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.

If you do decide to go meta

Feb 22nd, 2011 12:56 pm | By

Russell says why metametametameta discussions about Why Gnu Atheists Are So Horrible are likely to be irritating to gnu atheists.

If people who don’t believe they have been especially uncivil are chided not to be “a dick”, or if lies are told about people like them behaving in public in outrageously uncivil ways, and if stories are told that suggest they are uncivil in the manner of the children in Jean’s story, it produces certain emotions. To be blunt, it creates anger and ill-will.

Well yes it does rather. It does that all the more when all these things, and other things too, happen over and over and over again, saying the same thing, pointing at the same people, tutting the same tut. The people who don’t believe they have been especially uncivil start to wonder why the people who keep scolding them for incivility are so obsessed with them. They start to wonder why the scolders are so obsessed, and they start to wonder why they are so obsessed with them.

I wondered that about the post that Russell is answering, for example. I wondered, not for the first time, why Jean Kazez pays such close attention to me.

I wrote the post on January 25, 2011, and I was actually thinking about what I’d been reading at atheist blogs in the weeks and months before that.  There had been lots of talk about “adults” who are critical of “gnus”.

The “adults” are…whom [sic]?  At Butterflies and Wheels, Phil Plait came under withering criticism on Dec. 6, partly because he wasn’t sufficiently critical of Chris Mooney and (see the comments) also  because of his “Don’t be a Dick” speech.  I take it Plait is against contempt, but not against candor.  There was also upsetness (October 17) about Julian Baggini’s speech at Westminister Abbey, in which he encouraged atheists not to be anti-theists.  As the author of an excellent book about atheism he’s hardly a should not be said kind of a guy.   There was also upsetness about Andrew Lovley (Jan. 6), who wrote a post encouraging atheists to be conciliatory instead of antagonistic.  He’s for lots of interfaith talk, not atheists shutting up.

Three posts, all of them mine. Nobody else mentioned. That’s a lot of attention. It makes me feel Special, and I do love to feel Special, but when I look closely I have to acknowledge that the attention is not altogether admiring. It’s more like getting a lot of attention from an undercover cop.

Russell explains why this kind of thing tends to be…provocative.

…there’s a danger in going meta. Once you move away from debating the truth or falsity of ideas to discussing other people’s behaviour, what should or should not be said, and so on, you almost inevitably add to whatever degree of incivility was around in the first place. That’s not to say that going meta is never appropriate. But people who decide to go meta should be aware of the likely outcome – an escalation of ill-feeling, and even feelings of injustice and moralistic anger – and take this into account. If you do decide to go meta, you’d be advised to show a lot of explicit humility and trepidation. If you then use the annoyed responses of others as evidence of their inherent uncivil tendencies, you’d better be aware that this will be seen by them as further unfairness or injustice … and will provoke even more annoyance.

I could be wrong, but I think provoking even more annoyance is usually the point.

Darwin and Bertie

Feb 21st, 2011 4:25 pm | By

Allen Esterson takes a hard look at some tendentious biographical interpretation of Darwin by Adrian Desmond and James Moore.

…they achieve their aims by a highly selective use of evidence, and by insinuating connections between Darwin’s evolutionary writings and concurrent political events for which there is no documentary warrant.

Well perhaps they were doing postmodern history.

It appears that The King’s Speech is another example of postmodern history. Christopher Hitchens tells us how.

The King’s Speech also part-whitewashes and part-airbrushes the consistent support of Buckingham Palace for Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain and their unceasing attempt to make an agreement with Hitler that would allow him a free hand in Europe while preserving the British Empire.

Oh well, that was then. It’s so much pleasanter to think of them as lifelong anti-fascists, don’t you think?

Isaac Chotiner in The New Republic doesn’t think so.

The King’s Speech is historically inaccurate, entirely misleading, and, in its own small way, morally dubious…What the film never mentions is that Edward VIII was an ardent admirer of Hitler and of fascism, and a proponent of appeasement long after Germany moved onto Polish soil and hostilities began in earnest…Bertie himself is also romanticized. He is seen presciently raising the question of German aggression before the invasion of the Sudetenland.

