Botanical Wednesday: Enough, Australia, you’re getting carried away

Even the trees are vicious? And not really trees at all?

Australia has a parasite believed to be the largest in the world, a tree whose greedy roots stab victims up to 110m away. The Christmas tree (Nuytsia floribunda) has blades for slicing into the roots of plants to steal their sap. The blades are sharp enough to draw blood on human lips. They cause power failures when the tree attacks buried cables by mistake. Telephone lines get cut as well.

Mathematics and mind are supernatural, therefore God exists?

Therefore, Cthulhu exists

If you ever want to publish some poorly written drivel in a popular “news” magazine, there’s an easy recipe: make sure it’s pious drivel. It’s like these rags have a mandatory quota of religious crap they have to spread around, and quality is no criterion. So Newsweek published an article titled, Does god exist? Some scientists think they have proof. Guess what? They don’t have proof, and it’s not written by a scientist. The author is an economist, or more precisely, working at the intersection of economics, environmentalism and theology. It shows. He has a couple of bad arguments that don’t justify what he claims.

His first argument is basically that math is magic. It’s not matter, and it’s not energy, therefore it’s something independent of physical reality.

In other words, as I argue in my book, it takes the existence of some kind of a god to make the mathematical underpinnings of the universe comprehensible.

Did I mention that he’s peddling a book? Of course he is.

I’m not a mathematician or a philosopher, I’m just a pragmatic biologist, so I find the whole point of this line of reasoning to sail right over my head. It seems more than a little self-referential — god created logic; I’m making a logical argument; therefore god exists — and they want to argue not that god is mathematics, but that god is something outside of mathematics who created math, so it’s not clear how demonstrating that the universe operates on a consistent set of logical principles argues for something outside that universe. That math works does not imply that a god, especially the specific deity of myth and folklore, Jesus, also works.

But it’s typical of this guy’s approach. If he can’t see it or touch it, it must be a mystery, and must be supernatural, therefore god. He has another example, besides the math he doesn’t understand: consciousness.

How can physical atoms and molecules, for example, create something that exists in a separate domain that has no physical existence: human consciousness?

It is a mystery that lies beyond science.

That consciousness exists in a separate “domain” is nothing but an assertion.

The workings of human consciousness are similarly miraculous. Like the laws of mathematics, consciousness has no physical presence in the world; the images and thoughts in our consciousness have no measurable dimensions.

The complex, patterned flow of electrons inside the computer he typed that on also lacks “measurable dimensions”, therefore Microsoft Word is supernatural. Probably satanic, even.

…I would argue that the supernatural character of the workings of human consciousness adds grounds for raising the probability of the existence of a supernatural god.

Except…the workings of human consciousness are not supernatural. You can swallow a pill that affects the level of neurotransmitters in your brain, and change your mood. You can have a stroke that knocks out regions of the brain and get changes in personality and behavior. You can lie in an MRI and think about math problems or poetry and see changes in the pattern of oxygen consumption in your brain. It’s complicated and we’re far from understanding everything about consciousness, but it is clear that it is profoundly physical, a product of shifting patterns of ionic flux and material patterns of connectivity and chemistry.

Dualism just doesn’t work.

This being a pseudoscientific essay on god, he’s also got to throw in his two cents about evolution. He doesn’t understand it.

As I say in my book, I should emphasize that I am not questioning the reality of natural biological evolution. What is interesting to me, however, are the fierce arguments that have taken place between professional evolutionary biologists. A number of developments in evolutionary theory have challenged traditional Darwinist—and later neo-Darwinist—views that emphasize random genetic mutations and gradual evolutionary selection by the process of survival of the fittest.

Oh? Really? What are these arguments? Of course random genetic mutations are part of the story. Of course selection occurs. There are arguments about the relative contributions of different processes in evolution, but no real challenges to the big picture. Where does he get this idea that there are major shake-ups going on that make the supernatural a plausible alternative theory?

Would you believe…Stephen Jay Gould?

From the 1970s onwards, the Harvard evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould created controversy by positing a different view, “punctuated equilibrium,” to the slow and gradual evolution of species as theorized by Darwin.

No. Punctuated equilibrium is not a different view (although Gould himself contributed to the confusion by inflating the significance of an argument about the tempo of evolution). There is nothing in PE to defy our understanding of how evolution works. What this is is simply more of the standard creationist lack of comprehension of both evolutionary theory and punctuated equilibrium.

