Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Value in Skepticism

Atheist Alliance International, an alliance of several smaller atheist groups, will award their 2009 Richard Dawkins Award to comedian and talk show host Bill Maher. This has upset a lot of skeptics, since Bill Maher, in addition to being a loud and open atheist, is also a promoter of pseudoscientific "alternative medicine" treatments, a promulgator of paranoid conspiracy theories about pharmaceutical companies and western medicine, and an antivaccinationist. The Dawkins Award, in the words of AAI, is supposed to be given to those people "whose contributions raise public awareness of the nontheist life stance; who through writings, media, the arts, film, and/or the stage advocates increased scientific knowledge; who through work or by example teaches acceptance of the nontheist philosophy..." Bill Maher may meet the secularist qualifications, but he fails miserably on the increasing scientific knowledge front. And the nonsense he spews could keep people from seeking life-saving medical treatment.

Some of the criticism over this award has been directed at Richard Dawkins himself, but he's not a member of the AAI committee that chose Maher as this year's recipient. However, AAI has issued a statement claiming Dawkins is "happy" with the decision, as he doesn't have to agree with someone on every point to appreciate his or her work promoting nontheism. AAI says Maher's documentary "Religulous" was "easily the most prominent film against religion in the United States last year".

Putting aside the fact that this defense doesn't address the scientific clause in the Dawkins Award criteria, it makes no logical sense. How many other films released in 2008 could be classified as being "against religion"? Holding "Religulous" up as the best example in such a paltry field is meaningless. It would be like giving "Battlefield Earth" an Oscar for Best Movie with Pro-Scientology Undertones Starring John Travolta and the Last Remnants of Forest Whitaker's Integrity.

More importantly, "prominent" isn't a value judgment at all. Instead of honoring the anti-religion movie with the most publicity, AAI should be more concerned with whether the movie is a quality piece of journalism or entertainment that makes its case effectively. "Religulous" fails on both those fronts. It's a meandering, smug, and witless film that offers no insight whatsoever. Instead of engaging with the religious people he encounters, Maher simply balks at them. His idea of debate is to shrug his shoulders and say, "Oh, come on!" This isn't an inappropriate response when faced with the raw ideas behind religion. Virgin births and neverending fish baskets are pretty silly, and there's not a lot one can say to dispute the facts at hand. But Maher's target isn't just religion. It's religious people.

In one of the hallmarks of a poorly made documentary, Maher chooses to tack a speech onto the end of the film explicating his thesis in the most didactic way possible. After showing us a bunch of faithful people espousing silly but unsurprising opinions and acting anywhere between heartwarmingly cordial and slightly batty in the face of Maher's shrugs, his ultimate conclusion is that by preaching that the world will come to an end, the religious (mostly Christians, but not all) feel free to rape the planet environmentally and otherwise be total pricks. But while it's irrefutable that much prickishness has been committed in the name of religion, it's hard to reconcile this argument with the portrayal of so many hospitable and seemingly decent theists throughout the rest of the film. And to blame environmental travesty on religion is to ignore the more plausible explanation of sheer ignorance, selfishness, and greed. If the faithful were so sociopathically convinced that death is just an entryway to a perfect eternity and nothing on the Earth matters, they wouldn't spend so much time working for nicer homes, doting on their families, and watching TV. Maher gives too much credit to the scriptural convictions of the religious and, in the process, shows how little he understands them even after his trip around the world.

It's profoundly disturbing that AAI, Richard Dawkins, and many others are willing to look beyond the inherent value in a work or in the work of an activist like Bill Maher in favor of blindly accepting anything spewed from the mouth of the non-religious. This is exactly what religious people do! If Christians cared about the quality and integrity of their culture, mediocre to terrible "artists" like Amy Grant, Jars of Clay, Tyler Perry, and Creed wouldn't have careers. They value message over substance, and apparently AAI and Dawkins do the same.

It's spilled over into the broader skeptical community as well. Take, for example, a Twitter message recently sent out by Brian Dunning of Skeptoid.com: "'Anti-Religious Intent of "Invention of Lying" Confirmed' - http://is.gd/3P8NQ - If true, let's all go see it tonight!!" If you don't already know, "The Invention of Lying" is the new Ricky Gervais movie about a world in which no one has ever lied and what happens when one man (Gervais) learns how to lie. Because there's never been a lie in the universe of the movie, no one ever made up the concept of God. Hence, there's no religion. Gervais is an open atheist and skeptic, so this shouldn't be surprising at all. It's actually pretty brilliant. But instead of encouraging people to see "The Invention of Lying" because it's most likely a very funny movie starring, co-written, and co-directed by an exceptionally talented comedian, Dunning chooses instead to support it sight unseen because of its "anti-religious intent". And he's so worked up about the idea, he couldn't be bothered to look up when the movie comes out, which is two days after he told people to "see it tonight!!".

This isn't an isolated incident. Earlier this year, Dunning and Skeptic Magazine's Michael Shermer were subjected to a prank by British comedian Marc Wootton. Wootton plays a character called Shirley Ghostman, a self-proclaimed and obviously horrible psychic. Under the guise of a TV show seeking to have Shermer and Dunning test the powers of "real" psychics, Wootton's production company set up a situation where the two skeptics would test Shirley Ghostman. Hilarity, I'm told, ensued. But when Dunning and Shermer found out they'd been had for the sake of comedy, they went ballistic. They posted blogs and issued tweets blasting Wootton as dishonest, malicious, and unfunny. Shermer even went so far as to find out where the Ghostman character would be performing more pranks so he could send people there to disrupt the show. Only after Shermer and Dunning were informed of the very obvious fact that the entire Ghostman character isn't meant to lampoon skeptics so much as people who claim to be psychic did they settle down. Not only did they settle down, but they also changed their tune about whether the prank was funny at all. (And it was funny. Ghostman claimed to communicate with the spirit of Lee Majors, the Six Million Dollar Man. After being told that Majors isn't dead, Ghostman brought in a body bag containing a guy with calculators taped to his body. Good stuff.) They proved that their value judgments are based more on message than substance.