Dude, lighten up, it’s a movie. Movies don’t have to get the history right. Come on – movies tell stories, and they can’t do that if they have to get the history right. Have some champagne, step on a peasant, relax.

What’s missing

Feb 20th, 2011 5:10 pm | By

The Philosophical Primate, aka our friend G Felis, did a guest post at Eric’s blog a couple of days ago. One item in particular jumped out at me.

…the persistent and insistent claims that “something is missing” from the New Atheist world view is true: What’s missing is the siren call of easy assent to illegitimate authority — the human instinct to blend in and concede our autonomy to parent-mimicking authorities who, unlike actual (good) parents, do not have our genuine best interests at heart.

QFT, as the saying goes. I love that. It would make a nice bus ad.

What’s missing is the siren call of easy assent to illegitimate authority.

How peaceful the silence is.

Shank’s mare

Feb 20th, 2011 4:53 pm | By

A commenter at Jerry’s suggested a frightening possibility:

JAC, Brother Blackford, OB, and that muscular Eric McD are becoming quite a faction. OMG! You don’t suppose that there are actually EIGHT Horsemen of the Apocalypse?!?11

I suggested we could be the Four Pedestrians of the Apocalypse. I think this is a kind and generous thought, because it gives opposing factions so many openings for jokes. I’m a very giving person.

No actually I just think it’s funny, plus I am a dedicated pedestrian.


Feb 19th, 2011 2:06 pm | By

I’ve been thinking about segregation, because I’ve been thinking about the Muslim Brotherhood and sexual segregation. The MB of course mandates sexual segregation where it can, and would mandate it throughout Egypt if it got the power to do so. Many non-MB Egyptians think sexual segregation is right and good.

Marwa, a nursery school teacher who did not provide her last name, stood with some 200 women of all ages who chanted for the downfall of the regime. She wore a veil covering her hair.

‘I cover my body and support gender segregation during the protests, not as an Islamist statement, but because it is not right for men and women to have physical contact,’ she said.

What I’ve been thinking about segregation is the obvious: it’s inherently anti-egalitarian. Where there is segregation there is always superiority and inferiority. Separate but equal was a brazen lie. People who want to impose segregation of any kind are people who want to impose hierarchy.

Thinking about that led me to thinking about a different subject, which is NOMA, or the putative compatibility of religion and science. That too is a secretly hierarchical arrangement. The Non-Overlapping part of NOMA is an announcement that religion contaminates science as opposed to being genuinely compatible with it.

NOMA makes religion and science separate. It segregates the two from each other; that’s the point. If they were genuinely compatible, compatible substantively, they wouldn’t have to be separate. Overlapping would be fine. NOMA then goes on to do a lot of silly flattering of religion, but the real point is the separation.

This is how it works with de facto compatibility. “There are believers who do perfectly good science,” is the motto on that banner. Yes, and they do it by compartmentalizing, which being interpreted means, segregation. They do it by keeping the two rigidly separate. The need to keep them separate points up the fact that they’re not really compatible at all.

Bullies win another round

Feb 18th, 2011 5:04 pm | By

If you haven’t already, sign the petition to Karzai to save Afghan women’s shelters.

UN analyst Una Moore explains why.

Conservative politicians and media personalities have long railed against Afghanistan’s few women’s shelters and demanded that the facilities be closed. Two years ago, the government appointed a hard-line mullah to lead a commission to investigate shelters and recommend reforms…

Now, the shelter commission’s verdict is in. The government will seize all women’s shelters countrywide and place them under the control of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and the police. Women and girls seeking protection will have to plead their cases before an admissions panel of government employees and undergo medically dubious “examinations” to prove they are not guilty of adultery or prostitution. If a woman passes both tests and is admitted, she will not be allowed to leave without official permission. In effect, Afghanistan’s few refuges for abused women are about to become prisons.

Under the new shelter regulations, if a woman’s family comes to claim her, she must be handed over.

Because, you see, the whole thing is obviously a prostitution ring set up by foreigners. Any woman who is not under the thumb of the man who owns her is self-evidently a prostitute. Therefore shelters must be run by reactionary men who will have the women raped by examination on entry and then either imprisoned in the former shelter or returned to the men who own them.

