Archive for: November, 2008

Egnor shoots! He scores!

(another own goal, of course.)

There he goes again. Creationist neurosurgeon Michael Egnor's latest post over at the Discovery Institute's Why's Everybody Always Picking On Me blog may have actually reached a new standard for missing the point. And, as both my loyal regular readers know, that's not an easy mark for Egnor to hit.

The current contender is his latest post in a back-and-forth that he's been having with PZ and Orac. Once again, Egnor is attempting to argue that evolutionary biology has not provided any useful insights to the field of medicine. That much is familiar ground. What's new this time is the hypothetical that he's dredged up in an attempt to prove his point. His hypothetical is long and involved, which should provide you with your first warning that the argument is perhaps not as sound as he believes:

What I'm arguing is that the truth or falsehood of Darwinian stories is of no tangible value to medicine. Consider the following example.

I would suspect that careful epidemiological studies of the British population would show that the prevalence and incidence of spina bifida increased following World War One. To my knowledge, this has not been investigated, but it would make sense if it were true, for the following reasons:

Britain suffered enormous casualties during the Great War, as did many other European nations. (I'm just using Britain as an example). It has been said, with asperity, that Britain lost a generation of men on the Western Front. Britain suffered 2,300,000 war casualties -- forty four percent of mobilized men, with 703,000 men killed in battle or by disease. On just one day -- July 1,1916 -- 19,240 British soldiers died in the battle of the Somme. The young men who died were the best of their generation -- healthy, and by definition capable of meeting the rigorous physical standards required for military service.

Of course, other British men with debilitating genetic disorders, such as men with spina bifida (which renders the afflicted congenitally paralyzed), were not in the trenches that day, because they were physically unfit for military service, or at least service on the front lines as infantrymen. It's safe to say that military age British men without spinal bifida were at greater risk of death in the war than were military age British men with spina bifida. Whatever the impediments faced by people with spina bifida -- and they face many impediments -- they were not called to serve and die in the trenches.

Spina bifida would then be a fine example of an environmental adaptation; it was protective against "acute lead poisoning" -- protective against being mowed down by German machine gun fire on the Western Front. So, assuming for argument's sake that my hypothesis about the post-war epidemiology of spina bifida is true, the genes that give rise to spina bifida conferred a selective advantage on young British men in the period 1914 to 1918, and the differential survival (and reproduction) of that age cohort would explain a (hypothetical) increase in the incidence and prevalence of spina bifida in England in the post war period.

Where to begin?

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46 responses so far

Living Cosby With Pets

Nov 18 2008 Published by under An Incomplete Autobiography

Every now and then, it feels like I'm living in a Bill Cosby skit.

I'm wandering around the house, talking on the phone, when our cat Pounce decides to make his need for attention and affection known by walking up and swatting me in the back of the leg.

Before I go any farther, I should probably take a second or two to explain Pounce. Right now, we have three cats. Two of them are named Pounce. They share a single body. One of the two is absolutely the sweetest, most affectionate kitten you'll ever meet. The other is a psychotic bundle of fur that dashes off in a random direction, bouncing off the furniture, whenever it hears a loud noise, like a sneeze or a yawn. Whenever you look at the cat, it flips a coin to see who gets to run the body this time.

Anyway, the cute and fuzzy Pounce walked over and affectionately rubbed against my leg. Then it switched gears, transformed into the maniac, and attacked my ankle.

I said, "Hey, Stupid Ass! Knock it off!"

And the dog got up and walked over to see what I wanted.

It was because of my father that from the ages of seven to fifteen, I thought that my name was Jesus Christ and my brother, Russell, thought that his name was Dammit. "Dammit, will you stop all that noise?" And, "Jesus Christ, sit down!" One day, I'm out playing in the rain, and my father yelled, "Dammit will you get back in here!" I said, "Dad, I'm Jesus Christ!"

--Bill Cosby

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ACORN and the Community Reinvestment Act

I wrote a post a few weeks ago about the role that the Community Reinvestment Act played (or, rather, did not play) in causing the current global financial meltdown. I was planning to get out of the issue there, but a really nice article by Devilstower over at Daily Kos sucked me back in. During the time when I wasn't paying any attention to the issue, the right wing noise machine added a new villain to their attempts to blame Wall Street's mess on the left: ACORN.

In 1977 Democratic President Jimmy Carter passed the Community Reinvestment Act to provide housing to poor people. In the 1990s Bill Clinton had Attorney General Janet Reno threaten banks under red lining rules into giving loans to people who could not afford them. Then in the last 8 years, the leftist group ACORN, which has ties to Barack Obama, went to banks and threatened them to relax their rules again. Banks had to give loans to people who had no jobs or no identification.

