Sunday, December 28, 2014

About Tim Minchin

“I follow all you guys – or I follow more pro-sciencey, feminist commentators than anyone else – because I’m trying to put my face in all this stuff; this notion that I am suddenly a cisgendered, privileged person whose voice is . . .” He trails off. “Who needs to shut up.”

That quote is from the article Tim Minchin: The satirist who ran out of upwards to punch and I highly recommend reading it.

I adore that man. This article is really good and sort of captures some of what is just great about Tim Minchin, like his introspection and reevaluation of his own work in its cultural context and willingness to change, to improve, how he sees things, even if it means abandoning past views or even his own work.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Abstinence Education via Aaron Schock

My Congressional Representative, Aaron Schock (R), has voted in favor of the amended version of the newly passed temporary federal budget that encourages and funds even more teaching of abstinence only sex education in public schools.

Here is what that section of the bill says:
That of the funds made available under this heading, $5,000,000 shall be for making competitive grants to provide abstinence education (as defined by section 510(b)(2)(A)–(H) of the Social Security Act) to adolescents, and for Federal costs of administering the grant: Provided further, That grants made under the authority of section 510(b)(2)(A)–(H) of the Social Security Act shall be made only to public and private entities that agree that, with respect to an adolescent to whom the entities provide abstinence education under such grant, the entities will not provide to that adolescent any other education regarding sexual conduct, except that, in the case of an entity expressly required by law to provide health information or services the adolescent shall not be precluded from seeking health information or services from the entity in a different setting than the setting in which abstinence education was provided 

You can find the full text of the amended bill at the following link. The relevant items are on pages 782 and 783:…/CPRT-113HPRT…/pdf/CPRT-113HPRT91668.pdf

Voting by Congressional Representatives on this Amended bill are here:

Remember this when you hear someone say that Aaron Schock is a moderate Republican. Moderates don't vote to intentionally under educate children using the objectively miserable failure that is abstinence only sex education. This is the voting record of religious extremists and the willfully obtuse. 

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Why Do We Care About Celebrities? Gossip

I think the reason we care is gossip. Gossip is part of being in a human community, it binds us, and polices our behavior to acknowledge norms. This works pretty well in smallish groups defined by nearly daily personal interaction. And important members of the tribe are defined in part by having a personal relationship with the most people and having the most people care about their lives. But modern mass communication hijacks this feature of human social behavior and helps us treat famous people as though they are part of our own tribe. We know things about their personal lives that we shouldn't given that they aren't actually in our social circle, but still we know these things and are drawn to learn more of these things because the other people in our tribe do too, as though the celebrities are important -- like tribal elders or great leaders or something -- even though they aren't any of those things in our actual social group/tribe.

Gossip can be destructive and mean. It can be used to intentionally spread lies or exaggerations about people to "put them in their place." And of course the policing of behavior can backfire on the excessive gossiper too, making them a source of scorn in the community. But even when used in means ways, the overall effect on the tribe is bonding, even if it is bonding in dislike of someone. I'm inclined to think of gossip less as a good or bad thing and more as mere part of what defines a social group, even playing a role in defining who is in the tribe and who isn't because no one knows or cares about them. We gossip about the people who matter to us and to our tribe -- but this sure does get weirdly applied in a mass communication culture of hundreds of millions of people. Hence celebrities we know a lot about but don't actually know and the painful obsession some people have in tearing celebrities down, of putting them in their place.

There is no doubt that there are famous people who are famous largely because of their own self promotion -- the Kardashians. But there are also plenty of performers who don't try to attract attention in their daily lives, but who are harassed endlessly by the press and the public. They can't go shopping, go on a date, take a vacation, etc. without ending up in the celebrity press -- their lives offered up to us to consume and gossip about, not because their daily lives are noteworthy, but because they are famous and therefore interesting to us. On the one hand, they are famous and possibly wealthy and certainly enviable -- giving up aspects of their privacy sure seems like a reasonable trade off. On the other hand, it must suck to be largely unable to do ordinary things without being harassed, to be critiqued by total strangers for every pound gained, for every bad haircut, or to have their romantic relationships scrutinized to a degree most of us wouldn't tolerate from our friends.

