Friday, September 29, 2006

Friday Animal Blogging

Fluffy in her new home, surrounded by aliens:


And striking various other poses:


Thursday, September 28, 2006

Yep, I Joined

A new group by the name of Scientists and Engineers for America has organized for the purpose of opposing political attacks against science. I'll let this New York Times article do the explaining:

Several prominent scientists said yesterday that they had formed an organization dedicated to electing politicians “who respect evidence and understand the importance of using scientific and engineering advice in making public policy.”

and insights on the midterm elections, the race for 2008 and everything in-between.

Organizers of the group, Scientists and Engineers for America, said it would be nonpartisan, but in interviews several said Bush administration science policies had led them to act. The issues they cited included the administration’s position on climate change, its restrictions on stem cell research and delays in authorizing the over-the-counter sale of emergency contraception.

In a statement posted on its Web site (www.sefora.org), the group said scientists and engineers had an obligation “to enter the political debate when the nation’s leaders systematically ignore scientific evidence and analysis, put ideological interest ahead of scientific truths, suppress valid scientific evidence and harass and threaten scientists for speaking honestly about their research.”

The group’s organizers include John H. Gibbons and Neal Lane, who were science advisers in the Clinton administration, the Nobel laureates Peter Agre and Alfred Gilman, and Susan F. Wood, who resigned from the Food and Drug Administration last year to protest the agency’s delay in approving over-the-counter sales of the so-called Plan B emergency contraception. [...]

The group is looking at the Senate race in Virginia between George Allen, the incumbent Republican, and James Webb, a Democrat; a stem cell ballot issue in Missouri; the question of intelligent design in Ohio; and Congressional races in Washington State, Mr. Brown said.
I'm down with it.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Mitt Romney -- MORMON!!!!

There's been some discussion in the liberal political blogosphere over whether or not Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney's Mormonism is going to be an issue among the Religious Right in the GOP presidential primary. My take: Of course it is. The Religious Right is all for fairness and equal-opportunity -- they hate all religions that aren't fundamentalist/evangelical Protestant. Why anyone thinks they would make an exception for Mormons is beyond me. It's not as if Mormons don't have beliefs that clearly differentiate them from other Christian sects.

Yet strangely, this gets downplayed by some people. As long as Romney says all the right stuff when it comes to political issues (read: abortion) they say, the Religious Right will do the pragmatic thing and accept him. Maybe not too enthusiastically, but it's not going to be a major issue.

Well, the following should dispel any remaining doubts as far as that's concerned:

The quarterly meeting of the S.C. Republican executive committee Sept. 16 ended on a sour note when one of its more prominent members cornered Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and grilled him about his Mormon faith.

It was not a pretty sight, according to witnesses.

Romney, a possible Republican candidate for president in 2008, was in town to address the state executive committee.

Cyndi Mosteller, chairwoman of the Charleston County Republican Party, one of the largest GOP organizations in the state, came armed with a bunch of material --— and questions --— about the Mormon church.

The incident only underlines what could become an uncomfortable debate over Romney's faith if he runs for the White House. The issue will be on the table in South Carolina├é’s early primary contest, where roughly 35 percent of GOP voters are evangelical Christians, many of whom view Mormonism with skepticism.


Heck, I view Mormonism with skepticism. The difference between me and the Religious Right on that score is that I don't care what someone's religion is as long as they support separation of church and state and don't try to import their religion into government. Of course, if you're the kind of person who doesn't support separation of church and state and does want to import your religion into the government -- which is true of much of the Religious Right -- then one's religion can't help but matter. It just goes to show that this attitude is fundamentally at odds with religious freedom. If religion and government are to be excessively entangled, then prying questions about a candidate's religious beliefs are going to come up every election, and no one who wants to participate in the political process is going to be able to say "none of your damned business".

