Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Technical problems at the new blog resolved

Even though I normally try not to blog from work, I have to take a moment while I'm eating lunch to announce this: Previous technical problems with the new blog that prevented my posts and your comments from showing up on this blog have now been resolved.

Orac is back online.

Everything appears to be working as it should, and you should be able to comment over there again.

Normal blogging will resume tomorrow, and I will cease posting to this Blogspot blog indefinitely. It will continue to serve as an archive site for the first incarnation of Respectful Insolence and a backup place to post in case of disaster over at ScienceBlogs. If I ever experience problems with the new blog again, this is where announcements will appear to inform you.

For a different take on the David Irving verdict...

Go here. The Photoshopped picture and caption are priceless.

Shooting free speech in the foot: David Irving sentenced to three years in jail for denying the Holocaust

[NOTE: My technical problems at the new blog continue. I'm assured the techies are working on fixing them, but, although my posts show up in the feed, they do not show up on my blog. In essence, I cannot post, and comments, although saved, do not show up. Until the techies get this problem fixed, I'm posting here at the old blog.]

Well, that was fast.

The trial took less than a day. David Irving, as expected, pleaded guilty. As expected, he was found guilty of Holocaust denial. What was not expected was the severity of the sentence:
VIENNA, Feb. 20 (AP) — The British historian David Irving on Monday pleaded guilty to denying the Holocaust and was sentenced to three years in prison. He conceded that he was wrong when he said there were no Nazi gas chambers at the Auschwitz death camp.

Mr. Irving, handcuffed and wearing a navy blue suit, arrived in court carrying a copy of one of his books, "Hitler's War," which challenges the extent of the Holocaust.

"I made a mistake when I said there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz," he told the court before his sentencing, at which he faced up to 10 years in prison.

"In no way did I deny the killings of millions of people by the Nazis," testified Mr. Irving, who has written nearly 30 books.

He also expressed sorrow "for all the innocent people who died during the Second World War."

Mr. Irving's lawyer, Elmar Kresbach, immediately announced that he would appeal the sentence.

"I consider the verdict a little too stringent," he said. "I would say it's a bit of a message trial."

Mr. Irving appeared shocked as the sentence was read. Moments later, an elderly man who identified himself as a family friend called out, "Stay strong, David! Stay strong!" The man was escorted from the courtroom.
I have to say, I was shocked myself when I read of it. Three years in prison for nothing more than offensive speech? Is this what we've come to?

I understand all the arguments that Holocaust denial has a different resonance in Germany and Austria than it does in the U.S. I understand that the history of the Third Reich and the Holocaust leads to a particular sensitivity in these countries that we don't share, that Holocaust denial is feared as a vehicle for the resurgence of Nazi-ism and fascism. I can even understand how, in the early postwar period, such laws may have been essential to protect the their fledgling democracies. But there comes a time to take the training wheels off. It's been over 60 years since the end of World War II, well over two full generations. How much longer do they need these laws? Will they proscribe free speech in this way forever?

The bottom line is that, not only are laws against Holocaust denial an offense against free speech, but they don't work. They suppress nothing. David Irving got more publicity in Austria than he had gotten in six years. Before, he was fading into well-deserved obscurity. Now he's a martyr for the far right. His writings and those of many other Holocaust deniers are easily accessible on the web, yes, even in Austria. Suppressing it only confirms the claims of the Holocaust deniers that the government is "afraid" of their message.

For an example of how properly to deal with Holocaust deniers, one has only to look to Northwestern University in Evanston. There, one of the granddaddies of Holocaust denial in the U.S., Arthur R. Butz, is a tenured Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering at Northwestern who in 1976 wrote a book called The Hoax of the 20th Century: The Case Against the Presumed Extermination of European Jewry. Since then, he has used his tenured position to give stature to his denial, all the while being very careful not to give the administration of Northwestern a reason (such as preaching Holocaust denial in his engineering class) to try to get rid of him. Not much had been heard from ol' Butzy recently, until he started defending the President of Iran for his Holocaust denial, going so far, after repeating a bunch of canards about the long-debunked Leuchter Report, to say in an editorial in the student newspaper:
That brings us to President Ahmadinejad of Iran. For many years I ignored revisionism coming from Islamic countries, because I found it inept. With Ahmadinejad, I found something else; his statements were formidable in their perspicacity. My original statement on him has to be read to make the specifics clear. He understands the intellectual terror in the West. However, the best surprise came after I wrote my endorsement. British Prime Minister Tony Blair made a routine pompous suggestion to Ahmadinejad: Visit the camps and see for yourself. Ahmadinejad replied: Good idea, I’ll bring a scientific team. He knows about the forensic issues too.
Given how inept Butz's denial is, one has to wonder how truly poorly argued the Holocaust denial coming out of the Middle East must be for even Butz to turn his nose up at it. But I digress. Deborah Lipstadt responded with a strong article slapping down Butz and pointing out that the editors of the student newspaper had been so open minded that their brains fell out.

Also appropriate is a reaction by the very students of Northwestern called the Never Again campaign:
The Never Again Campaign is an organization started by students at Northwestern University in February of 2006. The campaign aims to increase Holocaust education, promote global tolerance, and stop genocides that are occurring today around the world.

The Never Again Campaign will bring speakers, host workshops, and offer resources to spread awareness about these issues on the Northwestern campus. Similarly, we hope to convince other universities to adopt our goals.

Recently, Northwestern engineering Professor, Arthur Butz, denied the Holocaust and congratulated the President of Iran on becoming the first modern head of state to deny the Holocaust. In response, students and faculty have come together to express their outrage and disappointment that a Northwestern professor made such an offensive and historically inaccurate declaration.
Their goal? To get Northwestern, as a private institution, to stop letting Butz use its public website to spread his lies, because doing so associates the name of the University with his denial, and to take actions to repudiate his Holocaust denial and to marginalize him, given the black eye he's given the institution.

As I said yesterday, freedom of speech is easy to value and honor when the speech isn't offensive. It becomes much more difficult to do when it is something as despicable and hateful as Holocaust denial. Indeed, defending free speech often means defending scum like Irving and Butz. However, it is not necessary to throw Butz, or any other Holocaust denier in jail to combat their lies. The way to combat his lies, or those of David Irving, or any other Holocaust denier is for opposing voices to make their displeasure known and to shine the light of truth on their lies.

Monday, February 20, 2006

David Irving on trial

[NOTE: This is being posted here because my new blog is currently having technical difficulties that prevent my posting on it. Once the technical problems have been fixed (hopefully tomorrow), I will repost this over there. I wondered if this blog would have any further use, and unfortunately I found out sooner than I expected that it would.]

Well, today's the day. After all the waiting, it's finally here.

David Irving is going to stand trial for Holocaust denial in Austria today.

Those of you who have read my old blog a while know what a despicable human being I consider David Irving to be. He's clearly an anti-Semite, most famously having said that "more women died in the back seat of Edward Kennedy’s car at Chappaquiddick than ever died in a gas chamber at Auschwitz" and being known for repeating anti-Semitic doggerel. He's spent decades in essence falsifying history, denying that there were gas chambers at Auschwitz, that the the Nazis had a plan to systematically exterminate European Jewry. And, his pretentions otherwise notwithstanding, he is no champion of free speech. Indeed, when the historian Deborah Lipstadt referred to him as a Holocaust denier in a book, he waited until her book was released in Britain, which has the most plaintiff-friendly libel laws in Europe or the U.S., and then sued her there in 2000.

He lost and was humiliated. The final judgment found that Irving was indeed a Holocaust denier.

I do have to admit to feeling a fair amount of schadenfreude when Irving was arrested in Austria last November. Irving knew damned well that there was a warrant for his arrest for denying the Holocaust in a speech he gave in 1989. He even worried about it on his own website and took precautions before he left, such as leaving behind 60 signed blank checks and bringing eight shirts, even though he was only supposed to be in Austria for two days. He knew what he was doing and what risk he was taking.

Still, as an advocate of free speech, I found (and still find) the entire affair very troubling. Yes, Irving's views are odious. Yes, he has spent decades promoting Holocaust denial. Yes, in recent years he has associated with some really scary people on the far right. Yes, in the three speeches he gave in Austria, he told an audience in Leoben that Kristallnacht was carried out by "unknowns" dressed up as members of the SA; that Anne Frank could not have written her diary herself because the Biro wasn't invented until 1949; and that Hitler never gave an order to exterminate the Jews. He cited research by the discredited Fred Leuchter claiming that the Auschwitz gas chambers couldn't have been used to gas Jews because he couldn't find cyanide residues in the bricks. Yes, he asserted that "Auschwitz is a legend, just like the Turin Shroud" and that "the existence of witnesses proves that there was no mass extermination," among numerous other statements clearly denying the Holocaust.

Even so.