Men are people and women are their livestock. Don’t you ever forget it.

Blatant discrimination against a Christian

Feb 17th, 2011 6:15 pm | By

When is it ok to decline to hire a particular person for a scientific job and hire someone else instead? James Hannam says not when the particular person in question is a creationist. For why? For because that is a religious belief, and it is the particular person’s right to have a religious belief and that right is trampled on when someone else is given the job as director of the student observatory at the University of Kentucky. Martin Gaskell was the best guy for the job as any fule kno and so it was no fair to give that job to someone else.

[T]he mere fact he was sympathetic towards creationists and kept an open mind about evolution appears to have disqualified him from being director of the observatory.

Well how mean is that?! Just because he was towards creationists and gave them hugs when their cats ran away from home? Or was there possibly maybe a little more to it than that?

In the notes for a lecture he gave at the university in 1997, Gaskell claimed, in clear disagreement with scientific facts, that evolution has “significant scientific problems” and includes “unwarranted atheistic assumptions and extrapolations”. This suggests a lack of understanding of the nature of scientific theory in general, and evolution in particular.

Oh what do you know, Lawrence Krauss, you’re just splitting hairs. Nobody needs to understand the nature of scientific theory in general just to run a poxy little observatory. Don’t be such a fussbudget. Hannam explains why.

None of this can justify religious discrimination. Liberals stand for a pluralistic society where people can both hold and express a wide variety of beliefs, some of which others might find absurd or distasteful. That means the proper forum for disagreements is open debate, not private emails between members of an academic selection committee.

That’s right! In a pluralistic society observatories should be run by tenth-level ayurvedic detoxxers or thetan-flavored scambolic sorcerers or professional qualified certificated layers on of hands. Anybody! It’s more interesting that way! And the way to figure it all out is to fight in public, not figure out which people to hire in private between people who know something about the job that has to be filled. A crackpot in every job! That’s the liberal dream.

Of pears and atmospheres

Feb 16th, 2011 12:33 pm | By

Jen at Blag Hag is attempting to clarify a few points about sexism and also hoping the drama will die now. I haven’t read all the relevant documents, but the gist of it is that there was a panel at a regional atheist meeting at which a woman objected to a bit of debatably sexist vocabulary and then all hell broke loose.

There’s a video of the relevant part of the panel, and I broke down and watched it this morning.

Here’s the thing. I can see that it’s not a slam-dunk that the word “female” is necessarily sexist…but by god that panel was sexist. It was sexist from the beginning (the beginning of that video, at least). It doubtless wasn’t intentionally sexist, but oh lordy was it sexist. It was reekingly obnoxious. I would have been out of there in about 30 seconds. Not to go cry in the toidy, just to get the hell out.

The panel was all men except for one woman, and that one woman pretty unmistakably found it futile to try to pull her weight. The trouble is that at least two of the men on the panel were loud and domineering and happy to do all the talking. Hello? That’s the kind of thing that has been silencing women for forever! The combination of total outnumbering and loud bossy “this is how it is” pontificating creates a thick fog of male butch macho guyishness that a minority of women just can’t cut through.

The atmosphere in that room was horribly locker-roomish. And it didn’t need to be. If there had been more women on the panel and if the men on the panel had been better chosen, things would have been different. As it was…it was just frankly repellent.

It annoys me that people still don’t get this. I remember being surprised forty years ago that people didn’t get this – even avowedly and energetically feminist men didn’t get this. Even avowedly and energetically feminist men would still cheerfully hijack conversations in such a way that any women present just gave up. Even avowedly and energetically feminist men would still listen to each other but interrupt any woman who started to talk. Even avowedly and energetically feminist men would still not feel the smallest discomfort that the women had fallen totally silent and that male voices alone filled the room.

That atheist panel in fact seems like a throwback to those days, when second-wave feminism was new and the men hadn’t quite re-learned old habits yet. That guy with the stentorian voice who did all the talking should get a clue. People who organize panels should leave guys like that off them.

A whole new field known as quantum biology

Feb 15th, 2011 1:11 pm | By

Deepak Chopra is upset because atheists make too much noise.

