Saturday, April 19, 2008

The John McCain Interview You'll Never See

McCain is going to be a guest tomorrow on George Stephanopoulos' Sunday morning show. Do you think George will ask McCain the tough questions that need to be asked? Wanna place a wager?

Here is an article from AlterNet, followed by the interview you'll never see, but I sure wish we would.

Last week's Democratic debate in Philadelphia was an abysmal display of journalism. By sticking to trivial topics for half of the debate, ABC sought to provoke controversy without asking the candidates serious questions. The Huffington Post's Jason Linkins wrote that the debate "ventured into territory so utterly asinine that I could scarcely believe what I was witnessing."

Ironically, the mainstream media have been giving John McCain a free ride while trying to pin Clinton and Obama with manufactured "gotcha" questions. In fact, they don't seem to be challenging McCain at all. So there's no reason to think ABC's brand of pseudo-journalism won't continue tomorrow morning, when George Stephanopoulos will interview McCain on his show.

We used satire in this video because we felt it's our most effective way to make a point about the shoddy journalism coming from ABC. The network was so desperate to stir up controversy at the debate that Stephanopoulos took incendiary remarks from FOX's Sean Hannity and tried to pawn them off as his own question.

We can't let the FOXification of the mainstream press continue. What's more, we can't allow journalists like Stephanopoulos to give John McCain a free pass. What are the satirical questions you think Stephanopoulos and his colleagues should be asking McCain? Post them to the website and let us know just how shoddy their journalism has become. We'll award the best (meaning worst) satire. It's high time we hold ABC to higher journalistic standards!

And please support the work of Campaign for America's Future in forcing intelligent questions onto Sunday news shows. Weekend Watchdog's Bill Scher wants Stephanopoulos to ask, among other things, why McCain hasn't given "consistent straight answers about what seven years of conservative economic policies have done to the American economy?" Weigh in with your own substantive questions.






Cool Site - The Global Spiral

I can't remember how I discovered this site now, but I've been wanting to mention it for about a week now.

The Global Spiral

Purpose
The Global Spiral is a monthly online magazine dedicated to the mission and vision of Metanexus Institute. Metanexus is a not-for-profit organization that promotes transdisciplinary research into profound questions of human meaning and purpose with the aim of transforming our educational, religious, and civic institutions.

Problem
The present moment, with its ever-accelerating technological development, instantaneous global communication, and unprecedented interaction among cultures, presents remarkable possibilities for enhancing the common good. However, despite the increase in the quantity and diversity of our knowledge, our understanding of ourselves and our world is becoming ever more fragmented. This fragmentation lies at the root of many of the current threats to our well-being and the well-being of our planet.

Proposal
The Global Spiral addresses this problem by offering transformative, transdisciplinary content that is not just about the life of the mind, but about paying mind to the whole of life. We do this through…

  • Incisive articles written by scholars whose thought transcends disciplinary divisions
  • Penetrating book reviews
  • Original works of art that expand our understanding of foundational questions
  • Current news and events from Metanexus network partners around the globe
  • Engaging Interviews with luminary scholars
  • Multimedia downloads

Our main areas of exploration include:

  • “Science and Religion dialogue” as symptom of the fragmentation of knowledge
  • The rediscovery and retrieval of human meaning and purpose
  • Navigating the clash of civilizations and cultures through transdisciplinary scholarship and dialogue
  • New possibilities for metaphysics
  • The urgency of authenticity
  • The self, soul, and personhood
  • Nature and Humanity
  • Faith and Reason

Their new issue has some very interesting articles. Here are a couple.

Science and a Significant Being Theodicy

Nelson Pike, in the introduction to his book “God and Evil,” states the problem of evil thusly:

If God is omnipotent, then He could prevent evil if He wanted to. And if God is perfectly good, then He would want to prevent evil if He could. Thus, if God exists and is both omnipotent and perfectly good, then there exists a being who could prevent evil if he wanted to, and who would want to prevent evil if he could. And if this last is true, how can there be so many evils in the world? (1964:1)

No problem has been more perplexing for the theist than this one. In the prophetic words of Hume, “nothing can shake the solidity of this reasoning, so short, so clear, so decisive.”

How to Make Amends by Adam Scott Miller

Of course the theist can “solve” the problem by sacrificing one or more of God’s defining attributes; omniscience,omnipotence or benevolence. But what would be left would no longer be the God of traditional theism, the God of the Judeo, Christian, Islamic tradition. The remaining shell of a god would be of little interest to human beings because he could be of little or no help to us in this world.

Since this solution has never been acceptable to theists they have sought instead solutions to the problem that would preserve God’s defining attributes. These “explanations” of evil, that would still allow for the existence of the God of traditional theism are called theodicies. Traditionally these theodicies have taken two forms: (1) Some have sought to solve the problem of evil by trying to show that there really is no evil in this world and thus there really is no problem. (2) The majority of them have accepted the existence of evil but have sought to show that evil plays a positive, and perhaps even necessary role in human life. As might be imagined these traditional theodicies have come under severe criticism in the history of philosophy, and justly so. They crumble under serious philosophical reflection. Further, it is not just the atheist who sees the weakness in these theodicies. Most believers intuitively sense that there are problems with them when a tragedy befalls a friend, a family member, or themselves. It would be a positive development if we could rid theistic discourse of these traditional theodicies once and for all.


Read the rest.

* * * * *

Theism, Atheism and Non-Theism in Buddhism

There are several opinions on the theistic status of Buddhism with the descriptions of Buddhism ranging from atheistic, non theistic to theistic. The fundamental philosophy of Buddhism seems to deny the concept of a personal God, although it is controversial whether Buddhism denies an impersonal form of God. Buddhist scholar Nyanaponika Thera1 suggested that conceptions of impersonal godhead such as world soul are excluded from Buddhism and this has been explained on teachings related to unsubstantiality or non-self. Despite this, Buddhism does provide an exposition on different higher and lower realms of existence even though the focus is on impermanence. That way Buddhism could be described as pantheism associated with all forms of existence. Considering a pantheist explanation, which is highly probable in Buddhist philosophy, Buddhism could be considered as theistic instead of atheistic. In a review article on the work of W.C. Smith, Robert Florida2 pointed out that Smith argued that Buddhists do believe in God. Smith of course, takes a broader view of what it means to be an atheist and suggests that an atheist has lost all hope and has no sense of justice, truth or beauty. Smith may have stretched the definition of atheism a bit too far, which should strictly mean, ‘no belief in God or no belief that God or gods exist’. Smith argues for a theistic basis of Buddhism considering the Buddhist concepts of nirvana and the concept of dharma as parallel to the Western concept of God or divinity3 .

Mahayana Buddhism went a bit further by accepting Buddha as the God and William James4 has pointed out that Buddha himself standing as God as accepted by some Buddhist followers suggests that Buddhism is atheistic5 . However this again is a problematic argument as accepting Buddha as God could mean that Buddhism is theistic and atheistic at the same time! Yet Mahayana Buddhism is a later version of Buddhism and the Theravada school still follows the teachings of Buddha in its essence6 . Some scholars have used the term ‘non-theistic’ to define Buddhism as atheism could mean a wider range of vices and theism is too focused on God and especially the concept of a personal God. In the West, the concept of God, largely framed by Christianity is a personal concept representing a super human being. This is largely against the spirit of Buddhism which emphasizes karma or an individual’s own actions. Divine control or providence, according to Buddhism can easily suggest that individuals are not responsible for their moral or ethical actions and this would be bad for moral development of human beings7 . Some scholars have suggested that God in Buddhism simply means enlightened beings or Buddhas rather than any other supreme being, so individuals are capable of gaining Buddhahood when they achieve true enlightenment and impart the knowledge to others. Buddhism through the ages has worshipped many such gradations of Buddha despite the fact that there is no belief of God in Buddhism. The focus is on personal karma, or one’s own actions rather than being overtly dependent on God, and also one’s efforts towards nirvana or enlightenment and the emphasis is also on jnana through meditative reflection and striving towards higher refinement of consciousness, salvation and deliverance 8. The main reason for which Buddha wanted to avoid God seems to be an emphasis on one’s own moral efforts and strife or aims towards moral and spiritual fulfillment. By eschewing the idea of God, individuals take more personal moral responsibility for their actions and thus Buddhism is about independence and attaining morality not by praying or dependence on divine providence but by one’s own efforts and actions. The ultimate goal is to attain salvation through constant efforts, morally correct behavior and meditation.


Read the rest.


Dharma Quote: Buddha Nature


A nice quote on Buddha Nature:

Above all else, we need to nourish our true self—what we can call our buddha nature—for so often we make the fatal mistake of identifying with our confusion, and then using it to judge and condemn ourselves, which feeds the lack of self-love that so many of us suffer from today.

How vital it is to refrain from the temptation to judge ourselves or the teachings, and to be humorously aware of our condition, and to realize that we are, at the moment, as if many people all living in one person.

And how encouraging it can be to accept that from one perspective we all have huge problems, which we bring to the spiritual path and which indeed may have led us to the teachings, and yet to know from another point of view that ultimately our problems are not so real or so solid, or so insurmountable as we have told ourselves.

