Creationism certainly does undermine education!

Tina Dupuy had a good op-ed published in the Sedalia, Missouri newspaper, titled “Teaching creationism hurts kids, undermines educational system“. Yeah, it does: it prompted some rebuttals that made her case even more strongly. John Nail has some complaints:

Writer had it dead wrong on debate over teaching creationism

In response to Tina Dupuy column in the April 15 paper entitled “Teaching creationism hurts kids, undermines education system,” I’d like to say, “Phooey!”

From the article it sounds like she has some real issues with her mother. [Cheap shot. Dupuy's article had issues with her mother's fundamentalist dogmatism…just like Nail's] It may be good therapy for her to vent in the column, however she submits NO scientific evidence of the evolution theory [The piece is about how creationism kept her ignorant of science; it's not a scientific treatise]. The only item she mentioned was when she wrote, “There’s plenty of self-evident evidence (see: the flu virus). …”. A virus is not even a living organism. [And yet…they evolve!]

From the Answers in Genesis website (answersingenesis.org/articles/aid/v1/n1/has-it-evolved) [Uh-oh. Not a trustworthy source at all]: “So what should one say if asked, “Is the ‘bird flu’ evolving”? It could be said that the avian influenza genome is evolving only in the sense that it’s continually changing and modifying [Uh, yes? That's evolution!], and not in the sense that it will someday be something other than an influenza virus [It will become a different kind of virus, with different properties. It will not become a chicken, nor does evolution predict that it will]. Yes, influenza viruses do possess a certain degree of variability; however, the amount of genetic information which a virus can carry is vastly limited[So? So's the amount of information in your genome, John Nail -- that we don't have infinite genomes is not an argument against evolution], and so are the changes which can be made to its genome before it can no longer function[Again, limits are what we expect in the real world; show me a system with an absence of limitations on its behavior and maybe I'll start believing in your god].”

“Scientists”[The only "scientists" who deserve scare quotes are the shabby charlatans that Nail cites] tell us the moon is 4.6 billion years old. If it were then the Apollo 11 astronauts should have stepped off into several feet of space dust instead of the inches they did. Based on the accumulation of dust (which is measured by “scientists”) the moon would be 7-10,000 year old [Oh, please. Seriously? The Moon Dust argument? Even Answers in Genesis, Nail's favorite source, rejects that claim!].

The word dinosaur means “large lizard”[No, actually, it means "terrible lizard"] — Ms. Dupuy, we still have large lizards [So? "Dinosaur" is a specific name referring to a specific clade with specific features in their anatomy that are distinct from those of extant lizards—the argument from word roots is irrelevant to the biological reality. I could call John Nail an ass, but that doesn't mean he'll sprout long ears and a tail and start braying (oops, well, he is doing that last bit already)]. In fact, large lizards were small when they were young. Noah could have easily had immature “dinosaurs” on the Ark [He could have also packed in every species in the planet as gametes stored in liquid nitrogen, with the temperature maintained by giant refrigerators driven by a nuclear power plant. Your fantasy about what 'coulda' happened isn't evidence of reality]. Natural Science museums do not show the rabbits, squirrels and other currently known animals whose bones were found with the dinosaur bones[Say what? Rabbits found in the Cretaceous would be amazing. Too bad they aren't — John is just making shit up]. It would be to hard to explain why they were living together in the same times[Yes it would. But they haven't.].

When I was in school in the 60s we learned about the cavemen: The Peking man, the Java man and others. When they were exposed as hoaxes, they were not removed from the textbooks [Because those are all examples of Homo erectus. They were not exposed as hoaxes, by any means — rather, many more fossil examples have been found].

I could list many scientific reasons that macro-evolution makes no sense but we believe what we want to believe[If they're of the same quality as the reasons given so far, no need to bother]. As an ancient text says, “For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, He taketh the wise in their own craftiness. And again, The Lord knoweth the thoughts of the wise, that they are vain.”[I think it was in the best interests of the authors of the Bible to claim that wisdom is foolishness, to make their foolishness look wise.]

