Thursday, November 30, 2006

Flying while Muslim?

Six Imams were removed from an airplane, for behavior that made the other passengers and the flight crew nervous.

But the imams who were escorted off the flight in handcuffs say they were merely praying before the 6:30 p.m. flight on Nov. 20, and yesterday led a protest by prayer with other religious leaders at the airline's ticket counter at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.

But what does everyone else say they were doing?

Witnesses said three of the imams were praying loudly in the concourse and repeatedly shouted "Allah" when passengers were called for boarding US Airways Flight 300 to Phoenix. "I was suspicious by the way they were praying very loud," the gate agent told the Minneapolis Police Department. Passengers and flight attendants told law-enforcement officials the imams switched from their assigned seats to a pattern associated with the September 11 terrorist attacks and also found in probes of U.S. security since the attacks -- two in the front row first-class, two in the middle of the plane on the exit aisle and two in the rear of the cabin. "That would alarm me," said a federal air marshal who asked to remain anonymous. "They now control all of the entry and exit routes to the plane." A pilot from another airline said: "That behavior has been identified as a terrorist probe in the airline industry."


According to witnesses, police reports and aviation security officials, the imams displayed other suspicious behavior. Three of the men asked for seat-belt extenders, although two flight attendants told police the men were not oversized. One flight attendant told police she "found this unsettling, as crew knew about the six [passengers] on board and where they were sitting." Rather than attach the extensions, the men placed the straps and buckles on the cabin floor, the flight attendant said. The imams said they were not discussing politics and only spoke in English, but witnesses told law enforcement that the men spoke in Arabic and English, criticizing the war in Iraq and President Bush, and talking about al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. The imams who claimed two first-class seats said their tickets were upgraded. The gate agent told police that when the imams asked to be upgraded, they were told no such seats were available. Nevertheless, the two men were seated in first class when removed.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Abuse of police privilege

Glenn Reynolds has been following the story of a 92-year-old woman who was fatally shot by police during a "no-knock" raid.

The trend toward militarizing police began in the ’60s and ’70s when standoffs with the Black Panthers, the Symbionese Liberation Army, and the University of Texas bell tower gunman Charles Whitman convinced many police departments that they needed more than .38 specials to deal with unusual, high-intensity threats. In 1965 Los Angeles inspector Daryl Gates, who later became police chief, signed off on the formation of a specially trained and equipped unit that he wanted to call the Special Weapons Attack Team. (The name was changed to the more palatable Special Weapons and Tactics). SWAT programs soon expanded beyond big cities with gang problems.

Abetting this trend was the federal government’s willingness to make surplus military equipment available to police and sheriffs’ departments. All sorts of hardware is available, from M-16s to body armor to armored personnel carriers and even helicopters. Lots of police departments grabbed the gear and started SWAT teams, even if they had no real need for them. The materiel was free, and it was fun. I don’t blame the police. Heck, if somebody gave me a Bradley Fighting Vehicle to play with, I’d probably start a SWAT team, too—so long as I didn’t have to foot the maintenance bill.
The subtle effect is also real: Dress like a soldier and you think you’re at war. And, in wartime, civil liberties—or possible innocence—of the people on “the other side” don’t come up much. But the police aren’t at war with the citizens they serve, or at least they’re not supposed to be.

The combination of these two factors has led to some tragic mistakes: “no knock” drug raids, involving “dynamic entry,” where the wrong house has been targeted or where the raid was based on informants’ tips that turned out to be just plain wrong.
Sometimes, homeowners are killed in these actions; other times, it’s the officers. When a narcotics task force raided a duplex apartment in Jefferson Davis County, Miss., in 2001, they arrested one tenant, then burst into the adjacent apartment of Cory Maye. Thinking a burglar had broken into the bedroom he shared with his toddler, Maye shot the officer fatally. Maye was convicted of murder and sentenced to death, although irregularities in the trial eventually led to his conviction being overturned and a new trial ordered.

And, in a case that is now drawing national attention, 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston, who lived in a high-crime neighborhood of Atlanta, recently opened fire on police when they broke down her door while executing a drug warrant. They returned fire, killing her. It’s hard to believe any of this would have happened had the police taken a less aggressive approach in the first place.

His recommendations for addressing this:

Police raids should be videotaped, in an archival format that discourages tampering. And I think we need legal reform, too. Police who raid the wrong house, or who fail to give homeowners adequate warning except in truly life-or-death situations, shouldn’t benefit from official immunity.

We give the police a lot of power. They are the only ones in our society who have blanket authority to threaten or actually use deadly force against us in the course of their duties. Along with this power comes a level of privilege, as well as responsibility.

Recently, the Kelo v. New London decision prompted a spate of laws restricting the government's ability to take property through its eminent domain privilege. The public perception in the wake of that decision was that government had abused its privilege, and so it was being taken away.

The police need to take steps to rein in their use of their privilege to use deadly force, while they still have any say about how it will be reined in.

About those surveillance programs...

From the Boston Globe, we see the following:

After a delay of more than a year, a government board appointed to guard Americans' privacy and civil liberties during the war on terror has been told the inner workings of the government's electronic eavesdropping program.

Members say they were impressed by the protections.

