Archive for August, 2007

The New Republic has an interesting article about how awareness of our own mortality affects our opinions and attitudes about other people. The main thrust of the article is that this psychology played a role in the 2004 re-election of Bush. I think that aspect of the article is less interesting. The psychological effects, and the role it might have on international politics (including Israeli attitudes towards Palestinians and vice-versa) is a little more interesting – but you’re free to disagree.

In The Denial of Death, Becker tried to explain how fear of one’s own demise lies at the center of human endeavor. “Man’s anxiety,” Becker wrote, “results from the human paradox that man is an animal who is conscious of his animal limitation.” Becker described how human beings defend themselves against this fundamental anxiety by constructing cultures that promise symbolic or literal immortality to those who live up to established standards. Among other things, we practice religions that promise immortality; produce children and works of art that we hope will outlive us; seek to submerge our own individuality in a larger, enduring community of race or nation; and look to heroic leaders not only to fend off death, but to endow us with the courage to defy it. We also react with hostility toward individuals and rival cultures that threaten to undermine the integrity of our own.

To test the hypothesis that recognition of mortality evokes “worldview defense”–their term for the range of emotions, from intolerance to religiosity to a preference for law and order, that they believe thoughts of death can trigger–they assembled 22 Tucson municipal court judges. They told the judges they wanted to test the relationship between personality traits and bail decisions, but, for one group, they inserted in the middle of the personality questionnaire two exercises meant to evoke awareness of their mortality. One asked the judges to “briefly describe the emotions that the thought of your own death arouses in you”; the other required them to “jot down, as specifically as you can, what you think will happen to you physically as you die and once you are physically dead.” They then asked the judges to set bail in the hypothetical case of a prostitute whom the prosecutor claimed was a flight risk. The judges who did the mortality exercises set an average bail of $455. The control group that did not do the exercises set it at an average of $50. The psychologists knew they were onto something.

Over the next decade, the three performed similar experiments to illustrate how awareness of death could provoke worldview defense. They showed that what they now called “mortality salience” affected people’s view of other races, religions, and nations. When they had students at a Christian college evaluate essays by what they were told were a Christian and a Jewish author, the group that did the mortality exercises expressed a far more negative view of the essay by the Jewish author than the control group did. (German psychologists would find a similar reaction among German subjects toward Turks.) They also conducted numerous experiments to show that mortality exercises evoked patriotic responses. The [American] subjects who did the exercises took a far more negative view of an essay critical of the United States than the control group did and also expressed greater veneration for cultural icons like the flag. The three even devised an experiment to show that, after doing the mortality exercises, conservatives took a much harsher view of liberals, and vice versa.

They then explored whether Bush’s popularity in the years after September 11 stemmed in part from Americans’ need for a charismatic figure who could help them overcome these thoughts. Bush’s appeal, the psychologists speculated, lay “in his image as a protective shield against death, armed with high-tech weaponry, patriotic rhetoric, and the resolute invocation of doing God’s will to rid the world of evil.'” In 2002, the psychologists, aided by two colleagues, conducted an experiment at Brooklyn College that showed that mortality reminders dramatically enhanced the appeal of a hypothetical candidate who told voters, “You are not just an ordinary citizen: You are part of a special state and a special nation.”

Then, in late September 2004, the psychologists, along with two colleagues from Rutgers, tested whether mortality exercises influenced whom voters would support in the upcoming presidential election. They conducted the study among 131 Rutgers undergraduates who said they were registered and planned to vote in November. The control group that completed a personality survey, but did not do the mortality exercises, predictably favored Kerry by four to one. But the students who did the mortality exercises favored Bush by more than two to one. This strongly suggested that Bush’s popularity was sustained by mortality reminders. The psychologists concluded in a paper published after the election that the government terror warnings, the release of Osama bin Laden’s video on October 29, and the Bush campaign’s reiteration of the terrorist threat (Cheney on election eve: “If we make the wrong choice, then the danger is that we’ll get hit again”) were integral to Bush’s victory over Kerry. “From a terror management perspective,” they wrote, “the United States’ electorate was exposed to a wide-ranging multidimensional mortality salience induction.”

For instance, because worldview defense increases hostility toward other races, religions, nations, and political systems, it helps explain the rage toward France and Germany that erupted prior to the Iraq war, as well as the recent spike in hostility toward illegal immigrants. Also central to worldview defense is the protection of tradition against social experimentation, of community values against individual prerogatives–as was evident in the Tucson experiment with the judges–and of religious dictates against secular norms. For many conservatives, this means opposition to abortion and gay marriage. This may well explain why family values became more salient in 2004–a year in which voters were supposed to be unusually focused on foreign policy–than it had been from 1992 through 2000.

Link: How Political Psychology Explains Bush’s Ghastly Success

And with the uncertainty and death in the Middle East (including, the Israeli Palestinian conflict), the demand for traditional, nationalistic, religious leaders is on the rise. Of course, those are leaders that are least likely to make any kind of positive change in the region.

I also can’t help but wonder if this helps explain why older voters (who are more aware of their mortality) skew republican, and younger voters (young people are sometimes accused of believing they are indestructible) skew towards the democrats. (Link showing the percentage of republican/democrat votes by age in the 2006 election)

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Moralist Crusaders

There’s been a rash of people getting caught up in gay and/or sex scandals lately. Specifically:

August 27: Larry Craig, Republican Senator from Idaho and one of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s top Senate supporters, was caught trying to have sex in an airport bathroom.
August 8: Young Republican National Federation President under investigation for sexual assault on sleeping man
August 7: Bob Allen (Republican in the Florida House of Representatives and co-chairman of McCain’s Florida campaign) gets caught offering a man $20 to perform oral sex
Sept 29, 2006: Mark Foley gets caught trying to sleep with young boys who worked as interns.
Here’s a video of Ted Haggard (recorded about six months before his gay sex scandal exploded): “We’ve decided the Bible is the Word of God. We don’t have to have a general assembly about what we believe. It’s written in the Bible. Alright? So, we don’t have to debate about what we should think about homosexual activity – it’s written in the Bible.”

