Archive for: August, 2007

The Edge of Humanity

Aug 31 2007 Published by under Uncategorized

Lucy went on display today at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, and there was no way I could resist paying her a visit. I went in to the exhibit with very mixed feelings about it. A lot of people, including quite a few scientists I respect, have been extremely vocal in their opposition to the exhibit. Richard Leakey called the trip "a form of prostitution" and "a gross exploitation of the ancestors of humanity." Several museums have refused to display the fossil, and the Ethiopian community is calling for a boycott of the exhibit.

Their concerns are hardly unreasonable. Lucy's bones are very, very old and very, very fragile. Displaying her does involve some risk, particularly in a traveling exhibition that requires packing and unpacking the bones several times. There is no other Lucy. She's unique. She's a valuable - priceless - scientific specimen. The opponents of the exhibit think that the risk to the remains is simply too great to justify the exhibit.

For all I know, they might be right. I can tell you this, though. When I walked over next to the display case and looked down at Lucy, all of those concerns evaporated from my mind, replaced by a sense of pure awe.

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Wells on Moths: A Case Study In Misrepresentation

Aug 30 2007 Published by under Uncategorized

Michael Majerus has spent countless hours conducting research on the Peppered Moth (Biston betularia). He's observed them in the field, bred them in the lab, watched them get eaten by things, kept careful count of the things that he's seen, and, recently, given a talk about his findings. Jonathan Wells has spent, to the best of my knowledge, absolutely no time doing any actual research on natural selection or moths, but that certainly didn't stop him from launching a full-throated attack on Majerus.

In this attack, Wells manages to misrepresent a lot of things. This should come as no surprise to those of you who have followed his work in the past, of course. Wells vendetta against all things evolutionary might be a mission from God, but his tactics are hardly heavenly. A Jonathan Wells essay that lies about something is hardly news, and it wouldn't ordinarily be something that I'd write about. In this case, though, I'm going to make an exception. I simply can't abide seeing good science and good scientists maligned by a two-bit hack with a defective moral compass.

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64 responses so far

California: The Saga Continues

Aug 30 2007 Published by under Uncategorized

From the archives - the following article was originally posted on my old blog back in August of 2005. For reasons that will become clear shortly, I've been reposting this series of stories over here. This is the final old post, and I'll have a follow-up post on more current events going up shortly. In that post, I will respond to the comment that someone from the Association for Christian Schools International just left on two of the reposted articles.

As I continued my review of the complaint filed in the California creationist lawsuit, I came to a passage that was completely stunning in it's irony:

Furthermore, the State of California has agreed that in public and private schools, students do not have to accept everything that is taught, and cannot be required to hold a state-prescribed viewpoint:

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Still More on the California Creationist Lawsuit

Aug 30 2007 Published by under Uncategorized

From the archives - the following article was originally posted on my old blog back in August of 2005. For reasons that will become clear shortly, I've been reposting this series of stories over here. There's one more after this, and I'll have that up over here later today.

Someone named Emma kindly provided a couple of links to PDF files relevant to the California creationist lawsuit. One of the links is to a propaganda piece written by the Association of Christian Schools International, which is the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit. The second link is to a copy of the actual complaint that has been filed in the case.

The ACSI propaganda flyer is an interesting read, but I'm not going to take the time to criticise it at present. Instead, I'm going to begin by looking at the complaint, which should contain the real meat of the suit. The complaint is over one hundred pages in length, and I have found material that I'd like to comment on very early in the complaint. Since both my time and my tolerance for this type of thing are limited, it will probably take several posts over several days for me to wade through everything.

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11 responses so far

More on the California Creationist Lawsuit

Aug 29 2007 Published by under Uncategorized

From the archives - the following article was originally posted on my old blog back in August of 2005. For reasons that will become clear shortly, I'm going to repost this and a couple of follow-ups to the story over here.

In a post earlier today, I noted that a group of creationists are suing the University of California system in order to force UC to accept several of their classes that are currently not considered adequate. One of the courses in question is biology. As I already pointed out, UC is not discriminating against Christians by refusing to accept the class; it is simply living up to its responsibility to ensure that applicants are adequately prepared for university study. Nevertheless, I was curious as to what about these particular biology classes was so poor as to attract attention.

The LA Times reported that:

According to the lawsuit, UC's board of admissions also advised the school that it would not approve biology and science courses that relied primarily on textbooks published by Bob Jones University Press and A Beka Books, two Christian publishers.

Now, given what I've heard about Bob Jones University, I figured that any biology text that they produce would be unlike any I'd read before. So I trotted on over to the Bob Jones University Press website to see what I could find. Looking over their list of books for "conventional schools", I found a textbook for a 10th grade biology class. The price is a bit high for me, given the quality, so I didn't order it. However, the website has a nice "see the inside of this book" feature that gives access to the frontmatter, preface, introduction, and a sample chapter. After looking at it, I think I understand why UC has problems with it.

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20 responses so far

The Consequences of Creationism

Aug 29 2007 Published by under Uncategorized

From the archives - the following article was originally posted on my old blog back in August of 2005. For reasons that will become clear shortly, I'm going to repost this and a couple of follow-ups to the story over here.

It appears that yet another creationism-related lawsuit is in the works. This time, the venue is in California, and it is the Creationists who are doing the suing. Apparently, the Association of Christian Schools International and Calvary Chapel Christian School of Murietta are no longer satisfied with being able to teach their students creationism instead of real biology. Now, they also want to make sure that their students will not have to suffer the consequences of this decision, and they are suing for that "right".

