Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Back With a Vengeance

Maricopa County's Notices of Trustee's Sales continued their record pace in October, totaling 3459...

...and finally we're seeing the effects of this downward pressure on the metro Phoenix median home price (data courtesy ARMLS)...

I might be persuaded to buy a place again in six months or so.

Jon Ronson on Sylvia Browne

Jon Ronson, the author of the excellent books Them and The Men Who Stare At Goats, went on a cruise with Sylvia Browne. He tells the story at the Guardian Online, and it's a good read.

An excerpt:

Famous anti-psychics, such as Richard Dawkins, are often criticised for using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Dawkins' last television series, The Enemies Of Reason, was roundly condemned for making silly, harmless psychics seem too villainous. This criticism might be true were it not for the fact that, when the likes of Sylvia Browne make pronouncements, the police and desperate parents sometimes spend serious time and money investigating their claims.

In 2002, for instance, the parents of missing Holly Krewson turned their lives upside down in response to one of Sylvia's visions. Holly vanished in April 1995. Seven years later her mother, Gwen, went on Montel, where Sylvia told her Holly was alive and well and working as a stripper in a lap-dancing club on Hollywood and Vine. Gwen immediately flew to Los Angeles and frantically scoured the strip clubs, interviewing dancers and club owners and punters, and handing out flyers, and all the while Holly was lying dead and unidentified in San Diego.

Ronson also links to Robert Lancaster's

(Hat tip to Jeremy Goodenough on the SKEPTIC list.)

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Very brief TV appearance

I appeared on KTVK-TV 3 News last night, as the token skeptic for a story about a photograph of the painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe that supposedly weeps. It was FedEx'd to St. Anthony's Church in downtown Phoenix. I didn't have all the details when they interviewed me (they reported it as a weeping statue), so I had fairly generic answers and they used only part of one of my sentences. I was filmed in front of our own copy of the Virgin of Guadalupe--ours is cooler than the original, since it's an Octavio Ocampo metamorphic print ("Los Dones de La Virgen"). I also put a copy of Joe Nickell's Looking for a Miracle in the background.

In the parts they didn't use, I pointed out that weeping icons tend to create large crowds for a church, and then be followed by copycats at other churches, and they tend to exhibit weeping behavior associated with particular individuals (like Rev. James Bruse in Virginia, who had multiple weeping statues). I also said, drawing from Nickell's book, that the usual explanations are condensation, deliberate hoax, illusion, or imagination (the latter referring to cases of pareidolia, a word I knew would be pointless to use in a TV news interview).

Discovery Institute Fellow: Dumbledore is NOT gay

Young-earth creationist and Discovery Institute Fellow John Mark Reynolds has written a pair of articles arguing that Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling's outing of her character Dumbledore as gay doesn't make him so, since the text is silent on the issue. I actually think he makes a reasonable argument, except that he heads in a personally dangerous direction when he writes:

What if Rowling writes a guide to her characters in which she gives new “back story” to the characters?

That too will not matter . . . anymore than I care much about the “Lost Books” (really his notes) that the Tolkien family keeps publishing from the author of Lord of the Rings insofar as it could possibly change the meaning of Tolkien’s main work. The text is fixed and it is as it is. The fact that Tolkien had other ideas about Frodo, Merry, or any other characters is important to discuss how the story came to be, but does not change the meaning of the text, if there is no explicit (or even hint) of the “new” matter.

This seems to be at extreme odds with how most Christians view the Old Testament in light of the New (and, as an aside, how Mormons view the Old and New Testaments in light of the Book of Mormon). It's pretty clear that Christians do hold that the words of the Old Testament have different meanings than Jews attribute to them.

(Via The Panda's Thumb.)

Sounds reasonable to me

Ecuador's president Rafael Correa says that Ecuador will not be renewing the U.S.'s lease of the Manta Air Base on his country's Pacific coast when it expires in 2009. U.S. officials say the base is essential for anti-narcotics operations.

Correa says he will be happy to reconsider if the U.S. allows him to open an Ecuadoran military base in Miami. "If there's no problem having foreign soldiers on a country's soil,
surely they'll let us have an Ecuadorean base in the United States," he told a reporter in Italy.

(Via Distributed Republic.)

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Garbage in on climate change measurement

Here's a blog, Watts Up With That?, that documents with photographs some weather stations that are taking temperature measurements under conditions that violate standards for site locations. There are photos of temperature sensors on concrete, on asphalt parking lots, next to buildings, and close to multiple air conditioners. I was disappointed to see that the University of Arizona, where I went to graduate school, was an offender, with its weather station located in the middle of a parking lot (pictured). Anthony Watts' blog describes the rules for siting weather stations, shows pictures of violators and explains why what they're doing is a problem, and shows the data from those stations.

There are all sorts of bias-correcting measures applied to temperature measurements, but I don't think they are correcting for sensors that are located in the path of air conditioner exhaust.

This might be a reason to prefer satellite data. (NCDC's website has a huge collection of climate-related data from many sources.)

UPDATE: Hume's Ghost points out in the comments that bad sites show the same long-term warming trends as good sites, with a link to his blog, The Daily Doubt, on the subject.

UPDATE (July 31, 2009): Peter Sinclair's Climate Change Crock of the Week has done a video on Anthony Watts' claims--and Watts has misused the DMCA to get the video taken down. But it's back!

