Sunday, December 31, 2006

Whose bones do these stones break?

It's that time of year again--when Muslims stone the guy with two horns and a tail. Oh but they do so by pelting, uh, stone. That's basically what the yearly celebration of Hajj is.

The stoning of the Devil is one of the most important rituals of the Hajj. After standing on the plain of Arafat, pilgrims spend the night on a plain called Muzdalifah. There, they gather 70 stones with which to pelt three stone pillars representing the Devil. The next day, the day of Eid-ul-Adha, pilgrims stone the largest of the three pillars with seven stones. Then, for the next three days, pilgrims pelt each of the three stone pillars with seven stones. This, along with a final circumambulation of the Ka'bah, completes the rituals of the Hajj.

Pillars in place of the real McCoy? Why not stone the Devil himself? Wouldn't that be more to the point? (Don't you wish suicide bombers blew up their victims only symbollically as well?)

I guess the Evil One is kind of impotent--he doesn't have the power to go about taking revenge on the tens of thousands who dare cast rocks at him. Or maybe he isn't evil at all. Perhaps he forgives each and every person who participates in this stoning ritual. Or maybe, just maybe, Muslims are just stoned ... stoned out on mythology.

The year in pseudoscience

Ben Goldacre looks back on the baaad science of 2006 in the UK.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Just another day indeed

Notwithstanding the possibility that I'm committing a false dichotomy, either I have pretty deaf friends and relatives or pretty daft ones. (Ok, there is of course yet another possibility: They're declaring war on nonbeliever me.)

I related how a friend texted, "Please pray even if you're an atheist, for friendship's sake." Today, the 25th, I received SMS "Merry Christmas" greetings from several people. Among them a sister-in-law of mine. In part, I replied, "Happy Holidays. Sorry, am an atheist. I don't celebrate Christmas." She then texted back, "Be merry for this is the day the Lord has made for us to appreciate all our blessings. God bless." What?! Could it be that "atheist" isn't in her vocabulary? Or is she just teasing? It's one in the morning, I'm drowsy, and so don't want to drain my brain speculating. Right now I don't know how to react. Maybe a sigh will suffice.

I'm taking my cue from Tom Flynn. On random dates throughout the year I'm greeting people "Happy Just Another Day." And I just might text my Xian friends and relatives with "Happy Ramadan!" and "Holy Vishnu's Day!" and "Merry Saturnalia!" and ...

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Is this from a slapstick?

Nope. And the Indonesian officers weren't doing an April Fools'.

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia: Enforcing Islamic law, religious police in Indonesia raided a dozen beauty parlors and arrested 13 beauticians for failing to wear Islamic attire and two male customers for having their hair cut by women, officers said Thursday.... The 13 female parlor workers were arrested because they wore tight shirts and jeans but no head scarves, while the two men should have known that Islamic Sharia law states they can only receive haircuts from male hairdressers, he said. All were released after being admonished by the Sharia Agency, he said.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

The latest virgin birth

A London zoo Komodo dragon named Flora recently laid eight fertile eggs without the aid of a consort. According to the Chester Zoo, "[the] paternity test confirmed that all the genetic material in the eggs had come from Flora and that she was indeed both the mother and the father of the developing eggs." The clutch of eggs is expected to hatch around Christmas Day.

Parthenogenesis is a fact in some animal species. Besides some reptiles, earthworms are another example. Of course just because some species have this capacity doesn't mean that mammals including humans have it too. (This is despite the fact that a Japanese scientist was able to induce parthenogenesis in mice two years ago.)

So, Jesus and his mom were lizards?
Mary on is a tree stump.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Bogus insurance

Two days ago a friend lost her baby. During an ultrasound on the day she was about to go on vacation down under in land of Kiwis, she and her doctor were shocked to discover the 8-week old fetus showed no heartbeat at all. The week prior the tiny critter was doing just fine and developing normally, even as it began its journey with a rather poor heart rate.

I don't know what procedure her ob-gyn performed but according to my friend the doctors had to do a "forced abortion" while she was knocked out. Must've been something pretty routine since 24 hours later she was onboard the plane to her destination (with her doctor's approval, of course). But I don't think it's going to be the planned joyous Christmas vacation with her family. It's going to be a mournful holiday for her.

Much as we're good friends, religion-wise we growing poles apart. While I haven't moved, she has. She used to be a lukewarm Catholic with only one foot in it. I remember her telling me a year ago that she could no longer see the point of reciting the Apostle's Creed--it had become too difficult to buy into. But several months ago, she experienced a revival of sorts in her faith. That was after her trip to Malaysia where she and her relatives met a female Christian minister who, among other things, prayed for them and laid her hands on them. Soon after the laying of the hands, her uncle claimed that the chronic pain in his knee diminished substantially. My friend relates that after their encounter with this pastor (they bumped into her a couple more times) she felt "lighter" and noticed that her problems didn't emotionally affect her as it did before. Upon returning home she made it a point to go to church/Mass every Sunday. Born again? Sort of I guess.

