Wednesday, May 31, 2006

If You Seal It Off, They Will Evolve

Here’s a pretty cool example of how isolated environments lead to the evolution of new species. The more isolated, the more unique:

Prehistoric ecosystem found in Israeli cave

Israeli scientists said on Wednesday they had discovered a prehistoric ecosystem dating back millions of years.

The discovery was made in a cave near the central Israeli city of Ramle during rock drilling at a quarry. Scientists were called in and soon found eight previously unknown species of crustaceans and invertebrates similar to scorpions.

“Until now eight species of animals were found in the cave, all of them unknown to science,” said Dr Hanan Dimantman, a biologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. […]

The cave was completely sealed off from the world, including from water and nutrients seeping through rock crevices above. Scientists who discovered the cave believe it has been intact for millions of years.

“Every species we examined had no eyes which means they lost their sight due to evolution,” said Dimantman.

The cave is an “island” of sorts, and like islands out in the ocean, it has unique species that can be found nowhere else. Isolated populations that have their gene pools cut-off from their parent populations tend to speciate rather quickly.

(Cross-posted to the Panda's Thumb)

Big Shocker Here

Study: Canadians healthier than Americans

You can add Canadians to the list of foreigners who are healthier than Americans. Americans are 42 percent more likely than Canadians to have diabetes, 32 percent more likely to have high blood pressure, and 12 percent more likely to have arthritis, Harvard Medical School researchers found. That is according to a survey in which American and Canadian adults were asked over the telephone about their health.

The study comes less than a month after other researchers reported that middle-aged, white Americans are much sicker than their counterparts in England.

"We're really falling behind other nations," said Dr. Steffie Woolhandler, a co-author of the Canadian study.

Canada's national health insurance program is at least part of the reason for the differences found in the study, Woolhandler said. Universal coverage makes it easier for more Canadians to get disease-preventing health services, she said.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

That Chinese Juggernaut

Every now and then, I see a good article that dispels some bit of "conventional wisdom" that I had previous accepted as true by default. Today I came across this article by Fred Kaplan in Slate about the myth of Chinese military superiority:

The China Syndrome: Why the Pentagon keeps overestimating Beijing's military strength.

Some key graphs:

China officially says it's spending $35 billion on its military, a 14.7 percent increase over last year's budget, amounting to 1.5 percent of its gross national product. (The U.S. military budget is nearly 15 times as large and amounts to 4 percent of our GNP; Japan's and South Korea's defense budgets are larger than China's, too.) The report says that China's growth "sustains a trend that has persisted since the 1990s of defense budget growth rates exceeding economic growth"—but read on—"although the growth of defense expenditures has lagged behind the growth in overall government expenditures over the same period of time." (Emphasis mine.) In other words, by the report's admission, the military is not the Chinese government's No. 1 priority. [...]

Read as far as Page 30, and you see that not just China's capabilities but also its ambitions are far from expansive. "At present," the report states, "China's concept for sea-denial appears limited to sea-control in water surrounding Taiwan and its immediate periphery. If China were to shift to a broader 'sea-control' strategy"—in other words, if it were seeking a military presence farther away from its shores—"the principal indicators would include development of an aircraft carrier, development of robust, deep-water anti-submarine-warfare capabilities, development of a true area anti-aircraft warfare capability, acquisition of large numbers of nuclear attack submarines," etc., etc. The point is: The Chinese aren't doing—they're not even close to doing—any of those things.

I was floored to learn that China doesn't have a single functioning aircraft carrier. How do you become a superpower without one of those?

So the threat of the Chinese military is vastly overstated. Why does it matter? Well, Kaplan remarks that both now and in the past, this was how the Pentagon justified expensive hardware purchases that would otherwise have no use. And there's another, perhaps more insidious reason. There are political factions in this country that require an Enemy in order to sustain themselves. This is a telling post from Matt Yglesias that I'm sure I've linked to before:

During a appearance with Robert Wright, Fukuyama says of Bill Kristol and his circle at The Weekly Standard that during the 1990s "There was actually a deliberate search for an enemy because they felt that the Republican Party didn't do as well" when foreign policy wasn't on the issue agenda. The obvious candidates were either China or something relating to Islamic fundamentalism and, as Fukuyama notes, what they came up with was China. Then 9/11 changed things around, at least for a few years. I think this is very telling, and reveals a great deal about the mentality that's been guiding America's foreign policy during the Bush years.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Friday Animal Blogging

I've been calling these things broadhead skinks, Eumeces laticeps. I WAS WRONG. They are five-lined skinks, Eumeces fasciatus. I hang my head in shame.

In partial redemption, I finally got a picture of a juvenile sunning himself on the deck near the jasmine. The adults are shy enough, but the young are very shy, so they almost always bolt the second they see me. This one must be stupid.

You can tell it's a juvenile by its bright blue tail. This tail has for some odd reason led people to call them "scorpions" and believe that they are capable of delivering a poisonous sting. Sadly, it is not true.

Added in edit: I see from the close-up that his head is a bit reddish, meaning that it's probably a young male whose blue tail hasn't quite faded away yet. That would explain the stupidity.

Added in edit again: BigDumbChimp has really sweet pictures of an actual broadhead skink (right across the water in Mt. Pleasant, of all places). See, here's how you can tell: The male broadhead skink has this, like... broad head. The five-lined skink does not. That's what makes it clear that your skink is or is not a broadhead skink.

To paraphrase Francis Fukuyama when he appeared on the Daily Show a week or two ago: Some mistakes are so bad that you must have a PhD before you can make them.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

How the Conservatives Brought Down Nixon

Concerning my last post, there was a bit in Richard Viguerie's Washington Post essay that encapsulates precisely what I'm talking about. The whole bit is like this, really, but this one part is truly eye-popping:

But unhappy conservatives should be taken seriously. When conservatives are unhappy, bad things happen to the Republican Party. [...]

