atheism, christians, education, health care, justice, Mormonism and other forms of child abuse, religion, religious right, Things We Should Know, willful blindness to absurd extremes

The Ultimate Responsibility

I am not a parent. It’s not that I didn’t want to be, I love children, and they seem to tolerate me well enough; events in my life have thus far prevented me from being a father. Which, of course, does not preclude it from happening in the future, and as time marches on, I have come to realize that I will in all likelihood become a ‘step’ to an older child or children, perhaps even adult children. I look forward to whatever life brings in that regard – I feel like I would have something to offer in terms of support, love, and guidance should the opportunity present itself.

I have great admiration for my close friends who are parents – you know who you are, and you know I admire you for persevering when times inevitably got tough and for producing incredibly intelligent and just thoroughly fantastic kids. Some of you have faced incredible hardship and adversity and still managed to bring up some resilient and loving children. You are the reason I feel like the future is in safe hands – your children will grow up to be independent, thoughtful adults who grew up to be just like you. Take that, Harry Chapin.

As proud as I am to know some amazing parents, and I know there are many more, I am still incredibly pained to hear of incidents like this. It is completely heartbreaking that parents would follow the pseudo-religious, Spanish Inquisition-like parenting style described in this abhorrent book.

book cover

As the article describes, some of the techniques advocated include:

  • Using plastic tubing to beat children, since it hurts a lot but leaves fewer marks to alert authorities
  • Wearing the plastic tubing around the parent’s neck as a constant reminder to obey
  • “Swatting” babies as young as six months old with instruments such as “a 12-inch willowy branch,” thinner plastic tubing or a wooden spoon
  • “Blanket training” babies by hitting them with an instrument if they try to crawl off a blanket on the floor
  • Beating older children with rulers, paddles, belts and larger tree branches
  • “Training” children with pain before they even disobey, in order to teach total obedience
  • Giving cold water baths, putting children outside in cold weather and withholding meals as discipline
  • Hosing off children who have potty training accidents
  • Inflicting punishment until a child is “without breath to complain.”

That children have died is horrifying, although frankly not surprising. A childhood should be a time of joy and learning about the world, it should never resemble a reign of terror. Any “parent” who decides this type of parenting is acceptable is not fit to lead a child into the world.

The fact that it is couched in religious overtones is not in the least surprising. Not only do some of the faithful adhere to the above child torture techniques (I’m the first to admit that not all do, however), some will also refuse medical treatment for their children on religious grounds. The only way we have to prevent abuse like this is to remove faith-based exemptions based on religious belief when a child’s health is at stake. Prayer in all its forms and manifestations have never, ever been proven to be effective in treating illness of any kind, and medical science has been proven unequivocally effective in saving lives, preventing infant mortality, and relieving suffering. Some of the cases listed here are absolutely horrifying. There is no excuse that could justify denying a child a chance at life simply because a parent believes illness is a test or part of a divine plan. Listen up, sunshine, if there were a deity, he created doctors and health care professionals as well as your weak-willed, deluded self. Get in the internal-combustion tool of satan horseless carriage and get your unfortunate spawn to the hospital. If you are lucky, the child will live – if we’re lucky, you’ll never see them again.

I realize I am not going to change anyone’s mind if they choose to follow an abusive religious creed, but if enough of us express our outrage at these types of abuses, perhaps the ruling classes will dilute the opiate just enough to prevent this from happening – even once. Religion, as a phenomenon of human behaviour, should never play a role in determining social or legal responsibility for anything. Marriage is not a religious ceremony, it is a legal one sanctioned by the state – they just let guys in weird dresses officiate. Voting is not a religious duty, it is a social one. I have no objection to religious faith as a private expression of a need for security or a need to feel special or to feel part of a community; however, when you start making decisions on other people’s behalf – what they can or cannot do or say or wear or who they can love – then, I object in the strongest possible terms. This applies to the act of parenting as well. If we value our children and want them to be responsible adults, let them choose to follow or not follow whatever creed works for them. When it comes to a child’s heath, however, your duty as a caregiver always supersedes any doctrine; the need to keep a child alive and to ease their suffering and seek a cure from sources that are proven to be effective is and always should be the moral imperative, not service to some imaginary, insecure dictator.

