Bill Nye vs Sarah Palin? Nope, sorry to say, it’s not happening

All day long I’ve been hearing that Sarah Palin and Bill Nye were going to appear together on a panel to discuss climate change. I looked into it and didn’t believe it: it was going to be some one-night media blitz to promote a “documentary” about global warming by denialist Marc Morano, with an in-person introduction by a gang of bozos.

With welcoming remarks by Congressman Lamar Smith (R-TX), Chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, cinema audiences will learn more about the topic through a panel discussion headlined by Sarah Palin, 2008 Republican Vice Presidential Candidate and Governor of Alaska from 2006-2009, moderated by Brent Bozell, Founder and President of the Media Research Center and including other notable experts. This riveting discussion will focus on climate change and issues brought up during the event.

Lamar Smith? Brent Bozell? Sarah Palin? I know Nye is willing to charge right into the lion’s den, but his name isn’t even mentioned there, and it would be total folly to leap into such a one-sided event.

Fortunately, it’s not going to happen. They’re going to play video clips of Bill Nye, no doubt so they can argue against him while he’s not there.

May I suggest, instead, that they put an empty chair on the stage? It’s a common Republican tactic, and it’s the only way they can win a debate on science.

On the absurdity of g

Since we’ve been talking about the biological basis of intelligence lately, this is appropriate Frans de Waal writes about animal intelligence. His whole point is that this thing we call “intelligence” is multi-dimensional and complex, and that other animals share properties of the brain with us. There are lots of ways an organism can be smart!

But think about it: How likely is it that the immense richness of nature fits on a single dimension? Isn’t it more likely that each animal has its own cognition, adapted to its own senses and natural history? It makes no sense to compare our cognition with one that is distributed over eight independently moving arms, each with its own neural supply, or one that enables a flying organism to catch mobile prey by picking up the echoes of its own shrieks. Clark’s nutcrackers (members of the crow family) recall the location of thousands of seeds that they have hidden half a year before, while I can’t even remember where I parked my car a few hours ago. Anyone who knows animals can come up with a few more cognitive comparisons that are not in our favor. Instead of a ladder, we are facing an enormous plurality of cognitions with many peaks of specialization. Somewhat paradoxically, these peaks have been called “magic wells” because the more scientists learn about them, the deeper the mystery gets.

I also very much like this illustration of the scala naturae that shows all the ways intelligence doesn’t fit neatly onto a progressive ladder (the only good use of the ol’ scala anymore is in debunking it).

[Read more…]

Unintended technological consequences


You never know what nefarious activity might be associated with your IP address — as it turns out, companies that try to map the physical locations of computers and electronic devices have a crude workaround for searches that don’t return a valid location. They instead return a default location, which is the geographic center of the country or state or county. The problem is that sometimes there are people living there, and suddenly the police trying to trace a stolen laptop are knocking on your door with a search warrant.

Back in the day when I was programming stuff, this was consider extremely lazy, sloppy programming. You were supposed to return a sentinel value or NaN for an invalid search, not throw in an arbitrary answer. This is a case where it’s a good idea to tell someone making a query “not found”, rather than making something up.

So now there’s a farmhouse in Kansas that is associated with 600 million IP addresses. The owner has an old Gateway computer that she uses to write Sunday School lessons, but apparently she’s the nexus of all the high-tech evil that goes on in America.

The company that sells this IP mapping service says they’re going to fix it.

Now that I’ve made MaxMind aware of the consequences of the default locations it’s chosen, Mather says they’re going to change them. They are picking new default locations for the U.S. and Ashburn, Virginia that are in the middle of bodies of water, rather than people’s homes.

They’ve learned nothing. That’s not how you do it. I’m kind of shocked that these security companies should be taking advice from an old geezer biologist: don’t substitute in any fake map coordinates. Your functions ought to be returning an indication that the IP address does not have a known physical location.

Next unintended consequence: county police all over the country start lobbying homeland security for the money to buy military surplus submarines, because of the sudden rash of high-tech meth labs being built at the bottom of the lake in the old gravel pit, you know, the one down the road near the center of the county? Yeah, that one. There are a million computers installed in that facility, so you better make sure you get us a nucyuler sub, with the best torpedos and missile tubes.

Nothing but us big fat chickens around here


There are two kinds of people in this world: those who are deeply suspicious of twin studies, and those who welcome their confirmation that that their identity is fixed and heritable. I’m in the first group. I always have been. Maybe it’s something in my genes.

