You’ve all been slacking!

People sometimes wonder where all the Kristian and Kreationist Kooks have gone — they only rarely pop their little pinheads up here anymore. Well, I can tell you: since most of the commenters have decamped from my old scienceblogs site to frolic here on freethoughtblogs, the kooks have moved in unopposed over at Sb. For example, look at the Creationism and racism article that I crossposted to both networks: there they are! There’s good huntin’ over there nowadays.

Of course, one thing I’ve learned from this is that they aren’t afraid of me, but they’re terrified of you all.

Methinks it is like a sauropsid

Eugene McCarthy, the author of that crackpot stabilization theory, has discovered my review and is now making a noise on twitter. He’s gone from thanking me profusely for mentioning him, to whining that I stole his figures, to complaining that I don’t understand his theory at all, all in the last 24 hours.

But here’s the fun part. Recall that one of his bizarre claims is that whales did not evolve from terrestrial artiodactyls, but from mosasaurs, mesozoic marine reptiles, instead. But the anatomy shows that mosasaurs are derived squamates, reptiles, with a completely different skeletal organization than a mammal. This has attracted the attention of Darren Naish and Tom Holtz, fully qualified comparative anatomists and paleontologists, who actually know a great deal about the structure of these animals, and are giving him a spectacular ass-whooping. Browse it on Twitter.

The basis of his claim is that mosasaur teeth “look like” sperm whale teeth. That’s not a good criterion, and it’s not true; as has been pointed out to him, basal mosasaurs are pleurodont (that is, the teeth are fused to the inner side of the jaw bone), not socketed as are sperm whale teeth. He’s also now claiming that mosasaurs swam by vertical motions of their tails, like whales…but he’s citing articles with poor comprehension. The cited articles show evidence that mosasaurs propelled themselves with axial motions of the tail, which is a far more general statement; they moved by sweeping their tails like oars, but it says nothing about vertical vs. horizontal undulations.

So I went back to McCarthy’s book to see how he backed up this ridiculous claim. He doesn’t. He cites Pieter Camper, an 18th century anatomist, as proposing the idea that whales are related to mosasaurs. His critics are citing contemporary and detailed papers. This, however, is really the totality of McCarthy’s argument:

The varanid theory was based on Adriaan Gilles’ assertion that certain skeletal characters found in mosasaurs are not found in modern whales. However, a glance at figures 9.4 and 9.5, will convince most readers that mosasaurs have much in common with early whales. Certainly, they have far more in common with whales than does the late Cretaceous terrestrial insectivore traditional theory posits as the common ancestor of whales and all other placental mammals (it should be emphasized that all of the various forms classified as mosasaurs, too, are of late Cretaceous age). They are also far more similar to whales than is Pakicetus. One would not expect the ancient ancestors of whales to have every characteristic of modern whales. Their dissimilarity with respect to a few minor bony traits should not be allowed to obscure the well established fact that mosasaurs were huge, whalelike, air-breathing animals with whalelike teeth and that they had the same sort of prey as modern whales.

The referenced figures are grainy, low resolution images that do not do an adequate job of displaying the structures. The “dissimilarity with respect to a few minor bony traits” is trivialized; these are actually substantial differences in the arrangement and number of bones in the skull, where the mosasaur displays a fairly standard reptilian pattern and the whales show a mammalian pattern. They only look alike if you don’t look at all closely. How can you say that the jaw joint or the auditory complex of a whale look anything like that of a reptile? Only by not looking.

His other argument is that it would take fewer evolutionary changes to transform a mosasaur into a whale, than a shrew into a whale. This is nonsense. Turning a reptile into a mammal requires a major reorganization of the bones of the skull, and further, requires that those shifts exactly mimic the pattern found in other mammals. There is no reasonable way to accomplish that. Again, the basis of his entire argument is a complete ignorance about the anatomy!

This is the well-supported pattern of whale evolution. Notice: no mosasaurs.


Root of all evil?

While I’m criticizing the South, I should also damn the whole country. They Yankees also contributed to the history of slavery: that whole second amendment thing that troubles us so much now was a sop to slavery, enabling ‘militias’ that were intended to capture escaped slaves and suppress insurrections.

…most southern men between ages 18 and 45 – including physicians and ministers – had to serve on slave patrol in the militia at one time or another in their lives.

And slave rebellions were keeping the slave patrols busy.

By the time the Constitution was ratified, hundreds of substantial slave uprisings had occurred across the South. Blacks outnumbered whites in large areas, and the state militias were used to both prevent and to put down slave uprisings. …slavery can only exist in the context of a police state, and the enforcement of that police state was the explicit job of the militias.

So many of the high ideals of this country were poisoned by compromises to allow deep inequities. And the founding fathers were complicit.

The honorless party

Republicans. Bleh. Yesterday, while one Virginia Democrat, Henry Marsh, was in Washington DC for the inaugural, the state Republicans took advantage of his absence to ram through a redistricting plan. I really, really hate the way both parties play games with districts to gain an advantage, but to do it by waiting until a civil rights veteran isn’t looking is rank cowardice and more than a little skeevy.

