News From Around The Blogosphere 7.20.11

July 21, 2011

Okay, it’s been awhile so this is going to a long one.

1. Campus Crusade for Christ is changing their name – In an attempt to change their image, the CCC has finally decided to get rid of that pesky “Crusade” in their name to avoid offending people and are now calling themselves the very inoffensive “Campus Holocaust for Christ.” Just kidding. From now on they’ll be known as the “cru”, cause strange lowercase acronyms are hip, chill, and groovy with the kids these days. Though if they really want to be more popular with the kiddies, maybe they should just call themselves Lady Gaga, and then put out announcements that Lady Gaga is coming to their campus. Can I solve image problems or what? I expect my check in the mail later this week.

2. Deepak Chopra, the videogame! Rated M for Moron – You know, for years I’ve listened to Jack Thompson shamelessly blaming video games for just about every atrocity in human history from the Crusades (probably) to the Virginia Tech shootings. But now Deepak Chopra is making me realize video games really can be harmful to society due to his new game called “Leela” (I’m assuming because he’s a huge Futurama fan) involving “seven different interactive exercises based on the seven ‘chakras,’ the points along the body that Chopra says serve as energy centers. No, Chopra has no background in actual human anatomy; I guess this is what he means by willing things into existence. If you believe in nonsense long enough and you can invent your own biology. In related news, Phil Plait has penned an short piece published in Playboy magazine that chastized Chopra for massacring science with his mouth.

3. Ireland vs. Vatican

Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny condemned the Vatican for continuing to downplay the rape and sexual torture of children in order to protect the image of the Catholic church.

Kenny’s condemnation comes in response to last week’s release of the Cloyne report, a scathing expose of current and ongoing Vatican efforts to cover-up the ever-present sexual abuse of children by Catholic clergy.

Kenny claimsthe Cloyne report “tells us a tale of a frankly brazen disregard for protecting children;” and, “exposes an attempt by the Holy See to frustrate an Inquiry in a sovereign, democratic republic as little as three years ago, not three decades ago.”

PZ Myers also wrote about this story here. And retired Bishop of Cloyne, John Magee, has been in hiding since the Cloyne report exposing his poor handling of child sex abuse allegations was published.

And speaking of the Catholic Church…

4. Catholic bishop bans fund-raising for breast cancer research

A bishop from Toledo, Ohio will not allow parishes and parochial schools to raise money for the Susan G. Komen Foundation (which helps fund the fight against breast cancer) because there’s a chance they may one day fund embryonic stem-cell research.

Glad to see they have their priorities in place.

5. Austrian officials allow Pastafarian to wear colander in drivers license photo – Austrian Niko Alm is being given permission to wear a colander, the official headwear for Pastafarians, on the license, which is clearly a far superior fashion statement than the Jewish yarmulke. Blessed be the Flying Spaghetti Monster and his noodly appendages.

6. Child Holocaust-denying nazi musicians renounce much of their former beliefs – The Olsen Twin look-alikes who form the Hitler-admiring pop band Prussian Blue have now publicly rejected the views that made them famous and for which their band was named after.

7. Jesus appears on Walmart receipt – Either that or Charles Manson, though that’s not really a very meaningful distinction.

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TAM 9 and the return of the ‘Don’t be a dick” debate

July 19, 2011

The Amazing Meeting 9 (or TAM9 From Outer Space) took place this weekend. I wish I could say that was the reason I’ve been neglecting my blogging duties for the past week but unfortunately, I’ve once again missed out on the largest skeptical conference in the world (hopefully I’ll make it to TAM10).

No, I’ve just been busy with a number of other projects this past week, one of which is a slightly skeptically themed short film I directed that I’ll be probably be posting here when it goes live on the internet next month. I can’t post it now because it was made for a 72-hour film festival that requires the entries to not be publicly available until after the festival ends. But if all goes well, within a week or so I’ll finally be able to post a skeptically themed short film I wrote. I’ve been wanting to post it for awhile now but now the only obstacle is getting one more actor to sign a release.

