Skepticism, Religion Archive

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

A Critical Examination of Ben Carson, Part 2 - Religious Privilege

Ben Carson I've begun a series to take a closer look at Ben Carson, and the main method I've chosen is to read articles that he himself has written. The index contains links to all of the entries in the series.

The first entry in this series was mostly an introduction and some comments on Carson's troubling views on evolution (based on an interview). Today, I'm going tackle the first of the articles, which is an example of religious privilege (similar to the privilege Carson wanted in the (Navy Bible Kerfuffle).

The article is one Carson wrote for the Washington Times, Houston's First Amendment abuse. If you'd believe what Carson wrote, this would be a case of stifling free speech and religious freedom.

The recent, questionably unconstitutional moves by the City Council of Houston to subpoena the sermons of five area ministers as well as internal correspondences dealing with social issues, should have the American Civil Liberties Union and everyone else who believes in free speech and religious freedom up in arms.

But in reality, this to me is an example of the privilege religion gets in the U.S., not having to play by the same rules as every other organization. Snopes, as usual, has a pretty good summary of the specifics of this case, Houston Hustle. Various right wing groups were trying to organize a petition to challenge the recent HERO law passed in Houston. They needed 17,259 signatures to get their initiative placed on the ballot. While they had 50,000 signatures, the city rejected most of them as invalid for various reasons, and the initiative fell short of the threshold. Once they learned of this decision, the opponents of HERO filed a lawsuit against the city. As part of gathering evidence for the lawsuit, the city has subpoenaed sermons and other materials from various ministers. The reason for this, in the words of city attorney, David Feldman, is, "All officials want to know is what kinds of instructions the pastors gave out with respect to collecting petition signatures, and whether what they said agrees with what they're arguing in court while appealing the referendum." Unfortunately, public outcry against the subpoenas was so great that the city dropped them.

Perhaps the subpoenas are overly broad, but they do have a legitimate legal purpose, in trying to determine if the claims in the lawsuit are factual or not. Churches should not be above the law, and should not be able to hide behind the First Amendment to break the law. The city should have a means of investigation to determine if what the churches are claiming in their lawsuit is a lie.

But that's not the way Carson sees it. Take a look at how he sees the issue.

We as Americans must guard every aspect of our Constitution and recognize when it is being threatened. One of the great dangers in America today is extreme intolerance in the name of tolerance. For example, in this Houston case, it is presupposed that the pastors in question may have said something that was objectionable to the homosexual community.

The subpoenas were not because the pastors may have insulted homosexuals, but as I already pointed out, an attempt to determine if the churches are being honest in their lawsuit.

Although city attorneys said that they weren't interested in whether or not the churches were violating their tax-exempt status (it's not within their jurisdiction), I think that this issue should have received much more legal attention. This issue of free speech on the pulpit has certainly received a lot of attention in the articles on this issue, including Carson's.

Churches almost always file as (or simply default to) 501(c)(3) non-profit organizations. Part of the law regarding 501(c)(3) nonprofits is that they're not allowed to engage in overt political activities (About.com - Can Nonprofits Engage in Political Activity?). This applies to any organization that wants to have 501(c)(3) status, from churches to Doctors Without Borders to the Girl Scouts. When ministers want to preach politics from the pulpit, they're violating this law, and risk losing their 501(c)(3) status. It's not that the ministers don't have free speech - but churches don't get to file as that particular type of non-profit if their ministers are going to engage in political speech on church time. Of course, the ministers are free to say whatever they want when not on church time, and like I said, it's the same rules for every other 501(c)(3) charity.

And this isn't the first instance of churches escaping consequences for breaking this law. There's a movement, Pulpit Freedom Sunday, where pastors across the country openly flout this law (N.Y. Times - The Political Pulpit), but because of the special treatment churches get, the IRS has yet to go after these criminals. Just imagine if a modern day Al Capone were to found a church as a front for their organization. They really would be untouchable.

The solution for churches who want to engage in political activity is simple - don't file as a 501(c)(3). But unfortunately, many of these churches want special treatment instead of following the same rules as everybody else (and for the most part, they're getting that special treatment).

