Thursday, November 30, 2006

Is natural selection tautological?

From Talk Origins:

Summary: The claim that evolutionary theory is a tautology rests on a misunderstanding of the theory. Fitness is more than just survival.

The simple version of the so-called 'tautology argument' is this:

Natural selection is the survival of the fittest. The fittest are those that survive. Therefore, evolution by natural selection is a tautology (a circular definition).

The real significance of this argument is not the argument itself, but that it was taken seriously by any professional philosophers at all. 'Fitness' to Darwin meant not those that survive, but those that could be expected to survive because of their adaptations and functional efficiency, when compared to others in the population. This is not a tautology, or, if it is, then so is the Newtonian equation F=ma, which is the basis for a lot of ordinary physical explanation.

Jason Rosenhouse:

Writing in National Review Online in December of last year, conservative commentator Tom Bethell expressed the main point more clearly:

“Darwin's claim to fame was his discovery of a mechanism of evolution; he accepted “survival of the fittest” as a good summary of his natural-selection theory. But which ones are the fittest? The ones that survive. There is no criterion of fitness that is independent of survival. Whatever happens, it is the “fittest” that survive — by definition."

Let us begin our reply to this argument in the most direct way possible. It is asserted that within evolutionary theory, the fittest organisms are defined as those who survive. This is the crux of the argument, and it is completely incorrect. In reality, the fittest organisms are the ones who, based on their physical characteristics and the environment in which they find themselves, would be expected to leave the most offspring.

Let us imagine that we have perfect information about the environment in which a population of organisms finds itself. Let us further suppose that we are aware of the full range of extant heritable variation within the population. In those circumstances we could make some definite statements about the future evolution of that population. A group of scientists could examine that information and come to a consensus about which members of the population were the fittest. Plainly there are criteria for fitness independent of mere survival.

This is not the whole story, however. Predicting the future is only a very small part of what evolutionary biology is all about. Most of the interesting events in evolution took place in the distant past. Unraveling and explaining that past presents scientists with a problem almost perfectly opposite to the one considered in the previous paragraph. Instead of trying to predict the future evolution of a species given information about its present environment, now we are trying to understand ancestral environments given information about what sorts of creatures survived.

…In this context scientists will, indeed, hypothesize that traits that persisted and developed over long periods of time did so because of the fitness advantages they conferred on their possessors. But here’s the catch: that’s the beginning, not the end, of the investigation.

The assumption that the trait under investigation emerged from the prolonged result of natural selection is used to generate testable hypotheses about the creatures in question. In his book Plan and Purpose in Nature, biologist George C. Williams provides the following example:

Productive use of the idea of functional design, in modern biological research, often takes this form: an organism is observed to have a certain feature, and the observer wonders what good it might be. For instance, dissection and examination of a pony fish shows it to have what looks like a light-producing organ, or photopore, and even a reflector behind it to make it shine in a specific direction. So we accept the conclusion that the organ is good at producing light, but the obvious question then becomes, What good is light? The pony fish photopore is deep inside the body. Can it really be adaptive for a fish to illuminate its own innards?

The organ is situated above the air bladder, and the light shines downward through the viscera. The pony fish is small and its tissues are rather transparent. Some of the light gets through and produces a faint glow along the ventral surface. But what is the use of a dimly lit belly? Perhaps it makes the pony fish more difficult to see in the special circumstances in which it lives. It inhabits the open ocean, where it may move toward the surface as darkness approaches, but spends the daylight hours far below at depths where the light is exceedingly dim by our standards, detectable only as a murky glow from above.

Williams goes on to describe how this hypothesis led to experiments that confirmed that the pony fish’s glow has the intensity it ought to have if its primary function was to provide camouflage. This is a nice illustration of how selection-based reasoning is used in scientific practice.

The reasoning used by scientists in this way is comparable to what historians do in trying to understand why certain events happened the way they did. An historian studying nineteenth century America might begin his investigation with the fact that the North won the Civil War. From this starting point he will naturally ask himself what advantages the North had that allowed them to emerge victorious over the South. But the assumption that the North had such advantages will not be the sum total of his investigation. And no one would consider it reasonable to object to his work on the grounds that it is based on circular reasoning.

Well, populations of organisms that survive through long stretches of evolutionary history are likewise the victors in a war, this time for survival. It is perfectly reasonable to assume that those that survived had certain advantages over those that did not. Determining the precise nature of those advantages might pose a difficult practical problem, but the assertion that those advantages existed is surely unproblematic.

We have thus provided two answers to the tautology objection. The first is that its central premise, that there are no criteria of fitness independent of survival, is false. The second is that natural selection is not applied in practice in the simplistic way the phrase “Survival of the fittest,” suggests. Instead, scientists use selection based reasoning to develop specific, testable hypotheses about the organisms under investigation.

From Wikipedia:

"Survival of the fittest" is sometimes claimed to be a tautology. The reasoning is that if we take the term "fit" to mean "endowed with phenotypic characteristics which improve chances of survival and reproduction" (which is roughly how Spencer understood it), then "survival of the fittest" can simply be re-written as "survival of those who are better at surviving".

