Tickle and Control

FeatherFor the last two days my son lost access to some internet sites on his phone. He insisted it was due to the router restrictions I had put in place. But I had not changed those settings recently and so I told him that his problem was probably due to some new app he probably had put on his phone. We argued back and forth — needing to walk away from each other for an hour. After collecting ourselves, we experimented with the router — but no help. Then my son realized he just recently put an ad blocker on his phone. He removed it and all the problems went away.

He was terribly apologetic — both for his emotions (he is 14 years-old) and for the things he said. Being a sensitive fellow, I knew he’d feel guilty for a long time if I didn’t offer him a way out. So I said, “Look, massage my feet and I will forgive you.”

Hand ReflexologyHe rejoiced receiving a penance method and proceeded to massage my feet. He did a pretty good job actually, but I said, “Son, if you’d like, I can teach you to massage better — it may come in handy when you are older.” He laughed and the shyly asked to be instructed.

I tried to instruct him using his foot but he was unbelievably ticklish. I showed him how ticklishness is psychological by telling him to try to tickle himself. He was amazed. Then I said, “Look, you are in control of your mind, aren’t you? So just tell yourself not to be ticklish.” He tried but of course it only got worse. We experimented with me wearing gloves, then he putting on socks — nothing worked. The lesson: we are in far less control of our minds than we imagine.

Well, I was able to teach him hand massage techniques — hands aren’t ticklish usually. The principles of hand massage are the same as foot, so at least I knew I left my son with one valuable skill tonight.

  • Image credits: Feather, Hand Reflexology (true or false, it helps in the massage and I included it in my lecture to my son).  By the way, my son read this post and agreed to the posting.


California School District Apologizes to Student Reprimanded for Sitting During the Pledge

A couple of weeks ago, I posted about a seventh grader in the San Jacinto Unified School District in California. He was reprimanded by his teacher after remaining seated during the Pledge of Allegiance. As usual, the American Humanist Association’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center was on it:

[Teacher] Mr. Burns informed the student, falsely, that the law requires students to stand. Moreover, Mr. Burns questioned the student as to the reason for not participating in the exercise, asking him: “Is it your religion, do you have a personal problem, or do you hate America?” He then proceeded to makes statements obviously intended to pressure the child into participating, suggesting non-participation shows the child is ungrateful for the opportunities America offers and saying he “feels sorry” for the child, as if the child’s stance is pitiable.

That student, 11-year-old Ivan Covarrubias, spoke to local newspaper reporters about what was going through his mind during all of that:

A San Jacinto middle school student said he was “scared” when a teacher admonished him for not standing up during the “Pledge of Allegiance” because it went against his atheist beliefs.

“I was shocked at what he said,” said Ivan Covarrubias, an 11-year-old seventh-grader at Monte Vista Middle School.

It should go without saying, but Ivan did nothing wrong. His teacher, on the other hand, needed a lesson in the Constitution, not to mention how to deal with young students.

That wasn’t even the entirety of the problem. The same teacher had a banner in the classroom reading “Prayer changes things.” The AHA also asked for the banner to come down.

Yesterday, I’m happy to say, the AHA noted that everything had been resolved. The school district informed them that the Pledge issue had already been taken care of before they received AHA’s letter. That said, they will remind all staff members (through their principals) that sitting during the Pledge is an acceptable option for students.

The religious banner has been taken down, too.

“We’re pleased that the school district has recognized the rights of students to remain seated during the Pledge, as well as the need to keep references to prayer and other religious practices out of the classroom,” said David Niose, legal director of the Appignani Humanist Legal Center.

How about a big Internet hand for Ivan, for having the guts to remain seated? It’s not often a middle school student’s silent protest causes this much change.

(Image via Shutterstock. Large portions of this article were published earlier)

Putting politicans in their place on climate change

The US is a strange country. It has some great comedians (and some great scientists) but it also has some lousy politicians.

It’s a real mystery to me how the US House Committee on Science, Space and Technology can have so many idiots on board.

These Congressmen Think They’re Smarter Than Scientists. Jon Stewart Disproves That Real Quick..

