Ireland: victim no more

It’s as if the media is finally getting it right and timing the news to match the World Atheist Convention in Dublin with stories that show why we must oppose religion. The New York Times tells the story of the Magdalene laundries, in which 30,000 women were used as slave labor (and victims of abuse) to profit the Catholic church. Representatives of the victims are going before the UN to request justice, or at least some sort of rebuke of the church. Somehow, I doubt that they’ll get it — there are a lot of factions squabbling in the UN, and many of them defend religion and care little for women. But we’ll see.

Also, a documentary has been broadcast in Ireland (but it’s also available on the web) describing the horrific abuse of African children by Irish Catholic missionaries. One of the perks of being a missionary in Africa was that one could pick up a young boy or girl for cheap — promise them a path out of grinding poverty, and an education, for instance — and have a live-in sexual servant for the duration of their stay. Don’t watch it if you’re sensitive to personal stories of abuse: they interview many of the victims, who are broken and ashamed and overwhelmed by the betrayals of the church.

Another curious aspect of the story is the dates. The recent Catholic-commissioned John Jay report on Catholic sexual abuses pinned the blame on the hippies and the attitudes towards casual sex of the 60s and 70s (which makes no sense: pedophilia and child rape are not about love). They claim that there was a peak of such abberant behavior that coincided with that period, and that it has declined since. But this report discusses vileness that was being perpetrated in the 80s and 90s.

It sounds to me like the decline wasn’t real. It was just the Catholic church becoming aware of a major PR disaster, and shipping their child-rapin’ priests off to places like Africa and India, or to the Inuit of Canada, where they could destroy the lives of people who didn’t matter…that is, people who didn’t have access to lawyers and the media.

The Barnum principle

Johan Huibers, the owner of a construction company in the Netherlands, is way ahead of Ken Ham. He has actually begun construction of a replica of Noah’s Ark, and his even floats—although he accomplishes that by cheating, building his ark as a wooden superstructure on top of an array of bolted-together steel barges.

The revealing factoid about this crank, though, is this:

Actually, this ark is not the first that Mr. Huibers has built. He first began dreaming of an ark in 1992, shortly after a heavy storm lashed the coastal region north of Amsterdam where he lives. His wife, Bianca, a police officer, opposed the idea.

“She said no, but by 2004 I had built a smaller ark, 225 feet long, to sail through the Dutch canals,” he said. It became a minor sensation. He charged adult visitors $7 to board it.

“More than 600,000 people came, in about three years,” he said. He said he made about $3.5 million, enough to clear a profit of $1.2 million.

Crazy pays, and there is a sucker born every minute.

Oh, no! Another outbreak of Mooneyitis!

I’ll be brief. I’m sure you all find these things as tiresome as I do. Once again, we’ve got a couple of indignant wanna-be bureaucrats of atheism complaining about those cranky, rough-hewn gnu atheists. Chris Stedman and Karla McLaren are shocked that people don’t realize their hectoring is good for the movement. So they whine about how everyone is mean to them.

In this past year, a sociologically fascinating “many approaches” meme has permeated the atheist and skeptical movements. Increasingly, anyone who questions the fiercely uncivil and polemical discourse style will be upbraided with some version of the “many approaches are necessary, so don’t muzzle the movement” meme.

In this meme, however, fierce approaches are actually the only approaches being protected. Moderating approaches such as mine, which are pejoratively dismissed as accommodationist, are explicitly not protected by this meme.

This “many approaches” meme isn’t just being used laterally to shame and stifle peers in comment threads; it is also being used from the top down by elders and authority figures to silence the moderating requests of fellow atheists and skeptics. Wow. That’s a powerful meme!

I personally favor that “many approaches” strategy, since it’s the only one that will work, and the only one that we can possibly have as a loose coalition of diverse voices. Karla McLaren can no more be the authoritarian dictator of how atheists should behave than I can.

Her complaint gives her away. Nobody is complaining about McLaren and Stedman being nice — I encourage them to be as nice as they possibly can, and go forth and win the citizenry over to the side of reason with the effulgent power of goodness! And I’m one of those mean, cranky atheists, so you know I’m not going to follow suit and claim their victories as my own.

