Friday, March 31, 2006

"I came to incite a riot! Man your battle stations! Ready your weapons! Lock and load!"

The title isn't my creation, it's what speaker Rod Parsley screamed at the recent "War on Christians" conference. I commented on that previously here and here.

Over at, Michelle Goldberg, who was brave enough to submit herself to that nastiness, has written an article:

Sinners in the hands of an angry GOP

There's not much analysis concerning what these people have been smoking, but the descriptions and quotes from the conference speakers are worse than I could have imagined. That's the thing about these people: they never cease to amaze.

Friday Animal Blogging

The great thing about living at the beach is... the beach. One of the drawbacks is that the island I live on is heavily wooded (which I'll gladly take over the recently developed sea islands that have been denuded of trees) and most of the houses out here are rather rustic. These two things combine to encourage wildlife to come wandering into your house, and I've had various rodents, snakes, frogs, lizards, and exotic insects of all kinds show up inside my home. But this was a first.

That is a relatively large specimen of Ocypode quadrata, commonly known as the ghost crab. They are very common on Folly Beach, but they typically live in a narrow strip between the high tide mark and the inner sand dunes. They can't go too far from the water because they depend on it to keep their gills moist. This sucker somehow left the dunes, crossed over a street, made his way through my yard and into my house (I'm pretty sure the door was closed) and into my bedroom in the back of the house. That green thing under his ass is the base of a floor lamp, and I woke up to the sound of crab claws rhythmically clinking across metal. It's an interesting sound to hear when you're half asleep and you think you're alone.

So I did what any self-respecting biologist would do. I captured him and made him a pet. I corralled the crab into a long-necked vase that he couldn't climb out of, then I took an old lab rat cage I had (still with a few cedar shavings in it) and went down to the beach to get some sand. I then unceremoniously dumped him into his new home.

Not knowing how well he would take to captivity, I tossed a bit of egg into the cage, and much to my delight, he devoured it immediately. I mean, he didn't just walk up to it casually and start nibbling, he ran up to it wolfed it down, those little mouth parts moving as fast as they could. The only animal I've ever seen that acted as more of an all-purpose garbage disposal was the white rat that once occupied the cage. I guess when you make a living filtering little arthropods out of sand, a large chunk of pure protein is absolute heaven. I could throw almost anything in there and he would eat it; bits of meat, beans, vegies, a spaghetti noodle that fell on the floor, it didn't seem to matter. Below is a close-up of him eating a bit of what I think was sausage.

In the above picture, you can see some broad groves just to the sides of Zoidberg's eye stalks. (Yes, his name is Zoidberg.) Watching him, I learned that ghost crabs fold their eye stalks neatly into these groves when they sleep or when they burrow. It's awfully cute. And the eyes themselves (compound eyes, like a good arthropod) have little ommatidia that go almost all the way around the eye, giving them 360 degree vision.

He lived with me for several months before he died. I'm not sure what the normal lifespan of a ghost crab is, but I'm assuming that it was natural causes, not the stress of having a primate constantly poking him with a pencil, that did him in. He spent most of his time buried in the sand, but he'd come up every now and then to eat or to bathe in his water dish. Of course sometimes I'd have to arouse him just to look at him or to show him off to friends. And he wasn't terribly happy with that, but hey, you came into my house sucker, and I make the rules.

Our News Media

I was looking through Salon's list of AP stories this morning (they don't write these themselves, they're just straight off the news wire) and I see the following three stories sitting right in a row:

Whoever said the public was uninformed?

Thursday, March 30, 2006

The "War on Christianity" Insanity.

Via Ed Brayton, I see that the Dallas Morning News has a good editorial about the ridiculous "War on Christians" conference that was just held. This editorial is much better than the one I panned a few days ago, although it's about one specific instance rather than the general tone and demeanor of the whole thing.

All this time I thought the whole War on Christianity thing was a bunch of nonsense, but at the conference they pulled out the trump card. Some good Christian soul has indeed been persecuted. And it's that holiest of holy martyrs, Tom DeLay:

"We have been chosen to live as Christians at a time when our culture is being poisoned and our world is being threatened," Mr. DeLay told the crowd. "The enemies of virtue may be on the march, but they have not won." The Texas evangelist who organized the conference likened Mr. DeLay's legal and ethical woes to – wait for it – the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

But lest the faithful prematurely canonize Mr. DeLay as a martyr for the faith, they should consider how Team DeLay, with its paladins of public piety, has specifically manipulated sincere Christians for personal gain.

The article then goes on to describe some of DeLay's ethical problems, most of which are old news by now, but the story of Edwin Buckham, which is basically a case of outright fraud, was new to me. (Go read the editorial for the scoop.)

Hiding behind religion is the last refuge of a scoundrel. It's a sure sign that DeLay lacks much in the way of a legitimate defense for all his wrongdoing when he plays the religious persecution card and misrepresents the actual substance of the allegations against him. Whereas most people use religion as a guide to help them behave better, DeLay and his type use it to help them behave worse, to excuse and cover-up their immorality by proclaiming to be pious men whose religious devotion automatically makes them beyond reasonable suspicion. The organizers of this conference, sadly, have shown us what religion looks like when it goes sour.

On a related note, I watched a segment on Chris Matthews' show last night featuring Tony Perkins (one of the organizers of this nutball conference) vs. the Rev. Al Sharpton. Watching it over dinner as I was, I feared I might choke on my lima beans. But Sharpton, in spite of not being my favorite spokesman for the left, verbally beat the crap out of Perkins. The transcript is here, and below I quote my favorite part:

PERKINS: Well, one writer criticizing this claim of Christians being under attack said there are no Christians today being thrown to the lions [this is almost certainly a reference to the Krattenmaker piece that I critiqued a few days back -- ed.]. Well, I agree, there's none being thrown to the lions today, but I'm not for allowing those cubs to grow up to become adult lions. And that's what we're talking about is addressing these issues.

And the Reverend Sharpton is incorrect. It is Christianity that is the target. The county of Los Angeles, the seal taken to a court case by the ACLU. They had to remove the cross from the top of the mission that is part of the emblem of the city. It is Christianity.

SHARPTON: But that is not because they're attacking the cross. They're saying that there are those citizens that don't believe in the cross. And I would have that position if there was a
different religious symbol in a city that I lived in and paid taxes.

But I would like Tony to tell me how what Tom DeLay is facing has anything to do with his religion or any religion at all. I mean, I think it's an insult to Christians to act like because of his religion, he's been charged with what he's been charged with. It has nothing to do with his religion.

PERKINS: I don't think anybody ever said that, Al.

SHARPTON: I think everyone said that at this meeting this weekend that was cited when we came on. He was introduced as a man that was being persecuted because he stood up for
Jesus. Tell me how Jesus and being accused of embezzling funds is the same thing. What chapter did you get that out of the New Testament?

