Saturday, October 31, 2009

Another KBR scandal?

From The Pump Handle

DC Bureau, a project of the nonprofit Public Education Center, has published a stunning four-part series, “No Contractor Left Behind” on the errors by KBR and the Pentagon that allowed National Guard troops to be exposed to high levels of the carcinogen sodium dichromate while stationed at the Qarmat Ali water plant in Balad, Iraq. Adam Lichtenheld, with reporting by Byron Moore, investigates who knew what when about the orange dust that coated Qarmat Ali – and how the government failed to help soldiers who have developed cancers and other problems since being stationed there. Part I of the series introduces us to the soldiers:

Between April and September of 2003, the Indiana Guardsmen and their comrades from West Virginia and Oregon were subjected to a deadly health threat that would not be tolerated in any workplace in America.

Six years later, these once-vigorous soldiers now find themselves feeble and fraught with worry. Two have died from cancer. Another is in end-of-life hospice care. Dozens more suffer from frequent respiratory problems and chronic illnesses.
As part of a massive push to restore Iraq’s oil production following the US invasion, contracting giant KBR was tasked with rebuilding the Qarmat Ali water plant, which treated water that was injected into oil wells. National Guard troops arriving there to provide security to KBR employees found the facility coated with orange dust that swirled through the air during frequent windstorms. Soldiers began suffering from severe nosebleeds, nasal infections, and skin abrasions – but when they reported their symptoms and asked whether the orange dust might play a role, they were told it was only a “mild irritant.”

In fact, the powder was sodium dichromate, a highly concentrated compound of hexavalent chromium and a potent carcinogen.
The blogger goes on to note in her summary of the report that some of the effected soldiers have been denied medical benefits by the VA; and that Congressional Democrats who campaigned in 2006 on a platform promising to investigate contractor corruption have done little to investigate this incident or the incidents of faulty electrical wiring.

You know, this is the sort of thing I'd like to see investigated and discussed on the supposed news networks. Networks that have a marvelous talent at minimizing the amount of actual news that they fit into a 24 hour day. And yet they remain sure to cover whatever "scandal" du jour has been manufactured by the Becks, Drudges, Hannitys, and Limbaughs of the world.

Which is why a handful of employees of a group like ACORN getting caught on film in some kind of conservative fantasy Borat propaganda scheme meant to demonize the organization for political reasons seems to generate more outrage than actual scandals.

A nifty tool

From Science Insider

Dan Reicher, former assistant U.S. secretary of energy and now director of climate change and energy initiatives at Google, testified yesterday as part of the Senate climate hearings and mentioned an innovative tool Google recently announced: Google PowerMeter. It's an effort by Google to allow individuals to see constant energy-efficiency stats. "The power of that kind of information in helping you make efficiency choices is incredible," Reicher told ScienceInsider.

PowerMeter hopes to capitalize on the so-called Prius effect. The top-selling hybrid car, researchers have learned, saves energy not only because it switches efficiently between gasoline and electric power but also because of its conspicuous control screen, allowing drivers to see their real-time gasoline efficiency. According to a review by the U.K.'s DEFRA environmental agency of smart metering in people's homes, the Prius effect deployed at home could save up to 15% on energy bills.

Friday, October 30, 2009

On swearing

'When used judiciously, swearing can be hilarious, poignant, and uncannily descriptive. More than any other form of language, it recruits our expansive faculties to the fullest: the combinatorial power of syntax; the evocativeness of metaphor; the pleasure of alliteration, meter, and rhyme; and the emotional charge of our attitudes, both thinkable and unthinkable. It engages the full expanse of the brain: left and right, high and low, ancient and modern. Shakespeare, no stranger to earthy imprecations himself, had Caliban speak for the entire human race when he said, "You taught me language, and my profit on't is, I know how to curse."' - Steven Pinker, The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature

The Fox news/opinion melting pot

That's the short take. For the long take, I recommend viewing (which you can at the link) Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

More conservatives for PRAVDA

Recalling our previous encounter with conservatives who have found a new found respect for the former official state-controlled organ of communist Soviet propaganda, Dave Neiwert noticed a high profile convert

But Beck concludes anyway that Obama is marching us right into a Soviet-style decline and crumble:

Beck: Did you ever read Pravda?

Laffer: I did read Pravda, as a matter of fact.

Beck: Did you read that? Where they're like, 'What is wrong with the Republicans?' We're watching what happened to Russia -- Pravda gives us more truth than the American press!
He's referring, of course, the Igor Panarin's dire predictions of the fall of America, which, so far, have proven laughably wrong.
Also, you have to marvel at Beck starting out his show with a rant about the evils of budget deficits, followed by him bringing on Art Laffer to explain what should be done to fix the economy. If we lived in a country where one's credibility was related to how well one's views actually match up with reality, Laffer, like Beck, would not be taken seriously by anyone. His supply-side economics were put into practice by Reagan; deficits followed. His supply side economics were put into practice by Bush 43; a large surplus was transformed into a large deficit.

So in Beck's up-is-down fantasy world, who better to discuss how to confront deficits than the man whose ideas create budget busting deficits; ideas that empower wealth at the expense of democracy, so much so that even when the economy is crashed because of economic corporate gluttony, the tax payer ends up paying for it. In that alternate universe, it's not Laffer that holds any responsibility for the bailouts, deficits, or economic downturn, but the super sinister ACORN.

Mathematics in on new world order conspiracy!

Christopher Monckton, he of the extremist transmission, has been saying that the climate change conferance in Copenhagen will lead to a one world communist government. He'll be on Beck's tv show Friday to say that and that climate science is a fraud. (See here for George Monbiot's article about Monckton's pseudo-scientific climate quackery.)

Back when I wrote a response to George Will's climate denial alleging that there has been no global warming in ten years because 1998 is the warmest year on record in the World Meteorological Organization's data (NASA's Goddard Institute ranks 2005 the warmest), I used the following crude analogy in an attempt to demonstrate the gist of why Will's argument is so dishonest and statistically ignorant:

Look at it this way: for a 500 day period you have five cars a day drive by your house. Over the next 49 days you have 20 cars go by. Then the next day 30 go by. Then for the next 50 days 29 cars go by.

Would it make any sense for someone to say there hasn't been an upward trend of of cars driving by your house because the number hasn't passed the 30 mark? (The claim would grow even more absurd if you were also aware of a known mechanism for an increase in traffic around your house, e.g. a particular road is shut forcing more traffic onto your road.)
Well, don't take my word for it. As Island of Doubt notes, the AP took temperature data and gave it to independent statisticians and asked them to discern any trends, without telling them what the data represented. Long story short, they found no decline or leveling-off in the trends, but did find decades long upward trends.

Who knew statistics was one world government biased?

The torture double standard

If you're a civilian and detain and beat someone in the process of robbing them, you might get charged with torture; if you work for the CIA and you detain and "interrogate" someone to death, you might get a promotion.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Radio host laments inability to shoot UN rapporteur with rifle. Pelosi sure was wrong.

When Nanci Pelosi got emotional at the thought that extreme rhetoric might lead to acts of violence, she was widely denounced (putting it mildly) by the usual suspects, including Glenn Beck, despite him having poisoned Pelosi in effigy.

Yet here we have a typical example of someone on the radio casually joking about his desire to see someone from the UN killed. As Spocko noted, one need not even leave Pelosi's district to be confronted with extremist, vile hate speech on the public airwaves

[KSFO radio host Lee] Rodgers calling for genocide of the Iraq people

"You people do what ever you want to each other and [Iraq] just don't give us a reason to come back or we'll massacre every last damn one of you." (audio link) longer link MP3
Would you honor someone who called for the massacre of everyone in the nation of Israel?

