Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Monday, December 31, 2007

Another Sermonette

Driving back from CT Saturday evening, I heard NPR interview a prospective Iowa caucus-goer who had decided to throw her support to Mike Huckabee after hearing him speak. Her rationale was that he was guided by faith, that everything flows from God, and that she knew that he would take his orders from the top.

Lady, we've had that for the past 7 years and as far as I'm concerned, it's long past time for God to shut the fuck up. He relies on faulty intelligence -- actually he cooks it. He hasn't kept up with the latest scientific developments since the Middle Ages. His moral code comes from a society of illiterate bellicose nomads, and it is extremely damaging to modern society which is far more complex, diverse, and dependent on individual creativity and initiative, not to mention scientific accuracy and open-mindedness, than God's thuggish band of marauding goat herders. (You don't like my description of the Chosen People? Read Deuteronomy.*)

I would have thought that the developments of this decade would have completely discredited the nonsensical belief in God and divine guidance once and for all. The fundamental insanity, the intellectual and moral rot at the heart of religion, have become so obvious and so terrifying to anyone with common sense that this finally just has to end, right? And yet we have all the presidential candidates, of both parties, furiously competing to out-flaunt the competition with their piety.

Here's my New Years' resolution: I'm going to dedicate myself to do whatever I can to exterminate the curse of religion from human society. Religion is evil. Religion is delusion. Religion is destructive, and ugly, and deadly to the human spirit. Let it perish. And let those greedy, narcissistic old men in their ludicrous archaic clothing find gainful employment.

I'm in a crotchety mood. On another occasion I might express myself more gently. But I'm not sorry for what I have said.

* Here's a sample for those who would also refuse to look through Galileo's telescope. Read on -- it only gets worse.:

31 The LORD said to me, "See, I have begun to deliver Sihon and his country over to you. Now begin to conquer and possess his land."

32 When Sihon and all his army came out to meet us in battle at Jahaz, 33 the LORD our God delivered him over to us and we struck him down, together with his sons and his whole army. 34 At that time we took all his towns and completely destroyed [c] them—men, women and children. We left no survivors. 35 But the livestock and the plunder from the towns we had captured we carried off for ourselves. 36 From Aroer on the rim of the Arnon Gorge, and from the town in the gorge, even as far as Gilead, not one town was too strong for us. The LORD our God gave us all of them.

Thursday, December 27, 2007


Much of the time, when people are furiously debating some question, it turns out they don't have any substantive disagreement after all -- they are arguing over the meaning of a word. On the other hand, it may not be quite that simple, because the words in question may be embedded in larger constructs, so that disagreements about their meaning can reflect differences in substance after all.

Sorry, this is a little bit complicated so bear with me. The field called public health is usually traced back to a mythologized incident in which the British physician John Snow traced a cholera epidemic to a public well pump on Broad Street in London in 1854. (Those of you who haven't already been thoroughly indoctrinated in this world historic event can read all about it here.) Public health emerged thereafter as a definite enterprise in the late 19th and early 20th century, on the part of physicians who were concerned with infectious disease control, with an initial emphasis on the water supply and hence a great interest in sewer construction, but expanding to other policies such as isolation and quarantine, restricting spitting in public (thought to spread TB), and so on. As antibiotics and immunization became available, the concerns of public health naturally followed the evolving technology and knowledge, but infectious disease remained at the core of public health research and practice through most of the 20th Century.

Inevitably, as infectious disease declined in importance, and as diseases of non-infectious origin, notably cancer and heart disease, correspondingly became more important to the disease burden and to mortality, public health increased its focus to modfiable risk factors such as smoking and nutrition. This fueled intense interest in how to influence people's behavior and required that social psychology be imported into public health. But these diseases area also bound up with social problems, for example corporate power verus regulation in the public interest, chemical (as opposed to fecal) pollution of water, and poverty. The belated observation that tuberculosis, before the era of antibiotics, was closely associated with social conditions, and then that human longevity in general followed a gradient in socioeconomic status -- education and income -- brought sociology and politics into the field as well. It is no longer accurate -- indeed it is preposterous -- to say that epidemiology is "the" science of public health, although a few people have still not gotten the message.

But a field which is now all about political issues and social problems is inevitably beset by philosophical conundrums, disputes that hinge on hidden value conflicts, and competing interests. The theme ingredient in this stew is, of course, the concept of health -- what is it we are trying to maximize after all?

The definition of health as used in the field of public health naturally gets mixed up with the concept as used in the field of medicine. Public health is concerned with health at the level of populations, and medicine, of course, with the individual. In both, the meaning of "health" is essential, and disputed, whether or not the disputants recognize that that is what they are talking about.

