Thursday, March 31, 2005

UFOlogy Debunker's Tool kit

I confess. Up until the age of about 15 I believed that aliens were visiting this planet. This I thought, was a plausible scientifically rational belief, and a credulous media only helped to reinforce this notion. But then something happened: I learned about false memories, I learned about temporal lobe epilepsy, I read about special relativity, and I noticed how skeptical voices were often unheard in the media ; I saw the Heavensgate cult. I put the pieces together and I realized that my belief in UFO's was nothing more than a 20th century sci-fi superstition.

Considering the number of Americans that believe in UFO visitation I thought it would be beneficial to compile an internet resource guide as a means of helping to demystify UFO mythology. So without further ado I present,

THE UFOlogy Debunker's Tool Kit
The Condon Report
The Skeptic's Dictionary entry on UFO's
Project Skyhook
UFO's and TV
UFO's and art
TLE and Transcendent Experience
The Klass Files
Abduction Fantasy
Recovered Memory Therapy
The Skeptic's Dictionary entry on false memories
Heavens Gate cult
The UFO Skeptic's Page
*The Skeptic's Dictionary page on Et's and UF'Os

*Added to the Kit 4-4-04

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

American Taliban invades your pharmacy

A distubing trend is developing in pharmacies across the nation as some pharmacists have been refusing to fill prescriptions that they feel morally opposed to such as birth control or the morning-after pill. And when pressured to actually do their job and fill the prescriptions these pharmacists hide behind the first amendment and claim religious persecution.

What utter and ridiculous tripe. If you're a pharmacist your job is to fill the prescriptions patients are given by their doctor - there is nothing in the job description that says you get to pick and choose what medications you find acceptable. If the reasoning was anything other than religion we would not even give this nonsense a second thought, but instead 11 states are actualy considering legislation to protect pharmacists who refuse to fill prescriptions for religious reasons.

If the job conflicts with your belief system then find another job, but don't you dare use your position to enforce your dogma on someone else or to stand in the way of their reproductive freedom or to impede their right to medical treatment.

I pity the person unfortunate enough to walk into a pharmacy run by a Christian Scientist.

EDIT - I see that this story is picking up a bit in some of the alternative press sites. For a better understanding of why I refer to these pharmacists as "Taliban" check out this article at Media Matters

Education vs Indoctrination

As the controversy in Dover, Pa, the first place in the nation to mandate the teaching of the non-scientific yet religous fundamentalist friendly intelligent design "theory" in high school biology curriculum, continues, the threat to scientific education across the nation increases as other states face similar battles.

In the news piece linked above, one of the town's pastors is quoted as saying, "If we continue to indoctrinate our young people with non-religious principles, we're headed for an internal destruction of this society."

Teaching evolution is no more indoctrination than teaching children the multiplication tables, because, unlike religious beliefs, the foundation of science education is in teaching why something is true and how we know it to be true; it is teaching the critical thinking skills that allow a person to formulate accurate beliefs about the world around them. This is not indoctrination or religious persecution, as fundamentalists claim, it is simply that in the marketplace of ideas and evidence their beliefs can not compete. Indeed, it is for this very reason that religious indoctrination is so vital for the transmission of said beliefs to the next generation - a child educated in critical thought simply will not be able to believe that the earth is 6,000 years old.

With this in mind I begin to wonder to what extent are we obligated to prevent children from being indoctrinated. I think of the madrasahs in Pakistan where children are trained to believe that free thought is a crime and any chance of them growing into adults who can think for themselves is drastically reduced as entire passages of the Koran are burned into their mind by being made to memorize and repeat them over and over again. I think of Nicholas Humphrey's powerful essay "What Shall We Tell the Children" and worry that our desire for tolerance might push us too far in the direction of relativism, and that our children will suffer for it.

More on mercury

An AP article today reports that nine states have sued the EPA for its lax mercury standards.

And yesterday Slate published an informative and balanced article on mercury levels in fish.

I'm still frustrated that we're even at the point that we need to calculate how much tuna we can eat in a week without being poisoned in the first place.