But they had new depths to plumb. On Martin Luther King Day, they adjourned the senate session in memory of General Thomas J. ‘Stonewall’ Jackson, traitor and defender of slavery. Hey, Southerners: you lost the war, your ancestors betrayed the country, and they did it all for the cause of institutionalized racism. Get over it. It’s past time to stop romanticizing and celebrating an evil cause.

“It’s about misogyny. It’s about intimidation. It’s about silencing.”

Jane Fae writes about the realities of online bullying in the New Statesman.

…there is something disturbingly misogynistic about online bullying. Yes: blokes, male columnists, undoubtedly get it too. But it feels as though there is something far more vicious, gender-related with respect to what women have to endure.

Beard makes the point well, in a blog responding to her own online treatment. It is clear that she is no stranger to tired old jokes about her appearance – but even she has been shocked about the response she evoked, describing the level of misogyny as “truly gobsmacking”. The focus of much of the abuse is sexual, sadistic even and, she adds: “it would be quite enough to put many women off appearing in public, contributing to political debate”.

In other words, it is silencing, something I get very well from personal experience. I’ve opted out of contributing online for periods ranging from hours to a couple of weeks after being subjected to this sort of online nastiness. Not just me. Many far braver women with serious contributions to make to public discourse on violence and abuse have suffered similar: been silenced simply for having an opinion.

Yeah, the guys get it, too. I thought it was ridiculous before — I had Conservapædia raving about how fat I was, whole blogs dedicated to how stupid I was, and of course, frequent accusations of being gay — but once I got associated with feminism, the hatred reached a whole new level of shrieking. I’ve basically been declared an honorary woman by a whole new category of people, online atheists, who turn out to be worse than creationists, Christians, and Muslims. There are even more rants about my appearance, my ‘irrationality’, my sanity, than ever before.

And the scary thing is that when I compare what I get to what women activists get, I’m getting off easy.

It’s not criticism, either. It’s just raving mad hatred.

Creationism and racism

When I visited the Creation “Museum”, one thing that shocked me was this display:


At the time, I pointed out the pernicious nature of this claim:

With complete seriousness and no awareness of the historical abuses to which this idea has been put, they were promoting the Hamite theory of racial origins, that ugly idea that all races stemmed from the children of Noah, and that black people in particular were the cursed offspring of Ham. If they are going to reject science because of its abuses, such as eugenics, they should at least be conscious of the evils perpetrated in the name of their strange cultish doctrines, I should think.

Boy oh boy, let me tell you…Ken Ham was indignant and outraged. How dare we connect creationism to racism? He was claiming that all races were one, descended from a common ancestor, Noah, 4000 years ago! Of course, what he neglects to mention is that the Biblical story claims that Africans are the product of a curse of servility placed on Ham and all of his descendants.

Well, and he also neglects to mention that the story is totally bogus, disproven by modern evidence, and has no relationship at all to the patterns of migration in human history.

Ken Ham is wrong and racist. The Biblical story of the origins of the diverse peoples of the earth is wrong and racist. It really is that simple. It takes a complex history and turns it into a pat partitioning of humanity into the chosen people, and the cursed people.

And just now people are taking notice. Schools in Texas are taking advantage of creationist curricula to incorporate instruction in racism into the schools. This is an actual image from one of the creationist textbooks.


And this is what Texas schoolkids are being taught.

  • Instructional material in two school districts teach that racial diversity today can be traced back to Noah’s sons, a long-discredited claim that has been a foundational component of some forms of racism.

  • Religious bias is common, with most courses taught from a Protestant — often a conservative Protestant — perspective. One course, for example, assumes Christians will at some point be “raptured.” Materials include a Venn diagram showing the pros and cons of theories that posit the rapture before the returning Jesus’ 1,000-year reign and those that place it afterward. In many courses, the perspectives of Roman Catholics, Orthodox Christians and Jews are often left out.

  • Anti-Jewish bias — intentional or not — is not uncommon. Some courses even portray Judaism as a flawed and incomplete religion that has been replaced by Christianity.

  • Many courses suggest or openly claim that the Bible is literally true. “The Bible is the written word of God,” students are told in one PowerPoint presentation. Some courses go so far as to suggest that the Bible can be used to verify events in history. One district, for example, teaches students that the Bible’s historical claims are largely beyond question by listing biblical events side by side with historical developments from around the globe.

  • Course materials in numerous classes are designed to evangelize rather than provide an objective study of the Bible’s influence. A book in one district makes its purpose clear in the preface: “May this study be of value to you. May you fully come to believe that ‘Jesus is the Christ, the son of God.’ And may you have ‘life in His name.’”

  • A number of courses teach students that the Bible proves Earth is just 6,000 years old.

  • Students are taught that the United States is a Christian nation founded on the Christian biblical principles taught in their classrooms.

