Thursday, January 28, 2010

nothing to add

I don't think I can think of anything to add, either.  What else but religion could so warp a society's sense of morality?

Tuesday, January 26, 2010


Perhaps I'm becoming as obsessed with Professor Dendy as he is with Pharyngula.  I should probably take my own advice and walk away.  Besides, it's not as much fun any more, now that he's refusing to publish any of my comments.

I have to share this, however. In his latest post, Professor Dendy childishly crows that a Pharyngulite he criticised in this post on his other blog (why does he bewilderingly have two blogs with very similar content anyway?) hasn't responded to those criticisms.  He concludes that....well...what, exactly?  As usual, he doesn't really say.  He seems to think his point is obvious.  Well, it isn't to me.

Anyway, there are a few things to say about this episode:
  • Professor Dendy's original criticism of Loris is that the paper cited used somewhat speculative language.  Professor Dendy seemed to think that this was not appropriate in a scientific paper.  This just revealed that Dendy doesn't have the slightest idea of what science is or how it works.  I pointed this out to him, but he didn't publish my comment.
  • In his second post on the topic, Dendy's criticism seems to have changed (possibly in the light of his reading - but not publishing - my comment?)  Now he's saying that the problem was that Loris was stating something as a fact, but the paper contains speculative language so is no basis for calling something a fact.  I can't see where Loris states anything as a fact.  Dendy provides an incomplete quote from Loris, without any context, which still doesn't seem to me to be claiming what Dendy claims it does.  Dendy clearly seems to think he has achieved some kind of victory here, but it looks to me as though he's wallowing in a shallow, grimy puddle of fail.
  • At no point does Dendy properly criticise the evidence presented in the paper.  He just attacks the author (I'm assuming the author Loris and the Pharyngulite Loris are one and the same, although Dendy doesn't make this clear).  This shows an even poorer grasp of science on Professor Dendy's part even than has been revealed so far.
  • It's rich of Dendy to criticise others for not responding when he himself has failed to answer criticisms on his own blog (made before he stopped publishing my comments).  My comments were actually relevant to what Dendy wrote, unlike his spurious, unprovoked and batshit insane criticisms of Loris.  It would seem that he has far more of an obligation to respond than does Loris, but he seems conveniently to have forgotten this.
  • Dendy writes that "Loris has yet to respond, nor have any of the other Pharyngulites".  This is an out-and-out lie, since I responded.  Dendy just chose not to publish it, then to lie about it afterwards.
  • It's not at all clear whether Loris even knows about either of Dendy's blog posts.  Even if he or she does, there no obligation to respond.  Even if there is no response, it has no bearing whatsoever on the quality of the evidence contained in the paper.  Professor Dendy seems to think otherwise, for reasons he hasn't explained.
I'll try to wean myself off Professor Dendy now.  He didn't exactly start from a position of intellectual gianthood, but he's becoming a more pitiable figure every day. I don't know why he's become so fixated on Pharyngulites, but I don't think his obsession is doing him any good.  I should probably stop feeding oxygen to his already spluttering insanity and hope he starts to get better.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Professor Dendy update

Professor Dendy (see here, here and here) seems to have gone into meltdown.  He's writing post after post of spittle-flecked lameness about Pharyngula readers for a reason I cannot fathom accusing them of everything from worshipping feces (because someone said "holy crap") to accusing them of having no hope (because many don't believe in an afterlife).  He seems to be trying to ridicule Pharyngula readers with these immature and ill-considered jibes. Perhaps he feels that he's getting under their skin, but it's all so uncomfortably, eye-rolling childish that it's just not worthy of serious notice.

Which is just as well, since Professor Dendy seems to have suddenly become very selective about what comments he posts.  For example, I replied to his assertion that atheists don't have hope and the comment never appeared.  Sometime after I posted it, another comment appeared in praise of Professor Dendy's batshit ideas.

I also commented on a tooth-wilting post about 'their' (he doesn't say who, but presumably he means evolutionists) standards of evidence, where he ridicules the fact that a paper he quotes from uses quite speculative language.  This is entirely appropriate and Professor Dendy's comments are ridiculous.  All they do is reveal that Dendy doesn't have the slightest understanding of what science is or how it is done.  This casts a certain doubt on his claim to be a biologist.

Needless to say, this comment never appeared either.

