Archive for September, 2009

In the “Are you kidding me?” department … the BBC reports that famous Scottish author J.K. Rowling was refused an important honor because the White House thought she “encouraged witchcraft”:

Harry Potter author JK Rowling missed out on a top honour because some US politicians believed she “encouraged witchcraft”, it has been claimed.

Matt Latimer, former speech writer for President George W Bush, said that some members of his administration believed her books promoted sorcery.

As a result, she was never presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Latimer’s disclosure comes from an upcoming tell-all book:

The claims appear in Latimer’s new book called Speechless: Tales of a White House Survivor.

He wrote that “narrow thinking” led White House officials to object to giving Rowling the civilian honour.

The award acknowledges contributions to US national interest, world peace or cultural endeavours.

First, let me say that these “tell-all” books by folks who are, essentially, disgruntled employees, are not very trustworthy. So I’m not sure how credible this is. And even if there were someone in the White House who made remarks like this, it’s not clear who it was, or how much influence that person had. It’s not even clear if some other objection to Rowling getting the medal was raised, such as her not being a US citizen. (The Medal has been given to some not born in the States, e.g. Elie Wiesel, but not being an American may have represented a hurdle anway. To what extent, I have no idea.)

Nonetheless, it’s remarkable that in the 21st century, people can still fear books that mention “witchcraft” and/or “sorcery” merely because they contain these story elements. After all, famous Christian writers have used magical or sorcerous settings for their own widely-beloved works … sticking to the UK, the examples of J.R.R. Tolkien (a lifelong devout Catholic) and C.S. Lewis (an adult convert to the Anglican Church) leap to mind. The religious devotion of neither of these men has ever been seriously questioned, nor has it ever been suggested that either of them ever “promoted” or “encouraged” witchcraft or sorcery, even though they both wrote about worlds (Middle-Earth and Narnia respectively) in which these things existed, and protagonists (e.g. Gandalf and Aslan) who made use of them. Objecting to Rowling’s Harry Potter series on that basis — which are almost as much moral tales as either The Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Narnia — is simply irrational and unfounded.

While we cannot just take Latimer’s word that Christian-dogmatic anti-witchcraft sentiment played a part in this decision, it is unfortunately true that the Harry Potter books were the targets of fundamentalist Christian outrage. It’s nonsensical, of course … but these folks are fully committed to their nonsensical ideas and are unable — and unwilling — to see them as the nonsense they are.

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On the heels of my post yesterday about the anti-vaccine movement raging in New York state, I thought I should remark on Phil Plait (of the excellent Bad Astronomy blog) deciding to take a stand against the anti-vaccine movement in his own way:

I used to write for the Huffington Post, an online news and blog collective. It was started by Arianna Huffington during the Bush Era as a response to all the far-right online media. I didn’t agree with a lot of what was on there — I am more centrist — but at the time I thought it was necessary.

Then they started to promote far-left New Age nonsense, and when it came to vaccinations, HuffPo started posting all kinds of opinions that amounted to nothing more than out-and-out health threats. While they do sometimes post a counter-argument, it’s still almost all alt-med, all the time.

Here’s the latest: a doctor named Frank Lipman is telling people not to get vaccinated against Swine Flu. Instead he says you should wash your hands a lot, eat well, and take homeopathic medicine.

I’m sure the folks at Huff feel they’re doing the right thing, but when you’re talking medicine, feelings do not matter … science and, more specifically, evidence do. At any rate, Plait is done with Huff:

It’s the peddling of antivax rhetoric like this that drove me from HuffPo, and I’ve let them know why. I was a minor cog there, so I know it made no difference… and the proof is that they still post articles promoting procedures known to be useless. In fact, it’s worse than that, since someone might try the homeopathic water rather than get actual treatment.

So, as always, don’t listen to people like Lipman, or even to me when it comes to this stuff. Instead, go to your doctor, a board-certified and science-based doctor, and ask them about the H1N1 swine flu, and see if they recommend getting the shot.

