Monday, March 31, 2008

Basic Ingredients of Life on Saturn Moon

We are closing in on our first evidence of life on an astronomical body besides this one. Scientists have discovered warmth, water and organic chemicals on Enceladus, one of Saturn's many small moons:

The scientists described observations made by the Cassini spacecraft when it flew over the surface of Enceladus (pronounced en-SELL-ah-dus) on March 12 as part of an exploration of Saturn and its moons.

Scientists working on the mission did not say they had found actual evidence of life on this moon, where geysers at the south pole continuously shoot watery plumes some 500 miles off the icy surface into space. But they said the building blocks for life were there, and described the plumes as a surprising organic brew, sort of like carbonated water with an essence of natural gas.

“Water vapor was the major constituent,” said Hunter Waite of the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. “There was methane present. There was carbon dioxide. There was carbon monoxide. There were simple organics and there were more complex organics.”

While it isn't proof of life, it sure has to be enough to send the creationists scrambling for their Bibles to find some way to incorporate life on other planets into their ever-shifting theories of origins.

Muslims Pass Catholics

Muslims now outnumber Catholics, according to the Vatican:

"For the first time in history, we are no longer at the top: Muslims have overtaken us," Monsignor Vittorio Formenti said in an interview with the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano. Formenti compiles the Vatican's yearbook.

He said that Catholics accounted for 17.4 percent of the world population — a stable percentage — while Muslims were at 19.2 percent.

Now sure, Christians still make up 33% of the population, and that's the fairer comparison. But the fall of the Catholic Church is quite a sight to behold. The church has been facing an increasing Priest shortage for quite some time. Perhaps that is why they try to hold onto to them even when they are naughty little boys. Nonetheless, the average age of a priest is over 65 and there are nowhere near enough new entries to replace those that retire or die.

No doubt the chastity requirement is a big recruiting impediment (it sure made my decision easy), and I predict the Catholic church will relax this requirement, and to a lesser extent, allow women in more positions of power, within the next decade. It is that or die as a religion. One of the few things Pope Benedict has said that I agreed with was something along the lines of "Perhaps a smaller church would be a better church". Be careful what you wish for...

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Traffic Jams and How to Avoid Them

If you've ever wondered what causes traffic jams even when there is no accident, check out this experiment where people told to drive around 30 mph are unable to do so and end up with a traffic jam because of the density of the traffic.

For more detail then you ever thought possible on the subject of traffic jams, check out this study performed by an engineer who experimented with allowing large traffic spaces to open in front of him and found he could break up small traffic jams. His most counter intuitive conclusion, but amusing to us offensive drivers, was that those who cause traffic jams are not the guys zig zagging through traffic, but rather those righteous busybodies who decide to stop them and refuse to allow people to merge.

You know the types, they crunch up against the car in front of them and risk an accident rather than let someone merge. But by doing so they are essentially making their car larger, and they are effectively eliminating a lane by disallowing merges. A car who needs to move to the left and can't is going to slow down, which jams up the cars behind him, and the (sometimes) moving parking lot is born.

We WANT people to merge ahead of us before that other lane comes to an end. If I fear that someone will leap into the space ahead of me, or if this makes me resentful or angry, then I close up ranks and prevent everyone from merging. If I try to become the "vengeance police" and punish the cheaters who zoom ahead, then I close up ranks and stop all merges. Closed ranks create traffic jams. "Cheaters" don't trigger traffic jams, it's the people who try to punish the cheaters who do it.

Lane jumpers are not the real problem. Traffic jams are commonly caused by people who attempt to punish the lane jumpers by eliminating all spaces! In the merge-jam animations, the goal isn't to maintain the empty space under any circumstance. The goal is to ALLOW PEOPLE TO MERGE AHEAD OF US! Closing up the ranks is what produces that jam in the animation.

There is also the experience I've had where people merging early when they realize a lane ahead is closing actually make the problem worse by bunching up behind a slow moving vehicle instead of passing it prior to merging. Once again, it is the slow busybodies, not the "cheating" speed demons, that cause the jam.

The lesson is: keep moving at a steady pace, try to avoid the start-and-stops, and most important of all, let people merge in front of you if they want to. After all, they are just trying to get where they are going, and isn't that the whole point of getting in our cars in the first place?

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Will, Brooks, and Compassionate Conservatives, er, Religious People

Statistics do not lie. However, unscrupulous people often present statistics in ways that make them appear to support positions that a more thorough, and dare I say honest analysis, would reject.

George Will's article summarizing the findings of Arthur Brooks that conservatives give more to charity than liberals is a classic example. He makes no effort to account for major influences on the data that explain it much better than political affiliation does, even when he is aware of them. Further, he and Will conflate percentages that are not comparable in a way that invites the reader to compare them and draw erroneous conclusions.

-- Although liberal families' incomes average 6 percent higher than those of conservative families, conservative-headed households give, on average, 30 percent more to charity than the average liberal-headed household ($1,600 per year vs. $1,227).

The first rule of making statistical comparisons is to make your groups as similar as possible except for the variable you are studying. Thus, if we are to compare liberals and conservatives (self-defined per Brooks), we would want to account for geographic disparities that would effect income. After all, the fact that we have Red and Blue states proves that conservatives and liberals do not live proportionally in the same places, and consequently, do not have the same cost of living to wade through before they can decide whether or not to give to charity. Per capita income by statevaries tremendously.

When deciding how much is given to charity, disposable income, that which remains after necessities, is the relevant measure, not net income. Who among us is surprised that a conservative living in Iowa gives a greater share of his income to charity than a liberal living in New York making the same income? That's because the New Yorker has more of his income swallowed up by taxes and other costs of living. So Brooks' analysis should have been liberal New Yorker vs conservative New Yorker and conservative Iowan vs liberal Iowan just to get the basics covered. Otherwise it is blatant apples and oranges.

The use of percentages above is also incorrect. Percentages should only be used when comparing items of similar size. Otherwise, the larger percentage cannot be safely assumed to be a higher absolute figure than the smaller percentage. A cursory reading of Will's paragraph above might lead one to erroneously conclude that the conservative gap in giving is 5 times as large as the liberal gap in income. The proper percentage to compare would be the relative giving as a percentage of the annual income, not of the lower charitable giving. Consider that hypothetically, his example could be groups whose average incomes are $40k and $42.4k (6% different), meaning that the relative percentages of giving listed represent 4.0% and 2.9% respectively. That 1.1% gap isn't nearly as impressive as the 30% figure, which is no doubt why it wasn't used.

-- Conservatives also donate more time and give more blood.

This is the sort of statistic whose meaning depends very much on when it was taken, in this case, whether it was during a war or not. Conservatives are overrepresented in the military, which would bias the blood stat if it were taken during an active war (or prolonged police action).

It also falls victim to the single biggest flaw in these statistics, the role of religion. Brooks inexplicably counted all giving to churches as charity. That's ALL giving, whether it was tithing, an extra donation, or volunteering at the 7:00 bingo game. This is flawed in several ways. Church income is obviously used for much more than charitable activities. All that property and gold costs money. Second, tithing in many churches ranges from an act of piety to a requirement. There's no such thing as forced charity. Third, churchgoers are in a real sense paying for a service, whether we buy the god thing or not. I'll gladly give them credit for the charitable work their churches do, but to count 100% of church giving as charity adds a huge mitigating factor in the data. It will clearly bias the data in favor of conservatives.

-- Residents of the states that voted for John Kerry in 2004 gave smaller percentages of their incomes to charity than did residents of states that voted for George Bush.

-- Bush carried 24 of the 25 states where charitable giving was above average.

-- In the 10 reddest states, in which Bush got more than 60 percent majorities, the average percentage of personal income donated to charity was 3.5. Residents of the bluest states, which gave Bush less than 40 percent, donated just 1.9 percent.

Cross state comparisons are going to be flawed at their core if they are not adjusted for standard of living. The average income of Kerry Blue states $34,673 vs $28,559 for the states Bush carried, which at first glance might seem to support Will's point even further, actually can work in the other direction, since higher average income also indicates higher cost of living. If this 21% difference is representative of the cost of living, it would easily overwhelm the 6% liberal-over-conservative income edge that Brooks cites. And once one considers state income taxes, which are much higher in the blue states (6 of 7 states with no income tax are red, including whoppers Texas and Florida), it becomes not only plausible, but likely, that as a percentage of disposable income, liberals give more than conservatives. Brooks and Will simply haven't done their homework.

And yet, apparently Brooks was aware of the flaw in his studies regarding religion, and yet did nothing about it:

The single biggest predictor of someone's altruism, Willett says, is religion. It increasingly correlates with conservative political affiliations because, as Brooks' book says, "the percentage of self-described Democrats who say they have 'no religion' has more than quadrupled since the early 1970s." America is largely divided between religious givers and secular nongivers, and the former are disproportionately conservative. One demonstration that religion is a strong determinant of charitable behavior is that the least charitable cohort is a relatively small one -- secular conservatives.

