Monday, December 29, 2008

More Evidence Abstinence Pledges Don't Work

A new study of almost 1,000 high school students published in the journal Pediatrics concludes:

"Virginity pledgers and similar non-pledgers don't differ in the rates of vaginal, oral or anal sex or any other sexual behavior...pledgers are less likely than similar non-pledgers to use condoms and also less likely to use any form of birth control."

Even more disturbing, the study found that students didn't exactly see the pledge as binding:

"The study also found that, five years after taking a virginity pledge, more than 80 percent of pledgers denied ever making such a promise."

It goes on to say that religious teens tend to delay having sex, but it is unrelated to any pledges they may take. Prior studies that concluded the effectiveness of abstinence programs failed to take this into account, which led to an overconfidence in the value of the pledges. In other words, abstinence programs are self-selecting: they get teens who weren't going to have sex anyway to take the pledge, and then they give the pledge the credit. It is like the witch doctor who thinks it takes both arsenic and a magic spell to kill someone.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Anti-Atheist Christmas Hysteria

Christmas brings much with regularity, presents, lots of job opportunities for fat old guys with full beards and a taste for red clothes, and of course, hypersensitive Christian theocrats distorting history and playing the victim card when other points of view wish to stand on the same stage they so arrogantly claim as solely their own. Typical is this column from Mary Graber, which in the spirit of Ann Coulter's science chapter in Godless could be described as wall to wall error, containing every flawed argument the theocrats have.

"Tis the season. . . for atheist Grinches to display their hatred of Christmas by trying to stomp out one of the most visible displays of Christianity in a country founded, and still operating on, Judeo-Christian principles."

Such wonderful fiction, and such an illustration of a lack of perspective. Atheists do not hate Christmas. Most of us celebrate family, friends and the gift-giving tradition the same as most Americans. The issue atheists and other defenders of the separation of church and state have with Christmas, and which Graber is determined to dodge, is the appearance of state-sanctioned religion in the form of Christian displays on government property to the exclusion of other views. There have been no atheist objections to manger scenes on church lawns, or private property of citizens, no atheist-led manger burnings or Santa muggings.

It is telling that Graber and others use such histrionic descriptions of the situation. They are the equivalent of the spoiled child who is so used to getting their way all the time, so that being forced to share the stage, or worse yet give it up, seems like a horrible imposition to them.

It doesn't help their lack of perspective any to keep chanting the revisionist history that America was founded on Judeo-Christian principles, a claim so patently, absurdly false it is remarkable that it needs fisking. Throughout the Constitution, one will find not a single reference to Christianity, Jesus, God, or the Ten Commandments. In fact, far from being the basis of our laws, were the Ten Commandments made the law of a state, they would be struck down as unconstitutional. Under the principles on which America was founded, we may worship as many, or no, gods as we wish, be as unholy as we like on the sabbath, use any word we wish in vain, disrespect our parents (though hopefully with good cause), and covet our neighbors' goods and wives. Only the commandments against theft and murder are represented in our law, as they are in every other religion and society on earth. It is Christian arrogance to claim them solely as their own.

"While the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) aims its legal and propaganda guns at Christianity, some like CNN’s Mike Galanos call their attacks as directed on “people of faith.” On their website, FFRF titled this CNN segment “FFRF vs. Christian Crybabies.” Although a menorah had been placed next to the Christmas display, it is Christians who are called “Crybabies.”"

If the shoe fits Mary. Christians are the overwhelming majority in the United States, dominating our culture and government. For you to pitch such a fit over tiny atheist displays and exercises of their first amendment rights reveals quite a spoiled, childish perspective. That many of these displays speak of "religion" and not "Christianity" reveals your arrogance in assuming they must be talking about you, and not say, Muslims, even where such a reference is as obvious as it was in the 9/11 NY Times ads:

"FFRF likes to use other occasions for their attacks. For the seventh anniversary of 9/11, FFRF placed an ad in the New York Times with the Twin Towers skyline, headlined “Imagine a World Free From Religion.” They warned, “American liberty is menaced not only by religious terrorism from abroad. Consider the growing threat of religious fanaticism here at home: The relentless war against secular values, gay rights, abortion rights, stem cell research and the teaching of evolution in public schools.” No mention was made of “the growing threat” of Islam, like separate Islamic public schools and various efforts to teach Islam in schools. Instead, the group goes after Christians who object to the teaching of an atheistic Darwinian doctrine to the exclusion of other scientific theories like intelligent design. "

Earth to Mary. The 9/11 attacks were perpetrated by Muslims doing Allah's work and looking forward to their 72 virgins in heaven. There can be no mistake: religion, the Muslim religion, caused 9/11. However, as a general threat to the freedom of religion in America, Islam pales in comparison to theocratic Christians, again for the simple reason that there are so many more Christians here. It is Christians like Graber, not Muslims, who are pushing the phony "Academic Freedom" bills pushing the pseudoscience of intelligent design, and attempting to suppress the sound science of evolutionary theory (which is neither atheistic, nor doctrinaire). Graber's own rhetoric, particularly her revisionist history of the Christianity of the Nazis, gives her away as a propagandist.

Her final comment exposes this further:

"One needs to ask then why a group that claims to advocate “Freedom From Religion” selectively attacks the Christian religion. If they’re so proud of eliminating commencement prayers, why haven’t they questioned calls to prayer during Ramadan and footbaths for Muslims on campuses? Or what about prayer rooms in one our nation’s airports? What about this Stealth Jihad?"

Uh, because Muslims are a pimple on a flea compared to Christians when it comes to entanglement of church and state in this country. As for calls to prayer and other private expressions of religion, that's part of the freedom of religion we share in this country. Graber really needs a first amendment refresher. As with most Christian theocrats, she thinks only her religion should get special treatment, and to hell with anyone else's rights.

Friday, December 26, 2008

MacNeil Documents the Death of IDEA Clubs

Allan MacNeil has done the legwork for us to show that the IDEA movement is essentially dead. For those of you who blinked and missed it, the IDEA clubs were the wave of the future for ID, so infamously noted by William Dembski in his rationalization of the Dover defeat:

"Even if ID is stifled among high school students (and with the Internet this is impossible), ID is of growing interest to college and graduate students. Three years ago, there was one Intelligent Design and Evolution Awareness (IDEA) Center at the University of California-San Diego. Now there are thirty such centers at American colleges and universities, including UC Berkeley and Cornell. These centers are fiercely pro-ID."

Since them as MacNeil documents, these clubs are all but dead:

1) there are 39 IDEA Clubs listed, not 35 (as stated at the IDEA Club main website);

2) of the 39 listed IDEA Clubs, eight (21%) are located at high schools or community colleges;

3) four (17%) are located at religious institutions;

4) nine (23%) simply do not exist (i.e. have 404: File Not Found at their link); and

5) 18 (46%) have links that simply redirect to either a national IDEA Center press release or main website homepage.

These are the "intelligent design research centers" about which Dr. Dembski spoke so glowingly in his analysis of the effects of the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School Board decision.

What can one conclude from this analysis? I conclude five things:

1) that the national IDEA Club website is essentially what is known online as a "shell site" (that is, a place-holder with no real content);

2) that the "movement" represented by the IDEA Club organization peaked in late 2005 or early 2006 (around the time of the Kitzmiller v. Dover trial);

3) since then (i.e. since Judge Jones issued his now-famous decision) it has died almost everywhere;

4) the majority of the output of the "intelligent design movement" consisted of press releases (and produced no empirical science of any kind); and

5) my conclusion in my critical review of Dr. Dembski's analysis of the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School Board decision was essentially correct: he was (and probably still is) either delusional or a bald-faced liar.

So, why did I illustrate this post with a picture of a dodo? Because, like the "intelligent design" movement, the dodo was notorious for its stupidity and that fact that it is extinct.

This is exactly what would be expected for a movement that pretends to be scientific when it is just a political ploy to sneak religious materials into high school science classes. When students sincerely attempt to pursue the ideas in an intellectually robust way, they find there is nothing there.

Be sure to read the comments, especially Casey Luskin's predictable apologetics, as well as MacNeil's response, which closes with this home run:

As to your assertion that there is no empirical research in ID, there is only one institution doing ID research: the Biologic Institute in Remond and Seattle, WA. As I pointed out in another comment, there have been about a dozen research reports from the Biologic Institute on original empirical research since the institute's founding. That's approximately 1/100th of the output of the various departments and research institutes for ecology and evolution during the month of November, 2008. Furthermore, none of the research papers from the Biologic Institute support the conclusion that "intelligent design" is entailed by the research findings. They are only consistent with an assumption of design, but as many evolutionary biologists from Ernst Mayr on down have pointed out, design is clearly an emergent property of evolution by natural selection. Until an unambiguous example of an empirical finding of design that couldn't be the result of purely natural processes is published in the peer-reviewed scientific literature, asserting that "intelligent design" is a legitimate explanation for natural processes is merely that: an assertion, without supporting evidence. Ergo, it is not science, it is politics, pure and simple.