The Ghostman example is disconcerting, but perhaps understandable. Anger at having their time wasted and their dignity potentially compromised may have clouded Shermer and Dunning's initial statements on the matter. But allowing yourself to be blinded by ideology can also open the door to hypocrisy. For instance, Richard Dawkins appeared in Ben Stein's anti-evolution film "Expelled", and later complained that he was tricked. The producers of "Expelled" told Dawkins and the other rationalists who are interviewed in the film that it was actually called "Crossroads" and was about the intersection between faith and science. Far from the paranoid, delusional screed it turned out to be. But Bill Maher did the same thing in producing "Religulous". Speaking to the Los Angeles Time, Maher said, "We never, ever, used my name. We never told anybody it was me who was going to do the interviews. We even had a fake title for the film. We called it 'A Spiritual Journey.'" By supporting this film, Dawkins is embracing the same techniques he derided when they were used by people of an opposing viewpoint.

The list goes on. Greydon Square, an atheist rapper, has been the subject of fawning interviews on many skeptical podcasts, even though his songs are repetitive and pedantic compared to the best hip hop has to offer. Square entered into a relationship with the Rational Response Squad, the financially suspect atheist organization that enjoys several devoted followers despite the fact that its representatives barely managed to hold their own in a debate with intellectual powerhouses Kirk Cameron and Ray Comfort of divine banana fame. Is it too much to ask that artists, writers, activists, and producers focus less on creating output that's good for skeptics and more on creating skeptical output that's simply good?

Sure, a lot of value judgments are based on taste. They're opinion, not fact. If you like Greydon Square's music or find Bill Maher funny, there's nothing wrong with that. But the next time you're reading a skeptical book or watching a TV show critical of religion, take a moment and ask yourself if you'd find any value in this piece of culture at all if it didn't reaffirm your own beliefs. There is absolutely a wealth of top quality content out there being produced by and for skeptics of all sorts. Richard Dawkins' prose is elegant and gripping. NOVA Science Now is funny and informative. The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is an invaluable resource for both knowledge and entertainment. Make no mistake that the good far outweighs the bad. But never accept the bad just because its message is good. And in the case of Bill Maher, AAI should consider whether making fun of religion in front of a wide audience is more important than feeding that same audience misinformation that could potentially kill them.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

On the Overestimation of Origins

You've probably heard that out-of-work actor Kirk Cameron and poon-broomed evangelist Ray Comfort are planning to hand out thousands of copies of their own version of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species on college campuses this November. The catch is that they've inserted a forward about how Darwin is full of crap and all scientists are liars. And why? Because, as Cameron explains it to noted science journal People Magazine, On the Origin of Species is "the Bible of the atheists". But I'm not sure this is true. Most atheists have probably never read the book. People believe in evolution primarily because it just makes more sense than the idea that people were created by dirt and ribs 6,000 years ago. It makes sense to anyone who's ever broken a vestigial tail bone or had to get a flu shot because the previous year's strain evolved. All the scientific data backing up evolution is just gravy. And the best way to get your message across to horny, drunken coeds probably isn't to throw a Victorian science tome at them, crazy forward or not. This all seems very misguided and silly. Sort of like Genesis. More details here.

Spanking the Dummie

University of New Hampshire professor Murray Straus has looked into the average IQ scores of children who are spanked compared to those who aren't, and he's determined that spanking makes kids dumber. While this may be the case, it's important to note that Straus is debuting his research at the 14th International Conference on Violence, Abuse and Trauma. Note that this isn't a scientific journal. And while it's not uncommon for scientists to present early research initially at a conference of their peers, this does beg the question of whether Straus considers spanking to be violence, abuse, or trauma. In which case, his results might be skewed. Also, there's no telling whether children who are spanked are also more at risk for other factors that might contribute to lower IQ scores. In other words, there's no good reason yet to determine spanking was directly responsible for inhibiting their intelligence. Or maybe I'm just being too nitpicky. I've only ever spanked adults, but I can't say I'm 100% against violence toward children. I taught middle school English. More details here.

Catholics v. Gays

In November, Maine voters will vote on whether or not to repeal their marriage equality law allowing same-sex couples to be legally hitched. Not content to just sit on the sidelines and bitch about condoms, the Catholic Diocese of Portland, Maine is taking up collection money in church to help pay for TV ads lobbying for repeal. This makes sense, as the Bible clearly lumps homosexuality in with eating shellfish and allowing women to braid their hair as sins against God. Where this gets tricky is the fact that as a religious organization, the Catholic church is tax exempt in the U.S. One stipulation of this cushy status is that the church can't politicize itself. What did Jesus say about giving things to Caesar? For his part, Rev. Louis Phillips is sticking to his guns. "Marriage pre-dates government," he says. That may be true (though probably not). But what we understand as marriage today doesn't pre-date government at all. You know, a social contract entered into by consenting adults instead of, say, young girls being forced to marry whatever dude flashes enough cash at her parents. In fact, you could say it took the enforcement of civil rights by the government to create the modern institution of marriage. In your face, tax dodger! More details here. Link via @BadAstronomer.

Xbox, for Your Health!

