Dec 12, 2007

This Just In: Pregnant Women Don't Tip Over!

We'd never know, but this article reports it is so. More seriously, the source is in the Dec 13 issue of Nature, and it's all about spine curvature. Well well...

Anecdotally, most men find something attractive about a pronounced curvature of a woman's lower back, just above the buttocks. If I understood this article correctly, that's another evolutionary marker of an efficient "baby-making machine". Other such markers I've heard of before are full lips and a high hips/waist ratio; all of them are correlated with fecundity, as well as universally considered attractive.

We men may be pigs, but it is in the noble function of propagating the species. Our tastes evolved. Guys, when women tell you to evolve, you should retort, "I already have. This is the final product." (So far, of course, but the same is true of women.)

Nov 16, 2007

At Least Saddam Can't Use Air Conditioning Any More

Solar Power Rocks has an amazing graph comparing R&D investments in energy to the cost of war in Iraq.

Since you won't be able to see the whole thing on the screen at once, you may be left with the question "Wholy shit! But how do those things compare if you don't have to scroll?" Answer: imagine a dog house next to Sears Tower. And make sure it's a small doghouse.

Nov 8, 2007

Robertson Endorses Giuliani: History Repeats Itself

First time as farce:

And the second time again as farce:

For more detailed captions, see the first comment.

Nov 2, 2007

What's My Image?

PZ Myers infected me with this meme: google for the image that comes up first for your name. And so I did:

Wow, that really could be me. The resemblance is uncanny.

Nov 1, 2007

What Breed of Liberal Am I?

Utterly unelectable but delectable:

How to Win a Fight With a Conservative is the ultimate survival guide for political arguments

My Liberal Identity:

You are a Reality-Based Intellectualist, also known as the liberal elite. You are a proud member of what’s known as the reality-based community, where science, reason, and non-Jesus-based thought reign supreme.

Are Metal Detectors Just A Pain In The Ass?

In the building where I work, there is (of course) a metal detector at the entrance.

Keys don't set it off.
Coins don't set it off.
Preparation-H wipes do.

Oct 18, 2007

Required Reading on Race

In a comment on Pharyngula, Lance perfectly illustrates the universal folly of human nature. Quoted in full:
Being a white guy married to an African (Ethiopian) woman I have read along with great interest and occasional amusement. Having visited the African continent on three occasions certainly doesn't make me an authority on the intelligence of its residents but I have had the good fortune of interacting with a great number of African people in Africa and here in the US.

I personally know a good many highly intelligent Ethiopian folks. What is funny is that they disparage the intellect of their African neighbors of different tribes. The dominant "highland" tribes of Ethiopia and Eritrea, the Amhara and the Tigray attribute lower intelligence (and bigger penises) to their southern "low land" neighbors the Anyuak, Walita, Omo and the Jinka. They look down on them as "baria" or black people.

There are over eighty separate tribes and languages in Ethiopia alone. Some of these tribes have been genetically separated for thousands of years and are quite visually distinct from on another. Even a "farange" like me can easily identify the physical characteristics of many of these distinct populations.

Are there true differences in intellectual ability between these tribes? I have no idea but I kind of doubt it based on my interactions with the people from these different groups. What I find interesting is that the different tribes have definite opinions of the relative intelligence of each tribes.

They have recently been exposed to Chinese workers and engineers and have decided that they are very intelligent as a "race" if revolting in appearance.

Having been immersed in their very hospitable culture I can say that people are people and this whole topic is interesting at first blush but quite absurd in practice.

Oh, by the way they think we "faranges" are about as bright as the highland tribes but much less civilized. After spending time in their society I tend to agree with them.

Ignorant, Stupid, or Deluded

In a certain context (Which Shall Not Be Named), we often hear that you can't expect to be taken seriously if you assert that a great majority of Americans are ignorant, stupid, or deluded. People seem to assume it just can't be true, and refuse to examine the evidence that it is. But that assumption is wrong, and here is proof, in a different context.

In the Oct 13 LA Times, Jonathan Chait reminded us that
A poll in late 2001 found that 76% of Americans preferred Bush over Gore as a war leader.

Now, is there any way to explain this other than to admit that, in late 2001, 76% of Americans were ignorant, stupid, or deluded?

Oh sure, they could have also been malevolent. But evil doesn't exist as a Platonic form, so malevolence itself requires some explanation, and a reasonably charitable and optimistic first approximation is that it is usually caused by one of that obnoxious trio - ignorance, stupidity, and delusion.

Oct 16, 2007

Naughty Lama

From the news:
When asked if he had a message for Chinese President Hu Jintao, the Dalai Lama playfully patted a reporter on the cheek and said, "You are not a representative of Hu Jintao."

Cute. No big deal. Really. But wait, would anyone else doing the same be described as sympathetically? Suppose George W. Bush "playfully patted a reporter on the cheek"? Or, god forbid, if the reporter was female, imagine Bill Clinton in Dalai Lama's place. Wouldn't the press describe the "incident" as "harassment"?

(If the reporter was male, try Senator Larry Craig.)

Oct 13, 2007

Framing, Damn Framing, and Statistics

I am not the least bit opposed to framing in principle. However, framing gurus should take care not to feed the (fairly common) opinion that framing equals paltering. Matt Nisbet fails that task with this graph:

Nisbet is showing this to support his thesis that there are "two Americas" and that only the one that agrees with Al Gore politically has become more concerned about climate change in recent years. But that is not a valid reading of the graph unless the relative numbers of the Democrats and Republicans have been stable over the period, and data from the same source suggest that they haven't. There are fewer Republicans now than a few years ago. If we assume that most of the party-switchers are moderates and that most moderates are concerned about climate change - and both assumptions seem reasonable - then the remaining loyal Republicans are, on average, more partisan and more dogmatic than before, and the divergence of the two lines in the graph just illustrates that corollary.

There are more conclusions that can be drawn from that graph, but none of them is about Al Gore's ineffectiveness.

Oct 12, 2007

Supreme Court Awards Peace Prize To Bush

Washington, October 12 (Laughing Hyena News) In an emergency decision this morning, the Supreme Court awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to George W. Bush.

Writing for the five-justice majority, Justice Antonin Scalia said that the Nobel Committee overstepped its authority when it awarded the Peace Prize to "that fat bastard" Al Gore. "There is no provision in the Constitution that allows some ragtag gang of fucking Vikings to award the prize in a pie-eating contest, let alone the Nobel Peace Prize," the Justice read his opinion at the press conference, admiring every word he wrote. "The original intent of the Peace Prize was to make the dude who invented dynamite sleep better," continued Scalia, "and it is preposterous to assume that such a Nobel goal (chuckle) could be achieved by rewarding a beefy liberal who would use the government to tell cows how much and how often they can belch."

Scalia then explained the Court's own choice of the legally-entitled laureate: "The best way to calm the conscience of the dynamite inventor is to demonstrate how irrelevant dynamite has become." Using his famously sharp logic, Scalia continued, "and the best way to demonstrate that is to show how many more people get blown up by other explosives, not invented by Mr. Nobel. By sending thousands of people to be blown up by plastic explosive, TNT, and other non-dynamite compounds, and with no other discernible purpose but to quell Mr. Nobel's conscience, George W. Bush has accomplished the mission of the Nobel Foundation better than any man in history, with the possible exception of a certain individual, not under our jurisdiction, who may or may not be alive in the mountains of central Asia."

In a concurring opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote: "Strictly speaking, the Nobel Prize may be unconstitutional, because it had not been established by 1789, so there is some question whether it should be awarded at all. But there seems to be no legal way to force all previous recipients to return the prize money."

The Chief Supreme, John "Diana Ross" Roberts, issued another concurring opinion, in which he chided the four dessenters, to whom he wrote "Stop! In the name of love... we should decide unanimously." He and Justice Kennedy, who joined his opinion, then did a tap-dance to show that the Court's decision was just a routine exercise in constitutional interpretation.

Tap-dancing Justice Kennedy also wrote a concurring opinion in which he invoked the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment: "Properly interpreted, it states that no person born in any of the states of the Confederacy can ever get the Peace Prize. Al Gore is thus ineligible because he is from Tennessee." In contrast, George W. Bush is a Connecticut Yankee. Justice Alito joined the opinion.

Justice Souter, one of the dissenters, remarked that Al Gore was, in fact, born in the District of Columbia. Justice Thomas replied, "Come on, Dave, don't nitpick. That's practically in Virginia." Justice Scalia leaned over and whispered something into Justice Souter's ear; it was barely audible, and had to do with a horse's head.

Justice Stevens wrote a very short dissenting opinion, which was joined by Justices Souter, Ginsburg and Breyer. Its full text was, "This is a travesty. I dispair - or, rather, I dissent." Justice Scalia then turned to Justice Kennedy and told him, "That reminds me, have you heard the one about a priest, a pastor, and a transvestite in a bar..."

