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...

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Antikythera Mechanism

The image above doesn't look like much, but it's actually the remenants of a device known as the Antikythera Mechanism. Found in debris of a shipwreck, it ended up being one of the earliest known computers (for a given definition of "comptuer").

The Antikythera Mechanism was able to predict the motion the heavens as well as eclipses. The sophisticated device was made of bronze and used gears to make predictions.

For such a complicated device, you might expect that it was made around the time that many other such devices using gears (such as clocks) were being developed (around the 1600's). But this device ended up being much, much older. Estimates place the date of it's creation at 150-100 BCE!

Recently, the device has been examined using X-rays to make generate a 3-D image. The new study revealed a wealth of new incriptions.

Some great interactive images of the device can be found here. Also, for more information, and a really nifty Java applet showing the functioning of the Sun/moon gears try here.

Behe Lecture Cancelled

Pat Hays over at Red State Rabble noted yesterday that we've been having exceptionally nice weather here in the midwest so far this winter. But it seems that winter has arrived all at once, going from temperatures near 70 one day, to sleet and snow the next.

This wouldn't seem to have any meaning, except that, as Pat pointed out, this sudden arrival of inclement weather corresponds with a lecture of Dr. Behe. He speculated that perhaps God's just gotten tired of Behe's lies.

We'd expected that the weather would drive attendence down, but it seems that it's far worse than that for Behe. His lecture has been canceled.

Shame. I was hoping to take bets on how closely he would follow my How to make a Pro-ID Argument template that I created after Dembski's talk last spring.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Eugenie Scott - Part 3: Conclusions and Reactions

Before going to hear Eugenie speak, I didn't really know much about her. There were many things I liked about her presentation.

Among those that I did like was her model of the three levels of science (Core, Frontier, and Fringe). While I think most of us scientists instinctively know this and understand the differences, it's hard to verbalize and Eugenie's model is an excellent way to communicate this. This also serves to illustrate precisely why, as Eugenie explained in the morning session, ID doesn't deserve a place in the classrooms (religious agenda aside).

Another aspect of her talk I especially appreciated with the explicit noting that there are many other junk sciences out there other than just Intelligent Design/Creationism. Her references to dowsing were quite welcome.

I'm also very strongly with both Dr. Scott and Dr. Miller when they say that science is just one way of knowing and doesn't necessarily give us the whole picture. As Reasonable Kansans has pointed out this is where many bloggers are disagreeing (don't bother paying too much attention to anything besides her first few paragraphs in that post though as it's all creationist drivel which is probably why she received the title of stupid blog of the week).

On one side, there's the scientists who are hard line atheists like PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins. On the other, there's moderates like Pat Hayes, Miller, and Scott.

The former maintain that people like Miller and Scott are too soft on religious nonsense and in doing so, is repeatedly allowing them to wedge their foot in the door and continue to insert religious nonsense. The latter feel that religion is generally no danger to science except for the extreme fringes which should be dealt with appropriately, but that we should continue to respect the moderate religious crowd.

So I figured I'd take a moment to toss out my .02 on the subject and explain where I stand and why.

The answer is that I'm in both camps, depending on what question is asked. If someone were to ask me whether I, as a scientist felt that religion was a danger to science, I'd firmly agree with the latter crowd in saying that the two are completely compatible. In no way do I feel that religion detracts from science. In fact, I can recognize that science would benefit from the tenacity of religious individuals seeking to uncover what they perceive to be God's handiwork.

People like Ken Miller and the many other theistic scientists working both today and throughout history show that it's entirely possible to do good science while being a person of faith. To ignore their contributions because one is scared of what fanatical extremists seek to do to science is cowardly. To me it would suggest that those who hold this position somehow feel that science is too week to stand side by side with religion and that we must somehow hide it away. Given the track record of science with people of faith working in the field, I have no doubt that science will continue to push forwards even with theists working side by side.

As a scientist, I do, however, recognize the inherent danger of junk science being forced through by religious fundamentalists but do not feel that we need to exclude all people of faith just to keep these out. No reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater as it were.

So how, as I previously mentioned, do I stand in the camp of Dawkins and Myers? I would stand in their camp as an atheist. As an atheist, I feel that religion is illogical as believing in Santa Claus and that there is no reason to coddle it by pretending that it is legitimate. I feel that religion is the single most divisive force in the world today that drives deeper divisions between people than any political ideology, racial allegiance, or national pride ever could. In this regard, I stand firmly with PZ Myers, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris (although I wouldn't go so far as to call religion “child abuse” as Dawkins does).

What's the difference between these two though? My first consideration is my opinion as an aspiring scientist. The latter is a theological opinion. The heart of the matter is that theological opinions carry little weight and, as Eugenie pointed out, aren't the most convincing. Thus, since I can recognize that my disdain of religion is a theological position, I am able to separate it from my professional opinions and would not seek to enforce it upon science, which is inherently neutral.

Unfortunately, some like Myers and Dawkins seem unable to make this distinction and, as I see it, are just as guilty at not hanging their beliefs at the door when they step into a professional role as President Bush is. This is the reason that I will only occasionally agree with them, as it depends on the role which I am playing at the given time.

But the sad fact of the matter is that Myers and Dawkins aren't the only ones that can't make this distinction. The creationists are also stunningly inept in this regard. This is why we get silly claims that evolution is inherently atheistic.

Ultimately, what's important to realize is that just because a scientist says it, doesn't mean he's speaking as a scientist. We all have many roles in life and at times, we must step into them all.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

A Br-wii-ef Aside

It looks like the two biggest items for Christmas this year are going to be (predictably) the Playstation 3 and Nintendo's new system, the Wii. Given that Sony horribly underproduced their system and has yet to manufacture any games aside from sports games, it looks like more kids will be finding Wii's under their tree this year.

Through a bizzare series of events, I ended up camping out with one of my friends to help her get one. And since I've now had a chance to play it, I'll take a moment to deviate from my usual posting topics and mention my first impressions: It sucks. There's two main reasons I say this: (1) The computing power has not been utilized and (2) the controller is annoying novel and driving the games.