Religion be damned, if you’ll pardon the expression.

entertainment, media, science, Self-righteous asshole, Things We Should Know, willful blindness to absurd extremes

The Vast Difference Between Balanced and Irresponsible

Sigh.

If you’ve been reading my little posts for a while, you’ll know how I decry irresponsible journalism. On the flip side, I am an admirer of good journalism – writing that informs about legitimate debate and shows signs of painstaking research and fair examination of both sides of an issue.

Once again, Time Magazine shows us the difference between legitimate balance and useless filler. Jenny McCarthy is the subject of an article in which she claims to have ‘cured’ her autistic son. Oddly enough, Time manages to both justify (poorly) thir reasons for running the story and indicate why it shouldn’t have run in the first place:

To McCarthy’s opponents, from the public-health officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to the pediatricians of the American Academy of Pediatrics, this makes McCarthy much worse than a crank: she’s a menace to public health.

So, the recognized scientific authorities on this topic disagree with the half-wit actress and former Playboy model? It’s not hard to decide who carries more authority in this case.

They ask why so many mothers are reluctant to vaccinnate their children based on McCarthy’s insistence that they are dangerous. That’s an easy one: They are idiots. Easily-led, scientifically illiterate idiots. Articles like this one will only make the problem worse, thereby giving Time the opportunity to exploit the resulting catastrophic preventable illness rates somewhere down the road.

In responsible scientific journalism, debate is important – two sides, both interpreting evidence they have gathered, but who have reached different conclusions. This is the essence of constructive debate, and is reflective of how science is built – good scientists always accept the possibility that they may be wrong. All of it is based on evidence, however. To juxtapose the results of hundreds of scientific studies with the beliefs of a third-rate actress is clearly wrong. The arguments are not coming from the same basis of assumptions – one is systematic, the other emotional. The evidence is clear: vaccinnes do not cause autism. Even the single study cited by vaccine panic-mongers is an admitted falsification, and is therefore invald. Preponderance of scientific evidence vs. fake science and anecdotal belief. Which should you choose?

Yet, Time insists on perpetuating the myth by giving McCarthy a venue to create more risk to children.

Let’s use a crude (very crude) analogy to demonstrate: I hereby deny the existence of Australia (no offence, just the first thing that came to mind). I’ve never seen it, except on maps. Well, what is my motivation to trust the representatives of the mapmaking industry? They have a vested interest in maintaining the illusion that Australia exists. How else would they maintain sales of maps of certain portions of the Southern Hemisphere?  Basically, I’ve never been there, never experienced the country directly, so I don’t believe it. What about all the people who have been there? In the pocket of Big Cartography. All the pictures? Faked – probably New Zealand or clever photoshops.

So, within a logical (although deeply flawed) framework of belief, for which I could probably gain support from at least a fringe portion the billions of people who have also never visited there, I have made my case. I demand equal time in Time to defend my views, because only then will they have fairly presented all sides.

In a word, no. Time, and other venues, need to wake up to the fact that not all views are equal. Despite the insistence of politically correct postmodern apologists for the validity of all ways of knowing, some beliefs are demonstrably, objectively and irrefutably wrong. Jenny McCarthy’s views on the link between autism and vaccines is one of them.

I know, my position is impossibly naive and not reflective of the competitive world of infotainment that news has become, but I can still hope for better. I can hope for someone, somewhere, to wake up and realize how irresponsible this type of reporting is. Somewhere in the world is an editor who can stand up and say, “No more”.

Except in Australia, of course.

christians, Conservatives, Inflaming rednecks for fun and profit, media, Mormonism and other forms of child abuse, religion, religious right, willful blindness to absurd extremes

Devil’s Advocate

As a follow-up from Kevvy’s post on the absolutely breathtaking inhumanity of Pat Robertson, particularly in regard to the Haitian disaster, I give you video evidence of the greatest single exhibition of assholatry in human history:

I take some small measure of enjoyment from the look on his confederate’s face – watch again and see how she’s barely suppressing her disgust.