Naturally, it sounds a lot better live with Sharpton getting worked up into a bit of righteous indignation. After Perkins was reduced to muttering and having to spit his teeth out, I thought the whole thing went off great, until Matthews, being the kind of guy he is, has to end it with this bit of nonsense coming out of nowhere:

MATTHEWS: Well I don't agree with the stuff about Tom DeLay, but I do believe there is a campaign against religion in this country and we hear it all the time. I think you're right, that's true, it's just true.

Matthews, unfortunately, didn't explain to us how the 10-15% of Americans who aren't religious have succeeded in marginalizing the nearly 90% who are, leaving us with a culture and government that are overwhelmingly hostile to religion. It would have been interesting to hear how all of those Congressmen and Senators (not to mention a President) who fall all over themselves puffing up their religious credentials are actually campaigning against religion. But sadly, the segment ended before this revelation could come to light.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Chris Mooney Seminar

Over at Crooked Timber, there's something called a Chris Mooney Seminar based on Mooney's book The Republican War on Science. This "seminar" contains essays from several people including much of the CT crowd and a few other good bloggers. I haven't read them all yet, but the ones I've read thus far are great. (Even worse, I haven't read Chris' book, but I'll get around to that eventually.) If you've read the RWoS or are interested in that sort of thing, do check it out.

Monday, March 27, 2006

The War on Christians by Christians

Yesterday's USA Today had an opinion piece on the upcoming "War on Christian" conference being attended by America's most virtuous people, meaning people like Tom DeLay and Jerry Falwell. Yes, they are actually holding a conference with the title "War on Christians". That is how crazy and fanatical they've become.

The opinion writer at least gets the basics right: The whole idea that there is a "War on Christians" is so much overwrought nonsense that makes its promulgators look like paranoid fools. But equally as important, it's also deeply immoral. Aside from promoting hatred and divisiveness by wrongly accusing some shadowy secular/liberal conspiracy of declaring war on Christianity, they also denigrate the plight of those who have suffered and still suffer genuine persecution in this world (much of it inflicted by the type of people who are attending this conference).

Beyond that, the USA Today piece irritates me in its toothlessness. Much of the reason why Religious Right is holding a conference with the absurd title of "The War on Christians" is that playing the victim helps to manipulate the media. This constant whining and hectoring encourages more coverage and more credible treatment from the media than the RR deserves, and it also gets the media to treat them with kid gloves. Which is exactly what this piece does. Consider this bit:

Certainly, liberals and secularists must concede a kernel of truth to the religious conservatives' charges. To the eyes of conservative Christians, much appears to have changed for the worse in American society in recent decades.
Talk about spineless. I for one concede nothing. If conservative Christians don't like the fact that most of society isn't on board with their repressive, patriarchal attitudes, then they're welcome to complain about it to whomever wants to listen. But it does not mean that there is a "kernel of truth" to the wild and irresponsible charge that there is war being committed against them. All it means is that they don't always get their way, something that the rest of us have to deal with too.

What's worse, however, is how the notion that these people represent "Christianity" is allowed to pass unchallenged, which is easily the biggest problem in how the media (which gets accused of being at war with them too) deals with the Religious Right. Here's something that I would dearly love to see mentioned just once whenever Pat Robertson and his ilk start crying about how "Christians" in this country are being treated: They don't represent the vast majority of Christians.

Perhaps they think it's just too obvious to mention, but the media have consistently allowed the far-right to define the Christian religion as something that automatically includes their extreme belief system. These are beliefs, by the way, that are completely at odds with what most Americans, Christian or otherwise, actually believe. Yet for some reason it's always Hollywood or the "liberal elite", whatever that is, who get called to the carpet for being out of touch with mainstream values.

Consider the following poll results. Approximately 80% of Americans self-identify as Christian. That alone makes it totally implausible that there is a "War on Christians" going on, unless you're dumb enough to think that the remaining 20% of the populace, who have effectively no representation in government (how many agnostic Senators can you name?), are somehow controlling everything behind the scenes. Yet in spite of America being overwhelmingly Christian, somewhere between 50 and 60% of Americans are in favor of keeping abortion legal. A strong majority favor allowing gays to serve openly in the military, close to half favor gay adoption, and opposition to gay marriage has receded to a mere 51% and is trending down. A whopping 61% of Americans think that politics and religion shouldn't mix, a clear rebuke to the Religious Right. When asked about church-state separation directly, only 20% think there is no need for it. Yet church-state separation is routinely denounced as a "liberal myth" by the Religious Right.

The point here being that while the vast majority of Americans consider themselves Christian, most do not support the politics of the "Christian Right". This means that not only does the Christian Right not speak for most Americans, they don't even speak for most Christians. And they certainly don't represent "mainstream values". The mainstream of America is generally tolerant, favors a secular government, and wants the government to keep its nose out of their sex lives.

Yet the RR persistently pretends to represent Christianity writ large, and the media let them get away with it. Even worse, they pretend to represent not only "mainstream values", but values, period. They have the nerve to call themselves "values voters", and in spite of the fact that the media helps spread this meme rather than scoff at it, the RR attacks the media for being insufficiently deferential to their dishonesty. It's high time the media started calling them on their bullshit rather than bending over backwards to appease them. This "War on Christians" conference deserves more than just mild-mannered disapproval, it needs to be roundly savaged as the hate-filled display of demagoguery that it truly is.

Rumsfeld Finally Understands the Problem.

In today's news, we hear of a speech made by Donald Rumsfeld at the Army War College in which he pinpoints what's really wrong with American foreign policy:

The United States is faring poorly in its effort to counter ideological support for terrorism, in part because the government does not communicate effectively, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Monday. [...]

"If I were grading I would say we probably deserve a `D' or a `D-plus' as a country as to how well we're doing in the battle of ideas that's taking place in the world today," Rumsfeld told his questioner. "I'm not going to suggest that it's easy, but we have not found the formula as a country" for countering the extremists' message.

Finally, Rumsfeld has quit beating himself up over his disastrous policy decisions and has instead put the blame where it truly belongs: Not enough PR.

This follows the lead of the Bush administration, which has proclaimed, every time there is bad news out of Iraq or their poll numbers slip a few more points, that the President is simply at fault for doing a poor job of "communicating the message". Then the Pres goes on a whirlwind tour of the country giving campaign-style speeches in front of pre-screened audiences that never ask hard questions. This naturally has a tremendously positive impact in Iraq, causing legions of insurgents to drop their weapons in dismay, but the traitorous liberal media are too busy reporting on giant explosions and mass executions to take notice.

