Measured Against Reality

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Dawkins Controversy #5148

I have a few Dawkins-haters in my readership (or at least I did at some point). If you're still around, you might be interested in the latest anti-Dawkins bruhaha that has been going on. I think PZ Myers (another terrible Dawkins-like atheist, but he only blogs, so he doesn't get as much attention) cleared it up quite nicely. I also like how Dawkins got personally involved in this matter.

Now it can be said that the most outspoken atheists don't believe in forceful indoctrination of their opinions. Can the same be said of outspoken theists?

Friday, December 29, 2006


I’ve been sick for the past week or so, nothing serious, just a cold. But thanks to the War on Drugs, the cold medicine I took wasn’t as good as it should be.

How on earth are the War on Drugs and my cold related? Though a drug called pseudoephedrine. Pseudoephedrine is a nasal decongestant, and –until recently- was used in most OTC cold medicines, notably Sudafed.

However, pseudoephedrine is also a necessary precursor for methamphetamine. So the drug warriors, trying to combat meth-labs, passed legislation that put all medications containing pseudoephedrine behind the counter, requires counts be kept of purchases, and allots a limit to how much can be purchased in a month. Which has led to people being hassled for buying some extra Sudafed to tide them over during a trip, or other nonsense.

Many OTC drugs decided to change their formulas rather than go behind the counter. The replacement decongestant is phenylephrine, which is “is subject to first-pass metabolism and therefore is not bioavailable in currently recommended doses.” In other words, it’s useless as a decongestant.

Because of this, the DayQuil/NyQuil I was taking was pretty much just an extra-strength Tylenol. Which, I can tell you, is no good at clearing up sinuses.

And what’s the kicker to all of this? Instead of methamphetamines being manufactured in labs here in the states, those jobs have been outsourced to Mexico, where the meth is purer (and therefore more dangerous and addictive) and brings all of the perks of international drug trade (like dangerous cartels).

I posted this article a while ago, but didn’t discuss it at the time. Once I got sick and actually dealt with useless decongestants, I decided it merited a second post. It served as the source or inspiration for much of this post. It talks about other downsides of this new law, you should read it this time if you didn’t last time.

The takeaway message from this post? There are two. The first is that if you get sick, buy something with pseudoephedrine it in, because it has a chance of working. The second is that the War on Drugs is idiotic, but you already knew that.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Cloned Meat

OK, this is annoying.

Why are people so afraid of cloned meat? If anything it means that quality will go up, since the best cows no longer have to be bred, they can simply be clones. At the very worst nothing changes.

Besides, large amounts of fruit and vegetables (and potted plants) come from cloned sources. You’re likely to have eaten something that was cloned recently.

At least with genetic engineering there’s some legitimate reason to be concerned about deleterious side-effects, cloned animals aren’t altered in any way.

If I were worried about something it would be the stuff they feed them, like growth hormones or antibiotics.

But if you really want safe food, you’re going to have to grow it yourself.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Religious Movies

This Guardian article makes a good case that the films that best embody the “Christmas Spirit” or best depict Jesus’ values are the more secular ones, and evangelists tend to produce worse movies. At the very least, it’s an interesting read, but I find it funny that the classic movie portrayal of Jesus was produced by an atheist Marxist.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Carnival of the Godless

I want to let my readers know that I will be hosting the Carnival of the Godless on January 7th. In case you’re not familiar with the concept, blog carnivals are regularly scheduled collections of links on a particle topic, this one is about atheism. If you have something you’d like to submit, send it to me at stupac2 at gmail dot com, or use the automated submission here.

The rules are that the post must be “from a godless perspective”, but for those of you out there who don’t share that perspective, you can go and comment on other people’s blogs, or link to your own in the comments. I would have just said submit them and I’ll have a separate space, but rules are rules.

Guardian Poll

According to this Guardian article, 82% of Britons think that religion does more harm than good:

More people in Britain think religion causes harm than believe it does good, according to a Guardian/ICM poll published today. It shows that an overwhelming majority see religion as a cause of division and tension - greatly outnumbering the smaller majority who also believe that it can be a force for good.

