Can Texan students now claim that π=3 & still get an A? Maybe…

August 31, 2007

As we head into the new school year, the great state of Texas will start it with a bizarre new bill in force. While the bill is ostensibly to protect religious speech by students from discrimination, such protections are already law (in fact, the supposedly anti-Christian ACLU is often the one defending students who are discriminated against), and the actual language of the bill instead seems intended to mainline religious devotions led by students as standard part of all public school activities.

The pernicious effect, of course, is to change the meaning of religious freedom. Current law protects the right of any student to voluntarily attend prayer gatherings, form religious student groups, or to freely express their beliefs in any open forum. This Texas law, however, carves out a framework for all school events in which only certain students selected by the school administrators get to speak (only students that get “honors,” as defined any way the school wants, qualify). What this provides is a handy dandy way to have students preach their religion or lead the entire school in prayers on a regular and established basis. A student’s constitutional freedom to gather and be a part of religious events by their choice is replaced by a framework in which every single school event, mandatory or not, can be turned into a prayer meeting. The school needs only to include a disclaimer that the student is not speaking officially for the school (wink wink).

I’m not quite as worried this aspect of the bill as PZ Myers at Pharyngula is though. While the bill’s authors are certainly playing a clever game, they seem to be playing by the letter of the law, if not anywhere close to the spirit. And we have a good idea, in fact, how this game will likely play out.

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Larry Craig was Entrapped: the case for Officer Karsnia as a blackmailer

August 31, 2007

With so many people focusing on the political aspects of Senator’s Craig’s arrest (including the outrageously hypocritical calls for Craig to resign, when no such calls were made for Senator Vitter, who outright admitted to sleeping with prostitutes) as well as the “is he or isn’t” debate over his homosexuality, something really important has been left in the dust.

Officer Karsnia should also be facing scrutiny, because the facts of the case could also support the idea that he essentially blackmailed Craig into pleading without any evidence of a crime that would have held up in court.

I do not sympathize with Craig’s politics. I do not respect his endorsement of creationism and attempt to legislate it into the school system. If he is in fact “on the down low,” then he is a hypocrite, especially as one of the architects of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. His use of his Senatorial business card, apparently to seek special treatment, is also pretty smarmy.

Irrelevant. None of that changes the fact that the police report fails to document any real, prosecutable crime as far as I can tell.

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Jonathan Wells exposed: Intelligence used to design falsehoods

August 31, 2007

Peppered moths are a classic evolutionary example of how a previously unknown trait can appear in a population and then come to dominate it due to a particular environmental change. That, of course, has also made them a major target for creationists, and Discovery Institute fellow Dr. Jonathan Wells has spent much of his career in trying to discredit the example, most famously by trying to claim that a posed example picture used in introductory textbooks somehow invalidated the detailed statistical results they were used to illustrate.

Today, Mike Dunford does a fantastic job explaining exactly how Wells is still grossly misrepresenting both the original classic study as well as a recent definitive re-testing of the key predation results.

What’s really embarrassing here is that Wells, unlike many of his Intelligent Design fellows, actually has a PhD. in biology, which, if still not in quite the right field for evaluating zoological field research, at least requires one to understand how to read and evaluate a technical paper. So mere ignorance cannot be his excuse for the errors and misrepresentations Dunford highlights.

Unfortunately, Wells also has something else: directions straight from God’s final representative on Earth, the Reverend Sun Yung Moon (a man who most recently crowned himself “humanity’s Savior, Messiah, Returning Lord and True Parent.”), to destroy “Darwinism.”

“Father’s [Sun Myung Moon’s] words, my studies, and my prayers convinced me that I should devote my life to destroying Darwinism, just as many of my fellow Unificationists had already devoted their lives to destroying Marxism. When Father chose me (along with about a dozen other seminary graduates) to enter a Ph.D. program in 1978, I welcomed the opportunity to prepare myself for battle.” –Jonathan Wells, Darwinism: Why I Went for a Second Ph.D.

Just to be clear, Wells’ religion does not discredit his arguments. Rather, it is his religion that helps explain why he’s apparently sees fit to deceive people and misrepresent science.

