Friday, September 28, 2007

Dennis Prager's Alternate Political Reality: Another Conservative confuses conjecture with data

You have to love reading opinions from other planets. Today’s gem comes from Dennis Prager, who attempts to make the case that conservatives are somehow more interested in truth than are liberals. But as is too common with political commentary today, speculations are substituted for facts, and differences in opinion are misrepresented as denials of reality. Here is how Prager sets up the comparison:

”In the hierarchy of leftist (as opposed to traditional liberal) values, truth is below other values, such as equality, opposition to war, the promotion of secularism and a number of other highly regarded values on the left. This does not mean that the number of truth-tellers among individuals on the left is necessarily smaller than the number of individual truth-tellers on the right. It means that truth-telling is not high on the left's list of values…

Leftist denial of what is true is so widespread that we have a term for it, political correctness. There is no comparable right-wing political correctness, i.e., denying truths so as not to offend right-wing values or certain groups. “

You’ve got to be kidding me. This is classic cherry-picking. Prager lists areas where leftists might fudge or ignore reality, but does not perform a similar examination of the right, where such issues abound: sexual abstinence, AIDS as a gay disease, creationism, supply-side economics, and global warming denial are but a few examples one can list without much difficulty. All are pandered to by conservative politicians so as to not offend the Religious Right, a group to which Prager, not coincidentally, belongs.

Prager then lists some good examples of leftist ideology getting in the way of good science, such as the attachment to the Blank Slate theory of human cognition, a view demolished by current evolutionary psychological studies, and which leads some left-leaning academics to have difficulty, at least in their public pronouncements, dealing honestly with the differences between men and women, or different cultures. But Prager can’t leave well enough alone and again leads with his chin into an area no one claiming the innocence of the right should go: textbooks:

” A prime example of the left's view of truth is its changing the goal of high school American history textbooks from telling truth to promoting self-esteem among minority and female students by depicting more women and more non-whites in American history textbooks.”

I would be curious to see some specific examples of what Prager is talking about here. It is telling that he provides none. Does he mean that textbooks are saying things that are incorrect to further this agenda of self-esteem? Or is he merely complaining about a choice of emphasis? If the latter, he would be guilty of confusing a factual difference with a difference of subjective opinion as to which stories are worth focusing on, and why.

It is even further telling of his ideological blindness that he would bring up textbooks as evidence for all-lefty denialism theory, because there is no greater fraud attempted via textbooks than the right’s constant attacks on evolution, as solid a science as any, and far more solid than any differences Prager might have with history texts. In the evolution/creation battles, it is about factual content, not subjective differences of opinion on emphasis, and it is the right-wingers that fall squarely in the “truth is below other values” camp.

I have a standing challenge which I will repeat here: Let Prager or any other conservative show an issue where the left-wingers deny objective reality as defined by the scientific, philosophical, or whatever other intellectual authority exists. None has been forthcoming. All they point to are subjective issues where they treat the leftist views as objectively wrong when in fact the issues are still very much debated. Take Prager’s next example:

”Currently, the most widely repeated lie of the left is that President George W. Bush lied about Saddam Hussein having weapons of mass destruction. It is repeated so often ("Bush lied, people died") that many Americans now believe this. But it is not true. There were valid reasons for anyone to believe that Saddam Hussein had WMD. Saddam had used them in the past; he refused to allow unfettered inspections; he was the major foreign sponsor of Palestinian terror; and most important, virtually all Western intelligence agencies believed Saddam had WMD.”

All well and good, but completely beside the point. Prager does not know, for a fact, that Bush told the truth. Sure there were facts in evidence that could have led a reasonable person to conclude Saddam had WMDs. There is also the fact that there were no WMDs. Neither tells us what Bush knew, and whether he was truthful when he made the claims he made. It all depends on how one distributes credibility to the various facts. Again, Prager is confusing a difference of opinion with a difference of a factual nature.

Prager finishes with a token gesture or even-handedness, but again, what he leaves unsaid exposes his bias:

”This does not mean the right is always honest. For example, conservatives who say that ‘pornography causes rape’ are doing what the left does -- putting their agenda, in this case a loathing of pornography, above truth-telling. I have seen no credible statistics linking the proliferation of pornography with increased rape.”

Glad to hear it Mr. Prager. I wonder if you would be willing to be so candid as to admit the complete lack of credible statistics to back abstinence sex education programs, or the Right’s criticisms of condom use, evolution, and global warming? Will you be up front about the complete lack of credible data behind the Right’s rabid support of education vouchers, the Laffer curve, or the drug war? There is nothing, nothing, in the mainstream of the Democratic party to match the denial of reality found in the mainstream of the Republican party. One cannot rightly compare differences of political opinion with scientific fact, and by doing so, Prager gives up any pretense he had to intelligent objectivity on such issues.

Doug Giles on Sex Ed: Lying with Statistics

Nothing brings out the stupid and scare tactics from the conservasphere like gay marriage and sex education. Today’s entry on the latter comes from that bastion of pompous piety, Doug Giles. It is a textbook base of the manipulation of statistics for the purpose of fearmongering. The nonsense begins right out of the gate:

”Chances are historically high, young person, that if you screw around sexually nowadays well…you could very well be…screwed. As in, for life, with the ‘gift’ that keeps on giving—namely, a Sexually Transmitted Disease. “

This is almost as ignorant as someone who talks about “drugs”, as if caffeine, marijuana, cocaine, and heroine are interchangeable and basically the same. Contracting a yeast infection sexually is an STD, but is as different from AIDS as a mouse is from an elephant. And what is meant by “young”? A 19 year old and a 15 year old are worlds apart. Giles isn’t interested in such distinctions of course, because his agenda is to instill fear, rather than to educate. After going through a bunch of scary sounding descriptions of the worst case scenarios (akin to warning a child about to swim in the ocean that he might have his arm torn off by a shark), he gets into the statistical data mauling that conservatives are so famous for:

”The truth of the matter is that STDs are cranking in our culture like never before, and they are an equal opportunity infector. An estimated 19 million new cases occur each year with our teenage kids getting hammered with the lion’s share of this slop (teens now make up 25% of the 19 million new “victims” annually). “

Can this be surprising? Young people tend to be less cautious than older people, so why wouldn’t we expect them to make more mistakes sexually? And since people like Giles scoff at the notion of safe sex with condoms, he can hardly rightly squawk now that without the best method of prevention available, bad things happen. If you tell people not to wear crash helmets, and to just refrain from riding motorcycles, what do you think is going to happen to the death rates of those who ride anyway?

This is the part of the equation people like Giles want to pretend doesn’t exist: people are going to have sex whether you tell them its ok or not, whether they say they will abstain or not. The genie is out of the social bottle, and it is never going back. The challenge for us as a society is to determine how to lessen the social cost of this behavior, not to scream “just say no!” and bury our heads in the sand.

A few of Giles statistical citations deserve mention as evidence that his agenda is to frighten, rather than to educate:

”• This year, 8 to 10 million teens will contract an STD. “

OK. What ages are these teens? Are they using condoms or not? How many of these kids have that same STD a year later? If we are concerned about children, why isn’t the statistic restricted to 17 year olds and younger? Because it wouldn’t have given Giles a scary enough number.

”• Nearly one out of four sexually active teens is living with a sexually transmitted disease at this moment. “

Always, always, always be suspicious of any statistic that talks about a moment or small stretch in time, especially when it uses weasel words like “living with”. They are always designed to deceive. Why didn’t he just say that they “have” an STD? Does this phrasing allow them to answer “yes” if their sibling has an STD? Why is the sample restricted to “sexally active” teens? The answer to all of these questions is the same: to produce a larger figure of course.

”• Nearly 50% of African-American teenagers have genital herpes. “

Why would the figure for blacks be different than other groups? Has this figure accounted for differences in education or economic status? Any bets as to why Giles used the figure on blacks instead of the entire population? Because it is higher of course.

”• Although teenagers make up just 10% of the population, they acquire 25% of all STDs. “

Notice how this stat isn’t restricted to the sexually active group in the population, as was done earlier. Why? Well, because for this piece of propaganda, Giles needed the proportion of teens in the population considered to be small, and what better way to do that than to include seniors, who are more numerous than teens and, for obvious reasons, far less likely to contract an STD. As it is the stat is easy to explain: teens have more sex per capita than the population, and are more reckless than the population, so of course they acquire more STDs.

”• Herpes (specifically, herpes simplex virus type 2) has skyrocketed 500% in the past 20 years among white teenagers. “

Another way people are dishonest with statistics is by talking about growth rates. Any time you see a percentage growth figure, you are essentially being lied to. The reason is that growth rates can be enormous for low frequency events, even if the absolute number is insignificant, and as such can be very misleading. For example, if there was one Komodo dragon in the United States in 2007, and then 5 in 2008, we could say what Giles said about Herpes 2: The Komodo dragon population in the United States has skyrocketed 500%! So?

Also, notice again how Giles manipulates the statistics, talking only about the growth of Herpes 2 among Whites, and only in the last 20 years. Why not the entire population, or another time frame? Again, because it wouldn’t have given him such a “skyrocketed” number.

