How Christian Were the Founders?
Feb 11th, 2010 by Sam

So Texas gets to decide for the ENTIRE COUNTRY what our children are going to learn?  Because a small group of very determined people with a religious agenda influences the state that buys the most books?  Seriously?

Can’t a few states that want children to learn critical thinking (and that have correspondingly high achievement ratings) band together to buy a bunch of books so at least it’s a fair fight…  and the book companies can afford to print what everyone else wants the children to learn?

Following the appeals from the public, the members of what is the most influential state board of education in the country, and one of the most politically conservative, submitted their own proposed changes to the new social-studies curriculum guidelines, whose adoption was the subject of all the attention — guidelines that will affect students around the country, from kindergarten to 12th grade, for the next 10 years. Gail Lowe — who publishes a twice-a-week newspaper when she is not grappling with divisive education issues — is the official chairwoman, but the meeting was dominated by another member. Don McLeroy, a small, vigorous man with a shiny pate and bristling mustache, proposed amendment after amendment on social issues to the document that teams of professional educators had drawn up over 12 months, in what would have to be described as a single-handed display of archconservative political strong-arming.  Sunday Magazine, NYT, February 11, 2010

Dec 12: Climate change consensus & the skeptics – what’s the problem??
Dec 12th, 2009 by Sam

December 12, 2009

Climate change

Outside the United States, the world is pretty much on board with the notion that the climate is changing in profound ways and that human activity is partially the cause. Within the United States however, there is a stubborn minority who believe it is all hype, or a natural occurrence, or a conspiracy by scientists, politicians, environmentalists and other overt and covert liberals. They reject the notion that there is a scientific consensus, they believe the insurance companies’ risk assessments with which they price their products are simply jumping on the bandwagon, and so forth. We look at the scientific consensus and what the skeptics have to say about them, and also pose few questions from a Green IQ test we stumbled upon.

We’re joined by Brenda Ekwurzel, Federal Climate Scientist, Union of Concerned Scientists.

The unlucky

We get an update on how things are going at the Somerville Homeless Coalition from Mark Alston-Follansbee, Executive Director.  Personal experiences, funding, what works, who helps.


Dec 31: In honor of Halloween
Oct 31st, 2009 by Sam

  • Which of these are superstitions? Black cats are unlucky, Walking under a ladder is unlucky, Stepping on the foul line when running on to a baseball field is lucky (or not), The number 7 is unlucky, Fung shui helps improve life, Miracles happen, People have free will to choose to do anything at any time…
  • What is it that we LIKE about Halloween? Permission to delve into the dark corners of ourselves? What do you like?


Jul 18: 40th Anniversary of the moon landing
Jul 18th, 2009 by Sam

  • Dr. Susan Heilman, Museum of Science – 40th anniversary of moon landing, and bonus topic: lunar haiku (!)
  • Steve Bloomstein, President of the Turimiquire Foundation – maternal/child health in Venezuela
  • The Official Rules of Shotgun – what keeps us from being barbarians!


Some of my best friends are apes
Jul 8th, 2008 by Sam

Should humans extend ‘human rights’ to (other) apes? Other in parentheses because, after all, we are apes too.

That’s the question they are debating right now in Spain – whether to grant limited rights to our closest biological relatives – the great apes – which includes chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans.

So, what would it mean?

  • It would become illegal to kill an ape, except in self-defense.
  • Torture and imprisonment would become strictly forbidden. This includes medical experiments, and circuses and films.
  • Apes in zoos would not be released, but would be treated better.

What does it not mean?

  • Apes do not get to drive cars, bear arms, and so on. Their status would be similar to children.

Do you agree? I have to say, I find this compelling. I know that bonobos, orangutans, and chimps can communicate with words – perhaps not spoken, but they understand. They all understand the concept of ‘the self.’ I hate the idea of medical/science testing on apes. I don’t believe in a soul, so I reject the notion that humans are superior in any metaphysical sense.

Yet, many humans aren’t afforded the same rights that Spain is now granting to nonhumans. The notion that we are going to so much trouble for these creatures when we have so far to go with humans does make me uncomfortable. I remember when I first learned that Africans felt that many Europeans and European Americans cared more about the animals in Africa than the people.

And as the article points out… what is Spain going to do about bullfighting?

Blame, shame, and how our genes are the devil that make us do things
Nov 11th, 2007 by Sam

Why do we do those things we know we’ll regret – over and over.

Historically, the modern explanation, in Western culture at least, has been that people just choose to do things of their own free will.

When I was growing up, it was the devil – causing you to do things against God.  Of course, the free will thing was still there…  We were given free will so we could choose to follow God or the devil.

But now those darn scientists are finding out that a lot of our behavior seems to be driven by our genes.  Dare-devil behavior, or overeating, or talking a lot (!) may be personality traits that we get from our genetic inheritance.  Not only that, but those things our parents did that drove/drive us crazy were, oh my gosh, caused by their genetic inheritance.  Yes.  I am saying that everything your parents did wasn’t 1) intentionally designed to drive you crazy, or 2) chosen by them of their ‘own free will.’

