Beyond Vulgar Moral Relativism

After you’ve gotten your chuckles and inspiration from Revere’s Freethinker Sunday Sermonette, check out Russell Blackford’s most recent post on moral scepticism. A sample:

The plausible meta-ethical positions seem to be a group of sophisticated moral relativist theories — the sort of position I associate with Gilbert Harman, David Wong, Neil Levy, Max Hocutt, and others — and the error theories (moral scepticism) of people like JL Mackie, Richard Garner, Richard Joyce, and Joshua Greene. There are various other positions in the same ballpark, such as the sophisticated non-cognitivism of Simon Blackburn. I am sometimes irritated when other philosophers assume that the only theory in this sort of ballpark is the popular but vulgar kind of moral relativism that we are all taught to avoid in first-year ethics courses.

Numbers like $50 Billion

Isabel reminds me to look at The Onion. Lo and behold, scientists are asking Congress to fund a $50 billion science thing! Apparently, the machine in question is both large and expensive, and it uses gamma rays.

“While expense is something to consider, I think it’s very important that we have this kind of scientific apparatus, because, in the end, I have always said that science is more important than it is unimportant,” Committee chairman Rep. Bart Gordon (D-TN) said. “And it’s essential we stay ahead of China, Japan, and Germany in science. We are ahead in space, with the NASA rockets going to other planets, so we should be ahead in science too.”

Unfortunately, all was not rosy on Capitol Hill:

“These scientists could trim $10 million if they would just cut out some of the purple and blue spheres,” said Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD), explaining that he understood the need for an abundance of reds and greens. “With all of those molecules and atoms going in every direction, the whole thing looks a bit unorganized, especially for science.”

Isabel makes note of something else, a thought which should linger after the chuckles fade away.
Continue reading Numbers like $50 Billion

More on New Scientist

I felt sort of bad saying all that stuff about Wired when the guy who wrote the piece I did like showed up to say “Thanks for the link.” But hey, I’m not going to stop criticizing bad science reporting, nor can I imagine shutting myself up about the practices which I think cause bad science journalism. (Nor do I have the vanity to think that by myself, I’ll make any difference.) I’d feel considerably more uncomfortable if Greg Egan didn’t go and provide a whole new plateful of reasons to be upset with pop science.

Egan has been masochistically plowing through New Scientist ever since the EmDrive incident, when he had found himself “gobsmacked by the level of scientific illiteracy” the magazine had put on display. Now, commenting at The n-Category Café, he gives two additional recent “absurdities.”
Continue reading More on New Scientist

Rock on, Rebecca!

Rebecca Watson, Skepchick extraordinaire, has won the Public Radio Talent Quest contest. She joins Al Letson and Glynn Washington in the winners’ circle; each of them will receive ten thousand dollars and the chance to produce pilot episodes for new national public radio programs.

Yes, Rebecca is the one who declined to go out for a milkshake with me because my ESP remote-viewing powers were off by two tentacles. Scandalous, really, but I bear no ill will. Instead, I offer my most heartfelt congratulations! Best of luck to all three, and here’s hoping we’ll get some quality radio.

Start Your Own (Pseudo)Science Journal Today!

Living punchline Paul Cameron has decided to start his own “peer-reviewed” journal to publish homophobic diatribes disguised as science. Titled The Empirical Journal of Same-Sex Sexual Behavior, it will soon be coming to a website near you.

You know, I find this idea rather inspirational. I wasn’t quite sure how to advance my idea that William Shakespeare wrote the plays of Christopher Marlowe (who was killed because he was a closet Copernican — “They” hushed up the incident as a fight over a bar bill) and that the truth of this assertion is encoded in the streetsigns visible in the background of Ghost in the Shell (1995). Now I know what to do: I just have to fire up a website proclaiming itself to be the Empirico-Rationalist Journal of Marlowian Conspiracy Theories.
Continue reading Start Your Own (Pseudo)Science Journal Today!

Oliver Sacks, Mountaineer

I have my reasons to dislike Wired Magazine — trendy, faux-savvy, shoddy fact-checkers that they are — but they can do a sensible interview. To wit, see this piece on Oliver Sacks, the neurologist who told us about mistaking wives for hats. Sacks tells his interviewer, Steve Silberman, a great deal about his experiences with music.

I intensely dislike any reference to supernaturalism, but I think there can be profound mystical feelings which do not have to call on fictitious agencies like angels and demons and deities. The whole natural world is bathed in wonder and beauty and mystery. The feeling of the holy, the sacred, the wonderful, the mystical, can be divorced from anything theological, and is conveyed very powerfully in music.

While many a scientist has expressed a similar sentiment, Sacks also reveals that the pleasures of the academic lifestyle were not restricted to horticulture, at least not in the 1960s.

One day in 1964, I constructed a sort of pharmacological mountain, and at its peak, I said, “I want to see indigo, now!” As if thrown by a paintbrush, a huge, trembling drop of purest indigo appeared on the wall — the color of heaven. For months after that, I kept looking for that color. It was like the lost chord.