Rodgers calling for the death of millions of Muslims in Indonesia

"Indonesia is really just another enemy Muslim nation. ... You keep screwing around with stuff like this we are going to kill a bunch of you. Millions of you."(audio link)
Would you toast someone suggesting millions of Christians be killed?

Rodgers talking about killing a person who disagrees with his political views.

"We'll trace you back, run you down and kill you like a mad dog." (audio link)
Rodgers calling for the torture and death of Kevin Holder.

"Now you start with the Sear's Diehard the battery cables connected to his testi cles and you entertain him with that for awhile and then you blow his bleeping head off."
Rodgers calling for liberals to be hanged (link)
Rodgers calling for politicians and bureaucrats to be hanged (link)
Despite this vile rhetoric, Rodgers was recently inducted into the Bay Area Radio Hall of Fame.

Before they burn in Hell they'll burn in effigy

More eliminationism from Randall Terry

In his latest attempt to drive attention to his hate-filled agenda, Terry has launched a contest to encourage people to make videos burning House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) in effigy. Randall Terry’s press release states:

Join a Contest! Win Prizes!

Who Can make the best “Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid BURN IN HELL!” video?

First prize: Expenses paid for weekend here in DC during Roe vs Wade anniversary, Jan 22-24, including pro-life training seminar (Includes travel stipend!), and full Insurrecta Nex television series. [...]

Send link of your video by NOVEMBER 15, 2009 to:

Legal Mumbo Jumbo: Obey local laws on open flames; be careful; if under 18, do not burn Nancy Pelosi in effigy unless your mom or dad is with you, and gives you permission, and strikes the match; do not burn yourself; do not burn another human being; do not burn small animals; do not burn large animals; do not burn anyone from PETA; and remember: this is not a threat to Nancy Pelosi’s or Harry Reid’s person…it is a prophetic witness of what awaits them when they die if they do not repent for this horrific sin.
Right, not a threat. Just a contest to see who can best pretend burn Reid and Pelosi alive, based on the belief that burning alive is the fate that awaits them, based on the assumption that a supernatural entity intends to do the burning. In other words, Terry has simply attributed his desire to see Pelosi and Reid burn alive for their "sin" to a source which is held to be beyond question.

Terry has previously warned that abortion opponents may engage in acts of terrorism against members of Congress, and that "history will hold those in power responsible for the violent convulsions that follow."

Update: Anti-abortion extremists raise funds for the defense of the man who shot and killed Dr. Tiller on the grounds that it was necessary to prevent babies from being murdered. (So they think killing abortion doctors should be legal?)

Monday, October 26, 2009

The most illiberal policy

From Bill Moyers Journal

BILL MOYERS: Is torture the purest expression of evil that you've seen?

MARK DANNER: I think if you're looking for a pure expression of evil, torture is pretty-- is a pretty good candidate.


MARK DANNER: Well, because you are taking-- I mean, it's also the most illiberal policy, the sort of most diametrically opposed to what we are as a polity. A liberal state has as its heart the notion that government is limited. That there is an area of privacy of our daily lives in which governmental power, state power, cannot intervene.

And torture takes over someone's nervous system. Torture takes over what they feel. Torture takes over and penetrates into their mind and into their body. It's not only illegal, it's immoral. And it's against-- it's against the heart of what the American political tradition stands for, which is an enlightenment tradition. And in which the abolition of torture, by the way, in the 18th and 17th century, was extremely important. So it's going back into darkness, I think, in a very dramatic way.

Alfred Russel Wallace versus the Kent Hovind of his day

Christine Gardwood's Flat Earth: The History of an Infamous Idea tells the story of how a 19th century British socialist and charlatan going by the name "Parallax" was able to create a movement that believed that true "science" shows that the Earth is flat rather than round, just as the Bible supposedly claims. This despite the belief in a flat Earth having been a dead idea for more or less thousands of years.

One of the more interesting sections of the book recounts Alfred Russel Wallace, the man who co-discovered evolution by natural selection with Charles Darwin, deciding to take up a flat earther on an open bet that he could prove the spherical nature of the Earth. On Wednesday, Jan. 12, 1870, John Hampden had placed the following ad in the new weekly scientific journal Scientific Opinion:

What is to be said of the pretended philosophy of the 19th century, when not one educated man in ten thousand knows the shape of the earth on which he dwells? Why, it must be a huge sham! The under signed is willing to deposit from £50 to £500, on reciprocal terms, and defies all the philosophers, divines and scientific professors in the United Kingdom to prove the rotundity and revolution of the world from Scripture, from reason or from fact. He will acknowledge that he has forfeited his deposity, if his opponent can exhibit, to the satisfaction of any intelligent referee, a convex railway, river, canal, or lake.
I couldn't help but think of Kent Hovind's creationist challenge when I read this. And like Hovind, Hampden had no intention of ever paying up on his challenge, as he had already concluded that his beliefs were correct. Unlike Hovind who never actually got around to coming up with distinct terms for his bet, however, Hampden did end up agreeing to terms of a bet with Wallace.

They both agreed to put up £500 and to conduct a test on the Old Bedford Canal: markers were to be spaced out on the canal and then observed via a telescope, the curvature of the Earth should make the middle marker appear above an observer's line of sight. Wallace and Hampden were to each pick an impartial judge to referee the contest; Wallace picked a judge who was appropriate for the task, but Hampden picked a close flat earth confidant. As Wallace was unaware of their connection, he didn't object to the nomination.

The test was conducted and, as anticipated, demonstrated the curvature of the Earth. Yet Hampden's representative refused to acknowledge as much, claiming that the test had proved the Earth flat. This is despite the pre-agreed upon condition that would have proved the Earth's curvature having been demonstrated!

Wallace was eventually awarded the bet money by the man overseeing the bet, but ended up having to return the money to Hampden later as a judge ruled that since Hampden had demanded his money returned before the bet was paid out he was entitled to have it back. However, this merely offset the money that Hampden owed Wallace, as he had been engaging in a relentless, 15 years long, campaign of libel and defamation against Wallace. At one point he even went so far as to issue Wallace a vague death threat.

Most of this section of the book appears to be available at Google books, starting on page 83. The Alfred Rusel Wallace Page also has several letters that Wallace wrote about the incident:

Letters to the Editor Concerning the Bedford Canal "Flat Earth" Experiment (1870)

Reply to Mr. Hampden's Charges Against Mr. Wallace (1871)

The Hampden-Wallace Libel Case (1875)

In that first link, Wallace patiently, yet with obvious frustration, explains how Hampden's judge William Carpenter was able to convince himself the telescope did not show earth curvature and why he is wrong.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

How a real journalist reacts to working at a network that employs Glenn Beck

I've wondered several times on this blog how anyone who considers their self a journalist can rationalize working for a network that has unleashed the madness on America that is Glenn Beck.

It seems like there was at least one person at Fox who couldn't contribute to the legitimization of Beck.

Hall was a contributor to the network for 11 years and a frequent guest on The O’Reilly Factor and Fox News Watch. Kurtz asked Hall why she left Fox and whether she felt like she was “being used to give Fox a certain degree of legitimacy.” Hall replied that part of the reason she left was because of how “scary” Glenn Beck is
Of course, I think Hall should have long since left the network as a result of Bill O'Reilly disrespecting her.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The bad faith case for torture

One of the most absolutely infuriating and frustrating things for me to hear is someone saying that we shouldn't prosecute those who created a torture regime because lawyers told them it was legal. Chuck Todd of NBC news is a case in point (Todd also subscribes to the relativistic position that holding torture accountable is little more than a distracting partisan game.)