Giles approach is also horribly outdated on the issue of herpes. When he and I were teenagers, herpes was the Darth Vader of STDs, even more so than AIDS. But a lot has changed in the last 20 years, and current herpes medications reduce the problem to the point where people with it can go years without a single outbreak. Sure, wed still like to reduce the cases of it as much as possible, but it is no longer the major threat to health and well-being it used to be.

”• STDs accounted for 87% of all cases reported of the top ten most frequently reported diseases in the United States in 1995. “

So? What is Giles’ point here? Would he be happier if STDs only accounted for 15% of such cases? Bring back smallpox! Seriously, having STDs as the biggest disease threat we face should be cause for celebration, not alarm. After all, whether or not one contracts an STD remains very much under one’s control, tied as it is to or personal decisions.

”• This new epidemic is not just cursing those ‘poor inner city kids.’ No, the viruses have solidly taken up residence in the suburbs. “

Ah, right Doug, that must be why you went out of your way earlier to give us the herpes proportion of the black population. Also, notice how he slipped the term “virus” in there, despite the fact that many STDs are not viruses. Why would he do that? Again, it is a scare tactic. When we hear “virus” in a discussion of STDs, the first thing our minds relate to is AIDS. But wait, there's more:

"Yep, the reality is that every twenty-four hours 21,000 teens are slapped, saddled, infused and infected with some creepy, nasty and potentially deadly bug brought about by following the advice of our crass culture."

Actually it's brought about by listening to advice from people like Giles who say "just say no", and from ignoring all advice. Research suggests teens do not much follow advice at all. Also note Giles' use of the dishonest tactic of reducing the statistic to "every 24 hours" to inflate the scare factor, and the insinuation that most STDs are life threatening, when the vast majority of them are not.

The rest is just more of the same. Honest data be damned, the abstinence crowd is just another crop of Liars for Jesus, right down the hall from the intelligent design crew.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Atheist Fights for Rights in Military, or Tell me again how Christians are Oppressed

Via Mike Dunford comes this article about the soldier who was harrased by one of his superior officers for having the audacity to attempt to have a meeting of atheists (with the Chaplain's permission, as apparently is required for such things). Here is the complaint:

"On August 7, 2007, plaintiff Hall attempted to conduct and participate in a meeting of individuals who consider themselves atheists, freethinkers, or adherents to non-Christian religions. With permission from an army chaplain, plaintiff Hall posted flyers around COB Speicher [an Army base located near Tikrit, Iraq] announcing the meeting. The meeting attendees included plaintiff Hall, other military personnel and nonmilitary personnel. "

Dunford gives us this description:

"During the course of the meeting, defendant Welborne confronted the attendees, disrupted the meeting and interfered with the plaintiff Hall's and the other attendees' rights to discuss topics of their interests. During the confrontation, and because of plaintiff's actions in organizing the meeting, defendant Welborne threatened plaintiff Hall with an action under the Uniform Code of Military Justice and further threatened to prevent plaintiff Hall's reenlistment in the United States Army. "

So all you right-wing whiners, tell me again how it is you think it is Christians who are discriminated against in this country?

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Buchanan and Powell on the Overrated Terrorist Threat

Ever since the 9/11 panic, where so many American chicken littles were willing to give up so much of our freedom and the values on which it is based, merely because one American week’s mortality went up about 7%, I have maintained that terrorism was an overrated threat. Now here comes Colin Powell, via Pat Buchanan, backing me up.

”Terrorism, said Powell, is not a mortal threat to America. ‘What is the greatest threat facing us now?’ Powell asked. ‘People will say it's terrorism. But are there any terrorists in the world who can change the American way of life or our political system? No. Can they knock down a building? Yes. Can they kill somebody? Yes. But can they change us? No. Only we can change ourselves. So what is the great threat we are facing?’”

Indeed, it seems in our fervor to defend against another terrorist attack, we have forgotten what makes a terrorist what he is. Terrorists use terror as a weapon because they lack the ability to effect political change via the other two common methods: the ballot box, and military might. That lack both, thus being reduced to lobbing Molotov cocktails from the shadows. 9/11 was, in its very essence, one great big act of vandalism and murder. Without an army with which to invade (such as the Nazis and Communists had), terrorism is impotent to do much more. All this has been ignored over the last six years. Buchanan puts it all in perspective:

”Terrorists can blow up our buildings, assassinate our leaders, and bomb our malls and stadiums. They cannot destroy us. Assume the worst. Terrorists smuggle an atom bomb into New York harbor or into Washington, D.C., and detonate it.

Horrible and horrifying as that would be -- perhaps 100,000 dead and wounded -- it would not mean the end of the United States. It would more likely mean the end of Iran, or whatever nation at which the United States chose to direct its rage and retribution. Powell's point is not that terrorism is not a threat. It is that the terror threat must be seen in perspective, that we ought not frighten ourselves to death with our own propaganda, that we cannot allow fear of terror to monopolize our every waking hour or cause us to give up our freedom. “

Exactly. We have been like an elephant charging off a cliff for fear of a mouse. Terrorists can hurt us, but they cannot destroy us, and they could not begin to inflict the kind of damage to us that we have inflicted on ourselves over the last six years. Nor could they do anywhere near the damage that the Nazis or Communists could have done, which is why comparisons to those empires are so idiotic, as Buchanan spells out:

”For all the blather of a restored caliphate, the ‘Islamofascists,’ as the neocons call them, cannot create or run a modern state, or pose a mortal threat to America. The GNP of the entire Arab world is not equal to Spain's. Oil aside, its exports are equal to Finland's. Afghanistan and Sudan, under Islamist regimes, were basket cases. Despite the comparisons with Nazi Germany, Iran is unable to build modern fighters or warships and has an economy one-twentieth that of the United States, at best. While we lack the troops to invade Iran, three times the size of Iraq, the U.S. Air Force and Navy could, in weeks, smash Iran's capacity to make war, blockade it and reduce its population to destitution. Should Iran develop a nuclear weapon and use it on us or on Israel, it would invite annihilation.

As a threat, Iran is not remotely in the same league with the Soviet Union of Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev, or Mao's China, or Nazi Germany, or Imperial Japan, or even Mussolini's Italy. “

Bingo. We have completely lost our perspective of what a real threat to our nation would look like. We have boarded up our houses and reduced the liberties of everyone living in them all because some crazy kid with a god complex threw a rock through a window.

Buchanan cannot leave well enough alone and wastes several paragraphs on his favorite bugaboo: immigration. Powell’s wise words save the article, and make a good closing:

”If America ends, it will not be the work of an Osama bin Laden. As Abraham Lincoln said, it will be by our own hand, it will be by suicide.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Creationist Bingo

Skeptico has made a creationist Bingo card. Now when you listen to a creationist speak, you can have fun too. [hat tip Pharyngula]

Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Bible Makes another Atheist

I am enjoying a special event. A friend who has struggled with her religion over the years has suddenly blossomed into a bonified freethinker, asking all the right (or wrong) questions, and seeking, seeking, seeking answers. It is a wonder to behold. As with so many of us, a intense detailed examination of the Bible has accelerated her understanding. For the Bible is the most owned, and least read, book, in all the world. Many of us who now proudly wear the Atheist title were helped there by actually reading the Bible instead of merely looking at the pretty cover on the coffee table. If you haven’t read the Bible in a while, or ever, try it. Really. Don’t just read the hand-picked selections recommended by your local clergy. Start at the beginning and read it all. You will be amazed at what is in there: mass murder, arbitrary and draconian penalties for the most trivial offenses, slavery, and of course a god that, as described, is unworthy of worship from any thinking self-respecting person.

I'm not certain there are no gods. I am certain the Bible got it wrong.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

College Football: The Texas Geographic Handicap

I am going to be blogging a lot about football, but understand it is almost never going to be about football per se. Football, having become our national pastime, if not an obsession, tells us a lot about our culture, and the psychological, social, and philosophical issues that arise are often far deeper than any set of X’s and O’s could be.

For example, every year in college football, the debate rages: which state has the most high school talent? While some diehards that recall players named Montana and Marino might lobby for consideration of Pennsylvania, or maybe even Ohio, the consensus these days is that the Holy Trinity of college football recruiting are Texas, Florida, and California. However, I see it as a lesson in unconsciously biased samples, and how easy it is to get fooled by them.

