Friday, December 30, 2011

Poisoning the Well of Science in New Hampshire & The Back Handed "Help" From the NCSE

Word's been getting around that there are currently two anti-evolution bills in the legislature in New Hampshire. While such bills pop up all the time and are nearly as quickly struck down, these ones are interesting to me because they may be signaling a new(ish) approach from the anti-science crowd: Poisoning the well.

For those that don't remember how Creationists have tried worming their gibberish into the classroom previously, here's a quick recap:

  • Straight out teaching Creationism - Ruled illegal in Edwards v. Aguillard
  • Straight out teaching promoting Creationism "Intelligent Design" - Ruled illegal in Kitzmiller v. Dover
  • "Critical Analysis" of Evolution using fake "facts" - Ongoing

So where does this new bill fall?

The new bills require that teachers tell students about "the theorists' political and ideological viewpoints and their position on the concept of atheism".

As if that has anything to do with anything when it comes to statistically sound science. Religion, or lack thereof doesn't change the observations or the math (unless someone's lying, which Creationists do all the time).

So what's this all about? One of the bill's sponsors, Jerry Bergevin (R-District 17), says that he wants things taught this way because of "the people who came up with the ideas.... It's a worldview and it's godless." He blames evolution for the Holocaust and the school shootings at Columbine.

Well guess what! So is gravity! After all, it's not Intelligent Falling! But as always, the anti-science crowd is singling out evolution for being "different". It's not. It's still well tested, robust science.

But despite Darwin being initially religious, Bergevin is trying to smear evolution by poisoning the well. This is really a subclass of the red herring fallacy, which attempts to distract from the real issues by invoking guilt by association.

It's one of the most pathetic, childish ways of arguing and Bergevin should be ashamed, but apparently doesn't have the good sense to be. To be fair, it's a tactic Creationists like Kent Hovind and Answers in Genesis have been taking for a long time, but when it comes to schools, they've largely been out of the picture for some time now.

So what does this mean?

It's hard to say. It could be just a coincidence, or it could be the start of a new strategy by the Creationist camp since their "critical analysis" has been stopped by and large since it's devoid of any honest information.

If it's the latter, then what's driving it? Is this a throwback to the harder line, totally bugnuts Creationists like Hovind and AiG? If so, I welcome it. It's only further evidence that the loons at the Discovery Institute have failed, and the old camp is one that's been so thoroughly defeated that the future battles will be a cakewalk.

But perhaps I'm reading too much into this.

Meanwhile, there's one more thing I think that's worth pointing out, and this is the response to this claim from the NCSE.

For some time, many science bloggers (especially PZ and Jerry Coyne) have accused the NCSE of going too far in defending evolution, to the point of actually promoting religion. I think the NCSE's response in this case is a pretty good example of this.

Instead of simply pointing out that Bergevin is committing a fallacy by trying to smear evolution without addressing any of its facts, they ignore this central issue, and instead, bend over backwards to point out
Evolutionary scientists are Democrats and Republicans, Libertarians and Greens and everything. Similarly, their religious views are all over the map, too. ... If you replace atheism in the bill with Protestantism, or Catholicism, or Judaism or any other view, it's clear to see it's not going to pass legal muster.
While this is vaguely true (there are religious scientists, many of whom I've written about on this blog), what's more notable is that the scientific community is about as non-religious as it gets. But the NCSE hides that, thereby giving the appearance that the religious component is far larger than it really is.

In other words, the NCSE is actually helping Bergevin because they're acting like his accusation is something of which they should be ashamed. Yes, evolution doesn't mention God. Yes, there are more non-religious scientists than there are religious. NO, this is not something we need to shy away from.

The reason is that the first point, not including God in the equations, is exactly what makes science work! Science began making its huge strides forward in explaining how the world works, in repeatable, testable, and meaningful ways, precisely when it cast off the shackles of the supernatural.

The second point, as I've pointed out, is nothing more than a logical fallacy.

But the NCSE doesn't seem to want to own up to these facts. Instead, they want to cozy up to religion and protect it, coddling the fear of atheism and in addition, the naturalistic method that makes science work.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

I Thought This Argument Worked....

Here's an example of what an open and shut court case should look like:

1) White landlord accuses daughter of black tenant of using hair treatment products that cloud up the pool.
2) Tenant files discrimination complaint
3) Landloard hangs sign that reads: PUBLIC SWIMMING POOL - WHITE ONLY
4) Tenant takes landlord to court and wins.
5) Landloard claims sign is "historic" and as such, it's ok.
6) Court disagrees and rules in favor of tenant.

I like this ending. Justice is done. Historicity isn't a good excuse and the courts didn't allow it to be used as one.

Yet this argument is one that I see used all the time and quite often it does work! It's the defense that's always trotted out for the violation of the first amendment. Whenever someone wants to post the 10 commandments in a courthourse, it's always for its "historical" value. "In God We Trust" on our money? It's historical (even though not so much). "Under God" in the pledge? Historic (with even less history than "In God We Trust").

So why is it that sometimes this excuse works but other times it doesn't? The obvious answer is that, despite our constitutional guarantees, there are special privileges being given to religions of choice.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Pregnant? Shut up and stay home!

Oh Occupy Wall Street. When will you cease to stop showing us some of the worst of humanity. If it's not militarized campus police pepper-spraying peaceful protesters, it's something else.

The newest one is cops kicking and pepper-spraying a pregnant woman. The cops told everyone to disperse, she was trying to, but apparently that was still a threat.

What I find even more astounding is the responses to the whole situation. There's a huge number of commenters that blame her for joining a protest while pregnant:
the mother defiantly should be held at least partially responsible for getting herself in that situation in the first place.
And all those people that got pepper-sprayed? They're at fault too.

The only one she has to blame is herself. If she cared about her unborn, she wouldn't have gone there.
Let's do a risk analysis here. Are huge numbers of people getting kicked in the stomach by cops at rallies? No. Should cops be doing it in the first place? No. So what's this person's conclusion? Even with a minimal risk, a pregnant woman should still just stay home. Perhaps we should require we cover all pregnant women in bubble wrap just to be safe?

If you're protesting anything and you see the cops coming in in force and you don't want to be manhandled or pepper sprayed you should walk in the opposite direction QUICKLY.
That's right. Cops are to be feared. They're not here to protect our safety, just to chase away rascally protesters exercising their constitutional rights.

In other news, has an article on "7 of the Worst Things Men Put Up with for Sex. It's a serious cryfest. I'm hoping articles like this aren't serious. If the worst thing you have to do for a woman is meet her parents, life is not that hard.


In my last post, I made a brief reference to something that has come to be called Gelatogate. For those that haven't heard the story, I'll summarize briefly.

A few doors down from the theater at which Skepticon was being held, was a little Gelato place that, for awhile Saturday evening, put up the sign above. Nothing was really known about it until after Skepticon when the owner posted an apology on the company's main website. It was vague and he later posted a fuller explanation and apology on reddit.

What it came down to is he dropped in on Skepticon and caught Sam Singleton's mock revival Saturday evening. This talk was designed to lampoon religion by rather direct parody. This wasn't what the owner had been expecting, and he overreacted, running back to post the sign.

After about 10 minutes, he realized it was wrong, and took it down.

The bigger story has been how the skeptical community has responded to these apologies. Jen McCreight and Hemant Mehta accepted it unconditionally.

PZ and JT basically told him to shove it where the Sun don't shine.

The former both say he apologized, so all's good. The latter two say it was a meaningless apology and he only did it because his urbanspoon and yelp ratings plummeted, and he was called out loudly on his facebook page so it's hollow and he's trying to save face.

What I want to contribute is that we don't really know which case it is.

I'm absolutely against Jen and Hemant's position that a few words make it all better. But I'm also not going to declare that his response was hollow. We don't have enough information to judge so far and the owner isn't forthcoming with what we would need to make that call.

One of the things that's important when receiving an apology is that the person offering it truly feels bad about what they've done. I think the owner does. This is shown by him having removed the sign, after cooling off a bit, in short order (he claims it was ~10 minutes, others say it was a few hours). From this, I think it's entirely plausible that he actually felt bad for his actions, even before the possible financial implications of discrimination because apparent.

However, there's a difference between knowing something is wrong in your gut, and understanding why it's wrong. Children often feel shame and proffer apologies that are meaningful, but not deep. I think that's where the store owner is standing right now.

While he may understand that discrimination was wrong, he doesn't get the deeper reasoning behind the event that initially set him off. In short, he doesn't understand the reason talks like Sam Singleton's and David Fitzgerald's exist in the first place: Nothing should be above question and parody.

The event has haunting similarities to PZ's Crackergate; PZ didn't show "due respect" to a cracker and people flipped out. Here, Sam and the audience didn't show "due respect" to holy-rollers and the owner flipped out.

It takes me back to Julia's talk's first point about being a straw Vulcan and willfully ignoring that people have emotions and then blaming them for having them. I think that's what PZ and JT may well be doing here. It should be pretty obvious that someone might react that way. That's not laying the blame on them, nor is it laying the blame at the feet of Sam. It's simply a statement on the reality of the situation. But PZ and JT seem quick to blame him.

Which is foolish. Yes he overreacted. Yes he did something stupid. He's offered a thin apology, but instead of casting him off, what we should really be doing here is using this as a teaching moment.