In 1974, conservatives were unhappy with the corruption and Big Government policies of Nixon's White House and with President Gerald R. Ford's selection of Rockefeller as his vice president, and this led to major Republican losses in the congressional races that year.
Pretty much the whole second page of the essay is like this -- Viguerie goes through every Republican defeat of the last 50 years and blames them all on conservative dissatisfaction. Ignoring the importance of every other political movement over the last half century is exactly the sort of arrogant, self-absorbed attitude that has led conservatives to wrongly believe that they are the keystone of politics. But when he thinks that conservative petulance was more important than Watergate, it's downright delusional.

Conservatives Calling for an Independent Movement?

I came across this article yesterday concerning a call for Richard Viguerie, the so-called patriarch of conservatism (how many of those do they have?) calling for an abandonment of the Republican Party. Hey, fine with me. There is, however, something odd about the way in which the whole business is being framed as a major blow to the Republican Party. It is of course, or rather it will be if this is the one time in which they actually mean what they say, but the conservative movement has long overstated its own importance. Here is a chunk of the article:

The patriarch of US conservatives has urged his followers to halt their financial support of the Republican Party and start an independent movement, signaling a major political shift that could result in heavy losses for the US ruling party in upcoming elections.

Richard Viguerie, who was instrumental in cementing the winning coalitions behind Ronald Reagan in 1980 and George W. Bush in 2000, declared that conservatives were "downright fed up" with both the president and Republican-controlled Congress.

"At the very least, conservatives must stop funding the Republican National Committee and other party groups," Viguerie wrote in a lengthy essay in The Washington Post Sunday.

He suggested conservatives "redirect their anger into building a third force," which he defined as a movement independent of any party, and laying the groundwork for the 2008 election campaign.

Traditional conservatives, who abhor big government and excessive spending, equate abortion with murder and emphasize individualism over collectivism, have always formed the so-called "base" of the Republican Party and determined its viability as a political organizations.

The integrity and loyalty of this core is considered key to the party's success in any election.

The defeat of George H.W. Bush, the current president's father, in the 1992 election is largely attributed to being abandoned by conservatives.

Now first of all, I must say it's odd to claim that the contemporary conservative movement has always formed "the base" of the Republican Party, unless by "always" you mean since 1964. Secondly, this notion that "the base" is of absolute necessity for Republican electoral success is a self-serving fiction that helps empower the far right, but appears to have little intersect with reality. I am reminded of a segment in John DiIulio's now famous letter to Ronald Suskind (the one where he used the phrase "Mayberry Machiavellis" to describe the Bush Whitehouse. DiIulio writes:

Karl [Rove] is enormously powerful, maybe the single most powerful person in the modern, post-Hoover era ever to occupy a political advisor post near the Oval Office. The Republican base constituencies, including beltway libertarian policy elites and religious right leaders, trust him to keep Bush "43" from behaving like Bush "41" and moving too far to the center or inching at all center-left. Their shared fiction, supported by zero empirical electoral studies, is that "41" lost in '92 because he lost these right-wing fans. There are not ten House districts in America where either the libertarian litany or the right-wing religious policy creed would draw majority popular approval, and, most studies suggest, Bush "43" could have done better versus Gore had he stayed more centrist, but, anyway, the fiction is enshrined as fact.
Not only is it enshrined as fact among Republican leaders, but apparently among supposedly independent journalists as well. This would be of only incidental interest if not for the fact that the constant efforts to pander to the most extreme elements of the Right is the source of much of the damage that has been done and the dissatisfaction that the public feels with the Bush Whitehouse and with the government in general. I am amazed when I see conservatives on cable news shows (in other words, when I watch cable news shows, because nearly every guest is a conservative) whose most frequent response to Bush's terrible approval rating is that he's not pandering to the base enough. That, and the fact that he's not "communicating" properly, which is another way of saying that an administration notorious for its highly aggressive propaganda machine, one whose dominance of the Whitehouse greatly hampers the policy-making process, apparently has no need to reevaluate its policy agenda. It just needs more propaganda.

The first article linked above cites as evidence for the importance of the conservative base the fact that among Republicans, Bush's disapproval has shot-up from 16% to 30%. But this is still a fairly small percent of Republicans and makes up only a small fraction of his overall disapproval. Every single conservative could still be on-board, and this wouldn't change the numbers. In fact, "the base" is about all that Bush has left -- almost everyone else has been alienated by the administration's pandering to the far right-wing and contemptuous attitude towards effective government. One day, perhaps conservatives will wake up from their self-centered dream and realize that the majority of the country simple doesn't agree with them, and the way they win is when they snooker the public into thinking that they are more moderate than they truly are. Or, when they start wars. (Actually, the neo-conservatives have already figured that last one out.) Much of the reason why the Republican Party and the Bush administration specifically doesn't implement the full-on conservative agenda is that it would be suicidal. But convinced of their own self-importance, conservatives are very apt to act petulant and threaten to stay home unless they get their way. This puts the Republicans in a pretty sorry state. But it's not really clear what exactly the conservatives would do were they to abandon the Republicans, and I think this is the only reason the party apparatchiks can sleep at night. What will they do, vote for Democrats? Form a third party? Maybe this defection will be a double bonus: The Republicans will lose and conservatives will gain a measure of humility.

The More Things Change...

Following up on my post yesterday about the not-so-impending doom of the English language, I found some interesting pages about the subject. As I mentioned, linguists scoff at the notion that bilingualism is going to render English extinct, knowing full and well that the presence of language #2 doesn't serve as a threat to language #1, and in fact it is the less common language that is apt to disappear.

This page from the Linguistic Society of America says basically all the same things I was saying, namely that second and third generation immigrants learn English at very high rates and become increasingly less able or willing to use their "native" language. There was also this page, which tells an interesting history about the "English only" movement directed against early German settlers, which I will quote part of:

Opponents of moves to make English the official language of the United States frequently suspect that English-only advocates are motivated by more than political idealism. This suspicion is certainly justified by the historical record. For the past two centuries, proponents of official-English have sounded two separate themes, one rational and patriotic, the other emotional and racist. The Enlightenment belief that language and nation are inextricably intertwined, coupled with the chauvinist notion that English is a language particularly suited to democratically constituted societies, are convincing to many Americans who find discrimination on non-linguistic grounds thoroughly reprehensible (see Baron, 1990). More prominent though, throughout American history, have been the nativist attacks on minority languages and their speakers: Native Americans, Asians, the French, Germans, Jews and Hispanics, to name only the most frequently targeted groups.

