Notes and Comment Blog


A temperate remonstrance

Sep 3rd, 2007 3:06 pm | By

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown has a few very gentle words to say to her friends in the atheist community – the

rowdy and brash God bashers [who] fulminate like demented fire-and-brimstone preachers [and who] know it all, don’t listen, and presume to judge people they won’t ever understand…the fanatic atheists…the “rational” disbelievers, whose intellect is colossal but imagination puny.

You know the ones, right? Quite unlike saintly Alibhai-Brown, they are; she says so herself.

Having faith makes me humble and self-questioning, unlike the unbelievers who know they are always right.

Ah yes – obviously – here she is humbly questioning herself all over the place. What would she sound like if she were arrogant and dogmatic, I wonder?

To these zealots, believers are mostly naive or stupid…The hysterical imagery is objectionable. But much worse is the dishonesty.

Oh, gosh, Yasmin, I know what you mean. All that hysteria and dishonesty; it’s quite shocking.

Fundamentalist atheists want to replace old religions with their own. To them all previous prophets were false. Their fervour makes them as blind and uncompromising as those following the religions they detest. Science gave them no immunity – they too are infected by the virus of faith. Only, they would say, theirs is the only true path, and all other roads lead to damnation. Of course.

Oooookay. Whatever you say. Humility and self-questioning on your side, fundamantalist religion and blind fervour and faith and damnation on our side. Well demonstrated.



Mother Teresa couldn’t find Jesus, which proves that he was there

Sep 3rd, 2007 2:25 pm | By

Susan Jacoby takes a look at those doubt of Mother Teresa’s (thanks to Frederick Crews for pointing the article out to me).

The media frenzy over Teresa’s apparently unending crisis of faith offers a spectacular and comical example of the irrationality, credulity, and unwillingness to face facts that inform all conventional wisdom concerning religion and holiness…I have no doubt that excerpts from the letters will appear in future case studies of well-known individuals who combine masochism with narcissism…I would think that someone who observes extreme human suffering on a daily basis would have more doubts than most about the existence of a benevolent deity. But what is striking about Teresa’s doubt is that it is all about her: it has nothing to do with the dissonance between belief in a loving God and the suffering she sees.

Ah – that would explain the policy on painkillers then.

In a reverential and sanctimonious cover story in last week’s issue of Time magazine, psychonanalysts and priests are quoted. Guess what? Both the shrinks and the reverends think that Teresa is even holier because of her overwhelming doubts.

Ah again – so…doubts make you holy, and ‘faith’ makes you holy, so…what would make you not all that holy? (No, wait, don’t tell me, I know – militant atheism! That’s it!)

The agreement of priests and psychoanalysts is not, after all, very surprising. Both Freudian psychoanalysis and Roman Catholicism are faiths whose central tenets have nothing to do with evidence.

Nothing to do with evidence! What can she mean? There was all that evidence that Freud collected – when he told people what they were fantasizing about and then wrote it all down in a book. Completely different from Roman Catholicism.

What does a rational person, as opposed to someone who has a deep need to believe in the unprovable or the obviously false, do when doubt raises its insistent head? When a rational human being is confronted by evidence that contradicts his or her beliefs, then the belief must be modified…An irrational person–let us say, for the sake of argument, someone dedicated to becoming a saint who suffers for eternity–refuses to acknowledge that there may be good reasons for her doubts.

That’s the advantage of being an irrational person, see – you don’t have to modify your beliefs when you’re confronted by evidence that contradicts them. You think that’s not convenient? Think again.

Her “Home for the Dying” in Calcutta provided no modern medical care–not even modern painkillers–for the terminally ill. Indeed, Teresa’s true mission seems to have been the glorification of suffering…Teresa never showed any concern, in India or elsewhere, about the root causes of poverty – including lack of education, corrupt dictatorships, inequitable distribution of wealth, bigotry against social, ethnic, or religious underclasses, and contempt for women.

Wellll…so she was a little myopic; nobody’s perfect.



Does it include the freedom to offend?

Sep 1st, 2007 3:22 pm | By

Much of the French press reprinted the Danish cartoons last year, no UK newspaper did; Jack Straw ‘called the Europeans’ decision “disrespectful” and said freedom of speech did not mean “open season” on religious taboos.’ Anthony Grayling thinks the UK press should have published the toons, to the shock of a journalist.

Free speech is not a secondary issue but “the fundamental right, from which all other rights flow. Without it, you cannot elect a free parliament or defend yourself in a court of law”. Does it include the freedom to offend?

What a farking stupid question. Of course it does. If free speech doesn’t include the freedom to ‘offend’ it doesn’t include very damn much, does it! If free speech doesn’t include the freedom to ‘offend’ then why bother to use the phrase at all? Why not just replace it with enslaved speech or submissive speech and let it go at that?

Emphatically yes, he says. If political views cannot be protected from a cartoonist’s pen, why should religious views? “It’s the rent that has to be paid in a free society. This is a lesson Muslims have got to learn.” The lesson, he says, is that mocking a belief is quite different from mocking an individual. “Many Muslims take it personally. But it’s not about them personally.”

