Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Who Are the Creationists Kidding On Abiogenesis?

The matter of the ultimate origin of life, the theory of Abiogenesis (which is often erroneously conflated with the theory of evolution) has been problematical for years. What is sought is a basic explanation for how fundamentally non-living matter could acquire the properties and attributes of life, including being able to reproduce. In principle this isn't that remarkable a stretch, since we already know there exist living entities at the "margins" - the viruses- which display no attributes of life until they become attached to a host. Once in a host, they can appropriate its cell machinery to churn out billions of copies of themselves.

All of this, of course, can be done without supernatural agency.

Alas, creationist Ken Ham’s Answers in Genesis (AiG) is  unable to swallow this and moreover is still upset that Neil deGrasse Tyson dared suggest life on earth started without the help of God. Tyson,  in one COSMOS episode,  honestly stated that the very origins of life “are not yet understood”. Because abiogenesis has yet to turn up any verifiable results—not that they have claimed any are verifiable—AiG is calling that evidence of a clear flaw. But what’s clear is that Tyson isn’t just a threat to creationists. Their big target is the reputation of science.

AiG , for example, continues in an attempt to discredit the science, saying:

Abiogenesis has never been observed in experimental biology and violates the most fundamental law in biology, the law of biogenesis. Nevertheless, the authors of the review are confident there was a naturalistic chemical origin for life.” [Biogenesis is the natural law that life comes from reproduction by living things].

However,  in a remarkable find published in The New Scientist (Vol. 209, No. 2794, p. 11), two investigators: Kunikho Kaneko and Atsushi Kamimura, have made a remarkable breakthrough in devising a testable model that is able to replicate the Abiogenesis process. The two basically solved the problem of how a lipid-coated proto-cell can divide into two (displaying reproduction) when the genetic material replicates. Recall in an earlier blog where I showed the hypothetical proto-cell reaction wherein a self-sustaining coacervate droplet can use one or two basic reactions involving adenosine triphosphate (ATP) and adenosine diphosphate:

L*M + R + ADP + P -> R + L + M + ATP

ATP + X + Y + X*Y -> ADP + X*Y + X*Y + P

In the above, L*M is some large, indeterminate, energy-rich compound that could serve as ‘food’. Whatever the specific form, it’s conceived here to have two major parts capable of being broken to liberate energy. Compound R is perhaps a protenoid or lipid-coated proto-cell, but in any case able to act on L*M to decompose it. The problem with this earlier hypothesis was that such lipid-coated proto-cells lack the machinery to allow for easy division.

Kaneko and Kamimura solved this by taking their inspiration (for their model) from living things in which DNA and RNA code for proteins and the proteins catalyse replication of the genetic material. This goes back to biochemist Jacque Monod's concept that the organism is a self-constructing machine. Its macroscopic structure is not imposed upon it by outside forces, instead it shapes itself autonomously by dint of constructive internal (chemical) interactions. Thus in the Kaneko- Kamimura model one has a self-perpetuating system in which a cluster of two types of molecules catalyse replication for one another while also demonstrating rudimentary cell division.

In the Kaneko - Kamimura  (K-K) model, as with DNA, the genetic material replicates much more slowly than the other cluster molecules but also takes longer to degrade, so it enables lots of the other molecule to accumulate. Following replication of the heredity carrier the copies drift apart while the molecules between them break down automatically creating two separate entities (see image).

This is an exciting breakthrough but some further investigations are needed, specifically ways to circumvent the problem that (in real life) membrane lipids around an RNA molecule don't typically catalyse RNA replication. However, this isn't insurmountable, because all one need do (theoretically) is replace the lipids with hydrophobic peptides.

Basically what the K-K experiments show is that while abiogenesis hasn’t been directly observed it does provide  a materialist model that can account for it in a peripheral way. Since such a materialist model exists, it means that all supernatural explanations become redundant. If one therefore continues to use them, he commits the fallacy of ignotum per ignotius.

Thus to claim abiogenesis “has not been observed” (directly) – which is partially true, and then to say this proves the creation story is something that would raise the eyebrows of a kindergartner . Indeed it not only commits the fallacy of ignotum per ignotius, but also the fallacy of circular reasoning – since AiG and Ham are claiming that which they must set out to prove independently. Even if nothing existed for abiogenesis, they would be obliged to prove supernatural creation – they can’t use a naturalistic failure (in their mind) as positive “evidence” for their extraordinary claim.

More importantly the AiG claim that abiogenesis  “breaks the law of biogenesis”  is simply dishonest. The law of biogenesis (attributed to Louis Pasteur)  states that life cannot come from non-life, but Pasteur did not demonstrate that any such impossibility- only that it does not happen in everyday life. As shown in the K-K model it is at least possible that such can take place.

Now, add to that the Miller-Urey experiment. The Miller and Urey experiment basically applied an electrical discharge to a chemical brew resembling the Earth’s primitive reducing atmosphere. This brew included ammonia and methane, as well as hydrogen and water vapor. The effect of the discharge transformed the mix into a diverse yield of organic compounds. These included amino acids, as well as substances such as formic acid and urea that normally occur in living organisms.

The very fact so many organic compounds could arise is remarkable in itself, given the vast number of possible compounds that might have emerged. And while it is true that the discharge didn’t produce actual living cells, there is no reason – given enough time,- that a primitive pre-biotic cell in the distant past could not have emerged given the building blocks left behind

None of this was mentioned by Tyson, but it could have been and would likely have made the creationist crowd's heads explode even more. Also, they have had to work much harder to come up with any kind of  coherent response.

But what is most galling about AiG and Ham is the tacit assumption that their audience lacks basic scientific understanding which gives AiG permission to be “fact-free.”  Hence, they can peddle any balderdash that violates logic or science with impunity.  Meanwhile,  Neil deGrasse Tyson gives viewers a naturalist’s explanation for the world, and when he says science does not yet know something, this is not a sign of the failures of science, but instead a powerful example of the necessary honesty in which science thrives. The very fact that AiG sees the words “I don’t know” as a weakness shows the lengths of intellectual dishonesty they are willing to go to pull the wool over their followers’ eyes. (Though again, Tyson also could have shown more support for abiogenesis – such as by invoking  the Miller-Urey experiment- to make this less likely. Hence, one may also argue that AiG exploited COSMOS’ “loose” presentation in playing to a popular audience.)