Rumsfeld has finally come around to the rest of the administration's way of seeing things. It's a good thing he learns from his mistakes, otherwise things wouldn't be going so wonderfully well in Iraq.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Poor David Horowitz

His campaign to install affirmative action for conservatives on college campuses has hit a little snag, in that a report in Florida (one of the few states in which legislators were dumb enough to believe Horowitz) found no actual evidence that any of his claims were true. Indeed, anyone who's been on a college campus in the last 10 years should know that the claim of students being subjected widespread "indoctrination" by "leftist" professors is downright stupid, but little things like the truth have never stopped right-wing nutballs like Horowitz. A good background on Horowitz and his insanity can be found on Michael Bérubé's weblog if you do a search or browse through past archives. Bérubé is pretty hilarious when dealing with Horowitz, as indeed sarcasm is about the only way to deal with such people. But Bérubé does have one serious essay here that is well worth reading.

Ah yes, those findings from Florida. Below I quote a press release that wound-up in my email inbox:


March 22, 2006

Contact: Tom Auxter 352.219.0020

A report on academic freedom in the state's universities and community colleges has found that there is absolutely no basis for the contention that faculty members violate the right of students to academic freedom in the classroom

The long-awaited Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability (OPPAGA) report came at the request of members of the Legislature, who sought to find the number of grievances filed against faculty by students in the state's 28 community colleges and 11 universities. The result is a clear victory for faculty and calls into question the motives of those legislators who looked for evidence to justify limiting the rights of faculty in the classroom and limiting the rights of students to hear what faculty had to say. The contention by these lawmakers was that there was rampant abuse of conservative students' rights to express political or religious views in any way. But the OPPAGA investigation found that "less than 1 percent of all formal student grievances" had anything to do with academic freedom. The report said there are academic freedom policies and procedures in place on all campuses and that over the last three years there were "relatively few grievances filed." Commissioner of Education John Winn concludes that the report "validates the efficacy of the current approach to ensuring academic freedom." (Appendix B)

"Not only is there no smoking gun, the gun never went off," said United Faculty of Florida president Tom Auxter. "Meanwhile, the same legislators who launched this investigation of faculty, attempting to distract the public's attention from the real crisis in higher education and poison the public attitude toward higher education, draft budgets that are woefully inadequate in every category. The Legislature is punishing all of higher education for crimes that were never committed."

Here's the web link for the OPPAGA report.

Background Information: "Legislators Threaten Academic Freedom" UFF Update, March/April 2006.

I'm going to go out on a limb here and make a prediction: Horowitz will attack the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability for being "leftist".

More on Welfare and Fertility

It seems that no matter how many times I point this out to my Dan-Rather-obsessed friend "rdw", he keeps insisting that welfare reform of the mid-90s is responsible for bringing black fertility rates down. I thought I'd draw up a couple of charts to show that the data conclusively refute this notion. Below are the general fertility rates for whites and blacks from the period 1960 to 2004. (All data come from the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics; 1990-2001 data from here; 2004 preliminary data from here; General Fertility is defined as the number of children by women of child-bearing age (15-44) per 1000.)

The important thing to note here is that fertility rates were far, far higher back in the 60s and 70s than they are today, and they dropped precipitously during this era as the Baby Boom was ending. Since then, changes in fertility have been slight. Any changes that we see during the 90s are not particularly noteworthy by historical standards. But let's zoom and see what's happened since 1990 to get an idea of how welfare reform may have impacted black fertility rates.

Here we see what welfare reform did to the black fertility rate: Apparently nothing. Fertility rates dropped during the early part of the 1990s, this being after a small but measurable increase during the late 80s. But after 1996, the year in which welfare reform was enacted, fertility rates remained mostly flat. When I pointed this out to "rdw", his only response was to initmate that the mere threat of future welfare reform during the early 90s was enough to make black women stop having babies, a bullshit hypothesis that so smacks of desperation it doesn't merit a response.

My point here isn't that welfare reform wasn't a good idea. Maybe it was and maybe it wasn't, I haven't really analyzed the whole thing enough to make a sound judgment. But it was clearly sold on false pretenses, the idea that welfare mothers are 1) black, and 2) out-of-control child-bearing machines constantly churning out more babies in order to get more benefits. I'm rather curious as to where this notion came from, because it clearly has no basis in reality. First of all, only 30% of welfare recipients are black. That's greater than the black proportion of the population, but it's still only a minority of all welfare recipients, most of whom are white. And secondly, aside from negative racial stereotypes, there was never any evidence that your average welfare mother had a half-dozen kids and was busy popping out more in order to get increased benefits. Below is a graph showing the difference in total fertility rate in 1996 between women who participated in one or more welfare programs and those who did not (source).

You can see that the difference is very small. For black women, the difference of 2.4 vs. 2.1 means that on average, a welfare recipient has an extra 0.3 children per lifetime than someone who is not on welfare. This difference, as small as it is, can be explained entirely due to the effects of poverty (indeed, for those welfare recipients who are not below the poverty line, there is no difference in fertility between them and non-recipients). And it certainly doesn't support the stereotype of welfare mothers churning out baby after baby. The average welfare family, in terms of children at least, is basically indistinguishable from any other family.

The cynic in me says that this idea was created and spread in order to sell welfare reform, which otherwise wouldn't have been very popular. Polls routinely show that a large majority of Americans, about 70%, favor increased aid to the poor, yet the word "welfare" tends to carry negative connotations. Fomenting racial stereotypes is one way to separate the policy of "welfare" from the mere concept of helping the less fortunate.

Perhaps the most infamous example of this was Ronald Reagan's oft-told story of a Cadillac-driving "Welfare Queen" living in Chicago, a lazy black woman with bunches of children that was drawing benefits of over $150,000 by using 80 aliases. Reagan mentioned this woman in dozens of speeches over a five-year period, but there's one little problem: She never existed. Reagan, or rather one of his lackyes, created this caricature by exaggerating the case of a woman who had used 2 aliases to bilk the gummint out of a mere $8000, a crime for which she was convicted.

But even after it had been exposed as a big fat lie, Reagan kept using it. It did much to help create the stereotype of welfare recipients being lazy, fertile, and above all, black. This kind of social narrative has a powerful hold on the imagination, as we see with those who refuse to give it up long after it's been shown to be false.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

I'm a good citizen!

Not that I would have posted this if I had missed a question or two -- which I thought I would.

You Passed the US Citizenship Test

Congratulations - you got 10 out of 10 correct!

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

More of What We're up Against.

Appearing in this morning’s Greenville News (SC) online opinion section:

The theory of evolution does not and cannot explain so much about the universe that we know. For instance, when and how did water evolve? How does it happen that gravity can hold us to the Earth, and at the same time allow us to step up without any trouble? How did it happen that the Earth is spinning at the exact rate that keeps us from feeling that movement?

This is your brain on creationism. Be afraid.

(Hat tip to Rodney Wilson of SCSE.)

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Abortion, Smortion.

