Archive for August, 2010

If you want your brain to get achingly confused, as it tries to decide between grinding your teeth and tapping your toes, then you need to see this.

Melodically, it might not actually suck as much as I’d like to be able to say it does. But you’d honestly be hard-pressed to make the anti-vaxxers’ argument look more idiotic, and the people in the movement more deadened to any sense of irony, than by mocking up something like this video. The misleading bullshit just will not stop.

At one point it shows a man’s testicles falling off and jumping onto a nurse’s face because he got vaccinated, and they’re using this to make a serious point about the dangers of vaccinations.

It’s exponentially funnier and/or scarier because it’s real, and they totally mean it.

The really disingenuous part, as Orac points out, is the way a lot of these people still claim not to be anti-vaccine. They’re all for vaccines – they just want them to be “safe”.

Never mind that they can’t actually link vaccinations to anything unsafe; that they can’t offer any useful suggestions as to how to make them safer; that the link between vaccines and autism has been repeatedly proven to be vacuous; that autism rates continued to rise even after a supposedly “unsafe” chemical was removed from childhood vaccines; or that the alt-med crowd don’t even seem to be able to define the “toxins” they rail against. They still demand, unspecifically and insincerely, that someone “green our vaccines“.

Does anything about these loons’ latest output imply that they think vaccines are a great idea in principle, if the medical establishment would simply adjust their practices a little so that this potentially useful method of medication can be employed more effectively?

Or are they just screaming ZOMG DOCTORS ARE TRYING TO KILL YOUR BABY!!1!

All they have is empty, scary yelling. And people are dying.

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Well, this is just tragic.

So the “Ground Zero” “Mosque” is being loudly opposed by many, who are against the idea of allowing Muslims to build a place of worship sort of near to where some extremists did something terrible nine years ago.

But a lot of the time, their arguments are focused on the sensitivity of the centre, rather than the legality of it. They think that it lacks compassion or respect to establish this building, with its basketball court, swimming pool, theatre, and other such un-American abominations, a mere five-minute walk a couple of streets away from the “hallowed ground” where the World Trade Centre once stood. The fact that this private organisation might not be legally permitted to build on this privately owned ground hasn’t seemed to be a big part of the dialogue.

The protestors don’t want it to happen, certainly, but this always seemed to be more on the grounds of personal offense than any real legal objection.

Clearly much of the offense is itself misguided, too. There’s a lot of divisive rhetoric that seems to assume that “we” were attacked by terrorists, and now “they” want to build some kind of terror-shrine on the site of “their” victory. Fox News are doing a fine job of making the scary Muslim bigwig with the suspicious foreign-sounding name who’s behind the community centre (and who also owns a large chunk of Fox News) sound scary.

But critics have tended to try to steer the discussion away from being a legal argument. Perhaps this is just because they know they have absolutely nowhere to stand in a legal argument, and so trying to brush aside people’s rights by constantly parroting that it’s “not a matter of religious freedom” is the best they can do.

Except it turns out that maybe I’m giving people too much credit. I’d assumed they were mostly just stupid enough to think that their personal indignation means a damn when it comes to other people’s freedom to exercise their own business. But apparently a lot of them are a whole different breed of idiot.

Just barely half of people recently polled believed that there is a constitutional right to build a religious building on privately owned property. Almost half either were convinced that no such right exists, or were not sure.

And although there is a notable split along party lines, that’s not especially comforting either. One in four Democrats also gave this question a firm “No”.

I’d really like to see the answers to some follow-up questions here. Do this quarter of Democrats – and more than half of Republicans – think that a Christian church would also be illegal in this location? Or do they think that the First Amendment contains a special provision to account for when people would be upset? Maybe they’ve read a little-known footnote added by Thomas Jefferson at the last minute, reading “unless they look foreign and weird”?

The most elaborate argument any of them have against this centre – the most profound and compelling reason they can find for restricting other people’s rights – is essentially a tutting noise.

I sometimes wonder why it always seems to be the lunatic right who are incapable of distinguishing their own personal preferences from everybody else’s rights, and why they’re the ones who assume that anyone else is ever obliged to give a fuck about where their moral outrage is pointed this time. Apparently this is my answer. There’s no hope on the left, either.


No, you know what, fuck that. I’m not ending this on a sigh, and just exasperatedly concluding that the world is doomed. There are still large swathes of people out there – millions of them, perhaps even a majority – who are capable of looking beyond the still raw wound of this colossal violation, and not letting it taint their perception of the entire world from then on. A lot of people can still maintain the presence of mind to distinguish the hateful from the innocent, even in the wake of national and personal bereavement. There are many people responding to the Islamic community in America with compassion, and establishing relationships even with those religious people who share a faith with the terrorist monsters behind this atrocity.

