Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Gelernter's Non-Response

Over the years, I've pointed out a number of times when Yale professor David Gelernter has misrepresented the truth... like the time he claimed that the US Supreme Court "outlawed prayer and Bible reading in the public schools" (they didn't; the decision he cited refers to ending teacher-led devotion and indoctrination only).

But Gelernter -- who apparently doesn't believe that academics have the duty to justify their claims and retract them when wrong -- has never replied.

Until recently, that is. My brief correction of Gelernter's wild misrepresentation of the reaction to Thomas Nagel's silly book elicited this reply from Gelernter:

Little needs saying to Jeffrey Shallit, except that I was not using "lynch mob" to suggest that Nagel’s opponents wanted him to be hanged or even gently murdered. "Nagel had some fundamental misunderstandings about science and biology" is a statement some people might possibly disagree with, especially those who care about what a person knows versus what degrees he holds. As Emerson would have said: Ph.D.’s, Mr. Shallot, are the hobgoblin of little minds.

This is preposterous in so many ways.

1. Gelernter dismisses his own misrepresentations by insinuating I interpreted "lynch mob" literally. Read my reply again, and my longer and more detailed one here. (I sent Gelernter a link.) It is clear I am objecting to Gelernter's exaggerations. Maybe Gelernter thinks describing Nagel's critics as "punks" and a "lynch mob" and "mass attack of killer hyenas" is accurate and appropriate. Does anyone else?

2. Gelernter fails to address my points, saying only "some people might possibly disagree". True enough, but does their disagreement have any rational basis?

3. Gelernter implies I am a person who doesn't "care about what a person knows versus what degrees he holds". Well, which group of people is likely to know more about evolutionary biology? Actual evolutionary biologists, who disputed Nagel's claims in detail, or Nagel and Gelernter, who have no expertise and no training in evolutionary biology? I challenge any fair-minded person to read Nagel's book (I have), Gelernter's praise of it, and the reviews by people like Orr and Elliott Sober and decide who has made the better case.

4. Finally, Gelernter can't even be bothered to spell my name correctly, even when his only task is to copy and paste it from the first line of his own reply.

All in all, it's a pretty poor performance for Professor Gelernter. But -- I am not surprised to see -- par for the course.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Meet David Gelernter, First Amendment Hypocrite

The whiny and porcine David Gelernter has a column where he makes fun of Muslim students at Yale who have objected to Ayaan Hirsi Ali speaking there.

I'm very glad that Gelernter is such a stalwart defender of the 1st Amendment of the US constitution.

But then, let's read what he says about atheists who have rightly objected to forcing nontheist schoolchildren to publicly acknowledge their belief in the Christian god: the children have a choice, Gelernter says, because they can just shut up.

Oops, I guess that 1st Amendment is just so much chin music.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Answering a Baptist's Question

While on vacation in Wyoming, I saw this sign at the First Baptist Church of Thermopolis:

It says

Dear Atheist,

If you don't believe in God
Why do you care if I pray to him?

My guess is that Pastor Harvey Seidel is not really interested in an answer. If he were, he would just find some atheist and genuinely ask. Instead, it's probably intended as a "gotcha".

Nevertheless, I'm going to pretend that the question is an honest one and do my best to answer.

Dear Pastor Seidel,

You ask, if I don't believe in God, why do I care if you pray to him?

The simple answer is, I don't. Neither I, nor most of the atheists I know, give a damn one way or another. I personally wouldn't waste my time with that particular activity, but then there's a lot of activities that others enjoy -- such as stock car racing or listening to Celine Dion -- that I consider a waste of time and don't participate in. If prayer makes you happy and gives you some consolation, go right ahead. You don't need my or other people's approval to pray to your god -- be my guest.

It's not your prayer I'm concerned with. It's not even your beliefs, which I think are irrational. Lots of people have silly and irrational beliefs.

No, what I'm really concerned about is the actions your irrational beliefs might lead you to take. If your beliefs cause bigotry against black people, I'll oppose you. If your beliefs cause you to deny equal rights to gay people, then I'll oppose you. If your beliefs cause you to suppress the teaching of scientific theories like evolution in public schools, or deny the problem of global warming, then I'll oppose you. If your beliefs cause you to prevent sex education, and instill in young people an unhealthy view that sex is somehow "sinful", then I'll oppose you. If your beliefs result in anti-Semitism, I'll oppose you. If your beliefs cause you to work to further entrench Christian privilege in North America, then I'll oppose you.

I'm not saying you do any of these things. I know that Baptists are a very diverse bunch. Maybe you marched in solidarity with black people in Selma. Maybe you welcome gay people in your church. Maybe you conduct same-sex weddings. Maybe you acknowledge the truth of evolution and global warming. Maybe you warn your flock about the sin of anti-Semitism. If so, more power to you. We can join hands and work together.

Speaking of Christian privilege, I hope you're not one of those theists who think they can violate the separation of church and state by having teacher-led prayer in public schools, or forcing non-theists to listen to sectarian prayers at the beginning of government meetings. Not only is it not respectful of those whose beliefs differ (and there are lots of us), it's not constitutional, either.

Do I think we'd all be better off if you didn't pray? Probably. There are a lot of societal problems that won't be fixed by prayer. As a famous agnostic once said, "The hands that help are better far than lips that pray."