Sadly, the creationists are well practiced at changing costumes, and now ID has become 'academic freedom'.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

What's So Funny About Peace Love and Understanding

Leave it to Stephen Colbert to bring together Toby Keith, Willie Nelson, John Legend, and a folk singer who's name I didn't catch to join Elvis Costello and make "What's So Funny about Peace, Love and Understanding" into a Christmas carol with a message we need to hear more. Merry Christmas.

The View and Evolution: Why Does Anyone Care?

Once again the view hits a new low, this time discussing evolution. What gets me about this isn't that the View hostesses know little about science. What gets me is why anyone would want to hear people who know so little about science talk about science? Who cares what Whoopi Goldberg thinks about evolution, much less Elizabeth Hasselbeck?

It is the ultimate sign of American anti-intellectualism that we (collectively) would rather listen to four dimwits talk about science than actual scientists.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The History of Creationist Rhetoric: Creationism by Many Other Names...

For a solid refutation of the nonsense being spewed by members of the Texas Board of Education about their views on creationism, check out this excellent takedown over at Ed Brayton's blog. The transition from creationist to creation science to Intelligent Designer to supporter of "Academic Freedom" is clear and unbroken. The only mystery remaining for me is how they think they are going to get away with it in the courts.

Original story here.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Flying Dolphins

Here's one of those photos that makes you just sit up in wonder.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Punishment Works

Here's an article sure to warm the heart of every give-peace-a-chance, punishment-is-just-barbaric-revenge tree-hugger out there:

"The threat of punishment actually does stamp out freeloaders, tending to transform them into rule-following members of a society, a new study suggests.

The research results show how established norms and rules in a society could keep freeloaders in check and increase pro-social behavior, such as helping others or sharing with them rather than looking out for number one.

In the past, studies have found that while punishing freeloaders can increase their cooperation with others, the punishment itself was too costly and in the end, punishment wouldn't be worth it. These past studies were based on short-term effects, however.

The new study shows that over the long term, punishment gets ingrained in people's psyches in a way that causes them to fear getting into trouble. This fear can keep otherwise freeloaders, who would normally act as sponges to soak up the generosity of others without having to contribute any time or money, on the straight-and-narrow.

"I believe the experimental work is extremely important and timely, as many researchers had voiced concern whether punishment is not too costly a tool to promote cooperation," said Karl Sigmund of the University of Vienna, who was not involved in the current study. Sigmund studies the evolution of cooperation among other topics.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

IQ by Religious views

These figures taken from this study of white adolescent males. The general pattern doesn't surprise me at all. Generally, the more openminded and amenable, nay, even friendly, to information, the higher they score.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Dissecting the Anti-Gay Marriage Arguments with Mike Huckabee and Jon Stewart

Jon Stewart recently interviewed Mike Huckabee, and they got into a most interesting discussion about gay marriage which revealed the complete absence of any substance to the gay marriage objections. You can read trhe transcript here, but here's the Cliff's notes version:

Huckabee: Marriage means one man one woman...For 5000 years of recorded human history, that’s what marriage has meant.

Stewart: You said, reaffirming the tradition of marriage over 5000 years, which takes it back to the Old Testament, where polygamy was the norm...Marriage has evolved greatly over those 5000 years, from a property arrangement, polygamy… we’ve redefined it constantly.

You would think this would be so obvious that people like Huckabee would get it thrown back in their faces immediately, and yet they often get away with this blatant falsehood (dare I say "lie"?). Let's hope it happens more often.

Huckabee: ...until the laws are overturned, it still means that.

Stewart: ...segregation used to be the law until the courts intervened.

This is an absolutely asinine argument. The whole debate is over what marriage should mean in the law. Huckabee begs the question implying what it means now should hold sway. He is also a hypocrite, since the law now says abortion is legal, and he sees no problem trying to get that law changed.

Huckabee: There is a big difference between a person being black, and a person practicing a lifestyle and engaging in a marital relationship.

Stewart: Religion is far more of a choice than homosexuality. And the protections that we have, for religion- we protect religion- and talk about a lifestyle choice! That is absolutely a choice. Gay people don’t choose to be gay.

Huckabee: But Jon, religious people don’t have the right to burn others at the stake; they don’t have the right to do anything they wish to do-

No shit Sherlock, but the question is, do religious people have the same right to do anything anyone else does, and the answer is "yes"! Yet not so for gays.

Huckabee: I think that we have to be very thoughtful and careful before we say that we are going to undo an entire social structure.

Stewart: I think you are looking at sexuality and not attributes... I would suggest that a gay, loving family with a financially stable background beats the hell out of Britney Spears and Kevin Federline any day of the week.

As one commenter on ERV's thread noted, rapists, murderers, and tax evaders are allowed to get married, yet Huckabee would have us believe gays are so bad as parents as a group that they, and they alone, should be kept out of the chapel? The evidence supporting this is, as always, conspicuously absent.

Huckabee: The only way that we can create the next generation is through a male female relationship.

Stewart didn't address this, but it's another argument that is laughably bad. It is wrong at its most basic, since we have many methods of procreation, such as artificial insemination, and surrogate mothering, with cloning well on its way, that do not involve a male/female relationship. Second, it seems Huckabee only wants to single out gays for such analysis. Sterile people, old people, or people who just don't want kids, aren't prevented from marrying in Huckabeeland. Imagine that.

Huckabee: If we change the definition, then we really do have to change it to accommodate all lifestyles

This is another argument that Stewart didn't address, probably because it is so baseless. No we do not, in fact, have to change marriage to accommodate anyone. We as a society can define it any way we wish. The argument is that the gender of the participants shouldn't matter. If Huckabee wants to make the case for other groups, let him try.

At the moment, all of his arguments fail, and fail miserably, which is no surprise to me, because these arguments are just a smokescreen for religious objections. The arguments are just decoration motivated by the knowledge that "I think it's a sin per my religious faith" isn't very persuasive to anyone who lacks said faith. They know they need to make their case look scientific to win the social battle, but there is simply no science to back it, which is why their battle is a losing one. We will see gay marriage legal in this society. It is only a matter of time.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Ben Shapiro's Latest Intellectually Bankrupt Comments on Atheism

Ah, my favorite subintellectual Ben Shapiro is at it again, this time treating us to an embarrassing helping of question-begging religious apologetics in response to all those horrible atheists daring to add their voices to the Christmas chorus. Unfortunately, his effort is one long argument from consequences, unsupported assertions, and, as usual, ignorance of science and defiance of observable reality. In the end, he has merely created a tapestry of illusion: there is no there there. I will demonstrate.

He begins with the usual assertions:

"...without God, there can be no moral choice. Without God, there is no capacity for free will. That's because a Godless world is a soulless world. Virtually all faiths hold that God endows human beings with the unique ability to choose their actions -- the ability to transcend biology and environment in order to do good. Transcending biology and our environment requires a higher power -- a spark of the supernatural. As philosopher Rene Descartes, put it, Although I possess a body with which I am very intimately conjoined [my soul] is entirely and absolutely distinct from my body and can exist without it."

Note the question-begging chain of word games Shapiro plays here. Moral choice, Shapiro asserts, requires free will, which is defined as the ability to transcend our biology, which in turn requires a gift from a supernatural "higher power", which is called "the soul". What a bunch of gobbledygook! Shapiro is going to have to do better than a nearly 400 year old assertion from a poor philosopher, and the adherence to that idea by many churches (and not nearly the unanimity he claims) to support this notion.

Descartes' method of thinking about how he felt about the reality of his consciousness has been eviscerated by modern brain experiments. Those show that our consciousness is indeed a blending of different parts. Descartes, unable to perceive any divisions in his thoughts, concluded his consciousness was of one whole. As usual, it is unwise to rely on centuries old philosophy when modern science is available. Add the famous case of Phineas Gage, and the idea of a God-given immortal, unchanging soul becomes ludicrous. We may have many souls, but it is certain we do not have just one.

If we then dispense with the notion of a transcendent soul, where are the emperors clothes? If we grant Shapiro his idiosyncratic definitions, what is the cost of simply jettisoning the notions of morality and a soul entirely? We can still have rules to live by (call them ethics if you like), designed to achieve whatever ends we choose. Whether those choices are transcendent of our biology, or merely products of it, makes little difference. The pain and pleasure we feel at various outcomes will be just as real. Likewise, whether we punish undesired behavior to influence a transcendental soul, or to trigger biological programming to achieve a different end, the result is again the same. Whence the need for a soul and morality as Shapiro has defined it?