Anywho, while I haven’t attended TAM9, The Friendly Atheist has posted a live blog of the proceedings as they happened during the entire weekend’s events:

You can read about the Friday Morning Session here, the Friday Afternoon Session here, the Saturday Morning Session here, the Saturday Afternoon Session here, the Sunday Morning Session here, and the Sunday Afternoon Session here.

From the looks of it, it was an amazing success with over 1600 attendees, making it the largest turn-out yet and proving that the number of passionate skeptics is growing.

Now from what I can tell, once again, the issue of how to communicate with the public was the central theme of the event, particularly in the Sunday morning presentations such as Dylan Keenberg’s talk, Ashley F. Miller’s talk, and the more heated “Communicating Skepticism” panel discussion featuring PZ Myers, Eugenie Scott, Carol Travris, Phil Plait, and Jamy Ian Swiss, moderated by Sadie Crabtree.

And so, while I’ve written endlessly about my position that there’s a place for both skeptical diplomats and firebrands in our movement, the commentaries of TAM9, including Daniel Loxton’s latest commentary have convinced to briefly take yet another go at it.

I’m confused over the use of words like “radical” or “militant” with regards to the skeptical and/or atheist movements because we have no prominent radicals. I can’t think of anyone who commits violence in the name of skepticism or atheism like the “radicals” in past social movements. If the term is being attributed to someone like Richard Dawkins, then I dare say the word has lost all its meaning because Dawkins is just slight to the right of Mr. Rogers. If it’s PZ Myers who’s being considered the radical, he’s only slightly more aggressive in tone than Dawkins. Neither to my knowledge has committed violence or incited others to commit violence. If merely being passionate and firm in ones position is the new radical and something that is to be condemned by our movement, then our movement is doomed to forever be ignored.

Believe it or not but Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck didn’t become influential because they were the model of polite and calm discourse. Nobody is suggesting we turn to dishonesty or screaming insults at our opponents, but unless some of us are willing to be at least a little more assertive and confrontational than science communicators of the past, no one is going to pay the slightest attention to us, just like they didn’t before. And why would they? The media thrives on controversy. Unless someone is putting up some kind of real fight, they’re simply not interested. We may not like the idea of advertising a strong, fairly hard-line position but as someone whose expertise is in media, I have to say its a necessary evil if one is to get heard over all the noise out there. That’s not to say we should behave like the WBC or PETA by being as offensive as possible to grab attention, just that it wouldn’t hurt to put up the occasional giant roadside billboard unambiguously calling self-proclaimed psychics frauds…

…or a billboard like the bottom one displayed here:

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The civility debate continues

June 21, 2011
Bill O'Reilly

Persuasive pundit

I’ve written a lot about what has commonly been called the “New Atheism vs. Accommodationism” debate. The skeptical movement equivalent seems to be the “Don’t be a dick” debate, named after a talk Phil Plait delivered at The Amazing Meeting last year.

Well, Daniel Loxton has posted an article tracking  the history of one side of that debate, which has stirred a big comment debate over at Skepticblog. The article as well as the comments have inspired me to once again jump into the discussion.

So here are my thoughts on the matter.

I’m really finding this debate rather tedious and unproductive at this point. Every movement seems to develop this dichotomy over civility vs. firebrandism. Both sides here have thoroughly laid out their positions and both sides feel their position is being straw-manned by the other. They talk past each other and no one seems to be particularly persuaded by the other side.

I see clear benefits to both sides operating simultaneously, particularly if they can play nice with each other and not go out of their way to publicly attack the other side, forcing a public response from that side. I think we all agree the key audience we’re trying to reach are the fence-sitters, and it’s quite clear that different fence-sitters respond to different approaches. Some audiences will respond to politeness while others will see it as disingenuous and be turned off. Meanwhile, some will respond to ridicule and flippancy within the framework of a precise and careful rebuttal. Something tells me Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck aren’t persuasive because of their amazing ability to keep a civil, un-dismissive tone. Some audiences will just respond better to blunt, unapologetic refutations, especially if they’re built on solid arguments, while others won’t.

