In Sputnik’s Orbit

A few thoughts to tide you over…


Does Atheism Cause Slaughter?

Steve Pinker, in “The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined”, has done a great deal of research about violence throughout history. Recently, he posted this on his website in answer to the common theistic assertion that atheism is the cause of the atrocities committed during the 20th century.

“This is a popular argument among theoconservatives and critics of the new atheism, but for many reasons it is historically inaccurate.
First, the premise that Nazism and Communism were “atheist” ideologies makes sense only within a religiocentric worldview that divides political systems into those that are based on Judaeo-Christian ideology and those that are not. In fact, 20th-century totalitarian movements were no more defined by a rejection of Judaeo-Christianity than they were defined by a rejection of astrology, alchemy, Confucianism, Scientology, or any of hundreds of other belief systems. They were based on the ideas of Hitler and Marx, not David Hume and Bertrand Russell, and the horrors they inflicted are no more a vindication of Judeao-Christianity than they are of astrology or alchemy or Scientology.
Second, Nazism and Fascism were not atheistic in the first place. Hitler thought he was carrying out a divine plan. Nazism received extensive support from many German churches, and no opposition from the Vatican. Fascism happily coexisted with Catholicism in Spain, Italy, Portugal, and Croatia. See p. 677 for discussion and references.
Third, according to the most recent compendium of history’s worst atrocities, Matthew White’s Great Big Book of Horrible Things (Norton, 2011), religions have been responsible for 13 of the 100 worst mass killings in history, resulting in 47 million deaths. Communism has been responsible for 6 mass killings and 67 million deaths. If defenders of religion want to crow, “We were only responsible for 47 million murders—Communism was worse!”, they are welcome to do so, but it is not an impressive argument.
Fourth, many religious massacres took place in centuries in which the world’s population was far smaller. Crusaders, for example, killed 1 million people in world of 400 million, for a genocide rate that exceeds that of the Nazi Holocaust. The death toll from thehirty Years War was proportionally double that of World War I and in the range of World War II in Europe (p. 142).
When it comes to the history of violence, the significant distinction is not one between thesistic and atheistic regimes. It’s the one between regimes that were based on demonizing, utopian ideologies (including Marxism, Nazism, and militant religions) and secular liberal democracies that are based on the ideal of human rights. On pp. 337–338 I present data from Rummel showing that democracies are vastly less murderous than alternatives forms of government.”

What more can be said, except that the argument was irrelevant to begin with. The question is not whether religion makes people behave nicely, but whether it constitutes an accurate view of the world. If it does, then there ought to be some way to demonstrate this fact. If it doesn’t, then since we invented religion, we can invent whatever we need to replace it.
I’m not taking sides here guys, it’s just a simple matter of logic, and if God exists, he he gave us brains. If your argument stinks, don’t expect anyone to accept it.

The Very First Dungeon Master’s Guide

If you have played Dungeons and Dragons, you probably know what a Dungeon Master’s Guide is. And if you have looked at one of these, you likely know the name Gary Gygax.

Gary was the principle force behind the creation of D&D, and my college room mate played with a group of friends of his–some years after he had moved on into the corporate gaming world.

These guys played D&D using a photocopy of Gary’s original Dungeon Master’s guide, and he showed it to me one day. On the last page (or maybe it was in the front where it belonged–it was a long time ago) in plain, irregular, typewritten text, Gygax thanked the members of his gaming group who had helped, and added this conclusion:

“If you find any omissions or mistakes in this manual, please keep them to yourself. I have no intention of ever doing this again.”

Of course he did, writing many versions of that and derivative guides until his death in 2008.

Hal, if you’re out there, find that guide and put it on Ebay. Better yet, track down the original.

Another Earth?

The team supporting the Kepler Space Telescope has announced confirmation of a planet only twice the size of Earth and smack in the middle of the local habitable zone. It is entirely possible that this planet could harbor life or even a civilization. Of course, it could also be as barren as the moon.

The new planet is 600 light years away, close enough to be the planet in my novel. Too bad we don’t actually have jump transport.

