Monday, December 26, 2005

Sideswipe


A wannabe Santa leaves the public toilet on Victoria St, Auckland, after what may have been a hard night ... December 25, 2005.

By Ana Samways

Puns for all the whanau:

1. Two antennas met on a roof, fell in love and got married. The ceremony wasn't much, but the reception was excellent.

2. A jumper cable walks into a bar. The bartender says: "I'll serve you, but don't start anything."

3. Two peanuts walk into a bar, and one was a salted.

4. A dyslexic man walks into a bra.

5. A man walks into a bar with a slab of asphalt under his arm and says: "A beer please, and one for the road."

6. Two cannibals are eating a clown. One says to the other: "Does this taste funny to you?"

7. Two cows are standing next to each other in a field. Daisy says to Dolly, "I was artificially inseminated this morning." Dolly doesn't believe her. "It's true, no bull!" exclaimed Daisy.

9. An invisible man marries an invisible woman. The kids were nothing to look at either.

10. A man woke up in a hospital after a serious accident. He shouted: "Doctor, doctor, I can't feel my legs!" The doctor replied: "I know you can't - I've cut off your arms!"

* * *

Greg - very short story by Tony Priestley.

Greg saw me coming and hurried down the road to meet me. I had been warned about him; about his greed and persistence. So I walked past him and pressed on up the hill. When I looked back there he was, following me about 15 metres behind. I hardened my heart and pressed on, but so did Greg. After about another half kilometre I stopped to look at an interesting bird. While fumbling with the focus of my binoculars I became aware of a soft scratching on my bare leg. There he was, testing his claws for grip on my skin. He looked up pleadingly. The body language of his steady gaze said "Food, food!". Mine, in reply, said "No food Greg. No food". He still followed a while longer before giving up. That's when I felt mean. Here I was on lovely Tiri Tiri Island refusing food to what might well be the cutest takahe in the world. But what else could I do?

Editorial: Intelligent ruling on creationism

A federal court judge in Pennsylvania last week delivered what ought to be the coup de grace to the claim that the idea known as intelligent design is a scientific theory. In his ruling Judge John E. Jones III showed that, beyond question, intelligent design is based on a supernatural explanation for natural phenomena. Put another way, it relies on belief and sees the hand of God in the way the world was made.

Thus, by definition, it cannot be a science because the scientific method requires natural explanations, empirical investigation and testing.

The specific context of Judge Jones' ruling was the challenge to a decision by the Dover High School board to include intelligent design alongside the theory of evolution in the curriculum. A group of parents argued that this violated the First Amendment of the US Constitution which prohibits the establishment of religion. The judge agreed with them.

His decision has far-reaching significance because the board members - who have since been voted out of office - were not alone in their endeavour to have intelligent design in the classroom. Plans to follow their lead were reportedly being made in 30 other states and the idea has received warm encouragement from President George W. Bush.

Not surprisingly, the case attracted enormous national and international attention; this was not just a minor local dispute nor even one limited to the United States. Rather it was the latest round in a historic argument at the heart of Western civilisation, namely the conflict between religion and science, specifically the one that pits creationism against evolution.

The argument has been heard and reheard in a series of American court cases dating back to the 1920s and although the creationists may have had the better of the early rounds, the courts have increasingly taken the view that creationism violates the constitution.

The response from the creationists has been to clothe their ideas in the language of intelligent design which can be used as a Trojan Horse to smuggle religious concepts into the classroom against the spirit and letter of the scientific method as well as the law.

This is both dishonest and dangerous. Dishonest because, as the judgment makes clear, the proponents of intelligent design argued in court that their idea was a science while knowing full well that it fundamentally contradicted the precepts of the scientific method.

Dangerous because evidence considered by the court shows that their ultimate intention is to change the rules so that supernatural factors - for this read God - are recognised as scientific, thus legitimising their theory. Were they to succeed, science would cease to be science and instead become religion. It does not take too much imagination to see how such an outcome would limit the horizons of Western civilisation.

However, this is not to say that beliefs and religion should be banned or banished from society. Every society - even Western, empirical, scientific society - has its gods, beliefs, religious explanations and traditions. They clearly are important, not least because they inform debate about the morality and ethics of science.

