Thursday, November 29, 2012

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Does the Universe Have a Purpose?

Minute Physics added some art to Neil DeGrasse Tyson's answer to the question:

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Nuttery on the Left: The Anti-GMO Hysteria

One of my friends shared this piece of shit video on Facebook.

 This "Health Ranger" is also the perpetrator of Natural News:  Curiously, this guy also happens to believe every other food myth of the radical left:  raw food diets, "alternative" medicine, and whatever hits his fan from day to day.

My friend is a sucker for a lot of this stuff.  Like me, she went into a field that didn't require a background in the sciences.  Unlike me, she isn't ashamed of her ignorance and fails to use her intelligence to make up for her educational lacunae.  I know quite a few people like this.  They're smart but not schooled in the sciences or practiced in true skepticism.  My friend claims to be "skeptical" when in reality she's just suspicious.  Not the same thing at all.

The anti-GMO movement is particularly irksome to me because it paints all genetically-modified foods with the same tainted brush of suspicion. It would be one thing if they claimed that specific strains of GMO corn affected the environment, or that peanut allergies are due to one specific variety of peanut. But no, they don't differentiate between products.  It's all suspicious.

And rather than go to pubmed and read up on the research themselves, they let crackpots like "The Heatlh Ranger" tell them what to think.  Some "skepticism" there.

Here's what I found by searching pubmed:  There is a possiblity that crops grown to be impervious to roundup may have residual roundup on or in them, which may affect endocrine functions in mammals (rats are the only animals studied so far).  That's pretty much it.

There are issues that could indeed make GMOs bad, but there are also potential advantages too:
  • Higher yields means less hunger and less land used for crops
  • Hypo-allergenic crops can be developed
  • Sterile plants won't invade natural areas
  • More nutritious crops can be developed
  • Crops that make it to market reduce waste
Not to mention, everything we eat is already genetically modified, through selective breeding and hybridization.  Nothing we eat, from the banana (hear that, Kirk Cameron?) to the cow, is as it was originally found in nature.

And speaking of nature, this is the source of the anti-GMO hysteria:  the naturalistic fallacy.

In some people, it borders on the religious.  They revere their romanticized natural condition without really knowing much about actual nature.  They believe in the magical power of food to make them live forever, or at least until 100.   They pass along whatever their leaders say without questioning it.  And they reject all alternate explanations for even obvious myths.

I have encountered many varieties of "food nazis."  They demonize particular foods and insist that everyone else should follow their advice on healthy living.  (The Nazis were big health nuts, we often forget)   They don't want the rest of us to enjoy an omelet because they ignorantly believe that eggs cause high cholesterol (they don't).  Or they have never been fat and they believe they know what foods fat people should eat (no long-term studies of diet have shown more than modest temporary weight loss).  Or they think killing animals for food is unnatural for humans (we evolved as omnivores, not vegans).

They mean well, so you can't smack 'em.  So you have to rant in a blog post.  So I did.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Thanksgiving Week Links (but none about Thanksgiving!)

Does the FFRF have a chance against the IRS?  They took the bait from brazen preachers who scoffed at the law, and now it's up to a federal court to set things right.  The other side says:  "I don't know how the FFRF can claim it's been harmed by the IRS."  Uhhhhhh anyone who is a taxpayer paying on the national debt has been harmed by money not being raked in.  We'll see...
“I think the lawsuit itself really borders on frivolous. I don’t know how the FFRF can claim they’ve been harmed by the IRS‘ refusal to enforce the Johnson Amendment,” Mr. Stanley said. “But, on the chance it does, then we will seek to protect those churches.”

Read more: Atheists sue IRS for ‘Pulpit Freedom Sunday’ - Washington Times
Follow us: @washtimes on Twitter
“I think the lawsuit itself really borders on frivolous. I don’t know how the FFRF can claim they’ve been harmed by the IRS‘ refusal to enforce the Johnson Amendment,” Mr. Stanley said. “But, on the chance it does, then we will seek to protect those churches.”

Read more: Atheists sue IRS for ‘Pulpit Freedom Sunday’ - Washington Times
Follow us: @washtimes on Twitter

The Economist looks at atheism in Islamic countries.

A Washington Post blogger talks about life as an atheist in Saudi Arabia.  It's enough to make me grateful for the First Amendment, among other perks of being born in the U.S.A.

A new book titled Christianity, Islam, and Atheism gets a pro-Christianity spin here.  The book is published by Ignatius Press, so guess how atheists fare?  (The publisher's video is hilarious)

Fundamentalists in The Netherlands gain ground in local elections.  These fundies are even worse than American fundies: they don't believe women should have the right to vote!

