Republished: Let’s bring reason back to politics

As part of my attempt to get back into writing this blog, I’ve been going back through my list of published articles and making sure they’re all still live. Many of the links have changed in the years since I wrote many of those articles, but luckily I copied most to this blog. A few were missed, so here is one of the first republished articles.

Continue reading Republished: Let’s bring reason back to politics

Nuclear power is still the future–The Peak

My latest 900 word opus in The Peak regarding the safety of nuclear energy in light of the Fukushima crisis in Japan.

Nuclear power is still the future

By Ian Bushfield

There is no overstating the damage that the 9.0 magnitude earthquake and resulting tsunami dealt to Japan on March 11.

While many of these facts will be out of date by the time this article goes to print, the official death toll is over 4,000, nearly 2,000 are injured, and at least 8,000 people are missing. The unofficial numbers are far worse. More households than people who live in B.C. went without power, and more than a million households lost water. The financial cost has already been estimated to exceed $14.5 billion.

Video footage showed entire buildings being washed into the ocean, while they were on fire.

Now fears have understandably turned to the most misunderstood technology of the modern world, as the Fukushima I and II nuclear power plants threaten to meltdown; however, barring any major changes between the time I write this and the time you read it, I hope to allay these fears, and emphasize that despite this recent scare, nuclear power remains a safe alternative energy source.

The day after the quake the roof was literally blown off of the Reactor 1 building at Fukushima I. This explosion was likely caused by a build-up of hydrogen gas, which occurred after cooling systems failed, exposing the radioactive fuel rods to air. Another explosion rocked the plant on the March 14, this time at Reactor 3, which allegedly led to the third explosion at Reactor 4 on the March 15. Fires that resulted in Reactor 4 were extinguished and the fuel rods were potentially melted. Surprisingly, several of the spent fuel rods also caught fire, leaking an increased amount of radiation that approached dangerous levels for the workers at the plant, before burning themselves out.

To handle the crisis, Japanese engineers and emergency workers have evacuated a 20-kilometer radius around Fukushima I, advised those up to 30-kilometers out to stay indoors, iodine kits have been prepared to treat radiation exposure, and they have been pumping seawater into the aging reactors to cool them down to safer levels. While several employees have been injured in the explosions, and a few workers died as a result of the tsunami, no one has died yet due to the nuclear crisis.

Fearing this to be the next Three Mile Island or Chernobyl, the world’s reaction has been swift. Germany and Switzerland have already reversed course on nuclear energy, cancelling plans for new reactors. Cries are also coming out from Greenpeace and other environmental organizations that have long-opposed nuclear power to halt future nuclear expansions. Nevertheless, Ontario’s Liberal government remains steadfastly committed to nuclear energy.

However, giving into fear-mongering is the wrong lesson to take from this crisis. Given the 40-year age of the reactors in Japan, it is a true testament to the safety and engineering standards that have been put in place that the reactor even remains standing after a devastating earthquake and tsunami annihilated the region. While the situation remains tense and many remain evacuated from their homes, no fatal doses have been delivered and the situation is slowly coming under control.

Yet, even if a colossal meltdown occurred, nuclear electricity would still have dealt the world far less damage than many of the alternatives. Oil and coal power plants have been spewing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere for decades, contributing to a well-documented increase in global temperature which is nearly guaranteed at this point to bring about cataclysmic changes to our environment. Furthermore, coal-fired plants produce higher levels of radioactivity than nuclear plants by concentrating the radioactive elements in the coal and then dumping it into the atmosphere. Even hydroelectricity has its own dangers as nearly 200 people died constructing the Hoover and Grand Coulee Dams and dam failures have cost thousands of lives, including one in China killing 230,000. The total death toll from nuclear energy is under 60, almost entirely related to the Chernobyl meltdown, which was caused by human error.

With waste containment technologies increasingly able to handle the radioactive products, few environmental concerns remain with nuclear energy; and with humanity increasingly pushing the extremes to extract more oil from the earth, we are engaging in even riskier behaviour by the day. We only need to think back to the BP Deepwater Horizon spill last summer to see the horrible consequences from this increasingly reckless behaviour.