My new best friend, "rdw", kept saying in response to my demographics post that the fall in fertility rates over the last 40 years was due to abortion. Or at least, the drop for black people was due to abortion, even though the rates fell for white people as well, because black people are out-of-control reproducing machines who have three times the abortion rate. Or something.

I responded that this couldn't be the case, because fertility rates dropped precipitously before abortion was legalized. They also dropped among groups who have a strong aversion to abortion, like the Mormons, and they even dropped in countries where abortion is still illegal, like Iran. (Incidentally, this also shows what's wrong with the religion=fertility hypothesis; in spite of being 98% Muslim and a theocracy, Iran's total fertility rate is 1.82, which is less than that of America.) So while abortion may reduce fertility somewhat, it's clearly not what's been driving the rates down in general.

He didn't believe me. There's no way, he said, that there could be as many abortions as there are without causing birth rates to fall. I pointed out that women who had abortions usually did so to delay having children, not to avoid having children altogether, so there's no reason to think that abortion should lower total fertility that much. But the question still remains: to what extent, if at all, does abortion reduce fertility?

I did some poking around and found this study from the RAND corporation. I haven't scrutinized the study methodology, but RAND is a highly respected research organization and, unlike other "think tanks", it does not have an ideological affiliation. So I will tentatively accept their findings until I have a reason to doubt them. Here are the results:

We can see here that in a hypothetical example where abortion is illegal, the effect on the white fertility rate would be miniscule, a less than 5% increase. The effect on the black fertility rate would be more significant but still minor -- about a 15% increase. This supports my contention that abortion isn't a significant factor in changing fertility rates. Consider that in order to get back up to 1960 levels, the white fertility rate would have to increase by 74%, and the black fertility rate would need to increase by 118%, and you can see that abortion is not a meaningful cause of demographic change.

Nevertheless, this hasn't stopped some anti-abortion crusaders from calling abortion black genocide and likening its effects to the Klan and slavery. I'm afraid they've gotten it all wrong, and since it's surely just a misunderstanding on their part, I'm going to write to each of these groups to explain that it's a lack of conception that's been causing black birth rates to fall. If they truly care about declining black fertility, they need to start encouraging as much irresponsible sex as possible to get these conception rates back up to where they used to be. They'll be quite receptive, I'm sure.

(un)American Theocrats.

Via Matt Young at the Panda's Thumb, it seems that a Colorado teacher has been suspended for exposing her students to that horrible satanist activity known as opera. The Rocky Mountain News has the story:

A music teacher placed on leave last month after some parents objected to the showing of a video of the opera Faust to elementary school students says she's been called a devil worshipper and a lesbian in this small town 35 miles east of Denver. [...]

Tresa Waggoner, 33, was placed on paid administrative leave Jan. 30 and will remain on leave until further notice. [...]

She defended her decision to show the video to her elementary classes. She said the opera is "a great part of our civilization and Western culture. It was for the children to enjoy and be exposed to opera."

The controversy began after Waggoner, a former opera singer and a mother of two, invited Opera Colorado singers to perform Island of Tulipatan at Bennett Elementary School on Jan. 31.

She said she wanted to prepare her students for the performance, and decided to show portions of Faust, which was on a Who's Afraid of Opera? video she found on a shelf in her music room at the elementary school.

You just have to read it to believe it. Now if she had read excerpts of Harry Potter, or possibly shown them an episode of the occultish Scooby Doo, I might understand. But this goes too far.

On a completely unrelated subject, Kevin Phillips, former Republican strategist, has a new book out titled American Theocracy which is reviewed by the NYT here and here. The first review contains the following description:
In analyzing the fates of Rome, Hapsburg Spain, the Dutch Republic, Britain and the United States, he comes up with five symptoms of "a power already at its peak and starting to decline": 1) "widespread public concern over cultural and economic decay," along with social polarization and a widening gap between rich and poor; 2) "growing religious fervor" manifested in a close state-church relationship and escalating missionary zeal; 3) "a rising commitment to faith as opposed to reason and a corollary downplaying of science"; 4) "considerable popular anticipation of a millennial time frame" and 5) "hubris-driven national strategic and military overreach" in pursuit of "abstract international missions that the nation can no longer afford, economically or politically."
So according to Phillips, growing religious ferver, increasing ties between church and state, and attacks on science are all symptoms of a great power in decline. Good thing we don't see that here.

Another Radical Atheist Comes Out in Favor of Evolution.

The Archbishop of Canterbury.

As I explain on the 'Thumb here.

Gross-out Picture of the Week

This is what a toenail looks like when it's about to detach. A few nights ago, I finally coaxed it all the way off. Now I get to look forward to several months of no toenail.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Bad Reporting?

There's this opinion piece written by a guy named John Leo titled, INCREASING MUSLIM VIOLENCE IN EUROPE IS NOT BEING REPORTED. The caps, by the way, aren't indicative of Leo's writing style, it's just what Yahoo News does for all opinion pieces.

In case you couldn't tell from the title, Leo is concerned that increasing Muslim violence in Europe is not being reported. I'll reproduce the first and last lines of the article so as to get to the point:

Like many news junkies, I've noticed that stories putting Muslims in a bad light tend to be sketchy and underreported. [...]
Suppressing news, whether out of multicultural deference or fear, is a perilous business. We can't know how to react to upheavals if we aren't told about them.
But for me, this kind of piece is the epitome of everything that's wrong with "reporting", if you could call it that, in our increasingly pundit-driven news media. And it's not because I think that Leo is wrong -- I suspect that he's right to a greater or lesser degree -- it's because he doesn't bother to support his arguments with anything other than anecdotes and innuendo.

Now if I were going to make the claim that violence by Muslims or any other group were being underreported, here's what I'd do. I'd go and dig up crime statistics for whatever area of the world I was interested in (in this case, Europe), I'd do various searches in the media for crime stories, and I'd try to find a correlation. If I were to find that Muslims, for example, committed X% of the crimes, yet crime coverage in the media featuring Muslim perps was somewhat less than X% of the total, then this would show me that there was underreporting. Studies doing the same thing for American media have found that crimes committed by minorities are overreported, making it seem as if blacks and latinos commit more crimes than they actually do. No doubt John Leo wagged his finger at the media when those studies came out, but strangely enough, I can't find where. Indeed, every single thing he writes seems to be about accusing the media of being too nice to blacks.

But anyway, you won't find any references to actual studies in the current piece. In typical fashion, a sweeping claim of unfair media coverage of European violence is supported by at most five anecdotes, two of them actually about Europe. Anecdote number one is about a New York City Muslim prison chaplain whose condemnation of George Bush made the news, but some other crazy things he said weren't reported. The second is about the murder of a Jewish man in Paris by a gang of Muslim thugs. Leo's main problem here is that the media were too hesitant to call it an act of anti-semitism.