I see a big problem with this, and what I’m about to say might actually surprise some people. Religion does both. It is a very powerful uniting force in communities that are homogenous or tolerant of other faiths. Its ability to bring people together is nearly unrivaled. It can inspire amazing acts of charity and kindness.

But it can also divide. It can inspire acts of unbelievable violence. It can sow hatred in men’s hearts like few other things. In its name astonishing evils have been unleashed upon the world.

There is no denying either of those things. I don’t know anyone who does. Religion is just like any other human activity, it can be used for good or evil. But the people like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins are like those 82% of Britons, who believe it does more harm than good. But this is an opinion, cases can be made both ways.

What it comes down to is whether or not the good that it inspires can come from other places, and whether or not the evil it inspires would exist without it. Even those questions have uncertain answers, although I am convinced that ridding the world of religion (at least as it is practiced now) would be a net positive.

Most people have no personal faith, the poll shows, with only 33% of those questioned describing themselves as "a religious person". A clear majority, 63%, say that they are not religious - including more than half of those who describe themselves as Christian.

Older people and women are the most likely to believe in a god, with 37% of women saying they are religious, compared with 29% of men.

Neither of those things surprise me. Personal observation has indicated the same general trend for quite a while, but it’s nice to have some numbers to back it up (even if the numbers are British).

This is totally unrelated, but I wanted to make a quick comment on it anyway. David Irving is a Holocaust denier who was imprisoned in Austria for 16 years because of his Holocaust denial (Orac at Respectful Insolence has been writing about this a bit, see here, here, and here.)

That he was imprisoned at all is disgusting. Even though Holocaust denial is vile and despicable (not to mention idiotic given all of the records we have), no one should ever be imprisoned for a belief. Absolutely, positively never. I don’t care what you believe, but you have the right to believe it. And you have the right to argue for your beliefs, and I have the right to believe something else and argue against your beliefs. That’s how Freedom of Speech works, and without that freedom we have nothing, absolutely nothing.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Drug Commentary

Reason has an excellent article about the folly of the drug war. Actually, it seems like they have a new excellent article about the folly of the drug war at least once every day, but this one reminded me of something from one of those movies I posted yesterday.

Joseph McNamara, a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institute, said that it is absolutely impossible to stop drug trade for one simple reason: money. He said “if I could make this pen for one dollar and sell it for seventeen-thousand dollars, nothing in the world is going to stop me from doing it.”

There is simply too much money in drugs for us to be able to stop them while there’s any demand at all. And eliminating demand is almost certainly impossible, drugs seem to be one of those things that people just want, regardless of the dangers and legalities.

Unfortunately, none of the drug warriors who control drug policy will ever change their minds about what we’re doing. I only hope that some day the people in power realize how insane this is, and that I’ll live to see a time where the “War on Drugs” is remembered as we remember Prohibition now.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Hooked: Illegal Drugs and How They Got That Way

One of my favorite documentaries on The History Channel is called Hooked: Illegal Drugs and How They Got That Way. They trace the history of the drug, and focus on how it became illegal. There’s usually a pretty strong anti-prohibition message to be gained from them. In fact, these documentaries are what really got me outraged about the drug war.

So if you’re interested in the history of illegal drugs, and have some time to kill, the YouTube videos of three of the four documentaries are below (the one on LSD and Ecstasy is missing, which is too bad, but nothing can be done about it).





Monday, December 18, 2006

The Cult of Mithras

I’ve been putting this off for a long while. I may have written about it in a response to Mr. Fantastic, but don’t feel like desperately trying to find it.

Anyway, it is the most damning thing about the history of Christianity, and, as I mentioned a few days ago, one of the biggest reasons I think Christianity is bunk.

What is it?

It is Mithraism, the cult of Mithras, a “mystery cult” from, at the latest, the first century BC. It originated in the Middle East (probably Iran), and bears similarities to Zoroastrianism (which may predate Judaism as the first true monotheistic religion).