But, gossip isn't all bad. Sometimes it is used to spread information intended to help people or spare their feelings. Like if someone has suffered a personal tragedy that isn't well known. Gossip can spread that news without any need for the person who is suffering to have to keep telling people. And gossip can be used in that situation to encourage other members of the tribe to be nice to the person suffering. Still it is bonding of the tribe and its members, even though it is gossip. Just a feature of human interaction that can be good or bad depending on how it is used.

Friday, December 5, 2014

More on Anti-GMO Nonsense

There are several "Food Babe" type anti-GMO memes making the rounds of social media lately. OK. Let me give you the perspective of someone "on the ground" in this debate.

Labeling products with GMO material in them is going to be a giant pain. How much GMO product in the item will require a label? Nearly every acre of soybeans and field corn in this country are products of genetic engineering. So if only a trace amount of GMO requires a label, then huge swaths of the grocery store will be labeled. What about animals fed from GMO crops (almost all of them), does meat from them require a label? Working out which products should get the label and which shouldn't is going to arbitrary and unjust. Instead, consider that so called organic food is already labeled as such -- odds are that stuff isn't GMO and nearly everything else is to some extent.

Now on to the ancillary point of why label, safety? The assumption apparently being that GMO crops are somehow more dangerous to eat than conventional crops. There simply is no evidence that could be true, let alone that it is true. Study after study have given us the firm conclusion that GMO crops are indistinguishable from their non-GMO counterparts in terms of nutrition or safety. In fact GMO crops have been intensely studied in the past several decades, far more intensely studied than any other agricultural product in American history. The federal USDA, EPA, and FDA as well as some of their state counterparts all require, conduct, and oversee testing of every single new GMO product before it is brought to the market. Ongoing studies of health and environmental effects by government agencies and many universities have been gathering data from the field for close to 30 years and so far all effects have been as predicted -- which is to say there is no reason to assume GMO crops are unsafe or in any way different from their non-GMO counterparts for human or animal consumption.

This labeling nonsense is fear mongering and irresponsibly teaching people to fear GMOs without any good reason. In the next few decades we are going to have to have even more GMO food stuffs available, not just grains but vegetables. This isn't optional, non-GMO plant breeding cannot do enough. In order to feed the growing global population in a world with shifting climates and shrinking farm land, we will need foods that grow under many conditions, produce many vital nutrients, and above all out yield their non-GMO ancestors. Yes, we can, should, and will test these products before, during, and after their release to farmers to use. Yes, we will pull from the market any product with a harmful trait and immediately eliminate that trait from future generations of that crop, this has been done and is easy to do via genetic engineering. In that way we will continue to improve the quality, quantity, reliability and safety of the food supply.

Friday, July 25, 2014


Eventually I come to regret every mean thing I've done. Sometimes it takes many years, but as my rage simmers down into the distant, emotional past so too does whatever righteous indignation that justified that anger. I am left then mostly with only a dull sense of the emotional context around the memories of my meanness. Which in turn leads me to regret not dealing with the situation better, not having been a better version of myself.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Eucharistic Miracle Story

Recently I encountered some Catholics who repeatedly mentioned miracles as evidence for their god and specifically seemed impressed with a story about eucharistic bread turning into human flesh. So, I’ve been looking into that. There are two stories. One from 8th Century Italy. And one from Argentina in the 1990s. It is the second story that I think the young women were referencing since this is the version where the flesh is specifically thought to be cardiac tissue.

The story is that a discarded eucharistic bread piece (host) was left in a church. When the priest found it, he put it away. The next day, in place of the host there was a much larger piece of bloody substance. Years later, an Argentinian Cardinal, now the Pope, investigated this and ordered that the still fresh flesh be scientifically tested. A sample was sent to a famous medical examiner in New York, Dr. Frederic Zugiba, who proved the tissue was human cardiac muscle from a left ventricle.