I recommend this overview by Douglas Theobald on the misconceptions about PE.

Much confusion has surrounded the concept of Punctuated Equilibrium (PE) as proposed by Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould in 1972. This essay addresses a few of the erroneous views held by many creationists and even some evolutionary biologists concerning PE. In this article I make the following main points:

  1. There are two common uses of “gradualism,” one of which is more traditional, the other of which is equivalent to Eldredge and Gould’s “phyletic gradualism.”
  2. Darwin was not a “phyletic gradualist,” contrary to the claims of Eldredge and Gould.
  3. PE is not anti-Darwinian; in fact, the scientific basis and conclusions of PE originated with Charles Darwin.
  4. PE does not require any unique explanatory mechanism (e.g. macromutation or saltation).
  5. Eldredge and Gould’s PE is founded on positive evidence, and does not “explain away” negative evidence (e.g. a purported lack of transitional fossils).

Aside from mangling ideas by Gould, who else is claiming that natural mechanisms are inadequate to explain evolution? It’s James Shapiro.

In 2011, the University of Chicago evolutionary biologist James Shapiro argued that, remarkably enough, many micro-evolutionary processes worked as though guided by a purposeful “sentience” of the evolving plant and animal organisms themselves. “The capacity of living organisms to alter their own heredity is undeniable,” he wrote. “Our current ideas about evolution have to incorporate this basic fact of life.”

Shapiro is a crank. The only people who promote his theories all seem to be intelligent design creationists. The Newsweek article seems to believe he’s supporting the god-hypothesis.

For my part, the most recent developments in evolutionary biology have increased the probability of a god.

You know, I’m a little bit familiar with current developments in evolutionary biology, and none of them involve magic or the supernatural. Once again, he’s just making an assertion without evidence, in contradiction to the actual state of affairs, and somehow leaping to the conclusion that evolution is evidence for a god.

Oh, hey, did you know that the existence of science is evidence for gods, too?

The development of the scientific method in the 17th century in Europe and its modern further advances have had at least as great a set of world-transforming consequences. There have been many historical theories, but none capable, I would argue, of explaining as fundamentally transformational a set of events as the rise of the modern world. It was a revolution in human thought, operating outside any explanations grounded in scientific materialism, that drove the process.

That all these astonishing things happened within the conscious workings of human minds, functioning outside physical reality, offers further rational evidence, in my view, for the conclusion that human beings may well be made “in the image of [a] God.”

Again with the claim that human minds function outside physical reality. If that were true, maybe he could make a case, but he hasn’t demonstrated what he claims.

Furthermore, from this broad, diffuse, non-specific set of sloppy arguments for a god who is some generic force behind mathematics and consciousness and evolution, what do you think: will he promote a pantheistic vision of a deity? Maybe he’ll plunk down on the side of one of the Hindu gods. Or maybe it’ll be Anansi or Huitzilopochtli.

Nah, you know it was coming. He thinks this nebulous nonsense is evidence for the god of the Christian holy book. So predictable…

That the Christian essence, as arose out of Judaism, showed such great staying power amidst the extraordinary political, economic, intellectual and other radical changes of the modern age is another reason I offer for thinking that the existence of a god is very probable.

But he even mentions Judaism — which is significantly older than Christianity, and still extant. If endurance is the metric, shouldn’t it win? Hinduism and Zoroastrianism are even older.

I’d also have to argue with the idea that the Christian essence, whatever that is, has been stable. Ever heard of the Reformation? The Thirty Years War? And which Christianity is he talking about: there are thousands of denominations, and all of them would look really weird in contrast to Christianity in the first century, or the tenth century.

Also, I have to point out that the fact that people believe in something is not actually evidence that what they believe is true. People have believed in ghosts for millennia, that does not mean that ghosts exist.

Never confuse climate with weather

The temptation is strong. I remember some amazingly fierce winters in the Pacific Northwest in the late 1960s and 1970s, where we had several feet of snow on the ground, the ponds froze solid, and the Green River was a churning mass of ice chunks. At that time, there were also a few popular magazine articles that speculated about a coming ice age…which was ridiculous. February is always colder than July, but we don’t mourn on New Year’s Day that the planet is doomed by this recent cold spate called Winter, and if there’s anything we know about weather it’s that it fluctuates.

