Doc Bushwell's Chimpanzee Refuge

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

We wish you a buried Christmas...

...and a jappy Jew queer. Or so some claim.

Last year was the first one in which I remember the substitution of "Happy Holidays" for "Merry Christmas" by numerous merchants and other public entities becoming an attention-gathering issue. As you might imagine, I didn't really care; I'm an atheist who is technically a "Christian" by birth (the WASP son of an agnostic and a lapsed Catholic), has always taken part in the commerical ritual of modern-day Christmas, and -- being well aware of the pagan origins of the holiday presently dictated by consumer extravagance and credit-card debt -- has never questioned the clear detachment of the life and times of Jesus Christ from Frosty the Snowman, red-nosed reindeer, or egg nog.

Moreover, I took no special pleasure in watching innumerable Christians complain about an increasingly popular move which, according to their claims, is aimed at striking Jesus from the American historical record and denying this nation's "Christian heritage" (which is demonstrably nonexistent, but that's for another disgustion). If anything, I initially found it odd that Christians would rail so strongly in favor of ensuring that tableaus rife with toy-making elves, popcorn garlands, mistletoes, and the Grinch would reign supreme in the public eye over menorahs and Kinaras, given that Jesus would likely have been mortified by the whole Yule display of human excess at its finest. But then I quickly reminded myself that vocal Christians' chief mission is to blindly ensure that the word "Christ" appears in this country in as many places as possible, regardless of context. They may claim to wish only to spread "God's word," but at heart they're all for the P.T. Barnum model of publicity. Like every other business, they enjoy free advertising, but in their case they literally feel entitled to it, which makes their declarations of woe especially malignant.

This year, the volume level of this particular channel has shot up tremendously. Since before Thanksgiving, every day has brought several news items revolving around the decision of a major retailer or outfit such as Wal-Mart or the USPS to de-emphasize Christmas in favor of a more general approach to getting people to buy shit during the all-important holiday season. Here is a representative one. Note the pastor's observation: "The way I see it is retailers want to make Christmas money without acknowledging Christmas." That's right -- not unlike the way Christians want creation "science" taught in public schools without acknowledging science. Then there are amazingly vacuous bits of "but why, Grandpa?"-style demagoguery like this, and biology professor P.Z. Myers has a nice summary of the whole circus at the eminently pro-nontheist Pharyngula.

Bill O'Reilly, who would be the first person admitted to Hell if there really were such a place and its chief sexual harassment correspondent, wasted his and his viewers' time (not that people parked nightly in front of Fox have anything better to do) with this segment, in which he examined who is and isn't adopting the MC-HH transmogrification. In each instance of "Christmas-squashing," a large band of wingnuts has surfaced to generate large amounts of static about the efforts of secularists, liberals, communists, atheists and their chief abettor, the ACLU, to destroy "the true meaning of Christmas," though no one seems clear on what that actually is, with the possible exception of the ancient Romans.

To hear them tell it, the National Guard is standing by and prepared to sweep anyone uttering a peep about Christmas off the streets and in the general direction of Gitmo. They're also convinced that the phrase "Happy Holidays" somehow excludes Christmas by not making overt mention of it -- an archetypal example of Christians' demand for pedestal placement.

To be honest, especially given America's slate of more pressing concerns, this is a bunch of bullshit. There's no reason people should be hesitant to sing Christmas carols, deck the halls, display trees or nativity scenes. Christians, though misguided in myriad ways and especially in conflating the American holiday with the Jewish folk hero, are correct in pointing out that Christmas is an American tradition. If a guy like me can swallow it without wincing, it can't, at its root, be faith-driven.

The maneuverings of the ACLU may seem excessive. The thing is, if Christians aren't kept in check at all times, they engage in increasing levels of tomfuckery until someone shuts them down. Whenever they claim to be asking only for equal treatment, they're demanding the expansion of the special treatment they already enjoy across multiple realms. The best example I can provide is the gathering of mushbrains at, whose collective penchant for whine-based lying is trumped only by its writers' and followers' inability to understand the subjects they choose to rant about. That the government gives these talking cloacas property-tax exemptions and money for bullshit-based sex abstinence programs says it all. So it's best to nip their machinations in the bud.