The University of California System, quite reasonably, requires that the students that they accept have a certain educational background. Several courses, including biology, offered by Calvary Chapel were determined to be insufficient to meet the UC standards. According to the LA Times article cited above, UC directed Calvary Chapel to instead, "submit for UC approval a secular science curriculum with a text and course outline that addresses course content/knowledge generally accepted in the scientific community." Typically, the creationists don't see this as a university excercising it's duty to ensure that its students are properly prepared for admission. Instead, they see it as yet more evidence of the anti-Christian "bias" that they see anytime they do not get things their own way. From the LA Times article:

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9 responses so far

Chess and Artificial Intelligence

Aug 28 2007 Published by under Uncategorized

Daniel Dennett just wrote an article on chess-playing computers and Artificial Intelligence, and a few bloggers are already talking about it. I'm sort of surprised that the concept is getting so much attention. To me, the answer to the question, "does a computer that can play chess demonstrate artificial intelligence" is obvious: it does, but only in a very trivial sense.

Discussions of the methods used by chess-playing computers and how they compare (or don't) to the way(s) that the human brain plays chess are interesting, but I don't really find them all that relevant to the whole "artificial intelligence" discussion. The idea that a single game - hell, a single test of any sort - can adequately assess whether something has "intelligence" is quite simply absurd. The development of a chess-playing computer demonstrates that a computer can be developed that can play chess. That's all.

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7 responses so far

Astroturfing To Protect Their Hidden Government Subsidies

Aug 28 2007 Published by under Uncategorized

It's always a good day when I can blog about profit hungry companies trying to protect their profit margins or about some group using sleazy tactics to try to get special interest legislation passed or blocked. Today is a very good day - I get to do both at the same time. That's right, folks, the Association of American Publishers is so worried about the damage that whole evil open access thing might cause to their profit the integrity of research that they've set up their very own astroturf -oops, I meant grassroots- group to protect us from this growing problem. Someone, somewhere is clearly doing something right.

The new astroturf group, the Orwellianly named Partnership for Research Integrity in Science & Medicine (PRISM), has been set up specifically to fight against something that quite a few people and groups have been lobbying for: a requirement that any research paper that reports federally funded research be made available to the public, for free. Some proposals would require free access immediately upon publication, while others would require free access after a certain period of time had passed. According to PRISM, this would be a really bad thing that would threaten the entire scientific system in any number of ways. The real threat, of course, is not to the scientific system, which did fine before the for-profit academic publishers came along, but to the profit margins of the publishers.

If you look closely at the publishing industry's complaints, I think you'll find something interesting. The complaints are really an admission that the billion dollar profits of the academic publishing industry are nothing more than a hidden government subsidy. Your tax dollars are used to conduct the research that is reported in these papers. Your tax dollars are used, in many cases, to pay for portions of the publication process. Your tax dollars are then used to allow other researchers (often funded by your tax dollars) to buy access to that research. The publishing industry is fighting tooth and nail right now to make sure that they get to continue to extract as many government dollars as possible.

Think I'm exaggerating? I'm not:

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How Many More Will Die to Protect America's Tax Cuts?

Aug 24 2007 Published by under Uncategorized

Most of yesterday's news about Iraq focused - to the extent that today's media can be said to "focus" on anything - on our President's latest inept attempt to explain why we need to keep troops in Iraq, and on the inapt historical comparisons he drew during this predictably incoherent and inarticulate "policy" address. The deaths of fourteen soldiers - ten from Hawaii and four from Ft. Lewis - in a helicopter that crashed while returning from a mission were almost lost in the shuffle, and are only considered to be noteworthy at all because the fourteen died in a single incident. The death of a fifteenth soldier, in Baghdad, was reduced to a footnote.

The ten Schofield Barracks soldiers join the ever-increasing ranks of those who have died because the Bush administration has been reluctant to spend the money needed to fight this war. That might seem to be a bizarre claim, given the trillion or so dollars we've shelled out so far, but it's the honest truth. For all of their talk about "supporting the troops," for all of their willingness to demonize people who don't like the war as being against the troops, for all of their willingness to use people in uniforms as a backdrop for political functions, this administration has consistently done things in the interests of saving a dollar or two that increase the risk to the troops.

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Iraq = Vietnam, According to White House

Aug 22 2007 Published by under Uncategorized

In yet another moment guaranteed to make you wonder if there's been a mass defection of writers from the Daily Show to the White House, President Bush is expected to argue later today that the war in Iraq is, in fact, very similar to the war in Vietnam. Before you drop to the ground in shock, I should probably add that this does not appear to indicate in any way, shape, or form that the White House has suddenly discovered the appeal of reality. The comparison with Vietnam is apt, according to White House-released excerpts from a speech that the president will deliver later, because we shouldn't have pulled out of Vietnam, and we shouldn't pull out of Iraq, either:

The president will also make the argument that withdrawing from Vietnam emboldened today's terrorists by compromising U.S. credibility, citing a quote from al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden that the American people would rise against the Iraq war the same way they rose against the war in Vietnam, according to the excerpts.

"Here at home, some can argue our withdrawal from Vietnam carried no price to American credibility, but the terrorists see things differently," Bush will say.

You know what? The man's got a point. If we don't continue to hold our hand in a blender for no good reason now, why on earth would our enemies believe that we'll hold our hand in a blender for no good reason sometime in the future? We'd better make sure that we don't pull away from the spinning blades, because we want the bad guys to know that they will never, ever be able to get us to pull our hand out until we want to pull our hand out. That is absolutely a good enough reason for shoving the bloody stump farther and farther into the blades.

6 responses so far

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