To the credit of the SC GOP (and to my disappointment, since it puts a damper on the entertainment value of the whole thing), a number of their members were very unhappy with Ms. Mosteller's behavior and didn't hesitate to say so. But I don't think I'm going out on a limb here by predicting that we'll be seeing a lot more of this. Most of it is going to be internal to the Religious Right itself, and may not filter into our larger political discourse, but it's going to be there.

(Hat-tip to Laurin Manning.)

More Evolution In Action

This is kind of cool, and since I haven't seen anyone else plugging it, I guess I may as well.

Odd Evolution: Crickets Lose Their Song

In just a few generations, the male crickets on Kauai underwent a drastic genetic change that rendered them incapable of belting out courtship songs, according to a new study.

Typically, male field crickets sport curved wings, and by rubbing a sharp ridge of one wing with a rough part of the other, the cricket produces a mating call

But this serenade also attracts a parasitic fly. Once the insect spots a singing cricket, it deposits larvae onto the cricket. The larvae burrow into the cricket's body, where they mature and subsequently kill the cricket as they emerge from its body.


Good ol' nature. So beneficent.

Researchers led by Marlene Zuk, of the University of California, Riverside, have monitored the crickets on Kauai since 1991. With each visit, the team heard fewer and fewer singing crickets. Then, in 2003 they realized the crickets were abundant but 90 percent of the males had flat wings.

The scientists figure that the quiet mutation protects the crickets from the parasitic fly.

But how do they attract females? Turns out, the flat-winged male crickets have altered their behavior so they can mate successfully. The song-less males rely on the few male crickets with "normal" wings. By congregating around a serenading male, the silent crickets enable females to find and mate with them.

"Instead, the behavior of the flatwings allows them to capitalize on the few callers that remain, and thus escape the fly and still reproduce," Zuk said. "This is seeing evolution at work."

A couple of thoughts: How is it that the cheater males (the ones with the flat wings) aren't getting attacked by flies too? It seems as if congregating would just make it easier to find them. Maybe they're off a little ways, and then they catch the female as she's on her way in. I'm also wondering if we're seeing an equilibrium here between the flat-wing and curved-wing males (what's called frequency-dependent selection) in which case the ratios between the two should remain stable, or if curved-wings will disappear and flat-wings will have to find a new way to attract females. I'm guessing the former. The rarer the cricket songs are, the more rewarding it will be to sing them.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Sometimes, there is Justice in this World

Via Ed Brayton, I see that the people responsible for those ridiculous Enzyte "natural male enhancement" ads with Bob, the guy with a mile wide grin on his face who the ladies all pine for presumably because his penis is now massive, have been indicted on multiple counts of fraud. Here's what got them in trouble:

They are accused by federal authorities of luring customers with free-trial offers and money-back guarantees, then billing their credit cards without authorization. [...]

The company, based in suburban Forest Park, Ohio, also used false advertising, the indictment charges.

In one example, Wednesday's indictment cited ads placed in Penthouse and other male-oriented magazines that claimed Enzyte was developed after years of study by two doctors, one at Harvard and the other at Stanford.

"The company president and others made up information in their advertisements, such as endorsements by doctors that did not exist, and results of customer satisfaction surveys that had never been conducted," U.S. Attorney Greg Lockhart said.

Customers with complaints were told to write to a director of customer care who did not exist, the indictment alleges. [...]

The indictment says at one point, Berkeley marketed a supplement called Rovicid as a prostate health product for men, but later relabeled old stocks of Rovicid as a cardiac health supplement for men and women.

Annoyingly, here is what didn't get them in trouble: Selling bullshit. For some reason, it's not illegal to claim that your supplements make people's dicks grow bigger, even though they obviously won't, it's only illegal if you refer to fake doctors or fake surveys. I would have thought that the product description itself is a big enough fraud, but snake-oil salesmen in this country can peddle their wares without molestation just so long as they exercise a little caution. This irritates me so bad, I'm going to have to up my dose of laetrile.

Friday Animal Blogging

The long dead edition.

Last weekend I visited the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, which is quite good as such museums go. They have a great display of dino fossils, and I got some good pics. Unfortunately, I don't know what half of them are, so you'll have to guess.

