then he does tell us some interesting things about Buddhism and animism, but they’re all entirely irrelevant, because he has completely missed the point.

Asma errs by thinking he has encapsulated the Gnu Atheists as people who reject Christianity and Islam because they do a poor job of explaining nature and guiding morality, and that therefore he can make a case for the inadequacy of that atheism by showing that there are other religions that do not consider explaining and moralizing to be their primary duties: Buddhism, for instance, is about finding psychological contentment, while animism is a reflection of mankind’s helplessness and lack of control. We could argue about those characterizations — Asma admits that Buddhism as practiced has supernatural and ritual elements, too, for instance — but let’s not, for now. I want to argue with his narrow and erroneous worldview of what a Gnu Atheist is.

Gnu atheism is not simply about what isn’t. Our views do find expression in specific criticisms of specific faiths, but those are just the epiphenomena of a deeper set of positive values that Asma completely misses. Certainly I will make moral arguments against religious pathologies — Catholic priests raping children is bad — and I will judge beliefs by the foolishness of their explanations — creationist dogma is utterly absurd. But to say that is the guiding philosophy of atheism is to mistake the actions for the cause. I have one simple question you can ask of any religion, whether it’s animism or Catholicism, that will allow you to determine the Gnu Atheist position on it.

Is it true?

I’ve told people this many times. The Gnu Atheism is a positive movement that emphasizes the truth of a claim as paramount; it is our number one value. This is why you’re finding so many scientists who consider themselves in this movement — it’s because that’s how we’re trained to think about hypotheses. Also, because there are many scientists and philosophers behind this idea, I should also emphasize that we’re also well aware that “truth” is not some magic absolute, but something we can only approach by trial and error, and that truth is something you have to work towards, not simply accept dogmatically as given by some unquestionable source…which is another difference between us and religion. A scientific truth is more complex than a colloquial truth, it’s requirements being that it is free of contradiction with logic and reality and supported by reason and evidence.

Asma’s big mistake is assuming that our central question is, “Is it good for us?”, which leads him into all these pointless anecdotes about how praying makes him feel better, and how animism helps impoverished people cope with their circumstances. I don’t care if religion makes someone feel better. Stacking illusions over a grim reality does not turn it sweet. I have my anecdotes, too; I remember the tragedy of my little sister’s death a few years ago, and how I sat through a funeral in which the preacher declared with absolute certainty that she was in heaven, and all I felt was anger. Lies do not make me feel better. There is no consolation in fantasy. You can sugar-coat the truth as much as you want, you can make up extravagant stories of my sister living in constant joy and rapture, frolicking with lambs and puppy dogs in fields of sweet clover while angels on gentle zephyrs sing to her, and it would not give me one instant of comfort. I do not lie to myself, and other people lying to me under the delusion that it will make me happier I find unconscionable.

Seriously, it’s worse than that. I despise people who try to swaddle truth with lies in the name of consolation. It kills ambition, the striving to make the world better in the future, and it can allow evil to lurk unchecked. Those child-raping priests persisted because people lied to themselves, telling themselves that no man of god could do something so heinous…and even when finally exposed and removed, they continued to live in denial, reassuring each other that the institution that protected those vipers really was a force for good, overall.

So Asma is barking up the wrong tree when he thinks this is the relevant question:

So how do we discriminate between dangerous and benign religions? That is the more fruitful question, because it invites the other world religions into the discussion. Both the developed and the developing worlds can profitably examine their unique belief systems in light of larger human values. Like Harris et al., I agree that we should employ the usual criteria of experience to make the necessary discriminations. Religious ideas that encourage dehumanization, violence, and factionalism should be reformed or diminished, while those that humanize, console, and inspire should be fostered.

He really doesn’t get it. He could show me a religion that is nothing but sweetness and light, happiness and good thoughts and equality for all, and it wouldn’t matter: the one question I would ask is, “Is it true?” It wouldn’t matter if he could show empirically that adopting this hypothetical faith leads to world peace, the voluntary abolishment of crime, the disappearance of dental caries, and that every child on the planet would get their very own pony — I’d still battle it with every fierce and angry word I could speak and type if it wasn’t also shown to be a true and accurate description of the world. Some of us, at least, will refuse to drink the Kool-Aid, no matter how much sugar they put in it.

It is also the case that every religion describes itself as benign. Ask the true believers in even the most hateful, violent faiths, and they will all say they are workin for the betterment of their people. Women like wearing burkas, they will say, and they’re happier when liberated from civic responsibilities, like voting, or doing a man’s job.

Asma does go on at length about the virtues of animism in the third world, where it is a coping mechanism to live with difficult lives and high-risk environments, but I think he’s also wearing those rosy glasses that transmit lies to his nervous system. It makes them happier, he claims, but African animists still die of starvation, thirst, and disease, and African animists are using their faiths to accuse children of witchcraft to justify setting them on fire, or butchering unfortunate albinos to use their body parts in magical rituals. So even his examples of a benign religion don’t hold up unless we close our eyes to much of what’s done in their name.

Asma concludes with a typical unsupported plea; atheism’s “proponents need to have a more nuanced and global understanding of religion.” No, we don’t. Show us that it’s true, first, and then we can talk about nuance, and implementation, and consequences. Telling us how it makes some people feel good doesn’t even begin to address our core objections.

That’s our Michele

I didn’t vote for her. I still feel embarrassed for the whole state of Minnesota that Michele Bachmann represents us in congress. This is a woman who worships the constitution but has no idea what’s in it.

I was just listening to the president’s state of the union address, and getting very annoyed at all the obnoxious lip service paid to bipartisanship…when the Republicans have put up this moron to argue against Obama after his speech.

She’s not the Republican representative. She’s the official Tea Party representative.

Wait, what? Since when did the Tea Party acquire the credibility to share equal time with Republicans?

Oh, well…here’s more schadenfreude for you. Watch Sal Russo, some teabagger bigwig, get ripped apart over Bachmann’s performance.

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

How to game Google Scholar

I’ve heard back from a few people now who contacted Google about the issue of indexing creationist sites in Google Scholar; these are informal remarks from the team, not an official policy statement, but they’re still interesting. And revealing. And useful. They’ll change your perspective on Google Scholar.

The premise of the petition to Google to stop serving up creationist claptrap is a misconception. Google Scholar does not index on content; it can’t, it’s just a dumb machine sorting text. Google Scholar does not, and this is the surprise to me, index on the source — it makes no decision based on whether it’s an article from Nature or from a kindergarten Sunday School class fieldtrip. There’s nothing they can easily tweak to exclude garbage from one source and include jewels from another: the internet is one big garbage heap to Google, and they’ll dig for you, but it’s your job to sort gems from trash.

The way items get on Google Scholar is based entirely on whether they’re formatted like a scholarly paper. They aren’t sharing the details, but it has to be fairly general stuff, like having a title and author and not being surround by advertising bric-a-brac, or whatever. Any ol’ nonsense will do, since they don’t evaluate content, and any ol’ author will also do, since they don’t care if it’s being published by the university or the insane asylum, just make it look sort of like a serious paper, and it will show up.

And now you know how Answers in Genesis can find their twaddle on Google Scholar. If there’s anything they’re good at, it’s pretending to be scientific, going through the motions while demolishing the substance. This is good information to have, actually, and you should pass it on to your students, and take it into account when using the service.