It’s not about them personally, and the crucial point here is that taking it personally is a really gross attack not just on free speech but on free thought and free inquiry. It’s infantile, it’s narcissistic, and it’s an assault on everyone’s ability and freedom to think openly and freely about large general impersonal significant subjects that must be thought about. That’s especially true given that Islam is a religion with large universalist claims. It prides itself on not being local or parochial or ethnic or national. It’s meant to be for everyone – either as a gift or as an imposition on pain of being unexpectedly blown up or beheaded. Well, if it’s meant to be for everyone, then everyone has to be able to think about it and discuss it, in the same way that everyone has to be able to discuss capitalism and socialism and communism, taxation and law and ethics, markets and universities and courts. We don’t get to take it personally if someone says something critical or mocking about the property tax or Bill Smith University; we don’t get to take it personally and say everyone must shut up because we’re offended.

In the Anglo-Saxon world these are unusual positions for someone who places himself on the left. What’s more, Grayling is a member of the World Economic Forum’s Council for Western-Muslim Understanding. But if one idea runs through his 27 books, many articles, television appearances and a life as a prominent public intellectual, it is the importance of liberty and free speech. If one thing worries him, it is that the West’s secular, liberal tradition is under threat.

These positions are not as unusual as all that in ‘the Anglo-Saxon world’ for someone on the left! They’re not a bit unusual around here, for example – as Anthony knows, even if James Button doesn’t.

[T]he culprit is belief itself. “To believe something in the face of evidence and against reason – to believe something by faith – is ignoble, irresponsible and ignorant, and merits the opposite of respect,” he writes in Against All Gods, published this year.

James Button (like so many people) seems to find that excessive in some way – which is mildly depressing. Does he think that to believe something in the face of evidence and against reason in fact merits respect? Has he thought it through?



Rampant scientism

Sep 1st, 2007 12:38 pm | By

You know, when They say there has never been a cover-up, that’s when you know there has been a cover-up.

The recent upsurge in measles cases in Britain is a sad tribute to the climate of irrationality. Despite all the paranoid conspiracy theories, there has never been a cover-up of the link between MMR and autism. In ten years those promoting this autism link have failed to produce convincing scientific evidence while numerous laboratory studies and epidemiological surveys have upheld the safety of MMR.

‘Convincing scientific evidence’ – ‘laboratory studies’ – ‘epidemiological surveys’ – don’t you understand? They’re all part of the plot! All that scientistic talk of evidence and studies and surveys is just the usual excluding hierarchical orientalist top-down power-knowledge trick that the global MMR conspiracy uses to silence its enemies.

The rise of a combination of extreme scepticism towards established sources of authority in science and medicine and anxiety about environmental threats to our wellbeing has led many to put their faith in self-proclaimed mavericks and alternative healers and charlatans. The recent outbreaks of measles, which resulted last year in the first childhood death for 15 years, shows how dangerous this credulity can be. As doctors, we are grappling in our surgeries with fear and confusion, exacerbated by an apparently endless series of health scares and panics. A campaigner came to me convinced that a local mobile phone mast was causing her breathing difficulties; later she admitted that she smoked 30 cigarettes a day.

No but you see what happens is, if you smoke thirty cigarettes a day then your body learns to adjust, whereas if you live near a mobile phone mast your body can’t adjust because it doesn’t understand phone masts. It can see and taste and smell the cigarettes, so it know what to do, but the phone mast is over there somewhere, and the death rays are invisible, so the body is baffled and confused.

One of the most potent forces of irrationality in healthcare, one with a particularly baleful influence in the MMR controversy, has been promoted by the Government. It has elevated consumer choice – and subjective belief – over medical expertise…But the problem revealed by the MMR scare is that individual choice cannot be reconciled with a mass childhood immunisation programme. The object of immunisation policy is not to provide a “pick and mix” selection to the public, but to provide a coherent programme for the prevention of infectious diseases.

There’s the conspiracy again – ‘medical expertise’ and ‘a coherent programme.’ That’s no good. We have to have medical amateurism and incoherence. It’s our right as consumers.



Texas stands up for religion in public schools

Sep 1st, 2007 12:46 am | By

Good old Texas. It has an exciting new law, HB 3678 or the ‘Religious Viewpoint Anti-Discrimination Act.’

Students may express their beliefs about religion in homework, artwork, and other written and oral assignments free from discrimination based on the religious content of their submissions. Homework and classroom assignments must be judged by ordinary academic standards of substance and relevance and against other legitimate pedagogical concerns identified by the school district. Students may not be penalized or rewarded on account of the religious content of their work.

May not be ‘penalized’ – as in given a bad grade or told they are wrong? Well, not necessarily – perhaps. I asked Brian Leiter about this alarming portent, and he pointed out that school officials will be able to fall back on that second sentence – at least in functional schools. But there are those other legitimate pedagogical concerns identified by the school district, and there is the little matter of what can happen to school districts. Think ‘Dover.’ There is also the odd wording – ‘standards of substance and relevance.’ Standards of what? What standards are those, and what good are they? They might as well be called standards of niceness and okayness. They’re not much of a guide, and therefore not very reassuring. It is very difficult not to picture biology classes and history classes (not that history is taught in public schools any more) in which the answer ‘God did it’ is acceptable. It is difficult not to picture Texas jam-packed full of schools in which all the students can freely prattle about Jesus and his good friend God and know nothing at all about anything else.