Jon Stewart would have made a great science teacher.

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This Video, Drawing on Pew Research Data, Claims That the “Tiny Minority” of Radical Muslims Is Actually a Majority

Ben Shapiro probably isn’t Ben Affleck‘s favorite person, but that’s OK – the feeling is mutual.

Shapiro, who co-founded the conservative media-watchdog group TruthRevolt, put together a video in which he painstakingly tallies (using Pew data) what proportion of Muslims worldwide subscribe to ideas that most people in the West would most likely consider radical — things like favoring Sharia law, expressing support or understanding for al-Qaeda and other terrorists, saying that “honor killings” can be permissible, and so on.

Shapiro comes up with a truly eye-popping number: More than 800 million Muslims are “radicalized,” he says, or more than half of the world total of approximately 1.5 billion.

It seems to me that this estimate is way high. For one thing, Pew’s data don’t explain what being in favor of Sharia means in practice. To many Muslims, Sharia doesn’t mean the brutal Saudi-style justice of disfiguring or beheading convicts; it means having an Islamic family court that decides matters of divorce, inheritance, etc.

The same vagueness is present in the numbers on suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks. If I were a Muslim living peacefully in tribal Pakistan, and a drone blew up innocent members of my family in another “collateral damage” horror, damn straight I’d feel justified in trying to strike back. That might make me a terrorist, but it wouldn’t necessarily peg everyone who understands (rather than condones) my motivations as a dangerous radical, much less a would-be member of al-Qaeda.

All that said, Islam has a horrifying 21st-century record of extreme illiberalism, oppression, and violence. We shouldn’t take Shapiro’s (or even Pew’s) numbers at face value, but with all we know, we’d be foolish to cling to the idea that radical or extremist Muslims are merely a “tiny minority.” Even if Shapiro’s tally is inflated by half, or three-quarters, that’s still hundreds of millions of Muslims who really do:

  • cackle at the murders of Jews, Christians, atheists, apostates, artists, and authors;
  • give two thumbs up to stoning adulterers and lynching gay people;
  • either advocate killing satirists and apostates, or condone such slayings;
  • cheer when bombs built and placed by their co-religionists literally rip the limbs off of Western clubgoers in Indonesia and train commuters in Spain…

… and so on.

We can quibble over the numbers. But as long as extreme violence by Muslims is as common as rain showers, we may well wonder if the message that Islam is “the religion of peace” is getting through to its followers — much less to anyone else.

No sex education please, we’re British!

Tory MP and devout Christian Philip Davies, above, has blamed ‘sex education fanatics’ for a rise in unwanted pregnancies in the UK since the 1970s

The National Secular Society recently reported that, Davies – a supporter of the Cornerstone Group (motto: Flag, Faith and Family) – called for:

Less sex education, or even better, none.

Davies, a strong opponent of gay marriage, delivered his “no sex education please” demand during a debate introducing the Sex and Relationships Education (Curriculum) Bill to Parliament.

Responding to a speech by Labour MP Diana Johnson, introducing a Private Member’s Bill to make provision to include education about sex and relationships, resilience against bullying and sexual abuse and ending violence against women and girls in the national curriculum, Davies said:

My job as a parent is to bring up my children with my values and the values I think are important to instil in them.

Mr Davies argued that the responsibility for educating children about sex and relationships lay solely with parents, and called for the education system to have no role in educating children about sex. In 2008, Davies was quoted as saying that Italy, despite having “almost no sex education in its schools”, had an even lower rate of teenage pregnancies than Holland.

Johnson cited figures from a Mumsnet survey, in which 92 percent of respondents wanted sex education to be compulsory in secondary schools and just under 70 percent wanted compulsory sex and relationship education in primary schools. A YouGov poll last year found similar levels of public support, with 86 percent agreeing that sex and relationships education “which addresses sexual consent and respectful relationships” should be compulsory in secondary schools.

Davies also objected to calls for “better sex education”, instead urging re-evaluation of the “benefit system and the housing allocation system” to “tackle issues such as teenage pregnancies”.

In 2012 an Ofsted report found that PSHE education was inadequate or required improvement in 40 percent of English schools.

