Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Daily Show Promotes Conspiracy Theorist

I lost a lot of respect for the Daily Show after this episode in which he interviews Annie Jacobsen.

Jon Stewart generally displays a healthy skepticism (eg, the recent interview of David Barton), but he gave a woman with a history of sloppy journalism and exploiting paranoia the opportunity to promote her Area 51 book on his show.

He didn't call her on BS that can be refuted by the freakin' wikipedia article; eg, the map they showed was the Nevada Test and Training Range, of which Area 51 is only a small part. And the only real controversial new findings are confirmed only by an anonymous source that nobody else has spoken to.

The controversial finding? Joseph Mengele mutated children to look like aliens, and Stalin sent them to the U.S. in a hovercraft to create an alien scare in the U.S. Seriously.

And NPR, too? WTF, liberal media?

Saturday, July 11, 2009

More on Hitchens

A few more thoughts on Christopher Hitchens ...

In my previous post I failed to mention how rough he looked. He limped out to the podium, the result of a spider or insect bite on his leg. He appeared to be sweating profusely, and didn't seem quite as quick on his feet as the one time I'd seen him speak before. But he managed to stay articulate and sharp through it all.

The questions asked to him were moderated, and they were pretty much all softballs. No questions regarding the legitimacy of the Iraq war were posed.

I find him a far stronger journalist than forecaster. Not many risk their well being to sneak into North Korea to offer first-hand reporting. Fewer than that have themselves voluntarily water boarded.

The times when he simply describes the atrocities of these regimes and leaves it to the reader/listener to decide how to act are, in my opinion, his strongest moments. And in this talk he pretty much did just that - he didn't offer much in the way of recommendations on what the U.S. or the any other nation should do in response to North Korea or Iran.

But when he starts trying to extrapolate how likely a country is to develop nuclear arms, or what they will do when they get them, I just don't think he's got a better idea than anyone else.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Hitchens in Palo Alto

I organized an event with a local atheist group to go see Christopher Hitchens in Palo Alto last night. The talk was hosted by the Commonwealth Club but not advertised very much - I stumbled across the event on GoldStar about 5 days earlier.

He only spoke for about an hour. The topic was "Iran, Iraq, North Korea". When I mentioned the talk to Derek he predicted Hitchens would mention that he's the only writer to have visited all 3 countries, and he did so in about the first 30 seconds. He told several interesting stories of totalitarianism in all 3. These that stand out in my mind:
  • Iraq - The tale of Hussein's cold-blooded rise to power (related here in an Atlantic article), noting the similarities to mafia tactics.
  • North Korea - The almost comical similarities to Orwell's 1984.
  • Iran - He was mostly hopeful in discussing Iran, noting that it is a moderate country ruled by an extreme minority, and the demographics are shifting the right way (something like half the country is under 25). He made a similar point of Palestine.
His overarching them was that any government that considers its people iis property are dispicable, and we should not shy from labeling them as evil.

Overall it was good, but short. He didn't mentioned any major ideas I hadn't read or heard before. He made the requisite joke about whiskey. But he's smart and articulate and funny and skeptical, so I dig him.

After the talk we had a lively discussion at a local pub.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Are we a Christian nation?

From a 2007 poll
Sixty-five percent of Americans believe that the nation's founders intended the U.S. to be a Christian nation and 55% believe that the Constitution establishes a Christian nation.
From President Obama's address to the Turkish press today:
I've said before that one of the great strengths of the United States is, although as I mentioned we have a very large Christian population, we do not consider ourselves a Christian nation or a Jewish nation or a Muslim nation. We consider ourselves a nation of citizens who are bound by ideals and a set of values.
I applaud the sentiment, Mr. President, but I'm not sure who this "we" is you're talking about.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Why is science important?

Via Bad Astronomythese guys have some good answers. I've only read a few, but this is my favorite so far.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

No atheists working for the state of Arkansas

A friend shared this US News article on Facebook today. I'm sure these are akin to other archaic state laws banning such things as adultery and sodomy - officially ilegal, but unenforcable and just waiting for someone to challenge their constitutionality. 

On the bright side, I doubt any of us were interested in moving to Arkansas anyway.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Is Christianity Good for the World?

Is Christianity Good for the World? is a written debate between Christopher Hitchens and Douglas Wilson. My friend Derek bought it for me for Christmas. Needless to say, Hitchens was con and Wilson pro.

I looked forward to reading it because it's a different question from the traditional theist vs atheist debate of whether or not we have sufficient evidence for the existence of a god. It's quite possible for the Christian god not to exist, yet for Christian belief to be healthy for individuals or society. I don't happen to believe that's the case, but it is an interesting (and in some ways measurable) question.