However this criticism fails to consider that the expression "survival of the fittest", when taken out of context, is actually a very incomplete account of Darwinian evolution. The reason is that this expression does not mention a key requirement for Darwinian evolution, namely the requirement of heritability. Darwin's mechanism of evolution through natural selection implies that heritable variations lead to differential reproductive success, and therefore (precisely because they are heritable) become over-represented in the next generation. If the characters which lead to differential reproductive success are not heritable, then no meaningful evolution will occur, "survival of the fittest" or not. In other words, Darwinian evolution by natural selection does not simply state that "survivors survive" or "reproducers reproduce"; rather, it states that "survivors survive, reproduce and therefore propagate any heritable characters which have affected their survival and reproductive success".

When the full picture is considered, no tautology exists: the complete mechanism leading from heritable fitness-impacting differences, through differential reproductive success ("survival of the fittest"), to actual adaptive evolution (change in the makeup of lineages toward better adaptation) is a valid, informative reasoning, hinging on the testable hypothesis that such fitness-impacting heritable variations actually exist.

It would be romantic to think that a huge, overwhelmingly accepted branch of science, such as the theory of evolution by natural selection, could be brought crashing down by somebody spotting an elementary flaw in its logic that could be comfortably explained to bright schoolboy. There's one in the eye for the so-called experts!

Sadly, it would also be somewhat far-fetched.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Irony is the driving force of the universe

Santa Claus is being banned from Christmas markets in Germany and Austria.

Anti-Santa campaigners claim Father Christmas was invented by Coca-Cola and detracts from the true spirit of the festive season.

Austria's biggest Christmas market is in front of the Vienna city hall where thousands of visitors march past stalls offering everything related to Christmas - except Santa.

The only Santa to be seen is the one in the middle of the occasional 'Ban Santa' stickers.


The move in Vienna has been followed by Christmas markets across Austria and Germany where St Nicholas is the traditional bearer of Christmas gifts.

Bettina Schade, from the Frankfurter Nicholas Initiative in Germany, said: "We object to the material things, the hectic rush to buy gifts, and the ubiquity of the bearded man in
the red suit that are taking away from the core meaning of Christmas.

"The Christian origins of Christmas, like the birth of Jesus, have receded into the
background. It's becoming more and more a festival that is reduced to simply worldly gifts and commerce."

Now this story I like: Old Europeans castigating the US for undermining Christianity.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Are there any convenient truths?

Not according to Steven Pinker, professor of psychology at Harvard University. Here is a quote from his article in the Harvard Crimson in which he defines what it means to be educated:

Also, the picture of humanity’s place in nature that has emerged from scientific inquiry has profound consequences for people’s understanding of the human condition. The discoveries of science have cascading effects, many unforeseeable, on how we view ourselves and the world in which we live: for example, that our planet is an undistinguished speck in an inconceivably vast cosmos; that all the hope and ingenuity in the world can’t create energy or use it without loss; that our species has existed for a tiny fraction of the history of the earth; that humans are primates; that the mind is the activity of an organ that runs by physiological processes; that there are methods for ascertaining the truth that can force us to conclusions which violate common sense, sometimes radically so at scales very large and very small; that precious and widely held beliefs, when subjected to empirical tests, are often cruelly falsified.

I believe that a person for whom this understanding is not second-nature cannot be said to be educated.

It is a view that puts science and education at odds with the revival of religious sensibilities that see the loss of cultural certainties at the hand of science to be a betrayal of Western civilization. But it is not a betrayal of Western civilization, but a defining element, this tension between faith and reason. It is a tension that won't allow for a convenient separation of spheres between the Church and the Academy. Pinker makes a valiant argument in defense of this separation:

My second major reservation concerns the “Reason and Faith” requirement.

First, the word “faith” in this and many other contexts, is a euphemism for “religion.” An egregious example is the current administration’s “faith-based initiatives,” so-named because it is more palatable than “religion-based initiatives.” A university should not try to hide what it is studying in warm-and-fuzzy code words.

Second, the juxtaposition of the two words makes it sound like “faith” and “reason” are parallel and equivalent ways of knowing, and we have to help students navigate between them. But universities are about reason, pure and simple. Faith—believing something without good reasons to do so—has no place in anything but a religious institution, and our society has no shortage of these. Imagine if we had a requirement for “Astronomy and Astrology” or “Psychology and Parapsychology.” It may be true that more people are knowledgeable about astrology than about astronomy, and it may be true that astrology deserves study as a significant historical and sociological phenomenon. But it would be a terrible mistake to juxtapose it with astronomy, if only for the false appearance of symmetry.

Third, if this is meant to educate students about the role of religion in history and current affairs, why isn’t it just a part of the “U.S. and the World” requirement? Religion is an important force, to be sure, but so are nationalism, ethnicity, socialism, markets, nepotism, class, and globalization. Why single religion out among all the major forces in history?

It is perhaps ironic that Pinker is trying to excise the religious viewpoint from the educational mission of an institution that was originally founded to provide a source of well educated, home-grown clergy for the Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony. But it is an inevitable irony for a culture that is informed by the heritage of both Athens and Jerusalem. It is a culture built upon a faultline.

