Saturday, December 25, 2010

John Steinbeck - fabulist; maybe plain old liar

So, it turns out "Travels with Charley" isn't true. It's not even "true to life." Not even close. That said, because it's deliberate confabulation, it's not really a novel, either, is it? It's a lie. Should we then re-address the motive behind Steinbeck's actual novels? Did he actually sympathize with Joad-type characters, or did he just think it was a good storyline?

I mean, "Grapes of Wrath" and "Cannery Row" are powerful and stirring. But, reading just how much Steinbeck fabulized, or just made stuff up, in "Travels with Charley," seriously makes me wonder if he was writing them for the story line more than the message.

AND ... although the Nobel Literature committee, unlike the Downtown Athletic Club with a Heisman Trophy, doesn't seem like it would ever revoke an awarded prize, IF Steinbeck was writing his novels for story lines more than any "message," should we reconsider his place in the literary canon?

That said, per Leo on Facebook, The Harvest Gypsies (the series of articles about migrant workers Steinbeck wrote for the San Francisco News) was the nonfiction basis for "The Grapes of Wrath." As Leo notes, what if Steinbeck faked that, too?

Friday, December 24, 2010

An 'aha' moment from 'It's a Wonderful Life'

At the end of George's extended vision, when he goes back to the bridge and discovers he's still alive? I believe the music at that point is a major-key variation on the medieval Dies Irae melody. (Doubt the average watcher would even pick up on that.)

That said, what if Capra had ended the movie with George jumping? Or, had run it out another 30 minutes after the tear-jerker ending?

If you want to get more thought on that line, go here; is it "the most terrifying movie ever"?

Semi-holiday for one?

Secularists, how do you "celebrate" Christmas? Especially if you're not from a Christian background pre-secularism, DO you celebrate it? If your other family isn't secular, or highly accepting of your nonbelief, do you not visit them?

And, do you feel that lonely doing so? Or do you handle Christmas as a simple holiday like Labor Day?

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Gallup: Very religious are healthier

Gallup notes, in a new research poll:
Very religious Americans are less likely to report that they smoke and are more likely to say they eat well and exercise regularly than those who are moderately religious or nonreligious. Nonreligious Americans have the worst health habits of the three groups.

Fortunately, Gallup recognizes that a statistical correlation is not necessarily a causal one:
There are a number of factors that could contribute to very religious Americans' healthier lifestyle choices. Some of these factors are likely overt products of religious doctrine itself, including rules related to smoking and substance abuse. Seventh-Day Adventists, for example, strictly adhere to vegetarian lifestyles free of alcohol and smoking, while orthodox Mormons and Muslims do not drink alcohol. In some Christian denominations, gluttony and sloth are considered two of the seven deadly sins, and many evangelical faiths frown on drinking and smoking. The Bible indicates that one's body is the "temple of God," which could in turn help explain the relationship between religious orthodoxy and exercise and certain types of food consumption. It is possible, of course, that the noted relationship between health and religiosity could go in the other direction -- that people who are healthier are the most likely to make the decision to be religious. This could be particularly relevant in terms of church attendance, one of the constituent components of Gallup's definition of religiousness. Healthier people may be more likely and able to attend religious services than those who are less healthy.

It also notes that, if there is a causal correlation, it could go in the other direction than fundamentalist types will claim?
It may also be possible that certain types of individuals are more likely to make healthy lifestyle choices and more likely to choose to be highly religious. The most parsimonious explanation, however, may be the most intuitive: Those who capitalize on the social and moral outcomes of religious norms and acts are more likely to lead lives filled with healthier choices.

That said, besides allowing for Mormons and Adventists, how much of this is age-specific? I'll bet that once we get past the age of 40 or so, the gap narrows a fair degree.

Adam Smith, mercantilism, 'invisible hand' and Deism

I've written an occasional post touching on the edges of what's at the heart of this one.

And, that is that Smith wasn't such a pure-blooded Platonic idealist capitalist, first.

Even more important, secondly, is how his economic theory, especially as connected to his moral-sense ideas, and economically culminating in his "invisible hand," were based on Enlightenment Deism, an optimistic version of that religion that is scientifically, philosophically and psychologically untenable today.

For defenders of Smith the simon-pure free trader? You're wrong on the mercantilism, Smith and the colonies (Google Docs link). I quote, from a book: "Smith likewise approved of the laws which authorized the payment of a bounty for the production of naval stores in the American colonies and prohibited their export from America to any country other than Great Britain. This typical mercantilist regulation was justified, in Smith’s view, because it would make England independent of Sweden and the other northern countries for the supply of military necessities and this contribute to the self-sufficiency of the empire"

Source? "Wealth of Nations," Book IV, pp. 545-546, 609-610, 484, note 39.

Now, naval stores isn't all colonial goods, but given that they related to national defense, albeit loosely, Smith had no problem bringing them under a mercantilist umbrella.

Elsewhere, Smith accepted government support for start-up industry, retaliatory tarrifs (albeit on a limited basis) and other things.

On whence Smith derived ideas of "an invisible hand" or "the invisible hand," no, I can't prove it's from the wind-up-the-universe God of Enlightenment Deism. Nonetheless, it sounds reasonable, and I know it can't be disproven either, that as a source. Per Wikipedia, referencing his obit as a source, he rejected Orthodox Christianity at Oxford and was generally understood to have become a Deist.

Beyond that, von Mises says in Wikipedia again that he thought Smith thought the invisible hand was God.

Beyond that, we know that Deism was a strong influence on Smith's theory of moral sentiments. (Google Docs link.)

It's arguable, and has been argued by some, that the "invisible hand" doesn't apply to the workings of the market. But, even if it's considered an "inner witness," and not directly linked to Deism, nonetheless, via Smith's theory of moral sentiments being Deist influenced, a denial of any connection at all is hard to maintain. Certainly, the ideas that an invisible hand will rationally maximize production to the ultimate benefit of all is pure Deism at its most optimistic and moonshiney.

And, of course, Deism was scientifically undercut in 1900 by Max Planck. Before that, indirectly, as Voltaire knew, such an optimistic Deism was shaken by the 1755 Lisbon tremblor. Since then, nuclear weapons, world wars and the Holocast have further shattered Smith's blithely optimistic Deism.

Speaking of science, James K. Galbraith argues Smith is non-scientific in another way - he's pre-Darwinian! Very interesting. And, Galbraith applies this thought to all Smithian descendants, namely those nutbar Strausians and related Chicago School economists.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Pop psychology becomes pop philosophy and it's kind of ugly

Just got done reading "How Philosophy Can Save Your Life: 10 Ideas That Matter Most."

It's pop philosophy if it's philosophy rather than psychology.

That's part of my review, noting the book doesn't answer "why" and "how" questions too much.

The biggest "why" that Marietta McCarty doesn't answer? Why are these the 10 most important ideas in philosophy? Personally, "skepticism" would be at or near the list of my top 10, with Hume definitely being one of the two or three exemplar philosophers. What led her to the conclusion that these are the 10 most important ideas? How does she justify the generalization that what appear to be the 10 main ways philosophy can save HER life will apply to all?

The biggest "how" question that is unasked? How do different of McCarty's 10 principles balance with each other? "Individuality" and "belonging" came immediately to mind. Now, one could say that McCarty is inviting the reader to figure that out on his or her own, but ... if one is to make a value judgment between two principles, is there a guiding idea McCarty has for that?

And, it gets worse. It's got some great individual and small-group reflection and discussion exercises, but with such a non-critical background, the author might have them discussing peripherals.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Free will not so free? And not so human-specific?

I've long been of the opinion that "free will" vs. "determinism" is, if not a false dilemma, at least something close — a pair of false polarities, rather than something on a continuum.

(I've also been of the opinion, taking Dan Dennett's stance on consciousnesss that there's no "Cartesian meaner" to its logical conclusion — as does Daniel Wegner and others, I'm not alone — that there's no conscious, central, controlled location for free will in humans, as well. That is, there's no "Cartesian free willer" either. But, I digress.)

