Archives August 2011


If you’ve been around for a while, you may remember Bill Donohue as a guy who has called for boycotts of Calvin Klein, HBO, Disney, Target, the TV show Nothing Sacred, 20th Century Fox, the Brooklyn Museum of Art , the city of San Francisco, Showtime, the New York Jewish Museum, the Arlington diocese lenten appeal, Wal-Mart, Madonna concert sponsors, the Roger Smith Hotel, the movie The Golden Compass, Miller beer, and probably others that I’ve forgotten.

Now he warns us of a new threat:

The Charity Give Back Group (CGBG), formerly known as the Christian Values Network, is an online service that partners with more than 170,000 charities, religious and secular, enabling users to support their favorite charities when they shop on the web. Because some of the charities embrace the traditional Christian understanding of marriage, some activist organizations have sought to pressure retailers not to associate with CGBG.

If these extremists get their way, they will silence the Christian voice. Which is why the bullies must be defeated.

Right now, Catholics need to let three major companies know of their need not to follow the dictates of these anti-Christian forces: Netflix, Walgreens and Petco. We are not asking them to jump into the culture war on our side; we simply ask that they remain neutral.

(emphasis added)

I suggest starting a new charity, to be affiliated with the Christian Values Network CGBG: the Buy BillDo A Mirror And A Fucking Clue Foundation. BillDo and thousands of religious leaders like him live lives bereft of any smidgen of self-awareness or sense of irony, condemning in others that which they routinely advocate themselves. Please, won’t you think of the bigots?

(HT Ed Brayton.)

Learning to Learn

The Aug. 29, 2011 episode of 60-Second Science talks about a finding that drawing helps scientists develop their ideas.

I can’t say I’m terribly surprised at this. Drawing seems to me to be more concrete than speech (or raw thought). Just as a simple example, I can say “two circles”, or I can draw two circles. If I draw two circles, rather than just talking about them, I must necessarily place them next to each other, or one above the other; close together or far apart; of equal or different sizes; and so on. Depending what the circles represent, these small choices might matter, and force me to think about some aspect of the problem.

Chabris and Simon’s The Invisible Gorilla describes something similar: pick some object that you know well — the example they use is that of a bicycle — and draw a diagram of it. No need for artistic verisimilitude, just try to get all the important parts and how they relate to each other. Now, compare your drawing to the real thing. Are the pedals attached to the frame? Do the pedals go through the chain? Is the chain attached to both wheels, by any chance? According to the authors, a lot of people make glaring mistakes. I think it’s because, while people know how to use a bicycle (or a stove, or a TV set), we rarely if ever need to think about the way the parts have to fit together to actually work.

Which brings me to my own field:

It has often been said that a person does not really understand something until after teaching it to someone else. Actually a person does not really understand something until after teaching it to a computer, i.e., expressing it as an algorithm.

— Donald E. Knuth, in American Scientist:61(6), 1973, quoted here

What I mean is that if you really want to understand something, the best way is to try and explain it to someone else. That forces you to sort it out in your mind. And the more slow and dim-witted your pupil, the more you have to break things down into more and more simple ideas. And that’s really the essence of programming. By the time you’ve sorted out a complicated idea into little steps that even a stupid machine can deal with, you’ve learned something about it yourself.

— Douglas Adams, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency

Computers have a nasty habit of doing exactly what you tell them, and only what you tell them (or at least they did back when I learned programming; since then, they’ve occasionally attempted to be helpful, which usually means they’re not even doing what you tell them). This means that to write any kind of program, you have to think about absolutely every step, and make decisions about everything. And the machine isn’t at all shy about letting you know that YOU GOT IT WRONG HAHAHAHA LOSER!, although it usually lets you know through a cryptic error message like segmentation fault (core dumped) or dropping your Venus probe into the Atlantic.

But in most disciplines, we are not so lucky to have such stupid students, or to receive the kind of feedback that programmers do, so we need to resort to other methods.

