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.

Drive-by insults

Feb 6th, 2010 4:48 pm | By

Andrew Brown does love to yank the chain of non-believers.

Judges are paid to discriminate among prisoners before them, and to distinguish those for whom prison is the right treatment from everyone else. Defendants of otherwise good character should obviously get different sentences to habitual recidivists. The real disagreement is whether being a devout Muslim (or Christian) is in itself a sign of good character. Cherie Booth seems to be arguing that it is, though less important than his previously spotless record.

Right, Cherie Booth seems to be arguing that it is, and by implication that its absence is a sign of bad character, or else why mention it at all? She didn’t say ‘you have a spotless record and you drink Ribena’ or ‘ ‘you have a spotless record and you wear trainers’; she didn’t make a random observation that no reasonable observer would construe as a claim about his character; she said ‘you are a religious man.


For Sanderson and those who think like him, being a devout believer is quite the opposite. It’s evidence of bad character. For Sanderson and those who think like him, being a devout believer is quite the opposite. It’s evidence of bad character.

Interesting, except that Sanderson said nothing like that (and much less did ‘those who think like him’) so one is left wondering how Andrew Brown knows it. No one isn’t, one is left marveling yet again at Andrew Brown’s fondness for the truculent and untrue passing insult.

In Sanderson’s world, judges should say things like “Although you have no previous convictions, you are none the less a follower of Pope Benedict XVI and so unable to tell right from wrong. I therefore find myself compelled to impose a custodial sentence.”

There’s another one. Not true, not pleasant, not justifiable.

I say this, of course, with the utmost affection.

This confusion of the epistemic with the political

Feb 5th, 2010 4:58 pm | By

Jerry Coyne and Orac have commented on Chris Mooney’s article on how to deal with anti-vaxxers but I’ll just add a thought.

Mooney asks what it would take to make the “vaccine-autism debate” (which isn’t a real debate) go away.

A Lancet retraction isn’t going to do it, that’s for sure. For vaccine skeptics, that’s just more evidence of corruption and collusion in the medical establishment. Indeed, I doubt any individual scientific development has the strength to move these folks—because we aren’t dealing with a phenomenon that’s scientific in nature.

Quite right; we’re dealing with irrational immovable conviction. What to do?

Instead, I believe we need some real attempts at bridge-building between medical institutions—which, let’s admit it, can often seem remote and haughty—and the leaders of the anti-vaccination movement. We need to get people in a room and try to get them to agree about something—anything. We need to encourage moderation, and break down a polarized situation in which the anti-vaccine crowd essentially rejects modern medical research based on the equivalent of conspiracy theory thinking…

As so often with Mooney, I have no idea what exactly he means by that. I do know vaguely what he means, because it’s obvious enough, and it’s all too typical – but I really don’t know exactly. I know he means we need everybody to be nice, and try to heal this ‘gap’ or ‘fissure’ or ‘polarity’ by being nice and looking into one another’s eyes and thinking ‘this is just another nice person like me, after all’…but I also know he doesn’t really literally mean that, because it’s too silly. But what does he mean? I asked in a comment there (which I can do there! because I’m not banned there! because it’s not The Intersection! it’s so exciting):

How? How is it possible to do that when, as you say yourself, “we’re really dealing with something very irrational here”? What does it mean to “encourage moderation” when one side won’t take any notice of evidence or argument? What does it mean to talk of a “polarized situation” as if the issue were fundamentally political rather than empirical? What use is it to import the language of political discussion and compromise into a pseudo-controversy over medical evidence? What reason is there to think that absolutely everything can be translated into the language of politics and “framing” and manipulation?

What does he mean by ‘moderation,’ do you suppose? What kind of moderation can proponents of vaccination resort to? Talking in really soft voices? Smiling while they talk? What? It is not clear, because Mooney (as so very often, or even always) didn’t make it clear. He just used some buzz words, and let it go at that. He’s very lazy about this stuff, when you get right down to it. He’s certainly not lazy in general; his first book was a triumph of energetic investigation. But he is very lazy about this; he thinks buzz words are all that’s necessary.