But this destroys Brooks entire thesis! If secular conservatives are the least charitable of all, and religious liberals are more charitable, then it is religiousity and non-religiousity that are the major factors in determining charitability, not conservatism and liberalism.

This is political hackery at its worst. The data indicate one conclusion (the pious are more charitable than the non-pious), and yet the authors ignore that and instead pursue their preordained agenda of showing conservatives to be more charitable than liberals. Subjective definitions, flawed data analysis, and refusing to follow the evidence where it leads mar this study. If this is indicative of the level of science conservatives practice (and my bet is that Will is above right-wing average), it is no wonder conservatives seem incapable of discerning the difference between science and pseudoscience in the arenas of evolution and global warming. They simply do not understand the process of gathering evidence and objectively evaluating it at all.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Wilkins Ice Shelf Breaking Away

In yet more dramatic news of global warming sure to be ignored and rationalized away by the deniers, the Wilkins ice shelf, a 6,000 square mile chunk of ice the size of Connecticut, is on the verge of breaking up and falling into the ocean. This would mark the largest breakup recorded. This also just happens to be in the Antarctic, you know, the area the AGW deniers have been trying to claim is getting colder.

The wiggle room continues to shrink...

Ignorant, Liar, or Lunatic? Limbaugh gives Expelled a Thumb's Up

Sorry Rush fans, but there is no getting around this one. Rush Limbaugh is either an idiot, a liar, or a lunatic, for he has seen Expelled, and he obviously drank deeply of the Krazy Kool-Aid. One cannot make the kinds of “mistakes” he makes without having serious issues with reality. Of course, in classic Rush irony, his initial statement is actually true, but not for the reasons he thinks:

”The premise is that Darwinism has taken root, taken hold at every major intellectual institution around the world in Western Society, from Great Britain to the United States, you name it.

Right away we see the term of dishonesty, “Darwinism”, used instead of “evolution”, to poison the well and portray science as another form of religion. It would seem intellectual honesty is something that drains from everyone who gets involved with the Intelligent Design crew. Needless to say, yes, modern evolutionary theory does dominate the biological sciences all over the world. It’s recognized by scientists in varied cultures and religious settings. This is a characteristic of powerful scientific theories, and one would think a rational person would give such some credit. But instead, Limbaugh falls for the lazy conspiracy theories, and of course, the mischaracterizations of the proponents of science.

”Darwinism, of course, does not permit for the existence of a supreme being, a higher power, or a God.”

If ever there was a statement that reveals Limbaugh’s lack of professionalism as a journalist (and I realize I’m being kind), this is it. As I mentioned earlier, evolutionary theory is accepted by scientists all over the world, atheists and non-atheists alike. This is a fact that one can verify with a mere 5 minutes on google, and there is simply no excuse for Limbaugh not knowing it. One can also verify in 5 minutes on the net that the evolution=atheism canard is a favorite propaganda technique among anti-evolution cranks.

But Limbaugh doesn't stop there. Not only does he continue his ignorance of the basics, but he adds a little humor in his ability to completely miss the point and mistakenly think he's caught the scientists at something.

The condescension and the arrogance these people have, they will readily admit that Darwinism and evolution do not explain how life began.

How pathetic. Here is Limbaugh, complaining about someone's condescension and arrogance, while simultaneously illustrating his own. Darwinism AND evolution? I think it is high time any time someone uses the term "Darwinism", they be called on the carpet to explain EXACTLY what they mean by that. It seems to be a term they use in a Humpty Dumptyish way to mean what ever they need it to mean at the moment. It's a dishonest tactic that ought not go unchallenged.

Also, it is yet another basic fact Limbaugh is apparently ignorant of that yes, modern evolutionary theory does not cover how life began. That is a field called abiogensis, a related but different field than evolution because of the different nature of the problem. Limbaugh's comment is akin to criticizing those who study why dominoes fall in a row for not knowing what caused the first domino to fall.

And what kind of twisted logic leads Limbaugh to label someone condescending and arrogant for admitting not knowing the answer to some question. Does claiming to know something you don't strike Limbaugh as humble and noble? That would explain a lot. Or worse, is Limbagh falling for the black and white view that once one admits to ignorance in one area, one must pretend to ignorance in all? As is SOP for Limbaugh's crowd, they can't ever complete even the simplest premise, premise conclusion logical argument. Everything is half statements and insinuation.

Rush also apparently learned his lessons well from his new Intelligent Design friends. He's learned to quote mine:

One of these professors said it might have been that a hyper-
intelligence from another planet came here and started our race. This from some professor either in the UK, I forget where it was, but can't be God.

This was of course Richard Dawkins explaining that even if there was some sort of intelligent design in our DNA from aliens, we would still be left trying to explain where the aliens came from. It's the problem of the infinite regress, a problem obviously far too difficult for Limbaugh to deal with.

These people are so threatened by the existence of God, they will not permit intelligent design to be discussed.

I guess Rush missed the memo that ID people aren't supposed to mention the "G" word. Nonetheless, this is standard ID propaganda: conflating scientific research and science classroom behavior. No one is keeping ID from being discussed. There simply isn't anything scientifically to discuss! And until then, it will be rightly not permitted as part of a science curricula.

Professors have been fired, blackballed, and prevented from working who have deigned to try to combine the whole concept of evolution with intelligent design

And here Rush repeats the lies of the movie makers without bothering to check the facts. ID proponents have simply been kept from introducing pseudoscience as if it were science, the same as astrologers and phrenetics practitioners would be if they tried the same stunts. When and if IDers put together a coherent, testable scientific theory, complete with corroborating experimental data, then they will be admitted to the scientific table along with everyone else. They avoid the peer-reviewed scientific literature like the plague and instead publish their opinions in popular books. They want an exception from the rigorous scientific process, and they aren't going to get it. This is not persecution. This is the way science distinguishes between sense and nonsense. Rush could obviously use a primer on that, because he's been royally had.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Mike S. Adams: Being Angry with Your Gods Doesn't Make you an Atheist

Many believers go through tough times in their lives when they will question their faith. Sometimes they will get angry about it: angry at life, angry at their church, even angry at their gods. It is nothing to be ashamed of, and is often part of intellectual growth. However, being angry with the gods does not make one an atheist. This should be obvious after a moments' thought. Atheists don't believe there are any gods, and one can't be angry with what one doesn't acknowledge. Being angry with one's parents doesn't make one an orphan.

Unfortunately, many formerly angry Christians make this mistake and erroneously describe themselves as "former atheists". It is a refrain and mistake so common that we atheists can be forgiven for responding with a semi-rude roll of the eyes prior to delving into this explanation. This is not to say there are no former atheists. There indeed are, and one of my early atheistic mentors, if you will, is among them.

We should keep an open mind when someone makes such a claim prior to leaping to conclusions. But ask any atheist about his conversations with people claiming to be former atheists, and you'll hear his experience that 99% of people who claim they used to be atheists never were. It is not just the anger line that gives them away. It's their complete cluelessness about how atheists think (insofar as we can be grouped together, which isn't much), and their invariable backslide into Christian caricatures of what atheists are rather than what atheists are really like, that gives them away. Mike S. Adams is such a person.

In that article, Mike tells a clever little tale of his failure to organize an on-campus debate on whether it takes more faith to be an atheist than a Christian, and his conjecture as to why. In it, he completely misses the mark, skipping reasoned reality for a trip through Adams Fantasy Atheism world, where all the ignorant Christian canards about atheism are true. That a person writing in a national forum could be so stupifyingly ignorant of the subject of his writings is nothing short of embarrassing. That such a person could have a position at an institute of higher learning, calls the entire institution into question.

For starters, the debate topic is absurd on its face. Christians themselves talk about the importance of faith, and for good reason: the evidence supporting their claims ranges from poor in quality and quantity to nonexistent. Christians are also hard pressed to show demonstrably why it is more logical to believe in Jesus than it is to believe in Visnhu or Thor or Zeus. Faith is the only solution. Atheism simply looks at the findings of science, history, and philosophy and decides it is all nonsense. That conclusion could be wrong of course, but it is not one of faith. The only way one could make such an argument is by denying the realities of the world. The guest Adams wanted to team with in the debate was Frank Turek, a Josh McDowellesque writer whose arguments cause atheists to laugh out loud, not quiver in fear of an intellectual lashing. So given the level of this debate didn't promise to rise above a junior high level, it should hardly come as a surprise that the university didn't care to waste time and resources on it.

But dismissing out of hand that his idea was not up to University standards (as usual), not getting a response from the Chancellor to his accusations of unfair discrimination, and torqued that a colleague was using recent books by Dawkins and Hitchens in a sociology of religion class, Adams instead responds with a little list which displays a complete lack of understanding of the education process:

"And so today I write publicly - in a forum far more widely read than – with a simple list of things I think Christians at UNCW are entitled to expect:

1. In courses raising the controversial topic of religion the professor has every right to assign readings arguing that Christians and religious folks in general are stupid. But the professor should also make some effort to assign readings that reflect a contrary view.