"...our entire legal and moral system is based on ... the presupposition that we can choose to do otherwise. We can only condemn or praise individuals if they are responsible for their actions. We don't jail squirrels for garden theft or dogs for assaulting cats -- they aren't responsible for their actions. But we routinely lock up kleptomaniacs and violent felons."

Again, Shapiro is playing word games. When our legal system says "can choose otherwise", it doesn't mean "has a soul". It refers to norms of behavior when confronted with several options. Whether that choice is a result of biological programming or a transcendent soul, the reality is the same: the person doing so is punished in an effort to motivate that person to do otherwise, and to motivate others to not repeat his actions. Where's Shapiro's beef? He tries to find some by distorting Jefferson:

"Human equality must spring from a Creator, because the presence of a soul is all that makes man human and equal. Biology suggests inherent inequality -- who would call Arnold Schwarzenegger and Stephen Hawking equal in any way? Biology suggests the sort of Hegelian social Darwinism embraced by totalitarian dictators, not the principles of equality articulated by the Founding Fathers."

Shapiro is making a category mistake here. Biology suggests nothing, it only describes what is. The "is" of biology cannot produce the "ought"s of dictatorships, social Darwinism, or any other straw man Shapiro wishes to lay at the feet of Darwin. The proof of that pudding is to note that the political inclinations of biologists are decidedly not like Shapiro speculates. Reality trumps ideology.

We also see mass equivocating with the term "equal". When we speak of human equality with regard to the law, that is the extent of it. Nothing in the Declaration of Independence or our laws refers to equality of biological abilities. To Thomas Jefferson, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Stephen Hawking were equally human, and that was all that mattered.

"Without a soul, freedom too is impossible -- we are all slaves to our biology. According to atheists, human beings are intensely complex machines. Our actions are determined by our genetics and our environment."

Again, Shapiro is using a self-serving definition of "freedom". If those actions that appear as free choices to us, which are distinct from other actions in their manner and circumstance, are based solely on our complex biology, as all evidence to date suggests, then we simply need to change our definition of "freedom", or come up with a new word for those actions. If we had a name for the mountain that housed the gods, only to find there are no gods there, it doesn't mean we no longer have a mountain. Simply change the name and be done with it. Again, Shapiro's argument has no substance.

"According to atheists, if we could somehow determine all the constituent material parts of the universe, we would be able to predict all human action, down to the exact moment at which Vice President-elect Joe Biden will pick his nose."

Here Shapiro reveals his scientific ignorance. Quantum physics reveals that reality, at its core, is stochastic, rather than 100% deterministic. So no, educated atheists think no such thing as Shapiro asserts.

"Freedom is generically defined as the power to determine action without restraint (Random House). But if action without restraint is impossible, how can we fight for freedom?"

We already know action without restraint is impossible. We cannot choose to live forever, be 30 feet tall, or flap our arms and fly to the moon. We are constrained by our biology in all choices. Why should constraints on our thoughts be any different than any other?

"If there is no God, there is no freedom to choose. If there is no freedom to choose, there is no good or evil. There is merely action and inaction. There is no way to be good for goodness sake -- that would require an act of voluntary will far beyond human capacity. Atheists simply gloss over this point."

We don't gloss over it, we just say "so what?". We don't use Shapiro's idiosyncratic self-serving definitions, so we don't have a problem. Good and evil are what we say they are. It is up to Shapiro to demonstrate that we need more.

"The American Humanist Association states on its website,, We can have ethics and values based on our built-in drives toward a moral life. Without a soul, this is wishful thinking of the highest order. Since when does biology dictate a moral drive? If it did, wouldn't man always get more rather than less moral -- wouldn't history be a long upward climb? What about the murderers, rapists, child molesters and genocidal dictators? Are they all ignoring that built-in drive toward a moral life?"

Here again we see Shapiro's scientific ignorance. The notion that a natural drive to morality would produce more moral people over time is downright Lamarckian. By his reasoning, since birds are driven to fly, they should fly progressively higher over time. Idiotic is too elevated a term for this stinker of an argument.

He also speaks as though our consciousness is one entity, entirely complete and consistent, instead of the complicated, imperfect result of evolution that it is. Human beings demonstrably have a mixture of drives that we'd categorize as moral or immoral. Murderers, rapists, and such fall on one side of the spectrum, saints and heroes on the other.

Shapiro simply ignores the reality in the nonreligious world, where the soulless simply create their own moral systems and live by them without the need for all this jibber jabber about souls. As usual, when reality conflicts with ideology, he rejects reality.

"Atheism may work for individuals. There are moral atheists and there are immoral religious people. But as a system of thought, atheism cannot be the basis for any functional state."

This is a red herring. No one is claiming that atheism can be the basis for anything. It can't, for all the same reasons not believing in Mickey Mouse can't be either. Atheism simply allows us to find a basis for a system of thought that is unencumbered by religious nonsense.

" If we wish to protect freedom and equality, we must understand the value of recognizing God. We must recognize the flame of divinity -- free will -- He implanted within each of us."

The disparity between this statement and reality is staggering. All over the world, we see the trend that those areas most concerned with recognizing God (say, the middle east, or America), protect freedom and equality far less so than godless areas like Australia or Europe. The facts fly in the face of Shapiro's assertions, as usual. Once the falsehoods are removed, no response but "so what?" is necessary to expose this facade of an argument. So morals aren't absolute? So what? If murderous Yahweh is an example of absolute morality in action, give me imperfect, changing, manmade morality any old day.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Sammie Baugh: Dead at 94

Sammy Baugh, NFL legend, dead at 94. If you don't know who Sammy Baugh is, you owe him a debt of gratitude if you are a fan of the modern football passing game. Baugh was Slingin' Sammy long before passing was cool, as well as being a great punter and safety in those old one-platoon days.

It was also the time of leather helmets without face masks, and quarterbacks calling their plays, which made this old story possible:

“One time there was a defensive lineman who was coming down on me with his fists closed,” he once told The San Antonio Express-News. “A couple of plays later, I found a play we could waste and I told our linemen to just let him come through.

“The guy got about five feet from me, and I hit him right in the forehead with the ball. He turned red and passed out. It scared the hell out of me.”

Ah, the good ol' days.

Cora Reefs Vanishing, Climate Change Major Factor

One fifth of our coral reefs have been lost worldwide, and could be completely wiped out in 30-40 years according to a new report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN):

"It's not just climate change -- which raises ocean temperatures and increases seawater acidification -- which is damaging reefs. In some parts of the world overfishing, pollution and invasive species are proving equally harmful.

Scientists are warning that reef destruction will have alarming consequences for around 500 million people who rely on coral reefs for their livelihood.

"For many developing countries like Sri Lanka and countries in East Africa the percentage of damage is much worse. Sometimes three times as high in some places," said Professor Olof Linden from the World Maritime University in Malmo, Sweden.

"In these areas we have local effects like dynamite fishing and other destructive fishing techniques combined the threat of coral mining, unmanaged tourism and all kinds of pollution from agriculture."

But overall the biggest threat to reef survival is climate change.

"The most destructive climate event to impact the coral reefs so far," said Linden, "was the 1998 El Nino which caused major coral bleaching and disrupted ecosystems all over the planet."

Scientists say reefs have recovered somewhat from those bleaching events. But the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, coupled with coral disease and human effects, have slowed their recuperation.

Coral reefs not only provide an income and food for those who live near them, but are also effective natural barriers against storm surges.

Despite the report's pessimism, researchers see some encouraging signs. Forty-five percent of the world's reefs are currently in good health and the hope remains that damaged reefs can recover and adjust to the changing conditions.

"We must focus on helping corals to adapt to climate change and on diverting people away from destructive practices such as overfishing," Linden said.

It's encouraging that 45% are in good health? That shows how bad things are. Yet while the effects of climate continue to impact the world in ways no sane person could deny, we still have people like James Inhofe touting his fake list of scientific dissenters from the AGW consensus, and ignoring data like this:

It is also worth pointing out again the flaws in the cooling-since-1998 argument. That argument is a classic in unscientific cherry-picking. See the highest red spike in the graph? That's 1998, a year who's temperatures were buoyed by a strong El Nino to be much higher than otherwise expected. This is, of course, why the AGW deniers always refer to this year. Prior to 2008, their cooling hypothesis would have failed with either 1997 or 1999 data, and still fails with 1996 or 2000 data. In any case, 2008 is still warmer than any year prior to 1995, and the trend line remains high. No denier theory uses all of the data, which is why it qualifies as unscientific crankery.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

David Harsanyi on the Dangers of the Dobson Wing of the GOP

It's good to see even more Republican commenters catching on to the drag of catering to the evangelical wing of the party. Add David Harsanyi to the list of those that are getting it:

"Sure, there are citizens who oppose gay marriage not out of bigotry or irrational loathing but out of a sense of tradition and faith. The problem is that the Dobson wing hinders Republicans from offering any feasible counter-solutions. Dobson opposes not only man-on-man matrimony but also civil unions. He opposes adoption for gay couples. Let's face it; he opposes the existence of gays.