Monday, March 28, 2005

The essence of liberal education

"I believe that education, therefore, is a process of living and not a preparation for future living." - John Dewey, from "My Pedagogic Creed"

Friday, March 25, 2005

Some Hopeful News

After much delay the UN has signed a resolution to send 10,000 peacekeepers to southern Sudan in order to help enforce a peace agreement that was signed in January.

Aid to the Darfur region is still being held up by US refusal to refer Sudan war-crime cases to the International Criminal Court which the US does not endorse. The US cites concern that the International Criminal Court will subject American citizens to a politically motivated court as the reason for opposing it, but others believe that the US government does not want to be held accountable to international law.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

We must not forget

In 1994 this picture won the Pulitzer prize for photography. The horror captured in this picture has not ended.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Deep south still not ready for science

Imax theatres reject film over evolution

The New York Times and the BBC also ran articles on this.

Thanks to Americablog for the heads up.

Why is this so difficult?

Those following the Terry Schiavo case will have at this point likely heard of the Nobel nominated neurologist Dr. Hammesfahr who claims that Terry is not in a persistent vegitative state and that she is responsive to family members. Hammesfahr has stated, "There are many approaches that would help Terri Schiavo. I know, because I had the opportunity to personally examine her, her medical records, and her X-rays. It is time to help Terri, instead of just warehousing her. She would have benefited from treatment years ago, but it is not to late to start now."

In a recent interview on Hannity and Colmes (in which Hannity went out of his way to emphasize that this is Nobel nominated physician), Hammesfarh acted as if it was a complete enigma why other doctors thought that Terry was in a PVS, and claimed with certainty that he could rehabilitate her, but at the same time he failed to make a very convincing case as to why he was right and the other doctors were wrong.

Something about Dr. Hammesfarh just did not seem right to me, I don't know, maybe I was channeling Martin Gardner, but for whatever reason I felt inclined to check into Dr. Hammesfahr.

First, the claim that he was nominated for a Nobel prize in 1999 for work that he did in 1994. This is a dubious claim. From Wikipedia's entry on the Nobel Prize:
However unlike other awards ceremonies the Nobel Prize nominees are not publicly announced and they are not supposed to be told that they were ever considered for the prize. The records are sealed for 50 years. This is done to avoid turning the awarding of the prize into a popularity contest. Due to this secrecy it is questionable whenever someone uses a Nobel nomination as a qualification (how could you check it?)
Additionally, it turns out that the "nomination" Hammesfarh recieved was from a member of Congress. Such a nomination has about as much merit as you or I writing the committee and recommending that Stephen King be awarded the Nobel prize in literature. A judge stated as much in a 2002 decision

While he certainly is a self-promoter and should have had for the court's review a copy of the letter from the Nobel committee in Stockholm, Sweden, the truth of the matter is that he is probably the only person involved in these proceedings who had a United States Congressman recommend him for such an award. Whether the committee "accepted" the nomination, "received" the nomination or whatever, it is not that significant. What is significant, however, and what undemises his creditability is that he did not present to this court any evidence other than his generalized statements as to the efficacy of his therapy on brain damaged individuals like Terry Schiavo.
Then there is the matter of Dr. Hammesfahr's vasodilation therapy. It turns out that this practice is not widely accepted among medical proffesionals, and, indeed, there is even an entry about Hammesfahr at the medical psuedoscience watchdog site Quackwatch!

It took me about 15 minutes to uncover this information. Is it too much to ask of those in the media to bother checking into the facts before running a story?

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Washington Post article on mercury subterfuge

New EPA Mercury Rule Omits Conflicting Data

Announcing the new rule last Tuesday, officials used charts to emphasize that most mercury toxicity in the United States comes from foreign sources, and they used their cost-benefit analysis to show that domestic controls had minimal impact.

Asked about the Harvard analysis, Al McGartland, director of the EPA's National Center for Environmental Economics, said it was submitted too late to be factored into the agency's calculations. He added that crucial elements of the analysis were flawed.

Interviews and documents, however, show that the EPA received the study results by the Jan. 3 deadline, and that officials had been briefed about its methodology as early as last August. EPA officials referred to some aspects of the Harvard study in a briefing for The Washington Post on Feb. 2.

