Friday, December 29, 2006

Park Service Caters to Creationists

Ever want to know how old the Grand Canyon is?

Well, don't ask the park services. They can't tell you.

Why not? As you might expect, it's due to pressure from Bush appointees, ignoring the protests of its own scientists as well as every scientific organization.

The National Park Sevices also sells creationist books, defending the act by saying that their book store is like a library and intends to give the broadest view possible. Of course, when the book was adopted in 2003, they rejected 22 other books, adopting only the creationist text. Furthermore, park policies as well as law reveals that the "park bookstores are more like schoolrooms rather than libraries."

When the book was adopted, it was promised that it would undergo a review to judge its merit. Three years later, and no review has even begun.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Merry Winter-een-mas

Happy Winter-een-mas to everyone!

I'm well aware that I haven't been posting much, but I really haven't found much worth posting about recently. Religious nutballs seem to have been rather quiet. The ID crowd hasn't done anything above their standard level of inanity. Heck, even the weather has been pretty moderate around here (sorry to anyone in Denver).

One cool thing I did want to point out was the launch of COROT, a French satellite to look for extra-solar planets. It's method of detection is to look at the brightnesses of stars and watch for characteristic periodic dimmings due to a planet passing in front of the star.

Additionally, COROT will be able to watch for other brightness changes due to oscillations in the star itself. These oscillations allow astronomers to probe the interior of stars in the same manner as seismologists use seismic waves to study the interior of the Earth. One of my professors and one of my friends at Missouri State University are working on this very project with a group of stars known as Delta Scuti stars.

Meanwhile, I've not been up to much over this break thus far. A good deal of my time has gone into trying to play through a few video games I bought during the semester but found little time to play, Final Fantasy 12 being top of the list. I'm approaching the 80 hour mark and have been wasting most of my game time, recently, on side quests.

When my thumbs start hurting, I've been catching up on getting through some of the other things I bought this semester: Books from the Difficult Dialogues series. Last spring Barbara Forrest came to KU and a friend picked me up a copy of her book, Creationism's Trojan Horse. I just finished that last night. The ideas behind it weren't new to me, but it definately had some very good quotes from ID proponents that demonstrated how much they speak out of both sides of their mouth.

From there, I started into the NCSE's new book, Not In Our Classrooms. So far I've gotten through the first chapter which is really just a brief introduction of the past 200 years of creationism, leading up to the Edwards v. Aguillard case which prompted the shift to "Intelligent Design". Chapter 2 is about the so called "critical analysis" approach and the motivation for that as well as its intellectual failures. It's a much quicker read than Forrest's book and I'd recommend this book to anyone new to the debate.

I suppose that's it for now. I'm at home until the new year. Then it's back to Lawrence where I'm sure I'll find more time to post since I don't have family to deal with there.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

If Missouri can elect a dead Senator...

Why can't Poland make a dead guy king?

Which dead guy? Jesus of course. I wonder if he'll get a crown of thorns.

I mean, really, what's to stop them?

Aside from the fact that they're only able to get 10% of their parliment to think it's a good idea.

Hm, perhaps there's a reason he forgot Poland.

Hell of a Pizza

There's an old adage that says "there's no such thing as bad publicity."

This must be the approach Hell Pizza in New Zeland took when it decided to send out 170,000 condoms as well as instructions for use to households across the country to promote their pizza as well as draw attention to the high rate of teen pregnancies and STDs.

The response of the Catholic community? Condemn the action and call for a boycott. They complained to New Zeland's Advertising Standards Authority who concluded the pizzeria had "breached standards of decency and social responsibility."

Perhaps I'm not quite seeing how jocularly drawing attention to a national problem is irresponsible. Meanwhile, the Catholic church, by suppressing information vital to teens protecting themselves seems to fit the bill quite well.

But ultimately, the boycott hasn't bothered the owners.

"If the Pope himself had tried the Lust pizza he might be a converted customer."

Pareidolia: part n + 1

I've lost count of how many cases of pareidolia I've posted about here and I know the Bad Astronomer has posted more than a few as well. Usually the articles authors are fairly soft on those whose only restraint on their imaginations is that they can only imagine biblical figures is lumps of chocolate.