One simple way to look at this faultline is to contrast the objects to which each culture aspires to gain knowledge of. For Jerusalem the object is God. For Athens it is the self. The ancient Greek aphorism "Know Thyself", which was inscribed on the lintel of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, summarizes the Greek philosophical project. It is most famously remembered in Socrates' dictum "the unexamined life is not worth living".

When one examines the self, one examines the aspirations of the self, including the aspiration for God. The Western religious tradition has always maintained an uneasy coexsistence with Athenian reason because of this. As long as reason is turned outward from the self towards the phenomenon of the world, it supported the religious aspiration. When it was allowed to be turned inward at the self and the religious aspiration itself, it "broke the spell".

Western culture is a divided house. Pinker is right to complain that the attempt to reintegrate the house by a clumsy attempt to inject faith into the Academy is futile. Reason and faith really are two opposing ways of looking at the world. The fact that most people are capable of employing both modes in different contexts just speaks to the divided, compartmentalized nature of our psyches. They coexist, but they operate differently. How they do this is a mystery. But you can't teach an institution to do it.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Harking Back to Peter's World

From Wednesday's International Herald Tribune's WaybackMachine(tm).

NEW YORK: 1906: Signor Caruso At Court

A motley crowd, including many women of various ages and degrees of beauty, gathered in the Yorkville police court this afternoon [Nov. 21], when Signor Enrico Caruso, tenor of the Metropolitan Opera House, was arraigned on a charge of improper conduct in the Central Park monkey house. Even a larger crowd gathered outside to see the principals in the affair arrive. They were distinctly disappointed when it became certain that Mrs. Hannah Graham, who made the formal accusation against Signor Caruso in the police station, would not be a witness. Signor Caruso came in a cab with Mr. Conried and Mr. Bareleing, his instructor. The tenor alighted, smiling and in apparent confidence. Signor Caruso soon took the stand and denied having annoyed women as charged.

Today, the rest of the story (not yet available on line):

NEW YORK: 1906: Signor Caruso Guilty

Signor Caruso was declared by the magistrate, Mr. Baker, this afternoon [Nov. 23] guilty of annoying a woman in Central Park and fined $10, which is the usual amount for disorderly conduct. His counsel will appeal to the General Sessions Court. It is reported this evening that the tenor is prostrated by the trial and its result. He wept while former Judege Dittenhoefer was summing up the defence. Signor Caruso was recalled by the prosecution, which attempted to present evidence that Signor Caruso insulted a society woman in a cab while driving home from a reception last year, but the magistrate refused to admit the testimony. The Deputy Commissioner, Mr. Mathot, who announced yesterday that he expected to have Mrs. Graham as a witness, informed the court that she ad left the jurisdiction of the court.

A starker contrast to the Simpson case, or a time more evocative of Peter's ideal world, would be difficult to achieve.

As much as Peter might rue the change, I can't escape the conclusion that if I was fined $10 for every time I annoyed she who is perfect in all ways, I wouldn't be able to afford sunlight.

Roasted Turkeys

Happy Thanksgiving!

Today I give thanks for all my virtual, moonbat friends who have stuck by the Daily Duck for the two years of its existence. I've been adopted by a coworker for the day, so I will be heading out shortly. May you all have a wonderful day with family, friends, and good food!

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

And Now for Something Completely Different

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Duck's Music Video Par-tay

I've finally discovered the addicting properties of YouTube. Andrew Sullian has been posting nominees on his website for best & worst music videos from the '80s. After a late night's reverie reliving memories of video favorites, I decided to compile my own top ten music video list. I've thrown out any temporal qualifications, but I did narrow it to one very personal category. These are the top ten music videos by female artists on whom I have a crush.

Notable for their absence from my list will be Madames Madonna, Cher, Britney, Christine and the other Sisters of Excess. Unfortunately, though, neither Uma Thurman or Peggy Fleming have ever made a music video, so they will be sadly missed.

Number 10: Eurythmics - Here comes the rain again OK, so Annie Lennox is a little too androgynous to be truly crush-worthy, but she does have a beautiful, lilting but powerful voice, and piercing eyes. The video is imaginative - dark, haunting, mysterious. And the Eurythmics had one of the most unique sounds in the 1980s.

Number 9: Edie Brickell (with Barry White) - Good Times This is probably the only video I remember seeing of Edie Brickell, and the only reason I saw it is because it was loaded in the media folder of my first PC with Windows 95. I love the slow, dreamy cadence of this song, and Edie posesses a wholesome, friendly cuteness that is easy on the eyes. Barry White adds nothing to the song.

Number 8: Bananarama - Venus Probably the cutest of the '80s girl bands, Bananarama always seemed to live up to Cindi Lauper's anthem "girs just want to have fun".

Number 7: Belinda Carlisle - Mad About You Former lead singer for the Go-Go's, Belinda had a successful solo career. She had a fun, bouncy sound, and being a tall, voluptuous Marilyn Monroe lookalike didn't hurt either.

Number 6: Janet Jackson - When I Think of You This is an amazing video, probably one of the best from the '80s, with a large cast of dancers. It is a throwback to some of the big Hollywood movie musicals of the past, sort of a Busby Berkeley version of Guys and Dolls. Janet's terrible hairdo is the only drawback.

