Try telling Ray Comfort that

He won’t get it, because like a heck of a lot of people, he doesn’t understand systematics at all. We will continue to try, though. Here’s a simple introduction to a basic concept in cladistic taxonomy:

One of the central tenets of modern taxonomy is that every group has to include, by definition, all of the groups that evolve from it. So rats did not stop being mammals when the rodent group branched off the evolutionary tree. Every branch on the tree of life is considered to be a member of all its parent branches.

This means, for example, there can be no definition of fish that does not include everything that evolved from fish. Following this logic you could argue that as amphibians evolved from fish, amphibians are fish. Mammals evolved from animals that evolved from amphibians, so mammals are fish. We are fish. While every biologist knows this conundrum, and that there is no biological definition for what most people consider “fish”, they decide not to worry about it because it’s helpful to think about living swimming “fish” as a group. Taxonomy is useful and makes a lot of sense, until it doesn’t.

There are other ways to classify organisms — we could do it by what color they are, or what they eat — but the one method that works coherently is to group them by line of descent.

The righties get their scientific misinformation from Breitbart, the Daily Mail, the Drudge Report, and James Delingpole

This is what we’ve come to already.

The house science committee, chaired by Republican Lamar Smith, is citing an article in Breitbart written by James Fucking Delingpole. It’s a story built on a collection of lies first published in The Daily Mail.

The Washington post calls it “dubious and deceptive”, and has published an article rejecting the claims, Earth’s temperature has not plunged at record clip and nationwide record cold not coming. The scientists I know are dumbfounded.

I actually read Delingpole’s article, and even though I’m not a climatologist, I could see how thickly the bullshit was being slathered. Here’s the kind of nonsense he’s slinging.

This is why there is such an ideological divide regarding climate change between those on the left and those on the right. The lefties get their climate information from unreliable fake news sites like Buzzfeed.

Wrong. This lefty gets his climate information from published, peer-reviewed science.

I get email…from Stuart Pivar!

He rankles easily, and my criticisms of his imaginary gastrulation paper demanded a reply…so Pivar rather haughtily wrote to me and is putting together an addendum to his paper. I pointed out that none of his fancy drawings corresponded at all to any gastrulating embryo, and that there is an utter lack of evidence for any of his hypothetical stages.

His answer? He meant to do that.

You see, he’s illustrating lost stages of embryonic development, stages that were modified by evolutionary changes like condensation (the compression of developmental events), and so modern animals don’t look like that.

We well know the difference between observed embryology and the proposed ancestral model now absent due to the phenomenon of condensation (see Gould, Ontogeny and Phylogeny, 1977)) . The attached paper accounts for the difference.

To publish illustrations without text is like watching the opera with no sound.

Well, sure, but when the opera music is screeching cacophony, and the libretto is a word salad, but the scenery and costumes are spectacularly silly and flamboyant, you’re doing the show a favor by turning off the loudspeakers.

OK, but I’ll just show you some of the words from his submitted addendum — I don’t need to show you the pictures, since they’re just the same imaginative squiggles we saw in the first. He still doesn’t answer what should be the central question of any science paper: how do you know your explanation is valid? Where is the evidence, the data, behind your results? It’s fine to say you’re describing stages or organisms lost to evolutionary history, but then you have to explain how you figured out the missing pieces of the puzzle. He doesn’t.

Actually, all his addendum does is reveal some weird preconceptions that Pivar has, like this:

A previously published paper (Pivar, et al., 2016) attributes the origin of vertebrate form to a hypothetical, lost initial stage of development consisting of the geometrically regular arrays of cells in the blastula resulting from the binary subdivision of the egg through the three axes of space in a coherent sequence of mechanically caused configurations. The sequence is interrupted by the bursting of the hypertense blastula along its ventral midline, followed by the elastic recoil of the surface toward the dorsal midline. This paper examines this event, demonstrating that the embryo is a resulting temporary form, consisting of the compressed form of the blastula—the limbs, ribs, and spine compressed into small bales, the limb buds and somites. Fetal development consists of the gradual resumption of the forms prior to recoil-compression.

Think about that. He’s trying to describe a universal property of vertebrate embryos, which means he has to be discussing a Pre-Cambrian state. But he’s listing derived characters — limbs, ribs, spine — that would not have been present in that “lost” ancestor, and he’s claiming that those characters were actually there, in a compressed form, ready to burst out in developing forms.

We have a word for this. He’s describing preformation. It’s not valid. That’s not how development or evolution work.

He’s also describing forces — “hypertense”, “elastic recoil”, “recoil-compression” — that he does not measure in any way but simply assumes are present. Again, how do you know that? He doesn’t say.