Simon Scarle used to work as a software engineer for Rare, the Microsoft-owned video game development studio responsible for Banjo-Kazooie, Donkey Kong Country, and the Xbox Live avatar you've created to present yourself to the world as someone cuter than you actually are. But Scarle is now a computer scientist at the University of Warwick in England, where he's put his gaming background to good use. Dissatisfied with the piddling processors used by medical science to process heart rhythm data, Scarle tricked out an Xbox 360 to use its enhanced processing power for the same purpose. The result is a machine that can crunch more numbers in a shorter amount of time for less money than traditional heart diagnosis computers. Which either goes to show just how much technology you might have in your home without really noticing or how atrociously inefficient the direct market medical tech business actually is. More details here.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Eats Shoots and Dies

BBC naturalist Chris Packham reckons it's time we took a cold, hard look at reality and just let all the pandas die already. The adorable endangered species enjoys millions of dollars every year in money spent trying to save it from extinction. But Packham says the cuddly animals are on an "evolutionary cul-de-sac" and saving them is a wasted effort. Spend the money on more hopeful causes, he says, and "let [the panda] go, with a degree of dignity..." He's right that pandas have traded their dignity for protection. The annual Steampunk Panda Parade I hold in my back yard is proof enough of that. (Though they look so cute in their goggles and top hats.) But I wonder if there's not a more sinister motive for Packham's grim outlook. After all, he said the same thing about tigers, arguing that it's useless to try and save an animal that's worth more dead than alive. Does he believe the same is true of pandas? And does this have anything to do with a company I just made up called Packham's Panda Parts, Inc.? Only time and research will tell. More details here.

Marxist Gay Marriage

Republican Rep. Steve King of Iowa is kind of peeved about his state eliminating its constitutional ban against gay marriage. He predicted Iowa would become a "Mecca" for couples of the same sex who would like to receive the same benefits society affords to heterosexuals and gay people with beards. And according to him, he was right. Citing uncorroborated statistics, King claims a quarter of marriages granted in Iowa are the queer kind. Ew! All that nasty tax money and dirty, dirty administrative fees trickling into his home state from the sweat-stained backs of sinners? Gross! But even though the ban was ruled unconstitutional by the courts instead of being removed directly by the voters, polls show about a 50/50 split amongst Iowa's population when it comes to supporting gay marriage. In other words, it's unlikely a new ban would be voted into effect. And that pisses King off. So much so that he's made an argument that gay marriage is just a cog in the death machine of socialism. By "argument", of course, I mean "insane rambling". Quote: "That is, this is one of the goals they have to go to is same-sex marriage because it has to plow through marriage in order to get to their goal. They want public affirmation. They want access to public funds and resources. Eventually all those resources will be pooled because that’s the direction we’re going. And not only is it a radical social idea, it is a purely socialist concept in the final analysis." That's the endgame here, people. Comrade Obama and his Americorps army won't stop until we're all pooling our resources on communal beet farms and fucking each other in the ass. Or scissoring, as the case may be. More details here.

Woody's Spots

Woody Harrelson says switching to a vegan diet cleared up his acne better than anything like personal hygeine or modern medicine ever could. His theory is this: ...just kidding. He doesn't have a theory. See, Woody isn't a medical doctor. He's an actor with a penchant for playing the types of characters who might join Matthew McConaughey in a shirtless steel drum solo. But you can't argue the fact that Harrelson doesn't have beautiful, flawless skin. I wonder, though, how many people out there have beautiful, flawless skin and also occasionally nosh on a burger. Anne Hathaway, for example? Oh, what a porcelain wonder. More details here.

Outed by Facebook

People like to feel they have a certain amount of control over what personal information they choose to share online. You can opt out of publishing your phone number on a social network, and you can hide the sordid nature of your beastiality-themed romances by labeling your relationship status as "it's complicated". But some computer science students at MIT have shown that you might be revealing more about yourself than you think. They wrote a program which can analyze the sexual preferences and genders of a person's Facebook friends to determine the statistical probability that the person is gay. Some informal, non-scientific verification has convinced the students and their professor that the program works quite well, especially for predicting the gayocity of men. Though their results haven't been published, this would be an important addition to the growing body of research into what online social interactions reveal about people. Can we finally prove that anyone with a Second Life account is 76% more likely to be a furry? Maybe so. More details here.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Your Sunday Sermon - The Abomination

Hey guys, this is Richard Peacock. Many of you don't know this, but my cousin Thaddeus is the reverend for a small church in my hometown. When he heard that I help out with this "Godless" web site, he insisted he be allowed to do a weekly sermon, to set everyone "back on the right path." So please keep in mind his views and opinions don't represent the rest of us here at AmateurScientist.

Oh, friends. Oh, my poor, poor friends. How your sins sadden me. Yes, it is I, your humble shepherd, the Reverend Thaddeus Peacock. And you people make me sick! Devils be gone!!

I-- I'm sorry. I will try to contain myself. I know that not all of you are to blame. But you see, dear friends, as I walked this morning to a local nautically-themed restaurant (to check for signs of sailors in lust), I spied an entire room full of people committing an abomination! Yes, you guessed it. They were eating shrimp. Alas alack!

Alas, dear friends, because we know the truth, that the Lord our God views shrimp as an abomination. "And all that have not fins and scales in the seas, and in the rivers, of all that move in the waters, and of any living thing which is in the waters, they shall be an abomination unto you: They shall be even an abomination unto you; ye shall not eat of their flesh, but ye shall have their carcases in abomination." (Lev 11:10-11).

When I saw this lurid display, I ran to the bathroom (to vomit and check for signs of sailors in lust) and what did I glimpse in my periphery? A little boy-- eating oysters! Alas alack! For as the good book tells us, "And whatsoever hath not fins and scales ye may not eat; it is unclean unto you." (Deut 14:10). Oh, friends, I was so distraught, that by the time I made it to the bathroom, I hardly felt the energy to condemn what few sailors in lust I found there. Truly, this is a sad day for us all.

