Friday, November 30, 2007

D'Souza Warps History, Again

In yet another apologetic column pimping his book, we once again see Dinesh D’Souza retreat to the vagaries of history to make his arguments rather than dealing with the reality of the day. The reason he does this is twofold. First, since history educations sorely lack here in the states, he can weave vast tapestries of fiction and not have to worry about most of his audience noticing. They want to believe what he says, and they aren’t educated enough to know better, so they make for an easy sale. Second, he gets to take advantage of the fact that the world has changed dramatically in Europe and America in the last few hundred years, with atheism being far more acceptable today than in even the recent past. It is easy to make one’s case seem reasonable by citing authorities from the past that held the same view, except when it is noted that practically everyone then, genius and idiot alike, thought along those lines. Saying it is reasonable to be a creationist in 2007 because Newton had some creationist leanings in 1695, would be like saying it is reasonable for a college football coach to run the wishbone based on the fact that 20 years ago many respected coaches did so. Human knowledge, be it philosophy, science, or football, progresses. What was acceptable in the past is often not acceptable now.

So when he addresses the conflict between science and religion, one only a blind man could miss, he retreats into history because he knows he can’t win with the current reality. But with the past, one he can massage into any shape he can imagine, or emphasize what were trivialities as if they were major events, and with an ignorant audience, he can take a shot at making it appear they haven’t been in conflict. Watch how he twists and turns to avoid the obvious: that science and religion are, and by their very nature always will be, at odds.

He begins by implying that the impression many of us have about the conflict was the result of a couple of books of “atheist propaganda”, and the subsequent repetition of the arguments made there:

”About a hundred years ago, two anti-religious bigots named John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White wrote books promoting the idea of an irreconcilable conflict between science and God. The books were full of facts that have now been totally discredited by scholars. But the myths produced by Draper and Dickson continue to be recycled. They are believed by many who consider themselves educated, and they even find their way into the textbooks.”

This is quite a remarkable claim, especially when one notes how arcane and basically unknown most of the arguments he lists are. And the ones that he does correctly list as a common example of religion vs science, he twists into shapes that would make them barely recognizable to those familiar with the events in question. He dismisses the common belief, supported by Biblical quotes, that the earth was flat, by pointing out, correctly, that educated people, such as Aristotle, knew the earth was not flat. This is illogic at its most obvious. That would be like arguing that creationism is not driven by religion because some religious people accept evolutionary theory. He mentions a supposed exchange between Huxley and Bishop Wilberforce that, even if true, would not prove the religion vs science case. It is the fact that Bishop Wilberforce, like so many religious leaders since, opposed the science of evolution, that makes the case, not whether Huxley delivered a zinger in a debate.

But it gets even worse. From there he descends into MSU (Making Shit Up), by claiming we scientific types have spread the myth that Darwin’s theory was immediately supported by scientists and resisted by Christians. He rightly notes that there were serious scientific objections to evolution at the time, such as the perceived shorter lifespan of the sun (cleared up with nuclear theory), and the lack of a mechanism for inherited traits (resolved with the rediscovery of Mendelian genetics). This we have all known, and I defy D’Souza to document a single example of a prominent defender of evolution making this argument. He can’t of course: MSU doesn’t allow for documentation. And none of that, even were it true, would change the fact that the Christian world was nearly universally opposed to evolution, and in large part still is! That D’Souza could expect people to believe that Christian opposition to evolution has grown significantly since Darwin is the height of hubris.

From there he fixates on irrelevancies in Galileo’s story, such as whether he really dropped weights off the Tower of Pisa (he didn’t), whether he or Copernicus first proposed heliocentrism (Copernicus did), errors Galileo made in explaining the tides, whether Galileo was funded by the Church (sure, as long as he came to conclusions that met with their approval), and whether he made claims that went beyond the evidence (he did). All correct Dinesh, and all completely irrelevant. What is relevant is that Copernicus had his theory published posthumously in fear of what consequences awaited him FROM THE CHURCH were he to publish while he was still alive, and Galileo’s experience confirmed that fear. The Church may have had legitimate beefs with some of Galileo’s more grandiose claims, but the fact is, as evidenced by its long resistance to evolution, the Church is not ultimately concerned with scientific evidence, but with supporting the faith. That continues today.

Oh, D’Souza actually tries to claim the Bible does not conflict with evolution. Try not to read that claim with a mouthful, and if by chance it doesn’t appear absurd to you, simply read Genesis next to a good biology text and note that they differ in practically every factual statement.

And as the cherry on top of this daiquiri of dissembling is, well, I’ll just let Dinesh bury himself with his own idiocy:

”Galileo Was A Victim of Torture and Abuse: This is perhaps the most recurring motif, and yet it is entirely untrue. Galileo was treated by the church as a celebrity. When summoned by the Inquisition, he was housed in the grand Medici Villa in Rome. He attended receptions with the Pope and leading cardinals. Even after he was found guilty, he was first housed in a magnificent Episcopal palace and then placed under “house arrest” although he was permitted to visit his daughters in a nearby convent and to continue publishing scientific papers. “

That’s right, his cage was a nice cage, so it doesn’t count. I wonder if D’Souza agrees with his conservative Stablemate Michael Medved that slavery wasn’t so bad. One can be forgiven for being staggered at the sheer chutzpa of D’Souza, ignoring all the obvious examples of religion resisting science, from the belief that disease was caused by demons, to resistance to evolution, to the anti-vaccination crowd, to the resistance to birth control. Hell, right below this column on the same damned website is an article about religion standing in the way of science with regard to stem cell research. One can only wonder how much effort D’Souza made to find so many obscure, completely irrelevant, points to make to avoid the obvious reality even a cursory glance at society and history will reveal: science and religion are competing epistemologies, one proceeding by evidence and falsification, the other by authority and faith. They may occasionally reach the same conclusions, but they are, at their core, opposed, and they always will be. As to which is superior, simply observe the parts of the world that place religion above science, vs those that do the opposite. The pattern is clear, at least to everyone except D’Souza and those that don’t understand history enough to see through his MSU.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Barbara Forrest Affair: The Texas Intelligent Design Battle Begins

In news that has the blogosphere all abuzz, and has elicited telling silence from the Intelligent Design community, Chris Comer, the state's director of science curriculum, has resigned, after sending out an e-mail announcing a presentation being given by Barbara Forrest. Forrest is the philosopher of science who was key in exposing the ID movement's pseudo scientific political agenda, thus the email supposedly created the appearance of bias against teaching intelligent design. The State, of course, claims the firing, I mean forced resignation, was for other reasons:

"In documents obtained Wednesday through the Texas Public Information Act, agency officials said they recommended firing Comer for repeated acts of misconduct and insubordination. But Comer said she thinks political concerns about the teaching of creationism in schools were behind what she describes as a forced resignation."

It isn't hard to see the real reasons for the firing from the language of the Agency spokespeople:

Agency officials cited the e-mail in a memo recommending her termination. They said forwarding the e-mail not only violated a directive for her not to communicate in writing or otherwise with anyone outside the agency regarding an upcoming science curriculum review, "it directly conflicts with her responsibilities as the Director of Science."

The memo adds, "Ms. Comer's e-mail implies endorsement of the speaker and implies that TEA endorses the speaker's position on a subject on which the agency must remain neutral."

You've got to be kidding me. The Director of the Science Curriculum, notifying people of a talk given by a philosopher of science who is actively involved in attempting to improve science education, conflicts with her responsibilities? The science agency must remain neutral on an issue of science? What then, pray tell, is the agency for? Agency spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe clues us in:

"There's been a long-standing policy that the pros and cons of scientific theory must be taught. And while we've had a great deal of public comment about evolution and creationism at state board meetings, it's not been a controversial issue with the board."

Ah, there it is, "the pros and cons of scientific theory", a standard IDer/creationist talking point. Of course, the "cons" these people have in mind are never legitimate scientific issues, but instead are erroneous oft-refuted pseudo scientific nonsense. This should come as no surprise to those of us who have followed the comments of Board of Education Chairman Don McLeroy, who unabashedly supports making ID/creationism part of the science curriculum, and that issue is coming up soon.

"Comer's resignation comes just months before the State Board of Education is to begin reviewing the science portion of the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, the statewide curriculum that will be used to determine what should be taught in Texas classrooms and what textbooks are bought."

And to see just how brazen these people are in drawing the battle lines against science, one need only go as far as Lizzette Reynolds, senior advisor to the Agency, who previously worked in the U.S. Department of Education.

"This is highly inappropriate," Reynolds said in an e-mail to Comer's supervisors. "I believe this is an offense that calls for termination or, at the very least, reassignment of responsibilities.