Number 5: Sarah Brightman - It's a Beautiful Day Beautiful voice, beautiful scenery, beautiful woman - a beautiful day indeed!

Number 4: Sheryl Crow - All I Wanna Do Sheryl Crow burst onto the music scene with this very addicting and eclectic song, mixing twangy country, jazz and her own funky brand of rap-poetry whatever. She also projects a tomboyish charm that is very appealing.

Number 3: Stevie Nicks/Fleetwood Mac - Gypsy I've always loved Stevie Nicks. She has a sultry, raspy, sexy voice and a great stage presence, especially in this rich, dreamy, seductive production number.

Number 2: Mary Ramsey/10000 Maniacs - More Than This This might seem like an odd pick, but Bryan Ferry's More Than This is one of my favorite songs of all time. Mary Ramsey, who replaced Natalie Merchant as the lead singer for 10,000 Maniacs, has a beautiful voice, and she uses it to great effect with this song. Their remake of Ferry's song in their 1997 CD "Love Among the Ruins" was a hit, and the only remake of his song that I know of. The version from the CD is better than in the video, where they added an annoying disco percussion track. The video is very dreamlike and a little busy, but it captures Ramsey's waifish beauty and charm marvelously.

Number 1: Shania Twain - Forever and For Always If you haven't figured it out yet, I'm a sucker for brunettes. This pick doesn't disappoint. This is one of the sexiest, most romantic videos I've ever seen. Shania can teach Madonna a few things about doing "sexy". Hint: you hold back. Enjoy!

OJ said Hispanic immigration was going to fix these problems

37 Percent of U.S. Births Out of Wedlock
Nov 21 3:54 PM US/Eastern

AP Medical Writer

Out-of-wedlock births in the United States have climbed to an all-time high, accounting for nearly four in 10 babies born last year, government health officials said Tuesday.

While out-of-wedlock births have long been associated with teen mothers, the teen birth rate actually dropped last year to the lowest level on record. Instead, births among unwed mothers rose most dramatically among women in their 20s.

The overall rise reflects the burgeoning number of people who are putting off marriage or living together without getting married.

The increase in births to unwed mothers was seen in all racial groups, but rose most sharply among Hispanics. It was up among all age groups except youngsters ages 10 to 17.

Soy Mujer, oírme rugir!

Monday, November 20, 2006

The Prophet Motive

Thanks to a tip from Peter Burnet, I read this article in the Telegraph profiling the Kids in Ministry organization that trains young evangelical children in the arts of healing, prophecy and speaking in tongues:

At 9pm – a time when most of the children might have been expected to be in bed – the atmosphere in the Christ Triumphant Church was approaching fever-pitch. On stage, a teenage Christian rock band called Signs and Wonders was playing something sweet and exultantly hypnotic.

Some of the children were dancing, their bodies writhing and twisting, their arms flailing in the air, perspiration on their foreheads. Some had fallen to the ground, 'slain in the spirit', as the phrase has it, and were now crouching and kneeling in prayer, while the grown-ups moved among them laying on hands, some speaking in tongues.
The event was hosted by an evangelical organisation called Kids in Ministry, founded by Pastor Fischer. Kids in Ministry describes its aims as to promote a vision of 'how God sees children as His partners in ministry worldwide'; with the purpose of equipping children 'to do the work of ministry and release them in their giftings and callings'.

What this means, in simple terms, is training child-ren, some as young as five, to use the 'gifts' of healing, prophecy and speaking in tongues more commonly associated with Old Testament prophets and Jesus Christ Himself.

It is estimated that there are up to 70 million evangelical Christians in America, of whom about a third would describe themselves as Charismatics – which is to say, emphasising a belief in 'charismata', or the supernatural gifts of the Holy Spirit, including healing, speaking in tongues (or glossolalia, as it is more properly known) and a belief in prophecy, the ability to communicate directly with and to 'channel' the word of God.

A heavy-set woman with a helmet of teased and tinted blond hair, and a cheerfully purposeful demeanour, Fischer, 55, grew up in a Pentacostalist family in North Dakota. Both her father and grandfather were ministers and as a child, she told me, she was always 'hungry for the things of God'.

Her early life was spent in business. She managed a motel and a country music radio station, where she would do her best to 'weed out the really ungodly songs, even if they were top 40. Things like Tight Fittin' Jeans by Conway Twitty – we wouldn't play that.'

For 13 years she managed her own sign company, called – inevitably – Signs and Wonders. At the same time she began working in children's ministry, first in a local church, and then in an organisation called MorningStar. It was there, Fischer told me, that she 'really got educated in the prophetic', and in the mission of nurturing 'prophetic gifts' among children. She travelled to Tanzania and South Africa as a missionary, and in 2001 returned to North Dakota and founded Kids in Ministry.

Now Peter was sure that I'd find plenty of grist for a full frontal secluarist rant, but to tell you the truth I can't muster a lot of spleen to vent on this group. To me the charismatic sects have never seemed all that threatening. They tend not to be as theologically rigid as some of the other evangelical sects, they seem more emotionally and experientially oriented. After reading the full article, which I think offers a very fair and somewhat sympathetic picture for a secular British newspaper, I'm almost tempted to think of them as pagans. The movements, the hypnotic dancing, shaking and rolling, the prophesying and speaking in tongues is downright shamanistic. And I'm not the only one to think so:

The Rev Chris Hand is an authority on the Charismatic movement. The pastor of a Baptist church in Derbyshire and editor of the Christian magazine Today's Contender, Hand is a former Charismatic who left the movement some 12 years ago, unable to find any Biblical justification for its prophetic claims.

