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.

And the Fields medal goes to

Aug 14th, 2014 10:25 am | By

An Iranian mathematician working in the US has won the Fields medal. And the kicker? She’s a woman. Professor  Maryam Mirzakhani was recognized for her work on complex geometry.

In becoming the very first female medallist, Prof Mirzakhani – who teaches at Stanford University in California – ends what has been a long wait for the mathematics community.

Prof Dame Frances Kirwan, a member of the medal selection committee from the University of Oxford, pointed out that despite maths being viewed traditionally as “a male preserve”, women have contributed to mathematics for centuries.

She noted that around 40% of maths undergraduates in the UK are women, but that proportion declines rapidly at PhD level and beyond.

“I hope that this award will inspire lots more girls and young women, in this country and around the world, to believe in their own abilities and aim to be the Fields Medallists of the future,” Prof Kirwan said.

Including girls and young women in Iran.

Prof Mirzakhani’s seminal research concerns shapes called Riemann surfaces. These are convoluted mathematical objects that can be analysed using complex numbers – i.e. numbers with real and imaginary parts.

In particular, she has studied “moduli spaces” of these shapes, which map all of the possible geometries of a Riemann surface into their own, new space.

Prof [Caroline] Series has also known Prof Mirzakhani and her work for some time.

“I came across her a long time ago when she was a PhD student, and I was sent a preliminary draft of her thesis. And I just read it in amazement – it was beautiful.

“She took something that’s been known for a while, and she took a rather elaborate and hard to understand identity between things, and she just applied it in the most ingenious and wonderful way.”

Prof Series believes the first female Fields winner is a rare talent, who has produced unique and striking work.

“I’m quite genuine about that,” she said. “I almost never think that about bits of mathematics!”

Inspiring, innit.


(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

An asset to atheism and a supporter of brave infidels

Aug 13th, 2014 6:01 pm | By

Now here’s the Richard Dawkins I consider a major asset to the atheist movement and to other atheists. It’s the Dawkins who has been giving support to Maryam Namazie for years, and continues to do so.

The sound is terrible, but there are titles. Note what Richard does and says at the end.


(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Women don’t matter

Aug 13th, 2014 4:34 pm | By

One might have thought the abortion situation would improve after the tragic, pointless, cruel death of Savita Halappanavar in 2012, but apparently any change at all is going to be tiny, slow, and resisted every step of the way.

The Guardian got its hands on a copy of new guidelines issued to Irish doctors. The guidelines stink.

Pregnant women in Ireland could be blocked from having an abortion even if they are at risk of suicide after conceiving as a result of rape or incest, under new guidelines issued to Irish doctors.

Experts warned that the Guidance Document for Health Professionals, which has yet to be made public but has been obtained by the Guardian, will give power to doctors, obstetricians and psychiatrists to prevent vulnerable women from terminating their pregnancies.

Some clinicians, including one of the Irish Republic’s leading psychiatrists, said the rules would leave women “at the mercy of a local, moral and political lottery”. Veronica O’Keane, professor of psychiatry at Trinity College Dublin, said a woman could potentially have to see up to seven medical experts before getting a decision on her right to an abortion.

The United Nations Human Rights Committee, which has also been shown the document, has described the guidance on dealing with women contemplating suicide as “an excessive degree of scrutiny by medical professionals”.

It’s the same old thing, that causes the mist of red rage to descend – the way women are treated as public property, subject to meddling by armies of “professionals” and amateurs alike. The woman has no rights, it’s only the process in her abdomen that has rights.

Pro-choice doctors are also concerned that the language in the first few pages of the guidelines is more stridently anti-abortion than last year’s law. In its introduction, the document states that “the purpose of this act is to restate the general prohibition on abortion in Ireland”. Medical professionals are also advised on the first page that the act provides “a clear criminal prohibition on abortion”.

No prison break for women. No way no how, no never.

On page 10, a diagram explaining the procedure for applying for a termination makes clear to Irish doctors that the initial referral for women including those with “suicidal intent” begins with her own GP.

If the GP agrees, he or she will refer the woman to three doctors – including one obstetrician and two psychiatrists – who will decide whether there is a real risk to the woman’s life through suicide. If her request is rejected, she will go through an appeal system involving another two psychiatrists and another obstetrician.

At least four, and maybe seven – all because she doesn’t want to remain pregnant.

[Veronica] O’Keane, a consultant psychiatrist for more than 21 years, said because there was no national body to rule on these cases vulnerable women were left “at the mercy of a local, moral and political lottery. They could come up against anti-choice physicians who in effect become conscientious obstructors to abortion.”

She added: “The repeated examination of a woman’s mental state by at least four doctors, and possibly seven, the repeated questioning specifically about suicidal ideation and intent, will not only be overly invasive, confusing and distressing emotionally, it will also be time-consuming in a period of crisis when a suicidal woman needs access to a termination as soon as possible.”