Never mind, the hysterical  reaction from AiG  and Ham after nearly every COSMOS episode shows a position of pure panic. Neil deGrasse Tyson has become their biggest public enemy because he get primo air time every Sunday  on one of their (conservatives’)  favorite channels. Up to now, these clods haven’t come up with any series with similar gravitas that even FOX will accept – to compete with COSMOS – and this drives them batshit crazy..

 Ham (who not long ago got his head handed to him by Bill Nye in a web debate) just can’t accept that what he has is palpable bull crap while Tyson offers actual science. In addition,  Tyson make science accessible to all people with an open mind, and  he is likeable and non-controversial to boot.

 True, Tyson does not identify himself as an atheist (for obvious reasons), but it’s clear to a blind man he is one. Also, it doesn’t put our (atheist) noses out of joint because it  means he can reach across both sides of the aisle to a much  greater degree  than the late Chris Hitchens, or Richard Dawkins.

We atheists will take what we can get and if a naturalist universe can be delivered easily,  in bite- sized pieces by an affable showman like Neil Tyson, so much the better!

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

No, Males Don't Do "Uptalk"!

"Uptalk" is one of the most annoying and cloying habits that appears to have crept into the realm of modern conversation, and it drives the heck out of many of us 60s era throwbacks. If you've ever been a college teacher - or even secondary school, it is guaranteed to drive you nuts. Here's an example: you ask your physics class for any one application of Newton's second law of motion. A lass in the front row daintily raises her hand and you're encouraged because all too often the females in the class keep their hands out of view. She replies:

"Um, it would be like if you pulled a cart a little faster?"

Ending with an infuriating higher rising lilt and a question-like tone.

But you're not asking for a question, you want a definitive answer! No pauses, no higher rising tones, just short, snappy and definite, like:

"Pulling a cart a little faster, sir!"


No one knows just how this socio-linguistic scourge got its start but some theorize it emerged in the late 1980s and 1990s with the "Val gal" (Valley girl) phenomenon, depicted in the 1983 movie by the same name. Others believe it's a later manifestation of how young females communicated with peers that then expanded to include (now) how some males communicate with them.  It's enough to make you rip your hair out.

Two recent studies confirm males are more and more going the up speak route to the consternation of parents, and even friends. Sociologist Thomas J. Linneman, for example, found a disturbing incidence among male contestants on Jeopardy!  This most often occurred when ringing in to correct an answer already given by a female contestant. What - the guy is afraid of upsetting the female by delivering a crisp declarative response?

The second study by linguists based at the University of California, San Diego, found that even though young women up speak twice as much as young men (especially over ages 18-22) the men do it too. According to one New York Times columnist: "Men don't think they do it, but they do!"

Why? One snarky writer has asked whether it's "a new generation of sensitive guys trying to sound like women in order to relate to them."  If that's the case it would be taking a leaf out of the self-help NLP (Neuro-linguistic Programming) books which advocate that in order to be in synch with someone you need to "mirror" them. That means emulating not only their body posture but the way they speak. In the case of a guy sitting and conversing with a young woman it would mean imitating her up speak as well as posture.

But that is pathetic. No right thinking male of the 1960s would ever do such a thing, even those of the hippie persuasion. A male then spoke and postured as a male, not an imitation female. And he sure as hell didn't lilt his voice to make it softer, or use phrases in up speak!

As one observer has put it: "This dialect has never shed its airhead baggage and never will."

And as he adds:

"I don't care if you trade credit default swaps or splice stem cells. If you're upspeaking I don't trust you to slice bologna!"

Well, maybe just slicing a few pieces.

The bottom line is that guys who upspeak leave themselves open to exploitation as well. I mean, hell, if you have to use that quavery little school girl voice your partner might take that as license to do whatever she wants, and at your expense. Maybe take your credit card and use it to buy herself a new wardrobe.'re going to chew her ass out in upspeak?

Males have deep voices for a reason:  to project them in assorted exchanges and to be and sound definitive if not emphatic. If you're talking in upspeak you lose your maleness by default and become an imitation of a female and no one - certainly no male worth his salt - will take your lilting delivery seriously - even if you're talking about cosmic strings or general relativity. Bear in mind McLuhan's words: "The medium is the message".

My inclination, if I hear some jack wad  upspeaking? To find the largest, meanest-looking  tarantula I can and drop it right onto him.  Then he can do some real upspeaking!

'NOAH' - A Biblical Movie That Even An Atheist Can Watch

Noah high tails it as the flood waters break, many of the "corrupt" in tow who he must shake before he jumps on the Ark.

Okay, first a bit of a disclaimer:  I am generally not a lover of Bible movies, for obvious reasons. I am an atheist and the Bible is mainly based on the surreal  and limited imaginations of its writers and hence  the accounts are myths, fabrications of their own minds. Having said that, the biblical extravaganza "Noah" caught my eye after one segment of Chris Hayes 'ALL In' several weeks ago when clips were played from assorted FOX shows and Glen Beck, with all of them going ballistic about this new Darren Aronofsky film.

From Hannity screaming on how it "betrayed" the poor widdo believers and their good Book, to Glen Beck howling "Blasphemy!", this suddenly became a flick I had to see. Especially after Ross Douthat observed in a recent National Review piece:

"Conservative believers feel beleaguered and beset, afflicted by a sense of culture war defeat:


If the fundies and their media lackeys hated it, and they did, then I wanted to see it!  Janice did too, and we weren't disappointed, as it satisfied our every rationalist expectation.

For those who might be unfamiliar with it, the story of "Noah" comprises books 6-8 of Genesis in the Old Testament. Basically, God becomes pissed at the humans he created as they have become "corrupt" and charges Noah with building an Ark with dimensions 300 cubits by 50 cubits by 30 cubits, sealing its massive lumber pieces with pitch. He is then to bring the clean animals in by "sevens"  - male and female, and the "unclean" ones in by twos. These are to encompass all creatures of flesh, including snakes, as well as fowls of the air.

The rationalist skeptic has several problems with the Genesis account, including:

- How can the few 'friends -family' of Noah (maybe ten in all) get that enormous vessel made by themselves in a limited time?

- How can all the animals be safely stowed aboard without eating each other?

- How are all these critters kept quiet so they don't run amuck or cause chaos?

- Where is all the food to feed them, and how do you dispose of the tons of crap created each day?

