Posted by: N.S. Palmer | November 15, 2009

Lobbyists and Vampires and Atheists, Oh My!

By N.S. Palmer, Ph.D.

Readers of a good newspaper seldom have any shortage of blog topics. Quite the contrary: the question becomes how many of the day’s topics there is time to cover.

Of course, good newspapers are few these days. In the United States, there are The New York Times and the McClatchy newspapers. The Wall Street Journal‘s news pages are still pretty good, even if its editorial pages have gone the way of Fox News. Most other remaining newspapers are corporate pablum unfit to line the bottom of a parrot cage.

In the UK, there’s The Times, as always: published since 1785. In spite of being owned by Rupert Murdoch, The Times is a thoroughly respectable and quite intelligent newspaper. American readers might find it a bit challenging. For a slightly less staid and more opinionated perspective in the UK, there’s The Guardian. Also popular is The Daily Mail, roughly the UK counterpart of The New York Post.

Drug Industry Lobbyists Write Speeches for Congresscritters

Today’s Sunday New York Times, as usual, brings a surfeit of topics. The front page reveals that at least 42 Congressional opponents of health care reform got their talking points directly from a lobbyist for Genentech, one of the world’s largest biotechnology companies. Presumably because it could not be verified, the article does not state whether the talking points were delivered in brown paper bags full of money.

Teenybopper Vampire Stardom — Worth It?

The Arts and Leisure section leads with a profile of Kristen Stewart, a teenaged actress who is pop culture’s flavor of the month by virtue of her starring role in the lucrative “Twilight” vampire movies.

She comes across as nice enough, though obviously no Mayim Bialik in the brains department: very few people are. I don’t know if I should envy her for all the money she makes or pity her for growing up in the cut-throat world of showbiz and the unforgiving glare of publicity. Each of us has his or her path to walk, and we all encounter a mix of good and bad. She’ll probably be okay.

What Should We Call This Decade?

The “Week in Review” section covers a range of topics both serious and less so. It leads with an article about what we should call the first decade of the 21st century:

“You know the rules: coin a pithy, reductive phrase that somehow encapsulates the multitude of events, trends, triumphs, and calamities of the past 10 years.”

Some of the suggestions are “the era of misplaced anxiety” and “the decade of disruptions.” Personally, I favor some variation on “the Bush-Cheney nightmare.” Whatever else happened since the year 2000, the United States and the world will need a long time to repair the damage from the Bush-Cheney regime’s irresponsibility and criminality. That overshadows everything else that occurred during the period. A good start would be to arrest and try the regime’s principal actors, but that’s not going to happen.

Why People Oppose Gay Marriage but Really Don’t Care That Much

Another article puzzles over the fact that most Americans oppose “gay marriage” but still adore Ellen Degeneres, the lesbian comedienne who recently married TV actress Portia de Rossi.

I, too, oppose gay marriage and support civil unions, but it’s not on my top 10 list of important issues. My sense is that outside of fire-breathing religious circles, opposition to gay marriage is a mile wide and an inch deep.

Most people have at least an inchoate sense that marriage has always been about having children and raising them in a traditional family. The idea of altering a fundamental social institution to make a minority of a minority feel better about itself strikes them as excessive. They also realize that the word “marriage” isn’t needed for gays to have relationships and even marital rights. They’re fine with gays having relationships. They just want marriage to stay marriage, and not be turned into something else for the sake of political correctness.

The “God Gene,” or “Why Religion Is All in Your Head”

Another article deals with “The Evolution of the God Gene,” and speculates that people believe in God because it gave their ancestors an evolutionary advantage over the non-religious. The author does try, albeit unsuccessfully, to be even-handed in adjudicating between theists and atheists:

That religious behavior was favored by natural selection neither proves nor disproves the existence of gods. For believers, if one accepts that evolution has shaped the human body, why not the mind too? What evolution has done is to endow people with a genetic predisposition to learn the religion of their community, just as they are predisposed to learn its language. With both religion and language, it is culture, not genetics, that then supplies the content of what is learned.

The article’s main thrust, however, remains its conclusion that people believe in God because their brains are wired that way, not because God actually does exist.

But the argument proves too much. People’s brains are also wired to support three-dimensional vision and hearing, which presumably conferred an evolutionary advantage over species without those abilities. And almost no one argues that people see and hear a three-dimensional world just because their brains are wired that way, and not because reality corresponds in some manner to what they perceive. The same applies to belief in God.

Honestly, I think that I prefer Richard Dawkins’s over-zealous hostility toward belief in God to the kind of condescending “pat on the head” that believers get from atheist writers who are trying to be fair.

Copyright 2009 by N.S. Palmer. May be reproduced as long as byline, copyright notice, and URL ( are included.



  1. Hm. If you provide thoughtful commentary on the Sunday NYT every weekend, I may never have to read the newspaper again.

    And I’m shocked, shocked I say, that you goofed up Portia de Rossi’s name.

    • I endeavor to be helpful. 🙂

      Thanks for catching my error about Portia de Rossi’s name. As an interesting side-note, her birth name is Mandy Lee Rogers. She took the name “Portia” from the character in Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice,” and adopted “de Rossi” because she thought it sounded exotic.

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