Saturday, February 28, 2009

More Dishonesty from Will and the Post on Global Warming

George Will has responded to the accusations of falsehoods in his recent article on global warming. However in the classic style of a crank, he misrepresents the information, and quotemines the correction issued by the organization he misrepresented in the first place.

Recall that Will took a statement from the Arctic Climate Research Center about Arctic ice levels on January 1st, and proclaimed it true of Arctic ice levels as of his article date, February 15th. However, the statement was not true then (this frequent change in data is why short term trends are irrelevant to the AGW hypothesis), as the ACRC made clear:

"We do not know where George Will is getting his information, but our data shows that on February 15, 1979, global sea ice area was 16.79 million sq. km and on February 15, 2009, global sea ice area was 15.45 million sq. km. Therefore, global sea ice levels are 1.34 million sq. km less in February 2009 than in February 1979. This decrease in sea ice area is roughly equal to the area of Texas, California, and Oklahoma combined."

And how does the ever-honest George Will represent the ACRC's response? As follows:

So the column accurately reported what the center had reported. But on Feb. 15, the Sunday the column appeared, the center, then receiving many e-mail inquiries, issued a statement saying "we do not know where George Will is getting his information." The answer was: From the center, via Daily Tech. Consult the center's Web site where, on Jan. 12, the center posted the confirmation of the data that this column subsequently reported accurately.

There you have it: classic quote mining. Will plucked out the one sentence, left out the content that demonstrated objectively that he was wrong, and repeated the falsehood.

Looks like the cult of AGW denial has claimed another victim: George Where-did-my-credibility-go Will and whoever is foolish enough to trust what his columns say. Apparently Will has been rotating crank talking points on Global Warming for quite some time, oblivious to the ever-changing nature of science. And the science-deniers wonder why the rest of the world is leaving them behind.

Teh Stupid Runs Deep in the McDowell Family

Looks like Sean McDowell is following in dear old Dad's footsteps and dishing out heapings of stupid. The most recent edition has him blaming the recent near-fatal chimpanzee attack on...wait for it...Charles Darwin:

"Nevertheless, we need to ask a basic question: How could something like this happen? How is it that we live in a culture where people think it's safe to have a chimpanzee as a pet? Where do people get the idea that we ought to take a wild animal and treat it like a human being? The chimp owner treated the animal like a son who ate at her table, slept in her house, and even drove her car.

Ideas do not exist in a vacuum. In fact, there is one culprit for the idea that human beings and chimps are really not that different and should be treated that way: Darwinism. The Judeo-Christian tradition has always taught that humans and chimps are different in terms of kind (Genesis 1-2). While animals are a good part of God's creation, it is uniquely humans who bear the image of God. Many animals are wild and should be kept that way. On the other hand, Darwin propagated the idea that humans and chimps have a common ancestor and only differ in terms of degree (See Darwin's The Descent of Man). If humans and chimps are really not that different, then why not expect chimps to act civilly? After all, ideas have consequences.

Last week the world celebrated Darwin's 200th birthday. Universities placed tributes to Darwinism on their home page (examples include Oxford and Cambridge) and major networks such as BBC ran extensive programs devoted to Darwin's great contribution to the world.

Yet, ironically, this week we witness a brutal act that seems to logically follow from Darwin's ideas. You may be wondering how I can possibly link Darwin to this atrocious event. But think about it, if humans are deeply related to chimps then why not expect them to act that way?"

Ahem, evolution says chimps and humans seperated soem 4-8 million years ago, and that dramatic genetic changes can occur in such a time. So McDowell is grossly mistaken to say that evolution predicts chimps will act like people. On the other hand, it is McDowell's holy book that says man has dominion over the animals, and that they all, predators and all, got along on the ark for 40 days. After all, Ken Ham would have us believe Tyrannasaurs were once coconut eating friendlies. So if anywhere there is the implication that keeping a chimp as a pet is fine, it's the Bible.

As usual with a McDowell, watch your irony meter when they use the term "logic". It's a neon sign saying "gross ignorance and stupidity to come". Personally I'm waiting for someone to come up with an argument for how Darwin is responsible for the economic disaster, terrorism, and American Idol.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Volcano Monitoring? GOP Anti-Science Streak Continues in Jindal Speech

I've been trying for days to put into words what I thought of Bobby Jindal's god-awful response to President Obama's not-state-of-the-union speech. It was one of those events that left me jaw-dropped, waiting for Alan Funt or Ashton Crutcher to walk in and let us all in on the joke. Take Mr. Rogers' mannerisms and speaking style, add a touch of televangelist, give him an awesome tan, and you'd have it. It was insulting, offensive, and hilarious at the same time. I haven't felt like this since, well, you know when.

But the worst part of the speech was the continuation of the GOP anti-science streak. Again, when a Republican chooses to talk about wasteful spending, it's always the science, and they always get it wrong. First it was McCain's grizzly bear DNA, then Palin's French fruit flies, and now Jindal has his volcano monitoring.

But unlike McCain's and Palin's remarks, this one doesn't require much scientific expertise to appreciate. Volcanoes kill a lot of people and destroy a lot of property when they erupt. Having a monitoring system that warns people of such an event ahead of time has obvious benefits, the same sort of benefits science has for areas destined for flooding problems were they hit with a huge hurricane.

You'd think Jindal of all people would appreciate this, yet he used Katrina as an example of how government can't be much use in such situations. Now that's what we call chutzpa: Republicans fucking up FEMA with cronyism, totally botching Katrina, and then using that as an argument that government can't do anything right. That's like a child murdering his parents and then pleading for leniency on the grounds that he is an orphan.

