15 May 2007

Jerry Falwell Burns in Hell

Ding dong, the witch is dead--yes, the man who promoted AIDS as a instrument of social transformation has gone to his own place, where the fires never die and the vultures gnaw his liver eternally. Uneducated but arrogant, a liar, libeler, and defender of terrorists, his ignominious career at last comes to an end. And high time, too.

13 May 2007

Faith-Based Logic

The United States is an overwhelmingly faith-based nation--a March 2007 Newsweek poll showed that 91 percent of the country believes in God.
Is anybody else bothered by an obvious difficulty with this statement? The conclusion (the US is an overwhelmingly faith-based nation) does not follow from the premise (91% of the country believe in god). Something is missing here. It reminds me of a time when I saw a guy on TV claim that 95 percent of the people of the United States wanted prayer in school. How did he get this figure? I wondered. When I looked up his source--he had cited a recent poll--I found his 95% figure--but it was not in connection with prayer in school. (As a matter of fact that topic was not addressed in the poll.) It was the number of Americans who claimed to believe in god.

This is a trick that has always irritated me. If you can't prove something, cite something different and move on. Quickly. J. A. T. Robinson, the Bishop of Woolworth's, was fond of this sort of hit-and-run argument, which is the basis of his oddball book Redating the New Testament. My health sciences teacher in junior high--a coach who majored in public speaking--used to use it when teaching the required anti-drug propaganda. It always bugged me, and left me wondering what was being covered up.

So here, the question strikes me--what is a faith-based nation, anyway? It would be the opposite of an evidence-based nation, I guess, but that doesn't get us very far. For the most part Americans seem to rely on a mixture of faith and evidence to make daily decisions. We trust that our food providers aren't going to poison us with tainted tuna, for example--but we have the FDA and usually some kind of food inspectors to back it up. We have faith that our employees aren't robbing us blind--but we audit the books nonetheless. We are, as a people, credulous while priding ourselves on our skepticism.

Now when I look around on the internet I find that "faith-based" is apparently being used as a weak synonym for "religious." This is lame, and apparently politically motivated. It also displays a Christian bias. In Christianity belief without evidence--faith--is exalted. Remember the story in the fourth gospel about the unbelieving disciple Thomas? This was the fellow who refused to believe that Jesus had in fact been raised from the dead until he felt the body of the reanimated corpse for himself. Thomas required evidence, you see. The author of the gospel, however, has Jesus condemn Thomas for this. Faith without evidence is superior to evidence-based faith--at least in Christianity. This is one reason why people speak of the Christian Faith.

But, on the other side of the same token, it is incorrect to speak of the Jewish faith, or the Buddhist faith, and so on. When anybody refers to world faiths, they are--whether they know it or not--restricting themselves in essence to the sects of Christianity and Islam (and the latter, as far as I can tell, appears to be little more than a heretical offshoot of the former anyway).

So if faith here is being (mis)used as a weak synonym for religion, then apparently "faith-based" means simply "religious." But if that's what the author meant, why not just say it? I suppose the fact that 91% of the people claim to believe in a god proves that they are religious, though that leaves out the possibility of philosophical belief. But why gibber when you don't have to?

In this case I suspect that it has to do with the fundamental dishonesty of the article in question, where the issue is not "faith"--dragged in arbitrarily--but bigotry. A small community of god-believing bigots tried to drive out an atheistic family rather than practice the virtue of tolerance, but you'd never gather that from this piece. The truth is, in most instances Americans are hostile to faith. Faith-based medicine or faith-based accounting gets its practitioners jailed, and rightly so.

02 May 2007

"Dinosaur Girl" Sounds Off

High school senior Reed Braden (Unorthodox Atheism) gives us a glimpse into the scientific knowledge of a high school girl whom he refers to as “Dinosaur Girl”:
Are we ignoring the third law of thermodynamics? [she asks rhetorically.] Any scientist with the slightest bit of intelligence will tell you that every single molecule, atom, and electron moves from a state of order to entropy (which is defined by Merriam-Webster's dictionary as "the degradation of the matter and energy in the universe to an ultimate state of inert uniformity," in case you weren't aware). Evolution directly contradicts this inherrent law of the universe. But I guess you're probably smarter than Albert Einsten, who am I kidding...

I know you've heard the rock stratification argument, but it just makes sense. Why isn't the earth in neatly arranged layers? Why are dinosaur fossils next to fossils from other periods... Speaking of fossils, why haven't they found a complete fossil of a prehistoric human. And Lucy doesn't count -- she was a hoax, after all.

Where are you getting your dates from. I know you would probably cite C-14 dating, but are we really sure that's accurate? After all, a California redwood was dated to be 4.6 million years old. I know they live a long time... but that old? Still not convinced? A monarch butterfly was dated to be 1200 years old. What's their lifespan again? Seems this technique may need reexamining.
Now this girl confuses the second law of thermodynamics (which she gets wrong) with the third; she erroneously thinks that it somehow contradicts “evolution”; she is under the impression that fossils from different periods appear mixed together; she suffers from the illusion that Australopithecus afarensis is a hoax, and then she babbles crazily about radiocarbon dating.

Okay, so what’s the punchline, you’re probably wondering. The girl’s got a lot to learn, but a decent introductory science class should clear up most of her confusion. Or so one would think. That’s what high school’s for, right? Replacing ignorance with knowledge? Turning kids on to the wonders of the natural world? Equipping them with the tools that will enable them to evaluate problems that will confront them as citizens in an increasingly complicated world?

The thing is, this girl is a senior. She is about to graduate. In my book, anybody this pig-ignorant shouldn’t be receiving a high school diploma. But it gets worse. This girl is apparently a salutatorian in her school. She is right at the top of the graduates there. (I wonder what the kids who didn’t make the honor roll are like.) A school turning out products like this has clearly failed across the board, and a diploma from this institution is worth somewhat less than piece of toilet paper.

Now “Dinosaur Girl” goes on to remark rather fatuously that she enjoys “learning material I disagree with. You have to know the other side in order to effectively combat it.” I would be interested to know what “other side” she has learned, since she plainly knows nothing about physics, biology, or ancient history. All she is doing here is parroting creationist talking points, and she can’t even get them right.

Now what “Dinosaur Girl” needs to realize—and this is a tough one—is that people are lying to her. These are people she presumably trusts and believes in, but they aren’t doing her any favors. They are filling her mind with garbage. She needs to do her own research. She should ask the person who told her that Lucy was a hoax what evidence there is to support this notion? What do actual scientists say about it? How does the second (or third) law of thermodynamics “contradict” evolution? If “every single molecule, atom, and electron moves from a state of order to entropy” how is it possible for a crystal to grow? Or for an embryo to grow into a human being? Each of these involves a local decrease in entropy. Since these things do happen, does that mean the second law of thermodynamics is full of holes? Or what? How does radiocarbon dating work? How has it been tested? What other ways are there of dating objects from human history and prehistory? What is dendrochronology? Why is the bristlecone pine significant in calibrating the radiocarbon date? As she herself observed, “I could go on and on and on ... but I won't.”

Now of course, this being from a random internet site, it could well be a hoax. Frankly, I hope it is. I’d like to think that Reed Braden made up “Dinosaur Girl,” or that maybe somebody hoaxed him with a bogus letter. But I’m very much afraid that somewhere in America there is a high school senior this ignorant about science who is graduating near the top of her class. It’s a frightening thought, and a sad commentary on the failure of the American school system.
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