From Abracadabra to Zombies
The Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter
Volume 9 No. 2
6 Feb 2010
"All statements about the real world have varying degrees of credibility, with one and zero as unreachable limits, even though we can get within an infinitesimal distance from either end." --Martin Gardner
In this issue
PZ Myers comes to town
Phelps clan stays home
Mississippi creationists stopped
Atheists sell out in Australia
CFI course in humanism
New science journal full of surprises
SD Facebook page update
We're also now on Twitter
Children of Haiti (and a movie review)
Scum of the minute
No change in faith-based government
The daily mail
Loxton's greatest hit!
Many files were updated. A complete list with links to the updates may be found at www.skepdic.com/updates.html.
PZ Myers comes to town
PZ Myers of Pharyngula fame came to my town last month on his northern California tour. He spoke at UC Davis in the very same room that Discovery Institute fellows have spoken. The talk was sponsored by a student group of agnostics and atheists. The talk was advertised as being about "Complexity and Creationism," but very little was said about the bogus argument from William Dembski. (He claims that it is science to say that some things are irreducibly complex and irreducible complexity leads to an intelligent designer. Therefore, intelligent design should be taught in science curricula as a competitive "theory" to evolution.) Instead, PZ talked about Ray Comfort and, after shooting the fish in that barrel, went on to some interesting evidence about evolution in fish that has been dismissed as "piddling" by Michael Behe and Paul Nelson.
One local teacher called PZ's tour "the Great Science Tour." A writer for the UC Davis student newspaper who identifies herself as an atheist was offended by the talk. She called it "hate in the name of science." The student writes that PZ said of creationists that they are "baboons pretending to be scientists," "keeping children in ignorance," and "sleazy." I was there and I don't remember any name-calling. He did refer to creationists as "ignorant," "obtuse," and "pretentious," which they are when it comes to evolutionary science and their feeble attempts to fit everything in science to their understanding of the words of some desert nomads who lived thousands of years ago.
Myers was straightforward in his contrasting of science, reason, critical thinking, and naturalism with anything supernatural, and in denying any intellectual value to the latter. Anyway, I didn't find Myers's tone hateful. The disdain was clear, but there was no hate displayed. He also wore a nice tie with images of little crocoducks.
Fred Phelps & clan a no-show in Davis
The traveling hate show that is known as Fred Phelps and family, or the Westboro Baptist Church, failed to appear as scheduled to picket Hillel House in Davis. I promised to walk over and take some photos of this lovely little family and their signs if it didn't rain. In fact, the sun was out, so I made my way to the edge of the UC Davis campus. A lone campus cop informed the four or five of us who were hanging about at the appointed hour that the event wouldn't happen because the group was snowed in in Kansas. The Lord works in mysterious ways.
Oh, well, it was a sunny Friday in February and the students were out and about looking forward to a weekend of studying and making the world a better place. One smiling young lady with a clipboard in hand stopped me to ask if I wanted to "help the oceans." I told her "not today," which was true enough. Lucky for her she was spared having to see a group of fanatics who might tell her God hated her for wanting to help the faggot oceans.
Creationist scam foiled
As many of you know, the latest scam being run by creationists in their eternal quest to denigrate evolution and get the Bible into our public school science classrooms is to claim it's a free speech and fairness issue. It's only fair to teach "both" sides. One side, of course, is the science of evolution. There is no other side, but the creationists are trying (once again) to convince state legislators that creationism offers scientifically credible criticisms of evolution. The latest failure along these lines is reported by the National Center for Science Education:
Mississippi's House Bill 586, which if enacted would have required "scientifically sound arguments by protagonists and antagonists of the theory of evolution" to be presented in the state's schools, died in committee on February 2, 2010, according to the legislative website. In 2009, the bill's sponsor, Gary Chism (R-District 37), introduced a bill, HB 25, requiring biology textbooks in the state to include a hybrid of two previous versions of the Alabama evolution textbook disclaimer; that bill also died in committee.
iPhone apps: fun ways to waste time and money
Houston dermatologist Greg Pearson says that his AcneApp, which emits alternating bursts of red and blue light from the iPhone’s screen, will clear away your pimples in two minutes a day for as long as it takes.
Cry Translator relieves a parent of having to respond directly to an infant's cries. You record the cry and this iApp will translate it for you so you'll have a technological basis for determining whether your child is hungry, annoyed, tired, stressed, or bored. Well, it might be useful for a deaf parent, I suppose.