~ Sogyal Rinpoche

Eddie Izzard: 'Every Gig Is a Rehearsal'


A cool interview with the funniest make-up wearing comedian alive, and quite possibly the funniest man alive.

Talking to Eddie Izzard feels a lot like watching him careen through one of his routines: he is free-associative, tangential and often brilliant. Americans who only know Izzard as Wayne Mollow, the con-artist family man who could suave the spots off a leopard, on FX's "The Riches" are about to see a lot more of him. This month he takes his new stand-up act on the road in his nationwide tour, "Stripped." He has also just finished shooting "Valkyrie," a biopic starring Tom Cruise as Claus von Stauffenberg, the Nazi officer who led a failed plot to kill HItler, and he is lending his voice to "Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian."

NEWSWEEK's Brian Braiker caught up with Izzard, the funniest transvestite alive, to discuss, in no particular order: his new act, Wikipedia, God, sharks, cross-dressing, Nazis and Tom Cruise. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Why is your new tour called "Stripped?"
Eddie Izzard:
The heels got too high on the last two tours. Now I've just gone back to blokey mode, so I've got all this movement back which I couldn't do before. The set is leaner, what I'm wearing is leaner and just focusing on what I'm talking about. I keep talking about God and I come to all these different conclusions. I'm talking about the whole civilization, trying strip that back, as well. The last 5,000 years we did everything. I put out my idea what we're doing here. I think it's all random. If there is a God, his plan is very similar to someone not having a plan.

So no do drag at all this time?

I might be wearing a bit of eyeliner, but less than Keith Richards wears. I don't call it drag anyway; I'm not wearing a dress.

Do you see yourself more as an actor or a comedian these days?
hat I first wanted to do was to be an actor. I've had more time being a stand-up. It's a trial-and-error method with me. Some people are natural. I just bulldoze in and sometimes I nail things and sometimes I suck it up. My stand-up is quite good now, people say. It's just like a big conversation each time. Every gig is a rehearsal.

Is your style different at all on "Stripped?"
It's walking through my brain. I'm quite good at taking in information so I voraciously inhale Wikipedia—which may have some things wrong in it, but I think is generally more information than we had before. Last tour we didn't have Wikipedia. And then Discovery Channel and History Channel. I can take it in and retain what I think are the most important facts.


Read the rest.


Eddie Izzard: Definite Article
(full show)



Satire: Son-Of-A-Bitch Mouse Solves Maze Researchers Spent Months Building

Research news from The Onion.

Son-Of-A-Bitch Mouse Solves Maze Researchers Spent Months Building

April 19, 2008 | Issue 44•16

IOWA CITY, IA—University of Iowa neuroscientists studying spatial learning and the effects of stress on memory announced Tuesday that a little son-of-a-bitch mouse ruined an experiment on cognitive performance by effortlessly navigating a maze that researchers spent nearly a year designing and constructing.

The test subject, a common house mouse, briskly traversed the complicated wooden maze in under 30 seconds or, according to the study's final report, roughly 1/8,789,258 as long as it took the lab to secure funding for the experiment. According to researchers administrating the standard Y-maze test, the fucking bastard never even broke his stride during the first trial, always selecting the correct route while consistently avoiding blind dead-end alleys.

Enlarge Image Mouse

Above, researchers discuss plans for a new maze, since the prick of a mouse, right, destroyed their chances of making any new discoveries whatsoever about the nature of synaptical response.

"We were unable to observe any statistically significant behavioral changes in the subject, largely due to the fact that he was in such a goddamn hurry to finish the maze," said Dr. Richard Barret, who was forced to estimate the mouse's various reaction times after one of his assistants smashed the lab's stopwatch in anger. "Further analysis will be required to garner any useful knowledge regarding this particular mouse's neurological processes, his reflex response to stimuli, and how in the hell that stupid jerk reached the goal without screwing up once."

Despite attempts to condition the mouse by screaming directly into its face, the researchers reported that the subject smugly completed the second and third runs of the three- dimensional spatial task with ease. A videotape of the mouse pausing during the final run has been subjected to a thorough review by the lab in order to determine if one of the maze's obstacles managed to momentarily confuse the mouse or if the test subject was, in fact, gloating.

"Had we obtained any usable data, perhaps that information would have led to the development of a cure for neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's," said Dr. William Eng, who led the team responsible for creating the maze. "What is unclear at this time is why this particular mouse had to be such a dick and render useless all the work we had put into this controlled behavioral experiment."

In order to create the maze, Eng hand-drew 15 drafts of the 5-foot by-6-foot wooden puzzle and utilized 3-D-modeling software before painstakingly gluing each 7-inch-tall piece of wood together. Even though Eng said the maze's interconnecting pathways were designed to provide a challenging series of obstructions to disorient the mouse, after completing the course, the subject reportedly ran back through to the starting line twice as fast.

"It is regrettable to spend such a tremendous amount of money studying mammalian neuropathways, only to have some hotshot mouse ruin everything," Eng said. "However, we have compiled substantial data on this species's ability to breeze right in and destroy an entire postdoctoral legacy."

Repeated trials yielded similar results, with the mouse performing equally well despite added variables of Dr. Eng trying to "scoot" it back with a pen and Dr. Barret tipping the entire maze upward 45 degrees. Additional attempts to deceive the mouse by placing a reward of cheese in an impassable section of the maze were also unsuccessful.

"Taking into account my past successful experiments with chimpanzees, it is my final analysis that we are dealing with one smart little fucker," said team member Dr. Russell Sutton, who has already applied for an additional grant to study cognitive learning in the same mouse. "I wonder if he'll be so smart without a functioning hippocampus."



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Friday, April 18, 2008

Baracky - The Movie

A Rocky-themed viral video for the Obama crowd.

YO AMERICA... YES WE CAN!!!


via videosift.com


In the News - Are We Rational Creatures?


There seem to be a lot more stories in the news of late on thinking, rationality, and consciousness. Since I love this stuff, I am a happy camper. Here are a couple of book reviews, and some other fun stuff.

First up is a review of Why Think? Evolution and the Rational Mind, by Ronald de Sousa (Oxford University Press) that appears in the Literary Review of Canada (this book was published in the US in 2007).

In Why Think? Evolution and the Rational Mind, Ronald de Sousa—a long-time member of the University of Toronto Philosophy Department, now cast out into the knackers’ yard of retirement—discusses two cases of people instructed by God to kill their children. First there was the wretched Texas housewife Andrea Yates, killer of her five kids, who was found guilty of deliberate murder on the grounds that, having got her divine instructions, she planned carefully how she could drown her babies. Second, there was Abraham, no less of a planner and whose son Isaac was saved only at the last moment thanks to another message from above, not to mention a handy ram ensnared in a thicket. The one was condemned for a vile crime; the other is venerated as a founder of no fewer than three different religions. De Sousa remarks: “When enough people share a delusion, it loses its status as a psychosis and gets a religious tax exemption instead.”

At that point, I knew I was going to love this book—and it is indeed a lot of fun. Why Think? is also good and clever. I have always said that the reason why philosophers are so disliked on university campuses is that we are brighter than anyone else and have trouble concealing the fact. Ronnie de Sousa does nothing to change this perception.

Of course, that does not mean that I am going to agree entirely with his book. De Sousa and I are very much on the same wave length: we are both committed evolutionists, and we are both convinced that Darwinism—and this means the theory of natural selection—is an important tool, perhaps the important tool, to be used in analyzing human thinking. While we do start to come apart in places, in other words we are both pretty hard-line Darwinians—with a point of exception to be made in a moment.

The author starts us off with a significant point, namely that most organisms do not think. Most organisms certainly are not rational. Yet they do all right. Moreover, rationality is not necessarily a key to success. Well thought-through courses of action can go wrong; daft decisions can lead to success. How else does one become a university president? De Sousa might have compounded the paradox a bit by pointing out that thinking is expensive. It requires big brains and they in turn demand lots of protein, which, outside modern yuppie societies, generally means meat. As the late evolutionary paleontologist Jack Sepkoski used to say: “I see intelligence as just one of a variety of adaptations among tetrapods for survival. Running fast in a herd while being as dumb as shit, I think, is a very good adaptation for survival.”

So why do we think? I think de Sousa has the right idea, although I would like to see a bit more biology thrown in here. Thinking gives us options—we are not stuck on one course of action, or with very limited strategic alternatives. Of course, as de Sousa points out, this is partly to do with our being social—in a social situation like ours you need big brains to deal with the various relationships and so forth. “Does Jimmie like me?” “Can I trust him?” “Would it be better to work with Mary instead, even though I know she doesn’t much like me?” On the other hand, being social cannot be all. Ants are social and they don’t do much thinking. I suspect that the real importance of thinking is indeed the fact that we need to make choices, but this comes from the fact that we have got ourselves into a situation where making choices counts.


