Saturday, October 31, 2009

Cultural Literacy

Sol Stern at City Journal has written an excellent article that's a must-read for everyone concerned about education in this country. Stern writes about the career of E.D. Hirsch whom those of a certain age will remember for his best-selling Cultural Literacy, written back in the late 80s. Hirsch pointed out to a nation in thrall to the ideas of progressive education "experts" that the approach we were following in educating children was all wrong. We had bought the progressives' idea that what was important was that students be taught not facts, but rather how to learn. Teaching the process of learning was believed to be more important than teaching any particular content. Subsequently, achievement scores plummeted.

Here are the first few paragraphs from Stern's essay:

At his Senate confirmation hearing in February, Arne Duncan succinctly summarized the Obama administration's approach to education reform: "We must build upon what works. We must stop doing what doesn't work." Since becoming education secretary, Duncan has launched a $4.3 billion federal "Race to the Top" initiative that encourages states to experiment with various accountability reforms. Yet he has ignored one state reform that has proven to work, as well as the education thinker whose ideas inspired it. The state is Massachusetts, and the education thinker is E. D. Hirsch, Jr.

The "Massachusetts miracle," in which Bay State students' soaring test scores broke records, was the direct consequence of the state legislature's passage of the 1993 Education Reform Act, which established knowledge-based standards for all grades and a rigorous testing system linked to the new standards. And those standards, Massachusetts reformers have acknowledged, are Hirsch's legacy. If the Obama administration truly wants to have a positive impact on American education, it should embrace Hirsch's ideas and urge other states to do the same.

Hirsch draws his insights from well outside traditional education scholarship. He started out studying chemistry at Cornell University but, mesmerized by Nabokov's lectures on Russian literature, switched his major to English. Hirsch did his graduate studies at Yale, one of the citadels in the 1950s of the New Criticism, which argued that the intent of an author, the reader's subjective response, and the text's historical background were largely irrelevant to a critical analysis of the text itself. But by the time Hirsch wrote his doctoral dissertation-on Wordsworth-he was already breaking with the New Critics. "I came to see that the text alone is not enough," Hirsch said to me recently at his Charlottesville, Virginia, home. "The unspoken-that is, relevant background knowledge-is absolutely crucial in reading a text." Hirsch's big work of literary theory in his early academic career, Validity in Interpretation, reflected this shift in thinking. After publishing several more well-received scholarly books and articles, he received an endowed professorship and became chairman of the English department at the University of Virginia.

Hirsch was at the pinnacle of the academic world, in his mid-fifties, when he was struck by an insight into how reading is taught that, he says, "changed my life." He was "feeling guilty" about the department's inadequate freshman writing course, he recalls. Though UVA's admissions standards were as competitive as the Ivies', the reading and writing skills of many incoming students were poor, sure to handicap them in their future academic work. In trying to figure out how to close this "literacy gap," Hirsch conducted an experiment on reading comprehension, using two groups of college students. Members of the first group possessed broad background knowledge in subjects like history, geography, civics, the arts, and basic science; members of the second, often from disadvantaged homes, lacked such knowledge. The knowledgeable students, it turned out, could far more easily comprehend and analyze difficult college-level texts (both fiction and nonfiction) than their poorly informed brethren could. Hirsch had discovered "a way to measure the variations in reading skill attributable to variations in the relevant background knowledge of audiences."

Stern's account of what followed makes fascinating reading, especially if you're in education, planning to enter the profession, or have young children or grandchildren in school. It would also be a great article to share with any teachers you might know. Here's one more graph to give you sense of where he's going with the piece:

More powerfully than any previous critic, Hirsch showed how destructive these instructional approaches were. The idea that schools could starve children of factual knowledge, yet somehow encourage them to be "critical thinkers" and teach them to "learn how to learn," defied common sense. But Hirsch also summoned irrefutable evidence from the hard sciences to eviscerate progressive-ed doctrines. Hirsch had spent the better part of the decade since Cultural Literacy mastering the findings of neurobiology, cognitive psychology, and psycholinguistics on which teaching methods best promote student learning. The scientific consensus showed that schools could not raise student achievement by letting students construct their own knowledge. The pedagogy that mainstream scientific research supported, Hirsch showed, was direct instruction by knowledgeable teachers who knew how to transmit their knowledge to students-the very opposite of what the progressives promoted.

The tragedy is that at least two generations of students have been "educated" to think that learning facts is unimportant. Perhaps future generations will not be so badly cheated.


Friday, October 30, 2009


Frank Gaffney at Big gives us the lowdown on the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR):

The Council on American-Islamic Relations bills itself as a "civil-rights advocacy group," much like the NAACP, but for Muslims. However, the FBI says that far from being a benign nonprofit, CAIR is a front group for Hamas terrorists and the radical Muslim Brotherhood in America. And the bureau recently cut off formal ties to CAIR's national office in Washington and all 30 of its branch offices across the country.

At the same time, the Justice Department has blacklisted CAIR as an unindicted terrorist co-conspirator in the largest terror finance case in U.S. history, the Holy Land Foundation trial. It ended in convictions on all 108 counts.

Prosecutors have also connected CAIR to the Muslim Brotherhood, a worldwide jihadist movement that seeks to institutionalize Shariah law (think: Taliban) in America and the West through immigration, coercion and political infiltration. "From its founding by Muslim Brotherhood leaders, CAIR conspired with other affiliates of the Muslim Brotherhood to support terrorists," said assistant U.S. Attorney Gordon Kromberg in a court filing.

The FBI last year severed ties to CAIR, citing court evidence that its leaders were participating in an "ongoing" conspiracy to support terrorists. Democrat Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York has requested that the FBI's anti-CAIR ban "should be government-wide policy."

CAIR has proven ties to terrorists. No fewer than 15 CAIR officials have been convicted or caught up in terrorism investigations since 9/11 - including its founding chairman, Omar Ahmad, and acting executive director, Nihad Awad.

As with Muslims worldwide CAIR's ultimate aim is to Islamicize the United States:

CAIR insists it has no agenda other than protecting the rights of Muslim Americans. However, the words of its own leaders reveal a hidden subversive agenda:

CAIR Communications Director Ibrahim Hooper: "I wouldn't want to create the impression that I wouldn't like the government of the United States to be Islamic sometime in the future."

CAIR Founding Chairman Omar Ahmad: "Islam isn't in America to be equal to any other faith, but to become dominant. The Quran should be the highest authority in America."

There's much more on this group in Gaffney's article and everyone should read it.

There's nothing wrong with the desire to advance one's religion, of course, but when one considers the rather unorthodox means Muslims often employ to proselytize, and when one examines the tenets of shariah, one might be forgiven for feeling a bit squeamish about CAIR's aspirations. If Muslims do succeed in turning America into an Islamic nation then it's certain that we'll no longer enjoy the freedoms we now have, we'll no longer be a democratic republic, and anyone who dissents from the teaching of the Prophet (PBUH) will be relegated to dhimmi status, a kind of second-class citizenship even worse than that of ex-slaves during the Jim Crow era.

It's time to take the blindfolds off and open our eyes to the fact that we're engaged in a generational struggle for the survival of our culture and values, not just with extremist Islamists, but with much of what passes for the moderate Muslim world. They'll never rest until they have prevailed or until they're too weak to continue the fight. We, on the other hand, seem eager to latch on to any excuse to deceive ourselves about their intentions so that we can retreat into our cocoons of personal peace and prosperity. Unfortunately, Islamists will not leave that escape open to us. The moment we declare that we're tired of fighting those cocoons will cease to exist.


What Are They Afraid Of?

Anyone who believes that there is no culture war in this country just isn't paying attention. To be sure, the "war" rarely manifests itself in overt violence but it certainly does result in an alarming amount of intolerance, name-calling and malicious vandalism. One recent example occurred in Colorado where a group trying to promote a film critical of Darwinian explanations of evolution has been the target of a concerted, coordinated effort to suppress their freedom of speech. Anika Smith at Evolution News and Views explains:

Earlier this month the Shepherd Project Ministries website was breached using a "brute force attack" to break the password. The hackers then deleted webpages containing information about an upcoming conference featuring Discovery Institute speakers Stephen Meyer, Michael Behe, David Berlinski, and John West.

"No question whatsoever about whom they were targeting," said Shepherd Project Executive Director Craig Smith. "That was brazen. We were a little stunned, to be perfectly honest. We had seen some hostile language about the conference, but honestly we just assumed it was cyber-flaming. We didn't really expect or anticipate any kind of actual attack."

The pages were quickly re-posted and security protocols fixed to prevent further mischief being done, but since then a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack crippled and even crashed the Shepherd Project website, preventing many from registering for the intelligent design conference. These attacks involve multiple people coordinated in an attempt to make a website unavailable, shutting down access to information in a form of modern-day book-burning.

These attacks reveal how even having a discussion about intelligent design is threatening to those who can't countenance free speech on evolution.

