Creationists Embarrass Themselves in Florida Science Standards Fight

January 30, 2008

Creationists are currently mounting a heated effort to water-down Florida’s new science standards, arguing that creationist claims and ideas about evolution should be taught alongside evolutionary biology. Here’s a sample of some of those ideas, from Terry Kemple, president of the Tampa Bay Christian public policy group Community Issues Council:

“My objection to their proposal is that, at its core, the suggested science standard relative to evolution is a set of beliefs unproven. They believe that millions of years ago there was nothing and then suddenly there was something. They have no proof. It’s not replicable. It’s clearly a belief,” Kemple said. “You can give it a name and call it evolution, but it is nonetheless a set of beliefs.” (emphasis added)

This is like objecting to teaching Newton’s theory of gravity because “gravitationists” believe that millions of years ago a giant apple crashed into the Earth, creating a worldwide flood. It’s not even close to a correct statement of anything evolution suggests. And yet these are the sorts of people claiming that they know better than scientists what is or isn’t good science.

It boggles the mind.

Expelled!: a “Revenge Film” for Bitter College Dropouts

January 30, 2008

Via, Pharyngula, I see that the De Moines Register has a brief article noting that ID proponent Guillermo Gonzalez, like countless non-celebrity professors, is seeking a new tenure track appointment at another university in the wake of his failure to receive tenure at ISU. It’s going to be a hard sell at this point. Would you hire a man whose track record is that he’ll make movies and write glossy books for laypeople with a theologian instead of working on astronomy department business… and who will then sue you when you fail to promote him for this neglect?

Expelled! will be presenting his case as one of pure viewpoint discrimination of course, and I suspect they won’t even mention his failure to win virtually any grants or the huge dropoff in his publication record, not even to try to explain these failings away. Nor, for that matter, do I expect any serious defense of his actual ideas, as if would be warranted if they were critical science instead of sacred religious beliefs. For all the noise about Intelligent Design being important science, ID fans seem remarkably reluctant to debate or discuss the content of these ideas in their promotional efforts. Heck, even Ben Stein choked when a friendly interviewer asked him to explicitly list some of the productive insights that Intelligent Design could offer.

The article also quotes Hector Avalos, a religious studies professor at ISU and something of a boogeyman for many in the Intelligent Design movement, as giving one of the better descriptions of the Expelled! I’ve seen so far:

He said he sees “Expelled” as a “revenge film meant to create political and public support for those who unsuccessfully attempted to present (intelligent design) as science in our educational system.”

Israeli Knesset Member Warns of “Gay Plague”

January 29, 2008

…and proposes the creation of “rehabilitation centers.” Just in case you were worried, they wouldn’t be mandatory… unless of course, you are actually caught in the act of gay by his gaystapo.

He even claims that Israel is in mortal danger of destruction from gay.

Somehow I don’t see it.

Israel is one of the freest nations on earth in terms of homosexual civil rights. Despite not having a constitutional separation of church and state, they legally recognize gay families (and while they don’t allow gay marriages yet, they do honor those performed in other nations), have solid laws against discrimination, and their military now even allows gay members to serve openly and proudly.

That means that if any actual imminent destruction ever threatens Israel, gay men and women will be right there on the front lines defending their country. It thus seems a poor thank-you to have a member of the government ranting about how they are on the same level as drug-addicts who need to be institutionalized.

Cordova’s Back! And He’s Brought More Crank Creationist Ideas!

January 28, 2008

Creationist Sal Cordova, or at least someone claiming to be him (cheered on by someone at least claiming to be John A. Davidson), is finally back to regular blogging over at Young Cosmos. Which means free bad ideas for bloggers like myself that might otherwise be hurting for material.

To wet appetite, here’s a couple of knee-slappers from a post attacking the credibility of a minister who supports teaching evolution as science:

Bill Murray was the son of notorious atheist Madalyn Murry O’Hair. He was raised in an Atheist home, was involved in the supreme court case that repealed the pledge of allegiance, but over time, he rejected his mother’s athiesm and became a baptist minister. (emphasis added)

Repealed the pledge of allegiance? I’m pretty sure that never, uh, actually happened.