Yes but they don’t care about the woman, they care only about the process in the woman’s abdomen. Women don’t matter.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Taking the empty back roads over the moors

Aug 13th, 2014 4:11 pm | By

Here’s an amusing blog post about PZ’s talk in Hebden Bridge yesterday.

A few days ago I saw that Paul Zachary “PZ” Myers associate professor of biology at the University of Minnesota MorrisPharyngula blogger, and sworn enemy of creationist nut-jobbery in all its forms was coming to speak in Hebden.

But he was snowed under and forgot, until he saw a tweet of PZ’s mentioning it was starting in 30 minutes.

Hebden Bridge is about 30 minutes away by car from my house. I found my keys, leapt into the car, forgetting my phone, and hit the road. Taking the empty back roads over the moors I somehow managed to get to the Trades Club with two minutes to spare. But there was nowhere to park at the venue and I had to park about half a mile away and run like Mo Farah (well, like Mo Farah would run if he were giving Eric Pickles a piggy back) back to the venue.

I pelted up the stairs (squeezing past a lady who was saying to her friend “eee we’ve got a professor in ‘ere tonight”), bought one of the few remaining tickets, and joined PZ’s talk – which had, I was assured, “only been going on for a couple of minutes”.

Later I asked a fellow local how on earth we’d managed to get the world famous PZ Myers (hot foot from the dreaming spires of Oxford) to come and speak at Hebden Bridge. “Well he’s on his way up to Edinburgh. I suppose it was on the way” he suggested.

Now don’t get me wrong, Hebden Bridge is a lovely place (it is, after all, in Yorkshire) and I urge you all to visit if you are ever up this way. But it is not normally on the beaten track of internationally renowned academics.

It’s because Maureen is there, of course.

Anyway, PZ’s talk (on American creationists) was, of course, splendid and highly entertaining and much appreciated by the audience – who were clearly clued up on much of what PZ had come to speak about.

Though it quickly became clear – as PZ himself acknowledged – that he was “preaching to the choir” there was plenty of interesting material that I (and I expect many others there) were not particularly aware of. One thing PZ pointed out was what a recent phenomenon creationism (based on a literal interpretation of biblical texts) is. Another thing, which I certainly hadn’t really appreciated, was the origins of this ideology in the teachings of quite small numbers of people who, even by the standards of American god botherers, were a pretty wacky bunch. Disturbingly, the nonsense spread by such crazies (far more extreme even than the sort of arguments scientists were having to rebut in the days of the famous Scopes Monkey Trial) have now become part of mainstream thinking and are now embraced by about half the population of the USA.

Do you ever get the feeling that the harm-doers are better organized than we are?

So a really excellent talk met by a really warm reception – a bit too warm …. especially after I had run all the way from the car park. We may have fewer religious zealots than the Yanks, but they do – it has to be said – have better air conditioning than we do.

I shook hands with PZ and thanked him before leaving and should like to take this opportunity to say how flattered we all were that he took time out to come and share an evening with us here in God’s own County.

Yorkshire. Who wouldn’t want to spend an evening in Yorkshire?

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Manly men drop former manly man Mark Driscoll

Aug 13th, 2014 3:13 pm | By

Manly man Mark Driscoll has been dropped from a Manly Men conference because…well because they don’t like him any more. His jesus is broken.

Mars Hill Pastor Mark Driscoll was scheduled to be a headliner at the upcoming Act Like Men conferences, a nationwide evangelical convention where men get together to talk about Christianity and manhood. Which makes sense: Everyone knows that manhood is Mark Driscoll’s favorite subject. He can’t stop talking about being a man, and how cool it is, and how difficult it is, and how awesome God thinks it is. It’s fair to say, in fact, that Mark Driscoll has men on the brain, all the time. It’s raining men in Driscoll-town!

And so this has to sting: Warren Throckmorton notes that Driscoll’s involvement has been scrubbed from the Act Like Men website and he is no longer appearing at the conference. Now that Driscoll and Mars Hill have beendumped from the Acts 29 Network, it seems as though Driscoll is becoming a pariah at multi-church evangelical gatherings. This omission has to hit Driscoll right in his most sensitive area: his manhood.

Well not his literal manhood. Let’s not get vulgar here. But the omission has to hit him in his sense of his manhood.

His love of his manhood. His spiritual connection to his manhood. His romantic elevated notion of his manhood. His worship of his manhood. His ability to pray to his manhood.

Yes, that has to sting.


(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

He lives there because the taxes are higher

Aug 13th, 2014 3:00 pm | By

From The Talks, an interview with the actor Stellan Skarsgård. People have good sense in Sweden.

Mr. Skarsgård, where do you live?

I live in Sweden because the taxes are higher, nobody is starving, good health care, free schools and universities. It’s a civilized country and I like that.

You prefer paying higher taxes?

