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.

This novel paradigm

Dec 20th, 2010 10:29 am | By

John C McLachlan, professor of medical education at Durham, points out that it’s a common ploy to make nasty things more attractive by dressing them up with new names, like for instance changing the name of “complementary and alternative medicine” to “integrative medicine.” (That seems like a tricky one – you gain the flattering implications of “integrative” but you lose the at least as flattering implications of “alternative.” Decisions decisions.)

When there is tricksy wordplay going on, it may be time for another Sokal hoax. McLachlan sent a proposal to an International Conference on Integrative Medicine to be held in Jerusalem last October. It included this exciting observation:

Recently, as a result of my developmental studies on human embryos, I have discovered a new version of reflexology, which identifies a homunculus represented in the human body, over the area of the buttocks. The homunculus is inverted, such that the head is represented in the inferior position, the left buttock corresponds to the right hand side of the body, and the lateral aspect is represented medially. As with reflexology, the “map” responds to needling, as in acupuncture, and to gentle suction, such as cupping.

The organizers said ooh sounds exciting, send abstract; MacLachlan sent abstract; organizers said ooh lovely, you’re invited.

In short, they bit. They took seriously a claim that there is a homunculus in each human buttock and that this is of therapeutic and diagnostic significance.

It is good to know these things.

Chuck is a spoilt baby

Dec 19th, 2010 4:31 pm | By

I pretty much never link to the Daily Mail - but just this once

‘We spend our lives here educating a new ­generation to understand that rational behaviour requires us to reach conclusions and make ­decisions by examining evidence.

‘Yet now we have the heir to the throne demanding — not in a ­throwaway remark, but in an entire book to which he has just put his name — that we should reject science and evidence in favour of following our instincts. This is surely disturbing.’

Then a bit from that book shows how and why it’s disturbing:

‘Having considered these questions long and hard, my view is that our outlook in the Westernised world has become far too firmly framed by a mechanistic approach to science.’

He continues: ‘This approach is entirely based upon the gathering of the results that come from subjecting physical phenomena to scientific experiment.’

As opposed to just looking into one’s heart; yes, so it is, and so it should be.

Some of his phrases are ­messianic: ‘I would be failing in my duty to future generations and to the Earth itself if I did not attempt to point this out and indicate possible ways we can heal the world.’

Obsessively convinced of his own rightness, he views his ­critics with the weary ­resignation of an early Christian martyr: ‘It is probably ­inevitable that if you challenge the ­traditions of conventional thinking you will find yourself accused of naivety.’

As if he knows “possible ways we can heal the world.”

Charles insists upon addressing a range of issues wider and deeper than any ­mortal man — unless he has a mind of genius, as the Prince certainly does not — can sensibly encompass. Some of his book reads like the ravings of a Buddhist mystic.

I once incurred princely wrath by suggesting to him that he would be judged by what he is rather than by what he does — that being heir to the throne is not a government office.

Rural grandees such as ­himself may have enjoyed times past, but peasants certainly did not.

The industrial growth which he hates has brought huge benefits to mankind. He seems oblivious to the ­tension between his grand vision about how others should live and his personal financial profligacy; his enthusiasm for using helicopters and keeping every light blazing in Clarence House at all hours.

He thinks he’s genuinely Special, as opposed to being just notionally Special by an accident of birth. It’s very silly of him to think that.

“The truth” versus the truth

Dec 18th, 2010 5:45 pm | By

I’m breaking it into pieces, because it’s a large subject. Thomas Dixon also said

 I stand by my emphasis on the political aspects of all of this. Claims about the nature of reality and who has the authority to discover and describe it, and by what methods, are questions about power, and thus political. I don’t say that the Scopes or Galileo cases were nothing but politics, but I do say they were political.

That’s true, but incomplete. That’s where the postmodern turn does its turning: in treating that idea (despite the disclaimer) as if it were complete, or if not complete then of predominating interest.

The claim itself is in fact political. It’s a useful claim; useful to people who want to make science a matter of power rather than one of inquiry and evidence, of politics rather than truth. Yes, of course, priests and scientists are in some sense competing for “power”; their rivalry is certainly political (though a good deal more political on the religious side than the scientific side, which is not surprising, since politics and power are all religions have); but science, at any rate, is fundamentally about something else, so making power central just does obfuscate the real issues.

Power and politics are ultimately irrelevant, because whoever wins, whoever is stronger, the truth is what it is. Power can decide “the truth” but it can’t determine the truth.

Metametameta discussion of science ‘n’ religion

Dec 18th, 2010 4:55 pm | By

Meta times 3 because commenting on Thomas Dixon’s comments on Eric MacDonald’s review of Dixon’s book. Dixon says, in reply to Eric’s reply to him, that it is becoming clear how their approaches differ.

