Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Important (?) lessons in children's entertainment

Here's the weirdest thing I learned via Wikipedia today.

As you may know, there are those out there who attempt to influence the content of childrens' television.  We call them "parents groups," although many are not comprised of parents, or at least not of folks whose primary interest is as parents.  Study them and you'll find a wide array of agendum at work...and I suspect that, in some cases, their stated goals are far from their real goals.

Nevertheless, they all seek to make kidvid more enriching and redeeming, at least by their definitions, and at the time, they had enough clout to cause the networks to yield.  Consultants were brought in and we, the folks who were writing cartoons, were ordered to include certain "pro-social" morals in our shows.  At the time, the dominant "pro-social" moral was as follows: The group is always right...the complainer is always wrong.

This was the message of way too many eighties' cartoon shows.  If all your friends want to go get pizza and you want a burger, you should bow to the will of the majority and go get pizza with them.  There was even a show for one season on CBS called The Get-Along Gang, which was dedicated unabashedly to this principle.  Each week, whichever member of the gang didn't get along with the gang learned the error of his or her ways.

That's just... I don't even... what?

I assume that this valuable social message also extends to your mother's favorite line about everyone else jumping off a bridge.

So in the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon, for some weird reason they were forced to keep contriving situations for Eric, the whiny cavalier, to complain about what the rest of the group was doing... so that they could promote the message by ultimately making him look dumb or suffer in some way.

I recently read (most of) David Sirota's latest book, Back to our Future: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live in Now--Our Culture, Our Politics, Our Everything.  I enjoyed it, but at the same time, I found it a little excessively paranoid.  Sirota's thesis is that the movies, shows, and all other entertainment that we consumed as kids in the Reagan era was all part of an overarching propaganda machine, pushing various right wing values like nationalism, consumerism, and the notion that all government is part of an evil conspiracy.  In some cases I saw his point, and in others I just felt like it was a big Rorschach test where Sirota was superimposing his framework on everything he could find.

Anyway, I can't make heads or tails of this "the group is always right" thing, which is one case where there seems to have been an actual conspiracy by a specific group of individuals openly trying to give all shows a consistent message.

On a side note, told me today that I should try switching my blog over to their nifty new customizable display format.  So I did, because the group is always right and I don't want to be a complainer.

I haven't spent enough time browsing it to decide if I hate it.  But if you hate it, feel free to let me know.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Penn Jillette on libertarianism

Am I spreading myself too thin here?  Between the Atheist Experience blog (now new and improved on!), Castles of Air, and other media formats, it seems like this blog is one of the main casualties that doesn't get enough love.  Really short remarks go on Twitter, less short discussions on Facebook, programming stuff goes on CoA, and a lot of comments I just save for the show.  But wait, there is one thing I can always put here: arguments with economic conservatives!  And here we go again.

I have a firm policy of refusing to humor people whose method of arguing is sending me links to YouTube.  But I made a special exception in this case because it's Penn Jillette, and Penn -- while very often wrong -- is always so very, very cool.

So, okay, I watched this video and was, as always, entertained by Penn's speaking style.  And IMHO he's still wrong.

Penn obviously made some reasonable points that are easy to agree with.  "Let's stop the government from doing really stupid stuff."  Well, duh, yeah!  I'm against things that are stupid!  Way to go out on a limb, Penn!  Solidarity, man!

In all seriousness, Penn and I agree on a lot of things, because many of his beliefs are already in the Venn diagram that includes liberals.  Let's stop killing people we don't know for reasons we don't understand: check.  Let's stop bailing out rich people: check.  No more tobacco subsidies: check.  Stop wasting time locking up people with marijuana, okay.

But then he gets to the part where a libertarian and a liberal would disagree... and he just chickens out.  He says "You can make that argument that we still need education, and we still need infrastructure, and you'll probably win with me."  Woot!  I beat Penn Jillette without saying a word!

Actually, let me make this response explicit.  Hey, Penn.  We still need education, and we still need infrastructure.  That is stuff that government does well and libertarian candidates don't propose a good and practical alternative to it.  In fact, let's go back to the beginning of the video, and see why Penn Jillette thinks we don't actually need public education anymore.  "I believe the tools are in place for people to learn on their own... I think that education is going to come from the web."

And that is, as Penn himself might say, "Bullshit!"  Yes, most people have access to the web now.  NO, that doesn't mean that it's an acceptable substitute for having actual teachers who spend individual time with students and react to their needs.  You'll notice that despite all his praise of the internet, Penn states that he sends his own kids to "fancy ass private schools," and good for them!  They're lucky to have a dad whose net worth is $175 million.  But hey, if you're a poor kid then you can damn well flail around on web sites and educate yourself.