Finally, despite alarmist graphics suggesting nuclear fallout will kill all life along our West Coast, there is little to fear from winds spreading radioactive materials across the Lower Mainland. The size of the Pacific Ocean and incredible distance to Japan ensures that any leaked materials would be thoroughly diluted before reaching us. You receive a greater radiation dose from a routine visit to the dentist or an international flight than anything expected to cross the ocean in even the worst-case scenario. In fact, even the act of eating a banana, rich in radioactive potassium, poses a greater health risk for Vancouverites than any Japanese fallout.

With oil reserves running dry and the global climate in a precarious state, it is imperative that we discuss our options rationally. The record of nuclear power is that of potentially the only industry humanity has ever treated as adults: fully acknowledging and working to account for all of the risks. It is not worth slandering an entire industry based on what can only be seen as isolated events in the greater context.

The Peak–The next big bogus health scare

Feeling embolden by my last article’s success, I pumped out a quick piece on water fluoridation and wi-fi scares, and look at that, it got picked up by Canadian University Press, meaning it’s available for content-hungry papers across the country.

The next big bogus health scare

There is a fantastic scene in the classic 1964 film, Dr. Strangelove, where General Jack D. Ripper outlines his belief that the communists intend to pollute the “precious bodily fluids” of the citizens of the United States. Ripper’s paranoia was born out of the Cold War, but continues today in many forms.

In Maple Ridge last Wednesday, New Democrat MLA Michael Sather hosted a public forum on “the effects of Wi-Fi and cell phone towers”. Meanwhile, in Calgary, councillors have voted to remove fluoride from their water after 20 years.

Fear of the unknown is understandably strong, and when the health of your immediate family is potentially at risk, I can understand why emotions get heated. But after thousands of years of progress from our stone-age roots, we no longer have to fear the darkness.

Astronomer and skeptic Carl Sagan said that science is akin to a candle in the dark, and so it behoves us to approach these discussions rationally and calmly; balancing the evidence and weighing the risks.

The fight over water fluoridation has been going on for a long time, and was a part of the fear that Ripper had when he made his comments, believing that the chemical was used as a form of mind control.

The truth is far less exciting, however, as fluoride is a naturally occurring mineral in all municipal water supplies, to varying strength.

More is often added to achieve optimum levels to prevent tooth decay, which as a child who grew up on un-fluoridated well water and did not brush enough, I can only wish I had access to. The evidence is very strong for the benefits of fluoridation, with Health Canada, the World Health Organization, and most dental associations supporting controlled fluoridation.

European countries that eschew water fluoridation are often used as an argument against the additive; however, many of those countries add fluoride to milk, bread, or other staples, to ensure the strength of their nation’s teeth.

Metro Vancouver has never had fluoridated water, unfortunately for my teeth, and likely never will, since it would require the combined will of the many jurisdictions served by the Seymour-Capilano watershed.

Meanwhile, as newer technologies begin to permeate our increasingly connected world, technophobia or neo-Luddism is spreading. Many people have begun to believe they have electro-hyper-sensitivity, and suffer from migraines and other generic ill health effects when in the presence of strong electromagnetic sources.

Unfortunately for them, no reputable study has yet confirmed the existence of this condition, and a growing body of well-researched literature continues to support the safety of current Wi-Fi and cellular telephone technologies. The few studies that show the smallest of effects mostly suffer from irreproducibility or lack of blinding, where either the researcher or, in some cases, the subjects, know the conditions of the experiment.

Many dangerous substances do exist in the modern world, including carcinogenic plastics, terminator crops, and chlorofluorocarbons, yet there is little reason to suspect vast conspiracies of government and industry.

The Peak–Lying For Jesus

Here’s my Peak article that ran on February 28th regarding Jesus Week at SFU.

Lying for Jesus

You may not have heard, but last week was proclaimed “Jesus Week” by the Christian student groups on campus. The week featured a variety of events for these evangelists to spread their faith.

