Friday, August 31, 2007

Friday Animal Blogging

New kitties! My animal hoarding has now reached its apex. I've acquired two cats that were no longer wanted, and they've adjusted to their new home just fine. The birds aren't too happy about it, but they're safely out of reach.

On the left is Jack, and on the right is Nibblet (I didn't name them, they came that way). Jack and Nibblet are brother and sister, respectively. They're quite loving.

(Don't forget to visit the Friday Ark.)

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Random Disgustingly Cute Picture

Four tiny orpahned hedgehogs are snuggling up to the bristles of a cleaning brush - because they think it's their mother. (Source.)

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Crank's Suit Dropped

That didn't take long. Stuart Pivar's suit of PZ Myers has been dropped, or at least that's what my behind-the-scenes sources have told me. Let that be a lesson to anyone who would dare insult Stuart Pivar -- he will slap a suit on you faster than you can say "defamation" and then take it right off faster than you can say "frivolous". Unfortunately, that leaves PZ in a state of un-sued, so we'll have to find someone else he's insulted to carry the torch. Maybe Scott Adams of Dilbert fame.

Nope, it's for Real

I was digging about on Snopes the other day and came across this video. It got sent to Snopes because it's so outlandishly gross that a lot of people thought it must be a fake. Nope, it's for real. I'd feel more sympathy for the guy, but he got himself into this by writing a bad check and running from the cops. That and the fact that I don't think he was wearing his seatbelt.

Monday, August 27, 2007

You know what's better than playing Football?

Playing football with a $100,000 brick of cash, that's what:

Every time they scratched their asses, they earned; there was so much money around for contractors, officials literally used $100,000 wads of cash as toys. "Yes -- $100 bills in plastic wrap," Frank Willis, a former CPA official, acknowledged in Senate testimony about Custer Battles. "We played football with the plastic-wrapped bricks for a little while."

And that is one of the more minor atrocities documented in this Rolling Stone article.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Please Stop Making My Home State Look Stupid

I'm talking to you, Miss Teen South Carolina.

Update: Taking pity on the poor thing (she was a Lexington High grad after all), the Today show gave her a chance to re-answer the question. After studying all night, she came up with a highly original and unexpected answer: We need better geography education.

Expelled: No Intelligence Evident

The Expelled movie isn't yet out so we can't make fun of it in its entirety, but as everyone knows by now, the filmmakers started things off rather badly by lying to the pro-science people they interviewed, making them think that it was an entirely different film with a different name and a different premise. That's a good taste of the kind of sleaze we're dealing with.

Another taste can be found on the movie's official website, complete with press release and a blog post by Ben Stein. Although they say you can't judge a book by its cover, one has to assume that the claims being made in the press release and by Stein, who stars in the film, were actually made in all seriousness and truly reflect the content of the movie. I'm going to critique what I've seen so far based on these materials. The film could always surprise us of course by avoiding the insane rhetoric and untruthful claims found in its own promotional materials, but that seems unlikely to me. Also, I'm not going into detail about the specific cases mentioned in the press release, which have already been discussed at length and will be discussed in much more detail once the film is out. Instead I'm going to talk more generally about the persecution claims being made.

The promotional materials for the movie are heavy on rhetoric and light on substance, so it's hard to disentangle all the nonsense and get to the heart of what the filmmakers are actually saying. I'm going to start with Stein's blog post. As I see it, there are basically three issues at stake here, which are in descending order of craziness, about what supposed "persecution" that ID advocates may have suffered. I will address them in order, starting with a straight-forward reading of this passage:

Do you realize that some of the leading lights of “anti-intelligent design” would not allow a scientist who merely believed in the possibility of an intelligent designer/creator to work for him… EVEN IF HE NEVER MENTIONED the possibility of intelligent design in the universe? EVEN FOR HIS VERY THOUGHTS… HE WOULD BE BANNED.

Under a new anti-religious dogmatism, scientists and educators are not allowed to even think thoughts that involve an intelligent creator. In today’s world, at least in America, an Einstein or a Newton or a Galileo would probably not be allowed to receive grants to study or to publish his research.

They cannot even mention the possibility that–as Newton or Galileo believed–these laws were created by God or a higher being. They could get fired, lose tenure, have their grants cut off. This can happen. It has happened.