UPDATE (February 5, 2010): The U.S. Climate Reference Network provides further evidence that surface station siting problems are not responsible for anomalous temperatures. The linked-to post at Rabett Run includes a comparison of the University of Arizona COOP station with readings from the Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Vote for Fred!!!

Our Fred is a contestant in the National Pet Idol contest. He needs your help to win! Each vote is only $1 and all proceeds go to AZ Rescue . The first round of voting starts today, October 24th through October 31st.

Click here to vote for Fred!


Monday, October 22, 2007

How Bill Clinton set the stage for George W. Bush

Ed Brayton at Dispatches from the Culture Wars presents some of the evidence that Clinton's presidency differed in degree, not kind, from Bush's:
If you despise the Bush administration for weakening constitutional protections, zealously increasing executive authority and weakening the checks and balances inherent in our constitutional scheme, preferring secrecy to accountability, being in the pocket of big business and sending American troops on one foreign military adventure after another, you should recognize that the Clinton administration that preceded this one differed only by degree, not kind, on those matters. And there is little reason to believe that a second Clinton administration would be all that much better.
The book All the President's Spin, by the folks who ran the blog during Bush's first term, makes a similar point about how Clinton managed the media.

It was under Clinton that we got not one but two attempts to censor the Internet with the Communications Decency Act.

On the other hand, there were far fewer American lives lost in military action and we did get the export controls on encryption loosened, so that users of PGP didn't become criminal exporters of munitions just by carrying a laptop to another country.

In a conversation last week, a friend of mine suggested that Hillary Clinton will win the presidency and will demonstrate her military hawkishness by doing something like invading Syria, and will end up making followers out of the right-wingers who currently hate her, ultimately sending us further down the road towards fascism and complete disregard for the rule of law.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Another amusing blog

Yet another dog found

As we set off to take our dogs for a walk down the Highline Canal this morning, we ran into this hound dog coming towards us in the opposite direction. He has a collar, but no tags. He's friendly and well-fed, and (surprisingly for this neighborhood) a neutered male. We've put him in our front yard and given him water, and put his photo up on With any luck, his owners are somewhere nearby. (If they're close enough, they should be hearing his distinctive hound bark...)

UPDATE (1:30 p.m.): His owner put a "lost dog" ad on that we just found, and came and got him. He normally has tags, but they came off when he got out about a week ago.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Sheriff Joe arrests owners of New Times

The Maricopa County Sheriff's Office last night arrested Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin, owners of the Phoenix alternative newspaper New Times, for publishing a story under their bylines which revealed the contents of a grand jury subpoena received by the paper. Revealing the contents of a subpoena is a misdemeanor.

Lacey and Larkin, who have long battled with Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and County Attorney Andrew Thomas, wrote a story about the subpoena because they considered it an attack on the freedom of the press. The subpoena demanded records relating to all visitors to the New Times website over the last four years, including information about what websites they visited prior to the New Times website (i.e., referral URLs)--essentially, the request is for the complete website logs for the newspaper's website for the last three years. It also demanded reporters' notes and any other documents pertaining to stories about Arpaio for the last three years.

Lacey and Larkin wrote that they believed their article to violate the law, but they published it as a form of civil disobedience in order to challenge the unconstitutional abuses of Arpaio, Thomas, and prosecutor Dennis Wilenchik.

The trigger for the events which led to the subpoena (and the apparent event of interest given the dates in the subpoena) appears to be a New Times article from July 8, 2004 which commented on Arpaio's commercial real estate investments and ended with Arpaio's home address, but the paper's criticism of Arpaio for mismanagement, inmate deaths, and grandstanding in front of TV cameras goes back many years more.

Sheriff Joe used to have a dialup Internet account with Primenet, my former employer. At one point one of his assistants, Lisa Allen, contacted Primenet to attempt to get information about a subscriber who had left a critical comment on his website, without a subpoena. We declined to provide such information without a subpoena.

UPDATE (October 19, 2007): County Attorney Andrew Thomas has announced that he has dropped the charges against New Times and dismissed special prosecutor Dennis Wilenchik.

UPDATE (November 13, 2007): New Times ran an October 25 followup story.

UPDATE (October 28, 2008): It has come out that the order for Lacey and Larkin's arrest was given by Arpaio's chief deputy David Hendershott, whom Arpaio allowed to retire so he could receive a $43,000/year pension, and hired him back as a civilian at his same $120,000/year salary. Hendershott now makes $177,486/year working for Arpaio.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Altria's departure from NYC means loss of arts funding

Altria Group's moving its headquarters from New York City means that it will cease supporting the arts in New York, to the tune of $7 million a year. Altria funded over 200 groups in the city and was "the most reliable source of corporate funds for the city's dance companies, art museums, and theaters for over 40 years, consistently ranking as the top giver each year," according to Trent Stamp of Charity Navigator, in a blog post titled "Arts Groups Addicted to Smoking."

Where the deer and the dog play

I'd like to know what happened after this clip ends.

Bambi-Scruffy - The funniest videos clips are here

Good news for global warming

Pirate attacks are up 14%!


Proud atheists: Salon interview with Steven Pinker and Rebecca Goldstein

At Salon, Steve Paulson interviews Steven Pinker and Rebecca Goldstein about their relationship, their work, and their atheism.

(Hat tip to Wade Smith on the SKEPTIC list.)

Josh McDowell's conversion to Christianity

Chris Hallquist takes a look at the different versions of Josh McDowell's testimony about being a former atheist who set out to disprove Christianity only to become a Christian, a finds some reasons to doubt its accuracy, as well as the quality of McDowell's research.