So, sowing discord, taking joy from the misfortunes of others, preaching prejudice and hatred… Who’s the agent of ‘satan’, Pat?

Actually, I take that back – if I’m going to invoke the concept of religion to criticize this putative pinnacle of piety, I have a better idea of who the linkage should be with.

business, Corporate simpering, entertainment, Fox, Glenn Beck, Inflaming rednecks for fun and profit, Joe the Fuckwhit, Lying douchebags, media, politics, Sarah Palin, Things We Should Know, willful blindness to absurd extremes

Journalism’s Infinite Regression

The New York Times reports that media has started chasing its own tale over the ‘Birther’ movement – the group of fringe lunatics that believe President Barack Obama is not a natural-born American citizen, but rather a citizen of Kenya. I sincerely believe that, if nobody else has, that Jon Stewart effectively showed how absurd the whole idea is. If your plan consists of giving birth to a child in kenya, then announcing the birth in the Hawaii papers, then essentially sitting back and waiting for the plan to come to fruition by the child becoming President of the United States, well… It’s not really much of a plan, is it?

The problem is not that a small and dedicated group of nitwits believes that the whole idea is even plausible, but the fact that the media is paying attention to it. Psychologically, the human mind is designed to take note of novelty, or the unusual – these characteristics stand out and are remembered, even without benefit of context. If I write a headline saying that Stephen Harper is not an alien eater of kittens, the average mind wil remember the alien kitten eating over the ‘not’, nine times out of ten. Six months from now, the alien kitten eater will be the story, not the denial. So, by repeating the meme of non-citizenship, even in the context of a fringe belief, that element of the story will be remembered, not the fact that it is demonstrably false. Even in the slower summer months, there is no excuse to pay attention to these people, even in the increasingly condescending manner in which it is being done.

Reporter

Now, read the NYT story again – do you notice the actual theme of the story? It’s the media coverage of the fact that the media is reporting the story, not the story itself. The reporting is now about the reporting, not about the story.  I anxiously await the moment in which some intrepid journalist decides that the reporting of the reporting is worth reporting on, and the declining edifice that serves as an excuse for journalism will collapse in upon itself, a black hole of self-referential and poorly-formed ‘ironic’ rhetoric from which no intelligence, let alone news, can escape.

The most problematic part of modern reporting is that so much of it becomes about profit, not the importance of informing the public about important issues – this has, somewhat inevitably, created a culture that reveres the entertaining over the important, the popular over the truly necessary. I decided some time ago that I would make a terrible reporter, simply because I do not possess testicles large enough to let me forget that the weeping individual I am hounding for a quote has just lost a loved one, or that the non-white child is as important as the white one when they go missing. Priorities become misplaced, and ethics are forgotten, in favor of shareholder profits, translated through Nielson ratings or circulation figures.

In journalistic history, the importance of thorough and verifiable research has given way, thanks to the high-pressure, high speed requirements of the entertainment industry, to the quick source, the easy road, the fast payoff. Opinion becomes fact, or at least becomes the object that becomes important. The prominence of a public figure becomes the barometer that measures the reliability or news-worthy-ness of a story. If Bono, or Megan Fox, or ‘Octomom’ make a public announcement, that becomes news – the story of the day becomes the exploration of motivations for the statement, and then becomes about the other news outlets reporting the same story… Why? What possible justification, besides the quest for profits (whether overtly stated or implicit in methodology) can there be to even imply that something a musician, or actor, or mentally ill person has to say has even the least relevance to people’s experiences, or will have any long-term effects whatsoever?

