Author: theuncertaintyblog

Richard Feynman is not allowed to have sex.

A few days ago, a blog article was published by Matthew Francis called, “The Problem with Richard Feynman“. It got picked up by a few outlets, including 3 Quarks Daily. In the post, Francis argues that legendary physicist Richard Feynman should not be thought of as a hero – despite his significant contributions to science – because of some disreputable behavior and attitudes sprinkled over his 70 so odd years on earth.

I obviously agree that Feynman was flawed (so are you, dear reader, and so am I), but he certainly wasn’t flawed enough to deserve demotion from hero status, at least in my opinion (and also in the opinion of most commenters on the post). On the contrary, having studied Feynman pretty closely, I’ve always thought that one of the most remarkable things about him was that his heart seemed as big as his brain. One only needs to read the letter he wrote to his first wife, some 16 months after she passed away from tuberculosis, to get a sense of this. You might also watch this full-length documentary featuring interviews with several friends. The more I learned and continue to learn about Feynman, the more I feel a genuine respect, almost love, for the guy.

And so I had to respond to Francis’ bizarre post, which goes so far as to accuse Feynman of being a “sexual predator”:

…what if a hero was a sexual predator, someone who admitted to some really creepy behavior? What if this person also happens to be a Nobel laureate, a founder of a whole field of research, and an admirable thinker on a number of complicated topics? How do we deal with the two realities together?

In short, how do we cope with the problem of Richard Feynman?

Sexual predator? One has to assume – since Francis provides little evidence to support such a claim – that this accusation is in reference to Feynman’s admitted womanizing, chronicled in his autobiographies and elsewhere. The specific “facts” Francis lays out are as follows:

“Feynman pretended to be an undergraduate to get young women to sleep with him. He targeted the wives of male grad students. He went to bars and practiced a technique that isn’t so different from the reprehensible “game” of the pick-up artists (PUAs).”

That’s it. That’s all Francis points to. Those things make someone a sexual predator? Were the undergraduates underage? Were the wives of male grad students assaulted? Were the women in bars Jedi-mind tricked? Might it not be possible that women sometimes want sex, that Feynman was charming and seductive, and that these two forces occasionally found one another? Is Feynman not allowed to have or pursue sex (if that’s the criteria for being a sexual predator, who on earth isn’t?)? I’m not condoning affairs or leaving behind pregnant girlfriends (another accusation of Feynman strangely not covered in Francis’ article), but can any thinking person, with the limited knowledge we have about Feynman’s life, honestly equate these items to sexual predation? The answer is no, they can’t. Which means Francis either isn’t thinking or isn’t honest in this particular post.

With that out of the way, what about the fact that Feynman was sometimes “mean” to others? Shouldn’t such moral depravity disqualify him from being lauded as a hero? That seems to be the gist:

And let’s face it: Feynman frequently unkind toward men too. In his memoirs, he tends to spin things to make himself into the smartest one in the room, and to make even his friends look like losers by comparison. Excessive self-deprecation is one thing, but it seems a trifle unfair to take potshots at friends in a medium where they can’t defend themselves.

A trifle unfair to take potshots at people who can’t defend themselves: say, like accusing a dead scientist of being a sexual predator? This entire criticism – that Feynman was occasionally mean or derisive – is almost too silly of an accusation for grown ups to even bother with, but I have to wonder what memoirs Francis is reading and whether or not he’s missing a bit of the point. For example, when Feynman comes across as the “smartest one in the room” in his essays, it’s almost always as a foil to some pompous or stuffy authoritarian figure or self-proclaimed expert. We all know Feynman perpetuated the “myth of Feynman” and that many of his stories and essays were heavily exaggerated or apocryphal (another reason it isn’t entirely responsible to use them to impugn), but we also know that Feynman was intensely honest and quick to admit when he knew little about a subject or specialty: “I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of uncertainty about different things, but I am not absolutely sure of anything and there are many things I don’t know anything about…I don’t have to know an answer. I don’t feel frightened not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without any purpose, which is the way it really is as far as I can tell.” To see just how far the above passage stretches reality, here are a few quotes literally picked out in under two minutes by flipping at random through Feynman’s “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman”, that contradict Francis:

At that particular time I was not quite up to things: I was always a little behind. Everybody seemed to be smart, and I didn’t feel like I was keeping up.