Vis-a-vis her reinvigorated faith, I find it instructive that an implicit reasoning error has occurred. Just because the pastor and her words/actions had a positive psychological effect on her (and even her uncle) doesn't necessarily imply that the theology and supernatural beliefs she preaches are in fact true and real. I give my friend the benefit of the doubt, though. Maybe she does know this, but then desires to sustain the "high" and make it last (who wouldn't, right?) so she tries to preserve as best she can the conditions that triggered it. Sensible enough.

On the night she was in the hospital she sent me the following text message (SMS): "Hope I'll be ok to leave tomorrow. Please pray even if you're an atheist, for friendship's sake. " No, that wasn't tongue in cheek. She meant it.

Send a telegram to the invisible man above even if I don't believe? Hello?! The last clause sounds very much like arm-twisting: If you're really my friend then you're going to pray for my quick recovery. Well, had I been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer and had asked her to light a couple of sticks of incense and to pray to the goddess Kuan Yin would she as a Christian--a monotheist--do so? For friendship's sake? You know what? I think she would! Inconsistency doesn't really bother too many people.

There's allegiance to ties and human relationships. And then there's superstitious beliefs such as the power of petitionary prayer and ritual. Well, some want to have their cake and eat it too: It won't hurt if you pray to this other deity, even if you don't believe in that god. Just as it won't hurt to hang a pat kua above your door, just in case there really are evil spirits. Just as it won't hurt to forward to everyone in your address book yet another chain letter even if your brain tells you these emails really belong in the trash bin.

Well, unfortunately for my friend she wasn't able to coerce any supplications from me. This time I wasn't going to be coerced into committing the sin of hypocrisy again.

Be that as it may, it did cross my mind to pray, but for the very opposite thing, asking the gods to curse her or something (q.v. when Randi was in the hospital). I'm so so baaaad! But you see how superstitiousness is so ingrained that we would rather not do this and judge it crass when reality is that it has the same physical effect as offering "positive" prayers--none? It should really not matter whether we (skeptics/nonbelievers) resort to voodoo and black magic or meditate and visualize white light cleansing and protecting our friend's body and soul. If we in fact have shed off our superstitiousness, then our putting a hex on loved ones should not elicit anything psychologically different from our praying to Osiris for their health. If we feel differently when we send out "negative prayers" then we ought to examine whether there could be vestiges of superstitiousness left in us. Of course, it would be wise for us to keep the person we're casting a spell on in the dark. If my friend ever finds out that I even entertained the idea of praying for her nonrecovery she probably won't talk to me for a decade! There are very palpable psychological effects in those who believe.

Was it Dawkins who said that rather than pray let's think of ways of addressing the problem? My friend wanted a magical solution to her situation. Too bad. During our phone conversation I didn't even bring up that request of hers but instead offered her questions she may want to ask her doctor regarding her capacity to go on with her planned trip, including any emergency medication she should take along during her 12-hour plane ride should complications (such as bleeding) occur. Brainstorming the situation is far more productive than taking out an insurance policy from Religion Inc. (You can probably hear the rejoinder: "But it won't hurt to do so." It isn't far-fetched to imagine my friend using that as her justification.)

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Pizza from Hell

I hope Hell has 24/7 delivery in the afterlife.

A Catholic newspaper is calling for a boycott of Hell Pizza in response to a recent condom mail-out. To promote its Lust pizza, Hell distributed 170,000 condoms, along with explicit instructions on their use, to letterboxes around the country.

Doing a Rosa Parks

Some three weeks ago American-Israeli Miriam Shear was on her way to Jerusalem's Western Wall. But whilst on the bus

she was slapped, kicked, punched and pushed by a group of men who demanded that she sit in the back of the bus with the other women. The bus driver, in response to a media inquiry, denied that violence was used against her, but Shear's account has been substantiated by an unrelated eyewitness on the bus who confirmed that she sustained an unprovoked "severe beating."

What's even more appalling is that the other passengers considered her to be at fault, and didn't bother to help and defend her.

Before this news item I didn't even know Israelis practised segregation. How awful. I find it insufferable.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Font of hogwash

As scheduled I attended that pre-baptism seminar Tuesday night at Mary the Queen church. We arrived quite late so I didn't get the names of the husband and wife team who headed the catechesis. Minor correction: I arrived on time, while my sis and brother-in-law came 30 minutes late! As instructed I dutifully waited for them by the entrance of the admin building. In retrospect, given the BS we were treated to, I should've gone ahead and entered the conference room at 8pm sharp. I bet I missed a thing or two to nitpick and complain about.

In the first hour the two talked about their life as a Christian couple and as Christian parents. The last half hour was a crash course in the history and rite of baptism. I actually wanted to throw some questions at the speakers, particularly about what exactly they meant by "faith" as they used it. Strangely, the audience (some twenty to thirty of us) was never given the opportunity to ask anything. Or maybe we were expected to just butt in anytime.

