Archive for: November, 2006

Quote of the Day - 28 November 2006

Nov 28 2006 Published by under Uncategorized

Today's quote comes from Alfred Russell Wallace's first paper on evolution - his 1855 paper On the Law Which Has Regulated the Introduction of Species. In addition to paving the way toward his later work on natural selection, this paper laid the foundation for an entire subdiscipline of biology: island biogeography.

Such phænomena as are exhibited by the Galapagos Islands, which contain little groups of plants and animals peculiar to themselves, but most nearly allied to those of South America, have not hitherto received any, even a conjectural explanation. The Galapagos are a volcanic group of high antiquity, and have probably never been more closely connected with the continent than they are at present. They must have been first peopled, like other newly-formed islands, by the action of winds and currents, and at a period sufficiently remote to have had the original species die out, and the modified prototypes only remain. In the same way we can account for the separate islands having each their peculiar species, either on the supposition that the same original emigration peopled the whole of the islands with the same species from which differently modified prototypes were created, or that the islands were successively peopled from each other, but that new species have been created in each on the plan of the pre-existing ones.

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In the News Today: Dog Bites Man, Bear Takes Magazine Into Woods, Civil War in Iraq

Nov 27 2006 Published by under Uncategorized

I woke up early today, went downstairs, turned on the news, and very quickly discovered that I'd made it all of 5 minutes into my morning before making a bad decision. The lead-off story on MSNBC's top of the hour coverage: NBC News' decision to start calling what's happening in Iraq a "civil war." This was followed by several minutes of self-absorbed commentary by Tucker Carlson. As I write, I'm being treated to another dose of coverage on this same "top story," this time complete with a "debate" between talking heads from the two sides of the political spectrum, each armed with a brand-new set of buzzwords ("stating the obvious," and "agenda-driven and inappropriate decision,").
Oy. Where to start?

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Quote of the Day - 27 November 2006

Nov 27 2006 Published by under Uncategorized

This is why we need to get more people to spend more time thinking about science:

"If an issue is not on the tips of their constituents' tongues, they'll say, 'Well, we'll deal with that tomorrow,'"

- Al Gore, An Inconvenient Truth.

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Hey! These Grapes Are Sour, Too

Nov 26 2006 Published by under Uncategorized

Bill Dembski seems to have decided that the sour grapes strategy is a winner - or at least less of a loser than anything else he's come up with lately. He's following up Denyse O'Leary's spectacularly bad series of peer review posts with a link to an article by Ross McKitrick on the evils of position statements by scientific societies.
McKitrick is a noted global warming "skeptic," and he's bitching about the quality of the grapes because the American Meteorological Society has released a draft position statement on climate change. Dembski is concerned about position statements because just about every scientific society in the known universe has released a statement pointing out the sad fact that Intelligent Design quite simply isn't science. I suspect that both Dembski and McKitrick would view position statements differently if their own positions received much in the way of support.

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What side am I on if I think you are all being silly?

Nov 24 2006 Published by under Uncategorized

Another round of unholy wars seems to have broken out over the last few days. This particular round (again) focuses on the relationship between atheists and theistic evolutionists. The involved parties have broken into two groups, and I think both are being at least somewhat silly. On one side, we have PZ Myers, Larry Moran, and others. This group believes (among other things) that theistic evolutionists attack and weaken science, although not quite as badly as the out-and-out creationists. On the other, we find Ed Brayton, Pat Hayes, and a few others. This group thinks that theistic evolution is just fine, and that taking a strongly atheistic position risks alienating people, and makes the fight against the anti-evolutionists harder to win. (And, yes, I do realize that there is more to each position than the little bit I just wrote. I'm focusing only on the things that I disagree with.)
The debate is hot at the moment, and seems to be getting hotter. Reading posts from both sides, I've become more and more irritated, because both groups seem to be taking some unreasonable positions. Both groups also seem to be talking past each other to a certain extent. In the spirit of offering a mutually agreeable target to the two groups, I'm going to explain exactly why each is being unreasonable.

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Quote of the Day - 24 November 2006

Nov 24 2006 Published by under Uncategorized

Nothing too profound today - just something taken from a comic strip that's taped to the lab door.

