Wednesday, May 25, 2005

What should people know about science?

If you're John Sulston, cowinner of the 2002 Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology, the answer is: "Evolution, as truth, insofar as we can comprehend it at the moment; as a realistic assessment of our position in the universe; and as a joyous celebration of our potential future."

More details here.

Do new species form?

Short answer: Yes. Indeed, the creationists have now declared that new species form. This links to examples of speciation in action.

Evolution and Judaism

Surveys have shown Jews tend to accept evolution pretty readily. (I think the figure was around 90%.) It's not because Jews are any less religious, either.

Rabbi Natan Slifkin, who goes by the name of the Zoo Rabbi, is one prominent figure who is making a career out of reconciling evolution with classical Jewish thought. "Intelligent design usually involves arguing that there are structures in living creatures which cannot be explained by naturalistic processes," he writes via E-mail. "I think that this is a potentially problematic approach, certainly from a Jewish perspective. Judaism has always focused on seeing God in the design of the laws of nature, not in creating phenomena that can't be explained by natural laws – yet."

See more at

Indian recipes

The Scotsman has a review of an Indian (as in subcontinent) cookbook using small numbers of ingredients.

Monisha Bharadwaj has made her name writing cookery books with recipes that prove that Indian cuisine can be cooked quickly and easily at home. Her latest book, Indian in 6, goes a step further by offering 100 recipes which can be cooked using six ingredients or less, without compromising on authentic Indian flavours.

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All recipes serve four MURGH KA BHARTA (Chicken with tomato and fresh coriander) Preparation time: 10 minutes, Cooking time: 30 minutes Ingredients • 1 large onion sliced • 2 green chillies, chopped • 3 ripe red tomatoes, cut into quarters, 1 reserved for garnish • 1 teaspoon turmeric powder • 600g (1 and a quarter lb) cooked chicken breast, shredded • Few sprigs fresh coriander • 3 tablespoons sunflower oil • 2 teaspoons ginger-garlic paste • Salt Method Heat the oil in a wok or shallow saucepan.Fry the onion until soft and then add the ginger-garlic paste and the green chillies.Tip in 2 of the quartered tomatoes along with their juice and cook, stirring frequently until a little mushy.Add the turmeric powder and season with salt. Stir in the cooked chicken and heat through. Serve immediately, garnished with the reserved tomato quarters and coriander sprigs. CHANYA UPKARI (Chickpeas with coconut) Preparation time: 10 minutes, Cooking time: 15 minutes Ingredients • 1 teaspoon black mustard seeds • 5 fresh curry leaves • 2 red chillies, stalks pinched off, seeds shaken out • 1 x 400g (14 oz) can chickpeas, drained • 2 tablespoons desiccated coconut • 2 tablespoons fresh coriander leaves • 2 tablespoons sunflower oil • Salt Method Heat the oil in a wok or heavy bottomed saucepan and fry the mustard seeds for a few seconds until they pop. Add the curry leaves and the red chillies and stir for about 1 minute. Stir in the chickpeas and the coconut. Season with salt. Heat through and mix in the coriander leaves. CHAAMP LAJAWAB (Spicy lamb chops) Preparation time: 10 minutes plus overnight marinating, Cooking time: 1 hour Ingredients • 8 lamb chops • half a teaspoon finely crushed black peppercorns • 1 teaspoon cumin seeds, dry-roasted and ground to a powder • 1 teaspoon chilli powder • 150ml (5 fl oz) natural yoghurt • 3 tablespoons ghee (clarified butter) • 3 teaspoons ginger-garlic paste • Salt Method Combine the chops, ginger-garlic paste, peppercorns, spice powders, yoghurt and salt in a mixing bowl and marinate overnight in the refrigerator. Place the chops under a hot grill, turning them to cook evenly and basting frequently with the ghee.


Vegan Vogans read haiku by tofu starlight. Who would have thunk it? — Fredrick B. Capp

Speaking of health risks

Want to reduce health risks from tobacco? Drop advertising bans and let companies compete with each other to find ways to deliver nicotine without the cancer-causing tars. Nicotine, by itself, is about as dangerous as caffeine.

We would get some serious harm reduction as smokers switched to safer cigarettes or smokeless tobacco. In Sweden only 15% of men smoke (a lot of them use snus), and male lung cancer rates are the lowest in Europe. How do we get this? First, make it perfectly clear that the FTC will only attack advertising claims that lack a reasonable basis while permitting substantiated claims about filter technology, smokeless tobacco, health effects and the like. And second, the public health experts have to get out of the way when tobacco firms raucously compete to create safer products and persuade smokers to use them. It is time to start undoing 25 years of public health failure.

Of course, if the goal of public health policy is to make people feel guilty about smoking (or smug about not smoking), and to transfer money from tobacco companies to the public coffers, then we can't call it a "failure".


A new chemical to worry about! (Hat tip: news e-mail.)

They're in soap. And hair spray. Baby toys. Hand lotion. Deodorant. Vinyl upholstery. Nail polish. And perfume. Chemicals known as phthalate esters are so prevalent, in fact, that most personal hygiene products and soft PVC plastics contain some – and most Americans have traces of the compounds circulating inside their bodies, according to government reports. But can they hurt us?

The answer is, we don't know. And this illustrates the problem with any number of chemicals. The data we want to make a decision just isn't there.

"There's not enough human data to say they are safe and don't cause health effects. But, on the other hand, there's not a lot of human data showing they do," said Russ Hauser, a Harvard associate professor of occupational health, who is among the few researchers to have studied phthalates in humans. Hauser's team found that some phthalates may cause sperm abnormalities.

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Lawmakers have started looking to ban phthalates, and others have called for a voluntary ban on the chemicals.

A grass-roots movement is under way in the United States to encourage cosmetic manufacturers to replace potentially hazardous ingredients with safer alternatives within the next three years. So far, more than 100 companies, including Revlon and Estée Lauder, have agreed to do so. Most are small makers of natural products. "If companies can make personal care products without ingredients linked to cancer...or birth defects, shouldn't they? To me, that's just common sense," said Sucher of the Environmental Working Group. "I'm willing to sacrifice a bit of the creaminess in my hand lotion," she said, "if it means it will be free of chemicals linked to serious health problems."

Of course, the issue is more than just whether there's a link between a chemical and "serious health problems". Before you can make a rational decision, you have to look at how serious the health problem is, how strong the link is, and what will be used instead of the targeted chemical.

Whenver you're weighing a decision, you have to ask, "and then what happens?" What will happen if phthalates disappear from consumer products?

One advantage natural products have over synthetic products is that they don't have to pass any kind of approval process. You can pull pthalates out of products, and maybe the degradation in quality will be minor. In childrens' products, for example, they provide the plasticity that keeps them from being brittle. That means they last longer, and they're less likely to break during play.

Maybe some other chemical will do as well. Or maybe some other chemical will have a greater risk because it hasn't been studied as well. Or, maybe your child will have less exposure to phthalates, but choke on a small piece that breaks off.

You have to weigh the "then whats" before making a decision.

Here's a neat page from the phthalates website. And it's important to keep your eye on the bottom line:

Epidemiology and animal testing rarely offer proof. They offer evidence, and it is the evidence that leads to decisions on how to safeguard public health. A responsible and rational regulatory framework in government is based on science and evidence, not on public or political opinion. There is a need to replicate findings in several different situations, rather than to alarm the public by jumping to conclusions on the basis of the results from just one study. The scare stories, fad diets, and miracle cures we hear about every day do not serve public health and safety; in fact, they often do the opposite. The tools available to public health officials to separate actual risk from needless fear are not perfect, but they produce evidence, and it is the weight of that evidence which helps science to separate the real from the imaginary.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Editors take note

(Hat tip: Eugene Volokh)

A rave review of a book on chess tactics, including:
The other thing I'll say about this book is that "My God, this is a fantastic way to present a book." If you dig in, you'll find that the book is done in small chunks, with a frame on the left for the board illustration. This is such a fantastic way to present the materials in a book, because when you need to scroll down, you can keep the relevant illustration in sight. I often read math books or economics papers, and find myself having to stick most of the fingers on one hand between different pages to keep an easy reference to the equations or diagrams referenced throughout the text. Imagine if people adopted this sort of organization for math books, easily presenting everything that each chunk of the text refers to while you read. Brilliant.

Anyone who prepares complicated information for presentations might want to take a look.

Mistakes in textbooks

Here's a link to articles about mistakes in textbooks.

A Diamond in a rut

Joel Schwartz offers his take on Jared Diamond and his book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.

The book's thesis is that societies -- such as the Maya, Easter Islanders, Vikings in Greenland, and many more -- collapse when they squander and/or despoil their environmental resources, ignore signals of upcoming disaster, and overpopulate their lands. He uses these past societies as analogies to what he believes is a high risk that modern societies will soon collapse as well.

Not only is there a "high risk", he seem to believe we're headed toward collapse unless we mend our ways.

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How realistic is this fear?

Diamond has been criticized for failing to account for the role of institutions such as property rights, market exchange, and the rule of law. These institutions force people to consider the effects of their decisions on other people and others' property and to pursue the interests of others at the same time they pursue their own interests.

