Monday, March 31, 2008

Crushed by the weight

Innumeracy strikes again

My student was deeply concerned. Deeply and unduly. She was worried about her quiz scores in our prealgebra class and beside herself with concern over the points she had lost. I hastened to set her mind at ease. I failed signally.

Many of my colleagues and I like to give frequent short quizzes to keep our students alert and to underscore the topics we mean to emphasize. Most of us, however, choose to give rather little weight to quizzes in computing the semester grades. After all, they're used more as learning tools rather than proficiency assessment tools. I like to give quizzes at the beginning of the period, after which I immediately solve the problems on the board. Since the students were just struggling with the selfsame problems, it's often a teachable moment. If the students pay attention, they'll be ready to acquit themselves well on the exams. Quizzes ought to count, but not too much. These days I've been weighting quizzes at 15% of the course grade. (The bulk of the weight is allotted to the chapter tests and final exam.)

My students, unfortunately, tend to have difficulty with the concept of weighted averages, and those who most need to understand it are the least able to puzzle it out. My prealgebra student is a case in point. She sees the points assigned to the quizzes and tests and cannot help but consider them equivalent. Since I grade quizzes on a 20-point scale, she figures that five quizzes must be as important as a 100-point chapter test. In reality, if I were to try to grade quizzes on a scale that takes into account the relative weights of quizzes and exams, the quizzes would be only about three points each. Of course, that would make grading them quite difficult.

Perhaps I should make the exams each worth 600 points instead. Some of my colleagues have decided to do something like that, simply making all points equivalent. They accumulate them throughout the term and assign grades to students on the percentage of points earned. Such a system, however, is not to my taste; if you decide to give more quizzes, they automatically count for more. By prescribing their weight in advance, I can control their impact on students' grades.

The downside, of course, is clear. The students don't understand the grading system because weighted averages are too complicated for them. Rats. Nevertheless, I'll take another run at explaining the weighting system after we've done the prealgebra unit on percentages. I'm a math teacher. Hope springs eternal.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Not Ronnie redux

Searching for similarity

John Sidney McCain III has been doing his best in recent weeks to demonstrate his complete befuddlement on the most elementary of issues. Fortunately for him, buddies like Joe Lieberman have been close at hand to gently correct him (in front of the news cameras) whenever he forgets that Al Qaeda is Sunni and therefore not friendly with Shi'ite Iran. The mainstream media have been willing to forgive McCain his faux pas because, well, it isn't like he's a Democrat or anything. In the meantime, however, over-eager Republicans need to keep something in mind:

Just because he's senile doesn't mean that John McCain is Ronald Reagan.

Friday, March 21, 2008

A cold day in physics

The anniversary of nothing

Sunday, March 23, 2008, is more than this year's observance of Easter. It's the nineteenth anniversary of the epochal announcement by Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann of their discovery of cold fusion. At least, it would have been epochal had room-temperature thermonuclear activity turned out to be more than the folie à deux of a pair of formerly respectable electrochemists. If Pons and Fleischmann had been correct, no doubt we'd already be preparing the worldwide celebrations that would mark next year's twentieth anniversary of the breakthrough that forever ended our fears of energy crises and dependence on foreign oil.

Instead, however, Pons and Fleischmann live on in obscurity. the former in apparent retirement in France and the latter still keeping the faith, having joined D2Fusion in San Francisco as a senior research advisor:
On Thursday (March 23rd), the seventeenth anniversary of the original announcement of cold fusion, the company announced that they will tap Dr. Fleischmann's experience and expertise to produce prototypes of solid-state fusion-heating modules for homes and industry.

David Kubiak, Communications Director for D2Fusion, expects that in a little more than a year the company will have a production prototype ready.
You can do the math. On the seventeenth anniversary, D2Fusion said a solid-state home-heating module would be ready in prototype in a little over a year. Here comes the nineteenth anniversary and we're still waiting.

It is ever thus with cold fusion. Expect a further breakthrough, milestone, prototype, major announcement, or commercial product any day now.

March 23: the birthday of a pseudoscience.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Preacher, preacher

And the California priest-killers

I had not realized this until now, but I have a lot of atonement to do. Thanks to the mainstream media's constant pandering to the right-wing talking points of the day, I finally understand that I am responsible for decades of extremist ranting from the pulpit of my parish church. Mea culpa!