Overall, when I watch Christians squawk and stomp their feet over the "denigration" of Christmas, the term that comes to mind is just desserts, or, if you prefer, divine retribution. For as long as anyone can remember, plenty of us have been telling Christians -- directly and indirectly, personally and through media or legal channels -- that we don't want them coming to our homes to push their mythology on us, we don't want them arsing up our biology classes or biomedical research, we don't need their ideas about homosexuality to become a part of American law, we don't care for their insane ideas about the origins of natural disasters, we aren't sympatico with their conviction that God and morality are inextricable, and we don't give a rip what their charmed book of ghost stories claims will happen if we stick our pee-pees in places some jealous skygod allegedly doesn't approve of. But feeling supremely entitled to the imposing of their views on anything with a pulse, they've never paid attention. They're surely unable to grok or appreciate the irony here, but it's fun to watch anyway.

In addition, we non-theists have stressed at every opportunity that it's not Christianity per se that is bothersome but religious aggression, which of course is virtually synonymous with fundagelicalism in the United States. Ever notice that Jews, Native American spiritualists, and Buddhists aren't out to convert people? It helps to not be worried about being posthumously shipped off to black-fantasy-world furnaces and torture chambers where no one bothers to keep track of the time.

The bottom line is that Christians are choking on their own bile. The funniest part of it is that if they bothered to act remotely in accordance with what they supposedly stand for, they wouldn't have to.

Feliz Noel.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005


"…and pretty soon there won’t be no streets
for dummies to jog on and doggies to dog on
religious fanatics can make it be all gone
I mean it won’t blow up and disappear
it’ll just look ugly for a thousand years"

-Frank Zappa

Did you ever wonder what the world would be like today if Western culture had never suffered through the Dark Ages? What if, given the controls to some omnipotent time machine, we could shuttle The Enlightenment back several hundred years, oh let’s say to the ninth or tenth century? And further, that The Enlightenment ideals of discovery and rational thought continued from that time forward? What would our everyday lives be like? On this time scale, we’d have landed on the Moon and created the Internet well before the 14th century (versus the real 14th century which saw widespread wars, plague and misery). I don’t think it would take a great leap of imagination to expect that we’d have cured cancer, produced clean and inexpensive forms of energy, moved everyone out of "third world" status, colonized the inner planets, uncovered more about the Universe than Stephen Hawking’s best wet-dream, created stunning new forms of art, and in general, made the lives of humans much, much better. Heck, we might even have encountered intelligent extraterrestrial life. Sounds pretty cool.

But what happened? Why did we have a Dark Ages in the first place and what kept us there? Why did we have to have an "Enlightenment" to pull us out of this historical dung heap? If there is one defining characteristic of the Dark Ages, it is the oppressive control over governments and people at all levels through a rigid ideology, an ideology that claimed perfect knowledge for itself and that required the persecution of those who might consider the exercise of free inquiry. In those days, the Church was number one and all governments answered to it. Ultimately, the Dark Ages can be thought of as The Golden Age of Western Theocracy. You see, the Dark Ages is the sort of thing that happens when people who place blind faith and adherence to rigid rules above free thinking and rational inquiry get into positions of power. We’re talking about Ugliness on a grand scale.

Now aren’t you a little pissed off that this Dark Ages thing happened? Aren’t you a little pissed off that your friend or relative suffered and died from a disease that, under a better timeline, we’d have found a cure for centuries ago? Aren’t you a little pissed off that so many people on this planet suffer without proper medical attention, food, energy, housing, etc., problems we could have licked by now with more advanced technology and a rational, thoughtful approach? Don’t you just want to hop in that time machine and knock some sense into the church leaders of a millennium ago? Doesn’t it make you just a little crazy that people could be so blind to the reality around them, so antagonistic toward basic logic? Aren’t you glad we don’t live in those times, a time when you could be burned at the stake or stretched on a rack until every joint in your body dislocated for professing that the Earth was a planet which revolved around the Sun?

Funny, but there are those today who would fit right into the 14th century. While they might admit that the Earth is a planet which revolves around the Sun, they might also claim that the Earth is a mere 6000 years old, that a pair of every species of life on the planet managed to be sequestered in a wooden boat a few hundred feet long for months during a global flood which covered even the highest mountains, or that ancient humans threw saddles on dinosaurs and rode them like horses. Why would they think such things? Do they have geological evidence? Radioisotope data? The results of DNA or biology experiments? Cosmological observations? The insights of anthropology or paleontology? Mathematical models? No. They have none of these. They claim they have something better. They have a book.

