A lie goes round the world before the truth has put his boots on

(A Terry Pratchett quote, from the Truth, possibly an old saying, possibly invented on the spot.)

A BBC article said that Birmingham City Council has banned atheist websites.

I read this news in my workplace (which seems to randomly ban or allow even this site. There is absolutely no discernable difference in cussword quotient or possible offensiveness between this site on the days when it throws up threatening warning messages that I’ve tried to access a forbidden site and should instantly alert my line manager from the days when it works normally.)

I was shocked. Bloggably shocked, even.

I didn’t – for more than a minute or so – think that Birmingham Council actually wanted to ban atheist sites. The BBC article made it pretty clear it’s some useless off-the-shelf netnanny software that they are using. (In comments on Pharyngula, Cronan, Quidam and Armchair Dissident made excellent points, about the software and way it is set up and used, suggesting that this isn’t a deliberate city council policy, so much as the unthinking use of disturbingly set-up software.)

Well, duh. It’s a local government office. Almost by definition, its software buying decisions are made by people who can’t even use a spreadsheet package. Who are suckers for any sweet-talking sales people on their Preferred Suppliers lists. Who would think it was wildly outside their purchasing remit to pay attention to the details of what the software actually does. And who would rather insert a parking permit into their own left nostril than consult the people who might actually use a program.

But, still, it’s outrageous and the National Secular Society is absolutely right to object to this.

However, tracing the evolution of the reporting of this story in the atheosphere made me aware how easily a news item becomes a myth.

Pharyngula – blogged the story. He had a link to the BBC story but there was no evidence in his text that indicated that this was Birmingham, England.

Some of the 80-odd commenters who responded to this brief reference to a BBC article clearly took it that Pharyngula was talking about Birmingham, Alabama. An easy mistake to make. (I make it in reverse whenever the BBC refers to Birmingham, Alabama.) If I had read the Pharyngula piece without reading the BBC source, I would have automatically assumed this took place in Alabama.

Quintessential Rambling obviously assumed it was Birmingham Alabama and delivered a classic rant then showed an amazingly good grace and regard for the truth by admitting his error. That is my kind of human being.

A fair number of people will now believe that Birmingham, Alabama, has banned atheist websites. That’s fair enough. It’s a mistake based on an error of fact. No blame.

It’s the way that the facts of this incident contribute to a general level of atheist myth-making that disturbs me more. Wouldn’t you expect atheists to be a bit better at processing information than the average moron? Maybe that’s wishful thinking. Well, OK, it is definitely wishful thinking, but I am going to persist with it, in the face of the evidence.

A Richard Harris comment on Pharyngula says:

I bet the feckin’ Submissionists (followers of the prophet Muhammad, piss be upon him) are behind this.

Well, no. That seems like yet another attempt to demonise muslims to me. Is there some knee-jerk hate response that is stirred up every time the word islam is mentioned in any context? Oh, yes, silly me, Of course there is.

Leki is more rational but still manages to throw in a social disorder theme, expressed in terms of religion. S/he strings together a lot of completely disparate incidents to support a characterisation of Birmingham people as almost engaged in some sort of inter-ethnic, inter-religious war.

Birmingham is always in the news for something or another. A few years ago there were riots at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre over a play that depicted a rape in a sikh temple; there have been issues with honour killings; gun crimes have doubled (highest concentration of guns in the UK is Birmingham).
Remember the raid of January 2007? Birmingham police rounded-up a bunch of folks who were planning to kidnap a British soldier (muslim group, muslim soldier). That was big, big news.
I’ve visited Birmingham several times and there is this huge chasm between ethnicities. People are screaming on all sides about what language to teach in schools, how many mosques are allowed per block, whether or not the ‘english’ way of life is disappearing.

Well, yes, Birmingham IS always in the news for something or other. It’s England’s second city. Even the London-centric British media must mention what happens to a few million people every now and again.

Huge chasm between ethnicities? I assume you have never visited a US city? People screaming on all sides about what language to teach in schools, etc? Admit it, this is just made up.