President Bush said he was surprised by the prize. "They woke me up from my nap to tell me the news. They said, 'you won the No Belle Prize'. I asked them if that was good or bad; it sounded kinda negative. But they said it's good, so I reckon I was pleasurably surprised. I think it's some kinda abstinence thing, but only the poor people in Sweden have to practice abstinence. That's good, 'cause there won't be so many poor people in Sweden."

Al Gore said he was disappointed, but he accepted the Court's decision. "I can always try again," he said, "maybe I'll find a cure for cancer and single-handedly destroy an approaching asteroid. They might consider giving me a consolation prize then."

Oct 10, 2007

U seen dis? LOL

Sm ppl srsly translating teh Bibul. Here iz John 1:1-8
1. In teh beginz is teh cat macro, and teh cat macro sez "Oh hai Ceiling Cat" and teh cat macro iz teh Ceiling Cat.

2. Teh cat macro an teh Ceiling Cat iz teh bests frenz in teh begins.

3. Him maeks alls teh cookies; no cookies iz maed wifout him.

4. Him haz teh liefs, an becuz ov teh liefs teh doodz sez "Oh hay lite."

5. Teh lite iz pwns teh darks, but teh darks iz liek "Wtf."

6. And teh Ceiling Cat haz dis otehr man; his naem iz John.

7. He tellz teh ppl dat teh lites is tehre, so dat teh doodz sez "OMG."

8. Him wuz not teh lite; he jsut sez teh lites is tehre.

Oct 4, 2007

Deep-Sixing the Sixth?

I wish there were no trials by jury, at least not by jury of citizens with no qualifications for critical thinking. Out of 12 randomly chosen people, at least 8 have either no ability or no will to consider evidence without prejudice. And it is difficult to get juries to convict in cases of police brutality or vigilante vandalism. But the Sixth Amendment guarantees the right to jury trial (and the Seventh does it for civil cases), and it would be almost impossible, as well as unwise, to change that. So what is to be done?

We could have professional or semi-professional juries, as some other countries do. Contrary to the popular misconception, there is no constitutional (or otherwise recognized) right to trial by jury of one's peers. On the contrary, the concept of "peer" is rooted in aristocracy and thus repugnant to our constitutional principles.

A reform to introduce trained juries would be difficult, and would increase the cost of government, but it would greatly improve the integrity of our judicial system. It could also enable a compromise between those who want elected judges and those who prefer appointed ones. We could have appointed judges and elected jurors. And states could experiment with various flavors of such reforms.

Another feasible reform could be doing away with "guilt" as the issue in a trial. Rather than decide if the accused is "guilty", the jury would decide whether the accused "did it". Objectively, this may be just a difference in words, but framing matters, and many people would probably perceive their role differently, as objective fact finders rather than judges of value. That could quell the annullment-by-jury tendencies, which usually have the effect of letting abusive cops and vigilantes off the hook.

Sep 25, 2007

When Wars Were Worth Fighting

There are several things I've wanted to write about, but in the last couple of days I've been spending most of my free time watching The War. Normally I don't watch TV, but for a Ken Burns documentary I'll always make an exception.

Small Steps

I made it on the blogroll at Pharyngula. Yes, I know, that's easier than getting on the "do not call" list, but every small step forward is important on the way to acquiring a critical mass of readers.

(Of course, now that I mentioned "acquiring a critical mass", I've probably made some NSA or FBI list as well...)

Sep 21, 2007

Conversation With Ed Brayton

Looks like I struck a nerve just enough and not too much: Ed Brayton wrote a long response to my previous post. It is a good response; he holds no punches, but doesn't hit below the waist. I think we have a decent conversation going, and, naturally, I disagree with various points he makes, so here goes my response. I'll address it directly to Ed, in second person. You (Ed) wrote:
The fact that it's "exactly like Dawkins" hardly changes my disagreements with Dawkins on the broader picture, especially on that subject. What human being, even someone deeply religious, would not agree with the statement that "religion provides a structure for people to divide into opposing camps, define themselves by membership in a camp, and kill the members of the other camp"? For crying out loud, Pat Robertson would have to agree with that statement; it's too bloody obvious for anyone to deny.

That's far from clear. Maybe Pat Robertson would say that all of those divisions and killing would be avoided if all people chose the right religion. Some religious people certainly would. Some others, not necessarily religious, would say that religion is incidental to those divisions, with no relevant role in generating them. Not Dawkins; he says religion is central to some of the world's most dangerous divisions. You seem to agree, at least with respect to Irish history. My point was that this is not a trivial agreement.
More importantly, it's not really a counter-argument to the claim that religion benefits the community. Only the staggeringly simple-minded think that there is a single simple answer to the question of whether religion benefits the community.

We agree here; the differences are purely semantic. So it isn't a counter-argument; it is a contrary statement that must be included for a truthful description.
Just as it is absurd to pretend that religion has nothing but positive effects, it's equally absurd to pretend that it has nothing but negative effects.

Right, but the symmetry is broken in American reality. The former pretense is the norm of public discourse, while the latter is considered impolite and offensive. In recent years, several authors have tried to rectify this unjustified asymmetry by giving public voice to the "impolite" side. Although such expression has a long tradition in America, from Tom Paine to Robert Green Ingersoll to H. L. Mencken, its recent professors have been called "new atheists".
Neither the name nor the classification seem very meaningful, but it has caught on, mainly because some other atheists have emphatically distanced themselves from this ill-defined group. And a similar division has arisen among those who defend science education from creationist subversion. I had implied that the two camps differ in how diplomatic they are; you say I am wrong:
The distinction between the two camps has nothing to do with being diplomatic; there is a serious, substantive disagreement between the two camps.

I am sure there are substantive disagreements, but I doubt that the flame wars and personal attacks on blogs can be explained that way. I think people tend to be much better at sorting out substantive disagreements than some barely perceptible character incompatibilities. It is also significant that the deepest hostilities arise between fellow nonbelievers and not between a believer and an atheist, who would tend to have deeper substantive disagreements.
I have one and only one concern and that is what is true. If I think an idea is absurd, I obviously have no problem whatsoever slamming it in very blunt language.

OK, but PZ Myers could have written the same thing. And Dawkins could have (and probably has) written the same first sentence. (He doesn't use "very blunt language", FWIW.) If you don't agree on what is true, perhaps it would be worth figuring out how to resolve the disagreements.
it is about the substantive question of whether religion itself - as opposed to the many stupid or repulsive beliefs within religion - is inherently absurd or dangerous. It isn't that I don't think it's diplomatic to call belief in God a delusion; it's that I honestly don't think it's delusional to believe in God.

The wisdom of Stephen Hawking's retort "I do not answer God questions" is validated if one observes that "God questions" are full of semantic traps that look like substantive issues. Is it possible that much of your disagreement is semantic? Both "religion" and "delusion" are used with so many meanings and shades of meanings that it is extremely easy for two people to talk about them and talk completely past each other, because they don't have common definitions of words.
Dawkins takes steps at the beginning of his book to avoid such misunderstanding, clarifying that he does not use "delusion" in a technical, psychiatric sense, and that the "religion" he is talking about does not include systems of belief, such as Unitarian-Universalist, with no doctrine about supernatural entities. But that may not be enough to avoid misunderstanding completely. After all, Sam Harris, another "new atheist", targets "faith" but not "religion"; in his understanding, "religion" requires neither dogma nor the supernatural. It may be that one has to write an entire book just to define one's terms enough to avoid most misunderstandings.
Now, there are particular conceptions of God that I think are inherently ridiculous and I criticize those ideas here every day.

I agree. But once you take that position, you ought to allow that it is not unreasonable to hold a similar position with a different threshold of ridiculousness. It is also not necessarily true that more ridiculous ideas lead to more dangerous behavior. I've sided with Cal Thomas against Hillary Clinton intellectually, but if I had to choose one of them to make important decisions, it's slam dunk for Hillary.
there are also beautiful, inspiring and, yes, true ideas to be found in religion as well.

Dawkins must hold the same view; if he didn't, then his strong support for teaching the Bible in schools - as literature, of course - would make no sense.
Just as religion can motivate almost unspeakable barbarism, it can also inspire great kindness. For every bigot quoting Leviticus to justify beating up gays, there's someone like my stepmother, a fundamentalist Christian who, while she believes homosexuality to be a sin, nonetheless spent years taking care of my uncle while he was dying of AIDS. And she did that because she takes seriously Jesus' words, "Whatever you do to the least of these, you do unto me also."

