Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Idiot of the Month: May I have $360 Billion?

Somethings are so absurd you know they are true. Take this story about a man in Fort Worth who, well, you just gotta see for yourself:

"A man has been accused of attempting to pass a $360 billion check, which he claims was given to him by his girlfriend’s mother to start a record business, Fort Worth police said."

Yeah, we can laugh at the obvious, but it does demonstrate one not-so-obvious fact. A billion, and all the numbers larger than it, are too large for us to really get our minds around. A billion seconds is 31 years. This lies at the heart of a lot of flawed creationist arguments. Their estimations of what can happen with tiny changes over a large enough period of time are off by orders of magnitude, just like they would never guess that a stack of a million pennies is about a mile high, or that banks don't have $360 billion lying around.

Argument of Racial Bias in Death Penalty Cases Misses the Point

I haven't seen one of these in a while, but apparently it is time once again to clue the opponents of the death penalty in on how those of us who support it view the issue. Sun Tzu said "know your enemy", and those who cite these disparity studies in an attempt to persuade are failing to follow his example, which is why their arguments continually fall on deaf ears. Here is the gist of the report:

"A 2003 Amnesty International report showed that although African-Americans are only 12% of the population of the United States, at that time they were 40% of the people condemned on death row. If this nation is not going to abolish the death penalty, it needs to institute a moratorium until we can figure out why these two death penalty systems have developed and what, if anything, can be done to prevent this clear racial bias from continuing."

At first glance that seems like an open and shut case. However, it is indisputable that economic and educational factors play an important role in quality of legal representation, as well as the likelihood of even being involved with such criminal situations. It is also a simple fact that economic and educational factors are skewed (primarily because of accidents of history IMO) against blacks. So any study of any difference in societal treatment between blacks and whites absolutely must control for those differences, else the poor/rich bias could appear to be a black/white bias.

The authors of the cited study frequently acknowledge this flaw, and yet ignore the implications. Here are but two of many examples I could cite:

"The link between poverty and race should not be overlooked. Pennsylvania’s Committee on Racial and Gender Bias in the Justice System, for example, pointed out in its March 2003 report that “issues of racial and ethnic bias cannot be divorced from the issue of poverty. Unless the poor, among whom minority communities are overrepresented, are provided adequate legal representation, including ample funds for experts and investigators, there cannot be a lasting solution to the issue of racial and ethnic bias in the capital justice system”.

A study into the Nebraska death penalty commissioned by the state did not find any
significant evidence of disparate treatment of capital defendants on the basis of race of defendant or victim, but it did find significant disparities based on the socio-economic status (SES) of the victim: “Specifically, since 1973 defendants whose victims have high socioeconomic status have faced a significantly higher risk of advancing to a penalty trial and receiving a death sentence. Defendants with low SES victims have faced a substantially reduced risk of advancing to a penalty trial and of being sentenced to death”."

So the studies have a serious flaw, as they fail to account for a major mitigating factor: economic status. But it stands to reason that there will be a racial component to sentencing, just like there is a racial component to many aspects of American life. It simply won't be as large as the uncontrolled studies imply. The question is what we do about it. This is not the answer:

"Given the disparities in both the federal and state capital punishment system, it is time to start asking the questions President Johnson posed forty years ago: 'what is happening' and 'why is it happening?' Until we get satisfactory answers to those questions, we should stop using the death penalty.

This sort of argument will always fall on deaf ears because death penalty proponents, by and large, are against the sorts of subjective and arbitrary decisions that are allowed to take place in our legal system. We don't think a judge or jury should be allowed to say Joe Black will be executed for murder, but John White will get life in prison. Those who think murder deserves the death penalty think ALL murderers should get the death penalty. If rape can get the death penalty, then ALL rapists should get the death penalty. We look at the data in these studies and conclude that the white murderers and rapists need to be executed more, not that the blacks should be executed less.

Ditto for the arbitrary exclusions that are allowed in the jury selection process. The easiest way to solve the problem of Group X being excluded from the jury pool (be they blacks, or Mensa members) is to dispense with the time-consuming and counterproductive jury selection process, not rant and rave that lawyers don't select jurors as we think they should. Give each lawyer 1 or 2 strikes to cover for when the defendant's brother was in the jury pool and get on with it. And yes, there are many of us who support the death penalty only as an imperfect pragmatic solution to our overcrowded prison system (and no, we don't agree with allowing 10 years of appeals either). Personally I'd rather see all the drug laws repealed and do away with the death penalty entirely.

But this article is about political persuasion, not what method of punishment is most effective or just. If you intend to persuade supporters of the death penalty to change their minds, arguing that it is inconsistently applied will persuade no one, since none of them support that in the first place. One might as well try to persuade atheists to believe the Bible is true by quoting the Bible.

Secular does not Mean Atheistic

One of the common bromides the religious right pushes is the for-us-or-against-us mentality that there cannot be neutrality with regard to religion in the public sphere. Secularism to them is just atheism by another name. Their arguments are many and flawed in this regard, but luckily Zachary Gappa was kind enough to list many of them in one convenient article, ripe for fisking, so let's dive right into the stupid, shall we?

As is common with this sort of tract, Gappa completely misrepresents the position of those of us who support a strong separation of church and state, and as is so common with writers of his ilk, complete with intellectually dishonest scare quotes:

"They say the public sphere ought to be 'secular', free from talk of religion lest someone be offended. Religious freedom is interpreted as the freedom not to hear another person's religious convictions."

Absolute garbage. The issue of the secular town square has never, ever, been about taking offense, or fear of hearing other opinions. We atheists cannot hope to match the pious in those regards. The argument behind the 1st amendment is pragmatic. It is simply easier, and less bloody, to settle our civic disputes sans religion, as the ever-growing disputes in the middle east attest. Faith-based views leave little room for compromise, thus leading so often to violence. Better to keep those private, admittedly logically baseless religious views to ourselves, and hash out our civic disputes based on objective facts everyone can observe and grasp.

Now sadly we hardly live up to this standard in America. Numerous issues such as abortion, stem-cell research, and gay marriage, have groups whose entire political position is based on religion. The spirit of the 1st amendment is lost on them. Further, politicians find it necessary to prattle on about their faith, or their respect for that of others, to sustain their political careers. Announcing that one is an atheist is still the surest way to electoral defeat. And of course, we have people like Pat Robertson and James Dobson who wield great political power solely because of the number of people whose religious views they reflect. We have a long way to go to achieve the sort of secular civic life the founding fathers envisioned. So one can be forgiven for wondering what planet people live on who can play, with a straight face, the Oppressed Christian card in America as Gappa does:

"Sadly, these freedoms of the individual are no longer respected. The ultimate freedom is no longer the freedom to speak or practice one's religion, but the freedom to not be offended by anyone else. It is now seen as rude if one person defends their religious beliefs publicly. Beliefs about morality are no longer welcome in the public sphere. The only place left for religion is within the walls of a person's home or church."

Gappa is simply delusional here, there is no other way to put it. It is just another example of how some people are so attached to their religious view of the world that they see any restraint on it as a complete rejection. Keeping them from pushing others around equates to pushing them around in their twisted little minds.

"Most in today's culture believe that a person's religious beliefs do not have a broad impact on their view of life... And for an atheist, they are rooted in the belief that there is no God."

More MSU from Gappa, as he himself contradicts this, since most people in today's culture are in fact Christians who personally understand the impact their views have on their life. But this is typical of those pushing the persecuted-Christians meme. Christians are either the deserving majority, or the downtrodden ignored minority, depending on which best suits the author's arguments.

As for the second claim above, it reveals Gappa's ignorance of atheistic thought. Atheist views are no more based on their lack of belief in Gappa's gods than are Gappa's views based on his lack of belief in unicorns. Lack of belief is no basis for anything. It is empty by definition. Gappa cannot grasp this, which leads right into this little fallacy:

"People do not realize that a 'secular' public sphere inherently assumes that there is no God. Since every person's religious beliefs impact the way they view the world, a secular sphere discriminates against those whose opinions are rooted in their belief in God."

I'm sure Barry Lynne, pastor and head of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, or Francis Collins and Ken Miller, religious people and successful scientists, would find this claim interesting that they are discriminated against in their chosen secular arenas. The reason the claim is nonsense is because Gappa assumes believers have no secular views to apply in the appropriate arena. That is, secular arenas don't discriminate against believers as long as they bring secular substance to the table. It is only when they attempt to substitute religious views for the secular currency that they find themselves criticized.

To argue as Gappa does, we would conclude that any football player attempting to play basketball is unfairly discriminated against because he is not allowed to tackle people on the basketball court. The likes of Miller and Collins in science, or Lynne in politics, have no trouble succeeding and being respected by their peers because they do not attempt to use the language of religion where it is inapplicable. The first amendment says one of those spheres is the public sector, and Gappa's own example supports this position.

"One Christians who oppose euthanasia on the basis that God gives humans life and does not give them the discretion to end their lives. In contrast, many atheists would argue that, since there is no God, humans are free to end their own lives whenever they deem appropriate. By removing God from the public debate on euthanasia, secularism discriminates against the opinions of the Christian."

It does? How? The Christian is free to follow his views about the gods and life with regard to his own life as he sees fit. Ah, but see, people like Gappa are never satisfied with that. They must not only be able to follow their views in their personal lives, they must also be allowed to force others to do so in the public arena.

