Running down the hallways naked

Steven Novella was recently on the Dr. Oz show. He had been fairly critical of Oz earlier this month on the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe podcast, so I was surprised to see him invited. Novella’s post-mortem is here. It’s a great read.

Jay Novella said something that keeps cracking me up on that podcast, though, and I’d like to share it with those who aren’t SGU addicts like me. Here it is:

“[Oz] is like the classic rock star guy who just got into the good band and he’s all happy and enthusiastic and he’s getting up early to practice his riffs…and then you zoom out and zoom back in…about six months later and he’s doing coke, he’s running up and down the hallways naked, Jack Daniels every night…”

And you can just see Oz running up and down the halls with a big check signed by Oprah Winfrey. What a load of nonsense this man is peddling.

Is Rome a Nazi lager?

An unnamed artist thinks Rome is a modern-day Nazi death camp, apparently. He even put up a sign in the Pigneto neighborhood saying so.

Like any self-deprecating artist he began to backpeddle as soon as he was accused of anti-Semitism. That’s not what he meant, at all. His apparent reasoning is that the neighborhood in which his sign appeared is a neighborhood of immigrants. Immigrants are oppressed. Hence the analogy to Nazi oppression of the Jews, forced labor and, well, extermination. If you’re finding this a bit far-fetched a comparison, I’m not sure the artist is much help in explaining his position.

Why did you need to use [the gate at Auschwitz] to make your point?

My installation is different…I used different materials. They used iron [at Auschwitz] and I used industrial pipes. Even the fonts are different! And mine is in English.

Oh, that makes sense now. It was written in English because that’s the language of immigrants. (Certainly not because the media would pick up on it and make him an overnight enfant-terrible. No, not that!) And certainly he meant no disregard to the actual people who were murdered in Auschwitz and other Nazi death-camps for the sole crime of being Jewish. Why on earth would people be so upset at his ingenious artistic rendering of immigrant suffering? Why do people accuse him of that most damnable of prejudices? Can’t they read his universal proletariat message loud and clear?

Ah, the plight of the misunderstood genius! Or has Auschwitz become the new crucifixion?

Debating other atheists

This post was first published at Monicks Unleashed on April 8, 2011. It unleashed a heated debate on Facebook. Happily, no one was hurt. Atheists aren’t into stabbing themselves or others with sharp objects.

This may surprise some of you, but I’ve probably debated more with other atheists than with believers. It usually becomes clear rather quickly that the main gripe leveled at me is that I’m basically wasting my time – and theirs – with this militant atheism business.

My debate partners normally fall into three categories:

♦ Type I debater begins amicably, “Listen, I’m an atheist, too. I agree with you about most things.” Then a swift condescension: “But I don’t go around waving flags and proselytizing to others. You’re acting just like they do.” Yes, proselytizing. That’s the word they use. If you point out that, no, you’re doing nothing of the sort, then you might hear an annoyed, “Yes you are. But you’re preaching to the converted. You’d do better writing poetry (I also write poetry). Nothing will change because of that red “A” in the corner of your blog.”

♦ Type II debater is the de facto atheist who clings to the word “God” as if it were a life raft. This person has no definable religious adherence, doesn’t believe in holy books and is quite embarrassed by the idea of a white-bearded autocrat in the sky. He or she accepts science as the best explanation of phenomena and has little or no patience for the supernatural (e.g. UFOs, ghosts, etc…) – except where “God” makes an appearance in the ultra-rarified guise of the voice-in-the-head. But when you ask for clarification, don’t hold your breath. You might receive an answer like, “God is what makes us who we are.” Or a sleight-of-hand like, “Do you believe in love?” The difficulty in debatingthis person is that, no matter what points you feel you score, they just smile politely and take credit for the hit. They’ll even quote Einstein at you. Ugh.

(Don’t call Type II an atheist. Oh, no. Type II is a true believer. But if you hint that his or her belief doesn’t remotely correspond to that of 99% of religious believers, you’ll see a wounded look. “Why are you confusing my super-sophisticated conception of the divine quintessence with that bearded fellow on the Christmas cards?” it seems to say. Why, indeed?)

♦ Type III debater tends toward the postmodern. Type III will throw everything at you, confound you with a Žižekian cornucopia of pop culture and deep philosophical concerns, then abruptly proclaim the impossibility of all knowledge. You’ll wonder what that debate was about for days.

It’s really a matter of method, in the end. Many non-believers (yes, Type II, you are a non-believer) feel they’re supposed to suck it up, stick it out and patiently wait for the paradigm shift as if it were the messiah. They don’t like being lumped in with those of us who engage the world directly as atheists. For them, being an atheist is nothing more than having dark hair or wearing glasses.

