Notes and Comment Blog

Our short and pithy observations on the passing scene as it relates to the mission of Butterflies and Wheels. Woolly-headed or razor-sharp comments in the media, anti-rationalist rhetoric in books or magazines or overheard on the bus, it’s all grist to our mill. And sometimes we will hold forth on the basis of no inspiration at all beyond what happens to occur to us.


Can he trust that you will take care of your duties?

Aug 24th, 2011 1:10 pm | By

I’m reading Kathryn Joyce’s book Quiverfull, and finding interesting things in the process. Like A Virtuous Woman (for her price, as you no doubt recall, is far above rubies – no not Ruby’s, stop that at once, 40 lashes).

A Virtuous Woman tells women how to be virtuous.

Can your husband know that if he needs to bring a co-worker home that the house will be reasonably neat? We will be looking at this in depth in a few days, but for now simply think about it. If your husband goes to work each day, can he trust that you will take care of your duties to the best of your ability?

If your husband asks you to make a phone call, do you forget? Do you think ahead and make plans to iron his shirts before they are needed?

Can he trust that your moods will remain relatively even most of the time and that he knows what to expect when he comes home? Or must he wonder what is in store for his arrival?

And so on and so on and so on, for a lot of words. What every servant shud kno.



Push-back from people who disagree

Aug 23rd, 2011 5:02 pm | By

This is a bad thing that happened, a very bad thing – an employee of a state department of public health was forced to close down his very useful, admired, educational blog because a guy who disagreed with him complained to his employers, and they said close it down or be fired.

Social media in health care are here to stay, and as Mr. Najera’s work has shown, can advance the lay person’s understanding of  public health and epidemiology.  But being a strong public advocate can invite push-back from people who disagree — say, over the value, safety, and efficacy of vaccines. Not all of those who disagree are civil or even rational.  Some of those who disagree elect to cause trouble in the advocate’s place of employment…

And sometimes they win. It’s a very bad thing.



The Vatican’s banking arm

Aug 23rd, 2011 1:20 pm | By

An Irish bank loaned huge sums to Catholic dioceses in the US with the result that the dioceses in question were able to stay out of court.

Of the deals, by far the largest line of credit was for Los Angeles, for $256m. The diocese avoided going into court with abuse victims by reaching a settlement in advance.

It emerged afterwards that AIB loans and guarantees accounted for almost half of total settlement.

The deal included $175m in cash and another $25m to pay the interest, and helped Los Angeles avoid selling the bulk of its properties or reveal the true value of its total assets.

Which was very kind of the bank…which is odd, given that banks aren’t usually in the kindness business.

An AIB spokesman said: ‘AIB’s business focus in America was in the ‘Not for Profit’ areas and this included churches.

‘Any loans advanced were approved in accordance with AIBGroup policy.’

An AIB source said they were ‘standard commercial loans’.

Not for profit, but commercial? What does that mean?

Only after the revelations in the Boston diocese in 2002 did [one victim] set off on the long road to forcing the Archdiocese of Los Angeles to reveal what it knew. Esther’s case was one of hundreds, which were finally settled in mid 2007 for $660m.

And she had no idea until this week that Allied Irish Bank had helpfully stepped in with guarantees of hundreds of millions.

The deal allowed the Archdiocese to avoid going to court and opening all its documents to scrutiny.

What a very kind bank.



The Christian Alamo

Aug 22nd, 2011 11:39 am | By

Missouri is recapitulating recent history in Ireland. It has these “faith-based” institutions – or prisons, to be blunt – for teenage girls, which go in for ferocious discipline coupled with secrecy, and Missouri…looks intently in the other direction.

Authorities in the state are  barred from inspecting the homes or even keeping track of them. (New  Beginnings has operated under multiple names in Florida, Mississippi,  and Texas.) “It’s hard to understand it, but faith-based is just taboo  for regulation,” says Matthew Franck, an editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, who authored an investigative series on the state’s homes in the mid-2000s. “It took decades of work to get  just the most minimal standards of regulation at faith-based child-care  centers,” he adds. “I just knew that when certain lobbyists would stand  up to say, ‘We have a concern about how this affects faith-based  institutions,’ the bill was immediately amended—it was a very Republican  legislature—or it would immediately die. That’s still true.”