On Wednesday they put together a panel of four SFU professors to explore questions about Jesus. Unfortunately, the panel was dominated by white Christian men, none of whom were theologians, religious studies professors, or even historians. To speak about religion and history, the best professors SFU’s Christian clubs could find were two mathematicians, an economist, and a political scientist affiliated with the right-wing Fraser Institute.

Yet, despite these lacklustre qualifications, the Christian ad-machine was in full force with posters displaying quotes by Katy Perry, Bono, Albert Einstein, and Richard Dawkins. Unfortunately, only half of these quotes were honestly chosen. While she gave up gospel singing to pursue stardom, both Katy Perry and Bono are at least nominally Christian and definitely theists. The same can’t be said for the other two spokespeople.

Einstein’s poster sports the quote: “No one can read the gospels without feeling the presences of Jesus. His personality pulsates with every word. No myth is filled with such life.” While a true quote, Einstein was merely conveying respect for the Christian myths. He later made his view very transparent, stating: “It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.”

Misquoting Einstein tends to be popular among Christians who desperately hope to add the credibility of an agnostic Jewish physicist to their arsenal, but as with any lie by omission, this is dishonest and un-Christian.

But the dishonesty goes deeper with their quote from Richard Dawkins, snipped from his satirical article “Atheists for Jesus” in which he stated, “[Jesus was] . . . a charismatic young preacher who advocated generous forgiveness, [he] must have seemed radical to the point of subversion. No wonder they nailed him,” which neglects the fact that the actual point of the article was to suggest that, were he alive today, Jesus would likely have been an atheist.

Buried on one of their many Facebook pages is the explanation that all quotes are chosen to show how Jesus’ teachings have reached and touched us all. Yet, when taken out of context and plastered across campus they appear as little more than desperate attempts to steal endorsements.

But wait, there’s more. Friday featured Kirk Durston, a recent PhD graduate of biophysics from the University of Guelph, attempting to rebut Stephen Hawking’s recent book The Grand Design. Hawking’s book argued in laymen terms how the universe could feasibly arise without God.

Never mind how disconnected modern cosmology and biophysics are: academic qualifications are apparently unnecessary during Jesus Week. Durston continues to argue that evolution is too complicated to happen and has previously suggested that genocide is just peachy if God Himself legitimately tells us to commit it. Someone who has failed to grasp the basics of evolution from first year biology thinks he knows better than the world’s preeminent astrophysicist? And here I was thinking Christians were supposed to be modest.

From the crosses that adorn the relic SFU crest, to Christmas and Easter vacations, Christianity is deep-rooted in our culture. I really have to question whether last week was at all successful at making even one person aware of Jesus who had never heard of him before February 14.

It’s generated two responses so far: David Minor’s Jesus is not a four letter word [7 March] and Kristen Soo’s Jesus’ message can be for anybody [14 March]. Also, it got the following responses in the “Reader Comments” (aka letters section)

Ian Bushfield’s opinion piece ‘Lying for Jesus’ is one of those bizarre ramblings reminiscent of Gadahfi’s recent speeches.

Bushfield presents himself as a champion of truth, yet writes an article replete with misrepresentations and sketchy half-truths.

He did not attend my lecture on Hawking’s and Mlodinow’s Grand Design. Instead, he made up an absurd report, throwing in words like ‘evolution’ and ‘genocide’ that had no association with the lecture.

It appears the ‘genocide’ comment was obtained from a gross misrepresentation originating out of an atheist blog a few years ago, which Bushfield seems to have uncritically swallowed as gospel to spice up his rather dodgy article. The actual lecture presented last week reviewed some of the major ideas advanced by Hawking and Mlodinow in their recent book Grand Design.

– Kirk Durston

And:

Taken out of context, the Einstein quote does make it sound as if he believed the gospels to be true. It is misleading.

You claim “everything [most SFU students] have heard [of Jesus] is cast in a negative light”, despite that mainstream media and North American society as a whole are still pretty Christian-friendly.

Growing up in Canada, I certainly heard more good things about Christianity than bad, and I bet it was the same for most SFU students. University is one of the few settings in which people freely but intelligently discuss and criticize Christianity, and Bushfield’s concerns over the methods used to convey Jesus Week messages are a legitimate part of such discussions.