Read the rest of this fascinating review (although, I'm not so sure philosophers are as smart as they think they are). I tend to like the emphasis here on the socio-cultural nature of thought and its evolution. We humans are social creatures and I am becoming increasingly convinced that our individual subjectivity cannot be viewed as anything other than a consciousness embedded within a social matrix.

The central part of de Sousa’s book looks at collective thinking versus individual thinking. When is something that is rational for the individual not necessarily the most rational move for the group? One of the main things about thinking from an evolutionary perspective is that one does not necessarily expect nice, neat answers. If a good god did everything, ultimately one would expect no conflicts between individual and group goods. If evolution through natural selection does everything, such harmony is not guaranteed and hardly to be expected at all. I might say, speaking somewhat regretfully as a male interested in those sorts of things, that sexuality is one case where the individual and the group come apart. It would be better for the group of sexual organisms to have just a few fertilizing males and many nurturing females. Whatever the benefits of sexuality—and this is a much-debated question in evolutionary circles—just a few males can do the job, and in fact in most species just a few males do, since the rest get pushed to the side lines. Unfortunately, natural selection works at an individual level and so, if there is an imbalance of males, it tends toward the interests not of the group but of the parents—and it is in a parent’s interest to have male children if males are the minority sex. This prevails until equality is achieved. It will be interesting to see in China and India, countries where policies have led to a surplus of males, whether nature now reasserts itself, makes daughters more valuable and hence causes the number of females to rise.

Finally, de Sousa moves us on to irrationality. There is a nice discussion of superstition and also of why we sometimes flub even quite simple calculations. Here’s a good one. Suppose you take a test for a certain kind of cancer. The cancer is not common. It affects 0.01 percent of the population. In other words, one person in ten thousand. The test is 98 percent reliable. You get a positive reading. What are the chances that you have that cancer? I suspect most people (me!) would conclude that you are doomed. But, in fact, statistically the chances are less than half a percent. (Buy the book if you want to find out why!) In other words, we can work out the right answers, but it is not easy—and there is a good reason why it is not easy. Human reason is a faculty evolved to help us survive in certain contexts, rather than reach the truth on every occasion, and historically we have rarely been challenged to work things out at such abstract levels.


Ah yes, irrationality. This brings us to the next book.

Here we have a review of Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions, by Dan Ariely (HarperCollins), that appears in The San Francisco Chronicle. Ariely is a professor of "behavioral economics" at MIT.

In "Predictably Irrational," Ariely describes experiments that pertain to general conclusions ("Why we often pay too much when we pay nothing," "why we can't make ourselves do what we want to do," "why options distract us from our main objective," etc.), and then offers extrapolations of why these tendencies are important. He then offers ideas on how to get ourselves under more rational control, individually and by changing organizational or societal structures.

Some of this research is eye-opening, particularly the experiments involving the suggestibility that words can have. In one experiment, Asian American women took a math exam. Half were given a preliminary questionnaire with innocuous survey questions relating to gender (opinions on coed dorms, etc); the other half, questions relating to their racial heritage (family history, etc.) The women who got the race-related survey did better on the subsequent math exam than the women who got the gender-related survey, apparently confirming the stereotypes of women as bad in math and Asian Americans as smart in math, as suggested just by the topic of whichever survey they were given.

Another group was given a scrambled-sentence puzzle with words "priming the concept of the elderly," such as "Florida, bingo, and ancient." Then when they were dismissed, they walked more slowly down the corridor than members of a control group. They weren't, Ariely notes, "themselves elderly people being reminded of their frailty - they were undergraduate students at NYU." Yet another experiment found that after being asked to list the Ten Commandments - or when they were reminded of the Honor Code they'd agreed to - subjects were more honest.

Other topics include how we judge (and misjudge) relative value, the power of placebos, the power of price (more ailments are allegedly cured when the subject believes that the medicine is expensive), and the gently subversive idea that market forces don't always regulate the market for the best outcomes.


The marketing and advertising people have known for years that we are irrational in so many ways, but the extent to which we can be manipulated is often surprising even to those of us familiar with much of this research. One area where
Ariely seems to err, based on the review, is in assuming these decision-making processes are universally flawed -- in all of us.

As I mentioned the other day, most of us are essentially unconscious when it comes to how we make decisions, but that need not be the case. Through a variety of techniques, not least of which is meditation, we can become more conscious and more "awake."

You can read another review of this book in The Toronto Star.

Despite our propensity to be less than conscious a lot of the time, we are unique at the top of the evolutionary ladder of consciousness (although the relative consciousness of some sea mammals and elephants remains to be determined).

In the recent issue of Edge (242),
Michael Gazzaniga asks, Are Human Brains Unique? This is a very long and informative article, well worth the time it takes to read it and absorb it.

The human mind is so generative and given to animation that we do things such as map agency on to almost anything, our pets, our old shoes, our cars, our world. It is as if we don't want to be alone up here at the top of the cognitive chain, the smartest things on earth. We want to see our dogs charm us, appeal to our emotions, imagine they too can suffer and have pity, love and hate and all the rest. We are a big deal and we are a little scared about it.

Thousands of scientists and philosophers over hundreds of years have either recognized this uniqueness of ours or have denied it and looked for the antecedents of everything human in other animals. In recent years clever scientists have found antecedents to all kinds of things that we had assumed were purely human constructions. We used to think that only humans had the ability to reflect on their own thoughts, possess what is called 'meta-cognition". Well, think again. Two psychologists at the University of Georgia have shown that rats also have this ability. It turns out rats "know" what they don't know. Does that mean we should do away with our rat traps? I don't think so.

Everywhere I look I see tidbits of differences and one can always say a particular tidbit can be found in others aspects of biological life. Ralph Greenspan, the very talented neuroscientist and geneticist at the Neuroscience Institute in La Jolla studies, of all things, sleep in the fruit fly. Someone asked him at lunch one day, "Do flies sleep?" He quipped, " I don't know and I don't care." But then he got thinking about it and realized maybe he could learn something about the mysterious process of sleep, a process that has eluded understanding. The short version of this story is that flies do sleep, just like we do and more importantly, flies express the same genes during sleep and awake hours that we do. Indeed his current research suggest even protozoans sleep! Good grief. Maybe when I get up at night to urinate, I actually get up, because of other forces.

The point is that any human activity can be seemingly atomized. But to be swooned by such a fact is to miss the point of human experience. In the following chapters, we will comb though facts about our brains, our minds, our social world, our feelings, our artistic endeavors, our capacity to confer agency, our consciousness and indeed our growing knowledge that our brain parts can be replaced with silicon parts. From this jaunt one clear fact emerges. Although we are made up of the same chemicals, with the same physiological reactions, we are very different from other animals. Just as gases can become liquids, which can become solids, phase shifts occur, shifts so large in implications, it becomes almost impossible to think of a foggy mist being made up of the same stuff that makes up an ice berg. And yet the different substances have the same chemical structure. In a complex relationship with the environment, very similar stuff can become quite different in its reality and structure. Indeed, I have decided something like a phase shift has occurred in becoming human. There simply is no one thing that will ever account for our spectacular abilities, aspirations and capacity to travel mentally in time to almost the infinite world beyond our present existence. Even though we have all of these connections with the biologic world from which we came, and we have in some instances similar mental structures, we are hugely different. While most of our genes and brain architecture are held in common with animals, there are always differences to be found. And while we can use lathes to mill fine jewelry, and chimps can use stones to crack open nuts, the differences are light years apart. And while, the family dog may appear empathetic, no pet understands the difference between sorrow and pity.

These complex emotions are what the hardliners in neuroscience will have a hard time reducing to simple epiphenomena of electro-chemical processes in the brain. Although, even if they do solve that mystery in physical terms, it can never reduce the majesty of such an evolutionary trait.

Finally, as we learn more and more about the irrational illness of eating disorders, our understanding is being forced to change. For many years, it was thought that eating disorders were pathological responses to trauma, either intrafamilial, interpersonal, or cultural. But new research suggests that eating disorders may be contagious.

A study of U.S. high school students provides additional evidence that eating disorders may be contagious.

In a study, researchers found that binging, fasting, diet pill use and other eating disorder symptoms clustered within counties, particularly among female students.

"These findings confirm the strong social influences on female adolescents in the U.S. to be thin, sometimes using unhealthy behaviors to achieve this goal," the researchers write in the current issue of the International Journal of Eating Disorders.

Research in the 1980s in female college students first suggested that disordered eating behavior spread through "social contagion," demonstrating that binge eating clustered within sororities, Dr. Valerie L. Forman-Hoffman and Cassie L. Cunningham of the VA Iowa City Health Care System note in their report.

In the current study, they looked at whether a similar pattern would be seen among high school students at the county-wide level by analyzing nationally representative data on 15,349 high school students.

There was indeed a small but significant clustering effect, the researchers found. A pair of students from the same county was 4 percent to 10 percent more likely to share an eating-disordered behavior when compared to pairs in which each person came from a different county.

Severe food intake restriction, dieting, exercising and diet pill use all showed clustering by county, as did any weight control symptom overall or any eating disorder symptom. But no clustering was seen for purging, possibly due to the "secretive," less socially acceptable nature of this behavior, the researchers suggest.