This one is obviously T-rex, mightiest of scavengers:


And here we have a ancient fish with a bony, armored head. I forget the name, but it was huge and vicious. It makes modern sharks look like pussies:


Duckbill dinosaur. There are supposed to be some babies nearby, signifying its roll as good parent, but I apparently missed those:


T-Rex and friends, just hanging out, having a good old time:


And finally, some big sauropod whose name I can't remember:

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Lucy 2.0

Apropos of my recent post about how creationists can't tell if hominid fossils are 100% human or 100% ape, there's been a major find of a juvenile Australopithicus fossil in Ethiopia. Nick has the scoop at the 'Thumb. They named her Selam, which means "peace" in Ethiopian. Funny enough, the original australopithicine, Lucy, was named so because the Beatles' Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds was playing in camp when the researchers returned after their discovery. And as we all know, Lucy, Sky, Diamonds = L.S.D. So they named the first australopithicine after a hallucinogenic drug, and the second one they named after peace. What a bunch of damned hippies.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Not This Crap Again.

Via Pandagon, I see that the San Francisco Chronicle has published an article about the silly claims of the likes of Arthur Brooks and Phillip Longman. You'd think that journalists could learn to be a little skeptical, but no, whatever these guys say gets reproduced without anyone bothering to check up on their sources. Prime example:

Take a randomly selected sample of 100 liberal adults and 100 conservative adults. According to an analysis of the 2004 General Social Survey -- a bible of data for social scientists -- the liberals would have had 147 kids, while the conservatives would have had 208. That's a fertility gap of 41 percent. Even adjusting for other variables like age and income, there is a gap of 19 percent.
I meant to write another post about this last time the issue came up, but I ran out of steam after about 4 posts, so I just let it slide. But not this time.

You can go and check out the data for the General Social Survey yourself and see if Brooks' numbers can actually be found in the survey. They cannot. Below I post the results I get when I compare respondents' self-described political ideology to the number of children they have. The results are limited only to 2004 respondents:


-Column percent
-Total pct
-N of cases
POLVIEWS
1
EXTREMELY LIBERAL
2
LIBERAL
3
SLIGHTLY LIBERAL
4
MODERATE
5
SLGHTLY CONSERVATIVE
6
CONSERVATIVE
7
EXTRMLY CONSERVATIVE
ROW
TOTAL
CHILDS 0: NONE 46.4
1.4
18
42.6
3.9
50
36.2
4.5
58
27.8
10.5
136
31.1
5.1
66
17.5
3.0
38
18.7
.8
10
29.2
29.2
376
1: ONE 8.2
.2
3
11.3
1.0
13
17.2
2.1
28
17.8
6.7
87
14.5
2.4
31
17.5
3.0
38
16.7
.7
9
16.2
16.2
209
2: TWO 22.2
.7
9
21.1
1.9
25
23.4
2.9
38
22.3
8.4
109
27.2
4.5
57
32.8
5.6
72
35.3
1.5
19
25.5
25.5
328
3: THREE 16.3
.5
6
9.4
.9
11
17.2
2.1
28
17.2
6.5
84
15.6
2.6
33
16.5
2.8
36
23.3
1.0
13
16.3
16.3
210
4: FOUR 5.9
.2
2
10.8
1.0
13
3.6
.4
6
8.4
3.2
41
7.2
1.2
15
9.8
1.7
21
6.0
.3
3
7.9
7.9
102
5: FIVE 1.0
.0
0
2.1
.2
2
.6
.1
1
3.3
1.2
16
1.5
.2
3
2.4
.4
5
.0
.0
0
2.2
2.2
28
6: SIX .0
.0
0
1.2
.1
1
.5
.1
1
1.5
.6
7
1.2
.2
2
1.0
.2
2
.0
.0
0
1.1
1.1
14
7: SEVEN .0
.0
0
.0
.0
0
.0
.0
0
.8
.3
4
1.8
.3
4
2.0
.3
4
.0
.0
0
.9
.9
12
8: EIGHT OR MORE .0
.0
0
1.4
.1
2
1.2
.2
2
1.0
.4
5
.0
.0
0
.6
.1
1
.0
.0
0
.7
.7
10
COL TOTAL 100.0
3.1
39
100.0
9.1
118
100.0
12.4
160
100.0
37.8
487
100.0
16.4
211
100.0
17.0
220
100.0
4.2
54
100.0
100.0
1,289
Means 1.30 1.54 1.46 1.86 1.72 2.08 1.81 1.78
Std Devs 1.41 1.74 1.50 1.69 1.59 1.59 1.17 1.62


