Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Frank Herbert Lives

Well, sort of.

As technology advances, the power of the individual grows. We are getting to the point where individuals will soon control enough power to destroy the world.

Back in the early 1980s, author Frank Herbert wrote a book, The White Plague. In this book, a scientist exacts revenge for the murder of his wife in a car bombing by engineering a plague that attacks only women, and is 100% lethal to its victims.

At the time, he researched the cost of setting up a gene splicing lab in his home, and found that one could be built for around $100K (1980 dollars). It was also very easy; no one asked for any ID when "Doctor Herbert" called for information about buying lab equipment.

Now we find it's even easier to make new organisms which could, in principle, be very nasty.

The first such warning comes from technology writer Paul Boutin, who recently set out to discover just how easy it would be for an amateur to create a dangerous biological weapon. The answer — as the title to his piece, "Biowar for Dummies" suggests — is "pretty easy, really." Instead of lethal genes, he inserted genes for fluorescence. Boutin writes:
I hadn't set foot in a lab since high school. Could I learn to build a bioweapon? What would I need? What would it cost? Could I set up shop without raising suspicions? And, most important[ly], would it work? . . .
Eventually, we fumble our way to a plastic dish full of translucent goop. If I'd been working on smallpox—and really committed to my cause—this would have been the part where I'd inject a lab animal with the stuff to see if it got sick. Then I'd give myself a dose and head off on a days-long, multi-airport, transnational suicide run. But it was just yeast. Set on top of a black light, it glowed an eerie bright blue, like a Jimi Hendrix poster. My creation ... lived.
Boutin's a smart guy, but he's no Dr. Evil. If he can get this far, others (more skilled, more committed, more, um, evil) can go farther, faster.


Scary and deadly is bad enough, but the "freaky and science-fictional" threat is worse, if perhaps more subtle: Pathogens tailored for particular ethnic groups. Diseases that only attack children. Psychotropic pathogens that affect people's minds — grossly, via schizophrenia or tranquilization, or subtly, by imbuing love for Big Brother. As Pontin notes, this kind of thing isn't currently within the capabilities of terrorists or small groups, but it's something we can expect from nation-states. We've never seen a technological revolution that somebody didn't try to weaponize...

And while we're at it, disaster can happen, even with the best of intentions.

The Star Trek episode "Miri" featured a planet where children were living for hundreds of years, only to die when they hit puberty. It turned out the cause was a plague which had been engineered some centuries before, as part of a life-extension project. It worked, but it had serious drawbacks.

As long as it takes a major government to build a doomsday device, we're fairly safe. When technology enables any man on the street to build one, we're not.

Monday, March 13, 2006

ID in Dover: Right decision, wrong premises?

Science and Theology News writer Evan Fales believes Judge Jones did decide correctly in Kitzmiller v. Dover, but based his decision on faulty premises.

...Judge John Jones correctly finds against Dover — but does so employing problematic premises.

It is not difficult to show these premises are mistaken. They are premises that concern the nature of science and scientific method, and they are of significance in this case because they are among the matters fundamentally at issue in the debate between Darwinists and the advocates of intelligent design — and in the larger “culture war” debate.

What are these premises? Well...

...two unsound arguments used to deny that ID is science. The first argument seeks to establish that ID is not scientific by showing that it invokes supernatural causes. The second argument purports to show that criticisms of Darwinism, even if unsuccessful, do not constitute evidence for ID.
IDers regularly allege that science illegitimately and without argument adopts methodical naturalism as a matter of principle and, more fundamentally, that scientists regularly assume without argument the truth of metaphysical naturalism. Unfortunately, the charge — at least as a charge laid at the feet of scientists — is often correct. And it invites the claim that naturalism is simply an article of faith.

I think a large part of that has to do with the definition of "supernatural". Science deals with naturalistic effects. These are effects that can be perceived using our five senses, or using devices which transform these effects into effects we can perceive. For example, we can't see or feel atoms. We can, however, build gadgets that translate atom-sized forces into forces we can detect. Sometimes, investigating some aspect of the natural world involves a chain of inferences: We know about A, because A has a known effect on B, which has a known effect on C, which has a known effect on D, which we can see with our eyeball, E. (Or hear with our ear, E.)

The premise of scientific naturalism is, when all is said and done, A may not actually exist, but to the best of our ability to tell, the universe behaves as if it does. And furthermore, it behaves differently than we would expect if A did not exist.

Fales asserts that science can deal with supernatural events, and that incorporating supernatural entities does not automatically make some field non-scientific:

Supernatural agents are alleged to lie beyond the reach of scientific investigation because they lie beyond human control, can operate outside the laws of nature, and cannot be observed or measured. But there is no reason why suitably precise claims about the supernatural could not have distinctive empirical implications, and hence be testable.