In the first place, Adams has the facts wrong. Both Dawkins and Hitchens are fully aware of the fact that intelligent believers abound. It is the ideas of religion, not religious people per se, that they think are in general, stupid. More importantly, notice that Adams makes no mention of what the evidence is when calling for balance. He simply doesn't care what it is. This is the Fox News fair-and-balanced canard in a nutshell. In Adamsland, the parents-did-it theory and the Santa theory have to get equal time, regardless of the facts.

Sorry Mike, that isn't what the university is for. There, the evidence matters, and sorry, but every shred of data out there shows a negative correlation between education, intelligence, and fervor of religiosity. Creationists consistently test worse than non-creationists. If reality bothers you, you need a new profession.

2. When professors are either unwilling or unable to abide by #1, they should be willing to defend their views in a debate or on a panel – especially one that equally represents both sides.

Oh? And should a geology professor whimsically noting the spheriocity of the earth be prompted to waste time debating a flat-earther because he did not assign a flat-earth textbook to his students? Of course not. The university curriculum is supposed to stimulate learning based on our best knowledge to date, not simply any fool thing someone wants to assert.

Adams reveals how out of touch with reality he is with his parting note to his employer:

(Author’s note: Currently UNCW is promoting a “Celebration of Darwin” with various speeches and courses, which, taken together, make the Turek lecture so much more important in an environment claiming an interest in “tolerance” and “diversity” of different views).

There's your smoking gun. Celebrating the monumental scientific achievement of Charles Darwin, which grew into one of the most well-tested and universally influential scientific theories there are, is to be viewed as intolerant because the university doesn't give equal time to quacks with theological agendas and biases who do no science.

Adams of course wants to pin all this on atheist anger:

Because I am a former atheist I know that atheists are often very angry at the God they claim does not exist. That gives the emotionally charged writings of Dawkins and Hitchens great cathartic value, despite their general lack of educational value.

As we noted earlier, anger at god is angry belief, not disbelief, so Adams is simply wrong. Atheists are not angry with the gods, and if that is what Adams thinks atheism is, then he never was one. It is also typical of critics of atheistic writers to use the poison-the-well tactic of labeling them "angry" and "emotional charged" as a way of trivializing what they say, which is all Adams is doing here. Were he to bother reading the books he is criticizing (I know, I'm so damned demanding), he'd learn that what anger Dawkins, Hitchens, and other atheist authors have on the issue is at churches and their flocks for the evil they do, governments for catering to any length of foolishness so long as it is called "religion", and at the average citizen who gives religion a free pass from intellectual challenges other ideologies rightly face.

Adams thinks he understands why atheists act like they do, but since he never was one, his speculations are nothing short of hilarious. In irony that approaches neck height, Adams' ignorant and downright adolescent noodlings on atheists are liable to end up on a lot of atheistic sites as perfect examples of how stupid Christians can be. Thus Adams adds to the very stereotype that chafes him so. His zinger? Better sit down for this one:

I also understand why atheist professors would be unwilling to debate their reasons for rejecting religions like Christianity. Back in my days as an atheist, speaking truthfully on a panel would have required a public admission that I rejected Christianity largely because it would not have allowed me to continue getting drunk and high every night while splitting time between four girlfriends.

Mike's fantasy version of his life aside, this is hilarity bordering on parody. Mike Adams thinks that because he (apparently) placed fulfilling his most base desires above reality, and in doing so got angry with his gods, that is what all atheists do. So many errors, so little time.

First off, it looks like little has changed in Mike. When he wanted to debauch, he rejected what he thought stood in his way, and to hell with reality. Now that he wants to be an evolution-denying Christian, he makes up shit about atheists and denies basic science, and to hell with reality. All that's changed is the object of his ignorance.

Second, since when does being a Christian prevent one from ingesting drugs and having multiple lovers? These days we can't turn on the news without hearing yet another story of the evangelical who sneaks off to play "who's got the sausage" with someone not his wife, and often not even female, while imbibing in ways that Mike's old fantasy self would find more than exciting. Surveys place the rate of make infidelity at 60-80%, whereas the most estimate of atheists in the US population is 30%. So there are a whole lot of Christians living just like Mike was. Perhaps he just needed a different church.

And finally, ever been to a gathering of atheists? It isn't exactly a drug-crazed orgy. Few atheists, like few of most groups, engage in the kind of lifestyle Adams ignorantly associates with atheism. It's just his way of avoiding serious intellectual debate. Again, the irony is neck deep.

And I think I understand why the university will not help us in our efforts to advertise a talk by Frank Turek. In an age of political correctness there is no greater fear than that somewhere, somehow, someone may be offended. And they are probably correct (not just politically, but factually) to assume that most atheists will be offended by the very title of Frank Turek’s speech.

Indeed we are, but not for the reasons you think. We are offended that someone purporting to be an intellectual could write such ignorant, intellectually dishonest claptrap. And we'd be even further offended that a university administrator would be asleep at the wheel enough to let such slip through the sieve that universities are supposed to have to keep nonsense out. It is the same offense that would be felt by chess grandmasters invited to a match only to find they are matched against people who think they know how to pay top-level chess because they read how to move the pieces on the inside of the box. The children at UNC can get a Frank Turek quality lecture on any street corner. No reason to waste university resources on it.

This need to protect atheists from hurt feelings may lead some to believe that they don’t make atheists like they used to. But I know from experience that the correlation between faith and fear has always been significant, strong, and inverse.

Here Adams again needs to come back to planet earth. We atheists ask only to be protected from believers forcing their ignorance onto us in the laws and in our school curriculum. Feelings have nothing to do with it, that is your arena. They make atheists the same way they always have, it's just that your experience doesn't qualify. Want to help change the perception of Christians as ignorant tools? Stop writing ignorant tripe like this..

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Ben Stein in all his Revisionist Glory

Here's a great illustration of Ben Stein and his level of academic integrity. Catch it quickly before it disappears in a flurry of legal threats.

T. Rex of the Sea

Another giant dinosaur has been discovered, this time an ocean-going variety called a pliosaur, with teeth the size of a T-Rex's. :

Pliosaurs were large reptiles with tear-shaped bodies and short necks, a body plan that let the ancient animals glide easily through the oceans during the Jurassic Period (from 206 million to 144 million years ago). Their relatives, the plesiosaurs, had longer necks and small heads.

While most pliosaurs averaged up to 20 feet (6 meters) in length, a few oversized family members are known to have existed from fossil evidence, such as the Australian giant Kronosaurus, which measured up to 36 feet (11 meters) long.

The newly described pliosaur, dubbed The Monster by team members, boasted a length of about 50 feet (15 meters) and powerful paddles extending 10 feet (3 meters).

"Not only is this specimen significant in that it is one of the largest and relatively complete plesiosaurs ever found, it also demonstrates that these gigantic animals inhabited the northern seas of our planet during the age of dinosaurs" said Patrick Druckenmiller, a plesiosaur specialist at the University of Alaska Museum, and a member of the expedition that found and excavated the fossil.

And it is worth pointing out that as much difficulty as the creationists have in explaining what happened to the land-dwelling dinosaurs, that's nothing compared to the difficulty in explaining what happened to the ocean dwellers. They would have welcomed the flood for its expansion of their hunting territory and prey.

Monday, March 24, 2008

The Expelled Incident as Insight into the Culture of Bias

The recent incident with PZ Myers getting expelled from a screening of Expelled (a movie in which he appears comically enough) provides us insights into the culture of "bias". Granted, it is on the extreme end of the spectrum, but sometimes that is where the essentials shine through.

We hear about bias all the time. The media is biased, Hollywood is biased, the judges are biased, Wikipedia is biased, science is biased, etc. I've written about bias before, and while that was fairly general, this commentary is very specific. Think about all the examples of bias I mention above. See some similarities? One group dominates the rank and file accusers of bias: conservative Christians. The media is biased because it doesn't much support their faith-based political agendas (except for one which I'll get to in a moment). Hollywood is biased because it doesn't support their faith-based social views. Judges who rule against them (say Judge Jones of Dover fame) are biased when they deal with facts, as is Wikipedia. Science is biased because it doesn't treat 2,000 year old creation tales as legitimate.

Over and over again we see the same pattern of response. The media is biased, so they create Fox News, which Rupert Murdock specifically said was designed to offset the "liberal media bias". So it was, from its inception, NOT a news organization, but a propaganda machine. It's the Pravda of the Right. Those who argue that the other media outlets are the equivalent for the left are merely suffering from the compulsive centrist disorder Fox has helped create with its "fair and balanced" mantra. Reality is not fair and balanced, and neither is Fox.