Explaining things to someone else helps, probably because it forces you to explicitly state a lot of the things that you can just gloss over when you’re thinking about it. John Cleese has talked about the importance of test audiences in improving movies: they’ll tell you about all sorts of problems with the film that you never would have noticed otherwise. One of the cornerstones of science is peer-review, which basically means that you throw your ideas out there and let your colleagues and rivals take pot-shots at them. And the study I mentioned at the the top of this post says that it helps to draw pictures of what you’re thinking about.

It seems to me that the common element is looking at every aspect of a design, the better to try and make its flaws evident. The human brain is a remarkable organ, but it’s also very good at rationalizing, at overlooking details, at making connections that aren’t there, and the like.

But the good news is that we do have techniques like doodling, explaining, soliciting feedback, and so on. And that suggests that we can learn to think better. Genius may not be something innate, something bestowed by whichever Fates decided your genetic makeup, but rather something that you can learn over time and improve through practice, like playing piano or baking a soufflé.

I hope this is the case. It would mean that our children can be better than we are, and there’s something we can do about it. Heck, it would mean that we can improve ourselves.

Stop Calling Neocreationists Creationists, Dammit!

Here’s the blurb attached to the latest episode of the Intelligent Design the Future podcast:

On this episode of ID the Future, Casey Luskin exposes how evidence given for macroevolution in The Language of Science and Faith is too weak to hold any weight. In their book, Francis Collins and Karl Giberson make the all-too-common claim that macroevolution is merely microevolution over a prolonged period of time. Are the proposed mechanisms really as simple as they sound? Luskin discusses the insufficiency of Collins and Gibersons’ argument in Part 5 of his continued review of The Language of Science and Faith.

Gosh, it’s nice to know that ID is not creationism, nosirree! It’s a completely different thing altogether, you betcha!

But wait, what’s this? Huh. It turns out that “Microevolution is true but not macroevolution” is on Answers in Genesis’s list of arguments that creationists shouldn’t use.

Okay, maybe there’s a difference between ID and young-earth creationism after all, if Luskin is still pushing arguments that even AIG has disavowed.

Court Rules for Teacher Who Criticized Creationism

The Christian Science Monitor has a story about a teacher in California who criticized creationism in class in 2007:

A three-judge panel of the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously that the lawsuit against an advanced placement history teacher at Capistrano Valley High School in Mission Viejo must be thrown out of court because the teacher was entitled to immunity.

The San Francisco-based appeals court said the teacher was entitled to immunity because it was not clearly established in the law that a teacher’s expression of hostility to certain religious beliefs in a public school classroom would violate the First Amendment’s establishment clause.

It goes on to quote some of the things Corbett said in class:

“Aristotle … argued, you know, there sort of has to be a God. Of course that’s nonsense,” Corbett said according to a transcript of his lecture. “I mean, that’s what you call deductive reasoning, you know. And you hear it all the time with people who say, ‘Well, if all this stuff that makes up the universe is here, something must have created it.’ Faulty logic. Very faulty logic.”

He continued: “The other possibility is, it’s always been there.… Your call as to which one of those notions is scientific and which one is magic.”

“All I’m saying is that, you know, the people who want to make the argument that God did it, there is as much evidence that God did it as there is that there is a giant spaghetti monster living behind the moon who did it,” the transcript says.

Corbett told his students that “real” scientists try to disprove the theory of evolution. “Contrast that with creationists,” he told his students. “They never try to disprove creationism. They’re all running around trying to prove it. That’s deduction. It’s not science. Scientifically, it’s nonsense.”

All of which is true, of course, which doesn’t mean there aren’t first amendment issues:

“Farnan [the plaintiff] asserts that it has been clearly established for many years that the government must remain neutral with regard to religion, and it may not show its disapproval of religion,” Fisher said.

“This overbroad proposition, cast at a high level of generality, is just the sort of sweeping statement of the law that is inappropriate for assessing whether qualified immunity applies,” the judge said.

Because the law was not clearly established, the panel said, they need not assess the underlying constitutional issue.

