Thursday, May 31, 2007

An Analysis of Gun Deaths

Inspired by this article at Pharyngula:

Nothing reduces the level of discourse like guns, getting otherwise intelligent people to say absurd things. This one jumped out at me:

"People who rely on guns for home safety most often have their guns taken from them, because the criminal is more experienced in this."

This from the guy selling pepper spray, and its about as objective as you'd expect from someone describing a competing product. Burglars aren't looking for a fight, and the vast majority of them faced with a homeowner brandishing a gun are going to do the same thing the Miami burglar did when faced with a homeowner brandishing a sword - run like hell. Only a guy enjoying a PCP high is going to try to grab a gun out of someone's hand.

"Guns exist for one reason only: killing.

What political claptrap. Objectively, guns exist to propel a piece of metal at high velocity at an intended target. The most common target is...a target, a piece of paper with lines drawn on it.

Here is a breakdown of gun deaths in the U.S. Notice:

1) The total is around 30,000. 30,000 out of 300 million. That's 1 person in 10,000. Yes, every death is tragic, but as a national issue, it just doesn't warrant the attention it gets.

2) 57% of the deaths are suicides. So whatever overall risk we all have of dying by gun, if you don't plan on killing yourself, you just cut it in half.

3) The number of accidental deaths is microscopic. So tragic as it is when a child finds dad's gun and shoots her schoolmate, it's irrelevant to a discussion of public policy.

4) Notice how strong the correlation is between the age of the homicide victims and the ages traditionally associated with high crime. By the time you are 45, your risk of being murdered with a handgun is 1/5 what it is when you are 20. It is VERY hard to reconcile that relationship with the idea that its all about the guns.

And while anecdotes might be entertaining, they are illustrations, not evidence. As such, I offer one friend's experience. He was home and heard a noise, looked out the window, and saw a young man who had broken into his car rummaging around in it. My friend's car had been broken into before, so he was extra peeved. He went and got his gun, walked outside to within 30 or so feet of the car, pointed the gun at the kid and yelled "Son! You're about to DIE!". The kid looked up, saw my friend pointing the weapon at him, jumped out of the car and ran like hell down the alley he presumably came from. My friend went on about his day, and no, his car was never broken into again.

No one died, the gun performed a purpose without killing anyone, and it won't show up in any of the crime statistics. From my experiences with, and the story's I've heard from the many real gun owners I know, (as opposed to the TV caricatures that so many here think represent reality), I suspect my friend's incident was far more typical than was the subject of this article, or even your typical murder.

And no, I'm not a gun nut. I own one gun, it was given to me as a gift, and it sits now somewhere in my closet, having not been shot in years. I don't even like guns, and frankly, if they banned them tomorrow I really, personally, wouldn't give a rat's posterior. Here in Texas that practically makes me a commie. I just know a lot of gun owners, and I'm an actuary, and just too much of what is said about guns makes no sense to either sensibility. So a gun in the house is more likely to kill a family member than an intruder. So what? So is the family dog, your sword, or your bathtub. Hell, for that matter, given the really bad drug bust flubs that happen, so are the cops! It doesn't do any good to get good data if you're asking the wrong questions, or getting your information from movies.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Paris Hilton: The Creation Museum Mascot

Inspired here, Paris Hilton is the perfect symbol of the Hamster Creation Exhibit:

1) Fame purchased with a lot of money, sans achievement.
2) Ignorance flaunted.
3) All flash and no substance.
4) Laughable cries of persecution.
5) Far more interesting to the more childlike among us.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

What Real Scientists do with the Design Inference

Here is an excellent example of what real scientists, in this case archaeologists studying bone awls from Shields Pueblo do with a design inference. It's always screamed pseudoscience the loudest that IDers claim to be completely disinterested in discerning the nature of the designer and the purpose of the design. What's the point of the design inference in the first place if you aren't going to pursue those questions?

The 6 Commandments of Science

Part of me hates the idea of putting together a 10 Commandments of Science. After all, science doesn't have rigid rules handed down from on high - that is part of what makes it so effective. Having a list also will likely feed into the "science is just another religion" bullshit out there.

But my hope is that those will be minor compared to the impact of seeing a list of commandments that are both relevant to our current moral standards, and that are adhered to so uniformly by scientists, but not so much by their enemies. So with that, courtesy of a poster named Hoary Puccoon on this thread at Evolutionblog, I give you:

"The Six (and counting) Commandments of Science

1) Thou shalt not lie. Fudging data is a mortal sin, enough to terminate one's career.

2) Honor thy fathers. You must give credit to the previously-published work of other scientists.

3) Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor. Misrepresenting another scientist's work merits public exposure and condemnation. (The creationists never understand just how immoral their quote-mining seems to scientists.)

4) Love thy neighbor. Ad hominem arguments are not acceptable in scientific discourse.

5) By their works ye shall know them. If Linus Pauling is a legend and Watson and Crick are complete unknowns, whose model of DNA is accepted? W&C's-- because theirs is right and Pauling's was wrong.

6) Let your yeas be yeas, and your nays, nays. Scientists must define their variables explicitly, and not fudge and say, 'oh, I really meant something else' if their hypothesis is disproven. (This is actually why theism versus atheism doesn't much matter in practicing science. God, whether he/she/it exists or not, is too fuzzy a variable to produce clear results.)

Fabuluous stuff. I'll add:

7) The facts will lead us out of the land of ignorance. We shall hold no fact above all others. In science, everything is fair game for inquiry and challenge.

More as I think of them.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Iraq War Injury and Fatality Data. Not Good.

Over at Thoughts from Kansas, Josh has a great post with fabulous (from a statistical POV) charts of the fatalities and injuries from the Iraq war. I wish the news were better, but every regression line is up up up, even beyond rates at the time of the invasion:

"In the time before the 'Mission Accomplished' speech on the aircraft carrier, an average of 3.26 American soldiers per day were killed. An average of 3.71 American soldiers died each day during May."

And as if the data wasn't bad enough, he ends with this chilling thought:

"Whether or not that surge in violence corresponds to a change in weaponry, but surely does indicate growing technical ability of the insurgents. It's hard to look at these data and not remember a comment made by a Marine in Iraq, who complained that when his squad went on patrol after a day of marksmanship training with local police, insurgent snipers got a lot more accurate. The extent to which we are training and equipping our own enemies needs to be investigated. Ideally, before the line of fatalities (below the fold) climbs even higher)."

Somebody do something.

Creationist Math: 1% = "Many"

One of the weasel phrases creationists like to toss out is "many", as in "many scientists doubt evolution", and "science has been wrong many times in the past". This is a very deceptive semantic trick. "Many", in such circumstances, should be a percentage, because that's what matters. If you hit the target on 100 shots, that's not "many" if you took a million shots, but it is "many" if you took 101. Same with the creationist statements. Sure, creationists might be able to scrounge up a few hundred scientists that doubt evolution, and at first glance that might seem like "many". But when one considers that there are millions of scientists around the world, a few hundred doubters isn't really "many". When you consider that there are over 800 who accept evolution that are named Steve, the creationist claim looks even sillier. It is good to remind IDers/creationists and whatever audience is listening to your debate that:

1) The vast majority of evolution-denying scientists have their credentials in areas of study OTHER THAN those directly relevant to evolution.

2) The vast majority of evolution-denying scientists are Fundamentalists.

Now it is of course true that reality does not hinge on majority opinion. On the other hand, majority opinion is very often a good indicator of reality. When that opinion is restricted to people knowledgeable in the subject, that value goes up further. When that opinion is also in an arena designed (he-he-he) to encourage dissent, where the biggest prizes are given, not to those who follow the group, but to those who strike out boldest, it becomes almost comical to claim that the reason all these people think creationism is a bunch of crap is because of some sort of conspiracy, and downright arrogant to think it is due to some basic error that those outside those areas of study were somehow more able to see than the experts were.