The English-only nativists who attacked the Germans used arguments similar to those heard nowadays against newer immigrants. Benjamin Franklin considered the Pennsylvania Germans to be a "“swarthy"” racial group distinct from the English majority in the colony. In 1751 he complained, "“Why should the Palatine Boors be suffered to swarm into our Settlements, and by herding together establish their Language and Manners to the exclusion of ours? Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion?"” (The papers of Benjamin Franklin. Ed. Leonard W. Labaree. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1959. vol 4:234).

The Germans were accused by other eighteenth-century Anglos of laziness, illiteracy, clannishness, a reluctance to assimilate, excessive fertility, and Catholicism. They were even blamed for the severe Pennsylvania winters. (Feer 1952, 403; Mittelberger 1898, 104). Most irritating to PennsylvaniaÂ’s English-firsters in the latter 1700s was German language loyalty, although it was clear that, despite community efforts to preserve their language, Germans were adopting English and abandoning German at a rate that should have impressed the rest of the English-speaking population.

Hm, sounds familiar. Although I don't think that Hispanics have yet been blamed for severe winters, or in their case, severe droughts. Or have they?

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Update on the Budget Proviso and the EOC

Okay, here's what I can piece together from various bits of information concerning the creationists activities in this state. In my last post on the subject, I pointed out that the Education and Public Works committee stomped on Rep. Bob Walker's attempt to insert two amendments into a bill that would require no less than 10% of the material in textbooks to promote "higher-order thinking skills", whatever that means. Aside from the bizarre wording of the proposals, this is a standard Discovery Institute tactic: Call something the opposite of what it actually is. Say you're serving apple pie and then serve cow pie. I sometimes wonder if these people aren't a bigger threat to the English language than they are to modern science.

But the committee rejected those amendments unanimously, and, better yet, they saw right through Walker's motives. However, there was that mysterious budget proviso that Walker talked about. His argument was that the committee needed to adopt these amendments to get in-line with the budget requirements that already existed. The proviso he mentioned really does exist, and one of our sleuths was able to track it down. Here's what it says:

1A.71. (SDE-EIA: Core Curriculum Materials) The funds appropriated in Part IA, Section 1, XI.A.3 for instructional materials for core curriculum shall be expended consistent with the requirements of Section 59-31-600 of the 1976 Code requiring the development of higher order thinking skills and critical thinking which should be integrated throughout the core curriculum instructional materials. Furthermore, the evaluation criteria used to select instructional materials with funds appropriated in Part IA, Section 1, XI.A.3 shall include a weight of up to ten percent of the overall criteria to the development of higher order thinking skills and critical thinking.
Basically, it's just as advertised. You can find the proviso on this page if you look hard enough. Unfortunately, there is nothing that can be done at this point to undo it. Either Walker or Sen. Mike Fair or some other genius inserted this innocuous-sounding language into the budget bill when no one was looking, and now they're going to use it (we presume) to argue that the textbooks the state purchases must contain "critical analysis" of evolution. For those of you not already familiar with the Orwellian language of the Disco Institute, this means that they will contain arguments against evolution that biologists consider completely invalid.

There is a bit of sort-of good news though. The Academic Standards and Assessments Subcommittee of the Educational Oversight Committee (EOC) met Monday and voted to adopt the curriculum standards that the Board of Education (BOE) proposed. If you'll recall, it was Sen. Mike Fair working through the EOC who started this nonsense to begin with. He convinced the EOC not to accept those standards that dealt with evolution, and proposed that the BOE insert "critical analysis" language into each of the standards before they would be accepted. The Board however didn't budge, so the language was never added in. But the EOC still had the option of rejecting the standards and sending them back to the BOE. Fair ended this impasse on Monday by accepting the standards as written. Why? Because he's apparently convinced that the budget proviso will get him what he wants.

What still isn't clear in all of this is what's going to happen when the proviso is actually enforced. I assume that the BOE or the Department of Education (DOE -- I've told myself that I'm going to write a rap with all of the acronyms we've got) are going to look at it and shrug, and then carry on with business as usual. Walker, Fair, and others however are going to step in and try to get them to accept textbooks containing creationist materials. But I suspect that this is going to be difficult for them to do, because the language is so amusingly vague and meaningless that the BOE or DOE will interpret it however they wish. And with a lot of people standing guard and keeping an eye on Walker, Fair, and the rest of those jokers, they aren't going to control the textbook purchase process unnoticed. That would leave the court system as their only recourse, and I really can't imagine any judge reading that "10% higher-order thinking skill" nonsense as a call to teach creationism. The creationists have an extremely poor track record in court.

Here's another reason why they're going to have a hard time: There really aren't any textbooks out there that contain creationist arguments that aren't blatantly creationist texts. During the recent Dover trial, the textbook Of Pandas and People was mandated by the school board of Dover, PA. It was what you would call an "Intelligent Design" text, but the plaintiffs were able to successfully show that it was simply a creationist text that literally had the word "creationism" replaced with "intelligent design" in later editions. Supreme Court precedent already holds that creationism is a religious belief that cannot be taught as science, so this was devastating to the defense's case. (Here's an interesting aside: Nick Matzke often points out that the very first book produced by the ID movement was Pandas, which is a textbook intended for schools. This kind of belies their pretense that they only want to do science and gain acceptance through the academy.)

So it's rather hard to know what textbooks they have in mind. They certainly aren't going to adopt Pandas, since that already failed miserably up in Dover, but there aren't any other ID or creationism textbooks with which I'm familiar that don't automatically give the game away. Maybe they're hoping that legitimate textbook publishers will start including creationist falsehoods? Who knows. We'll be watching.