The debate then tends to focus on comparing the college programs of those states as a proxy for state talent. Typical were the comments from the announcers of today’s Texas/Central Florida game touting the various successful programs in Florida as evidence of the superiority of Florida high school talent. After all, college students rarely travel too far from home to get their education. Ohio State tends to have a majority of players from Ohio, or the surrounding states, as does USC from California, or UT from Texas. So having good college teams in one’s state is treated as a strong proxy for high school talent generally. However, there is a serious flaw with this analysis when deciding between the top states that I’ve never seen discussed, and it has to do with the geography of the states in question. To illustrate the problem, consider the likely results of an analysis consistent with the reasoning above. The states would probably come out something like this:

1) Florida
2) California
3) Texas
4) Ohio
5) Pennsylvania

Now consider the geography of these states, and one fact leaps off the page: The more coastline, and the less centrally located in the 48 states, the better they do. This is the inevitable result of the limited distances college athletes are willing to travel from home to go to school, combined with interstate recruiting. Mathematically, the more extra-state schools within X miles of the high school athletes, the more likely it is that those athletes will play for a school in another state. Thus, the optimal position for a state with a lot of homegrown talent that wants to keep it playing ball at home, would be on the edge of the map, preferably, ahem, a peninsula. Now look at the list again, and think about how much more limited the choices of schools is for a kid out of Miami, versus one in Los Angeles, versus one in Dallas. The Dallas kid is surrounded by extra-state options, the LA kid slightly less so, and the Miami kid has to travel hundreds of miles before reaching ANY options outside of the state. Ohio and Pennsylvania are so centrally located that, well, there is no stopping the bleeding of talent beyond their borders.

So essentially, the uneven geography makes for a bias in the high school talent=>college success correlation. It tilts the analysis in favor of states with talent that are the most geographically isolated, and against those with a geographically central location. Florida college teams aren’t so good merely because Florida has superior homegrown talent. They keep far more of their talent at home than Texas or Ohio ever could, because the kids have fewer options. This is the sort of bias that can exist in many proxies, and it is important to think about what those biases might be to avoid erroneous conclusions.

Tasers, Censorship, and Free Speech Part I

For those of you who haven’t seen the video of the University of Florida student tasered for being obnoxious at a political event featuring John Kerry, here it is. This comes on the frightening heels of the tasering of a UCLA student for not allowing the library security to search his bag, and trying to leave. Slightly related are the stories of the editing of Emmy speeches by Sally Field, and Kathy Griffin, along with the embarrassing leak of the Bush administration’s crowd control memo called The Presidential Advance Manual. The common themes: speech, dissent, a presumption of innocence, and of course, tasers. It’s a multifaceted issue, and the first facet I’m going to address is free speech.

Free speech is one of those American freedoms we cherish. It is often one of the first people list among those that define us as a nation, and indeed, is the first of our amendments to the constitution. We mouthy Americans value being mouthy. How often have we heard someone say “I disagree with what you say, but I'll fight to the death for your right to say it". As a judge Walter Matthau once played said “This is America, where every man has the right to be wrong.”

There is however, an important distinction to be drawn between political speech in a public arena, say a college political event, and speech via a privately owned medium, such as a TV station. Now true, we still place a value on our freedom in both arenas. There also are many situations where we justify the same level of freedom in the private arenas as in the political ones, but for different reasons. One might argue 1st amendment freedoms for speech on a TV program based on the theory that the airwaves are public domain. However, reaching the same conclusion does’t make the situations the same, any more than it makes multiplication and addition the same via the fact that multiplying two 2’s and adding them results in the same answer. The arenas are different, and for very important reasons.

The first amendment, whatever its modern reach, is primarily about freedom of political opinions and religious views. Since popular opinions need no protection, it is unpopular opinions that fall under the 1st amendment’s cloak. This is not mere abstraction. Much opinion now accepted was once unpopular. In other words, it dissented from the accepted norm. Dissent is the lifeblood of a Democracy. Without it, there is no way for a society to identify, and right, its wrongs. Dissent is to democracy what random genetic variation is to evolution – the means of betterment if the environment favors it. In biology, the environment is the physics of the world. In politics, it is the ever changing views of the voting citizenry, and an ever-changing world that demands we be ready to adapt.

This is why we, as Americans, should encourage dissent. Even if you are convinced the dissenter is as wrong as wrong can be, let them dissent anyway. Science deals with this in the experimental data, in the research and field projects, and in the peer-reviewed literature. Politics deals with it in debates, in letters to your congressmen, and at the ballot box. And yes, politics also deals with it by allowing people to speak their mind when confronting their elected representatives. They are entrusted by us, the voting citizenry, to make laws on our behalf. No level of scrutiny and questioning is sufficient. We have no other recourse, no other peaceful means of influence, than our speech, aside from that fleeting moment of biannual lever-pulling.

The student tased at the University of Florida was doing his civic duty, as we all should. Sure he was obnoxious. Sure he was loud. Sure he held the microphone too long. However, there have been ways of dealing with this that have worked effectively for decades. All of us who have attended such events are familiar with this sort of person. They hold the mike as long as they can, savoring their 15 minutes with the political glitterati. As long as they are entertaining and informative, we let them go. If we decide its enough, we boo them off the mike, or the speaker refuses to address them. As far as I can tell from reports at the scene, and Kerry’s comments, the kid was just being politically aggressive, and Kerry was prepared to go toe to toe. This is what politics are supposed to be, and some overly aggressive campus cops ruined it and embarrassed America.

That’s right. They embarrassed America. They embarrased the University of Florida. They tackled to the ground a kid that was doing nothing more than confronting, verbally, his elected representative. No threats of violence, and as the clip above makes clear, no obscenities, despite the claims of the campus cops. This is what is supposed to make America great, that we allow such speakers to speak. Few other countries allow this. Go to Iran or Russia and speak out like that against your senators or the equivalent and see what happens to you.

And please, don’t give me this baloney about the campus cops enforcing some time rule because he was speaking too long. If he was telling Kerry how great a senator he was, they would have let him speak. He was dragged away because he was being critical. That is as un-American as it gets, as is the Bush administration’s dissent-control techniques. Yes, it is likely that the Democrats do something similar, but so what? We should be enraged that any American politician gets away with this. Stifling dissent is the tell-tale sign of someone that can’t take the intellectual heat. As much as I disagree with the creationists, I would never suggest they should be arrested for stating their views, or should be shouted down when they choose to do so. Viva le Difference. I am confident of the rightness of the scientific position, and as such, I welcome the challenges. Politicians need to be ready for the same, and if not, we as the citizenry have a duty to force their hand. This is why we should all love the Olbermann’s and the O’Reilly’s out there, regardless of our differences with their views or their person. They are watching the politicians, and we need that.

Personally, I hope every one of those UF campus cops involved in the tasering of that student is either fired, or required to make amends to that student and his family. I can only imagine what it was like for his mother to watch that video of him being brutalized. I can only imagine what must go through the heads of people in places like Iraq, where we are supposedly teaching them the wonders of Democracy, when they hear of this. I can only imagine an America where this becomes the norm, and sadly, given the number of people out there muttering “he deserved it”, I may not have to wait too long to see it.

What I’ll also probably not have to wait too long to see is the inevitable second step to actions like this. You think this shouldn’t happen in America? The scene with this kid got pretty intense, with a large crowd watching and recording the event. It would only have taken one kid to charge the cops, one of the crowd to toss a chair at them, and then the situation would have gotten totally out of control, and even less American. Won't we be proud to be Americans then? This has to stop, and it has to stop now.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Idiot of the Week, Sherri Shepard, Care of the View

You know, I'm actually one of those guys that doesn't hate The View. I've watched it a few times, and while it certainly isn't my favorite talk show, it's not in its own special category of inane. It's The Man Show with breasts. No biggie.

But for crying out loud, just when I thought I had heard the dumbest thing ever on TV, here comes Sherri Shepard with the worst ever. First she tells us she doesn't believe in evolution. That's bad enough, although in a lot of ways that can be blamed on others: a poor education system, and lying anti-science ministers top the list. However, there is no excuse short of sheer idiocy for her next claim: that she doesn't know or care if the earth is flat, as Whoopi Goldberg found out when she asked her.

"I never thought about it Whoopi. Is the world flat? I never thought about it? But I'll tell you what I thought about: how I'm going to feed my child, how I'm going to take care of my family. 'Is the world flat?' has never entered into...that has never been an important thing to me."

I kept waiting for her to say she's "keeping it real!", which is another way of saying "I assume anything I don't understand isn't important". I mean really, where does one start with this? Yes it's wonderful that Sherri only wants to worry about how to feed her child. And sure, if that's all she's capable of intellectually, then she should no more be made fun of for her perspicacity than a paraplegic should be made fun of for his foot speed. Her tone, however, and the tone of the millions of other people who have answered similar questions similarly, is not one of "pity me I'm not up to snuff", but rather "It's beneath me to worry about such things and you shouldn't either".

These are the same people that say things like "college doesn't make you smarter" (yeah, sorry, it does), and "I don't need to learn algebra, I'll never use it", like they'd have a clue (Edison thought the phonograph would be used for office dictation). I don't mean to go all Atlas Shrugged here, but you people couldn't worry only about feeding your child and taking care of your family as poor Sherri does, if there weren't millions of people out here who bother to worry about everything else so you don't have to. There is a lot going on in the world because most of us understand things like the earth not being flat, and that we evolved, and people like Sherri benefit from that knowledge, whether they understand that or not. Were people like Sherri in charge of human history, we'd all still be sitting in caves wondering if rocks were edible. Planes and computers do not get built, nor vaccines invented, nor moons reached, worrying only about those closest to us. What is assumed by Sherri to be so noble, worrying only about one's family, is actually, when you get right down to it, extremely selfish.