The briefing for the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board had been delayed because President Bush was concerned -- after several media leaks -- about widening the circle of people who knew exact details of the secret eavesdropping program.


If the American public, especially civil libertarians like myself, could be more informed about how careful the government is to protect our privacy while still protecting us from attacks, we'd be more reassured," said Lanny Davis , a former Clinton White House lawyer who is the board's lone liberal Democrat.

Alan Raul, a former Reagan White House lawyer and the board's vice chairman, said he also was impressed.

"We found there was a great appreciation inside government, both at the political and career levels, for protections on privacy and civil liberties," said Raul, author of a book of civil liberties. "In fact, I think the public may have an underappreciation for the degree of seriousness the government is giving these protections."

Are the people we're fighting evil?

Dennis Prager has made some waves by asking people opposed to the war in Iraq one question: "Will you at least acknowledge that the people we're fighting are evil?"

An example of putative evil behavior:

The 46-year-old schoolteacher tried to reassure his family that he would return safely. But his life was over, he was part-disembowelled and then torn apart with his arms and legs tied to motorbikes, the remains put on display as a warning to others against defying Taliban orders to stop educating girls.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Iraq: Go native?

U.S. Marine reserve officer Josh Manchester offers his six-point plan for winning in Iraq.

  1. Dramatically expand the training and advisory efforts. Expand their numbers, funding, and facilities.
  2. Create a crash program to develop a massive Arabic linguistic capability within the US military. This is the United States. We put men on the moon. Why don't we train 20,000 or more American military personnel proficient in Arabic in the next 12 months?
  3. Give Maliki 60 days to remove the Shi'ite militias from positions of influence in the government. If he asks for help of some kind in doing so, provide it. Give him one last chance to prove that stopping the sectarian killing is more important than satisfying those who hunger for it.
  4. If he can't do it, then declare Iraq's security forces to be in receivership. What does this mean? It means that the security forces of Iraq no longer answer to the Iraqi government, they answer to the US military. The government will still exist. It will still be a democracy. But it will temporarily lose control of its military. After doing this, purge the Iraqi forces of those loyal to Shi'ite militias.
  5. Create combined US-Iraqi forces. Here's where the go native part really kicks in. ...create a situation such that the American forces and the Iraqi forces are one and the same. American forces in small numbers live, eat, sleep, fight and die with their Iraqi counterparts. It will keep the Iraqis honest about not killing each other in wanton bloodshed. And it will earn incredible benefits for the Americans in terms of intelligence gained and cultural lessons learned.
  6. Redeploy as many FOBBITS as possible. What's a Fobbit? A FOB is a forward operating base, and a fobbit is the derogatory term used by combat arms troops to refer to the support personnel who inhabit such gargantuan bases. much as possible, integrate the logistics of the forces that have gone native with the Iraqis with the Iraqi logistics.
These changes would be dramatic. It takes guts to tell a sovereign government that we're relieving it of its military. But by going native, the US can destroy or neutralize the Shi'ite militias; restore confidence in the Iraqi armed forces; increase our language and cultural proficiency, which is a huge force multiplier; and over time we can gradually cede the military back to the Iraqi government. Just for good measure, it would probably be a good idea to surge a large number of troops in to tamp down violence in Baghdad while the go native plan gets ramped up. But within 6 to 12 months, the US presence would be smaller, and more effective, violence in Baghdad will be much lower, and the insurgency will be even more beleaguered than it is now.

Neanderthal DNA

With the release of the initial two papers describing chromosomal DNA sequences from a Neandertal, I thought I would put together some frequently asked questions and answers to them. I actually have been frequently asked most of these questions this week -- mostly by journalists -- so I think this is a good list.

Gene duplication

One things that the attackers of science (including ID advocates) frequently do is accuse scientists of constructing 'just-so stories'.
A scientist while investigating a bacterial genome discovered that two genes doing apparently different tasks were almost identical in sequence, only differing by a few base pairs. This was a very interesting discovery, and the scientist decided to investigate a bit further. The first thing he did was to sit down and think about ways in which this related genes could have been produced. He came up with a few explanations, but the one he thought was the most likely was that the original gene had been copied (duplicated) in it's entirety, and then one of the copies had been changed by point mutations until was performing a different task to the original.

(The above explanation is typically labelled a 'just-so story' by ID advocates. We have some evidence. The scientist has constructed a explanation to account for it. There is no other evidence at this point that the explanation is correct. Science typically refers to these kinds of explanations as 'hypotheses', and they are acknowledged to be entirely tentative in nature.)

Having come up with a perfectly reasonable explanation for the origin of these two very similar genes what does the scientists do next? Does he drop the subject having explained it to his satisfaction and then move on to his next project? Actually he doesn't. He decides that this hypothesis needs testing to see if it actually correct. So the scientist has a think about what predictions he can make from his hypothesis, and how he can therefore design some tests for it.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

The anti-science party

There is one party which is determined to keep the products of science from doing anyone any good.

From my days as an official at the FDA during the ’80s and early ’90s, when the Democrats were in the congressional majority, I recall the incessant, uninformed, and highly politicized meddling by prominent members of Congress. They did incalculable damage to science and technology. And now they’re back.