UPDATE (January 2, 2009): Vinny at You Call This Culture? notes that McDowell doesn't appear to have actually been converted to Christianity on the basis of evidence:
Commenting on the Hallquist post, self-identified Christian apologist Kevin H said that he had spoken with McDowell about the matter:

He's the kind of guy who is amused at all that is said about him. I noticed
he was quick to correct falsehoods. For example, he told me that the evidence
for Christianity was a "foot in the door" that kept him from immediately closing
it. But it was the love of God that drew him. It seems he knows, whether his
fault or the fault of the swirling influence of his books and speaking tours,
that people have the conception that he was forced into faith by irresistable

His reading made him realize he could not initially write off Christianity from an intellectual standpoint. But it was a verse in Jeremiah that got to him: "I have loved you with an everlasting love". (Jer. 31:3).

So why would McDowell post statements like he does on his website? There is a big difference between "finding so much evidence you can only come to one conclusion" and "realizing you can't initially write off Christianity from an intellectual standpoint." My answer would be that McDowell knows what sells. McDowell knows that the story of an atheist overwhelmed by the evidence sells books and books speaking engagements, and probably most importantly to McDowell, it persuades unbelievers to accept Christ. The story of an atheist who merely gets his foot in the door is not nearly as dramatic. Story tellers tell their stories in the way that produces the desired effect.

Ed Babinski notes in comments on Vinny's blog post that Josh McDowell Ministries has, in response to queries, suggested that McDowell was not an atheist:

Dear Sharon, Josh says in his tract, "Skeptic's Quest," that he was looking for meaning and purpose in life. He had tried religion when he was young but could not find the answers he was searching for. What he did not know until he was in college was that it is a relationship with Jesus Christ, rather than religion, which gives meaning and purpose to life.

He does not use the word atheist in the tract, but set out to prove Christianity false. Instead of being able to do that, he came to the following three conclusions: Jesus Christ was who He said He was, there is historic evidence for the reliability of Scripture, and the Resurrection of Christ took place.

In His service,
Penny Woods
Josh McDowell Ministry

Monday, October 15, 2007

Yet another puppy found

When Kat got home from work and let the dogs out, she heard an additional dog barking in the backyard. It turned out to be this puppy, perhaps two months old, which somehow got into our fenced yard.

Internet Infidels social event

On Saturday, December 1, the Internet Infidels will be holding their annual face-to-face board meeting in Phoenix. After the board meeting attendees have dinner, there will be a social event at our home. If you're a Phoenix-area supporter of the Internet Infidels or otherwise identify yourself as an atheist, agnostic, freethinker, skeptic, humanist, rationalist, or bright, you're welcome to attend. Please RSVP in order to obtain details and directions, by contacting ii-event at

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Arizona Origins Science Association promotes long-discredited nonsense

A friend who took his family to the Arizona State Fair noticed a booth from the Arizona Origins Science Association last night, and so pointed me to their website. A featured link on the front page says:

Have you been taught or indoctrinated?
- Take a test
- View the answers

The test answers show that this group uncritically accepts bad arguments, such as bogus arguments for a young earth (including making up the nonexistent isotope Po 234), claiming that the extinct pig's tooth of "Nebraska man" was ever accepted scientific evidence for human evolution, claiming that because Peking Man and Java Man are now classified as Homo erectus that it's purely "human" and thus not evidence for evolution, claiming that Australopithecus afarensis is no different from a chimpanzee or bonobo, claiming that all radiometric dating methods are based on untestable assumptions while ignoring the internal checks provided by isochron dating and comparisons of multiple methods where their view has no explanation for agreement, claiming that there are no known beneficial mutations, claiming that index fossils and the ages of geologic strata are the only things used to mutually validate each other, and so on.

It's as if they've never seen the website or the index of creationist claims.

The president of the group, Dr. Joseph M. Kezele, Jr., was previously mentioned on this blog as one of the five Darwin-denying doctors in Arizona who has signed on as a supporter of the anti-evolution "Physicians and Surgeons for Scientific Integrity."

UPDATE: Of special interest on the Arizona Origins Science Association website are responses to surveys about creationism that they sent to various Arizona churches. I was quite pleased to see that many local churches have given responses that challenge AZOSA's young-earth creationism.

For example, the response from Dale Hallberg, Lead Pastor at Esperanza Lutheran Church, writes a comment on the statement "The Earth is relatively young (ten thousand or less years old)" (PDF) after marking it "D" for disagree: "Get serious!"

Fr. William K. Young of St. Christopher's Episcopal Church, in response to the statement "A person must accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior to be saved from eternal separation from God," marks it "D" and comments (PDF) "If so, God help us all!"

Dr. Roger Miller, interim pastor at the First Congregational United Church of Christ, added an entire page of comments (PDF) on the survey after he had viewed AZOSA's website, and writes (in part) that "Sadly, fundamentalism is, per solid research, a demonstration of limited cognitive complexity capacity. Your work, though spirited and apologetically well intentioned, shows both limited understanding of scripture and archaeology. As an M.D., I would hope you'd spend time working for universal healthcare and lower prescription drug costs and leave the theological work to those so trained and the science to those trained in their fields."

Nacchio says government punished Qwest for noncooperation on eavesdropping

Former Qwest CEO Joseph Nacchio, found guilty of insider trading in April, is claiming in his appeal that part of the reason Qwest stock dropped in value is that the NSA cancelled some lucrative contracts with the company as punishment for its failure to cooperate in illegal warrantless wiretapping (unlike AT&T and Verizon).