To give Carson some credit, the middle portion of his article wasn't too bad. He made some good points about tolerance, open conversation, and free speach. However, in the context of the Houston issue that prompted the article, those points seem out of place. They would have seemed more fitting in an example where people's free speach actually was being suppressed.

The issue in Houston was a city government trying to investigate claims that various churches made in a lawsuit. The city wouldn't have any jurisdiction over the churches' tax exempt statuses, at any rate. But this case clearly shows churches getting special treatment in two ways - first by blocking any investigation into claims they've made relevant to the lawsuit, and second by so egregiously violating tax law without even being investigated at all. Carson can try to claim this is an issue of free speech and religious freedom, but it really seems to be a case of religious privilege.

Summary on RealBenCarson.com: Houston's First Amendment Abuse

Image Source: Christian Post, Credit: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst


Continue to Part 3 - Healthcare & Romanticizing the Past

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Senate Vote - Republicans Still Don't Accept Human Caused Global Warming

Global WarmingIn light of the potential environment impacts that the Keystone Pipeline may have, as well as Republican's notorious refusal to accept anthropogenic (i.e. human-caused) global warming (AGW), a Democratic senator, Sheldon Whitehouse, proposed an amendment to the Keystone Pipeline legislation. His amendment was for a resolution that stated "it is the sense of the Senate that climate change is real and not a hoax." This resolution was overwhelmingly passed (98-1), which has made many headlines and has a few people saying Republicans may finally, slowly, be coming around on this issue. But the way it all came about leaves me far more pessimistic - I don't see any indication that Republicans have shifted to accepting global warming, let alone human caused global warming.

First of all is the wording of the resolution. It speaks only of climate change, not warming. Granted, many people have begun referring to global warming as climate change because the actual changes to the climate are far reaching and complex, and don't necessarily translate to increased temperatures everywhere. But the phenomenon is being driven by greenhouse gases and an increase to the average temperature of the earth. But denialists can easily parse Whitehouse's proposal and say that it simply means changes, not necessarily warming.

Further, Whitehouse's resolution says nothing about the causes of global warming. This leaves open another standard denialist trope - that since we know that climate changes due to natural cycles and other causes, that the current changes are natural.

Well, these two loopholes are exactly the strategy the Republicans took. James Inhofe, one of the most vocal denialists in the Senate, voiced his support for the bill as follows (source - Newsmax).

"Climate is changing, and climate has always changed, and always will, there's archaeological evidence of that, there's biblical evidence of that, there's historic evidence of that, it will always change," Inhofe said.

"The hoax is that there are some people that are so arrogant to think that they are so powerful that they can change climate. Man can't change climate."

So, not only did Inhofe dodge the issue of warming by calling it just climate change, he flat out denied that human activities could have any effect on climate.

A bit later in the day, another Democratic senator, Brian Schatz, introduced another amendment that added in that humans were "significantly responsible" for climate change. Of course, this was too much for most Republicans. This amendment failed by a 50-49 vote, with all of the no votes coming from Republicans, and all but five of the yes votes coming from Democrats and an independent. Since the Republican party is so overwhelmingly anti-science on this issue, I suppose it's worth calling attention to the five who actually supported Schatz's amendment - Lamar Alexander, Kelly Ayotte, Susan Collins, Lindsey Graham, and Mark Kirk. For a full list of how all the senators voted (and to check on your own state's senators), check out the article on Wired, Here Are All the Senators Who Do and Don't Believe in Human-Caused Climate Change.