But to see the wisdom of excluding religion from the public sphere, imagine a religious group called the Euthers, just as large as Gappa's anti-euthanasia one, whose religious views demand the euthanizing of the terminally ill. Now, how are they to settle their differences? The Gappas say euthanasia is bad, because their gods say so. The Euthers say euthanasia is good, because their gods say so. Now, the "are not"-"are so" argument is only going to continue for so long before they start shooting at each other. They have no other option, since their religious views, being faith-based, are not amenable to logical analysis. Thus, we get Northern Ireland and Iraq, as well as all the other spots in the world where the religious are at each other's throats.

Gappa would have us structure our society so that the same could happen here. Simply substitute abortion for euthanasia, and his other points fall to logic as well. Far from being impossible as he suggests, people separate their religious views from views in other arenas all the time. It's called "context", which given how brazenly Christian debaters ignore it would possibly explain why Gappa cannot grasp the possibility of doing what all of us do every day. We have our science hat, our political hat, our family hat, our church hat, and many many others.

If Gappa has his one (religion) hat and no other, he has a lot in common with another group of people, the dreaded Islamo-fascists, who he and his kind would have us believe is the greatest threat humanity has ever faced. However, many of us are starting to see that Christian fundamentalists who want a theocracy are far more dangerous to everything America is supposed to stand for. A secular America is a free America, for believers and nonbelievers alike.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Expelled has a Poll, no Wait, they Didn't

As if we needed more evidence that the Expelled gang were what George Orwell had in mind, they had a poll on their Myspace page on whether or not Intelligent Design should be taught in schools. That is, until they started losing, and badly, at which time they pulled the poll.

But some of us still have it.

Hat tip: Greg Laden

The Real Lesson of the Florida and Louisiana "Academic Freedom" Bills

The underlying serious problem at the root of our education system is the common notion that educating is something that only takes intelligence, or worse yet, good intentions, to do as well as a professional. No one would think they could do the job of a lawyer, or an engineer, or even a plumber, merely from being smart, or from good intentions and concerns about the outcome. Yet educators do not get that sort of respect, despite similar if not superior demands in education and skill set. Educating is something anyone, even children can do, or so it is assumed. The academic freedom bills in Florida and Louisiana are the inevitable result of this mindset.

Who of sound mind would suggest that the way to fix a plumbing leak is to give several options to a group of children and have them make up their own minds about the optimal solution? Who would suggest that we should try all plumbing techniques, even those specifically repudiated by plumbing organizations? No one. We know children know little about plumbing, either academically, or in practical experience. We also know plumbers know a great deal about plumbing, and their judgment is going to be a lot better than ours as to what is and is not effective. Yet these academic freedom bills suggest that we act in such a manner with even more difficult subjects like biology. With all due respect to plumbers the world over, biology makes considerably more demands on both student and teacher. And yet here we are supposed to make an exception to the plumber rule and allow/demand children sift through all the possible alternatives themselves and make their own choice. We are supposed to allow teachers to present biological theories that have been rejected by biologists the world over with the same enthusiasm that they teach the consensus view. It is madness, and its root is in this attitude of pedagogical egalitarianism America is stricken with.

And what is the root of this attitude? Religion of course. There, alone among epistemologies, are people encouraged to derive opinions, not from controlled scientific study, or even practical experience, but from personal reflection. Seek, and ye shall find. All is possible with the Lord. One who is taught from an early age that knowing and loving the gods is the highest form of knowledge, has no need for these scientists and their pathetic level of detail. Suffer the children unto me, for they have their own wisdom.

This is the heart of it. Educators don’t know any more than parents or children. Without that absurd assumption, these bills could not pass. So to fight these bills effectively, we have to attack the core assumption. No, you do NOT know more about how to educate your child than the professionals do. And no, we are not going to let your child decide what is and is not true. That's what he is in school to learn, and from trained professionals. Academia is not like a free market, because students do not have the understanding of the issues like customers do. They don't know what they need, and neither, apparently, do most of their parents.

One of the main purposes of having a public school system was to keep children's education from being limited by their parents. Passing these "academic freedom" bills runs completely in the wrong direction, and needs to be resisted.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Ben Stein's Lunacy and Hypocrisy Laid Bare

There is a fabulous series of videos entitled "Why Do People Laugh at Creationists?" out there that everyone should check out. Part One dissects some astronomical nonsense, followed by 20 more in the series that hit just about every creationist argument. However, the last three are dedicated to exposing the absurdities of Ben Stein and Expelled. Be sure to watch Part 22, Part 23, and Part 24, which expose Ben Stein's lunacy and scientific ignorance in grand detail.

Why Hillary Should Concede: Obama's Real Lead is an Insurmountable 15%

It has been a valiant, if not noble, effort from the Clinton Campaign, but the writing is now on the wall. As the Pennsylvania results come in, and Hillary gained a mere 10 pledged delegates (PDs), the writing is on the wall. Barak Obama is going to be the Democratic nominee for president, barring an untimely death, major scandal, or group insanity on the part of the super delegates.

Here's the delegate math. Current pledged delegates:

Obama - 1489 1/2
Clinton - 1336 1/2

That 1/2 delegate is but one testimony to the absurdity of the Democratic party nomination process. Nonetheless, it is now Obama's nomination to lose. With only 566 PDs in the remaining primaries (Guam, Indiana, NC, WVa, KT, OR, PR, MT, and SD), Hillary would have to win 64% of them to catch Obama, which the media has talked about.

However, since Obama is heavily favored in NC and OR, that is really not a meaningful stat. Were the final states California and Arkansas, it might even be realistic for Hillary to catch him. For a more realistic analysis, I looked at the latest polls, and calculated how much Hillary would have to outperform the polls to catch Obama. The answer:


That is, for Hillary to catch Obama she would have to get 15% more of the vote in every single remaining state than the polls currently predict. Now we all know polls occasionally miss the mark, but not in that many states to that extent all at once. She'd have to get figures like 85% in Kentucky and 60% in North Carolina. Not gonna happen.

So hang it up Hillary. All you are doing now is wasting time and money, and the only result is to damage your own party's candidate.
Even Mitt Romney knew when to call it quits.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Richard Weikart's Flawed Darwin-Hitler Analysis

As I'm sure most of you know, the creationists are trying madly to attach the ball and chain of Hitler to the leg of Darwin in the hopes of bringing down evolution in the process. The argument is absurd on its face since the truth of a scientific theory has nothing whatever to do with what psychotic German dictators decide to do with it. Einstein was not responsible for Hiroshima, and the Beatles were not responsible for Charles Manson.

And yet, that aside, their arguments are still absurd, as Richard Weikart demonstrates:

There were six features of Darwinian theory that have contributed to the devaluing of human life (then and now):

1. Darwin argued that humans were not qualitatively different from animals. The leading Darwinist in Germany, Ernst Haeckel, attacked the “anthropocentric” view that humans are unique and special.

Um, but humans AREN'T qualitatively different from other animals, as the refutations of the specific claims of such over recent years attest. We use tools, they use tools. We kill for sport, some of them (chimps, bluefish) do as well. Many animals have a proto-language and even culture. We have similar DNA structure, physical structure, and consume, procreate, and expel waste the same as the rest of the animal kingdom. Even without Darwin this would be known.

And how exactly does it devalue human life to recognize this? I suppose if one looks down on the animal kingdom it might, but that reveals a personal bias, not reality. One could easily raise one's opinion of the animal kingdom (a la Pete Singer) because of such a revelation, rather than downing man.

Perhaps Weikart missed the day in beginner's rhetoric class when they taught that to disprove someone else's position, you need to produce FACTS that counter their claims, not baseless speculation. Hell, with this sort of reasoning, he might as well bitch at Darwin for saying humans don't have a soul.

"2. Darwin denied that humans had an immaterial soul. He and other Darwinists believed that all aspects of the human psyche, including reason, morality, aesthetics, and even religion, originated through completely natural processes."

[sigh] Yes, and neurological research is bearing this out. One cannot blame Darwin for recognizing reality, and once again it is a reality that would have been known even without Darwin. And still once again, how does this recognition devalue human life? In this case, it pretty clearly increases the value of human life. After all, who cares about a mere finite physical life if it is merely a container for an immortal soul which will live on in blissful eternity? One could easily see a benefit in murdering someone to send them to heaven earlier before they can sin further. Yahweh justified the attack on the Amalekites this way.

On the other hand, if this material existence is all that we will ever have, then that would imply cherishing it, and respecting it more in others. Weikart's argument is completely bass-ackwards here.

"3. Darwin and other Darwinists recognized that if morality was the product of mindless evolution, then there is no objective, fixed morality and thus no objective human rights. Darwin stated in his Autobiography that one “can have for his rule of life, as far as I can see, only to follow those impulses and instincts which are the strongest or which seem to him the best ones.”

Again, all Darwin did here was recognize reality. If Weikart doesn't care for the idea that morality is not fixed, I suggest he take it up with all the religious leaders who keep changing it, and arguing with each other about which change is the objective fixed one, and get back to us when they all agree on what the fixed morality is.