Still, I'll repeat myself: pray all you like. Neither I, nor most atheists, care. But we do care about your actions when your irrational beliefs take you down roads that adversely impact other people's rights, and create policies that are bad for non-Christians and bad for society. When you do that, suddenly we care. We care a lot.

Saturday, September 06, 2014

Anti-Science Nuts are On All Sides of the Political Spectrum

There are so many anti-science nuts on the far right that I think we sometimes forget about the crazies on the left.

Here's an example I recently stumbled across: this radical feminist blogger thinks that women have "higher cognitive and sensory capacities than men" and "that compared to men, women simply seem to have a fully functioning brain (or far better functioning than men at least)" and "The mutation process clearly generates a deteriorated version of the original", thus showing she doesn't have much understanding of what a mutation is.

Of course, she also thinks that "some women do have the capacity to communicate with plants and trees and living beings in different ways, they ask the plant what kind of healing powers she has and the plant may reply, if she wants to". It's hard to understand someone whose world view is so distanced from reality.

The same blogger believes that all (literally all) sexual intercourse is rape and that sexual intercourse is somehow unnatural. When a commenter reasonably asks "Almost every mammal species reproduces this way, how can it be unnatural?", the blogger responds that "The purpose of PIV is to cause harm" (PIV, by the way, is the acronym for "penis-in-vagina sex") and "PIV isn’t natural, it’s an action done by men to us".

I feel very sorry for someone so filled with hate towards men, with such a warped worldview. Not filled with hate, you say? Read her December 12 comment here, where she advocates killing most or all men simultaneously: "The only way it could work without risking severe male retaliation is for all women to do it [kill men] at the same time, literally at the same time, so that the remaining males wouldn’t be sufficient in number and wouldn’t have enough time to organise repression harshly enough to terrorise women back into domestication." Honestly, this person sounds seriously dangerous to others. Let's hope her homicide fantasies don't become reality.

The Nonsensical Syllabus

Rebecca Schuman of Slate deftly summarizes what's happened to the course syllabus.

Needless to say, this disease of absurdity has already been happening at Waterloo for some time. For example, here's part of a message I recently received concerning my fall Algorithms course:

"It is now mandated by Senate that each offering of a course must provide a course outline that will be archived (those for CS will be archived on Information that does not exist for the course, such as the names of the teaching assistants if there are none, may be omitted.

Course outlines should include the following basic elements: course number and title; class days, times, building, and room number; class instructor's name, office, contact information, office hours; TA's name, office, contact information, office hours (if applicable); course description; course objectives; required text and/or readings; general overview of the topics to be covered; expectations of the course, including requirements, deadlines, weight of requirements toward the final course grade; acceptable rules for group work; indication of how late submissions and missed assignments will be treated; indication of where students are to submit and pick up marked assignments; the institutional-required statements regarding "Academic Integrity", "Grievance", "Discipline", "Appeals", and the "Note for students with disabilities" (see for the text of these statements);

The outlines are to be distributed to students electronically or on paper by the end of the first week of classes; and are required to be filed with the appropriate administrative authority."

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Huckabee is a Moron

Caught Mike Huckabee on Fox News. (I never watch it at home, but when traveling sometimes you are forced to.) He was asked about the wisdom of arming teachers in schools. Needless to say, he was for it, comparing it to rich or powerful people who have armed guards.

When one Fox News host dared to ask the obvious question -- namely, isn't it reasonable to worry about the misuse of all those guns in schools? -- Huckabee merely dismissed this concern, saying something like 'If this ... if that ... you can waste your time worrying about scenarios like that'.

Huckabee is a moron. The chance that any particular school being attacked by an armed intruder is vanishingly small, and the chances that it occurs and an armed teacher is going to stop it successfully is even smaller. On the other hand, accidents with guns happen every day, and there is certainly a nontrivial probability that (a) an accident will happen (b) a teacher will misuse a gun or (c) the gun will be stolen and used against a teacher or other student.

If you are going to evaluate the wisdom of arming teachers in schools, you have to have some good estimates on the various probabilities. And if the school district is going to pay for all that teacher training, you also have to factor in the costs of doing the training instead of (say) installing higher-security doors or training students how to respond in the unlikely event of an attack. This sensible approach to deciding about the proposal was dismissed by Huckabee as "if this".

It's not just conservatives who are stupid in this way. Sometimes you hear liberals saying something like "if it saves just one life, it's worth it" about some new policy. Well, of course, it's not necessarily worth it. A law restricting the speed limit to 10 mph on US roads would probably save lives, but we deem it not worth it because of the inconvenience and extra time it would cost us.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Robert Marks Caught!

Here you can read the true story of the evil Darwinist censors, not the version of intelligent design creationist Bob Marks.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Nonsense from Marks

Intelligent design creationists love to write for conservative political magazines because they know most of their audience won't have the technical skill to spot their bogus claims.

Here's Robert Marks, writing nonsense in Human Events:

"Yet we all agree that a picture of Mount Rushmore with the busts of four US Presidents contains more information than a picture of Mount Fuji."

We do, eh?

"Since it is our uniform experience that elsewhere, information is only created by intelligent agents..."

Here Marks is just repeating the familiar lie of ID creationist Stephen Meyer, which I pointed out was wrong four years ago.

Repeating lies doesn't make them any more credible.

Addendum: Tom English points out that Marks's claims about the publication of their creationist volume are bogus. Big surprise.