During the debate Johnson referenced historic sex abuse in Rotherham and Rochdale, and quoted from the Jay Report which found that young people:

In the course of the Inquiry were scathing about the sex education they received at school.

Davies also discussed the grooming and child sex abuse scandal in Rotherham, but argued for an “anti-political correctness Bill” to prevent such abuse from recurring.

In 2012 Ofsted found that:

Where sex and relationships education is weak, pupils are left vulnerable to inappropriate sexual behaviours and exploitation.

The National Secular Society says it is committed to statutory sex and relationship education for all children as a fundamental human right.

Stephen Evans, NSS campaigns manager, said:

Statutory SRE is about having an education policy based on evidence, and the evidence clearly shows that teaching children about sex and relationships in an age-appropriate manner reduces levels of teenage pregnancy and encourages a healthier, more knowledgeable and sexually autonomous younger generation.

In her speech, Diana Johnson argued:

We want parents and families to be part of the discussions with youngsters about relationships and keeping safe, but we cannot stand back and hope that all families will have those conversations.

Johnson, who was Minister for Schools under the last Labour Government, went on to say that:

We know that it is often the most vulnerable children who do not have family support in this area.

Davies was earlier quoted as saying that he agreed with Nigel Farage about “virtually everything”, though he appeared to go further than UKIP on this issue. Whilst UKIP want to “scrap sex and relationship education for children under 11″, Mr Davies explicitly called for all sex and relationship education to be removed from the curriculum entirely and for it to be taught solely by parents.

The Sex and Relationships (Curriculum) Bill was introduced to Parliament on 21 October 2014 under the Ten Minute Rule. It will now face a second reading in the Commons on Friday 21 November.


Earlier this week, Davies had a “screaming row” with Channel 4 presenter Jon Snow, above, during a tour of the channel’s studios. He had earlier accused Snow of being “left wing”.

When Snow and Davies came face to face, the obnoxious Shipley MP accused Snow of being “too left wing”, said he was “past it” and suggested that the 67-year-old – one of the best known faces on UK TV – should retire.

Davies denied reports in the Guardian and Daily Mail that Krishnan Guru-Murthy, Snow’s co-presenter asked him to leave the building.

Is It the Year 2014 A.D. or 2014 C.E.? One Hard-to-Offend Atheist Offers an Alternative (of Sorts)

When I say that we all have gaps in our knowledge, of course that’s meant to make my knowledge deficits sound no worse than yours. But sometimes I wonder.

A few weeks ago, I beheld the term C.E. (coupled with a four-digit calendar year) for the first time. Oh, I’d seen it before, and had easily inferred from the context that it meant the same as A.D., but I suddenly realized I didn’t know what the two letters stood for. So I Googled it.

Common era. Also, B.C.E.: Before Common Era. Right.

They did strike me as fine inventions on one level: I can appreciate that they offer neutral alternatives to what I and probably billions of other people have been taught in school over the generations: the quintessentially Christian terminology of B.C. (Before Christ) and A.D. (Anno Domini = the Year of the Lord).

But both sets of terms still take as their zero point the birth of the (possibly fictional) Christian savior, so I couldn’t quite see how we’d booked real progress in disassociating ourselves from normative Christianity.

And neither, it turns out, can this guy.

British atheist Lindybeige (real name, as best as I can tell, Nikolas Lloyd) just came up with a pretty funny riff on the subject. He’s a user of A.D. and B.C. himself and has never been bothered by those abbreviations. But to those who are, he proposes that they change, in their minds, what the letters stand for.

Just think of B.C. as Backwards Chronology, he says (because you’re counting backwards from zero; the year 44 B.C. comes before the year 43 B.C.); A.D. can now mean Ascending Dates, for self-evident reasons.

That way,

You won’t have to change any of the old textbooks.


Except, quips Lindybeige, that the easily offended will probably miss the chance to demonstrate their politically correct pedantry over those who use B.C. and A.D.

Lindybeige has a slightly manic but alluring presentation style (traces of John Cleese), and he seems fond of the kind of low-budget art direction that recalls (just a bit) the early work of Cleese’s Python colleague Terry Gilliam. Those comparisons notwithstanding, the man is an original worth following.