On the Impending Doom of the English Language

So I'm watching the news and they're having this discussion over whether or not English in this country is on the way out, and the various proposals to make English the "official" language of the country. Or something. These proposals are largely pointless; other than making it more difficult to have various government forms or signs written in more than one language, they are purely symbolic gestures. They are intended to placate the xenophobic wing of the American electorate. These people have apparently convinced themselves that English, a language we speak as an accident of history, is headed for extinction.

But the idea that this country is going to be overwhelmed by Spanish speakers is nonsense, so much so that it really boggles the mind. Here's why.

First of all, it's true that first-generation (i.e. foreign born) immigrants often don't learn English or don't learn it very well. But this has always been the case. It was very common back in the 19th century for immigrants to sequester themselves in ethnic enclaves where they were able to live and work speaking only their native tongue. They had newspapers written in their language, schools that taught in their language, and (gasp!) signs written in their language. This didn't cause any particular problems aside from your standard ethnic and racial tensions caused by the very xenophobes who are opposed to immigration today. But it does raise the question: If we're a nation of immigrants, why isn't everyone living in enclaves and speaking the language of the old country?

The answer is second and third-generation immigrants (i.e. the children and grandchildren of the foreign born). English acquisition among the children of immigrants is right at about 100%, and this is true of Hispanics today just as it was of Poles and Italians back in the 1800s. Not only that, but retention of their "native" tongue is often at 50% or less. By the 3rd generation, it's usually completely gone. All they know is English.

Looked at from this perspective, it's obvious why the supposed impending dominance of Spanish in America is so silly. The net effect of immigrants coming here from Mexico and Central America is to decrease the number of Spanish speakers and increase the number of English speakers. If they stayed home, their children and grandchildren would be speaking Spanish. But by coming here, they grow-up speaking English.

Of course there is the oft-repeated but rarely supported claim that Mexican immigrants aren't assimilating. But this is a misunderstanding of how immigrants normally behave. First-generation immigrants very commonly stick to their old language and customs. But their children and grandchildren do not. As the first generation grows old and is replaced by younger generations, assimilation happens as a matter of attrition.

It is of course possible that for some odd reason the children and grandchildren of Hispanic immigrants are behaving in a manner contrary to every other immigrant group throughout history, but there's never any evidence given for this insinuation, and linguists scoff at it. The same pattern we've always seen is repeating itself today. English in this country is in absolutely no danger of disappearing or becoming significantly diminished.

People also underappreciate the cultural dominance of the English language and just how widespread it has become. Far from being faced with extinction, it's more like an introduced weed that grows out of control and threatens the survival of less widely spoken native languages. English is an extremely common second language in Europe, and it is increasingly common for the Chinese to learn English. It is not common for Americans to learn Chinese.

Of all the misconceptions swirling around the immigration (non-)debate, the idea that English is disappearing is probably the strangest and least sensible. I think it's a good way to demarcate those who can be taken seriously from those who can't.

Monday, May 22, 2006


I've been remiss on my blogging duties the last several days. Friday was graduation, and my family was in town to secure bragging rights and stuff me full of good food and drink. The day before was the hooding ceremony (mom said I was not allowed to skip it) and since then it's been one party, dinner, or beach bash after another.

I've got lots to report about the recent goings on concerning the creationism activities in this state and the latest EOC meeting. I think for tonight though I'm going to let the all-you-can-eat crab legs digest for a bit and then maybe tomorrow I'll catch up on everything. So stay tuned...

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

More on the Death of S114

Via an email by Rob Dillon, my former genetics professor and president of SCSE, I've now got a first-hand account of what transpired at the House Education and Public Works Committee yesterday. A couple of notes: The entire bill was tabled, and with the legislature adjourning on June 1st, that means it's dead. So I'm assuming that the fact that the "critical analysis" language remains in the Senate version doesn't matter, because the House won't be voting on it. So stick a fork in it, it's done. Secondly, Walker himself decided to kill his own original amendment and then insert one or two others. Everyone agreed to kill the first amendment, but no one seemed to side with him on the others. It didn't help his case that the amendments were comically confused, and the committee spent much of its time just trying to figure out what the hell they were saying. B.R. Skelton for his part wasn't just passively opposed to the amendments, he gave Walker a verbal ass-whoopin' over the whole creationism thing. Awesome.

Below I'm going to quote lengthy segments of Rob's email, since it was juicy and contains more information than I could reasonably convey second-hand.

Most of the discussion that followed [the proposal of Walker's first amendment] consisted of (entirely unsuccessful) attempts by various Representatives to ascertain what the heck Mr. Walker meant by his amendment. Rep. Joseph Neal (D-Richland) and Rep. Vida Miller (D-Georgetown) focused on peculiar language to the effect that "not less than 10%" of the material in qualifying textbooks shall involve higher-order thinking skills. Walker admitted some uncertainty as to the methods by which such a measurement might be taken, but insisted on the necessity of his language to match the Senate budget proviso.

No less than 10% involving "higher-order thinking skills"? Say what? What exactly is a higher-order thinking supposed to mean as opposed to, say, a lower-order thinking skill, or a medium-rare thinking skill? I suspect this is what happens when the Discovery Institute's Orwellian language gets mangled by the incompetent hands of Bob Walker.

I was impressed with Rep. Kenneth Clark (R-Lexington) who characterized the debate as "dancing around the question." Mr. Clark observed that the real issue is evolution versus creationism, and that Mr. Walker's amendment would bring the bible into the science class. Mr. Clark said, "I'm a Christian. I accept Christ as my Savior. And I do not want Bible being taught by atheists, agnostics, and Satanists as an alternative to evolution in the science class." This is an especially florid statement of an argument commonly offered in milder form from mainline Christian pulpits. I wish it were more widely heard.

It is a reasonable sentiment, but really, how many Satanists do we have teaching in public schools? (Except of course for Mrs. Xxxxxx, my 3rd grade teacher, if that mean old bitch is still alive.) Frankly, I don't think it matters who starts teaching religion or for what purpose, it's a violation of our rights either way.

