Tuesday, July 12, 2005

UTI Is Back Online!

Hi Folks,

Come over and check out the new UTI! Sign up as a user and get your very own personal blog to post in (a la Kos or MyDD). For these first few days, only two votes are needed to get your personal blog post promoted automatically to the front page!

Thanks for hanging in there with us!

Sunday, July 10, 2005

17th Carnival Of The Godless


Go and check out the 17th COTG over at Tobias Buckell Online. It's full of deity-free rants, thoughtful commentary, and just plain old common sense and wonder.

The 18th Carnival Of The Godless will be held on July 24, 2005 at St. Nate's Blog. Send your submissions directly to Nate, or to me at brent.rasmussen@gmail.com. If you'd like to host a future COTG, please send me an email and I'll get you on the schedule.

Don't forget - the main Schedule and Guidelines page for the COTG has been moved permanently to the following address:


Bible Camp

(The following is by DS. -Brent)
Oh, tis a black and stormy night here at DarkSyde Manor! A Tropical Gothic Eve courtesy of Atlantic Winds and Coriolis forces befitting the virtual name I give my home. And while I'm tired and my eyes grow heavy, there will be little sleep for me tonight. Forgive me then, and hopefully no one will mind if I do a little reminiscing off topic, inspired by Brent's 'Lock-in" narrative. As I'm stuck inside here in Florida and can think of nothing significant to write; while listening anxiously to the outer winds and rains of far off Dennis howl and blast against the storm shutters protecting the windows.

Let's see ... Ahh the summer of '77. What a glorious time it was for my friends and I! We still roamed the suburban streets on bikes, cars were a year or two in our future. Most of us had been laid and all of us had gotten pretty close but it had only happened once or twice. Innocent still, yet knowledgeable in a way; just on the verge of that first delicious taste of independence without responsibility. How could I have ever known at the start of the summer break that both my savior and pimp would be, Bible Camp?

Around July of 1977 several friends and I had a little 24 hour party in the home of someone one of us was supposed to be taking care of and had the keys to. We were pretty rotten that night, we drank every drop of liquor in the house and pilfered every snack we could find. It was atrocious teenage behavior, out of control really and stupid. So even then and certainly now as an adult, I'm not the least bit surprised the owners called the parents of the guy who was supposed to just be feeding their dog and cat, when they returned and detected our Gala in their home despite marginal attempts to conceal the worst of it.

The drunken Key Holder on the night in question assured those of us who were smart enough to point out that we might be caught that he and he alone would take the fall if anything came down the pike; reportedly within 24 hours they had a list of everyone who'd been there. I heard the police showed up at his house and he sang like a canary and basically blamed everyone but himself.

Ahhh ... But I'd had an epiphany the day after the party, a sort of hedge just in case we ended up getting busted; as I was sure we would considering the massive evidence of abuse we left behind. So right after the incident, before the homeowners returned, I decided it would be a good idea to change my mind ... and go to a Baptist Summer Camp for two weeks like my fundie sister had been bugging me to do, with parental approval, for several days.

It wasn't as easy as it sounds. I had to pretend I really wanted to go because it was kind of late to be signing up and I'd been emphatic about not wanting to go before. I literally had to look my older sister in the eye and tell her I had read some of the New Testament and I wanted to learn more about Jesus ... she beamed in pleasure I remember at that claim; all sibling skepticism was switched off and she went into full witness mode. Yes, I know; I'm evil and I must be stopped! I was not even fifteen years old OK?

And by the time that dreaded phone call came from the homeowners and the police, I was fifty miles away ... at a Lakeside Bible Camp; and my mother told the accusers that in no uncertain terms. Who wanted to waste time accusing a kid at Bible Camp of being a little hoodlum when there were twenty others to crucify?

Meanwhile I was ducking culpability near scenic Perdanales Falls, in the hill country of Central Texas, with several hundred young people. Naturally within a few nights I gravitated to the 'cool rebels' barracks where the hip kids hung out and listened to local bands, The Big Boys, The Skunks, and early New Wave, The Talking Heads and the Sex Pistols. Because of the cassettes I'd brought along to keep me from going fucking insane with no decent music and to help drown out the incessant preaching I knew I would be forced to endure, not to mention I was one of only a handful of people to come 'prepared' if you know what I mean, I was quickly initiated and accepted. And there that first night playing my turn at Lookout for Adult Fundies Who Want To Ruin Our Cool Barracks Parties I met Rene, sweet and petite, young and pretty, a year older than I, and the horniest girl I had ever met at that point in my young life.

Rene was from a well to do Catholic family and she took some flak for not being a Baptist among her peers, but she was accepted by them nevertheless. She was just so fucking cool everyone liked her. Rene was also smart as hell, liked the Austin music scene in the late 70s, buff and lithe, and far more experienced than I in the carnal arts. In fact, she was an aggressive hypersexed adolescent machine who literally scared me by going straight from first base to third without passing second in about two minutes flat and then made a break to steal home plate. But I'd like to cling to the idea that she didn't know how nervous I was, at first.

Needless to say it was not a bad two weeks for me. By the time I got home the party at the house incident had faded away into obscurity and I was in the clear with a hard body new friend who like science and the outdoors. I have to say it was one of the best thought out plans of my life and really couldn't have worked out better. At that time and to this day I'm proud of my ingenuity if a bit embarrassed at my immature, thoughtless actions in another's persons home. Life went on, my sister never did understand why I didn't keep on going to services, and I couldn't tell her that sweet, sweet Rene was Catholic so there wasn't any point for me in going to a boring Baptist Church. I didn't have a license yet and Rene lived miles away so she and I lost touch.

A few years later I ran into her at a club on Sixth Street and we dated on and off for years as we each moved and returned from different colleges, as she got married, had a kid, and got divorced, as I went from a professional climbing instructor and semi-stunt man to a respectable white collar professional.