I have a theory about a lot of the popular moralists (preachers, politicians, etc). It’s something that occurred to me after seeing a lot of moralists getting into trouble (and by “trouble”, I’m not just homosexual scandals). For example, William Bennett (drug czar under George H W Bush, author of The Book of Virtues: A Treasury of Great Moral Stories (1993)) got caught up in revelations of a gambling problem in 2003 – losing millions of dollars to his addiction. And, of course, there’s the Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker scandals.

My own thoughts on this is that many of the outspoken moralists are struggling with their own personal demons. This struggle, for example, against their own homosexual or “immoral” desires results in an ongoing dialog in their own heads. They want to be good, they want to suppress their desires, and they try to talk themselves out of their feelings. They look for to the Bible for support in beating down their feelings. They become eloquent in creating speeches to talk themselves out of their “bad” desires. They become die-hard moralists in an attempt to suppress their own immoral desires. Then, partly because of their passion in suppressing (their own) immorality, and partly because of their eloquence in creating speeches advocating moralist attitudes (which they have, no doubt, repeated over and over to themselves), they become public crusaders against immorality.

People sometimes think that moralists bring passion to the morality crusade because morality is so important for society. I think the passion comes less from a desire to bring morality to society, and more from a desire to beat-down their own personal demons.

Here’s a video of Larry Craig (the one recently caught up in the gay sex scandal), talking about President Clinton (January 1999):

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I stop over at UncommonDescent every once in a while. (I don’t do so very often, though, because I always end up irate over the spin, or feel the need to correct their poor understanding of science.)

One thing that always gives me a laugh is their attempts to distance themselves from the “God” word, but at the same time, their whole impetus is to lead people to God. While looking over their latest posts, I noticed a remarkable number of entries dealing with God and Religion: “[Sam Harris says:] Scientists should unite against threat from religion”, “The Open Society and Its Secular Enemies, “David Klinghoffer, author of the new book Shattered Tablets: Why We Ignore the Ten Commandments at Our Peril (Doubleday)…”, . Hmmm, maybe the ID movement has finally given-up the pretense of being non-religious. Afterall, none of these have anything to do with the “very, very scientific” theory of Intelligent Design (unless that designer is supernatural, of course). But, I was wrong. In one of the threads (ironically, one talking about the new “Expelled” movie), this exchange happened:

JJS P.Eng: Changing PZ and friends minds is not the purpose of [the Expelled] movie. The purpose, IMO, is to expose the venomous rhetoric and tyranny of the materialist establishment and is aimed at those who aren’t in the extremes, but in the middle. They are the ones who need persuading.

Rocket: The use of “venomous rhetoric” and “tyranny” is pretty strong language. It makes you sound angry and desperate, as if you are arguing from a weak position. People who are confident of their position don’t need to be so vehement.

So if ID is not creationism, then exactly who is the designer? Isn’t he the same as the creator? Creator (a person who creates), designer (a person who devises or executes designs, esp. one who creates), they sound the same to me. Can you tell me how they are different?

Is the designer a person, a supernatural being, an energy force, a deity, or what? Help me out here. Persuade me.

William Dembski: Rocket is no longer with us. –WmAD

Aw, Rocket got banned. It’s still forbidden to make the “Intelligent Designer” = “God” connection in writing. (If, on the other hand, you make that connection, get down on your knees and ask for Christ’s salvation, then the ID movement will have accomplished it’s goal.) The ID movement is caught in this whole game of doublespeak.

The word “Intelligent Design” was first coined to sidestep the problems of teaching creationism in the first place. In the 1980s, some creationists (including Dean Kenyon, who is a six-day young-earth creationist) were writing a book named “Creation Biology”, then renamed to “Biology & Creation”, “Biology & Origins”, and finally renamed to “Of Panda’s and People”. While this was going on, there was a major court case: Edwards v. Aguillard, which made it illegal to teach creationism in schools. Dean Kenyon was used as an expert witness (for the Creationist side) in that court case. When the ruling was made in 1987 that teaching Creationism in schools was illegal, the authors suddenly decided to change the wording of “Of Panda’s and People” from “Creationist” to “Intelligent Design”. The chart below shows the number of times “Creationism” versus “Intelligent Design” is used in the Of Panda’s and People book. Obviously, the change was made in response to the ruling, in an attempt to distance the book from “Creationism”.

Of Pandas and People Chart

The entire Intelligent Design movement has attempted to distance itself from the “Creationism” word – both for political reasons (i.e. getting it into schools), and because creationist scholarship has been sub-par (to say the least). This means denying the “Intelligent Designer” = “God” connection in public, even though they explicitly state that Intelligent Design is supposed to be a conduit to lead people to Jesus Christ.

The Wedge Document – which is the premiere and guiding document for the Discovery Institute’s Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture – states in the very first sentence:

“The proposition that human beings are created in the image of God is one of the bedrock principles on which Western civilization was built… [The] materialistic conception of reality eventually infected virtually every area of our culture, from politics and economics to literature and art… Discovery Institute’s Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture seeks nothing less than the overthrow of materialism and its cultural legacies… and [has] re-opened the case for a broadly theistic understanding of nature.”

It’s ridiculous to believe that “Intelligent Design” makes no assertions about the identity of the designer. There is plenty of explicitly theistic language in the document, and if the designer were anything other than a deity (e.g. an alien species), then the Discovery Institute would fail in the “overthrow of materialism” and advancing a “broadly theistic understanding of nature”.