The Bush administration is pushing for retroactive immunity to be granted to AT&T and Verizon for its participation in these unconstitutional programs by threatening to veto any surveillance bill that doesn't include such immunity. If the Democrats were smart, they'd go ahead and send him a surveillance bill without the immunity, and then criticize him when he vetoes it for taking action that is going to kill Americans.

CIA head investigates CIA Inspector General

CIA Director (and former head of the NSA) Gen. Michael Hayden is unhappy with CIA Inspector General John Helgerson's work uncovering abuses at the CIA, so he's ordered his own investigation of the IG, including an examination of the office's confidential files. That's sure to put a chill on employee cooperation with or reporting of abuses to the IG's office.

Friday, October 12, 2007

The Enron whistleblower who wasn't

Lynn Brewer is a former Enron employee who claims she was an executive whistleblower, and has turned that into a career as a highly paid motivational speaker and founder of the Integrity Institute. But it turns out that she was never an executive, she worked in a clerical position writing summaries of gas and energy contracts. The document she claims was a memo in which she blew the whistle is a document her boss says she never saw and described an alleged financial transaction which she never would have done any work on. Her former VP, Tony Mends, says that Brewer was sent to the UK to train Enron employees on the use of Factiva, but she never showed up to conduct the training, instead traveling the UK with her fiance. She claims she had to stay outside of London because of a terrorist threat, but nobody else in the Enron office in London was kept from going to work.

Greg Farrell at USA Today has done a great job of exposing Brewer's claims and how she has capitalized on being confused for Sherron Watkins, who really was an Enron executive whistleblower.

Brewer's web page at "Speaker's Spotlight" shows that she bills herself as "the" Enron whistleblower and is filled with misrepresentations:
Lynn Brewer's notoriety stems from her actions that have dubbed her "the Enron Whistleblower". Her accomplishments include: Author of Confessions of an Enron Executive: A Whistleblowers Story; Earning a Certification in Business Ethics from Colorado State University; Founder and President of The Integrity Institute, Inc., which assesses and certifies corporate integrity at the request of organizations for the benefit of their stakeholders.

Prior to joining Enron, Brewer worked in forensic accounting and spent 18 years as a legal professional in private practice, until she joined Ralston Purina, where she worked in Corporate Development for the General Counsel and Chief Financial Officer.

As an executive at Enron, Ms. Brewer was responsible for Risk Management in Energy Operations, the e-Commerce initiatives for Enron's water subsidiary, and Competitive Intelligence for Enron Broadband Services. Her responsibilities included financial derivatives and the now infamous "off-the-balance sheet" partnerships.

During her nearly three-year tenure, she witnessed numerous instances of illegal and corrupt dealings, including bank fraud, espionage, power price manipulation and the gross overstatements to the press, public and financial world. When her attempts to notify those inside Enron of her knowledge failed, she notified the United States government, who refused to return her e-mails and telephone calls.

Since leaving Enron, Lynn Brewer has become an internationally recognized speaker providing compelling details into Enron's rise and fall, leaving audiences shocked when they realize how vulnerable they are to becoming the next Enron. A past nominee for the “Women of Influence” Award, Brewer was selected in 2006 for inclusion in the 25th Silver Anniversary Edition of Who’s Who of American Women for her contributions to society.
Notice that she doesn't give her actual title; her claim of being responsible for risk management as though she headed a risk management group is untrue. Her boss, Mary Solmonson, was a director, not an executive. Another boss, David Gossett, who reported to VP Mends, was also a director, not an executive.

I suspect we'll see more allegations and stories of deception by Brewer coming to light. I'd like to know if there's any substance to her claim to have experience in the field of forensic accounting prior to working at Enron. Her 18 years experience "as a legal professional in private practice" really means she worked as a paralegal (which was apparently her role at Enron).

Here's an interview transcript where she misrepresents herself from the get-go, answering the question "what was your role at Enron" with:
I was recruited about three years before the implosion of Enron, to head up a risk management group inside the legal department, that would brief, for senior management and the board of directors, these off the balance sheet partnerships at the centre of the scandal.
She didn't head up a risk management group. She didn't brief senior management and the board of directors. She didn't report on the off balance sheet partnerships at the center of the scandal, she wrote summaries of gas and energy contracts for managers.

UPDATE (October 15, 2007): Lynn Brewer was known as EddieLynn Morgan (her maiden name) while she was at Enron, and her name appears in the "Enron corpus" of emails that were made public after the scandal. Studies of the Enron emails have been done to look at the web of interconnections between recipients, which show that EddieLynn Morgan was a very bit player--she is the recipient of a total of four emails in the corpus, and the author of none.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Ayaan Hirsi Ali to receive 2007 Goldwater award

The Goldwater Institute will be giving Ayaan Hirsi Ali, former Muslim turned atheist author of the book Infidel, its 2007 Goldwater award at an event in Phoenix later this year. I plan to attend and will report here afterward.

Rudy Giuliani's friends

The Carpetbagger Report discusses how many of Rudy Giuliani's friends have been accused of being criminals:

A prominent Texas Republican has sued Rudy Giuliani’s law firm and a close friend and partner of Giuliani’s, Kenneth Caruso, alleging that Caruso, the firm and others “schemed and conspired to steal $10 million.”