Now, I know some of you may have been taught that Jesus did away with dietary restrictions such as these. No doubt you were taught by homosexuals and sin-enthusiasts! Friends, please, heed the word of God, lest you become shrimp yourselves-- in the Lake of Fire!

The Reverend Thaddeus Peacock is a licensed Churchologist with advanced degrees in Biblology, Jesusence, and Brimstoning. He may be reached by emailing his cousin Richard at richard@amateurscientist.org.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Cow Comfort

Most of the time, dairy cows are kept in a small stall with little room for lying down or strolling about. But a new law has put an end to such cruelty in Norway. For half the day, Norwegian cows are encouraged to spread their big, beautiful bodies across a rubber mattress and just let their udders flop around in the open. Left to their own devices, cows are naturally sensual creatures who, like Hugh Hefner, spend most of their daylight hours just lounging around and occasionally squirting milky substances. But it turns out this law isn't just good for the cows. It's also good for the farmers. Why? Because well-rested cows produce 5-6% more milk and suffer from fewer udder infections. Slinking between the sheets, beckoning you with their eyes, cows experience greater overall blood flow, which increases their productivity. HOT! More details here.

Chupa Killa

So, a man in Tennessee saw a hairless creature wander onto his property. Obviously, his first inclination was to shoot it. Even though he assumed it was a demon from hell (which is just chock full of shaved quadrupeds), he decided to poke around online and see if he could find any other examples of the beast. I'm assuming Yahoo! Answers told him it was a chupacabra. So of course he donned his best overalls and gave a statement to the local news. Of course. By the way, a spokesperson for the Tennessee Wildlife and Resources Agency said from looking at a photograph that the animal may be a red fox with sarcoptic mange. This is obviously a smokescreen. More details here. I can't get the video to work for me, but I'm sure it's glorious.

Supersnake, Supersnake, It's Supersnakay

Florida has an exploding python population for a couple of reasons. One: Miami is the import point for much of the exotic animals trade. And two: the python's primary food source is elderly people who mistake them for warm shawls. Actually, that second one may not be true. In fact, the Burmese python is the dominant non-native python species in Florida, and it's relatively harmless. Well, unless it's on a plane. But scientists are worried that more and more African rock pythons are being introduced into the wild. That's a bad thing, because rock pythons are nasty creatures with a hard on for your bodily juices. Worse, it's possible that Burmese and rock pythons could interbreed, producing even more aggressive offspring due to the genetic phenomenon called hybrid vigor. Hybrid vigor refers to the unleashing of violent recessive genes in the offspring of two different species. It's because of hybrid vigor that Dick Cheney, the product of an unholy union between a kind Nebraskan woman named Marjorie and Satan's flaming cock, is such an asshole. Of course, scientists aren't sure whether the Burmese/African hybrids would be capable of breeding themselves or end up like some kind of deadly, slithering mule. But that hasn't stopped the state of Florida from dispatching a team of bounty hunters to kill any African rock pythons they can find in the wild. That's right, bounty hunters. More details here. And kudos to the author of that article for working in the phrase "giant man-eating swamp coil".

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Your Sunday Sermon - The Real Ten Commandments

Hey guys, this is Richard Peacock. Many of you don't know this, but my cousin Thaddeus is the reverend for a small church in my hometown. When he heard that I help out with this "Godless" web site, he insisted he be allowed to do a weekly sermon, to set everyone "back on the right path." So please keep in mind his views and opinions don't represent the rest of us here at AmateurScientist.

Welcome back, my friends, to the show that never ends. I'm so glad you could attend. Come inside, come inside. Yes, my gentle flock, it is I, the Reverend Thaddeus Peacock, here again to let you graze on the soft green grass of Jesus. Hallelujah!

This week's sermon: The Real Ten Commandments. Now I know what some of you are saying right now, that you already know the Ten Commandments. That you should honor your parents, and not bear false witness. Devils be gone!! Those commandments were broken up by Moses, so the Lord gave him a new set! "And the LORD said unto Moses, Hew thee two tables of stone like unto the first: and I will write upon these tables the words that were in the first tables, which thou brakest." (Ex 34:1)

And my friends, let me tell you now, these new commandments are even more logical and profound than the first. The first set were trash!! These commandments are the true wishes of God, and if we do not follow them, then we are no better than whores and/or Gypsies! Won't you read along here as I recite them to you:

#1: "For thou shalt worship no other god: for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God." (Ex 34:14) Praise Jealous, or Lord!
#2: "Thou shalt make thee no molten gods." (Ex 34:17) That thing with the calf really pissed him off.
#3: "The feast of unleavened bread shalt thou keep. Seven days thou shalt eat unleavened bread." (Ex: 34:18) Get me a glass of milk, my friends! Jealous commands I eat crackers for seven days straight!
#4: "All the firstborn of thy sons thou shalt redeem. And none shall appear before me empty." (Ex 34:20) Sacrifice to Jealous your firstborn sons, my friends! I already have!
#5: "Six days thou shalt work, but on the seventh day thou shalt rest." (Ex 34:21) He follows His own advice!
#6: "And thou shalt observe the feast of weeks." (Ex 34:22) Observe it, heathens, observe it!
#7: "Thou shalt not offer the blood of my sacrifice with leaven," (Ex 34:25) God will knock that roll right out of your bloody hands! Praise Jealous!
#8: "neither shall the sacrifice of the feast of the passover be left unto the morning." (Ex: 34:25) That shit will get stale! Wrap it up!
#9: "The first of the firstfruits of thy land thou shalt bring unto the house of the LORD thy God." (Ex: 24:26) More sacrifice anyone? More sacrifice everyone!