On the first page of Behe’s latest book “The Edge of Evolution”, he says that the physical constants of the universe (including the strength of gravity and the atomic weight of hydrogen, presumably) were designed. This plays right into John Stewart’s observation that: “Basically, Intelligent Design is the idea that life on earth is too complex to have evolved without a guiding hand. We’re not saying it’s God, just someone with the basic skill set to create an entire universe.”

In their own words:

“And if there’s anything that I think has blocked the growth of Christ [and] the free reign of the Spirit and people accepting the Scripture and Jesus Christ, it is the Darwinian naturalistic view…. It’s important that we understand the world. God has created it; Jesus is incarnate in the world.” – William Dembski, ID proponent

“Father’s words, my studies, and my prayers convinced me that I should devote my life to destroying Darwinism, just as many of my fellow Unificationists had already devoted their lives to destroying Marxism. When Father chose me (along with about a dozen other seminary graduates) to enter a Ph.D. program in 1978, I welcomed the opportunity to prepare myself for battle.” – Johnathan Wells, ID proponent

“There’s a difference of opinion about how important this debate [advocating intelligent design] is. What I always say is that it’s not just scientific theory. The question is best understood as: Is God real or imaginary?”
– Phillip Johnson, ID proponent

(Gee, Phil, I thought ID had nothing to do with identifying the designer.)

The Church of the Designer who Shall not be Named, says: Thou shall not make the connection between the Intelligent Designer and “Creator” (*except when you’re being honest). I thought it was particularly ironic that Rocket was banned in a thread about “Expelled”. “Expelled” plays on the victimization theme by saying that scientists should be allowed to follow the evidence wherever it leads, and says that evolutionists are suppressing the truth. Rocket was following the evidence where it leads (“intelligent designer” = “God”), and he was banned by the IDists for saying the “wrong thing”.

It’s pretty ridiculous. It’s like someone saying that they’re not going to talk about the president and then saying: “There is someone in the White House who’s a very bad. This person, who’s name begins with “G”, and has a wife named Laura – is very bad. His dad was president. But, I’m *not, not, not* talking about George W. Bush – that’s just your inference, okay? And this bad man went to Yale, and has two daughters. But, if you say that I’m talking about George W. Bush, I’m going to ban you from my website. But, I really secretly want to you make that connection – just don’t say it out-loud. We are not talking about George Bush.”

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I get emails from my relatives sometimes. (My family – both my immediate family and extended family – are pretty religious.) One of the common themes of their email forwards involves this or that “attack” on Christianity (which seems to invariably be a hoax – most of the stuff that gets sent around the internet via email forwards is). Although, since they are right-wing conservative Christians, they get email forwards from their friends and relatives (who think the same) that play into the right-wing conservative Christian worldview. Standing back and looking at things, you kind of understand why they think the way they do – they’re surrounded by people who think like them. Their exposure to information outside the right-wing Christian worldview is infrequent enough that they simply dismiss it as false information — because it doesn’t fit with everything else they believe.

Anyway, here’s the email:

Sorry if you don’t believe in this cause- I wasn’t being picky in my address list. This crap just ticks me off! I don’t watch it but change the channel if you have a problem- this is AMERICA! And GOD Bless our SOLDIERS!

Dr. Dobson & CBS Response

Apparently we are to be allowed to watch TV programs that use every foul word in the English language, but not the word “God.” It will only take a minute to read this and see if you think you should send it out


CBS discontinued “Touched by an Angel” for using the word God in every program. Madeline Murray O’Hare, an atheist, successfully managed to eliminate the use of Bible reading from public schools a few years ago.

Now her organization has been granted a federal hearing on the same subject by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Washington, DC.

Their petition, Number 2493, would ultimately pave the way to stop the reading of the gospel, our Lord and Savior, on the airwaves of America.

They got 287,000 signatures to back their stand! If this attempt is successful, all Sunday worship services being broadcast on the radio or by television will be stopped. This group is also campaigning to remove all Christmas programs and Christmas carols from public schools!

You as a Christian can help!

We are praying for at least 1 million signatures. This would defeat their effort and show that there are many Christians alive, well and concerned about our country. As Christians we must unite on this. Please don’t take this lightly.

We ignored this lady once and lost prayer in our school and in offices across the nation

Please stand up for your religious freedom and let your voice be heard. Together we can make a difference in our country while creating a way for the lost to know the Lord.

Please press “forward”, and forward this to everyone that you think should read this. Now, please sign your name at the bottom ( you can only add your name after you have pressed the “Forward”).

Don’t delete any other names, just go to the next number and type your name and state. Please defeat this organization and keep the right of our freedom of religion.

REMEMBER: Our country was founded on freedom of religion and our Constitution is based on the 10 Commandments.

Agree or Delete: Instructions to sign are at the bottom.


[ Followed by 2200+ names ]

The email is a little weird in that it suddenly changes from ‘keep God on the airwaves’ through most of the text, to ‘reinstate prayer in schools’ at the very end. Anyway, Snopes debunked this story. The email seems to imply that Madalyn Murray O’Hair is still alive (“We ignored this lady once and lost prayer in our school”), but she actually died in 1995 (wikipedia has an interesting entry on her: she was a communist who tried to defect to the USSR; she was a bitter woman; her son – the one involved in the school-prayer court case – became a preacher, and she was ultimately murdered along with her granddaughter.)

