Friday, July 03, 2015

Moose Affect Memory


From the CBC comes this interesting story of a man who had a moose encounter and promptly lost his memory.

This is not surprising at all to moose aficionados.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Obama and "Amazing Grace"


Of all the songs that gave momentum to the civil rights movement in the US, "Amazing Grace" stands out (for me) as one of the most repulsive.

For one thing, the Christian doctrine of grace is really reprehensible. "Grace" means that humans are "depraved" because of Adam's fall, that they cannot rationally respond to an offer of "salvation" from Christ, so the Christian god actually overrides man's will so he will "repent" and "be saved", and that Christ's offer is meant for the "elect", which is independent of one's moral character or good works. To the extent that this nonsense is meaningful, it is evidently quite sick: it denigrates human beings as worthless wretches, and it allows those who believe they are among the "elect" to feel superior to everyone else.

For another, the song was written by a slave trader, John Newton, who underwent a religious conversion after a life-threatening storm at sea (but nevertheless continued in the slave trade for several years afterwards). How this became a civil rights anthem is anyone's guess, but it seems wildly inappropriate.

Far better, in my opinion, is "We Shall Overcome", which is both lyrically and melodically superior.

So I have to admit that when President Obama sang "Amazing Grace" at the eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney, I was not particularly moved at all. However, I certainly recognize that, for the community he was addressing, the song has strong resonance. But "We Shall Overcome" would have been a much better choice.

And even worse was Obama's remarks on religion:

"Blinded by hatred, [the killer] failed to comprehend what Reverend Pinckney so well understood — the power of God’s grace... This whole week, I’ve been reflecting on this idea of grace. The grace of the families who lost loved ones; the grace that Reverend Pinckney would preach about in his sermons; the grace described in one of my favorite hymnals, the one we all know — Amazing Grace. How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. According to the Christian tradition, grace is not earned. Grace is not merited. It’s not something we deserve. Rather, grace is the free and benevolent favor of God."

I'm sorry, Mr. President, I think "grace" is one of the most repulsive of all Christian beliefs.

"The hands that help are better far than lips that pray." -- Robert Ingersoll

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

I Don't Recommend This Although It Looks Like Fun


For one, thing, it appears to be illegal.


But in a better world, the rich would walk, while the poor would ride moose.

Moose Demonstrates Inherent Superiority to Cat



With all due respect to Jerry Coyne, the moose is clearly superior to the cat. This video from Youtube proves it.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Gay Marriage is a Constitutional Right


The Supreme Court's decision is already being greeted with predictions of doom, destruction, revolution, and so forth by the far Right.

Guess what will really happen? The same thing that happened in Canada.

Nothing at all, except that a small segment of the population will now have the protections usually associated with marriage. And the opponents will, in twenty or thirty years, be seen as archaic as opponents of interracial marriage do today.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Noel Sharkey's Mistake


I heard a radio piece about a new "emotionally aware" robot being introduced in Japan. The interviewer talked to Noel Sharkey, a UK computer scientist.

Sharkey cast doubt on the "emotionally aware" claim. The robot is not really emotionally aware, Sharkey claimed; rather, it's just using an algorithm to detect emotion in humans and respond appropriately.

I wonder just how Prof. Sharkey thinks people detect emotion in other humans? If not an algorithm, what does he think is going on in the brain? Is it magic?

I'm always amused to hear people -- even computer experts like Sharkey -- complain that computers can't "really" do something, whether it be compose music, or write poetry, or detect emotion. But these naysayers never seem to explain what it would mean to "really" do these things. It's like complaining that airplanes don't "really" fly because they don't flap their wings the way birds do.

Friday, June 19, 2015

The Connection Between Intelligent Design & Anti-Gay Bigotry


Those of us who have studied the intelligent design controversy know well that it is a political and religious movement, not a scientific one.

Here is yet more evidence. This ridiculous "pledge" against gay marriage was signed by two major figures of the intelligent design movement: Jay Richards and Jonathan Witt.

Jay Richards and Jonathan Witt are both senior fellows of the Discovery Institute, the principal propaganda arm of the intelligent design movement. Neither of them, of course, has any advanced scientific training. That lack of knowledge doesn't prevent them from writing, at great length, about the supposed flaws of evolution, and the virtues of intelligent design.

Denialism is a principle part of the worldview of the signers. When they write things like

  • "We affirm that marriage and family have been inscribed by the Divine Architect into the order of Creation."
  • "Marriage is ontologically between one man and one woman"
  • "the truth that marriage can exist only between one man and one woman is not based on religion or revelation alone, but on the Natural Law, written on the human heart and discernible through the exercise of reason"
  • "No civil institution, including the United States Supreme Court or any court, has authority to redefine marriage."
  • "Neither the United States Supreme Court nor any court has authority to redefine marriage"
  • "marriage intrinsically involves a man and a woman"
one can only recall that exactly the same kinds of things were said when Loving v. Virginia was decided, and then roll one's eyes.

Judge Leon Bazile wrote, when he upheld Virginia's anti-miscegenation law, "Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix." Is the congruence between Bazile's decision and the statement that Richards and Witt signed not completely obvious to everyone?

