Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Blame Creationism! (Or: How a Nutjob at a Debate Made Me Into an Atheist)

People often talk about experiences that strengthened their faith, or which brought them to discover religion or otherwise have an epiphanous revelation about God. Recently, Greta Christinia asked in her blog a similar question for non-believers: what caused us to move away from theism? (Thank you to the Freethinkers at Virginia Tech for pointing me to Ms. Christiania's blog!)

Like most Americans, I grew up in a Christian household, and like most children, I never questioned the things I was taught in church--much like I'd never questioned the existence of Santa Claus, either. Adults tell you something is true, and you tend to believe it, particularly when everyone tells you the same story. All those authority figures can't be wrong, can they?

To make a long story short, by the time I'd reached my own adult years, I'd already begun to question the tenets of a belief system I'd been told was true all my life. What about other religions? Who decides which is "right," and why? What about people who never are exposed to the "right" religion--are they damned for their innocently-ignorant beliefs?

But what really pushed me off the edge of the cliff of theism and into that wild, scary realm of disbelief was my own strong foundation in science and reason. The whole flood mythology of the Bible's Old Testament simply cannot be reconciled with any notion of science, history, or reason; likewise, the biblical creation account contradicts science when taken as anything but allegory. Oh, I'd gone through the phase of creating my own epicycles, rationalizing six-day special creation and biblical chronology of a "young earth" which somehow meshed with the billions-of-years of age the Earth and broader universe clearly possessed, but dismissed those rationalizations before my teenage years had even passed.

To answer Ms. Christiana's question, I can even identify the exact moment I took that big, bold step over the theism cliff: February 24, 2002 (ironically, a Sunday), at the "Evolution vs. Creationism Debate" hosted by the Campus Bible Fellowship and Freethinkers at Virginia Tech. By then, I'd become an agnostic, but the exposure to the sheer intellectual dishonesty and self-deceit of the creationist speaker--and, in turn, the broader creationist movement--make up the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back.

The creationist speaker, Dr. Randy Guliuzza from the Institute for Creation Research (ICR), based his entire side of the debate around erecting a strawman of "evolution" which he then attacked, coupled with the false dichotomy of saying, "If you are wrong, then I am right." He didn't produce a single piece of evidence for his position (creationism), and when I called him on that during the question & answer phase, asking him point-blank to produce some evidence to support his argument, he simply responded that all he had to do was debunk evolution to prove creation (if you don't see the false dichotomy of that notion, I'm not sure I can help you).

Though Dr. Guliuzza couldn't replicate "Dr. Dino" Kent Hovind's infamous 300 creationist lies, his arguments did suffer from nearly 50 major problems in such a short debate, which I took down during the debate. He only had a couple of hours, so I guess he does deserve some credit for making that many mistakes, deceptions, misrepresentations, and outright lies during the debate (the numbers below come from the order he presented them in, as I listed them during the debate).

Some of his real laughers included defending creationism's validity by presenting public opinion polls (#1); claiming scientists have no "data" or "details" to support evolution (#2) because articles published in Discover and Popular Science lack them, as do books in the popular press (#3); that scientists condenscendingly think "you" are stupid (#5); appeals to authority ("Some scientists believe in creationism, so it must be true!" and "I have an M.D., so what I say about biology is true!") (#13 & #15); that evolution isn't "useful" (#12); and so on.

His strawman of evolution--a common tactic of creationists--included such ridiculous notions that evolution is "too broad" (#6) whilst simultaneously demanding it explain cosmogenesis (#23) and other aspects of physics, not biology, as well as areas of biology not remotely related to evolution, like abiogenesis (#22); and the insulting notion that "scientists say humans come from worms," (#27) and that "scientists have to use computer animations showing one animal turning into another" (#4 & #26). This is the same tactic Dr. Dino (who currently resides in federal prison, I might add...) uses in his "$200,000 challenge" whereby he claims he'll give anyone who can "prove" evolution a big sum of cash--yet they have to "prove" something not even remotely identifiable as evolutionary theory. Of course the audience (and even scientists) would agree his strawman "evolution" is no good... the problem is, it simply isn't evolution.