In lieu of a blow by blow narrative, I'll just jump right to the points that either made me go ballistic or brought me to the edge of bursting out in laughter. Having talked on the phone (the day after) with someone in the know I have some idea of the names of the speakers. But since I'm not a hundred percent certain I'll just call them Mr. and Mrs. K. (Yeah, stupid of me not to have asked the other attendees that night.)

* One of the things that really knocked me over was Mr. K's call to go forth and multiply. In telling their story Mr. K recounted how he and his wife wanted to have some half dozen(!) children because having a big brood fulfills God's plan. When Mrs. K failed to get pregnant after their second child, they resorted to adopting one. Then five years later, she found herself on the way with their fourth kid (that must surely have been a miracle).

This "have as many kids as possible" is the very same mindset my Opus Dei guy tried to impress upon me years ago. Apparently, the Church is still blind to overpopulation, resource depletion, unsustainable development, and global warming problems. The Ks are either ignorant of the dilemma we as a species and a planet are facing or just so naive and egocentric not to realize how they're aggravating the problems instead of helping curtail them. What really got my goat was that they were telling the audience that it's God's will--implying it's a very good thing--for them to become baby factories. They were saying that it was their duty to have children. It totally escaped them that that's irresponsible. If there are still those who believe there's no harm in religious beliefs, they better open their eyes. Telling African nations saddled with an AIDS epidemic not to use condoms and telling overpopulated, poverty-stricken countries like the Philippines to keep cranking out humans is totally nuts! That causes real harm and suffering. It isn't the use of embryonic stem cells for research and medical applications that kills. Those are microscopic tissues for cripes sake! Those cells have no cortex, no consciousness. In fact, stem cell research will save lives and alleviate unnecessary suffering. As an obstacle to rationality and progress, the Church wins the gold.

* The K's 4th baby was a girl. And she turned out to be a feisty, sometimes conceited, certainly argumentative kid. I gather that this youngest of theirs is the oddball, the thorn in their neck. Oh but the Ks aren't complaining since according to Mr. K, "This is what God gave us." Since children are always God's gift, it isn't possible to say that God gave me a reject, that God is bad or mischievous. And herein is injected the classic "heads I win, tails you lose" argument. If I get a perfect child, praise the Lord! God has blessed me. And if I get a nasty, uncontrollable kid. Well, that's because God is testing my faith, or teaching me the virtue of patience, or calling me to push my parenting skills one notch higher, or whatnot. How peachy. Perfect nonfalsifiability. Every result obtained has a rationalization. So what happens when they get a gay kid? Well, whatever their rationalization may be that child is going to go through hell and will be racked with guilt for a very very long time. All thanks to his deluded parents.

* Which brings us to Mr. K's homophobia. Mr. Holier-Than-Thou had no qualms whatsoever in advertising his prejudice against, if not disdain for, homosexuals. What I'd really like him to do is to tell gay men and women, to their face, that homosexuality is wrong, that his deity does not approve of it. I don't think he's a Ted Haggard underneath since it appears he had a hell of a time screwing his wife in their bid to pass on their genes--they were doing it, as he bragged, "24/7." I think he's just a run-of-the-mill homophobe. (But who knows? We may yet find out he's bisexual.)

* Mr. K hogged the floor throughout most of the talk. When it came to the catechesis part, however, Mr. K turned the floor over to his wife. To help explain the sacrament of baptism Mrs. K drew a diagram on the whiteboard. On the left, she had this seven-step stairway leading down to a pit. On the other side of that baptism pool were seven steps leading back up to what I presume would be ground level. Back on the left stairs she drew a stick figure with a round torso. She said this person is fat because he hasn't been baptized yet and is full of sins. Being fat represents being chockful of sins.

What?! Does she have anything against obese people? What have fat people done to her to deserve being the metaphor/symbol for having a truckload of sins? Why at the expense of fat people? Apparently, she doesn't even have a sense of being PC. Why not portray these sinful blokes (like evil atheist me--who by the way is ectomorphic) with boulders or giant iron balls shackled to their necks and legs, for example?

* In the baptism rite itself there comes a point when the priest makes the sign of the cross on the child's forehead. The godparents follow suit (can't recall if the parents do so as well; they probably do). Mr. K explained that the sign of the cross on the child's forehead does not disappear. It's an indelible mark and stays with the child (for life I guess). And when Satan sees this (invisible) mark he recoils from it.

No, I didn't make that up. Mr. and Mrs. K are middle-aged adults. And yet they believe in a bogeyman. They might as well throw in Darth Vader and the Dementors too. I'm sorry but I just can't understand nor stand highly educated, 50-year olds, living in the 21st century still wrapped up in childish mythology. There's something very wrong here.