There are numerous Catholic sources on the internet that tell that story, almost word for word. But there is woefully little respectable, secular coverage of the events depicted. In searching for additional information I looked up the doctor. His name is actually spelled Dr. Frederick Zugibe and he is a recently deceased, famous medical examiner for Rockland County, New York. But nowhere in his publications, biographies, or other online information officially attributed to or about him is any mention of this miracle story from Argentina. There’s plenty about his Shroud of Turin investigations and crucifixion studies, but I found not a single reliable source of documentation that corroborates his involvement with bread turning into human cardiac tissue, just a blog post with no citations.

I place a very low confidence in the accuracy of that miracle story. The story itself shares many characteristics in common with internet chain letter glurge. Various sources of the story are all self referential and nearly verbatim copies of one another. I could find no secular reporting on the story that doesn’t just credulously repeat the internet story and very little of that. There is no way to guarantee that no one could have tampered with the bread/flesh at any point in the years after its discovery but before samples were allegedly tested. But most importantly, the story makes fantastic claims that would be hard to believe even if the National Academy of Sciences had throughly investigated and endorsed all the particulars, making this a sensational, international news story.

No, it is far more likely that the story is fabricated in part or in whole and that pious fraud has played a role in aspects of the story’s development and distribution. Which is how I'll treat this story and any others like it, until such a time that the preponderance of solid scientific evidence serves as irrefutable, if still extraordinary proof.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014


I’m absolutely certain that I’m not a great independent thinker with a keen intellect able to parse ideas from a far range of potentially offensive sources thereby arriving at every one of my opinions by throughly investigating nearly every available angle on an issue in detail. I don’t try to be. I don’t even want to be.

I want to know things, yes. Of course, I want to have informed opinions. But I’m also very interested in being a good person and I work hard at that. I also have a partial awareness of my own cognitive limitations and tendencies, which can work against my goals, even challenging my efforts at decency and empathy. So I do try to be at least somewhat selective about my sources of information.

As a result, despite caring a lot about gender and sexual equality, I don't read much Mens Rights Activist writings or interact with men who identify as such. Quite the opposite, I avoid such people just as I avoid avowed white supremacists, neo-confederates, or Christian dominionists. Because, what philosophical positions of theirs that I do know are antithetical to what I value.

That said, are there MRAs who complain about unfairness like the ways in which courts sometimes treat divorce or child custody? Sure, and those are valid complaints that are shared by feminist thinkers -- though the feminists have arrived at that conclusion via different rationale -- and I don't see any need for male supremacists to tell me about injustices that equality minded people have already shown me. Do my avoidances make me prone to ideological limitations on what I know about? Maybe they do, but I'm not bothered by that if it helps to marginalize the ideologies of misogyny or racism or other social evils.

Are there other people who actively seek out fringe opinions, take such views seriously, and incorporate what they learn into their thinking in rational ways without fear of adopting anti-social attitudes, falling into depression, or becoming disillusioned with humanity? Sure there are and I’m glad they do it. I learn a lot of things I might otherwise not know from such people. But I am not one of them and at this point in life I don’t even aspire to be.

Monday, May 26, 2014

On Deadly Misogyny

A few days ago a young man in Southern California went on a shooting spree. The details of the shooter, his experiences, and his motivations have become topics of considerable, sometimes heated, discussion. Some blame his rampage on mental illness. Some blame his toxic beliefs. I think that even if there were some underlying mental health problems, he still chose influences that made him worse, that made him dangerous.

That young man absorbed so much ugly entitlement and misinformation that it twisted his view of women to the point of hate and spectacularly misplaced blame. Many of the sexist influences to his thinking are omnipresent in our culture, like a haze of pollution in the air and that young man sought out the tail pipes of misogyny from which to breathe deeply. I think it transformed a troubled young man into a monstrous one.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Thought Experiment on Progressive Tax Rates

By way of a thought experiment, let me illustrate why I am completely comfortable having tax rates that tax a greater percentage of our income as our income goes up.