That is terrifying, especially when you read about what goes on there.

The girls’ behavior was micromanaged down to the number of squares of  toilet paper each was allowed; potential infractions ranged from making  eye contact with another girl to not finishing a meal. Roxy, who  suffered from urinary tract infections and menstrual complications, told  me she was frequently put on redshirt, sometimes dripping blood as she  stood. She was also punished with cold showers, she said, and endless  sets of calisthenics after meals.

There are a lot of these places, though it’s unclear exactly how many.

New Beginnings is emblematic of an unknown number of  “troubled teen” homes catering to the Independent Fundamental Baptist  community—a web of thousands of autonomous churches linked by doctrine,  overlapping leadership, and affiliations with Bible colleges like Bob Jones University.  IFB churches emphasize strict obedience and consider teen rebellion an  invention of worldly society, so it’s little surprise that families  faced with teenage drinking, smoking, or truancy might turn to programs  promising a tough-love fix. Fear of government intrusion—particularly on  account of the community’s “spare the rod, spoil the child”  worldview—is so pervasive that IFB congregations are primed to dismiss regulatory actions against abusive facilities as religious persecution.

Well quite – they’re afraid the gummint will tell them to stop hitting the child with the rod, so they paint themselves as martyrs to religious persecution. The teenagers they’re torturing, on the other hand, are just sinners.



Who’s “we,” bub?

Aug 22nd, 2011 10:50 am | By

Small bizarre item. I was innocently half-watching a dopy tv show about lawyers last night and was suddenly jolted to notice that on the wall behind the judge hearing that episode’s case there were large metal letters prominently spelling out “In God We Trust.” What?! In a courtroom? In Chicago? Is this supposed to reflect reality? Do courts actually do this?

So I Googled and found out about In God We Trust America, whose mission (you won’t be surprised to learn) is to force that ridiculous, childish, like hell I do motto on everyone everywhere by nagging public officials into sticking it in prominent places, like on walls behind judges.

85 “yes vote” cities in California. 75 in Arkansas. Apparently none in Illinois. Yet.



The intermediary problem

Aug 21st, 2011 12:14 pm | By

The problem of knowing what to submit to is connected to the idea that “god” can stand for a kind of person that is better than the human kind and thus a way to focus aspirations. The connection is that both are about knowledge, or transmission. Unless “god” is purely personal and individual, there has to be some way of connecting “god” and humans. There have to be intermediaries.

And there are intermediaries, but what good are they? What do they know that no one else knows? What do clerics know? What is it about them that makes them reliable intermediaries?

What is there? Is there some thing – some bit of esoteric knowledge, some secret ceremony, some garment, that is supposed to transform Mr X into a reliable intermediary? Our friend Eric MacDonald would know, since if there is such a thing, he must have been vouchsafed it at some point.

A few weeks ago, I saw a discussion of Sura 4:34, the usual thing: does “beat” really mean “beat” and all the rest of it. There was a woman who kept saying “Only Allah knows what he meant, we can only interpret.” But in that case, why pay any attention at all? If only Allah knows what Sura 4: 34 means, why should any humans even try to obey it? If someone says to me, “Ooh ooh urrp urrp,” I can’t “obey” that, can I.

The intermediary problem seems to me to be insoluble.



How to submit to a

Aug 21st, 2011 11:36 am | By

From James Wood’s review of The Joy of Secularism:

…many religionists assume that life without God would be life without meaning. Where secularists cherish autonomy and choice as qualities that make life meaningful, religionists often emphasize self-abnegation and submission to a higher power.

Yes, but the trouble with that is, how do they know what higher power to submit to? How do they go about submitting to it when they can’t know what it is? What exactly is it that they’re submitting to?

In reality of course it’s either the god of tradition and holy books, or the idea of god they work out for themselves. It’s never an actual higher power that communicates with them in such a way that they have reliable knowledge of how to submit to it.