Denialism of social change like gay marriage and denialism of scientific theories like evolution are just two sides of the same coin. Both are essentially rooted in mindless adherence to religious dogma and the fear that if one does not adhere to the same principles, then chaos is the result. They were wrong about Loving and they're wrong today.

Friday Moose Blogging


From Washington state comes this heartwarming story of a moose that shut down a high school. You can't be too careful when there are moose terrorists on the loose. I blame Obama.

Hat tip: RM.

Monday, June 08, 2015

Uncommon Descent Coward and Hypocrite Timaeus Attacks Larry Moran


Wow, a whole thread at the creationist blog Uncommon Descent devoted to attacking Larry Moran!

The cowardly "Timaeus", an academic who is not brave enough to use his real name, takes issue with Larry Moran's blog because "I couldn’t find a single article on evolutionary theory [by Larry] in a peer-reviewed journal on the subject for over 10 years into the past. For someone who has so many opinions on evolution, and voices them so loudly in non-professionally-controlled environments such as blog sites, you are surprisingly absent from the professional discussions. Perhaps you can explain the inverse relationship between your popular involvement in debates over evolution and your visibility in the technical books and articles on the subject of evolution."

Timaeus goes on to say "Larry Moran is a nobody in evolutionary theory, a biochemistry teacher at Toronto with an interest in evolutionary theory who is convinced he knows more about it than almost everyone else on the planet, but with no track record to corroborate that opinion."

"That’s the problem with the internet age. Through web sites and blogs, it gives people the ability to be prominent, and many readers assume that prominence equals importance."

It's true that Larry seems to have done most of his research work in the 1980's and 1990's. Without much work, I found articles by Larry in famous journals like Molecular and Cellular Biology, Journal of Cell Biology, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (US), and Developmental Biology. Since then, he's been involved with Principles of Biochemistry, a major textbook. As anyone who's worked on a textbook like this knows, it's an incredible time sink. Larry deserves our appreciation and thanks for devoting himself so selflessly to biological education.

Science is often a young person's game. Many scientists do their best work in their 20's and 30's. Later on they often go into administration, or write textbooks. Larry is not much different from many scientists in this regard.

Timaeus seems to think you have to do research in evolutionary theory in order to discuss it. That's sort of like saying that you have to do research in analysis in order to discuss freshman calculus. Pretty much any mathematician can differentiate and integrate; it's a basic tool of many fields. Similarly, evolution underlies much of modern biology. Most biologists will have had advanced training in the theory of evolution. Creationists and ID advocates typically have misunderstandings at a very basic level, and that's what Larry is correcting.

Timaeus claims "It seems to be merely his [Larry's] own private judgment that he knows more about evolutionary mechanisms than anyone else, that he thinks more clearly than anyone else, etc.". Later he says "But Moran apparently takes himself quite seriously as an evolutionary theorist". And later, "why does this guy think he is so important a figure in modern evolutionary theory". Who says Larry knows more about evolutionary mechanisms than anyone else? Where did he ever say he was "an evolutionary theorist"? Where did Larry ever say he is "so important a figure"? Timaeus seems to have just made that all up.

Timaeus seems to not understand what a blog is. He says "[Larry] could not write in that style in an academic journal of evolutionary theory. Any article written in that style would be rejected. So would any book, if written for a serious academic scientific publisher." But a blog is not an academic journal or a book; it's often just an outlet for things that interest the blogger. Timaeus seems not to understand that.

Furthermore, Timaeus doesn't apply the same standards to Uncommon Descent. Does Timaeus think the ravings of Barry Arrington, Denyse O'Leary, and William Dembski on that blog could be published in an academic journal? Does Timaeus remember the fart noises that Dembski so delighted in? Or the time Barry Arrington cited a fake quote that he attributed to Margaret Sanger? Did Timaeus offer a word of objection to these (which are just two of dozens and dozens of similar examples)?

Timaeus huffs that "[Science] does not belong in the arena of culture war and popular rhetoric. It belongs in the arena of sober professional discussion." Actually, popular science has existed for a very long time. Famous scientists like Einstein and Watson and Sagan all wrote popular books. As for "culture war", surely it is the creationists and ID advocates who have spent most of their time in culture war and popular rhetoric, and hardly any time at all in research. For evidence, all you have to do is look at Bio-complexity, the flagship ID journal. Here it is June, and they don't even have a single article posted yet for 2015. Last year they published a total of 4.

Timaeus sneers, "But it is interesting that often the people who are the most dismissive of the views of others are those with the least scientific accomplishment themselves — or those who at one time had accomplishments themselves, but as they have become older have tended to “coast” and involve themselves more in popular book-writing, blogging, flashy stage debates, etc. (e.g., Dawkins, Coyne, Ken Miller)."

Let's see: Denyse O'Leary writes endlessly about "Darwinism", which she dismisses as "publicly funded nonsense". What scientific accomplishments does she have?

Barry Arrington writes about information theory, but doesn't understand it at all. What scientific accomplishments does he have?