"This is something that the State Board, the Governor's Office and members of the Legislature would be extremely upset to see because it assumes this is a subject that the agency supports."

You go Ms. Reynolds! How dare a director of the science curriculum assume the State Education Agency supports science. You should all resign before you bring more embarrassment to the citizens of Texas, not to mention destroying good science education in the state, as far as we have any. Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, nails it:

"It's important to know whether politics and ideology are standing in the way of Texas kids getting a 21st century science education," Miller said. "We've already seen a faction of the State Board of Education try to politicize and censor what our schoolchildren learn. It would be even more alarming if the same thing is now happening inside TEA itself."

Indeed, it is time for all Texans who care about the education our children get to let these people know just how unhappy and embarrassed we are by their actions.

For more on the story, read here, here, here, here, and here.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Study of Intelligence Genes

Despite research with twins that suggests 50% of our intelligence is genetic, pinning down the responsible genes has proven to be quite a difficult task:

"Researchers led by Robert Plomin of the Institute of Psychiatry in London obtained intelligence scores for 7,000 seven-year-olds based on verbal and non-verbal reasoning tests.

They also took DNA samples from the children in the hope of identifying genetic differences between the high and low scorers.

The huge trawl identified 37 variants in six genes that appear to be play some role in differences in intelligence.

But the individual effects of these genes was barely detectable. Together they account for just one percent of the variation in intelligence between individuals."

Just in case James Watson is checking the article, no, the blackness gene wasn't found among them. Intelligence, which should come as no surprise to anyone who has attempted to define it objectively, is far more complicated than one or two traits:

"Intelligence is a function of the way the brain is put together, and at least half of our genome contributes in some way or another to brain function, which means that in order to build a human brain, you need thousands of genes to work together," New York University psychologist Gary Marcus told the publication.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Skepticism of Global Warming Skepticism

For the most part I believe conspiracy theories are the result of some people's inability to admit they lost whatever game they were playing fair and square. It's the equivalent of claiming you only lost because the referees cheated. That's not to say conspiracies haven't and don't exist. I just think it is the sort of claim that requires hard evidence beyond the fact that the voters, scientific journals, referees, whoever, drew a different conclusion than the complainer did.

Tops on the conspiracy list these days are the global warming deniers, many of whom claim that the scientific community is biased against their views. Yet never have I seen hard evidence of said bias. Enter Richard Black, who did the work for me

"...I invited sceptics to put their cards on the table, and send me documentation or other firm evidence of bias.

For my part, I agreed to look into any concrete claims.

Given the fury evidenced by sceptical commentators, I was expecting a deluge.

I anticipated drowning in a torrent of accusations of research grants turned down, membership of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) denied, scientific papers refused by journals, job applications refused, and invitations to speak at conferences drying up.

I anticipated having to spend days, weeks, months even, sifting the wheat from the chaff, going backwards and forwards between journal editors, heads of department, conference organisers, funding bodies and the original plaintiffs.

I envisaged major headaches materialising as I tried to sort out the chains of events, attempting to decipher whether claims had any validity, or were just part of the normal rough and tumble of a scientist's life - especially in the context of scientific publishing, where the top journals only publish about 10% of the papers submitted to them.

The reality was rather different. "

Indeed. Black received a paltry 5 submissions of substance, which either dealt with two very famous cases (the "hockey stick", and the Oreskes article). 95% of what he received...:

"...contained a mixture of positive and negative comments on the worth of this exercise, links to newspaper articles and blog entries that typically contained accusations of bias but no evidence, links to scientific papers which the writers said challenged anthropogenic warming, tirades against the media, and several suggestions that for an authoritative exposition of bias in climate science I should read Michael Crichton's novel State of Fear. "

I find that pretty compelling. But what else would we expect from people who read Ann Coulter and Dinesh D'Souza, who make shit up all the time? The reason is pretty obvious: too many people don't bother to check the facts behind an opinion if they agree with it. Global warming deniers don't want it to be true, it is that simple.

As for the common claim that researchers risk losing their funding if they challenge AGW, Black turned to climate researcher Stefan Rahmstorf:

"How likely is it that my funding would suffer if I found a good alternative explanation for the observed global warming, or that I would have trouble publishing it (assuming it would be methodologically sound, of course)?" he asked.

"Quite the contrary, I would see it as a path to certain fame! Scientists always strive to find something radically new and different - just reconfirming what is already quite well-known is boring, and certainly will not get you the Nobel Prize.

"In many countries, including my own, scientific funding is a lot less competitive than in the US - I'm a professor for life, my institute has a solid base funding for doing its research, and basically I can do what I want without risk that this is taken away from me. I don't need to get new grants all the time."

This exact answer comes out of the mouths of a lot of evolutionary biologists as well, when they are accused of supporting modern evolutionary theory because of vested personal interests. Overturning Darwin is a sure way into the record books. This should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the anti-evolution movement, for it has quite a bit of overlap with AGW deniers.

It is also worth noting that many, if not most, conspiracy theories completely fall apart once one considers the entire world instead of just the United States. Were groups in the US controlling scientific research and suppressing information, it would be revealed by researchers in other nations. The fact that the denialist movements are so concentrated in the southern United States indicates that there is indeed a bias, but it isn't with the scientists.

I can't improve on Black's closing:

"The sum total of evidence obtained through this open invitation, then, is one first-hand claim of bias in scientific journals, not backed up by documentary evidence; and three second-hand claims, two well-known and one that the scientist in question does not consider evidence of anti-sceptic feeling.

No-one said they had been refused a place on the IPCC, the central global body in climate change, or denied a job or turned down for promotion or sacked or refused access to a conference platform, or indeed anything else.

If there is an anti-sceptic bias running through the institutions of science, it is evidently keeping itself well hidden.

Whether this exercise has conclusively disproved a bias is not for me to say - I am sure others will find plenty to say, doubtless in the courteous and gracious language that typifies climate discourse nowadays.

But I will say this; if someone persistently claims to be a great football player, and yet fails to find the net when you put him in front of an open goal, you cannot do other than doubt his claim.

[hat tip denialismblog]

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Apologists Gloating over Antony Flew's Intellectual Corpse

Just like shit attracts flies, the rotting intellectual corpse of Antony Flew, formerly atheistic and somewhat obscure philosopher, has attracted the gamut of theologoical predators, eager to cash in on his senility-induced “conversion”. Not one to ever be out-sleazed, Dinesh D’Souza has weighed in, and with his usual reality-averse viewpoint. Right off the bat he reveals, as so many religious apologists do, that he has no understanding of atheism, confusing it, as so many do, with rebellion against the gods:

”Imagine if one of the world's leading Christians--say C.S. Lewis a generation ago, or Billy Graham now--were to reject his religious beliefs and become a atheist. It would be big news! The New York Times would be all over it, for sure, and the question would be why a man who has devoted his life to God would now turn against Him?”

Being an atheist is not “turning against” the gods. One who is against something still believes in that something. To not believe is to not be for or against. A Satanist is against God. An atheist isn’t. Further, notice D’Souza’s use of that favorite of neo-conservative debating tricks, backing his speculation (that the NY Times is biased for atheism and against believers), with more speculation (that the NY Times would have treated a famous believer’s deconversion to atheism differently than it treated Flew’s conversion). Apparently gathering facts to support his point of view was too difficult, or at least less convenient, than simply making shit up (MSU).

"Contrast this with the New York Times' approach to the conversion of philosopher Anthony Flew. Flew has been, for the past half-century, the world's leading advocate of atheism. His works such as Theology and Falsification and The Presumption of Atheism were considered classics of theist thought. No one has so relentlessly espoused the atheist cause, and no one has been more anthologized and eulogized by the atheist community."

This is sheer nonsense. Outside of philosophical circles and the most hard core of atheist groups, Flew was virtually unknown. He has, not coincidentally, become “the world’s leading advocate of atheism” to apologists like D’Souza only when he became useful to them. When he was espousing atheism, they did not treat him, or his work, as significant at all.

Other twentieth-century philosophers, such as Martin Heidegger and Bertrand Russell, were unbelievers but they did not make atheism central to their philosophical work as did Flew. Flew's atheism long precedes that of latecomers like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens.

The significance that Flew wrote before the “New Atheists” is what exactly? The fact is, Dawkins, Dennett and Hitchens, along with Sam Harris, are far more known, and more read, than Flew ever was. This is why it is so important for D’Souza to attempt to marginalize them to Flew’s benefit. Being honest about Flew’s obscurity runs contrary to his agenda.