I think those who sit squarely on one side or the other and aren’t willing to adapt their approach based on the particular situation they’re in need to wake up and realize that there is no one magic bullet that explains all of human psychology. The available data, as little as there is, seems to show that both methods have worked in the past, so I see no reason why anyone can maintain the view that either is completely ineffective.

There’s also a wide range being ignored by this dick/not a dick false dichotomy. As someone said in the comments section: “Currently, skepticism as a movement is full of firebrands but has no noteworthy public ‘dicks.’ The closest would be Penn Jillette, primarily because his chosen medium (TV show) doesn’t allow for a rigorous discussion of proof.” The term “dick” demands clarification. It can’t reasonably be applied to just any use of confrontational or deliberately provocative approaches.

Will some people refuse to acknowledge diversity among skeptics and try to paint everyone as “angry atheists”? Probably. But they’ll do that anyway and the idea that everyone must constantly conform to one particular model in order to trick people into thinking there is no diversity among skeptics and that we’re all equally civil is absurd. Every important social movement has faced such stereotyping and they managed to survive it, so I don’t really worry about it. It’s very hard to maintain such a stereotype when there are skeptics and atheists getting news for their charitable works. Nobody has to be saddled with the Hitchens/Myers reputation if they don’t want to be. It’ll be okay.

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News From Around The Blogosphere 5.2.11

May 2, 2011

T-Minus 19 days until The Rapture.

And T-Minus 20 days until Family Radio and Harold Camiping are mocked mercilessly.

1. Another actor turns against Scientology – Actor Michael Fairman has been expelled from the cult and was officially designated a “Suppressive Person”:

Fairman is not leaving the organization quietly. Posting his expulsion letter at Marty Rathbun’s blog, Fairman blasts Scientology for dismissing him after he had spent years promoting the church with work in its videos and television commercials. Despite all that work, the SP letter vaguely accuses Fairman of various deficiencies, such as “financial irregularities.”

“I have been debt free since early 2010, and am supporting two households.
I make car and insurance payments on my Mercedes…So what ‘financial irregularities and out-exchange’ are they fucking talking about?” Fairman writes.

They also amusingly charge him with being a “squirrel,” which in Scientology-speak means he continued to practice Hubbard’s methods outside of church control. It seems that Fairman, like Rathburn, still believes in some of the methods of Scientology, but has grown disgusted with its management.

2. Friendly Atheist jokingly stumbles onto the best billboard campaign idea yet – Actually, I came up with this idea as a serious proposal last year. It seems great minds think alike. My idea was what I called the “Isn’t it about time you read the whole thing?” Campaign, where an atheist organization put up billboards illustrating or quoting specific inconvenient and unpleasant Bible passages with a big headline reading, “Isn’t it about time you read the whole thing?” How much fun would it be defending such a billboard on Fox News? you could simply respond that you’re just trying to get more people to read the whole Bible, so what’s wrong with that? Of course you can also make your own billboard, advertising your own atheism.

3. Pastor caught molesting woman during demon-banishing service – This happened in South Africa, and it’s just one of those titles that says it all, doesn’t it? You can read the details in the link above. I’m suddenly reminded of the “put the devil back into hell” story from The Decameron.

4. Atheists in Spain double practicing Catholics

The number of young people practicing Catholicism has plummeted, from 29.2% in 2002 to 10.3% in 2010, according to the Youth Institute of Spain (Injuve). Also, the number of non-believers (19.1%) and atheists (9.6%) have increased nine points and three points, respectively. Non-practicing Catholics are the majority, making up 45% of the total.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. This is a battle we can win.