Another expert heard from

Aug 30th, 2007 10:29 am | By

Wisdom from an expert on holistic medicine.

Dawkins seems to be stuck in the last century.

Stuck in the last century – that’s a good one. Experts on holistic medicine are so hip and cutting edge and up to date while stodgy boring unfashionable people like scientists are stuck (like flies in amber, like gnats in ice cream, like a large person in a small doorway) in the last century, way the hell back seven years ago before the internet or CAT scans or the internal combustion engine.

He’s a very entertaining guy, but he suffers from existential insecurity: everything has to be proven before he’ll believe it.

That’s stupid, in more than one way. I’ll enumerate them. 1) ‘Existential insecurity’ is a silly tendentious self-flattering label to apply to rational skepticism of miraculous claims. It is not ‘existential insecurity’ to think and say that claims of medicinal effects that defy the laws of physics are not automatically credible. 2) It’s an elementary mistake to confuse evidence with proof, which shows what kind of ‘expert’ Stephen Russell is. Everything does not have to be proven before Dawkins will believe it; for claims about the natural world he wants evidence before he will consider the claims plausible.

His basic, rather alarmist, premise was that western medicine is in danger of being overshadowed by alternative medicine. Apart from being simply not true, it’s a very old-fashioned way of looking at the field.

There it is again – the peculiar obsession with fashion, and the clumsy lurch into irrelevance. It doesn’t matter whether it’s ‘old-fashioned’ or not; the issue is merit, not fashion.

It’s ridiculously nihilistic to think that if you can’t prove something right now, it isn’t valid. It’s so self-limiting: Dawkins must be very unhappy in himself. We’ve progressed beyond that.

We fashionable up to date types, that is – the ones who keep making the same stupid mistake about proof over and over again, while calling ourselves ‘experts’ in a ‘field’ that thinks water remembers a vanished molecule and can therefore have curative power. Russell must be very happy in himself; but what’s that got to do with anything? He’s still a chump.



How to spot tyranny

Aug 29th, 2007 1:33 pm | By

Good old Nigeria, arresting 18 men for going to a party while (perhaps) being gay. That’s dangerous stuff; much more dangerous than, say, telling people that polio vaccines are part of a western plot to render Muslim women infertile.

There are vociferous local demands for the men to be stoned to death. At last week’s court hearing, an angry mob of Muslim homophobes assembled outside the court. They shouted anti-gay epithets and demanded that all 18 men be sentenced to death. Furious at the judge’s decision to opt for non-death penalty charges, they pelted the defendants with rocks as they left the court, attacked the police, and attempted to lynch the judge and to set the court building ablaze…

Sounds like a fun afternoon, doesn’t it?

Peter Tatchell points out some tensions:

Nigeria’s anti-sodomy laws contravene the anti-discrimination provisions of various African and UN human rights conventions that Nigeria has signed and pledged to uphold. These include the African charter on human and peoples’ rights, which came into force in 1986. It affirms the equality of all people, without discrimination. Similar provisions are included in the UN international covenant on civil and political rights to which Nigeria acceded in 1993…The persecution of gay Nigerians is symptomatic of a wider tyranny, which tramples on individual freedom and civil liberties, as documented by Human Rights Watch.

Whatever editor wrote the subhead for Tatchell’s article missed his point, and in fact subverted it. Whatever editor did that got things completely wrong, thus showing a depressing lack of understanding of the real problem.

This African country claims to be a democracy but its persecution of gay people is pure tyranny.

That’s stupid. Tatchell doesn’t mention democracy in the article, and that ‘but’ is no ‘but’ – it’s nonsense. Persecution of gay people is not somehow inherently the opposite of democracy; on the contrary, it’s a very tidy illustration of the danger of democracy, precisely because gay people are always a minority, and a pretty small one at that. It is perfectly possible to be both a democracy and a country that persecutes gay people. The tyranny in question is the tyranny of the majority.



Hitchens on the road again

Aug 29th, 2007 9:09 am | By

Some good lines in Hitchens’s account of his book tour. First stop was Little Rock:

At the end of the event I discover something that I am going to keep on discovering: half the people attending had thought that they were the only atheists in town.

Just so. That’s why some atheists think there really is a need for atheists to be ‘militant’ or ‘aggressive’ or ‘strident’ or, to put it in less vituperative language, articulate rather than silent and active rather than passive. That’s why some atheists think there really is a need for atheism to become public, talkative, unembarrassed, unapologetic, taken for granted, normalized, quotidian, rather than private, silent, ashamed, secretive, and weird. We think that because of all those people in Little Rock and Dallas and Jackson, Tennessee, who think they are the only atheists in town, and feel isolated, outnumbered, and intimidated as a result. We think we need to speak up more so that all those people in small towns and less cosmopolitan cities can become aware that they are neither alone nor abnormal.

