Saturday, December 31, 2011

Local Pastor Tells Whopper About School Prayer

According to the Canadian Press, local pastor Mark Koehler's telling fibbies about school prayer in Ontario.

He is quoted as saying, "We’ve taken prayer out of school. We can’t say certain greetings at Christmas time."

Really? Students are prevented from praying in Ontario schools? That's news to me.

Pastor Koehler is legally prevented from saying "certain greetings"? I wonder what law that is.

The truth is that prayer has not been taken out of school. Rather, in Zylberberg v. Sudbury Board, the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled that a sectarian prayer offered by school administrators violated the Charter. This doesn't mean students can't pray on their own.

And of course, there's nothing preventing Koehler from saying "Merry Christmas" to anyone he wants.

Pastor Koehler should read his own Bible - I seem to remember the 9th commandment had something relevant.

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Creationists' Big Lie

This recent post by Cornelius Hunter exemplifies, in one sentence, the special combination of arrogance and ignorance that creationists possess:

Random events are simply not likely to create profoundly complex, intricate, detailed designs.

Even if one is able to come up with a rigorous scientific definition of terms like "profoundly complex", "intricate", and "detailed", this is a remarkably arrogant claim. How does Hunter know this to be true?

The answer is, he doesn't; he just believes it because his religion demands it. And it isn't true: we have abundant evidence from the field of artificial life that the claim is false.

To look at just a single example, take the work of Karl Sims. He has shown that virtual creatures can evolve intricate and novel locomotion strategies by a process of mutation and natural selection. This 1994 video shows some of the behaviors that evolved.

There's a good reason why none of the principal ID creationists (Dembski, Behe, Berlinski, Hunter, Luskin, etc.) address the challenges to their claims posed by artificial life: the rebuttal is so devastating that they can find nothing to say.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Another Fake Magnet Man Scams AP

What is wrong with the Associated Press?

Just a few months ago, they were scammed by a Serb family who claimed their child was magnetic.

Now they're back again with pictures of Etibar Elchiyev, a Georgian man who claims "his body acts as a magnet".

Sad to say, my local paper, the Waterloo Region Record, fell for this scam again, publishing the AP photo in their December 15 2011 issue.

Greatest Triple Play of All Time?

Hey, the runners can't be blamed too much if they didn't realize this ball was caught.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

"The Little Christmases" by Louise Lee Outlaw

Here's a poem by my mother entitled "The Little Christmases". It appeared originally in The Lutheran, Vol. 9 No. 24 (December 15 1971), pp. 6-7.

Christmas is least of all
The wreath on the door
The lights on the tree
And the block on the calendar
Marked 25.

Christmas is the day
A week after Christmas
When the tinsel lies in sad sparkles
All over the house
And the tree droops, forsaken,
And the ornaments are once again just things
To put away --
And a little boy comes to you and says:
"I'll help, Mom."

Christmas is the day in February
When the snow closes your house
From the world and your boy-man goes forth to shovel
And the phone rings and the aged neighbor says:
"Just want to tell you about your son:
He shoveled my walk, he wouldn't take a cent,
I offered, but he wouldn't take a cent."

Christmas is the day in spring
When your husband comes through the kitchen door
And says, "You look like a little girl,"
And hands you the first crocus
To put in a jelly glass on the table.

Christmas is the wedding anniversary
When everything goes wrong.
The child is sick; the dress, the special dress
Stays drooping in the closet, and the dance
Is never danced, nor the wine drunk,
And in between thermometer and doctor calls,
The two friends come, bearing a flower pot
With three geraniums
Dug from their garden.
"Everybody's got to have an anniversary,"
The two friends say.

Christmas is the summer night with the band on the pier
And Sigmund Romberg's bright blare in your ears,
And far below, the dark waves' orchestration,
And your husband turns to you and says,
"Next year we'll have a boy in college."
And you look at each other
In wonder and sadness
The salt on your cheeks
Is from the leaping ocean spray.
If ocean spray can be so warm.

Christmas is the private time
On any night of the year
When grief strikes, loss invades,
Hurt shatters, and the heart,
Groping for solace,
Stumbles on the memory of a smile
Smiled years ago,
Or the echo of a gentle voice,
Or a kindness that dropped upon you,
Sudden as a star ...
All the little Christmases come back to you,
And reaffirm the blessedness of life.

