Death to Elsevier!

You already know my feelings about that exploitive science publisher, Elsevier; I’m not the only one, and there’s been a long, long history of anger over their publishing model — and it’s not just scientists, but scholars in other disciplines who have been peeved.

Now a boycott has coalesced. If you publish, edit, or review Elsevier journal articles, make your opinion known and sign the petition.

(Also on Sb)

Darwin on the Palouse

Time is whipping by, I can tell — Darwin Day is next week! I’m going to have to whip up a talk for this event real soon, I think: it’s Darwin on the Palouse, and I’ll be talking at Washington State University in Pullman, WA a week from Thursday. They’ve paired me up with Dan Dennett that evening…which is daunting, since I know which of us people will be lining up to see. On Friday, it’ll be Jen McCreight and Fred Edwords speaking, so even more competition.

It should be a couple of good evenings of diverse and interesting talks, so all you folk in Eastern Washington and Idaho should make the trip.

Oh, and if you can’t make the February event, you could always drive a bit farther north in May and take another shot at me at Imagine No Religion 2, in Kamloops, BC. There I’ll only be standing in the shadow of Lawrence Krauss and a half dozen other luminaries.

(Also on Sb)

Why I am an atheist – mjr

I’m an atheist because I grew up in an environment free of the notion that religious teachings were true, in any sense. Whenever atheists who’ve recovered from religion talk about it, they seem to have had to sometimes struggle to reject the claims of faith – imagine how easy it was, for me, growing up with the opposite assumption: that it was a historical artifact and belonged with times gone by. When I was a kid I learned about the ancient Greeks and Zeus and Olympus, the Romans and Poseidon, the Vikings and Odin, the Jews and Yahweh, and the Egyptians and Bast – and it’s blindingly obvious that these myths are just stories to tell around the fire. For most of my life I largely ignored religion, until I started to study political philosophy and became uncomfortably aware of religion’s long role as a technique for political control. It was Seneca’s quip: “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful” that made me realize that if you’re going to engage in a political dialogue with another person, you will often need to address religious indoctrination just as you sometimes need to overcome national or tribal indoctrination. Since I realized that, I now am willing to engage in frank dialogue with another person regarding their religious beliefs in much the same way as I would with a person I encountered who held repugnant racist ideologies, xenophobic politics, or a counterproductive political philosophy. So, I’ve always been an atheist but now I am “strident” about it because I’ve realized that religion is one of the things that exacerbates ‘normal’ conflict and therefore needs to be argued against.

United States

Islamic science has come to this pitiful end

The words of the Prophet Muhammad (sallallahu ‘aleihi was-sallam) have been tested scientifically, and found hilarious. In work carried out under the direction of Dr. Jamaal Haamid, students at Qassim University examined a saying by the prophet, and have published it in a freely available pdf, The Hadeeth on the Fly, which you can download if you desire. Or you could just read this post, which summarizes entirely the complete content of the short paper, which is pretty much unpublishable and unbelievable anyway.

Here are the holy words.

(Notice that I include the original Arabic so there can be no confusion!)

If a housefly falls in the drink of anyone of you, he should dip it (in the drink), for the one of its wings has a disease and the other has the cure of the disease.

I do find that rather disturbing: so in Arabia, if a fly touches your water, you’re supposed to catch it, dunk it in deeper and slosh it around, to prevent disease? Arabian flies buzz around with pathogens segregated to just one wing, while the other one is healthy? How do they do that?

OK, setting aside the sanitary habits of Arabians and the mechanism by which this holy aphorism could be true, our intrepid students do carry out the obvious experiment: they drop a fly in a flask of sterile water, and then they pluck out the fly and immerse it completely in a second flask of sterile water. But then it all goes horribly wrong.

Here is the result of experiment #1.

Plate 2- Cultured water sample taken from a flask containing sterilized water and where a fly fell (without submersion). Growth of pathogenic (disease causing) bacterial colonies of the E. coli type were identified after taking samples from the water in the flask for culture.
Plate 1- Cultured water sample from the same flask following the complete dipping of the fly. An entire disappearance of the bacterial growth seen in Petri-dish 2 is clear. The new bacteria growing in plate 1 was identified as Actinomyces, the one from which useful antibiotics can be extracted. This explains the complete inhibition of growth in plate 2

Plate 2 on the right is the one from water merely touched by a fly. There is no explanation for how the plate was produced, or how the bacteria were identified; the strange brown sludge suggests poor technique, though, and I’ve cultured E. coli myself — and that hideous thick fecal-colored glop looks nothing like E. coli.

