Sunday, December 30, 2007

Science and non-science

Science and nonsense

Maybe it's a good book. I don't know and I don't expect to spend time reading it. But I doubt it. The author is Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, archbishop of Vienna and friend to the Discovery Institute's intelligent design advocates. Chance or Purpose? has been published by Ignatius Press, which took out a full-page ad for the book in the December 2007 issue of Inside the Vatican. (Ignatius Press is the American publisher of the books of Pope Benedict XVI and a regular advertiser in Inside the Vatican.)

Schönborn's publisher is quick to round up the usual suspects to provide laudatory blurbs for the cardinal's book. My favorite is by the unavoidable Michael Behe:
Science cannot speak of ultimate purpose, and scientists who do so are outside of their authority. In Chance or Purpose? Cardinal Schönborn shows that the data of biology, when properly examined by reason and philosophy, strongly point to a purposeful world.

—MICHAEL BEHE, Professor of Biochemistry, Lehigh University, Pennsylvania and author of Darwin's Black Box
Go ahead. Read Behe's statement again. He does not appear to be kidding. First he says that “ultimate purpose” is beyond the ambit of science. Fine. (I think it's outside the reach of the fables of religion, too, but that's a separate point.) Then Behe says that biology (I think that's a science) points toward a “purposeful world” when a religious philosopher examines the data produced by its practitioners—by scientists! I guess scientists should just do their work and wait for the priests to tell them what it means.

Have you ever seen anything sillier? (Sorry: I forgot about The Edge of Evolution.)

Yet when Behe's blurb crossed the desk of the person responsible for putting together the Ignatius Press ad, did he (or she) say, “Oh, dear. This is just arrant nonsense. We can't use this!” Apparently not. Working on ad copy for a religious publisher must train you to believe at least six impossible things before breakfast every morning, so Behe's blather was treated as golden and placed near the top of the ad for Schönborn's book.

I noticed that the cover of Chance or Purpose? juxtaposes two spiral images: the nautilus shell that is so beloved of the Discovery Institute and a spiral galaxy (the Whirlpool Galaxy, in fact). Did someone mean to imply a unity between earthly biology, as represented by the shell, and God's infinite universe, as represented by the star system? Perhaps. If strained symbolism was their purpose, perhaps someone should have noticed that the spirals are oriented in different directions. They oppose each other.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Xmas in Bizarroland

Heaping helpings

I arrived at Mom & Dad's on Christmas Eve. They were holding their customary holiday open house, a casual business involving drop-in visits by family members and friends. Some of them were delivering gifts, while others were just saying hello. I missed my cousin and his wife, who left minutes before my arrival, but I was there when Dick hobbled in.

Dick had a fancy new cane with multiple feet and was walking under his own power. As he came slowly up the sidewalk, Dad shook his head and said, “Too much booze and too many cigarettes. That'll do it to you.” Dad was sympathetic about his old friend's condition, but still indulging his censorious tendencies. We had a nice visit with Dick, commiserating over his physical frailty and complimenting him on the successful physical therapy that had him back on his feet. Dick regaled us with tales of his travail and described the joys of using the new Rascal scooter that Medicare had purchased for him:

“The government paid for most of it, but I got a bill for $800. I don't think I'm going to have to pay it, though.”

Dick was also getting some of his prescriptions by mail order from Canada because Medicare Part D doesn't cover everything. Mom & Dad were delighted to hear about Dick's scooter, but indignant that its cost and the costs of his prescriptions were not fully covered. Wasn't it just like the federal government to create problems like this? (I bit my tongue and stayed quiet.)

As Dick's visit ended and he hobbled back toward the door, another of my cousins arrived to deliver gifts to my parents (who are her godparents). We all segued smoothly into a discussion of her woes and complaints. She had been getting phone calls from marketing companies and political campaigns that addressed her in Spanish because of confusion over her Portuguese last name (which is identical in spelling to a common Spanish name). “This is America! Speak English! I don't talk Mexican! No one helped me learn English when I was in school. I had to learn it myself!”

My cousin had hit a subject particularly dear to Dad's heart. He had been complaining earlier in the day over his discovery that local PBS stations had added a Spanish-language channel to their digital TV broadcasts. I had restrained myself from mentioning that his late mother would have been delighted, since she never learned English and could follow Spanish dialog quite comfortably. Over the years, I have heard quite a few of my fellow Portuguese speakers complain that Spanish speakers are coddled while we Luso-Americans were ignored. Dad is especially vociferous on the topic:

“That's all crap,” said Dad. “They shouldn't be spending our tax dollars on people who should be fending for themselves—like we did!”

The chair where Dick had been sitting was still warm from his visit, but Mom & Dad had done a full reverse and were now outraged about supposedly extravagant government services. Even though they had clucked their tongues and shaken their heads over Dick's dissipated ways, his use of Medicare programs was no more than his just due. My head was spinning.

Left to my own devices later in the day, I noticed a gleaming slime trail on the bookcase unit I had built in the family room back in my college years. As I suspected, it was oozing out of the latest book by Ann Coulter. My mother collects them assiduously and defiles my cabinetwork by thoughtlessly shelving them in my bookcase. She has apparently yet to notice that her copy of Godless is missing. I borrowed it several months ago because I wanted to peruse La Coulter's insane chapters on evolution without contributing a single penny to her royalty statements. Perhaps Mom does not refresh herself at the font of Ann's wisdom as often as one might expect. Does she even notice that her favorite author just rehashes the same insipid claims over and over again, pausing merely to sprinkle in a few new insults?