Upholding freedom of speech is not difficult in cases of views that are mainstream or that don't offend. Upholding freedom of speech is difficult in case like David Irving. The bottom line, as far as I'm concerned, is that Irving should not be in prison. Imprisoning him achieves nothing other than raising his stature and letting him plausibly don the mantle of free speech martyr. All it does is lead him to make such ludicrious "recantations" that he now believes there were gas chambers at Auschwitz:
His conversion, according to Irving, came in 1992 after his discovery of two documents - a discovery he kept to himself until recently. One was a radio message sent to Adolf Eichmann in 1943, reporting that during the previous 12 months more than a million people had died in Treblinka, Sobibor and Belzec concentration camps.
Odd that he never mentioned this before, even though he supposedly discovered it 13 years ago and especially since, as recently as 2005, he was still denying that there were gas chambers at Auschwitz. No one can see his sudden "conversion" as anything other than a transparent attempt to obtain leniency. If he is imprisoned for a harsh sentence (and the penalty for Holocaust denial in Austria can be as long as 20 years), he becomes a martyr. If he is released with time served, he will likely return to Britain and renounce his recantation. By arresting him and vowing to try him, Austria has placed itself in a no-win situation.

Of course, not all see it this way. Indeed, in The New Statesman was published an impassioned defense of jailing Irving and keeping him there, written by Roger Boyes. Too bad it's full of logical fallacies and poor reasoning typical of the arguments for suppressing free speech:
Even so, a courtroom is as close as most Holocaust deniers come to heaven. A captive audience, those chilly metallic blondes from CNN, the right to rant. Judging by his website, Irving is relishing his moment in the spotlight: even a lost court case represents a triumph of publicity for his malign deceptions on Hitler and his crimes. Hitler used his stint in jail to write Mein Kampf; for Irving, too, imprisonment is a kind of state-financed sabbatical.

Advocates of the absolute right to free speech say that Irving's obvious enthusiasm for courtroom confrontation is a powerful argument for letting him go. Take away the courtroom and you take away his theatrical props. Ignore him, and the netherworld of Irving and the unsavoury club of Holocaust deniers withers away, killed by our oppressive tolerance. He may be - no, he is - hopelessly and deliberately wrong but he has the right to proclaim his crazy views, just as we have the right to plug our ears with cotton wool.
Geez, talk about the fallacy of the excluded middle (a.k.a. the false dilemma)! We either have to jail Irving or ignore him? Are there no other options, such as, for example, speaking out against his lies and countering his lies and distortions with facts? And so what if Irving is "relishing the spotlight"? There wouldn't be any spotlight for Irving to relish if Austria hadn't arrested Irving in the first place. There wouldn't be a media circus with 50 television crews and the need for riot police to prevent protests by neo-Nazis.

The rest of the piece appears to consist of an argument that we must respect the "word" (whatever that means) and that the interests of Irving and other Holocaust deniers are are "merging with those of the anti-Semitic ideologists of Arab nationalism and Iranian theocratic rule." Boyes expresses concern that, "if Irving walks free from the Wien-Josefstadt Prison next week he will soon be packing his suitcase for the Holocaust conference in Tehran."

So what if Irving heads for Iran? That's not an argument to put him in jail for his speech, nor is it an argument to revoke the passport of the vile neo-Nazi Horst Mahler to prevent him from traveling to Iran, something Boyes refers to as "wise." The anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial of the Arab nationalist and Muslim fundamentalist regimes of the Middle East would still exist and be just as virulent without David Irving and his fellow deniers. It's not as though Irving would gain respectability by going to Iran's conference to question the authenticity of the Holocaust or that he in his disgrace after the Lipstadt trial could lend respectability to this farce of a conference.

Nonetheless Boyes concludes:
We are not making Irving into a martyr by jailing him. We (or the Austrians on our behalf) are making the world a little bit safer - and defining the limits of tolerance.
I propose a counterexample. I'd ask Boyes a question, given that he points out that the Irving case should reveal the "limits of tolerance." Who gets to decide what the "limits of tolerance" are for free speech? Let's take an example from the good old U.S.A.: the rabid far right winger Ann Coulter. She provides red meat rhetoric for extremists. Indeed, she uses eliminationist rhetoric, as David Neiwert (of Orcinus) has pointed out time and time again. She made an infamous statement after 9/11 in which she said about Muslim countries that we should "invade their countries, kill their leaders, and convert them to Christianity," not worrying about how many civilians we kill in the process. She most recently gave a major speech where she referred to Muslims as "ragheads" who need to "face consequences" if they "talk tough" and joked about killing Bill Clinton. Her speech was so foul that even Michelle Malkin (who, as you may recall, is best known for writing a book defending the mass internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II) felt obligated to offer up a rather tepid criticism of Coulter (while dismissing her remarks as Ann just "going for a cheap laugh").

Should Ann Coulter, as vile as much of what she says is, be thrown in jail for "hate speech"?

My guess is that Boyes would probably say "yes."

I say no. Our freedom depends on free speech, and one price for that freedom is tolerating offensive speech from people we don't like, no matter how much our dislike of them, what they say, and what they stand for might tempt us just to throw them in jail.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Locked out of ScienceBlogs

If anyone sees this...

My new ScienceBlogs blog is screwed up. Movable Type won't let me publish or rebuild the blog. It lets me get into the control panel and even lets me see my posts and your comments, but despite their showing up as "published," they do not show up on the blog. Attempts to rebuild the blog time out, as do any attempts to republish the posts and comments in question. Consequently I can't post, and your comments aren't showing up.

I'm starting to miss Blogger.

I'll post another announcement when things are working again.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Orac is dead! Long live Orac

Well, it's finally come. Today is the day to say goodbye.

No, not goodbye to you, my readers, but goodbye to Blogspot and this Blogger blog. In a way, this is a bit bittersweet, but then over the weekend an altie comment spammer unleashed the worst spam attack Respectful Insolence has ever weathered, necessitating my deleting a whole slew of comment spam.

It's time to go.

So, everyone, please set your bookmarks to my new location:

Also, I've registered the domain respectfulinsolence.net. Presently, it's set to redirect traffic to this blog. Later today, I will reset it to redirect to my new location. There is a link to my new RSS feed on the new blog.

Please update your bookmarks.

To bloggers out there who are kind enough to have me on their blogroll, I'd really appreciate it if you would update your blogroll link to the new URL above.

This blog will remain as an archive site for my old posts and as a place to put the occasional post that doesn't fit in with my new blog.

Orac (from Blogspot) is dead! Long live Orac at ScienceBlogs!

Friday, February 10, 2006

My second to last post

This will be my second to last post here at the present blog. As announced before, on Monday this blog will be moving over to ScienceBlogs. It's been an eventful 14 months here, but it's time to shake things up. Not all change is bad, and I think this change will be good in at least a couple of ways. First, it will bring the insolence to a potentially much bigger audience, and, second, it will hopefully inspire me to sharpen my science writing.

In any case, as my last post here, the new URL will be announced on Monday, and I hope you'll join me (not to mention update all your bookmarks and, if you're a blogger or have linked to me on a website, your blogroll). The old blog will remain for the forseeable future as an archive site.

The Skeptics' Circle is fast approaching

Time flies. Not only is my move to ScienceBlogs imminent, but the next Skeptics' Circle is fast approaching. It's scheduled to be posted on Thursday, February 16 at Unused and Probably Unusable. The deadline is 8 PM EST on February 15, and the call for submissions is here. Let's make this one in honor of the Amazing Randi, who is presently recovering from heart surgery.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Meeting short take #6: Terra Sigillata comments on the recent saw palmetto trial so I don't have to

Normally, this would be a topic that I'd take on full tilt. Fortunately, Abel Pharmboy explains the recent trial showing no benefit from saw palmetto in prostate hypertrophy. He also brings up a complaint that I've made about the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, mainly, its lack of scientific rigor and the poor quality of the grants it funds:
Anyone associated with drug discovery and development whether in academia or industry will tell you how extreme the guidelines are for chemical composition and purity of any drug product intended for clinical trials. Yet, NCCAM continues to fund expensive clinical trials of botanical therapies even when the chemicals purported to be responsible for biological activity(ies) are unknown. In the rush to show clinical utility, this funding agency has taken shortcuts on the basic science studies necessary to precede any clinical trial, perhaps hoping that one day they will get a positive result. Instead, they are racking up a series of high-profile failures that cast a broad shadow across all natural products research and creating public relations challenges for otherwise well-meaning herbal education and trade groups.

Only now has NCCAM revealed that they probably should fund investigations of basic science, mechanisms of action, and, be-still-my-heart, phase I pharmacokinetic trials.

Since its inception in 1992 as the NIH Office of Alternative Medicine, NCCAM has been a lightning rod for criticism of how the scientific method has been abandoned in favor of trying to show that ideological therapies work. Basic scientists in pharmacognosy and natural products chemistry were enthusiastic initially that a new funding source would be available to support their work. However, NCCAM was charged with reviewing all types of alternative therapies, from the more legitimate realm of herbal medicine to the implausible, homeopathy, for example. Review panels were stocked with individuals who had never held an NIH grant, much less with experience reviewing grant applications. An unusually high percentage of dietary supplement industry and trade group panelists infiltrated the peer-review system. In 2002, Quackwatch.com reported that just ten individual investigators held more than 20% of the NCCAM budget. I'd encourage Dr. Sampson to conduct another assessment today.
Read the whole thing.