The whole notion of debates as "proof" of one's theory also irks me; creationists are good at winning debates with laypeople audiences, who quite honestly aren't capable of making a proper evaluation of the science behind evolution, and who may be easily swayed by the strawmen and ad hominem attacks of creationist arguments. "Show us the data!" the creationists cry; despite the fact mountains of such data exist in the academic literature or even a decent biology textbook, they claim victory when the scientist at the debate doesn't display table after table of mind-numbing data, even when refusing to produce any evidence in support of creationism itself (remember that false dichotomy I mentioned?)

Dr. Guliuzza went on to make several demonstrably false scientific statements as well; ever wonder why creationists spend so much time picking at evolution instead of layout out evidence for their own theory? It's because they can't do science, and what science they try to do is quite poor. For example, he claimed an evolutionary change resulting in a loss of functionality or information contradicts evolutionary theory (#28)--another straw in that big man-shaped bale of hay. He made the oft-repeated claim that "all mutations are bad" (#40); that bacterial antibiotic resistance doesn't exist (#35), that HIV has not and is not changing as a virus (#41), and several other real whoppers which simply are wrong in all factual regards.

Finally, creationists often accuse evolutionary theory of failings which in any sense actually apply more to creationism than evolution, and if to be taken as points against a theory, must condemn their own position! If evolution is "too broad" to be an acceptable theory (#6, an accusation demonstrably incorrect to begin with), what of the notion that "Goddidit" to explain everything, from cosmogenesis to abiogenesis to evolution and beyond? If evolution has "no predictive value" (#14, and again, demonstrably incorrect), what of the Bible and creationism?

Creationists claim scientists "force" data into "unnatural" configurations to support evolution (again, provably wrong, and #10 on Dr. Guliuzza's list of lies)--what, then, of all the epicycles invented by creationists to try to fit observable science to a "theory" broadly and wholly contradicted and disproven by said science? I suggest the interested reader check out the topics of "flood geology," "hydrological sorting," and the "vapor canopy," and get back to me on who exactly is forcing data into unnatural configurations--and afterwards, take a look at the ridiculous notions of variable speed-of-light ("tired" light is responsible for redshift, so says that "theory"), incredibly variable rates of radioactive decay only stable in the past few years (to explain away radioisotope dating, among other things), and mutation and speciation rates far in excess of anything evolution demands to account for all the biological diversity we see today having arisen a few thousand years ago from Noah and his rinky-dink Ark.

Looking back on my notes from that 2002 debate, I found this gem:

Finally, as I have indicated before and likely will again, isn’t it hypocritical for creationists to accuse someone else of using “just-so” stories (like, maybe, “God did it!”) to explain their position? Forgive me if I am wrong, but my exposure to creationism has left me with the feeling that the whole platform is based on one great big just-so story called the Bible.

Using that as segue back to my original topic of how that particular debate drove me away from theism one and for all, that day's events are what really opened my eyes to the particular sort of dishonesty (intentional or through ignorance; it doesn't matter) and refusal to partake in any meaningful discussion or rational argumentation about either science or religion that makes up not just creationism (and its "lipstick on a pig / monkey in a tuxedo" cousin, (un)intelligent design), but on a broader level religion as a whole. Religious beliefs are just that: beliefs. They cannot be supported factually, yet many of the claims of religion run counter to observable, factual science. When you scrape away all the fluff, all that's left is a warm fuzzy notion of "god," and to me, that's simply not enough to justify a belief in the face of all other rationality.

Monday, September 29, 2008

A Trip to Lincoln for Some Football

For those of you who haven't visited my sadly out-of-date home page, let me fill you in on a small fact: I am a huge college football fan. My wife's reaction when I turned on the first game of the season a few weeks back was telling: "Great, football season already?" She knew I'd be glued to the drama of game after game for the next several months.

This past weekend, I traveled to Lincoln, Nebraska, to watch my Virginia Tech Hokies take on the Nebraska Cornhuskers. This was a game I'd looked forward to ever since it made the schedule, a quality out of conference contest at one of the toughest venues in college football. Even busy with our house hunt and trying to save money left and right, I knew this was a game I had to attend; how often do you get to see your team play Nebraska in Lincoln if you're not from the Big 12?

