Freddoso Responds: More on the National Review & Stem Cells Debate

November 23, 2007

Freddoso responds, and again, I think there’s plenty I agree with him on (as long as I grant, for the sake of argument, his belief that its morally wrong to destroy embryos at all).

I’ll just cover what I think he gets wrong.

Read the rest of this entry »

Blue Ghost Video: Amateur Skeptics Trounce Professional Journalists

November 23, 2007

Here’s someone that actually did their homework in examining the phenomenon of a supposed “blue ghost” seen on a gas station surveillance camera. They observe the situation, form hypotheses, examine the evidence, and even run some tests on the plausibility of their possible explanations for what was seen.

With a little production value, why couldn’t something like this be what gets on TV instead of some poor reporter out trolling for a fluff piece… and then predictably delivering fluff?

The Environment: Population Growth is the Solution, not the Problem!

November 23, 2007

This woman seems to believe that she’s helping to save the planet by not having any kids. Her math is pretty simple: a few more human beings means less resources, more burden on the environment, and so on. She likes the environment the way it is it seems, and fair enough.

But I think she’s got it totally backwards. Economist Julian Simon had it right, I think: the lesson of human progress is that more people means more minds to solve problems, and we can ultimately solve problems faster than we make them. What matters is not the number of people, but whether they have the education and the political and economic liberty to act and adapt. That doesn’t mean we can’t improve and preserve the natural environment if that’s what we value. It’s just that the only plausible way we’ll be able to do so is via political and technological solutions.

Less kids doesn’t do anything to bring those solutions about, and it just as well might mean less scientists, thinkers, and workers willing to innovate those solutions and then bring them into being. Worse, if she presumably would have raised her kids to care about the environment, it will also just mean a lower percentage of people on the planet that share that value!

Less total people does not necessarily mean more resources consumed in any case. If the supply of human beings is lower, then this means the price of the world’s resources overall will be less (since the supply is the same, but demand has reduced): everyone left could and probably would just ultimately consume more. Less people just means bigger shares of the earth for everyone else, not less consumption period.

So this woman’s decision to sterilize herself is probably pointless, at least insofar as reaching her goal of a cleaner earth. Luckily, someone has already thought of a solution to such poor judgment: tubal ligations can now be surgically reversed!

Stem Cells: Liars to the Left of You, Hypocrites to the Right…

November 23, 2007

As I noted earlier, Corner-blogger David Freddoso is quite right to call out the dishonesty on the pro-ESCR side. I even mostly agreed with Yuval Levin’s original post about the hopes that Bush’s strategy of caution on stem cells would ultimately work out well for pluralism, even though I still don’t agree that it works out well morally.

But the thing is, where is “Time for Some Truth” Freddoso when his fellow Cornerites and National Review pensters carry out their own glaring omissions and distortions in their presentation of science?

Take this Wesley J. Smith article, rather improbably crediting George Bush as the man responsible for a scientific advance based on what science he didn’t choose to fund. As biologist PZ Myers notes, Smith leaves out one rather important element of the story that is pretty problematic for his whole thesis: that the very research he is touting is in part based on knowledge gained from embryonic stem cell research, and will continue to require yet more research on embryonic stem cells to perfect and take it forwards. In other words, the premise that research on embryonic stem cells was and is a blind alley that has so far produced nothing, and that George Bush actually advanced our scientific understanding by helping us avoid it, is flat out false: a gross oversimplification that’s just meant to play into a politically-correct narrative.

Freddoso? Levin?

This is what I mean about both sides of this debate coasting along on the falsehoods peddled by their fellows. Both sides whine about the dishonesty and spin of the other side, and then they quietly sit by as their allies play the same game.