Tibetan Buddhists continue to self-immolate in protest.  China is not only unimpressed, it's angry at the Dalai Lama for not putting a stop to it.  If China does nothing and his supporters continue to commit suicide, isn't China right to just wait it out?

More Baptists who wish they were Episcopalians:  offended by racist pastor, parishoners petition for help from the Southern Baptist Association.  Isn't local hiring and firing of pastors a principle of Baptist theology?  These people will have to do what other disgruntled protestants have done:  start their own church and find a pastor who will tell them what they want to hear (which in this case is better).

Is Egypt backing away from the edge?   I couldn't find the clip but I heard a great quote on CNN: Egyptians had chosen an Islamist only because the alternative was from the old guard, which was a tyrannical rule.  And now their Islamist president is threatening them with the same kind of suppression they had just rid themselves of.  Perhaps there will be a Second Arab Spring, at least for Egypt.

Having read a little about Middle Eastern archaeology, I was reminded this week that layers in cities or settlements are dated based on burn residue.  Egypt, Gaza, and Aleppo are adding another layer this week.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Petition to nominate Malala Yousafzai for Nobel Peace Prize

Ask President Obama to nominate Malala for the Nobel Peace Prize

Sign here:

This petition has a huge number of signers but it's Canadian (no offense to Canadians)'s petition:

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Do You Want to Die?

A pro-life Facebook friend couldn't help but pass along this story about a guy in a vegetative state who "communicates" via thoughts he has while in an fMRI machine.

A brain injured patient gets put into the machine and the doctor trains him to think about playing tennis or think about walking through the house, then assigns "yes" to one and "no" to the other so he can ask him some questions.  The aim is to improve the "quality of life" for these patients, which is a noble goal... assuming the guy really does have higher level cognitive functioning.

Another version of the story has this seemingly amazing piece of information:
"This was a landmark moment for us because for the first time, a patient can actually tell us information, important information about how they're feeling and their current situation," said lead researcher Dr. Adrian Owen on Tuesday.

A simple google search finds that the same doctor has made this claim before, using the same methods:

That was in 2006, and in 2007 several responses to the article criticized his methods, conclusion, and lack of attention to alternate explanations for his "findings."   I found that previous article and its critics in about five minutes (slowed down only by having to register with  How hard did the BBC reporter look?  Or the news organizations that have been repeating it?  When a story is too good to be true, shouldn't they assume that maybe it isn't?
This was a landmark moment for us because for the first time, a patient can actually tell us information, important information about how they're feeling and their current situation," said lead researcher Dr. Adrian Owen on Tuesday.

Read more:

But what really irks me is that the doctor asked the patient is he was in pain.  And guess what?  He's not!  I'm sure the answer is at least as reliable as a Ouiji board.

But will he ask if they guy wants to continue to live in that state? No, of course not.

The coward couldn't ask the most important question, because if the guy said "no," the doctor's ambitions get launched into a whole other sphere, one that is contrary to the his wishes.  After all, if these guys really want to die, then he's out of a job.

Or, he'll have to start proving that his patients lack the psychological fitness to decide to end their lives, which would call into question whether they're able to consent to participate in his research. He's no ethicist or psychologist, so the patient ceases to be his, one way or another.

I'll be keeping an eye out for his article that is supposedly forthcoming, and I'll request it from my library's interlibrary loan department if I have to, because I want to know why he's been researching the same thing for years without ever coming to the point of asking the patients if they want to be allowed to die.

Shouldn't he ask that question eventually?  If I were in that state, that would be the first question I'd want them to ask me.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Election Week Links

Indiana's Richard Mourdock turned to prayer to help him in the election.  Andrew Phipps, the fundy speaker who organized this thing, is a dot-org!  His 501C3 should be ripped up and fed to the devil!  Outgoing governor Mitch Daniels gave this nutter the "Distinguished Hoosier" award.

In the end, Mourdock's rich friends couldn't buy the election.  And something that gives me even more hope, Mourdock only received 60% or more of the vote in a few counties.

Fox News reports machines are switching votes from Romney to Obama... only in that direction!  Apparently they don't follow the news very closely because other people are reporting votes for Obama were switched to Romney and there's video to prove it.

We don't have our first Mormon president, but we have our first Hindu and Buddhist in Congress.

The numbers:

Romney won the white vote almost everywhere.    Too bad for Romney, white people are only 72% of the electorate.  And women are over 50% of the electorate, and not fond of mysogynists.  And non-religious people are a 12% voting bloc that politicians shouldn't ignore.  Asians didn't buy Romney's economic message, either.  Polls of polls saw this coming.  So in the end, Moneyball beats Goebbels Rove.
Or was Rove's real problem lying to himself?