I have taught[Fuck, no!] in a Christian school (St. Paul’s Lutheran)[Unsurprising] for the past fifteen years. We look at both sides of the argument[Liar. We can see already that he knows nothing of the science]. The government schools only look at one side so who is getting a “better” science education? [The kids in schools that actually teach the evidence, and how it was determined, and who are not getting prepackaged superstition in the guise of science] We are not afraid of the scientific discoveries[Because you will readily distort them to fit your agenda]. They prove the Bible true! [Seven day creation, zombies invading Jerusalem, genetics determined by striped sticks, self-serving ahistorical bullshit, all of that? Nope.] The Bible is not a bunch of “stories.”[Actually, it is largely the mythology of a tribe of pastoral, patriarchal jerks who successfully murdered and enslaved their way to a small niche in the Middle East, and then frantically invented a legendary triumphal history to prop up their egos when they were serially crushed by stronger tribes] It is a record of God moving in the history of mankind [Yeah, right, and Star Trek: The Next Generation is about an all-powerful psychopath named Q…but that doesn't make it true]. We cannot prove that God created the earth and everything in it in 6 days, no one we know was there to see it[But we can look at the scientific evidence and disprove your myth]. Neither can we prove that a spark started life billions of years ago. No one was there either[A true acolyte of the frauds at AiG: "Were you there?" Nope, but there's more to evidence than just eyewitness testimony…which is actually a miserably poor form of evidence]. And we certainly cannot replicate either in a lab[Actually, yes, we can replicate pieces of the chemistry in the lab. We can't replicate magical beings poofing things into existence]. So, Ms. Dupuy, it all comes down to what we want to believe[I want to believe I'm a billionaire who can fly by flapping my arms. Is it true?]. I understand that if you do not believe that God created the world in six days[Because it is contradicted by the evidence] then you probably have a difficult time in believing the account of God’s amazing work in the lives of people then and now [Which is unsupported by any credible evidence]. My prayer is that God would touch your life in a mighty way so that you will know with certainty that God is real [What an evil wish: the one thing we learn from the Bible is that their imaginary deity is a vicious amoral thug. I wouldn't wish it on anyone, not even John Nail].

Just to put the icing on the cake, John Nail actually is a teacher (kindergarten through 5th grade) and principal at St. Paul’s Lutheran School in Sedalia. I feel so much pity for the kids being sent to that undoubtedly awful school.

My ulterior motive

In case you’re wondering why I’m experimenting with video, there actually is an ulterior motive, and it’s the same one that got me into blogging in the first place: teaching. I’m teaching science at an undergraduate institution, and contrary to many people’s expectations, a bachelor’s degree does not confer a deep understanding of science, and it can’t. Students come out of high school with an ability to read and do basic math (at least the ones we admit to college!), and have wildly varying abilities in writing, analysis, and thinking. I think the undergraduate university’s role is more to deepen the student’s abilities in those general skills, and also to provide a broad knowledge base in a discipline of their choosing. We’re preparing students to go off and do science, if that’s what they want to do. I’ve done my job if my students go to graduate school competent and confident, ready to get to work and explore the natural world. Or if they choose not to follow a science career, they’re open to read and think about the world in a scientific way.

So there are a couple of things I do in my upper level lab courses. I take a hands-off approach: I teach students how to use the tools in my lab, give them a general idea of what would be cool to do or see, and turn them loose. If I see a combination of frustration (“I can’t get it to work! How do I get it to work?”) and play (“What if we do this?”), it’s a success. I have them blogging because it’s a sneaky way to get them to think about the subject of the class outside of class, and also to get them to blend their interests — which usually aren’t identical to mine! — with what I’m teaching.

And then there are presentations. Communicating your work is an important part of doing science, too. I try to get them to do that with the blogging, but also our university promotes a capstone experience, our senior seminars. Before a student can graduate, they have to do a one hour talk on some subject in their discipline, and it’s a big deal/ordeal to the students, and also a big deal/ordeal for us faculty in one of the largest majors on campus. Their quality varies all over the place, even though many of my colleagues and I do incorporate requirements for giving in-class presentations in our upper level courses, and we have a preparatory course on writing that includes giving presentations. There’s a limitation on doing that in class, though: you’ve got 20 students, you can’t chew up multiple class hours getting them all to do rehearsals and rehearsals under your supervision. We usually get an abstract and a promise and a conversation with them to help explain the data, and then boom, they do their talk to the class. It’s one shot and they’re done. That’s not the way to learn.

So I’ve had this idea…this is a generation that’s comfortable with their camera phones, that whiles away hours on facebook and youtube. What if I tried to combine that with doing presentations? What if, in one of my lab courses, I made the final project to be producing a short youtube video explaining some piece of data that they’d gotten in the lab? Put a micrograph or a chart or a time-lapse video on the screen and explain it with a voice-over, or stand in front of a camera while discussing some fine point of theory, or make a how-to video on how to use the microscope. It’s something they could tweak until it looks good, I’d be able to review work in progress fairly easily, and then what they put up for final evaluation might be a little more polished. This would be a useful skill for the future. I’m also rather impressed with how Casey Dunn has his students make creature features.