I have written before about celebrity culture, and the sad commentary it provides on the priorities we as a society possess. We now, however, are experiencing the first instance of a manufactured, explicitly political individual who is carefully designed to exploit emotion and discourage independent thought: Sarah Palin. She has no actual qualifications other than her fame (or infamy) – she was a small-town Alaska mayor, and a Governor who didn’t even finish her first term, but she looks good on camera, and she has a troubling, yet undeniable populist persona that will motivate the faithful to follow her into the fires of her own manufactured armageddon, if that’s what she asks. She is a celebrity, without the benefit of an acting or music career, who parlayed her looks and folksy charm into small tastes of political power – and let there be no doubt that she likes it and craves more. Unfortunately, very few people in the media, who are terrorized by the fear of offending the joe six-packs in the viewing audience, will call “Bullshit!” on the whole affair and point out that she is a celebrity, not a civil servant. Nor will they point out just how dangerous charisma, raw emotion and popular appeal are without thought and reasoned debate.

The problem is not just that this idiot is wasting our time, but that the hunger for power and blind faith could lead people to react emotionally and viscerally to percieved threats that do not even exist – she is fuel for every paranoid conspiracy theorist and armed ‘revolutionary’ in the wilds of America. That is dangerous – people could actually die as a result. We need to acknowledge that paying attention to her is actually harmful, and does not constitute keeping the public informed in any valid way.

So, journalists, let’s see you grow some – call out hypocrisy, and ignore the fringe – that’s what they are, the fringe. They are called that for a reason, because the larger populace does not subscribe to their views. Covering them is promoting them, since the public probably can’t detect your snarky tone and will remember only the loudness of the message. And for goodness’ sake, don’t under any circumstances report on other news outlets – you may think you’re doing us a service, but you’re not. In fact, it’s been a long time since you informed us rather than trying to influence us. The Walter Winchells and Walter Cronkites (need more Walters – but not Barbara!) of the world have given way to the Charles Foster Kanes – if the story isn’t there, manufacture one, then decry the fact that others are doing it too. It’s not black and white anymore – all of today’s journalism has turned a vivid and troubling shade of yellow.

Canadian politics, censorship, christians, Consevatives, culture, education, Mormonism and other forms of child abuse, politics, religion, willful blindness to absurd extremes

Close Your Eyes, Honey. Reality Will Pass Us By Soon…

In the interests of “getting parents involved in schooling”, Alberta has passed a law requiring schools to notify parents when ‘controversial’ topics such as sex, sexual orientation or religion will be discussed.

Or, to put it another way, intolerant lobby groups have successfully enabled intolerant  parents of innocent children to discourage intelligent debate and ignore facts that can influence their socialization, their health and their well-being. The “ignore it and it will go away” philosophy of education hasn’t really been a huge success in the past, and I wouldn’t necessarily expect it to work to anyone’s benefit this time, either. The law places limits on free speech that would be unacceptable outside a fascist dictatorship – having studied education, the free flow of ideas and the pursuit of knowledge through unlimited questioning of assumptions seems to me to be the most effective way of creating a citizen that is informed and willing to engage in their communities and the political process, not to mention increasing the odds that they can and will learn from other cultural traditions through a fair-minded and inquisitive approach to social interaction.

What Alberta is creating, by allowing reactionary parents to deny exposure to knowledge and controversy to their children, is another generation of reactionary parents. Ignorance breeds fear, which leads to hatred. That fundamental fact of human nature seems to have escaped the legislators out there. Take away the right of children to be educated through free inquiry, and you are robbing them of experiences that, while sometimes uncomfortable, can be life-affirming and character building. The parents in question obviously lack confidence that educators can protect children from the evils of sexuality and other religious views – I lack that confidence too, but that to me is a positive, not a negative. If I were a parent who were worth anything (as I consider Kevvy to be, for example), I would be there for my children to discuss anything they were disturbed by, to help give them context and the benefit of my experiences, not take away the opportunity for them to ask the questions out of a sense of parental laziness: “I’m too busy to set them straight on these liberal ideas, so it will save time if they are not exposed to them.” If parents were doing the job they are supposed to do, socialization into the family unit with all of its benefits and flaws, the law would not be necessary, and children would be free to form their own opinions.

You have done teachers, and especially children, an injustice. For the sake of political capital among the conservative ‘grassroots’, you have created the means to perpetuate ignorance and hatred, to place children’s health at risk, and to leave the impression to other Canadians that Albertans are ignorant hicks.