Also, here’s one Republican who supports the liberal, decent position on religious rights: Ted Olson, Solicitor General under President Dubya, whose wife was on a plane and killed on 9/11.

That’ll have to suffice as a unicorn chaser for now. I’m having a lazy evening at home, and sometimes at work I have to actually, like, work, so I’m a bit pushed for time.

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Another thousand words of novel means another day of moderate neglect for the blog. Sorry, everyone. I’ll try not to be quite this totally awesome for too long.

Anyway. The Guardian’s usually rather good at reporting competently on science-based news, and not getting carried away with a right-wing agenda or deranged tabloid fear-mongering. Their articles tend to be much more grounded in reason and reality than the rags I usually end up ranting about here, even if their comment threads can be just as depressing.

But not long ago The Guardian published something rather tedious about homeopathy, and now their credibility has taken another lurch with their latest revelation: ATHEISTS WILL KILL YOU.

Seriously, I’m barely exaggerating the way they reported the findings here. The headline really does read “Atheist doctors ‘more likely to hasten death’“.


What that sounds like it means, to me, at a glance, is that being in hospital with a doctor who’s an atheist will make you more likely to die under their care than if they were religious. It sounds like there’s data suggesting that religious people do a better job of caring for their patients enough to keep them alive, and that religious belief is evidently a force for good, at least within the medical profession.

If you read the actual data, though, it can sound like something very different.

What it can sound like it means is that religious doctors are less likely to consider helping to end the suffering of terminally ill patients, by allowing them to die rather than drawing out their pain.

See how much difference a little framing can make?

I’m not getting into the whole debate on the ethics of euthanasia here. It’s just annoying to see an interesting study presented in such a needlessly provocative way.

The Friendly Atheist has talked about this, and there’s an excellent and thorough takedown on Skepchick, too. As Carrie points out, the subject under discussion is really something more like: “Doctors’ Religious Attitudes Can Impact End of Life Care”. But I’m sure it won’t be long before the argument from final consequences starts getting wheeled out again, and this study is presented as evidence that atheism is somehow wrong because it kills people.

Hey, at least it’s not the Mail I’m bitching about this time.

Edit 27/08/10: Evan Harris has now also discussed this in more sensible detail.

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Just a quick link today to a recent confirmation that Joe Power is still an unpleasant, bitter, cruel, spiteful, nasty little man.

Not that we needed any further reminders. Derren Brown has it covered, in particular. But still. He is quite revolting. Even for a fucking stage psychic who pretends to talk to people’s dead relatives.

Sorry to only bring you negativity today. I’m not feeling creative enough for anything more right now. I wrote over a thousand words of my novel earlier this evening, though, which isn’t too bad as excuses go.

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There is no good reason for presenting my thoughts like this. But it’s happening.

It goes without saying that I’m no Digital Cuttlefish. That should be clear from the start.


The blog known as Pharyngula
Is really rather singular –
From the biology lectures, to the comely Trophy Wife –
But its chief controller, PZ,
Makes this blogging lark look easy,
With uninterrupted output as he goes under the knife.

Yes, although he’s feeling sickly
This has made him no more prickly
(Though detractors say he was already crotchety enough).
As his body self-repairs,
Wish him well, but hold your prayers.
Let’s just hope he soon recovers, and stops feeling quite so rough.

So yeah. One of the biggest cheeses of science blogging and angry internet atheism is in hospital today, having his organs poked around by highly qualified professional organ-pokers. We’re being urged not to worry, but it does all sound rather dramatic.

I hope he gets better soon. Try not to fall into the eternal black void of sweet, welcoming death, PZ.

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I didn’t know who Dr. Laura was until she got fired.

The idea of a friendly-sounding general advice guru who wants to be called “Doctor Firstname” is something of a cliché, but I guess it’s mostly an American thing, and I’m not usually aware of the specific examples who are well known over there. Dr Phil’s about the only one I’d recognise, and he seems benevolent enough; as much as Sarah Palin may have put people off it, being “folksy” isn’t a crime in itself.

So I wasn’t that interested at first when I heard that one of the other ones had been fired for being racially insensitive somehow. A lot of people still don’t seem to really realise how careful a lot of broadcasters and advertisers want to be around that kind of thing, and how careful they need to be themselves when speaking in public as a result. I didn’t really care whether some exec was overreacting, or whether Dr. Laura was just a bitch.