This argument is even more basically flawed than that. If morality is "whatever the gods say is morality", there can be no more subjective, unfixed morality than that. And again, how does recognizing that we must make our moral laws ourselves devalue human life, whereas mindlessly following whatever the gods spew forth, even if it means murdering children (Abraham and Isaac), make us more valuable. Is not the lawmaker more valuable than the law follower? Weikart's problem here, as elsewhere, is with reality, not Darwin.

"4. Since evolution requires variation, Darwin and other early Darwinists believed in human inequality. Haeckel emphasized inequality to such as extent that he even classified human races as twelve distinct species and claimed that the lowest humans were closer to primates than to the highest humans.

Here Weikart's illogic is most blatant. Yes, evolutionary processes can only work on a heterogeneous population, which means the last thing you would want to do is eliminate part of that population! Evolutionary theory says that every member of the gene pool is valuable, which is about as opposite of devaluing human life as one can get.

And again, Darwin can hardly be blamed for recognition of the inequality of people with regard to talents and context-specific value. It is a fact of life anyone with two brain cells to rub together could recognize.

"5. Darwin and most Darwinists believe that humans are locked in an ineluctable struggle for existence. Darwin claimed in The Descent of Man that because of this struggle, '[a]t some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace throughout the world the savage races.'"

Here is where the "fixed knowledge" viewpoint bites Weikart in the ass. While it is true Darwin placed a great deal of emphasis on the struggle for existence, few evolutionary biologists believe that now. The discoveries of genetic drift and sexual selection, as well as other influences, have greatly reduced the emphasis on Darwin's struggle. And, drum roll please, how does believing there is a struggle devalue anyone? Weikart provides no clue.

"6. Darwinism overturned the Judeo-Christian view of death as an enemy, construing it instead as a beneficial engine of progress. Darwin remarked in The Origin of Species, 'Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows.'"

This is just comical, as Weikart gets both sides of the argument wrong. Death as the enemy in Christianity? Death brings us to eternal salvation with the gods. Death was Christ's way of saving us. Death in this life means little, as this young Catholic schoolboy learned. And as far as evolution is concerned, death is not the engine, it is the sieve. Genetic variation and imperfect replication is the engine.

That, such as it is, is the case for Darwin causing Hitler. Pretty pathetic, isn't it? Every one of Weikart's points is either factually incorrect, or illogical, or both. These are obviously the efforts of a man with a preordained conclusion force fitting data to fit his preconceptions. Gee, from a creationist? Whoda thunk it.

Shopping Bag Fees? The Wave of the Future

One of the first societal changes we can anticipate to combat our environmental crises is here: shopping bag fees. It begins, of course, on the west coast:

"Under a proposal announced this week by Mayor Greg Nickels, shoppers in Seattle would pay a 20-cent “green fee” beginning next year for every new paper or plastic bag they use to carry away goods from grocery, drug or convenience stories. They would be encouraged to bring their own bags for carrying home purchases.
Foam food containers would also be banned under the proposal.

It apparently is not without precedent:

"The city said a similar program in Ireland helped reduce the use of disposable bags by 90 percent. The city could expect to raise $10 million annually through the fee, with $1 million going to buy and distribute free reusable bags to each household in the city."

“This proposal,” the mayor said, “is all about forming new habits.”

That really is what it is all about. Behavioral change is difficult on a conscious level. To change behavior in the long run, we must change our habits and our expectations. And as to the knee-jerk reaction from some that this will never change, Mr. Conlin gives the appropriate response:

Mr. Conlin, the Council president, said making people pay for bags rather than banning them would encourage people to be aware of what they consume and could help the city avoid potential challenges to its authority to ban products. He dismissed the suggestion that the public dependency on disposable bags was somehow beyond rehabilitation. “Plastic bags were only invented like three decades ago,” Mr. Conlin said. “It’s not like this was a pioneer tradition.”

It never ceases to amaze me that people disinterested in a societal change will claim it can never change while ignoring the obvious fact that the situation in question was not always as it is. American can ween themselves off the habit of getting new grocery bags to use for an hour and then permanently discard. We got along fine before we started doing so.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Free Will and Cheating

In a experiment sure to give succor to the notion that a lack of belief in free will will cause anarchy, scientists have gotten results that suggest those who don't believe in free will are more likely to cheat. Dave Munger has a good writeup here:

"Students who read the passage advocating determinism and against free will 'cheated' significantly more often than those who read the passage on consciousness that didn't mention free will. These students also were significantly more likely to believe in determinism compared to the other group, so it seems likely that this increased belief in determinism led directly to the 'cheating' behavior.


One might also be tempted to use these results to argue that belief in free will is important from a moral perspective (whether or not it actually exists). Yet many religions have very strong deterministic traditions and also strong moralistic traditions, so clearly belief in determinism isn't the only influence on moral behavior. Nonetheless, the results of this study are fascinating. I look forward to hearing what our commenters think about them.

I would be very interested to see such an experiment done with a followup test to see if the influence of the experiments sticks, or if it is something that is only a short-term effect. And of course the main lesson we should take from such results is not that we have to resurrect the notion of free will, but that we need to better explain the modulated, interconnected network of influences and desires that makes up our brains, and ultimately, our decisions.

Just Who Are the Working People?

"Barak Obama does poorly with working white people", says Chris Matthews. This phrase has annoyed me for decades, and it's time to call it out. For those unfamiliar with the nomenclature of American politics, "working people" means "blue collar workers", people who, very generally, work primarily with their bodies and not with their minds.

This was one of the many semantic battles that Republicans let Democrats win in the 70's and 80's, and it is as dishonest as it is anachronistic. We live in a society completely dependent on those who work with concepts instead of objects. The computer era has made it so that the person who can handle concepts can be 10,000 times as productive as the person who can't. The implication of this phrase, that those who don't wash their hands at the end of the day aren't "working people" is insulting to them, and does nothing but inflame tensions between the haves and the have-nots in society. It implies that people with white collars merely "push paper" while others do the "real work". This is nonsense. And having done both, I can testify that working with your mind is a lot harder than working on an assembly line.

It is time people who use this "working people" phrase are called on the absurd, inflammatory assumptions within. Anyone who puts in an honest days effort at productive activity for a paycheck is a "working person", and deserves respect for that, whatever color their collar.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Experiments in the lab don't count, unless you create life

Every time a scientist creates something in the lab that supports evolution, creationists consistently call foul, claiming the mere involvement of intelligent people voids the results, since they were the result of an intelligence. Yet then they turn around and claim that they'll believe us if we create a life form from scratch in the lab. Nina May's comment is typical:

"So where did it begin, and if it was as simple as a big bang, then recreate it. If man really did evolve from an ameba [sic]. . . a simple one celled creature, then certainly he should be able to make a man from one today. With all the science, the technology, the internet, and the huge crowd of followers desperate to prove there is no God and that man, in his total stupidity, really thinks he can become one, then prove it."

Never mind the idiocy of the argument that man should be able to recreate anything nature can do. Can you say "hurricane"? Earthquake? Please.

But really, would you guys please get together and tell us which it is? Half of you are telling us that any lab experiment is tainted with intelligence, the other half are demanding we get into the lab and prove our point. Which is it?

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Why Conservative Christians Piss Us Off More than Liberal Christians

Michael Medved, in one of his comical persecuted-Christians articles, asks:

"Why is it less controversial when liberals talk about their religious outlook than it is for conservatives to speak about our faith?"

Simple Mike. Because when liberals talk about their religion, it's usually because they were asked, and it would be tough to tell what their religion was from their voting record. They respect the separation of church and state. I might disagree with their analysis of the data, but at least they care about the data. Conservatives on the other hand, give us shit like this:

"Programs teaching U.S. schoolchildren to abstain from sex have not cut teen pregnancies or sexually transmitted diseases or delayed the age at which sex begins, health groups told Congress on Wednesday.

The Bush administration, however, voiced continuing support for such programs during a hearing before a House of Representatives panel even as many Democrats called for cutting off federal money for so-called abstinence-only instruction.

These programs, backed by many social conservatives who oppose the teaching of contraception methods to teenagers in schools, have received about $1.3 billion in federal funds since the late 1990s."

We are pouring money down a rat hole because conservative Christians refuse to deal with the reality of what does and does not work in sex education. They believe that sex outside of marriage is a sin, plain and simple. Any appeal to data is just a smoke screen. For evidence, simply ask someone like that to commit to supporting whatever the data supports. Ask them if they would support handing condoms out in elementary school if the data shows it reduces pregnancies and disease transmission. Watch them squirm, dance, bob and weave to avoid answering.

So Mr. Medved, THAT'S why conservatives make us a lot more nervous than liberals when they talk about their faith. Liberals mostly keep their goofy little comfy ideas to themselves. You actually try to apply them in the real world, which gives us abstinence only education, evolution-free biology, and makes me wait in the damned store until noon before I can get my Sunday beer. Is this really so difficult to grasp? Their religion makes them seem pitiable. Yours makes you a giant pain in the ass, and produces lots of social problems, not the least of which is more ignorant children having unwanted children.

Lost Kitty: For Those Who Think Science is so Irrelevant

For those who think science is just for nerds, I give you the lost kitty. I hope they found him.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

More Bad News for Expelled: Yoko Sues over use of Imagine

As reported by Reuters Yoko Ono is suing Premise Media and others involved in the making of Expelled for their illegal use of John Lennon's "Imagine":

"Yoko Ono, son, Sean Ono Lennon, and Julian Lennon, John Lennon's son from his first marriage, along with privately held publisher EMI Blackwood Music Inc filed suit in U.S. District Court in Manhattan seeking to bar the filmmakers and their distributors from continuing to use 'Imagine' in the movie.