Clustering patterns were the same in rural, suburban and urban counties.

While the study wasn't designed to look at why these behaviors might be clustering in certain counties, the researchers suggest that peer pressure, information sharing or students modeling their behavior on one another are possible mechanisms.

This is alarming, to say the least. But then, as I mentioned above, we are not isolated consciousnesses existing in a vacuum -- we are social creatures.


Sexpelled: No Intercourse Allowed (Expelled parody)

Hilarius parody of Expelled.

Sexpelled: No Intercourse Allowed tells of how Sex Theory has thrived unchallenged in the ivory towers of academia, as the explanation for how new babies are created. Proponents of Stork Theory claim that "Big Sex" has been suppressing their claim that babies are delivered by storks. Furthermore, Stork Theory proponents warn of the serious moral dangers posed by teaching children that sex has a function. They point out that evil dictators such as Hitler, Stalin and Mao all believed in Sex Theory, and they may have even had sex themselves.

There is also a late-breaking new development in the controversy, a new theory called Avian Transportation Theory.

Unlike the original Stork Theory, the modern, sophisticated "Avian Transportation Theory" (ATT) merely points out that there are gaps in the orthodox Sex Theory, and that current sonogram imaging is unreliable. Moreover ATT does not specify that babies are necessarily brought by storks but by "large birds unspecified" (although many individual ATT theorists PRIVATELY believe it is a stork).





The Neuroscience of Fair Play: Why We (Usually) Follow the Golden Rule


From the Times Higher Education blog, a review of The Neuroscience of Fair Play, by Donald Pfaff. This is more a look at empathy than fair play (which requires reasoning more than emotional response), but it still seems like an interesting book.

The Neuroscience of Fair Play: Why We (Usually) Follow the Golden Rule

10 April 2008
Reviewed by Paul J. Zak

Do unto others as they do unto you" and "I'll scratch your back if you scratch mine". These and many other aphorisms capture the reciprocal nature of co-operative human interactions. But why do we play nice? This question is especially apt with the never-ending news of murder, terrorism and war. Indeed, is human nature, at its core, "naughty" or "nice"?

In The Neuroscience of Fair Play, Donald Pfaff, an eminent neurobiologist at the Rockefeller University in New York City, develops a theory of good and bad behaviour. The story is woven mostly with tales of tails - much of the research he presents to develop his theory of human behaviour is based on studies of rodents, including research from Pfaff's own lab. Using rodent studies allows great detail in the development of the theory, from genes, to brains, to behaviours.

Pfaff's theory is built on recent findings showing that human beings have neural mechanisms that make us care about others. These systems generate empathy by making us literally feel another's pain in our own brains. This mirroring of emotion often motivates us to alleviate the other's distress.

The key molecule inducing empathy is called oxytocin, a simple chemical ancient in origin that, as my lab has shown, motivates us to care about others - even complete strangers. Oxytocin released in the brain modestly moves the balance between distrust and trust of others towards the latter. It is trust that causes us to play fair.

Pfaff explains the mechanisms through which other chemicals, including some gendered favourites such as oestrogens and testosterone modify the oxytocin-empathy-fair-play triad, and how this occurs in the brain. Nearly half the book describes the neurobiology of failed empathy systems that lead to "murder and mayhem".

For those interested in the biology of behaviour in human and non-human animals, Pfaff provides a feast of tightly woven facts at a middling level of detail. I suspect there may be too much detail for some general readers, as the text occasionally gets bogged down. One could, though, skip the middle chapters and still have a good sense of the biology of fair play.

Scientists such as myself who work in this area will enjoy the extensive integration of findings across fields, although applying some of the findings in rodents to humans can be problematic. Indeed, important research studying the human brain while moral and reciprocal decisions are made is mostly absent in this book.

Pfaff also ignores the role of cultural institutions on fair play. In a recent survey, two thirds of Norwegians said that their compatriots could be trusted, while only 2 per cent of Brazilians believed that their fellow nationals were trustworthy. In laboratory studies of trust, Scandinavians are indeed much more likely to trust strangers than people of other nationalities. Why? Research by my lab and others has shown that environment matters, but this is not discussed in this book except obliquely.

So what makes us play nice with others? When we encounter someone whom we judge to be trustworthy, brain mechanisms using oxytocin motivate us to cooperate with them. In stressful or conflictual environments, these mechanisms are inhibited, leading to isolation, selfishness and even immorality. Although there is substantial variation across people in the mechanisms supporting fair play, Pfaff argues persuasively that nearly all humans have the capacity for empathy and this is an essential component of our human nature.

There is a simple test for this: I bet you were so engaged with fictional characters in a movie you saw recently that you cried. That's the empathy response, and you know how difficult it is to stop this. Pfaff will tell you why.


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All in the Mind: Reptilian Minds in Modern Skulls

This week's All in the Mind episode looks at the evolutionary "kluge" that is the human brain. Beneath all of our higher brain functions we still possess early reptilian and mammalian brains that don't generally give a damn what our rational brain might want.

So when we think about mental illness, or happiness, we might want to look at the evolutionary principles that lead to such mind states.

This week's program airs on Saturday, the 19th.

reptilian minds in modern skulls

Istock_000000048217small_2This weekend's edition of All in the Mind features:

Stone Age brains in 21st century skulls


More info on this week's topic:

Evolutionary Psychology; A Primer
Written by acclaimed scientists Leda Cosmides and John Tooby.

The Evolution of Depression: Does it Have a Role?
Program broadcast on All in the Mind, ABC Radio National in 2004.

Evolutionary Psychiatry Interest Group (New South Wales, Australia).
An interest group for "exploring the application of Darwinian evolutionary theories to mental disorders (maladaptive human internal phenomena & behaviours".

Papers by Dr John T. Price (occasional collaborator of Daniel R Wilson on evolutionary psychiatry work)
Includes text of some papers.


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Stringfever - Bolero

This is very cool.


Stringfever - Bolero


The Dalai Lama on Compassion

His Holiness devoted his closing remarks in Seattle to compassion. This is short, but it's from the AP which is kind of cool, since so little MSM coverage was given to his visit.



While we're talking about compassion, this short video was created by Dan Burns and other film students at Bellevue Community College. It was created for the "Seeds of Compassion" Charity organization in honor of the arrival of the Dalai Lama in Seattle WA. 2008



Thursday, April 17, 2008

Susan Hahn on Alfred Tennyson

Susan Hahn's Poetry Month Pick, April 17, 2008 from Poetry Daily.

"The Lady of Shalott"
by Alfred Tennyson (1809-1892)

Part I

On either side the river lie
Long fields of barley and of rye,
That clothe the wold and meet the sky;
And through the field the road runs by
To many-towered Camelot;
And up and down the people go,
Gazing where the lilies blow
Round an island there below,
The island of Shalott.

Willows whiten, aspens quiver,
Little breezes dusk and shiver
Through the wave that runs for ever
By the island in the river
Flowing down to Camelot.
Four grey walls, and four grey towers,
Overlook a space of flowers,
And the silent isle imbowers
The Lady of Shalott.

By the margin, willow-veiled,
Slide the heavy barges trailed
By slow horses; and unhailed
The shallop flitteth silken-sailed
Skimming down to Camelot:
But who hath seen her wave her hand?
Or at the casement seen her stand?
Or is she known in all the land,
The Lady of Shalott?

Only reapers, reaping early
In among the bearded barley,
Hear a song that echoes cheerly
From the river winding clearly,
Down to towered Camelot:
And by the moon the reaper weary,
Piling sheaves in uplands airy,
Listening, whispers "'Tis the fairy
Lady of Shalott."

Part II

There she weaves by night and day
A magic web with colours gay.
She has heard a whisper say,
A curse is on her if she stay
To look down to Camelot.
She knows not what the curse may be,
And so she weaveth steadily,
And little other care hath she,
The Lady of Shalott.

And moving through a mirror clear
That hangs before her all the year,
Shadows of the world appear.
There she sees the highway near
Winding down to Camelot:
There the river eddy whirls,
And there the surly village-churls,
And the red cloaks of market girls,
Pass onward from Shalott.

Sometimes a troop of damsels glad,
An abbot on an ambling pad,
Sometimes a curly shepherd-lad,
Or long-haired page in crimson clad,
Goes by to towered Camelot;
And sometimes through the mirror blue
The knights come riding two and two:
She hath no loyal knight and true,
The Lady of Shalott.

But in her web she still delights
To weave the mirror's magic sights,
For often through the silent nights
A funeral, with plumes and lights
And music, went to Camelot:
Or when the moon was overhead,
Came two young lovers lately wed;
"I am half sick of shadows," said
The Lady of Shalott.

Part III

A bow-shot from her bower-eaves,
He rode between the barley-sheaves,
The sun came dazzling through the leaves,
And flamed upon the brazen greaves
Of bold Sir Lancelot.
A red-cross knight for ever kneeled
To a lady in his shield,
That sparkled on the yellow field,
Beside remote Shalott.