Historically, when the GOP has lost with a middle-of-the-roader like McCain, their reaction was to contract right, and so far it looks like they are repeating that history. The new leaders of the party: Jindal, Steele, and (ugh) Palin, are completely out of step with the country outside the 28% that think invading Iraq was a good idea. They'd better be careful, or that's all the votes they are going to get.

High Fiving Chimps Clue to Our Communicative Past

Recent studies of apes suggest that our language didn't evolve from grunts, but from gestures. Chimps and bonobos use a complicated set of gestures to communicate, showing an understanding of context, and even developing regional dialects. Ed Yong has a nice summary:

"All primates can communicate with each other through facial expressions, body postures and calls, but humans and apes are unique in their use of gestures. These go beyond simple postures or walking patterns - they are movements of the hand, limbs and feet, specifically directed at another individual.

We think of language as mainly spoken or written but gestures play an enormous, often overlooked role. After all, isn't a speaker who waves their hands animatedly more engaging than one who stands motionless behind a podium? Gestures are such an intrinsic part of the way we communicate that a blind speaker will naturally make them even when speaking to a blind audience. And babies use gestures long before they learn their first words.

Chimps and bonobos also differed considerably in their vocabulary of gestures, with each species having its own 'gesture culture'. The two groups of bonobos even used slightly different sets of gestures to each other."

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Editor Arrested in India for Supporting Free Speech

The anti-free speech edicts courtesy of Muslim intolerance, continue to grow and cause tragic, sometimes comically ironic, incidents. Take this story of an editor arrested for suggesting such laws are a bad idea. It's the apostasy circle writ large: criticism of the idea of apostasy makes the critic guilty of apostasy. See a more detailed discussion here.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Nations by Religious Fervor

Another piece of data that shatters myths about atheists and believers is worldwide religious belief, which you can see here:

Two correlations are immediately obvious in this worldwide data that were so in national data as well: religion dominates among the poor and the less educated, which are themselves correlated. It also far from clear that there is any criminal correlation, except perhaps in the opposite direction the Christians like to claim, though because criminality is also correlated with economic and educational factors, it is difficult to eyeball it. Still, it most certainly does not support the contention that religiousity brings morality and peace.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Definition of Christianity

If you want to see naked ignorance laid bare, check out these comments, where the good evolution deniers treat us to idiocy of rare proportion. You'll also find this fabulous definition of Christianity appeared courtesy of Cowdemon:

"Chistianity: The belief that a cosmic Jewish zombie who was his own father can make you live forever if you symbolically eat his flesh and telepathically tell him you accept him as your lord and master, so he can remove an evil force from your soul that is present in humanity because a rib-woman was convinced by a talking snake to eat from a magical tree."

Couldn't have said it better myself.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Responding to the Common Genes Don't Imply Common Descent Canard

The next time someone tries an argument like this:

I'd like to ask how you can justify your leap from the existence of similarities and "common genes", even to a high degree of similarity, to "we have a common ancestor."... how can you know this Designer didn't make the DNA and RNA that way

Tell them the same way we do it in paternity cases. And suggest that they use that argument the next time they get involved in such a case. I'd love to see how a judge would react. Be sure you're there to witness the carnage.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Project Steve Hits 1,000

In case you misses it, Project Steve hashit the 1,000 mark, with a Steve Darwin no less. Since Steves represent only about 3% of the populace, this translates into about 30,000 scientists supporting evolution, dwarfing the paltry figures that show up on creationist lists. As an added bonus, over half the Steves are (gasp!) biologists.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Proposal to Hold Texas BOE Accountable

It's good to see some of our representatives in Texas haven't jumped the shark. State Sen. Rodney Ellis and state Rep. Patrick M. Rose. have proposed that the State Board of Education, led by creationist-in-cheif Don McLeroy, be subjected to the same review process applied to other state agencies:

To ensure that the SBOE works as it should, we have filed legislation to place the board under periodic review by the Sunset Advisory Commission and hold them accountable for their performance, just as we do the Texas Education Agency and other state agencies.

The decisions of the SBOE not only impact millions of young lives on a daily basis, but impact the economic progress of our state as well.

For these reasons and many others, the public has a right to full disclosure and oversight.

The board has escaped such scrutiny for far too long. The disregard for educators, instructional experts and scientists can’t continue. It’s time to take a closer look at the operations and policies of the State Board of Education.

Our state, and especially our kids, deserve better.

Amen to that.

Can Atheists Hold Office in Arkansas? Not Yet!

A resolution has been proposed in Arkansas to repeal its prohibition of atheists holding office there. You heard that right. Despite having been declared unconstitutional decades ago, six states still officially ban atheists from holding public office: Arkansas, Maryland, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Tennessee and Texas. Again, we must laugh at the notion some on the right would promote that Christians are repressed in the US and unable to express themselves in the public square. An avowed, stated, belief in gods is a de facto prerequisite for getting elected in America, and over 10% of the states forbid an unbeliever from serving. It's high time this changed.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Facts are No Longer Facts to George Will, Washington Post

As the old saying goes, you are entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts. As bad as the global warming denialists have been in insisting on their own, ill-informed and statistically ignorant interpretation of facts (eg the claims that there's a recent cooling trend, or there was a scientific consensus on global cooling in the 70's), few have boldly claimed facts of their own. Enter George Will and the Washington Post. Will's latest column there on the subject makes the following claim:

"According to the University of Illinois' Arctic Climate Research Center, global sea ice levels now equal those of 1979."

The problem? The research center itself disputes that, and has explicitly rejected Will's claim. Now it is one thing to have different opinions or interpretations of data, but claiming someone believes something they themselves say they don't, absent strong evidence to the contrary (such as the wedge document, is about as bald-faced dishonest as one can get. The response from the Washington Posts editors was comical, that is if you loved 1984:

"We have plenty of references that support what George wrote, and we have others that dispute that. So we didn’t have enough to send in a correction."