Alas, I found the debate sorely lacking. To my surprise, I was most disappointed in Hitchens.

First off, the debate was not framed impartially. I suppose I shouldn't be too surprised as it was originally published in Christianity Today. The introduction was written by a Jewish theologian who obviously favored the pro perspective. Take this section:
The yearning for a religious order is innate to mankind-even if some individual spiritual albinos find themselves missing the gene. Should Christopher succeed in burning Christianity to the ground, he will not be able to stop humanity from building a new temple in its place.
Accepting these assertions renders the argument moot, which surely qualifies it as a poor preface to the debate. If religion is innate to mankind and its institutions inevitable either (a) the pro argument wins or (b) the con argument wins but, who cares, since we can't end theism as long as there are humans?

And Hitchens is a "spiritual albino" who wants to burn Christianity to the ground? So, the only reason to argue the con side is to be flawed or militant? Nice.

On to the debate itself ...

Wilson begins with the classic creationist misperception that confuses cause with effect.
God knew that we were going to need to pick up dimes, and so He gave us fingernails. He knew that twilights displayed in blue, apricot, and battle gray would be entirely astonishing and beyond us, and so He gave us eyes that can see in color.
He continues with another half dozen or so examples where human evolution has adapted to our environment, and credits god for adapting the environment to us.

Wilson goes on to explain that atheists believe as they do because they "can not handle the Godness of God" and "do not want to thank Him". Um ... if there isn't a God, there's no Godness to handle, and nobody to thank.

Most of the debate centered on 2 topics: Christianity is responsible for bad stuff, and where do we get morality without religion? They do an awful job of sticking to the topic. They're mostly arguing pro and con on theism, not Christianity.

Christianity has been responsible for many moral atrocities.

Hitchens asserts that Christianity can not take credit for its followers' moral behavior without also accepting blame for their atrocities (e.g., the crusades, slavery, anti-semitism).

Wilson's first response is that this is like saying a professor can't accept credit for succesful students without also accepting blame for "the dope-smoking slacker that he kicked out of class in the second week". This argument is so flawed I almost don't know where to begin, and I'm disappointed that Hitchens didn't take it on.

Is the professor also in charge of the university's entrance requirements? If 90% of the class is smoking pot can we still not blame the professor? What if the professor himself is smoking pot? Do professorless classes behave worse?

This thread goes almost nowhere, as Hitchens says "look at the bad stuff Christians did" and Wilson says "those were just the bad Christians".

What is the basis of morality?

This is initially posed by Wilson as "what is truth", but the remainder of the debate focuses almost entirely on moral truth.

asserts that the moral precepts on which Christianity prides itself, such as "love thy neighbor" and the Golden Rule, did not originate with Christianity. And further that many Christian teachings are immoral, such as vicarious redemption (i.e., our sins are absolved by Jesus' actions, not ours).

Wilson does not deny either of these assertions, but simply questions what is the basis for morality without a god. This is a bit disingenuous since the debate is specifically about Christianity - he's just arguing for theism at this point - but we'll let that go. He concedes that non-religious people behave morally (a classic circular argument of theism, giving god credit for the moral behavior of non-believers). If there is no god, he asks, why should we consider theft, murder, genocides, etc. reprehensible things, instead of simply "stuff happens".

barely responds to this at all, which I think is the fatal flaw in his debate, for this surely is the crucial concept: do we need to believe in the supernatural to be moral? I think the answer is clearly "no", but it is the point that most needs arguing to the Christian world, and Hitchens barely makes it.

About all he does provide is "innate human solidarity"; i.e., basic morality is self-evident, and we should rely on our instincts. Lame. "It's self evident" is as weak and baseless as "it's in the bible".

He does demonstrate that Christian morality is every bit as relative as that of an atheist. He again lists many things that were considered moral by all or many Christians in various societies or points in history (e.g., genocide, slavery) that almost nobody, Christian or otherwise, would find moral today.

In the end, Hitchens pretty well demonstrates that Christianity might not be altogether bad for the world, but we get by just fine without it. Non-christians, he argues, aren't necessarily more moral than Christians, but they're just as good with less baggage. But he never provides a secular basis for morality, which is sad since many good arguments exist.

They mostly agree on what right and wrong is, but Wilson gives all credit and blame to god and those that choose not to follow him, while Hitchens gives credit to human mind and societies. Despite my admittedly biased view on the topic, I have to consider the debate a draw.