We should be showing others the reason that their reactions are overblown, how we're exercising the same rights and freedoms theists do every day, just how accurate such parodies actually are, and how, when we do these things, we're vilified for it. The store owner may get that we were vilified, but I don't think he's gotten the big picture.

And that's what I want him, and others that may be tempted to follow in his footsteps, to take away.

But that's the exact opposite of what PZ seems to be doing. He seems to want to dub him a lost cause and pass up this opportunity. JT at the very least tried to engage him in further dialogue, but was apparently rejected (which makes me wonder if I'm being too charitable).

So the conclusion I stand on is that the owner's apology was at best thin, and at worst, a capitulation to the tarnishing of his reputation. Either way, not a worthwhile apology.

I'll quote Hemant briefly:
No one’s letting Andy off the hook for being a bigot. He still disapproves of atheism. Who cares. The point is that he (now) knows that his act of discrimination was wrong.
This is what I take exception to. He may know the discrimination is wrong, but big f'ing deal. This is something that elementary school kids should know.

But simply putting a lid on and hiding the discrimination doesn't actually fix the problem. The key driver "he still disapproves of atheism" is still there. We've just hidden the extrinsic display but the root is still there and will continue to be a problem until we have acceptance from the general community. This is what PZ, JT, and I want. We don't your bigoted feelings hidden. We want them gone.

Delving deep enough to root them out takes a lot more, and that might actually mean something to us.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Skepticon 4 Recap

I'm still recovering from Skepticon this past weekend which seriously messed up my sleep schedule to the tune of a nearly 5 hour shift that's not wanting to jump back. Ugh.

Regardless, it was a fantastic time. Unlike last year, I didn't try to force myself to attend many talks that didn't interest me which probably helped. I skipped the Creationist Museum tour (I've heard this story so many times it's just boring now). I skipped the Give a Damn screening (which I want to see, but not when I've just finished driving for 4 hours). I skipped Dave Silverman (I just don't must care for what he has to say). I skipped Eliezer Yudkowsky's talk on Heuristics and Biases (I've had enough basic logic kthxbai). I skipped the panel on how skeptics should deal with death (I've got my own approach that suits me). I skipped Dan Barker's talk (I've seen him elsewhere and know what the FFRF is doing).

The first talk I did catch was Julia Galef's on "The Straw Vulcan" which looked at how Hollywood portrays "rational" characters when they're anything but. Her key example was Spock from the original Star Trek series. Her definition of rational had two variations:

1) Epistemic Rationality - The method of obtaining an accurate view of reality.
2) Instrumental Rationality - The method of achieving your goals, whatever they are.

In general, these two are related since, if you want to achieve your goal, it helps to have an accurate picture of reality. But for characters like Spock, he's often depicted as not achieving his goals or being able to accurately predict outcomes which would come from an accurate understanding of the world. Obviously, while he's portrayed as rational and logical, he doesn't fit either definition. So where was the disconnect?

Julia introduced five principles where there's a disconnect.

In the first, straw Vulcan logic is unable to deal with emotions. The example used came from an episode where Spock engaged in some saber rattling to attempt to scare off an alien species, but only proceeded to enrage them. When confronted with this, Spock blamed the issue on the irrationality of the aliens.

But at Julia noted, Spock was the irrational one given that he'd seen time and again the emotional capacity of others. He chose to willfully ignore that for some reason.

Her second principle was that pseudologic refuses to make a decision without 100% of the information. In any situation, its unlikely that we can know all the information necessary, but logic and reason gives us guides to do with what we have. Additionally, the time and resources often necessary to gather more information is generally tied to the law of diminishing returns.

The third principle was the straw Vulcans never rely on intuition. While intuition and quick reasoning is often subject to flaw and bias, the fact is, the vast majority of the time, it works (hence why we can have so many people running around not thinking at all. The trouble is that we, also not thinking, let them become politicians).

Fourth, Julia noted that to straw Vulcans, being rational meant not having emotions. Her counter was to point out that emotion is the root that gives us goals on which we can apply rational thought to inform actions. Without emotion, there would be no drive to do anything in the first place.

Lastly, straw Vulcans only valuable quantifiable things like money and efficiency. As a response, Julia showed two clips that demonstrated even Spock is expected to have deep emotions, although he hides them.

Her final statement summed things up pretty well: "If you're trying to be rational but keep ending up with the wrong answer, it's not proper to assume rationality is bad, but you're bad at rationality."

This sums up Creationists and other pseudoscientists perfectly. They try to be rational, dressing up their gibberish in scientific language, but they can't seem to produce any sort of models that, you know, work. So instead, they criticize the scientific method, crying that it's too dogmatic for now allowing the supernatural, and try to rewrite the definition as they did in Kansas in 2005, or just sneak it in without anyone noticing, as Behe admitted to on the stand at Dover.

The next talk was Greta Christina's. I'm not going to bother to summarize much of it because it's a rehash of this blog post of hers from 2007. It hasn't changed much. It's on why atheists are "angry". The short version is that they have good reason to be.

The second portion of her talk is whether or not that anger was a good thing. Her conclusion, one that I've agreed with completely for a long time, is that yes, anger is useful. As Julia pointed out in the previous talk, emotion is the driver of most actions. If we wish to effect social change and stop all the evils she'd listed, then we need that anger to fuel the movement. To take that away is to disempower ourselves.

She makes a fantastic note that anger is not violence, it is not bigotry, or hatred. It is an emotion stating displeasure and antagonism with the current state of affairs.

"Lastly, most harm is not about harm being done to atheists. Most of the things that make us angry, most of it is about harm that's being done to believers. We're angry on other people's behalf. We're angry because we have compassion and a sense of justice. We're angry because we want this to stop. We care about humans, not because we hate God or there's a God shaped hole in our hearts. We're not angry because there's something wrong with us; we're angry because there's something right."

I missed Rebecca Watson's talk because our dinner took FAR too long to arrive (waited nearly an hour), so PZ's was the next we caught. Last year his talk wasn't very exciting. It was a bit of fluff on genetics and how it drives evolution, but lacked a solid sticking point to really make it work. This year, he fixed that.

He opened with some quotes from Dumbski and Stephen Meyer about how DNA actually proves intelligent design because "junk" DNA actually has a function. And what's more, they stated this as a testable prediction. Demonstrating this was wrong would be another way to show ID was wrong.

So PZ went through the various types of DNA showing just how much was useful. I won't go through all of the details, but it stacked up like this:
5% - Functional DNA that codes for traits
10% - Structural DNA that keeps everything organized and running
45% - Parasitic DNA from retroviruses, transposons and the like
40% - Completely is completely unknown

At best, only 15% of that DNA can be considered directly useful. The rest can eventually provide fodder for mutations to potentially develop new traits, but that's a LOT of baggage to be reproducing every time a cell divides and not really worth it.

That was the last talk I attended for the day. Sam Singleton was up next, but I just don't find him interesting. So I skipped out and talked with some people. However, I will note that Sam's talk contributed to an event that's come to be known as Gelatogate which I'll be sharing my thoughts on in another post.

I slept in the next morning, skipping most of the early talks and only came in on Hemant Mehta's talk. This was disappointing since it meant I missed Jen McCreight's and she's always worth listening to.

Anyway, Hemant is a math teacher in Illinois and very much in the vein of Dan Meyer who I really like, so I made sure to attend this one on adding critical thinking to math classes.

Sadly, there wasn't much of that in the talk. Instead, it was more about getting students engaged in math thinking. It's much of what I've been saying elsewhere: Shoving kids through formulae that they don't understand or know where they came from, doesn't teach them anything about math. We make opportunities for them to arrive at "correct" answers without knowing math, and then wonder why math learning doesn't take place.

After having taught a few math courses, I know exactly why math teachers do this: Expecting a high school student to actually, think through a problem is damned near impossible. They have several years of education before high school training them to do the exact opposite and that builds up a lot of non-thinking momentum.

So if we're going to do it, we're going to have to be sneaky about it. And this is where Hemant and Dan Meyer really shine. Both of them have been doing the same thing I've been doing with my Anime Mythbusters talk, but in the classroom. They bring in clips from popular media and teach the math concepts behind it to make predictions that can be either checked against the footage (in the case of more reality based shows like Mythbusters), or used to show just how ridiculous something is (as in the case of the clips I show from anime).

Hemant showed a few really good clips that introduced some concepts, such as using the 2/4 Rule for poker for which he showed some edited footage from the World Poker Championships with the percentages blacked out so students could calculate. Another was dealing with playing pool and going "double or nothing" on a series of games, which would be an example of exponential growth. The last he didn't have a use for, but it was from the Office and had a screensaver with a logo that would bounce around and everyone watching it wanted to see it go perfectly into the corner.

Regardless, Hemant had three strategies to improve math education:
1) Use open-ended questions
2) Let their creativity run wild
3) Be less helpful

Spencer Greenberg was up next and was talking about using self-skepticism and realizing our own biases. But I severely tuned out on this one as it became mostly a bunch of fuzzy relativism.

David Fitzgerald gave a talk on "The Complete Heretic's Guide to Western Religion: The Mormons". In short, it was a roast of Mormon theology. Nuff said.

