Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Men have a biological clock as well

I don't know why this is considered surprising news, but it looks like men also have a biological clock, and that mens' fertility decreases with age.

It Seems the Fertility Clock Ticks for Men, Too
(NY Times article, requires free registration)

When it comes to fertility and the prospect of having normal babies, it has always been assumed that men have no biological clock — that unlike women, they can have it all, at any age.

But mounting evidence is raising questions about that assumption, suggesting that as men get older, they face an increased risk of fathering children with abnormalities. Several recent studies are starting to persuade many doctors that men should not be too cavalier about postponing marriage and children.

Until now, the problems known to occur more often with advanced paternal age were so rare they received scant public attention. The newer studies were alarming because they found higher rates of more common conditions — including autism and schizophrenia — in offspring born to men in their middle and late 40s. A number of studies also suggest that male fertility may diminish with age.

I've always felt that there were good sociological reasons why getting children at too high an age could be problematic, regardless of gender. Now it seems that there are biological reasons for it as well.


Emmett Till slaying still closed

Not surprising news, but not the result I personally would have hoped for.

Mississippi Grand Jury Declines to Issue Indictment in 1955 Emmett Till Slaying

All but closing the books on a crime that helped give rise to the civil rights movement, a grand jury has refused to bring any new charges in the 1955 slaying of Emmett Till, a black teenager who was beaten and shot after whistling at a white woman in the Mississippi Delta.

The district attorney in rural Leflore County had sought a manslaughter charge against the white woman, Carolyn Bryant Donham, who was suspected of pointing out Till to her husband to punish the boy for what was a grave offense in the segregated South.

But the grand jury last Friday issued a "no bill," meaning it found insufficient evidence, according to documents made public Tuesday.

Since we don't know the facts being laid forward by the district attorney, it's of course hard to say that this was the wrong decision. However, the district attorney obviously felt that there were evidence enough to support an indictment, and the FBI suggested that it would be worth taking a closer look at Donham.

Another chapter in a sad story.


Autism as mercury poisoning

Note: For many people, the following will be well known stuff. However, I feel that it's a good idea to repeat this information as often as possible, since there is still so much misinformation about the subject around.

In recent years there have been a group of people claiming that autism is not a neurological condition in its own right, but rather a result of mercury poisoning.
This idea is especially spread by anti-vaccination groups, where the poisoning is blamed upon the content of thimerosal in vaccinations.
A good example of this claim, is the article Autism: A Unique Type of Mercury Poisoning, which among other things claims:

A review of medical literature indicates that the characteristics of autism and of mercury poisoning (HgP) are strikingly similar.

The claim of a similarity between the characteristics of autism and mercury poisoning are similar, is quite doubtful. For one thing, the article focuses on the similarities in the most general of ways, and is very unspecific when it comes to describing the symptoms. It also ignores the very major differences between the symptoms of mercury poisoning and autism. As this commentary in Pediatrics explains:

Bernard et al1 present a table listing 95 clinical findings they consider to be shared by autism and mercury poisoning. Their table does not distinguish typical and characteristic manifestations of either disorder from the rare, unusual, and highly atypical.
In mercury poisoning, the characteristic motor findings are ataxia and dysarthria [..]. These signs, along with tremor, muscle pains, and weakness, are noted on relatively high-dose exposure, acute or chronic. In 3 Romanian children accidentally exposed to ethyl mercury in a fungicide, these same symptoms were prominent.7 The outcome of fetal methyl mercury poisoning in severe form also included spasticity.8 In contrast, in autism, the only common motor manifestations are repetitive behaviors (stereotypies) such as flapping, circling, or rocking. Persons with Asperger syndrome may be clumsy, and hypotonia has been noted in some infants with autism; the frequency of clumsiness and hypotonia in autism spectrum disorders is not established. No other motor findings are common in autism, and indeed the presence of ataxia or dysarthria in a child whose behavior has autistic features should lead to careful medical evaluation for an alternative or additional diagnosis.

There is even a handy table showing the differences.

Also, as the commentary points out, there is absolutely no evidence of a change in the number of autistics as the use of mercury changes. This is true for both the use of mercury (thimerosal) in vaccinations, and for the use of mercury in general.
When it comes to the use of thimerosal, there have been a number of peer-reviewed studies, conducted all over the world, looking at a thimerosal-autism link, and none of them have found any. It's possible to find problems with each of the studies, but taken together, the results are conclusive.

Also, a thimerosal-autism link doesn't explain why there is such a stalk gender-disparity. Mercury poisoning doesn't show the same kind of gender-disparity.

Having said all this, there are some pretty easy ways to make scientists take the mercury poisoning hypothesis more seriously. Simply make some credible research that shows that autistic children are found to contain whole blood mercury levels consistent with mercury poisoning. The current research into this, cannot be considered credible, and are indeed quite often found to be filled with flaws and errors.

Current research into autism shows that autism is most likely genetic in nature, and there have been research showing that autism can be linked to a part of chromosome 17, called 17q21. This is a promising path to better understanding of autism and its causes.

Many of the links in this post comes from Kevin Leitch's blog: Left Brain/Right Brain.

Note about comments: People are welcome to disagree with me and each other, but personal attacks will be deleted as soon as I see them. Spam linking to "mercury cures" and the like, will obviously also be deleted.


A bad review of The God Delusion by AiG

There has been a number of reviews of Dawkins, quite a few of them bad, but now comes the objective review we've all waited for. A review by one of the creationists from Answers in Genesis.

Paul Taylor of Answers In Genesis critques[sic] 'The God Delusion'

Why don't I think the headline uses "critiques" (however the spelling) in the meaning of a neutral look, but rather uses it in the every day usage of a negative look?

Have you ever wondered why an atheist believes what he/she does? Richard Dawkins wants you to know why he is an atheist. Dawkins, the Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science, is arguably the world's best known atheist.

With the publication of his new book, The God Delusion, we now have an expanded version of his atheist manifesto. One would have at least hoped that he would have taken the opportunity to present a more intellectually rigorous case. Indeed, some Christians may have been afraid of opening the book, in case the sheer weight of evidence might have destroyed their faith. For my part, I was looking forward to getting to grips with an intellectual argument. I was to be disappointed.

Given the fact that the sheer evidence of the age of the Earth, the supporting evidence for the Theory of Evolution, and a number of other things, including the self-contradiction of the Bible, haven't been able to convince you that a literate reading of the Bible is nonsense, I don't think it's actually possible to show you anything that might convince you of anything.
And I am not certain that you would recognize an intellectual argument if you saw it.

Dawkins' arguments, far from having intellectual clout, are mostly like this example: "The argument will be so familiar, I needn't document it further."

Dawkin's paucity of argument is best illustrated by his poor use of logic.

Someone from AiG saying that others use poor logic? This gotta be good.

Poor Logic

Examine this extraordinary sentence.

Although Jesus probably existed, reputable biblical scholars do not in general regard the New Testament (and obviously not the Old Testament) as a reliable record of what actually happened in history, and I shall not consider the Bible further as evidence for any kind of deity. (p97)

Look first at the use of the word "probably" in "Although Jesus probably existed". Why is Dawkins doubting this fact? There is no question that Jesus existed. It is illogical to add the word "probably".

Given the fact that there is no other evidence of the existence of Jesus than the books of the New Testament (and the testaments rejected when the New Testament was put together), written decades after the facts that they were supposed to document, I personally find it quite reasonable to use the word "probably" - not only do I find it reasonable, I even find it (dare I say) logical.

Personally, I would used the word "might" instead of "probably", but that would certainly not have be better in the eyes of Taylor.

Look next at the use of the word "reputable". What is a "reputable biblical scholar"? The test of reputation has been left undone by Dawkins. Presumably, a "reputable biblical scholar" is one who agrees with Dawkins' attempts to rubbish the Bible. Such people can be found, though whether the adjective "reputable" is appropriate for such people is a matter of opinion. In the opinion of Answers In Genesis, a "reputable biblical scholar" is one who approaches the Bible with respect, believing it to be the inspired, inerrant and authoritative word of God, from the very first verse.

A reputable biblical scholar is someone who does research on the subject in a scholarly way, ignoring their own feelings, and take historical evidence into account. They then publishes works that are generally accepted in the field, and shows a willingness to correct any mistakes that might come to light.
In other words, they don't let their faith come in the way of facts.

They don't have to agree with Dawkins, and indeed many of them don't, but they are willing to admit when facts are on Dawkins' side.