The gemmy bridle glittered free,
Like to some branch of stars we see
Hung in the golden Galaxy.
The bridle bells rang merrily
As he rode down to Camelot:
And from his blazoned baldric slung
A mighty silver bugle hung,
And as he rode his armour rung,
Beside remote Shalott.

All in the blue unclouded weather
Thick-jewelled shone the saddle-leather,
The helmet and the helmet-feather
Burned like one burning flame together,
As he rode down to Camelot.
As often through the purple night,
Below the starry clusters bright,
Some bearded meteor, trailing light,
Moves over still Shalott.

His broad clear brow in sunlight glowed;
On burnished hooves his war-horse trode;
From underneath his helmet flowed
His coal-black curls as on he rode,
As he rode down to Camelot.
From the bank and from the river
He flashed into the crystal mirror,
"Tirra lirra," by the river
Sang Sir Lancelot.

She left the web, she left the loom,
She made three paces through the room,
She saw the water-lily bloom,
She saw the helmet and the plume,
She looked down to Camelot.
Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror cracked from side to side;
"The curse is come upon me," cried
The Lady of Shalott.

Part IV

In the stormy east-wind straining,
The pale yellow woods were waning,
The broad stream in his banks complaining,
Heavily the low sky raining
Over towered Camelot;
Down she came and found a boat
Beneath a willow left afloat,
And round about the prow she wrote
The Lady of Shalott.

And down the river's dim expanse,
Like some bold seƫr in a trance
Seeing all his own mischance—
With a glassy countenance
Did she look to Camelot.
And at the closing of the day
She loosed the chain, and down she lay;
The broad stream bore her far away,
The Lady of Shalott.

Lying, robed in snowy white
That loosely flew to left and right—
The leaves upon her falling light—
Through the noises of the night
She floated down to Camelot:
And as the boat-head wound along
The willowy hills and fields among,
They heard her singing her last song,
The Lady of Shalott.

Heard a carol, mournful, holy,
Chanted loudly, chanted lowly,
Till her blood was frozen slowly,
And her eyes were darkened wholly,
Turned to towered Camelot.
For ere she reached upon the tide
The first house by the water-side,
Singing in her song she died,
The Lady of Shalott.

Under tower and balcony,
By garden-wall and gallery,
A gleaming shape she floated by,
Dead-pale between the houses high,
Silent into Camelot.
Out upon the wharfs they came,
Knight and burgher, lord and dame,
And round the prow they read her name,
The Lady of Shalott.

Who is this? and what is here?
And in the lighted palace near
Died the sound of royal cheer;
And they crossed themselves for fear,
All the knights at Camelot:
But Lancelot mused a little space;
He said, "She has a lovely face;
God in his mercy lend her grace,
The Lady of Shalott."


* * * * *

Susan Hahn Comments:
I think this poem for all time will be my favorite. It has been the backdrop for my writing with the singular question it evokes: What exactly is the distance an artist should maintain to nurture a creative life? Or, put another way: How much can a writer participate in the stir of society without compromising his or her art?
For me, in terms of creativity, this has absolutely nothing to do with keeping a hard eye focused on what is going on in the world. Rather – put in the most mundane way – the question nags: How many lines from a poem, dialogues from a play, or paragraphs from a novel are forever lost by interrupting the creative process at its heightened best to prepare for, travel to, and participate in, this or that event?

Another, perhaps more lively way to phrase it: How separated should the artist stay from the spirited outside music or the razzle-dazzle given off by the stranger passing by the window? I can no longer count the times the lines

She left the web, she left the loom,
She made three paces thro’ the room,

have reverberated in my head, provoking variations of this question.

Also, aside from the issue of “how much detachment …” this poem, with its superb rhythms, rhymes, and commanding versification – read silently or aloud – is a truly powerful, visceral experience. And at the end of it all, when Lancelot, in a non-comprehending sympathy, looks at The Lady of Shalott in death and says she has a lovely face … it is the reader alone who mournfully knows of her loneliness – I am half sick of shadows – and intense conflict – her joy-rush upon seeing Lancelot coupled with the cracked-mirror warning curse that threatened both her art and herself, which she understood all too well. And that, in this case, she should have stayed home.

About Susan Hahn:
Susan Hahn is the author of eight books of poetry, including The Note She Left, published this month. Her seventh book, The Scarlet Ibis, was produced in 2007 as a verse play and will be reprised in 2008. Her first play premiered in 2005. Currently she is working on a second play and a novel. She is the editor of TriQuarterly magazine. And, sometimes she actually does go somewhere.


Whose Elitism is Worse?

Here's a point worth pondering:


It's come to this: a white, Ivy League grad from a wealthy Republican family calls a mixed-race black kid from a single-mom family an "elitist" and the racists and shoulder-pad feminists pile on - desperate for any excuse to not vote for a black male who worked for $10,000 per year as an Inner City community organizer out of college and just recently paid off his student loans.

Said ambitious, wealthy white woman worked as an attorney right out of college and quickly became a partner in one of Arkansas' most prestigious (at the time) law firms. She has a net worth of over $109 million--all garnered in the last eight years. Before that she claimed to be some $7 million in debt due to legal bills. Her family net worth is over 100 times that of the "elitist" she scorns.

Damn straight.

I was amused with the whole "dust up" about Barack Obama's presumed "elitism" -- this coming from Hillary Clinton (who made a combined income of more than $100 million dollars since Bill left office) and John McCain, who is married to a multi-millionaire owner of a beer distributer and worth an estimated $100 million or more, lives a lifestyle (including a private jet) that seems to make him among the financial elite in this country -- oh yeah, he's worth $40 million on his own.

It's hard to compare these two with a man who graduated from Harvard Law School and went to work in Chicago's inner city rather than making the big money he could have in a major law firm.

Here's a British view of the elitism issue, from The Economist:

The war between “ordinary people” and “condescending elites” is one of the great themes of American politics. “Ordinary people” are real Americans: they worship God, revere America and love their families. “Condescending elites” are crypto-Europeans—the sort of people who eat arugula, do sissified jobs in offices and universities, and scheme to ban guns and legalise gay marriage. Mr Obama not only put himself firmly on the “wrong” side of this great cultural divide; he implied that “ordinary Americans” are the victims of “false consciousness” for not falling in love with him.

But this pandering to “ordinary Americans” is annoying in all sorts of ways. Isn't America supposed to be a meritocracy? Two-thirds of Americans reject the idea that people's chances in life are determined by circumstances that are beyond their control, a far higher proportion than in Europe. Almost 90% say that they admire people who have got rich through hard work. Yet whenever elections come around politicians treat the people at the bottom of the heap as the embodiment of American values. And aren't Americans supposed to believe in self-reliance? America's farms are some of the country's biggest subsidy hogs. Many small towns—Congressman Jack Murtha's Johnstown in central Pennsylvania is an egregious example—are kept alive only by federal pork. As for family values, America's small towns and rural havens suffer from higher rates of marital breakdown and illegitimate births than the degenerate big cities.

But pander the politicians feel they must. This week Mrs Clinton downed a shot of Crown Royal whisky in Bronko's Restaurant and Lounge in Crown Point, Indiana. She also entertained America with stories about how her father taught her to shoot. But does anybody believe that Mrs Clinton spends her days shooting and her evenings throwing back the whisky? Mrs Clinton is a graduate of Wellesley College and Yale Law School. The Clintons' joint income since 2000 was $109m. Mrs Clinton joined the million-mom march against gun violence. Back in the mid-1990s the Clintons both went on a Wyoming rafting holiday because Dick Morris, their pollster, told them that it would go down well with “the folks”. They were soon enough back at Martha's Vineyard.

The same is true, perhaps even truer, on the conservative side of the aisle. John McCain—son and grandson of four-star admirals, husband of a woman who is worth $100m and owner of several houses—follows in a long tradition. George Bush senior mocked Michael Dukakis for his Harvard Yard liberalism. But “Poppy” went to Yale (where his father was on the board of directors) and was once nonplussed by a supermarket scanner. Bob Dole, who liked to boast that his father wore overalls for 42 years, made millions and married a fellow all-star politician. And as for George Bush junior...

The hypocrisy extends to the commentariat who have been busting their cheeks blowing their populist trumpets. Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly make millions out of championing “the folks” against “the elites”. Bill Kristol and John Podhoretz are the Ivy-educated sons of famous parents who are based, respectively, in Washington, DC, and New York City.


At Real Clear Politics -- in Whose Elitism Is Worse -- Joe Conason takes on the issue of whose elitism we want running the country. He references McCain's attack on Obama in light of his refusal to support the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan with commensurate benefits as veterans of other wars have received.

"They suffered the worst during the Depression, but it did not shake their faith in, and fidelity to, America. They did not turn to their religious faith and cultural traditions out of resentment and a feeling of powerlessness to affect the course of government or pursue prosperity. On the contrary, their faith had given generations of their families purpose and meaning, as it does today."

Now this is all standard-issue rhetoric, designed to insinuate that Obama disdains traditional American culture and religious piety (although he probably attends church at least as often as McCain). Harking back to the era of the Depression and World War II, the Republican may have unintentionally emphasized both his own advanced age and the perilous condition in which his party and president have left the country and the world.