Meeting short take #5: The Clergy Letter Project

Here's a good idea.

From all the controversy over the attempt by fundamentalists to block the teaching of evolution and get the teaching of intelligent design creationism in public school science classes, it's easy to forget that there are a lot of Christians out there, even very conservative ones, who rightly don't see a threat to their faith from the teaching of evolution. In the Clergy Letter Project, a group of pastors, spearheaded by Michael Zimmerman, are trying to rally the faithful in support of good science:
Within the community of Christian believers there are areas of dispute and disagreement, including the proper way to interpret Holy Scripture. While virtually all Christians take the Bible seriously and hold it to be authoritative in matters of faith and practice, the overwhelming majority do not read the Bible literally, as they would a science textbook. Many of the beloved stories found in the Bible – the Creation, Adam and Eve, Noah and the ark – convey timeless truths about God, human beings, and the proper relationship between Creator and creation expressed in the only form capable of transmitting these truths from generation to generation. Religious truth is of a different order from scientific truth. Its purpose is not to convey scientific information but to transform hearts.
As of February 3, there were 10,252 signatures to the letter. And, on Darwin Day, they are proposing a discussion of the role of science and religion:
On 12 February 2006 hundreds of Christian churches from all portions of the country and a host of denominations will come together to discuss the compatibility of religion and science. For far too long, strident voices, in the name of Christianity, have been claiming that people must choose between religion and modern science. More than 10,000 Christian clergy have already signed The Clergy Letter demonstrating that this is a false dichotomy. Now, on the 197th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, many of these leaders will bring this message to their congregations through sermons and/or discussion groups. Together, participating religious leaders will be making the statement that religion and science are not adversaries. And, together, they will be elevating the quality of the national debate on this topic.
Here's hoping Zimmerman's project can make a difference. They have a long way to go, if this rant is any indication.

Meeting short take #4: Andrew Mathis tells it like it is

I didn't have time to write anything of my own last night; so let me direct you to Andrew Mathis' commentary on an editorial that got his dander up:
You state that "Islam is compatible with modern secular society." I would counter that, at least in its fundamentalist form, it is not. Nor is any religion, but I will explain that shortly. The problem with Islam in secular societies is that, like Judaism before it, Islam is not merely a religion; it imposes a social system on its followers. In its fundamentalist form, therefore, it is completely incompatible with secular society. Just because (using your examples) the Prince of Wales points out (correctly) that European civilization owes much to Islam for its advancement beyond the Dark Ages or because one Muslim Emperor in India (where, incidentally, he ruled as a minority religious leader over a majority of Hindus) is said to have "laid the foundations of a secular state" does not mean that Islam as a whole is fundamentally compatible with secular society. Arguably, decades before the reign of Akbar in India, Martin Luther, by defying the authority of the Roman Catholic Church in Europe, laid the foundation of secular society in Europe. You note that Christian Europe, during this time, was entering the Reformation, but you conflate this statement with the expulsion (fifty years earlier) of Jews and Muslims from Europe (really only from Spain and Portugal), when, in fact, the Reformation ushered in a period of religious tolerance in Europe not seen beforehand.
Indeed. The problem is not necessarily Islam per se, but rather fundamentalism in religion that allows no room for other views.

Read the rest.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Meeting short take #3: Iran proposes a "Holocaust cartoon contest"

This is just too bizarre for me not to mention it, meeting or no meeting (you didn't think I could ignore this, did you?):
TEHRAN, Iran - A prominent Iranian newspaper said Tuesday it would hold a competition for cartoons on the Holocaust to test whether the West extends the principle of freedom of expression to the Nazi genocide as it did to the caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad.

Hamshahri, one of Iran's largest papers, made clear the contest is a reaction to European newspapers' publication of Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, which have led to demonstrations, boycotts and attacks on European embassies across the Islamic world. Several people have been killed.

Hundreds of Iranians hurled stones, and sometimes gasoline bombs, at the Danish and Austrian embassies in Tehran in protest against the cartoons Monday. Austria currently holds the European Union presidency.

The newspaper said the contest would be launched Monday and co-sponsored by the House of Caricatures, a Tehran exhibition center for cartoons. The paper and the cartoon center are owned by the Tehran Municipality, which is dominated by allies of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, well-known for his opposition to Israel.

Ahmadinejad, who was Tehran's mayor until being elected president in June, provoked outcries last year when he said on separate occasions that Israel should be "wiped off the map" and the Holocaust was a "myth."

Iran said last month it would sponsor a conference to examine the scientific evidence supporting the Holocaust, an apparent attempt to give voice to Holocaust deniers.

Hamshahri invited foreign cartoonists to enter the competition.

"Does the West extend freedom of expression to the crimes committed by the United States and Israel, or an event such as the Holocaust? Or is its freedom only for insulting religious sanctities?" Hamshahri wrote, referring to the Prophet Muhammad cartoons.
My first reaction to learning of this news was: How would anyone notice the difference? Iran and many other Muslim nations in the Middle East routinely publish the most vile, anti-Semitic cartoons, as well as a number of cartoons that preach Holocaust denial. What's a few more such cartoons among bigots? (As an aside, I've always stood in awe at the cognitive dissonance that people like this must have to allow them to deny the Holocaust and yet at the same time indiscriminately equate the treatment of the Palestinians by Israelis with the Nazi treatment of Jews. If, as these Holocaust deniers claim, the Holocaust didn't happen, then equating Israel with Nazi Germany is pretty pointless as a means of demonization of Jews. But I digress.)

My second reaction, though, was a bit of amusement. By announcing this contest, the Iranians seem to be implying that the Jews control Denmark, that they must think that it had to be the eeeeviillll Jews that were responsible for the publication of the cartoons. Otherwise, why not a contest for cartoons making fun of Christianity? Or a contest for cartoons making fun of, say, Buddhism or Hinduism (sacred cows, anyone)? Heck, why not a contest making fun of atheists, given how secular Denmark and much of Europe is? But, no. It has to be a contest for cartoons making fun of the Holocaust, a contest to attack Jews. (Of course, anti-Semitic cartoons are not unknown in Europe.) Besides revealing Iranian anti-Semitism, it's a transparent ploy. I can see it now. When the "winning" cartoons are published, Iran will "challenge" European papers to show their support for "freedom of speech" and republish them, as they did the Danish cartoons. When European nations refuse to play their game and republish such garbage, Iran will most likely gloat about a European double standard. Clearly the irony of Iranian media making such a charge against anyone is completely lost on them.

In fact, historian Deborah Lipstadt is preparing to enter the contest, with her collection of anti-Semitic cartoons from Arab and Muslim nations that she's been collecting over the years. She even has an idea for prizes for the winners:
1st Prize: One week in Teheran with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (the Holocaust-denying President of Iran)

2nd Prize: Two weeks in Teheran with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

3rd Prize: 450 days in the former American embassy with those nice hostage takers.
Hmmm. Compared with the prospect of spending "quality" time with a hatemonger like Ahmadinejad, the prospect of 450 days as a hostage doesn't sound quite as horrible as it normally would otherwise. I'm sure Professor Lipstadt must have been joking. Mostly.

One thing's almost certain, though. There won't be any mass rioting, threats of beheading and murder, or bombings by Jews upset over Iran's pointless "retaliation."

Meeting short take #2: Tolerance towards intolerance

I made it to the meeting. I hate transcontinental flights, but this one wasn't too bad. Because I've been busy putting the final touches on a talk I have to give, I only have time for a couple of short takes. First, there's this spot-on article addressing the controversy over the Danish cartoons depicting Mohammed:
In this jihad over humor, tolerance is disdained by people who demand it of others. The authoritarian governments that claim to speak on behalf of Europe's supposedly oppressed Muslim minorities practice systematic repression against their own religious minorities. They have radicalized what was at first a difficult question. Now they are asking not for respect but for submission. They want non-Muslims in Europe to live by Muslim rules...

On Friday the State Department found it appropriate to intervene. It blasted the publication of the cartoons as unacceptable incitement to religious hatred. It is a peculiar moment when the government of the United States, which likes to see itself as the home of free speech, suggests to European journalists what not to print.
Indeed. I've often criticized laws against Holocaust denial in some countries in Europe on the basis of their infringement on free speech, even though the speech that is criminalized by them is speech I find particularly odious and despicable. A couple of times, I've even been a bit smug about our First Amendment, which presumably makes it more difficult for the U.S. government to engage in such restrictions of free speech. Sadly, it would appear that our own government does not wish even to try to live up to the values of the First Amendment.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Meeting short take #1: The Amazing Randi is recovering from heart surgery

Even at my meeting, I couldn't help but mention this. For those who might not know yet:
James Randi underwent bypass surgery last Thursday. He is currently in stable condition. He is receiving excellent care, but will need quiet time to recover. We will release more information as it becomes available, and we ask everyone to please respect the family’s wishes for privacy at this time.