The concordance of this proposed hypothetical blueprint for the development of the vertebrate body with observed embryology is based on the principle of condensation, where over eons of evolutionary time terminal stages are added to embryology while initial stages condense and eventually disappear. Here the sequences, called embryogenesis, are observed embryology, while morphogenesis constitutes a hypothetical reconstruction of initial stages lost to evolutionary condensation.

The stages disappeared! So how do you know what they were? “Hypothetical reconstruction” is not sufficient explanation, especially when those reconstructions lack any “concordance” with the embryology of modern forms. You don’t simply get to do it because you think it looks right.

For example, I never met my paternal grandfather. I never even saw any photos of him — he died when my father was a little boy. I have seen photos and other records of more distant relatives, thanks to genealogy-obsessed aunts. So my grandfather is a “lost” ancestor.


By Pivar-logic, though, I get to ignore all known states and ‘hypothetically’ reconstruct Grandpa in whatever way looks good to me.


I suspect this is probably incorrect, especially since I can’t justify it with evidence in any way.

Oh, except if you use “inductive-deductive reasoning” to claim that it is plausible!

The presentation of the theory engages the Cartesian method of inductive-deductive reasoning to discover a mechanically plausible hypothetical path of cell division that accurately predicts the forms of the organism. The result is a coherent roadmap that directs evolution and guides the generation of the complex body from a single cell.

No, it is not coherent, nor does it accurately predict anything! Show your work, Pivar. It is not enough to say that you can distort your colored blobs into new shapes; you have to show how you know they did that, and relate them to modern forms…which you can’t do, because you lack any understanding of modern developmental biology.

Note how he closes the paper.

This presentation is in the form of a non-rigorous schematic, mechanically, geometrically-based sketch. The authors invite the multitudes of parties interested in the subject to participate in the corroboration (or refutation) of the premise by further investigation by theoretical, computational, and laboratory research.

Remarkable. His work is not rigorous, is based on playing geometry games with sketches, and he admits it. And then he asks other people to justify his premises for him with real research, which he hasn’t done.

I’ll pass.

I do notice, though, that he forgot “silence critics with lawsuits” as one of his strategies for testing his premises.

Balls on stalks

I neglected to include another bit of foolishness from that ridiculous Pivar paper. This is a perfect example of “looks like” biology, which is all the paper is: drawing correspondences by saying X looks like Y, based on superficial morphological similarities, and worse, then announcing that because X looks like Y, you have therefore explained both X and Y.

Behold, Figure 20!

Ovary, testis and urogenital tract origins. Parallel schematics showing similar morphogenesis of eye and gonads.

Ovary, testis and urogenital tract origins. Parallel schematics showing similar morphogenesis of eye and gonads.

Eyeballs and testicles, they’re both paired spheres dangling from stalks, am I right? Therefore, just pointing that rough similarity out simultaneously shows that they are produced by the same process, and explains how they developed and evolved. Done! Gimme my Nobel prize!

Imaginary Gastrulation and the return of Balloon Animal Biology

The crackpots are bustin’ out all over — not just in politics, but also in science. Remember Stuart Pivar? The septic tank tycoon who invented a whole new theory of evolution and development that he called Lifecode, built entirely around imaginary drawings of how embryos formed by folding and stretching themselves like balloon animals? It was total nonsense. There was no data. Much of his imagined topological transformations contradicted known embryological patterns, and he’d clearly never looked at real embryos. It was loosely based on structuralism, like the work of D’Arcy Thompson, which I consider useful and interesting, but it ignored all the work of the last century on induction and cell signaling and gene regulation. Trust me on this, no modern renovation of evo-devo will be able to just wave away gene and molecular interactions shaped by genetic variation as irrelevant, but that’s what Pivar has done.

I should also disclose that Pivar filed a lawsuit for $15 million against me in 2007, which he dropped as it threatened to become big news. Dang. What is it with people wanting millions of dollars from me?

Anyway, Pivar has a new publication! In the Elsevier journal Progress in Biophysics and Molecular Biology! With new coauthors!

[Read more…]

Facebook has become a scourge on the world

People are starting to wake up to the fact that as Facebook made changes to monetize social interactions, they have royally screwed up and instead incentivized lies. The NY Times reports on the fake news sites that have been blossoming all over the place. It’s crystal clear what drives them: money.

Jobless and with graduation looming, a computer science student at the premier university in the nation of Georgia decided early this year that money could be made from America’s voracious appetite for passionately partisan political news. He set up a website, posted gushing stories about Hillary Clinton and waited for ad sales to soar.

“I don’t know why, but it did not work,” said the student, Beqa Latsabidze, 22, who was savvy enough to change course when he realized what did drive traffic: laudatory stories about Donald J. Trump that mixed real — and completely fake — news in a stew of anti-Clinton fervor.