But then I heard the show. And… wow, Dr. Laura is a bitch.

This might not actually be news to anyone. Some of her less-than-progressive views inspired this open letter regarding certain other prohibitions laid down in the Old Testament, which in turn gave rise to this scene from the West Wing, where Martin Sheen verbally bitchslaps a woman explicitly intended to be a Dr. Laura caricature.

Most recently, a black woman called in to Dr. Laura’s show, seeking advice about dealing with racist comments made by her white partner’s friends. This is what happened on The Dr. Laura Program on August 10, 2010, as broadcast and transcribed on The Colbert Report on August 18th:

Schlessinger: Well, can you give me an example of a racist comment because sometimes people are hypersensitive…

Caller: How about the N-word? So the N-word’s been thrown around…

Schlessinger: Black guys use it all the time. Turn on HBO, listen to a black comic and all you hear is n*****, n*****, n*****. I don’t get it. If anybody without enough melanin says it, it’s a horrible thing. But when black people say it, it’s affectionate.

Caller: I was a little caught back by the N-word that you spewed out, I have to be honest with you. I hope everybody heard it.

Schlessinger: They did, and I’ll say it again – n*****, n*****, n***** is what you hear on HB…

Caller: So what makes it…

Schlessinger: Why don’t you let me finish a sentence?

Caller: OK.

Schlessinger: Don’t take things out of context. Don’t double N… NAACP me. You know what? If you’re that hypersensitive about color, and don’t have a sense of humor, don’t marry out of your race.

Is it worse than you thought it was going to be? It’s worse than I thought it was going to be. And she wasn’t done; eleven N-words in five minutes was the final tally.

I don’t need to explain to you sensible folk why Laura Schlessinger is evidently a terrible person, but it’s worth reiterating. Racism is kind of a big deal. In the most modern parts of the English-speaking developed world, you only have to go back two or three generations to find black people who were owned as property. We’ve moved on a good way since then, but we’ve still not left all racial tensions and inequalities behind – as the person calling in here for advice knows only too well.

Her white husband has friends who it seems regularly use the N-word in her presence. The context isn’t clear, but even if it’s not been directed straight at this lady in an abusive fashion, she’s been made uncomfortable enough by its use that she’s phoning a talk radio show for advice. That’s the context that Dr. Laura is so keen for us to remember.

It’s an extremely loaded word, and the history attached to it is both monstrously oppressive and painfully recent. It has the capacity to convey careless contempt and disregard for millions of people more effectively and viciously than anything else in our language.

But to Dr. Laura, none of this particularly matters.

What’s much more important to her is defending her own right to shout a racial slur repeatedly at a black woman who’s just been saying how much it upsets her. The thing she’s most concerned about standing up for is her own defiant petulance – yeah, I said it, and if you don’t like it, I’ll say it again.

It doesn’t require a great deal of imagination to understand that some words are more offensive in certain situations than in others. For instance, I have a number of female friends who I will regularly call a bitch. They’ll then generally call me a cocksucker, and it’s all good sport. But if I talked to everyone quite that casually, some of them might object. It’d be bizarre of me to insist to every woman I encounter that they should consent to being called a bitch, just because it’s a word that can be used affectionately.

Likewise, some black people can use the N-word amongst each other in a manner that is not destructive or inflammatory. For that matter, some black people can probably handle hearing it from certain white friends. But, quite commonly, it’s used by white people against black people in a way intended to be cruel and derogatory, and so you really can’t assume it’ll be taken in the right way when there isn’t a pre-existing relationship there.

This is really not hard.

But Dr. Laura, who has been giving professional advice to people since 1979, “doesn’t get it”.

Something else she doesn’t get is what her right to free speech means. In response to the ensuing media attention, here’s what Dr. Laura said on Larry King’s show, on August 17th:

I made the decision not to do radio any more… The reason is I want to regain my first amendment rights. I want to be able to say what’s on my mind and in my heart, and what I think is helpful and useful, without somebody getting angry, some special interest group deciding this is a time to silence a voice of dissent and attack affiliates and attack sponsors…

See, it’s all about her first amendment rights. She has the right to say anything she wants, to anyone she wants, without suffering any negative consequences for it. It’s right there in the constitution, people. The Founding Fathers held it to be self-evident that Dr. Laura always gets to have a radio show where she can say whatever she wants, and if you express the opinion that she’s said something offensive, you’re crushing her first amendment rights.

