No News, Or What Killed the Dog?

(Link to download the MP3)

Ray Bradbury died last week, and so I wanted to share a story of his with you. First published in 1994, ”No News, Or What Killed the Dog?” is by no means his best or most famous work, but I thought it an appropriate one for the occasion, as the author’s passing gives us pause to consider where we are, where we’re headed, and from whence we’ve come.

“He killed me with a sword. How weird is that?”

So, there was this article from Slate circulating yesterday: Nerd Violence, by Daniel Engber. It’s stupid. It’s an infuriatingly stupid and pointless article. Engber claims that sword-related violence is some kind of trend, and that nerds are to blame. That those who use swords to commit violence are nerds, and that nerds who commit violence prefer swords.

He provides no evidence to support those claims, mind you. Really, his article can be summed up as follows: “Here are a handful of links to sword-attack stories from the past several years (one dating back to 1979), assembled in one place to make them look newsworthy. Nerds like stuff with swords, so let’s use it as an excuse to beat up on nerds. Also, sword attacks are weird.”

(And yet, on this final point, Engber failed to make the great “Serenity” reference that I made in the title for this post. Then again, I suppose quoting sci-fi would have gotten in the way of his thesis, re: NEEEEERRRRDDDDSS.)

Anyway, leaving aside his reliance on trite disparaging stereotypes of “nerds,” what really irks me about the article is Engber’s sheer laziness in blaming this ill-defined group for sword violence. Of the sword-wielding killers, he writes that “the mere fact of their armament suggests membership in a geeky and aggressive subculture.” Yet when it comes time to identify that subculture, he leaps right from the keyword “sword” to “sword & sorcery” and therefore “nerd” without recourse to anything resembling logic or evidence.

If Engber had looked just a little closer at his examples, he might have noticed a different pattern. He cites somewhere between 15 and 20 specific cases of sword-based violence. A cursory glance at each article reveals that almost every incident involved a weapon described as a “samurai sword” or katana. That’s not quite “the weapon of dueling gentlemen and swashbuckling adventurers, of knights in armor and the horse lords of Rohan.” (Those would be rapiers and broadswords, respectively.)

Like I said, Engber gives us no reason to believe this trend is real. But even if it were, what he describes isn’t a trend of wannabe paladins, Jedi, or Errol Flynns (Errols Flynn?). It’s a trend of wanna-be ninjas.

And yet, though he goes out of his way to reference “Star Wars,” “Lord of the Rings,” and Dungeons & Dragons, he leaves out any reference whatsoever to “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “Kill Bill,” martial arts, or other factors that might actually contribute to katana collector culture. Could it be that these latter factors are a little too mainstream to support the profile of the fantasy-obsessed, socially-inept psychopath dork Engber is constructing? (Never mind that “Star Wars” and “Lord of the Rings” are themselves hardly niche interests anymore.)

Collectible swords (katanas or otherwise) are valued as art objects and physical reminders of history and literature. Enthusiasts in such artifacts might all be considered “nerds” by some definition of the word, but that’s not the definition Engber is using.

As for those who actually put these swords to use, look: when someone snaps and wants to commit a violence, they’ll use what’s available and effective. Lots of things can be used to cut or bludgeon or stab. Furthermore, a nerd who is so inclined can fire a gun as easily as anybody. Calling the sword the nerd’s “primary means of self-defense” is cutesy, but inaccurate.

Whatever. Obviously, this garbage article was just a combination of 1) trying to entertain readers with links to weird stories and 2) pushing buttons to stir controversy and draw eyeballs.

Seizures

I was up late at my computer the night of 23 October. Next thing I knew, I was on the floor surrounded by EMTs, in pain and very confused.

I had suffered a seizure. On top of that, somewhere between my chair and the floor, I had managed to fracture my spine.

I ended up in the hospital for a few days with three different medical teams keeping tabs on me: Neurology for the seizure, Neurosurgery for my broken back, and Infectious Disease to check me for tuberculosis infection.

hospital_after_seizure

The TB risk was incredibly small, but since I work with the stuff and I showed up at the ER with a cough and a questionable chest X-ray (turns out I had aspirated during my seizure), they decided to play it safe. There was some talk of doing a lumbar puncture, but since I had no symptoms of bacterial meningitis (apart from the seizure) I dodged that bullet. A PPD and three sputum cultures all came back negative, so no TB for me!