I think the bottom line is that I’m not happy to generalise about ‘religion’ in the way that you want to, nor to treat all ‘religion’ as if it were at one, extreme end of the spectrum in terms of scriptural literalism and authoritarianism; nor to suppose that there is just one ‘paradigmatic’ singular relationship between religion and science.

The trouble with that is, for some purposes it is necessary to generalize about religion in that way. Granted, religions differ, and the word can refer to different things – but when the subject under discussion is science and religion and whether there is or is not a conflict between them, then it becomes necessary to focus on the areas where there is conflict or potential for conflict. Otherwise the real issues are simply evaded, and what’s the point of that? Apart from a public relations exercise, that is.

Believers and fans of religion like to do that, of course. There is no conflict between science and, say, liking to get together with people to sing churchy music once a week. Indeed not. But there is conflict with religion understood in other ways, and that’s what should be addressed, not the parts that pretty much everyone agrees are not in conflict. Religion-as-ritual is not the issue, so discussions of Science&Religion really aren’t about religion defined that way. The site of the conflict is epistemology, so that’s the place to discuss it.

Chapter 19

Dec 18th, 2010 1:55 pm | By

If you want to give yourself a shock, just search for Tony Walsh on Google News and behold the torrent of Irish coverage. Then start to read some of it. Read Mary Raftery’s article in the Irish Times.

Archbishops, bishops, chancellors, vicars general, parish priests – the list of senior clerics who knew of Walsh’s serial sexual abuse of children is virtually endless. From the very first complaints brought to the archdiocese, a bare two days after Walsh’s ordination in 1978, and for the succeeding 17 years, these pillars of the church sat on their detailed knowledge of Walsh’s abominable predations on children, shielding him from the law, deliberately deciding to keep his crimes hidden from the civil authorities. In the course of those 17 years, until the archdiocese finally decided in 1995 to co-operate with Garda investigations, Walsh abused well over 100 children according to the chapter published yesterday. Here we find out that archbishops Dermot Ryan, Kevin McNamara and Desmond Connell all had detailed knowledge of Walsh’s criminal activities.

Bishop Eamonn Walsh (a trained barrister, incidentally) was sufficiently well-aware of the criminal nature of Walsh’s activities to know that he should be reported to the Garda; and second, that Bishop Walsh did not report him, and nor of course did any of his fellow bishops. It consequently shows an extraordinary detachment from reality for Bishop Walsh to have claimed last year that merely suggesting that gardaí be informed of crimes committed in some way excuses or exonerates him from responsibility for his part in the culture of cover-up in the Dublin archdiocese.

Senior people. Masses of them. With detailed knowledge of what Walsh was doing. And they sat on it. For seventeen years.


The F word

Dec 17th, 2010 12:13 pm | By

The Hitchens-Blair debate was on one of the local public radio stations the other day, and I listened to a few minutes of it; something caught my attention that I hadn’t noticed at the time (because I mostly read it, and watched only a bit). What caught my attention (because it irritated the bejeezis out of me) was Blair’s insistent unctuous repetition of the word “faith.” It occurred to me that Hitchens used that word little if at all, and that I should check the transcript to see what the proportions were. They were as I suspected. It’s quite amusing to use the search function (CTRL + F) and see Blair’s sections speckled like measles with the highlighted word.

This is bad. This is annoying and bad; it’s annoying because it’s bad. “Faith” is a decidedly hooray-word, but it has become a pervasive synonym for religion, which gives pro-religion people an opportunity to load the dice, and to pat themselves on the back multiple times in every conversation. The word should be “religion,” which is a neutral, factual, descriptive word as opposed to an emotive one. “Atheism” and “theism” are the same kind of word – dispassionate and factual. There is no equivalent of “faith” for atheism, which puts us at a disadvantage. This use of “faith” should be challenged regularly. It’s a question-begging device, and I say the hell with it.

Check out just one sample from Blair:

I do say at least accept that there are people doing great work, day in, day out, who genuinely are not prejudiced or bigoted, but are working with people who are afflicted by famine and disease and poverty and they are doing it inspired by their faith. And of course it’s the case that not everybody — of course it’s the case that you do not have to be a person of faith in order to do good work, I’ve never claimed that, I would never claim that. I know lots of people, many, many people, who are people not of faith at all, but who do fantastic and decent work for their communities and for the world. My claim is just very simple, there are nonetheless people who are inspired by their faith to do good.

This is a big reason I find the “interfaith” outreach stuff from Christopher Stedman so irritating: he’s an atheist, yet he does that thing with the F word – he leans on it as heavily as Blair does. Doing that implies that religion is a good thing, and doing that implies that atheism is a bad thing. Clearly Stedman doesn’t intend that, but he should be more aware of rhetorical effects.