Not all of them are, I understand, but certainly the politicians are looking more and more like it.

atheism, christians, culture, religion, science, willful blindness to absurd extremes

Fish Story

So, Stanley Fish has felt the need to reply to the flood of reader responses to his blog post about religion, as I commented on here. His post begins thus:

According to recent surveys, somewhere between 79 and 92 percent of Americans believe in God. But if the responses to my column on Terry Eagleton’s “Faith, Reason and Revolution” constitute a representative sample, 95 percent of Times readers don’t.

Need I say, kudos to New York Times readers. He is gracious enough to indicate that the arguments against his original writing were not just name-calling, but contained some arguments to back it up. I will give credit where it is due, he did not have to acknowledge that his readers are actually intelligent, but he did. From there, however, Fish careens off the rails and into a mud hole of obscurity and postmodern blather.

Any long-time readers of this iteration of Blevkog and of its predecessor will recall that I have somewhat of a… problem with the idea central to postmodern thought: all forms of knowledge and understanding are valid, ergo none are. (I direct you to Francis Wheen’s Idiot Proof for a more fulsome discussion on the matter – I highly recommend it)

His main example is a dispute over the authorship of a poem – people, as he puts it, presuppose who the author may be, and see evidence to support it within the text. He extrapolates this to scientific endeavor, with people assuming they will see no evidence of god, so they see none. Conversely, those who accept god will see evidence of his works everywhere. I need not point out to rational readers that this is a classic example of a false analogy, a rationalization built on a faulty premise. The point, to adapt his example, is not to establish which author is reponsible for a particular work, but to establish that a human being wrote it, and that it did not spring from supernatural causes. The assumption of one author or another excludes its’ composition by ghosts or aliens, therefore it is a rational process. The problem arises when you ignore the central tenet of Occam’s razor, and add layers of explanation that require additional assumptions. If I assume Shakespeare wrote a sonnet attributed to him, there are rational and generally accepted ways to analyze the text to look for some clues for alternative attribution. I cannot, however, assume that it was written by a poet in the 30th century who travelled back through time and assumes Shakespeare’s identity when composing the work. It is accepting the limits of reasonable, and indeed possible, explanations that makes the poem analogy work as a metaphor for science.

As the whole piece is built on a faulty premise, Fish must struggle to reconcile the weakness of his analogy with his inability to refute his readers:

To bring all this abstraction back to the arguments made by my readers, there is no such thing as “common observation” or simply reporting the facts. To be sure, there is observation and observation can indeed serve to support or challenge hypotheses. But the act of observing can itself only take place within hypotheses (about the way the world is) that cannot be observation’s objects because it is within them that observation and reasoning occur.

While those hypotheses are powerfully shaping of what can be seen, they themselves cannot be seen as long as we are operating within them; and if they do become visible and available for noticing, it will be because other hypotheses have slipped into their place and are now shaping perception, as it were, behind the curtain.

By the same analysis, simple reporting is never simple and common observation is an achievement of history and tradition, not the result of just having eyes. And while there surely are facts, there are no facts (at least not ones we as human beings have access to) that simply declare themselves to the chainless minds Hitchens promises us if we will only cast aside the blinders of religion.

The fact that this makes his argument invalid as well seems to escape him.

History and tradition govern the operation of science as well – methods are tested and developed, theories and hypotheses are tested and re-tested, we learn from the past. What we should not do is allow the superstitions of the past to overwhelm our reason. If, as Fish asserts, religions are as valid a way of knowing the world as any other, are we to accept the resurgence of human sacrifices to assure bountiful harvests, or to make the sun rise as necessary for our survival? If not, are we to assume that some religions do in fact have a premium over others in their interpretations of reality? Who decides? Is Fish actually preaching the supremacy of his own religion over others, and, if so, doesn’t that violate one of the fundamental ideals of religion (or in fact does it just represent the bias inherent in religious thought)?

