Do you look like a crook?

I learned two awful things from this article on pseudo-scientific physiognomy: 1) Cesare Lombroso’s head is preserved in a jar in a museum in Italy, and 2) people are even now trying to identify criminals from photos. Not from their records, oh no, but from the implied fact that they look like criminals.

Lombroso, you may recall, had this terrible idea that you could identify bad people by their looks, by their facial features, bumps on their head, etc. These were familiar notions held by Nazis, who actually published school books to instruct kids on how to recognize Jews (it is often hard to recognize the Jew as a swindler and criminal […] How to tell a Jew: the Jewish nose is bent. It looks like the number six…), and Lombroso’s ideas fed directly into the eugenics movement. People who don’t look exactly like us must be lesser, don’t you know.

Modern neo-Nazis are saying the same things now, like that wretched MRA/MGTOW/PUA/Whatever at Chateau Heartiste:

You CAN judge a book by its cover: ugly people are more crime-prone.

Shitlibs have a look. Shitlords have a look. And you can predict with better than 50/50 chance which 2016 presidential candidate a person supports based on nothing more than their photograph.

Thanks, Cesare, for your contributions to bigotry. It seems kind of appropriate that in death, your head was chopped off and dropped in a bucket of formaldehyde. It’s unseemly, I suppose, but I do hope other body parts suffered similar indignities.

I also learned, unsurprisingly, that some people are trying to make physiognomy seem more scientific by making computers do it. As the article explains it length, but I’ll simply summarize in brief: if you train a neural network to find patterns, it will find them whether they’re actually there or not. As we know from those surreal images produced by Deep Dream, if all a piece of software knows how to do is highlight dogs and eyeballs in an image, it will find dogs and eyeballs everywhere.

You will rightly point out that the real test is if they spot the signal they’re searching for in some images, but not all, and if the software guesses correctly. Apparently, this software was trained on a small number of images, and they aren’t making the data available, so it’s hard to guess exactly what features they’re cueing on; the article speculates that it may be as trivial as whether the innocent faces were smiling and the criminal faces were scowling.

So another thing I learned is that if the Nazis take over and start scanning all our faces for criminal tendencies, you’d better smile like a giddy idiot all the time.

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The Anti-Gwyneth

Gwyneth Paltrow is feeling a slight irritation despite being cosseted away in her airy palace of privilege and pretense, raking in money for peddling quackery. She’s challenging critics to “bring their A-game”; her work is such lazy crap that I doubt that is necessary, but I’m also confident she’ll continue to skate along, skimming cash from her fellow rich white women until, of course, the Revolution.

Anyway, she has also pissed off Jen Gunter. Goopy Gwyneth is in trouble, although she doesn’t know it yet. Eventually, if you continue to blithely babble anti-scientific nonsense like this:

More and more scientists will start exposing you.

Gwyneth doesn’t need to worry, though. Like Chopra or Dr Oz or the Health Ranger, she’ll continue to get rich in a material sense, because there is no shortage of rubes out there with more money than sense. She’s just going to lose dignity and self-respect, ironically, those spiritual things she claims to value so much.

So…when creationists sneak bad papers into legit journals, does evolution collapse?

A few days ago, a paper was pointed out to me as a particularly horrible example of bad social science: it was titled “The conceptual penis as a social construct”. I glanced at. It was a murky mess and so bad that I couldn’t even get past the first paragraph, so I abandoned it as simply too much effort to criticize. As it turns out, it was a hoax: the authors were trying to pull a Sokal and expose “‘academic’ fields corrupted by postmodernism”.

We intended to test the hypothesis that flattery of the academic Left’s moral architecture in general, and of the moral orthodoxy in gender studies in particular, is the overwhelming determiner of publication in an academic journal in the field. That is, we sought to demonstrate that a desire for a certain moral view of the world to be validated could overcome the critical assessment required for legitimate scholarship. Particularly, we suspected that gender studies is crippled academically by an overriding almost-religious belief that maleness is the root of all evil.

The lead author is Peter Boghossian, whose own biases are rather obvious in that passage, and I think he overplayed his hand. He actually completely failed to demonstrate what he set out to do.

