28 August 2011

Randians abandon Sam Harris

Apparently there were quite a number of Ayn Rand devotees who, until recently, were fans of Sam Harris. But when Harris wrote a blog post in support of higher (i.e. fairer) taxes on the rich, the Randians were not impressed.

As a former Objectivist sympathiser, I can understand why Randians would see a kindred spirit in Harris. The guy’s an outspoken atheist, an advocate for science, reason and knowledge, and a proponent of objective morality. But when Harris made the (entirely rational) case for tax increases on America’s super-rich, boy, did he royally piss off the Cult of Virtuous Selfishness.

I stopped believing in many Objectivist ideas for several reasons, both intellectual and emotional. One such reason was my realisation that the Objectivist view of justice – that people got only what they deserved – was simply wrong. Harris explains why (emphasis his):

Many of my critics pretend that they have been entirely self-made. They seem to feel responsible for their intellectual gifts, for their freedom from injury and disease, and for the fact that they were born at a specific moment in history. Many appear to have absolutely no awareness of how lucky one must be to succeed at anything in life, no matter how hard one works. One must be lucky to be able to work. One must be lucky to be intelligent, to not have cerebral palsy, or to not have been bankrupted in middle age by the mortal illness of a spouse.

And that’s what Objectivists refuse to admit – their accomplishments are not entirely a result of their own awesomeness and hard graft. Other external factors contributed to their successes, whether they acknowledge this or not. Conversely, unsuccessful or poor people didn’t get that way simply because they were lazy and stupid. “But for Fortune there go I” is a phrase that is anathema to the Objectivist conception of self-betterment.

It’s a pity that the Randians have excommunicated Sam Harris from their intellectual life. He has so much to offer those who care about ideas. Well, it’s their loss. That the person the Objectivists denounce is actually more rational than them is an all too common irony.


24 August 2011

An open letter to the Chinese film industry

Dear sirs and madams,

I write to you as an avid fan of your country’s unique and distinguished moviemaking tradition. The films of Chinese luminaries such as Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige and Wong Kar Wai have indelibly seared themselves onto my consciousness. I am overcome with emotion from simply recalling the lush colours and sensuous textures that permeate the finest offerings of Chinese cinema. I also really dig Chinese chicks.

But lately I have become somewhat vexed with the repetitiveness of Chinese films, specifically those of the wuxia and epic historical genres. A casual glance over the stock of my local bootleg Asian DVD shop reveals a glut of swords, spears, armour, banners, period costume and Donnie Yen’s consistently stone-faced mug sporting varying lengths of facial hair.

New broadsword, same as the old broadsword

Of course, you may have your reasons for cranking out such a prodigious amount of historical films. Perhaps they provide gainful employment for the millions of rural migrants who make up the on-screen armies. Perhaps the Communist Party imposes quotas for such films. Perhaps they are the only kind of films Donnie Yen is prepared to act in for just a six-pack of Tsingtao and a pat on the bum.

Clearly your glorious country has no shortage of manpower, talent and cash to throw at insipid, unoriginal, invariably chopsocky sword-and-silk productions. But what about science-fiction movies? There is a noticeable dearth of visionary sci-fi filmmakers amongst your countrymen. Where is your Stanley Kubrick? Your James Cameron? Your Ridley Scott? Your Mamoru Oshii? By the way, if you do find yourselves a Chinese George Lucas, let him make one sci-fi trilogy. Then shoot him.

Science-fiction is a genre that remains largely untapped by the Chinese film industry. Think of what Chinese cinema could accomplish in this field by transplanting the visual bravura and poetic action of martial arts and epic historical films onto a galactic space-opera far, far away, or a dystopian future Earth, or a virtual reality.

There is much promise in Chinese-made sci-fi films. But for the love of Mao, could you please pick someone other than Donnie Yen to star in them? I don’t care how good he looks jackhammering android alien bugs with his fists, or how balletic his flying kicks are in zero G. The guy is like in 11 out of 10 historical movies your studios churn out. His output defies the laws of space-time.

I look forward to a new era in Chinese cinema that embraces the potential of science-fiction to tell intelligent, compelling, exciting stories that make us imagine what could be, not just what has been. Chinese sci-fi could address issues of universal concern, but with a distinctive vernacular of its own that looks to the future, not the past.

Meanwhile we wait for a Chinese Metropolis.

Yours sincerely,

Darrick Lim


What gives religion its edge

Alright religion, you win. Science just hasn't got what it takes to answer the BIG questions.