Bonus: Another great article on The Other 95% dealing with some recent confused ID inquiries into the matter of comparative phylogenomics. Invertebrate freak Kevin makes a strong case that the critics hadn’t even read the paper they were attacking, and certainly don’t understand the scientific concepts involved.

The Blessed Virgin Mary chose this garage door for great things

August 30, 2007

momary.pngI almost hate to comment on these sorts of stories, but apparently the Blessed Virgin Mary has more messages for mankind, and she’s decided to communicate them by appearing on a garage door. At around 5:30pm every day. In Minersville, PA. Conclusion?

“The Blessed Virgin Mary is trying to tell us something. A miracle is going to happen in the next few weeks. What, when, why, I don’t know but I feel she’s trying to tell us something,” said Joanne Deconcini.

Well sure: I know that whenever I want to tell my wife to pick up some more Coke Zero on her way home from work, I never outright tell her this: instead I just cryptically email her a blurry photo of myself. How, when, why this would work, I don’t know, but this one time she brought home some leftover Chinese food, which was sort of a miracle.

Seriously though: if Mary has a message, and if she has the power to bend light or burn images into garage doors, why not just write out her message in nice, big letters, or maybe at least attempt sign language? Why appear as just a jiggling indistinct blob? If this is some sort of game of spiritual charades, these aren’t exactly helpful clues.

“I think it’s wonderful, actually, that there’s actually an image on somebody’s garage door and she moves back and forth and she doesn’t stay still. To me it’s a blessing for me to have her here in Minersville,” said Peggy Mayhue. (emp added)

woodjes.pngMoving back and forth you say? Well, that puts the Samurai Fence-Jesus in Lodi, CA to shame.

Look, obviously the people here are searching and sincere, and I hope they get a thrill out of this or even that it helps motivate them to do something good. But these have to be some of the silliest examples of pareodalia I’ve ever seen. Even Bugeyed Pancake-Jesus was a better likeness of a person.

The worst part about this story is the people’s attempt at some token skepticism: “witnesses also said if you touch the image no shadow from the sun appears. The image remains.” But if you are going to try to debunk something, why be timid? Get a heavy blanket, hold it above your head and then blot out all possible external sources of light (including those reflected from below) with you inside up against the garage: either the image will then appear on the back of the blanket instead, or it will remain on the garage with you in the dark. Either way, you’ve at least learned something, which is a whole lot better than just standing around in the street.

Update: Remember the claims about how the light cannot be put in shadow? Watch the video at this blog about the story. Sure looks like people’s shadows are blocking it out to me…

Hitchens on Mother Theresa & a pox on both the gloating & the glib

August 30, 2007

I’ve made no secret that Christopher Hitchens is my least favorite of the big three “New Atheist” writers: he’s a masterful essayist, but being deft with words doesn’t necessarily prevent your arguments from being crude. I’ve also made no secret that I think trying too hard to psycho-analyze the beliefs of others is, to put it mildly, a rather dangerously indulgent vice.

So with those two things going against him, it comes as something of a surprise that I thought Hitchen’s essay on the latest hubbub over Theresa’s missing Jesus joy is worth a read. Hitchen’s brief quotes in the original Time article were somewhat clumsy and off-key, and of course won him no love from thoughtful Catholics. In this latest article, Hitchens is no less harsh, but develops a narrative of Theresa’s life and suffering that is, if not exactly a full or fair judgment on her life, at least provides some plausible balance to all the saccharine peans to the misery of doubt.

Catholics are more than justified in defending their faith from simplistic swipes and gloating on this issue (especially from Protestants, eager for signs that Catholicism is a dead end). But at the same time, many of these defenses are just too glib and tidy to be believable. When literally anything at all is explained away as just more evidence and testimony to the importance of faith, it’s not clear that anything is being explained at all. As I said before: sometimes doubts are a message worth listening to rather than a grand opportunity for a mental passion play.

