Wednesday, January 31, 2007

My Friends, What We See Here Is A Cult, Not Science

I suppose there are admirers of Richard Dawkins and maybe even Sam Harris who aren’t dishonest but I’ve met very few of them recently.

Since I wrote this piece last fall I have had intermittent trouble with flaming e-mails and trolls stemming from misrepresentations by self-identified atheists on various blogs of what I wrote on the subject of the Dawkins-Harris school of atheists and their childishness. No, let’s be entirely frank. Since I have repeatedly asked them to stop misrepresenting what I said, pointing out the falsity of what they said, and there has been no correction I am going to call their diatribes what they are, lies. These people represent themselves to be scrupulously realistic and clear headed, holding the world to the highest standard of rigor in proof while being abject liars in defense of their heros. I will point out that there have been some atheists who have agreed with what I said, who think Dawkins is wrong. To put it mildly.

The old charge against the Jesuits, those intellectual warriors of the Pope, is that they were educated in and practiced a very high level of casuistry. Casuistry was one of the principle charges against them, a charge that was made with full justification in too many cases. I just wish that in these fights with the Dawkins cult that they could get to the level of casuistry, it would be several steps up from where they choose to argue. Modern Jesuits include many great and honest thinkers, the late Robert Drinan and the Jesuits murdered by the junta in El Salvador are just a few examples. Many of them are scientists, many of them have led lives of rigorous honesty, devoted to freedom and democracy. Yet these people are some of the primary targets of people who never heard their names or know the first thing about them. That doesn’t stop them from lying about them as a group. Individuals and their responsibility for only those wrongs they have done, don’t seem to matter much for the Dawkinsites, much less so the followers of Harris.

I know that some of the points I’ve tried to make on these subjects are more subtle than the angry blanket condemnations and wholesale conflation that the cult of Dawkins and, more so, the followers of Harris, are used to. But I hate to tell them, they are not my intended audience. I hope to appeal to the reason of people who haven’t drunk the punch and swallowed the pill. I don’t care to convert people who are so content to follow the leader and toe the line. I don’t want converts, I don’t want followers. I want people to think for themselves.

What are we to call a group of people who lie, distort, apply double standards, make special pleadings for and absolve their Masters from even the basic standards of fairness and honesty, isn’t it a quasi-religious cult?* Since all I’ve ever called for in this debate is freedom of thought, I’ll let you decide for yourselves. I know that’s how I’ll think of it until there is evidence that I’m wrong.

I am not in the prediction business, having written specifically against that in most cases, but I’ll make one here. If, someday, the Dawkins cult gains a foothold and even, God save intellectual freedom, power, a new war will break out. In this case it will be a war between the Dawkinsites and the followers of Sam Harris. Dawkinsites will smugly point to his priority and his actually having produced published science. I am confident that they will lord it over that lesser cult, those who have not mastered “the meme” in its full and, by that time, baroque complexity. They, friends, will consider the others to be nothing but hangers on, they will refer to them as Harrisites.

* And I could add insistence on their right to be unquestioned due to their AUTHORITY. Alon Levy, of the blog Abstract Nonsense, one of those who I have requested to not misrepresent what I’ve written, had this to say on why we should kow-tow to Richard Dawkins,

In 2007, I say that the rational layperson must accept scientific authority on issues such as physics, climatology, evolutionary biology, medicine, and chemistry.

Must accept. My friends, do you not appreciate being told that we MUST accept the authority of these people? Because, in the end, where else does “scientific authority” reside but in people?
I could be really cruel and say that by Alon’s declaration we would have to unquestioningly accept the odious and, thankfully, late William Shockley’s tirades on the subject of biology. He was a scientist, a physicist with a Nobel Prize, for crying out loud. So what if he was a total flake and racist, a well funded one who fully used his authority to advance his racism, I’ll point out. If I was as intellectually dishonest as the Dawkinsites I might point that out, it’s the standard they use for other people. I am, however, not going to stoop to that level. I know perfectly well what Alon Levy means and it isn’t that. Now, if only he would return the favor.

I will point out that it is very specifically in the field of Dawkins activities that no such “authority” exists. His beliefs in even his relatively grounded work isn’t universally accepted, there are different viewpoints (see my response at Alon’s website). His more airy speculations are even less widely accepted. Where is the AUTHORITY that we are supposed to genuflect to?

Update: In Which I Rest My Case
Now, of the many people who distorted what I wrote last weekend I chose Alon Levy for two reasons, he is a student in the rigorous sciences, he chooses to repeat his distortions in the face of my factual refutation. Here is what he posted on his blog last night after I gave him a heads up that I was going to be writing about what he said:

You’re damn right they don’t. But recall that the argument against Dawkins, which Olvlzl largely repeats, is,
1. Dawkins demands that Christians not criticize evolution without knowing about evolutionary biology;
2. Dawkins criticizes religion without knowing much about theology;
3. Therefore, Dawkins is inconsistent.
The distinction isn’t between Dawkins’ writings on religion and religious pronouncements, but between evolutionary biology and religious pronouncements.

