Sometimes random chance just up and kicks you in the face

I’m in the process of moving my blog Coyote Crossing to a new home. As a result, I’ve been spending odd 20-minute spans in between tasks over the last few days importing archival blog entries into WordPress. WordPress is pretty good at importing other content management systems’ data, but my blog had been run on ExpressionEngine, which is not at all good at exporting data. That’s just one of the reasons I’m abandoning the software.

As it turns out, I am not the first person to make the decision to leave ExpressionEngine. And because of that, there are a couple well-established work-arounds for  importing your data from EE into WordPress. The one I chose was to adapt someone else’s template which output blog entries into something close enough to Movable Type export format that WordPress will happily gobble it up.

It works okay, but due to memory limitations and the fact that I’ve got almost ten years’ worth of blog entries on the old site, I’ve had to do it in chunks. One such 2-megabyte chunk just refused to import, no matter how often I made sure there weren’t any trailing spaces or odd characters in the text file being imported. The new database just found that file too hard to swallow.

I figured out one of the posts in that chunk had been slightly corrupted — a bug that comes up with EE now and then having to do with the database record for the URL title. I got the entry number and went to fix it. I found the post, one from January 2007. Swallowed hard and cursed to myself.

It’s safe and sound on the new site now.

I need a drink.


Creationist distortions of science

Answers in Genesis, that awful creationist organization, has a couple of tactics that they use to argue that they’re doing Real Science and the real scientists aren’t.

  1. They set up a dichotomy: you have to choose between God’s word and Man’s reason. God’s word is obviously perfect (because they say it is), while Man’s reason is flawed and prone to error. Therefore, all true accounts of the history of the world will take into account the “primary evidence” found in the Bible. This is a theme throughout their museum: they present two views, one derived from the book of Genesis and the other from scientific research, and tell you you have to choose. I imagine it works for the usual yokels whose brains short-circuit at the idea of questioning God, but for me, it just confirmed that the Bible is bullshit — I choose reason and evidence every time.

  2. They claim that all science involves interpreting the data, and that they use the exact same data that all scientists use — they just interpret it through the lens of a biblical worldview, while secular scientists interpret it through the lens of an evil, fallen, Satanic worldview. So which do you choose? Of course, they’re lying: the creationists throw away 99% of the evidence — everything that contradicts their predetermined conclusion — and the only bits of scientific observation they actually use are those where there is some ambiguity or potential for willful misinterpretation.

  3. They claim that there are two kinds of science: observational and historical science. The only respectable kind of science, they say, is observational: where an eyewitness is present to actually see the results. Anything where you try to interpret past events is not subject to repeatable observations, therefore it can’t be determined, and should be rejected in favor of eyewitness accounts — especially God’s eyewitness account from the Bible.

Every one of those arguments is complete crap. But they do love to state them with definite authority, as if these are actual fixed laws of the universe that must be accounted for in any science, rather than post hoc rationalizations by charlatans trying desperately to put a false front of reason over their superstitions.

I want to address their third argument, though, because Ken Ham has been throwing it around lately.

Ham quotes Jerry Coyne dismissing the value of theologians in determining scientific truths (as Ham usually does, though, he declines to actually link to the article he’s supposedly rebutting — at least he does Coyne the courtesy of naming him, I’m usually just referred to as some “atheist professor from Minnesota”). And there it is, in flaming great display, the creationists’ peculiar understanding of how science works.

Coyne’s comment raises a couple of issues that are common with secularists, and I thought it would be good to address them. First, he confuses observational (or operational) science and historical (or origins) science. By claiming that only scientists can determine the origin of the universe, he is implying that it can be discovered through repeatable, testable methods—but it cannot.

No, Coyne isn’t confused at all. Scientists are fully aware of the difference between studying, for instance, changing allele frequencies in a population of fruit flies right now, and using historical evidence to infer changes in allele frequencies (actually, phenotypes) in extinct populations. What we deny, though, is that we can’t study those through repeatable, testable methods. Every lagerstätte is a sample of the species of an ancient world, and paleontologists are constantly making hypotheses, testing them against existing data, and seeking out new data to confirm or disprove their ideas. Physicists can aim their instruments at a series of stars and test their ideas about their makeup and history. These creationist kooks want to pretend that in the absence of scientific tools to study the past, they are therefore free to make up any story they want, and it’s just as valid as one founded on hard-earned evidence.

But if they reject the idea that we can know anything about the past by observing the present, what’s the alternative? Ken Ham continues:

Historical science is really just the process of trying to figure out what really happened in the past based on evidence existing in the present—or based on primary source of information. And you know, the best place to start is with an eyewitness account, or our assumptions may lead us in the wrong direction. Coyne’s assumptions are evolutionary, and he clearly does not see Genesis—the only record of an eyewitness account of our origin—as authoritative.

Right. The only stuff that counts is eyewitness accounts. “Were you there?” is their mantra, and it reflects a terribly naive understanding of science.

First of all, eyewitness accounts are the worst kind of evidence. What real scientists prefer is measurement or the collection of recorded data via known, well-calibrated instruments. I assure you, the scientists at the LHC aren’t putting on goggles and standing at a window looking at protons colliding — they’re storing many terabytes of measurements via sensitive instruments from every event. Even in my admittedly mushier work where I do use my eyes directly to watch developmental events, everything is recorded and stashed on a hard drive so I can later extract precise timings and measure intensities of probes.