One catch: to have the students do it, I have to be able to do it. So in my spare time (hah!), I’ve been tinkering with ideas. I got some clamp lamps to play with lighting, I’ve got some cheap and simple backdrops to play with, I read Steve Stockman’s How to Shoot Video That Doesn’t Suck (which has a lot of damn good basic practical advice), and I’ve been doing some experimenting, most of which will never see the light of day. I’m learning stuff, which is always fun.

And it’s useful stuff, too. For instance, I’m a words and typing sort of guy, so my approach so far has been to write a script and then wrap video and images around it. That doesn’t work so well. I’m slowly learning that in this medium you start with video and images and wrap words around them. And that’s exactly what we do routinely in a science talk! You’ve got these chunks of data in the form of images and numbers, and what you do in a presentation is show them and add your verbal explanation on top. Man, I ought to know this stuff already. I just have to adapt.

So this summer you might be seeing more of my unphotogenic face in videos as I clumsily try to get some basic skills in this medium. The payoff, though, is that in a year or so I’ll be able to teach my students how to do it better, and then we’ll get a fine new crop of video stars who are comfortable explaining science in front of a camera.

But don’t worry, you don’t have to suffer through my struggles, just don’t watch me.

It’s Matthew Yglesias’ world: we just get blown up in it.

I haven’t had much use for The Lizard of K Street since he posted this sociopathic little gem in 2004:

Did the president really gut the Endangered Species Act yesterday while no one was paying attention? So I’ve heard, at any rate. If so, good riddance. You’ll all yell at me, I suppose, but really: Who cares? Species die, shit happens, get over it.

It is not exactly news that Matthew Yglesias is a tepid thinker. Poking holes in Yglesias’ vacuous, self-absorbed puffery has long been a popular pastime among bloggers from the progressive left to the hard right. He’s got himself a cushy gig these days, squirting out incontinent posts with no detectable logical or factual value, and as long as people give his outlets page views it’s all good. Eyeballs are eyeballs, and it doesn’t matter much if those eyeballs are rolling upward hard enough to burst blood vessels.

But this shit? This shit is inexcusable.

Bangladesh may or may not need tougher workplace safety rules, but it’s entirely appropriate for Bangladesh to have different—and, indeed, lower—workplace safety standards than the United States.

The reason is that while having a safe job is good, money is also good. Jobs that are unusually dangerous—in the contemporary United States that’s primarily fishing, logging, and trucking—pay a premium over other working-class occupations precisely because people are reluctant to risk death or maiming at work. And in a free society it’s good that different people are able to make different choices on the risk–reward spectrum.…

Bangladesh is a lot poorer than the United States, and there are very good reasons for Bangladeshi people to make different choices in this regard than Americans. That’s true whether you’re talking about an individual calculus or a collective calculus. Safety rules that are appropriate for the United States would be unnecessarily immiserating in much poorer Bangladesh. Rules that are appropriate in Bangladesh would be far too flimsy for the richer and more risk-averse United States. Split the difference and you’ll get rules that are appropriate for nobody.

There are three main problems with Yglesias’ argument.

  1. Yglesias’ argument is profoundly immoral. People are willing to take bigger risks to feed their families when they’re burdened by poverty, yes. But arguing that we should use that unfortunate fact as a basic design feature of global workplace safety regulations is vile.
  2. Yglesias’ argument is profoundly ahistorical as well. Workplace safety regulations — and environmental laws, and education for women, and all of the thousands of other social goods we fight for — don’t magically appear when societies’ wealth passes a certain threshold as a result of the airy  fapping of the invisible hand. Those regulations come into being because people fight for them, often dying in the process, against the opposition of the entrenched powers that make the regulations necessary in the first place.  And here Yglesias is on the side of the entrenched powers, willing to wave away yet another workplace disaster so that he can continue to enjoy the cheap cotton shorts, running shoes, and tablet computers he sees as his birthright.
  3. Yglesias’ argument is essentially plagiarized from a 1991 memo by Laurence Summers written when the latter was the chief economist at the World Bank. A salient sampling from that memo:

I’ve always thought that under-populated countries in Africa are vastly UNDER-polluted, their air quality is probably vastly inefficiently low compared to Los Angeles or Mexico City. … The concern over an agent that causes a one in a million change in the odds of prostrate[sic] cancer is obviously going to be much higher in a country where people survive to get prostrate[sic] cancer than in a country where under 5 mortality is 200 per thousand.