J. Virgil Waggoner, a Houston businessman and philanthropist, filed the previously unreported suit in New York State Supreme Court in Manhattan in July. He alleges that Caruso, his former lawyer, conspired with Waggoner’s investment adviser to cover up the disappearance of $10 million Waggoner invested through a Caribbean bank, the British Trade & Commerce Bank.

Waggoner claims Caruso “may have also been romantically involved” with the investment adviser.

Besides Caruso are at least the following:

* Giuliani inexplicably backed Bernie Kerik, and made him the city’s police commissioner, after he’d been briefed on Kerik’s organized crime connections.

* Thomas Ravenel, the chairman of Giuliani’s presidential campaign in South Carolina, was indicted on cocaine distribution charges.

* Arthur Ravenel, the replacement chairman of Giuliani’s presidential campaign in South Carolina, has characterized the NAACP as the “National Association for Retarded People,” and has an unusual fondness for the Confederate battle flag.

* Alan Placa was accused by a grand jury report of sexually abusing children, as well as helping cover up the sexual abuse of children by other priests. Giuliani then put Placa, his life-long friend, on the payroll of Giuliani Partners. (Adds Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of, which tracks suspected priest abuse, “I think Rudy Giuliani has to account for his friendship with a credibly accused child molester.”)

* Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), the family-values conservative caught up in a prostitution ring, was not only Giuliani’s top Senate backer, he was also the regional chairman of Giuliani’s campaign.

(Via Talking Points Memo.)

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Oral Roberts University scandal

Ed Brayton has an entertaining post at Dispatches from the Culture Wars about the lawsuit against Oral Roberts University and Oral's son Richard Roberts by several former ORU faculty:
The allegations are contained in a lawsuit filed Tuesday by three former professors. They sued ORU and Roberts, alleging they were wrongfully dismissed after reporting the school's involvement in a local political race.

Richard Roberts, according to the suit, asked a professor in 2005 to use his students and university resources to aid a county commissioner's bid for Tulsa mayor. Such involvement would violate state and federal law because of the university's nonprofit status. Up to 50 students are alleged to have worked on the campaign.

The lawsuit's allegations include:

• A longtime maintenance employee was fired so that an underage male friend of Mrs. Roberts could have his position.

• Mrs. Roberts -- who is a member of the board of regents and is referred to as ORU's "first lady" on the university's Web site -- frequently had cell-phone bills of more than $800 per month, with hundreds of text messages sent between 1 a.m. to 3 a.m. to "underage males who had been provided phones at university expense."

• The university jet was used to take one daughter and several friends on a senior trip to Orlando, Fla., and the Bahamas. The $29,411 trip was billed to the ministry as an "evangelistic function of the president."

• Mrs. Roberts spent more than $39,000 at one Chico's clothing store alone in less than a year, and had other accounts in Texas and California. She also repeatedly said, "As long as I wear it once on TV, we can charge it off." The document cites inconsistencies in clothing purchases and actual usage on TV.

• Mrs. Roberts was given a white Lexus SUV and a red Mercedes convertible by ministry donors.

• University and ministry employees are regularly summoned to the Roberts' home to do the daughters' homework.

• The university and ministry maintain a stable of horses for exclusive use by the Roberts' children.

• The Roberts' home has been remodeled 11 times in the past 14 years.

Surprise! A televangelist and his family are using a ministry for personal gain.

UPDATE (October 9, 2007): The above allegations come from a report prepared by Stephanie Cantese, Richard Roberts' sister-in-law, which was on a laptop which was being repaired by an ORU student. The student gave a copy to one of the professors, who turned it over to the university board of regents.

UPDATE (October 10, 2007): CNN reports that Roberts has denied (and in some cases, given explanations for) the allegations. (Thanks, Sphere, for the link to this post from the CNN story.)

UPDATE (October 14, 2007): The allegations in the lawsuit have become even more lurid.

Taner Edis on the generosity of the religious

Taner Edis at the Secular Outpost comments on a recent article by Jon Haight about the benefits of religion, including its impact on generosity.

I've previously offered some comments on evidence that conservatives and the religious are more generous than liberals and the secular and that believers are more generous than atheists. I'll add that I doubt that studies of charitable giving dig deep enough to uncover whether the giving is going to charities like these. Is it really being more generous if your charitable donations aren't being used to actually do good?

Friday, October 05, 2007

Sam Harris and the atheist label

P.Z. Myers has written an open letter in response to Sam Harris' address to the Atheist Alliance, in which Harris said this:
So, let me make my somewhat seditious proposal explicit: We should not call ourselves “atheists.” We should not call ourselves “secularists.” We should not call ourselves “humanists,” or “secular humanists,” or “naturalists,” or “skeptics,” or “anti-theists,” or “rationalists,” or “freethinkers,” or “brights.” We should not call ourselves anything. We should go under the radar—for the rest of our lives. And while there, we should be decent, responsible people who destroy bad ideas wherever we find them.
Myers rightly takes issue with this proposal. This quotation was the first thing I read from Harris' address on the SKEPTIC mailing list, and I wrote this in response before I read his entire talk:
I disagree with everybody who says there's only one way we should all be.

I have no problem with there being atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, naturalists, skeptics, brights, humanists (secular or otherwise), rationalists, and people in the closet or under the radar.
But then, after reading Harris' entire speech, I amended this as follows:
Now that I've actually read his essay, I do strongly agree with him that "atheism is not a worldview." It is a small but significant component of a large set of possible worldviews.