There's a German-based neuroscientist who agrees with me on the "polarities" angle. But, that's not all.

Bjoern Brembs also says that this free will — free will within constraints — is exhibited by animals, too.
Brembs and others have used mathematical models to simulate brain activity on a computer, finding that what worked best was a combination of deterministic behaviour and what is known as stochastic behaviour - which may look random but actually, in time, follows a defined set of probabilities.

Personally, I actually don't see this as that big of a deal. Given that consciousness itself is understood as being on some sort of continuum, rather than "we conscious humans" vs. "you unconscious animals," how could a will, and a will that is partially free, also not exist, and again, on a continuum?

That then said, I do find it a bit more questionable to extend some degree of free will, as Brembs does, all the way down to the level of flies, just as I would find it questionable to attribute consciousness to an animal with so few neurons.

To talk about a dog, or the old laboratory vertebrate standby, the lab rat, as having some degree or type of free will? Yes. The laboratory insect standby, a fruit fly? Per Carl Sagan, that's an extraordinary claim. I expect more evidence.

I'll stand by for more research; this is surely going to be a hot topic not just for months but for years.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010


Minor keys often have melancholy, plaintive laments,
More so than jarring stridency,
Unless a sudden dissonance intrudes;
And, so it is with my anger.
Slow to form, with an undercurrent of counterpoint,
Spoken and developed in individual voices,
Like a late Beethoven quartet,
Or, maybe, even more, one by Shostakovich.
I don’t even realize that I am angry until the score plays out,
Usually about halfway through the third movement.
Then, a diminished seventh lingers, a four-part pedal point, if you will,
Until the cello transitions out, into a growling presto ostinato,
And I can no longer deny to my conscious self that I am angered,
As my emotions now move attacca, without pause,
Into a final movement,
Where resolution is supposed to be found,
But, per the style of musica moderna,
Is not guaranteed.
— Dec. 14, 2010

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Why Socrates is overrated

Yeah, given my blog name and handle, it sounds ironic for me to say that, no?

Of course, some people might accuse me of being hypocritical, if I do think he's overrated. That said, my blog name trades on the myth of Socrates, which we shall now call into account ... by using some Socratic-like questioning!

1. If he really were ignorant of so much, how could he always be right in his dialogues -- especially since he proves his opponents wrong in every one of them and therefore he couldn't have learned from them?

2. If he really were so ignorant, and knew that he were, then why didn't he follow Wittgenstein and remain silent about what he did not know?

3. If he really were so ignorant, then how can we believe he understood the Sophists' teachings so well?


The baseline answer to all of these individual questions and more is that Socrates, that is, the Socrates who is a Platonic mouthpiece (and, an ideal one for Plato, pun intended!) makes straw men out of Sophists and their thought, opposes the democratization (for money) of knowledge that they offer because it upsets his classist views and more.

But, specifically:

1A. The Platonic wordsmith hoists him by his own petard, not to mention, especially in the Cave analogy, also getting hoist on the petard of ineffability.

2A. Because it does that, Plato's Socrates only mimicked the idea of being ignorant.

3A. This builds on the "baseline" answer. In a sense, Socrates, to the degree we can really guess at who he was, DOES know the ideas of the Sophists well — and fears their democratizing strain.

Memory, time and change

A poem on change, influenced by the book, "How Philosophy can Change Your Life."

Memory's malleability and time's tempo
Play out life in complex 7/8 rhythm
Like free verse that shifts mood, mode and meaning
An unconscious under-rhythm, more than mere backbeat,
Is each individual's I Ching
A changing round of changes on the them of change.
Nature is a humanist, with contradictions writ large.

Salon's theater critic knows bupkis

First, on page 2 of a 10-page slideshow about the best Shakespearean movies, Matt Zoller Seitz insults Orson Welles in his weighty later life, apparently believing he was born fat:
I must acknowledge Orson Welles' 1966 epic "Chimes at Midnight," a low-budget labor of love that stitches together bits of several Shakespeare plays, including "Henry IV Parts I and II," "Henry V," "Richard II" and "The Merry Wives of Windsor." Welles wrote the script, directed and costars as Falstaff — pretty much the only great Shakespeare part that such a huge actor could convincingly play.

But, it gets much worse.

Omitting Welles' Macbeth entirely in his discussion of best movie versions of that play?

Instead, Welles' Macbeth, with his excellent use of shadows, Jacques Ibere's excellent musical score and more, is head and shoulders above Polanski's version, with Seitz ignorantly tabs as his No. 1.

Add in the fact that he omits the Burton/Taylor version of Taming of the Shrew, even from his "Wild Card" (the wild card here being the fact of art imitating life) and he appears even more clueless.

Libertarianism, skepticism shouldn't be mixed

The potentially extended about dangers of mixing libertarianism and skepticism? Look at SkepticBlog and some of its recent posts, especially by Michael Shermer and Brian Dunning.

Shermer has been a libertarian of long standing. Outside this blog, as editor of Skeptic magazine, he's been an "enabler" of racialist Frank Miele for what, more than a decade now. Fellow racialist and co-author of "Race" with Miele, Vincent Sarich, is on the editorial board; Miele is listed as "senior editor."

Brian Dunning is currently engaged in bald-faced denialism of his libertarian sourcing, especially Steve Milloy's JunkScience.

Of course, here's why Dunning's such a denialist — Milloy's blatant denialism on global warming is trumpeted on the front page of JunkScience:
Now that the most absurd but potentially catastrophic junk science in human history is unraveling and we are preparing to declare victory over gorebull warbling we can devote more attention to neglected junk.

Taking Liberty -- How Private Property is being Abolished in America

Click here to jump straight to the global warming (a.k.a. "climate change", "global weirding", "people are icky, nasty, weather-breaking critters"... ) section if you so desire.

It's clear from that that Milloy engages in pseudoscience. Dunning was busted on using this website as a source, so hides his embarrassment at his ideological bias being discovered by raging against critics allegedly engaged in conspiracy theories, distortions, not telling him his errors and more.

Steven Novella originally got snookered by Milloy years ago and refusing to weigh in on Dunning's defense of "accidentally using" Milloy now.

Regarding that:
An irony in all of this is that if you go back and listen to early episodes of SGU, the Novella gang praised junkscience as a reputable website. They even had Milloy on to talk about his website (didn't discuss DDT, as far as I can remember). But you can tell that red flags were raised during the interview with Steve Novella, when Milloy was using language suggesting an ideological bias when discussing certain issues. And after that interview, SGU never mentioned junkscience again, except when criticizing it in an interview (I think, with Christopher Mooney). If only Brian had been privy to those early episodes, he may have steered away from the site all-together.

Well, considering that Dunning refuses to pull in his horns, AND that Novella has yet to put up his own post on Skepticblog about this at all, I doubt Dunning would have "steered away." Shermer hasn't steered away from worse; rather, he's gone swimming in it again.

Add, speaking of that, Skepticblog partner No. 4 (more on "partner" below) Daniel Loxton claimed that Shermer was past that, on a comment to a skeptic friend's Facebook post about a month ago. That makes almost half of the group, four of ten, having some degree of question mark over their heads on conflating libertarianism and skepticism.

Now, that "partner" talk? With 10 different members, I say it's a legitimate analogy to compare SkepticBlog to a law firm, with each blogger a "partner" similar to those at a law firm.

And, based on my experience with a with a particular political blog, Daily Kos, we're going to take that analogy in a particular direction.

Back about four years ago, Armando Llorens-Sar was Kos founder Markos Moulitsas' right-hand man. But, many people including me, asked and kept asking why he was refusing to reveal the name of the law firm where he "worked." He claimed it was because it could hurt his business.

Not quite. It turned out he was a partner at the firm, as opposed to "working" there. It a corporate representational firm which had some clients, such as Clorox and Walmart, taboo to many liberals.