If a man with a starving family has someone tell him its ok to rob a bank we don't say its thus an iffy issue whether or not a crime was committed when the man robbed a bank, yet if a government official has someone tell him you can torture people in the name of national security despite laws otherwise we have no shortage of apologists for the resulting lawlessness.

But we don't even really need to get to that level of discussion, as what Chuck Todd fails to realize is that the advice given to the Bush administration by its lawyers was a facade; the whole enterprise was a bad faith process meant to provide pseudo-legal looking cover for an intention to knowingly violate laws. Given that Chuck Todd is the chief White House correspondent and political director for NBC news, one might think that it would be part of his job description to know as much before going on air and offering apologetics for what most probably constitutes war crimes.

Anyone having read the succint case laid out by Philippe Sands in Torture Team would be well aware that the process that resulted in the justification of torture was purposefully designed to circumvent normal legal process in order to manufacture a predetermined conclusion, but if one needs further explication, consult David Cole's article on the torture memos in The New York Review of Books.

While the memos from the Office of Legal Counsel have received less attention than the details of brutal treatment recorded by the CIA inspector general, these memos are the real "smoking gun" in the torture controversy. They reveal that instead of requiring the CIA to conform its conduct to the law, the OLC lawyers contorted the law to authorize precisely what it was designed to forbid. They concluded that keeping suspects awake for eleven days straight, stripping them naked, exposing them to cold temperatures, dousing them with water, slamming them into walls, forcing them into cramped boxes and stress positions for hours at a time, and waterboarding them hundreds of times were not torture, not cruel, not inhuman, not even degrading, and therefore perfectly legal. The memos make clear that true accountability cannot stop at the CIA interrogators, but must extend up the chain of authority, to the lawyers and Cabinet officers who approved the "enhanced interrogation techniques" in the first place.

The OLC's defenders argue that it was difficult to define concretely exactly what constitutes torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment and that there was little direct precedent to go on. There is some truth to these arguments. Not all physically coercive interrogation is torture. Determining whether tactics qualify as torture under federal law requires difficult distinctions between "severe" and less-than-severe pain and suffering, and between "prolonged" and temporary mental harm. Former Attorney General Michael Mukasey has argued that the lawyers acted in good faith to render their best judgment on these issues in perilous times.

Precisely because many of the questions were so difficult, however, one would expect a good-faith analysis to reach a nuanced conclusion, perhaps approving some measures while definitely prohibiting others. Yet it is striking that on every question, no matter how much the law had to be stretched, the Bush administration lawyers reached the same result—the CIA could do whatever it had proposed to do. And long after federal officials acknowledged that the threat of terror had substantially subsided, the OLC continued to distort the law so as to facilitate brutality.

Most disturbingly, the OLC lawyers secretly maintained their position even as the relevant facts changed, and even after the law developed to underscore that the CIA's tactics were illegal. There was one law for public consumption, but another quite different law operating in secret. For example, when the Justice Department's initial August 2002 memo interpreting the torture statute was leaked to the press in June 2004 and widely condemned, the department publicly issued a replacement memo, dated December 30, 2004, which rejected several interpretations advanced in its earlier memo. But the recently disclosed documents reveal that the department continued in secret to approve all the same interrogation tactics.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Skepticism on the big screen

Confronted by the never-ending stream of films about alien visits or the paranormal which claim to be "based on true events" - something that drives me nuts - I was pleased to discover that the new movie starring George Clooney, The Men Who Stare at Goats, is actually an adaptation of the same titled book by skeptical journalist Jon Ronson who has focused his work on the investigation of extremists, conspiracy theorists, and the targets of conspiratorial thought.

In 1979 a secret unit was established by the most gifted minds within the US Army. Defying all known accepted military practice - and indeed, the laws of physics - they believed that a soldier could adopt the cloak of invisibility, pass cleanly through walls and, perhaps most chillingly, kill goats just by staring at them. Entrusted with defending America from all known adversaries, they were the First Earth Battalion. And they really weren't joking. What's more, they're back and fighting the War on Terror. 'The men who stare at goats' reveals extraordinary - and very nutty - national secrets at the core of George W Bush's War on Terror.

With first-hand access to the leading players in the story, Ronson traces the evolution of these bizarre activities over the past three decades, and sees how it is alive today within US Homeland Security and post-war Iraq. Why are they blasting Iraqi prisoners-of-war with the theme tune to Barney the Purple Dinosaur? Why have 100 de-bleated goats been secretly placed inside the Special Forces command centre at Fort Bragg, North Carolina? How was the US Military associated with the mysterious mass-suicide of a strange cult from San Diego? 'The men who stare at goats' answers these, and many more, questions.
I'm ashamed to say that I had not heard of Ronson's work until I read Arthur Goldwag's Cult's Conspiracies and Secret Societies (a nifty resource for any skeptic's bookshelf), which makes mention of his having infiltrated the Bohemiam Grove; but having just yesterday listened to the Skepticality podcast #112 (also available at iTunes) which features a wide ranging and fascinating interview with Ronson about his skeptical adventures, including his time aboard a Sylvia Browne cruise in which he and the passengers discover just how fully in contempt Browne holds her fans, I'll be sure to read his work when I get a chance (I'll want to read the book before seeing the movie.)

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

An answer for Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper of ABC news can't understand why the White House would dare to state that Fox News isn't a news organization, with Tapper not seeing the difference between ABC and Fox.

In addition to making the lame argument that its ok to employ Beck and Hannity because they are "opinion" shows, Tapper fails to realize that there is no line between news and opinion on Fox.

Eric Boehlert provides plenty of examples of the difference between ABC and Fox for Tapper in the first link, but I'll provide one more that jumps out at me.

Mr. Tapper, does ABC consider it acceptable to dehumanize reporters from another news organization, as retaliation for reporting unfavorable figures about Fox's ratings, by running doctored photos of them which transform them into anti-Semitic caricatures? Because Fox News does (also see here.)

On anti-vaccine conspiracy

From Michael Shermer's open letter to Bill Maher on vaccinations

As well, Bill, your comments about not wanting to “trust the government” to inject us with a potentially deadly virus, along with many comments you have made about “big pharma” being in cahoots with the AMA and the CDC to keep us sick in the name of corporate profits is, in every way that matters, indistinguishable from 9/11 conspiracy mongering. Your brilliant line about how we know that the Bush administration did not orchestrate 9/11 (“because it worked”), applies here: the idea that dozens or hundreds pharmaceutical executives, AMA directors, CDC doctors, and corporate CEOs could pull off a conspiracy to keep us all sick in the name of money and power makes about as much sense as believing that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and their bureaucratic apparatchiks planted explosive devices in the World Trade Center and flew remote controlled planes into the buildings.

Trivia of the day

Question: Who was the first person known to have used a telescope to study a celestial object?

Answer: Thomas Harriot in July of 1609.

Discover notes that although Harriot charted the moon before Galileo, his failure to publish his work left Galileo with all the glory.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The stupid is painful

Glenn Beck claims to admire the Founding Fathers. Says that the Founders would hate "progressives." That "progressives" were the tyrants and slave owners in the days of the Founders.