And he thinks everything is political. I think that’s where I disagree with him most profoundly – over this confusion of the epistemic with the political. I think ‘moderation’ on an empirical question is fundamentally meaningless, and I think making political noises about it just confuses things.

That’s the thought I wanted to add.

No ripples on the pond

Feb 5th, 2010 2:23 pm | By

Chris Mooney is seeking suggestions for his new gig.

I may as well make clear I am not going into this with the goal of having big arguments with leading New Atheists about science and religion.My position on this topic is well known…

No of course not – arguments are never what he wants. What he wants is to say what’s what, and have everybody listen quietly and nod soberly and say ‘Good idea, I never thought of it that way, I shall put your suggestions into effect immediately.’ He’s not at all interested in what people who don’t agree with him say. And if his position on this topic is not well known, that’s certainly not his fault, because god knows he’s been repeating it faithfully and imperturbably for lo these many months. That is precisely why I think he’s the wrong kind of person to host a podcast on inquiry. He’s not interested in inquiry.

The place for a woman is either at home or in the grave

Feb 5th, 2010 2:15 pm | By

Pakistan. A 13-year-old girl.

My brother used to tell me that the place for a woman is either at home or in the grave. I was always restricted to home. He said: “If you leave the house I’ll cut off your head and put it on your chest.” My brother had been to the local school and beaten the girls and the teachers. He said anyone who wanted to study was a friend of America. I wanted to be a doctor. I wanted it so much that once I dreamt I was sitting in a hospital, working as a doctor. I wanted to help the poor, those who cannot afford medical fees.

Oh no – that’s not what her brother and her father had in mind for her, or for her younger sister, either.

My father and brother told me to carry out a suicide attack. They were pressuring me to do this. They told me: “If you do it you will go to paradise long before us.” I replied: “Why don’t you tell me I will go to hell long before you?”…They started beating me when I refused. They beat me non-stop. They made my life hell. I never had a single moment of happiness. They did everything other than kill me.

And as for that sister…

To the manner born

Feb 4th, 2010 11:32 am | By

Good old Charles, always stirring the pot, and doing it in such a grand aristocratic irresponsible way.

“I was accused once of being the enemy of the Enlightenment,” he told a conference at St James’s Palace. “I felt proud of that.”

Ah did you, you darling wee man. Well it’s easy for you, isn’t it, because if all the lights go out you can just get a lot of servants to hold the candles for you.

The Prince, who was talking at the annual conference of The Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment , went on: “I thought, ‘Hang on a moment’. The Enlightenment started over 200 years ago.”

He’s been studying Madeleine Bunting!

It might be time to think again and review it and question whether it is really effective in today’s conditions, faced as we are with huge challenges all over the world. It must be apparent to people deep down that we have to do something about it. We cannot go on like this, just imagining that the principles of the Enlightenment still apply now. I don’t believe they do. But if you challenge people who hold the Enlightenment as the ultimate answer to everything, you do really upset them.

That would be partly because nobody holds that and people who do hold Enlightenment values get very stinking tired of being characterized in that stupid way. Nobody nobody nobody ‘holds the Enlightenment as the ultimate answer to everything’ you ignorant git so why don’t you get it right if you want to say something?

Not to mention of course the absurdity of assuming that just because an idea is 200 years old therefore ‘we have to do something about it’ i.e. get rid of it. The monarchy is a good deal older than that but we don’t hear Chuck saying we have to do something about it, do we!

Instead, the Prince advocated a holistic approach to the world’s problems…“What is the point of all this clever technology if at the end of the day we lose our souls, and the soul of nature of which we are a part?”…The Prince also made an impassioned call for houses to be built so that birds, such as swallows and swifts, could make their nests there.

Holistic approach; souls; birds’ nests. For that he thinks he has to do something about the Enlightenment? I don’t see the necessity, myself.

Talk to Yggdrasil

Feb 3rd, 2010 12:36 pm | By

The Lancet has retracted Andrew Wakefield’s article that suggested that vaccines could cause autism. Therefore…

Jim Moody, a director of SafeMinds, a parents’ group that advances the notion the vaccines cause autism, said the retraction would strengthen Dr. Wakefield’s credibility with many parents.

