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.

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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.

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Mary’s Monday Metazoan: Trouble-making immigrants

Mostly, the killer whales native to Puget Sound are salmon eaters. But there are also transient orca who cruise through the Sound, and their diets may be a bit more adventurous. And then this week the gray whales were passing by, and…uh-oh. Gang fight.


It’s that time of year.

The Great Migration of 22,000 Eastern North Pacific grays is well underway. As spring approaches, these massive creatures, which can reach 50 feet and 40 tons, begin an epic journey of between 5,000 and 6,800 miles from the warm-water calving lagoons in Mexico’s Baja Peninsula and Gulf of California to the Bering and Chukchi Seas, traveling constantly at about five knots and averaging 75 miles per day. It’s the longest migration of any mammal on Earth. Midway through the journey, from late February to the end of May, a small group makes a pit stop in Puget Sound — for the shrimp buffet.

We should all be outraged at the misuse of science against women


I just told you about my brief history with the gaming community. I drifted away from it into something else, and that something else also shaped the way I think about these feminist issues. I became a scientist. And worst of all, my trajectory started with neuroscience, and led me into developmental biology and genetics, and then on to evolution, and I’ve got to tell you, those subjects…it’s almost as if they were designed to put you on a collision course with feminist concerns. Just think, I could have gone into physics or chemistry and avoided thinking about sex and gender altogether…until, of course, I noticed the humanity of my colleagues.

What brought this on is an excellent article on the history and genetics of the sex chromosomes. Two things leapt out at me, in part because they confirmed something I’ve been trying to teach my students for years.

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Louisiana, where even the Democrats are science denialists

Watch State Sen. John Milkovich make his case for creationism before the Louisiana legislature. He’s a Democrat. I’m so embarrassed.

This guy just sits there and lies his ass off, supremely confident that the truth doesn’t matter in the least.

Scientific research and developments and advances in the last 100 years — particularly the last 15, 20, 10 years — have validated the biblical story of creation by archaeological discovery of civilizations in the middle east that seculars said did not exist …

No, science has not validated Genesis. The Earth is not just a few thousand years old, there was no global flood, all animals were not created in a single week. Finding evidence of a civilization mentioned in the Bible that “seculars” never heard of is not evidence for all the miraculous poofing described in the book.

And what civilization is that? It seems entirely reasonable to me that the authors of the Bible would have good knowledge of contemporary cultures, and it wouldn’t surprise me if some obscure people mentioned in the Bible were confirmed by trustworthy evidence. On the other hand, some of the treasured stories of the Bible are being found incredible and lacking in evidence. The Exodus almost certainly didn’t happen, for instance.

there is some published research that a large boat or ark was found on top of Mt Ararat …

Published…where? On the web pages of Ron Wyatt? Because no, there is no credible evidence of a 4000 year old big boat sitting on a mountaintop in Turkey.

But hang on, here comes my favorite part of his argument.

the notion of instantaneous creation has been validated by the scientific study of heliocentric circles in rocks which is consistent with an instantaneous…I guess I’m asking this. Are you aware that there’s an abundance of recent science that actually confirms the Genesis account of creation?

He doesn’t say instantanous what — he just lurches off into more assertions. But still, I’m amazed at heliocentric circles in rocks. What does that even mean? Is he saying something in the rocks circles around the sun? Or is this some strangely garbled version of Gentry’s bogus polonium halos claim, which, even if you believed it, does not say anything about instantaneous anything — he uses them to claim that the earth is young.

I think he’s just pompously pleased at being able to seem wise by babbling out a 5-syllable word. Incorrectly. Which makes him look like a world-class fool.

And no, there is no recent science that actually confirms the Genesis account of creation. All of the science says that the literal interpretation contradicts the evidence.

Friday Cephalopod: Squid in Spaaaaace!

The Squid Scientists take a photo of their baby animals, and unwittingly reveal what they’re actually doing.


Look behind the squid — I know it’s hard, why would you want to look past cephalopods? — and what do you see? That blurry poster in the background? It’s a space shuttle launch.

And now you know. This is a top secret program to train Euprymna scolopes to pilot spacecraft. They’d probably be better at 3-dimensional thinking than us, so it’s only natural. Quick, reboot Star Trek with a more appropriate cast!

Oh, I think it’s been done–the Thermians from the Klaatu Nebula in Galaxy Quest. Man, that was a prescient movie.

April science talks

I’m doing some sort-of local (on the other side of the state, that is) talks in April, so my Minnesota pals will have an opportunity to stop by and argue with me. The first is on Sunday, 17 April, in the Rondo Library in St Paul, at 2pm. It’ll be a slightly updated version of a talk I gave a few times last year.

