The Halloween Cafe Scientifique: an evening of Mad Scientists

On Halloween, I gave a short presentation as our first Cafe Scientifique of the year. The main intent was to introduce our schedule for the year and to give an amusing introduction to the media image of scientists by showing a few movie clips…and to say a few things about how we really ought to be seen.

I’ve put most of the clips on youtube, so you can see what I was talking about below the fold.

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This is a start

But only a start. A new poll finds an encouraging level of doubt among Americans.

Nearly half of Americans are not sure God exists, according to a poll that also found divisions among the public on whether God is male or female or whether God has a human form and has control over events.

The survey conducted by Harris Poll found that 42 percent of US adults are not “absolutely certain” there is a God compared to 34 percent who felt that way when asked the same question three years ago.

Among the various religious groups, 76 percent of Protestants, 64 percent of Catholics and 30 percent of Jews said they are “absolutely certain” there is a God while 93 percent of Christians who describe themselves as “Born Again” feel certain God exists.

When questioned on whether God is male or female, 36 percent of respondents said they think God is male, 37 percent said neither male nor female and 10 percent said “both male and female.”

Only one percent think of God as a female, according to the poll.

Asked whether God has a human form, 41 percent said they think of God as “a spirit or power than can take on human form but is not inherently human.”

As to whether God controls events on Earth, 29 percent believe that to be the case while 44 percent said God “observes but does not control what happens on Earth”.

Rising levels of uncertainty about such a silly entity is good news. Next we should start hammering on those 36% who think God is male, for instance, and get them to explain their belief. How do they know he’s male? Does he he have a penis? How big is it? What does he use it for? I suspect that most of the people who responded in the affirmative have no idea where their dogma originates—they just assume—and haven’t thought through the implications of their assertions at all.

It would also be good to wake up and mobilize all those doubters. Muriel Gray has some suggestions for unifying principles, although I’m not too keen on her term for this group (“Enlightenists”?):

Enlightenists believe in the awe-inspiring, wonder, beauty and complexity of the universe, and aspire to unpick its mysteries by reason, constant questioning, observation, experiment, and analysis of evidence. The bedrock of our morality is empathy, from which logically springs love, forgiveness, tolerance and a profound desire to make a just, egalitarian society and reduce suffering. The more knowledge a person has, the more they question and understand the real world, and the more they are required to analyse what is true then the greater the increase in empathy. Enlightenists care and wish to do good not because a vengeful God tells them to, but because intelligence suggests it is the only and the right thing to do.

She also wants state-funded Enlightenist schools to oppose those crappy superstition (i.e., religious) schools. I’m not enthused about that—anything that takes resources away from the public schools is not a good thing in my book—but the idea that we freethinkers ought to be lobbying more is a good one. Richard Dawkins made a similar point, that even in the US freethinkers outnumber Jews, but the political difference is that only one of us has an effective lobby.

Once we got our schools and started churning out multiracial youngsters free from any kind of manipulation, save that of being taught to question everything, we could start our political lobbying. Why should religious concerns be put above ours? Why shouldn’t we have the right to be appeased when we are offended by religion, the way the religious whine like toddlers when someone shakes a stick at their myths? Why shouldn’t we be consulted and treated with respect as a community? Why are the sincerely held beliefs I’ve outlined inferior to those of a Christian, Jew or a Muslim? You think I’m joking. I’m not. I pay my tax. I want representation too.

All we need are a few charismatic freethinkers bold enough to state their views and rally all the people disgusted with the Christianists. I think there’s a solid constituency there, but no one is exploiting it.

Will South Park teach the controversy?

South Park’s amusement factor has been up and down for me, but I may have to make an effort to catch this evening’s episode.

Cartman’s plan to propel himself into the future goes horribly wrong. South Park Elementary faces strong opposition to the topic of evolution being taught to the 4th graders, especially from Ms. Garrison who has to teach it. Eric Cartman can’t be bothered with what’s going on in class. He’s busy manipulating his own personal time-line to align with the precise release date of the newest, hottest game.

Jobs available! Honest scientists need not apply.

Wow—Liberty University is hiring. They’ve got 27 openings for new faculty right now, so if you’re in the market, they might be tempting. The first three on the list are…

Biology: Two positions. Rank open. Ph.D. and compatibility with a young-earth creationist philosophy required. 1) Human anatomy and physiology, 2) undergraduate genetics. Supervision of undergraduate research expected. Contact Dr. Paul Sattler.

Center for Creation Studies: Rank open. Ph.D. and experience in the origins controversy from a young earth creation perspective required. Faculty will teach the required course in creation as well as develop and/or teach in their area of science expertise. Ability to teach courses in astronomy, anatomy and physiology, or other biology courses preferred. Contact Dr. David DeWitt.

Hmmm. Makes the possibility much less attractive, doesn’t it? I suppose if you were desperate enough for a job that you’d be willing to rip out your integrity, throw it in a cesspit, and let a chain of smarmy evangelical cretins squat over it, you might be willing to sign on.

A GOOD Republican

So I was way too depressing in that last post. Here’s one of those little notes of hope that we hear too rarely—an Ohio Republican using her reason to back the best candidate for a job, even if he is a Democrat.

Republican Martha Wise is backing Democrat John Bender in the race to replace her on the state school board.

Wise, who is running against Democrat Sue Morano for the state senate, said Bender is the only one of the four candidates in the school board race who agrees with her on keeping intelligent design out of science classrooms.