I've been playing home console systems since the NES was out and every time a new one has come out, I've always noticed a marked improvement when each new generation comes out. For the system my friend got, she also got three games: The new Zelda (Twilight Princess), Rayman, and Excite Truck. Installed on the system already were a host of cutesy games. We started with the already installed tennis, golf and baseball.

For this, the graphics weren't in any manner an improvement. In fact, they were several steps back. The whole thing just felt like Nintendo had some leftover beta software lying around and just decided to slap it onto the system. The characters were floating geometric shapes with no arms to connect their sphere shaped hands to their torsos. The only (possibly) amusing thing was being able to design your own characters. The trouble was that there were so many choices of facial styles, expressions, hair, eyes, mouths, and everything else you can think of, that just creating a character took more time than playing the game! This seems extremely poorly thought out.

The next game we tried out was the new Rayman game. The previous Rayman game was about running through levels and jumping on things. Pretty standard for Nintendo. So, naturally, we were expecting more of the same. Instead, this game ended up seeming like the developers were intent on finding all the stupid ass ways that someone could use the controller.

If you haven't heard about the new controller (the Wii-mote), it's quite interesting. Instead of having a joystick, you use it by aiming it at the TV. From there, of course, there's a few buttons that allow you to interact with what's on screen. But the innovative part is that it has motion sensors that allow it to detect tilt, rotation, and a variety of other hand motions. It also features a wrist strap to affix it to your arm to prevent you from getting pissed off (which you will) and launching it at your TV.

This aim and tilt feature seemed to be what Rayman was having far too much fun with. From levels where you had to slap doors shut bunnies in port-a-poties to keep them from throwing plungers at you, to filling diving masks with carrot juice, to pulling worms out of teeth, there was no end to the annoying things you had to do to the Wii-mote.

As mentioned, this was all annoyingly difficult due to the difficulty aiming. Fortunately, my friend has a large TV, which made things much easier. For those having smaller sets, well, just make sure to wear that wrist strap.

For the graphics on this game, it wasn't bad. There weren't any sharp edges, anti-ailising worked well, there weren't any obvious repetitions on model skins to save on space... But then again, the Playstation 2 would be able to match this quality of graphics if not outdo it (as it does with games like Final Fantasy XII). About the only thing that was nice, was quick load times.

Lastly, I played about an hour of the new Zelda game. Dispite being a fan of the Zelda series, I've given up trying to concern myself with story continuity. Link seems to get a new background every game that comes out. And this one is no different.

Again, the graphics were nothing special. But here, there were several instances the controller became extremely annoying. The first one is when you're supposed to learn how to jump between rocks. The designers didn't think to make a way to control the camera angle, which made lining things up impossible. Oh, and if anyone's trying to do this, all you get for jumping to the other rock is an owl, which you can use once to knock a bee hive off a tree which you can climb up to get 15 rupies. Not worth the frustration.

Another thing that disappointed me was the lack of epic feel that the game begins with. In Ocarina of Time (generally held to be among the best of the Zelda series), it starts off almost immediately that you are summoned by the Great Deku Tree. Sure, you don't know what that is, but it sure sounds important. Meanwhile, in twilight princess, you're given the task to go deliver something to the castle in Hyrule by... someone, which is promptly forgotten in favor of doing chores like hearding goats into barns or looking for lost cats. Horay.

We haven't opened Excite Truck yet, but given that I'm not terribly into such games, I doubt I'd be too enthralled on that one either.

But my end conclusion for the Wii: It's not worth it. For the ~$250 the system alone costs, I have yet to see anything special. The controller is an annoying novelty, and the graphics aren't impressive.

Many gaming systems have started off this way, only to improve as better use of the technology is made. I'm sure this will be the case for the Wii in which quality games will start coming out once the giddy use of the controller wears off. But as for scrambling to get one this Christmas for yourself or your kids, don't bother. There's far more quality games for the Playstation 2.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Nevada town bans foreign flags

It seems that a small town in Nevada has decided to do away with another part of the consitution and ban the display of foreign flags unless flown beneath the American flag. I'll leave the article to stand for itself, but want to reiterate the author's final statement as it's something I find myself in strong agreement with:
At moments like this, I barely recognize my own country. Americans confronted slavery, the Great Depression, the Third Reich, and racial injustice here at home. Now some of us tremble at the sight of a piece of cloth. How sad. We're a bigger people than that. Even if some of us, now and then, tend to forget it.

Why Mommy Is A Democrat

One of Dawkin's most controversial statements he's made is that forcing religion on children is a form of child abuse. While I don't agree with the extremity of his opinion, I agree with the spirit that it's inapproprite for children to be forced into labels like "Christian", or "atheist". And this doesn't just stop with religion. Labels like "Democrat" and "Republican" are also ones that have no business being forced upon children.

That's why it's books like this one that I find extremely disappointing.Aside from trying to indoctrinate children into a political ideology, it also reenforces some ridiculous false dualities. It implies that Republicans don't want to ensure the safety of the nation. Yet that's the largest platform they run on. The problem is that they just go overboard and begin suppressing constitutional rights to do so.

But ultimately, I think that the goals of all political parties are along the same lines. Both seek strong educational policies. NCLB, had the good intention of holding schools accountable. Unfortunately, it hasn't worked out and the powers that be are being too self-righteous to admit it. But that's not something that's limited to Republicans either.

The end result of all this is that I hold that teaching children ideologies in divisive manners is not productive to forming a healthy society. Instead, it just drives the wedge in further. That being said, I wouldn't call it child abuse like Dawkins would.

But there was one thing that Dawkins was right about. To illustrate how inappropriate it is to saddle children with labels, he showed a slide and told the audience to imagine the children pictured as political ideologies and consider how pisssed off it would make people. Boy is he right on that one.

Editing Evolution

The above graph is one from a Discover magaize article on the edit history of the Wikipedia evolution article. It's short and I'd be interested in seeing a more detailed history.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Eugenie Scott: Part 2 - Morning Q & A

Q1. You are on a mission to improve science education. Have there been any improvements?

A1. The first Bush did a big service to science education by starting to centralize standards. All standards, however, were only advisory, but because funding was tied to them, most often, schools followed the national standards. Centralizing the standards was important because without it, the decisions were up to local school boards who, while well meaning, have no expertise.