It also bears a striking similarity to the story of Jesus. This movie does a good job of enumerating them. In fact, the movie’s treatment is similar to the way I first heard it, during a lecture on religious plurality in the Imperial Roman Empire (after Augustus become Emperor). If you scroll down on the Wikipedia link, you’ll see a section that also describes the similarities, and you’ll note that the authors take pains to describe that this isn’t certain.

However, I have yet to meet a historian who doubts that the cult of Mithras predates the founding of Christianity, contains basically the same narrative, and was present in Judea at the time of Christianity’s founding. Given that this lecture was team-taught by five archaeologists/historians, all of whom specialized in ancient Rome, and one of whom specialized in the religions of ancient Rome, and they only taught consensus materials, no current controversies, I can only come to one conclusion: Jesus’ narrative was ripped off from the cult of Mithras.

In context, this isn’t too surprising. Much of the Bible was borrowed from other religions/myths, and vice-versa. One of the books I read for that class was a collection of ancient documents, and the author put the locations of biblical versus that were similar to lines of the text in its margins (and he even noted that he didn’t get all of them). Many of these works predate the work in the Bible.

As an example, the story of Moses’ birth is a very, very common one. Many ancient, middle-eastern kings were said to have been put in a basket in a river, to be found by someone and eventually coming into the throne. If I recall correctly, the number is somewhere around 400, but the point is that these regional stories were used very frequently. Cultures contacted each other and shared their mythologies, and they would adopt each others’. This cultural transfusion was very common, as indicated by the written record.

Personally, I think this demolishes the credibility of Christianity (as well as Judaism, and I would assume Islam as well). Their sacred books are cobbled together from myths and proverbs scattered throughout space and time, and they don’t contain any more divine revelation than any other work of fiction. All of the different instances of Biblical authors borrowing material from preexisting sources lead inexorably to this conclusion.

In the specific case of Mithras, it casts extreme doubt on whether Jesus even existed, which in turn demolishes his status as savior. Combined with the fact that there is only one other contemporary reference to Jesus, it’s highly unlikely that he ever existed, at least as portrayed by the religion bearing his name (this one reference is from Josephus, a Roman historian from Judea. He wrote within “living memory” of Jesus, but his only mention of him is as “a doer of great deeds”, and according to historians the passage was likely inserted by a later Christian author copying his work, as it is not in the same style. Given that the Romans were meticulous about the goings-on of their empire, and that, according to the Gospels, Jesus caused quite a ruckus, this is troubling).

I realize that this entry has gone off in many directions, and I haven’t argued particularly strongly as to why the cult of Mithras is so damning to Christianity (and I haven’t cited many sources. If you think I’m lying or wrong, I don’t particularly care. But I don’t cite things I know). To me, the fact that this cult existed and is so remarkably similar to the story of Jesus in the Gospels is enough in and of itself. It is a clear instance of one culture adopting the mythology of another to suit its needs (Judea needed a messiah, Mithras masked as Jesus provided one, although not the military one many people were seeking).

The Bible is nothing more than another ancient middle-eastern mythology. It has value only for its literary, historical, and sociological impact. It is a work of fiction, albeit an important one. Nothing more, nothing less.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Should we respect religion?

I’ve been meaning to write on this for a little while, and the documentary on the portrayal of the bible in movies throughout the past century currently on has finally pushed me to do it.

The part that inspired me was the reaction of British Christians to a broadcast of the Jerry Springer Opera sometime in 2005. Apparently it mocked religion and offended them quite badly. This brought me back to topic that has been talked about quite a bit lately, especially because of Richard Dawkins, and that is “Does religion deserve respect?”

My answer should come as no surprise: no, it does not. Religion is an idea just like any other, and just like any other it should stand on its merits alone. Personally, I can’t see any reason to get offended over what an outsider says of your religion. If you’re so secure in your faith, shouldn’t you just shrug it off?

I suspect it’s because believers know how absurd their religion is, and don’t want anyone to point out its flaws. It’s very easy to make almost any religion look very stupid by simply summing up its mythology, and that could make people question their faith, which is a huge no-no. But of course, that’s something like a religious person saying I’m an atheist because I want to live outside god’s morals (which is absolutely ridiculous). Perhaps because I hold nothing sacred, I simply don’t understand what it’s like to have something sacred mocked.