To the New York Public Library to debate Al Sharpton, a man who proves every day that you can get away with anything in this country if you can shove the word “Reverend” in front of your name…In the evening to debate with Marvin Olasky at the L.B.J. Library. Olasky is the man who coined the term “compassionate conservatism” and helped evolve Bush’s “faith-based initiative.”…My challenge: name an ethical statement or action, made or performed by a person of faith, that could not have been made or performed by a nonbeliever. I have since asked this question at every stop and haven’t had a reply yet.

Well, yes. We’re always hearing that Christianity teaches compassion or that Islam teaches charity – as if nothing else did. Why is that?

At the airport, strangers approach to say, “Thanks for coming to take on the theocrats.”…Again I notice two things: the religious types are unused to debate and are surprised at how many people are impatient with them, or even scornful.

Another reason for atheists to speak up more – or to be more ‘militant.’

Jerry Falwell—another man who managed to get away with murder by getting himself called “Reverend”—dies without being bodily “raptured” into the heavens. Indeed, his heavy carcass is found on the floor of his Virginia office.

Maybe it’s an imposter?

At one point I ask [Reverend Mark Roberts] if he believes the story in Saint Matthew’s Gospel about the graves opening in Jerusalem at the time of the crucifixion, and the occupants walking the streets. Doesn’t it rather cheapen the idea of resurrection? He replies that as a Christian he does believe it, though as a historian he has his doubts. I realize that I am limited here: I can usually think myself into an opponent’s position, but this is something I can’t imagine myself saying, let alone thinking.

Well it is difficult. As a Christian I believe it, as a historian I have my doubts – how does that work? Do you set up an imaginary door inside your head, and believe or doubt according to which side of the imaginary door you’re on? But if so, how do you avoid being aware of what you think on the other side of the door? But then that is what puzzles me about the religious mind: few believers really act as if they believe all the time, so why doesn’t that fact interfere with their belief? Well, maybe it does, far more than the usual polls would lead you to think; hence all those atheists thinking they’re the only ones in town.



Protected opinion

Aug 25th, 2007 2:25 pm | By

Peter Irons crushes Stuart Pivar and his lawyer. First he does a quick rundown of his cv (modestly referring to ‘several books and law review articles’ – some of those books are pretty well thought of), then explains why: ‘I mention this background, quite frankly, to impress you with my credentials in this field, which are substantially greater than those of Michael J. Little.’ Ouch.

He points out that he was a close friend of Steve Gould’s, and adds that ‘if Steve were still alive, I think he would have a viable defamation action against you for your false statements about his views.’ Ouch.

He points out that the complaint Little filed is very badly drafted, ‘with no legal merit whatever.’ Then he closes in.

On a substantive level, the complaint will never survive a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, for “failure to state a claim upon which relief can be based.”…As Mr. Little should have known, by due diligence, Professor Myers’ characterization was protected opinion, not a false statement of fact. As such, it is immune from defamation actions.

You know, I’m very glad to know that. I suppose I’ve always assumed it, without thinking much about it, and that’s why Pivar’s lawsuit made my jaw drop. If people can be sued for calling someone a crackpot, then nobody can write anything; we’d all be completely paralyzed by self-censorship. I’m glad to know that people can’t be sued for calling someone a crackpot, that that is protected opinion. I like that phrase – it imparts a little glow of beneficence. (I can hear a faint rustling in the distance, far far away, of people gathering their notebooks and microphones for the campaign to pass a law against Incitement of Crackpottery Hatred. Let’s just hope it takes them many years to cover the distance, so many years that by the time they get here the survivors are past speech.)

[A] case Mr. Little should have discovered by due diligence, is an opinion of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in Dilworth v. Dudley et al…written by Chief Judge Richard Posner, one of the most highly respected federal appellate judges…Judge Posner wrote that the term “crank” is an opinion and “is mere ‘rhetorical hyperbole.’ … To call a pereson a crank is basically just a colorful and insulting way of expressing disagreement with [the author’s] master idea, and it therefore belongs to the language of controversy rather than to the language of defamation.”

More little glow. Another phrase I like. The language of controversy rather than the language of defamation. Just so. We’re allowed to engage in controversy! We may want to flounce off and never speak to someone again, but we don’t get to sue people just for calling us cranks. Good.

Then things get really funny.

First, your complaint alleges that your Lifecode book, in both the 2004 and 2007 versions, was published by “Ryland Press, Inc.” My research has turned up no such publisher anywhere in the world…I also talked with Terry Krohn at Axiom House, which advertises your second Lifecode book; he told me it was not published by him, that he listed it as a favor to you, and that it had no sales to date. It would be impossible for you to prove even one dollar of damages, let alone $15 million. Finally, you and Mr. Little are subject to monetary sanctions under Rule 11 of the FRCP; I’ll let Mr. Little explain that to you, since he is presumed to know of this potential consequence of filing a meritless suit.

And that it had no sales to date…That’s beautiful, isn’t it?



The Rapture is not a viable exit strategy

Aug 24th, 2007 2:42 pm | By

The Pentagon is now a minor branch of the Southern Baptist Convention, it seems.

Last week, after an investigation spurred by the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, the Pentagon abruptly announced that it would not be delivering “freedom packages” to our soldiers in Iraq, as it had originally intended. What were the packages to contain? Not body armor or home-baked cookies. Rather, they held Bibles, proselytizing material in English and Arabic and the apocalyptic computer game “Left Behind: Eternal Forces” (derived from the series of post-Rapture novels), in which “soldiers for Christ” hunt down enemies who look suspiciously like U.N. peacekeepers.