For most people, science deserves its reputation for being opposed to religion.

I’m not thinking of the rather noisy campaign by a handful of die-hard atheists to demote and ridicule faith…

Despite the noisy atheists, two trends in spirituality and science have started to converge.

Are the noisy atheists any more noisy than Deepak Chopra himself? He’s not particularly shy and retiring, now is he. It’s my understanding that he makes quite a lot of money by writing quite a lot of books that talk raving nonsense – like about “spirituality” and science starting to converge.

It is becoming legitimate to talk of invisible forces that shape creation – not labeling them as God but as the true shapers of reality beyond the space/time continuum. A whole new field known as quantum biology has sprung up, based on a true breakthrough – the idea that the total split between the micro world of the quantum and the macro world of everyday things may be a false split.

Full of sound and fury…

What is Robert Wright’s basic view?

Feb 14th, 2011 3:57 pm | By

Robert Wright is reliably vulgar. He shows us how it’s done in a throwaway little piece in The American Prospect – one that’s smug, thought-free and pandering all at once. Rather like a piece of political advertising.

He didn’t like nerds when he was in high school. (No, I bet he didn’t.) Then somebody told him about B F Skinner.

As intellectuals go, Skinner was pretty dismissive of intellectuals — at least the ones who blathered unproductively about “freedom” and “dignity,” the ones he considered insufficiently hard-nosed and scientific.

Look, he said, people are animals. Kind of like laboratory rats, except taller.

And I stopped trying to read it. What a cheap mind, what an impoverished vocabulary, what a stale way of writing and thinking.

He became “an ardent Skinnerian.” He would. If you don’t read many books or learn about many ideas, you’re vulnerable to bad ones. If he had known more nerds in high school he might be a less bumptious writer today.

He sums up with a punchy final paragraph.

I’ve held on to the essential spirit of Skinner — which, I now see, was also the spirit of my father. By that I don’t mean anti-intellectualism as much as a bedrock pragmatism. Got a problem? Analyze it as cleanly as possible, and then, having seen its roots, solve it. And don’t waste time dropping the names of any fancy French philosophers. This is still my basic view.

Good, isn’t it – he’s so pragmatic and so butch that he hasn’t got time for pronouns, but he does have enough time to sneer at the very idea of French philosophers – “fancy” ones at that. He sounds like a parody of Archie Bunker.

Seems, madam? Nay it is; I know not seems

Feb 13th, 2011 4:56 pm | By

Russell says Aikin and Talisse have portrayed themselves as accommodationists when they seem in fact not to be accommodationists. I thought I would corroborate that – they’re not accommodationists. They say so in their book.

[W]e do not consider ourselves to be accommodationists. We think that the religious believer’s core commitments are simply false; we also hold that adopting religious beliefs often has bad moral consequences. We stand, really, in firm opposition to religious belief and to the very idea of a supreme deity. As subsequent chapters will make clear, we are not just atheists (people who reject religious belief), but antitheists (people who think that religious belief is morally bad. [p 92]

There you go. You’ll never find an accommodationist saying that. That’s exactly the kind of thing an accommodationist won’t say, for fear that all believers will promptly enlist in the Tea Party in response.

They have “accommodationism” a bit wrong, in my view, but that doesn’t make any difference to the above avowal. They’re not apologizers; they’re not royalists; they’re not embarking on a campaign to go “tut tut tut tut tut” at atheists who think religious belief is morally bad.

They get how the bullying is done, too, which also makes them very different from accommodationists and royalists.

…the popular discussion about atheism is nearly exclusively fixed on the demeanor of the atheist. And the presumption is that openly rejecting religious belief is itself an uncivil act, and thus to be avoided. [p 70]

Not spoken like an accommodationist; do admit.

The 3Q article is really a bit misleading.

Good evening.

An accommodation with political Islam?

Feb 13th, 2011 12:29 pm | By

What does Anthony Shadid mean?

There is a fear in the West, one rarely echoed here, that Egypt’s revolution could go the way of Iran’s, when radical Islamists ultimately commandeered a movement that began with a far broader base. But the two are very different countries. In Egypt, the uprising offers the possibility of an accommodation with political Islam rare in the Arab world — that without the repression that accompanied Mr. Mubarak’s rule, Islam could present itself in a more moderate guise.