Considering that the second part of this very sillygism is exactly the point that I kept correcting this student of math on, a point I made to him at least four times with quotes from what I'd written and requests that he point out why he kept repeating it, I suppose this is the best that the Dawkins cult has to offer.

Alon, I don't know if you ever studied either the logic of the syllogism or symbolic logic, but included in the requirements is that the parts of the form have to be true or the argument is false. Please, don't take a job in which you will have a part in designing important systems in real life. And stop lying about what I said.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Two (non?) Realities?
Dedicated to RMJ and Phila
Much as I’d like to go through the entire wrangle conducted last weekend at Echidne of the Snakes about the professional skeptics’ dishonest use of double standards, the record of what I wrote and the responses to it are there to be read. Why reproduce it? And here again I begin with a lie. The truth is I’d rather not go through that turning door another time just now. Instead I’ll point out something that became clear to me in reading over the responses and considering them in light of my experience.

I think there are essentially two kinds of atheists, there are those who say “I don’t believe in God” and those who say “I know there isn’t a God”. I’ve known both types. The “I don’t believe” type have placed themselves on firm ground, their non-presumptuous stand is based on their not believing something that can’t be proven. It isn’t a position that is open to debate. Oddly, I’ve got a suspicion that the “I know there isn’t a God” type would think this was a wimpy position when it’s actually the stronger one. At least to those interested in honesty and fairness.

The “I know there isn’t a God” position asserts something that can’t be true. You can’t “know there isn’t a God”. I could just point out that old saw “you can’t prove a negative” but what I’ve experienced of this opinion doesn’t give me any faith that even if it was a fact that doing so was impossible would make a dent.

For the rest let me at least explain what I mean. In order to “know” that, you would have to have falsified every possible God that could possibly be proposed. Since a number of proposed Gods are firmly beyond the possibility of either proof or disproof neither their existence or non-existence can be known. For example, take the description in first line in Arnold Schoenberg’s great opera Moses und Aron, God is unimaginable, unseeable and all mighty. How do you disprove the existence of such a God? I could propose any number of Gods which, either fully or in part, and by choice, are beyond discovery. Here, just for fun.

It could be that there was a creator god who died and who no longer directs the universe and whose traces are lost to intelligent detection. It could be that there is one who is unconcerned with the progress of the universe, roughly, the God of the deists. There could be one who directs the entire universe in every single detail and who chooses to entirely cover her tracks from us. You think that an omnipotent and omniscient god couldn’t do that? Maybe god got to be God through really good time management and attention to detail. Maybe just as you don’t tell your mother what she doesn’t need to be bothered with, God wants to relieve us of the petty details which we are too limited to begin to comprehend.

Maybe god is a trickster who created the universe for our entertainment and his own, or he might be a sadist. Maybe god is like an unfair detective writer who is going to hold out the crucial clue till the very end and spring it on whoever is left standing. Maybe that god only cares about those few people at the end of the story and the rest of us are extras. Maybe we are like amoebas to such a god and there is another species somewhere in time or space for whom the entire thing is intended, maybe such a god let them in on the clue. Maybe in the Burgess Shale there are the fossils of a species that knew it all, knew there was an afterlife and that this life was just a beginning. Maybe such a species didn’t bother to evolve or preserve itself because it knew this and so became extinct. Maybe God doesn’t much like Richard Dawkins or his ilk and chooses to bedevil him. Maybe he finds them to be egotistical prigs and he chooses to reveal herself to lesser mortals of more modest abilities or pretensions for Dawkins’ further irritation.

I don’t know if that’s your idea of fun but I enjoyed it. None of these proposed gods would be susceptible to discovery, either by their choice or as a consequence of our limitations. None of them can be “known to not exist” just as their existence would be hidden from reason.

As soon as this proposed difference between two types of atheists came to me I recognized it immediately by its converse, it is exactly the difference between liberal religion and fundamentalism. A liberal religionist says “I believe”, a fundamentalist says “I know”. Maybe the problem of the Dawkinsite fallacy is more one of emotion instead of reason. Fundamentalists don’t do much in the way of reasoning. They might say that it’s wimpy but maybe they really are afraid of the possibility of their being wrong. Liberals tend to believe what they do without fear. Perhaps this is the reason that they are never as congenial targets of the Dawkinsites as religious fundamentalists who start with a flawed assertion of certainty.