The problem with this is, as soon as a supernatural entity becomes testable by means of the naturalistic methods used in science, it quits being supernatural, at least in the area where it can be tested.

Suppose we wanted to test for miraculous healings at Lourdes. We could administer a physical examination to everyone who makes a pilgrimage to the site, document their medical condition before the visit, and then again some reasonable amount of time after the visit. They would have to make the same observations of a group of people who don't make this pilgrimage, as a control group – a baseline for comparison.

There are three possible conclusions scientists could reach by examining this population. The group that made the pilgrimage might have a higher cure rate than the control group, or it might have a lower cure rate, or the two groups would be equal. If there's a difference in cure rates, can it be explained by any naturalistic cause, such as minerals in the water at Lourdes or something in the air? (Come to think of it, anyone willing to make a pilgrimage has to have some level of faith in the power of the site. The placebo effect is strong enough that drug testing has to use elaborate schemes to reduce its impact on the experimental group. Maybe the control group had better be made up of Hindus making pilgrimages to bathe in the Ganges.)

If it turns out that people who visit Lourdes have a higher rate of cures than people who do something else, even when everything else is controlled for, then we have a natural effect. To the extent that such an effect is consistently observed and reliable, it becomes a naturalistic effect. If people who visit Lourdes experience cures, science can't distinguish between God blessing people who visit the site, or Satan effecting cures to lead people astray, or some force – call it a "sanotropic field" – that makes people healthier when they come in contact with it. The first two are supernatural entities which behave in naturalistic ways, and the third is a naturalistic force, postulated to explain a consistent effect. Until and unless someone comes up with some observation that can be used to distinguish among these three explanations, there's no point in assuming any except the third are correct.

Ultimately, supernatural agents lie beyond the reach of scientific investigation because, if they impact the observable world in a consistent way, there's no way to distinguish between them and natural forces. As the saying goes, "A difference which makes no difference is no difference."

The second "faulty premise", that finding weaknesses in Darwin's theory does not count as proof for ID:

...if there are effective criticisms of Darwinism, it becomes more likely that some competing explanation is true; if ID could offer such explanations, it could happen that difficulties for Darwinism generate confirmation for ID.

Here, Fales' argument ... well ... fails. You can find as many problems as you like with any one explanation, and it still does not make any one competing explanation any more true than it was before.

Instead of ID, let's posit the "theory" that everything was created by Halliburton. I think most of us will agree that's false, since Halliburton didn't exist when everything was created. Now imagine that some amazing discovery completely and utterly disproves every aspect of Darwin's theory. The Halliburton-Made-It-All "theory" would be no more true than it was before the discovery was made.

There are alternatives to both ID and Darwinian evolution. In science, there's always the "unknown cause" option – some cause we have no idea about yet. And there are people who seriously propose that the universe, along with everything in it, had no beginning in time, and so life in some form has always existed. Since there was no beginning, there's no need to explain how it began.

Evan Fales is professor of philosophy at the University of Iowa.

And here I thought philosophers studied logic.

ID's Intractible Dilemma

(Hat tip: Talk.Reason). Science and Theology News has a number of pieces relating to the evolution vs. Intelligent Design / Intelligent Origin Theory.

Talk.Reason points to Robert Pennock's piece, a devastating description of how well the best ID/IOT had to offer fared against real science in a court of law.

The center’s lineup of expert witnesses listed five Discovery Institute Fellows, including Dembski and Michael Behe, their two most powerful advocates. The ID movement would have its A-team in the courtroom to present its argument in the strongest terms. Moreover, their opponents would be under oath and would be forced to answer the supposedly damning questions they otherwise purportedly dodged.

Dembski provided Thomas More attorneys with detailed questions that would squeeze the truth from “the Darwinists.” He called this the “vise strategy,” illustrating the idea with pictures of heads — including that of a stuffed Darwin doll — being crushed in vises. To top it off, they got to argue their case before a Republican judge appointed by President George Bush. Judge John E. Jones gave them all the time they needed in the long six-week trial to fully lay out their arguments that ID is not religion but legitimate science.

So, what happened when the creationists unsheathed their swords and their wedge in these ideal circumstances? They suffered a rout.

The result of the trial was a detailed ruling which held that ID/IOT was not science, but Scientific Creationism with the serial numbers filed off. Scienctific Creationism, of course, has already been found to be Biblical Creationism with its serial numbers filed off.

Pennock's conclusion:

Of course, we know that the ID battle cries will be heard again. Although he acknowledged that the Dover defeat was a setback, Dembski said it was not ID’s Waterloo: “We can expect agitation for ID and against evolution to continue. School boards and state legislators may tread more cautiously, but tread on evolution they will — the culture war demands it!”