It is far more reasonable to accept that the reason science overwhelming rejects creationism is because it IS crap.

As to the simplistic view of "right" and "wrong" that leads people to say things like "well, science has been wrong before, so how do you know it is wrong now?", I offer this excellent article by Asimov. However wrong science has been in the past, pseudoscience like creationism has always been more wrong.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Brown Recluse

Via Pharyngula we get this great article written by a guy who found a brown recluse in his house, complete with close up pictures and detailed descriptions. Also note the comentary on gila monsters, and a claim that apparently daddy longlegs don't have the worst venom in the world as is often said.

Normally I don't kill spiders. They do me plenty of favors killing unwanted insects, and generally leave me alone. But for brown recluses I'll make an exception. Those that have been bitten by them don't soon forget the experience.

Friday, May 25, 2007

The Media Misrepresentation of UFC

I just got finished watching a discussion on ESPN about UFC, where Joe Rogan, a UFC commmentator, debated the pros and cons of MMA vs boxing with Lou Dubella, a boxing representative, and as usual, the UFC was completely misrepresented by its critics. Why is it that critics of the UFC can't manage basic intellectual fairness in their criticisms? They talk about it like it has no rules (which was never true even in the early days), call it "human cockfighting", or "pitbull fighting", and say idiotic things like "boxing is a science because defense is as important as offense", as Dubella did.

Statements like that only betray ignorance, or conscious misrepresentation, take your pick. He even brought professional wrestling into the discussion as if it were comparable to UFC. And in a lame attempt at ad hominem, he told Rogan that Rogan wasn't a boxing fan, even though Rogan used boxers as examples of great fighters and demonstrated knowledge of the sport. Perhaps these figures provide the motivation for misrepresenting UFC and making personal attacks against its proponents:

2006 Pay per view revenues

UFC - $223 million
Boxing on HBO - $177 million

Yes, that's right, UFC is kicking boxing's ass in the marketplace. And I agree with Joe Rogan that it is only going to get better. He made a very good point that boxing is a sport of only one aspect of fighting, whereas UFC covers so much more of what is involved in a real fight. Unfortunately Rogan got stuck on this point and kept repeating it, when that time would have been spent better talking about how boxing is actually more dangerous than MMA, because they get hit repeatedly in the head. Yes, they are wearing bigger gloves that lesson the blows, but there are so many more it overwhelms with what happens in MMA, where a guy gets hit 2-3 times clean and he's out. You can see the result of this in the interviews, where MMA fighters are consistently more coherent and intelligent than boxers. Former champions include math teachers (Rich Franklin), accounting degrees (Chuck Liddell), and others.

Yes, MMA can be very violent. It is definitely not for the squeamish. But on average it is less violent than football or boxing. The bloody unconscious knockouts are the exception, not the rule. One stat MMA critics never talk about is that about 60% of the matches end in submission, meaning one fighter surrenders by tapping a hand or foot on his opponent or the floor ("tapping out"). And I think one reason they don't want to talk about that is the incredible skill that goes into being a good submission artist. For we former wrestlers, its far more interesting than boxing, and apparently, the rest of America is starting to think so as well. So if you haven't seen an MMA event yet, and are curious, don't listen to the critics. What they describe barely relates to what I see at the events. Watch one, make an effort to pay attention to the skill on the ground, and judge for yourself. Personally, as Rogan once said "I don't see how anyone can watch baseball after seeing this".

Bashing the Gay Bashers

Over at Dispatches, one commenter made the following common claims against homosexuals made by those on the Religious Right:

The higher instances of STDs among homosexuals relative to the general population, depression, suicide, alcoholism, etc.

The last I checked, lesbians had LOWER instances of STDS than the general population. I know, I know, facts tend to unsettle our predjudices, the bastards.

As for male homosexuals, care to reference a study that shows the higher incidence of STDs is not completely related to the higher promiscuity rate of men generally? In other words, how many heterosexual men would have far more sexual partners than they do now, and consequently contract more STDs, were women as unselective on average as men are?

As for the depression, suicide, and alcoholism, you don't suppose having a large proportion of the population telling you that you are evil, that diseases you get were God's punishment for being who you are, that you are unfit to serve in the military, not allowed to have the same legal protections and rights with regard to your loved ones as others are, not allowed to adopt children, having yours taken from you, and beaten up, sometimes to death, by the bright lights of society, being forced to hide who you are to avoid ostracism, being disowned by your family for who you are, that all these things might just elicit some depression, suicides, and a wee bit of elbow-bending to get through the day? Complicated this ain't.

I mean really, what is it with you nutjob Christians that the idea of homosexuality puts you into such a self-righteous, self-contradictory spazz attack? You torment gays, then blame them for being depressed. You condemn gays for not having committed partners, then you fight tooth and nail to keep them from getting the same legal right to do so as everyone else. You preach the virtues of a stable two-parent household, to save the children of course, but to hell with the children if they have a gay parent.

Hell, I'm as heterosexual as one can be, and you twits could make me an activist for gays. I'm convinced it is true, re Ted Haggert, Mark Foley, etc., and even more so that it is the politically expedient thing to espouse, that rabid anti-homosexuals are very often in-the-closet homosexuals themselves. They're religious views cause them to hate themselves, and to fear other gays who might bring them out of the closet, so they compensate by becoming more homophobic than thou.

So you rabid anti-homosexuals, get comfortable with your homosexual side. Who knows, you might like it.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Keith Olbermann, and the issue of Bias

Some of those close to me don't understand how I could like Keith Olbermann so much. This video of his special comment on the Democrats not having the balls to end the Iraq war is a perfect illustration of why. He rips into everyone, with no concern for which color state they hail, or party to which they belong. They all deserve it. Yet some, I suppose, willd still dismiss what he says on the basis that he is "liberally biased".

There is always a lot of talk about bias when discussing political televion personalities. It is a very powerful concept, because it has objective meaning in statistical circles (a "biased estimator" is one whose mean differs from the underlying distribution), giving it an intellectual legitimacy often lacking in political terms like "fairness" or "rights". More importantly, it is a very convenient excuse for dismissing an opinion one doesn't care for, a tendency we all have and I maintain we should all be on the lookout for. It's the simplest path to intellectual slop.

However, there is more than one kind of bias involved in politics, due to the trade-off nature of politics, and it is important to distinguish between them. One leads to sloppy intransigent thinking, and the other is merely a part of being a thinking human being: a factual bias, and a philosophical bias.

Politics is not a science. It is not about what is, but rather, ultimately, about what kind of world we want to live in, and how we are going to go about getting it that way. That's not to say political science is not a science; its to say that its subject is not science. Because of that extra dimension, politics involves a lot of philosophy within which to evaluate the facts towards one's chosen goals, and those goals are often chosen based on subjective preferences not shared by others. So conflicts often simply cannot be solved merely with the facts, because the goals and philosophies evaluating them are different. Thus, there are two places biases can appear: factually and philosophically. And here is where I will argue that the biases of the Olbermann's of the world are not at all the same animal as the biases of commentators that root for one party or another, nor of nearly as much concern.

As Olbermann demonstrates in that video, he is not one for partisan politics. Of course, he has his views, his presumptions and conclusions about the world, and they are the prism through which he interprets the world, as it is for all of us. Of course he dislikes Bush, which is why he chooses to criticize him so much. Of course he is pissed off that the politicians didn't end the war. One could say that therefore his view is biased. But what exactly is one saying there, except that there is something wrong with his views because he actually has drawn some conclusions about the world, and uses those conclusions as assumptions when reacting to what goes on around him? That's something we should encourage, not treat as a character flaw.

