Esoteric Dissertations from a One-Track Mind

April 7, 2009

On Distancing One’s Self from the “New Atheists”

Filed under: culture, media, religion — Tags: , , — codesmithy @ 8:44 am

The concern-trolling, many-truths Madeleine Bunting takes another opportunity to complain about those loud and certain new atheists.  Bunting apparently finds them as annoying as the fundamentalists.  

In a way, I wish Bunting were a pastor.  When I went to church growing up, we sang songs about how much Jesus loved us and how one would know it (it’s in the Bible in case you couldn’t guess).  We also sang about Noah’s flood during Bible camp.  Now, I grew up in Western Michigan, which is conservative but I didn’t consider the church radical.  We were Methodists afterall.  It is odd that no one mentioned the fact that there is actually no evidence for Noah’s flood or that rainbows are caused by white light separating out into different wave lengths.  It is one thing to say that Noah’s flood should be given the same status as Santa Claus from the luxury of an ivory tower, but doubting the supposedly divinely inspired word of God when no one in your culture does  is another.

Case in point, when I was in elementary school I knew the basics of sexual reproduction even if I didn’t know the exact mechanics.  The one thing I did know is that it took a male and a female.  So, we apply this rule and try to make it jive with the creation story of Adam and Eve.  Adam and Eve begat Cain and Abel.  Cain kills Abel.  Now what?  Unbeknownst to me at the time, I had stumbled upon the wife of Cain problem.  I asked my parents and they told me to ask our pastor, which I did.  Now here is a quiz for Ms. Bunting.  Did the pastor tell me a) the story can’t be taken literally or b) there were other people contemporaneous with Cain?  

If Bunting chose option a, she would be wrong.  He told me there were other people that God apparently created.  This should not surprise anyone.  This is how religion behaves.  Sure, the theologian may defend God as a transcendent purpose and a vague intellectual absolute when debating with atheist, but know, in the churches there is no hint, absolutely no indication, that anything you are told shouldn’t be taken as if it were the literal truth especially when a child asks an honest question.  How else could a child interpret it?  Pastors are authority figures.  It would be one thing if peddling nonsense was limited to just adults.  It is quite another thing when children are the explicit targets.

Here is another case study.  At Christmas, one of my nieces exclaimed “Happy Birthday Jesus” which I took the opportunity to correct.  Christmas is not Jesus’ birthday; it is the day we celebrate Jesus’ birth.  I don’t blame my niece for this misunderstanding.  Generally, we celebrate people’s birth on their birthdays.  It is just in this case, we don’t.  In fact, the best evidence in the Bible suggests Jesus was born in the spring, not during the winter solstice.  So, why do we celebrate Jesus. birth during the winter solstice?  This isn’t a question I should have to answer.  It is one that any intellectually honest person in a church should at least mention during Sunday school or at least give some hint of future revelation.  Instead, we see the clergy carefully construct sentences that give no hint of the underlying history which they know or should know.  This is not coincidence, and the reason it will never happen is transparent: it is inconvenient.

It is easier for the church to act as if the creation story, the virgin birth, walking on water, water into wine, Noah’s flood, Jonah’s fish adventure, etc. are true than to defend their obvious nonsense.  Who is to blame when someone calls the church on its misleading duplicity?  According to Blunting, the blame belongs to the new atheists and their certainty.

It is telling that Blunting is never specific about what the new atheists are so certain about.  Dawkins rates the probability of their being a theistic god at approximately the same probability there are fairies under the garden.  From the evidence I’ve seen, I concur with that assessment.  Now, I am willing to change my mind if compelling evidence to contrary appears.  Dawkins has previously stated his commitment to do the same.  But given the claims are so extraordinary, it would require evidence many times greater than that for evolution, as an example.

For my part, the chain of coincidences would have to be so great it would be more likely that I had gone insane than the existence of Jehovah been proved, that is how deep the gulf that runs between my conception of what a universe would look like if Jehovah actually exists and the one I perceive myself as inhabiting.  It is would also be more probable that I were experiencing an atheistic universe inside a theistic one.  Such notions are a foundation of solipsism, where observable reality plays no role in informing our opinion about the universe we inhabit.  There is nothing we can do to disprove solipsism’s radical skepticism, maybe Blunting is looks forward to the day of when we can get rid of the new atheist’s demands for objective evidence and therefore pontificate indefinitely on various aspects of imagined realities without any hope of resolution.  I have no doubt it is easier for the intellectually lazy to be coddled in unassailable ignorance, but a minority of us see a real virtue in trying to view the world as it really is.

