NTS LogoSkeptical News for 25 December 2002

Archive of previous NTS Skeptical News listings

Wednesday, December 25, 2002

Mum's the word


Julie Burchill
Saturday December 21, 2002
The Guardian

I 'll tell you one thing people have finally given up saying, "Oooh, Christmas is so commercialised!" There was always someone coming out with that when I was a kid, and it was always a bloody self-proclaimed atheist - like, what's it to them? In my experience, modern atheists are the most awful killjoys God ever invented. They're not atheists in the exciting, louche way that people used to be in the first half of the 20th century, who made a point of Not Believing so that they could do fun things such as living in sin and taking drugs. These days, atheists are Against God because they know that lots of people get a buzz, a kick, a nice warm glow from religion, and that annoys them because they're mean and uptight. These people also tend not to have pets ("Hm, 39p for a tin of Kattomeat - what's in it for me? There must be a catch; it must be a conspiracy!") or give to beggars on the grounds that "they'll only spend it on drink". God, pets, giving: all allow you that toasty feeling, so therefore must be a lie! Far more "honest" to sit at home alone, scowling and knawing on a crust - that'll show the Establishment that you're on to its tricks!

Myself, as a serious believer, I adore Christmas, give or take a couple of years a while back when my parents thoughtlessly died one after the other and left me weepy and limp. But I'm back on form now, and can smile at the sound of the cash registers harmonising with the choirs, because, like most religious people, I see the modern Christmas as the festival of the well-intentioned, weak-willed, wanting-to-believe agnostic. If they can get one tenth of the oceanic feeling of awe that we hardcore God-botherers get from Easter (the real McCoy), it's got to be a good thing.

So, I like fairylights, Victorian carols about eating and I especially like nativity scenes. What's not to like, carpers? Animals (good), rich and poor visitors equal (good) in the worship of an apparently powerless symbol of goodness (excellent) and offering gifts (v. good). Then there's the Holy Family themselves: Joseph, a sort of glorified walker, a man who obviously knew his place and didn't try to steal the limelight (bet he didn't stick a pillow up his robe and do breathing exercises with a bunch of women just to get attention); the Baby Jesus, who was apparently a very good infant ("The cattle are lowing, the Baby awakes, but little Lord Jesus no crying he makes" - it's lousy writing, OK, but doesn't he sound a lovely change from the over-indulged little bastards always ruining your romantic dinner à deux in "child-friendly" restaurants?); and Mary.

Ah, Mary. We feminists are supposed to have a problem with Mary - the pristine, perfect image of womanhood who makes the rest of us look like sin-drenched slappers. But that's just the weird spin that various screw-ups, mainly the Catholic church, have put on her over the centuries; it has far more to do with their own problems with sex than with her. Knowing what we know now, I bet Mary wouldn't have let a Catholic priest within 50ft of the Baby Jesus.

I imagine Mary as a spirited, soulful, swarthy young Israeli who handled a complicated situation with the stubborness and courage typical of her race. I bet she was a good mother, too - but not a Good Mother in the modern, sloppy sense. Think about it: there wasn't much in the way of space or comfort in that stable, and I guess everyone had to muck in, as it were, but Mary was careful to do one basic thing from the word go. That is, she swaddled the Baby Jesus and then laid him in the manger . Note that. She didn't loll about in the straw with Him beside her, "feeding on demand". No, from the word go they each had their own space. She didn't smother Him. And no one can say it didn't work - before you know it, Jesus had grown up into a full-on righteous rebel, ready to take on the Roman Empire with just meekness, a few fishermen and a flimsy staff.

So, at this time of year, can I ask all those new mothers who feel that they have had the baby, as opposed to a baby, to take a lesson from the Holy Mother and try to restrain themselves from going overboard when it comes to expressing affection, especially in bed or in public, to what is undoubtedly a perfect bundle of pink, plush, sweet-smelling (except when it's throwing up or messing itself) loveliness? This was the year, after all, when even Madonna decided that expressing oneself had gone a bit too far after seeing a still-breastfed six-year-old child on US TV and firing off a declaration that "People have no moral standards". While you may question the credibility of a woman who has slept with Vanilla Ice, there are many of us who believe that the public breast-feeding of babies big enough to rip open ringpulls with their teeth has more to do with attention-seeking than with animal instinct.

And it was the year when, after yet another tragic accident, a coroner criticised the Department of Health for giving implicit approval to the practice of parents sharing beds with their babies.

Of course, your nit-pickers will by now be whingeing, "Oh, she's the Worst Mother In Britain, so how can she hand out advice?" Fair point, but a) do you believe everything you read in the Daily Mail? And b) there's got to be a happy medium between doing a runner and using your offspring as a personal comfort blanket. Your sprog might not grow up to be as sorted as Jesus, but I bet he won't turn out to be as kinky as a Catholic priest, either. Happy Christmas!

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002

Trying to Stop Vampire Hysteria


BLANTYRE (Reuters) - A bizarre rumor that Malawi's government is colluding with vampires to collect human blood for international aid agencies in exchange for food has led to a rash of vigilante violence.

President Bakili Muluzi accused unnamed opposition politicians on Sunday of spreading the vampire stories to try to undermine his government, already hit by political protests and widespread food shortages.

Vampire paranoia has sparked several attacks on suspected bloodsuckers, despite official efforts to kill the rumor.

Last week a man accused of helping vampires was stoned to death and three Roman Catholic priests were beaten up by villagers who suspected them of being bloodsuckers.

Both attacks happened in the southern tea-growing district of Thyolo.

Muluzi told a news conference on Sunday the vampire stories were malicious and irresponsible. "No government can go about sucking blood of its own people," he said. "That's thuggery."

The rumors have increased political tensions in the country, one of the 10 poorest in the world, where protests have already broken out over Muluzi's efforts to stay in office for another five years.

Muluzi said the rumors were also affecting economic activity in four southern districts as agricultural workers stayed indoors.

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Today's Headlines - December 24, 2002

from The Associated Press

WASHINGTON - A laboratory test for the effectiveness of smallpox vaccines has been developed by a team of European researchers and it may be used as Americans start receiving shots against the disease.

In a study appearing this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, scientists in Germany and France report they have discovered a test that can determine if a candidate smallpox vaccine can prompt protection against the disease in humans.

The test also could be used to determine if a person actually develops defenses against smallpox after being vaccinated. The large majority will develop immunity, but not everyone.

Dr. Bernard Moss at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, one of the National Institutes of Health, said the research is important because no scientist has ever identified in the human immune system the types of responses needed to protect against smallpox.


from The Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) -- The dust that gathered in lower Manhattan after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks was not likely toxic enough to cause serious long-term health problems, a new report has concluded.

The study, reported Tuesday in The New York Times, found that most dust particles collected in the week after the attacks were large enough to be expelled from the lungs.

Of the millions of tons of dust collected by a team of environmental scientists, only 1 percent was composed of finer particles that could more easily remain in the lungs after being inhaled.

"That means, in terms of potential lifetime exposures, we're probably going to be very lucky in that these may not be exposures of significant health risk," said Paul Lioy, one of the authors of the report. Lioy is associate director of the Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences Institute, jointly run by Rutgers University and the University of Medicine & Dentistry of New Jersey.


from Newsday

In a highly unusual approach to malignant melanoma, scientists are enlisting two improbable scourges - Listeria and E. coli - into a potent anti-cancer vaccine.

Frighteningly infectious, these bacteria have been studied intensely over the past half century for a variety of reasons, but mostly because they can prove hearty foes when they contaminate foods. Both forms of bacteria have captured headlines for causing illnesses and death.

Knowing that both are especially capable of infecting cells, scientists at Harvard Medical School and London's Hammersmith Hospital have joined in an investigation to determine whether that ability can be circumvented to perform a noble task: treating a sometimes intractable form of cancer.


from UPI

An organism's metabolism appears tied to its ancestral climate, a finding that suggests mismatches in lifestyle between present and past could underlie such modern epidemics as obesity, diabetes and heart disease, researchers reported Monday.