So as I understand it, the court ruled that complete and absolute neutrality on religious issues, forbidding teachers from saying anything one way or another about religious issues, would be a straitjacket. This is unreasonable, because teachers need some breathing room to do their jobs. That while a pattern of anti-creationist tirades might be actionable, Corbett’s statements do not rise to that level.

I guess it’s a bit like saying “don’t waste the court’s time because he stole fifty cents from you. Come back when it’s twenty bucks.”

The NCSE is also on this, and goes into more detail about the facts and precedents.

At any rate, I’m not sure yet how I feel about this decision. On one hand, Corbett’s absolutely right in what he said about creationism, and there’s data to back that up, so it’s arguably appropriate for a science class. At the same time, there’s that whole first-amendment neutrality-toward-religion thing. And of course the rules apply to teachers pushing creationism as well. Though again, there’s a difference between one or two offhand comments, and a pattern of bias.

So in the end, I guess I can live with this.

(h/t /.)


The New York Times ran a piece about the David Mabus affair (tl;dr version: he’s a mentally-ill troll who’d been sending death threats to people for years, and was finally arrested after enough people complained to the police).

It begins:

Over the years, someone writing as David Mabus made himself known to scientists and avowed atheists across North America in thousands of threatening e-mails and violently profane messages on Twitter.

The phrase “avowed atheists” annoyed me, because I see it a lot. I even twatted about it:

The phrase “avowed atheist” still annoys me, though. When’s the last time someone was an “avowed Baptist”?

Then I realized that with an entire browserful of Internet at my disposal, I could answer that question.
Read More

Fact-Checking the BillDo

Bill Donohue is in fine form this morning. As I read his apoplectic hissy fit over the fact that New York City will now mandate sex education, I can practically see the flecks of spittle flying out from the monitor and feel the floor shake as he stamps his feet:

We’ve had de facto sex-education in New York City for decades—that’s how long we’ve been shelling out condoms to students. And what has it gotten us? Moreover, under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, literally tens of millions of condoms have been promiscuously distributed all over the city to anyone who wants them. And yet the rate of sexually transmitted diseases continues to skyrocket.

There is a sex-education program that could work, and it is one that is similar to the approach being used to discuss smoking. We don’t tell kids not to smoke and then instruct them on the proper way to inhale. No, we show them horrifying pictures of a smoker’s lungs. We tell them of the physical pain they are likely to endure by smoking. We tell them how it will shorten their life expectancy.

So… sex is like smoking? He wants kids to grow up and ideally never have sex ever? I have a mental image of a chaste couple getting married, and when they are finally allowed by their church to have sex, on their wedding night, all they can think of is the pictures of diseased cocks and pussies they got shown in their BillDo-style sex ed class.

There was something else I meant to mention. What was it?… Oh, right! “the rate of sexually transmitted diseases continues to skyrocket“.

You know what’s cool about the Internet? You can look shit up. In the US, which is where New York is, we have an institution called the Centers for Disease Control, part of whose job it is to keep track of incidences of diseases, including STDs. Here’s a form that’ll show you data about STDs by disease, year, age, and other criteria. Here’s another that lists fewer criteria, but has data for more years.

So in the second one, if we look up New York, grouping by disease and by year, we get:

(Click to see the whole thing. All rates are per 100,000 people.)

The thing I get from that is that gonorrhea is at a 20-year low, syphilis is a quarter of what it was in 1990, and the only one that’s on the rise is chlamydia, about which the CDC writes in its 2009 trends report:

Continuing increases in chlamydia diagnoses likely reflect expanded screening efforts, and not necessarily a true increase in disease burden; this means that more people are protecting their health by getting tested and being linked to treatment. This is critical, since chlamydia is one of the most widespread STDs in the United States.

Now, unfortunately all of these stats are for New York State, not just New York City. But I think if STDs in NYC were “skyrocket”ing as BillDo says, we’d know about it.