A few examples:

In 1989, Sen. Patrick Leahy, then chairman of the Agriculture Committee, complained to the FDA commissioner about the agency’s supposedly cavalier, insufficiently rigorous review of an important veterinary drug called bovine somatotropin, or bST, which boosts the milk production of dairy cows.
Largely as a result of the misguided efforts and bullying of Leahy and Conyers — and regulators’ fear of the two powerful congressmen — the FDA’s review of this excellent veterinary drug took nine years, while the evaluation of an almost identical product for injection into growth-hormone-deficient children had taken a mere 18 months.
During the 1980s, Congressman John Dingell, then-chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, interfered constantly in federal agencies’ domestic policy-making, as well as their attempts to hammer out international agreements on the regulation of agricultural biotechnology under the auspices of the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Dingell and his committee’s investigators harassed scientists from various regulatory agencies (of whom I was one), although they had no understanding of the subject area and were, in fact, lobbying against both a sound scientific approach and U.S. interests.

In carrying out the committee’s oversight role over the FDA, the imperious Dingell acted as a kind of self-appointed Grand Inquisitor. He and his staff continually summoned agency officials to humiliating and abusive hearings and demanded that they produce mountains of documents on unrealistically short deadlines. Committee staffers even appeared personally and unannounced at FDA headquarters and helped themselves to documents that the agency (and federal law) considered to be confidential business information and, therefore, off limits.

What seems to draw the most Democrat ire is those products that actually work, actually help people, and therefore might make their creators piles and piles of money.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Detained for praying in public

When a young girl was ordered to stop reading her Bible during lunch period at school, or face arrest, a few people speculated that she might have been reading it in a disruptive manner – very loudly, for example.

I wonder if these same people will consider "being disruptive" sufficient cause for removing these people from an airplane before takeoff.

Six Muslim imams were removed from a US Airways flight at Minneapolis- St. Paul International Airport on Monday and questioned by police for several hours before being released, a leader of the group said.
Three of them stood and said their normal evening prayers together on the plane, as 1.7 billion Muslims around the world do every day, Shahin said. He attributed any concerns by passengers or crew to ignorance about Islam.

As Laura Ingraham mentioned, Muslims have been flying on U.S. planes for decades. Is this really the first time this has come up?

Jews fleeing Israeli towns

JERUSALEM – Hamas is "very satisfied" with reports here some Israelis in communities near the Gaza Strip are ready to flee their rocket-plagued towns while students reportedly have been skipping school for fear of being caught in regular Palestinian attacks, a senior leader of Hamas' so-called "military wing" told WND in an interview yesterday.

"The importance of what is happening in Sderot proves to the Palestinians, especially those who say rockets bring no results, that rocket attacks do bring big benefits," said Abu Abdullah, who is considered one of the most important operational members of Hamas' Izzedine al-Qassam Martyrs Brigades, Hamas' declared military wing.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Rebuilding in Iraq

When and if the smoke ever clears in Iraq, Pentagon officials say the world finally will see a minor miracle.

Not long after the election, I offered a set of predictions about sweeping changes that would occur.

The first has already happened. All the problems with voting machines, voter intimidation, and other forms of "disenfranchisement" disappeared overnight.

Now, the first story on another sweeping change – now we're going to start seeing news about the successes in Iraq.

• Six new primary care facilities, with 66 more under construction; 11 hospitals renovated; more than 800 schools fixed up; more than 300 police stations and facilities and 248 border control forts.

• Added 407,000 cubic meters per day of water treatment; a new sewage-treatment system for Basra; work on Baghdad's three plants continues; oil production exceeds the 2002 level of 2 million barrels a day by 500,000.

• The Ministry of Electricity now sends power to Baghdad for four to eight hours a day, and 10 to 12 for the rest of the country. Iraqis are now free to buy consumer items such as generators, which provide some homes with power around-the-clock.

Mr. Popps said all this was accomplished despite a concerted effort by terrorists to bomb construction sites and kill workers. Thursday's kidnapping of private contractors south of Baghdad illustrates the problem. The State Department was forced to increase spending on security, up to $5 billion of the $20 billion, or risk losing more projects to saboteurs.

Friday, November 17, 2006

What car is best for the environment?

(Hat tip: Jonah Goldberg.)

Most people think in terms of MPG when shopping for aan environmentally friendly (or just plain cheap) car. A recent study has attempted to distill all the environmental costs into a single number – the total energy expended to manufacture, operate, and eventually dispose of each vehicle. The final figure is an energy cost per mile.

The Honda Accord Hybrid has an Energy Cost per Mile of $3.29 while the conventional Honda Accord is $2.18. Put simply, over the “Dust to Dust” lifetime of the Accord Hybrid, it will require about 50 percent more energy than the non-hybrid version, CNW claims.

And even more eyebrow-raising:

For example, while the industry average of all vehicles sold in the U.S. in 2005 was $2.28 cents per mile, the Hummer H3 (among most SUVs) was only $1.949 cents per mile. That figure is also lower than all currently offered hybrids and Honda Civics at $2.42 per mile.

