Saturday, April 21, 2007

Canadian Libel Law Needs Revision

I've written before about how Canadian libel law stifles open and robust public debate on the issues. Canadian politicians such as Tony Clement, Jacques Parizeau, Lucien Bouchard, and Brian Mulroney have all engaged in reprehensible libel suits meant to stifle criticism and investigation of their activities.

Now there's yet another disgraceful example. Wayne Crookes, a Vancouver businessman and former Green party organizer, is apparently suing Wikipedia, Google, and for libel for articles about him.

In the US, such a suit would have little chance of success because of the "public figure" exception. Crookes is clearly a public figure and the public is not served by attempting to censor the discussion about his record.

For more about Canadian libel law, read Kimberley Noble's Bound and Gagged.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Why Respect Religion?

The latest issue of Canadian Humanist News has this quote from American journalist H. L. Mencken:

"The most curious social convention of the great age in which we live is the one to the effect that religious opinions should be respected. Its evil effects must be plain enough to everyone."

Mencken's warning seems appropriate when we read this utterly ridiculous opinion piece by Cardinal George Pell of the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney, Australia.

Pell claims that global warming is "nonsense" purveyed by "zealots" who paint "extreme scenarios to frighten us". Pell knows that global warming is nonsense, because "January also was unusually cool".

But the worst is yet to come. In arguing against human causation for global warming, Pell states, "We know that enormous climate changes have occurred in world history, e.g. the Ice Ages and Noah’s flood, where human causation could only be negligible."

That's right. Cardinal Pell thinks that Noah's flood was an actual, historical event.

Can someone explain to me why this kind of moronic religious commentary deserves any respect at all?

If Fascism Comes to North America, High School Principals Will be Leading the Way

There are good high school principals. I remember one I had that was willing to break the rules and allow me to enroll in a high school chemistry class even though I was rather young.

But many high school principals seem to be fascists-in-training. All over North America, high school principals are abrogating the right of students to speak their minds, even out of school.

By now, most people have heard about the "bong hits 4 Jesus" case. That case, which is currently before the US Supreme Court, high school student Joseph Frederick unfurled a nonsenical banner with the message "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" while the Olympic torch passed through his town. His principal, Deborah Morse, confiscated the banner and suspended him. The outcome of that case is still pending, but we can depend on authoritarians like Scalia to side with the principal.

In another case, Bloomington, Minnesota Principal Steve Hill confiscated a student's Blackberry pager and erased photographs he had taken after a protest at the school. Ironically, the name of the high school is Thomas Jefferson High School.

Principals don't always win, however. In another case, the Indiana Court of Appeals has ruled that a student cannot be ruled a juvenile delinquent for criticizing her principal, using 4-letter words, in an online forum. Judge Patricia Riley found that the student's speech was protected by the Indiana Constitution.

Principals clearly have a lot of authority, and they can and should wield that authority inside the school in a responsible fashion. Students have the right to political speech, and what students do outside the school is their own business. Instead of being so thin-skinned, principals should use these kinds of events to teach the students a thing or two about the importance of free speech in an open society. By doing so, they would earn the respect of their students far more than any respect gained from the usual two-bit authoritarian posturing.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The Discovery Institute Lies Again

That fountain of lies, the Discovery Institute, has produced yet another lie.

In an opinion piece published in today's Dallas Morning News, John West and Bruce Chapman claim that comparing intelligent design proponents to faith healers or Holocaust deniers is absurd because "Faith healers and Holocaust deniers are not on the faculties of reputable universities. Scientists who support intelligent design are."

Well, Messrs. West and Chapman, welcome to my university, the University of Waterloo, which is consistently rated as the number 1 or number 2 comprehensive university in Canada. We have, on our faculty, Clifford Blake, a professor who claims that he has a supernatural gift to heal people. I wrote about his claims in three blog posts: Number 1, Number 2, and Number 3.

