Archive for: June, 2007

What are civil rights, anyway?

Jun 30 2007 Published by under Uncategorized

Once again, the unholy wars have broken out here at Scienceblogs. The latest skirmish got started when Matt Nisbet put up an article titled "ATHEISM IS NOT A CIVIL RIGHTS ISSUE." In this article, Nisbet claims that atheists don't face a civil rights struggle, but merely "a public image problem." Many of the comments left over there have argued with that basic point, as have PZ, Jason Rosenhouse, Mark Hoofnagle, and other Sciencebloggers. Personally, I think Nisbet is right on this one - but only if the term "civil rights" is defined so narrowly that it loses most of its meaning.

There is certainly no doubt that atheists in America have a public image problem. Actually, given the polls that have come out suggesting that less than half of Americans would vote for an otherwise well-qualified atheist who belonged to their own party, I'm not sure that "public image problem" really does the situation justice. At a minimum, it's an understatement that's in the same league as calling pedophilia a minor social deviation.

If we define "civil rights" as the rights that a group is promised under the law, then atheists do not have a civil rights problem in the United States. Under the Constitution, there can be no establishment of religion, and this has generally been interpreted by the courts (at least in recent decades) to mean that the government is also prohibited from favoring religion over a lack of religion. Unbelievers are promised the same treatment as believers, so there is no civil rights problem.

Of course, under that logic, the civil rights movement should pretty much have been over once the voting rights act was passed and the segregation laws were ruled unconstitutional. Feminism should have wrapped things up once women got the right to vote. That didn't happen, of course, in either case, because most of us are capable of recognizing a simple, unpleasant fact: your rights on paper aren't necessarily the same as your actual rights.

Atheists, unfortunately, do face a great deal of discrimination. Actually, I should rephrase that. The discrimination is not faced by all atheists. It's faced by those people who, for whatever reason, choose to publicly identify themselves as nonbelievers. For one set of examples, you need look no further than child custody cases. Volokh has a laundry list of appeals court cases dealing with child custody. In all of these cases, judges - people sworn to uphold the Constitution - decided that a religious upbringing is "in a child's best interest," and used that as a factor in restricting custody rights of non-religious parents. There are plenty of other examples, many cited in the posts I linked to in the first paragraph.

I'm not trying to evoke (or, for that mater, spark) anything comparable with Selma, Alabama, but I think that when you have judges berating you for the damage that your lack of belief does to your children, you're talking about more than just a public image problem. The legal protections are there, so atheists don't face wholesale, legalized discrimination. That's good, but there are still a hell of a lot of retailers out there.

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Explaining the Inexplicable

Jun 28 2007 Published by under Uncategorized

Both of this blog's regular readers have probably noticed by now that the blog hasn't been written regularly for a few weeks now. There are quite a few reasons for this, mostly involving the pleasures of relocation. Back on June 11th, which feels like an eternity but was just slightly more than two weeks ago, we closed out our quarters in Honolulu and got on a plane for Houston. (I'm never flying Northwest again, but that's another story.) Since then, we've been living in an Extended Stay America. The room is about 15' by 25', and is currently occupied by two adults (at least physiologically), two children, one demon-posessed cat, and one neurotic border collie. This is not a situation that is conducive to mental health. Unfortunately, it is a situation that's typical when military moves are involved.

To put it another way, for the crime of being a member of an Army Family, I've been sentenced to spend more time confined in a small space without the vast majority of my personal possessions than a young socialite recently served for violating the probation she received for endangering her own life and the lives of others.

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Let's Talk Junk

Jun 18 2007 Published by under Uncategorized

So-called "junk DNA" has been much the buzz lately. A recent (and outstandingly lousy) Wired magazine article on the topic uncritically printed assertions by the Discovery Institute's lead hack Stephen Meyer that the discovery that some regions of DNA once thought to be functionless do have functions is, "a confirmation of a natural empirical prediction or expectation of the theory of intelligent design, and it disconfirms the neo-Darwinian hypothesis," The author of the Wired article does not provide us with any explanation of how ID "theory" made that prediction, but a more recent article at the Discovery Institute's Media Complaints Division does.

The basis for this astounding prediction (yes, I am using "astounding" sarcastically) is actually pretty simple, as Casey Luskin explains. "[D]esign theorists," he tells us, "recognize that 'Intelligent agents typically create functional things.'" That's right. We can predict that noncoding DNA has some sort of function for the animal because we know that designers usually design functional things. If you have paid any sort of attention to what Intelligent Design proponents have said over the years, I should probably apologize to your next of kin, because there's a pretty good chance that your head just exploded.

For the survivors, here's why the sheer chutzpah of Casey's assertion is enough to cause neurological overload.

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This is the way science should always work:

Jun 13 2007 Published by under Uncategorized

Reed Cartwright just forwarded me (and a few others) an email that was just sent out to an evolutionary biology mailing list. I'm going to quote it in full below. Don't worry if you don't understand the technical terms in there - you don't need to know what Bayesian methods are, or how they're used in phylogenetics, or even what phylogenetics is to understand why this email is important, and why all concerned should be proud of themselves.