Nonetheless, should we not mock religion? I very highly doubt that any Christian would be upset over the near-constant mocking of Islam in our popular culture, and I very highly doubt that any Muslim would object to a thorough thrashing of Christianity. It seems as though the only religion that the religious want to protect is their own. Which is an understandable, if untenable, position.

Given the fact that we don’t hold any other personal ideology beyond criticism, that restrictions on mocking religion constrict free speech (which is always bad, if only as a “slippery slope”), and that the religious feel free to mock other religions, I can see no reason to automatically respect religion.

That being said, I want to make a distinction between criticizing or mocking religion as an idea, and doing it specifically to upset a person. If people get offended because you make their religion look stupid, that’s their problem. If you intentionally use someone’s sensitivity about their religion to upset them, then that’s your problem. Personally, I try not to discuss religion with anyone who I care about and may offend, and I think that most atheists feel similarly (as far as I can tell).

Now if the religious would stop calling atheists evil, immoral, etc. Oh hypocrisy…

As a final note, I will shortly be giving my number one reason that Christianity is, well, bullshit. It’s good, believe me.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Theories, Hypotheses, and Guesses

In conversation the words theory, hypothesis, and guess are used more or less interchangeably (neglecting the fact that no one says hypothesis in conversation). This can cause some confusion about what the terms mean, leading to people saying “____ is only a theory”, with the blank most frequently being filled with “Evolution”, “Global Warming”, or some other “controversial” scientific Theory.

The problem with this is that scientists use the word theory differently than when you have a theory about who stole your lunch at work. If you have a pretty good idea that it was Joe from accounting, but what you have is a hypothesis, not a theory.

One of the differences lies in experiment. A hypothesis is often untested, but just as often it has been tested, but not enough to be considered confirmed. Once a hypothesis has been tested enough to be cautiously labeled “true” (which takes a while), then it can be called a theory.

Another difference is that a Theory is a framework, it contains the explanatory models, the equations, the predictions, and all the experimental observations and data in one unified and coherent structure.

When scientists say Theory with a capital T, the theory has been tested, it has been tested a lot, and it has been confirmed. The Theory of Evolution is not a theory in the same sense as your “theory” about who took you lunch, it has been spectacularly confirmed at every available opportunity, and no piece of data has ever been found that conflicts with it. The same is true for other capital-t Theories, like the Germ Theory of Disease, Heliocentric Theory, the Theories of Special and General Relativity, and Quantum Theory. Saying “____ is just a theory” is essentially saying that despite decades, sometimes centuries, of experimentation that has yielded piles of data that all match these theories beautifully, we should throw them out.

All that it indicates is that the speaker is a clueless hack whose opinions on scientific matters mean absolutely nothing. Speaking that phrase is tantamount to saying “Look at me! I’m an idiot!”

So next time you start to use the word theory colloquially, stop yourself and use hypothesis instead, all the cool kids are doing it. And if you ever hear someone say “____ is just a theory”, kindly explain to them why they’re full of shit.


Monday, December 11, 2006

Nothing Can Move Faster Than Light

As a physicist-in-training, seeing physics misrepresented gets me angry. Some of the most common misrepresentations of physics involve the speed of light.

Occasionally I’ll see over-zealous headlines that proclaim “Scientists send [something] faster than light!” This is completely impossible. To explain why, we have to deal with Einstein’s theory of special relativity.

The speed of light (c) is hardwired into Maxwell’s equations, the equations governing electricity and magnetism. It is the speed at which light propagates in a vacuum, 2.99792 m/s. It’s a very fundamental constant.

There are three main reasons that no massive particle can move faster than (or at) the speed of light, the first has to do with velocity addition. In relativity, velocities don’t add simply, they follow the formula:

Close inspection of this formula reveals that nothing can accelerate to the speed of light by velocity addition. C is quite literally the speed limit.