Yes, a book. And the book tells all. And the book is inerrant. Why? Because the book says it is, that’s why. There’s no need to investigate, or even think for that matter, if you believe you are in possession of The Big Book With All The Answers. It’s all there.

Now, what happens when this person shows up at an institution where free inquiry and rational thought are prized? Well, things like this. Yes, a group of Christian Conservatives are all a-fluster that the University of California is calling them on their bass-ackwards Christian fundamentalist coursework and have decided to sue on a claim of discrimination. All I can say is hooray for the University of California! The last thing I want to see is anti-rationalists get science credit for a course in blind-faithism. This is not a matter of plurality or diversity. "What’s that Johnny? You believe that the early Earth was made out of Roquefort dressing and that Tyrannosaurus Rex invented pantyhose? My, but that’s charmingly diverse of you! Here, take a seat next Sarah. Her parents told her that trees are the work of the devil and that mushrooms are fairy umbrellas! I’m sure you’ll have lots to talk about in Biology 101!"

Is the University of California guilty of "'viewpoint discrimination' and unfair admission standards that violate the free speech and religious rights of evangelical Christians", as charged by the Association of Christian Schools International? Put another way, is it unfair for the University to tell a group that their teachings do not meet the University’s standards? What? Unfair? Are they saying the University doesn't have the right to set standards? This is ludicrous. It makes no difference that the teachings stem from a religious versus secular source. Suppose Johnny went to a school that denied the existence of irrational numbers or the microbial theory of disease based on historical texts. Should Johnny’s "viewpoint" be "discriminated against"? You bet your ass. Does that constitute "unfair admission standards"? It would if his viewpoint was accepted, in which case it would be unfair to those students who learned what the scientific method offered. It is important to note that University of California doesn’t simply throw out an applicant because they attended a Christian fundamentalist school. They accept a number of courses from these schools (at least 43 according to a University representative). What they don’t accept are courses which place blind faith before appropriate scientific rigor. The fundie schools are claiming that this amounts to being told what to teach. No, it doesn’t. It simply tells them that certain courses will not count at that University. "Teach these courses all you want folks, but we’re not going to accept them. Maybe some other fine institution like Bob Jones University will give your kids credit for them."

Free speech is a separate issue here. Does Johnny have the right to claim that the Earth is 6000 years old in the face of evidence across myriad fields of study that show it to be nearly a million times older? Sure he does! He has the right to claim that and a host of other things, and his fellow citizens have the right to show through evidence to the contrary that Johnny is a crackpot. Johnny has the right to say whatever he wants but that doesn’t mean that he should get college admission credit for it just because it’s part of his so-called faith. I like to believe that colleges and universities are still halls of learning where the pursuit of knowledge and truth remains the top priority. While all opinions may be equal in terms of their right to be heard, they are not necessarily equal in terms of objective truth. It amazes me how the Christian fundies will be the first ones to cry that they are being discriminated against, how their ideas are not taken seriously, when they are the ones who, by definition, will not even consider arguments contrary to The Book. They reject the scientific method and free inquiry when it points out the flaws in their own world view, yet they don’t seem to mind so much if it helps them (for example, by pointing out that the creation myths of many other religions are not plausible, or by producing vaccines, cars, the Internet, and lots of other useful things). Fundies like to gripe about others’ “moral relativism” versus their objective truth when it comes to the fundie brand of morality, but they clam up pretty fast when it comes to the objective “truth” of their claims in the natural sciences. In fact, what the fundies are really bitching about is that they're not being given special treatment, a treatment they feel they are entitled to because of their special brand of faith.

Newton said that if he had seen farther than other men, it was because he had stood on the shoulders of giants. I look back at the giants of The Enlightenment and am thankful that their work and sacrifice made my day to day life possible. My worst nightmare is that all of that work would be lost in a modern rendition of the Dark Ages; a retreat into superstition and the stifling of free inquiry and creative thought in order to assuage the demands of an emerging American theocracy. Ugliness redux.

