Category: Rant

Coffee critics’ cognitive collapse

By Phil Plait | November 29, 2007 4:54 pm

Heh. I found this post buried in my list of drafts. For some reason I didn’t post it when I wrote it months ago. It seems appropriate now given what happened in Texas, so enjoy.

A woman in Ohio has stopped drinking Starbucks (registration for that link may be required) because her takeout cup had a quotation on it that expressed a vague notion of possible agnosticism:

Printed on the cup was: “Why in moments of crisis do we ask God for strength and help? As cognitive beings, why would we ask something that may well be a figment of our imaginations for guidance? Why not search inside ourselves for the power to overcome? After all, we are strong enough to cause most of the catastrophes we need to endure.”

It is attributed to Bill Schell, a Starbucks customer from London, Ontario, and was included on the cup as part of an effort by the company to collect different viewpoints and spur discussion.

“As someone who loves God, I was so offended by that. I don’t think there needs to be religious dialogue on it. I just want coffee,” said Incanno, a married mother of three who is Catholic.

That’s her right, of course, but I wonder out loud that her faith is so shaky that it is disturbed by a paper coffee cup. Be that as it may, where was she when Starbucks had this on a coffee cup?

Darwinism’s impact on traditional social values has not been as benign as its advocates would like us to believe. Despite the efforts of its modern defenders to distance themselves from its baleful social consequences, Darwinism’s connection with eugenics, abortion and racism is a matter of historical record, and the record is not pretty.” From Dr. Jonathan Wells, biologist and author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design.

Yup, that Wells, a shill for The Discovery Institute who never gets within a glancing blow of reality. Starbucks says they put these quotations on cups just to air out various points of view. That’s fine, I suppose, up to the point where they spread sheer nonsense like that garbage from Wells (you need not imagine what PZ had to say when that cup came out). Even then, of course, that’s their right, but in today’s climate of public ignorance about science, publicizing quotations from the DI — which is populated with people who will lie outrageously and without hesitation to promote their religion — I wish they had a little more info on the cup.

And again, that woman from Ohio is free to buy or not buy whatever product she wants for whatever reason, just as Starbucks is free to print whatever it wants to on its cups. If Catholics boycott because of an atheist quotation, or atheists boycott because of a religious one, that’s the power of the pocketbook, and it’s a good one.

But everyone should be aware that Starbucks is, indeed, printing opposing views, so in that sense what they are doing is legit. I’ll note that not too long ago, a Starbucks cup featuring a quotation by Armistead Maupin about homophobia caused an uproar in Texas (well, Baylor University), too. I’ve seen both progressive and conservative quotations on Starbucks cups, though I’ll wait with bated breath for them to post an opinion from, say, David Duke or Charles Manson.

I’m sure glad I have my own pulpit here to talk about it. I’m not a huge fan of Starbucks — I drink it when I’m out of beans or in too big a hurry to make a cuppa joe myself — but something like this is hardly enough to make me avoid the place, or let it get me upset. Some folks really just need to switch to decaf.

After writing this, I found a long thread about it on In general, many Farkers are rude and immature — it’s a selling point! — but the respondents in this case have some interesting good things to say. And need I add? NSFW.

Texas: so, so doomed

By Phil Plait | November 29, 2007 10:02 am

Update: Welcome, readers of Crooks and Liars! You may want to read the next blog post in this series when you finish the one below. This story gets better and better.

What the heck is wrong with Texas?

First, they get a creationist governor. Then their creationist governor appoints a creationist to head the State Board of Education.

And now, when Chris Comer, the Texas Education Agency’s director of science curriculum, sends out an email announcing a talk by anti_creationism advocate Barbara Forrest, the TEA forces her to resign.

Why? Hold on to your seats here, folks, because you won’t believe this:

[Texas Education] Agency officials cited the e-mail in a memo recommending her termination. They said forwarding the e-mail not only violated a directive for her not to communicate in writing or otherwise with anyone outside the agency regarding an upcoming science curriculum review, “it directly conflicts with her responsibilities as the Director of Science.”

The memo adds, “Ms. Comer’s e-mail implies endorsement of the speaker and implies that TEA endorses the speaker’s position on a subject on which the agency must remain neutral.”

That’s right, the Texas Education Agency must remain neutral when it comes to science versus antiscience!

If a speaker came advocating astronomy over astrology, would that cause problems for TEA? How about an HIV denier? Could they speak out against such a person?

Funny. I would think that it would one of TEA’s biggest goals to promote science over antiscience, and to actually teach people the difference between reality and fantasy.