The Harvard study concluded that mercury controls similar to those the EPA proposed could save nearly $5 billion a year through reduced neurological and cardiac harm. Last Tuesday, however, officials said the health benefits were worth no more than $50 million a year while the cost to industry would be $750 million a year.

This is fairly indicative of how this administration operates. Information is selectively presented in favor of evidence supporting the administration's position while contrary evidence is downplayed or ignored.

More death in Sudan

A recent UN report estimates that 180,000 people have died in Darfur in the last 18 months from hunger and disease caused by continuing warfare. The estimate does not include deaths that resulted directly from violence.

As the world continues to try and figure out what to do about Sudan the death toll continues to rise.

Monday, March 21, 2005

A quick comment

As I was flipping through the channels I happened to catch President Bush commenting that "it is wise to always err on the side of life." This comment coming from a man that executed 152 of 153 death row inmates during his tenure as governor of Texas is a bit puzzling.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Liberal reading

On Liberty by John Stuart Mill. This essay, written by Mill in 1859, is a powerful defense of individual liberty and the idea that the only legitimate reason government or society has to exert influence over an individual is to prevent harm to others. It is truly a seminal text in the history of liberal thought.

A Stoic quote

"There is but one thing of real value - to cultivate truth and justice, and to live without anger in the midst of lying and unjust men" - Marcus Aurelius

I'm still working on the without anger part.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Another step towards a closed society

From Slate's article about secrecy in the Bush administration:
Since President George W. Bush entered office, the pace of classification activity has increased by 75 percent, said William Leonard in March 2 congressional testimony. His Information Security Oversight Office oversees the classification system and recorded a rise from 9 million classification actions in fiscal year 2001 to 16 million in fiscal year 2004.

Yet an even more aggressive form of government information control has gone unenumerated and often unrecognized in the Bush era, as government agencies have restricted access to unclassified information in libraries, archives, Web sites, and official databases.

Great, nothing I love more than less government accountability. Someone should send President Bush a copy of the Open Society and its Enemies.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

A Liberal Decalogue by Bertrand Russell

Perhaps the essence of the Liberal outlook could be summed up in a new decalogue, not intended to replace the old one but only to supplement it. The Ten Commandments that, as a teacher, I should wish to promulgate, might be set forth as follows:

1. Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.
2. Do not think it worth-while to proceed by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.
3. Never try to discourage thinking, for you are sure to succeed.
4. When you meet with opposition, even if it should be from your spouse or your children, endeavor to overcome it by argument and not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.
5. Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.
6. Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do the opinions will suppress you.
7. Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric
8. Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement, for if you value intelligentce as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than be latter.
9. Be scrupulously truthful, even if the truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconcenient when you try to conceal it.
10. Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool's paradise, for only a fool will think that it is happiness
- from The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Mercury - its whats for dinner

Americans are showing increased levels of mercury in their systems, mostly from eating fish such as tuna, and yet the Bush administration is more concerned with protecting the interests of the coal industry than making sure American citizens are not being poisoned.

Don't fall for the Orwellian spin regarding the Clear Skies initiative, its nothing more than a repeal of the current Clean Air Act. Case in point, Wisconsin will actually have to allow more pollution under Bush's proposed EPA guidelines. This is absurd.

Nothing new here for the Bush aministration, though. For the last four years the administration has quietly worked towards rolling back nearly every existing environmental regulation that we have. Hopefully someday the public will figure out that the environment and their health have been bought out by industry polluters.

Halliburton: Evil, Greedy, Corrupt, Lying Scum

Lets play Click the Halliburton scandal
War Profiteering
Asbestos bail out
More Fraud and business with the "axis of evil"

For more information on Halliburton and their criminal activities check out Halliburton Watch

Monday, March 14, 2005

The 4th branch of government

I'm outraged over the fact that our government has been working towards turning the 4th estate into a propaganda machine. This comprises a serious threat to the basic prinicples of democracy. Why don't we hold our gov't accountable for its actions? Why do we not care that our taxes are being used to decieve us?