...and in other news:
Church services for atheists?  People are showing up at 8:30 a.m. for this.  That's about 4 hours too early for me.  If the local UU tries this here, I'll check it out .. if it's not too early!

An Australian Catholic priest reveals systematic cover-ups of pedophilia in the church.

The pope worries that after gay marriage is recognized, polygamy would be too.  Polygamy would be much more complex, with three having to agree, and a whole boatload of other considerations, but I would back that too for consenting adults, not marriage between adults & teens as cult leaders do.  I wonder how he feels about Catholics voting for Romney.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Mental Illness and the Main Characters of the Bible

I would have to say that the number one reason I'm an atheist is that all the religions of the world rely on magical communication between the other-world and people -- selected people -- in this world.  Those who have been chosen to see, hear, know or otherwise learn of the other realm then transmit this specialized knowledge to the rest of us. The few who believe them call them "prophet" or "seer" or "shaman" and revere their every word from then on.  After all, normal people don't hear voices, believe their dreams, or see people who aren't there... or do they?

Did Moses see an actual burning bush

Even if Moses did exist, and even if he did write or dictate his experience accurately, and even if his story was transmitted faithfully for thousands of years before being committed to papyrus, he probably did not see an actual magical burning bush.  He either saw an ordinary burning bush, or he had an hallucination.  Hallucinations of fire are not that unusual. In Neuropsychiatry, Neuropsychology, Clinical Neuroscience (Lippincott, Williams & Wilkins, 1996), Rhawn Joseph, Ph.D writes:
Hallucinations may occur secondary to tumors or seizures involving the occipital, parietal, frontal, and temporal lobe, or arise secondary to drugs, toxic exposure, high fevers, general infections, exhuastion, starvation, extreme thirst, partial or complete hearing loss including otosclerosis, and with partial or complete blindness such as due to glacoma ...  For example, tumors or electrical stimulation of the occipital lobe produce simple hallucinations such as colors, stars, spots, balls of fire, flashes of light.

Next, Moses supposedly heard the voice of God, not coming from within his own head, but from somehwere else.  (Or God wrote the commandments on the two tablets himself) A certain type of brain injury can cause that too, as can schizophrenia.  Stress can also cause auditory hallucinations, including stress due to sensory deprivation.  Moses was alone, so we don't "know" what his sensory input was.  Another potential cause is a milder condition, in which ordinary sounds (such as the wind rustling through a shrub high on a mountain) can be misinterpreted in the brain and turned into full-fledged vocalizations from outside the mind.  And "The most common type of auditory hallucinations in psychiatric illness consists of voices" so the likeliest thing for Moses to hear in this state would have been one or more voices.  Since he was alone, naturally he had nobody to attribute the voices to other than God.  Someone experiencing the same thing today might make the same mistake (unless they had just ingested a psychogenic plant!)

So my verdict on Moses:  some kind of hallucinatory experience, from any number of causes, is much more likely than God performing a miracle and then talking to him.  Moses most likely did not exist, but ancient people would have been aware of the phenomenon of seemingly sane people having hallucinations that they interpret as coming from a divine source.

Dreams likewise seem to have an external origin.  Even the few people who claim to be able to do "lucid dreaming" or otherwise control their dreams admit they work very hard at it.  For the rest of us, dreams are foreign invaders into our experiences, spinning out stories that can be the cause of great distress.  Like hallucinations, our reality-tester in our brain is out of commission and after the fact has no basis for knowing what was real.  Everything seems real in a dream.  I do agree with dream interpretation as a psychological tool because the same brain that goes about our daily business dreamed up the dream story.  Even when people know that they've had a dream, it still seems significant to them, and it may be.  Dreams reveal how our brains are processing our lives and how we feel about events.

In Genesis, Jacob saw a ladder reaching to "heaven." And then, just like Moses, he "heard" God telling him that he and his progeny would rule the earth.  When he woke up he believed it was all real and he made a life-decision based on it:  he "founded" the city of "Bethel."  A later dream-God told him to abandon his city.  This may say as much about culture as the individual:  plain old good judgment can't be presumed in their leaders.  They need to be supported by a higher authority.

The other big dreamer in the Bible is the most famous: Joseph, who had prophetic dreams of his own and became a dream interpreter for Pharoah.  Again, assuming any of this stuff happened as it was written down hundreds or thousands of years later, this is a very convenient way for someone to manipulate another person.  Just like phony psychics who do cold readings, a clever "dream interpreter" can get their mark to believe almost anything.  Coincidentally, Pharoah rewarded Joseph with valuables.  Joseph sounds more like a con artist to me than a prophet.

In almost every culture and in folk life generally, dream interpretation can be a game, a prophesy or a form of manipulation.  Did Jacob's ladder mean anything?  Did Joseph really get messages from God through his own and others' dreams?