Australian Atheist Convention Sold Out
The Global Atheist Convention, to be held at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre on March 12-14, 2010, features Richard Dawkins. Convention organizer and Atheist Foundation of Australia president David Nicholls said that more than 2500 tickets have been sold. That bodes well for the Amazing Meeting Australia to be held next November in Sydney, assuming the headliner is of Dawkins' stature.
CFI online course in humanism
An online course entitled The History and Philosophy of Humanism will be offered by the Center for Inquiry from March 1-May 30, 2010. The course contains six lectures by John Shook [recommended: Ophelia Benson's comments]. The topics of the lectures are: Humanism Defined, Humanism and Naturalism, Humanism and Ethics, Humanist Ethics and God, Principles of Humanist Ethics, and Humanism’s Destiny. The cost varies from $20 for students to $60. For more information, click here.
Journal of Serendipitous and Unexpected Results
The Journal of Serendipitous and Unexpected Results, an open-access forum for researchers seeking to further scientific discovery by sharing surprising or unexpected results, is accepting manuscripts for its inaugural issue. Click here for more information. Byte Size Biology has an interesting take on the goal of the journal: "I expect JSUR will be a great way to comment on methods and techniques. Indeed it will codify a trend that has been going on for some time: public protocol knowledge sharing."
The Skeptic's Dictionary Facebook Fans Page
As noted in the last newsletter, the SD now has a Facebook Fans page. As a fan, you get notices when I've posted something new, which might save you a little time from checking the What's New? page, I suppose. The Facebook page also allows the fan to add comments immediately and to get responses from others as well. As Facebook users know, you can click a thumbs up if you like a post and you can add the post to your profile with a click of the 'share' button. There is a discussion section for those who wish to carry on extended conversations.
At last check, there were about 1,800 fans (compared to about 4,000 who subscribe to the Newsletter) from 58 countries. Most of the SD Facebook fans are from the US, but Jakarta with 117 is the city with the most fans. Athens is second with 29. Go figure. Chicago, Los Angeles, New York City, Seattle, and Sydney, Australia follow with about 25 each. Males outnumber females by more than 2 to 1.
The only problem I've had so far has been with a few 9/11 deniers who tried to hijack the site with multiple rants.
If you want to follow the SD on Twitter, click here.
Scientologists and Baptists in Haiti
Scientologists who call themselves "volunteer ministers" appeared in Haiti to provide what they call an "assist" to victims of the earthquake. The assist consists of a kind of laying on of hands to help the body communicate with the spirit and remove mental blocks to bring relief. I'm sure it helps with broken limbs and gangrene. Well, it's probably as effective as emergency homeopathy or acupuncture.
[update: I was joking when I made reference to "emergency homeopathy," but I should know better than to gratuitously dismiss the outrageous. Yes, there really are folks who deliver emergency homeopathy. You can read about them on gimpy's blog. One wackaloon writes: I "used the simplest approach possible so others can easily, safely and effectively disperse the remedy. 555 stands for banging the bottle 5 times, giving 5 drops in the mouth that should be kept there for 5 seconds. As this is not a chronic conditions but trauma from an acute event giving one dose is usually enough." There really is a group of pieheads called Homeopaths Without Borders. As voodoo is popular in Haiti, I suppose we should not be surprised to find that homeopathic "volunteers were warmly welcomed by their Haitian patients as well as by the medical staff at the hospital who demonstrated an eagerness to learn homeopathy."]
Meanwhile, several Baptists in Haiti led by Laura Silsby have been arrested for child trafficking. Silsby's had trouble following the law in the past and may have led some good-intentioned folks down the road to perdition. She allegedly persuaded the parents of the children to let them go with her because she could provide them with a better life. None of the children who could speak said they were orphans when asked. Silsby told reporters that she was feeling good and she trusts in God. Some will see her as a saint and a savior, but others will see her as a crazy person who thinks laws are for other people who don't have a special relationship with God.
Silsby and her gang remind me of the characters in Gone Baby Gone who justify kidnapping a little girl because her mother is a drug addicted whore and her new parents are morally upright citizens (except for the kidnapping bit and complicity in murder on the part of the would-be father who is the chief of police). The new parents' own child was murdered and they want to give the kidnapped child a "nice" home to grow up in. If you like moral and psychological dilemmas in films, Gone Baby Gone won't disappoint. The acting is superb as well. At one level, the film pits utilitarian against deontological ethics. If that last sentence didn't stop you from reading on, then consider this: if you're going to see the film for the first time, stop reading now.