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Aloha Oe

Jun 11 2007 Published by under Uncategorized

It's been a quiet week or two (or three) on this blog, mostly because it's been a busy week or three in the house. We've been finishing off our moving process over the last few days. Since Wednesday, we've mostly been getting ready to clear quarters. Most of you probably don't know what "clearing quarters" really means (and those who do have my respect and sympathy). The short version is that you get to clean the house to within an inch of your life. The longer version is that the military really does take the old expression "leave it better than you got it" seriously.

Actually, clearing quarters out here isn't as bad as it can be in other places. We did have to scrub the house from top to bottom, but we didn't have to do things like putty and paint all of the nail holes, or pull up any plants we put in. Still, it's a lot more work than is expected by most rental companies.

The manual labor involved gives you a lot of time to think - actually, if your hands weren't occupied the whole time, it would be great for blogging. Since we've been here six years, a lot of the thinking I did was about things that I'll miss out here. There's the beginnings of a short list (in no particular order) below the fold.

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Want Your Veterans Benefits? Then Sit Down and Shut the ---- Up.

Jun 05 2007 Published by under Uncategorized

Today, a United States Marine Corps panel delivered a message to all recently discharged veterans: if you want to maintain all of your benefits, you better sit down and shut the ---- up. The Marines, apparently unfamiliar with the concept of the freedoms of speech and free assembly, decided to penalize an Iraq war veteran for speaking out against the war by taking away his honorable discharge. Corporal Adam Kokesh will instead, if the panel's recommendation is upheld, receive a general discharge (under honorable conditions).

For those who are unfamiliar with the military, a general discharge (under honorable conditions) is not the same thing as an honorable discharge. Honorable discharges are given to those who have flawless service. General discharges - including those characterized as "under honorable conditions" are given to those whose service has been been marred by some sort of substantial poor conduct. Servicemebers receiving general discharges are barred from receiving some veterans benefits, including GI Bill education benefits. If they contributed the required $1200 to qualify for the GI Bill, they forfeit that money. The general discharge will follow them into civilian life, and may adversely impact future employment possibilities. In short, a general discharge is not a good thing.

Why is Cpl Kokesh losing his honorable discharge? His offense is simply this: after a tour in Iraq, and after being discharged from active duty, he appeared at an anti-war function wearing parts of his combat uniform that had been stripped of all insignia. After being informed that he was being investigated for doing this, he sent an email to the investigating officer and the one-star general in charge that apparently included a suggestion that they perform a biologically impossible act of self-impregnation on themselves.

The Marines are claiming the right to discipline him for this because he is currently a member of the Individual Ready Reserve. Like most people who are discharged after serving one enlistment, Kokesh had a remaining reserve service obligation. Like most, he was fulfilling this obligation in the IRR - a branch of the reserve where reservists spend zero time on active duty, are part of no chain of command or organized unit, and receive no pay of any kind. In short, they are in everything but the letter of the law civilians.

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Now all he needs is the black suit, hat, sunglasses, and a soul.

Jun 01 2007 Published by under Uncategorized

Tom DeLay is on a Mission from God. Apparently, God talked to Tom. Surprisingly, it wasn't about the massive misuses of his (former) power, the rampant corruption charges, the criminal indictment he's under, being a Mean Person, acting like evil personified, or selling his soul to the devil. No, it seems that God is not concerned about those things. Instead, he's chosen DeLay to spearhead a new conservative movement:

"God has spoken to me," DeLay said. "I listen to God, and what I've heard is that I'm supposed to devote myself to rebuilding the conservative base of the Republican party, and I think we shouldn't be underestimated."

Other conservatives are not happy with DeLay or his track record, and are talking about rebuilding the conservative movement in ways of their own. Many conservatives have clearly grown dissatisfied with both the Bush administration and the old DeLay and Gingrich Congressional leadership, seeing both as being too willing to jettison core values to maintain a majority. I suspect that after the Democratic Leadership's unconscionably (yet predictably) inept handling of the recent war funding legislation there are a fair number of Democrats who feel the same way about their party. Certainly, groups like are not happy, and are more than willing to express their unhappiness.

Personally, I'm glad that so many people are unhappy with the leadership of both major parties. The two party system in the United States has existed for a long time. It's been remarkably successful in providing us with a stable, functional government for most of that time. Unfortunately, the two party system fails - spectacularly - in one very critical area. The two party system does not - can not - provide many Americans with good Congressional representation for their beliefs.

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Gonzalez,Textbooks, and Research

Jun 01 2007 Published by under Uncategorized

Yesterday, Casey Luskin posted yet another article outlining still more of the Discovery Institute's complaints about the Iowa State decision to deny tenure to DI Fellow and ID proponent Guillermo Gonzalez. This one complains about the characterization of Gonzalez as "having slowed down considerably" and "not started new things." (That characterization appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education last week.)

I have no intention of getting into a debate over the precise merits of Dr. Gonzalez's case, for a number of reasons. First of all, I'm one of those who believes that the effort that Gonzalez has put into undermining quality science education in the primary and secondary public schools is something that should be considered when looking into tenure decisions. Second, I am not an astronomer and am not qualified to judge the quality of his scientific work either before or after he joined the Iowa State faculty. Finally, I am not a member of his department, and I do not know what was involved in the tenure decision in this case.

I am, however, someone who has enough reading comprehension skill to recognize when someone is playing word games, and enough of a sense of integrity to be offended when it happens. In the case of this latest Gonzalez article, that's exactly what Casey has done. Three times.

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12 responses so far