Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Will of the People and the Tea Party Mentality

For a look inside the mentality of the Tea Party crowd, check out this video, apparently made as an advertisement for one:

video

In some ways its a nice historical tribute to America's opposition of tyranny, be it King George's taxation without representation, or Hitler and Japan threatening the world's freedom, and of course the ultimate cowards, the Islamic terrorists who committed the mass vandalism known as "9/11" and now proudly hide in caves.

But sadly for the Tea Partiers, their effort completely departs from reality when it tries to include the current administration and congress as tyrannies defying the will of the people. In a representative democracy such as ours, the will of the people is measured every 2-6 years, depending on which segment of the government we are discussing. We call these measurements "elections", and the Teapartiers have been losing a lot of them lately. Those now in power were elected to do exactly what they are doing, via the will of the people. When you lose, you don't get your way, no matter how revolting you find the other side's opinions, or how wrong you think they are. That's not tyranny, that's democracy.

Yet losing has turned the supposed party of facts-over-feelings into the party of woulda, shoulda, coulda. We woulda won had ACORN not cheated. The media shoulda been harder on Obama. We coulda won if Sarah Palin had been the candidate. It's a sad day for the GOP that so many have been reduced to this, but then so many haven't tasted minority status in their lifetimes, so in part its understandable. Few people are able to change their paradigm so radically in so little time, regardless of how rational we'd like to think we are.

Some of the Tea Partier's arguments (when they can be wrested from the jingoisms) have validity (such as the goals of having lean, efficient government). It's also entirely possible that the Tea partiers are right about a lot of the issues they have with the direction the President and Democrats are taking us. After all, truth is not determined by popular vote. Time, as always, will tell. But any Tea Partiers clinging to the notion that they represent "the will of the people" are deluding themselves. Right or wrong, you are now the minority, and every demographic indication is that the situation will get worse, not better, as long as you cling to the same old positions and arguments. Those immigrating to this country, those getting a college education, and those under 30, overwhelmingly reject your worldview. All the tea parties and snazzy videos in the world won't change that.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

I Are Not Stupid!

Bill Maher has a lot of people up in arms over his comment on CNN that America is a stupid nation, one reason being that Sarah Palin could become president.

He's right of course, although some of Palin's following could be attributed more to political partisanship than stupidity. There are a lot of Republicans who would look you in the eye and tell you they'd rather vote for a fool than a Democrat.

But what drove me to write here about it was what I heard on the radio driving home, which was a DJ incensed by this comment and challenging callers to defend Maher's comment. The dialogue I heard went something like this:

DJ: So why is Bill Maher right that America is a stupid country?

Caller: Because Americans have no critical thinking skills, no understanding or interest in anything outside our borders.

DJ: Then why do you still live here? How can you be an American and think America is stupid?

Caller: The same way I can love my child and still accept that he's a little shit sometimes.

DJ: Sounds to me you are talking out of both sides of your mouth.

[sigh] This hearkens back to that famous line "You shouldn't live here if you don't speak American good." I was tempted to call in and tell the DJ that his answers were non sequitors, but I doubt he'd have known what those were.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Myers on the Inconsistency of Religion in the Public Square

On a recent rant, PZ Myers put more eloquently what I've been saying for years:

"Science and reason give us antibiotics, microwave ovens, sanitation, lasers, and rocketships to the moon. What has religion done for us lately? We have become accustomed to objective measures of success, where we can explicitly see that a particular strategy for decision-making and the generation of knowledge has concrete results. I'm sorry, but faith seems to produce mainly wrong answers, and in comparison, it flops badly.

Now, now, I can hear the defenders of religion begin to grumble, there's more to life than merely material products like microwave ovens — there's contentment and contemplation and a sort of subjective psychology of ritual and community and all that sort of thing. Sure. Fine. Then stick to it, and stop pretending that religion ought to be a determinant of public policy, that it can inform us about the nature of our existence, or that it provides a good guide to public morality. Get it out of our schools and courthouses and workplaces and governments, take it to your homes and your churches, and use it appropriately as your personal consoling mind-game. And stop pretending that it is universal and necessary, because there are a thousand different religions that all claim the same properties with wildly different details, and there are millions of us with no religion at all who get along just fine without your hallowed quirks."