Christmas is least of all
The wreath on the door
The lights on the tree,
And the block on the calendar
Marked 25.

Or anything that ever could be wrapped.

My Review of Le Fanu's "Why Us?"

Here's my review of the atrociously bad book, Why Us?, by James Le Fanu. It appeared in Reports of the National Center for Science Education, 31 (6) (2011).

Thursday, December 15, 2011

You Can Lead a Creationist to Knowledge...

...but you can't make him think, as this post at Uncommon Descent makes clear.

It doesn't matter if bad creationist arguments are debunked, because they just keep bringing up the same bad arguments over and over again, as if no one ever explained why they are bad.

Here we have lawyer Barry Arrington (not a mathematician or biologist, as far as I can see) explaining Dembski's concept of design detection and making exactly the same bogus claims we debunked long ago.

Problem #1: the notion of "specification" is incoherent. Arrington says “ten straight flushes in a row" is a legitimate specification because "This pattern is not post hoc". OK, how about "100 straight flushes in a row, except one is not". Is that legit? Why or why not? How about "50 out of 100 deals are straight flushes"? Is that legit? Why or why not? How about "one straight flush, then a straight, then a flush, then 3 consecutive 4 of a kind, then two more straight flushes"? Why or why not? We explain the problem in detail in our paper.

Bottom line: there is a good way to decide about the reasonableness of a "specification" -- namely, Kolmogorov complexity -- but it is not anywhere near as simple as "valid" or "invalid" or "independent" or "not independent". When you use Kolmogorov complexity as your basis for deciding about specifications, then you get the theory of Kirchherr, Li and Vitanyi, not Dembski's theory.

Problem #2: Even if you can make the notion of "specification" reasonable, we showed that Dembski's claim about the "law of conservation of information" is bogus. The result is that his conclusions about design don't follow.

Problem #3: The proper way to do probability, the way that everyone else except creationists does it, is to pre-specify a region and then see if your observation matches that region. If you do so, and the probability of hitting the region out of the whole space is very very very small, then the proper conclusion is not "design"; it is simply that you estimated the probabilities wrong. It could well have occurred because a person arranged it that way, but it could also be because you didn't know about some non-human process that could result in the same observation. In our paper we illustrate this with some examples.

That's what makes creationism different from legit science: creationists just pretend that criticism doesn't exist and recycle the same bad arguments over and over.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

More Quality Reporting at Uncommon Descent

Sneery O'Leary, the World's Worst Journalist™, spends most of her blog space attacking scientists and reporters more talented than she is.

But would a New York Times reporter be so foolish as to confuse Massimo Pigliucci with Massimo Piatelli-Palmarini?

Probably not. But Sneery is.

Screenshot, for when it gets dumped down the ever-growing Uncommon Descent memory hole:

Funny Word Order in a Poster Advertising a Study on Word Order

I like linguistics, although I don't know much about about it. (Much of what I know comes from reading Language Log, which should be on your blogroll.)

A few weeks ago I was at McMaster University, and I saw this poster advertising for participants in a study about word order:

Mastering the correct word order in English often seems one of the hardest tasks for German and French speakers. French mathematicians, for example, often write things like "We study here the case x > 2" instead of "Here we study the case x > 2".

The funny thing is the bizarre word order in the sign itself! Maybe it was deliberate, but I still found it amusing.

In case you can't read the text, here it is:

We are seeking German language speakers from Austria, Switzerland, Liechtenstein or Germany for a linguistic study on the relation between word order and articles currently living in the Hamilton area...

I had to read it three or four times before I realized they were seeking German language speakers currently living in the Hamilton area.

Friday, December 09, 2011

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

The Ellsberg Paradox

Yesterday, at Waterloo Ignorance Day, one speaker mentioned the Ellsberg paradox, which I hadn't heard of before. Believe it or not, it is named for Daniel Ellsberg, who would later become famous for releasing the Pentagon Papers.

Here it is: you have an urn with 90 well-mixed balls. There are R red balls, Y yellow balls, and B black balls. You know only the following information: R = 30, and Y+B = 60. You now get to choose between

Gamble A: win $100 if you draw a red ball vs.
Gamble B: win $100 if you draw a black ball.