Rene was like the perfect friend and one of the best friends I've ever had. She thought and acted a lot like a guy, she was a gifted athlete and tough as nails, the other guys always thought she was cool, she was strikingly beautiful, she happened to not be a guy and we were both attracted enough to each other that we had fun; but neither of us ever fell totally for the other so we never got hurt. It was just a real good gig imo.

And to this day she and I are still friends and if I were to become single I could call her up anytime and head over for wild drunken barnyard animal sex, or we could get all dressed up and hit the town, or both.

So I really can't think of any moral for this story ... I was one of many punks who invaded someone's house without their permission and helped drink up their liquor and eat their food and leave trash all over the inside and yard; I lied and said I was interested in learning more about Jesus and my parents paid a couple of hundred bucks so I could go off to Bible Camp and avoid the consequences; I hung out and got stoned most of the time and listened to punk rock; I met a pretty girl and got laid any chance we could find a way or sneak off; I got back and nothing went wrong, she didn't turn up pregnant and I didn't come down with the clap or anything; We stayed in touch and are de facto fuck buddies to this day whenever we're both single and lonely ... There is no moral or point to this story. No political axe to grind, no agenda, nothing but escape from the feeder bands of Dennis. And it ends now.

Or maybe there is a moral after all, an axe to grind, a fly in the ointment...

As Kingubu adds in comments:
Maybe there actually is a timely moral to your little tale: a fast-break toward the institutions of religious conformity (however insincerely) is a very popular and effective way to duck accountability for bad behavior. See also: just about anyone in the GOP holding an office above dog catcher.
What else can I say? Bible Camp was a Great Dodge!

Saturday, July 09, 2005

UTI Now Pointed To UTI Annex

Some of you may have ended up here as a result of going to my main URL www.brentrasmussen.com. I have temporarily pointed it to the UTI Annex until I can secure new hosting for UTI. I know it still says "www.brentrasmussen.com" in the address bar, but that's because I've got the URL masking turned on in the domain forwarding tool. Trust the links on this page, not the address in your address bar.

Also, please take notice that the Guidelines and Schedule for the Carnival Of The Godless have been moved to their permanent home here:


Thanks for visiting UTI!

Friday, July 08, 2005

Atheists, Unbelievers, "Not Human"

Nothing demonstrates the incredible hubris, evil, and bigotry of religion than a sincere apologist. Take for example Archbishop John Vlazny of Portland, Oregon.
[link] Last but not least, people of faith must demonstrate to unbelievers and those who are indifferent to God that the only way a person can be truly human is to be religious, to be in relationship with the divine. To be truly and fully human, one must eventually encounter Jesus Christ, the Divine Word, whose good news is meant to be shared with women and men of all cultures.

Labelling those who are "not us" as "inhuman" or not "truly human" is a step towards mass executions and genocide. That's a harsh observation, but truth hurts. First you de-humanize your enemy, then you eradicate them with the full support of your fellow believers. This pattern has been repeated over and over again throughout human history.

In this case it happens to wear the kindly face of a Catholic archbishop, but it's no less a slippery slope because of it.

Never Retreat, Never Surrender

The Rev. Jeff Lambert of La Union, N.M. turned an old house adjacent to his church into the "La Casa de La Paz St. Luke’s Retreat Center". Now he rents it out to other churches to do "retreats". A retreat at La Casa is an activity in which religious folks check into the 4 bedroom, 2 bath remodeled home and spend a day sharing their faith with other religious folks from their church. Sometimes they stay overnight.

"Retreats" are a pretty common way for Christian folks to justify taking a little overnight or weekend vacation with their friends, away from their kids. My parents used to go on "retreats" with the other adults in the church, leaving us teenagers with the daunting logistical task of throwing a huge party on Friday night, then getting the whole house spic-and-span before they returned Saturday afternoon or Sunday morning. Mom and Dad seemed to enjoy the retreats, but they also enjoyed regular vacations. I could never really tell the difference, to be honest with you.

So, pardon my skepticism when it comes to Reverend Lambert hawking a remodeled four-bedroom house for "retreats". The truth is that he has set himself up with a Christian-themed Bed & Breakfast with a built-in customer base. Smart and profitable, yes. Spiritual, no. It's a quick, affordable vacation from the kids that can be easily rationalized and is actually looked at as a good thing by your peers in the Church. That's marketing gold, baby!

Retreats were often pushed on us teenagers as well. The teenager "retreat" is typically called a "lock-in". This is where you lock a bunch of hormonally-charged 13 to 17 year-olds into a gymnasium. All night. With each other. With chaperons who haven't stayed up all night since they were hormonally-charged adolescents locked into a gymnasium thirty years previously. It's a disaster just begging to happen. It's such a joke. I got laid for the second time in my life on the floor of a gymnasium at a Christian teenager lock-in - at a church. Hell, half the kids there were groping each other. Our "chaperons" were busy drooling on themselves and snoring after sternly admonishing everyone that there was an invisible line that God would watch over, splitting the girls from the boys. They would waggle a finger at the halfway-point in the gym and try to look serious and intimidating. Woe be unto any bad, evil, Satan-possessed kid who crossed that line. And we really, really mean it! *snore*

Let the party begin!

Hector Clemente, another New Mexico retreat organizer (this is obviously a very lucrative business), puts his retreats together for teens as the director of "Life Teen" at St. Pius X Catholic Community.

[link] "I do a lot of praying that the message we receive will take on a special meaning. When I'm putting on a retreat, I pray God gives us strength to give them what they need spiritually through God. Prayer is important in both aspects; you just pray for different things."

Yup. I'll bet most of the teens pray to get a little hot action during the retreat - and that that creepy Hector guy will quit wandering around during the lock-in shining his flashlight on all the girls' nightgowns.

[link] Clemente said retreats have a powerful impact on youths.

"We had a two-and-a-half-day retreat and this one young man proclaimed he was an atheist," Clemente said. "Later in the retreat, he was praying and God was in his life. It was just amazing."