He sent the crap paper to NORMA: International Journal for Masculinity Studies, a journal with an impact factor of 0, and it was rejected. So, wait, the fake paper was punted? How does that demonstrate that “gender studies is crippled academically”?

NORMA nicely sent them off to resubmit to an even more poorly ranked journal, Cogent Social Sciences, which is so new it doesn’t even have an impact factor, and which is also a pay-to-publish journal. Boghossian then coughed up $625 to convince them to publish it.

At this point the hoax has become completely meaningless. There are bad, predatory journals out there that will take anything a hack scribbles up and publish it for a profit. This is not news. It is also not unique to gender studies or sociology. I’ve pointed out these bad papers more than a few times in journals in science fields.

So when I point out that Erik Andrulis published, in complete seriousness, a paper titled Theory of the Origin, Evolution, and Nature of Life that attempts to explain chemistry, development, and evolution as functions of spiral gyres, does that discredit those fields? When David Abel of the Department of ProtoBioCybernetics and ProtoBioSemiotics publishes a paper on the origin of life that is packed full of buzzwords and pseudoscience, does that mean that Nick Lane and Bill Martin are full of crap, too? Because the Journal of Cosmology exists, astronomy is fake science? John Bohannon created an automatic molecular biology paper generator that churned out garbage papers. They were accepted by 157 science journals. I guess we can scratch the entire field of molecular biology.

As I wrote about that last example:

I agree that there is a serious problem in science publishing. But the problem isn’t open-access: it’s an overproliferation of science journals, a too-frequent lack of rigor in review, and a science community that generates least-publishable-units by the machine-like application of routine protocols in boring experiments.

The lesson to be learned here is that Boghossian executed a poorly performed experiment that didn’t succeed in what he engineered it to do, and which was embarrassingly derivative, and then analyzed the results poorly. At least it cost the hack $625 to attempt some click-bait sensationalism.

There’s more. See Kris Wager, and Ketan Joshi lists lots of examples of hoaxes in science disciplines that didn’t indict entire broad fields of research.

Sapolsky’s explanation for the benefits of religiosity

I agree with most of what he says.

One exception, but I think it’s just a minor wording problem.

And believing that there is something, someone responsible for it at least gives some stress reducing attributes built around understanding causality. If on top of that you believe there is not only something out there responsible for all of this but that there is a larger purpose to it, that’s another level of stress reducing explanation.

If then on top of it you believe that individual out there is benevolent—even more so control and predictability. Benevolent and listens to human entreaties? More elements of control.

Benevolent, listens to human entreaties, and prefers to listen to people like you who look like you, pray like you, request like you? Even more so. They’re just all these levels of control, predictability; they’re stress reducing.

Where he says “control”, I’d say “illusion of control”, and I also think that’s key to answering his final question: what’s up with those atheists who don’t embrace the stress-reducing benefits of religion? I think the answer is simple. If the purpose of this belief is to help us feel in control and reduce stress, it fails on both counts if you see through the illusion and realize that prayer and worship to an invisible being do nothing.

It’s like driving along in the passenger side of a car when a deer darts out in front of you; you may slam your foot down on the floorboards as if you’ve got a brake on your side, but you don’t, and it doesn’t matter. Atheists choose not to believe in an invisible parallel brake pedal on the passenger side of the car that you can push to assist the driver in stopping faster, and we don’t see what genuine virtue would be attached to pretending there is one.

But still, there are lots of people who clutch armrests and stomp on the floor to give themselves that feeling of control.

Never when I’m driving, of course.

Mathematics and mind are supernatural, therefore God exists?

Therefore, Cthulhu exists

If you ever want to publish some poorly written drivel in a popular “news” magazine, there’s an easy recipe: make sure it’s pious drivel. It’s like these rags have a mandatory quota of religious crap they have to spread around, and quality is no criterion. So Newsweek published an article titled, Does god exist? Some scientists think they have proof. Guess what? They don’t have proof, and it’s not written by a scientist. The author is an economist, or more precisely, working at the intersection of economics, environmentalism and theology. It shows. He has a couple of bad arguments that don’t justify what he claims.

