Friday, February 01, 2008

Northstate Science Moving - Grand Opening February 6!

After a significant absence from blogging (which I will explain later) Northstate Science will be coming back. Visit the new location of Northstate Science at Wordpress on February 6

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Atheists For The Second Amendment?

There has been much rancor, as is usually the case, over the Supreme Court's decision to hear arguments regarding the Second Amendment. I have a confession to make to all my liberal activist buddies out there in the blogosphere:

I am a lifetime member of of the National Rifle Association. (There...I said it....I feel so much better!)...

Now, in all honesty, I have not received any material from them (including the monthly issue of the American Rifleman) for more than a decade now. (I got really annoyed with the NRA when they started referring to ATF agents as "jack-booted thugs" during the whole David Koresh thing at Waco in the early 1990s and quit sending in "change of address" notifications whenever we would move. I had just joined the federal service at that time and was not amused with the whole anti-government crowd - they always struck me as bunch of cry babies who thought the rules of a civilized society didn't apply to them. By the way, and for the record: David Koresh was a coward and that bastard should have burned - the full extent of his cowardice was revealed when he took innocents along with him).

My general indifference to being a member of the NRA not withstanding, I still support the concept of the Second Amendment. I believe there is social value in a citizenry that remains mostly armed - it does give governments pause; and I believe it is one of the few things that keeps our form of government uniquely different from others around the world. I think most of the objections to personal ownership of firearms stem from unfamiliarity with dangerous weapons. I grew up with firearms of all kinds and am as comfortable with them as I am with a knife and fork around my Thanksgiving turkey. I made the Expert rating in rifle competition and just missed the Distinguished Expert medal (my college career interrupted my competitive rifle shooting). (So, in reference to my correctional officer debating partner: I have all those skills plus a doctorate...think about that for a moment!). In effect, I am generally in favor of the armed citizen (note: not just the hunting citizen) and am hopeful that the Supreme Court will rule in favor of a personal right to own and bear arms (yes, I am also in favor of concealed weapons permits).

Of course, what this means is that I buy into the argument that armed citizens are a deterrent to all kinds of tyranny. The problem is that most members of the NRA probably consider tyranny in the context of "liberal" efforts to regulate the population. Personally, I am more concerned with the potential for tyranny of conservative ideas....more specifically, theological based tyranny. We already seem to have an infestation of Christian soldiers in the military whose allegiance is to mythological beings and not the US constitution. I would suggest that such people might ultimately pose a threat to civil liberties.

I certainly understand the arguments in favor of gun control, but as I have always proposed, let's not limit someone else's freedoms simply because we don't personally agree with it. Instead, use that freedom to your own benefit. Imagine the response if atheists suddenly joined the NRA in droves. Imagine if Muslims, Buddhists and Wiccans joined shooting clubs. And for something really scary:

Imagine if PZ were not just eloquent, educated, atheistic, and outspoken....but also armed!

Of course it will probably never happen, but gee, wouldn't that get the NRA's panties in a twist? Of course I can hear the arguments now: "The Second Amendment was never intended to apply to atheists"....

Moral Objections To Medical Treatment

CNN has been reporting on doctors who refuse treatments based on moral grounds. This is theocracy, pure and simple. A doctor who refuses a secularly legal treatment has placed his religious beliefs above those of the patent. In doing so, he/she has determined that religious belief trumps secular law. What are the limits of such an attitude? And what happens when Christian religious belief runs counter to another religious (or non-religious) moral imperative? If society accepts the principle that a doctor may refuse treatment on the basis of a religious belief, a personal, mental concept that cannot be verified by any accepted standard of inquiry, then does that society not take a large step in the direction of theocracy? It is very easy, and very simplistic, to consider this issue solely in terms of certain Christian sects who see contraception or abortion as moral issues, but consider every other medical procedure around the world associated with religious views. We chose not to have our child circumcised - I suppose that I should count my blessings that we did not have a fundamentalist Jewish doctor as our physician. After all, if a Catholic doctor can refuse to provide contraception based on a moral objection, why should a Jewish doctor not insist that his patioent's male children be circumcised, based on a moral imperative? Shall we talk about female circumcision? Should a "gay" gene ultimately be discovered will Christians start accepting (perhaps insist upon) abortion under "special religious circumstances"? Where does this lunacy end?