Meanwhile, there was still no telling what had actually triggered the seizure. An MRI showed no brain tumors or other structural abnormalities, and an EEG demonstrated fairly normal brain activity. With nothing to go on and no prior history of seizures, the neurologists decided not to start me on anti-seizure medication just yet. Hopefully this episode was just a fluke.

As for my back, though the compression fracture had robbed my sixth thoracic vertebra of at least half an inch of height, a CT scan thankfully found no great risk of damage to my spinal cord. I just had to avoid BLT (bending, lifting, or twisting) and keep the pain under control. It took some time to reach a point where I could sit upright and still be able to breathe, but the promise of a hot shower can be a powerful motivator.

And that was that. I was sent home that Wednesday night with a back brace, a prescription for oxycodone, and the hope that this seizure would be a one-time-only deal. I wouldn’t be that lucky, however. Two weeks later, the night of 9 November, I had another seizure. At least I was in bed this time, and my spine seemed to make it through without suffering much more damage. I didn’t have to stay at the hospital, but they did start me on anti-seizure medication.

I don’t remember anything before, during, or after either seizure; I completely blacked out. Judging by Sara’s reaction (she, having witnessed both seizures), I’m the more fortunate for it. It’s scary enough knowing I was helpless and in pain without needing to have seen it. Even after my awareness started to return, it was several minutes before I could correctly answer questions about how old I was or what city I lived in. (I apparently didn’t have any difficulty identifying Sara as my wife, though, so at least I have that going for me.)

This whole ordeal has been a powerful reminder of just how precious our capacity for thought and reason is. I was lucky enough to actually see some of the images of my brain from my MRI. That bit of tissue filling my skull is me. I am what I do. There is no ghost pulling the strings; my neurons and glia are on their own. Dualism, the idea that I have a soul separate from and superior to my body, is a profoundly failed hypothesis, completely discredited by all of contemporary psychology and neuroscience. My brain is not the joystick by which some psychic homunculus controls my muscles and guts. It is not some spiritual antenna channeling instructions from a ghostly counterpart in the ethereal plane. My brain itself is that which does the doing.

My brain is flawed, that much I already knew. It is prone to mistakes, it occasionally falls victim to illusions and prejudices. My brain is also fragile; any injury to it that doesn’t kill me outright could leave me a changed man. I am fallible, I am mortal, as anyone is. But on top of that, I apparently have some sort of seizure disorder. I’m malfunctioning, and that’s scary.

Since my brain is physical, I can mitigate the seizures with medicine. A regular dose of levetiracetam—taken orally, absorbed into my bloodstream, and shuttled to my brain—will discourage my neurons from engaging in the kind of rapid-fire synchronized freak-out that has twice already left me blacked out and flailing uncontrollably. Of course, the administration of that compound also leaves me more susceptible to depression as a side effect. Hopefully as we learn more about what triggered the seizures, we can adjust the treatment to optimize the benefits while minimizing the drawbacks.

This is all terrifying and humbling and fascinating at the same time.

Everybody Draw Mohammed Day

muhammad-cola

In defiance of the death threats being made around the world against those who depict the Prophet Muhammad, today is “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day.” Rebecca has the backstory:

I decided to keep it simple: nothing too wacky or embarrassing. I just thought the Prophet Muhammad might enjoy a refreshing, non-alcoholic beverage.

The offense is in the irreverence. I do not revere the prophet, and religious prohibitions against depicting him do not apply to me. I boldly defy those who would use threats of violence to force their superstitions upon others.

Further Religious Discourse at Dartmouth

It didn’t escape my attention that the Dartmouth published an editorial by staff columnist Peter Blair ’12 in response to my column advocating fair consideration of atheists at the college. I was disappointed to see that Blair’s column not only completely misrepresents my position, but also further exemplifies the very attitude that I warned is standing in the way of productive religious debate with nonbelievers.