[Foaming at the mouth emphasis original]

Okay, so question one: Are the above statements correct, as they appear? At the risk of stating the obvious... goodness gracious no. These are in fact extremely stupid claims. First of all, how would it even be possible to ban1 a scientist who merely thought about ID but never voiced his opinion? Do we have mind-reading devices? Secondly, just what the heck is up with the qualifier about not being able to believe in the possibility of ID/God? It appears three separate times in that short screed. This is a nonsensical descriptor, given that nearly everyone believes in the possibility that God might have created... whatever it is the IDists think was created (they're not exactly consistent on this). Mainstream scientists simply believe either that such claims are untrue, that they might be true but are without evidence, or that they are true but do not constitute scientific claims. Or any number of variants along those lines. IDists on the other hand don't merely believe in the "possibility" that God waved his magic wand, they dogmatically and inflexibly believe that it's true, and more importantly, they assert that it's a scientific fact. That's a mite bit different than the description above, and has everything to do with mainstream science's attitude toward ID.

And finally, there are a massive number of scientists who believe in God, many of them quite devout, most if not all of them believing that God created the universe and the laws of physics that govern it (among other things), yet they haven't all been fired, lost tenure, or had their grants cut off. The very notion is insane. If you think about it for five seconds, if someone were subject to that kind of treatment based on their religious beliefs, it would be extremely strong grounds for a lawsuit. Are we to believe that the ID movement, which spends most of its time screaming at the top of its collective voice that its being discriminated against, wouldn't jump at the chance to win an anti-discrimination suit? The reason that no such suits have been filed, much less actually won, is pretty obvious. There's no religious discrimination going on here. The claim that scientists "cannot even mention the possibility that... these laws were created by God or a higher being," simply has nothing to do with reality.

Now Stein might claim that it was their supposedly scientific beliefs, and not their religion, that was the basis of the discrimination. But that's not what he wrote. The anti-evolution arguments that constitute the sum total of ID's presumed scientific content go unmentioned. It's all about God, a higher being, the Creator -- pure theological constructs. What makes this especially ironic is that in any other context, the ID people would vehemently deny that ID was a religious belief. I'll say more about this hypocritical bait-and-switch later.

Okay, now for the second issue: Given that Ben Stein's words are little more than irresponsible hyperbole, would a more milder form of the claim be correct? Are scientists getting fired, losing tenure, or having their grants stripped away because they are outspoken ID advocates? Again, the answer is no. Of course the film will try to convince you otherwise, but I've seen all their martyrdom claims before, at least all the ones mentioned in their press release (which one imagines are the best ones they've got), and none of them actually fit that description. The IDists have flogged a small handful of cases in which they allege discrimination, but none of them have featured a firing, a loss of tenure, or grant stripping as far as I know2. What's worse is that upon closer inspection, it turns out that these allegations are gross exaggerations. Their most celebrated case of persecution, that of Richard von Sternberg, turned out to be an almost complete fabrication. These isolated and dubious cases are then used to make a sweeping generalization that discrimination occurs all over the place, that there are literally hundreds of pro-ID scientists who are being mistreated.

They never give any evidence for this wild claim of course. And when pressed for evidence, they intimate that none can be provided because it would further jeopardize the careers of those who are being attacked -- a closed-loop conspiracy theory that, like ID itself, is impervious to empirical testing. The very idea however seriously strains credulity. The IDists have shown a penchant for trumpeting as loudly as possible a number of exceptionally weak cases, without any apparent concern for the supposed victims' future careers3, yet they expect us to believe that there are actually hundreds of genuine cases that they refuse to tell us about? It doesn't even pass the smell test.

And finally, the last issue: If IDists aren't really being "persecuted" as such, having their careers deliberately destroyed, are they at least suffering from a loss of reputation? Do scientists think less of someone who is an ID advocate? Does this have negative consequences for them? The answer is, you're damned right. One thing that really baffles me about this film and its antecedents is that for all their talk of free speech and academic freedom, the IDists seem to think it completely out-of-bounds that anyone would dare express a negative thought about them. Take the Sternberg affair for example. After all the material claims about Sternberg's suffering turned out to be unsubstantiated, the IDists and the politicians who maliciously attacked the Smithsonian kept going on about the loss of reputation that was hurting poor Sternberg -- their evidence being that his colleagues said mean things about him in private emails. Apparently, merely having a negative opinion about Sternberg was an act of persecution. This just stuns me.