Now, there something you should notice right away. There's a little category called "moderate" that seems to have been ignored by these guys, in spite of the fact that it's overwhelmingly the largest single category. Indeed, the most salient result gleened just by looking at ideological self-indentification is that respondents overwhelmingly choose the middle categories, the dead-center being the most popular, and eschew the extremes. Yet Brooks simply divides everyone into "liberal" and "conservative", thus making American appear far more polarized than they actually are. Indeed, the whole article repeatedly commits this sin.

So having chucked out over 1/3rd of the data from the get-go, how does Brooks come up with his numbers? Who knows. They aren't to be found here. If we take all of the "liberal" respondents (all three categories, from extreme to slight) and do the math, we get an average of 1.47 children per liberal, which is what Brooks is reporting. However, if we do the same with the conservatives, we don't get 2.08. Instead we get 1.89. One possible explanation is that Brooks simply took those people who rated themselves a 6, which is "conservative", and used that number. If so, that's outrageously dishonest, because he doesn't do the same thing for liberals. Another possible explanation is that he used a different weighting method to come up with his result (I just used the default). But no matter which weighting method you use, you can't come up with 2.08 children per conservative. It's just not there.

Brooks claims that there is a 41% "fertility gap" between liberals and conservatives, but using the numbers that are actually in the GSS, the real gap is 29%. Given how precipitously these numbers fall when corrected for age and income, it's likely that there is no gap once you make these necessary corrections. And what if we did something radical, like actually included the more than 1/3rd of people who call themselves moderates, or decided to ignore the outliers? These things reduce (or possibly eliminate) the gap further.

As I've written about previously, even if people like Brooks weren't skewing the numbers, the differences between liberals and conservatives in terms of reproduction are miniscule. Back in the 1960s, fertility was so much higher than today that the "fertility gap" between someone then and now would be about 80%. Given just how little everyone reproduces these days, the differences we see are not enough to cause any significant demographic shift for many, many decades, by which time social and cultural changes will be far more important determinants of one's political views than whatever one's great, great grandfather may have believed. And perhaps most importantly, there is one very strong demographic trend occuring right now that conveniently never gets mentioned in these kinds of articles. It's called immigration. And it completely swamps out differences in native birth rates.

I would have hoped that mainstream journalists would have either gotten borded of this subject by now, or would have wised up and realized just how dishonest the people peddling it are. But sadly, that's not the case. This article tops most of the previous ones for stupidity with this bit stuck in the middle of the text:

[Podcast: Republicans are red-hot breeding machines]

I haven't yet listened to the podcast, but I don't need to to know how full of shit it's going to be. Let's look at the differences between Republicans and Democrats according the the GSS, going from 1996 to 2004:

contain:
-Column percent
-Total pct
-N of cases
PARTYID
0
STRONG DEMOCRAT
1
NOT STR DEMOCRAT
5
NOT STR REPUBLICAN
6
STRONG REPUBLICAN
ROW
TOTAL
CHILDS 0: NONE 25.0
5.9
504
28.0
8.9
760
29.1
7.7
660
21.0
3.8
323
26.3
26.3
2,247
1: ONE 15.6
3.7
316
17.2
5.5
468
15.8
4.2
358
15.3
2.8
235
16.1
16.1
1,376
2: TWO 24.1
5.7
486
24.7
7.9
671
26.5
7.0
600
31.1
5.6
477
26.2
26.2
2,234
3: THREE 16.6
3.9
336
15.9
5.0
431
16.7
4.4
379
18.4
3.3
283
16.7
16.7
1,429
4: FOUR 10.3
2.4
208
7.1
2.3
192
7.0
1.9
160
8.1
1.5
125
8.0
8.0
685
5: FIVE 3.7
.9
75
3.1
1.0
85
2.6
.7
58
2.7
.5
42
3.1
3.1
261
6: SIX 2.2
.5
44
1.8
.6
50
1.0
.3
22
1.3
.2
20
1.6
1.6
136
7: SEVEN .9
.2
18
.9
.3
23
.8
.2
18
1.1
.2
16
.9
.9
76
8: EIGHT OR MORE 1.6
.4
33
1.2
.4
33
.5
.1
12
.9
.2
14
1.1
1.1
92
COL TOTAL 100.0
23.7
2,020
100.0
31.8
2,713
100.0
26.6
2,267
100.0
18.0
1,535
100.0
100.0
8,536
Means 2.06 1.85 1.76 2.01 1.90
Std Devs 1.80 1.72 1.58 1.60 1.68
Unweighted N 2,043 2,695 2,250 1,537 8,525


I've ignored the independents in the above table and just looked at those people who identify as either Republican or Democrat. Even without doing the math, it's obvious that Democrats have more children than Republicans (but not by much). Yet that doesn't stop Arthur Brooks from saying asinine things like this:
He [Brooks] reckons that unless something gives, Democratic politicians in the future may not have many babies to kiss.
They'll have more babies than Republicans, you dumbass.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Sore Losers

Ed Brayton has a post up concerning the history of the Dover trial and the Discovery Institute's involvement both before and after the case. As Ed shows, their attitude changed dramatically between the point where they had hopes of victory (or at least, hopes of a non-devastating defeat), and the beating they took in the decision. Since then they've been trying to re-write history, and have engaged in an unbelievable amount of whining over the case (while at the same time trying to downplay its importance) and angry personal attacks against the judge.

The DI's latest missive, which Ed ably dissects, comes from Logan Gage. Those of you who remember the "balanced panel" in South Carolina will recognize Gage as the DI representative sent there to hand out propaganda.

Friday Animal Blogging

The "I miss my kitty" edition.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Do Cows Support Eating Beef?

While I'm being a good blogger, let me point out this post by Tim Lambert. He finds an article in the St. Petersberg Times concerning the disturbing tendency for op-eds to be written by individuals receiving pay from the corporations whose agenda they are supporting in their op-eds. This is a subject about which Lambert has written much, and you can read his post, as well as the Times article, for more. But this one bit from the article made me lol pretty hard:

[Steven] Milloy runs a Web site called JunkScience.com that says many conclusions about global warming are based on faulty science. He discloses on the site that his groups have received money from ExxonMobil. But the disclosure was not included with the op-ed.

Milloy said he wrote the column because he opposes windfall profits taxes and supports free-market economics. He said the money he received from ExxonMobil was not a factor.

"I don't know what Exxon's position on windfall profits is," he said.

Read that again: He says he doesn't know what Exxon's position on the windfall profits tax is. That's kind of like saying that he doesn't know what Exxon's position on selling oil is. You don't exactly need a signed statement on company letter-head to figure it out.

That particular statement is simply the most absurd in a series of rationalizations given by defenders of this pay-for-play system who deny having any conflict of interest. They claim that the companies don't tell them what to write, they just write about the things they believe in, and they would believe in these things regardless of whether or not the companies were lavishing them with bling bling. Sure. Even assuming this is technically true (and the article gives many reasons to believe it isn't) there still exists a rather massive conflict of interest. The fact is, companies like Exxon give them money because they write things that benefit Exxon. While they may technically have the independence to start writing anti-Exxon missives, they know good and well that doing so would carry a high probability of Exxon no longer supporting their "work", in which case they'd have to go back to bagging groceries or whatever they're qualified for. Under such circumstances, most people are going to be careful not to upset their pay masters. And that goes double for these self-styled "free-market" types who believe that every transaction is conducted for the purpose of trying to maximize one's rational self-interest.

