Another Intelligent Design Supporter Enters the “Witless Protection Program” (Casey Luskin Graduate Award)

July 28, 2008

It’s that time of year again: time for the “Intelligent Design Undergraduate Research Center (IDURC)” to announce the winner of the prestigious Casey Luskin Graduate Award for the promotion of Intelligent Design.

Of course, by announce, I mean, announce the mere existence of such a person and not, you know, reveal the name of the winner. That’s because, as I noted last year, the apparent true purpose of the award is to gain press off of the supposedly “protective” anonymity of the recipient:

The recipient of the 2008 Casey Luskin Graduate Award will remain anonymous for the protection of the recipient. The many students, professors, and scientists who have been denied degrees or tenure and removed from positions and jobs for no other reason than acceptance of—or even sympathy to—intelligent design theory is very telling of the importance of keeping these bright young minds out of the crosshairs of those opposed to open-minded investigation and critical thought.

But, just as was the case with the previous recipient, the air of secrecy is sheer nonsense. The winner, as described by IDURC director Samuel Chen, was himself the president of an ID-promotion club (IDEA) and even worked directly with IDURC: i.e. he held a public position supporting Intelligent Design. That sort of gives the game away right off the bat: someone who is openly on record as supporting ID in the first place is not in any serious need of secrecy because of an obscure crackerjack award.

I guess we can all thank our lucky stars that Samuel Chen is not in charge of protecting the covert identities of CIA agents.

But then, CIA agents face real dangers when their identities are exposed. Intelligent Design proponents only face professional problems when they try to repeatedly pass off untestable claims and sloppy arguments as science: the same treatment that any scientist would receive if they did the same in any field. And with countless religious biologists at the top of their fields scratching their heads over allegations of discrimination, that makes the anonymity of the “Casey Luskin” award little more than a PR gimmick.

Which is, I suppose, perfectly fitting for an award named after Luskin, grand pontiff of pompously confused PR.

(Note: “Witless Protection Program” trademarked by Reciprocating Bill with HT to Quidam.)


Astronaut Claims UFOs Are Real, Government Conspiracy

July 24, 2008

Former Astronaut Dr. Edgar Mitchell claims that aliens are already among us. And that they’re, like, real tiny-like.

Dr Mitchell, 77, said during a radio interview that sources at the space agency who had had contact with aliens described the beings as ‘little people who look strange to us.’

He said supposedly real-life ET’s were similar to the traditional image of a small frame, large eyes and head.

Chillingly, he claimed our technology is “not nearly as sophisticated” as theirs and “had they been hostile”, he warned “we would be been gone by now”.

Well, that’s good, I suppose. As a person of short stature and large head myself, I’ve always prided myself on having superior technology.

Anyhoo, the biggest claim he makes is that he’s actually been briefed by the government on the existence of aliens. Well… maybe:

“It’s been well covered up by all our governments for the last 60 years or so, but slowly it’s leaked out and some of us have been privileged to have been briefed on some of it.

“I’ve been in military and intelligence circles, who know that beneath the surface of what has been public knowledge, yes – we have been visited. Reading the papers recently, it’s been happening quite a bit.”

The phrasing makes this confusing: in one case he says that he was briefed on aliens, presumably by the government. That’s a pretty incredible claim. But very quickly it sounds like he’s talking about basically just reading some “papers” out in the public (newspapers? tabloids? peer-reviewed journals?) that he interprets as alien encounters. The former is pretty darn important: potential evidence of a real government conspiracy. The latter is just the same old, same old UFO-ologist conspiracy theory stuff. It’s a rather odd transition.

Of course, maybe he’s just confused: maybe he was just briefed on hypotheticals and speculative xenobiology, back when the government still thought it possible that there could be Predators hiding out on the dark side of the moon, and figured they’d better prepare astronauts for anything.

If this guy wants to maintain some credibility, he’s going to have to cough up a lot more details than what he’s claimed so far.


When Theism Cannot Explain Anything (Origins Especially)

July 24, 2008

In having a bit of a debate with blogger Eric Kemp, we hit an impasse at which he declared that “God” is a sensible explanation for an otherwise presently inexplicable event (in this case, the nature and/or origin of the universe). It seems like as good a time as any to explore what I see as the intellectual impotence of theistic “explanations.”