In today's ID the Future podcast interview, Craig Smith said, "It's stunning to me how threatened they seem to be about the conversation that is taking place. It's not a matter of, 'I disagree with the content' or 'I disagree with the conclusion,' it's 'I disagree that the conversation should be allowed.'"

That same sentiment was behind the recent canceling of the Darwin's Dilemma by the California Science Center, and you can read it for yourself in the New York Times as Daniel Dennett's recent letter blasted them for daring to be respectful to those who doubt evolution!

When a certain class of people realizes that the theory upon which their entire worldview rests is under serious assault and when there are no good intellectual arguments to summon to its defense, it's not surprising that some of these people will resort to any means they can to protect their worldview from the challenge.

For some, the battle is not a struggle to find the truth. Rather, it's a desperate attempt to preserve the myth of atheistic materialism upon which they've staked their lives, and in such a conflict there are no rules of engagement. Whatever works is right even if it means violating a fundamental principle of intellectual integrity in a free and open society - allowing all sides to express their position. Those who seek to prevent the other side from being heard are tacitly admitting that they know their own side is intellectually inferior. They know they've committed themselves to a loser.


Thursday, October 29, 2009

Pertinent Questions

Hannah Giles, the young woman who masqueraded as a prostitute (Go here and scroll down to ACORN Story Resources if you haven't seen the videos) to uncover the absolutely reprehensible behavior of ACORN representatives notes that in all the media hubbub about whether she and her "pimp," James O'Keefe, will be sued by ACORN and whatnot, a number of significant matters are being ignored.

She wonders, for example, why the media is not more interested in the following questions:

Baltimore: Why no mention of the toddlers that were in the room while James and I were being counseled on how to manage our underage prostitution ring?

San Bernardino: The content of this video was largely ignored except for the part where Tresa Kaelke mentions she shot her husband. What about when she told us not to educate our sex-slaves because they won't want to work for us? Or when we talked about making more money off clients who are permitted to physically abuse the girls? What about the whole transport-the-girls-in-a-school-bus-to-avoid-suspicion discussion?

Washington, DC: Why were we counseled by ACORN during a first time homebuyer's seminar, while 30-40 other first time homebuyers sat crammed in a hot room?

Brooklyn: This office was swarmed with people, busy staff members and a full waiting room. Did we take our number and wait in line? Nope. Why were we given the private attention of three ACORN staffers, when more deserving and less intrusive clientele patiently waited?

San Bernardino: What happened to the list of politicians that Ms. Kaelke rattled off when she spoke of her ACORN office's community involvement and influence? Has anyone set out to uncover just how close these politicians' relationships are with the San Bernardino ACORN? Does anyone even remember the names?

San Diego: Has anyone questioned why Juan Carlos would want to help smuggle girls across the Mexican border right after an ACORN-sponsored immigration parade???

Philadelphia: Why did the Philly office go into damage control mode as soon as the Baltimore story first broke? What do they have to hide?

Ms Giles concludes by saying:

I would hate to be known as the journalist who never saw the bigger picture, lacked the creativity and ambition to approach a story from a fresh perspective, and contributed to the apathy of an entire nation. And I honestly, from the bottom of my heart, think every wannabe and professional journalist has the same attitude.

So why aren't they behaving accordingly? Fear? Comfort? A false sense of purpose? I don't know about the rest of the press corps but all of the above scenarios scream scandalous to me. They'd be worthwhile news.

Well, yes, but we have to keep in mind that this is a story fraught with potential for embarrassing Democrats who've enjoyed very cozy relationships with ACORN over the years, including our President. Most of the media don't find stories embarrassing to Democrats newsworthy or worth investigating. Now if Ms Giles and Mr. O'Keefe had walked into, say, the offices of the Chamber of Commerce and gotten similar advice, well, you can bet that we'd be asphyxiated by non-stop news coverage deploring the depravity of it all, and Giles and O'Keefe would be awarded Pulitzer Prizes for investigative journalism.

As it is they have to contend with being sued by ACORN for exposing the incompetence, both intellectual and ethical, of their staff.


Government Can

This must be the third version of this we've posted in the last year but it's still pretty funny (unless you're in government):


Thoughts on Teacher Training

John Miller at National Review Online offers a thougght on contemporary teacher education:

I've always thought that the biggest problem with teacher education is that prospective teachers spend too much time listening to professors talk about pedagogical theory and not enough time learning their core subjects. In other words, a lot of students who go on to become 10th-grade history professors actually take fewer history courses than ordinary history majors.

Miller's right about this, I think. Prospective teachers (at least secondary teachers - elementary teachers may be in a different situation) would be much better served if colleges would simply dispense with all the education courses they require of their students (except student teaching, which should be extended over two semesters) and just have them learn the subject matter they'll be teaching. It's not that education courses aren't valuable. Some are, I suppose, but they become more valuable and relevant to teachers after they've been at the job for a while and see first-hand the need for whatever skills those courses impart. Before someone has been in front of a classroom for a couple of years all that pedagogical theory really makes little impact and is easily forgotten. After one has been teaching for a while, however, it becomes much more meaningful.

Teachers should get their Bachelor's degree in the discipline they'll be teaching, not in education, and then, after they've accumulated some experience, and if they wish to pursue an MEd, or want to take courses to move up the pay scale, those education courses might prove worthwhile for them.


Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Why Democrats Won't Fix Health Coverage

Read this brief but disturbing article in the New York Post and you'll understand all you need to know about the disingenuousness of the Democrats' health care reform proposals:

Dr. Jacquelline Perlman, who's helped deliver hundreds of Brooklyn babies in her 12-year OB-GYN career, is calling it quits -- and citing sky-high malpractice insurance and plunging income.

"I've decided to retire from obstetrics," said Perlman, 42. "It breaks my heart. Malpractice costs are a big part of it. It's a very sad story.

The last straw, she said, came last spring when her insurer, the Combined Coordinating Council, noting the high risk of covering obstetricians, canceled her policy and those of doctors she practiced with at Brooklyn Women's Health Care, a New York Methodist Hospital affiliate.

She found a new insurer, but the damage was done. Her annual malpractice premium now runs about $160,000 -- for a doctor against whom no malpractice case or even so much as a settlement has ever been upheld. And, she said, in the last five years, as her malpractice-insurance costs have risen, her income has dropped by 20 percent.

The reason doctors have to pay so much is not simply because of extortionist insurance companies which, as we've seen recently, operate on very slim profit margins, but because of tort law that allows doctors to be sued for exorbitant amounts of money. Suing doctors is profitable business for trial lawyers and because settlements are often very high insurance companies have to charge a high premium for their coverage. Not only does this drive doctors like Perlman out of the profession it causes those who stay in to charge their patients more which means that patient insurance becomes more expensive as well.

What's the solution? Tort reform. Is tort reform in any of the Democratic plans? No. The reason is, as DNC chairman Howard Dean admits, trial lawyers are among the biggest contributors to Democrat politicians and as such they hum the tune to which the Dems dance.

It's pretty clear that Democrats are not really interested in making health care cheaper and keeping doctors in the business. If they were they'd defy their lawyer friends and include genuine reforms in their legislation. No, the health care reform Obama and the Democrats are pushing, it seems plausible to conclude, is not about reforming health care at all. It's about turning more control over individuals' lives to the government and making us all wards of the state.



President Obama told a gathering of military personnel the other day that he "would never rush the solemn decision of sending [them] into harm's way." Neither does he seem inclined to hurry the decision to send reinforcements to their brothers in arms struggling to stay alive in Afghanistan.

Which makes me wonder. At the same time the President counsels prudence and patience in Afghanistan, he's insisting that we absolutely cannot wait another month to pass health care reform. It's a matter of the highest urgency that it be passed now because thousands are losing their jobs and thus their coverage every day. It's so urgent, in fact, that we cannot even delay long enough to allow legislators and the public to study the bill. Yet even if one of the plans currently before Congress passes tomorrow the reforms won't really kick in until 2013, so why the rush?

Why must we wait month upon month before deciding whether we'll send reinforcements to our troops in Afghanistan who are in critical need right now of more men and equipment, but trip all over ourselves in our hurry to pass legislation that won't take effect for another three years? It's a puzzlement, at least for those who believe Mr. Obama is being honest about his desire to do what's best for the country. For those more cynical, I suppose, it's perfectly understandable.

The cynical view is that Mr. Obama is dithering on Afghanistan because he's simply waiting for a justification for pulling out even though he has declared that conflict to be a "war of necessity." Meanwhile, he's trying to rush health care reform because he knows that the longer his party's proposals are scrutinized the more odious they'll look to both voters and lawmakers.

That's the cynical view, mind you, not necessarily our view here at Viewpoint.


Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Bumper Sticker Ads

An anonymous New Yorker has forked over $25,000 in order to place ads in city subway stations stating that "A million New Yorkers are good without God. Are you?"

I think this is great, actually. It should afford numerous opportunities for intelligent theists to ask in all sorts of venues what such a claim means and to call attention to those who may not be aware of it the utter moral bankruptcy of the atheist worldview.