There is a good reason why AiG isn't the arbitrator of what is good biblical scholarship. They are unwilling to let facts get in the way of their faith.

Thirdly, why is it "obvious" that the Old Testament should not be regarded as reliable? He has clearly not read a detailed apologetics of scriptural inerrancy, such as that provided by Brian Edwards in his masterly book, Nothing But The Truth. That is again down to his presupposition, that evolution is true so Genesis is wrong. Merely making a statement, or using the word "obvious", does not make a statement true, when it is not true. Just from these three points, we see that there is no logical reason given by Dawkins for rejecting the use of the Bible as evidence.

A good example of the Courtier's Reply.
All evidence supports the theory of evolution, the age of the Earth etc., while none supports a literate reading of the creation story in Genesis (which of the two creation stories should we go with BTW?).
The stories in the Bible are not supported by historical evidence, biological evidence or by science in general. The story of the Ark alone, has so many problematic issues that TalkOrigins has an entire page dedicated to them. has a list of biblical contradicitions and errors, which includes listing bats as a type of bird.

Do you really want to claim this to be the "inerrant and authoritative word of God"?

Articles on the use of logic are easy to find on the website. An important element in the use of logic is to recognise logical fallacies. Dawkins has committed several of these.

So far I haven't been impressed with the quality of Taylor's logic, so it would seem like he should re-read those articles.

Ad Hominem

This sort of fallacy involves attacking the opponent instead of the argument. In the UK, this is referred to as "playing the man instead of the ball" - a soccer reference, implying that the tackler has deliberately aimed to kick his opponent, rather than attempting to kick the ball.

There are several examples of this. There is a particularly nasty attack on a schoolteacher, who happens to be a creationist. Notice, on page 95, how Dawkins describes certain American educational establishments.

He moved up the hierarchy of American universities, from rock bottom at the "Moody Bible Institute", through Wheaton College (a little bit higher on the scale, but still the alma mater of Billy Graham) to Princeton in the world-beating class at the top. (p95)

Why are the three institutions arranged hierarchically? What is the basis for Dawkins assessment of standards at each place? He doesn't say, but we assume that it is to do with belief in the Bible. Why is it implied that, because they number Billy Graham among their alumni, that this is a negative for Wheaton College?

The book is full of such examples.

Interesting that Taylor doesn't actually provide any examples of the ad hominem attacks.
Attacking someone for being a creationist is not an example of ad hominem, unless they were discussing something irrelevant to this (for example his opinion on taxes). For example, to say that a creationist is unqualified to teach biology is not an ad hominem attack, since his stance shows a lack of understanding of the fundamental principles of biology.

Ranking American universities might not be very relevant, but again, it's not an ad hominem attack. Impling that counting Billy Graham as an alumni counts against Wheatin College is more properly called "guilt by association", and has absolutely nothing to do with an adhominen.

Straw Men

The well-known "straw man" logical fallacy occurs when the debater invents their opponent's position for them, then argues against their own invention, rather than the real position of the opponent. An example of this is seen in the mocking tone used, as he attempts to dismiss arguments based on intelligent design.

I [insert own name] am personally unable to think of any way in which [insert biological phenomenon] could have been built up step by step. Therefore it is irreducibly complex. That means it is designed.

Although Dawkins uses this argument frequently, it is a complete misrepresentation of the intelligent design position. A biological mechanism is not labelled as irreducibly complex, because it is complicated and the labeller cannot think how it could have evolved. It is so labelled, because it can be shown that it is not possible for it to have evolved.

Given how often we encounter the argument from incredulity, and that it's basicly what Behe's irreducibly complexity reduces to, I can't see that this is a strawman. A strawman is a position that the opponent doesn't hold after all.

Every biological mechanism labelled "irreducibly complex" so far, has as a matter of fact not been shown impossible to evolve. As a matter of fact, the evolutionary path for all of them have been since been demonstrated. In other words, they were labelled "irreducibly complex" because the labeller couldn't understand how it could have been evovled, and thus decided that it couldn't - the very definition of an argument from incredulity.


The God Delusion is far from being a reasoned argument for atheism, it is a hysterical rant. Maybe there will one day emerge a book that has a little more intellectual rigour. Dawkins' new book is weak, even by atheist standards. We note that Dawkins is now planning to send atheist material to government schools in the UK. That might be a good opportunity for British school pupils to exercise their critical thinking!

Did anyone notice any relevant critique of the content of the book? Taylor attacked Dawkins' logic (rather poorly), but didn't actually address any of the book's points. Not only didn't he do that, his entire critique was based upon the premise that the bible should be read literately - a minority position, even among the religious.

Note on comments: People are very welcome to disagree with me, but personal attacks and comments that just amounts to links to AiG (or similar pages) will get deleted without hesitation.

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Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Darwin movie planned

This should be of interest to at least some of my readers.

Producer Jeremy Thomas plans a movie about Charles Darwin, based upon Annie's Box, the biography of Darwin, written by Darwin's great-great grandson Randall Keynes.

More here.

Jeremy Thomas' entry at IMDB.

Sounds quite interesting.

Update: PZ has now written about the movie. Since he has read the book it's based upon, he also adds some details about it.

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Some quick thoughts on senator McCarthy

I have been interested in Senator Joseph McCarthy and McCarthyism for some years now. My interest is probably somewhat founded in the fact that it's such an obvious example of something that's 100% wrong.

What McCarthy did was to try to get people fired for their political affiliation – not only their current affiliation, but any affiliation they might have had in the past. In other words, he used their political stance as a guideline for the fitness to hold a job. It's not the same as saying that people with a certain ideological stance can't fit into certain jobs (I think we can all think of situations where someone's stance on an issue makes them unfit for certain jobs) – instead it’'s saying that someone shouldn't hold a job because of an ideological stance, regardless of their fitness to hold their job in general; in other words, a political litmus test.

With few examples, people understand that McCarthy was wrong, but quite often it seems to me that people don't quite get it.

One of the things people often focus on, when talking about McCarthy, is the fact that few, or none, of the people he accused of belonging to the Communist party was found guilty of this.
That's beside the point. The Communist party was a perfectly legitimate political party to belong to (and still is), so membership of the party in no way should affect peoples' job situation.

There is no doubt that the Communist parties around the world had a close relationship with the Soviet Union, often bordering on the treasonous, but that doesn't mean that the individual member of the party in any way was guilty of this, and even if they were guilty of having close ties to the Soviet, this wasn’t as such illegal.
Unless it could be found that a member of the party for example gave confidential information to the Soviets, it was no more problematic than to have close ties with for example Greece or Portugal under the military rule (though all of these examples show a decidedly lack of judgment).

Of course, McCarthy's wild accusations lead to some pretty draconian, and out-right undemocratic, laws – for example The Communist Control Act of 1954. An example of the solution to a problem being worse than the actual problem – reducing peoples' rights in the face of some external enemy, who might infiltrate the country. Sounds familiar?


Monday, February 26, 2007

New animals found under the Antarctic

The Guardian has an interesting article on the subject. It turns out that because of the melting ice, scientists can access areas that couldn't be accessed before.

Yahoo also has an article, with some cool pictures (the later link via Pharyngula) .

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Only stereotypes need apply

I have never gotten the US system of sororities (or the male equivalent), but I understand that it's a very important part of student life for many US students. That makes this story even more distressing.

Sorority Evictions Raise Issue of Looks and Bias (NY Times article, requires free registration).

Worried that a negative stereotype of the sorority was contributing to a decline in membership that had left its Greek-columned house here half empty, Delta Zeta’s national officers interviewed 35 DePauw members in November, quizzing them about their dedication to recruitment. They judged 23 of the women insufficiently committed and later told them to vacate the sorority house.

The 23 members included every woman who was overweight. They also included the only black, Korean and Vietnamese members. The dozen students allowed to stay were slender and popular with fraternity men — conventionally pretty women the sorority hoped could attract new recruits. Six of the 12 were so infuriated they quit.

“Virtually everyone who didn’t fit a certain sorority member archetype was told to leave,” said Kate Holloway, a senior who withdrew from the chapter during its reorganization.

I don't know how the US system works, but couldn't DePauw somehow rewoke Delta Zeta's permit to operate on DuPauw? I think it could be argued that their behaviour was disruptive and discrimminating, and as such doesn't fit into the college.

I find this part particularly problematic:

The mass eviction battered the self-esteem of many of the former sorority members, and some withdrew from classes in depression. There have been student protests, outraged letters from alumni and parents, and a faculty petition calling the sorority’s action unethical.