Like everyone else in a free society, scientists have a right to think you're a moron. If you are making ostensibly scientific claims -- whether it's saying that the Earth is 6000 years old, new genetic information can't evolve, or that airplanes can't fly -- your colleagues have not only a right, but a duty to evaluate your claims and pass judgment on them. That is what scientific discourse is all about. Scientists have heated debates all the time, and the ones who eventually lose those debates inevitably pay a price by losing esteem in the eyes of their peers. And those who cling to false beliefs long after they've been debunked... why they really lose esteem. How could it be any other way? Without a doubt a bad reputation is unhelpful to one's career prospects, but the ultimate responsibility for this rests with those who earned the bad reputation to begin with. ID has simply failed to gain any traction in the scientific arena because it is poorly reasoned, contrary to established fact, and in many cases downright incoherent. The ID movement has thus responded4 by pouring all of its resources into their political machinations and highly dishonest propaganda campaign. Unsurprisingly this makes ID look even less legitimate in the eyes of the scientific community. If Ben Stein wants to a good example of why scientists think very poorly of ID advocates, this silly film he's starring in ranks right at the top.

The ID movement can't have it both ways on this. They can't demand to be taken seriously by the scientific establishment and then throw a tantrum when scientists actually do take them seriously. And that's exactly why they engage in the bait-and-switch I mentioned earlier. The actual merits of ID as a supposedly scientific theory are glaringly absent from the Expelled website. I don't doubt that they'll be absent from the film as well. They are taking ID's presumed intellectual merits for granted and are appealing instead to supposedly anti-religious sentiment as the reason why ID is being roughly treated. In doing so, they side-step the very issue that's at stake as far as science is concerned. Moreover, scientists as a group are actually quite tolerant of religious diversity -- much more so than the fundamentalist Christians who make up the base of the ID movement. But if you start claiming that your religious beliefs are scientific, and if you start demanding that they be taught in science class, scientists are going to respond. Don't start crying if the response is negative.



1. Lacking a rudimentary understanding of what the scientific community is like, Ben Stein apparently thinks it's something you can be "banned" from. Like the Tour de France.

2. The Gonzalez case for example involved not being granted tenure (and for good reason as it turned out), which is very different from having tenure taken away. Likewise, whatever happened with Crocker she wasn't fired; she's still at George Mason. As for taking away grant money, it's a mystery as to what Ben Stein is talking about. Anyone? Bueller?

3. Case in point, whatever harm Richard von Sternberg's reputation may have suffered as a result of his unethical practices in publishing the Meyer paper, the Discovery Institute made it a thousand times worse by turning him into their poster child. Much the same can be said of Gonzalez.

4. As most non-lobotomized readers will note, it's not as if the ID movement really gave it the old college try in the scientific realm, and then suddenly switched to crass political maneuvering after all else failed. It was always a political movement.


Friday, August 24, 2007

Mother Teresa was an Agnostic

This is amusing.

Mother Teresa's diary reveals her crisis of faith

Mother Teresa, who was put on the fast track to sainthood by the Pope after her death five years ago, was tormented by a crisis of belief for 50 years, her writings reveal.


"In my own soul, I feel the terrible pain of this loss. I feel that God does not want me, that God is not God and that he does not really exist."

Il Messeggero, Rome's popular daily newspaper, said: "The real Mother Teresa was one who for one year had visions and who for the next 50 had doubts - up until her death."

Her years of doubt coincided with the period when, after having visions, she decided to leave her teaching post at a privileged Calcutta school to help India's poor.

It's a good thing she began having doubts about religion, otherwise she would have never started helping the poor.

Friday Animal Blogging

Here is a lizard I spotted on a camping trip:

He's a member of the genus Sceloporus, most likely the prairie/plateau lizard Sceloporus undulatus. I found him (and legions of his conspecifics) while hiking in the beautiful Cheeseman Canyon, pictured below:

(Don't forget to visit the Friday Ark!)

Monday, August 20, 2007

PZ Myers Gets Sued!

It's about time someone did it.

C-list crank Stuart Pivar, author of Lifecode, is suing PZ (and apparently ScienceBlogs as well) for having the nerve to write a negative review of his book. Since the review was obviously unfair and actionable, you absolutely should not read it here. Nor should you read the earlier review concerning the first edition. And to help avoid being exposed to the other mean things that PZ said about Pivar, I will advise you not to go here, here, or here and read any of the contents. Can you imagine what would happen if, as a result of Pivar's lawsuit, everyone went and started reading the criticisms?

Both PZ and ScienceBlogs will likely be unable to discuss the case until after it's been laughed out of court, so I will definitely point out any future developments so as to help you avoid hearing any more negative things about Pivar.