- How can Noah and family  last 40 days if they are not supposed to eat their cargo?

- How can a world wide flood be generated in the first place?

All these problems are rationally solved with some concessions to artistic license and imagination. This is no biggie to we rationalists, since Aronofsky isn't relating the story of how Einstein developed special relativity but a basically mythical narrative told by semi-literate, pre-scientific sheep herders. We also get to see an entirely novel landscape - not Middle Eastern desert - but rather an ashy, ravaged, post -industrial landscape where the living humans have basically destroyed their environment (in much the way we are now, by over using resources)

The corrupt folk destined to drown are mainly the descendants of Cain, the killer of his brother Abel, but also innocents caught up in the predations of Cain's tribe (for example in one scene dozens of innocent females are being raped by Cain's lecherous knuckle dragger descendants). Noah's son Ham wants at least one of these females spared in order to become his wife, but after she's caught in an animal trap, Noah simply races over her dragging Ham with him. No time for saving any innocents here!  So, it's mainly Noah's immediate family.

In order to depict the building of the Ark, Aronofsky invokes the "Watchers" - based on Genesis' mysterious Nephilim. These were originally imprisoned in stone for their rebellion and now - at Noah's behest, become his servants: massive 50 -foot tall rock monsters who easily are able to rip up whole trees, take them apart, apply pitch and build the Ark. Obviously, accepting these denizens and their contribution requires massive suspension of disbelief, but no more than thinking a small family band could put an entire Ark together!

The scenes of the animals (especially the snakes)  arriving,  demonstrate incredible state of the art cgi graphics and are actually believable as the creatures swarm onto the vessel and find their respective carved- out niches.  As they're settled, a strange 'gas' is released from some plants and all the animals fall asleep. Problems of making nuisances of themselves - or getting hungry and eating each other -or defecating endlessly,  solved!

The other problem (of consuming the live cargo)  is solved because Noah and family are all vegetarians, so can consume an abundance of plants without having to kill one pig to barbecue! Meanwhile, all the precious critter cargo rests comfortably in hibernation until dry land is finally found.  (The only wild card in all this, is Tubal Cain, who somehow manages to get aboard the Ark, and gets Ham to kill one of the goats so he can eat it. As the animal bleats out a cry - this is intended to lure Noah to the scene so Tubal can kill him. )

How exactly did such a worldwide flood come about? At one point we are treated to a view from space which arouses pure awe:  the entire surface of the Earth is  covered from north to south, east to west,  by monstrous cyclones of the scale of Super storm Sandy. Could this actually occur? Probably not, but at least it made plausible how a global flood could manifest.

Is any of the movie believable? Of course not!  But Aronofsky's  artistic embellishments show the extent to which a gifted director must go to make a typical Genesis story credible. And further, it is precisely his departures from the Genesis script that make the movie appealing to the religious skeptic or non-believer.

Rolling Stone perhaps put it best on observing that Aronofsky's achievement was in "making 'Noah' relevant for believers and skeptics alike".

The aspect that most appealed to us was that Noah is depicted as a flawed human, but a conscientious one especially in terms of being a steward of the Earth - perhaps the original environmentalist. Of course, this very portrayal is what made conservatives' heads explode.

If you dig imaginative fare, with environmental themes and really epic scenes (perfect for the big screen), you could do much worse than watching 'Noah'.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Can We Prevent Another Holocaust From Happening?


Photo taken outside the Mauthausen Concentration Camp by Russian soldiers in May, 1945.

"Evil takes place when human bonds are broken, when concrete relationships crumble for the sake of abstract identifications. When we divide the world into sheep and goats, into good and evil, the 'sheep' - the self-proclaimed good- have a tendency to subject the goats to the worst imaginable treatment. In doing so, the sheep's group identity is made stronger, something that forms the basis of new and better identification of 'goats'."  - Lars Sevendsen, 'A Philosophy of Evil'

Today, Holocaust Memorial Day, it behooves all of us to consider what if anything can be done to prevent an abomination like the Holocaust from ever occurring again. Lars Svendsen's book is a good place to start, because it shows the potential for idealistic evil occurs within us all. Idealistic evil is that form which emerges when people stop thinking of others as human like themselves and instead put them into abstract brackets. The Nazis did it when they relegated the Jews in Europe to pests, e.g. rats, even making films to depict them that way. The Hutus in Rwanda did it to the Tutsis - of which they slaughtered over 800,000 -- by comparing them to "cockroaches." Despite the fact no outside observer could ever find the slightest difference between members of the Hutu and Tutsi tribe, the 'sheep' in this case (the Hutus),  did bracket their opposition as predatory 'takers' and traitors. Unleashing a genocide was merely the next step.

In his trenchant book, Svendsen examines  the doings of Rudolph  Höss  (commandant of Auschwitz concentration camp), Adolf Eichmann and Lt. William Calley - comparing why they did the horrific things they did and noting in each case the common denominator was a failure to be conscious of their deeds or their significance- hence to take any responsibility for them.

For example, Höss, an SS-Obersturmbannführer,  in his autobiography - said he was not to blame and he was merely "following orders". Besides, he insisted, he did not actually herd the Jews into the gas chambers or throw in the Zyklon B gas crystals. He had effectively detached himself from the evil he spawned. Adolf Eichmann in his trial, after being captured by Israeli agents, made similar claims and offered that he was merely a mid-level bureaucrat  - again just following orders- assembling names of Jews into documents for transport. How could he be to blame?

Ditto with Lt. William Calley, who while he didn't participate in a holocaust on the scale of the extermination of the Jews, did participate in a mindless massacre of innocents. As Svendsen observes (p. 177):

"Take another famous example,  namely the massacre at My Lai on March 16, 1968. Lieutenant William L. Calley was commanding officer, and therefore was principally responsible for the massacre which lasted around an hour and a half.  In that time, 507 innocent people were murdered- among them 173 children and 76 infants. Calley alone killed 102 people. The official report read: '128 enemy resisters killed in battle'. For one thing it wasn't 128 killed but 507. For another they weren't 'killed in battle' but slaughtered while helpless. They weren't  'enemy resisters' in the sense of soldiers but ordinary civilians."

 The scene at My Lai, Vietnam after William L. Calley and his troops slaughtered hundreds of innocent civilians.