And now, the most profound of all the commandments, #10: "Thou shalt not boil a kid in his mother's milk." (Ex: 24:26) My friends, I am sick and tired of seeing our holiest of commandments broken on a daily basis. Why, I bet some of are you are boiling a baby goat in its mother's milk as we speak! Devils be gone!!

I hope, dear followers, that I, your humble shepherd, have steered you away from the false commandments today, and toward the true commandments. And I hope, too, that you will join me next week. Until then, if you boil a goat in its mothers milk, then Jealous help you.

The Reverend Thaddeus Peacock is a licensed Churchologist with advanced degrees in Biblology, Jesusence, and Brimstoning. He may be reached by emailing his cousin Richard at richard@amateurscientist.org.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Nancy Pelosi: Idiot

House Speaker and professional sparrow impersonator Nancy Pelosi recently made a tearful plea to dial down the rhetoric in this country. I'm assuming she was talking about the semi-literate shouting, racist message board posting, and unintelligible grunting of those Republicans, conservatives, Libertarians, Baptists, tax burdens, automotive refueling specialists, chiropractors, and fake eyelash models who choose to voice their displeasure with the Obama administration and the work of the Democratic congress in the most witless and quasi-threatening ways possible.

"I think we all have to take responsibility for our actions and our words. We are a free country and this balance between freedom and safety is one that we have to carefully balance," she said. Redundancy aside, this statement is simply deplorable coming from an elected official. There is no "balance" between freedom and safety. The two aren't mutually exclusive, despite what Pelosi (or Dick Cheney, for that matter) would have us believe.

She went on to talk about the rioting and killings she witnessed in 1970s San Francisco, when political and religious hatred culminated in the deaths of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk. She described the time as a "climate in which violence took place". But she doesn't seem to understand that just because there is a climate where violence takes place, that doesn't mean the climate caused the violence.

I absolutely believe that a large part of the TEA party protests, health care reform hysteria, and Obama backlash in this country comes from a place of vile misinformation and even outright racism. I live in Louisiana, and I'm surrounded by some of the most disgusting "rhetoric" I've ever heard. I've received chain emails at my office address whose only punchlines are about how much Michelle Obama resembles a gorilla. On the day after the election, I was forwarded a Photoshop job of Air Force One decked out in flashy rims and gold trim. I was asked face-to-face by a colleague why any white person would vote for Obama.

But Obama didn't create racism, just as Harvey Milk didn't create homophobia. The problems are already there, and the crazies already exist. They have a louder megaphone right now because they have an identifiable target. But words, no matter how loud, how stupid, how crass, or how horrible are protected in this country.

Pelosi said that people are free to speak, though she was quick to add, "...I also think they have to take responsibility for any incitement they may cause." This is dangerous territory. To blame a criminal's violent actions on the speech of those with whom they agree ideologically isn't only anti-liberty, it's also condescending to the sanity and intelligence of the public at large. Of all the people who bought anti-Obama t-shirts depicting him as Curious George because they believe there's no difference between a black man and an ape, how many took the extra step to hunt Obama down and shoot him like an animal? And if that had ever happened, would the t-shirt printer be to blame? Or what about everyone who wore one of those shirts?

Nancy Pelosi doesn't believe in free speech, or she wouldn't toss it into the pile of liberties that have to be "balanced" with security. She would instead rather equate idiocy with criminality. And in the process, she won't have to defend her position with anything like reason or facts. By discouraging her loudest and most self-destructive opponents from speaking, she's handing them a victory in the court of ideas.

For the record, I voted for Obama. While I'm disappointed in his failure so far to live up to promises about repealing anti-gay policies, rolling back anti-liberty Bush-era laws, and aggressively prosecuting human rights violators at the highest levels of government, I do generally support the health care reform measures being proposed by the Democratic party. I've resigned myself to the fact that while Democrats tend to promise things I want and fail to follow through with them, Republicans promise things I often despise and have a habit of making good on those promises.

So while I'm not in the corner of the gun-toting, face-reddening racists and paranoid conspiracy theorists who seem to have gotten Pelosi's goat, I'm not in favor of implying that they're too stupid or insane to not resort to violence when they hear Obama's a secret Muslim terrorist or the Antichrist or a commie Marxist fascist. As Pelosi herself says, this is rhetoric. It's empty posturing. And allowing it to continue embarrassing itself in the public sphere is the only way to shut it down for good. Being afraid of it only gives it legitimacy.*

*As a nod to the possibility that this post may rise above the usual discourse on this blog, I can only offer the following words: Poo-poo pants.

Lips off the Blood

Twice a year, the blood of St. Gennaro which is kept in a glass phial in Naples, Italy is said to miraculously liquefy. As far as miracles go, this seems pretty underwhelming, especially since it probably wouldn't take much more miracle magic to have the blood glow bright orange, fly out of the phial, and travel the countryside curing cancer. Still, it's impressive to a lot of Neopolitans, who look forward to the biannual festivals where the phial is brought out for public kissing. Only the local authorities have banned kissing the phial this month, fearing all that spit swapping might lead to a fatal case of swine flu. Italy had its first H1N1 fatality only recently, but no saint stepped in to stop it. That's a bad sign. Still, the locals are pissed. One politician says the ban will only contribute to swine flu hysteria, and others believe that if the blood isn't seen to liquefy, it'll be a bad omen for Naples. Scientists and other curmudgeons believe there's nothing miraculous about the liquefication of the blood, hypothesizing that moving the phial around causes the dry blood to get all moist due to a process called thixotropy. As compromise, the people of Naples will be allowed to touch the phial with their foreheads, since you'd have to be an idiot to think that could spread germs. More details here.