Oh well now wouldn’t that have been a good idea. Clever old Pentagon. What’s it doing, trying to get somebody else to throw a loaded passenger jet at it?

The packages were put together by a fundamentalist Christian ministry called Operation Straight Up…[T]hanks in part to the support of the Pentagon, Operation Straight Up has now begun focusing on Iraq, where, according to its website (on pages taken down last week), it planned an entertainment tour called the “Military Crusade.” Apparently the wonks at the Pentagon forgot that Muslims tend to bristle at the word “crusade” and thought that what the Iraq war lacked was a dose of end-times theology. [T]he episode is just another example of increasingly disturbing, and indeed unconstitutional, relationships being forged between the U.S. military and private evangelical groups.

Oh I don’t know – if you’re going to have a giant military, it probably ought to be kind of devout, don’t you think? Better safe than sorry, right?

The extent to which such relationships have damaged international goodwill toward the U.S. is beyond measure…[A] leading Turkish newspaper, Sabah, published an article on Air Force Maj. Gen. Peter Sutton, who is the U.S. liaison to the Turkish military — and who appeared in the Christian Embassy video. The article described Christian Embassy as a “radical fundamentalist sect,” perhaps irreparably damaging Sutton’s primary job objective of building closer ties to the Turkish General Staff, which has expressed alarm at the influence of fundamentalist Christian groups inside the U.S. military. Our military personnel swear an oath to protect and defend the Constitution, not the Bible. Yet by turning a blind eye to OSU and Christian Embassy activities, the Pentagon is, in essence, endorsing their proselytizing.

Oh, relax. Lighten up. Soon enough our military personnel will be wearing an oath to defend the Bible, not the Constitution, and that’s as it should be. If you’re not good, you’re evil – understand?



We’re going to have people saying unpopular things

Aug 23rd, 2007 12:24 pm | By

One of these again.

J. Michael Bailey, a psychologist at Northwestern University, has promoted a theory that his critics think is inaccurate, insulting and potentially damaging to transgender women. In the past few years, several prominent academics who are transgender have made a series of accusations against the psychologist…Lynn Conway, a prominent computer scientist at the University of Michigan, sent out an e-mail message comparing Dr. Bailey’s views to Nazi propaganda…Dr. Ben Barres, a neurobiologist at Stanford, said in reference to Dr. Bailey’s thesis in the book, “Bailey seems to make a living by claiming that the things people hold most deeply true are not true.”

Oh no, not that. If he does that then nothing is too bad to do to him.

Dr. Conway, the computer scientist, kept a running chronicle of the accusations against Dr. Bailey on her Web site…The site also included a link to the Web page of another critic of Dr. Bailey’s book, Andrea James, a Los Angeles-based transgender advocate and consultant. Ms. James downloaded images from Dr. Bailey’s Web site of his children, taken when they were in middle and elementary school, and posted them on her own site, with sexually explicit captions that she provided…Ms. James said in an e-mail message that Dr. Bailey’s work exploited vulnerable people, especially children, and that her response echoed his disrespect.

Nice, huh?

“What happened to Bailey is important, because the harassment was so extraordinarily bad and because it could happen to any researcher in the field,” said Alice Dreger, an ethics scholar and patients’ rights advocate at Northwestern who, after conducting a lengthy investigation of Dr. Bailey’s actions, has concluded that he is essentially blameless. “If we’re going to have research at all, then we’re going to have people saying unpopular things, and if this is what happens to them, then we’ve got problems not only for science but free expression itself.”

For science, for free expression, for research, scholarship, inquiry, thought – the whole shooting match. Not good.



Judgements by default

Aug 22nd, 2007 5:12 pm | By

Silencing by libel suit – it’s everywhere. Deborah Lipstadt pointed out one branch a couple of weeks ago.

Now the Saudis have silenced another book. This one is by J. Millard Burr, a former relief coordinator for Operation Lifeline Sudan, U.S. Agency for International Development, and Robert O. Collins, professor of history at the University of California at Santa Barbara. They have written a number of books on Darfur and Sudan. Their most recent book, Alms for Jihad, was published by Cambridge University Press. The authors explore how…”The Saudi royal family played a pernicious role, founding and promoting charities to spread militant Sunni Islam…” The British lawyers for Khalid bin Mahfouz and his son Abdulrahman bin Mahfouz wrote Cambridge University Press saying they intended to sue the Press and the authors for defamation against their clients.
Cambridge University Press contacted the authors, and they provided detailed material in support of their claims made in Alms for Jihad. Nonetheless, Cambridge University Press decided not to contest the argument and next week they will apologize in court.

So much for freedom of information, so much for the public’s right to know, so much for freedom of speech and the press.

Bin Mahfouz apparently has amassed a number of judgements by default, in other words the case was not tried on its merits. Everyone just caves, pays a fine, and gets out of Dodge as fast as they can. Cambridge Press had pretty deep pockets but it too folded. And now I return to the main point: Why [hasn’t] this pattern of silencing by the Saudis of authors who are critical of them been the topic of an article in the mainstream press?