That is clearly evidence that your stepmother is a good and kind person, but it is only circumstantial evidence for the positive role of religion. Like every Christian, your stepmother cherry-picked the parts of the Bible that suited her. (It is impossible to avoid cherry-picking because the Bible is too diverse and self-contradictory.) You dismiss the bigotry of Leviticus as if it was struck out of the Bible like the "3/5 of a person" abomination was struck out of the Constitution. But it was not; Leviticus is no less sacred to Christianity than the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats (which, BTW, ends with a threat of eternal punishment, but OK, let's limit it to your quote). Your stepmother was driven by the latter because it fit her kind personality. But it does not follow that her religion caused her kind deeds. What role, if any, religion plays in that, is not a well-understood topic currently. (Note that the moral metaphors by themselves are not religion, in the sense Dawkins uses the word, without supernatural origin and retribution after death. Religious inspiration is presumably qualitatively different from inspiration from poetry.)
I simply know too many brilliant, well-educated people who believe in God to say that belief in God is an indication that someone lacks intelligence.

That's a straw man. Nobody relevant has ever made such a claim.
I've known too many good Christian people who spend their lives feeding the homeless, taking care of foster children and orphans, hiding political dissidents from death squads, etc, to believe that religion is uniformly bad.

And that is non sequitur. There are many good religious people (just as there are many good nonreligious people). That doesn't mean that religion made them good. It may have; but any such statements are mere conjectures at this point.
To give one obvious example, at the same time that some in the Catholic hierarchy were cooperating with the Nazis, hundreds of brave priests and nuns were hiding Jewish families from them, risking their own lives in the process. And I don't see how stupid arguments from creationists or vile statements from anti-gay bigots cancels that out.

And I don't see what there is to cancel out. Again you have people doing good deeds; and you and I agree that they are good deeds based on secular criteria. They may have been motivated by religion, but that is speculative. However, I challenge you to try to explain how the persecution of Jews would ever have happened without religion, Christianity in particular. Antisemitism is probably the most readily identifiable negative consequence of Christianity.
It simply doesn't have to be "religion is good" or "religion is bad"; religion is both.

Sure, but you can say that about everything. Love. Death. Democracy. Fascism. It means nothing without assigning it some value on the (possibly multidimensional) good-bad continuum. Which way does the balance tip?
And we can criticize all of those bad things and the ridiculous arguments used to rationalize them away without advocating, as PZ did recently, the "obliterating of religion."

Yes, we can, but what makes one approach inherently better than the other? Assuming that the balance tips toward "bad", would it not be reasonable to at least consider the desirability of disappearance of religion? (It wouldn't necessarily be desirable, it might still be better to preserve religion in a "safe, legal, and rare" form.)

As you see, we have considerable disagreements, probably many of them substantive. But I don't think you are an idiot or a dangerous person and you probably don't think I am. I don't think your opinions should be censored and I can't imagine you'd think mine should. Maybe this discussion can serve as a catalyst for ceasefire in some other web disagreements. As the commenter Sastra wrote on your blog about you and PZ:
But I love them both and want them make nice to each other. Won't hold my breath, though.

Perhaps Sastra and I can start a petition?

Sep 20, 2007

Ed Brayton is "New"!

Or should I say "fundamentalist"? Or "evangelist"? Whichever misnomer you choose to describe atheists outspoken in criticism of religion, like Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, Harris or PZ Myers (But what about H. L. Mencken or Robert Green Ingersoll?), this post looks like it was written by one of "those people":
Talk about leaving out relevant information. Well yes, Christianity has certainly been a huge influence on Irish culture for centuries, but that hardly tells the full story. Making that vague statement without pointing out that two brands of Christianity have been murdering each other for much of that time is a lot like whitewashing the truth.

That's exactly like Dawkins warning that religion provides a structure for people to divide into opposing camps, define themselves by membership in a camp, and kill the members of the other camp. It would be a one-sided argument if taken out of context, but not if used (as by Dawkins and Brayton) as a counterargument to the dominant/prevailing/background argument that religion benefits the community. As Brayton points out, it is a necessary part of the whole truth.

I am glad to see Brayton arguing like Dawkins because I think he made a mistake when he declared himself to be a member of... well, the opposing camp:
I am firmly a member of the first group, as are the vast majority of those I work with on this issue. Genie Scott, Rob Pennock, Wes Elsberry, Nick Matzke, Jack Krebs and nearly everyone I consider colleagues in this regard recognize that the dispute is over evolution and creationism, not over theism and atheism. But some, like Larry Moran, PZ Myers, Richard Dawkins, Gary Hurd and others, are involved in an entirely different battle. For them, it's not enough to protect science education from the attacks of some religious people; religion itself, in any form, is to be attacked and destroyed by any means necessary.

I thin Brayton's self-classification is a mistake not only because I tend to think that Dawkins has the better arguments than the "appeasers", but also because Brayton - much like Larry Moran or PZ Myers - is temperamentally not suited for charming the religious, so he can be more effective if he doesn't try. He is quick to call some types of religious arguments idiotic, and he is usually right, but the division among anti-creationists is not about who is right (they all are), but who is diplomatic. And Ed is not diplomatic, which, BTW, is one of the reasons I read his blog.

UPDATE: Ed Brayton responds here.

Sep 13, 2007

L'Shana Tova!

For 5768 years, the Judean People's Front and the People's Front of Judea have been fighting over the question: Who invented humor? The Jews or the English? I think this may settle the issue. Happy New Year to all my Jewish friends!

Do Religious People Give More, Or Just Lie More?

PZ Myers responds to an article by Jonathan Haidt which starts out great, but segues into a rant against "New Atheists". It is interesting to read both articles as well as comments. One of the many points of contention was this:
Haidt says that "surveys have long shown that religious believers in the United States are happier, healthier, longer-lived, and more generous to charity and to each other than are secular people,"

PZ offers plausible, but speculative, counterpoints before pointing out that such results, even if true, are irrelevant to the issue of whether religion is true. He also correctly points at the inconsistency of justifying Christianity (which is the de facto dominant American religion) on hedonistic and utilitarian grounds.

Still, I was curious about those surveys, particularly because Haidt accused none other than Daniel Dennett, the most cautious of the "New Atheists", of willfully ignoring evidence and of thinking morally under the guise of thinking scientifically:
I have italicized the two sections that show ordinary moral thinking rather than scientific thinking. The first is Dennett's claim not just that there is no evidence, but that there is certainly no evidence, when in fact surveys have shown for decades that religious practice is a strong predictor of charitable giving. Arthur Brooks recently analyzed these data (in Who Really Cares) and concluded that the enormous generosity of religious believers is not just recycled to religious charities.

Thankfully, a commenter critical of PZ provided a link to Brooks' own summary of that study. Another commenter linked to a mild criticism of Brooks on The Volokh Conspiracy. But there is a lot more to criticize!

Brooks' definition of "secular", based entirely on infrequent religious service attendance, includes 26% of the total sample. The most optimistic numbers I've seen for nonreligious in any poll are around 14%, which means that about half (and possibly more) of the so-called "secular" were in fact religious people who rarely or never attend services. Those probably differ significantly from the nonreligious, so which subgroup is driving the results? (RT) has an analysis of false self-reporting of attendance cites sources that estimate that, although about 40% Americans report that they attend services weekly, only 20% actually do. Brooks counts 33% of his sample among the "religious" based on weekly attendance; it would thus appear that a third of those are only included because they lied.

Even more interestingly, the RT page cites Barna Group data that, while 17% report giving 10% or more of their income to their church, only 3% actually do. So we know from previous studies that self-reported giving is exaggerated. The usual explanation is that people say they do what they think they should do, not what they actually do. If the religious have a stronger sense that they should give more than they do, they will exaggerate their giving more.

I think that's enough to invalidate any conclusions from Brooks' study, but, as a general rule, whenever you see a policy paper, don't forget to check the sources and the context. This was published by the Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank. It is true that Hoover is more credible than Heritage and AEI - not everyone at Hoover is a hack - but keep in mind that Dinesh D'Souza is a fellow there. As a further clue to author's bias, note that Brooks approvingly quotes Robert Bork and Irving Kristol. I must say I would have more confidence in honesty and objectivity of a Vatican study on the same topic.

In light of such glaring problems with Brooks' study, I wonder how Haidt can honestly write
These data are complex and perhaps they can be spun the other way, but at the moment it appears that Dennett is wrong in his reading of the literature.

He was addressing Dennett's statement that "[c]ertainly no reliable survey has yet been done that shows" that "as a group atheists and agnostics are [less] respectful of the law, [less] sensitive to the needs of others, or [less] ethical than religious people." Well, I have proven above that Brooks' study is not reliable, so Haidt is the one not thinking scientifically when he uses it as evidence against Dennett.

