CNN reports a miracle: concrete doesn’t burn!

It’s amazing. The fires in Gatlinburg, Tennessee have killed people and destroyed wooden homes, but our delightfully insightful and evidence based media found a concrete statue of Jesus that survived while the house around it turned to ash. Praise the lord!


Hang on a moment — it looks like the foundation of the house also survived the blaze. Praise cinderblock, the one true god!

Can we test whether CNN’s broadcasting studios will survive an inferno next?

News from the homeland

Minnesota is a fairly liberal state, but Washington, especially western Washington, is where I’m from and where my heart is*. It’s good to see that Seattle is maintaining a tradition of liberal empiricism: they raised the minimum wage there a few years ago, against conservative howling that it would destroy the local economy. They’ve now acquired enough data to test that prediction, and guess what? The conservatives were full of it.

The unemployment rate in the city of Seattle – the tip of the spear when it comes to minimum wage experiments – has now hit a new cycle low of 3.4%, as the city continues to thrive. I’m not sure what else there is to say at this point. The doomsayers were wrong. The sky has not fallen. The restaurant business, by all accounts, is booming (in fact, probably reaching a saturation point when one looks at eateries per capita). I think it’s safe to say we’ve got enough data – over almost two years now – to declare that Seattle has not suffered adverse consequences from its increases in the minimum wage, and has certainly not experienced the dire effects foretold by the anti-min wage crowd.

Not that evidence matters to that group. Nor, unfortunately, to very many voters in the homeland.

It seems that Grays Harbor county (where my brother and his wife live…hi, Jim and Julie!) went Trump in this last election. They’ll get their just reward, though.

It turns out Grays Harbor County is one of the places in our state that the dreaded Obamacare has been propping up the most. This issue got barely any attention in the election — though I bet it will now.

A few years ago, 19 percent of the people there had no health coverage, one of the higher uninsured rates in the state. Today, only 9 percent remain uninsured. Almost all of that improvement is because Obamacare provided Medicaid coverage, for free or nearly free, for more than 8,000 Grays Harbor adults.

An incredible one in five Grays Harbor adults signed up for it. That’s a sign-up rate more than double King County’s.

Yet the county that’s relying on it just voted for the candidate who vowed to get rid of it.

You can’t blame my family for that, though. They all voted for Clinton. In fact, I’m one of those lucky people who would have been perfectly happy to get together with family over Thanksgiving, because they’re all raving socialists who would have voted fervently for unions and better minimum wages and supporting education and all that pinko stuff. I think our only arguments would have been over exactly how wonderful Bernie is.

*Don’t bother hunting for my phylactery, it’s well-hidden and guarded by vicious octopods.

The Fermi paradox is only interesting for the assumptions it exposes

The Fermi paradox is neither a problem nor a paradox, so it’s always baffling to me when it’s brought up. It’s like those annoying trolley problems: they’re stupid and unrealistic and pointless, except that they make you think about your assumptions. It’s only when people focus on the minute details of the question, rather than thinking about what the answer says about yourself, that you want to yell at people to shut up, they’re missing the point.

The Fermi ‘paradox’ was only fascinating to the physicists and engineers who were sitting around wondering about how they were going to get into space and explore strange new worlds because they assumed those strange new worlds were populated with other physicists and engineers who were thinking the same thing. In a rational world, they would have simply said, “Oh, my assumption must be wrong, let’s move on.” But no, instead they started inventing excuses for the absence of aliens, instead now assuming that there must be hordes of frustrated scientists and engineers out there who are pinin’ to visit Earth, but are stymied by the speed of light or their predilection for building nuclear weapons first and exterminating themselves or that they’re using some super-duper communications technology we haven’t invented yet. All their rationalizations seem grossly anthropocentric.