Blair selectively quotes from my editorial, leaving out crucial context in order to give the impression that I advocate a “double standard”:

The most stunning example of this double standard comes when Golas writes, “Ideas and beliefs, however, are automatically entitled to neither respect nor even tolerance.” Then he writes, “motivation to enter a discussion requires the impression that one’s position will actually be heard and considered.” Golas reserves the right to openly scorn others, granting “neither respect nor even tolerance,” but demands a respectful audience to discuss his own views.

Neither quote of mine is represented faithfully. The first had nothing to do with scorning other people; it was a statement about how ideas and beliefs must be judged on their merits1. I stand by that statement, and emphasize that it applies as much to my ideas as anyone’s. Meanwhile, my request that atheists’ arguments be given consideration was made specifically within the context of our being invited into debate by the religious. I demand no special audience from anyone. If someone invites me to hear their argument in honest academic discourse, however, then they ought to grant me the courtesy of reciprocating that consideration.

Perhaps what confuses Blair is that I reserve the right not to enter into debate at all. Murray was eager to find a way to coerce his opponents into debating him, and assumed that those who failed to meet his challenge were either cowardly or incapable of defending their position. He ignored, however, all the legitimate reasons as to why someone perfectly capable of holding their own in religious debate would nonetheless choose not to. Maybe they have better things to do. Maybe they just aren’t interested or don’t feel like it. Maybe they feel that debate would be futile. Regardless, justification isn’t necessary; no one is required to enter into debate if they don’t want to.

But never did I suggest that I or any other atheist deserved to be granted a special audience even if we chose to abstain from debate. I find Blair’s attack particularly galling in light of the fact that that’s precisely the attitude I rebuked Murray for holding; indeed, that was the main point of my editorial! Murray, frustrated at finding people who disagreed with his beliefs, sought to draw them into open debate so they’d consider the merits of his position. However, Murray offered no indication that he was prepared to consider counterarguments from them in turn. “[R]eserves the right to openly scorn others . . . but demands a respectful audience to discuss his own views” hits the nail on the head.

As for Lerman’s comic strip and its relation to my supposed “double standard”: I might have been inclined to chastise Lerman for “‘belittling and insulting’ Murray for his beliefs” if I had thought that was what his comic was doing. As I read it, Lerman’s comic wasn’t mocking Murray’s beliefs so much as it was criticizing his hyper-sensitivity to having someone disagree with them (not to mention his apparent difficulty in writing a coherent editorial column). In no way did calling Murray’s beliefs “fairy tales” negate this criticism2. Clark and Blair, however, trumped up those two words as if the entire strip were nothing but a grave insult in lieu of substantial criticism.

A “fair hearing” for both sides is all I ever asked for. Blair claims that “intellectual Christianity welcomes honest, reasoned criticism.” But he, like Murray, seems unable to conceive that those of us who smirk, laugh at, or otherwise publicly express disagreement with religious sentiments are capable of levying such criticism. Instead, Blair assumes our position is “based on nothing but the dogma of secularism’s intellectual superiority” and “rests on the assumption that people who disagree with [us] are stupid.”

He boasts about The Apologia’s having interviewed Dan Dennett last spring. Now, Dennett has done his fair share of smirking at religion. Presumably The Apologia did not accuse him of “cheap insults” or “assumptions of intellectual superiority” when they approached him for an interview. Why not extend that same courtesy to fellow members of the Dartmouth community?

In the course of this exchange, neither I nor Lerman ever called anyone stupid. I know far too little about Murray, Clark, or Blair to think any of them stupid3. I think they’re wrong. Wrong, wrong, a thousand times wrong! But not stupid!

Nor is my position based on dogma. Perhaps Blair simply has difficulty accepting that there are those of us who have heard the arguments in favor of religion and yet find them wanting. He, Clark, and Murray all call for open dialogue about religion, failing to realize that the dialogue is already happening and (in my humble estimation) they’re losing.