It's also a load of bullshit. She can't know the shape of the earth because she has to spend that effort worrying about her family? I'll bet she knows who won the last American Idol. It's not a lack of time, but a lack of interest, of intellect, and understanding, that led her here. As Barbara Walters pointed out in response to Sherri's false black and white view, "You can do both". Yeah, most of us do.

I'm not asking people like Sherri to be rocket scientists. I'm not even begrudging her her opportunity to make a lot of money at a job one could do not knowing the earth was round and bragging about it. Bully for her, and bully for you if you have a similar situation. But for the love of all the gods, when the subject comes up concerning an understanding of the world on which your cushy little life depends (and trust me, it does), and which is beyond your abilities, and which has been grasped by other people who were willing to put forth the effort to know it, try to have a little humility, and a little gratitude, and just the teensiest appreciation. You have the luxurious, by historical standards, life you have because of the rest of us, alive and in history, who expanded our interests and efforts in the world a little further than our immediate, personal concerns.

Iraq War Data

For those interested in the actual figures from the war in Iraq, here they are. I wish the news were as good as some would have us believe.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Carl Zimmer and Real Science

Carl Zimmer has an interesting article discussing a new book he has written condensing Charles Darwin’s “Descent of Man”. In it, Zimmer shows, probably unwittingly, the difference between real science writing and pseudoscience:

” Also bear in mind that this edition also contains commentary I've written for each section, in which I put the book in its historical context and reflect on how recent discoveries have either supported or overturned Darwin's arguments.”

Here is a science writer talking about Darwin’s mistakes. Oh yes, he made a lot of them. Remember that Darwin write before genetics was fully understood, and as such had no knowledge of the means by which natural selection could effect populations. In some ways this shows Darwin’s brilliance, since the discovery of DNA stands as one of the great verifications of his general theory. But Darwin’s speculations about these specifics was also found wanting, and scientists have little trouble talking about that.

What I found interesting about Zimmer’s innocent comment is how starkly it contrasts to pseudoscientific writing. Try to imagine an IDer/creationist writing about the mistakes of William Paley, Michael Behe, or William Dembski. Consider how bizarre it would look to hear James Inhofe criticize something about the latest global warming denials. Take a look at any alternative health magazine and see how much criticism and dissent you can find. I’ve tried, and failed, many times. Lockstep agreement sans critical analysis is a sure sign of crankery. Doubt, not certainty, debate and criticism, not unity and loyalty, are what produce intellectual progress.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Brent Bozell Misses Griffin's Point

Brent Bozell has weighed in on the Kathy Griffin Emmy speech saga, and as is so common with conservatives when it comes to the views of the irreligious, completely misses the point of Griffin's comments about Jesus. Bozell sums up his confusion:

"She mocked Jesus Christ."

Uh, no she didn't Brent. She mocked people whose religious views are so shallow they allow them to think the supreme creator of the universe concerns himself with the outcomes of popularity contests. She mocked people who are arrogant enough to think their performance on the stage and field implies we care to hear their religious opinions. And she mocked people who think only their opinions on Jesus deserve a place in the public discourse, based solely on their willingness to cry louder than anyone else when their God is treated less than reverently. In other words, she mocked you Brent.

She didn't mock Jesus because to her Jesus is just a fictional character, not someone to be thanked for Oscars and Heisman trophies. It would be akin to being accused of mocking Santa Claus. Bozell's misunderstanding here goes back to the basic problem believers have understanding that atheists aren't mad at Jesus, or rebelling against Jesus. We don't think Jesus was god, because we don't think there are any gods. One doesn't mock a phantom.

The point Griffin made, and Bozell is inadvertently validating, is that there isn't really equality of religious freedom in this country. It may be that way in the law, but it is certainly not that way socially. The unstated rule, which Griffin has all but forced them to state, is that religious opinions are only acceptable during one's acceptance speech if they support the existence of gods. If you don't believe, then your opinion is unwelcome. Many can't seem to get past their own biases and grasp this, as Bozell again is all-too-eager to demonstrate:

"An insult against Jesus Christ isn't necessarily 'offensive,' according to this wire service.

No Brent, it isn't. It's only offensive if you believe Jesus was god, and for the 4 billion or so people in the world that doesn't describe, it's no more offensive than an insult against Brent Bozell. Likewise, to an atheist, comments that imply the speaker believes he is the recipient of special favor from the creator of the universe, are somewhat offensive. But see, to people like Brent, the only offense that matters is theirs. If anyone is offended by them, well then it's just tough cookies, because they are the majority. Well you are, for now. But as more and more people like Griffin start speaking up against the religious nonsense that has run amok in society for far too long, the more those numbers will continue to move in the atheist's favor, as they have for decades.

"But there is funny, and there is insulting. Griffin doesn't have a clue of the difference."

So tell me Brent, when you imply that insults against Jesus are necessarily offensive, do you mean to be funny, or are you merely insulting?

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Chuck Colson and Christian Demographics: Revealing More than He Intends

Colson has an interesting article discussing the different fertility rates for conservative Christians vs liberal nonChristians in the United States, a difference of between 40% and 80%, depending on how the groups are defined. Colson supposes this to be an encouraging sign for his fellow conservative Christians, and I suppose it is. It is also quite a disappointment for those of us hoping for a more rational society of the future. However, what caught my attention is the lynch pin assumption in Colson’s reasoning, a fact so devastating to the idea of Christian truth that it is remarkable to me that a conservative Christian would admit it:

” tend to grow up to worship the way their parents do. In a generation or two, we are going to have a bumper crop of conservative citizens. Candidates who appeal to Christians will win more elections simply because of demographics.”

Yes, indeed they do. The religion of one’s parents is the single greatest predictor of one’s religion. And while this certainly supports Colson’s population argument, it completely exposes the intellectual weakness of religion. For if one’s views on religion are so highly correlated with one’s parents views, and given the wide range of religious views around the world, the question begging to be asked is: what then of all the claims that one’s religious views are based on any sort of reasoning or evidence? How can one’s views on something claiming objective, nay, eternal truth, be determined by genetic lottery and have value?

Consider, for example, a society who believed one should never wear red hats, that this represented an eternal truth anyone can come to accept. Now consider their neighbors, who also believe one should never wear hats of a certain color, because of their search for the eternal truth of hats, except that the color they forbade was blue? Imagine that 95% of Red Hattists had Red Hattist parents, and 95% of Blue Hattists had Blue Hattist parents, etc. Doesn't this lay waste to the insistence by some that they reasoned out their views on hats, and just happened by sheer coincidence to draw the same conclusions their parents did? Clearly the various Hattistisms are mere social convention, rather than some sort of universal objective truth. How is religion different?

As Richard Dawkins revealed in an entertaining speech, when one looks at science around the globe, many consensuses can be found on many issues, even in our areas of ignorance. For example, the prevailing theory of the killer of the dinosaurs is the impact of a comet approximately 65 million years ago. But imagine if only the people in the US thought that, but Canadians thought it was the rise of the mammals, Africans believed it was the ice age, and Asians that it was solar flares? That is how religion looks, and that’s why Colson’s analysis is hardly something to celebrate.
He also ends with a rather disturbing comment that one would think impossible in this day and age:

”For the last half century, Western industrialized nations, fearing overpopulation and despoiling the planet, have made slowing population growth one of their top priorities. So now we are in the middle of what one observer calls a ‘global baby bust’—except, that is, among devout Christian families, those who take seriously the biblical mandate to ‘be fruitful and multiply.’ It shows that when Christians live out the biblical worldview, we not only survive, we thrive. “

Uh, sure Bob, you’ll get to dominate an overpopulated despoiled planet. Congratulations. And when you are asked why you didn’t do anything to deal with those problems, you can point to your Bible and whine that there is nothing in there about any of our modern problems. I’m sure that will make it all right. Or maybe, just maybe, instead of relying on the words of ignorant desert tribesmen writing before we even knew 1/3 of the world existed, we could recognize now that there is nothing in that book, or any ancient tome, to aid us in our battles against the problems of population, disease, extinctions, asteroids, climate change, resource depletion, and all the other threats to our very existence. We can turn instead to more enlightened ways of knowing for our guidance. We can put our trust in replicable experiment, rather than blind faith. Better a few live Christians than a lot of dead ones.

Bethell vs Derbyshire

In his debate with John Derbyshire, Tom Bethell makes some very revealing comments concerning the ID position:

”Intelligent design is not creationism, and repeating that claim over and over will not make it so.”

It is nothing short of remarkable that even after the exposure of the transformation of creationism into intelligent design via the Wedge Document, IDers can still make this claim with a straight face. The trouble is, if the two were truly different, then it should be no trouble for Bethell or any other IDer to rattle off a few of the cases where ID makes claims that conflict with classic creationism. Yet one can peruse the ID literature in total and never find any clear statements of differences. What one finds is general, ill-defined statements that purport to allow noncreationist interpretations, but never commit to such a thing, always leaving the creationist interpretation alive under the big tent. Bethell demonstrates:

”Structures or signals of specified complexity permit an inference to design without any necessary recourse to the supernatural.”