* Finally, on the table where the Ks were seated was a foot and a half tall cross with naked Jesus dangling. Mr. K pointed to it a couple of times when he was talking about Jesus. And secured to the wall behind them was a huge 5 or 6 foot version--a scantily clothed man impaled on two pieces of timber. I tell you, it was grotesque. Having attended a Catholic school I was treated to this artifact from kindergarten all the way to high school day in and day out. You 'd think I'd be inured to it. But that Tuesday night I found myself wincing at this exhibitionistic display of torture and physical suffering. It's like, isn't one life-sized depiction, there at the back, in the background enough?! Do you folks have some sadomasochistic fetish for nude men dying an excruciating death? What sane parent would bring a child up to become desensitized to something so gruesome and inhumane?

Christians are scandalized when they discover that Hindus venerate linga and yoni--stylized stone or metal sculptures depicting male and female genitalia and symbolizing the god Shiva. I think Hindus will return the compliment.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

The atheist godfather

Here we go again. I've been recuited coerced to become a godfather for the fourth time, this time to my sister's second child. In so many words I've already told her no, but three weeks later she's still on my case. A couple of days ago she informed me there's going to be a pre-baptismal "seminar" for the parents and the godparents (at least one of the godparents should be present during the one hour session). I thought she was kidding when she said I'll be joining them at the church. She wasn't. This means war!

My sis and I have always been very close and she's been my confidante for years and years. She knows all too well how much of a nonbeliever I am and how religion (theism) makes me go ballistic. As young children both she and I and our brothers as well had been baptized Catholic. We all attended Catholic schools. While our two other siblings are pretty much church goers, she isn't a practising Catholic. The only time she and I ever find ourselves sitting on the pews is during weddings. To top it off her husband is even less of a Catholic. I doubt he even knows what that gobbledygook docrtine of the Trinity is supposed to be (not that he'd be better off cluttering brain space with all that theological nonsense).

So why in Kuan Yin's name are the parents having their child baptized? I haven't asked her directly and even if I do I don't think she'll be up front about it. One trivial reason is that it's traditional in this country to baptize children. Having been a colony of Spain for 400 years, Catholic Church tradition is deeply rooted, just as it is in Mexico. But given what I know about the couple I think the primary reason they're going through all the trouble is her husband thinks having their children baptized confers upon them some supernatural protection of sorts. He's quite a superstitious fellow and observes Chinese superstitions and rituals to ward off evil and court good fortune. He's into feng shui and auspicious dates for this and that. So it isn't far fetched to extrapolate that for him the rite of baptism has an important payoff--perhaps it's like some invisible talisman for life, a force field if you like, that protects his progeny from harm (real physical harm, not the intangible spiritual kind).

When my sis reminded me of the upcoming seminar I kind of got annoyed. I wanted to tell her, "Are you deaf?! I said no!" But then the other day I had a "change of heart." I don't know if you can call it a gestalt shift, but I suddenly saw it from the other side, so to speak, and realized that the one hour catechism course is going to be a perfect opportunity for me to find out what drivel the Catholic Church is currently dumping on its members. So, in a 180-degree turnabout, I'm now pretty enthusiastic to be there to hear the facilitator say her piece, and be entertained. It's going to be on Tuesday night. I'm so very tempted to let it drop that I'm an atheist. I just want to find out how the lady who's going to be leading the seminar and the priest(s) will react. Will it be a show stopper? Will they turn to the parents and say I can't possibly be permitted to be a godparent? It ought to be interesting. Of course, if it comes to that, I'll be breaking my sister's heart. So I'll have to mull over whether I'm going to let it slip or bite my lip and just be keep those faith-heads in the dark. Decisions, decisions.

As to why my sis and brother-in-law are so hellbent on getting me--the most strident atheist in town--as one of the godparents, I think it's because I'm so fond of their two kids. I just love them so much. But that precisely has been my point. Why do I need to be a godfather when I'm already their most visible uncle, when I can't help but shower those adorable nephews of mine with affection (and presents and chow every now and then)?

Saturday, December 09, 2006

A not so bright reply?

Was just pondering. The reply "a Bright new year to you" may be construed as a move to (de)convert the other into nonbelief. I submit that is certainly a possibility. And if it is taken as such would I object and go on the defensive? I don't know. Probably not. I do want believers to see the irrationality of believing in supernatural claims and how a supernaturalistic worldview isn't that different from wishful thinking and fantasy.

I need to think more about this. Not that it's a terribly bad idea. I just want to further explore the possible cons of wishing people to be or become brights.

A goat per million sheep

It's December again. What I really like about this season is the respite from the oppressive heat, which for some meteorological reason is still, pretty annoyingly, lingering even this late in the year. There's the cool of the season. And then there's the apocryphal birthdate of that Jew Yeshua ben Yosef (or as Xians would probably rather have it, Yeshua ben Yahweh). Yes, it's that time of year again. Talk about trigger for anxiety disorders and this rant.

