Archive for May, 2010

Skepticism for the pragmatic apophatic

May 31, 2010

One of the many subcultures one finds  on the internet are small crowds of science and technology fanatics who label themselves skeptics.  Despite the skeptic’s self-image as a person who is liberated from the shackles of doctrine and dogma, there are a many questionable ideological themes running through these communities.  For many of them, science and technology are always good.  Religion, spirituality, superstition and myth are always bad.  Healing alternatives to Western medicine (drugs and surgery) are scams, shams, superstition and charlatanism. All GM food, vaccines, drugs and new technologies are good and precautionary concerns are empty-headed fearmongering.  Widespread human experiences that are difficult to explain are delusion, but research to discover the mechanisms behind such experiences is ludicrous.

You get the picture.   It seems the modern skeptic is very often a person who is made so uncomfortable by the unknown that even musing about what might lie beyond our current scientific paradigm is thought worthy of contempt and ridicule.   It’s very chic among self-labelled skeptics to make much of the fallibility of human recollection, cognitive bias and imperfect reasoning – provided it’s everybody else’s:  a skeptic among skeptics is thought to be well defended against such cognitive frailties.

When did this shower of hostile, condescending, dogmatic cynics take over the philosophical tradition of skepticism?

For the record, I have no beef with the skeptical community’s central tenets of empiricism, materialism, critical thinking, atheism, fascination with scientific discovery or any other description by which they might sum up their own world view.  I only think their criticism is often much too outward looking.

One would think the first unsubstantiated convictions on the chopping block for an honest skeptic would be her own.  Any critic of bad ideas ought to be able to find a lifetime of questionable beliefs with which to preoccupy herself without ever having to look beyond the confines of her own mysterious and convoluted mind.   The task is never ending: unsubstantiated convictions crop up like weeds even in the most vigorously tended human psyche.

It is certainly the case that a person with a passionate devotion to scientific enquiry will have a much better grasp of the functioning of the material world than your average bear, provided her passion for science translates into actually reading reputable material on the subject.  However, keeping current with the latest studies in a handful of interesting fields is not a defense against irrational beliefs on subjects outside these areas of interest, and is no defense at all against susceptibility to cognitive bias, propaganda and misinformation.

In keeping with the notion that we must learn to love ourselves before we can love another, the apophatic skeptic seeks to discover and eliminate the fallacies clogging up her own mind before turning her sights on anyone else, all the while recognizing that her task will never be complete.  Ideally, the recognition that it is not only everybody else that can’t get their facts straight, but also herself,  would lead to criticisms that are measured, compassionate and tactful.

A quick perusal of my past posts is enough to reveal I haven’t been weeding, to say the least.  Starting now, I’m going to spend more time thinking about my own wacky misconceptions and less time hollering about everybody else’s.  I might also unsubscribe to a few of the snarkier blogs on my RSS feed and start shopping around for blogs that offer more dispassionate and intelligent commentary.

Blog recommendations are more than welcome.  My interests are peaceful progressive activism, civil liberties, politics, biology, physics, psychology, transition culture, literature and laughter.  There are a lot of blogs going down the drain today, so don’t hold back or I’ll have to start reading the mainstream news (*spits on the ground*).

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Benjamin Netanyahu, thug and proud of it.

May 31, 2010

Good news for pirates: According to Netahanyu, international waters are Israeli jurisdiction.  Not only that, but if you board a ship and slaughter the unarmed civilian passengers in international waters, it is an act of “self-defense“.

I’m sure there are a few boatloads of relieved Nigerians out there today.

In other news, Canadian Prime Minister Harper expressed his regret that Israel’s unprovoked massacre of a humanitarian aid convoy in international waters ruined what could otherwise have been a great photo op for Harper.

“I’m sorry this has coloured this (visit) but delighted you were able to join me at least last night and today.”

The real tragedy, according to Harper?  Wobbly message control.

And they wonder why certain parties might yearn to see the whole stinking edifice of Israel pushed into the sea.

Happy quit facebook day!

May 31, 2010

Hat tip to Dale at Faith in Honest Doubt for reminding me what a clueless dickhead Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is when it comes to understanding internet privacy concerns.

In his own words:

Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity

No, Mark.  Having two identities for yourself is an example of “having a job”.  Would it be great if nobody had to have a job?  Hell, yeah, sure it would.  But that’s not the world you or I live in.  You and I, Mark, live in a world where a Catholic school educator can be fired from her job for ticking “no” on a Facebook poll asking whether or not she believes in God.  Those of us who are not 20-something dot com billionaires spend our time working (or looking for work).  In this world, the more intelligent and interesting you are the more likely it is that keeping your job entails a truckload of make believe.