So Ms. Comer has been forced to resign, and she claims that it is political in nature, and that she is being railroaded. I am of the very strong opinion that she is absolutely correct. It’s very clear that at most she might have deserved to be reprimanded for sending out the email, even if the TEA policy about neutrality is really stupid. But if you read the whole article you’ll see that petty politics and pro-creationist administrators are behind this.

As noted anti-creationist Genie Scott commented in the article,

“This just underscores the politicization of science education in Texas,” Scott said. “In most states, the department of education takes a leadership role in fostering sound science education. Apparently TEA employees are supposed to be kept in the closet and only let out to do the bidding of the board.”

As you might expect, PZ has some things to say about this as well. So does Josh. In fact, expect to see this news hitting the science blogosphere like a bomb.

The fight against antiscience, the fight against theocracy, the fight against nonsense will never stop, because their minions are always lurking somewhere. Keep fighting, people. We must never tire. Because if we do:


Glenn Beck: idiot

By Phil Plait | October 26, 2007 12:22 pm

Man, I hate being forced to insult someone. But he brings it on himself: Glenn Beck is an idiot.

He is a right-wing blowhard who talks endlessly about stuff he doesn’t have a clue about. A web search on him will yield endless idiotic rants where he is precisely wrong (his penultimate latest was claiming that people who hate America — meaning progressives — were getting their houses burnt in California. That dope doesn’t even know how conservative San Diego county is, let alone understand just how truly offensive such a statement is on its own merits).

So now he is pontificating on global warming and the SoCal fires. And what does this brain trust have to say?

BECK: We’ll tell you the truth. We’ll tell you the things that are politically incorrect. I’ll go on and I’ll tell you the fires have very little to do with global warming, if anything. The globe was the hottest in 19 — was it 1934, Stu [executive producer Steve “Stu” Burguiere], or ’37? — ’34, 1934 was the hottest year. A stat, by the way, that was, I believe, intentionally distorted by the guy the left holds up as the scientist on global warming. America’s temperature peaked in 1934. Since 1934, the hottest year on record was 1998. It has not gotten warmer since 1998. That’s a fact.

Now, why are these fires burning out of control? Al Gore and everybody else will have you believe that it is all about global warming. Well, really? A one-degree temperature change that happened at the first part of the century, not in the last part of the century, at least most of it, and a temperature change that hasn’t changed since 1998 is causing superfires in California and only California? Only America? It’s in the American borders. How is that possible?

His first statement is wrong, right off the bat: it’s nowhere near the truth.

First, 1934 was the hottest year in the US, not globally. Second, as I discussed extensively on this very blog, 1934 was just barely hotter than 1998, the second hottest year on record (again, in the US, not in the world). The difference is so miniscule that they can be considered to be tied.

Third, that stat was not intentionally distorted by James Hansen (the scientist he mentions obliquely). There was some recalibration done on the temperatures, and the numbers get shuffled around a bit. Not terribly much, in fact, and the overall conclusions on global warming don’t change.

Fourth, the fluctuations in temperature year-to-year are large, so you can’t simply state that it hasn’t gotten hotter since 1998. That’s meaningless. You need to look at longer trends.

Fifth, while the one degree rise in Fahrenheit has been going on for the past century, in fact the temperature has spiked upward since about 1980. That’s obvious from this graph (x-axis is years since 1880):

So in fact, Beck is wrong again: the majority of the rise in temperatures in the US has been over the past few decades.

Sixth, no real scientist is saying that global warming is causing these fires. What it’s doing is setting up conditions where things like this are more likely. Global warming affects global weather patterns, and it’s the Santa Ana winds that turned these fires from a nuisance into a killer. I’m not saying that GW is the trigger here; I’m saying that things will get wonkier from here on out. Count on it.

Glenn Beck has an astonishing record of saying astonishingly stupid things. He said this particular garbage on his radio show. I’m not surprised; AM radio is loaded with talk shows that spew nothing but hate, lies, distortions, and intolerance (I am only intolerant of willful ignorance and willful distortion of reality). But he also has an hour-long program on CNN every day! Why the heck does CNN give him any air at all?

I don’t like to call people names, but Beck is given a national audience, and his intellectual capacity is clearly such that he shouldn’t even be allowed to rant in public parks to passing squirrels. I’ve had enough of such idiocy, especially on matters of what is in fact and in deed life and death.

Time to saw South Carolina off from the US and set it free

By Phil Plait | August 6, 2007 11:40 am

The South Carolina (motto: "First to Secede!") governing body is maybe not so much the bastion of science and reality-based thinking. But now, as reported in The Charleston Post & Courier, they join Texas in what I can only think of as utter stupidity:

State lawmakers shot down a request for extra financial help for low-income students who will attend South Carolina’s public colleges and universities next year.

