Tuesday, April 11, 2006

If you didn't get in to Harvard...

So you didn't get admitted to Harvard. Or that other high-prestige college that you set your heart on.

Here's some sound advice for what to do next.

1. Do remember that some of the most prestigious schools in the US are awful places to get an undergraduate education. Harvard's doctoral programs mostly deserve their reputation. Their undergraduate programs are something else again. As an academic, if my kid wanted to go to Harvard, they'd need a VERY good reason. In most cases, my kid would find it easier to convince Harvard to accept them than to convince me to help pay for four years of over-rated ivy. Since Harvard's admission rate is historically about 10%, well, you get the picture.

2. If your heart is really set on that school that turned you down, then don't take no for answer. Take your next best school, work hard as a freshman, and look to transfer in later as a sophomore. You are not sentenced to spend the next four years of your life at a school that you really don't like.

3. Do realize that graduate schools are not impressed by the US News rankings. Your ability to go to a top-class graduate school depends on your GREs, your GPA, and a number of other things. There are numerous excellent colleges that will not be found in the first couple lines of the US News rankings.

4. This is nicely summed up by Gregg Easterbrook:
"The elites still lead in producing undergraduates who go on for doctorates (Caltech had the highest percentage during the 1990s), but Earlham, Grinnell, Kalamazoo, Kenyon, Knox, Lawrence, Macalester, Oberlin, and Wooster do better on this scale than many higher-status schools. In the 1990s little Earlham, with just 1,200 students, produced a higher percentage of graduates who have since received doctorates than did Brown, Dartmouth, Duke, Northwestern, Penn, or Vassar."

5. So here's a short list of great liberal colleges that I hope my kid will look at seriously:

St John's College: the classic great books program and probably the best liberal arts college in the country.
Thomas Aquinas College: similar to St John's, but with a strong Catholic slant.
University of Chicago: Indiana Jones's school is vastly underrated by high school students, but not by grad school admissions offices.
Wheaton College: "In a survey of baccalaureate origins of doctorate
recipients, Wheaton ranked 11th in the nation in the total number of graduates (all fields) who went on to earn doctorates."
Hillsdale College: first-rate liberal arts program with a strong emphasis on values and culture.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Rush as the clown prince of conservativism

Sometimes conservatives are so easy to caricature...Rush Limbaugh cites a great article from the Asia Times by Spengler, the nom de plume of one of their columnists. At the end of the article, Rush remarks:

Now, this is Asia Times Online. The date of this story is April 11, 2006, and the author is simply named "Spengler." I don't know first names. It's all I know.

Rush, buddy, the name is taken from Oswald Spengler, a German intellectual 1880-1936, best known for his study, The Decline of the West.

Of course, this still makes Rush better educated than Howard Dean, who once claimed that the Book of Job was his favourite book in the New Testament.

The Gospel of Judas: skepticism strikes out

I just finished watching National Geographic's two-hour special on the Gospel of Judas. At one point I told some friends who were watching it with me: they've got two hours and some of the world's greatest biblical scholars, and I bet at the end they can't find a single one who thinks there's any historical credibility to the Gospel of Judas.

Sure enough, not a single one of their international panel of scholars was willing to endorse the historicity of the Gospel of Judas.

1. This is a great manuscript find--but so far it tells us absolutely nothing about the true history of Jesus. Few of the scholars on the program would be identified with any traditional form of Christianity. But none was willing to claim the Gospel of Judas as evidence that would undermine the traditional Gospels. There are good reasons why even skeptics won't endorse the Gospel of Judas. In part, any gospel written in the second century is going to be a dubious source of truth about Jesus. But mostly, there's no serious evidence that the Gospel of Judas has any contact with any credible historical tradition.

2. The discussion of the carbon-14 dating in the television special renews my skepticism about the accuracy of the carbon-14 date. The carbon-14 team thinks the manuscript dates from AD 220-340. But they never calibrated their carbon-14 readings against papyri from this period with known dates. Which means their estimate of AD 220-340 is much less credible estimate than they may realize. The handwriting of the papyrus looks about a century later than that given by the carbon-14 team. I would like to believe that the carbon-14 estimate is right: it would mean that a substantial batch of late Roman manuscripts are about a century older than scholars have so far estimated. But it is more likely that carbon-14 date is wrong.