You go ahead and invite your grandma over for a slide show of your latest XXX leather party.  Give your business associates a running commentary on your gay wedding plans and let the bank handling your debts know where the best mushroom picking is this year.  Who’s going to fire you?  For my part, I’m going to keep deciding for myself who gets to see what.  Just for shits and giggles, I’m going to call it consideration of the differing sensibilities of my friends, business associates and family rather than a “lack of integrity”, but you can call it whatever you like.

Today I changed my privacy settings to ensure that my personal information is no longer spewing all over the shop like blood from a severed kung fu flick limb thanks to Mark Zuckerberg’s thoughtless idealism.  Having a good look at exactly what was being shared without my consent was an eye-opener, to say the least.  For Facebook users, today’s top priority should be to opt out of sharing personal information with applications your friends sign up for.  Sharing my personal information with random third parties attached to my friends turned out to be the default setting, believe it or not.  In light of that bombshell, I went a step further and also deleted all but one of my third party applications (MyBand) out of consideration for the privacy of my friends.

Those who find it tricky to get their head around the “simplified” privacy settings can always just quit facebook like the 25,000 users who claim they’re going to do it today.

Thank God for Catholic girls.

May 27, 2010

That was an expression floated around high schools in my area when I was growing up.  (In case the meaning isn’t obvious, I’ll clarify that it was specifically used by boys who were not having much luck getting into the pants of secular school girls, in a province where Catholics have their own separate school system.)

Today I’m really feeling it though.  If I believed in a god I would feel sincerely grateful toward her for inspiring 40 secret mistresses of Catholic priests to petition the pope in an effort to put an end the twisted, arbitrary, mind-warping rule of clerical celibacy.

Of course I hold out little hope of their success.  What greying, impotent knee-bender, having spent his whole life trying to avoid sexual temptation, is going to finally agree at the end of his life that it was a pointless rule all along and ought to be forgotten?   Nevertheless, I am tremendously relieved to discover there are in fact some Catholic priests who are boning adult, consenting women instead of  all molesting children.  I was honestly starting to wonder.

Cardinal Ouellet lectures the rest of us on “moral disorders”

May 27, 2010

Dear Catholic clergy.

I have a great idea.  How about first you stop raping children, sheltering the rapists from meaningful consequences and denying accusations of wrong-doing , then you lecture women about how you can’t tell the difference between abortion and murder?

There is a definite trend here:  Catholic priests can’t tell the difference between pedophilia and homosexuality and they can’t tell the difference between birth control and murder.

In fact, at times Catholics react as if homosexuality is worse than pedophilia and abortion is worse than murder.  When Catholics openly celebrate the fact that a raped 10 year old child in some benighted Catholic corner of Mexico was denied information and access to abortion by the state but has been made to understand there is a baby growing inside her, (Hallelujah!  Break out the Jesus crackers!), it  only underlines their general lack of moral credibility in my view.

Cardinal Ouellet, how about you clean up your own damn back yard before you point your shriveled, pious man-fingers at women?  As with gay marriage, the abortion debate is over.  Your side lost.  Try to keep up.

Thanks.

Not careful enough, Steve

May 22, 2010

A few days ago I recalled Stephen Harper’s 2003 article proposing the gradual (“incremental”), discreet (“careful”) fusion of social conservative and fiscal conservative policies as a strategy for the budding theo-conservative movement.   To quote the man himself:

Rebalancing the conservative agenda will require careful political judgment. First, the issues must be chosen carefully. For example, the social conservative issues we choose should not be denominational, but should unite social conservatives of different denominations and even different faiths. It also helps when social conservative concerns overlap those of people with a more libertarian orientation.

So what did he pick?  Abortion.  Way to be careful, Steve!

Is it possible that Steve, sheltered as he is from the mainstream by a wide buffer of young earth creationists, anti-gay activists, Christian Zionists, criminals and racists, is a little out of touch with the concerns of average Canadians?

Having provoked an unambiguous smack down from the US Secretary of State, a raised eyebrow from the United Nations, and unanimous hostility from the entire provincial legislature of Quebec, Steve is stomping mad and looking for a way out.  Harper is shocked – shocked! – to discover that when you appoint a shameless horde of bona fide fundamentalist whack jobs to high-ranking government policy posts, you get government policies that reflect fundamentalist whack job values and alienate or outrage everybody else.