Just what is it to explain something, anyhow? It is to come away with more information than you began. To have a set of distinct causes, effects, and overall processes, in place of what was once complete ignorance. It means being able to state what needs to be done for some event to happen: what specific capacities are necessary for something to do it.

To say that the standard theistic God has caused phenomenon X is essentially to say that it was done by a being that is hypothetically capable of doing anything. In short, it is a truly ingenious means of avoiding having to give any specific explanation for how X happens. No ignorance is dispelled.

Using God in this way is much like answering a multiple choice question by filling in every option, and then claiming that you have answered the question correctly. But while you are indeed sure to have filled in the correct bubble at some point in the process (unless of course, we’ve tricked you by simply not offerring the right answer there at all), your “answer” doesn’t actually tell you or anyone else which option was the correct one.

Read the rest of this entry »


Obama’s German Flyers: Yglesias Jumps the Gun on RNC’s Ruffini

July 23, 2008

In an illustration of the dangers of habitually indignant speed blogging, Atlantic Monthly blogger Matthew Yglesias totally misreads a post by Republican strategist Patrick Ruffini, complaining about Obama’s big upcoming rally in Germany:

Patrick Ruffini slams the Obama campaign for using a foreign language in its promotional material for an event in Germany. Apparently it’s now unpatriotic to so much as concede that they speak foreign languages in foreign countries. Or maybe American politicians should only be allowed to speak in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, and the UK.

Get it? Ultra-partisan Ruffini is so knee-jerkily nuts that he actually thinks that using a foreign language in a foreign country is unamerican!

Unfortunately, Yglesias’ take is, literally, too funny to be true.

Ruffini’s actual objection is the use of classic campaign tactics and money to build a crowd for the speech in a foreign land. The fact that the flyers are in German is not a problem for him because he thinks that Americans should never stoop to the use of anything but the King’s English. It’s a problem for him because it demonstrates how Obama’s campaign is willing to spend money lobbying foreigners to rally for American-media consumption:

So, this isn’t just some sober, high-minded foreign policy speech, part of a foreign trip occurring under the auspices of his official Senate office. It is a campaign rally occurring on foreign soil. They are using the same tactics to turn out Germans to an event as they would to any rally right here in America.

The sea of Germans drummed up by the Obama campaign will be used as props to tell us Americans how to vote, and the campaign isn’t trying to pretend otherwise. That’s breathtakingly arrogant, and par for the course for Barack Obama.

Now, I don’t think it’s breathtakingly arrogant at all: this is simply Ruffini being a good campaign man and dutifully reinforcing the standard Republican talking point about Obama having a big head.

I disagree with Ruffini’s argument, of course: demonstrating Obama’s appeal to the world is undeniably a legitimate selling point for his candidacy. It’s all a demonstration of his ability to get things done abroad to better serve American interests back home. He has as much reason to play that up as McCain does to talk about the surge (or to campaign abroad himself).

Still, Yglesias’ criticism of Ruffini is the only thing that’s “breathtakingly” anything here: breathtakingly sloppy. A little skepticism about something seemingly too partisan-ly perfect would have served him a little better.


“DNA-Based” Perfume Scam Gathers Steam

July 21, 2008

Longtime Skeptic’s Carnival readers might remember an item I wrote about “DNA-based” perfume way back when. Well, it seems that “My DNA Fragrance” has taken a step up in the world, securing a couple of celebrity plugs and a mention on E!’s Chelsea Lately Show. Their website no longer features jangling flash-based music, but instead a bunch of sweaty spokesbodies writhing in silk to a new slogan: “The scent is in you!”

Unfortunately, the facelift doesn’t seem to have been accompanied by any further explanations of what the heck “based on your DNA” actually means, leaving my skepto-meter solidly at “scam.” In fact, it’s potentially a scam on the level of “naming a star” after someone.