If only scientists didn't have such bloody intellectual integrity. *sigh*


HT: Jerry Coyne

23 August 2011

The misconceptions of ‘cultural’ Christianity

Two recent events have brought into focus the idea of Christianity being the cultural bedrock of Western civilisation. The first is the Norway massacre carried out by Anders Behring Breivik, and the second is the ‘Mark No Religion’ campaign conducted in the lead up to the Australian 2011 census just past. The concept of ‘cultural’ Christianity laid at the heart of both events; Breivik was not religious, yet saw himself as defending Europe’s ‘cultural Christendom’ against Muslim invaders, while the ‘Mark No Religion’ census campaign sought to educate Australians on the distinction between being a follower of the Christian faith, and being an irreligious member of a Christian-influenced culture.

This idea of a cultural Christianity inseparable from Western identity and values contains several errors. Kenan Malik has written an informative article that spells out what these errors are. I summarise it below:

18 August 2011

Not just fraudsters, but bullies too

Let’s say that you’re a large corporation or institution that has staked its profits and prestige on nothing more than a confidence trick. What do you do when someone calls you out on your public deception? Well, since you can’t actually defend your claims with evidence (because you haven’t got any), you’ll just have to sue that pesky know-it-all critic. With the deep pockets you’ve got, you can easily afford a legal campaign to silence anyone who had the temerity to expose your lies.

The British Chiropractic Association did exactly that to the journalist Simon Singh when he wrote a Guardian article criticising chiropractic. And now Boiron, a French manufacturer of sugar pills homeopathic ‘remedies’, is using the same bully tactics against an Italian blogger, Samuele Riva, who pointed out in a post that Boiron’s flu ‘treatment’ product Oscillococcinum doesn’t actually do anything. Like all homeopathic medicine, the so-called active ingredient has been diluted so many times to the point where there isn’t any left in the final product. Homeopathy ideology posits that water has ‘memory’, so even though there aren’t any physical traces of the original active ingredient left after multiple dilutions, its remedial power is nonetheless ‘remembered’ by the water, and thus retained.

Over at Science-Based Medicine (where real medical professionals advocate for evidence-based treatments, not magic), Steven Novella has written a great post on the Boiron case. And here’s Darryl Cunningham’s educational comic strip on homeopathy.

Quacks and snake-oil salesmen like the BCA and Boiron should really familiarise themselves with the Streisand effect. It might give them pause before they call their lawyers.


17 August 2011

Nothing new under the sun

There’s been a lot of commentary, explanation, interpretation, rationalisation, condemnation and justification going on regarding the UK riots. To pick only a tiny sample, there’s writer and cultural critic Kenan Malik’s take (it’s largely the fault of the Right), and there’s The Economist’s (it’s a bit more complicated than that). The New Humanist calls bullshit on the more ludicrous examples of the post hoc discourse, while the Heresiarch cheekily exposes the absurdity of all the post hoc discourse.

Here’s a typical censure of out-of-control hooligans:

What is happening to our young people? They disrespect their elders, they disobey their parents. They ignore the law. They riot in the streets inflamed with wild notions. Their morals are decaying. What is to become of them?

A Tory politician wagging a stern finger at British youthdom? A baby-boomer lamenting the dusk of good manners and personal responsibility? A conservative newspaper columnist asking hard, discomfiting questions?

No, it’s Plato having a gripe in the Athens agora circa 4th century BC.

Some things never change.


Think Inc. - a science and rationalism conference in Melbourne

The Think Inc. science and rationalism conference is just one month away, on 18th September. The three guys behind the Melbourne event have somehow managed to sign on heavyweights like Christopher Hitchens, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Neil deGrasse Tyson and Michael Shermer to give talks on the following topic – In the next 10 years, what does the global community need to do in order to survive and flourish?

Apparently Think Inc. is the first large scale science and rationalism conference put together by the young organisers (James and Sean are 24, and Desh is 30). The three have had some experience in organising large music events, but it’s impressive that they’ve convinced such intellectual giants to come all the way down to Melbourne to edify us antipodeans. Being at the arse end of the world and thus so far removed from all the rationalist action in the US and Europe, having Hitchens, Hirsi Ali, deGrasse Tyson and Shermer gracing our sunburnt country is like receiving drought-breaking rain. There’ll also be Aussie speakers representing, but let’s face it, the foreigners are the main crowd-pullers.