In the same theme, Bart Ehrman takes the opportunity to bash the “new atheists” also

Ehrman – who grew up casually Episcopalian, became a fundamentalist in high school, had his faith eroded by decades of studying the Bible’s textual history and now calls himself a “happy agnostic“– seems to be riding the same anti-religion wave that has swept Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens onto the best-seller list and late-night talk shows. But he says that while they share some readers, he tries to distance himself from the so-called new atheists.

“They seem to understand so little about religion,” he told me in a telephone interview. “If somebody attacked science with as little knowledge, they’d be laughed off the map.”

First of all, people attack the theory of evolution and therefore science (because it was discovered using the same method) with considerably less knowledge than any of the “new atheists” mentioned have towards religion. Far from being laughed off the map, it seems to be a prerequisite to getting one elected to the Texas Board of Education, a large state with a correspondingly large biology textbook market where standards they adopt become the de facto standards for many other states. This is a real struggle that has real implications for what children are taught in the biology classroom.

Either Ehrman is saying that the “new atheists” are more ignorant about religion than creationists who attack evolution (keep in mind, Kirk Cameron thinks you should be able to find a chimeran “crocaduck ” because birds and reptiles share a common ancestor and that banana’s are an atheist worst nightmare in spite of hundreds of years of cultivation and selective breeding) or we don’t laugh people off the map according to the criteria Ehrman supposes.

I can’t say that I’m that surprised this is how certain segments of the media portray the “new atheists,” the people with the sheer audacity to challenge establishment views and institutions with clarity and honesty. The central problem religion posses is that we leave our collective moral authority to the prejudices of illiterate goat herders. No matter how benign religion may become, the danger still lurks. All it takes is one charismatic person to look at the text and say, “we have been doing this all wrong, look at what it says right here.” Such people are impossible to deal with on a religious level, because once you accept the fact that the Bible is the infallible, or at least inspired, word of God all else follows. The only way to refute it is to reject the premise. This is something, by definition, a religious believer refuses to do.   Avoiding religious radicalism in the future means fostering secularism today. This is something that all the “new atheists” seem to understand, although apparently lost on Bunting and Ehrman.

March 13, 2009

Cramer Becomes Inarticulate

Filed under: capitalism, economy, media — Tags: , , , — codesmithy @ 9:05 am

Crooks and Liars has Jim Cramer’s appearance on the Daily Show.  There was definitely a moment of who-are-going-to-believe as Cramer tries to ignore the fact that Stewart has just played a tape where Cramer admitted that he manipulated the market and following it up with example on how to start a rumor and short Apple’s stock.   

Cramer was all over the map, advocating criminal indictments, kangaroo courts, and positing his street-cred as an Obama voter.  To me, he never seemed to answer the fundamental question: what does he see as CNBC’s role as an institution?  Cramer, lamely, kept admitting that CNBC needed to do better without ever striking at the heart of the issue.  

The focal point of Stewart’s criticism was how CNBC pushes itself as a reliable get-rich-quick network.  When Santelli complains about bailing out loser’s mortgages, he fails to mention that no home owner is leveraged 30 to 1, unlike many investment banks that we are now pumping money into.  The unbelievable sense of entitlement that the executives of bailed out firms demonstrate when simultaneously asking the government for money while threatening dire consequences if their demands aren’t met shows the accountability free and disconnected nature of the Wall Street aristocracy.  Stewart likens it to Sherman’s march to the sea; it is more like Nero fiddling as Rome burns.

The problem is that CNBC could have been the early warning system to let the public know something was going wrong.  Instead, CNBC cheered on Wall Street, and why not?  Everyone was making money at least on paper.  In reality, executives walked away with the real cash for illusory short-term gains and people who entrusted their savings in the market are left holding the long-term losses.

