26 November 2011

Afghan justice is no justice at all

Gulnaz was raped by her cousin's husband when she was 19.  She was impregnated and gave birth.  She was also imprisoned for adultery.  Now her choice is remain in prison for 12 years, or marry her rapist.

You can read more of Gulnaz's story - if you can stomach it - here.

This really makes me sick.  That a judge could sit in court and pronounce a girl guilty of adultery for having been raped is pretty much the definition of "evil."  That such a "justice" system exists based on a pathetic fairy tale is an insult to humanity.  Everyone who has acted against this poor woman should be locked up, including all the politicians who think that this way of running a society is anything more than a sick joke.

And Afghan law, if it permits this kind of revolting travesty, is also a sick joke.  There is no argument, no foundation on which anyone, let alone religious apologists, can justify such acts.

Please remember this if you ever try to justify tolerance for religions: those religions that you think are doing good in the world are actually at the root of the most vile political and judicial practises we have.  We must never accept any legal, judicial, or political system that is rooted in such lies and evil as we see here in Afghanistan.

There are plenty of good people in Afghanistan.  This isn't about them.

This is about the power-mongering, tiny-dicked assholes who think that irrational lies found in an old book are a reasonable way to run a country.  These sub-humans have, I think, forfeited all due process for their crimes.  If they honestly think that the kind of things done to Gulnaz are how a whole society should be run, then there's no room for them on this planet.  If they really believe that women are property, then they have abdicated every possible right to which they would be otherwise be entitled.  They should be locked away forever, and humanity would be only the better for it.

14 November 2011

Coming soon: summary pages

It has occurred that some of the information I want to share in this blog may be as useful in the form of lists as links embedded here and there in various posts.  So I've started to keep track of links that support or augment my arguments, and I'll be adding them to pages as quickly as I can.

The pages will appear across the top of the blog.  Right now there's only one page, and it contains only one link.  Be patient; more will come soon.

Rabbi encourages ignorance

In a recent blog in PuffHo, Rabbi Adam Jacobs, the great yutz of New York, tried to argue "why really everyone believes."  Presumably, we're talking about god here, though the only thing I believe having read his ridiculous post is that Jacobs is an evil prick who promotes ignorance for the sake of peddling his fairy tales.

Jacobs's post has already been properly deconstructed by Jerry Coyne; I'd like to follow up on a couple of other points.

Jacobs prelude contains a vile insult, one that immediately relegates him, in my opinion, to the contemptible charlatans of religion.  He writes: "Often, I've inquired of non-believers if it at all vexes them that nothing that they have ever done or will ever do will make the slightest difference to anyone on any level?"

Here, he asserts that the only way one's life can have meaning is when rooted to belief in a fairy tale god.  This is bullshit of the first order.  I look at my wife and my children, and I know that I've made a difference.  I look at my students, and I know I've made a difference.  I look at the smile of the street musician when I drop some change into his guitar case, and I know I've made a difference.  I don't need some imaginary god to validate me. I detest that people can have such low self-esteem that they think the only way to achieve meaning is to believe in a myth, and I positively hate people people like Jacobs who project their own limp inadequacies onto everyone else.

Still, for the sake of completeness, here are my thoughts about the rest of Jacobs's prattle.

He proposes a simple three-point test to identify if you "believe."  Here's a quick summary.

1. "Would you be willing to sell your parent's remains for dog food?"

Apparently, believers find something wrong with the notion of not treating a dead body with "respect."  I'm not sure why.  If there is an afterlife, then my parent's soul has gone there, rendering the body but an empty shell.  If there isn't an afterlife - hey, guess what?  Still an empty shell.  Everything that is left behind of my parents is in my mind and in the minds of the others who knew them.  So why shouldn't I sell their remains?

Jacobs writes: "Could it be that subconsciously you suspect that it's just wrong to do it -- wrong in a way that transcends your temporality? If not, and if you would sell your mother's corpse so that it can be made into pet grub, congratulations: You are an authentic non-believer." 

If it's subconscious, then it's probably just an instinct derived from evolution, or learned behaviour from your childhood - neither of which gets us near believership.  Notice too how Jacobs insidiously attempts to repulse you by choosing something distasteful: having one's mother's corpse turned into "pet grub."  How about donating her corpse to science?  There's lots of things that "desecrate" a body but which aren't that bad really.  And what's wrong with being turned into pet grub?  What do you think happens to a decomposing corpse in a buried coffin?
(Full disclosure: both my parents are dead.  I haven't sold their remains because no one wants to buy them, and because I gave them my word that I would respect their wishes.  Notice this has nothing to do with their wishes, and everything to do with the value I associate with my being honourable with respect to my own standards.)