Of course Harper is making decisive public statements to distance himself from the entire fiasco.  But who is he kidding?  Anyone who has ever spent any amount of time with fundamentalist whack jobs will understand that in order to believe they can be reasonable, dispassionate, inclusive and competent policy makers you have to be a fundamentalist whack job yourself.  Judging by his appointments alone, I am confident in asserting that Harper is a fundamentalist whack-job and approves of the theocratic policies coming out of his benighted office, in principle.  I think he just wishes his minions would be more “careful” and more “incremental” with the implementation of their fundamentalist whack job agenda.

Anyway, hopefully Steve has learned there’s no “careful” and “incremental” way to sneak anti-choice policies under the radar of mainstream Canadians.  Whether it is through easily disavowed “private members’ bills” or bizarre foreign policy initiatives that you think shouldn’t upset Canadians at home, we are going to notice and make some noise, especially when you tell us to shut the fuck up.  So please just come out and say you hope to one day have enough of a mandate to outlaw reproductive choice in Canada and quit pussyfooting around.  The theo-cons’ endless maneuvering, message control, debate framing, and general furtiveness about their social conservative agenda is beyond irritating.  You’re not fooling anybody.

What should we do about those darn creationists?

May 19, 2010

The inimitable godless blogger P.Z. Meyers has had a go at theistic evolutionist Karl Giberson for an article where he claims science has not only failed to dislodge creationism, but failed abysmally.  Giberson argues non-creationists need to tell creationists it’s “OK to believe in God”, and then gently persuade them that you can believe in evolution as well.  For his part, Meyers insists that it would be better to root out magical thinking entirely from the whole of human civilization.

I think both arguments are deeply flawed, for the simple reason that cdesign proponentsists don’t give a fiddler’s fart what either of them think.  Whether Meyers and Giberson patronize them with a soothing “there, there” or rail against the folly of their convictions, they’re still going to believe a bunch of nonsense for as long as they wish to belong to whatever community they’ve contracted it from.

Dawkins picked up on this phenomenon in an unbearable interview with Wendy Wright, partly transcribed in the Greatest Show on Earth:

Wendy: What I go back to is the evolutionists are still lacking the science to back it up.  Instead, what happens is, science that doesn’t bolster the case for evolution gets censored out.  Such as, there is no evidence of evolution going from one species going to another species.  If evolution had occurred, then … surely there’d be at least ONE evidence.

Richard: There’s massive amounts of evidence.  I’m sorry, but you people keep repeating that like a kind of mantra because you just listen to each other.

He’s exactly right.  The only reason a creationist would be looking at anything written by the likes of Meyers or Giberson would be to quote mine sentence fragments that might mislead the reader into believing they don’t really believe in evolution, or to find material for later use in a character assassination campaign.  I sympathize with them for their charming fantasy that something they could say or do (if only enough of us climbed aboard the bandwagon) might have an impact on the thinking of people like Wendy Wright.  However, I think it would be better for us not to wring our hands about how we can best infiltrate the religious mind and rearrange the furniture.

It’s a red herring.  Personal belief in creationism is not the problem.  In the complex, aromatic bouquet of ideologies the religious right brings to the table, the toxic flower is not personal belief in god or creationism, it is the collective rejection of the separation of church and state. I would propose a third option:  instead of wasting our breath debating religionists or debating each other about how best to debate religionists, why don’t we devote our energy to affirming the principle of secular government?

General human wingnuttery is not a real problem.  Or at least, if it is, it is a problem that will never go away, like psoriasis.  The problem is that a certain wing-nuts are organized and lobbying effectively for the fusion of religion and government.  Perhaps normal people feel no need to organize and lobby collectively to prevent such a development because we are, after all, the vast majority (at least north of the border).  Nevertheless, I think we need to make it absolutely crystal clear that blurring  the line between religion and politics in Canada to appease the Conservatives’ religious base will not be tolerated.

In 2003 Steven Harper wrote an article for the Christian Coalition (motto: a vibrant majority, proudly Christian).  In it, he plainly stated that elusive “hidden agenda” so many leftists love to speculate about:

Rebalancing the conservative agenda will require careful political judgment. First, the issues must be chosen carefully. For example, the social conservative issues we choose should not be denominational, but should unite social conservatives of different denominations and even different faiths. It also helps when social conservative concerns overlap those of people with a more libertarian orientation.