OK, there’s nothing wrong with hyperbole in a blog comment. My point is that a casual reader of Pharyngula – who’s read the comments far enough to realise that a US city hasn’t banned atheist blogs – will be left with a vague, but probably lasting, impression that Birmingham, England, is under siege by extremist mullahs who have banned atheism.

Now, I expect the gutter press to leave this subliminal hate-residue in the back of the minds of its readers. That seems to be what it’s for. Keeping the population in a generalised low-level state of xenophobia, to make it easy to manipulate. It’s hard to understand the rabble-rousing tricks when they crop up in the atheist blogosphere.

There are some real concerns in this Birmingham situation. For instance, it’s disturbing that the effects of decisions made by blocking-software providers – with their own illiberal agendas – can be unthinkingly transmitted to become public policy. These issues are a bit boring. They don’t produce the visceral kick that seems to come with identifying an alien scapegoat. But trying to find out the truth must be the truly “rational” response.

Comic Christian Death Cult

A recent link on Pharyngula took me to a site that would be a perfect home for the Terry Pratchett character “Visit-The-Ungodly-With- Explanatory-Pamphlets.”

Despite the evidence of the senses, Chick.com seems not to be a spoof site, but some of these “tracts” defy belief. I’ll gloss over the bizarre claims in the adult tracts – such as the Pope having invented Islam.

Look, instead, at the comics aimed at children. The new “classic” one Phayngula linked to is about evolution. “Evolution” is by definition racist, in this bizarre interpretation, serving to make a blond-haired blue-eyed selfish child think he can be god…. Rejects friend’s message about Jesus. Godless evolution-influenced child dies and gets sent to eternal damnation.

Death is a pretty huge theme in the tracts aimed at children. Here’s a sample The Little Princess

Story line: dying girl goes trick-or-treating on Halloween, dressed as a princess – it’s her dying wish. Meets couple who pray for her. Whole family gets converted. She dies. But that’s well worth it because she goes to heaven and her family become “Christians”….

After the girl dies

I am forced to refer to Oscar Wilde’s remark about the death of a Dickens character:

One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing.

But, then, I’m not a child subject to a style of brainwashing that owes so much to the manipulative powers of Victorian melodrama. And I am a bit disturbed by the juxtaposition of a smiling child holding out flowers and the explicit death threat.

You might think that this sort of thing (Catholic plots, eternal damnation, Armaggedon fears) appeals to only a tiny subset of the population – the truly mentally-challenged, So, the number of unfortunates who are subject to it might be counted in Westboro Baptist numbers.

Not so, according to its claims. The website claims that Chick has sold 700 million tracts worldwide. Let me momentarily assume this isn’t bearing false witness (because it’s on the Internet which is – like television – not allowed to lie.) That suggests at least seven hundred people have bought a Bumper Million Pack of the things. And that’s an issue for global deforestation in itself.

A whole list of “tracts” is here. I was going to count how many of these contained death threats or rants against other religions. But that would be more or less all of them. Here’s a few quotes from the blurbs:

They thought he was dead, but he woke up screaming, “I’ve got to get saved! I saw hell! I never want to see it again!” Dramatic!

Suicide…The subject is common among teens today. But when Lance decides it is the only way out of his troubles, he discovers that hell is not the party place described in popular songs

Here is a description of the horrible times the Bible says are coming in the future. There is no one to turn to for help but Jesus. He is the only hope.

When this Catholic dies, he learns that his church couldn’t save him

Bob was mean and didn’t need God, until he nearly died in jail.

Time was running out for Ashley. Drugs would soon kill her. But a praying grandmother made the difference.

This soldier learns that it’s not what you know that gets you into heaven. It’s WHO you know… Jesus

A young man goofs when he is talked out of receiving Jesus as Saviour. Adapted for Black audiences.

Danny is dying of cancer. The man in the bed next to him tries to win him to Jesus. A compelling story with a happy ending.