I was ready to put my hand up and say, ‘Would you please define the problem better,’ but then I thought, ‘No, I’m the ignoramus; I’d better listen.

I felt so stupid…He was always deflating me like that. He was a very smart fellow.

If Francis’ post had stuck with a premise like this: Feynman gets all kinds of attention for great things he did, but he was also human and did some bad things too and we have keep those things in mind – I wouldn’t have had a problem with it, and I don’t think many others would have either (other than that it’s maybe too obvious to merit a post). But to go so much further, to say that we shouldn’t consider Feynman a hero and – most egregiously – to accuse him of being a sexual predator, that’s where it all goes off the rails.

Francis’ final paragraph begins thus: “Feynman is no hero to us, brilliant as he was.” I’m not sure who the us is – the representatives of the website? – but Feynman is in fact a hero to me and to many others and will continue to be so. I’m not ignoring his flaws. I’m aware of them. Just as I’m aware of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s flaws. It’s just that I’m much more aware of these individual’s strengths, which are what we look to in heroes. Strengths are what inspire us. And inspiration is the reason we need heroes.

Richard Feynman’s rigorous defense of the scientific method, his intellectual integrity, his contagious enthusiasm for life and learning, his immense contributions to human knowledge – these qualities and more like them far overshadow the ill-advised romantic dalliances for a reason: they’re rare.

Update: My own semi-feud with Deepak’s fans

Somewhat appropriately, two of Deepak’s fans engaged me in a brief semi-feud after reading this recent post about a semi-feud between Chopra and physicist Brian Cox. Anyway, you can look it all up in the comments section if you want – do tell me if I was too harsh. You can also look the discussion up on Twitter, since both individuals felt compelled to write their own full length responses and then push those responses through their various social media networks all day. Would it be absurd to remind them that I’m a stranger musing on things for fun and hardly worth scribbling out responses to? But I guess we humans are lonely.

What really gets my goat about the whole thing? How tantalizingly close I was to being tagged by the guru himself on Twitter. Look here, so close!

Deepack

How could he miss it?! Flabbergasting when you consider how regularly he tags the entire internet on his tweets.

If you do decide to track the littler of the little feuds, keep in mind that the second commenter – that’d be the physics student from Canada – seems to have retired his internet presence. As of today I can’t find his blog response to me anymore, and his Twitter account has been deactivated. I hope he comes back – I offered to let him write a blog post on why he thinks a singularity is essential, as opposed to some physicists who argue that it’s probably not necessary. And I meant it too – I’d be happy to let him post. Though I did make the offer before seeing this over at Why Evolution is True:

Kohli

Now, if you’re a Deepak fan reading this and thinking about responding, you know what my advice is? Relax. Be content in the cosmic consciousness. Life’s too short to write a response that no one will read. And if you remember nothing else, remember this: knowledge results from the doorway to bliss.

(Just kidding on that last part – it’s from a Deepak Chopra random nonsense generator)

If you must say something, be warned that this will likely be my response:

Capture

The Atheism Tapes: Colin McGinn (Episode 1 of 6)

I first watched Jonathan Miller’s BBC series, The Atheism Tapes, a couple years ago when it was available on Netflix. At that point I wasn’t terribly well studied in philosophy or religion, and as I feel marginally more so now, I thought it would be a good idea to revisit the collection. To that tune, I’ll plan to post all six episodes, along with a few of my thoughts, over the next couple of weeks. To kick us off, here’s the conversation between Jonathan Miller and English philosopher Colin McGinn:

On losing faith: It’s always fascinating to learn how individuals came to believe or disbelieve particular religious claims. In McGinn’s case, a required divinity course in high school sparked an intense interest in ethics and existential philosophy, which led to a brief but semi-serious relationship with the Bible. As a consequence, McGinn now says he knows much more about the Holy Book than many religious devotees – and I have to say, I’m not surprised. While I’m by no means an expert, Christians seem to make a sport out of not reading the Bible, and the ones that do seem to make another sport out of not knowing the historical context for the Bible (I’m reminded of this 2010 Pew survey, where atheists/agnostics outperformed believers on questions of “religious knowledge”). Anyway, when McGinn gets to college – a familiar tale – he promptly drops his faith. He recalls forcing himself to attend some type of religious service during this time, but immediately categorized it all as “rubbish” without much hesitation. The transition was made perhaps a bit easier by McGinn’s reading of Bertrand Russell at the same time, which served as an introduction to an ethical and moral framework unfettered by supernatural origins.

