Tag Archives: PZ Myers

E=MC Fluoride

Max Fisher at The Atlantic:

Andy Schlafly, son of controversial conservative figure Phyllis Shlafly and founder of Conservapedia, the ideologically oriented alternative to Wikipedia, has found a new bugbear: the theory of relativity. Shlafly insists that Albert Einstein’s world-changing idea, elegantly expressed in the equation E=mc2, is part of a pervasive and long-held liberal conspiracy to make people have abortions and stop believing in Jesus. Conservapedia’s surprisingly lengthy articles on relativity makes a convoluted and free-wheeling case that it’s all a government hoax:

The theory of relativity is a mathematical system that allows no exceptions. It is heavily promoted by liberals who like its encouragement of relativism and its tendency to mislead people in how they view the world. …  Virtually no one who is taught and believes relativity continues to read the Bible, a book that outsells New York Times bestsellers by a hundred-fold.

Despite censorship of dissent about relativity, evidence contrary to the theory is discussed outside of liberal universities. … Some liberal politicians have extrapolated the theory of relativity to metaphorically justify their own political agendas. For example, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama helped publish an article by liberal law professor Laurence Tribe to apply the relativistic concept of “curvature of space” to promote a broad legal right to abortion. … Applications of the theory of relativity to change morality have also been common. … The Theory of Relativity enjoys a disproportionate share of federal funding of physics research today.

Megan Carpentier at Talking Points Memo:

Schlafly also points to the Bible as a reason that Einstein’s theory must be wrong:

9. The action-at-a-distance by Jesus, described in John 4:46-54.

Conservapedia defines “action-at-a-distance” as “Action at a distance consists of affecting a distant body instantaneously. At the atom level, this is known as “non-locality.” In non-confusing terms, that indicates the ability to cause something to happen instantaneously in another location (i.e., faster than the speed of light). Since Jesus could, reportedly, do this, thus Einstein is wrong. Schlafly’s evidence is John 4:46-54, in which Jesus reportedly cured someone’s son just by saying it had happened.

Once more he visited Cana in Galilee, where he had turned the water into wine. And there was a certain royal official whose son lay sick at Capernaum.When this man heard that Jesus had arrived in Galilee from Judea, he went to him and begged him to come and heal his son, who was close to death.

“Unless you people see miraculous signs and wonders,” Jesus told him, “you will never believe.”

The royal official said, “Sir, come down before my child dies.”

Jesus replied, “You may go. Your son will live.”The man took Jesus at his word and departed.

While he was still on the way, his servants met him with the news that his boy was living.
When he inquired as to the time when his son got better, they said to him, “The fever left him yesterday at the seventh hour.”

Then the father realized that this was the exact time at which Jesus had said to him, “Your son will live.” So he and all his household believed.

This was the second miraculous sign that Jesus performed, having come from Judea to Galilee.

Schlafly brags on Conservapedia that he has homeschooled 185 children, all of whom do exceptionally well on standardized tests.

As with Wikipedia and other online crowd-sourced resources, Conservapedia is a colloborative effort of its users and any registered user can post to the site. Schlafly is a frequent contributor to the site, and is identified as the initial author of the entry and well as the editor of the note identified above. Schlafly did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Paul Krugman:

Everyone knows that the American right has problems with science that yields conclusions it doesn’t like. Climate science — which says that we face a huge global externality that requires not just government intervention, but coordinated international action (black helicopters!) has been the target of a sustained, and unfortunately largely successful, attempt to damage its credibility.

But it doesn’t stop there. We should not forget that much of the right is deeply hostile to the theory of evolution.

And now there’s a new one (to me, anyway; maybe it’s been out there all along): it turns out that, according to Conservapedia, the theory of relativity is a liberal plot.

PZ Myers at Science Blogs:

That darn English language that makes words with different meanings sometimes sound similar — it always ends up confusing Christian conservatives of very little brain, whose depth of understanding can only be measured in micrometers. The latest from Conservapædia is that they are on a crusade against Einstein…because smart people who study relativity aren’t reading the Bible, and because a theory about relationship between matter and energy and the speed of light encourages people to be open-minded and tolerant about different ideas, other than the Fundamentalist Evangelical Christian Kakistocracy (FECK for short).

Andy Schlafly is a real boon to us Gnu Atheists who argue that religion rots your brain.

Scott Lemieux:

Seeing this made me want to check in on Conservapedia and see what their classic entry on judicial activism looked like these days.   Fortunately, it’s still enough to make you think the site was a parody, improved by the fact that we now know it’s not.    It starts off in relatively neutral-sounding terms:

Judicial activism is when courts do not confine themselves to reasonable interpretations of laws, but instead create law. Alternatively, judicial activism is when courts do not limit their ruling to the dispute before them, but instead establish a new rule to apply broadly to issues not presented in the specific action.

Hmm, let me try to think of a recent example of that last phenomenon….anyway, eventually they cut to the chase:

In this regard, judicial activism is a way for liberals to avoid the regular legislative means of enacting laws in order to ignore public opinion and dodge public debate.

So judicial activism is something that, by definition, liberals and only liberals do. I wish it was only wingers who accepted this as opposed to a lot of “centrist” pundits. But things get even better:

Judicial activism should not be confused with the courts’ Constitutionally mandated rule in preserving the Constitutional structure of government, as they did in Bush v. Gore, Boy Scouts v. Dale, and D.C. v. Heller.

Yes, if anything is fundamental to our structure of constitutional government, it’s that ballots cast under different voting systems must be counted in the same way if this is necessary to elect a Republican president, and in no other cases. And of the three cases they mention, it’s also instructive that they pick one that involves limiting the reach of civil rights laws. Conveniently, their examples of “judicial activism” draw a line under this:

# Brown v. Board of Education – 1954 Supreme Court ruling ordering the desegregation of public schools.
# Griswold v. Connecticut – 1965 Supreme Court ruling establishing a constitutional right to posess [sic], distribute and use contraception.
# Loving v. Virginia – 1967 Supreme Court ruling requiring the legalization of interracial marriage.

Well, at least they’re consistent! Your classier wingnuts tend not to apply their views in such a logical manner. I’m disappointed, however, that they didn’t add to this a traditional Republican complaint about how Ted Kennedy “slandered” Robert Bork by mentioning his publicly stated views in public

Tristero:

I know, I know. It really is very funny but I can’t laugh at this.

Why? Because some of you, right now, are starting to waste the little time you have here on earth by marshalling reasoned arguments and accurate facts to refute Conservapedia’s lies. And so are others. And that is terribly sad.

Worse, it is counterproductive, because every moment you spend engaging right wing lunatics over tired, out-of-date, and utterly nonsensical argument over science they think is too liberal, is a moment taken away from encountering the truly exciting discoveries being announced almost hourly (here’s one: a crocodile with the teeth of a mammal!). And if you are so busy refighting the past that you can’t keep up with the present, then it becomes all that harder to understand what science is doing, and to support it. I’m not talking, say, a Palin/McCain/Jindal level of ignorance, of course. But if you truly think that it is vitally important to engage people who question Einstein’s theory of relativity, it becomes that much harder to muster the cultural courage to fund research that takes relativity for granted. After all, even if I “believe in relativity” wouldn’t it be better to fund research that proves relativity beyond a shadow of a doubt than stuff that assumes it’s true?*

But wait! you protest. We can’t let that garbage hang out there uncontested. Besides, people will learn a great deal about physics if we address the arguments in a clear, accessible fashion, and teach reality.

Yes, sure, I’ll agree that’s all true. So what?

Sure, we can contest them. But if we completely ignore their utterly ridiculous lies, distortions, and antiquated disputes, then we, not they, get to set the terms of the discourse. That is one reason why great scientists won’t bother to lower themselves to engage folks like the bozos behind Conservapedia (doing so also elevates the bozos). I see no reason why anyone, scientist or layperson, should enter an argument over the relativism of relativity. On the other hand, I do think we need to expose right wing ignoramuses as often as possible. In order to ridicule them. And to sneer. But argue over whether E=MC squared makes Jesus’ miracles impossible? That’s a waste of time. Ok, go ahead if you want to. Whatever. But if want to do some real good, you’ll laugh at them instead.

As for learning a great deal about physics through debunking lies…well, yeah, that’ll work. But I think you could learn much more physics by exploring truth. And that requires honest discussion which, almost by definition, cannot take place with people who insist on an enagagement over lies and distortions.

Please people, laugh all you want at these clowns. Mock them. Denounce them, rail against them. Just don’t make the mistake of arguing with them. Don’t waste your time, and ours.*** We can’t afford it now. We never could.

Attaturk at Firedoglake:

Oh for f**k’s sake!

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Filed under Conservative Movement, Science, Technology

Pepsigate: The Blogging Scandal Of A New Generation

Coturnix, a former Scienceblogger, has the master list of links about Pepsigate.

