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.


Expensive communication

Dec 12th, 2010 4:30 pm | By

Stephen Law offers us a video of the Permanent Secretary for Government Communications telling a bunch of people that communications are goods things and that he is goods at doings them. I watched a minute or two, which was enough to confirm me in my surmise that I didn’t want to watch more than that. Stephen explains why.

He has little to say, surely? Strip out the “successful behavioural outcomes”, “partnership”, “stakeholder”, “co-creation”, “we’re on a journey” jargon and rhetoric, and his message boils down to:

• The public used to be seen by Government as passive recipients of information, not as customers to engage with, which they now are, ‘cos of the internet, twitter, etc. Citizens can now provide feedback on services.

• There should be more effective working together between government departments.

• Government needs to apply psychological research if Government wants to affect behaviour, not just make ads saying: “stop smoking”, “eat less fat”, “do more exercise”, “get a job”, etc.

Now, surely, all of this is pretty trite and obvious, not cutting edge insight? Won’t everyone in the audience already know this? Most of us know it, surely. It’s platitudinous.

Yes but you need a highly-paid expert to say it so that…well so that he can earn his high pay. What else would you have him do? Teach philosophy?! Come now.

3. Much of what Tee says seems to serve primarily as a device for reminding us of how successful he has been. The talk is in large part a puff for himself and his career.

4. Is Tee himself a good communicator? I found this presentation dull, uninformative, and I suspect it’s unlikely to motivate his audience to do anything different. The one concrete bit of advice he gives them is: think of how your next communication might be tweeted.

As I say, Tee earns over £160,000 per year of taxpayer’s money (equivalent to, say, the combined salaries of three university professors). Maybe he’s very good at managing. But I’d say he’s a rather poor communicator and, on the basis of this performance, a bit light on ideas.

You might think that, but I couldn’t possibly comment.



Deep anger in the bombing world

Dec 12th, 2010 12:53 pm | By

As is typical with coverage of this subject, the New York Times has to blame Lars Vilks just a little for doing that Motoon.

But the country’s prime minister, Fredrik Reinfeldt, stopped short of connecting the bombs to an e-mail that a Swedish news organization received minutes before the blasts, which seemed to link the attacks to anger over anti-Islamic cartoons and the war in Afghanistan.

It wasn’t cartoons plural, it was one cartoon. And anti-Islamic? What’s that supposed to mean? It sounds sinister.

The e-mail’s reference to Mr. Vilks, a 64-year-old artist and free-speech activist, pointed to the deep anger in the Muslim world over his drawings of the prophet Muhammad in 2007.

“The” deep anger in “the” Muslim world – by which is meant, some Muslims were very angry, but what it sounds like is, all Muslims were very angry, and probably justifiably (“deep” tends to imply that).

It would be nice if journalists and editors could learn to be more careful about this. But they won’t.



Separating the fluff

Dec 11th, 2010 1:59 pm | By

Alice Dreger was at the American Anthropological Association meeting when it moved to kick science out.

Interestingly, it isn’t just that the AAA leadership is ditching science. They’re also trying to position the AAA as being primarily about “public understanding” of humankind. As Stu Plattner, who served for many years as Cultural Anthropology Program Director for NSF, observed in email exchanges, this looks like “another step in the conversion of Anthropology from a social science into an esoteric branch of journalism.” Yeah, but the kind of journalism that is much more concerned with editorials than factual reporting.

So not one but two giant steps away from genuine truth-seeking.

Presumably, in the AAA’s tradition, the promotion of the “public understanding of humankind” will include anything that is politically unoffensive to the AAA leadership, and nothing offensive. It’s safe to assume the AAA will not be promoting the public understanding of how human behaviors evolved, especially if those human behaviors are anything that might make some or all humans look violent, greedy, harmful to the environment, or (worst of all) sexually dimorphic.

Among the scientific anthropologists I talked to about this yesterday, pretty much to a one, they were unsurprised yet angry. The primatologist Sarah Hrdy (a member of the National Academy of Sciences) wrote, “My reaction is one of dismay – actually, even more visceral and stronger than that – albeit not surprise.”

So they’re deciding whether to fight, or just give it up and leave.