Why indeed.



More on the frivolous lawsuit

Aug 21st, 2007 6:04 pm | By

Very interesting. Panda’s Thumb comments on Pivar’s poxy lawsuit

The suit has been discussed on several web sites already, including Scientific American, the Lippard Blog, Overlawyered and PT contributor Timothy Sandefur’s personal blog Positive Liberty. The consensus seems to be that the suit has no legs, but of course if this is a nuisance suit, ultimate success in front of a judge is not the goal.

And Peter Irons comments on the comment – Peter Irons, author of A People’s History of the Supreme Court from which I have derived material for comment here, I think possibly more than once.

Since this is all out in the open now, I thought I’d comment as a lawyer who specializes in First Amendment issues, including defamation. First, this is a patently frivolous lawsuit, and will not survive a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, for “failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” Rule 12(b)(6) is the death sentence for cases like this, which never come to trial. I’m sure the Seed lawyers are now drafting a motion to dismiss, which will almost certainly be granted…Yesterday, I had an interesting half-hour phone conversation with Pivar’s lawyer, Michael J. Little, who was quite candid with me…The bottom line is that, since Pivar’s lawyer himself has little (no pun intended) hope the case will survive a motion to dismiss, PZ has nothing to worry about…I have learned a lot more about Pivar, including his alleged “friendship” with Steve Gould (who was my close friend from our college days in the 1950s until he died in 2002), but I won’t post it here.

Well let’s hope Pivar has to pay large court costs, that’s all – in fact what the hell, let’s hope a pro bono lawyer or two persuades PZ to counter-sue and Pivar has to give him a very very very lot of money and also go on Oprah to apologize to the nation and the world.



Silencing critics

Aug 21st, 2007 3:30 pm | By

This libel suit against PZ is terrifying – not just for people who write, but for people who read too. If suits like this are possible, then no one can say anything. Magazines of any substance will disappear, newspapers will become even more vacuous than they already are, books will become anorexic and very very dull. How can it be possible to sue someone for an unfavorable book review? Why wasn’t Stuart Pivar politely but firmly escorted out of the building and told not to return?

Note this bit from Blake Stacey:

Down in the comments, my Pharynguloid pals and I started noticing that the laudatory quotes Pivar had stuck on LifeCode couldn’t be traced back to their purported sources. In particular, an endorsement from Neil deGrasse Tyson turned out to be a chimera: the first part from an unrelated NOVA interview, and the second completely fabricated…PZ makes note of the puzzling endorsement situation. He says that he’s written several of the people whose names Pivar invoked, and Neil deGrasse Tyson had written back: “Tyson replied, and has said that part of the quote is an out of context reference to a completely different subject, and that another part is a fabrication. He has asked that Pivar remove his name from his website, which he has not done. Tyson’s name is also prominently used on the back cover of his book — I don’t see that going away, either.”

Isn’t that charming – and that’s the guy who’s suing someone for writing a critical review of his book. What’s the thinking here – that because Neil deGrasse Tyson ‘endorsed’ the book on Pivar’s website therefore a critical review must be not only libel but assault? That fabricating endorsements is okie dokie but saying a book is not good is libelous?

Tim Sandefur gives some legal analysis here.

Pivar (who appears to be a serial abuser of the courts) is demanding damages due to a book review Myers wrote in which he called Pivar a “classic crackpot.” Well, I’m here to say that Pivar is more than a crackpot. He’s a crackpot, an idiot, a moron, a fool, a bully, and an abuser of the legal system who deserves to be sanctioned for filing a frivolous and baseless case for no reason other than to infringe on PZ Myers’ constitutionally protected right of free speech.

He goes on to say that you can’t sue someone for libel for expressing an opinion (as in calling someone a fool) and that Pivar is a public figure and ‘a public figure cannot sue for libel except under very rare circumstances that are not present here. By publishing a book—especially a book with crackpot notions on scientific matters—Pivar has become a limited public figure at least, and has no grounds to file a lawsuit like this.’

Let’s hope the case gets thrown out before the ink is dry on the parking ticket and that it won’t cost either PZ or Seed a lousy rusty dime.



Freedom of speech means you must shut up

Aug 21st, 2007 12:22 pm | By

And while I’m at it, why don’t I just quarrel with Michael Shermer’s piece too. He doesn’t resort to the childish abuse of ‘the New Atheist Noise Machine,’ but there’s plenty to quarrel with all the same.

Whenever religious beliefs conflict with scientific facts or violate principles of political liberty, we must respond with appropriate aplomb. Nevertheless, we should be cautious about irrational exuberance…Anti-something movements by themselves will fail.

Oh really. Such as abolitionism for instance? Anti-war movements? Anti-imperialism movements? Some anti-something movements fail, others don’t. And the ‘new Atheists’ aren’t merely against something anyway, so it’s just more straw. (People do produce a remarkable amount of straw on this subject.)

Positive assertions are necessary. Champion science and reason, as Charles Darwin suggested.

