28 June 2012

The Cologne Regional Court has done the right thing

A court in the German city of Cologne has done what every court in the world should do: rule against the circumcision of infant boys for religious reasons. The British Humanist Association has a short post on this unsurprisingly controversial decision, while the New Humanist website has a longer article doubling as an editorial.

Where I stand on this matter should be obvious. Chopping bits off a baby’s penis in the name of superstitious, antiquated tradition is not what modern, rational, civilised people do. What is especially galling is that religionists like Dieter Graumann (President of Germany’s Central Council of Jews) and Aiman Mazyek (of the Central Council of Muslims) have the temerity to call the Cologne court’s ruling “outrageous”. No, what is truly outrageous is that infants continue to be mutilated without their consent simply because their parents subscribe to barbaric Iron Age customs.

Richard Dawkins was right to state that “there is no such thing as a Catholic child, there is only a child of Catholic parents. There is no such thing as a Protestant child, only a child of Protestant parents. There is no such thing as a Muslim child, only a child of Muslim parents.” As Dawkins argued, we wouldn’t think of labeling a child as a Marxist or a libertarian. Yet millions of children around the world are branded with the religious convictions of their parents by default, despite neither having understood nor consented to those convictions.

This is far from over. The Cologne Regional Court has been brave and principled, but its historic ruling may yet be overturned by Germany’s highest court, the Constitutional Court. Already the religionists are pushing back, playing the persecution card while they fight for their right to violate the physical integrity of their young children. Appeals to tradition are flying thick and fast. But what else do you expect from regressive individuals who remain mired in the past?


26 June 2012

‘Alternative’ medicine is just as anti-scientific as creationism

The concept of ‘complementary and alternative medicine’ (CAM) carries a tacit rebuke of ‘mainstream’ medicine. CAM advocates use the terms ‘complementary’ and ‘alternative’ to suggest that mainstream medicine is only one option on the healthcare menu, and therefore it has no right to claim that it’s the only valid kind of medicine. The CAM faithful shore up their position with postmodernist twaddle that rejects the very idea that there are objective, testable and efficacious methods to determine what kinds of medicine work, or don’t.

This sort of ‘my-truth-is-just-as-true-as-your-truth’ subjectivism is used by pushers of homeopathy, chiropractic, acupuncture and other woo to paint science-based medicine as a conspiracy by arrogant ‘experts’ and know-it-all scientists trying to shut down the competition. It’s a good way for woo-mongers to play the heroic rebel fighting against the tyranny of the establishment. This victim/rebel mentality is on display in this excerpt from the introduction to a CAM conference:

The popular experiences of alternative healing, DIY and free and open source technology are everyday experiences of the contemporary individual. These experiences are being conceptualised by Fuller (2010) as ‘anti-establishment science movements’ which tacitly challenge the highly socially positioned ‘scientific expert’, the social agent of the establishment science. In the field of health, these movements are challenging the biomedical domination in the field. One of the responses to deal with the authority challenges has been the absorption of selective alternative healing practices (such as acupuncture, homeopathy) into the established health systems while reasserting the central place of biomedicine with continued usage of the referents ‘alternative’ and ‘complementary’.

Neurologist and woo-buster Dr Steven Novella has shown in a blog post just how full of fail this paragraph is. Here’s my favourite part of his savaging:

The notion that “science” is just another narrative is absurd. At its core science is a set of methods for looking fairly and objectively at all available evidence, isolating variables so we can make some judgments about their individual contributions, carefully defining terms, and using consistent and valid logic. If “science” is rejected as a socially determined narrative, then which aspect of science are they rejecting, specifically? In practice what CAM advocates are promoting is the selective use (cherry picking) of evidence, not isolating variables (mixing variables so that effects are confused), using sloppy methods, poorly defining terms, and using invalid or inconsistent logic. If you read the criticisms of the “social agents of the establishment science”, for example here or at Science-based Medicine, you will find countless documentations of such bad intellectual behavior on the part of CAM advocates. That is the core of our criticism – bad thinking, bad evidence, bad logic leading to unreliable conclusions that all seem to be biased in a certain direction.