Of course. If you make a lot of money like I do you should pay higher taxes. Everybody should have the possibility to go to school, and university, and have good healthcare.

Goodness. How reasonable, and how rare.


(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

At Conway Hall on Monday

Aug 13th, 2014 2:29 pm | By

This happened on Monday:

Talks & Lectures

Witchcraft belief: Murder and Misogyny in the 21st Century

Mon 11 Aug 2014, 19:00

London Black Atheists, Central London Humanist Group and the Nigerian human rights activist, Mr Leo Igwe present

Witchcraft belief: Murder and Misogyny in the 21st Century

Nigerian human rights activist Leo Igwe explores the toxic mix of religion, superstition, misogyny, cruelty, mental instability and sheer greed that are factors in the accusation of mainly women and children of witchcraft and offers solutions on combating this modern day scourge of the world.

London Black Atheists, Central London Humanist Group and the Nigerian human rights activist, Mr Leo Igwe, a renowned campaigner against witchcraft accusations and winner of the National Secular Society’s Special Achievement Award in 2013, are holding an event exploring the harmful effects on individuals and society, of belief in witchcraft.

Witchcraft belief is rampant in many countries of the world leading to violent assaults on, and sometimes the deaths of, women, girls and boys, including the murders of 15 year old Kristy Bamu and 8 year old Victoria Climbie, which were widely reported in the British press.  Can enlightenment combat the malign effects of witchcraft belief in black and minority ethnic communities worldwide?  Following his acclaimed presentation in 2013 to London Black Atheists, “Breaking the Taboo of Atheism in Black Communities”, Leo Igwe reveals a startling analysis of Witchcraft belief and the imperative of enlightenment.  The talk is followed by a panel discussion and Q&A with the audience.

The panel, moderated by Bob Churchill of IHEU, consists of:

Leo Igwe –Human Rights activist

James Ibor – Executive Secretary, Basic Rights Counsel Initiative

Justin Bahunga - AFRUCA

Yemisi Ilesanmi – Feminist blogger

My memory bank wasn’t organized enough to prod me to post about this before it happened, so as to alert people who read this and are within reach of Conway Hall.

[pause to kick self]

Here are Yemi and Leo:

Friends, colleagues, comrades!

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

The NSS says No to witch-hunters

Aug 13th, 2014 10:31 am | By

The National Secular Society has called on the Home Secretary to deny David Oyedepo entry into the UK.

David Oyedepo Jnr is due to address a Winners Chapel International convention in Dartford on 13-16 August. In a letter to the Home Secretary the National Secular Society argued that preventing Mr Oyedepo from entering the country is a necessary step to tackle child abuse linked to faith or belief.

In 2011 Mr Oyedepo was captured on video assaulting a young girl at one of his ministration events in Nigeria. After [he accuses] the girl of being a witch, she can be heard saying she is a “witch for Jesus”. Mr Oyedepo then slaps her around the face and denounces her as evil.

Assault dressed up in the regalia of religion: few things are more dangerous.

In 2006 a Government report – Child Abuse Linked to Accusations of “Possession” and “Witchcraft” – highlighted the risk of abuse against children in Britain accused of being witches.

Recent guidance written by the Metropolitan police advises social workers that “children believed to be possessed by evil spirits or believed to be witches are at clear and immediate risk of significant harm”.

Although cases of child abuse linked to a belief in spirit possession or witchcraft are uncommon in the UK, such abuse can lead to extreme physical and emotional abuse and to child deaths. The cases of Victoria Climbie, Kristy Bamu and Ikpomwosa, whose torso was recovered from the Thames, were all child deaths linked to this belief system.

David Oyedepo Ministries International website makes clear that child “disobedience” should be regarded as a sign of “witchcraft”. It states:

“As far as God is concerned, disobedience is as terrible as witchcraft. 1 Samuel 15:23a says: For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry. May God not catch you as a witch. His Word also says, “Do not suffer a witch to live” (Exodus 22:18). If you are not bringing up your children in the way they should go, you are cutting short the number of your days. Receive grace from God now, to be obedient to this commandment on child training in Jesus’ name. …”

David Oyedepo Jnr’s father, Bishop Oyedepo, founded Winners’ Chapel in 1981 after claiming to have had an 18 hour vision from God. The Church has since become a global network of churches with congregations in 34 countries and Forbes estimates his worth at $150 million.

Keith Porteous Wood, executive director of the National Secular Society, said: “Those being denounced as “possessed”, particularly children, are in great, sometimes mortal, danger. Denying Mr Oyedepo entry would send a powerful signal to pastors and churches that “witch hunting” will not be tolerated in the UK.”

I hope the Home Secretary listens.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Managing disagreement

Aug 13th, 2014 9:33 am | By

Robert Reich has a public post on Facebook that says essentially the same thing as the joint statement that Richard Dawkins and I signed. It says we are going to disagree, that’s inevitable, so we have to do it in a reasonable way.