No.  Not likely at all.  Dreams are just dreams, though sometimes they are revealing of something in our experience or thinking.  Seeming proof of supernatural communication is wishful thinking.

Sometimes people just seem to "know" things in the absence of having been told by a real or hallucinated figure.  To the person holding the delusion it's every bit as real as the ideas they have about the actual real world.  Something has gone very very wrong for them.

The obvious example from the New Testament would be Jesus, assuming he really meant "son of God" when he called himself "Son of Man."  There's no description in the Bible of Jesus being told by his mother that she'd been impregnated by God.  He had siblings, and presumably was the oldest, so he would have been somewhat elevated in the family by virtue just of being the oldest boy.  That's enough to mess with any child's brain. 

Delusional Disorder is currently defined as delusions in the absence of other symptoms, which family and culture do not support.  If your culture does support the idea that a person can be magically special, it would be not be a delusion by today's standards, but I think that's a cop-out.  The culture itself can share a delusion (as Richard Dawkins says of course), and an individual's psychosis can fit right in with it.  More recently, we have had the famous cases of  Jim Jones, Charlie Manson, and David Koresh.  They were able to gather a group around themselves in a personality cult reminiscent of Jesus and his disciples, with even more success in some ways, yet would they be considered mentally ill if the outcomes hadn't been so drastic?  We've been too polite about the (somewhat) less dangerous versions of them such as Mary Baker Eddy, Joseph Smith, and L. Ron Hubbard.

And the person harboring the delusion can appear normal:  "Unfortunately, patients with delusional disorder do not have good insight into their pathological experiences. Interestingly, despite significant delusions, many other psychosocial abilities remain intact"

So... was Jesus really the offspring of a human-deity mating?   Assuming that story wasn't cribbed from other stories current in his time, why should his belief in his divinity be more convincing than the "false" prophets?  It's not.

Conclusion:  Jesus, if he existed, and if his story was transmitted accurately, probably was more like Jim Jones and Charles Manson in his path to self-delusion than a truly half-divine man-god. The fact that others believed him, doesn't make it more true any more than Charlie's followers convince most of us that he was anything but a demented, delusional cult leader.

Which brings us to Paul, who in my opinion is the true inventor of Christianity.  What happened to him  on the road to Damascus?  In Acts 9-13 it says:
As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
“Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.  “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you musist do.”
The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone.
The bright light sounds hallucinatory for sure, possibly due to something like an ischemic stroke, or stress-related hallucination.  This is his one big moment, not one of a long series, so he wasn't mentally ill, but he could have been in a temporarily ill state.  The others "hearing the sound" doesn't necessarily confirm the experience, especially since they didn't see anyone, and presumably didn't hear the bright light.  One, he was a leader and who is going to say "No, boss, I didn't hear nuthin?"  But also, it's possible for the person hearing the voice to believe others also heard it.  And since his companions weren't the ones writing about this story, is it likely (assuming they were real persons of course) that they were the ones telling the story to whoever did write Acts?  No, it's much more likely, that if Paul existed, and if he'd heard these things, and if he told others about them, that only his version of events was written down.

So... did Paul really hear Jesus talking to him on the Road to Damascus?  Since he'd never actually met Jesus before the crucifixion, how would he know?  He had only the voice's word for it, and disembodied voices just can't be trusted.  So my verdict on Paul:  hallucination and biased reporting.

You could go through the holy stories of any other religion and find the same types of stories (sometimes the same story with different names!) and because the people telling the stories were credible, powerful, charismatic, or dishonest, the stories became the basis for religions.  If you were born more than 100 years ago, you could hardly be blamed for believeng that other people's delusions, dreams, and hallucinations were actual windows into another reality.

If you believe in other people's delusions today, though, you should be ashamed of yourself.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Links, mostly political sad to say

Romney on Mormonism, the whole interview.  He's very testy.  How charming would he be in discussions with world leaders?

We know how he is with women:  he would let a woman die rather than abort, and he would try to force a single mom to give up her baby for adoption or face excommunication.

The New Republic's article on Mormonism and Capitalism is interesting reading & references some books on the history of Mormonism.  The more I know the more creeped out I am so don't look for book reviews here.  Link them here if you write em, though!
The Taliban kills an anti-Taliban official in Pakistan.  Apparently Osama bin Laden's rhetoric about the U.S. having too much influence in Saudi Arabia was a hollow excuse for his true goal: destroy secularism.  They found some closer to home, but it will be a hollow victory in the end.  They can't possibly think people will let them rule over them after all this carnage.

Tuesday's election may see the first U.S. congress member who is a Hindu.