The inspiring story of the "greatest generation," in which he seems to be claiming honorary membership, is not only a narrative of faith and patriotism. The brave men and women who rose from America's towns and cities to defeat fascism had a stake in a democratic society "worth the fighting for," to borrow the title of McCain's last best-seller. Despite the terrible rigors of the Depression, they remained confident in democracy's future because a progressive government acted vigorously on behalf of them and their families -- and acknowledged their service when they returned from war.

When those soldiers came home to build the nation that dominated the 20th century, they achieved unprecedented prosperity and security, thanks not only to their own work and faith, but also to liberal policy that guaranteed their education, health care and access to credit. The original 1944 GI Bill ranks among the greatest legislative works in American history, with beneficial effects on the U.S. economy that repaid its cost many times over. (Incidentally, the benefits of the original bill included low-interest mortgages with no down payment -- not so different from the "subprime" loans that working-class homeowners are now criticized for signing.)

Of course, McCain knows all this history, too, which raises the tough question of why he refuses to support Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans with commensurate benefits. Having built his own career on his service and suffering in Vietnam, he surely must be aware that the new generation of vets receives nothing like the assistance made available to those who served with him -- because the landmark bill has not been updated for so many years. The current level of benefits doesn't cover even half the cost of state college tuition for most soldiers.

That is why Sens. James Webb of Virginia and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska wrote the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act, whose cost is estimated at less than $4 billion, or approximately one-tenth of 1 percent in the total expense of the current war. They have gathered 53 co-sponsors, including nine Republicans and three of the four other Vietnam veterans in the Senate, but they need 60 to defeat a likely filibuster by conservatives who've never served.

Incredibly, McCain has so far refused to add his name to the sponsors. His startling excuse is he has not had any time to read the bill during the past year or so. He has time to barbecue sausages for journalists. He has time to take a bus tour glorifying his own service. And he has time to hold fundraisers in Atlanta, New Orleans, Phoenix, St. Louis, New York, Boston, Chicago, Las Vegas and even London.


I'm not convinced this is actually elitism, but it doesn't reflect well on McCain's character.

Now, for some comic relief. Jon Stewart takes on the Obama mis-speak on The Daily Show.




Ben Stein's Expelled - Teaching the Controversy

Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, by Ben Stein, is about to hit theaters, if it hasn't already. The film has already generated a lot of buzz, none of it good.

The fun began last month when science blogger, and co-star in the film, PZ Myers was expelled from Expelled, the new pro-intelligent design and anti-evolution film from Ben Stein. The movie opens this week, possibly today (I haven't checked the listings).

Here is a bit of Dawkins' musings on the colossal PR blunder that denying Myers access to the film entails:

Just think about it. His entire film is devoted to the notion that American scientists are being hounded and expelled from their jobs because of opinions that they hold. The film works hard at pressing (no, belabouring with a sledgehammer) all the favourite hot buttons of free speech, freedom of thought, the right of dissent, the right to be heard, the right to discuss issues rather than suppress argument. These are the topics that the film sets out to raise, with particular reference to evolution and 'intelligent design' (wittily described by someone as creationism in a cheap tuxedo). In the course of this film, Mathis tricked a number of scientists, including PZ Myers and me, into taking prominent parts in the film, and both of us are handsomely thanked in the closing credits.

Seemingly oblivious to the irony, Mathis instructed some uniformed goon to evict Myers while he was standing in line with his family to enter the theatre, and threaten him with arrest if he didn't immediately leave the premises. Did it not occur to Mathis -- what would occur to any normally polite and reasonable person -- that Myers, having played a leading role in the film, might have been welcomed as an honoured guest to watch it? Or, more cynically, did he not know that PZ is one of the country's most popular bloggers, with a notoriously caustic wit, perfectly placed to set the whole internet roaring with delighted and mocking laughter? I long ago realised that Mathis was deceitful. I didn't know he was a bungling incompetent.

Not just incompetent at public relations, incompetent in his chosen profession of film-making, for the film itself, as I discovered when I saw it on Friday (and this genuinely surprised me) is dull, artless, amateurish, too long, poorly constructed and utterly devoid of any style, wit or subtlety. It bears all the hallmarks of a film-maker who knows nothing about the craft of making films. I'll come to that in a moment.

Here is an overview of the film, and the controversy, by someone who was there when Myers was refused entry into the film -- and Richard Dawkins, the most vocal and militant defender of evolution, was allowed in to see the film.

Expelled Overview
by Josh Timonen

Since I was one of the group who watched Expelled at the Mall of America last week with Richard Dawkins and (not!) PZ Myers, I thought I should do my part to expose the movie for what it is. Richard and PZ Myers have written responses, a conversation between them about their experience is now online, and over one hundred blog posts have appeared on the subject. I think the best contribution I can make to all of this is to give you as detailed an account of the actual film as I can, so that you don't have to give Mark Mathis any money in order to know what Expelled is all about.

Expelled is said to be opening in 1,000 theaters nationwide on April 18th. Please don't give them any of your money to see it. If it tanks in the theaters, and you have the stomach for such garbage, I'm sure you'll be able to see it soon by other means that don't involve supporting Creationists.

Before the film
Mathis came out before the film and told everyone that the showing was being projected from a laptop, and that on previous screenings this had caused the film to appear dark. He assured us that this had been corrected this time, and that he thought they had it looking pretty good. When the film started, it looked really dark. So dark, that you couldn't even really see the scenes in some shots. Stein's voiceover audio was also distorted (too much gain). It really was an unprofessional showing, and a terribly unprofessional film, aside from the content.

Music
First off: Either Expelled has a disproportionately-large music budget (for how bad of a film it is), or they are using songs they haven't paid for in their Director's Cut private screenings (that may be changed before the official nationwide release). John Lennon's "Imagine" is played (original version) over B&W scenes of what looked like communist China, with a parade of soldiers. The lyrics to the song were subtitled on the bottom of the screen. I think I remember a shot of Stalin saluting somewhere in here as well. The part of the song played was of course "...and no religion too...", implying that no religion equals communist China. Does Yoko know about this? I doubt she'd be pleased.

The Killers' song "All These Things That I've Done" was used at the end of the film. The part of the song used was the bridge with the lyrics "I've got soul but I'm not a soldier". I'm guessing that wasn't cheap, and I'm surprised that a fairly popular band like The Killers would want their reputation tarnished by being in a Creationist film - especially since this is THE song that the film ends with, very prominently. Maybe The Killers don't know about this, and someone should tell them?

"The Wall"
The film opens with scenes of the Berlin wall being built, brick by brick. The footage and title cards are affected to look old, like a 50's educational film. The effect doesn't look professional, and by this point I was already starting to question the technical quality of the film. They're really trying to push this in national theatres? Don't they have someone sympathetic to this nonsense that knows how to make a film?

"Big Science"
We see clips of PZ Myers, Dawkins, Dennett, etc. criticizing ID. No surprise here, but we can be fairly certain that the filmmakers know their audience, and it isn't anyone on the fence. The only people who will find these statements to be negative are those who have bought into Mathis' "Big Science" Conspiracy.

We see Ben Stein preparing to speak in a college auditorium. It really felt like they were trying to emulate Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth.

USA #1!
Ben Stein is the narrator, and is as terrible as you can imagine. He gives a monologue about how freedom is what makes America great, over images of flags around the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, Stein walking by the mirror pond, and so on. Stein and Mathis of course want you to think that freedom should also extend to the classroom, as in "teaching the controversy". He says "Why should we allow freedom in all other areas, but not in science?"

Eugenie Scott
Expelled even tries to make Eugenie Scott look like a villain, which is absurd. Eugenie Scott works for NCSE, which is a non-profit group working to keep Evolution in science education. She shows them a map with colored pins in it, where problems have come up in teaching evolution.

"Intellectual Terrorists"
Stein goes to meet a couple of people who claim to have lost their jobs due to mentioning ID in some way connected to a University. Big Science is squashing all the little guys who don't toe the pro-Darwin line, obviously. Eugenie Scott and NCSE are collecting information on debunking these stories. They are building their response page at http://www.expelledexposed.com/

Here's a brief explanation from NCSE:

Expelled Exposed is a new National Center for Science Education website that counters the Ben Stein/Premise Media anti-evolution movie, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. It is available at www.expelledexposed.com. Currently in a preliminary stage, Expelled Exposed consists of a collection of links containing the most basic and important resources for teachers, scientists, reporters, and members of the public who seek information now to respond to this movie. On April 16, days before the movie Expelled is premiered on April 18, NCSE will launch the full version of the website. In its final form, Expelled Exposed will examine claims made in the movie and explain, neatly and concisely, why each is an exaggeration, a misrepresentation, or a fabrication. NCSE encourages all interested parties to bookmark the site, and pass the link on to friends and family, so that by the time the creationist movie is released, www.expelledexposed.com will be the most popular Expelled site on the internet!