So does Diamond really fail to consider these mechanisms?

a questioner asked Diamond for his thoughts on whether market prices protect modern societies from overrunning their resources, since these prices let everyone know when various products are abundant or scarce. Diamond responded that free markets work in some situations, but fail in others. As examples of the failure of free markets, he pointed to overfishing of the world's oceans, and the complete clear-cutting of Easter Island's forests by its Polynesian inhabitants. What Diamond calls a free market is actually the tragedy of the commons -- the state of affairs that results from common ownership of resources and absence of price signals -- exactly the opposite of a free market. A free market requires well-defined, freely exchangeable, and enforceable private property rights. Diamond casually discounts free markets, but doesn't seem to understand what a market is, or to be aware that it is the absence of free markets that causes much of the environmental degradation he laments. Indeed, the creation of free markets in fishing rights is beginning to address overfishing problems around the world. During his talk, Diamond asked "what was the Easter Islander thinking as he cut down the last tree?" He provided a few potential answers given by students in his classes at UCLA: * It's my property and I'll do what I want with it. * Don't worry; new technologies will come along to replace wood. * This proposed ban on logging is premature -- we need more research. This is as deep as Diamond went in his economic analysis, and was also indicative of his style of argumentation. He brought facts and reason, the discourse of science, to bear when discussing his favored explanations for societal collapse, but resorted to ridicule and caricature to preempt reasoned discussion of alternatives that don't fit into his incomplete paradigm.

Hmmm... Where have we seen that before? In offering his parody, Diamond appears to believe that there is no reasonable free market position an Easter Islander could have taken. Is the question as disposed of as he seems to believe?

The question still remains: what was that Easter Islander thinking when he cut down the last tree? Here's my guess: "If only we had well-defined property rights instead of common ownership, and if only we had the rule of law instead of the law of the jungle. Then we would have avoided the tragedy of the commons that's forced me to cut down this tree before the next guy gets it. We would be trading among ourselves and with other tribes, instead of fighting each other for control of an ever-shrinking resource base. We would have created new technologies that would allow us to make more stuff from a given amount of resources, transform formerly useless materials into new resources, and create substitutes for resources that become scarce. And we would have supplanted wood with better and cheaper materials a long time ago."

"How do we Know?"

(An open letter to Dennis Prager)

June 15, 2001

(A very old open letter)

Dear Dennis:

This letter is inspired by several recent (within the past few months) topics on your program. These are the topics of the Moon Landing Hoax video, God and the Astronomers, and Evolution.

This is a rather long message, and I apologize for its length. Basically, the points raised are as follows:

1) Despite the unreasoned opposition to the big bang theory, it eventually became the accepted doctrine, because of the weight of evidence.

2) Although the weight of evidence shows that the moon landings took place, most people choose to believe or disbelieve it because of their preconceptions about the credibility of sources.

3) Not all evolutionists are atheists. Most of the scientists who accept evolution are believers. When Darwin first propounded evolution, the accepted doctrine throughout the scientific world was creationism. Evolution came to be the accepted doctrine the same way the big bang theory did: the overwhelming weight of the evidence was in its favor.

4) The call to "present both sides" of the argument is a cop-out at best, and deliberate deception at worst. Consider how you'd react if your school decided to present "both sides" of World War II, and invited the Institute for Historical Review in to give a seminar to the pupils. Sometimes there's a good reason why proponents of an established doctrine are arrayed against those with a different point of view.

5) Your brother's example of rocks spelling out "hello, how are you" is only superficially compelling.

All of these topics have a common theme, which is "how do we know what we know", and "how do we decide what to believe."

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Most people seem to take positions on any number of matters, not because of having examined the facts, or the arguments for and against, but based on how compatible these positions are with core beliefs and prejudices. An example you gave is the reaction the astronomical community had to the notion of an expanding universe.

God and the Astronomers

Your explanation for the opposition was an emotional rejection of the very idea that the universe might have had a beginning, and therefore might have a creator. I can think of another explanation, namely that astronomers were still wedded to Aristotle's notions of a perfect, unchanging universe. (Einstein, confronted with an expanding universe implied in his own equations, added a "fudge factor" to make the universe stationary. He later described this as the worst blunder of his career.)

However, one thing I would like to call to your attention: the big bang theory is now the reigning doctrine in astronomy. Nobody proposes going back to the steady state theory to avoid the possibility of the universe having had a beginning.

Why was the big bang theory accepted, despite initial opposition? Because the overwhelming weight of evidence was in its favor. Once people knew what to look for, they found that all the evidence pointed to an expanding universe.

Did we land on the Moon?

As you know, the Fox network presented a video making the case that the Moon landings were faked. The program made a case which is superficially very compelling, but only because all the evidence showing the landings were real was excluded, and the few facts that made it on film were heavily reinterpreted to support the hoax theory.

When you stop and examine the issue, though, the evidence that the moon landings were real is so solid, and from so many different sources, that it's perverse to continue to discount it. Provided, of course, you accept the sources as authoritative. If you happen to believe that the government is engaged in a vast conspiracy to pull the wool over all our eyes, you might decide that every source except for this one video is lying.

The issue is very simple. The moon landings happened, or they didn't. There is no in-between. But who has the time, or the energy, or the ability, to check out all the claims and counter-claims?


The same questions apply to the subject of evolution. Again, as a statement of objective fact, either all life is descended from a single ancestral organism, or it isn't. Either the first living thing arose through natural processes, or it didn't. Either life as we know it came to be the way it is through processes found in nature, or it didn't.

Support for evolution, and opposition to "creation science" is sometimes due to opposition to religion, to ascribe all support for evolution to anti-theist sentiments is to slander the millions of evolutionary biologists who are devout, believing Christians, Jews, Moslems, etc. Many, indeed most, believers are perfectly content to believe in a God who created the rules of the universe such that their blind, mechanistic functioning would have been designed to give rise to life and all the complexity we see around us today.

Indeed, the antipathy to evolution that I see in "creation scientists" and "intelligent design theorists" is just as telling in its own way as the rabid anti-theism of people like Richard Dawkins. It seems almost as if the anti-evolution crowd is terrified of science. They fear that as scientific discoveries reveal the natural causes of everything around us, their reasons to believe will be annihilated.

When Darwin proposed his ideas, the entire scientific establishment believed that life came to exist through special creation. The diversity of life and the intricate order of nature were seen as the result of the divine hand. Biology's place was to examine the natural order and learn what God had in mind when He was creating the world. (Back when science was called "natural philosophy", scientists felt they were learning the mind of God from His creation.)

What about all the problems with evolution?

When Darwin first proposed his ideas, special creation was the dominant belief. Darwin's singular idea was not just the idea of natural selection, although that is a major idea. His major idea was the notion that processes that could be observed in nature were sufficient to explain the diversity of living things. This idea has been expanded over time, and the current doctrine holds that processes that can be observed in nature are sufficient to explain the origin of life itself.

From the very first, many people elucidated what they saw as problems with the theory. A famous argument is known as "Paley's watch argument". If you saw a pocket watch on the beach, the argument runs, you'd immediately recognize it as a manufactured thing. The simplest living thing is more complex than any watch, so it must be even more necessarily a designed thing.

The problem with this argument is twofold: Firstly, we have experience of watching people build watches, as well as a variety of other mechanical devices. Secondly, as research continues, we have accumulated experience of watching molecular systems, and even intricate molecular machines, self-assemble. The physical properties of molecules and their environment drive this self-assembly. Natural processes can accomplish a lot.

Nowadays, science finds that the processes that exist in nature are uniformly sufficient to explain everything around us, sooner or later. The problems Michael Behe expounded upon in his book, "Darwin's Black Box", have begun to fall to persistent investigation. The elaborate blood-clotting mechanism evolved from a much simpler one-step mechanism through gene duplication and subsequent differentiation of functions. The flagellum started out as an excretory system, and only later became useful for movement. I have no doubt that when the visual chain reaction is examined, it will prove to contain derivatives of proteins that exist elsewhere, in slightly modified forms.

Behe's likens the evolution by natural processes of the machinery of a cell to jumping across a mile-wide chasm. He represents naturalistic explanations as akin to claiming that stepping stones rose from the floor of the chasm long enough to allow a person to cross, and then retreated. In fact, what we see is that where now exists a chasm, there was once a bridge, and the bridge has since fallen down. After he calls our attention to the problem, we do the equivalent of shining a searchlight down the chasm, and what do we find? Pieces of a bridge scattered across the bottom. All of a sudden, the presence of people on the other side of the chasm is a lot less mysterious.

Can we prove that the mechanisms proposed for the development of vision, blood clotting, and so many other intricate systems are the ones that were actually used? No we can't. By the same token, in the example given in the last paragraph, we can't prove that the people on the other side of the chasm used the bridge whose pieces lay at the bottom. But the existence of the fragments of the bridge seriously weaken the need for the hand of God to carry people across this gap.

