Thursday, August 13, 2009

Visiting the Creation "Museum"

Last friday, 300 atheists descended on the notorious creation museum. The trip was in conjunction with a Secular Students Alliance conference in Columbus, Ohio. I was one of those 300 atheists.

above: the lobby of the creation museum
Why did I see the museum? Mainly because I was curious, not just of the creation museum itself, though that too, but also the trend it represented. The creation museum has become the symbol of the know-nothingism in American society. It seems likely that the creationist will not succeed in imposing their bizarre version of reality on the school-children of America, but the balkanization of reality and a disregard for objective facts exemplified by the creationists has already so permeated out discourse it has become almost impossible to have a reasonable political dialogue in this country. Elect a new president? We're told he's not born in this country, and secretly a Muslim anyhow. Want to reform healthcare? People scream that the new plan will euthanize old people. The creationists are symbolic of this irrationality.
It used to be people were welcome to their own opinions, but not their own facts. Today our discourse allows two sides their own facts as well. As Paul Krugman put it, if a small group of people began claiming the Earth is flat, the newspaper headline would be "Shape of the Earth: Views Differ". Stephen Colbert famously labels this phenomenon "truthiness".
One of the earliest exhibits in the creation museum perfectly illustrates this point. It shows two scientists on an paleontological dig. One scientist says the bones are roughly 100 million years old. The sees the same thing, but says the bones are about 4400 years old (just the idea of a creationist on a dig like this should raise some eyebrows). What is happening here is not two "interpretations" as the museum claims. Instead, the latter scientist has hocked back the facts provided by the find, and made up his own. Basically the museum is saying "age of the Earth: views differ."

The museum is at least consistent . It "teaches the controversy", the thing that the evolution deniers been encouraging rural school-boards to do since time immemorial. A whole section compares the alternate interpretations of "Human Reason" and "God's Word". I note some inconsistency here, a lot of this museum seems to be arguing that the precepts of creation are more reasonable than those of evolution, a feat requiring considerable twisting of the facts.

In a series of displays, we are shown both the fundamentalist interpretation on one hand and on the other hand, the scientific world-view is displayed. The creationists, despite what you may think, do in fact believe in evolution, indeed, they believe in evolution several factors of magnitude faster than anything any true scholar of the subject would ever propose. To the creationists, every animal evolved from several base types over a period of several thousand years since the great flood. This fact allowed Noah to only take on board the basic "types" and thus fit all the animals on the Ark (I was unable to maintain a straight face typing that last sentence). Via PZ Myers, (for soem reason, I did not photograph this) a picture of the genetic divergence of both the "monkey" and the human types. See if you can spot the difference.

Of course, the creationists can't just leave us with the appearance that both ideas might simply be equal so, we are then led in to what might be called atheistland, a representation of our dystopian present. Believers, you see, think of evolution as a sort of Pandora's Box, and when you open it, you never know what will jump out at you. Abortion, euthanasia, acceptance of gays; all these are horrible results of evolutionary theory. We walk through a what could be a recreation of a seedy New York City back ally, replete with newspaper clippings emphasizing these various hot-button issues. The next part of atheistland portrays the spirtual vacuum of a modern suburban home and a wrecking ball destroying a church.
This may be the real reason creationists insist on their cockamamie theories. They are convinced that in a world determined by evolution, people will grow wicked, so it is better that we don't question God's word, even in the slightest. This is highly idiosyncratic. There certainly are ills in our world, but it's very difficult to attribute any of these to evolutionary theory. What's more, our world is superior in a whole host of ways to the pre-enlightenment world, including in being less violent (see previous post). The creationists also ignore the fact that one could just as easily point to horrible things as resulting from christianity. For example, the museum draws a clear link between evolution and "scientific" racism, yet they are clear in embracing the Hammite descent of Africans, the most common justification used for slavery.