Then came No Child Left Behind (NCLB), or as she put it “No Child Left Untested”, which required high stakes tests. Because of this, the tests drove the curriculum. Creationists realized that since the national standards (on which the tests were based), included evolution, it would be on the test, and thus, would be taught in the classrooms. This is why they’ve began trying to teach “criticisms” along with evolution.

The largest place science education still stands to improve, is on the delivery. All experts recommend teaching science as a method of inquiry, not as a list of things to learn. It should be made experiential. Eugenie pointed out that you don’t teach music by reading about it, and similarly, you shouldn’t teach science that way.

Unfortunately, NCLB has forced this aside because it takes too much time and it’s difficult to test experience.

In California, they featured the “Golden State Exams” for which teachers developed a test with a bag of leaves and students were required to come up with a dichotomous key. Unfortunately, good tests like these are hard to make, to administer, and to grade. All of this adds up to make them expensive. Thus, we get bubble in tests. And with education, you get what you pay for.

Q2. On the topic of NCLB, are there any coordinated efforts to undo it?

A2. Many schools don’t like it. Fortunately, it’s up for renewal. Unfortunately, it’s guaranteed to pass, but not necessarily unmodified.

Q3. What hopes are there for scientific education given the “teach the controversy” approach?

A3. The “teach the controversy” slogan works well because it plays on the sense of fairness. Even some teachers fall for it. But while we must validate the underlying principle, the issue is not really about fairness, it’s about “What do we teach in science classrooms?”

The answer should (obviously) be SCIENCE. This means teaching the scientific consensus and not the “fringe” ideas like ID. To allow ID to cut to skip the actual work of making itself fit the scientific consensus would be the height of unfairness.

The scientific community has reviewed ID, and found that it doesn’t meet the standards.

Q4. Since ID is clearly not science, should it be diverted to philosophy classes?

A4. This was first tried in the 1980’s. Teachers brought creation “science” into history and tried to pass it off as true history. Thus, it’s still not a good solution. It must be taught as comparative religion. To not compare it would be advocating it, which cannot be done in any class.

This past summer in El Cajon, CA an intersession class called the “Philosophy of Intelligent Design” was taught. The teacher used propaganda videos from Answers in Genesis and the Institute for Creation Research (which upset the Discovery Institute. How could someone possibly confuse ID with creationism!?) This was found to be unlawful.

But this wasn’t the first time it happened. It was first done in Cobb County in the late 70’s to the early 80’s. The teachers revolted because they didn’t want to teach such poor material. But the class was eventually canceled because no one cared. This just demonstrates that those pushing creationism don’t truly believe the “teach the controversy” mantra, they just want to preach.

Q5. Both Behe and the Wedge Document say that the goal of ID is to change the definition of science to make it include the supernatural. Why do they have this goal?

A5. Polls in America show that Americans (despite not knowing much about it) are extremely positive about science. We recognize that it makes our lives better and easier. Creationists are desperate for this legitimacy.

The reason is that they wish to establish a theocracy by an attack on materialism. Science has is materialistic (methodologically), which draws the ire of creationists. Evolution is the most visible materialistic part of this, which is why it’s attacked. Thus, they must try to make it religious.

As the Wedge Document states, the goal is to reform society to a theocratic (Christian) status. Thus, through evolution, they wish to rewrite science and through science, reform society as they see fit.

Q6. Debates about creationism often paint religion as the enemy (eg. Dawkins). Fundamentalists are scared that science’s position of being amoral is the same as being immoral and thus, somehow is the “same” as materialism.

A6. The morality of science and its practitioners are unrelated. Science is neutral. It is just a “methodology and collection of facts.”

Q7. Dawkins would disagree with that and say that ethics can be explained naturally through science. Therefore, morality is not the sole domain of religion and that it comes from parents, not religion.

A7. While many cultures do not have religious ethics, and the idea of scientific ethics is interesting, we should not commit “the naturalistic fallacy.” While science can inform ethics, it doesn’t in and of itself provide them. Again, science is neutral.

Q8. Given the monumental defeat in Dover, is ID over as a national movement? If so, given that the past several generations of biology have been conducted while under attack, could scientists lose public face while not being united against a common enemy?

A8. Debate and knock-out drag-outs are a part of science. Creationists don’t understand this. They seem to have a perception of science as a process in which you amass a ton of facts and the “truth just floats out.” We need to show this reality of science to the public.

Additionally, Eugenie states that, while she thinks the creationist movement has lost steam, it’s not dead. It’s all the product of an underlying cause: Perceived and actual problems between some Christian sects and science. Until we resolve this problem and get conservative Christians to “evolve”, the problem won’t go away.

Q9. Where does the NCSE stand now that the Dover trial is complete?

A9. The NCSE will continue, “handing out the fire extinguishers.” Eugenie says their goal is to be more than just a fire department for creationism and seeks to become a source for better teaching. They just hired new staff to help develop this. Also, a new staff member has been hired to develop an outreach program to the faith community. They seek to connect to mainline churches that don’t adopt anti-scientific ideologies.

Q10. The NCSE is the primary voice for science education. The Discovery Institute has more than twenty conservative groups providing massive funding. But the NCSE doesn’t even get funding from organizations like the NSF. Where does your funding come from and how can we support you?

A10. Professional societies are starting to take more interest. The AAAS especially, but they’re looking for more. In the past 20 years, the NCSE has only hired 12 staff. They now have an annual budget of around $700,000.

Q11. Why aren’t scientists out waging these battles?

A11. Many are! The NCSE was founded because scientist organizations couldn’t get the scientists to show up for school board meetings (which might have been just as well since many aren’t good at communicating).

However, it’s still important that scientists don’t participate in mock hearings like the so-called “Kangaroo Court” recently in Kansas. Debate, but do it publicly and with rules. In Dover, rules were provided by the court of law. When these rules are followed, science wins.

Avoiding the “science hearings” was a lose-lose situation, because not showing made them look scared, but showing up would have been worse. What this did show was that scientists aren’t stupid enough to walk into a bear trap.

Q12. The ID crowd is typically portrayed as Christian in nature. Do other religions weigh in and if so, how much?

A12. Not much. In America, Christianity is the predominant religion with no faith being the second largest group, followed by Jewish and Muslims. No others are well represented.