A new day—but not really

Christmas Day offered the distraction of about two dozen family members and guests. There was a lot of nattering about all of the twice-a-year Catholics who had shown up for the Christmas service. My family (except for me, of course) is dutiful and punctilious about their Sunday obligation—and proud of it. All those other people are bad Catholics. Heck, they're hardly Catholics at all!

One of my nieces is hugely pregnant and due to pop any day. She already has two children. Mom said, “She actually wants four.” Once again I was as good a boy as I could be. I did not say, “‘Wants’? What does ‘wants’ have to do with it? I was at the wedding. I heard the part about accepting children lovingly as God saw fit to provide them. What is a good Catholic wife doing talking about the number of children she wants? It's not her call, is it? At the rate she's going, she could crank out a dozen more before her system gives out!” Nope, I didn't say that.

The name of another of my innumerable cousins came up. He and his longtime companion have split up after a couple of decades together. My folks showed commendable hypocrisy in expressing their concern over the trouble in gay paradise. While they won't hesitate—especially not Dad—to express their disgust with those nasty gay people (and to glance nervously askance at their middle-aged bachelor son), of course none of that applies to their sweet nephew, whose situation they had long since grown accustomed to. Dad actually referred to the estranged partner: “He seemed like a nice guy.”

It's all grotesquely inconsistent with everything they purport to believe, but it gives one hope that they're not completely insane.

Another of my nieces brought a new boyfriend with her, a young man brave enough to face the mob that is my family. He acquitted himself well at Christmas dinner and during the after-dinner social hour. After he left, however, Dad turned to Mom and said, “Boy, he's really not much to look at, is he?” Having been so much of a good boy for the better part of two days, I let a remark slip: “Gee, Dad, you're right. He's kind of plain. Too bad your granddaughter didn't concentrate on getting a knockout piece of eye candy. She should have given a lot more priority to looks.” Mom raised her eyebrows and said nothing. Dad pretended not to hear me, so the opportunity for some wry banter slipped away.

Later we were assembled in the living room amidst a welter of gift-wrapping and discarded boxes. Some people had received DVDs as presents, which jogged Dad's memory about a promotion he had seen on the Discovery Channel for a school supplement (from the American Museum of Natural History) titled Understanding the Universe:

“I saw that and I lost my temper. What the hell do they mean, ‘understanding the universe’? You can't understand the universe! Only God can do that. It would have been okay if they called it Trying to Understand the Universe. That would have been all right.”

Yeah, that would be catchy. I'm sure that Trying Hopelessly to Understand the Universe Although You'll Fail Until and Unless You Die in a State of Grace and Jesus Himself Explains It to You in Heaven would be even better. (It's a wonder I didn't bite my tongue in two.) But Dad wasn't finished.

“That's the way scientists always are. They think they know everything! They say you can't get matter from nothing and then they come up with the Big Bang. What do they think that is? And they never talk about what came before the Big Bang, maybe because they're afraid if they look there they'll see God getting ready to create the universe! The scientists keep saying that there's no God when all you have to do is look around to see that there is!”

Ah, yes. Proof by credulous observation. Air-tight reasoning, that. Dad loves the word “always.” He is the master of the categorical statement and prefers to deal in absolutes. He kept whining how every space mission was billed as a quest for the ultimate answer to life, the universe, and everything. (It's forty-two, Dad.) His cartoon image of science has its practitioners speaking a language that they never actually use: This is the answer. This is the ultimate solution. Sometimes he talks about how things have changed during his eighty years of life, but then he completely fails to recognize the progressive and incremental nature of scientific research and discovery.

It's like I've failed him in some crucial manner. He and I are so much alike in so many ways, but I absolutely cannot communicate with him about these things. Is it that I bite my tongue too much? That's actually more a symptom of exhaustion. I used to try much harder. He dismisses anything I say almost instantly. He retains none of my refutations of his faulty arguments and recycles his favorite fables word-for-word the next time he sees fit to dust them off. He doesn't rebut my arguments—he ignores them.

Christmas morning had been foggy, but it was bright and clear in the afternoon. Both of my parents were dismayed:

“That means it will be foggy in the morning,” Mom said. Dad chimed in with his agreement. Bright sun in the afternoon was an infallible harbinger of morning fog. They were concerned because I would be traveling the next morning. I tried to set their minds at ease:

“But what if it's just the first clear day of a sunny streak?”

They looked at me as if I had lost my mind.

Two days at Mom & Dad's is about all I can handle without going insane. They keep the house too hot and all the windows are festooned with closed drapes. I can try to open them to get some natural light, but they're whisked shut again within seconds. (Some of the windows have both drapes and blinds, just to be doubly safe from actinic radiation. Do we spring from vampire stock?) Dad's hearing is bad (which he sometimes exploits to ignore arguments he'd rather not hear even when he was following a conversation perfectly adequately a moment before), so the television is always blaring (and always on). And the nuggets of wisdom come from an inexhaustible lode:

“Becky's going to have a girl. This man who's never wrong about these things told her.”

“That's nice, Mom. He has a fifty-fifty chance of being right.”

“Oh, no, he's much better than that. He's predicted sixty-one babies correctly.”

“What? Out of one hundred and twenty? It's nonsense, Mom. I'm not going to swallow that kind of foolishness. You don't even know his name, do you?”