For too long people have been allowed to make purely religious arguments in the public square, without having the same evidenciary demands made of them that is (or should be) made on every other point of view. Can you imagine if socialists, anarcho-capitalists, moneterists, gradualists, supply-siders, or the abstinence-only crowd were allowed to skip that whole "prove your theory" part of it? Yeah, you're right, some of those have been, and the results were Jim Dandy weren't they?

You say your religion is a personal thing, backed by faith and subjective experience that you don't expect to persuade others. You say it gives you great comfort in times of fear or stress. When backed into a corner, many of you will claim it doesn't matter whether it is true or not, it teaches good lessons. Fine - just keep it in your private lives, and out of your public ones, where it is important to be able to speak in terms that might persuade others, where personal comfort is not the agenda, and where it most certainly is true whether or not it is true, irrespective of what you think of the lessons we learn from it.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Girls Are Evil: Proof



There are two lessons here. First, there is more actual math in this little exercise than there is in most (if not all) anti-evolution probability arguments. Second, if you change the definition of a word in the middle of an argument, or just invent a new one for a new word, you can produce distorted results from logical looking arguments. After all, "it's just a theory".

Friday, July 17, 2009

Napping is good for the Brain

Napping apparently is good for problem solving, but only if it is REM sleep.

Researchers led by Sara C. Mednick, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego, gave 77 volunteers word-association tests under three before-and-after conditions: spending a day without a nap, napping without REM sleep and napping with REM sleep. Just spending the day away from the problem improved performance; people who stayed awake did a little better on the 5 p.m. session than they had done on the 9 a.m. test. Taking a nap without REM sleep also led to slightly better results. But a nap that included REM sleep resulted in nearly a 40 percent improvement over the pre-nap performance.

The study, published June 8 in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that those who had REM sleep took longer naps than those who napped without REM, but there was no correlation between total sleep time and improved performance. Only REM sleep helped.


Notice also that just time away from the problem also improved performance, napping or not.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Analyzing a Jack Chick Tract: Creator or Liar?

I'm sure most of you reading this have seen these Jack Chick tracts, those little booklets with absurdly simplistic Bible-tuting cartoons. I hadn't seen one in years, but just ran across one I hadn't seen beforeand in flipping through it, noticed how much you can tell about the writer and his intended audience by looking carefully at what is said and how the pictures are drawn.

Let's start with the pictures. At a bare minimum, this gives away that the intended audience here is either children, thinks like children, or is illiterate. One doesn't often find adult material that has an illustration for every claim.

But even at this simplistic level, the tract is more comical than inspirational. The first picture is supposed to be God creating "the heaven [sic?] and the earth", but the picture looks like a cloud giant rolling dice shaped like the moon, the earth, the sun, and what might be a pulsar, all about the same size, and all together taking up about half the universe. Note how no child looking at this picture would get the impression that the universe is >95% empty space. They can't even get out of the starting gate with their myth without denying reality.

"He made man out of the dust of the earth" inspires frame #2. Ever wonder why God could create the entire universe from scratch, but for man some raw material was required?

In the telling of the fall, man is shown running lovingly into a dark satan's arms, and a world of anarchy and murderous violence existing prior to the flood. Once again however, reality shines a harsh light on the credibility of such a story. Never mind the flood story and its gargantuan problems. The people in the frame are shown wearing shoes, sewn clothing and fighting with somewhat sophisticated weapons. Even those meager accomplishments would be impossible with a world where everyone was a violent murderer or rapist. Once again, only a child, unaware that shoes don't just exist or grow on trees, could buy such a tale.

The frame on the post-Noah world is enlightening for those unclear on why there is such hatred between the Arabs and the Jews. The Arabs are clearly the bad guys, while the Jews are chosen people. No explanation as to why this seemingly random act was done. Again, as if an idiot or child were the target audience, there is a big finger-pointing hand in the illustration making sure you see that Isaac was father of Jacob, who was father of the Israelites. Check with the Mormons on even more colorful versions of this story.

Ah more killing, this time of the prophets. And despite being told to sacrifice a lamb to avoid God's wrath, the people refused. At this point, is anyone else wondered WTF was wrong with God deciding to create these people in the first place? They kill each other and destroy things for no reason, they are unable to follow simple instructions. Dr.s Frankenstein and Moreau were pikers compared to God.

