Bill Maher stays as Berkeley’s commencement speaker

As I reported earlier, an invitation to Bill Maher to give the commencement address at the University of California at Berkeley recently came under fire as a group of students, apparently largely Muslim, objected on the grounds that he was a racist and a bigot who promulgated “hate speech.” They circulated a petition to withdraw Maher’s invitation.

According to a new article at Inside Higher Education, the organization that invited Maher appears to have been a student group called the “Californians.” And, apparently under pressure from the students, the “Californians” changed their mind, voting on Tuesday to withdraw the invitation.

But the University’s administration overturned that decision, so that Maher’s invitation stands. In a remarkably lucid defense of free speech, the Berkeley chancellor, speaking through the university’s Office of Public affairs, said this:

“. . . last night the “Californians” reconvened without administration participation and came to a decision that the invitation should be rescinded.

The UC Berkeley administration cannot and will not accept this decision, which appears to have been based solely on Mr. Maher’s opinions and beliefs, which he conveyed through constitutionally protected speech. For that reason Chancellor Dirks has decided that the invitation will stand, and he looks forward to welcoming Mr. Maher to the Berkeley campus. It should be noted that this decision does not constitute an endorsement of any of Mr. Maher’s prior statements: indeed, the administration’s position on Mr. Maher’s opinions and perspectives is irrelevant in this context, since we fully respect and support his right to express them. More broadly, this university has not in the past and will not in the future shy away from hosting speakers who some deem provocative.

Apparently the administration, realizing what could happen in the future if the student p.c. faction gains control, is looking into other ways to choose speakers. (Perhaps eliminating student participation, as we do here in Chicago?):

Finally, the unfortunate events surrounding the selection of this year’s winter commencement speaker demonstrate the need to develop a new policy for managing commencement ceremonies. The new process will ensure that these events are handled in a manner commensurate with our values and enduring commitment to free speech. We will be announcing the new policy as soon as it is ready.”

But of course the easily-offended continue to object, whining that having Maher as speaker constitutes (contra Chancellor Nicholas Dirks’s pronouncement) an endorsement of Maher’s views. One student made this comment on the “withdraw-Maher” petition:

“The administration claims to be upholding free speech by letting Bill Maher speak at the commencement. What the administration fails to realize is that it has turned its back on MANY other values that it is supposed to uphold such as equality and anti-discrimination. Also, having a speaker who has said offensive and ignorant things about certain members of society is not just about free speech. It is, in some way and to some extent, endorsing his beliefs since he is allowed to address the graduating class.”

In other words, only speakers having approved “values”should be allowed to speak. As for Maher’s “offensive and ignorant things about certain members of society,” I assume that refers to his comments about Islam.  And that is about free speech: the right to criticize anyone’s views. Who is the arbiter of what is “ignorant” and “offensive”? Is it okay to criticize politics in a commencement speech but not religion?

Things have come full circle at Berkeley. In the 1960s the students were demanding, against the administration’s will, that the University give them the right to speak freely on campus about politics. Now it is the administration who has to enforce peoples’ right to speak freely about politics (and religion), and it is the students who try to censor those whose views they find repugnant.

Those students are immature crybabies. Some day they’ll have to live in the real world away from Sproul Plaza, and there they’ll hear plenty of things they don’t like. They’d better get used to it.

h/t: Mark

Science proves that consecrated wafers are still wheat and not Jesus

I don’t know much about the Raëlian Movement, but what I’ve learned suggests that Raelians are plenty weird. Their faith is based on Earth’s life having been created by space aliens, so they’re creationists, and they have all kinds of strange views, including a form of baptism that alters your genetic makeup but prepares you for your eventual judgment by the aliens. They’re a small sect, cult, or religion (whatever you want to call them): Wikipedia estimates that there are only about 90,000 members worldwide.