On reasons for disbelief: McGinn is asked to “surgically” articulate the reasons for disbelieving in God. He categorizes the reasons into two categories: 1) the “no-evidence” argument(s) and the 2) arguments against or contrary arguments. In the first category, McGinn’s position is simply that there is no good, independent evidence that justifies belief in any of the Christian (substitute any modern religion here) doctrine – or at least no more evidence than there is for Zeus or Isis or any other of the 1,000 ancient Gods. There is no positive evidence for theism, and as yet no theory that would need to invoke God to explain something else (the argument from design was the last solid argument of this type). In the contrary arguments category, McGinn highlights the argument from evil as one of the strongest. Very simply, if God has the following three traits – omnipotence, omniscience, and omni-benevolence – why is there rampant suffering in the world? The contradiction as implied by the traits is that God knows there is suffering, is powerful enough to stop it, doesn’t want people to suffer, and yet we have loads of suffering. The standard apologist argument is to invoke free will here (ala, God gave us free will and as a consequence we can sometime promote suffering through independent choices), but this obviously doesn’t account for naturalistic causes of suffering like earthquakes, tsunamis, diseases, etc. The only other counter is that God created it this way – and I’m putting it crudely here – to bring out the best in people. That is, suffering is here because it helps give other people perspective on life. But as McGinn rightly points out, if that’s the case, God is well…a jerk…since that answer would so obviously devalue certain lives over others.

On the ontological argument: When asked to give arguments for belief, McGinn cites the ontological argument as a “beautiful” one, but by that he of course doesn’t mean it’s at all convincing. You can find much better expositions of Anselm’s famous proof elsewhere, but just to summarize, it’s that 1) God is the most perfect/powerful being conceivable 2) Suppose this most perfect being lacked existence 3) Existence is surely a property of being perfect/powerful 4) Therefore God must exist. McGinn a little strangely claims that no one has ever been able to pinpoint what was wrong with the argument, though I thought Bertrand Russell himself did so nicely (perhaps I’m wrong). Anyway, the most obvious fallacy to me has always been that the argument begs the question, but since McGinn didn’t bring that up, I’m now wondering if that’s wrong in some technical philosophical sense. McGinn’s main problem with the argument is that things like “perfection” and “powerful” are not well-defined. What does it even mean to say the “most perfect being conceivable”? Does that make any more sense than “the most perfect football game conceivable”? You can say “the most perfect football game I’ve ever seen” but when you jump to “the most perfect football game conceivable” suddenly no one knows what you mean, including yourself. A few sentences can work that way – “the most perfect conceivable triangle” being one, since it’s well-defined.

On morality coming from God: McGinn is asked to explain Plato/Socrates’ old argument demonstrating that morality does not come from God. Very simply…if God says rape is good, is rape good? Most of you, hopefully, would answer no, suggesting that God’s affirmation of some particular action wouldn’t actually make that action moral. Therefore, a particular action is good or bad independent of God. If this weren’t the case, what would we really be talking about when we referred to something as “moral” – it would just be the subjective opinion of God. So while it’s okay to say God is encouraging us to partake in moral behavior, it’s wrong (or at least odd) to say behavior is moral because God says so.

On why people persist in believing despite the reasons not to: In contrast to many who attribute religious belief to human beings’ innate fear of death, McGinn’s personal theory is that religious belief stems from a kind of cosmic loneliness that’s a consequence of a sealed-off consciousness. I’ve not heard this argument before (or it didn’t register the first time I watched these) and I’m very much attracted to it. McGinn’s of course right that it’s very hard to accept that we are alone and nobody cares. To make things worse, we humans have a certain type of consciousness (maybe it’s the only type) that is sealed off from everyone else. No one can get in our heads with us, at least not really, and this creates an existential loneliness. God, McGinn argues, is a wonderful antidote to that. He knows us in our minds, which no one else can do, and that satisfies a deep craving.