Good luck with that.

These are not so much ideologically 'conservative' positions as they are moral injunctions. Dobson may grouse in conservative jargon about a court undermining the will of the people. But does anyone believe that Dobson will pound the dais similarly when judicial activism falls his way -- as it has on issues ranging from free speech to medical marijuana?

Aren't Republicans also (hypothetically) the party of limited government and individual freedom?

Dobson claims that Parker and other secular conservatives are trying to marginalize Christian voters, when, in effect, he has it backward. Poor Rudy Giuliani once dressed up as a woman. And Mitt Romney, yeah, he was born into a cult. And this one was divorced too many times, and the other one well, pleasing James Dobson can be a holy hassle.

No, evangelicals are not 'ailing' the Republican Party, as Parker contends, but the acceptance of the traditional values wing should not be a prerequisite for being a 'real' conservative.

Unless Jesus is going to rectify the stock market, Republicans are in for a lonely ride. And as long as the Dobson wing fools itself into believing political fortunes can be resuscitated by ruining Billy and Bobby's honeymoon, they are in for a decade-long surprise."

It reminds me of an appearance James Randi made on Larry King when some preacher mocked Randi's magic as a solution for the world's problems:

Randi: What's your answer to the world's problems?
Preacher: The answer is the answer to all problems, Jesus Christ
Randi: That's not going to stop global warming.

Harsanyi recognizes that the problem with the Dobson wing of the GOP isn't that they are there, but that they think their religious views should hold sway in public policy, even to the point of denying solid evidence to the contrary (evolution, sex education, etc.)

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Cynthia Dunbar Should Step Down

State Board of Education member Cynthia Dunbar, R-Richmond, should step down from her position, according to the Texas Freedom Network.

The Texas Freedom Network, a group that opposes religious influence on public education, is reacting to Dunbar’s newly published book, One Nation Under God, which refers to public education as "a subtly deceptive tool of perversion" and calls the establishment of public schools unconstitutional and "tyrannical."

That's pretty standard fare from the social conservatives, but the problem is that this woman is actually in charge of content in those public schools:

Dunbar has served as the state board’s District 10 representative since 2006. Her district covers 16 counties in Southeast Texas, including half of Travis County. She is a member of the board’s instruction committee, which oversees curriculum and graduation requirements, student assessment programs, library standards, and the selection of textbooks.

Having someone like Dunbar in charge of content in a public school is like having an arsonist as your chief of police. It gets worse when we read that Dunbar's allegiance is to the Bible, not the Constitution:

In her book, Dunbar writes that she believes public schools are unconstitutional because they undermine the scriptural authority of families to direct their children’s education. Her own children have been privately educated and home-schooled.

Now there's a neat legal trick: claiming something is unconstitutional, not because it conflicts with the constitution, but because it conflicts with the Bible. Perhaps Dunbar has never noticed that our government works on allegiance to the constitution, which in its first amendment clearly implies that it cannot align itself with any religious text.

It is high time these politicians have their feet held to the fire on this issue by being asked a simple question: If your understanding of the constitution conflicts with your understanding of the Bible (or whatever your arbitrarily chosen holy book is), which will hold your loyalty when you are acting as a servant of the state? It is a simple question, and one they should be able to answer easily, without dodging the issue by claiming there is no conflict, or that the constitution subsumes the Bible (I'd love to see someone explain that one in detail).

The United States is not a theocracy. We are a constitutional Democracy, with a purely secular constitution. Anyone who cannot operate within those limits needs to get out of government positions, and we can start with Cynthia Dunbar.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Teacher Tells Class Santa Isn't Real

A substitute teacher in England told her class of seven-year-olds at Blackshaw Lane Primary School:

"it's your parents who leave out presents on Christmas Day" when excited youngsters got rowdy as they talked about Christmas.

The class of seven-year-olds at Blackshaw Lane Primary School, Royton, near Oldham, Greater Manchester burst into tears and told their parents when they got home.

The parents then complained about the incident and were sent a letter by the school saying the teacher has been disciplined over the gaffe.

"My lad was nearly in tears and so was everyone else in the class - especially as it was so close to Christmas. I thought it was wrong.

While I'm not defending the teachers actions, I must ask why there is no discussion of the rightness of lying to one's children about Santa Claus? My personal experience as a child when discovering the truth was one of anger and betrayal. It was a big lie, and I was taught you weren't supposed to lie.

This is not to say healthy fantasy play is a bad thing. But when children sit and watch Barney and he comes alive when they pretend, they know he isn't real. They know they are pretending, just like they know the Grinch isn't real. They don't know Santa isn't real.

I suspect Santa is just a little god to hold the place in the children's minds and make the idea of powerful magic men all the more palatable. After all, if Santa can get all around the world in a few hours, rising from the dead after three days should be a piece of cake. Too bad the teacher didn't tell the kiddies that Jesus wasn't born in December, and that there's no reason to believe he was anything but a man like everyone else.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Unbelievable Touchdown Pass

If you think you've seen everything that can happen on a football field, guess again, and watch this. I don't think it was planned (who'd be insane enough?), but even if it was, it was an amazing play.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Friday, December 12, 2008

The Mother of All Moons Tonight

Be sure to check out the moon tonight, as we've got a conflagration of several interesting astronomical events:

"If the full moon tonight looks unusually large, it is not your imagination – it is the biggest and brightest full moon to be seen for 15 years.

Each month the Moon makes a full orbit around the Earth in a slightly oval-shaped path, and tonight it will swing by the Earth at its closest distance, or perigee. It will pass by 356,613km (221,595 miles) away, which is about 28,000km closer than average.

The unusual feature of tonight is that the perigee also coincides with a full moon, which will make it appear 14 per cent bigger and some 30 per cent brighter than most full moons this year – so long as the clouds hold off from blocking the view."

So it's going to be bigger and brighter. I wonder how the flat earthers explain this. Anyway, if that isn't interesting enough, we have a little dazzle as well to look forward to:

"Another astronomical treat that could be seen tonight and for the next two nights is the annual Geminid meteor shower, one of the year’s best displays of shooting stars. Up to 100 meteors an hour can fly across the sky. The meteors, which are easy to spot with the naked eye, appear to shoot out from the constellation Gemini, hence their name, but they can be seen all over the sky. However, with a full moon so bright, the best place to look is away from the Moon."

So crank up those telescopes, it's going to be a fun night.

Respecting Beliefs Cartoon

It's always whose ox is getting gored with the good Christians, isn't it?

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Secretary of Energy Nominee Aggressive Science Advocate

Stephen Chu, Nobel Laureate and Project Steve member is reported to be the nominee for Secretary of Energy. President Elect Obama has revealed himself to be a true radical, actually nominating an accomplished scientist for a scientific post. The Texas department of Education could use some of that thinking.

Why Faith is Poor Epistemology

On John Wilkins blog, a commenter posted the following quote:

"If falsehood, like truth, had but one face, we would be more on equal terms. For we would consider the contrary of what the liar said to be certain. But the opposite of truth has a hundred thousand faces and an infinite field. --Michel Eyquem de Montaigne"

This is a notion I have seen stated in many different ways. This is what Tolstoy was getting at as well, albeit with a more limited scope, when he uttered his famous opening to Anna Karenina: "All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way".

I argue that this leads inexorably to the conclusion that faith is poor epistemology. Faith, belief without evidence, amounts to choosing, at random, from all possible beliefs. Yet those beliefs are overwhelmingly false. Some would say the false are infinitely larger than the true, in which case the probability of a faith belief being true approaches zero.

For example, take the true statement "My car is blue". Now randomly substitute all the other grammatically appropriate words that can be put in that sentence. "My car is red", "My car is green", "My cat is blue", "My teacher is blue", etc. The ratio (true statements) / (false statements) is clearly approaching zero. I realize this is not stated in a mathematically rigorous way, but I have no doubt it could be, although I'm ready to give up the whole idea if a mathematician can show me why I should. Likewise, I understand there can be difficulties in the semantics. How wrong is wrong? When exactly does "blue" become "green". However, these difficulties seem biased to my favor, since semantic difficulties erode the confidence in any statement, which is the thrust of my general argument. If I say you shouldn't be so confident because a disease like measles exists, it hardly helps your argument to challenge my definition of disease as being too specific. That's the sort of argument creationist trolls make.