Imagine there is a park. In this park there is a low bridge over a pond. The bridge has no handrails and the pond has a series of stepping stones that lead from the shore to a small platform below the bridge. On the bridge there are a number of individuals in wheelchairs, none of whom are able to swim. Below them on the platform is a person who fell from the bridge and is badly injured. On the shore near the stepping stones leading to the platform and the injured person is a strong, able bodied person relaxing.

It is not possible for the injured person to get to safety alone. Due to their wheelchairs and inability to swim it is not possible for the people on the bridge get to the injured person, let alone carry that person to safety. Trying would almost certainly result in additional injured people and possible deaths. What they can do is call out, make it known that someone needs help, and offer encouragement. All of which they do, alerting the able bodied person to the situation, who can easily and safely walk on the stepping stones out to the injured person and carry them to safety.

In this scenario, is it morally permissible for the able bodied person to do nothing or to do no more than the people on the bridge?

I would argue that the able bodied person is morally and ethically obligated to help. It is true that this person will have to inconvenience themselves to help. Their help is not without cost, but the cost to the able bodied person is negligible compared to the people in wheelchairs. Just as the burden of paying more in taxes is easier to bear for the wealthy, even if they are paying at higher rates. In a community, our responsibilities are heavily influenced by our capabilities and those better able to contribute to the common good ought to do so.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Just a Theory

Anyone who discusses the interactions of religious belief, public policy, and science will encounter the argument that because something in science is just a theory, it shouldn't be taken any more seriously than other ideas. This comes up a lot in creationism versus evolution conversations and its use betrays a certain degree of scientific illiteracy.

The word theory has two very different meanings. In everyday language, a theory is just an uncertain idea, perhaps thought up on the fly. In science, a theory is a comprehensive framework that unifies and explains a large number of actual observations, has withstood rigorous testing, and makes accurate predictions of future observations. A scientific theory, like the theory of evolution, isn't a wild guess. It is the best possible understanding of some aspect of nature we currently possess. 

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Nye vs Ham

Bill Nye the Science Guy just did a debate against Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis. This debate was on the validity of creationism and was conducted at Ham’s Creation Museum in Kentucky. From what I’ve read, many in the audience were followers of Ham’s version of fundamentalist Christianity.

Towards the end of the debate, they took questions from the audience. The format of that section was that a question would be directed to one of them who had two minutes to answer and then the other was given a minute to respond. One of the questions really served to sum up the differences in their world views. Ham was asked what would change his mind. He said in essence that nothing could. Nye responded that he just needs evidence and then listed a bunch of potential examples.

Here is a link to that section of the video of the debate:

That there is no evidence that could ever be compelling enough for Ham to change his mind demonstrates the intellectual bankruptcy of creationism and concisely shows why it isn't science and isn't compatible with science.

The danger in this debate and others like it is that many will erroneously interpret the very existence of the debate as proof that creationism has scientific merit or that there is ongoing scientific controversy between creationism and naturalism among scientists. We can at least hope that some viewers will reflect on the profoundness of the debaters' answers to the question above and realize that Ham’s answer was antithetical to a scientific mindset.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Are My Beliefs All Scientific?

I care a great deal about whether the things I believe are true or not. I try to use the best tools at my disposal to make those determinations. To date, the most reliable tool humanity has to sort the factual from the fanciful is science, so I do try to use it to inform my beliefs. I try to apply the rationality of science in my daily life, testing my expectations against my observations constantly. I try to examine my feelings and note the behavior of others to gauge their feelings. In all of this, I hold every idea, every belief provisionally — always ready to modify a belief or discard it in favor of one better supported by the evidence and able to withstand logical scrutiny. My beliefs change and shift as a result, but always with the goal of obtaining a more accurate, more complete understanding of the world around me.