Super Beach Bug

The beaches of Puget Sound aren't just for getting your surf on and thinking about finally going after that foul beast what swallowed your hardy crew. No, they're also a fine source of potentially fatal multidrug-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, bacteria that are immune to any attempts you might make to stop them from killing you. MRSAs are often found in hospitals, where they can infect people with severe illnesses. But University of Washington researchers found the bacteria on several Puget Sound beaches, with no obvious source. Since MRSAs are salt-loving, it's not unusual that they would thrive in ocean water, though they aren't naturally occurring. The good news is that most people are able to survive MRSA infection. The bad news is that some people aren't able to survive MRSA infection. Swim at your own risk. More details here.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Totally Overlapping Magisteria

Cash on Deliverance
by Christian Walters

Recently, Brian castigated me on the podcast for not having written in too long. Maybe if I wasn't so busy fielding calls whenever he has three Red Bulls and rollerblades through town naked looking for "Romanian cootchie", I'd have more time to write. I have to maintain my day job just to keep him supplied with bail money and hand lotion.

It occurs to me if I were rich, I could lose the day job, write more often, and hire an assistant to pay the hush money to the Bucharest Daily Telegraph. It's foolproof, except for that one small hurdle of finding a giant pile of money. I need to start a cult.

Looking around at the current cults, there appear to be two types that would put me on the fast track to wealth:

Self-Help Bullshit Cults

This is appealing because you can claim absolutely anything is the path to enlightenment, or immortality, or gives you a window seat on the Holy Starship when it has defeated the Giant Space Weevil and comes to bring us home. The more insane your claims, the better. You'll get a few skeptics warning people that all they will get from my one-on-one services will be cold sores and a rash, but we don't truck with those Priests of Sciencism, those Popes of Proof.

First step is to get a wealthy, stupid celebrity to champion your cause. It's tempting to go for Oprah Winfrey, but she's far too diversified with her self-help bullshit. She lacks the laser focus we'd need.

My choice: Jessica Alba. Why Jessica? She's rich enough to afford to tithe. She's attractive enough that the media will listen to her. She's a shitty actress, so there aren't any non-porno roles written especially for her, giving her free time for church duties and making me sandwiches. Judging from her interviews, she's brick stupid. She's portrayed a woman with gonorrhea of the throat, so she is already familiar with the new church's rituals. And she's a mom, so she can claim that "mother's intuition" crap when cornered.

Unfortunately, I will declare mesh tops an abomination and confiscate them immediately.

Drawbacks: Just one. Starting up a cult this insane will get me sued by the Scientologists for copyright infringement. Together, Jessica and I are powerful, but not powerful enough to defeat Jenna Elfman and Chaka Khan when they start throwing lawyers at us. Two places I do not want to be are prison and Clearwater, Florida, and this scheme might get me in both at the same time.

Prosperity Cults

This is a little more like it. It's no less insane than the Self-Help Bullshit Cult, but the cash starts flowing immediately. It's a tasty blend of Christian fundamentalism and pyramid schemes, whipped into a giant cash mousse, waiting for someone to bring a nice long spoon. For those of you not familiar with how a prosperity cult works, let me describe the most famous example: World Changers Church International.

This hallowed institution is founded by the Rev. Creflo Dollar (no, really), right here in Atlanta. Their motto is "You can be rich, healthy and trouble free. Jesus was rich and God wants you to be rich." This is demonstrably true with one look at the Rev. Creflo Dollar (if you can spot him before he jumps into his Lear jet), but this truth is less obvious among the congregation, who are gently reminded to tithe with the friendly "be a shame if something happened to your grandma" approach you normally see from extortionists.

"The Lord has declared I need more champagne in my jacuzz--... what do you mean I'm being sued for fraud?"

I'm not sure where the health part comes in. After you've been getting all prosperous with Rev. Dollar for awhile, you spend your non-church time rooting in the dumpster behind a Red Lobster. I suppose that's the path to health in a sort of tangential, non-medical way?

I don't want to get away from the point here: LEAR JET.

These people are eating this shit up faster than a half-chewed crab cake. They might as well be stuffing bills into your pockets. The World Changers Church only has 15,000 members. I doubt that even scratches the gullibility surface in Atlanta. I have a venue picked out: Philips Arena.

Philips Arena is home to the Atlanta Hawks and the Atlanta Thrashers. So there are always PLENTY of empty seats to have a nice Prayer Shakedown. Thrashers season-ticket holders are right in my target demographic, too: disposable income, full of false hope, and comfortable with disappointment. Of course, there are concerts too, which could get crowded, but look at what's coming in the next few months: Sesame Street Live, Metallica, and Miley Cyrus. Cha-ching.

Drawbacks: There are a couple of big ones.

One is that prosperity cults are getting glared at by the government just now. Killjoys at the IRS are suspicious of Rev. Creflo zipping around in a Lear jet as the head of a tax-exempt non-profit religious institution.

Also, prosperity cults may have destroyed the world. These congregations were convinced the Lord wanted them to have big, expensive houses, and he cleared the way for them by helping them qualify for sub-prime mortgages. Five years later, the Lord decided he did not want them to have such a big house and cleared the way for them to default on their mortgages. Pretty soon they were fighting for a dishwasher box with the same ex-banker that gave them the mortgage to begin with. It's because of this that I have a Google alert set for "Creflo Dollar Drawn and Quartered."