The Discovery Institute
We see Stein walking the streets of Seattle trying to be funny "I don't know where we are... Is this third street? Where are we?" I know it doesn't sound funny written out, and it wasn't funny on-screen, but you could tell from his strained delivery that Stein was TRYING to be funny. The sympathetic audience did laugh, which was even sadder. Stein asks people on the street how to get to the Discovery institute, and no one he meets has even heard of it. I guess the point is to make you think that The Discovery Institute isn't very big or influential. "It must be this whole building" Stein says when they arrive, and acts shocked when he finds out it is only half a floor in the building, with a staff of about 30. See? The Discovery Institute is just a harmless little group on half a floor! They all look so friendly! A very friendly interview follows with someone from the Institute, and the implication is that they are the struggling underdogs.

We see a second attempt at comedy when Stein is in a boardroom meeting (I think it was at the Discovery Institute) and starts to look bored, pulls out an expandable pointing device, and proceeds to scratch his back with it. It doesn't sound funny, and it wasn't funny. But you could once again tell he was trying to be funny. I guess that was enough to get the sympathetic audience in Minneapolis to laugh once again.

Michael Shermer
Stein goes to speak with Michael Shermer (Skeptic.com), and asks him what he would think about people losing their jobs for publishing about ID. Michael Shermer had this to say about this experience with the Expelled team:

My take on Mathis is that he's an opportunist. He says and does whatever he thinks necessary to get his film made and now promoted. My guess on the latest flap about tossing PZ out of the screening but not Dawkins was PZ's original assumption that they just didn't notice Dawkins there, and only after the fact rationalizing the whole affair with plausible (and ever changing) reasons.

For my part, the moment I sat down with Stein (with Mathis there) and he asked me that question about firing people for expressing dissenting views a dozen times, I realized that I was being manipulated to give certain answers they were looking for me to give. I asked them both, several times, if they had anything else to ask me about evolutionary theory or Intelligent Design. In frustration I finally said something like "Do you have any other questions to ask me or do you keep asking me this question in hopes that I'll give a different answer?"

That's when Stein finally changed the subject and asked about social Darwinism. We got into a lengthy discussion about Adam Smith, which he seemed surprised to learn that I seemed to know more about the great economist than he did! For example, he didn't seem to even realize that Smith's first book was "The Theory of Moral Sentiments", and that Smith didn't trust businessmen any more than he trusted government bureaucrats, and that we need a mix of enlightened self-interest and strictly enforced rules of trade. But as I noted in my review of the film for Scientific American, Stein was especially displeased with my linkage of Smith and Darwin, that Darwin read Smith as an undergraduate at Edinburgh, etc. I also pointed out to him that Darwin has been used and abused by ideologues of all stripes, and that in any case that is all separate from whether the science is good or not. That seemed to tax his thinking too much, because shortly after he announced that he had to take a rest break and he just got up and went out to his car for about 20 minutes! Seriously, he just went out to the street next to our office and sat in the rent car they had! I couldn't believe it. We had only been going for about 30 minutes and he was tired? And this was in the late morning. I joked with Mathis that, this being Hollywood and all, I wondered if Stein was out doing a line of cocaine.... Mathis assured me that Stein doesn't do drugs, but I found the whole thing to be quite odd. Then Stein came back in and that's when we walked around the office with the handheld camera to get some B-Roll footage, and they showed him asking me about my books, and that's where I told him I thought ID was much closer to pseudoscience than science. Then he asked me AGAIN if I thought people should be fired....

The whole experience was a bit surreal, and I found Stein to be a somewhat disagreeable man. He tried to come off like he was a star and that I should have been star-struck, and when I wasn't that seemed to get under his skin a bit. For example, when he came back into the office from resting in his car, I said something like "gentlemen, I've got work to do so I'd like to wrap this thing up now," he looked at me like "hey, don't you realize who I am and that you should be grateful to be talking to me?" I let him off the hook a bit in my review about his questionable comment about blacks, but I suspect he has some racist tendencies.

PZ Myers (of Pharyngula-fame)
PZ comes across as very likable in the film, and says he would like to see religion become more of a hobby for people, like knitting.

There's more to the overview, so please go read it.

This film, and the associated scandal, has generated an enormous number of posts, of which this is just the latest. I'm sure there have been more since this was posted last month. There is much more information at Expelled Exposed.

Latest News

Today a story showed up on Dawkins' site about a science teacher who was fired (in Texas) for not teaching intelligent design.



(There are some related videos in this embed.) Blackmailing science teachers to be neutral about teaching creationism as science is pretty funny in light of this film.

The Skeptic, as one might expect, has a bit to say about this whole thing. Today they posted the first two of four articles debunking the BS in Exposed. What follows is a taste from each of the first two articles.

Expelled Exposed, Part 1: Ben Stein’s Blunder
By Michael Shermer

Ben Stein came to my office to interview me about what I was told was a film about “the intersection of science and religion” called Crossroads (yet another deception). I knew something was afoot with his first question to me was on whether or not I think someone should be fired for expressing dissenting views. I pressed Stein for specifics: Who is being fired for what, when and where? In my experience, people are usually fired for reasons having to do with budgetary constraints, incompetence or not fulfilling the terms of a contract. Stein finally asked my opinion on people being fired for endorsing Intelligent Design. I replied that I know of no instance where such a firing has happened.

This seemingly innocent observation was turned into a filmic confession of ignorance when my on-camera interview abruptly ends there, because when I saw Expelled at a preview screening at the National Religious Broadcasters’ convention (tellingly, the film is being targeted primarily to religious and conservative groups), I discovered that the central thesis of the film is a conspiracy theory about the systematic attempt to keep Intelligent Design creationism out of American classrooms and culture.

Stein’s case for conspiracy centers on a journal article written by Stephen Meyer, a senior fellow at the Intelligent Design think tank Discovery Institute and professor at the theologically conservative Christian Palm Beach Atlantic University. Meyer’s article, “The Origin of Biological Information and the Higher Taxonomic Categories,” was published in the June 2004 Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, the voice of the Biological Society with a circulation of less than 300 people. In other words, from the get-go this was much ado about nothing.

Nevertheless, some members of the organization voiced their displeasure, so the society’s governing council released a statement explaining, “Contrary to typical editorial practices, the paper was published without review by any associate editor; Sternberg handled the entire review process. The Council, which includes officers, elected councilors, and past presidents, and the associate editors would have deemed the paper inappropriate for the pages of the Proceedings.” So how did it get published? In the words of journal’s managing editor at the time, Richard Sternberg, “it was my prerogative to choose the editor who would work directly on the paper, and as I was best qualified among the editors I chose myself.” And what qualified Sternberg to choose himself? Perhaps it was his position as a fellow of the International Society for Complexity, Information, and Design, which promotes Intelligent Design, along with being on the editorial board of the Occasional Papers of the Baraminology Study Group, a creationism journal committed to the literal interpretation of Genesis. Or perhaps it was the fact that he is a signatory of the Discovery Institute’s “100 Scientists who Doubt Darwinism” statement.


Expelled Exposed, Part 2: The Richard Sternberg Affair
By Ed Brayton

The June 2004 issue of the PBSW, the last issue for which Sternberg acted as managing editor, included a highly controversial article entitled “The Origin of Biological Information and the Higher Taxonomic Categories,” written by Stephen Meyer. Meyer, whose Ph.D. is in philosophy, is the director of the Center for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute, the nation’s most influential and well recognized center advocating Intelligent Design. That article proved so embarrassing to the Biological Society of Washington (BSW) and to the Smithsonian itself that the BSW council publicly disavowed it and said that it never should have been published. And that is where this saga begins.

Emails began to go back and forth among scientists and administrators at the museum asking obvious questions: how did this article get in there? Who had reviewed it? Were the regular peer review procedures followed? Who was Richard Sternberg? Was he a creationist of some sort? Did he have ties to the ID movement and the author of this paper? The answer to that last question proved most revealing.

In November 2004, Sternberg filed a complaint with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC), a branch of the Department of Justice empowered to investigate claims of discrimination by government employees. In a letter to Sternberg in August 2005, an OSC attorney named James McVay told Sternberg that they were closing the investigation due to a lack of jurisdiction; since Sternberg was not actually an employee of the Smithsonian they could not exercise any authority over decisions made in his situation. McVay’s letter admits that he was “not able to take statements and receive further paper discovery that would allow for final conclusions,” yet he still saw fit to go into some detail about his “preliminary conclusions” on why he thought Sternberg’s allegations had merit and how terribly he thought Sternberg had been treated. This was all quite unusual, of course; if the OSC could not complete the investigation, particularly when they could not take statements or get documents from the accused and had no authority over the situation, they should not have said anything at all about the substance of the allegations made in the complaint. Indeed, McVay’s letter was highly polemical, consisting mostly of unsupported rhetoric and boilerplate aimed at those evil scientists who don’t like creationism. All of this was highly inappropriate.