This is the summer of our discontent. Almost everyone I know is angry — with politics, with government, with the media, with their work, with their employer, with people who hold different views. Why? Not since the 1930s have so many Americans been on a downward escalator economically and faced so much financial insecurity. That we’re supposed to be in an economic recovery makes it all the worse. I think this the root of our anger, and it has a lot to do with fear. I sense it in the way the anger is expressed — with bitterness and resentment, cynicism, often in ad hominem attacks and personal insults. Yet if we’re to improve the situation we’ve got to turn the anger in a constructive direction, work hard to change things, disagree respectfully, and use argument instead of invective. Is the widespread discontent causing us to forget how much we depend on common sense and decency?

It’s hard to do. I’m no genius at it, that’s for damn sure. But, precisely because we’re not robots or totally rational entities or able to decouple ourselves from our emotions, we have to make the effort not to pour gasoline on every fire we see.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

It’s not always code for something else

Aug 13th, 2014 9:04 am | By

James Bloodworth ponders the difficulty of explaining fanaticism and the fact that sophisticated people are often very bad at it.

Back in the 1930s, attempts to explain fascism famously tripped up many leading intellectuals of the time. Hitler’s demands to expand the Third Reich were taken by many otherwise sophisticated people as code for something else. Was it not true, after all, that the Treaty of Versailles had imposed punitive and unreasonable conditions on Germany? As Paul Berman noted in his book, Terror and Liberalism, despite the SS repeatedly reaffirming at its death camps that “here there is no why”, for much of the left there was always a “why”.

Many people seem to miss the fact (or to be unwilling to face it) that the violence and mass murder are ends in themselves. Party time: let’s kill all the kids in that school.

In an edition of the British pacifist newspaper Peace News, the Marquess of Tavistock, who sat on the national council for the Peace Pledge Union, blamed German aggression not on the lunacy of National Socialism, but instead on the “very serious provocation which many Jews have given by their avarice and arrogance when exploiting Germany’s financial difficulties, by their associations with commercialised vice, and by their monopolisation of certain professions”.

Well that’s a funny kind of “peace.”

The real spark of fascistic violence must always and everywhere be poverty and hardship, or so it was assumed; hence the multiple attempts to conflate the repression of the Palestinians with 9/11 – despite the fact that al-Qaeda was and remains ideologically opposed to the creation of a Palestinian state.

In reality the sheer irrationality of violent Islamism should have been obvious when in the years following 9/11 young fanatics started (sometimes successfully) trying to blow up nightclubs. The British-born Islamists who plotted in 2004 to murder clubbers in the Ministry of Sound nightclub in London did not after all cite Palestine or imperialism as their Casus belli, but instead gleefully talked about murdering “those slags, dancing around”.

In other words, it was our liberalism that the would-be bombers despised, rather than our inability to be sufficiently liberal.

Indeed, as with almost all fanatical religious movements, an obsession with the way women behave goes right to the heart of Islamism. Sayyid Qutb, the author of the Mein Kampf of Islamism,Milestones, embraced a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam on the back of a visit to the United States, where he found himself appalled at the freedom afforded to American women.

Not sophistication but plain old dominance. It’s as crude as a bull moose in rut.


(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Guest post: This isn’t the loophole

Aug 13th, 2014 8:46 am | By

Originally a comment by gormanator on When self-ownership applies.

This business of trying to noodle out the morality of suicide in a framework of “rights” seems unlikely to result in any sort of useful moral clarity. It reminds me of the standard libertarian argument: “no one has a right to coerce another human to do anything” (sounds reasonable enough, if you don’t think too hard for counterexamples), ergo I can’t prevent you from owning a machine gun because that would be coercive. That’s just a shitty way to frame a political philosophy. The world is just… more complicated than that.

When I was twelve, I got to watch my mom try to kill herself. (Thankfully, she survived, but it was close.) In the 16 years between then and now, I’m still affected by that experience and its aftermath. The ripple effects can last a long time. They would have been much worse if she had actually succeeded. I reject out of hand this idea that somehow the police and paramedics should have allowed her to die on account of “bodily autonomy.”

John Horstman, @33, has a clever loophole for the “parent problem,” that somehow seems to miss the point:

people who opt to procreate owe it to their offspring to try to stick around to care for them until they can care for themselves.

By this logic, presumably one parent is allowed to kill themselves then? And realistically speaking, the children of suiciders (at least in the US) would be cared for either by family members or the foster system, which, while far from optimal, won’t result in the children starving to death in either case. At least in my own experience, and I think in the experience of a lot of other people, the damage to children is far more emotional than logistical. This isn’t the loophole that’s going to get you out of solving the parent problem if you want to frame this discussion in terms of “rights.”