As Svendsen goes on to note (ibid.):

"In his own mind, Calley was simply following orders and doing what was expected of a good soldier. He couldn't believe his ears when he was accused of mass murder."

In other words, Calley was exactly like Adolf Eichmann in the sense that his "orders" trumped any charge he could have done anything wrong. Thoughts of what he was doing when he ordered the massacre of unarmed villagers went out the window as they did with Eichmann as he assembled 1,000 or 1 million more names for his transports to the gas chambers. Or  Rudolph Höss when he ordered his S.S. commandos to herd 1,000 more Jews into the gas chambers at Birkenau ("Auschwitz 2" the actual  death camp) . As in the case of Eichmann and Calley, Höss' orders from the 3rd Reich High Command trumped any need for him to really THINK of what the hell he was doing.  In each case, whether for Eichmann, Calley or Höss, conscious thought was the first casualty as the killers or killing masterminds were turned into automatons.

Svendsen's point is that none of these evils would have occurred, firstly, had the Jews not been reduced to vermin, and the Vietnamese not been reduced to "gooks". Because each group had been abstractly de-humanized they became 'goats' and hence fodder for extermination, whether in the mass form of the Nazi gas chambers, or in Calley's form of troops slaughtering an imaginary enemy (but real innocents) with their M16s.  As Svendsen noted, "they have said it was wrong to kill but they were in a war."

So war made it all right not to think about what you were doing, whether pulling a gas chamber lever or emptying your clip into a 6 month old  "enemy" infant.

The saddest element, as Svendsen adds, was the respective populations of the nations themselves were largely ignorant or in denial of the heinous deeds. The "good Germans" protested that THEY weren't the ones that committed the crimes, and they didn't know where the death camps were. Also, how could you expect them to help hide the Jews when the Gestapo had its eyes and ears all over?

In the case of Calley's supporters, Svendsen writes (p. 179):

"When Calley was condemned, the White House received 100,000 letters in one day alone, supporting William Calley.  'The Battle Hymn of Lieutenant William Calley'  sold a million copies in a week.  TIME conducted an extensive survey in 1970 where two thirds of Americans said they were not emotionally moved by the massacre, while eighty percent said it was wrong to indict him."

This itself is enough to make a sentient person vomit, including the fact not one of Calley's men saw that they'd done anything amiss. Again, "just following my orders". That one's own countrymen could be so desensitized to the evil committed (and in their country's name) as to be emotionally unaffected and to go so far as to support the perpetrator boggles the mind! But of course if those bodies were merely regarded as "gooks' you could understand why so many in the polls wouldn't give a damn. Hell, it wasn't THEIR kids or wives - say slaughtered by the Chinese. Besides they'd been brainwashed to believe ALL the "gooks" were the enemy (Viet Cong.) 

Svendsen's clear point is that so long as other people, other groups, mean nothing to us - in terms of putting them in abstract categories to hate - we will give no thought to their elimination. When we become unthinking supporters of idealistic evil, we become just as bad as those who perpetrated the evil, whether Rudolph Höss as he had 1.8 million gassed at Auschwitz, or Lt William Calley, as his band of warriors slaughtered 507 innocents at My Lai. 

So long as specious popular support remains for these types of criminal mass murderers and their actions the potential for future holocausts exists.  It means, or implies, a blind spot to moral failure and evil exists within us all which can be charged at any time, say if the right fanatic gets into power and manages to pull the right cords. What Svendsen argues for - and I do as well - is that we must move beyond the nature of being mere puppets or automatons to become conscious of our acts and with whom we align. We also have to applaud those (like Snowden) who refused to follow orders, given that it is exactly the "order"  template that has repeatedly spawned the worst atrocities in the past 75 years-  whether on the small scale (My Lai) or the large (Auschwitz).

A sad commentary on just how little we have really evolved.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Is the Vatican Gaming Sainthood To Enhance the Piety of the Faithful?

Way back in the old days, ca. 1953-54 when I attended Catholic grammar school in Milwaukee, we were informed over and over about the qualities that made a saint. The good nuns introduced us to Saint Perpetua, for example, who was tossed into prison with her nursing infant because she refused to recant her newfound Christian faith. Subsequently, despite pleas from her father, she was horrifically butchered along with Felicity, her servant.  Then there was Saint Sebastian (after whom the school I attended was named) who suffered an ignominious martyrdom with his detractors unloading their quivers of arrows into him. The nuns also introduced us to Padre Pio (Saint Pio) who was capable of performing bilocation (being in two places at once). Then there was St. Gerard Majella who demonstrated levitation on several occasions - documented by witnesses.

In other words, in the old days the dutiful Catholic kid learned that Sainthood didn't come on the cheap nor was canonization "streamlined" to get the faithful from departing from the Church. (Of course, back in those days broad concepts of spirituality hadn't yet come into the mainstream and people more or less remained with their religion of birth. No more, as people learn to think independently and break off onto spiritual paths of their own - or no spiritual paths at all.)

Contrast this with today, when hordes of pilgrims have already gathered in Saint Peter's Square and in front of big screens erected across Rome for the canonizations of John Paul II and John XXIII. The crowds, along with a global audience, will watch as two popes are jointly proclaimed saints for the first time in the 2,000-year history of the church.

But the question that arises for us familiar with Church history is whether the bar is being excessively lowered for sainthood? Is there really proof that these two popes deserve to be canonized, or is it being done for ulterior motives? Say to enthrall the faithful and keeping them under the Vatican's tent.   What incites these questions are the circumstances as well as the popes themselves.

The path to sainthood for John Paul II, for example,  was the fastest in modern history, raising eyebrows among traditionalists for packing a painstaking process that can sometimes take centuries into nine incredibly short years.  It also has raised serious eyebrows for those aware of how John Paul II covered up the sexual abuse cases, in terms of inhibiting the apprehension of the perpetrators as well as the enablers. (J.P. II  actively and knowingly moved around pedophile padres to avoid their prosecution in numerous jurisdictions, especially in the States. All this is well documented and well known, except perhaps by the speed canonizers who seem not to care how this looks.)

Beyond that, though that ought to be enough to halt the canonization nonsense, Arthur C. Clarke once referred to John Paul II as "the world's most dangerous man".  Why? Because of his active opposition to birth control, setting the stage for mass destitution across the third world, especially Africa - where he wouldn't even condone the use of condoms despite an AIDS-HIV epidemic. Indeed, this was the same disgusting hypocrite who preached that  a Catholic contracting AIDS was a lesser evil than using condoms.