Sadly, Hitchens and Hirsi Ali will only be figuratively gracing this wide brown land. Hitchens’s cancer treatment has made him too ill to travel, and Hirsi Ali won’t be physically attending the conference for security reasons (she has received death threats from local religious fanatics. Oh the joys of being a hunted woman simply for opposing Islam). They’ll both be giving their talks via live video link. Yes, it’s a disappointment, but their oratory power will be little diminished. It’s still going to be the Hitch directly addressing us in that inimitable way he has with words.

Tickets are selling fast, so be sure to grab yours ASAP. And if you’re a science teacher, those generous Think Inc. lads are offering you a FREE seat! How awesome is that!

Here’s the suitably blockbuster-esque promo video for the conference.

I look forward to meeting my Melbourne readers at Think Inc. You folks are going to be there, yes?


03 August 2011

Australian Census 2011 (and a dishonest census collector)

We’ve received our census form at our place, but I haven’t gone through it yet. With a week to go before the official census night, I’d like to remind my fellow irreligious heathens to please tick the ‘No religion’ box on your form. Answering the religion question is optional, but doing so will contribute towards a more accurate picture of religiosity levels in Australia. Our New Zealand neighbours had their last census in 2006, with 34.7 percent of Kiwis professing no religion. Impressive. Let’s see if we can get a higher percentage of godless folk than those Hobbit-lovers.

The Mark ‘No Religion’ campaign has raised awareness about the secularist cause championed by the Atheist Foundation of Australia (AFA) along with other atheist, humanist and secularist groups and individuals. The purpose of the campaign was not to tell Australians how to fill out their census forms, but to encourage those who aren’t religious to answer the religion question honestly and correctly. Which is what a certain census collector did not do when he suggested that a Canberra couple mark themselves as Christian even if they weren’t.

According to David Rollston, the census collector told him and his wife that “if people were only nominally Christian or non-practising, they should indicate in the census they were Christian, otherwise the demographic could be swayed” and they “would end up with a Muslim prayer centre nearby”.

Now, one might ask how is this different to what the AFA is doing with its Mark ‘No Religion’ campaign? Well, for one thing, the AFA isn’t encouraging people to lie about their religiosity or lack of it. And for another, the AFA isn’t a government representative who is ethically bound to remain impartial on census matters.


HT: Martin

01 August 2011

There’s hope yet for Aussie kids

The Sydney Morning Herald has an eloquent, intelligent and measured article arguing in favour of non-religious ethics classes in school, written by Charlie Fine. Who is 11 years old.

Young Master Fine is responding to Reverend Fred Nile’s call for the New South Wales government to abolish ethics classes currently being taught in 128 public schools throughout the state. Nile is the National President of the Christian Democratic Party, a right-wing outfit that predictably opposes LGBT rights, abortion, euthanasia, pornography and flavours of sky fairyism other than its own. What is especially worrying is that Nile is the Assistant President of the NSW Legislative Council, which means that his conservative Christian beliefs could have an inappropriate influence on NSW lawmaking.

Nile wants to get rid of ethics classes because they have the sinister effect of exposing schoolkids to ideas that do not comport with his preferred supernatural fictions. And he is ganging up with the Shooters and Fishers Party to bully the state government into giving him what he wants. Nile says that he will block any key legislation from being passed by the upper house if ethics classes are not scrapped. He has issued this veiled threat:

The government has to respect that we [the Christian Democrats and the Shooters] have influence. They need our votes on every bill. We want to maintain a positive relationship with the government, but it is a two-way street.

The NSW government led by Premier Barry O’Farrell has apparently submitted to Nile’s demands and is considering removing ethics classes from schools, despite O’Farrell’s election promise not to do so. Charlie Fine expresses the sentiments of many secularists when he writes:

Mr Nile is attempting to abolish ethics classes in school, so that all schoolchildren learn what he believes in, which goes against the wishes of many Australian parents.

By all means, Mr Nile, you go out and be as Christian as you want; I respect that entirely. But that does not give you and your supporters the right to attempt to shape a future generation of adults in your mould – that is a religious conservative.

Your views are out of step with modern society, so I would ask you to reconsider your actions and continue to allow parents and children a choice in their classrooms.

Master Fine also has a few words for the rather spineless Premier:

And Premier Barry O'Farrell, you promised to keep ethics classes. Mr Nile is trying to make you break your promises and undermine what you stand for.

I trust you not to be manipulated by a man who on Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras gets down on his knees and prays for rain.

A reprimand and some well-placed snark. The young lad shows much promise.


HT: Martin