Watts gets swatted

That crank pseudoscience site, Watt’s Up With That, got thoroughly reamed out with the video below (just the fact that the chief crackpot, Anthony Watts, would show up on Glenn Beck’s show is indictment enough, though). Watt was not too happy with his public evisceration, however, and scurried off to get it taken down. Here it is, reposted. Enjoy — it’s a very good takedown of the climate denialist claims.

(via Deltoid)

The mermaid fatwa

We are often told that religion is a different way of knowing, that it can provide us with a different perspective and different information. I have not believed this at all, because no one has ever been able to give me an example of actual, useful information obtained from a religion, that could not have been generated by a reality-based approach.

Until now.

This is a question that I had never even considered before; it was unexpected and surprising. I think I’ve finally experienced an insightful religious question.

Are you allowed to eat a mermaid?

Apparently, the Koran or some of its promoters discussed mermaids at some point, therefore they are presumed to exist. The question is then a reasonable one: if you throw a net over the side of your dhow, and haul in a mermaid along with a nice catch of ordinary fish, is she halaal? Can you chop her up, sell her at the market, or take her home to the family for dinner?

There is a fatwa on the subject of eating mermaids that cites many scholarly Islamic sources. Here are a few.

Al-Durayr – a Maaliki scholar – said in al-Sharh al-Sagheer (2/182): Sea animals in general are permissible, whether it is dead meat or a ‘dog’ (shark) or a ‘pig’ (dolphin), and they do not need to be slaughtered properly. End quote.

Al-Saawi said in his commentary on that: The words “or a ‘dog’ or a ‘pig’ also include a ‘human’, referring thereby to mermaids. End quote.

Shaykh Ibn ‘Uthaymeen (may Allaah have mercy on him) said, after stating that it is more likely that it is permissible to eat crocodiles and sea snakes: The correct view is that nothing is excluded from that, and that all the sea creatures which can only live in water are halaal, alive or dead, because of the general meaning of the verse – i.e., “Lawful to you is (the pursuit of) water game and its use for food” [al-Maa’idah 5:64].


That was a revelation. I’ll never be able to watch Splash with the same eyes again.

Now I just need recipes. I’ve gutted enough salmon that I probably don’t need cleaning instructions.

Oh, and a mermaid. I wonder if the Asian market in the Twin Cities would have any?

(via Salty Current)

When the data is weak, there’s always the internet poll to prop it up

A much-abused study showed that in poor neighborhoods with low academic opportunities, better scholastic performance was correlated with church attendance. This slim thread has been seized upon by religious apologists to justify claims that church attendance improves kids’ grades, and is usually accompanied by anecdotes about good church-going children being studious and diligent. The evidence is poor and getting worse, how low can it sink?

You know where it can go, to the worthless world of the internet poll.

Do you think attending church can improve kids’ grades?

Yes 52%
No 36%
Don’t know 12%

I think it is completely unsurprising that academic scores can be improved with discipline, and that part of that family discipline will be expressed in church attendance, in religious families. It’s a long reach to claiming a causal relationship between church and grades, though.

Nessie disproves evolution…in the UK, at least

Here is a piece of text from a textbook used by fundamentalist Christians in a biology class.

Have you heard of the ‘Loch Ness Monster’ in Scotland? ‘Nessie,’ for short has been recorded on sonar from a small submarine, described by eyewitnesses, and photographed by others. Nessie appears to be a plesiosaur.

Could a fish have developed into a dinosaur? As astonishing as it may seem, many evolutionists theorize that fish evolved into amphibians and amphibians into reptiles. This gradual change from fish to reptiles has no scientific basis. No transitional fossils have been or ever will be discovered because God created each type of fish, amphibian, and reptile as separate, unique animals. Any similarities that exist among them are due to the fact that one Master Craftsmen fashioned them all.

Oy, that’s familiar tripe — creationists repeat this kind of nonsense over and over again. The cryptozoology angle is also drearily common: many creationists think dinosaurs and humans coexisted recently, and that dinosaurs even still exist in exotic locations like the Congo and Canada. The existence of modern dinosaurs is considered evidence against evolution.

So that book is unsurprisingly stupid. There is something surprising about it, though: a UK government agency has just decided that such garbage is legitimate education, and has declared the fundamentalist young-earth creationist curriculum to be equivalent to their international A-levels. This agency, the National Recognition Information Centre (Naric), is blithely advising employers and universities that students who have gone through the creationist indoctrination and propaganda program have received a respectable education in science.

Well, you now know how much to trust a Naric recommendation. Not at all.

The future is roaring your way…

Edge hosted an amazing session that described the looming future of biology — this is for the real futurists. It featured George Church and Craig Venter talking about synthetic genomics — how we’re building new organisms right now and with presentiments for radical prospects in the future.

Brace yourself. There are six hours of video there; I’ve only started wading into it, but what I’ve seen so far also looks like a lot of material that will be very useful for inspiring students about the future of their field. There is also a downloadable book (which is a dead link right now, but I’m sure will be fixed soon) if you don’t want to watch the talks…but the talks are pretty darned good. Somehow, I’m going to have to make time to soak these up. Here’s the overview of the six sessions:

  • Dreams & Nightmares
    Overview, safety/security/policy, nanotechnology, molecular manufacturing

  • Smaller than life
    What is life, origins, in vitro synthetic life, mirror life, computing and DNA, computing with DNA

  • Engineering microbes
    Bio-petrochemicals & pharmaceuticals, accelerated lab evolution

  • Engineering humans
    Electronic-biological interfaces, bioengineered personal stem cells, humanized mice, bringing back extinct species

  • The sorceror
    The diversity of life, constructing life, from Darwin to new fuels

  • The near future, big questions
    Terraforming earth, creating extraterrestrials, the singularity, human nature

There goes your weekend.