On using the word “atheist”: Like Jonathan Miller, McGinn is reluctant to call himself an atheist, since it connotes a type of “professional atheist” demeanor and is associated with negative stereotypes. He thinks it’s pretty pointless to be inveighing against a non-existent entity all the time, which the word “atheist” suggests. Instead, McGinn classifies himself as an anti-theist, which is a person actively opposed to religion, in that he thinks it’s harmful to society, individuals, etc. He names another category which he think is the way the world will eventually go – “post-theism” – or the “healthy state of mind” where you’ve put all that behind you. The ideal society, to McGinn, would be one where the question of religion didn’t really come up, or when it did, it would be in a “those silly people used to believe X” context.

I used to consider myself a post-theist, actually, but living in Texas, it’s more or less impossible to reach that healthy state of mind.

Deepak Chopra/Deadbat Chopstick semi-feuds with Brian Cox on Twitter

If you follow “spiritual” guru Deepak Chopra on Twitter, you know how annoying he can be, especially when he feels challenged. He regularly gets into social media semi-feuds with actual scientists, and I say semi-feuds because most of his opponents don’t bother to reply. That leaves Deepak by his lonesome, furiously spitting out 8,000 (mostly nonsense) tweets with no response. It reminds me of grade school, when you could watch a bully self-destruct in real-time as his victim employed the effective tactic of simply ignoring his oppressor.

Jerry Coyne’s website brought the most recent Twitter semi-feud to my attention yesterday, this time between Deepak and rock-star English physicist Brian Cox. I’m a big fan of Brian Cox – he’s almost a perfect meld between Dawkins and Sagan in that he’s especially adept at expounding the wonders of science (ala Sagan) and equally intolerant of nonsense, woo, and superstitious thinking (ala Dawkins…also, Cox is British). Anyway, Cox ends the feud with a knock-out blow, what I believe the internet calls a “pwn”. Here’s the summarized feud (though you should check out some of the responses from followers of each):

1pm on the 19th, Deepak posts some of his regular science-sounding nonsense:

Twitter 1

The next morning, Brian Cox, an actual scientist, decides to correct Deepak with this tweet:

Twitter

Which unleashes a rapid pack of “Deepak crazies” who swarm Brian’s twitter feed (if you think Deepak is defensive, you should see his followers):

Twitter 2

And all the while Deepak is of course tweeting out 9,000,000 of his own responses:

Twitter 3

And tries to throw the hammer down with this one:

Capture

Which sets him up for this wonderful pwn:

Capture

 

Go home, Dick Cheney, you’re drunk.

This won’t be a full post, I just very briefly need to vent my frustration with Dick and Liz Cheney’s new Wall Street Journal op-ed, “The Collapsing Obama Doctrine“.

Anyway, here’s what I put on Facebook a minute ago, and it very nicely summarizes my thoughts:

Things that will make me dislike you: First, you help orchestrate a poorly planned, almost unwinnable war in Iraq under mostly false pretenses that turns into an utter disaster. Second, after a few years of leisure, accident free quail hunts, and mild heart attacks, you have the gall to shout at the next guy for running said war incorrectly.

If you leave a baby on someone’s doorstep, Dick, don’t expect any credibility when you return six years later to criticize their parenting.

I do think Cheney makes some correct points, but just can’t get over the nerve of him having anything but humility over his administration’s decision to go to Iraq in the first place. And then to criticize Obama for not leaving troops in Iraq? When it was Cheney’s administration that oversaw the bilateral agreement mandating that all troops would be out in 2011? Unbelievable.

I’ve been the following ISIS/Iraq conflict pretty closely over the last few days, as all indicators point to this being a game-changing situation for the Middle East (as in redrawing of the map, game-changing). Charlie Rose has had excellent coverage here, here, and herethis NPR article from 2009 summarizes the origins of the Sunni-Shia conflict quite clearly; and my new favorite website, Vox.com, has these helpful notes if you are interested in catching up. I plan to stay tuned, with the civilians of the region in my thoughts.

(If time permits, I will try to write a post exploring the greater influences of religious belief on this conflict. And if I don’t have time, I’ll at least be looking forward to the inevitable such commentaries by people like Jerry Coyne and Sam Harris.)