No, what is annoying everyone is that, rather than practicing what they preach, they choose instead to nag every other atheist to conform to their style: she “questions the fiercely uncivil and polemical discourse style” of others, which is a comment that is uncivil and polemical in itself, and she makes “moderating requests of fellow atheists and skeptics”. Well now, who appointed her boss? She isn’t being criticized for being nice, she’s being upbraided for appointing herself God of Manners.

And she’s wrong that it is a meme that is only used to slap down accommodationists. If I started berating Stedman and those other soppy interfaith wankers that they can’t do that, they have to start being meaner and harsher, then everyone would come down on me, too, for being dictatorial. The catch is, unfortunately, that accommodationists tend to be a prissy bunch who seem to spend more time whining at atheists who don’t follow their lead, than they do actually trying to use their appeasing strategies to win people over to rationality.

Enough. You want more, Ophelia Benson has been raking them over the coals, and the commenter Rieux has just been tearing things up entertainingly.

I am lectured in logic by a man who believes in invisible magic men in the sky

Rabbi Moshe Averick asks, “Seriously, Aren’t Atheists Embarrassed by P.Z. Myers?

Seriously, aren’t you? What’s the matter with you people?

What prompts his outrage is his discovery of a lecture I gave some time back on the complexity argument from intelligent design creationists. He is appalled at my total lack of logic! Unfortunately for him, his misconceptions arise because he makes some unwarranted leaps about what I was saying.

He specifically objects to the fact that I showed a slide of a wall of driftwood at a beach, and that I explained that it had accumulated by chance and the properties of wind and water along the shoreline…and then I stated that it was very, very complex. And it is! Rabbi Averick is deeply incensed by this. I think you’ll spot his logical error in the second sentence of this paragraph from the rabbi’s rant:

To be honest, when I saw this lecture for the first time, I thought Myers was joking. A pile of driftwood as being analogous to the “complexity” of a living cell?! Myers is arguing that since a “complex” and “complicated” pile of driftwood can accumulate through an undirected natural process, so can a living cell. I guess if by “complexity” you mean a chaotic collection of junk, then I would have to agree; a large pile of driftwood is certainly “complex.” In any case, no self-respecting ID theorist would ever use the term “complexity.” The terms that are always used are “functional complexity” or “specified complexity.” In other words, complexity that achieves some pre-determined goal, complexity that clearly functions towards a specific purpose. The argument is that “functional complexity” and “specified complexity” clearly are the result of intelligent intervention. A pile of driftwood is immediately recognizable for exactly what it is; a random, disorganized, purposeless collection of…well, driftwood! To describe this argument as flawed logic would be misleading; we first would have to dignify it by labeling it as some form of logic in the first place. It is not flawed logic, it is simply ridiculous.

Nowhere in that talk do I claim that a pile of driftwood is analogous to a cell. I think there’s a rather huge difference between a cell and a pile of debris; one replicates and is therefore subject to iterative natural selection, and the other doesn’t. I was making a different point. I have been giving a similar talk lately, and in that I have added another slide that might help clarify the logic he’s missing. I show this:


Recognize it? It’s only one of the most well known corporate logos in the world, the Nike swoosh. It’s very, very simple, and it’s also most definitely designed. No getting around it; a graphic designer sat down and designed that simple swooshing logo.

Is it clearer now? We have complicated things that are not designed, and we have simple things that are designed. We also have complicated things that are designed, and simple things that are not. The message you should take away from these examples is that complexity and design are independent properties of an object. One does not imply the other. You cannot determine whether something was designed by looking at whether it is complicated or not.

Yet as we see just about every time some clueless creationist, like Rabbi Averick, starts bellowing about design, we see the same blithe assumption: they look at a cell, they say “gosh, O Lord, it’s really, really complicated”, and then they start blithering about how it must have been designed. The two are not connected!