Armstrong Williams was paid $240,000 to promote the No Child Left Behind act. The administration's response? Not our fault, and it was an isolated incident to be looked into.

Not long after Williams was exposed it was discovered that Maggie Gallagher was paid to promote the president's healthy marriage initiative - so much for an isolated incident. Since then it has also been discovered that a third journalist - Michael McManus - was also paid to shill for the administration.

On top of paying pundits off the administration has also been releasing prepackaged news reports (registration to the site is free) to local stations, in which actors pose as journalists and the releases are presented as if they are real news. The administrations response? Not our fault. Of course not. Nothing is this administration's fault, the administration isn't accountable for any actions.

But having journalists on the payroll and releasing bogus news reports wasn't enough for the administration, they also needed a plant in White House press corps. Enter Jeff Gannon, a fake reporter from a fake news agency, a man using an alias, who had no journalistic credentials, but worked for a Texas Republican delegate's partisan activist organization, who was allowed into White House press briefings for two years without ever receiving a hard pass which is necessary for such extended access to the President, so that he could ask questions which were little more than rhetorical devices meant to smear opposition to the administration rather than actually gain information. The administration's response? Not our fault, and no big deal.

Simply disseminating disinformation still wasn't enough for the administration, however. Unfavorable information needed to be supressed. Take for instance, the leak of Valerie Plame's identity as a CIA operative shortly after her husband wrote an article for the New York Times critical of the administration's pre-war wmd intelligence. And oddly enough, apparently Jeff Gannon may have been one of several journalists that Plame's identity was leaked to.

The reason why the founding fathers protected journalism under the first amendment was because they realized that a free press was essential in creating an informed public to particpate in the democratic political process, and that a free press was necessary to keep government honest by holding it accountable for its actions. When the press becomes an arm of the government, a tool to push an ideological agenda, the very foundations of democracy are threatened.

Theocracy watch

"It's a symbol of the fact that government comes - that government derives its authority from God. And that is, it seems to me, an appropriate symbol to be on State grounds." - Justice Scalia, referring to the 10 Commandments during the oral arguments of the 10 Commandments case.

No, Justice Scalia, the government does not derive its authority from your God. In case you weren't aware, America was founded as a secular democracy.

Maybe, Justice Scalia forgot the part in the Declaration of Independence which states "governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed." Maybe, he forgot that the Constitution specifically omits any reference to God. Maybe, Justice Scalia forgot that the American revolution was fought in order to escape the rule of a country that did derive its authority from God.

Maybe Justice Scalia never read Robert Green Ingersoll's God In The Constitution.

Regardless, any man who thinks America is a theocracy has no business being on the Supreme Court.

Friday, March 11, 2005

Brent Bozell - Enemy of Freedom of Expression

In 2001 there were 350 complaints filed to the FCC, and by 2003 the number had grown to 240,000 with 99% of those complaints having originated with the Parents Television Council organization which is headed by Brent Bozell.

Bozell is not content to merely voice his discontent with the content of television shows or to simply turn the channel. He wants to be able to decide for you and I what we get to watch, and by inflating the number of complaints filed to the FCC he seems to be getting his way.

Next time you hear a politican citing the public's moral outrage over tv indecency as justification for increased levels of censorship keep in mind that the outrage is an illusion created by one man who wants to be able to define what is acceptable entertainment for the rest of America.

Intelligent Design Is Not Science

“The fundamental difficulty (familiar from the central mystery of Cartesian dualism, how mental substance could interact with physical substance) is rather that by appealing to the intentions of an agent which, being immaterial, cannot put Its intentions into action by physical means, they fail to explain at all.” - Susan Haack on supernatural explanations, from Defending Science Within Reason

A scheme or system of ideas and statements held as an explanation or account of a group of facts or phenomena; a hypothesis that has been confirmed or established by observation or experiment, and is propounded or accepted as accounting for the known facts; a statement of what are known to be the general laws, principles, or causes of something known or observed. - Oxford English Dictionary definition of theory

Intelligent Design is the belief that certain biological systems are too complex to have arisen out of natural evolutionary processes, and must therefore be the result of an intelligent designer, an entity that proponents of I.D. neglect to describe. Without any account of how or when the Intelligenct Designer designs there is no epistemic difference between the proposed Intelligent Designer and an immaterial supernatural agent. Without any coherent account of the designer we have no way to know what to expect from such a designer. For example, I can immediately think of a number of questions, left unanswered by I.D., that would need to be addressed before the belief could be considered a theory able to explain data and predict new data.