So, next time, I will review the evolution of the concept within medicine. Don't worry, this is all going somewhere. . . . I hope.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Blog update

Sorry to have missed a couple of days -- I've had a bit of a cold, nothing major but it's left me at a low energy level and I've had to devote what I had to other projects. In the coming week, I'll be away from Your Intertubes quite a bit as well so I may post only on a couple of days.

From this end, that's probably good -- I need a break to regather my thoughts. In the real world, I've encountered some controversy about the basic concept of public health that demands some processing in the wetware. I often say that public health is everything -- a bit of an exaggeration, since the study of quasars in near ultraviolet doesn't have a lot to do with public health, but I mean that everything connected with human society, the human environment, and the human organism is within the domain of public health. I thought that was a progressive and liberating sentiment which honors toilers in the groves of academe who nowadays don't get the kind of respect and funding that is lavished on biomedical research, from political scientists to art historians. But evidently it can be taken as a kind of arrogance or imperialism.

An essential foundation of the claim is really a semantic point -- I don't think of health as a purely biological concept. Health is biological, psychological, social and yes, spiritual, which is a realm of just as much significance to atheists as it is to the religious, by the way. To think of the human organism in purely biological terms is ridiculous, although I agree that too large a percentage of NIH funding, and health care spending, is based on that obvious fallacy. In the coming year, I vow to be more rigorous in defining the concept of public health, and framing what I write within that definition. (I am allowed, of course, the occasional indulgence.)

So, as I usually say at this time of year, we'll be dark, or at least intermittently lit for a few days, then we'll be back bigger and better than ever. Or at least I hope so.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Prediction for 2008: Excrement to hit ventilator

The frog boiling thing turns out to be a myth. As the temperature rises, the frog feels it and pretty quickly tries to escape. But apparently it's possible to slowly raise the temperature on the Murkan People and it takes them a long time to recognize that they are getting poached.

They're going to figure it out pretty soon. Jean Dixon is never accountable for her predictions but I will be. We'll check back this time next year and see how I did.

1) There will be a nasty recession. One way you can tell is that most of the financial commentators are busy telling us that there won't be, in spite of everything -- hundreds of billions of dollars evaporating in the mortgage mess, home values tanking, consumers tapped out to the max with no place left to borrow more, oil prices still high (and see below), food prices screaming upward, foreign investors getting wary of U.S. bonds and equities. And more. Big ouch. Unemployment. Personal bankruptcy. As a consequence . . .

2) State and local governments are really going to hurt. They are already facing serious backlogs in infrastructure maintenance and unfunded pension liabilities. In other words they have major structural deficits that they have swept under the rug. When tax revenues shrink, it's going to get ugly.

3) Iraq will turn out to be a bigger disaster than you think it is already. The recent lull in violence is not nearly what it has been made out to be by the corporate media. Check Iraq Today if you don't believe me. For example, there was a very successful attack on U.S. and Iraq security forces today that killed one U.S. soldier and injured a dozen or so, and killed a bunch of Iraqis. So far, none of the major U.S. networks -- CNN etc. -- are even mentioning it. That's what they do. They don't report the violence in order to wish it away, because that's the CentCom line right now. But with the political situation going backwards -- what reduction in violence has been achieved comes from balkanizing the country so that the central government is increasingly irrelevant -- the instability will just increase.

4) CentCom already admits that Afghanistan is heading downhill and has begged NATO for more help. They aren't going to get it.

5) Oil prices will be higher one year from now than they are today, in spite of the recession. (That's a tough call, by the way. I'm out on a limb on this one.)

6) Climate-related catastrophes will continue to increase. Keep an eye on the drought in the southeast, among other problems.

7) The Democrats in Congress will cave in every time the Occupant threatens to call them names.

8) The New England Patriots will win the Super Bowl. (That's the easy one.)

There's a lot of other stuff that might happen, but these are the ones I'm going to predict. Uh oh.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007


Last night I dreamed that some musician friends and I went down to the bottom of the ocean to play with John Coltrane. To get there, all we had to do was will ourselves to sink. At first, everybody was holding his breath but I realized we could breathe the water. It was a long way down. When we got there, the bottom was sandy. I was worried I might step on some life forms -- you could scarcely see as far as your feet -- but it was okay.