In the end, the protagonist has to decide whether to do the right thing and turn in the kidnappers (revealing several crimes committed by law enforcement officers, including murder) but face the consequences that the child will be returned to her drug addicted whore mother and the love of your life will leave you if you squeal. As far as I can tell, the protagonist doesn't even consider turning himself in for murdering a perverted child rapist/murderer. Several police know he's murdered the pervert and one even congratulates him for doing the deed. They're not going to arrest him.
The film drives the viewer to consider two important questions regarding ethics: What is the relationship of law to morality? and Why be moral at all?
We all know that the rule of law becomes a mockery when those entrusted to enforce or make the law are corrupt to the core, using the law to enrich or empower themselves. A more difficult question is what happens to the rule of law when those entrusted to enforce the law violate it for some morally noble motive, such as bringing about justice? Is there a significant difference between the cop who murders a drug dealer to steal his money and a cop who assists in the murder of a drug dealer to help a friend (the "nice" chief of police) kidnap a little girl and save her from a life with her drug-addicted whore mother?
Even if you can decide what is the morally right thing to do in a given situation, there is still the issue: why do the morally right thing? Personally, I agree that the morally right thing for the protagonist was to turn in the kidnapper police chief. Even so, I wouldn't do the morally right thing. The consequences of losing the love of my life and returning the child to her drug-addicted whore mother would be unacceptable to me. Since I don't find admirable what the Baptist ladies were doing in trying to give some Haitian children a better life than their parents could give them, I suspect that the reason I wouldn't do the right thing with the police chief is the pure selfishness of not wanting to risk the loss of the love of my life. However, if I had committed a murder, as the morally righteous protagonist of Gone Baby Gone had, I probably would have turned myself in when I turned the chief of police in, which the protagonist does not do. The film makes it easy to accept the protagonist's act of murder, since the guy the protagonist kills has brutally abused and killed a little boy. That doesn't make the murder right, of course, and, in my view, it makes the protagonist unworthy of his lover, who's ready to let a host of criminal acts go unpunished so the little girl will have a chance at a significantly better life than she's likely to get with her mother.
Silsby and her Baptist friends didn't kidnap the children. The parents of the children must have been desperate to have given them up to strangers on the promise that their children would be given a chance at the "American dream" in the Dominican Republic rather than the "Haitian nightmare." One can only imagine how much love it would take to give up your child so the child could have a chance at a happy, fulfilled life that you knew you could not provide. The Baptists were motivated by morally noble sentiments, but they took advantage of the desperate situation of the parents and children. They didn't follow the laws of Haiti and had no legal right to transport the children to another country. They're not kidnappers, but they're not saints or guardian angels, either.
Scum of the Minute
J. Bruce McBurney of HIMAC opens his appeal with a few telltale signs of where he's coming from and where he'd like to take you when he claims that HIMAC
....has established a mandate to raise public awareness on an important scientific finding that has been suppressed by hypocritical governments and greedy oil companies and automobile manufacturers: the supression [sic] of a super-high mileage fuel conversion carburetor system.
As a bonus, it helps prevent cancer, though you may wonder what Bruce knows about cancer after reading this claim:
Early cancer research proved that less oxygen causes cancer. Everything that causes cancer falls into two categories: an oxidizer (something uses the oxygen) or something that prevents the transfer of oxygen into our system. Examples are tars, asbestos and silica. When the body has less oxygen it goes into an acidic state, and cancer only grows in acids. High oxygen changes the body to alkaline may put cancer into remission.
On my block, this is called MSU...making stuff up. English may not be his strong suit, but following a script is something Bruce does very well. 1. We've made a breakthrough discovery that will improve your gas mileage; 2. The government and the oil companies don't want you to know about it; and 3. You're probably too stupid to realize that if I'm telling you about it, then it hasn't really been suppressed.
Faith-based programs virtually untouched by Obama
The Center for Inquiry has published a letter sent to President Obama chastising him for not keeping his promise to change the way the federal government deals with faith-based programs:
One year ago, you issued an executive order establishing a new Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships....The promise ... was that serious flaws in the Bush Administration's Faith-Based Initiative would be corrected. Specifically, new regulations would be implemented to ensure faith-based programs would be administered consistent with the Constitution. [italics added]
This promise has not been met.