Second, we must realize that real gains are inevitably incremental. This, in my experience, is harder for social conservatives than for economic conservatives. The explicitly moral orientation of social conservatives makes it difficult for many to accept the incremental approach. Yet, in democratic politics, any other approach will certainly fail. We should never accept the standard of just being “better than the Liberals” – people who advocate that standard seldom achieve it – but conservatives should be satisfied if the agenda is moving in the right direction, even if slowly.

Third, rebalancing means there will be changes to the composition of the conservative coalition. We may not have all the same people we have had in the past. The new liberal corporatist agenda will appeal to some in the business community. We may lose some old “conservatives,” Red Tories like the David Orchards or the Joe Clarks.

This is not all bad. A more coherent coalition can take strong positions it wouldn’t otherwise be able to take – as the Alliance alone was able to do during the Iraq war. More importantly, a new approach can draw in new people. Many traditional Liberal voters, especially those from key ethnic and immigrant communities, will be attracted to a party with strong traditional views of values and family.

Does it look like Steve’s proposing a prolonged and “careful” culture war to you?  It does to me.  Sign me up.

Mohammed’s looking shagadelic, baby.

May 17, 2010

It looks like those contemptible lunatics who physically attacked Lars Viks haven’t gotten the memo, because a few days ago they set his house on fire.  So, as promised, here is a corresponding shop:

Mohammed Powers

Yeah, baby.

Anti choice rally attracts thousands of people with no personal stake in the matter.

May 15, 2010

Pedgehog at Anti-Choice is Anti-Awesome made an interesting observation vis a vis the anti choice march in New Brunswick:

there was a noticeable age gap – I didn’t see many people between the ages of 12 and 60.

I was curious as to whether the same conspicuous absence of “people who would be impacted by changes to abortion law” occurred in Ottawa.  Observe:

Children and old folks.

So, do we of child-bearing age get any say in this not-to-be-reopened abortion debate or is Steve just going to proceed as if he can muster a majority by pandering to superstitious old folks who have nothing personal at stake but get a kick out of telling younger women what they can and can’t do?

Notably, many of the children being bussed in from their Catholic schools, which is a shocking misuse of public funds.  Consider this –  if secular schools had bussed in children for a counter-demonstration in support of reproductive choice how would these very same people react?  By screaming blue murder and quite rightly calling for administrative heads to roll, that’s how.  Children are not props for our ideological photo ops.

Harper’s “Maternal Health Program” not about maternal health?

May 14, 2010

Harper’s administration made headlines last week for announcing it intends to cut funding from any international NGO that provides access to safe abortions.  So far, there hasn’t been much analysis of how much funding we’re talking about, or what the impact will be, or where that budget is going to go instead.

Thanks to Olivia Ward at the Star, we can begin to get an inkling of the implications:

In London, International Planned Parenthood Federation is waiting for a call from Canada that will preserve life-saving programs that help 31 million women and children.

But nearly a year after the U.K.-based organization tried to renew its $18 million grant – and on the eve of a G20 summit Harper has focused on maternal health — the line from Ottawa is silent…

Planned Parenthood includes abortion in its wide range of services to needy women and girls in 174 countries…

Canada supplies a significant part of Planned Parenthood’s $120 million annual budget

If Canada provides 15% of the total budget, we can probably expect a corresponding decline in the total number of women and children who once were assisted by this organization but will have no access to family planning information or services once Planned Parenthood pulls up stakes. So, four and a half million women and children may lose access to essential reproductive health services as a direct result of Harper’s benighted foreign policy decision.

That is only the result of de-funding one organization.  How many women’s health NGOs can we expect to feel the pinch?  My guess:  all of them.  As CEO of Marie Stopes Int’l  points out, “You cannot have maternal health without reproductive health and (that) includes contraception and family planning and access to legal, safe abortions.”

Which begs the question, where is all that money going to go now?

I bet I know.

PRIESTS FOR LIFE, CANADA

Harper has not been shy about funneling millions of your tax dollars and mine to domestic evangelical groups while giving prominent, internationally respected secular organizations the axe.  I’m guessing Harper’s “Maternal Health Program” is a massive transfer of tens of millions of dollars of funds once earmarked for “maternal health” to international evangelical groups which have absolutely no interest in anything that is of interest to women, let alone maternal health.

In the same vein, I am very much looking forward to acquiring a copy of The Armageddon Factor:  the Rise of Christian Nationalism in Canada, which has Harper’s religious fan-base bursting blood vessels of indignation.  (Now that’s what I like to see!)