Posts from 29th January 2005

Jan 05


Proven By SciencePost a comment • 191 views


(The first part of this post can be found at the Brown Wedge.)

While Martin Gardner’s book on Urantia’s crazy-quilt scheme of science (fiction) Christianity was a flawed mess, the impulse to review with suspicion attempts to square scientific conclusions and projections with previously held religious belief is to my mind something worth doing. Even a more popular journal like Discover is my idea of a good time rather than Hal Lindsey explaining why a shortfall in pork bellies is a sign Revelation is about to kick in. This isn’t to say that what constitutes ‘science’ itself, as well as the scientific method, can’t be reviewed with a gimlet eye in turn, but if it ever came down to Science vs. Social Text (all hail the wonderfuly crabby Alan Sokal) I’d take the former gladly.

Which is why I’ve been obliquely pleased by a few recent random posts over at a bastion of ‘right wing = right way’ thinking in the US at least, the National Review’s Corner blog. I am much more interested in reviewing these kind of blogs than most left-leaning ones because I figure knowing your enemy is always a good approach, and tracking their blend of wack-ass messianism (if you think W. is the messiah — and they do) and self-congratulation provides eyebrow raising and chuckles in turn. Every so often somebody over there decides to tweak the stereotype a bit, though, and that’s where ex-pat UK feller and Prime Obsession author John Derbyshire comes in — not that I want to be anywhere near the guy. On the score of gay-baiting alone, he’s a massive tool, while his flippant comments about the Abu Ghraib tortures and characters like Graner, who he said deserved only a 30-day sentence at most, got trashed even by the military readers of the column, who wrote in overwhelming amounts to say that Graner’s 10 year sentence was actually too short.

On at least one point, however, he’s been strongly on the side of science in the face of conservative fundamentalism, namely via his trashing of ‘intelligent design’ or ‘I.D.’ The idea is enjoyably simple, actually — given the continuing preponderance of evidence that the earth is millions of years old and genetic study and so forth, put God’s work in the mix of evolution to show that this best of all possible worlds was designed for us humans and that we ourselves were designed in turn to hold dominance over all, etc. William Jennings Bryan, however much he would have had to swallow hard initially, would have killed for this kind of talk back in the Scopes monkey trial days.

Derbyshire, however, regards this as a poor fig-leaf for ignorance and has no qualms about saying so. Most recently, he noted that he’s got a negative piece about I.D. folks like Michael Behe for NR subscribers while also inviting readers to consider another, essentially opposing piece from a former colleague, though an interesting one focusing more on a specific situation. Derbyshire’s response to some people e-mailing him about the latter article is priceless — in part:

Following my earlier post, some readers have e-mailed in arguing that David’s Opinion Journal piece demonstrates that there is a determination on the part of learned scientific journals to keep I.D. proponents out of their pages.

Well, I should certainly hope so! I hope they will also keep out of their pages proponents of the Flat Earth theory, the Hollow Earth theory, the phlogiston theory of combustion, the theory of the Four Body Humours, and the tooth fairy theory.

…Let me tell you, the world is teeming with lunatics armed with iron conviction and reams of theoretical justification for their crackpot notions. Scientists see themselves as working to expand a little clearing of light, of reason, in a vast chittering black jungle of superstition and madness. Is it any wonder they are defensive?

I could dryly note that the first part of that last paragraph could be applied to certain political and social conclusions Derbyshire himself holds — and I’ve just done. But regardless, this post is to be applauded — if Occam’s Razor seems a bit dull at points these days, some, in whole or in part, see its value.


The Brown WedgePost a comment • 244 views


by Martin Gardner

For many years, I was a subscriber to the Skeptical Inquirer, the quite marvelous journal dedicated to a basic principle: treat any claim involving the paranormal with scientific rigor and report about it. Admittedly that wasn’t the whole story with SI, which is as much a chance for there to be reports on recent news involving such claims, studies of past incidents in history and in recent years wider debates over questions of science, religion and society in general. I like it very much still but I let it lapse without much in the way of concern from me, not because I’ve suddenly turned New Age or Fox Mulder — frankly I’d just as soon say I’ve accepted George W. Bush as my personal saviour — but because, in some respects, it had served its purpose for me. Back in the mid-eighties, when I first read about those who deceive themselves or others about their many abilities, and eagerly devoured books by authors like James Randi regarding exposures of charlatans — not to mention learning that two of my early writing heroes Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov were deeply involved with the group behind SI, CSICOP — subscribing to SI after a time was a no-brainer. Now, though, I think that dipping into the occasional story here and there would suffice for me — needing further reinforcement that the amount of BS out there piles higher than can be imagined is not needed for me now.

These thoughts came to mind while reading the UCI library copy of Urantia, written by longtime SI and Scientific American stalwart Martin Gardner, whose many essays were informative and often very enjoyable reflections on shenanigans and charlatans and oddities in many spheres. But I think, frankly, that a full-length book was a step too far. Mind you, studying the extremely odd Seventh-Day Adventist spinoff the Urantia Foundation is well worthy — the story of how a disillusioned follower of that earlier movement oversaw — if not created — an at-times surreal blend of conventional Christianity, scientific supposition and science fiction is as classic an ‘American’ story as that of Joseph Smith, say, though thankfully with much less bloodshed. But Gardner shouldn’t have been the one to write such a story, though his research is incredibly thorough, detailing as much as can be known about the creation of ‘the Urantia Papers,’ the biases, willful idiocies and plagiarisms that went into its creation, the rebellions and infighting that recurred since the movement coalesced in the 1930s.