Pretty soon Trane showed up. I don't know how he knew we were there, and the ocean is mighty big, but somehow we were in the right place. He said sure, he'd jam with us. We started out with a standard blues. For some reason, we all just imitated the sound of our instruments with our voices -- only Trane really played. I guess my subconscious knew better than to have me blowing my sax with Trane. Anyway, he played straight ahead and didn't try to overwhelm us. Elvin Jones once said, to play with Trane, "You gotta be willing to die with the motherfucker," but Trane was cool, he was on our side.

That was the end of the dream, but it got me thinking about John Coltrane. He died much too young, proximally of liver cancer, but it went back to his youthful heroin addiction. He probably had Hepatitis C, and nowadays they would have diagnosed him and probably saved his life, but that was then. Trane's was about the last life you'd want to be cut short. His playing had a restless, searching quality and so did the overall development of his music. He was always changing, always growing. Every year was a radical break from the last one, as he kept looking for the answer in music, the meaning of it all. That spiritual quest started with his struggle to kick his addiction, and ended only when it reached out from the past to kill him. But too many people don't succeed.

There happens to be a serious heroin epidemic in this country right now, that started when the U.S. deposed the Taliban government of Afghanistan and much of the country devolved into narco-fiefdoms. Cheap heroin has been flooding the West every since. According to the annual National Survey on Drug Use and Health, last year was particularly bad -- the prevalence of heroin abuse increased from .0006 to .0014.* That's probably not quite accurate but it's a horrific number.

We don't hear much about this because it doesn't fit with the narrative of the War on Terra, which was supposed to make us safer. This is just one more way it's killing our children.

*I originally misplaced the decimal points because of the odd way in which SAMHSA reported these numbers. These figures are volatile because they are based on a small number of respondents; in fact it's unlikely the prevalence really doubled in one year. But there is plenty of evidence that we've had an upward trend lately, and this does add to the weight of it. At first I didn't worry about the technicalities too much because I was making a qualitative point, but I realized I owe my readers more rigor.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

I don't believe in God . . .

but I do believe in Senator Dodd.*

However, the spectacle of a Democratic Senator filibustering against the Democratic leadership and most of the Democratic membership in order to preserve the constitution and the rule of law in the United States is disconcerting, to say the least. The lesson here should be obvious -- our biggest problem is not Christian dominionism or neocon fantasies of world domination, it is corporate power.

We don't have government of, by or for the people, we have a government of business corporations led by people whose personal wealth rivals that of small nations. That's why the FDA protects drug companies, not patients. That's why the U.S. invaded Iraq -- because Dick "Dick" Cheney promised the oil companies the Iraqi oil fields. That's why we're going to squander billions to make fuel out of food and help to starve the world's poor -- including our own -- in the process. That's why rich people don't pay taxes and you pay more and more every year for your health care.

And that's why Christopher Dodd will never be president.

*After I posted I realized this may be too obscure a reference for some. It refers to the song Draft Dodger Rag, by Phil Ochs, which happens to be very pertinent to our current crop of chickenhawks in DC, including the aforementioned Mr. Cheney. The Senator Dodd in the song is the current Senator's father Tom, who was a rabid anti-communist.

Monday, December 17, 2007

No post today

I'm too much foaming at the mouth over Holy Joe Lieberman, Mike Hucksterbee, and Harry "Traitor" Reid to say anything coherent. Maybe I'll be articulate in the morning.

Oh yeah: Go here. Sign the petition to impeach Darth Cheney. This is serious -- actual real members of the House Judiciary Committee are really, truly, honest to gosh doing this. Don't be a slacker. Don't be part of the problem.

Sunday, December 16, 2007


Down in Windham County yesterday, the guys with their big honking 4WD pickups were out plowing snow. One of them had carefully lettered on his tailgate, in bright red paint: "Hell -- the final separation of church and state."

I'm still trying to figure out what the, well, the hell, that is supposed to mean. Does he think that Hell has a first amendment -- that Satan allows people freedom to worship as they please, or not at all? If so, more power to The Evil One, and Hell is sounding better than ever. If separation of church and state causes people to go to hell, who does it cause to be damned? Presumably not the truck guy, or the people who believe what he believes and worship God in precisely the way he does; and presumably everybody else is going to hell anyway, separation of church and state or not.

What I find most odd about Christian dominionism -- or any other theocratic ideology -- is that one of the essential underlying premises is that God can't take care of himself. If God is omnipotent, he doesn't need the assistance of a guy from Willimantic who does odd jobs. If God can't see his will done unless his mortal followers seize state power, he's a pretty damn pathetic deity.