If this claim were true, it would have applications in forensic science, archaeology, and a whole host of other areas of inquiry. However, the IDers have not once done even the most rudimentary demonstration of this ability to infer design, say by distinguishing an arrowhead from a rock, leaving their claim as mere bluster, which is why none of the scientists in those areas have the slightest interest in it.

More to the main point, to demonstrate that the design inference is not creationism, it would need to rule out the supernatural, not merely leave other possibilities open. The only reason those other possibilities are never ruled out is because the IDers very conveniently and unscientifically refuse to inquire as to the nature of the designer. Bethell tries to compare this to what SETI scientists do, but this only digs his hole deeper:

”There's an institute in Mountain View, Calif., where scientists are involved in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence -- SETI … Operating strictly within the protocols of science, the seekers after SETI can infer design from certain signals or structures. I don't see where supernaturalism has to come in.

It doesn’t. However, the moment the SETI scientists found evidence of design, they would immediately inquire as to the nature of the designers, and rule out possibilities as the evidence allowed. Also, the SETI researchers chose the kinds of energy patterns in their search based on what we produce, which lays waste to the notion that one can detect design independent of any knowledge of the designer. It is quite possible there are beings out there sending some sort of signals our way and we simply have no way to discern them.

Bethell then combines a couple of classic creationist canards, demanding that Derbyshire and other critics of ID do the work the IDers should have done themselves in devising falsifiable experiments, and implying that ID/evolution is an either/or proposition:

”In an earlier comment, Mr. Derbyshire raised the question of ID research conducted under the auspices of the Discovery Institute. What research have they done, he wondered. The question implies that experiments could, at least in principle, help us to decide whether the organisms that we see around us were designed, or are the result of random mutation and natural selection.

I would like Derbyshire to think about this, and suggest such an experiment.

Uh, no Mr. Bethell. The IDers have proposed the designer hypothesis, thus the onus is on them to devise falsifiable experiments to support that position. It has long been the position of scientists and philosophers who have examined the ID claims that no such experiments are possible, because the Designer could do anything at any time for any reason. This is why ID fails to qualify as science. Trying to pass the buck to the critics of ID does not help matters. Further, evolution and ID are independent theories. Disconfirmatory evidence for one is not confirmatory evidence for the other. This is why ID arguments that attack evolution do not qualify as arguments for design. It could be the case that neither is true. Bethell does not understand this, and engages in some blatant projection of these problems onto evolution:

”Darwinism is so loosely structured (to put it politely) that it is capable of ‘explaining’ any and every organism. If an organism exists, it is ‘fit,’ and therefore Darwinism accounts for it.

This is sheer nonsense. As has been mentioned by many defenders of science, a Cambrian rabbit fossil would destroy evolutionary theory, as would a Pegasus, a centaur, and any number of other possible creatures. Bethell continues to project, and inadvertently gives a great criticism of ID:

”But as Derbyshire may also have heard, a theory that explains everything, without any possibility of encountering a falsifying instance, is not really a scientific theory at all. It is philosophy dressed up as science. It is, in fact, pseudoscience -- the kind that gives Mr. D so much idle amusement.”

Exactly. This is Intelligent Design in a nutshell, and Bethell even grants as much, only to project IDs flaws once again onto evolutionary science:

”A criticism of intelligent design is that the claim, ‘God can do anything, therefore this critter was designed by God’ gets us nowhere. I agree that it doesn't. But a very similar objection can be raised against Darwinism. Its partisans are at liberty to say of any organism whatever that it arose by mutation and natural selection -- without having to produce any supporting evidence. In the end, it amounts to nothing more than the belief that supernaturalism must be avoided at all cost. Looked at this way, Darwinism is simply a deduction from a philosophy -- the philosophy of materialism (sometimes called naturalism). “

There is not polite word for this. It is blind ignorance at best, outright lying at worst. One would think listening to Bethell that all evolutionary scientists do is sit around and speculate, and the reason Bethell thinks this is because that is all the IDers do. Scientists are doing research and finding evidence for evolution all the time. There are literally millions of papers in the scientific literature on the subject. Bethell relies on the ignorance of his readership when he makes statements like that. Sadly, given the decline of quality science education in this country (something people like Bethell have not coincidentally contributed mightily to) his estimation is probably correct.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Kathy Griffin Proves Me Right

For years, as I've watched athletes and actors repeatedly thank the gods for their exploits, I've often wondered a couple of things. First, how can any sane intelligent person can think that the supreme omnipotent omniscient creator of the universe gives a rats' posterior who scores a touchdown, or wins an oscar.

I've also wondered what the media would do if someone won an award, or a big game, and said something like "I'd just like to say that no god had anything to do with this". For despite all the whining we hear from the religious right about how oppressed they are, my contention has always been that if anyone did something like that, exactly as all the believers have done for years, except in reverse, that the media would go bonkers and people would condemn the award-winner.

Well, hat-tip to Pharyngula, Kathy Griffin has proven me right:

"Before Kathy Griffin won a creative arts Emmy last weekend for her reality show, 'My Life on the D-List,' she joked that an award would move her to the C-list.

She was right: 'C' as in censored. The TV academy said her raucous acceptance speech will be edited when the event, which was taped, is shown Saturday on the E! channel. The main prime-time Emmy Awards air the next night on Fox.

'Kathy Griffin's offensive remarks will not be part of the E! telecast on Saturday night,' the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences said in a statement Monday."

Wow! What did Griffin say that was so offensive?

"In her speech, Griffin said that 'a lot of people come up here and thank Jesus for this award. I want you to know that no one had less to do with this award than Jesus.'

She went on to hold up her Emmy, make an off-color remark about Christ and proclaim, 'This award is my god now!'"

Now, the off-color remark, whatever it might have been, fine edit it. But as for the quoted section above, this is a plain old bigoted double standard against atheists. This says loud and clear "It's OK to make gratuitous statements of religious opinion when you win an award, but only if it is a pro-religion statement. If you are an atheist, then shut the hell up about religion." If there is still any doubt, this should clear it up:

"The comedian's remarks were condemned Monday by Catholic League President Bill Donohue, who called them a 'vulgar, in-your-face brand of hate speech.'"

Really? So having the arrogance to say Jesus wanted you to win an award, or put another way, wanted everyone else to lose, is OK, but stating the obvious, that Jesus had nothing to do with it, is hate speech. What a load of pious poopie.

Now personally, I'd just assume every actor and athlete keep their opinions on topics other than acting and athletics to themselves, atheist and believer alike. But fair is fair, and if we are going to allow this off-topic commentary, then it needs to be allowed for all viewpoints, not just the ones that support reigion. If you are going to support only pro-religious comments, then dispense with the idea that it is the religious who are discriminated against in society. You provide solid evidence to the contrary.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

John Cox for President, or What's Wrong with the Republicans?

John Cox is running for president. He is the latest greatest “true conservative” who promises to be the next Ronald Reagan:

” I am a long term, dyed in the wool conservative, brought to the Republican Party by Ronald Reagan; believing that government isn’t the answer to our problems, government is the problem. I am a conservative because I believe that conservative solutions solve problems, just as Reagan believed. You want security? Build the strongest, most powerful military so no one ever would think of challenging you. Want a functioning economy? Enforce the rule of law and create tax and regulatory schemes that allow for the free flow of capital. Want the best health care and education at a reasonable price? Increase supply, reduce demand and ensure fair competition – that is the free market writ large and has from time immemorial proven to be the best way to assure the availability of the utmost in quality at an affordable price. ”

Now I suppose from a conservative point of view that all this makes good sense. After all, who among we Americans, in the abstract, isn’t for the rule of law, a strong national defense, free-flowing lawful capitalism, and good health care. But look to the details of what the Republicans are offering, and a disturbing side emerges to all this. We aren’t seeing conservative, free-market principles being applied in a modern detailed way to modern problems. What we see instead are empty platitudes, or a backwards-looking Reaganism from these candidates, every bit as vapid as the Kerry presidential campaign (more on that later). Consider these statements by Cox:

”Get the Iraqis to start pumping their oil, put their people to work and stabilize that economy so our troops can get home. Get rid of the income tax in favor of the Fair Tax. Enact a line item veto and change the incentives for government spending; use a sharp pencil to get rid of and consolidate agencies and programs that have outlived their usefulness and only exist to support their political sponsors. Break down the barriers of competition in health care so we get more doctors, more nurses, more hospitals, and more insurance companies competing with each other. Do the same in education by empowering parents with vouchers, breaking the government school monopoly and defanging the power of the teachers unions. “

Now, think Contract with America:
Scrap the income tax. Check.
Line item veto. Check.
Eliminate pork. Check.
Fight socialized medicine. Check.
School vouchers. Check.

I feel like I just fell into a time machine. All we need is “Read my lips, no new taxes”, and “privatize social security”. The only comment that doesn’t fit that bill is his lame comment about Iraq. Sure, we’d all love to have a stabilized Iraqi economy with a democratic government waving goodbye to our troops. We all want a cure for cancer and world peace too. Now, how exactly are we going to achieve that? Aye, there’s the rub.

