Behe is still comfortably ensconced in a niche of ignorance

Back in the 1990s, when Behe first came out with his idea of irreducible complexity, I recall that there was some consternation in our little community of anti-creationist activists. Behe had done something novel: instead of denying all of the accumulated evidence, he instead turned the focus on the gaps in our knowledge. It’s something of a cunning plan, if you think about it; the scientific literature is full of papers where scientists say that now we understand Step X, but we still need to figure out Steps Y and Z, so let’s work (and get funded) for Y. In a sense, it’s brilliant, because instead of relying on creationist ignorance to advance his argument, he would use honest scientific ignorance instead.

So, have we worked out every single step in the evolution of the blood clotting pathway? No? Then all the gaps are filled in with God Design. Flagellum? Nope. Must have been design then. Resistance to anti-malarials by plasmodium? Clearly, if you haven’t isolated every genotype in the progression of the resistance, there is room for an invisible magic man done did it.

His other clever shuffle was to admit that there are natural processes at work, so every evolutionary change is the consequence of both the understood mechanisms and what he claims are necessary miraculous events, but that you can’t always tell which steps are caused by mutation/selection, and which are Designed. Which means that the scientists have to do all the work of documenting every step, while Behe sits back, does nothing, and gives credit to his unnamed Designer for all the parts that aren’t done. As Matt Herron points out:

Dr. Behe admits (in The Edge of Evolution) that there is “…great evidence that random mutation paired with natural selection can modify life in important ways,” so his view is that life’s diversity and complexity are best explained by a combination of natural and supernatural processes. In fact, I think that’s a fair summary of intelligent design in general. So to falsify intelligent design for a particular example, it’s not enough to show that natural processes are mainly responsible for its origin. No, you’d have to show that supernatural causes played no role at all, no matter how minor.

That’s the funny business that has kept him going for a quarter century now. He doesn’t have to do the work of showing that any of his hypothetical supernatural mechanisms actually operate anywhere, he does not have to test for Design, and in fact he has zero positive evidence for any of the processes that he claims must have been ticking away for millions of years. Meanwhile, real scientists have been measuring and demonstrating the phenomena described by modern evolutionary theory — drift, selection, recombination, etc. — and identifying specific instances of these mechanisms in action. Behe shrugs them off. He’s built a rationalization that allows for the existence of natural processes while demanding that all of the gaps be filled in with his Designer…who seems to be a reflection of his Catholic faith.

It’s infuriatingly dishonest, but he’s found a thriving niche. All the scientists think he’s a kook, while all the creationists who are so gullible that they believe in a great flood and 6000 year old earth look upon him as some kind of super-scientific genius.

Now I have an excuse!

We haven’t raked the leaves that fall in our yard for years — it’s part laziness and partly because we have a corner lot in a windy part of the world, so they don’t hang around much. If we do anything, it’s to mulch them with our lawn mower and leave them in place.

And now I have vindication! we’re helping to protect the environment (warning: autoplay video at that link). I guess I’ll just keep on keeping on.

Now I just need a justification to stop mowing the lawn.

Splintered!

This is too true. Academics face a very confusing career transition.

academicresponsibilities

Of course, it also varies. The post-doc chart is a fairly accurate illustration of my life before getting a position, but the assistant prof chart will depend on what kind of position you land — mine would be much, much heavier on various duties associated with teaching.

The screwy thing is that there is no teaching at all as a post-doc, so the thing we spend most of our time doing now is the one thing we got no training in.

We have a BigBro442 problem

You knew it was coming. The technologies are developing to introduce us to virtual reality games, and right away, there are men showing up to ruin it all.

I wasn’t as experienced a player as BigBro442. Everywhere I ran, he appeared beside me, ready to grope as soon as the zombie wave was over. I’d had enough. With a final parting obscenity, I yanked the headset off my face and stood back in the sunny, familiar room of my brother-in-law’s home.