That’s good advice … go to a bona fide evidence-based doctor, and follow his/her instructions. Plait’s exit from the circus of children that is Huff may not alleviate that blog’s fuzzy thinking, but even symbolic stands can carry some weight. Good for you, Dr Plait!

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In the “good news and good-bye” department, the splinter of Operation Rescue which lingered in Kansas — the better to harass the now-late Dr George Tiller — is broke and may be shutting down, as reported by the Washington Post:

Operation Rescue has told its supporters it is facing a “major financial crisis” and is very close to shutting down unless emergency help arrives soon.

Troy Newman, the antiabortion group’s president, blamed the economic downturn for its money woes in a desperate plea e-mailed Monday night to donors. But the Wichita-based organization has also been under attack from both fringe antiabortion militants and abortion rights supporters since the May 31 shooting death of George Tiller.

Well, boo-fucking-hoo. Does the Bible not say that those who start trouble will be afflicted by it? (See among other passages Job 4:8, Jeremiah 6:19, & Galatians 6:7.) Seems organizational collapse is not even a fitting end for a group that may (note: I said “may,” not “did”) have had a hand in the assassination of Dr Tiller. One of OR/K’s operatives, Cheryl Sullenger, gave accused assassin Scott Roeder information about Tiller’s schedule that might have led to the shooting.

If all that happens to OR/K is that they end up closing their doors, that will have been too good for these people. But it’s the least that I can hope will happen.

Hat tip: Unreasonable Faith blog.

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The anti-vaccine movement, about which I’ve blogged before, has found a new demographic to exploit — healthcare workers in New York state — and a new vaccine to bellyache about — the H1N1 (aka “swine flu”) vaccine that will be released soon (as the CBS News Taking Liberties blog reports):

Health care workers are planning to take to the streets Tuesday at a rally in front of the Albany, N.Y. state capitol to protest mandatory vaccination.

The rally is intended to call for “freedom of choice in vaccination and health care” and to protest mandatory vaccination for influenza and the H1N1 swine flu. “This vaccine has not been clinically tested to the same degree as the regular flu vaccine,” Tara Accavallo, a registered nurse on Long Island, told Newsday. “If something happens to me, if I get seriously injured from this vaccine, who’s going to help me?”

Well, of course the H1N1 vaccine hasn’t had the decades of testing that the conventional flu vaccine has. It never will have that amount of testing until more decades have passed; if the vaccine is never released until that length of time has passed, any chance to arrest H1N1 will have been lost. They may as well never develop an H1N1 vaccine, if this is the standard that must be met. Of course this is foolish … and of course healthcare workers know it. The report continues:

State Health Commissioner Richard Daines, who is probably feeling a bit of political pressure after deciding that the Empire State will go where no other state has, released a lengthy open letter last week that concludes: “We, as health care workers, owe it to our patients and to society in general to demonstrate our confidence in those scientific standards. Even more importantly, we should reconfirm our noble commitment to the tradition of putting patients’ interests first by supporting the mandatory influenza vaccination requirement.”

What should be noted, too, is that New York state … and the metro NYC area … were “hotbeds” of H1N1 occurrence in the US. Containing this virus in New York is much more important, and will have a greater effect on transmission around the country, than elsewhere.

Next related item:

Outside the realm of healthcare workers in New York state, the irrationality surrounding vaccines has hit new highs, and has led to truly strange, if not utterly dangerous, things like “swine flu parties” (as reported by US News & World Report):

[Question:] I’ve heard that some parents are throwing “swine flu parties” for their kids with the intent of exposing them to the virus now, while it’s mild, so that kids have enough immunity to fight the virus off. Is this a good idea?