So does that make all of my beliefs scientific? In the sense of being learned only from science papers and books, no. But I do try to arrive at my beliefs in ways that are consistent with the mindset and findings of science, to the best of my ability.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

State Sanctioned Creationism

I want our schools, our courts, our halls of government to be neutral ground, where no religion or theology has any more influence than any other, where no one is persecuted or favored on the basis of their faith. The most sensible way to insure that is to not allow any intermingling of religion and state. That way our government can represent us all equally, it being no more Catholic than it is Hindu or Muslim or Baptist or atheist, even if it is made up of people who hold those and other beliefs.

Neutral, secular, nonsectarian, fair.

Unfortunately, in some states there are schools that are teaching creationism. Actually that is probably true in every state because private schools can teach what they want. But some investigative journalism has recently uncovered that there are taxpayer funded schools that are teaching creationism.

That is not OK because creationism is a religious belief. It has no scientific merit. It cannot be taught in place of or even alongside science in publicly funded schools. To do so is to use a part of our government to show that some religious beliefs are favored over others, which is strictly forbidden by our Constitution. This applies to any school that is getting government money, be that the local public school or even a private school partially funded through tuition vouchers provided by the state.

I understand how it might be tempting to resolve such a contentious issue via some sort of compromise — maybe taking the time to teach both science and creationism, letting the students decide for themselves. Generally I am enthusiastically in favor of compromise but although teaching both might seem fair to everyone, it isn't. Not all religions share the same creation mythology or share a creation mythology that is compatible with the creationism that is being promoted in some American schools. Such schools are taking a side in theological matters allowing some religions to promote their beliefs.

Part of the reason that I am so adamantly opposed to religion in our government is to protect religious believers. Believers who might believe differently than those currently in power who might abuse their authority. If we keep our government secular in its purpose, from our schools to our courts, then we can all be represented equally with no one religion ever able to use government power to promote itself or persecute heretics and nonbelievers.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Uncle Sugar

I’ve been thinking about the ideas highlighted in Mike Huckabee’s “Uncle Sugar” speech. It occurs to me that Conservatives might be objecting to people getting material help from society via the government instead of relying on churches. Which isn’t to say that Huckabee wants churches to distribute contraceptives, no, but I do think his speech betrays Conservative fears of the diminishing influence religion has in our society and the role that Obamacare could play in that.

It is pretty well documented that societies that have less financial and healthcare insecurity also have less religious populations. Religion does provide aid and assistance, with strings attached of course, but the need for that aid and exposure to those strings are reduced in countries that provide more government administered support for people. I think that partially explains what perpetuates religion. I’m increasingly convinced that partially explains why Conservatives object to government social programs and are so ready to express their objections with language that slut-shames women.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Souls and Mind-Body Dualism

I see no evidence to support the idea that there is some kind of metaphysical "me" that controls my body, that defines who I am regardless of what happens to my body, or that will exist after my body has died. I understand the appeal, but it strikes me as nothing more than wishful thinking.

What I do see is evidence that we are meat. We are our bodies. We are our brains. If changes are made to our brains, we necessarily change. From what I understand, that is the conclusion of neuroscience. Moreover, it is also something I've witnessed.

In December, my mom died from frontotemporal dementia. Over the years as the parts of her brain that housed certain functions and abilities were attacked and atrophied, her personality, her behavior, and her ability to think were radically and repeatedly altered. Changes wrought on her brain by dementia robbed her of all those traits that defined her, sometimes even replacing them. She was not at all the same person in 2001 as she became by 2011, nor did any hint remain of the woman she once was by the end, nor any clue that "she" was still in there somewhere.

Whatever remnants of mind-body dualism I still retained in my thinking from my childhood were expunged in these last few years. As appealing as the notion might be -- and it is appealing to think that Mom somehow understood all I did for her or that I'll be with her again someday -- I can't sustain such beliefs, given what I've seen and come to understand about the brain.