The idea of utopia

Aug 20th, 2011 3:49 pm | By

Robert Bellah has a new book on religion in human evolution (called, aptly, just that). He talks to the Atlantic.

You mention play as a way of getting out of normal working consciousness, and religion emerging from the play instinct, a mammalian characteristic common to sparring puppies and humans experiencing art.

That’s the one way I can see religion as something interesting about human beings as opposed to something depressing or tiresome or unhelpful about them. (I mean honestly – going without water from dawn to dusk in a hot climate?) It’s something gratuitous and extra, ornamental and elaborate; it’s good that humans can do that. (Though only from a human point of view. Humpback whales don’t think it’s good that humans can do that, and neither does any other species.)

The idea of utopia is always a kind of play, because we know it’s not real – it’s just what we can imagine. But it has the serious possibility of saying, “Look, the world the way it is didn’t have to be that way. It could be different.”

And so does the idea of god – it could be a way of thinking about a better way to be a person. It doesn’t seem to work out that way very much though.



This idea of de-privileging any one meaning

Aug 19th, 2011 12:27 pm | By

Thanks to Terry Glavin, I saw this postmodernist article on postmodernism, by one Edward Docx. Now there’s a postmodern nym. Let’s all change our names to App.

It’s too stinking long (shouldn’t pomo articles on pomo be wittily short? or do I mean ironically short?) so I might cut it up into bits. Or I might just say one bitty thing and leave it at that. Who knows. That’s postmodern.

Postmodernism was a high-energy revolt, an attack, a strategy for destruction. It was a set of critical and rhetorical practices that sought to destabilise the modernist touchstones of identity, historical progress and epistemic certainty.

Or, to put it another way, it was a set of conceited goons in literature departments who thought they had invented everything simply because they didn’t know very much. Like, for instance, that “epistemic certainty” was not a “modernist touchstone.”

Philosophical skepticism has been around for a good deal longer than postmodernism, and the difficulties of “epistemic certainty” were not discovered in 1960.

So, let’s now turn with a little more confidence to the quagmire of sociology, politics and philosophy—Baudrillard, Derrida, Foucault and so on…There are two important points. First, that postmodernism is really an attack not just on the dominant narrative or art forms but rather an attack on the dominant social discourse. All art is philosophy and all philosophy is political. And the epistemic confrontation of postmodernism, this idea of de-privileging any one meaning, this idea that all discourses are equally valid, has therefore lead to some real-world gains for humankind. Because once you are in the business of challenging the dominant discourse, you are also in the business of giving hitherto marginalised and subordinate groups their voice.

Like the Taliban. Like al-Shabaab. Like child-raping priests. Like the BJP. Like the Tea Party. Once you think that “all discourses are equally valid,” you’ve relinquished the tools you need to argue that some discourses are wrong and bad and harmful. Hooray; rejoice in the play of the signifier.



The Yale Journal of Quantum Physics and Neuroscience

Aug 18th, 2011 5:31 pm | By

This is a new style of con game – setting up a journal that sounds as if it’s a specialist journal when it’s actually just some undergraduates writing essays.

Orac read the latest issue and pointed out some of the raving nonsense in it, presumably because it’s called the Yale Journal of Medicine & Law and so should be expected to know better. It sounds like an actual journal, doesn’t it, written by and for specialists in medicine and law. It turns out (according to commenters) it’s no such thing. Well then why call it that? Besides to deceive and trick people, that is.

Kids today. Phooey.



A timely word

Aug 18th, 2011 5:12 pm | By

Hooray for William Raillant-Clark and his article about Dennis Markuze.

Considering the number of death threats and abuse researchers in Montreal
receive from around the world, it is appalling and shameful that our own police service is not acting rapidly and decisively to protect their international colleagues. It is appalling and shameful that our police react promptly to threats to Quebec journalists but not to those based abroad.

Thank you. That’s what we’ve been thinking.



Mabus goes quiet

Aug 18th, 2011 11:38 am | By

Tim Farley’s History of Mabus is terrifically useful, and naturally rather shocking.

