Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Freedom to Discriminate: Part 1


Since November of 2012, 10 new states have legalized same-sex marriage by court decision, legislation or popular referendum. Pending appeal, Utah, Oklahoma, Kentucky and Virginia are poised to j oin them in the next couple of years. In reaction to this tremendous push forward, several state legislatures are trying to pull us back to the 1960s. 
Idaho, Mississippi, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee and Arizona have all put forward similar legislation that seeks to promote “religious freedom” by allowing anyone from small business owners to emergency responders to deny service based on their sincerely held religious beliefs. So far, Arizona’s is the only one to have passed a state congress.
While these laws have grabbed national headlines, they are just the most outrageous examples of a nationwide response to the changing social attitude towards marriage equality. Last year, in my home state of Minnesota, the Minnesota Family Council successfully lobbied against an anti-bullying law on the grounds that it would be a “gross intrusion on parental autonomy and religious freedom.” 
At the core of all these fights is a very specific claim: By making laws against anti-gay bullying or discrimination, we are violating the “religious freedom”of people who want to bully and discriminate. 
No.
Religious freedom means you get to believe whatever you want. Religious freedom means you are free to practice your religion to the extent that it does not harm others.

Read the rest here. My next column is also submitted and will be a followup discussion to this week's.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Robots don't Kill People

Recently, I attended a seminar entitled “How to NOT build a Terminator” by Ronald Arkin, director of the Mobile Robot Laboratory at the Georgia Institute of Technology . The talk explored how roboticists should approach the ethics of robots with lethal autonomy, especially in light of increased military interest in robotics. Advocacy groups around the world are calling for preemptive actions ranging from a moratorium on robots capable of deadly force to a total ban on robotics research.

Especially over the past year, drones have been a constant source of both excitement and fear. From Amazon Prime Air to “signature strikes” in Pakistan, drones have captured the public’s attention.

But as a roboticist, it frustrates me that public conversations surrounding “killer robots” have little to do with actual robotics. So, I’d like to address some common concerns and misconceptions about robots to help the discussion be more productive.

Read the rest here:
http://www.thedp.com/article/2014/02/robots-dont-kill-people


The original talk (or a version of it anyways) can be found here.


Friday, February 14, 2014

So that was interesting

In preparation for the Ravi Zacharias event at UPenn, I wrote an opinion column laying out some of my concerns about Ravi's style and beliefs. Apparently it struck a nerve.

Here's the full text of my column:
Not ready for Ravi
The Devil’s Advocate | Ravi Zacharias may be an evangelist to the intellectuals, but he's no intellectual evangelist
 