If you want to make me waste time on this (and I hope you won't, because it's too bloody obvious) I'll slap together some statistics -- yet again -- that show that countries which have solid public education systems have a more educated populace; and people who have a high school diploma -- yes, even  from one of those dreaded public high schools, like me -- are better off and more successful (statistically, as a group) than people whose only education comes from "the internet."

See, the argument is not that some elitist government has to bring "enlightenment" to people.  It's that it is a social good and in all our best interests for our citizens to be educated.  And in the event that we have kids whose parents can't send them to fancy-ass private schools, we provide publicly funded alternatives to them rather than just throwing them under the bus and saying "Here, Timmy, play with this smart phone.  See you in twelve years!"

And I'd gladly argue with Penn about bridges and infrastructure, too.  But as I already said, I can't, because in this particular video Penn conceded that without a fight.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Current TV watching status

Just for the hell of it, and to keep this from being a dead blog, here's my report on what TV shows I've been watching on Netflix.  Obviously this doesn't exactly count as earth-shattering news, but what the hey.

I usually don't sit and watch TV while doing nothing else, but I'll frequently have it on in the background while doing other activities.

  • Finished season 5 of Doctor Who on Netflix instant watch this morning (which is why I decided to create this list).  Now I have to wait for season 6 to end so I can start queuing it.  I enjoyed it immensely.  Lynnea will not watch it because as far as she's concerned, David Tennant is the last Doctor Who.  Won't even give Matt Smith the time of day.  Poor Matt.
  • I've been streaming audio of the BritCom The IT Crowd on my Android in the car.  Nearly done with the series.  The only time this does not work is when they do musical interludes with lots of laugh track, as there is clearly some visual comedy going on that I'm missing.  Almost done with the entire series.  It's enjoyable, but kind of a stupider version of Big Bang Theory, which is unfortunately not available on instant watch.  Stupider because in BBT, you can tell that the nerd jokes are authentic and loving.  In ITC, half the time they are clearly speaking complete gibberish for laughs.
  • I finished rewatching (or relistening to) Buffy a while back, but I never did get through Angel.  Nearly done with Season 2 now, but it's been lower priority for me than "Who".
  • Lynnea and I are now about two seasons behind Dexter.  Added Season 5 to the DVD queue as it's not available on instant.
  • Got Ben hooked on Third Rock From the Sun.  One of the all-time great comedies, IMHO.  I'm saving episodes for when he's around and we have nothing else to do.
  • Watched a single episode of Breaking Bad.  Promising start, I think, so I'm saving more episodes for later.  It was recommended by a coworker who, in turn loves Game of Thrones and has to put up with my constant danger of spoiling the series.
  • Speaking of which, season 2 of Thrones starts up again in April, so I'll be going to my sister's again for screenings.  Woohoo!
  • We still have about one and a half seasons of Quantum Leap that Lynnea's never seen, and we watch it at the rate of about one episode every two months.  That oughta take a while.
Well, that about covers it.  I know it sounds like I watch a lot of TV, but as I said, I often play it as background noise in the car and while working on other stuff, and it took me over three years to get through Doctor Who, so, you know...

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Where are the progressive atheists? Right here.

I can't believe I actually have to work at an argument FOR the idea that atheists tend to be liberal, but I had to respond to this ridiculous article from an Australian columnist commenting on the supposed prominence of "right wing war-mongerers" in the atheist movement.

I would post this on the Atheist Experience blog, but we don't officially support a political persuasion in the group, and this is easier to discuss on my personal blog.

This is how I replied:

Hi Jeff, I'm a progressive atheist from Austin, Texas, one of the hosts of a show called "The Atheist Experience."

Your question about where all the progressive atheists have gone is a little odd to me. I can't speak to the situation in your country, but here in the United States, "godless liberal" is a term frequently tossed about as an insult by the far right wing, who are inextricably wrapped up in the religious right. Among people who claimed no religion in exit polls in our last two elections, 67% voted for John Kerry over George Bush in 2004, and 75% voted for Barack Obama in 2008. In both cases, this makes up a significantly higher proportion for the Democratic candidate than the general public. I'm willing to bet you'd find similar majorities in your own elections if you go by statistics rather than anecdotes.