"Now, in his early eighties, Flew has rejected atheism and said he believes that God exists. He does not espouse the Christian God, but calls himself a Deist. He says he has a lifelong commitment to following the evidence where it leads, and that new advances in the sciences have shown him that materialism and Darwinism simply cannot account for the world as it is and life as it is. Examining the fine-tuning of the universe and the mind-boggling complexity of the cell (a compexity that evolution presumes but cannot explain), Flew now believes that the design of the universe requires a designer. He gives his reasons in a new book There Is a God which is co-authored with Roy Abraham Varghese."

Yes, in a book which Flew, to my great sadness, supposedly wrote about philosophers that he could not even remember in post-release interviews. Clearly the man is losing his faculties, and was primed for exploitation by the likes of Varghese and D’Souza. Luckily for us, D’Souza is so clueless as to what makes for a sound argument, he refutes himself:

”In the book, Flew uses simple analogies to expose atheist illogic. For instance, leading atheists seek to prove that the mind is no more than the brain. If the brain is destroyed, they say, we can't use our minds. Therefore there is nothing to minds excerpt circuits andneurons.”

Apparently D’Souza, and now poor Flew, needs to be reminded of what every Logic 101 student learns: analogies do not prove, they only illustrate. Flew cannot possibly expose illogic, of atheists or anyone else, using analogies. And again we must ask the master of MSU, where are these atheistic scientists seeking to prove the mind is no more than the brain? I know of many scientists, like Stephen Pinker, who seek to explain brain function in terms of what we know of it, including but not limited to the fact that no verified example exists of mind function without brain function. Flew’s analogy here of a child on an island finding a cell phone and concluding that there are no voices without the phone rings shallow. One can always devise a hypothetical scenario where standard scientific methodology might draw an erroneous conclusion. So what? The question is not “is it possible such reasoning could error”, but rather “why should we, in this particular instance, conclude that it is in error?” D’Souza is strangely silent on this question, and for good reason. The answer, that it runs contrary to what he wishes were true, would not serve his political and sociological agenda. Better to toss out the analogy, and hope his target audience doesn’t notice the gaping flaw in his argument. Then, as if to pour salt in an open wound, D’Souza goes into major denial over Flew’s reduced mental capacity:

”When a major figure like Flew switches sides, the New York TImes goes into mafia-style intellectual hit mode. They selected Mark Oppenheimer of Yale, who visited Flew in England and wrote a long article in the November 4, 2007 New York Times Magazine suggesting that Flew converted because he is, well, senile. The basic idea is that Flew has lost his mind and can't remember anything, and when Christian apologists like Varghese were nice to him Flew basically surrendered to them and let them write his book.

The only evidence that Flew has lost his mind is that he's 84 years old. A man of 84 naturally loses some of his memory, especially for names, but this does not mean he has lost his marbles. Flew's own writings of the past few years are all entirely coherent and employ sophisticated philosophical vocabulary. While Flew seems to have asked his collaborator Varghese to write a draft of his life story, it was Flew who reviewed and approved the final contents. There is nothing in the Times' article that shows Flew to be incapable of a reasoned change of mind and heart.

Perhaps, but the evidence of Flew’s senility is apparent to all but those who wish to use him for their political ends. His problems go far beyond a failure to remember a few names. He can’t seem to remember major pieces of the book’s arguments.

”I realize that atheists--including those at the New York Times--are embarassed at having to surrender one of their most stalwart champions to theism. Maybe they too should consider following the evidence where it leads? Too closed-minded to consider Flew's arguments, these fellows would much rather belittle the intellectual capacity of the man they once revered. Hell hath no fury like an atheist scorned.

A wonderful bit of fiction writing Dinesh. You should write children’s books. Atheists do not feel scorned by Flew. We feel sorry for him. Watching him espouse arguments that he would have laughed at, and rightly so, in his earlier more lucid days, is sickening to put it mildly. The evidence remains clear on two points: Flew is senile, and Dinesh D’Souza and the rest of the religious Right that are exploiting Flew for their own purposes, are shameless opportunists. The last thing they are interested in is following the evidence where it leads. They already “know” where it should finish, and they aren’t interested in letting the facts get in the way.

Friday, November 23, 2007

We have found the Designer, and He is Bigfoot!

OK, I'm kidding. But that might as well have been the title of this announcement of the addition of a new Senior Fellow at that hotbed of super secret ID science, the Discovery Institute:

Michael Medved, movie critic, and bigfoot enthusiast.

A movie critic...
who believes in bigfoot...
senior fellow...
of a scientific organization.

Sorry, I can't say that without stuttering. These people are supposed to be marketing geniuses, and they do this? First evolution denial, then global warming denial, and now bigfoot? Who besides their sycophants isn't laughing?

In the spirit of the Discovery Institute's idea of what consitutes science, I hereby make the following nominations for DI fellow:

John Mack (postumously), for his work on alien abductions.

John Hutchison, creating of the Hutchison Effect.

Uri Geller, who obviously has discovered new laws of physics.

Tom Cruise, for his amazing insights into psychology.

These accomplished people will live up to the stratospheric standards of DI scholarship.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

A Fabulous Human Gliding Video, and Dembski Revealing Creationist Myopia

Take a look at this post by William Dembski on the evolution of flying squirrels. First, notice how awesome the video is. It's my second breathtaking video experience this week (along with The Inner Life of a Cell.

Far more important, however, is the creationist mindset underlying Dembski's comments. He never believed that flying squirrels could evolve until he saw, with his own beady eyes, a video of something similar. This is standard creationist tripe, that unless one is actually present for an event, or witnesses it from beginning to completion, one can reasonably reject all evidence for the event as just-so speculative stories. It reveals how they are, at their intellectual core, unable to grasp the importance of falsifiable testing of theories. This is why they cannot deal with the reality of any event that takes many orders of magnitude more time to complete than do their lives. This is why they do practically no research of their own. To them, science is nothing more than observation and conjecture, because that is all they do.

Read the cross examination of Michael Behe at the Dover trial, where he not only admits having done no falsifiable testing of his theory, but he seems genuinely confused at why the question was asked. Further, his, and most creationists', insistence that they will not accept evolutionary explanations for various aspects of nature (such as the bacterial flagellum) unless they get a detailed step by step explanation again reveals the same myopia. Unless they can see it all at once, they can't, or won't, grasp it.

Well, sorry guys, but there is a lot of reality that can only be known through falsifiable extrapolation from bits of hard information. If you can't handle that, then there are many areas of science that will be forever beyond your reach. Evolution is just the most well known one.

Coolest Science Video Ever, and the DI's misuse of it

Huge hat tip to Abbie at ERV for this one. Please pay her a visit.

If you have never seen "The Inner Life of a Cell", it is just about the coolest science video I've ever seen. From Harvard Biovisions, it is a computer animated depiction of the detailed workings of our cells, with two versions, one with a fabulous soundtrack, and another longer version with scientific narration.

Beautiful to behold, breathtaking in its detail and scope, it is a tribute to all the scientists who have worked long and hard, often in unknown obscurity, to learn all of what we know. The narrator left my head spinning from the vast about of information therein.

Imagine then, my revulsion at seeing what the Discovery Institute for Crackpots and Kooks did with it, which unfortunately you will have to go over to Abbie's blog to see it, presumably because they took it down knowing what a furor is brewing. Apparently, they took the Harvard video, replaced the scientific narration with one of their own (pushing an intelligent design agenda of course), without Harvard's permission or even their knowledge. Apparently quote mining scientists, now they want to take scientific videos and change the narration so it suits their religious sensibilities.

Stay tuned on this one, the possibility of legal action looms. Perhaps those professional dissemblers finally went far enough to incur some real penalty for dishonestly peddling their pseudoscientific nonsense.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Intelligent Design Advocate Analyzes Pattern Recognition in Children, Draws Entirely Wrong Conclusion

One of the more interesting aspects of the Intelligent Design crew is their uncanny ability to stare data refuting their pet presumption, and draw the exact opposite conclusion that they should. Paul Nelson does that in spades in this article concerning a study of patients with Alzheimer’s disease.

…I cannot help but feel a surge of intellectual affection — philia — at learning that someone is trying to understand the puzzle of when and why humans infer intelligent design, or more generally, default to teleological modes of explanation, whether correctly or not. (It’s that last bit that should be very useful to design theorists; see below.)

OK, is it just me, or does the word “teleological”, like the word “ontological”, set off the BS detectors? I know they are legitimate philosophical terms, but then the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics is a legitimate law of physics, and yet it seems that 90+% of references to it are nonsense.