In the messages flying back and forth, I was reminded why anthropologists refer to the annual conference as “the meetings,” plural: it’s because they go and meet with their own actual disciplinary types, in separate groups, so that the real scientists don’t have to deal too much with the fluff-head cultural anthropological types who think science is just another way of knowing.

Not all cultural anthropologists are fluff-heads, of course. You can usually tell the ones who are fluff-heads by their constant need to look like superheroes for oppressed peoples, and you can tell the non-fluff-heads by their attention to data. But the non-fluff-head cultural anthropologists are feeling utterly beleaguered in this environment that actively denigrates science and consistently promotes activism over data collection and scientific theorizing.

Wait, I have an idea – they could split, and the fluff-heads could all move to Women’s Studies departments. Meanwhile the non-fluff head WS people could move to departments that actually value data collection, though that could include history as well as scientific fields.



Royal family not keen on ecumenical dialogue

Dec 11th, 2010 10:28 am | By

And we learn that the archbish of Canterbury isn’t as fond of the pope as we had been led to believe.

During his recent visit to Rome and meeting with the Pope –planned before the Pope urged disaffected Anglicans to convert to Catholicism Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams challenged the position of the Catholic Church on ordination of women and made it clear that the Vatican should have consulted with him before reaching out to the Anglican community. Although Williams’ visit to Rome was cast as positive and reinforcing of ecumenical dialogue, it’s clear the wounds from this controversy will affect that dialogue negatively (at least for now) and are likely to cast a pall over the Pope’s planned state visit to England in 2010.

Too bad about that last part – it didn’t happen, at least not at official levels. There was plenty of pall in Trafalgar Square, but none emanating from the great and the good.

As for the Pope’s visit next year to England, Campbell said he now expected a chilly reception, especially from the Royal family – which was not a great supporter of ecumenical dialogue even before the crisis.

Right, that didn’t happen either. The Royal family all but adopted the stinking pope. Special People stick together.



Vatican demanded immunity from testifying

Dec 11th, 2010 10:14 am | By

I’m very ambivalent about WikiLeaks and especially about the diplomatic data dump, but I must say, the Vatican stuff is certainly worth having (and it’s not something the Vatican has any moral right to keep secret, either). The more we know about the inner workings of the Vatican, the better.

Requests for information from the 2009 Murphy commission into sexual and physical abuse by clergy “offended many in the Vatican” who felt that the Irish government had “failed to respect and protect Vatican sovereignty during the investigations“, a cable says.

Typical Vatican, isn’t it? Not shock-horror and remorse about rape and physical violence by clergy, but “offense” at failure to “respect” Vatican “sovereignty.” It’s all about them, and it’s all about them not as perps but as offended dignitaries.

Ultimately, the Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone (equivalent to a prime minister), wrote to the Irish embassy, ordering that any requests related to the investigation must come through diplomatic channels.

Typical. Not “Yes yes of course we’ll help you in every way we can”; on the contrary, “No no, how dare you, you have to go through diplomatic channels, we are a Sovereign Nation as well as Divine Intermediaries with God Himself.”

As usual with the Vatican, the reserves of disgust are quickly exhausted.



Local customs

Dec 10th, 2010 4:46 pm | By

I’m reading Charles Freeman’s AD 381.

This sounded familiar already; it’s only page 2.

Theodosius was not himself a fanatical Christian, and despite the harshness of the language in which his decrees were expressed, he showed some restraint and flexibility in the way he applied them. In a vast and administratively unwieldy empire, any law lost its impact as it filtered down into the provinces, and some may never have been systematically enforced. However, this worked both ways – a law might be ignored, or it might be imposed with brutality by a local enthusiast.

Ahhh yes – that does sound familiar. It sounds exactly like Pakistan. It sounds exactly like a lot of places. There is never any shortage of local enthusiasts.



Reality tv in Iran

Dec 9th, 2010 5:54 pm | By

So those bastards in Iran were having a little joke. Ashtiani isn’t free at all.

Contrary to a vast publicity campaign by Western media that confessed murderer Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani has been released, a team of broadcast production team with the Iran-based Press TV has arranged with Iran’s judicial authorities to follow Ashtiani to her house to produce a visual recount of the crime at the murder scene.