Zealots will never see reason, but let us hope that more pragmatic heads understand that it is time to lay down their swords and shields and wedges. The ID battle was lost at Dover. It’s time to study war no more.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Prisoner mistreatment?

Scott Burgess is looking at the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. Firstly, have they been railroaded? Have they had a chance to contest the charges against them?

In fact, yesterday's Independent provides a starting point which leads to some interesting first hand information concerning conditions at the camp. Regarding the Guantanamo hearing transcripts just released by the government (the very existence of which, incidentally, disproves claims that detainees are being held without any chance to hear charges against them, or to present their cases), the Indy asserts that:
Even this limited glimpse into the closed world of Camp Delta shows the arbitrary nature of the arrests which led to hundreds being incarcerated without charge.
The documents (which, unfortunately, are not machine searchable) are available here. I've gone through about 10% of the cases so far and charges are specified in the vast majority, if not every single one that I've seen.

As for charges of torture, there are some. However, there are some statements that probably won't find their way into the Independent:

one Abdul Hakim Bukhary (set 3, page 60). Perhaps it doesn't fit the picture of Guantanamo that the likes of Mr. Sutcliffe and his employers (whether at the BBC or the Indy) wish to convey:
"Prisoners here are in paradise. American people are very good. Really. They give us three meals, juice, fruit and everything! My God! Here they [i.e. the Arab detainees] bother me everyday, every time. Now about 30 months to this day, they bother me. They call me a hypocrite. They call me a spy. You have to say, 'thank God!' I thank you for America! If you are in a Taliban prison, they do not treat you well. Here we are in paradise. It is 100% paradise. Yes, really. Thank you!"
Mohammed Yacob, shares Mr. Bukhary's positive feelings towards his captors (set 2, page 55):
"I'm very happy with the Americans. I don't blame the Americans for capturing me. I blame someone who reported me; I got captured because of him."

However, for the sake of balance, there are descriptions of truly horrifying tortures inflicted on prisoners:

[One] can only breathe a sigh of relief that he was not subject to what Mr. Abbasi was forced to endure when he:
· had his peanut butter eaten by a guard "right in front of him".

What next? The comfy-chair?

Some questions on polls

(Hat tip: Cold Fury.)

The questions are:

  1. Who did the poll?
  2. Who paid for the poll and why was it done?
  3. How many people were interviewed for the survey?
  4. How were those people chosen?
  5. What area (nation, state, or region) or what group(teachers,lawyers, Democratic voters, etc.) were these people chosen from?
  6. Are the results based on the answers of all the people interviewed?
  7. Who should have been interviewed and was not? Or do response rates matter?
  8. When was the poll done?
  9. How were the interviews conducted?
  10. What about polls on the Internet or World Wide Web?
  11. What is the sampling error for the poll results?
  12. Who’s on first?
  13. What other kinds of factors can skew poll results?
  14. What questions were asked?
  15. In what order were the questions asked?
  16. What about "push polls?"
  17. What other polls have been done on this topic? Do they say the same thing? If they are different, why are they different?
  18. What about exit polls?
  19. What else needs to be included in the report of the poll?
  20. So I've asked all the questions. The answers sound good. Should we report the results?

Deprogramming Islamic extremists

The Belmont Club has a lengthy article, prompted by news that the Australian Federal Police are expanding the use of "deprogramming" on captured terrorists. "Deprogramming" is a term for the set of techniques used to undo the brainwashing a cult performs, accidentally or on purpose, on its members.

The idea of treating the Jihad like a mental disease or lunatic cult may sound like an innovative approach. But in war, probably more than any other profession save one, the new is very, very old.

A lengthy, and fascinating, description of psy-ops used during the War against Communism follows. Richard sums up:

Leafing through history, one realizes that it is possible to write an account of warfare without mentioning a single weapons system other than the human mind. The reader can try to expunge from the tale all reference to the human heart, but in vain: for man is at the center of warfare. His will is its ultimate prize; his broken body its ultimate currency. In that light the "deprogramming" efforts of the Australian Federal Police in the dingy corners of the world are simply a return of warfare to its roots. The jihadis want our souls; the rule in warfare is that we will want theirs.

People refer to a "battle for hearts and minds", but they seldom think of the battle in quite these terms.

The universe as a computer?

Kenneth Silber writes about quantum mechanics and the role of information theory in physics. Among other topics, he addresses the computing power of the universe as a whole.