The main thing that seems to have changed with the Obama administration is the intensity of Republican rhetoric, though science funding seems to be up a little. We still have the Bush wars, the Bush tax cuts, the Bush "recession," Bush era protection of corruption, Bush era obscene bonuses to bank and financial executives, and the Bush recovery plan. We still have a president presiding over a national prayer breakfast (though this one said that people of no faith were demonstrating God's grace by helping Haiti!). These were fine with most Republicans until a Democrat was elected. Another thing that hasn't changed is the ability of elected federal lawmakers to put country above party. The only exception is Joe Liebermann, who puts himself above both country and party. We'll see how Republicans respond to the report from a Senate committee led by a Democrat that claims "U.S. lawyers, real estate and escrow agents, and other professionals are enabling the flow of tens of millions of tainted dollars into the country due to loopholes in anti-money laundering laws."* At times it looks like our system of government is little more than a faith-based experiment gone awry.
Meanwhile, this just in: In what is being called one of the most flagrant examples of political corruption in recent memory, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) has placed a “blanket hold” on 70 of President Obama’s nominees, while demanding an estimated $40 billion in earmarks for his state. Lovely.
We get mail
From Wendy (unedited):
I just had a read of articles on your site, and if you believe that all the mysteries of the world is bogus, then your a nut.
And this from Robert:
"It's strange that you, of all people, refer to climate skeptics as "deniers", for their failure to believe evidence they were never permitted to see....It's like seeing James Randi going to a tea-leaf reader."
If Robert had read the revised entry on climate change deniers, he would know that I don't refer to the deniers as deniers because of their failure to believe evidence they were never permitted to see. I call them deniers to distinguish them from skeptics who provide specific reasons for doubting this or that point held by the majority of climate scientists. I call them deniers because they employ rhetorical tactics to give the appearance of argument or legitimate debate, when in actuality there is none. Global warming deniers are big on conspiracies: according to them, an entire community of scientists has some ulterior motive for their climate research, such as an ideology or a desire to keep their funding. Global warming deniers are also prone to cherry-picking their data and their quotes, citing single errors or discredited papers as proof that a whole field of science is corrupt. Because many of those supporting the climate change denial campaign are corporations heavily invested in fossil fuels or are politicians who depend on those corporations for campaign funds, they are prone to put forth fake experts to raise some dust.
Robert's other comments demonstrate my concern for distinguishing skeptics from deniers. According to Robert, the e-mails from the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in Britain that were posted on the Internet provide evidence that the data do not fit the consensus view. He's wrong and I link to several places where he can look at the evidence for that bogus claim in detail. Robert admits that the climate is changing, but he also believes "there is no solid, trustworthy evidence that humanity's trivial addition to a trivial greenhouse gas is causing it." He thinks the Sun is causing global warming. Most climate scientists disagree, but Robert may mean by "solid, trustworthy evidence" that there is infallible, absolutely certain proof that greenhouse gases are a significant contributor to climate change and that if these gases are not reduced the future of the planet is in peril. Science doesn't deal in absolute, infallible truth. He must be confusing science with religion.
Robert's view that global warming is due to the Sun is a common one among the deniers. It's true that solar variations affect climate. Since 1985, though, solar output has been going down while global temperature has been going up.* "The difference between the solar minimum and solar maximum over the 11-year solar cycle is 10 times smaller than the effect of greenhouse gases over the same interval."* A concise commentary on this issue can be found here.
Finally, Robert thinks global warming is being promoted to advance a socialist agenda aimed at taking away our freedom and devastating our economy. It's also a "hoax [that] will enrich certain people, and put money in the 'scientists' pockets for as long as they prop up the hoax. Isn't it odd that the solutions governments propose always involve taking away money and freedom from people? You'd think that just once in American history someone would come up with a crisis that could best be solved by leaving people alone." How these "socialist scientists" plan to get wealthy by destroying the economy is something I'm sure Robert has thought about carefully and will enlighten us at his leisure.
As I said, global warming deniers are big on conspiracies. Some of them, like Robert, seem to be getting their information from tea leaves at tea parties.
New Evolution Book for Young Thinkers
Daniel Loxton's Evolution: How We and All Living Things Came to Be explains the facts simply without distorting the science for the young reader. Loxton, as most of you know, is in charge of Junior Skeptic, that lovely little section at the end of every issue of Skeptic magazine that we adults read with pleasure.
by Bob Carroll
with the editorial assistance of John Renish
and a special thanks to Tim Boettcher
* AmeriCares *