Well that’s the right way to determine guilt: take a tv crew to someone’s house and force her to agree with you that she’s guilty guilty guilty.

 Bastards bastards bastards.



Double-plus ungood

Dec 9th, 2010 5:50 pm | By

In much less good news, our friend and fellow-troublemaker Josh Slocum had a very serious heart attack a couple of days ago. He’s fine now, he assures us, but it was Bad and Scary and Horrible, and he’s only a youngster. So send him your affection and raillery and friendly insults and other helpful things.



Good news for a change

Dec 9th, 2010 12:39 pm | By

Sakineh Ashtiani is free.

Her son is free, her lawyer is free, two German journalists who were arrested Monday for trying to interview her are free.

Her release is a triumph for an intensive international campaign launched by her son Sajad Ghaderzadeh…Ecstatic campaigners hailed the news. “This is the happiest day in my life,” said Mina Ahadi of the International Committee against Stoning (Icas).

So maybe international pressure does work.



Further reading

Dec 8th, 2010 1:12 pm | By

The reaction to the NASA-arsenic based life story makes a nice study guide to epistemology and how scientists think and how various distorting influences (like media priorities and funding needs) can bollix things up. PZ set us straight last week almost before the ink was dry, Rosie Redfield wrote a scathing analysis on Saturday, Carl Zimmer talked to a dozen experts on Monday.

Almost unanimously, they think the NASA scientists have failed to make their case. “It would be really cool if such a bug existed,” said San Diego State University’s Forest Rohwer, a microbiologist who looks for new species of bacteria and viruses in coral reefs. But, he added, “none of the arguments are very convincing on their own.” That was about as positive as the critics could get. “This paper should not have been published,” said Shelley Copley of the University of Colorado.

Read the whole article for details; read Redfield’s post; read Jerry Coyne’s post including comments, most of which are from people who know something relevant.



God buys a bus ad

Dec 7th, 2010 4:57 pm | By

Oh how sweet – theists (or am I supposed to call them people of faith?) are so caring and concerned and helpful. There is this terrible atheist bus ad campaign in Fort Worth, Texas, saying that lots of Murkans are good without god – no I don’t know how such a thing could be allowed, but it was, and as much as 4 buses are carrying this horrible malicious insulting ad, and the concerned helpful Christians of FW have pitched right in and paid for a van to follow that bus around and counterdickt it. That’s good because of course as the nice woman with the giant torture device around her neck says, the bus ad is an insult to Christians.

The ad on the van is so sweet: it just says “I still love you” and signs it “God” – iddn that sweet? They could have had it say something hateful, but no, they’re bettern that, they just reach out to those poor benighted twisted bastards and say God still loves’em. They turn the other cheek, you know? The Atheists are so malicious and mean, saying it’s possible to be good without God, but the Christians don’t pay them back, they just follow them around and nag them as long as the money holds out.



Don’t be a phick

Dec 6th, 2010 12:23 pm | By

Phil Plait is disappointing some very long-term fans. They’re telling him so in comments.

He did a post yesterday saying congratulations to Chris Mooney on being appointed to the Board of the American Geophysical Union

to advise the AGU on how to better and more effectively communicate with the public and lawmakers in Washington.

Comments came in saying skeptical things about Mooney and effective communication. Phil asked for evidence that Mooney “isn’t above banning reasonable dissent from his own blog.” Evidence came in from commenter after commenter. That was more than 24 hours ago, and as recent comments have pointed out, Phil has yet to acknowledge it. What kind of science communication is that?

What sort of science communicator demands people do something and then just ignores them when they do? I would consider most people who do that to be dicks, honestly. You don’t enter a discussion, demand people provide facts to back up their case, and then just vanish when people actually do so. That behavior is typical of creationists, denialists of all stripes, and various proponents of woo. It is the absolute last thing I would expect from a skeptic.

I stuck my nose in yesterday, because Sigmund told me my name had been mentioned, and I found that it had appeared in three separate comments, so I thought I should corroborate what the comments said; so I did.