In fact, I hope you don't mind my saying so, but your own penetrating analysis showing that atheists are right wing fascists seems to rely heavily on cherry picking a couple of individuals and assuming that they represent the entire group. There are two other atheists prominently featured at your link, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, both very strong liberal voices. Dawkins can be seen here calling for votes for the Liberal Democrat party in England. Gregory S. Paul recently wrote in the Washington Post, not only in defense of atheism, but also in favor of important progressive ethics such as civil rights, environmentalism, and opposition to US torture policies. Peter Singer, a prominent atheist philosopher from your country, is also generally considered extremely left wing. PZ Myers, one of the most popular atheist bloggers, is regularly attacked by the right wing for his outspoken liberal views.

To the extent that atheists could in any way be described as "anti-Islam," by and large we don't favor blanket military actions against them based on their religion, nor do we want to stop them from freely practicing their religion as they choose. Rather, atheists argue with the doctrines of fundamentalist Islam in exactly the same terms that we oppose the doctrines of fundamentalist Christianity: we don't want to see the curtailing of freedom of speech, or gender equality, and we think that nobody should fear a threat on their life for speaking out against harmful religious practices.

Christopher Hitchens is actually quite liberal in many other areas outside his foreign policy beliefs, describing himself as a "Marxist" as recently as 2006, and joining with the American Civil Liberties Union in the same year to oppose the Bush Administration's warrantless spying on U.S. citizens. His views on the Iraq invasion, while they have been as you describe, are by no means in the mainstream among the majority of atheists.

Where are the progressive atheists? Anywhere you find atheists, there they are.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

All those Amway "loosers"

Lynnea has been cleaning up my 15 year old Amway web page, and made a brief comment about the frequency of people who, in their hate mail to me, have misspelled the word "loser" as "looser." I've noticed this before and even mentioned it at the top of the site's guest book, because I don't see that particular typographical issue in many other places.

After some thought, I think I know why it comes up so often in this context. It's a unique meeting of three conditions:

  1. "Loser," while it seems like a simple enough word to me, has an unintuitive spelling in the sense that a single "o" makes the "oo" sound.
  2. People in written conversations don't use the word all that frequently. Amway people use it a lot because of the nature of the motivational material and how they're taught to regard those who criticize the group.
  3. Not to overgeneralize or anything, but it seems like a lot of them are pretty dumb.

Monday, April 25, 2011

And now, some politics

I really need to get in the habit of blogging Facebook threads quickly. These days I'm not posting much here on Kazim's Korner, but I am having the occasional heated discussion on Facebook. Unfortunately, Facebook posts are not searchable in any graceful way, which means that they become effectively impossible to find after a month or two has elapsed. These discussions are exactly the sorts of things I enjoy coming back and reading again a few years later, so I'm synthesizing the discussion from the one I just linked so I can have a record of it.

For starters, I recommend this article.

Good article. Hits many of the points that I like to highlight in my typical political posts. As I've said before, I am often frustrated by the fact that liberals (and, to a lesser extent, many atheists) are so married to the idea that they must be "reasonable" that they tend to try to compromise as quickly as possible. In falling all over themselves to give ground in every argument, they crippling their ability to negotiate effectively.

I often tell this joke about the kids haggling over a cake (see the post linked in the previous paragraph) to highlight a truism: if one side starts out taking at an extreme position, and the other side reasonably starts in the middle, then the extremist will usually be happier in the end. That's because if you start from the middle and then negotiate a "middle ground" between those positions, that ground must be much closer to the extremist's position than it is to the the reasonable person's position. Therefore, I would like people who agree with me to start out saying what they really want, and then fight to reach a compromise which is as close as possible to what they wanted all along.

Here's my party affiliation in a nutshell. I am a liberal because I believe two things. First, people should have the right to do pretty much whatever they want with their private lives that doesn't hurt others. Second, it is a demonstrable historic good to have a social infrastructure that provides education, roads, a social safety net, and pooled resources for scientific research, among other things.

When I look at the Democratic Party Platform, I agree with most of it. When I look at the Republican Party Platform, I disagree with most of it. Hence I am a Democrat. I do not start from the position "I am a Democrat" and then reason out my positions based on asking "What would my party do?" I am a Democrat because with any given issue I care about, I find that the Republican party nearly always lands on the wrong side of my beliefs.

I tend to get into political arguments with three kinds of people:

  1. People who agree with Republicans on social issues (i.e., religious intrusion in government, abortion, gay rights, war on drugs).
  2. People who agree with Republicans on economic issues (often libertarians, generally encompassing shrinking or eliminating social safety net programs, cutting spending on education and national infrastructure, replacing our existing tax structure with something far more punishing to people lower on the income totem pole).
  3. People who do not appear to have any significant political principles, but are opposed in general to supporting any political party, in order to be contrarian.