'My feeling is these things are not from God,' he told me. 'It's more the grey area of psychic activity that the Bible calls mediumship and forbids.'

The emotional hysteria generated in Charismatic gatherings was also, Hand told me, 'alien to the Christian faith'; and, he thought, 'particularly questionable and at times dangerous' where children were involved. 'These kinds of experiences have immense potential to deceive both the children themselves and the adults who encourage them. For most of these children, they'll look back in 10 years' time and wonder what on earth it was all about.'

Hand is the father of two children, aged five and eight, whom he is trying to raise in the Christian faith, he told me, 'and I would not let them come within a million miles of Kids in Ministry'.

Spoken like a true sectarian. The Rev. Hand is afraid that young children are being deceived by a false faith. Well, he'd have to say that about every other religion or sect that is not his own. From the standpoint of someone who thinks that all religions are deceptions, I'd have to say that I'd prefer children learn from one that gives them energy and exuberance rather than dour premonitions of doom, gloom and guilt. You get the sense that the kids in the prophecy camp are having a lot of fun. This doesn't look like the kind of religious activity that is going to warp their minds for life. Fill them with mush, maybe, but fun mush.

But I can't say that our mainstream culture is offering children much more than mush. I don't think that im'ing their friends 24-7, or becoming engrossed in the virtual worlds of video games or online chat rooms is a better use of their time.

The other thing that struck me is how much this looks like some improvizational method-acting workshop. It doubly reinforces my contention that religion is a form of show business. These children are learning how to exercise their imaginations, to dramatize the small details of their lives. I wouldn't be surprised if some of these children find their way into show business later in life, if they can't make it in the prophesy game.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

$100 Oil Bet Update: the Concession Speech

In order to save the blogosphere from a lengthy, drawn out controversy I hereby concede this bet to my worthy opponent, Michael Herdegen, aka Oroborous. The vote count just isn't trending my way:
Oil's price collapse, more or less
Are we heading back to $40 a barrel, and is talk of $100 crude now silly?
By Steve Hargreaves, staff writer
November 17 2006: 6:38 PM EST

NEW YORK ( -- Oil inventories are practically overflowing. No one believes OPEC. People are going jacketless in New York and it's nearly December.

It's no wonder crude prices tumbled five percent over the last two days, setting a new low for the year.

But does this mean we're headed back to the glory days of $20 a barrel oil, tossing predictions of $100 crude into the the same bin as or Dow 36,000? Or is this a spot dip in prices caused by temporary conditions?

Most analysts think it's a temporary dip.

"I'm not ready to say there's a break down in oil prices," said Jan Stuart, an energy analyst at Fimat. "As yet, there's no real conviction behind it."
Dems versus oil, part 2

Stuart, like most experts, noted that for the last several months oil prices have been selling off when the front month contract comes due. The current front month contract for crude is December, which expires at the end of trading Friday.

When the contract comes due, investors either have to take delivery of their oil - 10,000 barrels of light, sweet crude - or sell it.

Traders Thursday said rising inventories had led storage facilities, mostly located in Cushing Okla., to fill up.

That leaves few options for speculators with limited storage facilities of their own - like investment banks.

Stuart said the January contract for crude is still trading in the $58 range, while London's Brent has similarly held up.

He didn't think oil would go much below $55. On the up side, Stuart said it's hard to see $100 oil, but added "the fact that we can still discuss it and not get thrown into the loony bin is an indication that not much has changed."

Game, set, match.

Friday, November 17, 2006

A lesson for all of us

From the Telegraph:

The first person to be charged with a "web rage" attack was jailed for two and a half years today.

Tempers flared after Paul Gibbons, 47, and John Jones, 43, exchanged insults in an Internet chatroom, an Old Bailey judge was told.

After tracing Mr Jones to his home address in Clacton, Gibbons armed himself with a pickaxe handle and, accompanied by a man with a machete, travelled 70 miles to the Essex seaside town in December 2005.

When they arrived, Mr Jones, whose girlfriend and three children were in the house, opened the door holding a knife for protection.

A fight broke out in which Mr Jones was disarmed and then beaten with the pickaxe handle and cut with his own knife.

Gibbons fled after Mr Jones's girlfriend called for help. Mr Jones suffered cuts to his head, neck and hands.

An earlier hearing was told that Gibbons, from Southwark, south London, and Mr Jones had encountered each other in a chatroom called Islam 10 because they both had an interest in the Muslim faith.

So don’t let’s be beastly to the moonbats, for they might just find out where we live...

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

It’s Dicky makes the blogworld go round

What would we talk about if not for Richard Dawkins? The world is already crammed with reasonable people with sensible approaches to the areas of science/religion tensions, so the more cranky and visceral he gets, the more I love him. Does that make me a bad person?