His first argument is basically that math is magic. It’s not matter, and it’s not energy, therefore it’s something independent of physical reality.

In other words, as I argue in my book, it takes the existence of some kind of a god to make the mathematical underpinnings of the universe comprehensible.

Did I mention that he’s peddling a book? Of course he is.

I’m not a mathematician or a philosopher, I’m just a pragmatic biologist, so I find the whole point of this line of reasoning to sail right over my head. It seems more than a little self-referential — god created logic; I’m making a logical argument; therefore god exists — and they want to argue not that god is mathematics, but that god is something outside of mathematics who created math, so it’s not clear how demonstrating that the universe operates on a consistent set of logical principles argues for something outside that universe. That math works does not imply that a god, especially the specific deity of myth and folklore, Jesus, also works.

But it’s typical of this guy’s approach. If he can’t see it or touch it, it must be a mystery, and must be supernatural, therefore god. He has another example, besides the math he doesn’t understand: consciousness.

How can physical atoms and molecules, for example, create something that exists in a separate domain that has no physical existence: human consciousness?

It is a mystery that lies beyond science.

That consciousness exists in a separate “domain” is nothing but an assertion.

The workings of human consciousness are similarly miraculous. Like the laws of mathematics, consciousness has no physical presence in the world; the images and thoughts in our consciousness have no measurable dimensions.

The complex, patterned flow of electrons inside the computer he typed that on also lacks “measurable dimensions”, therefore Microsoft Word is supernatural. Probably satanic, even.

…I would argue that the supernatural character of the workings of human consciousness adds grounds for raising the probability of the existence of a supernatural god.

Except…the workings of human consciousness are not supernatural. You can swallow a pill that affects the level of neurotransmitters in your brain, and change your mood. You can have a stroke that knocks out regions of the brain and get changes in personality and behavior. You can lie in an MRI and think about math problems or poetry and see changes in the pattern of oxygen consumption in your brain. It’s complicated and we’re far from understanding everything about consciousness, but it is clear that it is profoundly physical, a product of shifting patterns of ionic flux and material patterns of connectivity and chemistry.

Dualism just doesn’t work.

This being a pseudoscientific essay on god, he’s also got to throw in his two cents about evolution. He doesn’t understand it.

As I say in my book, I should emphasize that I am not questioning the reality of natural biological evolution. What is interesting to me, however, are the fierce arguments that have taken place between professional evolutionary biologists. A number of developments in evolutionary theory have challenged traditional Darwinist—and later neo-Darwinist—views that emphasize random genetic mutations and gradual evolutionary selection by the process of survival of the fittest.

Oh? Really? What are these arguments? Of course random genetic mutations are part of the story. Of course selection occurs. There are arguments about the relative contributions of different processes in evolution, but no real challenges to the big picture. Where does he get this idea that there are major shake-ups going on that make the supernatural a plausible alternative theory?

Would you believe…Stephen Jay Gould?

From the 1970s onwards, the Harvard evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould created controversy by positing a different view, “punctuated equilibrium,” to the slow and gradual evolution of species as theorized by Darwin.

No. Punctuated equilibrium is not a different view (although Gould himself contributed to the confusion by inflating the significance of an argument about the tempo of evolution). There is nothing in PE to defy our understanding of how evolution works. What this is is simply more of the standard creationist lack of comprehension of both evolutionary theory and punctuated equilibrium.

I recommend this overview by Douglas Theobald on the misconceptions about PE.

Much confusion has surrounded the concept of Punctuated Equilibrium (PE) as proposed by Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould in 1972. This essay addresses a few of the erroneous views held by many creationists and even some evolutionary biologists concerning PE. In this article I make the following main points:

  1. There are two common uses of “gradualism,” one of which is more traditional, the other of which is equivalent to Eldredge and Gould’s “phyletic gradualism.”
  2. Darwin was not a “phyletic gradualist,” contrary to the claims of Eldredge and Gould.
  3. PE is not anti-Darwinian; in fact, the scientific basis and conclusions of PE originated with Charles Darwin.
  4. PE does not require any unique explanatory mechanism (e.g. macromutation or saltation).
  5. Eldredge and Gould’s PE is founded on positive evidence, and does not “explain away” negative evidence (e.g. a purported lack of transitional fossils).