There's more material in the creation museum, but this post is getting long, so I will try to cover more in another post.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Is War/ Violence Becoming Less Common?

An interesting article by John Horgan in Slate seems to illustrate pretty clearly that war is indeed becoming a less common phenomenon, especially wars between states. Perhaps this is democratic peace theory at work.
Counting casualties is fraught with uncertainty; scholars' estimates vary according to how they define war and what sources they accept as reliable, among other factors. Nevertheless, a clear trend emerges from recent studies. Last year, 25,600 combatants and civilians were killed as a direct result of armed conflicts, according to the 2009 Yearbook of SIPRI, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, to be released Aug. 17. Two thirds of these deaths took place in just three trouble spots: Sri Lanka (8,400), Afghanistan (4,600), and Iraq (4,000). In contrast, almost 500,000 people are killed each year in violent crimes and well over 1 million die in automobile accidents.

SIPRI's figure excludes deaths from "one-sided conflict," in which combatants deliberately kill unarmed civilians, and "indirect" deaths from war-related disease and famine. If these casualties are included, annual war-related deaths from 2004 to 2007 rise tenfold to 250,000 per year, according to "The Global Burden of Armed Violence," a 2008 report published by an international organization set up in the aftermath of the Geneva Declaration. Even this much higher number, the report states, is "remarkably low in comparison to historical figures."

For example, Milton Leitenberg of the University of Maryland's School for International and Security Studies has estimated that war and state-sponsored genocide in the first half of the 20th century killed as many as 190 million people, both directly and indirectly. That comes to an average of 3.8 million deaths per year. His analysis found that wars killed fewer than one-quarter of that total in the second half of the 20th century—40 million altogether, or 800,000 per year.

Even these staggering figures are low in comparison with prehistoric ones, if considered as a percentage of population. All the horrific wars and genocides of the 20th century accounted for less than 3 percent of all deaths worldwide, according to one estimate. That is much less than the probable rate of violent death among our early ancestors.

This seems to me both contrarian and convincing. Generally, we tend to ascribe violence in society to immutable human nature, and suppose we have some sort of natural tendency toward war and violence. This article explicitly argues the opposite.
Our prehistory seems to have grown more bellicose as time went on, however. According to anthropologist Brian Ferguson, there is little or no clear-cut evidence of lethal group aggression among any societies prior to 12,000 years ago. War emerged and rapidly spread (PDF) over the next few thousand years among hunter-gatherers and other groups, particularly in regions where people abandoned a nomadic lifestyle for a more sedentary one and populations grew. War arose, according to this perspective, because of changing environmental and cultural conditions rather than because of "human nature".
Steven Pinker also argues the same case, but expands it to all forms of violence, looking at homicide rates, harsh punishment and other forms of violence as well as war. He points out that cruelty was once considered high entertainment. The burning of cats to death was once considered very amusing for example. Another example is be bear-baiting, a sport involving a fight to the death between bears and trained dogs. This sport was a major form of entertainment in England until the 19th Century.

Since Pinker is known for, among other things, his blistering attack on those who deny the importance of genes in shaping human behavior, it is interesting that his argument is explicitly not that we have a genetic disposition toward violence, but rather that violence is rational. The logic of a the preemptive strike makes violence tempting option to both sides. If two armed groups exist because each side know that the other side could raid first, and therefore it seems wise to launch a first-strike. This dynamic can also be seen between nations. In 1967, the Egyptian army mobilized on bad information obtained from the Soviet Union about a looming Israeli attack on Syria. Israeli sources picked up the mobilization and the leader-ship decided, knowing the country to be vulnerable to a first-strike, and itself struck first. The result was the 6 Day War. Because they attacked, Israel was able to destroy the Egyptian air-force while it was still on the ground (it should be pointed out that, despite the fact that the war was a stunning success from an Israeli perspective, most of current the problems of the area grew out of the conflict).
John Quiggin of Broken Timber thinks thinks Pinker is confused and inconsistent as to the matter of violence.
I’ve seen this kind of confusion before. Rational egoist models like homo economicus, ’selfish gene’ models like evolutionary psychology, and ‘realist’ models of international relations (in which nation-states are viewed as unitary actors) use similar styles of argument and therefore appeal to the same sort of person, but they radically inconsistent with each other, because they each posit a single level at which everything can be explained, different in each case.

