January 30, 2005

Sex and genius

On Friday, the Association for Women in Mathematics chapter at my school hosted a mathematician with a background in women's studies who spoke on the notion of 'genius', with some attention to the Larry Summers fiasco. In a paper she's currently writing, she argues that the idea of 'genius' -- at least in the Western tradition -- is a bundle of slightly incompatible notions, including perseverence, innateness of ability, independence and autonomy, transcendence (disconnectedness from the mundane world), and masculine virility. A sub-thesis of her work is that this bundle of notions might explain the treatment of brilliant women, who almost universally are regarded as either sub-par intellectually or as unfeminine.

Though I only skimmed her paper, and she did not talk about the connection much during the talk, I believe her argument is one I've seen before, in such feminist philosophers as Monique Wittig and Simone de Beauvoir: all the above 'virtues of genius' can be identified with 'qualities of masculinity', and set opposed to 'qualities of femininity'. Women, according to classical stereotypes which are still prevalent in various degrees today, are capricious and unreliable, innately mentally and physically deficient compared to men, dependent on a husband or father and simultaneously responsible for the care of others, domestically fertile rather than heroically virile, and immanent (completely of the mundane world; it is an antinomous with transcendent in the above list). Hence, according to this dichotomy, an intellectual woman is, by definition, a contradiction in terms: either a 'failure' as a woman or a failure as an intellectual.

I've emailed her, asking for permission to link to the paper so you can read it for yourself (not that any of you will actually be interested); for the time being, you can check out her website.

Update: She has let me know that she doesn't want her paper available quite that publicly; however, feel free to contact her via the email address on her site.


Iraqis vote today, and, of course, the NYT has a glowing article on how well things are going. Like the Afghani elections that, to my knowledge, didn't really do much of anything, what's important here is not, as the article suggests, how many eligible voters turn out and how much violence occurs; this election is only worthwhile to the extent that it actually helps calm things down there -- to the extent that, a decade from now, it is looked upon as the first election of a legitimate Iraqi democracy. Personally, I remain skeptical.

There's also this piece, which briefly discusses women's attitudes towards the election. It's kind of hard to see the point of this article, since it basically amounts to 'Some women are going to vote independently of their husbands and religious leaders; some are not.' Gee, thanks for the profound insight, New York Times! This quotation caught my eye:

Muhammad Abboud, a journalist, speaking of his wife in a response that was revealing in itself, said: "Basically, I've given her full freedom on whom to follow politically. I don't oppose any political attitude."

Oh, how nice of you! You've given your wife permission to think for herself! You're so much better than the guy Echidne points out:

Al-Yawer was among the first to cast his ballot, voting alongside his wife at election headquarters in the heavily fortified Green Zone in central Baghdad. As poll workers watched, he marked two ballots and dropped them into boxes, and then walked away with an Iraqi flag given to him by a poll worker.

''I'm very proud and happy this morning,'' al-Yawer told reporters. ''I congratulate all the Iraqi people and call them to vote for Iraq.''

January 29, 2005

I think about weird things

Michel Foucault, a late 20th century French philosopher, argued for a notion of an ars erotica, sexuality as a form of self-expression akin to art. By this I believe he meant to give sexuality a place outside the usual normative moral structures: sexual acts, like artistic acts, are not to be interrogated according to whether they are 'right' or 'wrong'.

But, prima facie, this leads to the possibility that sexual acts like rape cannot be condemned. So, if we are inclined to follow Foucault in liberating sexuality in this way, what must we do to establish this anormative space? Perhaps morality (in some sense; Foucault himself often seems critical of all normativity) can establish the boundary of such a space, but not determine the internal structure? Then, as a less theoretical matter, how is this boundary to be established?

I Hope Johnny Mack Is Playable

I know some of you out there like the Outlaw series of games (Golf and Volleyball for the uninitiated) and, well, it looks like there's another formerly tame sport that's about to get it's x-treme factor turned up to eleven.

Pokemon Causes Cancer!!!