Cobb County does something right

Cobb County, Georgia is infamous for its efforts a few years ago to slap a warning sticker on biology textbooks, which might have given the impression that it’s full of southern yahoos. However, intelligent people and godless people are everywhere, including Cobb County, and they now have another claim to fame: a local atheist, Edward Buckner, used the opening invocation of a county board meeting to deliver a godless homily. It’s not bad; you can hear it online. He spoke for all the people who do not attend church, and who do not want their government interfering in religion, and decried the ‘hypocritical piety’ of using a board meeting to promote a faith. He also closed by telling people that if they resented his point of view being expressed at the meeting, they should urge county officials to stop using the meeting to discuss religion and philosophy.

Of course some people were annoyed.

County board of commissioners chairman Sam Olens, reached by phone Wednesday night, said he was offended by Buckner’s actions.

“Did I find his comments repugnant and insulting? Yes,” Olens said. “He abused the process by giving an opinion … rather than providing inspiration.”

I do not find prayers at all inspiring, but I thought Buckner’s comments were thoughtful and interesting, and a better way to start a meeting than conjuring up an invisible spirit. I predict, however, that Olens is completely incapable of seeing his prayers the way we do, as also repugnant and insulting. That we’ve tolerated such nonsense for so long does not mean we have to continue to sit silently while parasites mumble incantations, and it’s a good opportunity for people like Olens to have the situation turned about so that they need to learn some tolerance themselves.

Biological pareidolia

Jesus in a pita, Madonna in bird poop, gods speaking through the arrangement of viscera…we’re used to ridiculous religious pattern seeking. A reader, Mike Barnes, wrote in to tell me about a scientist who has been playing the same game: Francis Collins sees DNA in stained glass windows.


Collins showed two images–a stained-glass rose window often seen in Christian churches, and an eerily similar graphic that he described as “looking down the barrel” of DNA’s double helix.

“I’m not trying to say that there’s something inherently religious” in the DNA image, Collins emphasized. “But, I think it is emblematic of the potential here of the topic to both interest people and to make them unsettled. Can you, in fact, admire both of these [images]? Can you do it at the same time? Is there an inherent problem in having both a scientific world view and a spiritual world view?”

You know you’ve taken a long stroll on a short limb when you start using phrases like “emblematic of the potential” and start seeing significance in the fact that people can see what they want to see in a random image. Collins is also making a peculiar leap to associate the Rose Window with ‘spirituality’. As Barnes explains:

In his 2008 lecture Francis Collins used a slide of York Minster’s beautiful Rose Window as his first religious analogy. Not only is this spurious in principle, but also in fact:

I went to York University; a good friend (and atheist) was doing his PhD on the stained glass of York Minster. First, and more trivially, the Rose Window only looks the way it does on Collins’ slide because the medium of film completely distorts the exposure to create a spurious silhouette effect. It was never intended to be seen, or its meaning ‘read’, this way.

Also, Collins uses the Rose Window/genome slide and asks “do you have to make a choice between these two?”. (science versus religion, he supposes) In fact the Rose Window was designed in the 16th century as propaganda for the bloodthirsty Tudor dynasty, celebrating the union of Henry 7th and Elizabeth of York. The rose was the dynastic symbol: red for Lancashire, white for York. So the roses round the edge are as much symbols of victorious, naked state power as swastikas were in Nazi Germany – albeit more picturesque.

So, nothing to do with god or Jebus – or is the mere fact it’s situated in a Cathedral enough for Collins?

I’ve seen this comparison of Rose Window/DNA genome on Christian propaganda before and as someone who saw the original it annoys me a lot. Collins assumes a photographically-distorted soft-focus image can ‘say’ something about the genome. Unless he simply means, ‘here’s something old and pretty to see, and hey, the genome kinda looks like it’ the facts about the Rose Window blow his analogy to pieces. Or maybe he really loves old, bloodthirsty tyrants?

I can look at the Rose Window and see a piece of history; some interesting architecture; a pretty pattern; the product of skilled human labor; a monument to oppression; a relic of institutionalized superstition. There are also a few things I do not see. I do not see DNA, except that both DNA and the window share the extremely general property of exhibiting radial symmetry. I also do not see the hand of any god, because it is entirely the product of human hands and minds. There is an inherent problem in “having a spiritual worldview”, in that it compels Collins to see things that are not there.

Whatever you do, don’t let anyone show Collins the structure of laminin or potassium channels! I know it’s too late to shield him from the sight of waterfalls.

They’re back

When all the site problems were at their worst, one of the things I did to try and lighten the server’s load was to remove the random quotes feature here. It didn’t seem to help, and boy, did I get lots of email complaining about their absence — I didn’t think you guys would even notice!

Anyway, I’ve restored them now. Look over to the left, just below the big red A and the Americans United logo.