“Well, I don't, but he saw Becky and he could tell she's carrying a girl.”

“From outside the mother, all babies look alike. He's got a fifty-fifty chance. If you really want to know the sex of your baby, talk to your doctor.”

Mom got huffy: “Doctors don't know everything!”

“Yeah. But if they use a sonogram or amniocentesis, they can get right up there to ninety-plus accuracy.”

Mom subsided at that, because she knew I was right about what doctors could do, but she was still scowling in irritation at my refusal to believe so well-attested a seer as the stranger who had spoken to her granddaughter. Exasperated, I said, “I swear, Mom, sometimes you are just like your mother.”

I regretted it the moment I said it, true as it was. My late maternal grandmother was often the butt of family humor because of her total credulity, paranoia, and superstition. It was a palpable hit and my mother was wounded. I repented of my rebuke and quickly moved to more neutral territory.

Dad, fortunately, was not at a loss. He wanted to crow about the huge jump in holiday retail sales:

“The liberal media kept saying it would be a bad year because it's a bad economy. Shows you what all those so-called experts know! Holiday retail sales are up fifteen percent!”

My father does not smoke dope or use other hallucinogenic drugs (apart from listening to Rush Limbaugh too much), so I was puzzled how he had come up with a conclusion that was so clearly wrong. Even the Wall Street Journal agrees that this has not been a stellar holiday season for retailers. Sifting through the evidence turned up a clue: Internet sales are up. More people are buying more stuff on-line. Even that increase, however, was not as sharp as in past years. Dad's mental filters had successfully seized on the one sector of the retail market that showed significant gains and happily touted it as if it were representative of the whole. My father needs to get a better grip on synecdoche. (I'm still not sure where he picked up the “fifteen percent” claim.)

The tacked-on bittersweet feel-good ending

Late on Christmas night, my parents sound asleep in their room in accordance with their early-to-bed philosophy, I dug out my laptop and reached out to the world I know. I plugged it into their hinky old phone line and managed to get on-line via a dial-up connection. I've never managed to achieve 56 Kbps down on the farm. This time it was an anemic 24.6 Kbps. It didn't matter. I was back in touch again. I painfully waited for my e-mail to appear. Fortunately, I had not missed any deadlines for mail-order degrees or herbal supplements for sexual potency (nor had any of my friends written me). I even waited for the front page of Pharyngula to download, where I was treated to a message by PZ berating anyone for being on-line on Christmas (due, no doubt, to the holiness of the occasion). My thirst temporarily slaked, I logged off.

As I tiptoed through the darkened house to my bedroom, I was feeling somewhat better. Then it occurred to me how unusual everything was. How many people my age still have both parents and can visit them in the same home in which they grew up? Sure, it doesn't much feel like home to me anymore, but it surrounds me with reminders and images from my childhood. Mom & Dad are both quite healthy and still married to each other after more than fifty years. I'm going to miss it when it's gone. How much longer can it last?

I ended up making one small resolution, although I usually don't bother with such year-end nonsense. I'm going to count my blessings. And, although I often feel contempt for the views and contradictions that my parents dispense so readily, I will not feel contempt for them.

A holiday postscript

My niece Becky delivered her child after the first of the new year. It turned out to be a boy. So much for the man who is “never wrong” and his confident prediction of a girl. His failure pleases me more than it probably should.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Tony goes to Rome

Accept no substitutes?
Look, I'm the bloody Pope!
—His Holiness John Cleese
The rumors have been around for years, so no one is expressing much surprise at the news that former British prime minister Tony Blair has been received into the Roman Catholic Church. He bided his time until he was a private citizen again, presumably because it would have been awkward to leave his nation's established church while serving as its chief executive. I presume that the transition was not particularly traumatic, especially as high-church Anglicanism is simply Catholicism Lite. As an Anglican prelate once ingratiatingly said to the host of one of those PBS travel shows, the Church of England offers the best of both worlds: an amalgam of Protestant thought and Catholic universalism. Well, maybe.

Last year I had occasion to sit through a ceremony in an Episcopal church. For those of you who don't follow such things, the Episcopal Church is the American branch of Anglicanism. Except, of course, for those Episcopal dioceses that have seceded from the Anglican communion over such hot-button issues as gay clergy and the ordination of women. Some breakaway Episcopalians have gone whole-hog into rebellion by signing up as Roman Catholics, which church adamantly refuses holy orders to women and allows gay men to become priests only if they keep silent about it (or discreetly limit their attention to altar boys). Others have been shifting their allegiance to a dissident South American bishop in lieu of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the mainstream Anglican communion.

In looking around the Episcopal church, I noticed many traditionally Catholic features, such as the Stations of the Cross displayed on the walls, the celebrant's vestments, and the raised altar. There was a large cross suspended in the front of the church, over the altar, but it was simply a cross, not a crucifix. The key distinction is the presence or absence of a Christ figure on the cross. Catholics use a crucifix as a reminder of the crucifixion and the commemoration of that sacrifice in the rituals of the mass. Protestants generally prefer that the Christ figure be absent from the cross in token of his purported resurrection. To the observant eye, there were plenty of clues that it wasn't really a Catholic church, especially since the traditional priestly vestments were being worn by a woman.