The Toyota Sienna has an energy cost per mile of $2.180, which is below the average of all vehicles tested ($2.281). I suspect the Previa I drive may be a little bit higher, as it's an older model. Also, the Sienna has an estimated lifetime miles of 158,000. My Previa is about to register it's 300,000th mile. This means the costs of production and disposal are cut nearly in half. (Costs of operation and repair either remain constant, or increase somewhat.)

So I don't need to feel guilty about driving my minivan.

Remembering Milton Friedman

INDIANAPOLIS --Nobel laureate Dr. Milton Friedman passed away early this morning, in his San Francisco home, of heart failure. He was 94.

The family has asked that in lieu of flowers or gifts, contributions be made in his honor to the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Radiative power

It would be so convenient if our various gadgets could pull power from the air, and not have to be plugged in – particularly when every item has a different shape of power connector and power requirement.

US researchers have outlined a relatively simple system that could deliver power to devices such as laptop computers or MP3 players without wires.
The answer the team came up with was "resonance", a phenomenon that causes an object to vibrate when energy of a certain frequency is applied.

"When you have two resonant objects of the same frequency they tend to couple very strongly," Professor Soljacic told the BBC News website.
...the team investigated a special class of "non-radiative" objects with so-called "long-lived resonances".

When energy is applied to these objects it remains bound to them, rather than escaping to space. "Tails" of energy, which can be many metres long, flicker over the surface.

"If you bring another resonant object with the same frequency close enough to these tails then it turns out that the energy can tunnel from one object to another," said Professor Soljacic.

Neanderethal DNA

Unleashing a new kind of DNA analyzer on a 38,000-year-old fragment of fossilized Neanderthal bone, scientists have reconstructed a portion of that creature's genetic code -- a technological tour de force that has researchers convinced they will soon know the entire DNA sequence of the closest cousin humans ever had.

Their findings? Among others:

Scientists have already identified a few lucky genetic glitches that may have helped launch humans to global dominance while our stocky cousins turned toward an evolutionary dead end. One, in a gene called FOXP2, may have facilitated language. Another may have driven a big increase in brain size.
The new reports confirm early suggestions that modern humans and Neanderthals split into two genetically distinct groups about 500,000 years ago. They also show no evidence of interbreeding, though a final answer to that question must await further analysis.

Creationists have asserted that Neanderthals were nothing but modern humans with arthritis, ricketts, or some other bone disease. The decoding of the Neanderthal genome will make this claim even harder to support than it already is.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Climate science

Bjorn Lomborg on the "dodgy numbers behind the latest warming scare". Also, the WSJ editorial. "Two takes on global warming: guess which one didn't get the press"

A conversation....

Clayton Cramer likes to take scientists to task for their arrogance in continuing to advocate evolutionary theory. This is an e-mail conversation that took place a couple of months ago, and which I've been meaning to format into a blog posting.

The inspiration for the conversation was this post:

My wife and I are leading a Bible study right now concerning evolution, creation, Intelligent Design, and related issues. We are trying to give everyone enough of a grounding in these subjects to understand how evolutionary theory ended up in the driver's seat; the limitations of scientific theory; that there are a variety of different Christian perspectives (theistic evolutionists, such as Francis Collins, the director of the National Human Genome Research Institute), Old Earth Creationists (such as astrophysicist turned evangelist Dr. Hugh Ross), Young Earth Creationists, and biologists and biochemists who are Intelligent Design advocates.
We are also trying to get everyone to understand that when scientists reject supernatural explanations, it doesn't mean that they are denying the existence of God--they are arguing that you can't construct scientific theories (which are, after all, suppose to enable prediction of events) with an "M" for "miracle" in a formula.

I replied with the following e-mail, which I'll present with Cramer's responses inserted. I sent a reply to his responses, which I'll present as commentary after each block of e-mails.

I think that’s a good idea.

I’d like to suggest a topic for discussion, and I’d be interested to hear what comes of it, if you do discuss it.

One of the arguments I’ve seen brought to bear against “evolution” is an argument from incredulity. It is simply unbelievable that “all this”, for different values of “all” and “this”, could have happened “by chance”. Equivalently, it’s unbelievable that “all this” could have happened “by itself”.

I’ve decided this is a red herring.

I would agree. The Intelligent Design advocates, however, don't make that argument. They argue that it is not simply the complexity of some components to life that make it unlikely to have happen by operation of natural law and random chance.

[Interrupting for a moment] Actually, they tend to make two different types of argument.

One is that there are some components that are so complex they cannot have arisen by the operation of naturalistic processes.

This is, of course, beyond disproof, because no matter how many times natural processes are shown to suffice for this or that component, ID-ists can always say, "Well, those aren't the ones we're talking about."

They also point to certain existing systems such as the flagellum or the blood clotting cascade. These systems, they will claim, are so complex that they cannot have arisen through naturalistic processes.

Interestingly enough, the blood clotting cascade has fallen out of favor with the ID crowd, since biologists have managed to come up with a plausible step-by-step history of its development.

Each step in the process takes us from a digestive enzyme (very useful, just not for clotting) to the modern cascade. Each step is an improvement in an existing system, and one which works well enough for its current owner.

So where ID makes its prediction about specific systems, it keeps being proven false. Where it makes its prediction about "some" systems, it steps outside the realm of scientific proof.