[Answer by] Judith Palfrey, M.D.: While parents want to protect their children from infections, exposing them to illness is not a prudent practice. I asked Dr. Thomas Sandora, the director of infection control at Children’s Hospital in Boston, to give his advice. Here’s what he had to say:

“Swine flu parties are a dangerous gamble and a big mistake. The novel H1N1 influenza virus is predicted to be the predominant circulating strain of flu in the country this winter. It is true that infection with an influenza virus can produce immunity to that strain—that’s the principle by which vaccination works. However, catching this novel H1N1 flu virus can be extremely dangerous. …

“The idea of parties designed to expose children to infections is not new—in the past, some people have hosted ‘chicken pox parties’ in an attempt to expose their children to varicella, often with the goal of avoiding vaccination. But chicken pox can also have fatal complications, so it’s a huge gamble. In my opinion, intentionally exposing your child to a potentially fatal infection is never a risk worth taking.”

I’d never heard of “swine flu parties” before and have no idea how common they are. For all I know they’re just an urban legend that no one actually takes a chance on. But if they are happening, all I can say is — in the words of G’Kar on Babylon 5 (episode “Revelations”) — “Weep for the future; weep for us all.” Because we’ll have fallen into a chasm of irrationality out of which we may never be able to climb.

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Richard Dawkins is once again taking on the forces of religionism. This time, he’s explaining what evolution is and isn’t, and how creationists and their close allies “intelligent designers” misinform their sheep about it. His new book is called The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution. Excerpts have been published in several venues; here is one published in Newsweek:

The Angry Evolutionist

Creationists are deeply enamored of the fossil record, because they have been taught (by each other) to repeat, over and over, the mantra that it is full of “gaps”: “Show me your ‘intermediates!'” They fondly (very fondly) imagine that these “gaps” are an embarrassment to evolutionists. Actually, we are lucky to have any fossils at all, let alone the massive numbers that we now do have to document evolutionary history—large numbers of which, by any standards, constitute beautiful “intermediates.” We don’t need fossils in order to demonstrate that evolution is a fact. The evidence for evolution would be entirely secure even if not a single corpse had ever fossilized. It is a bonus that we do actually have rich seams of fossils to mine, and more are discovered every day. The fossil evidence for evolution in many major animal groups is wonderfully strong. Nevertheless there are, of course, gaps, and creationists love them obsessively.

Essentially Dawkins goes on to explain that the “gaps in the fossil record” that Creationists wail about so often, do not actually refute evolution. Fossils — any fossils at all — are merely “frosting on the cake,” and even if there were none at all, evolution would still be borne out by the evidence. Dawkins goes on to explain what might weigh against it:

What would be evidence against evolution, and very strong evidence at that, would be the discovery of even a single fossil in the wrong geological stratum. As J.B.S. Haldane famously retorted when asked to name an observation that would disprove the theory of evolution, “Fossil rabbits in the Precambrian!” No such rabbits, no authentically anachronistic fossils of any kind, have ever been found. All the fossils that we have, and there are very very many indeed, occur, without a single authenticated exception, in the right temporal sequence. Yes, there are gaps where there are no fossils at all, and that is only to be expected. But not a single solitary fossil has ever been found before it could have evolved. That is a very telling fact. A good theory is one that is vulnerable to disproof, yet is not disproved. Evolution could so easily be disproved if just a single fossil turned up in the wrong date order. Evolution has passed this test with flying colors. Skeptics of evolution who wish to prove their case should be diligently scrabbling around in the rocks, desperately trying to find anachronistic fossils.

Dawkins also addresses the fallacy of looking for “transitional forms,” as well as Creationists’ other unreasonable expectations of evolution, which is that it cannot be true, since monkeys do not give birth to homo sapiens:

The silliest of all these “missing link” challenges are the following two (or variants of them, of which there are many). First, “If people came from monkeys via frogs and fish, then why does the fossil record not contain a ‘fronkey’?” And, second, “I’ll believe in evolution when I see a monkey give birth to a human baby.” This last one makes the same mistake as all the others, plus the additional one of thinking that major evolutionary change happens overnight.