Sensitive and complex

Dec 16th, 2010 12:00 pm | By

I can’t read this calmly; it makes me quake and gibber with rage. The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that Ireland is messing with the human rights of women by not allowing them to get abortions to save their lives.

Taoiseach Brian Cowen said the ruling raised “difficult issues” that needed to be carefully considered. Speaking in Brussels, he said it was much too early to make any decision on whether legislation would be required in light of the court’s decision.

Minister for Health Mary Harney said the Government [would] take legal advice. Acknowledging the judgment was binding on the State, she said the Government would have to come forward with proposals to reflect it. “However, this will take time as it is a highly sensitive and complex area,” Ms Harney said.

What is highly sensitive and complex? What is highly sensitive and complex about it? Is it really “sensitive” to say that women should not be forced to continue a pregnancy that will kill them?

Both Cowen and Harney seem to think so (or to think that the Irish public want them to talk as if they think so). Both seem to think they can’t just agree that the state should not force women to let themselves be killed by pregnancies.

The Government robustly defended the laws and said Ireland’s abortion laws were based on “profound moral values deeply embedded in Irish society”.

It argued that European Court on Human Rights has consistently recognised the traditions of different countries regarding the rights of unborn children. However, it maintained that the women’s challenge sought to undermine these principles and align Ireland with countries with more liberal abortion laws.

“These principles” – the ones that claim a fetus has rights that trump those of a grown woman. “Principles” is the wrong word.

God tortures only those who ask for it

Dec 15th, 2010 11:03 am | By

William C Chittick PhD is a professor of religious studies at SUNY Stony Brook. He wants us to understand “the Islamic notion of mercy.” He tells a story to illustrate it.

Another account tells us that the Prophet had stopped to rest at a bedouin camp, where a woman with an infant was baking bread over an open fire. The child slipped away and approached the fire, and the mother quickly pulled him back. She turned to the Prophet and said, “Do you not say that God is ‘the most merciful of the merciful’?” He replied that he did. She said, “No mother would throw her child into the fire.” For a moment the Prophet turned away and wept. Then he said that God puts into hellfire only those who refuse to go anywhere else.

Chittick seems to think that that illustrates genuine mercy. I think it illustrates the pathetic and disgusting tininess of the theocratic mind. “God” is all about mercy; for example, he puts people into hellfire for eternity only if they don’t jump when Mohammed says jump.

That’s not mercy, you fucking fool.

After the storm

Dec 14th, 2010 11:47 am | By

You should see Puget Sound right now.

We get a very interesting phenomenon here in the aftermath of a particular kind of winter storm, locally called a “pineapple express,” in which warm temperatures combine with heavy rain to cause massive river-flooding. The phenomenon is that Puget Sound is two colors instead of one. For a distance of maybe a quarter of a mile from shore, the water is pale green, and beyond that it is the usual grey.

I remember staring at this oddity in befuddlement the first time I ever spotted it, and then suddenly realizing what it is. Silt, of course.

It’s incredibly impressive. That is one hell of a lot of mud, that can turn all that water a different color. Do admit.

It’s been changing all morning, as the clouds thicken or thin. One minute it’s a subtle effect, and the next it stands out as if lit by a spotlight. From where I’m sitting I can see a grain ship at anchor (the grain terminal is just at the bottom of the hill) in the middle of all the pale green – the line between the green and the grey is well to the west of the ship.

Off with his head!

Dec 13th, 2010 11:25 am | By

They’re kidding, right? This is a joke? It has to be a joke – right? They can’t be serious?

A doctor has been arrested for insulting the Prophet Mohammed in Pakistan…

Naushad Valiyani was detained on Friday following a complaint by a medical representative who visited the doctor in the city of Hyderabad.

“The arrest was made after the complainant told the police that Valiyani threw his business card, which had his full name, Muhammad Faizan, in a dustbin during a visit to his clinic,” regional police chief Mushtaq Shah told AFP.

“Faizan accused Valiyani of committing blasphemy and asked police to register a case against the doctor.”

And the police obliged.

So………no phone books can be thrown out in Pakistan? No newspapers or magazines? They must all contain myriad instances of the name “Mohammed,” so if it’s blasphemy to dispose of any bit of paper on which the name “Mohammed” appears, then that would seem to be the rule, yes?

Shah said the issue had been resolved after Valiyani, a member of Pakistan’s Ismaili community, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, apologised but local religious leaders intervened and pressed for action.

“Valiyani had assured Faizan that he did not mean to insult the Prophet Mohammed by throwing the visiting card in the dustbin,” Shah said.

So why didn’t Shah tell the “local religious leaders” to fuck off? Why didn’t the “local religious leaders” tell each other that they were a disgrace to the species? Why – oh never mind.

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.