I went to my first atheist meetup group meeting a couple of weeks ago, curious to see what it would be like. It was the first meeting of a group of people who have different ideas about what they want to do--some want to be political activists against the religious right. Some want to picket churches. Some want social events with like-minded people. I gave my endorsement for the last of these, and further suggested that they be as inclusive as possible to bring together people from other existing groups in the Phoenix area--skeptics, humanists, atheists, etc., as an informal network to have events and let people know of what other groups are doing. The megachurches succeed by creating a framework in which there are lots of little subgroups catering to a wide variety of interests, and a secular community should offer the same.

Harris' point that "Atheism is not a thing" is the same point I made to this group--it may be that the only thing we have in common is a lack of belief in God. If the group focuses on that, the meetings will be as entertaining as a meeting of people whose only commonality is disinterest in watching spectator sports, who get together to discuss their disinterest in watching spectator sports (or worse yet, watching spectator sports to comment on how stupid it is).
I should add to this that in my opinion, the term "freethinker" includes a subset of theists (I am in agreement with Jeff Lowder on this point, though, unlike Jeff, I believe I have met such people, though perhaps I have confused some kinds of fideists with freethinkers), and I welcome association with them.

I have a preference for the term "skeptic" over "atheist" because I like the way it focuses the attention on method--doubt--rather than on doctrine--lack of belief in gods. If I were to find sufficient evidence for the existence of God, I would become a theist, but I would remain a skeptic. One of the most inspiring books I've read in the last couple of years was Jennifer Michael Hecht's Doubt: A History, because she shows that there is a very long tradition of doubters of the dominant religious views, and that even in cases where doubters are driven underground, doubt resurfaces again.

UPDATE (October 8, 2007): Sam Harris has responded to criticism here, and P.Z. Myers responds to that here. I agree with Myers.

UPDATE (October 9, 2007): P.Z. Myers comments on Sam Harris' references to an atheist "cult." Again, I agree with Myers here--the attributes of a cult are something like this or this. There can be atheist cults, but they need to exhibit those characteristics to deserve the name.

UPDATE (October 16, 2007): Chris Hallquist weighs in on the subject at the Internet Infidels website.

Comment for Angels book author's blog

Comment for Peter S. Williams' blog, which doesn't allow comments except from the blog owner and team members:

Charles Manson claimed to levitate a school bus in order to get it to the group's hideout at Barker Ranch in Death Valley in 1968. His followers claim he did it, too.

We know the school bus got there, because it was still there until a few years ago. The terrain up Goler Canyon Road is very difficult even for four-wheel drive vehicles.

I don't believe Manson levitated the bus (or that there was a single tree that bore twelve kinds of fruit, one for each month of the year, at Barker Ranch, as he also claimed). Do you?

There are also numerous eyewitness reports of remarkable phenomena, including levitations, occurring at Spiritualist seances. However, the most exhaustively documented ones show that eyewitness testimony is at odds with what actually happened--a phenomenon that magicians are quite familiar with. If demonic activity results in such things as levitation, why is it not documentable through video recordings or testimony from witnesses trained in illusion and trickery?

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Angels and demons

P.Z. Myers comments on a couple of professors defending the literal existence of angels and demons. Intelligent design advocate and Discovery Institute Fellow William Dembski on angels:
Peter Williams' The Case for Angels is about…the theological rift between a Christian intelligentsia that increasingly regards angels only as figurative or literary devices, and the great mass of Christians who thankfully still regard them as real (a fact confirmed by popular polls, as Williams notes in this book). This rift was brought home to me at a conference I helped organize at Baylor University some years back. The conference was entitled 'The Nature of Nature' and focused on whether nature is self-contained or points beyond itself. The activity of angels in the world would clearly constitute on way nature points beyond itself.

Why is it important to know about angels? Why is it important to know about rocks and plants and animals? It's important because all of these are aspects of reality that impinge on us. The problem with the secular intelligentsia is that they deny those aspects of reality that are inconvenient to their world-picture. And since the intelligentsia are by definition intelligent (though rarely wise), they are able to rationalize away what they find inconvenient. This is what Bishop Sheen was getting at with the previous quote when he referred to the intelligentsia rationalizing evil, and this what Williams is so successful at unmasking in the intelligentsia's rejection of angels.

There exists an invisible world that is more real and weighty than our secular imaginations can fathom. I commend this book as a way of retraining our imaginations about that reality.

Can Dembski point to any genuine evidence supporting "the activity of angels in the world"? Does his "design inference" allow us to distinguish such claims from projection, pareidolia, wishful thinking, and delusion?

And Biola University philosophy professor and Discovery Institute Fellow J.P. Moreland on demons:

Recently, a hairdresser was arrested for performing cosmetic surgery on several “patients.” When this happens, the results are usually disastrous. Do fraudulent “surgeries” mean there are no legitimate cosmetic surgeries? Of course not.

Recently, a man and woman were caught trying to exorcise a demon from a little child in Arizona. The police found the three covered in blood inside a barricaded bedroom. The man died upon arrest. Do fraudulent, ignorant “exorcisms” imply that demons aren’t real and all exorcisms are bogus? You do the math.

A vast literature supports the reality of demons, and three criteria have been developed for distinguishing demonization from mere psychological trauma: (1) the universal presence of certain symptoms, including satisfaction of biblical criteria, along with responsiveness to the name of Jesus, all of which take place uniformly throughout the world, including cultures that know nothing about the Bible or Jesus; (2) the presence of supernatural power evidenced by such phenomena as moving material objects; (3) the revelation by the demon of detailed, private and embarrassing information about the exorcist in front of others that no human could have known.