When I watched the 2004 presidential election, as I listened to the Democratic candidates talk, the word that kept running through my head was “stale”. It was the same old same old we had heard for 20 years: affirmative action, the rich were getting richer and the poor poorer, tax everyone their fair share, etc. Now it seems the Democrats got the message, and are the party that has moved forward into modern issues, and it is the Republicans who are locked in a time warp. For conservatives this is going to be an especially frequent problem since by definition they are more inclined to stick with the status quo. Our modern fast-moving technological world is not going to allow that. Everyone, and every organization, has to learn to change with changing times or get left behind.

Barring a miracle in Iraq, the Republican party is teetering on the brink of collapse. The retirements like John Warner's mount. They are caught between the religious right’s attempt to hold them in place circa 1951, and a modern world with problems that demand different kinds of solutions and a more modern outlook. Republicans do not need another Ronald Reagan, as they seem to aspire given his frequent mentions in the debates. They need to look forward, not backward. This is not Ronald Reagan's world.

What they, and we all as Americans need, is a candidate in touch with America’s roots and core principles, as well as a modern perspective on the world. Where is that candidate?

Has Your City Been Drug Tested?

Has your city been drug tested?

What will they think of next?

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Brad Pitt and New Orleans

With all the news that isn’t news about Hollywood's bimbo brigade (Brittney, Lindsay, Paris, and those damned twins), one could easily get the impression that no one in Hollywood does anything productive with their ease-gotten wealth and fame. To that I give you Brad Pitt.

In the midst of the devastation of Katrina, long after it stopped being a political hot spot, Brad Pitt is still there, still trying to help people expelled from their homes by bad weather and worse politics, and attempting to do so in a way that is good for business while reducing environmental demands, through combined efforts with a group called Global Green. You can see a full story here.

Now no one who knows me would confuse me with a treehugger, or Mr. Sympathy for victims of disasters. Will this effort succeed? Maybe. Is it a little pollyannish one-with-the-earthness? Maybe. But there is something surreal about what Pitt is doing. Even if you don’t give a shit about the environment, or New Orleans, and the suffering that goes on there, you have to tip your hat to a guy doing what Pitt is doing when he could spend every day in air-conditioned comfort with his beautiful wife, eating gourmet meals and having his feet massaged without a care in the world. Instead he is knee deep in mud trying to get homes built for people who couldn’t afford to live in his garage.

The best part is that he is not a pompous prick about it like some do-gooder celebs. His attitude seems to be “This is what I want to do for people. What are you doing?” It’s a refreshing change, and it’s worth a salute.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Odd description of Expelled on IMDB

I just found this synopsis on IMDB:

"Ben Stein, posing as a concerned and gullible ultra-conservative, stars in this satirical documentary exposing the cluelessness and desperation the Intelligent Design Creationism movement."

So who's the joke and who's the joker?

Dancing Jumping Spider

Here is an amazing video of a jumping spider dancing for a potential mate, complete with what I assume are greatly magnified natural sound effects. It might not be our cup of tea, but I guess the female spiders think it's sexy.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Bill Nye says Moon not a Light, Pisses off Waco Wackos

Via Pharyngula, just in case Waco was afraid it was going to lose it's crown as the nuttiest town in Texas, fear not Waconians. Apparently on a recent visit there for a lecture series, Bill Nye the Science Guy had the audacity to actually talk about science, and when he let it tread on the Bible, he really set off the Waco Wackos:

"But nothing got people as riled as when he brought up Genesis 1:16, which reads: 'God made two great lights -- the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars.'

The lesser light, he pointed out, is not a light at all, but only a reflector.

At this point, several people in the audience stormed out in fury. One woman yelled 'We believe in God!' and left with three children..."

And we wonder why we score so low of the worldwide education tests. How many of these people that think the moon makes light do you suppose also believe it is made of cheese?

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

New Research on Source of the Dinosaur-killing Asteroid

It is truly amazing sometimes what mankind is capable of figuring out. Scientists now have a working theory of the source of the dinosaur-killing asteroid:

"U.S. and Czech researchers used computer simulations to calculate that there was a 90 percent probability that the collision of two asteroids -- one about 105 miles wide and one about 40 miles wide -- was the event that precipitated the Earthly disaster.

The collision occurred in the asteroid belt, a collection of big and small rocks orbiting the sun about 100 million miles from Earth, the researchers report in this week's issue of the journal Nature.

The asteroid Baptistina and rubble associated with it are thought to be leftovers, the scientists said.

Some of the debris from the collision escaped the asteroid belt, tumbled toward the inner solar system and whacked Earth and our moon, along with probably Mars and Venus, said William Bottke of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, one of the researchers."

So in one sense we can think of the asteroid Baptistina as the birth of mankind. No impact, no explosion that changed the environment on earth and wiped out the dinosaurs, no rise of the mammals, no human beings. Talk about a close shave. I wonder how the intelligent design crew will interpret this. Will they say it was the hand of G.., er, the designer, that caused the collision in space 100 million miles from earth, and the subsequent one in Mexico?

"The dinosaur-destroying meteorite, thought to have measured 6 miles across, plunged into Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula and blasted out the Chicxulub (pronounced CHIK-shu-loob) crater measuring about 110 miles wide. The researchers looked at evidence on the composition of this meteorite and found it consistent with the stony Baptistina."

This heavenly event was also apparently responsible for another astronomical feature we've all seen at one time or another:

"The researchers estimated that there also was about a 70 percent probability that the prominent Tycho crater on the Moon, formed 108 million years ago and measuring about 55 miles across, also was carved out by a remnant of the earlier asteroid collision."

Now obviously, with this being groundbreaking stuff, the theory is going to undergo frequent revision, as new data and superior data gathering techniques appear. But this is a question about an absolutely crucial moment in earth's history. It dwarfs the importance of the signing of the Declaration of Independence by orders of magnitude. The fact that we now have a real start on the answer is quite exciting.

Arctic Ice Melting at Record Pace

There are several articles out there on the record melting of the polar ice cap. You can see a revealing map here, and a nice summary here, an older article here, and another summary here. The parts that stood out to me, and which should get the attention of even the most die hard skeptic, were this:

"The Arctic ice cap is melting much faster than expected and is now about 30 years ahead of predictions made by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a U.S. ice expert said on Tuesday.

This means the ocean at the top of the world could be free or nearly free of summer ice by 2020, three decades sooner than the global panel's gloomiest forecast of 2050."

Generally with trendy, alarmist bullshit, as some claim anthropocentric global warming is, the predictions tend to get further away, or stay distant. Con artists have to do this to prevent themselves from being disproven. The scientists' behavior is the polar opposite of what we'd expect if it were just a bunch of treehugging BS. Then there is the Ward Hunt ice shelf:

"...the largest single block of ice in the Arctic, the Ward Hunt Ice Shelf, had been around for 3,000 years before it started cracking in 2000. Within two years it had split all the way through and is now breaking into pieces."

3,000 years. That thing has been frozen for 3,000 years, virtually all of recorded human history, and now it's melting away. That has got to get your attention.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Frank Pastore: Another Creationist for Science...NOT!

There is a disturbing trend lately in the press to report every new scientific finding as something revolutionary that is going to overturn long held views, especially in the biological sciences. I suppose it is to be expected, since controversy sells. However, too many in the press go so far sometimes that what they write goes way beyond economically convenient exuberance, to outright misrepresentation of the issue. This is particularly true of evolution, where those sympathetic to creationism jump on anything that looks to be the slightest crack in modern evolutionary theory to trumpet that now finally, evolution is going to come crashing down like people have been saying for over 100 years. Frank Pastore’s latest article is a perfect example of this.

I’m not going to spend a lot of time debunking the many, many, scientific errors Pastore makes. They are mostly moldy oldies that have been debunked thoroughly numerous times in the past by scientists far more qualified to do so than I am. I will simply link to the refutations. My focus is on the sociological and philosophical aspects of what is happening.

Pastore has been launched into action on the subject because of two recent paleontological findings: a 10 million year old jaw and teeth of what looks to be a gorilla, and the discovery that two precursors to modern man, Homo Erectus and Homo Habilis, were found to have coexisted.

Right away Pastore attacks the issue, not as a scientist would, with evidence, but with appeals to cherry-picked authorities. In this case, an actor, Ben Stein:

”But, the bigger problem is—unless you’re a scientist—you’ve likely never have heard about it outside of this column or at least until you’d see the trailer for Ben Stein’s movie ‘Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed’ coming out in February 2008.

As Stein exposes, there’s been a virtual Inquisition by Darwinian fundamentalists against anyone who dares challenge The Book—Darwin’s infamous 1859 ‘Origin of the Species.’ No longer about following the bread crumbs of inquiry in pursuit of truth, Big Science is now all about enforcing doctrinaire dogmatism.”