When does the Designer step in? At what point does evolution stop and design begin? How do we distinguish between intentional design and non intentional design? How does the Designer design? How do we know what the intentions of the designer are?

In its attempt to be designated as a theory, Intelligent Design fails to meet the three basic components of scientific theory: 1. a theory makes predictions, 2. a theory can be falsified, and 3. a theory explains observed phenomena.

- Intelligent Design makes no predictions:
In science a theory not only accounts for previously observed phenomena, but also yields testable hypothesis that predict new observations.

I.D. can not make any predictions, because it does not have any means to generate testable hypothesis. The nature of the designer is unknown to us, so we have no idea of what kind of design to expect in nature.

- Intelligent Design is not falsifiable
Intelligent design can not be tested. If you begin with the assumption that the world exhibits design, then any observed phenomena can be made to fit this hypothesis. It is a question begging form of inquiry.

- Intelligent Design has no explanatory power:
Given that we assume I.D. to be true what exactly does it tell us about the natural world? Frankly, nothing. I.D. provides no explanation of any set of observed phenomena, and it certainly does not explain more or better than evolution. For example, Why does a bat have the same underlying bone structure in its wing that a human has in its hand? Why is the embryological development of species so similar? Why do women experience pain in child birth?

What’s more, intelligent design does not even give an account of phenomena that it claims to observe! Why do irreducibly complex organs exist? How is it that natural processes can not account for irreducible complexity? Why is specified complexity unique to intelligent design?

Irreducible complexity:
Irreducible complex biological systems are, as defined my Michael Behe, “composed of several well matched interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, wherein the removal of any parts causes the system to cease functioning.”

Notice that Behe has created a tautology. Any system that is missing one of its parts is by definition non-functional. I will return to this in a moment.

Behe gives as an example of an irreducibly complexity a mousetrap which is composed of several parts, of which if any of the parts are removed it will no longer be able to serve its function of catching mice. This is a terribly flawed example. It does not take much imagination in order to create scenarios in which the mousetrap loses parts and is still able to catch mice. For example, remove the base of a mousetrap, and you will still be able to catch mice. For more detailed critiques of the mousetrap example see the Resources section.

What about examples in which a removal of a part does indeed cause the system to lose its function? This is where the tautology comes in. A system that loses a part may indeed not be able to serve the function it originally performed, but that does not mean that it is not functional in some other sense. As an example, consider a pair of scissors. If you were to remove one of the blades of the scissors you would be left with a single blade which would not be able perform its function of cutting paper in the sense that scissors cut paper, but that single blade would be able to serve other functions such as cutting an apple in the manner that a knife would. This demonstrates that although something may be irreducibly complex, it does not necessarily mean that removal of any of its parts renders it non-functional.

Behe also proposes several biological systems as being irreducibly complex, such as cilia, flagella, and the blood clotting cascade. In these examples Behe believes that there is no means of accounting for the development of these systems by evolutionary mechanisms. This is an argument from ignorance and personal incredulity. Because there is no current explanation Behe assumes there will never be an explanation, and because Behe is unable to conceive of an explanation he believes that an explanation can not be conceived of.

Not only is Behe wrong about there being conceived explanations of mechanisms to account for these systems (see Kenneth Miller’s essay on the flagellum in the Resources section) but he is wrong in assuming that there is not an explanation for these systems, since some of his examples have been explained!( see Doolittle’s explanation of blood clotting in the Resources)

Specified Complexity:
William Dembski proposes “An event exhibits specified complexity if it is contingent and therefore not necessary; if it is complex and therefore not readily repeatable by chance; and if it is specified in the sense of exhibiting an independently given pattern.” If some phenomena can be identified as having specified complexity and is irreducibly complex, we can then infer that it was intelligently designed.