Now Available: The Unbelievers with Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss

After a long wait, the anticipated documentary, The Unbelievers, is now available on iTunes, Amazon, etc. If you’re not familiar, it follows two scientists and well-known religious skeptics Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss as they travel around the world debating apologists, delivering lectures, and having public conversations about science and reason in enormous concert halls (what makes me giddy is that these halls are all full). The best description of the style I’ve heard is a rock-documentary for scientists. The film is fast-paced, moving from hotel to hotel, city to city, event to event – and culminates during the 2012 Reason Rally in D.C., which turned out to be the largest secular gathering in recorded history (and was somehow completely ignored by the major media).

You can see the trailer below. I rented the flick last night ($4.99 in the US on iTunes) and did really enjoy it, despite being – appropriately – skeptical. I read some initial reviews, like this one in the NY Times, that seemed to focus too much on what the reviewer wished the movie had been instead of what it was (if I recall correctly, John Updike had a rule about book reviewing where he would try to avoid doing just that, no doubt because he found it annoying when his own books were reviewed that way). In order to move at its breakneck speed, The Unbelievers assumes the viewer is already familiar with the standard arguments for and against religion, and so there are no prolonged or deep discussions of the issues. Maybe a bit more character or issue development would have been nice, but that wasn’t what this film was trying to do. And no, none of the “good” arguments for or proponents of religion are featured, but the movie only covers a short tour and I think was intended to simply be an accurate representation of that small slice of time. Richard did have a debate with the Archbishop of Sydney – supposedly a sophisticated theologian – during period the film covers, but it’s pretty clear in the film (and if you watch the full debate below) that he’s far from deserving of that adjective.

In addition to the travel scenes, the movie is book-ended by interviews with a few celebrities commenting on unbelief, including Woody Allen, (the always brilliant) Ricky Gervais, Cameron Diaz, Werner Herzog, Sarah Silverman, and many more. I had assumed they would be interspersed throughout the film since their names were used so blatantly for advertising, but they come in just two small segments. Finally, if you stay through the credits, you’ll see a moving tribute to Christopher Hitchens, when the following scrolls up on the black screen amidst the music and slowly stops, right centered:

“For Christopher.”

Krauss has a similar touching scene in the movie, where before a debate with a Muslim apologist he retires to read “his Bible”, a paperback edition of Hitchens’ god is Not Great, saying a bit longingly that  “Christopher always inspires me.” The two were good friends prior Christopher’s passing and you see immediately how much Krauss (and the entire secular movement) misses him.

The film debuted at #1 in several outlets yesterday.

Dawkins

Misquoting Einstein: Walter Isaacson doctors a quote (maybe)…

If you’re not already familiar with Aspen Institute CEO and acclaimed biographer Walter Isaacson, you should be. His most notable works are Einstein: His Life and Universe and the recent Steve Jobs biographies. Both get two thumbs up from me – the first actually sparked a pretty intense fascination with Albert Einstein, which has continued to this day (somewhat embarrassing example: I have a portrait of Einstein above my bed…). And when you combine that personal fascination with an equally intense interest in religion and philosophy, and you end up with someone (me) who has read pretty much every quote attributed to Einstein having anything to do with faith or lack thereof. That will be my only claim to credibility on this issue – simply  that I’ve read a lot about the subject – and so I hope you don’t find me too bold for suggesting that, in the clip below, Walter Isaacson has pretty egregiously (in my opinion) misquoted the man. If anyone can find proof Einstein said what Isaacson claims he said, I’ll be happy to retract – but until then, let the venting commence.

First, the contested quote. Isaacson claims, starting at about 2:30, that Einstein said this: “There’s a spirit manifest in the laws of the universe, in the face of which we must be awed and humbled. To me, that is the closest feeling I can have to a cosmic religion and to me that explains my faith in a creator and a faith in God.”