It would be great fun, for example, to ask someone who agrees with the ad what they mean by the phrase "good without God." What makes an act "good," anyway? Why, exactly, is kindness good and cruelty bad? Why, if atheism is true, is it good to preserve resources for future generations and why is squandering them on ourselves bad?

When all the smoke is blown away from the flustered and confused responses the atheist would make to these questions what remains is the claim that what's right is just whatever feels right to him or her. In a world without God there's nothing that makes kindness or conservation good and nothing that makes cruelty and profligacy bad. The preference for one rather than the other is simply a biochemical reaction occurring in our brains. It has no real significance and no authority. It can certainly impose no obligation upon us to live one way rather than another.

Listen to a few atheists on the matter of whether there's any moral good or bad in their world:

"If God is dead everything is permitted." - (Ivan Karamazov in The Brothers Karamazov)

"One who does not believe in God or an afterlife can have for his rule of life...only to follow those impulses and instincts which are the strongest or which seem to him the best." - Charles Darwin (Autobiography)

"Ethics is just an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to cooperate." - biologist E. O. Wilson and philosopher Michael Ruse

"Let me summarize my views on what modern evolutionary biology tells us loud and clear .... There are no gods, no purposes, and no goal-directed forces of any kind. There is no life after death....There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning in life, and no free will...." - Will Provine, professor of biology at Cornell

"There is no good and evil, there is only power, and those too weak to seek it." Voldemort (Harry Potter)

"There is no good or bad there is only the law." Inspector Javert in Les Miserables (Movie, 1980)

I rather doubt that the organization placing the ads in the Manhattan subway stations will put up any of these quotes among them. Better to stick to bumper sticker slogans and hope that no one thinks too deeply about them.


Collapsing Icon

An article in the Wall Street Journal documents the continuing collapse of one of Darwinism's favorite missing links. Ever since the 19th century the fossilized remains of a creature named Archeopteryx have been touted as an intermediate animal between dinosaurs and birds, but accumulating evidence is casting grave doubt on whether Archaeopteryx qualifies as a bird at all. Indeed, intelligent design advocates of various stripes, including both young and old earth creationists, have been saying for decades that Archaeopteryx could not have been the ancestor of modern birds, but so much had been invested in this creature as an example of a missing link that few in the mainstream press would listen. Now it seems that the scientific community itself is moon-walking away from their earlier claims of iconic status for Archaeopteryx:

The feathered creature called Archaeopteryx, easily the world's most famous fossil remains, had been considered the first bird since Charles Darwin's day. When researchers put its celebrity bones under the microscope recently, though, they discovered that this icon of evolution might not have been a bird at all.

When the fossils of Archaeopteryx were found in 1861, it helped prove Charles Darwin's new theory of evolution. The creature that had both bird-like and dinosaur-like features has long been thought of as the archetypal bird. But a new study shows Archaeopteryx might not have been a bird at all.

An examination of its bone cells revealed for the first time that the 150-million-year-old creature had the slow growth rate of a dinosaur, not a bird, an international research team reported this month. Comparing it with other early fossils, the researchers concluded that the telltale physiology of modern birds likely didn't emerge until 20 million years or so after Archaeopteryx flapped its broad wings across primordial lagoons.

Newly discovered fossils have prompted scientists to revamp their assumptions about Archaeopteryx's distinguishing features over the last decade. A cornucopia of fossil finds in China demonstrated that feathers coated many dinosaur species, not just birds. Other surprises still may be concealed in trays of unexamined museum specimens. The first and most complete fossil of Archaeopteryx, found in 1855, was misidentified as a flying pterodactylus for 115 years. The newest finding, though, demonstrates that our understanding of even well-studied fossils like Archaeopteryx -- scrutinized, measured, modeled for 150 years -- can still be upended.

The cell structure showed that Archaeopteryx developed one-third as quickly as a typical bird today, more like a normal dinosaur, the researchers reported. Bone cells from the two other bird-like creatures also showed a similar, dinosaur-like growth pattern. The researchers concluded that the first physiologically modern bird was a species called Confuciusornis, which lived about 130 millions years ago -- about 20 million years after Archaeopteryx. Unlike Archaeopteryx, this species didn't have teeth or a reptilian tail.

Modern birds usually mature in a few weeks, but it might have taken Archaeopteryx two years or more, the scientists said. When fully grown, it was the size of a raven and weighed about 900 grams, three times as heavy as previous estimates. "We are going to have to revisit a lot of things on this creature," says Dr. Erickson. "This is not the final word on rewriting its biology."

It might not be a bird, but Archaeopteryx remains a key exhibit in the history of science, as the first step toward understanding avian evolution. All told, researchers have identified 100 anatomical features that birds share with theropod dinosaurs, such as tyrannosaurus or allosaurus.

There are lingering doubts that birds today are descendants of dinosaurs. Researchers at Oregon State University recently argued that the distinctive anatomy that gives birds the lung capacity needed for flight means it is unlikely that birds descended from dinosaurs like Archaeopteryx and its kin (We wrote about this last June)

There's more to this article at the link, but the upshot is that a lot of the stuff you learned in high school biology about evolution ... just isn't true.


Monday, October 26, 2009

New Feature

Jason writes to commend us for our new feature on Viewpoint. Other keen-eyed readers will note that our tech support has added a nifty innovation to our page. Brother Bill, my technical guru, has inserted a "share this" function at the bottom of each post that will enable readers who are so inclined to share posts in a number of different vehicles with their friends and acquaintances who might be interested in what we talk about on Viewpoint.

I'm excited about the opportunities this gives our readers to expose others to our site, and I encourage you to use it liberally. We like the traffic.


The Enemy in Afghanistan

Strategy Page offers an informative analysis of the nature of the enemy we face in Afghanistan. Contrary to what some might think, it's not just militant insurgents like the Taliban. The greater long term problem is posed by drug gangs:

The enemy in Afghanistan is a many headed beast. American intelligence has compiled a list of nearly 500 Taliban and drug gang leaders. If all these guys were to suddenly disappear, the violence would swiftly change to internal battles within the gangs, as lower level men fought for control of dozens of leaderless Taliban and heroin producing gangs. While you can't destroy the gangs, you can greatly reduce their effectiveness. This is particularly true of the ones that chiefly carry out terror attacks. The drug gangs have the incentive of money, which constantly brings in more ambitious people. This has been the experience in places like Colombia, where the only successful strategy has been to interrupt drug production, and deny the drug gangs actual control of territory. For Islamic terrorists like the Taliban, killing the leadership is the key, because these leaders (who include those with technical skills) are difficult to replace. Thus groups like the Taliban have been destroyed in many other countries in the last two decades. But in Afghanistan, the Taliban are not the main enemy; the drug gangs are. Without the drug money, the Taliban become a troublesome Pushtun faction, not a mercenary military power that seeks to run the entire country again. That's never going to happen, as the non-Pushtun majority would go back to the civil war (that the U.S. intervened in during its late 2001 invasion).

The lower level of foreign troop casualties in Afghanistan is largely due to the lower skill levels among terrorist leaders. Despite much money and effort, the roadside bomb campaign in Afghanistan is not nearly as lethal as the one in Iraq was....But in the long run, foreign governments have a more troublesome problem with Afghanistan, and that's the growing quantity of heroin coming out of there. This is causing more and more grief in the West. Leaving Afghanistan alone means doing nothing about the heroin supply, and this will eventually become politically unacceptable. Most Western politicians are aware of this, even if the media that reports on them is not (or, at least, is not admitting it yet.)

The drug gangs are protected by four large Taliban coalitions....Inside Afghanistan, there are field commanders for the Pakistan based organizations, as well as several drug gangs based in Helmand province (and other parts of southeastern Afghanistan). Helmand has become a difficult area for drug gangs to operate in, and they are trying to establish new operations farther north. But the locals are resisting this. Not because they don't want the cash the drug business can bring, but because they don't want the cheap opium and heroin, which they know, from experience, creates widespread addiction, especially among the young. For these tribal societies, such addiction is a poison that causes severe physical and social damage. While some Pushtuns down south have become addicted to the money and power of heroin, most Afghans want nothing to do with it. That's why most of the heroin production has been concentrated in one province - Helmand.

Russia is very concerned about how things turn out in Afghanistan. That's because Russia has become the main transportation route for Afghan heroin headed for the most lucrative markets in Western Europe and North America. The heroin is cheaper in Russia (because it gets more expensive the farther you have to smuggle it) and there are nearly three million addicts there (out of a global total of 16 million). This is a growing problem for the government, and attempts to seal the Afghan border have failed. The smugglers have a tremendous monetary incentive to get the heroin into Central Asia and thence to Russia. The heroin creates a trail of corruption and addiction as it makes its way across Eurasia. But the largest consumer of heroin, and its raw material, opium, is Iran (which lies astride the lucrative export route to the Persian Gulf). With nearly as many addicts as Russia (and less than half the population), the religious dictatorship in Iran is beside itself over the drug problem (which produces lots of crime and anti-social behavior). Pakistan also has an addict problem but not as bad as in Iran (where there is lots of oil money for drug purchases, and lots of upper class addiction).