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What’s Best for Atheism Isn’t What’s Best

January 26, 2008

As with any growing social movement, there has been a lot of bickering lately over what’s good for “atheism,” who’s the best atheist activist, what atheists should do, and so on. It’s the usual tiresome war between alleged concern trolls vs. the alleged “we can do no wrong” zealots, with neither side listening to the other.

So, to make my own position crystal clear, let me just state that, as an atheist, I couldn’t care less about what’s good for “atheism.”

What I care about is rationalism. Skepticism. Science. And while these values do, in fact, feed into why I don’t share the beliefs of theists, they aren’t necessary for me to be an atheist (I could imagine not believing even without them). Nor do I think that sharing similar values would make it necessary for someone else to become an atheist. But I care about these values, and there’s a big ole’ period at the end of that sentence.

Atheism is utterly, wholly, entirely incidental. If theists share those values, then I have allies. If atheists reject them, then we’re foes. Theists may well find themselves in the sights of my rhetorical rifle far more often than most atheists, but that’s also incidental. As far as I can tell, it’s simply because theists are the ones making the lion’s share of bad claims in our culture, claims that still go largely unchallenged.

If simply forced to answer on “what’s best for atheism,” I’d have to say that what’s probably best for atheism is for people to cease all attempts to organize it, celebrate it, and most of all seeking to control or lead it. The best and only thing we can do for atheism is define it: clearly, unambiguously, concisely. Atheism is a category: a category of exclusion. It is not the loyal opposition against the forces theism, it is the lack of theism. End of story.

The more that definition is troubled with all manner of philosophical fluffery and organized agendas, the harder and harder it becomes to explain to believers what atheism really is. The harder and harder it becomes to explain to theists what atheists really are.

As before, this latter matter frustrates me not because I particularly value atheism per se (because it’s a term I could take or leave) but because I value good communication. Helping people better understand what atheism is and isn’t is paramount.  Arguing for rationalism, empiricism: those things matter to me.  Whether someone then becomes an atheist because of those values: incidental.  I really mean that.

But in case I haven’t communicated this well myself, I’m not trying to disown “atheism” here: nor even provocatively propose, as Sam Harris has, that the term simply be dumped.  I just want to be clear on where my loyalties lie: where, frankly, I think it makes sense for everyone’s loyalties to lie.  With what I am, not with what I’m not.

Bad Faith Believers: Preist Richard Neuhaus Fantasizes about you Prostrate and Begging

January 25, 2008

This has me just plain dumbfounded. Neuhaus, founder of the conservative religious journal First Things, quoting Father Ranier Cantalamessa, preacher to the papal household:

“The world of today knows a new category of people: the atheists in good faith, those who live painfully the situation of the silence of God, who do not believe in God but do not boast about it; rather they experience the existential anguish and the lack of meaning of everything: They too, in their own way, live in the dark night of the spirit. Albert Camus called them “the saints without God.” The mystics exist above all for them; they are their travel and table companions. Like Jesus, they “sat down at the table of sinners and ate with them” (see Luke 15:2). This explains the passion with which certain atheists, once converted, pore over the writings of the mystics: Claudel, Bernanos, the two Maritains, L. Bloy, the writer J.K. Huysmans and so many others over the writings of Angela of Foligno; T.S. Eliot over those of Julian of Norwich. There they find again the same scenery that they had left, but this time illuminated by the sun. . . . The word “atheist” can have an active and a passive meaning. It can indicate someone who rejects God, but also one who—at least so it seems to him—is rejected by God. In the first case, it is a blameworthy atheism (when it is not in good faith), in the second an atheism of sorrow or of expiation.” (emphasis added)

When believers complain that New Atheists are arrogant or insulting to religion, sometimes they have fair points, sometimes they don’t. The idea that atheists who happen to dare criticize religious claims are bitter and nasty is an all too easy emotional meme to play upon whether its justified or not. Some can certainly be insulting, as any advocates for any position can: there’s no denying it. But the worst of their jibes is to say that the claims and beliefs of believer are wrong, misguided, unfounded, foolish.