She’s not actually been fired from the show or anything. She’s just planning to leave when the current contract expires. And she says that “her sponsors and affiliates have backed her”, implying that neither she nor her employers have lost out on anything because of any complaints that might have been made.

But people are saying that she shouldn’t have said what she said. And they shouldn’t be allowed to say that. Because they’re restricting her right to free speech.


Just to be clear, she really is perfectly entitled to utter whatever racial slurs take her fancy. But other people – like, say, the people who pay her money to help the people who call her for advice instead of deliberately offending them – are also entitled to distance themselves from her afterwards.

She’s not being a “voice of dissent”. She’s being an obnoxious bully. She’s asserting her right to offend other people, not against a serious threat that deserves to be defied, but against a minority demographic who simply resent being smugly reminded of the history of oppression they still face.

Anyway. In the spirit of free expression, I am hereby exercising my free speech to say the following:

Dr. Laura is a bitch.

Now, I insist that this be printed on a t-shirt which Dr. Laura then wears at a press conference. If she doesn’t agree to this, then she’s oppressing my first amendment rights.

Wait, I’m not a US citizen. Okay, if she doesn’t do it, she’s… breaking the… Magna Carta. Or something.

Yeah, you heard.

I’m waiting.

[Edit: Sarah Palin is also confused.]

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Damned lies

I have no idea what to think about polls like this.

41% of Americans questioned believe that the second coming of Jesus “probably/definitely will happen” in the next forty years. Is that more or less than I should have expected? The proportion goes up among evangelicals, predictably enough, and is relatively low among “mainline” white Protestants – but even then, it’s over 25%. More than one person in every four who think Jesus is going to come back within my lifetime.

In fact, given that a recent Gallup poll had only 78% of Americans identifying as Christian, this implies that more than half of American Christians are expecting the second coming of Christ really, really soon.

Perhaps most baffling is the 1 in 5 “religiously unaffiliated” who share this belief. I must be failing to account for some significant number of non-Protestant, non-Catholic Christians, because how do you believe in the imminent second coming of Christ while not even being a Christian? Are that mysterious 20% all just big fans of zombie movies, who think that a rabbi from two thousand years ago will be among the dead walking the earth and hungry for brains?

But in the same poll, 65% thought that “religion in the United States will be about as important as it is now in 40 years”. 30% say it will be less important.

So, I suppose some people might think they’re seeing an increased secularisation in America today, and predict that this will continue (though I imagine most of them would consider this a bad thing). But I’m surprised there aren’t more people thinking it would be more important. (Was that even an option in the answers?)

In particular, taking into account the 41% figure from earlier, a lot of people apparently think that religion isn’t going to be any more important a factor in American life than it is now, even though Jesus will have come back.

Maybe he’s not planning to make much of a fuss. I haven’t read the book of Revelation, but I should think that the second coming of the son of God is expected to be a fairly low-key affair that won’t shake people’s lives up all that much.

Aren’t statistics fun?

(h/t Atheist Revolution)

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I haven’t weighed in at length on the “Ground Zero Mosque” debate yet. You’ve heard other people sum it up well already, but N.K. Jemisin is who I’m going to quote, in part, from John Scalzi’s blog:

And so much of the rhetoric on this issue ignores the basic facts: that the building’s nowhere near Ground Zero (it’s 2 blocks away; in Manhattan, that’s miles, figuratively speaking); that many Muslim Americans died on September 11th, so this “disrespects the victims’ families” crap is just that, crap; that the site is by no means sacred; that there are already two mosques in the area and they’ve been there for years; and that this is mostly furthering the political ambitions of people who don’t even live here. Per that link, the people who do live in Manhattan are in favor of Park 51… yet for some insane reason the media seems most concerned about what people in Florida think. Florida.

So, yeah.

Someone on Twitter was recently wondering whether whoever came up with the phrase “Ground Zero mosque” was also responsible for Obama’s “death panels”. It’s nearly as provocatively misleading, conjuring up sinister images of minarets towering triumphantly over the exact spot of the disaster. It’s an entirely dishonest way of trying to make people scared of a community centre half a mile away [Edit: Maybe rather closer, “two blocks” is what people are saying, but it makes no real difference], and it’s clear that the people using it don’t actually have anything substantive to argue with.

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Okay, first things first: Miracle Mineral Solution is still bogus, useless, unproven, dangerous, and complete bullshit. The people making money off this misleading garbage are among the worst orders of scumbags. Even if the stuff itself were harmless, telling people to stop taking their prescribed HIV medication is unforgivably irresponsible, and Jim Humble is a piece of shit.