Likewise, facts bothered them with Wikipedia, so they create Conservapedia, an absolute joke of a site with scholarship thattreated Noah's ark as a historical event. In a similar vein, scientific findings run counter to literal interpretations of favorite desert fables, so they put together sciency-sounding talkers and write sciency-sounding books and pretend they are doing science. They make their own museums like the Creation Museum, a testament to idiocy, complete with saddled brontosauruses ready to be ridden.

The schools are biased because they don't treat religious views as worthy of being taught over modern science or math, so they scream about home schooling and choice and set up joke institutions like Bob Jones University and Liberty that essentially insulate the attendees from many of the very essential lessons college students
are supposed to learn. And let's not even get into all the diploma mills like "Patriot University", which was located in someone's basement.

And of course, when you lose in the sociopolitical realm with your fancy little "Intelligent Design" idea, rather than just admit your error, instead stoop to the lowest kind of behavior to get even. You make a movie where you interview people under false pretensions, and then have the audacity to evict one of them from a prescreening of the film HE IS IN! And then they have the nerve to act as if they are the aggrieved party. Had you submitted this story to a Hollywood producer, it would probably be rejected for having characters unrealistically stupid and brazen. Yet there they are.

More and more, modern scientific investigation reveals facts and confirms theories that conflict with traditional religious teachings. And let's be fair: some of the moral and social rules of religion did have a lot of staying power. After all, how many of your ideas will last 1,000 years? So those who devised them deserve some credit. But they clearly weren't omniscient, and sometimes the rules need revision. The world changes, either by technology, or nature, it changes, and we have to change with it.

Those who refuse to change, who set up these alternate realities for themselves rather than admit the flaws of beloved beliefs, are a drag on the rest of us. They have every right to make their personal decisions any way they wish. More power to the Amish. But the rest of us should not be tolerant of their attempts to make public policy based on their myopia. It doesn't matter whether they call it "fair and balanced media" or "strengths and weakness of evolution" or "school choice" or "academic freedom", it is all about the same thing: holding onto a faith-based view of the world in the face of growing evidence to the contrary.

This problem is only going to get worse as more and more data come in. And they have proven over and over again that their precious absolute moral code doesn't seem to come into play when dealing with those who disagree with them. Then lying, and basic standards of decency, simply don't apply. Not to them anyway. Be assured they will be crying persecution every moment they are screwing you.

It's time the culture of bias was called for what it is: a cover for religious closed-mindedness, nothing less, and nothing more. It's time we in the reality-based community stopped wasting so much time debating the minutia of arguments they don't really care about anyway. These people are about ideology, not truth, and they are going to make reality the way they want if they have to censor everyone around them to do it. The only thing that stops them is lack of power, not lack of will. The Expelled incident was just the latest, greatest moment. More are right around the corner. Watch for them.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

The Biblical Easter Story, Versions I through IV

Ah Easter, the creme de la creme of Christian holy days. No day, not even Christmas, matches Easter for importance. No Easter, no risen Jesus, no salvation, no Christianity. So, one would think the Biblical documentation of the resurrection of Christ on Easter would be as iron-clad solid as anything could be. Let's check it out:

Matthew 28: 1-10: Now after the sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the sepulchre. And behold, there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone, and sat upon it. His appearance was like lightning, and his raiment white as snow. And for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women "Do not be afraid; for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples he has risen from the dead, and behold, he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him. Lo, I have told you." So they departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell the disciples. And behold, Jesus met them and said "Hail!" And they came up and took hold of his feet and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them "Do not be afraid; go and tell my brethren to go to Galilee, and there they will see me."

Interesting story. Now let's compare that to the next Gospel. Given the fervency with which many Christians argue that the resurrection story is true and confirmed, we'd expect this version to be similar, perhaps differing in some subjective detail, but otherwise identical. After all, they are supposedly eyewitness accounts:

Mark 16:1-8: And when the sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, brought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week they went to the tomb when the sub had risen. And they were saying to one another "Who will roll away the stone for us from the door of the tomb?" And looking up, they saw that the stone was rolled back; for it was very large. And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe; and they were amazed. And he said to them, "Do not be amazed; you seek Jesus of Nazereth, who was crucified. He has risen, he is not here; see the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you. And they went out and fled from the tomb; for trembling and astonishment had come upon them; and the said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

This is supposed to be a confirmatory account? Where's the earthquake? Where's the angel rolling back the stone? Did they just miss it? Was he an angel or a boy? What about Jesus meeting them on the path to Galilee? Was the writer of Matthew a straggler who got there late and missed everything, or was the writer of Mark on some serious drugs? And did they run and tell everyone or did they tell no one? These are not trifling details. These are the sorts of inconsistencies that police detectives look for to identify liars and poor alibis. The performance of the Gospels is quite poor so far. Let's see what the next one has to say. Perhaps it will clear things up.

Luke 24:1-11: But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they went to the tomb, taking the spices which they had prepared. And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in they did not find the body. While they were perplexed by this, behold, two men stood by them in dazzling apparel; and as they were frightened and bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to them, "Why do you seek the living among the dead? Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and on the third day rise." And they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them who told this to the apostles; but these words seemed to them as idle tale, ad they did not believe them."

You've got to be kidding. This version has them meeting not one person at the tomb, but two. No earthquake, and now they are telling everyone about it again. And what happened to Salome? And what they were told by whoever they met keeps changing. This is starting to look, not like complimentary historical documents, but embellished legend. Perhaps the fourth and final gospel will turn the tide.

John 20: 1-18: Now on the first day of the week, Mary Magdelene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. So she ran, and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, "They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him." Peter then came out with the other disciple, and they went toward the tomb. They both ran, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first; and stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter cane, following him, and went into the tomb; he saw the linen cloths lying, and the napkin, which had been on his head, not lying with the linen cloths but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not know the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples went back to their homes.

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. They said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping?" She sad to them "Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him." Saying this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?" Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away." Jesus said to her "Mary." She turned and said to him in Hebrew "Rab-boni!" (which means teacher). Jesus said to her, "Do not hold me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brethren and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and our God. Mary Magdelen went and said to the disciples, "I have seen the Lord"; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

Sheesh. This story is so different from the others it would be easier to list the commonalities. These are starting to sound like the different versions of the King Arthur sagas - different author's impressions of a legend. Or a propaganda piece. Am I the only one getting the distinct impression that this story is changing as needed? Luke's women weren't believed, so John gave them a bonafied appearance of Jesus. He's not too creative a writer though. Mary Magdelene mistaking Jesus for the gardener? Are you kidding me? Why not say it was all a dream? Indeed, why not?

I have intellectual sympathies for theists and deists. I was a believer in an Abrahamic god of sorts for many of my early years. It made sense in a lot of subjective ways, and wasn't obviously an obviously flawed concept. But if you call yourself a Christian, if you believe the story told in those four radically conflicting versions above, I ask you, I implore you, look inside yourself intellectually.

Would you accept that level of inconsistency on such an amazing claim as a resurrection in any other area of life? Would you buy a car based on opinions that varied that wildly? If I gave you directions that varied that much, what are your odds of getting lost (for 40 years maybe)? Would you make a wager based on information of that poor quality? I sure as hell wouldn't. So why would you gamble your moral and intellectual life on it?

Saturday, March 22, 2008

American Anti-Intellectualism

Susan Jacoby of the Center for Inquiry has a new book, The Age of American Unreason, in which she discusses the various ways American culture has eschewed its intellectual heritage to wallow in ignorance. In this excerpt she expounds of what she considers the main culprits of our dumbth:

These include the triumph of video culture over print culture (and by video, I mean every form of digital media, as well as older electronic ones); a disjunction between Americans' rising level of formal education and their shaky grasp of basic geography, science and history; and the fusion of anti-rationalism with anti-intellectualism…

I am very sympathetic to her views, although I’d need to add a lot of caveats to her condemnation of video culture:

The decline of book, newspaper and magazine reading is by now an old story. The drop-off is most pronounced among the young but it continues to accelerate and afflict Americans of all ages and education levels. Technophiles pooh-pooh jeremiads about the end of print culture as the navel-gazing of (what else?) elitists. But despite an aggressive marketing campaign aimed at encouraging babies as young as 6 months to watch videos, there is no evidence that focusing on a screen is anything but bad for infants and toddlers.

I’d like to think she goes into more detail than this in the book, because this brush is too broad. If she is talking about popular television shows, then her point would seem solid. Reading is an intellectually active exercise, whereas viewing a prime time TV show is so passive that our brains’ activity is comparable to when we are asleep. But there are also many video outlets of good solid information, be they NOVA specials, some of the more solid news channels, or a PBS political debate. With the advent of Youtube making it possible to pull up references at any time, the video market is making an intellectual comeback of sorts.

Further, even video games have become potentially educational. Successfully navigating the World of Warcraft or Civilization games requires a good amount of geographic knowledge, and the ever-increasing complexity of the games makes them very active exercises. If Ms. Jacoby’s idea of video games is Pacman, she is far behind the times, and perhaps needs to make herself more aware of what the cutting edge looks like. There is much room for optimism.