But by far the most impressive contribution of the afternoon was made by Rep. B. R. Skelton (R-Pickens), who grilled Mr. Walker mercilessly for what seemed like hours. "Bob," he said, "Convince me this is not an effort to get around the State Board of Education." Mr. Skelton reviewed the SBE/EOC deadlock in considerable detail, and challenged Mr. Walker to explain the legal ramifications of the disagreement. Mr. Skelton (who apparently has a background in contract law) observed that there were "bunches of ambiguous words" in the Walker amendment, and couldn't see how this particular legislation could do anything but make the confusion worse. He then produced a copy of the Fordham Foundation booklet ranking the state science standards, and read to Bob Walker all the high scores and nice compliments South Carolina has received. He challenged Bob Walker to "critically analyze" the Fordham report, and ended with a Bertrand Russell quote. I have a new hero.
Rep Jesse Hines (D-Darlington) wondered aloud whether Mr. Walker might know what a "higher-order thinking skill" might be. Was he familiar with Bloom's taxonomy? Rep. Michael Arthony (D-Union) interjected that Mr. Walker's amendment was a perfect example of people who don't know anything about education interfering with the business of professional educators.

At that point, Rep. Skelton moved to table Rep Walker's amendment. This was done by a large majority, on a voice vote.
Rep. Walker then reached into his stack of papers and distributed a second amendment. Again we in the gallery were not privy to the wording, but I gather that the substance of this second proposal was very, very minor. I think it merely added "and the Education Oversight Committee" to the tail of the original S114 wording.

The general tenor of the discussion regarding this amendment was similar to that attending Mr. Walker's earlier effort. Ms. Miller admitted confusion and asked for clarification. Mr. Walker insisted that the intent of this particular amendment was simply to recognize an established point of law, that the EOC as well as the SBE must approve curriculum standards.

Chairman Townsend weighed in on this issue, opining that the addition suggested by Mr. Walker would involve the EOC in textbook selection. No, Mr. Walker insisted (and I think rightly!) the amendment would simply involve the EOC in curriculum, not in textbook selection. But alas, at this juncture it appeared that Mr. Walker couldn't count a friend or ally in the room, not even the Chair.

Then Rep. Skelton opened up again, beginning with a simple question, "Why?" If in fact the role of the EOC is already clearly detailed in the statute, why do we need this amendment? Skelton was really tough.

Considerable discussion of a technical nature followed, regarding the law as it is currently written. A number of clarifications were offered (half-heartedly) by members but nothing seemed to catch on. Regarding the relationship between the SBE and the EOC, there was an awkward contribution by Rep. Anthony, who lamented the treatment suffered by his appointee [Dr. Kristi Woodall] to the State Board of Education. She was attacked in The State Newspaper, and her Christianity questioned. "This is not right!"

Sensing that the discussion might be degenerating, Rep. Skelton moved to table Rep. Walker's second amendment. The motion to table carried on a voice vote, with only a couple dissenters.

This left the Committee with the main motion, S114 in its original language, as passed by the Senate. Rep. Miller moved to adjourn debate on the motion, and this passed unanimously.

The entire discussion lasted 75 minutes, during which time Rep. Walker was not able to muster a single ally. Never in my many years of watching the South Carolina General Assembly have I been more favorably impressed with a roomful of legislators. There is hope.

Well there you have it. It's much better news than I originally thought, since not only was the bill killed, but a large number of legislators were acutely aware of the purpose of Walker's amendments and took a strong stand in opposition to them. But now we have that mysterious budget proviso which Walker, Fair, or one of their allies must have inserted somewhere into the budget bill when no one was looking. The creationists love to do that sort of thing. Does it really require 10% of textbook material to promote "higher-order thinking skills"? I can't imagine what the textbook purchasers are going to make of that. I'll have more to say on it when we figure out what exactly the proviso says and what it means.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

A Small Victory, But We'll Take It

Here in SC, we've been enduring the neo-creationist assault for the past several months and then some. Background is here, here, here, and here, in chronological order. Quick synopsis: The Educational Oversight Committee (EOC), whose apparent job is to serve as an unnecessary bureaucratic pain in the ass, voted to reject a portion of the biology standards dealing with evolution. They then recommended that "critically analyze" language be added to the standards for each indicator they had rejected. This plan was hatched by the Discovery Institute for the sole purpose of forcing creationist arguments into the curriculum. But the EOC can't make such changes themselves, they can only vote the standards up or down. The Board of Education (BOE) is the one who actually writes the standards. Luckily, the BOE was wise enough to reject the "critically analyze" language in a vote in early March. While that was a set-back for the Discovery Institute's agenda, the issue isn't settled yet; the EOC is supposed to take it up again in about a week.

Meanwhile, Rep. Bob Walker (R-Spartanburg), one of the ring-leaders of the original anti-evolution policy, introduced an amendment to require all textbooks adopted by the state to "emphasize critical thinking and analysis in each academic content."” Everyone knew that the amendment pertained to evolution, and that trying to make it apply to every academic subject was a lame attempt at political cover. (Noted the Dept. of Education liaison skeptically: How do you ask students to critically analyze German, or algebra, or keyboarding?)

But today, we've got good news. A just released AP report informs us that the House Education and Public Works committee has rejected the amendment. Similar language remains in the Senate version of the bill, but hey, we'll take what we can get for now.

What really cracks me up about this is that every time Bob Walker and Mike Fair open their mouths about the amendment, they swear up and down that it has nothing to do with Intelligent Design or attacking evolution. Apparently, the suspicious timing of the amendment (coming immediately after the EOC attempt to change the biology standards) and the amendment's suspicious language (almost identical to the proposed standards changes) are purely coincidental. It is so obviously disingenuous, no one is buying it:

Rep. B.R. Skelton, R-Six Mile, said the wording appeared to be a way around the state Board of Education's decision not to incorporate critical analysis into several sentences of high school biology standards.
Even politicians can take only so much bullshit. Put Billy Ray Skelton on the Good Guys list. Good things do come from Six Mile. (Having gone to high school with people from Six Mile, I am hesitant to say such things, but it's true.)