It's been many years since I've bothered to go through the motions of adhering to the Catholic faith (and even longer since I've believed in it), but I used to sit quietly through sermon after sermon. These homilies varied dramatically, depending on whether they were delivered in the Newman Center chapel of a university (where suspiciously liberal Jesuits enrolled in the local law school might be found holding forth) or in the small church of my home parish, but I know now that I'm responsible for everything the priests said. (Thank you, Fox News, for causing the scales to fall from my eyes! Amen!)

I must confess that my greatest burden of guilt is the legacy of my adolescence. In those days, as I attained the age of reason, I gradually realized that it was quite remarkable that our small-town parish was graced by the presence of a purple-sashed monsignor as its pastor. “Monsignor” is an honorific bestowed on certain Catholic priests as a mark of distinction or special favor; the title may come in recognition of extraordinary service or exemplary scholarship. Since it's a mark of special favor, “monsignor” is not a title one expects to find on a priest exiled to a tiny parish in the middle of nowhere. What bishop had Monsignor pissed off that he was banished, purple sash and all, to the rural counties of central California?

Although he undoubtedly chafed at the demeaning assignment, Monsignor found outlets for his frustration, channeling his unhappiness into his sermons. Monsignor's sermons were, shall we say, special. He would stand behind the communion rail, facing the congregation with his hands tucked into his vestments, rocking back and forth on his heels as he inveighed against the world, the flesh, and the devil. While he did talk about the cardinal virtues of faith, hope, and charity, it was mostly to point out their absence in our parish. True Catholic religiosity was elsewhere, particularly back in his childhood parish in Pennsylvania (which we parishioners began to refer to wryly as “the holy land”).

“The heat in California is oppressive,” Monsignor would observe. “It reminds one of hell. That's probably appropriate, since this is a land of priest-killers.” The supposed basis of our anticlericalism would change from week to week—not putting enough in the collection basket, refusing to volunteer to police the rectory grounds, not showing up for choir practice—but the priest-killing theme was a constant. Monsignor was also irritated by the presence of heretical congregations in the community and our lack of militancy in driving them out. While he never quite advocated that we take up torches, pikes, and staves, it was understood that each Episcopal, Methodist, Baptist, Lutheran, and Presbyterian church in the region was a rebuke to our tepid Romanism.

Monsignor was a staunch advocate of child beating (he called it “discipline,” of course), subjugation of women (he called it “wifely obedience,” naturally, or sometimes “submission”), and capital punishment (or so it seemed, since he often lamented the abandonment of the practice of stoning sinners). He was also right at home with the notion of mortification of the flesh, sometimes repeating stories about how people back home (in the “holy land”) would suffer any travail in order to attend church.

He especially liked the story of the old lady who slipped on the ice as she struggled to get to mass: “She cracked her head open and there was blood all over the place, but did she give up? No! She wrapped a babushka around her head and made it to mass!” I was too timid in those days, of course, to ask whether she bled to death during the service and thus died in a state of grace, going directly to heaven (do not pass Go, do not languish in purgatory). The lesson was clear: no suffering was so great as to excuse one from church attendance. If anything obscured the lesson, it might have been that church attendance itself seemed a form of acute suffering.

My parents fraternized with the enemy, our family frequently going out to dinner or on vacation trips with a Methodist family. Occasionally we regaled them with tales of Monsignor's rants, but our accounts were a pallid substitute for the real thing. One Sunday my father gave my mother a small reel-to-reel tape recorder to smuggle into church. In its leatherette carrying case, it looked a lot like an unattractively clunky purse. Or tackle box. Dad used the recorder during the service to tape Monsignor's fire-and-brimstone sermon. Our pastor did not disappoint, hitting his favorite themes of California priest-killers (us!), the satanic heat of the state (true!), and the slyly seductive ways of the heathens that surrounded us (like Methodists!). We later played back the sermon for the amusement (mixed with horror) of our Protestant friends. I suspected we were guilty of some kind of sin of disrespect, but I decided against including it in my next confession. (“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. We tape-recorded your homily and used it to scare the bejesus out of our Methodist friends. Oh, and we have Methodist friends. I am truly sorry for all my sins.”)