I’m going to speculate that if this is true that it might have some relationship to the manners of both groups, the fundamentalists and the liberals of both believers and atheists. As I’ve declared before, I don’t think that what people believe is very important to anyone but themselves. It is their business. It is when they act that their business becomes other peoples’ business. So, what is the really important thing I can leave you with based on my experience? Liberals aren’t as likely to do you harm.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Looks Like the NYT corp. Is Cannibalizing Yet Another Paper

The night that the decision in Bush v. Gore was announced I was at my brother's house where my nephew was watching "Revenge of the Nerds", the movie made with the booty that Ted Field's got for selling the Chicago Sun Times to Rupert Murdoch. Somehow it seemed to be appropriate. Selling out to Murdoch, the owner of FOX - where Bush cousin John Ellis held up the declaration of Florida for Gore while on the phone with Jeb, the start of the putsch - .... selling the family paper to produce great works of art like the "Nerds" series, let's just say it was a night full of resonance.

The deaths of newspapers, especially great ones is never a good sign. Sometimes it's not even the actual death. The York County Coast Star was one of the best small weekly papers in the United States during the 1970s. Then it's publisher, it's heart and soul was forced to retire and sell out. Unfortunately having a reputation as a great small town paper, it was bought by the New York Times corp. They took the paper, which actually reported news on all of the communities it covered and changed it to a social column covering Poppy and Barbara Bush and their friends. A lot of us stopped reading the shadow of its former self.

When the NYT corp. bought the Boston Globe some of us were afraid that history would repeat itself. Looks like it has.

The New York Times believes that every city should have a great news paper. And it shouldn't be any paper but the New York Times. I wonder how much it would take Sulzy to sell out.

Jimmy Carter Got Off A Great Line Yesterday
In response to the efforts to have him debate Dershowitz, the former president said to loud applause: "I didn't think Brandeis needed a Harvard professor to come" and tell them how to think.

Who says Carter is without guile?

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Now Watch This Because It Isn't Going to Happen Very Often.

But here's a link to Boston Globe ex-society reporter and Frippery Fellow, Alex Beam on just how much the voices of NPR are paid.

But I did find those NPR newsreader salaries. Nothing terribly shocking there. Renee Montaigne made $308,000; Steve Inskeep , $301,000, and Robert Siegel $288,000. Those aren't shocking numbers. NBC's Brian Williams fixes his hair, stares into a teleprompter , and makes about 20 times that amount.

Sometimes the typing chimp does come up with something.

This puts all three of these news readers at the falsely named National Public Radio firmly in the top 1%, personal income group. I don't remember who said it but it is a mighty rare person who isn't changed by an income over a quarter of a million dollars a year. A sort of aristocratic amnesia sets in, forgetting what it was like to get by on the less than a tenth of that amount, what most Americans have to live on.

It's no surprise that these people are mouthpieces of the establishment. Why would they want to change a system that has provided them with so much?

Am I Shocked?
In order for NPR to get a balanced look at past retuttals to the State of the Union speech it assigned notedly overpaid and biased Steve Inskeep to have a cozy chat with Timothy Naftali, the first director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum.

You'd be shocked to find out who came out ahead. Just shocked.

Dump NPR. Dump American Public Media, home of Market Place, while you're at it.

Monday, January 22, 2007

We Should Be Haunted
A while back, on the program Nova, there was a program about the excavation of the mummified remains of children who had been sacrificed in pre-invasion Peru. It’s was disturbing for a number of reasons, the greatest being the fact that a society could allow children to be murdered by priests in a religio-political act. This theme was also brought back to me by another television program last fall, the one in which Michael Tilson Thomas analyzed pieces of music. The piece in question was The Rite of Spring by Stravinsky, in which a virgin is chosen as a sacrifice and then dances herself to death.

The program was pretty well done, I would recommend it to anyone if it is rebroadcast. Thomas goes through the piece concentrating on the instrumentation of the orchestra but also goes into the actual substance of the music. In the course of the program scenes of Thomas and the orchestra players discussing the piece are intercut with scenes as the ballet is danced. Watching the dance scenes it came to me that in the four decades I’ve been listening to the music I’d never actually seen it danced. Watching even those brief scenes brought the faces of the murdered, mummified children to mind, a disturbing experience. Those corpses weren’t the imagination of a composer, those children were deliberately murdered in officially sanctioned rites.

Human sacrifice is something that the three “religions of the book” pride themselves on having abandoned. The story of Abraham’s nearly sacrificing Isaac only to have an angel stop him is the beginning of the tradition those religions share. But that’s only the official story. Human sacrifice on a much wider scale has been practiced by all these and all other societies throughout history. To admit that isn’t to play down the priestly horrors of the past, it’s to try to point out that we are no better. Having a wider knowledge of history, science and current events our society, letting blood at a rate that could keep Mel Gibson in business for eternity, we are more barbaric than all the ignorant homicidal theocratic systems of the past put together. And it’s all done, in the end, for the greater glory of wealth and personal pride. The ideology is just an excuse for that. Their bodies are buried in a conscious act by the governments and media who are in on the act. They are covered with layers of trivia and distraction but they should haunt us, they are killed in our name.