What does this mean? Basically, it means that a highly unlikely event can not be the result of random chance. Fine, but evolution does not posit that any biological system is the result of random chance. Evolution is the result of chance (variation) being acted on by order (selection) in the direction of greater fitness. This is a process of cumulative elimination. Given enough iterations the highly unlikely becomes successively more probable.

Richard Dawkins has given a clever refutation of the argument from improbability (See Resources Section – Evolution of Improved Fitness.) The articles in the Essays Critical of Specified Complexity section of the Resources give more technical and thorough critiques of Dembski.

Law of Conservation of Information:
Dembski also claims that information cannot be created by either natural processes or chance, so there is a law of conservation of information. This law of conservation is an indicator of the existence of the Intelligent Designer, and Dembski asserts that he has given rigorous mathematical proof of the Designer's existence ... I here pause to let the reader consider the magnitude of that claim.

Dembski has taken a standard creationist argument, that evolution violates the second law of thermodynamics, and dressed it up as a mathematical proof. To understand this consider information to be order - Dembski is saying that natural processes can not generate order. The quick response to this is that in an open system entropy can decrease locally as long as entropy increases elsewhere. This works in the other direction as well, as entropy often increases, causing information to be lost as disorder increases. (See Vic Stenger's PDF essay for more on this.)

The fundamental flaws of Dembski are thus
1.He is right in recognizing specified complexity, but wrong in attributing it to intelligent design
2.He is mistaken in his understanding of evolutionary mechanism
3. He has invented a law that does not exist

Everything considered, I.D. is nothing more than William Paley’s watchmaker argument, with a mousetrap and flagellum substituted for watch and eyes, and specified complexity as a mathematical formulation of the argument from personal incredulity. It is an argument from ignorance, with a Designer being penciled in to fill the gaps in our knowledge. It is nothing more than empty criticism of evolutionary theory, and it can not be seen as a rival theory because it offers no rival explanations.


Encylopedia Entries on I.D.

Websites Supporting I.D.

Websites Critical of I.D.

Published Material on Biochemical evolution.

Science Organizations and Individuals Critical of I.D.

Web Forum Discussion of I.D.

Essays Supporting Specified Complexity

Essays Critical of Specified Complexity - Evolution of Improved Fitness, not directly a response to I.D. but refutes the argument of improbability - deals with Information theory and related ID & creationist claims

Essays Supporting Irreducible Complexity - Michael Behe’s response to critics

Essays Critical of Irreducible Complexity - Kenneth Miller’s essay on flagellum – Doolittle’s essay on blood clotting

Essays about the I.D. movement - Shows parallels between I.D. and creationism - Stenger's PDF article on I.D. as creationism in disguise

Design Arguments - Details the various forms of the design argument and criticisms of

Books on I.D.
The Design Revolution
Darwin's Black Box
Evolution: A Theory in Crisis
No Free Lunch

Why Intelligent Design Fails
Unintelligent Design
God, the Devil, and Darwin
The Tower of Babble

-Debate Format
Intelligent Design Creationism and its Critics
Debating Design

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Are the 10 Commandments even worth following?

In light of the current controversy surrounding the posting of the 10 Commandments on public (read government) property, perhaps we should take a moment and reflect on whether or not these ten laws - assuming we are discussing the more famous first set and not the lesser known yet arguably more authoritative second set - are in accordance with our values and principles. A brief examination follows:

1. Thou shalt have no other gods before me (Ex 20:3)

Implication - Any belief other than worship of God (Yahweh) would be criminalized
Penalty for violation - Death (Ex 22:20)

2. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth (Ex 20:4-6)

Implication - All art would be criminalized
Penalty for violation - For making the graven images: punishment of your children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren; if you worship the images: death (Ex 20:4-6 & Ex 22:20)

3. Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain (Ex 20:7)

Implication - Blasphemy against God would be criminalized
Penalty for violation - Death (Lev 24:16)

4. Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy (Ex 20:8-11)

Implication - Work or recreation on *Saturday would be criminalized
Penalty for violation - Death (Ex 31:15)