False Statements Under Oath: One More Sin in the Catholic Church’s Abuse Scandals

During a deposition in April 2014, Archbishop John Nienstedt (below) of Saint Paul and Minneapolis testified to his lack of knowledge concerning a priest’s prior conviction of child abuse, saying he had only discovered that sordid history “during the last six months” and that he had never known much about the abuser’s past.

The evidence suggests otherwise.

Parishioner LaLonne Murphy was able to provide copies of letters she sent to Nienstedt more than six years ago, in which she detailed the history of Rev. Gilbert Gustafson, a convicted pedophile, and expressed her dismay that such a man continued to work as a parish consultant. Murphy became aware of Gustafson’s continuing involvement in Catholic affairs when she encountered him at a Florida church summit (which she was likely attending in her capacity as a director of liturgy and music for her own parish community).

In her original letter, Murphy — who herself carries memories of priestly sexual abuse from her youth, which she disclosed to Nienstedt in a subsequent letter — wrote:

From the public documents I have seen, [Gustafson] spent four and a half months in jail, completed probation, and paid a $40 fine. The people he abused and their families will never be able to fully recover. What he took from them has no time frame and no financial amount.

Set aside, for the moment, the absurdly light punishment for a man who abused his position of trust to sexually violate children in at least four separate cases. The point here is that Nienstedt had far more knowledge about Gustafson — specifically about his criminal past, including the fact that he was sentenced and jailed — than he claimed in his deposition, and had it years sooner than his testimony indicated. And we need not take it on faith that Murphy’s letter is authentic, or that Nienstedt received it, because we also have a copy of his official response.

(Say, wasn’t there something in the Ten Commandments about bearing false witness? Or did we throw that one out with the bit about mixed fibers?)

Nienstedt stands by his original testimony, insisting that he was unable to remember the information from Murphy’s letter. In a statement, Nienstedt said:

I was as accurate as possible in my April 2014 deposition, recalling details from years past to the best of my ability… While I tried to remember details of Gilbert Gustafson’s status during my four-hour deposition, I was not able immediately to recall specific details or that I had received correspondence from Ms. Murphy six years earlier. I receive thousands of letters every year.

As far as Ms. Murphy is concerned, that’s simply not good enough. She says he has lost moral credibility and should be removed from his position by the Vatican. In her opinion:

Either he chose not to tell the truth in his deposition or he didn’t remember. And I think each are morally questionable. To not remember means he didn’t care. It didn’t have enough of his attention that he didn’t have it as a priority of something that he would have to make note of.

Those inclined to give Nienstedt the benefit of the doubt, take note: this is the second instance in which his deposition has been called into question. In August of this year, documents came to light concerning another priest, the Rev. Kenneth LaVan, who was accused of sexual assault in the 1980s but remained in active ministry. Nienstedt insists that he acted as soon as he learned of LaVan’s past, but several documents indicate that Nienstedt was aware of the accusations well before LaVan’s eventual departure from ministry in 2013.

The LaVan documents also indicate a friendly social relationship between the two men, which could explain Nienstedt’s willingness to turn a blind eye. Here we find another parallel with the Gustafson case: Murphy’s 2008 letter points out the cunning way Gustafson netted his consulting position by connecting through a family member of his legal representation. Again and again, we glimpse the old boys’ network that sacrifices Catholic children’s safety for the sake of personal relationships between priests.

After all, what’s a couple of altar boys between friends, right?

NYPD Confirms That Man Who Smashed an Axe Into Police Officer’s Face Is a Convert To Islam

On Thursday night, the New York Police Department still described hatchet-wielding attacker Zale Thompson as “just an angry man,” downplaying the possibility that he was a terrorist.

Then the cops looked at his Facebook page and searched his computer, and whaddaya know – the would-be murderer is a fan of Allah, with a fondness for violent jihad.