And there is no reason why such beliefs - including creationism - should not be discussed among senior students at secondary schools, even state schools. But these ideas should be seen for what they are and not made to masquerade as something else. Religion has an important place but it should leave science to the scientists.

Claire Harvey: Don't mention the G word when faith meets secular

Did you eat too many mince pies? Did the flaming pud set the curtains on fire? Think about Jesus much during the day? And what time do the shops open again?

Christmas is the intersection of secular community and traditional religion, where God and society pull up, blinkers flashing, honking at one another, both confused about who's got right of way.

So who does? And why can't they share the road? It seems to be the question of the season.

Now that the feasting is over, creationist Christians in America will resume the battle to force high-school science teachers to tell ninth-graders that evolution is not fact, just a theory that can be disproved by the evidence of divine forces.

Despite a thundering rebuke from the District Court last week, the "intelligent design" lobby are going to the Supreme Court to hammer their argument that teenage minds may be turned against religion if they are taught science as a pure discipline.

In France, Muslim girls will return to school for the post-Christmas term with bare heads, in reluctant obedience to a law forbidding religious symbology in the classroom.

The legislators of Paris decided this year that headscarves, Jewish skullcaps, Sikh turbans and crucifix jewellery were all threats to the doctrine of separating church and state in public schools.

The common theme is a failure - by both the fundamentalist believers and the passionless rationalists - to accept that faith and secularity can co-exist, that humans are capable of processing two sets of information at once.

The creationists cannot abide the poison of secularity.

The bureaucrats won't tolerate the infection of religion.

The result is mutual dislike and animosity, and the victims are the quietly faithful believers, the ordinary Christians and Muslims and Jews who have to put up with society's suspicion and cynicism about any expression of religious belief.

In New Zealand, the most unfortunate victims must be David and Cathy Tribble, of rural Northland.

The Tribbles are Christians. They don't go to church regularly, but they believe in God.

In December 2003, their 4-month-old baby Caleb died after a fortnight in which he seemed to be suffering the same tummy bug which had sent sniffles and headaches through the household.

Cathy and David Tribble did not shun medical attention for Caleb, nor for any of their other children, two of whom were born by caesarean in hospital.

Several had been to hospitals and doctors and had antibiotics, and all were regularly checked up, weighed and measured on home visits by the region's public health nurse - including Caleb.

When Caleb got sick, the nurse suggested taking him to the doctor for a check, but later agreed with the Tribbles that he was showing signs of improvement; smiling, giggling and feeding well.

After his sudden death, Caleb's post-mortem revealed he was killed by a rare and undiagnosed kidney complaint, vesico-ureteric reflux, which was masked by the tummy bug.

The police arrived, spoke gently to the sobbing parents, and drove them into Whangarei for the standard interviews conducted after a sudden infant death. David Tribble told the interviewing officer, quite frankly, that he had been worried about the baby and had prayed to God to save him. That was enough to spark the legal system into action; the Tribbles were charged with manslaughter.

Simply because David Tribble spoke about God, the police and prosecutors decided that instead of good parents who made a mistake, they must be religious fanatics.

During the trial, crown prosecutor Kim Thomas quizzed both parents for hours in the witness box about the detail of their belief in God. "Do you pray?" he asked witnesses for the defence, including the Correspondence School teacher and the local midwife. "Did the Tribbles talk to you about God?" Not surprisingly, the witnesses answered with defensive monosyllables. No, they all said, the Tribbles never tried to preach or to proselytize.

The jury acquitted the Tribbles of manslaughter but convicted them on a lesser charge of failing to provide the necessaries of life (that is, failing to take Caleb to the doctor).

In discharging the Tribbles with no sentence, Justice Geoffrey Venning said he felt the Crown had "overstated" the religious aspect of the trial. "I accept if you were told [Caleb's] life was in danger, you would have taken him immediately to a doctor. Despite the impression some may have, you are not religious fanatics or members of some extreme sect or cult. You are simple people who try to live your lives by Christian values, you seek guidance from the Bible in doing that. There is nothing wrong with that," the judge said.