As a biologist, we have a collection of assumptions, too, only our assumptions all seem to default to making the absence of aliens an entirely ordinary conclusion. Life is probably common in the universe — all it seems to require is redox chemistry (universal, obviously), proton gradients as an energy source, which can be easily generated in lots of ways, and time, which the universe has lots of. We don’t expect a multiplicity of engineers, because they’re not common even here on earth. We tend to expect bacteria-like and algae-like organisms, because those are ubiquitous here. But we’re unsurprised that they aren’t hailing us, because we similarly do not expect an algal population in Australia to launch a transcontinental probe, land it on my desk, and slither out to plant a flag and claim it in the name of their colony.

My assumptions could be wrong, but because they’re grounded in known science, I don’t expect them to be. To me, the Fermi paradox is simply confirmation of a reasonable inference.

Where this gets troublesome, though, is that some creationists use it as confirmation of what they think is a reasonable inference — that life exists nowhere else in the universe, but is the product of a unique creation event here on Earth.

In a sense, Christian presumptions and its claim of historicity for biblical miracles is more consistent with what should be happening given the premises of evolutionary science. A complex and powerful Godhead with anthropomorphic habits, dimension-jumping beings doing God’s bidding or working against it, frequent interventions in history accompanied by bizarre occurrences in nature—isn’t this what we’d expect in a universe given all the oddities of physics in the context of evolutionary randomness?

I’d grant the guy one thing: the absence of aliens is an observation compatible with the hypothesis that life only exists on one planet, ours. However, he’s wrong that we should accept the possibility that any outlandish scenario could occur in the history of the universe — there are natural laws that seem to be pretty consistent in their operation, which is going to constrain the range of possiblities — and he is even more wrong when he suggests that one particular bizarre scenario that just happens to coincide with his religious preconceptions ought to be “expected”. He really reaches to turn his mythology into a science-fiction story.

So, given the sheer magnitude of theoretical possibilities granted by known science, to say nothing of the unknown science waiting to be discovered, what is really so random and strange about, say, an alien being flooding the earth in order to destroy a genetic perversion of humanity bent on destroying the original species this same alien had crafted?

The answer, of course, is “nothing.” Yet, we suspect Dawkins et. al. would grant any alien scenario so long as it doesn’t involve a tri-conscious being making periodic manifestations among ancient Semitic peoples about 3,000 years ago, which in a rather singular case used as its avatar a first-century personage born in the days when Quirinius was governor of Syria.

I have to raise two objections to his fantasy.

  1. When Richard Dawkins and others suggest that they are open to the idea of aliens having intervened in the history of life, that acceptance is general — they are not inventing a convoluted, contrived series of events — and contingent on evidence for such an intervention being found. Are there phenomena we don’t understand yet? Yes. Could they have been important in the origin of life? Sure, but you have to be specific about the mechanism you are arguing for, and provide good evidence that it happened.

  2. Your scenario must be compatible with all of the reliable, available evidence. There was no global flood in the history of humanity, so a model that depends on a significant event that has already been falsified is garbage. We also know that humanity had a founder population much larger than 8 people, and that the young earth creationist timeline is incompatible with physics and geology and paleontology and even recorded human history.

Another revealing thing about this article: it purports to complain about science’s interpretation of the Fermi paradox, but it doesn’t cite any science — instead, the only sources the guy mentions are science fiction, and even at that he doesn’t mention any SF books, but only SF and horror movies.

I guess this should be no surprise, that someone who mangles logic and misunderstands a hypothesis doesn’t read any books (except, maybe the Bible) and definitely doesn’t read any real science. He doesn’t seem to recognize irony or projection, either.

Meanwhile, the aliens arising from the imagination of modern science fiction, because they have no affiliation whatsoever with the evidence at hand, have a little more than the whiff of blind faith associated with them. Unlike say, Christian faith, where powerful objective evidence creates an ongoing intellectual crisis calling one to abandon subjective thinking, blind faith in something lacking any objective basis leaves only the subject’s imagination as the focus of query.

If that was intentional, it’s kind of funny — “powerful objective evidence” for Christianity? Hah. I fear he’s being serious, though.