If Jesus week really were an honest “invitation to dialogue”, perhaps its supporters shouldn’t rush to accuse students of being part of some evil Christianity-bashing movement when they speak up.

– Monica W.

Peak: Free Speech not our only right

My latest submission to The Peak was printed last week in response to some free speech or nothing racket. Enjoy:

Free speech is not our only right
By Ian Bushfield

Last week’s Opinions section included two articles which attempted to defend freedom of speech against the onslaught of the obnoxious, politically correct left-wing ideologues [“Pro-lifers are oppressed on Canadian Campuses”, and “Dissent is the essence of democracy”, October 12]. Unfortunately, the arguments reek of libertarian dogma and simple-minded elitism.

It is almost stereotypical that bearded, white males would defend fetuses from the callous women who consider them cancerous parasites and wish to expunge the hassle from their body. But do not let me mischaracterize Graham Templeton; he really is pro-choice, although his article makes it seem like something to be ashamed of.

Templeton is sympathetic toward the persecuted pro-lifers and used his article to demand that they be allowed to post the goriest pictures and to harass troubled women in a time of crisis.

Templeton’s misinformed rant continues with him failing to understand why it is currently illegal to picket outside abortion clinics in BC. Since a woman has the right to freely choose, without coercion, to have an abortion, our courts have recognized and upheld laws that protect this right while infringing as little as possible upon the freedom to speech.

Without these laws, free speech turns to coercion and harassment, as is very often the case in the abortion clinic buffer zones. Similarly, we have laws against false advertising, libel, and defamation.

Getting back to the on-campus abortion debate, it is worth noting that these pro-life groups have mistaken the freedom of speech for a non-existent right to be heard. The campus associations at these schools, whose job is to ensure that all students feel welcome in their community, offered pro-lifers the compromise of setting up the Genocide Awareness Project behind screens so that those who chose to observe the event could do so. I guess the pro-lifers are not just anti-choice when it comes to abortion.

On the other side of the page, Templeton’s fellow editor David Proctor suggested that journalists ought to present both sides to every story, and if we do not like it we should go live in North Korea.

I am tempted to agree with Proctor’s thesis, however, he fails to provide any actual cases to support his argument. He blindly asserts that progressives are guiltier of attempting to stifle their ideological adversaries. Without any evidence, I remain skeptical.

In the evolving Goldcorp and K’naan controversies, both sides warrant presentation, since in a new story, not all the facts are available and it may take a while before the truth is wholly available. However, in many cases debates that are long past settled are still subjected to sub-par journalism which seeks to give equal time to unequal viewpoints.

This is much the case in scientific debates where the evidence is overwhelmingly agreed upon by all experts in a field. No legitimate scientists in their field debate the central tenets of evolution or climate science, and yet too often a controversy is stirred up where none exists.

Dogmatic libertarians like Templeton and Proctor assume that the only right that matters is freedom of speech, and yet without freedom from discrimination, free speech can become a weapon for intolerance or coercion. Verbal harassment and intimidation are more than just hurt feelings.

While I generally agree that freedom of the press, discourse, and disagreement are necessary and healthy in a democracy, I cannot subscribe to the libertarian idiom that freedom of speech trumps all other rights.

And if you want to run your head into your keyboard, also read Jonathon van Maren (VanMaren88)’s tribe about how much he loves foetuses.

Peak: Canada doesn’t need the Queen

My first article of the new school year is out and addresses comments that Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard made during her latest campaign about dropping the monarchy there.

Canada doesn’t need the Queen
By Ian Bushfield

Display_queenie

If you’re anything like me, you spent the latter half of your summer engrossed in news about last week’s historic Australian election, finally decided a full fortnight after their election day. It’s a vote that could have implications for their relationship to the British monarchy, and could be instructive for future Canadian policy.

For those not in the loop, Australia’s ruling Labour Party underwent a bloodless coup d’état a few months back when unpopular Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was replaced by up-and-comer Julia Gillard. She became the first female prime minister of Australia, as well as an atheist who lives with her partner out of wedlock. But like our own Kim Campbell, Gillard seemed destined to lose power as quickly as she gained it as her fortunes turned sour in this election.