I noted on Kos, before being banned, that Armando could have sold out of his partnership or asked to be bought out and how he ignored this idea. Note that a similar analogy applies here, to getting rid of Shermer and Dunning, or else others starting a new group blog. The six "silent partners," or the six + two, if you count the "abetting" duo of Loxton and Novella, have their chance to stand up for skeptical credibility, principle and practice.

As it stands, though, this conflation is bad for skepticism in a number of ways. Credibility, confusion of what skepticism is and more all result.


Some people may thing that there's a litmus test on political skepticism, i.e., you're not a good enough skeptic unless you're a libertarian. Others may think that the skeptical enterprise has an inherent bias. (Note the explicit libertarianism of Pop Ev Psycher Steve Pinker, for a parallel.) And more.

Now, if like Howard Gardiner apparently did on religious belief to a degree, if Shermer and Dunning want to compartmentalize their skepticism, fine. Just be honest about it!

Sunday, December 05, 2010

CFI and organization — Kurtz maybe DID need to go

I didn’t carefully and thoroughly follow every step of the Council for Inquiry’s organizational issues up to the time Paul Kurtz was pushed out as executive director.

Since that time, I started paying more attention, for a number of reasons.

First is related to the reasons Kurtz was allegedly pushed out — the difference between “confrontationalists” (especially among “New Atheists”) and “accommodationalists” as far as how to deal with the nonatheist world in general and especially its more hostile elements. I lean toward the accommodationalist side but, per Ecclesiastes, know there is a time for everything.

Second is related to the organizational issues themselves, specifically, the loss of a $2 million a year donor, because of losing Kurtz. And, there are two subissues here.

No. 1? Orac (sorry, didn’t bookmark a link) is right: You do NOT use the money of one donor in your general fund when that donor’s contributions make up a full one-quarter of your total income. You put that in a trust and use the interest, after a couple of years. OR, as many environmental groups do, you try to set up a matching fund drive between small donors and this guy. You could then use that portion of his $2M a year donation in your general fund but bank the rest.

That one hangs totally on Kurtz’s shoulders. My impression is that he ran CFI too much like a ma-and-pa shop long after it had expanded beyond that point. He obviously needed a full-time director of development who would know this, know how to do this, and tell Kurtz that.

If Kurtz resisted any of this, then he needed to go.

No. 2? The donor dropoff has led to a number of other issues, one related to a CFI job for which I applied, the position of director of communications.

Now, this spring, Nathan Bupp was still listed as vice president of communications. I assume his position was cut in the financial turmoil, and now, the director of communications opening is a partial replacement, at lower salary.

That said, it’s been going on eight weeks now since the application deadline for that job. I have no idea of where Barry Karr of CFI is at in the process. My guess is that, based on the number of resumes he got early on, a CFI disorganizational disorder has overwhelmed him. I’m assuming that he, and any assistant(s) he has in the hiring process, did NOT start a “preliminary cull” of resumes after getting more than 120 in the first 36-48 hours after announcing the opening. Assuming they didn’t, that’s another organizational black mark.

If CFI doesn't have the money to hire more staffers to help organization, then it needs to focus solely on development issues (along with narrower PR issues in the sense of perception) before anything else.

If staff levels are semi-adequate, then Bruce Lindsey needs to do a better job as new CEO, or hire an assistant, with appropriate title, who knows more about management and organizational issues.

Anyway, I have no idea of I will get the CFI position. I know I’m well-qualified for it.

But, in any case, CFI has issues it needs to address.

Beyond the organizational ones, it still needs to address the confrontationalist vs. accommodationalist issue. It also needs to address just what skepticism is and who a skeptic is. It also needs to address legitimate claims for the explanatory power of science vs. “scientism,” as my recent blog on a John Shook post shows.

And, that kind of reflects on why CFI needs a director of communications. Bloggers and online columnists there are kind of scattershot, and the thought quality isn't always that high. If you want to continue to be, and to be seen as, America's top secular humanist organization, well, you have at least some of your work cut out for you.

Critical thinking goes missing again at CFI

I am starting to think with Mr. Leo Lincourt, and surely others, that it's perhaps time to be more skeptical about alleged skepticism.

Besides the obvious offenders like Michael Shermer, there are others.

The latest? John Shook at Center for Inquiry.

His latest blog post? "How Does Science Defeat Religion." It's targeted NOT at fundamentalists, but the religiously liberal, those who might well be quite comfortable with Steve Gould's "non-overlapping magisteria" on certain items.

My short, on-site reply:
NOT a good post. First, science is not designed to "defeat" anything, John.

If you had rewritten the whole "defeat" idea about philosophy and how the liberally religious try to deal with the problem of evil, you'd be cooking with gas. Instead, you don't even have a campfire.

Longer thoughts here.

If this is what the "Vice President and Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Inquiry Transnational" thinks is the nature of science, oy. Really.

I agree with where I think Shook is coming from philosophically — rejecting the idea held by both Gould and liberally religious on dual magisteria. But, that's a philosophical issue as much as a scientific one, at least. Certainly, once you get past naturalistic issues, with the liberally religious accepting evolution, etc.,. it is. Science works with methodological naturalism. Therefore, if a liberally religious person claims that an incorporeal deity intruded into the natural world it's ultimately a philosophical issue.

If you go beyond methodological naturalism to philosophical naturalism, well, obviously, by definition, you're now in philosophy.

Second, as Mr. Lincourt has noted in response to me, he misdefines science:
Aside from the fact that he never defines religion, rather just assumes the reader agrees with whatever nebulous definition he's using, I found this 'graph to be particularly troublesome:

"After science was invented, all things were no longer equal. Science supplements ordinary knowledge with vastly improved knowledge, and common consent gets overruled by scientific knowledge. There is a parallel superiority of ethical judgment over the "common consent" of humanity on moral matters -- after past experiments with slavery caused horrible consequences for all to see, no society could justify slavery anymore."

Umm... science was invented? I rather thought science was a constellation of philosophies, methodologies, practices and social norms that evolved out of our capacity to reason, not some monolithic creation that was conjured whole cloth out of the void one fine day by some old, bearded, toga-wearing dude and has remained relatively static ever since then.

So, moving on, science supplants ordinary knowledge? Really? I can think of half a dozen types of knowledge where science neither supplants or even has anything to say. Literature and music, just to pick two.

Leo doesn't use the word "scientism," but it seems that's exactly what Shook is practicing.

Third, Leo passed on Massimo Pigliucci's latest blog post, called "Why Plumbing is not Science."
The title of this entry is a reference to Jerry Coyne’s occasional remark that there is no substantial difference between plumbing and science because plumbers test hypotheses based on empirical evidence.

Except, of course, that plumbing is not science, and here is why. ... I don’t actually believe that anyone takes seriously the proposition that all reason-based knowledge is “scientific.” If that were the case, then pretty much everything we do every day should count as science — from picking a movie based on a review by a critic we usually like (induction!) to deciding to cross the street when the pedestrian light is green (hypothesis testing!). If the concept of science is that expansive, than it is also pretty close to meaningless.

Bingo, and it reflects at least in part another Shook mistake and why he needs to listen to some philosophers, as David Buller knows most scientists do. (Jerry Coyne and P.Z. Myers, who probably applaud thoughts like Shook's, definitely need to.)

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Oxytocin, MSM science reporting, scientist fluffery

Oxytocin is a two-edged sword; it can increase distrust as well as trust or love. Once again, the claim that it's the "love hormone" is in part the fault of MSM science reporters, but it's also the fault of scientists playing up preliminary or partial research findings too much.

Read the story for just how varied oxytocin's effects actually are. That said, the research that showed it increased mistrust in some cases had a small sample size, so there may be some self-referential irony to both the story and this blog post.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Hindus want to reclaim yoga

A group of ardent Hindus, some called "Hindu nationalists," want to reclaim yoga to what they claim are its Hindu roots. An eclectic group of opponents, ranging from Deepak Chopra to religious scholars, says it's not Hindu but pre-Hindu.