From Gamespot's weekly Rumor Control feature:
Few things provoke as severe a love/hate reaction as Pokémon games. That said, even the most rabid Pikachu-basher wouldn't accuse the franchise of being carcinogenic (though the TV show based on the games was accused of causing seizures). However, in the purest technical sense, "Pokemon" does cause cancer. That's because "Pokemon" is also the name of a cancer-causing gene that was recently discovered. In a study published in the January 20 issue of Nature, researchers at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer outline how they isolated the POK Erythroid Myeloid Ontogenic factor--or POKEMON, for short. What's next? A leukemia gene called Dragon Ball Z? A terminal case of Yu-Gi-Oh! Syndrome?

Here's the link to the actual Sloan-Kettering place.

US Foreign Policy: Preventing Perpetual Peace

Hidden in the middle of David Brooks' latest banalism was this disturbing statement:

Their favorite kinds of institutions are the kinds they created in response to the tsunami disaster: the kind with no permanent offices and no permanent staff, the kind that is created to address a discrete problem and then disappear when the problem is over. The phrase for this is coalitions of the willing.

Organizations like the UN and World Court have been formed by nation-states in an attempt to manage international affairs peacefully, in an effort to stop conflict before it starts and provide a forum for fairly resolving all those issues which must be managed on a global scale. Hence, they have been regarded almost universally by theorists of international relations as the only route to a long-term peaceful and just global society. Ad hoc coalitions like the neocons praise can never function in the long term the way a body like the UN can; while they may be of some use in particular cases, rejecting universal organizations in favor of the ad hoc ones is a rejection of the universal humanitarianism Bush claimed to support in his state of the union address.

January 27, 2005

Good news, bad news

The FCC, now that Michael Powell is gone, won't be appealing to the Supreme Court for permission to basically do away with media ownership restrictions. That's the good side of things.

The bad side is why they made this decision:

Officials said one reason the administration decided not to seek Supreme Court review is that some lawyers were concerned that the case could prompt the justices to review related First Amendment issues in a way that could undermine efforts by the commission to enforce indecency rules against television and radio broadcasters. Over the last year, the agency has issued a record number and size of fines, and has been pressed by some conservative and other advocacy groups to be more aggressive.

Granted, not quite as big a deal, but less respect for the theocrats getting all worked up over a skimpy bathing suit on the OC would've been nice.

That's offensive!

Salman Rushdie on the Enlightenment, freedom, and offended conservatives.


This thoughtful piece in the Guardian comes quite close to my own views.

Surely Professor Dawkins was ... confusing scientific explanation with metaphysical interrogation. Science - atheistical science, if you will - can tell us how the world works, but cannot answer the eternal metaphysical wail: why do we suffer so?

My aphorism is: Science can describe the world of our experience, but philosophy and art are there to ask 'why?'

Stop Propaganda Act

Any speculation on how this is going to be spun?

It's absolutely necessary, of course, and doesn't stand a chance of passing under this administration and this congress. But even just proposing this is an excellent move by the Senate Dems.

'Government'? 'Freedom'?

Thoughtful musings over at Echidne:

One example of this is in the use of the word 'government'. As a crude oversimplification, Americans mean something very different from Europeans when they use this word. For many Americans, the government is a potentially tyrannic meanie that is after the hard-earned money of the tax-payers and has no real reason for existing in the first place. For many Europeans, at least those from the so-called old Europe, the government may be something viewed with a bit of sceptism but it's not seen as inherently different from other organizations human beings create. If governments are not to be wholly trusted, neither are large firms or large churches and so on.

This is all linked to the meaning of the word 'freedom', and this is surely the one word where definitions vary all over the place. Who knows what George Bush has in mind when he talks about freedom? He appears to believe that the god of the Methodists has given it to all the people on this earth, but he has never given a Biblical reference to this promise, nor has he ever explained what he means by freedom. I suspect that he's talking about the freedom of corporations from laws and regulations, not really about the freedom of individuals from exploitation by corporations. His actions support this view more than any other view.

