Archive for: March, 2008

Dr. Michael Egnor, Artificial Selection, and My Dog.

Mar 31 2008 Published by under Anti-Evolutionism

Last week, SUNY Stony Brook neurosurgeon and anti-evolution mouthpiece Michael Egnor decided to keep driving on with his "you don't need to understand Darwinian evolution to understand antibiotic resistance" crusade. His post is - predictably enough - a mass of loosely connected logical fallacies. One of the most egregious of these is his attempt to assume one of the points that he wanted to argue:

First, two definitions:

Natural selection is selection in nature, presumably arising without intelligent agency. An example of natural selection would be the differential reproduction of organisms in nature, without the evident guidance of an intelligent agent.

Artificial selection is selection caused by intelligent agency. An example of artificial selection would be the intentional breeding of bacteria by a scientist in a research lab.

The distinction between natural selection and artificial selection is at least matter of definition, and perhaps there are empirical differences as well.

His definition of natural selection is poor - if I saw it on a quiz in an introductory course, I'd have a hard time justifying giving him even half credit - but it's not nearly as troublesome as his definition of artificial selection. If you think back to some of the previous discussion about Egnor's line of argument, you'll remember that many of us don't think that placing bacteria in an environment that contains an antibiotic and allowing them to freely reproduce is actually artificial selection. Egnor's attempting to beg the question by simply making his conclusion part of the definition that he expects us to accept without further argument. And that's where my dog comes in.

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60 responses so far

Comcast stinks

Mar 30 2008 Published by under Uncategorized

One of several reasons that my posting frequency has been low lately is that my internet connection has been miserable. As in dial-up speed miserable. As in so slow that the online tools that measure connection speed have been showing me that I'm getting download speeds that I haven't had to experience since I upgraded to a 28.8k modem back in the mid-90s.

So I call Comcast. Yes, their tools also show a big connection speed problem. No, there's probably not anything I can do on my end to fix it. Yes, they can set up a service call to have the problem fixed. They'll be able to squeeze me in on Thursday afternoon. Gotta love prompt service.

7 responses so far

Numbers and Tragedies, Statistics and Losses

It's been just over 5 years since the start of the Iraq war, and we've just passed another of those morbid little milestones that get so much attention in the press. This particular milestone has a nice round number on it - 4,000 - which apparently makes it somehow more important, or significant, or something than less neat numbers like 2526, or 3981, or 1135. The media's spent a little while circling over the battlefield, waiting for the 4,000th American corpse to hit the ground. The milestone arrived and passed more or less on schedule, and the media will settle back down and wait for the next round number. But these numbers, round or otherwise are nonsense. They're worse than meaningless. They allow us to care about this war on cue for some fraction of a news cycle. But by the time we've gone to the fridge, grabbed a beer, and slapped our fat asses back down on the sofa, things have moved on to the story of the drug-addled starlet's custody fight with her 5th ex-husband. In six or seven months, when the number's climbed to another round increment, the press will spare a few more minutes of air time and remind us to care again briefly. Between now and then, most of the deaths will be back below the fold on page A-39.

Somehow or another, I doubt that the parents of the 3683rd soldier to die are somehow injured less than the parents of the 4,000th. I doubt that the parents of the 4010th will feel any differently. And, of course, American soldiers aren't the only ones who have died in the course of this disaster. We don't know how many Iraqis have died. Every estimate that's been published so far has been the subject of some controversy, because the different estimates aren't in complete agreement with each other. After five years, the whole country is still so comprehensively screwed that it's not possible to safely conduct the censuses and surveys needed to come up with an answer that everyone can agree with. The survivors of the family that becomes the collateral damage from an American air strike don't mourn any less than the family of the American soldier killed by friendly fire.

Every single person who has died in this war leaves behind a hole. Their absence is felt by their families, by their friends, by their colleagues, no matter who they were or why they fought.

And those aren't the only holes that are left.

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13 responses so far

Yeah, that's gonna leave a mark.

Mar 21 2008 Published by under Accidental, Flaming Small-Minded Stupidity, Humor

PZ Myers got expelled from the line to see the movie Expelled tonight, apparently for the crime of actually being PZ Myers. That's definitely ironic, and possibly hypocritical. His family and his guest were allowed to go in and watch the movie. His guest was Richard Dawkins. Yes, that Richard Dawkins. That particular move was so amazingly stupid that they're gonna need to come up with a new word for it.

No, I'm not kidding. No, this isn't a premature April Fools joke. No, it's not an attempt at satire.

It's just creationists managing to shoot an own-goal hat trick.

4 responses so far

Picture Quiz: A Little Geography

Mar 20 2008 Published by under Picture Posts

There's an island visible in the picture below. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to identify the island, it's location, it's relationship to science, and (for extra credit) its relationship to American pop culture. The answer (or a hint) will be posted on Monday.


(as always, you can click on the image for a higher-resolution version of the shot).

8 responses so far

A public plea to the mainstream media: please, please, please stop hurting the country.

Mar 20 2008 Published by under Flaming Small-Minded Stupidity

I'm not Zuska, but I suddenly find that I've got an almost uncontrollable urge to puke on someone's shoes. There's a new breaking story out about Hillary Clinton, junior senator from New York, and Democratic Presidential candidate. It's so shocking that over 1300 news articles have already appeared. Everyone seems to have gotten behind this one. The AP has several articles. The Washington Post made note of the story. CBS seems to think it's news. ABC apparently thinks that the story falls into the category of "investigative journalism". The Boston Herald's totally into this one.