Now of course those underlying conclusions might be incorrect, as they could be for all of us, and it is good to debate those factually and logically as far as we are able. But in the end there is no way to logically, factually determine whether it is more important to save lives or allow driving without a seat belt, or how many lives an democratic Iraq is worth.

This is all Gene Roddenberry's fault. He popularized the notion of a completely logical being with no emotions. Such could not exist, per the arguments I've made above. Indeed, it has started to seem to me that emotions are a natural, and inevitable, result of self-awareness, as I'd argue has begun with some of our increasingly sophisticated computers, who seem to have more and more of a personality all the time. But I digress. The point is one cannot make political decisions completely on some independent objective logic. There is no such thing for setting goals, or weighing one value against another.

Politics demands what Olbermann does, and the biases he is accused of having are merely part of being an intelligent human being who believes there is a real world out there worth paying attention to. Contrast this to a factual bias, say what happens with O'Reilly, or the Discovery Institute, who repeatedly make statements at odds with the facts, especially with regard to what others have to say, and always, ALWAYS benefitting one side of the discussion, eliminating the idea that their errors are innocent mistakes. These people have a bias towards the facts. Regardless of how many times factual errors are pointed out to them, they continue to make their claims unedited.

THESE are the kinds of people we should worry about in the media. It is one thing to make an honest mistake, or to have a philosophy about the world that is flawed in some way. Those problems trouble us all, and Olbermann is no exception. But that is a completely different animal than being someone who knows something they are saying is untrue, or supresses facts that demonstrate that, because they have the agenda of having this or that political party's success. I think the evidence that one major network does this far more often than any of the others is significant, and should be of concern to anyone who gets their news there. Better to get your information from a sincere fool than a deceptive genius. And I'd insist, by any objective measure, Olbermann is a sincere genius.

And the winner, and STILL Undefeated Heavyweight Reptile Champion of America...

The alligator! Check out this story about a battle between an alligator and a Burmese python, the latter having come to be wild there via owners tossing them out (morons). According to the article, Burmese pythons have been thriving in the Everglades for 20 years, and could challenge the supremecy of the alligator, but they haven't won one yet. This, apparently, was the 5th recorded encounter, and in all cases the alligator either won, or it was a draw. Now sure, one could argue here that both lost, but since we are talking species vs species here, not individuals, the gators remain champ with the draw.

Thanks to GrrlScientist for the heads up on this one.

Fishing Cats

OK, for a cat lover, what could be better than a cat that swims and catches fish. I found this article about them, and don't miss watching them in action on video.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Ken Ham's Comedy Museum

In testimony to P.T. Barnum, Ken Ham's $27 million practical joke is set to open on May 28th to no doubt adoring fans and giggling critics. It is proclaimed to be "a wonderful alternative to the evolutionary natural history museums that are turning countless minds against the gospel of Christ and the authority of the Scripture." Funny, I've never seen anything in a natural museum that gave an opinion on Christ or biblical writings. Perhaps Mr. Ham has a finely honed intuition that we mere atheists lack, similar to the one that allows ID proponents to see design where no one else does.

A quick run through of the FAQ reveals much about the mindset of the people running this project, and the danger therein:

"Why is this museum needed?
Our increasingly anti-Christian country must return to a belief in the authority of the Bible and be presented with the life-changing gospel message. Evolutionary indoctrination has undermined the Christian foundations in America."

America anti-Christian? A country with a bible in every hotel room, where being president requires you to proclaim your faith, and where one cannot watch a boxing match without seeing a boxer thank the all-mighty creator of the universe for helping him beat the crap out of his fellow man, is anti-Christian?!?! Pray tell, how would Mr. Ham describe Iran?

His strategy for restoring belief in the authority of the Bible is to focus on the part of it that is most easily disproved? Wouldn't it be far more effective to admit certain parts of the Bible are allegorical, dismiss the idea that it is a science text, and focus on the religious message instead? There is a reason people with such a wide variety of philosophical, cultural, and theological presumptions accept the findings of evolution, and it has nothing to do with any mythical indocrination. The evidence is simply overwhelming. Ham has boarded a sinking ship.

"What is so different about this museum?
Almost all natural history museums proclaim an evolutionary, humanistic worldview. For example, they will typically place dinosaurs on an evolutionary timeline millions of years before man. AiG’s museum will proclaim the authority and accuracy of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, and will show that there is a Creator, and that this Creator is Jesus Christ (Colossians 1:15-20), who is our Savior."

Again, I've never seen anything about humanism in natural museums. It's not humanism, but a willingness to examine the geological record, or tree rings, or ice cores, or the stars, and the ability to count, that leads one inevitably to the conclusion that the earth is far older than 6,000 years, and that dinosaurs lived millions of years before humans.

I'm sure glad however, that Ham gave us a Bible quote justifying his claim that Christians believe Jesus is their savior. I keep forgetting that part. Doh! But what in the world does Jesus being our Savior have to do with the age of the dinosaurs? Jesus can't save us unless the Flintstones was real history? I missed that in my years of Catholic school.

Some other comments by Ham are revealing. He responded to criticism from scientists thusly:

"[T]hey're worried about one creation museum? I think they're really concerned that we're going to get information out that they don't want people to hear."

This is typical of heads-I-win-tails-you-lose creationist thinking. If a huge majority of scientists came out in support of Ham, he would no doubt be beating his remaining critics over the head with that fact, as creationists have done in the past any time any science appears to support them (of course ultimately it never does). But since a huge majority of scientists are critical of him, that means, per his convoluted logic, that he must really be onto something, and they are only trying to suppress it out of fear. Interpreting criticism as justification is a sure sign of a crank. Oh, but not accoring to Ham:

"We use the same science they do. What they're really saying is they disagree with our beliefs about history, about the Bible, but we use the same science and genetics they do."

Riiiiight Ken, that's why practically every scientist in every field relevant to the subject: biologists, geologists, paleantologists, etc., say what you are doing is crap, and doesn't even rise to the level of bad science. Typical of the criticism that comes from scientists is this from Eugenie Scott, executive director of National Center for Science Education, "The nature of the science process that's presented at the Answers in Genesis museum is very different from how science is really done by real scientists." Indeed it is. Science proceeds by forming hypotheses, subjecting them to falsifiable experimentation, subjecting those results to the scrutiny of one's peers, and revising or eliminating those hypotheses that don't hold up. Ken Ham and his ilk begin with what they CHOSE to believe as true (that's all faith realy is), and then cherry pick any data that appears to support that view, while ignoring everything that doesn't, and rationalizing that any new fact discovered is consistent with one's view. They are the adult equivalent of the snotty-nosed loser kid who claims he controls the world and answers all criticisms with "I knew you were going to say that."

That's not science, and it's lousy epistemology, which is why while science has made remarkable progress over the last century, often with ideas that appeared absurd at first glance (evo-devo, plate tectonics, DNA, quantum mechanics, and relativity for starters), creationists like Ken Ham can (and do) recycle their speeches and arguments from 20 years ago, and get raving applause from the true believers. Never mind that they never produce any new knowledge of any kind about the world.

This is not a museum in any meaningful sense of the term. It is a tragically comic monument to fictions born of the intellectual stagnation that is the inevitable result of a worldview like Ham's. Laugh at your own peril.

Bored? Let Wasps and ants sting you!

Courtesy of Shelley at Retrospectacle comes this story of an entomologist named Justin O. Schmidt who decided to let a variety of toxic creatures bite and sting him to compile his Schmidt Pain Index. Looking at that beautiful pepsis wasp reminds me of one of my first wildlife rules of thumb: if it's pretty, it's dangerous. Just ask anyone in Texas who has tangled with some of the very large and beautiful centipedes we have.