All that stands. But, there’s one point that needs clarifying, and on which my earlier vitriol should be toned down just a little.

The FDA warning that kicked this all off said that MMS, “when used as directed, produces an industrial bleach”. And, while they’re not wrong to be concerned about this, the distinction that I and others failed to make was one between “bleach” and “a bleach”.

Taking the suggested dose of MMS is not equivalent to necking a bottle of the stuff that cleans your toilet. Dr* T explains the chemistry, and looks at exactly what’s going on in the case of MMS. The conclusion is that “drinking bleach” is not a fair characterisation of this particular quack’s pseudomedical recommendations.

So, that’s worth noting. “Bleachgate”, though pithy, inaccurately oversimplifies the problems with Miracle Mineral Solution.

However, Jim Humble does recommend taking sixty times the maximum amount of chlorine dioxide indicated by FDA guidelines, every hour for ten hours. This is still very dangerous.

And there’s no evidence that it has any chance of doing any good, based on any reliable testing.

And he steers people away from proven scientific medicine that has reams of reliable data backing it up, thus endangering people’s lives, while having no medical qualifications to give weight to his own insane recommendations.

And the anti-skeptical backlash faced by Rhys Morgan was still irrational, unjustified, and tragic.

And there are still pages and pages of bullshit being peddled to the ill-informed, about how this stuff can treat cancer, AIDS, and a whole bunch of other illnesses that people need serious treatment for – with a tiny, disingenuous disclaimer at the bottom of the page where it claims that MMS is “not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease”, in direct contradiction to the claims clearly made on the rest of the page.

So, y’know. It’s still plenty fucked up.

Buffy is all over this one, too, and the Ministry of Truth has a fascinating look into an unqualified fake doctor called Christian Pankhurst, who is apparently a big player in the MMS business and another total dick. That blog also uncovers further evidence of deliberate deception on the part of these quacks, which is well worth a look.

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Newsflash: People still don’t know what atheism is but feel compelled to bang on about it anyway.

I’ll only mention the part of this tedious drivel that caught the eye of PZ Myers in particular, because I don’t think I’ve even mentioned Christopher Hitchens’s ongoing battle with cancer on this blog yet. He’s talked openly about his experiences, and in particular he mentioned the number of people he’s encountered who have been praying for him.

And what he’s focused on has been the sentiment behind such actions, rather than their ultimate ineffectiveness on any cosmic scale. From the perspective of a religious believer, it’s a positive and generous thing to do for someone, a manifestation of kindness and good wishes, and he’s always taken it as such, graciously and gratefully. (That is, in the case of people praying for his recovery. There are others praying that he’ll soon be eternally punished for all his blasphemy, but that’s another matter.)

Suzanne Fields in the Washington Times, though, seems to be wilfully misinterpreting this very simple concept.

But his writing on atheism is short on sophistication. “With all this continual prayer,” he asks with the air of an adolescent, “Why no result?” But since he has been diagnosed with cancer, he seems to appreciate not only his physicians but the “astonishing number of prayer groups” working on his behalf.

There are two different types of “result” in question here. One is that of somebody’s spirits being buoyed by seeing other people actively wishing them well; the other is of the actions of religious people successfully persuading a creator god to intervene in the workings of the Universe for the sake of one of the many thousands of his creations that are dying of cancer.

Yes, Hitchens certainly appreciates the former outcome, but what does this prove? It doesn’t do anything to undermine his main “unsophisticated” point, and neither does anything else she can bring up. Religious people claim that their actions can influence an almighty deity to directly intervene in our worldly affairs. So where is the evidence of this happening?

This woman has absolutely nothing to say, and Russell Blackford has picked it apart in excessive detail, so you can go there for the thorough rebuttal that I’m going to pass on for now. The comments on that thread are also very lengthy, and a predictable mixture of creatively interesting and head-bangingly awful.

Also, bizarrely, the original article is accompanied by a picture of Ariane Sherine standing by a bus with the There’s Probably No God poster, and a caption describing the campaign “that is intended to reach a majority of the British population over the next three weeks”. It’s not an old article; apparently someone could think of no more timely graphical representation of atheism from the last couple of years, and didn’t bother to update the caption either when lifting the stock photo.

I’ve got something else to put up tonight which isn’t just me moaning about other people being annoyingly wrong (though I still maintain that this is not a futile endeavour). Actually, it’s more about me being annoyingly wrong. So, that’ll be nice.

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