Nowadays, though, one of the techniques used to discredit concerns about global climate change is to pretend that scientists’ opinions are as flighty as the weather, and therefore just as dismissable. Suddenly we have denialists arguing that scientists were claiming that the climate was slipping toward an Ice Age in the 1970s. Nonsense. So here’s a paper by Peterson, Connolley, and Fleck in which they actually did some history and asked what the scientists were actually thinking back then.

Climate science as we know it today did not exist in the 1960s and 1970s. The integrated enterprise embodied in the Nobel Prizewinning work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change existed then as separate threads of research pursued by isolated groups of scientists. Atmospheric chemists and modelers grappled with the measurement of changes in carbon dioxide and atmospheric gases, and the changes in climate that might result. Meanwhile, geologists and paleoclimate researchers tried to understand when Earth slipped into and out of ice ages, and why. An enduring popular myth suggests that in the 1970s the climate science community was predicting “global cooling” and an “imminent” ice age, an observation frequently used by those who would undermine what climate scientists say today about the prospect of global warming. A review of the literature suggests that, on the contrary, greenhouse warming even then dominated scientists’ thinking as being one of the most important forces shaping Earth’s climate on human time scales. More importantly than showing the falsehood of the myth, this review describes how scientists of the time built the foundation on which the cohesive enterprise of modern climate science now rests.

So even at the time of severe winter storms, scientists were objectively looking at long term trends and determining what was going on from the data, not from looking out their window and watching snowflakes.

One way to determine what scientists think is to ask them. This was actually done in 1977 following the severe 1976/77 winter in the eastern United States. “Collectively,” the 24 eminent climatologists responding to the survey “tended to anticipate a slight global warming rather than a cooling” (National Defense University Research Directorate 1978).

They also analyze the scientific literature of the period, and nope, no “global cooling”, it was all greenhouse effect.

The denialists have resorted to faking magazine covers to spread the myth of a global cooling fad. That’s how desperate they are.

The plain lesson is to never confuse climate with weather, but also, never confuse Time magazine with the scientific literature, especially when it’s been forged.

Sarah Kendior rips on graduate school

Wow. Sarah Kendzior has the most cynical, depressing take on grad school. She’s not entirely down on it and sees some virtue in advanced study, but also has some venom for the academic complex that is actually deserved.

Graduate students live in constant fear. Some of this fear is justified, like the fear of not finding a job. But the fear of unemployment leads to a host of other fears, and you end up with a climate of conformity, timidity, and sycophantic emulation. Intellectual inquiry is suppressed as “unmarketable”, interdisciplinary research is marked as disloyal, public engagement is decried as “unserious”, and critical views are written anonymously lest a search committee find them. I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by the Academic Jobs Wiki.

I don’t know about that. I know that there were people who had the fast-track to academic success because they’d mastered the drill of churning out grants and papers that were exercises in technique and throwing money at a problem, rather than actually thinking broadly, but there was still room for creative play in the lab. I think I was lucky to have mentors who thought public engagement was important — I think part of that was the fact of teaching, which keeps an academic grounded.

The cult mentality of academia not only curtails intellectual freedom, but hurts graduate students in a personal way. They internalize systemic failure as individual failure, in part because they have sacrificed their own beliefs and ideas to placate market values. The irony is that an academic market this corrupt and over-saturated has no values. Do not sacrifice your integrity to a lottery — even if you are among the few who can afford to buy tickets until you win.

I knew professors who believed in grad school as a winnowing process, where you make suffering the goal so only the strong survive. They were the minority, but the misery of being in their lab was deep.

Anthropology PhDs tend to wind up as contingent workers because they believe they have no other options. This is not true – anthropologists have many skills and could do many things – but there are two main reasons they think so. First, they are conditioned to see working outside of academia as failure. Second, their graduate training is not oriented not toward intellectual exploration, but to shoring up a dying discipline.

Of my graduate school cohort, maybe 5-10% ended up in academia. There is a tendency to see continuing to do whatever you’re doing, only on a slightly more elevated plane, as “success”. We’ve been working at the undergraduate level to make students aware that becoming a professor is only one narrow slice of the range of outcomes of training in STEM.

