Esoteric Dissertations from a One-Track Mind

August 25, 2008

From the Front Lines of the Culture Wars

Filed under: Education, politics, religion, science — Tags: , — codesmithy @ 8:06 am

The New York Times has a story of a biology teacher in Florida trying to teach evolution.  Obviously it is an uphill battle.  PZ Myers asks whether or not we will ever stop running away from the source of the problem?  The source of problem, in Myers’ opinion, is religion.  I can’t help but draw parallels to Eugene V. Debs who wondered if we ever going to tackle the source of social inequity, which was in Debs’ opinion, capitalism.

Both capitalism and religion are entrenched power structures, in many cases reinforcing.  This is evidenced by the United States adding “under God” to the pledge of allegiance to stave off communism.

The goal of science education has to be in honing a certain sensibility.  A sensibility whereby people who examine the same set of evidence draw roughly similar conclusions.  If we draw vastly different conclusions, then it should be on a general acknowledgment among the informed that there is a lack of evidence one way or another.

The fact that religion falls on geo-political fault lines, as Richard Dawkins demonstrates, tells us something.  Namely, religious belief is antithetical to scientific sensibility previously described.  As long as superstition exists, including its institutional manifestation in the form of religion, there will continue to be a culture war.

I will say again, superstition is a terminal disease.  Humans are too clever.  We’ve built weapons that are too dangerous.  We made it these last 50 years by the skin of our teeth.  In case one has been paying attention, the situation is significantly worse today.  Nuclear proliferation has increased, meaning the possibility of a loose nuclear weapon is more probable.  September 11th demonstrated the resolve of religious extremists to kill scores of innocent civilians.  Population has increased.  We are having a measurable effect on the climate of the planet via our use of fossil fuels.  There are vast oceanic dead zones due to pesticides.  We are poisoning the environment, and there is an increasing probability that we will use the most lethal environmental poison we have developed so far, nuclear weapons.

We can no longer afford to entertain ignorant delusions.  It will be the undoing of civilization as we know it.    We must challenge idiocy.  We must also push aside the concern trolling reformers.  One is either for the continued survival of the human species or against it.  Either god is going to save us, or there is no help in sight.  With our collective survival at stake, do you want someone who believes in an invisible man in the sky or someone who will carefully examine the evidence and reach a reasonable conclusion?  Not teaching evolution means we will have more of the former than the later.

I say we must deal with the inconvenient truths of existence instead of shrouding them in fanciful myths.  Having a crippled intellect is no longer a matter of personal vice, but rather a moral failing.  The future depends on the choices we make today.  Failing to educate oneself or hampering the education of others is a dereliction of duty to the species.

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July 11, 2008

My Letter Defending PZ Myers

Filed under: Education, politics, religion — Tags: , — codesmithy @ 10:26 am

I spent the large portion of my general blog writting time spent crafting an email defending PZ Myers’ academic freedom.  Or more to the point, his ability to express disbelief at transubstantiation.  He is probably safe, with tenure and all.  In retrospect, I probably should have pointed out how much I enjoy his blog and the interesting biological topics he covers.  There is always next time, I guess.  Anyway, a copy of the email is below.

It has come to my attention that Bill Donohue and the Catholic League is engaged in a campaign to get PZ Myers removed from his position at the University of Minnesota, Morris.

http://www.catholicleague.org/release.php?id=1459

As an administrator at a higher institution of learning, I am sure you are aware of the importance of academic freedom. In our modern world, we sometimes speak of academic freedom, freedom of religion and freedom of speech without reflecting on what these concepts actually mean.
Subsequently, they become slogans without any real substance, hollow phrases. So, I would like to take a moment of your time to discuss freedom, its place in society, and finally relate it back to the particular circumstances concerning PZ Myers and Bill Donohue.

If freedom means anything in our society, it has to mean the ability to express unpopular views. Similarly, we do not defend freedom by merely defending the views we happen to agree with, but rather standing up for those with whom we disagree.