Lloyd has performed calculations regarding the physical world's capacity for information processing. He notes, for instance, that "the ultimate laptop" (a collection of matter the size of a laptop computer, but in which every particle is utilized for computing) could store more information than all the hard drives now existing. Moreover, he has run such numbers for the observable universe as a whole. By Lloyd's calculations, this cosmic computational capacity equals 10122 operations on 1092 bits of information.

These figures can be interpreted several ways: as an upper limit to how much computing could have been done in the universe; as a lower limit to what would be required to simulate the universe; or, as an actual description of what the universe has done. Whether one regards a physical system as a computer, Lloyd notes, is somewhat subjective, and in his view it is useful to consider the universe to be a giant quantum computer. Such an approach, he believes, will generate new insights into physics, including on the highly difficult problem of reconciling quantum mechanics and general relativity.

Of course, as soon as we hear the universe being compared to a computer, the Intelligent Design / Intelligent Origin Theorists will start making noise.

The universe-as-computer concept may also play into the current strife about intelligent design. It might be argued that a computer implies a programmer. However, this may be taking the analogy too far. What the universe is computing, in Lloyd's picture, is not some external output but rather its own behavior. And a very large portion of its computing power seems to be tied up in such behavior as random collisions of atoms.

Indeed, Lloyd's argument may be disturbing to intelligent-design proponents, in that it suggests how complexity can arise from an underlying randomness. In Lloyd's favored analogy, monkeys typing on typewriters produce gibberish — but monkeys typing on computers can produce simple code that would generate a wide variety of outputs.

Never write anything in your blog....

...that you wouldn't want to see on the front page of the paper in the morning.

This is old advice, dating back at least to the heyday of fanzines – about the 1930s to the 1990s. "Never put anything in your fanzine that you wouldn't want to see on the front page of the Times."

As technology has advanced, this warning has become equally apt for BBS postings, echoes, e-mail lists, and now blogs.

College student Michael Guinn thought the photos he posted of himself dressed in drag would be seen only by friends. But he made a mistake. And when someone showed the photos on Facebook to administrators at John Brown University, a Christian college in Siloam Springs, Ark., it was "the last straw for them," says Guinn, 22, who is gay.

In January, he was kicked out of school, his virtual paper trail of musings about boyfriends and visits to clubs a clear sign to administrators that, despite repeated warnings, Guinn's activities were in violation of campus conduct codes stating that behavior must "affirm and honor Scripture."

Michael Guinn just learned this advice the hard way. Other cases include:

In Costa Mesa, Calif., 20 students were suspended last month from TeWinkle Middle School for two days for participating in a MySpace group where one student allegedly threatened to kill another and made anti-Semitic slurs. The student accused of making the threat could face criminal charges and expulsion, says Bob Metz, assistant superintendent of the Newport-Mesa Unified School District.
An employer who was ready to hire a student from Vermont Technical College in Randolph Center changed his mind after seeing the student's Facebook page, says Lauri Sybel, director of the college career center. Since then, Sybel says she has checked other students' pages to make sure they weren't hurting their job prospects.

Face it. If you post something online, don't expect it to stay private. Even when services allow various forms of locking, such as Live Journal's friends lock, information will spread beyond the boundaries of your intended audiance.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

A website to die for

The latest in web-based convenience: Funerals on the net.

WEBCAMS are being installed at a crematorium in Hull so people unable to travel to a funeral can pay their respects online.

Now all they need is a robot, controlled by the remote user, which can throw the handful of dirt onto the coffin. Anyone who wants to can already e-mail flowers.

Changing the Clean Water Act

Brown and Caldwell Water News has an exclusive article on the effect two cases before the US Supreme Court might have on the Clean Water Act (CWA).

At issue is, largely, the definition of "navigable waters".

The 1972 act states that the government has the right to protect "navigable waters," but justices must wrestle with how to define that term and whether the law includes smaller creeks that reach remote, navigable waterways. The U.S. government contends that the act extends to wetlands, small rivers and even dry creek beds.

In order to be protected, does a waterway have to be deep enough to float a boat, or is it "navigable" when you can walk through it?

Environmentalists want CWA protections extended to smaller streams, creeks, dry river beds and seasonal rivers, mud puddles, and the like because of the possibility of flushing contaminants into navigable waterways. When it rains, anything that may have been dumped into a dry creek bed will be washed downstream and impact a navigable waterway.

One thing I note in the definitions portion of the CWA:

(7) The term “navigable waters” means the waters of the United States, including the territorial seas.

I'm not sure what "the waters" means. Maybe it does mean that when someone leaves a hose running, that's a navigable water, according to the Act.


Walter Craig has done some mathematical modeling of tsunamis, and his figures dispel some myths.