It's so damn frustrating that Republicans are so anti-reality on an issue with such dire consequences. Global warming is real, humans are primarily responsible, and unless we do something soon, adaptation is going to be very expensive and painful, and there's going to be a lot of suffering that could have been avoided. The fact that we have at least two years of a Republican controlled House and Senate doesn't give me much hope that anything will be accomplished before the next election.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Tragic Death of a Girl due to Alternative Medicine & Religious Beliefs

Makayla SaultYou've probably heard of this by now, but just in case you haven't, here's a quick summary. Makayla Sault, an 11-year-old First Nation girl from Ontario had been diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). Doctors said that with chemotherapy, she had 75% odds of surviving the disease. After 11 weeks of chemo, Makayla had a dream where Jesus came to her and told her she'd been cured and that the chemo was killing her body. She decided she didn't want to do the chemo any longer, and her parents, both pastors, agreed. Along with supposedly traditional treatments*, they took her to an alternative medicine clinic in Florida, where "The girl's mother said her daughter received cold laser therapy, Vitamin C injections and a strict raw food diet, among other therapies at Hippocrates." Tragically, but unsurprisingly, Makayla died.

A good summary is available from CBC News, Makayla Sault, girl who refused chemo for leukemia, dies. This is the article I quoted above. Another summary, though not quite as good, is available from The Globe and Mail, Ontario First Nations girl taken off chemotherapy has died.

This whole affair is so tragic, yet it was most likely avoidable. Treatments for ALL have been getting better and better. Whereas a diagnosis of ALL was a near death sentence back in the '60s, patients receiving treatment now have survival rates of around 90% (more info - Pharyngula: Support cancer research now!). Had Makayla continued with the chemotherapy, she would most likely still be alive today.

Some people see this case as controversial, having to respect the rights of the parents and their traditional beliefs (even if the clinic they went to was practicing modern quack therapies). I couldn't disagree more. There should be no controversy here at all - this was clearly a case of either abuse or neglect.

On Jerry Coyne's website, he wrote an article discussing this issue, Canadian government kills First Nations girl out of misguided respect for faith. I got a bit involved in the comments, and left a reply to one of the people that sees this as a controversial case, which I've decided to copy here since it summarizes my thoughts on this well.

Children are not property of their parents. They are their own individual people, but without fully developed brains and the rational thinking and maturity that goes along with that. That is why parents have a duty to properly raise children until the children reach a sufficient level of maturity to face the world on their own. Parents should have latitude only in so much as they are acting in the best interests of the children. Once a parent's actions jeopardize or cause harm to the child, they've gone well beyond any plausible latitude.

Governments have the responsibility of protecting citizens, whether the citizen is being threatened by a stranger in a dark alley or by their own parents abusing them. Cases like this of withholding appropriate medical care are among the worst cases of abuse, since they result in the death of the child.

Children do not have sufficient maturity, experience, or knowledge to make well thought out decisions on life and death issues. Their wishes should be considered, and given increasing weight as the child matures and approaches adulthood, but those wishes should not trump the judgment of mature, well informed adults (usually the parents, but the state if the parents are incompetent).

Of course, there will always be grey areas. When does spanking become physical abuse? When does lecturing become verbal abuse? When does opting out of pills become criminal neglect? That's why we have judges and the court system. If interpreting the law were easy, we'd just have clerks administering penalties rather than having judges.

I do feel sympathy for the parents, not only for the loss of their daughter, but for the circumstances that led them to become so deluded that they thought a snake oil salesman in Florida offered more hope for Makayla than evidence based medicine. But that sympathy won't bring Makayla back. And there are other children in similar circumstances. This is tragic, and those children's lives are worth more than the parents' feelings.

I am extremely angry at people like Judge Gethin Edward, who had the chance to save these children, yet caved to cultural sensitivities. Was respect for traditional medicine worth this girl's life? How do you sleep at night knowing you sentenced her to death?**

Sadly, at least one more child, known publicly only as J.J., is almost surely going to die due to nearly identical circumstances. How many children must die before this situation will be changed?

Makayla Sault
Makayla Sault, 2004-2015

Image Source: CBC (with video)


*Although most of the articles I've seen mention 'traditional medicine', I haven't seen any discussion of actual traditional treatments. It seems that the main treatments were from the alternative medicine clinic in Florida.