They are also seeking unspecified damages."

Let's hope this is only the first of many. Justice never tasted so sweet.

Ben Stein's Dishonest Film Exposes Dinesh D'Souza's Naivete and Ignorance

Beware the Creationist Ellipses. Those with experience dealing with creationists, and their tendency to quote mine, know this is rule #1. "Any time you see a creationist quote...that this", you can guarantee that whatever was eliminated by the ellipses contradicts whatever point they are making. The same applies to video. If a creationist interviews a scientist about evolution, you can be guaranteed that the answer you see the scientist give will be edited in a way that makes the scientist appear to be making an argument that he isn't making.

Dinesh D'Souza is either unaware of this, or simply doesn't care because the edited version told him what he wanted to hear. In any case, the only person exposed by D'Souza's latest article is D'Souza, not Richard Dawkins, the quote-filmed scientist.

But before we get to that, let's remind everyone how dishonest D'Souza is by corrected all the false statements he his opening paragraph:

"In Ben Stein's new film 'Expelled,' there is a great scene where Richard Dawkins is going on about how evolution explains everything."

Nonsense, and this is remarkable even for D'Souza. One of the things that irritates creationists to no end is that scientists tell them, willingly and loudly, that evolution does not explain everything, and that it is silly to expect it to. It doesn't explain what morality we should have, it doesn't explain how the universe began, and most relevant to this article, it doesn't explain how the very first replicator came to be. Scientific theories are very implication specific, and all scientists, Dawkins included, will lecture you on this point as long as you allow them to. For D'Souza to pretend to be unaware of this stretches credulity beyond the breaking point.

"This is part of Dawkins' grand claim, which echoes through several of his books, that evolution by itself has refuted the argument from design."

Ah, so to D'Souza, "refuting design arguments" = "everything". Glad we got that cleared up. And yes, insofar as ID proponents have made testable, scientific claims, evolution has refuted them. Irreducible complexity's claims have been falsified (functioning subsystems and indirect pathways exist), and their probability arguments are flawed (necessary mutations are not independent events), as are their statistical assumptions (it is not proper to assume all unknown distributions are linear). However, ID itself has not, and can never be, refuted, because it lacks scientific content. This is a distinction many ID proponents completely ignore.

"The argument from design hold [sic] that the design of the universe and of life are most likely the product of an intelligent designer. Dawkins thinks that Darwin has disproven this argument.

ID says nothing about the universe. The apologetic argument that does is known as "The Fine Tuning Argument". The ID argument is that certain attributes of living things (eg consciousness, flagellums, and eyes) are most likely the product of an intelligent designer, and this is the argument evolution keeps disproving.

So Stein puts to Dawkins a simple question, "How did life begin?" One would think that this is a question that could be easily answered. Dawkins, however, frankly admits that he has no idea. One might expect Dawkins to invoke evolution as the all-purpose explanation. Evolution, however, only explains transitions from one life form to another. Evolution has no explanation for how life got started in the first place. Darwin was very clear about this.

And some people don't understand why he's called "Distort DeNewsa" in some circles. Five easily referenced assertions to begin this piece, and not one accurate. Coincidence? The IDers he defends would disagree.

D'Souza then bores us with some of those very same errors: overstating the significance of "complexity" (a term evolution critics are always very careful to never objectively define), miscalculating probabilities, and then hitting us with another self-serving bizarre redefinition of a common English word:

"Moreover, the earth has been around for some 4.5 billion years and the first traces of life have already been found at some 3.5 billion years ago...What this means is that, within the scope of evolutionary time, life appeared on earth very quickly after the earth itself was formed."

So "1 billion years" = "very quickly within the scope of evolutionary time" to D'Souza? That would make the entirety of human history, around 200,000 years, a mere blink of an eye to Dinesh. Remind me to not wait on him when he says he'll be back in a minute. But seriously, 1 billion years is nearly 1/4 of the earth's history. It is not "very quickly", even in evolutionary terms.

"Is it reasonable to posit that a chance combination of atoms and molecules, under those conditions, somehow generated a living thing?

Of course it is. D'Souza is simply not thinking this through (shocker, I know). Simply compare the two competing theories here, and their predictions, to the data:

1) Atoms and molecules, within the constraints of chemical and physical laws, organized themselves into a very simple replicator.

2) An intelligence of unknown origin created the earth, and then purposely placed replicating life on it.

Now, given our two theories, how long would we expect it to take for that first replicator to appear? With #1, we'd expect it to take a very long time. Obviously it couldn't happen quickly or we'd see creation events happening all around us, even in our peanut butter. But you can do a lot with a billion of just about anything. A billion seconds is over 31 years).

However, with theory #2, we'd expect it to happen rather quickly. After all, if the earth was created for the purpose of having life on it, there is no reason the designer would wait for a billion years to put it there. This is why IDers avoid making predictions like the plague. They always turn up on the short end of the evidence.

The more important part of this issue is the inherent contradiction in the creationist position. They decry that the complexity of life we see is beyond the ability of mindless processes, but their solution is to posit a being of even more complexity as being the cause. To them the high complexity of life had to have a cause, but the even higher complexity of the designer doesn't. Thus, even if we found that life was in fact put here by some designer, say an advanced alien race, that would still leave us the problem of explaining their complexity. It is an infinite regress out of which the creationists cannot climb, and it dooms their argument.
This was the point Dawkins made when he was pressed by the Expelled interviewers as to what the possibilities of a designer were, and he suggested that it could be aliens. This theory is called "panspermia", and while there is a fringe group who believes it, Dawkins is not among them, and never has been. Yet that is exactly what Stein and company want you to believe, so they edited the film accordingly, leaving the context of the statements out so that it appeared that Dawkins was a panspermian.

D'Souza fell for it, and as a result, he reaches the correct conclusion, but for the wrong reasons, and as a result, doesn't grasp the full implications.

"But doesn't it take as much, or more, faith to believe in extraterrestrial biology majors depositing life on earth than it does to believe in a transcendent creator?"

Essentially, yes, an unreasonable amount of faith, which ignores the problem of the infinite regress of complex causes. This is precisely why Dawkins doesn't buy it, which he would gladly explain to you himself given an opportunity. But D'Souza would rather believe Ben Stein on what Dawkins' says than Dawkins himself. No wonder his articles are always so riddled with easly avoidable errors.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

What The Obama Bitter Flap Tells us About Our Politics

I have been watching the flap over Barak Obama's gaffe in describing some people as bitter and clinging to guns, religion, and anti-immigration in the face of tough economic times. And it surely was a gaffe, as sure as it would have been for him to say "We've got the black vote wrapped up, so we really don't have to worry too much about it. I mean what are they going to do, vote Republican?" There are truths one simply does not speak, and he should have known better.

But the amazing thing about it to me is that in the many, many comments I've seen, be they in the oral, written, or blogged press, no one seems willing to accept this reality. Sure, slap Obama around for his mistake, but the mistake was in the uttering of it, not the belief. Obama is not an elitist for daring to suggest that underpaid, overworked, high school dropout country bumpkins might be a bit pissed off about their lot in life, and lacking the necessary cognitive skills to reason out why, pray to their gods while they shoot at targets with Mexicans painted on them.

If recognizing that makes one an elitist, so be it. Obama should watch his language, but I don't have to, so let's get this out in the open right now. Ever spend much time in the country? I have. You ever see those movie and TV plots where the city guy goes into the country and finds that the people there are a lot more intelligent than he thought they were? They just had a different kind of intelligence, kind of folksy and down to earth? Well, it's a load of crap.

Oh sure, country folks have their virtues. A lot of them work harder than I've ever worked, and they've got your back like no one else. The bullshit factor is pretty low, and a helluva lot of them are willing to go die for the rest of us, and for that and that alone they deserve respect. I'd rather spend time with a cowhand any day than a slicked-back frat rat who thinks he's superior to me because I earned my wealth while he inherited his.

But intellect? Sorry, there's a reason the smart country kids end up migrating to the city when they don't inherit the family business. There's little for them in the sticks, where the biggest building in town is the church, and society stops on Friday nights in the fall to watch a little controlled teen violence on the gridiron. They think prayer counts as action and don't think they came from no monkeys. They know America is the greatest country in the world, except for all those damned foreigners coming here who don't even speak American good. Of course, they've never been anywhere, but rest assured, they know all about the rest of the world, or so they bullshit themselves.

Let's not bullshit each other. A big reason this country is going down the crapper is because our politics revolve around pleasing this immense population of hayseeds whose bullets are bigger than their brains and who get their morality from 2,000 year old sheepherders. And yes, they blame foreigners for their problems. One thing that really amazed me in my country travels was the obsession with the three F's: foreign aid, faggots and farts. And now that their immigrant ancestors have established themselves here, to hell with anyone else's immigrant parents wanting to do the same.