Sep 7, 2007

This Is What My Soul Looks Like

Yes, I am a Pullman fan. Meet my daemon:

UPDATE: Hmmm... when I posted this, my Theonilla was a chimp; as I write this, she is a sparrow. I hope she settles in a silly form, not a cute one.
UPDATE 2: A sparrow, huh? No way. Captain Jack Sparrow, perhaps?

Jul 18, 2007

Tax the Churches!

A CPER paper analyzes tax exemptions for philantropy and arrives at a conclusion I like: contributions to churches should not be tax-exempt.
Contributions in areas that have a direct effect on the private asset base of the poor (such as basic health, education, housing, technologies that raise demand for low-skilled labour, etc.) can be seen as substitutes for income redistribution, whereas contributions to public goods that have little income-augmenting effects for the poor (such as churches, museums, sports facilities, parks, private schools and hospitals, etc.) should be seen as complementary to income redistribution. The case for exempting rich philanthropists from expropriation should not be accepted as a matter of course.

Jul 16, 2007

What Right-Wingers Say When They Think It's Safe

The Independent's Johann Hari went on the National Review cruise. What he heard knocks a lot of credibility out of various naive "it can't happen here" assurances.
"Do you have a child back in England?" she asks. No, I say. Her face darkens. "You'd better start," she says. "The Muslims are breeding. Soon, they'll have the whole of Europe."

That one was from a random female passenger. I remember hearing a lot of Serbs talk like that in the late 1980s and early 1990s. I guess Milosevic is alive and well in the U S and A.

And now for something completely different:

Robert Bork, Ronald Reagan's one-time nominee to the Supreme Court, mumbles from beneath low-hanging jowls: "The coverage of this war is unbelievable. Even Fox News is unbelievable. You'd think we're the only ones dying. Enemy casualties aren't covered. We're doing an excellent job killing them."

You're doing a heckuva job, Borkie. Good thing we had a Democratic majority in the Senate in 1987.

Norman Podhoretz (...) wants more wars, and fast. He is "certain" Bush will bomb Iran, and " thank God" for that.

Let's be charitable: maybe he just thanks God for his certainty. He'll thank Him for bombing after it happens.

Next to such raging lunatics, guess who appears too meek and almost smells liberal:

The nuanced doubts of Bill Buckley leave them confused. Doesn't he sound like the liberal media? Later, over dinner, a tablemate from Denver calls Buckley "a coward". His wife nods and says, " Buckley's an old man," tapping her head with her finger to suggest dementia.

Yes, they are talking about that William Fucking Buckley. They are that insane. As to what Buckley himself thinks:

Buckley agrees approvingly that Reagan's approach would have been to "find a local strongman" to rule Iraq.

Would have? I recall the US generously helping a certain local strongman in the 1980s. Hang on...

For somebody who declares democracy to be his goal, (Podhoretz) is remarkably blasé about the fact that 80 per cent of Iraqis want US troops to leave their country, according to the latest polls. "I don't much care," he says, batting the question away. He goes on to insist that "nobody was tortured in Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo" and that Bush is "a hero".

And Chance E. Gardener would make a great next President... No, this is more surreal than that...

Ward Connerly is the only black person in the National Review posse, a 67-year-old Louisiana-born businessman, best known for leading conservative campaigns against affirmative action for black people. (...) There are, he says, "those who condemn the Klan based on their past without seeing the human side of it, because they don't want to be in the wrong, politically correct camp, you know..."

That settles one question for good: Ward Churchill is definitely not the craziest person named "Ward C." in the United States.

Dinesh D'Souza announced as we entered Mexican seas what he calls "D'Souza's law of immigration": " The quality of an immigrant is inversely proportional to the distance travelled to get to the United States."

He almost certainly wanted to say "directly proportional" but was too stupid to get it right. Besides Mexican-bashing, it was meant to be self-promotion, as D'Souza - as well as his audience - came all the way from Uranus.

A Good Response to Theistic Pseudoethical Babble

I have neither time nor patience to write about idiotic Washington Compost op-eds written by staffers of the Commander-In-Chimp, but Obsidian Wings has a nice, well-reasoned retort to Michael Gerson. Highly recommended.

Jul 13, 2007

Laffing My Ass Off

Today's Wall Street Journal editorial has the most idiotic Laffer curve I've seen yet. You need subscription to read it, but the absurd diagram is available via Economist's View:

So that's how AEI and WSJ fit curves to data: Take a bunch of points, draw the curve you want through 2-3 points that are the most convenient to tell your preconceived story, and ignore the rest. Oh, yes, and assume your readers are complete morons, so you don't even have to hide what you've done.

The Horror! False God in the Senate!

Prayer in the legislature is a silly tradition that should be abandoned, but until that happens, the government should at least treat all religions equally. Yesterday we saw a step in that direction: for the first time, a Hindu led the opening prayer in the U.S. Senate. And a Christian right group disrupted it.

It seems that the visitors who disrupted the prayer came to the session for that very purpose, which makes their case far weaker than if they had to be there and were exposed to religion they disagree with against their will. And they are self-centered hypocrits, because they are eager to foist their religion on others, just not willing to hear a word of somebody else's faith. Yet, I don't think they should be punished; I think they were legitimately exercising their First Amendment rights.

One of the reasons government should not endorse religion is based on the following problem: a lot of people have very deep feelings about religion, any given religion is false to many (actually most) people, and no objective standard of truth applies to religion; therefore, whenever government endorses any religion, it just pisses off a lot of people without any good reason. People don't like it when the government - which has power over them - endorses what they see as a false god. And they have a right to not have the government do it.

That applies to everybody. Those fanatics may be idiots, but they have the same rights as everyone else. For one day, the government has implied, through a meaningless and unnecessary ritual, an endorsement of a religion that those people deeply feel is false. Why shouldn't they protest against it?

Of course, every day except yesterday, the government endorses, in the same way, another religion. The only difference is that those people like that other religion. But there are others who don't, and they should have the same right to protest. Those Christian activists gave us some good evidence that prayer in the legislature is harmful. They probably didn't think about the ramifications of their heckling, but it may have been a step toward the end of Congressional prayer (which would mean we saw two steps in the right direction).

And they don't have a right to deny others the same rights they have. So next time somebody interrupts a Christian prayer shouting that it's about a false god, the Christian right should shut up and put up with it.

UPDATE: Hindu prayer was offered in Congress once before, in the House of Representatives. Family Research Council made a stink then. There is a good blog post about yesterday's incident on Pharyngula; comments #6 and #50 there are also noteworthy.

Jul 12, 2007

Jesus, Hillary!

If Hillary keeps yakking about her religion, she should consider running for abbess, not president.

Cal Thomas challenges her expressed religious views from a conservative Christian position. Digby links to that op-ed and comments that the Christian right is at war with mainline churches, that it is foolish for the Democrats to willingly jump into the pool with those sharks, and that this is why the Constitution forbids religious tests for office and it is a mistake (for Hillary) not to honor the spirit of that clause. That's all fine, it probably is a strategic mistake, and the right-wingers will always be ready to hit under the belt. But that's about strategy, not substance.

On substance, I think Cal Thomas has the better point:
If the newspaper story is accurate, this is where Clinton is on her faith: "In a brief quiz about her theological views, Mrs. Clinton said she believed in the resurrection of Jesus, though she described herself as less sure of the doctrine that being a Christian is the only way to salvation."

This is a politician speaking, not a person who believes in the central tenets of Christianity.

The same book that tells of the resurrection, also quotes Jesus as saying "I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father but by me" (John 14:6). One might ask, which the reporter did not, that if there are other ways to God than through Jesus, why did Jesus bother to come to Earth, allow himself to be crucified and suffer rejection?

That's right. Hillary's position - which is the position of many moderate Christians - is a severe case of cognitive dissonance. The resurrection myth just doesn't make any sense if it allows for other paths to God/truth/salvation.

I don't see why Hillary's "I believe in resurrection but Heaven is multicultural" makes any more sense than Brownback's "I believe in evolution as long as it doesn't contradict bronze-age myths and my ignorant gut feeling." Yeah, Hillary is smarter than Sam, but that only makes her intellectual dishonestylaziness more culpable.

Jul 10, 2007

All Men Are Created... Stop Here, Say No More.

Bush believes people are created, but he has a problem with the "equal" part. Ed Brayton shows that the Libby commutation hypocrisy is even deeper than it looks.

Why Is the Constitution Like the Bible

Most Americans think it's great and have no clue what the hell it says.

(More to come later...)

Jun 16, 2007

A Third of Americans Disagree with Themselves

I am finally getting around to commenting on this poll, but I will not dwell on high numbers of Americans who reject evolution (alas, I already know that) or the particularly high numbers of Republicans who do so (gee, whoda thunk). What caught my eye was this table:
(Scroll down if you see a big white space, I haven't figured out how to eliminate it.)