Michael Parenti has an article called “Capitalism’s Self-inflicted Apocalypse.”  While, it might be a tad over-the-top.  The real economy is based on work, not gambling.  Until we get back to that foundation, and limit the tax that these middle-men can place on the productive economy by their arbitrary and obviously undeserved control of capital, disasters like the ones we are experiencing aren’t unexpected, they are inevitable.

January 6, 2009

Coulter Gets Bumped

Filed under: media, politics — Tags: — codesmithy @ 8:58 am

Ann Coulter apperently got bumped from the Today Show.  Matt Drudge uses anonymous sources to then construct a liberal conspiracy at the network.  

NBC has been a popular target for the wingnut right.  They like to link NBC to MSNBC and claim the peacock has gone off the deep end.  

I do find it relatively ironic that the main figure catalyzing right wing ire is Keith Olbermann.  I mean, for all their clamoring about a liberal media, it is amazing what a tizzy they get into when one unapologetic, left-wing partisan is on the air waves.  The right wing motto seems to be: your liberal media, no liberals allowed.

However, if the news networks had a modicum of respectability, they wouldn’t give Coulter a platform.  Media Matters obtained an advance copy of her new book and found numerous misleading claims.  At some point, the people who are consistently and unapologetically wrong need to removed from public discourse.   Corporate news networks are perfectly capable of ignoring people or stories.  I mean, look at how they handled the Pentagon’s military analyst program.  Never even mentioned it.  I look forward to the day Coulter drifts into irrelevance.  The bump may indicate that day is closer at hand than I would have first surmised.

September 11, 2008

Media Narratives

Filed under: media, politics — Tags: , , — codesmithy @ 8:19 am

Crooks and Liars has video of Lou Dobbs discussing the “liberal” media with Howard Kurtz and Ken Auletta from the New Yorker.  I am somewhat thankful that Auletta called Dobbs on his assumptions about the “liberal” media.  Auletta is right that one facet of bias is horse race politics, it isn’t the only bias, but for broaching the issue in the mainstream media it is a good start.

Kurtz opines that he has never seen so much positive coverage of a presidential candidate as Barack Obama has gotten.  I will say again, the best indication of bias are not the stories that run, but rather the stories that get ignored.  History doesn’t really allow repeatable experiments, so a reasonable approach is to look at paired examples.  Thankfully, there have been multiple in the campaign and campaigns past that we can draw upon.

First, there are the respective episodes of Reverend Wright and Reverend Hagee.  Obama’s pastor dominated the news cycle.  McCain’s political alliance with Hagee got a brief mention.

Second, we can compare coverage of Kerry and McCain marrying heiresses as Glenn Greenwald did.  The conclusion was that Kerry was a gigolo.  McCain is just living the American dream.

Third, we have McCain saying that Iran is training al-QaedaChuck Todd points out that if either Obama or Clinton had made a similar mistatement, more attention would have been focused on the episode.

The problem with the media is not facts, it is the framing.  A truly objective mainstream media would look at a story from different perspectives and multiple frames.  But, we don’t have an objective media.  The various media narratives for Obama is that he isn’t specific, an elitist, vaguely un-American, and inexperienced.  For McCain, he is maverick, a war-hero, a straight-talker who may be suffering various degrees of senior moments.

It doesn’t matter if the evidence for media narratives are flimsy, it is just a simple matter of repetition.  The “pledge of allegiance” smear has lasting effects beyond that story because it reinforces a particular narrative.

Narratives like the Republicans running a badly mismanaged and unnecessary war in Iraq,  Republicans being the party of irrational fear and cronyism, Republicans being a party of incompetence in times of crisis (i.e. the credit crisis and Katrina), these narratives don’t gain traction in the media.  Yet, the myth of the “liberal” media persists.

The Republican party is the one that wrecked America.  Our infrastructure is in shambles, our economy skirting with disaster, our standing in the world has been severely diminished, our civil liberties have been trampled, none of this leaves the slightest blemish on the Republican party in the eyes of the mainstream press.  No, it is Obama who has received gushing coverage in the eyes of Kurtz with the so-called bitter-gate, alienating-low bowling scores and all.  If this is what Dobbs and Kurtz consider to biased towards Obama then I find their world-view and their expectations for an objective reporting of it inconceivable.