But, concerning the actual claims in the article: it’s a bunch of misinformation that ends up making Christians feel embattled, attacked, and under siege. I wonder what exactly the author was thinking as they created it. Was it just a prankster who wanted to see how widely people would distribute his story, or did he want to stir up Christians – make them more politically active by making them feel like victims? Whatever his motive, it certainly does stir up the Christians, and reinforces their opinions about the evil atheists working to remove all mentions of religion on the airwaves. You can almost imagine their reaction: “Where will it end? When will these atheists leave us alone? They work tirelessly to remove all mention of God from this God-fearing country.” Of course, that’s ridiculous. Atheists do have a legitimate complaint over having mandatory prayer and Bible lessons in the public schools (just as Christians would have a legitimate complaint if teachers were preaching Islam to their children in the schools). Although, I think the comparison would be lost on some Christians because, they would argue, quite simply, the comparison doesn’t hold because Christianity is the true religion and Islam is a false religion – therefore, it’s okay to remove Islam from schools, but wrong to remove Christianity. Or, they might argue that most Americans are Christians, so most of the children would simply be learning their parent’s religion in school (too bad if you have a minority view). In the case of Madalyn Murray O’Hair, “In 1959, Murray filed her case on behalf of her son, William J. Murray, who was being forced to attend bible readings in school and was being harassed by teachers and school administrators for refusing to participate.” (Link)

I also found this claim humorous: “REMEMBER: Our country was founded on freedom of religion and our Constitution is based on the 10 Commandments.” Of course, that sentence contradicts itself – the first two of the 10 commandments prevents freedom of religion: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” and “Thou shalt not make for thyself an idol”.

Anyway, I generally feel like my extended family lives in a little bubble where God’s existence is unquestionable, the United State’s laws were built on the Bible, preachers are doing God’s Will, and all good people wave their flags and support President Bush. The other people – the people “out there” – are troublemakers: living in sin, slandering God’s Word, stealing the right to even speak about religion, and pushing their lifestyles on everyone else. Why do atheists get a bad name? Part of it is the simple fact that this kind of misinformation gets spread around the internet.

(On a related topic, I remember getting another ‘Christians are being victimized’ email hoax a number of months back from another relative: A display at the National World War II Memorial omits the words ‘So help us God’ from a speech by President Roosevelt.)

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[Via Pharyngula] I would’ve thought Ben Stein would’ve been smarter than to get involved with something like this. (*Although, after looking up Ben Stein’s politics, it’s clear that he’s very right-wing.) He’s narrating a pretend documentary about how “Big Science” is unfair to the theory of Intelligent Design.

Ben Stein - Expelled

According to a Beliefnet blog:

Not set for release until February, the buzz campaign has already started for this unabashedly Michael-Moore-style, in-your-face documentary. Narrated by Ben Stein–best known for giving his money away and slowly repeating the name “Bueller” from the front of a classroom to hilarious effect–“Expelled” aims to expose the stifling of debate in this country about the origins of life and make the case for the validity of Intelligent Design.

Yesterday, I attended a presentation to drum up advance support for the film. It was led by Paul Lauer–a Christian marketing maven best known for helping make “Passion of the Christ” the blockbuster it was–and one of the film’s co-producers, a man identified only as Logan, who bore a striking resemblance to Ned Flanders incarnate, albeit tanner (and, being a huge Flanders fan, I mean that as a compliment). The purpose was to win over Christians influential in their communities, to make this a must-see, a film to which they’ll preach about, gab about, and bring their friends, family, churches, non-Christian friends, etc. etc.

Let the buzz begin. Not that “Expelled’s” intentionally incendiary tone will need much help from the pastors and religious-school teachers in attendance at yesterday’s meeting. From the clips and trailers they showed, the film presents a world of–to use a quote I heard repeatedly yesterday–“the new scientific movement” (Intelligent Design, in case you weren’t sure) vs. the tired, old “theory” of evolution. Relying on news-clip montages, interviews, even cut-away shots of concentration camps, “Expelled” talks of faithful scientists and other believers losing jobs, losing grants, even losing friends in defense of ID. And, relying on footage of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and other atheists du jure, it sets up a worldview of ID vs. atheism, with no gray areas in between.

And, taking it even further, it posits that, without God, there can be no source of morality, no reason not to “stab someone on the subway,” to borrow another phrase I heard a couple of times yesterday (and which explained, according to Lauer and Logan, the concentration camp scenes, since the film will explore the influence of Darwinism on Hitler). So the battle for ID to be taught on par with evolution is no more, no less than a battle for the legitimacy of morality itself.

These truthy documentaries seem to have become quite a trend in modern America. I have yet to see one that was actually honest, despite all the work they did to try to appear that way. (I found Moore’s Bowling for Columbine and Control Room to be full of spin – not that FOX News is one bit better.) I fully expect this movie to play up it’s truthiness while moves towards a predefined message that it wants people to believe.

Not surprisingly, the movie seems to eschew actual scientific discussion of Intelligent Design, preferring to play-up the victimization of ID advocates (a common and exaggerated claim). I’m sure they’ll avoid talking about the victimization of evolutionists by creationists overseas — or the fact that the (creationist) Kansas Board of Education invited Adnan Oktar, who was behind the attacks, to talk to them. Rather than taking about the mechanisms of evolution, they chose, instead, to talk about the “evils of evolution”: show concentration camps and talk about Adolf “God with Us” Hitler – so they can emotionally inflame people, shutting down the thinking portions of their brains, rather than intellectually convert them. No doubt, they’ll avoid mentioning Martin “We are at fault in not slaying [the Jews]” Luther’s influence on Hitler – whom Hitler praised in his book, Mein Kampf. Meanwhile, Origin of the Species was banned in Nazi Germany.