Well, this year I'm no longer even going to go around wishing people Happy Holidays. I don't celebrate Ramadan, or the birthday of Ganesh, or some Buddhist holy day. And I don't go wishing folks who observe these holidays. So I don't see why I have to bother greeting others for a holiday I don't observe.

But I must admit I've been a traitor by playing the stupid game when greeted by the herd out there who say "Merry Christmas!" And that's because I've for as long as I can remember reacted to that stimuli by bouncing back the same thing. Well, that may be about to change. This year I'm planning on putting an end to being sickeningly hypocritical, and so rather than just echoing that trite greeting I'm trying out various different things (depending on how many tacks I can brainstorm into existence).

Among the suggestions by fellow brights (brought out in the latest Brights newsletter) in response to being accosted by the ejaculation "Merry Christmas," are such things as "And a Bright new year to you." Well, I like that. It's a positive message and doesn't have any explicit antisocialness to it. The problem is of course, How many in that billion-flock of sheep to whom we address it understand what a bright is? How many will hear "bright" as "a person with a naturalistic worldview" and how many will hear "bright" in the ordinary sense of the word? 99.9999% in the latter's favor I suppose. If the idea is for Brights to simply to get a kick out of duping the unsuspecting then I don't see the point. That said, replying to such a greeting via email is another thing. I might very well fire off: "And may you have a Bright new year." I can only hope the recipient checks out the link. The uppercase B ought to help pique their curiosity.

One response that comes to mind is simply "I'm sorry but I don't celebrate that occasion. I'm not a Christian." It's factually true, but I just don't know if I can bring myself to say it. Given the questions that that will elicit, I simply can't give each faith-head I bump into this season a crash course on Atheism 101 and a rundown of why I am not (or no longer am) a believer like them. Now if they can all just gather in one venue, I'd be happy to offer them a primer. Nevertheless, I probably will use a variation of this with salespersons in shops and malls, and the like--not least because it is almost certain these people have been ordered to dump on everyone the perfunctory greeting. Because of the seller-client relationship I doubt they'll ask nosy questions. In fact in such cases I might take the opportunity and follow up the above up with: "Do consider that people who don't share your religious beliefs might not take too kindly to what you're foisting on them" (or something like that in the vernacular). Of course, that's hardly a rational suggestion to them since around 95% of the population is Christian! But at the very least I hope it will be consciousness-raising (as Dawkins likes to put it) for them. It ought to make them aware that what they've taken for granted isn't the whole truth.

As for the old "Happy winter solstice!", let's face it. It's pretty contrived. I certainly don't celebrate solstices nor equinoxes, just as I don't use the Chinese lunar calendar and celebrate the phases of the moon. Be that as it may, by accident I saw a near full moon around 45 degrees from the western horizon at around 2am several days ago. I quickly grabbed my digicam, went outside, set the cam to spot metering mode, zoomed it to its maximum, and snapped a couple of images--without a tripod mind you. The cosmos is beautiful. And we don't have to celebrate in any ritualistic, "periodistic" way the various celestial phenomena to appreciate them.

Yes, I have a problem with Christmas. I don't have a problem with the Hindu holy day of bathing in the Ganges. And that's because I don't live in India nor am I living in a community of Hindus. Thus my problem isn't really with Christmas per se but with Xians. Needless to say, we are flanked on all sides by them.

The North Americans and a majority of Europeans are ahead in this area (at least I think they are, relatively), with their consciousness pretty much aware of the multicultural status of their populace. You don't greet Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, ... and atheists with "Merry Christmas." That is at the very least a faux pas. You don't presume that people you bump into are necessarily Xians. On the other hand, the near homogeneity of religious affiliation in this country has made such (automatic) consciousness-raising difficult. When throughout your life you've seen and dealt only with sheep, you come to develop a mindset whereby you see and treat every animal you come in contact with as fellow sheep. Well, hopefully, if this goat can muster enough courage I will be initiating some mind-opening and consciousness-raising this season, jarring a couple or so sheep into realizing that there are in fact other species in the world, making them relativize what they've for so long taken for granted, and forcing them to reserve that knee jerk utterance of theirs for those whom they know are in fact fellow sheep. Hopefully.

Let's go dig us a well ... on Mars

If you haven't heard of it yet, check out the Bad Astronomer's report on the latest finding: flowing water found on Mars! I certainly find that exhilirating news.

Attention dowsers. Get suited up. We've got abig job for you.

What fries our brain

About half a year ago the residents of an upscale subdivision were embroiled in a heated argument whether to allow a cell phone tower to be built on their premises or not. The pros contended their neighborhood needed it to boost the weak signal they were experiencing. Those opposed, on the other hand, circulated a 10 or 20-page document alleging that (microwave) radiation emitted by such cell sites cause cancer.

I'm not sure what happened thereafter, but I believe the project pushed through.