But…they do. What’s he talking about? Of course they champion science and reason. Does he mean to the exclusion of criticizing religion? But what if they think (as they do) that religion competes with and/or damages science and reason? Are they forbidden to discuss that? If so, why? How can that possibly be justified? Especially when that’s not usually said about other ideas – champion birdwatching but don’t criticize destruction of habitat; champion feminism but don’t criticize sexism or subordination; champion education but don’t criticize ignorance. That’s childish; it’s self-helpish nonsense.

Promote freedom of belief and disbelief. A higher moral principle that encompasses both science and religion is the freedom to think, believe and act as we choose, so long as our thoughts, beliefs and actions do not infringe on the equal freedom of others. As long as religion does not threaten science and freedom, we should be respectful and tolerant because our freedom to disbelieve is inextricably bound to the freedom of others to believe.

That’s the worst one of all, because it implies that criticism is incompatible with the freedom to think, believe and act as we choose – which is a stark contradiction, apart from anything else that’s wrong with it. But it’s also just damn silly, and an attempt at silencing or impeding free inquiry and criticism and thought. It is, frankly, deeply obnoxious to pretend that the freedom to think, believe and act as we choose somehow entails the silencing of people who think and believe differently and want to say so. It’s a completely inane thing to say, because it tells us to shut up so that other people can talk without hearing anything they don’t like. The logic is ridiculous, and the political import is revoltingly craven.



The Parochialist Noise Machine

Aug 21st, 2007 11:17 am | By

How nice – Matthew Nisbet has trotted out the old ‘atheists should be quiet’ number again, and nearly all the comments point out how absurd that is, and why. Good.

Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine, echoes the very same warnings about the Dawkins-Hitchens PR campaign emphasized here at Framing Science…He argues against the irrational exuberance of the New Atheist Noise Machine…

No he doesn’t, because he doesn’t call it ‘the New Atheist Noise Machine’ – that bit of creepy snide namecalling is Nisbet’s contribution. It pisses me off, that kind of thing, because apart from anything else, what about the Theist Noise Machine? Eh? Why do Nisbet and Greg Epstein and the rest of the atheist-‘bashing’ hacks make such a (noisy?) fuss about atheism when the Theist Noise Machine has been deafening all of us for years?

Most importantly we alienate many moderately religious Americans who otherwise agree with us on most social and scientific topics.

There it is again – that horrible blinkered parochial miniaturized view of the world which sees everything as a matter of US electoral politics. What does he mean ‘most importantly’? Is he so provincial and so one-eyed that he fails to realize that some people are interested in things other than US politics? Can he fail to realize that some people find US politics itself so provincial and narrow and childishly personal as well as greasily pragmatic that they turn away from it in revulsion?

Well, yes, apparently. He replies to a series of unconvinced comments with an even more parochial bit of wisdom:

The New Atheist Noise machine risks alienating the swing voters, moderately religious Americans who otherwise agree with atheists on most issues.

Risks alienating the swing voters – there speaks the voice of truly infatuated narrowness of mind. What is he even talking about? Are ‘the new Atheists’ running for office? Are they working for Obama or Edwards? Are they even thinking about ‘the swing voters’? Of course they’re not, and why should they be? What do ‘the swing voters’ have to do with anything? And what is the logic of this way of thinking? That no idea should be discussed or advocated in a book if there is a chance that it might ‘alienate the swing voters’? (Alienate them from whom, anyway? What are they going to do, blame the Democratic Party for the books by four atheists? Why would they do that?) That all ideas and all books should be anodyne and empty because otherwise the ‘swing voters’ might be alienated? But if that’s the idea – then why bother? Why are we supposed to care who ‘wins’ if the price of ‘winning’ is that nobody ever expresses an idea that the swing voter might not like? What are we aiming for here, a thought-world that’s safe for Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm?



Deference to authority

Aug 20th, 2007 5:44 pm | By

Stephen Law asks a crucial question:

[M]y greatest concern is that the smoke generated by the battle over whether religious schools are a good idea has obscured a more fundamental question, a question about the kind of religious education schools offer: to what extent should schools be allowed to encourage deference to authority when it comes to moral and religious matters? To what extent should they be able to suppress independent, critical thought?

How about deference to authority and downright obedience of existing rules (no hitting, no knifing the teacher, no breaking windows – you know the kind of thing) in combination with no suppression at all of independent, critical thought about the rules? How does that sound? Obey the ones that are in place, and by all means think about them, discuss them, analyze them, along with other moral and religious matters. Sound reasonable?

Let me be clear that there are some excellent religious schools, schools that dare to educate rather than indoctrinate. But far too many, while officially liberal, are busy applying psychological techniques that, if not quite brainwashing, lie on the same scale. Some don’t even pretend to be liberal. The other day I heard the head of a British Islamic school agree that in any good Islamic school, “Islam is a given and never challenged”. Any school that insists its religion should be a given and never challenged should no longer be tolerated, let alone receive government funding.

Which suggests the idea that secularism and independent critical thought go together, and theocracy and authoritarianism do the same. That’s probably obvious enough, but it’s worth keeping in mind.

Authoritarian political schools would be a shocking new development. But there have always been authoritarian religious schools. Familiarity, and perhaps a sense of inevitability, has blunted the sense of outrage we might otherwise feel. I think it high time we got that sense of outrage back.

I’ve already got it.