Pastor Aaron Campbell of Philadelphia’s Antioch of Calvary Chapel has been independently planning the upcoming Ravi Zacharias lecture for over two years. According to Campbell, Ravi’s talk will be “one of the most intellectually stimulating lectures you have ever been to.”
I’m sorry, Aaron, but intellectually stimulating is not the same as mentally taxing. 
It concerns me greatly to see so many intelligent Penn students praising Zacharias as an intellectual heavyweight. Ravi is an expert rhetorician and apologist, but his views and arguments hardly deserve the term intellectual. 
Let us start with his reasons for rejecting the theory of evolution:
“The ascending of biological forms into more complex and superior designs also comes into conflict with the Second Law of Thermodynamics in Physics,” Zacharius wrote in his book, “The Real Face of Atheism.” This is an embarrassing and egregious misunderstanding of science propagated by anti-science organizations like the Institute for Creation Research and Answers in Genesis. 
While he has repeatedly made clear that he does not accept evolution for this and other equally ridiculous reasons, accounts vary regarding what he does believe. In private correspondence he is reported to be “firmly committed to a young earth” and to have “always held to the literal six day creation.” His ministry takes no official position (usually a sign it wishes to avoid embarrassment) but apparently considers it an important enough question to put first on its website’s Q&A page. 
Not content to stop at science denialism, Ravi goes on to promote a sinister revisionist history:
“Hitler’s point was that the destruction of the weak is a good thing for the survival of the strong … as is taught by atheistic evolution’s tenet of natural selection. …We have been down the atheist road before, and it ended in a holocaust,” he wrote in “The End of Reason.”
Elsewhere in his book, he puts abortion morally on par with child pornography and claims “atheistic philosophy is having its way with our children” on both counts. The connection seems obvious to him, but escapes me.
When asked about homosexuality, Ravi said, “Sex is a sacred gift of God. I can no longer justify an aberration of it in somebody else’s life than I can justify my own proclivities to go beyond my marital boundaries.”
It pains me to realize many still consider Ravi a great moral teacher. 
However, unless someone specifically brings up these topics in a question, Ravi is unlikely to address them in his talk. He surely knows his positions will not endear himself to the Penn community at large. 
What you can expect at the lecture is Ravi routinely distorting his opponents into vile straw men. 
For example, famous ethicist and animal rights activist Peter Singer put forward an argument against animal testing which includes a thought experiment directly comparing the suffering of intelligent animals and young children of below average intelligence. Ravi twists this nuanced and clever argument into “[Peter Singer believes] that a pig is of more value than a child with a disability.” Not even a Princeton professor like Singer deserves such malicious misrepresentation. 
Ravi has similarly shown his lack of intellectual integrity by distorting the views of thinkers such as Sam Harris, Sartre, Nietzsche, Descartes, Buddha, Gandhi and others. 
As for the Q&A session, one of Ravi’s favorite toys is the red herring. When asked a difficult or uncomfortable question, Ravi will begin telling a seemingly unrelated (and usually apocryphal) anecdote. By the time he reaches the point of the story, if there is one, so much time has elapsed that most have forgotten the original question, allowing Ravi to instead answer the question he would have preferred. 
I am still planning to attend his lecture, but that’s because I have a tendency toward mental masochism. If you choose to attend, keep any questions you ask him short and memorable. Otherwise, we’ll never be able to move beyond Ravi’s rhetoric and search for the substance. 
As of this writing, the column has 272 comments, which is a new record for me and possibly the Daily Pennsylvanian. The vast majority of the comments are a few people defending Ravi's ridiculous claims that atheism caused the holocaust or arguing that homosexuality is in fact immoral.

A few comments broke the mold and instead tried to save my soul.
Find Jesus and you will understand every word Ravi says, Mr Collins Boots. People who do not have Jesus in their hearts can not understand the Word, which will teach, for one, not to judge others who do not share your beliefs. He has SAVED people's souls. Evolution is nowhere near as important as that, if that's where you are going to base your argument against Ravi. As an intellectual, which you claim to be, you should be open to all arguments rather than oppress them. Why do you feel his lectures are such an attack on your own self, enough to print such a critical review. Mediocre as well, might I add. If you feel so strongly towards Ravi's lectures, I suggest you stand up and debate him yourself. Many profound men before you have done so and found themselves wanting.
...
I ache for you then, Mr. Boots and pray you will find your way back home. God be with you.
- Link
I also received a couple direct emails to the same ends:
It is by no surprise that you appose his viewpoints and presence on campus. In fact, the unadulterated Word of God says that the "natural" man cannot understand the things of the "spirit". So, it is really not your fault that you can't see the intelligence and brilliance of the sound doctrine that he speaks. You simply have rejected the Holy Spirit, which is a requirement to fully understand the relevance and power of His Word.
What I truly give you kudos for however is that it is apparent that you proclaim to be the devils advocate and your philosophies as partially articulated in your article, substantiates that you are a servant of the devil. The Word says that He would prefer for people to be either HOT or COLD towards Him, but those that are lukewarm will be spewed out of his mouth. So, you are actually in better grace with the Lord than those that are not quite sure what side of the philosophical spectrum they sit on. ...
If you attend the event from the posture of the curious student, I strongly believe and pray that your heart can be touched by the power of the Lord Jesus Christ. Saul, was also a devils advocate and lived of life that persecuted the Church, but when he became Paul his life was turned around and he ended up being responsible for penning 2/3 of the new testament.
God Bless you Collin, and I pray that you enjoy your evening and that the Lord has an opportunity to be invited into your heart.
Thanks, I guess?

Another emailer was much more succinct:
I will listen in and cannot wait to hear the question that you pose.......just to see if you hold sand or like the hourglass! You have had over two years to prepare. It is sad when one can be a critic while quoting from books written by others! I like a good debate.
Actually I only had about a month, but to be fair I never stated that publicly.