Is yoga from before Hinduism? Well, I think that it depends on part what you call Hinduism.

Western critical religious scholars, for example, call everything in the Bible before the Babylonian exile "Israelite religion," reserving "Judaism" only for post-Exilic religion.

If that standard is followed, AND if roots of yogic practice can be traced back that far, then, no, it's not Hindu.

That said, conservative Christians and Jews alike, today, reject the scholarly distinction mentioned above. I'm sure the "nationalist Hindus" do the same. (That said, I think it's fair to say Hinduism is not "just" a religion, but, more than any other world religious tradition, a sociology as well.)

That said No. 2, folks like Chopra have good financial reasons for denying the Hindu roots of many religious practices from India that have become relabeled as "spiritual." Per the story, even if you're not a conservative Baptist minister who believes yoga is of the devil, telling many practitioners that they're engaged in a Hindu religious exercise will surely drive them off.

But, package it in smiley New Age wrapping and ...

Too bad PZ Myers can't write an unbiased poll

In his parting shot about whether a convention called Skepticon should be about skepticism or atheism (such a convention could discuss, of course, how many atheists came to their state of disbelief via skeptical reasoning) he skews the works with a false-answer poll.

The only thing fully accurate is the "so-called" in the first sentence:
How much of a so-called skeptic convention can be about religion?

None 0% (0 votes)
No more than 25% 0% (0 votes)
No more than 50% 0% (0 votes)
Just so long as it isn't all of it 25% (3 votes)
All of it, why not? 75% (9 votes)

First, he implies that a skeptics' convention, according to some "straw man skeptical purists," can't discuss religion at all.

No, we so-called "purists" object instead to the unskeptical promotion of atheism, or the claim that only atheists are real skeptics, being promoted at a so-called skeptic convention, about which phrase you are right.

Then, with this:
There's only one choice that isn't arbitrary and incoherent and unjustifiable; I'd like to see the complainers confront the specific details of their position.

He of course implies that people who question him and other hyperatheists are "arbitrary and incoherent and unjustifiable."

Well, I'm not going to confront any "specific details" in a post on your blog; given the way rabid Pharyngulacs are, that would be like debating Ken Ham or his ilk at a fundamentalist college.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Petrified wood, petrified psyche


Massive, towering trees
Were transformed into stone
In the twinkling of a geological eye.
All the remains petrified 300 million years.
As Heraclitus’ permanent change
Hit a wall of geochemical inertia.
So, too, can human attitudes, emotions and states
Suddenly and sharply change,
Then become frozen in the face of many a further assault —
Death is the final dissolve
But short of that, few life acids can eat away
Frozen fear, lithified anxiety, calcified cowering.
But the hurts themselves remain liquid,
Even if partially congealed;
Only the reaction and the framings become concretized.
And so, like marrow inside bone
New psychological antibodies still spew forth,
Even if fighting the wrong issues the wrong way —
Petrified to do anything else.
Life is often neither growth nor regression.

Nostalgia, time, feelings, and the difficulties of language


I looked in Carefree, and found coffee,
But not that Starbucks where you and I sat.
I moved on down the road,
To Anthem, and fond the place of which nostalgia sang.
Kevin, I remembered our time there,
And several visits to Phoenix
And hiking with you
And receiving your insight,
Including on some new issues and decisions,
Even if my time is limited,
And the road calls again.
I think you with thoughts
And a secular blessing,
Knowing, as my friend Paula said
That “we” sometimes struggle for the right language
For such things, to speak deeply yet nonmetaphysically.
But, I cannot tarry;
The fierce urgency of the now calls to my intuitional mind
And so, I prepare to click the pen shut,
Gather up this notebook, and hit the road —
While taking nostalgically warming coffee with me.

Desert ambivalence: a poem


I love the desert — in small doses.
I love its variety, if sharp and sere,
Frm slickrock redness of Utah
To the tangled shrubbery of the Chihuahuan’s edges;
From the sky blues of the southern borderlands
To Death Valley’s raw, existential rigor.
I love it all.
But in small doses.
Without sky islands,
The Chihuahuan and eastern Sonoran would hold less charm.
Likewise for Death Valley without nearby Sierras.
As for the Great Basin?
Its sky islands seem smaller and poorer to me,
And have never touched me as much.
And, so it is —
Desert ambivance.

Nov. 10, 2010

Is Michael Shermer a racialist?

Years ago, the editor of Skeptic magazine had made it clear through his blogging that he was a thoroughgoing, and thoroughly nonskeptical, economic libertarian when it came to matters of government regulation, economics, economics and allegedly rational human behavior, etc.

So, I stopped reading Skepticblog.

Well, recently, out of boredom, an expansion again of my skeptical horizons and other things, I started reading again. And, there is a lot of good stuff.

But, Shermer's at it again, with a hugely unskeptical lovefest for Bjorn Lomborg's newbook and movie.

The main thrust of the blog post is bad enough.

But, here's what caught my eye:
My own Senior Editor, Frank Miele, who is an expert on evolutionary biology and biodiversity (and is one of the fastest and most facile researchers I’ve ever known), challenged Lomborg on several of the chapters in his book, and we had a lively and successful debate.

That would be the same Frank Miele who is coauthor of the book "Race," about which I blogged when it came out as being "Bell Curve light."

A few comments from that blog post:
Pages 9-10 have a laughably racist “genetic” rather than sociological assumption of evidence for various types of athletic prowess. (I await every new world-class African swimmer or hockey player to refute "athetics of the gaps" thoughts like this.)

More seriously, here's a sociological counterexample. Chinese children, and adults, are known from research to have an above-average percentage of musical perfect pitch. Genes?

And, the piece de resistance on page 10 — the “mean sub-Saharan African IQ of 70.” All together, now, can we say Bell Curve? (See below.)

Add to this the fact that Miele and his co-author think blacks are "stuck with being stupid:
239: “No one has demonstrated a method of compensatory education that produces relatively permanent increases in mental ability, as opposed to learning how to answer specific test items correctly.”

Five years ago, Miele held the same position vis-a-vis Shermer that he does today: Senior editor at Skeptic magazine.

"Race" was never questioned, let alone dismantled, in that magazine's pages.

Since Miele is clearly a racialist, and maybe even a full-blown racist for all I know, how can we assume any different of Shermer?

Friday, October 22, 2010

Reason trumps religion, even in Bible Belt, at times

Out here in Odessa, Texas, aka Bushville with a capital B (he grew up 20 miles east, in Midland) a man was convicted of Murder 1 today, with the jury deliberating just 20 minutes over the guy asphyxiating his wife.

The religion part? He said it was accidental while trying to exorcise a demon from her, that he demon did leave her ... and entered him.

Friday, October 08, 2010

ESPN's Scoop Jackson should move past dime-store sociology

ESPN's resident raceologist claims that reaction to Brett Favre's repeated retirement dances has been nothing compared to fan reaction to LeBron James' "Decision."

Bull. Scoop occasionally has good things to opine, but, more and more, he seems to be playing a character with a shtick. Jason Whitlock has smacked him down far better than I could, but has probably gotten tired of it.

Fact is, Favre never strung Green Bay out the way James did Cleveland. The full-blown retirement dances only came later. Ditto on undercutting coaches.

Is there no racism involved with white reaction to James? Of course not. And, someone like Whitlock would say the same. But, is it the primary driver? No.

As for blacks rallying around James, that's another issue, and arguably a problem itself. Scoop, if you want to move above the dime-store level of sociology of racial issues, try tackling that.

Beyond that, if you'll pardon the pun, race issues in general aren't always black and white; they're certainly not in this case.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Why "Planet Goldilocks" likely isn't

All the science stories in the last 24 hours have been touting the alleged "Planet Goldilocks" as the first outside our solar system compatible for life similar to ours.

Fact one - its revolution and rotation are synchronous, so that it eternally turns the same face to its home star. At a distance of just 19 million miles, then sunlit side is getting fried more than Mercury. And, unless it has a thick enough atmosphere, the star-based side is chilling. That said, it would also be a fine line between "just enough" atmosphere to keep the dark side warmed up a bit, and so thick an atmosphere that you get Venerean effects.

