Thursday, August 30, 2007

Fighting the good fight at JPL

Part of me regrets no longer being at JPL so that I could join the fight against invasive background checks. Give 'em hell Dennis!

Spiritual bankruptcy defined

Ask and ye shall receive. Spiritual bankruptcy is when you are driven to "seek love in rank public bathroom stalls."

Dinosaurs, shminosaurs

On the recommendation of a fellow Xoogler I've been reading a truly excellent book by William Bernstein called "The Birth of Plenty : How the Prosperity of the Modern World was Created". Although it's ostensibly about economics it relevantly touches on religion and philosophy as well. Bernstein argues (convincingly IMO) that scientific rationalism is a necessary (though not sufficient) condition for economic growth and prosperity. (The other three necessary conditions are property rights, capital markets, and an efficient communication and transportation infrastructure.)

Berstein insightfully identifies the willingness to discard old ideas in favor of new ones as one of the defining characteristics of scientific rationalism, and indeed as the principal distinction between modern Western culture and all other human cultures throughout history. This is significant because if Bernstein is right (and it seems like a no-brainer to me, but read his book if you need to be convinced) then the potential dangers of fundamentalism go far beyond the fears of even the most paranoid among us. If Bernstein is right then the fundamentalist's rejection of scientific rationalism will lead us back to the economic dark ages just as surely as the Communist's rejection of private property did the same during the latter part of the 20th century. For that reason alone I believe that it is vitally important that fundamentalism be resisted by any means necessary.

I actually believe that there are fundamentalists who think that breaking the back of the modern capitalist economy would be a good thing, but I think these are a tiny, tiny minority. I think most fundamentalists -- certainly most Christian fundamentalists in the U.S. -- know in their heart of hearts that getting rid of science would be a Bad Thing all in all, hence the odd spactacles of so-called Creation Science and Intelligent Design, Al Quaeda recruiting on the Internet, and Pentacostals praying to God that their Power Point presentations will work properly.

The problem is that science is based on the premise that reality is the ultimate arbiter of Truth, and reality is a harsh taskmaster. You realy can't fool Mother Nature. That is why fundamentalists tend to focus on things like evolution where much of the scientific evidence is subtle or not readily accessible or even lost in the mists of time. Scientists (and I mean that with a capital "S") fall readily into the fundamentalists' rhetorical trap, which is one of the reasons that fundamentalism is gaining so much ground these days. Fundamentalism may not be correct, but fundamentalists are very, very good at making it feel as though it is. Fundamentalism has a much, much better marketing department than most of its competitors.

I have said it before but it bears repeating: I have no quarrel with religion, only with fundamentalism. I believe that religion serves a genuine human need, and the failure of atheists like Richard Dawkins to recognize this, let alone propose a credible alternative for fulfilling that need, is one of the reasons for the rise of fundamentalism. (Karen Armstrong thinks so too.)

One indication of the utter futility of rational debate when it comes to fundamentalism is the amount of effort spent on arguing about things like whether or not humans were contemporaneous with dinosaurs. If you're going to try to take Genesis seriously as an alternative scientific hypothesis you have much, much bigger worries than dinosaurs. Let's take a brief tour of Genesis, shall we?

In the beginning God created the heavans and the earth. And the earth was without form and void...

So... what shape was the earth at that point? Well, it didn't have a shape. That's what "without form" means. So what does it mean for the earth to have been created but not have a shape?

...and the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

So earth didn't have a shape, but the waters still had a "face" for God to move upon. And how, exactly, does God "move"? I don't mean to ask by what mechanism God moves, I'm asking what it actually means for God to move. On the usual meaning of the word move it means to change location from one place to another. But that is only possible for a thing that has a definite location to begin with, and modern Christian fundamentalist dogma holds that God is everywhere at all times. So how can He possibly move?

We're not two verses in and already there are a host of questions that are perfectly legitimate to ask from a scientific point of view, but which are utterly unanswerable except by e.g. holding that words mean different things when they apply to God, at which points all bets are off. To quote Tom Stoppard, "The only point of using language at all is that words are taken to stand for certain thoughts and ideas and not for other thoughts and ideas."

And God said, "Let there be light" and there was light.

Where was the light coming from at this point? Remember, this is only the First Day, and the sun and stars don't get created until the Third Day.

And the evening and the morning were the first day.

Here in verse 5 we collide headlong against a scientific brick wall. What does it mean for there to be "evening" and "morning" in a universe where the earth has no shape and there is no sun?

And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters and let it divide the waters from the waters. And God made the firmament and divided the waters which were above the firmament from the waters which were below the firmament. And God called the firmament Heaven.

Leaving aside the linguistic question of how God can create "heaven" on day 2 after already having created "the heavens" on day 1, this is quite possibly the most transparent indication that Genesis is just a bronze-age creation myth like any other. Bronze-age people thought that the sky was blue because it was full of water. Forget dinosaurs, where are the waters above the firmament?