Curtis Brainard at Columbia Journalism Review:

At least two well-respected science journalists and a handful of scientists have canceled their blogs at the popular and heretofore highly respected ScienceBlogs.com community, protesting Seed Media Group’s decision to give PepsiCo a nutrition blog.

On Tuesday afternoon, ScienceBlogs.com’s editor, Evan Lerner (who has contributed to CJR), posted a short note announcing the new blog, called Food Frontiers, which explained that:

As part of this partnership, we’ll hear from a wide range of experts on how the company is developing products rooted in rigorous, science-based nutrition standards to offer consumers more wholesome and enjoyable foods and beverages. The focus will be on innovations in science, nutrition and health policy. In addition to learning more about the transformation of PepsiCo’s product portfolio, we’ll be seeing some of the innovative ways it is planning to reduce its use of energy, water and packaging.

Longtime members of the ScienceBlogs.com community reacted quickly and angrily to the move, arguing that Pepsi was “buying credibility” created by other bloggers on the site, and tarnishing that credibility in the process (tip of the hat to the Knight Science Journalism Tracker, which brought the scoop to wide attention on Wednesday with a post titled, “ScienceBlogs Trashes its Bloggers’ Credibility”). Announcing that he would move his popular neuroscience blog, Neuron Culture, science journalist and author David Dobbs wrote:

Call me old-fashioned, but I can’t cotton to this. With the addition of Food Frontiers, ScienceBlogs has redrawn the boundaries of what it considers legitimate and constructive blogo-journalism about science. In doing so they define an environment I can’t live comfortably in. So with this post I’m leaving ScienceBlogs. For the moment I am moving my blog to Neuron Culture, hosted by WordPress, while considering other venues that might make sense for me.

Rebecca Skloot, the best-selling author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and Brian Switek, a freelance science writer and blogger for Smithsonian, announced they, too, are putting their blogs on hiatus. Likewise, Blake Stacey, a physicist and science-fiction writer who writes the blog Science After Sunclipse, Mark Chu-Carroll, a software engineer at Google who writes the blog Good Math, Bad Math, and Dave Bacon, a theoretical physicist who runs the blog The Quantum Pontiff, suspended their operations.

PZ Myers at Scienceblogs:

So what’s with the corporate drones moving in next door?

They aren’t going to be doing any scienceblogging — this is straight-up commercial propaganda. You won’t be seeing much criticism of Pepsico corporate policies, or the bad nutritional habits spread by cheap fast food, or even any behind-the-scenes stories about the lives of Pepsico employees that paints a picture of the place as anything less than Edenesque. Do you think any of the ‘bloggers’ will express any controversial opinions that might annoy any potential customers?

There won’t be a scrap of honest opinion expressed over there that isn’t filtered and vetted by cautious editors before making it online, and it will all toe the Pepsi line. It’s going to be boring. It’s going to blur the line between blog content and advertising. It’s going to be bloodless dull blogging that will diminish the Scienceblogs brand.

So don’t say hello to them at all — don’t even bother to read them. If you want to know more about food science, check out Tomorrow’s Table or Obesity Panacea (more of an exercise physiology blog than a nutrition blog, but they did recently post on sugar-sweetened beverages. Didn’t like ’em.)

Oh, and I don’t care what the Supreme Court said. Corporations aren’t people. I read blogs written by sentient beings, not committees of shills.

Mary Carmichael at Newsweek:

Whatever happens with Myers and the rest of the “SciBlings,” as they’ve become known, it’s pretty clear that a line was crossed with the Pepsi blog and that the line should never be approached again. Yet, with the institutional blogs, one could argue that the SEED Media Group is, if not completely crossing the line, tiptoeing along it. InstitutionalBlogGate (a term no one is actually using, and rightly so) isn’t egregious the way PepsiGate was, since none of the institutions paid for their slots. Also, to quote a commenter at Brookhaven’s blog, “there’s an appreciable difference between a national laboratory and a corporate PR venture.” The labs aren’t trying to sell readers an unhealthy product; they’re trying to spread the word about potentially important research that might make people healthier.

Still, there are some issues of credibility at stake. Would a blog authored by Pepsi scientists have been OK if ScienceBlogs had given it to the company for free? If not, what exactly is different about a research institution’s blog? Can readers put their full faith in these five blogs the same way they can with an ostensibly independent individual’s site? Or is there a difference, the way there is between reading a press release describing a study and more skeptical media coverage of the same research?

A lot depends on who’s doing the writing. Many science writers employed by PR departments are lyrical stylists and smart, conscientious people. But they don’t necessarily fill the role of watchdog the way good journalists and independent bloggers do. That function was neatly described by Marc Ambinder last week in The Atlantic: “When a story is complex, journalists ought to examine whatever thesis they hold and attempt, by reporting, to falsify it.” That’s a little like a scientist’s job description, if you think about it: come up with a hypothesis and then try as hard as you can to prove it wrong. But it’s not a PR person’s job description. “The people writing these blogs are not truly speaking independently as individuals,” says Dobbs, one of the writers who left the network after PepsiGate. “They can’t react critically to everything–at least I don’t think they can while keeping their jobs. Ideally, I would like to see the [institutional] blogs removed. I think ScienceBlogs and the readers would be better off if they weren’t there.”

Not all bloggers feel this way, Myers included. “We’ve known about those [institutional blogs] for some time—they aren’t a problem,” he wrote in an e-mail to NEWSWEEK. “Those sites were set up under the same conditions as the blogs of corporate scientist Mark Chu-Carroll, who works at Google, and university scientist PZ Myers, who works at the University of Minnesota. … [The Pepsi blog blurred] the boundary between advertising and content. I agree that the institutional blogs also blur that boundary, just not quite as much. I can’t insist that their blogs be labeled as advertisements, unless I want my blog marked as an ad for the University of Minnesota, or Chu-Carroll’s as an ad for Google. It’s complicated and messy.”

Virginia Heffernan at NYT:

It started last month when 20 or so high-placed science bloggers angrily parted ways with an extremely popular and award-winning online collective called ScienceBlogs because it starting running Food Frontiers, a nutrition blog that PepsiCo paid to have on the site. (Several of the collective’s contributors, including some who left in protest, have written for The Times Magazine.) In farewell posts, the bloggers charged that the advertorial was deceptive and undermined the purpose of the collective.

Seed Media Group, which oversees ScienceBlogs, eventually killed off the commercial blog, but the staff bloggers kept leaving. Some have predicted that the ScienceBlogs network won’t survive the defections. “The ship is sinking,” mused PZ Myers, the writer of the site’s top blog, Pharyngula, which is devoted to “evolution, development and random biological ejaculations from a godless liberal.”

I was nonplussed by the high dudgeon of the so-called SciBlings. The bloggers evidently write often enough for ad-free academic journals that they still fume about adjacencies, advertorial and infomercials. Most writers for “legacy” media like newspapers, magazines and TV see brush fires over business-editorial crossings as an occupational hazard. They don’t quit anytime there’s an ad that looks so much like an article it has to be marked “this is an advertisement.”

But the bloggers’ eek-a-mouse posturing wasn’t the most striking part of the affair. Instead, it was the weird vindictiveness of many of the most prominent blogs. The stilted and seething tone of some of the defection posts sent me into the ScienceBlogs archives, where I expected to find original insights into science by writers who stress that they are part of, in the blogger Dave Munger’s words, “the most influential science blogging network in the world.” And while I found interesting stuff here and there, I also discovered that ScienceBlogs has become preoccupied with trivia, name-calling and saber rattling. Maybe that’s why the ScienceBlogs ship started to sink.

Recently a blogger called GrrlScientist, on Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted), expressed her disgust at the “flock of hugely protruding bellies and jiggling posteriors everywhere I go.” Gratuitous contempt like this is typical. Mark Hoofnagle on Denialism Blog sideswiped those who question antibiotics, writing, “their particular ideology requires them to believe in the primacy of religion (Christian Science, New Age Nonsense) or in the magical properties of nature.” Over at Pharyngula — which often ranks in the Top 100 blogs on the Internet— PZ Myers revels in sub-“South Park” blasphemy, presenting (in one recent stunt) his sketch of the Prophet Muhammad as a cow-pig hybrid excited about “raping a 9-year-old girl.”

Clearly I’ve been out of some loop for too long, but does everyone take for granted now that science sites are where graduate students, researchers, doctors and the “skeptical community” go not to interpret data or review experiments but to chip off one-liners, promote their books and jeer at smokers, fat people and churchgoers? And can anyone who still enjoys this class-inflected bloodsport tell me why it has to happen under the banner of science?

Hammering away at an ideology, substituting stridency for contemplation, pummeling its enemies in absentia: ScienceBlogs has become Fox News for the religion-baiting, peak-oil crowd. Though Myers and other science bloggers boast that they can be jerky in the service of anti-charlatanism, that’s not what’s bothersome about them. What’s bothersome is that the site is misleading. It’s not science by scientists, not even remotely; it’s science blogging by science bloggers. And science blogging, apparently, is a form of redundant and effortfully incendiary rhetoric that draws bad-faith moral authority from the word “science” and from occasional invocations of “peer-reviewed” thises and thats.