The Explanatory Filter, 2.0

Apropos of my recent post on Dembski's Explanatory Filter and to make it apply to a real-life situation, PZ Myers has posted a new and improved version sent to him by a would-be ID theorist. I think it works better than the original.

Carnival of the Cats

I sent my picture of Fluffy having wedged herself into a box 3 sizes too small over to Carnival of the Cats thinking it would be shown next week. Turns out they squeezed it in to last week's line-up. So here's the obligatory link to this week's (last week's?) edition over at Watermark. You can go there and see lnks to pictures of other cats not quite as cute as mine.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

John Gibson: Fool

The internets lately have been abuzz about the Fox News segment by John Gibson in which he makes the effectively racist claim that we need more babies in this country, and by "we" he means white people. Media Matters has the scoop.

Gibson, by the way, is the demagogue who came up with the phony War on Christmas. Or rather I should say, he didn't come up with the idea, but he did milk it for all it's worth, even going to far as write a book (just in time for the holidays) blaming "secularists" for trying to ban Christmas. So you know he's an idiot already. But this new bit really does take the cake. I'm going to go through it and point out the errors, ignoring the racist undertone for the most part. He begins:

First, a story yesterday that half of the kids in this country under five years old are minorities. By far, the greatest number are Hispanic. You know what that means? Twenty-five years and the majority of the population is Hispanic.
Um, no. A funny thing is, not all minorities in this country are Hispanic, and 45% is less than half. If Gibson would bother to read the Washington Post article from which he gets this information, he'd see that only 22% of children under 5 are Hispanic. That's a large percentage, but it's nowhere close to half. Moreover, our entire population doesn't turn-over every 25 years. Most of us will still be alive by then (I hope). If you really want to know what the percentage of Hispanics will be 25 years from now, you can look at the Census Bureau estimates. In 2030, Hispanics will make up 20% of the population. In 2050, it will be 24%.

Why is that? Well, Hispanics are having more kids than others. Notably, the ones Hispanics call "gabachos" -- white people -- are having fewer.
This is true, but the Hispanic birth rate will fall down to near that of whites over the next two decades, meaning that there is a limit to how large their numbers will grow. The same thing happened to the black birth rate. It was once significantly higher than the white rate (which caused racists to freak out and tell white people they should have more babies), but now it's nearly the same.

Now, in this country, European ancestry people, white people, are having kids at the rate that does sustain the population. It grows a bit.
Wrong. The total fertility rate among whites in America is about 1.8, which is under replacement. It's only slightly higher than that of Europeans. Not that it matters much anyway, but it's important for people like Gibson to believe that white Americans are more virile than their decadent European counterparts. The fact that we're below replacement is rather inconvenient on that score, hence he chooses to believe a fiction instead.

Why aren't they [Europeans] having babies? Because babies get in the way of a prosperous and comfortable modern life. Peanut butter fingerprints on the leather seats in the BMW. The Euros are particular -- in particular can't be bothered with kids. Underscore that second point.
People choose not to have kids for all sorts of reasons. The desire to live a less burdensome life is certainly one of them, but it's hardly the only one. It's rather insulting to insinuate that Europeans have low birthrates out of mere selfishness.

But Gibson probably speaks from his own experience. He has only one child himself, and at age 60, he's probably not having any more. That's fewer children than the average white European. You have failed us John. You couldn't endure a little more peanut butter on your BMW, and as a result, there aren't enough white babies. Although in your case, we forgive you. The gene pool is polluted enough already.

A second story, today, reports that [Russian President] Vladimir Putin is so concerned about the declining and imploding population of Russia, he is paying couples to have babies. Imagine, procreating for cash in Mother Russia.
Yes, imagine. That's basically what a lot of countries do, especially in Europe. Augustus Caesar did the exact same thing in ancient Rome. It doesn't work, but it's a common ploy.

Putin has taken this step because at the rate things are going, Russia will lose close to 45 million in population in the next 45 years. Russia will be two thirds of today's population. This is not a good trend for Russia and it won't be here either if that should happen.
It's true that Russia will be losing a part of its population, but his numbers are wrong. It's not one third, it's more like one fifth. In 2050, about 45 years from now, Russia's population will be roughly 110 million. That's about what it was 45 years ago in 1960. Is that some sort of disaster? I don't think so.

Russia is an extreme case. In the United States, our natural fertility is at replacement, so ignoring migration, we're not losing people. If you take migration into account, then of course we're gaining people, and rather quickly too. Where does this frightful nonsense about losing our population come from? Assuming for some strange reason we did lose one fifth of our population by 2050, that would put it back to where it was in the mid-80s. Were we dangerously underpopulated in the 1980s? I don't think so. But of course it's all moot, because our population is projected to soar to 400 million or more by 2050. Gibson seems to have gotten the problem backwards.

Forget about that zero population growth stuff that my poor generation was misled on. Why is this important? Because civilizations need population to survive.
For some reason, civilizations with only a tiny fraction our of current population have survived just fine. The Roman Empire, at its height, had perhaps 60 million people. Iceland today has fewer than 300,000 people, yet they manage to get by. There is no inherent virtue in having a higher population. The United States contains only 5% of the world's people yet that doesn't stop us from being a superpower.

Gibson is echoing an old movement know as "natalism", the belief that a country's future was threatened by lower birth rates, and that unless population continued increasing, then the country's continued dominance, particularly in the military sphere, would be threatened. It was in many ways tied in with the eugenics movement, and was championed by the Nazis and other nationalist movements. It's rather disturbing to see that sort of thing being taken seriously today. Well, sort of -- it's not like Gibson is taken seriously by thinking people, but still.

So far, we are doing our part here in America but Hispanics can't carry the whole load. The rest of you, get busy. Make babies, or put another way -- a slogan for our times: "procreation not recreation"
This is the bit that gets Gibson pegged as racist, but of course the logic of the whole thing pretty much requires it. As anyone can see with a quick google search, the United States is in no danger of losing any population; our population is expected to grow quite a lot over the next 50 years. The only way it could possibly make sense to exhort white people to have more children is if the prospect of a majority Hispanic population is somehow frightening. Either it doesn't matter what color the babies are, in which case we've got nothing to worry about population-wise, or Gibson's real problem is that there will be fewer white people as a percentage of the population than there is now.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Friday Animal Blogging

Cat in a box edition.