The ID movement immediately began to hold up Sternberg as a martyr, a man being persecuted not just for being an ID advocate (in fact, they initially — and falsely — claimed he was not one) but for merely being open-minded enough to give ID advocates a fair hearing. They even managed to get a sympathetic legislature, Rep. Mark Souder (R-Indiana), to use staff of the Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy and Human Resources, which he chaired, to prepare an unofficial report supporting those allegations. That report came out in December of 2006 and it examined all of the allegations made by Sternberg and his supporters against the Smithsonian. It was released along with an appendix consisting of memos and emails sent back and forth between Smithsonian scientists and others in the weeks and months following the publication of the Meyer paper. But a close examination of the report’s arguments and conclusions reveal that most of them are flatly contradicted by the evidence in that appendix.

One of the amazingly specious claims -- of many -- in this silly film is that evolution lead to the Nazi extermination of Jews and Africans.

Why did you make this film? Why was it important to you?

The creator is Walt Ruloff and his merry band. I decided to work on it because I've always had questions about Darwinism. I have always been very concerned that Darwinism gave the basic okay to terrible racism and to the idea of murder based upon race. And I think most people don't realize what a sinister role Darwinism has had in the history of the 20th century, and I guess part of the history of the 19th century too.

As I got working on the movie, I got to realize how many holes there were in Darwinism and how little of the world's great questions about existence and life Darwinism answered, and I wanted to share my understanding and learning on that subject with the wider world.

Then, I got to be very concerned about the academic suppression that goes on in terms of not letting people who have differing views from the Darwinists have any place at the table for talking about their scientific insights.

Aren’t there plenty of scientists who might subscribe to Darwin's theory of evolution but not accept social Darwinism?

I don't doubt that there are. It is extremely well documented in a book called "From Darwin to Hitler" by an author named Weikart that the people who read Darwin's book in Germany and then became important influential thinkers in German political life believed that Darwin's views could be translated into the social realm. [They believed that] immediate actions should be taken to put those ideas into effect, especially by attempting to exterminate entire native African tribes.

The explicit connection of Darwin's work with the Holocaust and with the belief of the Nazis that they were furthering Darwin's agenda and Darwin's discoveries and theories is explicitly documented in not just one, but many annals of the life and death of Nazi Germany.

Of course, today with the current intellectual beliefs, nobody's going to say, "I'm in favor of exterminating the indigenous tribes in Southern Africa," but they were then. And they explicitly said, "And Darwin says it's the right thing to do."

In the film there are some very powerful images and conversations that you have about the Nazi regime and about trying to purify a race. I wonder if this limits dialogue?

Absolutely not. We at no time say that the people who are the big [proponents] of Darwinism today are Nazis or believe in Nazism or believe in theories of eliminating what they believe to be inferior races.

What we are saying is the history of Darwinism is littered with millions of innocent people who are in their graves prematurely and agonizingly because of those who read and believed in Darwin's theories.

And certainly they took them to a length that I don't think Darwin would have taken them to, and I've said that over and over and over again.

But the fact is that Darwinism did what it did. It's a different Darwinism today. But the fact is that in its day when it was riding high and there were no humane theories to counteract it, it did incredible, unimaginable damage.


Wow, what a fucking dumbass argument. Darwinism didn't do ANY damage -- a bunch of freaking Nazis did the damage. Ideas and theories don't kill people -- people kill people.

Was Christianity responsible for the Inquisition? Or was it a group of misguided people doing evil things? Good ideas can be misused by bad people, but that does not negate the value and/or truth of the idea.

Yesterday, Scientific American posted an article debunking six points in the film. What follows is a taste of each item.

Six Things in Expelled That Ben Stein Doesn't Want You to Know...
...about intelligent design and evolution

1) Expelled quotes Charles Darwin selectively to connect his ideas to eugenics and the Holocaust.
When the film is building its case that Darwin and the theory of evolution bear some responsibility for the Holocaust, Ben Stein's narration quotes from Darwin's The Descent of Man thusly:

With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated. We civilized men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination. We build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed and the sick. Thus the weak members of civilized societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. Hardly anyone is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.

This is how the original passage in The Descent of Man reads (unquoted sections emphasized in italics):

With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilized men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination. We build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment. There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to small-pox. Thus the weak members of civilized societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly anyone is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.

The producers of the film did not mention the very next sentences in the book (emphasis added in italics):

The aid which we feel impelled to give to the helpless is mainly an incidental result of the instinct of sympathy, which was originally acquired as part of the social instincts, but subsequently rendered, in the manner previously indicated, more tender and more widely diffused. Nor could we check our sympathy, even at the urging of hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature. The surgeon may harden himself whilst performing an operation, for he knows that he is acting for the good of his patient; but if we were intentionally to neglect the weak and helpless, it could only be for a contingent benefit, with an overwhelming present evil.

Darwin explicitly rejected the idea of eliminating the "weak" as dehumanizing and evil. Those words falsify Expelled's argument. The filmmakers had to be aware of the full Darwin passage, but they chose to quote only the sections that suited their purposes.

2) Ben Stein's speech to a crowded auditorium in the film was a setup.
"
Viewers of Expelled might think that Ben Stein has been giving speeches on college campuses and at other public venues in support of ID and against "big science." But if he has, the producers did not include one. The speech shown at the beginning and end was staged solely for the sake of the movie. Michael Shermer learned as much by speaking to officials at Pepperdine University, where those scenes were filmed. Only a few of the audience members were students; most were extras brought in by the producers. Judge the ovation Ben Stein receives accordingly.

* * * * *

3) Scientists in the film thought they were being interviewed for a different movie.
As Richard Dawkins, PZ Myers, Eugenie Scott, Michael Shermer and other proponents of evolution appearing in Expelled have publicly remarked, the producers first arranged to interview them for a film that was to be called Crossroads, which was allegedly a documentary on "the intersection of science and religion." They were subsequently surprised to learn that they were appearing in Expelled, which "exposes the widespread persecution of scientists and educators who are pursuing legitimate, opposing scientific views to the reigning orthodoxy," to quote from the film's press kit.

* * * * *

4) The ID-sympathetic researcher whom the film paints as having lost his job at the Smithsonian Institution was never an employee there.
One section of Expelled relates the case of Richard Sternberg, who was a researcher at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History and editor of the journal Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington. According to the film, after Sternberg approved the publication of a pro-ID paper by Stephen C. Meyer of the Discovery Institute, he lost his editorship, was demoted at the Smithsonian, was moved to a more remote office, and suffered other professional setbacks. The film mentions a 2006 House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform report prepared for Rep. Mark Souder (R–Ind.), "Intolerance and the Politicization of Science at the Smithsonian," that denounced Sternberg's mistreatment.

This selective retelling of the Sternberg affair omits details that are awkward for the movie's case, however. Sternberg was never an employee of the Smithsonian: his term as a research associate always had a limited duration, and when it ended he was offered a new position as a research collaborator. As editor, Sternberg's decision to "peer-review" and approve Meyer's paper by himself was highly questionable on several grounds, which was why the scientific society that published the journal later repudiated it. Sternberg had always been planning to step down as the journal's editor—the issue in which he published the paper was already scheduled to be his last.


* * * * *

5) Science does not reject religious or "design-based" explanations because of dogmatic atheism.
Expelled frequently repeats that design-based explanations (not to mention religious ones) are "forbidden" by "big science." It never explains why, however. Evolution and the rest of "big science" are just described as having an atheistic preference.

Actually, science avoids design explanations for natural phenomena out of logical necessity. The scientific method involves rigorously observing and experimenting on the material world. It accepts as evidence only what can be measured or otherwise empirically validated (a requirement called methodological naturalism). That requirement prevents scientific theories from becoming untestable and overcomplicated.

By those standards, design-based explanations rapidly lose their rigor without independent scientific proof that validates and defines the nature of the designer.

* * * * *

6) Many evolutionary biologists are religious and many religious people accept evolution.
Expelled includes many clips of scientists such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, William Provine and PZ Myers who are also well known as atheists. They talk about how their knowledge of science confirms their convictions and how in some cases science led them to atheism. And indeed, surveys do indicate that atheism is more common among scientists than in the general population.

Nevertheless, the film is wrong to imply that understanding of evolution inevitably or necessarily leads to a rejection of religious belief. Francisco Ayala of the University of California, Irvine, a leading neuroscientist who used to be a Dominican priest, continues to be a devout Catholic, as does the evolutionary biologist Ken Miller of Brown University. Thousands of other biologists across the U.S. who all know evolution to be true are also still religious. Moreover, billions of other people around the world simultaneously accept evolution and keep faith with their religion. The late Pope John Paul II said that evolution was compatible with Roman Catholicism as an explanation for mankind's physical origins.

During Scientific American's post-screening conversation with Expelled associate producer Mark Mathis, we asked him why Ken Miller was not included in the film. Mathis explained that his presence would have "confused" viewers. But the reality is that showing Miller would have invalidated the film's major premise that evolutionary biologists all reject God.


So the science community has had their say -- what do film reviewers think? Rotten Tomatoes shows 9% positive reviews. Doesn't bode well. Still, at least America is a country that allows dumbasses to make dumbass films -- so I guess his argument against freedom of speech and academic freedom rings a little false.