So I guess the Founders must have hated themselves.

I have absolutely no patience for anyone who says that Fox can claim to be a news network while employing anti-intellectual hacks like Hannity or Beck because they're "opinion." Opinion isn't a licence to toss journalistic standards of intelligence and factuality out the window in favor of profoundly stupid, reality detached hate-mongering.

It should be understood that within the context of the clip provided at the link and of his show in general Beck is saying that progressives are working towards making slaves of conservatives (and minorities.) At least that's the inference that many in his audience are going to draw.

Another example of the free lunch in action

The sort of wealth transfer scheme that Arthur Goldwag describes here is exactly the sort of process that David Cay Johnston wrote about at length in Free Lunch: How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government Expense (and Stick You with the Bill).

While such actions have been facilitated under the rubric of "free market" principles, Johnston explained to Reason magazine that what has actually occurred is a rigging of the market to benefit the wealthiest of the wealthy at the expense of everyone else.

Republican member of Congress "jokes" about hunting and killing Democrats

From Think Progress

In a new interview with Rep. Gregg Harper (R-MS), Politico asks the congressman what the Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus does. Harper’s response:

We hunt liberal, tree-hugging Democrats, although it does seem like a waste of good ammunition.
I wonder if Mr. Harper would enjoy pretending to kill Democrats on-line, too.

This is, of course, part of a disturbing trend of the mainstreaming of eliminationist rhetoric within the conservative movement.

Monday, October 19, 2009

A modest prediction

Prediction: not long after ABC's reboot of the sci-fi series V launches, the aliens in the show will be viewed as analagous to the Obama administration by persons like Glenn Beck and such.

A dollar's worth of metaphor

Today I got a brand new hard cover copy of Bradbury Speaks: Too Soon from the Cave, Too Far from the Stars, a collection of Ray Bradbury essays, from the library book store for 1 dollar.

I'm looking forward to reading Bradbury's essay about his encounter with Bertrand Russell.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Proof the Marxist revolution is going well

Goldman Sachs profits soar, company sees one of it executives named to federal regulatory position.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Human rights are liberal?

As I was flipping by Fox News the other day, I happened to catch Bret Baier identify conservative blogger Andrew Sullivan as a "liberal blogger" because he's critical of President Obama's failure to deliver on campaign promises about gay rights.

Unstated by Baier, but the other reasons Sullivan is considered "liberal" by Fox News is that he is opposed to torture and was a critic of the Bush 43 administration. Nevermind that Sullivan's criticism of President Bush 43 is a conservative critique.

Sullivan previously addressed his being identified as "liberal" by Forbes magazine and made an astute point in response. That he is considered liberal not because he favors gay rights so much as because of implicit prejudice on the part of fellow conservatives

The real truth is that many on the Republican right just read everything I write through an anti-gay prism, because their homophobia - benign or not-so-benign, conscious or unconscious - is so overwhelming it occludes any genuine assessment of a person's thoughts outside this fact. See how Forbes cannot even keep the word gay out of quote marks. Just imagine the same sentence with the word "Jewish" replacing the word gay. It tells you everything you need to know about the moral core of conservatism today. It's sad and will one day be seen as embarrassing.
I don't find his second guess at why he's considered "liberal" (because he's critical of Christian nationalism) as convincing. While I'm sure that contributes, I think it's primarily his ardent opposition to torture that designates him as liberal to the Fox News crowd.

Authoritarians seem to have great difficulty wrapping their head around the notion that those designated as "terrorists," "enemy combatants" or "the worst of the worst" by those they consider leaders can be mistreated; or that they share the same fundamental human rights that the legitimacy of our form of democracy is grounded in recognizing (i.e. unalienable rights.)

Anyone who thinks otherwise falls out of the in-group category of Us (conservatives) and into the category of Them (liberals) in their Manichean world view.

A day in the life of a Fox News liberal

Guest host the O'Reilly Factor, continue to portray racist, serial slanderer Rush Limbaugh as the victim of slander.

Gee, how dare anyone think Limbaugh is a racist or, at least, a race baiter.

Update: Last night I saw Williams again on Fox, reciting one of the most standard right-wing post modernist defenses typically employed to defend conservative movement hate-mongers: that there is a double standard because the other side is just as bad (or worse.)

Williams asserted that if Limbaugh were a liberal he'd be able to be a NFL owner, citing the NFL's association with Keith Olbermann to prove that there is a double standard. Why is this so difficult to understand? - the problem with Limbaugh is not that he has strong conservative opinions or that he offers fierce criticism of public figures. The problem is that he systematically says terrible things about people that are untrue and dehumanizing. Keith Olbermann doesn't do that. He doesn't lie on a sentence to sentence basis. He doesn't spread malicious conspiracy theory about political opponents being killers or fake citizens. Olbermann doesn't hope for or promote violence; he doesn't disguise racism as supposed anti-racism.

If Williams confined his defense of Limbaugh to criticism of those who have attributed false quotes to him then I would have no qualm. Those who did so were intellectually wreckless and owe Limbaugh an apology for smearing him with statements that he did not make. But Williams, Limbaugh, and the rest of his defenders are using the fake quotes to act as if Limbaugh doesn't have a history of defamatory comments and race-baiting. The fake quotes are a distraction from Limbaugh's very real history of demagoguery; a history which threatens to hurt the NFL's business.

Which is why the owners acted in their financial interests. Shouldn't the market fundamentalists at Fox be behind a market outcome?

Popular best selling authors promote global warming misinformation

The authors of the pop culture sensation Freakonomics have a sequal coming out: SuperFreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance.

That the title includes a reference to the global cooling myth should give one a hint to the problem with the new book. As with their previous book, the authors take a contrarian position on the issue of global warming, except this time they're working outside their area of expertise and get it seriously wrong.

Superfreakonomics, on the other hand, misrepresents the scientific literature on global warming. The difference here is that the papers cited by Freakonomics were Levitt's own work and he understood them, while Levitt and Dubner do not understand the climate science literature. This by itself would not be fatal, but what has taken them off the cliff is the Freakonomics formula: "What you thought you knew about X is wrong!". If you want to apply this formula to global warming you can easily find many superficially plausible arguments on why the mainstream science is wrong. Bang those into your chapter on global warming without bothering to check their accuracy and the only work that remains is the tour to promote your book.
Lambert goes on in that link to explain some of the errors with the work. The Intersection also has a round-up of responses to the book.

Despite the quick response of such knowledgeable figures denouncing the misinformation in the book, the damage will still be done to the public understanding of the issue. One, the authors are not partisan hacks like, say, Sean Hannity and will thus be seen as more credible on the issue to non-partisans. Secondly, these authors are more popular than the critics rebutting them, meaning that it is more likely that a larger audience will hear of the book's contrarian wrongness than they will the corrections.

Friday, October 16, 2009

The art of phony outrage

After the White House communications director stated the reality that Fox News functions not as a news organization but an arm of the Republican party, Glenn Beck worked himself further into hysteria, comparing Fox News to Jews during the Holocaust and stating that the White House has declared war on Fox News and is now diverting its attention and resources to winning that "war" while it simultaneously is ignoring and working to lose/not win the actual war in Afghanistan.

This is a typical tactic of Beck's ilk. Attack, attack, attack; and then when called on it claim persecution while introducing red herring.

And if you've followed Beck's show on Fox, you will likely, like me, have found it curious that Beck all of a sudden is oh so concerned about the war in Afghanistan that merely devoting a sentence or two to some other subject is some kind of grave betrayal of our troops, considering that Beck rarely ever focuses on the subject.