Then there was the 2002 attack in the L.A. airport. Here, the "government and media" are blamed for being too hesitant to call this an act of terrorism. It took the FBI nine months of investigating, according to Leo, to conclude that this was really a "terrorist act" (however they technically define such things) and not some other category of violence. How exactly the media is to blame for this isn't explained, but CNN's coverage in the immediate aftermath of the event contains something like a dozen references to terrorism.

Next we have a Muslim in North Carolina who tried to run down students with a van he had rented. Here, the university (UNC? Duke? App State?), according to Leo, "tried desperately to avoid the obvious T-word." That's rather artfully worded. Did they actually avoid saying "terrorism" altogether, or did Leo perform a Vulcan mind meld and discover that even though they did use the word, they really didn't want to? And what does this have to do with the media?

And then there is my favorite bit, which is actually about Europe for a change:
Tony Blankley wrote a Washington Times column, March 8, on the underreporting of Muslim violence. He said British politicians tell him there is increasing radical Muslim street violence, explicitly motivated by radical Islam, but not reported or characterized as such. Blankley said rioting Moroccan youths in Antwerp went on a rampage, beating up reporters and destroying cars, but police were instructed not to arrest or stop them. A database search shows little reporting on Antwerp riots.
So John Leo was told by Tony Blankley who was told by British politicians that there is increasing Muslim violence that's not being reported as such. And then Tony Blankley tells him that there was rioting in Antwerp, which is not in Britain, and it wasn't reported as much as it should have been according to whatever objective standard there is for reporting such things. Maybe there's more to it than that, but referencing a convoluted string of second-hand accounts is what I'd call prima facie shitty reporting.

My point here isn't that Leo's thesis is wrong. For all I know, he's probably right and the media do soft-peddle isolated terrorist acts out of fear of inflaming Muslims, or to avoid appearing racist. The point is that his style of argument is so bad as to qualify as intellectually dishonest. Arguing via anecdote carries emotional impact, because people naturally connect better with real-life examples than with statistics, but if you are concerned about little things like the truth, then they are almost entirely meaningless.

The problem with anecdotes is two-fold: First, as the saying goes, "data" is not the plural of "anecdote". Meaning of course that you can't discern a trend merely by focusing only on individual incidents. The second, more serious problem, is that anecdotes are notoriously easy to misconstrue. I wouldn't find Leo's particular examples very impressive even if I took his account as gospel. But if I'm skeptical and want to see if they actually support his thesis, I'd have to go and look up the actual events, learn as much about them as possible, read various media accounts, and then make a judgment call as to whether or not the media should have said "terrorist" more often than they actually did. In my experience, if you actually take the time and effort to do this, you almost always find that the situation is vastly different than characterized, and doesn't really support the main argument at all. This is especially true when the person doing the characterization has a political axe to grind. Maybe my extensive experience with creationists has left me jaded, but I've learned never to take an anecdote at face value.

I make an issue of this because arguments driven entirely by anecdote have become almost universal among the pundit class, particularly those on the right. This is perhaps a sign of growing dishonesty among opinion-makers -- simply substituting what influences readers for what informs them -- but a case could be made that it represents a true break-down of reason itself in contemporary political discourse. Things have gotten to the point where real evidence is treated with something akin to contempt, whereas prejudice is considered actually truth-conducive. If a bit of news can be twisted to fit a pre-existing bias, then the story should be regarded as true because it fits with what we know. At the same time, that story then becomes evidence that the pre-existing bias is true, which then colors the way in which all future bits of news are looked at. This sort of closed loop, self-reinforcing belief system has led a large number of people to live in a fantasy land of their own making, completely disconnected from reality. Examples of this are not hard to find: Neo-cons who insisted that Iraq would be peaches and cream, in spite of all evidence to the contrary; global warming denialists who spin preposterous tales of dark scientific conspiracies; members of the Religious Right who claim that... well, almost everything they claim; etc.

In the end, this sort of thing represents a far greater peril to our society than newspapers that may not use the "T-word", loaded as it is, as often as one person thinks they should.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Friday Animal Blogging.

When I when was visiting my parents once, I brought my iguana with me as I usually did when I was there for more than a few days. Death Machine (the iguana's name -- not actually a machine, and not actually deadly), would stay in the bonus room that contained various toys and stuffed animals that my niece and nephew would play with. DM took a serious, um, interest in this stuffed T-Rex that my mom had made for my nephew.

Since my nephew had mostly outgrown stuffed toys at that point, my mom insisted that I let the iguana keep the T-rex as his own. So I did. I took it home and put it on the couch near where DM spent much of his time. People would ask why there was a stuffed T-rex on the couch, and I would explain to them that it was DM's wife. Sometimes I would have to wiggle it to get his attention, but he was generally pleased with his new-found love.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

One Baby, Two Baby, Red Baby, Blue Baby

Via Kevin Drum, I see that USA Today of all places has published another one of those silly claims about "Red states" out-breeding "Blue states" by one Phillip Longman. Here is the gist of it:

It's a pattern found throughout the world, and it augers a far more conservative future -— one in which patriarchy and other traditional values make a comeback, if only by default. Childlessness and small families are increasingly the norm today among progressive secularists. As a consequence, an increasing share of all children born into the world are descended from a share of the population whose conservative values have led them to raise large families. [...]

Today, fertility correlates strongly with a wide range of political, cultural and religious attitudes. In the USA, for example, 47% of people who attend church weekly say their ideal family size is three or more children. By contrast, 27% of those who seldom attend church want that many kids.

In Utah, where more than two-thirds of residents are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 92 children are born each year for every 1,000 women, the highest fertility rate in the nation. By contrast Vermont -— the first to embrace gay unions -— has the nation's lowest rate, producing 51 children per 1,000 women. [...]

This dynamic helps explain the gradual drift of American culture toward religious fundamentalism and social conservatism. Among states that voted for President Bush in 2004, the average fertility rate is more than 11% higher than the rate of states for Sen. John Kerry.
This is one of those bizarre claims I've seen floating about a lot lately, mostly by right-wingers who use it as some kind of triumphalist taunt and/or threat. You just wait! We're going to out-number you! I guess they figure that if they can't implement their culturally repressive schemes due to a lack of popularity, they'll just wait until enough like-minded dopes have been born into the world.

Unfortunately for them, Longman's thesis is wrong. In fact it's so bad, it's hard just to list all of the ways in which it fails. There is the fact that children don't automatically adopt the politics of their parents. There is the fact that political movements are historically contingent. There is the fact that most of our net population gain is due to immigration, and immigrants don't tend to vote Republican. And then there is the fact that Longman doesn't even bother to find any causal link between political belief and birth rate; at best he simply finds a correlation. Does it occur to him that having children makes people more conservative and more religious? If so, he doesn't bother saying.