September 7, 2008

Dan Rather Channels Manufacturing Consent

Filed under: media — Tags: , — codesmithy @ 8:56 am

Dan Rather, who was often on the receiving end of many of Chomsky’s attacks on the media, is speaking like he has been converted.  What is the world coming to?  Although, is there ever going to be a point in time where the mainstream media acknowledges that there is a bias and it is anything but “liberal”?

August 26, 2008

The AT&T Party Thanking the Blue Dogs

Filed under: media, politics — Tags: , — codesmithy @ 9:53 am

Some things just have to be seen to believe.  Glenn Greenwald and Jane Hamsher played party crashers trying to interview guests going to a celebration for Blue Dog democrats apparently sponsored by AT&T.  The quid pro quo of the whole affair is brazenly obvious, although that is true for the whole convention.   It is particularly stunning how tight-lipped every guest turned out to be.

The other striking thing was the lack of other media coverage.  Democracy Now! and a couple bloggers, where was everyone else?  Blue Dog Democrats, the key enablers for a revision to FISA that granted immunity to civil liability, have a lavish party filled with VIP guests arriving in limos and luxury SUVs, sponsored by a company that directly benefited from the sponsored legislation and the mainstream media finds no reason to investigate it?!

The reason for this should be obvious even to the most casual of observers.  The mainstream media is owned by corporations, selling audiences to other businesses.  There is no “liberal” bias.  There is a business bias.  Everything else is driven by the bottom line.  The corporate owned media doesn’t report on the shenanigans of their advertisers unless they have to.  Bias is best displayed, not by the stories the media covers, but rather the stories they choose to ignore.

June 24, 2008

Kanzius Redux

Filed under: culture, media, science — Tags: — codesmithy @ 9:40 am

From the I can’t believe this story hasn’t died yet file, John Rossi III pointed out that the Naples Daily News ran an article on John Kanzius.  The headline asks: “can this man cure cancer?”  The answer is, of course, no.

As I wrote before:

[T]he difficult part is developing the nano-machines or viruses that will attach themselves to cancer cells, not killing the cancer cells after they have been tagged.

Apparently, Kanzius is getting some help from medical professionals on that part.

Somewhat more amazingly, the device is being touted as a way to desalinize water.  As I wrote in a comment.

Kanzius’ device is horrible for desalination. Breaking the hydrogen-oxygen bond is an awful road to go down from an engineering perspective, because the remainder of the process is going to be spent trying to recover that energy. Not to mention of radio waves that will invariably miss the bonds.

However, because one Professor emeritus at Pennsylvania State University examined the device, Rustum Roy, the article is able to report that research is ongoing.  According to Roy’s general biography, he is described as “the leading contrarian” among U.S. scientists. Being a “leading contrarian,” he doesn’t seem to answer the most basic scientific question when he examined the device, what is the device’s output/input efficiency.

http://www.rustumroy.com/Scans/Observations%20of%20polarized%20MRI%20vol%2012%20is%201.pdf

Kanzius’ device can be used for desalination, but it has an incredibly low probability of being practical given the technology that already exists.

Tellingly, what should have been a minor intellectual curiosity has become a phenomenon through repeated credulous reporting.  Case in point:

The possibilities about what the machine might accomplish run rampant. Can it defeat viruses? Heart disease? No research has begun on those hopeful thoughts, but Kanzius has submitted patents for the treatment of other diseases. “One of those viruses could be HIV,” Kanzius says. “The viruses are actually easier to work with than cancer cells,”

Kanzius also says it may be possible to target plaques in arteries.

The article later provides information on where to donate.

No big company has stepped in to fund research into Kanzius’ machine, so the money has to come from somewhere else. He’s established the John Kanzius Cancer Research Foundation. Its Web site — http://www.kanziuscancerresearch.com — has drawn a rash of donations as media reports on the device have spread.

It never ceases to amaze me how circularly driven this whole enterprise surrounding John Kanzius is, how the media repeats the most outrageous speculation unchallenged, then seeing little pieces sprout up from the credulous.  How do you counteract that?  How can we promote critical thinking when we are constantly assaulted with the most credulous, mindless blather.  What is the speed of stupidity?  Here is one clue.  RF Induced Hyperthermia (apparently the name for Kanzius’ desalination method) has a stub on the Wikipedia page for desalination.