"Presenting both sides"

Often the claim is made that we need to present both sides of certain issues. Many who wish to teach creationism in public schools appeal to an "equal time" argument. It's only fair, they say, to give the other side a chance to present its case. But is it really fair to dump this sort of debate in the laps of schoolchildren before they've acquired the tools needed to sift through conflicting claims?

What if, instead of, say, the Creation Research Institute calling for equal time for creation, we saw the Institute for Historical Review (IHR) calling for equal time for its view of the Holocaust? Is it fair to ask school kids to come to their own decisions based on the IHR's presentation and however much time the school can bring to bear in rebuttal? If we bar the IHR from presenting its case in schools, they can certainly cry censorship. Do we give in and let them have their say? Or maybe we can take the approach so many schools have taken with evolution - skip the subject entirely.

Messages in the rocks

Your brother uses the example of a person walking along, coming upon the rubble from a land slide, and finding a bunch of rocks that spell out the message, "hello, how are you?" If you saw something like that, you'd have to conclude that an intelligence was at work. As it happens, I've seen that countless times. In fact, there's a gravel pit near my home that has just such messages. All I have to do to prove it is remove all the rocks that aren't part of the message.

I'm only half kidding here. A lot of the basis of "intelligent design theory" is meaning assigned after the fact, and very bad estimates of odds for and against events.

Your brother's implied argument is that the development of life is equivalent to a number of rocks falling off the side of a mountain and landing so that they line up to form a message, and nowhere else. No serious student of evolutionary biology believes that scenario. The accepted scenario is much more like my example, where rocks have peppered the landscape, and some of them form a message. The problem lies in identifying what sort of selective mechanism will remove rocks that aren't part of a working message.

We don't know all the details yet, but if I were to place a bet on the outcome, I'd bet that a workable path from chemicals to living things will eventually be drawn without recourse to any supernatural forces.

Atheists will be comforted (?) by this lack of reliance on anything beyond the pale of nature; theists will be able to regard this as the result of an exquisitely designed system of laws.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Materialist, godless weather

If the ID-IOT crowd manages to persuade schools and textbooks to teach the controversy" on evolution, meteorology may be next. Despite any number of Biblical verses that clearly state that God causes weather, meteorology attempts to reduce all forms of weather to the materialistic effects of blind forces such as heat flow, air movement, and evaporation and condensation of water.

Now, of course, I don’t actually think for a second that naturalistic meteorology actually undermines Christianity. People still pray about the weather, even though they know that weather is caused by natural processes. Belief in natural processes, and belief in God’s action in the world, are simply not in conflict for these people. If God can act through natural processes, then a natural explanation of something is not a threat to the belief system.

Friday, May 20, 2005

So what's the temperature?

The link that generates this graphic is <>

A thermometer for the planet

Steve Milloy, of the Junk Science Home Page, has assembled a global temperature survey.

Why is this needed?
One of the questions most frequently received here at is “What is the current global mean temperature?” Certainly a reasonable question given the attention currently paid to Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) and one for which you could reasonably expect a good answer. Unfortunately, expectation and reality are far removed.

The average temperature of the globe is very hard to measure. It's even harder to measure meaningfully.

Even side-stepping the fact that the average temperature of the globe measures in the thousands of degrees (integrating over the entire volume, including the molten mantle and the core), how do you pick a representative sample of the fluids in the biosphere? That's what we really want – the average temperature of the air mass in the biosphere, and the average temperature of the water.

Milloy is looking at the air temperature.

There is an extensive discussion of the methodology used, and the problems that are simply not reducible. For example, there are few, if any, sea-based temperature reports available, so the vast bulk of the data set is land-based. As a result, the reported average temperature peaks at about noon over the largest land mass on the planet. The northern hemisphere is over-represented, so I expect there'll be a seasonal trend in the data as well. The arctic regions are also under-represented. These would be of great interest, since the computer models predict a greater temperature increase at the poles as the world warms.

The number being reported is a straight average of the sampling stations used. So far, no attempt is being made to weight stations in any way – that I know of.

Nevertheless, it's nifty. Check it out.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

The Science Nazi

Doc Nuke proposes a new office: the Science Nazi.

His job is to walk up to those who reject science and tell them, No Science For You!

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One of the other reasons the Intelligent Design folks don’t want to mention the method for the intelligence is that then they’d be forced to reveal that its just Creationism promoted by their evangelical Christian backers. I guess they just feel that Kansas, with its lack of topography, will be more open to their attempts to drag education back into the dark ages because nothing opens the mind more than a Kansas landscape. This is why we need the Science Nazi. In a situation like this, he would walk up to the Kansas Board of Education and announce: NO SCIENCE FOR YOU! What’s that Mr. Board Member? You want to use your cell phone? Sorry that was only possible with the scientific discovery of radio waves. NO SCIENCE FOR YOU! What’s that Mr. Intelligent Design/Creationist? You want to drive your giant SUV? Sorry, gasoline is a fossil fuel from the days of the dinosaurs, which don’t exist in your Bible. Not to mention the refining process, and the workings of the internal combustion engine. NO SCIENCE FOR YOU! What’s that Mr. Concerned Parent? You don’t support gay marriage cause it’s “unnatural” since gays can’t breed, even though your own quadruplets couldn’t have been born without fertility drugs? NO SCIENCE FOR YOU! What’s that President Bush? You don’t support stem cell research and denounce global warming, yet you want to bomb places and send spaceships to Mars? Bombs and rocket fuel don’t just magically appear like the voices in your head that told you to be president. NO SCIENCE FOR YOU! These are just a few of the reasons why we need the Science Nazi. We need to remind people that they can’t have it both ways. They can’t have their 21st century technology, medicine and conveniences and still expect society to adhere to fairy tales from 2,000 years ago. If they want that kind of life, they can hang out with the Amish or set up a sanctuary cut off from the world like in The Village. If they are lucky and a divine source is watching out for them, maybe a bunch of them won’t drop dead from easily curable diseases.

Though we disagree on a few points, I admit it's tempting to tell certain people that if they don't believe in the results of science, they should not expect to benefit from them.

This includes, for the People who Eschew Testing on Animals, no vaccines. No drugs. No surgical techniques that were first tested on animals.

For the Intelligent Design-Intelligent Origin Theory (ID-IOT) crowd, no crops that have benefited from any sort of breeding techniques. Let them eat teosinite.

But there's a problem.

Those who oppose the mainstream scientific opinion will assure you that whatever idea they're opposing is not, in fact, required to come up with whatever goodie they may want to use.

Medical advances need not be tested on animals, since tissue cultures and computer models will suffice. (OK, maybe they will now, but just how confident are you in the accuracy of any computer-generated result?)

ID-IOTs will insist that you can hybridize, selectively breed, and genetically engineer without believing that every living thing traces back to one common ancestor.

If your perspective is suffiently myopic, you can ignore arbitrarily large amounts of background. Just as a person can be revolted by the hunter and ignore the fact that her steak used to be walking around on four legs, believers in alternatives to current science will disregard the ultimate source for all the advances they rely on in their work, or for life and health.

The only way to really prove the issue would be to divide society into enclaves, each hermetically sealed from the other, and let each progress using the methods it considers true and correct. Over the course of generations, one of two things would happen: Any given enclave would independently drift over to something indistinguishable from modern science, theories, methods, and all, or it would independently fall behind and the standard of living in that enclave would lag behind that in the others. (Indeed, it might decline, and you'd have a massive die-off. Think of it as evolution in action.)

Screwed up!

Here's a report on a case where one member of a couple sued the other for injuries that resulted during consensual sex.

The plaintiff and the defendant were in a long-term committed relationship. Early in the morning of September 24, 1994, they were engaged in consensual sexual intercourse....Shortly after taking this new position, the defendant landed awkwardly on the plaintiff, thereby causing him to suffer a penile fracture.
The court went on to say that reckless sexual conduct — involving "voluntary taking of risk" and "indifference to consequences" — might be actionable, but merely negligent (i.e., careless) conduct in which a defendant simply "did not think about possible injury to the plaintiff" is not. <snip> ...the prospect of litigation involving experts on how reasonable people have sex (sexologists? prostitutes?), debates about how sexually expert we should expect the reasonable person to be (especially in the throes of passion), attempts to reconstruct exactly who moved how and why, and jury verdicts about how the Reasonable Sexual Partner would have had Reasonable Sex boggle the mind. And, hey, if we impose legal duties on people, shouldn't sex ed class teach students how to properly discharge their duties?

Florida's Self-defense Law

The Volokh Conspiracy's David Kopel looks at the law, recently passed in Florida, stating that people being attacked have no duty to retreat before using deadly force. This has been painted as a law that will have people opening fire on each other for minor reasons, or no reason at all. The streets will run red with blood.