In short, sometimes "there's no place like home," geneticist Douglas Wallace of the University of California in Irvine told United Press International. "This implied that different diets may be optimal for different people."

Scientists in the United States, Britain, Russia and South Africa examined genes in mitochondria, the powerhouses of cells. The mitochondria provide both the energy for work and heat to sustain body temperature.

Mitochondria also possess their own DNA, which can vary dramatically according to geography, yet display similarities among people from the same neighborhoods.


from The New York Times

Humankind falls into five continental groups - broadly equivalent to the common conception of races - when a computer is asked to sort DNA data from people from around the world into clusters.

The major groups are African (orange), Europeans and Middle Easterners (blue), East Asians (pink), Melanesians (green) and American Indians (purple). Genomes of people from Central Asia, such as the Hazara of Afghanistan and the Uygurs of western China, are a blend of European and East Asian, as might be expected for people living at a historical crossroads. Some Middle Easterners, like the Bedouin and the Mozabites of Algeria, carry an admixture of African genes.

The chart, generated by Dr. Marcus Feldman of Stanford and colleagues and published in the current Science, was made by sampling the DNA of 1,056 people from 52 of the many populations around the world. Each person's genome was sampled at 377 sites where the DNA breaks into a stutter of repeated short sequences. These repeats, though apparently without function, are useful in tracking human variation, and are also the elements used in DNA forensic tests of identity.



In a world overwhelmed by religious conflict, where no faith seems secure from the wrath of competing creeds, humanity's religious impulse can look like a decidedly mixed blessing, a source of violent intolerance as much as a prescription for upstanding and altruistic behavior.

How can a force that transforms convicted murderers into placid samaritans, and that has given the world Handel's "Messiah," the mosaics of Ravenna and Borobudur Temple also have spawned the Salem witch hunts, Osama bin Laden and columnists who snarl that America should invade Muslim countries, "kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity"? What sort of Jekyll-and-Hydra-headed beast is this thing called religious faith?

In the view of Dr. David Sloan Wilson of Binghamton University in upstate New York, a very natural and very powerful beast indeed, and one that helps explain humanity's rise to global dominance.

Dr. Wilson, a renowned evolutionary biologist, proposes that religion - with all its institutional, emotional and prescriptive trappings - ranks as a kind of mega-adaptation: a trait that evolved because it conferred advantages on those who bore it.


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Skeptic Newssearch - 12/24/02


Advisors Put Under a Microscope
By Aaron Zitner
Los Angeles Times


"When psychologist William R. Miller was asked to join a panel that advises the National Institute on Drug Abuse, he thought he had been selected for his expertise in addiction. Then a Bush administration staff member called with some unexpected questions."

Hailing the Solstice and Telling Time, Mayan Style
New York Times


"Time ends here 10 years from now."

Aid agencies' work in Malawi hit by panic over 'vampires'
By Anne Penketh
The Independent [UK]


"Rumours that Western aid agencies are collecting human blood in return for food aid in famine-stricken Malawi have spread panic among villagers, who are barricading their homes, fearing attacks by vampires. The anxiety is so great in parts of the south that farm workers in one of Africa's poorest countries are staying at home."

Trying to Stop Vampire Hysteria


"A bizarre rumor that Malawi's government is colluding with vampires to collect human blood for international aid agencies in exchange for food has led to a rash of vigilante violence."

'Vampires' strike Malawi villages
By Raphael Tenthani
BBC News


"Rumours of people being attacked for their blood have swept southern areas of Malawi."

Christmas ghost's legend fills cemetery
By David Dishneau


"Lawrence Dielman's ghostly tunes haven't been heard for years, but the Christmastime legend of his repentant spirit still haunts the mountaintop cemetery where he lies."

Sure, there's an explanation for everything, but don't tell me
By Jeff Daniel
Saint Louis Post-Dispatch


"In college, one of my closest pals earned his doctorate in philosophy while I somehow managed to avoid taking a single course in that subject. An amazing feat, especially when one considers that my university stint had a longer run than the musical "Cats.""

New Age Supersage


"To chart the transformation of Deepak Chopra from just another proponent of holistic health and nutrition into the international supersage he is today, one needn't look further than the covers of two of his books. On the back of 1997's The Path to Love, Chopra stares out at us wearing a black coat and white collarless shirt that give him a vaguely clerical look. His expression is earnest, but a little geeky. On the back of this fall's The Daughters of Joy: An Adventure of the Heart - Chopra's third novel and his second book published this year - all that has changed. A glint of gray shows at his temples, and the tentative half smile of the earlier picture is replaced by a confident, twinkly-eyed grin. Dressed in a black pullover more Melrose than Madras and posed with the easy confidence of someone used to working with photographers and stylists, Chopra has the look of a guru who has arrived."

Cracking the ruins code


"At first glance, it looks like a bunch of moss-ridden rocks on a high plateau overlooking South Park."

The Boy Who Saw the Virgin
New York Times


"Every evening at 7, Joseph Vitolo walks out the backdoor of his boyhood home in the Bronx and ascends a long stairway to a shrine that overlooks the northern tip of the Grand Concourse. He then leads the few people who have gathered in the recitation of the rosary. On some nights, no one shows up and he performs the service alone. Other nights, Mr. Vitolo is himself absent, having fallen asleep in front of the television set or lost track of the time."

Pyramid crashes as scam firm is wound up
Manchester Evening News


"A PYRAMID "get-rich-quick" scam which led hundreds of people to invest sums of up to £1,000 has been wound up by the High Court."

Most vaccines free of 'toxic' preservative
By Kent Gray
Crescent City Daily Triplicate


"A trace amount of a controversial preservative found in a Del Norte County vaccine is minute and not cause for alarm, according to local health officials."

Astronomer takes dim view of star-naming business
The Tennessean


"As holiday shoppers search frantically for that perfect gift, many are turning to the heavens for a solution."

Creation of a state monster
by Jean Godden
Seattle Times


"Earlier this month, the family of the late Ray L. Wallace revealed that Bigfoot - the Northwest's own abominable snowman, its native Sasquatch - was a hoax. Michael Wallace said his dad, who died Nov. 26 in Centralia, planted giant footprints, supposed evidence of Bigfoot's existence."

Man in Ore. Cult Case Appears in Court
Associated Press


"A cult leader of the defunct Rajneesh Ranch in central Oregon pleaded guilty to a charge of conspiracy to murder a U.S. Attorney and was sentenced to a year in jail and a $10,000 fine."

Psychics offer hope for those who believe
The Capital [Annapolis]


"Clad in matching purple tops and black slacks, psychic twins Allyson Walsh and Adele Nichols stood at the front of the room and began relaying messages from audience members' dead relatives."

Libraries Enlisting Police
Hartford Courant


"When Thomas Hoey checked out more than $400 worth of library items last summer and didn't bring them back, even after the library repeatedly wrote letters and called, Henry Dutcher took it personally."

Star of Bethlehem

provided as a service by the Griffith Observatory.

Dr. Ernest Martin is author of The Star That Astonished the World, the best reference for information on the star and especially the history of the events surrounding it. A must have! Order from: Associates for Scriptural Knowledge, PO Box 25000, Portland, OR 97225-5000. The web site also contains a short web animation from a MSNBC "Mysteries of the Universe" series.

Susan Carrol's excellent summary of the history and astronomy, titled THE STAR OF BETHLEHEM: AN ASTRONOMICAL AND HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE, is at http://sciastro.net/portia/articles/thestar.htm

An excellent article (as a pdf file) by an astronomer who focuses on the astronomy of the Star is The Star of Bethlehem at http://www.hillsdale.edu/imprimis/1996/Dec96Imprimis.pdf by Craig Chester, President of the Monterey Institute for Research in Astronomy.

A short article by Kenneth Collins summarizes the account of the star. He has a short account of the origin and traditions of Christmas at Christmas Facts.