"What’s the ugliest part of your body?
I say it’s your mind"

-Frank Zappa

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Another day in fools' paradise

With Hurricane Wilma three weeks in the meteorological books and utilities restored to most in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, things in South Florida are more or less back to normal. For example, two Fort Lauderdale doctors just pleaded guilty to using fake botox; a toddler drowned in a West Palm Beach swimming pool; three brave up-and-comers rammed a motorboat into a channel marker near Boynton Beach in the pitch black, killing one of them; a Pompano Beach family was killed when their SUV collided with a train; and the recently suspended city manager of Deerfield Beach is petitioning for a contract extension.

Threads of normalcy ran throughout my own busy day as well. I was awakened by the hammering, yammering and general loud bonhomie of the "workers" outside my door, who seemed to be intent on reaching relatives back in Gaudalajara without the use of telecommunications devices. When I went outside, one of them was using a leaf blower to clear pieces of terra cotta roofing from the steps. Several discarded Coke cans lay in the third-floor breezeway serving four apartments: signatures of the construction trade.

When it came time for my afternoon run -- done in the typical crisp 80-degree temps of mid-November -- I was treated to the sight of an apartment complex with screen balconies that had been uniformly treated like five-dollar whores, with the enclosures having been transformed into curious Rorshach patterns of torn mesh and warped metal; perhaps the residents had left them that way after declaring them art. I alternately dodged piles of branches and septuagenarian-commanded golf carts. I passed a stone golf-community marker that had been toppled by Wilma and not yet righted and marveled; it easily carried the heft of a half-dozen large gravestones. (Of course, in accordance with local standards of shoddiness, it had probably never been sunk properly in the ground but simply placed on the soil.)

After waiting almost five minutes for the recently restored traffic signal to change in my favor so I could cross my local eight-lane monstrosity, I watched a Palm Beach County Sheriff's Deputy blow through the nascent red light less than ten feet from where I stood, en route to a destination that evidently warranted no siren. Like every other motorist in this swampy armpit, he obviously believed that shaving two minutes off his trip to the next box store or fast-food joint was more important than yielding the lawful right of way to someone dumb enough to be on foot in this century. "I hate this fucking place," I remarked to the wading birds lurking elegantly at the brim of a nearby canal. I believe they empathized, but were apparently more accepting of the direction this place has taken than I.

Once home, I figured I'd work a necessary visit to the local parochial school in with a trip to the nearby dog park. The skies were clear when I left, darkening by the time I left the school ten minutes later, and as I approached the park the deluge began. "Sorry," I muttered into the back seat, and turned around.

By the time I got home the skies were blue again. I had to go to the grocery store and considered walking the one-klick distance, but reckoned I'd get soaked if I did. So I drove, nearly being clipped by a Jeep housing two bimbi and cranking along the main driveway of the apartment complex in reverse. Sure enough, when I left Publix (jammed, as always, regardless of day or time thereof), it was pouring South Florida-style. I congratulated myself for my wise decision and stepped off the curb. I was soaked within three seconds and, having demonstrated sterling judgment in wearing flip-flops, almost fell on my ass with twenty-five pounds' worth of groceries.

The lowlight of the day, if not the most emblematic, was finding reason to post these uninspired, uninspiring events on Jeff Kilgore's message board as soon as I was in for the evening. That's like slithering into a bar full of malevolent, coked-up NFL washouts and moaning toward the floor about how you can't keep your hot but stupid wife from banging other guys. At least here I have those benevolent bonobos (however faint) for an audience.

Friday, November 11, 2005

(Up)standing Pat

Pat Robertson has been bonkers since the Taft administration, but unlike other members of the Religious Reich (e.g., James Dobson, Jerry Falwell) -- who maintain a more or less steady but low-grade public presence -- Robertson is a binge idiot, interspersing islands of relative quiescence with bursts of raucous verbal flatulence suggesting he either has some of the worst judgment in history or is truly insane (not that these are mutually exclusive qualities, but I digress).