I served Monsignor as an altar boy for a while, but I was never persuaded that I needed to pursue the priesthood. It didn't seem that attractive a vocation for some reason. Can't quite put my finger on it, though. His influence may have been stronger on my mother, however, who found it amusing for several years to shout “Blow it up!” whenever we passed a Protestant church (even if we were in the company of our Methodist friends). Oh, how we laughed!

That's right. I come from a family of terrorists. I guess I can never be president.

Monday, March 17, 2008


A splash of color

This is a tale of modern medicine, marksmanship, and men's restrooms. It is a true story, spanning decades, full of angst and self-discovery. It is a sad story, suggesting that some of our most cherished goals may be out of reach.

When I was young, my parents would sometimes bundle me and my siblings into the car and whisk us off for a family outing into the Sierra Nevada. We'd visit places like Yosemite, Balch Park, or Camp Nelson (where some friends had a cabin). One evening we found ourselves gathered around a big bonfire outside the Camp Nelson lodge, where some impromptu entertainment had sprung up. Campers, cabin dwellers, and day-trippers sat at picnic tables and listened to a large-voiced woman with a guitar and a couple of accompanying percussionists. A cow-bell may have been involved, too. I don't recall. I do remember the woman's headgear: a peculiar assemblage of Budweiser cans that had been snipped apart with shears and woven together with yarn into a charming chapeau. She announced her next selection, which she said was a tribute to her husband: “The title of the song is Shorter than You Think or ... Tacky Toilet!” The crowd chuckled at her bathroom humor and settled in to listen to her country-western serenade to her spouse's poor marksmanship.

Now fast-forward about forty or forty-five years. The original urinal in the men's restroom of the college's new faculty building was a source of dismay and controversy. It was small and set low to the ground. The tile floor in front of it was always damp and smelly. The building was brand new, but some parts were aging fast. A few of the male faculty members embarked on a great quest to replace the inadequate plumbing fixture. As quests go, it was no Holy Grail, but at least it proved feasible. A new, more generously endowed urinal eventually replaced the deficient original. A new, more sanitary day was about to dawn.

Except it didn't, really. Although the new StraddleMaster 9000 seemed more user-friendly and offered a much more generous target, the Camp Nelson contralto could have sung its praises with the same song she had once dedicated to her husband. Our hopes had been raised for naught. What is it about urinals and male marksmanship? When were we infiltrated by the gang that couldn't shoot straight?

Then it came to pass that my eye doctor summoned me for a medical test. She was keeping an eye on a scar on my left retina, which she suspected might be the vestige of a small hemorrhage. For the sake of due diligence, although no bleeding was apparent, she ordered a fluorescein test. While the assistant keeps a camera focused on your retina (and blinds you with bright light), the doctor injects a fluorescein solution into a vein. Fluorescein is a bright dye that quickly makes its presence known as it works through the blood vessels throughout your body, including those in the back of your eye. The assistant takes multiple photographs, first of one eye, then the other, going back and forth at intervals until she's captured all the images the doctor wants.

I came through the process like a champ, merely blinded by the light and blinking at the purplish after-images that seemed to hover before my dilated pupils. When the doctor announced that the test was over and I was free to go, I strolled over to the restroom to check on one of the examination's known side-effects. Yes, indeed, my urine was now a brilliant yellow color. Shockingly bright. It would take many hours for the fluorescein to be flushed out of my system. In the meantime, my urine had become an intense yellow dye. Remember how your mother always wanted you to wear good underwear to the doctor's office? Well, if it's a fluorescein test, consider digging out your rattiest.

A few hours later, the dilation of my eyes having receded to the point where I felt competent to travel, I went into my office at school. After some time there, I had occasion to visit the men's restroom. This was a natural consequence of my elevated fluid intake, since I was motivated to drink copious amounts of liquid till the fluorescein was gone. At a minimum, however, the dye would remain in my body a full day, so it made its presence very conspicuous when I ambled up to the StraddleMaster 9000. It was a sobering experience. Even perfect aim could not prevent errant drops from ricocheting all over the porcelain fixture. The dye did not lie.

It was worse than I could have imagined. I remembered the remarks of a colleague who had scoffed at the crusade to replace the original urinal. He said it wouldn't do any good and commented that guys who regularly wore shorts would understand. As one who has favored long pants for fifty years, I shrugged it off at the time as merely a mildly repulsive remark. Now I knew it was true.