View of Evolution and View of Creationism
Numbers Represent % of Total Sample

View of Creationism









View of Evolution

Definitely true





Probably true





Probably false





Definitely false





* Less than 0.5%

I commend Gallup for publishing this 2-dimensional table. In press releases, pollsters rarely show data along more than one dimension at a time, which makes it difficult to discern any correlations. And there are some amazing finds in this table.

If you sum up the numbers in the four cells in the top left quadrant, you find that 23% of Americans say that both evolution and creationism are definitely or probably true. (Actually, Gallup states the fraction as 24%, probably correcting for rounding errors.) It is logically possible to disbelieve both (e. g., one can believe that non-divine space aliens brought us to Earth), and 3% of respondents took that position, but how do you believe both theories? Was the question asked in a way that presented them as compatible? Let's see:

Next, we'd like to ask about your views on two different explanations for the origin and development of life on earth. Do you think -- [ITEMS ROTATED] -- is -- [ROTATED: definitely true, probably true, probably false, (or) definitely false]?
A. Evolution, that is, the idea that human beings developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life
B. Creationism, that is, the idea that God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years

While the question does leave a lot to be desired (introduction talks about the origins of life on earth, but both options mention the development of human beings), it is impossible to interpret the two options as logically compatible. You can't say both are true without violating the laws of logic. So, 24% of respondents made no sense!?

It is worse than that, actually. If you consider one of the theories to be "definitely true", you must, logically, consider the other "definitely false". So everything above and to the left of the diagonal is logically inconsistent. That is 6 cells, not just 4, and the percentages add up to 31%. Almost a third of respondents couldn't answer the two questions without contradicting themselves!

Much to my chagrin, the evolutionists, as a whole, did no better in the logic department than the creationists: in both camps, about a third of "definitely true" supporters and more than half of the "probably true" supporters violated logic. Worse yet, as there are fewer "definitely true" evolutionists, the total percentage of logic violators is actually somewhat higher among evolutionists (49% to 45%).

What could be the reasons for such massive inconsistency?

Some people may genuinely contradict themselves, but I doubt that they account for a significant part of the 31% logically challenged.

A lot more people could have misunderstood the questions. Too much information may have been packed into those two questions, and a rather narrow version of creationism is described (young-earth creationism). A lot of people actually believe in both evolution and creation to some extent, just not in the variants described. (More about those people in a bit.) If they didn't listen to the questions past the first words, they might have thought they agreed with both.

The results could be biased if people tend to give answers they think will please the investigator or sound agreeable. Since there was no neutral option (distinct from "no opinion") given, those who really think that "the jury is still out" had to choose between a weak positive and a weak negative opinion. And the actual responses break overwhelmingly in favor of weak positives: 35-16 for evolution, 27-16 for creation. As for the options available to true fence-sitters, double "probably true" beats double "probably false" 14 to 1. I think this bias accounts for something, but it is hard to believe that there could be so many people sitting on the fence without even leaning to one side.

Finally, the explanation may be in the people whose views differ from either option, but have something in common with both:

A separate Gallup Poll trend question -- also asked in May -- gave Americans three choices about human beings' origins. Responses to this question found that 43% of Americans choose the alternative closest to the creationist perspective, that "God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so." A substantial 38% say human beings evolved, but with God guiding the process. Another 14% favored an interpretation of evolution arguing that God had no part in the process, leaving a total of 52% who say humans evolved with or without God's direction.

52% is remarkably close to the 53% who, in the two-way poll, say evolution is definitely or probably true, and one would expect that theistic evolutionists would choose one of those answers. On the other hand, the two theistic views (creation and theistic evolution) account for 81% of respondents, which far exceeds the 66% that said creation was definitely or probably true. But that, too, is to be expected, because theistic evolution and young-earth creationism are mutually exclusive. The surprising result is not that the support for creationism doesn't gain 38% from the 3-way to the 2-way poll, but that it gains anything substantial, let alone 23%.

So, do the theistic evolutionists explain the supporters of both views? Not entirely - for example, fewer people are in the "definitely evolution, definitely not creation" corner than support non-theistic evolution in the 3-way poll - but a reasonable case can be made that most of the strange, illogical answers are due to theistic evolutionists. If about 60% of them didn't pay attention to the full description of creation, and heard only the part they agreed with ("God created human beings"), practically all of the double-support puzzle would be explained.

If it is implausible (and even offensive to the theistic evolutionist group) that 60% would have attention span shorter than 5 seconds, there is an almost equivalent, but more plausible and, possibly, less condescending explanation. Most people have a really hard time thinking in terms of probabilities, and a statement like "A is probably true" means to them something very different from what it means to me or to Gallup pollsters. I would automatically read it as "The probability that A is true is between 50% and 95%". (The upper limit of the range is the only unclear piece - should it be 90%? Or 99%? Maybe 99.99%?) But such numerical probabilities would mean nothing to many people; to make sense of the original statement, they may need to reinterpret it as "I somewhat agree that A is true." Of course, it means something quite different, but if your language doesn't have words for certain concepts, you make do with the best translation you can find (or make up).

If I am on the right track, there was a miscommunication between the pollsters and a substantial number of respondents. Those respondents changed the meanings of the answers: "definitely true" became "I agree strongly", "probably true" became "I agree somewhat" and so on. Such people could hold any of the substantive views probed by the poll; in most cases, there won't be any effect on the results. But take a theistic evolutionist who has to evaluate creationism. He believes that God created humans, by guiding the evolution process or intervening in it, but doesn't believe it happened as recently as literary interpretations of Genesis suggest. If he understands the options given by the poll, he will say that creation is definitely false (or probably false, if he is not so sure that Genesis is not literally true). But if he reinterprets the options as I think is likely, he can easily choose the option that, to him, sounds like "I agree somewhat", even if he is absolutely sure that the earth is billions of years old and that humans have emerged hundreds of thousands of years ago. After all, how significant are some numbers compared to God's act of creation?

To summarize, if 60% of all people can't think probabilistically, and that percentage is about the same among theistic evolutionists, the misunderstanding between pollsters and respondents can account for most of the anomalous result in the 2-way poll.

It's still depressing. A third of Americans contradict themselves, and most of those are unaware that they do.

Jun 13, 2007

Dismal (but getting used to it) Science

Most modern macroeconomic models are based on the paradigm of ultrarational and super-far-sighted economic agents (that's economese for "people") who act to maximize their expected lifetime utility (which is quantified happiness, more or less). Utility is usually modeled as an increasing function of consumption (not TB, but how many toys you get to buy) and leisure time (important if people have a choice of how much to work). For ease of computation (and, usually, for lack of strong evidence to the contrary), there is often a simplifying assumption that utility is time-separable and additive, which means that your lifetime utility is just the sum of your utilities in each year (perhaps discounted by some impatience factor). That is, your happiness this year depends only on how much you buy this year, not, for example, on how much you had last year and got accustomed to it; and it contributes to your lifetime happiness independently of what happens in any other year. Everyone knows the model is oversimplified, but at least it is as objective as can be... isn't it? Maybe not:
folks on the left get used to money, but not status and the reverse for folks on the right. (...) the fact that the happiness-effects of various things seem to be mediated by ideological leanings seems to basically ruin the prospect of using happiness research as a neutral, scientific way of assessing policy. It may just end up sort-of-usefully reminding us that one group may like a certain policy and another group may not simply because it makes one group feel better and another group feel worse.

Holy Wotan and Fricka! If this German study and Wilkinson's interpretation, above, are correct, any analysis of well-being based on the time-additive-utility-for-consumption model will measure the well-being only of politically right-leaning agents. Policies that aim to maximize social welfare (that's well-being, not dole) will, in fact, maximize the welfare of the righties and may well screw the lefties.

Well, I feel guilty: of course I use those models. But at least I always thought (and said) that welfare analysis in those models was fishy business. I think I can convince the jury that my transgressions have been mere misdemeanors.

There may be a less devastating interpretation, according to Quiggin:

Rather than duplicate all the excellent discussion, I’ll offer the possibility that those on the right may not be so different from the rest of us as they seem to be at first sight. Money is valued because it provides access to goods and services, but it can also be used to keep score in a competition.

In other words, in the long run, everybody cares only for status, but righties measure status by income, while lefties perceive status along some other dimension. (Who has higher status? An endowed full professor of philosophy making $110,000/yr or a starting assistant professor of finance making $125,000/yr?) This makes a lot of sense. If Quiggin is right, the paradigm isn't biased (it is just wrong for everyone), but the practical results would still have right-leaning bias: it is not crucial how the alignment of conservatives with the model assumptions arises.