A couple of months ago, Robertson famously shat all over New Orleans, opinining that if abortion were not legal, Hurricane Katrina would have avoided savaging the Big Easy. (Robertson, of course, was far from alone in serving up this and similar solecisms.) On the heels of that, in a move so misguided it appeared parodic even by the standards of the source, he called for the assassination of Venezuelan President Chavez. Soon afterward, realizing for once that he had stuck his foot so far into his mouth that his anus appeared to have sprouted toes, he backpedaled, but by then it was too late, and besides, it's not as though anyone was really surprised. (For an amusing litany of all known Robertson faux pas, go here).

Now, with all eight school board members supporting ID having been voted off the backwater island that is Dover, Pennsylvania, Robertson noted that God was likely to forsake the town, what with turnabout being fair play and all. At least he didn't recommend offing anyone. (Be sure to watch the 700 Club clip.)

Dispatches from the Culture Wars has a brief but amusing post on this, and also goes into some detail about the general situation in Dover. The blog's owner and operator, Ed Brayton, is a fine wordsmith who has also written extensively about the ACLU's penchant for defending freedom of religious expression, not that the facts are bound to sway the energetically uneducable troglodytes zealots at

Wrong Said Fred

It's hard to believe that someone can imbue an eleven-paragraph essay with the quantity of ignorance that this asstard has. Hopefully he's just raving for effect, something near and dear to me. But his convictions seem genuine.

I hate it when frigslappers refer to the "church" of evolution, spuriously likening an enormous number of well-established scientific facts to the blind faith and ludicrous nonsense inherent in creationist claims.

"If Pennsylvania wants to mention Creationism, or to require three years of French for graduation, it seems mightily to me that these things are the business of parents in Pennslyvania."

Leaving aside the fact that one backwater town, not "Pennsylvania" as a whole, is involved in this skirmish: Facts are not subjective, something too many people refuse to accept or even understand. Science classes are simply not forums for the expression of any and all ideas. Those classses exist, so no one is being cheated if what's taught in biology courses is limited to naturalistic material. But everyone is cheated if faith-based idiocy takes root.

The reason the courts get involved in these matters is simple -- we're a nation of abject morons that increasingly deserves to be carved out of the planet and fired in the general direction of Altair (which, come to think of it, would mark the Rapture and therefore make lots of fundies happy).

What if Pennsylvania wants to teach its students scientific "facts" about ghosts, the healing power of magnets, or the divine origin of natural disasters? What if they allow a vote in Georgia or Alabama as to whether re-segregating schools, or just lynching blacks outright, might be a good idea? What if Texas wants to make football mandatory for every male over the age of four? Lots of people believe in the utility of such shit; this is their birthright as Americans, but shepherding it into public schools is a different matter.

"I do not object to the content of Evolutionism. Some, all, or part of it may be correct."

Good deal. How generous of someone who's clearly and proudly a fifth-degree bumpkin to say that something 99.9% of scientists support might be correct. What makes objects tend to fall from the sky to the ground? Might it be gravity, or does the earth just suck?

Fred, like most Americans, can't even distingush between abiogenesis and evolution:

" entertaining way to study the politics is to ask the Evolutionists questions that a scientist would answer...They are simple. (1) Has the chance occurrence of life been demonstrated in the laboratory? Yes or no. (2) Do we really know, as distinct from guess, hope, or imagine, of what the primeval seas consisted? Yes or no. (3) Do we know, as distinct from guess, pray, wave our arms, and hold our breath and turn blue, what seas would be needed for the chance formation of life? Yes or no. (4) Can we show mathematically, without crafted and unsupportable assumptions, that the formation of life would be probable in any soup whatever? Yes or no.

"...Of the Knights Templar of Evolution, none—not one—answered the foregoing yes-or-no questions. They ducked. They dodged. They waxed wroth. They called names."

Evolution doesn't touch the primordial seas or the chance occurence of life. Much remains to be discovered about the origin of life, but what's known about evolution is as incontrovertibly true as anything can get. He doesn't know fuck from phinola.

Victory by the good guys in the Dover trial seems all but assured, but what has recently happened in Kansas is a travesty. They should evacuate everyone with an IQ over 75 (which would only require two or three full-size school buses) and then nuke the goddamned place. (Admittedly, places like Oklahoma and Nebraska would probably not favor such a thing.)

