Saturday, June 30, 2007

Kirk Durston: Apologist for Genocide

Kirk Durston is a graduate student in biology at the University of Guelph, and the director of something called the New Scholars Society. This Society's mission statement is




You can find their "statement of faith" here. It's the usual fundagelical claptrap about the bible being "uniquely, verbally and fully inspired by the Holy Spirit, and that it was written without error (inerrant) in the original manuscripts."

Durston is active in fundagelical affairs. For example, look at this interview supporting intelligent design. How many misrepresentations can you find there?

Durston spoke last Wednesday, June 20, at the University of Waterloo on the topic "Is Genocide Wrong? What are moral absolutes and where do they come from?"

Durston made the usual nonsensical argument that moral absolutes exist, and that they only make sense if they come from a god. He claimed, for example, that if morals are relative, we would have not justification for claiming that the Nazi genocide of Jews was wrong. He claimed that those who follow "traditional moralilty" are happier and more successful. He insisted that Christians have a lower divorce rate than non-Christians. However, Durston's claim is at odds with a Barna survey that showed that atheists and agnostics actually have the lowest divorce rate (21%). When asked about this, Durston dismissed the evidence, invoking the classic "no true Scotsman" fallacy by claiming that many people say they are Christian when they are actually not.

Durston surveyed various ways to obtain moral guidance, but totally omitted a naturalistic approach to ethics, namely the view that ethical principles are part of our evolutionary heritage. There is a reasonable amount of evidence for this latter view, such as the work of primatologist Frans de Waal (e.g., Chimpanzee Politics, showing that chimpanzees apparently have a moral code) and the field of evolutionary psychology (e.g., Robert Wright, The Moral Animal). In general, his presentation was barely at the level of freshman philosophy paper.

But the most repulsive part of Durston's talk was when someone from the audience asked why Durston's condemnation of genocide would not apply equally well to the god of the Old Testament, who indulged in genocide himself, in particular the genocide of the Canaanites. Suddenly Durston's tune changed. Instead of condemning this genocide, Durston sought to justify it. Genocide was OK, he claimed, if his god ordained it. Indeed, he said that the only thing that prevented him from going and out murdering people for his advantage was his religious belief.

If God ordained genocide in our modern day, Durston said, he would obey. However, he said he would have to be very convinced that this call was correct. God would have to appear to all Canadians in an unmistakable way. If that happened, we would have to obey and kill those we were instructed to.

If there is any better example of how fundamentalist Christianity is morally bankrupt, I can't think of it. Any crime, no matter how vile, is OK if their god commands it. What else but religion could make a good person become an apologist for genocide?

Addendum (added October 26 2007): Kirk Durston has asked me to post this clarification regarding his views on genocide. He agrees that he would participate in genocide if God ordained it, but he says the conditions must be extremely stringent: it must be that (for example) God simultaneously appears to every Canadian, in an impressive and undeniable show, so that every single Canadian is convinced of his existence (even atheists) and also convinced that God wants us (for example) to kill Americans. Only under these very strong conditions, he says, would genocide be permitted.

In my opinion, I already summarized this view in the paragraphs above, so I don't understand the need for the "clarification", but I've added it anyway.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Dembski Misrepresents Me - Again!

Although I wrote a long critique of William Dembski's work back in 2002, he has never really addressed those criticisms.

However, he's been happy to insult me -- at one point calling me a "maniac", misrepresenting a conversation I had with Ruse, and misrepresenting the reason why I didn't testify in the Kitzmiller case.

In a recent interview, William Dembski misrepresents me again. He says: "Jeff Shallit, for instance, when I informed him of some work of mine on the conservation of information told me that he refuse to address it because I had not adequately addressed his previous objections to my work, though the work on conservation of information about which I was informing him was precisely in response to his concerns."

That's not accurate. Here's what I actually said in my e-mail message of March 3 2005:

I already told you - since you have never publicly acknowledged even
one of the many errors I have pointed out in your work - I do not intend
to waste my time finding more errors in more work of yours.

I find your failure to acknowledge the errors I have pointed out
completely indefensible, both ethically and scientifically.

It's not a matter of "adequately address[ing]" something, it's a matter of publishing a retraction to claims that are demonstrably false. At that point in time, Dembski had not done so, although eventually he did get around to admitting that the centerpiece calculation in his book was off by 65 orders of magnitude.

If Dembski thinks I have some obligation to read everything he's written and give him extensive comments, he's wrong. And, of course, those who do make the effort to wade through his pseudomathematics get labeled as "obsessive" - that's what he called Richard Wein.

You just can't please a creationist.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Groundhog Day

We have groundhogs in our backyard. It started with one, but now there are babies (see the photo).

Groundhogs, also known as woodchucks, are marmots; their scientific name is Marmota monax.