But let me assure you, Mabus’ threats go way beyond the norm, both in content and sheer volume.  I talked about the volume above, so let’s see some of the content.

He tells people they are going to die that day or “cease to exist”. He threatens executions. He uses offensive terms starting with “bitch” and getting far worse. He threatens people’s loved ones…He threatens to cut off people’s heads and tells them they are “finished.” He asks people if they think they “deserve to live”. He says he is going to “pound you into the dust” and that you will suffer the “worst form of torture.”

But the Montreal police did nothing.

Phil Plait gave a report to a sheriff by telephone. Michael Shermer told me he obtained a restraining order to ensure Mabus would stay clear of him. Canadian skeptic Steve Thoms and blogger Greg Laden also filed reports. There are no doubt others.

On February 10, 2011 I was finally able to get a copy of my report from yet another Atlanta Police office across town. I quickly took it to a local print shop and faxed it to the Montreal Police.

And nothing happened. For me or for anyone else.

Farley tweeted some journalists, which was the right idea, but he picked the wrong journalists.

Montrealer William Raillant-Clark (@wraillantclark) is a press atttaché for the University of Montreal. He would have been the right journalist, had I found him.

On the morning of August 8 he was monitoring Twitter as part of his job. He noticed this retweet by science writer Carl Zimmer…

And the rest is history. Then there was that petition…

Meanwhile, the retweets of the Tumblr post were working their magic. At some point on Tuesday, they caught the eye of Kyle VanderBeek, a skeptic who works for change.org in San Francisco.

Kyle saw those tweets with the emails in them, and knew he had a potential tool right at his fingertips. He created a petition titled “Montreal Police: Take “Mabus” death threats seriously” and configured it to send responses directly to the SPVM public email address (which we saw above).

Yup. I linked to it here (and signed it of course). Some of you will have signed it. And it worked. Yes, Virginia, petitions actually work (some do). Whaddya know.

Best case scenario: Markuze has a Thing askew inside his head, which can be fixed with a little tug and pull and suture. He is released to live a sane and happy life, volunteering for the local CFI by way of reparations.

Update: apparently I didn’t link to it here; at least I can’t find it, so I must not have. I suppose I posted it at Facebook and Twitter and meant to post it here but forgot. Bad priorities. First duty is here.



The magic vibrations of the original substance

Aug 17th, 2011 3:26 pm | By

Corporate behemoth tries to put the frighteners on one powerless blogger because he said things about one of its risible products. (Yes risible. Go ahead, sue me.)

…the international homeopathy producer, Boiron, is threatening a lone Italian blogger because he dared to criticize their product, Oscillococcinum. The blogger, Samuele Riva, wrote two articles on his blog, blogzero.it, criticizing what our own Mark Crislip has called “oh-so-silly-coccinum.”

Boiron is the largest manufacturer of homeopathic products in the world and the second largest manufacturer of over-the-counter products in France.What they are doing to this small blogger, in my opinion, is nothing less than corporate thuggery. They are using their resources and their corporate lawyers to try to silence completely legitimate criticism of their pseudoscientific products. Of course, they will only succeed in magnifying that criticism.

Steven Novella goes on to say what there was to criticise.

Riva suggested that Boiron’s oscillococcinum has no active ingredient. Well, let’s see- the company lists the active ingredient in this product as “Anas barbariae hepatis et cordis extractum 200CK HPUS.” The “200C” means that the listed ingredient was diluted with a 1:100 dilution 200 times. Serial dilution is a funny thing – a 200c dilution is the equivalent of diluting 1ml of original ingredient into a volume of water that is the size of the known universe. This is far far beyond the point where there is any reasonable chance of there being even a single molecule of original ingredient left.

And then, even if it’s not diluted…

That’s right, oscillococcinum does not even exist – essentially Boiron takes fairy dust and then dilutes it out of (non)existence. The “anas barbariea hepatis” is basically duck liver, which is supposed to contain the most concentrated nonexistent oscillococcinum. It’s a pseudoscience trifecta.