Q13. How do social scientists factor in? What’s the definition of “scientist?”

A13. Some social sciences are more scientific than others. Some have guiding principles that follow the scientific method well while others are impressionistic.

Q14. Public awareness of science is poor and it isn’t transmitted well. The media plays to sound bites, which doesn’t work with science. The literalist view is the only one that conflicts with science while ones that have gotten past this are just fine with science. (I’m not sure where the question was either)

A14. The conservatives just need to evolve. They got over Galileo; they’ll get over Darwin. But it’s not just literalists that are the problem. Also those that believe in a personal god will have conflict with a personal God that allows 99% of all species to go extinct yet is supposedly benevolent. Natural selection is brutal.

Q15. If you look out and see things dying off, this is natural selection. So couldn’t we just say that diversity is the byproduct?

A15. Conservatives let God off the hook for responsibility of his creation by invoking sin that separates him from us. Non-literalists must place the blame on god, but invent new reasons. While theologically difficult for many, it can be done.

Q16. The NCSE has mostly focused on evolution. Are there other battlegrounds you fight on? How do they factor in and how do you deal with them?

A16. The NCSE doesn’t fight those other battles. It’s a “one trick pony.” However, many pseudoscientific problems are all the same. The attack on evolution is just a textbook case of bad science and we can’t let ideologies rewrite the output of science and subvert empirical answers.

Eugenie Scott – Part 1: Evening Lecture

Following what has now become the standard long winded introduction by Kristalka, Eugenie Scott began her talk by stating that the attacks on science, evolution in specific, were not limited to Christianity.

The problem, as she saw it, was that people failed to understand what science is; how it works, what it’s used for, and its strengths and weaknesses. The same, she said, is true of religion. She suggested we, “render unto science what it science’s” and the same, again, being true for religion.

She then dived into epistemology and what she perceived as the three ways of learning.

The first, was through authority. This, while having the potential to be exploited, is not always a bad thing she suggested. It works well with children and could very well have been important all the way back to prehistoric times in which a Neolithic mother told her children “don’t tease the sabertooth.”

A subsection of this would be scriptural authority, which, again, she said had its uses.

The next way to knowledge in Scott’s presentation, was personal revelation. This could come from miracles, meditation, drug induced states of mind, or any other number of situations.

But the trouble with these, is that although they may be ultimately convincing for an individual, they don’t transfer well and aren’t convincing to others.

However, the third path to knowledge, science, is different. It relies on empirical evidence.

Yet despite this, science is a limited way of knowing. The reason for this is that science can only explain the natural world, the universe of matter an energy, and as such, it can only use natural causes.

Limiting science to this physical realm in necessary to avoid the “God of the gaps” type reasoning. If you don’t limit science to natural causes, “Goddiddit” is the result.

“I can guarantee that the moment we stop looking for natural causes, we’ll never find them,” Scott told the audience. This keeps us honest to the nature of science, even if it means having to set problems aside until technology allows us to fully investigate the problem. Science has the ability to say “We don’t know, yet.”

With this, she began exploring the difference between this naturalistic methodology of science, and the philosophical naturalism of some like Dawkins.

Eugenie began by pointing out that, within America, testing is not associated with science. The Science and Engineering Indicators in 2004 conducted a survey in which Americans were asked which of the two following would produce better information:

1. A new drug is given to 1,000 people and then we see how much blood pressure decreased in the subjects.

2. The drug is given to 500 people with high blood pressure and then not given to another 500 people with high blood pressure. Again measure how many have lower blood pressure.

Amazingly, only 43% of Americans figured out that the correct answer was #2.

She then discussed the practice of dowsing, or looking for water though pointed sticks. If asked how they know when they’ve found water, dowsers will respond with the first two epistemologies she’d listed earlier such as personal states of being (sensing some sort of energy from the water), or on authority (this is how uncle Fred does it). They might also claim that they know their practice is correct because it works.

But does it really work?

The Australian Skeptics Society decided to put this to the test. They arranged a test with the a dowsing group there, and it turned out that the dowsers found water no better than random chance predicted.

From there, Scott began discussing inferences in science. She said there is a misconception that inferences are somehow less important than facts in science. But this is far from the truth.

In science, inferences are far more important, because they tie together and explain facts. All the really important things in science are inferences. A prime example of this is heliocentrism.

Yet despite the mistrust of inferences in science, America is quite happy to accept them in other circumstances, namely the court room in which we send people to prison for life based on inferences. If police are given the choice between good inferences and eyewitnesses, they will almost always take inferences, because eyewitnesses (based on authority) are notoriously unreliable.

Thus, if we can execute people based on inferences, it’s certainly reasonable to have the same level of trust in the fossil records.

At one point, Eugenie asked one of her scientist friends why he chose his profession. He replied by saying, “As an adolescent I aspired to lasting fame, I craved factual certainty, and I thirsted for a meaningful vision of human life – I can became a scientist.”

However, his statement ended, “This is like becoming an archbishop so you can meet girls.”

Because of being based on inferences, there are aspects of science that are always changing, she noted.

This led her to the discussion of the three levels of science as Scott perceived them. She envisioned them as three concentric circles.

The innermost was the “core” ideas. This includes things like gravity, evolution, heliocentrism. In this sphere lies theories which have been so thoroughly tested that they are accepted as fact and no longer truly debated about.

She labeled the next realm as the “frontier.” This, she said, is where the real business takes place. New ideas here are tested. A few will eventually go into the core, but most end up dying off. When we say that science is changing, this is what we’re talking about. She quoted one scientist as saying “I have 10 ideas a day and nine and half of them are wrong.”

The last and outermost sphere is the “fringe” which not much time is spent. This includes the untested ideas and things like psychokenisis, dowsing, and of course, intelligent design.

But even though they’re in the fringe, this does not preclude them from eventually becoming core ideas. However, she said, if that is to happen then the idea must do the work. This is where ID fails.

Yet even the core ideas are not completely immune to change. The example she cited was the concept that a certain fungus was primarily responsible for the Irish potato famine. However, it was discovered that this was not the case. And scientists were happy to change.

Science, Eugenie states, makes several, reasonable assumptions.