I see. Years of investigation that turned up conflicts of interest and ‘the overwhelming body of research by the world’s leading scientists that concludes there is no link between M.M.R. vaccine and autism’ will strengthen Wakefield’s credibility with many parents. What kind of thing would weaken it then?

…an investigation by a British journalist found financial and scientific conflicts that Dr. Wakefield did not reveal in his paper. For instance, part of the costs of Dr. Wakefield’s research were paid by lawyers for parents seeking to sue vaccine makers for damages. Dr. Wakefield was also found to have patented in 1997 a measles vaccine that would succeed if the combined vaccine were withdrawn or discredited.

Would that do it? No? I suppose it would take a shaman and Tom Cruise doing a joint press conference saying no it’s not vaccines it’s the anger of The World Spirit. Or something.

A short way with dissenters

Feb 1st, 2010 4:15 pm | By

Hey, why not ask the pope to host Point of Inquiry? He’s a reasonable guy – rational, thoughtful, fair-minded, generous, liberal.

The Pope confirmed today that he will make an official state visit to Britain this September – and immediately launched an attack on the Government’s plans to introduce stronger equality legislation for gay men and women. In the first official announcement from the Vatican that the head of the Roman Catholic Church will tour Britain, Pope Benedict XVI called on his bishops to continue campaigning against the Equality Bill which he said threatened religious freedom.

That’s nice, isn’t it? A German fella who’s the boss of a large church based in Rome is telling British bishops to campaign against equality legislation – because it’s really up to Ratzinger to decide what kind of laws the UK should have. Not to mention the whole business of making a big public show of resisting equality in the first place.

In a letter to the Catholic bishops of England and Wales, many of whom are currently in Rome on an “ad limina” visit, Pope Benedict publicly criticised Britain’s equality legislation for the first time. “Your country is well known for its firm commitment to equality of opportunity for all members of society,” he wrote. “Yet as you have rightly pointed out, the effect of some of the legislation designed to achieve this goal has been to impose unjust limitations on the freedom of religious communities to act in accordance with their beliefs. In some respects it actually violates the natural law upon which the equality of all human beings is grounded and by which it is guaranteed.”

Yes, there speaks the voice of the papacy and the church – the one that likes to deliver occasional announcements about the ‘natural law’ that dictates that women are different from men and had damn well better not forget it. Reactionary bastards.

In a separate warning to any bishop thinking of deviating from the Vatican’s lead on such controversial issues, Pope Benedict also reiterated the need for the Church to “speak with a united voice. In a social milieu that encourages the expression of a variety of opinions on every question that arises, it is important to recognise dissent for what it is, and not to mistake it for a mature contribution to a balanced and wide-ranging debate,” he said. “It is the truth revealed through scripture and tradition and articulated by the Church’s Magisterium that sets us free.”

Yes indeed, and arbeit macht frei. There’s no freedom like the freedom of scripture and the Church’s Magisterium, so kindly recognize dissent for what it is and STFU.

Maybe Conan would like to do it?

Feb 1st, 2010 2:44 pm | By

This is not good news.

The Center for Inquiry has announced that there will be three new hosts for its popular podcast, Point of Inquiry. Joining the podcast are Chris Mooney, Karen Stollznow, and Robert Price…Mooney is expected to host about half of the approximately 50 new shows per year.

DJ Grothe, who was the host, left in December for a job as President of the James Randi Foundation. I was pleased at the time for DJ and for JREF, but worried for Point of Inquiry. DJ was a very good host.

Chris Mooney seems to me to be a very peculiar choice for that job. (He and Matthew Nisbet were both protégés of Paul Kurtz’s – Nisbet in particular used to make a great point of this, and for all I know still does.) Mooney is not: Thoughtful enough. Inquiring enough. Reasonable enough. Fair enough.

He’s especially, I think, not inquiring enough. He doesn’t even seem to get what it is to be inquiring – it’s not his thing. His thing is advocacy. Now advocacy is very useful, and it’s good that there are people who do it, but that doesn’t mean they’re the right people to host podcasts about inquiry. Mooney is if anything hostile to inquiry – he’s a results guy. I can’t see him having the right kind of curiosity and open-mindedness to do a good job with PofI.