Then comes the most confusing part, and for some reason the tract shows angels with question marks over their head, as they looked onto a giant staircase (the stairway to heaven?). God decided the way to solve this problem was for him to become a man, and be sacrificed, to himself, for man's sins. Yeah, I'd be confused too. Sounds like the landlord deciding the way to settle my debt to him is for him to work a job for himself and pay himself what I owe him. And why didn't God just change the rules and not require any atonement? Or why didn't he just destroy or let die out the morbidly flawed creatures called man, and create something more worthy of his high standards?

Anyway, Jesus left heaven to be born as a man. We know this because the picture shows an arrow coming out of a cloud aiming towards earth. Again, kids or nitwits are the audience here.

I'll let the frame for "God (the Holy Ghost) came upon her and she conceived" stand without comment. Poe's law applies.

The Jesus story runs without much entertainment value until this humdinger of a line:

"He became our Saviour: through His righteousness deposited in an overdrawn account, we are restored to fellowship with God..."

So almighty God is subject to some sort of righteousness accounting that required his omnipotenceness to go die in this manner? And, not really, because he rose three days later as he knew he would? That's the equivalent of me claiming to sacrifice my life for something because I went to sleep for a while. Sure I was "dead" in a sense, and "sacrificed my life", in a sense. But it's not something to look at in anything like a glorious sense.

The rest of the tract is uninteresting bibbling until near the end, when those who "claim Jesus was a liar" are depicted holding signs. Funny though, none of their signs say he was a liar. They claim Jesus was a mere man, or that the virgin birth and the Bible were lies, or that God is dead. And they wonder why so many of us find the story completely unconvincing...once we get past the age of 10 or so anyway, and don't need pictures in our books any more.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

New Dinosaur Species Discovered

Austrailia finally has its first significant dinosaur find in almost three decades with the discovery of a 98-million-year-old giant velociraptor, and a couple of titanosaurs:

...the theropod, from the tyrannosaurus rex family, [compares] to the velociraptors made famous in 1993's "Jurassic Park", only "many times bigger and more terrifying".

"He could run down most prey with ease over open ground. His most distinguishing feature was three large slashing claws on each hand...Unlike some theropods that have small arms...His arms were a primary weapon."

The plant-eat[ers] belong to the giant titanosaur family, the biggest creatures ever to walk the earth.

"These discoveries are a major breakthrough in the scientific understanding of prehistoric life in Australia,"

"Many hundreds more fossils from this dig await preparation and there is much more material left to excavate,"


And in the red corner, we have scientists out in the field, making discoveries, incorporating them into other findings, and working with other scientists to validate their evidence. And in the blue corner, we have the creationists, fingers in their ears, eyes closed, chanting "the fossils don't validate evolution", and claiming every bit of science supports their views. Who's your money on?

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Quick Conversion from Fahrenheit to Celsius

Everyone remember that wonderful conversion from Fahrenheit to Celsius and back again? It went something like this:

F = (9/5)C + 32

So a temperature of 68 degrees Fahrenheit is equal to 68 - 32 = 36 * 5 / 9 = 20 degrees Celsius. Yeah, I know, it usually doesn't work out that neatly each time, but I've got a cure for what ails those of you who travel to Celsius lands and haven't a calculator in your head:

F = 2C + 30

Plug in the 20 degrees Celsius from above and you get 2*20 + 30, which I think most people can handle, and an estimate of 70, close enough to have a feel for what's going on. Fair warning though, the estimator does have its limits. It's equal to the real thing at 10 degrees Celsius, 50 degrees Fahrenheit, and has an error of 6 degrees at 104 and -4 F, so it won't work really well in desert or arctic conditions, and I sure as hell wouldn't cook with it. But in moderate conditions, it's just fine.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Buchanan Apes Windchy: The anti-science Wing Speaks Again

For a good example of why one should never trust conservatives on science, check out Pat Buchanan's latest idiotic article on evolution, where he apes without critical analysis, all of the moldy oldy anti-Darwin creationist arguments in a recent book by Eugene G. Windchy.