Under cover of intellectual rigor, the science bloggers — or many of the most visible ones, anyway — prosecute agendas so charged with bigotry that it doesn’t take a pun-happy French critic or a rapier-witted Cambridge atheist to call this whole ScienceBlogs enterprise what it is, or has become: class-war claptrap.

Ross Douthat

Tim Lambert at Scienceblogs:

But what really takes the cake is this:

For science that’s accessible but credible, steer clear of polarizing hatefests like atheist or eco-apocalypse blogs. Instead, check out scientificamerican.com, discovermagazine.com and Anthony Watts’s blog, Watts Up With That?

Heffernan reckons that Whats Up With That presents credible science. This is a blog that argues that Venus is hot, not because of the greenhouse effect, but because of the high pressure in the atmosphere (so hence Jupiter and Saturn are the hottest planets right?) . Look:

If there were no Sun (or other external energy source) atmospheric temperature would approach absolute zero. As a result there would be almost no atmospheric pressure on any planet -> PV = nRT

Only if there was no such thing as gravity. Air pressure is determined by the weight of the column of air above a particular point. If the pressure is insufficient to support that column, then gravity compresses the column, decreasing the volume and increasing the pressure until it is enough to support the column. So if you turned off the Sun and cooled down the atmosphere, the pressure would not change. Actual credible science on this from Chris Colose is here. Again, this isn’t “bad-faith moral authority”, physics tells us what the right answer is, while Watts Up With That consistently gets it wrong. For example, accusing NOAA scientists of fraud, arguing that “up is flat“, hiding the decline in snow cover, and fabricating false temperature trends. And if you want more, Peter Sinclair’s video debunking Watts was so good that Watt’s abused the DMCA to try to have it supressed.

Via Andrew Sullivan, David Dobbs:

Heffernan makes two main points.

1. She found the science blogosphere, esp as represented by ScienceBlogs is cacaphonous and of uneven quality.

My comment: This is neither novel nor surprising.

2. She was “nonplussed by the high dudgeon of the so-called SciBlings” in their reaction to what has become known, more or less tongue-in-cheek, as PepsiGate.

The bloggers evidently write often enough for ad-free academic journals that they still fume about adjacencies, advertorial and infomercials. Most writers for “legacy” media like newspapers, magazines and TV see brush fires over business-editorial crossings as an occupational hazard. They don’t quit anytime there’s an ad that looks so much like an article it has to be marked “this is an advertisement.”

My comment: Obviously I differ with her on this, as I felt strongly enough about Seed’s blunder to leave immediately, before almost anyone else had, and before it was clear the reaction would be both broad and deep. You can read both my quick initial post announcing my departure — A food blog I can’t digest — and a more considered explanation at Why I’m Staying Gone from ScienceBlogs. And as you can read below, I’m not the only one, even among “legacy media,” types (I write for the same sorts of outfits Heffernan does, including the New York Times Magazine), who thought the transgression was serious enough to warrant leaving.

NeuroDojo:

You remember Virginia Heffernan’s New York Times article on science blogging last week? Yeah. It was bad. She totally deserved to be called on it. She’s made at least one follow-up since, but it probably ain’t going to convince many people.

I’m tellin’ ya, though… don’t brush her off completely.

Yeah, let’s criticize that she didn’t get past the first impression of science blogs. We should expect Heffernan to look before leaping – she writes for the Times, after all, which still has a certain reputation as a paper of record and quality. But let’s not pretend that her impression ain’t shared by anyone else.

For instance, she took heat for recommending a climate denialist blog. But that’s not the first time that blog got recommended by people who ought to know better. That tells me there’s something we can learn there.

When we read Heffernan’s piece, we don’t like it. She was bound to get a lot of, “You don’t know what you’re talking about” (which, like I said, she earned). But she’s not getting as much, “Would you like to learn?”

Now, because she is a public figure, and counts people like David Dobbs among her colleagues, we might be able to convince her we ain’t so bad. Win for us if we do.

But a lot of us are probably just going to give her up as a lost cause. “She didn’t like the science blogosphere? Tough noogies. Good riddance.”

Bora nailed it when he wrote about the power that the Science Blogs website in particular had, but it’s true for the rest of us. There’s probably a lot of other people who have reactions like Virginia, but don’t blab about them in such a public forum. So they go away all quiet-like, and nobody makes the effort to reach out and invite them back.

We can do better than, “Don’t let the door hit your ass on the way out.”

Chad Orzel:

That’s where I think this incident points out a real problem: if we’re really trying to promote science, Virginia Heffernan is our target audience: she’s a smart and educated person with no science background, who would benefit from learning more about science in an informal manner. She’s one of the people we ought to be speaking to using blogging as a platform.

If we’re driving her away before she learns anything, there’s something wrong. And castigating her after the fact, essentially for being driven away, is not helping at all.

That’s what bothers me about this whole incident. Firing up people who are already interested in science and know something about it is great, but to paraphrase an Adlai Stevenson joke, we need a majority. If we want to improve the standing of science, and make the world a better place, we need to reach people like Virginia Heffernan (at the very least), and get them on the side of science.

(Of course, my calling her “half stupid” isn’t as helpful as it might be, and now I sort of regret that phrasing.)

Now, it might be that she’s really a denialist in disguise, and deliberately whipping up sentiment against ScienceBlogs for nefarious purposes. But, you know, if you always assume that people who disagree with you are acting in bad faith, you’re not going to get anywhere good. I’m inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt on the Watts thing, especially since the other two sites she recommended are, in fact, excellent sources for people who want to learn about science.

More Myers:

Man, that Heffernan article is turning out to be such an excellent marker for stupid. Now some Catholic wanker is citing it as supporting his claim that scientists are all nasty people, claiming that the problem with science is scientists. Being Catholic, you know exactly who he is going to complain about.

Heffernan writes about the meltdown over at Science Blogs. “Science Blogs”, as you may well remember is the home of blogger PZ Myers who is famous for advancing science by desecrating the Eucharist. While Myers is the most read of the misogamists at Science Blogs, his penchant for the unpleasant is rather standard fare.

“Science Blogs” has recently seen many of its bloggers leave in protest over the addition of a new nutrition blog called Food Frontiers. Science Blogs’ sin that PepsiCo sponsors the site. It is indubitable that nobody does righteous indignation quite like the ungodly.

Wow. Every sentence is wrong.

  1. There is no meltdown. There was risk of one, but Seed got their act together, and we’re all working away productively now.
  2. Cracker abuse is so 2008. Get over it. And no, that wasn’t science, nor did I claim it was: it was a protest against the inanity of reactionary Catholics.
  3. Misogamist? Moi? I’ve been happily married for over 30 years!
  4. Nobody quit over the addition of Food Frontiers.
  5. It was not a sin that Pepsi sponsored the site. The problem was that it was not labeled as an advertisement, and blurred a boundary between advertisement and content. That’s what got people upset, as well as a pattern of infrastructure neglect.
  6. Funny about that ungodly business. I’m definitely ungodly; I’m still here. So is Greg Laden. ERV thought it was all a tempest in a teacup. Jason Rosenhouse didn’t even seem to notice. The biggest ungodliest bloggers here seem to have had a range of reactions; and several of the people who decamped were theists.

Like I said, everyone who cites the Heffernan noise positively seems to be factually incompetent, including Heffernan herself.

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Introduction To Catholicism And Modern Catholic Thought Not Being Offered For Fall Semester

Associated Press:

The University of Illinois has fired an adjunct professor who taught courses on Catholicism after a student accused the instructor of engaging in hate speech by saying he agrees with the church’s teaching that homosexual sex is immoral.

The professor, Ken Howell of Champaign, said his firing violates his academic freedom. He also lost his job at an on-campus Catholic center.

Howell, who taught Introduction to Catholicism and Modern Catholic Thought, says he was fired at the end of the spring semester after sending an e-mail explaining some Catholic beliefs to his students preparing for an exam.

“Natural Moral Law says that Morality must be a response to REALITY,” he wrote in the e-mail. “In other words, sexual acts are only appropriate for people who are complementary, not the same.”

An unidentified student sent an e-mail to religion department head Robert McKim on May 13, calling Howell’s e-mail “hate speech.” The student claimed to be a friend of the offended student. The writer said in the e-mail that his friend wanted to remain anonymous.

“Teaching a student about the tenets of a religion is one thing,” the student wrote. “Declaring that homosexual acts violate the natural laws of man is another.”

Howell said he was teaching his students about the Catholic understanding of natural moral law.

