Good news from Barna

They’ve released their latest analysis of the demographics of American ‘skeptics’ (they use the word “skeptic” to refer to the combined group of atheists and agnostics). It’s a somewhat confusing report, because they insist on looking at us through the lens of religion — we’re “unchurched”, they use a set of metrics designed for assessing the religious, they refer to Christian and “post-Christian”, and other annoyingly pointless divisions that only matter to Christians), but in all the clutter, there was something that stood out.

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My weekends

I’ve mentioned before that my wife and I are coaching our wise son in driving on the weekends. He’s wise because he wasn’t at all interested in driving, still isn’t, but only needs the instruction to make getting to work more manageable in a place with poor mass transit (he and I will both be happy in the next decade when smart self-driving cars become available). Anyway, here’s a taste of what being a driving instructor is like.

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How not to build a coalition

I’m beginning to think that one of the big problems facing atheists is … incompetence. A representative from the Secular Policy Institute approached another organization and tried to convince them they ought to sign up with SPI. In the back and forth that followed after the organization expressed their lack of interest, the representative said a few things.

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A defense of ENCODE?

Dan Graur has snarled at the authors of a paper defending ENCODE. How could I then resist? I read the offending paper, and I have to say something that will weaken my own reputation as a snarling attack dog myself: it does make a few good points. But it’s mostly using some valid criticisms to defend an indefensible position.

Here’s the abstract.

In its last round of publications in September 2012, the Encyclopedia Of DNA Elements (ENCODE) assigned a biochemical function to most of the human genome, which was taken up by the media as meaning the end of ‘Junk DNA’. This provoked a heated reaction from evolutionary biologists, who among other things claimed that ENCODE adopted a wrong and much too inclusive notion of function, making its dismissal of junk DNA merely rhetorical. We argue that this criticism rests on misunderstandings concerning the nature of the ENCODE project, the relevant notion of function and the claim that most of our genome is junk. We argue that evolutionary accounts of function presuppose functions as ‘causal roles’, and that selection is but a useful proxy for relevant functions, which might well be unsuitable to biomedical research. Taking a closer look at the discovery process in which ENCODE participates, we argue that ENCODE’s strategy of biochemical signatures successfully identified activities of DNA elements with an eye towards causal roles of interest to biomedical research. We argue that ENCODE’s controversial claim of functionality should be interpreted as saying that 80 % of the genome is engaging in relevant biochemical activities and is very likely to have a causal role in phenomena deemed relevant to biomedical research. Finally, we discuss ambiguities in the meaning of junk DNA and in one of the main arguments raised for its prevalence, and we evaluate the impact of ENCODE’s results on the claim that most of our genome is junk.

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It’s money vs. principles

Museums (good museums, that is, not trashy sideshows like Ken Ham’s rubbish in Kentucky) have a real problem: they’re expensive to maintain. They aren’t dead piles of old bones, but are sites of active research, and they have to employ knowledgeable people to do the science that goes on there. It takes lots of money to keep one going.

But along comes a dilemma. Who has great big piles of money? Unfortunately, money tends to concentrate in the hands of assholes. And one thing many assholes would like to do is buy respectability and influence from more prestigious institutions…like museums. Some of the biggest, most assholish, ignorantest rich people are the Koch brothers, and the Koch brothers have been very generous in promoting their agenda by throwing money at museums.

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