We also don’t have the idea of being in a “dying discipline” — biology is thriving, as well as any scientific field in the age of Republican anti-intellectualism can be said to be doing well. Kendzior is an anthropologist; I don’t feel that anthropology is dying so much as being under-appreciated.

Gillian Tett famously said that anthropology has committed intellectual suicide. Graduate students are taught to worship at its grave. The aversion to interdisciplinary work, to public engagement, to new subjects, to innovation in general, is wrapped up in the desire to affirm anthropology’s special relevance. Ironically, this is exactly what makes anthropology irrelevant to the larger world. No one outside the discipline cares about your jargon, your endless parenthetical citations, your paywalled portfolio, your quiet compliance. They care whether you have ideas and can communicate them. Anthropologists have so much to offer, but they hide it away.

I got a lot of bad advice in graduate school, but the most depressing was from a professor who said: “Don’t use up all your ideas before you’re on the tenure track.” I was assumed to have a finite number of ideas, and my job as a scholar was to withhold them, revealing them only when it benefited me professionally. The life of the mind was a life of pandering inhibition.

Jebus. That’s terrible advice. I had the benefit of a graduate advisor who seemed to reinvent himself every few years: from immunologist to neuroscientist to cytoplasmic signalling to lineage tracing developmental biologist to geneticist. It kept us on our toes, and there were times we wondered what, exactly, our lab did. I think he set a good example, and never seemed to run out of ideas.

I ignored this along with other advice – don’t get pregnant, don’t get pregnant (again), don’t study the internet, don’t study an authoritarian regime – and I am glad I did. Graduate students need to be their own mentors. They should worry less about pleasing people who disrespect them and more about doing good work.

Because in the end, that is what you are left with – your work. The more you own that, the better off you will be. In the immortal words of Whitney Houston: “No matter what they take from me, they can’t take away my dignity.” And in the equally immortal words of Whitney Houston: “Kiss my ass.” Both sentiments are helpful for navigating graduate school.

Heh. Yes. I got married and we had two kids while we were both in grad school — you’ll notice most of your academic mentors aren’t getting tenure until they’re in their 40s, and 20 year olds putting the real life thing on hold that long is unwise. Grad school, or your job whatever it may be, is not the whole of your life.

Academic training does not need to change so much as academic careerism. There is little sense in embracing careerism when hardly anyone has a career. But graduate school can still have value. Take advantage of your time in school to do something meaningful, and then share it with the world.

At least that section ends on a positive note. I agree. The whole point of education is to open your mind, not to get you a job, but to prepare you for any opportunity that comes around.

Why aren’t the fireable incompetents being fired?

David Brooks is criticizing Donald Trump in the New York Times. The world is being led by a child, he says. We’re supposed to give a damn what David Fucking Brooks is saying, because finally he’s becoming aware of a problem.

By Trump’s own account, he knows more about aircraft carrier technology than the Navy. According to his interview with The Economist, he invented the phrase “priming the pump” (even though it was famous by 1933). Trump is not only trying to deceive others. His falsehoods are attempts to build a world in which he can feel good for an instant and comfortably deceive himself.

He is thus the all-time record-holder of the Dunning-Kruger effect, the phenomenon in which the incompetent person is too incompetent to understand his own incompetence. Trump thought he’d be celebrated for firing James Comey. He thought his press coverage would grow wildly positive once he won the nomination. He is perpetually surprised because reality does not comport with his fantasies.

Jesus. David Brooks. David Brooks pointing out the Dunning-Kruger effect. David Brooks, an enduring picture postcard of the effect.

Driftglass is as appalled as I am, and puts it well.

What Mr. Brooks is describing — a toxic fantasy world built on “falsehoods” which permit the inhabitants to “comfortably deceive” themselves, but which is also perpetually under threat of collapse “because reality does not comport with [their] fantasies” — not only perfectly describes Mr. Brooks’ Republican Party as it has existed for most of my adult life, but also perfectly describes the reams of Whig Fan Fiction bullshit that The New York Times has paid Mr. Brooks a princely sum to extrude over the past 13 years.

Whig Fan Fiction in which the Republican Party as it has existed for most of my adult life — the Party of Trump and Palin and Bannon and Rove and Lee Atwater and Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson and Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh and Laura Ingraham and Ann Coulter and Ralph Reed and Roger Ailes and Newt Gingrich … and … and … — simply does not exist at all.