Lastly, for this to work in America, you have to surround yourself with fundamentalist Christians. That's quite a sacrifice on my part just so Brian can get a job as a balance beam for some Romanian gymnasts.

In Conclusion

I have left out a couple of popular cults: death cults and suicide cults. These have their charms. The sense of power you get from standing in front of a room full of followers as they poison themselves while you chant your manifesto... that's got to be a rush. But it's not going to make you rich. Eyes on the prize, people. (It might be a good exit strategy when you get sick of running your prosperity cult, though. Remember which Holy Chalice contains the antidote!)

The more I think on it, the more I think I'll skip the cult idea. The downsides are too steep.

Sorry, Brian. I know you're tired of the endless visits from 60 Minutes. We'll move on to Plan B, but you're going to have to release those Cub Scouts.

Christian Walters lives, loves, and drives in the Atlanta area. He's a technical writer by training, and a Rock Band Adonis by nature. He has honed his reviewing skills on bad movies, which are as rare as pollen grains these days. He has always been a fan of science, and has studied it as much as he could by flinging a Frisbee around campus while getting a liberal arts degree. You can find his personal blog, The Man Version, right here.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

I Am Trying to Break Your Heart

Australia's Heart Research Foundation has just completed a major study looking into the physical effects of sudden grief brought on by the death of a loved one, and it turns out a person can die from a broken heart. Or more accurately, a person may die from the increase in blood pressure and heart rate and changes in the immune system suffered during mourning. People who had recently lost a spouse or child were six times more likely to have heart attacks in the first several months after the death. However, the elevated risk disappeared after about two years. Which just goes to prove another old adage: time heals all wounds. Well, time and medication. Mostly medication. More details here.


Prof. Norman Borlaug died earlier this week. In the early '60s, Borlaug created a genetically modified strain of wheat that grew with a shorter stem, freeing up energy to produce larger heads of grain. This short-stem wheat contributed to the doubling of food production worldwide in the thirty years after it was introduced and saved the lives of hundreds of millions of people who would otherwise have starved to death. For his efforts, Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Short-stem wheat doesn't occur anywhere in nature. It's a product of scientific tinkering and a humanist desire to make life for human beings better than nature would otherwise allow. If you're one of the hundreds of thousands of morons who believes no one should produce genetically modified crops, please take this opportunity to go fuck yourself. More details here. And thanks to Adonaj for the link.

Idiocy Turns off the Radio

Members of the Earth Liberation Front (or "ELF", if you want to be all Middle Earth about it) aren't incredibly united on what exactly it is they plan on liberating Earth from. They usually commit grand acts of larceny, arson, and vandalism against those they think are polluting the planet or otherwise abusing natural resources. And perhaps this wouldn't be a totally unreasonable position if human lives weren't endangered in the process or the fumes from all the tractors they've set aflame didn't create even more pollution. But every now and then, an ELF cell goes off and does something weird. I guess that's the price you pay for being a leaderless organization of absent minded trust fund babies. Case in point: the destruction of two AM radio station towers in Washington state. You might think AM radio waves aren't much of a threat to Earth (unless, of course, you're talking about stations that carry Glenn Beck's show), but ELF disagrees. Or rather, ELF agrees with some other nutcases who think AM radio waves cause cancer, hurt animals, and fuck with your phone line. It probably goes without saying that there's no evidence to support any of those claims. But what does that matter when knocking down giant radio towers is so damn fun? More details here.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Darwin Film Too Controversial and/or Boring for U.S.

Everybody seems up in arms about the fact that the new Charles Darwin biopic Creation has failed to secure U.S. distribution because religious people in America refuse to accept the fact that their tailbones don't make any sense. This would be rightly infuriating if not for the fact that this "fact" isn't really a fact at all. Fact! In fact, it's just the assertion of the film's producer, who issued a statement to the press from the Toronto Film Festival expressing bewilderment that his movie can't be sold in America despite many people saying it's the best film they've seen all year. First of all, never trust what a producer says about his own film. The people responsible for all of Michael Bay's movies would be perfectly willing to tell you they aren't worse than 9/11, but we all know this isn't true. Transformers 2 was at least as bad as 9/11, and those who paid to see it are responsible for the deaths of anyone in the world who happened to die while they were in the theater. You could have done something! Also, Creation was as much as pre-sold in Europe before it was even made, since it's a co-production of BBC Films and the UK Film Council. And as Devin Faraci from CHUD.com points out, very few people (if anyone at all) has said Creation is the best film of the year. Reviews out of Toronto are toxic at best, with many critics agreeing the film is dull and borderline unwatchable. Keep in mind that Creation comes from the director of The Core and the writer of Star Cops. There's no reason to think this movie is any good. So, please, cool your jets and hope that religious ignorance is only being used as a scapegoat to explain why you'll be spared a boring and painful trip to the multiplex. More details here.

Fly Me to Venus

You've probably heard that Miyuki Hatoyama, the wife of Japan's new prime minister, believes she rode in a spaceship to Venus twenty years ago. This seems unlikely for a few reasons. Number one: she claims she didn't physically travel to Venus but was instead spiritually transported while she slept. I don't know if she know this, but sleeping often leads to dreaming, an altered state of consciousness in which humans sometimes experience delusional adventures involving ridiculous things like being chased by giant hamburgers or having our taxes done by a manatee in a tuxedo. Also, she claims Venus was "a very beautiful place and it was really green". It's possible that spiritual eyes don't have the same rod/cone functionality as physical ones, but Venus is more yellow than green. And blazing hot. And quite sulfuric acidy. Not really optimal gardening conditions. But more interesting than the details of her claim is the fact that she says while her husband at the time insisted she was only dreaming, her current husband (the new prime minister of Japan, mind you) would have met her space travel story with a more comforting "Oh, that's great". Possibly bad news for those Japanese people who would like a head of state with critical thinking skills, but there may be another explanation. Perhaps the same visual deficiency that made Venus appear green to Mrs. Hatoyama also makes her incapable of seeing her husband's sarcastic eye rolls. More details here. And thanks to Karl for the link.

