Sunday, March 25, 2012

Thoughts and Impressions from The Reason Rally in Washington DC

I've just returned from a whirlwind trip to Washington DC with my sons Ryan and James, where we attended the Reason Rally. This was a pretty amazing event; the largest gathering of atheists and secularists in "the history of the world" (as we were constantly reminded by the vast array of speakers). 

The Rally, held in gloomy weather that ran the gamut from cold and overcast to driving rainstorms, was held on the Capitol Mall with that iconic phallic symbol, the Washington Monument, ever present in the background. A steady stream of speakers addressed the crowd, which was somewhere between 8,000 (various media reports) and 20,000 (announced by the event's energetic and entertaining master of Ceremonies Paul Provenza) strong. The whole thing was a marvel of organization, as they managed to keep the thirty or so presenters, performers and speakers strictly to a very tight schedule.

The presentations ranged from inspiring to formulaic, from whimsical to deadly serious.  Perhaps inevitably, the professional performers - singer/comedian Tim Minchin, comedian Eddie Izzard, Mythbusters star Adam Savage most prominent among them - fared best, capturing the crowd's attention despite the inclement conditions and entertaining while also communicating the themes of the day (raising awareness of the growing number of nonbelievers in society and laying the groundwork for recognition of them as a legitimate interest group).

Of the speakers, I would say the three most moving were those whose lives so dramatically demonstrated the courage of their convictions:

-       Teenager Jessica Ahlquist, who filed and won a lawsuit to have a prayer removed from her public high school in Maine, was poised and articulate beyond her years. The crowd responded to her passion and courage, and when she was presented with one of those gimmicky oversized checks representing scholarship money that had been raised for her by the atheist community, it brought a legitimate lump to the throat.

-       Iranian author Taslima Nasrin spoke of how she lost country, family and freedom as a result of her public rejection of faith and religion. It sort of puts the rest of us to shame when we carry on about some slight or offense we've suffered to think that, here is a woman who would be put to death if she merely returns to her country of birth. Sobering.

-       And then there was Nate Phelps, estranged son of Westboro Baptist Church leader Fred Phelps, telling the heartfelt and moving story of how he realized that he could not abide the "God of his Fathers." His tale of gradually moving from his family's repellent version of Christianity to a more benevolent form of evangelical Christianity to, ultimately, atheism was very stirring.

There were also excellent speeches from the likes of Richard Dawkins, Michael Shermer, Laurence Krauss and James "the Amazing" Randi. These worthies delivered their uplifting messages of hope for a more secular future. They also expressed a recurrent theme from many of the speeches that it is science, logic and reason that have spurred the advances in health, lifestyle and productivity that we all enjoy, not superstition and adherence to ancient stories.

And then there were the messages from those who seem to think that clothing their arguments in criticism and condescension is the best way to make the message flower. Even headliner and host Richard Dawkins had to quote himself to the effect that atheists have a responsibility to ridicule other people's beliefs. In my humble opinion, those kinds of comments simply hand the press and the movement's critics a convenient theme to pigeonhole the whole event (as evidenced by how much coverage that quote got in the relatively scarce media coverage the rally generated). Throw in some of the other more aggressive anti-religion comments from many speakers, and you can find the ammunition you need (if that's what you're looking for) to paint a picture of this rally as an event full of snarling, angry, entitled elitists.

Which is unfortunate, because that is not at all what it was.  Rather, it was a mostly happy (though soggy) crowd, reveling in the knowledge that they were taking part in something significant and groundbreaking. The Reason Rally's success is not ultimately going to be measured by just how many people showed up or by the media coverage or by the political establishment suddenly taking the secular movement seriously in America. No, its success will be judged by how well it starts what will be a long and arduous journey to a more secular future. The strong attendance at the Rally shows that there is a community out there that matters. In today's world of instant communication, easy outreach and fellowship, that is a powerful and important tool. One we can build on.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

TAM2012! It's on!

The lineup of speakers for TAM2012 in Las Vegas has been announced, and it's another murderer's row of skeptics and promoters of reason and logic.

I'm really looking forward to attending again this year (my second TAM), and even more pleased that my two sons will again join me for the event.  It's a skeptical family affair!