True, Nebraska may lack the luster of its championship years of the past, but we're still taking about a team that rarely loses at home to out-of-conference foes--prior to playing Tech, Nebraska had only lost at home at night four times ever, to the likes of USC and top-10 Washington and Texas teams. Championship contenders or not, Nebraska plays hard at home, and few (myself included) expected a Tech win--I was simply hoping for a good game.

Let me stop for a moment and point out that the Nebraska fans are by far and away the classiest group of people I've ever encountered. Perhaps my trips to Morgantown, WV, home of the flaming couch-burners, and the countless beers and f-bombs tossed my way by their fans (as well as moonings and curse-laden tirades by their fans on the road in Blacksburg!) has colored my expectations for football fans. But nonetheless, all day long we had Nebraska fans thanking us for coming to the game, mentioning how impressed they were by the number of Tech fans who'd made the trip, wishing us well and expressing the hopes for a good game, etc. During the contest, we didn't have drunk Nebraska students screaming obscenities at us or the refs. And afterwards, we were congratulated by many an unhappy fan in red and black. Heck, when I arrived at my hotel after the game, a Nebraska fan asked me what I thought of their hospitality, asked if I'd been mistreated at all, etc., to which I was honestly able to say: "No, you guys are the best fans I've ever met, and I really hope we can return the favor when you come to see us next year in the 'burg."

I won't go into detail about the game, but needless to say, it was exciting and fun to watch, particularly since Tech came out on the winning end when the final whistle sounded. I may have been bleary-eyed when headed to the airport the next morning in Omaha (where I received an op-up to first class due to the plane being so full--didn't even have to spend an upgrade certificate!), but in the end, it was a great trip and well worth the time.

If you're a fan of college football and have a chance to travel to Lincoln, I really encourage you to avail yourself of the opportunity. You won't regret it, regardless of the outcome of the game.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Sigh--Delays, Delays, Delays; Or, Working In "Bank-Time"

I haven't posted an update on the house hunt in several days--largely because there hasn't been anything to update.

A couple of weeks back, we found out that the bank has mostly agreed to our offer, but were negotiating with the mortgage insurance company. Now, I'd thought given what we knew about this home and its mortgage situation (having done courthouse research on that very topic) that there likely wasn't mortgage insurance involved; the owners were sub-prime borrowers, after all, and refinanced their 80-20 mortgages (both of them ARMs) into a single adjustable-rate mortgage a couple of years ago. Apparently, they financed at 100% (or more), and even though the bank in question (California's failed OwnIt Mortgage) wasn't known for asking for mortgage insurance because it so quickly sold every loan it originated, the owners ended up with PMI.

That throws a bit of a monkey-wrench into a short sale. Why? Well, if the bank were to foreclose, they'd collect on the mortgage insurance policy, which typically insures up to 17% of the loan's original principal. That could mean that the bank might get a better deal by foreclosing than they'd get with a short sale.

Depending on the policy, the mortgage insurer may have to cover a portion of the bank's loss even in the case of a short sale, not just for a foreclosure (this is a pretty common situation from what I understand). Thus, the mortgage insurer has to okay the terms of the short sale, too. And that's where we stand at present.

Now, to me the negotiations should be simple. The bank says to the mortgage insurer, "Look, we're going to either do this short sale or foreclose. You're paying one way or the other." I would assume the only point of negotiation from the insurer should be how much they're willing to pay; in other words, "Hey, bank, you're taking a smaller loss with this sale; how about we pay a proportionally smaller claim, too?" (Aside from this, the insurer can go after the owners and ask them to sign a promissory note for the insurer's loss in paying the bank's claim, or otherwise hold the owner financially responsible in some way--though a good bankruptcy attorney will deal with that unsecured promissory note in short order...)

So I don't get why we're still waiting, two weeks and counting, from when we learned the insurer was involved in negotiations. The math is simple; by my calculations, the bank is approximately $30,000 better-off taking our short sale offer than foreclosing--a figure which grows every day, mind you, as the uncertainties of the housing market drag down the value further; Zillow estimates for the value of the home have already fallen $4,000 in the time we've been waiting on a decision.