On the other hand, the sect has some good liberal views: they are pro-gay, in favor of food derived from GMOs, and anti-Catholic. The last view is probably one that gave rise to the “research” paper I’ll highlight today.  Yes, a Raëlian group did some research, and I’m not going to dismiss it out of hand simply because of who did it (if that were the case, I’d dismiss the Human Genome Project simply because it was headed by born-again Christian Francis Collins). As always, we must evaluate the data on their own.

Damien Marsic and Mehran Sam, identified as belonging to the Association of Raelian Scientists (in Las Vegas), have published a paper in a place called “Scientific Raelian”; the paper’s title is “DNA analysis of consecrated sacramental wafers refutes Catholic transubstantiation claim.

This is in fact a piece of research I’ve always wanted someone to do. Since Catholics believe in transubstantiation (the wafer and wine become the body and blood of Christ during the Eucharist) and not consubstantiation (the wafer and wine are partly made of Jesus, and partly of grapes and wheat), an analysis of a consecrated wafer should show that its substance is entirely that of the human body.

Now we know that a wafer and wine don’t change into a beaker of blood and a gobbet of flesh after they’re blessed, but one other strategy is to look at the DNA in these substances. Perhaps (or so the Raelian investigators thought), they’d find human DNA—Jesus’s—in the wafer and wine. Their rationale for the work is this:

Using science to test a religious claim

It could be argued whether supernatural claims can or should be tested by science. The famous view advocated by Stephen Jay Gould that science and religion are “non-overlapping magisteria” [3] has been extensively criticized by both scientists such as Richard Dawkins [4] or Yonathan Fishman [5] and philosophers like Russell Blackford [6]. The transubstantiation claim by the Catholic Church is particularly relevant because of the doctrine’s insistence that the transformation of bread into the body of Christ is not symbolic but a physical reality. The claim is both fantastical and easy to test. However, the main reason for this study was to answer requests by former Catholics recovering from dogmatic indoctrination in the hope that it would help others develop informed opinions on the validity of religious dogmas.

And so Marsic and Sam did a study. They purloined five consecrated wafers (they discuss the ethics of this, and decide that it’s okay), and analyzed the DNA of the consecrated wafers as well as that of a “control” group of unconsecrated wafers, a “human DNA” control group from cultured cells, and a negative control (nothing added to the PCR [DNA amplification] reagents).

They then amplified the DNA from diagnostic stretches of each sample, and, as molecular geneticists do, ran it out on gels to see what it looked like.  The DNA of each sample was amplified with either “wheat primers” (DNA fragments taken from wheat that will amplify only DNA that matches the wheat sequences) or “human primers” (ditto, but using human DNA templates). They then stained for DNA. The figure below (with caption from the paper) tells the tale.

M is simply a stock group of DNA fragments of known size, whose position on the gel is used to gauge the size of the DNA fragments in adjacent lanes.

NC is just the reagents without any DNA. It shows no DNA at all, as it should.

HC is human control DNA. As you see, it amplifies with the human-specific primers, on the left, but not the wheat-specific primers, on the right; this is as it should be.

WC is the unconsecrated wafer control. As you see, it amplifies with both human and wheat primers (two bands on the “WC” lane in the left amplified with human primers), indicating the presence of some human DNA in the wheat control. This suggests, and it seems likely, that the purchased unconsecrated wafers were contaminated with human DNA when they were being handled. This happens sometimes: it doesn’t take much foreign DNA to show up as a strong band indicative of contamination; this happened to me when I was amplifying Drosophila DNA during an ancient sabbatical in Princeton, and got my own DNA instead).

What is more important are samples 1-5, which are the five consecrated wafers.  Looking at lanes 1-5 on the left side of the figure, the wafers show no  evidence of having human DNA (except for a faint band in sample 5, probably again suggesting human handling), but they show strong evidence of having wheat DNA, as you can see from the dense wheat-primer-amplified bands in lanes 1-5 on the right, matching the wheat control in size.

Fig. 1. Agarose gel electrophoregram of PCR amplification products. M: 50 bp DNA ladder; NC: negative control; HC: human control; WC: wheat control; 1 to 5: consecrated scramental bread samples. Left: reactions using human-specific primers; right: reactions using wheat-specific primers.