The right to bodily autonomy is a useful rule of thumb, that works most of the time for sorting out issues in everyday experience. It’s widely applicable enough that it makes some sense to use the word “right.” It’s a great argument for why women should have access to abortion. It’s even a great argument for assisted dying. But it’s not magic. Just because we attached the word “right” to it as some sort of approximation doesn’t mean that it’s universally applicable. In engineering terms, it fails in edge cases. I don’t have a forumula for when we should let people kill themselves. In some cases, they should obviously be allowed to. A lot of cases are a lot more complicated–what if I’m really drunk and I want to kill myself? Do the police stop me? I’ve struggled with depression for my whole life–and most of the time I don’t want to kill myself. A couple times a year I contemplate suicide. Present me is pretty glad that past me wasn’t allowed to kill myself, but maybe future me won’t feel the same way? It’s a deeply personal and thorny and complicated moral problem that I don’t know how to sort out in general. But saying “bodily autonomy” as if it gets you out of thinking about the complexities of the situation is just lazy.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

The truth about us is far more complex and subtle

Aug 12th, 2014 11:33 am | By

Leonard Mlodinow writes in Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior:

We all make personal, financial, and business decisions, confident that we have properly weighed all the important factors and acted accordingly – and that we know how we came to those decisions. But we are aware only of our conscious influences, and so have only partial information. As a result, our view of ourselves and our motivations, and of society, is like a jigsaw puzzle with most of the pieces missing. We fill in blanks and make guesses, but the truth about us is far more complex and subtle than that which can be understood as the straightforward calculation of conscious and rational minds.

What I keep saying. We’re not 100% rational, to put it mildly. It’s rational to be aware of that, to realize it applies to ourselves as well as other people, to realize it applies to us and to others, to try to be aware of what follows from that. It’s not rational to expect 100% rationality from other human beings. It’s not rational to assume that one is oneself 100% rational.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Disposing of the women

Aug 12th, 2014 11:17 am | By

More horror from ISIS (aka IS).

According to an Iraqi lawmaker of Yezidi origin Vian Dakhil, who addressed the Iraqi parliament last week, with tears in her eyes, “IS militants have abducted five hundred Yezidis women”. Later the Iraqi Human Rights Ministry indicated that families of the captives had contacted them to report the abduction of their womenfolk.

Erbil-based media network Rudaw was one of the few local media channels that quoted eyewitnesses who survived the attack saying “hundreds of women were kidnapped and transferred by IS jihadists to an unknown place in Mosul”.

The whereabouts of the kidnapped women became known when the head of the Women’s Rights Commission at the Kurdistan Region’s Parliament, Evar Ibrahim, confirmed on Tuesday 6 August that “the number of kidnapped Yezidi women had reached five hundreds, and they were transferred to a sports hall opposite to the Nineveh Palace Hotel in Western Mosul”. She added that the women were kept in “distressing conditions”. Later, when Qaraqosh was invaded by jihadists, local media channels reported that Christian women had also been taken captive.

What has happened to those women? According to media reports, some were buried alive. On 6 August, a spokesman for the Iraqi Red Cross, Muhammad al-Khuza’ee, stated that the Yezidi and Christian women “were taken as spoils of war and exposed at a market for sale”. The women were reportedly subjected to sexual assault, gang rape and sexual slavery.

They join their sisters in Nigeria in the world of sexual slavery.


(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

When self-ownership applies

Aug 12th, 2014 10:36 am | By

Tom Flynn takes issue with Jennifer Michael Hecht’s view of suicide in her latest book, Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It. Her view is what the title indicates: you’re not allowed to.

Tom admires her writing, but remains unconvinced.

Make no mistake, Stay is compellingly written—I don’t think Hecht is capable of writing other than marvelously—so why couldn’t her book change my views? Stay has multiple difficulties, but its fatal problem is straightforward: while many naturalistic thinkers have offered arguments against suicide, and Hecht marshals them skillfully—who knew that apostle of liberty, John Stuart Mill, thought people lacked the right to end their lives?—the most powerful naturalistic arguments about suicide uphold its licitness. Period. Candidly, Humean self-ownership alone is almost impossible to trump.

I haven’t read the book, so I don’t know what the arguments are, but I can think of some exceptions to Humean self-ownership on this point – or maybe it’s not some but just one. I think parents of young children should bend every nerve to at least postpone suicide. Parents of young children don’t really own themselves fully – which is why some people don’t want to be parents; it’s why it can be so hard even for people who do want to be parents; it’s why abortion rights are so fundamental.

Tom goes on to argue that there is no genuine naturalistic argument against suicide. I’m not so sure. I think suicides have ripple effects on the people who knew or even knew of the suicider, and that those effects can be added up to a naturalistic argument against suicide. It may not be a conclusive argument, but I think there are things that can be said.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Lock in the freshness!