“I’ve spent five years of my life keeping intelligent design, or what you might call teaching religion, out of science classes,” she said. “He’s the only one who agrees with me.”

You know, if the Republicans were stocked with Martha Wises and the Democrats were a mob of Deepak Chopras, I’d be proudly calling myself a Republican. Now if only we could get both parties to nominate intelligent people, I’d be overjoyed to have to make a difficult decision at every election.

I have to wonder about this other candidate, though.

Roland Hansen, another candidate in the race, said he wasn’t surprised by Wise’s decision to endorse Bender, but didn’t think Wise should be basing her decision solely on his beliefs about intelligent design.

“It’s a terrible reason to endorse someone on one issue,” he said.

I think it’s an excellent reason. If someone were a paragon of experience and rationality on all the economic and political issues, but was utterly convinced that the Venusian mind-control rays were the paramount crisis of our times, wouldn’t that be reason enough to think that just maybe he’d be a poor choice for political office? It’s the same here: when someone is running for school board, they darn well ought to be competent on educational issues, including science, or they should be rejected.

Cynicism in the face of Idiot America

I have to disagree with Red State Rabble and his announcement of the demise of Intelligent Design. We’re seeing signs of a shifting of strategies, the fading of a few personalities, and a little confusion on the part of our enemies, but it is a colossal mistake to be predicting their end at this time. Intelligent Design was nothing but the mask worn by one of the blank faces of ignorant creationism, and all we’ve accomplished with victories like the Dover trial is to take a slap at the façade. We’ve made them briefly recoil, and at best what we can expect is a brief respite while they try to change slogans. Nothing has happened to weaken the foundations of creationism.

I guarantee you that there have been meetings at the Discovery Institute where they try to strategize and rethink how to apply their resources and work their way around the temporary setback of the Dover decision. If nothing else, they’ll evaporate away, and the same people will re-emerge in a ‘new’ and ‘different’ think-tank, shedding bad baggage and expressing a new version of the same old story. Is there one person who changed their mind about Intelligent Design because of a court case? Take a look at the ID blogs, and you don’t find the proponents shrugging their shoulders and saying, “well, I guess we were wrong after all”…they’re going to try re-branding and re-tooling and they’re going to be peddling the same old piss in new bottles.

The supporting base is untouched. Megachurches are growing—and they aren’t preaching skepticism and the appropriate evaluation of the evidence. Talk to your average small-town good old boy, and they won’t have even heard of Dover or Behe or Dawkins or Johnson or Miller…but they sure as hell know they didn’t come from no monkey. There has been no dramatic change in our schools, so that they are now proudly teaching solid, uncensored biology; teachers still know that if they mention the scary “e” word, there will be parents who come down hard on them, and administrators know that if they don’t kowtow to the fundies, they’ll yank their kids out of school and hurt their funding base.

I see little, hopeful touches now and then. But no one takes on the root of the problem.

Read Tristero and wake up to what we face.

The megachurches thus become part church, part shopping mall and part country club. One in Tacoma, Washington, even has its own Starbucks. Brentwood Baptist Church in Houston has a McDonald’s on its 111 acres. The Prestonwood Baptist Church, near Dallas, boasts 15 baseball fields, a Fifties-style diner and a food court. New Birth Baptist Church, also in Texas, offers web links to “antiques”, “dining” and “health and fitness”.

In addition to the megachurches, there are 31 “gigachurches” in the US, which are defined as those that at least 10,000 people attend every Sunday; 73 per cent of all these are in Bush-Cheney territory in the South or West. Some offer bookstores and health clubs on their premises. The Lakewood Church, yet another in Houston, describes itself as a “non-denominational charismatic church” and has a congregation of 25,000 every Sunday. It says it will soon have more than 30,000 people attending the remodelled, $73m former “Compaq Centre” that was previously home to the Houston Rockets, a basketball team.

What the opposition has been doing is building institutions. They’ve been consolidating huge pieces of the social structure and making them their own. Imagine living in a town where, if you want to buy a cup of coffee or get a hamburger, you have to go to a church. We’re becoming Walmartized and Christianified—you are a commodity to destructive, stupefying, self-sustaining cultural monopoly. You want to oppose that by crying to the courts? Go ahead. A little defiance from on high just mobilizes and infuriates them. You aren’t touching them where it hurts, at the community and belief level. You aren’t building your own institutions to oppose them.

Red State Rabble is right, that some of the trappings of the Intelligent Design excrescence are showing signs of going off the rails…but Uncommon Descent and Intelligent Design News and Views and the Discovery Institute (and Pharyngula and The Panda’s Thumb, for that matter) are irrelevant, superficial phenomena. What counts is that millions of people sit quietly watching the stupidity grow, and millions more actively contribute to it.

I haven’t seen any reliable sign that the idiotification of America is receding, or even slowing down. I do see signs that some of us are trying to reassure ourselves that the worst has passed, and I think that’s a dangerous delusion.

Vote for Retrospectacle

Wow. Our very own Shelly Batts is a finalist in competition for a blog scholarship. Help out a promising young neuroscientist and Vote Shelly!

It is also an interesting turn to make blog popularity, as measured by a poll, the deciding factor in awarding a fairly substantial sum of money. I hope they’ve made the voting fairly secure.


Dang, I’ve also been contacted by one of the other nominees—you should actually look over the field of candidates and make an informed decision about which one you favor. Vote for the best blogger!