I picked up the Book of Common Prayer and paged through it. It contained a lot of special feast days, similar to what one might find in a Catholic missal. One thing, however, particularly struck me. The Episcopalian feast days celebrated the holy lives of at least three Roman Catholic popes. The book didn't call them that, of course, but there they were: Fabian (January 20), Gregory the Great (March 12), and Leo the Great (November 10). Each one is described in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer as “Bishop of Rome,” which is indeed one of the most important papal titles. Nevertheless, I suspect these men would be surprised to find themselves cited in the prayer book of a church that is not in communion with the papal see in Rome. While the papal office was still evolving in Fabian's time, certainly both Leo and Gregory would have had no doubts about the matter. Both would not have hesitated to question the stinting honor accorded them in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer and would have enthusiastically agreed with the words of the divine John Cleese, as he portrayed the pope in the “Penultimate Supper” skit: “Look, I'm the bloody Pope, I am!”

It must be awkward to belong to a religion whose raison d'être is the dissolution of an unhappy king's marriage. That said, no one should expect religions to be established on sensible grounds. They're systems of belief rather than systems of knowledge. Richard Feynman once recounted his experience at trying to pick holes in the religious practices of highly observant Jews of his acquaintance, only to discover that they had heard it all before and were prepared with detailed “refutations” of every objection he raised. It's notable that they did not convert him and inspire Feynman to reclaim the Jewish faith of his forefathers, for their arguments were defensive armor rather than effective recruitment tools. Feynman saw it as mind games rather than as genuine logical reasoning.

Episcopalians have long since come to terms with the exceedingly human elements in their church's origin. In making his transition to Catholicism, Tony Blair will now have one less minor embarrassment to deal with, since Catholicism can claim it has less tendency to compromise with the ways of the world. If Blair is going to bother to be a believing Christian, he may as well imbibe it neat, without any watering down. That, however, is making a virtue of unbending dogma, and too many people still think that's a good way to go. The former prime minister of Britain is now one of those people.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

On watching The Golden Compass

Twice so far

Although last weekend was officially dedicated to the debut of Will Smith's I Am Legend: A Zombie Christmas, I chose instead to take in a second viewing of The Golden Compass. While it's fun to poke a finger in the eye of Bill Donohue and his boycott of the movie, I had some purer motives as well. Despite a mixed bag of reviews, I found it extremely enjoyable and simply wanted to see it again.

Many of the less enthusiastic reviewers found the movie disjointed and confusing. Was it really necessary to have read Philip Pullman's book first? If so, then the movie does not stand on its own and fails as an independent cinematic experience. I had read the books of His Dark Materials and thought everything in the movie fell into place rather well. On seeing it a second time, I made a point of watching more critically, and I think I have a clue why some people find it bewildering.

Although The Golden Compass is carefully crafted to hang together, it's the kind of movie that requires us to pay a little attention. Perhaps more than people are wont to give these days. The viewers most likely to fall into confusion are those who neither read the book nor gave the movie their full attention. Things move quickly most of the time. If a movie is mostly an opportunity to munch popcorn and gossip with friends, then it helps to choose a movie whose entertainment value is spectacle driven and not plot dependent. While it has its spectacular episodes, The Golden Compass is not a popcorn-chewing movie.

The opening narration jump-starts the movie by making it clear we're on an alternate Earth where people's souls exist outside their bodies in the form of animal companions called daemons. While playing at war with her companions, Lyra scornfully cites touching another's daemon with bare hands as an uncouth violation, at which all the children recoil in horror. Soon thereafter, while rooting about in the retiring room, Pantalaimon reminds Lyra that he fears she'll be caught and smacked, in which case he'll also feel the pain. No one has any cause to be confused or surprised when Lyra passes out during the scene in Bolvanger as the Gobblers seize her daemon, or when Mrs. Coulter wrings her hand in pain in the earlier scene where Lyra slams a window down on the hand of Coulter's monkey daemon.

The major threads of Lyra's world are reinforced in unforced repetition. Other items, interesting but not key to the plot, are passed over without comment. The power supplies that drive Mrs. Coulter's dirigible and Mr. Scoresby's aerostat are rendered in effective CGI, but no one comments on them. They don't drive the narrative and no time is spent discussing them. In fact, there are relatively few lectures in The Golden Compass, despite several opportunities for characters to prate at each other for our benefit about things that all the characters already know. Even Lord Asriel's discourse on dust at Jordan College is mercifully terse, and Mrs. Coulter's explanation to Lyra of the Magisterium's function is wonderfully straightforward in its saccharine simplicity (“they tell people what to do”).

Nicole Kidman is the ideal Marisa Coulter. Sleek and icy in her portrayal of Pullman's archvillainess, Kidman lets slip Coulter's thin veneer of sprightly affability whenever the target of Coulter's regard needs to see the dangerous steel that lurks just below the surface. No wonder Pullman begged her to take the role.

I've seen it said that the movie's plot is threadbare, but what is wrong with the theme of resistance against a despotic authority? This is a most timely message. In the character of Mrs. Coulter we also get to see the hypocrisy and internal inconsistency of authoritarian regimes: obedience of the rules and conformity to the standards are for others, not for those in charge. Mrs. Coulter is as impulsive and willful as she wants others not to be.

The world depicted in The Golden Compass has heft and solidity. It projects an alternate reality. Is it Pullman's reality? Many aficionados of the novels are dismayed that the cinematic incarnation of the first book has been toned down—even perhaps, bereft of its soul by a kind of literary intercision. The churchly aspects of the Magisterium are played down, making the movie less anticlerical than the books. Only one of the children victimized by the Gobblers is depicted after his intercision, and even in that case his friends and family insist they will find a way to restore him (although in the books such children pine away hopelessly and we see one die).

