Sunday, February 25, 2007

And God Said: Let there be Violence

It is claimed by some that exposure to violence in video games, on TV and at the movies causes young people, and even adults, to become more violent themselves. Some studies indicate a positive correlation between exposure to violence and violent behavior; other studies show no correlation. A very recent study seemed to exonerate violence in games.

But one recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan and published in March in Psychological Science indicates a strong correlation between violent behavior in individuals and the belief by those individuals that God has somehow sanctioned it. The researchers concluded that the study sheds a lot of light on religion-sponsored terrorism and other forms of violent behavior.

In the study, the researchers compared undergraduate students from two universities that are religiously dissimilar. At one university in the U.S., Brigham Young, 99 percent of the students believe in God and the bible. Only 50 percent of the students at the other university, in Europe, said they believed in God and only about a quarter indicated they believed the bible.

The researchers read the same Bible passage to each group, a relatively obscure passage from the Book of Judges that told of how a woman was tortured and murdered and how her husband obtained revenge. But only half of the students from each college were told the passage came from the bible. The other half were told the passage came from an ancient scroll from an archaeological dig.

In addition, half of each group of students was read an extension to the passage saying that God sanctioned the action of the husband.

Then the students were placed in pairs and given a simple reaction task in which they were allowed to blast their opponent with high-volume sound. The group of students from Brigham Young that was told the passage came from the bible and that the violence was sanctioned by God was more likely than the students who thought the passage came from a secular scroll to increase the volume to maximum.

Similarly, students from the more secular university also were more willing to inflict violent sound on their opponent if they thought the reaction was sanctioned by God, even the ones that didn’t believe in God. But the difference was much less than with the Brigham Young students.

The researchers said the experiment sheds light on the origins of violence in religious fundamentalism. It supports the theory that exposure to violent biblical passages in which the violence seems to be sanctioned by God may induce extremists to engage in religious violence.

The bible also describes scenes containing gratuitous sex, even incest. Movies with the same content would surely be rated R or NC-17.

If we accept the rating systems of the movie and TV industry and the game makers that must label their products as unsuitable for children below a certain age if the products contain violent or sexually-explicit scenes, then it seems only fair that certain biblical passages should also contain ratings or disclaimers. But try getting that idea past the religious right.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Making Copies is Not Stealing

Back in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, when I was a teenager, my dad and I were early adopters of the new-fangled audio technology called 8-track. Not only did I have a tape deck in my green pickup truck, but my dad, who performed and recorded bluegrass and gospel music, also bought an 8-track recorder.

Although you could purchase the 8-track version of albums at any record store, I would rather have listened to my favorite music mixes. That wasn’t possible without a recorder or without all the vinyl albums I wanted mixed. I had the recorder, but not all my favorite albums.

Fortunately, there was this shop in Columbus called the Mod Shop. It was the ‘60s, so the term “mod” was used often to depict latter day styles and technology. The Mod Shop had mixed play lists of all kinds of music. I was mostly into Country Music back then. That was back when most male vocalists didn’t accentuate the strong Texas drawl that is so common these days, and so very annoying.

My favorite artists back then were Bobby Goldsboro and Glen Campbell, among others. So I bought an 8-track mix containing those two artists. There were about 25 songs on it.

Obviously, the little shop was breaking copyright laws, but I didn’t care. I really didn’t even realize it at the time.

When VHS video tape came along a decade later, my dad was also an early adopter of that technology, including home video taping. I also enjoyed renting movies and transferring the ones I liked to a blank tape to keep in my library.

But the companies that represent movie studios got smart and made the manufacturers of video cassette recorders include an anti-copy mechanism into their machines. You could still copy a movie, but it looked awful.

Today, we have what’s called digital rights management software, or DRM. The movie and music industry use it to keep individuals from making copies of their films or music that is downloaded from the Internet.

Apple Computer’s Steve Jobs has called for the music industry to stop including DRM technology in their downloads, saying that 90 percent of the music they sell is via compact discs, which do not have protection. So to include DRM on the 10 percent of music that is downloaded makes little sense.

Film studios, meanwhile, are including a spot at the beginning of most DVDs that tries to make viewers feel guilty about making illegal copies of the movie. The spot says, “You wouldn’t steal a car…” and then insinuates that making a copy of the DVD would also be stealing.

I don’t buy in to that theory. It is not stealing. The federal copyright laws give individual consumers permission to make private copies for personal use or archiving. And I’ll make copies of DVDs anytime I feel like it; it’s my right.

When you steal something from someone, that person or store no longer has the item. They must spend money to replace it while you enjoy the benefits of the original. But making a copy of a DVD or a CD doesn’t take anything away from a store, a person, or the music industry. If it’s your own DVD or CD, you’ve already purchased it. If it belongs to someone else, they have purchased it. Either way, it has been legally purchased. Copying it isn’t stealing it.

Some may argue that if I copy a DVD or CD that I borrowed or rented it hurts the movie and music industries because I would then not go out and buy it myself. But 90 percent of everything I copy I wouldn’t buy anyway.

Piracy means a big loss of business for content producers. Pirates make multiple copies and sell them for profit. The industry is well within its rights to go after these pirates. But when they go after individuals who are also their customers, they only alienate those who have supported them.

And I firmly believe that, unless the industry comes to its senses, the day is coming when the film and music distributors will become obsolete.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

HASTI Speaker Encourages Evolution Education

Each year during the first part of February the Hoosier Association of Science Teachers, Inc., HASTI, holds its convention in downtown Indianapolis. I attended almost every year, and even presented one year, during my first round as a science teacher back in the 1980s.