For those who feel a need to help, please consider donating blood at your local Red Cross or Community Blood Center. Cards may be sent to Randi in care of JREF, 201 SE 12 Street, Fort Lauderdale, FL 33316.
I had heard through another forum that Randi had had a heart attack recently. Here's hoping for a speedy recovery!

Grand Rounds, vol. 2, no 20

Grand Rounds, vol. 2, no. 20 has been posted at Science and Politics. Never let it be said I don't point my readers to good reading while I'm away. Bora has gathered a veritable cornucopia of the best medblogging from the last week.


A couple of quick announcements:
  1. As of this morning, I'm out of town for a surgical meeting for a few days. I'll probably keep posting, but not as regularly as usual. Also, I have no idea whether or not I'll have time to write anything that long. As always when I go to a meeting, it depends upon whether or not I'm bored when the meeting isn't actually going on.

  2. Mainly because I'm going to be away for a few days, Seed Magazine and I have agreed that it's best that my blog not be moved over to ScienceBlogs this week. Consequently, I plan on officially moving Respectful Insolence over to ScienceBlogs on the morning of Monday, February 13. My first article on the new blog will be posted then, and an announcement will be posted here with the new URL. Get ready to update your bookmarks and blogrolls.
I'm looking forward to this move and the opportunity it provides. I hope you'll all follow me over there next week.

Monday, February 06, 2006

The budget situation for the NIH appears grim

From ScienceNOW:
In stark contrast to his initiative for physical sciences [ScienceNOW, 1 February and 3 February], President Bush today proposed a budget freeze for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in 2007, holding its funding steady at $28.6 billion. The proposal, part of the President's overall budget request to Congress, is drawing concern and even outrage from biomedical research advocacy groups, who worry that NIH is losing ground after its budget was doubled from 1999 to 2003. Now the budget proposal, which curbs domestic discretionary spending while boosting funding for national defense, must wind its way through Congress before being approved in some form later this year.

"We're not in a position to do as much as many of us would like," said Michael Leavitt, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, at a budget briefing today. When asked why biomedicine was not included among the science agencies funded by the president's American Competitiveness Initiative, NIH Director Elias Zerhouni explained that the physical sciences are "complementary" to NIH's mission. "I don't think biomedicine is necessarily less urgent ... but you have to make choices that are not necessarily going to make everybody happy."

Within the $28.587 million requested for NIH in 2007, only biodefense would garner a significant increase--$110 million for a new biodefense fund to help universities and companies commercialize countermeasures. Another $49 million would expand an initiative on genes, environment, and health, and $15 million would fund a new bridge award for young investigators. But overall, all but one of NIH's 27 institutes and centers will get a slight cut under the president's plan. In parallel, success rates on grants--an investigator's odds of winning funding for a grant proposal--would remain at 19% in 2007, down from 22% in 2005.

Advocacy groups warn about the danger to U.S. biomedical research from a flat budget coming on the heels of the first cut to NIH in 36 years. The Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology in Washington, D.C., expressed "disappointment and outrage," saying the president's NIH request will slow research and "discourage the best and brightest from scientific careers." And while Patrick White�of the Association of American Universities praises the "incredible" boost proposed for the physical sciences, he says the "hard freeze" for NIH�"begins the undoubling of the NIH budget." A coalition of advocacy groups wants Congress to give NIH a 5% increase.
It looks as though the President's promise to boost science funding only applies to some areas and not others. While I'm glad that more is being allocated to the NSF, between the flat NIH budget and this administration's politicization of science, particularly stem cell research, we as a nation are taking a real risk of slowing down the progress in biomedical research that we have made over the last decade. With a flat budget for the foreseeable future, which translates in practical terms in to small yearly budget cuts, it looks as though we're going back to the bad old days of the early 1990's as far as biomedical research funding goes.

How vaccine litigation distorts the contents of the VAERS database

Advocates who are convinced of a link between the mercury in thimerosal used in vaccines as a preservative and autism often point to data derived from the U. S. Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) as "evidence" that vaccines cause autism. For example, Mark and David Geier, the father-son team of Don Quixotes of the thimerosal/autism movement, have made a veritable career of dumpster-diving the VAERS database and then using the results as their preferred lance to tilt at their windmills--not to mention to use as "evidence" in representing parents suing the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (VCIP). Publications by the Geiers utilizing the VAERS database are often used by litigants as "evidence" for a link between mercury in vaccines and autism.

Unfortunately, the VAERS database is highly unreliable. The reason is that anyone can submit a report to it, and no one actually verifies the accuracy of the report. Indeed, James Laidler once tested the system by submitting a report that the influenza virus had turned him into The Incredible Hulk. The report was accepted and duly entered into the database. This report was so out of the ordinary that a representative actually contacted him and, amazingly, asked his permission to remove the report from the database (proving that it's not easy being green). If Laidler had not given it, the report of an adverse reaction in which the flu vaccine turned a man into a huge, immensely powerful green monster would still be in VAERS. Now, via Kathleen Seidel, who alerted me to this, comes more evidence of the corruption of the VAERS database. This evidence comes in the form of a study published in the most recent issue of the journal Pediatrics, in which the authors examine the question of how much of the seeming increase in autism related to vaccines reported to the VAERS database over the last several years might be related to litigation. Naturally, I couldn't resist downloading the complete article and reading it.

In the study, the authors, Michael J. Goodman and James Nordin, did something incredibly simple that no one had done before. They took data from the VAERS database from 1990 through 2003 and imported it into SAS data files for analysis. Then they searched the database using key words to look for reports associated with litigation, particularly with regards to autism. They searched for records containing "thimerosal," "mercury," or "autism" in their fields, especially when coupled with terms like "lawyer," "legal," "attorney," or "litigate," while excluding records containing "legal" coupled with the term "guardian" that did not relate to litigation. They also excluded cases related to well characterized allergic reactions to thimerosal. Finally, they compared records from nonlitigation cases to those from litigation cases regarding symptomatology reported.

Not surprisingly, beginning in 2001, they noted a dramatic increase in the number of non-Lyme disease VAERS reports related to litigation, from only 7 in 2000 to 213 in 2002 and 108 in 2003. (They attributed the decline in 2003 reports to processing delays in creating public use files.) Next, they examined symptom sets related to symptom sets. For autism, they observed a dramatic increase in the percentage of litigation-related reports from 0% of the reports related to litigation in 1999 to over one-third (35%) in 2002. For records mentioning thimerosal that weren't related to allergic reactions, the rise was even more dramatic, from 0% of these reports related to litigation in 2000 to 87% in 2002.

This study once again hammers home the inherent unreliability of the VAERS database as a tool for longitudinal studies of the rate of vaccine-related complications. Not only can anyone access it and enter reports without verification, but there is no denominator, which means testing for causality is not even possible with VAERS. Worse, as the authors point out, the rate of reporting of autism as a complication of vaccines is easily influenced by numerous external factors. For example, the authors pointed out that 75% of the autism reports in VAERS between 1990 and 2001 were received not long after the the publication of the the now utterly and completely discredited Wakefield study that claimed to find a link between the MMR vaccine and autism and that 2/3 were received after the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation that thimerosal be removed from vaccines. And it's not just autism. For example, in 2002, half the reports to the VAERS database about mental retardation were related to litigation. The authors conclude:
The findings raise an important question about possible misuse of VAERS in the litigation process. When a study is being used to influence important public health decisions, it is important that reviewers and editors fully understand how the data were constructed and their source. Until now, no one has described the magnitude of litigation-related reporting and how these reports might potentially change the results of studies using VAERS data. Longitudinal studies using VAERS data should explicitly take into account changes in reporting sources like the one described in this article.

It is impossible to determine the effect of these reports on existing analyses because the existing literature does not describe carefully inclusion and exclusion criteria. For the conditions reviewed here, it is apparent that a large enough percentage of reports are being made related to litigation that failure to exclude these will seriously skew trends. This is important for vaccines that contain thimerosal, and specifically for the MMR vaccine because of the controversy surrounding its relationship to autism. It therefore is incumbent on the authors who use VAERS data to provide detailed methods sections that describe their inclusion and exclusion criteria. To that end, we are making our SAS code available to interested parties. It is not sufficient simply to reference extraction of the VAERS data set.
Indeed it is not. Computer programmers have a famous saying: "Garbage in, garbage out," meaning that the quality of the results of an analysis can be no better than the quality of the data upon which the analysis relies. Without correction for factors such as the ones for which the authors of this study tried to correct, the VAERS database definitely qualifies as "garbage in" when used to try to follow the incidence of vaccine-related complications over time. The VAERS database may serve a very important function as an early warning system for potential vaccine-related complications that were not picked up in initial clinical trials used to gain FDA approval, but it was never intended to be a means of following the rates of these complications in a longitudinal fashion. Even if it had been, the ease with which the rate of entry of various complications can be influenced by media hype and activists, as well as the indiscriminate use of the database by litigants, long ago destroyed any usefulness that VAERS might have had for such a purpose.