These phenomena occur widely. In fact, in a recent alumni publication of the university at which I teach, the cover story featured faculty members—intellectually sophisticated professors with doctorates from top institutions—who have experienced such demonic phenomena. During an exorcism, one professor saw metal objects fly across the room. Another professor has seen this very sort of phenomena in his own condominium in conjunction with a demonized person moving in next door. During another exorcism, a different professor experienced the sort of embarrassment mentioned above. A demon accused him in front of the entire prayer team of specific sins that were detailed, including time and location. I know of others who have seen the same thing.

The fraudulent, crazy exorcisms are the only ones that get reported in the press, but don’t be fooled. The real thing is very different from the bogus ones.

It sounds like Moreland is inferring supernatural explanations for a combination of natural phenomena (perhaps a student accusing a professor of specific acts that had been observed, or phony poltergeist phenomena, usually caused by teenagers whose cleverness exceeds the observational skills of the adults they are fooling) and fabricated claims. Can Moreland even provide a reference for the faculty publication he refers to, let alone the "vast literature" that "supports the reality of demons" or the specifics of the criteria he mentions?

His analogy is bogus--we have ample evidence of real cosmetic surgery, including schools for it and doctors who can perform it on demand (for some cash). There is nothing of the sort for angels or demons, which are somehow resistant to the presence of cameras and skeptics.

UPDATE (October 5, 2007): The Pharyngula article linked from the J.P. Moreland quote above also links to a Biola University (Moreland's institution) article titled "Exorcising Our Demons: Many Evangelicals Are Too Skeptical of the Demonic" which includes this paragraph:
Dr. Doug Hayward — a professor of anthropology and intercultural studies at Biola — team-teaches a spiritual warfare class with Arnold (New Testament) and Dr. John Kelley (psychology) — a class that considers theological and psychological explanations for people who believe they are under demonic attack. Over the years, Hayward has prayed with a number of such students. In rare cases, students have growled at him or become violent.
"People who believe they are under demonic attack" sounds like a class of people no different from "people who believe they are under the influence of CIA mind control devices" like Cathy O'Brien, "Brice Taylor" (Susan Ford) who are either delusional or simply lying. (I briefly discuss O'Brien and Taylor in this blog post on Kola Boof, who has made similarly outrageous claims minus the CIA mind control aspect.) There's a serious lack of skepticism problem here, not a "too skeptical" problem, and I don't expect we'll see these evangelicals make the slightest attempt to dig deeper or apply scientific methods of investigation.

Secret U.S. endorsement of severe interrogations

In today's New York Times:
When the Justice Department publicly declared torture “abhorrent” in a legal opinion in December 2004, the Bush administration appeared to have abandoned its assertion of nearly unlimited presidential authority to order brutal interrogations.

But soon after Alberto R. Gonzales’s arrival as attorney general in February 2005, the Justice Department issued another opinion, this one in secret. It was a very different document, according to officials briefed on it, an expansive endorsement of the harshest interrogation techniques ever used by the Central Intelligence Agency.

The new opinion, the officials said, for the first time provided explicit authorization to barrage terror suspects with a combination of painful physical and psychological tactics, including head-slapping, simulated drowning and frigid temperatures.

Mr. Gonzales approved the legal memorandum on “combined effects” over the objections of James B. Comey, the deputy attorney general, who was leaving his job after bruising clashes with the White House. Disagreeing with what he viewed as the opinion’s overreaching legal reasoning, Mr. Comey told colleagues at the department that they would all be “ashamed” when the world eventually learned of it.

The above is just the first few paragraphs of the first of five pages in the Times. The article goes on to point out multiple instances of the White House saying one thing then secretly doing another, including re-opening CIA "black sites" for "enhanced interrogation techniques." The article ends with a quote from John D. Hutson, "the Navy's top lawyer from 1997 to 2000":

“The problem is, once you’ve got a legal opinion that says such a technique is O.K., what happens when one of our people is captured and they do it to him? How do we protest then?” he asked.
The White House's tap-dancing response to this Times article can be found here.

Bob McCarty suppresses the truth

Bob McCarty, a religious conservative writer, came to my attention for the first time recently when he touted Lauren Green's historical revisionism about the United States, in response to the Kathy Griffin Emmy controversy. When I and others posted comments on his blog pointing out Green's errors, McCarty accused me of "anti-Christian revisionist history," cited some quotes from Thomas Jefferson which made reference to "God," and stated that "I don’t have to read any more books about American history to know that this country was founded on Christian principles and values. Think 'In God we trust' and 'One nation under God.'"

In response to this latter point, I posted a comment which pointed out that those two phrases don't support McCarty's case regarding the founding of the United States and that Jefferson, while a believer in God, did not believe in the divinity of Jesus. McCarty didn't approve my comment, so I posted again to see if it was intentional:
Bob: You didn't approve/publish my previous comment responding to your Sep. 15 comment. I'll try again.

Your citation of "In God We Trust" and "One Nation Under God" as evidence of the U.S. being founded on Christian principles shows your lack of research--the former did not appear on coins until 1854 and on currency until 1957. The phrase "under God" wasn't added to the Pledge of Allegiance until 1954.