Messrs. West and Chapman also must think that Northwestern University is not reputable. Northwestern has a man named Arthur Butz on their faculty. Butz is the author of The Hoax of the Twentieth Century, a book claiming that the Holocaust is a hoax.

So the Discovery Institute lies again. Big surprise.

Here's what Messrs. West and Chapman should have said: "Like faith healers and Holocaust deniers, supporters of intelligent design can be found at many reputable universities. Their claims, however, say more about a dogmatic adherence to religion or nationalism than they do about a dispassionate search for the truth."

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Rick Warren, Clueless Hypocrite

Newsweek has printed a debate between minister Rick Warren, author of The Purpose Driven Life, and atheist Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith. Although I don't agree with Harris on everything, he certainly gets the better of nearly every exchange. Warren, on the other hand, comes off as a clueless hypocrite. Here are few excepts from their exchange, which, thanks to Newsweek's unpleasant site design, requires one to manually page through 10 pages of text.

Harris points out, "There is so much about us that is not in the Bible. Every specific science from cosmology to psychology to economics has surpassed and superseded what the Bible tells us is true about our world." Warren has no response.

Warren claims, "I believe [the Bible is] inerrant in what it claims to be." What? Has he never read any lists of contradictions to be found in the Bible?

In response to Harris's description of natural selection, Warren asks, "Who's doing the selecting?", proving he has no understanding of evolution. When Harris answers, "The environment. You don't have to invoke an intelligent designer to explain the complexity we see", Warren comes up with this non sequitur: "Sam makes all kinds of assertions based on his presuppositions."

Warren then describes his reason for believing that God answers his prayers: "One of the great evidences of God is answered prayer. I have a friend, a Canadian friend, who has an immigration issue. He's an intern at this church, and so I said, "God, I need you to help me with this," as I went out for my evening walk. As I was walking I met a woman. She said, "I'm an immigration attorney; I'd be happy to take this case." Now, if that happened once in my life I'd say, "That is a coincidence." If it happened tens of thousands of times, that is not a coincidence."

This is the sort of post hoc, propter hoc reasoning that leads people astray in so many fields, from reason to medicine. I never pray, and yet beneficial coincidences happen to me, too. Warren seems to have this childish conception of his god as cosmic favor-granter, routinely rearranging the universe for his personal benefit.

About the virgin birth of Jesus, Harris says "I consider it such a low-probability event that I—" and Warren cuts him off, saying, "A low probability? When there are 96 percent believers in the world? So is everybody else an idiot?"

Warren seems to think the probability of an event is related to the number of people who believe in it. Then we get this exchange:

HARRIS: It is quite possible for most people to be wrong—as are most Americans who think that evolution didn't occur.

WARREN: That's an arrogant statement.

But later we get this:

Interviewer: Rick, let's be blunt. Is Sam's soul in jeopardy, in your view, because he has rejected Jesus?

WARREN: The politically incorrect answer is yes.

HARRIS: Is that the honest answer?

WARREN: The truth is, religion is mutually exclusive.

So in other words, according to Warren, it's "arrogant" when Harris says it's "possible" most people could be wrong about religion. But Warren admits that he thinks (not it's "possible", it definitely is the case) that everyone who doesn't believe in Jesus has "their soul in jeopardy".

Now I've justified my charge that Warren is a hypocrite. How about clueless? Well, consider this exchange:

WARREN: ... I say, "God likes order," and the more we understand ecology, the more we understand how sensitive that order is.

HARRIS: Then God also likes smallpox and tuberculosis.

WARREN: I would attribute a lot of the sins in the world to myself.

HARRIS: Are you responsible for smallpox?

WARREN: I am responsible to do something about it.

Here Harris is clearly asking, is Warren the source, the cause of smallpox? But Warren misunderstands, choosing a different meaning of "responsible". Deep inside, he probably doesn't want to deal with the implications, which is that the god he worships as all-good is also the source of this scourge.

Rick Warren, clueless hypocrite.