The traditional argument that with enough time, almost any random process will eventually lead to something improbable, is still valid. The ID argument about flagellum complexity points out that this is not simply one amazing coincidence, but several dozen amazing and completely independent coincidences--that they aren't like a snowball rolling down hill. Each of the flagellum components is pretty well useless without nearly all of the others--and so you really don't get any advantage of gathering one component onto your evolutionary snowball.

Actually "the traditional argument" is only one argument. One of the arguments used in biological evolution is that evolution has become notorious for taking a system that does one thing and adapting it to some other function. The starting point in the blood clotting cascade was, recall, a digestive enzyme.

I’ve yet to meet a scientist who believes anything, with the possible exception of certain quantum-mechanical events, happens “by chance”. Indeed, the whole basis of science is the attempt to discover regularities – “rules” or “laws” governing events. Indeed, back in Newton’s time, science was called “Natural Philosophy”, and was pretty explicitly devoted to discovering the laws God wrote when he crafted the universe.

Yup. That's part of why Newton was so certain that he could determine what those laws were, that would be logical, and that they would apply almost everywhere. For example, gravity, light, and magnetism vary inversely with the square of the distance--not some terribly complex equation, or dependent on some other factor. Imagine if gravity varied based not only distance but also on illumination, with weird minimum factors!

Terribly complex equations are allowed. Time-dependent relativistic Schroedinger equation, anyone?

And I could imagine a universe where gravity varied with illumination, or the phase of the moon, or some other factor. As long as it varies consistently with those factors, we can do science. We cease to be able to do science when gravity varies according to the whim of some capricious agent. For example, if the planets really had been gods or angels moving through the heavens, there'd be no reason to expect them to stay in any particular course.

All the “evolutionists” I know, therefore, believe that “evolution” occurred as the result of the operation of known, or at least discoverable, natural laws.

(I put “evolution” in quotes, because creationists have a habit of lumping under “evolution” a number of things that are not, strictly speaking, evolution. The question of the origin of life is, strictly speaking, abiogenesis, not evolution. Likewise, the Big Bang and other theories about the origin of the universe are matters of cosmology. But all deal with origins, and how there came to be something rather than nothing.)

It isn't just creationists who lump origin of life under evolution. So do evolutionists (at least, the ones teaching it badly at the lower grades).

[Interrupting, again] If you want to complain about inept teachers, go for it.

Thomas Sowell has written books about the education establishment. Among his damning points is that education majors have among the lowest average SAT scores of all declared majors. Presumably they can't do, so they opt to teach.

But just because a teacher is incapable of presenting (or learning) some subject, don't commit the fallacy of presuming the subject itself is as incoherent as the teacher's presentation of it.

The origins of the universe problem is pretty substantial! How does something come from nothing, or alternatively, how does something always exist? These start to sound suspiciously like modern, cleaned up versions of Creation myths. "You don't understand it--it's turtles all the way down!"

The problem of the origin of the universe is indeed substantial. But it's not evolution. It's cosmology. That's outside evolution's jurisdiction.

As for the underlying science, "maybe it is turtles all the way down":

First and foremost (since this is about how we know what we know):

Until we have some idea what the rules are, we have no idea what is, or is not surprising.

For all we know, the default is for something to come from nothing, and our universe where something has to come from something else is the oddball case. (Maybe the Designer has suppressed all of the instances where something would have come from nothing. How would we know?

Or, why shouldn't something always exist? We observe as data that something does exist, and if we assume something can't come from nothing, then what else is it going to have done?

And for completeness, I should mention the possibility that nothing exists, and we're imagining the whole thing. (though isn't imagination something?)

Maybe it *is* "turtles all the way down", if by "turtles" we mean the rules that govern the universe(s).

So back to the question I left with in my opening salvo, how do we tell the difference between rules that have always been (it's rules all the way down), and rules that were designed and implemented by a creator?

It may well turn out that some phenomenon exists which can never be explained in terms of general rules or laws. Maybe there is some unbridgeable gap between nonlife and life, or animal consciousness and human consciousness. Trying to prove this, though, is trying to prove an existential negative, which is very difficult at best. At best, we can look at the track record of those who insist that phenomenon X demands a non-material explanation.

It stinks.

But a good scientist should try to keep an open mind to the possibility that a non-material cause will be required to explain some phenomenon, even while he searches heaven and earth (!) for some material law that will account for it.

Agreed. I would be happy if evolution were taught in the lower grades with a bit more humility, and recognition that there are a lot of serious questions that have been raised.

If you want to rail against bad teachers, be my guest.

If you want to take bad scientists (those who insist in speaking "ex lab-coat", making pronouncements not supported by science), go ahead.

But if you want to rail against science, rail against it for what it actually does.

Let’s stipulate, though, that everything can be explained by the operation of materialistic laws of nature. Everything. We might as well – it’s the underlying assumption of science. Where did the laws come from?

Everything in a science class MUST be explained through operation of materialistic laws of nature--otherwise, it isn't predictable, and then it isn't science. But recognizing this as an assumption is a good start towards that humility of which I speak. At least by the time I reached college, I was being taught by real scientists, who knew that there are limits to what science can do.