Conclusion: consecrated wafers do not contain human DNA, though they could sometimes acquire a bit of it by being handled. After being consecrated, all their DNA still comes from wheat.

Now you could argue that testing DNA doesn’t tell you whether Jesus is in the wafers, but if they still look and taste like wheat, and still have wheat DNA, on what basis can you then claim that the wafers have become the body of Christ? As the authors note:

As believers themselves agree that the appearance, taste and texture of sacramental bread are retained after consecration, it is unclear what the “substance” that is allegedly transformed could be. If the host still looks like bread and tastes like bread after having been consecrated, the molecules responsible for the taste and texture can not have been affected. This leaves DNA as the most probable candidate. Indeed, if wheat DNA in a piece of bread could be replaced by human DNA, the change would not affect the bread’s texture or taste. On the other hand, it could be argued that DNA represents the actual “substance” of any biological material because it contains the information that defines that material and could be used to create a copy of it. Therefore, testing the transubstantiation claim by DNA analysis seems a quite reasonable approach to take.

And, of course, if the wafer did have human DNA, Catholics would proclaim that as a miracle: strong evidence for the truth of transubstantiation. Negative results, though, have to be explained away, and not by saying that transubstantiation is a fiction.

Since the Catholics claim that  transubstantiation is real, how would they deal with findings like this? Well, they do what they always do: waffle and then say “it’s a mystery that surpasses our understanding.”

For example, Wikipedia says this:

According to the Catholic Church, when the bread and wine are consecrated by the priest at Mass, they cease to be bread and wine, and become instead the Most Precious Body and Blood of Christ. The empirical appearances and attributes are not changed, but the underlying reality is. The consecration of the bread (known afterwards as the Host) and wine represents the separation of Jesus’ body from his blood at Calvary; thus, this separation also represents the death of Christ. However, since according to Catholic dogma Christ has risen, the Church teaches that his body and blood are no longer truly separated, even if the appearances of the bread and the wine are. Where one is, the other must be. This is called the doctrine of concommitance.

To justify why the bread and wine still look like noms and not blood and flesh, the Church relies on something called “substance theory,” which claims that something can change its nature without changing its substance. In other words, the wafer and wine really are Jesus but you can’t detect that in any way. This kind of philosophical weaseling is more or less what you expect from the Church.

Here are more weasel words from the Catholic Education Resource Center (CERC):

Yes, the bread and wine do not change in characteristics [sic] they still look the same, taste and smell the same, and hold the same shape. However, the reality, “the what it is,” the substance does change.

And the ultimate excuse comes from the CERC entry on “The literal truth”:

The incarnational nature of the sacraments also sheds some interesting light on human nature. At first glance, the transformations effected in the sacraments seem wildly out of sync with man’s identity as a “rational animal,” and especially with modern technological man. At best, what the Church claims occurs in the sacraments seems to reflect “magical thinking” and a distinctly unmodern cast of mind.  A closer look, however, reveals an intimate fit between the deepest desires of the human heart and what actually happens in the sacraments.

Yes, at first it looks bogus, like “magic,” but “a closer look” shows that the transubstantiation really occurs because we want it to. This is why the Raelian experiment will be ignored by the Church, but also why we should ignore the Church’s pronouncements about reality, for they reflect sets of claims that are untestable but satisfy our emotional needs. The words, “A closer look, however, reveals an intimate fit between the deepest desires of the human heart and what actually happens in the sacraments,” shows the ability of the Church to maintain its claims by simply making stuff up.

h/t: Dan Dennett, Grania Spingies

Readers’ wildlife photos

We begin today’s installment with a photo of domestic cats (Felis catus), but special ones. The first photo below sent to me by Bengal breeder Anthony Hutchinson, who threatens to deluge me with photos of Bengals until I adopt one or more of his. (Believe me, I don’t see that as a threat!). I know I need a kitteh, and really, can you imagine any more beautiful than these?