Aside from mangling ideas by Gould, who else is claiming that natural mechanisms are inadequate to explain evolution? It’s James Shapiro.

In 2011, the University of Chicago evolutionary biologist James Shapiro argued that, remarkably enough, many micro-evolutionary processes worked as though guided by a purposeful “sentience” of the evolving plant and animal organisms themselves. “The capacity of living organisms to alter their own heredity is undeniable,” he wrote. “Our current ideas about evolution have to incorporate this basic fact of life.”

Shapiro is a crank. The only people who promote his theories all seem to be intelligent design creationists. The Newsweek article seems to believe he’s supporting the god-hypothesis.

For my part, the most recent developments in evolutionary biology have increased the probability of a god.

You know, I’m a little bit familiar with current developments in evolutionary biology, and none of them involve magic or the supernatural. Once again, he’s just making an assertion without evidence, in contradiction to the actual state of affairs, and somehow leaping to the conclusion that evolution is evidence for a god.

Oh, hey, did you know that the existence of science is evidence for gods, too?

The development of the scientific method in the 17th century in Europe and its modern further advances have had at least as great a set of world-transforming consequences. There have been many historical theories, but none capable, I would argue, of explaining as fundamentally transformational a set of events as the rise of the modern world. It was a revolution in human thought, operating outside any explanations grounded in scientific materialism, that drove the process.

That all these astonishing things happened within the conscious workings of human minds, functioning outside physical reality, offers further rational evidence, in my view, for the conclusion that human beings may well be made “in the image of [a] God.”

Again with the claim that human minds function outside physical reality. If that were true, maybe he could make a case, but he hasn’t demonstrated what he claims.

Furthermore, from this broad, diffuse, non-specific set of sloppy arguments for a god who is some generic force behind mathematics and consciousness and evolution, what do you think: will he promote a pantheistic vision of a deity? Maybe he’ll plunk down on the side of one of the Hindu gods. Or maybe it’ll be Anansi or Huitzilopochtli.

Nah, you know it was coming. He thinks this nebulous nonsense is evidence for the god of the Christian holy book. So predictable…

That the Christian essence, as arose out of Judaism, showed such great staying power amidst the extraordinary political, economic, intellectual and other radical changes of the modern age is another reason I offer for thinking that the existence of a god is very probable.

But he even mentions Judaism — which is significantly older than Christianity, and still extant. If endurance is the metric, shouldn’t it win? Hinduism and Zoroastrianism are even older.

I’d also have to argue with the idea that the Christian essence, whatever that is, has been stable. Ever heard of the Reformation? The Thirty Years War? And which Christianity is he talking about: there are thousands of denominations, and all of them would look really weird in contrast to Christianity in the first century, or the tenth century.

Also, I have to point out that the fact that people believe in something is not actually evidence that what they believe is true. People have believed in ghosts for millennia, that does not mean that ghosts exist.

Those rocks belong to everyone

If you’ve ever been to a national park (or to most state parks), there are strict restrictions on what you are allowed to do as a visitor: you can’t back a pickup truck in and load it up with petrified wood, or an assortment of cactuses, or harvest a crop of squirrels. There are all kinds of rules to protect the status of the park from predatory hordes of visitors — if you go rafting through the Grand Canyon, for instance, get used to pooping into a can because you have to haul out everything you bring in.

This is true for everyone. You don’t get to say “Back off, man, I’m a scientist” to excuse going at the Grand Canyon walls with a rock hammer. You have to get a scientific collecting permit, and it’s no rubber stamp process — your application actually gets reviewed by qualified peers.

You know what’s even less effective? Saying Back off, man, I’m a creation scientist.