Longman also doesn't bother to break-down fertility by demographic group. If he had, he would notice that white people in general (most of whom vote Republican) are out-bred slightly by blacks, and a whole lot by hispanics, both of whom tend to vote Democrat. On top of that, it also known that poorer people have higher fertility than rich people, and uneducated people have higher fertility than educated people, etc. So that raises the question: is the high fertility rate of Texas, for example, caused by Bush-loving oil-rich conservatives, or by poor hispanics who vote overwhelmingly Democratic? Almost certainly the latter. Indeed, when you look at the different states, those with high Hispanic populations (including true blue California) tend to have the high fertility rates. The New England states, with relatively few racial minorities and high standards of living, have the lowest rates. Utah, with its large Mormon population, is an outlier. The whole red-state/blue-state thing appears entirely incidental. Is there any correlation with political belief? Possibly, but while Longman says there's a strong correlation, he doesn't back it up with any actual evidence, much less quantify it. If fertility does correlate with political belief, I'll bet my future first-born that it pales in comparison to differences in ethnic fertility.

But what really makes the argument stupid is the underlying assumption that the relatively small differences fertility rates among American subpopulations, whether by ethnic group or by political belief, will a) remain constant, and b) add up to noticeable difference within our lifetimes, or even our grandchildren's lifetimes. They won't.

Below I made a chart for what happens over the next 250 years when you take Utah's high birth rate (21.2 per thousand in 2003) and population (2.2 million in 2000) and compare it going forward with the birth rate (15.2) and population (33.8 million) of California. I use the same data that Longman gets his fertility rates from, but I used the birth rate because it's easier than using the general fertility rate.

If it looks like Utah isn't about to out-breed the rest of us and steal all of the electoral votes, it's because they're not. In spite of Utah's abnormal fertility rate, the fact is that everywhere in the US has a low fertility rate, and given this, it takes a long time for noticeable differences to add up. The Mormons have been breeding like crazy for a good while now, and Utah still only has a measly 2.2 million people. Yet Longman expects us to believe that the rise in fundamentalist politics over the last 20 years was caused by differences in breeding? Nuts.

So when will the populations of Utah and California converge? In 464 years. And they will converge at, get this, 36 billion people. If that sounds unreasonably high, it's because this model ignores mortality, migration, and most importantly, changes in fertility rate.

About that changing fertility rate. Longman labors under the assumption that fertility rates we see today will remain as they are into the indefinite future. Nonsense. Fertility rates have dramatically fallen for everyone over the last four decades. The white general fertility rate has fallen from 113.2 in 1960 to 65.1 in 1999. Among African-Americans, it'’s fallen even more sharply over the same time period: from 153.5 to 70.1. Whereas the black fertility rate was once 36% higher than the white rate, it'’s now only 7% higher. The same thing will happen to Hispanics. How about those fecund Mormons? Their rates have plummeted too. Total fertility went from 4.3 in 1960 down to 2.64 in the late 90s. It is expected to continue to fall. Indeed, almost every demographic group'’s fertility does the same thing everywhere: As its members become more and more economically prosperous, their fertility rates decline down to just below replacement levels. Please note that the Mormons have a religious imperative to have as many children as they can afford, and yet their fertility rate still shot to the ground. This is a demographic law that even God can't change.

So Utah and California aren't going to reach 36 billion people, and it's safe to say that Utah will never catch up to California's population, at least not by means of natural birth rate. The fact is, America's population boom is over. Most of our future growth will come from immigrants. If you want to find a population boom, try Africa, with a total fertility rate of 5.4. That makes the Mormons, with their puny 2.64, look downright childless. Fortunately, Africa's fertility rate is falling too, and as their economy improves, they'll eventually drop down to replacement levels like those of us in the developed world. But the fact remains, the world'’s main demographic trend is not an increasing number of babies being born to fundamentalist crazies who refuse birth control, it'’s an exploding population of Africans and Asians. America, by comparison, isn'’t growing at all.

So Longman can drop the nonsense about the country being overrun by religious nuts. Maybe he can go back to the standard conservative demogoguery about the impending take-over by the brown hordes. Of course that's a stupid argument too, for all the same reasons, but I like it better because at least it causes the 'wingers some serious heartburn.

Update: I thought I'd make a more direct evaluation based on national birth rate data rather than simply comparing Utah vs. California as per the graph above. Longman writes the following:

Among states that voted for President Bush in 2004, the average fertility rate is more than 11% higher than the rate of states for Sen. John Kerry.

Sounds like a big difference, right? Wrong.

Below I charted what would happen if you take a given birth rate and compare it to one that's 11% higher over time. Again, I'm using birth rate rather than fertility rate because it's easier, not because it makes any real difference. (The data are taken from here, which is Longman's source.) I'm assuming that the country starts off containing exactly 150 million blue staters and 150 million red staters. The blue state birth rate is set to the national average of 14.1 per thousand, whereas the red state birth rate is 11% higher at 15.65.

You can see that after 50 years, very little has changed. The overall poplulation has grown to 619 million, but the percentage of red staters has only increased from 50% to 51.9%. Whoopity doo! How long would it take to for the red state population to increase to 60%? About 270 years, give or take.

So again, even if we ignore the fact that the difference probably has nothing to do with politics, if we ignore immigration, if we ignore changing fertility rates, and if we believe against all evidence that people have the same politics as their ancestors did several generations ago, the numbers still don't support Longman's thesis. The tiny differences in fertility between red states and blue states would require a very long time to add up to anything meaningful at all. It is just that bad.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Iacovelli Gone

Gervais has the scoop that Educational Oversight Committee member Karen Iacovelli (the one who opposes the very concept of public schools yet sits on a committee charged with improving them -- see here and here for background) has had her name and picture mysteriously disappear from the EOC website. And now it appears that her bio is gone too. As a couple of commenters note, she has apparently resigned for "health reasons" and/or been canned by Governor Sanford.

This is kind of weird. I wonder if the revelations of her anti-public school creed encouraged Sanford to pull the plug. Really though, I didn't think this was common knowledge outside the blogosphere. Gervais publicized it and I put in on the Panda's Thumb, but that wouldn't have reached more than a relatively small number (hundreds?) of South Carolinians. Maybe a newspaper reporter picked up on it and asked Sanford. Or maybe she has some other dark secret that makes her anti-public school stance look perfectly innocent. Enquiring minds want to know...

I'm fairly sure that Sanford didn't fire her (if that is indeed what happened) based on her support for adding pro-ID changes to the state science curriculum, given Sanford's own ridiculous mosquitoes in a mudhole interview in which he expressed support for this policy. Barring an unlikely about face by one or the other, her views on that subject were pretty well in line with Sanford's. And for that reason, I don't expect her replacement, whoever it ends up being, will be much better.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Friday Animal Blogging: "We Remember" Edition.

Here is Fluffy with my late iguana, Death Machine. And no, I didn't pose them like this. They used to do this cross-species kinky stuff all on their own.