It ends with strict adherence to secular laws. If it is legal, you have an obligation to perform that action for someone else who insists upon it and your personal religious views be damned. If you can't stomach it, then get another job, you coward! If your religious viewpoint means that much to you then take a cut in pay and do something more menial and less lucrative, and quit protecting your outrageously inflated salary under the guise of a moral objection!

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Exploring Our Matrix - And Why Intelligent Design Forced Me To Leave The Church

Dr. James F. McGrath left a comment on my previous post regarding the recent PBS series Judgement Day. Be sure to read several posts McGrath has on the series. But more importantly...

...visit Exploring Our Matrix and read Dr. McGrath's insightful posts on things scientific and theological.

Consider, for example, the questions he poses to the ID Advertising Team (Denyse O'Leary, Philip Johnson and Casey Luskin):

In the same way, people like you cause more people to lose their faith (or to not come to faith) than any Darwinian biologist ever could. You tell people evolution is nonsense and present it as incompatible with faith, and some people who don't know any better actually believe you. Then when eventually the mountain of evidence finally gets their attention, they lose their faith, because people like you told them that was the only other option.

Do you fear God? If so, do you think you will not be held accountable for putting unnecessary stumbling blocks in the way of the faithful and those who could believe if it weren't for people like you driving them away from God? [emphasis added].

Dr. McGrath's point is well taken - largely because I am a perfect example of what he is discussing. I remember the day the nuns at St. Thomas More Catholic School in Paradise, California allowed a number of us 6th graders to develop a class lesson on any subject of interest to us and were given time to "teach" the rest of the class. My lesson was on paleontology (using Romer's Vertebrate Paleontology as a main source, if I remember correctly) and made no apologies for liberally invoking evolution. The kids, and the nuns, loved it. The concept of evolution was never a problem for Catholics during my childhood - the pursuit of science was actively encouraged by the nuns and during high school, my biology teacher and mentor (and agnostic) used to comment that his best science students came from the Catholic school. Fast forward 30 some years and we have Catholics Behe and O'Leary spreading misinformation about science and telling students they can't accept evolution and have faith; Cardinal Schonborn telling lies about evolutionary theory; most of my fellow Knights of Columbus couldn't give you a single fact about evolutionary biology but are convinced intelligent design is science; even a significant number of my relatives have been fed enough false information through the church that they now ask me if it's true that all animals appeared suddenly during the Cambrian or that scientists have abandoned radiocarbon dating.

The propaganda from the church and the gullibility of the flock got to be too much. If I have to go against the evidence and believe that Darwin was completely wrong or abandon the Catholic faith, well....the faith just became meaningless. And this didn't end with me....the Catholic church asked my wife and my kids to sacrifice too much in intellectual integrity to make it worthwhile to remain.

So we all left.

O'Leary, Luskin, Johnson and Behe are so interested in protecting their own version of faith that they cannot even comprehend the impact they're having on the church. It's no wonder young people have developed such a negative view of Christianity.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

O'Reilly Needs Holiday Cheer

Ok, we all know that Bill O'Reilly is resurrecting the War on Christmas issue again, and we can be assured of more false alarms and spin on the examples he will be presenting on his TV and radio shows.

So.....I suggest we all take note of his efforst and send Darwin Christmas Cards to Bill, wishing him a Happy Holiday season of his choosing...nothing provocative in the written messages, just warm wishes to him and everyone else at FOX.

PBS Special Follow-Up

I caught the late night showing of PBS's NOVA special, Judgement Day: Intelligent Design on Trial in my hotel room last night. Both PZ and Greg Laden have "liveblogging" comments on the special that are worth looking through.

Lassen County teachers will find lots of good source material on evolution and the fallacies behind intelligent design at the PBS/NOVA website. If you haven't had a chance to see it, Judgement Day will be shown online on November 16. Lassen County school board member should watch this special as well - it's a good lesson on overstepping bounds in science education.

I thought the special provided a great perspective on the strong explanatory power that evolution has as a scientific idea, the clear weakness of intelligent design at explaining anything, and more importantly, just how fallacious both the school board and the ID "scientists" were at presenting ID as an appropriate challenge to evolution.