Darrel Ray gave the second to last talk on Sex & Secularism. The basis for this talk was a survey that got passed around the blogosphere earlier this year and garnered around 14,000 responses. It looked at the sexual practices and satisfaction of those that had left various religions as well as guilt when they were religious. Greta summed up the study very well when it first came out, so I'm not going to rehash it again. The key points are that leaving religion vastly improves sex lives, religion imposes a lot of guilt, but doesn't actually keep anyone from having sex.

The only point that Darrel did make in his talk was that when secularists were asked where they received sex education, only something 34% said they got it from their parents. Not very good. But when he looked at those that grew up in strongly religious households, he found they were far lower: only around 17%. This underscores the strong need for sex education in schools. While conservatives try to pretend that it's something that should be done at home, the fact is, they just don't do it.

The final talk was JT Eberhard. And what a marvelous end it was. JT talked on the need for the skeptical community to involve themselves with mental disorders.

For those that don't know, JT is anorexic and it almost killed him. He's blogged a lot in the past year or so about his struggles with it, and the majority of his talk was a very personal and emotional history of what he went through. But the takeaway was this: There's a lot of incorrect stereotypes about such disorders, such as they're something that you should just be able to "get over" with sufficient willpower. But like any other disease, it's not just a matter of willpower, it has physiological causes that are often ignored.

Additionally, there's many people out there that try to give misinformation about the medications involved in treatment. By trying to restrict these, they deny people the help they desperately need. Lastly, there's a bunch of alt-med (read: BS) treatments that give false hope while not really fixing the problem.

If the skeptic community is honest about countering falsehoods wherever they are, then this topic is one that has a lot loaded into it and effects more people than we realize. One in four people has a mental disorder in one way or another. Most aren't very severe, but some, as JT's is, are. And so JT asks that we be friends and advocates to those that need it.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Feminism Roundup

Here's a collection of articles that have caught my eye lately on the topic:

Why Strong Female Characters are Bad for Women (Warning: NSFWish historical painting included)
If I had to summarize this article, it would be with the note that there's a difference between "strong, female" and "strong female". In the former the two components are distinctly separate; the character is strong, but is just female for the added sex appeal.

From the same site, there's an older post: Is Doctor Who Bad for Women?. As a huge Doctor fan, I appreciate the critique, just as I enjoy looking critically at the science in other series I watch. Critical analysis is good. The conclusion is that the Doctor's companions don't tend to be especially empowered. They're lost puppies, but then again, so is the Doctor. And I think that's the point. All characters are filled with deep flaws that make them human (despite the Doctor being not human), and that weighs far more heavily than any gendered factors. Sadly, this article quits just as Amy Pond was introduced. So far, she's my favorite companion by far, so I'd love to see what they'd think about her.

The idea that female characters need to be well rounded and have strengths and flaws is the idea of this article on how to write a kick-ass young adult heroine.

There's also a good analysis of the sexism in TV ads. I think the worst was the Dodge commercial in which a hypothetical man whines about domestic responsibilities as if they're a terrible burden that are beneath him. Poor hypothetical man.

Here's a good article on the trolling women constantly receive just by existing in public sphere. It's pretty censored, but I think it makes a clear point: The amount of gender charged insults towards women has a chilling effect on their free speech and people don't see this as a problem.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Physics Project Idea: Mythbusters Statistics

Do you remember that episode of Mythbusters where the build team wanted to test whether or not firing an object backwards with a certain velocity while going forwards with the same velocity would cancel out the momentum?

In it, they went through dozens of tests, trying to get the air cannon to fire with exactly the right velocity and finally they got it so it canceled out just perfectly and the ball dropped straight down?

Very cool demonstration except for one thing: Doing dozens of tests and then picking the one you want to be right doesn't actually tell you anything. What would really be necessary is seeing if the average actually comes out to be zero.

This would require getting all the high speed footage from all the tests, analyzing it, finding the average, and standard deviation (which is related to the experimental uncertainty) to see whether or not the average truly fell where it should. Quite a bit of work, but I bet students would love it.

Topics it would address:
Velocity and/or momentum as vectors
Relative Motion
Coordinate Systems
Experimental Procedure
Experimental Uncertainty

Monday, October 10, 2011

Book Review - Zoo City

Awhile back, I heard an interview on NPR with author Lauren Beukes who had recently won the prestigious Arthur C. Clarke Award for her book Zoo City. It sounded rather interesting, and the Kindle edition was a nice $0.99 so I grabbed a copy.

The premise is about a former drug addict, Zinzi December who has the magical gift of being able to track lost objects. She also has the unusual circumstance of having an animal familiar: A sloth. Many characters have such animals with them (reminiscent of His Dark Materials), and they are gained when a character has an exceptionally remorseful incident in their past.

Zinzi is hired by a music producer to hunt down a missing singer which gets her into all sorts of troubles. While it is an engaging and fast paced read, my final conclusion is that this book was lacking. Mostly in the character motivation and background departments.


Zinzi's animal familiar was picked up because she feels remorse over being involved in her brother's death. Yet this isn't well explained. It's just left free floating.

The final villains also lack any credible reason for much of what they do. One is simply trying to rid himself of his animal because those that are burdened with them are stereotyped and looked down upon. This much is clear, but the fact that it's possible to transfer the animals to other isn't hinted at early on, and as such, it's a very quick "Where did that come from?" when that's what the character does. Very much a deux ex.

There's two other baddies that, in the end, get away, and their motivations are never explored at all. At best, they're just out for some money making them annoyingly one-dimensional.

The singer is found, but ends up being a brat who thinks her manager is out to kill her. She's right, but given that it wasn't made clear how she could have known that, her actions lack conviction.

Another frequent topic is how those that are followed by animals are constantly in fear of a mysterious power known as the Undertow, which will kill them horribly and is only kept at bay by the animals. This power too is never explained. That's not the end of the world to me. Mysterious powers abound in sci-fi and fantasy. Star Wars was better when the Force was just an "energy field" and not a ham-fisted attempt to rationalize it with "midichlorians".


This lack of motivation didn't make me want to stop reading. I continually hoped that it would be resolved, but upon reaching the end, I was just disappointed.

I'm somewhat curious if this book is just the first in a series, or a larger universe since it ends rather abruptly with villains, as well as the protagonist, still on the run and several loose ends. If that's the case, I may be tempted to continue reading, but on its own, this book didn't fare well with me.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Book Review - Relics of Eden

My birthday was this past Monday and as a present, I requested a Kindle. I got one, so immediately I looked over my reading list and started grabbing books.

The first one I picked up was Relics of Eden: The Powerful Evidence of Evolution in Human DNA by Daniel Fairbanks. I really liked the idea behind this book. After all, it's often been said that even completely ignoring the fossil record, homology, and every other field of biology, genetics would be suitable to establish evolution beyond a reasonable doubt. Yet books like Greatest Show on Earth don't give it much of a nod. The most we're treated to is the evolutionary requirement that chromosome 2 in humans have been the result of fusion from an ancestral species.

Relics of Eden takes this same idea, but provides numerous more examples. The first chapter goes through the chromosome 2 fusion. The second, examines Barbara McClintock's study of corn which led to the discovery of transposons. When these were analyzed, they showed the same sort of divergence in humans and our closely related cousins as evolution would predict.

The third chapter is about "Bogus Genes" which are often duplicated genes that have been disabled by mutations. One of the lessons here is that evolution predicts that, since these pseudogenes aren't being selected for, they should have accumulated more mutations. This evolutionary prediction, as Fairbanks points out, is confirmed. This chapter also discusses the GLUO pseudogene which is disabled in humans and, in other species, serves to produce vitamin C. The function of this gene wouldn't likely be selected for since humans had a wealth of vitamin C in their diet and as such, the presence of this gene is much like a vestigial organ. Another gene, glucocere-brosidase gene (GBA), is repeated but one copy also shows a deletion of 55 base pairs in humans, chips, and gorillas, but not in orangutans have both functioning, and squirrel monkeys only have a single gene. Such patterns make sense in the light of evolution: The duplication happened after the divergence from the line that would lead to squirrel moneys, and the deletion happened after the speciation in which orangutans broke off. Another example of this listed is the cytochrome c pseudogene family which shows a similar pattern and confirms the divergences.

The fourth chapter is trying to figure out exactly when humans, chips, and gorillas split apart, or which one did first, a problem the author calls the "trichotomy problem". The answer can be found in mitochondrial DNA which reveals gorillas split off first. This can be independently checked using nuclear DNA.

Chapter 5 looks at more connections to selection effects in genetics. Like with pseudogenes, mutations tend to accumulate more in exons which aren't selected for. The chapter also explores the NANOG gene which can also be used to look for patterns of divergence.

Chapter 6 is about the inversions in genes between chimps and humans how evolution can explain these.

The last chapter that's really about evidence for evolution is chapter 7 which looks at diversity. Specifically looked at the dispersion of genes in humans alone, tracing specific genes (such as descendants of Gengis Khan) as they spread as well as looking at the origin of humans in sub-Saharan Africa.

Chapter 8 was a look at what evolution is. It's mostly a look at how scientists define it today with some historical nods to Darwin and a few mentions of some of the non-genetic evolutionary evidences (such as the development of whales and dolphins). It also has a bit on how genetics can be used to construct phylogenetic trees.

The 9th chapter is "When faith and reason clash". It is an abbreviated history of Intelligent Design and Creationism which is so brief, it fails to draw some important distinctions, like the direct development of ID from Creationism. The author treats them as independent and that simply ain't so.