Oh Professor Dendy, how disappointing.

Really, Professor, you don't seem to realise how much you are embarassing yourself.  Take a couple of deep breaths and just let it go.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Be afraid. Or bored. Whatever.

This chap is a biologist. You know he's a biologist because he seems to begin every other sentence with "as a biologist...." He also never fails to identify himself as a professor.

However, he doesn't believe in evolution and he thinks this is a good argument against it.

It isn't. It is based on a strawman which is easily refuted. In fact, I left a comment explaining why.

Theres a bit of confusion in my comment because Professor Dendy (biologist) has two blogs, which seem to have much the same content (other one here). I left a comment on this version of the story first (currently awaiting moderation) and then confused myself when I came across the story by other means. So to avoid confusion, I'll just repost my reply here, but do check out Professor Dendy's blog for some weapons-grade stupid.
There are several misconceptions here. I’ll skip over the ‘pond scum’ comment as a gross oversimplification and head straight to the following:

“If man is the latest and greatest species evolved”

This is not a claim of the theory of evolution. It doesn’t claim that Homo sapiens is either the latest or objectively the greatest species. Many species evolved later than humans. Many are better at lots of things than humans are. It’s hard to believe that anyone who understood the theory of evolution would claim that humans are ‘greater’ than other organisms. Just better at some things, worse at others.

In fact, the statement seems to reveal a fundamental but common misunderstanding of evolution: the assumption that there is some kind of progression over time which inevitably leads to mankind, with that species somehow at the ‘top’ of the evolutionary heap.

This is not the case. There is no direction in evolution, except in the trivial sense that modern organisms are necessarily more complex than the first ones because there was only one direction to go in; and tend to be more complex than earlier ones because evolution works by tinkering with existing organisms rather than starting from scratch each time.

Let me say that again: the theory of evolution categorically does NOT state that Homo sapiens is either the latest or greatest species.

Given that your entire point rests on this claim, I think we can safely ignore it. However, there are some more misconceptions to deal with:

“Isn’t the whole premise of Evolution that new species are better suited than the species from which they evolved? ”

Not at all. It is not true to say that later species are ‘more evolved’ or ‘better adapted’ than earlier ones. Better adapted to what? Humans are adapted to a different environment to the one our common anscestors with chimps were adapted to. This doesn’t make us more evolved or better adapted, just adapted to different things. Indeed, since we share a common anscestor with chimps, we are necessarily just as ‘evolved’ as they are and it’s likely that we are similarly well adapted to our environment (if not a little worse) than chimps are to theirs.

Besides, just because we find violent behaviour abhorrent, that doesn’t mean it is mal-adaptive. I’m not arguing that such behaviour is adaptive in humans (in fact, it seems more likely to be at least partly a symptom of the fact that our current environment is quite different to the one we originally adapted to, due to the large population, close proximity in cities, technology etc.) I’m just saying that the fact that we dislike some behaviour doesn’t necessarily mean that it is mal-adaptive, which you seem to assume.

Finally, you are aware that humans did not evolve from any of the other animals you mention, such as dogs, squirrels, canaries….right? In fact, we share a common anscestor with each of those animals and in almost every case, no modern animal is descended from any other modern animal.

I dread to think what Professor Dendy (biologist) is teaching his students about evolution. It's clear that he (presumably willfully) doesn't understand the first thing about it and has dismissed it without bothering to try. I'm not saying that Professor Dendy (biologist) is misleading his students about evolution, but if he is, then he is shortchanging their education and that ought to be a criminal offence.

By the way, I stumbled across Professor Dendy (biologist) when he left an idiotic comment (and then several more) on this Pharyngula post (just search for "professor dendy").

It's worth having a look at those comments and then looking at what he wrote about it on his own blog here.

Note that he didn't link to pharyngula or the comments, presumably so that his readers couldn't check what was actually said. That's not very honest, is it, Professor Dendy (liar)?

Monday, January 18, 2010

More privileging of religion

On the (BBC) news this morning were two stories that shared two common aspects:

1. Religion was entwined in both like a winkle in its shell
2. The reporting of and reaction to each story was virtually identical

Here they are:

The first was a suggestion by the UK Independence Party that burkas be banned in the UK, because that would cure terrorism.