My article also garnered many prayers for my soul and for Ravi on facebook:
So apparently not everyone is a fan of Ravi Zacharias... we're in Philly for an open forum at University of Pennsylvania, and Ravi's visit is causing quite a stir on campus!

Check out this column in The Daily Pennsylvanian by Collin Boots of the Penn Secular Society... in which he argues that Ravi is "no intellectual," "promotes a sinister revisionist history," and "routinely distorts his opponents."
"It pains me to realize many still consider Ravi a great moral teacher," he writes. http://bit.ly/LR73YD
This column demonstrates the intense campus environment we're going into... and we'd love your prayers for Tuesday's event as our team seeks to operate with grace and truth. #RaviUPenn" 
-Link 
This post is interesting for several reasons. First, she seems surprised that not everyone is enraptured by Ravi's sermons. I hope I'm not reading that correctly. Second, my one column apparently constitutes an "intense campus environment" and "quite a stir." The persecution complex is strong with this one.

What's more concerning though are the follow up comments.

"These pseudo-intellectuals amaze me. They don't even make sense. How can morality be immoral? I guess when it's not based on their particular view. No absolutes and no boundaries." 
"“The wise men shall be put to shame; they shall be dismayed and taken; behold, they have rejected the word of the LORD, so what wisdom is in them?” Jeremiah8:9 Praying!!!" 
"Wow. Lord have your way in that room tomorrow night! You are mighty to save!"

"It's a shame there's no freedom of speech in America, for some people! Everyone can say anything, but once you say something about Jesus, you have no freedom to speak anymore."
I shouldn't need to explain to my likely audience what is wrong with these comments.

Apparently, Ravi himself read my column and his ministry posted a link to it and the companion letter to the editor on his website.
“I have been made aware of some of the antipathy and anxieties over our presence on campus,” remarked Zacharias. “I earnestly hope that as civil and meaningful discourse prevails, all the fears and concerns will be put to rest. Thank you to the organizers for giving me the privilege of speaking here.”
He even spent the first 5 minutes or so of his talk addressing his "critics" and the "hostile campus," making explicit references to my column 3 or 4 times. He even took the time to straw man my critique and make a glancing ad homenim. He said I decried his style for being anecdotal, and said I would have to throw out most of western culture and history if I didn't like anecdotes. Classic Ravi: fitting a straw man and an appeal to the consequences in the same breath.

What I actually said, as you can read above, is that Ravi frequently uses anecdotes as red herrings to distract from the fact he didn't answer the question. That was clearly in evidence Tuesday night.

As an aside, Ravi's website made this false claim in support of their "hostile campus" argument.
For example, posters advertising the event have been taken down, and there have been numerous articles in the campus newspaper as well as posts on social media reflecting the hostility and confusion on campus when it comes to discussing different worldviews.
What actually happened was the Ready for Ravi team violated the poster rules for several of the college halls and they were taken down for being posted in violation of house policy. That's not a hostile environment, that's not following the rules and crying "help help I'm being repressed" when you get caught.

Several people have suggested to me that my column had a mediating effect on Ravi's rhetoric. I have a knee jerk reaction against my writing being that directly influential and doubts about Ravi being so easily dissuaded or thrown off message by < 700 words. Still, it was clear on Tuesday that he put a lot less emphasis on stating his beliefs and a lot more on obscurantist rhetoric than usual. When he was specifically asked about homosexuality, he spent what felt like 10 minutes explaining why he couldn't answer that question.

I was saddened to see that the questioner seemed to think her question was in fact answered. Ravi did mention that "[homosexuals] will stand before God in judgement one day," but that was easy to miss.

Overall, I'm amazed by the response. I don't think anything I've ever written has been so widely circulated and discussed. It's been a very tiring week, but if I got nothing else out of it I have this screenshot to cherish forever:


I welcome brother Ravi into the fold, along with his 128k+ followers he tweeted my article to.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Bill Nye vs Ken Ham Debate Retrospective

I did not go into the debate last night with high hopes. In fact I said publicly that Ken Ham had a very good chance of winning the debate. Ever since the debate has been announced I was one of those naysayers who argued scientists shouldn't debate creationists because it gives them a platform they don't deserve.

Bill Nye may have just changed my mind last night.


