The failure of @JoeCienkowski: part one

Joe Cienkowski is a christian fundamentalist nutcase on twitter. He's written a book, which you can read for yourself at Google Books. I'm going to spend a few posts ridiculing this little self-published pamphlet, and this is the first installment. Page one.

If this was a high school essay...

OK. Let's just look at the first page of Joe's book.

First observation, holy crap, Joe didn't hire a typesetter or editor. Look at all the emphasis. Bold and italics, even underline. Joe just went mad with Microsoft Word's toolbar didn't he? And oh, wait! What's that in the middle? A smilie face? Seriously?

Let's just stop here for the first red mark of the day. If you rely on emphasis this much, then perhaps you're having trouble getting your point across.

Clear prose should be readable, and this is anything but. I haven't even read a word yet, and already Joe is failing the high school essay test. Let's start with the first paragraph.

Joe starts out confidently and strongly. Absolute truth never changes. Math problems always give the same result. Sure. This is colloquially kind of correct. Basic mathematics is deterministic, as long as the fundamental frame doesn't change. There are branches of mathematics which are a bit more complex than that, but let's not split hairs.

Abraham Lincoln was the 16th President, yes. But again, technical nitpick. He was the 16th president after the ratification of the US constitution. Before that, there were Presidents of The Continental Congress. There were 16 of those. Again, colloquially correct, but sloppy and ambiguous.

History can never change that fact, though? We all know the phrase "history is written by the victors". The further back you go, the more scant the records, the less sure you can be. Joe is trying to talk absolutes here, and he's gone stright to one of the least absolute of all fields of study - history. You don't have to be reading 1984 to realise that history is subjective and can be manipulated.

OK, so second red mark. Let's move on.

Water is a solid below 32 degrees, is a liquid up to 212 degrees, and turns into a gas past that. These are absolute laws of science.

Absolutely not.

Fact is, the boiling point is very much variable, dependent on the atmospheric pressure around you. I learned this in primary school, from a kids book which introduced the topic with "why can't you make a good cup of tea at the top of a mountain?".

Joe seems unaware of this simple fact. The fact is that phase transitions in elements are variable. More information can be found here.

So, we're only halfway through the first paragraph and already Joe has three big red marks.

Next up

The absolute law of gravity will remind you every time

Again, Joe's inexactitude fails him. Gravity varies dependent on your distance from the gravitational source, obviously, but in addition, there's plenty of theoretical work going on around variable gravity. Here's a sample search.

Am I nitpicking? Maybe, but given that this is the opening paragraph of Joe's thesis, and given that he's trying to set up a fundamental layer of absolute laws here, we must be strict. He's talking absolutes. Only one of Joe's examples is in any way absolute, and then only if you restrict the domain of mathematics to stricly deterministic problems and ignore chaos and complexity. And only if you don't talk to smart logicians and mathematicians who can tell you exactly when 2 + 2 doesn't = 4.

Joe then goes on to say this:

These truths prove there is an absolute truth and a great truth that many can't seem to see any more: God created the world. Yes, this is an absolute truth.

OK. Given that the "truths" you started with aren't absolute, that's a long stretch, Joe. In fact, it's a non-sequitur, a bald assertion unattached to the initial premises. You might as well have said

All cats are black. This proves beyond a doubt that aliens exist

Not all cats are black and even if they were, the premise has no bearing whatsoever on the conclusion. So what if some laws are absolute? Why does this then require the addition of a god? It just doesn't.

And even if it did, there is nothing, nothing whatsoever in that conclusion that requires that the god in question should be Joe's specific, personal, interventionist, christian god. I'm sorry I had to resort to italics twice and bold once, but this is how utterly wrong this first paragraph is.

It just makes no sense.

Continuing on, this, apparently, means that there's no reason to doubt the bible.

Uh, Joe... there is. You haven't even made an attempt. You've spent an entire paragraph constructing an unlikely non-sequitur, and now you're grinning and pointing at it trying to get us to congratulate you on your achievement, like a toddler with his potty.

Joe then crashes headlong into the biblical idea of man created from dust, and somehow feels it's appropriate to end with the nonsensical

"Kids always ask "Where did I come from?"

Yes, and most sensible parents at that point explain that "when a mummy and a daddy love each other very much they can make a baby and that baby grows in mummy's tummy until it's ready to come out".

I have to wonder what Joe's parents told him when he asked that question.

So that's it. Page one of Joe Cienkowski's book. A car crash of epic proportions, and we haven't even got off the first page. We didn't even get past one lousy paragraph. If Joe really is right, and a god exists (which I doubt), he's failed to even begin proving it. He's failed to even build basic premises for it. The entire first page gets a big red strikethrough and a "see me after class, you're failing this subject" in the margin. F-.

Makes me wonder if I should go on, really.

Coming soon in this series: A baby always comes from a mother and father, therefore god (except in species with asexual reproduction). We use "AD" in our calendar system, therefore god (I personally use CE). No-one can explain where spines came from, therefore god (no-one say the word notochord, for pity's sake!) and just about every logical fallacy you can think of.

All this and more, coming up!

The Flying Monkey Effect explained

In my recent talks to Sydney Atheists and Western Sydney Freethinkers, I've been a little damning of email-writing campaigns and blog comment campaigns due to something we've termed the "Flying Monkey Effect". At the same time, I've tried to get across the point that they could have positive effects, properly done. I wanted to expand on this a little.