Speaking of which – there’s something about “Social Darwinism” and eugenics that strikes me as an odd criticism of evolution. Many creationists will say that they believe in “microevolution”, but not “macroevolution”. I’ve also heard creationists claim that when humans chose which animals to breed together (for example, to make a new breed of dog), that it’s an example of Intelligent Design, not evolution (which relies on natural selection – not human selection). The ideas of Social Darwinism and eugenics requires only that microevolution is true (something that creationists, themselves, believe in), and eugenics relies on human choice (making it a branch of Intelligent Design, according to their argument). Whether you believe in “macroevolution” or not, makes no difference to either Social Darwinism or eugenics. (Which makes it unsurprising when we find pro-eugenics Creationists.) It would be nice if Creationists would actually acknowledge the fact that Social Darwinism and eugenics isn’t strengthened by a belief in “macroevolution”. But, for political reasons (i.e. mudslinging), they’ll never admit the fact – it’s too important for keeping the sheep in line.

Update: PZ Myers, who is in the movie, talks about the video shoot he did for them. They said he did an interview for a documentary called “Crossroads: The Intersection of Science and Religion”. It’s not uncommon for films to have working titles that get changed – although it certainly opens up the endless possibilities to misrepresent the spin they’re going to put on the movie. In an apparent move to hide the direction of the movie, the blurb at the film studio merely states:

Crossroads – The Intersection of Science and Religion:
It’s been the been the central question of humanity throughout the ages: How in the world did we get here? In 1859 Charles Darwin provided the answer in his landmark book, “The Origin of the Species.” In the century and a half since, biologists, geologists, physicists, astronomers and philosophers have contributed a vast amount of research and data in support of Darwin’s idea. And yet, millions of Christians, Muslims, Jews and other people of faith believe in a literal interpretation that humans were crafted by the hand of God. This conflict between science and religion has unleashed passions in school board meetings, courtrooms and town halls across America and beyond.

That summary certainly doesn’t show an obvious bias. On the other hand, the website for “Expelled” puts a much more obvious spin on things:

All over the world, Big Science is on the march, making sure that Neo-Darwinian Materialist Theory is protected, and that any challenges and challengers are dealt with…properly.

Science is too important to be left in the hands of just any scientists, no matter how “credentialed” they may be!

Which is why the administration at Big Science Academy thought it essential that students be made acutely aware of what happens to “dissenters” who stray into dangerous areas of science after graduation.

Our Science “Field Trip” allowed Science Club students to travel around the world, and to see first-hand what happens to “the expelled” when they attempt to “follow the evidence wherever it leads.” (Link)

Interesting to see how these games get played.

I also noticed that Ben Stein has a blog post up at the movie’s website. Expecting my comment to be moderated, I attached this comment:

Hi Ben. I was just wondering if someone is moderating this blog. And, if so, do you think it is hypocritical to argue for free speech, but prevent critical comments from showing up on this blog?

“Your comment is awaiting moderation.” Yup. Not surprising in the least.

(Update: My comment, along with about 200 others, was approved within 24 hours of my post. Last I checked, there were over 900 comments. On a cursory read over the first hundred or so, none in particular stood out. Yes, you can tell Ben Stein he is wrong, but that’s certainly not going to change his mind. Most of the comments didn’t seem to have much in the way of useful arguments against his position.)

See also:
Church of the Designer Who Shall not be Named
Creationist Censorship – WordPress and Turkey

Update: I have been instructed by the shadowy network of atheist bloggers to provide this link to Expelled.

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Seems like just yesterday that I was talking about the censorship-happy creationists. Turns out, it was five days ago. Creationists like to pretend that they are censored (so they can stoke beliefs of victimization), but tend to be much more active at preventing critical comments from showing up on their blogs. Well, you can’t read WordPress in Turkey now. Why? Because Adnan Oktar (aka Harun Yahya – *the* major creationist group in Turkey) was unhappy about the things that wordpress bloggers were saying, so he talked the Turkish government into blocking WordPress from the entire country. (Timpanogos has some more commentary on this.)

For those not familiar with Harun Yahya (the pen name of Adnan Oktar), he runs an organization that creates all kinds of creationist materials. Recently, he claimed that evolution is the source of terrorism:

Oktar’s group claims Darwin is responsible for communism, fascism, and terrorism. Terrorists, according to Oktar, are “social Darwinists hiding under the cloak of religion,” while communists, still active in Turkey, are in “bloody alliance” with Darwinism. “Evolution is a communist and fascist belief,” offers Tarkan Yavas, BAV’s president. “The Muslim community understands that now.” (Link)

Adnan is the founder of BAV – Bilim Araştirma Vakfi (“Scientific Research Foundation”), which is a creationist group. (What an Orwellian naming scheme.) They lead (and won) the fight to get professors to stop teaching evolution in Turkey. How did they do this? By scaring and browbeating professors into silence.

In 1985 the [Turkish] minister of education mandated that creationism be included in science textbooks. By the late 1990s, the BAV was attacking scientists who opposed a creationist curriculum via slander and death threats. The cumulative damage to science has been significant. Ümit Sayin, a neurologist at Istanbul University and outspoken critic of Turkish creationism, estimates that the number of university-educated Turks who understand evolution has dropped to 20 percent from 40 percent over the past 15 years. (Link)

Professors there say they were harassed and threatened, and some of them were slandered in fliers that labeled them “Maoists” for teaching evolution. In 1999, six of the professors won a civil court case against BAV for defamation and were awarded $4,000 each. (Link)

According to the court documents, “a severe and unjust attack was perpetrated on the plaintiffs’ personal rights, by listing the names of the scientists defending the theory of evolution and describing them as communists and separatists on the flyers distributed by the foundation.” (Link)

But seven years after BAV’s offensive began, says Istanbul University forensics professor Umit Sayin (one of the slandered faculty members), the battle is over.