Anyhow, where this is all going is that I'm wondering how the Christonazis are feeling right now, after two consecutive elections featuring Justice Sunday and the re-election of God's Other Son, finding out that The Anointed and Consecrated George W. Bush didn't bring about the Kingdom on Earth after all, sodomites and blasphemers remain unstoned, the invasion of Iraq didn't lead to Armageddon and the rapture but to a stinking mess, and God lost the 2006 midterm election. Are any of them rethinking their notions? Just asking.

Friday, December 14, 2007

New Web Resource

The Prescription Project, who's material I have often referenced here, now has set up what used to be it's e-mail newsletter as a blog. Good idea. It's right here. This week, they include the observation that even though an FDA advisory committee has concluded that over-the-counter cough and cold medicines are not safe and effective for children under 6, only 34% of parents have stopped using them.

Why doesn't the FDA ban marketing these toxic substances to parents? It can't just issue a ban, as it turns out, but it can request that the companies stop, and it can sue them. But so far, no action. And the drug companies have no ethics, no shame, and don't give a FFOARD about you or your children, they exist only for greed. If this disgraceful episode doesn't prove it finally, once and for all, then nothing will convince you.

There are two possibilities

Either this is the most significant action that anyone has taken in human history (and you never heard about it before, by the way), it's extremely dangerous, and it's being done with no accountability whatever; or it's just a lot of crackpots having an impassioned debate about whether it's wise to provoke the malevolent pixies.

I'm talking about Alexander Zaitsev, a Russian scientist, who is trying to actively communicate with extraterrestrials. Prof. Zaitsev controls one of the world's most powerful radio transmitters, a radar system normally used to study the solar system, but he's using it to beam messages to nearby stars. Some people in the ET searching business consider him to be engaged in unauthorized diplomacy. Others are concerned that he may attract undesirable attention.

Personally, I don't think there's much chance that he will stir up any powerful entities more malevolent than the present occupants of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., so I say go for it. Maybe they'll even bring the long-sought cure for male pattern baldness.

Thursday, December 13, 2007


I had my last class of the semester last night, which means I'm not quite out of the woods -- I still have to read the final projects and turn in the grades -- but this is always the occasion when I reflect on the educational enterprise.

Like most college professors, I have essentially no formal training in pedagogy. I've had to figure it out as I go along, and it hasn't been easy. One of the hardest lessons had to do with the recognition that they don't necessarily start out believing that I'm on their side, and some of them don't want me to be on their side in quite the way that I actually am. In other words, we may just have a different idea of what this graduate degree thing is all about.

Education in our society has at least two different functions which coexist uneasily. One is to help people develop their potential -- to learn facts and skills, such as critical thinking, intellectual creativity, writing, and skills specific to a profession. That's how I'm on their side. But the other function is sort people into categories of prestige and income, and the awful truth is, that's why a lot of people, maybe most of them, go to college and graduate school. If they don't learn the facts and skills I'm there to teach them, I will stand in the way of the magic label that will make them prosperous and respectable.

When this happens -- and I'm very happy to say it did not happen this semester -- they generally ascribe the cause to my arrogance, cruelty and elitism. The true cause is never their innate lack of ability -- by the time they get to me, it's generally the case that they have already established their ability to do school work. A few have slipped through with basic skill deficits -- you can get into medical school without being able to write an intelligible sentence -- but that won't stop them from passing my course if they'll acknowledge the problem and work with me to start fixing it. I don't judge you on where you came in, I judge you on how far you traveled.

No, the true cause of their failure is misunderstanding the purpose of the enterprise. People have experienced education as a process of judging, and sorting, and labeling. It's been adversarial, students against the system. It's left a lot of people as wreckage by the roadside. A lot of people perceive the purpose of attending college as getting a college degree, and that's why cheating is rampant. It's also why students have highly developed skills for wheedling, threatening and otherwise extracting grades from instructors by means other than working hard and conscientiously on their assignments.

I'm not involved in elementary or high school education but I can't believe that this obsessive focus on standardized testing is doing anything but making education less and less about developing human potential and more and more about sorting people into castes. Of course, there are benign and necessary reasons for sorting. People's aptitudes differ and we need some method of getting people tracked into careers that make sense for them. If we assign people to jobs they don't have the skills, talent, or personality traits to do well, we invite disaster, whether we're talking about a surgeon or an electrician.

The challenge is to engage positively and supportively with every child, adolescent and adult who is in the role of student, whatever that means for that person. But we really don't do that. We create winners and losers. We hurt people. We manufacture injustice.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Hey indeedy

by Philip E. Agre.

You can be a reporter for the New York Times . . .

... or you can get an honest job.