I very rarely get into arguments with people who agree with Republicans on both social and economic issues, except in artificial situations such as taking calls on The Atheist Experience. This is simply because there is so little common ground between us that there is little to be gained from such a discussion. They are plentiful out there in the world, but they're a very small part of the universe of people I'd typically spend time with.

As a result, when I argue politics with somebody, it's nearly always someone who falls into one of the above three categories. It follows that those people are neither Republicans nor Democrats. Category 3 is, by definition, unaffiliated. Categories 1 and 2 can be shown not to belong to either party, because if they were Democrats they'd likely agree with me on both social and economic issues, and if they were Republicans they'd likely disagree with me on both social and economic issues. QED.

Contrariwise, if it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn't, it ain't. That's logic.

To my friends who substantially disagree with me on economic or social issues, and cannot find a party to call home, all I can say is: You and I have fundamental disagreements on the best way to run a country, and I will never persuade you to vote for candidates that I would like. As the Republican party doesn't suit your needs either, all I can do is wish you luck in finding a candidate who matches your interests, although when you find such a candidate I will most likely vote against him.

But also, every time I do a political post, I can count on a number of people showing up from
the third category. They seem to agree with me on what policies are desirable, but argue that the party platforms are trivial and irrelevant. Examples from the thread:

So is it worth associating yourself with the right or left? or any political parties in particular? I mean some Democrats have good ideas and not so good ideas. Some Republicans the same way. It really depends on the times you live in. To me it always seemed foolish to tout party lines or vice versa label (project your ideas) on someone who naively associates themselves with a political party.


Both parties are crap. The only difference is that one is a pile of lying crap that wants to take away your right to abort a fetus, while the other doesn't.

The impending demise of reproductive rights

Let me get specific about what prompted that last qualifier. Pro-choice is one of my issues. As I recently discussed on the Non-Prophets, there has been a recent rush of state laws which deliberately violate Roe v Wade. This article by Dahlia Lithwick documents that:

Since the start of this year, 916 measures seeking to regulate reproductive health have been introduced in 49 states. According to the Guttmacher Institute, by the end of March, 15 laws had been enacted in seven states. These laws include an expansion of the waiting period in South Dakota from 24 to 72 hours and a requirement that counseling from "crisis pregnancy centers" include scientifically flawed data on risk factors. There are new regulations in Utah and Virginia governing abortion clinics. Legislation has been introduced in 13 states requiring that women have an ultrasound procedure before having an abortion—and in seven of those states, the woman must view the fetus and listen to a detailed verbal description as well. Measures have been introduced in 17 states copying a Nebraska law banning abortion at 20 weeks, on the theory—again based on questionable medical data—that this is when a fetus can feel pain.

As a result, abortion is rapidly becoming effectively illegal in many parts of the country right now, even though these statutes are deliberately running afoul of established supreme court rulings.

You would think that pro-choice groups like the National Organization for Women would be challenging these laws left and right, and you'd ordinarily be right, except for one tiny little snag:

The risk of challenging these clearly unconstitutional laws and then losing at the Supreme Court is evidently so high, according to Terry O'Neill, president of the National Organization for Women, that it's not worth taking. As she explained last week to Rachel Maddow, the fear that Justice Samuel Alito would vote to overturn Roe is so deep that reproductive rights groups may be opting to leave the state bans in place. And, as she conceded in that interview, wherever unconstitutional state abortion bans go unchallenged, they become law.

In 2004, Bush beat Kerry and won a second term. As a direct result, Bush was able to replace two liberal-to-moderate Supreme Court justices with Alito and Roberts. They are now the swing votes that could strike down Roe if a case ever came before them that gave them the opportunity to reopen it. Therefore, pro-choice groups are afraid to challenge these state laws. However, if they don't challenge them, then the laws stand, causing abortion to become completely inaccessible to many women.

I draw a clear, direct line between the victory of one political party and the massive curtailing of women's freedom. If you don't think that is a bad thing, if you disagree with me on this issue, that's fine; you are in category 1, and this doesn't apply to you. But if you are not in category 1, if you are bothered by this curtailing of these rights, then you should not see the differences between the parties as trivial on this particular issue.

The ACLU and you

Another example. Most liberals are with the American Civil Liberties Union on most issues that I know of. They're the ones who focus on separation of church and state issues, free speech rights, allowing accused criminals due process of law, and so on.

Every year, the ACLU puts out a position paper indicating which issues they care about. In addition, they examine which politicians voted the way that they would like on key policy proposals, and give a rating.

This is the ratings list for 2008, which I think is fairly typical.

Read that list and you'll see an obvious trend. Among 390 total House members, Senators, Governors, and executives, o
n issues that the ACLU cares about, 105 of them were on record as voting with them 100% of the time.