The second involved a Hindu gentleman who wants to be cremated outdoors when he dies. Apparently this is not allowed in the UK and so this chap is claiming a human rights violation.

The similarities in the response to these stories (by both reporters and press) were striking if unsurprising. My immediate thought was that religion was a red herring in both cases, but the majority of others seemed to think it was the central – if not the whole – thing. Few people seemed to question that religion trumped secular arguments by default. They felt that you can’t stop people from doing things like wearing burkas if that’s what their religion tells them to do. Their position seemed to be that religion is sufficient to grant its practitioners special privileges that atheists are not entitled to.

My response would have been something along these lines:
I think there is a case for banning burkas because they are not only a symbol of the oppression of women, they are its instrument.

I see no evidence that banning burkas would reduce opportunities for terrorism and make us all safer, so I don’t think there’s a case for banning them for that reason.

Even if there does turn out to be a link between covered faces and terrorist attacks, I’m far from convinced that it would be a good case to ban covering our faces, let alone burkas specifically.

Either way, religion is a red herring. The question is whether being allowed to cover our faces if we want to increases the threat of terrorism (or whether it increases misery of Muslim women). We should make the decision of how to legislate based on evidence and once we’ve made it, nobody should be exempted on religious – or any other - grounds.

The apparent public – and my – responses to the second story were virtually identical: I personally can’t see a reason why cremation shouldn’t happen outdoors or indeed anywhere it’s safe and hygienic. The BBC repeatedly claimed that the majority of British people found open air cremations 'abhorrent', which was certainly a surprise to me. Anyway, if Hindus get to burn bodies outside cemeteries, then everyone else should too. If they don’t then nobody else should.

Religion is a red herring unless you decide in advance that it has privileged influence. And of course, almost everyone – religious or otherwise – seems to think it does.

It drives me spare. I just can't see why it should.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

even better

This links to a fund set up by the Richard Dawkins Foundation, collecting money for disaster relief in Haiti. It supports The International Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders, which have no religious affiliation. This is important for two reasons.

First, religious aid is often conditional, used as a means of acquiring converts. Second, donating to this fund will help counteract the myth that charity requires religion and that atheists cannot be compassionate.

If you pay using paypal, the usual paypal fees will not be deducted from your donation because Dawkins is personally paying these (up to $10k).

Friday, January 15, 2010

nothing wrong with giving a man a fish

Here you go.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

That Holm woman

Nancy Graham Holm wrote an article in the Guardian charging that Kurt Westergaard was himself responsible for an attempt on his life by an axe-wielding maniac because he refused to apologise for drawing a cartoon.

The cartoon in question was of course one of these ones (the one with the bomb) published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten back in 2005. Nancy thinks a number of astonishing things about this woeful story. Here they are:

1. Nancy thinks that the Danish Prime Minister at the time, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, should have apologised to Muslims and that if he had, the matter would have ended there.

As Denmark is a free country, the Prime Minister has no control over what appears in its newspapers and has no authority to apologise on behalf of any of its citizens or organisations. Besides, would this really have prevented the violence? The 'outrage' was carefully cultivated by people who wanted it to lead to violence. Would they have been able to twist an apology to make it sound like an admission of guilt? Either way, I don't share Nancy's certainty that an apology from Rasmussen or anyone else would have calmed everyone down: people intent on mayhem are rarely so easily mollified.

2. Nancy thinks that Jyllands-Posten deliberately humiliated muslims by publishing the cartoons.

Instead, the newspaper claims it was contributing to the debate about self-censorship. This seems a plausible explanation, especially in the light of what happened. I see no particular reason to assume their motives were otherwise, but even if they were - even if they wanted to humiliate Islam and all its adherents - that would hardly constitute an excuse for violence. This is particularly true since most of the violence was directed against people who had nothing to do with the cartoons and their publication. For the most part, it was committed by people who made the same mistake Nancy did in thinking that Denmark should apologise for the perfectly legal actions of some of its citizens.

3. Nancy thinks that the Danes are prejudiced against religion.

You'd be forgiven for thinking they have a damn good reason to be, especially in the wake of the cartoons' publication. But what surprises me about this is Nancy's apparent attitude that being suspicious of religion is something that should invite - and may even deserve - violence. Because muslims profess to be offended by unkind references to their religion, the attitudes of an entire nation are automatically wrong.