Actually, the whole country is fast becoming a waste of space. Slack-faced, ponderous booger-eaters whacking their Bibles with one hand and dialing out for an XXXL pizza pie with the other. Again, they should be able to do exactly this and more if they like, but it's not pretty to watch. Europeans -- scientists and otherwise -- are caught between titillation and horror when hearing about this ID garbage, to say nothing of our collective corpulence.

Other than these trivial things, two thumbs up to Fred's essay.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Xena: Warrior Scientist! by Doc Bushwell

I freely admit it. I routinely destroy my neoencephalon by watching all manner of crap on television. I am not one of those overweening snobs who daintily curl an upper lip as I sneer, "I never watch television." I love popular culture, and frankly, find a dose of mindless television to be relaxing, and occasionally thought-provoking.

Such occurred recently when I watched the imaginatively titled, "Vampire Bats" featuring the unconquerable Lucy Lawless. Although I was not a devotee, I enjoyed watching Ms. Lawless chew up, and kick the shit out of, the scenery in "Xena, Warrior Princess." The imagery of Xena often came in handy when I, often the lone woman, endured gigantic clashes among primadonna scientists. As the guys were postulating, posturing, and sometimes patronizing, I imagined myself as Xena, leaping to the top of the conference room table, bursting forth with Xena's signature ululation, and making them listen to me by means of a whip or a well placed boot. Of course, by all appearances, I would be supporting my view in a moderately civil manner with data and citations from the literature and experience. Inwardly, the Xena imagery bolstered my assertiveness when the guys were in full chest beating mode.

I once told a male colleague about this imagery, which took our conversation down the general path of women in science. These days, there are a lot more women scientists, particularly in biology, but fewer in other fields, e.g., chemistry and physics. Back in the day, many scientific disciplines had fewer still. A former colleague related an amusing anecdote from his grad school days in a chemistry department at a major Midwestern university. Of all the tenure track faculty, there was only one woman, and as a young professor, she felt more comfortable with the grad students than the grand old men in the department. After a particularly contentious departmental meeting, she came back to the lab and voiced her frustration to the grad students, including my friend. She said, "They (the rest of the faculty) all were trying to prove who had the biggest dick there, and I have nothing to work with!"

The chemistry professor's humorous lament really hit home. I frequently experience the same feeling. That's when the Xena imagery comes in handy. It's also why, in spite of wincingly bad scripts and not-quite-campy acting, I thoroughly enjoy Lucy Lawless' role as Dr. Maddy Rierdon in "Locusts" and "Vampire Bats." Maddy comes across as competent and thoughtful, strong and intelligent, plus I'd kill to look as sexy as she does in jeans and a T-shirt. Her students love her, and will follow her into the deepest darkest Louisiana swamp to help her capture the anomalous vampire bats so she can more closely observe their behavior. As an aside, the science of "Locusts" and "Vampire Bats", albeit wacky, is another appealing feature. The locusts and bats are not products of a Revelational pestilence of Biblical proportions or supernatural spookdom, but have "scientific" explanations, typically pertaining to bioengineering gone awry (the bugs) or manmade environmental maladies (the bats).

Yes, I like Maddy Rierdon, and it's refreshing to see a woman scientist portrayed, even in such goofball offerings as "Locusts" and "Vampire Bats," as a strong, smart character who saves the day through her powers of observation, her knowledge, and yes, more than a little kick-ass physicality. Although there are smatterings of women scientists in the spheres of television and cinema, two others stand out most in my mind, and they don't appeal to me nearly as much as Maddy Rierdon.

The first is Robby Keough, the infectious disease specialist as portrayed by Rene Russo, in the truly-wretched-yet-I-cannot-look-away Outbreak. Robby's smart enough, but one gets the impression she's just along for the ride for dramatic, and not incidentally, sexual tension between her and her ex-boyfriend, Colonel Sam Daniels, as played by Dustin Hoffman in an excrutiatingly horrid action hero role. Colonel Sam is really the principle character in "Outbreak," as he and Robby try to idenitfy and contain the outbreak of the deadly Motaba virus, which is some sort of super-hemorrhagic cousin of Ebola. Sorry, Robby, but Maddy's colleague and husband, Dan Dryer (Dylan Neal), is relegated to a supportive, handsome accessory, and unlike Colonel Sam, stays in the background. Chalk one up for Xena.