“My responsibility on teaching a class on Catholicism is to teach what the Catholic Church teaches,” Howell said in an interview with The News-Gazette in Champaign. “I have always made it very, very clear to my students they are never required to believe what I’m teaching and they’ll never be judged on that.”

Don Suber:

He taught “Introduction to Catholicism and Modern Catholic Thought.”

Teaching Catholicism and Modern Catholic Thought to students in an “Introduction to Catholicism and Modern Catholic Thought” class is against the law in Illinois.

David Freddoso at The Examiner:

The e-mail in question discussed the differences between consequentialist moral thought (the idea that an act’s morality can be determined by its consequences) and morality based in natural law, which depends only on the acts themselves. It’s pretty hard to discuss morality without having this discussion.

The email offered homosexuality and other sexual behaviors that are against church teaching (everything from the use of contraception in marriage to sex with children) as examples of things that a consequentialist might approve of under the right circumstances, whereas a Catholic cannot approve under any circumstances.

Unfortunately, this conversation about the class’s subject matter is verboten. Someone who apparently doesn’t even take the class or understand the subject matter decided to report this academic conversation to the campus gestapo. This is what we call the Dictatorship of Moral Relativism. We live in America, where only Islam receives such deference.

Emily Zanotti at Chicago Now:

First off, let me say that I am Catholic – hardcore – and that I’ve had a significant amount of instruction on the subject of Catholic Social Teaching, which is why when this story came out, I went to find the emails, which, of course, had been conveniently posted for me on the Interwebs.

I have to say, I’m not buying the kid’s side of the story for a couple of reasons.

One, the Catholic Church does actually believe that homosexual acts violate the natural laws of man, and Dr. Ken does a pretty fantastic job of laying out about ten years worth of education on the matter. Like it or not (and I’m guessing, in the general population, you’ll find more people siding with the latter), the Church has some strong feelings about two men or two women doing it, and those strong feelings are not open to interpretation, though I’m sure there are some modern scholars who like to pretend that Catholicism has a liberal American brand that is a fully competing dogma rather than the slips of paper in a Vatican suggestion box they happen to be. Fr. Pfleger comes to mind. At any rate, the Catholic Church is pretty damned clear on this stuff, no pun intended, and Dr. Ken was stating, pretty comprehensively, the party line. Better than a lot of people, I might add. In other words, Dr. Ken wasn’t just making sh*t up for the purposes of pissing off an entire demographic. And, for what it’s worth, the discussion never went into a judgment on the people having Teh Gay Sex, just the nature of the act itself, which is frankly unusual when people discuss this stuff. And admirable, because it’s pretty clear he’s trying to discuss this matter in a way that doesn’t disrespect the reader.

Two, I find it hard to believe that, when one signs up for a class on Catholicism, even at a major university, that one won’t expect to be taught the tenets of Catholicism. Call me crazy, but generally, a course on Catholic teaching would probably involve teaching what the Catholic Church believes. I would suspect students might also be required to regurgitate this on a test. I suspect that some students may disagree with the subject matter. But I also suspect that by age 20, you’re more inclined to take sources into consideration and approach the subject from an academic, professional standpoint. Put more concisely, if you take a class on a religion knowing you disagree with the tenets of that religion, perhaps you shouldn’t get your panties in a bunch when the professor outlines those tenets. Professors should not be required to preface every culturally “controversial” statement they make on any subject with “If you cannot handle a viewpoint that differs from yours, please stand in the hallway until I can safely call you and your fragile viewpoint back into the conversation.”

This sounds like a disagreement between this kid and the Catholic Church with Dr. Ken caught in the middle, punished for just being a member. The disagreement is understandable. I mean, I get it. Try rectifying a libertarian viewpoint with a strong Catholic faith, and yeah, I get it. The firing over the disagreement, however, is not. If you don’t like the Catholic faith, take it out on the Catholic faith, not the people teaching about it. You’re not going to like the result of that little game; if it’s true that speaking the realities of a faith are enough to disqualify a professor from academia, then honesty about sex is going to disqualify pretty much every professor of any dogma at any academic institution anywhere in the United States.

Like it or not, the world is not full of people who subscribe to the happy-clappy, Sesame Street, “everyone in the world is friends and nothing you do can ever be judged as objectively wrong” progressive liberal understanding of the universe. Sooner or later, you’re going to have to deal with it, and you’re going to need to be prepared. The whole point of a university is, shockingly, to give people an education: to teach students to think critically about reality and their beliefs, and, more importantly, communicate in the real world where there are, occasionally, ideas and actions that make us uncomfortable. At least, that was the whole point. If you use “people being uncomfortable hearing something they disagree with” as the golden standard for firing professors out of a university, you’ve got a big problem on your hands. The standards of academia and the exchange of ideas that drives them will be pretty much all but lost to a four-year indoctrination program on how to become overly sensitive, easily outraged and how to petition any semblance of authority for the redress of even the most basic of grievances. Not to mention, all sense of critical thinking and rational argument will be erased. That’s cool if you’re, say, in Cuba, but notsomuch in the Western world.

So here’s the gist of it: maybe Catholicism is wrong about homosexual sex (we can hash that puppy out another time), but that doesn’t mean that someone should be fired for teaching an authentic viewpoint. When someone tries to beat an academic institution over the head with idealism, forcing professors to scrub out all the parts that their precious little angles’ ears can’t bear to hear, things get f**ked up. Look at Texas and imagine if this situation were reversed and a “liberal” professor’s head was on the chopping block for teaching the realities of evolution to a student who didn’t like how a fossil record conflicted with his carefully sheltered world view. The effect, and the result, is exactly the same.

PZ Myers at Science Blogs:

I hate to say it, but I think the student was wrong. I read the professor’s email, and I don’t think it is hate speech at all.

It’s stupid speech.

A letter that condemned students, that threatened students if they didn’t agree with his views, that discriminated against a segment of society, or that denied people full participation in the culture for their views or background or private practices…that would be hate speech. This letter, though, is a pedantic and polite explanation of the views of the professor and of the Catholic church and of his interpretation of utilitarianism, and in fact is careful to say that he isn’t condemning any individuals. We can’t endorse using this kind of discussion as an excuse to expel people from academia — we want professors and students to be able to communicate freely with one another, without fear of retaliation. I see no sign that the professor was discussing the matter in a way that disrespects any of his students.

And the student complaining was doing so poorly. The professor’s ideas made him uncomfortable. He disliked what he said. He thought the professor was insensitive.

Those are not good reasons. If a student is never made uncomfortable, that student is not getting an education.

Bad reasons are given, but I still think UI made the right decision in not renewing this guy’s contract. Kenneth Howell is in ignorant fool who mistakes his religious dogma and his personal prejudices for knowledge.

Here’s an example. Keep in mind that this fellow is a professor, supposedly teaching college students something about philosophy. Here he’s trying to explain why homosexuality is wrong.

But the more significant problem has to do with the fact that the consent criterion is not related in any way to the NATURE of the act itself. This is where Natural Moral Law (NML) objects. NML says that Morality must be a response to REALITY. In other words, sexual acts are only appropriate for people who are complementary, not the same. How do we know this? By looking at REALITY. Men and women are complementary in their anatomy, physiology, and psychology. Men and women are not interchangeable. So, a moral sexual act has to be between persons that are fitted for that act. Consent is important but there is more than consent needed.

One example applicable to homosexual acts illustrates the problem. To the best of my knowledge, in a sexual relationship between two men, one of them tends to act as the “woman” while the other acts as the “man.” In this scenario, homosexual men have been known to engage in certain types of actions for which their bodies are not fitted. I don’t want to be too graphic so I won’t go into details but a physician has told me that these acts are deleterious to the health of one or possibly both of the men. Yet, if the morality of the act is judged only by mutual consent, then there are clearly homosexual acts which are injurious to their health but which are consented to. Why are they injurious? Because they violate the meaning, structure, and (sometimes) health of the human body.

REALITY, huh?

Here’s reality. A penis fits nicely in the hand, and a hand is usually better at stimulating the clitoris than a penis in the vagina, and our anatomy is such that our arms are of the right length to comfortably reach our genitals. Therefore, masturbation is a moral sexual act. We can extend this to point out that a man’s hand can stimulate a clitoris and a woman’s hand can stimulate a penis, and therefore, mutual masturbation, as is being practiced by tens of thousands of teenagers on this Friday night, is also a rightful act. There is no practical difference in anatomy or physiology between mutual masturbation between a heterosexual couple and a homosexual couple, so these acts are also entirely natural.

This reasoning can be extended to a great many sexual acts: oral and anal sex, frottage of various kinds, fantasy play, sadomasochism, etc. There are more aspects of male and female anatomy in which they are alike than in which they differ, and in fact the only act which can be uniquely performed by a male and female couple is penile-vaginal intercourse. So this one act out of many is all that this professor can point to in order to justify heterosexuality as the only proper interaction, but this requires ignoring the majority of human sexual behaviors. I have to wonder if all Catholic teaching permits in the bedroom is genital-genital contact. How sad for them.