“There is no fight against the creationists now. They have won the war,” Sayin tells the Pitch from his home in Istanbul. “In 1998, I was able to motivate six members of the Turkish Academy of Sciences to speak out against the creationist movement. Today, it’s impossible to motivate anyone. They’re afraid they’ll be attacked by the radical Islamists and the BAV.”

“Evolution is presented [by BAV] as a conspiracy of the Jewish and American imperialists to promote new world order and fascist motives … and the majority of the people believe it.” (Link)

So, they accuse “Darwinism” to be the cause of terrorism, but use slander and death threats to get their way.

Despite all of Adnan Oktar’s underhanded and nasty ways, the Kansas board of education decided to bring him in to testify at their 2005 pro-Creationist court case (which was widely regarded as a Creationist kangaroo court designed to confer legitimacy to creationism). Scary the kinds of allies US creationists can attract, isn’t it?

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The Myth, the Math, the Sex

The NY Times put up an article recently titled, “The Myth, the Math, the Sex”. It’s about the discrepancy between self-reported sexual partners.

One survey, recently reported by the federal government, concluded that men had a median of seven female sex partners. Women had a median of four male sex partners. Another study, by British researchers, stated that men had 12.7 heterosexual partners in their lifetimes and women had 6.5.

But there is just one problem, mathematicians say. It is logically impossible for heterosexual men to have more partners on average than heterosexual women. Those survey results cannot be correct.

(Side note: median is probably the wrong word here. Did they mean “mean“, which is the same as “average”? Because there’s really no problem getting two different medians. Different averages, on the other hand, are mathematically impossible.)

They run through some possibilities:
– Men are exaggerating numbers
– Women are minimizing their numbers
– Prostitutes (who aren’t included in the surveys) skew the numbers for men (more specifically, if every man had slept with three different prostitutes, or one in ten men slept with 30 different prostitutes, it would create an average gap of 3 between men’s and women’s numbers)

Since the survey asked about the number of female sex partners for males, and male sexual partners for females, it eliminates the chance for homosexual sexual partners to skew those numbers.

The article concluded that men were probably exaggerating and women were under-counting their numbers. There were a few things the article missed, though. First of all, they don’t define was a “sexual partner” was. Men, eager to boost their numbers, might consider oral sex in their count of sex partners. On the other hand, women, eager to lower their numbers, might ignore oral sex in their count.

Additionally, a long time ago, I had read an article about another study involving heterosexual college students aged 18 to 25. In this other study, they had split men and women into three different groups. In the first group of men and women, they filled out a questionnaire which included their names that asked how many sex partners they had over their lifetime. To the second group, they gave men and women anonymous questionnaires asking them how many sex partners they had over their lifetime. To the third group, they hooked up each person to a (fake) lie detector machine and asked them how many sex partners they had over their lifetime. What were the results? The men in all three procedures gave approximately the same answer. (I have to admit, I was a bit surprised that the self-reported number didn’t change.) The women, on the other hand, showed a bias. When asked on questionnaires with their names attached, their sexual partners number was low (2.6 sexual partners). When given an anonymous questionnaire, the numbers were a little higher (3.4 sexual partners). And when hooked up to a lie detector, their numbers were higher still (4.4 sexual partners). It seems that when researchers ask how many sexual partners someone has had, the men appear to be fairly honest, but the women are minimizing their numbers.

Update: I found the fake lie-detector study, via Feministe. (BTW, why do hardcore feminists always sound like they’re yelling directly into my face?)

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The Conspiracy Boom

BoingBoing has an interesting article up called The Conspiracy Boom. It was originally written for Salon, but never published. It’s mainly about the rash of conspiracy theories in the world today.

The Conspiracy Boom
Why is nothing what it appears to be anymore?

Say what you will about conspiracy theories, they are unlikely to go away as long as real life, courtesy of the daily news, keeps tossing us events that seem like, well, conspiracies.

Take the Litvinenko assassination. Russian ex-spy turned journalist, who is a vocal critic of the Putin regime, flees to London, where he swallows a radioactive appetizer over lunch and dies shortly thereafter.

British cuisine may have an unsavory reputation, but no one in their right mind assumes that polonium-210 has become a staple at London restaurants. Someone, it would appear, was out to get Litvinenko…

( Read the Full Article )

I have to say, it seems like there are a lot of conspiracy theories going around right now. Some people in my building believe that 9/11 was an inside job. The movie ‘Freedom to Fascism‘ has also been passed around my building with a few people taken in by its message (the essential message of the movie is that: according to US laws, the government does not have the power to ask civilians to pay income taxes; the US government has been controlled by the privately owned Federal Reserve since the 1930s, etc) As you might expect, the clips of the movie that I saw had plenty of obvious distortions, uses quote mines, etc – but if you aren’t on your toes, you might get sucked in.

Just the other day, I heard an interesting episode of This American Life about a woman’s experience with the 7/7 bombings in London and the conspiracy nuts who think the 7/7 bombings were an inside job by the British Government. The conspiracy guys accuse this woman (who was inside the train car where the bomb exploded) of being a government plant designed to affirm the British government’s official story. Unsurprisingly, she is frustrated by the conspiracy theorists’ unwillingness to accept anything except their preconceived beliefs – no matter what she says.

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As a followup to my last post, I wanted to say a little more about Kurt Wise. Specifically, this quote:

“Either the Scripture was true and evolution was wrong or evolution was true and I must toss out the Bible. . . . It was there that night that I accepted the Word of God and rejected all that would ever counter it, including evolution.”