Politico has crunched some numbers demonstrating where Beck's real priorities are:

Here, by the frequency of the words used, are the threats Glenn Beck has been talking about since his Fox show launched:

ACORN: 1,224
Czar/Czars: 533
Socialist/Socialism: 404
Communist/Communism: 330
Liberal/Liberals: 272
SEIU: 259
Community Organizing/Organizer: 167
Marxist/Marxism: 127
Afghanistan: 97
Troops: 95
Iraq: 95
Soldiers: 52
Al Qaeda: 50
Left-Wing: 43
Taliban: 38

Beck's individual enemies list is also a bit light on the international terrorists:

Van Jones: 267
Valerie Jarrett: 52
Mark Lloyd: 50
Bill Ayers: 46
John Holdren: 43
Jeremiah Wright: 42
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: 41
Osama Bin Laden: 40
Kim Jong-Il: 7
Mullah Omar: 2
Najibullah Zazi: 0
Likewise, Beck yesterday devoted his program to an hour long monologue about how our government is under the control of actual Marxist revolutionaries who "worship" Mao Tse Tung. His proof was a video of Anita Dunn making a joke and a reference to Mao in order to make a larger point to students about ignoring conventional wisdom. Beck was so profoundly disturbed that he again cried during the show and his producers had to actually cut away to commercial while he weeped and rambled on incoherently about how America is now like teens who have gone to an inapppropriate party without their parents' permission.

Yet while Beck translates Dunn's rather innocuous comment to mean that American is under the assault of a communist revolution, he doesn't seem to muster the same outrage, fear and paranoia when someone like, say, guest of the program David Horowitz cites a significantly more disturbing eliminationist communist precedent as a model for political behavior, which then influences prominent Republicans.

During the 2000 presidential and congressional elections, every Republican member of the U.S. Congress received a free pamphlet, compliments of Congressman Tom DeLay, the party's majority whip. Written by conservative activist David Horowitz, the pamphlet was called The Art of Political War: How Republicans Can Fight to Win. It came with an endorsement on the cover by Karl Rove, the senior advisor to then-candidate George W. Bush. According to Rove, The Art of Political Warwas "a perfect pocket guide to winning on the political battlefield from an experienced warrior." In addition to DeLay's gift to members of Congress, the Heritage Foundation, one of the leading conservative think tanks in Washington, found Horowitz's advice so impressive that it sent another 2,300 copies to conservative activists around the country.

True to its title, The Art of Political War argues that "Politics is war conducted by other means. In political warfare you do not fight just to prevail in an argument, but to destroy the enemy's fighting ability. ... In political wars, the aggressor usually prevails." Moreover, "Politics is a war of position. In war there are two sides: friends and enemies. Your task is to define yourself as the friend of as large a constituency as possible compatible with your principles, while defining your opponent as the enemy whenever you can. The act of defining combatants is analogous to the military concept of choosing the terrain of battle. Choose the terrain that makes the fight as easy for you as possible." ....

Of course, Horowitz is not the only disillusioned leftist from the sixties. What makes him significant is that his militancy has remained constant, even as his worldview has changed. In a strange way, he remains a Leninist, right down to his appearance (balding, with a Lenin-like goatee). He even continues to offer Lenin's words as advice. "You cannot cripple an opponent by outwitting him in a political debate," he explains in The Art of Political War. "You can do it only by following Lenin's injunction: 'In political conflicts, the goal is not to refute your opponent's argument, but to wipe him from the face of the earth.'"
More theatre of the bizarre: Beck has installed a phone next to his desk which looks like the Bat-phone from the old Adam West Batman show, which apparently only the White House has been given the number to. He now frequently proclaims the failure of the White House to call him live during his show proves that the White House can not or does not dispute that the Obama administration is full of Marxist revolutionaries who want to install a dictatorship.

Also during the show yesterday he made mention of a Washington Post story about Dunn being on her way out of the White House, suspecting that it had been planted in the Post by Rahm Emanuel because the White House knows that Becks knows she is a disciple of Mao Tse Tung so they pre-emptively concocted a story to oust her and undermine Beck's revelation.

Will Fox ever put a ceiling on the level of crazy it will let Beck get?

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Sanders on the hypocrisy of the attacks on ACORN

Sen. Bernie Sanders talked to Democracy Now about how a group like ACORN which has relatively little power or influence in Washington D.C. can have Congress vote almost unanimously to cut its funding as a result of stupid actions by a few employees, yet actual crimes committed by companies that are intimately involved with the U.S. government go more or less unpunished.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Your reaction, first of all, to the stampede of attacks on ACORN, and what you are trying to do with the bill that you’ve introduced?

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: Well, let’s be clear. I mean, ACORN was caught—some employees of ACORN were caught on tape saying incredibly stupid things, outrageous things. They were fired. They should have been fired. But that tape gets up on Fox, and it’s repeated over and over again, and without any kind of hearings, without any kind of process, suddenly this organization, which has done a lot of good work at the grassroots level in voter registration, dealing with affordable banking, housing, and so forth, suddenly, like this, they are defunded. I was one of the members of the Senate who voted against that, because I think you didn’t have any kind of process out there. It was absolutely unfair.

Meanwhile, we did a little bit of research, and my staff discovered that the three largest defense contractors—and we focused on defense because we’re in the middle of the defense appropriations bill—the three largest defense contractors—Lockheed Martin, Northrup Grumman and Boeing—who have received over the years hundreds and hundreds of billions of dollars, not the $53 million that ACORN had received, but hundreds and hundreds of billions of dollars, these three companies alone, just these three, have been involved in 109 instances of misconduct. They had paid $2.9 billion to the government for fines or settlements. So, this was not a two-minute videotape recording a stupid, absurd conversation. This is where courts of law or settlements have taken place, where these people have pled guilty or acknowledged misdeeds and paid $2.9 billion since 1995.

Now, I asked myself, gee, the Congress defunded ACORN, how much attention has been paid to this systemic fraud that goes on year after year after year? And after awhile, it’s not hard to figure out that for these large corporations, this is a way of doing business. This is not an accident; this is part of the business model.
Jeremy Scahill was also on to address the same subject

Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri, who’s been very good on the war contractor issue, voted in favor of defunding ACORN. All but seven Democrats voted for it the first time around, and then the next time around there were ten Democrats that voted against it in the Senate. What we have here are Democrats going out of their way to target an organization that has 500,000 member families and doing almost nothing to go up against the $300 billion-a-year contracting industry that literally is making a killing off of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere, and these are companies that have actual convictions, actual rap sheets. They are companies that are actually corporate felons.

Juan, you mentioned Representative Betty McCollum’s legislation, the Against Corporations Organizing to Rip-off the Nation Act of 2009. It’s called the ACORN Act. What that would do would be to “prohibit”—and this is a quote—“prohibit the federal government from awarding contracts, grants or other agreements to providing any other federal funds to or engaging in activities that promote certain corporations or companies guilty of certain felony convictions.”