Our Towns
or Your Skin and Your Teeth.
ocal government is generally pretty corrupt. Just like in “The Cradle Will Rock” everyone knows someone who can benefit from contracts being given out or lax enforcement* or some other official act of town government being tweaked or twisted to favor those with connections. The newspaper publisher, if the town is lucky to get news coverage of any kind, is part of the establishment so residents aren’t informed until that can’t be avoided. Since community service is no longer required of radio and TV stations they don’t even enter into the picture anymore. Residents are generally kept ignorant or presented with details in a town report that are hard to follow or sketchy and which come far too late for them to do much about it. Think of the often gaudy corruption of a big city government only spread out over a larger area. That is minus the media coverage.

What happens when the residents become aware of something shady in their town government can be interesting. My brother gave me a piece that was in the November 23rd, 2006 edition of the Norway (Maine) Advertiser Democrat in the column Not So Good Old Days. The un-attributed column mostly quotes from a letter written by Mrs. Cora M. W. Greenleaf, printed in the paper June 30, 1911.

The Case of Mrs Hefferin” concerned the semi-covert plans of the town council to sell the body of a well-beloved lady of the town. After a life of generosity and doing for others, Mrs. Lucy J. Hefferin fell on hard times in her advanced old age. In her last illness some neighbors took her in but needed help paying for expenses of nursing and other things. The town granted them two dollars a week until, poor Mrs. Hefferin being entirely dependent by that time, her nursing care required four dollars a week. When the woman died the town fathers, as they were most paternalistically called back then, got together and decided that someone good should come out of it. As the letter put it, towns in Maine could “legally sell the bodies of their pauper dead, through the efforts of the town where the above had a residence and dispose of the body to some institution for dissection”.

The townspeople caught wind when the town officials “entered on negotiations for a more profitable disposal of the body,” than a pauper’s grave. Mentioning another local case in which a medical student was shocked to find that he knew the cadaver he’d been assigned to dissect, his college had bought it from a neighboring town for $36, the writer goes right to the heart of the matter,

Now what was done with that money? Who got it? I’ve never known of any mention being made of it in any town report, is it a perquisite of the selectmen’s, one of the ‘pickings’ that go with the office?”

A good question. I wonder if anyone answered it. Questions like that to town officials generally go unanswered, in my experience. It’s too hard to force an answer. They can count on that. From a lifetime of seeing how this kind of thing works, the reason for money’s absence from the town’s annual report probably was along the lines alluded to.

Mrs. Greenleaf, no doubt answering a point of the kind often made to change the subject in those fabled town meetings, asks why the town officials don’t benefit society by selling their own corpses and those of their loved ones if it’s such a good idea. I think I’d have liked her.

The romantic view of local government and small business is part of the mythology of conservatives. They are always gassing on about the virtues of both. Anyone with a passing knowledge of either knows it's just gas. There are virtuous town officials, I’ve known several, and there are honest small businessmen but generally it’s a pretty dismal matter of petty corruption and nonfeasance.

In a lot of places during the recent real estate mania the corruption has been awful. Even relatively small developers have financial resources that make countering their ability to get around rules almost impossible in most cases. I’ve always wished someone would study the per capita occurrence of corruption in the various levels of government, not in actual dollar amounts but in just the number of crimes. If anyone knows about a study like that, please let us know.

If you think that there isn’t a modern equivalent of the story from 1911 you are wrong. Georgia, New Hampshire, New York City, now-a- days it is as likely to be local officials looking the other way when a crematorium or mortician goes bad. Is it any wonder that after writing “Our Town” Thornton Wilder might have felt it necessary to write “By the Skin of Our Teeth,” as a corrective?

What happened to poor Mrs. Hefferin’s body? The people in the town took out a subscription to pay for a funeral and a grave. It isn’t mentioned if any of the selectmen contributed.

* Lax enforcement of zoning and land use laws is epidemic in small towns and big ones. The zoning boards and other officials are often either business partners of local developers or attached in some other way. Similar things can often be said of other parts of local governments and school systems. The things that developers get away with under the law is nothing less than legalized theft. In discussing this with several people who are active in local affairs, none of us could come up with a town without something that looked shady going on.

Having sat through them for many years I’m sorry to have to report to you that, due to ignorance, non-participation and outright rigging, Town Meeting is another part of the romantic myth.

Did That Glitch Yesterday Fix My Blog?

Well, did it? After several weeks of not being able to post here but having only some problems posting at my weekend, old Blogger haunt, Echidne of the Snakes, my blog seems to be working again.

The mysteries of Blogger.

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