I'm not going to go through all the erroneous, baseless, claims Buchanan mentions in his article, and Windchy has in his book. Ed Brayton did a masterfully thorough job here and here.

There is one part of the essay I want to concentrate on however, because it illustrates starkly the difference and advantage of a scientific worldview over religious faith-based ones:

Buchanan: And here Windchy does his best demolition work.
Darwin, he demonstrates, stole his theory from Alfred Wallace, who had sent him a "completed formal paper on evolution by natural selection."

Brayton: This is false. Darwin and Wallace came up with very similar theories entirely separate from one another. Darwin had begun developing his theory two decades before it was published and it was only at the very end, in 1858, that Wallace contacted Darwin and sent him a manuscript. By that time, Darwin's ideas had already been sketched out in great detail but not made public. In the end, both men had their papers presented at the same meeting of the Linnean Society in London (coincidentally, 151 years ago today).


Indeed, Brayton is correct of course. Darwin was a meticulous scientist, and had been working on his theory for many years, collecting data, studying barnacles, finches, and pigeons, among many other items, making certain his conclusions were evidence-based. Wallace at the time was a young but accomplished scientist who noticed evolutionary indicators in the islands of the Southwest Pacific in his travels. The manuscript he sent Darwin not only served as more supporting evidence, but lit a fire under the elder scientists to publish his findings sooner rather than later, else risking being upstaged by the wunderkind. Thus, the duel presentations Brayton mentions.

The remarkable part of this story is that two men, working completely independently, drew the same conclusion regarding this most complicated topic. This is one of the hallmarks and strengths of science, that relying on replicable, falsifiable testing and the evidence that results is a method that will produce the same results regardless of who is doing it or where. Reality is what it is, in England as well as Borneo. There have been many similar occurrences in the history of science and mathematics: Newton and Leibnitz simultaneously developing calculus, or Ramanujan reproducing established mathematical equations in complete isolation from the mathematics world.

Contrast this to the so-called truths of religions, which differ all over the globe, and which never have the kind of convergence science has enjoyed except in cases where the religious morals have direct physical societal consequences (ie the golden rule). But take only the pure religious laws, those concerned only with what the gods want, and one might as well toss darts at the wall at random to reproduce the results. And the worst part of all, is that faith allows no mechanism for correction of errors.

As is so often the case, what creationists try to use as a weapon against science ends up backfiring. Two scientists coming up with the same theory at the same time provides MORE evidence that evolution is true, not less. Pity, though, that Wallace wasn't the one associated so closely with evolutionary theory. It would have been fun listening to the creationists try to say "Wallacism".

Sunday, July 12, 2009

God Don't Bless the Yankees, I have to take a Piss

Nice to see justice can still be served in America, as Bradford Campeau-Laurion, the guy tossed from Yankee stadium because he decided his bladitorial needs were more important than then standing in his seat for the playing of God Bless America, was awarded a settlement against the guilty cops.

Campeau-Laurion, a Red Sox fan, will also get $10,001 in a separate deal reached with the city because he got the boot from two uniformed cops -- one of whom allegedly told him, "Get out of my country."

Fuck you buddy. Get out of MY country. We don't have government enforced religious observances here. People are free to worship or not according to their own conscience here. It's called The First Amendment, perhaps you've heard of it? Perhaps you'd prefer it in a place that doesn't have such a philosophy, like Saudi Arabia or Iran.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

So Why Does One Manage a Beaver?

Once again a Republican anti-science quip has come back to bite them on the ass. We had Palin's French fruit flies, McCain's bear DNA tests, Jindal's volcano monitoring, and now McCain's quip about beaver management has come back to haunt his derriere, as we witness the comeback of unmanaged beavers into a bonafied major pest:

The dozens of public works officials, municipal engineers, conservation agents and others who crowded into a meeting room here one recent morning needed help. Property in their towns was flooding, they said. Culverts were clogged. Septic tanks were being overwhelmed.

Once wiped out in Massachusetts, beavers were repopulated in the 1930s.

“We have a huge problem,” said David Pavlik, an engineer for the town of Lexington, where dams built by beavers have sent water flooding into the town’s sanitary sewers. “We trapped them,” he said. “We breached their dam. Nothing works. We are looking for long-term solutions.”