So mathematically, logically, and pragmatically, faith is a loser.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Kopbusters Bust Vice in Odessa

We've all read the stories alleging police corruption in the war on drugs. Well now a group called Kopbusters is setting up the crooked cops:

"KopBusters rented a house in Odessa, Texas and began growing two small Christmas trees under a grow light similar to those used for growing marijuana. When faced with a suspected marijuana grow, the police usually use illegal FLIR cameras and/or lie on the search warrant affidavit claiming they have probable cause to raid the house. Instead of conducting a proper investigation which usually leads to no probable cause, the Kops lie on the affidavit claiming a confidential informant saw the plants and/or the police could smell marijuana coming from the suspected house.

The trap was set and less than 24 hours later, the Odessa narcotics unit raided the house only to find KopBuster’s attorney waiting under a system of complex gadgetry and spy cameras that streamed online to the KopBuster’s secret mobile office nearby."

Be sure to check out the videos, they are hilarious.

What is not so hilarious is there was absolutely no probable cause in this case, just a couple of grow lights and some Christmas trees. So how did the cops even know to break in, much less get a warrant to do so.

Hopefully the amount of corruption caused by the war on drugs will get enough publicity that we as a nation will finally take a rational approach to our drug problems, and stop thinking that locking up 1% of our population, the highest in the world, is the answer.

War on Christmas Nonsense with Michael Reagan

Poor Michael Reagan. It must be tough for him to be so out of touch with society, as I've chronicled before. Now, he's at it again, buying into the war-on-Christmas nonsense, and adds a heaping helping of his own brand if idiocy to the mix.

"Christmas is once again upon us, and we can expect to witness countless new displays of the rampant secularization of what is meant to be a joyous celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ."

Earth to Michael: Christmas stopped being about Jesus' birthday to much of America long ago. It was never actually Jesus' birthday anyway, which more likely occurred sometime in the fall or spring. Now it is mostly about presents, and general goodwill. but not for Michael Reagan, no sirree bob. It's his way or the highway:

"My fellow Christians should join me in pledging never again to shop in any commercial establishment where the clerks greet us with that 'Happy Holiday' greeting as an insult to our religious beliefs..."

This is yet another example of the black-and-white, for-us-or-against-us mentality prevalent among the protractedly pious. Not supporting them is ipso facto an attack against them. The idea of a neutral, or uninvolved party, is anathema to them. Poor Michael Reagan, time locked in the fantasy good-old-days, doesn't seem to understand that there are more views than Christian one's in late December, and "Happy Holidays" (first promoted by that left-wing radical Bing Crosby) covers them all while excluding no one.

Then again, when MR spells out his understanding of the relationship of Christianity and the US government, one can see the source of his confusion:

"We should never again vote for a candidate who does not recognize the right of Christians to have their sacred religious observances recognized by all levels of government, and who will not vigorously oppose all attempts to take Christ out of Christmas and Christmas out of the calendar."

Excuse me? Christians have a RIGHT to recognition by our government? Whence comes this right? In what government document does it appear? For someone who supports strict constructionist judges who don't "legislating from the bench" and "invent rights", Sr. Reagan sure doesn't have a problem doing so himself.

Let's review: Amendment 1 of the Constitution of the United States:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..."

It couldn't be more clear: not only do Christians not have any such right as MR envisions, but the government is strictly forbidden to act in that manner. Likewise, the government is also forbidden from taking Christ out of Christmas. Christians like Michael Reagan are free to have as much Christ in their Christmas as they like. They just can't force the 10-30% (depending on how the question is asked) who have a different religion, or none, to do the same if we choose not to. That sir, is freedom, and it applies to everyone, not just those that agree with you. Try it sometime.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Guitar Hero = Air Guitar with a Prop

Apparently the popularity of Guitar Hero has led to a spike in guitar sales. However, I'm with Jim fiore on this one. Before we get too excited about the prospect of millions of great new guitar players, let's wait and see how many of these guitars actually get played, and how many are left to collect dust as the new owners find that playing a real instrument is a lot harder than learning a game.

Burt Prelutsky: Anti-Intellectual Extraordinaire

No one embodies the anti-intellectualism of the GOP like Burt Prelutsky, a man seemingly incapable of dealing with facts or logic, instead making shit up at every turn, and embracing the worst attributes of the proudly ignorant. Take this opening line from a recent column:

I admit I am not an economist. The truth is, I have trouble balancing my checkbook. Having said that, I can’t figure out how we can compete in a global economy.

Of course you can't. You are an economic ignoramus, you all but said so yourself. Try shutting your yapper until a topic arises that you do know something about, and, pray tell, even have some serious academic accomplishment in, and then we will all sit upright and listen. Until then, your opinion is no more valuable than a random man on the street. Leno and Letterman have pretty much shown us what that is worth.

Moving on to another column, Burt shows us his best MSU in a gallop that would make Gish proud:

"The fact is, I am always dealing with issues, be it the left’s adoration of the U.N.; their cockeyed belief in man-made global warming; their constant attacks on the first two amendments; their intolerance of Christian traditions and symbols, which, by the way, relies entirely on an intentional misreading of the Constitution, a document which does not and never has contained the words “separation of church and state”; their contempt for the U.S. military; the alleged supremacy of gay, Islamic and illegal alien, rights; their opposition to capital punishment; their support of judges who legislate from the bench; and their affinity for professors and journalists who feel their duty is to indoctrinate rather than educate or report."

If you want to know what someone making shit up looks like, this is it. Notice Burt quotes no one, cites no sources to back his claims. The reason is obvious: it's MSU, fiction, warped fantasies of the dreaded, but ever elusive "liberals" from Burt's paranoid little mind. No one like that exists. Adoring the UN? Who does so? Cockeyed belief Burt? Sorry, but when one's view syncs with practically every scientific organization in the world, it is those that deny it (ie YOU) that are the cockeyed ones. Constant attacks on the first amendment Burt? That's your bailiwick. oooo, Burt noticed the exact phrase "separation of church and state" doesn't appear. Neither does "fair trial" or "separation of powers", but like the separation of church and state, is clearly implied, both by the actual wording of the first amendment, and the history and notes written by the founders at the time.

Contempt for the US military Burt? Who has such contempt? Where do they write? Opposing a deceptively begun, and incompetently implemented, military strategy isn't contempt Burt. It's respect for a valued commodity, one those you support seem to want to waste at any opportunity. Supremacy of gay, Islamic and illegal alien rights Burt? Who anywhere, has made such arguments? Contrary to the twists in your little mind, disallowing the enforcement of narrow Christian edicts is not the same as placing some people's rights above others. Your right to free speech does not give you the right to shout me down when I am exercising mine.

Legislating from the bench Burt? Who does this? Where? Be sure to explain objectively how that differs from "a judge who made a decision Burt disagrees with". See, you never complain about judges being activist when you agree with their decisions. You never say a judge is "an unelected official overriding the will of the people" when his view squares with yours. So "legislating from the bench" appears to be nothing more than special pleading, a logical fallacy. Prove me wrong.

And sorry, but anyone who defends the likes of Fox news, or you, has no business whining about journalists who feel their duty is to indoctrinate rather than educate or report. Your every utterance is designed to indoctrinate rather than educate, which is exactly why you make shit up rather than dealing with documented evidence, and the findings of expert investigations. This is also another case of special pleading. For Burt, the working definition of "indoctrinate" is "teaching something with which I personally disagree". Teaching that there is a near universal scientific consensus on anthropocentric global warming isn't indoctrination Burt. It's educating. Ditto for teaching evolution, or rejecting abstinence-only sex education, or any of a host of positions that conservatives consider indoctrination that are simply reports of realities the conservatives wish weren't so.

