A Prophetic Film from 1940

It’s title: To New Horizons. The logic is sunny and simple, but it has proven (thus far) to be pretty much dead on.

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Bayes Rule, Julia Galef, and TAM 2014

I went to TAM 2014 in Las Vegas over the weekend and saw Julia Galef of the Center for Applied Rationality on a panel with philosopher Daniel Dennett. I’d never heard of Galef before this weekend, but she has a luminous intelligence, and more than held her own in discussion with older critical thinking colleagues. Anyway, below is one of her videos at YouTube, and I assume her panel appearance with Dennett at TAM will also be on YouTube at some point.

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God and Evolution?

As an agnostic, I never have any problem with somebody who says, “13.7 billion year-old cosmos and evolution, yes, obviously, but not, ‘It all happened via the combination of chance and natural selection.’ Something more is up, and I think that’s God (some sort of Ground of Being or Mind underlying the cosmos).” This, to me, is a plausible hypothesis that respects what science has discovered over the past 200 years. I’m not quite prepared (myself) to endorse it, but I understand it.

My own view is that the sheer vastness of the cosmos, combined with the multiverse hypothesis, may account for the long odds on evolution on our particular planet, and so I’m open-minded to outright atheism as well, but I don’t know. What I find depressing is when someone says, “Noah’s ark and 10,000 years. I read the Bible literally. It says it, I’m done. Scientists have conspired to cover-up the evidence for this because they hate God.” When a person says this, it makes me despair of human rationality because it has no more merit than believing the Earth is flat or that the Holocaust didn’t happen.

But here’s the kicker: probably more than two billion people on Earth (the vast majority of Muslims and perhaps half of Christians) affirm young Earth creationism outright–or at least entertain it seriously. The mentality behind this is akin to that of the theologians who wouldn’t look into Galileo’s telescope.

And yet here we are. It’s the 21st century and there are something like two billion YEC believers in the world–150 million in the United States alone. That’s a lot of people. Think about it.

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Christopher Hitchens Recites From Memory Wilfred Owen’s Great Anti-War Poem, “Dulce et Decorum est”

The great Hitch reciting Owens.


And here’s the text of the poem from 1917 or 1918:

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!–An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

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Shark Cracks Glass


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Okay, I have to comment. First, before you can even get this sort of logic going, Adam and Eve would need to have actually existed in a garden in Mesopotamia 10,000 years ago. They never did. Second, you’ve got to be cool with genocide (the story of Noah’s ark). That’s a nonstarter. Next, you’ve got to believe that virgins can give birth and God is a self-punishing sadomasochist.

It’s all just too much.

The question then becomes: Why can’t we let it go? What is the story protecting us from?

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Sea Ice Going, Going …

Just 18 years. It’s hard not to look at these two images together (via National Geographic) and not be stunned:

Screen shot 2014-06-24 at 6.32.13 AM


Screen shot 2014-06-24 at 6.32.42 AM

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Jesus and Ayn Rand

What sort of conservatism blends Jesus with Ayn Rand? Oh, that would be contemporary Tea Party conservatism.

But why isn’t it more widely noticed that “Christian libertarian” is an oxymoron? I would argue that this has to do with the human mind’s capacity for compartmentalization and cognitive dissonance, for Jesus and Rand simply do not go together coherently. Buckley, before he died, was less illusioned: he saw that his Catholicism and Randianism are not a match. Rand herself recognized this as well. She was an atheist.

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Breeding for Intelligence? A Google Employee Asks the Question to Researcher Stephen Hsu of the Beijing Genomics Institute

In the below Google Tech Talk, Stephen Hsu talks to Google employees about the search for the genes behind intelligence (and seeks to recruit them into an ongoing study being conducted at the Beijing Genomics Institute).

I shit you not.

The whole talk is vitally important to listen to, both for the cultural Zeitgeist it reveals–when did such a topic become capable, among the meritocracy, of so open and casual a discussion?–and for getting up to speed on the genetic basis for intelligence (about 80% heritable, apparently).

The talk is informative–but in its low-key and matter-of-fact style of presentation, it also struck me as oddly chilling. Are we hearing, in this talk, the 21st century beginnings of a divergence, in future generations of humans, of naturals from the genetically enhanced?

If you don’t have time for the whole talk, I’ve cued the below video to a specific question in the Q&A in which an audience member asks (politely, if indirectly), not the elephant-in-the-room question (race and intelligence), but that other elephant-in-the-room question: breeding for intelligence. How, in other words, might such research into the genetic basis of intelligence be used in the future? Hsu doesn’t dodge the question. He says broad genetic fetal testing, apparently with the option of abortion, is already available in China for other genetic traits, and I take from Hsu’s response that intelligence could soon be among them–why not? (And, of course, fetal selection happens on a more limited basis in the United States as well whenever an older pregnant woman undergoes amniocentesis, learns of a severe genetic abnormality, and opts for abortion.)