If peoples' self-esteem is so connected to their sorority affiliation that they go into depression over such a thing, there is obviously something very wrong. I think it sounds like an unhealthy dependency on soronities for popularity, but that might be me reading too much into it.

Go read the article.


Saturday, February 24, 2007

The 2006 Turing Award winner is...


The 2006 Turing Award goes to Frances E. Allen

For pioneering contributions to the theory and practice of optimizing compiler techniques that laid the foundation for modern optimizing compilers and automatic parallel execution

It's a disgrace that the Turing Award existed for 40 years before the first female receipient was found. I know that the first contributors to the field were mostly men, but you would have thought that they could have found a time before now, to give it to Allen?

Mark C. Chu-Carroll, of God Math, Bad Math has a post up about the winner. He have meet her personally, and is a great fan.

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Abortion is morally neutral

Amanda Marcotte has written an interesting post at Pandagon:
Time to open up the Overton window some more: Abortion is a moral good

The “I’m pro-choice but I think abortion is wrong” thing crops up a lot in these discussions, and while I understand the urge to feel like a complex person that lays behind it, I seriously don’t get why people think that it helps anything to hand wring about how terrible abortion is if you’re supporting the right to have one. Suggesting that abortion is immoral just reinforces the anti-choice claims that abortion should be banned and it strongly reinforces the anti-choice notion that women who get abortions are moral children who are too stupid to know what they’re doing. The belief that women are too stupid to really understand what they’re doing is evident in anti-choice measures like requiring sonograms and requiring that women spend a day to think it over before they get an abortion.

Having the notion that women are moral midgets and that abortion is an evil, even if you think it’s one that should be tolerated, being reinforced by pro-choicers does the pro-choice argument no good. So I’d like to argue against it. I think that abortion is not only a good thing, but I’d like to posit that it seems to me that in the vast majority of abortions, the choice made was the most moral choice for that woman.

I see what Amanda is getting at, but I have a different take on it.

Abortion is a medical procedure, and as a such, is morally neutral. I think medical procedures should be avoided if possible (in this case, by using comdoms etc.), but they should be available if wanted.

When you start mixing morality into it, you buy into the anti-choice idea that this is anything else than a medical procedure, and that morality somehow comes into it at all. It doesn't.

When a woman decides to have an abortion for whatever reasons she does, then it's quite often for quite reasonable grounds. This is not morally right, as it's not morally right not to buy an expensive car, when you can't afford it, or to avoid buying a house, because you don't want to have to look after the garden. However it's certainly not morally wrong either.

In reality, few choices in life have much to do with morality, and I wish we could avoid tainting the abortion debate with such words.

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Friday, February 23, 2007

A datapoint against some homeschooling

I know that there can be many good reasons for homeschooling, but this letter in the Pike Country Courier is an good example of the dangers of homeschooling. You are not always properly exposed to other peoples' views. Blockquotes are from the letter, my comments are non-quotes.

Should creationism be observed?

To the editor:

I am a homeschooled freshman in high school in the Delaware Valley school district, and I am disturbed by the predisposed approach to the origin sciences that I see when I talk to my friends who are uninterested in hearing about my creationistic point of view.

It dismays me to see that one theory is taught and another discarded, especially when the theory of evolution has many holes that simply don’t allow it to hold as much water as is suggested by scientists in that field.

Oh, dear.

You know you are in for a lot of pain when the letter starts of making the following clear:
1) She is a creationist.
2) She tries to convince her friends over to creationism.
3) She doesn't understand what the word 'theory' means when talking about science.
4) She appears to think that either she knows more about the subject than the scientists in the field, or that they are part of a great conspiracy to cover up all the flaws.

Take for example the geological column, which is commonly studied in high school textbooks. Darwin suggested that fossils were arranged in layers of strata in a progression from more complex organisms to gradually less complex organisms as you dug deeper. This is not proof for evolution, as most professors of science suggest.

Several occurrences in the past, including the Cambrian Explosion, are proof that these creatures are not necessarily imprinted in only certain layers of rock. The geological column is rarely found in the form that Darwin suggested, to be mixed up, with all kinds of rocks on the same level. In other words, it very well could have been formed by a series of catastrophes and cataclysms.

I don't understand her argument. Is she saying that the Cambrian Explosion is some kind of proof against evolution? I guess she is focusing on the word 'explosion' here, and doesn't understand that it's ment realtive. It probably took somewhere in the region of 5-10 million years.
Also, while evolution predicts that the same type of organisms should lie in the same type of layers, it doesn't say anything about organisms becoming necessarily more complex. And the out of order arrangement of layers, are due to thrust faults, a well-known phenomenom, that in no way causes a problem for the theory of evolution.

Another case in point that is widely acclaimed is the embryonic drawings that Ernst Haeckel created to demonstrate similarities between the embryos of humans and animals. The drawings he presented showed the embryos of a fish, a salamander, a tortoise, a chick, a hog, a calf, a rabbit, and a human. However, his sketches were counterfeit and enormously over-embellished. Haeckel was disproved in 1868, and again in 1997, yet we still read about his drawings in modern science textbooks!

Oh, come on, don't make PZ cry.

Yet another instance of the same problem is the Miller-Urey experiment. Stanley Miller and Harold Urey tried to create life in a laboratory by using water, methane, ammonia, and hydrogen sealed in a number of glass tubes connected in a loop. However, the experiment was a flop. It did not prove anything, except that the substances would have to be separated in the universe to produce the few building blocks of life that were created in the lab. A laboratory is far different from our universe, and far less stable in terms of what can be produced chemically.

Can anyone explain the difference between abiogenisis and evolution in a way that creationists can understand it?
And for a more informed view of the Miller-Urey experiment, I'd suggest this page. As the article also explains, there have been several experiments since that particular experiment, all showing the same result. Oh, and incidentially, the experiment had to be made in a laboratory, otherwise it would not be possible to make an environment similar to how the earth was presumed to be like at the time.

If, in fact, our universe was created, we could explain so much more.

Uh-oh. Trouble ahead.

There would be no need to explain the absence of intermediate species, because there would be no need for them.

True. Of course, this would only be good if there actually was an absence of intermiediate species, which there are not. This is one of the major reasons why creationism doesn't hold up - we have all these great transitional fossils.

There would be no question as to why the axis of the earth is tilted at a perfect 23 degree angle, which allows equal global distribution to the rays of the sun.

And what if we told you that the Northern hemosphere receive the sun rays at more direct angles than the southern latitudes? Or that the Earth is titled at a 23.5 degree angle? Not exactly a 'perfect' 23 degree angle.

We wouldn’t need to know how life can be created at random, because it would not have been created at random.

True. And if yellow was blue, we wouldn't have to waonder what blue looked like.
Does that argument make sense to anyone?

We wouldn’t have to wonder why there are only a few inches of dust on the moon rather than fifty feet, because we would not have billions of years to accumulate it.

Something we wouldn't have to wonder about, if we understand science either. Oh, right we do.

Moreover, we would not need structural homology, because each individual living thing would have been created with its own unique purpose in the scheme of life, the universe, and everything.

Yes, yes. But how does wishful thinking for lack of understanding explain anything? Remember, this is an example of how "we could explain so much more".

Gabrielle Cerberville, age 15


A brain is a horrible thing to waste, more so when you are so young. Hopefully she'll get to understand why her friends are not interested in hearing about creationism.


Planets of the Apes coming closer?

Via one of the commenters at Pharyngula (sorry, lost the link, so can't say who it was), who pointed to a post at Liberal Values, I see that Chimpanzees are showing one of the classic examples of intelligence. Sophisticated tool using. Well, weapon using actually.

At Yahoo: Hunting chimps may change view of human evolution

Chimpanzees have been seen using spears to hunt bush babies, U.S. researchers said on Thursday in a study that demonstrates a whole new level of tool use and planning by our closest living relatives.

Perhaps even more intriguing, it was only the females who fashioned and used the wooden spears, Jill Pruetz and Paco Bertolani of Iowa State University reported.

This might lead to some re-evaluation of some longheld beliefs.
As Jill Pruetz explains:

The observation that individuals hunting with tools include females and immature chimpanzees suggests that we should rethink traditional explanations for the evolution of such behavior in our own lineage," she concluded in her paper.

That's quite interesting.
Note that she is speaking of the evolution of the gender roles, and not the biological process leading to Homo Sapiens, as the headline of the article might lead you to think.