Seriously though, this is close enough to make a long range probe feasible, at least in principle, with current technology. I would have to be able to operate for a century of more, but it might not be a bad idea. Kepler is currently studying 2,326 other possible planets in similarly favorable orbits. Many are closer and will eventually pan out.

The universe is getting smaller.

Leverage My World

It never ceases to amaze me how willing people are, in this Internet age, to step right in and demonstrate their ignorance when they might just as easily, and with the same exact tool, correct it.

I was called to task a little while ago for using “Leverage” as a verb. Now, I have an MBA, so I honestly never really thought about it–we used it that way all the time in finance. A quick visit to Google found many many posts making the same claim: “Leverage is not a verb you fool! It’s a neologism of the worst sort and a sure sign of a poor education!”

Well, no.

First, language evolves, and English as we know it would not exist without neologisms and other mechanisms of change. But more to the point, leverage is, in fact, a perfectly “acceptable” transitive verb. From Merriam Webster:

Leverage (verb):
1: to provide (as a corporation) or supplement (as money) with leverage; also : to enhance as if by supplying with financial leverage
2: to use for gain : exploit

But even if this were not the case, I would argue in favor of the verb form. I agree with Bill Brohaugh of

“And I hear some of you saying . . . you blast conversate when converse is available, yet you defend leverage when lever is available?” I do indeed. Conversate fills no need. It is duplicative, a bizarre “synonym” of converse. On the other hand, leverage is not a precise synonym of lever, neither in noun nor in verb form. It fills a need.”

So there you have it, and on we shall go, leveraging the technology at our fingertips to more clearly converse with our fellow miscreant.

Biology Students “Boycotting” Darwin???

I read an article today about the growing number of Muslim biology students in the UK who try to “boycott” lessons on “Darwinism” because they think it contradicts the Quran. And here I thought only Americans were dumb enough to pay for an education and then try not to get it.

I am quite prepared to respect people with diverse beliefs. My mother, after all, was a Methodist who believed in reincarnation and Edger Caysey, and I have broken the Ramadan fast with Muslim friends on more than one occasion,

But let us be clear. You are a great ape. You evolved from a population of apes that lived about 6 millions years ago. This is not a matter of opinion. It’s not “only a theory”, or (as science puts it) “merely a hypothesis”. It’s not up for debate. It’s a fact, based not only on scientific inference bout the past, but on direct empirical observation in the present. There will always be scientific debate over the particulars of how evolution works in general and how it proceeded in any particular detail, but there is no controversy at all about the fact that it happened–and continues to happen.

If you don’t accept evolution you are wrong, or perhaps your understanding of evolution is wrong. If evolution contradicts your scripture, then your scripture is wrong—or perhaps your understanding of scripture is wrong.

There is no shame in being wrong, but there could hardly be more shame than remaining wrong when the truth is laid before you, you have PAID for the privilege, and then refuse to learn.

I have no idea if evolution truly contradicts Islam. My Muslim friends don’t think so, and are as devout as anyone I know. Perhaps they just posses a tad more courage than some others of their faith.

Militancy and Persecution

Are today’s “militant atheists” persecuting Christians?

Most people are wrong about most things, most of the time – it’s just matter of degree. So whenever a dispute arises, the truth often lies not somewhere in the middle, but somewhere outside the realm of contention.

Today’s non-believers are certainly more vocal than in years past, and along with other non-Christians, now influence western culture sufficiently to attract Christian derision as “militants” bent on Christian persecution. For their part, atheists disclaim the label, asking “who ever heard of an atheist suicide bomber?”

Both groups, of course, are wrong at least in the particulars. To see why, you need only look up the definitions to the words “militant” and “persecute”. First, though it does refer to any unaffiliated military combatant, “militant” can also refer to any overtly confrontational person. When uber-atheist Christopher Hitchens tells a Christian evangelist “If you don’t think I am your enemy, then you don’t know an enemy when you see or hear one.” this clearly is militancy, but rhetorical militancy. It is ironic, however, that Christians should use this term as a pejorative, since its use in this fashion stems directly from Christianity, which until the latter twentieth century explicitly declared all living Christians to make up “The church militant, or military church, which is engaged in constant warfare against the world, the flesh and the devil”.