But her commentary on those whom rely on casual videos for their information seem right on, particularly with regard to politics:

” No wonder negative political ads work. As video consumers become progressively more impatient with the process of acquiring information through written language, all politicians find themselves under great pressure to deliver their messages as quickly as possible -- and quickness today is much quicker than it used to be.

Harvard University's Kiku Adatto found that between 1968 and 1988, the average sound bite on the news for a presidential candidate -- featuring the candidate's own voice -- dropped from 42.3 seconds to 9.8 seconds. By 2000, according to another Harvard study, the daily candidate bite was down to just 7.8 seconds.”

Anyone doubting how much things have changed, who rightly suspect a little too much nostalgia in this view that things were so much better in the good ol days, need only go watch some video (a good example of my counter point) of some presidential election debates past. Particularly watch the Kennedy/Nixon debates, which are full of detailed, complex viewpoints, the kind that would put modern American audiences to sleep.

This is also what allows professional prevaricators like the Discovery Institute to get away with their shenanigans over and over again. Without an audience with the patience to dig for the full context, or background information (or lack thereof) of what IDers say, they can get away with half truths repeatedly.

” The shrinking public attention span fostered by video is closely tied to the second important anti-intellectual force in American culture: the erosion of general knowledge.

According to a 2006 survey by National Geographic-Roper, nearly half of Americans between ages 18 and 24 do not think it necessary to know the location of other countries in which important news is being made. More than a third consider it "not at all important" to know a foreign language, and only 14 percent consider it ‘very important.’

I think she chooses a bad example here. The necessity to know a foreign language varies tremendously by geography. Sure a Lichtensteinian had better know several languages, but a guy in Iowa could easily live his entire life and never encounter a non-English speaker. In some ways language is really just a bit of trivia. After all, it is a highly varying part of reality, with words coming and going every year. Most of geography by contrast is the sort of knowledge that aids in understanding the major issues of the day. A person who speaks Farsi but doesn’t know that Iran is between Afghanistan and Iraq, isn’t going to understand Iran’s nervousness about the US nearly as well as the English-only speak who does.

But she hits the real problem with her third rung:

The problem is not just the things we do not know (consider the one in five American adults who, according to the National Science Foundation, thinks the sun revolves around the Earth); it's the alarming number of Americans who have smugly concluded that they do not need to know such things in the first place.

Call this anti-rationalism -- a syndrome that is particularly dangerous to our public institutions and discourse. Not knowing a foreign language or the location of an important country is a manifestation of ignorance; denying that such knowledge matters is pure anti-rationalism.

Ed Brayton had a great rejoinder to this:

"But I think it goes even beyond that, and I go back again to the argument I made in my C-Span speech about the difference between mundane ignorance and virulent ignorance. Yes, this mundane ignorance is disturbing, as are the many rationalizations offered for it ('some of the dumbest people I know have PhDs but they lack common sense'), but it pales in comparison to the effects of virulent ignorance.

Far too many of those who think they're knowledgeable on some very important subjects have in fact been educated into even greater ignorance, swallowing a series of falsehoods and half-truths that make them think they know what they're talking about when they don't. Memorizing a dozen "proofs" that the earth is only a few thousand years old does not cure one's ignorance of geology, it only serves to inoculate the credulous against actual evidence."

Exactly. And getting your science from Ann Coulter and your sociology from Bill O’Reilly doesn’t mean you know anything either. This is the result of what I call Internet Isolation – people who get on the internet, not to acquire knowledge, but to validate their beliefs. They refuse to read regularly anyone who disagrees with them, then begin judging, as having poor intellectual credibility, anyone who disagrees with them, even, most troubling, on matters of opinion.

The glaring example of this, of course, is politics. Americans increasingly only watch news opinion shows that agree with them, and dismiss as lacking credibility anything that says otherwise. This leads to intellectual stagnation by weeding out dissenting opinions. Then once you decide you agree with someone on everything (be they Rush Limbaugh, Barbara Streisand, or Fox News), you simply take whatever position they take, and grant credibility to anything they say. This is the only way you get a nation where one third of the people think the president is doing a terrific job, and another third thinks he's the worst in American history. Once you stop honestly considering dissenting claims, zealotry is inevitable. And zealots don't solve many problems. They are also very hard to cure, as Jacoby notes in her penultimate closing paragraph:

There is no quick cure for this epidemic of arrogant anti-rationalism and anti-intellectualism; rote efforts to raise standardized test scores by stuffing students with specific answers to specific questions on specific tests will not do the job. Moreover, the people who exemplify the problem are usually oblivious to it.

Indeed. We need not rehash all the problems with the No Child Left Behind approach. We already know monkeys can be taught to type. What we need is more education, not higher test scores. We also need a large adjustment in the way we evaluate information and draw conclusions.

This is, in a sense, why I started this blog. I am convinced that the scientific method, with it's insistence on peer review, falsifiable testing, and public scrutiny, is superior epistemology. It has what America needs most: built-in doubt, overt recognition of our fallibility and bias. We bullshit ourselves sometimes. It is the easiest intellectual trap to fall in: Believing what you want rather than what is. Science is better than all the other ways of knowing because it is the only one that assumes that from the outset.

It has given us practically everything around us: our medicines, the polymers in our clothes, much of our food, the fuels we use to run our machines, and the computers we read this on. And yet the movie scientist is far more likely to be the villain than the hero. We live in a "follow your heart, not your head" culture. THAT is what has to change. We have to learn to respect, and dare I say love, the scientific method. Individual scientists are like the rest of us: some good, some bad, a whole bunch in the middle. But the process, the inherent recognition of the possibility of error, the respect for reality, for data, for intellectual honesty that is science at its best: THAT should be in the place of worship that is currently occupied by ancient desert gods invented by men prior to scientists teaching us that the sun doesn't orbit the earth.

The answer to the problem Jacoby identifies is to be as scientific as we are able, and to demand the same of others. Science has a limited application, made necessary by limiting itself to that which can be tested. But in that realm it has no match, and there we should be relentless in insisting on it, and only it, as a way of determining the information with which we make our decisions. That there is still a debate over evolution in this nation is ludicrous. That some otherwise intelligent people deny that we landed on the moon is embarrassing. To fix that, we have to change attitudes about science. Otherwise, our intellectual decline will continue until we become a nation our great-grandparents wouldn't recognize, and our great-grandchildren won't want to live in.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Expelled from Expelled! Myers and Guest and ID Hypocrisy

Hollywood's best couldn't have written this one. PZ Myers, along with several friends and family decided to attend a free screening of the "Expelled" Intelligent Design propaganda film:

This was a private screening with no admission charge, and you had to reserve seats ahead of time; you also had to sign a promise that you wouldn't record the movie while you were there, and they were checking ID.

Apparently the Expelled guys were wary of this, given the screening was fairly close to PZ's home, and they had a cop remove PZ not only from the line, but from the premises as well. And this from the guys demanding fair, open, and honest debate! When was the last time anyone heard of a person being barred from viewing a film they were in!

But it gets better. They missed the grey-haired fellow from across the pond standing right next to PZ. That's right, Richard Dawkins passed unnoticed into the film, and was even able to participate in the post-film Q&A. Check out Kristine's account as well.

These bozos really blew this one. There's no way to spin this.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

You want Transitional Forms? A Brilliant Video

We've all heard the creationists claim there are no transitional fossils. Of course, they also don't ever suggest what exactly constitutes a transitional fossil, except when they mention a dog/cat mix and reveal their ignorance. Nevertheless, here is a wonderful video that goes through, in considerable detail, the transitional forms that are known, and all the traits that help us distinguish one group from another. You know, those are all the coincidentally (from a creationist POV) nested hierarchies that the creationists can't come close to explaining. Bonus points for slamming that idiot Kirk Cameron. Part II is here.

It is a testimont to the ignorance and intellectual dishonesty of the creationists that they keep parroting this claim in the face of such a mountain of evidence. One might, with equal justification, claim unintelligent algorithms can't produce intelligent results despite the existence of robots that produce exactly that. Oh wait, they deny that too. Some people just never let facts get in the way of their ideals.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

DC or Iraq: Who Has the Higher Gun Death Rate? Don't Believe Everything You Read

Today I received this email that is making the rounds, no doubt due to the impending gun control case before the Supreme Court on Washington DCs handgun ban:

If you consider that there has been an average of 160,000 troops in the Iraq theater of operations during the last 22 months, and a total of 2,112 deaths, when this was written) that gives a firearm death rate of 60 per 100,000 soldiers.

The firearm death rate in Washington D. C. is 80.6 per 100,000 for the same period. (...and that was while handguns were outlawed!!)
That means that you are about 25% more likely to be shot and killed in the U. S. Capitol, which has some of the strictest gun control laws in the nation, than you are in Iraq.