Washington Post has more.


Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Pakistani minister killed for refusing to wear veil

Zilla Huma Usman, a Pakistani government minister and woman's activist, has been killed by Islamic extremist because she refused to wear a veil.

More here.

Another example of a pattern of fundamentalism in Islamic countries considered allies in the "war on terror" (or whatever this weeks catch-phrase is). We also see the same kind of stuff going on in Afghanistan and in Iraq, even in the areas presumed to be under allied control.

In the short run, the Western countries needs to put pressure on Pakistan to ensure that justice is served. In the long run, we should work together with Pakistan, Iraq, and Afghanistan to ensure that a more progressive view of women get more widespread. This is probably best done through education, not only of the men, but also of the women.

Peter Naur's Turing Award speech

The great Danish computer scientist, Peter Naur, received the 2005 Turning Award from ACM for his "fundamental contributions to programming language design and the definition of Algol 60, to compiler design, and to the art and practice of computer programming."
It’s very hard to overestimate Naur's contributions to the fields of computer science and programming in general. He really was the first who focused on how to define programming languages and programmes in a coherent way, thus ensuring the languages and programmes can be understood by others. His name is of course the source of the 'Naur' part of 'Backus-Naur Form', which is used to define the syntax of programs.

Yesterday Naur gave his Turing Award acceptance speech at the University of Copenhagen, so those of us who weren’t there at the Award ceremony could get a chance to hear it. Not surprising the entire faculty of Computer Science at the University showed up, and quite a few students and others as well.

The title of Naur's speech was 'Computing versus Human Thinking', and basically was about his attempts to describe how human thinking works, though he dwelt a little upon his past work over the last fifty years.

When listening to Naur, it's important to realize two things:

  • He sees science differently from most scientists. In his eyes science is about giving a "coherent description", and not about the scientific method. This has of course been fundamental to his contributions to the field of computer science (which he thinks is misnamed, and should be called 'datalogy', since he really considers it all about learning about data), but it means that he can be rather dismissive of other peoples' work.

  • He is a bit of a rogue, taking pride in going against the mainstream. He is right often enough for other people to not entirely dismiss him out of hand, but it ruffles some feathers.

I was aware of these things, yet even so, his speech did surprise me.

As I said, most of his speech was devoted to his model of human thinking (or mental life as he said). First he started with describing how his interests in such things lead him to study such fields as philosophy, psychology and linguistics, and how he found them all lacking.
Well, lacking is too mild a word – he dismisses the entire fields, for example saying that psychology is "all questions, no answers", and that there are no such things as language and knowledge.

Having found all these fields lacking, except for a few rare basic works (all published around 1900), he set out to make his own model of how peoples' mental life works. He calls this model a "synapse state model", and makes it very clear that it works entirely different from computers (thus probably making AIs impossible).
It would be impossible for me to go into any great details of Naur’s model, but apparently his speech was published in the January 2007 issue of Communications of the ACM, and can be bought here (membership necessary)

Now, Naur is clearly working outside the mainstream here, and is stepping on quite a few toes, but even when doing so, he still works within the scientific process. He is trying to get his ideas published in peer reviewed journals, and while waiting for that to happen, he continues his work, working together with other scientists (including a psychologist) to ensure that his hypothesis are as good as possible. He expects it will take him up to twenty years to get his ideas published, because that’s what it usually takes for this kind of stuff.

Neo-creationists should take notice of this. This is how science is done, and why scientists have no respect for the neo-creationists’ attempts to circumvent this.


Monday, February 19, 2007

Since when were neo-Creationists "evolutionists"?

Douglas Wellman has a commentary in The News-Sentinel, which is supposed to be a rebuttal to an earlier comment.

Let's do a little frisking, shall we?

Al Kuelling’s Feb. 8 guest column was deficient in several areas.

His criticism of Intelligent Design as merely “repackaged creationism” is false. Even evolutionists are beginning to concede this. In a column in the Jan. 9 Guardian, evolutionist Richard Buggs contends that ID is a scientifically valid theory. Further, atheists and agnostics, such as Michael Denton, are among ID’s proponents.

My first thought was to heed PZ Myer's excellent advice, and never trust a neo-Creationist when he quotes someone. I looked up that Guardian column, and found, much to my suprise that Wellman was pretty correct in his description of the Buggs' statement. Of course, he still misrepresented Buggs by claiming him to be an 'evolutionist'. The column clearly stakes that Buggs sits on the scientific panel of Truth in Science - so a member of a ID panel supports ID? That's hardly a great surprise.

Michael Denton is the author of Evolution: A Theory in Crisis, Answers in Genesis describes him thus:
Dr Michael Denton is a former agnostic anti-evolutionist (with respect to biological transformism), who now professes a vague form of theism. However, he now seems to have embraced evolutionary (though somehow ‘guided’) transformism.

In other words, while he might once have been an agnostic, he doesn't appear to be one any more.
And can Wellman cite any other examples of agnostic or atheist scientists that supports ID?
Kuelling’s unsubstantiated charge that ID proponents mislead the courts is also false. He also doesn’t mention that the judge in the Dover, PA case lifted his evaluation of ID’s scientific merit nearly word for word, including misrepresentations, from the ACLU’s proposed “Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law.” The Discovery Institute reports:

“For example, Jones claimed that biochemist Michael Behe, when asked about articles purporting to explain the evolution of the immune system, responded that the articles were ‘not good enough.’ Behe actually said the exact opposite: “It’s not that they aren’t good enough. It’s simply that they are addressed to a different subject.” Jones’ misrepresentation of Behe came directly from the ACLU’s proposed findings.

I think the quote "not good enough", doesn't refer to what Behe said, but what he was asked (and which he answered in the negative) - you know, like in this exchange:

Q. We’ll get back to that. Now, these articles rebut your assertion that scientific literature has no answers on the origin of the vertebrate immune system?

A. No, they certainly do not. My answer, or my argument is that the literature has no detailed rigorous explanations for how complex biochemical systems could arise by a random mutation and natural selection and these articles do not address that.

Q. So these are not good enough?

A. They’re wonderful articles. They’re very interesting. They simply just don’t address the question that I pose.

And for the whole "copied the ACLU" thing - see here and here at The Panda's Thumb
In any case, Keulling’s reliance on the courts is dubious. Courts are no more authorities on what constitutes science than on who qualifies as human (see the Dred Scott decision).

Actually, here is something I agree with. Scientists are the authorities on what constitutes science - among other things, this happens through the peer-reviewing process.
Today, we are told that science must be limited to materialistic explanations. This is a problematic approach in that an a priori decision to exclude a particular class of explanation is dogmatism, not science. Imagine if archaeology were subject to the same restrictions.

I think most archaeologists would be rather suprised to hear that there is anything non-materialistic to their field. And yes, science excludes non-naturalistic explanation - that's what science is all about.
In contrast, most branches of modern science were pioneered by creationists. For instance, Newton, recently voted the greatest scientist who ever lived, was a creationist. Today, many scientists follow their lead. John Baumgartner and Emil Silvestru are both leading authorities in their fields – plate tectonics and cave geology, respectively.

Isn't that nice. Newton also believed in alchemy, yet I don't see people call for teaching alchemy in schools.
Kuelling needs to ask himself: If science is so threatened by the consideration of nonmaterialistic explanations, how is it that the founders of modern science laid so solid a foundation based upon those very premises? And why shouldn’t modern scientists follow their example?

The founders of science can be considered the ancient Greeks, so by Wellman's line of argumentation, we should all worship the Geek Pantheon, and base our science on that.
What Wellman doesn't seem to grasp is that science is conducted in spite of what religious beliefs the scientist holds, and goes where the evidence leads. What kind of evidence does neo-creationists provide for their ideas, nonmaterialistic or otherwise? None. This is why it should be rejected as science.
To understand what prompted this profound redefinition of science, consider the comment by British zoologist and anatomist D.M.S. Watson: “Evolution is a theory universally accepted, not because it has been observed to occur or…can be proved by logically coherent evidence to be true, but because the only alternative, special creation, is clearly incredible.”
Note that his acceptance of evolution is not based upon science, but upon his desire to write God out of the equation.