Worse for the bank is the fact that the sale has to satisfy the FHA; the FHA isn't going to approve our loan if they're paying more than the property is worth. And every day the bank delays lowers the chances the FHA will be able to approve the upper end of our offer. With falling prices, the bank not only increases the loss they'll face at foreclosure but increases the chance our offer will no longer be available to them.

But we're in "bank-time" now, a strange quick of quantum mechanics and special relativity which twists what should be a decision of hours and minutes into weeks and days. I dealt with "bank-time" in the sale of my townhome, where Wachovia spent days on end on an "emergency rush" loan twiddling their thumbs and not getting the appraisal scheduled, so I'm no stranger to the concept, unfortunately.

I'm not going to even go into what the troubles at insurer AIG along with the uncertain prospects of the Bush and Paulson bank welfare act ($700b - $1t of taxpayer money on a blank check--pay no attention to that man behind the curtain; look at the monkey!) might mean in terms of delaying our home purchase. I can only hope the bank (and its insurer) haven't said, "Hmm, let's suspend short sale approvals for the time being to see what we might get from Uncle's teat." They'd be fools to take the certain numbers of our offer and trade them for the uncertainties of some government bailout.

Of course, there's also the risk now that the joys of the collateralized debt obligation (CDO) world and their mortgage-backed securities will result in the sale, as part of a large group, of the loan to another bank altogether, meaning we'd get to start over.


Tuesday, September 9, 2008

No, Real Estate DOES Still Suck

Still no progress on the home we want to buy at short sale; the listing agent keeps promising "a few more days" on the bank's decision, yet gets snippy with our agent for "bugging" him when he doesn't return calls. I'm beginning to have my suspicions that the sellers are still making their mortgage payments and have yet to go delinquent.

If the bank is Litton Loan Servicing (and from courthouse research the last mortgage deed of trust was with a bank which went under shortly thereafter but whose SEC filings show Litton as servicing their remaining loan portfolio), I have read that they often encourage prospective short-sellers to keep making payments and that they'll go ahead and consider/approve the sale. NOT! This is a lie by the bank to keep getting a few more dollars from the sellers before foreclosure--though you can't blame the bank for trying to make more money when you're asking them to take a loss. But if the listing agent has advised them to keep making payments, listening to the bank's "advice," he's a fool, and we could be in for a long wait indeed. The bank has absolutely no incentive to approve a short sale while the loan is not delinquent.

Anyway, that rant aside, Beth and I did a drive-through of the neighborhood we're targeting and checked up on several of the homes we've followed, including the one we lost twice due to my bad townhouse buyer. You see, that home had never shown up in the Fairfax County land records as having been sold, despite the seller kicking us to the curb in favor of another offer despite our assurances we could close on-schedule and that the townhouse sale closure was imminent (the buyer's bank had, after all, committed the funds; it was only a matter of getting a few papers signed and the checks disbursed). So we were understandably curious what had happened.

Lo and behold, we noticed a "For Sale By Owner" sign out front, along with a "For Rent" sign, and a search of Craigslist showed the original seller was indeed trying to rent it out! Why hadn't they checked back with us to see if we were still interested, we wondered?

Our agent did some checking, and indeed, the sale they'd kicked us to the curb with did fall through, because the seller refused to compromise on the price (and, in retrospect, he's overpriced by at least $18k for the current market, given some of the work that needs to be done like a new breaker box and upgraded electrical service, insulation, and double-paned windows).

Needless to say, this information does not thrill me in the least. Though our originally-targeted home could now be our backup should this short sale drag out much longer, there is absolutely no way I am going to give the seller the price he wants; materially, it's too high given the work that needs to be done (and that doesn't include cosmetic stuff like removing the wall-to-wall carpet he for some reason installed over decent wood floors, refinishing the floors from the carpet installation's damage, erecting a fence around the yard, etc.) And I feel somewhat vindictive as well that we were kicked to the curb twice on that home by the seller; once for a lower-priced offer simply due to our sale-of-home contingency, then again for another lower-priced offer despite assurances (in writing, including the funds commitment letter from my buyer's lender) that we would be able to remove said contingency within a matter of days.

Sigh. Real estate still sucks.