Creationists regularly run tours through the Grand Canyon, pointing at the rocks and misinterpreting them and using the lens of the Bible to lie about the science, and that’s OK. They’re hurting themselves with ignorance, but as long as they don’t wreck the experience for others, that should be their right. But Andrew Snelling, the Answers in Genesis geology wackaloon who thinks the canyon is only about 4,000 years old, wants to chip away at the rocks and haul away samples, which he will abuse to support his pet thesis. The National Park Service turned him down.

The NPS is awesome.

One of the many things that bug me about creationists is their dishonesty. Snelling had applied for a collecting permit, but avoided saying anything about what he intended to do and minimized his affiliations, pretty much the opposite of what real scientists do.

After conducting three other research projects in the Grand Canyon and guiding 30 river tours of the canyon, he filed a research proposal in Nov. 2013 seeking to collect 60 half-pound rock samples, the suit states. The 24-page proposal only once mentioned his role at Answers in Genesis and contained no other references to religious motivation or creationism.

Snelling claims park officials asked Snelling for two peer reviews evaluating his research proposal, something that hadn’t been asked for in his previous projects. He provided three, which court documents show were written by other academics who have participated in creationist research.

He was turned down. The reviews of his proposal are amusing.

Karl Karlstrom, Ph.D. with the University of New Mexico said Snelling proposal, in part, was not “well written, up-to-date or well referenced” and “I suspect his research application… is motivated by his faith that the Cambrian strata were deposited during Noah’s flood, which is the creationist (and certainly not the scientific) explanation for Grand Canyon strata.”

Peter Huntoon, a former professor at the University of Wyoming, said the park should adhere to “your narrowly defined institution mandate…that ours is a secular society as per our constitution” and argued creationists have already decided the answers to their proposed questions.

“Your internal screening processes should include an examination of the credentials of the submitters so that those who represent inappropriate interests should be screened out,” Hutton wrote and suggested a history of creationist research pre-dating Answers in Genesis.

The third peer-review from Ron Blakley of Northern Arizona University simply said, “it is difficult to review such an outlandish proposal.”

Huntoon’s remark is particularly apropos. Snelling has determined what the “answer” will be (it’s in Genesis!), and there is literally no purpose at all to collecting physical evidence that will be ignored in favor of a collection of ancient myths. That isn’t science.

So of course Answers in Genesis is suing the NPS, and is invoking the Holy Name of Donald Trump to do so.

The suit cites President Donald Trump’s executive order signed May 4 which states all executive departments and agencies shall, to the greatest extent practicable and to the extent of permitted law, respect and protect the freedom of persons and organizations to engage in religious and political speech.

In a press release, Ken Ham, president of Answers in Genesis said this will be a test case of Trump’s order.

Since when is breaking up bits of a park “free speech“?

Hey. I’ve got a rock hammer. I’m also going to visit the Answers in Genesis Ark Park next month. Donald Trump says I get to collect a few bits and pieces in the name of my inviolable religious rights. Do you think that will fly?

Think, creationists, think

I was reading this gushing review of Mark Armitage’s work by Dr Jay Wile, who was “voted #1 by the readers of Practical Homeschooling magazine.” Armitage is the microscope technician who claims to have discovered intact cells in dinosaur bone. He’s full of it. But I have to say I appreciate the unwitting way Wile tears apart Armitage’s work while thinking he’s praising it.

Here’s an easy one. You’d think someone with a Ph.D. in nuclear chemistry would understand that this is garbage:

A couple of years ago, for example, a sample of the fossil was analyzed for carbon-14 content. If it really is 65 million years old, there should be no carbon-14 in the fossil. Nevertheless, carbon-14 was found. Of course, there is always the chance that the carbon-14 is the result of contamination, but combined with the presence of soft bone cells, it seems obvious to me that the fossil is significantly younger than 65 million years!

C14 dating uses the ratio of carbon isotopes; it can’t be used on material above about 50,000 years because the quantity of carbon-14 is too low to be reliable, not because it’s nonexistent. If the bone was really young, you wouldn’t just be reporting that there was some C14 in it, you’d be reporting an age derived from a ratio.