"That's the problem with nature. Something's always stinging you or oozing mucus on you. Let's go watch TV."
Bob Watterson
Calvin and Hobbes

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Running to support those left behind

Nov 23 2006 Published by under Uncategorized

This Thanksgiving, there's a lot that I am thankful for. There's also a fair amount that I'm not all that thankful for. I'm thankful that as of the email I got from her last night, my wife is still in good health. I'm not all that thankful that she is in good health on a base in Iraq. I'm also not very thankful that there are a lot of other families this year who have not been as lucky as we have in this regard.
For far too many people, supporting the troops begins and ends with the $1.93 spent on the magnetic ribbon. For many of those whose support extends a bit further, the support ends, well, when the soldier does. Unfortunately, that's when support is needed the most.
As of when I am writing this, 2867 members of the US military have died in Iraq, and another 350 in Afghanistan. By the time you read this, that number has probably gone up. Many of them left behind families who have been uprooted by their loss. At the same time that they are dealing with the sudden death of a member of the family, they also need to pack up their on-base life and move. They need to find a new home, new school for the kids, and so on. Families in that situation need all the support that they can get. TAPS (Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors) helps provide some of that support. TAPS is a privately-funded nonprofit agency that assists those left behind after the death of someone in uniform.
In a couple of weeks, a group of soldiers in Iraq will run the Honolulu Marathon on a base near Tikrit. (Yes, you read that right. The Honolulu Marathon is providing them with the timing equipment, the marathon in Iraq will take place at the same time as the one in Honolulu, and the runners will be registered for and considered to be running in the Honolulu Marathon. The only difference is that the course in Iraq won't have as nice a view and will have trenches along the way for runners to use in the event of a mortar or rocket attack.
Each of these soldiers is running in memory of someone they knew who died in either Iraq or Afghanistan, and they will be raising funds for TAPS. (My wife, for example, is running in memory of her old battalion commander, who died in a plane crash in Afghanistan, and an officer with her brother's unit, who was killed by an IED in Afghanistan.)
If you can, I hope you will support this cause. The families who have been torn apart by combat-zone deaths need far more support than anyone can really give, but every little bit helps. Links to individual donation pages for soldiers running can be found here, or you can donate to the entire team effort by clicking on the "general donation" button here.

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Quote of the Day - 23 November 2006

Nov 23 2006 Published by under Uncategorized

"On Thanksgiving Day all over America, families sit down to dinner at the same moment - halftime."


Back to science quotes tomorrow. Enjoy the holiday.

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"Right to Work" doesn't come cheap

Nov 22 2006 Published by under Uncategorized

There's an article in Friday's Washington Post about the ongoing strike by Houston, Texas janitors. (The same folks who were getting trampled by police horses the other day.) Part of the article tells the story of Ercilia Sandoval, a Salvadorian immigrant who is one of the striking workers. If we take a look at her story, it becomes very easy to see who the real winners and losers are in right to work states. It should come as no surprise if I tell you that the losers outnumber the winners. It might surprise you if I tell you that you're probably (if you live anywhere in the US) one of the losers.

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Quote of the Day - 22 November 2006

Nov 22 2006 Published by under Uncategorized

In part to counteract the limited amount of time that I have available to write posts, I've decided to start a "quote of the day" series. Most of the quotes will be related to science or academics (or any of the other central issues I talk about here). Some may be chosen because they seem to be relevant to something going on in the world today; most won't be. The quotes will usually be short, but this first one isn't. Feel free to use the comments section of this post as an open thread, to talk about whatever.

Knowledge has been accumulating at an ever increasing rate, and knowledge, once it is available, can be used for evil as well as for good. It was inevitable that a day would come when the expanding body of knowledge would sweep across the danger level. That day, as you know, has come - and passed. Knowledge is already available by means of which men could wreck the civilization of the world -and the growth of knowledge continues faster than ever before.

It is imperative, in our day, that the applications of knowledge be controlled, and controlled not in one nation alone but throughout the world. This problem is the central problem of our time. A wise solution, enforced, will be the greatest landmark in the history of the human race. If no solution is found, there may be no more history.

The discussion of this paramount problem and its solution should be carried on with a clear understanding of the nature of science and of its applications. Statesmen and citizens alike should use the same language and understand what it is they are saying. Otherwise, the beneficial applications of knowledge may be suppressed along with the dangerous applications, that is, the baby may be thrown out with the bath; or, what is even more important, science may be confused with the applications, and to use another well-worn metaphor, the goose may be killed which lays the golden eggs.

It is for this reason that the scientists are beginning to talk more freely than hitherto. They speak rather haltingly, to be sure, and somewhat diffidently, but they are driven by a sense of urgency. The subject must be clarified, and those who actually practice the discipline should be able to speak with some authority. What they have to say is not entirely new. A few men, including an occasional scientist, have explained the subject fairly well. But others have written nonsense, and the people, if they can, are left painfully to distinguish the good from the bad.

So the scientists are beginning to talk. They will not all say the same things, they will not necessarily agree on details, but if a sufficient number raise their voices, the essential features of the discipline will emerge rather clearly. This clarification of the problem which overshadows our civilization is the first duty of the scientists. The solution of the problem, and its enforcement, are the responsibility of all men-including the scientists, but only in their position as human beings, not as specialists.

This first quote comes from noted astronomer (and telescope namesake) Edwin Hubble's essay "On the Nature of Science." The danger level Hubble was referring to was nuclear war, but the principle applies to climate change, various medical issues, and really to any number of points where science comes into contact with public policy. The importance of making sure that everyone understands what the scientists are saying about these things is at least as important now as it was then.

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