But I digress. The issue Nelson identifies is a legitimate and interesting one: why do humans infer design, or putting it another way, why do we identify patterns and infer intelligent cause? This naturally leads into how well we do this, what our error rate is, and what sort of errors we make: alpha errors (inferring intelligent cause where there is none) and beta errors (failing to infer intelligent cause when it is present). It is very revealing that this kind of research that should be the bread and butter of ID theorists, as Nelson rightly points out, is entirely neglected by the leading lights of the ID movement. William Dembski prattles on about CSI (complex specified information), as the unit of measurement of design, and yet never gives us a quantifiable measure of CSI in any object, nor how one object compares to another. He talks about his “explanatory filter”, but never demonstrates its results, or how it can distinguish between the designed objects of men and the designed objects of nature.

This is the fundamental problem with ID. It is not that ID asks the wrong questions. It is that ID theorists refuse to do a scientific search for the answers. They prefer instead to lurk in the vague shadows of interpretation, expressing themselves in as subject and vague a manner as possible to avoid the very thing they would be pursuing were they legitimate scientists: falsifiable, testable, verification of their theories. Thus we get this bit of denying the obvious from Nelson:

Unlike educated adults, young children demonstrate a “promiscuous” tendency to explain objects and phenomena by reference to functions, endorsing what are called teleological explanations. This tendency becomes more selective as children acquire increasingly coherent beliefs about causal mechanisms, but it is unknown whether a widespread preference for teleology is ever truly outgrown. The study reported here investigated this question by examining explanatory judgments in patients with Alzheimer’s disease (AD), whose dementia affects the rich causal beliefs adults typically consult in evaluating explanations. The results indicate that unlike healthy adults, AD patients systematically and promiscuously prefer teleological explanations, suggesting that an underlying tendency to construe the world in terms of functions persists throughout life. This finding has broad relevance not only to understanding conceptual impairments in AD, but also to theories of development, learning, and conceptual change. Moreover, this finding sheds light on the intuitive appeal of creationism.

Yeah, I know: Alzheimer’s and creationism — cue the jokesmiths at the Panda’s Thumb.

Well no shit Paul. Here you are trying to gather popular support for your way of thinking, and the evidence you choose to bring to the table is that people with damaged brains see things as you do? Just how do you expect us to react, except with laughter? What part of “unlike healthy adults” do you not understand?
But as I said, it is an interesting question, and I think it has an obvious answer. Since there are indeed various levels of teleology in the world around us, it stands to reason that the ability to recognize this would confer a survival advantage. Further, this recognition need not be perfect to be useful: even a paltry ability to do this would confer an advantage over those that cannot. Therefore, it seems reasonable to conclude that, like the ability to see, which confers an advantage in all its incremental forms, the ability to recognize patterns would easily evolve from very limited precursors to advanced sensory devices (ie our brain). From there it is easy to see that this ability would likely have a large alpha error relative to its beta error. The rabbit that immediately runs away at the barest hint of the presence of a wolf survives to procreate far more often than the rabbit that waits around to make sure, whereas running away without cause does not carry near the same level of penalty (death).

So it is easy to see how some humans might have an overdeveloped “design detector” which screams loudly at the slightest hint of design. These people would see design where there is none, perhaps even in something as basic as the structure of a cell, or our bodies. Is it now clear why the IDers refuse to do research in this (or any other) area? It leads inexorably to the one conclusion they cannot tolerate: that despite their “I know it when I see it” attitude, their instinctual conclusions of design are unwarranted, and for simple evolutionary reasons. So they settle for asking the questions, while ignoring the answers:

”But Lombrozo points out that teleological or design explanations are often correct: watches do have watchmakers. So what distinguishes erroneous and correct design inferences? Knowing the circumstances under which humans incorrectly infer design may help ID theorists guard against hard-wired teleological bias. Correct (sound) and incorrect (unsound) design inferences are two sides of the same coin. Discovering how we may err in inferring design is essential to knowing when we’ve made such inferences reliably.”

Indeed Paul, it would. So what are you all waiting for? Break some new ground! Put the explanatory filter to the test. Measure how it reacts to human designs vs natural designs. Can it distinguish them? How high is your error rate? How can this be avoided? You guys are great (on occasion) at asking questions. To be considered scientists, you can’t stop there. You have to be willing to seek the answers, regardless of the threat that poses to some of your most cherished presumptions. And that is why we can all rest in comfort that you will be asking the same questions next year, and the year after that. You guys will always find more “fruitful” ways to spend your time.

Military Desertion Rates Hit 25 Year High

Right on the heels of much needed good news, the apparent improved death rate of American soldiers in Iraq, comes this horrible news about the US Army desertion rate.

”Soldiers strained by six years at war are deserting their posts at the highest rate since 1980, with the number of Army deserters this year showing an 80 percent increase since the United States invaded Iraq in 2003.
While the totals are still far lower than they were during the Vietnam war, when the draft was in effect, they show a steady increase over the past four years and a 42 percent jump since last year.”

This really should come as no surprise. Shorter leave, as well as longer and more frequent deployments, and an ever declining clarity regarding the mission and the signs that it has concluded, will sap the will of even the best fighting men and women. 1980, you will recall, was when the era of Reagan replaced the era of Carter, the Iran hostage crisis, and our botched rescue attempts, which sullied American resolve. That is how far morale in our great military has fallen.

This should be a sobering fact for all Americans. One of the reasons, whatever its flaws may be, the military deserves more respect than many people are willing to give it, is because it performs a fundamental function in society, and there are few willing to do it. It requires that one put ones self willingly in harm’s way for the sake of others. That breed, be it borne of ignorance, valiance, desperation, or duty, is a rare one, and not to be taken for granted. And now we are being told, or rather they are telling us, by abandoning their posts, that they have had enough.

I was reminded of this watching a replay of “300”, a film about a desperate battle of the Spartans against the massive army of Persia. There several points in the movie where the superiority of voluntary career soldiers over amateurs or conscripted ones was emphasized. Oh sure, we could reinstitute the draft, and increase our army, granting for the sake of argument that our horrible funding problem were solved. But we cannot conscript a sense of duty, dedication to training, or the willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice for one’s society. A larger army is certainly not necessarily a better one. Just ask mid 20th century Chinese.

It has come down to basic facts about our society. We are not a society built for sustained war, as Viet Nam should have made clear. If not, the sustained conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have reminded us. In a way, this is as it should be: America, at least in its philosophical incarnation, is a nation about freedom, not imperialism. Given freedom, most people will always choose not to fight. That is why those who do, when the time makes it necessary, have been so revered throughout history. They volunteer to bell the cat, and we have run out of them.

So, it boils down to this for America: we cannot start another war, at least not until we finish the ones we are in. The War on Terror, if it is to be understood as armed conflict in Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan, is beyond our ability to win by unilateral military force, and our brave men and women deserve better than to be given an assignment beyond their physical and psychological abilities. It doesn’t matter what the perceived threats are, any more than it would matter what the threat is to your house from a cannonball. The answer is still not to jump in front of it. We do not have the resources, be it measured in valor or money. At this point, the politicians need to lead America in being honest about what the War on Terror is costing us, by refusing to run budget deficits to wage it. Pay for these wars, within our budget, and then we’ll talk about where we are going to get the people to fight more. Otherwise, the ones on the front lines are going to continue to walk away, or worse, in even greater numbers, to our collective disgrace.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Mike S. Adams Twisted Views of Abortion

It is truly amazing to watch the intellectual contortions some people go through to protect their ideology. There is no better example of this than Mike Adams’ little ”>commentary on liberalism. It begins with this interesting contortion of logic:

”For years, many have mistakenly dubbed the pro-choice position as a “liberal” position. Clearly, it is not. It is certainly true that pro-choicers applaud a 1973 decision extending a new constitutional right to choose – oddly by saying that the constitution is living and breathing but the fetus is not. “

Note the Coulteresque semantic game with the terms “living and breathing”. Surely Adams understands that these terms are figurative when it comes to the constitution. It simply means that it is unreasonable to expect the framers to understand every nuance and detail of life 200 years from when they lived, and that the document they wrote should be expected to “live” and “breath” with the modern times. Now certainly one can argue that point. However, it is inexcusable for someone to think this issue has anything to do with the issue of whether or not a fetus should be treated as a living, breathing human being while still in the womb. To choose the lesser of two evil interpretations, Adams is being obtuse for manipulative purposes.