Indeed, it's even worse than described. The authors themselves recognize that they very well may have underestimated the effect of litigation-related VAERS reports:
Our results are probably conservative. Discussions with VAERS staff at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about reports that are generated from the VICP indicate that we may have missed some litigation-related cases because our code identified only a subset of these cases (John Iskander, personal communication, August 6, 2004). We tested code to identify VICP cases but were unable to find a way to identify them. Underascertainment of cases that are related to litigation, however, only strengthens our point. The influence of the litigation process on longitudinal analyses is a serious matter and emphasizes the importance of interpreting VAERS data cautiously.
In other words, the distorting effect of litigation-related cases on reports to the VAERS database is almost certainly worse than this first study suggests. I'm betting that it would be even worse still if the authors had been able to analyze the complete data sets from the years 2004 and 2005, given the firestorm that erupted last year due to the publication of David Kirby's much hyped conspiracy-mongering "expose" Evidence of Harm and the thoroughly dishonest scaremongering scandal piece by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. published last summer. Perhaps the authors of this study will update their analysis when VAERS data for 2004 and 2005 become available. I might be going out on a limb here (not really), but I'd predict a huge jump in litigation-related VAERS entries for cases alleging that that vaccines caused autism in the year 2005. I'm also hoping that the authors manage to ovecome the difficulties they encountered and figure out a way to crossreference their data from the VAERS database with the list of litigants going before the VCIP. I predict that the results of such a study would be most illuminating. However, this is a study that, because of HIPAA regulations, will most likely never be done because it would probably require doing what Mark and David Geier once tried to do: Merging data sets in such a way that could risk patient confidentiality.

In the meantime, whenever someone tells you that the VAERS database shows that cases of autism related to vaccines have been rising, just remember two things: (1) garbage in=garbage out; and (2) the VAERS database, sadly, has evolved into a trial lawyer's best friend.

Just ask Mark and David Geier.

Respectful Insolence discreditase?

There are worse things than being included as an enzyme in a chart on the Metabolism of Evolution Information in the Blogosphere. Even though I used to think that enzymology was a bit on the dull side, whereas molecular biology was way more cool, over time I've come to appreciate what marvelous molecular catalysts enzymes are. At least this chart is not as complicated as the biochemical charts I had to memorize in graduate biochemistry.


(Via Pharyngula.)

Christopher Hitchens on the Danish cartoon imbroglio

I'm not normally a big fan of Christopher Hitchens, but in discussing the recent crazed reaction of Muslim fundamentalists to some fairly mild cartoons lampooning Mohammed in Denmark he hits the nail right on the head for the most part:
Therefore there is a strong case for saying that the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, and those who have reprinted its efforts out of solidarity, are affirming the right to criticize not merely Islam but religion in general. And the Bush administration has no business at all expressing an opinion on that. If it is to say anything, it is constitutionally obliged to uphold the right and no more. You can be sure that the relevant European newspapers have also printed their share of cartoons making fun of nuns and popes and messianic Israeli settlers, and taunting child-raping priests. There was a time when this would not have been possible. But those taboos have been broken.

Which is what taboos are for. Islam makes very large claims for itself. In its art, there is a prejudice against representing the human form at all. The prohibition on picturing the prophet—who was only another male mammal—is apparently absolute. So is the prohibition on pork or alcohol or, in some Muslim societies, music or dancing. Very well then, let a good Muslim abstain rigorously from all these. But if he claims the right to make me abstain as well, he offers the clearest possible warning and proof of an aggressive intent. This current uneasy coexistence is only an interlude, he seems to say. For the moment, all I can do is claim to possess absolute truth and demand absolute immunity from criticism. But in the future, you will do what I say and you will do it on pain of death.

I refuse to be spoken to in that tone of voice, which as it happens I chance to find "offensive." (By the way, hasn't the word "offensive" become really offensive lately?) The innate human revulsion against desecration is much older than any monotheism: Its most powerful expression is in the Antigone of Sophocles. It belongs to civilization. I am not asking for the right to slaughter a pig in a synagogue or mosque or to relieve myself on a "holy" book. But I will not be told I can't eat pork, and I will not respect those who burn books on a regular basis. I, too, have strong convictions and beliefs, and value the Enlightenment above any priesthood or any sacred fetish-object.
Indeed. By asserting that they have a right not to be subjected to anything that insults their religion, radical Muslims are in essence trying to control those who do not share their religion, telling them that they cannot criticize Islam or the Prophet. And more:
Suppose that we all agreed to comport ourselves in order to avoid offending the believers? How could we ever be sure that we had taken enough precautions? On Saturday, I appeared on CNN, which was so terrified of reprisal that it "pixilated" the very cartoons that its viewers needed to see. And this ignoble fear in Atlanta, Ga., arose because of an illustration in a small Scandinavian newspaper of which nobody had ever heard before! Is it not clear, then, that those who are determined to be "offended" will discover a provocation somewhere? We cannot possibly adjust enough to please the fanatics, and it is degrading to make the attempt.
Well said.

ADDENDUM: While I'm quoting others on this controversy, I found this take on the issue by Tom D'Antoni pretty amusing:
Newspapers across Europe have has enraged those so very highly enrageable Muslims by cartooning Allah and causing those feeling blasphemed upon to think themselves sent by their lampooned Deity on a mission to take a variety of revenges including the always popular embassy burning.

Can the other Gods be far behind?

And there are so many to have to watch out for: Jesus and Moses along with Zoroaster, whoever Wiccans worship, Satan, Celtic Gods, Polynesian Gods, Aztec, Hindu Gods, Goddesses of the Near-East Realm, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Pilipino Deities, Lusitani Gods, Scandinavian, Tibetan, Norse Gods, Apotheothenai (humans made Gods by other Gods), African, Native American, Inca, Egyptian, Mayan, Phoenician, Persian, Slavic, Greek, Roman-Etruscan Gods and Demi-Gods are all standing by and waiting to be pissed at you for making fun of them.

They’re more than happy to send their followers around to kick your ass. Or perhaps those followers have made up their minds on their own. Or even worse, thought that their particular God was speaking to them, Mr. President.
This is more or less what Hitchens is saying, but in a much more humorous manner:
Best to make fun of Agunua the Serpent God of the Solomon Islands (and all this time I thought Solomon BURKE was the God of the Solomon Islands). All the other Salomon Island Gods are just one aspect of Agunua, so if you make a cartoon about Agunua, you’re taking on all the other SIG’s.

Taking on a God like Australia’s Daramulun is another thing, entirely. That boy is not only heroic, but is usually pictured with his mouth full of quartz (for some reason) and brandishing both a stone axe and a massive phallus. There’s a God you shouldn’t want to mess with.

One thing is certain; believers do not have a sense of humor.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

The rising of Cthulego

This is just hilarious: Cthulu rising done in Legos. (Via Boing Boing.)

Mexico closes the clinic where Coretta Scott King died

It looks like the international attention brought to the alternative medicine clinic where Coretta Scott King died has nudged the Mexican government to act:
MEXICO CITY, Feb. 3 — Mexican health officials on Thursday night shut down an alternative medicine clinic where Coretta Scott King died this week, saying the doctors there were using unproven treatments and were never licensed to run a full-service hospital.

The clinic's founder, Kurt W. Donsbach, is a chiropractor who has a long history of run-ins with the law in the United States over claims he has made about nutritional supplements he developed and sold.

He operated the clinic, known as the Hospital Santa Mónica, since 1987 without any interference from the Baja California state authorities. It offered people with cancer and other chronic diseases a buffet of unorthodox treatments, from intravenous infusions of hydrogen peroxide and vitamins, to ozone saunas to something he calls microchemotherapy, small doses of cancer-fighting drugs administered with glucose.

Mrs. King was suffering from advanced ovarian cancer when she arrived at the clinic in Rosarito on Jan. 26, having learned of it from members of her church. She died Monday.

Doctors at the clinic maintain they did not give her any of Mr. Donsbach's treatments. The cause of death was listed as respiratory and heart failure, though no autopsy was done and the doctor who signed the certificate is on the clinic's staff.

Clinics offering unconventional treatments not available in the United States have flourished for decades in Baja California, where regulation is weak and official corruption rampant.

The state health commissioner, Dr. Francisco Vera, said earlier this week that state inspectors visited the clinic last June and had found everything in order. But after a flurry of calls from reporters over the last few days, the state sent in another team Thursday afternoon, and it reached a very different conclusion.

For starters, the team found that the clinic was registered with the state under a different name, Clínica Santo Tomás, and was not licensed to provide much more than basic walk-in medical services. The clinic's staff did not have the authorization to perform surgery, take X-rays, perform laboratory work or run an internal pharmacy, all of which it was doing.
Dubious clinics touting all kinds of quackery have flourished in Mexico, and in particular the Tijuana area for decades, with the Mexican government looking the other way. These clinics cater mainly to Americans. Indeed, one of the most notorious of American quacks, Hulda Clark, set up residence there for a number of years.