Uh-huh. A teenage atheist is going to go to a Catholic youth retreat - and "proclaim" that he is an atheist. Sounds a heck of a lot like your typical teenage rebellion against overly-religious parents to me. I wonder if Hector could produce this kid's name, or somehow confirm that this kid was indeed an atheist. I doubt it. Again, this is a marketing strategy designed to sucker parents with rebellious teens into paying Hector and the St. Pius X Catholic Community a bunch of dough so that they won't have to actually parent their own kids. Let God do it for them. Plus, they get the added bonus of two glorious days away from the kids. Time enough to take in a movie, just Mom & Dad, or go fishing. Maybe they could, I don't know, go on a retreat of their own?

I gotta tell you, from experience, that God's a lousy parent. However, he does appear to be a marketing genius.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Carnival Of The Godless Guidelines & Schedule

Hi Folks,

The new address for the COTG guidelines and schedule can be found here:


Thanks for your patience. Be sure and get your submissions in for the 17th COTG being held at Tobias Buckell Online on July 10, 2005. Send your submissions to me at brent.rasmussen@gmail.com, or you can visit Tobias and send them directly to him.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

The Skeptic's Circle Saloon (SC #12)

Skeptic's Circle Saloon
DS rode in from the east, and I rode in from the west. It was hot. The sun had shown mercilessly down for days as we converged on the saloon.

"'Lo Raz," said DS with a tip of his ten-gallon hat.

I raised my hand and he shook it, dust springing from our grip. "Howdy DS. How was the ride?"

"Long. Hot. 'Bout what you'd expect, I reckon." His grin was infectious. I returned it.

"Being from Arizona, I actually had a nice cool ride." I swung my reins in a fast arc and they spun tight around the rail.

"Bullshit," he said, tying his dun next to my appaloosa mare, their matching UTI brands obvious, "you look like someone's been beating you with an ugly stick."

We stepped onto the front walk and looked up at the sign. "Skeptic's Circle Saloon" was painted in fancy red letters with filigree. I looked sideways at at DS and adjusted my gun belt to be a little more comfortable on my hips. "That damn thing gets fancier every couple of weeks, seems like." I said, squinting back into the sun. "Seen the others yet?"

"Not yet. I reckon we'll just have to go inside and see if they're here yet."

"I reckon we will".

I walked the five steps to the saloon's entrance and pushed open the bat-wing doors. DS and I stepped inside and let our eyes adjust a mite.

The Skeptic's Circle Saloon was unlike any bar I'd ever been in. For one thing it was cool. Some gadget that old Nate - St. Nate to his friends - had cooked up to circulate air across one of them big blocks of ice and pump it through the room. St. Nate had a deal worked out with the iceman in town. Free rye as long as he kept the cooler box filled with ice. There were tables, but they were low and the chairs were low-slung and padded. Comfortable-like.

I walked to the bar and St. Nate moseyed over cleaning a beer glass with a towel that had seen hard times. "Howdy Raz". He said, shifting his unlit cigar from one side of his mug to the other. "Long time no see."

"Howdy Nate," I said, "where's the Circle meetin' this week?"

"Back room," Nate gestured with his thumb, nearly dropping the beer glass, "you want a drink?"

"Gimme a shot of rye and a beer. Thanks."

I wandered into the back room where we usually played poker and found the Circle already in session. Folks were jawing at each other something fierce - which is always how the Circle began, so I didn't pay it no mind. It never came to fists or gun play. Almost never, anyways.

I heard DS walk in and say hello to a couple of Circle members, gregarious and friendly as always. It'll get him into trouble one day, but maybe not. He's tough enough to handle it in any case.

I found an empty seat and sat down next to a big feller in an eastern suit and a beard. Doc Myers was a professor from up Minnesota way. Real smart. Smarter than an old cowpoke like me. But I liked him. He always made me think. "How are you, my boy?" he shouted in my ear. I think Doc's a little deaf.

"Doin' fine Doc, you old heathen! What's up?"

The room seemed to hush as every body in the joint leaned in to hear what Doc Myers had to say.

The Circle had started.

"You know that fine looking dance hall girl from a couple of years back, um, Madonna was her name?"

"The "Like a Virgin" gal?" I said, scratching under my hat brim.

His eyes twinkled, "Well, it is said that she'll only drink something called Kabbalah Water, which she claims has magic healing powers. It's a simple, familiar scam. Start with something common and cheap, like water, and claim to have added all kinds of mystical properties to it, for which they will charge you extra. It costs the con artist nothing. This is classic mumbo-jumbo. Pseudoscientific hokum."

"How'd someone so purty get to be so stupid?" Asked DS from across the table where he'd light an' set.

A starry-eyed young man with spectacles from out on the Californy-coast - Phil Plait was his handle - sat forward and and began to speak. "Oh, heck, fellas, just about anyone will fall for strange stories like that." He removed his specs and began to clean them slowly while looking up slightly through the upper window at the moon just beginning to rise in the dusky sky. "Doesn't matter how pretty they are. Why, a while back their was this gent by the name of Bill Kaysing who would tell folks that the Apollo moon landings were a hoax! And they'd believe him! He's dead now, but I must admit that his death leaves me with mixed feelings. I'm sad that he up and died, but I must be honest and say he was a monumental antiscientist, responsible in many ways for one of the most colossal wastes of time and effort in my memory." Phil sat back with a troubled look on his face.

Looking around the informal gathering of chairs and tables, I spotted Alun, that archeology student from across the pond. Seein' as how I seemed to have taken over this meetin' of the Circle, I nodded to him. "How're things going out your way, Alun? What stories kin you tell us, partner?" Alun was always good for a story or two.