The photo is called “Flowmaster and friends chasing leaves.” They are like miniature leopards. Click to enlarge.

Flowmaster & pals

By now, thanks to the readers I am aware of possible problems of owning a Bengal, and the advantages of getting a shelter cat, but I consider that discussion over, and anyone who tries to resume it does so at his/her own peril.

Reader Christopher Wallis sends a pair of favorites:

A couple of Tawny Frogmouths (“Mopokes”; Podargus strigoides) hanging out in a  garden in Maleny, Queensland. One outraged, the other not.

Christopher Wallis

I know Greg will be excited about this one, from reader Robert Seidel:

For your inundation, a grass snake (Natrix natrix). The head was about 1cm in length, so it’s tiny, probably a juvenile. The leaves should be from Stellaria media.

Robert Seidel

Finally, three photos of diverse taxa from reader Siegfried Gust, who writes:

I’ve spent most of my time here in Costa Rica for the last few years and have been lucky enough to see quite a bit of wildlife here (although the wildcats are annoyingly hard to come across). Here are some of my images that I thought you might like.

A Keel-billed Motmot (Electron carinatum):


A sexually dimorphic jumping spider, Phiale formosa. The females have a different pattern in yellow and black instead of the white and black that the male displays. [JAC: the link shows the dimorphism.]


A fuzzy little Handsome Fungus Beetle (Stenotarsus cf. blatchleyi)



The good news and the bad news

From my CNN News feed:

Apple CEO Tim Cook today announced that he is gay in a column in Bloomberg Businessweek. “Let me be clear: I’m proud to be gay, and I consider being gay among the greatest gifts God has given me,” he wrote.

Why did he have to mess it up with that God stuff?

Thursday: Hili dialogue

Hili: What is she doing to that sausage?
Cyrus: We have to stop her somehow.
In Polish
Hili: Co ona robi z tą kiełbasą?
Cyrus: Musimy ją jakoś zatrzymać.

Piece of Amelia Earhart’s plane found (probably)

According to Discovery News and other sources, a piece of metal recovered in 1991 on an uninhabited Pacific atoll has now been identified (with high probability) as having been part of Amelia Earhart’s plane when she and her copilot went missing during their around-the-world flight in 1937.  Back in mid 2012, I gave some evidence that this atoll was indeed the duo’s final resting place.

New research strongly suggests that a piece of aluminum aircraft debris recovered in 1991 from Nikumaroro, an uninhabited atoll in the southwestern Pacific republic of Kiribati, does belong to Earhart’s twin-engined Lockheed Electra.

According to researchers at The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), which has long been investigating the last, fateful flight taken by Earhart 77 years ago, the aluminum sheet is a patch of metal installed on the Electra during the aviator’s eight-day stay in Miami, which was the fourth stop on her attempt to circumnavigate the globe.

Here’s the piece of metal:


The patch replaced a navigational window: A Miami Herald photo shows the Electra departing for San Juan, Puerto Rico on the morning of Tuesday, June 1, 1937 with a shiny patch of metal where the window had been.

And here’s the photo showing the repair patch:


TIGHAR researchers went to Wichita Air Services in Newton, Kans., and compared the dimensions and features of the Artifact 2-2-V-1, as the metal sheet found on Nikumaroro was called, with the structural components of a Lockheed Electra being restored to airworthy condition.

The rivet pattern and other features on the 19-inch-wide by 23-inch-long Nikumaroro artifact matched the patch and lined up with the structural components of the Lockheed Electra. TIGHAR detailed the finding in a report on its website.

This supports the idea, which has been around for a while (and has other evidence behind it; see the article and my earlier post), that Earhart and Fred Noonan, her navigator, made an emergency landing on the atoll. The plane is then supposed to have eventually washed into the sea (where it’s now supposed to rest 600 feet down), while the pair died on the island. Presumably any remains would also have been washed into the sea or eaten by crabs.

Researchers think they know where the plane is, and will go back to the island in July of next year to try to find it. Perhaps the mystery will be solved at last.