In the case of John XXIII, Francis took what sticklers decry as an even more radical move. He took the unusual step of dispensing with the Vatican’s modern requirement for two vetted and verified miracles to become a saint, elevating him based on a single 1966 case of a nun allegedly cured of gastrointestinal hemorrhaging after appeals to the man known across Italy as “the Good Pope.”  But, of course, no proper medical documentation was forthcoming so we've no remote idea if this was valid or mere hearsay.

Why is Francis so hyped up about creating more saints and how is he able to do it? Vatican experts point to his right to “equipollent canonization” — a papal prerogative to fast-track saints by requiring fewer proven miracles.   But to the critical thinking onlooker it looks more like a bag of tricks designed to rev up the faithful in 'down times'.  The latter would clearly mark the present era  when the Church is losing more people than ever before - especially among the young - in the more developed nations.  So why not pump out more saints to garner attention and perhaps more piety from the faithful?  The effect in any case has been that Francis has invoked the doctrine more times than any other pontiff since Leo XIII, who served from 1878 to 1903. In three cases, Francis elevated saints without a single confirmed miracle under their virtuous belts.

Why not? Perhaps because - as a former scientist (chemist)- Francis is more aware than any of his predecessors of the "miracle test" of philosopher David Hume.  Hume provided perhaps the best benchmark for what might supposedly be called a "miracle"

 "No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish."

Consider the miracle claim of  Jesus “walking on water”. Prof. Hugh Schonfeld has a simple explanation for this:  a mistranslation of the Hebrew word “al” which can mean “by” or “on”. So, when a scribe really wrote “walking by the water” it was translated to “walking on the water”.

Applying the Hume test, one is led to ask:  Is the Schonfeld claim of mistranslation MORE or LESS miraculous than a man actually violating the law of gravity and walking on water?  It doesn’t require a lot of thought or effort to see that the mistranslation of a passage of the New Testament is LESS miraculous (or if you prefer, less improbable) than that a man actually, literally walked on water. Francis then could have applied the same standards to John Paul II's claimed miracles - especially the first where it was far more plausible that Sister Simon-Pierre enjoyed a partial, somewhat improbable recovery from her condition, than that J.P. II effected a nonlocal "cure" from the grave. But let us hasten to emphasize that Francis' recognition of the severe constraints on modern day miracles does not merit invoking equipollent canonization to generate saints a dime a dozen.

According to Rev. Peter Gumpel, a senior Vatican figure and church historian:

I know the Holy Father well enough to know that he believes in miracles, as we all do, but the question is simply and purely, should we require the confirmation of miracles for saints?”

Well, in conformance with previous standards, yes. Else the process and the spiritual form has receded into insignificance. Any human can then be thought of as a 'saint' if he or she is a reasonably good person. Special canonization by a pope is merely window dressing. The other aspect to this is whether the knowledgeable faithful would really put John Paul II in the same class as St. Perpetua or St. Sebastian.

Incredibly, a certain enclave in the Church is completely in favor of tossing out all historical sainthood standards and  lowering the bar. They insist that such a move could "open the door to more and faster-made saints, who tend to serve as public relations dynamos for the faith" in their countries of origin — a fact seen as a huge bonus as the Vatican casts its eye on fast growth in Africa and Asia.  In other words, when all is said and done it comes down to public relations, nothing more. The Church is merely invested in publicly projecting a more superstitious image to garner more primitive minds, in primitive lands.

Left unsaid is that such lowering of the bar could also pave the way to the quicker elevation of potential "blockbuster saints"  such as Mother Teresa. Much better not to inform people that the good Mother simply kept people in a state of dependency in Calcutta but never really addressed their physical needs. Also, keep hidden the unsavory backing of S&L slime ball Charles Keating. "No we don't wanna go there! We want our saints with no questionable ties!"

Sounding a more rational warning note is John Thavis, author of “The Vatican Diaries":

"Francis has caused some apprehension among the Vatican saint-makers, who see the pope waving his hand and saying we don’t need to follow these rules as much. They are saying, ‘We need to be very careful about how we do this.’ ”

Indeed, because it could backfire and result in even more people leaving the Church - having been able to see through the PR stunts. And if a religion requires PR stunts to survive then how much credibility  does it really have? If popes can manufacture saints at will to pump up piety, perhaps the doctrine of "infallibility" is also just a huge historical PR maneuver.

Perhaps the best analogy yet to what Francis is doing  - in terms of mass-saint making - was expressed by Rev. Marc Lindeijer, a senior church official in Rome who compiles ­cases and serves as an advocate for prospective saints. He compared elevating saints without vetted miracles to "allowing everyone  who plays baseball to be a major league baseball player.”

I believe in quality rather than quantity,” Lindeijer said.

He later added, “Even if you are the president of the United States or Bill Gates, you can’t buy a miracle. Miracles are a great protection of justice, a sign of approval from God.”

Other observers say Francis, like many before him, is simply cherry-picking favorites, fast-tracking select candidates to save them from a Vatican bureaucracy with a backlog of thousands. In many ways, Francis is indeed  just continuing the legacy of John Paul II, who changed the rules in 1983 to require fewer proven miracles and ended up proclaiming 482 saints — more than in the previous 600 years combined. Maybe JP II figured that by jiggering the rules back then he'd stand a better chance himself of making the cut when the time came. Helped along in this, Benedict XVI, a fellow conservative and longtime confidant of John Paul II, championed his cause by dropping the traditional five-year waiting period to begin the process of sainthood. Neat!

But one of the saddest observations emerging amidst all the hype this week has been that despite John Paul II turning a blind eye to widespread reports of sexual abuse within the church, the "pressure to canonize him was so great that it would have been next to impossible for Francis to avoid it."   So the "pressure to canonize" trumps moral or ethical rectitude?  If that doesn't define the meaning of blasphemous I don't know what does. But in any case, it's at least a morally dubious expedient: clean the guy's history and neglect by elevating him to "sainthood." Then once the reprobate attains saint status, accountability no longer matters. He's ascended to such a rarefied realm that normal moral (and historical)  responsibility becomes passé and the faithful's piety has been jazzed up too. Heck, it's a win-win.