Great, so now what YOU said and/or believe is up for dispute if enough people claim you said or believe something else. There are good discussions here, here, here, and here of the details of this gross example of dishonesty, as well as others commonly used by the AGW denialists. Here are some highlights:

Carl Zimmer: If someone from the Post’s crackerjack multi-layer squad of fact-checkers had bothered to pick up the phone, they could have simply asked, “Is it indeed true that global sea ice levels now equal those of 1979?”

And they would have probably gotten an answer like this: “Well, what do you mean by now? Today? And what do you mean by 1979? Exactly thirty years ago today? If that’s what you mean, the answer is no.”

A good fact-checker would then say, “Well, it seems this claim is based on an article that came out January 1.”

To which the scientist would say something along the lines of, “At that point it was near or slightly lower what was observed in late 1979.”

At the very least, that discrepancy would have to be corrected. But a good fact-checker would see a deeper problem, saying, “Whoa, that changed a lot in a month and a half.”

Which would then lead to a discussion of the fact ice cover is such a noisy process that picking out a single day to compare these numbers does not say a lot about how it is affected by climate change. Climatologists look over longer time scales.


Nate Silver: And yet, according to George F. Will, many scientists were convinced in the 1970s that global cooling was a significant threat to the planet. And if those scientists were so wrong before, why should we trust them when they say that global warming is a threat now?

There's just one little problem with this story, which reappears every so often in conservative discourse on the environment. Specifically, it's a crock of shit.

Certainly in the 1970s there were a handful of scientists and scientific reports that were concerned about the prospect of global cooling... An even smaller handful of these scientists may have been rather alarmist about the prospect; the media was happy to write cover stories on their proclamations...But there was certainly nothing of a scientific consensus, as Will sneakily implies, around global cooling.

Tim Lambert:Note that under this policy Will, can attribute any statement at all to any organization he wants and no correction would be necessary, no matter how much the organization denies the statement. For example, next week Will could write that the Smithsonian had concluded that the Earth is only 6,000 years old, and he would not have to correct this no matter how fiercely the Smithsonian denied it, as long as he could find a Creationist web site that said that was the Smithsonian's conclusion.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Federal Tax Burdon/Contribution by State

Set your irony meters on high before reading this old report listing states by their proportionate federal money received to federal taxes paid, the worst takers at the top, best givers at the bottom:

1 New Mexico $2.03
2 Mississippi $2.02
3 Alaska $1.84
4 Louisiana $1.78
5 West Virginia $1.76
6 North Dakota $1.68
7 Alabama $1.66
8 South Dakota $1.53
9 Kentucky $1.51
10 Virginia $1.51

8 of the 10 worst offenders, receivers of tax money paid by others, voted Republican in the last presidential election (NM and Va being the blues), whose base is ardently against such a system of tax and redistribute. Likewise at the other end:

40 Massachusetts $0.82
41 Colorado $0.81
42 New York $0.79
43 California $0.78
44 Delaware $0.77
45 Illinois $0.75
46 Minnesota $0.72
47 New Hampshire $0.71
48 Connecticut $0.69
49 Nevada $0.65
50 New Jersey $0.61

We find all of the most generous 10 went blue last year. Draw your own conclusions. One might be "be careful what you wish for"...

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Less is More with the Post Office

Here's a good news story treated like bad news: the post office is losing money and might have to cut back to five day service. Mail volume was down 9 billion items, a new record drop. Given the government financial crisis and the need to cut unecessary spending whereever we can, this would seem a slam dunk, and one we should cheer. It also should not be too big a surprise given the many methods of communication available to us now (cell phones, e-mail, etc.) that eliminate the need for paper letters. The internet has a lot of good green influence, and it should get more credit for it than it does.

Let's hope we live to see one-day a week delivery.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Fred Barnes Uses the McCain Gambit on Global Warming

Remember John McCain claiming he knew how to get Bin Laden? Funny how that hasn't happened yet, which means he was either lying, mistaken, or is being a sore loser and refuses to tell the rest of us (an option I think highly unlikely). What this was, obviously, was a case of McCain giving us a good dose of MSU.

Now here comes Fred Barnes doing the same thing with regard to global warming:

"The more the case for man-made warming falls apart, the more hysterical Gore gets about an imminent catastrophe."

Muckraker was all over that:

"We hadn't heard anything lately about the case for man-made global warming falling apart. In fact, just the opposite. So we called Barnes and asked him what he was referring to.

At first, he cited the fact that it's been cold lately.

Perhaps sensing this was less than convincing, Barnes then asserted that there had been a 'cooling spell' in recent years. 'Haven't you noticed?' he asked.

Asked for firmer evidence of such cooling, Barnes demurred, telling TPMmuckraker he was too busy to track it down.

We pressed Barnes again: surely he could tell us where he had found this vital new information, which could upend the current debate over how to address global warming.

In response, Barnes said only that he knew where he had found it, but would not tell us, apparently as a matter of principle. 'I'm not going to do your research for you,' he eventually said, before hurriedly ending the call.

In other words, Barnes, like McCain, was talking out of his ass. He has no evidence that global warming isn't happening, it was just parroting his given political position on the issue. Again, relish the irony of the party of family values being so rife with boldfaced liars, or worse, people with no respect for reality at all.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Creationist-Friendly Louisiana Boycotted

Let the political wars begin in earnest. The push for creationism/creation science/intelligent design/strengths-and-weaknesses/academic freedom has always been more about politics than science. Now the science side has fired back politically:

The repercussions that were expected from the Louisiana legislature’s passage and Gov. Bobby Jindal’s signing of the creationist 2008 LA Science Education Act have begun. Louisiana taxpayers and schoolchildren are now reaping what the legislature and governor have sowed: the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology, one of the nation’s leading scientific societies, is boycotting Louisiana.