Rod Dreher:

Read the professor’s own account of his dismissal. I hope we hear the university’s side. Before people take their usual culture-war positions, understand that if the facts are as the professor relates them, this is not essentially a question of whether or not one approves of homosexuality. This is about academic and religious freedom. The professor was teaching a course on Catholicism and Catholic morality. The Catholic Church unambiguously teaches that homosexual expression is immoral. You are perfectly free to disagree with that in a university, but that’s what the Church teaches, and the professor is obligated to present that teaching in a course on Catholicism. According to the professor, students in the past have argued against that position in class, always respectfully. This was the first time an aggrieved student went to pieces over it, and demanded that the university take action against the professor — which it did.

Again, we await the university’s side of the story. But if the facts are substantially the same, then we have a case in which a professor cannot even teach his subject in a straightforward, accurate manner, without putting his job at risk. Is this really the kind of scholarly atmosphere we want? Is it conducive to a free exchange of ideas, and actual learning? As Beckwith writes in his blog commentary, imagine the reverse, and that a Catholic student complained to the university that he felt “excluded” by a gay professor’s arguments in favor of the licitness of homosexuality in a class on LGBT Studies. In what conceivable world would the university fire the professor? What kind of university lets a whinypants student dictate the content of a professor’s course?

I well remember sitting in a history course at LSU in which the professor, an avowed secularist, was making fun of the medieval church. One student stood up, yelled at him for “anti-Christian bigotry,” and stomped out. I felt that the professor really had been laying it on thick re: the Church, but he was an excellent professor, and I could put up with his prejudices because I learned so much from him. Besides, we could dispute him in the classroom with no problem. This isn’t exactly the same thing as the University of Illinois case here, because this history prof could have taught his subject matter that day without snarky editorial commentary about medieval Christianity; it’s hard to see how a professor teaches a class on Catholicism while ignoring the Church’s teaching on sexual morality. Still, that people are so willing to be grievously offended by thoughts that conflict with their own beliefs, and universities and other institutions are willing to kowtow to the most delicate student sensibilities — provided they are expressed by members of politically approved demographic groups — is dreadful for robust, honest discourse, to say nothing of actual scholarship.

Stories like this make one see the university as an increasingly Orwellian place where “tolerance” means putting up with people who already agree with you. To paraphrase Dorothy Parker, their tolerance for religious and academic freedom runs the gamut from A to B.

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Thank You For Flying The Church Of The Nones, Tea And Cake Or Death?

James Joyner did a lot of this round-up already, but oh well.

Dan Gilgoff in US News:

If current trends continue, a quarter of Americans are likely to claim “no religion” in 20 years, according to a survey out today by Trinity College. Americans who identify with no religious tradition currently comprise 15 percent of the country, representing the fastest growing segment of the national religious landscape.

While the numbers portend a dramatic change for the American religious scene—”religious nones” accounted for just 8 percent of the population in 1990—the United States is not poised adopt the anti-religious posture of much of secularized Europe.

That’s because American religious nones tend to be religious skeptics as opposed to outright atheists. Fewer than ten percent of those identifying with no religious tradition call themselves atheists or hold atheistic beliefs, according to the new study.

“American nones are kind of agnostic and deistic, so it’s a very American kind of skepticism,” says Barry Kosmin, director of Trinity’s Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture. “It’s a kind of religious indifference that’s not hostile to religion the way they are in France. Franklin and Jefferson would have recognized these people.”

Andrew Sullivan:

The study estimates that in twenty years, the Nones will make up 25 percent of Americans. The political breakdown is also fascinating.

In 1990, the Nones were mainly Independents but were equally spread among Democrats and Republicans. Today, the proportion of Independents who are Nones has leaped from 12 percent to 21 percent; and the percentage of Democratic Nones has doubled from 6 percent to 16 percent. In stark contrast, the GOP share has fallen from 8 percent to 6 percent. I’d say that’s a function of the GOP becoming an essentially Christianist fundamentalist party; and the Democrats having lots of Irish, Jewish and Asian supporters, who are the strongest groups in the None cohort.

The Nones are not wealthier than average, but they are more male. Almost 20 percent of American men are Nones, compared with 12 percent of women.

61 percent of Nones find evolution convincing, compared with 38 percent of all Americans. And yet they do not dismiss the possibility of a God they do not understand; and refuse to call themselves atheists. This is the fertile ground on which a new Christianity will at some point grow. In the end, the intellectual bankruptcy of the theocon right and Christianist movement counts. Very few people with brains are listening to these people any more. They have discredited Christianity as much as they have tarnished conservatism.

PZ Myers at Science Blogs:

It’s not enough, is all I can say. I suppose it’s good news, but I am disappointed in my fellow Americans. I will not be content until the number is 100%. (OK, 95%. It’s not fair to demand rationality from people who are brain damaged or locked up in asylums.)

The really bizarre news here is the way people are squirming to put a twist to the data to reassure the believers. They’ve got a label for that 15% that isn’t “godless atheist unbelievers”: they are “Nones”. Don’t panic, they say, only 10% of them call themselves “atheists”! They’re mostly agnostics and skeptics of organized religion! You don’t have to stockpile food and ammo, bar the doors and windows, and prepare for the anarchy and evil that would follow if all those people were atheists.

It’s rather annoying. Every article I see on this subject makes this desperate rush to reassure their readers that this growing cohort of Americans aren’t really those goddamned atheists — they’re nice people, unlike those cold-hearted, soulless beasts called atheists, and they aren’t planning to storm your churches and rape the choir boys and boil babies in the baptismal fonts, unlike the scary atheistic monsters. They’re special. And most of all, they aren’t French.

Allah Pundit:

As fascinating and portentous as all this is, the only issue I can think of where religious affiliation might strongly drive the partisan reaction is teaching evolution in schools. Behold:

That’s a staggering divide, with a majority among all U.S. adults saying evolution probably or definitely didn’t happen versus a huge majority among “nones” saying that it probably or definitely did. Exit question: Imagine an America 100 years from now that’s majority non-religious. Imagine it.

James Joyner:

I suspect part of the reason that people are reluctant to call themselves “atheists” is a fear of being lumped in with the likes of Myers, Christopher Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins.  Not satisfied to use their considerable brainpower to argue for scientific explanations over supernatural ones, they instead show utter disdain for the overwhelming majority of their fellow citizens who were brought up in a religious tradition and cling to parts of it.  “Atheism” in this sense isn’t a mere belief that there is no supernatural overlord controlling our universe but a quasi-religion of its own, with many of the worst traits of organized religion.

Similarly, AllahPundit likes the trend but is baffled by the non-believers who have a “personal god” or otherwise quasi-religious beliefs.   But that strikes me as a cultural phenomenon rather than a purely religious one.  America is steeped in religious traditions that are followed even by non-believers.  Pretty much everyone celebrates Christmas, for example, and even Easter — a more purely religious occasion that doesn’t even result in an extra day off work — has a huge secular buy-in, what with Easter bunnies and the various fun traditions for kids.  Not only does Big Business glom onto these occasions but they’re also massive public rituals, as well.  The President lights the national Christmas tree.  He hosts an Easter egg roll.   We reflexively say “Bless you” when people sneeze and take the Lord’s name in vain when we’re angry, regardless whether we believe in said Lord’s existence.

A sizable number of America’s self-described “religious,” even those who attend church with some regularity, aren’t religious in the sense that their 16th Century forebears were.  They pick and choose from the teachings of their chosen faith at will, occasionally even choosing a new faith altogether for reasons of “comfort” and convenience.  It’s a communal experience from which many draw inspiration and comfort

Michael Merritt at PoliGazette:

One, the number of Catholics is going down, particularly in the Northeast.  These people have been exposed to religion, and have likely left the Church due to the scandals that have erupted in years past rather than perhaps a personal disbelief in a diety.

However, I found something else reported by the study to be quite striking.

“Younger Nones are more likely to identify as “agnostic” than are all Nones.”

I’m 23, and I identify this way, despite almost no exposure to religion during my younger years.  Then I think back to where I most often seem to find the militant atheists: Among the boomers, or at least, people who are approaching the age group the the boomers are.  Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens are both boomers.  Bill Maher and P.Z. Myers are stretching that a bit, but they’re close enough.  We know quite well how cantankerous boomers can be.  Many of these people were right amongst the activists of the civil rights and Vietnam eras.  Coincidence?  I think not.

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The Evolution Of A Blogginghead; Or The Ballad Of Jim And Jerry

Evolution

Earlier, we updated “B-head On The G-head” to include Jim Manzi’s post at Sully’s place on Jerry Coyne’s critique of Bob Wright’s book, “The Evolution of God.” Excerpts don’t do the debate justice, but that’s what we do here, so…

Jerry Coyne in TNR:

While many religious people have been persuaded by Darwin’s overwhelming evidence, there still remains a need to find greater meaning behind it all–to see our world as part of an unfolding and divinely scripted plan. As the theologian John Haught notes, “For the universe to transform our hearts as well as our minds it must allow itself to be read–in one way or another–as having a purpose. To say that the universe has a purpose means quite simply that it is in the process of realizing something that is undeniably good, and that this good is also in some sense imperishable.”