The law itself seems a bit more tame:

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...a person may use deadly force against someone who unlawfully and forcefully enters a person’s home or vehicle. A victim may also use deadly force against a criminal who attempts to force a person out of her vehicle or home. Thus, if someone kicks down your front door in the middle of the night, or attempts to carjack you, you can use firearm or other deadly weapon to protect yourself. You do not have to worry that a prosecutor might second-guess your decision, and claim that you should have used lesser force against the violent intruder. The bill makes several exceptions. The right to use deadly force does not apply against someone who has a right to be in the home or car (unless the person is the subject of domestic violence restraining order r a no-contact order). The right does not apply in child custody dispute. Of course the right does not apply if the person trying to enter the home or automobile is an identified police officer acting within the scope of his duties. Similarly, persons who are using the automobile or dwelling to commit a crime are not covered <snip> Prior Florida law about self-defense allowed defensive deadly force only when the victim believed that no lesser force would suffice. The principle remains in effect in all self-defense situations in Florida, except when the attack takes place in the home or automobile; the legislative judgment was that attacks in a home or vehicle are so outrageous, and so threatening to the social order, that victims should be guaranteed that they will be protected from having their defensive decisions second-guessed in court.

And the definition of "home" is not just inside the walls of your residence.

The first section of Florida Act concludes by defining “dwelling” to include a porch which is attached to the dwelling, and to include temporary dwellings, such as camping tent.

You don't have blanket protection outside the home.

Outside of the home or vehicle, a victim may only use deadly force when it is reasonably believed to be necessary. (So the victim continues to face a risk of prosecutorial second-guessing). However, the new law specifies that victims are not legally obliged to retreat anywhere... <snip> So if a gang tries to mug you while you are walking down a dark street, and you draw a gun a shoot one of the gangsters, a prosecutor cannot argue that you should have tried to run away. The prosecutor still can, however, argue that use of deadly force was unnecessary, because the victim could have used lesser force in the particular situation.

In addition, the law eliminates some situations that have rubbed many the wrong way:

The final section of the bill prohibits tort lawsuits against persons who act in conformity with the law. A criminal who sues a crime victim will be liable for the victim’s legal expenses. Police officers are not allowed to arrest a victim who defended herself, unless the officers have probable cause to believe the victim violated the laws...

In summary: the United States, social attitudes tend to favor the victim’s rights over those of the criminal. Most Americans would disagree with the idea that a mugging victim should be sent to prison because he didn’t try to flee, or that violent predators ought to be able to sue victims who shoot them. As the Florida bill is introduced in other states, victims-rights opponents will probably be successful in getting newspapers and television to describe the proposal in very frightening terms. But when legislators and their aides read the actual text of the bill, many legislators will—like their Florida counterparts—conclude that bill is nothing more than some common-sense protections for crime victims.

Foster care

Foster youth who automatically are released from state care at age 18 are more likely to be evicted, drop out of school or get into trouble with the law than foster youth who are allowed to continue in care, according to a new study.

In essence, children who have been abused and/or neglected to the point where the State places them in foster care don't stop needing a support system just because they turn 18. However, in most cases, funding dries up when the foster child reaches his 18th birthday, and so, apparently, does any kind of support system.

...continued in full post...

States and the federal government should look for more ways to keep foster youth connected to their support systems as they enter adulthood...

I have to wonder about the whole situation. How do parents – even substitute parents – raise a kid from just about any age to adulthood and not form some sort of attachment? I must surmise that the foster care system is being run in such a way that being a foster parent remains more of a job than a type of family.

Children typically remain connected with parents throughout their lives, but you don't see this kind of connection with baby sitters. To the extent that foster parents are long-term baby sitters, this bond doesn't form.

Can the State build a support system for "graduates" of the foster care system? I'm inclined to doubt it. A State system has to be regulated and governed by rules. It's because of regulations and rules that funding for foster care disappears on the 18th birthday. And I suspect the same environment is what causes foster parents to disappear when the funding dries up and the "job" is "finished".

One solution, therefore, is to get the government out of the system as much as possible. The State can, at need, take children away from their parents, but they would then enter into a "temporary adoption" arrangement. The foster parents would be legal parents for a limited term, and they would have the same rights other parents enjoy. The idea would be to create the same kind of bonds you find in other families – biological and adoptive.

Another important factor is the notion of the "family by choice". Very close friendships can assume some of the functions of a family. (I, for example, am an "adopted uncle" to three kids. I started out as a friend of the family before the kids were born, and I've been a significant influence in their lives.)

Other affiliations can provide support, including (especially) churches. Foster parents, and indeed biological and adoptive parents, should be encouraged to join a church or a similar organization. Other organizations whose members can give support to each other should be encouraged. The State can't do it all, and in many cases, shouldn't try.

Questions for Newsweek

William Kristol has a couple of questions for Newsweek in the wake of its weak news:

In its May 9 "Periscope" item, Newsweek claimed that "sources tell Newsweek" that "interrogators, in an attempt to rattle suspects, flushed a Qu'ran down a toilet. . . ." In its May 23 "The Editor's Desk" note, editor Mark Whitaker explains that Michael Isikoff's and John Barry's "information came from a knowledgeable U.S. government source. . . ." If there was only one source for the "information," why did Newsweek originally claim there was more than one source?

Kristol mentions some facts that have surfaced about the one source Newsweek admits to using. Two items: He is now demanding compensation from the US Government. In previous interviews, he never saw fit to mention the incident he now claims gives him nightmares. Indeed, he told the AP he was interrogated "150 times" and never abused. (Maybe this is a case of Recovered Memory Syndrome?)

Is Bader's claim credible? Did Newsweek even attempt to check it out before publishing it? Or does Newsweek believe that inserting the phrase, "credible or not," at the beginning of the relevant paragraph, absolves them of this journalistic duty?

Face it. The mainstream press is biased. Stories that cast Republicans in a bad light are "too good to check". Stories that cast Democrats in a bad light will be thoroughly vetted before publishing – if they're still "timely" by the time the vetting process is completed.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

That which we call a rose... any other name would smell as sweet?

Apparently so!

If it stinks like body odor and you're trying to sell it, just call it cheese. That's the message from a new study that finds people perceive a scent differently based on the word that goes with the smell. Researchers exposed test subjects to the smell of cheddar cheese. Some saw labels that read "cheddar cheese." Others were shown labels that read "body odor." Those who were told they were smelling cheese rated the scent more pleasant. The study also imaged people's brains during follow-up tests. The results were as complex as, well, the brain. The cheese label activated a certain part of the brain that processes olfactory information (the signals coming from the nose). When people smelled clean air that was also labeled as cheese, the same brain area was activated, but not as much. When they saw the body odor label, that brain location was not activated, regardless of whether they were sniffing cheese or clean air.

I guess it is the thought that counts.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Religious fundamentalists

It's hit the fan. Newsweek published a claim that interrogators at Guantanamo were flushing pages from the Koran down the toilet to rattle prisoners. Now, the story turns out to be unsubstantiated, and has been retracted.

In the mean time, Muslims around the world rioted, and at least 15 people have died.

I'm now pondering various standards of what is considered "acceptable".

Dennis Prager pointed out that Buddhists didn't riot when the statues in Afghanistan were destroyed by the Taliban. Likewise, Jews didn't riot after Jordanian Muslims used Jewish tombstones in Old Jerusalem as latrines, or when Palestinians destroyed Joseph's Tomb (twice!)

And provokations ranging from the "artistic" piece, "Piss Christ", The Last Temptation of Christ, all the way up to bans on Christian worship in the Middle East and the murder of Christians at prayer in Pakistan.

No riots.

Nike pulled a line of shoes off the market because the cursive form of the word "air" on the shoe looked too much like the Arabic word "Allah". A line of shoes with Crucifixes on the soles would probably sell like crazy. (I claim priority on that idea – if you decide to run with that idea, I want a cut of the gross. I'm not proud.) I'd bet any amount of money, there'd be no riots.

For all the rhetoric about extremist right-wing Christian fundamentalists, it seems people fear the most extremist Christians far less – orders of magnitude less – than they fear the Islamic street.

Might I suggest that we stop referring to Christians as extremist? Either that, or we have to come up with another word for the extremist Muslims.

I guess it's a computer error

If you type "Edinburgh brothels" into will give you ten hits. The locations that come up include exclusive restaurants, the Edinburgh International Film Festival headquarters, and a Christian Publishing house.

It pulls up the locations of no real brothels.

Apparently other google engines do list the twenty saunas and massage outlets in Edinburgh.

The problem with apparently shows up outside of Edinburgh, as well.

But the problem is not just confined to the Capital. In Tonbridge, in the south of England, one user decided to search for the brothel nearest his home and was directed to Kent County Police Headquarters.

Monday, May 16, 2005

It doesn't add up

Division of Labour takes a look at the revenue stream claimed for a new tennis center.

"Nina Lovel has a vision for a new tennis center. As a member of the Rome Tennis Advisory Council, she wants a facility that’s bigger, better and has more courts in one place. <snip> One reason is money. The Georgia State League Championships, currently occupying 70 courts in seven locations across the county, is expected to bring in around $2 million during the four days it’s here."
...if tennis tournaments are such gushers of money then why doesn't some entreprenuer spring for the $750k that the article reports would be necessary to build a new tennis center? Even if the new tennis center could capture only 10% of that magical $10m that tennis tournaments bring to Rome, it would pay for itself in only 1 year. Not many investments pay for themselves that quickly! The fact that no one in Rome--or anywhere else apparently--builds a private facility suggests that the $10m is a wee bit inflated.