- There is an objective reality outside the observer.
- The universe operates according to regularities (If water is H2O today, then it will be tomorrow).
- Human beings can understand these regularities.

But, she suggests, there are some things that we cannot yet understand, even if they are not supernatural in nature. She used the analogy of a goldfish in a bowl: No matter how smart it is, it is beyond the goldfish to understand an earthquake.

What we need to realize is that we may be goldfish.

Despite the possibility that there may be things we don’t or can’t understand, this does not mean that we should not try and just take things off the table like Behe and Dembski suggest. They confuse the unexplained with the unexplainable.

Eugenie then began talking about religion.

She started by trying to come up with a definition that included not only the Abrahamic religions, but also tribal and other sorts.

The one she gave was: A set of rules and beliefs a people have a bout a nonmaterial universe and its inhabitants (transcendental reality).

Religion too, she states, makes assumptions:
- Something exists beyond matter and energy (the material world). Cannot be proven.
- Usually assume that it is possible to interact with this other reality.

Furthermore, many religions have common characteristics:
Belief in supernatural beings or powers
Truth is revealed from sacred sources
Personal states of being are important
Sense of Sacred
Feeling of awe
Afterlife (common)
Concern with morals and ethics (common, NOT ALL)

She then began comparing the features of religion to those of science through use of a table. Because copying the table here will undoubtedly screw up the page format, click here to see the table.

The empathically noted that the right side of the table is science, not scientists.

We should be concerned when science and religion begin influencing one another.

To illustrate this, she quoted anti-scientist Henry Morris who said, “The word of God must take first priority and secondly the observed facts of science.”

But even though religion should not inform scientific understanding, the converse is also true.

Ultimately, Eugenie says, it's not religion and science that are at odds, but rather, religion and naturalism. She then showed the same table as before, but with a column for Philosophical Materialism added. It was here that religion found the true anthesis. But since both of these are ideological standpoints, she reiterated that science, being the neutral party with only natural explanations, should be left out.

Eugenie also mentioned a few "Models of Religion and Science":
1. Conflict: The two are at eachothers throats.
2. Independence: The two have mutually exclusive domains.
3. Dialogue
4. Integration

Given that she was running out of time, Eugenie stopped and didn't expand upon the last two but instead recommended a book by Ian Barbour called "When Science Meets Religion."

Unfortunately, Laura didn't take detailed notes on the Q&A, so I'm afraid I'll have to leave it out. I'll renumber the later post appropriately.

Creationist double-speak: Where negatives are postives

Earlier today, RSR linked to this article of an apologist pointing out that creationism (and thus ID) "don’t need a theory of design to know that is design."

He says "part of basic human rationality detects action of intelligence." I suppose this is about as decisive as the supreme court saying "we'll know it when we see it" for pornography. The trouble is, that if this is true of human nature, then everyone should agree. Given that we don't, this suggests that humans are very poorly equipped to detect design.

The good professor also "calls for people to ignore philosophical rules." That's right. Creationists don't need to follow the rules. They don't need theories. They don't need evidence. And they sure as hell don't need to meet standards before getting to cut to the front of the line and sneak into classrooms. Cheating is just fine. As is lying. All of which creationists are famous for.

But perhaps even more condeming is the article's title: Intelligent Design Defended by Unsolved Genetic Puzzle. This, and the entire argument that Nelson is reported to have presented has not a single shred of positive evidence. Instead, it is a critisizm of evolution that, through the false duality creationists hold to, must support ID.

The fact that anyone is logically bankrupt enough to not see the gaping logical hole in this argument, regardless of not being able to see through the shoddy claims against evolution, is frightening. That such inept people would ever be given power in school boards or the government is even worse.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Creationists On Campus

The creationists were on campus again yesterday. Aside from their usual rants on how America is going to hell for sexual perversion, one of them was holding two placards, one on either side of him. The first said "Evolution is a fairy-tale for weak minded scientists."

The second had three bullet points. I can't recall the first one, but the second was the tired argument that there's no such thing as a transitionary fossil. The third was a definition of intelligent design.

When Laura (president of KUSFS) and I first approached him, he was preaching his moral superiority to another student. His argument was that if he (the placard holder) was to kill five people, and the person he was talking with were to tell two lies, Mr. Placard Holder would just have to apologize and it's all ok. Meanwhile, if the student repent for his lies, he'd burn in Hell for all of eternity.

At this point I asked him if he intended to repent for the lies on his sign. He claimed that there were no lies. My response was to point out the second bullet and then offered to name three transitionary fossils for him. He didn't acknowledge them in any way.

However, another passerby named Ben had just stopped in and wanted them so he could look them up. Ben then proceeded to take over the discussion in place of the creationist which I suppose was for the better since the creationist didn't want to actually address the evidence and was just there to preach how much better he was since Jesus would let him off for anything.

I ended up quite liking Ben. He made it very clear that he was extremely skeptical of evolution and offered Laura and I many of the typical creationist talking points: no observed speciation, no way life could have arisen spontaneously, mutations are only bad...

Between Laura and I we were able to answer every objection he had with a good amount of detail and explicit examples. But what I really liked about Ben was that he seemed to actually take these things to heart and try to understand.

Ultimately, he wasn't left with any argument except the good 'ole "evolution is just a theory." This promoted a long discussion on the difference between scientific theories and layman's theories. In the end, I think Ben finally understood that in the scientific context, creationism isn't even a hypothesis. Given this difference, the verbal sleight of hand that creationists use is lying through obfustication. Ben seemed to understand and agreed before heading off.

I asked the creationists if they had anything to say on that matter, but instead of answering they muttered about how evolution was wrong because the Earth couldn't be that old. Turns out not only were they creationists, they were Young Earth creationists. Pushing a placard for Intelligent Design? Now why would they do that...

Mr. Creationist had already tried to use the argument that the recessional rate of the moon supports a young earth model which I summarily shot down applying just a tad bit of high school level physics. He continued trying to peddle it until he realized that no one that had crowded around was buying it anymore.

His other big argument for a young Earth was one that I'd honestly never heard before. He claimed that there were fossilized trees standing upright that cut through a large number of strata. He said that scientists claim that these strata are from chronologically disparate era (ie, deposited over millions of years) and as such no tree could remain standing for such an amount of time.