The final chapter is on breaking down the divide between science and faith. In my opinion, it should simply be tossed out. It's accommodationist noise. It says nothing more than "Some people can compartmentalize." Yet it fails to address the frequent fallacies committed by those that do (such as Ken Miller).

After this "last chapter", you're still actually only half way through the book. There's 3 appendices. The first two are more evidences that are even more technical. The first looks more in depth at the NANOG gene previously mentioned. The second is more on the inversions in genes discussed earlier as well. The final one is a short history of Genetics.

So what's my overall feeling of the book? It has a ton of great information. However, it was poorly organized. It seemed to toss most of the information first, and then organize it later, after most readers would likely be confused at the significance. I think the writing could have been greatly improved by essentially reversing the book (appendices included), teaching more about the history of evolution and genetics, then looking at how the evidence fit those predictions. I also think that the way the evidence was presented could have been much stronger. It should be made much clearer that every way these evolutionary trees are constructed, no matter which gene, pseudogene, chromosomal reversal, or other genetic bit mentioned, they always come out the same and provide independent evidence. While it's hinted at weakly, it's never directly compared to the parsimony of a designer independently making all these changes in order to fool us. I've seen that argument presented elsewhere, and it's devastating to ID/Creationism. Yet the author sidesteps it.

Another note is that this book is rather technical. While the terms are defined, they are then immediately used heavily and readers are expected to keep up. Having done a great deal of reading on evolution over the past decade, and teaching a bio course, I followed along without too many problems, but an inexperienced reader would likely struggle. The introduction to terms could be improved as well as the usage when terms are required later.

So in closing, not bad, but needs an overhaul in the organization for the average reader.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Why Science?

In my review of Sagan's Demon Haunted World, I mentioned my favorite chapter was on the short-sightedness of asking "What's the benefit?" from scientific investigations. The answer is "We don't know, but they're huge." Sagan discussed Maxwell's tinkering with E&M leading to everything from toasters to TVs.

Most people can at least see that connection, but in Astronomy, connections are often more difficult to point out. Astronomy is a prime tool for testing basic physics, which can then, in turn, be applied to all sorts of things, but that's a logic train most people can't quite follow.

But recently, Discovery News had a cool article about how research looking at spectroscopy in stars, may be turned to medical applications.

Archon 35 Recap

This past weekend was Archon 35. Archon is a sci-fi/fantasy convention, as opposed to my more typical anime convention and although I like sci-fi/fantasy, I'm not generally up to date on much of it, and certainly don't know much of the older portions of the genre that many of the attendees adore.

Despite this, I had a blast this year. Friday I gave my Astronomy in Japan presentation to a small audience, but we suspect this was partially due to us closing the door to keep the hall sounds out and them locking to the outside thus stemming the audience population. Oops.

Regardless, one of the people that came in was Elonka Dunin, who was running a 2012 panel later that evening and asked me to join it. I hesitantly agreed, not knowing whether it was going to be debunking or crazy conspiracy theory hour but it turned out to be the former and was a bunch of fun.

My last panel I was on was Friday night and looking at bad science in movies. While this was fun, since it wasn't something I had much time to prepare (I only found out I was on panels when I looked at the schedule 2 days before and my name was on it), so it tended to be more ranting than prepared deconstructions. But what was more fun was at the end, we tied it back to the role of the media in the larger picture of science literacy and how we do at it as a country. This was the last panel in the room for the day, and as such, we abused it, going over time by an hour with a good 80% of the audience staying to discuss science education in the larger scheme of things.

Whenever I wasn't at panels, I'd grabbed my telescope from my car and, with a solar filter, aimed it at the Sun out front which had several large sunspots. I'd meant to get it back out at night, but the panel went so far over time, not many people were still around.

Saturday I didn't host or attend any panels and sat out again with the telescope. That night, I did get the telescope out again and pointed it at Jupiter with a few hundred people stopping by. After resting for awhile and socializing with one of the people that viewed Jupiter, I got the telescope back out (at 3am) and we ended up in the courtyard of the hotel (where there was a good number of people) for another viewing and astronomy lesson. Ended up staying out till the Sun came up before finally turning in.

Sunday I was pretty sleep deprived and left early so I could sleep the rest of the day.

Overall, this is probably the most fun I've had at Archon and I can't wait for next year.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Sexism and Comics

Continuing with the bent of trying to make sure I'm educated on the gender issues, I recently was introduced to this article on depictions of women in comic books.

Of the many things that have been posted lately, I think this is one of the best. Here's a few of the salient quotes:
These aren't those women. They're how dudes want to imagine those women would be -- what Wire creator David Simon called writing "men with t*ts." They read like men's voices coming out of women's faces. Or worse, they read like the straight girls who make out with each other at clubs, not because they enjoy making out with women but because they desperately want guys to pay attention to them.

This is not about these women wanting things; it's about men wanting to see them do things, and that takes something that really should be empowering -- the idea that women can own their sexuality -- and transforms it into yet another male fantasy.
But this is what comics like this tell me about myself, as a lady: They tell me that I can be beautiful and powerful, but only if I wear as few clothes as possible. They tell me that I can have exciting adventures, as long as I have enormous breasts that I constantly contort to display to the people around me. They tell me I can be sexually adventurous and pursue my physical desires, as long as I do it in ways that feel inauthentic and contrived to appeal to men and kind of creep me out.
I'm not a comic fan, but these bits can be applied to nearly any genre out there.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

You're Killing Me

One of the worst things about being a science guy is that many of my friends, many of whom are well educated nerdy types, want to talk to me about science.

The problem is that they don't know much about it.

As I look more into our failing science education system, the more I realize it's not one problem. It's two. The first is that we haven't established a solid factual foundation. This is demonstrated in the numerous surveys demonstrating that we, as Americans, fail to correctly answer basic factual questions about science.

The second is that we don't understand the scientific process or engage in critical thinking about scientific topics*.

While many of my friends are nerdy enough to have a pretty good grasp on the basic facts, they're still dismal at the second. This morning, one of them posted as his facebook status:
For those of you who didn't notice, scientists have rediscovered yet another truth illuminated almost 100 years ago by the last epic genius to grace the face of this planet. Neutrinos, sub-atomic particles, move faster than the speed of light. This truth essentially invalidates Einstein's Theory of Relativity because Neutrinos are matter, which means that e=/= m(c^2). Tesla, man...where has all the true, selfless genius gone?

This is, of course, referring to the recent announcement that some scientists seemed to discover that neutrinos were exceeding the speed of light.

Let's take a review of what the actual scientists are saying here:
- Probably not. But maybe! Or in other words: science as usual.: Sean Carroll
- Faster-than-light travel discovered? Slow down, folks: Phil Plait @ Bad Astronomy
- We need it checked. We're very suspicious about this.: Brian Cox
- Don't Believe the Hype (Yet): Jennifer Ouellette
- This Extraordinary Claim Requires Extraordinary Evidence!: Ethan Siegel @ Starts with a Bang
- If true, then neutrinos from SN 1987a "should have arrived not a few hours early, but a few years, and there would not have been coincident arrivals at the different detectors on Earth.": Pete Coles @ In the Dark

Are you sensing a theme here? When faced with a spurious result that challenges a long standing, well established theory, scientists are extremely critical. They caution that the data be checked extremely carefully and, as the last link shows, they look to see what the implications would be and check to see if those are true too. That's not the response we're getting from the general public, which shows that we've failed to instill an understanding of how to analyze scientific results.

What we must do is weigh the new evidence against the evidence against it. As it turns out, the evidence for relativity (which requires that speed limit of light be firm) is pretty darn strong. It was first supported by the bending of light during a solar eclipse, but it explains the orbit of Mercury, the ability to detect muons created in cosmic rays, the orbits of pulsars slowing, gravitational lensing and redshift, space-time curvature observed by Cassini, and the results of Gravity Probe B.

That's a lot of experiments and confirmation to weigh against a single, as of yet, unconfirmed result.

So how about we keep that in mind.

* - Unless of course, it's to "critically analyze" them against fake "facts" in order to cast doubt on them like the Creationists want.
** - While this image refers to "neutrons", the initial name for neutrinos, discovered in 1930) was neutrons. When what we now refer to neutrons was discovered in 1932, there was confusion among the terms, and it was eventually proposed to rename the 1930 discovery to neutrinos in 1934. As such, the reference to "neutrons" here is likely actually referring to neutrinos, but I can't find enough information on this quote to confirm it. It seems to mostly pop up in quack science references about perpetual motion machines.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Book Review - Demon Haunted World

I'm a pretty big Sagan fanboy, but until now, I've never read an entire Sagan work. I've listened to several interviews, seen all of Cosmos a few times, and enjoyed his clips in Symphony of Science. I have an audio book, of Pale Blue Dot, but lack a portable media device to make it convenient.

I'd heard of his book, Demon Haunted World (Science as a Candle in the Dark), before but had shied away from it. It was said to concentrate on pseudosciences that I generally find uninteresting (UFOs, psychic healing, etc...) due to their waning popularity and lack of influence on our government and educational system when compared to more insidious pseudosciences like Creationism.