Nothing, nothing any of them has said compares to a man fantasizing openly about how pleased he is to think of those who do not share his ideology moaning and groveling in agony for their failure to share in it. Patting them on the head for their subservience to his beliefs and begging for a means to atone. Imagine this in pretty much any other context, and you would see a person shockingly self-involved: a narcissism beyond belief, a childish and arrogant fantasy bordering on the obscene.

Neuhaus, instead, sees it as a deep insight. He launches into this quote right after declaring that for non-believers, humans lives “have no value.” (A common Catholic claim of philosophical superiority which I do not think he or any theologian can actually back up, for all its grand pomposity.) And, of course, this comes after also implying that rationalism leads inevitably to the Holocaust (because, you know, the Nazis were such rational, liberalized folks).

What’s startles me here is the difference in rhetorical excess. I don’t think I’ve ever in my life seen fit to fantasize about those who don’t share my beliefs groveling and suffering before me, wishing desperately that they could be like me. I don’t think of theists as depraved sociopaths who need to trick themselves into caring about their fellow human beings. Believing these things might well make me feel better about myself, and might even prove effective red meat for inspiring coarse dittoheads to my position. But how would I sleep at night after stooping that low?

Neuhaus, on the other hand, doesn’t even seem to have a second thought about deploying such rhetorical nukes on those who do not share his beliefs. And on top of it all, he and Cantalamessa have the absolute intellectual depravity to claim to judge whether someone’s position is in “good faith” or not.

It shocks the conscience. It’s like finding out that your next door neighbor fantasizes about having you bound and tearful in his basement. You think that one human being couldn’t seriously have such vile designs upon and beliefs about another. And then… then you learn differently.

It’s not the end of the world. It’s, in the end, small and pathetic. And it just sort of makes me sad.

More Seizure Silliness: Officer Praised for Grabbing Cash Without any Evidence of Crime

January 23, 2008

Not even a hint of skepticism in this article about an officer who’s getting a big pat on the back for taking $69,040 from a driver he pulled over, allegedly for speeding. The officer was apparently so happy with the windfall that he didn’t even give the guy a ticket or charge him with anything: he just took the money and headed back to the station to celebrate.

Now, for all we know, the driver in this case could well have gotten the cash through the drug trade. But there are many times when that isn’t the case. And the point is that police departments should have to prove their allegations in a court of law before going on a spending spree with money they nabbed off someone’s front seat. Or stole out of a locked safe after supposedly showing up to “help.” The police are supposed to be in the business of enforcing justice and public safety, not given incentives to find ways to line their pockets. These laws are deeply corrupting and corrupt.

Life is Not a Computer: “Information” Inanity in Evolutionary Biology

January 23, 2008

John Wilkins, over at Evolving Thoughts has been making a pretty persuasive case that trying to apply concepts like “information” to biology is mostly a waste of time. In Part One, he covers what the concept of information actually is and why it’s such a clunker when it comes to describing biological systems. In Part Two, he defends a view of biology where information is just an abstract way of modeling things, not a property of those things itself.

Wilkins gets a bit technical, but a key take-away point is that defining exactly what we mean by “information” is extremely tricky: there are several complicated formulations of the concept, and they are generally incompatible with each other. We can’t possibly apply the idea of information to biological systems unless we nail down what we are looking for (most Intelligent Design arguments trip up at this very first step: they never specify what they mean by information in the first place).

Even once we’ve done that it’s still not clear exactly what we should be measuring. What is the information of biology? DNA code seems like an obvious candidate, but its clearly an incomplete one: so much of what biology is and how it works is contextual: it assumes certain things about what’s in the cells (including things that have their own evolving RNA code) and what environment those cells will find themselves in. Nor is DNA the only candidate: there are entire gene pools to consider (where arguably most of the information relevant to evolution is best captured), the functional complexity of an organism (which is not simply an expression DNA code), and so on.

Finally, there’s the problem that information may be the wrong model altogether, missing the subtleties that make biology distinctive from computer science. DNA, for instance, isn’t simply information read and then translated by a program. It’s a physical, tangible, and causal object, and its particular chemical properties and reactions are part of the process, rather than deviations or errors in the sole task of record keeping. Biology, the fantasies of creationists about “random processes” aside, is all about complex chains of causality, and those chains extend backwards from our DNA all the way to the origin of life.  Any meager measure of “information” is going to simply miss all of that.