Allow me to reiterate my position on tolerance, since it seems to have gone unheeded by Blair: there is nothing “false” about our tolerance for the religious. We aren’t trying to silence them, get them expelled, or burn them at the stake. As much as I disagree with their beliefs, I nonetheless believe in my heart of hearts that they have a right to self-determination. But as Amanda Marcotte recently put it:

Look, I think believers and atheists should practice tolerance and get along. Of course I do. But practicing tolerance does’t mean that you have to pretend that a truth claim isn’t a truth claim. As believers feel free to make claims about the way the universe works, then they should be challenged on it. That’s what happens when you make truth claims. That your claims are hard to back up is unfortunate, but that isn’t the fault of atheists, and calling atheists mean because this is true doesn’t change that. Having your arguments disproven isn’t assault, and using terms like “pummel” implies coercion that is not going on. You’re free to believe that the moon is made out of green cheese, but being free to believe that doesn’t require that other people coddle that delusion.

Murray, Clark, Blair, and others are free to believe what they will. They are welcome to try defending those beliefs with reason. But they need to be prepared for disagreement.

1 Full quote: “Ideas and beliefs, however, are automatically entitled to neither respect nor even tolerance. Respect must be earned; ideas must be allowed to stand or fall on their own merit.”
2 That’s what I meant when I defended the comic against the accusation that it was ad hominem. Argumentum ad hominem is an attempt to undermine a person’s position by linking its validity to an irrelevant aspect of that person’s character. I’ll concede that, in common parlance, “ad hominem” is often used (rightly or wrongly) to refer to any personal attack. However, though getting personal may be considered impolite, it isn’t inherently fallacious.
3 The fact that they’re students at Dartmouth weighs against it, though doesn’t preclude it.

Religious Discourse at Dartmouth

One of my greatest regrets about college is that it took me so long to realize that I was an atheist. I didn’t come out as such until partway through my senior year. Dartmouth was sorely in need of some atheist activism, and I’m sorry that I graduated before I could contribute. However, I may yet be able have some impact on my alma mater.

On 17 Nov, Justin Murray ’13 published an editorial in The Dartmouth (America’s Oldest College Newspaper™) decrying the lack of respect that his religious beliefs are shown:

I have a special talent: I can identify nearly every skeptic in any crowd without asking questions. All I do is announce that I’m Catholic and wait to see who smirks.

Murray went on to accuse the “cynics” on campus of hiding behind tolerance as an excuse to avoid religious debate. Because clearly, the only reason we wouldn’t want to debate him is because we’re cowards. One of The D’s cartoonists, Drew Lerman ’10, gave Murray’s editorial the rebuttal it deserved. But Charles Clark ’11, editor-in-chief of Dartmouth’s Christian apologetics magazine, wasn’t impressed. He published an editorial in The D on 23 Nov, supporting Murray and dismissing Lerman’s comic as intolerant, ad hominem, and anti-intellectual. (Lerman had an answer to that, as well.)

Today, I am proud to say that The Dartmouth published my column, under the headline Calling It Like It Is, giving an atheist’s perspective on the state of religious debate at the college. The editorial is available on The D’s website and reproduced in full below.

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Tangled Bankruptcy: Response to Nathaniel Jeanson

Nathaniel Jeanson, newly of the Institute for Creation Research, gave a lecture in Boston last night entitled “Evolution: Bankrupt Science, Creationism: Science You Can Bank On.” This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with how creationist arguments work, but there was absolutely nothing new about his talk. As a freshly-minted doctoral graduate from Harvard’s molecular biology program, Jeanson is the embodiment of the very bleeding edge of so-called creation science: a dull intellectual wasteland rehashing decades-old arguments long since refuted, unable to be fertilized even by graduate-level training at an Ivy league university.

I attended the lecture with the Boston Skeptics. It was was mostly one stale, nonsensical creationist talking point after another, spanning everything from geology to astronomy to biology (in case you hadn’t guessed, by “evolution” he meant “every field of secular science that challenges Young Earth Creationism”), with bits of pieces of pure absurdity sprinkled in for flavor. I had to chuckle a bit when he brought up Irreducible Complexity; and here I had though Behe had gone out of style. There was, however, one claim he made late in his talk that caught my interest as a biologist: he suggested that the variation between species in a protein called cytochrome c (“cytC”) actually refutes common descent.

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A Laughable Attack on Common Descent

I like to keep tabs on some of the more prominent creationist websites, such as the Discovery Institute’s “Evolution News & Views” page and William Dembski’s group blog “Uncommon Descent.” Cornelius Hunter, author of some cdesign proponentsist book or other, has been making regular appearances on both sites lately, cross-posting items from his own blog.