I hope Boiron does draw a line in the sand over their oscillococcinum product, and that it becomes the center piece of a broader public discussion about homeopathy. Most of the public does not understand what homeopathy actually is. They think it means “natural” or “herbal” medicine. They have no idea that homeopathy is about taking fanciful ingredients with a dubious connection to the symptoms in the first place, and then diluting them into oblivion, then placing a drop of the pure water that remains and placing it on a sugar pill. The resultant pill is then supposed to contain the magic vibrations of the original substance.

“Supposed to”?? Sue that man!



Free Inquiry Announces Two New Columnists

Aug 15th, 2011 5:32 pm | By

A tweet from Melody Hensley this afternoon:

Free Inquiry Announces Two New Columnists: @pzmyers and @OpheliaBenson

It’s true. See for yourself. There I am right on the front page, along with Christopher Hitchens and Wendy Kaminer. (What? Yes really. Two of your top faves? Yes really. Hitchens and Kaminer? I know.) There I am under OP-EDS.

End of smirk.



Invitation to a dialogue

Aug 14th, 2011 11:35 am | By

Yes, an invitation. Get your party clothes ready, because here it is.

I’m inviting some lucky guy to do a dialogue with me, which I will publish as an article here at B&W in the articles section. The dialogue will be on sexist epithets. Are they a bad thing, or are they a good thing? How bad are they, are some worse than others, if they are bad then in what way are they bad, does it really matter, is it reasonable to think they are a bad thing, if so why?

We’ve been told lately that “we’ve been getting totally unnuanced discussions of insults like ‘twat’” and that “not everything is the same, and it’s possible to tease out the distinctions analytically and dispassionately.” We’ve been told that

the idea it isn’t possible to look at why everything isn’t the same, the idea it isn’t possible to take a different view about how a word such as “twat” functions, without being immediately dismissed as a misogynist by a mob is ridiculous (and the antithesis of anything that could be considered free enquiry).

So ok, let’s try it. Let’s have that nuanced discussion. Let’s tease out the distinctions analytically and dispassionately. I’ll take my side, and the invitation is for someone to take the other side.

The idea is to do a back and forth, say about 300 words each. It won’t go on until the end of time, but I think I won’t declare a limit now.

There are some conditions. You’ll have noticed I said a guy. I want a guy, for the same reason I would want a white if the discussion were about racist epithets as opposed to sexist ones.

It has to be under a real name.

It has to be somebody with something at stake – reputation, friends, standing as a liberal; that kind of thing. That narrows the field a lot, but it can’t be helped. It means I don’t really want someone who is already known as a proud reactionary or anti-feminist. I might settle for that if no one else takes up the offer, but I would much prefer people who don’t fit that description, because they’re the people who have been surprising those of us on the “what, are you kidding, of course sexist epithets aren’t ok” side of this disagreement. We want to understand what they’re thinking, and this will be the way to find out.

Another condition: I have editorial control. However I won’t do anything the other party disagrees with. If there’s something we can’t agree on and we can’t start over or move to a new entry, I’ll just end the exchange at that point. (I also don’t plan to edit the other party’s entries. I plan not to. I just want to make it clear that I have that option but also that I won’t abuse it; either we agree on an edit or the discussion shifts or ends.)

So there you are. Sound like fun? Email me if you have my address, use the contact form if you don’t.

I should say I doubt that anyone will take up the offer. I think the conditions will make the offer too unattractive. And that, frankly, is part of my point.

So go ahead, prove me wrong!

Update: here is that discussion.



Innnnnnnnternational humanist

Aug 13th, 2011 5:13 pm | By

PZ is in Oslo for a Humanist thingy. (Do you know, the Norwegian Humanists get state money. For reals. The churches get it and so they get it too. The Swedish humanists told me this when I was in Stockholm a year ago. The Swedish Humanists do not get state money. They are envious of their Norwegian colleagues.) He has won an international humanist award.

Ya! You go PZ.

PZ is one of the non-sexist male atheists. Such people are not the overwhelming majority I had thought.