I have to wonder what kind of instinct drives cats to do that.

Are They Embarrassed Yet?

Jacob Weisberg, whose article on gas prices I talked about here, pans Kevin Phillips new book here, which I previously mentioned here. (Is that enough heres?) Among the reasons Weisberg thinks that Phillips is overreacting:

The appearance of extremism on issues of church-state separation and stem-cell research has helped dig a deep hole for the president and his party, alienating secular and libertarian Republicans uncomfortable with the revival-tent atmosphere. And evangelical power appears to have peaked. Since the Terri Schiavo debacle, the religious right has mainly embarrassed itself by battling evolutionary theory. Phillips doesn't recognize any of this.
Would that everyone saw things this way. One thing I've learned about watching creationists is that they completely lack a sense of shame.

I wonder if maybe it's Weisberg who has it wrong, that while the anti-evolution crusade looks dumb to most educated people, it plays well with the masses. After all, we don't see too many politicians paying a heavy price (as they should) for attacking science. But then again, we saw what happened in Dover, when the school board was completely swept out of office for its tomfoolery. But that may have less to do with embarrassment and more to do with pragmatism.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

How to Really Detect Design

While I'm picking on Dembski's blog, I figured I'd critique another entry there, this one written by Salvador Cordova. Sal is a congenial fellow, most of the time at least, so I'll spare him the snark and get right to the point. He writes:

The corporation known as Genetic-ID (ID as in IDentification, not ID as in Intelligent Design) is able to distinguish a Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) from a "“naturally occurring" organism. At they claim:

Genetic ID can reliably detect ALL commercialized genetically modified organisms.

I claim that detecting man-made artifacts (like a GMO) is a valid instance of applying the Explanatory Filter.

To make a long story short, this company attempts to make a buck by detecting whether or not something is a genetically modified organism (GMO). In other words, whether it was "designed" in a sense by humans as opposed to being "natural". According to the company's website, they mostly use their techniques for detecting GMO food, to make sure the food adheres to certain regulations and whatnot. Some countries have banned GMO food (for reasons I think are mostly foolish, but that's another story), so there is a market for such testing.

Cordova's argument is that since this company is detecting the presence or absence of "design", then they are using Bill Dembski's Explanatory Filter. We critics have been calling ID scientifically useless all this time, but we are wrong! ID really is useful. In fact it's being used by this very company!

Well, not quite. There are a couple of serious problems with Sal's argument. First and foremost, we have to understand what the Explanatory Filter (EF) is and what Dembski says it tells us. For the purpose of discussion, we'll grant that the EF actually works as advertised. (If you want a technical discussion of its faults go here.) You can see from the schematic on the left, the EF basically works like this: Everything is to be tossed into one of three bins, Regularity, Chance, and Design. If a specified event (we'll accept for the time being that "specified" is a meaningful concept) has a high probability, then we say it occurs with law-like regularity. If the event has medium probability, then we say it was by chance. But if it has very low probability, then we assign it to design. The filter has ever decreasing inclusiveness as we go on to the next step; in other words, a high probability event may be caused by design, but a low probability could not have been caused by chance.

First of all, this is not what the people at Genetic-ID are doing at all. They are not deciding that a sequence of an organism's DNA is "designed" by figuring that it was just too improbable to have come about by chance or by some law-like process. What they are doing instead is taking the known hallmarks of a GMO and testing for their presence. They explain this on their website:
PCR [polymerase chain reaction] is the gold standard for GMO testing. GMO tests based on PCR are used worldwide to verify contracts and regulatory compliance.

PCR works by massively replicating certain telltale sequences in the DNA. Each variety or genetically modified organism has key sequences that can be used to identify it--PCR starts with a "primer", or target sequence. If the target is present in the DNA, a chain reaction of replication begins until the target sequence reaches measureable levels.
Shorter and less technical version: They look for a short stretch of DNA known to correspond to that of a GMO. In other words, they look for those specific DNA sequences that were inserted into the genome of the GMO by the biotech company that made them. They aren't trying to detect "design" in some abstract sense, they're looking for a specific sequence with a known origin.

There's a lesson here. In the real world, design detection does not work by the Dembskian method. We don't decide that something is designed simply by eliminating any and all competing hypotheses without any regard for how likely or unlikely the design hypothesis is itself. What we do instead is compare hypotheses, and only when the design hypothesis is itself sufficiently supportable are we willing to consider it a contender. And before we can do this, we must have a specific hypothesis that can be evaluated on its own merits, not merely a vague attribution of "design". In our present case, there are specific sequences that are known ahead of time to have been designed by human beings. So if we detect such sequences, then our particular design hypothesis (not just any design hypothesis) can be considered strongly supported. When weighed against competing hypotheses, such as the sequences appearing by chance in a genome where they're not normally found, the design hypothesis is clearly superior. It would be otherwise if we had no design hypotheses with any support.

That is a good lesson in and of itself, but there is deeper and somewhat amusing problem with Cordova's argument, one which makes it inoperative even if Genetic-ID did apply an eliminative method to detecting GMOs. Dembski and the entire ID movement argue that when the EF is applied to biology, it shows us that all the living things we find out in nature are "designed". And moreover, the EF (and by extension, ID theory as a whole) cannot detect the source of this design, it can merely tell us that living things are definitely designed by some agency or another. That being the case, how could this company, Genetic-ID, possibly be applying the EF? It would stymie them every time. According to Dembski, there are no organisms that aren't designed, so applying the EF would simply tell us the same thing over and over again, regardless of what organisms it was applied to. And we wouldn't know if the design was caused by human beings or by God, because the EF is inherently incapable of making that distinction. So if Genetic-ID took Dembski's ideas seriously, their job would be impossible. Far from being an example of how Dembski's EF is used in the real-world, this shows us why the EF cannot possibly have any real-world applications in biology. The only way it could be otherwise is if we accept that living things (with the exception of GMOs) are not designed. And that would sort of defeat the whole purpose of the ID movement.

