God deigned to instruct his creation

The omnipotent and omniscient Lord of the Universe, Creator of All, charged with the detonation of supernovae, the majestic movement of whole galaxies, the grand march of all of history and all of time, spoke.

New Kensington resident Joey Salvati, 39, a father of two, was in the shower about a month ago when he first heard God speak to him about the matter. Whether it was an external or internal voice, he wasn’t sure. He tried to ignore it, but it kept coming back, day after day, until he realized he had to do something about it. The message was for Salvati to make wooden paddles for corporal punishment and give them to parents who need help disciplining their children.

God was undistracted by the need to maintain vast weather systems around the planet, or the pleas of billions of prayers, and gave Mr Salvati explicit, detailed instructions. His focus must be awesome.

The first suggestion is for parents to calibrate the force of their swing by testing it on themselves. “There is only one way to measure effectively –swat yourself on the rump and adjust your swing appropriately,” the instructions explain. Also on the site are suggested punishment guidelines. The minimum, one spank, is called for when the child is disrespectful. The maximum, five spanks, is called for when the child does something more serious such as endangering someone’s safety or is caught using drugs. Salvati said he did not research the subject or consult parenting experts before launching the site. He is instructing parents with the guidelines he said God gave to him.

You can read God’s guidelines. He seems to be a very detail-oriented guy who’s willing to explain things patiently to random people in their showers, but I sure wish he’d get his priorities straight. Rather than instructing people in how many times they should spank their children, how about a few hints on curing cancer or developing more efficient batteries or the whereabouts of a serial killer? You know, something useful, and that we could actually confirm? It’s always these mundane trivialities, rather than anything that actually helps people.

Why stars spin slowly

In the Index to Creationist Claims, there is an entry to an old argument from Walt Brown:

Claim CE302:

The sun has 99 percent of the mass of the solar system, but less than 1 percent of the angular momentum. It is spinning too slowly to have formed naturally.


Brown, Walt, 1995. In the Beginning: Compelling evidence for creation and the Flood. Phoenix, AZ: Center for Scientific Creation, p. 19.


Among solar-type stars, there is a strong correlation between age and rotation rate; the younger stars spin more rapidly (Baliunas et al. 1995). This implies some kind of braking mechanism that slows a star’s rotation. A likely candidate is an interaction between the star’s magnetic field and its solar wind (Parker 1965).

So we have a theoretical explanation, braking, and a correlation. Now Phil Plait discusses new evidence supporting the braking model : observations of stars with and without accretion disks show that all that material does seem to slow the rotation of the star down. There are some nice animations, too — the magnetic field of the star is like a big paddle-wheel moving through muck. Very cool.

This is why biologists keep the astronomers around — so they can answer the occasional off the wall questions we get from creationists about stars. And angular momentum. And magnetic fields. You know, all that physics stuff.

Any ornithomancers out there?

I beheld a strange sight when I stepped out my door this morning: a pair of cute little baby duckies waddling down the sidewalk, all alone and peeping frantically. They passed right by my house (of course—the miasma of evil is not inviting), turned left at my neighbor’s driveway, went up the sidewalk, and hopped up the stairs to their door. It was so peculiar — I haven’t seen any ducks in my neighborhood lately, and these two helpless ducklings were clearly lost — that I went up to the door, frightening the little guys away, to ask if they’d been raising ducks and had a couple of escapees. No, they were as mystified as I was. We caught them and put them someplace safe, but now I’m wondering…

I don’t believe in omens so I don’t really need an ornithomancer to interpret the movement of birds, but being a few miles from the nearest body of water does make me wonder what the heck they were doing here. My neighbor is going to call the DNR to see what can be done with them, too.

The corruption of Scooby Doo

Chris Mooney makes a point about the supernatural thriller genre.

Indeed, nearly five years ago I wrote a column entitled “Conversion Fantasies” in which I made the following point: In movies and TV series about the paranormal, the sterotypical “skeptic” figure always seems to convert into a believer by the end. And why does this occur? Well, because in fiction, the author can control the laws of nature, and in these fictional narratives (which show an abundant lack of creativity), the supernatural always turns out to be real.