Along these lines, I understand that Catholics believe in “transubstantiation.” They are free to believe that if they wish. However, they must also respect the right of other people to say that transubstantiation does not occur, as PZ Myers did.

Complementary to this liberal concept of freedom is the standard of fairness. Fairness is not giving both sides of a disagreement equal standing (as it is commonly misapplied) but rather, holding both points of view to the same standard. If Catholics want to claim bodily theft, they
need to do so on evidence we can all reasonably agree upon, not just the tenets of their faith. Furthermore, threats of violence and other forms of intimidation should weaken our consideration of their claims, not strengthen them.

Finally, PZ Myers, as a member of the intellectual class in society, should be entitled to a significant amount of leeway to express controversial views. Academia, at its finest, does not exist to serve platitudes to those in power, rather it exposes inconvenient truths to the masses. This
sensibility is at the heart of academic freedom and the foundation of the public trust in the university as an institution. The moment the institution betrays that trust as a matter of political convenience, it
passes a terrible legacy of cravenness and capitulation onto future generations.

As an administrator of one of this nation’s institutions of higher learning, you are are a steward, not just of the ideals and values of our liberal democracy as it exists today, but also the possibilities for our nation’s future. As such, your actions and their lasting repercussions are vast, although they may not appear that way now.

The principles combined with the facts show that the case for PZ Myers’ dismissal is wholly without merit. There is no ambiguity. It is just a matter of defending another person’s right to express their views that you might not agree with and others find offensive i.e. the highest calling and
solemn duty for anyone who calls themselves a citizen of a liberal democracy.

Thank you for your time and patience.

June 30, 2008

On Angry, Arrogant Atheism

Filed under: culture, religion, science, Uncategorized — Tags: , — codesmithy @ 7:22 am

Recently, PZ Myers ripped Gordy Slack for “bad” articles on creationismGordy Slack’s reply is revealing in its own way.

It surprises me that PZ is so pissed off by my efforts to understand why so many Americans reject evolution. If you ask them, and I have bothered to ask hundreds or thousands over the past two years, many will tell you that more than anything else, it’s the arrogant zealotry of cocksure ideologues that turns them off to evolution. They see people calling their intuitions and worldviews retarded and corrupt, and they march the other way. That’s one reason why we evolutionists have done such an abysmal promotions job even though we’re armed with the most delightful and seductive and potent theory ever. If we can’t sell evolution, we must be doing something wrong. Right? I’m just saying that we might start by resisting the urge to spit bile in the face of potential buyers.

Gordy Slack’s original article, such as it was, painted creationism as a form of legitimate skepticism.  It conferred respect on creationism for its truly adversarial relationship to science, noting things that apparently creationists pointed out, and science eventually proved them right.  PZ Myers’ point was: no, scientists were saying the same things, and unlike the creationists, they found the hard evidence to prove it.

Creationism is fundamentally reactionary and denialist.  The line between honest skepticism and denialism can usually be discerned by asking a simple question.  Both the skeptic and the denialist will claim there is not enough evidence to support a particular claim, what differentiates the two is their answer as to what evidence would be necessary to change their belief.  The true skeptic will be able to produce a few pieces of evidence that would convince them.  A denialist will sometimes openly say no amount of evidence will convince them, or if they are more sophisticated, they will just leave it at an unspecific more.

The fact of the matter is that the theory of evolution by natural selection is one of the best and heavily supported scientific theories we have.  The rejection of evolution rests on a logical fallacy, the fear of its ramifications, not the lack of evidence.  The arrogance of the atheist, or the evolutionary scientist is the mere questioning of the unassailable church doctrine.  The thinking goes, if those atheists weren’t so arrogant and just accept the fact that the bible is unerringly correct, then there wouldn’t be a problem.