Bill Gates: Weather Master

This news is a bit late, but I'm catching up after awaking from my Dragon*Con-induced coma. At first I thought this story might be just another of my fever dreams, but the lack of green-skinned, multi-breasted sex workers spelled reality. Turns out Microsoft mogul Bill Gates and a team of scientists have filed a patent on technology that would seek to eliminate the danger of hurricanes. The idea is pretty simple: A fleet of barges would be dispatched to the waters ahead of a raging storm. There, they would use a system of conduits to both push warm surface water below the ocean surface while bringing deeper, colder water up. This would theoretically weaken the approaching hurricane, possibly saving lives and money and binding all those affected into a blood debt with Mr. Gates. But now that the broader scientific community has taken a look at the plan, holes are being poked. According to many experts, the plan just isn't feasible, despite the fact that its basic theory is sound. For one thing, hurricanes pop up too quickly to dispatch a fleet of barges from shore in time to stop them. This means the fleet would have to remain at sea throughout hurricane season. Even then, they would only be able to cool the water so much, and most of the weakening effect would be felt in the center of the hurricane. That means the outside winds would still be fast enough to cause damage and spin off other storms. In short, the cost of Gates' plan may be higher than the cost of damage caused by the hurricanes. Of course, you could argue that human lives can't be measured in dollars. But if anyone could measure the cost of a human life, it's Bill Gates. All his rulers are made out of hundreds! More details here.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Your Sunday Sermon - Unicorns

Hey guys, this is Richard Peacock. Many of you don't know this, but my cousin Thaddeus is the reverend for a small church in my hometown. When he heard that I help out with this "Godless" web site, he insisted he be allowed to do a weekly sermon, to set everyone "back on the right path." So please keep in mind his views and opinions don't represent the rest of us here at AmateurScientist.

Hello my friends. It is I, the Reverend Thaddeus Peacock, your humble shepherd. Now, I know that some of my sheep have begun to stray the flock. I know that some have wandered away from the siren call of the Lord, and have dabbled with the dark arts of science and reason. This is why, my woolly wanderers, I have come to you today. I'm going to shave you naked and make a sweater for the Lord! Hallelujah!

This week's sermon: unicorns. Now, I know many of you "rational thinkers" like to believe there is no such thing as these majestic creatures. You want objective, concrete evidence. Devils be gone!! Now listen closely little black sheep, I'm about to give you three bags full-- of truth!

Unicorns most certainly exist! They are right there in the printed word of God. "God brought them out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn." (Numbers 23:22). "His glory is like the firstling of his bullock, and his horns are like the horns of unicorns." (Deut 33:17). "But my horn shalt thou exalt like the horn of an unicorn: I shall be anointed with fresh oil." (Psalm 92:10). "And the unicorns shall come down with them, and the bullocks with the bulls; and their land shall be soaked with blood, and their dust made fat with fatness." (Isaiah 34:7). You see, dear friends? The unicorn's dust shall be made fat with fatness-- how much clearer can it be??

Now, some modern translations of the Bible (most likely written by witches and/or homosexuals) translate "unicorn" as "wild ox." Devils be gone!! The last time I checked, an ox has two horns, ugly nose hairs, and can't restore a woman's hymen by resting its head in her lap, as believed by medieval Europeans! Praise Jesus!

Well, that is all the time we have for today, my fuzzy followers. But join me again next Sunday, the Lord's day, for more of the truth revealed! Unicorns are real! Hallelujah!

The Reverend Thaddeus Peacock is a licensed Churchologist with advanced degrees in Biblology, Jesusence, and Brimstoning. He may be reached by emailing his cousin Richard at richard@amateurscientist.org.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Post-Dragon*Con Blues

I'm finally home from Dragon*Con, and it blows. The people around here are just boring. I think I'm going through withdrawals over the fact that no one in my immediate vicinity is swigging from a crystal skull full of vodka and/or showing me the JREF sticker on his/her ass.

You may have noticed there were no video blogs for the last two days of the con. Primarily, this is because my camera shat itself sometime Saturday afternoon, so I was unable to shoot any footage. But even with technical difficulties aside, I probably wouldn't have had much time to capture anything for you. Too busy meeting wonderful people and watching them drink themselves into oblivion while laughing at the very notion of yeti.

But, I do have some footage yet to be uploaded, and that will be coming soon. To give you a hint, I spent an hour following a woman who claimed to be able to bend a spoon with her mind. Actually, that's more of a description than a hint, but still.

I'll also be uploading our live Amateur Scientist Podcast recording later this week. I have no idea if the feeling will translate for the folks at home, on the bus, or crashing their cars into pedestrians, but the show was some of the most fun I had all weekend. Our own Christian Walters was kind enough to co-host, and Jeff Wagg from the James Randi Educational Foundation sat in as a special guest. Also in attendance were a couple of Skepchicks: The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe's Rebecca Watson and Awesometown, USA's Maria Walters. I was so happy to have them, I probably wouldn't have turned them away even if they didn't make vodka-soaked threats against me.

Oh, and some sexually devious French Canadian Sasquatch showed up as well. That guy's kind of an asshole, though.

Anyway, that's what's going on behind the scenes. Look for more Dragon*Con goodness in the coming days.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Dragon*Con Video Blog - Day 2

Friday, September 4, 2009

Dragon*Con Video Blog - Day 1

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