...continued in full post...

One thing I note is that the $10 million is for all tennis tournaments in the city, not for any one center. And I suspect a lot of the $10 million is counting externalities – tourists spending money outside the tennis center, wages and salaries to employees (who won't be earning them elsewhere, by the way), and other income streams attracted by, but not to, the tennis center.

These externalities are not captured in the balance sheet for the tennis center. This means the people analyzing them may be able to fudge them in a number of ways.

Firstly, at least some externalities are speculative – hard to measure at best, distorted at worst. For example:

An anecdotal reason to suspect it's inflated: While eating Friday night at a restaurant that should be one of the beneficiaries of tourist spending, my better two-thirds, Pee Wee, and I observed less [sic] than a dozen people in tennis attire. While some may have changed clothes there couldn't have been too many tennis players eating there because the restaurant was only half full.

Although I'm sure this wasn't the only place to eat in all of Rome, it illustrates the problem involved in measuring this particular externality. You'd have to survey all eateries in Rome, during periods when tennis tournaments are underway and during periods when they're not, to see if you could measure an effect overall. Very few people are inclined to do that sort of work for free.

Secondly, since externalities are, by definition, not caught in the balance sheet, there's no particular penalty if you miss one in your analysis, or double-count another. If, for example, you count the average tourist as spending $100 per day, you assume he spends $40 on meals, $50 on lodging, and $20 on miscellaneous items, the $10 shortfall in the expected take won't bite you for quite a while, if ever.

Likewise, if you overlook the increase in pickpockets, muggers, vandals, and even honest tourists who put more wear and tear on city facilities, that won't bit you for a long time, either.

I suspect double-counting of benefits, and undercounting of costs, goes on a lot more than most people think.

The spin on faster healing

Here's a nifty technique. A researcher has developed a technique for speeding the healing of injuries. Takes platelets, concentrated from the patient's blood, mixes them with calcium and thrombin, and applies the resulting gel to or injects it into the injury. The platelets release natural growth factors that accelerate healing.

Used in dentistry and facial reconstruction, the gel cuts healing time in half. In addition, the quality of healing is higher, with less scarring.

It occurs to me that one application for this stuff might be the treatment of burns. Especially, mixed with nutrients, this would speed healing in burned skin, even though the blood supply might be compromised.


Many years ago, Dr. Lawrence Peter, famous for elucidating the Peter Principle, came up with a measurement which he called "injelitency". It was defined as I2J5, or something like that. "I" stood for incompetence, and "J" stood for jealousy.

Mark Steyn may be in the process of discovering that injelitency costs money and resources to maintain, and any organization's resources will be used first to sustain its injelitency, with any left over going to pay for the organization's declared purpose.

John Bolton is being opposed because he might actually do something about the institutional injelitency that permeates the U.N. and the international community.

ID for faithful, evolution for scientists

Oregon State University microbiology student Sanjai Tripathi offers comments inspired the Kansas State Board of Education hearings on Intelligent Design - Intelligent Origin Theory.

It is disappointing, but I suppose understandable, that in 21st-century America we still have to defend the theory of evolution.

...continued in full post...

Advocates of ID-IOT like to point to "irreducibly complex" systems as something that demands a designer. However:

First, their examples of "irreducible complexity" are in fact reducible. The bacterial flagellum is the most frequent example cited by ID proponents. The 30 or so protein components do need each other to make a functioning flagellum. However, they didn't need to evolve together, as ID people claim, to be selected by evolution. The question is whether fewer than the 30 subunits of the flagellum could have had any other function. By comparing gene sequences for similarity with computers, we can see that the answer is clearly "yes." The pore-forming base of the flagellar structure is very similar to the base of the type III secretion system, which allows many bad bacteria, like Salmonella, for example, to infect host cells. Other parts of the flagellar structure are also similar to the sex-pilus (yes, bacteria can have "sex" too), that allows conjugation and gene transfer. In Actinobacillus, an operon of just seven genes, and only three with homology to flagella and secretion system genes, forms its own rudimentary secretion system, dubbed the tad operon. This bacteria lives in your mouth and is mostly responsible for making the slime that forms on your teeth when you don't brush. Without the secretion system, it can't make slime. In fact, an even more rudimentary homologous secretion system, with just four genes, is found in many other bacteria (including the Mycobacteria we study in my lab). Irrefutably, the complexity of the flagellum is reducible. The ID people will probably go on to think of new "irreducible" examples of complexity, and the real scientists with some free time and a blog will reduce those as well. The second flaw in ID is more fundamental. That is, their basic argument has no logical basis; because something is very complex, it doesn't necessarily have a "designer."

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Peppered myths

It's amazing how little critical thought is brought to bear on the subject of evolution. Most people pick one side or the other of the argument, knowing next to nithing about it. Even worse, they may have picked up some caricature of the subject and think they have real knowledge about it.

Even more amazing to me is how many of those who emphasize the need for critical thought apply it in only one direction.

Here's a case in point.

Norm Weatherby is hammering away at the peppered moth (Biston betularia) and industrial melanism.

...continued in full post...

On January 17, 1999 The Washington Times reported that this "icon for evolution" is being disputed not by creationists, but evolutionists. Biologist Theodore Sargent admitted that he helped glue moths onto trees for a NOVA documentary about the peppered moth. The Washington Times reported that, "Mr. Sargent wrote in 'Evolutionary Biology' last year [1998] that subsequent studies have all found they change under many conditions, and do not really live on tree trunks." Jerry Coyne, a biologist at the University of Chicago, "agreed that the moth illustration of evolution had to be thrown out." Coyne wrote in the journal Nature, "My own reaction resembles the dismay attending my discovery, at age six, that it was my father and not Santa who brought the presents on Christmas Eve."

OK, sounds terrible. However, one of the neat things about science is that the court never adjourns. Any time a witness comes forward with new testimony, there's always time to power up the investigation and check out the details. For example, here's a link to a discussion on the peppered moth.

Now we have a number of statements of purported fact in the above, including:

  • Peppered moths don't really live on tree trunks.
  • Moths were glued to tree trunks.
  • "They" (I assume this means peppered moths) change under many conditions.

The first statement, "Peppered moths don't really live on tree trunks." (No, dummy, they fly around at night, looking for mates. They may very well sleep on tree trunks.) Even stipulating that the Washington Times writer meant to say the moths don't "rest on tree trunks" as Wells did in his book, it's still wrong.

First, several of Wells's worst distortions must be dealt with directly.
The natural resting locations of peppered moths – Majerus' data. On page 148, Wells discusses the natural resting places of peppered moths, under the heading "Peppered moths don't rest on tree trunks." But they do, at least sometimes. Here are the relevant datasets, which Wells does not quote or cite for his readers:
Location of resting moths Natural Near traps
Branches 31.9% 9.9%
Exposed trunk 12.8% 23.6%
Unexposed trunk 12.8% 10.8%
Trunk/branch joint 42.6% 32.5%
Foliage 0% 10.8%
Man-made surfaces 0% 12.3%

Hmmm... This data never seems to make it into the critiques of the peppered moth story. I wonder what else isn't being mentioned.

The second statement may be relevant, or it may not. Certainly, articles in science journals may include photographs and illustrations that show organisms in contrived situations. A dissected animal is very definitely contrived. You never find an animal in the wild splayed out on a tray, with its skin cut open and pinned back, and with innards moved conveniently out of the way for easy viewing.

In this case, it seems to be much ado about nothing.

...textbook photos are used to show relative crypsis of moth morphs, not to prove that peppered moths always rest in one section of the trees. And third, Majerus himself has taken unstaged photos of peppered moths on matching tree trunk backgrounds, and these are not significantly different than staged photos; this eviscerates whatever vestige of a point Wells thinks that he has.

Yes, moths do rest on tree trunks. (At least a quarter of the time, based on the survey in the wild. Add the trunk/branch joint, which in my experience bears a surface appearance strikingly similar to the nearby trunk, which is about four tenths of the cases observed in the wild. This adds up to more than half of the observed moths. And I'm inclined to wonder how far up branches the lichin pattern extends.)

Dr. Bruce Grant, in his review of Wells' work, said pretty much the same thing:

No one who reads Kettlewell's paper in which the original photos appeared would get the impression from the text that these were anything but posed pictures. He was attempting to compare the differences in conspicuousness of the pale and dark moths on different backgrounds. Nobody thought he encountered those moths like that in the wild.

Yes, the original photos were staged, almost certainly because it was easier than dragging photographic equipment over to every example for which an illustrative case was desired.

Guess what – when someone went to the trouble of photographing moths where they actually landed, the photos were pretty darn similar.

Somehow, though, that never gets mentioned. It makes a fellow wonder what else isn't being mentioned.

The third statement is incoherent. A professional writer should be able to turn out something a little bit clearer. (I would hope!)

In the spirit of good sportsmanship, I'll attempt to divine what the writer was getting at with the statement that "they change under many conditions".