The massive History of Astronomy web site, maintained by the Working Group for the History of Astronomy at the University of Bonn, Germany, has a page on the History of Astronomy: Items: Astrology, Mythology, Religion, etc., with lots of links, some of which are relevant to the magi and the astrology they followed.

Articles on the Star published in the Planetarian, the quarterly journal of the International Planetarium Society, are Common Errors in 'Star of Bethlehem' Planetarium Shows, by John Mosley, 1981, Yet Another Eclipse for Herod by John Pratt in 1990, and Bimillenary of Christ's Birth: The Astronomical Evidence, by Dr. William Bidelman, September 1991.

A short souvenir booklet written by astronomer John Mosley to accompany "The Christmas Star" planetarium shows is marketed by the Griffith Observatory.

Lengthy background information can be found at Raymond Soller's Jesus and the Acceptable Year of the Lord and at Richard Carrier's essay, The Date of the Nativity in Luke,

Articles of Note

Alien-ated Youth
Houston Press


"At first glance, they look like perfectly ordinary first-graders=20 scribbling feverishly on the blackboard, but there is something striking about the boy's deep blue eyes that suggests a maturity well beyond his years. Jake's in advanced classes and already reading at a third-grade level. Jan is the quiet one, but has a presence that immediately draws attention. Her predilection is toward art, though at the moment she is choosing to write math equations on the board, erasing them as soon as she's completed each of her computations."

Sect says first cloned baby due soon


"A Canadian cult that believes in free love and that life on earth was created by extra terrestrials said it could deliver the world's first cloned baby on Christmas day. But the announcement by the Quebec-based Raelians sect was greeted Thursday with anger and skepticism from experts in the field."

FDA Warns Dietary Supplement Industry
Associated Press


"The Food and Drug Administration warned the $17 billion dietary supplement industry Wednesday that it is now cracking down on companies that make fraudulent health claims about their pills, powders and poultices."

The mummy's curse: historical cohort study
by Mark R Nelson
British Medical Journal


"Can you see anything?" It was all I could do to get out the words, "Yes, wonderful things."

Psychic says Girly buried in mine shaft
By Joline Gutierrez Krueger
Albuquerque Tribune


"In the death of Girly Chew Hossencofft, one question remains after two murder convictions and three years of investigation:"

Anatomy of a hoax
By Stephen St. Amand
Molalla Pioneer


"The recent death of a man some credit with creating the worldwide Bigfoot phenomenon is spurring further debate about whether sasquatch is real or just an elaborate hoax."

Many claim divine image on street sign
by Claudia Leos
Alpine Observer


"A 'No Parking' sign posted to keep the street in front of a South Alpine home clear of unwelcome vehicles has done just the opposite, with many local residents claiming to see the face of Jesus Christ in dark patterning on the sign."

The Bunk Stops Here
by David Emery
San Francisco Gate


"As a historian of science, Alex Boese is well schooled in the art of deception -- which is not as self-contradictory as it may seem, given that his academic specialty is the relationship between science and popular culture, a pairing that has begotten its fair share of humbuggery in modern times."

S.F. may soon see psychics regulated
by Steve Rubenstein
San Francisco Chronicle


"The future looked cloudy for dozens of fortune-tellers and psychics in San Francisco on Thursday after legislation was proposed to require them to obtain permits, post their rates and stop tricking their clients."

Harvard Advertises for People Abducted by Aliens
New York Times


"When Susan Clancy, a psychologist at Harvard University, wanted to study people with memories of events that had never happened, she cast her net wide. So wide it reached galaxies far, far away.

Case of the Bigfoot sighting solved
By Brian Hartz
Bloomington Herald-Times


"It was a story tailor-made for an episode of "Unsolved Mysteries," perhaps even "The X-Files.""

We'll be seeing more of Bigfoot
Kansas City Star


"I suppose it's natural for most people to believe that Bigfoot is just an elaborate hoax by a human in an ape-man suit."

Hoaxers vs. Rocket Scientists: Even NASA unsure how to counter claims of faked moon landings
Associated Press


"Is that the moon or a studio in the Nevada desert? How can the flag flutter when there's no wind on the moon? Why can't we see stars in the moon-landing pictures?"

Full Moon Effect on Behavior Minimal, Studies Say
by John Roach
National Geographic News


"Beware: The moon is full tonight. People will party. Dogs will bite. Robbers will steal. Murderers will kill."

Advisors Put Under a Microscope
By Aaron Zitner
Los Angeles Times


"When psychologist William R. Miller was asked to join a panel that advises the National Institute on Drug Abuse, he thought he had been selected for his expertise in addiction. Then a Bush administration staff member called with some unexpected questions."

'Vampires' strike Malawi villages
By Raphael Tenthani
BBC News


"Rumours of people being attacked for their blood have swept southern areas of Malawi."

What, exactly, did the Magi see?
By Katy Human
Boulder Daily Camera


""Oh yes, the Christmas Star question. I love that one," said John Mosley, program supervisor at the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles."

Astronomer takes dim view of star-naming business
The Tennessean


"As holiday shoppers search frantically for that perfect gift, many are turning to the heavens for a solution."

Penn and Teller go after Aliens and Creationists on TV...

PRNewswire reported on Dec. 16th that "On January 24 at 11:00 PM

ET/PT SHOWTIME will present the controversial new series PENN & TELLER: BULLSHIT! Master showmen Penn & Teller promise an aggressive, irreverent expose of taboo topics using the duo's trademark humor, knowledge of carnival tricks and con-artistry, as well as hidden cameras and blatant confrontation. ... Using undercover operatives, scrupulous research and a healthy dose of skepticism, the Vegas headliners and world-famous magicians blow the lid off popular notions about alien abductions, Ouija boards and end of the world predictions. They expose the bogus science behind such widely accepted canards as creationism, the purity of bottled water,global warming, miracle-workers and religious cults...."

Check out the Preview at:


Fresh debate over human origins


Tuesday, 24 December, 2002, 09:11 GMT

The theory that we are all descended from early humans who left Africa about 100,000 years ago has again been called into question.

US researchers sifting through data from the human genome project say they have uncovered evidence in support of a rival theory.

Most scientists agree with the idea that our ancestors first spread out of Africa about 1.8 million years ago, conquering other lands.

Early human pioneers moving out of Africa starting 80,000 years ago did not completely replace local populations in the rest of the world. The prevailing theory is that a second exodus from Africa replaced all of the local populations, such as Europe's Neanderthals.

Some anthropologists, however, advocate the so-called multiregional theory, that not all the local populations were replaced.

They think some of these ancient people interbred with African hominids, contributing to the gene pool of modern humans.

The new evidence, published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is based on an analysis of data from the human genome project - the effort to map the entire human genetic blueprint.

Blood and bones

Researchers led by Henry Harpending, professor of anthropology at Utah University, studied small differences in human DNA known as single nucleotide polymorphisms.

Studying when these mutations appeared gives a window into the ancient past, allowing scientists to trace the rise and fall of early humans in different parts of the world.

"The new data seem to suggest that early human pioneers moving out of Africa starting 80,000 years ago did not completely replace local populations in the rest of the world," he says. "There is instead some sign of interbreeding."

The study suggests that there was a bottleneck in the human population when ancestors of modern humans colonised Europe about 40,000 years ago.

This is a puzzle because earlier human genetic studies have backed the idea that a rapidly expanding African population spread globally and replaced all local populations.

One possibility is that there was limited interbreeding between humans migrating from Africa and local populations in Europe and elsewhere.

'Open question'

Commenting on the research, Professor Chris Stringer, Head of Human Origins at London's Natural History Museum, said that in the last few years the multiregional model of human evolution had been called into question by new data, much of it genetic, showing our species had a recent African origin.

He told BBC News Online: "Arguments now centre on whether we are recently and entirely Out of Africa, or just mainly so.

"Some replacement models, and some genetic data, suggest no interbreeding at all with archaic peoples outside of Africa, while other replacement models allow limited interbreeding with the locals over the short time scale in which they overlapped.