Interesting stuff.


More Bad News

The U.K. Daily Express gives us a heads up on a report on a World Health Organization study due out later this year that links cell phone use to brain tumors. We've seen and posted other similar reports and although I don't know what to make of them, it certainly seems that the unanimous verdict has been that excessive use of these devices is not good for your brain's health.

The question I have is if the signal produced by these phones has enough energy to reach a cell phone tower what is it doing to your brain cells as it passes through your skull? Is the signal any more potentially ionizing than normal radio waves? I don't know. Anyway, here's the article:

Long-term mobile phone users could face a higher risk of developing cancer in later life, according to a decade-long study.

The report, to be published later this year, has reportedly found that heavy mobile use is linked to brain tumours.

The survey of 12,800 people in 13 countries has been overseen by the World Health Organisation.

Preliminary results of the inquiry, which is looking at whether mobile phone exposure is linked to three types of brain tumour and a tumour of the salivary gland, have been sent to a scientific journal.

The findings are expected to put pressure on the British Government - which has insisted that mobile phones are safe - to issue stronger warnings to users.

Have a nice day.


Rare Bird

This handsome little sprite is a Black-throated Gray warbler, a bird normally found in the west and southwestern U.S. I've seen them in Arizona but never east of there and in fact, it only occurs in Pennsylvania a few times in any decade. This week, though, a Black-throated Gray turned up near Carlisle, PA and was seen by dozens of observers.

It was a great find and a special treat for those us lucky enough to have the chance to enjoy it.


Saturday, October 24, 2009

Why It's Hard to Build an Afghan Army

We often hear of the difficulties our troops face trying to get Afghan forces to fight their own war, but less often are we told what those difficulties actually are. This piece at Strategy Page gives us an idea. Essentially they are two: Not enough military trainers supplied by our allies and a largely illiterate pool of Afghan recruits:

Efforts to expand the Afghan army to 134,000, hopefully by 2011, are running into a lot of problems. One of the key ones is a shortage of foreign trainers. The government wants a force of 200,000, but first foreign allies must be convinced to donate enough money and trainers. The training center NATO has set up is reorganizing so that it can up the number of soldiers trained from 4,000 a month, to 5,000. This is being done by condensing the training and cutting the course length from 10 to 8 weeks for enlisted troops, and 25 to 20 weeks for officers. But there is a persistent shortage of foreign trainers. There should be about 8,000, but there are only about half that many.

The shortages are made up by using (often inexperienced) Afghans, which lowers the quality of the training. Then there is the illiteracy problem (most recruits, like most Afghans, can't read). Afghanistan is finding that illiteracy is a growing problem in the army. Only about 25 percent of recruit are literate. While this can be ignored for the lower ranking troops, NCOs need to read. Illiterate recruits also take longer to train, and more effort to work with. The U.S. has provided an intensive literacy course for troops, which gets most of them to basic ("functional") literacy within a year.

In addition to being able to read signs and maps, the newly semi-literate troops are taught to sign their names, and write out the serial number of their weapon. Illiterate troops selected for promotion to sergeant (NCO), are given more literacy training. That's because being able to read and write has long been a critical asset for any army. The Roman Empire, at its height 1800 years ago, had an army over 100,000 troops, a third of which were literate. But with modern armies, an abundance of technology makes literacy even more necessary. The Afghans can get by without it, but can do a lot better with it.

The article mentions a third problem as well:

The shortage of foreign trainers has meant that many troops get sub-standard training. But by Afghan standards, it's a pretty effective force. Nearly tripling its size will take several years, if the same training methods are used. That's because of the high desertion rate. Most Afghans see their tribe as their highest loyalty, while recognizing Afghanistan as something they are part of, but not necessarily fond of. The Afghans want a larger force to deal with the Taliban insurrection, the growing power of the drug gangs, and possible trouble with Pakistan or Iran. None of these issues are of any great concern to most Afghan soldiers, unless they are problems that affect their own tribe.

Afghanistan's a mess, and how President Obama handles it will largely decide how historians judge his foreign policy.


The Endgame

It has often been said that poverty needs no explanation. It's the natural state of humanity to be poor. What needs an explanation is why, at rare points in history, a society emerges in which a significantly large fraction of its people are economically well-off.

Any explanation for this phenomenon that credits governmental policies such as are espoused by our current political leadership, however, is a non-starter. The reason can be illustrated by a glance at a basic difference between economic conservatism and economic liberalism. Simply put, conservative policies are designed to make everyone wealthier whereas liberal policies ultimately make everyone poorer.

I don't say this to score a cheap political point, but rather to highlight an obvious truth. Liberal nostrums such as high debt burdens, high taxes, burdensome regulations on commerce, and heavy disincentives for taking economic risks - the very fuel of the entrepreneurial system - all have the inevitable result of stifling productivity, reducing jobs, and diminishing net income.

It makes one wonder why anyone would favor policies which have such baneful effects. I suspect the answer, in many cases, has to do with the liberal notion of social justice. As long as there's a disparity between the top and bottom classes in a society then that society is, in their minds, ipso facto unjust, and the greater the disparity the greater the injustice. Liberals tend to assume that if you have wealth you must have gotten it by taking it from someone else and therefore it's the role of government to take it away from you and return it to those you have exploited.

The most just society, in their minds, is one where the distribution of wealth is relatively uniform. This is certainly Barack Obama's view and he has said as much on several occasions. In this view, wealth is static. There's only so much to go around. The notion that wealth can be created and multiplied is outside their ken. So their goal is to redistribute what wealth there is so that everybody has roughly the same amount.

Conservatives, on the other hand, argue that the better solution is to give everyone the opportunity to become wealthier by, in part, inculcating in people a set of values that includes getting an education, staying away from alcohol and drugs, not having children outside of marriage, getting married and staying married, having a strong work ethic, etc. Nevertheless, such disciplines are hard and liberals think it basically unfair to expect people to impose such severe restraints upon themselves. It's much easier to simply take the wealth from those who have it and give it to those who don't, and this is the path that liberals almost always endorse.

Of course the easiest way is often the most foolish way. As soon as the upper classes realize that their hard work, sacrifice, and deferred gratification is being exploited to subsidize those for whom such exertions are anathema, they'll soon enough decide there's no point in subjecting themselves to those ascetic rigors any longer. Indeed, why should they toil when they can't keep but a small portion of what they earn anyway? Eventually, the goose will die and the golden eggs will stop flowing. There'll be no more wealth to redistribute, and the U.S. will become a giant second or even third world nation.

That's the likely end result of the President's policies whether he intends it for us or not, and it's becoming increasingly difficult to think that he doesn't.


Friday, October 23, 2009

Woman to Watch

Among conservatives there's a great deal of love for Sarah Palin. Even if they don't think she'd make a good Presidential candidate, most think she'd make a fine President, but the reality is that it's hard to imagine her getting through a campaign without being so savaged by the media that she becomes unelectable.

In the last year, however, another strong woman has emerged who, many conservatives believe, would someday make both an outstanding candidate and an outstanding President. She's bright, articulate, and principled, and so the Left, unsurprisingly, is beginning to turn the same guns on her that've been trained on Sarah Palin for the past year. The harder they try to destroy her, however, the better she looks.

To find out who this impressive woman is go here, read the article about her written by Noemie Emery, and remember her name. I think we'll be hearing a lot more about her in the years ahead.


Atheist Delusions

Theologian David Bentley Hart has favored us with a wonderful book which he has titled Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies, a takeoff from Richard Dawkins' God Delusion, the basic argument of which is the target of Hart's book. Hart doesn't spend much time deconstructing Dawkins' book itself but rather addresses himself to the larger genre of atheistic tomes which have flooded the marketplace of late.

Hart takes their main premise that religion generally, and Christianity specifically, have been toxins in the bloodstream of human civilization and with an eloquence that's often lapidary, exposes such claims as utterly lacking in significant historical foundation. By way of christening his rebuttal Hart launches in chapter one a witheringly eloquent assault on the thinking of such as Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and their epigones which is worth the price of the book all by itself.

Subsequent chapters take us on an excursis of the ancient world into which Christianity was introduced. It was a world of unbelievable brutality, violence, and superstition, a world in which women and slaves were property and newborn children were often left along roadsides to die from exposure. He then chronicles how Christianity changed all that, not all of a sudden and certainly not perfectly, but inexorably nevertheless. Along the way he puts to rest all sorts of myths about the history of the Christian church.

For instance, everyone has heard how Christianity oppresses women, but the history of Christianity simply doesn't support this myth and, in fact, shows that Christianity has done more to elevate women to equal status with men than any other belief system or culture had ever done. Consider how the status of women in the Roman world changed under the influence of the Christian church.