When the collapsing roof dumped him into the flames, Fred thought he had seen hell. But the real hell is much worse.

And so on, ad nauseam..

Are you trying to be funny?

Wow. Is this, like, totally, serendipity or what?

I was sent a link to a May 2005 paper on APA site, about brain-lesions that stop people recognising sarcasm At the same time I get a link to Baptists for Brownback and their take on the Scarlet Letter.

Even here in Yoorp – where Southern baptists often seem crazed beyond our wildest imagining, so it’s hard to distinguish parody from reality – it’s obvious that this is a pretty blatant spoof site. There are posts with titles like “Update: Some kilt-wearing men might be heterosexual after all.” It is really funny.

Also, some comments on the Scarlet A post are double funny. There are some commenters, atheists and believers alike, in whose brains the sarcasm-detecting function seems to have completely atrophied.

Some atheist responses seem so stupid that I suspect that they were in on the joke and just playing an “outraged atheist” part. For a laugh. Though by that time, the joke is getting too abstract to be comedy and may have achieved high art.

I start to assume Pharyngula has masterminded the whole thing anyway. He has posted this on his site, gathering a collection of outraged responses, even after almost the first comment points out it’s a joke.

The Christian responses tend twoards being so off the wall that most are obviously sarcastic. I naturally assume this is a spoof post:

# Connie Mack Says:
What I see is a whole bunch of satan worshipers coming here to try and steal the souls of Christians. Guess what? You are SOL because we are born again in the Blood of the Christ you don’t believe in – yet. In case you are too ignorant to read this is a Baptist website which mneans that we are saved. So your hate speech won’t be tolerated here.

But it links to a real site “CWA” which I’m absolutely not putting a link to. I have no reason to believe it’s real, other than someone else’s authority (and they were guessing). It’s actually noticeably much more ludicrous than the Baptists for Brownback.

Don’t make me mention looking glasses again, please.

Comments on comments

Will have to admit that this blog has been taking the comment week thing a little too far. Comments are the topic du jour here. And we’ve been evilly giving into temptation amusing ourselves by playing about a bit with the views of some people who post on Pharyngula

We usually get sane and supportive feedback here, with some reasonable dissent and the odd headcase. In fact, a dull longwinded diatribe here often gets a comment that covers the same thing in a witty couple of lines.

Comments on blogs can be much more interesting than the posts. Literally thousands of times I’ve read a brilliant post somewhere and never thought to comment. (Ditto, replacing brilliant with crap)

I often can’t even comment when I try. On some sites, you need to register before you can comment or they have those irritating Blogger comments things that insist on a user ID and password. Plus a bleeding Captcha.

The Context
Somehow, my name became mud to some fellow commenters on Pharyngula. The original post was some innocuous thing on ADHD therapy. Something about the whole topic seems to send rationality out of the window. I am not going to repeat it all here. It’s an insanely tedious thread with upwards of 60-odd comments at this moment.

No one seemed to understand what anyone else was actually saying. Very few seemed to have taken even introductory lessons in English comprehension. People were ganging up to savage one commenter -“caledonian” – paying less than no attention to what s/he actually said and charging down so many logical back alleys that I had to doublecheck the URL to establish that I wasn”t in some southern baptist college’s logic class.

This “caledonian” has some reasonable doubts about the efficacy and scientific bias of psychiatry and the logic of its disease model. Surely a respectable point of view that you could agree or disagree with. I didn’t realise that there was a war and that anything that smells of Thomas Szasz’s work was now considered exactly equivalent to scientology, because scientologists allegedly admire Szasz.

Caledonian explained his/her views quite clearly, in the course of two whole long strings of comments in separate blogs. Barely one of the people growling against him/her could follow a coherent argument. (This may explain why the ancient greeks regarded the study of rhetoric and logic to be a necessary part of education.) Caledonian’s forthright equation of scientology with the extremes of nonsense just confused people, who had already assumed he must be a scientologist.