But do we recognize this? Nah. Instead, we have a media which labels any politician with brains an elitist, and accuses anyone who thinks in complete thoughts rather than short soundbites of waffling or being esoteric. Why? Because long complicated answers are too much for the double-digit IQ crowd, and they dislike politicians who communicate that way. Their ministers tell them that they can understand all things because The Great Designer says so, and they believe the minister, and reject all ideas they cannot immediately grasp as "book smarts" that conflict with common sense. And the media caters to this POV because idiot TV viewers like shows that validate their idiot thoughts. Thus we get The View, Bill O'Reilly, and Answers in Genesis.

That, my fellow Americans, is how you get a president like the one we have, and candidates like most of them have been. It is said that America gets the politicians it deserves. I believe it more every day. If we punish politicians for daring to utter unpleasant truths, in too damned many big words, and keep only the guys that say things short and stupid (like "freedom requires religion"), then we will again, be getting the politicians we deserve.

An Archaeologist Enters the ID Fray

One of the most glaring weaknesses in the ID arguments is the complete lack of interest they generate in areas that should be falling all over themselves about the ability to detect design. Archaeologists and forensic scientists do exactly that all the time. Is this chipped rock a tool? Was the fire an arson? An explanatory filter would be of immeasurable use answering such questions.

Sadly, the explanatory filter and all other aspects of ID are contentless pseudoscience, which explains their lack of application in other areas. Yet missing from the debate on ID are voices from those areas debunking the ID claims.

So let's welcome Christopher O'Brien to the game, and hope he provides a new insight into these issues. Here is a taste of his entry post:

"The direct issues that we confront as federal archaeologists, especially with regard to a public that does not adequately comprehend the historical context in which we plan and implement on-the-ground projects, is intertwined with a much broader issue that affects us on multiple levels. I am talking about the war on science. If we consider our discipline a scientific endeavor and not merely a casual fulfillment of academic curiosity, then archaeology must pull its collective head out of the excavation pit and recognize when science and science education are under attack. We can no longer simply leave the war to the biologists, geologists and climatologists. Archaeology is part of the science continuum and we must engage aggressively in educating the public about archaeology specifically, but about science in general….


Not content with attempting to purloin false archaeological credentials by nefariously claiming directorship status on volunteer archaeology projects, these charlatans of the anti-science movement have now recruited archaeology as an ally in its most current manifestation: intelligent design. [ I would point out that today the pro-intelligent design/anti-Darwin movie Expelled opens across the country and have note the irony of my presentation at this particular moment in time]. Intelligent Design, referred to by many as “creationism in a cheap tuxedo”, claims there is evidence for design among living organism and that evolutionary theory is not sufficient to account for that design. Many of you are probably familiar with the concept and I won’t bore you with the details at the moment. It will probably change in the next 20 minutes anyway as the most consistent feature of Intelligent Design is its inconsistency with respect to substance and definition. The issue here is that proponents of Intelligent Design regularly hijack archaeological method and theory to cite as a metaphor for our poor biologist cousins who can’t seem to accept the concept of design in nature. ID proponents insist that the archaeologists are all about “identifying design” in the archaeological record and seem to think there is an analogy to be drawn between an archaeologist’s recognition of intelligent design in artifacts and their own identification of intelligent design in biological systems. Nothing could be further from the truth. Design in archaeology is not “self evident”; it belies centuries of thought on archaeological method and theory, ethnographic analogy, experimentation with raw materials and an appreciation for context. A lot of hard methodological and theoretical work has gone into method and theory distinguishing the signatures of human intervention from those attributed to natural processes. More importantly, archaeologists never separate the design from the designer (something ID proponents do regularly): understanding the material culture is only a proximate goal of archaeology. Archaeology’s ultimate goal is to understand human behavior, i.e. the nature of the designer."

Welcome to the Good Fight Chris!

Monday, April 21, 2008

John Hawkins' Seven Uncomfortable Truths for his Strawman Liberals

Once again John Hawkins provides us with a nice summary of how conservatives see the world, particularly that bugaboo behind all conservative stories, liberals. I've heard it said recently that liberals talk about ideas, but conservatives talk about liberals, and I find little on conservative sites like Townhall to dispel that notion. The sad part is that while conservatives may talk a lot about liberals, they don't seem to understand them, and mischaracterize them frequently. Hawkins is, sadly, no exception. Toss in some typical fact-ignoring, speculation, and blatant contradictions, you get his Seven Uncomfortable Truths for Liberals

"Human beings are born selfish and badly behaved: You, me, your father, Mother Theresa, the Pope -- we were all savage, self-centered little animals when we were born and it was only through the socialization process that we became fit for other humans to live with. That's why people do need religion, rules, and social pressure to be convinced to behave."

Factually incorrect. Human nature is not that simple. Sure we have selfish impulses, but we also have altruistic and socialization mechanisms built into our psyche. This has been demonstrated repeatedly in trials of both humans and our ape cousins. Mothers do not risk their lives saving their children, or hermits go mad, because of socialization. Humans need rules because of objective conflicts with limited resources, not the least of which is space. Regardless of human nature, we'd still need the rule to drive on the right (or left for you Brits) side of the road, rules to determine who is served first, etc. But there is no reason these rules need be based on religion. There are plenty of societies that do just fine without that, this one being no small exception.

" It's also why projects like communism, which assume that people can be brainwashed to completely disregard their own nature and love their fellow citizens every bit as much as they love themselves, are always doomed to fail."

Here we see some dishonest rhetoric: religion, rules, and social pressure "socialize" people, while communism "brainwashes" them. The difference? Hawkins approves of the former, but not the latter. I suppose this was intended to try to hide the blatant contradiction here. Hawkins first claims we must change our savage, self-centered nature so we can live with others, now he claims we are doomed to fail if we try to change that nature.

The problem here is that Hawkins is oversimplifying. Human nature is very complex, with aspects almost completely controlled by socialization (fashion, religion) and others more or less fixed at birth (gender, genetic diseases), and everything in between. Communism failed not because it tried to change human nature, but because it tried to change the wrong aspects of it.

"Change is often a bad thing: It goes without saying that sometimes laws, traditions, and moral practices should be changed, but it shouldn't need to be said that change for its own sake is not a plus either."

It doesn't. There is no one, liberal or not, that thinks change per se is a good thing. Hawkins is weaving straw here to try to give the impression that changes he personally disagrees with are promoted without cause. In typical irony, it is he who is working from a position without cause:

Sure, we'll change the definition of marriage, legalize drugs, weaken the Christian church, allow countless numbers of illegal aliens from a neighboring country to become citizens, etc., etc., etc. -- what could go wrong? A lot, actually.

Yes, but with at least the first three, many other countries have done exactly that, with little or no serious problems. This is the kind of argument only someone with no knowledge of the world could make or be convinced by.

"People are different: This would seem to be a rather obvious point, but it's one liberals seem to have a great deal of difficulty digesting. In their mind, women and men should be treated as if they have exactly the same predilections and abilities. Different races should perform identically well, in precisely equal percentages, in every activity, and any difference between people must be explained by some sort of unfair societal constraint placed upon the less successful."

Hawkins does have a point here. As I have blogged on previously, the blank slate continues to be a bit of pseudoscience infecting thought on the American left. However, his argument would have more credibility if conservatives weren't so determined to ignore all evidence that there are a lot of societal constraints placed on various groups which effect their performance. They have a tendency to dismiss all sociological findings of bias by speculating as to what flaws there might be in the studies. For example, any study purporting to show a bias against blacks in business or academia would have to account for the large economic bias in our society by race. However, studies that do account for that still show a bias against blacks, as well as women and other groups, and conservatives tend to ignore those as well.

"Most nations are interested in what's good for them: The only thing liberals love better than big government is even bigger government. So, yes, they love using the power of the federal government, but they're even more in love with the idea of building up the United Nations or some other form of world government."

This is just another straw man, and a nonsensical one as well. No one, even tree hugging liberals, need to be told that nations have their own best interests at heart. The United Nations is an effort to deal with global problems in a way that satisfies those interests. Is it imperfect? Sure. Hawkins' alternative solution? You notice you don't see one among those meandering paragraphs.

"The federal government is by its very nature, slow, stupid, expensive, and inefficient: There are always politicians promising to 'reform government' or 'make government work,' but the federal government always has been and always will be a poor, misshapen tool compared to the free market."

This is libertarian ideology, not reality. In areas where the tragedy of the commons applies, the government does much better than the free market. The free market is superior only in those circumstances where individual interests and group interests coincide. The best example is the Federal Highway system. The free market gave us a maze of winding roads. It took government to give us straight efficient highways from one state to the next.

Every problem is not fixable: The poor? They are always going to be with us. War? It's always going to exist...However, there is also something to be said for letting sleeping dogs lie and just accepting that the government cannot and should not try to fix every problem...because the government's efforts are usually ineffective and often as not, over time, it simply ends up creating a new set of problems to be solved.

Here again we see a blatant contradiction caused by ideology. Hawkins from one side of his mouth lectures us on not changing the drug laws, and then from the other side of his mouth lectures us on how sometimes government solutions make the problem worse. Can you say "prohibition"? Hawkins misses this obvious connection because he is blinded by his ideology. In his upside down world, the war in Iraq is inevitable, but homosexuality is optional.