Plate 1 on the left, made from water in which the fly was fully immersed, looks nasty too. It’s a poor photograph, but that looks like a thick lawn of colonies everywhere. How do they know it’s Actinomyces? I have no idea, they don’t say. It’s also a mistake to simply declare it beneficial — Actinomyces are opportunistic pathogens.

Experiment #2 was a different fly, two flasks of water, same result.

Experiment #3 was a third fly, two flasks of water, same result.

Having done the experiment to death, our brave students retired at the third repetition, wrote it up with no methods, no discussion, no literature cited (except for their holy book, of course), and no reliable, believable data. They also didn’t do the other obvious experiment, of snipping off the wings and examining the bacterial flora living on the left vs. right, but then, maybe they’re leaving that for the advanced students.

Any 10 year olds looking for a quick and easy science fair project, there it is. I’m sure you can replicate this experiment trivially — but please, talk to a real microbiologist first and learn how to streak a plate. You might also learn something about a control plate, which our U of Qassim students didn’t bother to do.

Of course, this work wasn’t carried out by 10 year olds. It was done by university students in a “Med 497” (a medical course?) in a department of medical microbiology. I strongly urge anyone visiting Saudi Arabia to avoid getting sick. They might try to treat you by swishing a fly around in your coffee.

(Also on Sb)

Rep. Larry Pittman of North Carolina: Christian, seminarian, and ordained minister

That mini-biography in the title is to help put this story in perspective; it’s also completely unsurprising. Pittman wears his Christianity prominently and proudly, and it seems to be the only qualification he thought important in his run for office. And now he’s using his blessed Christian morality to define his work in the legislature. He was very irate at the easy life of a death row inmate, so Pittman wrote a letter to the General Assembly with some suggestions. He thinks:

Doesn’t it warm the heart to know that the barbaric medieval mentality is still making the laws in America?

He does have some second thoughts about his list. He now regrets broadcasting it, and wishes he’d only sent it to a sympathetic fellow Republican. It’s the standard Christian sentiment: it’s not the sin of violent, uncharitable thoughts that is wrong, it’s being caught expressing them.

Why I am an atheist – Frances

I can tell the story of my atheism in steps. It’s a bit of a revisionist history; now, when I look back, I can see that something had a huge impact on my life, that its repercussions influenced me in many ways. But at the time, I never thought of what happened as a step. Each day I felt like the same person as I was in the one before it. I never felt as though I had experienced any major change, or that I was a new person. The events I describe happened, and in this order, but as they were happening I didn’t think of them as significant.

In the third grade, I learned that there were other religions. This shocked me. As I had understood it, there was one god, and one word of god, and his word was the truth. The fact that there were other gods and other truths had eluded me until this point, and merely learning of their existence gave me some doubt. Why were there other religions? Why hadn’t god spoken to these other peoples like he spoke to Noah, or Moses? Why were their different Christianities? Suddenly, my childish notion of hell became far more upsetting. Before I had thought it a place for the people who did bad things; I assumed that they knew god’s commandments, and were thus knowingly defying their duty. To go to hell, one had to go about it intentionally, or so I thought. Suddenly, this wasn’t true. You could go to hell for believing in the wrong god, or for not even knowing that god existed. Intentions didn’t matter as much, only that you’d picked right. These ideas troubled me, but I couldn’t put them into words. In the end, I fell back on the idea that god loves everybody, so I must be missing something significant.

When I got to high school, I had been getting sexually harassed for two years already, and the boys in my year had also been touching me in ways I found uncomfortable, but during class. Their timing made my own studies more difficult, obviously, and it rendered me mute. I didn’t really know how to tell the teachers what was happening, and I didn’t know how to interrupt because frankly, I could hardly believe this was happening myself. So, the teacher would drone on, occasionally look at me, perhaps notice my discomfort, and proceed as if nothing was the matter. In the present I like to think that they also couldn’t understand what was happening, although I’m less sure of that.

In the first month of my freshman year, though, my best friend was raped. She later tried to kill herself. This was clearly more devastating for her than it was for me, and I only bring it up because it seemed very obvious to me as a result that rape was horrifying. There didn’t seem to be anything I could do to help her, and she was just fading away. I have never seen anyone as unhappy as she was. I realized that what was happening to me was probably also bad – it had always made me feel awful, to clarify, I’d just never known that anyone else would think it was bad. I still didn’t talk about it, though. It was much less bad than what my friend had been through, and I now knew that if no one took her experience seriously, they probably would laugh at mine.