Alun smiled a bit. "Well, when I was five, me and my Da' went to West Kennet and - unintentionally, mind you - had some poor tourists thinking that the barrow there was haunted." He shook his head mischieviously and looked around the Circle. "Seems like supernatural-minded folks will see mystical experiences in anything - even in a five-year-old stomping his feet on top of a long barrow!"

The laughter around the room was refreshing. I grinned and pointed to Mark, my favorite semi-Canadian. He was wearing that funny hat without the brim - A torque? A took? - and sitting on the couch (which he insisted on calling a "Chesterfield" for some odd reason,) next to the unlit fireplace. There was a Canadian flag beautifully sewed onto the backpack at his feet. "Mark!" I said, "I know you've got something on your chest. Speak up!"

"There was this one letter-to-the-editor from a woman claiming that Evolution requires more faith than believing in a supernatural Creator! Can you believe that?" He stopped and sat forward a bit on the chesterfield. "Accepting solid evidence requires no faith. Invoking the supernatural because you’re not happy with the explanation provided by science is what requires faith. If evolution is a religion, then so is aerodynamics, astronomy, botany, and any other scientific endeavor you care to mention."

"Hear hear!" shouted Lord Runolfr Orthlokarr Ulfsson, slamming his wooden mug of wine down on the oak surface of his table and clapping fiercely. "Good point!" He scooped up his wine again, nearly tangling up his foil in his doublet and hose. His plumed cap sat rakishly on his head as he swallowed a huge draught of the ruby liquid, then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "As good as this wine is, there's a company who will swindle you with a useless magnetic clip that they claim will make the wine taste better!" He nodded to the astonished eyes of the Circle. "'Struth! They have lots of testimonials and lots of pseudoscientific jargon, but no real evidence that the Wine Clip has any effect on wine at all. Poppycock!" Satisfied, he sank back into his seat.

Chris Hallquist, a young gun from soon-to-be-Madison, Wisconsin, piped up. "Even smart folks get suckered by things like that." He adjusted his hat back further on his head and fiddled with the tie-down on his six-shooter a bit before continuing."I'm not a smart enough cowpoke to understand how a computer works, but I don't go thinkin' it's got evil spirits in it when it goes on the fritz." Heads nodded in agreement around the Circle. "Pseudoscience is rarely about stupidity or generalized ignorance. Irrationality plays a role, but it's not the main ingredient. The key issue is ignorance of knowledge needed to evaluate a claim." He ducked his head and swallowed a bit. "Leastways, that's what I think."

This was shapin' up to be a rip-roarin' Circle. St. Nate opened the roll away window in the poker room and Circle members crowded close while he refilled their glasses and passed out bottles.

Richard Rockley from San Francisco, also known by his stage name, The Amazing Skeptico, raised his voice above the clinking glasses and guzzling throats. "You know. I've always said that sports people seem to think that God stops whatever he’s doing to help their team win a game, but now they are buying necklaces, at $23 a pop, that are made of nylon, and coated in a titanium solution that the manufacturer claims helps improve circulation and reduce muscle stress." He stopped to sip from his beer bottle. "The manufacturer claims it improves the alignment of ions – of course, if ions are involved it must be real. Hey, I do believe this product would qualify for Randi’s Million!"

The entire room got quiet and folks raised their glasses in a solemn toast to The Amazing Randi.

"Alright!" I shouted in the sudden lull. "Who's got another story?"

Out of the shadows stepped a man in surgeon's scrubs, complete with mask, hat, and booties. The folks in the room gasped. I had to calm them a bit. "It's okay, pards. This is Doctor Orac, a.k.a. The Man From The Eastern Standard Time Zone. He's okay." I turned back to the doctor. "What's on your mind, Doc? Whadd'ya know"

"Orac knows..." He said, looking dramatically over his mask and piercing the crowd with his sharp surgeon's eyeballs, "that RFK Jr.'s one-sided deceptive screed against the pharmaceutical companies blaming mercury in vaccines for autism, and Dr. Jay Gordon falling all over himself to swallow this nonsense, shows that it is quite possible to do a ton of research and come up with an utterly incorrect conclusion if you berry-pick the data and ignore data that does not support your thesis." His breath rasped against the thin paper. "Also, trust your doctor when they tell you something, kids, not your astrologist or holistic crystal-gazing therapeutic touch psychic friend. Your doctor is trying to help you get better, and those other folks are just after your money. Look over there!" He shouted, and blended into the shadows once more, and seemed to disappear.

"Didn't you help him out with that autism thing?" I whispered to The Amazing Skeptico, who had stayed close.

"Yeah, yeah I did. Together with Majikthise, we made a hell of a tag team."

Lex Alexander, a tall, bearded cowboy wearing a string tie and crossed pistols, watched the corner where you could barely see Orac lurking all-knowingly, nursing and drink of some sort. "Well, my story's not nearly so in-depth, but it goes to show that conspiracy theorists can be found anywhere." He sat down at an empty chair where the Circle was beginning to form up in a loose fashion again. "Morgan Reynolds, an ex-labor economist for the administration, proves once again that expertise in one field does not mean that you are an expert in other fields. His claim that the 9-11 WTC disaster was an intentional thing done by our own government is just not supported by the engineering and the physics involved." He smiled ruefully. "And all I had to do was talk to a real engineer - my brother - to figure that out."

Suddenly, the doors to the poker room slammed open and in stalked S. Watcher, hand on his pistol butt, hat pulled low. "Star!" He shouted, "Rock Star, I'm a-callin' you out!"

Ryan Michael Whitmore, aka Rock Star, turned slowly and placed his hand lightly, above his pistol. "Randi can fight his own battles, Watcher. We don't want no trouble from your kind here." The crowd tensed in anticipation of the philosophical violence sure to follow. "Why don't you just take your hand off that weapon of yours and we'll discuss this over a drink?"