3. Bart Ehrman repeats in the special the standard claim of many biblical scholars that the gospel were originally anonymous. Lots of biblical scholars agree with that, but the Gospel of Judas itself suggests that this is wrong. The camera focusses on the title at the end of the gospel, which reads Gospel of Judas in letters so clear many non-scholars could probably read it. The new manuscript is yet another piece of evidence that it was very rare to see gospels without titles. There is little reason to believe that the gospels now in the New Testament ever circulated without titles. So as I pointed out on Friday, the Gospel of Judas actually lends some support to the traditional view of the gospels.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Do you believe in magic?

Dawn Eden links to an amazing post over the The Raving Atheist. Classic quotation:

Magical thinking occurs when one asserts that the human status of the fetus is mind-dependent, varying from woman to woman, dependent on the notion of "wantedness." That's the thinking prevalent in the pro-choice movement today. "Nobody can say when life begins," the argument goes, "so it's whatever anybody says it is." Or "between a woman and her god," even if that god throws infants into volcanos. Planned Parenthood and the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice have hired clergy to promote precisely that sort of view.

The Power of Prayer

Scrappleface hits this one out of the park.

Prayer Study: Humans Fail to Manipulate God
by Scott Ott

(2006-03-31) — A team of scientists today ended a 10-year study on the so-called “power of prayer” by concluding that God cannot be manipulated by humans, not even by scientists with a $2.4 million research grant.

The scientists also noted that their work was “sabotaged by religious zealots” secretly praying for study subjects who were supposed to receive no prayer.

“As it turns out, God was not impressed by our academic credentials, our substantial funding base, and our rigorous study protocols,” said lead researcher Dr. Herbert Benson, a cardiologist and director of the Mind/Body Medical Institute near Boston. “I get the feeling we just spent 10 years looking through the wrong end of the telescope.”

While patients who knew they were the targets of the study’s intercessory prayer team actually had more post-operative complications, Dr. Benson admitted he failed to prevent friends and relatives from praying for the “no prayer” control group.

“It really burns me up that we worked so hard, only to be undermined by an anonymous army of intellectual weaklings on their knees,” he said.

Dr. Benson said he would now seek $10 million in grants to explore whether fire can be called down from heaven to kindle a pile of wood. The control group’s wood will be drenched in water to prevent combustion.

Dutch seek to punish educated moms

The article is as awful as you'd fear:

Sharon Dijksma, a leading parliamentarian of the Dutch Labour Party (PvdA) wants to penalise educated stay-at-home women. “A highly-educated woman who chooses to stay at home and not to work – that is destruction of capital,” she said in an interview last week. “If you receive the benefit of an expensive education at society’s expense, you should not be allowed to throw away that knowledge unpunished.”

Hence her proposal to recover part of the cost of their education from highly-educated women who decide not to seek paid work. Between 2001 and 2005 the number of Dutch women aged between 15 and 65 who were out on the labour market rose from 55.9 to 58.7 per cent. Dijksma says she wants to stimulate more women to join the work force. In the municipal elections earlier this month the PvdA became the biggest party in the Netherlands thanks to the Muslim vote. The PvdA is generally expected to win the general elections next year, when the 35 year old Dijksma, who has been an MP since she was 23 and is a leading figure in the party, might become a government minister.

Friday, April 07, 2006

The Gospel of Judas

The publication of the Gospel of Judas has provided some excitement for the web in biblical studies. And the New York Times is in on the action.

1) This is a very high-powered team that was asked to do the work on this new codex. I know some of them personally. Stephen Emmel of Muenster is someone I met in Germany, and Emmel is brilliant. Robinson is well-known internationally, and one of the leading biblical scholars of the last generation. Ehrman is currently the best-known specialist in New Testament textual criticism in North America. Putting all of these guys (and others) together on one project is the Dream Team of biblical scholarship.