Pretty much of what’s being done in this field of reprogramming, regardless of the provenance of cell lines, is about research: unlocking the big mysteries of cell biology and programming. It isn’t directly about making cures: that’s the expectation and the ultimate expected benefit, but not the practical or even really the theoretical focus. It’s dishonest when Democratic politicians pretend that stem cell panaceas are right around the corner (or even more ridiculously, that they already exist but evil Republicans won’t let you have them), but it’s also dishonest when Republican spinsters claim that an immediate lack of direct applications and treatments proves the uselessness of any one avenue of research.

Generally, the only people who hold the other side accountable is… the other side. That’s not unexpected, I suppose. But maybe it should lead more folks to title posts “Time for Some Truth on Stem Cells” with a big emphasis on the “Some.”

Stem Cell Debaterama, Part One: The Stakes

November 22, 2007

With the recent blockbuster breakthrough in stem cell research sparking up plenty of renewed bickering over the importance of embryonic stem cell research, I thought I’d devote a couple of posts to the controversy.

Let’s be honest. Both sides of this issue have long been coasting along on some pretty shady narratives.

Read the rest of this entry »

Hillary Can’t Outlaw Our Thoughts If We Refuse to Think!

November 21, 2007

If you thought the far left went overboard in their implausible fears of George Bush as eternal dictator, wait till you get a load of the depths of paranoia the far right has in store at the very thought of a President Clinton.

To be honest, I’m not all that psyched about the possibility of White House Hillary myself, and bringing back the “Fairness Doctrine” is just about one of the worst ideas anyone has had since we eliminated the Fairness Doctrine. But forgive me if I don’t ever stoop to grostesquely butchering poor Martin Niemöller’s “first they came for” poem for something as petty as shilling for a particular party primary candidate.

74th Skeptic’s Circle & Other Likable Links

November 21, 2007

Med Journal Watch is hosting the 74th bi-weekly Skeptic’s Circle: a free and sumptuous smörgåsbord of skeptical scrivenings.

Some more splendid splutterings worth your blogosphere business:

The Bug Girl lays into what I found to be a downright astonishingly awful mix of sexism and scientific ignorance spread by Jerry Seinfeld’s Bee Movie.

If you finally want to understand what Quantum Theory is really all about, then don’t miss The Quantum Pontiff’s recent “Learn Quantum Theory in Ten Minutes.”

If instead you want to truly understand how profoundly silly and wonderful comic books are, then you will be drawn by a mysterious power to over to The Presidential Fury of Future Lincoln from Chris’ Invincible Super-Blog.

Alternatively, you can just make yourself upset all over again as The Agitator’s Radley Balko looks back on the one year anniversary of 92-year old Kathryn Johnston’s murder by Atlanta police officers. Going to Hooters is apparently a big no no in the wonderful world of no-knock S.W.A.T. antics: repeatedly killing innocent civilians? Eh… whatcha gonna do, cry about it? Remember: the police always, always execute the dog, and if you mouth off about it, they’ll taser you just for good measure.

Update: And then some back and shoot the dog some more, for fun. Seriously, if police officers, who for the most part are overworked folks who have to deal with scum and villainy day in and day out, don’t want ordinary people to think that their profession is full of sadists, psychopaths, and screwups, how about taking a stand against these sorts of abuses of power rather than shrugging them off or even making excuses for them?

Planned Parenthood is Misleading You: The Pill Probably can Kill Embryos

November 21, 2007

Richard Carrier doesn’t just jujitsu apart bogus books. He also regularly takes his fellow pro-choicers to task for a dirty bit of obfuscation over the issue of the birth control pill’s affect on fertilized embryos.