Anyone want to bet that, had a person as famous and revered as Mrs. King not died in this "clinic," that the Santa Monica Health Institute would still be in business, still dispensing quack "cures" like insulin potentiation therapy, quite happily (and lucratively), and that the Mexican government would still be looking the other way? Or would anyone want to take any bets on when it will reopen and go back to business as usual as soon as the attention from Mrs. King's death fades?

Et tu, Skeptico?

While celebrating his first blogiversary, Skeptico took some time out to skewer both friend and foe alike, including your friendly neighborhood arrogant computer. Only one thing: He's short at least two sets of parentheses to get the true flavor of my writing...

May your second year be as great as your first, although, as much as I love it when you fisk Deepak Chopra, it is rather odd that your first and last post of your first year were about...Deepak Chopra. What a scary set of bookends for that first year.

This is what a Blogspot outage looks like

If you were trying to get to Respectful Insolence last night and couldn't, this is why. Blogspot appeared to be down for about three hours last night, as you can see from the graph. I made a cursory check last night, and it appeared that every Blogspot blog was down. Is it my imagination or selective memory, or Blogspot outages becoming more frequent?

In any case, I can't wait to make the move to ScienceBlogs now; I hope to "go live" soon. More information will be forthcoming when I have a firm date, but I'm hoping to pull this off by February 14 or 15 at the latest, and it might be a whole lot earlier than that.

Dad of Cameron looks at a dubious "clinical trial" of chelation therapy

A while ago, James (a.k.a. Dad of Cameron), the father of an autistic boy who also has a blog Autism Street, informed me of a clinical trial going on at the Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine supposedly studying chelation therapy for autism. The design of the study seemed fishy to me, as did the question of whether it had been approved by an approved Institutional Review Board for the protection of human subjects--not to mention the involvement of antivaxer Jeff Bradstreet. For one thing, like many mercury/autism advocates, rather than using standard tests for mercury, they use the nonstandard, not generally accepted method of chelation challenge, in which a chelating agent is given and then the mercury is measured. Worse, they used a nonstandard method of measuring urinary excretion of chelated mercury. Rather than collecting a 24 hour urine specimen and measuring total mercury excreted in 24 hours, they propose to measure an overnight specimen and express the results as mcg mercury/g creatinine, citing a paper in which the number of subjects was small, the control group was two years older than the experimental group, and the scatter in the data was such that the plots would look like a "star chart."

Now, James has published his e-mail correspondence with one of the investigators of the trial. It's rather illuminating to see the dodging and the way that, at one point, the investigator buried him with a bunch of articles, most of which were irrelevant to the question at hand. (One was about arterial hypertension and mercury and its response to captopril; I'm betting that, if I were to look up all those papers, that the vast majority would not support the investigators' methodology.) He's also discovered that the investigators are using a dubious laboratory to measure mercury in the specimens, namely Doctor's Data, which has been lambasted on Quackwatch and listed as a lab doing nonstandard tests.

I have to conclude that this trial is dubious at best, and it just goes to show that it doesn't take an M.D. or Ph.D. to figure out the fallacies behind the "mercury in vaccines causes autism" claim.

Friday, February 03, 2006

The world's most pointless lawsuit?

Here's the stupidest lawsuit I've heard of in a long time:
SAN FRANCISCO, California (AP) -- A Louisiana man claims in a lawsuit that Apple's iPod music player can cause hearing loss in people who use it.

Apple has sold more than 42 million of the devices since they went on sale in 2001, including 14 million in the fourth quarter last year. The devices can produce sounds of more than 115 decibels, a volume that can damage the hearing of a person exposed to the sound for more than 28 seconds per day, according to the complaint.

The iPod players are "inherently defective in design and are not sufficiently adorned with adequate warnings regarding the likelihood of hearing loss," according to the complaint, filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in San Jose, California, on behalf of John Kiel Patterson, of Louisiana.

The suit, which Patterson wants certified as a class-action, seeks compensation for unspecified damages and upgrades that will make iPods safer. Patterson's suit said he bought an iPod last year, but does not specify whether he suffered hearing loss from the device.

Patterson does not know if the device has damaged his hearing, said his attorney, Steve W. Berman, of Seattle. But that's beside the point of the lawsuit, which takes issue with the potential the iPod has to cause irreparable hearing loss, Berman said.
Here's a clue, Mr. Patterson: Any music device that you listen to through ear buds or head phones can damage your hearing if you listen to it too loud for too long a period of time, not just the iPod. What's the answer? Turn the volume down! Don't listen to it for too long.

What a money-grubbing moron.

But what's really interesting is that the attorney, Steve Berman, has been on retainer for Microsoft:
More recently, Microsoft recognized Mr. Berman's experience and expertise when the company retained him to be part of the core national team representing the company in antitrust class actions arising from Judge Jackson's Findings of Fact in the Department of Justice antitrust case against the company.
Curiouser and curiouser. Coincidence? Who knows? Lawyers frequently represent a lot of different clients. Whether or not there's a rat here, it would appear that Mr. Berman is not above a little legal extortion.

Islam against freedom of speech

The whole blogosphere has been abuzz about the uproar caused by the publication of cartoons by a Danish newspaper portraying the Prophet Mohammed in what many Muslims considered to be offensive and sacrilegious. Indeed, the protest has escalated to violence, with Palestinian gunmen shutting down the offices of the European Union in Gaza demanding an apology from French, Norwegian, and German newspapers that reprinted the cartoons in solidarity with the Danes and threatening to blow up churches if they don't get it. I hadn't planned on commenting on this whole thing, because it's more political an issue than what I usually address here.

Then a couple of days ago I got this e-mail from someone identifying himself as Majed Jarrar. I have no idea where he got my e-mail address from or why on earth he thought I would be sympathetic to him, but apparently he must have mass e-mailed a bunch of bloggers. A Google search reveals that he posts at a blog, Words from Iraq, and appears to have a blog of his own, Me Vs. MysEIF. The message was both in English and Arabic, and this is what it said:
Dear all,

The attached document is a letter to the minister of foreign affairs in Denmark, regarding what the Danish newspaper "Jyllands Posten" had published on September 30th, 2005, showing 12 caricatures ridiculing the prophet Mohammad last messenger of God -May prayers be upon Him-. The caricatures were part of a contest made by the same newspaper to show the funniest cartoons that show the prophet Mohammad. One caricature showed the prophet wearing a turban-shaped bomb and other caricatures showed him in horrendous positions. This is a very humiliating act toward every Muslim on the globe.

This petition is very important because it's an attack against one-fifth of the population of the world (est. 1,300,000,000 Muslims in the world today), and it's important because it breaks the code of ethics of the International World Federation Council of Media and Media-People, which explicitly prohibits any action or behavior that might raise the risk of discrimination against any group of people based on their religion, sex or any social differences. This is exactly what the Danish newspaper had done with that unacceptable hideous action.

This is an attack against Islam and the Muslim population of the world, this is also an attack against Christianity and Judaism; Mohammad after all brought a message from the same one God who sent the massage to Jesus and Mosses, prophets of God may peace be upon them. This is also an attack against anyone who wants to live in a world free of discrimination; who amongst us accepts to see their religion being insulted in public media?

Please, help your Muslim brothers and sisters around the world saving the dignity of this religion; help us stop the discrimination against any peoples around the globe.

You may send the attached document to the email of the Danish ministry of foreign affairs at um@um.dk

It would be very appreciated if you help spreading the message around as much as you can.

Thank you and God bless you all.


The letter itself said:
To: _Dr. Per Stig Mller, Minister of the foreign affairs of the Denmark

Your Excellency,

We have reviewed what some of the news agencies dealt with concerning the Danish news agency Jyllands-Posten had published, which I believe it to be a heinous mistake and dreadful deviation from the path of justice, reverence and equality. The said agency published 12 cartoon caricatures on the 30th of September, 2005, ridiculing The Messenger Mohammed. One of these cartoons pictures Allah's Messenger (prayers be upon him), wearing a turban that resembles a bomb wrapped around his head. What a pathetic projection! The news and the cartoons were horrifying and extremely disturbing to us.

We believe all Muslims who read, viewed or learned about this news were equally saddened, disappointed and disturbed. All criticized such work and felt awful and dismayed about it. Similarly, I do believe that all sane and wise people would feel the same about it.

The contemporary world is witnessing today great much confusion all over. Innocent blood is being shed. Innocent lives are being harvested by oppression and transgression. We are in utmost need to spread peace, justice and love all over the world. We need to call for the respect and reverence of all Divine and heavenly Messages and Scriptures. By doing so, we would be able to preserve the divine messages and demonstrate love, appreciation and reverence to the Prophets and Messengers of Allah, the Almighty to this world.