You are also given a choice between

Gamble C: win $100 if you draw a red or yellow ball.
Gamble D: win $100 if you draw a black or yellow ball.

Which choices do you prefer? A over B or B over A? And C over D or D over C?

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

A Discovery Institute Flack Responds

Oh, look! The Discovery Institute flack Jonathan McLatchie has responded with a barely literate screed.

In addition to his charming mangling of English grammar and the spelling of my name, he asks, "Does Shallit really think that we haven't heard of processes such as genetic drift and endosymbiosis?"

Well, I bet McLatchie has, since he seems to have studied some biology. But I wasn't talking about McLatchie, as is clear from my text. Johnson, when the video was shot back in 1993, apparently didn't know a damn thing about drift - and that was the issue I was addressing. McLatchie tries to switch attention from Johnson in 1993 to all ID advocates today. Nice try at misdirection, Jonathan!

McLatchie goes on to claim, "I'm sure Phillip Johnson is aptly aware of the various kinds of selective process: balancing selection, stabilizing selection, disruptive selection, directional selection to name just a few."

Then why did Johnson lie and claim selection could not produce change? And why did he claim natural selection acted to preserve neutral mutations? No, it's clear Johnson was just being pig-ignorant. And McLatchie thinks it's just peachy. Why any Christians would want to be associated with such dishonesty is beyond me. But as we all know, it's just fine to lie for Jeebus.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Ten Ways to Know When to Change Your Airplane Seat

You've just reached cruising altitude, and the passenger in the seat next to you turns to you and says something. What lines should tip you off that your seatmate is a mindless zombie with whom rational discussion is pointless? Here are a few that tell you to move to a different seat immediately, but feel free to nominate your own.

1. "Classical philosophers for several millennia have pointed out that that existence of nature itself presupposes Someone who is uncaused existence. The evidence for an Uncaused Cause is massive-- you can fill a library with the arguments in its favor."

2. "Universals are immaterial-- truth, beauty, goodness, love".

3. "The abortion industry is big business."

4. "Frauds like climate scientists can't operate under cover anymore."

5. "[Jesus' birth] is the most beautiful and astonishing story ever told, even more beautiful and astonishing because it is true."

6. "We all worship something... Atheists no less than Christians."

7. "The Screwtape Letters is a literary masterpiece"

8. "After 200 years of Malthusian pseudoscience, when are overpopulation morons going to admit they're wrong?"

9. "contraceptive culture is promiscuous and inculcates a disrespect for the sanctity of life"

10. "There's been no warming in a decade, and they lied about it."

And extra points if you can figure out who said all ten of the things above.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

This Video Should Be Shown to all Biology Students

I think this 1993 interview with creationist law professor Phillip Johnson should be shown to every biology student at every American university.

After the biology students stopped laughing and shaking their heads at the sheer pig-ignorance and numerous blatant lies smugly spouted by Johnson, they'll have a much better understanding of the Religious Right's assault on science, and be better prepared to rebut their local creationists.

The most significant misunderstanding Johnson repeatedly exhibits is that he thinks modern evolutionary biology is synonymous with his understanding of the meaning of the term "Darwinism": all biological change is due to mutation and natural selection. The fact that other mechanisms, such as genetic drift and endosymbiosis, are now an essential part of the picture, seems to have escaped him completely. Ignorance or dishonesty? I'm not sure; maybe it's a mixture of both.

So how many other misunderstandings, misrepresentations, and lies can you identify? Here are just a few I saw:

"Well, if I'm out of my element, then Charles Darwin must have also been out of his element, because his training was in medicine and theology, although he was in fact a very good scientist, self-taught, a gentleman amateur like others of his time. Charles Lyell, the father of modern geology, was a lawyer."

Very deceptive. Science as an institution at the time of Darwin and Lyell was quite different from modern science. It is extremely hard (although not impossible) for an amateur, untrained in science, to make a significant contribution to science today.