"This new research suggests there could have been some interbreeding, but as the authors recognise, it could have been limited, and whether it happened at all is still an open question."

Tuesday, December 24, 2002

A Saudi Christmas Is a Hidden, Whispered Affair

Dec 22, 2002

By Susan Sevareid
Associated Press Writer

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) - Past the stuffed animals and congratulatory baby baskets, sprigs of plastic evergreens are tucked in among the silk flowers. The rows of ribbon include a few spools of reds, golds and greens, and two half-empty boxes of blown-glass Christmas tree ornaments sit partly obscured on a nearby shelf.

As evinced by the atmosphere in this Riyadh gift shop, Christmas is mostly hidden in this desert kingdom, where Islam is the only accepted religion.

Expatriate workers hold discreet holiday parties within walled compounds, out of sight of the government's religious police, who guard against offenses to the faith. For many other foreigners, the anniversary of Christ's birth is a private day of reflection. "I only pray in my room," said a Roman Catholic laborer from Sri Lanka, noting there is little else to do to celebrate Christmas.

Some embassies, he said, organize gatherings for their citizens during the holiday season, but generally not on Christmas Day to avoid offending Saudi sensibilities.

Saudi Arabia, as the birthplace of Islam, is charged with protecting the faith's holiest shrines at Mecca and Medina, and differing beliefs, like new ideas, are carefully guarded against as threats to the culture, traditions and official religion.

Churches are not permitted - "freedom of religion does not exist," a recent State Department report said about Saudi Arabia - though some expatriates gather privately throughout the year for religious services.

It is not that way everywhere in the Middle East. In the neighboring Persian Gulf state of Bahrain, luxury hotels are decorated with brightly lit trees and poinsettias, and signs advertise Christmas meals. At the Holiday Inn, strains of "Silver Bells" and "White Christmas" waft through the lobby.

Christmas trees are sold in the Yemeni capital of San'a and in expatriate neighborhoods of Cairo. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak declared last week that Jan. 7 - when the country's minority Orthodox Coptic Christians celebrate Christmas - was a holiday for all Egyptians.

In Lebanon and Syria, with substantial Christian populations, Christmas is celebrated openly in all its religious and commercial glory - and even some

Muslims go Christmas shopping just to see the holiday fanfare.

But in Riyadh, the mere mention of Christmas leads many expatriates to lower their voices and fidget, fearful of unwanted attention or risking their jobs. Just buying a Christmas card requires a whispered journey into a greeting card underworld.

At the Riyadh gift shop where a few festive decorations were tucked in among other goods, a Filipino employee shakes his head when asked about Christmas cards. But he gives directions to another shop, advising an inquirer to look for the Filipino manager.

"He'll give you one in secret ... secret because it's 'haram' here, you know," he says, using the Arabic word for "forbidden" known to anyone who has run afoul of conservative Islamic social norms.

At another card shop, an Indian employee reaches beneath the counter to pull out a half-dozen religious and secular Christmas cards, his eyes darting around his empty shop and out the window.

There would be trouble if caught: "They ask where you got them," he says. The ever-vigilant religious police have confiscated cards in the past, he said, and have even been known to haul shopkeepers away to be questioned about where they got such materials.

Clearly relieved once he is able to tuck the purchases into a paper bag and staple it shut, he points to a less offensive "Seasons Greetings" card, discreetly visible beside the cash register.

AP-ES-12-22-02 2137EST
This story can be found at:

The Atheist Christmas Challenge

Slate Magazine
Can you prove God doesn't exist?
Jim Holt
Posted Monday, December 23, 2002, at 8:13 AM PT

What does it mean to be an atheist in a God-fearing nation like the United States? Anywhere from 90 percent to 95 percent of Americans profess to believe in a deity. No wonder some self-avowed atheists are proud of their dissident status. A Web site of "atheist celebrities" lists, among others, Woody Allen, Richard Avedon, Marlon Brando, Jodie Foster, Jack Germond, Christopher Hitchens, Jack Nicholson, Teller (but not Penn!), and Gore Vidal. Hitchens and Vidal have trumpeted their atheism in print; ditto for the columnist Katha Pollitt and the science writer Natalie Angier. Since these four are intellectuals, we might expect from them some powerful arguments for the nonexistence of God, arguments that would shake the faith of a reasonable believer. But a look at their public statements makes it doubtful whether they have even earned the honorific "atheist."

Katha Pollitt may have declared herself an atheist on Crossfire, but she neglected to disclose her grounds for taking this position. In fact, she says, she is not even anti-religion. She is merely "anti-clerical": She doesn't like priests and ministers. Well, neither did Voltaire, but he was not an atheist. Natalie Angier, in her "Confessions of a Lonely Atheist," complained that "nothing seems as despised, illicit and un-American as atheism." But she adduced no reasoning that might bring other Americans into her camp and hence render her less lonely. Gore Vidal has had great fun railing against the Judeo-Christian-Islamic "sky-god," in whose name all sorts of evils have been committed. Then he cites the countervailing wisdom of the deist Thomas Jefferson.

Of all the public-intellectual atheists, the most stalwart and lucid is probably Christopher Hitchens. "I'm an atheist," Hitchens said in a recent interview. "I'm not just neutral about religion, I'm hostile to it. I think it is a positively bad idea, not just a false one." Being anti-religion, however, is not intellectually equivalent to affirming the nonexistence of God. Bertrand Russell, who occupied the same ground as Hitchens, was careful to stress that he was agnostic, not atheist: "An atheist, like a Christian, holds that we can know whether or not there is a God. … The agnostic suspends judgment, saying that there are not sufficient grounds either for affirmation or denial."

Being an atheist is a philosophical stance. It is not enough simply to declare yourself one: That is mere dogmatism—like announcing, without further argument, that you don't believe in free will or objective values. If you wish to be an intellectually interesting atheist, you are obliged to give some evidence for your position. After all, there are plenty of rational and fiercely intelligent thinkers—Garry Wills, to name one—who don't agree with you.

The evidentiary ledger has two sides: reasons for believing God exists, and reasons for believing God doesn't exist. It is sometimes claimed that science has annihilated all the reasons in the pro-God column. That was close to being true in the 19th century. Victorian geologists were able to show that the Earth was vastly older than the Bible supposed. Chemists demystified life by synthesizing organic molecules in the lab. Darwin scuppered the notion that a divine artificer was needed to explain the marvelously adaptive designs found in nature. By the end of the 19th century, a purely material worldview—one that excluded supernatural explanations or spiritual phenomena, let alone a deity—seemed quite plausible.

That is pretty much the worldview staked out by today's public atheists. They haven't come to terms with 20 th-century science, which revived some of the reasons in the pro-God column. The discovery that the universe began with a creationlike Big Bang around 13 billion years ago, for example, breathed new life into the so-called cosmological argument, which posits God as the first cause of nature. The discovery that the fundamental laws of nature contained constants that appear to have been fine-tuned so that the cosmos would eventually yield intelligent life lent new credence to the design argument for God's existence. Quantum theory dematerialized reality, making the cosmos seem more like a thought than like a machine. But whose thought?

Such scientific ideas have been invoked by a new generation of what might be called "cosmic deists," including the physicists Paul Davies and Frank Tipler and the Oxford philosopher Richard Swinburne. In his book Nonzero, sometime Slate columnist Robert Wright observes that "an appraisal of the state of things from a scientific standpoint yields more evidence of divinity than you might expect." The divinity they have in mind is not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, or even of Garry Wills. It is just some intelligent entity that somehow has something to do with the ordering of the universe.

At least one public atheist, the physics Nobel laureate Stephen Weinberg, has done much to undermine the new scientific pro-God evidence. Even if our universe had a beginning in time, Weinberg points out, current theory indicates that it may be part of an eternal network of Big Bangs. And in this many-universe model, it is not surprising that one of the universes should chance to be congenial to intelligent life, or that we should find ourselves in it. No need for the God hypothesis, Weinberg argues.