However, in this article, the author is somewhat less cordial, pointing out that the Church doesn't even acknowledge such false idols. Instead, the church encourages its followers "to see the face of Christ in the homeless, the poor, the destitute and the immigrant."

My, wouldn't it be nice if its followers actually lived up to such ideals?

Monday, December 18, 2006

Intelligent Discourse

I don't watch a whole lot of TV, but a few months ago, I discovered that there is now a show that is the equivalent of a tournament of "yo' momma" jokes. I have no idea what the name of the show was, or even what channel it was on (I suspect MTV or something of the like).

What amazed me was that rational discourse is being thrown out the window for hurling insults that are hardly even witty. It definately doesn't help America in terms of knowing a good argument.

And that's precisely what the folks over at the Discovery Institute like: childish insults that have no substance and instead, appeal to those with not intellectual abilities. The DI bitches and moans about how Eugenie Scott, Barbara Forrest and the rest of the prominent evolution proponents portray them as ignorant children who don't know the first thing about science, yet the DI is the ones catering to this crowd and happy to crown itself.

Earlier this year, I posted about DaveScott resorting to "yo' momma" jokes when his readers disagreed with him on whether or not Hovind should be given privlidges to break the law for his religion.

But now this has been kicked up a notch, with the attempt to make all sorts of ad hominem attacks on Judge Jones, complete with farting noises. The farting noises have been since removed with Dembski admitting that those with refined tastes find it inappropriate. I guess this is an admittance that Dembski's tastes are hardly refined? I suppose so

Why the abandoment of real discourse? Well according to Dembski, the kiddies love it. He states:
Rather, my aim was to render Judge Jones and his decision ridiculous in the eyes of many young people, who from here on will never take Darwinian evolution or him seriously.
In other words, argumentum ad ridiculum is the name of the game.

But not to be forgotten, DaveScott chimes back in with his pictoral response to "Girly Man" Dawkins:

Aww... how cute. I just hope DaveScott isn't using his own daughter (presuming he has one). After all, using children to peddle ideological slogans is child abuse. Everyone says so...

Behe at KU - Part 2: Reactions

Now that I've transcribed my notes in my first post, leaving out as much opinion as is humanly possible, I'll get into my reactions to it.

First and foremost, Behe isn't a bad speaker. He's not the best of the Difficult Dialogues series, but he's definately up there on the ones I attended. As far as the ID crowd goes, this is an oddity. Dembski came off horribly last spring and every time I've read or watched something by ID proponents, it comes off pretty hollow, as if they're just trying to make a convenient list of sound bytes with no real substance. But Behe was genuinely a good speaker.

However, by no means does this suggest that his content was wothwhile, nor free of rhetorical flaws. Stating that he was going to present evidence and then rebuke earlier arguments and then preceeding to do the exact opposite was rather confusing and not the best way to start.

Behe's insistance that there was something wrong with Judge Jones liberally quoting from Rothschild's proposed statement of fact was cute. However, it's been torn apart many times already. So the first major portion of his speech is a wash.

The only other part in his Dover rant was to claim that Jones hadn't understood a thing. The entire argument for this rested on a single quote of Judge Jones saying that the process was "mind-numbingly technical". The other quote Behe used ("the highly technical scientific testimony… is rapidly becoming a distant memory.") was from his KU talk and had no bearing on the actual ruling. Cute rhetorical trick, but no substance.

Behe, in the "rebuttal" phase of his talk also admitted that God was supernatural and thus the question "Who designed God?" is irrelevant. I'd agree with that. The important question is, "Who designed the Designer?" This is the question Behe should have answer and the fact that he substitutes "God" for "Designer" like this is rather telling.

But's let's suppose the question really was about such a designer. How does Behe answer that question?

Behe: "By “intelligent design” (ID) I mean to imply design beyond the simple laws of nature some point a supernatural designer must get into the picture. is not plausible that the original intelligent agent is a natural entity.
...input from beyond nature was required." (Source)

Looks like Behe claims the same exemptions for the Designer that he does for God; Once you invoke the supernatural, all bets are off. Too bad it also disqualifies that as science.

But don't think that such things will stop Behe from talking out both sides of his mouth given that his first point regarding the "positive" evidence for design was "Design is not mystical." Sure thing pal.