So score one for the Christians, then take it away for hypocrisy. Now what about persecution, the “systematic mistreatment of an individual or group by another group”. Hitler killed 6 million Jews. The Crusaders slaughtered at least a million Muslims. The Missouri Extermination Order caused the death of hundreds of Mormons, the tarring and feathering of hundreds more, and the confiscation of the property of thousands. Richard Dawkins is insulting, clearly just a matter of degree.

Christians decry the loss of organized prayer in public schools, ignoring the fact that under federal guidelines, a student may express explicitly religious convictions, even those that contradict the factual content of the curriculum, and “a teacher should not silence the remark [nor] ridicule it”. Meanwhile, atheists and theists alike are accused of persecution for saying “Happy Holidays”.

Failure to show respect for one’s known beliefs might be insensitive, it might even be rude, but it is hardly persecution. Using rhetoric and the rule of law to enforce equal protection for all at the expense of the traditional majority”s ability to persecute others with impunity does not, by any stretch of the imagination, constitute persecution.

So both sides are wrong. Today’s vocal anti-theist activists are militant, but until atheists buy out Joel Osteen and start turning lions loose in his 17,000 seat church, the only religious persecution widely practiced in America remains directed against the non-Christian minority, the same minority whose militant defense of the separation of church and state protects the rights and liberties of all citizens, Christians included.

Happy holidays.
(Written as a guest blog for the excellent

The “Rules” of Grammar

Everyone over on Sodahead is eager to defend “the rules of grammar”, and oh how it does the heart good. The trouble, of course, is that there is not now, nor has there ever been, a definitive authority on “correct” English grammar. You can point to Strunk & White or Brown, but neither are universally adhered to by anyone.

And because people tend to invent rationalizations for their preferences you can find British grammarians who will eloquently and exhaustively explain why the terminal punctuation belongs outside the quotation marks, and American experts who just as eloquently and thoroughly explain why it does not.

The reality is, English is parsed by people, not by CPUs. It needs to be clear, but it needs to be varied and interesting, and it needs to connote and imply. It needs to gamble and flirt and occasionally betray. As in any other artistic endeavor, we must understand the rules, but then we must break them. If we were unwilling to do so, we would all still be speaking Latin (or Aramaic), we would know neither Falkner nor Shakespeare, and we certainly would be impoverished without the tintinnabulation of the bells, bells, bells, bells, Bells, bells, bells.

And who would wish to live in such a world?

And Another Thing . . .

I still see many grammarians warning hapless new writers of the horrors of beginning any sentence with “And” or “But”. Well I am here to tell you, my pedantic friends, that while the product of the hapless masses may well be wrong, SO ARE YOU for claiming this to be a rule.

These constructions have long been been considered solecisms, on par with the double negative (which, when combined with the dialectical “ain’t” is the quintessential modern English incarnation of the solecism, or “gutter speak” corruption of language. But when it comes to actual correctness of the prefatory “and” or “but”, it depends.

On the one hand, it is certainly wrong to begin a sentence with a conjunction. However, it is not wrong to begin a fully independent sentence with a word or phrase that communicates the useful information that it will further develop points made earlier. And so it is that these words can appear at the beginning of a sentences without acting as a solecistic conjunction.

But of course, such words can also signal a change of rhetorical direction clearly and more concisely than a longer phrase such as “On the other hand”. Such a usage clearly is not intended to conjoin two independent clauses into a sloppy construction, and makes the writing more concise and varied.

And so my friends, I do not fear the “And originated sentence”, and I do not accept the authority of any self-appointed grammarian to tell me not to use it. I am, after all, a reader as well as a writer, and the pedantic enforcement of this “rule” has done much, over the last century, to confound and confuse the unwary.