More than 6,000 miles away in Vancouver, a Canadian who runs a satirical website, John Egan, had made a similar observation. Mr. Egan’s site, The Burrard Street Journal, offers sendups of the news, not fake news, and he is not trying to fool anyone. But he, too, discovered that writing about Mr. Trump was a “gold mine.” His traffic soared and his work, notably a story that President Obama would move to Canada if Mr. Trump won, was plundered by Mr. Latsabidze and other internet entrepreneurs for their own websites.

“It’s all Trump,” Mr. Egan said by telephone. “People go nuts for it.”

These guys have discovered that peddling bullshit to the gullible is profitable. There are no checks on them at all; in particular, they seem to be completely unhindered by scruples. We have a name for such people: con artists.

NPR also has a story on fake news sites. This phony is painfully disingenuous.

And as the stories spread, Coler makes money from the ads on his websites. He wouldn’t give exact figures, but he says stories about other fake-news proprietors making between $10,000 and $30,000 a month apply to him. Coler fits into a pattern of other faux news sites that make good money, especially by targeting Trump supporters.

However, Coler insists this is not about money. It’s about showing how easily fake news spreads. And fake news spread wide and far before the election. When I pointed out to Coler that the money gave him a lot of incentive to keep doing it regardless of the impact, he admitted that was “correct.”

Oh, he’s so altruistic — he’s just trying to do good and expose the fake news industry, while profiting mightily from it and not doing a goddamn thing to expose it at all. He did nothing to point out the fraudulence of his stories or to reveal the extent of their spread, waiting instead for a conventional news source to call attention to what he’d been doing.

Another thing in that NYT story, another false excuse I’ve lost patience for. It’s “satire”.

“I don’t call it fake news; I call it satire,” he said. He avoids sex and violence because they violate Facebook rules, he said, but he sees nothing wrong otherwise with providing readers with what they want.

NO IT’S NOT. Here’s a basic dictionary definition of satire.

the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues.

Note the key phrase up there: you’re supposed to use it to “expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices”. Cheerleading for the alt-right or Donald Trump doesn’t count; like that Coler asshole, it only counts as satire if you’re using it to rebuke ideas you find disagreeable. They aren’t. They’re using lies to promote views they agree with or find profitable.

And how can lies be profitable? Blame Facebook. Here’s the story of a fellow who got banned from Facebook for criticizing the alt-right.

As I noted the last time this happened, unfortunately this is the risk you take when you sign on to Facebook and other social media sites. You don’t control the platform. Hell, you can’t even talk to the those who run the platform. And the size of it makes any attempt at real-time moderation by the platform managers a complete joke. Neither Facebook nor Twitter has made any real effort to prevent harassment, bullying, or any of the other more unfortunate aspects of social media. And Facebook has made no effort whatsoever to prevent abuse of their system and they’ve made it impossible for the victims to do anything about it. They are in fact complicit and they are very likely to become more so in the future.

My ban from the platform is the result of Facebook’s lousy architecture, which lets bullies and harassers abuse Facebook’s automated system – a system that was supposedly put in place to make Facebook safer – and I have absolutely no recourse for protest or appeal.

Let’s be honest here. Facebook and Twitter have no motivation to clean up their act: that they are paying out ad revenue to neo-Nazi propaganda is a consequence of the fact that that crap is popular. Rejecting bullying or fascism does not make them money, while providing an outlet for them does.

And now I’m torn. I feel like I should shut down my facebook account, but a) I use it for the good stuff it provides as a social medium to keep in touch with my scattered family, and b) if all the liberals leave, it will become an even worse playground for trolls and scum. What are you all going to do?

Not doing something can be just as political as doing something

You know all those distressing satellite photos of retreating glaciers and open water in the arctic? Or how about those terrible photos of the ravaged landscapes around the Canadian oil sands? Worry no more. They’re going to be gone.

Oh, we’ll still be wrecking the environment, but you won’t see pictures of it now. Donald Trump has a new vision for NASA, and it involves turning a blind eye earthward.

Donald Trump is poised to eliminate all climate change research conducted by Nasa as part of a crackdown on “politicized science”, his senior adviser on issues relating to the space agency has said.

Nasa’s Earth science division is set to be stripped of funding in favor of exploration of deep space, with the president-elect having set a goal during the campaign to explore the entire solar system by the end of the century.

This is far more political than maintaining the earth science program, which provides immediately useful information and unambiguous returns on investment. You know why he’s cutting these programs.

This would mean the elimination of Nasa’s world-renowned research into temperature, ice, clouds and other climate phenomena. Nasa’s network of satellites provide a wealth of information on climate change, with the Earth science division’s budget set to grow to $2bn next year. By comparison, space exploration has been scaled back somewhat, with a proposed budget of $2.8bn in 2017.

Revealing reality is now political, especially when your views have nothing to do with reality.

Although…maybe it’s psychological. Looking at ourselves and our own planet is too much like introspection, and we know the Donald doesn’t do that self-awareness thing.