As to whether the pro-choice position on abortion is liberal, any claim that it isn’t is by its very nature wrong. Abortion is a relatively new procedure on the political front, and it certainly expands the freedoms of some, so by definition it is liberal. For Adams to attempt to argue otherwise is again nothing more than semantic manipulation, as his next statements make crystal clear:

”What Roe really said is that we no longer may enjoy the liberty of voting on the issue of abortion. Since this applies to both men and women, it can be viewed as producing a net loss of liberty. It is not even necessary to take into account the fact that the fetus will never have an opportunity to vote or to abort another fetus. “

This is one of those “No shit Sherlock” moments. Of course Roe limits the liberty of voting on the issue of abortion. That is what any constitutional ruling does: limit what the majority is allowed to legislate. I suppose it is possible that Adams really has a fundamental problem with constitutional democracy, but I suspect he knows how the government works. He just has such a twisted view of what constitutes liberty that he considers it a violation of his liberty to be prevented from violating the liberty of others. One might with similar reasoning claim that it makes no sense to kidnap kidnappers and put them in prison.

”That this mass infringement of voting rights (read: disenfranchisement) is accomplished by counting only nine votes is significant. It is an example of statism, not liberalism.”

OK, maybe he doesn’t understand how the government works. Statism is the state dictating to the people. Outlawing abortions would be statism. Forcing abortions would be statism. Allowing everyone to decide for themselves is the opposite of statism. That someone like Adams, who is obviously not as brick stupid as his claims here might suggest, would make such an argument shows just how much a faith-driven political view like that held by the life-worthy-of-right-at-conception crew, can distort one’s ability to think clearly about these issues.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Iraq Casualties: A Glimmer of Hope

From the Iraq war finally comes some data that permits optimism. US military casualties were markedly down in October when compared to same-month averages from prior years. Here are the figures from the beginning of the surge in February, compared to the averages for the same months in previous years:

US Military Casualties in Iraq:

February: 78
March: 78
April: 103
May: 126
June: 101
July: 74
August: 78
September: 60
October: 37

February: 44.0
March: 37.0
April: 87.3
May: 76.7
June: 61.0
July: 50.0
August: 62.5
September: 58.5
October: 78.3

February: 34.0
March: 41.0
April: 15.7
May: 49.3
June: 40.0
July: 24.0
August: 15.5
September: 1.5
October: -41.3

It is necessary to look at the data by month, because there are severe seasonal influences, such as religious holidays, that cause the figurs for some months to be higher than others. If we only looked at a total average, we could mistake the passing of a historically low month(say an average of 40), even if it were getting worse (52), as an improvement because the total average (100) would still drop compared to the prevous total when the new figure was added, because it is smaller than the average. So at a bare minimum it has to be looked at monthly.

Notice above how the difference begins to crash starting in May, and then continues to accelerate downward without exception. While this is definitely good news, it needs to be kept in perspective. Proving we can control Baghdad via sheer military might is one thing. Creating a stable society with a democratic government that we can leave to fend for itself is quite another. Children behave much better when the adults are in the room too. We also need to have the Iraqi deaths decline as markedly. We can hardly celebrate if they have turned on each other in lieu of killing Americans.

It is only one step in a very long process, but it is a step forward. We need a lot more of those.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Here Comes the Social Security Crisis

Paul Jacob at Townhall had a typical story about the looming social security crisis. So many political discussions of social security misrepresent how the program works, and make it difficult to form an informed opinion. Jacob's article makes for good fodder for a lesson on how the program really works, and what our options are for fixing it.

”When Social Security was set up, its supporters pooh-poohed critics who warned that by not investing the collected funds the government was setting up a major fiasco. The pooh-poohers were wrong, of course; the skeptics, right.”

This is one of the weaker statements of the article. Social security was set up, and continues to be, essentially a welfare program for old people. It’s a fairly equitable concept, since we almost all get old, and those of us that don’t aren’t complaining much. This is known as a pay-as-you-go program, and as such it is not flawed per se. Most government programs work this way:

”There was no investing going on. Money came in to the government. What did not go out to the early pool of recipients was sent to Congress to cover its deficits. Ostensibly, money that was supposed to pay future beneficiaries became IOUs that Congress owed those beneficiaries. They legally plundered the kitty. “

This is essentially correct. Since government programs cannot know exactly what their expenses are going to be, inexact estimates are made, and whatever difference results between actual income and expenses and the estimates, be it a deficit or a surplus, is accounted for. Surpluses become IOUs from the government. For social security, these are the dreaded “trust funds” so often spoken of. The main point to keep in mind about the Trust Funds is that, contrary to the way some manipulative politicians talk about them, they are not bank accounts with money in them. They are simply IOUs owed from the general treasury to the SS program. This is why talk of putting the funds in a “lock box” is nonsense. As to the plundering of the kitty, that requires a bit of history to explain, and unfortunately Jacob botches it:

”And the huge post-World War II Baby Boom helped keep the system afloat. You had this surge of young workers paying in, not taking much out.

But still, the system was so unstable that, throughout the sixties and seventies and eighties, FICA taxes to support it increased . . . increased so much that the FICA withholding, for many Americans, has grown to exceed other federal taxes.

And now the end is in sight. All those Baby Boomers whose FICA withholding kept the system afloat all these years now begin to retire. Soon, the money going to retirees will far exceed money coming in. And the crisis point will have been reached. “

That is a distorted version of the story. The baby boomers did not keep the program afloat, aside from slightly hiding the problem with increasing lifespans by contributing an increased level of taxes. But the program was far from being in a crisis. It simply needed to account for the increasing life expectancies by either increasing the eligibility age, or benchmarking it to new life tables over time to keep the payer/beneficiary ratio unchanged. Sadly, that is not what was done. Instead, in the early 80’s the actuaries started rumbling about the coming problem with social security due to the impending retirement of the baby boomers. This would greatly reduce the payer/beneficiary ratio of the program from the 15:1 or so ratio it had when it began.

However, rather than make changes to the eligibility age, congress in 1986, under the leadership of Ronald Reagan, decided instead to solve the problem by increasing the SS taxes while the baby boomers were payers, ostensibly to be put aside and drawn on years later when the baby boomers retired.

The problem is that, as I explained above, government money never gets set aside, and the SS over payments brought by the 1986 act were no exception. Those funds were used as general revenues to pay for other government operations, and the SS program accumulated many billions of dollars in government IOUs in the form of the trust funds. Now that the baby boomers are starting to retire, we need those additional funds to pay their benefits, and we get to the rub in the 1986 Act plan:

”It would be naive to say “Let Congress just pay it back — after all, those politicians merely borrowed the money; we just ‘owe it to ourselves.’”

It would be naive to say this, because the members of Congress don’t get their mad money from their own bank accounts. They take it from taxpayers.”

Exactly. The trust funds merely say that money collected for the general treasury should go to pay SS benefits. But that money doesn’t fall out of the sky. It comes the only way government money comes: via taxes, or the flip side of the equation, a reduction of government benefits. This is the tough decision we Americans are forced to make: do we increase taxes to keep SS benefits at their current levels, or do we reduce those benefits, either directly, or indirectly via increases in the eligibility age? There are arguments to be made. However, what we should not do is toss in a lot of emotionally and politically charged irrelevancies like this:

”Forcing more money from taxpayers to give to a subset of taxpayers is more (and boy, do I mean more) of what Congress has already been doing. Besides, there’s something indecent even about suggesting that we must now raise taxes to pay off people who had been taxed long ago for the fund in question.”

Um, Mr. Jacob, that’s how social security has always worked, just as every other government transfer program is done. Taxes are collected from one subset of the population and given to another subset. To criticize SS in this fashion is to criticize the way our entire government works. In the case of SS, it worked just fine until the population demographics tossed us the baby boom blip. The problem is not with transfer payments, or the taxes to pay for them. Jacob does not seem to understand this, as he goes off on a tangent talking about SS like it is a funded pension plan. It isn’t, and it never has been, and it is not useful to talk about it like it is. That is what led to the problem with the 1986 plan in the first place: the assumption that the increased revenues would be put into some sort of bank account to accumulate interest and be ready to pay benefits in the future, instead of the reality of being borrowed for general distribution.

”Putting the whole thing on an investment basis is essential, yes. But we still have to pay out generations expecting retirement help whose funds were not invested. Raise FICA taxes? Been there, endured that. Raise the retirement age to, say, 72? Yikes.

To postpone Social Security’s inherent insolvency by either a dramatic tax increase or a setting back of the retirement age — or both — would be to admit, quite plainly, the swindle at the heart of the system.”

Here Jacob is simply denying reality. It is not a swindle, but simple mathematics, that forces the decision between increasing taxes or decreasing benefits. There is no inherent insolvency in the program. As long as the proportion of beneficiaries to tax payers remains monitored and adjusted to take in the necessary income to pay current benefits, such a program can exist indefinitely.