“You can’t force people to stop believing in God,” they’ll observe. But who’s forcing anyone to do anything? Is arguing a philosophical point all of a sudden holding a pistol to granny’s temple and hollering, “Admit it you old bag, there is no God!”? That’s misrepresenting what’s really going on, which is that many atheists want in on the action. We’re tired of sitting on the sidelines watching the game.

But no matter how much atheists may squabble over the rules of engagement, we’ll still be more consistent than religious believers who can’t agree on anything - except that we are the common enemy.

Rita Levi-Montalcini turns 102

The oldest living Nobel laureate.

From Jewdayo:

The oldest living Nobel laureate, Rita Levi-Montalcini, was born in Turin, Italy on this date in 1909. She did her award-winning work at Washington University in St. Louis, MO in the late 1940s, isolating the nerve growth factor, which plays a key role in the growth and homeostasis of nerve cells. The discovery earned the 1986 Nobel Award in physiology/medicine for her and Dr. Stanley Cohen. Levi-Montalcini had become a doctor in the 1930s after witnessing the death from cancer of a close friend, but the rise of Italian fascism forced her to conduct her research in a home laboratory (in both Italy and France) until the end of World War II. She was appointed Senator for Life in Italy’s senate in 2001, and periodically takes part in the chamber’s deliberations expressing progressive views, which has fetched many attacks on her as both a leftist and a Jew from right-wing bloggers and politicians. Her autobiography, In Praise of Imperfection, was published in 1988.

“I tell young people: Do not think of yourself, think of others. Think of the future that awaits you, think about what you can do and do not fear anything.” -Rita Levi-Montalcini

Are skeptics aggressive?

“Truth is tough. It will not break, like a bubble, at a touch; nay, you may kick it about all day like a football, and it will be round and full at evening.” Oliver Wendell Holmes

Are skeptics aggressive? This is a question I’ve been asking myself lately. Of course I believe the answer is “No.” But judging by the kind of conversations I end up having whenever I assert my opinion on matters like religion, the supernatural, magic and CAM, it seems some think otherwise.

But the knife doesn’t cut both ways. If a Buddhist were to explain his or her beliefs, then elaborate why he or she believes such things, I don’t think anyone would be disturbed or think their own beliefs were being aggressively challenged. Ditto for any religious believer. But when a skeptic says, for instance, that he or she is a materialist, an atheist or whatever it is almost certain to elicit a response such as, “Well, I don’t like having your views shoved down my throat.”

The double standard is obvious. Believers in all sorts of things enjoy the freedom to expound on those beliefs. They expect to be heard out, respected and thoughtfully considered. Fine. But why can’t skeptics expect the same? Why must it always be, “Don’t force your truth on me?”

Skeptics don’t adopt that tactic because it’s not what skepticism is about. We like to air opinions. We are even glad when someone proves us wrong. We are not at all dogmatic, as we try to have good reasons for believing what we do. None of it is based on faith or intuition – things we are, well, skeptical of.

In fact, we love nothing more than talking things over. That this approach should be considered “aggressive” is perhaps telling us more about our interlocutors than it does about us.

The story of Passover

Today is the first day of Passover as well as the anniversary of the beginning of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943. I’m sure theists of all stripes could have a field day with that.

Atheist Rabbi Jeffrey Falick has an interesting post on his blog. He has written a supplementary account of modern archaeological findings which pretty much contradict the traditional story of the Exodus of Hebrew slaves from Egypt. It’s written in the style of the Haggadah, the Passover story book. I first came across this thesis in Melvin Konner’s book Unsettled: An Anthropology of the Jews. Here’s Falick:

For the last twenty years or so the prevailing hypothesis, based on a growing number of corroborating sources, shows that the Israelites came together out of a social upheaval in Canaan.  This is because, even without a shred of evidence for a conquest or massive settlement from abroad, they did find substantial growth in the Canaanite highlands in the mid-13th century C.E.

The idea is that the Jewish people were native to Canaan. They didn’t conquer it by divine command or any other way, though this became part of their national mythology over time. And it still is.

This is something I’ve been trying to bring up for years during whatever Jewish holidays I end up celebrating with friends: that the “official” versions are myths based in history. And doesn’t it make for a richer experience when we can ground an implausible escape with consequent wandering for forty years in a desert with (almost) no water in what we can actually know about those events? And the answer I almost always get is this: “Don’t ruin my Passover/Chanukah with your atheism. I like this story.”

Anyway, Hag Pesach Sameach to my Jewish friends!

Scale of the universe

Here is a totally awesome interactive scale model of the universe. It really helps you visualize the so-big-it’s-unthinkable and the so-small-it’s-beyond-our-power-to-comprehend. We here on this planet are so small and yet so big. It’s actually kinda weird when you think about it. But not so weird it implies the need for supernatural causes.