Speculations about a Humanist Soul

In case I ever forget why I never read garbage periodicals like Newspeak, Chyme, or U.S. Booze & Whirled Distort:

OK, this guy is a nobody. Very smart young man, to be sure, but his documented accomplishments are those of a disappointed rock musician turned perennial student in a fuzzy discipline. There is nothing wrong with that and stating the fact is not disrespectful; after all, as Weird Al would say, he may be Vader someday later - now he's just a small fry. So, as a graduate student at Harvard, with a relevant previous degree, he gets to be the Humanist Chaplain of Harvard University. Wow, that H-word (and I don't mean "humanist") makes it sound so important. But, most likely, for a Harvard student, the position is not much more difficult to obtain than it is to get ordained as a minister on the Internet. And what is the use of any chaplain, anyway?

I am sure he would disagree. It would be unfair to infer that he feels important just because he studies at TETU (The Ego Trip University), but there is more evidence. In his own words, he
might have been forced into attending law school had he not discovered the movement of Humanism and the possibility of a career as a Humanist rabbi and chaplain.

Wait a minute, what did he say? "I could have been a lawyer, easily, but that's beneath me, lawyers are scum - look, I found a career that is so much more important and ethical..." Never mind that Humanism needs good lawyers, not rabbis, and those needs are unlikely to change in the next few decades... Now, if being a "Humanist rabbi or chaplain" is anything like being a leader of very liberal congregations, such as a Unitarian Universalist churches or Ethical Societies (the latter being Humanist organizations, BTW), it can't be very lucrative - people aren't going to give much money to a minister who doesn't threaten them with eternal damnation. In other words, if he wants to keep feeling important (and above lawyering), he needs to find a way to make money on the side. Using the Harvard name to lever a publicity stunt may be a good start. If he insults the right people and entertains the masses, book and speech deals may follow, good enough to pay the bills.

Sure enough, he pulls just that kind of a publicity stunt: he insults Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, calling them "atheist fundamentalists", which would be laughable nonsense if it weren't actually a smart marketing strategy. Dawkins is not only fashionable to attack, he is also just the right person to insult, as he is obviously too smart to write books (or to be allowed to say anything in public). (I haven't read Harris' books, so I can only guess that he is in the same category.) And masses are entertained whenever an atheist is burned at the stake, albeit in effigy. What you say - whether it makes any sense - is not important at all.

I was right: he is smart. And he may be Vader some day.

Of course, it takes two for a publicity stunt: the stuntman and the medium that connects him with the masses to be entertained. If he just keeps insulting Dawkins in the blogosphere, or even in op-eds in the press, he will remain one of the whole army of zombies chanting in unison. What he really needs is to be singled out and made recognizable as a face. He needs a newspaper or magazine or a TV station to do a typical "We Hate Dawkins" story, but centered on him - an individual hater critic - rather than on Dawkins, the target.

Enter Newspeak. First things first: they publish his picture. Never mind that it's a hand-waving photo with a hand-waving caption; he is now a public face. And he is against the Beast. And, lo and behold, he

isn't wrong, he's right: the name-brand atheists aren't friendly, at least not in print. But maybe being friendly isn't their job—it's his.

Being friendly to that writer - or to her magazine - is not something I can endorse. The only useful thing they do is keep garbage collectors employed. But chicken farmers do that far more effectively, while also providing some nutrition.

Assault on Reason Is a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Especially when Al Gore writes it, because those who commit atrocities against reason also love to assault Gore.
Meanwhile, The Washington Post, embracing rampant anti-intellectualism, fretted that Gore was too smart.

Really. Smart people shouldn't write books. Smart people should be excluded from all public discourse, lest they embarrass the idiots.

Jun 12, 2007

Stupider than Thou

Digby writes about two ways in which the Democrats have risen to the challenge of proving themselves more stupid than the Republicans. And it is no small challenge: Republicans are a party so stupid that more than 2/3 of them reject evolution.

First, there is Nancy Pelosi idiotically framing the case for stem cell research. I wouldn't be surprised if George Lakoff killed himself just so he could roll in his grave.

Then, there is the bill supporting abstinence-only programs. I suppose David Obey's rural NW Wisconsin 7th District may be socially conservative and forcing abstinence probably appeals to most of his voters, but the Democratic leadership should know better than to turn itself into a "free gift" courtesan for the religious right.

Normally, I think of Republicans as stupid on substance, but skilled at marketing, and Democrats as marketing idiots, capable of presenting the best idea as crap. Nancy's speech fits that view. But the abstinence-only fiasco suggests that the Democrats are catching up on substantive stupidity, too.

May 31, 2007

Thou Shalt Not Extrapolate Exponential Growth Rates

If you think housing in the DC area is expensive now, just wait 50 years:

The findings, discussed at a forum sponsored by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, show that the price of the average home in the area will grow to $14 million in 2057 from today’s average of $477,000.

Should we take this seriously? After all, I saw it in a free newspaper. But it quotes a real study, and its author, a professor at George Mason University. Let's read a little more:

Researchers predicted, however, the average household income would only climb to $1.3 million from today’s $137,000 during the same period.

“We already have an affordability problem,” said George Mason University professor Stephen Fuller, who calculated the estimates. “But this is really scary. It is going to take 11 times the average household income to afford the average-priced house.”

Wait a minute. Who will buy those houses? At 6% annual interest rate, a 30-year mortgage on an average home would require payments exceeding three-quarters of an average household's income. And that's just mortgage payments - no property tax, insurance, maintenance, or utilities. Even at the entirely unrealistic zero interest, mortgage payments would equal 36% of income. Prices can be astronomical in a limited area, where only the region's elite can afford to live, but the study refers to the entire Washington Metropolitan Area, which, according to the article, will then span from Baltimore to Richmond and have a population of 9.9 million. If only the top 5-10% can afford housing in the area, where will the other 9 million live? There is a violation of the law of supply and demand in the study's results.

That study is yet another example of the dangers of extrapolating exponential growth rates over long periods. If you calculate the annual growth rates implicit in the study's results, they look reasonable: housing prices increasing 7% per year, and incomes 4.6% per year. Assuming 3% inflation, the real (net of inflation) rates are 4% and 1.6%. I might use those numbers myself if I had to predict prices and earnings 2-3 years from now.

The problem is that the difference in growth rates of 2.4% compounds to a factor of more than 3 (in other words, a difference of over 200%) over 50 years. What makes sense over short periods doesn't necessarily make sense in the long run.

For a related example, consider health care costs. Their share of GDP grew from 7.2% in 1965 to 16% in 2005, at an average annual rate of 2.7%. If that trend continued for another 50 years, health care would account for 60% of GDP in 2055. Keep in mind that health care is itself a sector of the economy, so its product is counted in the GDP, and if it makes up 60% of GDP, it means that it is one-and-a-half times as big as the rest of the economy combined. If that doesn't make the absurdity of the result obvious, try to ponder what would happen just 8 years later, when health care expenditures would exceed 100% of GDP.

Similarly, if you looked at the rate of growth of market capitalization of Nortel or Enron in the years before their respective stocks crashed, and extrapolated those rates into the future, you would conclude that those companies would own everything in North America at a time not too far into the future.

Or take population groups. Population growth in Muslim countries has been higher than the world's average, so Islam has been increasing its share, which currently stands at about 19% of the world's population. According to some estimates, the number of Muslims has been growing approximately 0.6 percentage points faster, annually, than the world's population. At that rate, by the end of 24th century, everyone in the world will be Muslim. The only problem is, Pentecostalism, with about 2% of the world's population as its adherents, is growing about 6% faster than the world's population, so by 2075, everybody in the world will be Pentecostals.

A more cheerful extrapolation shows that in just 10 years, every computer in the US will be a Mac.

Toréador, en garde!

The content of the package is more important than the label, but you still want to know what the label says and what it means. So here:

A bullfighter fights bull. D'oh! (Bullfighter, bullfighter, fight me a bull...)

Bull is an excessively polite name for bullshit, which is a term carefully defined by Harry Frankfurt, denoting a willful or reckless lack of concern for truth. According to Frankfurt, there is no good synonym for bullshit; hogwash, balderdash, codswallop, etc. are great words, but they don't mean exactly the same. Also according to Frankfurt, there is too much bullshit in the world; I wish I could disagree, but my concern for truth doesn't let me.

Just to avoid hasty inferrences: I don't necessarily agree with Frankfurt on everything. But I'll take another title from him as an inspiration: The Importance of What We Care about. I care about many things, truth being one of them. I want to protect what I care about, and fight against what harms it.