The only disappointment so far (other than the lack of the name Neil DeGrasse Tyson on the speakers list) is the absence of a catchy nickname for this year's event (after last year's TAM 9 From Outer Space).  I get it that TAMX sounded too much like a feminine hygiene product, but it seems like there should have been some effort put into this. Come on guys!

At any rate, Vegas here we come!

Ryan and James rockin' the Randi look at TAM9

Monday, March 19, 2012

Election 2012: Why Romney Could Win

As someone who watches way too much political coverage, I’m always struck by how myopic the political punditry is, and by how short their memories are. Every primary battle (and then every election cycle) is decried for its brutality, dishonesty and meanness. Every candidate is considered weak because he or she “can’t close the deal” and win over every voting block in every state. Every four years there is talk of a convention battle, where the front-runner may be deposed by one of the pretenders to the throne.  In other words, what we’re seeing now has been seen pretty regularly for decades.

But here’s the bottom line as I see it:  The Democrats should probably be worried. They should worry for two reasons: the economy sucks and Mitt Romney is likely to be a more formidable candidate than people realize if and when he wraps up the Republican nomination.

It is the Economy

There’s a truism in politics, and it’s called a truism because it tends to be, you know, true: the economy drives elections. In a country that is basically split evenly between right and left, a bad economy will always drive a large number of people to vote against the incumbent. It won’t be about ideology or accomplishments or grand pronouncements of future programs. It will be about pocketbooks, and if the economy remains as mired in mediocrity as it is today (and there really isn’t time for a robust rebound), that is going to hurt Obama in enough states to make re-election a difficult prospect.

The administration will try to make a virtue of whatever signs point to a rebounding economy, but high gas prices, high unemployment and low housing prices will trump stock market gains and modest job creation numbers for most voters.

Election Math and Swing States

But I think the real key to Romney’s strength will be simple election math.  Independent voters in swing states make up the only election constituency that matters, and Romney stands to be very competitive with that crowd.

Let’s say you’re a committed liberal who wouldn’t vote Republican if your life depended on it and that you live on one of the coasts or in one of the more liberal states. If that’s you, then your passion, your dedication and your votes don’t matter (your money might, of course, so go ahead and contribute to the President’s campaign, cause that’s about the only way you can help him).  Your state is going to vote for Obama, probably by a huge margin, and that’s that. There aren’t enough moderate votes in play to sway the election, no matter who the Republicans nominate.

Or let’s say you’re deeply conservative and you live in the Deep South. Your state is going to deliver all of its electoral votes to the Republican in the race, and it matters not how fervently you support him. That’s why I roll my eyes at all this chatter about Romney’s weakness with the evangelical base of the party. Sure he’s weak with them, ‘bless his Mormon heart, but in the final analysis they will have nowhere to go. They’ll hold their noses and pull the lever for Romney, because they dislike Obama even more than they dislike the cultist in the race.

That leaves the swing states, where Romney’s weaknesses can become strengths.  Remember Florida? Florida held a primary right on the heels of Newt Gingrich’s supposedly game-changing victory in South Carolina. And the good folks of Florida took a long look at the right-wing options and voted strongly for Romney.

Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin?  States with mixed electorates where those oh-so-crucial moderates are important. A “southern strategy”-driven ultra conservative is likely to turn off the bulk of those centrists. While a Romney-style centrist with his business and economy focus ought to do extremely well.

Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada?  States with significant Mormon populations and strong individualist streaks. Romney is going to come off as a very palatable alternative to a President perceived by many moderates and independents as a tad too liberal for their tastes.

He may suffer in some swing states (Iowa comes to mind) where the conservative wing is dominant, but I still maintain that right-wingers will be so fired up to defeat Obama that they’ll be out pretty much in force. Sure, they’d probably deliver the state more forcefully for a right-winger, but Romney will do.

Flip-Flopping as Virtue

Even the issues that hurt Romney the most with conservative members of his party can be a plus for moderates. The positions of the modern Republican Party that drive moderates crazy are the same things on which Romney has been ‘squishy’ in the past. Even though he’s tacked right to win the nomination, many independents probably do not believe Romney is going to make weakening abortion rights or pushing a marriage amendment or opposing contraception (contraception? Really? How did this become a ‘thing?’) a focus of his administration.  The same way many people don’t believe Obama is as liberal as he pretended to be during his nomination fight, independents are likely to consider Romney pretty sound on social issues (that is, regardless of what he really thinks about them, he won’t push policy in those directions).