All we know, still, is that you pay nearly 100$ for a Q-tip to swab your cheek, mail it back to them, and then they supposedly have this sample sequenced in a lab. Sometime later, you receive some  “personalized” perfume in an aluminum spray bottle. What happens in between, and what “personalized” even means when translating DNA sequences into smell, is anyone’s guess. They aren’t telling:

Your DNA sample is processed into a numerical sequence similar to a social security number. No one can use this code to deduct any genetic information. Your DNA is used as the blueprint to create a one-of-a-kind fragrance from your genetic code. No two people have the same genetic sequence. Therefore, no two fragrances can smell alike.

My DNA Fragrance™ is made through our revolutionary fragrance formulation process using your genetic sequence as the blueprint to create your exclusive elixir. In the fragrance industry fragrance formulations are a highly guarded trade-secret.

If I took a section of your sequenced DNA (particularly a string without any “identifiers” as they claim), assigned colors to each codon, and then made an image out of it, it would look like, well, random noise. And there are a zillion different ways one could “map” genetic sequences onto another medium such as mixed perfume scents. The results of any one method would technically then be “unique” to you, but the arbitrary choice of method means that you could end up with just about anything at all as an end result.

Why would assigning DNA sequences to smells be any different? The method of translation is everything here. I could build a perfume mix based on the number of moles on your back if I wanted to: the key is not uniqueness, but rather how the source information relates to some final goal. Without telling anyone what the goal of that matching is, and how the DNA sequences help reach it, talking about the final perfume being “based on” your DNA would be just pseudo-scientific psychobabble. So either they are looking for particular genetic markers that in some way relate to genetically determined body odor (thus allowing the company to compliment it with a specific mix of perfume scents), or they’re just arbitrarily translating genetic gibberish into nasal gibberish.

However, if this company has actually identified all the specific genetic markers that determine someone’s body odor, it’s news to me. And news to biologists. While there’s certainly evidence that some significant portion of BO is genetically determined, even top geneticists aren’t anywhere close to having a complete map of the genes determining one’s natural “musk,” let alone knowing all the different genetic variations possible throughout the world’s population. Does this Beverly Hills company know something that top geneticists don’t? Unlikely.

Worse, as I noted in my original article, even if they did have such a process, it would be a tremendous waste of effort. What someone smells like is not some sort of mysterious secret that only your genes can reveal. Noses can do it directly, and on the cheap. Mailing in a patch of a sweaty, pit-stained T-shirt would be a lot more direct and effective way to get information on someone’s unique stench.

Of course, this is all assuming that they even bother running the expensive DNA sequencing at all. Without any information on how your DNA would be mapped to specific scents, this company has a tremendous incentive to simply pocket the huge lab fee, skimp on or entirely omit the sequencing/mapping process, and then just send customers randomly mixed scents. How could anyone argue that they had gotten things “wrong?” What would “wrong” even mean, without any idea of what the translation process is aiming at or trying to match?

In light of all of this, the new testimonials are a hoot:

There are a couple of things that we noticed that might intrigue you too. Glynis insists that there is an element of the fragrance that smells just like the children when they were tiny babies and believe me the look in her eyes tells me something is going on there!

Babies in general have a pretty distinct and recognizable smell, and perhaps the perfume happened to contain an element of that. But if the implication is that the perfume managed by design to capture not only what this specific woman smelled like, but also her children too, then that’s even more implausible than the original sales pitch.

I also noticed that as she moved her hands close to her face the scent would trigger Goosebumps down her arms; something she did not notice herself until I pointed it out to her.

Sounds like a mild allergic reaction to me!

Of course, maybe I’m just spoiling the fun here: giving someone a perfume “tailored to their DNA” may not really mean anything scientifically, but people obviously appreciate the overall sentiment (hence the marketing appeal).

Well, too bad. There’s lots of fun to be had in the world, and not all of it involves buying into dodgy, poorly defined product claims. And for more than 100$ minimum, we’re talking about serious amounts of money that could be spent on sentiments that actually make sense when you think about them.


Anti-Evolution Doc Expelled Really Is Trying for a Theatrical Comeback!

July 19, 2008

Looks like those vague hints and rumors were indeed authentic: Ben Stein’s anti-science opus Expelled is going to be re-released later this summer.