But Gillard managed to sneak by with a tie in final seat counts with her opposition, and after some deals she managed to get enough independents and the lone Green Party member to support Labour and establish a coalition government.

I could make lots of comparisons here between our country and Australia, from their natural acceptance of coalitions, to their more proportional electoral system for their senate, or the fact that an atheist was elected prime minister and no one really got upset. But instead, I want to discuss one short quote that Gillard made during her campaign that was almost ignored.

She stated that Australia should seek to become a republic once the monarch changes.

Australia, like Canada, is a constitutional monarchy whose head of state is Queen Elizabeth II, the queen of England and the entire Commonwealth. Meanwhile, France and the USA are republics, which means that the people of either country directly or indirectly elect their heads of state.

In 1999, Australia actually held a referendum to determine whether they should drop the monarchy and instead install a president who would be nominated by a two-thirds majority of parliament. The referendum failed, in part because the alternative presented was a somewhat obscure option that didn’t necessarily have the support of all republicans in the country.

Monarchists defend the status quo using one of two main arguments: tradition, and the political advantages of an unelected head of state.

Tradition arguments can be rejected out of hand, as tradition is what brings us racism, sexism, xenophobia, and most other prejudiced systems. Just because something is what has always been done does not make it the right or moral thing to do. Monarchs are a throwback to theocratic days where people could be hung for the victimless crime of blasphemy with nothing more than a show trial. A monarch is the crown of a caste system where one cannot work their way out of despondency. The divine right of kings (and queens) is an affront to our modern free and secular society.

An unelected head of state is also argued to provide stability and rationality to the democratic process by acting as sober oversight to the whims of the public and politicians. Further, it is argued that by removing the monarchy, we risk consolidating even more power in our already bloated prime minister’s office.

However, as demonstrated by recent decisions of our governor general, the prime minister has little difficulty pushing his agenda through. Parliament has been prorogued twice to end debate that threatened the government. An independent and accountable head of state, separate from the PMO and cabinet, could act as a new focus of Canadian pride, and help to rebuild our crumbling democracy.

There’s many ways that we could establish a Canadian republic, and it is time we start the conversation about Canada after the queen.

Harper: Just plain lucky?

I’ve finally written an article for The Peak again. This time I address the long-form census controversy and ask if Harper’s really a great strategist or just a lucky ideologue.

Harper’s success: strategy or luck?
By Ian Bushfield

Many pundits and voters view Stephen Harper as a strategic political mastermind. Since winning the Conservative party leadership he has impressively managed to take a right-wing fringe party to consecutive minority governments. However, after repeatedly failing to win that elusive majority, the evidence is growing that blind ideology often impedes his better judgment.

His latest blunder comes with the growing and near unanimous backlash in his attempt to kill the long form portion of the census. Every five years the federal government conducts a survey of the country in two parts — a short form that is sent to everyone and a longer form that is only sent to one-in-five people. The long form probes deeper than the short form and provides a wealth of information for social welfare groups and policy-makers. Until Harper’s recent decision, both forms were mandatory, but now the long form has been made voluntary.

The rumours out of Ottawa suggest that this decision came directly from Harper himself, likely assuming that a change like this would go widely unnoticed as the political season winds down into the summer. However, statisticians, local governments, social groups, and even religious groups like the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada have denounced the action.

In a stunning display of statistical ignorance, to compensate for this break in continuous data, Harper decided that they would send out more voluntary long-form surveys at an estimated cost of $30 million. Perhaps a first-year stats student here can explain to Harper how collecting more shit won’t make it smell any better.

The government’s post-hoc reasoning for such an unpopular course of action is that the mandatory long form is overly intrusive and violates the fundamentals of the freedom to privacy. Neglecting that the freedom to privacy is neither stated nor implied by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, it is worth remembering that actions such as filling out the census are important of civic responsibilities, just like jury duty, voting, and paying taxes are. Similarly, Harper has no intention of making the long-form farm census voluntary which provides invaluable information about agricultural techniques. Apparently suburban libertarians are more important than rural ones.