During the 14 years or so I was out of teaching, that’s one thing I really missed. So for the past three years, being a science teacher once more, I have been pleased to be able to attend the HASTI convention again.

Science teachers from all grade levels get to hone their skills by picking up materials and ideas from the onslaught of presenters, demonstrations, and keynote speakers. I was particularly impressed with this year’s keynote address presented by Dr. Brian Alters who is regarded as one of the world’s foremost authorities on evolution education.

He was a key witness for the plaintiffs in the landmark Dover, Pa. Case in 2005 in which a federal judge firmly established that Intelligent Design is not a real science and, therefore, cannot be taught as such in science classes at public schools.

During his presentation he drove home the point that a large percentage of Christians, regardless of their denominations, believe that the earth and life on it were created divinely, even though the official doctrine of most mainstream Christian denominations actually support the teaching of evolution in schools.

For example, if you are a Catholic, Episcopalian, Lutheran, Disciple of Christ, Methodist, Presbyterian, Jew, Muslim, or a member of the United Church of Christ, regardless of what you or your pastor believe, your church’s official doctrine either actively supports the theory of evolution or does not oppose it or its teaching.

Alters pointed out that the reason a majority of Christians have a problem with evolution is due to the well-funded and well-orchestrated public campaign of the ultra-conservative, fundamentalist Christians, such as most Southern Baptists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and some Pentecostal churches. Television evangelists are also leading voices in the battle to hide real scientific discovery from the nation’s children.

The real losers, of course, are the children. They have been brainwashed and turned against science because of the negative publicity associated with the topic of evolution.

People wrongly believe that scientists are locked in a debate about the theory. The reality is that, to all but a tiny minority of scientists and researchers, evolution has occurred and is not even open to debate. It is widely accepted and used everyday to make predictions about genetics experiments, fossil finds, and many other scientific endeavors.

The only debate is in the eyes of the public, thanks primarily to news headlines that are just misleading enough to sell newspapers and magazines. But how many people read only the headlines and not the entire articles? Most.

It was amazing to me to find out how well-organized the anti-evolution groups have become over the years. They not only sell millions of books and DVDs, they are building museums and education centers for the express purpose of teaching kids about the evils of evolution.

If students are lucky, they might get a week’s worth of real evolution education sometime during high school. At the same time, many of them are taught from the time they are able to walk that we all came from Adam and Eve and that God created the universe in six days.

They are also taught about Santa Claus, but they stop believing in that myth by the time they’re in the fourth grade or so. Unfortunately, they continue believing the biblical myths forever, or until they are old enough to see through the hype.

Fortunately, there are a few people like Alters who go around the country and encourage science teachers not to be afraid of irate parents or knuckle under to pervasive religious pressures and to do what they are hired to do: teach evolution. Amen.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

NFL to Churches: No Super Sunday

Last Sunday evening, all across the country, churches had plans to host Super Bowl parties. It wasn’t anything new. They had been doing it for years.

Traditionally, many churches invite their congregations, and anyone else who wishes to attend, over for snacks, football, and perhaps a small prayer service during half time. The prayer service is probably more appropriate for church than watching the likes of Janet Jackson bare her breast on national TV.

A few years ago, when I attended church regularly, the First Christian Church in Edinburgh had a small Super Bowl party. It wasn’t advertised and it was in the days when high-definition televisions were just starting to become popular. We watched it on a 42-inch wide-screen TV, but not in high definition.

But the long-standing traditions of many churches were dashed last week as the NFL decided to crack down on mass showings of the Super Bowl. First of all, churches who advertised on their Web sites, in newspapers, or on their bulletin boards that they were having a Super Bowl party were in violation of the NFL’s copyright on the term Super Bowl. To be legitimate, they would have had to advertise using terms such as “the big game,” or “super football Sunday.”

But even the change in terminology that some churches agreed to abide by didn’t satisfy the NFL. They also said it was a violation to show the game on a TV that was larger than 55 inches. That’s a nice large screen for the living room, but not so much for church auditoriums. And only one set is allowed per venue.

When I first read about the prohibition last week, my first reaction was surprise and anger that the corporate lawyers of the NFL were being so greedy and unyielding. How could it possibly result in money out of the pockets of the NFL to allow a church to show the game on a big projection TV for their congregation?

A spokesman for the NFL explained that the size of the TV audience is determined by the Neilson Ratings. When people gather in large numbers to watch it on one TV instead of watching it at home on many TVs, it somehow affects the ratings and, therefore, the amount that can be charged for commercials.

Although the explanation makes some modicum of sense, it’s highly unlikely that the ad revenue of the Super Bowl is going to be affected by church groups watching it together.

Then I realized that if I wanted to rent out a theater or other large building and show the Super Bowl on the big screen while only charging donations, I would definitely be in violation of the NFL’s copyright. And some churches were planning to do just that. The bigger churches have massive multimedia systems that rival that of some theaters. The church in Indianapolis that first brought on the ire of the NFL was planning to show the game on a 12-foot screen.

If private individuals and companies are not allowed to violate copyrights, then churches shouldn’t be allowed to either. Churches have been getting a pass on a lot of things that for-profit companies would be flagged for. One of the big ones is that they don’t have to pay taxes.

But, although I still believe the NFL, like so many other copyright owners do, overreacted to an inconsequential violation of copyright, it was within its rights, and it’s good that the NFL is not treating churches with kid gloves on this issue.