Meanwhile, they approved $2.5 million to help low-income students attend Bob Jones University, a private school in Greenville.

Yes, that BJU, where it is was* school policy to forbid interracial dating (I guess Thomas Jefferson wouldn’t be allowed to attend), and where, more to the point, they teach creationism instead of, y’know, reality.

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What Would Newton Do?

By Phil Plait | July 23, 2007 9:34 pm

Monday, the Boston Globe ran an editorial that I found very irritating. The writer, Jeff Jacoby, points out that perhaps the greatest scientific mind of all time, Isaac Newton, was not only very religious, but was a young-Earth creationist. For Jacoby, this shows that science and religion can work hand in hand:

For Newton, it was axiomatic that religious inquiry and scientific investigation complemented each other. There were truths to be found in both of the “books” authored by God, the Book of Scripture and the Book of Nature — or as Francis Bacon called them, the “book of God’s word” and the “book of God’s works.” To study the world empirically did not mean abandoning religious faith. On the contrary: The more deeply the workings of Creation were understood, the closer one might come to the Creator. In the language of the 19th Psalm, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.”

Jacoby also has some fun with the idea that Newton today would never get a position at a University, let alone Cambridge, and in fact Jacoby spends much of his editorial on that subject:

When Genesis 1:1 says “In the beginning,” [Newton] determined, it means 3988 BC.

Not many modern universities are prepared to employ a science professor who espouses not merely “intelligent design” but out-and-out divine creation.

I call shenanigans.

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Politics, science, me and thee

By Phil Plait | July 15, 2007 11:33 am

Whenever I write about politics, religion, or something that is not 100% straight-up science, I get a handful of protests in the comments, usually along the lines of "I came here because this is supposed to be an astronomy blog…"*.

Well, for the nth time, I’ll let y’all know: this is primarily a science blog, but not exclusively so. I think people like what I write about astronomy because I add a dimension of humanity to it, since I’m personally involved with some of it, and I know some of the fun back story. But that same humanity means I’m human, and I have other things on my mind too.

This may sound crass, but it’s true: it’s my blog, and I’ll write what I want to. If you don’t like it, there are lots of other sites about astronomy on the web. Spare me the lectures, the drama, and the grandstanding in the comments. If you don’t want to read my blog, that’s fine. I can’t please everyone, and by its very nature a scientific and skeptical blog will make some people upset. But I am not going to change my style, my topics, or my behavior (unless there is some evidence-based reason, of course). So if you’re gonna go, just go. Being dramatic about it in the comments won’t change anything.

But before you leave, take a good look at whatever it was that I wrote that ticked you off. Why? Because in a recent post, I was accused of bashing Christians, bashing religion, saying that all global warming deniers are also young-Earth creationists, and I’m sure if I look more carefully there’s something in the comments about me eating kittens, too. I never said any of that. People are reading their own issues into what I wrote, and and not reading what I actually wrote.

How ironic is that?

So here is my stance, for those of you who still don’t get it: I am a scientist, a skeptic, a science fiction fan, a father, a pet owner, and a human being. I have opinions, and I have a blog, and therefore I will write about my opinions. I try very hard to base my opinions on well-grounded, evidence-based reasoning, and I try very hard not to extrapolate beyond what is reasonable.

But I will not tolerate the attacks on science, whether they come from politicians, religious zealots, New Age gurus, or regular old folks. And I will speak out.

Update: Coincidentally, PZ Myers at Pharyngula just wrote a similar post (his is about religion), as did Chris Pirillo (about politics). Make of this what you will.

* And why don’t these same people complain when I post about cartoons I like, or some funny website I found? After all, those are "off-topic" too. Could it be that I simply don’t have the same political or religious affiliation that they do, and they don’t like it? I know some people just don’t want to hear more about those topics, but still, I don’t think that applies to most of the folks who leave in a huff. I strongly suspect that many (but not all) of those who do leave in a flash of drama need to very carefully examine their own beliefs; they are guilty of precisely the crimes they accuse me of.

Where were these people when they should have spoken up?

By Phil Plait | July 10, 2007 4:03 pm

So now we have an ex-Surgeon General saying the Bush White House pressured him not to talk about stem cell research and other topics not deemed palatable by this troglodyte Administration that is so routinely antiscience that if they said the Sun rises in the West we’d have a hundred slavering "journalists" saying they have been saying that for years, and hardly anyone would notice.

Here’s what the former SG had to say about Bush’s White House:

“Anything that doesn’t fit into the political appointees’ ideological, theological or political agenda is ignored, marginalized or simply buried,” Dr. Richard Carmona, who served as the nation’s top doctor from 2002 until 2006, told a House of Representatives committee.