His second point (that everyone agrees that aspects of biology appear designed) is rather beside the point. Things aren't always as they "appear". Thus, this point is another cute rhetorical trick, but is about as worthwhile as saying, by looking around, the earth appears flat.

The third point about structural obstacles was mostly an argument about semantics of Irreducible Complexity which boiled down to him whining that evolution proponents weren't using his definition of IC (his definition being that it must still function as the same system). The reason for this is that Behe's requirement that it must function as the same system is a stipulation with no merit. It's just tossed in there. Anyone can require stipulations that can't be met and then claim that if they're not, it must be wrong. But that's rather dishonest. Not that I expect any better from the ID crowd.

And even when it is just tossed in, many of Behe's systems still don't hold up to scrutiny as being IC. Foremost among them is the blood clotting system. Other species have components missing but still have a functional blood clotting system. Thus, it's not IC. But Behe doesn't let that stop him from making his claims.

For his fourth point, I was amused to see Behe admit that his entire argument was an argument from ignorance. So how did he try to combat this? Change the subject of course. Don't ever be introspective. Always put the opponent on the defensive. Thus, Behe changes the subject to claim that evolution proponents fall prey to arguments from credulity in which they accept anything.

In physics, we have some very nice laws of gravity which handily explain forces between objects. Even a moderately competent high school student can do calculations involving two objects. But add a third, and the problem becomes extremely complicated with differential equations and chaotic solutions.

So what's the point? The three body problem is much like the case of the evolution of these systems. It's notoriously difficult to solve, and the more you add, the harder it gets. But that doesn't invalidate the theory of gravity. Nor should it, as Behe suggests, invalidate the theory of evolution. We have many small steps, but just because we can't replicate every step in the full process at any given instance as creationists demand, doesn't mean that there is reason to doubt the underlying principles.

This is how science works. We test what we can and extrapolate. If we couldn't do such things, entire branches of science would wither, given that we'll never be able to create solar systems in labs to test out theories of gravity. So I, like most scientists, do not see that evolution, anymore than gravity, is an argument from credulity in any inappropriate manner.

Meanwhile, Behe still hasn't defended his argument beyond "we can't figure out how thid happened, thus it didn't."

His final point about things looking designed, thus they are designed (his inducktive reasoning) is still rather weak. Quantitative analysis of design is still non-existant. Dembski's taken stabs at it, but fallen flat repeatedly.

The trouble is that it's hard to pin down the requirements for design. Generally arguments hinge around complexity. But complexity isn't always a great test for design. Good design is often elegant and simplistic. Thus, there's no limit to the range of things that can be labeled designed based on this criteria.

So ultimately, ID comes up short yet again. Behe's a good speaker, but all bark and no bite when it comes right down to it.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Behe at KU - Part 1: Afternoon Lecture

Behe’s talk was introduced, as usual, by Kristalka. I was interested to see how this would be done. It ended up being quite formal with Kristalka closing it by reading the disclaimer from Lehigh University’s department webpage.

I expected Behe to take some offense to this as a sort of poisoning of the well, but interestingly enough, Behe began his own talk off with a similar disclaimer, stating that his own mother disagrees with his stance.

He then introduced his talk, stating that there would be two parts. He would first talk about his argument itself, and then make a rebuttal to some of his dissenters.

Behe immediately began to do the exact opposite. Not that it was a problem. At least he actually got to the part where he claimed positive evidence for design like the title of his talk suggested. This was more than Dembski did last spring.

The first topic of rebuttal that Behe brought up was a look at the Dover trial. He quoted Ken Miller as saying, “Judge Jones clearly grasped the weight of scientific evidence behind evolution.” Behe himself said that he feels that Judge Jones had an “informed point of view” although he disagreed on the conclusions.

The point of this section, was to compare Eric Rothschild’s proposed statement of fact, submitted to Judge Jones, to Jones’ ruling itself. The point Behe made very clearly, is that the two are nearly identical for large stretches.

He then asked the question that if we can’t credit him writing the prose, could we at least credit him with recognizing good science?

Behe’s answer was “no.”

His reason for this is that Judge Jones used terms like “mind-numbingly technical” to describe the processes. During his talk at KU, he said, “the highly technical scientific testimony… is rapidly becoming a distant memory.”

Behe’s question is that, if the testimony was so mind numbing, then how could Jones effectively rule on it?