In particular, Betty McCollum targets Pfizer, the massive pharmaceutical company, the maker of the most popular drug in the Senate, Viagra. Pfizer recently settled with the US Justice Department what was described as the largest fraud—healthcare fraud settlement in the history of the US Justice Department. The total fines paid out by Pfizer were almost $3 billion—with a “b”—$3 billion for fraud, for mislabeling or mismarketing the purposes of an anti-inflammatory drug called Bexstra. They had to settle with various states’ Medicare programs for fraud. Yet, this is a company that received in 2007 $77 million in US government contracts. Betty McCollum’s legislation would seek to prevent this, would seek to stop it, because what you’re seeing is that when the—even though the Justice Department settled with Pfizer and this massive amount of money was paid, it’s really nothing to Pfizer in the broader sense of it, because Pfizer makes $40 billion a year in profits. Just in profits.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Quote of the day

'Jenkins and LaHaye provide the ultimate revenge fantasy for the culturally left behind against the "elite." The Left Behind franchise holds out hope for the self-disenfranchised that at last soon everyone will know"we" were right and "they" were wrong. They'll know because Spaceship Jesus will come back and whisk us away, leaving everyone else to ponder just how very lost they are because they refused to say the words, "I accept Jesus as my personal savior" and join our side while there was still time! Even better: Jesus will kill all those smart-ass Democrat-voting, overeducated fags who have been mocking us!' - Frank Schaeffer, excerpt from Patience with God

Dispatches from persecution complex fantasy land

Glenn Beck apparently believes that employees of Fox News are about to be rounded up, placed in concentration camps and then executed.

He's apparently changed his mind, as previously he had believed that first Jews would be rounded up by liberals, then conservatives. Now it's first they came for Fox News, then they came for ...

Sunday, October 11, 2009

A day in the life of a Conservapedia editor

7 am - Wake up, fix coffee. Upon sipping, decide to let it cool off until it's not so liberally biased.

7:30 am - Drive to work. Yell at liberally biased driver for taking up too many lanes.

8:30 am - Arrive at work, see a pile of work on your desk. Curse the works' liberal bias.

12 pm - Go to lunch. Upon getting an unsatisfying meal, complain of the food's liberal bias.

3 pm - Boss asks you to work Saturday. Liberal bias strikes again.

5 pm - Drive home, noting the liberal bias of the weather as it begins to storm.

6 pm - Call up a female aquaintance and ask her on a date. She says no, obviously because she's liberally biased.

6:30 pm - Pet dog goes to the bathroom in the house. Scold her for liberal bias.

7 pm - Edit the Bible because it's too liberally biased.

8 pm - Power goes out as a result of the storm. Call power company and complain of its liberal bias.

10 pm - Go to bed, hoping tomorrow won't be as full of liberal bias.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Freikorps fodder

Via Think Progress, Rep. Paul Broun (R-Ga.)

I’ve gotten to be good friends with Justice Antonin Scalia, who he and Justice Clarence Thomas are the only ones who have any concept of what the Constitution is supposed to be and, and do what they’re supposed to do as justices by upholding the Constitution. But, in fact every, when I was sworn into the Marine Corp, I was sworn to uphold the Constitution against every enemy, foreign and domestic. We’ve got a lot of domestic enemies of the Constitution (applause) and one of those sits in the speaker’s chair of the United States Congress, Nancy Pelosi.
Isn't that great. A military veteran invoking his military oath to fight enemies of the United States, declaring Democrats and Nancy Pelosi one such (socialist) enemy; this being said in the context of the Second Amendment being necessary to prevent treason. And Broun has a history of such comments.

Like I said, freikorps fodder.

Update: Let's not forget this gentleman.

At a town hall event held by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) yesterday, a man compared Obama to Hiter and said he would “take a gun to Washington if enough of you would go with me”:

President Barack Obama is a fascist.

This and other assertions flew through an emotionally-charged town hall meeting conducted by Sen. Chuck Grassley Monday in Pocahontas.

“The president of the United States, that’s who you should be concerned about. Because he’s acting like a little Hitler,” said Tom Eisenhower, a World War II veteran. “I’d take a gun to Washington if enough of you would go with me.”
Update II: A Republican Congressional candidate went to a gun range and shot his opponent - Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fl) - in effigy.

Update III: A Republican political candidate for the House expressed her view at a Tea Party protest that the Second Amendment is a bulwark against tyranny; as "We have a chance to fight this battle at the ballot box, before we have to resort to the bullet box." (h/t Grung_e_Gene)

On watered-down hate

I've been saying that Glenn Beck promotes a (semi) secularized version of New World Order conspiracy theory which is structurally similar to the Protocols of Zion, accept that the conspiracy theory is presented in political rather than ethnic and sectarian terms.

So to recap Beck's worldview: a thuggish/totalitarian, murderous minority/poor advocacy agency with incredible powers is working to crash the American government by "overwhelming the system" in order to install a Marxist government headed by a black nationalist backed by a Marxist black nationalist army of brownshirts* (in reality a highschool dance group), ultimately a step towards creating a one world government. The money behind this plot is fronted by George Soros (Jewish international financier) and the mastermind is Saul Alinsky (Jewish radical.)
In her profile of radio conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, Michelle Goldberg notices the same thing about the generic nature of such conspiracy theory. (Although she does not address, however, the point about minorities and Jews still ending up being the demonized scapegoats.)

On March 15, Jones released a documentary called The Obama Deception, which has been widely advertised in conservative media and viewed more than four million times on YouTube. The Obama Deception is basically a more detailed version of the dystopian scenario promoted night after night on Beck. Arguing that Obama is the front man for an oligarchy working to create a planetary totalitarian state, it is like The Protocols of the Elders of Zion stripped of any reference to Jews.

Success of Birther meme may be due to implicit prejudice

Steve Mirsky in Scientific American

Today, of course, the commander in chief of the U.S. military is black, and President Barack Obama gets the best seats in the house. A black president, however, causes great cognitive dissonance in some. But members of the “birther” movement have found a clever solution: Obama isn’t really president! Because he wasn’t really born in the USA!


A part of the answer may lie in what’s called implicit social cognition, which involves the deep-rooted assumptions we all carry around and even act on without realizing it. Harvard University psychologist Mahzarin Banaji is a leader in implicit social cognition research. She excavates the hidden beliefs people hold by measuring how fast they make value judgments when shown a rapid-fire succession of stimuli, such as photographs of faces.


The study found that white Europeans are more “American” than are nonwhite Americans in most minds.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Apocalyptic roots

Via Talk To Action, an essential article examining how Mormonism influences Glenn Beck's apocalyptic extremism. The whole thing is worth reading, but here is a part I found particularly worth noting

In addition, there’s a widely known concept in Mormonism — not contained in the Mormon scriptures, but attributed to Mormonism’s founder, Joseph Smith, and still influential among some believers — that effectively places believers on perpetual Red Alert for the Constitution’s possible demise. According to this tenet, commonly known as the “White Horse Prophecy,” there will come a time when the Constitution is in great jeopardy — when it will “hang by a thread,” in Smith’s purported words — at which point the Mormon people will come to its rescue.

Apparently, Beck believes that this terrifying crisis is now at hand (or just thinks LDS apocalypticism makes great radio). On Election Day in 2008, Beck interviewed Republican Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, who’s also Mormon, on his radio program

BECK Senator, do you believe — I mean, when I heard Barack Obama talk about the Constitution and I thought, we are at the point or we are very near the point where our Constitution is hanging by a thread.
HATCH You got that right . . .
BECK We are so close to losing our Constitution. We are so close to losing what we have, and people aren’t thinking. The next generation, our children will look to us and say, “You sold my freedom for what?”
HATCH Well, let me tell you something. I believe the Constitution is hanging by a thread.