I wondered where god was in all this. Not in an angry, he-should-have-my-back sort of way, but in a literal way. I went to church every Sunday for my entire life, and as near as I can tell, god has no opinions at all on rape, sexual harassment, sexual assault, or actually any of the issues women have to deal with. I knew the church was against abortion, premarital sex, and being gay (I was raised catholic in an area with lots of fundamentalists), but beyond that, there was literally no guidance. There were no ethics relating to this at all, or if there were, the priests were very tight-lipped about them. When my friend tried to go to the police, the school administration, anyone, she got no help. People thought she shouldn’t have been hanging around this guy, and she shouldn’t have had a beer beforehand. What did she think would happen, people demanded. And also he played sports and was a good student. Nobody seemed to consider her rape a problem, let alone an evil. At some point I concluded that if ‘thou shalt not rape’ hadn’t made god’s top ten list, god was wrong. Unfortunately, I didn’t yet become an atheist. I still believed in god, I just thought I’d been in the wrong religion. I left the catholic church, which may sound like a big change, but it didn’t actually feel like one at the time. I had simply compared what I believed to what the church believed, and found that we didn’t match up very well. I had never made the comparison before because I’d never been pushed to. Catholicism was part of my identity. I’d been confirmed, I’d confessed, and I truly believed in god. I had felt that my catholicism was something I’d earned and a part of who I was. I didn’t question it until then.

Thus began my mission to find a religion that didn’t hate women. Ideally, I hoped to find one in which women were equal to men. This, clearly, would be the one true religion, because it would address everyone’s needs, and it would have a god who loved everybody. I hoped it would have some answers for me, too. I do want to add that I considered science briefly as a possible recourse, but not too seriously. The popular image of science and scientists is pretty unfriendly to women, as is the history of science and women, and picking something that seemed to also dislike women would have gone against my goal. I wound up looking into neo-paganism and a bucketful of woo, these being the religions that were kindest to women. The trouble with this was that I couldn’t actually make myself believe that magick was real, or that ritual was important, or, well, much of any of it. Only a few months into this new religion I found myself unable to continue because I came to a really obvious conclusion. If I could just make religion up as I went along, if I could pick and choose as I saw fit, why did I think religion was real? By definition, making shit up is not the truth. This thought was immediately followed by a far more uncomfortable one: what if there is no god?

I couldn’t face that thought; it was completely devastating to me. It wasn’t just that that would mean I was essentially alone, or that there would never be any kind of justice in the next world, or even that there might not be any answers, then. These thoughts sucked, though. I was mostly horrified at the idea that this would be it. I’d never see my deceased grandparents again, I would only have access to what my body and mind could physically and mentally accomplish, and everything that I’d previously considered meaningful would simply vanish.

So, I didn’t face it. I went to college and I studied the humanities and social sciences. I hoped to learn more about what it meant to be human, and more specifically, how that related to what it meant to be a woman (I’d gotten the notion that people thought they were two different things, go figure). Somehow between learning statistics and learning about how anthropologists conduct field research, I started to realize that nothing had actually changed. If there wasn’t a god, there had never been a god. That would mean that my life had been deep and meaningful to me for other reasons. It was still deep and meaningful.

I started learning about how scientists looked for the truth, and how social scientists looked for the truth, and I became quite taken with the scientific method. I graduated, read The Demon-Haunted World, became aware of feminism, and just kept thinking and reading. Finally, when I was 26, I reapproached the question of god. It didn’t hurt anymore, and I found I could give it serious thought.

Truth is no longer something I have to believe in, it is something I can see and study. Doubt isn’t a character flaw anymore, and neither is not knowing the answer. I realized that there was no reason to believe in god, that everything I’d attributed to him in my wonder is explainable through evolution, the movement of glaciers long ago, the tilt of the Earth on its axis, and other natural phenomena. And, even more surprisingly, that these natural phenomena are even more wondrous than god was. The strange gaps in god’s commands regarding modern issues, his obliviousness about rape, and his really strange dislike of certain foods were more easily explainable when I realized that there probably wasn’t a god. The idea of a god doesn’t explain anything, actually, and in fact raises many uncomfortable questions. Especially if you are a woman. It also turns out that feminism and atheism go together really well.

So, as you can (hopefully) see, this is a story about how I didn’t actually change that much at all; I only changed how I thought.


Mitt Romney, ghoul

Mormons have some disgustingly repulsive habits. One of them is their obsession with the dead.

It seems Mitt Romney’s father-in-law was smarter and stronger than he was, and didn’t live his life with the crutch of superstition to hold him up. He’s related by marriage to a goddamned atheist, which is a plus in Romney’s favor: he’s at least brushed up against reason a few times in his life.

Ann Romney’s Welsh-born father (who Mitt mentioned in last night’s debate to shore up his pro-immigrant bona fides) was an engineer, inventor, and resolute atheist who disdained all organized religion and raised his children accordingly. Davies, his son Roderick told the Boston Globe in 2007, regarded the faithful as "weak in the knees."