And then the fairness issue I think is a major stumbling block. Since the recent regrettable events, I wouldn’t trust Mooney to be fair to anyone who had disagreed with him in the last eight months or so – and that covers a hell of a lot of people, many of whom are naturals for PofI. That’s a huge change from DJ. It really seems like an odd choice – and not in a good way.

Addition: here’s the Point of Inquiry I did in 2007. And here’s Russell’s from last October.

Summer camp or boarding school

Jan 31st, 2010 5:27 pm | By

Not good.

Ten members of an American Baptist Church are to appear in a Haitian court this morning after being accused of running an illegal adoption scheme. The group from Idaho said that they were carrying out a rescue mission and had accompanied more than 30 children as part of a plan to take at least 100 orphans out of Port-au-Prince to an orphanage that they run in the neighbouring Dominican Republic…She said that the group had documents from the Dominican Governmen but did not seek any paperwork from the Haitian authorities…

Why not? Did they try? Was it impossible in the circumstances? The article doesn’t say. At any rate clearly documents from another government do not amount to permission to take children out of their own country. If I decide to grab a child and take her to Ulan Bator, it’s not good enough for me to say I have documents from the government of Mongolia. Mongolia isn’t in a position to give me permission to abduct a child from a country that is not Mongolia.

The children, aged from a few months to 12, seemed to have little idea where they were being taken when The Times met them, with some saying that they had parents in Haiti. George Willeit, of SOS Children’s Village, a care centre on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince where the children are now staying, told The Times: “What we know is that some of these children still have their parents. There was an older girl, aged 8 or 9, and she was crying and saying, ‘I’m not an orphan. I still have my parents’. This girl was thinking that she was going to a summer camp or boarding school. She didn’t know what was happening to her.”

No good. Bad. Help and rescue are all very well, but not in a hole-and-corner way. Not least, they have to make triply or quadruply sure to create ample records of what they’re doing so that the children can be found if relatives are looking for them. Even Idaho Baptists don’t get to take short cuts.

Deciding in advance

Jan 30th, 2010 1:55 pm | By

Wheaton College has a ‘statement of faith’ that everyone at Wheaton has to ‘follow.’ The statement is long, and specific, and detailed. It’s not a mere cloud of benevolent sentiments, it’s a list of concrete factual assertions prefaced by ‘we believe that,’ and agreeing to the whole thing is, as I understand it, a condition of employment and attendance. It includes (and ends with) ‘WE BELIEVE in the bodily resurrection of the just and unjust, the everlasting punishment of the lost.’

Yet Wheaton College considers itself an academic institution of some kind. Wheaton College considers itself a place of higher education, yet a condition of getting the putative higher education that Wheaton College offers is agreement with a long list of inherently absurd factual claims.

Those two facts don’t go together. They don’t belong together. Education is pretty much the opposite of swearing an oath to a particular set of unquestioned and unquestionable ‘faith-based’ assertions. Swearing such an oath amounts to swearing not to be educated in anything except the narrowest technical sense.

Rules of supermarket deportment

Jan 29th, 2010 1:00 pm | By

A brief frivolous interlude to consider one small aspect of daily life.

A Tesco store has asked customers not to shop in their pyjamas or barefoot…A spokesman said Tesco did not have a strict dress code but it does not want people shopping in their nightwear in case it offends other customers.

Or not so much offends them as makes them feel sick. That’s how it affects me. The sight of people outside in the world in their bedroom slippers, or with bed hair, or in their pyjamas, makes me feel very queasy indeed. It’s much the same if I see people flossing their teeth or cutting their toenails in public; or picking their noses, or applying unguents to a suppurating wound, or peeling a scab, or searching around in their hair in case there are any lice or ticks or fleas lurking up there. There are things people shouldn’t do in public, and those are some of them. I applaud Tesco’s attempt to maintain a vestige of dignity and seemliness in modern life.

Elaine Carmody, 24, a full-time mother of two young boys, described the ban as “ridiculous” and “pathetic”. She said she had regularly gone shopping at the store in her pyjamas until about a week ago when she was turned away when she went to buy cigarettes. She said she had been “popping in for a pack of fags,” but if she had been doing a full shop “then we obviously would have gone in clothed. But we only wanted fags and they still refused us to go in for a pack of cigarettes,” she added.