This has always been our battles

Aug 13th, 2011 10:07 am | By

Phil Molé did a Facebook note about this video clip in which Tim Gunn complains about the clothes Hillary Clinton wears and says she’s “confused about her gender.” The clip is a stupid annoying piece of sexist crap.

A woman commented on Phil’s note (Phil’s FB notes are actually articles; I’ve published some of them here; people tell him he should collect them in a book, and they’re right) and said “It has nothing to do with her being a woman.” Seriously. HC is confused about her gender, but it has nothing to do with her being a woman.

She also said “Sheesh. Pick your battles or you’ll be pissed at the whole world. This is an absolutely pathetic reach for sexism.”

“Pick your battles” – but this is our battles. This has always been our battles. Second wave feminism has always been about stereotypes and putdowns and language and mental habits. Always. We do pick our battles, and these are it. We have met the enemy and they are us.



Catch them young

Aug 12th, 2011 5:25 pm | By

Apparently tens of thousands of UK teenagers go to Christian youth camps every year. Really?! I thought people had better sense there.

They sound perfectly disgusting. Horrible yoof jargon is spoken, and horrible christian bullshit is pushed on the gullible young people whose brains have not fully developed yet.

…the evangelical tactics used at such camps are on occasions manipulative. Sermons at such camps often take the form of wild orations that aim to wear down the resistance of the audience to the message. Videos designed to whip up the emotional temperature of the audience are shown, and fervid calls for youngsters to accept Christ are made. This culminates in the centre point of such meetings: the altar call. After having their emotions softened, hypnotic music typically sounds out in subdued lighting as youngsters are urged to come to the front and give their lives to Christ.

And then Bacchus appears and they all go mad and beat each other to death.

Whatever the attempts to dress them in the garb of youth culture, many of Christianity’s most controversial doctrines are given a full airing at the camps. Youngsters are threatened with divine judgment, and they are initiated into the world of charismatic Christian practices. At Soul Survivor, the largest Christian youth festival in the UK, teens have been told that witch doctors can maim children by cursing them. They have also been informed that God judges us on death for our deeds and thoughts, and they have been encouraged to practise physical healings. Could the real “wicked” in Christian teen camps actually be their effects on teens’ emotional wellbeing?

Not to mention their intellectual wellbeing.



The right to talk

Aug 12th, 2011 11:24 am | By

As you doubtless know, the Montreal police have finally begun an investigation of Dennis Markuze’s ceaseless flow of death threats against atheists and scientists. The petition we signed a few days ago did what it was intended to do.

QMI Agency tracked down the mother of “David Mabus,” Eva Markuze, who
confirmed that her son, Dennis Markuze, 36, is the man police are looking
for. She said her son lives with her, and is currently in Ottawa and can’t be
reached for comment.

Eva said she doesn’t believe the accusations. “That’s ridiculous,” she said. “(My son) would not even kill a fly. Maybe they don’t understand his message or something.”

No that’s not it. His messages have been quite unambiguous. Jen McCreight quotes one in a comment:

I guess I don’t understand what he means by “jen we are going to exterminate you, cunt.”
We don’t need a literary critic to do the hermeneutics, I think. (I wonder if the gang at ERV have any qualms about what they have in common with Markuze/Mabus.)

She said that her son has the right to talk and tell the truth.

Not to make death threats he doesn’t.

 



Throwback situations

Aug 11th, 2011 4:54 pm | By

A little light reading.

From Mark Caldwell, A Short History of Rudeness (Picador, 1999):

But perhaps the deepest and stubbornest wounds to civility are those inflicted using race and gender as weapons…

In 1996, Karen Grigsby Bates and Karen Elyse Hudson published Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times, an etiquette manual aimed at the emerging black middle class…Yet they also concede that painful throwback situations may still arise where racism survives, either in full-blown or vestigial form – and offer advice about what to do, for instance, if someone tells racist jokes, suggests a colleague would haver have been hired but for affirmative action, or behaves in any other way that suggests a continuing belief in some false or hurtful stereotype. [pp 168-9, emphasis added]

Then they all go out for a beer.