Aug 12th, 2014 10:03 am | By

Josh Slocum takes to the Washington Post to explain to us, in his characteristically hornet-like way, what the problem is with putting dead bodies in boxes and then storing them in buildings above ground.

You’ve never heard of exploding casket syndrome (ask your mortician if it’s right for you), but funeral directors and cemetery operators have. They sell so-called “protective” or “sealer” caskets at a premium worth hundreds of dollars each, with the promise that they’ll keep out air and moisture that — they would have you believe — cause bodies to rapidly deteriorate. Like Tupperware for the dead, they “lock in the freshness!” with a rubber gasket.

Ah but if you lock it in, then…well we can see where this is going.

The caskets can explode, and the rotting goo oozes out.

There’s no way of telling how common exploding caskets are, since no official agencies are charged with tracking the problem. But as head of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, I frequently hear from families around the country who have sued cemeteries and funeral homes for exploding caskets or have caught mausoleums secretly propping open caskets to prevent a gas buildup. Whole product lines have been created to keep your relatives’ remains from tarnishing the fine establishments they inhabit. There’s Kryprotek, a plastic lining that surrounds caskets to enclose their leaky contents. Andthere’s Ensure-A-Seal, essentially a bag for a box, which recently ran this advertisement in a funeral trade magazine:

Let Nature Take Its Course

We know what happens after the crypt is sealed. Your clients do not know, or do not want to know . . .  Don’t let natural processes destroy your facility’s reputation.

At bottom, the problem is fraud. Casket-makers and funeral homes know sealer caskets don’t preserve bodies, yet too many peddle lies about the preserving powers of overpriced boxes to grieving people whose emotions are easily manipulated.

In short? Bodies decay. Expensive boxes and bags can’t prevent that. A company that tells you it can is trying to defraud you. There ain’t no effective Tupperware for the dead.


(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Blow up that one frame for a closer look

Aug 11th, 2014 6:38 pm | By

I’m still thinking about it, because the more I think about it, the worse it gets. The more I think about it the more it underlines that this is not what I want in any kind of campaign or movement, let alone a community.

Look at it again.

I was trying to say something about logical thinking, but that logical point doesn’t raise its silly head in neutral cases like X and Y and in cases like giving somebody a slap around the face as distinct from breaking their nose. It doesn’t raise its head with that. It does raise its head when you’re talking about rape and pedophilia and possibly nothing else. Therefore, I wanted to make the point that we are rationalists, we are humanists, we are skeptics, we are atheists. Why have we allowed these two topics of rape and pedophilia to deprive us of our normal logical reasoning? We say, “Oh we don’t talk about that, that’s too sensitive.” [emphsis in original]

It does raise its head when you’re talking about rape and pedophilia. Ok, and why would that be? Let’s think about it. It would probably be because they are subjects that are personal to a great many people, and associated with terrible trauma and misery.

So, given that, it’s not very becoming for a prominent intellectual to be so censorious about it. It’s crass and unfeeling, at best, for someone like that to say what amounts to “why do people get so damn worked up about rape??!”

and possibly nothing else. Oh, no, I doubt that very much. Why would that be the case? Why wouldn’t murder, and assault, and war, and mental illness, and disability, and poverty, and injustice, have the same kind of baggage? Poor people don’t much like it when rich people make calm, cool, “rational” generalizations about poverty, in my experience. Why’s that? Because rich people aren’t harmed by poverty in the way poor people are. People who are suffering or who have suffered don’t much like to see people belittling, or even seeming to belittle, their suffering. It’s not a good cause to take up. “Damn it, General, why can’t we talk dispassionate rubbish about the war dead without a lot of widows and orphans making a big fuss?!”

Therefore, I wanted to make the point that we are rationalists, we are humanists, we are skeptics, we are atheists. Yes, yes we are – and why would that mean we aspire to be able to talk and think about rape or pedophilia or genocide without emotion? That’s the last thing I want. I don’t want to stamp out human fears and sympathies. That’s not what humanists should be doing.

Why have we allowed these two topics of rape and pedophilia to deprive us of our normal logical reasoning? We haven’t. Everybody gets the trivial point that “not as bad as” is not the same as “good.” Everybody. We get it. What we don’t get is what the point was of using rape and pedophilia to “provoke” people. The answer to that is not a matter of logic.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

You don’t have to look far to see what Islamism is

Aug 11th, 2014 6:04 pm | By

Maryam posted her talk at the Global Humanist Conference on her blog.

Have an excerpt to inspire you to go read the whole thing:

No religion looks favourably upon women, gay and lesbians, freethinkers, dissenters, other religions or atheists, and blasphemers, heretic and apostates… Punishing freethinkers is a long-standing and fundamental feature of all major religions. But there is something about Islam primarily because it is the banner of Islamism, a far-Right political movement, spearheading what I call an Islamic inquisition.