I’m glad he spoke up. But hey, maybe this would have helped a bit more five years ago. He was the frackin’ Surgeon General, the top doctor in this country and in charge of this nation’s health! a spokesman for health in this country!

What makes this worse is that I remember quite well a Surgeon General who spoke her mind, and to heck with the repercussions. Can you imagine any person in this current Administration, let alone the Surgeon General, saying "Condoms will break, but I can assure you that vows of abstinence will break more easily than condoms"?

And why, oh why do we hear about these things long after it’s too late, when lives have been lost, when procedures and laws have been ossified, and we condemn an entire generation to a future that they can’t afford?

I’m looking at you, Colin Powell.

Here’s some advice: speak up. Now. I’ve already contacted my Senators and Rep several times since I’ve moved to Colorado, and I’m not planning on stopping. I’ve got things to say, and I’m going to say them.

Hat tip to Angela Gunn.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Piece of mind, Politics, Rant

NASA Administrator Griffin: saying global warming is bad is “arrogant”

By Phil Plait | June 1, 2007 11:49 am

So I’m coming home from a quick trip to the store, and I’m scanning the radio stations. I hear NASA Administrator Mike Griffin’s voice, so I stop. He’s talking about global warming on NPR.

At first he says some adequate stuff. When the interviewer asks him about what NASA should do about global warming, Griffin responds that NASA is not charged with doing anything about warming, which is true, but weak. I would have been happier had he said, however, that this is a serious issue and NASA’s charge is to examine it scientifically with every tool they can bring to bear.

But then he said something that really shocked me. I’m glad I was already pulled over at my house when I heard it, because had I been driving I would have veered off the road.

I have no doubt that … a trend of global warming exists. I am not sure that it is fair to say that it is a problem we must wrestle with. To assume that it is a problem is to assume that the state of Earth’s climate today is the optimal climate, the best climate that we could have or ever have had and that we need to take steps to make sure that it doesn’t change. First of all, I don’t think it’s within the power of human beings to assure that the climate does not change, as millions of years of history have shown. And second of all, I guess I would ask which human beings — where and when — are to be accorded the privilege of deciding that this particular climate that we have right here today, right now is the best climate for all other human beings. I think that’s a rather arrogant position for people to take.

(my emphasis)

When Griffin was first appointed to be head of NASA, I was excited. Here we have an engineer, and one who had fought against some NASA dumbosity in the past involving the space station. But when he says stuff like this, I wonder what the heck he’s thinking.

We know the Earth is warming. There is no doubt about this. None. You may ask if this warming is a bad thing, and the overwhelming majority of scientists will say yes, it is. But even if we aren’t sure that it’s a bad thing, doesn’t it make sense to not take any frakking chances? This is our planet we’re talking about!

Right now, our agriculture and many other forms of human sustainability are based on this climate. If it changes, so will our methods of survival. The U.S. is still a major food source for the planet, and if our climate changes, then that status may change as well. If temperatures go up a few degrees, will Kansas still produce wheat? Will Iowa and Nebraska still give us corn? Will California and Florida still be able to raise fruit crops? And this does not take into account other countries and their own major crops, like coffee beans, bananas, sugar cane, and so on.

It’s not arrogant at all to assume that this climate that we have now is a good one for our needs. I’m sure it could be better in some places, of course, but letting global warming continue is certainly not the best way to see if the climate can improve for some people. Mr. Griffin seems to be implying that we should throw the dice and see what happens. He is definitely saying that we cannot say for sure if we should do anything or not. That’s utter nonsense. That’s like saying that I am healthy, but maybe sticking a knife randomly in my body and twisting it around might improve something somewhere.

I am still reeling that the head of NASA — which, at its heart, is a scientific agency — would say something so ridiculous.

But maybe he does have a point. After all, some places may benefit from warming. I’m sure the citizens of Antarctica will be thrilled.

Update (Friday at 4:00 MT): According to ThinkProgress, White House Science Advisor Jack Marburger said:

"It’s pretty obvious that the NASA administrator was speaking about his own personal views and by no means representing or attempting to represent the administration’s views or broader policy," Marburger said. "He’s got a very wry sense of humor and is very outspoken."

That, again IMO, is unadulterated crap. When you are the head of a government agency, you have no personal opinion. Like it or not, when you are in a quotable position, everything you say is said as the head of that agency. And if Marburger is trying to play this off as a joke, that is contemptible.

Note: after writing this, I see that James Hansen, NASA’s top climate scientist, agrees with me.

Calling all Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky scientists!