We would further help to preserve the souls, honor and belongings of all mankind all-over-the-world. We would further demonstrate the respect and honor of the human rights all over the world.

The claim of Jyllands-Posten newspaper that they allow, promote and practice freedom-of-speech, by publishing cartoons ridiculing Mohammed the Prophet of Islam, is a non-convincing claim. All worlds' constitutions and international organizations insist on and demand to respect all the Prophets and Messengers of Allah, the Almighty. Moreover, they confirm the necessity to respect the Divine Messages, respect others and do not attack the privacy, dignity and honor and principles of others.

In the International World Federation Council of media and press people, it is stated:
  • Media people must be alert of risks that may arise as a result of prejudice and discrimination implied by the media. The Council would exert every possible effort to avoid being involved in such calls, which are based on prejudice and religion, sex or other social differences discrimination.
  • A media man may commit a dangerous professional deviation such as: claiming other's work, ill-interpretation of facts, false accusations of others, condemning others for no basis, accusing others with their integrity and honor for no sound basis or accepting bribes to either publish or prevent the publishing of specific materials.
  • A noteworthy media-person should believe that it is their duty to give an honest attention to the aforementioned items and through the general framework of the law in each country.
Therefore, we also base our opinion and/or statements herein on an honest and sound media proclamation requesting the Danish newspaper to apologize for what they did. The proclamations states: "The media person would exert every possible effort to correct, modify any published information that he/she noticed that they are inaccurate and/or harmful to others."

Undoubtedly, what the Danish newspaper; Jyllands-Posten published is harmful not only for more than two hundred thousand Danish citizen, but also to more than one-billion-three-hundred-million Muslims along with others who are fair and just people. All these hurt people honor, respect and love Mohammed the Prophet. This action will continue to hurt and harm all Muslims so long we live on this earth. Denmark, if does not deal with this problem on a fair ground, will also continue to be a source of harm and convulsion to many Muslims. This is because of the mentality of some Danish individuals who are anti-prophets, messengers and divine messages.

We would like to remind also with the decree which the Human Rights Agency in the United Nations adopted on the 12th of April, 2005. This decree insisted on the ban of distortions and vicious attacks against religions and especially Islam; which had been strongly attacked during the last few years.

Finally, we would like to inform you that all Muslims will certainly stop their commercial business dealing with Denmark until the Danish Government openly and officially apologize for the shameful attack to the person of Allah's Messenger -may prayers be upon Him- by Jyllands-Posten newspaper.

Alright. This Majed Jarrar guy got my attention. I had never seen the actual cartoons; so I went looking for them. They weren't hard to find. Michelle Malkin, as much as I normally detest her, has posted them, as has fellow RINO The Commissar (whom I do like). Looking at these cartoons, what do I think? Most of the cartoons are surprisingly mild, actually, way milder than I had expected, given the uproar. True, a couple are rather tasteless and bordering on racist, but none of them are beyond the pale or any worse than many cartoons that Christians or Jews might consider sacrilegious or than many of the tirades against atheists that we can easily find in the press and on the Internet.

My first reaction was to respond with an e-mail telling Mr. Jarrar to grow a thicker skin. The price of freedom is that sometimes there will be people who will criticize or insult your most cherished beliefs. Deal with it.

Then I thought a little more and composed this:
Dear Mr. Jarrar:

I received your e-mail requesting my support in sending a letter to Denmark's Minister of Foreign affairs asking him to pressure Jyllands-Posten to apologize. I regret to inform you that I cannot and will not comply, nor do I support your effort. I understand that the cartoons offended you and your fellow Muslims. However, perhaps the single most important right in a democracy is the right to freedom of speech. It is from this right that nearly all of our other rights flow. Most of the cartoons that Jyllands-Posten published in September were, in fact, rather mild. A minority of them could be considered somewhat offensive or borderline racist.

I would perhaps have more sympathy for you if you and your fellow Muslims were not trying to pressure the Danish government to demand an apology from the editors of Jyllands-Posten and to pressure the French, German, and Norwegian governments to censor or punish the newspapers in those countries that recently republished the cartoons as an act of solidarity. Such an action reveals a profound misunderstanding of the nature of a free nation. In such nations, the government is intentionally severely limited in its abilities to punish or otherwise limit its citizens' exercise of free speech, and its media outlets are not controlled by the state. Also, even though it is within the purview of your right to free speech, I also think that the boycott of Danish goods being threatened by you and your fellow Muslims is misguided and counterproductive. It will only harden the attitudes of Europeans to you. Nonetheless, if that is the way you wish to register your displeasure, it is your right as free speech. Unfortunately, I've learned some of your fellow Muslims are petitioning the U.N. for a resolution banning "contempt of religious beliefs" for member nations. Such a resolution is incompatible with our First Amendment; and I cannot support it, either. In fact, I oppose such a resolution as vigorously as I oppose any threat to free speech here in the U.S. I fully support the refusal of Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Denmark's Prime Minister, to capitulate to your demands and the threats of more radical Muslims.

There is little doubt that the cartoons published by the Jyllands-Posten were a deliberate attempt to be provocative. Annoyance at such antics is the price we pay for freedom. The editors wanted a reaction from you, and you and your fellow Muslims sure delivered, in the process seemingly confirming the very stereotypes that some of the cartoons portrayed. Consider this: I personally am highly angered and offended by, for example, the recent anti-Semitic remarks and denial of the Holocaust by the President of Iran, one of your fellow Muslims, as well as his calling a conference to question the historicity of the Holocaust. I consider his speech every bit as hateful and ignorant as you no doubt consider the Jyllands-Posten cartoons. Even so, I would not support an effort to to suppress his speech through actions by governments and the U.N.. The same is true of noted Holocaust denier David Irving, whose trial for Holocaust denial I cannot support and whose imprisonment I view as wrong. Free speech means little if it doesn't mean freedom for people with offensive views to express them. Protest, yes. Counter the offending speech with speech of my own, yes. Try to have the govenrment or U.N. suppress that speech? Never! Threaten violence, as Palestinians did when they took over the E.U. office in Gaza the other day? Absolutely not!

Tolerating views that no one finds offensive is easy; tolerating views that deeply offend is not. Consequently, I strongly oppose your effort to impose your beliefs (that Mohammed should not be portayed in pictures or mocked) on those who do not share your religion. I also can't help but note a whiff of hypocrisy here. Unlike the media in Denmark, France, Germany, and Norway, the media in many Muslim nations in the Middle East are state controlled, and many of these state-controlled media outlets run vile and anti-Semitic programming, treating as true conspiracy-laden anti-Jewish propaganda, such as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Holocaust denial, and the Blood Libel (see also here and here). You do realize, do you not, that, if your fellow Muslims succeed in persuading the U.N. to ban misrepresentations, criticisms, and mockery of religions, certain Muslim countries would certainly be among the absolute worst offenders in that respect. They would either have to stop broadcasting such hate-filled anti-Jewish propaganda or be subject to sanctions.

Be very careful what you wish for; you may get it and not like the consequences.

I understand that your religion teaches you that these images published in Denmark are sacrilegious. So were Piss Christ and an image of the Virgin Mary made of elephant dung sacrilegious to many Christians, who protested vigorously but did not threaten violence (although sadly, in the latter case, some did try to have then New York Mayor Rudy Guliani remove the image from the Brooklyn Museum). We even have toys that many Christians would consider blasphemous, such as Answer Me Jesus (a pink statue of Jesus that functions like a Magic Eight Ball, two of whose answers are, "I'll have to ask my Dad" and "I died for this?"); cartoons like God-Man, The Superhero With Omnipotent Powers; art exhibits that are intentionally sacrilegious to Catholics; and parodies that range from mild to truly offensive, sampling of which can be found in Ads That Shouldn't Have Jesus In Them. At the risk of offending you, my advice to you is: Grow a thicker skin. Not everyone follows the Muslim faith, and some even hold it in contempt, just as many Muslims clearly hold the Jewish and Christian faiths in contempt. If your faith is so threatened by a bunch of snotty cartoonists thumbing their noses at your Prophet that you feel compelled to try to pressure governments to punish the cartoonists and ban criticism of religion, then I have a hard time not concluding that it is not particularly strong. A person's religious beliefs should be no more protected from criticism or ridicule than a person's political beliefs, and there is no "right" to be free from speech that offends you.


I forwarded the above response to the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

The Twenty-seventh Meeting of the Skeptics' Circle

As hard as it is to believe, two weeks have already flown by, and it's time for the Twenty-seventh Meeting of the Skeptics' Circle. This is a particularly propitious time, as it's the very first Skeptics' Circle of its second year of existence. Not only that, this edition of the Circle marks the point where I have been its organizer longer than its founder, St. Nate.