Sacks saw the color again, after hearing Monteverdi’s Vespers at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but the lapis lazuli snuffboxes which had appeared such a wonderful indigo turned out to be blue and mauve and pink when he looked at them again. “It took a mountain of amphetamine, mescaline, and cannabis to launch me into that space,” he says, “But Monteverdi did it too.”

Copying ISBNs Is Not a Crime

Three Harvard undergraduates were told to leave the Harvard Coop bookstore because they were copying International Standard Book Numbers from books on the shelf. The store called the Cambridge police; the officers who responded allowed the students to continue copying, and the students left of their own accord two and a half hours later.

Cops having better sense than bookstore employees. What’s the world coming to?

Revere has the details and also points to, which looks pretty neat. Not only does it automate comparison shopping for textbooks, but it also lets you see what books Harvard requires for its courses. To be honest, I looked at their physics listings just so I could point and laugh at their effete inadequacy, but their selections actually look pretty reasonable. “Quantum Mechanics II” can’t get very far if the only book they require is Griffiths; I was expecting that an upstanding school like Harvard would at least force its students to buy Shankar, Sakurai and Cohen-Tannoudji as well. Sean Carroll will no doubt be pleased they use his book for their general relativity class.

Survived High Doses of xkcd

Just got back from the xkcd meetup. For those who hadn’t heard, Randall Munroe stuck a date, time and pair of coordinates into a comic strip, which turned out to be this afternoon at a park near Davis Square. Naturally, I had to go, at least to see who else would show up.

Imagine a county fair, infested with red spiders, a Wikipedian protester, people wearing T-shirts from several generations of Internet memes, at least one toy velociraptor, a tape measure extension contest and a jungle gym densely packed with people who unanimously declare that science works, bitches.

I forgot my camera.

I did meet Joshua, though, and he might have some pictures uploaded soon.

New Poll to Flood!

The New Humanist Blog has announced that it plans to poll its readers on topics of interest and/or importance. First up is — not much surprise here — the question, “Are Dawkins and Hitchens good for humanism?”

Now, I have to say that I’m never entirely sure what people mean by humanism, anymore. Back in the early 1990s, I thought it was the idea that human beings are responsible for the problems which afflict our species, and that human beings are going to have to solve them. (This line comes straight out of Isaac Asimov’s memoir.) Today, it sometimes sounds like a label people apply to themselves to distance their position, at least in their own eyes, from the Uppity Atheists. It can also be an umbrella term to include religious folk who like Asimov’s line about human responsibility (though they might be a little put off by the remarks in the same memoir about the history of religion being “the history of human misery and black times”).

I’m also curious why New Humanist has chosen to focus on Dawkins and Hitchens. Is it a straight-up question of book sales? (PZ, where’s your book? When all the Uppity Atheists meet in the South Pacific at the antipodal point of Nicaea, you’re going to get left out of the Godless Orthodoxy!)

Da Gama Reports on Stark

Regrettably, other obligations prevented me from attending Congressman Pete Stark’s speech at Harvard last night. Fortunately, however, Joshua did, and he’s written a report for the rest of us.

Recommended reading.

He also links to the TV Tropes Wiki, which looks like a fantastic time-sink for a Friday afternoon. They’ve got extensive documentation on anime, for starters. The entry for Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex was clearly written by fans. “The Major’s clothes are too hot for espionage,” it says, and I agree. I might be indirectly responsible for part of the entry, too, since I recall putting an awful lot of work into the Wikipedia articles on “cyberpunk” and “postcyberpunk” back in 2005.

Denyse O’Leary Provides Amusement

ERV made me aware of a new bit of silliness from Denyse O’Leary, resident “journalist” of the antiscience advocacy blog Uncommon Descent. (She’s also a proponent of non-materialist neuroscience: if being a doofus about evolution is a ticket to fame and riches earned by fleecing the gullible, then trashing other well-established sciences must also be quite a racket.) This is what O’Leary has to say on the complicated and tendentious subject of women in science and mathematics, a topic in which even intelligent people are led astray by emotive arguments and spuriously “scientific” ideas not supported by the data.

Anyone who thinks that the fact that girls are not as good as boys in math means that girls do not rule is obviously not in contact with many girls.

[spit take]

Barf out! Gag me with a spoon! Gross!

I’m still not accustomed to the creationist ability to pack so many kinds of wrong into a single sentence. First, the “fact” that girls can’t do math as well as boys is, ahem, anything but; beyond that, what trait makes the female of the species “rule,” in O’Leary’s estimation? Their ability to cook, clean, and fit within a well-molded wet T-shirt? Or a mystic synchrony with the energy of the Moon, no doubt a gender-specific modification of the miracle circuits which receive the soul’s instructions to the brain.

Blech. Uncommon Descent leaves an icky taste all over me. To get it out, I think I’ll learn about adjoint functors and their relationship to monads.