Those Nasty Persecutors

Spotted on Bill Dembski's blog:

[This from a colleague at a major research institution addressed to Michael Behe and me:] I never cease to be amazed, but not surprised, at how blind scientists are to their own prejudices. I have followed your paths of dealing with these prejudices and, as have many others, I have had my share of encounters with intellectual bigots. Within a week of my joining the staff at the SNIP SNIP Research Institute (SSRI) in [jan-dec, 2003-4-5], my removal was called for by a sizable group of the research staff who had discovered (by doing a Google search) that in 2001-2-3 when I was at the SNIP Center, I had signed the Discovery Institute statement questioning DarwinÂ’s theory of origins [go here]. The human resource department had the sense to inform the president that they could not fire me for beliefs that did not impact my job as head of SNIP.

Oh, but that's nothing. I happen to know, on good authority, that an ID-skeptic who shall remain unnamed, decided to voice his disagreement with ID in the most congenial manner possible at SNIP College (hereafter, SNIP-C) where he is a professor. He was quickly accosted by dogmatic ID advocates who accused him of being an atheist (a crime punishable by death in most Medieval countries) which makes him no better than Hitler, Stalin, or PZ Myers. Professor SNIP was then taken before the SNIP committee of SNIP-C and then given the SNIP SNIP by president SNIP. After mercy prevailed and the goats were finally called-off, professor SNIP was then subjected to multiple inquiries concerning his theological convictions. These took place repeatedly, during [jan-dec, BC-AD], and in spite of the humiliation of the proceedings and the threat of more livestock, professor SNIP stuck by his beliefs. The inhuman resource department eventually told the president that professor SNIP could not be fired unless he was found guilty of actual heresy, meaning he could only be tortured.

Okay, I'm kidding. Well, sort of. This is a slight exaggeration of something that really did happen. And by "slight", I mean complete and utter horseshit, but it's keeping in the tradition of what Dembski and his fellow travelers do on a regular basis with all of their so-called persecution stories. Which is to say, they take something with a very tiny grain of truth (e.g. person A gave a disapproving look to person B) and then exaggerate the living hell out of it until it becomes what you could only call an irresponsible falsehood (e.g. person A gang-raped person B with the help of several unnamed co-conspirators.) And it helps if every actor in the story remains completely anonymous. That way, you can invent as much as you want out of thin air, and no one can call you on it.

I would have more faith that Dembski's anonymous tear-jerker had some intersection with the truth if not for the fact that their most celebrated case of persecution, that of Richard von Sternberg, turned out to be such an example of gross exaggeration. Nearly everything they said about that case was completely bogus. The only bad thing that happened to Sternberg that we know of for sure is that his colleagues treated him cooly and sent emails to each other gossiping about him behind his back. That is truly unprecedented behavior among coworkers. It's as if they thought they had a right to an opinion.

But perhaps I'm being too glib. There were some pretty nasty things that happened to Sternberg: He had a wholly dishonest and malicious hit-piece published about him in a national newspaper. He also had a frivolous complaint lodged against him with the Office of the Special Council, which being in the control of political extremists who are notorious for neglecting the people they are supposed to protect, chose to open an investigation in spite of having no jurisdiction. And to top it all off, one of Sternberg's coworkers went on a popular cable news talk show to denounce him with the help of a sympathetic and unskeptical host.

Oh wait, did I say Sternberg? My bad, I meant John Coddington, Sternberg's supervisor who was supposedly the ring-leader in Sternberg's inquisition. It was Coddington who had to suffer the above indignities. I'm not sure how I got them confused; maybe I just took the person who was most viciously hounded and attacked throughout this whole sordid episode and figured it had to have been Sternberg. Afterall, the creationists would never dream of persecuting anyone. It just not what you'd expect from their ethos of religious extremism.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Friday Animal Blogging -- Miscellaneous Edition

Okay, here is a random collection of animal pictures I've taken over the last week or so. It's full-on spring, and lots of critters are out there.

First off, we have a specimen of Eastern Eyed Click Beetle, Alaus oculatus. (I was able to identify it by looking through pictures at What's That Bug.) Not knowing it was a click beetle at the time, I didn't think to make it click. Pretty cool looking though.

I'm not sure exactly what species this is, but it's almost certainly a tree frog of the genus Hyla. Found him in my driveway last weekend.

In what Nick Matzke has referred to as my "accidental herp trap", I get these toads. Lots of 'em. I've counted 7 or 8 at a time before, almost always at night. Unfortunately, I can't seem to figure out what kind of toad they are. And I've learned the hard way to watch where I step when walking out the door, especially when barefooted. There's nothing quite like the feel of a fellow vertebrate being squished under your shoeless foot. Aside from that bad encounter, the toads are pretty safe in the herp trap; lucky for them, they can get out (or at least, I assume they can, since they're gone by morning. Maybe they're all being eaten?)

Here's something else I found in my "herp trap", only it's not a herp. He's big, perhaps 4 inches. My guess is that it's the giant millipede Narceus americanus, but it's hard to tell. And I apologize about the picture; in my zeal to show some depth, I didn't have enough focal length.

I figured this guy would have a hard time getting out of the trap, so I helped him. And no, I didn't pick him up with my bare hands. Hell no.

Oh, and the poor broadhead skink, Eumeces laticpes. I blogged about these guys before. My previous specimen was female, but this one is a male -- you can tell by the bright red head. I have also seen a number of juveniles about with their cool looking blue tails, but they always run away before I can get the camera.

This guy was in a bad way. That's probably the only reason I could film him. His tail was missing and he had gashes across his body. I was even able to pick him up, and he went into a kind of "play dead" mode. Several minutes later, after I had put him down in a safe spot, he was no longer playing dead. He was dead. I felt bad for him, but that's life. Bad focus, on the other hand, is supposed to be avoidable.

And finally, we have the vicious beast felis catus, shown here in full meow mode, preparing to be pet.