These things don't really matter. If Philip Pullman can endure them, so can I. The Golden Compass is a treat and worthy of one's attention, but only one's attention can make it the experience it should be.

Seeing is believing

Marching with King

Eric Kleefeld at Talking Points Memo has a comment about Mitt Romney's recent kerfuffle over whether his father actually marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. At first it appeared that Mitt was just talking through his hat. Now it appears possible that his recollection was correct. Is it all settled? Not exactly. Even if it were, however, Kleefeld remains puzzled:
There's one lingering question, though: If the facts do vindicate Mitt Romney on this one—and at first glance, this looks legit—why did he handle it so awkwardly and ineptly right off the bat? Why all the parsing about what the word "saw" meant, and the business about "march with" being figurative?
Ooh! Ooh! I know the answer to this one!

Mitt Romney tried to pump up his political heritage by claiming that George Romney participated in civil rights marches with Martin Luther King, Jr. When corroborating evidence seemed thin or nonexistent, Romney believed he had misspoken. As a quintessential politician, Romney can't allow himself to say he was wrong. That would be wrong! No, he was merely using figurative speech. That's not a lie! That's not a mistake! It's just painting an image with words. See? How pretty and inspirational!

However this all thrashes out, whether George Romney really marched with King or didn't, his son stands revealed as a word-parser of the first order. (And here we thought he was just a conscienceless opportunist.) If Mitt Romney becomes the GOP nominee for president, will the Republicans have to refrain from dredging up accusations of Democratic hairsplitting in the tradition of Bill Clinton and a certain White House intern?

I'm guessing not.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Shadow knows

Why wait till it's too late?

Big surprise. The Bush version of the Environmental Protection Agency (the name being of only historical significance) has told California not to fight air pollution too diligently. The EPA is denying the state's long-stalled application for a waiver from federal automobile emissions guidelines. California and several other states wanted permission to enact more stringent standards than the timid guidelines the Bush administration is willing to support. First the Bush EPA sat on the request, shrugging its shoulders and saying it didn't have the power to regulate (or allow others to regulate) greenhouse gas emissions. Then, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled otherwise, the Bush administration simply hunkered down and refused to do it (or allow anyone else to do it).

Governor Schwarzenegger has jawboned President Bush on state pollution standards and threatened court action. Now that our brave president has terminated Arnold's petition, a lawsuit might seem the only remedy. As reported by Micheline Maynard in The New York Times,
Wednesday’s E.P.A. ruling now raises the question of whether the states will sue the agency in order to force it to allow them to set emissions standards. Even if that happens, the states probably would not be able to implement the standards as soon as they had liked. Any legal action might not be settled in time for the regulations to begin taking effect in 2009, as California had hoped.
But I have a remedy.

We all know that 2009 is the magical year in which we will be rid of George Bush, although the toxic impact of his tenure will linger for decades, stinking up the pages of U.S. history. The new president who takes office on January 20, 2009, will have his (or her) work cut out for him (or her) by the mess George leaves behind. Nevertheless, I can think of a way that the proposed new emissions standards for California (and several other states) can indeed take effect in 2009, just as planned.

The abiding problem is that the federal government cannot turn on a dime. It moves ponderously even under competent leadership, let alone under the current kakistocracy. It takes months to write regulations, review them, and implement them. George Bush and his cronies are counting on that, expecting much of their wrecking crew's work to survive well into the new president's administration.

Not necessarily. There are plenty of environmentally conscious people with prior experience in all levels of government—including service in the upper reaches of the Environmental Protection Agency, back when it lived up to its name—who know exactly what needs to be done and how to do it. A presidential candidate who is serious about environmental issues could pull together a task force of such professionals and create a “shadow” EPA, working unofficially on the paperwork necessary to permit Bush's successor to make the new rules effective in the first week of the new presidential term. Just as British party leaders have the assistance of shadow ministers while out of office, serving as sources of expertise (and future cabinet ministers after a successful election campaign), a bold American presidential candidate could seize the environmental initiative from the lame-duck Bush administration by pledging quick action on air emissions standards.

I'm not talking about some discreet behind-the-scenes preparation for future presidential initiatives. I mean that Clinton, Obama, or Edwards (or all of them) should make a point of naming a shadow minister for EPA matters and assign that person the task of greasing all the skids for an immediate implementation in January 2009 of waivers for the states that wish to go beyond federal standards. In the meantime, the states lined up with California can proceed with their plans, contingent on the 2009 approval of their waivers. Everyone should proceed full speed ahead, ready to seize the opportunity the moment it is provided.

Let's prepare for instantaneous repudiation of the Bush legacy on the first day of the new president's term. We want to clear the air!

Saturday, December 15, 2007

At this RATE

High-speed creationism

The monthly newsletter of the Institute for Creation Research is always a treasure trove of human perversity. ICR is devoted to the notion that a supreme being cooked up the university in six literal days about 6,000 years ago. That's an awfully small container into which to stuff the planet's history. The December 2007 issue of Acts & Facts takes another shot at it.