2. "You and someone you dislike are stranded on a desert island with a functioning ham radio. One day you hear that there has been a terrible earthquake that has sent a massive tsunami hurtling directly for your island and you both have only one hour to live. Does it make any difference whether you spend your last hour alive comforting and making amends with your (formerly) hated companion or smashing his head in with fallen, unripe coconuts?"

False dichotomy.  Jacobs tries to make you think you only have two alternatives: make nice with your enemy, or beat his brains out.  There's lots of other options.  Given the circumstances, I personally would just go for a swim and let my mind wander till the tsunami hits.

Also, the question is not really different from asking you what you will do with your life.  Basically, the issue is that you have a short life followed by an inescapable death.  On the island is one hour long; in reality it's around 80 years, composed of about 508,800 one-hour units.  What you do with each of those one-hour units is treated by exactly the same question as Jacobs stupidly asks of his readers.

3. "Is love, art, beauty or morality intrinsically significant?"

Here the question is really whether any of these things exist except in the mind.  Is any one of them, as Jacobs puts it, "one that transcends chemical reactions and meaningless groping towards cell mitosis?"

Appealing to one's innate sense of these things is not enough, because it has been clearly shown in the research on the human brain and mind that there are direct correlations between brain function and those innate senses.  Furthermore, Jacobs discounts entirely the notion of emergent properties - complex things that only exist as a result of the interactions between simple things.  This too is extremely well documented.

There's a certain theme running through all of Jacobs's arguments.  They're all based on appealing to the ignorance of the common folk.  There's no sense here that he's appealing to people based on scientific knowledge - in fact, he categorically ignores it.  Nor are his arguments well-constructed.  As both Dr. Coyne and I have shown, each in different ways, there are all kinds of holes in Jacobs's arguments, holes that comprehensively invalidate them.

This is, in my opinion, the evil bit.  Either Jacobs is willfully ignorant (if he hasn't bothered to educate himself about logical argumentation and science) or a liar (if he does know about those things and chooses to ignore them for the sake of making a point).  In either case, by appealing to - and even encouraging - ignorance and naive reasoning, he is endorsing exactly the sort of myopic and hateful thinking that has held back humanity for the last couple of millennia.

07 November 2011

Are those things really stars?

I have written before about the difference between science, the sciences, and scientists.  It's bad enough that members of the anti-science movement cannot seem to distinguish between those three concepts.  But even within a single concept, it seems that many ignorant and malevolent people seem to get utterly lost.

I recently came across a post on Google+, consisting of an exchange by such an anti-science idiot (identity unknown), and Tris Stock, someone who understands science very well.  The argument, it seemed, revolved on whether stars are real.  (I know - try not to laugh too hard.)

You can see the original conversation, and a series of comments by others, at https://plus.google.com/109717575157128771241/posts/869gP2699hr.  As far as I'm concerned, the person arguing against stars being as scientists describe them is just a troll.  Nonetheless, the argument is so similar to so many other anti-science arguments, that I really wanted to write about it.

First, let's get specific.  The argument isn't about science - i.e. the endeavour and process of acquiring scientific knowledge - but rather about the qualities and extent of scientific knowledge.  That is, the troll does nothing to argue against science, but rather suggests that science cannot be trusted because of the nature of scientific knowledge.  That's like saying that someone who's never seen an orange tree must assume that, unlike other trees, an orange tree must be orange in colour.

The troll's arguments hinge on a few key points.

The troll has never seen a star. That is, he has seen those points of light that normal people call stars; he just is unconvinced that they are as scientists claim they are.  This is puerile.  He's saying that the thousands of scientists who have devoted their lives (totalling millions of person-hours at least) to studying the nature of stars have been unable to convince him of their nature.  If the troll is aware of the evidence, then he is obviously suffering from either a massive superiority complex or paranoid delusions.  If he is not aware of the evidence, then is here exhibiting the very worst kind of arrogance: he's not only ignorant, but he's also too stupid to recognize his own ignorance - basically, a textbook study of the Dunning-Kruger Effect as it applies to the unskilled and incompetent.  Either way, he's a troll.

"Theory" and "evidence from technology" do not guarantee validity. When Tris calls him on his first inane claim about stars, the troll retreats to a weaker position.  Here the troll argues that only his own eyes and mind are trusted sources of knowledge, and that external sources (theory and evidence from technology) are not so trusted.

The "theory" of which the troll presumably speaks are the bodies of knowledge known as astronomy and cosmology.  However, everything we think we know is also just a theory.  Since we can only perceive the objective universe via our senses, our entire mental content is basically just a big, rather vague, grossly incomplete, and error-ridden theory of the universe.  So when the troll complains about the suspect nature of theory, is he also complaining about the human mind?  Presumably not, because he seems to afford human beings a special privilege of understanding the universe.  This is called a contradiction.  It signifies that he is wrong.