Among his findings, the first crest in a series of tsunami waves is not always the biggest, and an extraordinarily low tide only precedes about half the tsunamis.

Another widely held belief about tsunamis that gets washed away with mathematical modelling is that the surge is always preceded by the tide going abnormally far out. "This only happens about half the time," explains Dr. Craig. "It depends on the wavelength and whether it's the trough or crest of the wave that reaches shore first. In half the cases it's the surge that arrives first."

Of course, that means if you see water draining away from the shore, you'd better get out of there fast.

Racism, prejudice, and mental illness

Cleaning up a stack of notes.

Last year, Clayton Cramer looked at a move on the part of the American Psychological Association to remove various sexual disorders from the DSM. (Homosexuality is already gone, at least if you're content with it.)

Among the mental illnesses being debated in the symposium at the APA's annual convention were all the paraphilias--which include pedophilia, exhibitionism, fetishism, transvestism, voyeurism, and sadomasochism.

Now, in a move he compares with the Soviet Encyclopedia – whenever an article was removed, something else had to be put in its place, a sort of conservation of page count effect, I suppose – he sees the APA advocating the addition of new kinds of kinky behavior to the DSM.

...continued in full post...

In any case, if the psychiatric profession wants to start removing from the definition of mental illness every weird little behavior that a majority doesn't like, then why are there psychiatrists proposing to add some new kinky behavior to the list? Once you see what the kinky behavior is, you won't be surprised:
The 48-year-old man turned down a job because he feared that a co-worker would be gay. He was upset that gay culture was becoming mainstream and blamed most of his personal, professional and emotional problems on the gay and lesbian movement.
Mental health practitioners say they regularly confront extreme forms of racism, homophobia and other prejudice in the course of therapy, and that some patients are disabled by these beliefs. As doctors increasingly weigh the effects of race and culture on mental illness, some are asking whether pathological bias ought to be an official psychiatric diagnosis.
If DSM left it at those prejudices or biases that interfered with a person's daily life, I suppose that I wouldn't disagree that this is a significant emotional problem. I just have my suspicions that a vote at an APA convention would expand the definition of a "serious bias problem" to include the 60% of the population that does not approve of homosexuality.

Given which movie won "Best Picture" at the Oscars, this topic is again timely:

Here's a quote from the article that almost reads like someone wanted a real world example of "projection" (the tendency of a person with a serious problem to project it onto everyone else):
"I don't think racism is a mental illness, and that's because 100 percent of people are racist," said Paul J. Fink, a former president of the American Psychiatric Association. "If you have a diagnostic category that fits 100 percent of people, it's not a diagnostic category."

Cramer looks at different types of prejudice, identifying three levels:

1. A person who hates or fears all members of group X--no exceptions. I don't know that I have ever met someone like this about race or ethnicity--although I know that such people exist. I have met people who hate or fear all gay men--and in every case, these were men who were sexually abused as children. (These are guys who think of me as a flaming liberal about homosexuality.)

2. A person who believes that members of group X have certain characteristics in common--but recognizes that there are exceptional individual members of race X: hence, "you are a credit to your race." There was a time when people actually said that--now it is only used as a comic line in fiction to discredit a character.

3. A person who believes that members of group X are more likely to have certain qualities or defects than the general population. This belief exists in an unadulterated positive form, "Asians sure are good at math!" It also exists in a positive form with a dark implication, "Jews sure are clever!" (implying that perhaps the intelligence is being used for nefarious purposes). There is also the negative form. "Blacks are violent." "Men are violent."

In his analysis, it may be worth defining prejudice type 1 as a mental disorder, but he doesn't trust the APA to refrain from similarly defining types 2 and 3.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Well, Mr. Blake, now you know how Larry Summers felt...

An open Letter to Nathaniel Blake

This is a letter posted in the comments section to Mr. Blake's second piece on evolution. Since I think rather highly of my writing, I'm posting it here, as an open letter. Enjoy!

...continued in full post...

Some ideas, you know, are off limits in some quarters.

Large blocs in the conservative movement are extremely distressed at the notion that our existence on this planet is due to anything resembling a mechanistic law.

We can remove the Earth from its place in the center of the universe, and even move the sun to the suburbs of our galaxy. Some folks will complain, but things settle down and we adjust.

We can turn phenomena such as diseases, earthquakes, floods, and lightning strikes into the results of natural forces. No longer do Thor and Zeus hurl lightning at those who offend them. Some folks will suggest that diseases, floods, earthquakes, and the like, occur because God is angry with a person or group. (And Pat Robertson has apologized to Ariel Sharon's relatives.) But no one is demanding that science classes allow room for Targeted Thunderbolt Theory or Tidal Wave Intentionality Theory.