The rationale, however, strikes be as pure hype:

“We had many individuals and groups who had planned to see the film, but decided not to because the cloud of doubt this lawsuit brought to the film,” noted one of the film’s producers, John Sullivan.

Riiiiight. Because an obscure lawsuit based on copyright claims that few people outside of nuts like myself that follow these things ever heard about had a chilling effect on ordinary moviegoers.

Now, it might have been reasonable for Sullivan to note that the Ono lawsuit hurt the distribution efforts of the film, which it almost certainly did, and that this hurt their momentum.

But this production has always favored incoherently overwrought rhetoric over honest appraisal. Does Sullivan really expect anyone to seriously believe that any moviegoers at all avoided the film because of the lawsuit? Were they afraid that Ono would have thugs stationed outside the theaters threatening anyone who dared to watch it? Conflicted fans of both the Beatles and Ben Stein that held off declaring their allegiances until the legal issues were resolved?

“We came out of the gate with strong momentum only to have our integrity questioned by this frivolous lawsuit. While we’re thrilled with the film’s having earned nearly $8 million during its first run; we’ve heard from enough people and groups who want to see it in their theaters that we’ve agreed to re-release it this time without an undeserved cloud over its head.”

Because, of course, the only “cloud” over the film’s head was an obscure copyright lawsuit and not, well, you know, most critics panning it, sciencebloggers raking it over the coals for its distortions and slander, the ADL condemning it, and so on.

And this paragraph makes the “cloud” reasoning even more ridiculous. People obsessive enough to demand the immediate re-screening of a film which will likely be out on DVD in a few months are not the sort of people who would have stayed away the first time… based on the mere existence of a copyright lawsuit against the film.

“We will not be silenced. In fact it will have the opposite effect: we will re-release it and allow millions of Americans to go to the box office and register their vote against Ms. Ono and her attempt to keep them from watching our film.”

As John Pieret has pointed out, something is funky with the math here. Given that Expelled made about 7.5 million during its run, and ticket prices were generally in the range of 8 dollars and up, then at best the film got about a million viewers (not counting the fact that some percentage of people would have been repeats). The odds are astronomically low that any hypothetical second run would match that, let alone exceed it.

And indeed, despite all the hype, it looks like the producers know that, and that the “re-release” is not quite akin to a remastered Star Wars. At the end of the article, they note that they have 1000 prints of the film ready to go. Which is a rather far cry from “1000 different theaters already booked to show the film”: the sort of thing you might expect from an announcement about an impending re-release. As far as I can tell, this is all just hyperbolic way of announcing that the producers, free from the injunction, are now willing to lease out old prints to anyone who wants them.

Which all strikes me as sort of pathetic coming from an outfit that once seemed to sincerely believe that they would be sparking off a vast nationwide movement. We still don’t know whether the filmmakers actually broke even after their production and marketing costs.


Prospective DNC/RNC Convention Protesters Already Extremely Annoying

July 19, 2008

Oy vey. Drudge and other media sources are starting to profile some of the groups planning on turning the upcoming party conventions into three-ring freak circuses, and I’m already sick of these people. Here’s a sampling of the bounty of bombastic banner-waving boneheads who think that strutting around in the street with posters is an effective way to accomplish anything but some decent exercise:

“We are completely peaceful,” said Rob Weiland, a 37-year-old courier from Denver and member of the group We Are Change Colorado. “We follow the ideals of Ghandi.”

Spectacular. Except that Gandhi was opposing the sometimes brutal colonialist exploitation of an entire country. “We Are Change,” on the other hand, are a bunch of 9/11 conspiracy nuts with a website so full of rambling YouTube nonsense that it crashes my browser (warning: website may crash browser).