What does he mean “an accommodation with political Islam”? And why does he couple that with the different subject of a potentially moderate Islam?

Political Islam means theocracy. It means government by Islam and according to sharia; it means religion and state are one and the same. A potentially moderate Islam means just that – in this context it means that most Muslims in Egypt could adhere to a moderate version of Islam. The two things don’t go together. Theocracy can’t be “moderate”; political Islam can’t be moderate. You can have more and less vicious political Islam, but you can’t have moderate political Islam any more than you can have moderate political Catholicism or Southern Baptistism.

The Arab world has a spectrum of Islamic movements, as broad as the states that have repressed them, from the most violent in Al Qaeda to the most mainstream in Turkey. Though cast for years as an insurgent threat by Mr. Mubarak, the Brotherhood in Egypt has long disavowed its violent past, and now has a chance to present itself as something more than a force for opposition to Mr. Mubarak’s authoritarianism.

But Islamic movements are Islamist movements, and they shouldn’t be prettied up by being called “mainstream.” There is more to fear from the Muslim Brotherhood than what Shadid seems to mean by “its violent past.” (There’s the “Brotherhood” aspect just for a start. To belabor the obvious: it excludes women.)

“The people are aware this time,” said Essam Salem, a 50-year-old resident there. “They’re not going to let them seize power. People aren’t going to be deceived again. This is a popular revolution, a revolution of the youth, not an Islamic revolution.”

That’s the first hopeful note in the article. I hope it’s true, and in fact it seems highly plausible; it’s not as if the nature of Iran is a secret, nor is the fact that Iran is packed with people who would rebel if they could but prefer not to be thrown into Evin and then hanged.

While [the MB] remains deeply conservative, it engages less in sometimes frivolous debates over the veil or education and more in demands articulated by the broader society: corruption, joblessness, political freedom and human rights abuses.

Yes but that could be a smokescreen. It could be a Trojan horse. Try not to be totally naïve.

We do not evaluate, we demonstrate the diversity

Feb 12th, 2011 3:58 pm | By

The whufflings of the science museum are still sticking in my craw, making me irritable and restless and apt to shy at sudden noises. There’s just something about them…

The fifth floor gallery, you should understand, is divided into 3, like ancient Gaul.

2 large areas called Modern Medicine and Before Modern Medicine and a smaller area called Living Medical Traditions which was updated in 2006. Within this section there is a small area devoted to ‘Personal Stories’ which show how people choose to use medical treatments from different traditions.

That’s where the whuffling begins, you see. Another term for whuffling would be PR-speak. Spot the PR-speak. It is in “how people choose to use medical treatments” and it is in “medical treatments from different traditions.” The cry of the bullshitter echoes across the plain.

You see, “Susannah” (for it is she) is nudging us into having the right attitude to all this. People choose to use bogus medical treatments so how dare we elitist westerners with our fancy westerner cars and our fancy westerner yachts try to tell people what kind of medical treatments they should be forced at gunpoint to use. They choose it, themselves, in their authentic nonwesterner way, and that is rather beautiful, so who are you. The medical treatments they choose to use are from different traditions, just like totems and song lines and the most beautiful baskets you ever saw, so how dare we scientistic westerners with our scalpels and our carbon 14 dating and our slide rules try to say they don’t work. They are from different traditions, which are authentic and nonwestern and beautiful, so aren’t you ashamed. The medical treatments they choose to use from different traditions are medical treatments, because it says so right there between “choose” and “different traditions,” so go back to your penthouse on 5th Avenue and leave the poor Other alone.

See what I mean? It’s that kind of thing. It’s that sly way of smuggling in stupid pseudo-enlightened multicultural vocabulary as a way of signaling to people that they are stomping on about ten taboos. It’s that sly way of conveying that you’re saying something old hat and colonialist and suspect. It’s that sly way of patting themselves on the back for treating woo as if it were genuine medical treatments.

Then there’s the exhibit itself, with its generous display of the same kind of thing.