June 16, 2008

The Disquieting Keith Olbermann

The New Yorker has a piece called “One Angry Man: Is Keith Olbermann changing TV news?” by Peter J. Boyer. In itself, the title tacitly embraces the right-wing caricature of Olbermann: he is angry. The piece never fully examines the reasons why Olbermann is angry, just the fact that he is. With the deliberate removal of context, one is left to conclude that Olbermann is irrationally angry. It focuses on what he said, not the context with which he said it. It only focuses on the most shallow aspects: can you believe that Olbermann told the president of the United States of America to “Shut the hell up?” That is outrageous!

The context of Olbermann is that there is little doubt that George W. Bush and his agents broke the law. Bush already commuted the sentence of Lewis “Scooter” Libby. It was the recommendation of James Madison that any President caught using his power in such a fashion should be impeached. Dennis Kucinich presented 34 other articles which can be read in summary here. So it is worth reflecting on the journalism surrounding another President worthy of impeachment: Richard M. Nixon.

As Hunter S. Thompson put it in “He Was a Crook:”

Some people will say that words like scum and rotten are wrong for Objective Journalism — which is true, but they miss the point. It was the built-in blind spots of the Objective rules and dogma that allowed Nixon to slither into the White House in the first place. He looked so good on paper that you could almost vote for him sight unseen. He seemed so all-American, so much like Horatio Alger, that he was able to slip through the cracks of Objective Journalism. You had to get Subjective to see Nixon clearly, and the shock of recognition was often painful.

It is that subjective substance that Olbermann puts back into the news. The objective model of journalism works on the heuristic that the truth lies somewhere in between two adversarial actors. This is the same sensibility that is the basis for our justice system. The system is not perfect however. Along with adversarial debaters, there are the independent analysts that the news sources rely upon. News about the Pentagon Military Analysts program received a virtual blackout from the mainstream news media, but shows how journalism can be sock-puppeted.

Another consequence is that when there exists a bipartisan consensus, certain issues never get discussed at all. For example, there is a largely bipartisan project to erode the civil liberties of Americans. Democratic leadership just does not see it in their interest to defend civil liberties or to hold corporations who broke the law at the order of the president accountable for their crimes.

Arianna Huffington also lodges the complaint that it leaves equal time for lies in her book “Right Is Wrong: How the Lunatic Fringe Hijacked America, Shredded the Constitution, and Made Us All Less Safe.”

The baffling inability of the mainstream media to cull consistently bad sources of information is as astounding as their inability to recognize their own fault in being too deferential to their sources.  There are rare exceptions as Glenn Greenwald documents but many remain mystified, including those who appear on MSNBC.

Finally, there is the final fault that is clearly on display in this piece, no linking to more in-depth information about each of the episodes.  Is the Boyer giving a fair summarization of the episodes he describes?  It isn’t easy to find out.  Gore Vidal calls us the United States of Amnesia.  I believe one of the reasons for this is because modern news isn’t directly linked to prior episodes, so people can’t see the larger narrative.   This is despite of the fact that the technology is readily available.

So, as we watched this radical rise of the unitary executive, the proper question is not: why was this one man so angry?  It is: why weren’t there more people like him?

June 14, 2008

Reuters Falls for Water-Powered Car Hoax

Filed under: culture, media, science — Tags: , , — codesmithy @ 9:07 pm

I used to think reporters were college educated. The critical by-product of that education was a supposed ability to examine the world critically. A recognition of the fact that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. A sensibility that if someone does something completely unheard of, it is worth consulting some experts in the field to see what they have to say about it.

These expectations are lowered when it comes to local broadcasts. I can understand that there might be a lack of talent in certain sections of the country where there are, nevertheless, television stations. That does not stop me from criticizing those stations, but I can understand the lack of rigor to a certain degree. However, when those same tendencies are demonstrable in a wire service, it surely demonstrates the intellectual depravity that exists in institutions that purport to be authoritative news sources.