This is the attitude that got the GOP crushed in 2008, and it will happen again if you keep this up. You cannot lie and get away with it any more. You cannot attack a nonexistent enemy any more. You cannot make shit up any more. The internet has made it too easy to expose your lies, and we enjoy doing it.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Kevin Beck on the Atheist Sign, and Why it isn't Extreme

Kevin Beck uncorks a great fantasy of what we atheists might do with manger scenes were we so inclined to vandalism and theft as are the Christians:

"At Pharyngula, PZ Myers is urging people to not respond in kind by defacing religious symbols. He's right, of course, but fantasizing about ways of wrestling in the metaphorical mud with the righteously blinkered [can be fun]. For my part, I decided that in about a week and a half, I'm going to head out in the middle of the night, gather up the many nativity scenes on locals' lawns (I'm in Virginia, remember), and arrange the whole collection in front of the nearest church in the form of a massive orgy including fifty-seven wise men, nineteen prematurely priapic baby Jesuses, one hundred and twelve drunken shepherds wearing Yankees hats, several camels and donkeys wearing Red Sox jerseys, and six toothless crack whores with angel wings. To this menagerie I would add a Domino's pizza delivery boy with a Hitler 'stache driving a chartreuse-colored cement truck over a monument of the Ten Commandments covered in Crips graffiti, the lyrics to Stairway To Heaven, and a Fibonacci sequence; a JumboTron showing the members of the Backstreet Boys re-enacting the Scopes Monkey Trial; and a twenty-foot-tall statue of Richard Dawkins wearing a huge, genial grin and nothing else.

Once the mescaline wore off, I realized that this would involve quite a bit of work."

PZ is right of course. Acting like them would sacrifice the moral high ground. Watch those irony meters. As for the atheist sign, you could certainly be a lot more in-your-face than this:

"At this season of the Winter Solstice may reason prevail. There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds."

Nonetheless, some would have us believe this is as bad as describing evolution as "the secular society trying to drive Satan into the minds of our children." To that I say it isn't even close to being as extreme. "Religion enslaves minds" is at worst, an exaggeration. At best it is an accurate description of reality. The religious people that do indeed enslave minds may make up a minority (I hope) of religious people, but there are still millions of them. Further, there are good arguments to be made that religion enslaves minds per se.

By contrast, "secular society is trying to drive Satan into the minds of our children by teaching them evolution" is, at best, creative fiction. At worst, it is dismal incoherent fiction. The number of supporters of evolution who are trying to drive Satan into the minds of children is exactly zero, and logically evolution has little to do with Satan anyway.

Chalk this up as yet another example of the inherent bias in our society in favor of religion. The tiniest atheistic comment is considered the antagonistic equivalent of the most idiotic inflammatory apologetic rhetoric.

What a College Football Playoff Would Look Like

Those of you who are big college football fans, and have been yearning for a playoff, well, let me kill you with the potential. I've given a lot of thought to what a good playoff system would look like, and after watching the BCS show us all the different ways to do it poorly, I think it could really be done well, and would generate excitement to make that of March Madness pale in comparison.

My approach is based in the essentials of competition. Each competitor should have exactly the same chance, in principle, to win the championship. Opinions should hold as little sway as possible. Rules should be as objective as they can be, and of course, known in advance.

With over 100 Division I teams, and at least 11 major conferences, having a playoff with 8 or fewer teams is unworkable if we are to remain within our stated constraints. There just are not enough slots. 16 teams is the ideal number. That would take four weeks, and compared to participation in the bowls, would add three games to the schedule of only two teams (the finalists), two games to the two losing semifinalists, and a single game to the four losing quarter finalists. With the parity in college football, the notion of students missing a lot of time because of the playoff is tough to argue.

So on to it. Start with conference champions. There are too many conferences to let in all of them, but there should also be no favoritism in cutting down the numbers. No conference champion should get in merely on conference reputation or political pull. Since we are all about settling this on the field, make it about what the conferences did on the field. So, as in the case this year with the Mountain West and the PAC-10, the Pac-10 might have the reputation, but it was the Mountain West that did it on the field. So the MW champ goes, whereas the PAC-10 champ will have to find another way in. Send the champions of the conferences with overall winning records against all other Division I opponents. Never mind their records. For too long teams from the power conferences like the SEC and Big-12 have seen themselves overlooked because they beat each other, while lesser teams in even lesser conferences were given top ranking. So, here are the Conference Champions making the playoff:

Big 12: Oklahoma
Big 10: Penn State
Big East: Cincinnati
ACC: Virginia Tech
Mountain West: Utah
SEC: Florida

After the winning conference champions, it's time to rectify the other major problem with past seasons: the undefeated team that is left out. No more should we have an undefeated Auburn or Tulane excluded. It doesn't matter if we think they will win it. The point is letting the competition happen, and no one has more claim to a shot at the title than those who've defeated all comers. So welcome the undefeated to the dance:

Boise State (12-0)

Now comes the tough part. There isn't much else that can be done from a performance-on-the-field perspective that makes much sense, so we'll fall back on the other two techniques we've relied on: polls and computers*. Alternate down the polls and computer ratings to fill out the entries. Computers are ideal for this job per our criteria. Too many people point to imperfections in computer ratings as reasons not to use them, but they focus on the wrong issue. No selection system is going to be without flaws. But the one thing we know about computers: they are completely fair and objective. Texas and Texas Southern have equal chances of winning in the computers estimation. As for the polls, as much as I hate them, there is still some value to human judgement over these other methods. If there is a team that for some reason has captured the imagination and excitement of the voters while garnering no objective arguments, let 'em in. It'll be fun to watch them get crushed. With all that in tow, here are the remaining playoff teams as chosen by the polls and the computers:

Poll: Texas (12-1)
Computer: Texas Tech (11-1)
Poll: Alabama (12-1)
Computer: USC (11-1)
Poll: Ohio State (10-2)
Computer: TCU (10-2)
Poll: Oklahoma State (9-3)
Computer: Georgia Tech (9-3)
Poll: Oregon (9-3)

Now we use the BCS standings to seed the teams, and slide the seed of teams from the same conference as necessary to keep them as separated as possible. They've already had their conference battles, let's see some new match ups in the playoffs. If conference foes meet in the playoffs, it should be in the finals. Finally, the final four teams should be receded. It is just one more way of placing value on the regular season, and lessons the possibility of a random chance tilting the playing field. So here are the brackets:

1 Oklahoma vs 19 Virginia Tech
8 Penn State vs 9 Boise State

4 Alabama vs 13 Oklahoma State
5 USC vs 11 TCU

2 Florida vs 17 Oregon
7 Texas Tech vs 10 Ohio State

3 Texas vs 14 Georgia Tech
6 Utah vs 12 Cincinnati

So who can complain? #15 Georgia, #16 BYU, and #18 Michigan State, but not about much. As for the rest of us, we'd get to enjoy a month of the best college football has to offer, and a championship decided on the field, as it should be. Let's hope President-elect Obama, after he's dealt with the sadly numerous serious problems facing the country, can finally get us the college football playoff we deserve.


*The computer ratings currently used in the BCS rankings are required to not make use of scores, and are based entirely on wins and losses. Not only is this absurd, since margin of victory is a reasonable proxy for relative skill, but the polls most certainly will give a team that wins by 40 more credit than a team that wins by three. However, the most sinister effect of the no-score policy is to effectively block teams from weak conferences from the possibility of playing in the title game, since their only hope of obtaining a high computer ranking is to beat their opponents by wide margins. Utah or Boise State could have won all their games 100-0 and would still not be rated any higher than the 5th and 8th rankings they obtained. This inherent injustice in the system desperately needs to be changed.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Tycho's Supernova Identified

After over 400 years Tycho Brahe's new star in Cassiopeia has been identified as a "thermonuclear explosion of a white dwarf star with a nearby companion""

The research, which analyzed a "light echo" from the long-ago event, is presented in Thursday's issue of the journal Nature by scientists in Germany, Japan and the Netherlands.

The story of what's commonly called Tycho's supernova began on Nov. 11, 1572, when Brahe was astonished to see what he thought was a brilliant new star in the constellation Cassiopeia. The light eventually became as bright as Venus and could be seen for two weeks in broad daylight. After 16 months, it disappeared.

Working before telescopes were invented, Brahe documented with precision that unlike the moon and the planets, the light's position didn't move in relation to the stars. That meant it lay far beyond the moon. That was a shock to the contemporary view that the distant heavens were perfect and unchanging.

The event inspired Brahe to commit himself further to studying the stars, launching a career of meticulous observations that helped lay the foundations of early modern astronomy, said Michael Shank, a professor of the history of science at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

It is nothing short of astonishing that such a discovery could be made without the aid of telescopes.

Steve Chapman: Finally a Republican Talking Sense on Gay Issues

For proof that at least some Republicans get it on gay issues, check out Steve Chapman's article on the case of two Florida brothers, formerly neglected, who came to be:

"in excellent health, well-behaved, performing well in school and bonded to" their foster family. They have a dog, a cat and a rabbit. They attend a church.

Yet the state is looking to remove them from the home simply because their foster parents are gay, and the law does not allow gay people to adopt. Chapman exposes the flawed reasoning behind such laws:

"And for what? Solely to shield them from the supposed perils of gay parents. Gays are treated as more dangerous than felons, drug offenders and known child abusers -- none of whom is categorically barred from adopting.

