Saturday, October 31, 2009

The stupidity ... it burns! D'Souza edition

I haven't been posting in a while, so I thought that I would look a little around on the internet, and see if I could find something to write about. I came across a few things, but nothing that really made me think "that'll work". Until I came to an article titled What Really Riles Muslim Extremists?
by Dinesh D'Souza. Jackpot.

Let the fisking begin.

More insurgent bombings in Iraq. More Taliban strikes in Afghanistan. What's up with these people? Just Wednesday, a deadly car bomb exploded in Peshawar, Pakistan, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in Islamabad. Is Islam the problem?

No. Islam is not the problem. There are many peaceful adherents of Islam. Fanaticism on the other hand, is the problem.

Many atheists, and even some believers, would like us to believe that Muslim fanatics are doing this in the hope of going straight to heaven, so that they can enjoy the company of 72 virgins there. Some go as far as saying that religion itself is to blame, because it makes people susceptible to fanaticism, terrorism and violence.

Actually, it would be more correct to say, "Many people believe that Muslim fanatics..." Many other people understand that there are multiple reasons behind these terrorist attacks. Having said that, religion is to a large degree responsible for the particular mode of attack.

An example of this is described here. As the article explains, Iraqi women were raped, and afterward pressured to become suicide bombers to remove their shame. This is only possible where religious and cultural norms creates an atmosphere where it is better to be dead than live "in shame".

But this accusation against religion is nonsense. Even against Islam, it's questionable. Robert Pape's study of insurgency and suicide bombing shows that these actions have nothing to do with promises of heavenly reward. Rather, extremists are motivated by more mundane motives: they invaded our country, they stole our land, they raped my sister, and so on.

Again, I refer back to the article I linked above, which shows that the motivation can be religious in nature, even if there is no expectation of heavily rewards.

Whether or not this is true, Islamist terrorism is a special case. The original suicide bombers, the Japanese kamikazes, were not motivated by religion but rather by fanatical loyalty to the emperor.

D'Souza demonstrates his appalling lack of cultural awareness and lack of historical knowledge. The Japanese soldiers were fanatically loyal to the emperor exactly because of religion!

The Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka conduct suicide attacks in a desperate struggle over land and self-determination.

Yes, it's true that Tamil Tigers conduct suicide attacks, but not in the numbers that Islamic terrorists do. I would also claim that there is a vast difference between the oppression that the Tamil face in Sri Lanka, and the conditions in Pakistan.

If religion is the problem, where are the Buddhist suicide bombers?

Buddhists tend to be non-violent, but again, D'Souza shows his ignorance. The very example he mentioned himself, the Japanese pilots, where often Zen Buddhists.

Nor has anyone been able to identify the Christian bin Laden, the Christian equivalent of al-Qaida or Hezbollah, or the Christian country today run along the lines of post-Khomeini Iran.

Do I need to explain North Ireland, the IRA etc.? How about Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda?

Regarding a Christian country run along the lines of post-Khomeini Iran, try to look at what some of the far-right groups in the US are trying to introduce.

Most people in the world believe in God and the afterlife, yet hardly any of them launch suicide attacks in the hope of going straight to heaven.

A religious belief is not sufficient for launching suicide attacks. That requires fanaticism and perceived oppression. I say "perceived", since many of the right-winged terrorist attacks seen in the US since Obama was elected, were made by people who perceived themselves as oppressed, without any evidence of them being so.

The atheist attack on religion fails.

Even if every example that D'Souza had given had been non-religious, it would not make the "attack on religion" fail. It could perhaps be overly broad, but even if suicide attacks were unique for one particular subset of religion (which I have already explained isn't the case), doesn't mean that religion wasn't the cause.

But even more significant, it boomerangs on the atheists. To see why, you have to understand the larger atheist critique. For two centuries, atheists have said that belief in the next world detracts from the pressing task of improving this one. The afterlife, in other words, is anti-life. We see this in the subtitle of Christopher Hitchens' book, How Religion Poisons Everything. But the most famous atheist to make this accusation was Karl Marx.