Secondly, everything, not just the historical sciences, are inferential. All of our senses are flawed and impose biases on our observations — you may think seeing is believing, but ask any psychologist, and they’ll tell you that your brain is very easily tricked, and that any memory you might have of an event is largely a reconstruction. Ask any physiologist, and they’ll explain to you that your eyes are not cameras, but elaborate processing devices that filter visual information and pass it back to a cortex that further deconstructs and reassembles the patterns of light that fell on the retina into a model of the world around us. We repeat observations using multiple modes precisely because you can’t trust what your eyes tell you to be an accurate model of the external world.

Thirdly, and most obviously, why should we believe Genesis is an eyewitness account of our origin? Were you there, Ken Ham, when God wrote the book? What reason do you have for believing that a god wrote it, rather than teams of Jewish scribes…scribes who weren’t witnesses of the creation? You can bet Coyne doesn’t see the Bible as an authoritative account, nor do I; those of us who have studied the history of the Bible know that it was the product of humans, that it evolved over time as additions and revisions were made, that we can look at the text and see evidence of multiple authors in multiple eras, that its translations differ, that it contradicts itself in many places, and that the accumulated weight of objective evidence demonstrates that it was not poofed into existence by a supernatural being, but has a much more prosaic and earthy origin.

But, oh yeah, I forgot: Ken Ham rejects all historical sciences, even history itself, by claiming that they cannot determine anything. This is a belief he needs to hold in order to cling to his fatuous idea that the Bible was written directly by a myth wiggling the hands of the prophets.

I just wish he’d be consistent and admit that he believes the Bible is true in every word because he has faith, rather than trying to abuse science and redefine it to accommodate his preconceptions. He just lacks that much faith.

Café Scientifique in Morris on Tuesday evening

We’re bringing it back! If you’re in the neighborhood, stop by tomorrow night to learn some cool student-centered physics research.

Summary: Students from the Experimental Physics class will present “Results from Experimental Physics” on Tuesday, November 27, at 6 p.m. at the Common Cup Coffeehouse. This is the first Café Scientifique of the academic year.

Students from the Experimental Physics class at the University of Minnesota, Morris will present “Results from Experimental Physics” on Tuesday, November 27, at 6 p.m. at the Common Cup Coffeehouse (501 Atlantic Avenue, Morris, MN 56267). This is the first Café Scientifique of the academic year. All are welcome to attend, and audience participation is encouraged.

The event will showcase the results—including pictures, temperature, pressure, acceleration, measurements of the jet stream, and cosmic ray counts—from balloon flights conducted by the class. The balloons reached altitudes of 85,000 feet or higher and gathered data from the troposphere and lower stratosphere.

Café Scientifique is an ongoing series that offers a space where anyone can come to explore the latest ideas in science and technology for the price of a cup of coffee. Meetings take place outside of a traditional academic context and are committed to promoting public engagement with science. Additional information is available online. Interested audiences can look forward to additional discussions in 2013.

Café Scientifique is supported in part by a grant to the University of Minnesota, Morris from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute through the Precollege Science Education Program.

Grandpa Simpson lives!

Congratulations, Arthur L. and Ina Jean Strobel! They’ve been married for 65 years, a commendable accomplishment. I’m going to recommend, given Arthur’s interests, that for his 66th anniversary, they reward themselves with a real genetics class.

Here’s their anniversary announcement, published at, I presume, their own expense. He rambles on about his service in WWII, and then, strangely, talks about the actions of a German major who was charged with defending a bridge, and who might be a distant relative. Which leads him to talk about the inheritance of the Y chromosome, something about Romans and Celts, salt mines, and National Science Foundation Institutes. Also,

Arthur and Ina Jean consider attendance with and participation in a scripturally based church to to be of high importance for a long, happy, useful and satisfying life. They consider fiscal responsibility to be very important for family stability. They never pay extra for an extended warranty on a television, refrigerator, washing machine, automobile or anything else. They prefer to pay the complete price at the time of purchase for these items as extra pay for financial charges would be unwise. Arthur and Ina Jean consider spiritual and fiscal development and maturity to be worthy goals.

Then we’re back on the chromosome business, where we learn that having a Y chromosome makes you strong, good at chess, and able to solve Rubik’s Cubes quickly, while having two X chromosomes allows you to touch the back of your head with your foot. Also, one trick is to tell stories that don’t go anywhere. Like the time I caught the ferry to Shelbyville. I needed a new heel for m’shoe. So I decided to go to Morganville, which is what they called Shelbyville in those days. So I tied an onion to my belt. Which was the style at the time. Now, to take the ferry cost a nickel, and in those days, nickels had pictures of bumblebees on ‘em. Gimme five bees for a quarter, you’d say. Now where was I… oh yeah. The important thing was that I had an onion tied to my belt, which was the style at the time. You couldn’t get white onions, because of the war. The only thing you could get was those big yellow ones… . Oh, wait, no — I got that last bit somewhere else.

I would not recommend going to the anniversary party. Arthur’s sure to corner you and lecture at you for hours.

(via Kajed Heat)

A Better Life

Hey, that Atheist Book many of you helped fund is making progress — and we get a status report!

It really is a better life…except when I look over at the dining room table and see all those graded papers sprawled out that I have to organize and collate and log (and also finish.)