I think an excellent example of this trend is the Scooby Doo cartoon. Way back when I was a young’un, they always ended the same way: the Scooby Doo gang would always discover that the monster/spectre/alien was actually Old Man Cargill, dressed in a costume, trying to keep visitors away so they wouldn’t discover his secret uranium mine, and they always led him away in handcuffs at the end, while he muttered, “If it weren’t for those darned kids, I would have gotten away with it.” I know, the cartoon was cheesily and cheaply animated, the plots were boring and predictable, and the characters were annoyingly trite, but at least they had a consistent message that the supernatural wasn’t real.

That changed last time I saw it — the ghosts were “real”. It was very strange: it was a badly done cartoon, waning in popularity, and instead of trying to reinvigorate it by, say, coming up with creative plots, or getting better artwork, or making the characters more interesting, they chose to throw away the one novel element of the show. The supernatural resort is often the act of lazy hacks.

I’m not going to be quite as down on the supernatural in fiction as Mooney is — I do like a good cheesy horror flick now and then — but I agree with him that the conversion narrative always seems to run in one direction only, and it’s gotten a bit tired. How about a movie where a confirmed, praying, ghost-fearing, gullible person sees the evidence and is enlightened, and sees at last the sufficiency of natural mechanisms? I don’t just mean discovering it’s Old Man Cargill under the sheet, but gets their whole worldview shaken up and realizes that hey, looking for material causes works.

That would be a hard one to write, I suspect, and me and Chris Mooney don’t represent a very big share of the market.

Mammals have hair. Get used to it.

Tara has successfully grossed me out. She has an article on the unfortunate consequences of a bikini wax—a massive infection that turned the vulva and perineum into something resembling an over-ripe melon. And the woman who had this problem repeatedly tried to depilate afterwards!

I’ve never quite gotten the appeal of this practice. Is it to appeal to men with pedophilic tendencies? Or is it more of a desire to look like you’ve got a mollusc in your crotch? Everybody has their own little kink, so if hairless pubes appeal to two people, I’m not going to worry about it…but it seems to me it ought to be OK for a woman to want to look like a female mammal, and that individuals ought not to feel obligated to follow a very weird and highly artificial standard of beauty to the point where they suffer severe illnesses.

Down House proposal withdrawn

Darwin’s home was going to be submitted to UNESCO’s World Heritage committee for designation as a World Heritage site, but that application was withdrawn, to be resubmitted in two years after some reworking. Down House has some handicaps compared to other World Heritage sites:

But without natural wonders or spectacular architecture, Darwin at Downe does not tick obvious World Heritage boxes. Although he was surprised to hear of Downe’s difficulties, Geoffrey Belcher, site coordinator for the Maritime Greenwich World Heritage Site in London, thinks that “A site with a limited range of qualities will be at a disadvantage.” The inclusion of the Royal Observatory makes Greenwich one of the few World Heritage Sites to celebrate science, but the site boasts architectural splendour and naval history too.

It is a rather different site—it’s not famous for some major chunk of tangible real estate, something that visitors could touch and take photos of, but for being a place where one of the major thinkers of the 19th century did his research and writing and correspondence, a kind of locus of thought. It’s definitely an important place in the history of science.

Ian Robinson finds one unfortunate comment in the article—a comparison with religious sites. Bleh.

“I can’t think of anything more important to do for the history of nineteenth-century science than to protect the whole environment Darwin inhabited and exploited,” says James Moore, a Darwin scholar at the Open University in Milton Keynes and one of the first historians to explore the importance of this rural refuge to Darwin. “Muslims go to Mecca, Christians go to Jerusalem, Darwinians go to Downe,” he says.

That’s putting the wrong spin on it. Another World Heritage site is Independence Hall in Philadelphia; we don’t go there because we worship the declaration of independence, or because we think the founding fathers were gods (OK, some people do, but they’re insane). Another is the Olympic National Park—again, it’s not a holy place, it’s a natural wonder. I like both, but that doesn’t make me an Independencehallian or an Olympian…although the latter does have a nice ring to it.