Watching the legal sausage getting made

You may know that Freethoughtblogs, The Orbit, and Skepticon have taken on a lawyer to defend us against a lawsuit for over two million dollars by Richard Carrier. Weirdly, this suit was filed in Ohio, where none of the targets live, and where most of the conflicts did not occur, and our lawyer’s first tactic is to file for a change of venue. This is a public filing, so you can read it yourself (pdf).


Maybe this is your idea of entertainment.

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.

A sudden craving for Froot Loops

While I made my brief and entirely unpleasant visit to Breitbart to read that dishonest Delingpole article, they flashed a big ad in my face telling me to BOYCOTT KELLOGG’S — apparently because the company yanked their ads from Breitbart’s big Nazi hate site. And to do that, they showed me a screen full of the products I’m supposed to avoid.


I’m honestly not much of a breakfast cereal eater, but next time I’m at the store I’m picking some of those up. Very effective advertising, Breitbart!

Kellogg’s: the cereal of healthy Nazi-smashers everywhere!

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.

The sacrifices I make…

In order to criticize it, I ordered a free copy of Gregg Braden’s terrible book about “heart brains”, Resilience from the Heart. I just wanted to warn you all — DON’T DO IT. He’s now dunning me with multiple emails every day trying to get me to try his FREE video, first in a series, that will tell me how to access the language of your heart so you can tap into your heart’s wisdom. It’s such a terrible book that it really isn’t worth the 30 seconds I used to create a filter to automatically destroy all of his email.

I was also getting lots of email from his publisher, Hay House, which is also sending me all kinds of offers on fluffy New Age crapola.

There’s always a catch.

I refuse to believe the media is tainted


It cannot be. For example, this story from the Daily Express, an unimpeachable source (tabloid: it means “concentrated, easily assimilable”), and besides, I want it to be true: “A KILLER giant squid that can hypnotise its prey and paralyse humans at a distance of 150 feet using poisonous venom is being developed as a secret weapon by Vladimir Putin, a scientist has claimed.” Entirely plausible. Especially since it is accompanied by evidence, a blurry photo of an octopus.

Dr Padalka said the octopus, which was discovered in a fresh water lake trapped beneath two miles of ice, possessed an array of weapons and was responsible for the deaths of at least two of his scientific colleagues on the expedition.

He said: “We encountered Organism 46-B on our first day. It disabled our radio – which we later learned, to our alarm, was intentional.

“It is also able to paralyse prey from a distance of up to 150 feet by releasing its venom into the water.

“Tragically my colleague and lifelong friend was killed this way. He tread water wearing a blissful smile as the organism approached him.

Further proof: no one would lie about the death of a lifelong friend. I have seen this same argument effectively deployed in arguments for the existence of Jesus. If you believe in Jesus, you must accept this story.

“We watched helplessly as it used its arms to tear off its head then popped its remains in its mouth. It was as if it had hypnotised him telepathically.”

This, too, has the ring of truth. That’s exactly what I would do if I were an intelligent predatory squid with telepathy, poison venom, and an array of weapons.

The 33 foot-long man-eater also boasts extraordinary camouflage that helped it stalk the researchers – including shape-shifting.

Dr Padalka said: “The shapeshifting capabilities of organism 46-B sound almost diabolical. It shaped itself into the form of a human diver.

Likewise. This is exactly how I’ve fooled humans for more than half a century.

He revealed the octopus could also use its tentacles to kill, even after they had been hacked off its body.

Dr Padalka claimed another of his colleagues were killed by a tentacle many hours after slicing it off with an axe.

He said: “Later that night it slithered across the ice bank and strangled her.”

Seems only fair. I note that the scientist mutilated the squid/octopus first, so this was appropriate retaliation.

He said: “Some species of octopus lay 200,000 eggs. Imagine if they were deposited in reservoirs and lakes across North America.”

Shhhh. Now there’s irresponsible journalism, revealing top secret plans.