Below is a picture of Fluffy, Death Machine, and my Mom's cat, Jackson. Jackson was actually the neighbor's cat who decided to live with my parents for reasons known only to him. He just went in through the cat door one day and began living there full-time. Anyway, Fluffy didn't care much for Jackson, and Death Machine is pretty well oblivious to mammals too small to threaten him. But Jackson was awfully curious about these new animals.

Jackson's lackadaisical attitude towards mortal danger can be seen below. A more aggressive iguana would have rendered the phrase "curiosity killed the cat" a literal one. But Jackson survived this encounter. Sadly, he died a few weeks ago from feline leukemia.

Death Machine is no longer with me either. A little less than two years ago, he walked right out of my house and never came back. He had done that the previous summer and after a 5 month hiatus, I recaptured him. Sadly, that didn't happen the second time around, and I imagine that the winter did him in. (Though there's a small probability that someone found him and gave him a good home.) So here's one last tribute to two great animals who are no longer with us.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

We win, for now.

The Board of Education voted against the pro-ID "critically analyze" language that the Discovery Institute wanted inserted into the biology curriculum. The vote was either 10-6 or 11-6 depending on whether or not you count the optional vote from the chair (?) which I assume is a symbolic vote, perhaps only used to break ties.

Anyway, here is the AP article, which is good. I haven't gotten much word yet from my compadres in SCSE, but if I hear anything juicy, I'll post it to the 'Thumb.

[Update: My post on PT is here.]

Now I guess it goes back to the EOC for rejection yet again. Not sure how this impasse is going to be resolved.

The South Carolina Enemies List

Got another post up at the Panda's Thumb, this one about some threats made against a former professor of mine (among other people) for opposing the creationist activity here in SC.

The Board of Edcuation meets today (should be meeting right now) and I'll probably have a post up about that once I get the scoop on what's transpired.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

More on Iacovelli

Barbecue and Politics has another post on some of Karen Iacovelli's shenanigans. Remember, she's the Educational Oversight Committee member who has the avowed goal of destroying public education.

I can't help but wonder if this is what her stance on adding the pro-ID language to the science curriculum is really all about, given her disingenuous rationale. Maybe she's rubbing her hands together with glee, confident that this policy, when combined with her existing policies of neglecting and bad-mouthing the public schools, will finally drive them into the ground.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Roe on the chopping block...

It appears that the governor of South Dakota has signed into law a bill banning abortions with the only exception being to save the life of the mother. (If this survives a court challenge, just watch how the number of "life-threatening" pregnancies sky-rockets.)

Anyway, this is going to be challenged in court and will almost certainly wind up in front of SCOTUS, possibly overturning Roe and setting a new precedent. It appears it's finally upon us.

I'm of two minds about this. First of all, I'm pretty thoroughly pro-choice and do not like the idea of abortion being made illegal for all of the same reasons that anyone else who's pro-choice can give you. However, I'm also one of those who feels that having the courts, rather than the legislatures, protect abortion rights has been counterproductive, politically speaking. A solid majority of Americans are pro-choice rather than pro-life by something like 55-40%, depending on what survey you look at. And an even higher percentage (65%, give or take) don't think Roe should be overturned, which means that a certain percent of pro-life or "don't know" people like having abortion legal. Thus demonstrating, yet again, that a significant number of people who take surveys don't know what the hell they're responding to. But nevertheless, only 13 states have an anti-abortion majority. (South Dakota is one of the 13, but the majority is within the margin of error, meaning that statistically speaking, SD is split.)

So if Roe is overturned, abortion will remain legal in most states. One imagines that women living in those states that ban it will have the option to go to a neighboring state to get the procedure performed there, although their home state may well try to put up road blocks (not in the literal sense) to prevent or punish them for doing so. And if the Federal government gets involved, chances are it will be on the side of abortion rights, since this is the side of most Americans.

But, you say, the Federal government is dominated by Republicans, who are mostly pro-life. True, but therein lies the rub. The Republicans have gotten away with talking tough about abortion for decades without actually having to do anything about it. That helps fire up the pro-life constituency and wins the Republican party votes, but immunizes them from having to face the political consequences of outlawing abortion. The pro-choice crowd, meanwhile, has been lulled into complacency by Roe and subsequent decisions. They figure that no matter what crazy right-wing politicians get elected, the right to choose is protected by the courts.

Now all of that may change. Pro-choice voters will realize that they'd better get out and vote, and pro-life Republicans are going to face the specter of back-alley abortions and all the other negative consequences that outlawing abortion entails. This could very well cause a serious shift in the political landscape. And it's not just people like me who think this, I have heard that quite a lot of Republican strategists say, off the record, that overturning Roe would be disastrous for them.

All in all, I think it's likely to be a net gain for Democrats and possibly for the pro-choice cause as well. And, right in time for the mid-terms. That's not to say that I wouldn't prefer the status quo as far as abortion law is considered -- indeed, I would rather not mess with things at all -- it's just that I don't see overturning Roe as the end of the world.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Friday Cat Blogging.

This is Fluffy, cutest cat in the universe.

The B&W pics don't necessarily do her justice, but you'll just have to come back next week to see better ones.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

EOC Member who Hates Public Education Lectures us on what's Best for Public Education.

Over at Barbecue and Politics, Gervais discovers something that I've known ever since the creationists have gone on the offensive in these parts: One of the Governor's appointees on the Educational Oversight Committee (the one currently attacking the curriculum standards dealing with evolution here in SC) is in fact an advocate of doing away with public education altogether. It's a rather extreme point of view, but still one that's not completely outside the bounds of sanity. Yet the irony of putting someone in charge of oversight of public schools who thinks that the existence of public schools is illegitimate is a bit much. Either she isn't staying true to her principles, or she's using her seat on the committee to work against the committee's ostensible goal of improving public education.

Sayeth Gervais:

If Gervais was to sift through a list of potential nominees for my state's Education Oversight Committee - the folks charged with improving South Carolina'’s K-12 public schools - one of the first questions I would ask is, "“Do you believe in public schools?"

Just in case, you know? It'’s like asking a babysitter if he or she likes kids. I'm a tough interviewer like that.

In EOC member Karen Iacovelli'’s case, a better question might be, "Have you ever signed a decree that says, 'I proclaim publicly that I favor ending government involvement in education?'"