One Jill P. Capuzzo reports on a proposal in New Jersey to require children who attend pre-school to get flu shots. If you have been a regular reader here, you can probably guess the next part of the story: an uprising of angry parents who claim that vaccinations will make their children autistic.

Capuzzo evidently went to journalism school, because she knows that it's her job to assiduously avoid actually informing us about this issue, especially if the truth might make one side appear to be, you know, wrong. Nope, her job is just to write down what people on both sides say, and treat the sense and nonsense exactly the same. Capuzzo writes, "But not all the family and community members who attended the meeting agreed. Some parents of autistic children have argued that the vaccines already required of school-age children may be linked to autism, although many experts say that no solid evidence supports this view."

No Jill. It is not "many experts" who disagree, it is virtually every expert. And they don't say that "no solid evidence supports this view," they say there is no evidence for it whatsoever, solid, liquid, or gas. In fact, there is overwhelming and completely convincing evidence against it. The earth is not flat. Flu vaccines do not cause autism.

But for the rest of the article, we just get a he said, she said, with the she said being far more compelling -- the terrible travails of the mother of an autistic child who blames the whole thing on vaccinations. “Try having a child bite chunks of skin out of herself, or tell you she’s going to chop your head off, or smear feces over the wall,” said Ms. Downing, referring to the acts of her daughter and her best friend’s son, who also suffers from autism. “Something’s going on with these vaccines, and we don’t want any more mandated.”

It would be journalistically irresponsible, of course, to point out that however much sympathy we feel for Ms. Downing, she is mistaken. Jill Capuzzo's job is to tell us the facts, but not the truth.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Yes, we take requests

C. Corax is curious about my response to this study which suggests there may be a genetic component to religiosity. Unfortunately, I don't have on-line access to the Journal of Personality so I can only comment on this reporter's summary. Nevertheless, this is a good opportunity to make some general observations about, uh, observational studies in general, and twin studies in particular.

This study was based on questionnaires administered to sets of fraternal and identical twins -- all male, for some reason, and all born in Minnesota, for some other reason. They were asked to remember how often they went to religious services, prayed and discussed religious teachings when they were children, and how often they did those things today. The basic conclusion was that both kinds of twins were very similar in these respects as children, but the fraternal twins became less similar as adults while the identical twins retained their similarity. The summary doesn't give much quantitative information about these effects, except to say that the fraternal twins were "1/3 less similar [as adults] than they were as children," a statement which is essentially uninterpretable, but presumably the original report makes sense.

The researchers conclude that it is the identical genes of identical twins that keeps them similarly religious as they grow older. However, I can think of numerous objections to this conclusion. First, if genes are what makes people religious, the fraternal twins would not have reported similar religiosity as children. Obviously, the first and most cogent conclusion one can draw from this study is that it is not genes, but the family environment, that determines how religious people are as children. Odd, then, that all the spin is the other way.

Second, it is completely inappropriate to conclude that a genetically determined predisposition to religion keeps the identical twins more similar as adults. If genes are behind this, then it seems much more likely to me that it's a genetic predisposition to believing whatever the heck it is your parents told you to believe, not to religion specifically, that keeps the identical twins more similar. What is more, identical twins not only share the same genes, they have a more similar environment as children than do fraternal twins, because other people treat them more similarly; and it is plausible to suppose that they continue to have a more similar environment as adults, and also to remain closer to each other, than do fraternal twins. So I must say I feel the investigators, and reporters who have covered this study, are overinterpreting results which are merely suggestive and could have various explanations.

Finally, this might apply only to males from Minnesota.

Observational studies, alas, are very often misleading. There is a major article in the December 5 JAMA (subscription only) by Athina Tatsioni and colleagues, about the persistence in the literature of claims based on observational studies which have been contradicted by subsequent experimental evidence. These include the once widely touted claims that Vitamin E and beta Carotene prevent cancer, and that estrogen can prevent Alzheimer's disease. Alas, randomized controlled trials have found these supplements, on the contrary, to be harmful. (Stop taking them if you haven't alrady!) The problem is that the world is very complicated and when we try to look at the relaionship between X and Y observationally, we can't rule out that X is associated with a whole of other things -- call them A through W -- that are also influencing Y. Therefore the perceived association between X and Y may be entirely spurious.

There are some profounder things I could say about genes and personality. Essentially, genes don't determine anything. Genes interact with the environment through developmental processes, and it could be that a gene that predisposes to being fat in one environment predisposes to being thin in another. We are no doubt born with predispositions to various personality traits but that is assuming a particular context.