Yesterday, as I neared the end of the book, I made a quick note on my G+ account saying as much. Universe Today's publisher, Fraser Cain dropped a pretty high piece of praise for it stating, "I'd say that book singlehandedly turned me into a skeptic."

Nicole Gugliucci (The Noisy Astronomer), echoed Fraser's enthusiasm, responding, "Ditto! It was already in process, but that book was pivotal."

The implication is that this isn't just another skeptic book; it's a game changer in a big way, and after reading it, I agree completely. I've been pretty ferociously skeptical since the end of high school, so near a decade now, but if I wasn't, I would likely be saying the same things as Fraser and Nicole. I've written a fair number of book summaries and reviews the past few years, but I would recommend this book above all others. I would suggest it be required reading, not just for scientists and skeptics, but for everyone, sometime in middle school, or by the beginnings of high school.

The first chapter begins by laying out the case: Many people believe things without good reason. In particular, Sagan recounts an experience with a chauffeur who accepted, without question, testimonies of extra terrestrials visiting Earth and seemed to have little interest in just how good the evidence actually was. Sagan asks his audience if that should matter and introduces a fantastic quote from Edmund Way Teale:
It is morally as bad not to care whether a thing is true or not, so long as it makes you feel good, as it is not to care how you got your money as long as you have got it.
Now if only people would realize just how important it is to get things right because, if Americans don't, other countries will continue to pass us in scientific achievement. In fact, Sagan notes that other countries are doing just that citing a 1994, Chinese proclamation which stated,
[P]ublic education in science has been withering in recent years. At the same time, activities of superstition and ignorance have been growing, and antiscience and pseudoscience cases have become frequent.... The level of public education in science and technology is an important sign of the national scientific accomplishment. It is a matter of overall importance in economic development, scientific advance, and the progress of society. We must be attentive and implement such public education as part of the strategy to modernize our socialist country and to make our nation powerful and prosperous. Ignorance is never socialist, nor is poverty.
What a statement. Similar rhetoric is often used by US politicians, but with one notable difference in my mind: US politicians will never call out pseudoscience and anti-science. We'll talk of progress, but never stop to look at the elephant in the room that hinders just that.

Working to get the point across in a deeper way, the second chapter deals with why we need to perceive science as so important. Without overstatement, he entitles this chapter "Science and Hope". Immediately, he makes a deep and prophetic statement that seems to read as a perfect description of today, despite Sagan dying 15 years ago this December.
Science is more than a body of knowledge; it is a way of thinking. I have a foreboding of an America in my children's or grandchildren's time - when the United State is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what's true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness.
He then goes through many of the ways science improves our lives, including a quote I've often heard referenced, but never realized originated in this book, "If you want to save your child from polio, you can pray or you can inoculate."

Why does science work so well? Sagan rightly suggests its because of how powerful that "way of thinking" actually is. As I quoted in my last review, Feynman describes it as a "kind of utter honesty". Sagan adds that students doing their PhD dissertations must stand before a panel and are "subjected to withering crossfire of questions from the very professors who have the candidate's future in their grasp" in order to "practice a very useful habit of thought: they have to ask: Where in my dissertation is there a weakness that someone else might find?" Scientists don't only search for the things that confirm their biases; good science also looks to anticipate the challenges and investigate them, before someone else does. "Valid criticism," Sagan notes, "does you a favor."

He illustrates how this works with a comparison to metaphysical pseudoscience which, while coming up with luxurious, and largely internally consistent explanations for whatever it likes, never investigates those explanations with honest evidence by comparing them fiercely to reality. "The difference" between science and metaphysical psedudoscience "is that the metaphysicist has no laboratory."

The next several chapters are what I consider to be the meat of the book and look at how we like to fool ourselves and how science encourages us to reflect more realistically on issues.

Sagan begins by introducing how our perceptions can skew our ability to think critically. His examples in this relatively short chapter concentrate on pareidolia, specifically the man in the moon and the face on mars. In general this chapter describes the human propensity for seeing patterns where there are none.

The fourth chapter extends this to aliens, describing how closely linked the phenomenon of "alien abduction" is to other historically described invasions, specifically demons. In both cases the visitors come at night, can paralyze the victim, walk through walls, communicate without speaking, and are often preoccupied with sex. Yet there exists a more prosaic explanation that is overlooked: sleep paralysis.

Sagan also looks at other alien related phenomenon such as crop circles, which were intentionally created by humans who confessed to the hoax. Yet UFOlogists engage in goalpost moving ("But what about that one then!") as opposed to admitting the general rule. Much the same as the ID proponents and "irreducible complexity".

He looks at why governments would (and should) want to keep some things secret and how military technology will often create anomalous signals that can easily be mistaken for something more unusual.

Another topic examines how we can gain false memories by our brains either doing something funny, or being tricked, intentionally or otherwise. He spends a great deal of time discussing how techniques like "hypnosis therapy" are easy to misuse and susceptible to the therapist guiding the victim. Sagan refers to great extent how this has been misused in searching for evidence of childhood sex abuse where nearly anything (including headaches) could be an indication that someone had been abused and that therapists were to operate from the assumption that they were. From there, the therapists would press patients to remember things, but while under the influence of hypnosis, they would create accounts that never happened. The same is true, Sagan suggests, for "recovered" memories of UFOs and abductions.

All of this reminds me of another fantastic Feynman quote. When interrogated about UFOs, he responded,
[F]rom my knowledge of the world that I see around me, I think that it is much more likely that the reports of flying saucers are the result of the known irrational characteristics of terrestrial intelligence rather than the unknown rational efforts of extraterrestrial intelligence.
Sagan then begins introducing the methodology of science in a more direct manner. In a famous example, Sagan discusses the "dragon in his garage". When a rational question for evidence is posed, he makes a case of special pleading to avoid having to present any (the dragon is invisible, floats as to not leave footprints, and incorporeal, but it's there!). He uses this example to build his "Baloney Detection Kit" (a good summary of which can be found here). The first part is to understand the workings of science, and to also be familiar with the logical fallacies and misdirections pseudoscientists like to engage in.

This chapter has another quote that I'd like to address specifically:
[O]ne academic UFOlogist suggests that both the aliens and the abductees are rendered invisible during the abduction (although not to each other); that's why more of the neighbors haven't noticed. Such "explanations" can explain anything, and therefore in fact nothing.
I've made nearly identical statements before, but in regards to ID/Creationism which, no matter what comes along, can always posit that "God intended it that way." If you can explain anything, you've explained nothing.

There's another great aside Sagan relates about the physicist Enrico Fermi who joining the Manhattan Project was introduced to several important generals.
So-and-so is a great general, he was told.
What is the definition of a great general? Fermi characteristically asked.
I guess it's a general who's won many consecutive battles.
How many?
After some back and forth, they settled on five.
What fraction of American generals are great?
After some more back and forth, they settled on a few percent.

But imagine, Fermi rejoined, that there is no such thing as a great general, that all armies are equally matched, and that winning a battle is purely a matter of chance. Then the chance of winning one battle is one in two, or 1/2; two battles 1/4, three battles 1/8, four 1/16, and five consecutive battles 1/32 - which is about 3 percent. You would expect a few percent of American generals to win five consecutive battles - purely by chance. Now, has any of them won ten consecutive battles...?
I like this because it is a perfect example of how we make such significance of short lived trends that are statistically likely given enough chances. Sagan returns to this later, but I think this quote summed it up better than his example of flipping coins.

Sagan goes on to discuss some of the work of James Randi who set up deliberate hoaxes to demonstrate how easily people would go along with them. The main one was of "Carlos", a supposed channeler of a 2,000 year old spirit who an Australian audience gobbled up, uncritically. His background was faked (and not even convincingly had anyone bothered to check that some of the places existed).

A chapter is devoted to the gibberish of those that decry science and attempt to tear it down as only another way of knowing. In the next chapter, he shows what folly this is giving a fantastic summary of the power of science:
We detect the light from distant quasars only because the laws of electro-magnetism are the same ten billion light-years away as here. The spectra of those quasars are recognizable only because the same chemical elements are present there as here, and because the same laws of quantum mechanics apply. The motion of galaxies around one another follows familiar Newtonian gravity. Gravitational lenses and binary pulsar spin-downs reveal general relativity in the depths of space. We could have lived in a Universe with different laws in every province, but we do not. This fact cannot but elicit feelings of reverence and awe.
Using this light of science, Sagan notes that "tenents at the heart of religion can be tested scientifically." He spends a few paragraphs on this, but treads lightly.

The next chapter is looking at the culpability of scientists for the dangers they help realize. While he agrees that the dangers are indeed great (hence the need for a critical and thorough framework of reason which is the topic for the entire book), and that scientists have often callously disregarded their consequences as "not their business", many others have worked feverishly to make sure their actions do not bring harm.

In another chapter, Sagan describes the marriage of skepticism and wonder: Science must keep an open mind, but be, at the same time, skeptical. This is the same as a response I'd made to a crackpot whose book I'd torn apart when he accused me of having a closed mind; I responded that it was open, but "guarded" while his was allowing any gibberish in.