He went on to address the stack of books and papers with which he was presented on stand as having looked into evolutionary pathways for his “irreducibly complex” systems. He showed a table listing the number of times “random mutation” or “natural selection” appeared in each one. Neither word appeared in any of the papers, he said.

Also on this topic of the stack of papers is Behe’s oft quoted “not good enough” response. Behe also pointed out that he never said this (p 16). Instead, what he did say, was that they were “wonderful articles” but “don’t address the question I pose.” The "not good enough" quote actually came from Rothschild. Yet this misquoting is still perpetuated by Jones in his conclusion.

The conclusion that Behe draws: Judge Jones was not qualified to rule on this matter.

Behe then went on to attack Dawkins' stating that the odds of life spontaneously generating was in our favour given the size of the universe. Dawkins says that the chance of life doing so must be something like a billion billion. But Behe says this number is one that Dawkins pulled out of a hat. Thus, Dawkin's arguments are unconvincing.

Another question Dawkins frequently asks is, "Who designed God." Behe said that God is supernatural, and thus, the question is irrelevant.

Behe then began discussing ID itself. He started off with 5 points:
1. Design is not mystical. It is deduced from physical structure of a system.
2. Everyone agrees that aspects of biology appear designed.
3. There are structural obstacles to Darwinian evolution.
4. Grand Darwinian claims rest on undisciplined imagination.
5. Bottom Line: Strong evidence for design, but not for Darwinian processes.

Behe went through each point in some detail:

For the first point, he said that design could be inferred whenever there appear to be a "purposeful or inventive arrangement of parts" in such a manner that they accomplish a function.

He showed a farside cartoon of which some travelers are hiking through a jungle. The lead one is snared in a trap which is obviously designed. Behe suggested that, even though this is comprised of natural parts, we can tell it is designed because it has a purpose. Similarly, he showed a pile of unassembled legos followed by an assembled pile of some sort of mechanism.

Behe claimed that the strength of this inference is quantitative, and that the greater number of arranged parts, the greater our confidence that a system is designed. He showed a picture of a mountain, followed by an image of Old Man in the Mountain, and then Mt. Rushmore saying that we know which one was designed.

In regards to his second point, he quoted Dawkins saying, "results of NS overwhelmingly impress us with the appearance of design is if by a master watchmaker…". Behe then admitted that the basis for this argument was Paley although, he said, cells are much more complex than Paley's watch.

For his point regarding structural obstacles, Behe quoted Darwin regarding the failure of his theory if systems could be found that could not have arisen naturally. Behe then began discussing his defintion of Irreducible Complexity, using the analogy of a moustrap, in which, if a single part is removed, it ceases to function as a mousetrap.

Behe said, the "cell is chocked full of Irreducibly Complex parts." He again stated that according to his definition of Irreducible Complexity, systems which do not function the same without all of their parts pose a challenge to evolution and that this definition of his is frequently misconstrued by evolution supporters who say that something is not Irreducibly complex as long as it can be built from simpler components.

In opposition to this, Behe said that, even though systems he claims to be Irreducibly Complex, like the Flagellum, can be broken down, there's still the matter of how to do it given that it's a complicated process to get surfaces of the components to bond correctly.

This lead him to his fourth point, that the evidence was not there for evolution because it couldn't explain such things. He recognized that this was an argument from ignorance, but claimed that evolution's claims were the opposite: An argument from credulence in which the scientists supporting them would uncritically accept anything.

Meanwhile, Behe suggested that evolution is incapable of building such systems because, quite often, when a system makes a positive adaptation, it results in the breaking of another part of the system. The example he gave was of the positive adaptation to fight malaria in Africa. While malaria had been sucessfully combated, to do this, the trait of sickle cell anemia was developed which is not-beneficial. Thus, Behe suggested, it's impossible to get a positive without a negative. Thus, evolution can not have any net gain he claimed.

Behe then began his fifth point using this to claim that evolution had failed but, because things looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it just might be a duck. He called it inducktive reasoning and claimed that it was good science.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Support Astronomy

Since I'm not in the running, I figured I'd plug Phil for best science blog. Go vote for him!