Lions and Buffalo and Crocs, Oh My!

I've watched a lot of wildlife footage in my day, but I've never seen anything like this. It is a little slow at first, but it really gets going, with plot twists and a totally unexpected ending that would put most movie writers these days to shame. Lot's of excitement, but no gore, sorry.

Sectarian Violence in the US? Phelps, Falwell, and fun on Newt's cue!

Some of you may already have heard that Fred Phelps and his merry band of gay bashers had planned on protesting Jerry Falwell's funeral. Apparently, Falwell didn't bash gays enough, because he "hated the sin but loved the sinner", and by golly Fred Phelps thinks you should hate the sinner too. But see, Phelps' gang had mostly targeted decent atheists and others not similarly piously oriented. He made a mistake targeting other good Christians like this guy who came to the funeral perpared to bomb the Phelps gang with homemade napalm.

Praise Jesus! Can you feel the love of Christian brotherhood? And right on the heels of Newt Gingrich's speech at Falwell's funeral, where he said this:

"In hostility to American history, the radical secularist insists that religious belief is inherently divisive, and that public debate can only proceed on secular terms when religious belief is excluded."

Newt, I give you Phelps vs Falwell, the greatest clash since King Kong vs Godzilla, and the sort of thing that, amazingly, never seems to happen except when both sides are religious. Go figure.

The Emptiness that is Complex Specified Information

Over at Uncommon Descent, the blog where William Dembski and his ID sycophants isolate themselves from the rest of the intellectual world, banning dissenting opinions and patting themselves on the back in premature congratulations for bringing down the big nasty Darwinist Conspiracy (tm), which of course is and has been going to happen any day now for the past 10 years, we get this wonderful illustration from Head Sycophant Dave Scot on how poorly thought out the ID concept of "Complex Specified Information" is.

Over at Dispatches, Ed Brayton beat me to the punch on many of the standard creationist flaws in Davescot's arguments. Davescot's analogy of a deck of cards to the amino acids in an enzyme assumes every arrangement of acids is equally likely (not even close), that every acid is required for the enzyme to function (experimentally disproven), that the function of the enzyme must stay the same over its evolutionary history (ignoring the known event of cooption), and of course, the most glaring and common flaw in creationist arguments, the implicit assumption that the arrangement of amino acids came about in one fell swoop of chance, rather than the actual argument made by evolutionary theory, that it was created incrementally with step-by-step modifications with successive generations over much time.

But there is a more fundamental problem with this line of thinking that goes to the heart of what is wrong with creationist thinking. From Davescot:

Start with a standard deck of 52 playing cards. You are told that it has been shuffled thoroughly. Upon examination you find that the deck is perfectly ordered by suit and rank. Will you still believe it was shuffled? Probably not. Do you know you’ve based that conclusion on specified complexity? Probably not. Our brains are pattern recognition engines. You reach the conclusion intuitively.

Bullshit. We don't reach this conclusion via intuition. Human intuition is an evolved part of us like anything else, but we could not have evolved an intuition about playing card orders. There simply has not been enough time for us to do so, because playing cards have only been around a few hundred years, and evolution requires a lot more time than that. We have, however, evolved a pattern recognition ability which we use for it's obvious advantages. However, it is prone to false positives, which is one of the key problems Dembski and company have still yet to solve. Special pleading to intuition doesn't cut it, especially when, in this case, the solution is much more obvious.

When confronted with a deck perfectly ordered by suit and rank, we doubt the shuffled-chance hypothesis because we have a lot of experience with cards, and we already know there are several ways the cards can end up ordered by suit and rank. Anyone who has ever played solitaire knows this. So does anyone who has opened a fresh pack of cards and examined it. They come ordered that way!

Of course, Davescot gives the game away that ID is not science with the following meandering nonsense:

"Specification can be defined as an independently given pattern.
The problem with this is that specification is subjective. It is not a product of nature but rather a product of mind. We can’t, or at least I believe we can’t, come up with an objective formula that distinguishes specification from non-specification. But that doesn’t negate the fact that specification is tangible and can be practically employed to discriminate between chance and design as we can see with the deck of cards example above."

Sorry Dave, that is exactly what it does. For the concept of CSI to be scientific, it has to be objectively determinable. Otherwise, CSI is just sciency-sounding porn: "I can't define it, but I know it when I see it". Subjectivity is not tangible, and can only be "practically employed", albeit imperfectly, by likeminded individuals. CSI also needs a clear definition of what it means to be "an independently given pattern". Independent of or from what? And "given"?!?! No loaded terms there!

As a final shot at this mess of an argument, take a containder, and fill it with sand, water, and oil, shake well, and then let stand. In a short time you will get very nicely divided contents, sand, oil and water. Very orderly, very nonrandom, and would surely set Davescot's CSI recognition apparatus all a tither. He'd perceive the hand of a designer. And he'd be very wrong, as usual.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Newt Gingrich's Alternate Reality

Via Evolutionblog comes this account of Newt Gingrich's speech to the graduates of Liberty University. In it, he talked about, as if from a parrallel universe from this one, the "growing culture of radical secularism", and how "This anti-religious bias must end":

"In hostility to American history, the radical secularists insist that religious belief is inherently divisive," Gingrich said, deriding what he called the "contorted logic" and "false principles" of advocates of secularism in American society.

That's right Newt. All over the world, in Iraq, Northern Ireland, Israel, and other areas, it's all those nasty secularists gumming up the works with violence against anyone who disagrees with them, whereas all the various religious sects are paragons of peace in those areas. /sarcasm

"Basic fairness demands that religious beliefs deserve a chance to be heard"

No doubt Newt. It's a shame how devoid of expressed religious views American society is. Haven't you seen how the networks just cut off anyone, politicians, commentators, or athletes who try to make religious statements or thank God for their accomplishments? Why just last week the evil atheist conspiracy raided all the hotels and replaced the Bibles with copies of the "Communist Manifesto", cut off all the crosses atop the churches, and replaced the Congressional prayer with a tribute to Darwin.

"It is wrong to single out those who believe in God for discrimination. Yet, today, it is impossible to miss the discrimination against religious believers."

Yeah, that's right Newt. Expressing your religious views is liable to get you fired and get protestors at your house. No politician or celebrity dare talk about his faith, or speak poorly of atheists. School boards have no religious members or agendas, courts are having people swear on the godless constitution, and books written about religion are completely absent from the bestseller book lists.

Seriously, what planet is Newt living on? Religion, particularly Christianity, still dominates American culture. Atheists rank last in polls of which group Americans would be willing to vote for as president. Lunatics like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson say the most bigoted and idiotic things, and are still touted by people like Newt as paragons of virtue. People like Newt are so blinded by their own views, and years of Christian dominance of our culture, that the slightest progress towards a more secular society seems to them like discrimination against them. Sorry, removing unwarrantd privledges is not discrimination, and the religious have had too many privledges for too long in this society. There are a lot more atheists than is commonly understood, and our numbers are growing. Get used to it Newt, it's only going to get better.

Ken Miller on Human Evolution

Here is one of my favorite science clips. It is Ken Miller talking about arguments he made in the Dover trial with regard to human evolution.

In it, he illustrates how humans came to have 46 chromosomes while the other apes have 48. Two of the chimp chromosomes have fused in humans, and because of various facts about chromosome construction, where this fusion occurred, and with what chromosomes, has been exactly mapped.