Natural Philosophers assumed the laws came from God. Modern scientists may or may not make the same assumption. Practically speaking, though, they probably don’t think it matters. The laws of motion work the way they do whether they were crafted by God, by Allah, by Athena, by Wakan Tanka – or are themselves eternal and uncreated.

It doesn't matter--if you are doing science. If you are asking deeper questions, it may matter. But a scientist needs to acknowledge that what he is doing makes assumptions. Science teachers seldom get this across to their students.

If you want to rail against bad teachers.....

Can the laws of nature be eternal?

In response to the assertion that God created everything, people will ask “who created God?” The response to this is, essentially, that God transcends creation and is eternal. God did not need to be created because he has always existed.

An atheist scientist might argue that the rules science uncovers are eternal and did not need to be created. Alternatively, they might have come about through the operation of some more encompassing rule, a form of the “Theory of Everything” which physicists have been searching for.

Now, here’s the discussion question:

How do you tell the difference – experimentally – between universe-governing rules that were created by God and universe-governing rules that have existed eternally without the need for a creator?

Experimentally, you can't. That inability to put the M variable into scientific equations is a serious obstacle! But I have experienced a miraculous healing--once. I know other people who have had ONE such experience. I know many others who have not. This tends to make us skeptical of claims that the M variable can be ignored!

Can it even be meaured? I don't want to get in to miraculous healing, but if you like, I'll send you a link to Dennis Prager's recent show where he interviews a doctor on the topic of luck in medicine. How do you distinguish between the "M variable" and luck?

And while I have my own ideas about the existence of a Creator, I am also a scientist. As a scientist, I can’t justify teaching in any science class that the above question has been answered one way or the other until it actually is.

How about teaching in a classroom that the lack of a supernatural is an assumption of science that makes prediction possible, and that a scientist who asserts that there CANNOT be anything outside that possibility is being a bit arrogant?

Believe it or not, I have no problem with that. I've had a number of teachers whose position on the supernatural is "I can't fault you for your faith". They may then point out the problems they see in terms of the lack of a known mechanism to accomplish some particular supernatural effect. Is that arrogant?

Some of the ID questions are legitimate science: how did we get irreducibly complex mechanisms?

At least some of them are plausibly explained by the co-opting of pieces that were already doing somethin else.

For example, here's another paper on the possible development of the flagellum from a secretory structure.

If this recent paper claiming an oxygen atmosphere at 3.8 billion years ago is correct, then we went from hot rocks to photosynthesis (a VERY complex system) in less than 600 million years. That sure isn't sounding very random or blind.

I can see a few possible outcomes for this:

1: Photosynthesis is not that hard to invent. The modern system, being the result of billions of years of evolutionary fine-tuning, may be quite complex, but as can be seen with the proposed development of the clotting system, the first steps need not be super-efficient, highly-developed systems. They need only work "well enough to do the job".

2: Before photosynthesis as we know it took over, there was a different system that generated oxygen at a low efficiency. This may have been too inefficient to generate amounts of oxygen useful to any one life form, or even to generate deoxygenated molecules in amounts useful for any other metabolic process. The oxygen resulting may have been a side-effect of some whole 'nother reaction. (Which may explain why all our ancestors weren't completely wiped out by the sudden production of all this highly reactive and poisonous oxygen.)

3: Good old panspermia -- the first life forms arrived on interstellar dust from somewhere else. This postpones the problem of origins, but a lot more time becomes available. (I'm all in favor of "pre-loading" work when I'm dealing with projects, but that's going a bit far, don't you think?)

4: ET landed and either seeded the planet with bacteria, or cobbled together the first bacteria in his workshop.

5: Some unknown, and possibly miraculous, process caused oxygen to appear in the early atmosphere.

6: Some unknown, and possibly miraculous, process caused a photosynthesizing organism to spring together in violation of all the laws of probability.

7: (In the interests of the humility science has, and we all wish more scientists would display) "Other".

But the assumption that there is no materialistic explanaton for any phenomenon X is an assumption, just as much as the assumption that there is one. I don't feel like trying to do a Bayesian calculation on the track record of each assumption, but I have a feeling the assumption that phenomenon X will remain forever inexplicable will turn out to be quite improbable.

Finally, on the question of things happening by the operation of natural law, I can see a number of possibilities, based on whether you affirm or deny each piece in the chain.

Given the statement:

I: Some phenomenon happens because of the operation of natural laws designed by a creator.

We have three entities to deal with:

1) A phenomenon that happens

2) Natural laws

3) A creator

These three entites can be affirmed or denied, giving rise to eight logical possibilities.

I: Some phenomenon happens because of the operation of natural laws designed by a creator.

II: Some phenomenon happens because of the operation of natural laws which did not require a creator.

III: Some phenomenon happens, not because of any natural laws, but purely because of the will of the creator. (Any laws we think exist are pure coincidence.)

IV: Some phenomenon happens, but not as the result of any natural laws or any action taken by a creator. (It's all an incredible coincidence.)

The other four involve the denial of the first entity -- that a phenomenon has taken place. I'll leave their formation and exploration as an exercise for the reader.

How do we know what we know?

We know phenomena happen because of their effects on the universe around us.

We don't really know laws exist, but we surmise them from the regularities we observe around us.