Around the world, medical traditions coexist, interact, compete and combine.

Here we describe local cases where individuals have chosen treatments from more than one medical tradition. Some visit practitioners who mix knowledge and techniques from different sources.

Individuals choose a practitioner for many reasons.

See it all? There’s a lot. I’ll mark it for you.

Around the world, medical traditions coexist, interact, compete and combine.

Here we describe local cases where individuals have chosen treatments from more than one medical tradition. Some visit practitioners who mix knowledge and techniques from different sources.

Individuals choose a practitioner for many reasons.

On the one hand it’s all totally legit, it’s practitioners with knowledge and techniques providing medical treatment; on the other hand it’s around the world, so the traditions both compete, on account of they’re different, and coexist and combine, on account of they’re compatible (just like science ‘n’ religion you know). Either way it’s all great stuff, and individuals choose it, so don’t you stand there glowering at us for displaying nonsense as if it were sciencey evidence-based medicine. We can if we want to.

The museum’s official statement is even worse.

[W]e take an anthropological and sociological perspective on medical practices. We reflect patient experience in a global setting. We do not evaluate different medical systems, but demonstrate the diversity of medical practices and theoretical frameworks currently thriving across the world.

Which, since the Science Museum is the Science Museum, is a frank and unabashed abdication of responsibility. The “different” “medical systems” aren’t all medical systems and don’t all belong in a science museum, so the museum’s proudly announcing that they don’t evaluate them but just demonstrate their “diversity” instead is…pathetic.

But oh well – I shouldn’t let it annoy me. After all, it’s not as if medicine makes any difference to anything.

Women of Egypt

Feb 11th, 2011 5:08 pm | By

Yes but it’s worrying that there were so few women in Tahrir Square.

Cairo is notoriously hellish for women. That’s not a good sign for the future. They need to fix that. Women need to get out there and play their part (and that means half, not a bit part); men need to treat them like fellow citizens and equals, not like flowers or prostitutes. Women need to get out there and make sure this isn’t a revolution run by men.

Women need to grab and keep their share of the power and the conversation. If they have their share, it will be that much harder for clerics and Islamists to take over.

Update: a reader sent an optimistic article:

Egyptian women often shun crowded public places, fearing the pervasive sexual harassment that is the norm here. Simply walking down a Cairo street can be an ordeal of catcalls, pinching and unwanted propositions. But women attending the protests reported being treated with an unaccustomed respect.

Brilliant. That’s how it should work – people treat each other as equals united against the oppressive regime.

My stomach is mine, yours is yours

Feb 11th, 2011 11:05 am | By

It occurs to me that Sam Harris could have helped his case if he had stated his core claim more fully from the outset. His core claim omits the very thing that makes morality non-obvious and disputatious*.

His core claim is

For those unfamiliar with my book, here is my argument in brief:

Morality and values depend on the existence of conscious minds – and specifically on the fact that such minds can experience various forms of well-being and suffering in this universe. Conscious minds and their states are natural phenomena, of course, fully constrained by the laws of Nature (whatever these turn out to be in the end).

Therefore, there must be right and wrong answers to questions of morality and values that potentially fall within the purview of science.

Yes but. Yes but you left the difficult part out.

Morality and values depend on the existence of conscious minds and on the fact that each mind is separate from all others.

The fact that each of us can directly experience only our own suffering and well-being is why we need morality and values at all; without that it would all be straightforward, like hunger prompting us to find and eat food.

Morality isn’t about “if you’re suffering, try to stop.” We already know that! Morality is about “you’re fine but those people over there are starving, you should share your food with them, with the result that you are hungrier and they are rescued from starving.” And then about arguments over dependency and causation and responsibility and proximity and 50 million other things, many of which benefit from scientific input but few of which are simply settled (or in Harris’s word, determined) by science.

Harris should have included that in his argument in brief all along.

*Update: I think that’s not really the right word. I think that word applies to people who like to dispute, as with “litigious.” But “disputable” wasn’t exactly what I meant…so I used disputatious anyway, despite knowing it wasn’t really right. The really right word doesn’t exist, so I bent one, thus possibly creating confusion. Language is tricky. (No one has emailed me to say that’s the wrong word…I just felt like saying.)