No, I think a simpler and far more plausible explanation is that, as usual, Donohue is pulling stuff out of his — or someone’s — ass. But what can you expect from someone whose job it is to pontificate about offenses to a magic man and his fluffers?

Update, 12:26: Clarify what the numbers in the graph mean.

Late Ramadan

The AP reports:

Muslims living in the world’s tallest tower will have to wait even longer to break their fast during the holy month of Ramadan.

Mohammed al-Qubaisi, Dubai’s top Muslim cleric, said Sunday that Burj Khalifa residents living above the 80th floor should wait two additional minutes to break their dawn-to-dusk fast while those above the 150th floor must wait three extra minutes because they will be able to see the sun longer than those on the ground.

The article goes on to say that there is a similar rule for people living in mountains (who, presumably, see the sun set later than people living in the plains) and people traveling in planes (who might be chasing the sun or running away from it).

It doesn’t say anything about Muslims living close to the poles. Do Muslims in Antarctica have to fast for months if Ramadan falls in the summer? Or do they get to skip the fasting altogether if it falls in the winter?

Or astronauts in low-earth orbit, e.g., on the International Space Station. That orbits every 91 minutes. Does a devout Muslim have to fast during the, let’s say, 50 minutes that the sun is visible and eat during the 41 minutes when it’s hidden by the Earth? What about a Muslim on the moon? Would he have to wait for a lunar eclipse during Ramadan? Or maybe a portable IV drip would be enough to fool Allah.

And yes, I’m sure there are books, magazines, and web sites in which Quite Serious clerics, with furrowed brows and concerned looks, have already analyzed these and other issues to death, and come up with some interpretation that’s somehow compatible with the Koran, the hadith, and the non-negotiable parts of real life. My point is that religion tends to encourage this sort of literalism. We see it with Jews who don’t use electricity on Saturday as well.

Life is complicated, and we’d all like things to be simpler and more manageable. We follow rules of thumb because it’s easier than working out the optimal solution. But at the same time, there has to be some sort of reality check, to see whether the rules of thumb you’re following make sense or whether they need to be revisited. And when you find yourself wondering when, to the minute, you can have dinner based on which floor you live on, I’d say you’re well past that point. But what religion does is to rope certain statements off and declare them to be unquestionable. And that leads to absurdity.


From Luke 12 (NIV):

47 “The servant who knows the master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what the master wants will be beaten with many blows. 48 But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows.

I’m so glad that it explicitly says “servant” there. Because otherwise, you just know that some ungodly scoffer would say that Jesus endorses not just slavery, but the beating of slaves.

But as usual, God’s word (properly translated) is crystal-clear on the subject, and of course Jesus doesn’t condone slavery, and hasn’t done so since 1865.

Ironic Story Is Ironic

This Is Plymouth (Devon, UK) reports:

A CHURCH worker whose job was to protect young people from abuse had thousands of indecent pictures of children, a court heard.

Married father-of-four Christopher Jarvis, aged 49, advised the Roman Catholic Church in Plymouth how to keep youngsters safe but had more than 4,000 pornographic images of children, Plymouth Magistrates’ Court was told.

At this point, I’m suffering from irony fatigue, so supply your own punchline in the comments. The winner gets… oh, I don’t know. How about if I transubstantiate an item of baked goods into the deity of your choice?

On a more tragic note, the thing preventing me from simply pointing at a bunch of hypocritical fucktards and giggling is the fact that Jarvis appears to be a victim himself:

Jodie Baker, for Jarvis, said he had been the victim of abuse. She said he was abused aged 11 by a family friend through a church social club.

Miss Baker said: “At the age of 16 or 17 he admitted to a priest that he had a homosexual encounter and he was then abused by that priest.”

She said that two suicide attempts which led to Jarvis being arrested and produced in custody were ‘half-hearted’ and a ‘cry for help’.

Is there anyone the Catholic church hasn’t fucked up? (*cough*LouisCK*cough*)

And could someone tell me why anyone still remains a Catholic? It’s not like there aren’t other churches out there. In the US, at least, it’s a buyer’s market and always has been.