Simply put, there’s a good case that pro-life pharmacists aren’t crazy when they worry that the morning after pill, or even the regular birth control pill, can cause abortions (which they define as including anything that actively prevents a fertilized embryo from implanting and surviving), and then refuse to proscribe the medication on moral grounds. They might be unethically breaching their profession’s duties, depending on how you define them, misleading and hurting their customers, or even dishonestly shortchanging their employers. But their suggestion that these medications can lead to the death of post-conception embryos (via blocking implantation) isn’t, as it is so often portrayed by even some pro-lifers, an improbable lie. Certainly, it isn’t the common mechanism of contraception, but as Carrier notes, the blocking of implantation is perfectly possible (which is what matters to pro-life folks), and the presentation of the science in this area by advocates of the morning-after pill, or even the regular pill, seems decidedly misleading and deceptive. Per Carrier:

Since the effects on the endometrium are fully documented and conceded by these authors, and since as a matter of established physiology these changes will certainly reduce the probability (which is a fancy word for frequency) of successful implantation of fertilized embryos, and since it is an equally established fact that chemical birth control often fails to prevent fertilization, I do not see how the authors of this paper can honestly get away with dismissing the obvious outcome as “unknown.”

Even the maker’s of Plan B, which works primarily by suppressing ovulation, state right on their product information page that it can prevent implantation.  Which is a plus if you are trying to prevent pregnancy, of course.

All this is not to say that I, or Carrier, support, like, or condone anyone pushing to reduce women’s access to birth control or even chemical abortions. In fact, the realization that even the regular birth control pill could be a potential abortaficient might even be a powerful argument for things like Plan B: demonstrating just how widespread and normal the death of embryos via failed implantation is (its something, in fact, that even the human body sometimes does on its own in any case).

Misrepresenting the science doesn’t do the pro-choice side any good: it sets us up to look like liars, and perhaps worse, it distracts us from the harder but ultimately more important work of convincing people that a discarded embryo is not a murdered person.

Stem Cell Chicanery: Ramesh Ponnuru quotes himself out of context

November 21, 2007

When Washington Monthly blogger Kevin Drum and National Review Corner blogger Ramesh Ponnuru went at it over stem cells recently, I was quite startled by something. I’m quite used to creationists misleadingly quoting scientists out of context, but this is the first time I’ve ever seen someone quote themselves out of context. Let me explain.

Drum sees Ramesh as snidely intimating that defenders of embryonic research are less than sincere. Ramesh begs to differ. Here’s the offending paragraph from Ramesh that started everything off:

Yuval is right: It’s not a time for gloating. For one thing, we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves in estimating the political impact of this breakthrough: We should wait at least a few days to see how the advocates of embryo-destructive stem-cell research react before concluding that the battle is over. (In the past, they have done what they could to minimize the potential of non-lethal methods of deriving pluripotent stem cells.)

And here is how Ramesh characterizes what he said above:

My point was that the political debate over whether the federal government should fund certain forms of embryo-destructive research or allow certain other forms of it would not be over under certain conditions. If, for example, these people believe that embryo-destructive research (or certain forms of it) still have advantages that the new research methods don’t have, or that it is still important to encourage research of all types, then the debate isn’t over, although it will change.

Go back to my original 4:41 p.m. post: I said that in the past proponents of embryo-destructive stem-cell research had “minimized the potential of non-lethal methods of deriving pluripotent stem cells”; that’s exactly what I’m saying they might still do.

So Ramesh insists that all he meant was that pro-ESCR people might have further arguments for ESCR, and only an illiterate would think that he ever hinted at anyones insincerity. But notice what he cut out from his self-quotation: the “In the past, they have done what they could to minimize” part. The part of his paragraph which just so happens to most strongly imply that he thinks pro-ESCR folks have actively tried to spin or avoid the issue.

That’s a truly masterful bit of rhetorical revisionism: so slick that I wonder if it was even a conscious act on Ramesh’s part.

But then, one should never credit the author of a book entitled The Party of Death: The Democrats, the Media, the Courts, and the Disregard for Human Life with too much of a gift for subtlety and evenhandedness.

Update: I think I’m being a bit charitable by saying that Ramesh “responded” to my post, by which I mean that he links to it, but offers only another re-interpretive sidetrack in defense of himself (at least this time he actually mentions the key phrase, even if he basically still ignores any discussion of its meaning). Unfortunately, “done what they could” is simply not a description particularly consistent with the idea that pro-ESCR folks were making a “simple error” or otherwise mistaken. “Done what they could to minimize” implies active, thoughtful subterfuge and spin. Perhaps Ramesh sincerely misspoke, but he certainly doesn’t seem inclined to consider even that possibility, does he?