While I enjoy seeing them, my wife is not so happy that they are eating up the garden.

When the babies get a little older, we'll try to trap them with a live trap and relocate them.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

America is Doomed

When travelling, I like to read the local newspapers.

On our way back to Canada from Utah, we spent the night in rural Illinois. The local paper, the Bureau County Republican carried an article about two young women who recently entered the 2007 State 4-H contest in Urbana, Illinois.

Heather and Hannah Pierson gave a speech entitled "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Back". According to the newspaper article,

The girls' speech was about raindrop therapy for horses using essential oils.

"We apply then to certain areas of the horse, like the pressure points," Heather said. "It's used to calm them down, to help realign their spine and helps their immune system."

Now, you might wonder why a horse would need to have its spine "realigned" to begin with.

Hannah said they learned about the therapy a couple of years ago when their mother had a toothache. A neighbor gave her an essential oil, and the toothache was gone ina few hours. Then the girls watched a video on the subject.

Wow. A video! No wonder these young women are such experts in equine medicine.

My guess is that these girls have been suckered by a mixture of the quack therapy of Donald Gary Young or Heather Mack and homeopathy.

But, never fear, you reassure me. Certainly such foolishness. could not win a prize.

Wrong. The Pearsons took first place.

With such incompetence on display, it was not a surprise to learn that the girls are creationists.

Heather said her speech was about the evolution of the horse versus creation, and she had to do lots of studying to prepare.

"My mom bought me three books, and I also get things off the Internet," she said.

Wasn't there anyone advising these young women about quack health claims, or the scientific method, or the importance of evidence beyond the anecdotal?

America is doomed.

Here's a Journal I Won't Be Subscribing To

Today I received an invitation from Emerald Group Publishing to subscribe to the International Journal of Numerical Methods for Heat & Fluid Flow. I have to admit, the topic is quite far from my research interests, and so I wouldn't dream of subscribing to it just for that reason alone. But something about the solicitation made me want to look more closely.

The letter inviting me to subscribe was headed, in large-point type, "Subscribe today and receive £75 worth of Marriott Cheques!"

What kind of journal, I thought, would use such a blatant marketing ploy, offering me the equivalent of US $147 worth of hotel vouchers that, according to the flyer, "can be used for accommodation, dining, spa or golf, in any of over 2,600 luxurious Marriott Hotels world-wide!"? The flyer adds "Go on - treat yourself!"

The mystery was resolved when I consulted the cost of subscription. For volume 17, issues 1 to 8, I would have to pay US $9,899 for one year of this journal. I'm used to exorbitant subscription prices, but this is ridiculous. No wonder they can afford to give away $147, when they're charging nearly $10,000 a year.

Everyone who is involved in this journal, from the publishers to the editorial board, should be ashamed of themselves. There is simply no rationale for such a price, other than making bucketloads of cash. Professional societies publish analogous journals for as little as $200 a year, and there are many electronic journals offering analogous content entirely free.

I am particularly offended by the idea that by subscribing, I would receive hotel vouchers to "treat [myself]". I would venture to guess that most people who make the decision to subscribe are not paying out of their pocket, but rather using grant, university, or industry funds -- in which case providing the subscriber with personal benefits could be seen as unethical.

I encourage all academics to boycott journals like this one, sending their scholarly work to journals that charge sensible prices, particularly electronic journals with free access.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

A Parthenogenetic Lizard

Here's a picture I took of the Plateau Striped Whiptail ( Cnemidophorus velox), a lizard I saw in Chaco Canyon, northwest New Mexico.

Plateau Striped Whiptails are unusual because, like several whiptail species, they are primarily parthenogenetic; that is, females usually reproduce without the assistance of males.

Parthenogenesis in Plateau Striped Whiptails was first noted by biologist T. Paul Maslin [Science, 132 (1962), 212-213], who collected these lizards and found 102 females and only 2 males, both juvenile. Because of the presence of 2 males, Maslin cautioned that parthenogenesis was not conclusively established. Later, however [Copeia (1971), 156-158] Maslin reported raising whiptails in captivity without the presence of males, thus establishing parthenogenesis beyond doubt.

Another interesting thing about whiptails is the difficulty in distinguishing one species from another, so take my tentative identification with a grain of salt. In 1906, Hans Gadow wrote "Most of the 'species' are so plastic, so variable, that they may well drive the systematist to despair. Not two authorities will, nor can, possibly agree upon the number of admissible species." [Proc. Zool. Soc. London 75 (1906), 227-375; note that this reference is given incorrectly as "Proc. Roy. Soc. London" in several places online]. When a creationist natters about "fixity of species", this is a useful comeback.

There's a volume called Biology of Whiptail Lizards that's not in our library at Waterloo, but is at Toronto. I've ordered it by interlibrary loan. For those who don't want to wade through it, there's a summary by Donald Blanchard available.