I suppose if someone could offer good statistical proof that lightning only struck people who had just done something immoral, and that people singing hymns were never killed or injured by lightning, quakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, etc. we might have grounds to suspect that something was up.

But any such evidence is pretty hard to find. It's almost as if any deity running the universe doesn't want his (or her) existence to be subject to objective, empirical proof.

Be that as it may, people have made their peace with the mechanistic nature of physics and chemistry. They don't mind that electrical phenomena, including lightning, can be explained by electric fields and charged particles. They don't mind that all chemical reactions can ultimately be explained by Schroedinger's wave equation.

But the closer the explanation gets to us, in terms of our natures and origins, the less comfortable we feel. Psychiatric medicine makes people nervous, especially when mental disorders and even mental states are attributed to chemical reactions in the brain. And evolution makes people nervous, because it tells people that their existence was not an intended result of the processes that made the universe.

Stephen Jay Gould liked to point out how improbable we are. On a personal level, my genetic code is written on 46 chromosomes. Each chromosome was selected at random from two possible choices in my parents' chromosomes. That means every chromosome in my DNA had only a 50% chance of being the winning member of a chromosome pair.

Calculate that out, and the odds against my particular combination resulting from my parents' mating were roughly 70 trillion to one. My parents could have repopulated the earth ten thousand times over and still had only about a 70% chance of duplicating my genetic code.

Statistically, I am a very unlikely result of any mating between my parents. Does that mean the Creator has a special purpose for me? Theologically, maybe so. Does it mean the Creator took special care to make sure I was born instead of someone with a different possible combination of DNA? Probably not. In any event, we can't tell.

If I'm an accident of history, then how much more so for the human race, all of whose members are as statistically unlikely as I am? And when we look at the history of life, we see any number of places where things could have been different. Aim an asteroid in a different direction, and the person typing these words might have had scales and claws, and hatched from an egg deposited in a high-tech incubator by a reptilian mother.

People want to be special. As I mentioned in my comment about spontaneous order, the right and the left have their own ways of feeling special.

The left wants to be in charge. They want to be the axis around which the world turns, because they, in their wisdom, make it turn.

The right wants to be the purpose of those in charge. They want to be the axis around which the world turns, because the Creator, in his wisdom, put them there.

Both of these are articles of faith. Neither can be proven by science. And those who torture science to force it to support either article of faith are doing a grave disservice both to science and to their chosen causes.

Mr. Blake, there is one serious flaw in your premise. You're right.

It's the same flaw that got Professor Summers tossed out of the office of President of Harvard.

And Mr. Blake, you have a serious virtue working in your favor – you are willing to speak up for the truth as you see it. You're willing to stick by it, even when the choir – made up of your friends – acts as if you've thrown a grenade into it, and even when it throws some back.

In Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone, Professor Dumbledore states that it's one thing to stand up to an enemy. It takes a lot more courage to stand up to a friend. Lawrence Summers lacks that courage. You don't.

Monty Python strikes again

All Things Dull And Ugly

Monty Python

All things dull and ugly,
All creatures short and squat,
All things rude and nasty,
The Lord God made the lot.

Each little snake that poisons,
Each little wasp that stings,
He made their brutish venom,
He made their horrid wings.

All things sick and cancerous,
All evil great and small,
All things foul and dangerous,
The Lord God made them all.

Each nasty little hornet,
Each beastly little squid,
Who made the spikey urchin,
Who made the sharks, He did.

All things scabbed and ulcerous,
All pox both great and small,
Putrid, foul and gangrenous,
The Lord God made them all.

Some more on evolution

Since Townhall.com has a facility for making comments on articles, I offered some comments on Nathaniel Blake's piece on the need for Evangelicals to make their peace with evolution.

...continued in full post...

Spontaneous order
by Karl, Feb 24 2006 08:58 PM

One thing I've noticed, which I find very interesting, is this: Both the Left and the Right believe in spontaneous order. And both sides of the political spectrum reject it.

The Left uniformly believes that a complicated system like an economy has to be run by a central planner of some sort – government regulators, planning bureaus, ministers of finance, and so on. They continue to believe in Planned Economies despite nearly a century of empirical evidence showing them not just wrong, but pathetically wrong. Nevertheless, the need for Central Planning is an article of faith for the Left. Yet the Left has no problem with the notion that life can form spontaneously, under the unguided operation of natural law.

The Right, at least since Hayek, is at least willing to accept that spontaneous order can arise in an economy. With a few carefully chosen rules, Adam Smith's invisible hand can pilot the entire economy without the need for a central planning department. Even though no one individual can gather together all the parts needed to manufacture a pencil, the economy, as a whole, responding to a small number of very simple rules, creates billions of pencils, and ships them where they need to go, and sells them for enough to pay for all the parts and labor that went into making them – smoothly, and automatically. Yet the Right, as an article of faith, can't believe that the complex orderly system we call life could possibly arise without the intervention of a central planner.