Even if everything D'Souza had written so far was correct - and it isn't - this wouldn't follow logically.

Interestingly enough, suicide attacks could be considered a way of trying to move the world towards a particular path, and thus improve it (in the eyes of the suicide attacker).

Marx famously said religion is the "opiate of the people." He meant that religion is a kind of drug that numbs us from being aware of social injustice.

No, that wasn't what he meant. What he meant was that religion was a force in getting people to accept social injustice. That's not quite the same.

Marx's call to eradicate religion was taken up with a vengeance by a host of dictators: Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Ceausescu, Enver Hoxha, Fidel Castro and Kim Jong-il. These despots have collectively killed millions more than even bin Laden could ever dream of orchestrating.

Kim Jong-il created a different religion, with him as a deity.

For the rest of them, it's important that their defining characteristic was not that they were atheists, but that they were totalitarians, and thus wouldn't allow any potential groups to become too powerful. Stalin is a good example of this complexity - at times he heavily prosecuted the Orthodox Church, and others he allowed it to grow and become influential. It was dependent on what suited him at the time.

Had these despots been so avidly atheist as D'Souza believes, and had atheists really believed that religion completely removes religious peoples' focus on the current, then why wouldn't they let the religions continue? It would make things easier for them. The answer is, of course, that the despots understood that religion can distract, but it can also be used to get people to do things - such as suicide attacks - which means that they either needs to control it, or get rid of it.

Beliefs in God and life after death have proven far less dangerous to society than the attempts to establish the God-free utopia.

Please give just one example of any society where they have tried to create a God-free utopia.

Most of the time, the focus were on getting rid of the earlier despots - the Russian Revolution and the Long March happened for a reason. It wasn't like the earlier regimes were exactly likable. Much like how the Iran Revolution also happened for a good reason, likewise the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.

After that, the focus were on staying in power, often through ruthless suppression of anyone who might be a threat, including religious groups.

Fine, let's listen to the atheists who say we need to watch out for heaven-seeking Muslims bent on blowing up civilians and flying planes into buildings.
But let's be just as vigilant against atheist fanatics who are willing to murder millions in order to establish their version of heaven on Earth

Only one of these groups is real - the religious fanatics. The other groups is a strawman, since there are no one willing to kill millions for atheism. There are people who wants totalitarian power, and those we should indeed look out for, be they religious or otherwise.

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Thursday, October 15, 2009

Alien snakes invading the US

National Geographic reports that alien (as in non-native) snakes threaten to invade the lowest third of the US according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Alien Giant Snakes Threaten to Invade Up to 1/3 of U.S.

Nine species of giant snakes—none of them native to North America and all popular pets among reptile lovers—could wreak havoc on U.S. ecosystems if the snakes become established in the wild, according to a new study by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) (pictures of giant snakes mentioned in the study).

These snakes come to the US as pets, but when they became too hard to maintain, their owners let them out in the free, allowing them to breed.

I cannot fathom why people can't get into their thick heads that releasing non-native animals into the wild is a horribly bad idea. Australia has many prime examples of this, but it's not like the US doesn't have similar examples, e.g. the European starlings.

If you cannot take care of your non-native animal, make sure to get someone else to take it off you, or have it put down. The last suggestion might sound rough, but it's much better than creating havoc in the local ecosystem.

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Vegetarian spiders

We all know that spiders eat insects, or the occasional bird or small rodent, but it now appear that there exist a breed which is vegetarian, or at least partly vegetarian.

The 60-Second Science podcast over at Scientific American has more on this: Odd Spider Prefers Salad

Scientific American also has an article about the subject

Unusual Spider Species Passes Up Live Prey for Plants

Of the 40,000-plus spider species known, only a few nibble on plants—typically, as a dietary supplement of nectar or simply as an accidental ingestion of pollen. A new paper, published online today in Current Biology, details the natural history of Bagheera kiplingi, a jumping spider that has vegetarian leanings, and its interesting arrangement with a plant and the ants that protect it.