4. Nancy thinks that Wetergaard himself was directly responsible for the terrifying attempt on his life. It can be traced, she argues, "directly to the offence caused by Westergaard's cartoon."

This is Nancy's most foolish belief of all. It isn't clear to me in the slightest that having supposedly been offended is an excuse for murder. His attacker could have responded in any number of non-violent ways, such as drawing cartoons of his own, engaging in public debate or simply doing nothing and leaving Westergaard alone. He didn't. He responded by trying to cut him to pieces with an axe in front of his granddaughter. The debate about self-censorship is not an abstract one. It opens floodgates. Backing down when threatened with violence encourages further violence and particularly the suppression of ideas somebody doesn't like.

Westergaard has no reason to apologise for drawing the cartoon he was commissioned to draw. Jyllands-Posten has no reason to apologise for publishing it. Above all, Anders Fogh Rasmussen has no reason to apologise for not attempting to control the press in his country on the grounds that someone might be *gasp* offended or to pretend to apologise on their behalf.

I don't understand why it needs to be repeated, day after day, that nobody has the right to not be offended. People might argue that Jyllands-Posten's article was ill-judged or insensitive (I don't) but you can't credibly argue that other people's choice to employ violence to suppress opinions they don't like can be justified by an appeal to 'offense'.

I have enormous sympathy for Westergaard and his granddaughter. Westergaard has a panic room and was forced to retreat into it, leaving his granddaughter behind. He did this because he had been threatened before and was advised that the safest course of action for everyone involved was to head to the panic room and lock himself in: attackers of this sort rarely harm family members. However, this choice must have been devastating to both Westergaard and his granddaughter and I cannot accept Nancy's assertion that he put himself in the position to have to make that choice by refusing to apologise for doing his job.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Why atheists need to make themselves heard

Russell Blackford has a nice article in The Philosopher’s Magazine, here, about the need for atheists to be vocal.  Almost everybody seems to disagree: the religious often can’t understand why people are allowed to criticise religion at all and many atheists think we should avoid criticism because it is somehow counter-productive to some mysterious atheist agenda.  The latter attitude bewilders me.  I have no agenda as an atheist other than a commitment to having good reasons to believe things.  As a member of society and man around town – atheist or otherwise – my agenda includes trying to make sure children and other humans are not misled.  This involves fighting religion.  It involves combating dogma of any kind.

The inevitable charge that this commitment is as dogmatic as any religion is as irrelevant as it is tedious.  It’s a principle, not a dogma, and the only people who can’t recognise the difference seem to be dogmatists themselves.

There are lots of reasons why we shouldn’t just shut up about being atheists or about our reasons for being atheists.  My favourite is something a different Russell (Bertrand) said: “There can’t be a practical reason for believing something that isn’t true”.  And so on, but watch the whole of that interview because it is simply magnificent.

Don't kill people with ignorance

There's a lot of reading here, so I'll point out a couple of highlights.

First this from Don McLeroy, who sits on the Texas State Board of Eduction and gets to hold sway on the content of schoolkids' text books:

The way I evaluate history textbooks is first I see how they cover Christianity and Israel. Then I see how they treat Ronald Reagan—he needs to get credit for saving the world from communism and for the good economy over the last twenty years because he lowered taxes.

You won't be surprised to know that he describes evolution as "hooey".

Then this:

The Texas legislature finally intervened in 1995, after a particularly heated skirmish over health textbooks—among other things, the board demanded that publishers pull illustrations of techniques for breast self-examination and swap a photo of a briefcase-toting woman for one of a mother baking a cake.

These people are so offended by illustrations - illustrations mind you, not even photographs - of breasts that they'd rather large numbers of women die of ignorance than permit them to appear in text books. And heaven (literally) forbid that a text book show a range of positive images of women other than child rearing and house keeping.

You must have to work really hard to be this evil and especially to sustain it for years on end.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Mooney tells us how to do science again

Ophelia Benson is very good on this issue. The problem with the accomodationist stance is not that it sucks up to religion (although I personally find that distasteful), but that its practitioners insist on telling everyone else how to behave. They seem to think that there is a clear political agenda in science and that all scientists should rally around this cause and adjust our behaviour to best achieve it.

I don't know about you, but I never seem to get invited to the meetings where all this is decided.

Brave woman, predictable response