I had never seen Nye participate in a formal debate before, but he surprised me with how well he managed it. Perhaps my favorite moment of the night was the start of Bill Nye's 30 minute presentation, where he said
"Thank you very much, and Mr. Ham, I learned something. Thank you. But lets take it back around to the question at hand. Does Ken Ham's creation model hold up? Is it viable?"

 This was the perfect response to Ken Ham's presentation, which can be summed up as:

  • There is a difference between historical science and observational science
  • Here are a few scientists and engineers who are young earth creationists that do good science
  • Secularism/atheism are "hijacking" the words science and evolution in order to indoctrinate children with their naturalistic atheistic evolutionist religion.
  • This chart showing Ham's version of evolution (the "orchard" of life):
Note that dinosaurs apparently survived the flood event (presumably on Noah's ark)
Of Ham's 30 minutes, perhaps 5 of them were dedicated to showing what the creationist view was. The rest was devoted to saying creationists can still do science and be a creationist.

Bill then went on to provide a Gish Gallop of evidence, including some simple math demonstrating the absurdity of the flood account. For example, if there were only 7,000 or so "kinds" on the ark and they branched out into all the 16,000,000 or more extant species today (not to mention all the extinct species) in 4000 years, we would be expecting around 11 new species per day on average. 

Ham later suggested Nye was wrong and there were only about 1,000-2,000 kinds on the ark, which Bill pointed out only makes the problem worse. This sort of belief in hyper-evolution is rather remarkable.


Now let me give a few points of critique on Bill Nye's performance.


First, Nye made the mistake of letting Ham have all of the film rights to the event. Nye was paid expenses plus a speaking fee (which was undisclosed, but his usual fee is $50,000-$75,000). That's a decent sum if that's what he got, but Ken Ham is going to be selling DVDs of the debate, reusing clips out of context, and making money off of Nye's celebrity for as long as his creation museum stays afloat, perhaps longer. Fortunately, the live stream was available on youtube unedited so a full unedited version of the event does exist on the internet for comparison and analysis.

Second, and more importantly Bill Nye showed his inexperience with debating creationists when couldn't efficiently rebut a few very common creationist claims. If Nye only had the talkorigins.org Index of Creationist Claims open during the debate he could have found the claim's details in seconds.

Ham made several claims straight out of the index:

Claim CD011.5A piece of wood was fossilized in the Hawkesbury Sandstone, Australia, which most geologists date to the middle Triassic, about 225 to 230 million years ago. The wood was dated by Geochron (a commercial dating laboratory) using the carbon-14 method. Geochron determined its age to be only 33,720 +/- 430 years before present. Contamination by recent microbes or fungi cannot explain the discrepant age.

The general rebutal to this claim is that Carbon-14 dating isn't effective past 50,000 years so it makes no sense to try and date a sample in that layer and expect accurate results. Talkorigins goes into more detail about potential sources of contamination, the question of whether or not the sample was actually wood, and the fact that the creationists told Geochron nothing about the sample that would have led them to test the sample appropriately.

Unfortunately, Nye spit-balled that the layer moved over the trees, which is not true. Ham will capitalize on debunking that hypothesis, I guarantee it.

Claim CD013.1The conventional K-Ar dating method was applied to the 1986 dacite flow from the new lava dome at Mount St. Helens, Washington. The whole-rock age was 0.35 +/- 0.05 million years (Mya). Ages for component minerals varied from 0.34 +/- 0.06 Mya to 2.8 +/- 0.6 Mya. These ages show that the K-Ar method is invalid.

Once again, we have a sample that is being tested outside the accuracy range of the method. Creationists routinely use dating methods incorrectly to show they are inaccurate. All they have shown is that dating methods don't work when they aren't supposed to.

Claim CD410Ice cores are claimed to have as many as 135,000 annual layers. Yet airplanes of the Lost Squadron were buried under 263 feet of ice in forty-eight years, or about 5.5 feet per year. This contradicts the presumption that the wafer-thin layers in the ice cores could be annual layers.

Greenland has a snowfall rate of about 2m per year. More than enough to account for the rate of cover. Also it's warmer than the arctic so it can have multiple thaw/freeze cycles a year.

He made a lot more claims on the index, but these were three that Nye specifically addressed and clearly wasn't familiar with.