2) The codex itself is certainly authentic. It is written in Coptic. The carbon-14 experts date it to AD 280 +/- 60 years. Emmel thinks the handwriting dates from around 400. Most of my work is with Greek palaeography rather than with Coptic, but since the alphabets are mostly the same, the Greek is frequently used as a cross-check on the Coptic. I haven't had time to do a systematic study of the fragments, but at an initial glance I would tend to concur with Emmel: mid-to-late fourth century AD at least in terms of the Greek characters, possibly early fifth century AD.

3) This means there is some discrepancy between the palaeographical date and the carbon-14 date. Unfortunately, carbon-14 dating has often proved unreliable in dealing with ancient manuscripts: when documents with known dates are tested with carbon-14, the carbon-14 dates frequently prove to be badly off. I haven't been able to locate the publications of the carbon-14 team, but the carbon-14 date of AD 280 +/- 60 may well be too old: mid-to-late 300s may well prove closer to the mark when the codex is studied in detail.

4) There is a difference between the codex and the text. The codex was copied after the text--just as your printed Bible in your house is a recent copy of a much older text. Although the codex of the Gospel of Judas looks fourth century AD, the Gospel text itself is much older: it must have been written prior to the time of Irenaeus of Lyons, who mentions it in his book Adversus Haereses (Against the Heresies) in c.AD 180.

5) Irenaeus writes: "They declare that Judas the traitor was thoroughly acquainted with these things, and that he alone, knowing the truth as no others did, accomplished the mystery of the betrayal; by him all things, both earthly and heavenly, were thus thrown into confusion. They produce a fictitious history of this kind, which they style the Gospel of Judas." (AH I.31). So the Gospel of Judas itself must have been written before the time of Irenaeus of Lyons c.AD 180, even though the codex which we have now was copied perhaps two hundred years later.

6) There isn't a chance in the world that Judas actually wrote the Gospel. And there's very little chance that any biblical scholar will try to claim otherwise.

7) Nor is there any meaningful chance that the Gospel of Judas contains any new historical facts about Jesus himself. As always, one wants to be cautious until a thorough study has been made, but the chances that it contains anything true about Jesus that isn't already in the Gospels is near zero.

8) The most interesting thing about the codex--at least from the standpoint of palaeography--is the fact it contains the title at the very end: The Gospel of Judas. If you look carefully at the last two lines of the picture, you may be able to pick out the letters: EUANGELION IOUDAS.
(The last line looks like an O Y Delta A C=Ioudas).

9) Many modern biblical scholars think the biblical gospels were originally anonymous, and that the titles were added later by the scribes. But the German scholar Martin Hengel has written that the titles are authentic. The Gospel of Judas provides some additional supporting evidence that Hengel is right: the normal way for ancient books to be written is with titles, either at the end or the beginning of the manuscript. This in turn supports the traditional belief that the Gospels were not written anonymously, but by known individuals whose names were part of the titles.

10) In and of itself, the presence of titles does not prove that the Gospels were originally written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John: the Gospel of Judas contains a title and was certainly not written by Judas. But it does add to the evidence that the titles were very old, and the probability is that the titles were accepted by the early Catholic Church precisely because they were thought to be correct.

11) I doubt that the Gospel of Judas will strengthen the case for skepticism about the Gospels among biblical scholars. I do think it should add evidence to Martin Hengel's case for the traditional titles of the Gospels. The most important long-term effect of the discovery of the Gospel of Judas may well be to enhance rather than to question the historicity of the Gospels.

[My apologies to biblical scholars for oversimplifying a complex debate on the authorship of the Gospels and the significance of the titles!]

Romney's health care reform

Mitt Romney is currently attracting much favorable attention for his health care reform in Massachussetts.

Reason Magazine provides the best concise analysis of American health care policy that I've seen in years: a terriffic defense of why something like the Romney plan should be the basic plan for free market-based health care reform.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Bush on the mound

Cincinnati gives President Bush a standing ovation.