Fair and Balanced Inauguration

Fascinating clip, via Frank Rich.

January 26, 2005

Must ... choke back ... vomit ...

Via Atrios,

Times insiders say Safire turned down Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr.’s offer to succeed Daniel Okrent as the newspaper’s ombudsman.

Daniel Okrent's nothing amazing, but he's a hell of a lot better than what that shitasstic (note spelling) hack would be.

January 25, 2005

And the liberation progresses ...

Shouldn't be any surprise that the status of women in Iraq is pretty craptacular.

A year ago, in the weeks after the invasion, hundreds of women marched in the streets outside this hotel in central Baghdad. The women were optimistic, most walked without veils and they made forceful speeches in front of the TV cameras.

Those days of mass protest are over. Today there are barely a dozen women present. Half are veiled and most have come with male relatives or colleagues for protection. It is a quiet indictment of the occupation and underscores the astonishing collapse in security, particularly for women, that it has brought. "Do you feel how threatening it is to go out in the streets? Can you guarantee that you are safe and alive by the end of the day?" asks Yanar Mohammad, the conference organizer and one of the most ardent women's rights activists in Iraq. "It is the insecurity that handicaps the organizing of women."

The few women there describe how things have changed for them since the fall of Saddam Hussein and the subsequent rise in Islamic parties. Many more cover their hair now, sometimes in belief, often through peer-group pressure or simply to protect themselves in anonymity. "Veils are imposed on young girls," says Nadam Moaeed. "What do girls understand from this veil? It will have a bad psychological effect. She will become a negative presence in society."


It was not always this way. In the 1950s, Iraq was the first Arab country to appoint a female government minister. Women worked freely in banks and government and administrative departments and were involved in a vibrant public debate. The changes came in the 1990s, when Saddam began to appease the tribes and the imams. He allowed men to take four wives and ruled there would no longer be any punishment for a man who killed a woman in his family if he suspected her of an "honor crime".

Incidentally, if you haven't seen Osama yet, I highly recommend it. It's an excellent film, but extraordinarily depressing. Like, Requiem for a Dream depressing.

City of WOW

City of Heroes just had a wallpaper contest for the fans -- the results are pretty awesometastic.

January 24, 2005

Your fingers are incorrect for parking!

Some Germans have done a `study' which `explains' why women `are' bad at things like parallel parking: their ring fingers are often too short! Read about it over at Echidne, which I'm now adding to my blogly rotation.

Be sure to check out the comments, too; came across a link to this largely irrelevant but still interesting article.

More sex and science! Hooray!

Following up on the post none of you read because you all suck, there's a halfway decent article in the NYT that actually presents some variety of perspective.

January 23, 2005

Cavalcade of gender and science!

Bit of a kerfluffle today in blogland and on the NYT over some Harvard colloquium last week. I suppose, as our resident self-appointed commentator on feminist topics, I should put up something.

Okay, first, a digest of links: Atrios, again, and one more time; Echidne, references by Atrios. Apparently she'll have more later. There are also some inane op-eds in the Times itself, one by an evolutionary biologist who recently wrote a book on sex among animals, and another by one of the authors of the Bell Curve. As Atrios points out, the last one is the sign that this discussion has official jumped the shark, so feel free to not even bother with any of this.

Okay, now, my thoughts. My speciality is no longer politics or economics, but philosophy, and my interest in this debate is the issue -- touched on to some extent by Echidne and the Judson op-ed -- of 'essential' gender or sex differences. My position, following Anne Fausto-Sterling, starts with the observation that, notoriously, we can't study essential differences between groups of humans, simply because we can't isolate a (group of) human subject(s) from their sociological environment, nor from our own background. Prejudice and bias simply creep in too easily. A great example of this is a study I read about a few years back, which purportedly demonstrated an innate difference between the way men and women pursue mates, along pretty classical (and completely bullshit) lines: men show off and compete amongst each other to impress women the most, and a woman chooses from among her suitors for the one who's demonstrated the most impressive qualities. The evidence the authors of the study had? A survey of a couple thousand American college freshman and sophomores.