Many radioisotopes have half-lives of millions or billions of years. The presence of their decay products on our planet give us the opportunity to measure how long they've been in existence. The conclusion is inescapable—the earth is billions of years old—unless, of course, the scientists are all wrong about the half-lives. Working backward from their assumption that Genesis is literally true, ICR's “creation scientists” have figured out that radioactive decay has had periods of enormous acceleration.

ICR's vehicle for “proving” the earth's youth is its RATE project (Radioisotopes and the Age of the Earth). Larry Vardiman frequently writes about RATE. His article in the December 2007 Acts & Facts is titled RATE in Review: Unresolved Problems. Vardiman draws out attention to three such problems:
The RATE project found that:
  • A large amount of radioactive decay has occurred in earth history.
  • Nuclear decay processes were accelerated during episodes in earth history.
  • Conventional radioisotopic dates are therefore incorrect by large factors.
These findings led to the major conclusion that the earth is thousands–not billions–of years old. However, RATE left three unresolved problems concerning theology, heat, and radiation.
As explained by Vardiman, the theological problem is especially delicious:
The Theological Problem

The use of the term “accelerated decay” for nuclear processes during the Creation Week seems to create an apparent conflict for some people with the statement given by God in Genesis 1:31: “And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good.” The RATE project was able to show that accelerated decay occurred during the Genesis Flood, but this was not sufficient to explain all the observed daughter products in rocks, such as lead. The production of lead by accelerated decay during the first three days of the Creation Week could explain this, but that would introduce the concept of “decay” during this period that was stated by God to be “very good.”
Dear, dear. A damned difficult problem. But the second problem is greater!
The Heat Problem

Of greater concern to both supporters and skeptics of the RATE project is the issue of how to dispose of the tremendous quantities of heat generated by accelerated decay during the Genesis Flood. The amount of heat produced by a decay rate of a million times faster than normal during the year of the Flood could potentially vaporize the earth’s oceans, melt the crust, and obliterate the surface of the earth. The RATE group is confident that the accelerated decay they discovered was not only caused by God, but that the necessary removal of heat was also superintended by Him as well. Dr. Russell Humphreys, a member of the RATE group, has suggested one possible mechanism that may explain this dilemma. He has found evidence, both scientific and scriptural, that cooling of the earth by the expansion of the cosmos may have occurred simultaneously with the heat produced by accelerated decay.
Where exactly is the problem? If God is rigging the game, he can whisk the extra heat away with a snap of his fingers. Despite their faith in an omnipotent God, the ICR folks insist on trying to find science-type explanations for miracles. It's not exactly necessary, but they're desperate to appear scientific.

The third problem is the best one: How did Noah avoid radiation poisoning?
The Radiation Problem

Another consideration is how Noah and his family could have survived the massive dose of radiation unleashed during the Flood. It is likely that the humans aboard the Ark would have been protected from most of the radiation occurring on the surface of the earth by the water covering the planet. It is common knowledge that water absorbs radiation, and an average of 8,000 feet of water covering the earth would have made a very effective shield. However, some have expressed concern that a radioactive element like potassium-40 that is present in the human body may have produced radiation within Noah’s body itself.
Poor old Noah, quick-cooked by the accelerated decay of the isotopes in his own body (probably exacerbated by the glowing bodies of his family members and everything else in the ark).

Never fear: The brave creation scientists of ICR are on the job. Vardiman tells us the next step: “Evidence for accelerated decay in meteorites has been identified as one of the most important research projects for the future.”

“Evidence,” he says. I can hardly wait.

Friday, December 14, 2007

A turn of the phrase


Issues of great pith and moment were in play. It was a meeting of the faculty senate and my colleagues were discussing the process by which hiring priorities were set by the college. Some professors were piqued that a few senators didn't bother showing up for senate meetings except when their own departments were trying to get authorization to hire new or replacement faculty. They're scarce when less glamorous issues are on the agenda and there's work to be done. One senator attempted to summarize the general sense of the assembly:

“It's a craw in our side!”

My ears pricked up and I twisted in my seat to see the speaker. Oh, good. It wasn't an English professor. But at least now I had something with which to entertain myself while my fellow educators droned on.

What had my colleague intended? I believe he had inadvertently crafted a chimerical amalgam of St. Paul's “thorn in the flesh” (so frequently rendered as a “thorn in one's side”) and the phrase “sticks in one's craw.” It's perfect: We don't know the nature of Paul's thorn and no one in these urbanized days knows what a craw is. The two pieces fit together by virtue of both being obscure, their fuzzy edges allowing my colleague to unconsciously merge them.

Then someone suggested we look at the by-laws to see what we could do about absentee senators and the moment was over.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Missing the mark

Target practice

“What score do I need on the final to pass the class?”

'Tis the season to wake up and realize that all is not as it should be. Students who missed the drop deadline are coming to class and anxiously asking me what they can do to salvage their grades. Since they are not amused by answers involving time machines and reconstructions of their past, I usually just give them the straight dope:

“You can pass the class if you get 124% on the final exam.”

“Okay. How do I do that?”

“You can't.”

“Then how do I pass the class?”

“You can't.”

“Well, can I get some extra credit?”


It's not always so stark, though. Some of my lagging students have at least a theoretical shot at a passing grade, although it usually means getting a better score on the final exam than they have ever managed on any previous math exam. When I post the final exam target scores for the students' information, I always wonder whether that knowledge is actually useful. How does a student use the information that she needs a final exam score of 84% in order to earn a C in the class? Does she redouble her efforts, or does she get discouraged? What about the student who discovers he needs only 43% on the final exam in order to earn that C? Does he get happy—or dangerously lazy?