Now it is certainly possible, once one gets past the messy transition period problem of finding additional funds to pay existing beneficiaries once the former tax payers are allowed to invest into a new actuarially sound government pension plan, thus removing that tax income from the program. However, such a decision would expose the program’s funding to the oscillations of financial markets, thus creating a real risk that the necessary funds will not be available in years of financial downturns. Imagine the effect on such a program of a stock market correction on the order of the 1929 correction. Do we really want our program protecting the elderly to be exposed to such risk? I think not. Given the distorted picture Jacob painted of the program, his closing statement was rich in irony:

”So its about time for Hillary, and Rudy, and Mitt, and the others to start talking about these issues up front, and honestly. “

Indeed, it is. But that will involve discussing the real choices we have to make between benefits and tax levels. Ranting that the program is a swindle and a fix, and talking about it like it is a funded pension plan, only further muddies the waters of reasoned discourse we need to be clear to solve this problem.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Olbermann/Cuban Flatten O'Reilly

In a move worthy of song and story, Bill O'Reilly has chosen to make Mark Cuban the latest target of his ire, for daring to have opinions that differ from O'Reilly's (ie, accept reality). Does O'Reilly have any idea who he is dealing with? Cuban bought the Dallas Mavericks, figuratively gave the NBA establishment the finger, and thanked the league commisioner for fining Cuban a record amount. This is who O'Reilly has chosen to target for attack? Good luck Bill, you'll need it. Mark Cuban has more money, more intelligence, more balls, and more integrity than you ever had, and you are adding to it. Cuban's already thanked O'Reilly for the added publicity for what was doomed to be a very small film.

For more detail, here are Olbermann and Cuban tag teaming to take O'Reilly apart. The highlight: O'Reilly calling for Mavericks fans to wear t-shirts that say "support the troops" to the next game in the hopes that Mark Cuban will "get the message". The punch line is worthy of Hollywood: That very night has, for some time, been dubbed "Texas National Guard Greenout Night", where the Mavericks and the Texas National Guard are going to hand out green t-shirts for the fans to wear, with a guard slogan, to show support for the troops, on a nationally televised game.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Eugenics: Intelligent Design or Evolution?

There is much noise on the anti-Darwin front concerning Eugenics, and the desire to lay the blame for such on poor Charles. [As an aside, have you ever wondered what Charles Darwin’s reaction would be to being told about all the caricatures and downright character assassinations aimed his way over 100 years after he died? As shy as he was, were he in tune to the fact that penning On the Origin of the Species would have cartoons made of him being half monkey on good days and half Satan on the other, he might never have done so. Then we’d all be sitting here listening to people argue about Wallacism, which I don’t think I could handle]. I maintain that eugenics has far more in common with Intelligent Design than it does with evolution, and the proponents of intelligent design provide the arguments themselves.

Evolutionary theory says that the combination of imperfect replication and nonrandom responses from the environment with a nonzero effect on future replication leads to the variety of life we have on earth. Some summarize this as “survival of the fittest”, but that has connotations that are misleading, such as the idea that one object can be more fit than another per se independent of other influences. That is why I expressed it like I did. Evolution has no goal, no purpose, no premeditated plan. It simply plods imperfectly along, producing wonders hard to believe, mundanities by the truckload, and an impressively high 99% of lines of descent that die out completely.

Contrast this with Intelligent Design, that swinging, modern, dressed up version of creationism in a cheap tux of sciency terminology. Intelligent Design says that some traits of living things, and in the most liberal of interpretations, the universe itself, cannot be explained by naturalistic causes, and must instead be attributed to an intelligence. This intelligence creates, among other things, irreducibly complex systems, purposeful arrangements of parts which cannot evolve via a step-by-step incremental process. Intelligent Design posits a universe where the genetic makeup of organisms is determined by the desires of an intelligence with goals.

Now let’s look at eugenics. Eugenics is the manipulation of genetic material for the purpose of achieving some goal. If the goal is stronger people, then the weak must be killed, or prevented from reproducing. If the goal is blonde haired protestants, then the Jews must go. It is selective breeding applied to human beings, with the desired outcome determined by those with the power to enforce their goals.

Need we even ask whether it is evolution or Intelligent Design that most resembles eugenics? ID has a goal, and eugenics has a goal. Evolution is “you get what you get”. Eugenics is driven by intelligence, and ID is driven by intelligence. Evolution has no intelligence (one might say ID has no intelligence, but lets keep focused here). To add history to logic, the idea of the forms of life being created by an intelligence, as well as the practices of selective breeding, go back thousands of years. Evolution is a mere 200 years old at best. Clearly, it is Intelligent Design that laid the intellectual foundation for eugenics, not evolution.

For the IDers to suggest that Darwin is responsible for eugenics, they have to ignore all facts, logic and history. Not only did Darwin never suggest that his theory should be the determinant of societal structure, but even if it were it would decidedly not manifest itself as a eugenics program. A Darwinian political world would be more like a libertarian world, not a fascist one. Revolutionary America, not Nazi Germany, most resembles evolutionary theory applied to politics. Let the IDers put that into their inevitably neo-con cigars and smoke it.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Big Lie Technique from the Abstinence Only Crowd

In the debate over abstinence-only sex education, there is a lie told by the pro-abstinence crowd that is so absurdly false it is remarkable that anyone in a public discussion will dare utter it. Joe over at STACLU represents it fairly well:

"I still lack the understanding to grasp exactly how abstinence doesn’t work. I would think it is the only method of birth control that works 100% of the time, and the only sure fire way not to contract an STD."

This is wrong in more than one way. First, there are more ways to contract STDs than by choosing to have sex. Arthur Ashe and Ryan White were two of the more famous members of the thousands who have died from AIDS contracted via nonsexual means. One could also be a good abstainer and be raped and left with a gift that keeps on giving. So clearly abstinence is not 100% effective.

But we can grasp the general point Joe is making: choosing to not have sex will greatly reduce the odds of contracting a disease or unplanned pregnancy. It may not be truly 100%, but it is pretty high. So what is the problem?

The problem is that telling children to not have sex, or even having them say they will not have sex, does not mean that they won’t have sex. AS an analogy, consider using the same technique with alcoholics: tell them to just choose not to drink. Simple right? 100% effective right? Can’t get drunk if you don’t drink right? Sadly, no, as most alcoholics would tell you, and the drive to have sex is far stronger than the desire to drink. “Just say no” doesn’t work, which is why comments like this are fantasy:

”… if kids abstain until marriage, there would be less people in need of having their right to kill an unborn child protected. “

Yes Joe, IF they did, it would be so. If everyone just didn’t steal, we wouldn’t need locks on our doors either. Thinking you are going to persuade sexually healthy people to not have sex until they are married is just as likely. They are going to do so, whether anyone likes it or not. Better they do it informed as to the risks, and the methods to reduce their likelihood, than keep them in the dark, bury our heads in the sand, and hope they don’t do what we know they will.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Finnish Murderer: Darwin or Design?

The case of Pekka Eric Auvinen, the Finnish student who killed eight in a shooting spree at his school, and spoke highly of Darwin, has caused a flurry of activity from that wacky corner of the blogosphere determined to lay all that ills the world at poor Charles’ feet. Here is BarryA on Uncommon Descent, with a very typical comment:

”Apparently Auvinen was an ardent Darwinist who considered himself to be an instrument of natural selection. He wrote: ‘I, as a natural selector, will eliminate all who I see unfit, disgraces of human race and failures of natural selection.’”

Here we see the logical inconsistencies of the anti-Darwinists laid bare. When scientists run computer simulations demonstrating the efficacy of evolutionary mechanisms like natural selection, or solving problems like Steiner Trees with evolutionary algorithms, the ID crew screams “design!”, and “intelligence!” at the top of their lungs. “All experiments are design”, says Mike Gene. They speak as if any involvement of humans in the process infects it with intelligence and design, as if they were diseases spread by a mere touch. Yet let a person do something harmful, be it Hitler, Stalin, or Auvinen, and suddenly they want to paint it as representative of evolution. It reveals the religious mindset at the core of their view: good design inspired by God, bad by Satan, or Darwin.

The reason is obvious: they wish to discredit evolution by association, making two errors at once. First, evolution’s truth or falsehood does not depend on our moral evaluation of the results. This is the fallacy of appeal to consequences. Evolution is true, or not, whether people murder in its name or not, just as deities either exist, or not, regardless of moral implications of that fact.

