June 5, 2008

Christians pretend critical scrutiny is "persecution"

[I wrote this in response to "The Christian Persecution Delusion. Again." by Ed Brayton (Feb. 25, 2008).]

What theists/Christians who pretend to be "persecuted" for their religious beliefs really mean is that they don't want a bunch of people openly criticizing their religious beliefs for lacking rational justification (i.e., for being superstition), and if you do, then they'll whine and moan about being "persecuted." They're using this rhetoric to try to keep a lid on this open criticism of faith-based beliefs in "polite society."

This is one reason I have found the religious criticism of the "new" atheism for being "militant" so amusingly ironic. What religious people who say these kinds of things really mean is that they have enjoyed the free ride they've had when the expression of religious belief is "respected" (not subjected to rational, critical scrutiny) - and they've had free reign to bad-mouth atheism and atheists for centuries - and atheists in society have basically kept their mouths shut. What irks them is that atheism has grown enough in U.S. society that now atheists are not willing to just keep their mouths shut anymore.

A "militant" atheist is simply an atheist who doesn't automatically keep his mouth shut any more just because someone says, "Well, I believe this because it's my faith." Now we increasingly have "militant" atheists who won't let that be the end of discussion, but continue on, "Okay, so what? Now I want your reasons for that belief. Oh, you don't have any? So, what you're really telling me is that you arbitrarily believe it just because you wish to believe even though you can't rationally justify it. Therefore, there's no reason for anyone to believe it. And that's my point. That's why I don't accept your belief, and furthermore that's exactly what I'm openly telling everyone else when it happens to come up in conversation."

It is this openness of basic criticism that makes us "new" atheists so "militant." The "militant atheist" pejorative is nothing more than yet another example of the kind of rhetorical trickery commonly used by Christians and other theists to denigrate and try to ward off rational, critical scrutiny of their personal ideas.

June 3, 2008

Energy production and usage after oil

[Note that I originally published this essay on Apr. 23, 2008 in some online discussion groups I'm a member of.]

Below are some articles that I have found to be of relevance to the "energy crunch" problem coming to human civilization in the 21st century. This problem occurs as the intersection of two issues.

First, "third world" countries around the world have been industrializing and substantially increasing their energy consumption, in line with other countries such as the United States, Great Britain, and so on that have had such higher energy consumption for many decades. So the demand for energy is increasing substantially.

Second, by far human civilization has come to rely on oil to produce the majority of the energy we use, but oil is a nonsustainable (nonrenewable) energy resource, and numerous experts in the oil industry and other analysts estimate that we will be reaching "peak oil" status within the next 10 to 20 years (the point at which, due to the relatively fixed amount of oil, it will reach maximum production but then production will decline after that point).

Demand increasing. Supply dwindling.

I don't happen to be one of the doomsayers, but this is an issue that people really should become increasingly aware of, in terms of (1) simply being personally conscious about ways in which to reduce their consumption of energy (energy conservation), (2) making social/political choices implementing social policies that reward more efficient uses of energy, and (3) also making social/political choices rewarding experimentation, development, and implementation of methods of producing energy that do not use oil.

By the way, in terms of energy consumption efficiency, I'm not thinking in terms of top-down government dictated social mandates, but more in terms of bottom-up economic choices. In other words, if it really is more energy efficient then it should be cheaper and people will buy it precisely because of that. These things can be very simple, such as using more energy efficient light bulbs. If you're only going four or six blocks, just walk instead of driving the car. (And I note that people are beginning to think along this line more, with gasoline approaching $4 a gallon.) On a government level, such a simple decision can have very significant consequence, such as when a city implements a policy to, over time, when a street light burns out, simply replace the street light with a more energy efficient light.

I have no personal vested interest in any particular energy producing method. I simply am aware of the fact of what oil is, and the fact that it really is going to run out over time over the next 100 to 150 years *or so*. (No one needs to quibble with me about the number. If you want to say it's 200 or 300 years, that's fine, my point remains the same.) I also happen to think that for me personally this is not a major issue, because I'm going to die an old man before it becomes a truly major problem. But I'm smart enough to realize that in the long term we need to consider what should be thought about and done now to help deal with the problem over time, for human civilization in following generations.