Devilstower followed up on this with a must-read explanation of what the now-infamous credit default swaps actually are, and why they - and not the CRA - are responsible for the current mess. Along the way, he discussed what the CRA actually entails, what the Clinton-era changes to CRA regulations did, and what the default rates were on mortgages during the early part of this decade. I couldn't help but notice, though, that there was an element missing from his post: the ACORN involvement.

I picked up on the omission because I'd read an article by Eileen Markey on just that topic a couple of weeks ago. In that article, Markey noted that ACORN had actually conducted protests at various banks in an effort to get them to reign in their more predatory subprime lending habits. I resisted the urge to blog the article at the time (and resisted it again when my mother emailed me a link to the same article a week or so later), but after reading Devilstower's post I went back and took another look at it.

The concept of ACORN as a group that tried to head off the current catastrophe is certainly not something that fits in well with the picture that the noise machine is trying to paint. It wouldn't be the first time that the right has promoted an alternate reality, of course, but I figured that it wouldn't do any harm if I did a little fact checking on the Markey piece before blogging it. As it turns out, I was wrong. The "harmless" fact checking cost me some time, and left me much, much angrier at both the loan industry and at the current Administration than I was before.

The quick fact check on the (well-written and accurate) City Limits article quickly turned into a massive, multi-hour geek-out. Looking at ACORN's role lead me to learn more about how the big banks actually pushed people into riskier loans when alternatives were available, about how a little-known federal agency eviscerated state-level attempts to oversee the banks, and about the futile attempts that a number of the very people the right is attempting to vilify made to warn people about the danger posed by predatory subprime lending.

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14 responses so far

Hey, GOP! I'm your guy!

Nov 17 2008 Published by under Politics

...or at least I should be.

I'm a white man, on the low side of the 30-44 age bracket, with very strong military ties. I'm not a movement conservative, but I don't consider myself to be a movement progressive or liberal either. I don't think government is always the problem, but I also don't think it's always the solution. I fall into the 44% of voters who classify themselves as moderates. Overall, I think my profile more closely matches that of a Republican voter than a Democratic one.

I usually, but not always, wind up voting for the Democrat.

If you're a Republican, and you want my vote in 2010, 2012, or later, what do you need to do to get me to vote your way? Everyone who considers themselves to be a Conservative or Republican pundit or strategist has thrown in their .02 on that topic already, but none of the guano tossed around by Rove, Kristol, et al. (otherwise known as the schmucks who got you into this mess) really strikes me as the sort of thing that would get me to change my vote.

So what would it take?

In the spirit of the basic conservative principle that the government that governs least governs best, let's start by looking at the things that the Republican Party should stop doing. And let's get the big one out of the way first:


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11 responses so far

The election is over. It's time to work. Let's start by focusing on the Kennedy/EPA thing.

Nov 06 2008 Published by under Do Something

It's been almost 36 hours since the networks called the election for Obama. That's enough of a honeymoon. There's work to be done.

There are widespread reports that President-elect Obama is seriously considering appointing Robert Kennedy Jr. as head of the EPA. The appointment does seem to have some benefits - including, as Politico points out, some political ones for Obama - but Orac is right. It's a bad idea.

Kennedy's active participation in the anti-vaccination movement is a threat to public health. It also demonstrates, quite clearly, that he is willing to actively promote positions in the face of clear and convincing scientific evidence that those positions are wrong. I think most of us can agree that those are not traits that we'd like to see in the person responsible for running a US Government scientific agency.

The politicization of science is bad no matter who does it. It wasn't just bad when the Republicans were involved. It will be just as bad if it's a Democrat doing it.

I suspect that we'll see other articles on other blogs discussing this appointment, particularly if an announcement is made in the next week or two. But if there's one thing we really should have learned from this election, it's this: words alone don't get the job done.

They're certainly not going to get the job done if we just talk among ourselves. If we want to effectively oppose this nomination, we need to bring in the entire scientific community. And we need to do it now. If the appointment is announced, it's a done deal. There aren't a lot of Democrats out there who are going to want to hand Obama an embarrassing public defeat on a high profile nomination right out the bat, and that number takes a dramatic drop when doing so would also involve simultaneously pissing off the Kennedys and Clintons.

So if you want to work to try and head off this potential problem, I'd suggest starting soon. One thing that might help is if you bring the issue to the attention of three or four people you know who would be interested in this, but who don't read blogs. Have them bring in more of their friends.

Try to get them to get in touch with anyone they know who is involved in one of the major scientific organizations, or who is an editor for a major publication, or has political contacts. Let's try to get those folks to put out the word that a Kennedy appointment to the EPA will cause problems down the road.

3 responses so far