Why I Won't Be Voting for Ron Paul

If you read Reddit, or Wikipedia, you might think that Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul is the best thing since sliced bread. After all, he "believes in maintaining and restoring civil liberties". He's "both deeply principled and wholly uncompromised". He's "honest". Sounds great, right?

Unfortunately, he's also a total loon.

He's anti-choice. He's against human embryonic stem-cell research. He wants to return to the gold standard. He would deny US citizenship to those born in the US to illegal immigrant parents.

If that's not enough, read this piece, entitled "The War on Religion", penned by Representative Paul. In it, he subscribes to the absurd claim, advanced by the wacko right, that there is a "war on religion", conducted by "the elitist, secular Left". He claims (falsely) that the US constitution is "replete with references to God". (Actually, the Constitution, a profoundly secular document, does not mention "God", "Jesus", "Christianity", or "Savior". It does have one reference that could be construed as religious; namely, the formulaic "Seventeenth Day of September in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven" at the end.)

Having a president that is deeply principled can be a good thing. First, though, I'd want to make sure his principles are based on reality, not some bizarre Christian persecution syndrome.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Why Are Atheists Always Described as Militant?

Gustave Flaubert wrote a lovely book, Dictionnaire des idées reçues, published posthumously in 1913. (The title roughly translates as "Dictionary of Platitudes".) In it, he poked fun at, among other things, nouns that are nearly always accompanied by certain adjectives. Germans, he noted, are always described as "blond", a professor is always "learned", and jealousy is always "unbridled".

In a similar vein, the comedian Robert Klein once noted that President Garfield is nearly always described as "shot by a disappointed office-seeker". Klein went on to claim that if you look up Garfield in the dictionary, it says "See office-seeker, disappointed".

The intelligent design crowd plays the same game with "Darwinists". They never refer to their ideological opponents as scientists or biologists; they are nearly always "Darwinists", or, as Wesley Elsberry has pointed out, "dogmatic Darwinists".

Now look at this otherwise unnoteworthy article by Associate Press religion reporter Rachel Zoll, about the reaction to recent books by atheists Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens. Notice anything, well, trite about the title? Yes, it's the "militant atheist" platitude. Atheists must never be described as intelligent, thoughtful, friendly, questioning, or thought-provoking. Instead, they must be described as "militant".

From the meaning of "militant", you might expect that Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens are burning down churches, or at least leading protests, stirring up crowds with their fiery rhetoric. You would be disappointed, of course. What Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens have done is write books. Hitchens is more of a curmudgeon than a militant, and Dawkins and Harris are both rather mild-mannered. Nobody is leaving their public events carrying torches and singing the atheist analogue of the Horst Wessel song.

I'm not sure when the juxtaposition of "militant" and "atheist" became a cliché. The earliest citation I've been able to find so far is a 1928 book review of Edward Lucas White's book Why Rome Fell by Elmer Davis. Davis wrote, "Militant atheists ought not to read it; they will be too likely to swallow it all uncritically."

Whatever the origins, the term "militant atheist" eventually became a description to be used whenever the writer wanted to express disapproval about nonbelievers. Madalyn Murray O'Hair was often so described; a 1970 article in Time sneered at her attempt to found a new church. True, O'Hair was, by all accounts, a nasty person. However, when she was killed in 1995, obituaries routinely referred to her as "militant". Her murderer, however, was not so categorized.

When Jerry Falwell died recently, newspaper obituaries rarely described him as "militant", even though the adjective fit him much better than mild-mannered atheists like Harris. Ironically, however, the Associated Press obituary by Sue Lindsey, referred to Falwell's father and grandfather as "militant atheists".

Flaubert would have appreciated the "militant atheist" cliché. In Dictionnaire des idées reçues, he reported the following platitude about atheists: "A nation of atheists could not survive." Sadly, that cliché is still prevalent today among the morons of the Religious Right.

Added June 6 2007: over at Pharyngula, commenter Jurjen S., whose command of history is evidently better than mine, tells me about the League of Militant Atheists, an anti-religious group in the Soviet Union from 1925-1947. Probably this is the source of the term "militant atheist"; indeed, many of the 1920's citations for this phrase discuss actions in the Soviet Union.

Added January 4 2011
Google's n-gram viewer

has now revealed some earlier uses of the term: the earliest I have found is from Progress: a monthly magazine of advanced thought, Volume 6 edited by George William Foote, in 1886. On page 466 he writes "He was not only an Atheist, but a militant Atheist..." Perhaps this is the earliest usage of the term. But as the google n-gram viewer indicates, the term really took off in the 1920's, with the rise of the "League of Militant Atheists" in the former Soviet Union.

Oddly enough, the term "militant theist" gets no citations at all.