As for Lyell, it is quite misleading to just say that he was a lawyer and not also mention that at Oxford, Lyell attended lectures by Buckland; at Edinburgh, by Jameson; and he was a colleague of Mantell. Lyell gave up law, travelled extensively and did geological research on the ground in many locations, publishing his papers in scientific journals. If Phillip Johnson ever did any geological research on the ground, and published papers on his research in geology journals, he might be accorded some respect. As it is, he's just a laughingstock.

"There aren't really any specialists in evolution; it's a generalists' country."

This is simply false. Any evolutionary biologist is a specialist in evolution. There are, ferchrissakes, many annual conferences on evolution.

If Johnson's point is that evolution, as a scientific theory, depends on different fields such as paleontology and genetics, then this is no different from any other scientific theory that has multiple underpinnings, such as climatology.

"[I'm] explaining to them [evolutionary biologists] what they overlooked. That in fact, their books are not convincing because they're assuming at the beginning of the inquiry the point that they claimed to have demonstrated at the end, and so there's a thinking flaw. So instead of responding to that, naturally they say, "Oh, why don't you shut up? And leave us alone, so we can continue to get away with this."

This is just the usual Christian martydrom lie. No scientists has said anything remotely like the quote Johnson gives. Biologists have laughed at Johnson's ignorance, that is true. But scientists have also written detailed rebuttals of Johnson's bogus claims. Also, the implication that biologists know they are being deceptive is an outrageous slander. But that's not the only slander Johnson casually tosses off.

"The sophisticated people in the universities know that this is founded on philosophy. But because it's their philosophy, you see, they think that's fine. And because they have contempt for the public, they think that it's alright to mislead the public through you know, propaganda, because the public doesn't really deserve to know the truth, because they're not intellectuals like we are, so we can say anything we want to them. That is a widespread attitude..."

Considering that Johnson was a co-founder of the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture, a group dedicated to nothing other than misleading the public about evolution, this is pretty rich.

[on the term "creationist"] "So that what the scientific establishment tends to do is to say, that well first place we'll put everybody in that group into a very narrow box and then we'll dispose of them by ridicule. And then having got rid of all our enemies by that set of language tricks and propaganda mechanisms, we'll say the only thing left is us, so everybody is supposed to believe the way we do. That's what they call the scientific method these days, and it's just a very reprehensible kind of propaganda."

For me, "creationist" doesn't just mean "believer in Noah's ark". It means any person, like Johnson, who repeats long-discredited arguments (paucity of the fossil record; "finches are just finches", etc.) about evolution as if they were never rebutted. As for ridicule, if you make ridiculous arguments, expect to get ridiculed. That's the way science works.

"We do know of one natural process - natural selection - which is excellent at preventing fundamental change, because it eliminates the mutants - the overwhelming majority of mutants, practically all ones which are either of no benefit at all to the organism or actually harmful - will be eliminated in the end by natural selection."

Johnson seems completely confused here. One kind of natural selection, stabilizing selection, does indeed act against extreme changes. But to imply that this is all that natural selection can do is either extremely ignorant or extremely deceptive; there is, for example, directional selection that is very good at producing change. And, of course, I hardly need point out that natural selection does not act to remove neutral mutations, as Johnson claims.

"Some creatures become extinct, some species become extinct, and others come into existence somehow -- no one knows how."

Another lie. Maybe Johnson doesn't know how speciation occurs, but biologists do. All Johnson has to do is pick up a biology textbook or, for example, Coyne and Orr's book, Speciation (admittedly not yet published when the video was made). Mechanisms of speciation include geographic isolation, founder effects, sexual selection, polyploidy, hybridization, and others. We may not know all the causes of speciation yet, and scientists argue about the relative importance of the mechanisms I've mentioned. But to say "no one knows how" is a gross misstatement.

"The fossil record hasn't gotten any better, in the intervening century and a third... [since 1859]"

Another blatant lie. Archaeopteryx was discovered in 1861. Since then, we have thousands and thousands more discoveries that add significantly to our understanding of evolutionary history: Diplodocus, Maiasaura, Paranthropus, Australopithecus, Ardipithecus, Pakicetus, just to name a few.

These examples, chosen just from the first 22 minutes of the video, give the flavor of the ignorance and misrepresentation offered up by Johnson. This video would make a great educational experience and expose the dishonest anti-intellectualism at the heart of creationism.