I don't see the inconsistency in the position. The logic Pinker is using is similar to logic used by those who espouse homo economicus and "realist" theories of international relations. "Homo economicus" and "realist" international theory are both suspect for different reasons, the former because it assumes the human being to be rational, the latter because it makes similar assumptions about states, when in reality foreign policy is generally the result of special interest infighting and politicians trying to maintain their power, not "great powers" attempting to maximize their power and influence. However, the argument Pinker makes about preemptive attacks doesn't rely on either of these (or even, in this case, on selfish genes). The level that this takes place in dispute, this effect clearly happens at the level of human organization, whether they are tribes, clans, mafia families or nation-states, as the 6 Day War illustrates.

Sunday, August 2, 2009


One story that has been getting a lot of play is the large group of people who don't believe that the president was born in this country. Obviously, those subscribing to this ridiculous belief simply don't want to admit Obama is a president, and the belief has racial overtones, clearly a stalking horse of those who don't want to accept a black president with a Arab sounding name. Disgusting.
The godmother of the birther movement, lawyer/ real-estate broker/ dentist Orly Taitz was on the Colbert Report. Apparently, Colbert wanted a chance to show just how crazy these people are. She didn't disappoint (also, where the hell did she get the idea that both your parents must be citizens for you to be president?)
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On the other hand, is this really any crazier than the many people who think that George Bush had a role in the destruction of the twin towers? No. Both are stupid conspiracy theories. The difference how widespread the theory is, and who believes it. Only about 20% of southern whites gave the factually correct answer to the question of where Obama was born.

The Republican leadership seems to kowtow to this group of lunatics. If a substantial number of Democratic officeholders had refused to say whether they though George Bush had destroyed the World Trade Center, people would comment.

Show-trials in Tehran

The spirit of Stalin is alive and well. The New York Times:
The Iranian authorities opened an extraordinary mass trial against more than 100 opposition figures on Saturday, accusing them of conspiring with foreign powers to stage a revolution through terrorism, subversion, and a media campaign to discredit last month’s presidential election.

The Tehran Trials seem echo strongly of the Moscow Trials. In the Moscow Trials, Joseph Stalin liquidated all of the "Old Bolsheviks", as well as the entire Politburo, and the purge eventually spread to the general populace, and the secret police were given quotas of people who had to be tried. The (initial) logic of the show trials was to liquidate anyone who could possibly challenge the Stalin's authority.
The Iranian show-trials target reformist Iranian politicians. The even have the classic "confessions".These confessions were clearly obtained under torture. The radio program This American Life recently had a program in which a liberal Iranian journalist describes how he was tortured until he signed a wrote a confession admitting to be a agent of the United States attempting to foment a "color revolution". The segment points out that there have been forced confessions of reformists and journalist being aired on Iranian TV for a decade. The process of torture and eventual confession to bizarre conspiracies is almost identical to the practices of the Soviet government.
The program notes that confessions all have a sameness. Each one was written by the elements of the Revolutionary Guards. The have a preponderant worry about foreign governments, such as the United States and Britain, and with the CIA. The confessions also almost always talk about fomenting a "velvet revolution". These obsessions are easily enough explained, about hlf a century ago, the CIA did indeed over-throw the government of Iran, and the fact that the Revolutionary Guards are so concerned with a "Velvet Revolution" is because they know the regime is vulnerable to such an uprising. To get some idea of the strange paranoia of the Iranian Revolutionary of the conservative Iranian establishment, watch this video.