This is a good example of the kinds of verification of evolution that goes on all the time, and the kind that is so stark in its implications it literally can make one wonder how it is possible for any one to doubt the theory. A creator that would do this sort of thing would be deranged, evil, or one hell of a practical jokester.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Atheistic Heliocentrism

This is one of those things that is hysterical and frightening at the same time: Heliocentrism is an Atheist Doctine.

That's right. Some nutjob ostensibly supporting Sam Brownback (one of the three Republican stooges that denied evolution at the debate, Huckabee and Tancredo being the others) claims the earth doesn't move. It is possibly the most hilariously idiotic post I've ever seen. For example, the author and I had this exchange:

SA: If you take the Bible’s word for it, bats are birds, rabbits chew their cud (sorry, no, refection is not the same thing), and sheep can be made to have spotted offspring by having them look at spots when they mate (ask Jacob), among countless other absurdities.

to which he responded:

Bats are birds, they fly. They may be mammals in one sense, but in the sense that they have wings, and all winged non-arthropods are birds, they are birds. Your other absurdities don’t sound vry absurd at all, they sound fairly reasonable...

It's full of stuff like that. It's another reminder that some (but certainly not most) religious views in this country are so preposterous they are indistinguishable from parody. I'm still not certain this isn't.

On the other hand, this is scary. How can a person grow up in a country as great as this one and be THAT ignorant? And these people are in the voting booth deciding the leaders of the nation that have to deal with issues far more complicated than heliocentrism. I'm reminded of a great bumper sticker: If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Falwell Compilations

For those of you looking for less-than-fawning commentary on Jerry Falwell's life and death, I've listed some below. But first I'll regail you with my first Jerry Falwell moment. I was attending the local beauty pageant in the small Texas town where I was sentenced to high school, and I was sitting with a friend a few rows directly in front of the MCs podium. The girls had just finished their routine and were backstage getting ready for the next one, and it fell to the MC to keep us entertained. He thought he'd start with a joke:

"So Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and Oral Roberts were flying in a plane together, and it crashed on the Mexican border and they all died". At this point he paused for a quick sip of water, which gave me just enough time to loudly clap and yell "YAY!!!!!!!!".

Chaos ensued for a few moments. Half the audience laughed, the other half was aghast. A friend seated in the back said to his girlfriend (referring to me) "that had to be him", my friend sitting next to me tried to crawl under the chairs, and some old lady sitting behind me actually smacked me in the back of the head and scolded "That's TERRIBLE! TERRIBLE!".

The MC never finished his joke. Oh well, two down...

via Pharyngula: Christopher Hitchens on Fox

via Pharyngula: Christopher Hitchens on CNN

via Pharyngula Roy singing Jerry's praises

via Living the Scientific Life selected quotes

via Dispatches hypocritical quotes

Bill Maher

I'll add more as I find them. And in case you can't make it out, what Hitchens says at the end of the Fox piece is "If you gave Falwell an enima, you could bury him in a matchbox."

Say Thank You to a Veteran - They Deserve it

I know its not Veteran's Day. Why does it have to be?

Chris Matthews on MSNBC recently mentioned that at the Republican debate John MCcain's people asked there be no requests for the candidates to raise their hands for anything. Apparently McCain is unable to raise his arms fully due to the torture he received as a Viet Nam POW. I suppose this explains part of what has always seemed to me to be McCain's pained posture. I had no idea how literal that was, or the ultimate cause. It certainly changes how I view him. And who could keep a dry eye listening to McCain's experienced plea for a policy of not torturing prisoners? It was certainly a sober moment.

This reminded me of Bob Dole, another wounded veteran. Ever wonder why Dole always had a pen in his hand while he spoke? Apparently it was so badly wounded that is is permanently mishaped, and holding the pen in it made it appear more typical.

As we all debate and discuss the current and future wars, we should never lose sight of the fact that combat means real people die, and real people are injured, sometimes for the rest of their lives. We should never lose sight of the fact that the world we live in, and our interests in it, require that we have people in our society willing to make that sacrifice for the rest of us. We should never lose sight of the fact that wars, good and bad, just and unjust, well and poorly executed, are the makings of politicians, and it is with politicians we should direct our criticisms. All we can demand of the soldier is that he say "yes sir", follow his orders and carry out his duty to the best of his ability and training, with his life if necessary, for the rest of us. And we should never forget to say "thank you".

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Flip Flopping, Science, and the Obsession with Certainty

With the longest presidential campaign in history rolling along, we are going to hear the term "flip-flop" a lot. Mitt Romney will make certain of that. Now in it's original incarnation, the concept was sound enough. If a candidate holds one position, then flips to the opposite position, and then flops back to his original, all with politically expedient timing, we have good reason to doubt his integrity, and even his intelligence. Constantly shifting opinions is not the sign of a sound and strong mind.

However, that doesn't mean change is bad per se. If we look at the intellectual development of cultures, mankind as whole, or even our personal lives, we see a pattern of accumulated information, with occasional changes of opinion as we learn. Complete stagnation of views is a rarity, at least in a sound mind and a flourishing society. In addition, the world itself keeps changing, so what was true about our world 200 years ago might not be true now (eg the importance of horsemanship).

So change is good, periodically. This is a concept that I think suffers from the way most religious views are taught to children. We are told truth is absolute, unchanging, handed down complete and perfect from on high. But of course even religious absolutes change over time, as the Pope recently demonstrated yet again. History has been unkind to completely static absolute views.

Science has fared much better than absolutism. In science, theories are often incomplete, and find themselves supplanted over time. The medevil notion of impetus was replaced with Newtonian physics, which was in turn supplanted by relativistic physics. The earth was thought flat, then spherical, then slightly oblate. In each case, the revisions improved on what came before, as opposed to reversing prior knowledge. It is too blunt to say they were always wrong. Right and wrong are relative. Step by step, bit by bit, we get at reality, and our confidence in what we know increases. Some things we know very certainly, some somewhat certainly, some with serious reservations or limitations.

Yet certainty is what America seems to want. Now it is not necessary for a politician to change his view and back again to be called a flip flopper. Now, any change at all is viewed as a negative, and Jim Gilmore has the audacity to parade his lack of change of any views ever as some sort of virtrue! Sorry folks, if you haven't changed your opinion of anything in 20 years, that just means you have stopped thinking.

With critics of science it can be even worse. Scientists discover so many asteroids and other celestial bodies that it makes little sense to group Pluto with the other planets, and instead it is changed to the status of Dwarf Planet. Yet what should have been celebrated as progress for scientific knowledge was derided as implying that scientists can't get anything right. Are you serious, as you talk into your cell phone and eat from your microwave while reading your email rigth before you take your sleep medication?

In the evolution/creation debate, the creationists/IDers love to jump on any scientific revision as a sign of weakness, as they stand cemented to a flawed view. Here you can see my favorite pair of creationist goofballs, Comfort and Cameron, pretending that the way to find out what scientists think about evolution is to interview people on the street. They also deride the use of terms like "we surmise", "maybe", "could've", and "possibly" as signs of evidenciary weakness, when they are really just the objective terms one uses when describing imperfect knowledge. Cameron and Comfort don't recognize anything except perfect knowledge and none at all. I leave it as an exercise for the reader to decide which it is for them.

Knowledge is not handed down from on high complete and perfect as the Camerons and Comforts and Falwells of the world would have you believe. Hardworking, brilliant people do good science and gain imperfect information bit by little bit. The demand for absolute knowledge and opinions that never change is unrealistic. Want to see a world based on that? Look to the Middle East. That's the big dirty secret in this culture war we find ourselves in with people in the Middle East: that the epistemological view of people like Cameron and Comfort and Falwell is a lot more like those of your average radical Middle Eastern Muslim than it is like a scientist like Richard Dawkins or Ken Miller. We should hold ourselves to a higher standard, as well as our politicians and scientists.