The first part seems to be paraphrased from Einstein’s reply to a sixth grade girl in 1936, who was asking him, “Do scientists pray?” I’m familiar with the quote, printed in full below:

Scientific research is based on the idea that everything that takes place is determined by laws of nature, and this holds for the actions of people. For this reason, a scientist will hardly be inclined to believe that events could be influenced by prayer, i.e. by a wish addressed to a supernatural Being…Every one who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the Universe – a spirit vastly superior to that of man, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble. In this way the pursuit of science leads to a religious feeling of a special sort, which is indeed quite different from the religiosity of someone more naive.

I take no issue with Isaacson’s paraphrase of the section above, but you might notice that the phrase, “and to me that explains my faith in a creator and a faith in God” is noticeably absent. Why? Well, my claim is that Einstein never said it – and never would have said it because it’s so incommensurate with his views as expressed elsewhere. I was actually pretty shocked upon hearing it, and began searching my main sources (mostly the inter-webs and Max Jammer’s thorough, Einstein and Religion) in vain for any quote invoking the word “creator” or “faith in a creator”. I even re-read Isaacson’s chapter, “Einstein’s God” but turned up nothing. I emailed Isaacson about a week ago (he responded to a letter from me back in high school so I’m hopeful) to see if he can give me the source, and if he can I’ll happily update this post accordingly. Until then, I’m assuming it was a misquote.

Now, why do I care? Isn’t this a small difference? No, not really. Saying something like “faith in a creator” reeks of deism or even theism, which are contrary to Einstein’s actual views, most readily described as pantheism (again, see Jammer’s Einstein and Religion). Einstein is already one of the most quote-mined figures of the 20th century, and is frequently taken out of context by both believers and nonbelievers alike. We don’t need to fuel this fire, and tacking on phrases, even small ones, is how misattributions are born.  People, particularly of such esteem as Isaacson, need to be careful when quoting others, especially those who are long dead and can’t defend themselves anymore. It’s an issue of respect and an issue of intellectual honesty – we all want Einstein to agree with us (who wants to be in disagreement with a genius?), but if there is no evidence he agreed with our views, we’ve no right to argue as such, and certainly no right to liberally paraphrase. My speculation is that Isaacson is religious in some way himself, and was, in the above clip, projecting some of his own views onto Einstein.

As for Einstein’s actual thoughts on religion, I recommend you read Jammer’s book, but I will try to give a short summary. First, he explicitly stated multiple times he did not think of himself as an atheist (think Sigmund Freud for what he meant by atheist). He invoked God many times in public statements about the harmony of nature and the Universe (though he meant Spinoza’s God, which is pantheistic, more or less, if you can understand what Spinoza is saying), and even described himself as “religious” in a cosmic sense. All of this has been used by believers to make assertions Einstein was one of them, but that is clearly false. He was straightforwardly not a believer in a “personal” God of any sort – which means he was adamantly not a Christian or a Jew or a Muslim. He did not believe in a God who intervenes or rewards or punishes or has anything whatsoever to do with humanity. In other words, he didn’t believe in a God anything like what most people think of when they think of God. Jammer concludes that this made Einstein more or less a “practical atheist”  because what’s the difference between there being no God and there being a God who doesn’t interact at all with the fates of humanity? I get Jammer’s point, but disagree slightly – I do in fact think there’s a big difference between those two hypothetical realities (one would suggest some sort of teleological direction in nature, the other would suggest chaos and nothing more, though a pretty cool brand of chaos). Moreover, if what you care about is the fundamental truth and nature of the Universe – which I suspect is what Einstein cared about – and not necessarily humanity’s role or involvement in it, then again, there’s a big philosophical difference between those two worldviews that I imagine would play out practically in some form during one’s life. Now, if Einstein were around today, what do I think he would call himself? My guess is that with the softening of terms that has happened since his death, he would likely call himself an agnostic when talking generally (in the Carl Sagan vein), and an “atheist” when confronted about Judeo-Christian beliefs.

Of course, he’s not here, so I can’t claim he’s either of those things with any certainty…unless I doctor a quote…

The Greater of Two Evils: Lt. Gov Elect, Dan Patrick (TX-R)

I live in Texas. That’s a fact. But thankfully, with a little discipline, I manage to forget that fact most of the time (it certainly helps that I live in a major city in Texas, and that major cities in Texas are not really in Texas). Yet every once in a while, I am jolted back to reality by a piece of news I can’t ignore.