What had just happened? I hadn’t lasted 3 minutes in multiplayer without getting virtually groped.

There are no penalties for that sort of behavior in the game. There is no one looking on to see that someone is having a miserable experience in what should be fun entertainment. BigBro442 — even his chosen name is a tip-off that he’s a creep — is more experienced in that particular game, which means he’s been playing it regularly, and hasn’t experienced anything to drive him off, unlike the woman who would write that piece.

We just shrug and accept that there will be assholes in games. It’s people like BigBro442 who convinced me to abandon multiplayer games — that, and the developers didn’t give a damn. Every game is targeted right at the young male jerk audience.

Contrast that, though, with what happened when two women went on a date, and the creepy real-life version of BigBro442 started harassing them.

Here’s what happened when the man started asking me and my date about our private lives: First of all, not one, not two, but three employees — two men and a woman — rolled up on this dude, like a very refined food-service gang. Then, everybody behind the bar looked up, watching the scene, and you could almost hear them all thinking Just make one move, fool, I swear to fucking God. I realize now that the staff had been watching us for some time, trying to measure our level of discomfort at an intervention versus their obligation to their customers to maintain a chill, relaxed atmosphere. I’m going to guess that some of these staff members were LGBTQ folks, but all of them were the strongest allies I’ve ever met in my life.

The manager then spoke clearly: “Sir, you need to leave. You’ve made our patrons uncomfortable, and we do not tolerate this kind of behavior in THE BRANDY LIBRARY.” That’s a hilarious statement, but it’s also a very beautiful one — especially when you’re a scared twenty-something on your first big date with a person of the same gender, and you just want to have a nice night.

Wow. That’s how you do it.

It sounds like The Brandy Library is a good place to visit in New York…hey, wait a minute. I looked at the photos of the interior, and the address, and I think I have been there, years ago. But it had a different name. I think?

Well, gosh, I guess I’m going to have to visit New York again and check it out.

I’m not so keen on checking out yet another multi-player video game with little boys running rampant.

Continental circulatory system

It’s pretty. But you know, we could use this map of the American river basins to figure out where to do a lot of fracking and run oil pipelines to maximize the size of the area we poison in the center of the continent. Somewhere up on top of the large purplish area looks good.

Maybe we could put a big nuclear waste repository in the middle of the orange area, while we’re at it.

I sure hope no evil geniuses get any ideas from this.

Hey, history sure is easy!

giant

There’s a study that identified a mutation relatively common in Ireland that can lead to acromegaly.

They undertook an ambitious and widely collaborative study, enlisting the invaluable help of patients and the general public to set the study up in Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland. They identified a particular mutation in Irish patients and now searched for carriers of this gene in Ireland. The frequency of the AIP mutation (R304*) was found to be surprisingly high in Mid-Ulster, Northern Ireland. The data suggest that all Irish patients with this particular mutations (18 families and 81 carriers) are descendants from the same ancestor, who lived in the area 2,500 years ago. Out of the identified 81 carriers 31 had developed acromegaly and over half of these had gigantism (18 patients, 58%). The clinical importance of this study is that we can now screen family members and carriers can be followed to pick disease up early. Our larger study has showed that 24% of seemingly unaffected gene carriers in fact have early signs of acromegaly, and some were immediately operated as a result of the genetic screening process.

Sure. That’s interesting, and also, as they point out, useful.

But this is nonsense.

This study may also give a scientific explanation for the numerous Gaelic myth of giants in Ireland, where the Giant causeway and the legend of the creation of a lake is strongly linked to giants. In modern history, famous Irish giants include Charles Byrne whose skeleton in the Hunterian Museum, London was studied and DNA sample showed he also carries the same mutation. There is data available of numerous giants living in this area over the last centuries such as Mary Murphy (the ‘Portrush Giantess’) and James Kirkland (one of the ‘Potsdam Giants’) making this data support a colourful story.