So is it really so impertinent to suggest that perhaps Theresa might have been happier if she loosened up even a little on her fanatical devotion? Or, instead of jumping straight to the conclusion that she was a saint suffering on a wondrous spiritual cross, at least entertaining the idea perhaps she suffered needlessly from untreated clinical depression? Isn’t it possible that, just as Mother Theresa exploited and was exploited by the simplistic image of herself as uncomplicated savior to the helpless people of Calcutta, her very human sufferings are now set to be endlessly exploited for the benefit of utterly unapologetic apologia?

Berlinksi, whales, and why Intelligent Design can’t get no respect

August 29, 2007

A commenter expressed incredulity about my claim that ID proponents engage in deception and gross misrepresentations of science.

So to help prove my point in a timely fashion, along comes a video of Intelligent Design mathematician David Berlinski explaining why it’s implausible to imagine a cow evolving into a whale.

As many science bloggers have pointed out, we could just stop at the title: no possible understanding of evolutionary taxonomy could possibly lead one to believe that cows are relevant comparisons to the ancestors of whales and dolphins (amazingly, he even mentions a relevant ancestor, Ambulocetus, later in the video; so where did cows come from?). The entire thought experiment makes virtually no sense on any level, and his bizarre implication that biologists do not employ mathematics, let alone quantitative analysis, is just boldly ignorant.

But none of that even compares to sheer grandiose absurdity of Berlinski’s claim that he, with his supposedly unique grasp of the quantitative (i.e., in this case, counting) “stopped at” thinking of 50,000 differences between a cow and a whale, implying that he, personally, literally really did go through the process of listing them all out, one by one.

Here’s a bit of math for Berlinski: even if he was capable of listing out these differences at an implausibly fast average rate of one every ten seconds, it would still take more than 5 days of non-stop 24hr activity to accomplish this seemingly trifling task. Does he really expect anyone to believe that he actually did this? How was he sure that he didn’t double-count something during either in one marathon session of counting, or in many many counting sessions over many weeks? If he wrote anything down to prevent this sort of thing, that would just make the time required shoot upwards dramatically.

And what happened when he hit 40,000 after a few days of solid, uninterrupted counting? Does he really expect people to believe that he shrugged and said to himself “ah well, I might as well do 10,000 more, and then arbitrarily stop, just for kicks!”

Here’s a much more plausible explanation: Berlinski is full of it, and by my calculations, it wouldn’t even take a single morphological change to turn this guy into a laughingstock.

Update: If you’re tired of just rolling your eyes at Berlinski, and want to actually, well, learn something about whales and their family tree, check out this tour de force post on the evolution of locomotion methods over at Laelaps, covering the everything from the early lobed-fishes all the way down to the glorious cetaceans. What do we find here in everything from locomotion methods to skeletal structure? Why, nested clades of course: that ever so distinctive hallmark of ancestry.

The Gay Old Party: a Republican base in denial about their party’s tolerance

August 29, 2007

Dale Carpenter over at the Volokh Conspiracy returns to a subject that I’m always amazed more people don’t talk about: the vast majority of Republican politicians and staffers in Washington aren’t actually anti-gay.  We’re not just talking about the Log Cabin Republicans either: we’re talking about many people within RNC, that work on Republican campaigns, that serve as Congressional staff, and so on.  Nor is this even a secret among Republicans in Washington.  It just isn’t talked about in public.

This most-recent case of (R)Senator Larry Craig’s arrest, supposedly for “cruising” an airport bathroom, just underscores that this is a party in which the base is grossly out of touch with the professional class that runs it in Washington D.C. While Republicans in the capitol have learned to keep their tolerant attitudes quiet by token oppositions to gay rights, this juggling act can’t go on forever. Someday, perhaps soon, the Republican party is either going to have to come to face with itself and end their de facto “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy on gay politicians and staffers, or outright purge the party of homosexual leaders and employees. Carpenter believes that the latter is pragmatically impossible. We’ll see if Republican leaders can gather the guts to do the former before this issue tears them apart.

(By the way, gay or straight, I think that there is a good case to be made that Senator Craig got railroaded here: nothing in his charged conduct was actually illegal as far as I can tell, and he was basically blackmailed into pleading guilty on disorderly conduct so as to avoid the publicity of trying to refute the allegations publicly in court.)