Those 105 were all Democrats. Every single one. No exceptions.

On those same issues, 160 politicians were shown to vote with the ACLU 33% of the time or less.

All 160 of them are Republicans. No exceptions. Count em.

If you have serious disagreements with my desired political outcomes, I'm not talking to you. You're right, the Democratic party does not represent you. Yes, yes, Obama hates your freedoms, everything Congressional Democrats do is a secret Muslim Communist Satanist plot, etc. Vote for someone else, or protest and don't vote.

But if you want the outcomes that I want, you can't continue claiming that the difference between the parties doesn't exist. It is objectively false.

Do Democrats, as a broad group, suck at politics? Yep, they do. Do they act like pussies when it comes to defeating a bunch of loud, angry bullies?
Repeatedly. Is it desirable, in the long term, to eliminate blue dog Democrats and bring in more liberals with spine like Bernie Sanders and Anthony Weiner? Hells yeah. And are there some Democrats who are genuinely more conservative than some Republicans? On an individual basis, there are a few.

Looking at the big picture as a purely statistical issue, though, party affiliation does provide a good indication of which side of the issues they are on, and it's clearly disingenuous to say they are the same. You can't teach statesmen the lesson that they aren't fighting hard enough for what you want, if your method is to sit by allowing the people to win who are actively fighting against what you want.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The adventures of nerd dad

So I've got an Android Evo 4G from Sprint, which has now replaced my crappy old DumbPhone™, my iPod Nano, the GPS that I might have eventually bought otherwise, and the Palm Pilot of which I haven't owned a working model in probably five years or more.

Since the Nano is now obsolete in my eyes, I gifted it to Ben, who is eight. It is loaded up with pretty much Weird Al's entire discography and not much else. We had a conversation which is fairly typical of us, although probably not typical of many other father/son duos, as Ben pointed out.

Dad: "Here's the charger I forgot to give you the last time you visited. You will have to connect it up to a computer."
Son: "How do I do that?"
Dad: "It's easy, see this thing here? Just plug it into a USB slot."
Son: "Oh, okay."
Dad: "...That stands for Universal Serial Bus, you know."
Son: "What does THAT mean?"
Dad: "Well, serial is like..."
Son: "A serial killer?" (Ben's entertainment tastes, like those of many boys, are diverse.)
Dad: "Um... kind of. Let me see... you know your electronics set?"
Son: "Yeah..."
Dad: "You know how you can make a circuit with two different switches?"
Son: "Yeah..."
Dad: "Okay, if you plug one switch straight into the other one, and put those in a line with a wire back to the battery, how will you turn the circuit on?"
Son: "Both switches have to be on."
Dad: "Right. But what if you put the two switches NEXT TO each other, so that the wire splits and goes through each of them separately before coming back to the battery?"
Son: "I dunno."
Dad: "Will it turn on if one is on but not the other?"
Son: "I don't think so."
Dad: "Actually it will. If either switch is closed, then the electricity can get back to the battery, so either one makes a complete circuit."
Son: "Okay, I guess I see."
Dad: "So when the switches are next to each other, that's called being in 'parallel.' And when they are in a row, they are 'serial', which means they come one after the other."
Son: "Okay." (thinks) "So a serial killer kills people in a row?"
Dad: "Yeah, pretty much. If he kills just one person, he's just a killer, not a serial killer."
Son: "Does it have to be one person every day?"
Dad: "Nah. It's like, if the switches in your serial circuit were separated by ten miles of wires, they'd still make a circuit, and they'd still be serial as long as they follow each other. So someone would probably be a serial killer even if he only killed one person a year."
Son: "I get it." (pause) "Um, why are we talking about this again?"
Dad: "Well uh... oh right! Because your iPod charger works with a universal serial bus connection."
Son: "Okay." (pause) "You're not like a normal dad."
Dad: (laughs) "What? Why?"
Son: "I don't know, I don't think other dads talk about science and stuff. They probably like..."
Dad: "Watching sports and drinking beer?"
Son: "Yeah!"
Dad: "Well, do you wish you had a normal dad?"
Son: "No way!"

Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Atheist Professor's Brain

I had an exchange on a message board years ago, in which a theist posted one of those pithy "inspirational" stories about a Christian student getting the best of his bullying atheist professor. I wrote a response to it and then didn't think of it again for a while.

However, in more recent times several people have written to us at The Atheist Experience with almost the same story, and asked what we could say about it. Because it's easier to search this blog than that board, I am reprinting the exchange here.

First, the story.