A man who attacked New York City police officers with an ax had converted to Islam in recent years and the assault appears to have been a lone-wolf terror attack. … One officer who was struck in the head with the ax by Zale Thompson on Thursday is in critical but stable condition, Police Commissioner William Bratton said. A second officer was also injured. Thompson, 32, was shot and killed by two other officers as Thompson charged them with the ax, Bratton said.

Deputy Commissioner John Miller, who is in charge of counterterrorism for the department, said a review of Thompson’s computer showed that he had visited websites affiliated with radical groups, including al-Qaeda, ISIS and al Shabaab. “It appears from the electronic forensic piece of this, this is something he has been thinking about and thinking about with more intensity in recent days,” Miller said.

We send our best wishes to injured officer Ken Healy and his family.

After Atheists Blow the Whistle, Sioux Falls Officials Pull Back on Religious Snow Plow Messages

Two weeks ago, in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, the city held an event called “Paint the Plows.” It’s a cute idea. They get representatives from local schools (and youth groups) to paint the snow plows the city will use when the snow hits.

The problem is that two of the participating schools were Christian and painted religious messages on the plows… which could be a problem when the city begins driving them this winter:

Students at Lutheran High School of Sioux Falls spent time and effort designing the plow blade they submitted for the city’s Paint the Plows event, Principal Derek Bult said. Painted red and adorned with the phrase “Jesus Christ” in white, the religious symbolism was hard to miss.

[Siouxland Freethinkers board member Eric] Novotny contacted the city attorney’s office after seeing Lutheran High School’s “Jesus Christ” plow blade, and another painted with the phrase: “Happy birthday Jesus.” The latter was submitted by elementary and middle school-aged students at Sioux Falls Lutheran School.

The atheist group didn’t even threaten a lawsuit — but the city saw the writing on the wall and contacted both religious schools to let them know they couldn’t use the plows as is, but the students could repaint them if they wanted to. Neither school took the city up on its offer. Their loss.

There are the usual cries of oppression, and free speech, and “Think of the children!” in comment threads about this story… but there’s an easy experiment anyone can perform to see how seriously we should take them:

Some residents might be upset about a protest of Christian-themed art on city snow plows, but all they need to do is consider a role reversal, Amanda Novotny said.

“It would have no business on a plow, I would never do it, but if I painted a plow that said ‘There is no god,’ I think people would be very, very upset about that,” she said.

No kidding. Though, in the middle of a snowstorm, that message might actually unite everybody…

(via Religion Clause. Image via Lutheran High School of Sioux Falls)

Congratulations, Atheists! America is Growing Increasingly Churchless

A new study released by the Barna Group, in conjunction with David Kinnaman‘s book Churchless, shows that more people than ever before have no need for a church, even if they’re religious.

That’s one of several factors Kinnaman uses to describe those he calls “post-Christian” (which is quite the euphemism):

Nearly two-fifths of the nation’s adult population (38%) now qualifies as post-Christian… That includes 10% of Americans who qualify as highly post-Christian. Another one-quarter is moderately post-Christian (28%). Examined over time, our research shows that the proportion of highly secularized individuals is growing slowly but steadily.

I’m thrilled — because even if a lot of the churchless are Christians, they’ve already taken the first step in loosening religion’s grip on their lives. Not going to church means they’re not subject to pastors who constantly rail against LGBT issues, women’s rights, and solid science. They’re not immune from that, of course, but it’s much harder to organize an army of voters when everyone is scattered all over the place.

And I suspect these numbers will move even more in our direction as we see more secular alternatives for everything churches offer: close-knit communities, a way to pass on moral values, a way to get inspired, a way to volunteer, etc. It turns out church isn’t the only game in town anymore, and we’re so much better off because of that.

(via Religion News Service)

Fox News Thinks Ohio Couple Is Clever For Erecting a Jesus Sign After ACLU Forced It From a Public School

Cathy and Terry Hodgson, a couple from New Concord, Ohio, went on Fox News the other day to share photos of their new lawn ornament. It’s a four-feet-tall picture of Jesus and some bleating creatures under the text “The Lord Is My Shepherd.”

Why did Fox deem this worthy of national attention? Because a year ago, the ACLU informed a local public school that a similar sign that had been displayed in the building for more than forty years was in violation of the law and asked that it be removed. In a five-to-zero vote, the school board agreed to take the sign down.