Mary Hansen, a conservation agent from Maynard, said it starkly: “There are beavers everywhere.”

Laura Hajduk, a biologist with the state’s Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, had little to offer them. When beavers are trapped, others move in to replace them. And, she said, you can breach a beaver dam, but “I guarantee you that within 24 hours if the beavers are still there it will be repaired. Beavers are the ultimate ecosystem engineers.”

That was not what Mr. Pavlik was hoping to hear.

He is not alone in his dismay, and it is not just beavers. Around the nation, decades of environmental regulation, conservation efforts and changing land use have brought many species, like beavers, so far back from the brink that they are viewed as nuisances. As Stuart Pimm, a conservation ecologist at Duke University, put it, “We are finding they are inconvenient.”


Let's hope the recent GOP strategy of "pretend efforts to monitor and solve real problems are a joke" has run its course. I'm just waiting any day for someone to joke about monitoring financial institutions.

Hat tip: Mike the Mad Biologist

Friday, July 10, 2009

McLeroy Replaced by Dunbar? Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss

After working so hard to oust Creationist and general promoter of ignorance Don McLeroy from the Board of Education Chair, now rumors come that Cynthia Dunbar is next up for Governor Rick Perry, who seems not to have understood the firestorm and national embarrassment McLeroy created for Texas. Perhaps part of the comprehension problem is slipshod reporting such as the article linked above which begins with a false statement about the McLeroy affair:

Critics who engineered the recent ouster of State Board of Education Chairman Don McLeroy, in part because of his strong religious beliefs, could end up with someone even more outspoken in her faith.

McLeroy was not ousted for his religious beliefs. He was ousted for his scientific ignorance, which he insisted on proving every time he opened his mouth. He allowed his religious convictions, and not science, to dictate his scientific positions. That makes him unqualified for the position he held, and made his long overdue ousting entirely appropriate.

Unfortunately, Dunbar is cut from the same cloth. Scientifically ignorant BOE Chair, meet BOE member who thinks public schools are "a subtly deceptive tool of perversion" and calls the establishment of public schools unconstitutional and "tyrannical."

David Bradley, another member of the lunatic fringe right, gives us a good sample of just how out of touch with reality these people are:

"It would certainly cause angst among the same members of the pagan left that rejected Don McLeroy because he was a man of faith,"

Pagans? Does the man even know what the word means? I challenge David Bradley to name a single pagan involved in the McLeroy affair? He's just making shit up that sounds scary to his ignorant constituents.

Luckily, we have Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, to add a little reality to this cluster fraud:

Perry’s appointment of Dunbar would send a statement "that the governor shares her shocking hostility toward public education...Just as bad, he would be siding with a faction of self-righteous politicians on the board who have made it crystal clear that they believe the only real Christians are the ones who agree with them. If the governor really decides that selling out our kids like this is a good re-election strategy, then this state has an even bigger problem than we thought."

Indeed it does, or has, for a long time. It just hasn't come to light until recently. But make no mistake, there is massive projection going on here. It is Perry, McLeroy, Bradley and Dunbar who are judging people based on their religious beliefs, not their critics. Supporters of sound science run the gamut of religious views. It's the science they care about. Pity we can't say the same for the likes of Dunbar, or Perry if he appoints her.

Surprise me Rick Perry. Make us Texans proud for a change, and nominate and education chair that (gasp) actually puts the children's education first, not their personal religious views.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Traffic Jams - Not as Bad as You think

Today, as with so many days, I found myself stuck in a traffic jam, and I thought I'd share my little trick for keeping one's sanity when it seems like you are just creeping along.

The key to understand is that traffic jams don't take as long as they seem to. It's just that when we are in a hurry, and think we should be moving, but we aren't, time appears to pass more than it does. To really illustrate this, the next time you are stopped at a light that always seems to take forever to change, try to accomplish something with your phone, your laptop, whatever you have available, and watch how much briefer the light seems.

When entering a jam on the highway, reset your trip odometer, and note the time. Then, when you clear the jam, and are normally on your way again, note the distance of the jam, and the time it took to get through it. For my experience today, it took me 6 minutes to go 2 miles. Now, it happens to be mathematically convenient that what you're going to average on an unburdened highway is about 60 mph, or a mile per minute. So to estimate what time the jam actually cost you, just take your traffic jam traversing time, and subtract the distance covered, which we now know is a good estimate of the time it would have taken with no traffic jam. In my case, all that aggravation amounted to 6 - 2 = 4 minutes.