And so the faithful–the ones who care about science at all–have tweaked the theory of evolution to bring it into line with their needs, to make it more congenial. Although life may indeed have evolved, they say, the process was really masterminded by God, whose ultimate goal was to evolve a species, our species, that is able to apprehend and therefore to admire its creator. This progressivist and purpose-driven view of evolution, rejected by most scientists, has been embraced by Haught and other theologians, by religious biologists such as Francis Collins, and, unsurprisingly, by the Catholic church itself.

Yet the notion of guided evolution leaves a problem. What good is a God-evolved species if it must inhabit a world as messy, contingent, and stricken with unpredictable horrors as the process of evolution itself? Is there any way that we can affirm, however dimly, that the world is getting better? And if so, might this, too, have something to do with God? The journalist Robert Wright has devoted much of his career to speculating about these questions, seeking divine purpose behind what he sees as social and biological “laws.” His thesis, in The Evolution of God, is that theologies have changed over time to accommodate the increased interactions among cultures that come with a more complex world, and that this theological change has made the world a more moral place. This is a historical claim about morality’s progress. But atop this claim Wright makes a really remarkable claim, a metaphysical one, that this whole process is driven by God, who is pulling society toward moral perfection. What’s more, he says that this conclusion is not religious but scientific–that it is based on “facts on the ground” that should be obvious to any observer. In what he sees as the relentlessly progressive evolution of religion, Wright seems to find an argument for the existence of God.

Jim Manzi at Sully’s place:

Coyne is an eminent evolutionary biologist, but here makes an enormous claim about the philosophical implications of science: that evolution through natural selection demonstrates that there is no divine plan for the universe. I think this claim is, in fact, a gigantic leap of faith unsupported by any scientific findings.

[…]

It is obvious from the factory analogy that evolution does not eliminate the problem of ultimate origins. Physical genomes are composed of parts, which in turn are assembled from other subsidiary components according to physical laws. We could, in theory, push this construction process back through components and sub-components all the way to the smallest sub-atomic particles currently known, but we would still have to address the problem of original creation. Even if we argue that, as per the GA which spontaneously generates the initial population, that prior physical processes created matter, we are still left with the more profound question of the origin of the rules of the physical process themselves.

This, of course, is a very old question that far pre-dates modern science. A scientific theory is a falsifiable rule that relates cause to effect. If you push the chain of causality back far enough, you either find yourself more or less right back where Aristotle was more than 2,000 years ago in stating his view that any conception of any chain of cause-and-effect must ultimately begin with an Uncaused Cause, or just accept the problem of infinite regress. No matter how far science advances, an explanation of ultimate origins seems always to remain a non-scientific question.

Now consider the relationship of the second observation to the problem of final cause. The factory GA, as we saw, had a goal. Evolution in nature is more complicated — but the complications don’t mean that the process is goalless, just that determining this goal would be so incomprehensibly hard that in practice it falls into the realm of philosophy rather than science. Science can not tell us whether or not evolution through natural selection has some final cause or not; if we believe, for some non-scientific reason, that evolution has a goal, then science can not, as of now, tell what that goal might be.

[…]

The theory of evolution, then, has not eliminated the problems of ultimate origins and ultimate purpose with respect to the development of organisms; it has ignored them. These problems are defined as non-scientific questions, not because we don’t care about the answers, but because attempting to solve them would impede practical progress. Accepting evolution, therefore, requires neither the denial of a Creator nor the loss of the idea of ultimate purpose. It resolves neither issue for us one way or the other. The field of philosophical speculation that does not contradict any valid scientific findings is much wider open to Wright than Coyne is willing to accept.

Patrick Appel has the readers’ reaction at the Dish

Manzi responds to them:

I did not claim any evidence for “a writer”, simply that the existence of evolution through natural selection does demonstrate that there is no writer (to use your metaphor).   I think that the idea that “the ‘purpose’ of evolution (i.e., reproductive fitness) is simply a logical consequence of its existence in the first place” misses the whole point of my post.  In any relevant evolutionary context, including both what we see in the world around us and the factory GA example from my post, reproductive fitness is determined by an environment external to the organism.  Why does this environment exist as it does?  Why do the rules of the particular genetic process (e.g., crossover probabilities, etc.) exist as they do?  And so forth.  To say that “it is a logical consequence of its existence” is to avoid any such questions.

Edward Feser:

One reason so many commentators on the so-called “religion vs. science” debate don’t see the Aristotelian implications of the modern scientific ideas to which they appeal is that they simply don’t understand what Aristotelians mean by “final causality” in the first place, and in general — as I never tire of complaining — are beholden to a fossilized set of “Enlightenment”-era clichés and caricatures of what Aristotelians and Scholastics really thought. Not understanding classical philosophy (whether Aristotelian, Platonist, Thomist, or whatever) they naturally also do not understand the theology it inspired. Hence they take William Paley and his successors – rather than an Augustine, an Aquinas, or even a Leibniz – as their guides to what the divine nature must be like, if there is a God. Hence, rather than directing their arguments against the (classical philosophy-informed) classical theism that has historically defined Christian orthodoxy, they target a (currently popular but historically aberrant) anthropomorphic conception of God. Perhaps Coyne, Dawkins, et al. draw some blood when this conception is their target; and then again, perhaps not. Either way, their arguments are utterly irrelevant to the question of the existence of the God of Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas – and thus of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Santi Tafarella

Coyne responds to Manzi:

Yep, I agree that evolution doesn’t disprove a creator or purpose.  You can have a deistic creator who set things in motion and went to lunch, and you can have a purpose that is “making everything look as if it evolved by natural means.”  Beyond that, Houston, we have problems.

In  the end, Manzi fails to tell us why we should even see “ultimate origin” and “ultimate purpose” as problems, at least, as problems whose solution is God.  What is the “purpose” of a snowflake? Its marvelous “designed” appearance is the ineluctable result of natural processes acting on matter.  There is no mind, no God, behind its appearance.  The products of natural selection and evolution are like snowflakes.  There is not one speck of evidence contradicting the idea that Homo sapiens, like all species, is the result of physical processes (transmuted into biological processes) acting on matter. As to where that matter came from, well, we don’t yet know, but we might someday. Manzi, on the other hand, will never know — not as long as he forsakes science for theology.  And perhaps, if he thinks about it, he will realize that science can indeed address — and refute– some religious theories about creation and purpose.

Manzi responds to Coyne:

Coyne, in his reply to me, says this about it:

“Wrong!  What I have said — repeatedly — is that there is no evidence for a divine plan for the universe.”Well, here is the first paragraph of Coyne’s review, which I quoted in my post [Bold added]:

“Over its history, science has delivered two crippling blows to humanity’s self-image. The first was Galileo’s announcement, in 1632, that our Earth was just another planet and not, as Scripture implied, the center of the universe. The second—and more severe—landed in 1859, when Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, demolishing, in 545 pages of closely reasoned prose, the comforting notion that we are unique among all species—the supreme object of God’s creation, and the only creature whose earthly travails could be cashed in for a comfortable afterlife.”He doesn’t say that there is no evidence for it, but that Darwin demolished this notion.

Coyne, in his reply, makes a lot of the fact that he doesn’t dismiss the idea of a “deistic creator that set things in motion and went to lunch”, but that certain conceptions of God are ruled out by science.  What is ruled out exactly?  It’s important here to distinguish between mechanism and purpose.  In his original essay, Coyne claims that “Charles Darwin…demolished…the comforting notion that we are unique among species – the supreme object of God’s creation”, so presumably without regard to the mechanism of just setting things in motion versus intervening frequently, Coyne believes that there can be no divine plan that makes us unique.

The key issue in our disagreement, it seems to me, is therefore not whether or not a purported God is deistic or interventionist, but rather whether evolution through natural selection precludes a purpose for the universe that privileges humans.  Coyne accepts that a position of “it’s all an incredibly ingenious façade designed by an omnipotent God to fool us” is always logically possible, but sees this as a sterile point of view.  I agree.  What we are disputing, then, could be said more practically as: Do the findings of the Modern Synthesis of evolutionary biology uniquely preclude, using the normal English meaning of words, the idea of a divine plan that privileges humans in the way we mean in normal speech as religious?