More recently, Beck used his radio show to propound the Mormon conception of Satan — though many in his audience may not have noticed. On May 5, waxing indignant about government-sponsored social services — as opposed to freely chosen acts of charity — Beck asked, “Did Jesus say when a man asks for your shirt, you give the government your coat also, and have the government give that coat to the man? No! The government is a middleman. . . . The government is the Devil.”
This helps provide a framework that makes it easier to understand why Beck considers President Obama to be the false prophet of an anti-God anti-Constitutional war on America.

Thomas Franks on the real predator state

A couple of prominent Republicans have been saying that government should not become involved with health care because it will lead to the predatory practices. Thomas Franks talks to Peter Galbraith to understand what exactly is wrong with that notion.

"The 'predator state' describes what happens when chicken coops are given over to foxes," Mr. Galbraith continued. "When consumer protection, worker protection, environmental protection, and policing against fraud are handed over to lobbyists. And when health care is run for the benefit of private insurance companies, whose business model . . . is to target coverage on the healthy and delay payments to the sick."

That is predation. Public service is its opposite.

Glenn Beck warns audience to be ready to protect Constitution against godless domestic enemy President Obama and his Nazi administration members

I'll give him one thing, I fully credit him with lacking the intelligence necessary to understand why such rhetoric will serve to fuel the paranoid and hysterical emotions of extremists.

Quote of the day

"[A]lthough volume upon volume is written to prove slavery a very good thing, we never hear of the man who wishes to take the good of it, by being a slave himself." - Abraham Lincoln, personal note (1854)

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Michael Lind interviews Adam Smith

Smith's "answers" to Lind's questions are direct quotes from The Wealth of Nations.

The minimum wage in the United States today is far below what it was a few decades ago, thanks to inflation. At the same time, in the last generation wages have stagnated while roughly half of the gains from economic growth have gone to a tiny number of rich Americans. Many conservative economists and business executives argue that companies cannot afford high wages for ordinary workers. Aren't high salaries and bonuses costs as well?

Our merchants and master manufacturers complain much of the bad effects of high wages in raising the price, and thereby lessening the sale of their goods both at home and abroad. They say nothing concerning the bad effects of high profits. They are silent with regard to the pernicious effects of their own gains. They complain only of those of other people.

A Darwin movie that will be shown in the United States

While you may or may not be lucky enough to have the Darwin biopic Creation show in a theatre near you, if you have a tv or access to the internet you'll be able to view PBS NOVA's 2 hour drama Darwin's Darkest Hour, which appears tonight at 8 EST. (With the film being available for on-line viewing probably tomorrow or the next day.)

This two-hour scripted drama tells the remarkable story behind the unveiling of the most influential scientific theory of all time, Charles Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection. The program is a special presentation from NOVA and National Geographic Television, written by acclaimed British screenwriter John Goldsmith and directed by John Bradshaw.

Darwin, portrayed by Henry Ian Cusick (Lost), spent years refining his ideas and penning what he called his "big book." Yet, daunted by looming conflict with the orthodox religious values of his day, he resisted publishing—until a letter from naturalist Alfred Wallace forced his hand. In 1858, Darwin learned that Wallace was ready to publish ideas very similar to his own. In a sickened panic, Darwin grasped his dilemma: To delay publishing any longer would be to condemn his greatest work to obscurity—the brilliant argument he had pieced together with clues from his voyage on the Beagle, his adventures in the Andes, the bizarre fossils of Patagonia, the finches and giant tortoises of the Galapagos, as well as the British countryside. But to come forward with his ideas risked the fury of the Church and perhaps a rift with his own devoted wife, Emma, portrayed by Frances O'Connor (Mansfield Park, The Importance of Being Earnest), who was a devout Christian.

"Darwin's Darkest Hour" is a moving drama about the genesis of a groundbreaking theory seen through the inspiration and personal sufferings of its originator.
And, as usual for NOVA programs, the website features a number of valuable resources relating to the film's subject material.

For example, I recommend Sean Carroll's - author of Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo Devo - essay on Alfred Russell Wallace having independently arrived at the theory of evolution by natural selection, thus providing the impetus for Darwin to finally go public with his decades long research on the subject.

Monday, October 05, 2009

About Beck's anti atheist/secularist bigotry

In my previous post about Glenn Beck having blamed atheists and church/state separation for a gang related murder of a Chicago teen, I was remiss in leaving out a couple of points.

1. Beck's completely inverted claim that the Constitution "recognize[s] God's authority" reflects the influence that Cleon Skousen's quasi-theocratic, Liars for Jesus type revisionist propaganda has had on him.

2. While Beck decries the separation of chuch and state as somehow leading to a decline of religion in America, in reality it is that separation which has allowed religion in America to thrive and proliferate.

3. Beck acts as if supporting the separation of church and state makes one anti-religion or irreligious. The larger point that Beck generally implies is that either you share his right-wing populist, conspiratorial beliefs or you're not really a Christian; what's more, that you're un-American. This is a bigotry that applies not just to atheistic humanists like myself, but to religious believers who do not share Beck's worldview. See my review of Jimmy Carter's Our Endangerd Values for more on this topic.

4. Blaming the removal of compulsory prayer for a brutal murder of a teen is akin to blaming it on the end of school segregation. This is plain and simple bigotry. Likewise, arguing that "under God" should be in the Pledge is hardly better than saying it should read "one nation, white."

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Torturing someone to "prove" that he should be tortured

You read this and tell me that we should "look forward" by ignoring the crimes committed by those who sanctioned and participated in the Bush administration's torture regime.

Although the other techniques are not described, they undoubtedly included some or all of the following -- prolonged isolation, the use of extreme heat and cold, short-shackling in painful stress positions, forced nudity, forced grooming, religious and sexual humiliation, and the use of loud music and noise -- because this whole package of techniques, including sleep deprivation, was approved for use at the highest levels of the Bush administration, as a senate committee explained in the detailed report in April this year that was cited by the judge (PDF). The program was based on reverse engineering techniques taught in U.S. military schools (the SERE program -- Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape) to train recruits to resist interrogation if captured by enemy forces.

These techniques were acknowledged to be illegal and, moreover, were intended to produce false confessions, but this did not prevent senior Bush officials from pushing for their implementation, and, in al-Rabiah's case, they duly led to his conversion from an innocent man who refused to falsely confess to allegations produced by unreliable witnesses into a modern-day version of the victims of the Spanish Inquisition, the seventeenth century "witches" of Salem and elsewhere, the victims of Stalin's show trials, or the captured U.S. pilots on whom the North Koreans had practiced the techniques adopted by the SERE schools: a broken man prepared not only to falsely confess to any lies put before him, but also prepared to learn these confessions and repeat them as his masters saw fit.

Evolution is true

If you're not all that familiar with the theory of evolution and want to better familiarize yourself with the evidence establishing the theory (as well as the fact) then you will want to consult Jerry Coyne's Why Evolution is True.

Extremely lucid and accessible, the book introduces the reader to the basic lines of evidence demonstrating the book's title. Given how controversial evolution remains in the US, despite it being one of the most robust theories in science, this book may be worth your perusal.

For more on the book:
- Coyne at Point of Inquiry
- SciAm's podcast discussion with Coyne

Coyne also has a blog titled Why Evolution is True.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Mistakes were made (but not when my dad had people tortured)

One of the books that I believe every skeptic should consider adding to their bookshelf is Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts by Carol Tavris and Eliot Aronson.

I actually wrote a review of it about a year or so ago, but I left the review unsaved on my computer while I went out for a bit and when I had come back the computer had decided to download some updates and restart, thus eating my review. I never had the heart to rewrite it.