Also note that I have particular disdain for government boondoggles, wasting tax money giving handouts to wealthy big business agricultural interests Note that this doesn't just waste tax money, but more importantly it actually *diverts attention and effort away from methods that really work*. I'm not saying what I'm saying here because I have any bias against biofuels, because I don't. (Indeed, in the online references below you'll see me refer you to another example of biofuel production that I am led to believe is far superior to corn ethanol.) It's just that I've never read anything over the last twenty years that has ever led me to judge that the corn ethanol projects have been anything more than a waste of time and tax money.

Also, it amazes me how much so many people are confused about hydrogen fuel cells and the so-called "hydrogen economy." This is NOT an alternative production of energy. (Note that here I'm not referring to atomic fusion.) The idea of hydrogen use has to do with another issue entirely, which is coming up with ways to reduce our impact on the environment with our high energy usage. Hydrogen is ONLY an "energy carrier." You can think of it like a battery - you have to put energy into the battery to get it out. Hydrogen has nothing to do with thinking about energy production, but is only tangentially related in terms of coming up with methods of consuming energy more "cleanly." (And it's debatable whether hydrogen is even, or can be made to be, a feasibly efficient energy carrier.)

There is no one solution to this problem. There are many solutions will grow and evolve in combination in terms of scientific and technological development, and economic feasability, as our societies are forced to move away from our primary dependence on oil, since ultimately we really don't have any choice about it. The oil isn't going to run out in 20 or 30 years, but it *is* going to run out. It is not a sustainable energy resource in the long term, and we all know it.

With all this in mind, I provide you with some recent online references, about a variety of ideas concerning energy production besides oil.

Geothermal Heat Pumps

U.S. Leads World in Wind-Power Growth

"Grass Gas" Shows Promise as Superefficient, Clean Fuel

Tapping tidal energy: the wave of the future

A Solar Grand Plan
(Scientific American, December 2007)

ITER Project (Fusion Energy)

Glenn Morton's Oil Crisis Page

What in the world is happening to energy?

The Hydrogen Economy

June 1, 2008

Is teaching creationism only being fair to the children?

[Note that I originally published this essay on Feb. 28, 2008 in some online discussion groups I'm a member of. This version has been very slightly edited with a few word changes.]

In regard to teaching creationism in public school science classes, when creationists say things like, "It's only fair (to the children) to teach both theories," what they really mean is that since they don't like the science, because it contradicts their religious beliefs, they want to teach their religious beliefs to children. "It's only fair to teach both viewpoints."

There are two serious problems with this. One is a category problem, and the other is a fundamental legal problem.

The category problem has to do with the fact that in science classes you're supposed to be teaching... well, uh, science.

Creationism isn't science. When creationists use the term "both theories," they're using a false comparison based on a semantic ambiguity of two different meanings of the word "theory." Look up "theory" in the dictionary.

A scientific theory is "A set of statements or principles devised to explain a group of facts or phenomena, especially one that has been repeatedly tested or is widely accepted and can be used to make predictions about natural phenomena" (American Heritage Dictionary, 4th Ed.). Creationism is only a "theory" in the sense of "An assumption based on limited information or knowledge; a conjecture," and a faith-based conjecture, at that. These two meanings are almost the opposite of one another. The first is based on extensive scientific examination and testing. The second is basically an initial hypothesis, or just a guess.

These are not the same thing at all. There is no comparison. The scientific theory of evolution has been repeatedly tested, experimentally refined and verified by scientific research, and is fruitfully used to guide further scientific investigation. The "theory" (i.e., the religious doctrines) of creationism is none of these things. It's religious doctrine believed on faith.

Religious doctrine is not science. Anti-evolution rhetoric based on religious belief is not science. Pseudoscience claims, motivated by religious belief, and used to pretend creationism is scientific, are not science.