**Judge Edward ruled in the case of J.J., not Makayla, but it was that decision that set the precedent for Makayla's case. Additionally, unless there is some last minute miracle, J.J. will almost surely die, as well.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Depressing Poll - Majority of Americans Support Torture

This is a few weeks old, but I can't let it go by without commenting on it.

In the wake of the Senate Intelligence Committee's report on the CIA's use of torture, the Washington Post and ABC News conducted a poll to determine American's attitudes towards torture. And the results were depressing. Over half of Americans thought that torture was justified! Let that sink in a minute. We're talking about methods bad enough that we executed the Japanese soldiers who used them against American soldiers during WWII. Some of the detainees were tortured to death. And on top of all that, not all of the people tortured were actual enemies - they were merely suspects who never received their day in court, and some have since been determined to have been innocent. And people think this is justified!

Waterboarding
(Image Source: Raw Story)

For a bit of historical perspective, let's consider a document that while not quite a founding document of the USA, was still very important in showing the attitudes of the nation's founders, the Declaration of Independence. Here's the opening line to the second paragraph (emphasis mine):

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

All men. Unalienable. Jefferson and the signatories weren't hedging their words. They thought everyone was deserving of "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness".

Now, let's move on to a document that actually does carry legal weight in the U.S., the Constitution. Take a look at the eighth amendment (again with emphasis by me):

Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

It's right there in our nation's founding document that 'cruel and unusual punishments' are forbidden, yet here we are doing just that.

Now, you could bring up the practical side, and point out that torture isn't even an effective means of obtaining information - that it's unreliable and non-torture methods are more effective. But that's a bit of a red herring. Torture is wrong on moral grounds, not just practical ones.

Americans are rightly outraged at the horrific examples of ISIS beheading U.S. journalists. But it's not because the beheadings are ineffective at ISIS achieving their goals. It's because the actions are barbaric. But how can the U.S. claim any moral high ground when we do things like this (source: The Guardian):

At COBALT, the CIA interrogated in 2002 Gul Rahman, described as a suspected Islamic extremist. He was subjected to "48 hours of sleep deprivation, auditory overload, total darkness, isolation, a cold shower and rough treatment".

CIA headquarters suggested "enhanced measures" might be needed to get him to comply. A CIA officer at COBALT ordered Rahman be "shackled to the wall of his cell in a position that required the detainee to rest on the bare concrete floor".

He was only wearing a sweatshirt as a CIA officer has ordered his clothes to be removed earlier after judging him to be uncooperative during an interrogation.

The next day, guards found Rahman dead. An internal CIA review and autopsy assessed he likely died from hypothermia - "in part from having been forced to sit on the bare concrete floor without pants". An initial CIA review and cable sent to CIA headquarters after his death included a number of misstatements and omissions.

Torturing someone, and then leaving them chained half naked to a cold concrete floor to freeze to death is barbaric. And whereas a beheading, as horrific as it is, is relatively quick, this was a prolonged torture. And the final freezing to death took hours. It was horrible.

And what about this:

"The two detainees that each had a broken foot were also subjected to walling, stress positions and cramped confinement, despite the note in their interrogation plans that these specific enhanced interrogation techniques were not requested because of the medical condition of the detainees," the report says.

And if forcing people with broken bones to stand on those bones doesn't seem harsh enough, how about shoving food and water up a person's anus:

CIA operatives subjected at least five detainees to what they called "rectal rehydration and feeding".

One CIA cable released in the report reveals that detainee Majid Khan was administered by enema his "'lunch tray' consisting of hummus, pasta with sauce, nuts and raisins was 'pureed and rectally infused'". One CIA officer's email was in the report quoted as saying "we used the largest Ewal [sic] tube we had".

...

Risks of rectal feeding and rehydration include damage to the rectum and colon, triggering bowels to empty, food rotting inside the recipient's digestive tract, and an inflamed or prolapsed rectum from carless insertion of the feeding tube. The report found that CIA leadership was notified that rectal exams may have been conducted with "Excessive force", and that one of the detainees, Mustafa al-Hawsawi, suffered from an anal fissure, chronic hemorrhoids and symptomatic rectal prolapse.