In the end, the whole farce of mass sainthood merely shows us the sterility of religions and how public relations has come to more and more replace whatever residue of spirituality they once had. This is especially the case with the Roman Catholic Church, and is also one reason why it may never be united with any other Christian sects. (The belief that Catholics can directly pray to saints to intercede with God on their behalf remains a fundamental division between them and many Protestants.)

Another danger not yet on the radar of the easy saint makers is that if more saints are created without vetted miracles,  the glow of the faith could fade for millions of Catholics who turn to saints in times of need. One would then behold a religion that had some degree of consistent canon and standards turn into one more cult, in this case a saint worshipping cult.
All of which confirms the wisdom of scientific Materialism and the benefits of atheism!

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Why Does Tom Colicchio & Food Policy Action Oppose the GM Food Labeling Ban?

John Phillips: Bio-geneticist and nutrition specialist, has found new links between GMO foods and Alzheimer's, liver  & kidney cancers and autism.

Despite Nutrition specialist and biochemist John Phillips linking GMO foods to increased kidney and liver cancers, Alzheimer's disease as well as autism, it appears political pressure in this country is on to keep food consumers in the dark on what they're eating.   This is via a House bill entitled, The Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act.   Opposing this perfidy is a petition created by food guru Tom Colicchio and Food Policy Action which seeks to convince Congress not to ban GMO labels and has attracted 231,000 signatures in just over a week

Meanwhile, on the side of fortuitous state -level sanity, Vermont lawmakers have just passed legislation that requires all food made with genetically modified organisms or GMOs to be labeled. This marks the first law of its kind in the Neoliberal-dominated U.S. - but it must now get approval from VT. Governor Shumlin though this should not be a problem as he's consistently supported labeling.

Vermont's state House of Representatives approved the bill on Wednesday by a vote of 114- 30 and the State Senate passed it last week by a vote of 28-2.  The law goes into effect July 1, 2016 and will apply to any foods even partially manufactured with genetic engineering. Those tomatoes derived from mouse genes? Yes, they will now have to be properly labeled as "GMO".  Vermont isn't alone here. Despite a range of opinions on the potential threats (or non-threats) posed by the production and consumption of genetically modified foods, most consumers (and several states) already agree to support identifying GMO food as such.

Vermont lawmakers as well as their pro-labeling cohort in other states, therefore, are doing the will of their citizens, as opposed to bending to the Neoliberal food Nazis who want no one to know what the hell they're eating. I suppose they believe that if enough cancers etc, erupt then they can surreptitiously decrease the population and avoid large "entitlement" costs. What the hell else could it be? If these damned foods are so grand, and there's "no difference" from organic or regular sources, why the need to conceal the information?  In every other sphere (caloric content, saturated fats, sugars etc.) food labeling is regarded as an inviolate right of the consumer to know what he's eating. Why not here?

Utterly opposed to this, we have the "Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act", introduced April 9 in the House. The label itself is absurd since as Mr. Phillips has shown, GMO foods are not "safe" and the mandate of the "act" is to prevent labeling!  And we need it! As John explains via recent email:

 "Among other toxins and other health-disrupting contaminants, GMO foods contain glyphosate, a horrifically destructive chemical that saps nutrients from foods and quite literally makes them toxic to consume."

Glyphosate, let us note, is not something that can be washed off or taken out of the food by cooking or purification – it’s integrated into the plant on a fundamental level.   Monsanto- the maker-  was also a manufacturer of the pesticide DDT, which now has been conclusively linked to the development of Alzheimer’s, as well as many other degenerative diseases in humans.

Experts like Mr. Phillips now believe that glyphosate is even worse than DDT. It decimates beneficial bacteria in the gut, disrupts immune function, and has been correlated with shocking precision to the rise in autism and other cognitive diseases and conditions.  The moral of the story is that you should stop eating GMO foods at all costs.   The problem is that our Neoliberal bought and sold reps want you to be kept in perpetual ignorance and think the GMO foods are just fine and all is hunky dorey.   Thus, they seek to block these GMO labels on the grounds that they will pose an "undue burden" on producers.   But never mind the undue burden of health care costs - including for cancer treatments, autism and Alzheimer's patient care imposed on you the ordinary citizen. See, in the Neoliberal frame you are expendable! (A painful lesson the Ukrainians will soon learn to their dismay if they are pulled into the Neoliberal orbit. )

Frankly, it's odd that our government, which professes to be so concerned about exploding debt  yet refuses to allow GMO foods to be labeled. This despite the fact that if 25 % of all Americans are affected by Alzheimer's in 20 years we are looking at a $15 trillion health spending calamity.  And then add on to that all the GMO -food consumers who will soon need kidney and liver transplants - adding to lists already tens of thousands long. Doesn't it make more sense, then, to allow GMO labeling so people can choose not to consume these damaging foods - than not to do so and enable massive Alzheimer's disease increases that will sap the Treasury dry? 

Reasonable people would think so - but see, a Neoliberal coercive market isn't reasonable, because it inevitably places corporate profits (like those for Monsanto) over the welfare of people.
If GMO labels are then required they will lose market share because most sensible people will naturally opt for non-GMO foods which don't carry autism, cancer or Alzheimer's risks.  (The trope that labeling itself will drive costs up is blatant balderdash as a number of studies in California have indicated. In fact, the increase per food item is barely 3 cents. It isn't the labeling costs per se the anti-Labelers are worried about, but the costs to them of consumers using their feet to walk elsewhere to buy their produce, etc.)

Meanwhile, Vermont and its lawmakers are putting aside a "war chest" with at least $1.5 million to help the state protect its people as the anti-labeling Neoliberal  predators file lawsuits. Citizens will also be able to contribute voluntarily to the fund and settlements won in other court cases can be added to it by the state attorney general The Burlington Free Press reported.

Two other states, Maine and Connecticut, are the only others to have passed GMO labeling laws though they only go into effect if surrounding states pass similar laws. Vermont's law, by contrast, is a stand alone. Meanwhile, on the international scene GMO labeling is required in 64 countries including the European Union.  Why are we in the U.S. expendable? Because our politicos are bought and paid for whores and they want us to be guinea pigs for this massive food experiment.

Tom Colicchio and Food Policy Action recognize this and merit our signatures on their petition to fight the absurd banning of GMO food labeling.

See also: cineered-foods/8148

Friday, April 25, 2014

Cliven Bundy a 'Patriot'? How About A Racist Idiot Scofflaw?