Anyway, all the UK newspapers are getting into blogging (behind the curve of course, but better late than never), and here is an entry from Daniel Finkelstein of The Times:

Here is Richard Dawkins in Wired magazine:

Dawkins looks forward to the day when the first US politician is honest about being an atheist. "Highly intelligent people are mostly atheists," he says. "Not a single member of either House of Congress admits to being an atheist. It just doesn't add up. Either they're stupid, or they're lying. And have they got a motive for lying? Of course they've got a motive! Everybody knows that an atheist can't get elected."

So let's recap. Dawkins thinks that, on the whole, unless you are stupid (like say Sir Jonathan Sacks and Martin Luther King) then you will agree with him. If you are intelligent and say that you disagree with him, then you must be lying. Your motive for lying is that everyone else is stupid (unlike Dawkins) and won't vote for you unless you lie to them.

Regardless of whether Dawkins is correct about the existence of God, isn't this unpleasantly arrogant?

That isn’t really a recap of that extract – which is specifically saying that the statistical unlikelihood that apparently not a single Congressman is atheist can only be explained if some are fibbing – but it is a broadly accurate summary of Dawkins’s views in general.

Unpleasantly arrogant maybe, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. It is, after all, also a broadly accurate summary of Orrin Judd’s views: the only difference being that he sees America’s wilful anti-intellectualism as a good thing.

(PS. The first reply on the Finkelstein blog is funny.).

Monday, November 13, 2006

Duck's brushes with fame, vol. 1

Today my former company commander at the Basic School class of 9-80, James T. Conway, has been promoted to become the 34th Commandant of the Marine Corps.

Semper Fi, General!

Let you be the judge

Last week's election included a proposal to make Michigan the latest in a series of states to ban affirmative action in college admissions and state hiring. In other words, Proposal 2 directed the State of Michigan to take seriously precisely what its constitution says:
No person shall be denied the equal protection of the laws; nor shall any person be denied the enjoyment of his civil or political rights or be discriminated against in the exercise thereof because of religion, race, color or national origin. The legislature shall implement this section by appropriate legislation.

Despite overwhelming mainstream opposition to the proposal, including Gov Granholm and her challenger, all the local MSM, and statements from major corporations, Proposal 2 passed by the comfortable margin of 58% to 42%. And, for those enamored of polling data, despite day-of poll results showing 49% opposed to, 32% in favor of, eliminating affirmative action.

Over the last couple years, the Detroit Free Press has periodically published opinion pieces on Proposal 2, nearly uniformly hostile to the notion of ending affirmative action. The near absence of countervailing opinion was nearly as striking as the pervasive drum-beat insistence that nothing other than glaring racism illuminated affirmative action's opponents.

Consequently, last March, with a great deal of invaluable help, I submitted, via the Free Press's Guest Editorial process The Principled Case Against Affirmative Action.

To which I recieved not even so much as a rejection note.

In contrast, to pick just one example, Rochelle Riley, one of the Free Press's regular columnists, published Keep This a Diverse State the day before the election. It typifies both the arguments, and their underlying analysis, against Proposal 2.
[In Gratz v. University of Michigan the Supreme Court] upheld the university's right to give greater consideration to underrepresented minorities as long as U-M did so without giving them race points.

Leaving aside the irrelevant and gratuitous ad hominem preceding this para, it appears Ms. Riley has identified a distinction without a difference, yet somehow fails to correctly identify its impact in a zero-sum game.
The court upheld affirmative action because of historic and systemic racism and discrimination in America, traditions that would have kept some college campuses all white, most workplaces Negro-free and an underclass permanent. Consideration is not preference -- no matter how many times the backers of Proposal 2 on today's ballot say it.

Ms. Riley's assertion should be added to the great Nonsense on Stilts pantheon. If "consideration" is all this is about, then there is a very simple fix: eliminate gender and ethnicity information from applications. Then, presuming her implicit charge that college admissions boards are ineradicably racist is true, merit plus chance alone will ensure a diverse outcome.

Unfortunately, that would put her in the position of advocating Proposal 2. So either she favors what she abhors, or it really is about Preference.

Then, after a personal digression which left the door wide open to the conclusion that she was the beneficiary of Preference over Consideration, she leaves us with this:
People like Jennifer Gratz, who sugarcoat with rhetoric inequities in income, education and power between minorities and whites, just don't get it. If voters embrace a proposal that will overturn 30 years of progress, Michigan will lose. Instead of being the heart of the auto industry, it will become the symbol of racial tension.

Young people who already don't want to stay in Michigan will feel affirmed. Families and companies considering relocating might think twice before subjecting their children, their employees to this tense environment.

Perhaps the state could eventually become a white supremacists' haven. They'd feel comfortable here. But I bet all those good people who let it happen will wish they'd chosen different bedfellows.

Opponents to affirmative action are heedless racists.

I'll leave it to you to assess the merits of the Free Press's editorial judgment.

I might be making too much ado about nothing, though. After all, if the voters felt free to put the Free Press on disregard, than, perhaps, so should I.

In related news, the U of M President, Mary Sue Coleman, is threatening to use State of Michigan money to sue the State of Michigan over a voter approved amendment to the Michigan State Constitution forcing the U of M to pay attention to the Michigan State Constituion.