The sad truth is that if David Tribble had not talked about God in his police interview, he would not have been charged.

He and his wife were victims of the twin dogmas which split our society - the religious fundamentalism which gives quiet Christianity a bad name, and the secular fundamentalism which views all religion with suspicion.

So if you overindulge this festive season and find yourself in the cells, it might be wise to avoid talking about God.

Neil Broom: God's low scorecard a perverse concept

Well, at last we have a result: God 0/10; Darwin 10/10. The latest verdict from a Big Sister Federal United States judge is that a theory teaching that life was produced by an intelligent cause is banned from the science classroom.

But has science really purged God? Has life arisen in the fullness of megatime wholly by the action of unthinking material processes? This is the burning question behind much of the media interest in the "evolution versus intelligent design" debate.

As a scientist and Christian theist, let me state categorically that I am not a "young earth creationist". In my view "young earthers" misuse a sacred text. They try - and I believe fail - to construct a science of origins from a passage of the Bible that was clearly never intended to convey science.

Most serious Old Testament scholars would hold that the very language and narrative form of the early chapters of Genesis indicate that it is dealing with issues of transcendence and are thus necessarily framed in symbolic forms and powerful imagery.

"Creation science" fails to do justice to the huge body of scientific evidence that supports an ancient earth with life-forms having increased in complexity over the vast aeons of time.

In my view "creation science" is really an "anti-science" and fails to acknowledge that God-given spirit of open inquiry so important to our appreciation of the natural world and to the integrity of the scientific enterprise.

But there is another excess in the Science versus God debate, and it comes from those who claim that science has "explained it all".

Biological materialists assert with unwavering confidence that the action of wholly natural or material laws alone is sufficient to account for the stupendous edifice of life.

Probably the most influential contemporary marketeers of biological materialism in vogue are Richard Dawkins (The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker), Steve Jones (Almost Like a Whale), Daniel Dennett (Darwin's Dangerous Idea), and Peter Atkins (Creation Revisited). They all intone in different ways the materialist's slogan "there is no purpose in nature".

Biological materialists argue that mind is the byproduct of mindless, motiveless mechanicity. Nothing more than the relentless grinding away of entirely impersonal forces, acted on by the sieving action of Darwinian natural selection, has made molecules into Women (and Men).

And yet, when the materialist's storyline is analysed, it is found to be replete with misleading analogy, inappropriate metaphor, duplicitous language and disguised transcendence.

Space prevents me from sampling representatively from each of the above writers but a down-to-earth example of this abuse of metaphor can be found in Steve Jones' book Almost like a Whale.

In a chapter explaining how natural selection works he describes his student experience of working as a fitter's mate in a Liverpool soap-powder factory.

A soapy liquid is blown out through a nozzle and the pressure drop creates a cloud of soap particles. But the process originally used a simple nozzle that narrowed at one end.

This design led to several quality-control issues. Jones describes the problem of finding an improved nozzle design as simply too difficult for scientists to solve so the company resorted to evolution - "design without a designer".

Here are Jones' words: "The engineers used the idea that moulds life itself: descent with modification. Take a nozzle that works quite well and make copies, each changed at random. Test them for how well they make powder. Then, impose a struggle for existence by insisting that not all can survive. Many of the altered devices are no better (or worse) than the parental form.

"They are discarded, but the few able to do a superior job are allowed to reproduce and are copied - but again not perfectly. As generations pass there emerges, as if by magic, a new and efficient pipe of complex and unexpected shape."

Steve Jones is a professor of genetics at University College London and should, of all people, know better than to write such nonsense. The trial-and-error or hit-and-miss type of process which he claims is analogous to natural selection is actually loaded with intention, or to be exact, intelligent scrutiny.

A nozzle, said to have been modified at random, is tried and found to do a better or worse job than another. And who decides whether it is an improvement or not? A rather discerning "nozzle operator", one skilled in the art of recognising whether the change is for better or worse, one who is able to detect subtle degrees of improvement or deterioration.

Even the expression "trial and error" presupposes an expectation against which an altered performance can be judged. "Hit and miss" is all about a target that is being aimed for.