The CIA's chief of interrogations characterized rectal rehydration as a method of "total control" over detainees, and an unnamed person said the procedure helped to "clear a person's head".

These were sadistic, disgusting acts committed against human beings. And remember that they were only suspects, who never had their day in court to determine their innocence or guilt. It's absolutely shameful that a majority of Americans support this.


Aside from pointing out just how horrible this torture has been, the survey revealed something else. It broke down support for torture by various groups (details here), including political party and religious affiliation. It's probably not very surprising, but support for torture was highest among conservatives, Republicans, and the religious. In fact, the three demographic categories listed with the highest support for torture were conservative Republican (72%), Republican (71%), and white evangelical Protestant (69%) (note that percentages represent people answering 'sometimes' or 'often' to the question of whether torture of suspected terrorists can ever be justified). The three demographic groups with the least support were liberal Democrat (38%), no religion (40%), and liberal (43%). It's still distressing that so many liberals support torture, but at least it's not a majority.

Since I write about religion so much on this blog, I'll also point out explicitly that the 'no religion' category was the religious category with the least support for torture, or conversely, with the most opposition. Every other religious group listed had majority support (white evangelical Protestant - 79%, white Catholic - 68%, white non-evangelical Protestant - 63%). This is just further demonstration that religion doesn't lead people to better morals.


Anyway, I'm done with this entry. Every time I read through it again to proof-read or see if there's anything else I want to add, I just get angry. This is a horrible, horrible stain on our country's reputation. Everyone involved, from Bush and Cheney on down, ought to be taken to the Hague and tried for human rights abuses. But instead of justice, we live in a country where the majority supports this depravity.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Did Gustave Whitehead Beat the Wright Brothers as the First To Fly

Woodcut of Whitehead's Flying MachineIn honor of Wright Brothers' Day, I figured I'd address a topic concerning their reputation as the first people to fly. There's a bit of a movement to try to bestow that honor on a different man - Gustave Whitehead.

Whitehead (born Wei├čkopf, but he changed his name when he moved to America) was an early aviation pioneer who built several unsuccessful flying machines. However, there are claims that he was successful on a few occasions prior to the Wright Brothers. These claims mostly come from a handful of sources - Whitehead's own claims, eye-witness accounts, and a report from the newspaper, the Bridgeport Herald. There's also a newly discovered photo supposedly showing Whitehead in the air. This photo was enough to convince Jane's All the World's Aircraft to officially recognize Whitehead as the first to fly, and for Connecticut to pass a bill proclaiming Whitehead as the first.

The problem is that none of these sources of evidence are particularly reliable. Whitehead himself could hardly be considered an unbiased party, so his claims can only be taken with a grain of salt without independent evidence to back it up.

There are numerous eyewitness accounts of Whitehead making flights. These do help the case, but they're still not ironclad proof. Eyewitness accounts are notoriously unreliable. Just this morning I received my weekly eSkeptic newsletter, with the subject this time being about just how unreliable eyewitness testimony can be (in this case, prompted by the Michael Brown affair in Ferguson). That article has many good examples, but one of my favorites that it didn't include was the Challenger Study (or a similar 911 study). When people were interviewed the day after the Challenger tragedy, they gave an account of where they were and what they were doing when they learned about the explosion. But in a follow-up interview a year later, even though the memories still seemed vivid and real, they had changed, sometimes in very big ways (e.g. hearing about it from classmates vs. watching it live). In the case of Whitehead, most of the affidavits from eyewitnesses are from decades later - more than enough time for memories to become warped.

The local newspaper in Bridgeport published an article about Whitehead and one of his supposed flights. There's some conjecture over how serious the article might have been, but the most damning aspect of it is Whitehead's account of the flight. Speaking as a private pilot and an aerospace engineer, this is not the type of description you'd expect for somebody's first time flying any aircraft, let alone a primitive airplane designed when there was less understanding of controls and stability. Read this passage about his climbout, and how Whitehead did nothing to level his climb, but just rode it out with the machine taking care of it.