I’m going to make a point of using the word “yoctometer” in a conversation, though – just so I can tell someone to go check this out. (Click on image, then use the slide rule to pan in and out.)

Unsinkable skepducks

Innocuous bath toys or intro to critical thinking?

I was inspired by Neil de Grasse Tyson to look at my daughter’s bath toys with new eyes. In one of his essays in Death By Black Hole – “On Density”, I believe - he writes eloquently about how a cupful of the planet Saturn would actually float in a tub of bathwater. That’s because it’s less dense than water. Since you can’t go out and get a cupful of Saturn, Tyson playfully suggested we introduce rubber Saturn toys in place of yellow duckies in our children’s baths. It would be a good way to promote science early on. I loved the idea.

But where to find such a toy? I was thinking such thoughts when my wife came home with a bag full of little yellow rubber duckies for the bath. “We needed some bath toys,” she said. Well, I thought, why not transform the omnipresent yellow duckie into an educational bath toy (keep in mind our daughter is eight months old)? And since it’s already the symbol par excellence of quackery, why not riff on that? Presto! The skepducks were hatched.

I never forget James Randi’s phrase for the resilience of credulity and pseudoscience, “unsinkable rubber ducks.” I’m making a commitment to my daughter to raise her to think for herself and question received ideas. There’s no better time to start.

The State Crucifix

Review of Il Crocifisso di Stato By Sergio Luzzatto Einaudi, 2011. 127 pages

“Without the crucifix on the wall, they say, Italy would no longer be the same. I agree… it would be fairer, more serious, better.” These words grace the cover of Sergio Luzzatto’s compelling polemic against the “crucifix of the state.”

In Italy, no public building — be it a police station, courtroom or classroom — is without a crucifix appended to the wall. Many have argued that its presence is innocuous, or a matter of traditional identity rather than religious proselytizing. But whose identity? Certainly not that of Italian Jews like Marcello Montagnana, who raised the issue in the 1990s; or his wife, Maria Vittoria Migliano, whose opposition to the omnipresent symbol began in the 1980s. Or the growing number of secularists and non-Catholics who see in the state-sponsored crucifix a flagrant violation of Italy’s constitutional secularity and their right to freedom of conscience.

Luzzatto, who teaches modern history at Turin University, recounts the history of this ubiquitous Catholic symbol beginning with its rise in the Middle Ages as the signifier par excellence of discrimination against heretics, Jews and Muslims. Given its lengthy history of intolerance, it’s ironic that today’s Vatican wishes to pawn it off as the equivalent of a pizza margherita: bland, neutral, inoffensive. Even worse are the politicians who can’t agree on anything but the need for the crucifix — right, left and center all fall in line the moment the pope raises an eyebrow. This is astonishing for anyone familiar with the exceedingly partisan nature of Italian politics.

Author Natalia Ginzburg, according to Luzzatto, furnished the “Ur-Text” of arguments in defense of the crucifix. Her 1988 article was published in L’Unità, the official newspaper of the Italian Communist Party, and has been mined for decades by those wishing to preserve the public exposition of the crucifix. For Ginsburg, the crucifix is “silent,” “represents human suffering” and — perhaps most egregiously — “has always been there.”

Well, no, it hasn’t really. Luzzatto demolishes the inconsistency of Ginzburg’s thesis. The crucifix was affixed to the public wall at a precise moment in Italian history. It became a mandatory presence under Mussolini’s Fascist state. How’s that for benign, silent, universal? This book is a welcome corrective to such historical myopia and — for lack of a better term — bad faith.

From The American

Poison for the mind

It’s hard to think of any other reason for Roberto De Mattei’s latest comments than his deep religious commitment:

The collapse of the Roman Empire and the arrival of the Barbarians was due to the spread of homosexuality. The Roman colony of Carthage was a paradise for homosexuals and they infected many others. The invasion of the Barbarians was seen as punishment for this moral transgression.

It is well-known that effeminate men and homosexuals have no place in the kingdom of God. Homosexuality was not rife among the Barbarians and this shows God’s justice throughout history.

I keep hearing that religion is this necessary good thing that humanity will never outgrow because it needs it. I keep hearing that atheists construct straw man arguments for religious belief to tear apart on their blogs. But all one has to do is listen to a De Mattei to see that the ideas themselves are often pernicious. And that largely the only reason for holding such opinions is the adherence to a religious dogma like Catholicism, with its outspoken antagonism towards anything but the most rigorous “biblical” sexuality. Of course, that’s an invention and they are lying to us. But belief is belief and dogma is dogma. And even a smart fellow like De Mattei is reduced to wicked demagoguery by his piousness.

» More on Roberto De Mattei here and here.