From this far away, it could look as if I planned and intended all this. It could look as if I set out to goad Mooney into banning me and thus looking like someone who bans reasonable dissent from his blog. But I didn’t. I asked my questions repeatedly, but I always thought Mooney would answer them. Each time, I thought (however fatuously) “this time he’ll answer.” I didn’t intentionally set him up. What happened to him is not my fault. I bother to say that because one or two people who used to be friends of mine think it is. They’re mistaken.

I guess I also bother to say it because…well because it clearly did work out badly for Mooney. Those comments on Plait’s site make that obvious. They’re by people I don’t know, so it’s not just a matter of groupthinky loyalties. There is a big segment of the skeptical and pro-science “community” that knows about Mooney’s short way with dissenters, and does not admire it. He gets exciting gigs all the same, so perhaps it doesn’t matter, but I suspect he cares what that “community” thinks of him.



The level of humility in scientific discourse

Dec 5th, 2010 4:51 pm | By

An observation by Sam Harris in The Moral Landscape:

“while it is a standard rhetorical move in such debates to accuse scientists of being ‘arrogant,’ the level of humility in scientific discourse is, in fact, one of its most striking characteristics. In my experience, arrogance is about as common at a scientific conference as nudity. At any scientific meeting you will find presenter after presenter couching his or her remarks with caveats and apologies. When asked to comment on something that lies to either side of the very knife edge of their special expertise, even Nobel laureates will say things like, “Well, this isn’t really my area, but I would suspect that X is…” or “I’m sure there are several people in this room who know more about this than I do, but as far as I know, X is…” The totality of scientific knowledge now doubles every few years. Given how much there is to know, all scientists live with the constant awareness that whenever they open their mouths in the presence of other scientists, they are guaranteed to be speaking to someone who knows more about a specific topic than they do.” [p 124]



Ratzinger dealt with the case himself

Dec 5th, 2010 12:00 pm | By

Oh gee surprise surprise what do you know - 

Germany’s Catholic Church systematically covered up cases of sexual abuse within its own ranks for several decades, according to an expert study commissioned by the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising.

Total cognitive dissonance. Religion makes people good, and it especially makes them compassionate. Any fule kno this, so it must be true. But if people are compassionate…they don’t conceal cases of sexual violence against children, do they. Compassionate people are motivated to do other things, such as making sure no more children will be the objects of sexual violence. Compassionate people are concerned with the suffering of other people as opposed to themselves – their first impulse is to protect victims as opposed to victimizers. Their first and main concern is not to protect themselves and/or their colleagues from exposure and prosecution at the expense of the current victims and the future victims.

“Only 26 priests were convicted for sexual offences,” Westpfahl explained to reporters, saying she found 365 files containing evidence that “acts of abuse had taken place in an almost commonplace manner.”

The incriminating evidence Westpfahl found among 13,200 available files implicated 159 priests, 15 deacons, 96 religion teachers and six pastoral employees, with rural areas particularly affected.

The victims’ suffering often remained a mystery, she said, as the reports usually discussed abuse in coy euphemisms.

All those priests and deacons and religious teachers turn out to have been like everyone else, only more so - selfish, self-protecting, greedy, and ruthless. They turn out to have used children as if they were inflatable dolls, and to have lied a blue streak to protect their jobs and their continued ability to rape children. What do you know.

Westpfahl also said that the period of 1977 to 1982, when Pope Benedikt XVI – then Archbishop Josef Ratzinger – headed up the archdiocese, was particularly poorly documented.

In this timeframe, she only found one document, regarding an abuse case. Ratzinger had dealt with the case himself, ordering that an abusive priest be removed from his parish, she said.

The article doesn’t spell it out, but that sounds as if Ratzinger presided over copious destruction of incriminating documents.



Tomorrow mullahs r demonstrating

Dec 4th, 2010 5:58 pm | By

Where did the day go? It’s 5:45 and no new post. Well I know where it went – some TPM work, News posting, cat contest judging, Saturday afternoon stuff - it all adds up.

Anyway – yesterday in Pakistan shouters were out in the streets shouting. What about? Social justice. No, that’s not right. Peace. No again. Solidarity. Wrong.

No, they were shouting about people who think and say that people shouldn’t be killed for “blasphemy” and especially not for trumped-up “blasphemy” at the behest of spiteful neighbors. Well there’s a lovely cause.