Ah isn’t that nice – Elaine Carmody is so frantically busy being the mother of two young boys that she can’t manage to put real clothes on before she goes to Tesco, so she regularly went shopping there in her unsightly pyjamas. Of course, she assures us, with her unerring grasp of the niceties, if she had been doing “a full shop” then obviously – obviously! – she would have put actual clothes on, but they ‘only wanted fags’ – she and her two young boys. Well of course they did, and what a cozy family group they do sound, running into Tesco in their jammies for a packet of fags and then running back home to smoke them. Yet Tesco didn’t find them appealing! It’s astonishing, isn’t it?

Elaine Carmody says quite a lot more; the BBC pretty obviously finds her hilarious. They thoughtfully provide a picture of her in her pyjamas, too, so that we can get an idea. We get one.

Village life

Jan 27th, 2010 5:14 pm | By

I have nothing to add.

A 16-year-old girl who was raped in Bangladesh has been given 101 lashes for conceiving during the assault. The girl’s father was also fined and warned the family would be branded outcasts from their village if he did not pay. According to human rights activists, the girl, who was quickly married after the attack, was divorced weeks later after medical tests revealed she was pregnant. The girl was raped by a 20-year-old villager in Brahmanbaria district in April last year…Muslim elders in the village issued a fatwa insisting that the girl be kept in isolation until her family agreed to corporal punishment.

Her rapist was pardoned by the elders.

No, I have nothing to add.

The mystery of the providence of God

Jan 26th, 2010 12:56 pm | By

The horrible slush keeps pouring out as if from a broken sewer pipe.

Instead of admitting that we do not know how to reconcile a loving God with terrible disasters like Haiti and Indonesia, some theologians come up with cruel solutions…We do not know the answer to this conundrum except to say that is the nature of freedom in an imperfect world and that is the mystery of the providence of God. God will work all things for our good even if we don’t understand. That is what faith is: the moment we say we understand, there is no longer any faith.

We do not know except to say – it’s always ‘except to say,’ isn’t it – it’s never just we do not know. What’s really meant is They don’t know but I do. We do not know except to say ‘that is the mystery of the providence of God.’ That’s knowing a hell of a lot! And it is of course knowing way more than we do in fact know. We don’t know if there is anything that matches the name ‘God’ and we certainly don’t know anything about what such a god’s ‘providence’ might be, or that what happened in Haiti is some of it. We don’t know jack shit, and saying ‘all we know is that that is the mystery of the providence of God’ is the very opposite of saying we do not know. It’s just part of the endlessly tiresome conceit of religious people to think they can get away with saying ‘we don’t know except for just this one big thing’ – to think they can get away with eating their cake and having it in that brazen way. I’m so humble, I know we don’t know, and also, I have the knowledge of ‘faith,’ so I do know, so I get the credit for both – humbleness and faithy knowledge.

And the upshot of this contemptible enterprise is still to end up in the same place – God will work all things for our good even if we don’t understand – so it’s okay that God crushed a lot of people to death at once and let a lot of others die very slowly in pain and thirst and fear. Well fuck that. It’s not okay. If God exists and did that, God is a monster. Don’t explain away horrors.

James Wood, in his alternately insightful and contemptuous Op-Ed article, concludes by dismissing the views of a Haitian bishop — who affirms that “what happened is the will of God” and “we are in the hands of God now” — as “little more than a piece of helpless mystification, a contradictory cry of optimistic despair.”…The bishop’s theology is neither mystifying nor contradictory, and in fact represents one version of a view held by many Christians and other religious people: namely, that God is deeply present in and through the events of the world — often inscrutably, but always powerfully and lovingly — and though we cannot for the life of us see how, even catastrophes include divine presence and power.

Yes, of course that’s a view held by many Christians and other religious people; it’s still both wrong and cruel. Dressing it up in unctuous churchy language doesn’t make it any less of either. Telling people that smashing tens of thousands of people to death is something to do with a God who is loving is just to sanctify a nightmare.

The perpetrator of that second one is an associate professor of ministry studies at Harvard Divinity School.