Being skeptical, my first guess was that this wasn't quite true. While I had no doubt that there were fossilized trees cutting though many layers, I expected that the layers would have to be deposited quickly, such as from a volcanic eruption (which can release several different layers as it progresses). But he maintained that scientists said that they were deposited over millions of years.

I gave him the benefit of the doubt and told him I'd check into it. Turns out my guess was right. Scientists have never said that these layers were laid down over millions of years. Instead, this was just a case of creationists putting words in a scientists mouth just to disprove a straw man, posting it on a website, and some intellectually bankrupt creationist buying it wholesale.

But since I had to let it go while talking to him, I asked how he proposed that the layers were laid down. It was the flood of course. My response was to point out that floods generally leave a single layer unless they're seasonal. His response was to say that, if you leave silt in a jar of water it will settle out into layers.

Sure, but not in a short amount of time like that, and it also tends to settle out with the heavies materials on the bottom. Geological strata have porous light layers intermixed with solid, heavy layers, thus contradicting his model in a jar.

His response: "Well, it's different." Ah, good. So it's like this. Except when it's not. At which point we invoke miracles. The scientific understanding of the creationist continues to astound me. As does there timing, because at that moment, their friends came along and said it was time to go home.

Quasar - GRB Oddity

It's been awhile since I've posted anything about some real, solid astronomy. The main reason is that I've been extremely busy this semester (two 500 level classes and a 600 level) and writing on astronomical topics takes a good deal of reading for most topics that I feel like writing about.

And I've done enough research and writing recently. I have a twenty page paper on planetary nebulae due in my astrophysics class on Tuesday. Fortunately, aside from a few revisions, it's mostly finished. I'll post a copy when I'm finished.

But in the meantime, one of my friends pointed me to an article that's currently in pre-print that I found interesting.

Many times in science, some of the most routine investigations can produce the most surprising results. It was the rather innocuous study of the rotation curves that lead to the discovery of dark matter.

In this study a group of astronomers were looking at how many galaxies were along the line of sight from Gamma Ray Bursts (GRBs) and Quasars. Both GRBs and Quasars are thought to be extremely energetic events that are, for the most part, only observed at extremely great distances.

One of the ways that astronomers have detected galaxies that are too faint to discover optically is to look for signs of them in the spectra of these distant objects. Namely, they looked for absorption lines from MgII (ionized magnesium) present in the light from the star.

Those that aren't familiar with astronomical techniques might well ask why MgII just can't be present in the spectra in the first place and that astronomers infer the presence of galaxies. The answer is that due to the quasar or GRB is highly doppler shifted whereas, galaxies that are closer to us are not. At least not to the same extent. Thus, the MgII lines would not be in the correct place in the redshifted spectrum.

So this means that if we look at a distant quasar or GRB, and see MgII lines taken out, we can infer the presence of galaxies in the intervening distance.

Given that quasars and GRBs are thought to both be at cosmological distances (ie, really really far away), we should see roughly the same number of galaxies in the intervening distance.

But according to this study, that's not how things are ending up. It turns out that for some reason, quasars are far less likely to be observed with galaxies along the line of sight. So there's a few possibilities the authors propose to solve this dilemma:

1. The galaxies are just blocking out the lower luminosity quasars, thus producing a selection effect.

2. The MgII lines observed in the GRBs aren't truly caused by intervening galaxies are are somehow tied to the GRBs themselves.

3. Light from the GRBs is being magnified by the galaxies it tends to pass through (an effect known as gravitational lensing).

Fortunately or unfortunately depending on how you look at it, none of these explanations seems to stand above the rest. But that's how science works. It's not looking at things and having the answers immediately. The evidence is never complete, and it's startling discoveries like this that can either add to our understanding or overhaul it altogether.

For those interested, the article can be found: here.

Left Behind Review

In the past I've blogged about the "Left Behind" video game. It's been out now for awhile and I've been looking to see reviews. Not surprisingly, it seems to have fallen flat. One of the few I've seen is from Wired.

The review is surprisingly positive. Before the game was released, expectations were that it would follow the actual Left Behind books in which, at the end of times, Jesus returns and "proceeds to slaughter all unbelievers, dissolving their tongues and bursting their bodies like overstuffed sausages. As millions die in transports of agony, the ground becomes a swamp of blood and mud, and some extremely unpleasant things happen to the Jews who refuse to convert."

Yet it appears that the game designers opted to take a few creative liberties, leaving that out entirely. Instead, the game is takes the mechanics of popular fantasy games like World of Warcraft and slaps Christian names on what used to be spells while having a fantastically rendered version of Manhattan to explore.

I have to admit that I find it slightly ironic that the game uses the same mechanics as "Pagan" games. It follows the long Christian tradition of slapping a new name on things and thinking people won't notice. Hey, it worked for intelligent design...

Not Such a Large Pond

If you've been paying attention over at Pharyngula, you've probably heard about how pissed off the theocrats are that Minnesota elected a Muslim to the US House of Representatives.

Religious tensions in the US are high right now due to the elections and the inevitable temper tantrums of the religious far right as they realize (or keep denying) that religious freedom means all religions.

But far be it from the US to be the only nation with a bunch of faith addled extremist Christians. The UK has had their own problems. During a procession organized by a conservative Catholic group over there, they decided to jump back in time a few hundred years and have a little witch hunt in Glastonbury.

Pagans there were pelted with salt and verbally harassed, being called a "bloody bitch" and told they would burn in hell. Gee, sounds just like the good 'ole US.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Those little passages

It's been a few years since I've read my bible, so I can't specifically recall a passage, but apparently, among the many ridiculous things that faith allows you to do is charm snakes.

Taking the "the bible says it, it must be true" approach, one church in Kentucky decided to try it out. The result: a woman dies.

I guess she wasn't a True BelieverTM.

Meanwhile, while we're on the topic of things the bible says you can do, Matthew 17:6 says that if your faith is as small as a mustard seed you can move mountains*. After being at school here in Kansas for over a year now, I've decided it's too flat. If there are any kind hearted Christians whose faith is strong enough, please do me the favour of giving us a mountain over here. KU could use one considering we don't have an observatory.