In the book, Tavris and Aronson (both psychologists) examine how the concept of cognitive dissonance can be used to explain the process of self-justification. As Tavris puts it on her website

At some point we all make a bad decision, do something that harms another person, or cling to an outdated belief. When we do, we strive to reduce the cognitive dissonance that results from feeling that we, who are smart, moral, and right, just did something that was dumb, immoral, or wrong.

Whether the consequences are trivial or tragic, it is difficult, and for some people impossible, to say, “I made a terrible mistake.” The higher the stakes—emotional, financial, moral—the greater that difficulty. Self-justification, the hardwired mechanism that blinds us to the possibility that we were wrong, has benefits: It lets us sleep at night and keeps us from torturing ourselves with regrets. But it can also block our ability to see our faults and errors. It legitimizes prejudice and corruption, distorts memory, and generates anger and rifts. It can keep prosecutors from admitting they put an innocent person in prison and from correcting that injustice, and it can keep politicians unable to change disastrous policies that cost billions of dollars and thousands of lives. In our private lives, it can be the death of love.
One of the metaphors that the authors employ in the book is the "pyramid of self-justification." I'll let Tavris explain that, too.

Could you could talk about the pyramid as a metaphor for cognitive dissonance and how you came to it?

I said to Elliot the other day, "Which of us came up with the metaphor of the pyramid?" Because, of course, in my self-justifying way, I thought I had. But he gently corrected my memory and told me that no, on the contrary, the pyramid is a metaphor he's been using for years, to show how self-justification can move people in a direction they might never have imagined going.

It works like this: Consider two students who have the same attitude about cheating. They don't think it's a terrible thing, but they know it's not a good or honorable thing either. Suppose that they now have to take a test—say, one that's going to determine whether they get into graduate school. They freeze on a crucial essay question, and suddenly the student in front of them, the one who has the most beautiful and legible handwriting on the planet, makes some answers visible.

Each of them makes an impulsive decision: One cheats to get a good grade; the other resists cheating to preserve his or her integrity. Now they will justify the choice they made. The student who cheated will minimize the seriousness of cheating and thereby become more vulnerable to cheating again. The one who resisted cheating will become even more adamant that cheating is unethical and wrong. Over time, through the process of self-justification, these two students will move further and further away from each other in their beliefs about cheating. It is as if they had started out at the top of a pyramid, close in their beliefs, but, having taking a step down in different directions, by the time they reach the bottom they are far apart. Moreover, they will come to believe that they always felt that way about cheating. Elliot developed the metaphor of the pyramid from an early experiment that Judson Mills did with children, which got precisely these results. The kids who cheated justified their behavior, and so did the ones who resisted.

That is what self-justification does: It sets us off on a course of action that moves us further and further from the original choice point and then begins to blind us to the possibility that we were wrong. The danger is not so much in the first step we take off the pyramid, but in how far we have come from our original beliefs or intentions by the time we are at the bottom.
Keeping all of the above in mind, via Disptaches from the Culture Wars, Andrew Sullivan has written a very insightful post about why Liz Cheney seems to love torture so much.

The psychological underpinnings of Liz Cheney's absurd proposition that, for example, "waterboarding isn't torture" - a phrase that trips off her tongue as if it were a consensus, rather than an extreme outlier - are pretty obvious. Her father is a war criminal, a man whose incompetence is only matched by his paranoia. Since it is understandably, forgivably hard for her to accept that a person she loves and reveres is actually a torturer, she has to double down on the proposition that it's obvious he isn't a torturer, axiomatic that every torture session gave us actionable intelligence in ways ethical interrogation never could, indisputable that every single threat is a ticking time bomb mandating the use of any means to extract intelligence from any handy victim. Even to have a debate on this is mind-blowing for someone who still thinks of herself as someone who supports human rights, and of her father as a moral man.

There is, moreover, virtue in all this. It is something to be proud of. Because it is only by embracing positive pride in torture that she can keep the nightmare of reality at bay.
Sullivan's post is itself a response to this post noting that torture has become a values issue, a matter of civic pride, not just for the Cheney family but for the Republican party, too.

How the party in general traveled down the pyramid, I suspect, has something to do with the psychology/sociology of authoritarianism.

For more about Mistakes Were Made:
- Eliot Aronson speaks with Talk of the Nation (link features an excerpt of the book.)
- Carol Tavris on Point of Inquiry
- Roger Miller's review for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The ultimate geeky comic book

I never thought Bertrand Russell's doomed efforts to come up with a rigorous mathematical logic would get turned into a comic book. (h/t Rationally Speaking)

Friday, October 02, 2009

Romantic science

Listening to NPR's Talk of the Nation the other day on my I-pod, I was introduced to The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science by Richard Holmes.


There was a time almost 200 years ago when you didn't have to go to school to be a scientist or an astronomer. You could just peer up into the sky and ask questions and you'll be an astronomer. Of course, there were a few telescopes then, but that didn't stop you, you could design and build your own. Or if astronomy was not your thing, you could start experimenting with nitrous oxide to be a chemist using yourself and your close friend as the test subjects. As I said, formal schooling wasn't as important, but you had to be adventurous, creative and determined and, above all, inquisitive and filled with wonder.

This was the world of science during the romantic era of the late 18th to early 19th centuries. It was time before the word scientist was used. Instead, they were called natural philosophers. And there was no divide between the arts and the sciences, and both were united in their sense of wonder, the wonder of the world around them. The science inspired the arts, and the arts inspired the science. They belong to a single culture.

And for the rest of the hour, we're going to be talking about a new book called "The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science." It's not your typical science history novel. There's almost as much wonder and poetry as there is science in the book. It's quite an interesting read.
The whole discussion is interesting, but I found this tidbit particularly worth noting.

FLATOW: And they were not called scientists in those days.

Prof. HOLMES: No, that's a - it's a very interesting - the term natural philosopher really had been used since the formation of the Royal Society itself around the 1660s. And what happens during the period that I'm studying is that gradually a scientist becomes more professional. And there's a very interesting meeting of an internally new body towards the end of the book, this is in 1833, called the British Association for the Advancement of Science. There's of course, an America one now. And they had a great debate about what they should call themselves because natural philosopher no longer covered it. And somebody produced the word scientist of which that was an appalled silence because people said it sounds like atheist. And that's a debate we're still having today.
I was aware that science was originally considered natural philosophy and its practioners natural philosophers, but I had never heard that scientist was ever considered to sound too much like atheist.

See the New York Times review for more on the book.

Good news (sort of)

Creation, the British biography about Charles Darwin which was having difficulty finding a US distributor, now has a US distributor.

Now comes word from The Hollywood Reporter that the independent distributor Newmarket has now picked up the film, which was produced by BBC Films and Ocean Pictures.
Ironically enough, this is the same distibutor that put out Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ.

I still suspect that the film will likely not be shown in particular regions of the country (i.e. the Bible Belt) and that the ability to find a distibutor for critically aclaimed film about the co-discoverer of evolution by natural selection was ever in doubt in the first place is still not a good sign.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Quote of the day

"Anyone who thinks we are headed for a Marxist state either A) hasn't ever lived in one, B) hasn't bothered with the hard work of separating hyperbole from fact, or C) both. Far too many people making limited-government criticisms of Obama cry wolf about Soviet communism without having a clue of what they're talking about. It's not a recipe for persuasion, IMO." - Matt Welch (h/t Poliblog)

Welch is the editor-in-chief of the libertarian Reason magazine.