Just say No to equality

Jan 25th, 2010 12:36 pm | By

The Church of England comes right out and admits it – it is opposed to equality. It’s politely regretful – or to put it another way, it politely pretends to be regretful. But when a choice has to be made, it chooses the principle of male authority, and that’s that. It would like to be all liberal and modern and right-on and all, but when the stakes are this high, it just can’t do it. So sorry.

The Christian Churches, alongside many other faiths, support the Equality Bill’s wider aims in promoting fairness in society and improving redress for those who have suffered unjust treatment.

Except for we don’t. We say we do – but then when we’re actually expected to act on it – we don’t. We wish we could – we would so love to – we wish you all the very best – but we don’t. So, so sorry.

The odyssey

Jan 24th, 2010 4:58 pm | By

James Wood doesn’t think much of theodicy.

But even when intentions are the opposite of Mr. Robertson’s, and in a completely secular context, theological language has a way of hanging around earthquakes. In his speech after the catastrophe, President Obama movingly invoked “our common humanity,” and said that “we stand in solidarity with our neighbors to the south, knowing that but for the grace of God, there we go.” And there was God once again. Awkwardly, the literal meaning of Mr. Obama’s phrase is not so far from Pat Robertson’s hatefulness. Who, after all, would want to worship the kind of God whose “grace” protects Americans from Haitian horrors

Which is why I wish Obama would leave the goddy stuff out. The intention was good, but really, if that’s the grace of God, what’s God thinking? That we have better building codes and more medical facilities and bigger airports so therefore God should do the earthquake in Haiti because that way it will be really worth watching on tv?

The president was merely uttering an idiomatic version of the kind of thing you hear from survivors whenever a disaster strikes: “God must have been watching out for me; it’s a miracle I survived,” whereby those who died were presumably not being “watched out for.”

Exactly. I said much the same thing in my essay for 50 Voices of Disbelief, though I said it in a slightly less respectful tone.

People seem to know that God is good, that God cares about everything and is paying close attention to everything, and that God is responsible whenever anything good happens to them or whenever anything bad almost happens to them but doesn’t. Yet they apparently don’t know that God is responsible whenever anything bad happens to them, or whenever anything good almost happens to them but doesn’t. People who survive hurricanes or earthquakes or explosions say God saved them, but they don’t say God killed or mangled all the victims. Olympic athletes say God is good when they win a gold, but they don’t say God is bad when they come in fourth or twentieth, much less when other people do.

Why don’t they? Why do people thank god for good things and look carelessly out the window when it comes to bad things? Why is it all thank you thank you thank you and never damn you damn you damn you? I suppose because once it gets to damn you damn you damn you it’s time to leave, so we don’t hear so much about it.

Flashing lights, and a beeping noise

Jan 23rd, 2010 5:31 pm | By

Call me sentimental but I do think this is a quotation for the ages. It’s from the guy who made the ‘bomb detector’ thingy out of an antenna and a hinge and a plastic tag, and sold lots of them for $40,000 each, and got arrested on suspicion of fraud for doing that.

We have been dealing with doubters for ten years. One of the problems we have is that the machine does look a little primitive. We are working on a new model that has flashing lights.

Do admit. The sunny innocence, the tenderly confiding honesty of that brings tears to the eyes, does it not? He sweetly admits there are ‘doubters’ – people not convinced that a stick and a bit of duct tape and a ‘card’ and a bit of plastic can actually detect explosives. He admits that one little stumbling block (to what? charging $80,000 apiece?) is that the ‘machine’ (the bendy stick with the bit of plastic inside) looks a little primitive even though in reality of course it is more elaborate and complicated and technical and sciencey than an MRI or a particle accelerator or an iPod or an electric toothbrush. And then, in the bit that is so limpid and childlike and of the dawn dawny, he murmurs of his exacting technical labors on a new model with flashing lights. So what you would have then, see, would be a bendy stick with a ‘card’ and a bit of plastic all topped, like a car wash, with flashing lights. So there you’d be shuffling around the checkpoint in Afghanistan, swinging your bendy stick around sniffing for explosives, and your life would be made more glamorous and exciting and Christmassy and convincing by these exciting flashing lights on your bendy stick. Until you stepped on the bomb, of course.