That certainly sounds damning doesn't it? I mean, even if we ignore the fact that he made that statement back in 1929! Of course, it's typical ID quotemining - in essence Watson is saying that evolution was accepted because of "the collapse of alternative explanations".
One might wonder why ID and creationism pose such threats to evolutionists (witness all the fretting over Answers in Genesis’ soon-to-open world-class Creation Museum). After all, if the evidence for evolution is so compelling, why are evolutionists working so hard to suppress contrary views? Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, has said, “In my opinion, using creation and evolution as topics for critical-thinking exercises in primary and secondary schools is virtually guaranteed to confuse students about evolution and may lead them to reject one of the major themes in science.”

Maybe is an issue for us, because we are against bad science? We don't think it's a good idea to fill childrens' heads with nonsense.
Simply put, evolutionists are not confident in their own theory. Why else would Scott urge evolutionists to “avoid debates. If your local campus Christian fellowship asks you to defend evolution, please decline. … you probably will get beaten”?

Note the elipses? Let's take the quote in full:
Avoid Debates. If your local campus Christian fellowship asks you to “defend evolution,” please decline. Public debates rarely change many minds; creationists stage them mainly in the hope of drawing large sympathetic audiences.
Have you ever watched the Harlem Globetrotters play the Washington Federals? The Federals get off some good shots, but who remembers them? The purpose of the game is to see the Globetrotters beat the other team.
And you probably will get beaten. In such a forum, scientific experts often try to pack a semester-long course into an hour, hoping to convey the huge sweep of evolution, the towering importance of its ideas, the masses of evidence in its favor. Creationist debaters know better. They come well prepared with an arsenal of crisp, clear, superficially attractive antievolutionary arguments — fallacious ones, yes,
but far too many for you to answer in the time provided.
Even if you win the debate in some technical sense, most of the audience will still walk away from it convinced that your opponent has a great new science that the schools should hear about. Teachers have enough problems. Above all else, do no harm.

source (pdf).

Somehow it seems that Scott's message wasn't quite the same as Wellman's understanding of it. Incidentially, this might be a good one to add to the TalkOrigins quotemine file - I came across a few references to the statement by the neo-Creationism crowd when finding the source.
Finally, Kuelling voices concern that creationists are chasing Christians out of the church. On the contrary. Evolutionists such as biologist E.O. Wilson and Michael Shermer, founding publisher of Skeptic magazine, have related that their exposure to evolutionary theory was the death knell of their once-fervent faith.
There is no reason, scientific or otherwise, for Christians to adulterate their faith with that of unbelievers.

Well, can't really say anything to that, can I?

Does this kind of "rebuttals" actually convince anyone? I guess it might work, if you don't know how to actually research their claims.

Scaife won't oppose Clinton

As someone said elsewhere about this article "How things change."

A New York Times article contains some pretty interesting information.

As Clinton Runs, Some Old Foes Stay on Sideline

Back when Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton was first lady, no one better embodied what she once called the “vast right-wing conspiracy” than Richard Mellon Scaife.

Mr. Scaife, reclusive heir to the Mellon banking fortune, spent more than $2 million investigating and publicizing accusations about the supposed involvement of Mrs. Clinton and former President Bill Clinton in corrupt land deals, sexual affairs, drug running and murder.

But now, as Mrs. Clinton is running for the Democratic presidential nomination, Mr. Scaife’s checkbook is staying in his pocket.

Christopher Ruddy, who once worked full-time for Mr. Scaife investigating the Clintons and now runs a conservative online publication he co-owns with Mr. Scaife, said, “Both of us have had a rethinking.”

“Clinton wasn’t such a bad president,” Mr. Ruddy said.

As the article makes clear, it's hardly like Clinton won't be swiftboated by some Right-wingers, but the simple fact that Scaife won't fund anti-Clinton campaigns is pretty major news. Scaife of course, is one of the major funders of right-wing causes.

Personally, I have always found the right-wingers hatred of both Clintons rather hard to understand. They are both political centrists, by US standards, and have always been more about concensus building than forcing their ideas through. Given the number of Republicians with sex scandals in their past, I can't see why this should lead to such hatred (and the hatred was there, long before the entire Lewinksy thing).
I guess it's an "either you get it, or you don't" type of thing.


Book review: Russia in the Shadows

Note: Again a reposting of a book review that I have already posted at I post it ehre, because it's a review of an interesting work by H.G. Wells that most won't have heard about. It's also a great example of why taking things at face value, or worse, making the most positive spin on something, is dangerous.

H.G. Wells: Russia in the Shadows

Not on of Wells' most know books. In fact it seems to be pretty rare, and there appears to have been only one printing in the UK and one in the US. My book doesn't contain a printing year, but it must have been published in either 1920 or 1921. It's a fairly short book, 153 pages and 8 pages with photos.

It is about a visit H.G. Wells made to Russia in 1920, more exactly to St. Petersburg and Moscow. The purpose of this trip is to get an impression of Russia after the Bolshevik had taken over.

Wells starts the book thus:

In January 1914 I visited Petersburg and Moscow for a couple of weeks; in September 1920 I was asked to repeat this visit by Mr. Kamenev1, of the Russian Trade Delegation in London.

This wasn't a unique things. Others British intellectuals had been there before Wells.
H.G. Wells wanted to make his own impressions of how Russia were, and wrote:

In Petersburg did not stay at the Hotel International, to which foreign visistors are usually sent, but with my old friend, Maxim Gorky2. The guide and interpreter assigned to assist us was a lady I had met in Russia in 1914, the niece of a former Ambassador to London.

While the guide might have been neutral (or even perhasp unfriendly to the Communists), his friend was hardly the best person to give Wells the most unbiased view of the qualities of the new goverment. That Wells isn't aware of this, shows in this passage:

Gorky's position in Russia is a quite extraordinary and personal one. He is no more of a communist3 than I am, and I have heard him argue with the utmost freedom in his flat against the exstremist positions with such men as Bokaiev4, recently the head of the Extraordinary Commission in Petersburg, and Zalutsky, one of the rising leaders of the Communist party. It was a very reassuring display of free speech, for Gorky did not so much argue as denounce - and this in front of two deeply interested English enquireres.

Wells then tells about what the Communist goverment is doing for the arts and the science, and dwells on all the well known Russians he meets: Shalypin5, Monachof, Oldenburg the Orientalist, Karpinsky the geologist6, Pavloff7, Radloff8, Bielopolsky9, Manuchin and Galzounov10

Wells doesn't say that the Communists are doing everything well, but he says that given the situation, they are the best choice for Russia, and they might stop a collapse of Russia which could threathen the whole of Europe. He also says that some of the Russian leaders have visions:

[T]here were other more liberal minds in this new Russian world, minds which, given an opportunity, will build and will probably build well. Among men of such constructive force I could quote such names as Lenin himself, who has developed wonderfully since the days of his exile, and who has recently written powerfully against the extravagances of his own extremists; Trotsky11, who has never been an extremist, and who is a man of very great organising ability; Lunacharsky12, the Minister of Education, Rikoff13, the head of the Department of People's Economy; [...] These are names that occur to me; it is by no means an exhaustive list of the statesmanlike elements in the Bolshevik Goverment.

Now it's easy to be snarky of H.G. Wells, he was there pre-Stalin after all, but I must say that it's a long time since I've last seen such a blatant white-wash as this book. While H.G. Wells was critical of Marxism, there is no doubt that he was over-whelmed by Lenin, and he lays the majority of the blame for the situation in Russia on the Tsar regime - not a unvalid view, except for the fact that he ignores the killings being committed in the name of the revolution, or blame it on a few extremists.

The book is interesting as a historical document, if nothing else, then because all the politicans he meets either are totally unknowns these days (which might be because of Wells alternative spelling of their names), or was killed by Stalin in the years 1936-1939, if they still were alive at that time. Stalin wasn't mentioned at all. There are also a few pictures of Lenin in the book, which I haven't seen elsewhere.

I wouldn't pay the $50 I've seen it cost at though.


1Lev Kamenev (1883-1936), one of the most powerful communists, until he fell out with Stalin. Expelled from the party (twice), was sentenced to 10 years in prison, and finally in 1936 tried for treason and shot.

2Penname of Aleksei Maksimovich Peshkov/Aleksey Maximovich Pyeshkov (1868 - 1836). He was a whole-hearted supporter of the Soviet regime, though he fell out with the regime and lived in exile from 1921-1929.

3Wells calls himself an Evolutionary Collectivist.

4Almost certainly Ivan Bakayev (1887-1936), a powerful comminist, who fell out with Stalin, was expelled from the party in 1927, and was accused of treason and executed in 1936.

5Probably Feodor Ivanovich Chaliapin (1873-1938) who later left Russia.