Sweat beaded on Watcher's upper lip, and his eyes looked wild. "The time for commenting is over, Star!" Watcher's hand slapped leather and instantly Rock palmed his pistol and fired from the hip. The materialistic bullet smashed into Watcher's arguments, and he fell heavily to his knees, clutching for his unspecified non-religious, non-supernatural assumptions as they spilled invisibly to the dusty floor. His pistol fell from his lifeless grip and disintegrated into nothingness.

"Why, his pistol was also based on non-materialistic assumptions!" shouted DS, pointing at the spot where it had just lain.

"So was he, apparently," said Rock Star and gestured at the slowly fading form of S. Watcher. "He collapsed, just like the Apostle rock formation in Australia after being quickly eroded away."

Anthony Cox, stumbled away from the fading body and sat down in a seat heavily. "Wow!" He exclaimed. "That was even more entertaining than watching Tom Cruise say that psychiatry is a pseudoscience!"

"Tom Cruise reminds me of the Anti Thimerosal Brigade." Whispered Kevin Leitch quietly, thinking about the damage done by the anti-vaccine quacks to autistic children.

Dr. Terry Polevoy clapped Kevin on the shoulder. "There are quacks all over, my friend. Especially in the medical field, and they claim many innocent victims. The answer is to keep pointing them out and exposing them for the frauds they are. Keep fighting the good fight!"

The conversations continued long into the night. At one point, Austin Cline showed up and tried to tell us all about how to tell the truth from bullshit, but he was instantly barraged with with peanuts, so he sat down and started arguing with St. Nate about how many mythical angels could dance on his head.

Jayson Harshbarger showed up real late and told some lies about his mother - or told about the lies his mother told him, or something. I guess we were all pretty lit by then.

All in all, I'd say it was a great Circle. I helped DS saddle up his dun, then slapped her on the rump and sent her east. She'd take him home just like she always had.

Me? I led that old appy mare out to the desert and looked up at the sparkling swath of stars lighting up the midnight sky.

The universe is strange, mysterious, wonderful, and mundane - all at once. There's no reason to invent cock-and-bull stories about it when the real ones are so amazing. All we have to do is discover those truths - and that's half the fun right there.

I hope to see all you skeptical cowboys and cowgirls at the next Circle in two weeks at old Doctor Orac's Place. He'll be throwin' quite a spread, from what I hear. Be sure to visit and let him know you're comin'. (He loves to know things, you know.) Heh.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Inductive Philosophy And The Strawman Shuffle

Blog Philosopher Keith Devens opines about the inductive principle and how it illustrates the "futility of the atheistic worldview".


[link] One of the nicest illustrations of the futility of atheistic philosophy is the fact that the inductive principle -- essentially, the principle that past experience is a good predictor of future events, or in short, that "the future will be like the past" -- is simply without justification on an atheistic worldview.

Now, inductive reasoning can indeed be a valuable tool in the scientific method's toolbelt that can be used to ferret out truths, or pointing the way towards possible truths, and it does indeed have it's limitations, but where Kevin missteps is where he makes the assumption that atheism is science, and visa versa.

This is, "of course" (to quote Kevin), bullshit.

[link] An atheist believes in much more than "there are no gods". Of course he also claims to have other knowledge, the ability to do science, and so on.

Atheism is the absence of god-belief in a human being. Period. The end. It does not imply anything else. It is a descriptive label, just like "theist" indicates the presence of god-belief in a human being.

To attribute these mythical "beliefs" or "other knowledge" to either of these descriptive labels is not only fallacious, but disengenious as well.

Atheism and science are not synonyms, just as theism and "drooling idiocy" are not synonyms.

Some individual atheists may lay claim to this "other knowledge", and to the ability to "do science", but it is not a requirement of atheism. Some theists may think that a trillion-year-old alien being named Xenu captured the universal bad guys and allowed our thetans to inhabit our lesser organisms, but this belief is not a requirement of theism.

Why is this so hard for people to understand? So, Kevin's blithe and completely inaccurate characterization of atheists as holding some monolithic set of beliefs and claiming "other knowledge", and of atheism as a worldview (it's not), is the only thing supporting his assertion that the "atheistic philosophy" is futile. (This is another bold-faced boner - because there is no "atheist philosophy" subscribed to by all atheists. Atheism may be a component of an individual's philosophy, but atheism itself is not a "philosophy".)

Straw man much?

Monday, July 04, 2005

Living In Scalia's America

You know that Christian theocracy thing that all the Christians say is just a fairy tale? You know, that one thing that they roll their eyes about when us atheists get worried that America is headed in that direction? Guess what? With O'Connor stepping down from the Supremes, it's right around the corner. From Justice Scalia's dissent in the Kentucky Ten Commandments case, Mccreary County, Kentucky, et al., Petitioners V. American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky et al:

[link] With respect to public acknowledgment of religious belief, it is entirely clear from our Nation'’s historical practices that the Establishment Clause permits this disregard of polytheists and believers in unconcerned deities, just as it permits the disregard of devout atheists.

Golly - I sure like being told by a fucking Supreme Court Justice that I can be legally "disregarded".

Where the fuck did my America go?

Sunday, July 03, 2005

UTI Still Still Down Down

Damn. This sucks. I know my host is working hard to recover from this disaster, but as of right now I have had every one of my domains down for three days. That's 14 domains offline for three internet days. I think that's like a zillion years, or something, in real-time. I may have to start looking at someone else to host with - but these guys have been so great up until now that I am reluctant to make a rash decision. I'll just let them work on it for the rest of the weekend. I'm sure they will get everything back online soon.

In the meanwhile, please enjoy some acoustic guitar pics.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

UTI Still Down

I have been in contact with my domain host and they have had a linux server crash on them. They are slowly re-building the server OS from the kernel up, and have transfered all of my domain data out to a storage server for now. UTI should be back up and running today sometime.

