Sunday, December 26, 2010

Gee, It's Warmer in Buffalo Than I Thought

From The Weather Network website today:

Friday, December 24, 2010


Spotted on Queen Street in Kitchener, Ontario:

I like the unintentional coinage very much.

Homeoapathy: The selling of quack medical remedies while being unconcerned about their lack of effectiveness.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

DADT, Ten Years Ago

Now that the offensive and moronic DADT policy has been repealed, it's time to revisit a Salon panel discussion held ten years ago.

Charles Moskos, the late Northwestern sociologist, tried to defend DADT by saying things like "That's just asking for trouble. How do we do it with men and women? It doesn't work there. We're having all kinds of cases, including as the women say, too many false accusations. Let's just muddle through the way we are with "don't ask, don't tell." It's much easier. I think the gender stuff is hard enough to deal with and to replicate that with sexual orientation just makes life too much trouble."

He also said, in Lingua Franca, that "I should not be forced to shower with a woman. I should not be forced to shower with a gay."

Here is the comment I left ten years ago, which is still visible:

Your panel discussion on gays in the military was remarkable in that it did not even mention the experiences of other countries. Canada, for example, successfully integrated gays in the military some years ago, and the UK is now slated to follow the same path. Brigadier General Daniel E. Munro, the director general for personnel policy in the Canadian Forces, was quoted in the Washington Post as saying, "We would not have been able to prove that [homosexuality] had that deleterious effect on cohesion and morale that everyone talked about. Basically, we realized that we didn't have the evidentiary foundation ... It just wasn't there, I mean, you can't use the old cohesion and morale arguments just based on folklore. You have to be able to prove this stuff." If only U.S. military officials could speak with such honesty!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The National Post Responds

I have been having some of the strangest interactions I have ever had, with both Charles Lewis, religion columnist of the National Post, and Stephen Meurice, the Post's editor-in-chief. They resulted from my blog post reacting to Lewis's column, entitled Dear atheists: most of us don't care what you think.

First, Meurice. I asked him why it was acceptable to have Lewis's headline, but not acceptable to have the analogous headline with (say) "Jews" replacing "atheists".

I found his reply rather surprising. He thinks the distinction is that most Jews are born into their faith, while atheism is just "an opinion".

One great feature of both American and Canadian democracies is that we find discrimination against people for irrelevant attributes to be unacceptable. This principle is behind laws against employment discrimination, and the recent repeal of DADT. (Canada, I'm glad to say, ended discrimination against gays in the military long ago.)

But it is quite strange to suggest that discrimination against irrelevant attributes becomes unacceptable only when those attributes arise from the circumstances of one's birth.

If Meurice's view is correct, then we should be free to discriminate against adult converts to any religion. After all, the Jew who converts to Christianity was not born into his faith; he chose it, presumably after some intellectual struggle, and therefore, pace Meurice, it is just "an opinion". Similarly, we should be free to discriminate against adherents of new religions, such as Scientology or Branch Davidianism, since many adherents were not born into those faiths. This is clearly ridiculous.

Meurice's view also implies that if atheism becomes more mainstream - to the point, let's say, where most adherents are born atheists - then suddenly it would become unacceptable to discriminate against it. But isn't this the opposite of what should be the case? Established viewpoints don't need much protection; it's the more unfamiliar that routinely gets discriminated against.

So I don't think Meurice's distinction makes much sense.

Charles Lewis has also been corresponding with me - but in the oddest, passive-aggressive sort of way. At one point he wrote "I will never think of you again", but a few days later he was badgering me to publish this response on my blog. At another point he said he would call me to discuss a misunderstanding; when he finally did, he wouldn't let me speak, called me "weak-minded", and hung up in a huff.

The misunderstanding came about when I wrote a long response to some of his points, and even offered to buy him a coffee if he were ever in town. But he apparently didn't see that response, because he wrote back "you could have answered and created a dialogue". I've tried to resolve that, but he doesn't seem to want to listen.

If this is representative of the state of journalism in Canada, we're in deep trouble.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Bob Enyart: Foolish and Smugly So

I hadn't heard about convicted criminal Bob Enyart before, but based on yesterday's posting, I haven't missed much.

He gives a list of what he calls "typical atheist clichés" and then refutes them in a single line. Unfortunately, most of his "clichés" are straw men -- arguments that I've never heard, or rarely heard, anyone put forward, let alone atheists.

Let's take #1: "There is no truth!" Who ever said that, and what is it even supposed to mean?

Other of his "clichés" make sense, but only if you interpret them in a reasonable way. For example, #2 is "Truth is unknowable!" But the only sensible interpretations of that statement are (for example) that some truths are unknowable (which we know to be true from Gödel), and that other statements that we believe we know with certainty (such as our own birthdate) are, in fact, only held with justifiable and strong certainty, not irrefutable knowledge. Enyart's proposed rebuttal "How do you know?" is just nonsensical.