But now for the real nonsense: the cells are just there, requiring no chemical isolation.

This soft tissue didn’t require any chemical procedure to isolate. It was simply there, inside the horn. He describes the sample as “soft, stretchy fibrillar bone,” and the light microscope image clearly shows the bone cells embedded in the tissue. Thus, this isn’t some biofilm left behind by bacteria or some other form of contamination. This is soft bone tissue from the horn itself, as evidenced by the bone cells embedded therein.

But wait, no! It does take long chemical processing to extract these cells!

While all of these images are incredible, he saves the best for last. Using a six-week process involving a weak acid, dialysis tubing, and distilled water, he was able to isolate individual bone cells. Look at the photo at the top of this post. It is of an individual Triceratops bone cell, as seen with a standard light microscope. The final two images of Armitage’s paper show two bone cells like the one above. They are free of any surrounding tissue, and one of them shows what appears to be the cell’s nucleus! If I hadn’t been told that these cells came from a Triceratops fossil, I would think they had come from a living animal’s bone tissue.

Which is it? From that description, though, I have to wonder — that is a protocol that opens the door to lots of opportunities for contamination. How meticulous is this technician’s procedure? That question is moot, because he quotes Armitage’s description of the fossil bone sample.

The remarkable preservation of delicate ultrastructures such as filopodia and cell-to-cell junctions (white arrows, Figures 6 and 7) has resisted a simple explanation despite hypothesized temporal limits on molecular preservation over millions of years. In the case of soft vessels recovered from dinosaur femur specimens, it seems reasonable that these tissues were sequestered from the elements and from biological scavenging activity because of deep encapsulation within compact bone. Within the Triceratops horn, however, which was highly vascular, no sequestration was likely because all of the vessels were openly exposed to air, soil, water, scavengers, dissolved salts and minerals, and the freeze-thaw cycle and heat of Montana seasonal weather; yet a high degree of preservation persists. While plant roots, fungal hyphae, and insect remains were all found traversing the horn, soft fibrillar sheets of bone and well-preserved osteocytes remain.

Unbelievable. Utterly unbelievable. He just compromised his own results, and Wile obliviously calls this the most important part of the article. I agree, but not for the reasons Wile thinks.

Tucker Carlson will continue O’Reilly’s war on atheism

Now that the conservative establishment has those Muslims all sorted (kick ’em out!), the Hispanics under control (build a wall…I mean, fence!), and the black population terrorized (just shoot them), and the transgender kids timed to explode (don’t ever let them go to the bathroom and wait for them to pop) it’s time start tightening the screws on the atheists again. I don’t think they’re particularly strongly targeting us, especially not in light of what’s being done to other minority groups, but that there is simply a rising tide of intolerance for non-white, non-Christian, non-asshole people. So Tucker Carlson had Amanda Knief of American Atheists on to complain about the removal of a park bench that said “Men Who Aren’t Governed by God Will Be Governed by Tyrants”.

I have to say that that slogan is discriminatory against unbelievers — and it’s false as well. I think the example of history says that believers are fairly susceptible to tyranny, and the more fanatical the belief, the more likely their tyrants will be incredibly awful. Flip it around; if a city put a park bench that said “Men Governed by God Are Governed by a Tyrant”, it would be seen as strongly anti-religious, and Tucker Carlson would be demanding that it be removed.

As for Tucker Carlson, he’s the replacement for O’Reilly. O’Reilly was stupid and would would address these kinds of issues with mindless blustering anger, but Carlson isn’t any better. His approach is to squint and babble and act like he doesn’t understand what the person he’s interviewing is saying — and he probably doesn’t. I guess Fox News hosts have to be dumbasses so their audience can identify with them.

Amanda Knief was good, and she’s a good choice to go on these kinds of shows. She’s one of the nicest people in the movement — she’s a lawyer and an atheist, so she’s shattering both stereotypes by being friendly and nice — but she also wasn’t going to let Carlson’s inanities slide by, answering everything patiently and with a smile. David Silverman is good if you want a combative personality fighting back on the screen, but Amanda is better if you want someone who’ll defuse the anger.