Now, no offense to male bovines, elephants or whales, but "bull" - when not used euphemistically - refers to them, and "bullfighter" usually means someone like Carmen's lover Escamillo - a toreador. You may, thus, expect me to be one; alas, the closest I can get is by making an acronym for some of the things I care about:


OK, that may be excessively cute. Maybe my whole Blogger profile is itself, well, bullshit. After all, you may be more interested in my real name, address, phone number, age, assets, and affairs that would enable you to blackmail me. But I don't blog because of the street I live on or the money in my bank account; I blog because of the ideas I care about. The TOREADOR list is just a subset of those, but it is more informative and more relevant than my vital statistics.

May 20, 2007


On my last trip to the library, I picked up Slavoj Zizek's presentation of Mao Zedong. I hope that Dawkins and other promoters of reason whose primary background is evolutionary biology are aware of Mao's ridiculously ignorant idea of evolution. If not, they should be; it would make it easier to answer the O'Reillys of the world that those purported atheist supervillains are as good as religious fundamentalists. Or, conversely, that the fundamentalists are as good as Communists. According to Mao,
I don't believe that men alone are capable of having two hands. Can't horses, cows, sheep evolve? And can it be, moreover, that of all the monkeys only one species can evolve, and all the others are incapable of evolving? In a million years, ten million years, will horses, cows and sheep still be the same as those today? I think they will continue to change.

So, Mao held the Joe Sixpack view of evolution: it is all about becoming intelligent, hair-challenged apes. It may be unremarkable that Mao, as a non-scientist born in 1893, was ignorant about Darwinian principles, but given his near-divine authority, those words must have compelled many Chinese to accept pseudoscientific garbage as unquestionable truth. At the time, it probably didn't have the disastrous practical consequences as Lysenkoism in the USSR, but it was philosophically similar and equally anti-scientific. (Of course, Lysenko was Stalin's favorite "scientist".)

What do we have here? The two scariest "atheists", each responsible for deaths of millions, both favored ideas born of navel gazing over science. That is incompatible with the atheism which Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris advocate. Any system of ideas that does not reject theories contradicted by scientific evidence doesn't deserve to be called atheistic, regardless of how loudly its proponents proclaim non-existence of gods. Stalin and Mao were much closer to faith healers than to non-believers.

If you are concerned about the creationist movement's assault on the scientific world view, you need to be aware of the related anti-scientific positions of the worst Communist leaders. The side that wields the "Stalin and Mao" weapon in that battle must change: instead of conservative pundits asserting the atheists' "connection" with the psychopatic dictators, the defenders of science should point out that the fundamentalists are in an "unholy" alliance with the hard-line Communists when it comes to rejecting neo-Darwinian theory of evolution.

May 19, 2007

Food for Thought, or Vice Versa

When Google e-mailed me the comments to the previous post, it chose the following promotional links:

  1. Stalin Tshirts
  2. Eliminate Bad Breath Now
  3. Quaker Steak and Lube (sauces)
  4. Comfort in a Cup (cofee, tea, soups...)

Stalin does stand out at #1, but otherwise the word "garlic" dominates as a link generator. As F. Scott Fitzgerald said, if you want to be popular, you must either shock people, or feed them.

May 18, 2007

Some Garlic Against the Stalin Vampires

Objectively, the "Stalin was an atheist" (SWAA) argument is a stupid, desperate piece of bullshit, but it is repeated ad nauseam and it tends to work well as propaganda, so it is important not to dismiss it too lightly.

In interviews, Dawkins usually responds that (1) Stalin didn't do all those bad things because he was an atheist, and (2) his ideology was rather based on "blind faith" and has more in common with religion than with a rationalist-naturalist atheism. I am afraid this kind of response is not effective enough. Point (1) is lost on most of the sound-bite audience, which is generally unable to tell causation, correlation, and coincidence from each other. Besides, it is an obviously falsifiable hypothesis, so why should it convince a rational opponent without evidence (which can't be packed in a sound bite)? And it is not sexy enough to convince irrational opponents. Point (2) is very good standing by itself, but it redefines the frame of the debate that Dawkins had set up. I have always preferred to group pervasive ideologies with religion, but Dawkins, who entered the debate over religion through the "evolution vs. creationism" gate, had not had the need to do that, which may make him ill-equipped to argue this particular point.

From comments on Pharyngula, here is an excellent answer to the SWAA fallacy that fits in a sound bite:
there is a world of difference between believing that there is no god and believing that there is one, and you're it!

I will adopt this word-for-word, with thanks to David Livesay. It is very effectively framed and presented, while not compromising on the truth. It contains the two most critical points for debunking SWAA:

  1. There is a god in every totalitarian ideology. When an idea becomes more important than people, when it is considered worth sacrificing the lives of many people and the welfare of many others to that idea, then that idea is indistinguishable from God. Dogmatic Communism is a religion in every practical sense of the word.

  2. Stalin substituted himself for God. This should not be taken as literally as the first point, but it is a metaphor that captures the attitude of every totalitarian dictator quite accurately. It is especially true if the dictator exhibits signs of paranoia, which Stalin certainly did, and to which dictators in general are prone. We'll never know what went on in Stalin's head, but it is possible that he viewed God not as a non-entity, but rather as his rival, as another alpha-male to fight for the leadership of the pack. In any case, the practical consequence was that the Christian Trinity was merely replaced by the Trinity of Stalin's personality, the state ("Motherland"), and the Communist Party. A similar argument can be made that most other totalitarian dictators considered themselves divine in some sense.

I think the real debate should not be between atheism and religion, but between the rationalist/naturalist/skeptical world view and the dogmatic/idealistic/faith-based one. But that's a topic for another post...

May 17, 2007

Hate the Sin, Love the Sinner

This is cool.
See, I have very little quarrel with Christians. (...) I know there's some Christians reading this--probably with gritted teeth right now, sorry, guys--and they are generally lovely people. Allow me to repeat, I have no quarrel with Christians.

But I really dislike Christianity. In and of itself. Not because of what some annoying Christians do, but because I dislike the religion. On aesthetic grounds. Yes, that's right. Aesthetic. (...)

I also dislike tomatoes. Hated 'em since I was a small child.

And yes, I spun the title a little bit.

May 16, 2007

Falwell vs. MLK

Michelle Goldberg points out the immense hypocrisy of Jerry Falwell:
Falwell himself once denounced preachers who got involved in governance, though not out of devotion to a secular republic: As a committed segregationist, he decried the work of Martin Luther King Jr, saying, "Preachers are not called to be politicians, but to be soul winners."

Matthew Yglesias picks up on this and offers the following viewpoint:
From the standpoint of religious denominations themselves, though, I suspect that Falwell was offering good pragmatic advice. Religious leaders who involve themselves unduly in political matters become essentially politicians or activist/agitators, two social roles that are much less highly regarded than is the role of religious leader.

I am not sure if that is completely true; Falwell, Robertson, and similar characters seem quite successful and influential to me, and even more so is the Pope, who is clearly a full-time politician as well as religious leader. But there is probably some truth in Matt's observation; in that case, I regard it as a serious problem of our society that religious leaders are more highly regarded than politicians and secular activists. It would be a better world if the opposite attitude prevailed.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was a great man because he fought for a noble cause, with admirable means, and very effectively. That evaluation depends exclusively on secular criteria; and, by the same criteria, Jerry Falwell was an odious man. The fact that they were ministers is only a footnote on their moral biographies, and it should have neither disqualified them from political participation, nor given them any special privileges.

Another commenter on Matt's blog responded that MLK was personally driven by his faith, and that he considered "the moral law or the law of God" as the criterion to distinguish just laws (which we have a moral duty to obey) from unjust ones (which we have a moral responsibility to break). As a principle, this is problematic, because the right-wing religious extremists can claim it, too.

The answer is simple: that principle is bullshit. Faith as a basis of morality is garbage, because faith can justify any kind of moral values, as the comparison of King and Falwell - or, say, Jimmy Carter and Osama bin Laden - easily demonstrates. "If God exists, then everything is allowed" is what Alyosha Karamazov should have said. Insofar as he believed that his sense of Justice came from God, MLK was mistaken. But I don't care what he believed and how he rationalized his values; I care that his actions were right and good. I'd probably deeply disagree with him metaphysically, but so what? Deeds count, not creed.

For the same reason, I don't really care whether televangelists like Falwell believe in the noxious nonsense they preach, and I think that insisting on Falwell having been a deliberate fraud is a weakness in the otherwise very good Christopher Hitchens commentary. It is especially unnecessary for Hitchens to argue that, as he is perfectly willing to say that the faith Falwell preached was evil in itself, even if completely sincere.

The difference between King and Falwell is that the former's deeds were good, and the latter's bad, from a purely secular point of view. That assessment does not depend on their personal religious beliefs. In summary, I don't mind religious leaders participating in politics. What I do mind are bad people participating in politics.

Forgive Falwell? Or Judge Jerry?