Bad Biology: How Evolutionary Psychology Corrupts Evolution

The most powerful and versatile tool in your toolbox is the adjustable wrench. Not only can it tighten and loosen both nuts and bolts of all sizes, but it also makes an excellent hammer, can be used to punch holes in objects, and it also performs as a serviceable canoe paddle.

If that lack of respect for tools makes you cringe, now you know how PZ Myers feels. Natural selection is one of the most powerful concepts in evolutionary biology, yet many people use it excessively and inappropriately as a kind of quasi-miraculous explanation for everything. Most biologists know better, though, and realize that there are many other forces operating on evolution.

The dangerous aspect of the abuse of natural selection is that it allows the naturalistic fallacy to run rampant. If selection inevitably optimizes everything, then whatever is must be for the best – so human nature must be exactly what allows us to survive. This attitude is used to justify the status quo, whether it’s racism, or the superiority of Western culture, or the inferiority of women. This can only be done by ignoring the multiple forces that drive evolutionary change.

Prof. Myers will be explain what these other forces are, and giving examples of the abuse of science to justify several fallacies: so-called “scientific” racism and evolutionary psychology. He’ll also discuss how lack of knowledge of basic evolutionary biology can lead professional scientists astray.

Yes! Let’s annoy the evolutionary psychologists some more! They deserve it.

Then, the next weekend on Saturday 23 April at 10am, I’ll be joining the West Metro Critical Thinking Club to talk science education for a while.

STEM and the liberal arts: How do we teach science?

There is a constant push to change education from an experience that broadens the mind to one that focuses students on a vocation. We’ve got universities hiring business people with no educational experience to make them more profitable, and people seriously questioning the value of disciplines like philosophy, psychology, sociology, or anything that others disparagingly call “soft” subjects. At the same time, there are advocates of reform who think algebra is useless, and that we waste too much time teaching mathematics that, they think, no one will ever use.

I’ll be presenting an interdisciplinary, liberal arts perspective on science education — we need all facets of human knowledge if we are to adequately comprehend our own narrower fields of interest. I’ll be interested in getting a discussion going about what attendees expect from a college education.

I’m not sure of the location just yet — somewhere near the Ridgedale Mall.

Come on by to either one or both!

Strangely enough, it all turns out well


Speaking of genetics, this is the week the results from our big triple point cross (it’s a kind of mapping cross where we determine the distances between three different genes) come rolling in. It’s always a bit nerve-wracking for me, because this is the first time these students have worked with flies, it involves a series of crosses with multiple points where they can screw up, and if they all messed up, we don’t have enough time in the semester to repeat it. So every week I go into the lab, and there are students who are staring confusedly at their bottles, and wondering if they did something wrong, and telling me they are are afraid they might have added males of the wrong phenotype, or they have confused which generation is which, or things are just addling their brain and they can no longer understand what they are doing.

And my job is to puzzle it all out, or figure out how we can test and make sure they’ve got the right flies, or to explain everything to ease their addlement. This is a simple experiment, but with a mob of novice Drosophila geneticists the natural condition is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster. Every time. I feel a bit like Philip Henslow in this clip from Shakespeare in Love all semester long.

And he’s right! It does turn out well in the end, for mysterious reasons that always puzzle me. They’ve started turning in the numbers from the first few groups who are ready, and they’re pretty much what I expected, and there are no major anomalies, and everyone did every single one of the crosses correctly (major errors would lead to obviously and sharply different results, so I can tell). I think we can just trust the students to try hard to do everything right.

Now they just have to analyze the data and write up a formal lab report. Where is the report? Oh, it’s coming. It’s coming.

How not to teach genetics


Robert Dillon teaches genetics at the College of Charleston…or rather, he is officially assigned the job of teaching genetics, but one might question whether his students are actually learning anything. He’s tenured, but is currently suspended from teaching over a dispute about his syllabus that has snowballed into a mess of a case.

I started reading this article with some sympathy for Dillon. I teach genetics, too, and I’ve been teaching it almost as long as he has. I’m a little bit demanding in the classroom — this is conceptually difficult material for many students, and you can’t lead them by the hand through every step of figuring out every problem, and at some point the students have to figure out for themselves how to do the work, or they haven’t succeeded in being independent thinkers. I also get annoyed at some of the dictates from on high, where we are told to fit our work to a template designed by people who don’t teach our classes. I can feel for his resentment.

But we also have a job to do. It looks like he’s not doing it.

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