Archive for: February, 2008

Birthday Quotes 4: A past Republican's thoughts might just apply to a current Republican's actions.

Feb 12 2008 Published by under War and Peace

It's easy to think of Lincoln as being a left-wing sort of guy, what with that whole emancipation thing, but it's sometimes worth remembering that he was also a wartime Republican President. With that - and current events - in mind, here's something from a letter Lincoln wrote to a friend of his while he was a Congressman. The letter details the reasons for his opposition to the Mexican-American war:

Allow the President to invade a neighboring nation whenever he shall deem it necessary to repel an invasion, and you allow him to do so whenever he may choose to say he deems it necessary for such purpose, and you allow him to make war at pleasure. Study to see if you can fix any limit to his power in this respect, after having given him so much as you propose. If to-day he should choose to say he thinks it necessary to invade Canada to prevent the British from invading us, how could you stop him? You may say to him, -- "I see no probability of the British invading us"; but he will say to you, "Be silent: I see it, if you don't."

The provision of the Constitution giving the war making power to Congress was dictated, as I understand it, by the following reasons: Kings had always been involving and impoverishing their people in wars, pretending generally, if not always, that the good of the people was the object. This our convention understood to be the most oppressive of all kingly oppressions, and they resolved to so frame the Constitution that no one man should hold the power of bringing this oppression upon us. But your view destroys the whole matter, and places our President where kings have always stood.

Terrifyingly prophetic, isn't it.

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Birthday Quotes 3: Darwin on the nuts-and-bolts of good fieldwork practice

Feb 12 2008 Published by under Misc

On at least one occasion, Charles Darwin took the time to share some of the little details involved in conducting geological fieldwork. He was one of a number of noted scientists who contributed to a book that was edited by John Herschel, and which had been commissioned by the Lords of the Admiralty. This book, A Manual of Scientific Enquiry, was designed to serve as a guide that the Royal Navy's medical officers could use when they were acting as naturalists. Darwin wrote the chapter on geology, which provided scientific novices with some of the things that many other geologists (both before and after) have only learned through painful experience:

A few cautions may be here inserted on the method of collecting. Every single specimen ought to be numbered with a printed number (those which can be read upside down having a stop after them) and a book kept exclusively for their entry. As the value of many specimens entirely depends on the stratum or locality whence they were procured being known, it is highly necessary that every specimen should be ticketed on the same day when collected. If this be not done, in after years the collector will never feel an absolute certainty that his tickets and references are correct. It is very troublesome ticketing every separate fossil from the same stratum, yet it is particularly desirable that this should be done; for when the species are subsequently compared by naturalists, mistakes are extremely liable to occur; and it should always be borne in mind, that misplaced fossils are far worse than none at all. Pill-boxes are very useful for packing fossils. Masses of clay or any soft rock may be brought home, if small fossil shells are abundant in them. Rock-specimens should be about two or three inches square, and half an inch thick; they should be folded up in paper. To save subsequent trouble, it will be found convenient to pack up and mark outside, sets of specimens from different localities. These details may appear trifling; but few are aware of the labour of opening and arranging a large collection, and such have seldom been brought home without some errors and confusion having crept in.

Darwin may have been able to come up with the idea of natural selection simply because he was the right intelligent person at the right place and the right time, but that wasn't why he was so good at making the case for his hypothesis. That came about because Darwin was a scientist to the core.

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Birthday Quotes 2: Darwin on good and bad ideas in science.

Feb 12 2008 Published by under Misc

Adam Sedgwick was one of the leading geologists of Darwin's time, and was a friend and former teacher of Darwin. After reading Origin of Species, he wrote a letter to Darwin expressing his disappointment with the book. In his reply, Darwin wrote:

I grieve to have shocked a man whom I sincerely honour. But I do not think you would wish anyone to conceal the results at which he has arrived after he has worked, according to the best ability which may be in him. I do not think my book will be mischievous; for there are so many workers that, if I be wrong I shall soon be annihilated; & surely you will agree that truth can be known only by rising victorious from every attack.

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Birthday Quotes.

Feb 12 2008 Published by under Misc

It's the 199th birthday of two extraordinary people: Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin. One was extremely controversial when he was alive; the other has become more controversial since he died. In honor of the two birthdays, I'll be posting quotes from them over the course of the day.

Let's begin with a quote from Lincoln. It's taken from the first of the famous Lincoln-Douglas Debates, and it falls into the category of "the more things change":

MY FELLOW-CITIZENS: When a man hears himself somewhat misrepresented, it provokes him,--at least, I find it so with myself; but when misrepresentation becomes very gross and palpable, it is more apt to amuse him.

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Yeah, could have seen that one coming.

Feb 11 2008 Published by under Public Perception of Science, Religion

When fellow ScienceBlogger Matt Nisbet announced that he had put a panel together to talk about "Communicating Science in a Religious America" at this weekend's AAAS conference, he was greeted with what I'll generously call widespread skepticism among many of the bloggers here (including me). Nisbet, you see, is a well-known opponent of what's sometimes referred to as the "New Atheism". His own talk will focus on the "New Atheism". And he included nobody on his panel who is actually a "New Atheist".

A little while ago, he posted a copy of a press release describing another one of the papers that's going to be presented at that panel by William and Mary anthropologist Barbara King. One of the things that's going to be covered in that talk is - wait for it - some of the "problems" caused by the "New Atheism":

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18 responses so far

How Many Species 2: More Questions.

Feb 11 2008 Published by under Biology, Science

On Thursday, I presented a species problem taken from a post over at my old blog. I presented data from experimental matings that were carried out among three insect populations, added a little bit of information about the appearance, behavior, and location of the populations. I asked you to tell me how many species these three populations represented, and promised that I'd give you the "official" answer today. I've decided, though, that it wouldn't be totally fair to answer the question just yet. You see, I withheld relevant data when I presented the original version of the question.