Fox News’ Steve Doocy seems to be positively gloating over the Hodgsons’ lawn art, presenting it as some clever end run that the couple had done around the ACLU. But why? While the sign may bother people who are allergic to religious kitsch, there is nothing constitutionally wrong with it, and I know not a single atheist or civil libertarian who’d be offended by it in its new location. (In public schools or on government property, however, that’s another matter.)

By the way, note how the text at the bottom of the TV image says, at various times, “The Fight For Faith” and “Faith Under Fire” — and sometimes both. ‘Cause that’s fair and balanced, right?

Also, that’s not how you spell “shepherd” (1:03). Maybe the Murdoch empire could invest in a dictionary? Or at least pray for one?

COMEDY: “Tomorrow” / Zach Galifianakis

On Creationism’s Myth Making and Recreating Myself

Hi folks!
It’s me again.


Out In


Finally. I’m going to start blogging again! I’m starting a whole new research project and at the moment I’m waiting to hear if I get a year long study leave starting in July 2015 and I’m trying to write a sensible grant proposal for fund to travel in aid of the project.

It is a MAJOR change in direction for me but I’m pretty excited about it. I don’t think I’m really retiring entirely from Hebrew Bible Studies but I am putting it on the back burner for a while, or at least shifting from historically and  literary oriented studies to the modern use of the Bible.

And what is the project? It doesn’t have a formal name but the working title is:


The primary focal point of the project is an analysis of modern Christian creationism and some facets of anti-creationism (both secular and religious) as competing processes of mythmaking concerning history, human destiny, foundations of a meaningful life, and identity and power politics.

I’m taking mythology as the narrative expressions of ideology and social and personal identity but instead of concentrating on the stories per se I’m interested in the processes of myth making: the retelling and interpreting old narrative plots and tropes, and generating new narratives. Mythology can be expressed in narrative or poetic form, or alluded to in other kinds of verbal or written communication, or represented in image and … Continue reading

Suspect in Ten Commandments Monument Vandalism Case Taken to Mental Health Facility

Yesterday, less than 24 hours after someone drove a car into the Ten Commandments monument on the Oklahoma Capitol lawn, police had a suspect in hand.

Ten Commandments monument in Oklahoma (via James Nimmo)

The suspect has been identified as Michael Tate Reed Jr., 29. He is from Roland and was taken to Oklahoma County mental facility for an emergency order of detention and a mental evaluation.

The suspect said Satan told him to do it, Secret Service officials said. He also reportedly said he would kill President Obama and spit on a photo of Obama. The suspect also allegedly admitted that he urinated on the Ten Commandments monument before running it over.

I’m (selfishly) grateful that it wasn’t an atheist hell-bent on getting some weird sort of revenge, though in the eyes of the ignorant public, someone who believes in Satan is pretty much the same as an atheist, anyway…

There’s also reason to believe he’s not a Satanist at all, but a churchgoer. Take this with a huge grain of salt, but one of the commenters at News9.com claims to know him well and says:

He’s not [a Satanist]. There has been a lot more things going on than what this story tells… Until anyone knows him personally like my family and I do then anything can be said and misinterpreted. He was very active in his church. Just because a reporter, who is basically taking what someone else said about him, puts it in a story….doesn’t mean he is. Until you can speak to him, live in his shoes, and see and know what his family and friends do… You wouldn’t call him a satanist.

Reed’s own mother echoed those comments, saying he “loves his God” and “takes the Ten Commandments very seriously.”

In any case, there are clearly more serious issues at play here and I hope Reed gets the help he needs.

It’s not like we were going to be able to avoid the “we’re oppressed” claims from a certain group of Christians, anyway. To quote something posted on JT Eberhart‘s site:

If [the suspect's an] Atheist then it’s an attack on Christianity. If he’s Satanist then it’s an attack on Christianity. If he’s Christian then he’s not a “real Christian”. There’s no way this would be spun where it wouldn’t feed into the persecution complex.

That’s why the best thing we can do right now — maybe the only thing — is denounce this action unequivocally.