The horror.

It took more than a full day for matters to return to normal. I claim not to have been scarred by the experience. Nevertheless, I was not pleased to hear my eye doctor suggest it would be nice to do a follow-up fluorescein test in six months. Something to look forward to.

At least there's a happy ending. The ophthalmologist says she sees no major problems in my slightly scarred eye, so the occasional exam is all that is indicated at this time. Also, the brilliant yellow dye washes right out in the laundry. Nothing was destroyed except my self-respect.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

A historical meme


I do not hesitate to ignore chain letters or to ash-can urgent e-mail messages demanding that I forward them to everyone in my address list. Breaking the chain in such cases is simply a public service. The Ridger, however, has tagged me with one of those blog memes. With characteristic grace and sensitivity, she does not peremptorily demand compliance. Clever of her. That's exactly the right tack to get me to go along with the idea. Even better, the meme is an intriguing one:
The rules are as follows:

1) Link to the person who tagged you.
2) List 7 random/weird things about your favorite historical figure.
3) Tag seven more people at the end of your blog and link to theirs.
4) Let the person know they have been tagged by leaving a note on their blog.
This meme has mutated since its initial launch, The Ridger and her immediate predecessor in the chain having scaled back the referrals to merely five—a sensible mod that I will follow.

My favorite historical figure

Carl Friedrich Gauss was a mathematical prodigy who did not outgrow his precocious promise. His fame in my field stems from several remarkable traits and feats:

1 After his death, Gauss's notebooks were eventually found to have anticipated many of the mathematical developments of the next several decades. Many theorems named after the mathematicians who originally published them were discovered first by Gauss. For example, he withheld publication of his work on non-Euclidean geometry because he had no stomach for the controversies he was certain would follow and because his life-long motto was Pauca sed matura (“Few, but ripe”). Gauss would publish nothing until he had polished it to a high gloss and was content to leave all his preliminary work in his private notes.

2 Despite being famous as the foremost mathematician of his era, Gauss held a faculty position as an astronomer. Pure mathematics was not esteemed enough by the financial angels of the day (the nobles who sponsored endowed faculty chairs), but astronomy had a greater cachet. On the strength of his brilliant calculations that permitted astronomers to rediscover the asteroid Ceres, Gauss applied for and was granted the position of professor of astronomy at Göttingen.

3 In addition to his accomplishments in astronomy and celestial mechanics, Gauss made major contributions to physics. One of the most important, Gauss's law, connects the electrical charge within a closed surface to the flux of the electric field through that same surface. Gauss's law has an abstract mathematical analog, sometimes called Gauss's theorem or the divergence theorem, that restates the law in terms of general vector fields. The combination of Gauss's law and Gauss's theorem is a powerful reminder of the strong connections between mathematics and physics. Don't forget that Newton devised calculus as a tool for his explorations in the sciences.

4 The Gaussian distribution is the classic bell curve from probability and statistics. As with many of Gauss's other discoveries, the bell curve was derived from the mathematician's practical work—in this case his analysis of measurement errors in a regional surveying project.

5 The two-hundredth anniversary of Gauss's birth occurred in 1977, a year after the American bicentennial. It may be that the previous year's national celebrations provided a context for commemorating another bicentennial. I was a graduate student in mathematics at the time and still remember the front page story in the Sacramento Bee reporting on a proclamation by Governor Jerry Brown in honor of the Gauss bicentennial. Jerry was still on the “small is beautiful” kick of his first term (he had established an “Office of Appropriate Technology”) and saw the Gauss anniversary as an opportunity to say a few words about the importance of science and technology, both of which were amply demonstrated by Gauss's remarkable career.

That's five items (well, five paragraphs, at least), so I'll stop there. Anyone interested in Gauss's amazing life and work can find more information on-line or in Carl Friedrich Gauss: Titan of Science, a biography by G. Waldo Dunnington, republished in 2003 by the Mathematical Association of America.

By the way, many people insist on referring to “Karl” Friedrich Gauss because of Gauss's Germanic origins. Gauss, himself, favored “Carl” and signed his name in that manner. Show no mercy to the hypercorrectionists who edit Gauss's own name. (I am less censorious toward those who use a double-s in his last name—Gauss—as opposed to the es-zett—Gauß. We don't, after all, have the es-zett in our alphabet.)