It won’t work unless the operator is relaxed

Jan 22nd, 2010 11:57 am | By

Another entry for the ‘I thought I was beyond being shocked’ category – a very expensive ‘bomb detector’ that has nothing in it but ‘the type of anti-theft tag used to prevent stealing in high street stores.’ Iraq has been paying $40,000 apiece for them – and using them to detect bombs – and they can’t detect bombs because all they have is ‘the cheapest bit of electronics that you can get that look vaguely electronic and are sufficiently flat to fit inside a card.’

Well that’s a nice way to make money!

The Iraqi government has spent $85m on the ADE-651 and there are concerns that they have failed to stop bomb attacks that have killed hundreds of people…The device is sold by Jim McCormick, based at offices in rural Somerset, UK. The ADE-651 detector has never been shown to work in a scientific test. There are no batteries and it consists of a swivelling aerial mounted to a hinge on a hand-grip. Critics have likened it to a glorified dowsing rod. Mr McCormick told the BBC in a previous interview that “the theory behind dowsing and the theory behind how we actually detect explosives is very similar”.

Oh is it! So what was it doing on the market then?

He says that the key to it is the black box connected to the aerial into which you put “programmed substance detection cards”, each “designed to tune into” the frequency of a particular explosive or other substance named on the card. Newsnight obtained a set of cards for the ADE-651 and took them to Cambridge University’s Computer Laboratory where Dr Markus Kuhn dissected a card supposed to detect TNT. It contained nothing but the type of anti-theft tag used to prevent stealing in high street stores. Dr Kuhn said it was “impossible” that it could detect anything at all and that the card had “absolutely nothing to do with the detection of TNT. There is nothing to program in these cards. There is no memory. There is no microcontroller. There is no way any form of information can be stored,” he added. The tags which are supposed to be the heart of such an expensive system cost around two to three pence. “These are the cheapest bit of electronics that you can get that look vaguely electronic and are sufficiently flat to fit inside a card,” Dr Kuhn told Newsnight.

Dear god. How do people live with themselves?!

Straightening out the kinks

Jan 20th, 2010 5:42 pm | By

Chad Orzel said a strange thing the other day.

OK, fine, as a formal philosophical matter, I agree that it’s basically impossible to reconcile the religious worldview with the scientific worldview. Of course, as a formal philosophical matter, it’s kind of difficult to show that motion is possible. We don’t live in a formal philosophical world, though, and the vast majority of humans are not philosophers (and that’s a good thing, because if we did, it would take forever to get to work in the morning). Humans in the real world happily accept all sorts of logical contradictions that would drive philosophers batty. And that includes accepting both science and religion at the same time.

That’s very blithe – hey ho, we believe all sorts of things that are completely incoherent and that’s just fine, in fact if we didn’t we would be unable to move. That’s not really right, actually – sorting out things that are incoherent is generally useful, and it’s a good deal too glib to just shrug them off as purely formal and of interest to no one but philosophers.

Sean Carroll is much better.

In the real world, scientists have different stances toward religion. Some of us think that science and religion are (for conventional definitions of science and religion) incompatible. Others find them perfectly consistent with each other. (It’s worth pointing out that “X is true” and “People exist who believe X is true” are not actually the same statement, despite what Chad and Chris and others would have you believe. I’ve tried to emphasize that distinction over and over, to little avail.)

Yes so have I; I tried so over and over on Chris’s posts that I got banned from commenting there (and also from commenting at Talking Philosophy); also to little avail. Chris does seem to have grasped the point now, but he hasn’t said ‘Oh right, oops, my mistake, sorry for all that name-calling’; instead he just pretends we disagree with him that there are scientists who are also religious. We don’t. It would be to little avail to try to get Chris to acknowledge that though.