I first encountered the popular accounts of the Minnesota twin studies when I was a teenager, seeing the scientist and some of the twins doing the rounds of the afternoon talk shows — I think I saw them on the Mike Douglas Show (I’ve dated myself now). I remember them going on and on about the amazing similarities between the twins who had been raised apart. They both married women with the same name! They drank the same brand of beer! They were both volunteer firemen! They gave their dogs the same name! But while there were some recognizable similarities in the pairs, at the same time the obsession with superficial trivia wrecked the credibility of the stories. What? You’re trying to argue that my pet’s names are somehow encoded in my genome? It seemed to me that what we were seeing is echoes of similar culture in their upbringing (later confirmed: most of the twins weren’t really ‘separated’, but were raised by different relatives).

I also saw psychological tropes that ought to have been recognized. These were people who were rewarded for finding coincidences, and they avidly complied, and the scientists were readily accepting of coincidences as evidence of fundamental causal similarity. I was exposed to this pop genetics at the same time I was reading Fate magazine with a critical eye, and the stories were similar. I’d see stories that claimed to confirm the fact of reincarnation, for instance, by compiling lists of similarities between the contemporary claimant and their past life incarnation. They have the same birthday! Note the resemblances in this old-timey photograph! He lived in the Civil War era, now he is a Civil War re-enactor! He died in a fire, and now he’s afraid of fire!

It was exactly the same. That bugged me. And to this day I still see people touting the old twin studies as conclusively demonstrating the genetic basis of personality and intelligence, declaring that it has been positively confirmed that the heritability (a word they often don’t understand — genetically, it has a very narrow and precise meaning that isn’t exactly what they think it is) of intelligence is exactly 50%, meaning that half your IQ is determined by your genes (again, that’s not what it means), and therefore we should be more concerned with breeding intelligent people than teaching people. I also see this fandom coupled with other ugly associations — racists love it, as do Libertarians and simple-minded techno-fetishists. There are definitely genetic contributions to brain development and behavior, but human twin studies are deeply flawed and prone to exaggeration.

Stephen Hsu is a member of the gullible second group. He has posted a reply to my criticisms of his claim that we can readily ramp up human intelligence to reach an IQ of 1000 because hey, intelligence is obviously heritable. The twin studies say so.

[Read more…]

Woo kills


Gwyneth Paltrow always makes for a hilarious story: is there any New Age nonsense she won’t swallow?

For someone of even the slightest scientific inclination, Goop [Paltrow’s web site] is a veritable cornucopia of What-The-Fuck? There’s “spirit truffles”, which contain “spirit dust” which apparently “feeds harmony and extrasensory perception through pineal gland de-calcification and activation”. In fairness to Goop, those are definitely all real words. They’ve got us there.

There’s the “morning smoothie” which lists as an ingredient Cordyceps, the parasitic fungus which genuinely turns insects into zombies by infecting their brains. Gwyneth Paltrow is literally telling her fans to consume brain-controlling fungus!

At least things have an actual psychical presence. The less said about the products that work by being infused with positive vibes and good intentions, the better. Same goes for vaginal steaming.

[Read more…]

Your exactly accurate definition is still exactly stupid


One of the most common dodges used by Intelligent Design creationists is to use a vague definition of their subject so that critics have nothing specific too attack, and also so they can accuse anyone who disagrees with them of using a strawman argument. For example, they claim that organisms exhibit “specified complexity”, which cannot have evolved and requires a designer. If someone rightly points out that their definition of complexity is nowhere close to what real complexity theorists use, they can say, “Ah, but I’m talking about specified complexity, which is something different,” which leaves you adrift and wondering what the hell they’re talking about. I read that whole ghastly tome by Meyer titled Signature in the Cell, and he throws around that phrase willy-nilly and never bothers to define “specified”.

Now David Klinghoffer is complaining about Lawrence Krauss’s performance in a recent debate, claiming that he mischaracterized ID creationism horribly. Nowhere in the post does he tell us what Krauss said, and he’s also not quoted in the creationist post he’s citing, which is weird and annoying because they’ll just use the ambiguity to weasel away some more, but Klinghoffer does approve a given definition of ID creationism, saying this is exactly accurate.

[Read more…]

Superbrains will not come out of a test tube


Stephen Hsu thinks super intelligent humans are coming. He thinks this because he’s very impressed with genetic engineering (he’s a physicist), and believes that the way to make people more intelligent is to adjust their genes, and therefore, more gene tweaking will lead to more intelligent people, inevitably. And not just intelligent, but super-intelligent, with IQs about 1000, even though he has no idea what that means, or for that matter, even though no one really knows what an IQ of 100 means. We’re going to figure out all the genes that are involved in intelligence, and then we’ll just turn the knob on each one of them up to their maximum, and boom, super-humans.

Good god, what a load of crap. Lots of people seem to think it’s brilliant, though. It isn’t.

[Read more…]