The second is Rosalind Franklin, a real-life character, who is portrayed by Juliet Stevenson in Race for the Double Helix. Rosalind Franklin was the superb crystallographer whose data were pivotal in solving the structure of DNA. Unfortunately, her significant contributions were obscured by the fact that Maurice Wilkins shared her results, without her knowledge, with Jim Watson and Francis Crick, who ultimately cracked the code. Here are a couple of key paragraphs from the link provided:

She spent three years in France, enjoying the work atmosphere, the freedoms of peacetime, the French food and culture. But in 1950, she realized that if she wanted to make a scientific career in England, she had to go back. She was invited to King's College in London to join a team of scientists studying living cells. The leader of the team assigned her to work on DNA with a graduate student. Franklin's assumption was that it was her own project. The laboratory's second-in-command, Maurice Wilkins, was on vacation at the time, and when he returned, their relationship was muddled. He assumed she was to assist his work; she assumed she'd be the only one working on DNA. They had powerful personality differences as well: Franklin direct, quick, decisive, and Wilkins shy, speculative, and passive. This would play a role in the coming years as the race unfolded to find the structure of DNA.

Franklin made marked advances in x-ray diffraction techniques with DNA. She adjusted her equipment to produce an extremely fine beam of x-rays. She extracted finer DNA fibers than ever before and arranged them in parallel bundles. And she studied the fibers' reactions to humid conditions. All of these allowed her to discover crucial keys to DNA's structure. Wilkins shared her data, without her knowledge, with James Watson and Francis Crick, at Cambridge University, and they pulled ahead in the race, ultimately publishing the proposed structure of DNA in March, 1953.

The strained relationship with Wilkins and other aspects of King's College (the women scientists were not allowed to eat lunch in the common room where the men did, for example) led Franklin to seek another position. She headed her own research group at Birkbeck College in London. But the head of King's let her go on the condition she would not work on DNA. Franklin returned to her studies of coal and also wrapped up her DNA work. She turned her attention to viruses, publishing 17 papers in five years. Her group's findings laid the foundation for structural virology.

Stevenson's portrayal of Franklin is excellent. In France, she is smiling, flirtatious, and happy. In England, with the hovering Wilkins, she is closed, dour, snappish with her male colleagues and fiercely protective of her research. And with good reason. Wilkins is the archetype of what I call "the project vampire." Scientists (male or female) of this ilk latch themselves on to the work of another scientist individually, or as part of a team, and manage to gather credit and recognitions for little to no accomlishment. Franklin's story, and Juliet Stevenson's portrayal of this brilliant woman, is very painful for me since I was the target of a project vampire in my previous job. The experience of watching this guy insinuate himself into a major project, in which I was a key, senior player, contributed in no small way to my answering a recruiter's call, and accepting a significantly vertical move to another company. I am not even half the scientist that Rosalind Franklin was, but I so empathize with her history that Juliet Stevenson's role brings back those crushing feelings.

This is why I like Maddy Rierdon. She's always the one on top, and not just the sexy foil for the guy scientist or the dupe of the conniving male colleague. The only vampires she deals with are furry little critters with wings. So, CBS, if you're listening or if one of your minor minions stumbles across this backwater of a blog through Pharyngula or a Google search on "hen bestiality" (yes, that happened), give me more Maddy!

Thursday, November 03, 2005

The rhetorical Eephus pitch

I am sometimes asked -- indirectly, in the form of angry outbursts from wounded parties -- why I am so strident in criticizing the failures of religion. To hear believers tell it, as in this fine example (see the comments), they are all for hearing views from the god-free camp -- as long as such views are not dismissive, straightforward, strongly worded, categorical or otherwise couched in such a way as to get their central message across without confusion. In other words, it's okay to criticize faith as long as it comes off as something other than criticism.

I am obviously among those who believe that faith in the supernatural ought to be treated just as irreverently as any other idea grounded in high-grade horseshit, e.g., "psychic" consultants, astrology, fad diets and so on. That most people in America are religious to some extent doesn't cow me, because it doesn't take, well, a genius to grok that most people in the U.S. are stupid in one and usually numerous realms, usually in concert with their own particular "failures" (obesity, poverty, insecurity, and so on). I am among these unfortunates, as frequent lapses in judgment have established, but if nothing else I happen to have escaped the religious byrus.