Hundreds of Islamist hardliners took to the streets of Pakistan’s main cities yesterday in support of the country’s prejudicial blasphemy laws and against two leading politicians they have threatened for speaking out against the persecution of a Christian woman. At rallies in Karachi, Lahore and other cities, the crowds of protestors warned the political class against any attempt to amend or repeal the laws. They also chanted slogans denouncing Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Punjab, and Sherry Rehman, a liberal parliamentarian. 

Mr Taseer and Ms Rehman were singled out for speaking out against the treatment of Aasia Bibi…

Were they indeed. Well they’re two new friends of mine then.

Mr Taseer responded with characteristic insouciance. “It doesn’t bother me,” he said. “Who the hell are these illiterare maulvis to decide to whether i’m a Muslim or not?” Earlier, he tweeted: “Tomorrow mullahs r demonstrating against me…Thousands of beards screaming 4 my head.What a great feeling!”

 It’s true. I looked him up on Twitter, and it’s true. I’m following him now. Maybe there’s a point to Twitter after all.



A friendly epistle

Dec 3rd, 2010 12:28 pm | By

Get a load of this – an open letter from Saleem Chagtai to Usama Hassan, which includes this fragrant observation:

First of all I suggest you stop playing games with people. You sat back quietly at the BMSD event as the Muslim community was derided by the likes of pretentious, ignorant, West-worshipping individuals like Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, Nasreen Rehman and of course Ed “Traditional-Muslim-scholars-are-all-closet-secularists-really” Hussain and you talk about spreading misconceptions, lies and slander? I have seen your response to the open letters floating around the internet and have noticed utter intellectual inconsistency as well as skirting around specific charges levelled at you. You play the victim but I find it hard to believe you didn’t foresee what fitnah you would cause. Calling for secularism and democracy over and above the established shariah is disbelief as is doubting the obligation of hijab. I think it is pointless at this juncture to get into the ins and outs of these discussions as these are clear issues in Islam which unite all Muslims in the world today…

That’s blunt enough by anyone’s standards. Calling for secularism and democracy over and above the established shariah is disbelief, and so is thinking that women are not actually required to have their heads and necks bandaged at all times. Disbelief, of course, is a crime, especially for someone who considers himself a Muslim.

AlHamdulillah our illustrious history is full of heroes that fought off alien ideas from entering Islam and those who didn’t have been forgotten or doomed to infamy. I advise you as a one time friend and student not to become of the latter. It isn’t too late. I urge you, please turn back from the path of destruction for your own success before you are humiliated in this life and the hereafter. Save Shaikh Suhaib and your family from increasing discomfort and you will find Allah Most Forgiving and Merciful. If Abu Bakr As-Siddeeq was frightened about accidentally interpreting the Quran, which earth will hold you and which sky will cover you after what you have done? How will you save yourself from Allah’s anger and punishment?

The religious mind at work. New ideas are “alien” and must be fought off; there is one and only one Absolute law and it has already been given and it is evil to try to interpret it or improve it. Trying to improve it will piss off the giant angry god, and he will tear you to shreds. Look out look out, do what I say or else, are you scared yet.



Sharia in Aceh, a mural in Sydney

Dec 2nd, 2010 12:00 pm | By

Aceh is officially a horrible place to be a woman.

In Aceh today, it is a crime for two mature people of different sexes who are not married or related by blood to be together in an isolated place.

Ponder that carefully to see just how ridiculous and stultifying it is. Even if those two people have sex, that shouldn’t be a crime, The idea that they can’t even interact without a chaperone is a recipe for culture-wide idiocy.

In the course of their investigations, WH officials say, they sometimes force women and girls to submit to virginity exams, and in some cases, condition suspects’ release on their agreement to marry. Both practices violate international human rights law.

Forcing women and girls to submit to virginity exams is rape. Period. There’s no other word for it. Aceh makes adult interaction a crime and rape a tool of law enforcement.

Another Acehnese law requires that all Muslims in Aceh wear Islamic attire, defined as clothing that covers the aurat (for men, the area of the body from the knee to navel, and for women, the entire body with the exception of the hands, feet, and face)…

Which is all we need to know. Men are required to wear clothes between the waist and the knees, women are required to wear clothes all over apart from the face and hands. In a tropical climate.