The next chapter explores how science and the act of questioning is a human endeavor. He explores a tribe of hunters that, through interrogation of nature, has extraordinary skills. I think the concluding remark of the chapter summarizes nicely:
A proclivity for science is embedded deeply within us, in all times, places and cultures. It has been the means for our survival. It is our birthright. When we discourage children from science, we are disenfranchising them, taking from them the tools needed to manage the future.
How we disenfranchise them is the topic of the next chapter. Sagan suggests we turn children away from science by teaching it wrong (as a collection of facts) and by pressuring them not to as "dumb" questions. How do we fix this? Sagan responds:
improved status based on teaching success, and promotions of teachers based on the performance of their students in standardized double-blind tests; salaries for teachers that approach what they could get in industry; more scholarships, fellowships, and laboratory equipment; imaginative, inspiring curricula and textbooks in which the leading faculty members play a major role; laboratory courses required for everyone to graduate; and special attention paid to those traditionally steered away from science. We should also encourage the best academic scientists to spend more time on public education - textbooks, lectures, newspapers, and magazine articles, TV appearances. And a mandatory freshman or sophomore course in skeptical thinking and the methods of science might be worth trying.
Sagan's advice for scientists looking to reach out:
Don't talk to the general audience as you would to your scientific colleagues. There are terms that convey your meaning instantly and accurately to fellow experts. You may parse these phrases every day in your professional work. But they do no more than mystify an audience of nonspecialists. Use the simplest possible language. Above all, remember how it was before you yourself grasped whatever it is you're explaining. Remember the misunderstandings that you almost fell into, and note them explicitly. Keep firmly in mind that there was a time when you didn't understand any of this either. Recapitulate the first steps that led you from ignorance to knowledge. Never forget that native intelligence is widely distributed in our species. Indeed, it is the secret of our success.
This same chapter also reveals that the same issues we faced in education, in particular, ranking among the bottom of industrialized nations in math and science scores for students, were prevalent 15 years ago as they are today. This came to me as a shock. When discussed presently, our ranking is always described as "slipping" as in the present tense. Yet for at least half of my life, we've been failing. We keep pretending this is a new crisis that we'll quickly pull through. Seeing this demonstrates that we're in for the long haul and our methods thus far haven't worked.

Before publishing this book, Sagan published a summary of the failures of the educational system in Parade magazine. One teacher asked her 10th grade class to read it and respond. Some of the responses were published and they were horrifying to read. Filled with grammar and spelling mistakes of which a 5th grader should be ashamed, or acted like they had an unbelievable burden and that improvement was simply asking too much. The one that mentally made me do the largest double take was this one:
I think your facts were inconclusive and the evidence very flimsy. All in all, you raised a good point.

Obviously, these letters drove home the point Sagan was making. We're failing students. But Sagan responds that it is not simply the fault of parents or teachers:
The responsibilities are broadly shared - parents, the voting public, local school boards, the media, teachers, administrators, and local governments, plus, of course, the students themselves.
This statement stuck out to me because this is, again, a point I have been trying to make for some time, but the particular phrasing is also startling: "of course" students should bear responsibility. Yet when hearing about education reform today, I never hear students indolence addressed as a major concern. Yet Sagan treats it as a self obvious statement.

Sagan also brings up another important point: The misplacement of our national priorities:
Challenging programs for the "gifted" are sometimes decried as "elitism." Why aren't intensive practice sessions for varsity football, baseball, and basketball players and interschool competition deemed elitism? After all, only the most gifted athletes participate. There is a self-defeating double standard at work here, nation wide.
The next chapter, entitled "The Path to Freedom" was perhaps the best of the book. It is a sobering analysis on just how important education is at improving our station in life. It begins by recounting the story of Frederick Bailey, a slave in the 1820's who eventually taught himself to read and realized that keeping slaves ignorant was the key to their misfortune. Eventually he ran away and renamed himself Frederick Douglas. He became one of the most well spoken people against slavery and his freedom, his power, all rested on the foundation of knowledge.

Next up, there is a chapter on making too much of a statistical fluctation, flipping 10 heads in a row when you've flipped a thousand times. It should happen, but forgetting the larger context, people seem to get a high off of being on a "lucky streak". This applies in casinos, sports, and many other places. I'm not entirely sure why this chapter landed here and not earlier (perhaps when discussing the Fermi bit earlier).

The chapter called "Maxwell and the Nerds" was easily my favorite. While it didn't have, perhaps, the largest impact on the thesis as a whole, the point to me was so important as a teacher, that I couldn't help but feeling an overwhelming sense of agreement with it. The idea behind it is that James Maxwell, the creator of Maxwell's laws which are a mainstay of modern physics was rather denigrated as a child for being odd and poking into things in bizarre ways. When developing his laws that described electro-magnetism, he didn't necessarily know what they would be useful for, nor did anyone else. Yet today, these laws are the foundation of nearly all communication since they explain light of all wavelengths, as well as all of electronics since they describe moving charges and fields.

The point being that simply looking at science as esoteric and unhelpful, we must realize that we never know how it might be useful later. Maxwell didn't invent the television or our power grid, but without him, the knowledge for those that did wouldn't have existed! This is the perfect answer for students when they ask the inevitable "How is this useful?" question: We don't know, but having more knowledge never hurts, especially considering the previous chapter on Frederick Douglas. Sadly, most students will likely simply continue to use the question as a dodge of responsibility than internalize what it actually means.

The last two chapters Sagan makes a footnote stating that they're somewhat political in nature. Which is perfect. As stated previously, science isn't a collection of facts: It's a method and that method can be applied to political discussions as well.

Sagan returns to the witch trials going into them in some more detail, showing how the entire idea of a trial was designed to deflect critical analysis. I actually had to stop reading for a bit at this point because it offended me so greatly.

In the last chapter, Sagan discusses the founding fathers, noting that several had scientific training, Jefferson in particular. As a nation, we were founded with the freedoms to question and challenge. Yet we refuse our national heritage, blindly following political ideologues. Should it continue, the prophetic conditions Sagan laid out in the opening may well come to pass. Indeed, they already seem to be.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Cutting Money Improves SAT Scores?

According to this conservative website, "reductions in state aid to local school districts has apparently had no discernible effect on the students in New Jersey’s classrooms".

What a fantastic piece of poor conservative logic.

To justify this, the author of the article throws in a red herring about how test scores have dropped elsewhere due to a cause completely unrelated to funding.

The next fallacy is the post hoc, ergo propter hoc when the author notes that NJ SAT scores have risen despite financial cuts. This comes immediately after the previous fallacy noting that finances aren't the only factor that effects test scores; the amount of minority students (which are the victims of large gaps in their preparedness) taking the tests do as well. As such, the author needs to demonstrate that the rise in scores wasn't in any way related to such other factors. But it isn't even mentioned.

Instead, he talks about how students taking the 2011 SATs would have been just entering high school when Governor Christie came into office. This is true, but a complete non sequitur. His coming into office has nothing to do with when cuts were instituted (in 2010). As such, those taking the 2011 SAT would have had several years of preparation under nominal funding making it even less likely that they would be largely effected by this change. At most, one year of their education could be effected.

So there we have it. Three fatal logical fallacies within three paragraphs. I don't mean to imply that this idiocy is par for the course for those in power in NJ (they only reflect the muddled thinking of the author, supposedly the site's managing editor), but in trying to sort out when the cuts were imposed, I found that the NJ Governor is a twit when it comes to education. His largest cuts specifically targeted poor schools with minorities who are already likely to underperform. Due to a 2008 act, that budget was, thankfully, ruled unconstitutional. Way to try to make the education gap for minorities even worse though, Christie.

Friday, September 16, 2011

THIS is Why Junk Science is Bad

Since the beginning of this year, I've added a ~10 minute section to the beginning of the Anime Mythbusters talk I've been giving, explaining the motivation behind why I bother debunking cartoons: Aside from being fun, it's practice for good critical thinking when something comes along that actually matters, like your health. The main example I've included has been the anti-vax movement.

It's a stark contrast to the light and fun talk that follows, but many people have said it's a real eye-opener, so I keep including it. At several of the talks, I've also tossed in current examples of bad science in the media such as the ET bacteria reported this spring, the arsenic bacteria this summer, but there's a new example I'll switch in that I think fills the gap between the heaviness of the anti-vax movement, which is literally killing people, and the anime fluff.

Apparently some TV quack called Dr. Oz has been going around claiming that apple juice has toxic levels of arsenic which has caused schools to pull it from their lunch menus.

What Oz failed to take into account is that there's a difference between the free floating, inorganic arsenic and the organic kind that's bound into the actual molecules of the food. The former is deadly. The latter isn't.

The killer is that Oz knew this. He, or at least his producer, was sent a letter informing him of the difference a full week before his show aired.

But that didn't stop him from causing panics over nothing. And of course, most consumers don't know enough science to be able to debunk this on their own.

The good news is that the media seems to be responding fairly intelligently. They've been commenting on the FDA response and those of other doctors pointing out Oz's failure. But they're still giving Oz the time of day. He's dodging the substance of the points others are making, tossing up smokescreens of "we don't know enough so I'm concerned", moving goalposts, making inappropriate comparisons (more arsenic is in apple juice than drinking water?! *gasp* Of course that can't have anything to do with the fact we drink an order of magnitude more water than juice!) and displaying the best hallmarks of pseudoscience.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Book Review - The Gender Knot

Gender studies aren't an issue that's generally towards the top of my list of interests, but the recent Elevatorgate made me stand up and take notice. In fact, the response outright pissed me off.