Hsu doesn’t think the artificial selection train for intelligence, once the associated genes are reliably identified, will be called back to the station. The rich will go first, of course, using the technology to enhance their offspring, and presumably not just in their intelligence. We’ll see health, attractiveness, and temperamental traits selected for as well. Again, why not?

And Hsu likens the ethical issues for geneticists working on finding trait genes to the ethical issues faced by physicists at Los Alamos in the 1940s (those racing to make the first atomic bomb). 21st century researchers, in other words, are in the process of making a genetic bomb–acquiring the knowledge, not for splitting the atom, but for systematically identifying and splitting test tube fertilized eggs and already existing fetuses from one another by identifying their genetic markers (markers that empirically and reliably yield a statistical range of definite traits on reaching adulthood). The test tube fertilized eggs and fetal sheep will go to the right, to life; the test tube fertilized eggs and fetal goats to the left, to death. The determination will be made, presumably, by parents in some countries, by governments in others. Think restaurant menu. Think Huxley’s Brave New World.

How can researchers know today how this new power of division that they’re in the process of uncovering will be put to use fifty years from now? They don’t, exactly. But, like the Los Alamos physicists before them, they press on.

Listen to Hsu’s response to the (indirectly asked) eugenics question. I’d be curious as to your thoughts about this.

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An Awesome, Awesome Documentary on the Women’s Movement

I recently watched the first two hours of a three hour documentary on the American women’s movement (I found it at a local library, then bought it at Amazon to have my own copy). It’s titled, Makers: Women Who Make America (2013), and it’s really, really good–the kind of documentary you want to give as a present to a daughter (and just as important, to a son). It’s life affirming, thought provoking, and heart opening. Great stuff.

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God Exists And Evil Is Always For The Best?

Sounding like Dr. Pangloss in Voltaire’s Candide, the Thomist philosopher Edward Feser recently made the following statement at his blog:

[I]t is not just God’s existence but also divine providence which can be known via purely philosophical arguments.  Hence, even apart from special divine revelation, we can know that God allows evil in the world only insofar as he draws greater good out of it.

In other words, one can arrive by reasoning a priori–just sitting on one’s couch, absent evidence–at two things: God exists and what happens in this world is for the best. One can know this.

My question for Professor Feser: Et tu, the Holocaust?

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Hillary’s Fate: Mitt Romney’s?

I personally think that Hillary Clinton’s calculated insincerity, so persistently on display whenever she opens her mouth in interview (or writes a book), is going to doom her as a candidate. Her husband was insincere, but he knew how to do it in a way that we could all cheer for him. He was America’s bullshitter, and we could almost believe him when he bit his lip and got dewy in the eyes.

Hillary has never had that skill set. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll vote for her should push come to shove in a general election. I don’t want a far right president. Hillary will have good general policies if she can reach the presidency (on climate, on science funding, etc.), and I want my kids growing up at a time when they see a woman as president. But she grates on me as a campaigner, and I don’t think I’m alone among liberals to say so. I’m not thrilled about Hillary at all, and I think she’ll probably crash and burn as a candidate because she’s just not very good at the populist political game (and the next decade is shaping up to be a time of populist politics). She is an elitist to her bones, and Republicans are going to exploit that by playing populist cards hard against her.

I’m sure she’s very good interpersonally with her peers (when engaging in diplomacy, for example). But she is the Democrats’ Mitt Romney (someone you feel is never really straight with you, always cynically calculating, having rehearsed and poll-tested every word). A recent example: pointing to the Bible as the book that most influenced her. Does anybody seriously believe that?

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What Dave Bratt Means

I see Dave Bratt as signalling two big things: (1) Republicans will solidify their image as anti-Hispanic over the next couple of years, making it harder for them to win national elections (especially in the 2020s); and (2) Hillary has a big problem: she’s too cozy with the rich. Cantor’s fate could be hers.

Put another way, Bratt’s election signals that the populist, Tea Party Republican’s passion over the next couple of election cycles will be centered around freeloading. Not just the freeloading of the poor and illegal immigrants, but the freeloading of crony capitalists and non-patriotic international capitalists (for example, the Wall Street “banksters”). Middle class whites are furious with all forms of what they perceive as freeloading, and anxious about don’t-pay-as-you-go behavior. And this anger and anxiety bleeds over into the psyches of independents and Democrats as well (though they are less likely to express them openly). Left-wing resentment toward the crony/internationalist hyper-rich is mating with right-wing resentment of the poor, the brown, the immigrant. That’s what Dave Bratt signals. Nationally, it suggests that a Rand Paul or Ted Cruz battle with Hillary Clinton for the presidency in 2016 could be a closer contest than we might now imagine.