PASS THIS ON 'cuz you can be sure that CNN, NBC, ABC and CBS won't!

Uh, yeah, we can hope they won't. Why? Well, doesn't it set off your BS alarms right away? Isn't it highly unlikely that any US city could have a mortality rate higher than soldiers in active combat? Of course it is. So let's check the math, shall we? We are given:

2,112 deaths (queue Rush, and I mean the band, not the dissembling dolt on the radio)
160,000 soldiers
22 months


80.6 deaths per 100,000

Now, it doesn't take Archimedes to see that 2,112 deaths among 160,000 is going to be a far higher average than 80.6 in 100,000. In fact, it is 1,320 per 100,000, higher by a factor of 15 than the email claim. Even if you make the reasonable assumption that the 80.6 is an annualized figure, it only drops to 1,320 / 22 X 12 or 720 deaths per 100,000 per annum.

This is so indicative of what is wrong with American political discourse. First of all, we have people sending this note around that are apparently so innumerate that they can't even discern an error of an order of magnitude. Second, those who did notice ignored it and sent the note around anyway, because after all, in American politics, it's more important that your team win than it is to be honest.

Let's hope the gun control issue is decided using better and more honest analysis than that.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Harris' Four untruths about the war: Major Koolaid

Think of the last time you almost got into a fight. Think about what you were feeling at the time, the urge to do violence, the fear of reprisal, and arrest, the anger at whatever the other person had done or said. And yet, for most of us, a part of our brain evaluates the situation, does a rough value calculation of the various possibilities, and concludes that the best option is to walk away, even though our emotions are saying very different things. Yet there are some so violence-prone, so unable to see any solution to the situation other than bashing the other guys head in, that they would call you a coward for walking away. To them, there is no reasoned resistance to fighting. All who oppose the violent option are yellow, per se, and any argument to the contrary is just so much rationalizing.

After reading this article from Phil Harris, I can’t help but conclude he is such a person. Unfortunately, he represents too many on the hawkish side of the Iraq war. Unable to deal with what those of us who are against the Iraq war actually think, he invents yellow straw men that are easier to knock down. And as if to completely thumb his nose at rational discourse, he calls his responses to these scarecrows “truths”, as if they are beyond reproach. Far from it:

Truth #1: There has never been a war that “feels right.” War is hell, and the day we find ourselves in a war that we “want” to be in, is a day I never want to see.

No shit Phil. If you think people who object to the war do so because it doesn’t fill us with feelings of joy, you are either not listening, or need to get out more. Just who out there do you hear saying this, because I’ve never heard it. Further, the joke about this war is that most Americans don’t feel much at all from it because it is such a minor part of our lives. The soldiers and their families know how the war feels to them. To the rest of us, it is just something on the news that costs us a lot of money and produces little of value in return. Forgive us for not feeling right about that.

Truth #2: There has never been a war that has not required sons, daughters, nephews, nieces, mothers, fathers, co-workers, friends, and neighbors to be in danger of dying or being horribly wounded. The fact that we all know someone who has been to Iraq once or twice or three times is not a reason to say that we should not be there, or that we should never have gone in the first place.

Again Phil, no shit. It’s the fact that this war has turned into a long term engagement requiring massive sacrifices from our bold but limited military despite the assurances from those responsible that it would require little time or resources to accomplish. Fool me once Phil… After so much of our military valor has been wasted, at a time when suicide rates among soldiers is at an all time high, you’re damned right we are going to question the wisdom of our current course after we see our soldiers doing more tours than they are physically and psychologically equipped for. The reward for such an engagement had better be damned high. Just because war necessitates loss of life and property doesn’t mean we don’t do what we can to minimize both, and to spend them only when the payoff is great.

Truth #3: President Bush did not invent war. America has engaged in twelve conflicts since 1775 that could be recognized by the average citizen as a “war.” In that time, America has lost 656,041 military personnel in battle. Another 15,267 have died in-theater, but due to circumstances other than battle. Some 525,930 died while serving, but not in-theater. There have been 1,498,930 military personnel that have suffered non-mortal wounds. As painful and heartbreaking as it is, the Iraq/Afghanistan actions have been undertaken with an astoundingly low number of casualties, both dead and wounded.

Ah, a trifecta of MSU. Sorry Phil, nobody is saying President Bush invented war. That is yet another fiction you choose to attack rather than the reality that he essentially invented preemptive war based on faulty intelligence leading to a predictable conflict for which we had little preparation and no long term plan. And no, the pollyannish notion that Iraq would suddenly embrace democracy under a unified government doesn’t qualify as a plan. Unlike many of those prior conflicts, President Bush’s war is accomplishing very little, and costing a record amount. And while you may find solace in the fact that medical advances have allowed us to reduce the number of fighting men who die from their wounds by orders of magnitude (recall that we didn’t have antibiotics until near the end of WWII) compared to conflicts from centuries ago, some of us think the bar ought to be placed a bit higher.

Truth #4: Our actions in Iraq have caused a severe disruption to Osama bin-Laden’s al-Qaeda terror network, and their ability to organize and carry out more attacks on the United States and Israel. The war on terror cannot be fought and/or won in Afghanistan. Killing Osama bin-Laden would be gratifying, but would have little effect on ending the threat of continued terrorism aimed at Americans.

What a steaming pile of made up shit. A congressional report has just come out that shows, with no surprise for most of us, that there was no, nada, zero, zilch relationship between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda in Iraq essentially didn’t exist prior to Bush’s war, and that war continues to inflame sensibilities in the Middle East and create even more terrorists. It’s this myopic, dare I say it, faith-based view of this conflict espoused by people like Phil Harris that needs a dose of truth. They simply will not, based on any facts or logic, dispense with the notion of victory in the Middle East through military aggression. And they are not afraid to bankrupt our government and waste the lives of our brave men and women in uniform in pursuing that crusade.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Global Cooling? Think Again.

I'm sure many of you have seen this article suggesting that 2007 temperatures were the lowest in 2007, violating the predictions made by AGW theories and suggesting the planet is cooling due to solar activity.

Alas, it is just another example of cherry-picking of the data that we've come to know and expect from denialists. Asher's entire argument is based on one month of data - January 08, which was considerably cooler than January 07, which was, not coincidentally, the warmest month on record. This would be akin to claiming a basketball player's career was in decline because his latest game saw his scoring total drop 20 points from a week earlier when he had his greatest game ever.

As Tim Labert explains and illustrates here, 2007 was the second warmest year on record, and the trends continue up, up, up. When will the denialists realize that you cannot draw conclusions about long term trends based on one data point? Oh, that's right, I keep forgetting. They aren't doing science. They are shuffling data until they get an arrangement that tells them what they want to hear.

Exploding windmill

If you've ever wondered how much wind energy there is in a hurricane, take a look at this clip of a Danish wind turbine exploding. Oh, the energy we waste.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Another Poor, Alarmist, Study on Teen Sex and STDs

The tradition of alarmist misleading media reports on youth STD rates continues, this time with a fderal study suggesting that 1 in 4 teens has an STD. Before panicking, we should really delve into the parameters in that report, because as usual, they leave much to be desired.

At its most basic, consider that the study group here was girls aged 14-19. Now, why on earth would anyone do a sample of such an age group? Do we expect the sexual activity of 14 year olds to be anything like that of 19-year-olds? The two are worlds apart sociologically. Yet they are clumped together for seemingly no reason except that all those ages have “teen” in them. Further, there is no accounting for the older girls who are married. So right away we have to wonder just how much there is to worry about with our teenage children, ie, those still undeveloped, and living at home.

But the real killer comes when they break down the 26%:

The teens were tested for four infections: human papillomavirus, or HPV, which can cause cervical cancer and affected 18 percent of girls studied; chlamydia, which affected 4 percent; trichomoniasis, 2.5 percent; and genital herpes, 2 percent.

It is worth noting that chlamydia can be treated with antibiotics, as can trichomoniasis, and can exist without symptoms. Herpes can, with medication, be kept to a level of near irrelevance. People so afflicted can go years without an outbreak. And what about HPV, the malady that accounts for 2/3 of the STDS reported?

HPV, the cancer-causing virus, can also cause genital warts but often has no symptoms. A vaccine targeting several HPV strains recently became available, but Douglas said it probably hasn't yet had much impact on HPV prevalence rates in teen girls.

Now no STD is a laughing matter, but we should also be aware of exactly what the STD costs those it infects so we can evaluate information about infection rates properly. Many of us are trained years ago in the era where “STDS” meant AIDS and a lifetime of herpes lesions can forget that the impact of those diseases on the average infected person dwarfs that of those noted above. It’s not your fathers’ herpes any more. While we’d rather no children contract STDs, the fact that so many can be cured, or exist without symptoms, cannot be ignored.

But obviously there is a problem of sex education, and the recent push for abstinence-only programs came under fire:

Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said the study shows that "the national policy of promoting abstinence-only programs is a $1.5 billion failure, and teenage girls are paying the real price." Similar claims were made last year when the government announced the teen birth rate rose between 2005 and 2006, the first increase in 15 years.