5. Comparing the necessary funding for SETI to other expenses – The other day I reported that Search for Extraterrestrial Life (SETI) is being defunded in the U.S. SETI’s funding equalled $2.5 million a year. Now Phil Plait has broken down the equivalent costs to demonstrate what it would mean to continue to fund possibly one of the most important science programs out there:

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New skeptic videos

April 10, 2011

Okay, so NECSS 2011 is over and it was a big success. There will be a NECSS 2012. So now I can hopefully get back to business as usual shortly. But in meantime, here are some great videos to enjoy.

First up is a new animated video for Tim Minchin’s beat poem, “Storm”:

Also, NECSS this year ended with George Hrab performing his song, “Death from the Skies” featuring Phil Plait. While the video of that performance hasn’t surfaced yet, they also performed it the night before at the post NECSS Day 1 Drinking Skeptically. And that performance can be seen here:

And finally, there’s this new animation of Carl Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot”:

Though to be honest, I still prefer the one featuring movie clips:

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T-Minus 3 days till Phil Plait’s Bad Universe arrives

August 25, 2010

Phil Plait’s Bad Universe comes to Discovery Channel

July 23, 2010
Phil Plait speaking at TAM London October 2009
Image via Wikipedia

Last year, Phil Plait left his position as president of the James Randi Education Foundation after one year in office because of a television project he’d been offered but could not yet talk about. Well, now the cat’s out of the bag. Phil Plait is getting a three-part science show on Discovery Channel called “Phil Plait’s Bad Universe,” where he debunks astronomy myths and shows us how the world will end.

There was a trailer for it but the video is no longer working. It’ll probably be back up soon.

But in any event, congratulations Phil!

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News From Around The Blogosphere 6.29.10

June 29, 2010

I am so behind on news stories that I’m going to ignore my usual rule of keeping this News From Around The Blogosphere chunk to only a few stories in order to play catch-up over the next few days.

1. Australia elects atheist Prime Minister…who sadly turns out to be anti-gay – Early reports of Julia Gillard’s appointment were met with cheers from the atheist community but now some of our hopes may have been dashed as news comes out that she opposes marriage equality:

“We believe the marriage act is appropriate in its current form, that is recognising that marriage is between a man and a woman, but we have as a government taken steps to equalise treatment for gay couples,” Ms Gillard said.

Seriously, how does that sentence come out of the mouth of an atheist?

2. Copenhagen atheists create declaration of principles – The principle focus on religion’s role in public life.

3. Chuck Norris vs. the Secular Student Alliance SSA – Chuck’s pissed that with all the crises happening in the world, Obama found time to honor the SSA but has neglected the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) and feels its’ persecution or something. What is it with these Christians who think just being their wishes aren’t met, that makes it persecution? No Bill Donohue, the Empire State Building is not honoring Mother Teresa, so get over it. Anyway, for some reason Chuck feels the BSA should have been invited to a conference on “Advancing Interfaith and Community Service on College and University Campuses.” Why I don’t know. I guess Chuck still harboring a grudge against atheists ever since Bruce Lee kicked his ass. Personally, I’m still waiting for Chuck to respond to the email I wrote him three years ago.

4. Robot fish is accepted by shoal as one of their own – Wow, it’s kind of like Avatar except instead of the dude from the last Terminator film transferring his consciousness into a biological shell, it’s a frakkin’ robot.

University of Leeds scientists have created the first convincing robotic fish that shoals will accept as one of their own. The innovation opens up new possibilities for studying fish behaviour and group dynamics, which provides useful information to support freshwater and marine environmental management, to predict fish migration routes and assess the likely impact of human intervention on fish populations.

Robots–is there any news story they can’t make awesome?

5. UK trying to ban homeopathy

Recently representatives of the British Medical Association (BMA) condemned homeopathy as “witchcraft.”Now the BMA is going one step further – calling for a ban on homeopathy in the UK. They do not want homeopathy to be illegal, but they want a ban on any National Health Service (NHS) support for homeopathy. The NHS currently spends about 20 million pounds a year on homeopathic remedies (about 0.01% of the NHS budget) and maintains four homeopathic hospitals. This is a small amount overall – but anything spent on homeopathy is a waste. More importantly, as the BMA notes, homeopathy has “‘no place in the modern health service.’