(Somewhere, there was a mention of current studies by biologists on sexual dimorphism and other clear, dramatic physiological differences between the sexes of other species. The difference between studying essential sexual differences between male and female humans and fruit flies is, obviously, that we're bringing a lot less cultural baggage to the table with the fruit flies. Feminist philosophers of science, and like-minded commentators, have pointed out subtle but telling instances of sexual bias creeping into science, however -- fertilization was traditionally thought of as an active sperm cell penetrating a completely passive egg cell, mirroring Victorian beliefs about proper sexuality, for example, while recent work has shown the egg is almost as active as the sperm in the process. So the alternative below applies to biology more generally, though often the prescription is not as radical as with investigations concerning humans.)

But even more, this inability to get a handle on 'human nature' suggests that trying to work towards such an objective account might be a mistake from the beginning. The alternative Fausto-Sterling suggests is to do away with the essential/environment (or nature/nuture) distinction altogether: a human being (or any organism) is a product of the interaction between genetics and environment in such a way that neither can be considered in isolation. Without the environment, the genes are just long fatty acid chains; and without genes, the potential organism is just a disorganized blob sitting in some surroundings.

One of Atrios' post is an excellent illustration of something similar in an economic context: you can't take either gender discrimination by employers or the path of a woman's career as fundamental, because the two determine each other by their interaction. Hence the proper object of investigation should be the relationship between and interactions of gender and employment -- and how the situation can be rectified -- not assuming one is fundamental and asking how it determines the other.

On the broader question of gender and our society as a whole, I would therefore suggest that it's a mistake to ask, eg, whether fewer women are engineers and scientists because (a) some essential difference in ability or preference, or (b) differential attitudes and treatment of women interested in engineering and science. Instead, ask whether a gender-neutral corps of scientists and engineers would be better (and in what sense of better) than our current non-gender-neutral corps, and how we can go about encouraging (or discouraging, I suppose, if that's the conclusion you ended up with) that gender-neutral corps. Not whether discrimination against a group is 'rationally justified', but whether and how the situation can be changed.

January 22, 2005

Burning down the house

Here's a bit of literary-ideological analysis of the inaugural speech.

As a rule, I'm not fond of this sort of psychoanalytic method; I feel it's too hard to really get at other people's motivations, thoughts, and feelings. But this is interesting.

The Constituion and Mr. Bush

Juan Cole says it with pictures. Via Salon.

In which I laugh my ass off, but in a depressing fashion

For once, I wish
David Brooks was right, and not a complete tool:
With that speech, President Bush's foreign policy doctrine transcended the war on terror. He laid down a standard against which everything he and his successors do will be judged.

When he goes to China, he will not be able to ignore the political prisoners there, because he called them the future leaders of their free nation. When he meets with dictators around the world, as in this flawed world he must, he will not be able to have warm relations with them, because he said no relations with tyrants can be successful.

His words will be thrown back at him and at future presidents. American diplomats have been sent a strong message. Political reform will always be on the table. Liberation and democratization will be the ghost present at every international meeting. Vladimir Putin will never again be the possessor of that fine soul; he will be the menace to democracy and rule of law.

Sounds awesome. Of course, you'd have to be a complete idiot to actually think this administration was going to be anything more than 100% opportunistic about its foreign policy (via Kos):

White House officials said yesterday that President Bush's soaring inaugural address, in which he declared the goal of ending tyranny around the world, represents no significant shift in U.S. foreign policy but instead was meant as a crystallization and clarification of policies he is pursuing in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Middle East and elsewhere.

Nor, they say, will it lead to any quick shift in strategy for dealing with countries such as Russia, China, Egypt and Pakistan, allies in the fight against terrorism whose records on human rights and democracy fall well short of the values Bush said would become the basis of relations with all countries.

What can I add to this but HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA?

January 21, 2005


You can almost HEAR the disturbing sound of William Safire going down on Bush. I thought this guy was retiring.