In both cases, I believe we're seeing the result of people willing to find meaning in only one specific form, and unable to recognize meaning in any other shape, even when they trip over it.

Of course, other people have the ability to comment, too. Here are a couple of comment chains:

Uhm, no....
- by cylarz, Feb 24 2006 09:32 PM

You fail to make a distinction between intelligent human beings making decisions in their economic best interests, versus unintelligent animals/plants/microbes/nonliving chemicals making decisions leading to the ascension of human beings.

An economy, for all its complexity, is mere child's play compared with the incomprehensible sophistication found in the nuclei of even the simplest one-celled lifeforms. Do you honestly believe there is even a scintilla of similiarity between the human-directed processes which form a car, when compared with the supposedly random processes which form DNA in cells?

You're correct in your criticism of the Left's refusal to embrace the invisible hand...however, your shots across the Right's bow are incorrect and shot through with faulty logic. Stating that an economy can arise as a result of intelligent (ordinary) people making self-interested decisions is one thing...stating that nonliving chemicals can decide to form microbes who can decide to form plants who can decide to form animals who can decide to form humans is something else entirely.

The simple observation that buyers/sellers are intelligent and amoebas are not, trips up your entire analysis.
by Karl, Feb 24 2006 09:50 PM
You fail to make a distinction between intelligent human beings making decisions in their economic best interests, versus unintelligent animals/plants/microbes/nonliving chemicals making decisions leading to the ascension of human beings.
No, I decline to make that distinction, because I don't believe it's relevant.
Do you honestly believe there is even a scintilla of similiarity between the human-directed processes which form a car, when compared with the supposedly random processes which form DNA in cells?
First: the laws of physics and chemistry are not random. You've got to stop chasing that red herring.

Second, in one very important way, I do believe that.

You cite the human-directedness of processes in our economy as somehow distinct from unguided (remember – not "random") laws of chemistry and physics in natural systems. I say you miss the point completely.

If you've read any of Thomas Sowell or Milton Friedman (or David Friedman) on price theory, you've read how prices signal the relative abundance of goods, and the demand for those same goods, throughout the economy.

The evolutionary view sees prices resulting from the interaction of simple rules across an entire economy. The person who sets the selling price of any good does so in response to local conditions, and not with any thought of sending signals to producers in Maine or competitors in New Mexico.

Molecules combine with each other in response to the laws of chemistry. Living things reproduce, mutate, adapt, and become subject to natural selection based on the laws of physics and chemistry, and subject to their local environment.

Living things are not striving toward any teleological goal any more than the guy setting the price of windshield glass is striving to aim the economy toward any ultimate goal.

If you could show that even a small fraction of people in the marketplace are intelligently guiding the economy toward an ultimate goal, you might have a case. But you don't, because you can't, because they're not.

Economies grow through choice
by David, Feb 25 2006 12:06 AM

The point of Adam Smith is that intelligent people will make good deliberate choices that benefit themselves and others. Your point is clever by half. The point of evolution, is that radom non-intelligent events produce intelligence and order.
Choice to do what?
by Karl, Feb 27 2006 02:48 AM
The point of Adam Smith is that intelligent people will make good deliberate choices that benefit themselves and others.
True, as far as you went. The other half of Adam Smith's thesis – the important is that while intelligent people are making good deliberate choices, these choices are not made with the intent of benefiting others, and particularly not with the intent of benefiting the economy as a whole.
It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.
My point, clever as it may be, stands unrefuted.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

More demographics

Abortion isn't the only way to shrink the population of Democrats. You can also drive people out of blue states and into red states.

The latest Census Bureau data indicate that, in 2005, 239,416 more native-born Americans left the state than moved in. California is also on pace to lose domestic population (not counting immigrants) this year. The outmigration is such that the cost to rent a U-Haul trailer to move from Los Angeles to Boise, Idaho, is $2,090--or some eight times more than the cost of moving in the opposite direction.

Idaho is a conservative state – 68.5% of its population voted for Bush in 2004.

It turns out there's a correlation of 0.3 between the percentage of the vote in a state that turned out for Bush and the percentage of population change due to immigration from other states. Blue states tend to lose population, and red states tend to gain. The correlation isn't significant, but it's suggestive.

Rueing Roe?

Yet another analysis indicating that abortion is doing more harm to the Democrats than good.