* Some translations list this as being able to command sycamore trees to move. If that's the version you prefer, please don't send them to KU. We've got plenty of trees here. Instead, send them down to Springfield, MO. My previous school (Missouri State University) has an absolutely ugly campus that is in need of some good trees.

Pareidolia: part n

It seems that pareidolia is alive and well this week. The Bad Astronomer has a post up regarding an image of a bird angel!

And it seems that a gold nugget is really the Virgin Mary.... Or a horse. Depends on who you ask...

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Eugenie Scott

Last night, Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, was out at Johnson County Community College. I wasn't able to make it, but Paul Decelles over at The Force that Through... was. You can read his report here.

Eugenie will be at KU on the 16th as part of the Difficult dialogues series and I'll definately be in attendence for that. And in case that wasn't enough, I've also been invited to a special luncheon with her the following day. So if anyone has any questions they'd like asked, let me know!

Friday, November 03, 2006

Peter 2:13 (The bit Hovind skipped)

In case anyone didn't see it coming, "Dr." Kent Hovind has been convicted of tax-fraud. As a result he faces over 200 years in prison. As expected, his loyal band of loonies is crying persecution.

But let's not forget Hovind's history on the matter:

-In 1996, Hovind attempted to file for bankruptcy to avoid having to pay income taxes. Meanwhile, he was making millions from DVD sales, talks, and other venues (as demonstrated in the seizing of financial information in 2004). This attempt failed when the good doctor was found to have lied about his posessions and income.
-In 1998, Hovind still hadn't paid up and decided to try to get out of it by trying to revoke his signature on the contract promising to pay.
-2002, and he still hasn't paid. He's been given 6 years now and the IRS starts getting on his case. Instead of actually taking the hint, he decides to sue the IRS (unsuccessfully) for harassment. Meanwhile, he also made physical threats to investigators.
-By 2004, he still hadn't paid and his estate is raided. Hovind decides to try to transfer property between himself and his son to avoid paying.
-In the years between 1996 and 2006, Hovind is known to repeatedly have bragged about "beaing the system" showing he knew full well what his actions constituted.
-Hovind instructs his wife to withdraw money from their accounts in sums of just less than the limit which requires reporting to the IRS showing again, he knew precisely what he was doing to avoid taxes.
-Hovind also attempted to renounce his citizenship at one point to exempt himself from US tax laws.
-To avoid having to accept knowledge of his actions, Hovind repeatedly refused to speak with IRS agents.

So now, it's 2006, a full decade after Hovind decided to play games with the IRS, and yet he still thinks he can claim ignorance? Sorry, but I have no sympathy for ignorance when it's a sham or self imposed. Hovind is the master of both.

But what of the 200 years that Hovind faces as a result of his actions? Is it just that he faces this much when murderers many times face less than life sentences?

My opinion is absolutely. With many crimes like murder, a large number of people that are convicted of this never do it again. If someone commits a crime, does the time, and has truly been reformed, then I have no problem with forgiveness. But this is not the case for Hovind. He's been warned for a full decade of the consequences of his actions, repeatedly showing that he thinks himself above the law. Thus, Hovind is not likely to suddenly have a revelation and decide to better himself. I'm firmly of the belief that criminals should be held for only as long as they're still inclined the commit crimes. Hovind, I expect, will never get over his self serving attitudes.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Philosophical Inbreeding

To many churches, trying to spread the message of the Bible to as many people as possible is one of the most important functions of the church. There's many different approaches on how to do this, from the neon "God hates Fags" signs of Westboro Baptist, to the Chick Tracts many hand out, to the door-to-door evangelizing of some churches, to the casual witnessing to friends more moderate churches practice.

So when one church near Salem decides to reach out to the local pagan community with "psalm readings," you'd think that the umbrella church that funds them would be pleased, right? Wrong. Instead, the parent churhc, the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, decided to cut ties and pull funding.

Instead of promoting peace and understanding, Foursquare seems intent on being philosophically inbred.

Recommended Viewing: Naked Science (GRB)

It's been awhile since I've had much to say about science, but tonight at 9pm, the National Geographic Channel will be having a show called "Naked Science" which might interest some. No, there's no Skepchicks.

Instead, this episode covers one of the five major extinctions in Earth's history. Specifically, this show will be addressing the Ordovician era extinction. A large part of the show's premise will feature work done by one of my professors here at KU, Dr. Mellot, who works with a number of other professors.

In this show, they address their theory of what caused this extinction, which is where the astronomy comes in. Instead of a meteor like the one thought to have killed off the dinosaurs, they claim that it was a nearby Gamma Ray Burst (GRB) which struck the Earth and had devastating results.

For more information, go here. And if you miss it, the episode will repeat 1 PM on Saturday, Nov 4.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Something Positive

Growing up, I never was much of a comic person. But a few years ago, one of my now ex-girlfriends turned me onto a modern form of these illustrated stories in the form of internet comics (aka webcomics). The first one she got me into reading was one called Something Positive. I've been following it for about three years now and it's quite a bit older than that.

Since I started, I've gotten fuzzy on much of the background and what happened, when. However, recently, SP featured a strip that echoed very strongly with me. The story arc was entitled "Holy Ghost Stories" and the first strip of it can be found here.

If the comic itself doesn't get the point across to you, then read what Randy put in the newspost:
to my Christian readers: I am sorry. I am sorry many of you do get stereotyped or find yourself having to defend your faith against those who've been jaded by the batshit insane. More than a couple of you ... felt this storyline was portraying Christians as the likes of Phelps. This was not my intent. However, I have some awful news for you.

The problem of being lumped with them won't go away until you become more vocal.

People assume most Christians are heavy-handed, pushy, intolerant bigots bent of dominating any other culture or idea and supplanting it with their own whims because, for the most part, the ones who speak up the most ARE heavy-handed, pushy, intolerant bigots bent on dominating any other culture or idea and supplanting it with their own whims. It sucks. It's horrible. And it's the what everyone of any faith, political idea, or lifestyle has to deal with. People always focus on the loud minority who ruins everything. And like any other group, the only way you can combat this is making your views and, in this case, your kindness and actual testimony louder than the hateful prattle of those hurting your beliefs.
I find myself in full agreement with everything Randy says here. I make no secret about the fact that I'm an atheist and don't think highly of religion, but I'm not one to look down on anyone until they've earned it.