6Alexander Petrovich Karpinsky (1846-1936)

7Ivan Petrovich Pavlov (1849-1936), who was awarded the Nobel prize for medicine in 1904.

8Perhaps V.V. Radlov (1837-1918), a Russian turkologist, considered to be the founder of the field.

9Probably Aristarkh Apollonovich Belopolsky (1854-1934), a Russian astrophysicist.

10Aleksandr Konstantionvich Glazunov (1865-1936), Russian composer who emigrated to Paris in 1927 or 1928.

11Leon Trotsky, alias of Lev Davidovich Bronstein (1879-1940). Exiled to Central Asia in 1927, expulsion from Russia on 1929, sentenced to death in absence in 1937, and assassinated in Mexico City in 1940.

12Anatoly Vasilyevich Lunacharsky (1875-1933) - died of natural causes.

13Alexei Rykov (1881-1938), convicted of treason and executed in 1938.


Sunday, February 18, 2007

Book review: I was Hitler's Prisoner

This is a book review I posted in a different forum (, and which I thought might be of interest to others.

Stefan Lorant: I was Hitler's Prisoner
Translated from German by James Cleugh.

First published April 1935, my copy was published by Penguin Books in 1939.

This is the tale of Stafant Lorent's six and a half months of being a prisioner of the Nazis. Lorant was the editor of Münchner Illustrierte Presse, a non-political, but Christian and Conservative, paper based in Munich.
The reason for Lorant's arrest was that his newspaper was anti-Hitler. The major reason for his release was that he was a Hungarian citizen, and that the Hungarian goverment put pressure on Germany for his release.

Lorant is a powerful writer, and his writing is even more powerful because it was written so early in Hitler's reign.

I try to grasp, I try to understand how the Germans could have induced to deliver up their country to Herr Hitler and his henchmen. Had they no suspicion that their "Leader" would turn Germnay, the land of poets and thinkers, into a land of narrow-mindedness and barbarity?

The above is early in the book (p. 12), and describes what many have thought since World War II, but Lorant wrote it in his cell on the 19th March 1933, and followed it with:

I dispair when I think of Germany's future. Will Germany be able to survive this futher dreadful trial? Will the German people come safely through the purgatory of National-Socialism?

The book describes Lorant's thoughts of how Hitler got elected, and also the experiences Lorant has while a prisoner.
The prison life described by Lorant is not as dreadful as one would have expected of a Nazi prison, but this is still early in the Nazi reign, and I'm sure that most of his fellow prisoners' condition went drastically downhill with time. Not that the six months didn't see their share of death and misery.

It was a interesting book, and it makes it clear that all the signs were obvious from the start of Hitler's reign, though perhaps no one could realize the lack of humanity possible.

One more passage from the book, to show how Lorant and his fellow prisoners experiences the burning of books:

11th March
To-night the German students in Berlin have burnt twenty thousand books in the Opernplatz. That is the outcome of the campaign against "the un-German spirit." Bands, torchnearers, bonfires, the burning of books - that is how the fight against culture is being conducted. Time leaps back. Germany is in the Middle Ages.

Here on the fourth floor of the police prison, are men who have spent a great part of their lives in the company of books, and who love books. They are mourning to-day. Books are being burnt in the Opernplatz. ... We have forgotten the hopelessness and the misery of our position. The burning of the books makes us suffer.

We are ashamed of the Germans who have staged this medieval scene. We read with dismay the pronouncements made as the books were consigned to the flames.

Of course this barbaric act pales compared to later acts by the Nazi regime, but as a book-lover, these paragraphs are absolutely horrible to read.

If people can get hold of the book, I would certainly recommend reading it - especially if they have an interest in WWII.

Stefan Lorant seems to be a very interesting person - read more at this website.

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neo-Creationism in the news

I am sure that many of my readers get fustrated when they read about neo-Creationism (Intelligent Design) in the news. It's often portraited as a "balanced" reporting on the controvercy.

A good example of this is The Daily Record's reporting of a Dembski-Shermer debate.

It's probably an accurate description of the debate, but nowhere in the article does it make the point that Shermer is right, and Dembski is full of it. It even contains lines like

Both pulled on pop culture references to diffuse the dense scientific data that backed their two camps.

Wouldn't it be proper to actually explain that Dembski actually doesn't have any scientific data to back up his side? News reporting doesn't just involve printing all opinions uncritically.

A different, and much better article on neo-Creationism, is the Philadelphia Inquiter's editorial about the Kansas Board of Education.

I am aware of the differences between a news reporting and an editorial, but if just a tiny bit of the sense from the editorial had made it to the article, the result would have been much better. I mean, just look at these paragraphs:

The old, junked standards were a pack of misleading falsehoods. They portrayed Darwinian evolution as a "controversy" threatened by imaginary "new research." And that's just wrong. Evolution is the bedrock of biology, richly witnessed by fossil records and experiment, accepted by almost all scientists.

In a widely ridiculed move, Kansas' now-repealed standards redefined science to include non-natural explanations.

Somebody gets it!

Note: sorry for any misspelling etc. I turned 32 last thursday, and I was out drinking and partying last night, so I still got way too much alcohol in my blood.


Saturday, February 17, 2007

Blog carnivals

I recommend the following carnivals:

48th History Carnival at Aardvarchaeology.

54th Skeptics’ Circle at Action Skeptics.

Tangled Bank #73 at Lab Cat.


Friday, February 16, 2007

Which Programming Language Are You?

I don't really expect to do a lot of these online quizzes (or memes for that matter), but given my occupation, there was no way I was going to not take this one.

You are C++. You are very popular and open to suggestions.  Many have tried to be like you, but haven't been successful
Which Programming Language are You?

Well, since C++ is my first love among the programming languages, I don't mind this result. And it's certainly better than a lot of the alternatives (it could have been visual basic!).



Australian creationist letter

I became aware of a letter in the Sidney Herald by Dave Purkey. The letter is about the teaching of evolution and creationism, and Purkey (who is a creationist) makes the usual lies about the issue at hand. I'll try to take the letter paragraph by paragraph.

First of all, allow me to thank you for being willing to print these letters to the editor. You are providing a valuable service to our community. I am thankful to be living in a society that allows public debate over issues that have eternal implications. I suggest you might consider setting aside a column specifically to allow persons on both sides of this issue to air their comments weekly.

While most of us are for open debates, I hope that the Sidney Herald doesn't follow his suggestion, and set aside a column for this purpose. This would allow the creationists to create an illusion of there being a legitimate debate. The Sidney Herald should rather set aside a column for science or for educating people without knowledge of the area.

Response to Backes: While I appreciate Mr. Backes’ responding to my letter of a few weeks back, I would like to point out that it isn’t necessary in a public forum to insult the intelligence of one who opposes your viewpoint or attack the veracity of individuals used as a source. In a perfect world, I suppose one would find it unusual that anyone has financial problems. If it were even relevant, I would point out the many errors made by Mr. Backes when he attacked both my intelligence and Dr. Hovind’s credentials and veracity.

I haven't found the original letter, but I expect that "financial problems" refers to Kent Hovind's problems with the IRS, caused to a large degree by his association with Glenn Stoll. If that's the case, "financial problems" doesn't cover it - it would be more appropriate to say tax evation and fraud.
Attacking Purkey's intelligence is not very nice, but it might not be entirely misguided, given that he lumps them together with Hovind's "credentials and veracity". Hovind's use of false credentials tells us everything we need to know about his veracity.
And notice that he doesn't actually point out what those errors were.

All one has to do is go to Dr. Hovind’s Web site,, and judge for himself if his presentation is credible. If one chooses to visit the radical left wing atheists’ Web sites that spend all their time ranting and raving about the ignorance of anyone who opposes their incredibly inept presentations in an utterly vain attempt to justify the unsupportable theory of evolution, a theory that is filled with presuppositions and innuendoes used to explain the existence of mankind under the pretense of being scientific, that is their right. As a citizen of this great country, and as one of God’s creatures, we all have the right to choose whom we will serve.

Oh my, where to start.
Ok, let's start with the credibility of his presentation - better people than me has looked at it, and they are not impressed. Heck, even Hovind's allies think his arguments aren't credible.
I guess that "the radical left wing atheists’ Web sites" refers to places like TalkOrigins. However, notice how Purkey fails to explain how the theory of evolution is "unsupportable" or is "filled with presuppositions and innuendoes". Do we sense a pattern? Oh, and of course notice the incorrect understanding of the word theory.