But I suppose I'm weird in a sense. When I get pissed off on a topic I don't know much about, I don't immediately start ranting, I try to get educated and make sure I'm justified in my anger. Odd concept. I know.

This is a subject that I wouldn't know exactly where to start on by myself. Fortunately, my sister happens to be a Women and Genders Study major and has a shelf full of her textbooks from previous semesters. I looked at a few of them, and eventually decided on (with her recommendation) The Gender Knot: Unraveling Our Patriarchal Legacy.

Quick warning: Because this is such a novel topic to me (and likely many of my readers), this is going to be a LONG summary/review since there's little I can take for granted here.

The book immediately starts off highlighting, briefly, the gender disparity faced by men and women in the workplace through an activity that's apparently used in gender workshops. In it, both genders are asked to make a list of both the positive and negative things they face in their job as a result of their gender. When this occurs, men easily make long lists of positives, women are forced to make lengthy lists of negatives. Immediately, this should signal a problem.

But what, exactly, is the problem and what's the cause of it? That's the true focus of the book and as the subtitle indicates, the author proposes it's due to the fact that we're a patriarchal society.

This argument is all contained in the very beginning of the book, but unfortunately, from there, the writing turns into a complete mess. The book is divided into three sections. The first is meant to define a patriarchy and explore its characteristics; the second, to explore why we're so mired in it; and the third, to explain how we can change things for the better.

While taken in a broad context, each section achieves that goal reasonably well, the trouble comes by the individual chapters and sub sections which have next to no cohesive form. The narrative jumps from topic to topic without much, if any connection. This may be why the writing often feels exceptionally redundant. I lost track of how many times the author noted the use of words associated with females, such as "bitch", "cunt", and "pussy" as pejoratives, while male traits, such as "growing balls" or "manning up" were always considered positively. Thanks. I got it. You didn't need to mention it every few pages. Nor mention a few times in every chapter that we don't perceive a system that we're part of because it's simply "normal" to us. Got that too.

There's also some just outright stupid comments in the book. At one point Johnson claims that he knows movements pushing for gender equality must be right because they provoke such a strong backlash and criticism. This is about as intelligent as Creationists claiming that they know they must be right because evolutionists fight them so hard. Creationists (and apparently Johnson) forget that being absolutely dead wrong is another good reason for a fierce response. This is not to say I disagree with what most of what Johnson says, but such a rudimentary logical flaw doesn't inspire confidence.

Because of the lack of cohesion, I'm not going to bother to say much on the sub sections individually, but rather, what things I learned from the larger sections as a whole or even tossed together. After all, I can't much remember what came where; the writing is just too jumbled and redundant.

The first major section was, as I stated, about what a patriarchy is and what its characteristics are.

Johnson defines a patriarchy as having three main traits. That is, it must be male dominated, male identified, and male centered.

Male dominated means that positions of power are dominated by males. This is not to say exclusively held by them, but that women entering these roles are exceptions. It doesn't take much to realize that this defines out culture pretty well.

Male identified means that positive traits are associated with males. This is highlighted by the example I gave above. Another important way it is realized is the way that women entering the male dominated fields are expected to act like "one of the guys" and adapt male traits.

At this point, I think the author toes the line of some pretty significant double think. Later on, he argues that what we consider to be "male" or "female" traits are anything but. We generally consider males to be the more aggressive, or dominant sex whereas females are supposedly passive. Yet both genders play both roles; a male will be submissive in front of a superior; a woman will be dominant when it comes to her children. Thus, the notion of gender characteristics has some serious flaws and in most cases doesn't make sense. As such, we peel away that layer and one would think that you can't identify traits that are inherent in both genders as particular to one.

But as Doctor Horrible once noted, "And sometimes there's a third, even deeper level, and that one is the same as the top surface one. Like with pie."

I think that's true here, which is what prevents the argument from truly falling apart: It doesn't matter if these gender roles are generally ambiguous - So long as people perceive such roles as existing, and identify the "good" ones as "male", then we're a male identified society.

Male centeredness is precisely what it sounds like: Our society pays special attention to males and what they do. This is highlighted, somewhat humorously, with a review of Oscar winning movies between 1965 and 2003, in which the vast majority featured male protagonists (only 4 featured females as the main character, and two of those were deemed trivial because they were musicals). Not mentioned in the book, but something I would add, is the Bechdel Test which analyzes whether movies have two female characters that talk to each other about something other than boys. It's staggering just how many fail.

This covers the first 11 pages of the book, and after this, it's where it starts to break down. Much of the next 110+ pages of this section is meant to help establish that we do indeed live in a patriarchal system. That system is both formed by individuals, and influences individual actions. This part I think is good: It shows how we often don't perceive our society as a patriarchy because we're so locked into it. We don't see the actions that lower the status of women as harmful because that's just the way things are. Additionally, by refusing to recognize these facts, we, unwittingly, perpetuate the problem; by not objecting to sexist jokes, we mark them as socially admissible. Additionally, the attempts we do make to stem this flow of sexism are often little more than topological. We attempt to look at individual actions (there's a good section in here on how this applies to violence on women) as the problem, and ignore the larger implications of how the patriarchal system allows for such things in the first place.

So why do I say this is where things break down? Because many of these topics are better suited (and somewhat repeated) in the next section on how we're stuck in this system. There's a division drawn between these two sections, but much of the material is interchangeable, scattered here and there.

Another topic that comes up in this section is why we exist in a patriarchy at all. The answer is not clear at all. A strong answer to this question would include how it originated and perpetuated, but the author even admits to skipping over origins. There is some good discussion on how the patriarchy evolved after the industrial revolution (I'll say more on this in a moment), but for the most part, the actual topic the author actually seems to cover is a more thorough look at some of the characteristics of a patriarchy.

One of the main ones the author touches on is control. The author asserts that men are simply control freaks (again, toeing the line of throwing gender roles around). This touches on the topic of why the patriarchy exists because it is woven into a narrative of how a patriarchy could have developed as we developed agriculture and herding: Johnson supposes that as we disconnected from nature, setting ourselves up as able to control it, we lost sight of the interconnectedness of it. He presumes that men became drunk off the power of this and then began to see themselves as having "power over" everything, including women and their productive capabilities. I don't find this scenario entirely unplausible, but there's no evidence to support it as being true either.

What bothered me, however, about this claim was where the author went from there. I'll quote Emperor Palpatine here who claimed, "All who gain power are afraid to lose it." Johnson makes the same claim, stating that the fear of losing their power over women and everything else, is the prime force for the perpetuation of the patriarchy. Yet he frequently claims that we're so lost in the patriarchal system that men don't recognize they have such power and privilege. How can one be afraid to lose something they don't even know they have? Johnson makes no attempt to even consider this question and offers absolutely no evidence to support his "fear" hypothesis. Such pivotal things often go unsupported and uncited.

A related example of this is the claim that homosexuality is vilified because it threatens to upset the patriarchal order and men fear this since they have so much to lose. Yet if this were true, then women should support homosexuality, since they, conversely, have so much to gain. Yet this is obviously not true and Johnson doesn't bother to explore this or make any effort of support. Such "hit and run" statements without sticking around to look at the conclusions reminds me of something Richard Feynmann said at a commencement speech in 1974, where he speaks of
a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty--a kind of leaning over backwards. For example, if you're doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid--not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you've eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked--to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated.
The lack of such "utter honesty" greatly discouraged my appreciation of this book.

Meanwhile, I couldn't help but think, in this section, about another place in where I repeatedly heard the term "power over" used. It was in Gregory Boyd's book, Myth of a Christian Nation in which he noted that the right wing that sought to declare the US as a "Christian Nation" sought to spread their religion by forcing it onto others, and exerting "power over" them. The connection between religion and patriarchy isn't lost here (an issue I'll return to later).

Where the fear does come into play that Johnson explores in exhausting depth, is how men are afraid of losing the status they do realize, namely, their manliness. This goes back to the male identification discussed earlier, in which men are constantly having to show off their manliness to affirm their masculinity. This drives them to delve deeply into "manly" topics of sports, sex, and the like, which helps to reaffirm the gender roles and deepen the ruts in the patriarchal road.

I promised to say more about the bit on the industrial revolution transforming the patriarchy. When I initially discussed Elevatorgate with my sister, she wasn't at all surprised at the reaction of the general population and fired back with a claim that made me think she was downright crazy. She stated that sexism hasn't gotten better. It's actually worse than ever. Thinking of the women's rights movement which at least won women the right at least be legally permitted to hold any job awarding financial independence (even if not yet realized in practice), I couldn't see how this made any sense. But what the portion on the effect of the industrial revolution made me realize was that I was thinking too narrowly.

The idea is this: Prior to the industrial revolution, the labor performed by men and women wasn't readily distinguishable (in general cases. This obviously breaks down for the wealthy). Both sexes worked around the house. Both would help in the fields. Both would help with raising children, even if the specifics of each were different. Largely, the work was split, and fair credit was given to women, even if the man was still the "head" of the house. Men at least realized the interconnectedness. (At this point, I'm again connecting to things in the second section on why the system is perpetuated, but this topic bridges both sections well).