An individual human life is worth fewer U.S. dollars in Bangladesh, and so betting that lower-value life against the possibility that you might actually survive your $432 per annum minimum wage job just makes better sense there than it does here, eh Matt? Hell, if the typical Bengali minimum wage worker survives his or her job for three or four years before they get crushed to death by an unsafe building, they may actually have come out well ahead of the game!

It’s a repugnant argument.

Matthew Yglesias should be ashamed of himself.

It’s an experiment, OK?

I’ve been told by a lot of people over the years that I need to start making youtube videos (some of them may have changed their minds once they learned of my low opinion of most youtube commenters), but the hurdle has always been the learning curve — I could just yell at my camera, but I’m used to investing a little prep time, and also I generally find those so, so boring. The only way to learn is to do, though, so I did. I clumsily assembled a little video discussing recent blog posts on Pharyngula, and here it is. I’m calling it the Pharyngula Fringe Report.

Not giving up my day job, don’t worry.

I think I’ll be trying to do this sort of thing sporadically over the summer, while I’m pinned down in Lovely Morris Minnesota, managing our summer research program. Maybe I’ll get a little better at it; I recognize that there are real skills involved in putting a good video together, and I don’t have them yet. Anyway, suggestions and criticisms are welcome.

If only I were a little more unscrupulous (or gullible) …I’d go to CMBF

I would love to visit China. I’d especially love to be invited to go there and have all my expenses covered. So when I got an official-looking invitation to a conference there a while back, I had a few milliseconds of enthusiasm, until I read a little deeper and my excitement got replaced with bafflement. I just turned away from it, but they keep begging me to attend. Here’s the latest letter from the China Medicinal Biotech Forum:

Dear Dr. Paul Myers,

This is redacted, the program coordinator ofthe 6th CMBF-2013. On behalf of the organizing committee of CMBF-2013, I sent you a formal Invitation Letter several weeks ago, which is regarding inviting you to participate in our forum as the Chair/Speaker of Session 7-2: Genetic and Cell Engineering Technologies for Biological Therapy. But we haven’t received any reply from you. In case of missing this grant event, I am writing again to extend to you our sincere invitation. Since we have learnt that you are making valuable contributions to Paul Myers…, your unique and inspirational message will definitely highlight the forum.

The 6th CMBF will be held on September 25-27, 2013 in Shenzhen, China. And it is hosted by CMBA, which was established in 1993 and consisted by 200 enterprise members and over 2000 professional individuals. It is on attachment to Ministry of Health of the People’s Republic of China, which is an executive agency of the state that plays the role of providing information, raising health awareness and education, ensuring the accessibility of health services, and monitoring the quality of health services provided to citizens and visitors in the mainland of the People’s Republic of China. It also cooperates and keeps in touch with other health ministries and departments, including those of the special administrative regions and the World Health Organization (WHO).

We have hosted CMBF for five times in Beijing, Shanghai, Qingdao and Dalian respectively. Each time was in every way extremely successful in spite of the preceding worldwide political and health problems. The strong attendance was a testimony to fact that the CMBF conference is well recognized as the most important international convention on China Medical Biotechnology.

The primary goal of this event is to provide a forum for the exchange of current information about new and emerging scientific knowledge, to discuss implications for future research and the application of new medicinal biotechnology, and to create opportunities for the collaboration and matchmaking between academia and industry. CMBF-2013 will focus on the following topics: Basic Research of Medical Biotechnology, Monoclonal Antibody, Regenerative Medicine & Stem Cell, Bone Tissue Bank, Nanomedicine, Biomaterials, Novel Technologies for Biotherapeutics, Clinical Application Medical Biotechnology (Part I)-Biological Diagnostics, Clinical Application Medical Biotechnology ( Part II)-Therapy, Dietary Fiber.

For more information regarding CMBF-2013, please visit our conference website at http://www.medbioforum.org/.

We look forward to your active support and participation.

Sincerely Yours,

Weird. I’m not a biotechnology or biomedicine researcher. I do not do “Genetic and Cell Engineering Technologies for Biological Therapy”, but they’re asking me to chair a session on the topic? I think it’s very nice that they’ve noticed I am “making valuable contributions to Paul Myers…”, which is true, but I think that only qualifies me to chair a session titled “Paul Myers”. Even if I were confident that this were a legitimate research conference, I’d turn them down.