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Atheist Andrew? Is Andrew Sullivan on His Way to Becoming an Ex-Catholic?

The grotesque story coming to light of the sexual shaming of single mothers and their children in Tuam in mid-20th century Catholic Ireland–and the septic tank there that was used as the collective and unmarked grave for bastard children–800 of them–is becoming known as “the scandal of the Irish 800 of Tuam,” and it has rattled Andrew Sullivan’s Catholic faith: “In the wake of the immeasurable silent pain of so many children for so many years in the sex abuse crisis, to witness another form of barbarism against children in the heart of my own church … well, it’s one of those things that really does shake the foundations of one’s commitment to an organized religion. And maybe it’s because it’s in a part of Ireland where my own grandmother was born and grew up, and about a particular strain of Irish Catholicism that I know only too well – but it’s one of those news events that are hard to get past. It will sink slowly into our consciousness, the way the sudden revelations at Abu Ghraib did, and hint at so much more darkness beyond.”

I wonder if this incident might deliver Andrew to the roller coaster journey of a complete loss of belief in God, and I wonder if Andrew has seen Julia Sweeney’s contemporary counter to St. Augustine’s Confessions, which she calls Letting Go of God.


Sweeney’s full confession is here:


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Can Feminism Endure Questioning?

At Feministing, Juliana Britto is impatient with privileged white males who, in conversation, play the “devil’s advocate” for non-feminist perspectives. Here are three quotes from her essay (as a representative taste):

  • These discussions [surrounding patriarchy] may feel like “playing” to you, but to many people in the room, it’s their lives you are “playing” with. The reason it feels like a game to you is because these are issues that probably do not directly affect you.
  • It is physically and emotionally draining to be called upon to prove that these systems of power exist. For many of us, just struggling against them is enough — now you want us to break them down for you?
  • Some might challenge that I am shutting myself off to new ideas and censoring important opportunities for growth. But these ideas you are forcing me to consider are not new. They stem from centuries of inequality and your desperate desire to keep them relevant is based in the fact that you benefit from their existence. Let it go. You did NOT come up with these racist, misogynistic theories. We’ve heard them before and we are f*cking tired of being asked to consider them, just one. more. time. So dearest devil’s advocates: speak for yourself, not for the “devil.” Teach yourself. Consider that people have been advocating for your cause for centuries, so take a seat. It’s our time to be heard.

I don’t like this. This way of talking sounds too much like the complaints a religious fundamentalist might make on hearing skepticism directed at religion. “What, you can make critical observations and walk away? It’s because you haven’t had my experience. You’re an outsider. You cannot possibly understand.” Well, yes, of course. That’s it. I am obviously not capable of imaginative sympathy, otherwise I’d agree with you completely. It’s not because your claims are in need of sustained critical scrutiny.

And no one is responsible for other people’s education. The breaking down of a point for others in conversation is fine only insofar as you actually want to do it (or are being paid to do it as a teacher). If you don’t want to do it, you can point them to a book and be done. If they don’t read it, that’s their choice.

I’m a feminist, I’m raising feminist daughters, and the surest way to make more feminists is to encourage, not discourage, persistent interrogation of claims, however dearly held. All claims. From any person that makes them. The hope of the world is in critical thinking.

Feminism is on the side of critical thinking and reason. It will win wherever it is in contact with reality and given space to speak in competition with other ideas. It can endure questioning and will evolve in the furnace of hard questions, even questions delivered ironically, in bad faith, or accompanied by a lack of empathy.

What we take seriously can be in the same room with another’s resistances and ironies. Coming out of closets (as gay, feminist, religious, conservative, fundamentalist, atheist, liberal, Marxist, libertarian, Muslim, etc.) doesn’t mean that this creates a social obligation upon others to step into closets themselves. Coming out of closets is not a zero-sum game. We can all be out of the closet about our thoughts and stay in the room together. We can work with each other’s perspectives. And if we don’t want this–if we want to cloister ourselves with the like-minded (as, say, the Amish do)–we can do that as well.

But dialogue requires patience and raising questions, including questions posed in the form of “devil’s advocate.” Nobody needs to shut up or temper such questioning. Adults can hear words, ideas, and questions–even irreverent and seemingly gratuitous ones. It may seem like a distraction or the long way around, but it’s actually the path of progress. If feminism is true, there’s no reason to especially fear or loathe questions and skepticism directed toward it.

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Humans Cause Global Warming By Tipping The Balance

Is it true that humans make only a tiny contribution to the Earth’s carbon cycle each year? Yes. Does this mean that humans aren’t causing global warming? No. Science journalist Graham Wayne explains:

Although our output of 29 gigatons of CO2 is tiny compared to the 750 gigatons moving through the carbon cycle each year, it adds up because the land and ocean cannot absorb all of the extra CO2. About 40% of this additional CO2 is absorbed. The rest remains in the atmosphere, and as a consequence, atmospheric CO2 is at its highest level in 15 to 20 million years (Tripati 2009). (A natural change of 100ppm normally takes 5,000 to 20,000 years. The recent increase of 100ppm has taken just 120 years).