Tag, you're it

To whom should I pass on this meme? In the considerate tradition of The Ridger, I tap the following people, while reiterating that compliance is certainly at one's own inclination

Nick Barrowman at Log base 2
Zrk at Live from Zi
Dan Greene at The Exponential Curve
Tony Lucchese at Pencils Down
Scott Hatfield at Monkey Trials

Now it's up to them whether this branch of the meme continues to ramify.

Respecting your elders

Reflecting on others

My cousin lives in a gentrified part of a Central Valley city. His local newspaper decided last month to write a saccharine human-interest piece on some elderly neighbors of his, a pair of young sweethearts who had married and grown old together. It was a perfect Valentine-themed story. The newspaper reporter chatted up my cousin and jotted down some suitable quotes for the article:
John Doe, a middle-aged landscape contractor, is uncharacteristically home during the day. His longtime partner has just moved out, and he's cleaning the big, empty house.

He smiles when Mac and Martha pass. He's been watching them, waving at them, chatting with them for the 10 years he's lived in the neighborhood.

“They are a staple, aren't they?” he says. “When you fall in love with someone, it's with their heart.... That's what I see when I see Mac and Martha. I don't envy them, but they do make me believe. When you see someone doing it, you believe it's out there.”
My mother saw the newspaper article and phoned me in some distress. As smart as I am, I quickly intuited her concern. The local newspaper had outed my cousin “John” in its Valentine's Day story and revealed the sad tale of his recently broken love life for all to see. As is customary when it comes to my family, my brilliant mind was utterly wrong. Mom's lament was of a different order entirely:

“They referred to my nephew as middle-aged!”

That's progress, I suppose.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Praise the Lord

And pass the ammunition!

With the Republican nomination for president all sewn up, J. Sidney McCain III is looking for a running mate. At the same time, he is trying to explain away the enthusiasm with which he embraced the endorsement of John Hagee, the fulminating anti-Catholic preacher from Texas. The senator, you see, loves Hagee's endorsement but doesn't otherwise agree with much of anything he says. See? All better!

Today, however, Pastor Hagee cleverly positioned himself in this year's presidential political contest with a slyly timed television sermon on asking the Lord for what you want. (God, you see, is a big wish-dispensing machine, if only you learn to operate it from the correct kneeling position.) The portly preacher shared a tender moment with his congregation while recounting a poignant story from his childhood.

At the age of six, you see, little John wanted nothing more than a Daisy air rifle from the Sears & Roebuck catalog. Living in southeast Texas, where his father was the pastor of a small church, John used to page through the catalog and stare dreamily at the mail-order armaments. On Christmas day, six-year-old John Hagee discovered that God (or Santa or Dad) had answered his heartfelt prayers and presented him with his very own Daisy air rifle.

Unfortunately, John's older brother fell prey to the sin of covetousness and wanted John's Daisy air rifle for himself. The brothers began to fight. “So I did the only thing I could,” explained Pastor Hagee, growing misty-eyed for his television audience. “I shot him.”

Wonder of wonders! The source of the problem was also the source of the solution!

While Hagee was explaining to his audience that his father had taken issue with his younger son's creative resolution of the dispute, a sudden revelation came over me. I understood the message of the obese oracle:

John Hagee is running for vice president!

While Dick Cheney merely shot a friend in the face by accident, John Hagee shot his own brother and did it deliberately. Truly Hagee has what it takes to ride shotgun on the McCain Straight Talk Express. It would be the greatest pairing since Sears and Roebuck. Or Bonnie and Clyde. How much longer could it be before the first McCain-Hagee bumper stickers appear? I'll bet they're already on the racks in the shops in Hagee's megachurch complex.

Praise the Lord!

Friday, March 07, 2008

Ben Stein bombs

News from the battle front

Okay, so the message from the Expelled promoters was actually titled “Ben Stein smart bombs Darwinian bunker,” but I've learned a lot from the selective quoting techniques of the anti-evolutionists. And, in addition, my description is certain to be more accurate.