Another reason has to do with energy. In relativity, the energy of a particle is equal to:

where the factor gamma is equal to:

As v approaches c, gamma approaches infinity, and so does the energy of the particle. That means any particle that has any mass needs infinite energy to move at the speed of light, which is impossible.

The last reason that nothing can move faster than c is that it would make gamma imaginary, which would render every equation of special relativity unintelligible.

You might have noticed that everything I said above only applies to massive particles, but the story is pretty much the same for massless particles, except they can only move at the speed of light.

What’s usually going on with those headlines is that the researchers have “slowed light down”, which is misleading as well, because light always moves at the speed of light. The only way it can be slowed down is by entering a medium with an index of refraction that’s greater than one (which is why I previously said “the speed of light in a vacuum”). Slowing light down in this way is possible, and it happens all the time. It’s why things appear to bend at the water-level (which has an index of refraction of about 1.3).

I’ve read articles that claim researchers got messages to arrive before they were sent by altering the speed of light, but it’s just not possible. These usually turn out to fit the mold of the aforementioned “index of refraction” changes. Besides, there’s no good reason to believe that causality can be broken, and no current theory allows it.

In short, nothing can move faster than light, get over it.

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Saturday, December 09, 2006

Crazy Christian in the News

Dick Cheney’s daughter Mary is having a baby. I say good for her, if she wants to have a child she should absolutely do it. But some people are upset. Oh, did I mention that she’s a lesbian?

I’ve read several times over the past few days why she shouldn’t be able to have a child, mostly because houses without fathers are more likely to produce criminal, delinquent, unintelligent, unhappy children. Hmm, my household didn’t have a father for half of my life, I think I’m turning out all right. I wonder if these people would say that my parents shouldn’t have divorced?

Or better yet, if single parenting is so bad, why not let young, unwed mothers get abortions?

Or the best one, stop being anti-gay bigots who think that their immoral “morality” is the way that everyone should live, and stay the hell out of other people’s lives. I’m a very tolerant person, and I can respect your opinion when you disagree with me and have a decent reason for doing so. But if you want to control other people, if you want to stop people from doing something that has no effect whatsoever on anyone but themselves, if you want to deny people their rights, then you are disgusting beyond words. These people who are criticizing Mary Cheney are not people, they are vile, ignorant bigots. They are saying that this woman does not have the right to have a child if she wants to. She doesn’t have the right to procreate. Don’t even try to defend their actions, because they are indefensible.

If you want another example of crazy people, (this time explicitly instead of implicitly Christian), take a look at this. An elementary school in Virginia had a policy about sending fliers home with kids if they had anything to do with religion. But a local church wanted to send a flier about a religious summer camp, and threatened to sue the school if they didn’t change the policy. So the school did, and the religious camp advertisement went home with kids.

Keep in mind that the school wasn’t endorsing any religion, it was just the means of distributing information on one, which isn’t illegal. Recently, a pagan group used the same rules to send home a flier about pagan holiday traditions. Well guess who’s mad? If you answered the people who originally wanted to change the rules, and Christian nutjobs everywhere, then you’re right!

So let’s distill their thought process into one sentence: We should be able to use school to discuss our religion, but no other. It’s moronic and hypocritical, although it’s pretty funny that their own policy got used against them like this.

If you want more religious hypocrisy check out the story about the congressman who wants to be sworn in on the Koran. Apparently this has made some people angry, many are essentially calling him a terrorist. But this story has been widely reported, just thought I should round out this post with yet more Christian idiocy. It’s been a big week for them.

(I want to point out that I don’t have anything against Christians. Just the ones who hate gays, Muslims, and think that public schools (and government in general) should openly endorse their religion.)

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Reason Magazine

I recently stumbled upon the Libertarian Reason Magazine. I’ve found it to be a refreshing look at modern politics from a libertarian perspective. They have 20-30 bits of news reporting with small comments, and 2-4 large articles every day, most of it very good.