I think we can add this to the already monumental store of evidence that the academy just doesn't get it.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Time to put another scare into Brit

Last November I gave Brit the willies with my choice of Christmas present. Well, its that time of year again to add to my growing arsenal, so this year I chose a war surplus Enfield no.4 Mk I rifle, circa 1943. Given the price range for a new rifle, war surplus guns are a bargain. The Enfield cost me all of $130. It has the added benefit of being a collectors item and a part of history. The Enfield I bought was manufactured in Maltby, Yorkshire and probably issued to a British or Canadian trooper during WW II, and from its condition it looks to have seen some rough action.

The surprising thing to me, after doing some research, is that the Enfield was the standard issue rifle for the British Army until 1956. Surprising because it is a bolt action rifle, and both the Germans and Americans fielded auto-loading semi-automatic service rifles in WW II, and the Soviets had made the leap to the infamous AK-47 assault rifle, which fired in both semi and full auto modes in, you guessed it, 1947. Chalk it up to British stodginess and love of tradition, but the Enfield rifle is considered one of the finest military rifles of all time.

Move over, Ed Begley Jr

Jay Leno is the new face of environmentally friendly motoring, and he's ready to blow your Prius off the road with his new 650hp ethanol-gulping jet-turbine supercar.

Transcendence Lite

Megachurch flocks have learned to transcend their earthly concerns for something beyond themselves: a superstar pastor. What happens when their superstar falls in discrace, and they are left only with the Word of God fill that hole in their soul? It can be tough going:

Pastor Ted's influence was felt everywhere in New Life Church: in the videos shown at worship; in the New Life bookstore, which stocked books he recommended; and in the story of the church itself. He started New Life in his basement, building it into a 14,000-member nationally known megachurch. As the Rev. Ted Haggard's fortunes rose, so did the church's.

So when Haggard fell spectacularly from grace in a scandal involving drugs and allegations of gay sex, many wondered if New Life, so tied to his public persona, would crash with him.

The answer has significance far beyond the Haggard tragedy. As evangelical megachurches have sprung up around the country, concerns have grown over whether superstar pastors help or hurt faith communities.

"When you get to these top 25 or 50 of the largest or most influential churches, these pastors are clearly celebrities. They were the founders, they created much of the growth and they are, in some sense, a brand in and of themselves," said Scott Thumma, a professor at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, who specializes in studying megachurches. "It's just like a business where the name of the founder is, in fact, a trademark."

America has always had big-name preachers — from Billy Sunday, the pro baseball player-turned-evangelist, to Billy Graham. But the two were not closely tied to a single church. Among today's best-known pastors, Rick Warren has Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., Joel Osteen has Lakewood Church in Houston and Bishop T.D. Jakes has The Potter's House in Dallas.

Graham and Sunday also worked in a vastly different media environment. Modern-day celebrity pastors have Web sites, where they promote their books, along with the DVDs, TV shows and films they produce, while preaching internationally. With such high profiles, word of any wrongdoing will spread quickly, intensifying the damage to them and their congregations.


With Haggard gone and the crisis he created easing, New Life members face a different challenge: They must decide whether they wish to belong to a church without the charismatic leader.

Nancy Ammerman, a Boston University sociologist who researches congregational life, said the megachurch might be saved by its extensive programs that create social groups within the church. New Life uses the small group model, where churchgoers meet regularly with just a few others, sometimes based on common interests outside of worship.

"That also gives them a forum within which to deal with what happened," Ammerman said.

But Randall Balmer, a Barnard College historian of American religion, said megachurches are so wrapped up with their pastor that New Life inevitably has hard times ahead. Without any creed or denominational identity for the church to cling to, attendance will eventually drop by half or more, he predicted.

"You have a kind of cult of personality that confuses the faith with a particular individual," said Balmer, author of "Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America." "I just think it's very difficult to recover from this sort of thing."

What these churches need is an "American Idol" style talent search to find the next big superstar pastor. Each megachurch would get to pick a contestant based on an NFL style draft, where the megachurch with the losingest record (net attendance loss from previous year) getting the highest draft pick.

Once you conclude that religion is just another form of show business, the world becomes easier to understand.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

And while we're at it, lets ban banning

Sir Elton John wants to ban religion:

Sir Elton John wants religion banned completely -- because he believes it promotes hatred of gays.

Speaking to the Observer Music Monthly Magazine the singer said religion lacked compassion and turned people into "hateful lemmings".


He said there was a lack of religious leadership, particularly in world politics, and complained that people do not take to the streets to protest any more.

Sir Elton said: "I think religion has always tried to turn hatred towards gay people. Religion promotes the hatred and spite against gays.

"But there are so many people I know who are gay and love their religion. From my point of view I would ban religion completely.

"Organised religion doesn't seem to work. It turns people into really hateful lemmings and it's not really compassionate."

He added: "The world is near escalating to World War Three and where are the leaders of each religion? Why aren't they having a conclave? Why aren't they coming together?

"I said this after 9/11 and people thought I was nuts. Instead of more violence why isn't there a meeting of religious leaders?