I can think of few bloggers as capable of handling such an important Skeptics' Circle as our present host, Prometheus. His blog, A Photon in the Darkness, has been a bastion of rational thought in the all-too-often irrational blogosphere since it first appeared in June, and, as expected, he's delivered, this time in the form of a ripping war story--and I do mean war story--about the fight against pseudoscience and quackery:
"Our enemy is aggressive, committed and utterly ruthless – they will not hesitate to use any tactic that they think will aid them. They are not bound by the Rules of Science as we are, and they use that to their advantage. However, they are fighting on the side of ignorance and superstition, and so they will ultimately fail. Our job is to hasten that defeat and to minimize civilian casualties and suffering. The general population may not always understand that we are fighting for them, but we must never forget that."

Next up is Unused and Probably Unusable on February 16. It's never too early to start getting your best skeptical blogging ready to send to Eh Nonymous by February 15.

And, as always, if you're interested in hosting a Skeptics' Circle, drop me a line at oracknows@blogspot.com. The guidelines and schedule can be found here.

Orac attracts a Holocaust denier

It had to happen sooner or later. I'm only surprised that it's taken so long.

What is it?

Well, finally, Orac has attracted a Holoaust denier in the comments of his last post on David Irving, Holocaust denier extraordinaire (spelling errors not corrected):
There is much that can be said about Irving, I certainly agree his statement "more people were killed in the back seat of Edward Kennedy's car in Chappaquiddick than in the gas chambers at Auschwitz" is somewhat insensitive. However it does not reflect his work, there is much in his research findings that is correct.

May I just remind everyone here that in his libel trial, that he lost, Lippstadt's expert team assessed the number of victims in Auschwitz at 350-500 thousand, that is about half of the official number. Their experts also had the gassings taking place in more remote farm houses.

There was a trial in Poland after the war that assessed the number of victims of Auschwitz at 330000, not mentioning any killing in gas chambers.

The Allies wrongly claimed gas chambers in Dachau and elsewhere, they even built one there after the war. If you don't believe, just write to the museum in Dachau and confirm this information.

Besides what actually happened in the holocaust, a term hat is never defined anyway, it is used as a propaganda machine for ethnic cleansing in Palastine and elsewhere.

It is a propaganda to justify the war of USA, UK and Israel, a war that is about taking land, natural resources and hegemonialism.

My family was expelled from their homelands in what was Eastern Germany before the war, some were even killed by a Polish mob. We were not even ethnic german but slavic, living their long time before the so called Polish partitions. Yet Poles living their now in our house believe they are "victims" and we ar e supposed to be guilty.

This ethnical cleansing was already planned and commenced by Poland in the 1920's, with the support of the Allies, have a look at the history of Danzig, ask yourself why the files are still classified by the UK. Expulsion of Jews also happened in Poland during the 1920's and 30's, until the early 1930's they settled in Germany, yet the Allies supported Poland unconditionally nut we only here about anti-"semitism" in connection with Germany.

Palastineans are ethnical cleansed every day by so called Jews, in the name of the holocaust that is a state church enforced in the west.

Compare this with Salman Rushdie, he was condemned in the Islamic world for provocations in connection with sexual taboos. Take David Irving, he dared to make public facts about the holocaust and gets arrested.

All this controversy is actually in the context of the imperialism of USA, UK and Israel and their double standards. It is not about the holocaust or the remembrance of the victims, it is about the ideological tools they need to stay in powerand justify war and unjustice.
First off, no one disputes that David Irving can be a prodigious researcher. The problems are his selective use of data, in which he ignores data that contradicts his conclusions, and his inability to evaluate the sources objectively, not his ability to dig up information out of archives and various other sources.

I can handle most of the fallacies in the above comment save one. So I e-mailed Professor Deborah Lipstadt herself about the claim that Lipstadt's team had produced an estimate of the dead at Auschwitz of 350-500 thousand. Her response? That the above is completely incorrect. As she put it:
We never touched the number of dead.
I had thought as much. One can also try to search the website, Holocaust Denial on Trial to see that this particular denier's claim is without basis. The complete transcripts of the trial are there.

As for his claims about the Auschwitz death toll, this is a long-debunked denier canard known as the Auschwitz Four Million Gambit:
Holocaust deniers would have people believe that the Auschwitz State Museum's death toll of four million was a widely accepted idea, and that any revisions in this number should also lower the total dead from the Holocaust. Deniers often claim that this revision is largely due to the efforts of "revisionist scholars", and then use this as evidence that the stories of mass murder at Auschwitz are a hoax.

Deniers also claim that anyone who dared to question the four million figure was "labeled an Anti-Semite, neo-nazi skinhead (at the very least)." By accusing their opponents of slander, deniers can simultaneously tarnish the reputations of real historians, and also invoke a "conspiracy" thatsuppresses "the truth." Conspiracy theorizing is another common denier approach, and they use it to explain why their "startling facts" have been ignored for so long. Deniers almost always overstate the "Four Million Variant,"as they would like to portray Holocaust historians as a repressive, Jewish dominated cadre that rigidly enforces the "dogma" of four million dead at Auschwitz.

As is often the case, our "revisionist scholars" have things more than a little askew. "The Four Million Variant" is the fallacious notion that a change in the Auschwitz Museum's figure pokes a major hole in mainstream Holocaust history. Taking each aspect of the "Four Million Variant" individually shows just how wrongheaded this notion is:

"The four million figure at Auschwitz was a widely held notion."

This is clearly false. In a quick survey of nineteen historical references (see appendix) only two listed the total Auschwitz dead at four million. One of these, Friedman's "This Was Oswiecim: The Story of a Murder Camp," was published in 1946, well before morereliable estimates were available. Most list figures from 1 to 2.5 million, and they arrived at these figures in a variety of methods .

Some quoted Kommandant Höss's testimony (2.5 million) and others attempted to piece together how many people arrived at Auschwitz, minus any survivors, while still others used available pre- and post war census data. In fact, to find many sources that do list four million dead, one has to find books published behind the iron curtain (see appendix).

Other authors derided the Tribunal's four million figure as an absurd example of Soviet propaganda. For example, Gerald Reitlinger's The Final Solution discussed the source of the State Museum's figure and why he found it ludicrous:
...The Red Army did not arrive [at Auschwitz] till January 26th. They found 2,819 invalids in the three camps, whom they spared no pains to nurse back to health. In due course a Soviet State Commission arrived and on May 12th the world was presented with its findings.

However, using rectified coefficients for the part time employment of the crematorium ovens and for the periods when they stood empty, the technical expert.commission has ascertained that during the time that the Auschwitz camp existed, the German butchers [sic] exterminated in this camp not less than four million citizens of the U.S.S.R., Poland, France, Jugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Rumania, Hungary, Holland, Belgium, and other countries.'

The world has grown mistrustful of 'rectified coefficients' and the figure of four million has become ridiculous. Unfortunately, Russian arithmetic has blurred the stark and inescapable fact that 800,000 to 900,000 human beings perished in Auschwitz, its gas chambers and its camps. There are probably too many incalculable factors to make a closer estimate of the number of Auschwitz victims possible...
Reitlinger's book was published in 1968, well before the deniers claim the figure fell into disfavor, and twenty years before "revisionist scholars" began challenging the figure.
The bottom line is that the famous estimate of four million killed at Auschwitz was mainly a product of early postwar Soviet propaganda and was never a component of serious historians' estimates of the now commonly accepted total Jewish death toll during the Holocaust of approximately 6 million.

As for this deniers' claim about gas chambers in Dachau, there is an excellent essay at the Holocaust History Project that takes this denier canard on. The short version is that there were indeed gas chambers at Dachau, but it is unclear whether they were ever used on inmates. Even if they were not, it would be completely irrelevant to the massive amounts of evidence that support the historicity of the Holocaust. Dachau was not an extermination camp; it was a concentration camp. Many did die there of overwork, disease, starvation, and execution for trivial infractions against the rules, but Dachau's primary purpose was not extermination--unlike Sobibor, Treblinka, Belzec, and Chelmno, for example, which were primarily extermination camps. Dachau was meant primarily as a concentration camp for political opponents, Jews, and then, during parts of the war, Russian P.O. W.'s.

Finally, the anti-Semitism prevalant in Poland in the prewar period that led to a number of actions against Jews does not excuse or justify the eliminationist anti-Semitism of the Nazi regime that led to the deaths of approximately six million Jews during the Holocaust. For one thing, the Poles did not try to exterminate the Jews of Europe. Similarly, whatever Israeli excesses or brutality in treating Palestinians may have occurred, they are orders of magnitude less than what the Nazis did. Trying to equate the two is a transparent dodge and, when taken to the extreme, is an example of the Hitler Zombie in action. The anti-Semitism of the person making these comments is obvious, particularly his referring to "so-called Jews."

What else would he call them I wonder?

In actuality, I'm a bit disappointed. Here I've been blogging about Holocaust denial for over a year now, and I haven't yet pissed off any Holocaust deniers enough to post long tirades in my comments section until now? I take that as measure that I'm either not as effective as I should be or that I remain completely unknown. Back in the day, they used to come after me hot and heavy on alt.revisionism.

Clearly I'm not doing my job well enough. I vow to do better in the future.