PROFESSOR: "LET ME EXPLAIN THE problem science has with Jesus Christ." The atheist professor of philosophy pauses before his class and then asks one of his new students to stand. "You're a Christian, aren't you?"
STUDENT: "Yes, sir."
PROFESSOR: "So you believe in God?"
STUDENT: "Absolutely."
PROFESSOR: "Is God good?"
PROFESSOR: "Are you good or evil?"
STUDENT: The Bible says I'm evil."
PROFESSOR: The professor grins knowingly. "Ahh! THE BIBLE!" He considers for a moment. "Here's one for you. Let's say there's a sick person over here and you can cure him. You can do it. Would you help them? Would you try?"
STUDENT: "Yes sir, I would."
PROFESSOR: "So you're good...!"
STUDENT: "I wouldn't say that."
PROFESSOR: "Why not say that? Would you help a sick and maimed person if you fact most of us would if we could...God doesn't"
STUDENT: [No answer]
PROFESSOR: The elderly man is sympathetic. "No you can't, can you?" He takes a sip of water from a glass on his desk to give the student time to relax. In philosophy, you have to go easy on the new ones. "Let's start again, young fella. Is God good?"
STUDENT: "Er... Yes."
PROFESSOR: "Is Satan good?"
PROFESSOR: "Where does Satan come from?"
STUDENT: The student falters. "From... God..."
PROFESSOR: "That's right. God made Satan, didn't he?" The elderly man runs his bony fingers through his thinning hair and turns to the smirking, student audience. "I think were going to have a lot of fun this semester, ladies and gentlemen." He turns back to the Christian. "Tell me, son. Is there evil in this world?"
STUDENT: "Yes, sir."
PROFESSOR: "Evil's everywhere, isn't it? Did God make everything?"
PROFESSOR: "Who created evil?"
STUDENT: [No answer]
PROFESSOR: "Is there sickness in this world? Immorality? Hatred? Ugliness? All the terrible things - do they exist in this world?"
STUDENT: The student squirms on his feet. "Yes."
PROFESSOR: "Who created them?"
STUDENT: [No answer]
PROFESSOR: The professor suddenly shouts at his student. "WHO CREATED THEM? TELL ME, PLEASE!" The professor closes in for the kill and climbs into the Christian's face. In a small voice: "God created all evil, didn't He, son?"
STUDENT: [No answer]
STUDENT: The student tries to hold steady, experienced gaze and fails.
PROFESSOR: Suddenly the lecture breaks away to pace the front of the classroom like an aging panther. The class is mesmerized. "Tell me," he continues, "how is it that this God is good if He created all evil throughout all time?" The professor swishes his arms around to encompass the wickedness of the world. "All the hatred, the brutality, all the pain, all the torture, all the death and ugliness and all the suffering created by this good God is all over the world isn't it, young man?"
STUDENT: [No answer]
PROFESSOR: "Don't you see it all over the place? Huh?" Pause "Don't you?" The professor leans into the student's face again and whispers, "Is God good?"
STUDENT: [No answer]
PROFESSOR: "Do you believe in Jesus Christ, son?"
STUDENT: "Yes, professor. I do"
PROFESSOR: (The old man shakes his head sadly) "Science says you have five senses you use to identify and observe the world around you. Have you seen your Jesus?"
STUDENT: "No, sir. I've never seen Him"
PROFESSOR: "Then tell us if you've ever heard your Jesus?"
STUDENT: "No, sir. I have not."
PROFESSR: "Have you ever felt your Jesus, tasted your Jesus or smelt your Jesus... in fact, do you have any sensory perception of him whatsoever?"
STUDENT: [No answer]
PROFESSOR: "Answer me, please."
STUDENT: "No, sir, I'm afraid I haven't."
PROFESSOR: "You're AFRAID... you haven't?" (The professor glides his bony hands through his balding head)
STUDENT: "No, sir."
PROFESSOR: "Yet you still believe in him?"
STUDENT: "...yes..."
PROFESSOR: "That takes FAITH! (The professor smiles sagely at the underling) According to the rules of empirical, testable, demonstrable protocol, science says your God doesn't exist. What do you say to that, son? Where is your God now?"[The student doesn't answer]
PROFESSOR: "Sit down, please." (The Christian sits...Defeated…. Another Christian raises his hand)
OTHER STUDENT: "Professor, may I address the class?"
PROFESSOR: (The professor turns and smiles) "Ah, another Christian in the vanguard! Come, come, young man. Speak some proper wisdom to the gathering."
OTHER STUDENT: The Christian looks around the room. "Some interesting points you are making, sir. Now I've got a question for you. Is there such a thing as heat?"
PROFESSOR: "Yes, son, there's cold too."
OTHER STUDENT: "No, sir, there isn't” The professor's grin freezes. The room suddenly goes very still. The second Christian continues. "You can have lots of heat, even more heat, super-heat, mega-heat, white heat, a little heat or no heat but we don't have anything called 'cold. We can hit 458 degrees below zero, which is no heat, but we can't go any further after that. There is no such thing as cold, otherwise we would be able to go colder than 458 - You see, sir, and cold is only a word we use to describe the absence of heat. We cannot measure cold. Heat we can measure in thermal units because heat is energy. Cold is not the opposite of heat, sir, just the absence of it." Silence. A pin drops somewhere in the classroom. "Is there such a thing as darkness, professor?"