Second, the facts simply do not support the contention, even were the argument sound. Letting the herd roam free and breed or die as it will is evolution. Selectively culling the herd, be it humans or cattle, is more akin to eugenics, and would be far more properly called “unnatural selection”, or even “design”. Auvinen was playing God, not Darwin. But logic plays no part in ID meanderings, as BarryA’s argument via anecdote reveals:

”One of O’Leary’s interlocutors more or less accused her of cherry picking her data to push her personal religious agenda. Apparently this person believes this case is an aberration, and it is unfair to suggest a connection between Darwin’s theory and a school shooter’s self understanding as an instrument of natural selection. Not so.

As the attorney for the families of six of the students killed at Columbine, I read through every single page of Eric Harris’ journals; I listened to all of the audio tapes and watched the videotapes, including the infamous “basement tapes.” There cannot be the slightest doubt that Harris was a worshiper of Darwin and saw himself as acting on Darwinian principles.”

So? Apparently BarryA does not understand what “cherry picking” means. One cannot disprove the notion that one’s theory is based on cherry picked data (Auvinen) by referring to another piece of cherry picked data (Harris and Kleibold). The vast majority of people who accept modern evolutionary theory do not run around murdering people, which makes these murderous lunatics aberrations at best, and confused IDers at worst.

”I am not suggesting that Auvinen’s and Harris’ actions are the inevitable consequences of believing in Darwinism. It is, however, clear that at least some of Darwin’s followers understand ‘survival of the fittest’ and the attendant amorality at the bottom of Darwinism as a license to kill those whom they consider ‘inferior.’ Nothing could be more obvious.”

What is obvious is that people like BarryA draw a link where there is none. The opinions of murderous lunatics as to whose principles they follow do not carry much weight, whether they cite Jesus or Darwin. Neither advocated such behavior, so it is clear those murderers who cite them as influences simply look for justification for what they are already inclined to do, and make up the rest as a veneer to cover up their real agenda. I am surprised this passed BarryA’s notice, since it is the modus operandi of the IDers.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Anti-Global Warming Hoax

Apparently a few anti-science bloggers got nabbed by this hoax of a paper claiming to disprove anthropocentric global warming. Even Rush Limbaugh got nailed.

This really illustrates two things. First, anti-global warming skeptics are not really skeptics at all. Note their consistent lack of skepticism towards certain 2,000 year old myths. They do not want AGW to be true, and will promote anything that promises to support that view. Second, it shows how sloppy and uneducated they really are. One glance at the gibberish formulas from the paper like this:

"Q³uct + 3Ψ = XFº x Δjy {(∑y,ct79 + θtq-1)- λjc +2}


should have been a tip off to anyone that this was a hoax. But the anti-AGW folks like Limbaugh, just like the evolution deniers, can't be bothered to understand what they criticize. Anything that meets with their agenda will do.

For those curious, here is an interview with the hoaxer.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Discovery Institute's anti-PBS Propoganda

Desperate to avoid another dose of egg on the face from their horrible beating at the Dover trial, the ID crew is out in force in an attempt to discredit the PBS documentary on that historic event. Robert Crowther works hard to yet again rationalize why whenever the IDers are invited to participate on a level playing field, they run like scared rabbits:

”PBS has a track record of bias against ID, dating back to their poorly-received "Evolution" miniseries in 2001. Then, as now, we negotiated but ultimately were kept from participating by PBS’ unwillingness to fairly represent our scientists and views on intelligent design.”

In the true fashion of zealot, any environment that does not let the IDers control the content and basically lie their way through the process is dubbed as “biased”. Crowther presents no actual evidence that PBS is biased against ID. He simply asserts it as such because they do not let the IDers play their games, and because, apparently, they hold the IDers to what they actually say. He recounts a conversation for PBS done by Stephen Meyer, who, after tap dancing madly around the question of the nature of the designer for several minutes, finally admits that the designer he has in mind is the Christian God (shocker). This was what PBS chose to include in their program. Crowther’s reaction is a bit baffling:

”What was shown on Nightline? You guessed it: “I think the designer is God.” But not even the full sentence, and certainly none of the context of the discussion in which Dr. Meyer made it quite clear that science cannot identify the designer, that is a philosophical question and not what the scientific theory of intelligent design is proposing. “

Yes Robert, but you see, we all know that is a load of BS, as the near uniform criticisms from philosophers of science of that line of reasoning attests. Archaeologists and forensic scientists have no trouble identifying, in a scientific way, the designers in their line of work. For the IDers to claim that somehow the design they infer is inherently different is unsupported at best, and laughable at worst. It is a con to disguise that they are trying to smuggle creationism into the science classrooms, and thanks to the publication of the Wedge Document, and the ruling in the Dover trial, more and more people are onto that fact. You guys are either lying or kidding yourselves.

”So I was well aware of how interviews with PBS could be manipulated to say just about anything they want them to say. And because we published the Nightline incident, and the New York Times wrote a lengthy article about it, you can bet that Paula Apsell and others at PBS were well aware of the incident too. “

What incident? What manipulation? Meyer said he believed the designer is the Christian God, and that is what was depicted. It was not manipulated in any way. That his baseless claim that this belief doesn’t effect the so-called science of ID was removed is irrelevant. But to Crowther, if the IDers can’t control the content and manipulate it for their ends, that somehow makes the process unfair. PBS offered to provide the DI folks with a transcript of the interviews and a tape as well, with the following reasonable limitations:

”DI agrees that any use of such recordings will be limited to DI's commenting upon or reviewing the NOVA program or other related internal DI uses, and shall not be used for purposes unrelated to commenting upon the specific NOVA program, such as but not limited to, fundraising, lobbying, general advocacy, or in any publicly exhibited media.”

Given the creationist/IDers’ well-documented habit of quote mining (taking quotes out of context and presenting them as if they mean the opposite of what the author intended) , it is obvious why PBS chose to require this agreement. They essentially called the IDers bluff: worried that we are going to manipulate what you say? Fine, you can see it all, but you aren’t allowed to manipulate it yourself and use it in your anti-science propaganda campaign. Crowther however, would somehow have us believe that PBS’s refusal to allow the IDers to manipulate the material is unfair.

”Clearly, NOVA didn’t want to be held accountable. If they weren’t planning to slice and dice the interviews, then why not let us record them? If you've nothing to hide, why refuse to allow complete transcripts to be made available?”

Robert, thy name is projection. They know if they let you make your own recordings, or take their’s away without limitation, you will do exactly what you accuse them of planning. If you had taken them up on their offer, you could have held them accountable for any manipulation, but you could have done none yourselves. It is the latter that is the real problem for you, not the former. Crowther finishes with much sound and fury, signifying nothing:

”We will be watching and we will be posting corrections to all of the mistakes and misleading pieces of information about intelligent design that PBS produces in the program, and in its plethora of propaganda materials, again aimed at censoring science education policy so as to present a one-sided Darwin-only approach to biological evolution. “

Right now science is evolution-only Robert. The only censoring that is being done is the censoring of nonscientific material from the science curriculum. If you want that to change, you guys over there at the DI need to start doing, you know, some science. Running away from all the fair public fights (courtrooms and scientific journals) and then whining that you could have won had you showed up doesn’t impress anyone. It only reveals you for the intellectually dishonest losers you are.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Innumeracy: It's not just for Americans any more

Here you can read about a scratch lottery game in England where lower temperatures are the winners. Apparently the innumeracy in England is so bad that they had to discontinue the game. Players were confused as to whether the larger (in absolute terms) negative numbers were higher or lower than the smaller figures:

"Tina Farrell, from Levenshulme, called Camelot after failing to win with several cards.

The 23-year-old, who said she had left school without a maths GCSE, said: “On one of my cards it said I had to find temperatures lower than -8. The numbers I uncovered were -6 and -7 so I thought I had won, and so did the woman in the shop. But when she scanned the card the machine said I hadn’t.

“I phoned Camelot and they fobbed me off with some story that -6 is higher - not lower - than -8 but I’m not having it.”"

It would be funny if it weren't so sad. Hat tip Good Math Bad Math.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Blacks and Women Vote Irrationally? So Says McCullough

If you ever wonder why the Republicans don't have more appeal to women and blacks, well, here comes Kevin McCullough to make it crystal clear:

"Women - vote irrationally. Some women will be offended by the observation but most will agree, women do not vote according to what they know. They tend instead to vote based on intuition. They get "a feeling" about a candidate and that's what they trust...Thirty year old women don't care if it's true, it makes them feel like they are part of history and for that reason alone "its time" for them to vote for a woman. Smart women understand this as well."

That last line is right out of the O'Reilly propoganda book: assert that smart people agree with you. Never mind the complete lack of evidence of same. Your audience will buy it if you repeat it enough. Goebbels would be proud.

Of course, McCullough no doubt has the psychological studies that back, with evidence, his contention of female irrationality at the ballot box. Oh, he doesn't? Of course not. That's because he made it up, just like is often done by his hero...