And now, to check out this new Blogger picture posting thingamabob. This is a pic of my daughter and I singing something at the club. I'm not sure what it was, but I think it was Wonderwall by Oasis.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor Retires

My fellow Arizonan, Sandra Day O'Connor, has resigned from SCOTUS. This is an unhappy development for our country because the two possible replacements for her are both hardcore conservatives. O'Connor has been the moderate, traditional voice of reason, and a swing vote on many decisions for the past 24 years.

That the Bush administration will try to replace her with a conservative is scary and stupid, all at once, because it will upset the balance of power in the Supreme Court and allow further right-wing rulings and will head us even more firmly into the breakdown of the separation of church and state.

[link] She arrived on an ideologically divided high court during a period of unprecedented challenge to established law on issues such as abortion, affirmative action, church-state relations and criminal justice.

She put her stamp on each of these fields, not by adopting an agenda, but by avoiding one. With colleagues often locked into predictable conservative or liberal position, this made her a consistent "swing" vote, a strategic role she deployed to moderate the extremes, in case after controversial case.

In effect, she stood politely but firmly in the way of the conservative strategy for the court that was so dear to the followers of the President who appointed her in 1981, Ronald Reagan.

We're going to miss your level-headed rulings, Justice O'Connor.

UTI Down

Hi Folks,

For some reason UTI is down right now. I am trying to get it back up, but it may take a few hours. Thank you for your patience.

Biology Is Not Ideology

(Editor's Note: The following is an excellent article sent to us by guest poster Alon Levy. We are proud to post it here at the UTI Annex.)

About two weeks ago I read Richard C. Lewontin's book, Biology as Ideology: the Doctrine of DNA. Even before I read it, I expected to find it full of cheap shots at science, considering that I had read a quote from Lewontin's Not in Our Genes, "Science is the ultimate legitimator of bourgeois ideology." Reading this book vindicated my expectations, for while in Biology as Ideology Lewontin does not talk about bourgeois ideology, he does say similar utterly false things about legitimization.

Before I continue, let me say that in this article I will mostly refrain from attacking Lewontin's biology. I don't have the expertise needed to, for instance, evaluate whether Lewontin's critique of DNA tests in forensics has any merit. Rather, I will concentrate on attacking the political and philosophical ideas in the book, to which it devotes far more space than to biology. In particular, I will explain exactly how the book's claims about legitimization of social structures and political ideas have nothing to do with reality.

The book begins with a fairly long-winded and completely wrong account of how science legitimizes social institutions. Here the book violates a central tenet developed by Alan Sokal in "What the Social Text Affair Does and Does Not Prove" to distinguish legitimate social study of science from insane deconstruction:

There is nothing wrong with research informed by a political commitment, as long as that commitment does not blind the researcher to inconvenient facts. Thus, there is a long and honorable tradition of socio-political critique of science, including antiracist critiques of anthropological pseudo-science and eugenics and feminist critiques of psychology and parts of medicine and biology. These critiques typically follow a standard pattern: First one shows, using conventional scientific arguments, why the research in question is flawed according to the ordinary canons of good science; then, and only then, one attempts to explain how the researchers' social prejudices (which may well have been unconscious) led them to violate these canons.

By page 10 of the Harper Collins edition of Biology of Ideology, Lewontin has already violated that. In particular, he claims that Darwin's theory of natural selection was born of early capitalism: "What Darwin did was take early-nineteenth-century political economy and expand it to include all of natural economy." This would be a good place for Lewontin to provide a reference to show that this has any basis in reality, but he doesn't. Indeed, later on in "What the Social Text Affair Does and Does Not Prove," Sokal says, "Why did the majority view in the European and North American scientific communities shift from creationism to Darwinism over the course of the [presumably 19th] century? Again, numerous historical, sociological, ideological and political factors will play a role in this explanation; but can one plausibly explain this shift without any reference to the fossil record or to the Galápagos fauna?" And yet that is exactly what Lewontin does: he never says anything about the fact that Darwinism was true as far as Darwin's contemporaries could know.

Indeed, Lewontin's claim about Darwin is the first of many in which he reveals himself to be completely ignorant of intellectual and political history. Throughout the 19th century, the dominant intellectual view was that history was the story of human progress. Lamarckism accorded with that almost cornucopian view of human improvement, but Darwinism didn't. Widespread social support for the predatory capitalism that people usually associate with Darwinian evolution only came later. But Darwin discovered descent with modification in the 1830s, whereas Spencer (who, despite common belief, did not support predatory social Darwinism) published his major works in the 1850s.

Lewontin makes his next major subordination of science to ideology not three pages later, when he describes scientific reductionism and notes, "So, the ideology of modern science, including modern biology, makes the atom or the individual the causal source of all the properties of larger collections." This claim is wrong on two levels. First, scientific reductionism has little to do with ideology and much to do with simplifying the world as far as reality lets us. While liberal individualism and modern science emerged together out of the Enlightenment, they were always distinct, with liberal individualism rising out of John Locke's philosophy and modern science rising out of Newtonian mechanics. Second, the fact that biology even exists is testament to the fact that science is not completely reductionistic. After all, everything is reducible to interactions between roughly 57 fundamental particles; but no one except physicists is interested in reducing everything to interactions between fundamental particles, because the interactions between these particles soon become so complex that to understand anything scientists must look at higher-level phenomena. The greedy reductionist view that Lewontin attacks is two hundred years dead, and when it was alive it only concerned itself with mechanics.

The book's second chapter is even worse than the first. It dwells on how science legitimizes the current political structure by producing an "ideology of biological determinism" (Lewontin's words, not mine). However, the actual evidence Lewontin offers ranges from spotty to spurious to idiotic. He claims that there is a fairly old idea that blood will tell, which biologists inherited from popular beliefs. His primary piece of evidence for that is the plot of Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist, wherein the idea is that Oliver was so out of place in his poor milieu because his biological parents were rich. This argument, however, doesn't stand up to even casual scrutiny; Oliver Twist was written between 1837 and 1839, almost thirty years before Mendel discovered the laws of inheritance. If Oliver Twist is an argument against modern genetic paradigms, then Asimov's Robot series is an argument against modern artificial intelligence paradigms, which it isn't. Further literary and theatrical works Lewontin produces postdate Mendel but not by enough; it took about 35 years for the scientific community to rediscover Mendel's discovery and about 30 more to start to synthesize genetics and evolution.