Religious zealots like Phelps, Brother Jed, Pat Robertson and the others definately fall into this category. And unfortunately, they're so vocal, that they drag everyone assosciated down with them. The trouble is that the supposed "silent majority" pretends this isn't a problem. I'm not sure why. Perhaps the moderate, intelligent, Christians out there are hoping that if they ignore the problem it will go away.

Perhaps it's time to take a lesson from us scientists. We've been finding out that hoping the crackpots will go away doesn't work. Next thing we know, they're trying to force their inane ideas into schools and the government. Many scientists are just now waking up to the problem we've let fester.

Are moderate Christians really willing to make the same mistake?

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

And it's not even a full moon

The past week has seen two prominent street preachers hitting the campus here at KU. The first was a set of black preachers from Soul Winners Ministry. Each whore a bright red shirt with "No homos in heaven!" written on them in gaudy yellow letters. One preached while the other filmed it.

The preacher was very loathe to answer any questions and instead ranted on any topic he felt like. This didn't make him any fans in the crowd. Ironically, the Gideons crowd was also handing out their little green bibles that day (I haven't collected enough to make my bandolier yet), and many people in the audience threw the bibles at him as well as one spectator who got a carton of eggs (but ended up missing his target every time). The most creative objects getting tossed around were balloons made from condoms when the preacher started ranting about abstinance.

I saw a few members of SOMA there, but they tended to sit back and laugh as opposed to engaging in the egg and bible throwing (although I did hear that the condom balloons were the work of one of our members).

Ironically, when asked what church the team was from, the cameraman replied by saying they weren't from any particular church. I wonder why he decided to lie. Perhaps he was secretly ashamed of how foolish he and his preaching partner were looking? Would this also be why they both took off their homophobic T-shirts before departing?

The crowd finally started dying down as other Christians started protesting his hateful version of God and the war of ideologies was on! But of course, this isn't much fun given that most people had already made their mind up on which version of the fairy tale they want to believe.

I thought those two would be the end of the fun, but on my way to class Monday, none other than my favourite street preacher, Brother Jed was out in front of Wesco Hall. My first question to him referred to this post in which I was wondering if, given that Jed has the same anti-gay stance as religious idealogue Fred Phelps, that if Jed's daughter who is now in military service were to die, if he felt that it would be justified for Phelps to protest her funeral?

Jed dodged the question muttering something that was inaudable, but gave the general impression that he didn't think too kindly of Phelps. This was encouraging at least, to see that extreme right wingers aren't as unified as they pretend to be.

From there, the crowd asked why we were in Iraq in the first place. His response: "To kill the Jihadists" because, according to Jed, Islam is a religion of intolerance and hate. Interestingly enough, when confronted with several passages from the Koran directly contradicting this, Brother Jed refused to admit his error. Not that I expected any less from him.

Next, I pressed Jed to show just how strong his holier-than-thou facade was by recounting his college years in which he engaged in far more "immoral" acts than any atheist I've ever met. I've got to say, even if an astounding hypocrite, Jed is a fanstastic story teller. You could really see him reliving his sexual exploits in the back seat of his father's car at the drive in, as he recounted them, spittle flying from his mouth.

In telling his life story, he also went through his years as a hippie and revealed the event that led him to become a Christian. It happened while he was meditating on a shore in North Africa during the sunset. As the sun set in front of him, he looked over his shoulder and noticed the full moon was rising at the same time.

This he said, could not be the result of random chance. It must be design! I pointed out that it has more to do with basic geometry which he could have learned in an introductory astronomy course, but he brushed this off as well.

This design argument led into his usual argument of how, since his eyeglasses were designed, that implied a designer, and as such, since his eyes were far more complex than his glasses, they too must be designed. Good ole argument from complexity! This led him to decide to read the Bible (athough admittedly, he said he had only skimmed the Old Testament) and accept Jesus as his savior.

In response, I pointed out that if you flip a coin a trillian times, the resulting sequence of heads and tails is ridiculously complex, but was the result of random processes. Thus, complexity in and of itself is a poor argument for design, unless of course, he wanted to argue that the result of a coin flip is not random and that God is actually determining what it should be every time. He mumbled something about coin flips being determined by natural laws which he didn't really know too much about, but it wasn't really important since God made all the laws anyway.

Another question that was posed was, what was his favourite biblical story? With no hesitation, he jumped up, and spittle dribbling onto his chin, he told us of Soddam and Gommorah. He went through the entire story with his usual fervor, giving us quite the show.

But perhaps the best part, was his demonstration of why homosexuality was wrong. And it involved props! From his bumper sticker laden briefcase, Jed pulled out two extention cords, saying that you could only get heat and power one way: by sticking the "male" end into the "female" end. He butted the two male ends together chanting "no no homo" and similarly, with the two female ends, chanting "no no lesbo", claiming that no power could flow this way. I pointed out that as long as the metal parts were touching, power flows just fine, and with the two female ends, it still works, as long as you get a few "accessories". The crowd laughed, realizing that Jed's metaphor was shot. I don't think Jed understood though. Sadly, I think his grasp on electric circuits is as weak as his grasp on basic astronomy.

But his fun with power cords didn't end there! He then extended the analogy claiming that one was Michael Jackson and the other was "a little brown boy" visiting Neverland ranch. Brother Jed seemed to really get into this one with some strange sort of strange fascination as he played with his cords.

Eventually, I had to leave, and I headed off. As I got back to my room, it occured to me that I failed to get a clarification on commandment VI according to Jed on whether or not this applied to gays. I'm pretty sure it does, but I'll just have to ask next time he come around.

Ironically, it was exactly three years ago today that I last saw Jed when I was at MSU. Perhaps he only comes out at this time of year. Coincidence?

I know a few people that took pictures at these events, and I'll see if I can't get them at some point.

Halloween Pareidolia

Today's APOD has a very cute but appropriate bit of pareidolia. Be sure to check it out.

And happy Halloween everyone! My apologies for not blogging much. Aside from school, I spent a great deal of Friday and Saturday making my girlfriend her Halloween costume in time for a party Saturday night. Then Sunday was spent avoiding anything that engage my brain lest it annoy my hangover.