How do we know there's an entity who created either phenomena or the laws? WE have to take that on faith.

When are elections like sex?

(Hint: not just when your party gets screwed.)

Glenn Reynolds argues that elections serve the same purpose as sex.

Reproducing by fission is easier, cheaper, and conveys virtual immortality -- but a population that reproduces by fission is an army of clones, and a parasite that's well adapted to one population member is well adapted to them all. Sexual reproduction, by jumbling up genes every generation, forces parasites to try to adapt to a moving target, giving the host organisms an advantage that justifies all the metabolic energy they put into this more troublesome form of passing on one's genes.
My thought has been that elections play the same role for the body politic that sex plays for the body physical: Every so often, the voters throw the rascals out, and vote in a new set of rascals, meaning that the special interest groups, lobbying outfits, etc., that parasitize the body politic have to adapt to a shifting target. As scientist Thomas Ray has said, one rule of nature is that every successful system accumulates parasites. The American political system has been successful for a long time.

So is the answer the installation of more mechanisms to increase turnover? Should we limit congresscritters, for example, to a single term?

Maybe not.

In order to succeed, most sexually reproducing organisms have to do things besides reproduce. At the very least, a certain amount of time is required to grow to sexual maturity, and then competition for mates demands the expenditure of resources. An organism that hasn't acquired those resources is hosed.

Likewise, politicians, and political parties, are expected to do things besides win elections. The ability to do these things improves with practice and experience. You could do away with political parasites by limiting all politicians to single one-week terms, but any politicians you elect will be completely inept at their jobs.

Sex hasn't eliminated parasites, but it keeps the numbers down. Elections haven't eliminated political parasites, but it keeps the numbers down. In both cases, we have a balancing act between the desire to keep parasites from gaining too much experience, and the desire to allow the body (or body politic) to gain enough experience to function.

Heads up...

MENLO PARK, Calif. -- Denise Johnson-Kula washes her fruit in bottled spring water. She no longer turns on her faucets or showers in her Menlo Park apartment because she said her water makes her sick.
"Within minutes of being in the shower and breathing the steam, my sinuses were running and I had choking symptoms," said Johnson-Kula. "I also had red, horribly burning skin. The wheezing got so bad I could hardly breathe. I actually thought I was going to die."
Dr. Robert Bocian determined she suffered from chloramine mediated respiratory toxicity.

And what's more, there's an activist group!

One thing that's interesting is that on one side of the question, we have people who insist on removing THMs from their water in order to get the cancer risk down to zero. On the other side, the activist group says:

•THMs are possible but not proven cancer causing byproducts.

So the studies that show problems with THMs in water are questionable, but the studies showing problems with chloramine are gold. Okey-dokey.

By the way, the group cites, without linking, the SFPUC FAQ on chloramine. Here's a link to the top page.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Dennis Prager on pre-emptive war

In this week's New York Times Book Review, a historian reviewing a major new work of 20th-century history, Oxford and Harvard professor Niall Ferguson's "The War of the World," notes that "Ferguson argues that the Western powers should have gone to war in 1938, which would most likely have avoided much of the horror of World War II. ..." Imagine that. The New York Times publishes a favorable book review of a book arguing that a pre-emptive war in 1938 would have saved tens of millions of lives aside from preventing the Holocaust, "without parallel ... the most wicked act in all history." You have to wonder if the Times' editors and all their allies on the left, who have spent the last four years mocking the very notion of pre-emptive war, read this review.
It is overwhelmingly likely that even if we had found WMD in Iraq, The New York Times, Michael Moore and nearly all college professors would have still opposed the invasion. After all, they would have argued, it was still a pre-emptive war and therefore wrong by definition; and besides, Saddam had nothing to do with 9-11. Of course, the critics look right because we hardly seem to be winning the war in Iraq. But even here the critics are too smug. We have not won the war in Iraq because of something completely unforeseeable: widespread massacres of Iraqi civilians by other Iraqis and Muslims. We have never seen mass murder of fellow citizens in order to remove an outside occupier. No Japanese blew up Japanese temples to rid Japan of the American occupier. No Germans mass murdered German schoolchildren and teachers to rid Germany of the American, British, French and Soviet occupiers. The level of cruelty and evil exhibited by those America is fighting in Iraq is new. Had Iraq followed any precedent in all the annals of resistance to occupation, America would likely have been victorious in Iraq. It may just be impossible, if one is morally bound not to kill large numbers of civilians, to fight those who target their own civilians and hide among them. But George W. Bush had no way to foresee such systematic cruelty.

Read the whole thing.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Misconceptions about science

  1. Stars and constellations appear in the same place in the sky every night.
  2. The sun rises exactly in the east and sets exactly in the west every day.
  3. The sun is always directly south at 12:00 noon.
  4. The tip of a shadow always moves along an east-west line.
  5. We experience seasons because of the earth's changing distance from the sun (closer in the summer, farther in the winter).
  6. The earth is the center of the solar system. (The planets, sun and moon revolve around the earth.)
  7. ....

Bad science in textbooks

Clayton Cramer likes to post about how "evolutionists" get it wrong, or at best, support shaky science. The examples of bad science he tends to pull out, though, are examples from science textbooks.