But is there any evidence against this hypothesis? Can the existence of God be disproved, or at least rendered highly improbable, as the atheist wishes to do? There are only two arguments for the nonexistence of God with any intellectual merit. The first says that the concept of God is incoherent: that, for instance, omnipotence gives rise to paradoxes (can God make a rock so big he can't lift it?), or that moral perfection is incompatible with divine freedom. This is very much a philosopher's argument, and it has been worked over to the point of inconclusiveness.

The second argument, the argument from evil, has much more force. How can there be evil in a world presided over by an all-powerful and all-good being? Either God was willing but unable to prevent Auschwitz, or he was able but unwilling. From Leibniz down to the present this argument has been countered with tremendous subtlety, most recently by the Notre Dame philosopher Peter van Inwagen. In a trio of lectures titled "Is It Possible To Disprove the Existence of God?" that he delivered this fall at Princeton, van Inwagen gave the classic free-will explanation of the existence of evil: To ask God to give me free choice between x and y and to see to it that I chose x instead of y is to ask him to do the logically impossible.

Van Inwagen concluded his lectures by saying that although his own belief in God was not based on reasons he could state, no one had provided a particularly good argument for supposing it was irrational. By symmetry, if you just happen to be of an atheist kidney, like Katha Pollitt and Christopher Hitchens, or indeed Marlon Brando and Jodie Foster, no theist will be able to convict you of irrationality, either.

For everyone else, there would appear to be three theological options. 1) You can believe, as I do, that the universe is presided over by a being that is 100 percent malevolent but only 80 percent effective (which explains pretty much everything). 2) You can agree with logical positivists, who claimed that "God exists" is cognitively meaningless and hence neither true nor false. Or 3) you can become a Unitarian.

Which puts me in mind of a joke. Q: How do you protest the fact that a Unitarian family has moved into your neighborhood? A: You burn a question mark on their lawn.

Article URL: http://slate.msn.com/id/2075653/

Americans' View of Influence of Religion Settling Back to Pre-Sept. 11 Levels
Majority of Americans now say religion losing its influence on American life, similar to pre-9/11 views

December 24, 2002

by David W. Moore


PRINCETON, NJ -- As most Americans celebrate Christmas this year, they have a much more skeptical view about the influence of religion on American life than they did a year ago in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, but a view that remains slightly more positive than it was for much of the decade of the 1990s. According to a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll, conducted Dec. 9-10, 51% believe that religion as a whole is losing its influence on American life, while just 43% say its influence is increasing. A Gallup poll a year ago found a record 71% of Americans saying religion's influence was increasing, while just 24% said it was declining.

Is Religion Increasing Or Losing Its Influence on American Life?

When Gallup first asked the question in March 1957, 69% of Americans saw an increasing influence, but five years later the percentage had declined to 45%, and by the end of the decade it was at 14%. By the mid-1980s, the percentage reached as high as 48%, but then declined as low as 27% in the early 1990s. In January 1998, it reached 48% again, but until the terrorist attacks in the fall of 2001, a majority of Americans continued to say that religion was losing rather than increasing its influence. The 71% who said religion was increasing its influence a year ago were no doubt reflecting the rally effect that occurred in the wake of 9/11. By March of this year, the rally effect was waning; with 53% saying religion's influence was increasing. The current results are fairly close to the last pre-9/11 poll, Feb. 2001, when a majority also said religion was losing its influence (by 55% to 39%).

Who Is Most Likely to Say Religion Is Losing Its Influence?

The poll shows that there are major differences in people's view about the influence of religion among men and women, different age groups, and regions of the country.

Compared with women, men are much more likely to say religion is losing its influence. While women are about evenly divided on the question, a clear majority of men take the more skeptical view.

The youngest group of Americans, under 30, are the most skeptical about the influence of religion, with a clear majority (by 62% to 35%) saying religion is losing influence. By contrast, people in the pre-retirement years, 50-64, are the most likely to think religion is increasing its influence, with a slight majority taking that view (by 51% to 42%).

Americans' views on this issue also vary substantially by region of the country, with residents of the Western U.S. most skeptical (by 57% to 32%, they say religion is losing its influence) and Midwesterners least so (by 50% to 44%, they say religion is increasing its influence).

Little Change in Actual Behavior or Beliefs Since Dec. 2001

Despite the general skepticism about the continuing influence of religion, the current poll shows that Americans' religious behavior and beliefs have hardly changed from what was reported in a Gallup poll a year ago, in December 2001.

Survey Methods

The latest results are based on telephone interviews with 1,009 national adults, aged 18+, conducted December 9-10, 2002. For results based on the total sample of National Adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

Source: Gallup.com
Date Released: 12/24/2002

Location: http://www.gallup.com/poll/releases/pr021224.asp

The Origin of Religions, From a Distinctly Darwinian View

December 24, 2002

In a world overwhelmed by religious conflict, where no faith seems secure from the wrath of competing creeds, humanity's religious impulse can look like a decidedly mixed blessing, a source of violent intolerance as much as a prescription for upstanding and altruistic behavior.

How can a force that transforms convicted murderers into placid samaritans, and that has given the world Handel's "Messiah," the mosaics of Ravenna and Borobudur Temple also have spawned the Salem witch hunts, Osama bin Laden and columnists who snarl that America should invade Muslim countries, "kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity"? What sort of Jekyll-and-Hydra-headed beast is this thing called religious faith?

In the view of Dr. David Sloan Wilson of Binghamton University in upstate New York, a very natural and very powerful beast indeed, and one that helps explain humanity's rise to global dominance.

Dr. Wilson, a renowned evolutionary biologist, proposes that religion - with all its institutional, emotional and prescriptive trappings - ranks as a kind of mega-adaptation: a trait that evolved because it conferred advantages on those who bore it.

But whereas evolutionary biologists traditionally view an adaptation as the outcome of a struggle between unevenly matched individuals - say, between one polar bear with a cleanly cloaking white coat, and another with a slightly less effective form of camouflage - Dr. Wilson sees religion as the product of group selection at work.

In his new book, ":Darwin's Cathedral: Evolution, Religion and the Nature of Society" (University of Chicago Press), Dr. Wilson argues that the religious impulse evolved early in hominid history because it helped make groups of humans comparatively more cohesive, more cooperative and more fraternal, and thus able to present a formidable front against bands of less organized or unified adversaries.


CSTA adds its Voice for Evolution

Dear Friends of NCSE, NCSE is pleased to announce a further addition to New Voices for Evolution: a statement from the California Science Teachers Association, reading in part: "The California Science Teachers Association endorses the teaching of evolution at all levels of our students' education. Furthermore, we do not endorse teaching the "evidence against evolution", as there is no scientific evidence that evolution has not occurred. Nor can we condone teaching "scientific creationism", "intelligent design", or other non-scientific explanations as valid scientific theories. These beliefs ignore empirical data and fail to provide testable hypotheses. They should not be a part of the science curriculum."

For the full statement, go to http://www.ncseweb.org/article.asp?category=2, click on Statements from Educational Organizations, and then click on California Science Teachers Association. And be sure to visit the CSTA web site at http://www.cascience.org.

Best wishes for the holiday season,

Glenn Branch
Deputy Director
National Center for Science Education, Inc.
420 40th Street, Suite 2
Oakland, CA 94609-2509
510-601-7203 x 305
fax: 510-601-7204

Science In the News

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Today's Headlines - December 23, 2002

Holiday Schedule - "Science In the News" will suspend service for the holidays, beginning Wednesday, December 25. The service will resume Thursday, January 2, 2003.

GLOBAL WARMING EVIDENCE MOUNTS from The San Francisco Chronicle

From the tropics to the poles, evidence is growing stronger than ever that Earth's climate is warming dangerously.

In the Arctic Ocean, floating masses of sea ice are shrinking and splitting apart, and the massive Greenland ice cap melted more this past summer than ever before. Meanwhile, warming ocean temperatures are endangering coral reefs in the tropics.