It happens that moths, and indeed most living things, will exhibit variations in their features. Even in the absence of pollution, you'll find occasional melanic moths, just as you find the occasional albino snake or other animal appearing in the wild. The thing is, they tend not to last very long in the wild unless they're very lucky.

There have been discussions about the relative importance of predation by birds on the observed changes in the abundance of light and dark forms of the peppered moth. However, the notion that birds have something to do with it is not based on just one piece of data.

Kettlewell showed that the dark, or melanic, form of the moth predominated primarily because of predation by birds. He did not think that predation was the only cause of industrial melanism and in fact speculated as to the relative strengths of other causes. Briefly, he performed a number of experiments: 1. Release-recapture experiments 2. Direct observation and filming 3. Ranking of camouflage 4. Correlation of geographical distributions with industrialization

Word of the researcher who took the time to photograph peppered moths in their natural resting spots, Michael Majerus, must have gotten back to Wells, because Wells wrote a response. He called Majerus a liar.

In his response, Majerus mentioned that he had read some 500 papers, adding up to about 8000 pages (average of 16 pages per paper). They all support the hypothesis of selective predation.

And indeed, this is characteristic of sound science. It hangs together and it meshes with other results that turn up elsewhere. In particular, people who look for side-effects of evolution in action will find it. Geographic distributions will work out right, as will the timing of population changes. Similar cases can be expected to behave in similar ways. Analogous cases can be expected to behave in analogous ways. (E.g., soot on tree trunks might similarly favor darker varieties of predatory insects. Predators need to remain un-noticed until they're close enough to pounce.)

I wonder if either Dr. Wells or Mr. Weatherby would be willing to bet that industrial melanism has never shown up in predators.

Fact of the day

(Hat tip: The Scotsman daily e-mail.)

(Back dated)

A landmark in medical history today when Edward Jenner makes the first smallpox vaccination in 1796. By infecting a boy with cowpox (a much less dangerous infection) he was able to make him immune to the more dangerous and disfiguring smallpox. The word 'vaccination' was itself taken from the latin for cow: vacca.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Foreign language credit?

(From an APA I belong to...)

Years ago it occurred to me that Yandro is "north" in French in Pig Latin backwards. (North => nord => ordnay => yandro) So far, no one else has found this interesting. – D Gary Grady

Judicial filibusters

A few points made here:

Technically, a judge has been filibustered in the past. In 1968, Abe Fortas was blocked by a filibuster staged by 24 Republicans and 19 Democrats.

Fortas never had majority support in the Senate, and would not have been elevated to Chief Justice.

The filibuster was undertaken after Fortas refused to appear before the Judiciary Committee following reports of financial wrongdoing. He eventually was forced to resign from the Supreme Court altogether.

At the time, it would have taken 59 votes to end the filibuster. Why not 60? At the time, the rules required a two-thirds vote of senators present to invoke cloture.

In 1975, the rule was changed so that three-fifths of the membership – not just those in attendance – would be required to invoke cloture.

The rule change originally proposed by Walter Mondale would have called for three fifths of senators in attendance to invoke cloture. The change from senators in attendance to total membership as the baseline was proposed by Robert Byrd.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Creationists shooting themselves in the foot...

Norm Weatherby asks, of certain creationists:

Why oh why do certain people revel in public declarations that the whole universe began a scant 6,000 years ago and that scientific evidence to the contrary is all lies and distortion of "the truth"?

Answer: Creationism is not a scientific endeavor, it's a political endeavor. Creationism is rooted in the belief that the Bible has to be literally true, or there's no God.

These creationists shoot themselves in the foot because that's where the entire creationist movement is aiming. The more sophisticated of them work to try to hide where they're aiming, or to try to get the bullet where they want it by means of a fancy ricochet (Intelligent Design - Intelligent Origin Theory), but ultimately, that's their goal.

Creationists and ID-IOTs have bought the fallacy that a Creator God or Goddess can only do creative work by methods they approve of. If science believes the laws of nature are sufficient to account for life as we know it, then science is wrong. The notion that God may have set up those laws precisely so the universe would yield life capable of understanding God is "selling out".

Many vocal scientists proclaim that science rules out God. They're free to do so, but as soon as they start dealing with the supernatural, God included, they've left the realm of science. They're now human beings expressing an opinion that is not supported by the science in whose name they purport to speak. The real sin accrues to religionists who would dictate to God how he is allowed to have done his work.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Responses to my op-ed

There is a fellow, going under the name "Jason Spaceman", who can be relied upon to post any number of pieces dealing with evolution on the usenet group.

It occurred to me that he might well have found my piece, as he scans the website where it appeared. He did, and it drew comments.

...continued in full post...

From: Rowan Malin Date: Sun, 08 May 2005 21:33:52 -0400 This has been a source of confusion for me for a while now. If the ID crowd are proposing to "teach the controversy" or advise students to "think critically", isn't it imperative on them to first train the students on the competing theories? After all, you can't weigh arguments without knowing what they are. In effect, if they take this track, the ID crowd are stating that you must learn and understand evolution (as well as whatever competing theories they care to put forward) before the discussion can even begin. Isn't this shooting themselves in the foot? Cheers, Rowan

My response to that was:

Absolutely! Hence, "Be careful what you ask for". When you equip people with tools, they may use them on things you didn't intend. ..........Karl

And Ken Shaw responded with:

From: Ken Shaw You're assuming the DI crowd is honest. This assumption is untrue. what they want to do is teach a strawman of evolution and then use their "critiques" to tear it down so as to leave the students open to outside indoctrination on the subject. Look at the Ohio education standards for how they want evolution taught. Ken

From: Cheezits Date: Mon, 09 May 2005 13:21:19 GMT Not once have I heard one of these people suggest that students "think critically" about the non-theory of ID. Never mind what they are taught in church. Sue

To which Von R. Smith replied:

I am all in favor of encouraging students to think critically about evolution, and to make a point of equipping them to do so. This would include going over several things earlier in the Biology curriculum: -A good review of scientific method, and the basic sort of critical thought that goes into it, along with consistent reinforcement and application of the method for the entire school year; -A good explanation of systematics, of the outstanding characteristics of the nested hierarchy, and how it is complemented and reinforced by other methods and tools (such as genetic phylogenies); -Discussion of the key concepts of ecology, biodiversity, and biogeography; -A decent survey of paleontology and what science can infer about the natural history of life from the evidence available(one can describe chronology and what appears when without explicitly referring to any "theory of origins"); -A good explanation of genetics, including population genetics, mutations, allele frequencies, etc.; -What is known about drift, selection, speciation, etc. -*Then* we can talk about evolution, and the notion of universal common ancestry, etc. At this point, students can "think and discuss critically" about evolution and what IDers think its weaknesses are.

Heh. How many hours of class time will that take up? In which grade did you want to teach all that? (Of course, I think that's the whole point.)

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Unintended consequences

Another case of a person faking the hate crime she claimed to have been a victim of.

Actually another hoax:
The rash of gay-bashing incidents at Tamalpais High School, dating to November, was the work of a student who claimed she was the victim of hate crimes, said police Capt. James Wickham. The teen, who was not identified by police, admitted that she was the perpetrator of the incidents, which included defacing her own car, authorities said.
But now I wonder, based on how many of anti-homosexual hate crimes turn out to be hoaxes, if the high rate of these incidents in the Bay Area is because there are a lot of homosexuals prepared to claim that they were victims of such crimes.

To the extent that such acts are intended to "raise consciousness" about gay bashing, it's having the opposite effect. The more this happens, the more any real victim of a real hate crime will have to prove it's not a hoax.

This kind of thing pollutes the field for the group it's intended to benefit.

This isn't the only sort of thing that suffers from the dilution of sympathy that attends to the "boy who cried wolf" effect.

More in another post.

Evolution, Education, and Critical Thought

Now published by the same folks who published the essay I was complaining about.

Looks like their standards for publishing are not that tough. If I can get published there, chances are, you can too.

What's your motivation?

This article calls to mind discussions in my college psychology 101 course on intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation. Indeed, I recall a film that illustrated the difference between the two, and implied that the first was better than the second.

Now, a researcher has offered the claim that motivation can't be divided into extrinsic or intrisic classes.

...continued in full post...

The issue is more than academic, Reiss said. Many sports psychology books, and books advising how to motivate students and business people, tout the value of intrinsic motivation and warn that extrinsic rewards can undermine people's performance. The argument is that people should do something because they enjoy it, and that rewards only sabotage natural desire.

The issue may have its roots in how science works. Is it possible to come up with a definitive test for the intrinsic/extrinsic theory?

Reiss also criticized many of the studies which proponents say prove the existence of intrinsic motivation, and how it can be undermined by extrinsic rewards. For example, many studies have purportedly shown how people who enjoy doing a specific activity – such as children who enjoy drawing – do that activity less after they are offered rewards. But when the results show the subjects continue the activity even after the rewards are offered, the researchers have argued that this just shows the subjects expect to get a reward and no longer are intrinsically motivated. "The results are always turned around to prove their hypothesis."

If any outcome can be accounted for by the theory, then the theory explains nothing.

Seeking out new life...

Algae have been discovered that use cadmium as a nutrient.