Without further ado, here is yet another water-powered car hoax reported unquestioned by Michelle Carlile-Alkhouri for Reuters. One can compare and contrast the reporting here to reporting displayed in “Energy Ignorance: Making Saltwater Burn.” There are additional claims of different water-powered vehicles in the comments. If Michelle Carlile-Alkhouri had even a passing understanding of thermodynamics, she would recognize the fundamental issue to making a water-powered car work: where is the lower energy product? For conventional vehicles it is apparent with products like carbon dioxide. If the process is chemical as Kiyoshi Hirasawa, CEO of Genepax, claims then there needs to be a lower energy product somewhere. It can’t be the water, because that is also an input. Hydrogen and oxygen are higher energy products, so they aren’t it. My guess is that it is the “generator” which one will find connected to a battery. The lower energy product will be inside the battery. That is your energy source, not the Rube Goldberg contraption they set up to delude and mystify.

But, it is worth noting this is how the news reports the unequivocally, provably false. What hope is there for issues that aren’t so cut and dry?

Michelle Carlile-Alkhouri and other people responsible for this “report” let this propaganda go unchallenged. This would be an embarrassment if printed in a middle school newspaper, let alone a wire-service story that is capable of being repeated in numerous outlets. To the extent that the media turns an uncritical eye to these charlatans is a disservice to us all and displays the degree to which those who claim to inform us will sell out their patrons and hovel them in ignorance in service to personal profit.

June 5, 2008

Remembering Tiananmen

The Guardian had a piece on the Tiananmen Square Massacre which took place 19 years ago on June 3rd-4th. What makes Fenby’s piece frustrating is its obvious Western lens. Fenby states the fundamental questions the protesters were facing was the following:

But there was a more fundamental question: if the Chinese were to be free to run their lives economically, why not politically as well? If the command economy was being dismantled, why not the command political system, too?

As is typical, Fenby considers this to be the common wisdom instead of say asking, or quoting any one participating in the demonstrations. Naomi Klein provides another analysis of the underlying reasons for the protests in her book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism where she *gasp* actually cites one of the organizers of the protest.

This alternative narrative is being advanced by, among others, Wang Hui, one of the organizers of the 1989 protests, and now a leading Chinese intellectual of what is known as China’s “New Left.” In his 2003 book, China’s New Order, Wang explains that the protesters spanned a huge range of Chinese society — not just elite university students but also factory workers, small entrepreneurs and teachers. What ignited the protests, he recalls, was popular discontent in the face of Deng’s “revolutionary” economic changes, which were lowering wages, raising prices and causing “a crisis of layoffs and unemployment” (China’s New Order pg. 45, 54). According to Wang, “These changes were the catalyst for the 1989 social mobilization.” (China’s New Order pg. 54)

The demonstrations were not against economic reform per se; they were against the specific Friedmanite nature of the reforms — their speed, ruthlessness and the fact that the process was highly antidemocratic. Wang says that the protesters’ call for elections and free speech were intimately connected to this economic dissent. What drove the demand for democracy was the fact that the party was pushing through changes that were revolutionary in scope, entirely without popular consent. There was, he writes, “a general request for democratic means to supervise the fairness of the reform process and the reorganization of social benefits.” (China’s New Order pg. 57)

The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism pg 187-188

So Fenby gets partial credit, the economic reforms were at the heart of the protests. However, it was not because of mystical consciousness raising magic of the “free market” and people asking doing a collective “why not?” It was precisely because of the tangible forms of economic distress that these reforms caused that spurred the protests and calls for democratic oversight.

Capitalism and democracy are not concepts that go hand-in-hand. Most of the time, they are directly at odds. Capitalists are always a select elite in society. So it seems natural that if economic affairs are controlled predominately by capitalists, this is a direct contravention of democracy because the public opinion of the majority is ignored when forming economic policies, by definition.

If there were any sense in the world, and the subsequent ability to call a spade a spade and declare A is A, China would correctly be identified as state capitalists, not communist. As such, the proper narrative of the Tiananmen Square Massacre is one of class struggle, another instance of capitalists crushing labor. The Tiananmen Square Massacre is an inconvenient truth for both East and West. This is why Fenby can confidently declare it to be “officially a non-event.” It is, from the point of view history is traditionally written from: the state’s. However, it is an important event to remember for a history of the people.

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