At the annual fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco earlier this month, a flurry of new reports examining evidence of global climate change all tell the same story.

If the trends continue unchecked, scientists say, rising sea levels will drown coastlines. Droughts in some regions -- and increased rainfall in others -- will alter harvests drastically. And other climate disruptions will destabilize regional ecologies and global economies.

from The New York Times

An expert panel has recommended that the United States seek to rejoin a $5 billion international nuclear fusion project it abandoned four years ago as overly ambitious and expensive.

The panel, convened by the National Research Council, said on Friday that changes in the design of the proposed reactor and recent advances in fusion science now made the endeavor worthwhile. The project seeks to use nuclear fusion, the process that powers the sun, to generate electricity.

"We have confidence it will work," said Dr. Raymond J. Fonck, a professor of engineering physics at the University of Wisconsin and a co-chairman of the panel.

The panel, which consists of 18 scientists, mostly physicists, is to present a final report reviewing the direction and scope of the United States' fusion research program by next summer.

from The New York Times

LUKAVAC, Bosnia and Herzegovina - In the early winter of 2001, Hasa Selimovic finally learned for sure what happened to her youngest son in 1995, when Bosnian Serb forces rounded up the Muslims of Srebrenica and massacred up to 8,000 of them.

It was hardly comforting to be shown his remains in a morgue after a pioneering DNA test confirmed his identity. But at least she had an answer and the chance to bury a body, which is more than the families of most Srebrenica victims can draw on as they try to rebuild their lives.

Twelve months later, the science that identified Junuz Selimovic has helped forensic experts to match 1,500 more bodies to the list of 30,000 people still missing after Bosnia's brutal war, which claimed more than 200,000 lives between 1992 and 1995.

But two-thirds of the bodies that remain unaccounted for have yet to be found, and Ms. Selimovic's search for answers is still far from over.

from The Washington Post

The mathematics are inescapable. The higher the altitude, the less oxygen the air will hold, and the more difficult it is to breathe. Either the body adapts, or the person dies.

For decades scientists accepted an "Andean man" model for acclimatization: The body at altitude will grow a higher concentration of oxygen-absorbing red blood cells to mop up scarcer oxygen from rarified air.

Add bigger lungs and deeper breathing, and equilibrium is reestablished. The result is a blocky fellow with a washtub chest, like the musicians who play the panpipes and wooden flutes of Andean mountain music.

Earlier this month, however, Beall and five colleagues reported on another distinctive people -- a community of Ethiopians who live at 11,650 feet, and whose blood, by several common measures, is exactly the same as if they lived at sea level.

from The Associated Press

WASHINGTON - Low levels of sarin nerve gas affected behavior and organ functions in laboratory animals at least a month after exposure, suggests new research that may provide clues to the mysterious illnesses of Persian Gulf War veterans.

In separate Army-sponsored studies, scientists observed behavioral problems, brain changes and immune system suppression in the animals many days after exposure to doses that caused no immediate effects, such as convulsions or pupil constriction.

Both studies involved rodents, and "that's a big leap to human beings," said Melinda Roberson, a behavioral neuroscientist involved in a study still under way.

Even so, the studies provide new information in an area where a lack of research has made it impossible to conclude whether Gulf veterans' illnesses are linked to low-level sarin gas exposure.

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Monday, December 23, 2002

NASA to ignore moon-landing debunkers


Dec. 21, 2002. 08:35 PM

Nobody went to the moon, conspiracy theorists argue

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) - Is that the moon or a studio in the Nevada desert?

How can the flag flutter when there's no wind on the moon?

Why can't we see stars in the moon-landing pictures?

For three decades, NASA has taken the high road, ignoring those who said the Apollo moon landings were faked and part of a colossal U.S. government conspiracy.

Schoolbooks are flubbing facts


New York Daily News - http://www.nydailynews.com
Saturday, December 21st, 2002

Ever wonder what your children might be learning when they hit the books in the New York City public schools?

A kinder, gentler definition of jihad. It really means "to do one's best to resist temptation and overcome evil."

An error-filled version of global geography. The equator actually passes through Florida, Texas and Arizona.

A saga of a swashbuckling hero of today who can be compared to ancient historical heroes dating to the Trojan War: Indiana Jones.

The world of 21st century textbook education is a learning laboratory in which agendas, ideologies and errors all too often trump balance, accuracy and fairness.

"It's a reign of distortion and censorship," said Diane Ravitch, an education historian at New York University and former assistant education secretary in the first Bush administration. "It's an environment in which words and images are routinely banned." And that's just the textbooks.

On the shelves of school libraries is a biography for young readers of the Rev. Al Sharpton, who is said to hail from the "long tradition of activist ministers like Martin Luther King Jr."

But the book might offend some with its own stereotypes, like this line in a chapter on Crown Heights: "Poor blacks in the cities often found themselves at the mercy of Jewish shopkeepers and landlords, who decided when and when not to advance credit to their customers."

There is also a whitewash of Louis Farrakhan, described as a "black American of achievement" who bears a "message no American can ignore." The Nation of Islam leader also shows a "willingness to forgive," the book claims.

Neither the city nor the state has a centralized textbook-approval system. Procurement is done district-by-district — even school-by-school — with the city ordering from a list of 120,000 books that are approved but not mandated.

The Daily News examined scores of textbooks that appear in the city Education Department's voluminous online catalogue — books given the green light by the now-defunct Board of Education for use in teaching the city's 1.1 million students. The titles analyzed include those used in class today, 2003 editions due to arrive in schools early next year and other approved texts available for purchase by the system's 40 superintendents, 1,100 principals, 4,700 department heads and an unspecified number of teachers vested with buying authority.

Asked about The News' findings, City Hall said it would examine how textbooks are reviewed, ordered, tracked and replaced as part of "Children First," the sweeping blueprint for reform that Schools Chancellor Joel Klein is set to unveil next month. But officials vigorously defended the quality and diversity of the city's overall inventory.

"The norm is that you will find accurate information in the New York City textbooks," said Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott. "With 120,000 approved titles in the system, there will always be those that can be updated, upgraded or modified for accuracy." Consider, for example, the science texts.

"They are, in a word, atrocious," said John Hubisz, a North Carolina State University physics professor who found more than 100 mistakes in each of at least seven middle school science textbooks approved for use in city schools. "What I saw was horrifying."

Sept. 11 excuses

Some parents might be horrified, too, when they discover how Sept. 11 is soon to be taught to their children.

At least three schools have bought copies of "The American Vision," a 2003 high school history textbook, published by Glencoe McGraw-Hill, that was one of the first to write about the terror attacks. In a seven-page lesson on the massacre of 3,000 innocents, students are asked:

"What are the three main reasons certain Muslims became angry with the United States?"

"Why does American foreign policy anger Islamic fundamentalists in the Middle East?"

"The events of 9/11 were unjustified and inexcusable, but they didn't take place in a historical vacuum," said April Hattori, a McGraw-Hill spokeswoman. "It's important to explain what caused Muslim extremists to want to attack America."

The News' review also found dozens of textbooks that are riddled with the most blatant errors.

Prentice Hall's "Exploring Physical Science," a middle school science book used in Queens, confuses Newton (1643-1727) with Galileo (1564-1642). It also pictures the Statue of Liberty bearing the torch in her left hand and calls her skin bronze; actually, it's copper with a green patina, and she holds the lamp in her right hand. Corrections were made in a 1999 version, said spokeswoman Wendy Spiegel. But errors remain in thousands of 1997 editions still in circulation.

McGraw-Hill's "Human Heritage: A World History," a high school social studies text used in Brooklyn, incorrectly identifies Gerry Adams as "a Protestant leader." Actually, he's the Catholic firebrand who heads Sinn Fein, the Irish Republican Army's political wing.

Hopelessly outdated

Houghton Mifflin's "America: The Glorious Republic," a high school history text, copyright 1990, teaches students in Manhattan and Staten Island about the most recent terrorist massacre — the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983. It ends with the inauguration of President Bush — the first President Bush, that is.