Nicholls H (2007) Darwin down but not out. Nature, 20 June 2007, doi:10.1038/447896a

The futility of being Cheri Yecke

Yecke, Minnesota’s former odious education commissioner, is now campaigning to be odious education commissioner for the state of Florida. Her history in our fair state is now a bit of a stain on her reputations, so she hired a company called “reputationdefender” to sanitize the internet for her. This company googles up people who have said unkind things about their clients and sends out email threats to them, telling them to take it down. Their first target: gentle Wesley Elsberry. What’s particularly weird about this is that the post in question is simply a collection of news clippings with sources, with virtually no commentary at all.

Even weirder, if you google Cheri Yecke, Wesley’s post is #5; posts on Pharyngula occupy the #3 and #4 slots, and I guarantee you, I take much greater joy in stomping on yucky Yecke than Wes…but “reputationdefender” hasn’t hassled me at all.

It is amusing, though, that her efforts to whitewash the past and silence her critics are going to win her wider attention on the net. Look, here I am, once again adding to the links pointing to her creationist-friendly history!

You have got to take a look at “reputationdefender’s” claims to believe them. For the low, low price of $29.95, they promise to DESTROY any online entry you don’t like. That’s good to know—the limit of their efforts is that they’ll put $30 worth of time into expunging the web of undesirables. What is that, about 10 minutes of a lawyer’s time spent drafting a letter? $30 wasted on an exercise in futility?

Here’s what they promise to do. For about $15/month, they’ll regularly search online content for you, and send you a report. Then, at your request…

Next, we DESTROY. You can select any content from your report that you don’t like. This is where we go to work for you.

Our trained and expert online reputation advocates use an array of proprietary techniques developed in-house to correct and/or completely remove the selected unwanted content from the web. This is an arduous and labor-intensive task, but we take the job seriously so you can sleep better at night. We will always and only be in YOUR corner.

If we find an item of online content you don’t like, we’ll carry out our proprietary DESTROY process for you on that item for the one-time low fee of $29.95. This is where the rubber hits the road. It is an arduous and time-consuming process for our team of specialists, but we work hard so you can sleep better at night. You don’t pay this till you command us to DESTROY unwanted online content.

The “proprietary” and “arduous and labor-intensive task” seems to involve meekly asking the author to take down his article.

New York Times gives evolution a day

The NY Times has pulled out all the stops today and has dedicated their entire science section to the subject of evolution. They’ve got pieces by some of the best science journalists around, like Carl Zimmer, Cornelia Dean (although in this case, it’s a lot of nattering on about how the soul fits into evolution—not recommended), and Natalie Angier, and they’ve also drafted a few scientists. There’s a video of Sean Carroll summarizing evo-devo, and perhaps the most interesting article of them all is by Douglas Erwin, in which he speculates about whether the new ideas percolating throughout the science community (especially by those noisy developmental biologists) are precursors to a new revolution in our thinking about evolution. He’s non-committal so far, which is fair.

Does all this add up to a new modern synthesis? There is certainly no consensus among evolutionary biologists, but development, ecology, genetics and paleontology all provide new perspectives on how evolution operates, and how we should study it. None of these concerns provide a scintilla of hope for creationists, as scientific investigations are already providing new insights into these issues. The foundations for a paradigm shift may be in place, but it may be some time before we see whether a truly novel perspective develops or these tensions are accommodated within an expanded modern synthesis.

Or both! I expect that what will happen is that the deficiencies in the neo-Darwinian synthesis (which lacks any explanation for the evolution of form and pattern, for instance) will be gradually filled in with clear linkages to the evolution of genes, and despite the fact that it will be a bigger, bolder, stronger synthesis, everyone will say we knew it all along anyway. There will not be a threshold moment where everyone says “Wow! I am suddenly enlightened!” — there will just come a time when everyone acknowledges that all those papers from 40 years ago were pretty darned important, after all.