In the end, it is obvious that the principal source of religious belief is indoctrination. Children who grow up in Christian households become Christians, and children who grow up in Yezidi households become Yezidis. People who are inclined to figure things out for themselves, who have the courage and critical thinking skills to abandon old beliefs when they encounter new evidence, who have access to accurate information about the world, and who live in societies that tolerate independent thinking and do not impose excessive conformity, stop being religious. People who lack those advantages do not.

Apparently some people misunderstood me . . .

or I didn't make myself clear. I don't have any opinion whatsoever about the validity of Mormon vs., say, Southern Baptist Convention beliefs. My only point is this:

Mitt Romney has called on conservative Christians to join with Mitt and his fellow Mormons in ganging up on me, and excluding my beliefs from the public square, and excluding me and people who agree with me from political office. It's only natural, and perfectly within my rights in that situation, for me to ask people to consider whether Mitt's proposed alliance actually makes any sense, and if they think it does, to be clear about why.

If people want to use a comment thread here to argue about whether Mormons are actually Christians or how compatible or incompatible their doctrines are, go to it. I don't actually take any position on those questions, in fact I think they are nonsensical.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

What we aren't allowed to talk about

First of all, sorry for being away, it's end of the semester, student papers to read, proposals to write, conferences to attend -- blogging always ought to come first, but I'm just irresponsible I guess.

Anyhow, today's Sunday Sermonette concerns the greatest peculiarity of our faith-based politics. That is the idea that politicians have to continually proclaim their piety, but it doesn't matter what they actually believe, as long as they are religious. This was the essence of Mitt Romney's big speech last week -- in America, it doesn't matter what religion you believe in, as long as you believe in one. He was introduced by George Bush the First, who is on record as saying that atheists should not be permitted to hold public office in the United States.

A lot about this idea strikes me as odd, but probably the oddest thing is that people of different religions disagree as much with each other as they with atheists. Romney did not, in fact, give one single piece of information about Mormon belief in his speech. Apparently it doesn't matter. Here is a story from today's Boston Globe about Mormonism, which is all about how the history of the sect is disputed and how Mormon leaders aren't fully transparent about it, but which tells us almost nothing about Mormon history and nothing whatsoever about Mormon doctrine. This is precisely what all of the coverage of the question of Romney's religion is like -- nobody dares tell us what Mormon's actually believe.

Why is that? There's certainly plenty of talk about what atheists believe -- most of it completely wrong, of course, such as the commonplace assertion that we don't believe anything. If Christians are supposed to think that voting for an atheist is wrong, but voting for a Mormon is okay, shouldn't they be curious about what it means to be a Mormon?

Even when they do purport to say something about Mormon doctrine, the corporate media stop far short of telling the whole story. For example, here is Stephanie Simon in the LA Times. What she reveals is accurate, but she assiduously avoids any information that would seem really strange or offensive to Christians.

Fortunately, atheists are not bound by the cult of omerta. Here is a thorough background doctrine on Mormonism by an ex-believer, Richard Packham. You may be interested to read the whole thing, but he offers some bullet points that the LA Times doesn't think we ought to know about:

* God was once a man like us.
* God has a tangible body of flesh and bone.
* God lives on a planet near the star Kolob.
* God ("Heavenly Father") has at least one wife, our "Mother in Heaven," but she is so holy that we are not to discuss her nor pray to her.
* Jesus was married.
* We can become like God and rule over our own universe.
* There are many gods, ruling over their own worlds.
* Jesus and Satan ("Lucifer") are brothers, and they are our brothers - we are all spirit children of Heavenly Father
* Jesus Christ was conceived by God the Father by having sex with Mary, who was temporarily his wife.
* We should not pray to Jesus, nor try to feel a personal relationship with him.
* The "Lord" ("Jehovah") in the Old Testament is the being named Jesus in the New Testament, but different from "God the Father" ("Elohim").
* In the highest degree of the celestial kingdom some men will have more than one wife.
* Before coming to this earth we lived as spirits in a "pre-existence", during which we were tested; our position in this life (whether born to Mormons or savages, or in America or Africa) is our reward or punishment for our obedience in that life.
* Dark skin is a curse from God, the result of our sin, or the sin of our ancestors. If sufficiently righteous, a dark-skinned person will become light-skinned.
* The Garden of Eden was in Missouri. All humanity before the Great Flood lived in the western hemisphere. The Ark transported Noah and the other survivors to the eastern hemisphere.
* Not only will human beings be resurrected to eternal life, but also all animals - everything that has ever lived on earth - will be resurrected and dwell in heaven.
* Christ will not return to earth in any year that has seen a rainbow.
* Mormons should avoid traveling on water, since Satan rules the waters.
* The sun receives its light from the star Kolob.
* If a Gentile becomes Mormon, the Holy Ghost actually purges his Gentile blood and replaces it with Israelite blood.
* A righteous Mormon will actually see the face of God in the Mormon temple.
* You can identify a false angel by the color of his hair, or by offering to shake his hand.