PROFESSOR: "That's a dumb question, son. What is night if it isn't darkness? What are you getting at...?"
OTHER STUDENT: "So you say there is such a thing as darkness?"
OTHER STUDENT: "You're wrong again, sir. Darkness is not something; it is the absence of something. You can have low light, normal light, bright light, flashing light but if you have no light constantly you have nothing and it's called darkness, isn't it? That's the meaning we use to define the word. In reality, Darkness isn't. If it were, you would be able to make darkness darker and give me a jar of it. Can you...give me a jar of darker darkness, professor?"
PROFESSOR: Despite himself, the professor smiles at the young effrontery before him. This will indeed be a good semester. "Would you mind telling us what your pint is, young man?"
OTHER STUDENT: "Yes, professor. My point is, your philosophical premise is flawed to start with and so your conclusion must be in error...."
PROFESSOR: The professor goes toxic. "Flawed...? How dare you...!"
OTHER STUDENT: "Sir, may I explain what I mean?" The class is all ears.
PROFESSOR: "Explain... oh, explain..." The professor makes an admirable effort to regain control. Suddenly he is affability itself. He waves his hand to silence the class, for the student to continue.
OTHER STUDENT: "You are working on the premise of duality," the Christian explains. "That for example there is life and then there's death; a good God and a bad God. You are viewing the concept of God as something finite, something we can measure. Sir, science cannot even explain a thought. It uses electricity and magnetism but has never seen, much less fully understood them. To view death as the opposite of life is to be ignorant of the fact that death cannot exist as a substantive thing. Death is not the opposite of life, merely the absence of it." The young man holds up a newspaper he takes from the desk of a neighbor who has been reading it. "Here is one of the most disgusting tabloids this country hosts, professor. Is there such a thing as immorality?"
PROFESSOR: "Of course there is, now look..."
OTHER STUDENT: "Wrong again, sir. You see, immorality is merely the absence of morality. Is there such a thing as injustice? No. Injustice is the absence of justice. Is there such a thing as evil?" The Christian pauses. "Isn't evil the absence of good?"
PROFESSOR: The professor's face has turned an alarming color. He is so angry he is temporarily speechless.
OTHER STUDENT: The Christian continues. "If there is evil in the world, professor, and we all agree there is, then God, if He exists, must be accomplishing a work through the agency of evil. What is that work, God is accomplishing? The Bible tells us it is to see if each one of us will, of our own free will, choose good or evil."
PROFESSOR: The professor bridles. "As a philosophical scientist, I don't vie this matter as having to do with any choice; as a realist, I absolutely do not recognize the concept f God or any other theological factor as being part of the world equation because God is not observable."
OTHER STUDENT: "I would have thought that the absence of God's moral code in this world is probably one of the most observable phenomena going," the Christian replies. "Newspapers make billions of dollars reporting it every week! "Do you teach your students that they evolved from a monkey?"
PROFESSOR: "If you are referring to the natural evolutionary process, young man, yes, of course I do."
OTHER STUDENT: "Have you ever observed evolution with your own eyes, sir? (The professor makes a sucking sound with his teeth and gives his student a silent, stony stare) Professor, Since no one has ever observed the process of evolution at work and cannot even prove that this process is an on-going endeavor, are you not teaching your opinion, sir? Are you now not a scientist, but a priest?"
PROFESSOR: "I'll overlook your impudence in the light of our philosophical discussion. Now, have you quite finished?" the professor hisses. I believe in what is - that's science!"
OTHER STUDENT: "Ahh! SCIENCE! (The student's face splits into a grin) Sir, you rightly state that science is the study of observed phenomena. Science too is a premise which is flawed..."
PROFESSOR: "SCIENCE IS FLAWED?" (The professor splutters…. The class is in uproar… The Christian remains standing until the commotion has subsided)
OTHER STUDENT: "To continue the point you were making earlier to the other student, may I give you an example of what I mean?" (The professor wisely keeps silent. . . The Christian looks around the room)
OTHER STUDENT: "Is there anyone in the class who has ever seen the professor's brain?" (The class breaks out in laughter. . .The Christian points towards his elderly, crumbling tutor) "Is there anyone here who has ever heard the professor's brain... felt the professor's brain, touched or smelt the professor's brain?" No one appears to have done so. (The Christian shakes his head sadly) "It appears no one here has had any sensory perception of the professor's brain whatsoever. Well, according to the rules of empirical, stable, demonstrable protocol, science, I DECLARE that the professor has no brain." (The class is in chaos…The Christian sits... Because that is what a chair is for)