I was somewhat disappointed in the recreation of Scott Minnich's testimony and cross-examination. It ended with him apparently making a sound point on testing ID versus evolutionary theory that could seemed to have stumped the plaintiffs. The original transcripts of the cross examination are quite different, and suggest a man doing some serious backpeddaling when confronted with the question of whether ID is actually testable.

I found board member Buckingham's response to Judge Jones' decision infuriating. This is a man who came a breadth's hair away from being tried for perjury during the trial and yet he as the hutzpah to lay into the judge for being an "activist". Buckingham should thank his lucky stars that Judge Jones exhibited a far greater show of Christian restraint than the original Dover school board could.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Lassen County Educators: PBS Special Tonight

Lassen County science educators should not miss PBS's NOVA special tonight, Judgement Day: Intelligent Design on Trial, which documents (as a recent review in Nature put it) the "feebleness of the intelligent design case" during the Dover trial. The Nature review further suggests,

Judgment Day gracefully avoids ridiculing intelligent design for the pseudo-intellectual fundamentalist fig-leaf that it is, by simply showing how the protagonists shot themselves in the foot.

I only now got around to reading the review, however, that last statement was particularly telling in light of the current misinformation floating around at the pro-ID website Evolution News and Views. A recent post by Robert Crowther suggests that the PBS special is engaged in some myth-making, but as usual, when EN&V says the sun is shining, you had better glance out the window (you'll usually discover it is actually night). In reference to Crowther's Myth #2, citing Scott Minnich as having conducted tests to show the bacterial flagellum was irreducibly complex, I went to the original transcripts of Minnich's testimony and cross examination at the Dover trial via the Dover files. Needless to say, Crowther's cocky assertions about the nature of Minnich's research demonstrating intelligent design were shredded at the Dover trial when Minnich was forced to admit that no actual tests of irreducible complexity had ever been conducted by either himself or Behe. Neither is there any actual mythology behind the other supposed "myths" that EN&V accuses PBS of fronting. It's all just good old fashioned data gathering and presentation - something the ID crowd can't seem to accomplish. Crowther, in good advertising fashion, is repeating old arguments from ID advocates that have been shown to be the smoke and mirrors they are in the hopes of getting the public to be suspicious of the PBS special tonight.

Hopefully, Lassen County educators will ignore the pro-ID advertising at the EN&V and watch the PBS special. I'm sure we'll be hearing more about this issue in the area after the first of the year. In February, the pro-ID movie Expelled will hit theatres, including no doubt, our own here in Susanville. I am sure the Lassen County Times will weigh in on this issue then as well.

Never fear...Northstate Science will be prepared....

Friday, November 09, 2007

Yeah, Baby! Come To Papa!

Yes, my providers of that morning salvation in a paper cup, Susanville Starbucks, has re-opened its doors after re-modeling (which, on the face of it, didn't seem to change things all that much). But man, what a difference a Venti brewed coffe makes in the morning. I expect my blogging to pick back up now....

Some Good News For The Hadzabe...Hopefully

I had a head's-up on this a couple of days ago via friends in Tanzania but I couldn't confirm the story. However, it now appears that Survival International is reporting that the UAE has withdrawn a deal with the Tanzanian government to secure hunting rights in Hadzabe lands. The original deal would have effectively kicked the Hadzabe out of their lands and forcefully ended their traditional way of life. From the Survival International piece:

The withdrawal is a great victory for the Hadza, a small tribe of hunter-gatherers who live in northwest Tanzania. A Hadza representative said today, ‘If it is true that the Arabs are leaving our land then I am very, very happy.’

I know many indigenous rights organizations and several organizations and individuals in Europe who contacted me on this issue were deeply involved and were able to bring world opinion to bear on this injustice. However, there can be no doubt that those of you in the blogosphere who frequently reported on the plight of the Hadza gave this the steam necessary to be noticed by the larger organizations. You should all pat yourself on the back for your efforts!!

This is indeed a great day for the Hadza...however, I have to remain just "optimistic" rather than downright overjoyed (sorry, I've been working too long in federal government where overly optimistic publicity often precedes an actual decision). If my unconfirmed email statement from the UAE safari company is correct, they are none too pleased:

The Eshkesh Safari Company has surrendered the rights it had secured in 2006 to manage and sustainably utilise the Yaeda Chini/ Lake Eyasha region for hunting...a commercially motivated misrepresentation of the company's intentions and activities has been continuously perpetuated by certain interest groups. This has regretfully caused us to review the long term sutsainability of our planned program in the entire region resulting in our reluctant withdrawal.