And yet those in the faith-based community still insist abstinence-only works. They also have a bad habit of misrepresenting the positions of those who think a more comprehensive program is in order by portraying them as being against abstinence. Here is a typical example of what those views really are:

"To talk about abstinence is not a bad thing," but teen girls — and boys too — need to be informed about how to protect themselves if they do have sex, [said Dr. Elizabeth Alderman, an adolescent medicine specialist at Montefiore Medical Center's Children's Hospital in New York.]

Of course we’d all prefer that children not have sex until they are mature enough to make responsible decisions about it. But the strategy of burying our heads in the sand pretending responsible guidance ends there. We also must be prepared to make the situation as safe as possible even if they do decide to be sexually active. The idea that giving teens information about birth control and other aspects of their sexuality is going to make them want to have sex is absurd. The desire is there regardless of what we say. All we can do is help them direct those desires in safe, productive directions.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Academic Freedom Bill for Ignoramuses

What is it with pig-ignorant legislators thinking they understand science issues well enough to pass bills effecting how science is taught in schools? The latest up at the moron microphone is Florida Republican State Representative Alan Hays, who is pushing another of these fake "academic freedom" bills that is really just a cover for allowing creationist teachers to foist their nonsense on defenseless children.

He said the bill is simply drafted to allow teachers and students to discuss, without fear of punishment, 'the full range' of problems and ideas surrounding Darwin's theory.

Uh huh. And what level of understanding of evolutionary theory do you suppose Mr. Hays has? Well, as is so common with these guys, you have to read it to believe it:

"I want a balanced policy. I want students taught how to think, not what to think," Hays says. "There are problems with evolution. Have you ever seen a half-monkey, half human?"

Well I thought I hadn't, but after reading this downright simian level analysis from him, I'm inclined to reconsider. Forget for a moment how ignorant his comment is. Consider the level of unabashed arrogance required for someone this ignorant of a subject to feel qualified to regulate it. Consider the level of sheer gall for someone whose thinking skills are this poor to consider himself qualified to teach anyone how to think. This is like a guy who is tone deaf fancying himself a great conductor. How does one get such a dizzying combination of arrogance and ignorance? I've only seen one institution capable of pulling that off: the church.

Speaking of religion, Mr. Hays isn't satisfied with screwing up both the science and the thinking parts of his bill. He's going for the trifecta and screwing up the religious part too:

The bill notes that it shouldn't be 'construed to promote any religious doctrine, promote discrimination for or against a particular set of religious beliefs, or promote discrimination for or against religion or nonreligion.'

It reveals quite an extremely limited understanding of the world when someone makes a statement like that. There are a vast number of religious doctrines out there, banning everything from eating various animals, wearing assorted items, making pictures of certain people, saying certain words, and most importantly, believing many different and contradictory histories of humanity, the earth, and the universe. It is simply impossible via logic(something else Mr. Hays doesn't understand) to make any statement about those issues without one's comment being construed to promote discrimination against a particular set of religious beliefs.

It also denies the atheistic nature of science qua science. Invoking gods as explanations for natural phenomena simply does not work. Note the dearth of science from the Intelligent Design crew. Even religious scientists will affirm that there is no place for religion in the lab. So this bill actually says the opposite of what a good science education should be. It absolutely SHOULD promote discrimination against religion when doing science.

Let's stop allowing those most ignorant of science to make policy on science.

Hat tip Pharyngula

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Incarceration Insanity: US Passes the 1% Mark

In news sure to improve America's reputation around the world, we have more than one of a hundred Americans incarcerated.

"The report, released Thursday by the Pew Center on the States, said the 50 states spent more than $49 billion on corrections last year, up from less than $11 billion 20 years earlier. The rate of increase for prison costs was six times greater than for higher education spending, the report said.

Using updated state-by-state data, the report said 2,319,258 adults were held in U.S. prisons or jails at the start of 2008 — one out of every 99.1 adults, and more than any other country in the world.

The steadily growing inmate population "is saddling cash-strapped states with soaring costs they can ill afford and failing to have a clear impact either on recidivism or overall crime," said the report.

The report said the United States is the world's incarceration leader, far ahead of more populous China with 1.5 million people behind bars. It said the U.S. also is the leader in inmates per capita (750 per 100,000 people), ahead of Russia (628 per 100,000) and other former Soviet bloc nations which make up the rest of the Top 10."

We should all let that one sink in for a while. More than any other country in the world. More than Russia. More than China. More than totalitarian regimes like North Korea, Iran, or even Cuba. How can we call ourselves the land of the free when we imprison more people than any other land? It sounds like something that came out of the Ministry of Truth, or Pravda.

I quibble with the comment above comparing rates of change between the prison costs and higher education. Such comparisons are easy to manipulate, and unless the underlying totals are similar, can be very deceiving. However, no doubt any legit comparison would also leave us disgusted at the absurd priorities we have.

So of course, we need to look at ways to cut costs.

Susan Urahn, managing director of the Pew Center on the States, said budget woes are prompting officials in many states to consider new, cost-saving corrections policies that might have been shunned in the recent past for fear of appearing soft in crime.

"We're seeing more and more states being creative because of tight budgets," she said in an interview. "They want to be tough on crime, they want to be a law-and-order state — but they also want to save money, and they want to be effective.".

This is the same old rhetoric, and it isn't going to work. As long as the American definition of "crime" remains that which includes a whole host of offenses against no one (drug use, gambling, prostitution, pornography), or amounts to a clerical discrepency, such as failure to appear, we will make no headway. Changes like those in Texas and Kansas are a move in the right direction:

"The report cited Kansas and Texas as states which have acted decisively to slow the growth of their inmate population. Their actions include greater use of community supervision for low-risk offenders and employing sanctions other than reimprisonment for ex-offenders who commit technical violations of parole and probation rules."

And the most shocking part of the whole issue? We don't have increasing crime:

The report said prison growth and higher incarceration rates do not reflect a parallel increase in crime or in the nation's overall population. Instead, it said, more people are behind bars mainly because of tough sentencing measures, such as "three-strikes" laws, that result in longer prison stays.

As with so many other issues, America has some choices to make. We simply cannot afford, both economically and morally, to imprison so much of our population, especially when so many are there for offenses that are either not offenses at all in the rest of the world, or are considered minor. We have a de facto Sharia in this country, and it has to stop before we have no one left to guard the prisoners, and no respect left in the world.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Know Who David Paterson is? You Soon Will

David Paterson is about to accomplish a lot of firsts. The man who stands to be promoted to Governor of New York (when hooker-hunter turned hypocritical hooker-fucker Eliot Spitzer steps down) would be its first black governor the state has ever had, and as an added bonus, the first blind governor in US history. Amazingly, he has been virtually blind since birth.

This is a great American success story. Whatever our past flaws, and whatever flaws we have left to fix, this shows just how far we've come.

Homophobe Sally Kern: Idiot of the Week

For not only being a total homophobic ignoramus, but for adding more stupidity on top of that by allowing herself to be taped doing it, and having the audacity to complain about the taping (you're a public official, hello!) Oklahoma State Representative Sally Kern gets this week's Idiot Award. And her rant was such a complete steaming pile of fetid faggot fallacies I think a detailed dissection is in order. For the record, I am, and always have been, a rabid heterosexual:

"The homosexual agenda is destroying this nation"

I find it interesting that the people who say things like this are also highly likely to say things like "America is the greatest nation on earth", which leads me to ask: how can we be both? We are the best, but we are being destroyed? Sounds a position on America that shifts per political convenience.

"I am not anti, I'm not gay bashing, but according to God's word that is not the right kind of lifestyle"

She's obviously a Billy Tubbs fan, who as coach of the OU Sooners basketball team, once said in a post game interview: "I don't want to criticize the officials, but they were terrible." Be honest Ms. Kern. You are most certainly gay bashing. You just think a 2,000 year old book of flat-earther sheepherder fables justifies it.

"It has deadly consequences."

Unsafe sex, not necessarily homosexual sex, risks deadly consequences. It would be good if someone near Ms. Kern reminds her that lesbians have a lower rate of STDs than heterosexuals do.

"The people involved in that have more suicides, they're more discouraged, there's more illness, their lifespans are shorter."

You really have to have some chutzhpa to demonize and otherwise make a group's lives as miserable as you are able, deny them personal and important rights the rest of us take for granted, and then tout their discouraged suicidal state and reduced lifspans as proof that you were right all along. I wonder if Judge Kern would, on the basis that he was an orphan, give leniancy to a child who murdered his parents.