Sorry John, these aren't truths. They are conservative ideology dressed up as facts. The cheap tux just doesn't fit.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

The Grand Miscalculation of Expelled

The ID guys may have badly miscalculated. The Dover trial might have been a big deal to those of us who follow this issue intently, but for the average American, the sins of the IDers remained fairly invisible. But putting their dishonesty out there in a major film for all to see just might be the exposure we need them to get. It is clear from the light box office results and the near universal negative reviews, that viewers have not bought the bullshit. Even potential allies like Foxnews have panned the film.

So the disinterested middle has spoken on an issue it probably didn't give much thought before. But now more people than ever know what kind of dishonesty lies at the core of the Intelligent Design movement. Wouldn't it be delicious irony if the next time someone tried to smuggle ID into a school board meeting, they got responses like "Oh yeah, this is that stuff peddled by the liars that did that horrible Ben Stein movie. Forget it."

Whoever said any publicity is better than no publicity never met Ben Stein.

Root of All Evil

You gotta love Lewis Black's new show "Root of All Evil". This week's episode, which is more evil, High School, or American Idol?

Monkey Boys will be Monkey Boys: Study Supports Strong Genetic Component to Play Behavior

One of the few areas where it seems it is the liberals that cling to ideology rather than science is on the subject of the blank slate. This is, roughly, the notion that we are born without significant genetic differences of abilities or preference, and that therefore most of what we consider a person's personality is formed by his environment.

Nowhere is this idealism clung to more fervently than in discussions of gender differences. In what seems a typical overcompensation from an era of unfair bigotry, where seemingly all differences in character between racial and gender groups were attributed to genetics, now the tendency is to dismiss any suggestion that genetics plays a role as sexism. Boys are said to prefer guns and girls barbies, not because they have a natural inclination to do so, but because of socialization that steers them in these directions.

However, it seems whenever good science is done on this subject the opposite is the case, and we have yet another example. This time the subjects weren't human children, but rhesus monkeys.

"... a team of scientists led by Kim Wallen of the Yerkes national Primate Research Centre in Atlanta, Georgia decided to offer typical 'male' and 'female' toys to rhesus monkeys to see if preferences aligned with sex.

Much to their surprise, they did. The 11 male monkeys headed straight for the wheeled toys, such as dump trucks, leaving the plush toys more-or-less unmolested. The 23 females were more curious, and played with both.

'They are not subject to advertising. They are not subject to parental encouragement, they are not subject to peer chastisement,' said Wallen.

The results support an earlier study at Texas A&M University, with green vervet monkeys, which also showed a distinct preference among male monkeys for 'masculine' playthings."

It is interesting to note that the toy preference was not a complete stereotypical split, with the female monkeys playing with everything. But 100% of the males going exclusively for the "male" toys, and in a completely culturally neutral, if not alien, environment? This certainly contradicts the blank slate premise, and suggests that behavior patterns are a far more complex interaction between genetics, development, and the environment than most left-wing ideologues would have us believe.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Shocker: Expelled Flops

The ticket stubs are being counted, and looks like Expelled is a flop.

"Nathan Frankowski's Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed is a documentary being released on more than 1,000 screens by Christian-friendly Rocky Mountain Pictures. Those who have seen it categorize it as anti-Darwinism propaganda, featuring right wing commentator Ben Stein. I’m sure that there's an audience out there somewhere for this type of doc, but there has been very little "intelligent design" involved in marketing the movie. With a Total Aware of only 19 percent and a First Choice score of just 2 percent, Expelled will manage only $1 million-$3 million this weekend, and it will have a difficult time holding on to those screens. It's doomed to $5 million domestic in its theatrical engagements (survival of the fittest?), although a fair number of DVD copies may be sold in evangelical bookstores in the future."

So much for all that great free publicity they got. Looks like the public isn't as stupid as they thought they were. And now EVERYONE knows how dishonest they are.

We Wouldn't Criticize Muslims like We Do Christians? Are You Kidding Me?

I've blogged often on the bad habit conservatives have of treating their speculations as facts. There is a new meme bouncing around the conservative blogosphere that illustrates this well, and Mike Gallagher's latest column is the latest example. While discussing the raid on the polygamist compound, he got off on a tangent on all the nasty things Bill Maher has said about the Catholicism and Christianity in general, and said this:

"But if he was really as tough as he wants people to think he is, he’d mock and ridicule the prophet Muhammad. It would be fascinating to watch what would happen to Bill Maher’s career if he attacked Muslims, Jews or blacks the way he bashes Christians."

Let's leave aside the absurdity of including blacks or ethnic Jews in the same category as Muslims and Christians. Ethnicity, being entirely permanent and out of our control to even pretend is different than it is without serious cosmetic surgery, is in a completely different category than opinions on religion, however strongly we may hold them.

But note the subtle implication, often made explicit in these circumstances that Maher (or any random atheist) does not, or will not, criticize Muslims, either because he is hypocritical or a coward.

Here is another example from Kristen Fyfe:

"When confronted by the Catholic League on why it continues to give Maher air time, HBO stated that Maher’s anti-Catholic remarks were a matter of 'creative freedom.' One wonders if HBO would be so sanguine if Maher’s vitriol was regularly aimed at Muslims."

This time it is HBO that is accused of hypocrisy or cowardice, take your pick, on the speculation, speculation mind you, that they would not allow Maher to criticize Muslims. She didn't bother to check the facts. Neither did Gallagher. They just assumed they already knew the answer, or worse yet, knew it and ignored it, but I prefer to give people the benefit of the doubt until they force me to do otherwise.

But you see, there is a real danger in assuming you know something simply because it fits in with your ideology. You might very well be wrong, and make yourself look well, sort of incompetent, unprofessional, and not at all objective. That, and you further cement your flawed opinion in your own mind by turning what should have been a disconfirmatory, theory-changing event, into an imaginary confirmation.

So, Mike and Kristen, and anyone out there who has sympathies with what they said above, let me make it clear for you. We atheists don't lack for spicy things to say about Muslims. I've said my share. Their brand of religious irrationality is definitely worse than that which the vast majority of believing Christians in the US practice, though as recent events remind us far too often, the gap is not nearly as large as a lot of Christians would claim.

But I grant without hesitation that we American atheists criticize Christian lunatics far more proportionately than we criticize Muslim lunatics. The reason should be obvious, and its not that we're hypocrites or have an irrational hatred of Christians or fear Muslim reprisal. Who did you think it was that reproduced the Danish photos of Muhammad or linked to them like so many of us did?

No, the reason we give Christians a harder time is because the Christians are the ones trying to piss in our porridge. The Muslims might be crazier than you are, but they are over there, and you are over here. It's not Muslims screwing up American science education, or murdering abortion doctors, or obsessing over what people do with their own bodies in private and passing laws according to their religious views to limit the rights of everyone else. It's not because of Muslims that I can't buy a damned beer at 11:00 am on a Sunday before enjoying my football game.

All of that my pious people, is because of you. So you get more flack than they do. It's that simple. You screw up our lives more than the Muslims do. Gnash your teeth and wail all you like about Osama Bin Laden; Pat Robertson is far more of a threat to what I value about my life in America, so he pisses me off more.

As for Maher, he also has made his opinion of Muslims quite known, and often. My favorite, and I paraphrase from memory:

"As bad as the Christian religion is, their's is worse. Their's is worse. Promising p*ssy in the afterlife is the lowest thing ever. Ever."

He also commonly refers to the traditional covered garb of Islamic women as "beekeeper suits". Maher has been plenty hard on Muslims, but you have to actually listen to what he says to know that. Speculation is not evidence.

Friday, April 18, 2008

The Level of Ignorance We Are Up Against

Lately I have enjoyed the occasional visit over to the townhall comments sections on posts there concerning the Expelled movie. I know, what was I thinking. But Sun Tzu said "know your enemy", so I see it as obligatory to occasionally wallow in the mud as it were. It gives me a chance to hand out some deserved derision on those intellectual charlatans that pimp ID. It also gives me a chance to expose readers there to arguments they may not see much in their self-made echo chambers. And of course, I hold out hope that some there will understand science a little better after I'm done. I really don't expect to learn much there, but you never know when a view can get changed.

I for instance, despite how my rhetoric might sound at times, *do not* think all creationists are dumb-as-rocks, or absolutely refuse to consider other points of view. In fact, as a naturally curious person, I find it almost impossible to believe that there are people out there so convinced of their position, or fearful of what they might find out, that they literally cannot be bothered to look at something which promises to overturn their misconceptions, even if you hand it to them. I can now.

The exchange occurred on the comments to the latest Brent Bozell column, this one on Expelled. It was the usual stuff from Bozell, who just cannot help but see anything that conflicts with his views as an attack of traditional, wonderful, conservative Christian America. He basically parroted the ID party line. So I'm bopping through the comments making some of my own and wondering if it be terminally boring to fisk all these standard arguments AGAIN, when I hit this question, from a gent named Birdman II:

"Supposedly, chimps and humans are the closest related of the primates. Yet all apes, including chimps, have 48 chromosomes. Does that mean that our common ancestor had 46, 47, or 48 chromosomes? Does that mean that chimps and humans evolved from a common ancestor after the other primates? And if the gorilla and the chimpanzee have 48 chromosomes could they cross-breed? What kind of mutation would it take add/subtract chromosomes? Wouldn't that mutation (I know they are rare) require that the exact mutation to occur in another individual of the opposite sex in the same generation in the same location? What are the odds of that happening by chance? I just have a hard time conceiving (pardon the pun) the logic of 'Humans and monkeys have a common ancestor.'"