Creationists don’t like to admit it (for political reasons), but this is frequently the case – they are caught between believing science or believing the Bible, and they choose the Bible. But, it goes beyond creationism – and to Christianity itself. I’ve seen this sort of ‘close your eyes and just believe’ theme in many different Christian contexts. For example:

“When you throw Human Logic and Reasoning out the window and just believe God, things become much, much clearer.” (Fundies Say the Darndest Things)

“Reason is the Devil’s harlot, who can do nought but slander and harm whatever God says and does.” — Martin Luther (Link)

“Whoever wants to be a Christian should tear the eyes out of his reason.” — Martin Luther (Link)

“Christians, like slaves and soldiers, ask no questions” — Jerry Falwell (Link)

On my desk, I have a copy of Lee Strobel’s “The Case For Faith”. On page 12 of the book, it reads:

“[Billy] Graham searched the Scriptures for answers, he prayed, he pondered. Finally, in a heavy-hearted walk in the moonlit San Bernardino Mountains, everything came to a climax. Gripping the Bible, Graham dropped to his knees and confessed he couldn’t answer some of the philosophical and psychological questions that Templeton and others were raising.
“I was trying to be on the level with God, but something remained unspoken,” he wrote. “At last the Holy Spirit freed me to say it. ‘Father, I am going to accept this as Thy Word – by faith! I’m going to allow faith to go beyond my intellectual questions and doubts, and I will believe this to be Your inspired Word.”
Rising from his knees, tears in his eyes, Graham said he sensed the power of God as he hadn’t felt it for months. “Not all my questions were answered, but a major bridge had been crossed,” he said. “In my heart and mind, I knew a spiritual battle in my soul had been fought and won.”
For Graham, it was a pivotal moment. For Templeton, though, it was a bitterly disappointing turn of events. “He committed intellectual suicide by closing his mind,” Templeton declared. The emotion he felt towards his friend was pity.

This type of story is common. A Christian gets into a position where evidence and logic (what your brain tells you) conflicts with faith (what you want to believe). They choose to reject evidence and logic in favor faith, and many Christians consider that to be a positive thing; a laudable action. The problem with this is that your brain is your best source for helping you determine whether your religion is true or false. Imagine if this story were retold slightly differently:

The [young Muslim] dropped to his knees and confessed he couldn’t answer some of the philosophical and psychological questions that [Christians] and others were raising … ‘[Allah], I am going to accept this as Thy Word – by faith! I’m going to allow faith to go beyond my intellectual questions and doubts, and I will believe [the Koran] to be Your inspired Word.

I’m sure Christians would recoil in horror at that version of the story. But, what’s the difference – once you throw out logic and reason, you lose the capability to identify a religion as a false religion. This means sticking with a religion (whatever religion it happens to be), and disarming yourself of any ability to think otherwise. A long time ago, I remember reading something that a former Moonie had written. He was confronted with evidence that Rev. Sun Myung Moon (a Korean cult leader who says he is Jesus reincarnated) wasn’t actually god. He immediately began to mentally recite a mantra in his mind. He couldn’t allow himself to think about the possibility that his faith was wrong – so he shut-down his thinking. Christians, I’m sure, would recoil in horror at the idea of cultists and followers of other religions shutting down their thinking in order to maintain their false beliefs, but consider it a good thing when Christians do this.

So, I agree with Templeton in the previous story when he says, “[Graham] committed intellectual suicide by closing his mind”. I also think the “rush” Graham felt after making that decision was not God, but rather, was the feeling of elation that comes from removing himself from the tension between evidence and his belief. He has a strong emotional attachment to his religion, but also felt that evidence and logic were important. Unfortunately, they were in conflict with each other. He resolved the conflict by killing the very idea of having thoughts – a religious lobotomy designed to stop those troublesome thoughts. That lead to a wave of elation when he fully embraced the religious ideas he wanted to believe in, and dismissed those troublesome thoughts. No doubt, people of any religion or cult would feel a similar stress if their beliefs were put under pressure by evidence and logic, and a similar elation if they simply dismissed their own thoughts with a simple decision to ignore thinking.

I’m not going to lobotomize my doubts and simply embrace religion. It’s a recipe for disaster, in my opinion. Yet, I’m sure Christians would argue that my unwillingness to dismiss thoughts makes me guilty of some sort of intellectual hubris – to think that I should understand “the thoughts of God”. As Graham puts it, trying to understand was equivalent to “I was trying to be on the level with God”. In other words, they’d redefine my thoughts – the same thoughts that allow me to reject all the other religions – as some sort of moral failing or flaw. This goes back to the same problem I discussed a few posts ago – when the Religion reporter began to have doubts about the existence of God, and asked a pastor about it. The pastor’s reply was essentially that God knows what we don’t, and we shouldn’t expect to understand. Like most of religion’s mind-games, this one is flexible enough that it can be reapplied by other religions. You’re having doubts about Jim Jones and his cyanide-laced kool-aid? Who are you to question the mind of God? Who are you to think that you *should* understand it? The correct answer, of course, is: don’t shut down your brain otherwise you’ll never find your way out of the Jim Jones cult. We could make this situation even more ridiculous: what if we were raised to believe in Cluck-Cluck the Bird-God? We point out glaring errors, contradictions, and problems with the religion, and they (the believers) redefine our legitimate criticisms as intellectual hubris? As Graham says, questioning the Bird-God story is tantamount to “I was trying to be on the level with God”. Who are we to question the Great Bird-God? No doubt, we deserve hell for our sinful pride and intellectualism.

In contrast to the religious’ idea of shutting down thoughts, I recently read a quote by Chris Mooney. It states:

In other words, you might say that now more than ever before, we’re finally waking up to the fact that the practices of science themselves encode a set of values — a way of approaching the world, understanding it, and acting within it. At its core, it’s a world view that is humble about what we know and don’t know, flexible about what we do and don’t decide to do, and open about admitting past mistakes and listening to contrary opinion.