But even if we did buy their excuse, it's all irrelevant. If they really do think that accepting money from McDonalds has no effect on what they write about McDonalds, no problem. Just disclose it. Conflicts of interest aren't necessarily a bad thing. Simply tell everyone where you're getting your money, make the case that you're not a corporate hack, and then let the reader decide. If Milloy and the rest truly believe they're doing nothing unethical, then they should have no problem with full disclosure. But they do have a problem with disclosure. What does that tell us?

Acid and 'Shrooms are Good for You

At least according to a new study published in the journal Neurology. Okay, maybe not good for you all-around, but they've been shown to be effective in treating a debilitating form of headache:

Cluster headaches are characterized by excruciating pain that lasts from fifteen minutes to up to three hours if left untreated. In the chronic form, attacks can happen up to eight times a day, with no period of remission lasting longer than a month. The condition is not fatal, but for some sufferers it is so horrific they commit suicide.

There is no cure, but sufferers are often given supplemental oxygen to ease an attack. Some are prescribed migraine drugs, but these may not work and the side effects are often extreme.

About five years ago, users of Internet message boards began swapping stories about chronic sufferers who gained two- to six-month periods of complete remission after one or two sub-hallucinogenic doses of LSD or psilocybin.

Sewell and John Halpern, both of the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Research Center, decided to investigate. They interviewed 53 cluster-headache sufferers around the world who had self-administered psychedelics in an attempt to alleviate their symptoms. Medical records were checked to verify that they did indeed suffer from cluster headaches.

Their results are startling: the majority (85%) of psilocybin users report that it aborted attacks — better than oxygen, which stopped attacks for 52% of the patients surveyed. LSD and psilocybin were both better at preventing future attacks than conventional medicines.

The good news is, these are sub-hallucinogenic doses of the drugs, meaning that the patients aren't taking enough to wig-out. The bad news is, these are sub-hallucinogenic doses of the drugs, meaning that the patients aren't taking enough to wig-out. You gotta take the good with the bad.

The Great Asleepening

Today's Washington Post has a weird article with the following title:

"Bush Tells Group He Sees a 'Third Awakening'"

You can probably guess at the content.

President Bush said yesterday that he senses a "Third Awakening" of religious devotion in the United States that has coincided with the nation's struggle with international terrorists, a war that he depicted as "a confrontation between good and evil."

Bush told a group of conservative journalists that he notices more open expressions of faith among people he meets during his travels, and he suggested that might signal a broader revival similar to other religious movements in history.
Now, let's put aside the fact that it's religious devotees who are causing the terrorism and necessitating our response. Let's also put aside the fact that Bush tends to surround himself with hand-picked sycophants who tell him what he wants to hear, while his goons cull anyone from the audience who may ask embarrassing or difficult questions (not that he'd need to worry about this in an audience of "conservative journalists"). And let's also put aside the fact that this is an election year, and lacking anything else to run on, the Republicans reflexively go for religious divisiveness. What I'm wondering is, is there really any evidence of a third "Great Awakening" in America, meaning that Americans are becoming more religiously devout? Or perhaps the religiously devout are becoming more vocal and strident, helped along by a President who encourages them?

Let's check out the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) from 2001. Here are some key findings:

  • In 1990, ninety percent of the adult population identified with one or another religion group. In 2001, such identification has dropped to eighty-one percent.
  • the proportion of the population that can be classified as Christian has declined from eighty-six in 1990 to seventy-seven percent in 2001.
  • The greatest increase in absolute as well as in percentage terms has been among those adults who do not subscribe to any religious identification; their number has more than doubled from 14.3 million in 1990 to 29.4 million in 2001; their proportion has grown from just eight percent of the total in 1990 to over fourteen percent in 2001.
  • There has also been a substantial increase in the number of adults who refused to reply to the question about their religious preference, from about four million or two percent in 1990 to more than eleven million or over five percent in 2001.