Of course, they use all the appropriate buzzwords regarding their operation ("sustainable", "manage") and accusingly invoke some kind of "special interest" conspiracy on the part of those who stood up for Hadzabe rights. And there's the usual hand-wringing over how the poor people of the area are now going to suffer because the company can't bring hunters into the area:

This decision was taken with great reluctance as the withdrawal meant ending numerous human welfare, and wildlife sustainability programs that had been created and initiated following extensive and ongoing consultation with all villages - including Hadzabe representatives - in the region. The Eshkesh Safari Company had commenced extensive regeneration and wildlife protection programs in order to revive the areas wildlife that has been heavily depleted by poachers. The intention was not to initiate hunting trips in the region for several years in order to return animal stocks to sustainable levels.

Their efforts at restoring game populations may indeed be the case but I find it exceedingly disingenuous that these arguments are coming out now...they certainly weren't being discussed when all this first came to light. Further, given a friend's inside perspective on how the UAE operates in general, I remain highly doubtful that the original intent of the deal was anything more than what it seemed to all of us: a safari "playground" for rich UAE princes.

Again, I have not confirmed the source of this email but I suspect it to be a valid statement from the company. There is one further issue still outstanding that tempers my joy at the news. Apparently several of the Hadzabe are still under arrest for daring to protest the original deal. I am hoping to provide positive news on that front sometime soon, but we'll still have to wait and see...

Four Stone Hearth Newest Edition

The newest edition of Four Stone Hearth is up at Sorting Out Science. Check out this month's great collection of anthropology blog posts.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Lassen County Times in Review Oct 30 Edition

It has been some time since I have felt compelled to respond to anything printed in the Lassen County Times. The news has largely stuck with, well, news and the editorials have, at most, remained….quaint. There are times when I miss the conservative elitism sometimes expressed by the paper’s staff – public argument is always a good thing, and I certainly enjoy engaging in it. But the nature of fundamentalist approaches to life is to take them underground when they are challenged consistently, so I suspect it may be some time before the editorial staff sticks too much of a foot in their collective mouths again.

In the meantime, however, we have the usual cast of local letter writers. Bill Ashmore continues the tired and data-less hypothesis that God is responsible for everything significant that happens or does not happen – this time in regards to global warming. (Yes, this is the same Ashmore whose pontification about gays, abortions and the frequency of earthquakes failed every empirical test you could throw at it…and then failed some more). Ashmore of course, gets the details wrong and like all good creationists, penalizes science for its past mistakes (without acknowledging that science is self-correcting); he uses the poor predictions of science 100 years ago as a proxy for the standards of scientific inquiry today; and he conflates media stories with what the scientists themselves actually say. Pretty much standard fare for a fundamentalist.

So the straw man has been constructed and knocked down: according to Ashmore, scientists can provide no data on global warming. The alternative for all of us?....wait for it….God controls the weather! Yep, forget all this debate about science, just trust in the religious intuitions of a handful of men like Ashmore and we’ll all be just fine. No need to actually work at understanding the world around us; no need to derive any conclusions from any physical pattern we see (they are all wrong anyway)…from Ashmore’s viewpoint there’s probably no need for any education. We’ll just sit around the fire with Bill telling us what we need to know and teaching us how to read goat entrails to prophesize the Second Coming.

Men (and women) like Bill Ashmore prove Harris and Hitchens correct every time they open their mouths or set their primitive thoughts to pen: religion poses an inherent threat to human survival and ultimately, “spoils everything”. He simply does not understand that religious approaches to physical world suffer horribly from inconsistency and have not advanced our knowledge of the world around us for more than 30,000 years – ever since anatomically modern humans started to acknowledge their ideological thinking by painting on cave walls. Every advancement of modern society has been made despite religious views, not because of them.

Sorry…but Jesus has nothing to do with it.

Vote For Duane!

I just noticed that Duane at Abnormal Interests was nominated for a Weblog Award. Make sure you vote for Duane!