President Bush had lots of oomph in his arm to throw out a strong first pitch for the Cincinnati Reds' home opener.

Bush became the first sitting president to throw a ceremonial pitch in Cincinnati as the Reds took on the Chicago Cubs.

Bush received a loud standing ovation when he took the mound in this Republican-leaning city. He was accompanied by two injured soldiers and a father who lost his son in Afghanistan.

Little American flags were distributed to the crowd of 42,000 before the game. Fans waved them excitedly as Bush was introduced and drowned out the few scattered protesters...

"I've got the dish at home at the White House, and so, when I'm doing my work, I keep a game on. And there's nothing better than opening day," the president said.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Johannes Paulus Magnus

Spent the evening playing EWTN's DVD of John Paul II's funeral. Toward the end, one of the commentators remarks, noting his failing health: "Nobody wanted him to live five years more than he did."

I did.

I had a grandmother who lived to six months shy of her one hundredth birthday; and I thought and hoped that John Paul II would continue to lead the Catholic Church into his nineties.

Rumors of poor health had swirled around the pope for years, and his Parkinson's was obvious to all. But so too was the will, the stamina, the determination, the perserverance.

He had early in his pontificate set his heart on leading the Church in the millenium celebrations. Often when an older man has a goal like that, after he achieves it, the will to live goes too. As the year 2000 drew to a close, I worried that we would lose John Paul II in 2001. But when he survived that awful year, as indomitable as ever, I was certain he would be with us for many years to come. Only in the last few weeks before his death did I slowly realize that we would not have him with us much longer.

Sometimes the most beautiful and most deeply understood insights into this man came from unexpected places.

From The Tablet came a remarkable obituary, punctuated by a stunning poem:

A prophecy of the style of his papacy could be heard in the words of the Polish romantic poet Juliusz Slowacki, who in the nineteenth century had criticised the conduct of Pius IX and prophesied the coming of a Slav pope:

This one will not - Italian-like - take flight
At cannon's roar or sabre thrust
But brave as God himself stand and give fight
Counting the world as dust.

That Polish poem was familiar to Karol Wojtyla from boyhood.
Yes. That's the man who stared down the Nazis and the Communists with equal faith and fearlesness.

And PBS Frontline produced an amazing article that cut to the heart of John Paul II with greater power than almost anything in the religious press:

There is a fiery, mystical core to the young Wojtyla's faith. It is the deepest, darkest layer of the soil which has nourished him throughout his life. All his early heroes are passionate visionaries: the strange, otherworldly Jan Tyranowski; the Spanish mystic, St. John of the Cross; the stigmatic faith healer, Padre Pio. Their emotional, poetic view of the world has sustained him throughout his life. This is a man for whom the great religious truths are viscerally experienced. Christ is alive and walks the earth; the Virgin is a real woman; the Devil is a person not an abstraction. Good and evil are powerful autonomous forces battling each other--the powers of darkness and light. As Pope, he has attended exorcisms, and even officiated at one.

Read, pray, believe.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Into Great Silence

The irreplaceable Sandro Magister on Europe's new hit movie:

The original title in German is “Die Grosse Stille,” the great silence. It is a title that is more than appropriate for 162 uninterrupted minutes of pure contemplation. The soundtrack is made only of the chiming of bells, nighttime psalmody, footsteps, wind, rain, and very little else...

But no one would have bet on the astonishing public success that the film had last winter in Germany, topping even the latest Harry Potter film. And yet this is precisely what happened...

Yet the Carthusians are the most hidden of all monks, the least inclined to release news about themselves, the farthest from seeking proselytes. The novices – in the film, there is one who came from Africa – join the Carthusians in mysterious, unplanned ways. That so many viewers are seeking out the contemplative silence of “Die Grosse Stille” is a sign of the need in these times.

War on Terror? What War?