We assume the relative importance of things around us, that is true, but that reflects these individual parts’ varied utility to us as we proceed through our daily life – everything around us is simply not as important as everything else. While the ojects in our homes are probably of greater importance to us than the average, they still are relatively more or less important dependent on context – the TV becomes less important as the pipes burst (at least, unless it’s the playoffs – remember, there are priorities). The same applies to facts, particularly about the natural world – they exist, and they do present themselves, but we do have to focus on them and apply the scientific method to discover them in a way that is transparent and rational, and, perhaps most importantly, can be re-discovered by others following the same method. ‘Facts’ in a scientific sense do not come onstage and dance for us unless they pass the auditions, thank you, to borrow from Fish’s artistic metaphor. The assumptions that make science what they are, of precision, of testing and re-testing, of openness to criticism and sharing of knowledge, have nothing in common with the blind faith required from religion – religious ideas fail as knowledge because they require no rigor, only a decision to consciously omit rigor in our thought.

Tradition is, and always is, an insufficient argument to establish anything – scientific methods have come down to us over time, ’tis true, but it’s because they have been proven to be consistent and reliable. Other traditions, like the aforementioned human sacrifices, or prohibitions against women voting, or owning property, etc., simply have no utility in an advanced society – they have no utility in practice.

Science and religion do not compare to one another, and they are not compatible with one another, no matter what anyone says – you do either your work or your faith an injustice if you try to have it both ways. Fish tries, and fails, to denigrate rationalism by indicating that religion is immune from the criticism that it relies on faith. The point is meaningless, and ill-considered for a university professor – it is comparable to saying that I must not be a white male because I have never said that I am (I am, and I have said so, repeatedly – but you take my point).

Perhaps the most telling portion of Fish’s post is the last line, which is simultaneously the most arrogant and ignorant comment I have ever seen, made all the worse because he refers to himself:

I refer you to a piece by syndicated columnist Paul Campos, which begins by asking, “Why is Stanley Fish so much smarter than Richard Dawkins?” Darned if I know.

The article would havc been more informative if it consisted of just that statement. We would then know clearly what Stanley Fish’s thesis was: I’m smarter than anyone else.

Poppycock.

GWOT, religion, religious right, torture, willful blindness to absurd extremes

Churches are torture

Pew reports (here via The Atlantic) that those who regularly attend church services are more likely to support torture, at least in some circumstances: 54% for those attending weekly, 51% monthly, and 42% for those who don’t attend at all.

It’s easy to reflexively say that worshipping a genocidal maniac will do that to you, but of course the answer is not quite as pat as that. The reason lies more likely in the way that politics has entwined itself into religion, especially in the United States where this survey was taken. In the US, Christian churches, particularly evangelical protestant ones (which showed higher support for torture than Roman Catholic or “traditional” protestant), have been courted hard by the Republican right wing for twenty years and have largely become stumps for a hard-line hawkish politic. That there is a greater support for torture in that light is unsurprising.

This reveals one of the troubling aspects about religious belief; the act of belief itself is a passive one in which the believers believe and support what they are told, even when that which they are to believe contradicts reality and even when it contradicts itself. Critical thinking is discouraged on moral issues and those affecting the chuch. Thus, we have a prolonged debate over creationism and young Earth geology despite the evidence for evolution and deep time because reality threatens a literalist interpretation of their holy books. Books which themselves are inconsistent messes on issues that should be hugely important to their adherents, but barely an eye is batted by the congregation. Thus we have religions (in theory) of peace and “turning the other cheek” supporting torture and Jihad. 

That a Christian in North America would today support torture should be of no surprise consdering that they read the wisdom of the Sermon on the Mount but are told to equally uphold Old Testament gibberish about homosexuality – they have lost the critical faculties to differentiate not even subtle moral issues. The ability to critically evaluate a situation or an issue is a learned thing – it’s a muscle that atrophies if not used.

Churches are in the business of forcing and maintaining that atrophy – a believer that starts to believe on their own will soon find that they aren’t happy with that particular church and will wander. Wandering is not condoned.

You’ve got a methodist coloring book
And you color really well
But don’t color outside the lines
Or God will send you to Hell
– The Dead Milkmen