...there can be little question regarding the benefits that the new faith conferred upon ordinary women - women, that is, who were neither rich nor socially exalted - literally from birth to death. Christianity forbade the ancient pagan practice of the exposure of unwanted infants - which is almost certainly to say, in the great majority of cases, girls - and insisted upon communal provision for the needs of widows - than whom no class of persons in ancient society was typically more disadvantaged or helpless. Not only did the church demand that females be allowed, no less than males, to live; it provided the means for them to live out the full span of their lives with dignity and material security. Christian husbands, moreover, could not force their wives to submit to abortions or to consent to infanticide; and while many pagan women may have been perfectly content to commit their newborn daughters to rubbish heaps or deserted roadsides, to become carrion for dogs and birds or (if fortunate) to become foundlings, we can assume a very great many women were not. Christian husbands were even commanded to remain as faithful to their wives as they expected their wives to be to them; they were forbidden to treat their wives with cruelty; they could not abandon or divorce their wives; their wives were not their chattels but their sisters in Christ....Christians had been instructed by Paul that a man's body belonged to his wife no less than her body belonged to him, and that in Christ a difference in dignity between male and female did not exist....

Christian emperors instituted laws which, though we today might wish went further than they did, were nevertheless unprecedented among prechristian pagans:

Constantine decreed laws that eased the hardship of widows, shielded women from prosecution in public, forbade divorce on trivial grounds, made public accusations of adultery against women illegal, and protected girls against marriage by abduction and forcible proleptic "consummation."

Theodosius and his successors went even further....A wife abandoned by her husband simply on the grounds of domestic unhappiness was now entitled not only to reclaim her dowry but to retain her husband's betrothal gifts to her as well....inheritance law was made more equitable in general by assuring that the estates of deceased women passed uncontested to her children. A girl whose father prostituted her was entirely liberated from his authority, and (more remarkably) a slave girl similarly abused by her master ceased to be his property.

In other words, rights and protections were conferred upon women and slaves under the aegis of Christianity that had no parallel in any pagan culture, which is probably why the Faith had such a strong appeal to so many who had been historically disenfranchised and marginalized.

There's much more in this excellent book which would make a fine gift for someone you know who perhaps labors under the benighted delusion that Christianity has been a pernicious blight on human history. To the contrary, Christianity was the engine that produced the modern understanding of human rights, dignity, and the value of every person.


Thursday, October 22, 2009

Confused Freedom Fighter

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a very brave woman. She lives under the threat of death because she dares to criticize the Islamic religion in which she was raised, yet she persists, and her courage has inspired millions. Unfortunately, she's as philosophically naive as she is courageous. An interview with her that appears in the LA Times suggests why. Here's part of the Times' story:

For five years Ali has lived under the threat of death from Islamic radicals, and in those five years, she has become an acclaimed and provocative author on matters about Islam and the West. Ayaan Hirsi Ali was born into a Somali Muslim family and eventually made her way to the Netherlands as a refugee.

There she wrote a screenplay for a short film about women's treatment under Islam. Just over two months after it aired, the filmmaker Theo van Gogh was assassinated. A letter threatening Ali's life has meant she has lived under guard ever since -- most recently thanks to a fund set up by private donors.

Controversy follows her: In 2006, she resigned from the Netherlands parliament under fire for lying on her asylum papers; the complex charges and countercharges precipitated a Dutch political upheaval.

She now works for the conservative American Enterprise Institute, which is headquartered in Washington. She established her AHA foundation to defend the rights of women in the West against militant Islam. Her autobiography, "Infidel: My Life," which detailed her own genital mutilation in Somalia, was a bestseller, and her next book, "Nomad," is to be published in February.

Your own grandmother oversaw your genital mutilation when you were 5, even though your father opposed it.

That's why I keep hammering on principle. My grandmother was convinced she was doing something right. She was brainwashed. She was doing it out of love. She had done it to all her daughters; it was done to her, to her grandmother. She didn't know it was possible not to be, as she called it, "cleansed." Yes, education helps, but it had everything to do with the conviction that what she was doing was right.

Will any country ever go to war for rights and women's safety?

It looks like it will not happen. But I am very, very optimistic -- not about going to war but about human beings changing their minds. You'll remember how communism was stigmatized. The big problem is [how] to define the protection of women's rights as the problem of the 21st century. If the world does that, [women's inequality] will become like the eradication of apartheid -- people will insist that it's wrong, it's wrong, it's wrong, and that's when change happens.

And here's why Ms Ali, for all her courage and ideals, is quite confused. Ayaan, you see, is an atheist:

Do you regard yourself as an atheist?

Did God create man, or did man create God? I belong to the group who say man created God. I am comfortable to live without an outer force telling me what to do. I'd rather believe in human beings.

Ayaan has rejected the God of both Islam and Christianity, but if she's correct that there's no God upon what does she base her strong belief that her grandmother was wrong and that she is right? If there's no God then there's no reason why anyone should care about anyone other than themselves, no reason not to think that might makes right, and no reason for thinking that those who have the power to oppress women are doing anything wrong if they exercise that power.

Ms Ali doesn't like what they do, of course, nor should she, but if there's no "outer force" to act as a moral authority, if morality is just a matter of one's subjective intuitions, she has nothing upon which to base an assertion of the right of women not to be mutilated other than that such treatment offends her own personal sense of morality. If there is no God, if morality is nothing more than an expression of individual taste, like one's preference for Coke over Pepsi, then no one's morality is any better or worse than anyone else's.

Ms Ali doesn't think women should be reduced to chattel, others think they should. Neither side is right nor wrong any more than those who prefer Coke are right and those who prefer Pepsi wrong. Ayaan has no authority to which to appeal to support her asseveration that those who disagree with her are "wrong, wrong, wrong." It's all based on her preferences which are no more binding on others than is her preference in soda.

Only if God exists does the claim that something is morally wrong make any sense. Only if right and wrong are grounded in an objective transcendent moral authority can the claim that oppression and abuse are wrong rise to anything more substantive than the equivalent of "I don't like oppression." Only if practices such as genital mutilation violate the objective moral law of the Creator of the cosmos can we say that someone is wrong to do it. Otherwise, we are just emoting when we say something is wrong.

Anyway, despite the philosophical inadequacy of the foundations of her convictions she is a heroic woman. Read the rest of the interview with her at the link.


Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Another Weird Appointment

How many bizzare appointments must the Obama administration make before the media starts to catch on that there's something very wrong with the way these people see the world?

You might remember Mark Foley the Republican congressman from Florida who sent salacious emails to House pages and subsequently resigned his office, his reputation in tatters, even though he had evidently broken no laws. No less than 1400 news stories were written about his sleazy behavior, and it was universally agreed that such people have no place in our government.

Well, I say universally agreed, but it's not clear where the Obama administration stands on such behavior. No doubt they would be glad to see Foley discredited, because he was, after all, a Republican, but their opinion of the behaviour that Foley actually engaged in is more ambiguous.

I say this because Mr. Obama has appointed as his "safe school czar" a man named Kevin Jennings who makes Mark Foley look like the picture of moral rectitude. Mr. Jennings is a gay activist who wants schools to actively promote and affirm the gay lifestyle. He relates an incident that occurred when he was teaching at a private boarding academy in Massachussetts that is disturbing in what it reveals about his own attitudes toward gay sex. Jennings tells the story of a 15 year-old homosexual student named "Brewster" who confided to Jennings about an encounter he had had with a man in a Boston bus station rest room. Human Events provides the sordid details:

Jennings quotes the boy and then comments: "'I met someone in the bus station bathroom and I went home with him.' High school sophomore, 15 years old. That was the only way he knew how to meet gay people."

Did Jennings report this high-risk behavior to the authorities? To the school? To the boy's parents? No -- he just told the boy, "I hope you knew to use a condom." Sex between an adult and a young person below the "age of consent" (which varies from state to state) is a crime known as statutory rape, and some states mandate that people in certain professions report such abuse.

So, here we have a teacher of children who refrained from advising this boy to stay away from strange men in toilet stalls, impressing upon him only the importance of donning a prophylactic in such encounters. He's a man who apparently thinks that sex between boys and men is no big deal even if it's against the law, and even if it exploits and dehumanizes the boy. Yet in the eyes of this White House such a man is deemed qualified to be put in charge of the safety of our nation's schoolchildren.

What's the difference between Kevin Jennings and Mark Foley? Fourteen hundred news stories.


Out of the Body Experience

An article by Anil Ananthaswamy at New Scientist probes the phenomenon of out of the body experiences. These events appear to be generated by a particular part of the brain called the temporoparietal junction (TPJ), but exactly what is going on in these experiences, which researchers don't doubt are genuine, remains a mystery.

Ananthaswamy seems to assume a dualistic view of the body and the self with the self somehow tied to the body unless released by certain triggers. Here's an account of one such episode that he cites as an introduction to his article:

The young man woke feeling dizzy. He got up and turned around, only to see himself still lying in bed. He shouted at his sleeping body, shook it, and jumped on it. The next thing he knew he was lying down again, but now seeing himself standing by the bed and shaking his sleeping body. Stricken with fear, he jumped out of the window. His room was on the third floor. He was found later, badly injured.

What this 21-year-old had just experienced was an out-of-body experience, one of the most peculiar states of consciousness. It was probably triggered by his epilepsy. "He didn't want to commit suicide," says Peter Brugger, the young man's neuropsychologist at University Hospital Zurich in Switzerland. "He jumped to find a match between body and self. He must have been having a seizure."