There is need for reflection

Feb 10th, 2011 1:07 pm | By

Poor Ireland, it must be so disconcerting.

The phenomenal economic boom over the past two decades, and the secularization that came along with it, allowed Ireland to think it was no longer what it once was: a backward land dominated and shaped by the Roman Catholic Church. But as the economy has crashed, the Irish have come face to face with their earlier selves, and with a church-state relationship that was and in many ways still is, as quite a few people in the country see it, perversely antimodern.

It’s perhaps similar to being suddenly transported from a cosmopolitan liberal coastal city to a parochial conservative religious town in the hinterland.

Only worse.

As secularism advanced in other parts of the world, successive popes relied on Ireland as a bulwark and pushed Irish leaders to keep the church in the country’s structure. In 1977, Prime Minister Garret FitzGerald noted that in a private meeting, Pope Paul VI stressed to him “that Ireland was a Catholic country — perhaps the only one left — and that it should stay that way” and that he should not “change any of the laws that kept the republic a Catholic state.” That continues to this day, according to Ivana Bacik, a senator for the opposition Labor Party who has been a leader in the effort to extricate the church from the state. As she put it, “In no other European nation — with the obvious exception of Vatican City — does the church have this depth of doctrinal involvement in the affairs of state.”

By what right? In other European nations, laws are generally changed or not changed by the legislators or people of those nations, not by different ones. It’s odd that the nation of “Vatican City” thinks it gets to tell the Irish PM what laws to change or not change. Odd but not surprising.

Last summer, there was talk of a plan to divest the church of its control of state-financed schools, but when I asked a Department of Education and Skills spokeswoman last month what the department was doing, she gave me only the Catholic Church’s current position — that there is need for “reflection” on the issue — and actually referred me to the church for further information.

Or reflection.

The diversity of medical practices and theoretical frameworks currently thriving across the world

Feb 10th, 2011 12:20 pm | By

Alex Davenport went to the Science Museum (the one in South Kensington, you know), and found the 5th floor devoted to quackery.

It matters because the SM is supposed to promote science and understanding, not fuel an ever increasingly tiresome debate between those that painstakingly research and collect data and those that appear to pick any old idea then try to convince people it works.

That’s what I would have thought.

The homeopathy stand tells the case study of a girl who had allergies from the age of 3-5 (what are these allergies?) and they say that she was cured by homeopaths.  That’s right, they categorically state that homeopathy helped her.


A museum staffer did a blog post in response, with an official statement from the museum.

In our ‘Living Medical Traditions’ section of the Science and Art of Medicine Gallery we take an anthropological and sociological perspective on medical practices. We reflect patient experience in a global setting. We do not evaluate different medical systems, but demonstrate the diversity of medical practices and theoretical frameworks currently thriving across the world.

Our message in this display is that these traditions are not ‘alternative’ systems in most parts of the world. Instead they currently offer the majority of the global population their predominant, sometimes only, choice of medical care. We do not make any claims for the validity of the traditions we present.

Well not in the sense of having banners saying “This stuff really works!” – but what about that stand that says homeopathy cured a child of allergies? That looks like a claim for validity to my untutored eye. David Colquhoun was entirely unconvinced. So was Simon Singh. So were lots of other people.

More via Martin Robbins.


Feb 9th, 2011 4:18 pm | By

Does Mary Midgley give Richard Dawkins a percentage? She certainly should. She’s making a full-time career of telling him to stop doing things he doesn’t do.

Midgley’s new book continues her many years of taking neo-Darwinists to task because, she says, they distort the legacy of the great English naturalist who inspired them.

Yes, many years. Many, many years. More than thirty of the bastards. She was told she had it all wrong the same number of years ago, but her new book continues the same old bullshit she was told was all wrong all those years ago. I’d say she owes Richard a cut.