Scrapping the long-form census is more about weakening the information available to progressive social justice agencies across the country than appealing to a very fringe libertarian base. By weakening the continuity of census data, organizations and local governments will be less able to target their services to where they are needed the most. If only those who can afford the time respond, it will be much more difficult for Stats Canada to ensure the robustness of its data from low income and remote communities; the groups most served by such aid organizations.

The census wasn’t Harper’s first mistake as leader. In his blood-lust to kill the weakened Liberal party after the 2008 election, he assumed it would be easy to remove the per-vote party subsidy system, only to find that the opposition parties could agree on enough to form a coalition and threaten to topple his government.

Then, last year he assumed Canadians were too apathetic to care if he prorogued Parliament to avoid answering questions about the torture of Afghan detainees. It must have been quite the surprise when hundreds of thousands of protesters turned up to criticize his three-month Christmas vacation.

So, it seems that perhaps Harper’s only real strategy thus far has been to appear less incompetent than the various Liberal leaders. But with lame ducks like Paul Martin, Stephane Dion, and Michael Ignatieff, should we really be calling Stephen Harper an expert strategist?

The Peak – Has Bill Nye sold out?

My article in the Peak that was published last Monday is finally online. My credit is missing right now, but hopefully it gets added…

This article is in response to Brian Dunning’s 22 April piece “Bill Nye selling out to the man?

The question being asked right now by many self-professed skeptics is: Has Bill Nye sold out? This comes after news arose that acclaimed science educator, Bill Nye, has endorsed a new water-based cleaning product called ActiveIon.

The invention claims to ionize ordinary tap water, which allows it to stick to dirt particles better than ordinary water. After a simple spray, dirt and grime can be wiped away leaving no more streaks than spraying with normal water. The company heavily touts their product’s environmentally-conscience credentials since it uses no chemicals.

Their new spokesperson is Bill Nye, who gained fame in the 1990s from his TV series, Bill Nye the Science Guy. Later, he starred in the single season of the show The Eyes of Nye, where he critically examined claims surrounding topics ranging from nuclear energy to pseudoscience to the evolution of sex. He is also a fellow of the committee for skeptical inquiry, which represents many skeptics.

Meanwhile, many skeptics have long been unconvinced by purveyors of products similar to ActiveIon’s cleaner, especially when one considers that it sells for over $150 per (refillable) bottle. Snake-oil salesmen for years have been claiming that ionized water can be used to do everything from increasing your energy to defeating cancer. So, it is unsurprising that many skeptics would take great exception to Nye’s ostensible turn to the dark side.

On SkepticBlog, Brian Dunning claims that Nye may be down on his luck and potentially took the sponsorship to bring in some much needed cash. In the comments, others suggest he may have been tricked into buying into this product for its green credentials.

Yet, only a small number of skeptics on the site actually propose that the product ought to be tested before it, and Nye, get tossed into the dustbin of credulity. One would think that the proper skeptical response to such a moderate claim would be to actually look for some evidence.

So what testable claims are being made here and what evidence is there to back them up?

From the ActiveIon website, they claim to electrically charge the water before running it through an “ion exchange membrane,” which creates “an oxygen-rich mixture of positive and negative nanobubbles.” Finally, the ionized water is attracted to dirt particles, which are then easily wiped away.

Despite the seemingly flagrant misuse of the prefix nano, a cursory literature search turns up nearly 2,000 articles describing nanobubbles in different forms. In one study at Penn State University, electrolyzed water was shown to create nanobubbles of ozone; the ozone is then able to sterilize food in a similar process to how chlorine in pools kills bacteria. These processes, like the ActiveIon sprayer, only result in ionized water for a short period of time, but it is potentially long enough to be used as a simple cleaning agent.

Several other studies also examine using electrolyzed water for cleaning during semiconductor processing. A few of the reports even show drastic improvements over traditional strong acid methods. This corroborates the claims by ActiveIon, which lists a study by the University of Massachusetts’ Lowell Toxic Use Reduction Institute Lab, that demonstrates its efficacy.