Certain acacia plants (Vachellia collinsii) and ants (Pseudomyrmex peperi) have developed a mutually beneficial arrangement. The plant provides hollow areas for the ants to nest, along with nutritious nuggets, called Beltian bodies, for them to eat. For their part, the ants help to fend off would-be plant eaters. The crafty B. kiplingi, however, has thwarted the system—also feasting on the plant while managing to outmaneuver attacking ants.

It's not known why the spiders prefers to eat the less nutritious plant leaves to other prey, but interestingly enough, the behavior of the spiders while the hunt is the same as it would have been if it was more traditional prey

Despite their unusual meals, these spiders still exhibit some more traditional hunting behavior. "They're like miniature cats," Meehan says. "They literally stalk and hunt the plant,"

I can't help smile at the thought of a spider stalking a plant.

The original study is behind a paywall, but can be found here.

National Geographic also writes about the spider: "Surreal" Vegetarian Spider Found -- A First

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Monday, October 12, 2009

I guess I have been Evolutionized

Via facebook I became aware that Answers In Genesis, that paragon of stupidity, is warning people that they might have been "Evolutionized"

Evolution can become so ingrained in our thinking that we don’t even notice it. Our government schools and universities are entrenched in evolution, from biology to philosophy and even English class. There is no escaping evolution after we graduate, either. We encounter it in the newspaper, on the radio, on television, and in blockbuster movies.

Yes, it's funny how science can become ingrained in our thinking isn't it? Concepts like the fact that our world rotates around a sun, and not the other way around, that it's round, and that there is something called gravity, also seem to be ingrained in our thinking.

So, how do you know if you’ve been evolutionized? Here are a few questions to find out:

Given the fact that AIG hasn't ever demonstrated that they understand evolution, I am quite doubtful of their ability to make sensible questions related to it. But let's go through the questions, shall we?

Are tribes in the South American rain forest more primitive forms of humans than we are?

And BAM! Straight away, stupidity strikes. Biologically speaking, there is no difference between humans, so the question makes absolutely no sense. It's like asking: "Which of these forks are most fork-like?" Forks are forks, like humans are humans.

The concept of "primitive" humans is a socio-economic construct, and has historically been propagated by, among other things, organized religion.

Did dinosaurs live before humans?

We know that dinosaurs roamed the Earth in the period from 230 to 65 million years ago. We also know that the oldest known fossil of Homo sapiens is approximately 200,000 years old. Do the math.

Even if we take the oldest know fossil of an ancestor (or, more likely, a species which shares a common ancestor with us), Ida, is approximately 47 million years old.

Were the people who lived in caves and used simple tools not very intelligent?

Depends on what you mean by "people" and "intelligent".

Chimpanzees use spears for hunting and Rooks can use tools as well, yet I think few people would claim that they are as intelligent as us. Ancestors to Homo sapiens also used tools, and some even lived in caves, and it's quite likely that they were less intelligent than what we are now.

If we are only talking about Homo sapiens, then they quite intelligent. They figured out to use tools after all. What they were lacking however, was all the knowledge we now have, including such things as common languages and writing.

Did Noah lack special tools or equipment to build the Ark?

The Ark is supposed to have carried 14 (or perhaps 7) or 2 of all animals, depending upon their cleanness. Given the number of species which exist, this would require an extremely large boat - way beyond the skills of the time. Even now, it's not possible to build a wooden boat large enough to fit them all, or even to just accommodate the measures given in the Bible

This of course ignores all the other problems with the global flood story.

So, this question is much like asking: "Does Santa Claus lack special tools or equipment to maintain his sled?" The problem is not the tools, but the fact that what is described is fundamentally impossible.

Are the stars older than the earth?

Yes. As a matter of fact, most, if not all, stars are older than the earth.

What does this have to do with evolution anyway? I can see why the global flood and Noah's Ark might relate to evolution, but the age of stars?

Is there more than one race?

Race is a social construct, so this has nothing to do with science and evolution.

Does it take millions of years to form fossils, oil, coal, or diamonds?

Yes. What's more, diamonds are formed from coal.