Anyway, for those of you who think this linguistic fellatio might actually contain a legitimate dichotomy between the ideals of universal freedom and universal peace, I just wanted to say that I can't think of a single instance where freedom was won through warfare alone. Yes, violence played an important role in razing an undemocratic system in certain instances, but after the government lay smouldering, it was the work of the people to rebuild. And in recent decades, violence hasn't done a lot of liberating; mostly it's been a tool by, and for the ends of, tyrants.

There is no necessary conflict between peace and freedom; and the end of European colonialism and the US civil rights movement suggests peace may be one of the best paths to freedom.

Fucking Safire.

January 19, 2005

Is there a crisis?

No there is not, sir.

There's Gold In Them Thar Hills!

Something Awful's Comedy Goldmine Wednesday's are a lot like their Photoshop Phridays, except that they usually suck. This week, however, is different!

January 18, 2005

At Least He Didn't Poison His Opponent Like That Crazy Guy From Ukraine!

Salon has a nice summary of the scandals of Bush's first term. Who knows what he'll do now?!

Fuck EA, Fuck Them In Their Stupid Asses

So, remember how Electronic Arts paid the NFL three hundred million dollars for the exclusive use of the players and teams of the league just when Sega, their closest rival, began to nip at their heels with Sega’s ESPN Football line? Well today EA has entered into a 15-year exclusive deal with ESPN to make games with the ESPN brand. Man, you fuck with EA and they don’t just kill you, they kill your whole family…what a bunch of assholes.

I’ve been on an EA boycott for a while now, and you all should be too. This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to stop playing all games made by EA, just buy them all used at whatever game store you buy from because EA gets no money from used game sales.

January 16, 2005

This Is A Non-Smoking Planet, Thank You For Your Cooperation

I know you guys check Space.com every day anyway, so this post is probably a waste of everybody's time, but I wanted to let everyone that NASA and the European Space Agency have landed a probe on Titan, one of Saturn's moons, and has been sending back some pretty sweet pictures. Evidently Titan is rocky with liquid methane oceans. Pretty sweet.

Ladies and gentlemen, the Presdent of the Yunitud States

Over at the panda which has left, Jesse has some 'highlights' from W's interview with the Post. Here's the bit that makes me hurt in the soul:

President Bush said the public's decision to reelect him was a ratification of his approach toward Iraq and that there was no reason to hold any administration officials accountable for mistakes or misjudgments in prewar planning or managing the violent aftermath.

This is a vile, vile man.

I was talking to Manda about what kind of scandal could get him thrown out of office, and I honestly don't know. His supporters don't seem to care that he lied to get their children shipped off to Iraq and blown up, or that his new Attorney General thinks torture and the elimination of habeas corpus are just super-duper. At this point, if the White House chef came forward and announced to the world that W eats a live baby for dinner every night, we would see the following reaction from serious conservative 'intellectuals':
1. The chef, originally employed by Clinton, is clearly carrying out a Democrat smear campaign;
2. Even if it was true that W ate live babies for dinner, he was simply carrying out a practice initiated by Bill Clinton, who lied about sex to the American people shortly after eating a DOZEN babies;
3. In our post-September 11th world, we must trust our President to do what needs to be done, even if we find those actions to be unsettling.
And then, the entire South shrugs its shoulders and goes back to such important things as who will be America's Next CEO Supermodel, while I run off to write up lecture notes for this week's classes so I can stave off crushing depression.

Paul O'Neill's half-assed proposal

Paul O'Neill, the former Bush II Treasury Secretary, has an op-ed over the NYT today (meaning Sunday). There are some good bits -- the idea that ' Those of us who are more fortunate can help those who are not.' is rather refreshing. But, on the whole? He still wants mandatory, though government-supplemented, savings by workers in anticipation of their retirement.

Now, why does he want to do away with the perfectly well-functioning current system, in which today's workers support their parents and grandparents? Why is it a problem that today's 'contributions are a tax, not savings'?