There's so much just in the first chapter of Genesis which is utterly ridiculous from a scientific point of view that it is hard to know where to stop. God creates plants on day 3, but doesn't create the sun until day 4. The sun and the moon are called "two great lights" despite the fact that the moon is not a light, it's a big rock. The sun, moon and stars are created "to divide the light from the darkness" but the light was already divided from the darkness back in verse 4. And then we get to chapter 2 where the whole story is told over again, except this time man is created before the animals instead of after (the animals are created specifically to keep man company, but the plan doesn't work so God has to try again, at which point He creates Eve). As a scientific hypothesis, Genesis is utterly and transparently hopeless long, long before we ever get to Noah. It's not even a close call. And yet the arguments go on. And on and on and on and on and on.

The problem is not that Creationism is wrong, the problem is that it is wrong only from a particular point of view. Genesis is wrong from a scientific point of view, not from the point of view of faith. But Creationists are adept at flitting back and forth between these two points of view while the Scientists (and the scientists) are stuck in their Baconian and Popperian epistemologies. The success of science is so overwhelming that they cannot accept that there might be truth beyond science despite the fact that there is scientific evidence that this is in fact the case! The placebo effect, for example, is scientific proof that believing in things that aren't scientifically true can have materially beneficial effects.

Faith is a placebo, and I do not mean that in any sort of pejorative way. Placebos can be effective. Sometimes they are the most or even the only effective medicine available for certain maladies, and the modern world suffers from such maladies much more than atheists generally acknowledge. And in that regard atheists have their heads buried more deeply in the sand than the fundamentalists, with the net result that the fundamentalists are winning.

And as someone who enjoys the creature comforts that modern economies provide, that's bad. Really really bad.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

My sentiments exactly

I'm too beaten down to compose my own words so I'll steal a few choice ones from The New York Times:

It was appalling to watch over the last few days as Congress, now led by Democrats, caved in to yet another unnecessary and dangerous expansion of President Bush's powers, this time to spy on Americans in violation of basic constitutional rights.

Hear hear.

Friday, August 03, 2007


The blogosphere is aghast that Karl Rove deputy Scott Jennings seems to be taking executive privilege a wee bit too far:


SENATOR PAT LEAHY, (D), VERMONT: Are you aware of any presidential decision documents since the 2004 election which President Bush decided to procede with a replacement plan for U.S. attorneys?

JENNINGS: Sir, pursuant to the president's assertion of executive privilege, I decline to answer at this time.

LEAHY: As special assistant to the president, deputy director of police affairs, what role do you have in the selection of nominees to the U.S. attorneys?

JENNINGS: Senator, I will decline to answer that question pursuant To the president's assertion of executive privilege...

LEAHY: Whoa, whoa, whoa, wait. I'm just asking what role you have in the selection of nominees to be U.S. attorney. I'm just talking about what you do. I mean--let's not be too contemptuous of this committee. I'm just asking you what role do you have in the selection of nominees for U.S. attorneys. You work at the White House, you're paid for by taxpayers. You work for the American people. I'm just asking what kind of work you do.

JENNINGS: Sir, I understand. And based on my understanding of the letter I have from Mr. Fielding, this falls under the president's assertion of executive privilege and, therefore, I must respectfully decline to answer at this time.

But it makes perfect sense to me. The truthful answer to that question is very likely something along the lines of, "My job is to make sure that the Republicans win the 2008 election by any means necessary." Little wonder he's asserting executive privilege.

No, the puzzling part to me is not that Jennings asserted privilege, but that Leahy was surprised by it. I would have hoped that someone with Leahy's experience would not be so naive as to have been caught off guard by that. And so the logical next question in Leahy's rapid-fire sequence will now be forever unasked: "Are you asserting privilege because your job requires you to engage in activities that are ethically or legally questionable?"


Who says rock stars are dumb?

Brian May, lead guitarist for the rock band Queen, has finished his Ph.D. in astronomy after a 36 year hiatus. Congratulations, Dr. May. I doff my hat.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

This is what happens when you don't maintain your country

The Minneapolis bridge collapse surprises me not at all. The nation's infrastructure has been suffering chronic neglect for decades, and even if it turns out that the cause of the collapse was something else, it's only a matter of time before things like this start becoming regular occurrences unless America changes its priorities.

Yes, I can hear you laughing.

The presidential race is still close enough that a clever political trick might be enough to put a Republican in the White House in 2008. Think about that. It is hard to imagine a more destructive, corrupt, divisive, unmitigated collossal disaster of a presidency than George W. Bush, and yet enough people are still willing to vote Republican that it's a close call. Civil rights evaporate, freedom becomes nothing more than a slogan, New Orleans is all but lost to the sea, our bridges are crumbling, and enough people still want to stay the course that it's a close call.

Ye gods.

The land of the free and the home of the brave is rapidly becoming the land of the surveilled and the home of the fearful. Frankling Roosevelt got it right when he said that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. Well, I believe in that 100% and I'm scared. Our collective national freak-out over not quite 3000 deaths a little over six years ago continue unabated, and it's costing us everything that once made this country great. We are rapidly devolving into a third-world banana republic complete with crumbling infrastrcture, corrupt one-party rule, and an unbridgeable gap between rich and poor.

To say nothing of Minneapolis and Saint Paul.