This brings me to another point of Lewontin's, eugenics. Eugenics is leftists' favorite example of how science entrenches authoritarian politics, leftists say. In reality, it's the only example; in the last four hundred years, there have been exactly two cases of science being subservient to the dominant social structure—eugenics in the early 20th century and anthropology in the late 18th and early 19th century—and in both cases the sciences involved were nascent. The gene-centered view of evolution dates back to the 1960s, long after the establishment abandoned eugenics (though for the reason that it was related to Nazism, rather than for the correct reason, which was that it was insane).

Eugenics' history actually underscores one of the aspects of the academia, namely that it is liable to believe certain things based on prejudice, but when there is strong evidence to the contrary, the facts win out. Since the biological community learned to properly fuse evolution and genetics, only cranks have supported scientific racism or eugenics programs. Nobody is accusing cognitive scientists of connection to false ideas of language, cognition, and artificial intelligence dating from the 1950s and made famous in countless science fiction works' depiction of robots. Even the shrillest Native American tribes bash anthropology's contradicting their mythology on grounds of cultural relativism rather than of anthropology's origins in trying to prove that whites were superior to non-whites. There's nothing special about biologists that merits associating them with eugenics.

In fact, science is not used to legitimize social structures at all. Lewontin may claim that science has replaced religion as the instrument that the establishment uses to keep the social order, but every political theorist you'll ask will tell you that it's true only in communist countries, and in those the government used not science but pseudoscience. In fact, the basis of the modern state's legitimacy is popular will, and the existing social structure claims that it is good not because it is divinely ordained or scientifically mandated, but agreed to by the majority of the populace. This view itself draws upon philosophy to justify itself, but is by and large independent of science.

In particular, while many conservatives and libertarians use the concept of natural hierarchy to argue against equality, for a long time they didn't, and indeed many still don't. In the late 19th century, robber barons did not justify the glaring inequality in the United States and Britain by positing that the rich were genetically superior to the poor, but by accusing the poor of moral failure. That squared a lot better with the libertarianism practiced at the time than would the racial pseudoscience of more recent times. In the United States, there are myths of equality of opportunity and the supremacy of individual choice, so the ideology of moral failure is much more effective in legitimizing inequality than genetic determinism could ever hope to be.

On the contrary, science has generally been on the side of the dispossessed and disenfranchised—especially social science, but to some degree natural science as well. First, the Enlightenment was after all a movement of emancipation from royalty and clericalism, even though it was more radical in words than in action. Second, the empiricist philosophy that guides modern science is evidently more amenable to liberty and equality than previous philosophical ideas, which gave too much emphasis to great classical works and disregarded the said works' contradictions with reality. And third, mainstream biology has pulled the rug out from under the legs of belief in natural inequality, with decisive evidence that there are no inherent differences between races or classes or nations in IQ; The Bell Curve is the work of cranks who never published anything in peer-reviewed journals in genetics or human population biology or human psychology.

Lewontin attacks science on several fronts. I have dealt with the legitimization front, but there are three additional though less important fronts he attacks on: objectivity, practical merit, and financial interests. I will deal with the first two in this order, but not with the third, which I am not informed enough to comment on.

According to Lewontin, one of the ways in which science has replaced religion is its reliance on a small clique of experts who claim to be objective and are hidden from public scrutiny. Actually, it is in a way true that science pretends it is objective, in the same way I pretend my name is Alon Levy (lest anyone misinterpret this sentence, Alon Levy is indeed my real full name). If you pick up any work on the history of science, you'll see that scientists engage in vicious politics and do their best to shoot down ideas they don't like, regardless of their merits; you may also read about scientific geniuses whose work the establishment ignored for decades. But science accepts true ideas relatively rapidly, with little concern for their political implications—witness the acceptance of Darwinism, which I showed above to be less in tune with contemporary political dogma than Lamarckism, as well as the rapid acceptance of the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics. It took 35 years for people to look at Mendel's research and about 40 for continental drift theory to gain traction after it was first proposed, but besides the fact that these were exceptions to the rule, they were nonetheless accepted extremely quickly by the standards of every other enterprise—religion, national icons, and even political ideology all take much longer than 40 years to change their views.

The second claim in the same attack is that like religion, science works like a secretive cult: "Once the truth about nature is revealed, one must accept the facts of life. When science speaks, let no dog bark. Finally, science speaks in mysterious words. No one except an expert can understand what scientists say and do." This argument is one of the prime examples of Lewontin's total ignorance when it comes to history. Science started out very simple to understand, and three hundred years ago an educated man knew everything there was to know about science. But as it advanced, the body of knowledge it accumulated piled up, and gradually there was a process of specialization. The scientific establishment is hierarchical, but its rigid insistence on empirical results, testability, and falsifiability makes its hierarchism very different from that of religion with its use of revealed truths. In addition, science strives for simplicity, that is making ideas as easy to understand as possible. And finally, in science everyone can learn and possibly overthrow old ideas if he's right, subject to a certain level of intelligence and the ability to afford going to university.

Lewontin also plays down the practical merits of basic scientific research. The usual argument defenders of the academia advance in support of science is that it has increased life expectancy in the first world by 30 years in the 20th century. Lewontin demolishes that argument by associating the increase in life expectancy with reduction in infant mortality and betterment of social conditions. But there are additional fairly well-known arguments he brushes off or ignores. First, he claims that "There was no observable effect on the death rate after the germ theory of disease was announced in 1876 by Robert Koch" (p. 44). Koch devised postulates to help determine which pathogens cause which diseases, but germ theory goes back to Louis Pasteur, who discovered germs in the 1850s; it's not surprising that if you look at the wrong place, you won't find anything. Second, he talks about the eradication of smallpox and how it used 18th-century medicine, but in fact it used thoroughly modern methods; the smallpox vaccine just happened to be the first vaccine ever discovered. And third, he ignores the near-eradication of polio, which used vaccines developed in the 1950s, and has the prefix "near" only because of anti-vaccination myths promoted in northern Nigeria.