A simple google news search shows how absurd Pastore’s first claim is. News of these two discoveries has been all over the news, trumpeted as being far more extraordinary than they really are. Pastore’s article is another example. How, one wonders, if there is some evil Darwinist Conspiracy out there ready to crush all opposition, did these stories got out there? Did Pastore write his article from a super secret location? Did Stein and his movie crew get threats from the Darwinists? Just who exactly is being repressed by this conspiracy, and just why would anyone participate in such a thing, and how exactly are they repressing anyone? Pastore, as have all his predecessors on this issue, leaves the evidence for theory as an exercise for his readers. The reason is simple. There is no conspiracy. This is crankery, pure and simple. Lose the intellectual battle, claim the game is rigged. Evidence? Pshaw!

Just what is “Big Science” anyway? We all know about Big Oil, or Big Pharma, but those groups have massive economic incentives to behave in ways that might not square with what the rest of society has in mind. What possible motivation could a bunch of scientists, or research labs, have to repress evidence that evolution is incorrect? No one touting these conspiracies ever gives any reasons. The obvious counter is that any scientist that could disprove evolution would be hailed as the next Darwin, or better. He would be the father of a biological revolution, destined for a Nobel prize, and personal fortune and fame. Against this Pastore would put…what? His imagination, I guess.

Pastore is clearly grossly ignorant of the science surrounding this issue, as he demonstrates by rattling off all those moldy oldy creationist canards that scientists have been refuting for decades:

”Ask for explanations about the still missing ‘missing links,’

Debunked here.

” the absence of transitional forms,”

Debunked: here.

the sudden Cambrian Explosion,

Debunked here.

or the gaping gaps in the fossil record,

Debunked here.

”…and be branded an unbeliever—one who must repent of their sins, recant and do penance or be damned to academic hell for all time.”

Come on Frank, surely you’re more imaginative than that. What about being burned at the stake, and having red hot pokers shoved up your…opinions? I mean, you’re obviously just making shit up, so why be so dull about it? I want fire and brimstone!

As I learned long ago, if you can believe the first sentence of the Bible, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the Earth,” you won’t have much trouble with the rest of the 66 books.

I at least give Pastore credit for honesty here. The Intelligent Design crew is so tiresome with their evidence-free claims that their theory has nothing to do with religion. Pastore spells it out as it is: he isn’t interested in science. He is interested in making sure that his childhood beliefs about the big bearded magic man in the sky making this world just for us, and creating us especially, remains intact.

Indeed, if one can swallow the malarkey that the supreme creator of the universe made it just for us, on this little insignificant blue-green ball orbiting a very bland yellow star in a quiet corner of an otherwise ordinary galaxy among billions just like it, then buying that rabbits are ruminants, or that men once lived to be 900 years old, or that burning bushes and donkeys talk, and virgins give birth to men who rise from the dead, and all the other nonsense in that tome becomes pretty easy to swallow. But then, why buy the first part in the first place? Why take what is clearly meant as metaphor and interpret it literally? No answer from Pastore, we are just supposed to accept that as a given. Sorry, that is not how science works, and someone so intent on criticizing science ought to know better.

”Make no mistake. Fundamentalists are those who censure skeptics and prohibit inquiry. Today’s fundamentalists are not the Christians who, like me, are eager to examine the scientific evidence for Darwinian evolution, but those who deny that opportunity from ever happening.

The real fundamentalists are those who chair the various science departments at our major universities—those unwilling to allow dissent.”

Bullshit sir. If you were interested in science, you wouldn’t be trotting out oft-refuted bullshit as some sort of revolutionary idea. You’d know already what a bunch of claptrap it is. It is not dissent that is frowned upon, but the touting of religious views as science, sans evidence, that is the problem. Perhaps it passed your notice, no surprise since you obviously aren’t keeping up with the latest science, that there have been major developments in evolutionary science in the last few years. Evo-devo, neutral drift, and punctuated equilibrium, among many other ideas, have surfaced long after the mothballs on your objections have collected. All had major influences on modern evolutionary theory, and changed the way scientists look at the issue. The difference? They had the evidence to back them, whereas that creationist nonsense you are parroting doesn’t. It is as simple as that.

”We are no closer today proving [evolution] than we were in Darwin’s day, a century and a half ago. In fact, we’re actually farther away.”

Well Frank, that’s an understandable position for someone so woefully ignorant of the science, but alas, it is not even close to true. Science is not about proof, it is about falsifiable experimentation, and evolution has been challenged for almost 150 years and has not only withstood the challenges, but has given us great insights into the workings of modern life. No experimental result yet has been at odds with evolutionary theory, and these recent finds are no exception.

”First, as reported here on August 9, two alleged ancestors of man, Homo Erectus and Homo Habilis, were found to be living together about 1.5 million years ago (MYA). This is a big deal because Erectus was supposed to have evolved from Habilis before later evolving into Sapiens (us).

Think of it as finding out dad and grandpa were actually brothers, not father and son.”

Uh, no Frank, it’s like discovering that dad and grandpa lived at the same time, and concluding that dad must not have evolved from grandpa. Literally. This is just another version of “if we evolved from monkeys, then why are there still monkeys?”, and just as wrong.

Here’s a simple example of how this happens. Let’s say we have a species A spread all over the globe. Then suppose there is some sort of geographic event (a landslide, flood, or a rising mountain range) that cuts off a subset, call them A’, from the rest of A, into a new environment. Then suppose A’ evolves in the new environment into species B, and the geographic barriers drop so that the B’s and A’s can happily mix. Eons later, scientists will uncover these fossils of species A and B mixed, and ignoramuses like Pastore will claim this proves B couldn’t evolve from A. That’s all this discovery demonstrates. Habilis and Erectus coexisted. This may have an impact of the timeline of which ancestor lived when, but that’s it. That’s what people like Pastore don’t understand about science. It changes based on the evidence presented, and hones in on the reality bit by verified bit. Of course all the charts will be revised, that’s the whole point. If scientists thought they had the absolute truth, there would be no more excavations of new fossils. They’d be as inactive as, well, all the creationists Pastore so eagerly parrots, who are content to sit in the stands of the scientific game and hurl insults at every perceived imperfection of the players and their theories, all the while having the courage of their convictions to do nothing else but sit on their asses. They offer no competing hypotheses, no new data, only contrarian ignorant opinions aimed at reaching their predetermined unscientific goal.

”The second discovery, reported here, pushed the hypothetical human-ape split back another 10 million years, to now around 20 MYA. How so? The traditional theory is that man evolved from chimps about 6 MYA, chimps evolved from gorillas about 8 MYA, and gorillas evolved from orangutans about 14 MYA. But, with the discovery of a 10.5 million year old gorilla in Africa, this pushes the human-ape split back to at least 20 MYA."

Pastore reveals his ignorance of evolution by his phrasing. Humans did not evolve from chimps, nor chimps from gorillas, etc. Chimps, humans, gorillas and orangutans all evolved from common ancestors that were unlike any of them. This is not a mere academic mistake. Phrasing it the way he does implies that the system was designed with us in mind as the end product, and that the other lines were flawed or less evolved than us. Evolution has no goal. As it happens, chimpanzees have evolved more than we have since the split, so if anyone is more evolved, it is them.

But so what? Even if this turns out to be a real change in the timeline, how does a revision in a timeline of an event signal disproof of the event? This seems another example of a creationist tendency to pedantically attack any flaw they see in what scientists say, regardless of whether it has any relevance to the main point. It is as if you claimed there were no football teams with aquatic mascots, I responded that the Florida Dolphins have an aquatic mascot, and you retorting that the Dolphins are called the Miami dolphins rather than the Florida Dolphins and thinking you've won the debate.

"But between 15-20 MYA, there were dozens of primate species in Africa, and the hominid trail goes completely cold after 7 MYA. It looks like a dead end—or to the true believer, at least a serious detour over uncharted territory.

Bottom line, not only do we find that dad and grandpa were brothers, but now we find out that we were adopted—or created."

This is just Pastore making shit up again. No trail goes cold. Timelines may change, but that doesn't invalidate all the homologies, fossil or other evidence. We are 95+% chimp. We have the same broken vitamen C gene. We have two genes that are fused together from two seperate chimp genes. Just what exactly about this implies we were created?

Look at it this way. We have mountains of evidence that humans and chimpanzees had a common ancestor. We also have some pieces of evidence which are open to interpretations that, at least prior to falsifiable testing, contradict evolutionary theory. But here's the part people like Pastore can't answer: If 95% of the evidence says one thing, and 5% says the opposite, what is the rational of going with the minority viewpoint? There is none really, or at least none he would admit openly. He admitted it openly enough when he said:

"As I learned long ago, if you can believe the first sentence of the Bible, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the Earth,” you won’t have much trouble with the rest of the 66 books.

Practically all IDers/creationists will make a comment like this if you get them talking. They can say all they want that they are interested in the science. Some of them might really believe it. But in the end, its always about the Bible. Always.

All Children Left Behind

When the concept of no child left behind was introduced, I was enthusiastic about the idea. It was about time there was an objective measure of education, to make sure no one sailed through via social promotion, and to motivate schools whose standards were not up to par.