Apart from this, however, I have an ulterior motive in being especially aggressive when it comes to taking on the assertions of the faithful. Part of the reason I do this is because I know that even if I begin gently, in accordance with the tacit demands of believers, I'll ultimately wind up stating things in increasingly strong fashion until I reach the point of offensiveness I'm presently accused of adopting from the outset. In other words, I'm sparing everyone the preliminary dancing around. But my chief reason for acting this way is because doing so, in theory at least, puts the faithful in the seemingly strategic position of having a powerful motive for refuting my serves.

It doesn't take a philosophy background to understand that the best way to defuse an opponent in debate is to prove his assertions false. Yet all I ever hear from goddists is that I'm intolerant, or pompous, or overly wordy, or operating on blind faith of a perversely religious variety -- usually some combination of the above. As for why I am supposedly wrong, I've never heard the slightest focused argument. I occasionally hear appeals to "authority" such as the Pope, baldly relativistic nonsense about godlessness being just another fundamentalist religion, and, amusingly, figures about the prevalence of belief, as if a mass, institutionalized delusion compensates for the inanity of the whole charade.

In baseball, there's a phenomenon known as an Eephus pitch. (I saw it demonstrated by Yankees reliever George Frazier back in the 1980's during a post-season lost cause.) The Wikipedia background is here, but know that the basic idea is that this is a pitch that by all appearances is an easy target for batters, yet repeatedly stymies its victims. This is how I see challenges to religious doctrine. Give them something that provides every imaginable reason for shredding its originator, and the invariable result is that its recipients can only stammer, yammer and fumblefuck in circles. It wouldn't even be considered a fair fight were it not for religion's unfortunate stronghold on American politics.

Is the effectiveness of the rhetorical Eephus pitch telling? Well, only if you remain on the fence or unconvinced of the things I typically write. To me such hollow forms of backlash are entirely predictable, because people who have nothing to back up their belief systems other than belief itself have no forensic option other than complaining of their opponents' tactics or personalities. Overbearing as I may seem, and overwrought as my writing may be, this isn't the point; I could shed these qualities and become a wishy-washy, semiliterate religious skeptic instead, and if I did you can bet your ass I'd be criticized on the basis of these shortcomings instead of indicted for verbosity or recalcitrance. Ad hominems, of course, are all the faithful have. Well, that and the inevitable proposition that goddism is exempt from the ordinary burdens of evidence and demonstrable support because, well, that's how God set things up: the unyielding value of observation, data, mutability and testability on this side, and blind, crass dogma on the other. He's a tricky character, after all.

All this means is that goddists have every imaginable motive for putting people like me in their place. Yet they don't. They withdraw from arguments on the basis of their opponents' alleged uneducability, bitterness, and lack of proper exposure to the real side(s) of [insert religion], or occasionally feing disinterest even after days of back-and-forthing, but that's pretty much the end of it. No in-your-face challenges of substance, no palpable reasons for why godless folks should just keep their "opinions" (which are no more worthy, supposedly, than those of blind goddies) to themselves. Just generalized retorts.

This is not surprising, given what it is believers are blindly and sadly representing. But it's instructive from the standpoint of human psychology, as it demonstrates -- not for the general good -- that a mind selectively deprived of critical thinking properties at an early developmental stage remains irreversibly crippled throughout the lifetime of its owner.

Religious people don't like me painting them in this light. This is understandable, and they'd surely feel this way even if they could somehow become cognizant of their own de facto lobotomies. But I don't care, because for my part I don't like the extreme ramifications of their non-surgical lobotomies, manifested to the discordant tunes of ID creationism, homophobia, opposition to useful medical procedures, and endemic embracing of fucktardation in every imaginable guise. If someone can explain to me the benefits of these solecisms I'm all for learning new things. The point isn't that all believers embrace any or all of these nasties, but that without the pervasiveness of "faith" such things would recede in terms of incidence and impact. I may be asking the impossible, but remain an idealist anyway.

I look forward to people continuing to take their swings at challenges to shittery. Somehow, I'm not especially worried that I happen to not have brought a glove along, or that in fact there's no catcher behind the plate. I know a three-pitch, the-whiffs situation when I see one.