Ground control to Sir Elton: They can't meet if you ban them! When you ban banning, only banners ban. Or something like that. So there are some religious people who don't like gays. OK, there are a lot of religious people who don't like gays. But a whole lot of them don't hate you, and a lot of them adore you, buy your records and go to your concerts. So do you think it is justified to promote hatred of them just because there are others who promote hatred of you?

Besides, Pope Benedict XVI is all prepped and ready to talk about peace. The problem is every time he says something riots break out.

"It's like the peace movement in the Sixties. Musicians got through to people by getting out there and doing peace concerts but we don't seem to do them any more.

"If John Lennon were alive today he'd be leading it with a vengeance," he said.

Ground control to Sir Elton: Your pathetic 60's peace concerts didn't achieve peace. We're at war with people who hate gays so much that they put them to death. And, hard as this may be for you to believe, one of the reasons that many people on our side are fighting them is because they treat gays that way, among other things. So make up your mind and choose a side. Do you want to make peace with people who want you dead, or do you want to fight them? And do you want to piss off every religous person who is willing and able to fight for your right to live without fear of being killed and to express your gayness openly by denying their right to express their faith openly without fear?

If so, then you'd better have more allies on your side than the reanimated corpse of John Lennon.

The Humble and the Firm

No, it's not a new soap opera. But, then again, maybe it is! Anyhow, this is how Pope Benedict XVI would have Catholics engage with their Muslim brethren.

Pope urges 'firm, humble' dialogue with Muslims
Nov 10 2:16 PM US/Eastern

Pope Benedict XVI urged Catholics to engage in "firm and humble" dialogue with Muslims, in an address to bishops from Germany, which has a sizable Muslim minority.
Pope Benedict said Catholics should manifest their beliefs with the same conviction as Muslims, who "are attached with great seriousness to their convictions and their religious rites."

The pope, who will travel to mainly Muslim Turkey at the end of the month, said Muslims "have the right to our firm and humble witness for Jesus Christ."
Such dialogue "obviously presupposes a solid knowledge of one's own faith," he added.

Two thoughts immediately come to mind. The first is the utter futility of the strategy of dialogue for defending one's civilizational values from being eroded, usurped and trampled by another civilization. The Pope indicates the reason for this futility, unwittingly, in his speech when he notes that Muslims are attached to their convictions with great seriousness. It is becasue of the seriousness of their attachment that they despise Western civilizational norms, both Christian and secular. Their seriousness is the reason that dialogue is futile. And by telling Catholics to rachet up their seriousness, he would only be having them increase their resistance to dialogue.

Dialogue is possible between different denominational groups within Western Christendom only because of the way that Christians have greatly compromized a major facet of their Christian worldview, and devolved it to a separate, neutral sphere, that of the secular state. This state of affairs was not arrived at through dialogue, but through bloody confrontation, war and revolution. Muslims have not ceded that facet of their civilizational sovereignty yet.

The second thought that comes to mind is that the dialogue that the Pope would have his flock engage in with Muslims is not a dialogue from the standpoint of their Catholic faith, but from the standpoint of their status as free citizens of a secular state. That is the facet of Western civilization that is under immediate threat by the Muslim challenge to Europe. Muslims cannot defeat Catholicism without defeating the secular state first. Catholics cannot stand alone in this fight. This is not a clash of one religion against another, it is a clash of secular democracy against theocracy. The Pope claims that he is thankful for the accomplishments of the Enlightenment. While he is sharpening the religious seriousness of his humble flock, he'd better be getting serious about his support for those accomplishments of the Enlightenment as well. Any backsliding on that account to satisfy sensitive religious sensibilities should be as anathema to him as any religious heresy.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Ted Haggard update

US evangelist preacher admits battle with 'dark side'

And by ‘dark side’ he wasn’t referring to his old sparring partner, Richard Dawkins.

This is one of those blog things which seems profound, but is actually trivial. Or perhaps it is something which seems trivial, so you might think it’s really profound, but actually it turns out that it is trivial, after all.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Secular modern rationalism rides again!

CONCERNS about rises in promiscuity and pre-marital sex in modern society are unfounded, with monogamy still the dominant pattern of behaviour, research suggests.

The first global survey of sexual behaviour, published today in The Lancet, reveals that there is no universal trend towards earlier sexual intercourse, despite reports of increases in underage sex and teenage pregnancy.

The research, which included data from 59 countries, showed that most people had only one recent sexual partner even with shifts towards later marriage and cohabiting relationships in most parts of the world.

The findings support data from the Office of National Statistics, published last week, that showed Britain is a largely monogamous society, despite increasing rates of sexually transmitted disease (STDs) and the highest teenage pregnancy rate in Europe...

...The ONS findings suggest that the dramatic increase in the number of sexually transmitted infections diagnosed in recent years is due to a minority of promiscuous people, with one in fourteen women and one in eight men reporting having more than one sexual partner in the past 12 months.

In other news: a survey showed that 99% of bloggers worldwide believed that ‘everyone else was having more fun than I ever bloody did.’

Of this number, only 1% believed this was ‘a good thing’. 4% of respondents blamed ‘global warming’ for the perceived increase in frivolity, while 95% agreed that it meant the world was ‘going to hell’ in a ‘handcart’.