I haven't done enough research on this although I'm inclined to be doubtful of the said link between cell sites and cancer. Presuming that transmitters emit microwaves with a higher amplitude than cell phone units, there's still the inverse square law to consider. The intensity of electromagnetic radiation decreases with the square of the distance to the source--doubling your distance to the source doesn't just halve the intensity, it quarters it. How many of us actually stand within a meter of the tower antenna for a couple of hours total per day, 5 days a week? I haven't done the math but it could be that we're not getting much more compared with that cellphone glued to our ears. If people are worried about cell sites, they may as well be concerned about owning a microwave oven.

And this just in. Physicist Bob Park shares the results of a Danish study.


A study in the current issue of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute found no increased cancer risk from cell phone use over a 20 year period. This is an update of a Danish study in JNCI five years ago. The Danes keep good records. By just going to the computer they could compare cell phone use with the National Cancer Registry. I was invited to write an editorial in the same issue, JNCI, Vol 93, p.166 (Feb 7, 2001). I noted that cancer agents act by breaking chemical bonds, creating mutant strands of DNA. Microwave photons, however, aren't energetic enough to break a bond. Predictably, fear mongers said there must be an induction period. Still waiting. In 1993, a man whose wife died of brain cancer was a guest on Larry King Live. Her cancer, he said, was caused by a cell phone. The evidence? "She held it against her head and talked on it all the time."

If I read him right, given the particular frequency (range) of microwave radiation (regardless of amplitude?) it just doesn't have enough energy to hack the organic molecules in our body. (There's a simple equation--I can't recall it right now--that relates electromagnetic radiation frequency and energy.)

And regarding that lady who succumbed to cancer, I guess it means that the millions of other cell phone users who've been using their units for years and years but still don't have brain cancer doesn't count as confuting evidence. But worse, it means that there is an ominous probability that these cell phone users will sometime in the future develop malignant brain tumors. And those who live and die without cancer? Well, they're just the lucky ones.

This must be one of the most blatant post hoc ergo propter hoc argument I've ever come across.

CSI: Amherst

Just when I've finally memorized what that acronym CSICOP stands for and say it in two seconds flat they truncate it to CSI.

"Committee for Skeptical Inquiry" sounds so much more appropriate really. "Paranormal" in the old name stood out like a sore thumb. Great mission. Great job. Great articles. More power to CSI!

Now if they could only please establish a branch in my city here in Asia.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

A web of reasons to believe in our Savior

Brent just shared insights and rock-solid arguments by Dr. Graham Cracker. Needless to say, I give them a thumbs up. I myself used to be an a-supervillainist. But after Dr. Graham sorted things out for me, I now firmly believe in the existence of the entire pantheon: Brainiac, Mr. Freeze, Joker, Scorpion, ....

Praise the SuperFriends! What hope could we have without them?!

I must confess though that I used to be a Marvelist. But then I was accosted by a charismatic DC evangelist who so moved me with his Holy Book that I promptly converted to DCism. Then years later with the rise of ecumenism I finally came to see the Light and so fully embraced every one of these religions, acknowledging all their deities and demons.

Now some may argue that believing in all of them results in flagrant contradictions. How, for instance, would Superman be in the jaws of death when Spiderman, Wonder Woman, et al. were just around the corner (sharing their latest adventures over at Starbucks) to give him a hand at disposing of Lex Luthor? Well, I say to these nonbelievers: That's why it's called Mystery! You're not suppose to understand it. You just have to believe! Just have faith! Just tense every muscle in your body and force yourself to believe. Don't use your head. In fact, force your neocortex out your aliimentary canal. (Constipated? Don't worry. Religion is a proven laxative. That's why it's called brainwashing--it flushes that demon-possessed organ out of your body.)

And to those critiques who say that their ancient Semitic deity gave them the only Word in town, the only True Word, then I ask them: How can your book beat The Holy Comics when It has pictures! Pictures!! Pictures say a thousand words! Pictures transcend the limits, barriers, and idiosyncracies of any and all human language, ancient and modern. Do you understand Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic, or Coptic? On the other hand, do we have to learn Italian to grasp the meaning of Michelangelo's paintings? Now that is the True Sign that The Holy Comics is indeed the work of real gods, and in fact by Intelligent Deities.

Send in the clown

Hilario Davide Jr., former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the Philippines, is gunning for the position of permanent ambassador to the UN. As part of the process he was at the Commission of Apppointments yesterday to answer questions by senators, and other oddballs. Among them, the judge with invisible midget friends.

At the hearing, an amused Senator Juan Ponce Enrile asked [former judge Florentino Floro] if he believed, saw and talked to dwarfs, Floro replied in the affirmative.

"[I’ve seen] three. Luis, Armand and Angel," he said, drawing laughter from the legislative staff, guests and spectators. "They are world famous because they are in Google. In fact they exist. The decision points to them."