Let me define what I mean by financial security. Financial security begins with ownership of real assets; so the money saved each year in this plan would be the property of the person who saved it.

Ummm, no Paul, sorry; not only is that not a definition of financial security, it's not even a necessary condition of financial security. One of the reasons Stalinism has been so appealing to underemployed Eastern Europeans over the last ten years is, in that system, where they owned nothing, they were guaranteed financial security: everyone got a warm apartment and the basic necessities to get by. And, obviously, 'ownership' doesn't come into play there.

Social security is a brilliant, healthy system. Yes, it will require minor tweaks in thirty or forty years, but thus far Americans have always been willing to make those changes, and I expect they will be able to make them in the future. Privatization is a scheme concocted by radical laissez-faire ideologues to shrink the role of government in making sure everyone has a decent life. Don't listen to them, and don't listen to Paul O'Neill's craptacular compromise.

January 15, 2005

The Counter-Feminist Noble Lie

The Tool's latest is a nice illustration of what I call the Counter-Feminist Noble Lie, which runs as follows: Ladies! That biological clock is ticking! Better have kids when you're young, and put that career on hold, or you'll wind up barren and miserable!

The first, and most obvious, problem with this is that it presumes women want both children and a profession; and many of those who end up not having children will suffer 'a profound, soul-encompassing sadness'. Yes, I'm sure Gallup asked whether those women who never had children experienced deep Angst over their decision. For my purposes here, though, I'll assume most people would, ceteris paribus, like both a few (1-3) children and moderate career success. I will also readily concede that the current model for the life of a professional is based a man dedicating himself to his job for several decades, while his wife maintains the house and raises his children; the gendered terms in there are deliberate.

Now, let's take a look at The Tool's central argument for the Noble Lie:

For example, consider a common life sequence for an educated woman. She grows up and goes to college. Perhaps she goes to graduate school. Then, during her most fertile years, when she has the most energy for child-rearing, she gets a job. Then, sometime after age 30, she marries. Then, in her mid-30's, when she has acquired the maturity and character to make intelligent career choices, she takes time off to raise her kids.

In short: 'Being a stay-at-home mom takes lots of energy, so you'd better do it when you're young, ie, in your 20s! Lots of tough decisions to make in your career, so better do it when you're in your 30s and 40s, and you know what exactly you're looking for!' The thing is, both full-time childcare and pursuing a professional life require lots of time, lots of energy, and lots of tough decisions; his argument is, to use some debate lingo, not unique to his conclusion -- an argument of the same form leads to the opposite conclusion.

Why is this actually a lie, and not just a crappy argument? Because, for a couple of twentysomethings who want both a couple of kids and a couple of successful careers, there are many many more options than `she should raise the babies now' and `she should raise the babies later'. For example, here's what I can imagine as a perfectly plausible day in my life, ten years hence:
In the mornings, my partner makes sure the kids are awake, fed, and get to school, then goes off to her office -- she's an up-and-coming doctor or lawyer or engineer, and they start bright and early. A short while later, I head off to the university, where I'm a few years into a tenure-track position: my day consists of teaching a few classes, starting around midmorning, a little time grading and meeting with students, and a lot of time doing research. Midafternoon, the kids are out of school and either show up at my office or I'm waiting at home for them. We spend the afternoon together, and I have dinner ready when my partner gets home from work. We eat and spend time together as a family, then I have to spend the evening working on my current article, while my partner enjoys her time with the kids. Once they're in bed, she and I have our time together.

Obviously, a schedule like this requires the flexibility of an academic career, so that I can be home early in the afternoon most days; a pair of, say, a doctor and a lawyer might not be so fortunate. The solution, I feel, is to change the model of career development -- to move away from 'the professional man supported by his wife', and not offer women 'graduate school for homemakers', but instead give young professionals the sort of scheduling leeway they need to divide their time evenly between job and family. In this model, professional development and family development are both equally important components of one's personal development, irregardless of gender.