Now sure, he's little biologically ignorant, but the questions are mostly good ones, and in that sea of ignorance, it stood out like a sore thumb. So I saw an opportunity to educate, and with one of my favorite clips no less, Ken Miller explaining the fused chromosomes. I was really curious to see what he'd say about it. Boy, was I slapped out of optimism:

"Oh, it's so simple...
Gene fusion, a hybrid; like crossing a horse and a donkey to get a mule. But which came first, the donkey, or the horse? OK, you evolutionists, we are going to need some voluteers to tests gene fusion, or hybridzation. Anyone want to mate with a chimp? (purely in the interests of science, mind you). Oh, wait, we would need to mate with that common ancestor to see if we can get a chimp (or would the chimp have to mate with the ancestor to create a human). Alas, no one has seen that common ancestsor lately. So, we have to take your word for it, Science Avenger? That still doesn't answer the question of the odds of two exact add/subtract chromosomal mutations to get a pure breeding stock happening in the same population in the same generation 1 male and 1 female.

Wow. Amazing, isn't it? I really had forgotten what it was like to converse with people that arrogant AND ignorant, who would refuse to look at the answer they demanded. And you know what else occurred to me? You can't persuade someone who won't even look at what you have no matter how you frame it. It has to be fixed early, which is why the issues of school science curriculums are so important.

Otherwise, science teachers discussing mitochondrial Eve might be faced with idiocy like this:

"Wait a minute. The female ancestor lived 140,000 years ago. And the male ancestor lived 90,000 years ago??

So our first ape/mother, by your calculations was ---- 50,000 years old?"

We have SO much work to do.

Collins and Nisbet Miss the Mark on the New "Angry" Atheists

Francis Collins, head of the human genome project, was recently interviewed and treated us to this quaint little comment, filled with all the loaded terms and basic intellectual dishonesty we've come to expect from far lesser intellects:

"I also think that those of us who are interested in seeking harmony here have to make it clear that the current crowd of seemingly angry atheists, who are using science as part of their argument that faith is irrelevant, do not speak for us. Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens do not necessarily represent the consensus of science; 40 percent of scientists are believers in a personal God. A lot more are rather uncomfortable about the topic but certainly would not align themselves with a strong atheistic perspective. To the extent that it can be made clear that the assault on faith, which has been pretty shrill in the last couple of years, is coming from a fringe - a minority - and is not representative of what most scientists believe, that would help defuse the incendiary rhetoric and perhaps allow a real conversation about creation.

Ah, the "angry atheists" being "shrill" and a "fringe". What bush-league framing, an obvious attempt to poison the well and make the three horsemen look unreasonable via labeling.. "Angry atheists" should proudly take their place next to the "uppity blacks" and the "flaunting homosexuals". It's all the same dance, the tunes and partners just change over time. Never mind why an oppressed group is a bit angry, just imply that their anger is their problem.

Just where exactly have those gentlemen claimed to speak for the consensus of scientists? This, like all scientific issues, is about evidence, not what the consensus is. The issue is what is a proper scientific perspective on this issue. Whether most scientists live up to that standard on this most incendiary of issues, remains to be seen. However, given that to many religions, denying the existence of the gods is considered one of the most serious offenses one can commit, the notion that this conversation can be had without rhetoric that seems incendiary, is naive in the extreme. There is no nice way to say "there is no evidence, and thus no reason any scientist should accept, to believe in gods". It is incendiary by its very nature.

Of course, Mr. Do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do Framing Master Matt Nisbet would have us believe otherwise. His evidence? Mere assertion:

"The evidence for evolution can be fully compatible with religious faith. Science and religion are different ways of understanding the world. Needlessly placing them in opposition reduces the potential of each to contribute to a better future."

It's not the scientists that are placing them in opposition, it's the religious who keep making baseless claims about the material world that do. The problem is basic, and goes to the heart of the milquetoast evasion above. Religion is NOT a way of understanding the world. It might be a way of coping with the world, or of rationalizing the world, but that is as far as it goes. Were it a way of understanding the world, it would on occasion derive some understanding that the rest of us can use, instead of confining it's "discoveries" to all that meaningless happy talk known as theology. Not once in the history of man has a group of theologians made a discovery which resonated in science, changing theories and prompting research. Theology is the one and only academic pursuit which sees no need to reconcile itself with other areas of study, and thus contributes nothing to them, or of human knowledge.

This gives us those of us with intellectual integrity two options: reject all religious claims which fail the test of science, and be left with a religion so generic it is hardly worth having, or play an internal game of lets-pretend, where we apply one standard to our scientific lives, and a completely different one to our comfy religious views, despite any good reasons why this one area of thought should be exempt from the standards to which everything else is subjected. Well, except one: religion cannot withstand that. It cannot be a nonoverlapping magisteria because it isn't a magisteria at all.

But unperturbed by this bit of logic, Nisbet then goes on to once again, blame those who demand intellectual consistency on these subjects, and based on the loftiest of sources:

"In reviews otherwise harshly dismissive of Expelled, Jeffrey Kluger of Time magazine describes Dawkins and Myers performance as 'sneering, finger in the eye atheism,' while Justin Chang of Variety refers to Dawkins as 'atheism taken to hateful extremes.'

Wow, with cites of such journals of distinction on his side, what possible retort can we muster? I know, we'll wait to see what Teen and Seventeen have to say on the matter. Once again Nisbet demonstrates that he is the William Dembski of the social sciences (right down to censoring conflicting views on his blog). Damning Dawkins and Myers based on the misrepresentations of them in the popular, nonrigorous media is in the same vein as damning Darwin based on what deranged German dictators thought of him. However, it is even worse, because it is the histrionic reaction to the simple, level-headed comments that people like Dawkins make about religion that is the problem, not what Dawkins is saying. He is proof that it doesn't matter how it is said. As long as it said, the religious will react that way. This is the lesson of history.

And what would a Nisbet rant be without his article of faith:

However, in coming decades, if the goal is to defend the teaching of evolution in schools and to maintain public trust in science and scientists, [Dawkins' and Myers'] message likely serves as a liability towards that end.

That's right Matt, keep chanting that self-serving mantra and hope none of us notice the complete lack of supporting evidence. If your goal is to get us "angry atheists" to change our ways, imitating the worst rhetorical traits of creationists is not the way to go about it.

The transition of our society from one based on superstition to one based on science will be a long gradual one, as most great changes are. There will be bumps along the way, as those like Francis Collins clinging to their baseless comfortable views will no doubt resist the changes. But some of them will change, either through a little intellectual handholding through "framing", or a swift kick in the intellectual ass as delivered by the we "angry atheists". It is a heterogeneous audience, needing a heterogeneous approach, and the idea that those using a more direct, confrontational approach do harm to the cause is a claim not only in complete conflict with history (think MLK, Ghandi), but with current experience as well.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Brayton Nails the Anti-Gay Marriage Gang

There is no slapdown the equal of applying an opponent's argument in an absurd, but consistent, manner to their own, and reaching a ridiculous conclusion. Ed Brayton gives the anti-gay marriage consortium such treatment with this quote:

"We start with the proposition, on this connection, that it is the family which constitutes the structural element of society, and that marriage is the legal basis upon which families are formed. Consequently this court has held in numerous decisions over the years that society is structured on the institution of marriage; that it has more to do with the welfare and civilizations of a people than any other institutions; and that out of the fruits of marriage spring relationships and responsibilities with which the state is necessarily required to deal. Text writers and judicial writers agree that the state has a natural, direct and vital interest in maximizing the number of successful marriages which lead to stable homes and families, and in minimizing those which do not.

Typical anti-gay marriage stuff right? Wrong. It's from a case called Loving vs. Virginia, made by the side defending laws forbidding interracial marriage. And in 100 years, the resistence to gay marriage will look just as absurd to the average person.

Dembski on Expelled, Shows the Basic Logical Blunder at the Heart of ID

For a solid illustration of the fundamental logical flaws at the heart of Intelligent Design, who better than William Dembski himself to provide us with one:

"In EXPELLED, Stein interviews atheistic scientist after atheistic scientist, and they all admit that they haven’t a clue how life arose. There is no materialistic theory of life’s origin, and anyone who suggests otherwise is bluffing."

OK, so far so good. There are certainly interesting hypotheses out there, but none rising to the level of theory. Given the time involved, and the rarity of fossilization, exacerbated by the nature of those first early replicables, this may be as far as it ever gets in our lifetime. However, I remain optimistic, as there are many problems of science that have taken a very long time to be resolved. Nonetheless, this problem is in the "not solved" bin with the grand unification theory, The Reimann hypothesis, and balancing the federal budget. But for Dembski, this somehow adds credence to his argument, and this is where he runs off the rails.

"To assert that life arose by purely material forces is therefore an article of speculative faith."

Non sequitor. The nonexistence of a fully ironed out scientific theory does not amount to speculative faith. The assertions that the presents that appear under the Christmas tree, the "Face on Mars", and the eggs that appear in Easter baskets, arose by purely material forces, is not speculative faith. They are supported by considerable evidence, albeit not iron-clad proof. But this does not make all options equally viable, which is what Dembski is implying. This is a common mistake of his, assuming all unknown probabilities are equal.