I thought my first post was just a mild suggestion that the posts that equated an adult drinking coffee with giving a child ritalin were mistaken. People with kids diagnosed with ADD or ADHD or whatever, were deeply offended by my initial casual comment, taking it as a personal attack, attributing opinions to me that I hadn’t expressed and don’t hold.

The response

Person x took this as me attacking them personally for getting their kid treated. (Duh?) This got a furious response. (scientologist, wacko, plus a wierd and barely comprehensible reference to this being like racism, because I had implied that it might be OK in some really serious cases.)

I replied with a mildly sarcastic comment, part of which suggested that one person’s experience didn’t constitute all data. (… sarcastic, because that’s who I am. Maybe there is a pharmaceutical cure for sarcasm but I haven’t found it, to my cost…) I was feeling bad at just increasing their guilt by saying what they didn’t want to hear. All the same, if something is true, it’s true. If not, they could explain where I was mistaken. Socratic dialogue, and all that. Otherwise, “if they don’t in some way agree with me about the truth, why so defensive?” an evil demon whispered in my ear…..

There’s a fair bit more than these bits that I can’t resist posting here.

Heather, you and your ilk are the ones claiming that kids are being wildly overmedicated. I thought I was asking that you prove that your postive claim is true. To date all in this thread there are 1 anecdotal case (w/ claim of 2 kids) for and numerous cases against. Now, I do know that anecdote is not the singular of data, but I’m not the one wildly running around saying ‘the meds are coming, the meds are coming’. We parents and/or sufferers get pretty damn tired of those of you out there that aren’t really all that familiar with the situation stigmatizing us unfairly.

And how do we know that you aren’t just a scientologist wacko in your concern troll attitude about “Oh, the poor little kids don’t have a choice”? That implies that we parents aren’t concerned about our kids and won’t attempt to do the best for them and you get to move forward your anti-anti-psychotic agenda. Oh? You don’t like the stigma of being labelled a wacko scientologist? Now imagine that being the default assumption about everyone who spoke up against any (neuro)medication of kids. That is the equivalent stigmatization that we get — put yourself in our shoes and imagine that assumption we medicate simply because our child acts out a bit when in fact it is a last resort for a serious condition. We lived with the hyperness for years. But in a modern society you must succeed in school to make any gain in life — it’s just a fact. He’s a bright kid (tested into the gifted-talented program at the same time that he was put into special ed for learning disabilities) but if he can’t sit still and concentrate he’ll never be able to make use of those abilities. Sorry, but your type creates a hostile environment for us. Yes, there probably are those that do medicate unnecessarily but why should that be the default assumption?

Heather, you’ve had numerous example of people here pointing out that “doping [them] to fit their environment” was a good thing. Now, sure there are borderline cases and cases that aren’t cut-and-dried, but can’t we just assume that in general those making the decision (individual, parents, doctors) are doing so in the best interest of the individual? You keep implying that the assumption should be the other way — and I don’t get the hostility. As other have pointed out we don’t skip taking pain medication or getting glasses for those conditions. And work on the reading comprehension. I didn’t claim the arguments were racist themselves … but analogous to the common “I’m not a racist, but…” phrasing that often precedes a racist statement, i.e., “I’m not against medication in absolutely all cases, but…” and then proceeds to claim that it is wrong in general with no indication that there really are any justifiable cases.

I reread my post, No it definitely didnt say anything like what they thought I was saying. I must have expressed myself really badly. Hostile? Well, yes I was ever so mildly hostile in the sarcastic bit. I had to reread my post half a dozen times my head to clear away the idea that I was presenting myself as an anti-drug, even anti-medicine lunatic, faking compassion for kids to peddle my evil views. My concern troll views? Well, shit. I admit, I think people can be pretty crazy in how they treat their kids – I don’t exempt myself. I think it’s aresponsibility of a parent to actually take the kid’s views into account though.