That does not to me look like the signs of a "Great Awakening", unless we mean something different (and in my opinion, more accurate) than what Bush means. The percentage of religious people and Christians specifically has been in sharp decline, whereas the non-religious have been growing rapidly.

Of course things might have changed since the survey was conducted in 2001, but it's unlikely that the religiously devout have made up as much ground as was lost since 1990. I never thought I'd say this, but I'm afraid that our President may just be out-of-touch with what's really going on in America.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Holiday Cards for Nerds

People like me who have the single letter amino acid code memorized would probably find these cute. But no one else would get it.



The one with the DNA tree is pretty cool though. Still, this year I think I'll go with what I send my friends and family each and every year: Nothing. You can't argue with tradition.

Monday, September 04, 2006

The Pomposity of his Verbosity is only Exceeded by the Capacity of his Loquacity

I'm a little late on this one, but what the heck, it's labor day weekend.

David Berlinski of the Discovery Institute has written a letter to the journal Science complaining about a recent paper showing that acceptance of evolution in the United States is lower than everywhere else in the developed world besides Turkey. What do the US and Turkey have in common? A higher percentage of religious fundamentalists than any of the other countries surveyed. Berlinski, for some reason, seems determined to attack this telling correlation with his trademark obscurantism.

Unsurprisingly, Science didn't publish Berlinski's letter. It's so arrogant and nonsensical that even a vanity press would probably turn it down. PZ Myers does a good job fisking it, so I won't go into detail. However, there was one point that PZ overlooked that I think warrants more attention. Berlinski writes the following jaw-dropper:

"Human beings, as we know them," Miller, Scott and Okamoto write, "developed from earlier species of animals." Those who reject this statement are for this reason denied creedal access to the concept of evolution itself. But how could anyone regard this claim without the most serious reservations? We know hardly anything about human beings. The major aspects of the human mind and the culture to which it gives rise are an enigma, and so, too, the origins of the anatomical structures required to express them. If the phrase "developed from earlier species of animals" implies that human beings had ancestors, there is no reason to think it interesting; if it implies that human beings became human by means of random variation and natural selection, there is no reason to think it true.
The question asked said nothing about random variation and natural selection, it just asked whether or not human beings had non-human ancestors. It's a favorite tactic of the IDists to confuse these two issues, but really, it's a simple yes-or-no question. And those who say "no", as the majority of the IDists do, clearly reject evolution.

What I think is more amazing though is Berlinski's statement, "we know hardly anything about human beings". It takes some serious balls to attempt say this in a forum read by doctors, anatomists, physiologists, psychologists, anthropologists, paleontologists, etc. Those people, whose life work concerns studying human beings, would probably be taken aback to hear that they've learned "almost nothing" in all their years' effort.

But let's do something Berlinski never does and answer the question directly. How do we know that human beings developed from earlier species of animal? Simple. We have their remains.

Below I'm going to post a rather remarkable series of skulls showing a chimpanzee skull at one end, and a modern human skull at the other. The intervening skulls belong to various fossil hominids, all arrayed in chronological order:


Click on the picture if you want to know which skull is which hominid. Notice that there are no obvious gaps -- there is a fairly smooth transition between Australopithicines, who lived about 2.5 million years ago and had skulls very similar in size and morphology to modern chimps, and modern humans.

If you ask me, this really ices it. Even without all the other gobs of evidence, no rational person could deny, without "serious reservation", that human beings did indeed develop from earlier species. It is a testament to the robustness of evolutionary theory that Charles Darwin had no knowledge of such fossils, yet he predicted that such creatures must have existed, and that they existed in the chronological order that we just so happened to have found them in. And he even predicted where they would exist, namely in sub-Saharan Africa.