Enyart says "If your worldview can be dismantled within eight seconds, then get a better one." I'd say, if you think you have dismantled someone else's worldview in 8 seconds, you're just fooling yourself.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Silence from the National Post

I wrote to Gordon Fisher, President of the National Post; Douglas Kelly, the Publisher; Jonathan Harris, VP of Digital Media; Stephen Meurice, the Editor-in-Chief; and Jonathan Kay, Managing Editor, Comment.

I asked them all the same thing: if it would not be acceptable for someone at the National Post to write a piece entitled "Dear Jews: Most of us don't care what you think", why is it acceptable for Charles Lewis to do so with "Jews" replaced by "atheists"?

Not a single person at the National Post was courageous enough to reply.

It speaks volumes, doesn't it, about the double standard that allows atheists to be criticized in the most vituperative and bigoted ways, with no uproar?

Addendum: (December 20). Stephen Meurice responded to me on December 17. Here is my response.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Jehovah's Witness Creationist Writes Me

I don't get that many creationists writing me, but I am indebted to a certain J. M. of Massachusetts, who has recently written to send me a copy of the November 2010 Jehovah's Witness publication, Awake!. He claims "This magazine points out some flaws in the atheists' reasoning."

Well, no, it doesn't.

The first article is entitled "Atheists on a Crusade", and is just one in a long line of articles by theists using religious language to denigrate atheism and evolution. "Called the new atheists," the article says, "they are not content to keep their views to themselves".

This just cracks me up. The Jehovah's Witnesses - you know, the folks who go door-to-door to spread their religion - are complaining because atheists are not content to keep their views to themselves. My irony meter just broke.

Another article, "Has Science Done Away with God?" repeats the canard that "everyday experience tells us that design -- especially highly sophisticated design -- calls for a designer". Well, no, it doesn't. That was resolved 150 years ago, when Darwin published The Origin of Species. We know now that mechanisms like mutation and natural selection can produce complexity and the appearance of design. The article goes on to ask, "What is the only source of information that we know of? In a word, intelligence". But anyone taking an introductory course in information theory at my university knows this is a lie.

It's a shame that creationists have to resort to untruths like this, but it's all they have.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Dear Charles Lewis: You're a Dishonest Bigot

If you can stomach it, read this appalling piece of dreck by Charles Lewis, religion writer for the National Post.

It's hard to know what to make of it, other than that Lewis is terribly, terribly threatened by the rising popularity of atheism and atheist writers. He doesn't seem to know a damn thing about atheists, but believes they are all horrible, boring utopians.

As evidence of this, he trots out Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, and labels them "dreary". Hitchens, dreary? Lewis must be living in some bizarro universe where dreary means "vastly entertaining".

If I had to name a single famous person I'd love to have dinner with, it would be Hitchens, who knows much more about politics and history than I do, and is witty to boot. Dawkins would be a close second. Come to think of it, having them both for dinner would be perfect: Hitchens can talk about art, history, and politics, and Dawkins can talk about science.

I understand perfectly well why Lewis feels threatened by Hitchens. It was Hitchens who wrote The Missionary Position, exposing Mother Teresa as a pious fraud who loved poverty and suffering for everyone except herself. Lewis, who himself wrote on Mother Teresa, can't accept that characterization. But it is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on him not understanding it.

Lewis claims "most atheists do not have a clue what religion is about". Like most bigots, though, he doesn't present a shred of evidence for this claim. If he bothered to look at the evidence, though, he'd conclude just the opposite: atheists know more about religion than Protestants and Catholics.

Lewis gives North Korea as an example of a "godless society". But he doesn't dare mention the European social democracies, such as Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, all of which are good examples of peaceful, prosperous societies with significantly lower levels of religious belief than either Canada or the US. Nor does Lewis mention the behavior of officially religious societies, such as Afghanistan. That's simple dishonesty. Perhaps Lewis should review the Ten Commandments -- as I recall, there was this prohibition against "bear[ing] false witness".

Lewis claims "Atheists are under the ridiculous illusion that religious people think that all they have to do is call out to God and help will be on the way". Well, no. Atheists know that there is a huge variety of religious belief, and we also know that many Christians do believe exactly what Lewis says they don't. Pretending that this is not a large strain of North American religious belief is, simply, dishonest.

Lewis says "Faith is not up for debate". Well, I've got news for you, Chuck: you're wrong. In a free society, you don't get a pass because you call your beliefs "faith" and pronounce them off limits. Can't justify them? Fine with me. Just don't expect me, or anyone else to take you seriously.