Besides, if the atmosphere is that thick enough, that close to the home star, with that short of a revolutionary period, what sort of storms might be generated?

Beyond that, we're talking massive solar wind that close to the home star, with a planet that might well not have enough magnetic field to keep the planetary surface from heavy bombardment.

So, Goldilocks it ain't.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Atheists know the bible better than Christians

Nope, no joke. (And, like other atheists, no, I'm not surprised, either.)

And, some of the results are just sad, for the people involved, that is. 45 percent of American Catholics, on the Eucharist, apparently think their church is Reformed, for example.

Here's why I think this is like this. Usually a convert has fuller knowledge than a lifelong adherent. Since Christians are a much bigger pool than atheists and agnostics, and also atheists and agnostics who "convert" to that want to know what they're converting from ...

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Several new Amazon reviews are up

One of the best books I've read on the folly of believing that economic "engagement" with China will make it more democratic, "The Beijing Consensus," was very good. Read what I thought about it and other books.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

God's running out of money ...

Or, at the least, the entities that serve him are. And, no, it's not just the liberal mainline Protestant bodies It's evangelical churches of various stripes. And, it's not even churches, it's synagogues, too. (No word in the story on mosques, Hindu temples, etc.)

And, no, it's not the recession, either. Or not primarily.

It's two things.

One is the aging of baby boomers. As they retire, they cut back on giving of all sorts.

The second is, below the upper end of the baby boom, the ongoing decline in emotional and psychological investment in authoritative institutions of all sorts.
“When the foundation falls, when the base isn’t there, then you have problems,” said Elbert T. Chester, an accountant in Queens who has more than 60 churches along the Eastern Seaboard as clients. “And we haven’t even seen the worst of it.”

Don't expect this to change. Baby boomers aren't getting any younger, and the tail end of boomers, Gen Xers and younger yet, aren't gaining in enthusiasm for organized religion or even semi-organized spirituality.

Add in the Catholic priests' sexual abuse, more and more Protestant ministers getting flagged for the same, more and more ministers from conservative backgrounds getting exposed as gays (and perverted ones within their repressed sexuality), and you have even more reason for the trend to continue.

Friday, September 24, 2010

For Xns or Jews worried about "American sharia"

Substitute "halaka" for "sharia" and this is what you get. "Halaka communities," already in existence.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Antisemitic, or just concerned about preservation?

I can see both sides of the issue in a long-ongoing standoff in Litchfield, Conn.

It's a complicated issue. Having seen communities try to preserve historic districts, I can appreciate Litchfield's stance. And, a swimming pool certainly doesn't fit the idea of "historic preservation."
The group's plans included a synagogue, living space for Rabbi Joseph Eisenbach and his large family and a swimming pool for the Chabad group's popular summer camp.

"This case is not about the construction of a synagogue," (Borough of Litchfield historic district commission attorney James) Stedronsky said recently. "It's about the construction of a personal palace for Rabbi Eisenbach, complete with a 4,500-square-foot apartment and an indoor swimming pool big enough to serve a summer camp."

At the same time, rich, WASPy Connecticut communities have some history of being antisemitic sundown towns. Including Litchfield. As the Hartford Courant notes, a Willson Whitman, visiting in 1943, discovered Jews were not allowed to own property there.

That said, on the next page of the Courant story, we find that Jews do live in Litchfield today, and at least some of them oppose the Lubavitcher Chabad project on grounds similar to the historic commission: it's too big and unfitting.

From what I read, I'd say the commission isn't being antisemitic. That said, I don't know if either side has discussed or offered compromises, or not. Unfortunately, a judge and court is not an arbitrator. All the judge can do is rule for either the commission or Chabad; he or she can't craft a compromise. (I wonder if in Continental European jurisprudence, as opposed to the Anglo-American model, judges can do that.)

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Monkey (mind) wrench some Buddhists

I know many people have seen, via PBS or elsewhere, Tibetan Buddhists evaporating the water from cold, wet sheets draped across their bare backs.

No, I'm not challenging what PBS or others have seen and filmed; the effect is legit.

That said, what would happen if I visited such a monastery and said something like this:

Who is the I who is evaporating those sheets and why are you still attached to it?

Friday, September 17, 2010

Plus ça change, even for the universe?

Looks like Old Man Universe might have changed over 13 billion or so years.

Specifically, the fine-structure constant may not be so constant.

Why is this important? If the constant is inconstant, then the strengthe of the electromagnetic force isn’t constant, either.

There had been some hints at this in the past few years, but with the question of whether the inconstancy was space-based or time-based. New evidence seems to not only support the inconstancy, but that it’s time-based. (Which makes more sense to me.)

Anyway, read all about it.

Blackmore shows ignorance of both memes and religion

Susan Blackmore admits that religion isn’t a “virus of the mind.”
Are religions viruses of the mind? I would have replied with an unequivocal "yes" until a few days ago when some shocking data suggested I am wrong.

From a conference on “Explaining religion,” she cites the following reasons.

1. Religious activity correlates with more children.

And, no others.

Yep, that’s it.

First, despite her noting her previous mea culpa over believing in the reality of paranormal phenomena, it shows Blackmore might still lack intellectual rigor in some areas.

This is a prime example. She didn’t even look for additional information, like average lifespan of children from religious vs. nonreligious families.

Nor did she take a look at a single datum of cultural evolution that might be connected.

Nor did she acknowledge this might be an issue of cultural evolution trumping genetic evolution.

Shoddy, shoddy.

Beyond that, she didn’t even ask the most pertinent question:

Shouldn’t this put another nail in the coffin of “strong” theories of memes, at least?

Answer? Yes.

Meanwhile, I can't wait for the Christian version of a Pop Ev Psycher to actually cite this column.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

An "Andy Rooney" moment: capitalism vs. anarchism

Why is Joseph Schumpeter's comment about the "creative destruction" of capitalism considered perfectly economic mainstream, but, if I talked about the "creative destruction" of anarchism, somebody would probably report me to the government?

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Why SETI likely won't find ET

New Amazon reviews up: Paul Davis has a great new book on why SETI hasn't found "anybody" yet ... and probably won't.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Several new nonfiction Amazon reviews are up

Is "Water" all that it's cracked up to be by some, or is it all wet? Find out my thoughts on it and others. Are things really "Poorly Made in China"? What is "The Miracle" (if any) of modern Asia's wealth? (And, yes, I posted a review on a Rodney Stark book I haven't read. "Civilization clashers" and Christian fundamentalists can just deal with it.)

Friday, August 20, 2010

The Donner Party, struggle and motivation

California was a land of lore and lure even before John Marshall found gold traces in 1848.

Farming, ranching, mild climate and vast unclaimed, untamed acres all called across the Sierras to Americans, even before the land had been wrested from Mexico.
Among those listening?

Jacob Breen and family. George Keseberg. And, the eponymous Donner family.

Unlike the Founding Fathers, these people had no fortunes to give. But they did give most of what money they had to make the trip. And, they certainly, in cases such as Jacob Breen, had honor, whether sacred or not, to pledge to their fellow travelers.
While on vacation recently, I visited some Donner Party sites. Though I had driven I-80 before through the area, I had never gotten off the freeway at the Donner State Party site. And, since I had come from the north, on a California state highway site, about 7-8 miles north of the interstate, I saw the Donner Meadows, where the Donners themselves wintered in 1846-47.

I asked myself, rhetorically, what would I be willing to do to get to California today? How much work would I be willing to expend? How much of my current “baggage” would I be willing to discard? What is my goal in getting to California — am I moving to something or just away from something?

I haven’t pondered those questions too much yet. Maybe I’m deliberately avoiding them a little bit. Maybe, like many other things in life, I want a surer goal before committing to them more.

That said, let me look at the Donners more. Yes, they knew about California the potential agricultural paradise. But, gold had not yet been discovered. They were simply looking for a better life, not to get rich.