In other words, women -- and men -- should be able to have both a career and a family, if that's what they want; not terrified by the spectre of empty nest syndrome and falling into the old pattern of domestic wife supported by her professional husband. Once a couple is in that pattern, it's hard -- especially for her, so many years out of school and so set in one routine -- to get back out of it. As the Chronicle of Higher Education documented a few months ago, once someone leaves school for more than a year or two, their ability to return drops spectacularly, whether they leave after their high school diploma, bachelor's degree, or master's degree. This is why the supposed tension between family and career is so insidious anti-feminist.

January 13, 2005

Even more on Creationism ...

Jesse has an excellent post on Creationism and schools over at the panda which has left.

What came through most clearly in textual interpretation of religion was how little we actually discuss what was in the core of those texts. Popular religion exists through understandings, not readings. In much the same way, a tradition of understanding through repetition rather than exploration and analysis leads one to assume other traditions with hierarchies of knowledge (the sages and scholars alongside 'the rest of us') work in much the same way. 'Understandings' combat with each other, and therefore science, which is rigorously impersonal in a way that religion isn't, becomes a simple series of 'understandings', and it simply works the way they understand (read: desire) it to.

Just to develop my bizarre proposals for seconday education even further, I would also be in favor of having religion classes in high school as electives. Not theological indoctrination classes, but classes on the history of a religion, its influence on the culture it was practiced in, and various theologies which have developed in the religion. This has been tried, occasionally, but usually it's taught and attended by religious people who turn it into an unconstitutional theological indoctrination class.

January 12, 2005

Intelligent design and schools

I've been thinking a bit about Creationism and Intelligent Design the past few days -- I think there was an article in Salon this weekend, or late last week, that might be what got me started. But I'm not going to bother tracking it down: all you need to know is that there is a drive, burnishing over the past few years, to supplant the status quo in high school biology classes with a `balanced' presentation of `several alternative theories of species development' and some of the `scientific criticisms' of Darwinian Natural Selection. The scare quotes are there because the only alternative that ever comes up is Intelligent Design, and the criticisms come from fringe wackos, not actual mainstream biologists who, for example, get published in peer-reviewed journals.

If you don't know, Intelligent Design is basically a `guided evolution' theory: when it's actually presented as a scientific theory, and not the ravings of some lunatic Christian, it sounds just like Natural Selection, only it picks out certain features of organisms which it claims are too complicated to have happened by chance, and then hypothesizes/concludes some supernatural intelligent agent was responsible for somehow intervening in evolution so these features would come about.

In and of itself, it's a philosophically interesting, defendable theory. I don't think it holds up, but that's only incidental to my point here. You see, I'm broadly in favor of the inclusion of Intelligent Design, along with Natural Selection, in the standard high school biology curriculum.

Breathe. I can explain.

What I do not want is a platform in classrooms for idiots to spout off their own nonsensical religious beliefs. But a discussion of Intelligent Design, and the controvery surrounding theories of evolution more generally, would be a fantastic chance to get teenagers to think about what science actually is: what a scientific theory is (and is not); what constitutes evidence for and against a theory; maybe even the place science holds in our society and culture. In a sense, I want the current curriculum, where students learn about Darwin's finches and so on over the course of a week or so, but then a week of just a little philosophy of science.

What I like most about this idea (besides exposing teenagers to philosophy) is that it appears to be a concession to the Intelligent Design movement, but might serve to undermine it -- let this crappy idea wither in the sun, or be left on the shelf of the marketplace of ideas, whatever metaphor you prefer. It probably wouldn't actually work that way, but a philosophy can dream. Even if it doesn't kill off ID, I still think this plan's ability to foster discussion among teenagers about intellectual topics is fantastic.

And It's Official

Christine Gregoire has been certified as the next governor of Washington State as Dino Rossi sucks on eggs. I'll be really interested to see how this effects the election in four years...

Taxonomy Of Nerddom

I know not everyone follows Penny Arcade, so for those that missed this a few days ago, here is the heirarchy of nerdity. I think I'm somewhere in the middle of the chart in terms of actual nerd points, which I think supports my claim to the nerd thrown because I have enough nerd cred to relate to the majority of nerds while remaining unnerdy enough to have some outside perspective to my nerdity. Like any good King, of course, I would have plenty of advisors both more and less nerdy than I.