But I did dig around trying to find out more about them. They’ve had quite a few meetings, and they’ve had some prestigious attendees, including Nobelists. Maybe somebody on their administrative team is a master of SEO, because all I could find with a casual search (sorry, I’m not going, so I wasn’t going to dig deeper) were links to the group itself and to Chinese sources. The topics sound reasonable and legit, but far more applied than anything that would interest me.

But now I’m curious. There are a couple of possibilities here.

One is that it’s a great big scam. I’d agree, and then find myself paying for travel expenses that would never be reimbursed. If that’s the case, we should spread the word.

Another is that it’s a real conference for an obscure organization that has a great deal of Chinese government money thrown at it. They’re honestly reaching out to make connections with US researchers, but they don’t really know who’s who.

Another very remote possibility is that somebody there knows who I am, actually thinks I have a “unique and inspirational message”, and is trying to shoehorn me into a session that is unfortunately a poor fit. I can do a general rah-rah biology talk, but I’m not at all qualified to go into the details of stem cell research and biotechnology.

Anyone have prior experience with this group? If nothing else, promoting a little more second-party information about them on the web would be helpful.

Cupping is a thing? Really?

Taslima points to celebrities who are actually getting cupping done. It makes me wonder if they’re also getting bled, and whether they prefer leeches or the lancet. It’s medieval nonsense and total quackery.

I was wondering if there were any good analyses of this stuff, though, and my search turned up an unsurprising fact: WebMD, that popular website for Americans who can’t afford to go to a real doctor, is embarrassingly uncritical of cupping. In fact, they’re generally very woo-ish — I am once again made conscious of my class privilege, because when I feel sick I walk down the street to see a real doctor at nominal cost, because I’ve got good health insurance. Which makes me wonder some more — maybe universal health care would be a more effective means of curbing quackery than trying to educate everyone to be good skeptics. Sometimes, being skeptical is only an option when you can afford to question.

Stephen needs help

In America, if you’re a wage lackey who experiences a major health problem, you’re just out of luck — the working poor get thoroughly screwed by the system. Stephen Andrew of The Zingularity is working two jobs, coming off a major heart attack, and is about to be evicted from his home. I guess his real problem is that he’s one of the moochers who didn’t vote for Romney.

He’s looking for donations to tide him over this rough spot. If you’re one of those people with a stable income and good health and a bit of a surplus…oh, hey, that’s me! I should go click on his paypal button.

Update from Iain Banks

He’s still dying of cancer, but it’s good to see a godless heathen like him still finding happiness in his life.

Discovering the sheer extent and depth of the feelings people have expressed on the message board over the past two weeks has been truly astounding.

I feel treasured, I feel loved, I feel I’ve done more than just pursue the craft I adore and make a living from it, and more than just fulfil the only real ambition I’ve ever had – of becoming a professional writer. I am deeply flattered and touched, and I can’t deny I’ve been made to feel very special indeed. At the same time, though, I’d like to think that it’s like this for every author, to a greater or lesser degree; we’ve each engendered more love out there than we think we have, and it’s only the fact that I’ve been able to pre-announce my own demise that has allowed me to realise my portion of that love in full while I’m still around to appreciate it.

Now I’m thinking…I’ve never met him and I guess I never will now, but I should send him a note of appreciation. We’re all alone in this world except when we’re not, so making the effort to touch another human being is rarely wasted.

(Also…cancer sucks.)

Now I understand why the BBC pulled it

The BBC recently broadcast a program for the charity Comic Relief, but yanked one sketch deemed too offensive from their online iPlayer. They’d apparently received thousands of complaints about it, and it was the only sketch on the program found so horribly offensive.

Apparently, regulators are now investigating the BBC, and the ever-charming Daily Mail is blustering that “BBC faces Ofcom probe into Rowan Atkinson’s foul-mouthed Comic Relief archbishop impression”. Rowan Atkinson? Foul-mouthed comic? Did they confuse him with Gilbert Gottfried or something?

So I finally got a look at the ghastly wicked sketch, and now I see why it got people upset. Here it is:

Oh, yeah, that’s some primo religion bashing. “Foul-mouthed” is the wrong word, though: Rowan Atkinson’s sin was being deadly accurate, perfectly portraying the cheerfully vapid fluttery chumminess of a thoroughly liberal Christian. That’s what got people angry: he didn’t just start roaring at religious leaders, he showed the viewers what they looked like through our eyes…and it was also so damned close to how the believers see them, too, that it wasn’t easily dismissed and was a palpable smack in the face.

Excellent work, Rowan Atkinson!