I can just imagine the reaction if Lewis wrote a column entitled "Dear Jews: most of us don't care what you think". No doubt he'd be fired in a minute. But criticizing atheists is just fine.

Why on earth is the National Post employing this ignorant bigot?

Naming Infinity

Loren Graham, an American historian of science, and Jean-Michel Kantor, a French mathematician, have collaborated on a recent book, Naming Infinity: A True Story of Religious Mysticism and Mathematical Creativity (Harvard University Press, 2009).

Graham and Kantor's thesis is that a Russian religious cult, "name worshipping", was partly responsible for advances in set theory made by Russian mathematicians in the early 1900's, whereas the French "rationalistic, Cartesian" approach prevented similar breakthroughs. Indeed, on p. 189 they claim "under the influence of their [Borel, Baire, Lebesgue's] ultra-rationalistic traditions, they lost their nerve". (However, this supposed "loss of nerve" is not supported by any documentation.)

I found it an interesting book, but one that did not successfully support its thesis. After all, placing the responsibility for an historical event on some other single event or belief is highly problematic: consider that there are still people who debate the conclusion that slavery was a primary cause of the American civil war. Why one group solved a mathematical problem, while another failed, is not always so simple to determine. It can be a matter of pure intellectual ability, or a desire to focus on one area rather than other, or something entirely random, like a conversation in a café. Graham and Kantor hedge a bit on p. 100, where they write, "when we emphasize the importance of Name Worshipping to men like Luzin, Egorov, and Florensky, we are not claiming a unique or necessary relationship. We are simply saying that in the cases of these thinkers, a religious heresy being talked about at the time when creative work was being done in set theory played a role in their conceptions. It could have happened another way; but it did not." But if this all they were saying, then so what?

Srinivasan Ramanujan believed that his family's deity, Namagiri, whispered equations in his ear. But it doesn't necessarily follow that without a belief in Namagiri, he would not have created the mathematics he did. Maybe he would have been an even better mathematician had he not been imbued with his Hindu superstitions.

Similarly, it's not clear to me that Russian mathematicians like Egorov, Luzin, Florensky, and others could not have been just as successful -- or even more so -- had they not subscribed to their bizarre Christian cult. It even seems that their cult could induce ridiculous statements like the one the quote from Bely: "When I name an object with a word, I thereby assert its existence." That will certainly be news to unicorns and the set of all sets. Similarly, Luzin wrote that he "consider[ed] the totality of all natural numbers objectively existing" (italics in original), which raises the question, what precisely does it mean for a number to "exist"? This point is not really discussed by the authors. But it seems to me that, for example, that the number ℵ0 "exists" in exactly the same way that the number 4 "exists".

The book is generally well-presented, although I found a couple of things to quibble about. On page 58, for example, the authors claim that "explicit namings of even one of them [normal numbers in base 10] have been very difficult to obtain". But this is not true. For example, Champernowne's number .123456789101112 ..., which consists of the decimal expansions of the integers concatenated in increasing order, has a very simple proof of normality found by Pillai in 1939. Many, many other examples are known, such as the result of Davenport and Erdős in 1952 that .f(1)f(2)f(3)... is normal if f is any polynomial taking positive integer values at the positive integers. And I was also annoyed by the misspelling "Riemanian surfaces" on p. 113 --- "Riemann" has two n's, not one --- and the failure to put the proper accents on Wacław Sierpiński on p. 118.

Nevertheless, this is a little book worth reading, even if its main thesis is poorly supported. For me, the best part of the book was the history of Soviet mathematics in Chapters 7 and 8. Although I knew the names of most of the Russian mathematicians discussed, I had not explicitly realized the extent of mathematical talent in Moscow in the 1920's. And the mistreatment of Egorov, Luzin, and Florensky under Communism, and the bravery of people like Chebotaryov who stood up for them and suffered as a result, is a cautionary tale worth knowing about.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Canadian Bozos of the Week

Wow, there's so many different possibilities to pick from!

How about University of Calgary prof and Stephen Harper adviser Tom Flanagan, who thinks Julian Assange should be assassinated?

Or the voters in Vaughan, Ontario, who elected that creepy authoritarian, Julian Fantino as their next MP?

Or the trustees of the Waterloo Region public school board who voted to continue to allow the Gideons to distribute their Bibles to 5th graders in public schools?

Or Gideon member Art Wagensveld who tried to pretend that his organization's Bible distribution "is in no way a religious action"?

Or Waterloo city councillor Angela Vieth, who backed removing fluoridation from the water supply and was quoted as saying "This is toxic waste, it doesn't need to be in our drinking water"?

So many bozos, so hard to choose...