I kept a copy of my letter and have reread it several times. I have not been able to understand how Mr. Backes got the idea I am promoting my religious beliefs in the classroom. While I don’t hesitate to confirm that I am a born-again, Bible toting, sold out follower of Jesus, in the classroom, I am a public school teacher. As an educator I spend many hours each month listening to and reading materials from both evolutionists and creationists. I’m not promoting Kent Hovind. I am promoting his presentation of the opposition to evolution scientists. I rejected the theory of evolution before I became a Christian because it simply had too many holes in it that no one could fill.

So you tell the children about your religious beliefs, claims that evolution is wrong because of religious arguments (that's all Hovind's arguments amounts to), but you are not promoting your religious beliefs. Riiight. Let me clearly state that if Purkey is in any way involved in teaching biology, he should be fired - not for his religious beliefs, but because he obviously lacks the basic understanding required for teaching the subject.

If one really does his homework he will discover the latest Supreme Court decision simply states that no state or local board can mandate the teaching of either evolution or creation theories. Teachers can, however, teach both side by side and allow students to decide which they believe is more credible. That’s exactly what I am doing. It isn’t necessary in the history class to go into a great deal of detail about either. That is left to the science classes. I find it offensive, however, when historians presume that everyone believes the earth is 20 billion years old, that there was a universal ice age, and that there was a 20 billion year gap between Genesis 1:1, the creation of the world and Genesis 1:2, the creation of everything else. There isn’t enough time or space to argue the critical points of the gap theory here. However, perhaps the following excerpt will help us all understand how it came about.

Ok, seems like he is teaching history, or perhaps not - hard to say. However he doesn't seem to know much about history either; it's commonly accepted that the world is 4.5 billion years old, not 20 billion years. And historians tend to assume that people "believe" in historical facts as shown through geology, archaeology etc.

Gap Theory: Its Background: The Gap Theory was first proposed in 1814 by a Scottish minister named Chaulmers. It was during this period scientists were beginning to teach that the earth was billions of years in age. As a response to the scientific community, Chaulmers theorized a “gap” in time between Genesis 1:1 and Genesis 1:2. His motive was probably well intentioned, but there is no scriptural reason to infer or imply that such a gap ever existed (

Funny enough, I don't think that historians assume that this is what people believe. Religious people, not blinded by ignorance, tend to believe that the creation was a gradual process, and that "days" shouldn't be taken literately.

It is enough to point out this theory was an attempt of early church fathers, who knew nothing of science, to reconcile creation with what atheistic geologists claimed was irrefutable evidence that the earth was billions of years old.

There is many ways that the evidence could be refuted, and all geologists worth their salt know this, so it's highly doubtful that they would say it's "irrefutable evidence". And the estimated age of the world was not billions of years back in 1814, rather it was millions of years - I recently read a book from 1913 where they estimated the age of the world to be tens of millions, but certainly not hundred of millions of years.
In other words, given new evidence, scientists change their estimates, and reevaluate their theories - something Chaulmers tried to do to his religion - this made him quite a bit more scientific than people like Hovind and Purkey.

There is no irrefutable evidence the world is billions of years old. There is a great deal of refutable evidence; just as there is a great deal of refutable evidence for creation. In the final analysis, it comes down to what you choose to believe. If the Lord is God, follow Him. If evolution is your god follow it to its natural resting place. As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.

Well, he is right, there is a lot of "refutable evidence", the problem is just that no one has refuted it yet, so the estimate stands. As to the "refutable evidence" for creation - if he speaks of a literate creation as defined in the bible, then yes, there is plenty such, and all of it has been refuted by the evidence - the evidence that among other things, supports the current estimate of Earth.

I find it frightening that such a man is involved in teaching children.

Edit: I think Purkey is a good example of the arrogance that PZ Myers talked about here, though PZ's post focused more on the neo-Creationists (or ID crowd if you prefer).

Edit II: Oops. As was pointed out in the comments, the Sidney Herald is located in Sidney, Montana. That was a bit of a blunder from my side (especially considering Sydney in Australia is spelled differently). The rest of the arguments still stand though

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Thursday, February 15, 2007

Who or what is SAIC?

Vanity Fair has a quite interesting article about SAIC, a company I had never heard about before.

Washington's $8 Billion Shadow
Mega-contractors such as Halliburton and Bechtel supply the government with brawn. But the biggest, most powerful of the "body shops"—SAIC, which employs 44,000 people and took in $8 billion last year—sells brainpower, including a lot of the "expertise" behind the Iraq war.

The article goes on to describe SAIC, and their less than stellar record. The article also touches on why such companies exist.
It is a simple fact of life these days that, owing to a deliberate decision to downsize government, Washington can operate only by paying private companies to perform a wide range of functions. To get some idea of the scale: contractors absorb the taxes paid by everyone in America with incomes under $100,000. In other words, more than 90 percent of all taxpayers might as well remit everything they owe directly to SAIC or some other contractor rather than to the IRS.

This is hardly a new trend. In his 1980 book, Fat City, Donald Lambro describes much the same going on. It goes without saying that this is not a cost effective way of running things, and that it creates problems with oversight and conflict of interest, as the article also explains.
In Washington these companies go by the generic name "body shops"—they supply flesh-and-blood human beings to do the specialized work that government agencies no longer can. Often they do this work outside the public eye, and with little official oversight—even if it involves the most sensitive matters of national security.


SAIC's relative anonymity has allowed large numbers of its executives to circulate freely between the company and the dozen or so government agencies it cares about. William B. Black Jr., who retired from the N.S.A. in 1997 after a 38-year career to become a vice president at SAIC, returned to the N.S.A. in 2000. Two years later the agency awarded the Trailblazer contract to SAIC.

I highly recommend the article - go read it, and see what the US taxpayers' money is really used on.

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Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Corruption and wealth

Over at A Fistful of Euros, Doug Muir wrote about the newest corruption perception index numbers from Transparency International. As Doug points out, the numbers are perceptive, and not necessarily a real picture of the level of corruption in the country.

Doug also wrote the following:

You know what I’d love to see? I’d love to see some scattergraphs correlating these scores with things like PPP GDP per capita. You’d see a cloud of dots around a rough diagonal line, with scores tending to rise with income. But there’d be interesting outliers on either side.

Someone of course went ahead and did it, and put the result up on the web. As people can see, there is a fairly strong correlation between the CPI and GDP per capita.

I couldn't help wonder if there would be any correlation with the GINI coefficient and the CPI. Intuitively, it would seem logical, but we all know that intuition often is wrong.
So, I did some number crunching, looking at the CPI, GDP per capita, and the GINI coefficient. As the CIA factbook doesn't have the GINI coefficient for a number of countries (including most Arabic countries), the results are of course more limited than the straight CPI/GDP per capita comparison. However, I did find some interesting results.

There is apparently absolutely no correlation between the GINI coefficient and the CPI score.

As I said, intuitively it would seem that there would be some kind of correlation, but it doesn't seem to be the case if you go but the numbers. Countries with high CPI numbers (i.e. countries that are less corrupt) tend to have lower GINI scores that other countries, but Singapore (4th highest CPI) stands out among the top ten.

As Doug said, there were some outliers when you look at the CPI and the GDP per capita (PPP). First I looked at PPP sorted by CPI (again only with countries that I had the GINI score for).

In the bottom end of the CPI scale, Belarus is an outlier - not really surprising, as is Turkmenistan.
Russia stands out as the one country in the lower half with a PPP of more than $10,000. Jordan is a huge out lier, with the highest CPI of any country with a PPP below $5,000. Chile is also noteworthy by having the same CPI as the US though the difference in PPP is $30,900 (Chile: $12,600, USA: $43,500).

I also looked at the CPI sorted by PPP.

Here the noteworthy exception is New Zealand, and to some degree Italy, the US and Ireland - all in the high end. The rest of the abnormalities were uncovered by the other graph.

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Linking to the enemy - a quick tip

We all know that the only hard currency on the 'net is traffic and links. Links make you more important, and allows your website to climb up the ranks on Google searches, thus increasing your traffic....

However, what do you do when you want to link to someone, but don't want to make the link an endorsement of the site? Well, luckily the larger search engines (google, yahoo, msn) allows you to use the rel="nofollow" attribute in anchor tags. This ensures that the search engines understand that while you link to the website, you don't want the link to be included in the websites ranking.