I happen to believe that all religions are equally ridiculous. But I must ask my Christian brothers -- do you think that my reliance on evidence and reason makes my beliefs somehow more offensive than these? And I have the same question for Mitth Romney and his fellow Mormons. Christians think all of these beliefs are preposterous and blasphemous. How does that make them better than me?

Thursday, December 06, 2007

No, give me deeper darkness.

Money is not made in the light.

That is a quote from Shaw's Heartbreak House, set on the eve of WWI, whose protagonist holds off the doom of his estate and idle rich family by inventing weapons.

Jonathan Schell, among other important insights, discusses the strange darkness which envelops the reality of nuclear weapons. I highly recommend the entire interview, which reminds us of matters of great urgency which are simply never discussed in public.

The incompetent, pathologically dishonest and quite possibly insane individual who occupies 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue never says anything that is true and sensible, but one of his latest utterances is even more delusional than the norm. Yet the corporate media, as always, have allowed it to pass unremarked upon. He says that Iran cannot be permitted to have the knowledge needed to build a nuclear weapon.

At the center of Schell's discussion is precisely the bizarre disconnect between such thinking and reality. Mr. Bush's idea, that nuclear weapons technology can be kept secret, and monopolized by a few powers, is preposterous. I have the knowledge needed to build a nuclear weapon. That knowledge is as commonplace as the knowledge needed to make an automobile or a dishwasher. There are dozens of countries that could manufacture nuclear weapons within a few years or even months if they chose to do so. Iran cannot possibly be denied that knowledge, even by murdering every physicist and engineer in the country and continuing to murder them systematically as they graduate.

As I posted a few weeks ago, you can download designs for nuclear weapons from publicly available web sites. If I had enough highly enriched uranium, I could make a nuclear bomb in my basement. Making one that will fit on the tip of a missile is more difficult, but well within the capability of any nation with moderate industrial capacity.

As I said then, and Schell says now, the way to stop Iran from making nuclear weapons is the way, the only way, to stop proliferation in general, and that is abolition. That we are having this discussion about Iran without ever mentioning the nuclear arsenals of other nations -- including most relevantly those of Israel, the United States, and Sunni Pakistan, all of which are hostile or potentially hostile to Iran -- is just demented. We need to go beyond the delusion of non-proliferation and embrace the chance of disarmament. Our only chance. The last chance of humanity.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Well I never . . .

Is it possible there has been a massive shift in the zeitgeist? Last night I channel surfed to Hardball and got stuck there for a while. Tweety and Mrs. Alan Greenspan, of all people, were skating right up to the ultimate TV taboo -- not any of the seven words you can't say, but the one word you absolutely, positively, cannot apply to George W. Bush, and that is of course the L word.

In the greatest ice dance since Torvill and Dean, they showed clips of Chimpy chattering and then opined to the effect that "That just isn't true," or "It simply isn't credible," and even went so far as to tell us all the actual, real, valid, reliable, factual, concrete truth -- the stuff that happened, not the stuff that Republican politicians said happened. They still couldn't say the Simian-in-Chief was lying, that's still illegal, but even though they couldn't use the word, they wanted us to know what they were thinking.

And that's not all. Tweety was really, really pissed. He was hurt. It seems that he really believed all that crap about World War Three and he felt profoundly betrayed.

And then it got even better. Jellyfish Joe Biden came on and -- mirabile dictu! -- Jellyfish Joe has decided to join the phylum Chordata. I'm still going to call him Notochord Joe because he has a way to go to earn full credit for a vertebral column, but he's definitely no longer 100% soft tissue. He couldn't say the L word either but he did say something about misleading the public. And then Tweety asked him why the neocons invaded Iraq and why they wanted war with Iran.

Joe said it! He named that which shall not be named! He said that the underlying motive was to acquire permanent bases from which to dominate militarily the petroleum resources of the Middle East. Yes he did. (Tweety and Mrs. G. had been unable to even imagine such a thing -- they were musing about Iranian sponsorship for terrorism and stuff.) After I picked my teeth up off the floor, Senator Notochord made a vague promise to the effect that we would indeed see the so far censored portion of the Senate Intelligence Committee report on the Iraq war. And to top it off, he said that if Bush attacked Iran without congressional authorization, he'd call for impeachment.