The men on the Liverpool soap factory shop floor knew precisely what end result they wanted (a better-performing nozzle) and this surely robs Jones of his convenient metaphor for natural selection.

The words "design without a designer" are little more than misleading sloganeering. What Jones presents to his readers is a piece of sloppy materialistic fiction, and its incessant repetition reveals the depths of intellectual poverty to which biological materialism has sunk in its attempt to market a persuasive science of life.

For me, neither the anti-science stance of the young earth creationists nor the incessant intoning by materialists - "there is no purpose in nature" - provides a satisfactory framework for a truly thoughtful appreciation of life's mystery. A grade of zero out of 10 for God seems to me as a scientist, oddly perverse.

* Neil Broom is a University of Auckland associate professor who teaches the science of materials and has a research interest in biomaterials, a discipline that combines engineering and biological concepts.

Lev David: Bring back all that's nice

I am not sure when somebody decided that the word "nice" was no longer nice.

Once, a mediocre English teacher forbade our class to use it in our writing. It was a style no-no, she said. She must have read it somewhere, since her relationship with style seemed generally strained, both in her words and her wardrobe.

Whenever and wherever the anti-nice-propaganda started, the sentiment spread virulently. Nice was insipid, we were told. Weak. And we became the good people who stood by and did nothing as the genocide of those four, innocent little letters began.

Calling something or someone "nice" was thought of as a coy admission of disinterest, or worse, that it/him/her wasn't significant enough to warrant the forming of a proper opinion. But that was only the start of it.

Nice, shooed by an embarrassed world into the back alleys of the vocabulary like some shivering street child, fell victim to that perverse, sweaty villain of language, sarcasm. "That's nice," came to mean: "Actually, that's rubbish. I'm just too smarmy to come out and say it."

Gurus of style, wearing their full-length leather jackets and sunglasses indoors, waved their arms about, flashing wild heroin eyes, hunting the nices out of the pages they once gently grazed in. Those they missed were caught in nice-traps. No nice was safe.

We were encouraged, nay, implored, nay, ordered, to be certain. To give our sentences balls. Things couldn't be just nice. Why not great? Grand! Amazing! Incredible! Strong words! Definite words, prickling with invisible exclamation marks!

Sentences, running wild along neon lines, were pinned to pages with rivet guns and throwing knives. There was no doubt about what anybody was thinking. They just said it.

More than an attack on a word, though, this was an attack on a state of mind. This was just a small part of the tyrannical land grab for the ungentle world of extremes - hard heroes, fast women and fast food. No more Mr Nice Guy. Nice guys finish last. Have a nice day? I don't think so.

Nice isn't of this world. It walks into a room and picks its seat well enough, but shifts in it uncomfortably, looking distractedly around the room. I like it for that. I can't defend nice against everything. It has a definite indefiniteness about it, but is that so bad? There's a sweet honesty to middleness, and any number of things are nice in the nicest possible way.

Ever had a random Tuesday that feels, from the morning, like the lazy end of a Friday? You might not get much work done, but that's okay. And nice.

Mint tea is nice. Having a cat curled at your feet as you work at your desk is nice. The way babies' hands close around your giant fingers is nice. And amazing. But nice, especially.

Having somebody cover you with a blanket when you fall asleep in front of the TV is nice. Particularly when you both know that you're not really asleep, but neither says so. Semi-colons are nice; like the word nice, in fact, they're a sort of compromise between two too-definite things.

Austen is nice. (I'm talking about Jane, the writer, though. Not Stone Cold Steve, the professional wrestler. He's not nice. He's great!)

And, yes, the word is sometimes a thing to hide one's true feelings behind. But does everything need to be so courageous?

"You're nice," says she to he, using the word as a Spanish fan behind which to hide her giveaway smile.

The way I see it, there aren't so many words in the world that we can afford to lose one, let alone systematically exterminate it. In uncertain days, we need words for uncertain things. Words which don't give too much away and maybe even lie a little.

Because, truly, the biggest lie of all is certainty. And that's not nice.

* Lev David is a writer and radio producer-presenter from Durban, South Africa.