I also suggested you read more of the writings of Thomas Jefferson, including his letter to his nephew Peter Carr on August 10, 1787, in which he wrote "Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear."

Oh, and I also recommended that you check out the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli, which was ratified by the Congress and signed by President John Adams, which contains the statement that "the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion." Tripoli violated the treaty and a new treaty was negotiated in 1805 without that language, but it is significant that both the Senate and President approved that language.
In my first pass at a comment, I also referred to the "Jefferson Bible," a version of the gospels which Jefferson produced by (in part) removing all of Jesus' miracles.

Once again, McCarty didn't approve the comments, demonstrating that he's intentionally suppressing refutation of his ignorant statements. It's his kind of dishonesty that can persuade people to believe that Christianity survives only by hiding from facts and promoting the view that "reason is the enemy of faith."

How much animal euthanization is unnecessary?

Maricopa County Animal Care and Control and the Arizona Humane Society regularly euthanize animals, not just because they are terminally ill, critically injured beyond the possibility of saving, or displaying uncorrectable aggressive behavior, but to make space for more owner turn-ins. (Another group which regularly engages in euthanasia of healthy animals is People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, a group which is very good at getting free publicity, raising funds, and polarizing opinions, but not particularly good at directly improving the welfare of actual animals. On occasion they indirectly improve the welfare of animals when they successfully stop cases of severe abuse.)

Tuesday's San Francisco Chronicle reports on the content of Nathan Winograd's Redemption: The Myth of Overpopulation and the No Kill Revolution in America, a book which claims that there isn't a dog and cat overpopulation problem or lack of demand for them as pets, but that most animal control and animal shelter operations are simply not taking the most effective steps to care for their animals. Winograd's book and his organization, the No Kill Advocacy Center, argues that by using effective volunteer animal fostering programs and behavior rehabilitation programs, and partnering with local animal rescue groups, there should be no need to euthanize any healthy, adoptable animals. He's not just talking about it, he's successfully done it as director of operations for the San Francisco SPCA and for a rural animal shelter in upstate New York.

The No Kill Advocacy Center promotes the "No Kill Equation," a set of ten programs that it identifies as mandatory for any animal control or shelter operation to reduce euthanasia to a minimum:

I. Feral Cat TNR Program

II. High-Volume, Low-Cost Spay/Neuter

III. Rescue Groups

IV. Foster Care

V. Comprehensive Adoption Programs

VI. Pet Retention

VII. Medical and Behavior Rehabilitation

VIII. Public Relations/Community Involvement

IX. Volunteers

X. A Compassionate Director

I recommend reading the SF Chronicle's coverage of Winograd's book. If you're a supporter of your local animal shelters and animal control operations and they engage in euthanasia to make space for new animals, they deserve to be asked pointed questions about what they're doing along the lines of Winograd's recommendations.

RESCUE, an organization that we volunteer for, is an organization committed to reducing euthanasia of dogs and cats by taking animals from the Maricopa County Animal Care and Control euthanasia lists and keeping them in foster homes or boarding until they can be adopted out to someone who's a good match for the pet based on the pet's behavior and adopter's lifestyle.

(Hat tip to Jack Kolb on the SKEPTIC list for posting the article about Winograd's book. Thanks, Jack.)

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Zion Oil and Gas

What happens when you rely on the Bible (compounded by even misunderstanding that) instead of oil geology to decide where to drill for oil...

McCain hasn't read the Constitution?

In an interview with Beliefnet, Arizona Sen. John McCain said that the U.S. Constitution establishes a Christian nation:
A recent poll found that 55 percent of Americans believe the U.S. Constitution establishes a Christian nation. What do you think?
I would probably have to say yes, that the Constitution established the United States of America as a Christian nation. But I say that in the broadest sense. The lady that holds her lamp beside the golden door doesn't say, “I only welcome Christians.” We welcome the poor, the tired, the huddled masses. But when they come here they know that they are in a nation founded on Christian principles.
Apparently he, like Rep. Ron Paul, missed the fact that the only reference to God in the U.S. Constitution is the reference to the "year of our Lord" in the date. The Constitutional Convention voted not to open with prayers, Article VI says that "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States," and the First Amendment says that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

The Constitution establishes a democratic republic with a strong separation of church and state by comparison to other nations. The Bible, by contrast, speaks of theocratic political systems with rule by priests and kings.

In 1797, the Senate unanimously ratified and President John Adams signed the Treaty of Tripoli, Article 11 of which began with the words "As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion." (This treaty was quickly violated by Tripoli, and the renegotiated treaty of 1805 did not contain this article, but the important point is that this language was approved by the entire Senate and the President in 1797.)

Higley school district official stops Shakespearean play in progress

Higley, Arizona School District director of visual and performing arts Tara Kissane stopped a performance of "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged)" for 6th to 12th graders in mid-performance because she thought the content was "inappropriate and not a kind of performance that we want them to see."

The performance, by Windwood Theatricals of New York, was attended by students who chose to pay $5 for a voluntary field trip to see it at the Higley Center for the Performing Arts. Kissane interrupted it 40 minutes in, but declined to identify what specifically she found to be "inappropriate." She said that "I thought it was great for college-aged students ... I just thought it was over some of our kids' heads and it wasn't appropriate for our kids. If I'm going to err on the side of anything, I'm erring on the side of caution."

Erring on the side of stupidity, she should have said. So what if it was "over some of our kids' heads"? What about those who were getting something out of it? Why deprive those children on behalf of the lowest common denominator?