Ah, but creationists aren't rational. To them, there is an answer to every bit of inconvenient evidence, no matter how bad that answer may be. The quality of the answer is not important -- all that matters is that such an answer exists, and that having been found, it can be used to dismiss that ugly evidence that they'd rather not have to deal with.

In this case, their answer is as simple as it is deceptive: Those aren't transitional fossils you're looking at, they're all either 100% human, or 100% ape! That's right, just because they might look like they're transitioning from point A to point B, rest assured that there isn't anything in between those two points. Everything is either at one point or the other, and there are no intermediates.

The most obvious counter to this claim is that the creationists have simply defined transitional fossils out of existence. No matter how transitional a fossil may appear to be, it is simply treated as if it must fit into one of two binary states and thus dismissed as being non-transitional. But I find it more instructive to point out that the creationists themselves can't seem to decide which fossils are 100% human and which ones are 100% ape. You'd think it would be obvious if their argument had any merit. But check this out:

Creationist Classifications of Hominid Fossils
Specimen Cuozzo
(1998)
Gish
(1985)
Mehlert
(1996)
Bowden
(1981)
Menton
(1988)
Taylor
(1992)
Gish
(1979)
Baker
(1976)
Taylor
and Van
Bebber
(1995)
Taylor
(1996)
Lubenow
(1992)
ER 1813 ER 1813
(510 cc)
Ape Ape Ape Ape Ape Ape
Java Man Java
(940 cc)
Ape Ape Human Ape Ape Human
Peking Man Peking
(915-
1225 cc)
Ape Ape Human Ape Human Human
ER 1470 ER 1470
(750 cc)
Ape Ape Ape Human Human Human
ER 3733 ER 3733
(850 cc)
Ape Human Human Human Human Human
WT 15000 WT 15000
(880 cc)
Ape Human Human Human Human Human


One creationist says that all fossil hominids are 100% ape, and another says that all but one are 100% human. The other creationists are, um, transitional between these two extremes. Which means that the creationists are 100% nuts.

Now back to Berlinski: Of course he isn't going to discuss this kind of thing. Why would he? He is a dissembler and an obfuscator, not an honest critic. His style is to keep things as vague and abstract as possible, the better to defend himself when someone calls bullshit.

To see how this game is played, consider this particular charge he made in an editorial that some newspaper had the bad sense to publish:
At Internet web sites such as The Panda's Thumb or Talk Reason, where various eminences repair to assure one another that all is well, it is considered clever beyond measure to attack critics of Darwin's theory such as William Dembski by misspelling his name as William Dumbski.
Oh man, he really called us out, didn't he? There's just one slight problem: The term "Dumbski" had never appeared at either at Talk Reason or at the Panda's Thumb in any article. Not even once.

What's worse, in my mind, than the fact that Berlinski committed a blatant lie to print, was his lame attempt to excuse it:
I did not affirm in my editorial that at both The Panda'’s Thumb and Talk Reason William Dembski was described as dumb: I observed merely that at both sites such objurgations were considered "“clever beyond measure." This is the perfect truth, as a scan of posted comments might reveal.
Translation: He didn't say that the term "Dumbski" actually appeared anywhere, he just said that those of us at the respective websites considered the term "clever beyond measure". So if it had appeared, such would have been our reaction. This, apparently, based on Berlinski's uncanny ability to read minds.

Keep this in mind when you see Berlinski say things like, "We know hardly anything about human beings." Don't assume he means what he actually says. Like a creationist dealing with inconvenient evidence, any interpretation that explains things away is considered acceptable. Berlinski didn't tell us what he meant by "know", so all those natural scientists and social scientists who think they know something in actuality know hardly anything according to Berlinski's metric, whatever it may be. Just so long as he doesn't do anything rash like explain what he means, then he's not full of crap in the technical sense. Just in the everyday kind of sense. And that's not clever by anyone's measure.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Firday Animal Blogging

Niece with dogs.