Scientists have discovered cadmium within an enzyme from a marine diatom, an algae or plankton common in the ocean and a major source of food for many organisms. The finding, reported in the May 5 issue of Nature, suggests that certain trace metals, found in very low concentrations in the ocean, are utilized by enzymes that have not been found in organisms from terrestrial environments.

Life in the oceans may well use lots of weird metals because of evolutionary pressure.

"Trace elements are extremely scarce in the ocean," Saito said. "Major regions of the surface oceans, for instance, are known to be limited by iron, rather than by nitrogen or phosphorus as in lakes and coastal waters. This fact has created a selection for novel metalloenzymes and biochemistries that utilize metals that wouldn't otherwise be used in terrestrial or near-shore environments."

I suspect every naturally-occurring element will probably turn out to be an essential nutrient, at least for something.

Got scissors?

Ever wonder what happens to all those sharp objects confiscated by TSA at airports? No, you don't get them back at the end of your trip. They go up on e-bay.

At the time of the referenced post, the bid for 50 pounds of corkscrews and bottle openers was $77. Plastic-handled scissors: 35 pounds for $20. Nail clippers were going for $42.43 for a 20 pound lot.

I could imagine a teacher buying thirty-five pounds of scissors to outfit a classroom. Frequent fliers might want to buy their nail clippers by the twenty-pound lot, if they forget to pack them in their carry-on luggage often enough.

Subjective valuation

Division of Labour, under the heading of "One Cat, Priceless" mentions that economists have not been very good at assessing the subjective value of anything.

No doubt, your subjective value on your best friend in significantly greater than replacement cost. The same probably holds true for the home you live in, which is why eminent domain is typically a bad deal. Economists are not good at estimating subjective values and typically reject attempts at contingent valuation. However, juries are often called upon to value subjective preferences.

I recall a gimmick mentioned in Heinlein's story, The Number of the Beast. People set their own assessed values on their homes. Anyone could buy a home, for the stated value, against the owner's wishes. The only recourse the owner had was to increase the stated value until no one wanted to buy the home. However, he then owed three years' back taxes on the change in value.

It sounds bizarre, but it's a very good way of ascertaining the subjective value a person places on his home.

On the occasions when I've been on a civil jury assessing damages, one thing I weigh in the balance is, would I be willing to go through what the plaintiff did in exchange for the proposed amount of damages? If not, the amount of damages are too low. If so, they're too high. If it'd flip a coin, the amount is just right.


Josh Gilder discusses America's fear of nuclear power. He points out that, when compared with other forms of energy, nuclear power in the US has been incredibly safe.

Last March, a tragic explosion in a Texas oil refinery killed 15 workers, though it hardly showed up as a blip on the national news, as fatalities associated with oil production and transportation happen with relative frequency. In comparison, at Three Mile Island in 1979 – the most serious accident in a U.S. commercial nuclear plant – the containment vessel operated as it was designed to and prevented any significant release of radioactivity into the surrounding environment. There were no appreciable adverse health effects to workers or the public.

Indeed, to get any fatalities among nuclear workers at all, you have to add in military nuclear facilities. All these fatalities might equal one refinery explosion. In addition, if we're going to look at health impact, for example, from radiation exposure, the fair comparison is with conditions like black lung in coal miners.

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Radiation is another thing the anti-nuke lobby has programmed us to be afraid of:

Part of our phobia stems from the idea – encouraged by the anti-nuclear lobby – that radiation is somehow alien and that exposure to any amount is an exceptional, and very possibly deadly, experience. In fact, we're exposed to radiation every day: cosmic radiation from the sun, radiation from the Earth itself – particularly radon gas – even from our own bodies, which provide about 10 percent of the typical American's annual radiation exposure of 360 millirem. To put this into perspective, if you're living next door to a nuclear power plant, you receive almost as much radiation – about one millirem – from your television as you do from the plant. The average American receives some 200 times as much from radon gas coming up from the ground, and if you move to a location with a lot of granite rock, like northeastern Washington state, you'll be exposed to about 1,700 times as much.

Indeed, our bodies contain enough radioactive material that, if it were not naturally occurring, we'd have to bury our dead in low-level radioactive waste dumps.

All in all, nuclear power is safer than the alternatives, and much safer than having no energy at all.

Politics and agendas

This is one of several springboards for some thoughts about politics. One comment about the Mommy Brain post included a mention, in passing, of the Equal Rights Amendment going down to defeat. At first, the comment blamed the "overwhelmingly white, male Congress" for voting it down. After another comment corrected the first (it died when too few states had ratified it when the time expired), the original commenter stated:

But I will say that it was the white, male controlled political process that didn't support it, so it failed.

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Well, yes. At the time, the political system was overwhelmingly populated by white males. It was also developed and shaped almost exclusively by white males.

Nevertheless, I'll offer Ken Hamblin's challenge, which he used as the tile of one of his books: Pick a Better Country. Or in this case, pick a better system. I'd love to see a ranking by country of the rights and the standard of living afforded to women and minorities. It'd be interesting to group these countries according type of government. I'd be willing to bet that the highest-ranked countries would have systems of government developed by "overwhelmingly white, male" bodies. In fact, I'd be willing to bet quite a lot. (And I recall a commentary piece in Newsweek some years ago, bemoaning the fact that China, which was hosting the international Women's Rights Conference that year, had such a dismal record on women's rights. It occurred to me that darn few other countries would be any better. Indeed, their right to gather and discuss women's rights pretty much depended on their citizenship in countries, run by white, male governments.)

The authors of the linked article are accused of using their religion merely to advance a political agenda.

The Reform rabbi charged that when we oppose homosexual marriage because the Bible views homosexuality as a sin, we use faith merely to advance a political agenda. That is like saying that because he quoted Scripture while fighting segregation, Reverend Martin Luther King used faith to advance a political agenda. Civil rights was not any more a “political agenda” than is protecting the traditional family. They are both deep moral values. They may not be everybody’s moral values but they are ours. Politics is nothing more than a society applying its deepest moral values in a practical way. Without politics, citizens who disagreed with one another would resort to guns and knives. However the system of politics does depend upon treating with respect, even those with whom we disagree. Your labeling us as prejudiced bigots is not respectful. You may disagree with us, but we are as entitled to our beliefs as you are to yours. America grants freedom of belief to Bible-believing Jews and Christians as well as to secular fundamentalists.

"Politics" derives from a Sumerian word meaning "city". Politics is the set of techniques that allow people to get along with each other in large groups. When you get a group of people large enough to form a city, or at least a village, you need these skills. And there are lots of ways of getting people to work together. Some work better than others.

The Equal Rights Amendment may be gone, but the lot of women in the US is much closer to complete equality than it is in most of the world. The US government was developed by whites, but it affords blacks and other non-whites more freedom and opportunity than they have in most of the rest of the world. Indeed, blacks in particular are freer here than they are in most countries where they are the majority.

That politics is "a society applying its deepest moral values in a practical way" implies that any political system can be traced back to deep moral values. The sex and color of the founders of the US government matter, in the final analysis, much less than the moral values they used as the foundation for this government. Whatever anyone may think of the history of this country, its failings with respect to human rights, and the failings of its founders, one thing remains true:

The values on which this country were founded are good ones. Martin Luther King cited the Bible in his fight against segregation, but he also cited the Declaration of Independence. Many of his speeches were challenges for Americans to live up to the lofty values enshrined in that document. If the country is as racist and unjust as it's so frequently made out, the fact that it could be shamed into living up to "all men are created equal" says a lot for the founders' moral values.

"It doesn't threaten my marriage"

The argument over same-sex marriage is often framed as a matter of compassion.

in regarding homosexual conduct as a sin, we demonstrate that we lack love and compassion. <snip> Does a mother who denies her children their urges for an excess of unhealthy food lack love and compassion for those children? Of course not, however, you might argue, candy imperils teeth and half pound hamburgers cause obesity, while homosexual behavior hurts nobody. This is precisely where our beliefs differ from his. We believe that homosexual behavior does indeed threaten the durability of a society; maybe not immediately but in time.

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You see, clear and present threats, like angry Rottweiler dogs, are not so dangerous because people recognize the threat and avoid them. However dangers that take longer to develop can be truly terrifying. For instance, early in the 20th century, people would seek therapeutic benefit in the tunnels of uranium mines in Montana. This horrifying practice persisted for decades before the dangers of radioactivity were fully understood. By the time they were understood, it was too late. By then large numbers of patients had contracted cancers, become diseased, and had died. By the time the perils of homosexual marriage become obvious, it might well be too late. That is our belief and we are entitled to share that belief with others.

So just what are the dangers of same-sex marriage? Can anyone point to a smoking gun (or a glowing uranium atom)? Maybe, maybe not. Reasonable people can disagree. However...

Call us “old-fashioned” or any other names you prefer, but human history does seem to bear out our view. It is hard, if not impossible, to think of a society for whom rampant homosexuality was not a symptom of impending extinction.