"They were called dwarfs by our culture but they are really angels of God. They are angels, your honor," he added. "They have only one mission: to clean the judiciary. Those who are receiving bribes. That’s only my mission: to clean the judiciary and to heal the sick."

Floro admitted believing in "psychic visions" to see the future because of his power in "psychic phenomenon" and confessed he had a covenant with his "dwarf friends," and that he could write while in a trance.

In response to Floro's accusations, Davide, in part, replied:

"[T]he last pleading concentrates on the so-called three dwarves. I don’t think the committee should entertain the appearance of dwarves and I cannot be compelled to answer the supposed performance of dwarves," he continued, eliciting chuckles from the spectators.

Here's some insider information: The reason the Supreme Court did not order mandatory psychiatric therapy for this nutcase is that he's got too much entertainment value. Laughter is said to be the best medicine. And with an economy still in the pits the Philippines can certainly use the endorphin-raising services of a real clown.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Holy body of Christ, Batman! The Quebecois are so cool!

If I only knew French, I'd have a hell of a time listening to these folks all day long.
English-speaking Canadians use profanities that would be well understood in the United States, many of them scatological or sexual terms. But the Quebecois prefer to turn to religion when they are mad. They adopt commonplace Catholic terms -- and often creative permutations of them -- for swearing.


"You swear about things that are taboo," said André Lapierre, a professor of linguistics at the University of Ottawa. In the United States, "it is not appropriate to talk about sex or scatological subjects, so that is what you use in your curse words. The f-word is a perfect example.

"In Canadian French, you have none of the sexual aspects. So what do you replace it with? You replace it with religion. If you are going to use a taboo word, it would be anything related to the cult, to Christ, the Communion wafer, Jesus Christ, vestments, and elements of the altar like tabernacle. There's quite a few of them."

Earlier this year the Montreal Archdiocese embarked on an advertising campaign intended to raise people's awareness about what these religious terms they're bandying actually mean.
The campaign ended, but Lapierre said Quebecers continue to use the words in highly inventive ways -- as expletives, interjections, verbs, adverbs and nouns. One could say, for example, "You Christ that guy," to mean throwing a person violently. "I don't know any other language that does that so well," he said.

The French here also modify the oaths into non-words, depending on the level of politeness desired. The word "bapteme" -- baptism -- is used as a strong oath, but a modification, "bateche," is milder. The sacramental wafer, a "host" in English and "hostie" in French, can be watered down to just the sound "sst" in polite company. "Tabernacle" can become just "tabar" to avoid too much offense.

The oaths are so ingrained that one cannot converse fluently without them, said Lapierre. "I teach them in my class."

Now what a creatively terrific idea! Time to come up with expletives in English. For starters, off the top of my head:

"Good heavenly host! I nicked myself again."

"What the Virgin do you think you're doing with that!"

And a new F-word on the block:

"Fish you!"

Monday, December 04, 2006

Harris' romance with woowoo

I love Sam Harris' eloquence, his uncompromising atheism, how he tirelessly defends rationality. But while he's a no-nonsense, dyed-in-the-wool atheist, one who explicitly points out that belief without evidence is irrational, he's got at least some wacky beliefs of his own founded on what I would say are pretty weak evidence.

Back in February I said that I was taken aback by Harris' belief in ESP and associated phenomena. So I was amused that in Session 8 of the Beyond Belief conference (some 24 minutes into the program) he was still clinging to (and defending) this belief of his. And to boot it looked like he's also rather tendential toward accepting reincarnation as true. Duh! He said he's awaiting further evidence for these claims but somehow this show of rationality struck me as disingenuous. I gather that until there's a deluge of confuting evidence he's going to keep believing that there is something to these claims.

I wonder if Harris is ever going to get over his "romance with woo-woo," as Randi puts it.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

I declare that science is gender neutral but my unconscious says otherwise

Just took the Science-Gender test on Harvard's Implicit Association Test site. What I find interesting about the result is that my bias isn't as much as I feared.

Your data suggest a slight association of Male with Science and Female with Liberal Arts compared to Female with Science and Male with Liberal Arts.

... Depending on the magnitude of your result, your automatic preference may be described as 'slight', 'moderate', 'strong', or 'little to no preference'.

(I've snipped portions of the interpretation which may give you more information than necessary if you plan on taking the test. )

Poles apart

I first heard of Stuart Hameroff a year or two ago and from some psychic-astrology-new age site at that (in hindsight, perhaps appropriately so). After visiting his site, I came out very skeptical of what he was proposing, not least because he was invoking quantum mechanisms for neurological activity. What stopped me from pigeonholing him as a complete woowoo was his stated collaboration with Nobel Prize laureate Roger Penrose. I know next to nothing about quantum mechanics and if, even implicitly, an eminent physicist as Penrose says there's something to what Hameroff is claiming, then there must be something there. Fine. Well, Hameroff never crossed my mind from then on. And I never had to entertain what to me were wacky ideas about the mind/brain.