It's fairly easy to use this, simply write rel="nofollow" inside the anchor tag, e.g.
<a href=" rel="nofollow">Pro-science</a>

This allows the readers to go to the site, without you feeling guilty about linking to them.
Do remember that their site will still get an increase in traffic, and thus might increase their revenue, if it's traffic based (to avoid this, I recommend getting the Adblock extension to Mozilla, and simply blog their sitemeters and adfeeds, but that only works on the individual level).

I have no idea if Technorati respects rel="nofollow".


What about the man's choice?

I am unapologetic pro-choice.

In other words, I believe in the woman's right to choose to have a child or not in case of pregnancy. This position is often misunderstood as being pro-abortion (as in thinking abortion is a good prevention method) - something I am not as such, since I feel that all medical interventions should be avoided if possible. However, if the intervention is wanted, I want it to be available.

When debating this, some people will make the argument that you are taking away the man's choice. This can be put in two ways:

  • The man is the father to the potential child that the fetus represents, and since he is against abortions, he gets to decide that the woman can't get one (usually made by anti-choice people).

  • The man is the potential father, but doesn't want to be one, and therefore the woman should get an abortion (usually made by men, often from the Men's Right movement).

I am not very sympathetic to these arguments, since I have a very simple stance

Your right to choice ends when your contribution to the process ends

This is why the woman get to have a choice for longer than the man – the man have the choice up to the actual point where the woman get pregnant, but then has to accept that the woman get to make the decisions, as she is the one who are still involved in the process, and has to suffer the consequences of the choice.

Obviously, I think that it’s healthy for a good relationship to involve both partners in the decision process, but ultimately the man made his choice when he choose to have sex with the woman (protected or otherwise – he should be aware of the risks, even when using prevention), and that’s where his right to choice ends.

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Sunday, February 11, 2007

Book review: How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World

I am currently reading Francis Wheen's How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World, and am about 250 pages into it. Normally I would write a review of a book before finishing it (or giving up on it), but I think that I can safely assume that my impressions so far will not be changed when I've finished the book.

As the title shows, the book purports to explain how mumbo-jumbo got so widespread the last couple of decades. In a way it does, but only in the trivial sense of describing the mumbo-jumbo fads since Ayatollah Khomeini and Margaret Thatcher came into power in their respective countries - events that Wheen think led the way for irrationality. However, the book doesn't go much into the deeper "how" of which mechanisms actually made it possible for those fads to get so widespread, even though they make so little sense.

I can't say I am too impressed with the book for a number of reasons. First of all, I think it lacks the dept necessary for such a book to stand out - as it is, it's just a long list of descriptions of mumbo-jumbo fads, most of which had little impact on anyone else than a select crowd of people. Second of all, I think Wheen fails to make the case for mumbo-jumbo being any more prevalent now than in the past - given that this is the basic premise of the book, I find that failing rather problematic.
Last, but not least, it contains undocumented comments like this one from page 198:

In August 1998 he [Clinton] bombed a pharmaceutical factory in the Sudan to distract attention from Lewinsky's testimony to the Starr inquiry

Such statements doesn't exactly inspire me to trust the research and scholarship behind the book in general.

All in all, I would only recommend the book as a brief introduction to the numerous rather irrational fads from the last decades, but not to people who wants a deeper understanding of either the fads themselves or the reasons they became so popular.

Does anyone have a suggestions for similar books, that go deeper into the mechanisms (be they psychological or otherwise), and dwell less on the fads?


Cardinal Schönborn thinks teaching science is censorship

Our good friend, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, seems to have a fundamentally flawed understanding of what teaching science is all about, and he can't seem to stop sharing his rambling ideas with the rest of the world.

In a speech sponsored by the Homeland Foundation, "a philanthropy that finances cultural and religious programs, many involving the Catholic Church", he made some rather amazingly stupid statements. For example he complained that not debating "the flaws of evolution" amounted to censorship.

“Commonly in the scientific community every inquiry into the scientific weaknesses of the theory is blocked off at the very outset,” Schoenborn said of Darwinism. “To some extent there prevails a type of censoring here of the sort for which one eagerly reproached the church in former times.”


The cardinal said the Dover ruling meant that schoolchildren would be taught only a materialistic, atheistic view of the origin of universe, without considering the idea that God played a role.

“A truly liberal society would at least allow students to hear of the debate,” he said.

Let us ignore the article's use of the Creationist term Darwinism instead of evolution, and focus on the rest of his comments.

Schönborn clearly fails to understand the basic principles of science and science teaching. Yes, science is materialistic and atheist by nature, since science only deals with the observable world, and not with whatever religious or spiritual idea that people hold. So teaching "a materialistic, atheistic view of the origin of universe, without considering the idea that God played a role", is what good science teaching is all about.

John Lynch has more, and Zeno has more background information on Schönborn


Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Kent Hovind's far-right connections

As most readers probably are aware, "Dr. Dino" Kent Hovind was convicted of tax evasion and sentenced to 10 years in prison earlier this year.

Back when the trial was going on, Hovind used some pretty nutty arguments for why he shouldn't be paying taxes. Those arguments reminded me a lot of the arguments used by the far-right Patriot movement, such as the Montana Freemen. Given the fact that Hovind has a history of promoting anti-semitic literature (as David Neiwert explains), I couldn't help wonder what connections he might have with the Patriot movement, or even the Christian Identity movement,

PZ Myers, of Pharyngula, pointed out to me, that Hovind kept referring to his "lawyer" Glenn Stoll, and that Stoll is based in Seattle, close to much of the Patriot movement.

Well, Glenn Stoll is not necessarily part of the Christian Indentity movement, but he is certainly part of the Patriot movement. He is even briefly mentioned in David Neiwert's excellent book: In God's Country -The Patriot Movement and the Pacific Northwest (p. 283.)

Two weeks later, Kirk - who actually lived with his wife, Judy, in the southern Seattle suburb of Tukwila - presided as the "Referee/Magistrate" of the first recorded session of "our one supreme court Common Law, Washington republic." According to the document itself, the court was convened on Mercer Island at the home of James Gutschmidt, a Patriot who was attempting to starve of foreclosure on his property. Gutschmidt claimed in the document he was "not a Fourteenth Amendment citizen or subject ... not a resident, but a Citizen as described in the Holy Bible and in the Constitution prior to the Fourthteenth Amendment."

Sitting in as "jurors" for the case was a virtual "who's who" of the Patriot community in the Central Puget Sound area:


Glenn Stoll, a longtime associate of Don Ellwanger's who was present during the standoff at Ellwanger's veterinary clinic. Stoll was designated "Clerk of the Court."1

Glenn Stoll is not a lawyer, and has a injunction order against promoting his "tax-fraud scheme". He is also connected to the Patriot group Embassy of Heaven, who issues their own passports and other papers. Stoll have a history of trying to use Embassy of Heaven passports as proof of identification. The Embassy of Heaven and it's leader, Paul Revere, also has a history of problems with the IRS and other authorities (as people might notice, the later link leads to a Embassy of Heaven article, that also mentions Glenn Stoll).

As I said, Stoll is not necessarily part of the Christian Identity movement, but he certainly hang out with people who doesn't seem too far removed from them. I wrote to David Neiwert, and asked him if he knew of any connections between Stoll and the Christian Identity movement, and he responded

I can't tell you to what extent Stoll is an Identity believer, though it wouldn't surprise me if he is one, for reasons I'll explain momentarily. What I can say with certainty is that he not only was a militia organizer (he set up some of the earliest meetings in Snohomish County) and Patriot true believer, he was such a devout Constitutionalist that he was involved setting up Common Law Courts modeled directly after the Freemen.
This is where a likely Identity can be found, because the CL Courts he was involved in were run mostly by John Kirk (whose name you can find extensively in IGC). Kirk attended Freemen sessions in Jordan and at times expressed a number of Identity-based ideas in association with the CL courts.

IGC refers to In God's Country -The Patriot Movement and the Pacific Northwest.

I think it's fairly clear that Glenn Stoll doesn't exactly hold mainstream views, and given the fact that he has an injunction against him, which is prominently displayed on Stoll's company's website (as required), Hovind can't claim that he didn't have a fair warning that he was going to get in trouble.

1David Neiwert was kind enough to send me the document as images, so if you want to see what such a document looks like, click on the following links (opens in new windows). Page 1 , Page 2, Page 3, Page 4, Page 5, Page 6, Page 7, Page 8, and Page 9. Notice the prominent position of Stoll's signature on the last page.
Note: I have put the images up on my own domain, so if they are unaccessable, it might be due to too much bandwidth.

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