They are calling on other scientific organizations to follow suit as well, an idea that seems to be catching on in the blogosphere. There has also been talk of doing the same to any other state that passes anti-science legislation. This comes at a particularly bad time for New Orleans, desperate for economic activity in their continued struggle to recover from hurricane Katrina.

Those on the right have not responded well recently to pushback against their narrow ideas. Rather than expand a little to increase their appeal, they seem to contract and contract even more (one might call this "Palinizing"). If that happens, Jindal's Louisiana could become West Mississippi.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Fabulous Video on the Difference Between Weather and Climate

If reading technical scientific papers on climate change isn't your thing, watch this video, which covers many of the AGW denialist arguments. He explains what should be obvious, that day-to-day temperature is no indication of planet wide trends, and does it with a nice chart of temperature variations in the US, which while famously cold in the east, is almost as inordinately warm in the west. As usual, once one tosses out the cherry-picking, and looks at all of the data, the denialist case vanishes.

He also gives a good primer on the impact of ocean currents, El Nino and La Nina on the temperature we see. Be sure when you view the chart of gobal temperatures @ the 4:15 mark to note the extraordinarily warm year 1998, and how without it, none of the denialists' "it's been cooling for the last 10 years" arguments would be even slightly reasonable. Again, scratch a denialist hard enough, a cherry-picker will always emerge.

Here's a humorous take on global warming. What that it were so.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Kelloggs Suffers Pro-Phelps Backlash!

Sometimes the idea of a God running the whole show towards some rational purpose has a bit of plausibility to it, especially when it involves some viscious justice like this:

Kellogg's is experiencing backlash for dumping Phelps over his bong smoking photo that appeared in last Sunday's British tabloid, News of the World...

As CNBC's Sports Biz columnist Darren Rovell points out, an organization called Marijuana Policy Project, a Washington, DC-based lobbying group with 26,000 members, is leading a boycott against Kellogg's, calling their treatment of Phelps "hypocritical and disgusting."

Rob Kampia, the executive director of MPP, told CNBC, "Kellogg's had no problem signing Phelps when he had a conviction for drunk driving (DUI in 2004), an illegal act that could actually have killed someone. To drop him for choosing to relax with a substance that's safer than beer is an outrage, and it sends a dangerous message to young people."

A Facebook page has already sprung up with over 6,000 members lashing out at Kellogg's for "criminalizing" Phelps. Seth Meyers on SNL also gave the brand, popular among kids, a good ribbing and offered some advice to moms and dads, "Parents, if your kid says 'Michael Phelps smokes pot why can't I?' Just say, 'You can, right after you win twelve gold medals for your country.''"

Here's the problem in a nutshell: the executives at Kellogg live in a world where most people didn't smoke marijuana. The bulk of the populace under 45 live in a world where most do, or have, and that trend will continue. Seth Myers' last joke spelled this out most clearly:

"If you're at a party, and you see Michael Phelps smoking a bong, and your first thought isn't 'Wow, I get to party with Michael Phelps', and instead you take a picture and sell it to the tabloids you should take a long look in the mirror because you're a dick"

To the 60+ executives at Kellogg, the picture-taker was a good responsible citizen. That's becoming more and more a minority view, and now that we can gather on the net and boycott people like Kellogg's, we can demonstrate that.

The article also goes into our favorite dream scenario, legalized marijuana getting us out of the financial crisis.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Poorly Worded Zogby Poll on Evolution Produces Deceptive Result

When one does a poll, it is very important to word the questions in such a way that the person answering is not biased by the wording to answer a certain way. One of my favorite examples comes from a political poll I once received that asked:

Do you believe we should eliminate wasteful government programs?

Had that been a telephone poll, I'd likely have sarcastically burst out with "No! I want more waste!". By describing the government programs as wasteful, something practically no one is for, the pollster steered people to answer "yes", even if their views are not in the spirit of the way he will represent them.

The same can be said for a a new Zogby poll on evolution containing questions about evolution now being touted by the ID PR folks (pardon the redundancy) as vindicating their position. It does no such thing, but may appear that way because of Zogby's poorly worded questions which bias respondents to answer in a way that appears to support the ID position, yet could come from someone ardently against ID. Take question 4:

4. Would you strongly agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree, or strongly disagree that teachers and students should have the academic freedom to discuss both the strengths and weaknesses of evolution as a scientific theory?

80% of respondents agreed, which of course was taken as evidence that the ID educational agenda has broad support. However, that is due to the IDers skillful manipulation of language, which presumed the very issue in question, not popular support. "Strengths and weaknesses" sounds quite reasonable to any scientifically literate person who hasn't followed the ID issue closely enough to know that in ID-speak it means "arguments having their sociological roots in Biblical fundamentalism that have been rejected by the overwhelming majority of scientists in the relevant fields for decades." In similar fashion, "discuss" sounds reasonable enough until it is made clear that in this context, it means "arguing with the teacher and refusing to learn the material". Let them ask the question that way and see what sort of response they get.

Of course any science course should involve a discussion of "strengths and weaknesses", which if properly stated scientifically, means the evidence supporting the theory, and the experimental data the theory fails to explain. The issue is whether the creationists' tired old discredited objections warrant the title "scientific" merely because they've dressed it up in the cheap tuxedo known as Intelligent Design.

5. Charles Darwin wrote that when considering the evidence for his theory of evolution, “…a fair result can be obtained only by fully stating and balancing the facts and arguments on both sides of each question.” Do you strongly agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree, or strongly disagree with Darwin’s statement?