Merge Late, Save Gas and Time

You know the moment. You are trucking down the highway and you see the orange sign ahead: construction ahead, lane closes in 2 miles. What do you do? Well, you want to be polite, and you know the lane is about to close, so you move over right away. That's the best thing to do right?

Wrong. Believe it or not, our gut instinct to move over right away, and our consequent opinion of those who zoom by us only to merge later as rude jerks, is very inefficient and actually causes more traffic jams and slows our progress more than if we all did what the "jerks" do and merged late.

This can be demonstrated in several ways. Intuitively, consider why we have multi-lane roads in the first place. It is in large part so faster traffic has more chances to pass slower traffic. In one lane, we all go only as fast as the slowest car in front of us. With two lanes we pass and go as fast as we like. The principle holds with going from 2 lanes to 3, or 3 to 4, etc. More lanes is faster on average. But if we all merge early, we are essentially eliminating a lane, thus slowing our progress.

Another way to get behind this idea is go to the extreme. If the sign said "lane ends 100 miles", you wouldn't move over. Well why not? If moving over 2 miles in advance is good, wouldn't moving over 100 miles in advance be even better? Of course not.

The biggest problem with early merging is that it often crosses the density threshold that causes traffic jams in the first place. Have you ever wondered how traffic comes to a stop even in the absence of an accident or some other event that forces that first car to stop? Why would the first car that stops do so? They do so when the congestion of traffic reaches the point where the car in front of you is so close that when it hits its brakes, you have to hit yours, and the car behind you has to hit his, etc. So it becomes akin to "the wave", creating a permanent halt at that point until traffic lessens. But now think about what happens when the next person hits their brake. That makes a second slow down point, right? As this continues with constant density, and hundreds of braking events, eventually, that last car barely moving hits its brake, and comes to a stop, and the jam is made.

When we merge early, we do a lot of braking to do it. This pushes us towards that jam threshold. If we merged more smoothly, the odds of hitting that threshold is lowered, and reduces the time it exists if it is reached. So when you see the "lane ends" sign ahead, don't panic, and don't feel like you need to brake and swerve over right away. Take your time, merge smoothly and as late as you can. Of course, you don't want to be a daredevil and merge at the last possible minute, and obviously once the jam occurs and the mergers are stopped, there's no point in zooming past them (then you WOULD be a jerk). But if we could all merge later, we save time, evergy, gas, and a lot of aggravation, with no more effort than we put forth before.

There was actually a study done a few years ago that supported my contention, but I have been unable to find it. If anyone can, I wuld appreciate the link.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Ray Comfort's Idiotic Challenge

Over at Dispatches, Ed Brayton reports on Ray Comfort's $10,000 Evolution Challenge. As is the norm with such challenges, they tend to only excite the mouthbreathing fans, and expose the collosal ignorance of, the offerer. Ray Comfort does not dissappoint:

The $10,000 Offer
A transitional form (or missing link) is an example of one species "evolving" into another species. Excited scientists thought they had found one when they discovered "Archaeopteryx." The fossil led to the theory that the dinosaurs did not become extinct, but rather all turned into birds. The Field Museum in Chicago displayed what was believed to be an archaeopteryx fossil on October 4-19, 1997. It was hailed as "Archaeopteryx: The Bird That Rocked the World." However, Dr. Alan Feduccia (evolutionary biologist at the University of North Carolina), said, "Paleontologists have tried to turn Archaeopteryx into an earth-bound, feathered dinosaur. But it's not. It is a bird, a perching bird. And no amount of 'paleo-babble' is going to change that." [Science, February 5, 1993]. So here's my challenge: I will give $10,000 to the first person who can prove to me that they have found a genuine living transitional form (a lizard that produced a bird, or a dog that produced kittens, or a sheep that produced a chicken, or even as Archaeopteryx--a dinosaur that produced a bird). Species do not cross, no matter how long you leave them. The whole of creation is proof that evolution is truly "a fairytale for grownups."

It is troubling how consistently creationists/Intelligent Design proponents misrepresent their opponents' positions. Little indicates bullshit is to follow, with more consistency, than a creationist saying "evolution says..." Isn't there something in their theology about not bearing false witness? Was it not the great Christian philosopher Thomas Aquinas who believed one should know one's opponent's argument well enough to present it before criticizing it? Well, when scientists have written, clearly and plentifully, what evolution is, and you claim they say something else, is that not bearing false witness? Is lying for Jesus OK? I doubt he would agree. I doubt Aquinas would either. I suspect he took his duty to avoid that sin pretty seriously.

Such is the case with Comfort's challenge. It's a nonsense misprepresentation of what evolution is. I'll leave the fisking of his flawed version of the archaeopteryx story to those more suited to the technical issues. I'm attacking the basic premise of the challenge. Nothing in evolution says anything about one species giving birth to another one. In fact, if this happened, it would be proof AGAINST evolutionary theory, which says that speciation is something that occurs in tiny increments over vast time. There is vast evidence that occurred, complete with many, many transitional fossils. Just nary one like Mr. Comfort describes. So he made up something that no one believes exists and claims that is what it would take to prove evolution occurred. Liar or simply ignorant? You be the judge.

If you still aren't convinced, think about it this way. Do you believe all humans have a common ancestor? Surely you do. If you agree with Mr. Comfort you probably name them "Adam" and "Eve". Well, it stands to reason that you believe Africans, Europeans, and Asians descended, within a "kind" if you like, from those ancestors, correct? There are no other creation events mentioned in your theology, they had to, at least according to your views.

So prove it, Mr. Comfort's way.

Show me a transitional form akin to "a dog that produced kittens". Show me a European woman that gives birth to African babies. You can't? Why not? Do you prefer Mr. Cameron's example of a "crocoduck"? Fine, then show me a person with the head of an African and the body of an Asian. What, none of those either? Well, then you must be wrong about there being an Adam and Eve.

That's not an analogy. That is EXACT argument Ray Comfort makes, just applied to us. Stupid, isn't it? Really stupid, and not at all representative of evolutionary theory. No Ray, the "fairytale for grownups" isn't evolution, it is that quaint book of fictional tales written many hundreds of years ago by ignorant desert tribesman, from which you get your science. Get whatever spiritual inspiration from it you like, just never forget that it is neither a history text, nor a scientific treatise. Your ignorant denial of evolution, based on that timely tome, stands as evidence, as does your challenge.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Jerry Falwell RIP

Jerry Falwell died this morning. My condolences to his family and friends. My congratulations to America. Jerry Falwell embodied too much of what is wrong with America. He was intolerant of dissent, resistent to enlightened change, and based on my experiences watching him occasionally on political debate shows, a grand dissembler who rarely dealt objectively with issues brought before him.

Jerry Falwell is now part of our past. This is appropriate, because in many ways he lived in the past. America no longer has that luxury. If history teaches us anything, social norms and ethics must, and do, change over time, even among the religious. With the world changing ever-faster, we can afford even less to be caught standing still, and that is what Falwell was all about.

I once read that progress is made, not through enlightened changes of opinion, but because those holding the outdated view die. Consequently, America took a giant step forward today.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Men and Dogs and Women and Cats

Men and Dogs...

will chase anything if enough of them are already chasing it.

have a tendency to howl when aroused.

will kick the crap out of each other one minute, and be best buddies the next

Women and cats, on the other hand...

will do as they please

always meant things to be as they ended up

are impervious to being forced to do what one wants them to do. One much arrange things so that they want to do it.

can have their mood dramatically altered by finding a place they like being rubbed, and rubbing it.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

The Oxymoron that is "Evangelical Atheist"

Over at neurontic she writes:

My goal was to carve out a space for those of us in the middle: Non-believers who understand that faith can play a healthy role in the lives of others. Atheists who oppose evangelizing on principle, whether it's practiced by fundamental Christians or the Anti-God Squad. People more interested in building bridges of understanding then in fortifying their own position.