That last example is real. I had a student in one of my algebra classes several years ago who examined the most recently posted grade distribution and discovered he could coast to a C with a final exam score of 43%. On the day of the final, “Bob” swaggered in, set pencil to paper, and scribbled rapidly for several minutes. Having filled in solutions for the exercises in the first half of the exam, Bob strolled up to the front of the classroom, dropped it in front of me, and headed for the door. We still had over ninety minutes left in the two-hour exam period.

I followed him out the door.

“Bob, are you sure you're done?”

“Oh, yeah. I only need to do half the exam to get my C.”

“No, Bob, you need to get half the final right to get your C. We still have plenty of time for you to do more.”

“That's okay. I did enough.”

And off he went.

You can anticipate what happened next. I graded his final exam and his score turned out to be 42%. Not the 43% minimum required for him to get C, but only 42%. No, I did not go out of my way to screw the foolish kid over. I graded his final exam in a batch with all of the others, using the same rubric uniformly for everyone.

As is my habit, I regrade the finals of all students who end up teetering on the cusp between two grades, just to double-check. Given that Bob had left half the pages blank, his final was particularly easy to regrade. If anything, I had been a bit generous. I could make a case for giving him 41% instead of 42%, but there was nothing on which to base an argument that 43% was justified (unless I gave him more partial credit on certain mistakes than I had given anyone else). There was, of course, absolutely no rethinking required regarding the blank pages.

In Bob's case, his knowledge of the magic number had prompted him to try his hand at target shooting. He needed 43%? Okay, he'd try for 50%, just to give himself a little margin. But this sort of “precision exam-taking” is more than risky business—it's damned foolishness. He would have been better off not knowing.

His phone calls started within hours of the posting of the semester grades. Please, could he just do another page of the final? Could he retake the final? Did I offer any extra credit? Would I let him take someone else's algebra final and substitute that score for the one he had earned on my exam?

No, no, no, and no.

It was not the happiest of lessons, although I hope it was learned.

Friday, December 07, 2007

College Christians accomplish coup

Subtle as serpents

One of my former students is a full-time math professor in Sacramento. We stay in touch and I usually enjoy talking shop with him. Math teaching, however, was not the topic of our conversation the last time we got together. He handed me a copy of the latest edition of his school's newspaper (American River College's Current) and said, “Here, you take it. I don't want it.” The headline emblazoned across the front page told the story: My friend's college has been taken over by a right-wing Christian coup. Well, sort of:
Christians sweep SA elections

Bloc could take 9 of 10 seats if results are ratified

By Matthew Gerring
Staff Writer

It's not completely official yet, but early results indicate nine out of the 10 candidates elected in the recent Student Association election are members of the former Christian Civilization Club.

The near-sweep is historical in that representatives generally are elected as individuals, rather than as a bloc.

Members of the former club, known for hosting a booth in the Library Quad denouncing Islam, organized an electoral campaign promoting club members, candidates who were on the CCC mailing list, or candidates who ascribed [sic] to the principles of the Christian Civilization Club.
Some of this sounds familiar. Several college campuses, including my own, were treated in recent weeks to “Islamo-fascist Awareness Week.” As noted by The Current, the Christian Civilization Club was an eager participant in the days when it was an officially recognized campus organization. Apparently the resignation of CCC's faculty advisor (and its inability to find a new sponsor) cost the organization its academic standing. Perhaps that was the impetus for the club's behind-the-scenes campaign to take over the Student Association.
The group “targeted especially Christians,” according to Yuriy Popko, a member of the former club.

“We basically consider ourselves Christians, so we go to our base,“ said Popko.

That base includes both Christian students and ethnic communities on campus that closely identify with the Christian community, including Slavic and Romanian students. “The communities are close-knit,” Popko said.

While the former club members distributed literature on campus, they also asked representatives supported by their campaign to go [to] their respective churches to campaign.
The community of Slavic Christians in the Sacramento region has drawn some attention because it contains a core of virulently anti-gay activists. One is awaiting trial related to the death of Satender Singh in a capital city park, while another reportedly fled to Russia. If the CCC went to those churches seeking support, it was appealing to groups suffused with an extremist element.
When asked about a specific agenda, Popko said, “We [the coalition put together by the CCC] haven't discussed that yet.” Popko, however, did say one of his goals was to pass a bill of rights protecting students from bias on campus. He added, “on campus ... I would call it a liberal bias.”

The other former member club member elected to the Student Association, Dennis Choban, listed his goals on his Student Association application form. They included “removing humanistic bias from certain courses (such as evolution science), and encouraging live discussion of nontraditional views in all classes.”
Nontraditional? Actually, Choban sounds very traditional—for perhaps the 15th century.

The Current reporter, however, had a good counterpoint for Popko and Choban's vision of a non-humanistic future for their college:
This goal may not mesh with reality, however.

“Students do not have the right to determine curriculum,” said Student Association President Lou Martinson. He elaborated that though representatives can propose programs and new classes, they have no binding power.
Spring semester is going to provide the CCC bloc with an unpleasant educational experience. While it may be able to use its new Student Association majority to insist that Martinson appoint people from its ranks to the student slots on college committees, a single CCC student representative on the curriculum committee is not going to be enough to write creation science into the anthropology and biology syllabi. The same will be true on any other college committee where the CCC tries to advance its theocratic mission.