And here’s an image of Nikumaroro:



Bobcat in the henhouse! (and lagniappe)

Reader Michael from Idaho sent a video he made of a bobcat trying to nom his chickens. His report:

I have followed your website for many years as we share many of the same interests.  I especially enjoy your posts related to science, atheism and religion and the wonderful discussions that ensue with the commenters. Also love the posts about food and wildlife.
Because I know you have a fondness for cats I thought I would share this special encounter I had with a bobcat in my yard as he came to check out my little brood of hens. I keep them as pets mostly and for the occasional eggs.
I woke up one morning this October about 0900 at my home in the foothills of Boise, Idaho to find a beautiful bobcat (Lynx rufus) casually sitting on my back deck admiring my chicken coop.  I know he sensed my presence as I began filming him but he was not in the least bit intimidated. This was fortunate as I was able to admire his cleverness and beauty at close range for quite some time.
Here is a link to the video in case you would like to see it:
Fortunately, no chickens were harmed in the making of that film. That’s one tenacious bobcat and some scared chooks! Were I Michael, I’d relocate that henhouse pronto.
Finally, I got only one photo for National Cat day, from readers Lori and Cameron (who own six cats):
Here is one of our cats, Spot, enjoying a delicious piece of turkey in celebration of National Cat Day!  (Actually, this happens on a pretty regular basis, like every time we make a sandwich!)
And here’s reader Taskin’s white cat Gus (“earless but fearless”) getting special fusses for “International Gus Day”:
Finally, reader Emily from Florida sent her pair of moggies with the tale of them and a SQUIRREL:
I attach a photo of Calder and his sister, Pollock, and the squirrel who used to torment them from our balcony when I was a graduate student in Wisconsin. I call this “Fallen Birdfeeder”; the squirrel had finally succeeded in knocking it down after many attempts, and was clearly enjoying his success and their inability to intercede. I thought you might enjoy this as it includes both cats and squirrels!

My New Republic piece on the Pope and evolution

The New Republic has already published a slightly edited version of my post on Pope Francis’s views about evolution, and you can find it there under the title: “Stop celebrating the Pope’s views on evolution and the Big Bang. They make no sense.” As always, go over and see it, if for no other reason to see how people react. (I have a new policy of not reading comments about stuff I publish in places other than this site—a dictum I got from Stephen Fry.)

I’m already getting hate email about it, as people can’t stand to have Pope Francis criticized (note that I criticized his views, not the man himself), for he’s the Good Pope, who rides the bus and doesn’t wear fancy shoes.

I have a particularly lovely specimen of such mail that I’ll post later.

The FFRF, Dawkins, and I criticize a Georgia professor who teaches creationism in a public university

A team of us, including Richard Dawkins, Professor Ceiling Cat, and, especially, the lawyers and co-presidents of the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF), have gotten together to protest the religious proselytizing of a professor at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro, Georgia, Emerson T. McMullen. Although an associate professor of history, McMullen teaches courses like these, which he heavily imbues with Christian creationism:

  • HIST 3435 The Scientific Revolution
  • HIST 4336 Science and Religion
  • HIST 4534 Dinosaurs and Extinction

Georgia Southern University is a public school, and so teaching creationism as science violates the First Amendment. If you have any doubts about McMullen’s views, take a look at his personal website at Georgia Southern (that site has a disclaimer that it doesn’t reflect the university’s views, but it’s still hosted on their server). You’ll be horrified at how mired the man is in wrongheaded Biblical creationism.

I was given some material about McMullen, including his exam questions, some student evaluations, and so on. As one example, here’s an excerpt from one of McMullen’s study guides listing two potential essay questions and the answers he would expect from students.  There’s no doubt that this is heavy with creationism:

Essay Question #9: What is Louis Pasteur (1822-1895) known for?