When the ship had reached a height of about forty or fifty feet I began to wonder how much higher it would go. But just about that time I observed that she was sailing along easily and not raising any higher.

But this paragraph is the one that really struck me.

And while my brain was whirling with these new sensations of delight I saw ahead a clump of trees that the machine was pointed straight for. I knew that I must in some way steer around those trees or raise above them. I was a hundred yards distant from them and I knew that I could not clear them by raising higher, and also that I had no means of steering around them by using the machinery. Then like a flash a plan to escape the trees came to mind. I had watched the birds when turned out of a straight course to avoid something ahead. They changed their bodies from a horizontal plane to one slightly diagonal to the horizontal. To turn to the left the bird would lower its left wing or side of its body. The machine ought to obey the same principle and when within about fifty yards of the clump of trees I shifted my weight to the left side of the machine. It swung over a little and began to turn from the straight course. And we sailed around the trees as easy as it was to sail straight ahead.

Are we really to believe that Whitehead took off in an airplane without having given any thought beforehand to how he was to control it? It's absurd to imagine that such a flight would be successful, or would have been the leisurely affair that Whitehead described. And as the commentary in the article I linked to describes, the inferred speeds from this flight are impossibly slow. It's just not a plausible scenario.


Now it's time to examine what's actually my favorite part of this 'controversy' - the photographic evidence. There were some press reports that a photo of Whitehead in flight had been on display at the first exhibition of the Aero Club of America in 1906. Noone has been able to find this photo, but a Whitehead advocate, John Brown, thinks he's found evidence of it. The evidence comes from this photo of the exibition:

First exhibition of the Aero Club of America, January, 1906

The box and arrow were added by someone else to show the area of interest to Whitehead supporters. Brown took that region and enlarged it by several thousand percent to get this supposed image of Whitehead in flight:

Alleged photo of Gustave Whitehead in Flight

Brown has a lengthy article describing his analysis of the photo. He also has a description of it on the homepage of Gustave-Whitehead.com, that includes this side by side comparison of the photo to what he thinks it represents.

John Brown's Interpretation of Alleged Whitehead Flight Photo

Now, that's a pretty fanciful interpretation. And Brown appears to be very confident in his analysis despite the obvious lack of detail. But thankfully, we don't have to just wave this off as too vague to be meaningful. Carroll F. Gray has dug into this claim (and many others). Gray has pretty conclusively demonstrated that this photo is not of one of Whitehead's machines, but is rather a glider built by a John J. Montgomery. As much as I would like to steal some of Gray's photos to show in this post, he's put in so much effort that he deserves the visitors at his site. So, in case you missed the link before, here it is again, Update # 5: The Photographs - Whitehead Aloft They Are Not. I highly recommend visiting that page. Even if it's not Whitehead in the air, it's very interesting how Gray was able to track down this scene from such a blurry image and definitively identify the actual scene it's depicting.


Aside from all these poor lines of evidence put forward by the Whitehead advocates, it also helps to take a step back and look at the big picture. The Wright Brothers made their first flight in 1903. They learned their lessons from that flight, went through a few more iterations of flying machines, and by 1908 were giving public demonstations that amazed audiences (though it should be noted that by 1908, there were others flying - just not nearly as well as the Wrights). Whitehead supposedly made his first flight a year or two before the Wright brothers, and then... what? Other than that one questionable article (and many papers that picked up that single story), Whitehead never made headlines with any public flights. He never even built an airplane that could fly after that. How does someone go from being the first in flight to not being able to make another working airplane, despite several attempts?


There's really no good, strong evidence to back up the claim that Gustave Whitehead was the first person to successfully fly an airplane, and there are actually a few indicators that it never happened (like his account of the flight). I think it's possible (though still not backed up with evidece) that he did have some success, maybe even making a vehicle capable of hopping into the air and staying aloft for a few seconds. But the honor of the first in flight still belongs to the Wright Brothers.

---

I came across several interesting articles on these issues (some of which I might have already linked to above).

More Info:


Image Source: Wikipedia

Archives

Selling Out