Furthermore, The Current reports that the CCC bet all its chips on a special election for half-terms on the Student Association governing board. The newly elected student senators will serve for only one semester before the college student body is asked to elect new representatives. If, as seems likely, the CCC overplays its weak hand, the next SA election will not be susceptible to the stealthy come-to-Jesus campaign that swept these narrow sectarians into office. More mellow Christian groups on campus may well come to resent the CCC's insistence on its own highly particular approach to their supposedly common faith. Secular students, of course, should now be fully awake to the CCC's eagerness to stifle their voices.

I'm expecting regular reports from the front as the battle rages during the 2008 spring semester. I just hope that my friend doesn't do anything to get himself listed on the Report Your Liberal Professor page of the Christian Civilization Club's unhinged website. You might want to check it out yourself, and don't miss the videos of the club's disruptive campus activities—of which I am sure they are very proud.

Coming soon to a campus near you? God forbid!

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

The God one-two punch

Blessings from down low

Today was a special day. A blessed day. The first item was a Christmas card from my brother's family. I see my sister-in-law's hand in the selection of this year's missive:
Our Faith in God
and the love we share
with one another—
these are the things
that mean the most.

May Christmas
remind you
of all the things
in life
that really
The card was also inscribed with a Bible verse: “The LORD bless you and keep you...” (Numbers 6:24). An explanatory note says the quote is taken from the New International Version. The NIV? What is my Catholic sister-in-law doing with Protestant greeting cards? I am shocked.

I'm also just a bit amused that she thinks it's a good card to share with an unchurched family member.

The second item appeared in my e-mail. This was a holiday greeting from a cousin. She jammed my in-box with a huge message consisting of fifteen pictures of Jesus Christ (all of them kitschy, like the one below) and a “test,” which I promptly flunked:
I scored 100. I'm not ashamed

He is the only one that can save this country and they want him removed from the government. Our great nation will not stand if we delete HIM from all aspects of our government as the atheists want.

Jesus Test

This is an easy test, you score 100 or zero. It's your choice. If you aren't ashamed to do this, please follow the directions.

Jesus said, “if you are ashamed of me, I will be ashamed of you before my Father.”

Not ashamed Pass this on . . . only if you mean it.

Yes, I do Love God.

He is my source of existence and Savior.

He keeps me functioning each and everyday.

Without Him, I will be nothing.

Without Him, I am nothing but with Him I can do all things through Christ that strengthens me. Phil 4:13

This is the simplest test . . . If you Love God, and are not ashamed of all the marvelous things he has done for you. Send this to ten people.
Yes, it's Jesus junk mail. Spam ten people you know with a chain letter for the greater glory of God. What greater love is there than the stuffing of one's mail box?

Perhaps I should go shopping for some nice holiday greetings cards that feature atheism as a theme. Cheery unbelief to you, too!

Saturday, December 01, 2007

God screws up again

My personal miracle misfires

I was scanning the AM radio dial while driving into town. The local Catholic radio station popped up and I discovered it was broadcasting the audio of The Journey Home, a television program devoted to the stories of converts to Catholicism. Sometimes boring, sometimes fascinating, host Marcus Grodi was entertaining listeners with tales recounted by former atheists who were now Roman Catholics. One of the former atheists was now a priest. Quite a switch! One even used to be a homosexual (or so he says). That's also quite a switch.

Father Jay Scott Newman had a nice story about two boys who were childhood friends who drifted apart as they grew up, one eventually rising to the position of archbishop while the other descended into drug addiction and despair. Newman described the depths of the addict's hopelessness, until he had an epiphany on the verge of committing suicide with a deliberate overdose. The despairing man suddenly cried out:

“God made me to love him and serve him in this life and to be happy with him in the next!”

“That was the last thing he had to cling to,” said Father Newman, “and it saved his life.”

In his hour of need, the junkie had dragged an old Baltimore catechism response from the depths of his childhood memories.

“And it was enough,” gushed Grodi. “Praise God for catechism!”

A nice story. Possibly even true. I have no special reason to doubt it. Just as some people find meaning and significance in Scientology, astrology, or fad diets, the protagonist in this morality tale found his anchor in rote-memorized responses from the religious training (or programming) of his youth. It could work.

I was not especially impressed. I knew Father Newman would not be sharing the story if the addict had gotten a grip on himself by shouting, “I am a rational man and I will behave rationally!” In brief, the message of The Journey Home was being lost on me.

Then, however, Marcus Grodi seemed to sense that I was listening. Perhaps he got a word of knowledge from God himself. However it happened, Grodi asked the priest to speak to me:

“Father, I'd like to ask you to first of all end with a prayer and a blessing, and particularly we're thinking of any who might be watching who might be an atheist, who maybe was brought up in the faith and happens to be watching.”

Damn! I was an atheist. I was brought up in Catholicism. I was listening. Damn! Of course, I'm not sure about the canonical validity of a blessing delivered via a taped broadcast—but they were clearly on to me! Father Newman was about to zap me with a special blessing. But Grodi suddenly intervened. Turning to his other guests, he said,

“Before you do that, any quick final words from either of the two of you with a word of encouragement for one of those folks who might be watching?”

As the other guests begin to babble some closing remarks, I arrived at my destination and pulled into a parking structure. The radio transmission cut off as I passed inside. No blessing. No divine intervention.

Stupid God.