Beyond that, how much am I willing to surrender of my old self for change today, in general? As I get older, do I get more attached to what I already have? Less willing to take risks?

How much is pain in my current life, combined with hope for the future, going to be a motivator?
And, by the time I had gotten back home, or soon afterward, I had at least one additional question for myself.

Is the desire to move to California a search for a “geographic cure” for issues that need help in other ways?

All good questions. To some of them, I don’t yet consciously know the answers, though I may have partial answers in my subconscious. Others I can answer more fully right now.

As for a geographic cure? No. I’ve been interested in moving to California for years.
As for pain as a motivator? It may continue to grow, and maybe I need that.

And, “surrender,” or another term? How much am I willing to let go of old attachments, such as what job or career path I should or should not follow, how much anxiety I can tolerate in daily life and more? At least at the conscious level, I don’t have answers here, though I suspect that I have more letting go to do — letting go of preconceptions about myself, letting go of attachments to old emotional patters, and things like that.

Dear U.S. Muslims: welcome to the world of atheism

While the numbers from Time's poll on what Muslims should and should not do/serve/run for in politics are sad, they're still higher than the latest similar polls I've seen about atheists.

Remember, we're more disliked and distrusted politically than even gays and lesbians.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Relgious urban legend: 'Luck' does NOT come from 'Lucifer'

Ahh, a religion column freelancer out in Red State world fundy/conservative evangelical land. Ma'am, the word "luck" has nothing to do with "Lucifer" etymologically. Rather, it comes from the same root as today's modern German "Glueck."

Since this apparently goes back to known nutbar and Greed Gospel purveyor Kenneth Copeland, things like this deserve scorn, not "engagement," on the whole debate as to how much skeptics, or atheists, should "engage" religious people on certain issues.

See here for more on the fake etymology.

Do you have free will? Is that even a discussable issue?

Are our selves free willers, or determined selves? Galen Strawson discusses both sides of the issue in a great "Stone" column at the NYT.

That said, Strawson, the son of renowned British philosopher P.F. Strawson, missed one big issue or two.

Namely, how much of our actions are conscious, can "free will" even be spoken of sensibly at a level of allegedly unitary consciousness, can we, though, talk of subconscious subselves having free will, etc.

Anyway, overlooking Strawson's lapses, he does give fair play to both sides, while shooting down things like the New Agey myth that quantum mechanics has disproved determinism. (Certainly, if one is an Einsteinian "naive realist" on quantum mechanics, it's clear all QM did was made determinism more probabilistic at the ultimate fine-grained level. Even under other models of understanding of QM, reality can still be deterministic above the quantum level. It's like a state change, if you will, and to not "get that" is, to quote a peer of Strawson's dad, Gilbert Ryle, to make a category mistake.

That said Strawson ultimately argues that believing in both some form of determinism and in moral responsibility (which is where many people want to sink determinism) is possible, maybe even quite possible.
I can’t do better than the novelist Ian McEwan, who wrote to me: “I see no necessary disjunction between having no free will (those arguments seem watertight) and assuming moral responsibility for myself. The point is ownership. I own my past, my beginnings, my perceptions. And just as I will make myself responsible if my dog or child bites someone, or my car rolls backwards down a hill and causes damage, so I take on full accountability for the little ship of my being, even if I do not have control of its course. It is this sense of being the possessor of a consciousness that makes us feel responsible for it.”

I partially disagree, answering with a mix of "Mu" from Zen Buddhism via "Goedel, Escher, Bach" and Dennett's idea of subselves. I don't think you can discuss this issue otherwise.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Relativity in philosophical, poetic portrait


Einsteinian physics can seem unreal
Perhaps even more when physicists who know better,
Or should,
Still try to pin down a light-infused transcendent field
To an 'objective reality' of space and time, or spacetime.
The problem?
Light is objective,
But the flow of spacetime is not, no matter the apparent
Near-zero rest speeds of everyday life.
Too many physicists
Have failed to crack open and wrestle with Wittgenstein
And honestly admit they are playing the wrong word and language games.
Ultimately, we cannot 'step outside' of the universe.
We cannot fully fathom the light's-eye view that collapses our cosmos to a singularity.
Light, the ultimate speed limit?
Yes, and more.
The ultimate mind limit, as accelerated thought foreshortens ever more.
It is the escape velocity of the omnisphere

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Road maps for life


Analogies. Metaphors. Deeper meanings.
My atlas is a road map in more ways than one.
Torn, tattered, browned pages of internal road trips;
Nostalgic for past journeys to American wonder,
Hopes for future getaways,
And the emotional escapes and release of both.
I haven’t opened my atlas so much recently,
Nor looked as much at old photo albums of past trips.
The nostalgic side of that atlas has little savor
At this moment, and its hint of future escapes
Is almost equally dry to my lips.
If life is an eternal now, a succession of present moments,
Then past and future gain flavor from the taste of today
And my reflecting on them.
I may need to break metaphorical bread together
And share an atlas printed for two.

Friday, June 11, 2010

If Steve Pinker "hearts" social media

Can the apocalypse be far behind? To be honest, the column Pinker writes touting the benefits of the information flow explosion isn't all bad. He didn't turn it into a sermon for Pop Ev Psych, at least.

Nonetheless, he's too generous, if not by half, at least by 25 percent. And, they may be little, but he does build a couple of straw men in just 800 words. No surprise there.

Nontheist, not atheist?

Except for his defense of the dumb term "bright" (and yes, it's dumb, from a PR/marketin point if nothing else), I totally agree with Bob Carroll's essay on why he's not an atheist.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Buddhism IS a religion and IS metaphysical

Unfortunately, it's not just Sam Harris who is wrong about that. A friend/acquaintance of mine on an e-mail discussion group claims that Buddhism has little to do with metaphysics and that karma is non-metaphysical, but just a physical-type law of cause and effect.

I first said that the Dalai Lama himself, despite his self-purportation to being open to the findings of science, said he would never surrender a belief in either karma or reincarnation. I noted the linking of the two beliefs as further attestation that Buddhism in general, and also karma in specific, was about metaphysics.

He claimed karma was a physical law specifically encompassing things like cutting a neighbor's lawn, and the grass is shorter as a result.

I then said Hinduism back in the Gita, the Hinduism from which Buddhism evolved, already believed in karma as metaphysical and linked to reincarnation.

I then posted a Wiki link specifically to karma in Buddhism, including a reference to how this doctrine, in metaphysical understanding, goes back to the reported teachings of the Buddha himself:
The Buddha most often spoke of karma as the determining factor of the realm of one's subsequent rebirth--for this reason karma is often explained in tandem with rebirth and cosmology. The Cūlakammavibhanga Sutta ("The Shorter Exposition of Action," Majjhima Nikaya 3.203) is devoted to describing the various rebirths that various kinds of actions produce; negative actions such as killing lead to rebirths in the lower realms such as hell, and virtuous action such as gracious behavior under duress leads to rebirth in the human or other higher realms.
At that point he said, in a semi-direct quote, "I've actually studied Buddhism; you're just posting a Wiki link." (He ignored that three-four e-mail chains prior, he had posted a Wiki link himself.)

Of course, that said, Buddhism has the combination of illogic and moral offensiveness to believe in reincarnation without the existence of a "metaphysical self." In fact, it's this pernicious combination that leads me to label Buddhism as more offensive, in some ways, than fundamentalist Christianity. (That said, the Buddha didn't deny that that whatever was reincarnated in the new life had some connection with the "personhood" of the old life.

On the illogic side, if you try to wrestle more fully with what Buddhism, and allegedly the Buddha, meant by "not-self," you see just how logically full of crap he and his religion were and are.

On the morals side, the belief that an impersonal non-"metaphysical" self is not reincarnated, that a quasi-impersonal life force is all that goes to a new person, but that that new person is punished for deeds of a past life to which he/she is not connected, and about which he/she has no memory, is more morally offensive in some ways than a Christian fundamentalism belief in eternal hell for people who haven't heard of Christianity.