Many of his rantings have fallen into the classic fallacy of argument from incredulity: “I personally can’t imagine how X could be possible (and I’m going to ignore your attempts to explain X), therefore X is impossible.” It’s hardly worth addressing such resolute and deliberate ignorance.

But one post of his, which appeared at the Disco ‘Tute the other week, contained a particularly glaring abuse of logic. He uses a recent study, an investigation into the potential evolutionary origins of laughter, as an excuse to lash out at the evidence backing common descent:

Evolutionists group species by similarities, thinking this reveals patterns of common descent. Then they find another similarity (not surprisingly with the same pattern) and they conclude it must have evolved. After all, it fits the pattern.

Hunter goes on to call common descent “laughable.” But I’m absolutely stymied by his parenthetical note above. If he rejects common descent, why isn’t he surprised to see a new similarity fit the same pattern? I therefore pose this question to Hunter, or anyone who thinks they can suggest an answer. Please, enlighten me.

Why would otherwise completely unrelated traits exhibit common patterns of shared expression between species, unless those traits conform to an overarching pattern of inheritance via common descent?

Salient Notes on Antivax

Antivaccinationist claims are many and varied, and it would be impractical to try to address all of them thoroughly in one place. There are, however, a few recurring themes.

Someone recently asked me for a summary of the vaccine controversy; she knew few details, but wanted something to share with coworkers who had concerns about vaccinating their children. Therefore, I threw together this quick list of notes for her based on my memory of all that I’ve read since I started following this issue.

A more thoroughly researched resource by Todd W can be found at http://antiantivax.jottit.com/ (via BA). This was just intended as an introduction to current topics in the antivax manufactroversy (manufactured controversy), a launching point (if need be) for more in-depth inquiry.

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The Folly in Praising Folly

The New York Times published a puzzling op-ed yesterday: In Praise of Folly, by religious affairs correspondent John Berwick. The piece is an attempt to preemptively defuse any unfortunate statements Pope Benedict XVI might make in his upcoming tour of the Middle East by putting a positive spin on some of his controversies to date. The spin, however, just leaves me feeling a little queasy.

Berwick refers to four specific “bloopers” made by this pope that have caused an uproar: a speech associating Islam with violence, the repeal of excommunication for Holocaust-denying bishops, the suggestion (made en route to Brazil) that pro-choice legislators be excommunicated, and his recent assertion that condoms are actually exacerbating the AIDS epidemic. “Bloopers,” seriously? I’m sorry, but dripping ketchup on your papal regalia, mistakenly addressing a bishop by the wrong name, stumbling as you climb out of the popemobile: these are the sorts of things I would consider bloopers. Using your position as leader and figurehead of a major world religion to make an apparent endorsement of those who dismiss as myth one of the greatest atrocities of the twentieth century is, at best, a faux pas.

Going beyond downplaying these statements as mere whoopsies, Berwick argues that the net result of such inflammatory statements has been a net positive. Pope B-16′s offending of Muslims, for instance, ultimately resulted in the formation an unprecedented Catholic-Muslim interfaith forum. I’ll grant you, that’s pretty impressive. And all it took in the interim was huge Islamic outcry, the razing of some Catholic churches, and a nun murdered in retaliation! Berwick’s right, who needs all that “prudent diplomacy” after all?

Furthermore, are we to believe B-16 has been playing reverse psychology in all these instances, just to get people talking? To what extent should we credit the Pope with the benefits of the backlash against him? Maybe this Independence Day I’ll raise a standard in honour of King George III, true author of the US Constitution!

But most of all, I’m troubled by the inclusion of Benedict’s statements regarding AIDS and condoms. Berwick mentions it only once; he doesn’t bother to rationalize that one away, nor do I think he’d be able to if he tried. Berwick insinuates in his editorial that the pope’s critics are no more than “arbiters of political correctness.” But Benedict’s statements about condoms were not politically incorrect, they were factually incorrect. They were a blatant, deliberate falsehood that threaten to undermine humanitarian and medical efforts. That Berwick would have us turn our heads from that so the pope can save face is deplorable.

assorted bits of Aaron Golas