As it happens, those dangers are mostly imaginary. According to evidence cited by the judge, gays are slightly more likely than heterosexuals to suffer psychiatric problems, engage in substance abuse and smoke, but so are lots of other groups that are allowed to adopt. The American Psychological Association says it finds no difference between the parenting of homosexuals and heterosexuals.

Would orphaned and abandoned children be better off if every one of them could be raised by stable, loving, heterosexual couples? Possibly. But that's not an option. For many children, the alternative to having gay adoptive parents is having no parents at all."

This is where ideology meets reality, and it is encouraging that at least some in the GOP are willing to truly put the interests of the children first. Chapman's close is refreshingly blunt:

"The Florida ban is simple and stark. It says, in effect, that a child may not be adopted by gays even when the adoption is in the best interest of the child. That's the main reason the court overturned it: It violates the rights of children and 'causes harm to the children it is meant to protect.'

Those who want to keep gays from adopting think that's a small price to pay for blocking the 'homosexual agenda.' But then, they're not the ones who will be paying it."

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Star Parker Shows How to See What You Want to See

This week's seeing-what-you-want-to-see award goes to Star Parker this gem:

"In this same Pew survey, 25 percent of all Democrats called themselves conservatives. But among these same Democrats, 35 percent of blacks call themselves conservative compared to 21 percent of whites.

Why? Blacks are social conservatives. Blacks understand the havoc that moral relativism has caused in their communities. And, this is also the case with Latinos."

Huh? If 35% of black Democrats are conservatives, then 65% of black Democrats are NOT conservatives. This little bit of logic escaped Parker, who is grasping for any straw available on which to claim that blacks agree with her, even in the face of the fact that nearly 2 in 3 don't.

Military Tramples First Amendment with Purpose Driven Suicide Prevention Program

In an effort to cut down on military suicides, a new program called "A New Approach To Suicide Prevention: Developing Purpose-Driven Airmen", modelled after Rick Warren's "A Purpose Driven Life", is being pushed which violates the constitution, history, and science. In particular, the program slanders Charles Darwin with some of the most blatant lies I've ever seen, and this coming from someone who has been watching Ben Stein a lot lately. Consider this slide:

Humanism is depicted as love of self, with Charles Darwin as an example. This is laughable to anyone who actually studied humanism, or Charles Darwin's life. Here is a man who dedicated much of his life to painstaking scientific research, eschewing the typical pleasures of life for hours and hours studying barnacles. If Darwin was an example of love of self, then Jesus was an example of an early MMA fighter. As for humanism, it is in many ways the opposite of love of self. It posits humanity as the focus, working together to solve humanities problems.

But wait, just when you think that is as bad as it could get, along comes the next slide:

It is difficult to know where to start with this one, but it is a testimony to our horrible education system that this could evoke any reaction but disbelieving laughter. As we all know, evolution is not chance, quite the opposite. The brutal culling of the herd meted out by natural selection is about as nonrandom as one can get. However, even granting that premise, how does one get from there to the notion that man is the center of the universe? The overwhelming message from evolutionary science is that man is the center of nothing. We are but one branch on the bush of life, no more important than any other, and just as likely to end one day. Further, the impact our environment has on us implies that we may be self-focused at our own peril.

The third slide makes use of some common political lies of the right wing, but one does not normally see them set out so clearly and blatantly:

That's right boy and girls, our military is now telling our soldiers that Darwin was the father of communism. Never mind that he lived and died decades earlier, and that his writings and theories were banned by Stalin, as they espoused a natural explanation for human behavior, contrary to The Party line that man could be shaped into any form desired. Finally, it all ends with the lie that evolution implies atheism, and an appeal for the soldiers to accept faith.

Obviously this program is unconstitutional, as well as embarrassingly ignorant, and should be ceased immediately. It also, ironically enough, sends exactly the wrong signals as to how we should treat the enemy in this little conflict of ours. For I'd like to see where the Islamic terrorists that blew up the towers in 9/11 would be placed in the program. Whose view of the world most resembles that of Osama Bin Laden, Rick Warren's or Charles Darwin's? Warren all the way. Yet in this war between religious factions, scientists and atheists are blamed. It is doublethink run amok. Orwell would be proud. The rest of us should be embarrassed by this national disgrace.

For the full slide show, go here.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Science vs Religion on Dispute Resolution

I thought a comment from RBH on Pandas Thumb on the difference between how scientists resolve disputes and how religious pseudoscientists do so was worthy of a post:

"It’s also been interesting to trace the history of the various anti-evolution organizations in the 20th century. Almost without exception they’ve been riven by theological schisms. Several collapsed on that account. And it’s apparent why. There’s no generally agreed methodology for resolving conflicts in theology. Contrast that with science, where it is agreed that the appeal is in the end to empirical evidence. Even when scientists disagree on the interpretation of currently available evidence, they will agree on the nature of new evidence that will settle the issue.

In general, the creationist organizations have tried two methods to prevent schisms. One is to enforce theological orthodoxy. So, for example, organizations like the Institute for Creation Research and the 7th Day Adventist Geosciences Research Institute have pretty strict specifications of beliefs that must be signed on to. That has resulted in ‘apostate’ members being forced out on occasion to maintain theological purity.

The other method is to consciously play for a “big tent” as the intelligent design movement has tried to do. The first to do that was the American Scientific Affiliation, which was originally founded as an anti-evolution organization, but metamorphosed into a broader membership. Now, though, it’s mainly in the progressive creationist to theistic evolutionist range. It has had young earth creationists as members – Henry Morris, for example, was an ASA member for some years before and after he founded ICR – but my impression is that most have left it. So while it wasn’t as spectacular as some of the wrecks (e.g., the Religion and Science Association lasted about a year before dissolving) even the ASA has seen schisms.

My basic contention is that if the ID movement succeeds in defeating naturalism and the Enlightenment and institute some sort of “theistic science,” the very next day the purges will begin and blood will flow in the aisles and over the pews as they fight it out over purely theological issues. Phillip Johnson thinks they’ll have a grand time debating the age of the earth. Baloney. They’ll have a bloody fight over it."

Electoral Shift in 2012

According to a study by polidata, here are the states slated to gain or lose house seats (and therefore electoral votes) when reapportionment happens based on the 2010 census:

Arizona (McCain): +2
California (Obama): -1
Illinois (Obama): -1
Iowa (Obama): -1
Florida (Obama): +2
Georgia (McCain): +1
Louisiana (McCain): -1
Massachusetts (Obama): -1
Michigan (Obama): -1
Minnesota (Obama): -1
Missouri (McCain): -1
Nevada (Obama): +1
New Jersey (Obama): -1
New York (Obama): -2
North Carolina (Obama): +1
Ohio (Obama): -2
Pennsylvania (Obama): -1
Oregon (Obama): +1
South Carolina (McCain): +1
Texas (McCain): +4
Utah (McCain): +1

That's a net gain of 7 electoral votes for McCain states, as the population continues to migrate south.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Palin's Turkey

What better closing for Sarah Palin than a turkey getting slaughtered while she babbles on cluelessly. It is likely to have far more staying power than this clueless piece of pap that says, I kid you not:

"We thank you for your passionate, hopeful, articulate, advocacy of common sense conservative values"

as well as praising her dignity in, you know, falsely accusing other candidates of consorting with the enemy. You betchya.

Good riddance Sarah Palin.

Roger Ebert on Expelled

Roger Ebert finally gets around to reviewing Expelled, and boy does he:

"The more you know about evolution, or simple logic, the more you are likely to be appalled by the film. No one with an ability for critical thinking could watch more than three minutes without becoming aware of its tactics. It isn't even subtle. Take its treatment of Dawkins, who throughout his interviews with Stein is honest, plain-spoken, and courteous. As Stein goes to interview him for the last time, we see a makeup artist carefully patting on rouge and dusting Dawkins' face. After he is prepared and composed, after the shine has been taken off his nose, here comes plain, down-to-earth, workaday Ben Stein. So we get the vain Dawkins with his effete makeup, talking to the ordinary Joe.

I have done television interviews for more than 40 years. I have been on both ends of the questions. I have news for you. Everyone is made up before going on television. If they are not, they will look like death warmed over. There is not a person reading this right now who should go on camera without some kind of makeup. Even the obligatory "shocked neighbors" standing in their front yards after a murder usually have some powder brushed on by the camera person. Was Ben Stein wearing makeup? Of course he was. Did he whisper to his camera crew to roll while Dawkins was being made up? Of course he did. Otherwise, no camera operator on earth would have taped that. That incident dramatizes his approach throughout the film. If you want to study Gotcha! moments, start here.