What’s truly bizarre here is that Ramesh has had little hesitation asserting in various other places that defenders of ESCR, including Kevin Drum specifically! are playing games of dishonest spin and hiding the truth about adult stem cells. Why so shy about having the accusation highlighted in this case?

Extra Double Update: Yet another Corner blogger, David Freddoso, weighs in. Let me get this straight: he’s defending the integrity of Ponnuru by arguing that Ponnuru didn’t say what it really, really sounds like he said… but that what he didn’t say is totally a good point that he’s entitled to make. I may not have the necessary “reading skills” here, so I’m just asking for clarification to make sure I’m getting it.

To make myself clear, I don’t think Freddoso is off-base at all in highlighting the deceptive language and sketchy science that some embryonic stem cell research advocates and politicians have used. Heck, I just posted about same sort of thing going on with whether or not the pill kills. I was just in this case amazed to see Ponnuru take such elaborate offense that anyone would read his comment in a way utterly consistent with both his literal words and many previous opinions on his opponents’ integrity, as well as noting with amusement his choice of what words to leave out in his interpretive defense.

And of course, I don’t agree that the use of deception is weighted to one side. For instance, a certain Ramesh Ponnuru has long and unapologetically played the exact same sort of spin game with the difference between what “cloning” technically encompasses, and what it implies to the general public (i.e. The Island and The Boys From Brazil). And, of course, I think the entire “embryos are just human beings at a certain stage in their life” argument is just one long exercise in equivocation.

But that’s an argument for another day… how’s this Friday shaping up for ya, guys?

Edith Stevens and Richard McLean of Boulder Colorado should be remembered as crooks

November 20, 2007

I should probably be more wary of singling out ordinary citizens for condemnation, but in this case, the couple in question deserve every bit of the negative attention. Edith Stevens, a lawyer, and her husband, Richard McLean, a former judge and Boulder, CO mayor, are in hot water for using legal maneuver most people have never heard of to essentially steal a large portion of the land owned by their neighbors and ruin them financially in the process.

The legal maneuver the couple used is known as adverse possession. It has always been a controversial and decidedly sketchy principle of common law, because it essentially allows those schooled in using this obscure legal provision (like lawyers) to conspire to quietly steal from the unaware (like the Kirlins, in this case). While there are some reasonable justifications for why it’s a necessary part of property law, none of those justifications apply here: even if this was done in the letter of the statute, it grossly violated the spirit. Worse, the McLeans seem to have benefited from some serious cronyism, receiving especially snappy and favorable treatment from people in local government that were political allies, current friends, and former colleagues. Especially as a Democrat (Stevens is a former local party chair), I’m ashamed and disgusted. I take comfort only in the fact that Stevens appears to have had to resign from the campaign of a local Democratic representative.

The really despicable thing about all this is that the McLeans may well be legally in the clear: through a series of loopholes and passed bucks, no one is likely to hold them accountable (the case is being appealed, but appeals only have a very limited basis). The Kirlins will never be able to build a house on their land, and they will be out not only hundreds of thousands of dollars in invested property value (property they paid taxes on to the very same city that then handed it over to a good buddy) but also more than a 100,000 dollars in legal fees.

All we can do is call upon the power the internet to expose the McCleans’ shameful antics and make sure their behavior cannot survive the light of day. I predict that not long from now, anyone googling Edith Stevens or Richard McLean will see, as the top result, their new appellation of “Crooks.” They’ll may chuckle all the way to the bank anyway, but hopefully a lot fewer people will show up to their cocktail parties, thrown on stolen land.

Conservapedia: Your Source for Everything Homosexual!