Again, a huge majority agreed, and again, it doesn't mean what the IDers would have us think it means. Darwin was talking about the healthy analysis of evidence and debate within science, not pedagogy. Who among us thinks that students, who are in a class precisely to correct their ignorance on the subject at hand, are capable of fully stating and understanding said complicated subjects like biology sufficiently to tell the difference between science and pseudoscience? That is the question that should be asked if we are to learn who supports the ID position on biology classrooms, and once it is asked, one need only grasp it to see the absurdity of the ID position.

6. I am going to read you two statements about Biology teachers teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution. Please tell me which statement comes closest to your own point of view—Statement A or Statement B?

Statement A: Biology teachers should teach only Darwin’s theory of evolution and the
scientific evidence that supports it.

Statement B: Biology teachers should teach Darwin’s theory of evolution, but also the
scientific evidence against it.

Gee, wouldn't you know it, 78% of the respondents voted for the well rounded position. Do I even have to say it? Of course all scientific evidence should be taught. The question is whether the moldy oldy creationist arguments qualify as science. A near unanimity of scientists the world over in the relevant fields say no, unless we allow them to categorize them as bad science.

So when one of the DI hacks like Anika Smith says things like:

"But the public has not been convinced. Indeed, support for the Darwinists’ position has dropped significantly while support for teaching the controversy over evolution has risen."

she is bloviating out her bunghole. The polls say no such thing. When, and only when, the creationists come clean about their agenda and their motives, and ask questions of people honestly, will such polls indicate how much support they have. However, given what great effort they put into hiding their agenda, and the history of creationist school-board members being tossed from office once that agenda is known, it's safe to conclude that support is small, as it should be.

What Corrupt Pennsylvania Judges Tell Us About the Limits of Capitalism

A recent story about corruption in Pennsylvania illustrates one of the limitations of capitalism that many are politically disinclined to accept:

"In one of the most shocking cases of courtroom graft on record, two Pennsylvania judges have been charged with taking millions of dollars in kickbacks to send teenagers to two privately run youth detention centers."

The story goes on to talk about a revolving door of imprisonment, all motivated by personal profit. But this should not have happened right? Capitalism and private enterprise out perform government, so why haven't they made the prison system better? Why do we now imprison more people than any nation in the world by an order of magnitude?

The problem is that capitalism, by its very nature, seeks profit maximization. In arenas where we want more of whatever is being created, say apples or ladders or DVDs, this works out just fine; the competitors in the marketplace achieve their profit by increased efficiency and production. But in areas where we want less of whatever it is we are dealing with, say prisoners, capitalism is going to draw us in the wrong direction. If prisoners bring you profit, you will bring economic pressure to bear to create more prisoners, which means paying off judges.

This is where government needs to come in, where the only problem is corruption. A real problem for sure, and the main reason we should only have government programs where they are necessary. Areas where the profit-motive of the market gives us more of what we don't want are a good place to start: prisons, hospitals, the police force, etc. This is one of the glaring reasons why the "reduce taxes and let the market fix everything" mentality is doomed to failure.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Religion by State: What's the Influence?

A New Gallup poll is out on religion in America, and here is a map of the results:

Of interest to me is how well this maps onto the presidential results. Obama won 25 of the 31 states that rated as average or less, whereas McCain won 16 of the 19 that rated as more or most religious. Our politics is becoming the religious vs the not-so-religious.

Also, be sure to check out Ed Brayton's analysis comparing these results to the data on issues that social conservatives claim will be made better if we'd just get some more of that old fashioned religion:

"Massachusetts has the lowest divorce rate in the nation, while the other three least religious states all rank in the top half of the states for lowest divorce rates, all below 4.4 per 1000. Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee all rank among the 11 highest states for rates of divorce with rates above 5.7 per 1000; South Carolina is 19th with a rate of 4.2.

How about out of wedlock births? The most recent data I could find easily is here. And it shows for the most religious states:

Mississippi: 45.5%
South Carolina: 38.7%
Tennessee: 34.9%
Alabama: 34.1%

And the least religious states:

New Hampshire: 24.1%
Massachusetts: 26.1%
Vermont: 28%
Maine: 30.6%

And finally, teen pregnancy, where all of the most religious states are in the top 10:

Mississippi: 20.9%
Alabama: 17.1%
South Carolina: 16.0%
Tennessee: 15.9%

And all of the least religious states are in the bottom 10:

Massachusetts 7.2%
New Hampshire 7.7%
Vermont 7.9%
Maine 9.8%"

Amazing isn't it? Yet in good faith-based fashion, they'll keep ignoring the data and chanting their mantras.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Narwhal Migration Clip

Narwhals, those single-tusked tiny whales (by whale standards), are quite rare, so this clip of them migrating through a narrow channel in the ice is a real treat.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Got Post Traumatic Stress Disorder? Tetris to the Rescue!

Who says video games can't be useful. A scientist has found that Tetris can be:

According to Emily Holmes from the University of Oxford, the classic video game of falling coloured blocks could prevent people who have suffered through a traumatic experience from developing full-blown post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). As ideas go, it's practically the definition of quirky, but there is scientific method behind the madness.

Every traumatic experience flips a mental hourglass that runs out in about six hours. After that time, memories of the original event become firmly etched in the brain, greatly increasing the odds that the person will experience the vivid, distressing flashbacks that are the hallmark of PTSD. But the brain, powerful though it is, only has so much processing power available for laying down such memories. If something can be done soon enough to interfere with this process, the symptoms of PTSD could potentially be prevented.

Tetris, it seems, makes an ideal choice for that. To position its rotating blocks, players need good "visuospatial skills" - they need to see, focus on, and act upon the positions of different objects, all at high speed. These are the same sort of mental abilities that provide the foundations for flashback images.