The same error - logical contradiction - permeates his notion that evidence from technology is suspect.

We use optical telescopes to study stars.  If the technology of telescopes is suspect, so must be the field of optics (a theory), and therefore so are contact lenses, eyeglasses, and mirrors.  Yet I can only assume that the troll would accept that contact lenses, eyeglasses, and mirrors work.  Therefore, contradiction.

We also use spectroscopes to study stars; so, spectroscopy (a theory) must be suspect.  But you can demonstrate spectroscopic principles in any high school physics lab.  Therefore, contradiction.  He's also casting doubt on chemistry, so he's denying everything from internal combustion engines to batteries.  More contradiction.

We use radar, microwaves, x-rays, gamma rays, and infrared telescopes to study stars; so, our theory of electromagnetic radiation must be suspect.  But surely he would accept microwave ovens, radar-based aircraft navigation, medical imaging, radiation therapy, and TV remotes as real, functioning things.  Therefore, contradiction.

The point here is that the scientific body of knowledge is not a collection of disparate claims.  It is a single, massively interconnected collection of facts.  True, at its edges there are some hypotheses - things we're currently studying - but all those hypotheses are firmly rooted in scientific fact.  And as the scientific body of knowledge grows, it becomes more and more robust.  One cannot just pick and choose whatever bits of science are convenient, and ignore the rest.  It's an all or nothing deal.

In any case, our sensory organs are really nothing more than "technology" of a different kind that the stuff we make.  He trusts his eyes, but not a telescope.  Yet what is the eye but an organic camera?  (And it's a pretty piss-poor camera at that.  By some estimates, as much as 90% of the information received by the eye never gets to the brain.) If he doubts technology, then he must also logically doubt his eyes; yet he obviously places special privilege on his eyes' ability to see real things.  Again: contradiction.

There is no conclusive evidence that our sun is a star.  Near the end of the exchange, Tris attempts to explain things by reminding the troll that our sun is just a star.  The troll then writes "You can alter the example if you like."  This indicates that the troll does not believe that the sun is like the points of light we typically call stars.  And yet all the same tests and experiments one can perform on the stars, one can also perform on the sun - and get entirely consistent results.  The only truly substantive difference between the sun and other stars is that the former is billions of times closer to Earth than the latter.

Finally - and this is what really pushes me over the edge - the troll suggests that Tris (and others who think like him by extension) is intolerant and dogmatic because he is unwilling to accept other belief systems that "don't hurt others."  This claim is typically used to put the speaker on the moral high ground.  The attempt is cowardly because the troll should have just had the cojones to claim his own moral superiority.  Furthermore, the discussion is not about beliefs but about facts.  The troll clearly thinks of science as a series of beliefs that can be used or ignored as required.  One might argue that facts are a type of belief and thus as strong (or, more importantly, as weak as beliefs; but that would be like arguing that skyscrapers are as weak as termite hills because they're both "structures," or that serial murder is as mild as jaywalking because they're both crimes.

Nothing could be further from the truth.  Scientific knowledge is a collection of facts, claims that have been demonstrated true in so many ways that the odds of any of them being false are infinitesimal.  Scientific knowledge is the best, most robust knowledge that humanity has at its disposal.  There is absolutely nothing that can compare.  If you need proof, look around you.  Everything humans have added to the Earth is based on it.  To dismiss scientific knowledge as just a "belief system" is an argument intended to lower science to the level of superstition and legend.  I really, really hate that kind of lie.

Now, of course, as is so often the case with anti-science cowards, they choose words that are ambivalent and might be subject to diverse interpretation.  For instance, the troll's remark about altering the example could be taken to suggest that the argument is not about questioning technology vis-a-vis the sun.  However, there are two problems with offering this kindness to the troll.  First, it behooves him - indeed, it behooves us all - to speak plainly and clearly.  It is evident that the troll has a reasonable grasp of english.  It is therefore not too much to expect him to be specific and precise.  Second, the entire discussion is so glaringly typical in style and form of anti-science jerks that can be found trolling on any social network that it is rather natural to infer that he is as he presents himself.  If he has any interest in science, he would know this because the evidence is so readily available.  So either he has no interest in science - in which case one must question why he even bothers to engage Tris (unless he is a troll) - or he's staggeringly ignorant - in which case he is a troll and an anti-science prats.

Now, to his credit, Tris mentions in a comment to his post that his investigation suggests the troll may have in fact just had a momentary brain fart (my words, not Tris's).

This may well be, but I stand by my assessment.  Whoever it was who argued with Tris assumed the posture, language, and style so very typical of anti-science gits.  His arguments are so fetid and ridiculous that he must either be an utter moron (with good language skills - therefore, unlikely), or a malevolent prick trying to undermine science.