Update: Jim Lippard has found the actual complaint that Pivar filed. He's suing for only $15 million, which wouldn't even put a dent in Myer's massive empire. Here's the money shot from the complaint:

Myers has publicly described himself on his web log as a "cruel and insensitive person".

Clearly someone deserving of a harassment suit. That kind of reasoning, combined with numerous grammatical and spelling errors, makes me wonder if Pivar even bothered consulting with a lawyer.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Friday Animal Blogging

Swim Team edition.

Okay, I'm a little late on this, but I've got massive amounts of animals that haven't been blogged.

First and foremost is the Swim Team. When I bought my new house, the previous owners had dug a pond (pretentiously: Water Garden) in the back yard, though it was covered and disused. The previous owners were people who apparently cared greatly about their house, until they mysteriously became dead-beats and lost it all; the HOA later covered up the pond to keep mosquitoes from breeding. So I had no idea what was going to be under those plywood planks. Luckily, there was a nice little pond that had great potential, and with the help of my parents who were visiting at the time, I was able to turn it into a great koi pond.

Koi, a domesticated vareity of Cyprinus carpio, are very hearty fish and make for excellent pond specimens. I stocked my pond (which is I'm guessing about 700 gallons) with four small fish for starters, figuring that this would be safely within the limits of what the pond could handle. I named them Otter, Pinto, Flounder, and Boon (bonus points for guessing where the names come from), and set them loose. Sadly, Otter, who was the boldest of the four, mysteriously disappeared, perhaps killed by a cat or a bird. The other three remain however, and they've probably tripled in size over the 2.5 months I've had them. Here is their home:

And here's a close-up of the waterfall, which they love:

Note that there are a couple of water hyacinths there. The hyacinths, along with the water lettuce, have since exploded all over the pond, which the fish really like, since they frolic among them. It's a sign of a healthy pond. And here is the Team:

Pictured clockwise from upper left are Pinto, Boon, and Flounder. Flounder, like his namesake, is the fat one. He always the first to the dinner table. Boon is a butterfly koi, which means he has long, flowing fins (not readily visible in this picture). Here they are again:

These pictures are a few weeks old; the fish have grown remarkably since then. They eat a lot. I feed them a couple of small handfuls of high protein koi food everyday, and when they're not eating that, they're nibbling on algae and plants and anything unfortunate enough to fall in the pond. Here they are at feeding time:

In the second picture, you can see the pump that powers the waterfall, which normally can't be seen thanks to the bridge and a lack of camera flash.

I'll post more pictures of the Swim Team once the members are big enough to swallow Coors Field. It shouldn't take long at this rate.

Feel the Love Demonstrated

And summer camp used to be such a fun place, until the fundies got a hold of it:

Arrest warrants have been issued for two officials at a Christian boot camp accused of dragging a 15-year-old girl behind a van after she fell behind the group during a morning run, authorities said.

Charles Eugene Flowers and Stephanie Bassitt of San Antonio-based Love Demonstrated Ministries, a 32-day boot camp, are facing aggravated assault charges for the alleged June 12 incident.

The two were accused of tying the girl to the van with a rope then dragging her, according to an arrest affidavit filed Wednesday by the Nueces County Sheriff's Department. Arrest affidavits for Flowers and Bassitt list a $100,000 bond. [...]

Flowers, the camp's director, allegedly ordered Bassitt to run alongside the girl after she fell behind, the affidavit said. When the girl stopped running, Bassitt allegedly yelled at her and pinned her to the ground while Flowers tied the rope to her, according to the affidavit.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

It figures...

This doesn't need any comment:

State lawmakers shot down a request for extra financial help for low-income students who will attend South Carolina's public colleges and universities next year.

Meanwhile, they approved $2.5 million to help low-income students attend Bob Jones University, a private school in Greenville. [...]

The bill to include Bob Jones University was sponsored by Sens. Michael Fair, R-Greenville, and Darrell Jackson, D-Hopkins.

Shannon said that although the bill didn't specifically mention Bob Jones University, "it happens to be the only new one that qualifies."

Before the legislation was passed, Shannon said, private colleges had to be nonprofit organizations, have a major campus and headquarters in South Carolina and be accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

Under the new legislation, a private college can meet those criteria or it can simply be a bachelor's level institution chartered before 1962 with a major campus and headquarters in South Carolina, the latter of which allows Bob Jones to qualify.

Bob Jones University is not accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

Mike Fair, if you'll recall, is the guy who teamed up with the Discovery Institute to block the state science standards until pro-creationist language could be inserted. This move failed, which naturally prompted the DI to declare victory anyway.