I think this also applies to health care. Santorum and other conservatives are crowing about how Romney’s health care record in Massachusetts takes that issue “off the table” in the general election. But I think it’s another area where independents can see what they want to see – there are parts of ObamaCare that many people don’t want to see go away, and Romney may be seen as someone who will get rid of the “worst” of the new law while somehow finding solutions that keep other issues in place (I’m not saying I think that’s what he will do, mind you, only that people will again find him a palatable alternative on the grounds that he has a history of promoting reasonable health care solutions – the other Republicans in the race can’t hope to get any of those votes).

So, yeah, assuming a continued weak economy and the lack of any new skeletons emerging from Romney’s closet (and, face it, the guy’s a Mormon bishop, what types of skeletons could their reasonably be?), I think the race will be interesting and very close. And that Romeny could well be elected, where either of the more "conservative" Republicans in the race could only go down to a defeat of fairly epic proportions.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Lyrics to "There is Nothing Like Science"

As requested, the lyrics:

There is Nothing   Like Science


You really really really really really really gotta love science
                science is the way we discover what the world’s about
From Einsteins theories to Newton’s laws... from Schrodinger’s cat to Pavlov’s dog, !
        you gotta agree with me there is nothing like science!

Verse 1

It wasn’t all that long ago they said the world was flat
        But then came Nick Copernicus, who proved it ain’t like that
He ushered in a brand new age, exploring became all the rage
         All because that wise old sage proclaimed:

Verse 2

Just one hundred years ago, one faced this truth with dread...
        Step one: you caught some bad disease; Step two: you wound up dead
But Fleming, Salk and Lou Pasteur, discovered how to find the cures
that let us live our lives secure and strong...  
if they were here they’d sing for sure this song:


Davy gave us batteries and Bakeland gave us plastic
The Curies, one could say, made radioactivity fantastic
Newton was inspired when he saw that apple landing
        Hubble, he looked up and saw a universe expanding

To learn about anatomy, Vesalius had to slice
        Then Roentgen gave us x-rays which was really much more nice
Mendel mixed some peas to make a mealtime solution
              Darwin took a cruise and then discovered evolution

Crick and Watson figured out what makes up DNA
        If all your gadgets work you ought to thank Mike Farrady
Early life was charted by Brunet, Johnson and Leaky
        and Einstein was just awesome, relativity-ly speaking

Verse 3:

It’s really hard to comprehend the truths that science tells...
From the grandeur of the Universe; to the workings of a cell...
And so, I think, for all of these fortuitous discoveries
        Let’s thank those who clearly seized their day...
        For breakthroughs they have made along the way...
        I think, at least, we really ought to say...
You really really really really really really gotta love science
                science is the way we discover what the world’s about
from Einsteins theories to Newton’s laws... from Schrodinger’s cat to Pavlov’s dog, !
        you gotta agree with me there is nothing like science!

        So you should thank any scientist you happen to know      
        that your refrigerator works and you don’t have polio

You gotta agree with me there is nothing like science!

Monday, March 5, 2012

There is Nothing Like Science

I have sometimes been accused of being a cynic; and that’s not really too far from the truth. And my cynicism does come through in many of the songs I’ve written over the years.

So I thought I ought to write a completely positive song about my worldview:  a song that captures my belief the world we live in is explainable and understandable through science and reason…and that that is awesome!

The result is a new song called There is Nothing Like Science.  It’s a little ditty composed to honor science, scientists and the benefits to mankind that science has delivered.

The song is lighthearted and, hopefully, amusing, but there are a few things you really don’t need to point out to me, including:

  •  I know that the scientific breakthroughs mentioned in the song are rendered simplistically – it’s way too simplistic to say that Baekland “gave us plastics,” for example. And I know that the story of Newton deducing the principles of gravity from the impact of a falling apple is a myth. And… well, I won’t go on.
  • I’m aware of the fact that every product and aspect of “science” is not an unmitigated good for mankind. But guess how we fix the mistakes that get made along the way: more science.

So, those caveats aside, here is There is Nothing Like Science. Probably not the greatest song ever written, but I did get to play both the banjo and the Jews harp on it, which is not something that happens every day!

Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Skeptic in the Room - lyrics and MP3 file

So, my one modest claim to fame in the skeptical community is  the popularity of my music video "The Skeptic in the Room."  I wrote, recorded and posted the song early in 2011, and I've been very happy to see the positive response the song has received by like-minded skeptics and others.

There's been a little flurry of interest over the last few weeks, and so I thought I'd repost a couple of things for those who may be interested. 

First, anyone who would like an mp3 file of the song can download it here:

And since I get requests for the lyrics from time to time, I thought I'd post them again here.  I posted them last year, but they're buried in the blog, and this should make them easier to find.  

Here they are:


I’m always amazed that some people believe
things that defy common sense
How do they accept the bizarre and the odd
for which there is no evidence

Sure, some people say that it’s harmless
And I wish I could just let it go...
But it’s not what we know that makes trouble
It’s what we know - that just isn’t so.


It’s always such a drag to be the skeptic in the room
I state my case and watch the room grow silent as a tomb
‘Cause I’m the one who always says “How’s that supposed to work?”
Which makes me end up sounding like an overbearing jerk

Yes, it’s a drag to always be the lonely skeptic in the room
I have to speak my mind when pseudo-science starts to bloom
Although I try to hold my tongue sometimes I just can’t make it quit...,
‘Cause people sure believe some crazy shit!

I have a friend, her name is Laura, loves to talk about her aura
Every time she’s off her game: her dented aura is to blame
She says everybody’s got ‘em, cameras have been known to spot ‘em:
Magic, mystic aural energy

One day I just had to ask her, Laura, make it clear...
How’s it all supposed to work? Please tell me - I’m all ears!

How’s an aura get created?, tell me how's it's generated...
is there a hypothesis for how an aura can exist?
Maybe you're just having mood swings, which you blame on magic woo things
That's the last time Laura talked to me!

My friend Dennis he’s a scholar; his tech skills earn him top dollar
just a few short years ago, Dennis saw a UFO!
Now he says they’re all around us; Aliens in fact surround us
Probably they’re living right next door!

I say “Dennis, tell me buddy, help me understand...”
How can there be flying saucers, buzzing ‘round the land?”

How come every single sighting seems to come in lousy lighting
I guess I’d accept the truth,  with valid photographic proof
But when you saw those lights a blinking - had you maybe just been drinking?
Dennis doesn’t call me anymore!

Britney is a modern lady, rather green and quite new-agey
Claims her latest malady, was cured by homeopathy!
She says it has magic rules, just take some wholesome molecules...
dissolve them in the purest H2O!

Britney took this grand concoction, and her pain was fixed.”
“Come again,” I had to say, “just what was in that mix?”

If it works well what would then be - water has selective mem'ry?
Knows the good but not the shit, that ever was dissolved in it.
Thanks to science here's what we know, really it's a big placebo...
       Britney told me just where I can go.

I have a friend, no "Doubting Thomas", quite devout and really honest,
    Says despite what we’ve been told, the Earth is really not that old.
He will brook no whys or wherefores, that's what holy books are there for
    Earth was born six thousand years ago.

To contradict you, Thomas, I admit to feeling grief
   But maybe there’s some evidence to counter your belief!

Like chemistry, biology, astronomy, anatomy,
    astrophysics, botany, geology, zoology...
molecular biology, physics, physiology
   Thomas says “So what?” they’ll burn in Hell!

My young neighbors Dave and Tina, talked about how they had seen a
    Former Playboy pinup queen, shouting out about vaccines.
Now they think its realistic - so that no one grows autistic
    Not to vaccinate their little kids.

Dave, please listen now before it really is too late
   Don’t take health advice from one to whom you used to masturbate?!

Beauty queens have certain assets; science really ain’t their strong set
    you should get a good assist - from a freaking scientist!
Guys, I won’t speak gingerly - ‘cause this could cause great injury
   The right thing is what Dave and Tina did!

FINAL CHORUS:’s...not... always such a drag to be the skeptic in the room
Sometimes I state my case and find that people will consume
Though I’m the one who always says “How’s that supposed to work?”
It doesn’t have to mean that I’m  an overbearing jerk

No it’s not bad to always be the lonely skeptic in the room
Bu I’ll still speak my mind when pseudo-science starts to bloom
Although I try to hold my tongue I know I’ll never quit...,
‘Cause people do believe ...
And man do they believe!
Yes, people do believe some crazy shit!