The message in my in-box contained an ecstatic movie review by Jack Cashill, freelance writer and WorldNetDaily contributor. (The WorldNetDaily connection is a useful warning to attentive readers.) Cashill was enraptured by his sneak peek at Ben Stein's movie:
A rousing SRO preview on Tuesday of the new Ben Stein documentary, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, brought a Kansas City audience to its feet.

And with good cause. Stein's often funny, always engaging frontal assault on the oppressive neo-Darwinist establishment is arguably the smartest and most sophisticated documentary ever produced on the right side of the cultural divide, on any subject, ever.
The funny thing? Cashill is almost certainly right. Expelled is about as smart and sophisticated as it gets when it comes to polemics from anti-evolutionists. So it's sad, too.

Cashill demonstrates the technique of trivial argument in his movie review. It's a technique we could call “proof by contrary anecdote”:
Expelled represents still another blow to the progressive orthodoxy of government-issued science in its winter of discontent.

The winter started early when in November two separate labs, one in Wisconsin, one in Japan, announced the breakthrough discovery that adult skin cells can be reprogrammed to mimic embryonic stem cells.

Just two years earlier, the elfin journalist Chris Mooney had likened adult stem cell research to creationism and assured the readers of his best seller, The Republican War on Science, that this “dogma” had been “resoundingly rejected by researchers actually working in the field.”

As the winter rolled on, and as all four major global temperature tracking outlets showed a precipitous drop in annual global temperature, and as snow fell in Baghdad for the first time in recorded history, only Al Gore remained in meltdown.
So a snowfall in Baghdad refutes global warming (despite the fact that average global temperatures continue to rise) and a surprise development in adult stem-cell research proves that pro-lifers were right to oppose research on embryonic stem cells. I presume Cashill picked this example because of Mooney's creationism analogy. There's hope for creationism yet!
And into this breach, armed with his trademark tennies and bemused grin, marches Ben Stein, America's only economist/presidential speechwriter turned comic actor. The producers at Premise Media could not have recruited a better on-screen presence.

Although the role Stein plays has been compared to the one Michael Moore plays in his film, the Stein persona is conspicuously brighter and more benign.

Nor do Stein and his producers resort to the kind of editing that make Moore movies something other than documentaries.
I wonder why Cashill thinks he can make that statement so categorically. He has seen the footage in Expelled. Has he seen the unedited footage of the interviews? P.Z. Myers has made it very clear that he was interviewed under false pretenses. Dawkins, too, has plenty of experience with creationist stealth interviews.

But Cashill has no doubts. After castigating Michael Moore for splicing together unflattering bits of film in the editing room for his own movies, he returns to his praise of Ben Stein:
Stein resorts to no such tricks. He gives certain interview subjects all the time and all the rope they need to hang themselves, unedited.

One highlight among many is Stein's one-on-one interview with Richard Dawkins, the dashing Brit who has made a small fortune as the world's most visible neo-Darwinist.

To his credit, and to the utter discomfort of the public education establishment, Dawkins does not shy from discussing the atheistic implications of Darwinism.

Indeed, Dawkin's anti-deity call to arms, The God Delusion, has sold more than a million copies worldwide. Where Dawkins wanders into a black hole of his own making is in his discussion of the origins of life on earth.
A “black hole of his own making”! Goodness! Surely Dawkins must have been caught on film making one of the great pratfalls of all time! One scoots forward in anticipation!

Prepare to be disappointed.
To Stein's astonishment, Dawkins concedes that life might indeed have a designer but that designer almost assuredly was a more highly evolved being from another planet, not “God.”

Stein does not respond. He does not need to. For the past hour of the film, the audience has met one scientist after another whose academic careers have been derailed for daring to suggest the possibility of intelligent design.

If only they had thought to put the designer on another planet!
There's a pretty big non sequitur here. While the ID gang is (for the most part) pretending they don't insist on “God” as the unknown Designer of the Universe, they really do believe that the traditional God of Genesis is the power behind the ID curtain. When Dawkins points out that a highly advanced civilization could conceivably create new life forms, he's not advocating that position. Humanity is itself on the verge of being able to create customized life forms. Dawkins is not exactly spinning science fiction when he talks about the possibility of designing life. I'm pretty certain, however,that Dawkins at no stage in the interview said anything about there being any evidence for design.