The most recent jolt of this kind came on Tuesday, when Texas state senator Dan Patrick defeated long-time incumbent David Dewhurst in the race for Lieutenant Governor. Now, I’m not a Republican. There’s probably not a single social policy issue on which I agree with Lt. David Dewhurst. He’s very conservative, and I mean very – not even close to being considered a “moderate”. Against a competent democrat, I wouldn’t vote for Dewhurst in a million million years.  But in this race, he was unquestionably the lesser of two evils, and I found myself, strangely, rooting for him.  And the reason, my friends, is that the stakes were so high.

Alas, we have now elected this loon into office:

“We as Christians have yielded to the secular left and let them rule the day in this country. When it comes to creationism, not only should it be taught, it should be triumphed. It should be heralded.”

– Texas State Senator Dan Patrick

Yes, Patrick said that at a recent debate in Dallas. He was one-upping Dewhurst on his conservative bona fides – the latter had just uttered an atrocious but otherwise expected advocacy for equal time in the public classroom for intelligent design, creationism, and evolution. The fact that Dewhurst even separated creationism and intelligent design into two categories is proof he’s missing something, but maybe naively I wasn’t expecting an even stupider comment to follow from his opponent. Then again…Texas.

It’s pretty easy to bemoan this type of claptrap – no thoughtful person can actually believe the earth is 6,000 years old or that creationism is tenable enough to come anywhere near a science classroom, much less “triumphed” – the hard part is to figure out whether politicians at this level are thoughtful people. Does Dan Patrick really believe what comes out of his mouth, or is he doing what all politicians do, and saying what must be said to pander to an influential base and get elected? I honestly don’t know. Dewhurst, I’m reasonably sure, is not as backwards as he came across in this debate, but nowadays all big races in Texas devolve into sprints to the right, with each candidate trying to out-conserve their conservative opponent through sound bytes about guns or religion or immigration or Obama.

But does Patrick, who will now wield considerable influence across the state, actually believe creationism should be taught in public schools? My good friend, who follows politics pretty closely and actually interned for a while as a staffer in the House (I think it was the House), says no way. Her opinion, and she seemed sincere on this, was that politicians, particularly those at the state Senate level or above, know they have to say certain things to get elected, regardless of their actual views. She admitted some state House members might actually be that dense, but was pretty sure those at the Senate level didn’t mean most of what they said on social policy issues. I was skeptical, but she also tried to assure me that even if Patrick does believe those things, there are enough checks and balances to prevent any kind of ludicrous position to actually get passed.

I hope so. Otherwise I’m going to have much more trouble forgetting that I’m in Texas.

Some articles for further reading (also linked above):

The Uncertainty Blog gets its 15 minutes…

Well, this was cool. Sean was nice enough to link to my summary of his recent Intelligence Squared Debate. The shout out resulted in a 1,300% traffic increase on this site compared to last month – not bad for the most amateurish of amateur blogs. The most touching aspect of all this attention? I noticed a complete stranger use my (admittedly uncreative) nickname, Dr. Heaven, to refer to Eben Alexander while commenting on a blog post. Maybe it will catch on.

You can now find Sean’s thoughts on the debate here, and Steve Novella’s here.

Update: Since this post, some of the stuff at the Uncertainty Blog has been published over at Jerry Coyne’s website, Why Evolution is True. Those posts have generated and awful lot of traffic, but still nowhere near the amount my review of the Sean Carroll vs. WLC did. I started to wonder why, given that Sean and Jerry both have similar online presences. So I did some searching, and the answer made me smile. Someone a bit more popular happened to share the link, though I didn’t realize it until now (sorry if this fawning makes you cringe…I’ve always been a huge admirer of RD, primarily for his scientific work):

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Death is not final? Sean Carroll vs. Dr. Heaven (Eben Alexander)

Sean Carroll is quickly becoming my favorite living scientist and defender of rationalism. He just posted another stellar public debate performance in the Intelligence Squared US series, arguing – along with Yale neuroscientist Steven Novella – against the motion, “Death is not final”. You can catch the full video below.