Well, of course, monkeys are not descended from frogs. No sane evolutionist ever said they were, or that ducks are descended from crocodiles or vice versa. Monkeys and frogs share an ancestor, which certainly looked nothing like a frog and nothing like a monkey. Maybe it looked a bit like a salamander, and we do indeed have salamander-like fossils dating from the right time. But that is not the point. Every one of the millions of species of animals shares an ancestor with every other one.

The fact is that Creationists and Intelligent Designers have, in fact, lied to people about what evolution is. They purposely misrepresent it, and explicitly misstate what it says, so that it appears foolish and absurd. And to be honest, if evolutionists were teaching that a monkey once suddenly gave birth to a human, I’d agree that would be wrong. But evolutionists don’t actually teach that, because that’s not what evolution says.

It’s time for religionists to grow the hell up, stop lying about things, and just accept that their metaphysics has been scientifically disproven. Their beliefs about creation do not entitle them to lie about evolution or about science in general.

One last note: Is there any particular reason the editors at Newsweek decided to denigrate Dawkins by labeling him as “angry” in their headline? Just wondering out loud.

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Since I started this blog, I’ve mentioned the amorphous Christian movement known as “dominionism” many times, and have suggested that it’s much more of a motive force for the Religious Right than even they might let on. I’ve been asked if my assertion might not be more paranoia than insightful conclusion.

Let’s face it, not many people really know what dominionism is or what it’s trying to do; and I fully admit that at least some Religious Right leaders sincerely do not view themselves as dominionists. Not only that, the scenario does carry of whiff of “conspiracy theory” and I’m far too skeptical to be susceptible to that. So it’s rare that anyone ever says anything that offers any similar thinking. But I recently came across something that speaks to this movement and the tentacular entanglements it has throughout the Right in the US. That comes from Sarah Posner over at Religion Dispatches:

Despite all the attention paid to the religious right’s declining interest in gay marriage as a key issue, it’s clear homosexuality is still a vibrant bogeyman—but the tea party bandwagon is simply more enticing at the moment. [Chaplain Viviana] Hernandez’s activist roots, for example, are with the National Organization for Marriage, though she is now affiliated with a group called the City Action Coalition International which, she says, trains pastors to be political activists. It is led by Bishop Joseph Mattera, whose son, Jason, is a well-known conservative activist and blogger who led another Values Voter workshop, “Turning the Tide in Your Generation.” …

The continuing influence of “Christian nation” mythology and dominionism is evident in Hernandez’s activist trajectory. She told me that before running (unsuccessfully) for state senate and city council in New York, she attended classes at the Providence Foundation, a small group based in Charlottesville, Virginia that has been described as Christian Reconstructionist. …

Religion Dispatches goes on to describe this group and its relationships to other arms of the Right:

Stephen McDowell, Providence’s co-founder, said in a telephone interview that he would not consider himself a Christian Reconstructionist, “but I do believe that the Bible is the template that we ought to look to to build our life upon and our family and our business and our civil society. That’s where the people who founded America looked.” According to its Web site, “The Scriptures contain a theology of the family, the church, and the state. Principles in God’s written Word that relate to civil government, politics, economics, and education are timeless and universally useful for the benefit of any culture on Earth today.” …

Although it’s a small operation, Providence has the blessing of David Barton, the religious right propagandist and Republican activist who claims the separation of church and state is a myth, and who serves on its board. Barton’s attempts to influence both politics and public education with his “Christian nation” mythology are legion; most recently, right-wing members of the Texas State Board of Education appointed Barton to serve as an “expert” on its social studies curriculum. McDowell serves on the board of Barton’s organization, WallBuilders. …

Whatever the tea party movement is—Dick Armey’s astroturf to kill health care reform, Rupert Murdoch’s marketing plan to boost Glenn Beck’s ratings, a grassroots outlet for right-wing rage and paranoia—the Values Voter Summit made clear the religious right is hitching its wagon to that horse. Sharing a common enemy (Obama, the Democratic Party, liberalism writ large), different participants wrap their rhetoric in red, white, and blue, whether the endgame is a romanticized rebellion of “authentic” patriots, uber-libertarianism—or Biblical law.