That is, until Session 4 of the Beyond Belief conference. Lo and behold, he turns out to be one of the speakers. Actually took a couple of moments for me to remember and realize that this is the guy I stumbled upon sometime ago. Listening to his "quantum consciousness" hypothesis was an ordeal. Easily the most technical paper delivered during the conference. By the time he came to his point about consciousness, neurons, and going back in time, my skeptical mind just about had enough. I haven't seen all the Beyond Belief sessions but thus far Hameroff's proposal takes home the prize of being the zany one in the lot, one very sore thumb sticking out indeed. Joan Roughgarden's points in her own talk, even if kind of lame, were pretty run of the mill compared to Hameroff's.

So it was a relief (felt like a vindication of the running condition of my baloney detector) that after the presentation, physicist Lawrence Krauss burst out and told Hameroff straight from the shoulder that he was plainly wrong, that he'd misunderstood and misapplied quantum physics. I wish physicist Steven Weinberg could've stayed on and thus lent his opinion on the matter.

The camera never cut to V.S. Ramachandran nor to Michael Shermer. And neither made any comments during the Q&A portion. It would've been interesting (and edifying) to hear from the neuroscientist and the skeptic by trade.

I think this Hameroff vignette reinforces the heuristic that it pays to be wary and skeptical of a non-physicist who talks (authoritatively) about quantum mechanics and of anyone who starts blabbing about how quantum physics explains some pet macrocospic phenomenon of theirs. I think we should keep pointing the spotlight on (and even ridiculing) those who glibly and recklessly use the adjective as in Hameroff's "quantum consciousness" in the hopes that people leave "quantum" to the physicists.

What was never addressed and what I'd like to know is what Penrose actually thinks of Hameroff's hypothesis, what Penrose himself is suggesting vis-a-vis the mind and consciousness, and what his fellow physicists as well as neuroscientists think of these ideas of his.

Moving to the other end of the spectrum, Harvard professor Mahzarin Banaji's short presentation (Session 7) is for me by far the most captivating. Human psychology is always a fascinating subject, particularly the various perceptual and judgment errors that we inherently are predisposed to, what Banaji calls "bugs in our mind." Just to summarize, she talked about the availability error; about a recent odor study which showed that people in a room sprayed with Lysol (without the subjects being told explicitly about this fact) tended to dine more neatly; unconscious biases in decision making; racial stereotypes/prejudices and how they've changed (at least in America, or more specifically Princeton) or so it seems in the conscious level but may still be lurking or even operative somehow unconsciously; how we have a gender-career bias and how it is very much correlated with age with younger people showing less of the bias; how it is that we all have unconscious biases albeit varying from person to person--even if we know what ought and ought not to be and subscribe to those beliefs--and how such seemingly deep-seated biases are actually, as Banaji puts it, quite malleable to change. Banaji treated the audience to a couple of fun psychological tests that demonstrated our use of the availability heuristic as well as our proclivity toward gender-role bias. For more of these pretty self-revealing tests she suggests visiting

Banaji's hope is that discoveries in (social) psychology including the ones she talked about, particularly unconscious biases that all of us have, would lead us to a better understanding of the phenomenon we call religion. I'm reminded of Daniel Dennett's 2005 work whose subtitle contends that religion is a natural phenomenon, implying that it is a legitimate subject for science and its methods to bear upon. To me at least it is a truism that religion is a natural phenomenon. I don't see how it can be otherwise. Deities may, by definition, be outside the natural realm, but religion per se--the act of believing, socialization into the beliefs of one's culture/family, the rituals, formation of institutions, etc.--are pretty much human activities and spring forth from us--evolutionarily, culturally, psychologically. My own personal bias is that psychology is one if not the most important field that can enlighten us about religion. The subdiscipline of psychology of religion has, of course, been around for over a century, although there has unfortunately not been that much progress in it (Dr. Michael Nielsen's site is one that I've been visiting for some years now for updates on this field of study).

I think Banaji's really lively and interactive presentation had an impact on how Richard Dawkins' own talk, which was right after hers, came across. Bluntly speaking, it was pretty dull. Two reasons I believe. One is that he ostensibly lacked enthusiasm and energy (or maybe the abrupt change in energy levels between him and Banaji was simply too jarring, while the difference in the level of alacrity couldn't have helped either). Another, perhaps more important, reason is that I've already heard the various points he raised either in other talks he'd given during his recent book tour or read them in The God Delusion. Except for the slides he showed (finally saw what I only heard in audio files) there was nothing new to me. Certainly not to pooh pooh the various things he raised. It is worth watching if you haven't heard or read these thoughts of his yet.

(An aside: I myself have no fashion sense at all, but what Banaji wore was pretty hard not to notice and train your eyes on. Inspired by some traditional Indian attire perhaps? Pleasing to the eye, I should say. I think the scarf (which I doubt has any Indian roots) she had on served beautifully to break the monochromatic monotony.)