And so we have once again arrived at exactly the same place we were back in 2006-07. Back when the comfortable, toxic deceit of BushWorld — in which these very same pundits and this very same Republican base lived together under one roof, happily chugging Cheney-brand Kool Aid and slandering people like you and me — began to collapse under the weight of relentless Reality. And just as happened back then, we now see exactly the same, frantic ideological plea bargaining from the same paid professional Conservative/Both Siderist Beltway creatures. That the problem is somehow just Trump (David Brooks.) Or it’s because Trump is not really a Republican (Joe Scarborough, on MSNBC every fucking day.) Or it’s The Extremes on Both Sides (all the usual suspects).

This is the problem. We believe that the entire Trump administration ought to be sealed up in a box and buried in a landfill somewhere because they are incompetent and evil, but at the same time we respect the rule of law and see the Constitution as a good reason to hold back and work through responsible institutions to restore reason to government. And what if we ignored the US Constitution and did what was right? We already know the answer.

The New York Times, as one example of our media, is not bound by our constitution to respect the will of the people and the law. They have on their masthead a large number of people who were criminally irresponsible in cheerleading our way into a bloody futile war. You would think that after that debacle, the management would have looked at their staff and said, “My god, you’re a gang of fucking incompetents who got everything wrong, and wrecked the reputation of our newspaper. You’re fired! Let’s hire instead more of the people who got it right.”

That did not happen, obviously.

Those same people, David Fucking Brooks among them, are still there, and were happily churning out “tut-tuts” and “Hillary’s emails” and “both parties are the same” throughout the last election, and have helped sink us into yet another disastrous mire of bad policy that will kill people. Poor people, mostly, not the kind who’d subscribe to the NY Times, so I guess it’s OK. The pundits’ jobs are not at risk at all, ever. Those cretins can be wrong over and over, and never pay a price.

It’s the rest of us who pay.

It’s not just the NY Times. CNN is criminally incompetent, too — Wolf Blitzer is a caricature of a television presenter. MSNBC, the so-called “liberal” news channel, just hired George Goddamn Will, whose greatest claim to fame is that he can describe horrors with the same bland lack of affect he uses when picking his bow tie in the morning. These are people who, if their performance was judged on merit, would be laughed off the air and out of print — who might, at best, be reduced to writing for World Net Daily, Breitbart, or Weekly World News, but would most definitely not be on the payroll of the ‘prestigious’ news media. But there they are.

Once again, the frauds who ought to be superannuated ragpickers are rewarded with another sinecure.

The Republic is doomed, because if we can’t get rid of those losers, how are we going to get rid of parasites now roosting in the secure shelter of the Constitution?

What happened to

I’m a fan of Mastodon, the new microblogging service that is trying to break the hegemony of Twitter. It’s better, cleaner, free of most of the trolls, and promises to take seriously complaints about racists and nazis and misogynists, unlike Twitter. It also has an interesting approach, decentralizing the servers who manage the whole show, so you can even pick Mastodon servers that best reflect your interests.

But that might also be a vulnerability. I went for, was trying to contribute regularly to it, and then…kablooiee. It’s been down for a couple of days now. It appears to be no fault of the administrator, but the hosting service itself has screwed up.

Anyway, just be prepared for occasional breakdowns. Mastodon is great, but it demands some flexibility that you don’t get with the monolithic monolith.

Ignorance and dependency make for excellent shackles

Here’s a story of a remarkable woman, Eudocia Tomas Pulido, also known as Lola. She was the Filipino house slave of a Filipino immigrant family, in the late 20th century. She was given to the family as a gift by a local warlord in the aftermath of WWII, and was brought along when they emigrated to the US; they didn’t pay her a salary, didn’t even give her a room of her own, and she cooked and cleaned and raised their kids for practically her entire life. The author of the story is one of those kids, and was trying to make amends for the injustice, but still…she never went to school, had little money of her own, spoke English poorly, and was stranded in America. Even with the best intentions in the world, it’s hard to overcome the deficits imposed by an impoverished upbringing and adulthood.

The only answer is to treat every child as deserving of opportunity and autonomy, and raise them without those shackles. It’s a disgrace that a major American political party seems to be in the business of making new improved coffles for everyone.