The only definition of "evangelical" in my dictionary that could apply to an atheist is "marked by fervor or zeal". Sounds like enthusiasm to me, why would anyone oppose that in principle?

Speaking as a strict Dawkinsmyerserist, I oppose the more common definitions of "evangelizing", not because they want to convert me to their views. In subtle ways, we all do that all the time, and in some ways it merely marks intellectual integrity. I oppose traditional evangelizing because the certainty of their position often requires ignoring the facts or torturing logic, and they are not shy about attempting to force these ill-derived views on me through the laws. This can hardly be compared with a straight face to a scientist or philosopher pointing out that religious views have no justification in those areas, and ought to be treated as such.

They want to catalyze a total ideological conversion.

Are you sure about that? I agree with your argument against that ever happening. However, I don't think it is unreasonable to expect significant movement as a society to tolerance for religous views only similar to the tolerance we have a for a friend in a tight spot who rubs his rabbit's foot, or who tries to find guidance for life in his horoscope. It is the free ride given to religious idiocy that would never be granted to other idiocy of similar caliber to which I object. Let religion be treated as the quaint psychological folk remedy it is, rather than some sort of alternative path to knowledge, and I predict Dawkins, Dennet, Harris, Myers amd I will become a lot less concerned with what religious people think.

I also challenge anyone chanting the Dawkins-atheists-do-more-harm-than-good mantra to produce evidence of it. My money says they are doing far more good than harm. Their effect on the Overton Window seems inevitably positive. Also, the impact they will have on young atheists who are surrounded by belivers and consequentally doubting their views and themselves will be far more dramatic than the effect they will have on most Christians. As has been been solidly documented, many attitudes towards atheists rise to a level that would be called "bigotry" were it aimed at any race or gender. What could be worse than that?

And as for the educated middle, I'd say the "vitriolic" Dawkins et al will have little effect on them at all. Such people base their views on their personal evaluation of the evidence. Dawkins' personality isn't going to change their views.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Idiots of the Week: Kirk Cameron and Ray Comfort

For their pathetic performance in the recent televised debate on god and evolution, and for their ridiculous short film The Evolution Zone, for making arguments that should embarrass the average 6th grader, for either lying or being too lazy to actually study the targets of their ignorant criticisms, and yes, for that stupid smarmy smirk I've hated for 20 years, I hereby award the Idiot of the Week award to Kirk Cameron and Ray comfort.

Follow the links for ignorance on parade that has to be seen to be believed. Need more? Check out the famous banana video, where Ray, I kid you not, claims the domesticated banana is proof of God's handiwork, and "The Atheists Nightmare". Words don't do it justice, just watch. Check here for a refutation, and for another kind of laugh, here's the porn version.

At the debate with the atheists, Cameron trots out this beauty:

"Science has never found a genuine transitional form that is one kind of animal crossing over into another kind either living, or in the fossil record."

It is amazing to me that people can parrot this lie in public and not have rotten fruit tossed at them. Did Kirk miss all the hubub about Tiktaalik? Tiktaalik is a transitional form between fish and early tetrapods (4-legged animals) that was impressively found exactly where the scientists predicted it would be based on all those measures of geologic time that bother creationists so. That, gentlemen, is scientific verification, something none of you ever seem interested in. Look here for an extensive list of transitional forms for vertebrates of which somehow Mr. Cameron was unaware.

As if that wasn't bad enough, he proceeded to hold up artists renditions of a "crocoduck", a cross between a crocodile and a duck, a "bullfrog", a cross between a bull and a frog Har har, Kirk make joke!, and a "sheepdog". The reaction of the atheists in the debate is priceless. One just mutters "what a numbnuts" while the other just bursts out laughing.

Mr. Cameron, and anyone else who actually thinks this absurdity is some sort of point, the theory of evolution doesn't say that every animal is equally related to every other animal. It says that you and I are more closely related to monkeys than to cows, cows more than reptiles, reptiles more than amphibians, and amphibians more than fish. It also says these relationships are through GRADUAL changes. That means that if anyone did find a bull crossed with a frog, it would DISPROVE modern evolutionary theory, not confirm it. Ditto for sheep crossed with dogs, and ducks crossed with crocodiles.

This sort of thing is not only an embarrasment for our educational system, it is also something it is not called out on enough: arrogant. Thousands of brilliant scientists, over decades, have dedicated much of their lives to studying these issues, earning demanding degrees Messrs. Cameron and Comfort could only dream of earning. They have and are also doing the actual WORK of forming hypotheses, performing falsifiable experimentation (you know, actually gethering evidence and getting their hands dirty), subjecting them to the criticisms of their peers, and keeping up with that information in their fields. The idea of some layman like Cameron or Comfort, or me for that matter, is going to casually study the issue and discover something that ALL of those people missed, is absurd on the face of it. Any objection Cameron and Comfort could raise would be the sort of thing the scientists have dealt with long ago. It would be akin to a two-year-old thinking it can improve a chess master's play. They don't understand enough to ask an interesting question, and they are arrogant to think otherwise.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Bill Maher on the French

Bill Maher had a great commentary the other night on the French:

Last week France had an election, and people over there approach an election differently: they vote. 85% of them turned out... Now maybe the high turnout has something to do with the fact that the French candidates are never asked where they stand on evolution, prayer in school, abortion, stem cell research, or gay marriage. And if a candidate knows about a character in a book other than Jesus, it's not a drawback. The electorate doesn't vote for the guy they want to have a croissant with. Nor do they care about private lives...They have weird ideas about privacy: they think it should be private.

He goes on in his usual irreverant and sometimes crude way to talk about how the French aren't obsessed with so many trivialities like nudity and a varied sex life as we americas are, while having real public intellectuals, being less fat than us, and being independant of mideast oil. I'll add that no French political debate would have 30% of the participants denying evolution (that would be Brownback, Huckabee, and Tancredo, for those of you playing "Spot the Idiot" at home). What an national embarassment that was. And the sad part of that is a huge majority of those who were proud of the Three Republican Stooges hate the French.

Look again at the issues Maher lists as not appearing in French politics: evolution, prayer in school, abortion, stem cell research, and gay marriage. Toss in another he could easily have included, global warming, and what do you think all those issues have in common? They have one side of the issue dominated by people whose opinion is based on their religious views, which tend to run contrary to the secular arguments on the other side. Often that opinion involves flat denial of sound scientific findings, and arguments sorely lacking in logic.

This is why we are, as Brit Tony Benn said to John Bolton, "you're a declining empire, as we were". We spend too much of our political capitol on issues where one side is, sorry, not dealing with reality. We are not a reality-based nation. We as a society have made telling someone their opinion is wrong, even politely, the rudest thing one can do. We respect feelings more than facts. We respect effort more than accomplishment. And we give way too much respect to opinions that are not based on solid science and reasoning.

By any measure the French are smarter than we are. They are smarter than we are because they respect intelligence, education, and plain ol' reality, more than we do. Consequently, they get candidates that are more interested in debating different social security plans than flag burning. Of course they show up more: they aren't always having to choose between dumb and dumber.

They are, in many ways, what we could be, if only we had the intellectual courage to tell people that their religious beliefs are fine for their personal life decisions. Believe what you will. But when it comes to public policy matters, these views are no more appropriate than are astrological views. Objective reality, discerned through science when possible, is what we should base our policies on, because it is the only method available for view to all. Religious views are personal, and based on faith, and there is no way to have a meeting of the minds with faith: you either believe or you don't. It is this lack of potential compromise, or objective persuasion, that lies at the heart of why religious conflicts can so often turn violent. Without reason, there is no other recourse.