At first sight, this product seems to operate solely on pseudoscientific buzzwords and yet is being endorsed by an icon of the scientific method. However, with some digging, there appears to be less magic and some potentially legitimate evidence that the device may in fact work. It seems many of the self-professed skeptics are a bit more cynical than they would let on.

In this case, it seems more than reasonable to grant Bill Nye the benefit of the doubt in endorsing this product. Were the man to truly be in dire financial straits, he could very easily return to his work as a mechanical engineer. Despite the recession, his experience at NASA ought to count for something.

It is important for all skeptics out there to beware the temptations of cynicism. While this product likely is not all that it is cracked up to, few products are, it is at least supported by several related studies and independent confirmation. Being able to clean surfaces with water is not exactly an extraordinary claim, so treating it like a childish superstition is merely close-minded and arrogant.

Ivory Tower Atheism

Before I get to the crux of my commentary on this week’s Peak (which I have no article in for the first time in over a month since I didn’t get to submitting anything last week) – particularly Kate Scholz’s article “to tell the Truth”, I’ll copy here the positive TXT MSGS that appeared this week (all verbatim):

Buddha never claimed to be a god. Nor did jesus. Only ignorant forgets to say there is probably no god.

Re: Person wondering why nobody is bashing on buddhists are not tempermental pricks 🙂

Singled out? It’s one poster. There are a half-dozen Christian groups on campus. I’m tired of ignorant people confusing their paranoia for persecution.

‘ignorany ppl bashing christianity?’ the poster is merely saying that you dont need to believe in and kind of mage-up god. You made the connection to a specific religion. Hmmm…

Also, you can read Graham Templeton’s article about how atheists are stereotyped in television shows. He makes a few points but overlooks (arguably) positive atheist/skeptic TV characters like Brian from Family Guy. Regardless, it’s better to have some representation, especially among somewhat likable lead characters like House and Patrick Jane, than none.

But the main article that needs addressing is Scholz’s last word feature on the supposed polarization between Christian and atheist groups on campus. The article doesn’t actually seem to be in plain text on The Peak’s website, but you can find it on the last page of the pdf edition.

Basically, Scholz has a few arguments, with some targeted at my two atheist pieces. First, she argues that atheists are throwing a continual “hissy fit” and

…skeptics and anti-religious on principle are just as dogmatic, and that the natural sciences have no exclusive grip on truth and knowledge – the arts faculties, including Religious Studies, exist to fill that gap. Refusing to acknowledge any common ground is just naive and annoying rather than intellectual or persuasive.

She then goes on to point out that science has pushed back a lot of ignorance that religion perpetuated. She further is “astounded” by the fact that creationism calls for equal time with evolution and admits that biology only makes sense in terms of evolution (the whole point of my first article).

So I have no clue what the first two-thirds of her article does expect lambast me for saying exactly what she was saying, but for putting in stronger terms. Hell, go back and read my anti-creationist article. I’ll wait.

Did you finish it?

Did you see where I said religion is stupid or Christians are harming the world by pushing their creationism? And the point where I said all knowledge only comes from science?

No? Perhaps because I didn’t say that. In fact, what I actually said was:

Science class is the place to develop the tools to view the world methodically and skeptically. Science asserts that evidence is required before we can decide whether an idea has any merit to it.

There are countless Christians and theists who have no difficulty with evolution. In fact, they are likely in the majority. A small minority, however, remains committed that the only way they can reconcile their belief in a vengeful Old Testament God is to deny the fundamental basis of all modern biology.

I argued from secularism, the idea that no religion or non-religion should be state-forced, that creationism has no place in science classes.

Next, Scholz devotes a paragraph to responding to the “There’s Probably No God…” banner and states:

Inflammatory remarks, absurdity, and turning one’s back are not the only responses to the creationist and missionary challenge that religious clubs pose to more secular members of society. What about compassionate reasoning and persuasion?

Wait, I said the only ways to deal with religious clubs are burns, jokes and ignoring them? I thought that what I said was:

This banner serves as a response to the countless religious clubs who are pervasive at this school and in society. It seeks to counter the notion that you cannot be good without God.