I almost fell out of my tree when I saw her name on this California website as a "“Proclamation Signer."” Sure, it'’s a valid opinion. But not for someone appointed by the Governor to improve public schools. That's like appointing an arsonist as State Fire Marshal. (note to self: make sure Sanford did not appoint an arsonist as State Fire Marshal)

Keep that in mind if you subject yourself to the torment of reading this 5 page screed (pdf) in which Iacovelli advocates "teaching the convroversy" over evolution. This is one of the dumber defenses of "teach the controversy" I've had the displeasure of reading. As I pointed out recently, there is no actual controversy regarding the basics of evolution, and "intelligent design" is regarded as pseudoscience by the scientific community. After the recent Dover decision, these basic facts are now enshrined in a Federal court ruling. But Iacovelli just knows there's a controversy, a geniune controversy, because get this: You can find it on the internets! That is the substance of her argument. I am not kidding:

There on the internet were thousands upon thousands of pages of intelligent, scientific debate regarding the science or nonsense of evolution. Did skeptics just make up stuff that questioned the merits of specific aspects of evolution? The debate exists. No contest!

Someone needs to inform Iacovelli that people do indeed make up stuff on the internet, and that one can find almost any crank idea, no matter how discredited, championed by hundreds of people with enough technical skill (available to your average 3rd grader) to publish a website. Given her lame reasoning, we must also teach astrology, holocaust denial, geocentrism, and the idea that the Apollo missions were faked, because these are all things that can be found on the 'net. (Heck one can even find the crazy idea that governments should end their involvement in education. Now that's cranky!)

The rest of it is so much nonsense. She invokes a horrible conspiracy to "silence" pro-ID voices, by referencing an implausible claim by Sen. Mike Fair that two SC professors who were going to testify in his favor backed-out at the last minute, forcing him to use out-of-state ringers. (Never mind that both Mary Lang Edwards and my former genetics professor, Rob Dillon, have had their jobs threatened for speaking out over the pro-ID policy. The fake martyrdom pose is as much a necessary part of ID polemics as is denying any religious motivation). Iacovelli also puts forth the argument that the "critically analyze" language has nothing whatsoever to do with ID, in spite of the fact that it's being pushed by a group that advocates ID, who has in the past argued that such language requires the teaching of ID. And of course, what pro-ID piece would be complete without a gratuitous reference to Communism?

Michael Fumento: Fraud

A recent article by Michael Fumento that was picked up by Powerline concluded that, based on Fumento's terribly inaccurate investigation, science is just not to be trusted at all (but I suppose we can still trust the pronouncements of ideological think tanks). It has been thoroughly ripped apart by Tim Lambert, Chris Mooney, and PZ Miers.

I thought I would add my own ripping, focusing on one lone part that PZ touched on briefly. Fumento writes:

Consider a report by three environmentalist authors back in 1988 in Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), analyzing male-female birth ratios between 1970 and 1990. The authors found male births declining, and predictably blamed man-made chemicals. Yet public data going back to 1940 showed gender ratios are always changing, for no obvious reason. Years that disproved their thesis were simply sliced out.
If we follow the link to the article that Fumento attacks, we can see that almost nothing he writes is true. First of all, he gets the date of publication wrong. It was 1998, not 1988. I can excuse that as a typo. Secondly, he gets the dates of analysis wrong. For the US and Canada, the data set was between 1970 and 1990, but for the Netherlands and Denmark, it was between 1950 and 1994. That cannot be excused as a typo. The nicest thing we can say about this is that it was sloppy reading on Fumento's part. Had he read more carefully (it's right in the abstract for god's sake), he'd have seen that his accusation of slicing out inconvenient data is flat-out wrong (and somewhat amusingly ironic). But more importantly, we need to know if the authors "predictably blamed man-made chemicals". They did not.

The authors of the study find that there is a significant decline in the proportion of male births (meaning a statistically significant decline -- whether or not it's significant to you or me is another story). They then go on to list a variety of possible causes, noting man-made chemicals among them. Importantly, they point out that some chemicals are known to alter male-female birth ratios and thus list these as possible contributing factors. But they do not conclude that these are responsible, only that they might be responsible, and that more work is needed to figure it out. Here's what they say in the conclusions and the comments leading up to it:

The study of sex determination remains a field full of speculation and with limited empirical evidence. As a consequence, factors that affect the sex ratio remain poorly understood. Many of the causes of reduced male births that have been identified, such as stress of fathers, in vitro fertilization, less frequent intercourse, and multiple sclerosis, are unlikely to account for the time trends that have recently been observed in several industrial countries. Several specific workplace and environmental exposures have altered the sex ratio in those who were highly exposed to some pesticides and other general environmental contaminants. Whether these agents could account for some of the recently observed patterns is a matter of considerable concern.
We propose that reduced male proportion at birth be viewed as a sentinel health event that may be linked to environmental factors. To determine the value of this suggestion, it will be important to answer a number of questions: Do the trends in sex ratio reported for the United States, Canada, Denmark, and the Netherlands parallel similar changes in other countries? Are regional differences in the proportion of males consistent with environmental factors or other known causes of alterations? Does other evidence confirm that occupational cohorts with exposures to smelting operations, pesticides, inorganic borates, lead, solvents, alcohol, and other such workplace hazards have produced children with reduced male proportion?

To resolve these matters, it will be important for public health researchers to conduct a number of assessments, examining patterns, and time series of state, regional, and national birth registries.

Gee, sounds pretty measured to me. Reading Fumento, you'd get the impression that the authors immediately blamed man-made chemicals rather than taking the careful route of discussing a variety of possible factors, noting that man-made chemicals are one possible factor, and then saying that we need more study to determine if these chemicals are indeed responsible.

How about that report Fumento links to which suggests that gender ratios are always changing? He gets that wrong too. First of all, the data in that report are limited to the United States. Secondly, while the trend in sex ratios changes over the long-term, the overall trend has been downward:

And third, the claim that these ratios have changed "for no obvious reason" is contradicted by the text of the report, which lists several known contributing factors, including environmental toxins.

The sad thing is, it takes several paragraphs like this to correct just one paragraph of misinformation from the likes of Fumento, which has already been picked up by Powerline and spoon-fed to who knows how many unsuspecting victims. Fumento and his ilk don't care if their critiques are accurate or not, they only care if they succeed in furthering their political agenda, which is ironically the very thing they falsely accuse scientists of doing. These guys suffer from a massive case of projection.

One other fun note: Fumento was recently fired from his job because he failed to disclose the fact that he had accepted payments from Monsanto to write a book that was pro-biotech (and in many respects reads like an advertisement for Monsanto). Rather than face up to the fact that he had committed an egregious violation of journalistic ethics, he defended his actions. His excuse was, in part, that people should judge his articles on the quality of the arguments contained therein, not on the fact that a corporation is paying him to put forth a predetermined set of arguments that favor their business. Putting aside the fact that this is irrelevant to the issue of disclosure, one should indeed judge the quality of a work on its merits, and not on its source. But that is precisely what Fumento and Powerline are telling not to do when it comes to science. We are told to greet any scientific article that may intersect with a political issue (almost all of them) with skepticism, in spite of the rigorous standards employed by scientific journals. But if an author who writes about biotech receives payments from a biotech corporation? Nah, no reason for skepticism there.