To be sure, the authors of this piece, a pastor and a rabbi, cite Biblical scripture as the basis for their opposition to same-sex marriage. Some will see this as a set of rules, arbitrarily drawn up and no better than any other set of rules in existence. However, it's quite possible that the books of Biblical law, like any number of other traditions, represent the distillation of centuries or even millennia of practical experience. We may not know exactly why one thing works and another fails any better than did those who wrote the laws in the first place. But they may have found out – the hard way – that the one thing works, and the other fails.

The authors argue that we may be on the path toward finding out, for ourselves, the hard way.

Whether same-sex marriage is a hole drilled in a lifeboat, or radiation in a uranium mine, or not, in a way I have no dog in that fight. I will eventually die, and the state of this civilization will be someone else's problem. I am not a parent, and am not likely to become one at this stage of my life. I expect to leave no progeny to inherit this civilization.

However, I am at least an "adopted uncle" to a number of kids, and I've become rather attached to them. If the presence or absence of same-sex marriage makes a difference in society, I'd like us to choose the condition that yields a better society for them to live in.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Soft tissue from dinosaurs?

Recently, noise has erupted over the discovery of soft tissue in some fossilized bones of a Tyrannosaurus rex fossil. This article looks at what was actually found, how it's been covered, and the response in the anti-science crowd.

The main Science article appears as a fairly straightforward report that when the mineral component of a tyrannosaur femur was removed, there remained an organic mass with characters similar to those found in ostrich bone. Schweitzer et al believe they have recovered material that represented osteocytes, blood cells, and vessels. They state, "The vessels and contents are similar in all respects to blood vessels recovered from extant ostrich bone." (Photos of these can be seen from the original article, and some are also available in Tyrannosaur morsels on PZ Myers' personal blog). Schweitzer et al notably offered no alternate explanation for their finding- they are entirely standing on the assertion that these are the original dinosaur tissues. Not until the last paragraph do they even comment that, "Whether preservation is strictly morphological and the result of some kind of unknown geochemical replacement process or whether it extends to the subcellular and molecular levels is uncertain."

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Are there alternative explanations? As it turns out, there are:

Hendrik Poinar of McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, cautions that looks can deceive: Nucleated protozoan cells have been found in 225-million-year-old amber, but geochemical tests revealed that the nuclei had been replaced with resin compounds. Even the resilience of the vessels may be deceptive. Flexible fossils of colonial marine organisms called graptolites have been recovered from 440-million-year-old rocks, but the original material–likely collagen–had not survived.
In short, there are known instances where reworked material can have the appearance of the 'tissues' reported by Schweitzer et al. As is nearly always the case, the juicy bits are in the background. The great advantage that science journals have today is the ability to put all supplemental details on-line. In this case, the three page "main" article sports a supporting text over four times as long. For example, the main article has left many people with the false impression that the recovered tissues were in a soft pliable state when first exposed. This is not true. All of the fossil material was rehydrated during the same process that removed the mineral components of the bone. They were then buffered, and also some were fixed. The related press reports have created the impression that there are large features with the characteristics of fresh tissue. This is not true. The structures examined are a few millimeters across at most.


Early student work by Schweitzer, and coauthored by Horner, was grossly distorted by creationists. Popular press announcements by Schweitzer were very bold and provocative with hints of dinosaur DNA and linkage to the Crichton/Spielberg "Jurassic Park" series of books and movies. Young Earth Creationists immediately leapt on Schweitzer's claims of "fresh-looking" tissue as proof that the Universe is merely thousands of years old. Schweitzer then spent most of a decade backing away from her earliest claims, and denying that there was any point in confronting creationists' distortion of her work. The motivation to read and write about dinosaurs comes merely from my interest and, as I see it, obligation to expose fallacious manipulation of science by creationists. I chose to train in anthropology because I am interested in people and our nearest kin. I found that to best understand my interests in human evolution and culture, I needed to learn a modicum of the physical and biological sciences. This modicum at least enables me to carefully read articles such as Schweitzer's. This was the only basis of my only writing about the paleontology of dinosaurs. In my opinion, this obligation to refute 'false teaching' is a general one shared by all scientists, and in the case of the earlier research by Schweitzer, I personally encouraged her to face this obligation. Nor was I the first to have done so. She declined in 2003 saying to me that it would be best for her career to simply ignore the massive distortion of her work stemming largely from the Answers in Genesis Ministry, Inc. Few scientific colleagues were aware that Schweitzer has become something of a favorite among young Earth creationists, and she was glad to keep it that way. Schweitzer's major professor, Jack Horner, was similarly disinclined in directly confronting creationists. In brief, Mary Schweitzer and Jack Horner, in spite of their protests, have provided creationists with a rich diet for over a decade without ever bothering to publicly refute the gross misrepresentations of their work.

I've spoken to scientists who tell me it's not worth going after creationism. All the science supports evolution, and that's that.

What scientists don't understand is that creationism and Intelligent Design-Intelligent Origin Theory are not scientific movements. They are political movements. Politics is not decided by the facts, but by opinions, and whoever has the best techniques for shaping opinion will win the battle.

Science will eventually win out, but in the face of political opposition, victory may come only after the culture that ignores science has been killed off by its ignorance of scientific reality.

The notion of a Darwin Award for a whole culture is not one I had considered before, but I'm thinking of it now.

The Mommy Brain

Research has been published that appears to show having children makes the female of the species smarter, according to the new book, The Mommy Brain.

Science writer Katherine Ellison has marshaled evidence to argue that what seems like an impaired brain to a frazzled mother is actually a brain growing more complex. That what people dismiss as women's work - the mundane, repetitive chores, the endless nurturing and negotiation - combines with a flood of hormones to reshape the brain. That after childbirth, women can emerge with a brain that is more efficient, perceptive and resilient.

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In one experiment, Kinsley compared two groups of rats, one lactating, the other childless. All were deprived of food, the virgin rats starved twice as long to make them more motivated. Then both groups were given a chance to hunt crickets. <snip> It turned out the bachelorette rats needed nearly five minutes to catch their dinner. The mommy rats? Seventy seconds. The scientists discovered that mother rats were generally "less stressed than their single counterparts, which made them bolder and more adventurous. When mommy and virgin rats were plopped into a new environment to locate a hard-to-find Fruit Loop, the moms whipped the virgins. On dissection, the mothers' brains were found to contain more dendrites, treelike extensions from the neurons that are important in learning.

Not everyone is as taken with this book as CBS News and the New York Times are.

Nicholas Stix, in Mens News Daily, reviews the book. His first comment is that the increase in "smartness" on the part of fathers gets ignored. He then seizes on the notion that motherhood is "commonly envisioned" as degrading a woman's intelligence.

“Commonly envisioned”? By whom? I don’t know any people like that. But I used to. Feminists have long seen children as an awful obstacle, indeed, the chief hindrance to women realizing their destiny as corporate lawyers. Children keep women down, and as one feminist wrote a few years ago, talking to her baby was the least interesting part of her day. (I can’t recall her exact words, but her interest in interacting with her child was on a par with watching paint dry.) How was it that a leading academic abortion advocate always referred to the unborn child in an expectant mother’s womb? Ah, yes. "Trespasser."

Several people have observed that "feminism" as it developed in the 70s might be more properly termed "masculinism". Looking at the words of the feminists of this era, one would think that feminists disdain those aspects of humanity that are distinctly feminine; those that are distinctly masculine are placed on a pedestal. As a result, motherhood and domesticity are equated to slavery and the status of "brood mare", and working out of the home is prized.

We also saw a period in which sex differences were denied and the dogma grew up that the only difference between men and women was "the shape of their skin". Thus, women were encouraged to overcome their cultural inhibitions. Women, it was said, would find one-night-stands as pleasurable as men do. After all, any differences in how men and women respond to the same situation is only cultural programming.

It's almost as if an entire movement has been founded on the belief that what men do and feel is good, and what women feel and do is somehow inferior.

The attitude is not new. Before it was called "feminism", it had another name.

"Penis envy."

Friday, May 06, 2005

Educating kids: what matters

Bill Cosby and Thomas Sowell have traced success in education and in life to culture. Here's an article that indicates culture may be highly significant, and in ways we didn't expect. What seems to make the difference in education is not so much any particular tricks, but an overall culture that respects education.

But the ECLS data show no correlation between a child's test scores and how often his parents read to him. How can this be? Here is a sampling of other parental factors that matter and don't: •Matters: The child has highly educated parents. •Doesn't: The child regularly watches TV at home. •Matters: The child's parents have high income. •Doesn't: The child's mother didn't work between birth and kindergarten. •Matters: The child's parents speak English in the home. •Doesn't: The child's parents regularly take him to museums. •Matters: The child's mother was 30 or older at time of the child's birth. •Doesn't: The child attended Head Start. •Matters: The child's parents are involved in the PTA. •Doesn't: The child is regularly spanked at home. <snip> So it isn't that parents don't matter. Clearly, they matter an awful lot. It's just that by the time most parents pick up a book on parenting technique, it's too late. Many of the things that matter most were decided long ago - what kind of education a parent got, how hard he worked to build a career, what kind of spouse he wound up with and how long they waited to have children.

The time to start preparing for raising children is when the parents themselves are children.