How people react to this news depends on how they feel about their own and other’s behaviors as far as I can tell.

Those who don’t want to let go of free will:

  • When someone is frustrated with other people’s behaviors, they tend to not want to give up the idea that those people could choose to do otherwise, and therefore want to have the right to blame them.
  • On the other hand, if people are pretty happy with where they are in life, and feel like they have achieved a lot, they want the right to claim credit.

Those who don’t have a problem letting go:

  • When they are frustrated by other’s behavior, but have come to the realization that just yelling at people that “they can change and are just choosing not to” has been futile at best and counterproductive at worst.
  • When people see that their own behavior is caused and accept that willing themselves out of bad behaviors it isn’t likely to work.

So, the blamers are frustrated.  The credit seekers are frustrated.  But the acceptors are not only more serene, they are more likely to get the changes they seek as they explore the causal chain of behavior.

Apparently the Buddists have known this for a while…..  Well, Western culture figured out electricity first, and that’s pretty important too, so we shouldn’t blame ourselves……


Tom Clark of the Center for Naturalism reminded me that our behavior isn’t caused only by our genes – our environment, which includes all of our past, present, and future experiences, interacts with our genes and shapes us going forward.  So, the future has many possibilities, depending on every and all link in the causal chain.

Race, genetic differences, and being careful what you wish for
Nov 11th, 2007 by Sam

Before conservatives jump too far on the bandwagon that Asians are the smartest, Europeans next, and Africans the dumbest (yes, I do listen to conservative talk radio and there was quite a bit of conversation about this when James Watson of DNA fame said his bit about this a few weeks ago), I’d suggest they 1) get the science right, and 2) consider the implications.

As reported in today’s New York Times,

“Nonscientists are already beginning to stitch together highly speculative conclusions about the historically charged subject of race and intelligence from the new biological data. Last month, a blogger in Manhattan described a recently published study that linked several snippets of DNA to high I.Q. An online genetic database used by medical researchers, he told readers, showed that two of the snippets were found more often in Europeans and Asians than in Africans.

No matter that the link between I.Q. and those particular bits of DNA was unconfirmed, or that other high I.Q. snippets are more common in Africans, or that hundreds or thousands of others may also affect intelligence, or that their combined influence might be dwarfed by environmental factors.

Conducting and discussing science about racial and gender differences will always be difficult, because everyone has a dog in this fight.  Just as I don’t trust chemical companies to do the research into the environmental impact of fertilizers, or the oil and coal industries to research whether climate change is even happening, let along human-caused; I am skeptical of research conducted by men or women about gender differences, or research done by Asians, Europeans, or Africans about the relative smartness of each.

Really.  I want aliens to buzz on down, do the research, present their findings, and then get out of Dodge.

Since that is unlikely to happen, we’re stuck with doing very careful research, reporting findings in context, and keeping us all honest.

And for those white conservatives who so freely state that they think Asians are smarter, and if they feel that way, Africans shouldn’t be upset that people say they are dumber – well, when China buys all our companies and starts making us repay the debt we owe them while repeating the fact that they deserve to live better because they are smarter – well, let’s just say I suspect those same white conservatives won’t be hummin’ the same tune….


Speaking of keeping us honest, be sure to read Steve’s comment below where he addresses the issue of Watson’s utter failure to be honest about the science.  An excerpt:

“[Watson has] not been honest about the data already in hand, and that to me is the one failing no serious scientist can let pass. I wish he would say he’d gotten the facts wrong, and then his apologies might lead to social changes that would give them some force. So far, he’s gone down another path: he’s made his initial remarks even worse by suggesting that data on the role of childhood experience, as shaped by nature versus nurture, are not yet in, and that when they will be in, we will know that one’s DNA is indeed one’s fate. But the facts are in, and the results are just the opposite. Watson is just wrong. And what’s alarming–shocking even–is that he ought to know he’s wrong.” The Nation, November 1, 2007

These comments were made by Dr. Robert Pollack, former Dean of Columbia University and mentee of Watson.  He goes on to say:

“Under the First Amendment, you can be any kind of nut case and babble your piece. But honesty is the cornerstone of empirical inquiry…. You don’t, you simply cannot, either ignore or make up facts. Watson has trashed that precept. Watson’s fame rests on his being a consummate icon of the scientific profession. But he tanked the clearest of data. This is as inexplicable as it is inexcusable.”

Kudos  to Steve for providing this link.

Sherwin Wine – a brief encounter, a lasting impression
Jul 26th, 2007 by Sam

How many times do you have an encounter with someone that, while brief, stays with you and makes your life better?  Sherwin Wine had that effect on me and judging from the reaction to his recent tragic death, he has had that effect on many others.  Loving comments about him and his life abound, like:

“It is with great sadness that we inform you of the death of one of the greatest Humanist leaders of the 20th Century: Sherwin T. Wine, the 2003 American Humanist of the Year.”  Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard, Greg Epstein, Chaplain

“A titanic voice of reason and humanity has been stilled.  One of the very rare instances whence loss is, perhaps, somewhat mitigated by the legacy…”  People For Change

You can learn more about him and The Society for Humanistic Judaism here.  The New York Times marks his passinghere.