My analysis:

It's a charming little piece of fiction. Searching the net for keywords in the story, I discovered that this little piece is reposted on over 600 pages. It has all the classic elements of an urban legend...

  • In many cases the poster swears this is a true story.
  • None of the pages ever says what particular school this took place at, or what the name of the professor is.
  • Many of the minor details change subtly with each retelling. Especially, there are several different endings to the story. In your version, the student sits down amidst pandemonium. In some versions the professor rushes out of the room in embarrassment. One version concludes "... The student got an A in the class." Another has the professor go crazy and rush the student, only to die of a stroke.
  • Every character in the story is a caricature, starkly contrasting "Good, persecuted student" and "Evil professor".

I love the caricatures. The professor jumps in his class's face without provocation. He is described with such evocative phrases as "The elderly man runs his bony fingers through his thinning hair and turns to the smirking, student audience." (His bony fingers and baldness are described twice, just to make sure we get the point.) He shouts at his student for no reason at all, then sticks his face in front of the student. He's always smiling, smirking, and generally acting like a comic book villain. But when reacting to the other student, he sucks, hisses, freezes, gets angry, "goes toxic", etc. One wonders how in the world he ever got his Ph.D when he obviously has never received any criticism in his life and doesn't know how to deal with it.

The heroic Christian, of course, gets described with neutral words like "explains", "replies", "continues", "looks around". Unlike the prof, his physical features are never described, except that he grins once.

But the most salient feature of the story is that neither the professor nor any of his students have an adequate grasp of the most basic concepts of science. What kind of idiot is this professor, whose idea of science is that if you can't smell it, taste it, feel it, hear it, or see it, then it doesn't exist? If that's the case, then what happened to electrons, cells, Newton's laws of motion, living dinosaurs, black holes, photons, magnetism, infrared light, and general relativity? For that matter, what about abstract concepts like "harmonic chords" or "Thursday"?

Science isn't about what we can perceive with our five senses. If that were true we wouldn't need scientists, because most of us already HAVE those five senses. It's about organizing facts about the known world into descriptions that can explain the way things happen. These descriptions make predictions which can be tested, repeated, and falsified if they're wrong.

Of course, science can't actually prove that the professor has a brain. Just because every human or animal body that has ever been dissected and analyzed has always had a brain; just because countless experiments have demonstrated that the brain controls an organism's ability to move and speak and reason; just because an animal with a damaged brain becomes an inanimate mass of carbon... these things are hardly conclusive proof. What science can do is make predictions with confidence and high accuracy; it can prove things beyond reasonable doubt but it can't prove anything with 100% certainty. The fact that it is able to change and correct mistakes is part of what makes it a powerful tool.

If the professor had any kind of clue what he was on about, he could have explained all this. Of course, the problem isn't with the professor, who is after all only a fictional character. The problem is that the author of the story has never heard of or simply doesn't understand the scientific method. It's easy to make up little stories where the opposition is always an evil overlord who doesn't know how to argue and your side always wins. It's also easy to win at chess when you control both sides of the board.

Oh, and one final point...

"Wrong again, sir. You see, immorality is merely the absence of morality. Is there such a thing as injustice? No. Injustice is the absence of justice. Is there such a thing as evil?" The Christian pauses. "Isn't evil the absence of good?"

No, evil isn't the absence of good. An empty universe would be devoid of both good AND evil. A universe with no life or intelligence would not be good or evil. "Good" and "evil", assuming they exist, are not passive activities or "absence" of something else. A professor of philosophy should have seen through that immediately. But he doesn't because he, like the story's author, is completely out of his depth.

Monday, February 14, 2011

A few words about the Zeitgeist sequels

I've finally been goaded by Zeitgeist fans into looking into the background of the new movies, which are promoting "The Venus Project." It's a lengthy topic, and I wasn't sure whether to post it here as a personal commentary or on The Atheist Experience blog. TAE blog won in the end simply because it gets a lot more traffic, but I'm certainly linking it from here.