The scientific set of values is that you shouldn’t stop thinking or searching – about all things. It doesn’t involve Billy Graham’s I’m-going-to-close-my-eyes-and-just-believe. It doesn’t involve shutting down one’s thoughts and ignoring contrary opinion. Billy Graham’s beliefs, on the other hand, achieves blind unquestioning certainty about his religion by “being humble” about thoughts if and only if those thoughts conflict with his religion. The thoughts that reinforce religion – well those are entirely different, and Christians are asked to reinforce those ideas. It’s not at all difficult to find preachers and Christians being incredibly certain about this or that religious idea. In fact, it seems to be the rule, rather than the exception. Humility about one’s own thoughts and knowledge goes out the window if you’re Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Benny Hinn, or John Hagee — who frequently make bold predictions or declare someone to be an enemy of God. Similarly, humility and willingness to admit you don’t know much is rejected if you’re a Creationist.

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I stumbled across a blog the other day by an ID advocate. Not just any ID advocate, but “a student at the Honors College at Baylor University where he is double majoring in philosophy and political science. He works as a research assistant at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. In addition, he is the director of the Intelligent Design Undergraduate Research Center (IDURC), the student branch of the Access Research Network (ARN), and he moderates the new Overwhelming Evidence website.”

Connected to a seminary, ARN, and William Dembski — he’s obviously a die-hard. I happened to read one of his posts: The Irrationality of Richard Dawkins, which begins “It is an excellent assessment of Richard Dawkins and his newest book, The God Delusion…” and goes on to paste an article by Dr. Francis J. Beckwith of Baylor University. So, what is this “excellent assessment” of Richard Dawkins? The article states:

Point #1: Kurt Wise was a promising young scientist:

According to Dawkins, Wise was at one time a promising young scholar who had earned a degree in geology (from the University of Chicago) and advanced degrees in geology and paleontology from Harvard University, where he studied under the highly acclaimed Stephen Jay Gould. Wise is also a young-earth creationist, which means that he accepts a literal interpretation of the first chapters of Genesis and maintains that the earth is less than ten thousand years old.

Point #2: Wise decided that Evolution and Literal Genesis were incompatible, and chose to believe in Genesis:

Wise writes: “Either the Scripture was true and evolution was wrong or evolution was true and I must toss out the Bible. . . . It was there that night that I accepted the Word of God and rejected all that would ever counter it, including evolution. With that, in great sorrow, I tossed into the fire all my dreams and hopes in science.”

Point #3: Dawkins is dismayed by Wise’ choice to ditch science for religion:

Writes Dawkins: “I find that terribly sad . . . the Kurt Wise story is just plain pathetic—pathetic and contemptible. The wound, to his career and his life’s happiness, was self-inflicted, so unnecessary, so easy to escape. . . . I am hostile to religion because of what it did to Kurt Wise. And if it did that to a Harvard educated geologist, just think what it can do to others less gifted and less well armed.”

Now, Beckwith is setting us up for his big punch: the irrationality of Richard Dawkins. Get ready for it.

Dawkins harshly criticizes Wise for embracing a religious belief that results in Wise’s not treating himself and his talents, intelligence, and abilities in a way appropriate for their full flourishing.

But Dawkins, in fact, does not actually believe that living beings, including human beings, have intrinsic purposes or are designed so that one may conclude that violating one’s proper function amounts to a violation of one’s moral duty to oneself.

But this means that his lament for Wise is misguided, for Dawkins is lamenting what only appears to be Wise’s dereliction of his duty to nurture and employ his gifts in ways that result in his happiness and an acquisition of knowledge that contributes to the common good. Yet because there are no designed natures and no intrinsic purposes, and thus no natural duties that we are obligated to obey, the intuitions that inform Dawkins’ judgment of Wise are as illusory as the design he explicitly rejects. But that is precisely one of the grounds by which Dawkins suggests that theists are irrational and ought to abandon their belief in God.

Um, what? His whole argument rests on the notion that the only way Dawkins can lament Wise’ rejection of science is through the notions of “proper function”, “intrinsic purpose”, and “duty to nurture and employ his gifts”. I’m amazed that this sort of argument was written by a professor, and then called an “excellent assessment” by Chen. Clearly, we don’t believe in “intrinsic purpose”, but we can feel sad that someone who was talented has rejected science (something he enjoyed), and that science has lost the contributions he would have made if he was not barred by his religion. The whole argument is ridiculous. The only thing I can guess is that they are so deep in their own worldview, that they can’t imagine how anyone else could function outside of it. I posted a response, but – as I often find with creationists and ID advocates – it’s moderated, and my post still hasn’t appeared after three days. I’ve become quite accustomed to having my responses rejected by creationists and ID advocates – afterall, they can’t have sympathetic visitors seeing their ideas dismantled.

A quick google search reveals that other people have noted Chen’s tendency for censorship and spin as well. It’s always funny to have them complain about censorship by the evil “darwinists”, and then block anti-ID arguments from their websites. Meanwhile, the evolutionist websites are wide open for competing ideas. I’ve seen a few people banned from websites like the Panda’s Thumb and Pharyngula, but even in those cases, the websites tend to be extremely (and probably overly) patient with people.

There are times when Christians and creationists (ranging from YECs to ID advocates) make arguments that are so bad, you have to stand back and think, “it’s hopeless to believe these people can be brought around with logic”. They’ll make one logical error after another – always benefiting their own side, of course. And if you set them straight on one error, you know they’ll just make another one tomorrow. In some cases, these are competent people in many areas of life, but sometimes it seems like they drop a good 30 IQ points when they talk about creationism or God.

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