But the book is poorly organized, leaping backwards and forwards in time with little rhyme or reason, spending moments to deliver snarky digression and insult on top of snarky digression and insult, changing tone sometimes in the middle of a paragraph or even a sentence. I don’t blame him for his sheer annoyance and laughing attitude to much of what he encounters, I’d feel the same way even if I didn’t always express it as such — ultimately the wonders of the scientific world appeal to me more as they are than having to be interpreted through a ‘revealed’ text. But I slogged through the text rather than skipped through it, wished there had been an editor or a cowriter, found myself simultaneously informed about a curious belief I had wondered about and wondering at the rationale for such an often stultifying text on Gardner’s part.

Had I just been starting to investigate this line of approach, I would have probably liked it more or reacted more positively — but as it stands it was the effort of a cranky old man, better and more briefly summarized at this much shorter webpage. So read that instead.

(This post continues over in Proven by Science.)

Monty Python’s Fliegender Zirkus

Do You SeePost a comment • 587 views

Monty Python’s Fliegender Zirkus — after some delay I’ve finally gotten around to seeing the first of two of the strangest comedy ventures ever, namely the nearly hour-long German-only episodes (nearly all of which, a couple of moments aside, consisted of material written only for them rather than carried over from elsewhere) that them Monty Python fellers did in the early seventies at the invitation of a German producer who felt that they’d go over well. Bits and pieces had surfaced in other contexts, notably as interstitial parts of their Hollywood Bowl performances and film, but the episodes themselves only finally got a formal release in the late nineties and now, in America at least, are split between two collections, Monty Python Live and The Life of Python, which gather up all kinds of random bits and pieces and reunion specials and the like.

Over twenty years after Python first hit me over the head thanks to repeats on late night TV, it’s nice to see that for all the changes and refinements and differing approaches that have surfaced in its wake (The Day Today and South Park being two of my favorites) that the original model of open-ended sketches without punchlines and self-referentiality to a fault still has a certain punch, and the first of these German episodes has it in spades. Seeing the six wandering around the Alps as Little Red Riding Hood and flocks of doctors and Albrecht Durer, sheriff of the Old West and more — well, like with the original show sometimes the concept works better than the execution but the execution is more inspired than not. But perhaps my favorite is “The Bavarian Restaurant Sketch,” introduced as such and featuring an American couple looking for the ‘authentic’ Bavarian food experience. Serendipitously, the most humorous things about it are the authentic Bavarians in the background of every shot elsewhere in what appears to be an actual eatery, wondering why in the world a bunch of Englishmen are dancing around in waiter costumes to accordion music, insisting in phonetically learned German that theirs is the best restaurant in Bavaria, “where the mountains rise out of the ground.” But of course.

I definitely am more looking forward to getting The Office box set at some point here, but knowing that Python can still remind me why I loved them so much to begin with — it’s like getting an unexpected dessert at the end of a well-enjoyed meal. As opposed to one where prawns are stuffed down your shirt.


FT + New York London Paris MunichPost a comment • 293 views

Human After All

Yes, it’s hardly out yet or anything, but after the leak on Monday I witnessed what had to be one of the most intense fracturings of opinion over a long-expected album in a while. To pick just one example, the ILM thread is only just slowing down after a week where comments ranged from “so. fucking. amazing.” to “cheated and pissed off,” and tempers were running high. There is no consensus at all about this album, and already there’s a classic out of nowhere rumor that Virgin might just cancel the release due to some of the more virulent reaction. Be funny as heck if it turned out to be true!

What all sides are agreeing on is that this is not simply Discovery redux. If there’s a vague model of reaction that can be applied, it’s that those who adored that album are feeling wretched about this one, while those who felt that Discovery had moments but wasn’t a pinnacle of life and existence (or even that it didn’t have moments) really enjoy Human After All. It’s not an exact reaction but it’s an understandable one, because where the earlier album was sparkly and lush, this is far more minimal and to the point, obsessively focused (to a fault, some might say). Lead single “Robot Rock” is the only thing like it on the album in terms of sound, a monsterrifffest that’s already my own heavy metal single of the year, while elsewhere there’s a fair amount of industrial glowering via songs like “Steam Machine” (identifying it as an NIN pastiche is spot on, just without Trent R’s vocals) and “The Brainwasher.”

Yet for all that there’s warmth — like Kid A, I’d say this is an album that is seen as colder and less, dare I say, ‘human’ than it really is, and while DP clearly are playing with audience expectation in the album title, it’s a wise choice on several levels. Three key tracks make up the start, middle and end of the album — the title cut, “Make Love” and “Emotion.” All three play a certain card of feeling with their titles and then proceed to live up to it with, respectively, an uplifting vocoder chorus, a gentle motorik kick that I think outdoes recent Air handily and a part-way-to-blissout hook.

So yeah, I like it, I like a lot and I’ve already heard it several times through. We’ll see if it sticks but if this was a mistake, I’m all for more of them being committed. But people haven’t heard the last of this yet.