"I wanna tell yuh one more thing I know about the Nigras! Weren't they better off as slaves, pickin'  cotton  and havin' a family life  and doin' things or are they better off under government subsidies ? They didn't get no more freedom they got less freedom"  -  Cliven Bundy on Saturday

"They're not slaves no more but they seem to be slaves to the welfare system..." - Cliven Bundy in a press conference yesterday - trying to defend the earlier balderdash

In doing my earlier blog on Cliven Bundy and his clueless followers I was prepared to be generous and just grant that the man and his toadies were ignorant. They were ignorant of the Nevada state constitution which clearly sets out the purview of federal power, i.e. to act in concert with state law. This is in Article 1, Section 2 of the Nevada Constitution:

.....the Paramount Allegiance of every citizen is due to the Federal Government in the exercise of all its Constitutional powers as the same have been or may be defined by the Supreme Court of the United States; and no power exists in the people of this or any other State of the Federal Union to dissolve their connection therewith or perform any act tending to impair, subvert, or resist the Supreme Authority of the government of the United States.

Did any of Bundy's Bozos read this? I doubt it.  But now, rather than merely reinforce he's ignorant Cliven Bundy has opened his yap on Saturday (see quote above - from a  live Youtube recording - so it's his absolute words) proving he's a racist idiot and scofflaw to boot.

African Americans had it better as slaves?  Having "a family life and doin' things"  together? Are you fucking kidding me? What school did this asshole go to in order to learn that? There was NO family life,  you fucking moron! Families were often broken up - as when they first arrived for auction at the old slave market in New Orleans - with kids sent to different plantations while mom and dad - IF they were lucky- got sent to the same cotton plantation. Usually they weren't. Even if they did somehow get to the same plantation together, ol' Massah could have his way with the woman any time he wanted and her husband couldn't lift a hand!  (Let us bear in mind also that marriage was frowned upon by the slave masters, who considered it antithetical to the slave system - as Prof. Eric Dyson observed last night on Chris Hayes' 'All In'.)

Doing things? Yeah, when ol' Massah Whitey wanted some entertainment he'd use some subterfuge or excuse to take out his whip and flog one or more of the slaves while banjo music played. Or.....he'd  drag the slaves out from their crowded digs early in the morning to dance for him - again to banjo music. The slaves had no choice -  NONE as to what THEY would do, or how they'd entertain themselves.

Now look at Bundy's words above (I still wonder if he's related to Ted Bundy the mass murderer), and ask yourselves this:

Suppose you're an African-American living in this country, paid at the lowest wage scale or not hired at all, with  the Neoliberal capitalist system considering you only for prison labor  (25 cents an hour to make rugs) - would you rather accept welfare to at least survive and feed your kids? Or, would you rather be sent back to a Louisiana plantation in a time slip where you can be whipped at will, your wife can be raped by White Massah at his pleasure, and your kids dispatched to any other plantation the Massah wants?

C'mon - give an answer here! You have uh.....five nanoseconds!

In the wake of Bundy's asinine remarks, it's no surprise that many of his high profile media and political supporters have exited stage right from this fool, including FOX's Sean Hannity ("that was despicable"), Nevada senator Dean Heller, and Tea Party favorite, Rand Paul.  Hannity, let us recall, was among the main bloviators to jump on Bundy's Bandwagon posing idiotic questions that pandered to the massive FOX audience's ignorance, including (with the rational, informed responses):

Since when does the government send armed officers to collect a debt?

Actually, many repossession and foreclosure actions often involve a sheriff or other armed officials, and confiscation of property is an ordinary means by which a government resolves a debt.  For example, if you accumulate 20 years of unpaid parking tickets, a court will order that your car be booted and towed until you pay. And if you point a rifle at the cop or otherwise assault him, you might get shot (or tased). The same applies if the IRS dispatches armed agents to your domicile after you've ignored paying taxes for years or have committed massive tax fraud. In addition, here in Colorado if you owe property taxes that have been unpaid for years, a lien can be placed on the property - it can then be purchased by a collection agency, and the home foreclosed. Armed agents will kick your ass out if you don't cooperate.

Nobody has seen any bill for $1.1 million. It doesn’t exist.

Michelle Fiore, R-Nevada Assembly, bloviated this (while a guest on MSNBC).  Bundy says he has “never been sent a bill” but also says he never opens mail from the U.S. government because he does not recognize the U.S. government’s existence.   This is as fucking dumb as a homeowner who receives mortgage or credit card bills but refuses to open the mail. Can you say STUPID?

In the Bundy case, a court had ordered him to pay a debt of $1.1 million in accumulated fines and fees for having put greater than his allowed quota of cattle on federally protected tortoise habitat. Meanwhile, lawful citizens who are Bundy's neighbors are fed up with this millionaire asshole acting like a dead beat while they pay their legitimate fees for cattle grazing. As one observer -neighbor put it: "If that isn't leeching off welfare, I don't know what is!"

Rep. Steve Stockman, R-Texas, made this accusation, as have numerous others. If an armed resistance is put up against an asset seizure by law enforcement officials who are acting under a court order, the provocation is exclusively the work of those who have chosen to threaten the lawmen with violence.  If the IRS sends armed agents to confiscate your property for unpaid taxes you better damned well not pull out your Glock unless you want to see an early grave!
 The land is not being used — it’s not like they want to build a school, road or hospital on it.”  

This was put out by Hannity who doesn't seem to understand that how federal land is used is determined by federal law. No citizen gets to decide for himself whether the land should remain vacant or grazed, or whether something should be built on it. Not if it is federal land, which it is.

How could a cow possibly eat $1.1 million of grass?

This one was trotted out by Bundy’s  equally clueless daughter, Stetsy Bundy. She doesn't get that whether  cows can eat a million bucks worth of grass is neither here nor there. Grazing fees are not assessed by weighing the amount of tonnage that a cow eats. It is a per-animal-unit, per-month fee, and it adds up over 20 years. Furthermore, Bundy’s liability is as much  for fines for illegal trespass as it is for fees.

  “Bundy has rights to the land because his ancestors worked the land prior to formation of BLM.”  

Bundy - predictably -  has made this argument himself and others have parroted it.  Even if Bundy’s ancestors did work the land (and we only have his word that they did, and he is notoriously dishonest), with the passage of the Taylor Act in 1934 they would have had to pay grazing fees. And it was never private land.  The parcel that Bundy is trespassing has been owned by the U.S. government ever since it was purchased and/or won from Mexico or Spain.