The Satanic Temple — still fighting to get their own statue on the Capitol grounds — did just that yesterday, issuing a statement decrying the vandalism, distancing themselves from Reed, and declaring that their own fight would only continue if the Ten Commandments monument went back up:

… As of this writing all that seems to be known of the culprit, now in custody, is that he is bi-polar, claims to have been motivated by voices in his head, and he allegedly identifies himself as a Satanist. Expressing concern for the individual’s apparent mental illness, TST spokesperson, Lucien Greaves, also wasted no time in assuring the public that such rogue, destructive actions enjoy no support whatsoever from the Temple.

Greaves states, “The Satanic Temple was appalled to learn of the act of destructive vandalism laid upon the 10 Commandments monument in Oklahoma today. As many are aware, we are seeking to have a Satanic monument erected alongside the 10 Commandments — and only alongside the 10 Commandments. We do not want our monument to stand alone. If our monument stands at the state Capitol, we want it to compliment and contrast the 10 Commandments, with both standing unmolested as a testament to American religious freedom and tolerance. We hope that by respecting religious liberty in allowing our monument to be displayed, Oklahoma will help ameliorate any animosity between differing perspectives, not cultivate them.”

“Ever since we began construction on our statue of Baphomet, we have received many angry letters from self-identified Christians who have sworn to destroy our monument immediately following its erection. We have also received no small amount of letters of support from self-identified Christians who approve of our efforts to assert our American Constitutional values of religious liberty. Zealots, acting under the label of any religion, are zealots just the same, and we hope everyone realizes how crass and deplorable even the suggestion of actions, such as that witnessed today, are. Reports currently maintain that the culprit was acting at the behest of voices in his head, and his actions seem to be a product of personal disturbance. Vandalism finds no support within the Satanic community.”

“To be clear, The Satanic Temple will not seek to erect its monument unless the 10 Commandments is restored. Oklahoma City has the option to wait until the ACLU’s case regarding the legal status of the 10 Commandments is resolved before it permits its replacement. However, if the 10 Commandments is immediately reconstructed, our monument will be ready for unveiling quite soon.

Again, none of this will stop politicians and Christian conservatives from playing the victim card, but it shouldn’t stop us from taking the moral high ground.


Religious people are pondering the significance to their faith of potentially discovering extraterrestrial life. Which religions will be troubled by such a discovery? What happens to the concept of original sin? Did the death of Jesus also save the Klingons, or do they need their own savior? I think we can sum up the whole issue with one comment from the article.

That’s a serious theological problem.

Do you know how important theological problems are? Not important at all.

There was no original sin — Adam and Eve are metaphors, they didn’t actually exist. Jesus was an executed rabble-rouser (or metaphorical legend himself) with book after book after book of rationalizations and legend-building written after the fact. Both concepts will mean nothing to extraterrestrial life, except maybe as bizarre and peculiar myths held by the Earthlings, because they are not factual events or concepts.

If and when we find extraterrestrial life (as single-celled organisms beneath the ice of Europa, or alga-like patterns of biological growth on a distant planet, or in the form of signals from an alien intelligence), nobody should give a good goddamn what an ignorant rabble of priests think about it, much less how they interpret it and reconcile it to their books of superstitions. I won’t be looking up the latest papal declaration on Catholic dogma about it, except to piss on it.

I’ll want to know about alien biochemistry. Do they use the same metabolites, similar enzymes, similar pathways? What’s the structure of their genomes? What light do the similarities and differences shed on the origins of life? Do they use a similar genetic code? The same canonical 20 amino acids? Do they even use nucleotides and proteins? (I kind of expect they will, and be very surprised if they don’t). Do they have multicellular forms? What are their principles of development? (I expect big differences — just plants and animals on earth differ greatly).

There will be good questions and bad questions to ask. I can tell already that the theologians will be in charge of asking the stupid, negligible questions.

Nature criticizes science hyperbole and bad science writing

There's a very interesting editorial in the Oct 14, 2014 issues of Nature [see here]. It's about a scientific paper that turned out to be misleading and the role of science writers and journals in promoting that story.