"Here we are about to go to war for a second time with Iraq — and I can't even read about the first time we went to war with Iraq," said Martin Quiles, a 17-year-old senior at Martin Luther King High School on the upper West Side.

"You have to laugh," he said. "I was born in 1985, and most of the textbooks I get are older than I am."

Deliberately altered or censored to create false or misleading representations.

The cover of "Economics," a high school textbook due to enter city schools next year, sports a doctored photo of the New York Stock Exchange's landmark exterior.

With a pair of loincloths strategically inserted into the picture, publisher Holt, Rinehart and Winston draped the private parts of the two heroic male figures — Agriculture and Science, by name.

"The nudity was inappropriate for kids at this level," said Holt spokesman Rick Blake.

Stripped of relevant passages to avoid giving the slightest offense to anyone. Gail Stein, a French teacher at Long Island City High School in Queens, is the author of several popular French textbooks that deal with Gallic staples — perfume, Champagne, chocolate mousse.

Then her publisher started getting complaints: Perfume was deemed sexist; not all women use it. A line about "bubbles in a glass of Champagne" might foster underage drinking. So out went the bubbly and all other offending references.

When "French is Fun" was released, one woman complained that using cognac in mousse would encourage drunkenness. So Stein's editors at Amsco School Publications asked her to change the next edition. Out went the cognac, out went the authenticity.

"Who would ever get drunk on chocolate mousse?" asked Stein, who has taught at city schools for 32 years.

Said Walcott, "We have to make sure that our textbooks are age-relevant and age-appropriate — but we shouldn't become so politically correct that we water down history or lose sight of accuracy, either."

Tampered photos & falsified captions

The famous 1896 picture of husband-and-wife scientists Marie and Pierre Curie experimenting with radioactivity in their Paris lab was reproduced in Holt's "SciencePlus: Technology and Society." But it was radically cropped to purge Pierre, who shared a 1903 Nobel Prize with his wife.

Holt's Blake said Marie "was a famous scientist in her own right" and that "some of her most important work took place after her husband died."

"When Pierre Curie vanished from the pictures, truth and history vanished, too," said William Bennetta, who heads The Textbook League, a California-based watchdog group that researches textbook inaccuracies.

History also was fictionalized in McDougal Littell's "America's Past and Promise," taught to middle school students in Brooklyn. It prints a 1915 photo of men linking hands around the world's most massive tree, the General Sherman sequoia in California, with a caption that reads, "Conservationists link hands around a tree to stop loggers from cutting it down."

The sequoia was never threatened by loggers. The men were simply demonstrating its enormous girth.

The bogus caption was "a misunderstanding," explained spokesman Collin Earnst. "Once the error was brought to our attention, a correction was made."

But the inaccurate 1997 version is still used to teach New York students.

Brazenly ignoring who they profess to teach

Key Curriculum Press' "Interactive Mathematics Program," a high school math text used in at least five Bronx schools, teaches literature. And history. It contains essays on the "nonfamily" and the "minimal family."

The 515-page textbook contains only 25 pages of equations, estimated Alan Siegel, a computer science professor at NYU who is researching "fuzzy math" programs for the Brookings Institution.

"It doesn't prepare students for college programs requiring math," he said. "They never learn simple computations."

The book's authors say their goal is "to reform the way high school mathematics is taught," presenting it in a manner that reflects how it's used in the real world. Yet one 20-day teaching exercise is built around the Edgar Allan Poe short story "The Pit and the Pendulum," about a prisoner in a torture chamber who escapes a lethal blade attached to a swinging pendulum.

Students must conduct classroom experiments designed to answer the question, "Does the story's hero really have time to carry out his escape plan?"

Watered-down definitions of jihad

The word means "holy war." It refers to armed warfare against infidels to extend Islam's realm, and most Americans know it as what Osama Bin Laden declared on the U.S. before killing its citizens en masse.

Houghton Mifflin's "Across the Centuries," a 2003 social studies textbook used in Queens and Staten Island, sees it differently.

"An Islamic term that is often misunderstood is jihad," it says on page 64. "The term means 'to struggle,' to do one's best to resist temptation and overcome evil." The struggle "may require action," and the Koran allows "self-defense and participation in military conflict, but restricts it to the right to defend against aggression and persecution."

Said Bennetta, "They make jihadists sound like innocents doing their best to resist a second serving of ice cream."

A Houghton spokesman said the book was reviewed for the publisher by a "multicultural, multiethnic, multifaith panel" that found no problems with it. "Despite how terrorists abuse it, that is the classic definition of jihad," he added.

Infested with brand names

McGraw-Hill's "Mathematics: Applications and Connections," a middle school math book used in Brooklyn, touts Nike, McDonald's and Gatorade. It informs students that the Oreo is the "best-selling packaged cookie in the world" — and has them calculate the surface area of a box of Kellogg's Frosted Flakes.

They were removed from the text in 2000 after California passed a law banning product promotions in books. But the 1999 and 1995 editions still in schools contain dozens of brands and logos — and they were used to teach the son of state Sen. Velmanette Montgomery (D-Brooklyn) at Park Place Middle School in Crown Heights.

Montgomery was so outraged, she introduced a bill in Albany that would bar school boards from buying books that contain commercial brands, product names or logos.

"Textbooks should be vessels of truth," she said. "Teaching our children to look to commercial products for validation undermines our educational system."

In the meantime, math problems in some classes continue to be formulated like this: "Will is saving his allowance to buy a pair of Nike shoes that cost $68.25. If Will earns $3.25 per week, how many weeks will he need to save?"

Often, the shoddy textbooks penetrate New York City schools by way of Texas.

California, Florida, North Carolina and Texas pick textbooks statewide, giving them enormous clout to shape the books that enter their schools.

In Texas, for example, conservatives can influence selection and sometimes force publishers to alter passages. Books that are shaped and debated in Texas then wind up in New York.

Take the 2003 editions of two social studies textbooks, Glencoe's "Our World Today: People, Places and Issues" and Harcourt's "World Regions." Glencoe wrote of ancient geological events that took place "millions of years ago," like the Ice Age, while Harcourt referred to fossil fuels "formed millions of years ago."

Lone Star State creationists complained that the references conflicted with biblical time lines. So the publishers dropped the phrase "millions of years ago" and substituted language like "in the distant past" and "over time."

The two books, altered in Austin, Tex., have been approved, but not yet bought, for New York City schools.

"To please rednecks in Texas, they're censoring science in New York — and all over America," said Bennetta.

Faith Groups Begin to Embrace Sustainability


By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, December 20, 2002 (ENS) - Religious groups and environmentalists have not always been the closest of allies, but a new report from the Worldwatch Institute finds that this is starting to change. The benefits of cooperation between the two, according to the report's author, could have profound positive impacts for the global environment.

"If the environmental and religious communities were to embrace their central concerns, the progress toward a sustainable society could be vastly improved," said Gary Gardner, director of research at the Worldwatch Institute and author of "Invoking the Spirit: Religion and Spirituality in the Quest for a Sustainable World."

Gardner shared the findings of his report at a luncheon held Thursday at the Worldwatch Insitute in Washington. "This collaboration could change the world," he said.

It is only within the past decade that environmental and religious groups have started to work together, Gardner explained. The exact cause of this increased cooperation is hard to pin down he said, but the growing visibility of issues such as climate change, species extinction and rampant consumerism are all factors in the shift.

There is ample logic for environmentalists and religious groups to join forces on some issues, Gardner said, as both view the world in moral terms with nature as having value above simple economics.

Moreover, the two groups have complementary strengths. Environmentalists bring strong scientific and policy backgrounds to the table, and religious groups offer strong moral authority, the capacity to shape worldviews, and large followings as well as financial leverage and social capital.

"We need to acknowledge there is tremendous common good between the two groups," Gardner said.