Do this for every jam you are subjected to on a regular basis and watch how much less stressful they become once you understand how little time you are really losing.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Feeling Blue?



Read the story about how these beauties were saved from extinction here.

Bat-Moth Echolocution Arms Race

One of the interesting aspects of evolution is the production of "arms races" between predator and prey, each adapting to counter the adaptions of the other. Gazelles get faster, so the cheetahs get even faster, and so on. Here's a great article on such an arms race involving the echolocation of bats and the counterevolution of the moths that are their prey:

Tiger moths have evolved the ability to produce ultrasonic clicks in response to attacking bats. However, the function of these clicks was unclear, although decades of research has led to a number of hypotheses. The clicks may act to startle attacking bats, or they may be an acoustic signal which warns them that the moth is unpalatable. A study published in today's issue of the journal Science provides the first clear evidence for the third hypothesis - that the clicks interfere with (or "jam") the bats' echolocation signals.

The analysis of their experiments revealed just how much detailed knowledge we have of bats:

Analysis of the film footage also revealed that the clicks led to unusual echolocating behaviour. Normally, a bat's attack progresses through three phases. First, it approaches its target. Then, it increases the frequency and amplitude of its echolocation signals; this so-called "feeding buzz" enables it to generate a more detailed auditory image, so that it can homes on and track the target. Finally, during the terminal phase of the attack, it captures its prey. Corcoran and his colleagues noticed that the ultrasonic clicks produced by the tiger moths led to atypical echolocation behaviour in the bats. In about one third of the attacks, the bats reversed the attack phase, from tracking to approaching, or from the terminal phase to tracking, before continuing with the attack.

It is important to keep items like this in mind any time someone makes an anti-scientific argument that amounts to "Here's something totally obvious and basic that they've overlooked" (eg "if we evolved from monkeys, then why are there still monkeys?"). Scientists are human with foibles and biases like anyone else. But they are also very intelligent, spend their lives studying their subjects, and don't all have the same biases. So there's nothing obvious and basic to a laymen that is going to be overlooked by the entire scientific enterprise. They've gone way beyond basic into arenas with questions that most of us are just too ignorant to ask.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Great Alternative Medicine Sketch

For some nice proof-by-contradiction theatre, check out this sketch, where the substance of alternative medicine is brought out all together for a nice laughable feast of foolishness. It revels in one of the telltale signs of pseudoscience - lack of implications or collaborations with other fields. Homeopathy and chiropractic, reflexology and qi, all have one thing in common: nothing to say to each other. Not like actual science at all.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Palin Resigns

Sarah Palin resigns as Governor of Alaska, and that, is that. The biggest joke of American politics, perhaps of all time, is gone, hopefully for good. The most likely cause IMO, was the inability to function once the phony persona was exposed as such. It was inevitable, and it is good news for the GOP, who would only have been dragged down further into the fundamentalist sewer of arrogant ignorance with her.

Keep those Palin/2012 posters, they'll be collectors items one day.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Darwin, DNA, and the Meaning of Evidence

This is a series of responses I had with a commenter or I thought worthy of a post of it's own:

C: Anyone who has eyes, whether he lived three thousand years ago, 200 years ago, or today, can look at a chimp and a human side by side and conclude that they are related. So what additional ammunition is there knowing that their DNA is so similar? It's icing, but not much else.

SA: Oh come on C, you've got to be kidding? Anyone who has eyes can look at a shark and a whale and conclude they are closely related, and he'd be dead wrong. You've illustrated the problem with casual observation as science. Its one of the fundamental problems with evolution-deniers, and with denialism in general - a lack of understanding of what constitutes evidence and an appreciation of what it means.

Scientifically, when you or I, based on casual observation, conclude that chimpanzees and humans are related, or that sharks and whales are, we've just gotten started We've done no science yet. All we've done is form a hypothesis. Without some falsifiable testing, it's nothing better than a guess. Indeed, that's as far as ID gets, and why as science goes its useless crap.