After all, things like this are so much better than this.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

On Planetary Nebulae

As you might expect, one of the reasons I've been posting so little recently is that it's that time of the semester when everything's been due. In particular, I had a rather long paper for my astrophysics course due as well as a 30 minute presentation on the same topic. Thus, things have been a bit busy. But now that it's all over (well, that part a least. I still have finals to worry about), I think it's worth sharing. So, since I can't invite everyone to the talk, which was last week, I'll make all the files available for download.

First off, here's the paper. It's moderately technical and would probably serve to have at least an introductory course of university level astronomy. But considering how broad the topic was, I couldn't get into any read depth on it. Instead, it's a very brief look at many different mechanisms that contribute to the morphologica and spectral characteristics of planetary nebulae.

The Powerpoint presentation can be found here. It says a lot of the same stuff as the paper, but in a different format obviously. Since the Powerpoint file only highlights the material, and there's a lot of things that I would say out loud that isn't on the slides, you can find a detailed summary of what I said (at least, I hope I said all of it), here.

Also, if you're trying to get the video to play in the Powerpoint presentation, it won't play in there. The video is one I made specially for this presentation and I couldn't get it to export in a file type that Powerpoint would accept without having a ridiculously huge file size for even a low quality version. Thus, if you want to see the video, try here (right-click/Save As to save to your hard drive). It's about 1.4 Mb and is in Quicktime format. You'll need a fairly recent version to have the proper codec.


Friday, December 08, 2006

What comes around...

During Dawkins talk, one of the most controversial statements he made was that teaching children to spout religious slogans of which they have no understanding of the meaning is unethical and amounts to child abuse.

This position is one that Dawkins has recieved much critisizm for. While I certainly don't agree that it's nearly as extreme as Dawkins likes to claim, it seems that Dawkins may have an unlikely supporter of his position: Bill O'Reilly.

Recently, an obviously coached video of a young girl parroting ideological slogans condeming Christianity began circulating the internet. O'Reilly's response? Claim it's child abuse and that the child is being "raised by nuts."

Meanwhile, in another case of irony, it looks like one community is kicking themselves after enacting a policy allowing religious groups to distribute flyers directly to school children. This policy was helped into place by none other than Jerry Falwell.

Unfortunately for them, it also allows Pagan groups to promote their events.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Lousiana District Opens Door to Creationism

It looks like a district in Lousiana has decided to adopt a new policy regarding science.

The policy states
Where topics are taught that may generate controversy (such as biological evolution), the curriculum should help students to understand the full range of scientific views that exist, why such topics may generate controversy, and how scientific discoveries can profoundly affect society.
If the actual wording of this is upheld, then I think it would be rather innoculous. I fully support the teaching of the "full range of scientific views". But the key word there is scientific.

Unfortunately, I suspect that my definition of science (you know... involving the scientific method and all) is quite different from there's (uses lots of big words we don't know but tells us what we want to hear).

My other beef with this is that what it proposes to do in those circumstances really has no place int he science classroom anyway. "Why such topics generate controversy, and how scientific discoveries can profoundly affect society" are both things that science doesn't address and are better served in a philosophy or sociology class.

The end result of this is that teachers will be wasting precious class time to teach things that have nothing to do with science.

Another bit I found rather disingenuous was Superintendent Bob Webber saying "They (the teachers) want our support and that's why we're here to give it to them."

I really wonder if this is truly the case. Are teachers really that eager to teach creationism? Teachers in Dover sure as hell didn't. My aunt (very ardant Christian and Bush supporter) who teaches 12 year olds science in rural Missouri says teachers at her school sure don't. In fact, I've yet to hear of a single teacher who has asked for support.

Thus, I suspect this is really the school board putting their wishes into the mouths of the teachers. So I wonder if Webber has any clue as to what he's talking about. Especially when the article says things like, "Webber referred to the policy as allowing teachers to teach Darwin's theory of evolution as a theory."

Were teachers really teaching it as fact? Or is Webber just confused as most creationists about what "theory" means in science?

The article makes it pretty clear that the School Board itself is equally as clueless. Member Red Sims said, "his early recollections of the Darwin theory were that people came from monkeys." Gee, how many times have we seen that strawman?

But dispite his confusion, he voted in support of the measure, noting, "I don't know what I'm voting on."

My, I'm terribly confident in the intelligence of this school district...