And, it only gets worse. Some schools of Buddhism even go so far as to, along the lines of collective guilt, to believe in "collective karma."

Unfortunately, not only do the Sam Harrises of New (and Old) Atheism distort and deny what Buddhism actually means, they peddle a bill of goods about what it is that's about as bad as New Agers' own bill of goods about Buddhism.

As to more specifically how Sam Harris is wrong?

The following is excerpted from my Amazon review of his "The End of Faith":
Harris, in his last chapter, claims that mediation and “spiritual” practices **as taught under the aegis of Eastern religion** (one can meditate using the Western scientific tool of biofeedback also, etc.) is “not a statement of metaphysics.” (I have in the past, through self-hypnosis, gone “deep” enough to see the mandala-like spirals that come right before the tunnel of white light, showing that one can meditate deeply without any “spiritual” program whatsoever.) Harris also ignores here the fact that “mystical” traditions in the West, through the vehicle of Gnosticism, had far more social penetrating power than he will admit.

In short, his final chapter is about setting Buddhist and other spirituality on a pedestal, undermining the title of his book,

Sam, if you claim that meditation has to really come from an Eastern “spiritual” discipline, instead of biofeedback, self-hypnosis or other non-“spiritual” tools, that’s a faith statement. Pure and simple.

Note this quote on page 221: “Mysticism is a rational enterprise.” Would that include “sky-clad” Jains who deliberately starve themselves to death rather than risk swallowing even a microbe? ...

And that was without Harris’ incredible credulity on the existence of psychic phenomena and even reincarnation.

I refer to footnote 18, page 45. Here, Harris credits Rupert Sheldrake and Dean Radin as being credible writers on the subject of psi phenomena. Any credible skeptic knows that ain’t so.

He then goes on to say, “There may even be some credible evidence for reincarnation.”
So, how does Harris try to get away with claiming that, ultimately, Buddhism is just a psychology?

In "Killing the Buddha" (PDF), he cheats. He claims that Buddhist meditiation (which he, wrongly, considers the core of Buddhism) should be separated from Buddhist religion.

Now, is meditation de facto religious? Of course not. But, Buddhist meditation is ultimately meditation on Buddhist religious concepts. It's religious, indeed.

For more "problematic" quotes of Harris', see Wiki.

For more on his problematic beliefs, go to Skeptic's Dictionary. (I'm the complaining reader, and, yes, technically Harris is an atheist; I made a category confusion mistake on that. A skeptic, though, he is not.)

For more on his uncritical belief in Buddhism, go here, near the bottom of the webpage, about 3/4 the way down.

So, you skeptics and New Atheists who "heart" Sam Harris? Get a clue.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Science smarts is no guarantee of ethics

What else can you say about a geneticist who says that, when taking people's DNA samples, "informed consent" does NOT include telling them what specific lines of study the research is intended to be about, or even, if such information is given, necessarily limiting oneself to such lines of study.
“I was doing good science,” Therese Markow, now a professor at the University of California, San Diego, said in a telephone interview.
Maybe you were doing going science, in a narrow definition, but you were doing terrible ethics.

Is it any wonder that indigenous people around the world, including the Havasupai Indians mentioned in the story, don't trust various life scientists treading into their homelands?

And, it gets worse.
“Everyone wants to be open and transparent,” said Dr. David Karp, an associate professor of internal medicine at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, who has studied informed consent for DNA research. “The question is, how far do you have to go? Do you have to create some massive database of people’s wishes for their DNA specimens?”
Yes, you do!

And, while the question is foremost for and about indigenous peoples, I know full well that I don't want scientists with the ethical stances of Karp or Markow asking me to participate in DNA research, either.

And, the historical obtuseness doesn't just stop there. The exploitation of Henrietta Lack's DNA, without informing her or her family, some 50 years ago, just became public earlier this year.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

No, you CAN'T multitask

Not really. Not even if you're a woman. It looks like the human brain, using its bilateral division, assigns two tasks to different hemispheres and does something similar to computer buffering as needed.
"The human prefrontal function seems to be built to control two tasks simultaneously. It means in everyday behaviour we can readily switch between two tasks but not between three. With three tasks the division is limited to only two hemispheres, so there is a problem," Dr. Etienne Koechlin said.
What does that mean if you're doing more than two things at once, or trying to? Pretty simple:
The study suggests that this basic division of the brain into two halves may explain why human beings tend to prefer a simple choice between two options rather than three or more.
The story author then tries to extrapolate to British politics, and perhaps goes too far:
It might even explain why the Liberal Democrats, as the third political party, find it hard to get a look in at general elections.
Nope, not an explanation. Look at Germany, for example. Rather, the British, like the Americans, have a "first past the post" election system which makes it tougher on third parties.

Beyond that misconjecture, though, the full story is worth a read.

First Amendment trumps 12-Steppers again

When will officers of the parole, rehab and other parts of the legal system finally learn that AA is a religion, under two U.S. appellate court rulings, rather than either be ignorant or lie? And, in light of that, assume that NA is the same?

And, when will they either ignorantly or arrogantly stop costing the rest of us money through leaving state governments, or the federal one, open to lawsuits, damages, etc.? And, since the 9th Circuit, which includes California, was one of two federal appellate courts, in 2007, to have already found AA to be religious in First Amendment terms, this case is even more egregious.

Considering that the Bay Area is home to a major "secular" recovery group, Lifering Secular Recovery, parole agent Mitch Crofoot is either very ignorant or very lying.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Chomsky not so right on brain and language

Yesterday, I blogged about how some of the latest findings in language usage are dialing back past claims about the degree of the brain's modularity.

More on that today; it appears that language usage by the brain is more of a kluge, or "workaround," than has previously been understood.

It probably undercuts, again, claims to human "rationality," too. I'm thinking more and more the old Enlightenment duality between "rational" and "irrational" needs evaluation and modification.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Questioning the brain's modularity a bit more

In recent years, the idea that the human brain is "massively modular" have come under more scrutiny. The latest on this? Different languages use different parts of the brain. I'm not saying the brain is not at all modular, just less modular than has been claimed.

And, this has implications far beyond language. Like for evolutionary psychology.

I'm now an Amazon top-1,000 reviewer

Reviewing almost no classical fiction and absolutely ZERO modern everyday novels, I am now a top1,000 reviewer. Here's what I'm reading.

Religion may just be irrational

AND linked with a continuum of other irrational beliefs, per a new study in Finland.

It sounds like a very interesting article. Now (and not to oversell MRIs) it would be interesting to take this to the next level. Are their brains functioning differently in some specific ways?

And, if at least "opennmindedness" to religious belief does pair with the other beliefs, who will tell New Atheist "guru" (not in MY book he ain't) Sam Harris, already on the record as accepting the possibility of psi phenomena?

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Just how conscious are we?

New Scientist appears to transcend its slide into the crapper of the past few years with a serious of vignettes on different aspects of consciousness.

First, unconscious reactions that we later label as products of conscious free will appear to occur seconds before a "conscious determination," not just Benjamin Libet's well-known 300 millisecond delay.

Second, it appears that consciousness is not "vs." unconsciousness, but that the two are on a spectrum.

In light of all of this, in addition to it becoming clearer that the human mind does not operate like a computer, it's clearer that we are a long ways away from creating a conscious machine, something that would pass a Turing test when viewed by a true skeptic.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Science vs. scientism

This excellent post is why I read Bob Carroll more than P.Z. Myers. To my skeptical friends — if you're not following the Skeptic's Dictionary, you're missing a lot.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

New indications of what drives consciousness

A theory known as "global workspace" seems to be getting some tentative empirical confirmation, including that "the researchers found a 300 ms delay between presenting the stimuli and witnessing this explosion of neural activity," which may be analogous to the famous half-second delay between starting what turns out to be a conscious action and actually consciously willing to do it.