The editors of Nature remind us that ...
Extraordinary claims, as the saying almost goes, demand more scrutiny than usual to make sure they stand up. That is how science works. Claim and counter-claim: intellectual thrust and experimental parry.
They report on an upcoming meeting meeting of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing in Columbus Ohio. Apparently, this council is composed of scientists and journalists and the goal of the meeting is to search for "lessons learned by scientists and science writers" in light of their publicity campaign promoting the flawed paper.

The Nature editors note that ...
The first thing to highlight is that such a thing as the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing even exists. Too many scientists dismiss the media and journalists as sloppy and unwilling to engage in both detail and ambiguity. In fact, there can be no branch of journalism as self-scrutinizing and anxious about its performance as that which covers science. It is hard to imagine political and sports reporters taking the time to discuss so thoroughly what (if anything) they did wrong after one of their stories went belly-up.
Indeed, that's admirable, but it's another example of journalistic hyperbole. I do not believe that this branch of journalism (science writing) is as "self-scrutinizing" as they would have us believe. I do not believe that science writers usually debate and discuss what they did wrong when a story goes belly-up.

But it may be true that science writers are increasingly "anxious" about their performance. Why are they so "anxious"? It's because they are doing a very sloppy job characterized by parroting press releases written by amateurs whose main goal is to promote their institution or by science journals that want publicity.

Science writers (and journals) used to get away with this but now ...
The (welcome) rise of the science blogger has fuelled this navel-gazing. Some bloggers seem to spend most of their time criticizing other science writers, or at least debunking examples of what they regard as inferior science writing. But they do lots of good stuff too. Although traditionalists lament the decline of science coverage in the mainstream press, a terrific amount of analysis and comment, much of it very technical, is happening online under their noses.
There's an interesting slip of the tongue in that paragraph. If science writers are really interested in self-scrutiny then they should welcome the arrival of a group of bloggers who point out their errors. This should be a "good" thing but the Nature editors clearly contrast this role (criticizing science writers) with other "good stuff" that bloggers do. Apparently the criticism of science writing doesn't count as "good stuff." It just makes science writers anxious—which they weren't before science bloggers came on the scene and pointed out what a bad job they were doing.

Nature then admits its complicity in hyping the event and not doing a proper skeptical analysis of the findings. The editors then get to an important issue.
Some may question the timing of the announcement, made when the paper was released on the Internet, not accepted or published by a journal, but at least the evidence was there to examine. If the scientists and the media both largely acted properly, then what should be discussed at next week’s meeting? It could do worse than start by screening the celebratory online video produced by ... and released to accompany the announcement. Scientists and journalists can include as many academic caveats as they like, but the sounds and images of champagne corks popping tend to render such statements of caution just that — academic.

There is a deeper issue here: science not by press conference but presented as an event. What in reality is a long, messy and convoluted process of three steps forward and two steps back is too easily presented as giant leaps between states of confusion and blinding revelation. At the heart of this theatre is the artificial landmark of a peer-reviewed paper. Fixed print schedules and releases to journalists under embargo (with or without champagne videos) help to lend the impression that the publication of a paper is the final word on a question — the end-of-term report on a scientific project that details all that was achieved.
I bet you're thinking that this is all about the ENCODE publicity campaign and how Nature was totally at fault for misrepresenting the data and hyping the false claims of the ENCODE Consortium.

Nope. It's about the discovery of gravitational waves—a paper that turns out to have been wrong because scientists didn't do the proper controls.

Meanwhile, Nature, and science writers in general, have yet to admit that they failed massively in September 2012 and they have done little to convince us "bad" bloggers that they are capable of self-scrutiny. This is serious because in this case Nature and its editors were very active participants in the making of videos and holding press releases [see How does Nature deal with the ENCODE publicity hype that it created?]. Let me remind you of the video PRODUCED BY NATURE featuring Senior Editor Magdalena Skipper in which she promotes the idea that most of the human genome is functional. [Note: I'm getting error messages when I try to run this video.]

Maybe there are other things that the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing could be talking about? Maybe there are other examples of bad science journalism that the editors of Nature should be addressing?