The New Republic carries this gem:

"To anyone who cares about the fate of our republic, these are troubling times. Yet seldom has our public discourse seemed so inadequate to the seriousness of the situation. George W. Bush's administration has pushed us into moral and constitutional crisis, but the media remain committed to business as usual--trivializing criticism of the president as partisan bickering, finding expert apologists for power to sanction appalling departures from American tradition. Think-tank intellectuals with impeccable credentials calmly discuss torture as an instrument of national policy. Bush himself, having deceived Americans into supporting his disastrous Iraq adventure, now asserts his authority to ignore legislative constraints of any kind. "Presidential historians" on public television solemnly compare him to Lincoln and other "wartime presidents," overlooking the egregious flaw in this analogy: we are not in a state of war. Instead we are in a state of permanent emergency, a murky atmosphere of genuine danger and popular anxiety that can be deployed to justify just about any expansion of executive power. " [Boldface added].

So: "we are not in a state of war." Thousands of Americans are fighting in Afghanistan, hundreds of thousands are fighting in Iraq, but: "we are not in a state of war."

If liberals want to know why they lost in 2002 and 2004 elections that were very winnable, they might start with statements like this.

It's worth noting as well that this was published in The New Republic, the one liberal journal that has consistently argued the necessity of fighting the war on terror. In December 2004, TNR published Peter Beinart's "A Fighting Faith", a ringing call for liberals to defend America as they had during the Cold War.

The overwhelming response from his fellow liberals was: nothing doing. Or as Kevin Drum of the Washington Monthly put it: "If he thinks too many liberals are squishy on terrorism, he needs to persuade us not just that Islamic totalitarianism is bad — of course it's bad — but that it's also an overwhelming danger to the security of the United States." If after September 11th, even relatively moderate liberals like Kevin Drum still need to persuaded that Islamic terrorism is an "overwhelming danger" to the US, it explains very clearly why Democrats can't win elections.

No wonder Kerry lost. CNN's exit polls showed that the American people trusted President Bush to handle terrorism 58 to 40%. By contrast only 40% trusted Kerry to handle terrorism, while 58% did not trust him. But the breakdowns are even more interesting. All of the red states trusted Bush to handle terrorism, none of the red states trusted Kerry to handle terrorism. But what is interesting is that the blue states didn't trust Kerry either: of the states that went blue, only in Massachussetts and Maryland did a plurality of voters trust Kerry to handle terrorism.

Now in 2006 the Democrats have a very winnable election in front of them. Instead of vowing to win the war on terror, they are running to impeach Bush, surrender Iraq to the terrorists, end the Patriot Act, and stop wire-tapping Al Qaeda. If that isn't exactly the way the moderate Democrats see their platform, that is the way it will be seen in Middle America, and that platform seriously undermines their chances of carrying the fall.

If Democrats really want to win in 2006, they might go back and re-read Peter Beinart.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

American deaths in Iraq hit two-year low: The Washington Post can't handle the truth

Rice Admits to 'Tactical Errors' U.S. Troop Fatalities Hit a Low; Iraqi Deaths Soar. So reads today's Washington Post. Two articles: one where Rice admits that mistakes were made in BIG type; the other where the US shows dramatic progress in tiny type.

Is there any way to rationalize this except as anti-Bush bias at the Post?

This blog regularly slams major media, but it doesn't usually slam the Post. The Washington Post is certainly a liberal slanted newspaper--but that's not really a big deal: there is no unbiased news, and a slant is to be expected. What I appreciate about the Post--unlike many other American news outlets--is that there's nearly always a good faith effort to be fair, its liberal slant notwithstanding. Well and good: the Post wears its liberalism with honesty and honour.

Most of the time.

Today's story correctly notes that American casualties have dropped to due to our success in training the Iraqi army, and it correctly notes that Iraqi casualties are up.

But quite apart from its determination to hype the fluff of Condi's confession, quite apart from its determination to play down the dramatic progress in US casualties in Iraq, the Washington Post can't even get the Iraqi casualty story straight.