That is simply one revealing fragment. This film is cheerfully ignorant, manipulative, slanted, cherry-picks quotations, draws unwarranted conclusions, makes outrageous juxtapositions (Soviet marching troops representing opponents of ID), pussy-foots around religion (not a single identified believer among the ID people), segues between quotes that are not about the same thing, tells bald-faced lies, and makes a completely baseless association between freedom of speech and freedom to teach religion in a university class that is not about religion."

Put a fork in it, this one's done.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Defamation of Religion Resolution Threatens Basic Freedoms

The U.N. has turned the concepts of freedom and tolerance on their heads by passing a resolution that:

"...provides international cover for domestic anti-blasphemy laws, and there are a number of people who are in prison today because they have been accused of committing blasphemy," said Bennett Graham, international program director with the Becket Fund, a think tank aimed at promoting religious liberty.

"Those arrests are made legitimate by the UN body's (effective) stamp of approval."

This turns the entire concept of freedom and tolerance on its head. Now tolerance means not allowing people to speak freely, and freedom of religion means not having anyone criticize your religion. While the issue is nonbinding, the trend of world attitude on this issue is troubling, and legally tenuous:

"Defamation carries a particular legal meaning and application in domestic systems that makes the term wholly unsuitable in the context of religions," says the U.S. government in a response on the issue to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

"A defamatory statement . . . is more than just an offensive one. It is also a statement that is false."

The paper also points out the legal difficulty of even defining the term "defamation" since "one individual's sincere belief that his or her creed alone is the truth conflicts with another's sincerely held view of the truth."

Indeed, an even more basic problem with anti-defamation laws is determining what is and is not a religion. Since religious views are to a large degree faith-based and subjective, one could make up a religion on the fly. My religion could be to watch football on Sundays, and if you tell me that's stupid, then you defamed me. Not a real religion you say? What determines a real one from a fake one? In the world of faith religion occupies, what meaning do "real" and "fake" have anyway? The application of such rules result in de facto privileges for religions deemed "real", and tough noogies for everyone else. The Canadians got it right:

"From the human rights side of things, this is the opposite of what is supposed to be happening," said Becket's Graham. "Instead of protecting an individual, this resolution protects an idea, and relies on hurt feelings as a source of judgment. It can only lead to a jurisprudence of hurt feelings."

Canada says governments have abused laws against defamation or contempt of religions to "prosecute and imprison journalists, bloggers, academics students and peaceful political dissidents."

The Iranian parliament, for example, is currently weighing a draft amendment to its penal code that would impose capital punishment for apostasy.

But in an irony given Canada's stance, an anti-blasphemy law remains in the Criminal Code. Experts point out it has not been used for a prosecution in more than 70 years.

There's also consensus among opponents of the UN measure that people most likely to be targeted by anti-blasphemy laws are Muslims in Muslim countries.

"Pakistan has the (toughest) anti-blasphemy laws, and while they are certainly used against lots of minority religions, they are used mainly against Muslims," said Graham.

"They have been used to intimidate business partners, suppress any reformist ideas, jail people who discuss women's rights."

There is little more unique to America than the value we place on free speech. "I disagree with what you say, but will fight to defend your right to say it" is a value worth fighting for, and one that demands an uncompromising attitude. This is the threat Islam poses for America. It's not bombs we should fear, nor is it bombs we should fight with. It is the potential change in world culture that could occur if the hardliners get their way and enforce this form of Sharia on the world that we should fear. It is a war of ideas, we have the better ones, and we should unapologetically say so.

Nothing is beyond reproach, nothing is sacred. We will and should criticize Jesus, Mohammad, Moses, George Bush, Barack Obama, whenever we are inclined to, and to Hell with those who think otherwise. For too long bad ideas have gotten a pass from criticism in the marketplace of ideas. No longer.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Daniel Henninger Plays the Speculation Game

Add Daniel Henninger to the list of idiots blaming the financial crisis on ... wait for it ... atheists! You know the atheists - they are the people deemed too small a group to have their concerns considered by society writ large, but are more than capable of being responsible for all of society's ills.

"It has been my view that the steady secularizing and insistent effort at dereligioning America has been dangerous. That danger flashed red in the fall into subprime personal behavior by borrowers and bankers, who after all are just people. Northerners and atheists who vilify Southern evangelicals are throwing out nurturers of useful virtue with the bathwater of obnoxious political opinions."

As usual, there is no evidence to support any of these contentions: that there is any connection between secularization and deregulation, that those criticial of Southern evangelicals are predominantly atheists or Northerners, that said evangelicals offer anything in the way of unique useful virtue, or that the rejection of their anachronistic view of the world has anything to do with politics. Henninger is simply making shit up as he goes. I believe when people do that with respect to Christians, they are called bigots.

"The point for a healthy society of commerce and politics is not that religion saves, but that it keeps most of the players inside the chalk lines. We are erasing the chalk lines."

Right, which is why our prisons are overflowing with believers, and religious people (Mark Foley, Ted Haggert, etc.) are constantly involved in scandel. Simple observable reality suggests little connection between piety and morality. When considering that religion underlies and fuels much of the terrorism in the world, one can be forgiven for considering the possibility that religion undermines morality.

Furthermore, secularization is not about erasing the chalk lines of right and wrong behavior. It is about placing them in a more productive and relevant place than goat herders living 2,000 years ago could have possibly imagined.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Bush's Biggest Regret: Bad Iraqi Intelligence

When asked what the biggest regret of his presidency was, President Bush said:

"The biggest regret of all the presidency has to have been the intelligence failure in Iraq," Bush said 50 days before president-elect Barack Obama's inauguration. "I wish the intelligence had been different, I guess."

"A lot of people put their reputations on the line and said the weapons of mass destruction is a reason to remove Saddam Hussein. It wasn't just people in my administration," Bush told ABC.

The president won't get much argument on that one, although sadly there are many competitors. The president deserves kudos on his integrity to finally admit that the stated reason we went to Iraq was false. One wonders what his sycophantic followers will do now, having insisted for so long that there were so WMDs in Iraq.

Worse yet, Bush ruins his rare moment of clarity with yet another example of the intellectual laziness that so marred his administration:

But Bush refused to say whether he would have ordered the March 2003 invasion if he had known that late dictator Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction, calling it "an interesting question."

More than 4,200 US troops have died in Iraq since Bush launched the war after a months-long public campaign centered on the charge -- later proved false -- that Saddam possessed vast stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction.

"That is a do-over that I can't do. It's hard for me to speculate," said Bush, who declared as recently as last week that Saddam's ouster was "the right decision then -- and it is the right decision today."

What a load of buffalo bagels. It's not hard at all, especially with the 20/20 hindsight that there were no WMDs. Of course he wouldn't have, if for no other reason than he would never have gotten congressional approval without them. To say that he would have ordered the attack anyway would be to brand him insane. After all, the bad intelligence would not have been a big deal if attacking Iraq was the right decision anyway! 4,200 Americans, and nearly a million Iraqis are dead due to that bad information, and Bush says its just too damned hard to say if he'd have chosen to keep them all alive were he not misled by bad information.

To see how insane that is, imagine me falsely telling you there is a fire in a huge building, and that you need to pull the fire alarm. You do so, only to set off a panic, leading to hundreds of people being trampled to death. Then you are interviewed by the local media, who you tell that the biggest mistake you made was listening to me, and yet, its just too damned hard to speculate as to whether you might have pulled the alarm anyway.

No it isn't. George W. Bush, attacking Iraq was one giant history-making fuck up. We CLEARLY would not have done it were it not for the WMD scare. If you wish to blame those who gave you the relied-upon misinformation, go right ahead. There is no doubt plenty of blame to spread around. But please, at the end of a presidency filled with intelligence-insulting moments, don't end it by giving us this intellectually dishonest steaming pile. For once, be honest, and admit a mistake. This country has many problems, due to many mistakes, and there can be no correction of mistakes without acknowledging their existence. America has been in denial for too long.

Life Sugar in the Galaxy

A molecule called glycolaldehyde, which helps build Ribonucleic acid (RNA), a key ingredient in many abiogenesis hypotheses, has been discovered in a potentially habitable region of our galaxy.

"This is an important discovery as it is the first time glycolaldehyde, a basic sugar, has been detected towards a star-forming region where planets that could potentially harbor life may exist," Serena Viti of University College London said in a press release.

"The discovery of an organic sugar molecule in a star forming region of space is very exciting and will provide incredibly useful information in our search for alien life,” said Keith Mason, chief executive of the England’s Science and Technology Facilities Council.