Read the rest of this entry »


More on PZ Myers & the Kidnapped Communion Wafers

July 18, 2008

We’ve been debating the fallout from Florida student Webster Cook taking (and then returning) a communion wafer, atheist blogger PZ Myers’ aggressive reaction to the blacklash, and Andrew Sullivan’s lame defense of double standards when it comes to defending the infamous Muslim cartoons, but condemning Myers’ proposed symbolic wafercide. In the process, I had an exchange with Murder of Ravens on the subject that I think helped clarify my position on the whole mess, and was worth expanding on a bit. MoR wrote:

In the case of the Danish cartoonists, they were mocking specific actions of fundamentalist Muslims, namely, their proclivity towards blowing things up and killing innocent people in the name of Allah. Sure, the cartoonists’ approach was injudicious and heavy handed, but then, surely no more heavy handed than the actions of their subjects. And besides, political cartoons have never been known for their subtlety.

In this case, the cartoons were not intended to depict at ALL Muslims, simply an odious minority who engaged in violent and, one might daresay, sociopathic behavior. I think most people will agree that this sort of behavior is rightly condemned by all right thinking people.

On the other hand, taking communion is a benign expression of faith that is partaken of by almost all Catholics. Even if you don’t believe it has any benefits, I think you’ll agree that it harms no one. Unlike the Danish cartoonists, Myers is deliberately antagonizing an entire faith for participating in a harmless act of faith.

Read the rest of this entry »


Measles Making a Comeback as Vaccine-Hysteria Builds

July 16, 2008

Measles has already become a resurgent epidemic in England, and now, via Orac, I see that the once nearly-eradicated disease has gained a new foothold in the US as well: 127 cases since this May, springing up in 15 different states. According to the news coverage, that’s the largest spike in cases we’ve seen in a decade.

What gets me is that children in the Third World are literally dying in the hundreds of thousands because of lack of access to vaccines. It’s only here in the states that we even have the luxury to indulge in fact-free scare campaigns against vaccinations. Few people here have any sense of the real cost these sorts of diseases bring with them:

“What you have to remember is that 250,000 children die from this virus every year,” Alvarez added. “So, vaccinations have to be a priority for parents because at the end of the day if you get measles, you can live through it, but in some particular cases you’re going to have complications.”

About one in five measles sufferers experiences more severe illness, which can include diarrhea, ear infections, pneumonia, encephalitis, chronic neurological deficits and even death.

Instapundit Glenn Reynolds has a nice article summing up the problem for anyone not clear what the stakes are, and why the “anti-vaccination” movement is so potentially dangerous. Reynolds doesn’t mention, however, that his presumably preferred Presidential candidate, John McCain, is unfortunately pretty definitively on the wrong side of this issue.


The Creationist Claptrap Jindal Wants in Public Schools: Luskin’s Missed Wrist

July 15, 2008

As you are probably already aware, thanks to Republican Governor and sometime amatuer exorcist Bobby Jindal, the 4th wave of creationism is now officially underway in the great state of Louisiana.

As with every other wave, this movement involves simply recycling the usual stable of crappy creationist claims, but this time without any explicit title (not even “Intelligent Design”) or even any explicit unity between the arguments, let alone any hint of a specific alternative conclusion that they are all pointing towards. Instead, creationist standards are to be repackaged as “scientific criticisms,” divided up, and sprinkled liberally throughout textbooks and idiosyncratic classroom curricula. And politicians like Jindal are meant to abet the effort by passing “academic freedom” bills that curiously target the teaching of evolution, and only evolution, as needing special protection for the teaching of “critical views.”

The obvious trick inherent in all of these bills is that they never specify a standard of accuracy that such criticisms have to meet, and they are often vague as to who is going to evaluate or enforce that standard in any case.

Read the rest of this entry »


Double standard: Andrew Sullivan on Catholic Wafer Controversy

July 14, 2008

Blogger and liberal Catholic Andrew Sullivan was a hearty defender of the infamous Danish cartoons that depicted and poked fun at the Islamic prophet Mohammed. But now, the sacred cow is, er… on the other foot, or something. Sullivan Sullivan tells a very different story when it comes to the recent hubbub about PZ Myers merrily threatening to desecrate Catholic communion wafers:

It is one thing to engage in free, if disrespectful, debate. It is another to repeatedly assault and ridicule and abuse something that is deeply sacred to a great many people. Calling the Holy Eucharist a “goddamned cracker” isn’t about free speech; it’s really about some baseline civility. Myers’ rant is the rant of an anti-Catholic bigot. And atheists and agnostics can be bigots too.