Also familiar, I’m afraid, is the usual indignant waffling about it being “specified complexity”. I have read Dembski, who uses the term. I have read Meyer, who practically spews the phrase out on every single page of his book, Signature in the Cell. I have never seen it operationally defined.

I had to read Meyer’s godawful book twice, because I couldn’t believe he failed to do something so fundamental; the second time I was looking carefully for any discussion of what “specified complexity” means, or how to measure it. Here is the closest he comes:

The term specified complexity is, therefore, a synonym for specified information or information content.

Oh, yes. That is so helpful. He equates complexity with information content, but the mystery word here is “specified” — how do we determine that? None of these clowns has a clue.

Forget about the complexity part; that’s irrelevant, and has nothing to do with whether something is designed. The problematic issue is whether something, complex or simple, was specified — which, alas, is a modifier for which you can freely substitute “designed” in all of the creationist literature, which means that all they are arguing is that designed things are designed.

To which I ask, “How do you know that is specified, or designed?”

To which they reply, “Because it’s awesomely complicated.”

Go back to line 1. Repeat endlessly.

I’m going to have to have a little talk with my mom

I didn’t get the right leg up on my financial situation from my mother. If she’d done her job right, I might be in Bristol Palin’s situation. Bristol Palin, famous for being the daughter of a wackaloon politician and nothing else, was signed on to be the public spokesperson for a foundation advocating abstinence-only sex education (which is already ironic, given that the most attention Bristol otherwise got was for getting pregnant out of marriage). We now have the financial statements from that organization. We can lay out the big picture simply.

Bristol Palin’s salary: $262,500

Advertising: $165,000

Actual health and counseling clinics: $35,000

On second thought, maybe Mom did raise me right. I’m not a bloated parasite sucking up a fat salary at the expense of desperate teenagers.

An ugly pointless poll

It’s become standard in the US for polling places (real polling places, not the online kind) to hand out little “I voted” stickers after you’ve made your contribution. This is a totally meaningless act; the stickers aren’t used to actually track who has voted or not, they’re just there to make you feel good and allow you to display to everyone you meet that you’ve done your civic duty.

Unfortunately, when the bureaucracy gets their hands on this trivial little detail, they can’t leave it alone. It’s got to be made more elaborate; it’s got to become an ideological statement. So the state of Ohio is running an online poll to determine the design of these stupid little stickers. They have six designs to choose from, varying in quality from clunky to hideous, and two of them contain the bizarrely inappropriate message, “With god all things are possible”.

So far, the leader is choice #3, with 38.8% of the vote, and fortunately it does not contain the religious message. Instead, it says “I <map of Ohio> VOTING”, which doesn’t even make sense, but it says something that it is probably the simplest and cleanest and most comprehensible of the non-godly stickers.

In order to vote, you have to give them an Ohio zip code to prove you’re a resident, because there’s no way a goddamn foreigner could possibly know an Ohio zip code. It just adds another layer of stupid to the whole enterprise.

Hey, Ohio: how about a sticker that just says “I voted”? Why turn it into a fashion statement, or worse, a testimony to ideological purity?

Anti-Caturday post

“Caturday”? What is this “Caturday” frippery I see on various blogs today? It seems to consist entirely of photos and video clips of small furry predators in repose or at play, and it’s not very interesting. Let us try something more stimulating.

Loom from Polynoid on Vimeo.

The “ooh”ing and “aah”ing and “how cute!”ing may now commence from the gallery. You may also choose to watch it in HD. Watch it multiple times — it’s beautiful. My favorite part is when the spider enfolds her prey in her long elegant legs and injects it with enzymes that cause its organs to melt.

Don’t talk to me about cats. Cats will be interesting when spiders are big enough to catch them.

Or perhaps they would be more exciting if there had been Cambrian kittens, and we could imagine them meeting Anomalocaris. A new specimen has been discovered from the Ordovician, so the temporal gap has closed a little bit, at least.


Now that should stir feelings of love and affection in your breast. Is the oxytocin flowing yet? Would it help if I scribble “LOL” or various adorably ungrammatical phrases on the picture?

No, it will not. You will love it without anthropomorphic aids, please. Now.