Environmental initiatives from religious groups are indeed happening and proving successful, he added, and they are occurring throughout the world and across denominations.

For example, during the past six years the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the symbolic leader of the 250 million member Orthodox Church has pulled together scientists, journalists and religious leaders for four week long symposia focusing on water related environmental issues.

In 2002, the Patriarch led a symposium on the environmental threats to the Adriatic Sea that ended with a declaration on environmental protection jointly signed by the Patriarch and Pope John Paul II. Earlier symposia focused on the Black Sea and the Danube River.

Gardner also noted the work of Buddhist monks to stop deforestation in Thailand as well as lobbying work by the World Council of Churches to mitigate climate change. These conservation efforts clearly benefit from the moral authority of the religious leaders involved, he said.

The combined forces of sustainable development advocates and religious groups also have the potential to help shift consumption patterns.

"Cultures are increasingly good at creating consumers but less good at creating citizens," Gardner said, adding that religious groups have a powerful opportunity to levy their large followings with religious teachings that warn of excessive materialism.

These concerns prompted some 3,500 Lutheran, Presbyterian, Unitarian and Quaker congregations to establish the Interfaith Coffee Program, which encourages individuals and institutions to switch to coffee that is traded fairly. The congregations have partnered with Equal Exchange, a worker owned cooperative that sells fairly traded coffee from small-scale farmer co-ops in Latin America, Asia and Africa.

The Episcopal Power and Light initiative has inspired churches in the San Francisco Bay Area to purchase renewable energy for their buildings. In March, Episcopal Power and Light was named the winner of the Energy Globe Award 2002, and staff traveled to Austria for a ceremony where the award was presented by head of Green Cross International, former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.

There is ample opportunity for religious groups to use their significant financial clout to push corporations to change their behavior. A recent campaign led by a broad coalition of religious groups links fuel efficiency to morality and has gathered a wealth of coverage through its "What Would Jesus Drive?" advertisements.

In addition, a group of religious orders recently filed shareholder resolutions with Ford and General Motors to try and get those companies to build more fuel efficient and alternative energy vehicles.

Many of the efforts cited by Gardner do not appear to be direct partnerships between environmentalists and religious groups. Rather, they are religious groups taking on an environmental cause for their own motivations and in their own manner.

This demonstrates that the sides are still a bit wary of each other, Gardner explained, as the ethical and spiritual motives of both sides do not always mesh. Population control initiatives would be a primary example of this, he added, as would differing views on the role of women, the nature of truth and the moral place of humans in the natural order.

"There can be much more collaboration," said Walt Grazer, director of the U.S. Catholic Bishops' Environmental Justice Program, "but there is the danger of environmentalists trying to rent a constituency."

Religious institutions are like "big families," he said, often with diverse viewpoints on environmental issues. It is important for environmental groups to see and respect this challenge, he added, if true collaboration between the two is to take roots. The environmental community does not always own the environmental message, Grazer said.

"People are starting to see and internalize the relationship between faith and the environment," said Cassandra Carmichael, a consultant who formerly worked with the environmental grassroots organization the Center For a New American Dream. "It is a great success that this paper has been written and that we are having this discussion."

Carmichael said she'd like to see more environmental groups armed with a staff member dedicated to reaching out to religious organizations, as well as better funding for cooperative initiatives.

A representative from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), who preferred not to be identified, said the department is interested in trying to use President George W. Bush's Faith Based Initiative to fund future projects, although the initiative has not yet been tailored for this.

The opportunities for partnerships between the two communities are boundless, Gardner said, so long as both sides respect their differences while embracing their commonalities.

"This is a great opportunity to reintegrate the societal heart and head," he said. "This is a powerful combination that until recently remained virtually unexplored."

The WorldWatch Institute paper is available online at:

Turks mourn secular champion


Saturday, 21 December, 2002, 16:25 GMT

Thousands of Turks - led by the president and prime minister - have turned out for the funeral of a prominent left-wing, secular academic who was murdered on Wednesday.

Necip Hablemitoglu, 48, was shot twice in the head.

No one has yet been apprehended.

Mr Hablemitoglu, who taught at Ankara University, specialised in Islamic fundamentalism and was a staunch defender of the secular state.

At the service, Prime Minister Abdullah Gul said Islamic prayers and placed a red carnation on Mr Hablemitoglu's coffin.

President Ahmet Necdet Sezer and Chief of Staff General Hilmi Ozkok - both secularists - wore images of the academic pinned to their coats.

"Turkey needs political stability and then this happened... a murder reminding of the troublesome old days," Mr Gul said.

Earlier this year, Mr Hablemitoglu gave expert witness at the trial of an Islamic brotherhood charged with plotting to overthrow the secular state.

Violent past

The last three decades of Turkish history have been dotted with politically motivated assassinations.

Assassinations sometimes featured in fighting between right- and left-wing groups in the 1970s, which ultimately triggered a 1980 military coup.

Killings continued through the 1980s and 1990s. Targets included several Kurds, but their attackers have never been caught.

In 1993, an investigative journalist, Ugur Mumcu, was murdered in a car bomb attack after researching connections between the state and organised crime.

The state attracted widespread suspicion of involvement in some of those killings.

But the strong army presence at Mr Hablemitoglu's funeral, correspondents say, was a gesture of loyalty to the secular political system.

Gene Study Identifies 5 Main Human Populations

December 20, 2002

Scientists studying the DNA of 52 human groups from around the world have concluded that people belong to five principal groups corresponding to the major geographical regions of the world: Africa, Europe, Asia, Melanesia and the Americas.

The study, based on scans of the whole human genome, is the most thorough to look for patterns corresponding to major geographical regions. These regions broadly correspond with popular notions of race, the researchers said in interviews.


Faith-based office a possibility
Bush wants to win grants to strengthen families


Tallahassee Democrat
Dec. 20, 2002
By Nancy Cook Lauer

Gov. Jeb Bush may create an office at the highest level of state government to coordinate contracts with religious organizations.

Bush, speaking Thursday with members of a transition team charged with strengthening Florida's families, said the so-called "faith-based" programs hold promise for helping to meet his goal of preventing divorce, reducing the number of children in foster care and making families stronger.

The new office would "take advantage of the heightened awareness of the role faith-based programs can play," he said.

Bush wants Florida to compete for some $200 million in federal grants that President Bush is making available for faith-based initiatives. The president had announced just a week ago he was loosening regulations to allow religious groups to compete more directly for social service contracts.

At least one activist thinks it's a bad idea. Larry Spalding, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union, says government should stay as far away from religion as possible.

"We really don't think the government should be involved in the finances of churches," Spalding said. "At some point, you run the risk of deciding which religion you like better rather than what program you like better."

The governor also wants a statewide survey to measure cultural attitudes about marriage in order to formulate a strategic plan to make marriages stronger.

Members of Gov. Bush's transition team are recommending the faith-based office be located within the Governor's Office. Bush said he's considering that but hasn't made up his mind.

"The important thing is, if something's housed in the Office of the Governor, that typically means it has a high priority as it relates to the governor, and that can be a benefit," Bush said.

House Speaker Johnnie Byrd, R-Plant City, would support the move, said spokesman Todd Reid.

"The speaker's a big supporter of faith-based initiatives and would like to see them expanded," Reid said.

Bush notes that 75 percent of all the marriages in Florida take place in churches, synagogues or mosques. With faith so ingrained in the culture, the institutions must take a role in making families strong, he said.

"There is no higher responsibility, I think, for all of us to recognize than that every institution that values family life has to play a role in that."

Transition team member Sara Herald added, "We're not suggesting that we impose any standard or any specific faith on anybody."

But simple logistics may make that the end result despite the best of intentions, Spalding said.

"There are going to be opt-out provisions, but they're going to work only in metro areas," Spalding said. "They're not going to work in Quincy or Marianna, where the closest other provider is in Tallahassee or

Contact Capitol Bureau Chief Nancy Cook Lauer at (850) 222-6729 or nlauer@taldem.com.

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