I’m impressed by Intelligence Squared’s persistence in addressing deeply fractious issues like religion and politics. Sadly, not many mainstream outlets organize discussions on these issues, and I think they do a terrific job of having civil discussions on issues that are sometimes uncomfortable. The moderator, John Donvan, is pleasant, and the format is about as good as you can do for a formal debate (7 minute opening statements, questions from the moderator, questions from the audience, short closing statements). They also do a pre- and post-debate poll from the audience to determine the winner based on the percentage increase or decrease for or against the motion.

SPOILER ALERT

So, highlights?

Sean had near perfect answers in both his prepared and impromptu responses (including the memorable analogy of life being a process like fire and not a substance like air or water) . As one of the commenters on his blog, Preposterous Universe, said, Sean is basically batting a thousand when it comes to these things, and that’s not an easy feat, even when you have facts on your side. But after an impressive debut with Michael Shermer against Dinesh D’Souza and Ian Hutchison, and handily defeating everyone’s least favorite apologist William Lane Craig, and now this debate, Sean has cemented himself as one of the best public defenders of science and skepticism out there. He has a knack for being polite, funny, refreshingly clear and uncompromising, and non-threatening – all characteristics that open up people’s willingness to listen.

This was my first exposure to Steven Novella, and I think he did a good job, but isn’t as practiced a public speaker. He also sadly had to endure an illegitimate poning when Dr. Heaven (more on him in a minute) misquoted the late Carl Sagan. Steven corrected the misrepresentation, and Dr. Heaven doubled-down by quoting a page number from A Demon-Haunted World (essentially the skeptic’s Bible) to boost his credibility, and it got a large audience cheer. Of course the quote was completely misrepresented. Carl Sagan never came close to suggesting there was legitimate evidence for paranormal activity (he just said there were some claims worth investigating, which any open-minded scientist would say). Novella called Alexander out on this, but it wasn’t as forceful and didn’t play as well with the audience.

Now, onto Dr. Heaven (Eben Alexander). This guy burst onto the stage with a cover story in Newsweek maybe a year ago, where he claimed to have had an NDE that proved heaven was real. He then promptly wrote a book, Proof of Heaven, which has been on the best-seller list for quite some time, as one would expect. I suspected he was a charlatan immediately, and this debate more or less demonstrated that – he didn’t seem to understand modern neuroscience (a neurologist, after all, doesn’t necessarily have to) and just seemed to brush off Novella’s alternative explanations and refutations. He also suggested, at first a little sheepishly and then blatantly, that quantum mechanics and consciousness are both fundamentally related since they are confusing and that the latter led Einstein into mysticism (…no…). Most frustratingly, he made the brilliant argument (and I’m not oversimplifying here) that since we don’t perfectly understand consciousness, heaven exists. I was a little disappointed actually. I was hoping (as maybe we all do) that he might have more than personal conviction and bad reasoning skills, but that’s about all Dr. Alexander adds up to (and a little more initial credibility than your Uncle Bob because he was once a practicing neurosurgeon). For additional credibility he likes to tout that he used to be a materialist and skeptic, but I’m not at all convinced that he ever took those ideas seriously in the first place – his description of materialism reminded me eerily of those by religious apologists who you can tell don’t understand what they are talking about. If he had ever been a hardened skeptic, that part of his brain must not have turned back on after the coma, because this was 101 stuff.

Dr. Moody, while a seemingly pleasant man, didn’t help his side much. He pontificated a bit dreamily on Plato and Democritus and seemed at times to be arguing with himself on where he actually stood. He also offered hardly any evidence at all (and certainly none that was compelling) for his stance – and this from a man who is supposedly the world’s leading expert on NDE’s.

But I think Sean essentially won the debate by focusing on the following argument: if you believe in life after death, you are saying that established science is not just a little wrong, but very, very, very wrong, and that it has somehow escaped the notice of any experiment ever. The mind existing after the destruction of the brain is simply incompatible with what we know. He admitted that for him, it isn’t even an interesting question anymore because our understanding of physics (yes, including quantum mechanics, Eben) is quite straightforward and eliminates the possibility. He then closed eloquently and reminded everyone, as he’s done before, that life is not a dress rehearsal – it’s all we have, and that finite aspect is what  gives life its meaning.

Oh, and justly, Sean and Steven won the debate, improving the audience position against the motion by 15%, compared to only a 5% increase for the motion.