And there are some scientists — quite a few of us, actually — who straightforwardly believe that science and religion are incompatible. There are absolutely those who disagree, no doubt about that. But establishing the truth is a prior question to performing honest and effective advocacy, not one we can simply brush under the rug when it’s inconvenient or doesn’t make for the best sales pitch. Which is why it’s worth going over these tiresome science/religion debates over and over, even in the face of repeated blatant misrepresentation of one’s views. If science and religion are truly incompatible, then it would be dishonest and irresponsible to pretend otherwise, even if doing so would soothe a few worried souls. And if you want to argue that science and religion are actually compatible (not just that there exist people who think so), by all means make that argument — it’s a worthy discussion to have. But it’s simply wrong to take the stance that it doesn’t matter whether science and religion are compatible, we still need to pretend they are so as not to hurt people’s feelings. That’s not being honest.


A moral desert

Jan 20th, 2010 5:16 pm | By

An impoverished religious mind at work:

Recently, atheists seem intent on proving they can be good without God. I always get a kick out of evangelizing atheists and how they’re so desperate to prove that they’re as good (and usually better) than us religious types.

No, we’re not desperate, but we do like to counter the slanders of many theists to the effect that we can’t be good without God. If Matt Archbold were making a good faith argument (so to speak), he would acknowledge that many theists claim that atheists are necessarily immoral, and that we naturally disagree with that. But he’s not, so he didn’t.

But let’s give Dawkins the benefit of the doubt because us religious types like to do that.

No you don’t. That is one thing you emphatically do not ‘like to do,’ not when it comes to atheists at least. You ‘like to’ give us the very opposite of the benefit of the doubt (as this whole piece abundantly illustrates).

I have to wonder from what philosophical grounding does Dawkins’ altruism emanate? Why is other human life worth anything if there is no God?

What an ugly mind is here revealed.

The rest of what he says is ignorant and unreflective, but that question is downright ugly.

Defining sexism downwards

Jan 19th, 2010 3:57 pm | By

I did not know – some male students at St Paul’s College at the University of Sydney set up a pro-rape Facebook page.

The group, which was named “Define Statutory”, described its members as “anti-consent” and was listed in the sports and recreation section of the site…It was shut down at the end of [October], but had been live on Facebook since August, according to an investigation by the Sydney Morning Herald…The Sydney Morning Herald said the page was part of a broader culture at the residential colleges that “demeans women in a sexist and often sexually violent way”.

And here I was fuming (or should I say bitching?) about sexist epithets and men who type thousands of words insisting that ‘stupid bitch’ is not sexist. Kind of puts it all in perspective. Except actually I think it’s (broadly speaking) all part of the same thing. I think both items are part of a broader culture in a lot of places that demeans women in a sexist way. I think the bizarro phenomenon of men who ought to know better verbally spewing on women whenever they feel like it is pretty much by definition part of a broader culture that demeans women in a sexist way. That’s why it shocks me that men give themselves permission to do that – it reveals that contempt for women is commonplace in areas where I would have thought it had gone out of fashion decades ago.

But no – apparently it’s still seen as hip and edgy and funny to treat women like dirt. Apparently sexism is being defined downwards so that it isn’t really sexism unless, I don’t know, it comes with a signed affidavit stating This Is Sexism. Rod Liddle apparently is of that school, unless he really didn’t post this on a Millwall fans’ website:

Stupid bitch. A year eight sociology lecture from someone who knows fck all. You could equally say that we were similar to any group which disliked a certain aspect of society, felt estranged from it but were sure we were right. The logical extension of her argument is that the status quo is always right, which is absurd, because if that were true nothing would change. Someone kick her in the cnt.

He was there commenting right after I had, so I asked him if that one was his, saying bitches with cunts would like to know. He said

I don’t remember saying it and it certainly doesn’t read like me, but it’s quite possible that at some point I might use that temrinology to make a certain point, perhaps the opposite to the one you imagine. Just as you have done, right now. “Bitches with cunts would like to know” is a canny, sardonic pay off to your post. Take it out of context and what have you got?

I don’t know, but what you haven’t got is ‘I wouldn’t say shit like that in a million years.’ Instead you have men earnestly explaining the terrifically subtle and fascinating difference between saying ‘stupid nigger’ and saying ‘stupid bitch,’ a subtle difference that boils down to: the first is absolutely out and the second is really quite all right and you’re being a dreary fanatic if you say it isn’t. Which boils down to saying casual contempt for other races is not okay and casual contempt for women is fine.