Did Adam have to learn how to speak, read, and write after he was created?

Quite often people misuses the phrase "begging the question", but this is actually a very good example of it. For this question to make sense, we have to grant the premise of Adam having been created.

Well, guess what, I am not going to grant that premise.

Unless AIG can provide any scientific evidence of the creation of a human male approximately 6000 years ago (heck, give or take a few millenniums), by some divine being, I am going to say that this question is nonsense.

We understand the evolution of our species pretty well, and know that it's much older than the mere 6000 years that AIG and other Biblical literalists claim.

We also know that many species communicates (or speak if you prefer), so it's quite possible, even likely, that our ancestors communicated before becoming Homo sapiens.

Anyway, that was the questions which should demonstrate whether the reader was evolutionized. If you answered yes to any of them, then you are supposedly evolutionized - which presumably means that answering no, would mean that you reject evolution, even if the questions didn't make sense or were based on a wrong, even grotesquely warped, understanding of what evolution entails.

If you can bear the stupidity, try to see the answers to the questions accordingly to AIG - they also give the answer from the evolutionary side as well. As horribly wrong as anything else they say.

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Saturday, October 03, 2009

The most important challenge of our time

There are many issues that I blog about on a regular, or at least semi-regular basis, that are of real importance to not only me, but to a lot of people. Ironically, however, I rarely blog about the one issue that I think is the single most important one facing us. The one issue upon which we, as a whole and as individuals, will be judge by future generations.

I am talking about anthropogenic global climate change (AGC).

The first time I became aware of AGC was back when I was in 8th grade. This was in 1988 or 1989. Back then, there was a whole lot of doubt about the issue, but a clear consensus was beginning to form, based upon not only the observable facts, but also on our understanding of science. Still, there was room for doubts.

Since then, we have seen the temperatures rise to alarming levels, and our understanding of the science behind AGC is much better, leaving no room for doubt. And let's make this very clear - among the scientists working with climate research and related subjects, there is no doubt. There might be a crank somewhere claiming that the evidence is inconclusive, like there are scientists who denies evolution, but the evidence for AGC is overwhelming.

Not strong. Overwhelming. Not just for the fact that the temperature is changing, with temperatures rising etc., but for the fact that this change is driven by mankind.

I cannot emphasis this strongly enough.

Unfortunately, the measures necessary to stop AGC, or at least lessen it, are not being taken. There is not the political will to do so.

At the same time, scientists are starting to panic - fearing that we might soon reach the point where we cannot turn back.

It seems like the voices of the scientists are finally starting to get heard. Perhaps some politicians had their eyes opened by the reports by the IPCC, which unambiguously said that all evidence shows us that AGC is real, and that we have to act now.

I don't know, but I am happy that the politicians are starting to take this seriously.

On December 7th, a climate conference starts here in Copenhagen - generally called Cop15. It is perhaps the last real chance of making a treating addressing AGC in time for it to have effect.

Today, I spent an hour listening to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon speak about "The Road to Copenhagen" at the University of Copenhagen. I haven't always been too impressed by the current Secretary-General, but on the subject of AGC, I've always been impressed by his dedication. He, as few other politicians, seem to realize that AGC is the single most important issue, regardless of financial crisis, flu pandemics etc. If we cannot address AGC, those other issues will seem quite small in comparison to what we will encounter in the future.

The Secretary-General was optimistic about Cop15, explaining that a lot of positive signals had already been made by key players, such as the EU and Japan, and even poorer countries like China and India seems committed. Regarding the elephant in the room, the US, he said that the US has changed it position from the previous administration, and while their level of ambition might be lower than we would want (not his exact wording), the rest of us "have to encourage them continuously".

Obviously, I hope he is right regarding the likelihood of getting a treaty out of Cop15, but I also think it's important that we, the public, try to do our best to help it along. If you can, write your member of parliament/congress and ask him or her to support a meaningful, science-based treaty, without regard to personal/nationalistic gains.

If we blow this chance, there very well might not be another. If that's the case, future generations won't judge us kindly.

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