My encounter with Sherwin, yes, I feel I want to call him Sherwin though I barely know the man, was at the Humanist Conference that took place in April 2007 in Cambridge, MA.  Taking place shortly after the Virginia Tech shootings, I arranged for Sherwin to be on a nationally syndicated radio show hosted by Todd Feinburg.  Todd’s listening audience is politically and socially conservative, religious, and had been talking about God, blame, and finding comfort in the face of tragedy in the preceding days.  I thought that it would be interesting for them to hear what humanists, naturalists, people who believe in the natural world, had to say.

I had heard Sherwin speak and knew that he would be wonderful, but this short interview, short interview that has now been listened to by so many of his loving friends since his passing, is an inspiring, touching, challenging statement about finding comfort while looking at life as it is, without rose-colored glasses.

Sherwin was on the show for only about 15 minutes.  However his comments inspired a passionate discussion for the next two full hours which can be heard here and here.  This is remarkable, since radio shows generally switch to new topics each hour.  Truly there is a hunger for, as Sherwin called them, ‘issues of ultimate concern.’

K-StayingSane.jpgWhen the interview was over, he immediately turned his attention to a colleague and friend who was going through severe medical difficulties and pain while eating lunch, attending to me, then going back to the conference proceedings.  In the midst of it all, you got the feeling that Sherwin connected with people in meaningful ways both one-to-one and when speaking with a broader audience.

In his book, “Staying Sane in a Crazy World: A Guide to Rational Living,” Sherwin addresses issues of ultimate concern.  A review of his book says it this way:

“‘Life is unfair. It often does not give us what we want. More often it does not give us what we deserve. There is too much death, betrayal and frustration. There is not enough love, happiness and hope. It is quite clear that the universe does not conform to the human moral agenda.

“‘A just universe is also a meaningful universe. It is also a sane universe. An unjust world is a meaningless world. It is also a crazy world. Staying sane in a crazy world is not easy. It requires a special kind of human ingenuity and determination.’

“Sherwin Wine explores what it means to cope successfully with an unfair world. The first step is to dismiss illusions that hide the reality we must face. Being rational and realistic is not a cold response to life. It is tied to the passion for personal strength and dignity.

“Wine develops the ten steps to sanity. These steps are answers to certain fundamental questions of life. What is happiness? What do I need to do to be happy? How do my fear, anger, love and guilt fit into my search for personal dignity? What does it mean to be ethical in a world that is less than ethical? How can I find the strength I need to cope with the problems of my life?

Staying Sane in a Crazy World is a fresh and somewhat outrageous new approach to the search for meaning in life. In an age when it is fashionable to give people answers that they want to hear but cannot use, Wine provides less fashionable — but more effective — answers to the fundamental issues of the human condition.”

Finally, I’d like to share another quote of Sherwin that I am glad to have found and anticipate coming back to:

“There are two visions of America. One precedes our founding fathers and finds its roots in the harshness of our puritan past. It is very suspicious of freedom, uncomfortable with diversity, hostile to science, unfriendly to reason, contemptuous of personal autonomy. It sees America as a religious nation. It views patriotism as allegiance to God. It secretly adores coercion and conformity. Despite our constitution, despite the legacy of the Enlightenment, it appeals to millions of Americans and threatens our freedom.

The other vision finds its roots in the spirit of our founding revolution and in the leaders of this nation who embraced the age of reason. It loves freedom, encourages diversity, embraces science and affirms the dignity and rights of every individual. It sees America as a moral nation, neither completely religious nor completely secular. It defines patriotism as love of country and of the people who make it strong. It defends all citizens against unjust coercion and irrational conformity.

This second vision is our vision. It is the vision of a free society. We must be bold enough to proclaim it and strong enough to defend it against all its enemies.”  Rabbi Sherwin Wine, Wisdom Quotes

Even though I only briefly met him, I feel both lucky and cheated.  Lucky that my life has been enriched by him.  Cheated that this person, this ‘self’, this unique individual is gone, that I will not have another chance to speak with him.  Sherwin had said he would be on my radio show.  Now, this can’t happen.

Nevertheless, he does live on in us naturalistically – his ideas, part of what was in his brain, are now in our brains, for our enrichment, for our enjoyment.  Which we will now pass on.

Jan 1st, 2007 by Sam

The Samantha Clemens Show

Samantha hosted The Samantha Clemens Show for more than six years, covering current events, politics, science, and culture; featuring interviews, commentary, analysis, and occasional pontification.

She interviewed politicians, scientists, journalists, and writers.  She filled in for Tom Finneran and Michelle McPhee on WRKO AM680 and was a contributor on The Jeff Santos Show on WWZN AM 1510.

Sam’s live broadcasts ended when her station flipped to sports.  She spends her most of her time with friends and foes on Facebook and Twitter.

Email Sam for updates – sam [at] samanthaclemens [dot] com.

Thanks for stopping by!

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