"Ann Coulter recently confided to me off air - that she would gladly give up her vote because she is tired of using her informed knowledge of candidate selection being overridden by four to five other women who could not even name all of the candidates running for President, much less identify what they stand for."

You first Ann. And go get an education on science while you are at it. Your continued ignorant pontifications on intelligent design have grown most weary.

As if that wasn't bad enough, McCullough has a great dismount:

"The only group less rational in its voting patterns than women are African Americans who consistently elect people who keep them poor, keep them uneducated, and keep them killing their own. "

Note, as I have documented in the past, that conservative ideologues like McCullough treat their own speculations as fact: in this case, that blacks would be better off with Republicans in office. They then use this pseudofact as the premise in arguing that those who disagree with them are irrational. It locks them into their ideology, shielding them from refutation, and growth.

With attitudes like this, it is no wonder the consevative movement, never known for its creativity, has grown so bitter and stale.

Monday, November 5, 2007

The Panda that Attracts Loonies

What is it with this poor panda that he attracts lunatics that want to jump into his cage?

"A male panda at the Beijing Zoo once bitten by a drunk tourist attacked a teenager, ripping chunks out of the boy's legs, officials and a newspaper said Tuesday.

The 15-year-old had jumped over a 4-foot, 7-inch barrier surrounding an outdoor exercise area for pandas on Monday afternoon while 8-year-old Gu Gu and another bear were being fed, said a man surnamed Zhang, the director of the zoo management office.

The teen startled 240-pound Gu Gu, who bit the unwanted visitor on both legs, said Zhang, who would not give his full name.

The Beijing News identified the teen as Li Xitao, citing emergency medical officials who said he was so viciously attacked that his bones were showing. Chunks of flesh were left behind in the ambulance, they said.

Gu Gu was in the news last year when he was bitten by a drunk tourist. The man jumped into the bear's pen and tried to hug him, but was bitten instead. The tourist retaliated by biting the bear in the back.

Pandas, which generally have a public image as cute creatures, are nonetheless wild animals that can be violent when provoked or startled."

It is truly remarkable that anyone has to be reminded of this. Perhaps all children in schools headed to zoos should watch this viideo of the woman foolish enough to jump the barrier next to the polar bear exhibit.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

We are Losing Our Primate Cousins

Hunting, as well as loss of habitat due to climate change, logging and agriculture, continues to threaten the viability of many primate species:

"Almost a third of all apes, monkeys and other primates are in danger of extinction because of rampant habitat destruction, the commercial sale of their meat and the trade in illegal wildlife, a report released Friday said.

Of the world's 394 primate species, 114 are classified as threatened with extinction by the World Conservation Union.

The report by Conservation International and the International Primatological Society in Hainan, China, focuses on the plight of the 25 most endangered primates, including China's Hainan gibbon, of which only 17 remain.

'You could fit all the surviving members of the 25 species in a single football stadium; that's how few of them remain on Earth today,' said Russell A. Mittermeier, president of Conservation International."

That last statement is a real eye-opener. We are so used to huge population figures because of the success of our species, we forget just how few members of other species exist. Many hang by a thread of existence. Luckily there has been some progress:

"Nine primates from the last report in 2004 were taken off the list, mostly because of bolstered conservation efforts to save their populations. Among them are the eastern gorilla from Africa, the black-faced lion tamarin and the buffy-headed tufted capuchin from Brazil and the Perrier's sifaka from Madagascar.

'If you invest in a species in a proper way and do the conservation measures needed, you can reduce risk of extinction,' Mittermeier said. 'If we had resources, we would be able to take every one of the species off the list in the next five or 10 years.'"

Let's hope they get those resources. The more biodiversity our ecological system has, the stronger it will remain.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

D'Souza's Warped Interpertation of History

In his latest article pimping his book What's So Great About Christianity, Dinesh D'Souza recounts a debate he had with Christopher Hitchens in which Hitchens was asked about the contributions of Christianity and atheism on various cultures. In reviewing this exchange, D'Souza makes a mistake common to Christian apologetics. He essentially gives Christianity credit for everything that involves Christians, whether the Christianity itself was to credit or not.

For example, if I am a vegetarian, and I produce a mathematical proof for a previously unsolved problem, is this a triumph for vegetarianism over the meat eating philosophy? Were we to apply D'Souza's reasoning when crediting Christianity for everything under the sun, it would indeed be considered such. However, a much more reasonable analysis would look at whether the proof was born of uniquely vegetarian principles and behavior, or whether it came from mathematical methods common to all mathematicians, whether they digest flesh or not.

Likewise, if Christianity is to be rightly credited with scientific, philosophical, or political achievements, it needs to be shown how Christianity uniquely contributed to, or influenced these events. It is no more reasonable to say "Person A was a Christian and discovered X, therefore Christianity gets credit for X", any more than it would be reasonable to say "Person A refused to tie his shoelaces and discovered Y, therefore we should not have scientists tie their shoes." In statistics, we express this principle as "correlation does not imply causation", meaning that just because items A and B are often seen together does not imply that A causes B, or even that B causes A. There could be another cause C which cause both, or their association could be coincidental.

So whenever anyone claims Christianity was responsible for something, it is not enough to merely show that those responsible were Christians. One must show a causal link between the two. Now consider this sweeping statement by D'Souza:

"If we look at the history of Western civilization, we find that Christianity has illuminated the greatest achievements of the culture. Read the new atheist books and make a list of the institutions and values that Hitchens and Dawkins and the others cherish the most. They value the idea of the individual, and the right to dissent, and science as an autonomous enterprise, and representative democracy, and human rights, and equal rights for women and racial minorities, and the movement to end slavery, and compassion as a social virtue. But when you examine history you find that all of these values came into the world because of Christianity. If Christianity did not exist, these values would not exist in the form they do now."

That is quite a statement, and D'Souza needs to support it with solid evidence, not mere hand waving and assumptions that anything done by Christians was caused by Christianity. Sure Christians were involved in getting equal rights for women, as were atheists and members of other groups. But where is the evidence that they were motivated by their Christianity to do so? The Bible very explicitly says that women are not the equal of men, from Eve being created second, and blamed for the fall, to the admonishment that women should never have authority over a man and to learn in all submission and silence (1 Tim 2:11-12). Those Christians that fought for equal rights for women did so in spite of their Christianity, not because of it.

Likewise, where is the evidence that those Christians who fought for individual rights and the right to dissent were doing so based on their Christianity? The Bible says nothing about either. But it does place taking the Lord's name in vain, or even thinking impure thoughts, as sins. Does that sound like a promotion of the individual and dissent. Once again, a sober examination of the evidence suggests that those Christians who fought for individual rights did so in spite of their Christianity, not because of it. Each of the claims D'Souza attributes to Christianity can be dismantled in similar fashion by a simple analysis of the facts. The Greeks had democracy long before the birth of Jesus, so obviously Democracy would exist were there Christianity or not. Science depends on doubt, falsifiable experimentation, and public discussion of results, none of which are even remotely Christian principles. And so on.

D'Souza is following in the footsteps of his philosophical stablemate Ann Coulter, and is simply making shit up. There are good reasons why D'Souza spends so much time talking about historical issues. It is easier to distort reality. Thus he speaks of Christianity's supposed great influence of the past, while ignoring it's destructive influence today. He focuses on scientists and other serious thinkers of the past because that is the only place he can give the appearance of a solid case. He depends on the ignorance of his readers concerning the dominance of Christianity hundreds of years ago, and how atheists were rare at best, to try to make it look like Christianity used to win the intellectual war, when in fact it more or less had a monopoly on thinkers in the cultures he mentions. The fact that the Christian view is a minority view at best in modern intellectual life is one D'Souza doesn't want to touch with a ten foot poll, except to assert an anti-Christian conspiracy for which there is no evidence.

At the end of this article, D'Souza asks a question that once again reveals his complete lack of understanding of the issue:

"The real question to ask is, what does atheism offer humanity? In Tonga, as in America, the answer appears to be: Nothing. "

Yes, that's what atheism is. It is nothing. It is not a philosophy, nor is it a world view. It is simply a lack of belief in gods, the same as most people's lack of belief in elves, and just as impotent to be responsible for all the crimes D'Souza would lay at its feet. This is why blaming anything on atheism is absurd. Authoritarianism kills, be it atheistic (Stalin) or Christian (Hitler). Atheism is impotent. All it does is remove a barrier to rational thought which, as any honest evaluation of history shows, results in far more good for humanity than blind faith in talking burning bushes, virgin births, dead people coming back to life, and the books that describe those myths.