In other words, unlike with the natural carbon cycle, humans add carbon to the atmosphere, but don’t sufficiently offset their carbon footprint with things like, say, planting large tracts of additional forests. The result: a small but steady accumulation of carbon in the atmosphere because of human activity. Nature tends to recycle its carbon, generally maintaining a homeostatic balance, while humans don’t. The slow effect over time is global warming.

For more on this issue, see the below link.



How do human CO2 emissions compare to natural CO2 emissions?www.skepticalscience.com

The CO2 that nature emits (from the ocean and vegetation) is balanced by natural absorptions (again by the ocean and vegetation). Therefore human emissions upset the natural…

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Global Warming: Converging Lines of Evidence

The link below provides a nice example of converging lines of evidence from different scientific disciplines leading to the same conclusion: the planet is warming. Two weeks ago, NASA announced accelerated melting of ice in Antarctica, and this week it was reported that biological researchers “who looked at 366 species of butterfly and 107 kinds of dragonfly, observed a clear pattern of change between 1988 and 2006. In warmer, sunnier southern Europe, the light-coloured varieties are doing well, and the darker kinds have migrated northwards. The southern migrant hawker dragonfly (Aeshna affinis), the scarlet darter (Crocothemis erythraea) have moved to Germany, and in 2010 the dainty damselfly (Coenagrion scitulum) was seen in England for the first time in 50 years.”

In other words, darker Mediterranean insects absorb more solar radiation than lighter Mediterranean insects, and so are more sensitive to rising temperatures. They are akin to the proverbial canary in the coal mine: they’re the first to register a change that causes them to depart. And where these insects are going is north, not south, to places that are ever more Mediterranean-like in climate–Germany and England. Think about that. Germany and England are north of the Mediterranean and yet are increasingly suitable for Mediterranean insects. How could that be, logically, if the planet was, on average, cooling instead of warming? It it was cooling, these darker insects would be moving south, looking to capture with their wings more solar radiation. But they’re not. They’re going north, trying to get away from the heat. And when they reach further north, they find the same sorts of Mediterranean conditions that they’re most familiar with, and to which they are best adapted. And yet they’re in Germany and England, places we tend to think of as generally chilly, not Mediterranean, in climate.

So when the below article’s title declares, “Insects Get Light Relief from Warming,” what is meant is that they get relief from warming by moving north, away from the heat. That’s an unmistakable sign of global warming, not cooling.


Insects Get Light Relief From Warming


“As European summers get warmer, research reveals that lighter-colored insects are thriving—while milder winters in the Southern Hemisphere are restricting the growth of some shrubs and trees. […]” – 2014/05/31

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A Song I Haven’t Heard in a While

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Woman Stoned in Nuclear Pakistan

Stoned to death. In the 21st century. And she was three months pregnant. And Pakistan has about 100 nuclear weapons. Think about that. What if fanatic, populist, fundamentalist Muslims of the sort that stoned this woman for “family honor” attain the highest reaches of power in Pakistan and decide that national or religious honor is at stake in a crisis with India (which also has about 100 nuclear weapons)? Nuclear stones disintegrate all bones. Given that we’re an irrational, violent, and territorial species, we’ve been darn lucky that nuclear weapons haven’t been exchanged between nations already. The article below is a grim reminder of just how precarious our collective situation continues to be. Steeled emotionally to the doing of any deed deemed righteous, lacking all sense of proportion, offended in honor, sure you’re on the side of God, sure the afterlife exists, and in possession of weapons. Not good.

Pregnant woman killed outside courthouse in Lahore for marrying man without family’s approval.
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Gavin Schmidt Of NASA On Why Climate Change Models Are Growing Increasingly Accurate

In the below TED talk, Gavin Schmidt of NASA explains, clear as a bell, why global climate change models mirror, with ever greater accuracy, what we actually observe on Earth. It has to do with a trial-and-error process of calibrating models to new observations. Whenever the models aren’t in the ballpark of an observation, they’re tweaked so that, statistically, they’re more likely to track that observation in the future. The result is that, each year, the models and the actual climate we observe have been converging. Given adjustments and new computer code being added to the models constantly, climate scientists are becoming ever more accurate in their predictions. Put another way, the sustained brain power being devoted to these models, and the reality testing at work all along the way, should give the lay person a high level of confidence that climate scientists have not called the global warming trend in the wrong direction. There’s simply no good reason to dismiss climate change modelling and prediction as delusional, especially going forward.

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