Professor Sian Ellard, of the University of Exeter Medical School, who collaborated on the research said: “Irish folklore has numerous stories regarding Irish giants and the remains of some of these giants have been studied in the past. Our data provides an explanation for the observation made by the pioneering anthropologist James C. Prichard in 1826.”

Do no other cultures have folklore about giants? Scandinavian mythology is full of giants, and dwarves, too. The Chinese have a creator-god named Pangu, who was a giant. Greek myths have Titans. Do they all have associated mutations? Are AIP mutations the only source of giants in our species?

Why would you take a perfectly legitimate scientific explanation for a specific genetic abnormality and patch an unsupported pseudo-historical just-so story onto it unless you thought history was so trivial that you didn’t need evidence to make that kind of association?

Whoa, I know that guy!

I was reading about the ongoing climate change debate in Australia, and a name from my past came up: Alan Finkel. I used to do contract programming for his company, Axon Instruments (all the neuroscientists out there know that name — it’s pretty much the premier company for making essential neurophysiology gadgets). I had to look up what Finkel has been doing in the last 20 years, since I last worked with him (I was one of the people working on his foray into cellular imaging, of which he says “we didn’t make a successful play in the market”, which is true).

Anyway, he was caught explaining climate change to that idiot, Malcolm Roberts. It’s an excellent explanation.

Across all the countries of the planet we’ve been burning fossil fuels for a rapid rate. It’s clear that by doing that we are emitting ever-increasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The natural systems can’t absorb that. There’s a clear hypothesis, then there’s clear evidence. The thing that I find most compelling, senator, is that when you have a combination of a hypothesis and evidence.
When it comes to carbon dioxide it’s clear what would be driving increases in carbon dioxide, then you go out and measure it. Carbon dioxide goes up every year. Last year carbon dioxide went up 3.05 ppm which is more than any other time.

So the carbon dioxide is going up. Does that create warming? The theory is that carbon dioxide does trap heat, so ultraviolet light comes through the atmosphere without interruption, or almost without interruption, hits the ground, warms the ground and you get an infrared radiation from the ground which is then to some extent trapped by the carbon dioxide.

That theory goes back to 1896, Swedish physical chemist Svante Arrhenius did the initial work on that. He subsequently got a Nobel prize for other work and he identified that back in 1896 that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, for basic physical reasons will trap heat.

So you’ve got the carbon dioxide, you’ve got the physics that says carbon dioxide would trap heat coming off the ground being radiated from the surface and from the water as well.

Do you have the evidence? Yes!

The temperature is going up and up and up. It was just yesterday that NASA declared that the last 12 months, yet again have been the hottest on record. So in both cases carbon dioxide is going up and it’s trapping heat, you’ve got evidence and theory. The second case is that that trapped heat will lead to an increase in temperature, you’ve got the theory and the evidence. That’s steps one and two.

The third step is the impact. The temperatures going up, what will that do to climate? That’s where it gets very, very difficult now you’re into the world of modelling.

I’m impressed. When I worked with him, he was sharp, talked very fast, and was incredibly focused and enthusiastic. It looks like he still is.

Oh, no…not another debate

Is there any point? Isn’t this whole thing over now?

Anyway, tonight the competent, experience woman is going to have to share the stage with the ignorant, egocentric man, and give him unearned equal time. The topics that Hillary Clinton will discuss have been announced:

  • Debt and entitlements
  • Immigration
  • Economy
  • Supreme Court
  • Foreign hot spots
  • Fitness to be President

Note that I said these are what Clinton will discuss. Trump will be off in argle-bargle land, ranting about how great he is and how his enemies will face his wrath and vengeance. One thing I’ve noticed about these debates, though, is that they don’t discuss…science. I think the politicians are afraid of the subject.

But here’s something brilliant: Gaius Publius explains how every one of those topics could be turned into specific questions about climate change. All it would take is some intelligence and willingness to dig a little deeper on the part of the moderator…

Oh, crap. The moderator is Chris Wallace? Fuck it, he’s a schmuck.