There’s a hysterical, irreverent, and thought-provoking interview with Matt Stone and Trey Parker up right now. Those are the two behind South Park, which is always hysterical, often thought-provoking, and most certainly irreverent. Whether or not you like their show, the interview is pure gold.

There’s another interview, this time with Dave Barry in 1994 that I somehow found. In that one they talk about the government’s role in regulating people’s lives. Anyone who has any sense would say that the government should have as small a role in people’s lives as possible, only stopping them from doing things that harm other people. The example that they use in the interview is “having sex with dogs”.

I don’t know whether the government has outlawed sex with dogs, but I suspect it has. What I truly wonder is who thinks this helps anything? The vast majority of people don’t have sex with dogs, regardless of whether it’s illegal or not. And the people who really want to aren’t going to stop because it’s illegal.

If you’re not convinced about this last point, think about this: I recently read an article about sex in Puritan New England, and one case where a man committed bestiality. It called for the death penalty for both him and the animal, yet he still did it. I forget whether the punishment was actually carried out. Granted, this is one example, but in general when people feel a law is stupid, they don’t obey it. Whether it’s ludicrously low speed limits, alcohol during Prohibition, drugs during today’s Prohibition, or bestiality, if people don’t consider something wrong then laws don’t stop them from doing it (and in many cases encourage them to try it. We all know that the prohibited has an allure).

(Speaking of Prohibition, today is the 73rd anniversary of its repeal. Lets hope that our current Prohibition is lifted soon, but I know it’s a vain hope.)

Back to the main point, those stupid laws that outlaw a behavior that few people actually do and don’t hurt anyone when it is done should be repealed. They’re a waste of time and resources for the government, a waste of money for the taxpayers, and a waste of innocent human lives for the “guilty”.

But government has a way of getting bigger and bigger until it breaks under its own weight. The sad thing is that none have yet learned that, and our children will bear the burden of our broken bureaucracy.

Anyway, check out Reason Magazine. If you like what I write, you’ll probably love it.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Egyptian Concrete

A piece of news claiming that the Egyptians used a form of concrete to make some of the stones in the Pyramids has been floating around the internet lately. The researchers are saying that the chemistry of some blocks is totally unique, not like natural limestone, but it fits with concrete.

I’m rather doubtful about this. Granted, the Egyptians didn’t leave much of a record about how they built anything, but concrete is supremely useful. If they knew how to make it, and did use it to make blocks, why didn’t they use it for buildings, bridges, and temples? It also seems strange for something like that to be lost. Builders who knew how to use it would almost surely have passed the knowledge down, even between the stable Kingdoms.

Either the claims that Egyptians used concrete are wrong, or they really didn’t know what they had. Or everything else they built out of concrete was lost to history, which is improbable. Until there’s some more confirmation, I’m going to be doubtful about this claim.

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Friday, December 01, 2006

I Hate "Memes"

I like Richard Dawkins. I think he’s a bright guy who has written some brilliant stuff. I love The Selfish Gene. But to be honest, I absolutely hate memes. Every time I see the word my blood boils.

If you’re not familiar with a meme, Dawkins coined the term in the last chapter of The Selfish Gene as a term for inheritable ideas. The rest of the book deals with genes as the basic units of selection for organisms, and Dawkins uses created this parallel concept as the basic unit of selection for culture. Memes are transmitted via cultural avenues, and they find a “home” in people’s minds. “Successful” memes are the ones that “infect” the most minds for the longest periods of time. Memes can even mutate, just as genes do.

You can probably tell from that description that this obviously goes on. Any fad ever can be described like this, and with the internet it’s really easy to track (and it has been done). The problem is that this is obviously not what’s going on. Memes aren’t a scientific hypothesis. They don’t predict anything, they just describe the world in a way that doesn’t really add meaningfully to discourse about any subject.

Sure, now we have a new, cute little word to describe fads and trends of all types, but that’s all that memes will ever be, and people need to stop using it as though they’re an actual, concrete thing. I’d love it if people would stop using the word meme and just use trend, fad, fashion, craze, or some other made-up word that doesn’t have the baggage meme does. But that won’t happen, because “meme” is a quite successful meme.

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