Whatever level of speculation is involved in those claims, the amount of speculation with the Santa, alien face-carvers, and Easter Bunny theories is larger by orders of magnitude, and for one very simple reason. None of these things has even been demonstrated to exist, and existence must be demonstrated before it is rational to assign any effect to the hypothetical cause. It makes no sense to blame a broken vase on my imaginary pet cat.

"Stein is on the side of freedom of inquiry and expression in asking for intelligent design to have a place at the table."

No, Stein is going much further than that. He wants the table to be opened up to any and all hypotheses, even those that don't even have identified mechanisms. It would be like someone in the 18th century wanting a chair at the table at the heavier-than-air flight discussion with his hypothesis that fairies will lift his plane into the sky. Does it matter that no one else at that time knew how to fly? Go find some fairies first, then we'll talk. That's ID reasoning in a nutshell: if you don't know the answer, we get to make shit up.

Dembski also doesn't get to declare the scientific search over:

"Materialistic approaches to life’s origin have failed. In Rennie’s words, they constitute 'nonanswers.'"

OK, so what? Does Dembski have some reason to think this problem, if it had a completely materialist explanation, would be solved by now? By what argument does he reach this conclusion? It's not as if tons of fossil evidence had been found from that era that showed absolutely no trace of any material processes. We just don't have much data from that era of earth's history. Maybe we'll find some, maybe we won't. Dembski's statement is missing the necessary qualifier "so far".

Even if the search remains unsuccessful for 1,000 years, that still doesn't warrant hypothesizing some sort of highly complex conscious being to explain how complexity and consciousness arose. That negative regress has never been resolved, and science simply doesn't allow for making shit up when you've grown impatient with its rate of progress. THAT is what Stein and Dembski are promoting.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Real Lesson Kristen Byrnes Teaches us, with a Little Help from David Berlinski

In case you have missed the story, an enterprising young lady named Kristen Byrnes has put together and global warming denialist website, and NPR was apparently so impressed that they did this story on her. I can't improve on the critiques on the content of that story, which you can read here,here,here, and here. Basically the NPR story bent over backwards to be kind to Kristen, not really pursuing just how much of her views on the subject are derivative of her step-dad's, and despite the fact that her site is the same old disreputable shit, with lots of cherry-picking of data, pseudoscience, and insightful gems like this:

"With these lectures [Al Gore] only considered one point of view, and did not consider the other side of the story (warming being natural), which would have made his movie a little more believable. "

More believable to who Kristen? There is no "other side" to global warming, evolution, or any other scientific issue. There is the reasonable view based on ALL the available evidence, and then there are the literally limitless number of worthless views based on other things (stupidity, rebelliousness, religious motive, plain old denial, reliance on false authorities, political allegiance, etc.). How many of these play a part in Kristen's view I won't venture a guess. What caught my interest in the story was this angle:

Skeptics loved it: A 15-year-old attacking the mainstream scientific view.

Skeptics loved it? Why? Does it make mainstream science look bad that a 16 year old girl can put together an anti-global warming website? Of course not. It makes the skeptics look bad, and the answer as to why is part of the response that should be given to people making comments like David Berlinski did in this debate, and by others elsewhere, who attack evolutionary theory but refuse to offer any alternative:

"I don't see why I am obliged to answer that...I find scientific flaws with Darwininan theory, I don't have to replace it."

Yes, you do, and Kristen shows us why. She shows just how easy it is to appear to make a case if all one does is cherry pick data and interpret it to one's liking. This is what evolution-deniers have been doing for decades, and the global warming denialists follow the same pattern.

Most science is imperfect. Most science could be improved. Showing this doesn't prove true whatever alternative view is being touted, be it Intelligent Design, or the its-warming-but-humans-didn't-do-it hypothesis that Kristen and many other AGW denialists support. To make your case, you have to, well, MAKE YOUR CASE. Do the science. Come up with a fully developed theory that encompasses ALL of the data, and does so better than the prevailing theory. THEN you've done something worthy of notice. Until then, you just a loud fan in the stands pretending you are in the game.

Being a pure skeptic is so easy even a 16-year-old can do it. That's what Kristen shows us, and the glowing reaction to her website shows just how low the academic standards of skeptics are. That's the lesson here.

The War has a part in the Economic Downturn? You Don't Say!

For a discussion of the impact the war in Iraq has had on the economy, here is a discussion at the Washington Post.

Not being an economist, I can't much argue the specific points here. However, one cannot lose sight of the big picture. The war must create some side benefit: better access to oil, improved infrastructure, improved international relations (yeah I know), to have a positive impact on the economy. War per se doesn't do anything for the economy than did going to moon per se. It's the side effects that make the benefit. Otherwise, all we'd have to do to improve the economy would be to pretend we are at war all the time, and just drive our tanks and planes into the ocean (or whatever more ecofriendly alternative occurs to you).

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

McCain's Economic Proposal: a Do-Nothing Dance around the Real Problems

John McCain wanted to show he was as strong on the economy as he was on other issues. Well, given his repeated inability to distinguish Sunni from Shiite, I'd say his economic proposal is right in line with his understanding of other issues. With a few notable exceptions, McCain's proposals are what is becoming alarmingly common with Republicans. They seem to have no economic policy, except the one we know doesn't work: cut taxes and hope, while the budget deficits grow larger and larger.

To help people weather the [economic] downturn immediately, McCain urged Congress to institute a "gas-tax holiday" by suspending the 18.4 cent federal gas tax and 24.4 cent diesel tax from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

Well, it is always nice to have more cash in your pocket, but what exactly is this going to accomplish? The majority of people used their income tax rebate to pay down their personal debt, rather than going out and spending and stimulating the economy. What makes McCain think this will be any different? In addition, every dollar in tax reduction is a dollar more we add to our already massively swollen deficits, which just increases the burden on us in future years.

He also renewed his call for the United States to stop adding to the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and thus lessen to some extent the worldwide demand for oil.

Now we are talking. While this subject is a bit outside my areas of knowledge, at least it is a legitimate economic policy. Sadly, there are very few of those in McCain's proposal.

McCain also said the Education Department should work with the country's governors to make sure that each state's guarantee agency — nonprofits that traditionally back student loans issued by banks — has both the means and the manpower to be the lender-of-last-resort for student loans.

Making it easier for college students to get loans is a laudable goal. After all, we need high-skilled, highly educated workers. But it takes money to do this. Where is it going to come from?
As usual, there is no answer.

"Require more affluent people — couples making more than $160,000 — enrolled in Medicare to pay a higher premium for their prescription drugs than less-wealthy people."

This is a move in the right direction, and one that is likely to continue on that trend regardless of who is in office. Social Security and Medicare are, in essence, welfare programs for old people. It makes little sense to have such a program apply fully to people who are wealthy and need little assistance, especially with our current budget crisis. However, this is unlikely to have a significant impact on the problem without considerable help from other sources.

"Raise the tax exemption for each dependent child from $3,500 to $7,000."

This is horribly flawed for several reasons. First, it is anachronistic. The United States no longer has a motive to encourage childbearing. We have more people than we need. If anything, the tax code should surcharge people for having children, not reward them for it. Second, the vast majority of Americans pay little in taxes in the first place. This is the piece of the puzzle the Republicans seem blinded to. Tax cuts don't mean jack if you aren't paying taxes in the first place. And third, however small the effect, this is yet another cut in income at a time where our income is too small already.

"Offer people the option of choosing a simpler tax system with two tax rates and a standard deduction instead of sticking with the current system."

Aside from the sheer fantasy nature of such a proposal, what problems would it solve? Sure, we'd spend less time filling out our tax forms, but unless it amounts to greater government revenues, we still have all the same problems we had before.

"Suspend for one year all increases in discretionary spending for agencies other than those that cover the military and veterans while launching an expansive review of the effectiveness of federal programs."

This is economic masturbation. The military, veterans benefits, social security and medicare, and interest on the debt, amount to about 74% of government spending. Restricting spending cuts to the remainder is swatting at a fly while ignoring a swarm of hornets. As long as politicians treat the military and social security as untouchable, our budget problems will continue.

At least McCain got some of the rhetoric right:

"In so many ways, we need to make a clean break from the worst excesses of both political parties," McCain said, adding "somewhere along the way, too many Republicans in Congress became indistinguishable from the big-spending Democrats they used to oppose."

Indeed, they have. So put your budget where your mouth is Mr. McCain, and put ALL government spending on the table for possible cuts. I can think of one $14Billion a month military expense that could stand some cutting pronto.

McCain's parting commentary on the plans of Barak Obama and Hillary Clinton was typical pie-in-the-skyism:

"Both promise big 'change.' And a trillion dollars in new taxes over the next decade would certainly fit that description," McCain said. Playing on the title of an Obama book, McCain added: "All these tax increases are the fine print under the slogan of 'hope:' They're going to raise your taxes by thousands of dollars per year — and they have the audacity to hope you don't mind."

Is it better to continue to run up deficits? We spent $243 BILLION last year in interest on the debt. That's $243,000,000,000, or close to $1,000 for every man, woman, and child in the country! Rigid resistance to tax increases without an alternative that will close the budget gap is irresponsible at best, and childishly dishonest at worst. Someone needs to tell the Republicans that "Cut taxes and hope" is not an economic plan. It is denial of their civic responsibility, and it is something this country can no longer tolerate.