Well, based on modern textbooks, we should throw out physics, astronomy, geography, and any number of other subjects.

In many classrooms, science textbooks add to children’s misconceptions. William Beaty, an engineer who designed an electricity exhibit for the Boston Museum of Science, discovered “a morass of misconceptions, mistakes, and misinformation” in grade school science textbooks. In fact, he couldn’t find a single book that explained basic electricity correctly. North Carolina State University physics professor John Hubisz found similar problems in a two-year study of middle-school science textbooks. All told, he compiled 500 pages of errors in 12 textbooks, including mix-ups between fission and fusion, incorrect definitions of absolute zero, and a map showing the equator running through the southern states. Reporting on the ways science textbooks are developed and sold to schools, Forbes writer David McClintick says many companies “churn out rubbish” with countless errors. One widely adopted text, for instance, claims the earth rotates around the sun, when it actually revolves around the sun and rotates on its axis.

If Cramer wants to call attention to the glaring errors in textbooks, more power to him. But if he thinks the errors about evolution that he finds in textbooks reflect on evolution, maybe he'd better reconsider.

If we pull out of Iraq...

Victor Davis Hanson offers his take on conditions in Iraq:
...Kurdistan that is still thriving. Its population, devoutly Muslim, apparently understands the advantages of Western commerce and tolerance in a manner not true of the Iraqi Shiia and Sunni communities, or the Afghans. Yet the West has poured more aid money into the latter than the former. The difference seems to be that in Kurdistan when someone picks up a Westernized cell phone, drives an imported car, or turns on a computer, they seek to use such appurtenances to bring greater security and commerce to their own. In contrast, in tribal Afghanistan and the Sunni Triangle the Islamists are entirely parasitical on the West: they want our material products, but only to use them for destructive purposes. And if they employ televisions and videos to further the spread of Islam, they never pause for a second of self-critical analysis.
While we argue over various mathematical formulas to determine how many have died in the Iraq war, note that the passive is the voice of choice—as in “50,000 have been killed”, or “100,000 have died.” Culpability is ignored. And so we have the following Orwellian situation: the aggregate number must include everybody who dies violently in Iraq: an “insurgent” in jeans who blows himself up in an IED mishap, a terrorist killed by a Marine, a child murdered in a school by Islamists, Shiites blown up by Sunnis and vice versa—all these are lumped together as collateral civilian deaths. .... Stung by the dishonesty of “body counts” in Vietnam, and worried that in postmodern warfare, Westerners are not only not supposed to die, but also should not kill, our own forces release no figures on how many enemy terrorists they have killed. The result is that the narrative of almost all the mayhem coming out of Iraq is bifurcated into either how many Americans were killed, or how many “Iraqis” perished—a sure method to convince the reader that the entire enterprise is a complete disaster in which we are mere sitting ducks, whose presence alone leads to Iraqis dropping dead like flies. Where does all this lead? Not where most expect. The Left thinks that the “fiasco” in Iraq will bring a repudiation of George Bush, and lead to its return to power. Perhaps. But more likely it will bring a return of realpolitik to American foreign policy, in which no action abroad is allowable (so much for the liberals’ project of saving Darfur), and our diplomacy is predicated only on stability abroad. The idealism of trying to birth consensual government will be discredited; but with its demise also ends any attention to Arab moderates, who whined for years about our support for the House of Saud, Pakistani generals, Gulf autocrats, or our neglect of the mayhem wrought by Islamists in Afghanistan. We know now that when the United States tries to spend blood and treasure in Afghanistan and Iraq that it will be slandered as na├»ve or imperialistic.

In other words, with its hand-wringing over Iraq and Afghanistan, the Left may be on the verge of ushering in Pat Buchannan's vision of foreign policy, in which we retreat behind the walls of Fortress America, and if the rest of the world decides to go to hell, we allow them the freedom to make that choice.

Aside from the moral difficulties in this position, is it even practical? Someone who sets off a nuke in one spot may well cause serious damage in other areas. If someone manages to cobble together a super-plague, you might need very high walls on your fortress to keep it out.

Not so optimistic

I think that American troops should stay to protect the oil fields in Iraq. They should also seal the Kurdish region. On the other hand, I'd be happy to see our soldiers walk out of Baghdad, not with their tails between their legs but with their middle fingers in the air. From my observation post, which admittedly is nowhere near Iraq and has me shrouded in media fog, it appears that the Iraqis have botched their liberation. We gave them an opportunity to experience freedom and democracy, and they responded by shooting one another and blowing people up.

Justice for Saddam

Josef Stalin died in power, and the old Communist mass murderer avoided punishment -- at least, punishment exacted in this mortal world. .... This past Sunday, former Iraqi tyrant Saddam Hussein received a death sentence for his role in the murder of 148 people in the Iraqi town of Dujail.
I know, The New York Times and John Kerry have told us Iraq is a disaster. Not true. There's a democratically elected government in the potentially most powerful (predominantly) Arab Muslim nation, a government trying to learn to govern and administer under the most trying conditions. It's a government that is learning by doing -- and learning often by failure. However, as long as the United States and coalition remain around to coach, train and respond to crises, Iraqi failures will be controlled failures.