Eight things

Aug 19th, 2007 4:01 pm | By

Jeffrey at Silence and Voice tagged me a few days ago. You’re supposed to list eight random facts about yourself and then tag eight more people. Let’s see…

1) I was born in Manhattan. 2) I just went for a 2 1/2 hour walk. 3) I’m wearing jeans and a blue, green and white striped T shirt. 4) I don’t like talking about myself. 5) I have a low boredom threshold. 6) My face looks sullen or even furious when it’s merely neutral. 7) I hate wearing hats. I do it, when it’s sunny or raining, but I hate it and pull the hat off in the shade or under a roof or overhang. 8) I like elephants.

So, eight people…Chris Dillow. Shuggy. Rosie Bell. Cam. Jean Kazez. Potentilla. John. Maryam.



So contract killing is legal in India?

Aug 19th, 2007 11:32 am | By

But why aren’t these guys just summarily arrested without bail as a threat to public safety? You can’t put out public hits on people! Can you? Except in failed states, and in violent hidden enclaves (where ‘public’ is only semi-public). You can’t just get together in a cozy pally group and say ‘Kill this person and we’ll give you a lot of money’ and be reported in the newspapers as saying that and just go chuckling about your business – can you?

Muslim clerics in Kolkata issued a “death warrant” against controversial Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasreen on Friday, threatening her life if she did not leave the country where she lives in exile. The threat came after a meeting of dozens of clerics from prominent mosques in Kolkata – where the writer lives – who said she had invited their wrath through her “repeated criticism” of Islam in her books and speeches. While one prominent cleric said Nasreen had a month to leave, another said she had 15 days. Anyone who killed her would get a cash reward of 100,000 rupees ($2,400), they said. “Anyone who executes the warrant will also be given additional rewards,” said Nurur Rehman Barkati, a cleric of one of the biggest mosques in Kolkata.

So there they all are, with names, mosques, amounts offered all given. So why aren’t they all occupying a Kolkata jail cell? Why isn’t their ability to offer anyone a monetary reward for murdering a novelist severely compromised by their occupation of a room nine feet by six with bars on the window and door? Why don’t ‘clerical’ thugs who put out hits on people get instantly busted for incitement to murder?

Answers on a postcard.



“Truth” v truth

Aug 19th, 2007 10:42 am | By

Chris Dillow reviewed Why Truth Matters the other day. He said nice things about it, but he also made some claims that I respectfully disagree with – claims that are mostly about truth rather than about the book, so I hope my respectful disagreement doesn’t look too self-serving.

Many interesting “truths” might be merely fashionable beliefs; if the last 500 years are any guide, today’s “truth” is the next century’s nonsense.

Yes but the subject isn’t “truth” but truth. That is of course part of the point – that “truth” is one thing and truth is another, and that conflating the two is one way of claiming that truth doesn’t matter or doesn’t exist or is merely a rhetorical pat on the back. We’re not pretending to say why “truth” matters, but why truth matters. Truth is not mere belief, fashionable or otherwise.

One [problem] is their attempt to privilege truth because of its links with what makes humans unique.

We’re not attempting to privilege it, we’re attempting to explain why it matters, having already conceded that we don’t have a knock-down argument for that. We don’t really think there is such a knock-down argument; we say it comes down to preferences; then we try to explain possible reasons for the preferences.

Animals can grasp reality, in some senses, better than us: if you want to find the truth of where a mouse is, a cat is better than a human. Where humans are unique – insofar as we know – is in being able to problematize the truth, to tell stories, to mix myth with “reality.” It’s postmodernism that’s uniquely human, not the notion of an external truth.

Well, no. Reality isn’t the same thing as truth. Animals may well be able to grasp some particular bit of reality in a particular place at a particular instant better than any human could with the aid only of human senses – but that’s not the same thing as saying animals can ‘grasp’ or find or think about truth better than we can. Sure humans are unique in being able to tell stories, but they are also unique in being able to think and talk about truth. Both abilities depend on language (cognitive scientists think that animals can’t fantasize or imagine at all because that ability depends on concepts which depend on language). Both postmodernism and the notion of an external truth are uniquely human – along with a great many other things.

More seriously, Benson and Stangroom duck the real problem presented by relativism and scepticism. It’s trivial that “fire burns” is a universal truth. But what about “humans have rights”, or “democracy is the best government”? Are these universal truths? If so, how can we tell.

No. That’s the facts-values gap, the is-ought gap. The claim that humans have rights or that democracy is the best government are claims about values or oughts, not about facts; they’re ethical claims, not ontological claims. We don’t duck the problem, it’s just that it wasn’t the subject of this book.

Vast numbers of claims – “this £20 note is more valuable than a piece of paper”, “it’s 10 past 11”, “I have a right not to be tortured” – are “true” only because others agree that they are. Such “truths” are social constructs. Benson and Stangroom don’t adequately tackle the many problems this raises, not least for liberal interventionism.

Again – just a question of subject matter and space. Note (again) the scare-quotes on “true” – the subject of this book wasn’t “truth” but truth, so “truths” that are social constructs weren’t the subject matter of this book; the distinction between the two was part of the subject matter and it does get discussed, for instance in chapters 2 and 4.