Holmes's idea is that playing Tetris after a shocking event would take up the same mental resources that would normally be used to consolidate future flashbacks. In doing so, the notoriously addictive game could act as a "cognitive vaccine" against PTSD and provide an ironic example of a video game actually being good for you...

Now if they could only come up with something to keep those little geometric figures from flipping around in my dreams.

More Equivocation from the ID Crowd as U of Vermont Rejects Ben Stein

The IDers are at it again, equivocating with the best of them in their latest bit of progoganda on the recent and very correct revocation of an invitation to Ben Stein to speak at UVA's commencement. John West spouts thusly:

Apologizing for inviting gifted actor and writer Ben Stein to be commencement speaker at the University of Vermont, University President Daniel Fogel has highlighted what he called Stein’s “highly controversial views” about “evolutionary theory, intelligent design, and the role of science in the Holocaust.” Fogel went on to express penance for inviting Stein by claiming that “Commencement should be a time when our community gathers inclusively, not divisively.”

I guess inclusivity is why in 2007 Fogel chose as commencement speaker Democratic congressman John Lewis, who in 1995 compared Republicans to Nazis (last year Lewis compared John McCain and Sarah Palin to segregationist George Wallace and racist church bombers). Or perhaps President Fogel’s concern for inclusivity is better demonstrated by his 2006 commencement speaker, Gustavo Esteva, a far-left activist and advisor to the radical Zapatista National Liberation Army in Mexico.

This is a typical apples-and-oranges straw man. The problem with Ben Stein is not that he had inflammatory political views. College is rife with those. Stein is against everything a university is supposed to be about. He thinks science leads to killing people. He is dismissive of the college experience. He participated in the production of an anti-science propoganda film. Having someone like that speak at a college commencement would be like having an arsonist speak at a firefighter's convention. The Discovery Institution of course misses this point entirely as West blathers on:

In today’s academic double-speak, invitations to far-left revolutionaries and race-baiting Congressmen are apparently “inclusive,” while inviting a speaker who favors free speech on the issue of evolution is beyond the pale.

If Ben Stein favored free speech on the issue of evolution he would be in the mainstream of science. What he actually favors, however, is politicizing the science of evolution to fit the religious whimsy of a small but vocal group of fundamentalists and cranks. Ben Stein is as free as anyone to speak on evolution (you'll notice no one has suggested arresting him for his views), and to submit scientific papers on that topic to the appropriate journals. He is as free as anyone to attend scientific conferences and pose questions there. I note with interest that he has attempted neither, which makes him fit right in with the rest of the ID crew. West finished with a flurry that would have made George Orwell proud:

Fogel’s spinelessness in the face of the Darwinist thought-police is equaled only by his tone-deafness to his own rhetoric. After disowning Stein, Fogel has continued to insist: “I am firm in my belief—profoundly held—that, as a university, UVM is and must remain a marketplace of ideas.” Fogel's ideal marketplace must have a lot of empty shelves.

On the contrary, Fogel prevented Stein from presenting an empty shelf as if it were full, and from taking up valuable space actual ideas could have occupied.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Michael Phelps Latest Victim of Irrational Marijuana Policies

Michael Phelps smoked a bong. The world is coming to an end! To see how absurd the reaction to this news has been, read this paragraph and pretend you didn't know what Phelps did.

... we decided to send a strong message to Michael because he disappointed so many people, particularly the hundreds of thousands of USA Swimming member kids who look up to him as a role model and a hero,” the Colorado Springs, Colo.-based national governing body said in a statement.

“Michael has voluntarily accepted this reprimand and has committed to earn back our trust.”

Disappointed so many people? Earn back trust? Are you kidding me? The guy smoked a bong, doing less damage to his body than a few shots of whiskey would have done, and committed a legal infraction worthy of less punishment than going 100 mph. Just what trust did he violate, never having fun in his life?

Michael Phelps is a role model and a hero! He accomplished through dedication and hard work what few ever will again. If you're deeply disappointed and feel your trust has been violated by him having a little harmless fun like millions of people do all over the world, get a life, please, preferably one in this century.

Ken Conner on Science: Typical Ignorance

In the wake of electing a president who actually has some respect for science, demonizing dishonest straw man attacks from the social conservatives was inevitable. Typical is this article by Ken Conner. You would think people whose top ten "don't do" list contains something about bearing false witness would be more interested in getting their opponents arguments right than this:

"[Obama] obviously intended to contrast his approach to science with that of President Bush, but what does this contrast imply? President Bush believed that scientific inquiry should be circumscribed by ethical constraints. He, therefore, refused to allow federal funding for stem cell research that would result in the destruction of human embryos. Bush was dubbed a 'neanderthal' by many scientists because he felt that 'ethics' should trump 'utility.' He was pilloried for his decision and President Obama has been among his critics. Is ethical restraint of scientific inquiry the problem that Obama seeks to correct? Should scientific inquiry trump ethics?"

No one is suggesting that science be conducted without ethical constraint. What we are calling for is science practiced without political constraint, especially when that takes the form of pandering to people whose random religious views (completely divorced from what the their bronze age text has to say on the subject) claim a blastocyst is a person. Our ethics should have a bit more of a basis than that. Conner is playing the typically dishonest card that says anyone without his ethics has none at all.

"While science has brought mankind countless benefits, it should not be held out as the fount of all knowledge. Yet, it frequently is. Scientists have been anointed the high priests of our modern era, when, in reality, they are mere mortals: fallible, biased, frequently mistaken, and subject to undue influence. Unlike the media's portrayal, the scientific community is frequently divided—there is very little 'consensus.' And often, the 'prevailing view' is later proven wrong."