By Phil Plait | May 21, 2007 9:12 pm

And I mean all of you!

As you may know the creationist liar Ken Ham is opening a mortuary of science museum of creation in Kentucky. Needless to say, this museum will have all sorts of lies, twisted reason (twisted into a Klein bottle), and misrepresentation of reality.

A peaceful protest is planned, as I wrote about recently. But we need more than that. Eugenie Scott, who is the head of the National Center for Science Education, has organized a Statement of Concern, and it needs signatures. They’re looking for scientists, and specifically physical scientists, to sign the statement.

Are you a postdoc or faculty-level astronomer, chemist, physicist, engineer, or geologist in Ohio, Indiana, or Kentucky? Do you care that science is being horribly abused by the likes of Ham? Then sign the Statement!

It’s not a miracle!

By Phil Plait | May 12, 2007 12:33 pm

Update 2: an article in the news said a fund has been set up for Ms. Malloy by Wells Fargo bank. As I write this it’s evening and they are closed, but I’ll check tomorrow to see if there is a way to donate to this fund online. I didn’t see anything at their website.

Update (Monday, May 14): This blog entry has incited quite a reaction. I expected some, given that I am poking at what is essentially a religious viewpoint about miracles, and a superstitious viewpoint on luck. However, somewhere along the line while writing it I lost track of my ultimate goal which was to simply point out how we tend to ascribe causes to random events, and how this leads to uncritical thinking. Where I blew it was jumping right into this discussion before acknowledging where it comes from: a real human who has suffered a horrible accident. I know it’s hard to tell tone from words, but I am being very honest when I say I wish nothing but good for Ms. Malloy on her road to recovery, and I apologize for any grief she’s had about this. While I disagree with many (if not most) of the negative comments about the meat of my claim, what I cannot disagree with is that the tone of this entry is more snarky than it should have been. I let my irritation get the better of me stylistically, and again I apologize. I hope that my extended comment on this entry clears that up. Given the number of comments and the back-and-forth of them, I will leave this entry intact as I wrote it (except for the insertion about the chiropractor); but it can also serve as a reminder to any of us who blog, comment, or just plain discuss topics, that many times there is a reality behind the discussion, and people who are affected. Some of the comments below cross well over the line as well, so I hope that everyone involved here has learned a lesson.

Man, I get tired of this kind of stuff:

A car crash in Nebraska on Jan. 25 threw Malloy up against the vehicle’s dashboard. In the process, her skull became separated from her spine. The clinical term for her condition is called internal decapitation.

That’s the gist of the article: a woman survives a bad injury that in most cases would kill the victim. But the amount of bad thinking that continues from there is astonishing. Let’s look:

Miracles do happen. That’s what doctors said about 30-year-old Shannon Malloy.

Ah yes, a miracle. It has nothing to do with pure statistics and probability. Or the fact that medical science has advanced enough to save someone’s life.

Dr. Gary Ghiselli, a chiropractor an orthopedic spine surgeon at the Denver Spine Center, said Malloy’s will to survive is what saved her.

A chiropractor said it was her will. Right. I suppose someone involved with what is at the very best a borderline quack field would say it was her will, and not, say, probability and medical science. Note added Monday, May 14: The original news article said that Dr. Ghiselli was a chiropractor, but that has been amended in that article to indicate that Dr. Ghiselli is an orthopedic spine surgeon — a profession that I can say with some confidence and personal experience is a lot more trustworthy, reliable, and scientific than chiropractic.

“I had a fractured skull, swollen brain stem, bleeding in my brain, GI tube in my stomach, can’t swallow, and nerve damage in my eyes (because they cross),” said Malloy.

Doctors are working on that but she has been lucky enough to get the halo removed.

I know I shouldn’t get upset when people talk about luck, but it still irks me. Luck is probability taken personally, as the saying goes. She wasn’t lucky to get the halo removed, it’s just the way things worked out. I have actually specially worked on not using the word "luck" anymore. It’s just another accepted notion that’s incorrect, and I don’t want to promote it, even colloquially.

“Oh my God, it’s a miracle,” said Malloy.

I guess then it was also a miracle that God made the terrible, horrifying accident to happen in the first place, too. You can’t pick and choose which random events to ascribe to God, folks. If He throws the dice for one, He throws the dice for all.

“It’s a miracle that she was able to survive from the actual accident. It’s a miracle that she’s made the progress that she’s made,” said Ghiselli [the chiropractor].

See above. I suppose then it’s a miracle her skull was severed from her spine, she sustained nerve damage, and she cannot see well or swallow properly.

That’s some miracle. Tell you what: I’ll take my chances on probability.


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