1) The Post exaggerates the situation with respect to Iraqi military and civilian casualties: "But recent weeks have also been among the most lethal of the war for Iraqi civilians, police officers and soldiers, who were killed and wounded at a rate of about 75 a day, a rate three times as high as at the start of 2004." This combines Iraqi police/military fatalities with civilian fatalities, and thus produces a misleading result. The graph above shows Iraqi police/military fatalities which have been dropping steadily since the summer of 2005, despite the fact that numbers of Iraqis in the field is steadily increasing. Appeal to the military death rates for Iraqis from 2004 is misleading since there were so few Iraqi police/military in the field at that point. The Iraqi civilian figures fluctuate from month to month: March was certainly a bad month for Iraqi civilians with 899 deaths and Iraqi civilian deaths have been rising since December of 2005--but even the March 2006 figure was down from 1524 deaths in August of 2005.

2) The Post misses the point that American fatalities have now been declining sharply for six months. From 99 in Oct 2005 to 86 in Nov 2005 t o 68 in December 2005 to 64 in Jan 2006 to 58 in Feb 2006 to 31 in Jan 2006. So American fatalities have dropped about 70% in six months.

Ever seen that fact on the nightly news? Didn't think so.

3) The Post misses the point that the March reduction in American deaths is part of a broader trend over the last sixteen months. I suspect that the public perception is that things in Iraq have gotten worse over the last year or so in terms of American casualties. But that is simply not true. The peak point in American casualties was the period between the hand off of American sovereignty to Iraq in June 2004 and the first elections in January 2005.

The Bush strategy was to elect a democratic government, train a new Iraqi army, and then American casualties would drop. Is the strategy working?

American fatalities per day
June 2004-Jan 2005: 2.92
Jan 2005-Dec 2005: 2.35
Dec 2005-Mar 2006: 1.69

American fatalities have dropped 20% since the elections of January 2005, and 42% since the elections of December 2005 (as against the June 2004-Jan 2005 base). The Post headlines for the second Bush term could have read regularly: American casualties in Iraq drop again. But that's not a story that the press seems to want to cover.

4) The Post misses the point that some of the March reduction is seasonal. Weather is a part of the Iraqi battlefield, and the insurgents and terrorists have traditionally been relatively quiet in March. In March 2004 fatalities were relatively low at 52; but in April 2004 the insurgency exploded with Americans suffering 140 deaths. In March 2005 deaths were relatively low at 39, but then deaths headed upward, peaking at 99 in October of 2005.

5) The Post misses the point that we are in an election year and there is every reason to expect a redoubling of attacks by the terrorists to browbeat the Americans into voting for surrender. As Clausewitz pointed out: war is politics by other means. The terrorists in Iraq time their attacks for maximum political effect; they consciously work to manipulate the news media and most of the time they succeed. The next six months are certain to see renewed attacks by the terrorists. If American casualties are still this low six months from now, then the terrorists will have failed, and we will be in a position to declare victory and go home.

Much however as of today is in doubt. The Democrats are running for Congress on a scarcely concealed platform of surrender in Iraq. The terrorist summer/fall offensive will be designed for maximum casualties to help the Democrats win the Congress and force the administration to hand over Iraq to the terrorists.

The Republicans are running on a platform of stay the course; a strategy which has been working so far, at least as measured by the 20% reduction of US casualties since the first elections in Jan 2005, and the 40% reduction in casualties since the elections in December (with June 2004-Jan 2005 as the baseline).

Why surrender Iraq to the terrorists when the evidence shows we're winning?

Conclusion: The Post here misses the real story. The story should have gone something like this: The American strategy of handing the war over to the Iraqi military showed yet another month of success as American fatalities dropped for the sixth consecutive month and are now at the lowest levels since the insurgency exploded in April 2004. Iraqi military deaths are up slightly in March but still down sharply from summer 2005 despite the increase in Iraqi military in the field, evidence of the increasing professionalism of the Iraqi army. But Iraqi civilian deaths are up, reflecting the delay in forming a new Iraqi government and renewed fears of civil war. Meanwhile, American commanders brace for a new round of terrorist attacks this summer as Al Qaeda hopes to influence the American fall elections and terrorize American voters into retreat.