No one has anointed any scientists as high priests of anything. The entire scientific system of peer-reviewed publishing exists precisely because we know scientists are indeed fallible, biased, frequently mistaken, and influenced. It is also precisely for this reason that science rejects the ignorant blatherings of the denialists of evolution, global warming, HIV/AIDS, and other areas, who obstinately refuse to participate in the rigorous discussion of evidence in scientific journals, and instead spend their time publishing popular books and speaking at churches.

Whatever mistakes science has made are dwarfed by the record of obstinate ignorance of the cranks. It is also worth noting that when science corrects itself, it is almost always scientists who do so. Einstein, famously working as a patent clerk, submitted his revolutionary work to the scientific journals. He didn't write popular books and whine about biases against him. That is how science works, and it works better than any other epistemology we have. Conner is merely projecting the faults of faith-based epistemology on science. It is religion, not science, that who promotes people to the position of high priest, not subject to challenge.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Support the Texas Teacher Suspected of Atheism

Richard Mullins, a teacher in Texas for almost 40 years, has been suspended from his teaching job in Brookeland Texas based on suspicions of his atheism. Brookeland is a mere 16 miles from that bastion of progressivity, Jasper. So much for the materialist atheist bias, eh?

If you wish to help right this injustice, send an email to

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Giant Titanaboa Skeleton Found

A fossil boa constrictor that lived about 60 million years ago and estimated to be over 40 feet long and a ton has been discovered. To get some perspective, here is the skeleton next to a relatively tiny bone of a 10 foot modern variety:

It is simply staggering. Check here for a nice writeup by PZ Myers on how scientists estimate the temperature of the region in which the snake lived:

"The authors used the size of this snake to estimate the temperature of this region of South America 60 million years ago. Snakes are poikilotherms, depending on external sources of heat to maintain a given level of metabolic activity, and so available temperature means are limiting factors on how large they can grow. By comparing this animal's size to that of modern tropical snakes, and extrapolating from a measured curve of size to mean annual temperature, they were able to calculate that the average ambient temperature was 30-34°C (American cluestick: about 90°F); less than that, and this snake would have died."

Friday, February 6, 2009

What's in a Name?

A new study says to be wary of what you name your sons:

Results show that, regardless of race, juveniles with unpopular names are more likely to engage in criminal activity. The least popular names were associated with juvenile delinquency among both blacks and whites.

While the names are likely not the cause of crime, the researchers argue that "they are connected to factors that increase the tendency to commit crime, such as a disadvantaged home environment, residence in a county with low socioeconomic status, and households run by one parent."

"Also, adolescents with unpopular names may be more prone to crime because they are treated differently by their peers, making it more difficult for them to form relationships," according to a statement released by the journal's publisher. "Juveniles with unpopular names may also act out because they consciously or unconsciously dislike their names."

So think about this parents next time you think that its cute to name your son Sue, or some other idiotic name. As a child who grew up with an odd last name, it's always been a personal irritant to see parents treat naming their kids as some sort of creative game. Your kid has to live with that name for their entire lives, or until they are old enough to legally change it. Do them a favor and make it simple and easy.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Matt Barber Freaks Out

We knew the Christian Right would be unhappy over any recognition that homosexuals are equal members of society worthy of protection under the law like everyone else, but I had no idea they'd completely freak out like Matt Barber does over Obama's agenda on those fronts. To hear Barber speak we are being invaded by aliens that are going to suck our nuptials right out of us:

"[Obama's] stated plans include the following:

Defeating all state and federal constitutional efforts to defend the millennia-old definition of natural marriage from attacks by 'gay marriage' activists. Repealing the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) signed into law by Bill Clinton in 1996. This is the only line of defense keeping all 50 states from being forced to recognize so-called 'same-sex marriages' from extremely liberal states like Massachusetts and Connecticut."

Line of defense? Attacks? "Histrionic" and "propaganda" are too kind to describe or Barber's alarmist pig-squealing rhetoric. Let's start with the big lie. The definition of marriage has been different all over the world and has changed considerably over the last millenia. One man/one woman, one man/several women, one woman/several men, two people of any gender, and group marriage have all existed over the last millenia, and in some parts of the world the one man/one woman variety is still a minority. The notion that today's debate seeks to change something that has been unchanged and uniform for 1,000 years is either ignorance of staggering proportions, or an outright lie. Since people like Barber have been told this over and over, the latter seems the most likely explanation. Go read your Bible Mr. Barber, polygamy is common.

While you are at it, explain what form, exactly, this supposed attack on traditional marriage takes? Are heterosexuals no longer allowed to get married? Are they going to be forced to get divorces and marry gay people? Just where is the beef here? To get an idea of how absurd Barber's argument is, imagine if a soccer team advertised itself as a football team, and the NFL reacted like this:

"We must defend the millennia-old definition of football from attacks by 'futbol' activists. We must keep all 50 states from being forced to recognize so-called 'futbol' games from extremely soccer-friendly states like Texas and California."

After we all stopped laughing, the crucial question would be asked: what exactly, is the harm to the NFL if soccer teams start calling themselves "futbol" teams? Are they prevented from playing football? Is anyone going to be harmed from this change? If not, then what exactly does the NFL need protection from?

So Matt Barber, what exactly do people in monogamous relationships need protecting from? Insert sound of crickets chirping here.

"Passing constitutionally dubious and discriminatory 'hate crimes' legislation, granting homosexuals and cross-dressers exclusive rights – denied other Americans – based on sexual behaviors that are deviant, changeable, and widely regarded both here and around the world as immoral."

You know your arguments against hate crimes are ridiculous when an ardent opponent of hate crimes like me comes down on you for them (for me existing crimes against assault and murder are sufficient). Again, this description is so dishonest, and the truth so impossible to hide from, I can only assume that once again Barber found the truth just too inconvenient for his political agenda, and hoped his ignorant followers would be too lazy to notice.