The results of basic research have increased life expectancy. Lewontin's claim that "in the last 50 years, only four months have been added to the expected life span of a person who is already 60 years old" (pp. 42-43) is a lie; in the United States, life expectancy at 60 increased from 15.91 between 1939-41 to 20.9 between 89-91, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention; and more importantly, life expectancy at 20 increased from 42.79 in 1900-02 to 51.2 in 49-51 to 58.2 in 2002. On a somewhat unrelated note, basic research has made our lives better in ways other than increasing our life expectancy—for one, the Internet is the result of 50 years of basic and applied research most of which had nothing to do with connecting computers, and for two, see below on the Human Genome Project.

Besides attacking the fundamental tenets of scientific research, the book also attacks certain specific concepts, which I will deal with now. First, I will talk about the heritability of IQ, which Lewontin denies; and then, I will defend the Human Genome Project, which he attacks as useless and ideological. Please note that in both parts, especially in the first, I will rely on very recent data, which postdates 1991, the year of publication of Biology as Ideology, so strictly speaking they should not reflect negatively on the book.

IQ, or intelligence quotient, is partly heritable, by which I mean that the IQ of one's biological parents predicts one's IQ to a certain extent without considering any environmental factors. The book claims that experts accept the heritability of IQ based on three studies of identical twins, of which one was fabricated (and, I presume, not used anymore, judging by Dawkins' granting that in his scathing review of Not in Our Genes, published in 1987) and two did not properly control for environmental factors. However, there are several IQ researches that compare identical and fraternal twins, and show that identical twins' IQ scores are much better correlated than fraternal twins'.

An extensive study done by Eric Turkheimer and published in Psychological Science in November 2003 shows that in middle- and upper-class families, IQ has very high heritability, whereas in lower-class families environmental factors predominate and genes contribute almost nothing to variation in intelligence. The explanation for that is that everyone has a certain potential for intelligence that is mostly genetic, but low socioeconomic status can prevent people from realizing their full potentials. Lewontin calls this the empty bucket or innate capacity metaphor and derides it, "But there is no more biology in the innate capacity metaphor than there is in the notion of fixed genetic effects." But now we know that the innate capacity metaphor is exactly right.

One of Lewontin's targets in the book is the Human Genome Project, to which he devotes an entire chapter. He argues that the projected cost of three billion dollars is a waste of money, that the HGP will yield no useful result, and that the HGP's motivations are ideological rather than scientific. The argument about money is moot now that the Project is complete, but even 13 years ago it was bad, for compared to the United States' GDP, 3 billion dollars over 10 years of research are small change.

As for useful results, here is where Lewontin once again advances fringe ideas. In page 50 he says that since every two individuals differ in about one base pair in 500 (actually according to Wikipedia's "Single Nucleotide Polymorphism" article it's one in 100-300), making a copy of the genome of one individual is worthless because there will always be substantial variation between normal individuals. But what Lewontin doesn't say is how many of these variations in nucleotides cause variations in amino acid sequences, which is especially egregious considering that this appears just two pages after he rants about how proteins rather than genes make things and how people say that genes make proteins and replicate themselves only because of ideology "that places brains above brawn" (he doesn't offer a shred of proof, as usual).

In fact, sometimes mutations of single nucleotides cause huge effects. 10% of Europeans are immune to AIDS because of a change in a single nucleotide, which changes a codon that codes for an amino acid to a stop codon, thus truncating a protein, which results in immunity. Researchers are already working on a way to transfer the immunity-conferring gene to non-immune people; if they succeed than that alone will be more than worth the three billion dollars spent on the HGP. Lewontin's single example of a genetic disorder caused by numerous variation isn't enough, but my single example of an immense genetic boon caused by a single nucleotide polymorphism.
The claim that the HGP rests on an ideology of genetic determinism is false, too. Lewontin culls many quotes from leading geneticists that show immense optimism toward the HGP's goals, and uses these as his main argument that it's all about ideology. But looking at other ambitious projects shows that this naiveté always occurs, regardless of what the project is. Eight years ago, everyone talked about the Internet would cause a total revolution in world affairs; six years ago, the buzzword was "new economy," meaning the hi-tech boom; four years ago, the NASDAQ had already crashed and yet another cornucopian dream had been shattered. David Criswell, the leading proponent of lunar solar power, believes that it will more or less solve all of the world's problems. When Thomas Edison invented the light bulb, everyone started talking of the revolutionary way it would transform society. When building many large hydroelectric dams became practicable, bureaucrats started dreaming about how it would finally provide clean energy and do away with the pollution of coal plants. In similar vein, the leading researchers of the HGP exaggerate its effect and importance.

If Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins are popularizers of science, then Lewontin is a popularizer of anti-science. Toward the end, Biology as Ideology is not very problematic—indeed, I doubt that Dawkins or E. O. Wilson, two leading sociobiologists the book attacks will disagree with the gist of the last chapter, which is about humans molding their own environment and transcending genetic limitations. However, the first half of the book or so is full of insane arguments, ideological extremism, cheap shots at strawmen, and plain falsities. Lewontin attacks science using four main arguments—it legitimizes the existing social structure, it claims to be objective but isn't, it has no practical merit, and it is influenced by financial stakeholders—but the first three of these are simply false, and the fourth's importance is at worst moderate. True to its name, Biology as Ideology shows how biologists can twist the facts to serve an ideology, but it is not Lewontin's opponents who do it.