When I gave you the information on Thursday, I just gave you data for some of the populations that were involved. There are two more populations that I didn't tell you about at the time. We'll call them Population D and Population E. Individuals from these populations were included in the original crossing experiments, and we also have data about their reproductive behavior and appearance. I'm going to throw these populations into the mix.

What I'd like to know now is this: how many species exist here in total, and which populations fall into which species? Here's the more complete set of data:

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7 responses so far

The Army, The Department of Veterans Affairs, and Miscommunication

Feb 11 2008 Published by under "Supporting" the Troops

Back on January 29th, NPR aired a story that claimed that the Army had taken steps to keep Veterans Administration workers from helping soldiers with their Army disability paperwork. Since then, there have been some new revelations, including a document that indicates that the Army Surgeon General was at best ignorant of all the facts, and at worst dishonest, when he was first interviewed by NPR. After listening to the NPR stories, and (more importantly) reading the documentary evidence they presented, I think that their report clearly illuminates some serious problems with the care of wounded troops. These problems are serious. They need to be addressed very quickly. But they're not necessarily the same problems that NPR decided to focus the bulk of their attention on.

The story began with a January 29th report by NPR correspondent Ari Shapiro. Shapiro reported on allegations that a group from the Army had told Veterans affairs workers at Ft. Drum to stop helping soldiers contest portions of the Army paperwork that can determine how the Army rates the soldier's medical condition. The paperwork in question is referred to as a "narrative summary", and is a detailed description of the soldier's medical condition.

A narrative summary is usually written by a doctor assigned to the same unit as the soldier, based on the entire medical history of the person involved. This document is an absolutely critical part of the Army's medical separation process. The wording of this document has a great deal of influence over how disabled the Army considers the soldier to be. That, in turn, determines whether the Army will medically discharge or medically retire the soldier. The distinction between "discharged" and "retired" is the difference between whether the soldier gets a one-shot severance package or a lifetime of retirement benefits. In short, it's a high-stakes document.

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2 responses so far

From the Archives: How Many Species?

Feb 07 2008 Published by under Biology, Science

This is a highly modified version of a post that appeared back at my old blog quite some time ago. Since it involves a quiz of sorts, I'm not going to post the link back to the original right now. The post with the "answers" will appear on Monday, also slightly modified from the original.

Taxonomy and systematics are the areas of biology that are involved in describing groups of organisms and determining how they relate to one another. One of the jobs associated with these disciplines involves trying to figure out whether or not two different populations of organisms should be considered to be part of the same species. Sometimes this is an easy job - it's pretty clear, for example, that polar bears and penguins are very different sorts of thing. Other times, it's a very hard job. The example I'm going to give you in this post is a difficult case, but a real one. I'll give you the details, and you can take your best stab at the question. On Monday, I'll tell you what the "official" view is.

There are three populations of a flying insect. These populations are physically separated from each other by areas of inhospitable terrain, and members of the populations are not known to come into contact with each other in the wild. Population A is found about 15 km to the northwest of Population B; Population B is found about 50 km to the northwest of Population C. In the past, the areas occupied by Populations A and B were closer together, and may actually have formed a single area. The area where Population C lives was never in contact with the other two populations.

There are no apparent differences between Population A and Population B in either physical appearance or in a specific reproductive behavior. Population C has legs that are a different color from the legs in the other two populations, but is otherwise identical in appearance. The reproductive behavior seen in Population C is very different from that seen in Populations A and B.

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5 responses so far

Cause, Effect, and Crying "Poor Me": Day 3 of the Luskin Thing.

Feb 06 2008 Published by under Anti-Evolutionism, Moral Flexibility, Religion

We're now into the third day of the brouhaha that was sparked by Casey Luskin's misuse of the "Blogging About Peer-Reviewed Research" icon. Casey posted a few responses to criticisms in the discussion thread over at the BPR3 blog, then packed his bags and went home because Dave Munger didn't delete all of the comments that had said bad things about Casey. It's pretty clear that Casey got what he was fishing for before he left, though: more stories about how poor Intelligent Design proponents are picked on by mean scientists.

They've been playing up that sort of story for a while now, and it's easy to understand why. Stories - even blatantly fictional ones - are a good way to make a point. We use stories to teach our children. More importantly, our parents used stories to teach us. We've been dealing with stories all our life, so we tend to respond when we're given a familiar story. In this case, they're giving us a variant of the "David and Goliath" story, and we all know who to root for when we hear that one, right?

Casey had to work really hard to get that story, but he's pretty sure he managed it:

(1) A large number of the people on this thread continue to oppose approving my request for registration, explicitly admitting that they simply don't want to allow ID proponents to be part of these discussions. If ID proponents aren't even allowed to "officially" blog about peer-reviewed research on the internet, who can say that their research would get a fair hearing from the actual peer-reviewers in the real world of science?

The italics were in the original, and Casey really must have meant it, because he used the same phrase again later on in the comment, replacing the italics with boldface. As arguments go, that one is pretty typical. It sounds nice and reasonable and bears only the faintest resemblance to anything that actually happened.

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15 responses so far

The Big Super Tuesday Democratic Winner

Feb 06 2008 Published by under Elections, Presidential

Is the party. Again.

In every single state that had a primary on Super Tuesday, Democratic turnout was up from 2004. The details are below the fold, and they're pretty cool to look at.

(Update 1: I've started to look at the Republican numbers. There are some things I'm seeing that they're probably not going to like. Details can be found at the bottom of the post.)

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