In the 15 years since that dramatic incident, Brugger and others have come a long way towards understanding out-of-body experiences. They have narrowed down the cause to malfunctions in a specific brain area and are now working out how these lead to the almost supernatural experience of leaving your own body and observing it from afar. They are also using out-of-body experiences to tackle a long-standing problem: how we create and maintain a sense of self.

Dramatised to great effect by such authors as Dostoevsky, Wilde, de Maupassant and Poe - some of whom wrote from first-hand knowledge - out-of-body experiences are usually associated with epilepsy, migraines, strokes, brain tumors, drug use and even near-death experiences. It is clear, though, that people with no obvious neurological disorders can have an out-of-body experience. By some estimates, about 5 per cent of healthy people have one at some point in their lives.

So what exactly is an out-of-body experience? A definition has recently emerged that involves a set of increasingly bizarre perceptions. The least severe of these is a doppelg�nger experience: you sense the presence of or see a person you know to be yourself, though you remain rooted in your own body. This often progresses to stage 2, where your sense of self moves back and forth between your real body and your doppelg�nger. This was what Brugger's young patient experienced. Finally, your self leaves your body altogether and observes it from outside, often an elevated position such as the ceiling. "This split is the most striking feature of an out-of-body experience," says Olaf Blanke, a neurologist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne.

All this raises several questions: What exactly is it that's "outside" the body? Is it really outside the body or is the outsideness an illusion? If it is illusory how does it perceive things from an "outside" perspective? Is there something about us that's immaterial and yet can still perceive and move? How does it do this if it has no sense organs and no locomotive system? Can both the "outside" self and the body have simultaneous cognitive experience, i.e. can the mind be split between the two?

There's a debate among philosophers whether minds actually exist as a substance separate from material bodies and brains. Materialists usually hold that minds have no actual existence. For them mind is just a word we use to describe the function of the brain much like we use the word digestion to describe the function of the stomach. Dualists, on the other hand, believe that minds are an altogether different kind of "substance," an immaterial substance, from material bodies. No doubt materialists will try to explain out of body experiences in terms of purely physical mechanisms giving rise to illusory experience, but I don't see how the weight of the evidence doesn't at least offer prima facie support to mind/body dualism.

Read the rest of the article and see what you think.


Early Graduation

We recently did a post on extending the school year which I closed by saying that this would be of special benefit to the better students. There was quite a lot of response to this post and a number of readers asked why I added that last sentence. They wondered why it wouldn't also benefit the weaker students to have a longer school year.

Well, I'm not convinced that it would. In fact, I've long felt that we overschool weaker students, particularly those in the bottom fifth of their class. Indeed, I've advocated, not that anyone has paid any heed, that the state institute a two-tiered graduation that would allow students who feel unsuited to an academic setting to graduate after their sophomore year in high school. Here's why:

Research has shown that students in the lowest ranks of their class who persevere through their senior year learn no more than similar students who drop out after tenth grade. The additional two years of schooling turned out to be of almost no academic benefit to those who opted for them.

This finding will come as no surprise whatsoever to teachers who wear themselves out daily trying to motivate these particular students, but it does raise a question:

If these youngsters are unlikely to add significantly to their knowledge base in their last two years of school, and if it is the case, as some observers suggest, that many, perhaps most, of the jobs of the future are going to require unskilled workers, why do we expend so much effort and treasure trying to keep these kids in school for twelve years as if there was something magical about the number twelve?

Part of the answer, of course, is that a diploma generally opens more opportunities than are available to a high school drop-out, but if so, it might be much more to the benefit of these youngsters if schools offered two kinds of diploma.

Students who elect to remain in school through their senior year, perhaps 85% of an incoming freshman class, would be eligible for one type of diploma while students who choose to graduate after the successful completion of tenth grade would receive another.

A two-tiered graduation, similar to those found in some European countries, has a number of advantages:

1) Apathetic ninth-graders who often harbor a dread of having to endure four more years of schooling might be motivated to work a little harder if they knew that by so doing they can receive a diploma after less than two more years of effort.

Indeed, it's not inconceivable that the prospect of early graduation might spur some of these students to improve their academic work, their attitude, and their attendance during their freshman and sophomore years thus helping them to draw more benefit from these two terms alone than they would get were they to just hang on until they either drop out or eke out a traditional diploma.

2) Students who wish to attend a post-secondary trade or technical school but who would likely be defeated by two additional years of academic courses would be able to bypass these and get on with the vocational education that will eventually be of most use to them. Public schools might even wish to restructure their tech-ed programs to accommodate these graduates.

3) Kids who remain in school but who don't really want to be there are usually the most disruptive. The prospect of a tenth grade graduation gives them an incentive to improve their conduct while simultaneously providing a means of easing the frustrations that often lead to undesirable behavior.

4) Schools which are caught between the desperate need for additional space on the one hand and tight budgets on the other would obtain some measure of relief if every year a percentage of the sophomore class - and perhaps even some juniors - were to choose to graduate.

5) Those who might otherwise choose to drop out of school with nothing to show for the time they spent there would now have hope of obtaining a diploma which would reflect a modicum of achievement and confer some measure of dignity.

And, of course, some students who take advantage of early graduation might wish later to acquire a regular diploma. They could be allowed to return to school, motivated, perhaps, by an enhanced appreciation of the value of, and a new desire for, an academic education.

Early graduation could be immensely helpful for precisely those students who invariably benefit the least from traditional education. If keeping them in school until twelfth grade doesn't really help them, let's do something for them which might.


Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Difference Between Us

Here's a piece that gives a lot of insight into the difference between how the U.S. and its allies wage war against our enemies and how our enemies wage war against us. While the Islamists are sending suicide bombers into markets and schools to blow innocent civilians to pieces Western forces do things like this:

Britain revealed that, last month, the pilot of a Harrier jet, maneuvering a Paveway IV laser guided bomb towards a moving vehicle carrying a Taliban leader, moved the bomb away at the last minute. This was because the Taliban vehicle suddenly stopped near some civilians, and the new ROE (Rules of Engagement) mandated that civilian casualties be avoided at all costs. The bomb went off in a nearby field, causing no injuries. The Taliban vehicle then sped away and was not caught again until several days later. At that point, a bomb took out the target. The Taliban leader had been under observation for weeks, and several opportunities had been lost because of nearby civilians.

I'd like to know what nation in history would have been so solicitous of innocent bystanders that they would do what our military, and that of our allies, does every day to avoid civilian casualties. Anyone who says that all cultures are equally worth celebrating and that our way of seeing the world is no better than that of other peoples simply doesn't know what they're talking about.


Alzheimer's Research

Alzheimer's disease results from the buildup of amyloid plaques in the brain. A recent discovery shows that mice can recover from Alzheinmer's by tweaking their brains' immune cells with a particular protein which causes the immune cells to remove the plaque.

If this can be made to work in humans it could be a wonderful breakthrough in the treatment and cure of this terrible disease. Science Daily has the story.


Monday, October 19, 2009

Protect Free Speech

Hovering below the media radar screen is an important piece of legislation now being considered by the Senate Judiciary Committee. The bill is titled The Free Speech Protection Act 2009, and it's extremely important that it be voted out of committee and brought to the Senate floor for a vote by the full Senate. Bill Dembski at Uncommon Descent explains why:

Paul Williams is a journalist who has written extensively about the threat of terrorism in North America. He is being sued by McMaster University [In Canada] for millions of dollars for alleging in print that they have abetted terrorists and allowed radioactive materials to be stolen. How could he be tried in a Canadian court given that he broke no U.S. law and did everything that McMaster University is upset about on U.S. soil?

As he explained to me, "Bill, I am being tried in Canada because of free trade agreements, including NAFTA. Such agreements give foreign entities the right to take action against American citizens. I am not the only journalist to suffer this fate. New York Times reporter Joe Sharkey is undergoing a similar plight for offending the 'dignity' of Brazil by criticizing an air-traffic control official. Dr. Rachel Ehrenfeld, author of Funding Evil, is being sued in England for criticizing Khalid bin Mahfouz, a Saudi billionaire. Many more will suffer a similar fate in the coming years."

For more on this travesty go here.

People like Williams have been essentially stripped of their right to freedom of speech because of a provision in NAFTA that should be rescinded. American citizens should not lose their fundamental freedoms because people in another country don't appreciate the rights that we enjoy. The Free Speech Protection Act would guarantee American citizens would not be subjected to this kind of shameful harrassment which has already cost Williams in legal fees his entire life savings of $500,000.

This is a matter of basic justice upon which Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, should be able to agree. There are no constitutional rights more precious than those enshrined in our first amendment, and we should not suffer any agreement with another country that permits their abridgement.