Science demands we one go further. From our hypothesis of close relationship, we'd need to make a falsifiable prediction, something that could give us a variety of answers, many of which would clearly indicate a flaw in our theory. (!) Let's check the DNA. If they are closely related (we'd reason), their DNA should be pretty similar.

So them we open them up, and lo and behold, the shark and the whale don't have DNA nearly as similar as we'd expect. In that case our hypothesis is disproven. But with the chimp and the human, the match is nearly total (95-99% depending on how you want to count it). This would be a confirmation of our theory. It doesn't prove it, but it gives it a huge leg up on any theory that hasn't passed such a test.

Empirical, falsifiable, repeatable testing of a theory, and adjustments to account for those results when they differ from prediction, is what makes science different from other epistemologies. The the rate at which mankind's knowledge grew once science became the standard is why it is held in so high a regard today, and why even those who criticize it with their words crave its stamp of approval with their actions. It doesn't get any better.

As long as you see THE thing that makes science the power it is as mere icing, you'll never understand science or the perspective of those whom practice and appreciate it.

Finally, it pays to remember that we knew nothing of DNA in Darwin's time. Some of the most enjoyable parts of "The Origin of the Species" were watching struggle to understand how traits were passed from one generation to the next. His theory demanded a mechanism, but he had none.

When DNA was discovered Darwin was vindicated in a huge way. There was simply no reason that such a thing had to exist outside his theory. Gods could easily have created without it. When it was ultimately mapped out so we could compare one creature to the next, the scientific battle over evolution was over for anyone with access to the information and the education to understand it. There was (and is) simply no way to explain, with any sensibility, why it looks like it does one creature to the next except through evolution via common descent.

Creationists take advantage of the ignorant and confuse them as to just how certainly Darwin's theory, with many modifications through subsequent discovery, won its scientific war. But win it it did, and those who recognize it will continue to grow as they have over these last 150 years until this debate is as quaint a memory as those about the existence of germs.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Sam Harris and Phillip Ball on Atheistic Accomodation

There is a great exchange between Sam Harris and Phillip Ball which pretty much sums up the intellectual chasm that always grows up when this discussions take place. This paragraph from Harris pretty much sums up my view of the issue:

First off, it is undeniable that most humans are “ritualistically inculcated into stupidity” from birth onwards by their religious parents. Second, it is a perverse (and highly condescending) article of faith among secular academics that people can never be reasoned out of their religious convictions. I have heard from literally thousands of people who used to believe in the God of Abraham—indeed, many used to be scriptural literalists—who were stripped of their faith after a proper collision with Reason. It is quite possible for people to notice how “woolly” their thinking has been, how they were part of a culture grown incandescent with lies, how their parents and elders raised them in a near total vacuum of critical thinking and in complete ignorance of the scientific worldview. Indeed, I once had the pleasure of having dinner with a woman who could pinpoint the very moment she lost her faith, as it had been purged from her mind that morning while reading one of my books. Her overwhelming feeling was of regret for all the time she had wasted over the course of her life. No doubt such a terrific sense of sunk cost keeps many people stuck to a pew. Perhaps not everyone can be reasoned out of his or her faith—but the problem is that we don’t know how fully people’s minds could change because we haven’t really tried (please don’t feel tempted to make yet another tendentious excursion into history and bring up the French Revolution or the gulag). You’d do well to notice how easily children can be reasoned out of their belief in Santa Claus. The all enter school as devout believers, and they all exit as perfect sceptics. How is this dialectical miracle accomplished? Quite simply: there is no cultural support for a belief in Santa past a certain age, and no one likes to be laughed at. Do we replace Santa Claus with anything? No. We just oblige people to grow up.

That's pretty much it. And yes, accomodationists all, hear me when I say I realize that some people cannot be wrested from their faith positions by mere reason (who was it that said what was put there by something other than reason cannot be removed with reason?). Those we leave to you to cajole, persuade, and incrementalize their way to enlightenment. But for some people, a swift kick in the intellectual ass is exactly what they need, and many of us know it because we've had it happen to us, and we've seen it effective in others. Sometimes all someone needs is to have a person carrying intellectual respect to say point blank [best George Carlin voice here] "This is fucking stupid!", and begin a rational dissection.

Hat tip: PZ Myers.