The shocking revelation? She was apparently "home" (as in somewhere in the White House) on one or more occasions when her morally defective husband was receiving sexual favors from an intern.

Gee, I wonder why anyone would think that she's had to deal with sexism during her run for the White House.

(HT: Shakesville)

3 responses so far

Photo Quiz Answer

Mar 18 2008 Published by under Picture Posts

In Saturday's photo quiz, I posted a very cropped version of a picture, and asked people to identify the item that's in there. This was simultaneously one of the most and least successful photo quizzes I've posted so far. It was successful in the sense that it's attracted more comments than most of the previous photo quizzes have; it was unsuccessful in the sense that it seems to have been too easy.

Here's the full image (as always, you can click on it for a larger view):


Nathan was the first to post a comment, and the first to get the answer. This is the first stage of a Saturn V rocket. In fact, it is the one that Chas saw in Houston - when the rocket began to show signs of significant deterioration, an enclosure was built over it.

Congrats to all who got the right answer. I'll have a new photo quiz up on Thursday.

No responses yet

Photo Quiz

Mar 15 2008 Published by under Picture Posts

This photo quiz is a bit different from the others I've done so far. Instead of giving you a full picture, I'm going to put up a piece of the image and a hint. Your mission (should you choose to accept it) is to try to figure out what this is a picture of.

First, the picture:


Now, the hint: This item shares a name with a place where it's never been.

I'll post the answer (or possibly a new hint) on Tuesday.

13 responses so far

Natural Selection, Antibiotic Resistance, and Interesting Questions.

Mar 13 2008 Published by under Anti-Evolutionism

Dr. Michael Egnor, of SUNY Stony Brook and the Discovery Institute, doesn't think that evolution is relevant to trying to figure out how to combat the spread of antibiotic resistance. The interesting areas of research, he believes, lie in other areas of biology:

The important medical research on antibiotic resistance in bacteria deals with how the mutations that give rise to resistance arise, exactly what those mutations are and how they work, and what can be done to counteract them. The important medical research involves genetics, molecular biology, and pharmacology. Darwin's theory is of no substantive value to the research because, as Mr. Dunford admits, there is no difference between antibiotic resistant bacteria that emerge through artificial intelligent selection and antibiotic resistant bacteria that emerge through natural selection. Antibiotic resistance is a phenomenon that occurs because there are often a few bacteria in a large population of bacteria that have a mutation that renders them less sensitive to the antibiotic. These bacteria that aren't killed by the antibiotic eventually outnumber bacteria that are killed by the antibiotic. Survivors survive. Does this mundane observation really help Mr. Dunford understand things he may not have otherwise understood? It certainly doesn't advance medical research in any meaningful way. New insights into genetics, molecular biology, and pharmacology do advance medical research.

I realize that I'm just begging for Dr. Egnor to take what I say out of context again, but he is not entirely wrong. If I was working on ways to fight antibiotic resistance, I would certainly want to focus more on the molecular mechanisms that are involved in the development of resistance than on the question of how resistance spreads through a population of bacteria after it appears.

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21 responses so far

Two Things that Don't Go Together: Michael Egnor and Intellectual Integrity

Mar 12 2008 Published by under Anti-Evolutionism, Moral Flexibility, Religion

Someone once pointed out that when a dog pisses on a fire hydrant, it's not committing an act of vandalism. It's just being a dog. It's possible to use that analogy to excuse a creationist who takes a quote wildly out of context, I suppose, but I don't think it's really appropriate. Creationists might indulge in quote mining with the same casual disregard for public decency as a male dog telling his neighbors that he's still around, but, unlike dogs, the creationists are presumably capable of self-control. We've simply grown blase about their propensity for twisting other people's words because they do it so often.

Still, I expected more from Michael Egnor. He's not some diploma mill hack, who really might not know any better. The man is a professor of neurosurgery and pediatrics at SUNY Stony Brook, and is actually the vice chairman of neurosurgery. He's been in academia for some time, and presumably has some understanding of the importance of intellectual integrity. When he picks and chooses which words to quote to make it appear that someone has said something very different from what they meant, he has very clearly chosen to tell a lie. And that's just what he did when he quoted from one of my posts.

Here's what he wrote:

Zoology graduate student and Darwinist Mike Dunford at Panda's Thumb has replied to recent posts in which Dr. Jonathan Wells and I pointed out that Darwin's theory is irrelevant to medical research on antibiotic resistance, and that antibiotic resistance itself is irrelevant to the debate about intelligent design and Darwinism. Remarkably, Mr. Dunford, referring to a recent advance in research on antibiotic resistance, concedes both points. He writes:

The scientists worked in a lab. They artificially replicated a set of conditions (an antibiotic-rich environment) that occur in nature. Finally, they placed the bacteria into this environment - something that happens spontaneously outside the lab...We'll pretend that anything that happens in a lab must be artificial selection, and that it is totally and completely wrong to use the phrase "natural selection" when referring to these experiments.

Mr. Dunford is right. Selection that happens by design in a lab is artificial selection, not natural selection. This distinction is of fundamental importance in this debate. Why? Consider Mr. Dunford's next observation:

Now, here's what I actually wrote. The portions that Egnor skipped over are highlighted in boldface:

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58 responses so far

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