And what’s this crap about “distorting” Darwin’s “legacy,” anyway? Does she think Darwin wrote a gospel? Does she think Darwin’s work is supposed to be frozen in amber so that everyone can stand around and admire it, along with the work of Albert the Good and Gladstone and Isambard Kingdom Brunel? Darwin was a scientist. His work was and is supposed to be expanded, corrected, falsified, improved, used, stretched out of shape. It’s not a sculpture or a carpet, it’s a theory; it doesn’t need to be protected from the breath of the nasty modern sciencey types with their iPods and blue jeans and tendency to swear. Those nasty modern sciencey types are Darwin’s colleagues; he has a lot more in common with them than he has with obstinate one-idea (and that a wrong one) Midgley.

Midgley argues that the neo-Darwinist perspective rests on an ethos of free-enterprise competition distorted by “the supposedly Darwinian belief in natural selection as a pervasive, irresistible cosmic force” that operates in social and metaphysical realms as well as in physical, biological ones. It results, she writes, in “unbridled, savage competition between the genes” that operates with mythic force within any individual body.

Apparently she has learned nothing since 1979, the date of the original (widely-derided) paper. Her legacy is serenly undistorted – for what that’s worth.

I don’t see how the argument even begins

Feb 8th, 2011 12:36 pm | By

I’ve read an advance copy of Reasonable Atheism by Scott Aikin and Robert Talisse. It’s a good book. I have some disagreements though, and some things I don’t understand, or suspect I don’t understand, or both; I’ve been waiting to post about them, until closer to the pub date, but now that they’re posting about it, I figure it’s close enough.

One (highly reasonable) point they make is that atheists should argue well instead of badly. One example of arguing well, they say, is taking the Ontological Argument seriously.

We take the Ontological Argument as the litmus test for intellectual seriousness, both for atheists and religious believers alike. Anyone who takes the question of God’s existence seriously must grapple with this fascinating argument. Those who simply cast it aside, or wield it indiscriminately, prove themselves intellectually careless. [p 81 - but this is uncorrected proof]

This is one of the places where I suspect I don’t understand. I don’t get the need to grapple with the ont. arg., because it has no purchase on me to begin with. It starts with premises that I see no reason to start with. I “simply cast it aside.” I don’t see how saying “but a perfect being that didn’t exist would be imperfect and we can conceive of a perfect being therefore that being exists” causes anything to happen. I know I’ve garbled the argument, but this is where the suspected not understanding comes in. I seem not to understand how the argument is anything more reasonable than that. I seem not to understand why anybody has ever thought that an ability to imagine something plus logic can cause the something to exist.

On the next page they say how Hitchens garbles the argument, then give the right version.

[T]he argument derives God’s existence from something we know about God, whether we think he exists or not, namely, that He is perfect.

That’s accurate, by the way; it’s he first, and then He. The “he” must be a mistake; they use capital H throughout the book, which I think is odd for atheists. I don’t think we’re required to be reverent. But never mind that – just explain that sentence to me, because I don’t get it. I don’t know that about “God.” I know that some people who do think “God” exists also think that “God” is ”perfect” – but I don’t take that to mean that I “know” “God” “is” “perfect.” I don’t know a single one of those four words, much less all four of them in combination.

Therefore I don’t see how the argument even begins. I see how it begins for people who do think they know all four of those things, but I don’t see how it begins for people who don’t. Do you?


Feb 7th, 2011 12:19 pm | By

Eric is arguing that we should accept the label “new atheism” and run with it. He sets out three items that define a new atheist:

(i) a belief in the harmfulness of religion, both in a political and an intellectual sense; (ii) a conviction that there is no evidence for belief in a god; (iii) a general agreement that (i) and (ii) mean that we must actively oppose religion.

I would insert a new (iii): a conviction or a sense that the widespread (at least in the US) expectation that one should believe in god as if (ii) were of no relevance whatsoever, is an offensive imposition.

That’s what is New in my New Atheism, at any rate. I’ve been an atheist since adolescence at least, and as far as I can remember I was a very unconvinced nominal “theist” as a child, but I haven’t always been a gnu (to revert to the joke I am reluctant to abandon). I used to groan inwardly rather than argue. But the imposition offends my sense of justice – and I have a way of arguing without actually getting in people’s (literal) faces – so impassive atheism has made way for the vocal kind. There is no reason to believe there is anything properly called “god,” so stop telling me to think there is.