So I say again. You're religious? Great, that is one of our great freedoms. But its your personal view, and yours alone, and attempting to inflict that view on everyone else via the ballot box is not only an embarrasment to the rest of us in the eyes of the educated world (thanks Brownback, Tancredo, and Huckabee), it goes against the teachings of most of the major religious leaders. Jesus said "give to Caeser what is Caeser's, and give to God what is God's". He didn't say "Go vote so that Caeser must behave as I see fit". Want to be better than the French again? Follow Jesus' example.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Why Evolution does not imply Social Darwinism

Over at Dispatches a poster asked:

Is it not logical and optimal to breed beneficial characteristics in humans and breed out unbeneficial ones? ...What are the grounds of promoting or assisting [nonbeneficial traits] when it seems to run counter to "survival of the fittest"?

This is a fairly common conclusion that some draw from evolutionary theory, but it is sadly very wrong. At basic philosophical level, it is deriving an "is" from an "ought", a problem that, despite the best efforts of Ayn Rand and others, has really never survived Hume's critique. Science is about what is. Ethics and morality are about what ought to be. Evolution is science. It says that the cumulation of random genetic changes over time has produced all life on this planet from some distant common ancestor. The short version is "survivial of the fittest", which is somewhat misleading. It provides insight into the flaws in the question above to note Darwin's preferred phrase: descent with modification.

It is simplistic and misleading to talk of "fittest", because it implies that "fittest" is an absolute objective trait of a being that we can measure and use to predict survival. Fitness is completely dependent on the environment. For example, take dogs and wolves. By any objective, contextfree analysis, wolves are more fit than dogs: they are, on average, larger, faster, tougher, and smarter. Yet dogs greatly outnumber wolves, due in no small part to forming a semi-symbiotic relationship with the most dangerous species on the planet: us.

Once evolution is understood in this context, it becomes clearer why promoting "beneficial traits" isn't going to mean in evolutionary terms what we mean when we normally use those terms. Nature, not our values, determines fitness, and nature changes all the time. There is also a more generic argument against social Darwinism. If we were able to successfully breed ourselves into some sort of supermen, we would reduce the genetic variation of the species. This would greatly increase our exposure to catastrophic events, such as disease. If there is any normative value from evolutionary theory, it is that heterogeneity is good.

It should also be emphasized that evolution is stupid. It only moves incrementally from where it is. It is incapable of looking ahead. Were it a mountain climber, it would climb, always upward, but in otherwise random directions and distances, until it came to a point with no possible upward step. It's odds of getting to Everest are remote. Likewise, it simply produces more of whatever survived more and reproduced more. It can't look ahead to potentially filling up the planet, or exceeding available food stores, or running out of oil, or the many other problems facing humanity. There is a good reason 99% of all species who ever existed are now extinct. If we simply let evolution guide our decisionmaking, we can expect the same fate.

In the end, even if we could objectively and absolutely identify a way to improve our species and its survivability through selective breeding, Hume can still ask "So what? It does not logically follow that because you can do these things you should do these things", and indeed he would be correct. Evolution is a scientific theory. It explains why many facts are what they are. It can never tell us what we should do about it.

Friday, May 4, 2007

The Overrated Middle - My First Oprahism

Here I was minding my own business watching an old UFC fight when one of my favorite announcers, Mike Goldberg, hits me with this bit of popular pap:

"There are two sides to every story, and the truth is somewhere in the middle."

This is one of those catch phrases that we've all heard chanted like a self-evident mantra for so long that we don't stop to see just how inaccurate it is. It's the kind of thing people who want to appear smart, but who don't care to do the hard work to become so, like to say. I call them "Oprahisms", and the overrated middle is one of my least favorite. One doesn't need to play many games, or watch foreign policy, or run a business, to see tons of counterexamples.

Anyone who has played games knows there are lots of situations where the reasonable options are the extremes, and the middle is the last thing you want to do. In poker, in many situations with a weak hand, checking or folding (not betting) is reasonable, to minimize your risk, or betting big to try to buy the pot (bluff) is also reasonable, but making a small bet is not reasonable. In battles, whether in a board game or the real thing (think Iraq), avoiding the battle altogether, or attacking with everything you've got, might both be pretty reasonable, whereas going in half-assed is not. And when pricing a product in business, say you have some people who will buy your product for $10, and the rest will pay up to $15. Depending on the distribution curve, you would either price at $10, or $15. But you would never price between $10 and $15, because every person willing to pay that would also pay $15, so you are losing money to the $15 option.

Consider a legal case. If I claim your dog bit me, and you claim he didn't, the answer is certainly NOT somewhere in the middle. He either bit me or he didn't. Medicine isn't too kind to the middle either. If we have two unmarked glasses, one with lethal poison, and one with water, but we don't know which, and we are going to die without water right now, drinking either glass entirely is far more reasonable than drinking a mixture of the two.

I harp on the overrated middle for another reason. It is intellectual laziness dressed up as wisdom. Anyone can take the rough average of opposing views. That takes no effort, no risk, and no thought. Life is not that simple. Finding the answers requires evaluating the particular facts in evidence. Sometimes the answer is in the middle, sometimes it is towards one extreme or another. The Overrated Middle also implicitly assumes opinions dictate reality - want the "truth" to be further to the left? Move the extreme position on the left further out! This is a reality in our political life known as The Overton Window and is one reason extremist views are so commonly pandered to. Want your moderately wacky view to get more acceptance? Get your buddy to push a position that is even more wacky, and you'll look reasonable by comparison.

Dispense with this claptrap. Reality doesn't care what we think, and there are no simple puzzles for unraveling its mysteries. You can't find the truth by taking polls, and that is essentially what that commentator was saying. But then, don't get me started on the idiocy that comes out of sportscasters mouths. Thats a blog in the future.

Teaching Children Chess

Inspired by a discussion of chess here, I thought I'd touch on the subject of teaching kids to play chess.

When I teach young or completely inexperienced players I start at the end and work my way back to the beginning. If they don't know where they are heading, the opening moves won't make much sense to them. So lesson one: checkmate the king. With a clear board I have them chase my king with a queen and rooks until they mate me. Once that becomes routine for them, I introduce other pieces and combinations, and repeat the process. After rooks and a queen, I'll remove the queen and a rook and add the bishops, then knights and a rook. I take the queen off early because the players learn to love the queen in the open, and use it exclusively, thereby not learning about the other pieces. Repeat this until it gets routine.

Not only will they learn the pieces a lot faster this way than they would playing a full game, they get a taste of what they are trying to accomplish in the end. It also has the advantage of them winning every time. Children don't like to lose, which is what is going to happen if you play them a full game, and they often get frustrated and don't want to continue if they lose something consistently. It's not like you can explain to a 6 year old how long it takes grandmasters to be great. And I don't think it helps a them learn if you let them win with bad play. So giving them this little rigged game is a perfect intro.

Once they've mastered mating me in the open, we play pawns. I do not bother with the en passe rule. It is too complicated, and hell, I played chess for ten years before I realized it existed. I let them swap the pawns for a queen if they advance to the other side, just like the real game. Now that they learned to love their queen, they really like the idea of being able to get another one. If they get the hang of the strange way pawns move, you can move to castleing and playing a full game.

Even if they lose interest or are unable to grasp some of the nuances of the game, I think it is still a worthwhile exercise to go through with them. It gives them a little perspective as they go through all of their games that there is a really hard adult game out there called chess. They'll know, at least a little bit, that being tic tac toe champ only goes so far in life, and I think that's a good perspective to have. Chess can be humbling in a very good way.