The laws are not based on the behavior of the victim, but on the motivation of the perpetrator. The idea is to make it a crime to attack someone merely because of their perceived gayness, which in turn is (if true) determined by orientation, not behavior. To illustrate, imagine I am walking down the street with a male friend, and some redneck decides we are gay and attacks us. We're the victims of a hate crime, gay or not.

It is interesting here to point out yet another front of hypocrisy from people like Barber on this issue. They claim not allowing gays to marry each other is not discriminatory because gays have the same right to marry a member of the opposite sex as anyone else. Well, no one is stopping heterosexuals from choosing to look or act gay and be the victim of hate crimes either. They can't have it both ways. If homosexuality is to be treated as a choice, then they can't whine if they perceive homosexuals as getting some privilege they want, since they too could choose to get it.

Finally, since when does Barber care what the rest of the world considers immoral anyway? Well, when it suits his argument of course. The rest of the time he's warning of the dangers of allowing the world to dictate our morality and lifestyle. If the rest of the world, or at least the part most culturally similar to us, say Europe, decided homosexuality was a healthy variant in society and was to be treated like everyone else with regard to marriage, is Barber going to support that position?

"Passing the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) which would force business owners (religious and otherwise) to abandon traditional values relative to sexual morality under penalty of law."

Again, this is stark nonsense. The laws forbid those business owners from discriminating in their hiring/firing and promoting against gays. They may hold whatever values in their own life they choose. This is one of the many ways people like Barber insanely interpret their freedom of religion as allowing them to violate those rights in others. The right to free speech does not give one the right to shout down dissenters exercising their rights.

"Creating intentionally motherless and fatherless homes and sexually confusing untold thousands of children by expanding 'gay adoption.'"

This idiotic statement is born of the assumption that being gay is a choice, and thus children can be "turned gay". Barber has no scientific basis for this or any of his other proclamations. He is afraid of the gay bogey man. Children are going to no more be sexually confused by being raised with a gay couple than they are to be raised by a single man who lives with his brother. To hear Barber talk, homosexual couples have sex in front of the children they adopt.

It is also worth noting how irrational Barber is that he decries an adoptive home of homosexuals as fatherless/motherless while ignoring the fact that those children come out of situations where they are both fatherless and motherless.

"People of faith, conservatives, and those of you with traditional values: hold on to your hats – it's going to be a bumpy four years."

Yes, if you think your freedom of religion gives you the right to discriminate against homosexuals. It is just like your racist brethren 40 years ago who resisted being told they could no longer discriminate against blacks, and those before them who thought it was OK to discriminate against those who held different religious beliefs. Change is indeed coming. Keep up, or be left behind.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Surreal Blago

Gotta love Blago, and his record off-topic defense:

“What did I do in this case but provide health care for low-income families?” the governor asked at one point during the nearly hour-long speech. “How is it an impeachable offense to protect low-income parents from losing their healthcare? How is it an impeachable offense to keep those families in a position to be able to see their doctors?”

“ can you throw a governor out of office who was acting to protect the lives of senior citizens and infants and trying to find ways to be able to help families?”

Good to see lunacy is not restricted to right wingers.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Some Unabashed Patriotism

It's nice to be able to feel proud again. We all love America, but we aren't always proud of her. Bill Maher says it well with this primo New Rules. It gets particularly good at the 4:05 mark. My favorite lines:

"We invented rock n' roll, jazz, funk, R&B and hip hop. Without us your Ipods would be filled with Abba, Menudo, and Men at Work.

In what other nation would they tax young people to make sure old people can get erections?"

Maher is quite underrated for comedy timing. His is extremely good.

Irreducibly Complex Ear Wax

No, I'm not kidding. Ear wax. The creationists want us to get excited over ear wax:

"People are able to groom themselves in a way so as to keep external parasites (fleas, ticks) and other irritants at bay. But what about the inaccessible recesses of the ear, with its delicate eardrum? This auditory canal must be open to the world in order to take in sounds, but that means it is also vulnerable to potential pathogens. Thankfully, the Creator has provided a remarkable defense against the tiny invaders that occasionally find their way in."

Most of these arguments just show how little imagination the creationists have. Would crabs just crawl along were I a God creating the universe? Hell, they'd have wings equipped with lasers. And with a nod to South Park, what's wrong with a 6-foot talking taco that shits ice cream? How about a river of maple syrup with pancake shores? The mind boggles. And yet we are supposed to get all a-quiver because a one celled creature, who we had no hope of even seeing for the bulk of our existence, has a complicated mode of locomotion? Please.

The intelligent design movement continues its slide into irrelevancy and hilarity. Hat tip: Evolutionblog.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Cell Phone Sounds? What the

And the award for congressman with the poorest prioritization skills goes to Peter King, for his Camera Phone Predator Alert Act, which would require all cell phone cameras to make an audible click when taking photos. Apparently too many kids are taking too many voyeuristic pictures, and this poses a threat to national security, or something.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

In Honor of the Super Bowl: God on Sports

Since we are doomed to see lots of players moronically thanking the gods for interfering in the competition and aiding their side (because obviously the omnipotent creator of the universe has nothing else to do), I thought we could comfort ourselves with a couple of quotes on the subject:

"God fights on the side with the best artillery."
-Napoleon Bonaparte

"Prayer works best if you have
larger players."
--Vince Lombardi

Continents of Garbage

If you haven't yet heard about the massive floating garbage islands in the Pacific, check it out. They are estimated in size anywhere from twice Texas to the size of the entire lower 48. They are not so much islands as a thick soup of plastic, which is killing animals both above (who can't digest the shiny stuff they swallow) and below, from interference with sunlight and other natural processes. They also are the ultimate tragedy of the commons, with no one in the world anxious to take responsibility for them, and no one with a realistic plan for removing them.