Of course, nobody watches MSNBC and we all know what was going on over at Rupert Murdoch's RNC channel. Still, this was like waking up in a parallel universe.

PS: Then there's the question of what's really going on here. For months all we've been hearing is that the NIE was not going to be declassified and then suddenly, POW, right in the simian kisser. My guess? A mutiny by the military leadership, possibly with the concurrence of Sec. Gates. Declassify the NIE findings, or we resign and spill the beans. Now that's news.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

I'm shocked, shocked, to find that ass covering is going on here

No doubt you've heard the news that nearly half of physicians surveyed say they have known about impaired colleagues but have not reported them. The principal investigator finds this absolutely astonishing, but what astonishes me is that he finds it astonishing. Everybody who hangs around the profession knows this -- not only do doctors not report impaired colleagues, they give positive recommendations when incompetent physicians seek work elsewhere. What surprises me is that only 45% will admit to this, when the true figure is probably much closer to 100%.

What's even more astonishing about this survey is that only 1 to 3 percent of respondents admit to not telling patients or family members about errors they have made themselves. Hah! Pish tosh. Balderdash. It has been well established that physicians have a deeply ingrained culture of excusing and minimizing errors among themselves, and not telling patients when they screw up. What is really happening in this survey is denial -- physicians not recognizing their own behavior.

It does surprise me a bit that 25% say it's perfectly okay to refer patients to imaging facilities in which they have a financial interest, since that is actually illegal in most states. I would have expected them to give the "correct" answer. Even if they routinely violate the law it's rather brazen to admit it.

Still, this survey was a useful exercise. Efforts are underway to promote transparency and constructive handling of mistakes in medicine. Mistakes will happen, so the professional culture and institutions need to put a stop to the coverups that are currently routine -- so deeply ingrained in the culture that, as I say, only 3% of doctors even admit in confidence to what they actually do, probably because they don't even recognize it -- and allow errors to be addressed openly so that lessons can be learned.

Many physicians will say that the problem is fear of being sued. However, that fear is misplaced. There is little or no relationship between the likelihood of a patient initiating a lawsuit and the reality of negligence or incompetence. Mistakes are not necessarily negligent and don't normally incur liability. But patients don't like finding out that they have been lied to, and they don't like being treated inhumanely or disrespectfully. Those are the real factors that trigger most lawsuits.

So come clean Doc. It will make you a better doctor and a more humane healer. As for Doctor Doofus or Doctor Thirsty down the hall, turn him in and get him the help he needs. It's the right thing to do.

Monday, December 03, 2007

The R word

The business and financial punditocracy is terrified of ever uttering the word "recession" because they think they'll get blamed for self-fulfilling prophecy if it happens. But now they are starting to utter it, in the required format "I don't think it will happen but it might," which means they do think it will happen. Some are even gloomier and are embedding the D word in breathy exhalations.

Now, I've lived through a couple of recessions. I remember the food in the college dining hall suddenly getting a lot worse when the recession of the early 1970s knocked back the endowment that had previously given us lobster newburg. (No joke.) And I remember that George Bush the First suffered mightily in his re-election bid from an economic slowdown. Bill Clinton's campaign motto was "It's the economy, stupid," and it worked. Neither of these events were a big deal though. The unemployment rate bumped up a bit, people got anxious, and then unemployment went right back down and we kept on being a rich country.

But now it's different. Workers' real incomes have been basically stagnant now for 20 years, a shrinking percentage of people get health insurance through employment and those who do are already paying more, and of course there are all those folks out there having trouble making their mortgage payments. A spike in unemployment next year will be a disaster that could easily feed on itself and spiral out of control. More foreclosures, and a wipeout of the construction industry. Fewer people with health insurance and the possibility of an actual contraction in the most reliable growth sector of the economy. A collapse in consumer spending and hard times for retail. The export driven economies of east Asia will suffer and all that capital investment in factories will suddenly be unproductive. A global slowdown will just exacerbate our problems here as demand for U.S. capital goods falls. State tax revenues will decline just as infrastructure problems are growing truly dangerous. Will we see Bushville squatter camps on the edges of our cities?

And what will this do to our politics? It ought to be good for Democrats, but when the Republicans in the White House and Congress find themselves staring at a massive electoral wipeout, the prospect of bombs falling on Iran is going to start looking even better to them. In the 1930s, we got Roosevelt and the Germans got Hitler. Which way would it go in the U.S. today?