Islamists want the far-Right restructuring of societies – concretely this means a Caliphate or Islamic state, the implementation of Sharia law, the imposition of the burka and compulsory veiling, gender segregation, defending Hududd punishments like death by stoning, and the execution of apostates to name a few.

You don’t have to look far to see what Islamism is. The Islamic regime of Iran. The Saudi government. Boko Haram. Muslim Brotherhood, Hizb Ut Tahrir and the Taliban.

And of course the Islamic State (formerly known as ISIS) which has made tremendous advances over the past few days and months and which continues to shock and outrage humanity with its sheer terror and brutality.

ISIS is Islamism without its palatable wrappings often fed to people in Europe and the West where its manifestations like Sharia courts in Britain and the Law Society’s guidance on Sharia wills (which institutionalises Islamist values) – are portrayed as people’s “right to religion” even by some humanist groups.

If there’s one thing Islamism isn’t, it’s humanist.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Guest post: On the utility of having a full range of emotions

Aug 11th, 2014 3:56 pm | By

A post Bruce Everett wrote on Facebook and gave me permission to post here.

I find it a bit funny (not “haha funny”), all of this assuming-everyone-else-is-irrational business that’s going on amidst discussions of trauma. It’s also especially not-haha funny when people assume that I’m being overly emotional myself, when in actual fact I have a good degree of difficulty in experiencing a wide range of emotions on account of my clinical depression.

They might as well be accusing me of being in North Korea – it’s another country I can’t get to. And of course, if they’re going to accuse me of something this absurd, you know how they’re going to treat people who quite understandably have strong emotional responses to discussions of traumatizing experiences (e.g. people who have experienced trauma).

Having emotions doesn’t mean that you’re automatically compromised, and not having a healthy range of emotions can make facts about other humans harder to appreciate (i.e. facts about the genuine psychological states of other human beings).

A may = B, and you may be pissed off that A = B, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t recognise that A = B or place the fact into a useful context – your emotions may very well help you put such facts into context. This seems obvious to me only because I have to constantly work at it on account of having stunted emotions – I can’t take it for granted.

I may indulge in the occasional pithy remark, or the occasional bit of sarcasm, but outside of the rare event of being triggered myself (in which case I usually get angry in a way people don’t understand, and wouldn’t want to if they did*), thinly spread pith, sarcasm and wry smiles is almost all I’ve got when it comes to emotional responses to the discussion of trauma. I don’t think this is the ideal mix of logic and emotion, and I don’t recommend it to anyone.

* Unless perhaps they’re Jeff Lindsay.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Why oh why would rape be a sensitive subject?

Aug 11th, 2014 12:56 pm | By

Oh dear. A London-based reporter for Religion News Service, Brian Pellot, was at the Global Humanist Conference and was at Samira Ahmed’s interview with Dawkins and has a transcript. It’s rather dispiriting.

Dawkins said that his rape tweets were “absolutely not presented as provocation.” Asked if he regretted sending them, he said, “I don’t regret it as much as you want me to say I do.”

I don’t actually care whether he regrets sending them or not; I care much more about whether he sees the reasonable points many people have made. That would have been a better question, really, because asking him to express regret on stage in front of a thousand people is not likely to be fruitful. I’m not sure it’s even fair. (And why is it not fair? For reasons that have to do with emotions. It’s not a logical point, it’s a point about how people feel in certain kinds of situations.)

Anyway, judging by what he said, the upshot is that no, he doesn’t at all see the reasonable points many people have made. This is probably partly because he has lots of people telling him that everyone who has disagreed with him on this subject is a mere “rage-blogger” and can be safely and indeed virtuously ignored.

Now for the transcript:

Let’s take the first one: “Date rape is bad. Violent rape at knifepoint is worse.” The general point I was trying to make was a logical one, which was that to say that X is bad, Y is worse, should not ever be taken as an endorsement of the one that’s not so bad. You would be amazed at the number of people who take that to be an endorsement of X, to say X is OK, you can do X. That is logically absurd and it is pernicious.

Now the next point is, “why do you use rape?” rather than, somebody said, “Why don’t you say slapping someone around the face is bad, breaking their nose is worse.” I could have said that. It would have been completely pointless because it’s totally obvious and actually the general point is totally obvious. But you would be astonished at the number of people who I’ve seen on Twitter who when I say anything is bad, something else is worse, they will take it as an endorsement.

He contradicts himself there. In the first paragraph he says he was making a general logical point about X and Y. But then in the next paragraph he says making that point would have been completely pointless because it’s totally obvious.

Well quite: yes it would because yes it is. That’s one of the things we’ve been saying all along (“we” being the people who dissent from what he’s been saying on the subject for the past week). The general point is totally obvious and thus completely pointless. So that whole first paragraph? It turns out to be wrong. He’s not interested in the logic of the general point, he’s interested in the claim about rape and how to rank it on a scale of badness.