Song of The American Fat Lady

Well, I'm back in New Jersey and back in classes, so it's time for me to get back in the saddle of blogging.

First up, today we can celebrate the end of the search for WMD in Iraq with nothing to show for it. Sure, the Right gave up on WMD in Iraq a long time ago and moved on to other justifications, but the bottom line is that this WAS the main reason given for starting a war with Iraq and it's turned out to be a colossal screw up at best or a devious lie at worst. What's the death count in Iraq at now? 1200 with ten times that many injured? Iraq's threat to us was in passing on weapons they couldn't use to terrorists that could. The weapons, and therefore the threat, simply didn't exist.

Imagine this country today where rather than getting bogged down in this quagmire we had simply worked with special forces around the world for several small engagements with terrorist camps without full scale invasion of the country. Our military wouldn't be stretched paper thin; we wouldn't be spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a fruitless exercise; our soldiers would be safer and America would be equally as safe. Even though we'd still probably have a shitty president, the fact that of those two possible worlds we're in this one is criminal.

January 10, 2005

The New York Times > Opinion > Op-Ed Columnist: Where Was God?

William Safire (I can't wait until this tool is gone from the NYT Op-ed page forever) offers his own 'solution' to the Problem of Evil:

Job's moral outrage caused God to appear, thereby demonstrating that the sufferer who believes is never alone. Job abruptly stops complaining, and - in a prosaic happy ending that strikes me as tacked on by other sages so as to get the troublesome book accepted in the Hebrew canon - he is rewarded. (Christianity promises to rectify earthly injustice in an afterlife.)

Now, in regards to the tsunami: maybe it's just my crazy atheist reasoning, but I think it'd be better if God hadn't caused a giant wall of water to fall on several hundred thousand people, even if most of them got to go to heaven. Presumably, they're going to heaven because they're good people, not because of the giant wall of water thing. If you get something you were going to get anyway, it's not exactly a reward.

January 06, 2005

National Review solves the Problem of Evil

Well, Happy New Year and all that. I thought I'd get us started again with one of my patented Long-ass Very Boring Posts on Philosophy Stuff You Don't Care About. In particular, the Problem of Evil.

The PoE is one of the major arguments against the existence of a benevolent and omnipotent, Christian-type God; I personally find it quite persuasive. The dilemma goes something like this:

1. If God were benevolent and all-powerful, he would not allow pointless harm to come to human beings.
2. Events like the tsunami and diseases like AIDS or Ebola cause pointless harm to human beings.
3. Hence God is not both benevolent and all-powerful

I'm not going to defend this by really fleshing it out in great detail -- there are some obvious objects one can make to this setup. But what's important is the contradiction between the loving, paternal nature of God according to Christians et al., and the gratuitous suffering inflicted on humanity by nature. There's evil, and yet God is supposedly not evil.

Well, Michael Novak (I think he's the son or something of Bob Novak, that op-ed guy who blew Valerie Plame's cover) has solved the Problem of Evil. His response has two parts. First, he notices that the people who use the Problem of Evil as an argument against the existence of God are using it AS AN ARGUMENT AGAINST THE EXISTENCE OF GOD! Those damn sneaky atheists, trying to use an apparent contradiction to refute an idea!

Then, secondly, Novak points out that God is the creator and so, like, a lot more powerful than us and stuff, and we shouldn't go around judging him, because he can kick our collective asses. Hence, he has a far superior love for any human than we do. That's right -- all those kids who were swept out to sea and drowned, or instantaneously crushed when a 30-foot-tall wall of water landed on them, are an example not of cruelty and unnecessary suffering, but of God's perfect love. Because, you see, God knows (or knew) all those children he killed personally, not as the abstraction you or I know them.

Thank God for mercilessly slaughtering 150,000 people! Hallelujah!