"Studies show no society that has totally embraced homosexuality has lasted more than a few decades"

This, lads and lesbos, is what we call Making Shit Up. What studies? Who conducted them? Where do they publish? What societies does she mean? What exactly does she mean by "last"? After all, Rome is still there, we just call them Italians now. What exactly does it mean to "totaly embrace homosexuality"? Has the US done so? If so, for how long must we do so and continue to "last" to disprove this notion? France is at least a decade ahead of us on this, how close are they? Her claim is so ill-defined it doesn't even rise to the level of being wrong.

"I honestly think it's the biggest threat our nation has, even more so than terrorism or Islam"

Whenever anyone says something like this, press them on specifics. Exactly what form does this threat take? Marriage? What damage to society, exactly, does allowing Chris and Pat to marry, even if their naughty bits match, do? I can't think of one way my life would change. Granted, the double tux wedding cake will take some getting used to, but I think we can handle it.

"They want to get our children into government schools so they can indocrinate young as two years of age...that the homosexual lifestyle is an acceptable lifestyle"

This lengthy rant was notable for the complete lack of clarity of exctly what is so wrong with that. On no other subject are the Religious Reicht so vacuous, and for a very simple reason. They think it's icky. Real icky. And a SIN! That's really all it takes. All these fact-free ratonalizations illustrate their internal need for tangible support (just like the creationists), but in the end it matters not to them.

"Gays are infiltrating City Councils"

OH MY GAWD! The queers are coming! The queers are coming! Heteros get elected. Homos infiltrate. Makes them sound like spies, like they are hiding some secret agenda. Sort of like, the creationists!

Did you know the Eureka springs city council is controlled by gays?

So? Got a problem with pink microphones? Too many flowers in the median? They making citizens sing and dance before speaking or something? I'll bet those councils are a lot more scientifically literate than average, and fashionable to boot. What's the downside?

It's deadly and it's spreading and it will destroy our young people and will destroy this nation

What on earth could she be talking about? HIV? Meth? One more season of American Idol? Sheer ignorance? NO! Homosexuals are the most dangerous thing out there. More dangerous even than them there Islamics.

Of course, the Muslims pretty much agree with you Ms. Kerr, on a lot of things. This one's for you.

Hat Tip PZ Myers, Ed Brayton

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Is Fertility in the Public Interest? Population and the Tragedy of the Commons

While reading yet another article about the rising teen STD rate, and the abject failure of abstinence-only programs to deal with it, I noted this odd comment:

"Because some sexually transmitted infections can cause infertility and cancer, U.S. health officials called for better screening, vaccination and prevention...for sexually active women. [It is] among our highest public health priorities."

I have been talking a lot about The Tragedy of the Commons lately, and here is a prime example of a key component of it: the divergence of private and public interest. In this case, it diverges on the subject of fertility.

For someone who desires children, fertility is obviously a very important, personal issue. But when we look at the issue from a public health point of view, that changes. The advantages that would come with a smaller population are obvious to all but the most ardent libertarian. The planet and its resources are limited, certainly in the short term, and likely in the long term as well. And whe we have limited resources, private and public priorities conflict.

And they conflict here. The speaker above is wrong: fertility is not a public health priority. If anything, INfertility is. Consider for example a disease descending on us which magically made 50% of the population infertile. Consider the impact this would have on global warming, world hunger, even crime (due to less congestion). We'd have reduced carbon emissions, less highways to build, less waste to dispose of, fewer prisons, and on and on. We would be far better off than we are now.

This is the sort of distinction that is practically nonexistent in American politics today, and is part of why so much of our public policy is poor. It's time we stopped pretending what is good for one person is good for all of us.

An Oldie but a Goodie: The 2002 NCSE ID Conference

For those who may not understand fully why the ID proponents spend so much time avoiding scientifically rigorous examination of their ideas, check out this old NCSE conference at the American Museum of Natural History where Robert Pennock and Ken Miller rip William Dembski and Michael Behe to shreds. Dembski can't seem to answer the simplest question about what ID even means, much less what first steps an ID researcher would take. Behe simply will not submit his ideas to any kind of test where he can't weasel-word his way out failed performance in the end. His answer to any tough question is "it depends", and he always "reserves judgement". It's classic crankery, and it gets splattered on the windshield of science speeding by.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Atheism's Golden Rule

Gotta love this one. It gets right to the heart of this bullshit that being religious gives one a moral leg up, as they continue to kill each other over whose absolute superior religious moral code is the correct one. We silly atheists just skip that part and go straight to peace.

hat tip: Grrlscientist

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Hoofnagle on Cranks in the Heartland, and the Potential Green/Hawk Alliance

Over at Denialismblog, Mark Hoofnagle has a nice article about the Heartland Institutes conference on climate change. I must say, give the Heartlanders credit for actually putting their money and mouths where their views lie and putting it out there for public consumption. Unfortunately, they merely revealed what cranks they are, as described by the Wall Street Journal, and then expounded on by Hoofnagle:

"WSJ: One challenge they faced was that even within their own ranks, the group -- among them government and university scientists, antiregulatory campaigners and Congressional staff members -- displayed a dizzying range of ideas on what was, or was not, influencing climate."

Hoofnagle: This is a feature of cranks we discussed in our Unified Theory of the Crank almost a year ago. There is no interest in creating an explanatory theory or framework to incorporate the data into a useful picture, just a desire to crap on that which they don't want to hear.

It explains the tendency of cranks not to care if other cranks (and denialists in general for that matter) have variations on their own crazy ideas, just as long as the other cranks are opposing the same perceived incorrect truth. Cranks and denialists aren't honest brokers in a debate, they stand outside of it and just shovel horse manure into it to try to sow confusion and doubt about real science. They don't care if some other crank or denialist comes along and challenges the prevailing theory by tossing cow manure, as long as what they're shoveling stinks.

This is something we see among cranks of all stripes. Some of the global warming denialists claim there is no global warming (though their number is shrinking), some claim it is occurring but is overstated, or not caused by man, or will not cause disasters, or will but there is nothing we can do about it, or will actually be a good thing. And this causes them not one whit of concern or intellectual curiosity. All they care about is attacking the mainstream view.

This is the same don't-ask-don't-tell strategy we see among evolution deniers as well. Some accept common descent and some don't, some think the world is thousands of years old and some think it is billions, some believe all the design was at the beginning, some think it occurred at various points, and some think it is ongoing. Search the literature of HIV denialists and you'll see the same pattern. This is not how science is done.

There is also a tendency for denialists to frame the issue in personal terms, usually attacking the perceived authority of the theory that chaffes them so. This is predictable given the authoritarian religious background of most denialists, regardless of topic. Evolution deniers are fond of digging up any kind of dirt they can on Charles Darwin, even to the point of making shit up, as if a tarnished personality changes the data.

But with AGW, it is even more personal. Conservatives have a hate for tree hugging hippies that goes far beyond anything a historical figure could elicit, with roots as far back as the Viet Nam War and the fight against communism. Those of the Bill Buckley era are unlikely to give anyone even remotely resembling anti-war commies a fair scientific hearing:

"Global warming crankery, more than anything, isn't a generalized dismissal of science but an extreme dislike for the people identified with the science. Consistently through these arguments you see this streak of defiance, that no one should be able to tell anyone else how to live. If they want to spend their free time disposing their used motor oil by pouring it onto a pile of burning tires, that's their business, and Al Gore can go screw himself...If we care about convincing the remainder of Americans, or at least diminishing crankery on this topic, we also have to make the people who despise Al Gore care...

Ah yes, Al Gore. Nothing illustrates the echo-chamber life of so many conservatives as the impression they have that global warming is about Al Gore. They attack Gore personally, as if any of his flaws of character or behavior change the data. It's "Al Gore's global warming theory" to many. This is the danger of getting one's news from Fox, Townhall, and the rest of the Republican Shill Media.

Hoofnagle is right. To bring the Bushites on board, we have to make this not about Al Gore, but about something they care about. And here is where Hoofnagle hits on what I've always thought the common ground between the Greens and the Hawks is - the fight against the radical Muslims.

"For one, we must continually point out that being stubborn about using fossil fuels doesn't make you a rebel but rather OPEC's bitch. By letting the cranks frame this around Al Gore we've missed out on a lot of ways to make this matter to a larger group of people. For one, we could do a better job pointing out that all that money we spend on oil goes to the repressive governments we like least in the world. There's a good reason Putin's underlings showed up at this event. Oil money is what props up his regime. Same for Ahmadinejad. Same for the genocidal thugs in Sudan. I think the best frame is "Save the environment, stop sending your money to these assholes".

Amen! Those opposing environmental measures to combat global warming and develop non-fossil fuels need to be reminded over and over again that every SUV they buy, every gallon of gas they put in their cars, every extra degree of cooler AC they waste money on, every disposable camera they throw away, every extra plastic bag they use but don't need, puts money in the hands of the very same radical Islamic extremists that they are so eager to sacrifice our civil liberties in order to fight. Color me liberal, but I'd much rather give up a few small wasteful comforts than my 4th amendment rights. Hit the terrorists where it hurts - their pocketbooks - and help the environment at the same time. It's beautiful.