But why? Why be so interested in that? Yes, judges and juries sometimes have to be interested in it, prosecutors and defense lawyers have to be interested in it, but other than that? The need is not obvious.

I was trying to say something about logical thinking, but that logical point doesn’t raise its silly head in neutral cases like X and Y and in cases like giving somebody a slap around the face as distinct from breaking their nose. It doesn’t raise its head with that. It does raise its head when you’re talking about rape and pedophilia and possibly nothing else. Therefore, I wanted to make the point that we are rationalists, we are humanists, we are skeptics, we are atheists. Why have we allowed these two topics of rape and pedophilia to deprive us of our normal logical reasoning? We say, “Oh we don’t talk about that, that’s too sensitive.” [emphsis in original]

Oh god. That’s so wrong. It’s so wrong and fucked up and backassward.

Why do you think?? Jesus. It’s because they are fraught, emotional subjects. They cut to the bone for a lot of people. That’s just how it is – it’s in the nature of the experience. It’s not “irrational” or “unskeptic” to find those subjects fraught. It’s robotic to refuse to understand that they are fraught.

Change the example. See how it sounds.

I was trying to say something about logical thinking, but that logical point doesn’t raise its silly head in neutral cases like X and Y and in cases like giving somebody a slap around the face as distinct from breaking their nose. It doesn’t raise its head with that. It does raise its head when you’re talking about lynching and cross-burning and possibly nothing else.  Therefore, I wanted to make the point that we are rationalists, we are humanists, we are skeptics, we are atheists. Why have we allowed these two topics of lynching and cross-burning to deprive us of our normal logical reasoning? We say, “Oh we don’t talk about that, that’s too sensitive.”

See what I mean? That looks like an incredibly fatuous and callous thing to say, doesn’t it. It jumps out at you. I don’t think Dawkins would ever say that. Yet for some reason he keeps insisting that rape and pedophilia should be talked about as calmly and robotically as a design plan for a parking lot.

So, yeah. It’s dispiriting.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Pastors claiming to have cured Ebola could face jail time

Aug 11th, 2014 12:01 pm | By

How not to respond to a serious outbreak of a contagious (albeit not yet airborn-contagious) mostly-fatal disease: be a cleric and claim you can fix it. Don’t do that.

(Note this is from July 31, so facts about the outbreak will already be obsolete.)

…to tackle the dangerous and potentially deadly rumor mill, a government official in Lagos state has issued a stern warning: Pastors claiming to have cured Ebola could face jail time, according to CAJ News Africa:

Commissioner for Information and Strategy, Aderemi Ibirogba, specifically advised the citizenry to be wary of the activities of alleged fraudsters who were reportedly making spurious claims about their ability to provide cure for the deadly virus.

He called on those who wanted to rip off members of the public to desist from such claims of cure or risk arrest and prosecution.

“Only medical solutions are known to be appropriate for the disease,” said Ibirogba.

That may seem obvious, but given the continued spread of the virus, it has become necessary.

Of course it has, because if there is an exploitable situation, it’s a law of nature that there will be someone to exploit it.

…in many cases, the disease spreads further when infected people avoid medical help or seek out traditional healers.

For example, earlier this week, a Nigerian pastor, Ituah Ighodalo, wrote a Facebook post that highlighted a “solution to Ebola!”

The post — which was factually incorrect — was focused on the story of a Canadian-American Pentecostal pastor and faith healer by the name of John G. Lake, who operated a ministry in Africa in the early 1900s.

“Several years ago, Ebola virus erupted in Africa, killing thousands without restrain or cure,” Ighodalo wrote. “A great man of God by the name John G Lake came to the rescue. Laying hands on infected people who were not to be touched.”

Well, not quite: As the World Health Organization helpfully notes, the Ebola virus first emerged in 1976 — 41 years after Lake’s death.

Also laying hands on people has no known power against a virus. Against isolation, fear, loneliness, it does, so in cases where it’s not ruled out for reasons to do with contagion – as with Ebola for instance – it’s a good thing if wanted. But as a cure for a virus? Nope.

While churches, healing houses and traditional healers can play a critical role by alerting public health officials to potential Ebola cases, Nigerian officials have been forced to warn them not to try healing Ebola patients themselves, according to local news reports:

Speaking at a press briefing in Lagos, Professor Abdulsalami Nasidi of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) said some of the affected people with EVD in neighbouring countries might want to come to Lagos, Nigeria, where there were many healing houses that claim to have cure for diseases. …

He explained that in regions where EVD had killed many people, some of the victims had flocked to healing houses for cure, but ended up spreading the virus, with the supposed healers contracting the deadly virus.

Wow, that’s awful. Infected people might actually be drawn to Lagos because of its many “healing houses” – thus not getting medical treatment themselves, and spreading the virus to others. Lose-lose.

Not the way to respond to a contagious mostly-fatal disease outbreak.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)