“Atheists and agnostics” is just another word for “some people,” and yes, people can be bigots, especially towards groups of which they are not a part. Whether or not you think Myer’s jab is bigoted or not depends quite a bit on whether you think attacking and parodying beliefs can be a form of bigotry or not. I’m open to the argument that it can be in some cases.

But I’m not so open to the argument that it’s bigotry when done against Catholics, but not when basically the same thing is done against Muslims.

Sullivan, however, thinks he can dig his way out of this double-standard:

Thanks for the defenses. My objection to PZ Myers – even as I defended his right to say whatever he wants and wouldn’t want him punished in any way – is not, in my view, a double standard. Printing a cartoon for legitimate purposes is a different thing than deliberately backing the physical desecration of sacred objects. I’d happily publish a Mohammed cartoon if it advanced a genuine argument, but I would never knowingly desecrate a Koran purely to mock religion.

But Sullivan’s distinction here is nonsense. In Islam, creating images of their prophet is inherently very much a form of physical denigration, no different than physically denigrating a consecrated wafer (in this case, oddly, by NOT destroying it!), or improperly treating a written name of God is for some observant Jews. All of these are, of course symbolic acts done to unfeeling objects, and it is a matter of religious belief as to whether it causes any real harm to anything other than people’s feelings or not.

Sullivan’s definition of “legitimate purposes” is also a form of special pleading. Myers and the Danish cartoonists were both seeking to mock religion for precisely the same reasons: to puncture presumptions of special authority in matters metaphysical. Either you think that’s a legitimate purpose or not: but you can’t have it both ways depending on how much you like the target.

I certainly think it fair to object to these sorts of showy, trolling criticisms as unproductive, or rude, or aggressive. But as even Sullivan’s readers have pointed out, the same can be said about people, himself included, attacking or making fun of Scientology. If it were really “about baseline civility” as Sullivan claims, he’d treat this incident as a case of reconsidering his own bigotry when it comes to anything but Catholic doctrine, rather than trying to pin it exclusively on Myers.

Update: Commenter Terry points out that Sullivan’s concern for the desecration of the host is potentially problematic for him. For any number of reasons, if Sullivan himself has taken communion in what his church could consider a state of sin (i.e. unrepentantly defending and/or engaging in gay sex), then he himself would have desecrated the Host.

Dueling Hypocrisy Update: Andrew Sullivan still hasn’t addressed his own lame defense of his cartoon blasphemy apologia, but he has thought to check in on PZ Myers’ take, and implies that Myers wasn’t as enthusiastic about bashing Muslim beliefs as he was about Catholics. But Sullivan is pretty clearly quote-mining here. Myers says immediately after the supposedly damning quote:

So on the one hand I see a social problem being mocked, but on the other—and here comes the smug godless finger-wagging—I see a foolish superstition used as a prod to mock people, and a people so muddled by the phony blandishments of religion that they scream “Blasphemy!” and falsely pin the problem on a ridiculous insult to a non-existent god, rather than on the affront to their dignity as human beings and citizens. Religion in this case has accomplished two things, neither one productive: it’s distracted people away from the real problems, which have nothing at all to do with the camera-shy nature of their imaginary deity, and it’s also amplified the hatred.

In short, there doesn’t seem to be any less willingness to attack sacred beliefs here. Myers’ reservations were, if you read his post, mainly about his feeling that the cartoons traded in racial stereotypes of what he saw as a powerless minority.


Sympathy for Phil Gramm: Another Silly Gaffetroversy

July 11, 2008

I’ve been complaining a lot lately about over-emotionalized, irrational politics, and there’s no better recent example than the fuss over comments by Phil Gramm, former Senator and economic advisor to John McCain. McCain has recently been trying to shore up his credibility with blue collar workers: demonstrating that he “feels their pain” when it comes to economy. It’s a delicate dance: he’s pretty much supported the economic policy status quo for the past 8 years, and the many people hurting from rising unemployment, mortgage failures, and so on are not patient listeners.

But let’s acknowledge right off the bat that the effort itself, or rather the need for it, is sort of ridiculous.
Read the rest of this entry »