Matt Steinglass on Manzi’s response to Coyne:

I can sort of see why Jim Manzi would feel that Jerry Coyne’s response to him is intemperate, but I’m not sure how I can explain to Jim Manzi why his post really does seem extremely tedious to someone who accepts, not just the validity of the theory of evolution, but that people ought to approach the world by privileging evidence and Occam’s Razor. Essentially, Manzi has invented a new comforting notion for those who wish to believe that the universe is programmed by an intentional God. Maybe, he imagines, the universe is not a clock, as the folks who tried to rescue theism in the 18th and 19th centuries imagined, but a biological computer, like the ones that use DNA to solve problems. Those kinds of computers solve problems by setting some criteria for a solution and then running through zillions of combinations very rapidly, selecting out the more promising lines of inquiry and killing off the ones that begin to fail, until they arrive at a combination that meets the criteria established at the beginning.

[…]

The point is this: until the 19th century, the argument for God was that beings as complex and sophisticated as hummingbirds or humans could not possible have come into existence randomly; something had to have shaped them. Darwin showed that wasn’t true. Life evolves into existence constantly all around us without a creator. Once you get there, the only remaining reasons to believe in the existence of a creator are aesthetic ones, not centered on humans. The idea that humans are “unique among all species, the supreme object of God’s creation,” isn’t impossible. It’s just infinitely unlikely. I don’t see why Manzi keeps failing to get the point.

Manzi on Steinglass at The American Scene:

But a crucial point of my post is that Darwin showed no such thing. Evolution, contrary to frequent claims in the public square, does not act randomly. I won’t repeat my entire original post here, but if Matt rejects my argument for why this is not so, I think he needs to point out the flaw in my logic.

Again, to be clear, I am not claiming that somehow the theological argument from design is correct, only that evolution does not act randomly.

Noah Millman at The Scene:

I’m not 100% clear on whether Jim is making a factual or a hermeneutical claim. He presses several times on the question of randomness. “Random” is, indeed, a funny word. (Personal anecdotal aside: my first task at my first job on Wall Street was to organize regular lunches with the staff for the CEO. “The company’s now too big for me to really get to know everyone personally through normal business interactions,” he said, “so I want to meet on a monthly basis with random groups of staff to stay in touch with everyone and with all the different parts of the firm.” I asked if, rather that “random,” didn’t he really mean “mixed” groups of staff. That won me a gold star. Took a few more years to realize that, on Wall Street, you’re not competing for gold stars – you’re competing for money.) But I think the way he is using it nothing – with the possible exception of events on the quantum level – is truly random. That’s not the way we use the word normally, and I wonder whether Jim’s argument could be reduced to the statement “nothing is actually random if you believe God is behind everything.”

In any event, mutations are, in the sense that we normally use the word, random. In fact, I think they are random at least to some extent in the way that Jim means it – that is to say, they are caused by quantum mechanical events that are in principle unpredictable (because the underlying reality is actual uncertain rather than merely unknowable) rather than merely practically unpredictable (because so complex and chaotic as to be beyond human powers of calculation, even with the application of all currently engineerable technology).

Some people have also tried to make that claim that the selection process itself may be guided – that, basically, some overseeing intelligence could be determining who survives and prospers and who dies without reproducing, and thereby guiding evolution. I don’t think Jim is making that claim, but I don’t see how, in principle, it’s any different from the claim that some overarching intelligence is guiding the process of mutation. In either case, if there’s a factual claim here – that something other than chance is guiding either the mutations or the selection – that claim can, in principle, be tested. To take an overly simple example: suppose one believed that the overarching intelligence had set up the universe as a genetic algorithm to produce blue algae. You would expect some evidence of that preference – say, that mutations in green algae to produce blue offspring were more common than the other way around. In the absence of any such evidence, you’d say that, in fact, the overarching intelligence (if any) doesn’t appear to prefer either color of algae. In other words, if random mutation plus natural selection accounts for the facts, there’s scientific reason (Occam’s Razor and all that) to reject any other force in operation. And, in that case, Jim is reduced to saying that what appears to be random – and what is indistinguishable scientifically from randomness – is, in fact, caused by an overarching intelligence. This is akin to the claim that, if it were not for God, the strong and weak nuclear forces would not function, and therefore the universe would have no structure whatsoever. You can perfectly well believe that, but it’s not the kind of claim that will generate much interesting discussion.

That ends “The Ballad Of Jim and Jerry” for now. Onto “Evolution of A Blogginghead” or what happens when Science Saturday people quit.

The first controversial Bloggingheads, between Ronald Numbers and Paul Nelson

The second controversial Bloggingheads, between John McWhorter and Michael Behe

Sean Carroll:

Unfortunately, I won’t be appearing on Bloggingheads.tv any more. And it is unfortunate — I had some great times there, and there’s an enormous amount to like about the site. So I thought I should explain my reasons.

A few weeks ago we were a bit startled to find a “Science Saturday” episode of BH.tv featuring Paul Nelson, an honest-to-God young-Earth creationist. Not really what most of us like to think of as “science.” So there were emails back and forth trying to figure out what went on. David Killoren, who is the person in charge of the Science Saturday dialogues, is an extremely reasonable guy; we had slightly different perspectives on the matter, but in the end he appreciated the discomfort of the scientists, and we agreed to classify that dialogue as a “failed experiment,” not something that would be a regular feature.

So last week we were startled once again, this time by the sight of a dialogue between John McWhorter and Michael Behe. Behe, some of you undoubtedly know, is a leading proponent of Intelligent Design, and chief promulgator of the idea of “irreducible complexity.” The idea is that you can just look at something and know it was “designed,” because changing any bit of it would render the thing useless — so it couldn’t have arisen via a series of incremental steps that were all individually beneficial to the purpose of the object. The classic example was a mousetrap — until someone shows how a mousetrap is, in fact, reducibly complex. Then you change your choice of classic example. Behe had his butt handed to him during his testimony at the Kitzmiller vs. Dover trial over teaching intelligent design in schools; but embarrassment is not an arrow in the ID quiver, and he hasn’t been keeping quiet since then.

[…]

What I objected to about the creationists was that they were not worthy opponents with whom I disagree; they’re just crackpots. Go to a biology conference, read a biology journal, spend time in a biology department; nobody is arguing about the possibility that an ill-specified supernatural “designer” is interfering at whim with the course of evolution. It’s not a serious idea. It may be out there in the public sphere as an idea that garners attention — but, as we all know, that holds true for all sorts of non-serious ideas. If I’m going to spend an hour of my life listening to two people have a discussion with each other, I want some confidence that they’re both serious people. Likewise, if I’m going to spend my own time and lend my own credibility to such an enterprise, I want to believe that serious discussions between respectable interlocutors are what the site is all about.

Here’s the distinction I want to draw, which might admittedly be a very fine line. If someone wants to talk about ID as a socio/religio/political phenomenon worth of study by anthropologists and sociologists, that’s fine. (Presumably the right people to have that discussion are anthropologists or sociologists or historians/philosophers of science, not biochemists who have wandered into looney land.) If someone wants to talk to someone who believes in ID about something that person has respectable thoughts about, that would also be fine with me. If you want to talk to a theologian about theology, or a politician about politics, or an artist about art, the fact that such a person has ID sympathies doesn’t bother me in the least.

But if you present a discussion about the scientific merits of ID, with someone who actually believes that such merits exist — then you are wasting my time and giving up on the goal of having a worthwhile intellectual discussion. Which is fine, if that’s what you want to do. But it’s not an endeavor with which I want to be associated. At the end of our conversations, I understood that my opinions about these matters were very different from those of the powers that be at BH.tv.

Bob Wright responds in the comments:

Sean, in your account of the phone conversation with me and Carl Zimmer and some BhTV staffers yesterday, I wish you’d included some key points I tried to drive home.

Here’s what I remember telling you and Carl yesterday:
1) Both of the diavlogs in question had been arranged without my knowledge.
2) I would certainly not have approved both of them, and probably not either of them, had I known about them.
3) The Behe diavlog, in particular, was blatantly at odds with guidelines I’d laid down to my staff more than a year ago in discussing the prospect of Behe appearing. Namely: Behe should only appear in conversation with someone who is truly expert in the relevant biological areas, and since most such matchups would yield a conversation unintelligible to a lay audience, it was hard to imagine a Behe pairing that would make sense.
4) Since these two diavlogs were arranged, I have told the staffers who arranged them that in the future they should make sure to clear diavlogs of this sort with me before arranging them.

It’s true that I didn’t give you the pledge that apparently would have kept you appearing on BhTV: No more creationists or Intelligent Design folks ever on Bloggingheads. I said that, for example, I could imagine myself interrogating ID people about their theological motivation. And I said I’d welcome a Behe-Richard Dawkins debate, since Dawkins is a rare combination of expertise and accessibility. But I also said that offhand I couldn’t imagine any other Behe pairing that would work for me (though there may be possibilities I’m overlooking).

The key thing that I tried to underscore repeatedly in our phone conversation yesterday is this: The two diavlogs in question were not reflective of BhTV editorial policy, and steps have been taken to tighten the implementation of that policy so that future content will be more reflective of it. Sean, I wish that in your post you’d conveyed this to your readers, though I realize that you had a lot of other things you wanted to say.