Again, Bundy merely shows he's a scofflaw as well as a deadbeat and racist idiot. Those who still defend him are no better. The "militias"  that trot around  his place with automatic weapons at the ready are really cowards at heart. They are bold and ready to pull out their weapons and fire at some little BLM guys with tasers in Nevada, but you won't see any of them squaring off against the U.S. Army in Pinon Canyon here in Colorado. Say to defend the rights of the ranchers here whose land stands to be seized for specious reasons (e.g. the Army testing of Predator drones).

Why? Because they know they'd face real, serious opposition with the likelihood they'd get shot at and wounded, not just tased. Hence, it's much easier for them to sashay around,  posturing with Bundy in Nevada than to stand up for ranchers' rights against the Army in Colorado. Bullies, posturing paper patriots and gun toting pseudo-toughs always seem to find out their bravado limits in a hurry when confronted by a formidable opposition- even one based in the federal gov't they "hate".

Why did so many line up with this misfit and racist? Because the indiscriminate anti-government meme is so powerful among right wing circles that it only takes one asshole to blow an anti-fed/  "Patriot"  dog whistle to get all the loonies to come running. But what this episode discloses is that those eager to be seen as "anti-government patriots", need to take more care with whom they align themselves.  Newsflash: it isn't with the likes of  racists like Bundy.

As for Bundy, any dunderhead who still defends him after the racist revelations is no better than he is. If they have a grain of sense they will abandon this idiot bigot like his former political allies have. Again, if they want a REAL cause they will stand with the ranchers of Pinon Canyon, Colorado against the U.S. Army instead!

See also:

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Most Americans Don't Accept the Big Bang: Are They Dumb Or Uneducated?

As regular readers of my blog know, I have zero tolerance for people who proffer opinions about scientific theories if they have never even taken a basic course in the  related discipline or area themselves.  Thus, if you are going to spout off about evolution you need to have at least taken a college Biology course (two semesters).  If you are going to opine about the Big Bang or global warming, then I expect you will have at least taken a high school physics course - again, two full semesters.  In an earlier blog post I even posted a basic thermal physics test for those who dispute anthropogenic global warming. See e.g.
The diagram below shows two bodies of equal mass (A and B) within a thermally insulated material. A has a thermometer inserted to take readings. A was initially at a temperature of 100C and B at 50 C when placed in thermal contact.
a) Find the temperature of the system of two bodies in thermal equilibrium. Is this the same as the reading of A’s temperature? (Show work, explain)
b) Which body undergoes a positive change in entropy?
c) Which body undergoes a negative change in entropy?
d) What is the total entropy change for the system, A + B?
Sadly, it is doubtful that even one of the ordinary folk who opine that global warming "doesn't exist or isn't driven by humans"  would be able to do this single problem. Since the Big Bang is ultimately concerned with thermal aspects of physics as well, expansion of plasma in space and time,  it is likely they wouldn't be able to do any of these problems or related ones, e.g.
a) One mole of a gas has a volume of 0.0223 cubic meters at a pressure P = 1.01 x 10 5 N/m2 at 0 degrees Celsius. If the molar heat capacity at constant pressure is 28.5 J/mol-K find the molar heat capacity at constant volume, C v.,m.
b) 20 g of a gas initially at 27 C is heated at a constant pressure of 101 kPa (kiloPascals), so its volume increases from 0.250 m3 to 0.375 m3. Find:

i) the external work done in the expansion

ii)  the increase in the internal energy U
Now, the preceding dismal take is confirmed in a new Associated Press poll that has yet more depressing news for those of us already appalled at the diminishing quality of science education in this country. As noted in the attendant report:
A majority of Americans don’t believe in even the most fundamental discovery of 20th century physics, which 99.9 percent of members of the National Academies of Sciences do: that our universe began with an enormous explosion, the Big Bang
51 percent of people in a new AP/GFK poll said they were “not too confident” or “not at all confident” that the statement “the universe began 13.8 billion years ago with a big bang” was correct.
[T]he Big Bang question data was enough to “depress and upset some of America’s top scientists,” the AP said.

 If so, they haven’t been paying attention to the data about the scientific knowledge that Americans possess. The National Science Board (a part of the National Science Foundation) has produced an annual survey of American beliefs about science called the Science and Engineering Indicators since the 1980s.   Americans - as reflected in the AP survey -  both seem to find the Big Bang confusing and worse, to have faith-based conflicts with the scientific conclusions of cosmology.
I attribute a lot of this to fake scientists - actually pseudo-scientists (like Jason Lisle) - who gain a peanut gallery as well as prominence in the fundagelical religious sphere then profess to spiel on scientific issues like the Big Bang and the age of the Earth, confusing and undermining their followers. See e.g.
In this case, it's not surprising to behold the other shaky scientific investments of Americans, including: that the universe is at least 13.8 billion years old, that life on Earth came about by natural selection, and that the Earth orbits the Sun not the other way around.
In most cases the observed 'shakiness' or lack of confidence in the scientific findings is partly to do with not having the necessary science background or education. Thus, the person without a decent physics education will tend to doubt the Big Bang theory, just as the person without an adequate biology education (which means no exposure to natural selection)  will lack confidence in natural selection and hence evolution.
But what about the educated person who still rejects the Big Bang (as Jason Lisle does), or global warming engendered by humans (as Richard Lindzen does) or evolution (as Jason Lisle also does)? In this case one must factor in pre-existing cognitive distortions such as the confirmation bias. This occurs when one selectively looks for and finds confirmatory evidence for strongly held, entrenched beliefs. Interestingly, this phenomenon is almost exclusively tied to those with conservative political and religious beliefs. Hence, their beliefs dominate their cognitive maps and outlooks and pave the way for the confirmation bias.
It isn't that they are 'dumb' but rather that their brains are contaminated by a bias which prevents them from seeing things objectively.  
The sad conclusion for the scientist looking for a hint that Americans are more open to modern scientific finds?  Don't hold your breath because the factors that engender American doubt in those finds isn't going away anytime soon. Even the best science education (at least to the baccalaureate degree level) may mitigate it, but if the person is steeped in religious convictions that inveigh against the findings there will be no progress. Distortions such as confirmation bias will work against it.
See also: