Sunday, July 29, 2012

Angry Atheist Podcast.

I did an interview with the angry atheist this morning.

Anyone who is interested can give it a listen.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Vouchers and schools and creationists, oh my!

I wrote last weekend about a school voucher program going on in Louisiana.  While I am against vouchers for several different reasons this is understandably a complicated issue with a lot of competing issues to consider.  NCSE published an article about it and I decided to revisit it in a bit detail.

Many people favor vouchers based upon an argument that says that people should have a right too choose.  I don't really see this as a solution to our problems in this area.  I think what I notice is that in politics there are two sides, one that argues that more government control will fix our issues and one that argues that less control will fix our problems.  Politics seems bereft of people, like myself, who wish that policies were made rationally instead of ideologically.  Sometimes more government control is good, sometimes less is, on a lot of issues the amount of government control seems to have nothing to do with the problem at all. 

In the school voucher debate, this seems to be much the same quandary, some people think by getting government out of education the problems we have will simply disappear.  I remain unconvinced of this.  It seems that our problems with education are more complex and require more thoughtful solutions than simply throwing up our hands and privatizing the whole thing.  After all, many other countries with public education seem to be doing just fine.  Further, I think that many politicians in favor of vouchers are simply using it as a smoke screen to promote their personal religion in schools.  Rep. Valarie Hodges that I wrote about in my earlier post basically admitted it was her goal when she backed out upon realizing that Muslim schools would receive money as well.  

Clear evidence that evolution is false...I guess.
For one thing, when the state starts giving money to the private schools now the state starts enforcing more limits and controls on those private schools, so it ends up in many ways not really different than the current system.  There are a few questions that are not answered though.  For instance, under the current law, teachers are unable to lead students in prayer in a public school, but they can in a private school, and the majority of private schools are religious.  Does the government step in and say no school organized prayers?  This would not go over well with the religious right, but if the state is providing funds to these schools allows these school organized prayers to continue are they not allowing states funds to be used to promote religion?  Do we want to allow that? What about creationists text books that teach the Loch Ness monster disproves evolution?  Yes, those books from ACE are, in fact, in use in some of the private schools in Louisiana.

However, some may say, what about the standardized test scores.  It is true that scores on standardized tests are usually higher in private schools, doesn't that prove that moving kids to the voucher system will improve their grades too?  Well, maybe, but then again maybe not.  Let's examine this a bit more closely.

I found a good break down of various statistics about private schools here: 

The statistics for their breakdown comes from the national center for education statistics so I think we can assume they are pretty reliable, a read though the statistics reveals that scores in private schools are indeed better, but this does not automatically mean that the voucher system will improve education.  There are a few things that need to be considered.  The question to be asking is why exactly do people in private schools do better.  I know people of the libertarian mind set seem to believe that the explanation lies in the natural checks and balances that exist in private enterprise which have no analog in government.  Lets just say I do not find that explanation very satisfying.  They may turn out to be right, but both government and private enterprise are run by humans, I have seen no evidence to convince me that private enterprise is less prone to corruption than government or that the reality checks in it are more effective.

First, I am going to point out something obvious.  Correlation does not equal causation.  I know we have all heard that before, but it is an important concept, there are other possible explanations for private school students doing better on tests than private schools are all better and education.  Don't misunderstand, many private schools probably are better in certain respects, but consider a few other hypothetical causes for this.  
  1. There is also evidence that students do better when their parents take an interest in their education.  Statistically speaking I would bet that parents willing to spend money educating their children take a more active role in it.  
  2. Another observation is that children who eat better diets growing up tend to have higher IQ's.  People who can afford private school are going to be more wealthy and therefore more likely to eat better. 
I could probably think of others if I tried but I came up with these two just setting around between calls at work.  Do they totally account for the difference? Probably not, but they do need to be considered before just assuming that vouchers will fix the problems facing education in this country.

There is one other thing I think needs to be considered.  Near the top of CAPE's page they give a breakdown of the tuition costs of private schools.  The numbers are from 2007-2008, but that is the most recent numbers I found online.  

The big thing I noticed here was that religious ($7,073) schools are much cheaper to attend than the non-sectarian variety ($16,247).  Cheaper by more than half in every case.  They give no reason for this, but I suspect that they are cheaper due to being supported in part by churches or other religious organizations.  The reason this is important is because of a piece of information I only discovered a few weeks ago in a conversation I had at TAM.  The amount that the state will pay in your voucher will not exceed the amount that the state spends per student in the public school.  In my state of Arizona this is 7,608 dollars, in Louisiana it is 10,684 dollars per student.  (Yes, Louisiana outspends my state)  

Combining these two figures together should paint an interesting picture.  If you are poor, having 10k of your child's tuition paid is still not likely to get them into a non-religious private school, instead you are left with the religious schools, some of which are (at least in Louisiana) painfully bad.  On top of that, the statistics gathered on this topic may mislead people into thinking that by merely moving their child to a private school they will fix their performance problems and increase their grades.  Which, as I pointed out earlier, may not be the case.

I am sure that there are solutions to the current education woes in our country, but they will not be as simple as moving students to private schools.  Doubly so when you consider that the voucher programs are often a thinly veiled way for fundamentalist Christians violate church state separation, by pushing inaccurate and biased versions of science, and history on U.S. children.  Thanks to people like Don McLeroy we already have enough of that to fight in the public school system, but at least we have the ability to fight it there.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Rabbi Moshe Averick explains to us how he doesn't understand evolution or atheism.

I've written about Moshe Averick a few times before.  Every so often he like to make some inflammatory  post over at the algemeiner about how atheists are amoral and so on.

So he decided to chime in over Rick Warren's tweet about the Colorado shootings.  I do not believe Warren's explanation about how it was really referring to premarital sex, but even if it was, it wouldn't really make the tweet less stupid.  His ignorance of evolution is still there for all to see.

Anyway, Averick's post is the usual inane ramblings about how we atheists have no reasons to not be pedophiles, but there are a few points to bring up.  First, atheists do not say we are animals, biology says that, and it wouldn't matter if there were no atheists, hell it wouldn't even matter if evolution turned out to be false, we would still be animals.  Further, this fact has no bearing on how we should behave, nothing to say about how we form our ethical framework. 

He tries to argue further that without god we are only accountable to ourselves so we can do whatever we want.  However this is simply not true.  Our ethics are formed through a complex process of biological and societal influences, and further refined by our own observations about the results of our actions and the goals we set in our society and as individuals.

Certainly we can choose to shirk the accountability of those systems and ignore the results our actions cause, but what exactly stops theists from doing that too?  Couldn't we tell god to fuck off as easily as society?  Sure he may punish us the afterlife for it, but if your only motivation for behaving is a possible punishment then is that really morality?  Plus we have no experience of said afterlife punishments anyway so how much of a impetus for good behavior could it be?  Psychology shows that most humans are more scared of knifes than guns because most people have been cut but never shot, a pain you have never felt is not a very useful threat.

In any case, statistics don't lie on this, theists are no less likely to commit crimes or behave immorally than atheists.  This is a fact that is roundly ignored or sidestepped every time this topic is brought up.  To claim that the reason for this is because we atheists were raised in a Judeo/Christian society, as Averick claims, demands evidence which he seems reluctant to give.

Of course one of the reasons Averick gives for his claims is that after all, atheistic philosophers agree with him on this.  (argument from authority anyone?)  Of course he backs this claim up with a quote from Philosopher Dr. Joel Marks from an article here.
“I have given up morality all together! [I] have been laboring under an unexamined assumption, namely that there is such a thing as right and wrong. I now believe there isn’t…I experienced  my shocking epiphany that the religious fundamentalists  are correct; without God there is  no morality…Hence  I believe there is no morality…The long and short of it is that I became convinced that atheism implies amorality; and  since I am an atheist, I must  therefore embrace amorality…even though words like “sinful” and “evil” come naturally to the tongue as a description of, say, child-molesting, they do not describe any actual properties of anything…there are no literal sins in the world because there is no literal God…I now maintain nothing  is literally right or wrong because  there is no morality…”
Well, there you have it folks, Marks agrees with Averick completely. It does seem like pretty damning evi....wait what are those three little dots at the end?  Could it be that there is more to the quote?  Lets read the rest.
...Yet, as with the non-existence of God, we human beings can still discover plenty of completely-naturally-explainable internal resources for motivating certain preferences. Thus, enough of us are sufficiently averse to the molesting of children, and would likely continue to be so if fully informed, to put it on the books as prohibited and punishable by our society.
OK, the rest of the quote starts with a "yet," This usually implies that he is going to say something different, and he does.  I can't personally say I totally agree with Marks even here, but still this completely undoes Averick's argument that Marks agrees with him.

I would like to give Averick some room here and say that maybe he just didn't realize that he was quote mining this guy like a political speech writer, but it is hard to believe that he could have accidentally missed the guy completely contradicting Averick's argument here.  Here is a tip, when you see the words like "yet" or "but" there is probably something important there for you to read. 

He then continues his weird line of quotes by quoting Jeffery Dahmer, as if the fact that a psychopath used evolution as a rationalization for his crimes says something important about the science of biology. 

What was I just saying about theists having no better ethics than atheists?

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

This is not the way to do things people.

So I ran into this the other day.  Read, through the posts, I'll give you some time.

Now, I don't really care what rock these people crawled out from under, I don't care if they believe in god or not and I certainty don't care if they think of themselves as rational.

Whether you agree with things said on skepchick or not is irrelevant.

I wish that all of us as fellow god damn human beings could at least agree that joking about raping someone or assaulting them because you disagree with them  (and I damn well hope it was just a joke) makes you an awful, or perhaps just painfully self absorbed, person.

Of course some people on the site did not back this guy up, but there were far too many people making excuses for this sort of stuff.  Such as people who suggested it's all the woman's fault for not being tough enough to laugh off abusive statements and etc etc.....blah blah blah. 

For fucks sake people, stop making the atheist/skeptic movements look stupid.

Update 8/2/2012:  The person who made the initial post on this page apparently apologized for the joke.  Though did not change his position towards skepchick or feminist issues in general as far as I know.  But he did apologize and I felt it was worth updating this post to reflect that.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Louisiana up to crazy anti science stuff.

Louisiana is heavily pursuing a school voucher program for the 2012/2013 school year.  I probably don't have to tell my readers I think this is incredibly stupid.  It will no doubt land children in schools explicitly teaching creationism over evolution and many other church state separation issues.

Oddly enough atheists have found a strange bedfellow in opposing this measure, though abet for very different reasons.

Republican Rep. Valarie Hodges, was supporting the bill until she found out that based on the limits set by the U.S. constitution they can't just support the religion they like, the voucher system has to be open to schools that promote other religions Islam.  She had this to say:
“Unfortunately it will not be limited to the Founders’ religion,” Hodges said. “We need to insure that it does not open the door to fund radical Islam schools. There are a thousand Muslim schools that have sprung up recently. I do not support using public funds for teaching Islam anywhere here in Louisiana.”
First off, not all of the founders were christian obviously to anyone knowledgeable of U.S. history, but mostly I just find it funny that they suddenly understand what atheists are objecting too with school vouchers when they realize that not everyone has the same religious beliefs they hold.

Apparently she thought it was totally cool for the state to support schools supporting Christian schools who teach anti-science rhetoric and revisionist history.

At least there are suits ongoing to block this legislation.

Union sues to block Louisiana school vouchers, funding method

Monday, July 16, 2012

Back from TAM2012

Had a great time at TAM this year.  Even ran into a fellow religious studies major from the college I went to.  Hadn't seen him in about 12 years. 

Watching Penn Jillette play bass was pretty entertaining too.

Also got my picture taken with James Randi, super nice guy, loved hearing him talk about how he stuck it to Uri Geller and all of his psychic nonsense.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Kirk Cameron got some CCOKC

So a bunch of former child actors got together and formed an organization with the acronym CCOKC, short for "child celebrities opposing Kirk Cameron."  Also, yes, it is pronounced cock.

Video here:

Yes, that's right.  There is now an entire organization built expressly to oppose Kirk Cameron, not views he happens to hold, but him personally.

Couldn't happen to a more deserving guy in my opinion.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

FLDS church memebers bury cat alive in Concrete?

Wow, I wish I had something creative to say here, but this is just sick.

The cat was discovered at the home of an ex-FLDS member who has spoken out about some of their unethical practices. I guess some FLDS members decided to prove they were ethical by burying a cat in concrete....OK, so that kinda backfired for them.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Jail Time for Phoenix man in jail over bible study.

Well, that's what the headlines of the all the articles read. But then we all know how the press loves sensationalism.

Truthfully when I first read about this my reaction was that Salman has every right to have a bible study on his property, but I thought back to my time as a Christian and I attended many bible studies and no one ever went to jail over it. Furthermore out government is primary run by Christians, it seemed a bit unlikely that he was being "persecuted for his faith" as many were claiming.

I was sure that there had to be more to the story than this. In fact the man was not really running a bible study at all, but a church, or something very much like a church, with 30 to 40 attendees a week on his property. The courts ruled that his building was not up to codes. I can also imagine his neighbors were probably unhappy to have several dozen cars park on the street once a week. Further, the building permits he filed for his building was for a "game room" not a church building, so it seems he was trying to skirt those zoning laws and safety regulations.

I wish I could say this sort of thing is uncommon, but it seems I see it quite a bit.  A Christian disobeys or ignores laws, justifying the disobedience in his own mind by believing he is doing God's work in some way.  Then when he gets caught and punished he cries religious persecution and claims his first amendment rights are being violated, when nothing of the kind has happened. 

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Sexual selection may not favor promiscuity among males after all.

Occasionally I find myself in a debate about human sexuality and I have noticed a couple of common tropes that come up over and over again.

Of course many will know the common ones that come from various groups of theists arguing for abstinence until marriage.  Of course just because fundamentalists give us biologically incorrect statements like "if you have sex with someone you are having sex with everyone they have ever had sex with" it doesn't mean there aren't some significantly stupid things said by people making completely non religious arguments.

On of my favorite arguments has to do with a suggestion I hear repeated quite often.  The notion that men have evolved to be more promiscuous than women.  This is usually offered as part of the mansplaning done to excuse men who cheat on their significant others.  They seem to think by arguing that this claim is based on science it can't be argued with.  Which is oddly enough the exact opposite of what good science is supposed to be about.  Still I see a lot of people make statements along this line, even ones I think probably mean well, like Dan Savage.  I've also had arguments with lots of assholes who have used this type of argument to explain to me why they were awesome alpha males who got all the chicks, and if I were just more of a jerk I could get women too.

Let me be clear here before I continue, I am not criticizing people who practice polyamory, because in those cases people are being honest with one another.  However I do criticize people who got involved in a relationship under the pretense that it would be monogamous and then at some point decides that was stupid and then go out and fuck other people but fail to discuss this with their significant other.  This carries with it both emotional and medical risks and it's not cool.

Now, for my part I have always had my doubts about this particular line of thinking for several reasons.  For one, the people who say this most often are not actually biologists, or often not scientists at all.  For two, the studies that have indicated this have all been done on much more simple life forms, usually fruit flies, because observing selection pressure requires multiple generations and so studying sexual selection in humans difficult.  Further, trying to generalize the selection pressures of a species like the fruit fly to the ones humans face is more than difficult, there are so many variables between the two that it seems absurd.

That was why I was excited when I read this article recently:

Biologists Reveal Potential 'Fatal Flaw' in Iconic Sexual Selection Study

So to summarize the story, the 1948 study involving fruit flies was redone with more modern methods and the findings were debunked. See, they had no way to gene type back in 1948 so he had to pick flies with genetic abnormalities that caused obvious taxonomic differences in the animals.  This meant he could only count the offspring that ended up with both traits which would theoretically end up being one fourth of the total.  However these mutations hurt survival and thus prevented proper counting which skewed the numbers in the original study.

Also, yes, I was excited by a study about the sexual behavior of fruit flies....don't judge me. 

I suggest reading the whole article, but the end result was that the new study could not find any evidence that there was an evolutionary benefit to male fruit flies having multiple partners.  

Of course the creationists over at discovery institute choose to display their ignorance of anything even remotely related to science by crowing about how this study destroyed a "pillar of Darwinism." You can read the article here:  Bateman's Sexual Selection: Another Darwinian Pillar Falls.

This study does not disprove sexual selection overall, but only brings in to doubt one aspect of it.  Still it is a good lesson, when someone comes along and starts arguing they have a right to be a jerk because science says so they are most likely mistaken about both the science and the ethics.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Loch Ness Monster disproves evolution somehow...

Yeah, this is a real thing:

Actual quote from what Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) apparently thinks is an actual science book.
Are dinosaurs alive today? Scientists are becoming more convinced of their existence. Have you heard of the 'Loch Ness Monster' in Scotland? 'Nessie' for short has been recorded on sonar from a small submarine, described by eyewitnesses, and photographed by others. Nessie appears to be a plesiosaur.
So, just in case anyone was wondering, even if Loch Ness existed and was thought to be extinct dinosaur (which is unlikely) it would not prove evolution in any way whatsoever.

It also claim that solar fusion is a myth and that a Japanese whaling vessel caught a dinosaur, which of course turned out to most likely be a shark if one bothered to read a scientific abstract about it.  Though expecting creationists to read something that doesn't already fit their preconceived notions is probably unreasonable of me.