1) Louis Pasteur, in his old age, was one of the most famous men of his time, and rightfully so. 2) Pasteur’s germ theory of fermentation eventually led to the pasteurization processes. 3) he saved the beer, wine, and silkworm industries of France. 4) He was the first to vaccinate sheep against anthrax. 5) He used vaccination for the first time against rabies. 6) He discovered optical isomers and thus founded stereochemistry. 7) Coupled with skillful experiment, he showed as conclusively as possible that life did not come from non-life. 8) Thus, there is no such thing as spontaneous generation. 9) Although some “scientists” today claim that life originated from non-life, this does not explain the origin of our genetic information. Science shows that earth, air, water and other materials have no genetic information. 10) Pasteur correctly stated that the great principle of biology is that life comes from life.

Essay Question #11: Discuss the pros and cons of Darwin’s idea of evolution (descent, by modification and natural selection, from a common ancestor to man, complex species)

Pros: It was appealing at a time of great progress. It appeared scientific. Darwin was upper class in a class-conscious society. Some like its naturalism.

Cons: Darwin had no proof of evolution, only of adaptation (basically, change within a being’s genetic code). There was (and is) no solid evidence for descent from a common ancestor, and for the multitude of predicted transitional forms from one species to another. There was (and is) evidence that the earliest animals (like the trilobites) were complex, not simple. (The eye of the trilobite was fully adapted right at the start.) There was (and is) evidence that the earliest animals were very diverse. Darwin’s idea went against the fact that genetic information degrades from generation to generation, which explains why we see extinction today and not evolution. The implications of evolultion’s naturalism also undercut Judeo-Christian morality, replacing it with notions like “might makes right” and that the “unfit” do not deserve to survive. This laid the foundation for eugenics, which led to sterilization for the “unfit” in the US.

These questions (as well as my criticisms of McMullen’s expected answers) are reproduced in the FFRF and Dawkins Foundation’s letter to Georgia Southern (see below); I’ve put them above for easy access. But that’s only a part of McMullen’s injection of God into the classroom; other disturbing instances are described in the FFRF and RDFRS’s letter. Another complaint is that he gave his students extra credit to go see the execrable anti-atheist movie “God’s Not Dead”!

After reviewing this stuff, I gave the FFRF my “expert” opinion on McMullen’s scientific claims, and the FFRF and the Dawkins Foundation have cowritten a letter protesting McMullen’s proselytizing, which clearly violates the Constitution. The FFRFs announcement is here, and you can find a pdf of the letter hereDo read the letter if you want to see how bad things are at Georgia Southern, and have a look at some sample student evaluations of McMullen at the end of the letter. I’ve also put those here:

Screen Shot 2014-10-29 at 11.46.00 AM

This is bad stuff, and we’re all insistent that it has to stop. If the school is smart, it will bring McMullen’s preaching to an end pronto. If they don’t, they’ll almost certainly have a lawsuit on their hands.

Besides, I want to retain my status as the Discovery Institute’s “Censor of the Year”!

Special thanks to FFRF attorney Andrew Seidel who worked with me on this and, as always, to Dan and Annie Laurie for their tireless work for the Foundation.

Muslims condemn ISIS

Since I’ve beefed repeatedly about Muslims remaining silent about the malevolence of Islamic extremists, it’s only fair of me to point out (thanks to reader Ryan) that 126 Muslim scholars, imams, muftis, and other authorities have signed a letter condemning ISIS (pdf file at the link). Good for them, and I hope they suffer no violence.

The letter is long, complicated, and loaded to the gunwales with arcane Muslim theology, but the ending tells the tale.

Screen Shot 2014-10-29 at 11.07.03 AM

There’s no hope, of course, that ISIS would listen to this, but perhaps more moderate Muslims can be swayed. Kudos to the 126 signatories.

Now is it too much to ask them to condemn sharia law, the institutionalized marginalization of women, stoning for adultery, corporal punishment for crimes like theft, and execution for apostasy?


UPDATE: Reader Janet has called my attention to an article in today’s Los Angeles Times showing how Iraqi television comedians make fun of ISIS. More brave guys, though there’s a disturbing bit of what looks like anti-Semitism in there, too.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 29,578 other followers