Sunday, October 18, 2009

Miracle Workers

If President Obama is not up to the task of reversing the rising seas as he promised he would do during the campaign, maybe we can get this guy to take care of it:

[T]he mayor of Moscow promises to keep it from snowing. For just a few million dollars, the mayor's office will hire the Russian Air Force to spray a fine chemical mist over the clouds before they reach the capital, forcing them to dump their snow outside the city. Authorities say this will be a boon for Moscow, which is typically covered with a blanket of snow from November to March. Road crews won't need to constantly clear the streets, and traffic - and quality of life - will undoubtedly improve.

The idea came from Mayor Yury Luzhkov, who is no stranger to playing God. In 2002, he spearheaded a project to reverse the flow of the vast River Ob through Siberia to help irrigate the country's parched Central Asian neighbors. Although that idea hasn't exactly turned out as planned - scientists have said it's not feasible - this time, Luzhkov says, there's no way he can fail.

I think it would be great to have a contest between these two to see who can perform the most spectacular miracles. The winner could be awarded the Nobel Prize for Sheer Awesomeness.


Outraged at the Left's Tactics

Conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh was invited recently to join a consortium of buyers interested in purchasing the St. Louis Rams football team. Immediately the Left saw an opportunity to punish Limbaugh for his political opposition to President Obama by spreading false stories about statements he has made in the past pertaining to race. It turns out that Limbaugh never made the statements, that many of the people who claimed he did knew he didn't make them, but they disseminated the slander anyway until he threatened legal action. At that point they began retracting their libels, but by then the damage had been done. Limbaugh was dropped from the consortium, denying him the opportunity to realize his dream of owning an NFL team. Limbaugh himself discusses this sordid episode here.

This is the modus operandi of the Left. They rarely try to defeat their opponents by offering superior ideas because their ideas are rarely superior. This is why they try to push legislation through without giving the public a chance to read it. If they lack the power to bulldoze their opposition they'll try to win by lying about their opponents, vilifying them or traducing their reputations. They seek to destroy, both politically and personally, anyone who stands in their way. Indeed, this was Saul Alinsky's Rule #12, from his Rules for Radicals which has become the handbook for left-wing political activists everywhere.

Watch this clip of a seemingly unlikely trio commentators coming to Limbaugh's defense. The three consist of a black liberal, a black conservative, and a lesbian who's a former leftist. All of them are disgusted with what the Left is doing to American politics in general and to Limbaugh in particular:


Israel Prepares to Attack

Yet another report that Israel is planning an attack on Iran, this time from a French magazine:

According to the report in Le Canard Enchain� quoted by Israel Radio, Jerusalem has already ordered high-quality combat rations from a French food manufacturer for soldiers serving in elite units and has also asked reservists of these units staying abroad to return to Israel.

The magazine further reported that in a recent visit to France, IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi told his French counterpart Jean-Louis Georgelin that Israel was not planning to bomb Iran, but might send elite troops to conduct activities on the ground there.

These, according to the magazine, could involve the sabotage of nuclear facilities as well as assassinations of top Iranian nuclear scientists.

The magazine report said that the Israelis will probably move "after December." This raises several interesting questions. For example, is a preemptive assault on Iran morally justified? Is assassinating the scientists who are working on constructing the Iranian nuclear bomb justified? If your answer is yes, what circumstances must be met in order for such acts to be justified? If your answer is no would it be better to simply let Iran build a nuclear weapon?

Give these questions some thought. They may prove to be pertinent soon enough.


Saturday, October 17, 2009


This is really unbelievable. A video camera in a London tube station catches what seems to be certain tragedy, but somehow it isn't:


God and Scientism

In an article at the Wall Street Journal William McGurn expresses heretical misgivings about scientism - the view that only knowledge obtained through the scientific investigation is genuine and that science is the ultimate authority on every subject.

In the middle of his piece he notes that:

In contrast to the majority of scientists whose wondrous discoveries seem to inspire humility, today's advocates of scientism can be every bit as dogmatic as the William Jennings Bryans of yesteryear. We saw an example a week ago, when the New York Times reported that many scientists view "outspoken religious commitment as a sign of mild dementia."

The reporter was Gardiner Harris, and the object of his snark was Francis Collins-the new director of the National Institutes of Health. Dr. Collins is perhaps best noted for his leadership on the Human Genome Project, an effort to map the genetic makeup of man. But he is also well known for his unapologetic talk about his Christian faith and how he came to it.

Mr. Harris's aside about dementia, of course, is less a proposition open to debate than the kind of putdown you tell at a private cocktail party where you know everyone in the room shares your orthodoxies. In this room, there are those who hold that God cannot be reconciled with what science has discovered about the human body, the origin of the species, and the beginnings of the universe.

Of course, these fashionable detractors of Christianity haven't a clue about that of which they speak. There's nothing that's been discovered by scientists which does anything to cast doubt on the existence of God and much that has been discovered which affirms it (Doubters are referred to Stephen Meyer's Signature in the Cell). Indeed, the more we learn about the human body the more easily one draws the conclusion that it's the product of intentional engineering. The more we learn about the origin of life the more we realize how implausible it is that blind, purposeless forces could have brought it about. The more we learn about the origin the universe and its origin the more compelling does Genesis 1:1 sound.

There is no conflict whatsoever between science and God. How could there be? The conflict we see today is between naturalism (the view that physical nature is all there is) and theism. There is nothing about science that requires its practioners to embrace naturalism. Those who do, do so because they simply don't want the universe to be the kind of place where a God might intervene.

McGurn continues:

The more honest ones do not flinch before the implications of their materialist principles on our understanding of human dignity and human rights and human freedom-as well as on religion.

In 1997, for example, an International Academy of Humanism statement in defense of human cloning-whose signatories included scientists such as E.O. Wilson, Francis Crick and Richard Dawkins-went out of its way to attack the special dignity of human beings. "Humanity's rich repertoire of thoughts, feelings, aspirations, and hopes seems to arise from electrochemical brain processes, not from an immaterial soul that operates in ways no instrument can discover." They concluded "it would be a tragedy if ancient theological scruples should lead to a Luddite rejection of cloning."

This is important. The logical conclusion of naturalism is that man is nothing but a complex mass of chemical reactions and electrical circuitry. We are, at bottom, just a bunch of atoms arranged in a rather interesting way, but ultimately we're nothing more than a flesh and bone machine. There's nothing about us, certainly no soul, that gives us inherent value.

It's a view that amounts to a stark denial of human dignity. If we're just a machine there's ultimately no freedom of the will, no soul, no imago dei, no inherent human rights - just blood, muscle and excrement. If that's all man is then there's no reason why those who have the power should not enslave him, exploit him and slaughter him if they so wish. After all, what's wrong with abusing a bunch of electrochemical brain impulses? It's no different, at the end of the day, than tossing your old computer into the trash.

This is the logic of humanism and all other views which deny God and human transcendence. This is the logic that has throughout modern times led powerful men to kill weaker men by the thousands and millions.

The humanist may be convinced that naturalism is true and that man has no specialness, no dignity, and no worth, but that he should want to tout the fact in pronouncements and manifestos, given the ghastly consequences this belief entails, strikes me as perverse. One would think that humanists would be horrified at the logic of the "truth" they have discovered and believe and do everything they can to keep that "truth" secret.


Friday, October 16, 2009


Glenn Beck is pretty upset, as well he should be. What is it, after all, about President Obama that so many of the people he surrounds himself with are people like White House Communications Director Anita Dunn? Ms Dunn announces in a speech to high school students that two of her favorite "political philosophers" are Mother Teresa (political philosopher?!) and Mao Tse Tung.

Perhaps there's another Mao Tse Tung out there that I don't know about. Ms Dunn can't be alluding to the same Mao who murdered some 35-70 million of his fellow Chinese. She can't be an admirer of the same Mao who during the cultural revolution had his enemies buried up to their chins and then bludgeoned to death, can she? What does it say about Ms Dunn that this most monstrous of men is one of her heroes? What does it say about President Obama that he brings people like Ms Dunn into his administration? What does it say about Mr. Obama that so many of his associates have been admirers of people who hate the U.S. and who have themselves been brutal thugs and murderers?

Beck offers an apt analogy at the end of the clip. He's absolutely right. Take a look:

Next we'll see President Obama jogging in a Che Guevara T-shirt.


What a Deal

The Hill has a column that states that despite White House claims of having created a million jobs via the stimulus bill passed last February they can only account for 30,083, most of which are probably temporary and/or government positions. Since only $16 billion of the stimulus has been spent so far, you and I have paid just under $532,000 per job. What a deal. And this from the administration that sold itself to the American voters on competency and intelligence.

Meanwhile, 3.4 million jobs have been lost since February and reports come out almost daily on the wasteful make-work and payback schemes toward which the stimulus is being applied.

The best thing that could happen would be for Congress to repeal the stimulus before we waste any more money that we don't have, but repeal won't happen as long as Democrats control both houses and the White House. November 2010 can't come soon enough.