That said, per David Chalmers, this study seems to answer an "easy question" about consciousness, or a couple, more than any "hard questions."

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Talk deeply, be happy

Hey, fellow history, philosophy or political science geeks! Don't be afraid to talk about what you love; it's probably making you happier than just talking about weather or sports.

Friday, March 05, 2010

The creation of hell and the problem of evil

If, as many Christians claim, hell was created for Satan et al, and not human beings, this still does nothing to alleviate the problem of evil.

God, if the omniscient one of Christian tradition, knew what Satan et al would do, and yet did not create him in a way so as not to do that.

Looking at religion pages every week currently provokes my thought.

The "age of accountability" and ensoulment

Baptists and similar strains in Protestant Christianity talk about an "age of accountability," with the implication that "not so good" behavior committed before that age isn't fully "sinful."

Well, let's take this idea a bit further.

Does that mean a child before the age of accountability isn't fully "ensouled" either? (Presuming, just for this line of argument, that such a thing as a "soul" exists.)

And, what, then, does that say about a developing fetus, one, say, before viability? Is it not "ensouled" at all?


Saturday, February 27, 2010

Pop Ev Psych goes off the rails on depression

The idea that clinical depression was evolutionarily selected for is why many real evolutionary biologists laugh at something like this as a classical "Just So Story."

It's caveated, has little real explanatory power, doesn't allow for alternative explanations, doesn't well explain away counterexamples and is generally weak.

Beyond that, Andy Thomson and Paul Andrews undercut their own theory, and at a grade-school level.

In response to criticism, they admit that, in essence, "We don't know what depression is."

Well, if you don't know what a trait is, how can you even claim it's selected for, in the first place? You've just said you don't know what it is, so you don't know what is being selected for.


And, of course, given the present (but growing) state of cognitive science and neuroscience, this is the case about ev psych, or rather, Pop Ev Psych, claims about just about any mental or emotional state.

Meanwhile, on his blog, Jonah Lerner, the author of the NYT Mag story, actually defends the general line of thinking of Thomson/Andrews, though in the story, he was good enough to marshal plenty of opponents of their claims.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Cultural neuroscience - a new frontier

When the addition is still in basic arithmetic, Chinese speakers use a different part of their brain than do Westerners.

Things like this are part of the purview of cultural neuroscience.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Pain-free livestock? Would you eat the meat?

If scientists could find a way to produce, say, veal that didn't feel the pain, especially the subjective sense of pain, of being confined in veal pens, and you don't eat at least some types of meat over the suffering issue, would you eat this? Especially since making such pain-free livestock may be possible?

Saturday, February 06, 2010

The human brain, simulated?

In Switzerland, a neuroscientist is hoping to use an IBM supercomputer much more powerful than Deep Blue to do just that.

That's interesting enough. The real thing is that Henry Markram says we (mainly, his professional colleagues being referenced) need to ditch many of their scientific preconceptions about how individual neurons, neuron groups and areas of the brain work.

The story describes how he is modeling the simulation on actual "slices" of mouse neocortex.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

'Ugly evangelical Americanism' rears up again, in Haitai

And, in the middle of earthquake recovery, the government finds both the means and the cojones (what's the French for that?) to throw the book at the child-stealing Idaho Baptists.

How directly the numbnuttery of Pat Robertson and his ilk on Haiti's "pact with the devil" is on this issue, and how much this is just general, "ugly evangelical American" evangelism gone awry, as with the Michigan gun scope maker, the missionaries in Afghanistan a few years ago, or whatever, I'm not sure.

But, "ugly evangelical Americanism" it is, indeed.

Would that President Barack H. Obama would find some cojones to condemn this, too.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Even Obama over uses "civic religion"

Obama can't even be totally blame-free on this.

Very interesting, noting that civic religion often invokes what really is pure, dumb luck, but noting that nobody wants to actually put it that way.

In talking about theodicy and this issue, James Wood notes:
Either God is punitive and interventionist (the Robertson view), or as capricious as nature and so absent as to be effectively nonexistent (the Obama view). Unfortunately, the Bible, which frequently uses God’s power over earth and seas as the sign of his majesty and intervening power, supports the first view; and the history of humanity’s lonely suffering decisively suggests the second.

Or god, at least as many people see him, doesn't exist.

The emotional power of how theodicy undermines the Western Judeo-Islamo-Christian all-powerful deity was as powerful for me, if not more so, than intellectual arguments.

Unfortunately, somebody as smart as Barack Obama doesn't think that through.

Rightly did Hume say, in light of things like this, that reason is the slave of the passions.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The shortcomings of cognitive behavioral therapy

A chapter in Jonah Lehrer's book, "How We Decide," along with a famous quote by David Hume, brought the title of this post to stark light.

Don't get me wrong. CBT is good to very good for mild, moderate and medium depressions. It's the bee's knees for panic attacks. In combination with densensitization therapy, it's very good for a lot of phobias.

But other neuroses, it might not help so much.

Lehrer talks about psychopathy in the latter portion of his book, and how psychopaths can read the emotions of others so well, but have no emotional connectivity to their own minds, so can rationalize, in a confabulating fashion, any decisions they may choose to take.

Autistic people, on the other hand, are just the reverse. They have an emotional life of their own, but simply cannot read other people's emotions.

Combine this with Hume's famous, and somewhat deliberately contrarian, observation that "reason is the slave of the passions," and you see CBT's shortcomings.

CBT says we can think our way through emotions.

Well, psychopaths can't. To the degree we can talk about a lesser version of them, and call that group "neuropaths" by analogy, they can't think their way through emotions very well. And, in a sense, autistic people can't think their way into emotions, if you will.

So, on counseling for emotional-based mental health issues where the emotions aren't irrational, or transcend the rational/irrational in some sense, being deeply rooted in the limbic brain (think PTSD), CBT really just can't cut the mustard.

Unfortunately, some CBT, or RBT (forgetting the "E") aficionados think it's almost a cure-all, or at the least, that it can do more than it can.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

MediaNews, one of the nation's largest newspaper companies, is also the latest to file Chapter 11. As I e-mailed a friend, Dean Singleton may have done a great job of building up MediaNews, but as chairman of AP, he was pretty clueless about how to monetize online newspapers, and related matters.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

SSRIs no better than placebo? Not quite

The truth is, no new study claimed that. Rather, that story last week was based on meta-analysis. Regular readers know my feelings about meta-analysis. Worse yet, the meta-analysis included only 23 original studies, which in turn focused on just two antidepressants.

Hardly scientific.

Nature VIA nurutre

If you haven't kept up with recent research on heredity, population genetics or anything similar, the new Time has a GREAT story on epigenetics. Look it up and read it. Then throw away any simplistic ideas you have about "genetic inheritance."

If you are familiar with the basic idea of epigenetics, some of the newest findings may still surprise you, such as the rate of influence, the depth of influence, and more. Giraffes' necks aside, maybe Lamarck wasn't so wrong. Certainly, Stan Prusiner looks ever more right on prions, in light of stuff like this.

Obviously, we are nowhere near the end of discovering what epigentic findings mean. But, I think we can put paid to a few of the more outlandishly positivistic ideas of late 20th-century genetics.

Individualized medicines? Not likely to happen, and certainly not any time soon. You'd have to check at least some epigenetic as well as genetic factors. The price for that and an even higher level of individualizing the medications, would seem to pretty much rule that out.

Insurance, insurance, privacy, snooping, pre-existing conditions? All in a new realm now.

Drug testing? Some lawyer will raise an epigenetic argument at some point, whether it's legit or a red herring.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Consciousness not in the brain? I disagree

Dr. Ray Tallis raises some interesting points, but I think, ultimately, his psychological and philosophical objections fall short of explaining away the potential for the scientific search for consciousness as exemplified by cognitive science, etc.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

How's that 'prosperity gospel' working?

Not so well at all, at Rick Warren's Saddleback Church.

A little schadenfreude for Bro. Rick. If not praying harder and believing harder, maybe he needs to preach harder?