With all those difficulties in defining and applying the idea of “information” to biology, it’s little wonder that many pseudo-scientists have gotten accustomed to talking about “information” in much the same way they talk about “energy”: as a sort of cipher for whatever unexplained bit of mysticism they happen to be pushing at the moment. Some woo-mesiters have even claimed that energy is information and vice-versa. This guy even cutely claims that Energy is “In-formation.” Get it?

No? Well, good: there’s nothing much there to get. There’s not even a hint of any understanding of information theory or energy in such babbling (other than “lots of really complex stuff!” and “glowing ball of lifepower!”)

And that’s the real problem with “information”-talk: because it’s such a difficult concept to apply to biological processes, the potential for error and confusion are always high. And if even biologists and information theorists aren’t sure what “information” should mean in terms of biology, you can bet that tossing the term out to laypeople is a recipe for intellectual disaster and creationist exploitation.

Professional Sports Scams another City: Seattle Sonics Lie to Peter to Get Handouts from Paul

January 21, 2008

Now here’s an exercise in real guts.

The Seattle Sonics, like most professional sports teams, has always whined and pleaded its way into sweetheart deals, huge tax subsidies, and other perks from his host city. The rationale for this sort of welfare has always been the somewhat dubious: that professional sports draw lots of extra cash into the city. This is, in fact, how current President George Bush found his first and only real business success: convincing taxpayers to give him and his partners millions and millions of dollars of free handouts and shady land grabs to build a stadium for their Texas Rangers, supposedly to revitalize the city of Arlington. Suffice to say, little to no economic benefit ever appeared, and indeed most of the best economic analysis of the issue predicts no or even negative effects on local economies for such scams.

That, however, is not the real outrage here. However dubious the claim that sports teams have substantial impacts on the local economy, owners have always stuck to their guns on the issue, insisting that city taxpayers owe them their paychecks, like it or not, for all they supposedly bring to the city. Except, of course, if that argument inconveniences them.

And that’s how it is that the Sonics are currently arguing in court that they shouldn’t have to fulfill their leased contract with the city of Seattle… because the team up and moving to Oklahoma would have little or no impact on the local economy. That’s the exact opposite of what they claimed when they fleeced Seattle taxpayers to win the heavily subsidized lease in the first place.

But even that’s not quite twisted enough: at the very same time, the team is out in in Oklamhoma demanding that local taxpayers tithe 100 million in cash towards their team…

You’ve got one guess as to how they’re trying to justify that handout.

What Some Actually Good Criticisms of Dawkins and Harris Might Look Like…

January 20, 2008

David Friedman, an “academic economist” (in quotes only because it seems like there’s an interesting story there) has two posts worth reading, one discussing his reactions to Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris and the next his position that it’s really premature to discount all religion as potential insightful or useful, regardless of whether one agrees with any religion or not.

Not saying that I agree with him in every respect, but I respect where we might disagree a lot more than I do with other critics.

Confusing Science Reporting on Claimed Proof of Natural Selection

January 19, 2008

A recent Science Daily article blares: “New Findings Confirm Darwin’s Theory: Evolution Not Random” But while the research looks legitimate, and the findings indeed consistent with evolution via natural selection, the article is deeply confusing, and it looks like we have another example of shoddy science journalism on our hands.

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New Cloning Success Shocks Vatican: Science Slipping Away from their Pat Narrative

January 19, 2008

The Vatican, and likely many other pro-life groups, are up in arms about the latest work in human cloning. Such outrage was expected of course, and spokesman Elio Sgreccia, who heads the Pontifical Academy for Life, even tries to push the latest trendy talking point that such research is “a product of the past” supposedly in light of other breakthroughs with adult lines (which is false, so where are our friends at the National Review to bemoan this scientific dishonesty!?).

But one also gets the feeling that this breakthrough is threatening to the pro-life side in more ways than just to their ethical objections to the use of embryos. In fact, it brings forward a number of serious flaws in those very objections.
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