Alternatively, when your ideological adversaries are increasingly vulgar, sometimes the proper response is ridicule. My favourite counter-protests to Fred “God Hates Fags” Phelps’s picketing of funerals are the ones with absurdist signs

The only other approach to take with such content is to simply ignore it.

Perhaps it wasn’t clear that those last two options (absurdity and ignoring them) are in direct response only to those who’ve already tuned out reason and are instead just being assholes. If it wasn’t clear that I support dialogue with reasonable religious groups, than I apologize, let’s get together and sing kumbaya. Or at least have respectful discussions.

But wait, I do think that I said something like (because I did) “The proper response to a message that you disagree with is dialogue” or “Most of us come to university with an open-mind, ready to learn new things and hear different ideas.” Which seems to convey support for dialogue like Scholz calls for.

She also needs a dictionary, since she repeatedly calls the Skeptics “dogmatic,” which would be difficult for us to be since to be dogmatic, one would need dogma, or an “established belief or doctrine.” And I’m not sure that Demon Haunted World or God Delusion count as holy books.

Finally, Scholz mentions that she is an unbeliever (in God), but I think I have to classify her as an “Ivory Tower Atheist.” I’m not sure if this term has really been used before, but it does follow alongside the accommodationist idea that PZ Myers has specifically advocated against. I propose that at least some of the following characteristics apply to the Ivory Tower Atheist:

  1. Believes in belief

    This phrase is borrowed from Daniel Dennett and is emphasized in his book, Breaking the Spell. The idea is someone who may or may not believe in God, but sees some value for those who do believe. Perhaps it makes them happier or provides them some solace.

    A read through any of the New Atheists books (Dawkins, Dennett, Harris or Hitchens) will provide several debunking of this argument, among them are the support of often immoral institutions and the danger of greater credulity of believing something without evidece.

  2. Is against organized atheism

    Often they see no reason for non-religious to organize, and criticize those who do organize of making atheism into a religion. This however is to deny the very social nature of our species (which becomes especially important for minority groups) and the desire of many to resist growing extremism in religion.

  3. Sees belief as something unnecessary for the educated, but useful for the rest

    This goes along with belief in belief, but furthers it to suggest in an elitist way that atheism is too intellectual for the simpletons, but we wise intellectuals can understand that this is how the world works. This is a very anti-humanistic view that is at least class discrimination if not in some cases racism or otherwise.

  4. Thinks atheists ought to keep quiet

    They agree with religions that criticism of religion ought to be banned or kept down, since offending people is not a civil thing to do. Meanwhile they seem to ignore the fact that the Pope and countless religions call atheists the scum of the Earth and the reason that evil perpetuates (although to be fair sometimes its homosexuals or other faiths).

  5. May be “spiritual but not religious”

    This tends to be used as a holier-than-thou sort of response that spiritualism is positive while religion is negative. Meanwhile, spirituality is either a very nebulous term meaning anything from Carl Sagan’s love of the universe to sorcery and witchcraft.

  6. Sees educated, liberal religions as the norm as opposed to fundamentalists
  7. Often they fail to realize that a lot of homophobic, end-times Christians still exist, and are very powerful in this country right now. They may have theologian friends who confirm this bias, and it tilts their view of religion to be one that is progressive and accepting as opposed to fire and brimstone.

  8. Has never been to an atheist meeting

    The most common response of critics in print and otherwise to atheist groups when they finally meet us in person is how nice we actually are. I’m not sure if they think we should be breathing fire or something, but perhaps actually seeing what we’re about and not trying to base your entire view of our club on our cheeky and provocative advertisements (that are working since they got your attention), would be a way for you to practice the dialogue that you preach. At the very least, check out our website which hosts a forum and tons of other ways you can contribute.

So that’s my rant of the night. I’m not totally sure how to combat these misconceptions beyond working harder to get these people to try to come out and meet some of the nice people who attend our meetings.

Regardless, I’m still trying to decide how much I’ll contribute to The Peak this summer since it’ll be running weekly but with a very small audience. At least the rumour is that the GSS may have failed the Peak funding referendum that was leaning toward ending funding but lacked quorum. In other words I may still be giving $4 per term in the fall and allowed to write for the paper.