Thus, to teach children "both theories" is to seriously confuse them, even fundamentally mislead them, about science. It is not at all fair to children to tell them, "We're going to teach you about science," and then teach them sectarian religious concepts as if they are science, or teach them false claims about science based on religious motivations and call it science. When something isn't science, we shouldn't be misleading children by pretending it's science. Creationism doesn't belong in science classes because it isn't science. Attacks against evolution based on creationist beliefs don't belong in science classes because they aren't science.

The legal problem has to do with the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the Constitution. In numerous court cases it has been determined quite consistently that the idea of teaching creationism as if it's science in public schools is a violation of the First Amendment. (Because it's sectarian religious belief, not science.)

In particular, in the 2005 case in Pennsylvania (Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District), it was determined that the current popular form of creationism called "intelligent design" is simply another tactic of the creationist strategy of trying to get religious beliefs into public school science classes by falsely pretending that sectarian religious beliefs are science. (The case didn't determine anything we didn't already know about this creationist tactic, it's just that the case is an example of arriving at the same conclusion through a formal legal process.) Again, this is a violation of the First Amendment.

Creationist opposition to the teaching of evolution in public school science classes is simply one major skirmish of a culture war going on in the United States between people with conservative religious beliefs and everyone else. We are where we are at now as the result of our cultural history, and in this case it's the result of religious traditions in the United States that have opposed evolution and other areas of science for over a hundred years. The current threads of anti-evolution thought began with the backlash against the promotion of science education that started in the late 1950s, most notably from the movement started by the young earth creationist Henry M. Morris. The young earth creationists virtually singled-handedly created the idea of a "scientific creationism," by generating a significant body of pseudoscience literature misrepresenting and distorting science, filled with false "scientific" information.

To this very day we are still dealing with the false "facts" and fallacious arguments that young earth creationists put out in the 1960s and 1970s, still dealing with the fallout of a whole generation (almost two now) of conservative religious people brought up being taught all these false claims about science that are not actually scientific at all. In discussions with creationists that are about specific areas of science, the problem is not what creationists know, but what they think they know that just ain't so. Creationists will often say that their disagreement with scientists isn't about the facts, but about the interpretation of the facts. Yet in actual discussions with creationists, when dealing with the specific details about specific areas of science, we find that creationists dispute the facts all the time. (Most often they're simply unaware of the facts, but when you bring them to their attention they deliberately and defiantly ignore them.)

The solution to this particular skirmish in the culture war is to meet it head on. The reason the problem has become as extensive as it is right now is precisely because in the past when people with certain religious beliefs attacked science, we've had the general social tendency to "turn the other cheek" and give space to them - out of a misplaced respect for religious belief. If people want to believe things on the basis of faith, and they do this privately, more power to them. But when people speak out publicly, attacking science, using pseudoscientific claims that are factually wrong and using arguments that are logically fallacious, they need to be confronted head on just as publicly, specifically addressing their erroneous claims and explaining why they are wrong. They should not be given undue respect for publicly proclaiming manifestly false claims about science merely because their false claims are motivated by religious belief.

It's because those who came before us did not meet creationists head on as openly, forthrightly, and explicitly as should have been done, that the problem has festered and grown so that now we have the even worse problems we're having. So now it's up to us to deal with it, and now we know we cannot shy away from this because we see what shying away from the problem in the past has led to. If we do not meet these creationists head on, and deal with them with all the forthright critical scrutiny they deserve, they really will sabotage science education in this country, as has been their objective for almost 50 years.

And that's the only thing that's fair to the children of this country.

Relevant online references

2005 Creationism Trial (Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District)

Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District trial documents

Decision by U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III (12/20/2005)

1987 Creationism Trial (Edwards v. Aguillard)
Edwards v. Aguillard
U.S. Supreme Court Decision

1981 Creationism Trial (McLean v. Arkansas)
McLean v. Arkansas Documentation Project

McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education
Decision by U.S. District Judge William R. Overton (1/5/1982)

1975 Creationism Trial (Daniel v. Waters)