Note, I don’t say – These posters include people who think it’s reasonable to put so much pressure on their kids or to have experienced so much pressure in their own childhood – that they cite inattention, daydreaming and failure to recite the alphabet consistently at 5 as signs of neurological disorder. Because, this will clearly get the whole site fuming….
(And make them think that I don’t believe that some kids do have genuine neuroloigical disorders.)

But, it’s not that I’m not thinking “A.S Neill, woulds’t thou were living at this hour” or correctly quoted words to that effect. This whole supernanny, adults are always right thing makes em furious. I remember when I was kid I was often right. As an adult I am very often wrong. Some people have kids who really shouldn’t be allowed within ten kilometers of unformed human beings. I am thinking not just of the Phelps or the Falwells here. But, just for the sake of argument, would you trust the Phelps and the Falwells to always make wise decisions about the best interests of their offspring?

TW got in on the act when I drew his attention to it. He made some obvious reference to a made up number of people who were medicating their kids unnecessarily. He even stated quite clearly, that he’s made up the numbers, because this was what everyone else thought was an acceptable argument.

He made some contribution to the debate to the effect that two working parents, endless social pressure for parents and kids to succeed, etc, were maybe connected to the huge increase in diagnoses.

Red rag to bull time….

The comment posters completely ignored the bit with him saying that these figures were made up. His serious argument about factors that might make it harder for kids and parents to cope was interpreted as him having blamed “working mothers” for ADHD.

Fed up with taunting them, he finally posted a measured and polite reply. This will probably get taken by somebody as him saying “Scientology is great. If only those pesky females weren’t going out to work but were at home praying with their kids, there would be no mental problems” and the thread will become an endless waste of 0s and 1s.

(Actually since reading this, I’ve Googled about Ritalin and found lots of sites where people campaign about not medicating kids, partly putting the sort of arguments I did. I guess they assumed that I belong to one of those organisations, so the talk of “my ilk” and so on makes some sort of sense now, I guess…)

Yes, it’s bad to taunt people for a cheap laugh. Still….

Rational Response Squad Debate

Quick one for people who haven’t checked out Pharyngula recently. PZ Myers has put up a link to some video footage of a debate between the “Rational Response Squad” and Ray Comfort / Kirk Cameron.

It is pretty entertaining footage, for very predictable reasons though. The theists are actually embarrassingly bad at putting their argument forward. After about five or six minutes it becomes painful watching them spout nonsense and revert to book thumping arguments.

If all theists were this inept, religion would have died out long ago. (This is especially true as the RRS are not really putting forward very strong arguments themselves… 🙂 They really did not need to read from scripts so much… )

[tags]Atheism, Belief, Christianity, culture, debate, Faith, Kirk Cameron, pharyngula, Philosophy, Rational Response Squad, Ray Comfort, Religion, Society, Stupidity, woo[/tags]

Arrogant Idiocy

Well there is a rant brewing, but sadly here in the Ivory Why Dont You Towers we are short on spare time so I can not do justice to a video posted by what seems to be the single most objectionable person I have ever had the misfortune to see. PZ Myers has posted on Pharyngula about it and pretty much says everything which needs to be said. Check it out for the full details.

In a nutshell, this snotty, arrogant kid called Kelly Tripplehorn (snope entry for background) has posted a video in which he claims his “corporation” will offer US$1000 to anyone who can solve the philosophical problem of Induction. Yeah, that is correct. $1000. Wow. Alfred Nobel, eat your heart out. Barely enough to buy a low end laptop to solve one of the major philosophical problems.

To crown things off, the nutcase Tripplehorn goes on about how “he” solves the problem by invoking God. What absolute madness. He demands a reasonable, self consistent, internally logical argument from Atheists but not his own reasoning.

I would like to go on record, having noted his only requirement is “without invoking God” to say the problem is solved, and the universe is logical and ordered because it is the will of Freya. She is neither the Abrahamic God Tripplehorn talks about, nor a generic “God” (as she is a Goddess…).

I await the US$1000. Hopefully I can use it to buy a new SatNav…