What happened in the industrial revolution is that work stopped being something that was done at home and in one's own fields. It was done elsewhere, in a factory. Thus one member had to leave the home to go there. Being that a patriarchy already existed, men were selected. But what drove this to cause the deep issue was that in this new society, worth wasn't measured by amount of work, it was measured in a new manner: By money. And men had it all. For the first time in history, the contributions of women, which still existed, were hidden from view, because they had no monetary value by which to measure it. As such, the respect women did have, vanished entirely and they became viewed as nothing more than a bunch of moochers.

In that respect, the gains women have made in the past ~50 years, has only served to help make up some of this ground. But because women on average, still can't compete with men financially (see: here for a recent example of this), the work they contribute isn't recognized, where as, prior to the industrial revolution, Johnson claims it was to a greater extent.

I haven't looked much into sexism prior to the industrial revolution to make an independent analysis of this and gut feeling tells me Johnson is overstating the view of women historically, but the point is an interesting one.

One of the best chapters in the first part, is on feminists and feminism. It began by looking at several stereotypes of feminism (that they're anti-family, no fun, male bashers, whiny pseudo-victims and all lesbians), and dismissed each one in turn. Not especially exciting, but I suppose that feminism has gotten such a bad rap, that it might be necessary to dispel such myths for some.

The interesting part was Johnson's discussion on some of the branches of feminism: liberal, radical, and Marxist. The first espoused that sexism was a product of miseducation and that all that needed to be done to fix it was get people a proper education. Radical feminism, as Johnson defines it, is the idea that you can't fix the problem by simply changing the people in the system, but rather, the system itself needed to be changed. In effect, that the entire male standard, our tiered system of government (based on power and control) and everything else that was male identified needed to be removed since such systems were inherently male biased and would only perpetuate the system which, in turn, influences the people in it. Marxist feminism laid the issues of sexism at the feet of unequal wealth, and claimed that if this could be fixed, equality would be reached.

It's interesting to reflect where I would stand in such a position. I'm very big on education being a driving force for change. In that sense, I identify with the liberal feminism. Yet I have to agree with the radical position that things won't change as long as the roots of the system are in place. However, this is again, where I start having a major issue with how gender labels become tossed around.

I understand our government is centered on powerful individuals, presidents, congressmen/women, supreme court justices, and the like, I don't buy that this is necessarily a bad thing. There's nothing wrong with power when used appropriately. If such positions were held by the most qualified, educated people, as opposed to career politicians and cronies, I can't find any fault with this. However, because such a system is associated with "male" traits, it comes under what I would consider, criticism for all the wrong reasons. It's attacked for being "male" as opposed to being corrupted by ideological idiots.

Another interesting aspect of this section, was the (briefly touched upon) interactions between the various camps. It resounded strongly of the "accommodationists vs. Gnus" fight in the skeptic movement. Jen McCreight and Rebecca Watson (I never realized until just now that typing "Rebecca" feels like typing "Chewbacca". Oh, the weird things I think of. Perhaps I need to sleep more) have both argued that skeptics should be natural allies with feminists since both suffer at the hands of religious oppression. Such parallels only underscore that connection.

So why does this system of inequality keep going? As I touched on earlier, it's because it's so "normal" to us, that it's effectively invisible. I've already provided examples of how it is written into our language. Another point Johnson makes is that women too go along with the system because it's simply easiest to do so. Fighting it requires great effort and often, personal sacrifice.

In many ways, we also disguise the problem by making it someone else's problem. It's not the problem of the oppressor, it's a "woman's issue" and even acknowledging that it exists is a kindness. But it's not something that males need to fix with themselves. A key example of this is how in sexual assault, the victim is often blamed. The "solution" is to warn women on walking alone at night, or providing mixed messages. Yet we ignore the deeper problem of the objectification of women that causes the issue in the first place. Another example Johnson provides of this is the rate of "teen pregnancies". The problem focuses on the females and their contributions. But rarely is there a mention of the males that contributed the other half. It's the women that have the problem. They're the ones that need to change.

And in many cases, that change means women are expected to conform even further to the patriarchal paradigm. Women that get ahead in business must conform to "male" traits of being competitive, cut throat, and often wears "men's" clothing. Again, this only serves to reinforce the status quo of the system, even if the inequality is somewhat lessened, and the wheels of the machine greased.

There's also a good section on false parallels that are used to deflect light being cast on the devaluation of females. The example given is especially good: When it's noted that females are made to be naturally evil (think Eve, Pandora, etc...), people often respond by pointing out the Devil is male. But what Johnson notes is different in these two scenarios is that for Eve, her evil, original sin, was borne from her gender which made her temptable, whereas for the Devil, it wasn't a flaw of his gender. As Johnson puts it,
It's hard to imagine how patriarchal Christianity would ever develop an evil female figure powerful and substantial enough to challenge God, for this would require that women be taken seriously. In other words, under patriarchy, women aren't good enough to be the devil.

There's another argument in the section that I find interesting that deals with sexual objectification, namely the difference between female strippers and male strippers. Many people would use the existence of both as a sign that viewing the opposite sex as sexual creatures is practiced by both sexes and thus, even if morally gray, not something that has a net harmful effect since it can go both ways.

Johnson tries to explain the difference between male strippers and female strippers by claiming that because we live in a patriarchy, male strippers are affirmed by taking their clothes off and admired by their social inferiors (women), whereas if a woman strips and is viewed by males, then she's looked down on by the social superiors (men) thanks to the patriarchy. In other words, parallel actions are magically transformed by their presence in a larger system. That difference reinforces the social differences and thus, pornography is harmful.

What strikes me as bizarre about this is that if we could somehow remove all gender inequality, somehow this would change, and pornography would be perfectly acceptable in this view as long as it went both ways.

I'm glad to see this argument because when pornography and sexism are often discussed, many people imagine that the implication is that pornography turns men into horrible raping monsters after one view. It's very similar to the notion that violent video games make kids shoot up schools. There's studies supporting these views, but there's also contradictory studies. Thus, it seems to me to be a wash. Thus, I'm pleased to see a real argument on why pornography is often frowned upon by those that are working towards gender equality. Still, I question just how large this effect is on reinforcing the patriarchal system. Such a topic is skipped over which brings Feynmann's admonition back to mind.

The next way Johnson explores that the patriarchy is hidden from view is that men often feel like victims too: We perform more dangerous jobs, have shorter lifespans, are disproportionally involved in violence (especially when called to war), and portrayed as bumbling fools in media. So are men not victims? The answer is yes. But being a victim and in a position of privilege and power aren't mutually exclusive.

This highlights another important theme of this work that I touched on earlier: Despite the fact that we often view gender inequalities as a "woman's issue" it effects both genders and is just as much a concern for men. We'll have to give up many of our privileges, but there's many other things men stand to gain that could replace it.

The last reason Johnson discusses that I think is an important point on why the existence and harm of our patriarchy is overlooked is the fear of feeling guilty; it's easier to bury our heads in the sand and ignore the problem than risk feeling guilty over the issue. This is illustrated by the example given in the very opening of the book that Johnson returns to: When drawing up lists of advantages and disadvantages of their genders, men, by and large, do a pretty comprehensive job of listing all of the disadvantages of women. They know the problem exists, but don't do anything about it.

Which begs the question (that is addressed in the final two chapters of the book), "What do we do about it?"

The first of these chapters gives one recommendation: Men need to be the driving force since we're the ones with the power to enact much of the change. But for all the reasons listed earlier, we're too busy ignoring the problem to do so. Since many of those reasons are simple awareness issues (which could be fixed with some education), Johnson concentrates on the deeper one of guilt. He states that men need to accept that patriarchy exists, but realize that, although they are wrapped in the system, they are not, individually, the cause of it and thus, should get past the guilt. Nor can we pass the blame.

In the last chapter, Johnson also discusses how we have to get over our own egos. He doesn't put it in these terms but that's what it boils down to: We can't give up because we will only get involved if we can play a pivotal role, or we want to see the fruition of ending men's privilege within our lifetimes. Rather, we need to change the "paths of least resistance" so that future generations will have options that aren't so entrenched in a patriarchal paradigm.

Johnson notes that there are numerous little ways to do this, and I'm not going to go through all of them, but there are some that I want to highlight in specific:

"Dare to make people feel uncomfortable, beginning with yourself" - One of the most important things I ever learned as a student that informed my thinking as a teacher is that education should be uncomfortable. If it isn't, we're not moving out of our comfort zones in which we already know everything. Exploring always takes a bit of daring and shouldn't be something that's always comfortable.

"Because patriarchy is rooted in principles of domination and control, pay attention to racism and other forms of oppression that draw from those same roots" - As I noted earlier, the feminist movement should be a natural ally of skeptics who have also suffered.

That's the end of the book there. As a summary, this book had a good skeleton to it:

- Gender inequality exists
- It comes from a patriarchal system which emphasizes the "male" values of control and dominance
- It hurts both men and women
- We can't change it if we ignore it, which we do
- Change is going to be hard

Most of these points are well demonstrated. The weakest link is that patriarchy causes the gender in equality, although it's somewhat self evident.

But while this book has a good skeleton to it, many of the individual points that flesh it out seem haphazardly tossed out. Material that relates better to one topic is often found entirely elsewhere or is repeated at length. That's the biggest flaw of this book in my opinion: It's poor presentation for good material.

It has (hopefully) provided a good basis for more reading on the subject that I'll undoubtedly be doing. If anyone has recommendations for more books on the topic, let me know so I can investigate those.