5. Honour thy father and thy mother (Ex 20:12)

Implication - Children who disobeyed their parents would be criminals
Penalty for violation - Death (Ex 21:15, 21:17)

6. Thou shalt not kill (Ex 20:13)

Implication - It's ok to kill so long as it is Biblically sanctioned
Penalty for violation - Uncertain

7. Thou shalt not commit adultery (Ex 20:14)

Implication - Affairs would be criminalized
Penalty for violation - Death (Lev 20:10)

8. Thou shalt not steal (Ex 20:15)

Implication - All theft would bear the same penalty
Penalty for violation - Uncertain

9. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor (Ex 20:16)

Implication - It is ok to perjure a non-"neighbor"
Penalty for violation - Uncertain

10. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor anything that is thy neighbor's (Ex 20:17)

Implication - The thought of desiring or envying another man's "property" would be criminalized. A wife is a man's property, and it is permissable to have both male and female slaves
Punishment - Uncertain

- All the commandments are absolute laws with no exceptions. For example, a child that disobeys an abusive parent by telling the authorities would still be commiting a crime to be punished with death. There is no difference between stealing a nickel and stealing a million dollars, between killing for sport and killing out of self-defense.
- Double think. We're told not to kill while at the same time death is the penalty for the majority of the laws. Additionally, killing in the Bible is sanctioned for numerous other reasons.
- They conflict with the Constitution. The first four commandments violate the 1st amendment. All of the laws that have penalties (and even for the ones that are unclear it can be surmised what the likely punishment of choice would be) would seem to violate the 8th amendment as all are, by our standards, excessive and cruel and unusual, while the 10th commandment violates the 13th amendment's prohibition of slavery, and the 9th commandment conflicts with the due process of law guaranteed by the 5th amendment.
- Following the Commandments would cause a radical, impossible, and absurd restructuring of our society. Case in point, the 5th commandment; if we were to follow this rule all business would be closed on Saturdays, including, presumably, hospitals, police departments, firestations, stores, theatres, etc. All recreational activities would be disallowed (even college football.)
- They create thought crimes. The 10th commandment makes it illegal to even THINK about another man's property. Besides being ridiculous, this is unenforceable.
- The Decalogue is an endorsement of theocracy. The commandments make it clear that government derives its just power from God rather than the people, and if we are to follow these commandments then we are also obligated to legislate the rest of God's Biblical injunctions.

The 10 Commandments are antithetical to the democratic principle of equality under the law and the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

*Despite contempory convention, by Biblical standards Saturday is the Sabbath.

Slavery still abounds says Economist

Here's the article

The importance of art

"Art cultivates and kindles the imagination, and quickens the conscience. It is by imagination that we put ourselves in the place of another. When the whigs of that faculty are folded, the master does not put himself in the place of the slave; the tyrant is not locked in the dungeon, chained with his victim. The inquisitor did not feel the flames that devoured the martyr. The imaginative man, giving to the beggar, gives to himself. Those who feel indignant at the perpetration of wrong, feel for the instant that they are the victims; and when they attack the aggressor they feel that they are defending themselves. Love and pity are the children of the imagination." - Robert Green Ingersoll, "Art and Morality"

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

The world's broken promise and the word we dare not utter

Article 1
The Contracting Parties confirm that genocide, whether committed in time of peace or in time of war, is a crime under international law which they undertake to prevent and to punish.
Article 2
In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide - signed into force by the UN in 1951

Bangladesh (1971)
  • 1 - 3 million Bengalis killed by the army of East Pakistan
East Timor (1975 - 2000)
  • 200,000 East Timorese killed by the Indonesian army
Cambodia (1975 - 1979)
  • 1 - 3 million Cambodians by the Khmer Rouge
Guatemala (1950's - 1980's)
  • 200,000 Mayans killed by the Guatemalan army
Bosnia (1992 - 1995)
  • 200,000 Muslims killed by Serbs
Rhwanda (1994)
  • 800,000 Tutsis killed by Hutus
Sudan (1983 - present)
  • 2 million killed in continuing civil war

Never again?