Brad DeLong asks himself, What Would Jesus Do? And he finds that Jerry Falwell had an abusive father:
Falwell's childhood must have been a complete hell--and it is no surprise that Falwell made God in his own father's image. Given the hand that he was dealt, I cannot judge Jerry Falwell.

Indeed, we should never forget that we can't know all the circumstances that shaped someone's life, and we should be reluctant to throw that first (or nth) stone. But such circumspection does not, and should not, necessarily result in withholding judgment. Hitler and Stalin had abusive fathers, too; should we apply the same reasoning to them, and judge them not? Few people would go to such extremes, and not too many more would admire those few for going all the way with Jesus.

So where do you draw the line? Is there a "morally optimal" limit of forgiveness and understanding? Brad's may be somewhere between Falwell and Hitler/Stalin, but someone else's heart (mine, perhaps) may not have room for the Falwells of the world. Most of us would agree that forgiveness should not be restricted to near perfection and that overinclusive forgiveness also feels wrong, but placing the limit more precisely seems highly subjective. And if there is no objectively best level of withholding judgment, it is presumptuous to assert that anyone's personal level is ethically superior to anyone else's, and it is unjustified to claim the moral high ground based on one's greater capacity or willingness to forgive.

Besides, Brad's next sentence undermines his position:
The Republican politicians who built Falwell up--who sought his endorsement and magnified his influence--them will I judge.

Oh, I'd be happy to join, but I didn't tie my arms and tongue about judging Jerry. The distinction makes no sense. Just because you didn't dig up anything about the politicians' fathers, doesn't mean they didn't beat them. Or that their mothers didn't take little yellow pills, or that kids didn't laugh at them and girls (or boys) reject them as yucky and creepy...

I wonder if this is another instance of our society's double standard that says someone's politics is fair game for criticism ans attacks, but someone's religion is not. If so, we need to have a little bullfight.

May 15, 2007

What's Democracy in a Name?

Countries whose long ("full") names contain the word "democratic", according to The World Factbook (as of 10 May 2007):

  • People's Democratic Republic of Algeria
  • Democratic Republic of the Congo
  • Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste
  • Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia
  • Democratic People's Republic of Korea
  • Lao People's Democratic Republic
  • Democratic Republic of Sao Tome and Principe
  • Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka

Additionally, these countries, some of which no longer exist, called themselves "democratic" in the past:

  • German Democratic Republic (1949-1990)
  • Democratic Kampuchea (1975-1979)
  • Somali Democratic Republic (1969-1991)
  • People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (1970-1990)
  • Democratic Federal Yugoslavia (1943-1946)

May 14, 2007

Me Speak English Very Good... Some Day

A useful collection of common language errors from the Economist. I must plead guilty to some of them.

Other similarly useful guides are here and here.

(Yes, I believe there is such a thing as correct English usage.)

Out of Fashion

Completely untimely, except that I could rationalize it by saying that Flag Day is a month from now... but this post by Ed Brayton is timeless. Isn't this a scary picture:At least, we don't salute like that any more in this country. It may be the only thing that fell out of fashion permanently despite a veritable pedigree of Italian design. (I might ponder the layers of meaning in the word "fashionista" some other time.)

May 11, 2007

Religion's Sins Against Science

PZ Myers posted a list of 10 12 sins of Christianity (and, as he clarified in the comments, most religion) against science.

I particularly like the sin of Predestination:

Predestination. I've had a few one-on-one conversations with creationists, and one of the weirder but fairly common discoveries is that they reject the concept of chance. Everything must have an intentional cause. A branch fell off my tree because the wind blew it down; similarly, if an ancient ape evolved into a human it must be because…? They've filled in the ellipsis with "God", and they are not satisfied with explanations that do not invoke causes and intent. Try it yourself sometime; they have an almost allergic reaction to the notion of junk DNA, for instance, because there's no way molecules could have a random element, it must all be for a purpose.

This trait isn't exclusive to religion, of course; you can see causality built right into the structure of our language, and it's probably hardwired into our brains. Religion makes it difficult to oppose, though, because it provides a convenient catch-all repository of causality: god did it. It doesn't matter that it's a meaningless phrase, it seems to satisfy an intrinsic desire to wrap up loose ends with an explanatory purpose.

Some of the comments are also quite insightful, and one links to this related article.

May 10, 2007

Time 100 Follies

Moonflake contemplates the absurdity of Time magazine's entrusting Michael Behe with writing the profile of Richard Dawkins for the 100 Most Influential People list:
I can only imagine what the next Time 100 is going to look like:

  • Tony Blair, profiled by Robert Mugabe

  • Sir Ian McKellen, profiled by Fred Phelps

  • Michael J. Fox, profiled by Rush Limbaugh

  • Jon Stewart, profiled by George W. Bush

  • Neil Armstrong, profiled by Bart Sibrel

  • Noam Chomsky, profiled by Paris Hilton

May 9, 2007

The Mismeasure of Bias

This is one of the most astute critiques of a methodologically flawed paper that purports to measure ideological bias in the media. Nyhan's main points are:
(1) Technocratic centrist to liberal organizations like Brookings and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities tend to have more credentialed experts with peer-reviewed publications than their conservative counterparts. This may result in a greater number of citations by the press, which seeks out expert perspectives on the news, but not more citations by members of Congress, who generally seek out views that reinforce their own.

(2) The Groseclose/Milyo methodology doesn't allow for differential rates of productivity in producing work of interest to the media or Congress between organizations. To the extent that a think tank is better at marketing itself to the press than Congress (or vice versa), it could skew the results.

He quotes other sources, too, and this argument from Media Matters is particularly convincing:
For instance, according to their data, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is the third most-quoted group on the list. But stories about race relations that include a quote from an NAACP representative are unlikely to be "balanced" with quotes from another group on their list. Their quotes will often be balanced by quotes from an individual, depending on the nature of the story; however, because there are no pro-racism groups of any legitimacy (or on Groseclose and Milyo's list), such stories will be coded as having a "liberal bias."

And there are more general issues that would remain even if these details were somehow fixed. The very notion that some average (median or whatever) of population's views is "unbiased" is unfounded; and, even if the population's median view were deemed "unbiased" by definition, there would still be a big leap from the median member of Congress to the median voter, and another from the median voter to the median member of the population.

Too bad Andrew Gelman's endorsement of Brendan Nyhan's critique is only lukewarm, even though he realizes that "bias" is a misnomer for the quantity that G&M measured. More generally, it is sad that so often people with great analytical skills fail to appreciate the world beyond the limitations of a mathematical model.

If Republicans Debated Herod

Finerman suggests moving the newly discovered Herod's tomb to the Heritage Foundation. I can't help imagining how the Republican presidential candidates would debate that issue:

TANCREDO: I don't care if he is dead, I wouldn't let him into the country.
MCCAIN: We can bury him in Baghdad. He'd be safe there.
ROMNEY: I think he should stay in France.
GIULIANI: Mitt, you are a complete idiot.
BROWNBACK: Herod makes Baby Jesus cry. And so do you, Rudy.
HUCKABEE: Yes, Herod makes Baby Jesus cry, and so he and all of his descendants to this day should burn in Hell.
TOMMY THOMPSON: I like the Hell part. Oh, and some of my best friends are Jews.
GIULIANI: Tommy, you are sick. You need professional help.
ROMNEY: I am now really concerned about Baby Jesus. I am personally going to ask Ann Coulter to make sure Herod suffers really bad in Hell.
GIULIANI: Look, people, Herod didn't make Baby Jesus cry. He wanted to make him stop crying, forever.
HUCKABEE: This New Yorker guy is an infidel. Rudy, do you even believe in virgin birth?
GIULIANI: Mike, you mention virgins once more and I'll break your nose. I was once personally attacked by crazy terrorists who wanted 72 virgins.
MCCAIN: (humming) 72 virgins on the wall... take one down, pass it around...
ROMNEY: I once married 72 virgins.
HUCKABEE: We used to burn people like you at stake.
TANCREDO: That's what happens when you let Mexicans in, they have 72 children and soon our children will have to learn Mexican in school!
GIULIANI: Oh, shut up, Tom, you stupid moron!
ROMNEY: My allegiance is first and foremost to the United States of America and its Constitution!
MCCAIN: You may uncross your fingers now, Mitt.
BROWNBACK: (tearful) Look, people, you are joking, but Baby Jesus is still crying. And Rudy, you, like Herod, favor killing the innocent!
GIULIANI: No, I support judges who don't kill babies. Actually, last time I saw a judge who killed a baby, I said "Shame on you!"
TANCREDO: I bet he was a Mexican.
THOMPSON: Some of my best friends are Mexican.
ROMNEY: None of my best friends are from Massachusetts.
GIULIANI: All of my best friends are pitt bulls.