Overall, I think Nye took a good strategy: don't try to go into Ham's version of "science" and debunk his claims there, marginalize his "science" as unique and always speak of science "on the outside." It feeds right into Ham's paradigm of secular censorship and his followers will see that, but I think it will have a strong impact on the middle of the road creationists out there. Nye did a good job of demonstrating how outside the mainstream of both science and religion Ken Ham really is, and that alone may make the debate worth it.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Nature is Beautiful

Amazing photography from National Geographic

Photo by OLIVIER GRUNEWALD
That is electric blue lava on the slopes of Kawah Ijen crater in Indonesia.

The effect is caused by sulfur burning on contact with the atmosphere. Since sulfur burns blue, we get amazing shots like this. Please go check out the original images and more here.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Papal Bull

My first column for the Daily Pennsylvanian student newspaper was just published yesterday. My column will be running under the heading "The Devil's Advocate." Here's the whole column, enjoy. 
During his Christmas address in Vatican City, Pope Francis reached out to atheists, saying, “I invite even nonbelievers to desire peace. [Join us] with your desire, a desire that widens the heart. Let us all unite, either with prayer or with desire, but everyone, for peace.” The line received an uproarious ovation, but I wish to withhold my applause.
Which nonbelievers do not already desire peace? Does he think we prefer war, death or destruction? Why not ask us to work toward peace, instead of just desiring and praying for it?
Now, before you start jumping all over me for being too pedantic, allow me to explain why I’m so hesitant to take Pope Francis’ grand gestures at face value.
In early 2013, Pope Benedict XVI captured the public interest by resigning the papacy because “God told him to.” Benedict’s tenure as pontiff was marked by a sharp turn to the right, seeking what he called a “smaller purer church.” Compared to the much beloved Pope John Paul II, Benedict was a disaster for the church’s image. So when the papal conclave elected Pope Francis, the first non-European Pope since 1272 and a man who was renowned for his kind manner and work with the poor, the contrast was incredibly stark.
Ever since, I have watched countless liberal pundits and writers proclaim Francis a godsend for progressive values. I cannot help but be reminded of 2008’s enthusiasm for Obama’s “Yes We Can” campaign. Both generated a large amount of early enthusiasm through their eloquent pronouncements before actually making policy changes — Obama received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, and the pope was named Time’s 2013 Person of the Year.
Let us revisit some of the pontiff’s highlights from his first year:
On May 23rd, Pope Francis suggested that “even the atheists” can go to heaven. Amid the ensuing media sensation, Vatican spokesman Thomas Rosica quietly released a statement clarifying that the Pope meant atheists can go to heaven … by becoming Catholic.
In a “surprise interview” on a plane back to Rome on July 29th, Francis said, “Who am I to judge a gay person of goodwill who seeks the Lord?” Once again, proponents of social justice lauded the sentiment as new gospel — forgetting to mention that Francis has never changed the church’s opposition to homosexuality. As recently as 2010, he called gay adoption a form of discrimination against children and claimed marriage equality would “seriously damage the family.”
It should have come as no surprise that two months later the pontiff would order the excommunication of Australian priest Greg Reynolds, who was advocating for gay marriage and the ordination of female priests.
Perhaps everything the pope says that sounds remotely liberal should be followed by an asterisk.
“But, Collin,” I hear you cry, “you’re an atheist! Why do you even care what the pope has to say?”
I care because the Catholic Church leads and influences over 1.2 billion (as it likes to boast) parishioners worldwide, with over 70 million in the United States alone.
I care because Pope Francis has made no effort to correct the lie that condom use increases AIDS transmission — a falsehood propagated in Africa by the previous pontiff.
I care because estimates suggest the church’s annual spending approaches $170 billion worldwide, 10 times the annual profits of Walmart. I say “estimates” because the church is tax-exempt, so it is not required to report its earnings.
What do you think?

I care because the Catholic Church spent over $2 million in 2012 fighting marriage equality in Maine, Maryland, Washington and my home state of Minnesota.
1

I care because Catholic hospitals account for 15 percent of hospital beds in the United States and many more worldwide, and the church’s stances on contraception, abortion and end-of-life care often dictate which medical interventions are prescribed.
I care because Pope Francis could change it all.
Regardless of your beliefs about the pope and his alleged hotline to heaven, he holds tremendous power over many of the people and issues I care about greatly. I hope I am wrong about Francis being purely a PR campaign, but actions still speak louder.