Monday, March 07, 2005

A humanist quote

"Independence is my happiness, and I view things as they are, without regard to person or place; the world is my country, and my religion is to do good." - Thomas Paine, The Rights of Man Pt 2

This is, in my opinion, the only "religion" worth following.

The "War" On Drugs

When I read this chapter from Into the Buzzsaw: Leading Journalists Expose the Myth of a Free Press (which I highly recommend) I was shocked (as I was through most of the book.) In this essay, Mike Levine, a former covert drug enforcement agent and one of the country's leading court experts in everything related to drug trafficking, reveals three truths about the war on drugs: 1. the war is a failure, 2. the media has obscured this fact, and 3. the government doesn't want to win the war. The first is obvious, the second is frustrating, and the third, if true, is profoundly disturbing. I realize this sounds like an absurd conspiracy theory, and I myself would be extremely skeptical of such a statement, but after reading the piece it is hard to come to any other conclusion.

Regardless of where you stand on the issue of drug enforcement laws we should all be able to question the utility in devoting extraordinary amounts of money into a policy that does not work. That this policy might be deliberately undermined by our government and that the media would obfuscate the issue is even more unsettling.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Evolution's dirty little secret

Everyone has heard about the theory of evolution, but very few people are aware of the scandalous truth about evolution that scientists have kept largely to themselves: evolution is also a fact. Scientists have known this for quite some time, yet for some reason this knowledge has not trickled down to the public consciouss.

This is partly due to a misunderstanding of the meaning of fact. In science, fact means an observation that has been confirmed to such an extent that it is taken to be true. That life descends with modifications is one such observation. At this point in time, the evidence documenting the occurence of evolution is overwhelming.

People also have a misunderstanding of the meaning of theory. In vernacular usage theory is similar to guess, but in science a theory is a falsifiable explanation for some phenomenon (fact) that is well-supported by evidence. Theories are never proven true and never become facts - they can only become better supported by evidence, disconfirmed, or replaced by a rival theory.

The theory of evolution is considered one of the most robust theories in science by virtue of the large amount of consilient evidence from multiple disciplines of inquiry. That the public does not know this is a shame because, as the late Theodosius Dobzhansky once said, "nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution."

Friday, March 04, 2005

A Decalogue for Democratic Discourse

1. Nothing and no one is immune from criticism.

2. Everyone involved in a controversy has an intellectual responsibility to inform himself of the available facts.

3. Criticism should be directed first to policies, and against persons only when they are responsible for policies, and against their motives or purposes only when there is some independent evidence of their character.

4. Because certain words are legally permissible, they are not therefore morally permissible.

5. Before impugning an opponent’s motives, even when they legitimately may be impugned, answer his arguments.

6. Do not treat an opponent of a policy as if he were therefore a personal enemy of the country or a concealed enemy of democracy.

7. Since a good cause may be defended by bad arguments, after answering the bad arguments for another’s position present positive evidence for your own.

8. Do not hesitate to admit lack of knowledge or to suspend judgment if evidence is not decisive either way.

9. Only in pure logic and mathematics, not in human affairs, can one demonstrate that something is strictly impossible. Because something is logically possible, it is not therefore probable. "It is not impossible" is a preface to an irrelevant statement about human affairs. The question is always one of the balance of probabilities. And the evidence for probabilities must include more than abstract possibilities.

10. The cardinal sin, when we are looking for truth of fact or wisdom of policy, is refusal to discuss, or action which blocks discussion.

Sidney Hook, from "The Ethics of Controversy"

We'd be a lot better off if everyone could keep these in mind when engaging in a political discussion.

The Myth of Sisyphus - A humanist parable

This essay by the existentialist writer Albert Camus is one of the finest examples of humanist thought about the meaning of life.

In the essay Camus says that Sisyphus is able to turn the punishment of the gods into a victory by abandoning any hope that he will ever be able to reach the summit of the mountain. By accepting his fate he has become the master of his fate.

Camus intends for Sisyphus to be symbolic of human existence. We are beings faced with the knowledge that our death is inevitable and non-existence is our fate, but that if we accept this fate we can find meaning in living for the sake of living -
"the struggle itself towards the heights [becomes] enough to fill a man's heart."