There are many that believe there is some way to reconcile the theory of evolution and religion.  I am not denying that there are ways to reconcile the two beliefs, but there are none that I find particularly intellectually satisfying.

What the creationists of the world seek from the scientists is simple: accommodation.  And this is what makes atheists so angry.  It sends the message that if one is petulant enough, stubborn enough, loud enough, irrational enough, that it is possible to get the most reasonable of institutions to cave.  Science, as an ideal, is imperfectly implemented by humans.  We try our best, and sometimes we fail, but the central tenet is that we try to succeed, and we are fundamentally honest.

I used to believe standing by a principle was easy.  Science was some forgone conclusion, why wouldn’t someone want to be rational?  Why wouldn’t someone want to know more about the physical world around them?  My upbringing was religious.  I saw going to church on Sunday as some sort of insurance policy.  I thought there was some ancient break where god was regularly intervening in the world and then he quit for some reason.  Later, I realized that the person who went to church on Sunday was the same on Monday.  The tales of great miracles occur regularly, but when examined closely they more closely resemble hoaxes or tales of the credulous, not divine intervention.  Finally, I was able to stitch together a coherent, rational view of natural history that exposes the very strange creatures that we are and what we believe.

I admit it.  I’m a little bit bitter about that.  I can only compare and contrast my own experience of confirmation with this statement from the Brights.

Hello, parents/guardians! Please read the following Brights’ Net’s “rules” for youngsters signing up to be counted in the constituency of Brights.

1) The decision to be a Bright must be the child’s. Any youngster who is told he or she must, or should, be a Bright can NOT be a Bright. [The Brights’ Net doesn’t wish to count children who are not taking the step for themselves.]

2) Children should know they can change their mind at a later time (as can any person).

3) A child must be able to independently sign onto the Brights’ Net site, read and understand the definition, conclude they are a Bright, and then locate and complete the sign-up form without assistance. (Parents should feel free to discuss likely implications of “being a Bright” with the child, but the child must be capable of abiding by the guidelines.)

Can you imagine a church adopting such a policy before we start labeling children Christian?

Religion is at war with the world.  At war with the truths we discover.  Has religion ever endorsed some new discovery and gone, wow, this is better than we thought?  The universe is far older, larger, grander, more complex and elegant than our prophets led us to believe.

This willful ignorance is something to be angry about.  Furthermore, I will not lie, mislead or deny the truth as I see it to accommodate those who want to wallow in a delusion.  If this makes me arrogant, so be it.  I ask nothing less than an intellectual revolution towards rationality, a new permanent enlightenment of our species to replace the decadent thinking of the here and now.  Thinkers unite!  You have nothing to lose but your superstitions and an undimmed view of universe to gain and explore.

April 15, 2008

Advocacy: Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed

Filed under: film, religion, science — Tags: , , — codesmithy @ 7:40 am

Doing my part as part as part of the vast evolution conspiracy, the following is a link to NCSE’s counter-site to Ben Stein’s upcoming movie Expelled. As I have posted before, PZ Myers was kicked out of a screening of the movie Expelled despite being thanked in the credits. Expelled is in limited release on April 18th.

This message brought to by PZ Myers and the Central Committee of the Evolutionary Apparatus Directive.

March 21, 2008

Expelled from Expelled

Filed under: culture, film, science — Tags: , , — codesmithy @ 7:42 am

This is why reality will always be stranger than fiction.  PZ Myers, biologist and associate professor at the University of Minnesota, Morris, was not allowed to see an advance screening of the movie “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed.” A movie he was interviewed for under false pretenses.  Well, apparently the producers of the movie anticipated that PZ Myers might make such an attempt at their screening.  However, what they didn’t seem realize was that Richard Dawkins was going to be in Minnesota for the 34th Annual Nation Conference of American Atheists.  So while they kept Myers out, they let the Dawkins in.  Apparently there was a Q and A session after the movie where Dawkins asked why PZ Myers had been, well, expelled from seeing the film.  Here is an account from a Christian perspective.  (h/t Chris)

I must say, Dawkins is a brave man.  If it were me, I would watch the film, keep my mouth shut, and leave.  However, it is exactly that type of tenacity which makes Dawkins such a strong advocate for reason, and entertaining to watch.