In the new issue of Foreign Policy magazine, Phillip Longman of the liberal New America Foundation has a fascinating essay on demographics and politics--the gist of which is that differing reproductive patterns are likely to make Western societies, including the U.S., more conservative.

One reason may actually be demographics. People who reject abortion tend to out-breed those who engage in it. This results in a Darwinian selective pressure that favors conservatives.

Patriarchy [which Longman defines not in the crude feminist sense of men dominating women but as "a particular value system that not only requires men to marry but to marry a woman of proper station"] does not necessarily sustain itself, Longman acknowledges; both men and women may be put off by the restrictions it imposes on their freedom. Yet freedom – in this context meaning sex divorced from obligation – appears to be self-limiting, at least over a span of generations.

Hansen on Iraq

Victor Davis Hanson doesn't buy the doom-and-gloom reports about Iraq.

Last week the golden dome of the Askariya shrine in Samarra was blown apart. Sectarian riots followed, and reprisals and deaths ensued. Thugs and criminals came out of the woodwork to foment further violence. But instead of the apocalypse of an ensuing civil war, a curfew was enforced. Iraqi security forces stepped in with some success. Shaken Sunni and Shiite leaders appeared on television to urge restraint, and there appeared at least the semblance of reconciliation that may soon presage a viable coalition government.

I imagine the MSM looking at events, saying, "No civil war? No bloody massacre? Awwww, shucks!"

If many are determined to see the Iraqi war as lost without a plan, it hardly seems so to 130,000 U.S. soldiers still over there. They explain to visitors that they have always had a design: defeat the Islamic terrorists; train a competent Iraqi military; and provide requisite time for a democratic Iraqi government to garner public support away from the Islamists.

Tom and Jewry?

Tom and Jerry cartoons are a Jewish plot.

At least, that's what Prof. Hasan Bolkhari, a cultural advisor to the Iranian Education Ministry, said.

According to the professor, "Tom and Jerry" was created to irradicate the association between mice and Jews created in the minds of Europeans by Hitler.
"If you happen to watch this cartoon tomorrow, bear in mind the points I have just raised," said Bolkhari, "and watch it from this perspective. The mouse is very clever and smart. Everything he does is so cute. He kicks the poor cat's a--. Yet this cruelty does not make you despise the mouse. He looks so nice, and he is so clever. ... This is exactly why some say it was meant to erase this image of mice from the minds of European children, and to show that the mouse is not dirty and has these traits."

And then there's Bugs Bunny, kicking the – er – anatomy of one Hassan, who seems to know only two words: "Hassan chop!"

Evolution on campus

Nathaniel Blake has a follow-up to his article of last week. He got letters from lots of people who aren't ready to make peace with evolution.

My last column was like a grenade thrown into the choir I’ve been preaching to. I received scads of responses (most quite civil) arguing that evangelical Christians most certainly should not make their peace with evolution.

There are many who ask, "If believers in Darwinism (or Neo-Darwinism) are right and are firmly convinced that they're right, why do so many of them react so emotionally with ridicule and other personal attacks when people ask questions?"

I wonder how much of Blake's e-mail contained ridicule and personal attacks? Certainly, the phrase "grenade thrown into the choir" seems to hint to emotional reactions. So, it's not just "believers in Darwinism" who react that way.

So why the emotion? Blake thinks:

My answer was, and remains, that the source is religious and not scientific – evangelicals generally not being much interested in scientific controversy. For instance, they don’t care a whit whether string theory is true, because they don’t think its veracity (or lack thereof) has anything to do with their faith.

This doesn’t mean that the anti-evolutionists aren’t sincere in their belief that evolution is a scientific farce; they are. But they care about the issue because of its supposed antagonism toward their religion, and thus approach evolution as an adversary. And thus evolution has become far more important in the culture wars than it ought to be.

Having traversed from that perspective, I think it worthwhile to continue to try explaining why I think it’s wrong and terribly self-destructive.

The latter is simple: by making such a fuss about something most non-Christians (especially educated ones) accept, we bring the gospel into disrepute and are a stumbling block on the road to faith. If this were a central doctrine (basically, anything found in the Nicene Creed), then I would say: very well, let us look ridiculous and the opinion of the world be damned.

But does it really compromise the faith to believe that the Genesis account provides a symbolic or metaphorical description of how God created the universe, rather than a literal one? Even if you believe such an interpretation to be incorrect, the point is miniscule in the overall defense of Christianity, and putting such emphasis on it harms our apologetic.

Lenny Flank, moderator of the Debunk Creation e-mail list, occasionally asks some of the more illogical opponents of evolution, "How much is Satan paying you to make Christians look stupid?" I doubt anyone's getting paychecks signed with brimstone ink to conspire against Christianity, but the effect is the same as if they were.