David Klinghoffer does the same. What scientific accomplishments does he have?

I don't see Timaeus offering any criticism at all of these folks. And this is the same Timaeus who says "You are so partisan it’s disgusting." Timaeus, you're a hypocrite.

(By the way, Timaeus, Dawkins is 74. Coyne is 65. Moran is about 67, I think. Maybe Timaeus will still be producing good research at those ages, but not everybody can. I'm 57 and I definitely feel like I'm slowing down. But calling it "coasting" is really offensive. A little charity is called for.)

The commenters on that post at Uncommon Descent aren't much better. Mapou (that is, Louis Savain), says "The shrill tone of people like Moran, Coyne and Dawkins is a sign of desperation. This culture did not exist 20 years ago." What? Has Savain never read any Duane Gish? The anti-evolutionists have been shrill for at least 90 years; I own a book by Louis T. More published in 1925 that sounds just like ID creationists today.

Timaeus says, "I’m not happy to listen to self-appointed referees laying down the law, week after week, in column after column, regarding who is ignorant, who is wrong, etc., in areas in which their own expertise has not been demonstrated." Then why does he read Larry's blog? No one's forcing Timaeus to listen.

Timaeus goes on to say, "I’m not against genuine academic discussions about evolution, policed by traditional academic rules; but the blogosphere has created a new, in-between kind of debate over evolution, led by scientists who are taking time off from their day jobs to become internet stars and gain internet followings, and who seem to think that their pronouncements on these academically unchecked sites have the same epistemological status as the conclusions of a well-executed research program. I really dislike this trend. It blurs the distinction between serious academic discussion and bar-room conversation in what is to me a dangerous way. Larry Moran, Jeffrey Shallit, P.Z. Myers, and others are guilty of this."

Oh, goody, I get criticized, too. Hey Timaeus, I've got news for you: I'm not an "internet star". My little blog hardly gets any readers at all; Uncommon Descent and Pharyngula both get many more hits than I do. I've never claimed anything like "[my] pronouncements on these academically unchecked sites have the same epistemological status as the conclusions of a well-executed research program"; you're just making that shit up. As for P. Z. Myers, one reason why people read him is that he's a damn good writer. Read his essay "Niobrara" for a sample. Hell, if I could write that well, I'd probably have more readers.

Timaeus says, "but there may be some less partisan people out there who just assumed that Larry was someone like Mayr or Ayala or Gould". Geez, you'd have to be a real moron to assume that Larry was on the same par as Mayr or Gould. Anybody who spent five minutes looking could see that his specialty is biochemistry and not evolution. Timaeus should give Larry's readers more credit; maybe they're not as stupid as Timaeus seems to think they are.

How something is being said is very important. Arrogance and abrasiveness, dismissiveness and name-calling, get in the way of genuine conversation. This is why Matzke, Shallit, Moran, Myers, Abbie Smith, etc. have made evolution/design conversations worse rather than better. Oh, great, I get another mention! Apparently I've made "evolution/design conversations worse rather than better". Timaeus makes no mention of the long article in Synthese I wrote with Elsberry in which we showed why Dembski's use of information theory is nonsense. But then, hardly any ID creationists have taken notice of that article or my other work on the subject. It took Dembski three years to admit a fundamental flaw in one of his calculations. What do you think, Timaeus? Is Dembski making the conversation worse or better? How about Dembski and the fart noises?

As for name-calling, just read Uncommon Descent. Evolutionists are routinely labeled as racist, as ignorant, as deluded, as "tax-funded" fools, and so forth. Clean up your own stable, first. It really reeks.

Timaeus says to a commenter, "If you are an evolutionary biologist, why can’t you tell us who you are and where you work? Not being an ID proponent, you can’t possibly lose your job, grants, career, etc. if your employer knows your real name (which is unfortunately the case for myself and several others here)."

Oh, right, the usual ID paranoia. I really, really doubt that Timaeus is in any danger by outing himself as an ID creationist. Sure, people will laugh at him the way we laugh at academics who engage in 9/11 conspiracy theories or global warming denial. But it seems very, very unlikely he would be in any danger of losing his job.

Timaeus sneers, "It is perhaps a certain provincialism derived from your experience (or more likely hearsay knowledge) of certain American research universities or university departments, where there are professors hired solely to do research, which causes you to make this error. You imagine that Toronto is something like that. But in most countries outside of the USA (and even in the USA at many if not most universities) the job teaching/research is a package deal. You don’t switch from one function to the other; you do both."

Actually, Timaeus is wrong. Generally speaking (but not always) professors are expected to do teaching and scholarly work, not necessarily just research. Writing and updating a major biochemistry textbook certainly falls under the kind of scholarly work professors are expected to do.

Finally, to answer one more of Timaeus' questions, why don't most famous evolutionary biologists get involved in attacking ID? For the same reason most famous mathematicians don't get involved in attacking Cantor crackpots, or famous computer scientists don't get involved with those who think Turing's proof of unsolvability is wrong: they have better things to do. They are happy to leave these quixotic quests to those few of us who are fascinated by cranks and pathological thought.