February 1, 2008

PZ Myers Does a Horrible Thing

Filed under: media, politics, religion, science — Tags: , , — codesmithy @ 11:05 am

PZ Myers is an associate professor at the University of Minnesota, Morris and writes for a blog called “Pharyngula.” He was invited to debate Geoffrey Simmons, a fellow at the Discovery Institute on the topic of “the evidence of Evolution vs. evidence of Intelligent Design” “Are Darwin’s Theories Fact or Faith Issues?” Audio of the “debate” can be found here.

The reason not to debate creationists or their secular facade known as “Intelligent Design” is because of their blatant, demonstrable intellectual dishonesty. Dr. Simmons has the intellectual capacity and academic background to distinguish between colloquial uses of the word “theory” and the specific meaning with respect to the sciences, he willingly and knowingly chose to misrepresent the opposing side. The other problem is the audience and their background. As PZ Myers mentions in the debate, it is impossible to satisfactorily summarize all the evidence for evolution in 5 minutes.

The misdirection from evolution to “Darwinism” is also intellectually dishonest. For one, it incorrectly links evolutionary theory with “Social Darwinism.” Secondly, evolutionary theory has been continually refined by countless scientists over the past 100 years. While we may laud Darwin for initially discovering the framework, he is not exclusively responsible for evolutionary theory as it stands today. Much like how we would not call the theory of gravity, Newtonism.

The argument Dr. Simmons uses is highly disingenuous. It goes: there are gaps in the evidence for evolutionary theory. Evolutionary theory cannot explain those gaps. These gaps are so inexplicable, no natural explanation can ever be discovered. Therefore, we must teach our children about these gaps and open up science to the possibility of non-natural explanations.

The problem is that Dr. Simmons needs to name a gap that can’t be explained. The arm-chair quarterbacking tactic is a relatively easy gig. There are gaps in the evolutionary record because very few animals are fossilized. However, even when transitional forms are found, the creationist puts on the hat of the “serious critic” and declares there still isn’t enough evidence for his/her satisfaction. Dr. Simmons ignorance of the whale fossil record is not surprising, because there is no need for him to be educated about it. The actual evidence will never be good enough.

The claim, of course, is that we need to apply the highest standards of critical thinking. And the answer is that scientists do. The difference between the creationists and the scientists is that they apply the same standard to the evidence. So, even if there are gaps in the fossil record that doesn’t mean that we get to ignore the vast body of evidence that appears to support it. Even if some aspects of evolution are wrong, evolution has already proven its worth and usefulness in the countless verifiable predictions it has already made.

The real problem is that science has gotten a little bit too good at providing explanations that don’t involve supernatural intervention. “The Bible” does make specific claims on how the human species came into being. Unfortunately, its explanation doesn’t agree with the things we find buried in the ground or look at in the sky. However, it is never up to the creationist to defend these claims, they claim them as an article of faith and inconvertible despite contradictory evidence. The greatest affront happens when these same people want to turn around and say scientists are just doing the same thing. It is insulting. It is insulting to those who have a basic respect for the truth and believe what they see with their own eyes. A quality that Christians respect in the Gospels, no matter how implausible or flimsy the physical evidence, but apparently not from scientists no matter how strong the case they present.

So, what was that horrible thing that PZ Myers did? Debate a creationist? No, that is its own punishment. I also see no problem with his combativeness, there is also no polite way to say that the other person just lied, or obviously doesn’t know what they are talking about. No, PZ Myers’ crime is that he left no doubt that the characters in the Bible that creationists most want to emulate are the hypocrites.

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