And this is the bombshell at the heart of Expelled. Prepare to be underwhelmed when you see the movie.
The choice of Stein as narrator is inspired for another reason. That reason becomes most apparent when he and two “creationist” allies, mathematician David Berlinski and nuclear physicist Gerald Schroeder, visit a remnant of the Berlin Wall, the central metaphor of the film.

At the wall, the three discuss the value of freedom, the central idea of the film, and the need for the same in science. The audience has already met Berlinski, an amusingly sophisticated American living in Paris.
Note that Cashill identifies Berlinski as a mathematician, which is the way Berlinski prefers to present himself. He hold a master's degree in math, but his doctorate is in philosophy. His career as an intellectual poseur has brought him the acclaim befitting a fellow of the Discovery Institute, but he continues to hang his chapeau in France. Cashill's description of Berlinski as “sophisticated” probably means he found Berlinski's cant incomprehensible.

Cashill's fawning movie review has now been sent out to the Expelled mailing list to gin up first week attendance and receipts. His report makes it clear that Expelled is something very special, the absolute crème de la crème du pseudo-intellectualisme. You may want to wash down your popcorn with a nice antacid.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Josiah meets his Judas

A Southern schism

Trouble has arisen in another small corner of the extremist Christian right. I've already posted the fascinating misadventures of the hapless college Christian bloc in Sacramento. Now a new dust-up comes to my attention. The Young Christian Leaders' Alliance in South Carolina has suffered a schism. Its charismatic president and founder, Josiah Magnuson, has suffered the loss of the organization's vice president and co-founder. He has been visiting websites that referred to the YCLA and posting a crystal-clear denunciation of the group he helped to start:
I, [Name], former vice-president and officer of the Young Christians Leader's Alliance (YCLA), do by this writing; officially denounce any public association with the YCLA. I do not hold any association with the YCLA as an organization, and although I believe the YCLA was founded with good intentions, I have forsaken the absurd, heretical, political and theological philosophies promoted by the YCLA. I do not necessarily endorse any ideas, doctrines, documents, persons, candidates, or other material created or promoted by the YCLA. I remain in the fundamental beliefs that I held before association with the YCLA.

It follows that the young man is still a right-wing Protestant fundamentalist creationist, but he dissociates himself totally from the “absurd” and “heretical” version espoused by Josiah Magnuson and those that remain allied with him. Interesting. (Heresy is always more fun for Protestants than Catholics because everyone gets to play; they don't have to worry about the pope ending the game by taking the ball home.)

Whence this tragic schism? I can but hazard a guess. One possible factor is Magnuson's peculiar devotion to the politics of Ron Paul. While one suspects that Magnuson would be loath to give up the anti-drug and anti-sodomy laws that would be swept away under the libertarian policies of a Paul administration, perhaps he thinks that such a laissez-faire government would merely open the way for gangs of Christian citizens to establish local moral codes on a freelance basis. (This approach has been extremely successful in many Islamic nations, where self-appointed guardians of public morals splash acid on the faces of women who aren't hidden behind veils.) The former vice president, on the other hand, has taken a more conventional stance in his endorsement of former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee. Huckabee, you may recall, has bragged that he, unlike other candidates, is willing to amend the U.S. Constitution to make it more Christian. Despite this attractive bait, Magnuson denounces Huckabee as a tax-and-spend liberal (“Huckabee is not the answer...”).

One can see how the former YCLA leaders came to a parting of the ways.

The Future Lies Ahead!

The former veep posted his denunciation of Magnuson and the YCLA on this blog early Saturday morning. On the same day he posted an identical message on Pharyngula. That is, he chose to publicize his departure from the YCLA ranks by posts on the blogs of a pair of atheistic evolutionists. Does this make any sense?

Sure it does. Magnuson's little brown-shirt brigade got more attention from us than anywhere else. Once PZ Myers linked to my article, the floodgates were opened and Magnuson was giddy with delight.
In the past few days the number of visits here has thus become quite astronomical. Thanks, Zeno! :-)

You're welcome, Josiah, but did you stop to consider that it's not exactly a positive benefit when your hordes of visitors are there specifically to mock you or shake their heads in dismay?

Fame is fleeting, however. Although the rush of unbelievers to Josiah's website produced almost (but not quite) 900 hits in the month of September, it's been downhill from there. In February of this year he had only 81 visitors. The revolution will not be televised. Heck, it won't even be blogged.