SoJo on Health Care Reform (Pt. II)

As I mentioned yesterday, Sojourners' magazine editor Jim Wallis published an argument that seeks to provide the moral rationale for passing health care reform. While I certainly agree that we have an obligation to help those who suffer, I think there are several weaknesses with Wallis' case. We considered the first two of Wallis' five points yesterday. Today we'll consider his last three. He writes:

3. Patients not profits. No one should be discriminated against in their health care because they are sick. Our faith mandates that we give extra consideration and help to those who are sick, but every time an insurance company denies coverage for "pre-existing conditions," excluded ailments, or confusing fine print, their profits go up. Every doctor I know decided to pursue medicine to help people. Many insurance companies make a profit by not helping people, but our faith requires it.

Insurance companies are not in business to help people any more than grocery stores are in business to help people. They go into business to make a profit. There's nothing wrong or unsavory about that. It's absurd to expect insurance companies to accept customers who will cause them to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars in pay outs because the customer has a pre-existing condition that's bound to cost the insurer vast sums of money down the road, Requiring insurance companies to accept new clients with pre-existing conditions who haven't paid a dime in premiums is like demanding that grocery stores give away free food. It's certainly proper to require that insurance companies not be allowed to back out of agreements or deceive customers, but the solution is not to add another "company," the government, to the list of malefactors. The solution is to prosecute those companies which refuse to write clear contracts or which abridge those contracts.

4. Life and liberty must both be protected. The health-care system should protect the sanctity and dignity of life in accordance with existing law and the current rules, and the prohibition on federal funding of abortions should be consistently and diligently applied to any legislation. Strong "conscience" protections should be enacted for health-care workers to ensure they have the liberty to exercise their moral and religious beliefs in their profession. Evidence suggests that supporting low-income and pregnant women with adequate health care increases the number of women who chose to carry their child to term -- if we reform health care in the right way, we can reduce abortions in the U.S. While religious people don't all agree on all the issues of abortion, we should agree that those differences must not be allowed to derail the crucial need for comprehensive health-care reform.

Wallis is right to demand that there be conscience protections and no federal funding for abortions - something Democrats are loath to include in their bills - but his argument that if their health care is paid for women will be less likely to have abortions, so we should therefore pay for their health care, is silly. If we just give a pregnant woman ten (or more) thousand dollars if she agrees to carry her child to term many, perhaps most, women would accept the offer. Doing this would probably prevent far more abortions than would paying for a woman's health care whether she agrees to have the child or not. If preventing abortions is the justification for subsidizing a woman's health care why not pass a law requiring each of us to chip into the ten thousand? Even if such a law were workable and didn't result eventually in having to pay every pregnant woman in the U.S. the money, any participation in it should be voluntary, not compulsory.

5. For the next generation, health-care reform should be based on firm financial foundations. Health care is a vital and wise investment for the future of our families and society. But the way we pay for it should be fair and equitable and seek to lessen the burden on succeeding generations -- both in bringing everyone into the system and by bringing the costs of health care under control over time. Our religious traditions suggest that social justice and fiscal responsibility must not be pitted against each other, but balanced together in sound public policy that is affordable for individuals and for society.

Wallis seems to imply that the current debate is about whether or not we should make health care more affordable. It's not. Everyone agrees that the cost of insurance and care has skyrocketed and needs to be reigned back. The current debate is about the best way to bring costs back down without compromising the quality of the system we have, and a government run system is surely not the best way to do that. One recent report, for example, shows that within ten years the average premium for a family of four will actually be $4000 higher under the senate's Baucus plan than it is now.

What we need to do to bring costs down is to make it cheaper for insurance companies and medical practitioners to do business. The best way to do that is to relieve insurance companies of state imposed mandates, allow for competition across state lines, and reform medical malpractice so that doctors, hospitals, and pharmaceutical manufacturers don't have to pay a fortune in malpractice insurance. Indeed, the Congressional Budget Office has calculated that total savings to the entire medical industry if malpractice laws were reformed would be $110 billion over ten years, but tort reform is not in any of the Democrat plans.

They would rather, as DNC chairman Howard Dean admitted, keep their lawyer friends rich than make health care for you and I cheaper. That's the moral canker in this system that Wallis should be writing about, but it doesn't seem high on his list of concerns.

Jim Wallis would have a lot more credibility if he were as outraged by Dean's admission on this video as are most people who believe, as Wallis once wrote, that God is neither Democrat nor Republican.


Thursday, October 15, 2009

Darwin's Dilemma

There's a new documentary just out titled Darwin's Dilemma: The Mystery of the Cambrian Fossil Record which has evolutionary materialists all in a swivet. The DVD examines an event believed to have occurred 530 million years ago called the "Cambrian explosion," during which, in a geologically brief sliver of time, fossils of almost every major phylum appeared suddenly and fully developed in the rocks.

This fact is a bit of an inconvenience to those who wish to argue that life evolved slowly over the eons, and it's particularly embarrassing for Darwinians since the sudden appearance of the major body types with no fossilized precursors is quite compatible with the view that life is the product of an intelligently guided creation.

For such reasons, perhaps, secular Darwinians don't want this particular embarrassment being called to the attention of the general public so they're fighting the showing of the DVD in public, taxpayer-supported venues. In their minds discussing the scientific problem posed for Darwinian evolution by the fossil record is ipso facto religious, or something, and, of course, we can't have religious materials disseminated through public facilities.

Next they'll be trying to ban documentaries that explain to a popular audience the theory of the Big Bang because any theory that implies a beginning to the universe also implies a cause of the beginning, and we all know who that cause would be, don't we, so no more talk of Big Bangs on the taxpayers' dime you sneaky creationists.

Exit activity: Everyone raise your hand who thinks that in the brave new world envisioned by secular progressives there'd still be a meaningful right to free speech.


Great Divorce Correction

In an earlier post I noted that the film version of C.S. Lewis' novel The Great Divorce was slated for release next month. This is inaccurate. Filming is not scheduled to begin until 2010 and no release date has been announced.

I know that that seems like a considerable error on our part, so I went back and checked the records, and it turns out that that's the first mistake we've ever made here at Viewpoint.


SoJo on Health Care Reform (Pt. I)

Sojourners magazine editor Jim Wallis lays out his case for health care reform. I agree with Wallis that there are moral reasons to support reform, but I think there are several shortcomings in the argument he presents. This is part I of a two part consideration of Wallis' case. Part II will follow tomorrow.

Mr. Wallis writes:

I believe there are some fundamental moral and biblical principles on which to evaluate any final legislative agreement, principles on which many people of faith -- even politically diverse people -- might agree. After the heat of the summer's confrontations over health care, it's time for a cooler fall debate. It's time for a re-set of the health-care debate, and a return to some basic principles could help.

Five Principles of Faith for Health-Care Reform

1. Health, not sickness, is the will of God. We can see this from the story in Genesis of the garden, where sickness was never found, and from the vision in Revelation of a city in which death will be no more. When we are instruments of bringing about that good health, we are doing the work of God. The gospel stories of Jesus healing people, of restoring them to physical wholeness and full participation in their community, always signaled God's presence.

All this may be true about God's will, but it's not an argument for government subsidized health care. It's an argument for healthy living, wise personal choices, and, in emergency cases, for neighborly assistance. Churches, especially, should, and do, devote a large measure of their resources to helping those in the community who are in need. By laying this responsibility on community organizations there can be an expectation that the recipients of our benevolence will be supervised, that the church can require of them that they submit to being instructed as to how to function in healthier, more productive ways, and that they're not depersonalized by simply being reduced to a number in a giant government bureaucracy. In the long run this would be a far better solution for many poor individuals than just signing up to have the government throw money at their medical bills.

2. United we stand, divided we fall. The division between those who can afford adequate coverage and those who cannot is a threat to our unity, to the health of our neighbors, and to our nation. 46 million people in our country are uninsured, and millions more who are insured still can't keep up with their bills. Our moral and religious standards say no one should be left out of a system simply because of not being able to afford good health. The common good requires a system that is accessible to all who need it.

This is a little bit misleading. As many observers have pointed out, the 46 million figure includes millions who can afford insurance but choose not to buy it, millions of children who qualify for programs like SCHIP but whose parents have not signed them up, and millions of illegal immigrants who have no claim on the public purse. The number of actual indigent citizens who cannot, through no fault of their own, get insurance is more on the order of a fourth of the figure Wallis cites.

When Wallis writes that our moral and religious standards demand that no one should be left out of a system because of not being able to afford good health he's being somewhat disingenuous. Our values call upon us to help people in need, to be sure, but no one disputes that. What is in dispute is whether we as individuals should have the right to determine who among the needful gets our help. To insist that we have a moral obligation to help people is an oversimplification.

After all, we are no more obligated to pay for our neighbor's medical care than to pay for his auto repairs and insurance or his rent or home mortgage. We are under no moral obligation to forfeit what we have worked hard to earn for our families in order to subsidize someone else's consistently poor choices about diet, smoking, drug use, etc. We may well decide that we want to help such persons in our community, but that should be our choice, based upon our assessment of his need and his responsibility for the circumstances in which he finds himself. For the government to take money from us to give to people who, for all we know, refuse to help themselves is itself immoral.

More on the Sojourners argument tomorrow.