The Flying Monkey Effect, as anyone with a modicum of pop culture nous has twigged, comes from the 1939 movie "The Wizard Of Oz". The Wicked Witch of The West employs an army of flying monkeys which she sends out to do her evil bidding. They're not smart henchmonkeys, and while they might get the job done, they'll accomplish it with much poo-flinging, public masturbation and stealing of bananas.

Meryl Dorey, and nutters like her, often play a similar trick, mobilising their followers via social media, email or similar, sending them out to wreak their special brand of havoc by email, on blogs or by social media, against media outlets, businesses or even in some cases against individuals deemed fair game by Meryl.

Much like this:

 What I've wanted to impress on skeptics at my talks has been that such activities, carefully herded, considered end-to-end and tightly controlled, can have their place, but that merely calling in the monkeys is just as likely, if not more likely, to damage the cause. We hear anecdotal reports from targets of such activities that they now routinely ignore large spikes in email or comment noise. We also have the Twitter version of the FME, which got Mike Adams disqualified from the Shorty Awards when it became clear that his followers were too dumb to follow the rules. The flying Monkey Effect is a bad thing.

Of course, the Flying Monkey Effect only happens when the monkeys are uncoordinated, uncontrolled and unprepared. 10,000 badly-written emails all on the same subject are likely to annoy. 10 well-written, carefully tailored emails, perhaps with many signatories to each, are likely to be seen as reasonable, rational and, frankly, sane.

This is not to say that the Flying Monkeys of the AVN and their compatriots worldwide should not be countered when unleashed. They absolutely should. But skeptics should not embark on the same kind of ill-considered mailbombing that the forces of woo so fondly love.

This, of course, brings us to tools such as ReasonMakesADifference*. I like this tool. I like what it indends to do, but I worry that it's a little vulnerable to Flying Monkey disease. I think it should batch-process or collate emails to cut down on flood effects, and institute a membership system to monitor who's sending what. It should encourage personalisation of emails, and give the option of adding multiple signatories to a single mail. Above all, it should conform to the Prepared, Coordinated and Controlled approach.

I promote ReasonMakesADifference in my talk, but I do have these minor reservations. I'll be talking to the originator of the site sometime soon for a podcast I'm working on and I hope to discuss a few of these concerns. I hope it'll make for interesting listening, should I manage to get it off the ground.

To close, I'll re-iterate. If you think your cause can be supported by an email campaign or other mass mailing tactic, please think carefully about it before you start, make your aims as clear as you can to your troops and maintain a steady hand on the rudder throughout. Prepared, Coordinated and Controlled.


[This is the second post in the new category "Running Guns To The Dissidents", in which I'll be trying to promote better digital activism to skeptics, atheists and freethinkers through more effective tools and tactics.]

* Currently, the ReasonMakesADifference email tool is down, so I can't check and see if it still operates the way I remember it operating. Please consider these remarks provisional until the tool is back up for analysis

A little perspective

Several times recently I've had antivaxers cite thalidomide as a case of medical harm and/or failure. Well, I was just prepping some medication and I got to thinking.

You see, there are two packs of thalidomide in my kitchen drawer.


Yep, two packs. You see, thalidomide is still in use. In the case of my kitchen drawer, it's being used as a treatment for Esther's GvH, an area where it seems to have some effect. These days, of course, the screening process is more stringent - you can't get it if you're pregnant, for a start, and there are regular checks on patients receiving it. But it's in use, and in fact is being manufactured right here in Australia.

But that's not the thing that struck me as I was musing. The thing that struck me as I was musing was this.

The thalidomide withdrawal that antivaxers hold as a touchstone of medical negligence, (or incompetence), happened in 1961.

That's closer to World War Two than it is to today.

Not only that, but it's closer to World War One than it is to today.

No, seriously. Thalidomide was withdrawn roughly 49 years ago, 43 years after the close of The Great War. Nearly half a century ago. To put it in context, 1961 was the year Russia put Yuri Gagarin into space. It was the year the Berlin Wall was built. Also in the 1960s, Plate Tectonics was properly codified, the Cosmic Microwave Background radiation was discovered by Penzias and Wilson.

Just to emphasise. When thalidomide's teratogenic nature was becoming known, our species had not left the earth's atmosphere, and had not fully figured out how the continents came to be where they are.

In terms of medicine, we had never carried out a successful heart transplant. Today we carry aout about 3,500 a year. There was no hint of technology such as Medical Lasers (60s, 70s), MRI (late 70s), PET and CAT scanners (late 70s, 80s). Gene therapy was not even thought of, the structure of DNA only having been published in the late 50s. We had no idea about AIDS, and of course many antivaxers have no idea about that now. Medicine has advanced more since the 1960s than it advanced in the previous two centuries, probably longer.

And this piece of ancient history is the antivaxers' favourite example of medical failure. And it wasn't even a complete failure. Thalidomide is back, and the medical community has learned from the tragedy. It changed the whole of drug testing and licencing.

And let me just put something else into perspective. Thalidomide is estimated to have affected 10,000 - 20,000 individuals worldwide.

The Jenny McCarthy Body Count currently stands at 65,593 preventable illnesses and 619 deaths for the US alone. And so far there's no sign of Jenny being withdrawn in any way.

Vaccination Saves Lives: Stop The Australian Vaccination Network
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