The brush up with reason didn’t help: the Romneys actively worked to convert the Davies family, and succeeded, except in the case of Edward Davies. But like all good Mormons, they had a sneaky last ditch attack they could make: they just waited until Davies died. Once your brain stops working, it turns out, you’re much more susceptible to Mormonism.

According to this entry in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints’ genealogical database, Davies was baptized as a Mormon at a “special family meeting” 14 months after his death: “All ordinances except sealing to spouse performed in Salt Lake Temple on 19 Nov 1993 in special family meeting,” the entry says. (When we previously asked the church whether Davies had been baptized, a spokesperson told us that the information was available only to his family and church members. But it’s apparently right there on the internet for those who know what to look for.)

Mormons deserve some kind of special prize for intellectual and moral cowardice. That is one creepy religion.

Special note to my kids: don’t you dare pull this crap on my corpse after I’m dead. I raised you better than that.

Dan Savage doubles down

My wife just played the femdom role, and made me listen to that horrible Florida Republican debate while I cooked her dinner, so it was good of Dan Savage to provide some comic relief.

To "rick" is to remove something with your tongue—the "r" from "remove," the "ick" from "lick"—which makes "rick santorum" the most disgusting two-word sentence in the English language after "vote Republican."

To be complete, though, I need some bon mots to apply to Paul, Romney, and Gingrich.

I swear, next time I’m insisting on the whip and the spike heels grinding into my back — that debate was just too sadistic. I have my limits. And no, it wasn’t arousing at all.

In Indiana, it’s not just the lawmakers who are idiots — it’s the media, too!

The miseducation committee of the Indiana legislature recently approved a bill to allow the teaching of creationism in the schools, and now the Indianapolis newspaper approves, with the usual tepid and illegitimate arguments.

Much would depend on how teachers handle the origins of life in a biology or science class.

No, it doesn’t. A bill that inserts garbage into the curriculum is a bill that inserts garbage; it doesn’t matter if you think it could be used to make a lovely collage, or as an exercise in recycling, it’s still garbage. And if you trust teachers to do their job, let them do it without boneheaded cretins in the legislature telling them how.

And there is no provision in the bill that states creationism must be taught as a science subject.

Let me guess: it would be OK to teach it as “philosophy”. How much disrespect are you willing to give to that field? It’s bad philosophy, too. What disciplines is Indiana willing to poison with nonsense? Be specific. English? History? I know — how about relegating creationism to the football team.

Courts have ruled that using the Bible as an educational tool is permissible. We see nothing that would change that here, and note the bill stresses “theories” on the origins of life.

Uh-oh. I know what’s coming next. I cringe in anticipation.

The march down the slippery slope occurs when theories are presented as facts.


Scientific theories are explanatory frameworks for integrating a body of facts. Evolutionary theory, cell theory, germ theory, quantum theory, electromagnetic theory, transition state theory, the theory of relativity — these are all theories, and they also represent accurate and useful descriptions of how the universe works. They should be and are taught as facts, provisional explanations that have been tested and evaluated and found successful. “Theory” means something very specific and powerful to a scientist — there is no creation theory to be taught or used, and especially, no creation story that has survived any scientific test.

This bill could act as a safeguard against an educator mentioning creationism, and then possibly getting sued for promoting religion in the classroom. The American Civil Liberties Union has jumped into the fray and says this bill is unconstitutional, and that courts have overturned similar bills from other states.

This makes no sense. Yes, if a teacher peddles creationism in the classroom, they are using a state-supported, public facility to promote a purely religious idea. If a legislator peddles creationism in a bill, they are using the resources of goverment to promote a sectarian religious idea. This is wrong whether it’s a teacher or a state rep doing it, it is unconstitutional, and most importantly, it is bad science being used to corrupt education.

Certainly, there is much empirical scientific evidence to support evolution, and some pretty good philosophical arguments to support creationism. It’s unfortunate, though, that the latter has to be tagged as a science.

“Pretty good philosophical arguments for creationism”? Name one. Most philosophers are cleverer than that.

We think a thorough education exposes students to different theories, and if schools have done a good job of developing a student’s critical thinking skills, there is no harm done.

Oh, great. This is going to be fun. So if they’ve learned how to fall safely in gym class, I can punch little kids in the nose, and no harm done. If they’ve learned basic logic in grade school, we can do a crappy job teaching them trigonometry and calculus — they’ll be able to derive them for themselves, and no harm will be done. If they’ve learned playground safety rules, we can turn them loose with random chemicals in the chemistry lab, and no harm done.

This moron is basically saying that if most of the kids’ education is decently done, then they can afford to throw a few state-mandated lies at them. Once upon a time, I thought the goal was to excel and provide the best education possible; in Indiana, the dream is a school system that is less than half shitty.

(Also on Sb)