The notion of a “Christian nation” is one that the country’s Christian majority finds attractive. Rightist Christians definitely would love to see the US government overtly “Christianized,” even if they do not count themselves among dominionists. The truth is, though, that this sentiment makes them tacit dominionists. And even some Christians who are not committed Rightists, may find some appeal in it.

The dominionism movement is very dangerous, because its appeal is pervasive and because it’s often very hard to discern deep under the Religious Right’s machinations. Be afraid … be very, very afraid!

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Back in early August I blogged about the immaturity that has saturated the country, and described examples of people getting hurt because of it. Well, it’s possible this has been ramped up from fisticuffs, to homicide. A US Census worker has been found dead, as reported by the AP (via the Hartford Courant):

When Bill Sparkman told retired trooper Gilbert Acciardo that he was going door-to-door collecting census data in rural Kentucky, the former cop drew on years of experience for a warning: “Be careful.”

The 51-year-old Sparkman was found this month hanged from a tree near a Kentucky cemetery with the word “fed” scrawled on his chest, a law enforcement official said Wednesday, and the FBI is investigating whether he was a victim of anti-government sentiment.

At the outset let me be clear: The nature of this killing, much less its motive, is not yet known. Suicide has not been ruled out. And even if it turns out to have been murder, it may have had nothing to do with distrust of the government:

Manchester Police Chief Jeff Culver, whose agency is not part of the investigation because the death was outside city limits, said the area where Sparkman was found has a history of problems with prescription drug and methamphetamine trading.

“That part of the county, it has its ups and downs. We’ll get a lot of complaints of drug activity. They’ll whittle away, then flourish back up,” Culver said. He said officers last month rounded up 40 drug suspects, mostly dealers, and made several more arrests in subsequent days.

It could be that he visited some place that drug traffickers didn’t want him to see or had stumbled into an area they didn’t want to be noticed. The jury is definitely still out on this.

It’s plausible that anti-government sentiment was behind this; parts of the country are seething with ideological immaturity. And the Census has drawn particular attention by the extreme Right. Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, R-MN, issued warnings about the 2010 Census and linked it to ACORN, the activist organization that president Barack Obama had worked with. (In the eyes of the Right, ACORN is inseparable from Satan.)

About the only thing that can be said for certain about Sparkman’s death, is that it was not robbery (as the AP notes):

Census employees were told Sparkman’s truck was found nearby, and a computer he was using for work was inside, she said.

Not only that, robbers are not likely to have staged a hanging … they’d have just swiped the computer and/or taken off with the truck, and had done with it. Beyond this, however, almost any motive is possible.

That said, the accusations are flying thick and fast. The Left, typically, has assumed the worst of the Right, from the outset (e.g. Daily Kos):

The real murderers of this man are the Glenn Beck’s, and Rush Limbaugh’s, and Michele Bachmann’s who have spread the deadly poison of hate and fear of our government and the Obama administration across the land.

This is out of line. Not only do we not yet know what the motive was, here — as I’ve discussed at length already — while Bachmann’s remarks about the Census were unnecessarily stupid and paranoid, nothing she said suggested anyone ought to kill a Census worker. In fact, she said that people ought to respond to the Census — but only with minimal information, which they’re within their rights to do. What’s even worse than this are blog comments by Rightists suggesting that someone on the Left — probably from that infernal communist organization ACORN — killed Sparkman and set up his death to look as though it had been done by a murderous Rightist, so as to discredit the Right.

Folks, these kinds of reactions are almost as immature and irrational as the anti-government sentiment that may or may not have cost Sparkman his life. Juvenile responses to juvenile outrages are simply inappropriate. Let’s grow up and use our heads here, fercryinoutloud!

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