Carl Zimmer at Discover:

My standard for taking part in any forum about science is pretty simple. All the participants must rely on peer-reviewed science that has direct bearing on the subject at hand, not specious arguments that may sound fancy but are scientifically empty. I believe standards like this one are crucial if we are to have productive discussions about the state of science and its effects on our lives.

This is not Blogginghead’s standard, at least as I understand it now. And so here we must part ways.

I’ve written this post mainly just to put my decision in words. It may matter to very few people, and if most readers of the Loom have skipped this post to await some juicy science, I understand entirely. But the arc of this two-year experiment has got me thinking a bit about where the public discussion of science is going these days.

Bob Wright responds in comments

John Horgan:

I have enormous respect for Carl and Sean. They are extremely smart, knowledgeable, gracious men, and they upgraded the level of discourse on BHTV. I’ll be sad to see them go. But I’m staying, and I disagree, strongly, with their stance that some topics (with one exception, noted below) should be shunned on principle.

Bob Wright and I disagree, strongly, on a lot of things, as anyone who watched our recent chat about his new book knows. But I’m glad that Bob has refused to exclude, a priori, certain topics, attitudes, people from BHTV. The basic premise of BHTV, as I see it, is that dialogue and debate are intrinsically good, leading to enlightenment and progress in human affairs and all sorts of other good stuff—even though of course it doesn’t always work out that way in practice.

My placement above of things like psychoanalysis and multiverse theories alongside astrology and homeopathy was my passive-aggressive way of making the point that it ain’t always easy to draw the line between real and pseudo-science. Some titans of science have espoused wacky beliefs. Linus Pauling insisted that vitamin C could cure cancer. Fred Hoyle suspected the flu virus comes from outer space. Freeman Dyson believes in ESP and thinks global warming may be good for us. Sean Carroll thinks multiverse theories deserve serious attention.

Bloggingheads features conservatives with extremely hawkish views, which I think are potentially far more dangerous than creationism or astrology or multiverses. Should they be excluded? No! My attitude is, Let’s talk about it! I’d like to find out why you hold these views, and to tell you why you’re wrong. Maybe you’ll persuade me you’re right, although I doubt it, but at least we may achieve some mutual understanding, which can’t be bad.

John Horgan and Bob Wright at Bloggingheads on the affair

John Coyne on the controversy, here and here. He links to Phil Plait at Discovery:

Bloggingheads had full-blown creationists being interviewed, making all the same long-debunked claims while the other person talking basically supported them. And BloggingHeads called that science.

So Bzzzzzzzt! I’m done with them. I was on BloggingHeads (with Carl) a few months ago, and I won’t ever do it again either. If they want to cast creationism as science, they might as well say Holocaust denial is real history, 9/11 truthers are engineers, and Birthers are patriots. They can do that, but it’s a crock.

Folks, the debate is over, and has been for decades: creationism is wrong, and provably so. And it’s certainly not science. Portraying it as such is either breathtaking ignorance, or a lie. Sorry, BHTV, but creationism is the shark, and you’re Fonzie.

Greg Fish:

Wright needs to think about what kind of reputation he wants his site to have in the popular science world. He could allow it to become an irrelevant laughingstock that once used to host scientists, skeptics and scientific discussions of serious merit, or he could admit a mistake and allow creationists and their fawning followers to stew in their own self-congratulatory pseudoscientific muck. It’s his call.

P.Z. Myers at Scienceblogs:

Several of the commenters on Phil’s site do not think it is a good idea, because lunacy like creationism ought to be confronted whenever we can do so. I agree! The problem with bloggingheads wasn’t simply that creationists were given a venue — it was that creationists were given a venue without voices opposing their ideas. It was setting up crackpots with softball interviews that made them look reasonable, because their peculiar ideas were never confronted. That’s what has to be rejected, not the idea of arguing with bad ideas (although Sean Carroll makes a good case that some ideas are so bad they don’t even deserve debate), but a site that promised discussion yet became open mic night for loons.

Greg Laden at Scienceblogs:

One possible conclusion that could come of all this is the following: Bloggingheads.tv is practically a mouthpiece for creationism. Yes it is true that the creationists only get on Blogginheads once every year or so, but that would be like NOVA producing one or two pro-creationist one hour long specials every decade. Unacceptable and outrageous. Robert Wright and his whole team need to be driving into the swamp.

Another possible conclusion is that Blogginheads.tv is run like a half baked lemonade stand, and thus does not serve well in protecting the high standards of decision making and management that the rest of the blogosphere adheres to. They need to be punished for their inefficacious behavior. Drive them at least in the general direction of the swamp and they will surely blunder into the mire on their own. But if new management or editorial practices are demonstrated, make nice and start once again using Bloggingheads.tv as a mouthpiece for rationality and science.

Yet another possible conclusion is that the creationists have done an admirable job at getting Carl Zimmer, Sean Carrol, Phil Plait, and PZ Myers, four of the most widely heard and widely loved (or hated, depending) voices of science and of anti-creationism, to commit to never using this popular venue. Now, if the creationists can do this with, say, Public TV and some of the major news outlets, they have it made. It won’t be long after that they will be able to drive all of us into the swamp.

Coyne:

So much for the virtues of accommodationism. If you pretend that religion has something to say about science, or if you present these two magisteria as coequals, those who have genuine respect for science — and integrity — are going to flee faster than rats on a sinking ship.

EARLIER: B-head on the G-head

UPDATE: Jim Manzi at The American Scene

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Battlefield France

BATTLEFIELD EARTH by L. Ron Hubbard

Scientology goes on trial in France.

William Kern at The Moderate Voice links to Angelique Negroni (translated from French):

This referral to a criminal court, presided over by investigating magistrate Jean-Christophe Hullin, may result in serious consequences for the organization. During the eleven days of scheduled hearings the organization’s future in France will be at stake, because dissolution could be imposed. While it’s true that this punishment would be enforced only on the organization’s two Paris offices, many feel that if applied, it would mark the beginning of the end of L. Ron Hubbard’s empire in our country.

During the trial, debate will center on the purpose of this organization. Does it really aim to promote a method of spiritual awakening, as it states, or is it a vast enterprise designed to part victims from their wealth, as the lawyer for the victims, Olivier Morice, contends?

For Mr. Morice, the trial is the culmination of a long arm-wrestling match between the courts and Scientology. “There was an important ruling in Lyon in 1997, that resulted in convictions for fraud. We are putting the methods of the organization before the same magistrates who heard that case 12 years ago. But this time, the courts may condemn the structure of the organization rather than those who it employs.”

Ruth Gledhill at Times Online, writing about doing a BBC call-in show on Scientology.

PZ Myers

Pierre-Antoine Souchard via HuffPo

UPDATE: New York Times, on the church being found guilty

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The Ida of May

mlink

Has the missing link been found? Or a missing link? Or just a cool-looking fossil?

The peer-reviewed research article here. The Ida website (just wait until she has a blog) here.

Lots of post from Science Blogs:

A Blog Around The Clock:

The fossil, named Ida (the scientific name is Darwinius masillae, a new genus), was discovered in Messel Pit, Germany and lived around 47 million years ago. The fossil is 95% complete – an incredibly complete fossil for an early primate – and along with the skeleton also contains the outline of the body and the contents of the gut. From such rich information, the scientists were able to deduce that Ida was a herbivorous female of about nine months of age.

Laelaps has doubts:

I have the feeling that this fossil, while spectacular, is being oversold. This raises an important question about the way scientific discoveries, particularly fossil finds, are being popularized. Darwinius is just the latest is a string of significant fossils to be hyped in the media before being scientifically described (or at least before that information is released to the public). Other recent examples include “Dakota” the Edmontosaurus, the pliosaur “Predator X”, and “Lyuba” the baby mammoth. I am glad that these finds are stirring excitement, but I am a bit put off by the way they are presented.

PZ Myers:

She’s beautiful and interesting and important, but I do have to take exception to the surprisingly frantic news coverage I’m seeing. She’s being called the “missing link in human evolution”, which is annoying. The whole “missing link” category is a bit of journalistic trumpery: almost every fossil could be called a link, and it feeds the simplistic notion that there could be a single definitive bridge between ancient and modern species. There isn’t: there is the slow shift of whole populations which can branch and diverge. It’s also inappropriate to tag this discovery to human evolution. She’s 47 million years old; she’s also a missing link in chimp evolution, or rhesus monkey evolution. She’s got wider significance than just her relationship to our narrow line.

Brian Switek

Ida made face of the day at Sully’s place. Allah Pundit has a post up, as does Jonathan Turley. Two posts from Charles Johnson at LGF: one about the fossil and the other reporting on Rush Limbaugh calling the whole thing “BS.” John Cole has a post up.

UPDATE: Attaturk at Firedoglake.

UPDATE #2: Brian Palmer in Slate.

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