Alas, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and the reality of no child left behind, as with so many noble ideas, came to be quite different from the abstract ideal. Instead of having a flourishing rich education with an objective measure of their academic accomplishment, students and teachers are increasingly inhabiting a place where all that matters is knowing how to color in the right answer on a test, even if it is your second or third try.

Here is a inside look at the situation from a teacher in Maryland. He notes how the school has narrowed the focus of the curriculum at the areas that are tested, while leaving other areas to just get by:

” Since only reading and math have counted for Adequate Yearly Progress under NCLB, the state has stopped testing the other content areas, and as the testing has narrowed and schools and districts have begun panicking about the scores, the instruction has similarly narrowed. “

One of the basic problems with the way NCLB has been implemented is in giving specific knowledge of the contents of the exams to those giving them, and thus allowing “teach to the test”, a method that may produce test results, but little in knowledge. It’s a fundamental problem of measuring people with a proxy. For example, say you owned a multi-fruited orchard, hired people to pick the fruit, and wanted to make sure they were picking as much as you expected. Now you could go to the trouble of counting all the pears, apples, oranges, and grapefruits that they picked. Or, assuming the distribution of the various types was fairly uniform, you could just count the apples, and assume if the pickers apple count was satisfactory, so was his count of each of the other fruits. You might even give raises based on the number of apples, award special privileges to those scoring highest, and promote the various foremen of the pickers groups that did best.

Now imagine what would happen if you told the pickers that you were only counting apples. Further, imagine what would happen if you let the foremen count the apples. Naturally, the pickers would focus only on picking apples, and the foremen would be motivated to inflate the apple count, or give apple credits for a picker who picked other fruits as well and didn’t reach the apple expectation. This is, in essence, what is happening to our schools because of the way NCLB has been implemented. The program should have been one of a high level exam comprising a secret subset of all the requirements of the curriculum, and administered by people with no vested interest in the outcome. Instead, It has become students, teachers, and administrators rewarded for test results, and little else, coming to focus on little else, and sometimes with the best of intentions. What we get is students who know little but how to pass a multiple choice test, for which they were essentially given the answers:

” The problem with multiple choice questions is that you do not really have to KNOW the material, you merely need to be able to recognize bad answers and eliminate them to make a decent guess. “

Indeed, kids are learning that the most important thing isn’t knowledge, but rather knowing which bubble to fill in. They see their subjects as guessing games and tricks, similar to video game cheats, which allow a player to bypass game restrictions and go directly to the desired level with our without the skill to handle it. I experienced this first hand tutoring students in math at a community college. They had no desire to learn the material, and simply waited for me to complete my explanations before asking something like “If I see this, I do that?”. As an illustration of the attitudes we are fostering in our kids, here is an actual comment left by a student on a simple traditional fill-in-the-blank exam in an introductory algebra class:

"Just to let you know, I don't know many people who can perform well on a test like this in algebra. Multiple choice tests are much better, because you can check your answer and if your [sic] like me, your brain works backwards. Given the solution, I can plug it into the question. I know I don't come to class often and more than likely that's why I failed this test. However, I have been in many classes before and this is the first time I have ever had no idea on a test."

That pretty much sums up the attitude. Anything other than what gave them the answer quickly and directly was seen as quaint academic BS. Their performance showed it too, because math is one of the few subjects where a college student is expected to remember what he learned in 4th grade. However, having gone through years of testing, and thinking only in terms of guessing, the students have no math skills. Thus we get algebra students who can’t add fractions, or can easily multiply (X + Y) (X – Y), but (A + B)( A – B) was a mystery to them. They don’t know, nor do they care why they are fundamentally the same problem, nor do they even care if they fail. Failure just means getting to try again. Here is how that problem manifested itself for the teacher in Maryland when she gave the kids a simple quiz:

” I even reminded them that leaving an answer blank was a mistake, that there was no further penalty for filling in a wrong answer. Yet about 1/3 of the students made no real attempt. I discovered that some of them were used to not even trying because they were used to getting to retake tests in which they did badly, so why bother?

Here's a key point - this is a quiz. It takes maybe 15-20 minutes. Before they take it I go over about 3/4 of the material with them - in other words, they have just heard again enough to be able to pass. And yet there is no effort. This is unlike anything I have ever seen.

I talked with other teachers in the building, and my experience is not unusual. School for many of these students has been reduced to how they do on tests used to measure the school, and why care about anything else? As soon as those tests are done they shut down mentally. Besides, what happens during the preparation for those tests is mindless, mind-numbing.”

Different state, but this is consistent with my experience as well. If this is the best implementation of the NCLB idea, then it needs to be scrapped. As much as I like the idea of requiring children to demonstrate competence in their subjects before graduating, this manner of doing it is worse than the old system. The tests are supposed to be the means, and they have become the end. I think the Maryland teacher put it well:

” We should be teaching our students how to learn, not merely how to pass tests. There should be joy and excitement in learning knew things, in having one's mind expanded. Instead there is dullness and drudgery.”

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Final Thoughts (I hope) on Larry Craig, and the Republican Party

Pay Buchanan has an interesting take on the Larry Craig affair, and raises an issue I’ve always wondered about. On the one hand, no one likes a hypocrite. On the other, who better than an addict to understand the problems of addiction and lead the charge to prevent the creation of more? Sure Larry Craig was anti-gay, but perhaps his fervor was born of honest concern, for himself as much as others:

” Is there no possibility a man can believe in traditional morality, yet find himself tempted to behavior that morally disgusts him? Is it impossible Craig is driven by impulses, the biblical ‘thorn in the flesh,’ of which Paul wrote, to behavior he almost cannot control? “

Interesting perspective, and I agree for the most part. But the problem with people like Larry Craig is that they do not present themselves as someone with vices with which they battle. They present themselves as sanctimonious saints, superior to those with the habits/lifestyles/opinions they consider sinful. Craig didn’t say “I’m gay, and I’ve been dishonest, and I apologize.” Had he, we could have run with Buchanan’s understanding. However, as long as Craig continues to demonize homosexuals, he deserves the scorn he gets, whether he is homosexual or not. For all the lip service many Christians give to loving the sinner and hating the sin, and admitting they are all sinners, too many are like anyone else: hating the sinner, and missing the beam in their own eye.

” The silence of most Democrats is understandable. If you belong to a party that declares homosexuality a moral lifestyle, that perhaps should be elevated to the level of matrimony, then what would Craig be guilty of, other than being horribly indiscreet? “

Well, you knew Buchanan couldn’t stay on the straight and narrow too long. Craig is guilty of hypocrisy, not indiscretion. The Democrats, on this issue anyway, don’t have hypocrisy to worry about. They accept the realities of homosexuals in our society. I suspect many of the Republicans, at least privately, do as well. They simply must feed at the homophobic trough to keep getting the Christian Right vote.

For a very thorough and persuasive look at that theory, read this article:

”So to keep religious conservatives happy the party has done two things. First, it has steadfastly resisted efforts to ease anti-gay discrimination in public policy, even when Republican politicians know better...

Second, to keep the talent it needs and simply to be as humane and decent as politically possible toward particular individuals, the party has come up with its own unwritten common-law code: you can be gay and work here, we don’t care, but don’t talk about it openly and don’t do anything to make it known publicly in the sense that either the media or the party’s religious base might learn of it. It's the GOP's own internal version of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."

It's worth a read, and spells out what many of us have suspected and hated for a long time. The theocrats have taken over the Republican party, with their anachronistic moralizing and their imperviousness to science, or any kind of evidence, that goes against their faith, be it faith in a 6,000 year old earth, or in the ability of one nation to singlehandedly reverse thousand-year-old social trends through force and will. John Warner's retirement is symbolic of the fading of the kind of Republicans many of us grew up respecting. Who will fill the void?

Cho's Problems, and It Wasn't the Guns

There is quite an interesting follow up on the story of Cho, the Virginia Tech gunman:

"The gunman responsible for the April massacre at Virginia Tech was a sickly child — shy, frail and leery of physical contact by the time he was 3. His teachers said he began showing suicidal and homicidal tendencies by the eighth grade."

Apparently his parents and teachers made many accommodations for him, such as allowing him to avoid oral presentations, which kept him fairly stable through high school. However, he clearly had problems:

" At the urging of teachers, he went to counseling and art therapy before starting seventh grade and was diagnosed with social anxiety disorder. He rebuffed his parents' suggestions that he take part in more extracurricular activities, remaining withdrawn.

In March 1999, the eighth-grader began drawing tunnels and caves that a therapist said could signify depression, or worse. A month later, after the murders at Columbine High School in Colorado, he wrote a paper saying he wanted to repeat the attacks — an exercise he would repeat in the spring of 2006 with a fictional tale that hinted at what was to come."

His family and counselors tried to get him to attend a small college close to home, but Cho insisted on going to Virginia Tech.
There was nary a mention of weapons in the article, and for good reason. Cho was a bomb waiting to go off, and all it took as separation from all those loving forces that had held him together all those years to do it. Guns, knives, explosives, the means mattered little. This was clearly not a problem with gun laws. It was a problem with how we handle mentally ill people in our society, and we have a lot of work to do.