  • Academic rigor is so poor that many courses rely mostly on memorization of Bible verses and factoids from Bible stories rather than teaching students how to analyze what they are studying. One district relies heavily on Bible cartoons from Hanna-Barbera for its high school class. Students in another district spend two days watching what lesson plans describe a “the historic documentary Ancient Aliens,” which presents “a new interpretation of angelic beings described as extraterrestrials.”

Would you believe that they also teach that the Jews killed Jesus? Of course you would.

Creationism isn’t just a source of ignorance; it’s a major wellspring of ethnic bigotry.

(via Addicting Info)

Jenna Cavelle wants to correct ‘Chinatown’

If you’ve heard any history of the California desert at all, you’ve likely heard of the Owens Valley Water War.

Here’s the canonical version of that War: The Owens Valley is watered by runoff from the immense snowfall from the Sierra Nevada to its west, much of which runs into the Owens River when it melts. The Owens Valley is an endorrheic basin: it has no outflow. The Owens River never reaches the ocean. Instead, it flows into Owens Lake, in the valley’s lowest point at its south end.

Late in the 19th Century a thriving network of agricultural communities was developing due to the river’s water, growing a vibrant local economy along with their crops. Enter the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, led by engineer William Mulholland. DWP quietly bought up water rights throughout the Owens Valley in a series of deceptive land deals, then built a 223-mile aqueduct to bring Owens River water to Los Angeles. The aqueduct was finished in 1913 — 100 years ago this November — and farms started going out of business in the decade after. Owens Valley farmers dynamited parts of the aqueduct in 1924, but the rebellion was short-lived. Owens Lake, which had been a rich habitat for waterfowl, dried up and is now the single largest point source of particulate matter pollution in the U.S.

As canonical histories go, it’s pretty accurate. Or at least more accurate than the version a lot of people have in their heads due to the film Chinatown, which was based on the Owens Valley story. But it’s a woefully incomplete history nonetheless. The history of the Owens Valley didn’t start in the late 19th Century. Before the first European settlers arrived there were people living in the Owens Valley for thousands of years. The Owens Valley Paiute took advantage of the relatively well-watered landscape by gathering seeds, hunting the Valley’s abundant game, and — though this hardly ever gets mentioned in any of the formal histories — diverting the water of the Owens River and its tributaries to irrigate their crops.

Journalist Jenna Cavelle wants to correct the canonical history to include the Owens Valley Paiute, who are still very much alive and shaping the valley:

This film documents the history of Paiute Native Americans who constructed 60 miles of intricate irrigation systems in Owens Valley for millennia long before LA secured its largest source of water through modern engineering a century ago. After the Indian War of 1863, surviving Paiute returned to the Valley from the Eastern Sierra and White Mountains to find their ancient waterworks taken over by white settlers. Today, over 150-years later, the Paiute continue to fight to save their waterworks, which are remnant in the Owens Valley landscape, along with water rights the city of LA never granted. PAYA (“water” in Paiute) stands to recover both Paiute history and water rights by increasing awareness through the powerful medium of documentary film.

She’s working to put together a set of resources, centering around a documentary film, before the last remaining Paiute elders who have some tenuous personal knowledge of their ancestors’ irrigation systems aren’t around to document anymore.  Here’s Cavelle’s Kickstarter trailer:

She’s halfway to her goal with half her fundraising period left. This project combines history, the California desert environment, and social justice, so you won’t be surprised that I really want to see it happen. I’m scratching together a few bucks to throw Cavelle’s way: maybe you’ll want to as well.

Oh, right, it was the inauguration today

Hey, this guy Obama can give a pretty good speech. There were parts of his inaugural address that I really liked. This bit, for instance, is a clear swipe at the Republican party and part of a genuine political vision for the future that I wish the Democrats could always enunciate so clearly.

We, the people, still believe that every citizen deserves a basic measure of security and dignity. We must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit. But we reject the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future. For we remember the lessons of our past, when twilight years were spent in poverty and parents of a child with a disability had nowhere to turn.

We do not believe that in this country freedom is reserved for the lucky, or happiness for the few. We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us at any time may face a job loss, or a sudden illness, or a home swept away in a terrible storm. The commitments we make to each other through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security, these things do not sap our initiative, they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.

But my favorite part, and I think the heart of his speech, was where he threw out a few liberal dogwhistles: Seneca Falls, Selma, and Stonewall (that is, equal rights for women, blacks, and gays).

We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths –- that all of us are created equal –- is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.

It is now our generation’s task to carry on what those pioneers began. For our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts. Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law –- for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well. Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote. Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity — until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country. Our journey is not complete until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia, to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for and cherished and always safe from harm.

There were a few bits I did not care for at all. One was the too frequent invocation of god, of course: when you’re calling on this generation to work for a better world, don’t undercut it all by calling on or crediting a magical being.

Worst, though, was his claim that “A decade of war is now ending” and “enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war”. This is not a president who can make any claim of contributing to world peace, or that he’s even diminished American militarism. I heard that and wondered whether he was going to be just as hypocritical with regards to his fine words about equality and justice.

But maybe he’ll do better this term: maybe he actually will recall all the troops, shut down the terrorism by drones, and actually improve security at home.