The Arson Plant

I rather like these two paragraphs from “Doomsday” in which an alien plant something like a giant squash is described

” The arson plant and the forest had been at war for centuries, and had reached an impasse on this hillside. Kat had compared the plants to Terran beavers, but militant, napalm-armed kudzu might have been more apt, and the foothills were filled with evidence of their destructive, ongoing struggles of conquest. Their thick, vigorous foliage crowded out competitors while incendiary seed disbursal simultaneously helped claim new territory and exposed neighboring trees to intense, repeated fire until first the light, and finally the land, was surrendered.
But here, the steep and rocky terrain had tipped the balance ever so slightly in favor of the conifers, and the invaders were stymied. They could not grow densely enough to kill the trees and take the hillside, but they could never relent. A botanical Sisyphus, they constantly rebuilt their arsenal, awaiting the spark that would begin the next futile cycle of assault and stalemate, while the conifers, anchored by sturdy roots, held the sky and controlled the light. Dylan and his compatriots had simply drawn their own attackers into one skirmish between the two Methuselan armies.”

The NSF Corrects an “Error” in Error.

The NSF, after receiving an email from a concerned citizen, recently made a correction to a statement that had been on their website for several years. Unfortunately, the NSF ought to know better than to allow a web site administrator to overrule the findings of qualified scientists on the say so of a lay commentator.

At issue is a comment on an NSF page titled “The Importance of Sea Ice”. The page discusses the findings of two expeditions relating to changes in arctic conditions over a forty year period. Originally, the page contained the following paragraph(1):

“One unexpected finding concerned the salinity of the water. When the scientists first arrived at the Arctic ice pack in October 1997, they discovered that the water was much fresher than it had been when the same area was analyzed 20 years earlier. They concluded that the melting of the ice pack during the summer of 1997 caused the water to be proportionally less salty. Such a change can have serious consequences for marine life as well as for how ocean water circulates and interacts with the atmosphere. In addition to altering salinity, melting sea ice also raises worldwide sea levels, with potentially significant effects for coastal cities and towns.”

Of course, as any diligent fifth grader knows, Archimedes Principle states that an object immersed in a fluid is buoyed up by a force equal to the weight of the fluid it displaces. This implies that floating ice displaces a volume of water equal to the melted volume of the ice itself. Citizen Dave Burton noticed the discrepancy(2) and sent the NSF a message:

“Since the error was on your site for over 6.5 years, misleading readers into believing that melting sea ice contributes to coastal sea level rise, I think it is important that you identify the error on your site, with a footnote which explains what was wrong with it.”

And belying the usual claims of an unresponsive government controlled by a global conspiracy to distort science in order to bolster some hidden political agenda, the NSF did exactly as Mr. Burton asked, removing the last sentence, and adding the following note in its place:

“[Editor’s note: An inaccurate statement about sea ice and rising sea levels has been deleted. We regret the error.]”

A victory for common sense and democracy in action!

Only one problem. Mr. Burton was flat WRONG, and the NSF should not have listened to him. Sea ice is mostly fresh water because the salt quickly leaches out of it once it forms. Persistent sea ice, ice that has been frozen for thousands of years—the bulk of the global ice pack and the very ice the scientists are worried about–is entirely fresh. Salt water is denser than fresh water, so the volume of sea water needed to buoy a block of freshwater ice is slightly less than the volume of fresh water in the ice.

A layman like Mr Burton cannot be expected to know this, or to know that calculations show that, in fact, melting pack ice will increase the volume of the ocean by enough to raise sea levels by 4 centimeters(3) all by itself. But the scientists who did the field work know it, and the website administrator at the NSF should have consulted them before taking the word of a lay “armchair quarterback” over theirs.In fairness, the original NSF wording does overstate the risk from pack ice. But, if pack ice melts, it means the hundreds of thousands of years of accumulated snow sitting on the antarctic landmass and in Siberia are melting as well and THAT could raise sea levels by enough to flood the ground I am standing on, here in a suburb of Houston.

Those who think they have the simple solution usually don’t understand the problem. Those who think their devotion to radio talk shows and a subscription to Popular Science make them wiser than the best minds of an entire field of credentialed science are invariably wrong.

1 –

2 –

3 – Peter D. Noerdlinger, Kay R. Brower “The Melting of Floating Ice will Raise the Ocean Level”, Geophysical Journal International, 2005

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