Yet the Sydney Morning Herald (for one) sees the issue as one of women’s right to wear clothes all over as opposed to their right not to.

It has 

become a lightning rod in the public debate about the right of Muslim women to wear the burqa, attracting protests, the censure of a mayor and messages of support from talkback radio.But now the Newtown mural of a woman in a full-face Muslim covering with a strike symbol over her face and the words ”Say No to the Burqa” is the subject of an anti-discrimination complaint.

Which is more fundamental? The right to wear a tent with a narrow slit for the eyes? Or the right not to? The right to frame the tent with a narrow slit for the eyes as a deprivation of rights, or the right to silence that framing? Which should trump which?



A magenta swan with turquoise spots

Dec 2nd, 2010 11:33 am | By

How fascinating is this new bacterium? (I know it’s not new; new to human knowledge; I look forward to your letters.) It’s a black swan!

The finding shows just how little scientists know about the variety of life forms on Earth, and may greatly expand where they should be looking for life on other planets and moons, the NASA-funded team said.

“Life is mostly composed of the elements carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, sulfur and phosphorus,” the researchers write in Science.

These six elements make up the nucleic acids — the A, C, T and G of DNA — as well as proteins and lipids. But there is no reason in theory why other elements should not be used. It is just that science never found anything alive that used them.

See? Total black swan! Seriously exciting.

…it does suggest that astrobiologists looking for life on other planets do not need to look only for planets with the same balance of elements as Earth has.”Our findings are a reminder that life-as-we-know-it could be much more flexible than we generally assume or can imagine,” said Wolfe-Simon.

“If something here on Earth can do something so unexpected, what else can life do that we haven’t seen yet? Now is the time to find out.”

The age of wonder ain’t over yet.



Your essence is not my essence

Dec 1st, 2010 4:41 pm | By

In answering the last question in the debate with Hitchens, Blair tried to sum up his defense of religion. He said you have to find “the essence.” Yes there are bad parts, but you have to explain those away, and keep the essence, that is, what you take to be the essence.

I see how people look at certain parts of scripture and draw those conclusions from it, but it’s not what it means to me, it’s not the essence of it. The essence of it is through the life of Jesus Christ, a life of love, selflessness and sacrifice and that’s what it means to me.

Yes but. 1) That’s what it means to you but that’s not what it means to other people, and because it is not based on anything universalizable, there is no way to adjudicate between you. There is no way to say definitively that you are right and the woman-stoners are wrong. So saying “that’s what it means to me” is worthless, and worse than worthless, because it endorses religion instead of saying this inability to adjudicate between versions makes it dangerous. And 2) a life of love, selflessness and sacrifice is not inherently religious or unavailable to atheists.

The second point wouldn’t matter all that much, provided theists could stop assuming and saying that only theists are capable of demanding forms of goodness, if it weren’t for the first one. But the first one is a killer.



Extremist militant extremists speak out

Dec 1st, 2010 3:09 pm | By

How is this helping? When will people learn that all this aggression and shouting won’t change anyone’s mind and that it’s much better to just calm down and bite your tongue and think about peace and a sunlit meadow rather than go around saying things and handing out leaflets? Nobody’s mind was ever changed by someone saying something, so why won’t they take their clothes off and pose for photographs instead?

Christians who believe their faith is “under attack” in Britain have launched a “Not Ashamed Day” campaign.

Former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey claimed Christians of “deep faith” faced discrimination.

Campaigners say a mounting number of cases of workers being disciplined over their beliefs show Christianity is being “airbrushed” from UK society.

What strident shrill nonsense, and divisive, too. It’s shocking that these people refuse to work with secularists and atheists to achieve common goals, and instead stubbornly insist on saying what they think. Well, no good deed goes unpunished.

Christian Concern has also highlighted the fact that Catholic adoption agencies no longer have the right to refuse gay couples as prospective adoptive parents.

And they no longer have the right to own slaves, or burn witches, or invade the Holy Land. Times change. But they mustn’t rock the boat, because we all have to work together, so they should please please please stop talking and let someone who is an expert in communication do it. Otherwise everything will fall apart tomorrow at the latest.