6. Nick Fury, Black Widow, and S.H.I.E.L.D. to investigate Phil Plait? – Apparently someone over at Marvel Comics is a fan of the Bad Astronomy blog because Phil Plaits’ name is in Black Widow’s phonebook.

7. Teenager turns into Spiderman – In other Marvel Comics-related news:

A Cambridge schoolboy has converted two budget vacuum cleaners into a Spiderman gadget which helps him scale walls.

Hibiki Kono, 13, a big fan of the superhero, made the incredible climbing machine using the suction from two Tesco Value vacuum cleaners.

The schoolboy then amazed his friends by using the giant suckerpads to climb the school wall during morning assembly.

“I used to dress up as Spiderman when I was younger and I love all the films so it’s great to be able to climb walls like him,” said Hibiki.

You sir, are awesome.

8. Stem Cells cure blindness

STEM cells have restored sight to 82 people with eyes blinded by chemical or heat burns.

Once again, as Carl Sagan once said, science delivers the goods.


News From Around The Blogosphere 1.1.10

January 2, 2010

Happy 2010 all!

1. Phil Plait has officially turned over his responsibilities as President of the James Randi Educational Foundation to D.J. Grothe, who hosts of Point of Inquiry, the official podcast of the Center For Inquiry. Congratulations again to D.J. and to Phil, who is moving onto a yet to be announced television project.

2. Atheist Ireland challenges new Irish Blasphemy Law on Day 1 – The first big controversy of 2010 is the new Irish Blasphemy Law, which went into effect on the first of January. Atheist Ireland is challenging this law right away by publishing a list of 25 blasphemous quotes:

Despite these quotes being abusive and insulting in relation to matters held sacred by various religions, we unreservedly support the right of these people to have published or uttered them, and we unreservedly support the right of any Irish citizen to make comparable statements about matters held sacred by any religion without fear of being criminalised, and without having to prove to a court that a reasonable person would find any particular value in the statement.

The quotes come from a wide range of individuals from George Carlin to Salman Rushdie to Jesus.

Lisa Miller, wanted fugitive for kidnapping this child

3. “Ex-gay” mom kidnaps child – Some of you may be familiar with the strange case of Lisa Miller and Janet Jenkins.  After the two women had a civil union, Miller had a child via artificial insemination. Later, Miller was converted into an evangelical Christian, denounced homosexuality as a sin, and a custody battle began over access to their child. Ultimately, the judge ruled in favor of Jenkins getting full custody with visitation rights for Miller. This was all supposed to go into effect today. But there’s just one small problem. Miller didn’t turn over the child and has now disappeared. Gotta love those good old fashioned Christian values.

4. Who was the most influential female atheist of 2009? – A great poll from Blag Hag.

5. Are Lithium-air batteries the future in automotive fuel?

Li-air batteries use a catalytic air cathode that supplies oxygen, an electrolyte and a lithium anode. The technology has the potential to store almost as much energy as a tank of gasoline, and will have a capacity for energy storage that is five to 10 times greater than that of Li-ion batteries, a bridge technology. That potential, however, will not be realized until critical scientific challenges have been solved.


A gathering of skeptics

April 19, 2009
Phil Plait

Phil Plait

Several months ago, I got to meet James “The Amazing” Randi, the grandfather of the modern skepticism movement and the former president of The James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF). Well tonight I finally got to meet the current president of the JREF, Phil Plait.

Also at the event were 3 other notable skeptics who I’ve met on previous occasions:  Scientific American Editor & Chief John Rennie, musician George Hrab, and Skepchick blogger Rebecca Watson. It was fun hanging out with everyone, and I look forward to seeing them all again.

John Rennie

John Rennie

George Hrab

George Hrab

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca Watson