November 20, 2007

Andrew Sullivan takes some time out from obsessing over every little thing he doesn’t like about Hillary Clinton to highlight a rather amusing observation: the current list of top viewed pages on that omnipresent embarrassment to human knowledge, Conservapedia:

  1. Main Page‎ [1,896,827]
  2. Homosexuality‎ [1,483,237]
  3. Homosexuality and Hepatitis‎ [516,157]
  4. Homosexuality and Promiscuity‎ [416,589]
  5. Homosexuality and Parasites‎ [387,402]
  6. Homosexuality and Gonorrhea‎ [327,912]
  7. Homosexuality and Domestic Violence‎ [323,216]
  8. Gay Bowel Syndrome‎ [311,319]
  9. Homosexuality and Syphilis‎ [261,879]
  10. Homosexuality and Mental Health‎ [246,832]

Oh gay bowel syndrome, what would the totally straight right-wing man’s man do without you to muse over?

Update: Some bloggers more laudably skeptical than myself have suggested that these results cannot possibly be legitimate.  Sadly, I have to concede that they’re probably right.  Pretty funny as a prank, I suppose, but this really does seem like one of those stories that’s “too good to check,” and for a skeptical blog, that’s an unforgivable omission.  My bad.

Casey Luskin Loves Lying: Intelligent Design Flails as it Fails

November 19, 2007

Unless you’re a nerd, you probably didn’t know that PBS recently aired a documentary about the Dover Intelligent Design Trial called “Judgment Day, Intelligent Design on Trial.” Laudably, instead of striving for an artificial journalistic balance, the piece instead went for overall accuracy, which, needless to say, has left the Discovery Institute profoundly pissed. They’ve naturally been bitching up a storm about it, which is always a grand new opportunity for avid fans of falsehoods to get their fix.

Taking the cake with the silliest possible argument, however, is resident DI barrister Casey Luskin, who seems to think that he’s hit upon a truly devious bit of spin: that repeating the program’s claim that “evolution is not inherently anti-religious” would violate the establishment clause if ever mentioned in public schools. “We’re afraid that teachers might get sued,” says Luskin.

Well now. Even if this “fear” weren’t about as sincere as vultures being deeply concerned about the well being of a hiker lost in the desert without a canteen, the logic here is truly daft. I suspect it relies almost exclusively on choosing not to understand what the word “inherently” means. Instead, Luskin seems to be pretending that the sentence reads “there is no possible conflict between evolution and your religious beliefs,” which really would violate the establishment clause if taught in a public school. But it just doesn’t say that, no matter how you look at it. It simply says that a conflict between the two is neither necessary or universal: a simple fact that in no way contradicts anyone’s belief that their religious beliefs are incompatible with evolutionary science.

In effect, the statement is logically equivalent to saying that “evolution does not necessarily have to conflict with ones religious beliefs.” This is basic grammatical logic here folks: diagram the sucker out with neutral terms if you don’t believe me. “X is not inherently B” in no way implies “X is never B” or even “it’s wrong to think that X is B in my case.” It just means that “X isn’t always B, and doesn’t have to be B.”

Luskin’s logically illiterate interpretation is instead just flat-out phony. For a guy who spends the rest of his article whining about alleged straw men and misrepresentations, you’d think he’d take more care in this area.

Besides, how can any statement about the way in which evolutionary science is defined be a “religious” view? Evolutionary biology just isn’t inherently anti-religious: this is simply a matter of understanding what it actually says, not an opinion that depends on anyone’s particular theology. Even if you do think that the conclusions or methodology of evolutionary science violate your religious beliefs, you’d still have to admit that they aren’t in conflict with all possible religious views, or with religion in general. You’d probably even have to admit that evolution does not itself purport to be anti-religious.

After admitting that, you’re then more than welcome to make arguments that evolution is, ultimately, a tool of Satan or destructive to all that is good and pure, or whatever. I still might think you’re wrong, but at least I won’t think you’re the sort of smirkingly dishonest douchebag that Luskin is.