CAM-ists and creationists share a similar attitude towards facts and reality: they twist, ignore and cherrypick the former to create their own imaginary version of the latter.


15 June 2012

When you call Darwinism a religion, you kill a few brain cells

Every time I hear or read someone squawk that science has become a religion, two things come to mind. First, that said squawker’s language processing ability must be severely retarded, since they cannot grasp the diametrically opposed definitions of ‘science’ and ‘religion’. Second, that they have, perhaps unwittingly, disparaged religion by tacitly admitting that blind belief in a sky fairy isn’t very sensible, but hey, science is just as silly, so gotcha! By the way, qualifying the term ‘religion’ with ‘secular’, as a certain accommodationist philosopher has done, only shows just how warped the definition of ‘religion’ has to become in order for one to take cheap shots at science.

Thankfully biologist Jerry Coyne has a healthy language processing ability. Here he corrects our somewhat confused philosopher’s understanding of the term ‘religion’:

The stuff about treating Darwinism as a secular religion is offal. It’s based purely on the fact that many of us see Darwin as a kind of scientific hero. Many physicists hold Einstein in similar regard. Does that make physics a secular religion? At least we know that Einstein and Darwin existed, unlike the father-figure of conventional faith. Nor do we see Darwin or Einstein as having supernatural powers or a postmortem ability to personally (as opposed to scientifically) influence the world. Indeed, all of us know that their science was sometimes flawed. Darwin’s genetics was wonky; Einstein couldn’t accept pure indeterminism. Try finding a religious person who sees any flaws in God.

Awesome dude? Yes. Omnipotent, infallible deity? No.

Mr Philosopher seems to think that secular, science-loving folks suffer from ‘religion envy’, so much so that we even have a special day celebrating a revolutionary scientist because we want our own holy days, goddamnit! But Coyne pops that delusional bubble:

And what do we do on Darwin Day? We don’t shout hosannas to Darwin, or beg for his mercy, pray to him, or spend all of our time propitiating him. We give talks on evolution — in other words, we spread science and tell people the truth. All of this is the exact opposite of religion.

C’mon science-bashers, this trite “science is just another religion” inanity you keep spouting only embarrasses yourselves. Unless of course your language processing ability is indeed retarded, in which case you are excused.


05 June 2012

Armani and Modigliani as colourists

I seldom wear bright colours. There have been the occasional cerulean pants and canary yellow shirt, even a rainbow striped scarf during my short-lived boho phase, but rich primary colours don’t make me feel as mentally comfortable as subdued, ambiguous hues do. Bright colours scream. I prefer my clothes to whisper.

Two creatives whose colour sense appeal to me are Giorgio Armani and Amedeo Modigliani. The fashion designer and the artist both draw from a self-limited range of colours – Armani has been faithful to greys, blues, creams, browns and blacks for decades, often in shimmery fabrics, while Modigliani used a wider palette including red, ochre and yellow but applied in his distinctive ‘muddy’ style that quietened their loudness. Apart from sympathising with their tastes in colour, I also admire their discipline in choosing to limit themselves to a narrow range of chromatic possibility.

Here are two looks from Armani’s Spring 2005 menswear collection that capture everything that moves me about his clothes: the gentle colours, soft tailoring and relaxed, comfortable fit. I’m not in the appropriate tax bracket to shop at Armani, but the more affordable clothes I do buy are selected with that quintessential Armani style in mind.

These are from Fall 2006.

From the latest Fall 2012 collection.

Below are several portraits by Modigliani that capture a similar sensibility. The messy mixes and rich layering of paint creating subtle, unnamable shades are reassuring in the way they celebrate the beauty of imperfection and oddness, as expressed in the Japanese aesthetic idea of wabi-sabi. Modigliani’s peasant boys, gypsy ladies and bourgeois men may look strange, yet they are not alien. And it’s his evocative colours that make it so.