Geologists get to suffer with the idiots, too

My most memorable encounter with the anti-animal research cadres was several years ago, when I was a graduate student, and the Animal Liberation Front snuck into our building one night and vandalized one of my colleague’s labs; they destroyed data, stole some irreplaceable mutant lines, and walked away with most of the research animals, things like white mice and quail and other small furry lab-bred animals. In their noble humanitarianism, they later released them all just off of I-5, where all the baffled, frightened little beasties made the local red-tailed hawks very, very happy. It’s the kind of event that convinced me that these people are freakin’ morons.

I’m not against ethical standards for the treatment of animals at all — I think that ought to be required and monitored. But these animal rightists seem to have largely formed their knowledge of biology from Disney movies

I thought they were a plague on biology, but guess what? Geologists have to strive against the ignorant, too! One proud “eco-warrior” is bragging online about his efforts to disrupt geological research in British Columbia. He dismantled a seismic shot, an explosive device which sends echoes bouncing through the earth, which was being used in a pure research project to examine deep granite basoliths, as part of a study of how mountains are formed.

His excuses were that it would frighten sandhill cranes nesting a few kilometers away, that it was probably secret surveying for the oil industry (yeah, right — I’m only a biologist, and even I know you don’t go drilling beneath mountain ranges for oil), and that it was all done without informing the community. For this, Ingmar Lee charges ahead and damages a simple research operation that, like most geology projects, was operating on a shoe-string already.

I think that Lee expects kudos and congratulations for his ignorance; perhaps you should politely inform him otherwise. Leave him a civil, informative comment at his site to correct him. The only part I’ll bother to reproduce from his posturing is part of his correspondence. He wrote to the PI of the research project to complain about the seismic shot, and John Hole wrote back, politely explaining what they were and were not doing, and how the public process was carried out. It’s an excellent example of good communication by a scientist, and is a model for how to address public concerns. It’s too bad the recipient was a committed ideologue who thought it would be heroic to smash up some science.

From: John Hole
Date: 2009/7/12
Subject: Re: Great Bear Rainforest Seismic Shot: Batholiths On Land Seismic Program mid-July, 2009
To: Ingmar
Cc: John Hole , George Spence

Mr. Lee,

I understand your distrust of government. We are not “them”. We are not the petroleum industry either. We are university scientists, who, for purely scientific reasons, submitted funding proposals to study mountain-building processes – to us this is a really cool part of nature. Our budgets are definitely not massive – to the point where our crew is mostly unpaid student volunteers. Our science will be student research projects, published in public online journals. Since the research is about the wrong type of rocks (granite), it will not be useful to petroleum companies.

Government employees working at the lowest local levels usually are not “them” either; these folks are more likely to be the whistle blowers. The government employee scientists who reviewed and approved the environmental-biological aspects of our proposal are based in Bella Coola (DFO and MinEnv) and Williams Lake (MinEnv). They seem pretty “green” to me – they sure asked a lot of questions and cancelled/shrunk a few of our proposed shots for good environmental reasons that only a local would know. We were happy to comply.

The marine Batholiths was not shut down due to the potential for marine damage. A permit was neither denied nor approved. We withdrew our application because the government permit process would take longer than the lifetime of our budgets.

When we withdrew our marine application in 2007, we informed all of the groups / organizations / agencies with whom we were in contact that we intended to propose a land project. We communicated about the marine and the land projects in the same manner, assuming the outreach would be equally effective – it worked for the marine. There was no attempt at secrecy.

It is unfortunate that the CCRD, Shearwater Resort, and Heiltsuk Nation did not inform your community about the land. We thought that they did. I can only guess that they were so unconcerned that they did not think they needed to.
Is there an alternate organization with whom we should be in contact?

Regarding monitoring, we are set up to quantitatively monitor ground shaking – that’s our expertise. Sound in the water comes from the ground shaking (not from the air “whump” noise), so we can calculate water noise. We would be pleased to cooperate with anybody who wishes to monitor biological reactions, but all relevant agencies and local organizations have said there was no need. This is not meant as an excuse, but context matters: routine local operations regularly cause more wildlife disturbance than us. Would you like to set up a scientific monitoring?

Thank-you for your communications – and your honest emotions. Unfortunately many of your impressions of us and the project are poorly informed. It is very unfortunate that the local organizations did not communicate with you.


ps. I am a Canadian citizen, but I live and teach in Virginia. If you think your government is bad…

Romania struggling against the forces of ignorance

Everyone was so impressed with this clear-thinking Romanian woman whose video I posted last week — from that alone you might get the impression that Romania is a very rational place, full of level-headed smart people who have little truck with religious silliness.

To correct that, you should read the web page of the Romanian Humanist Association, which is fighting a tide of state-sanctioned nonsense rising in their educational system.

They have posted a brief education of some of the educational standards endorsed by the ministry of education. They are teaching creationism in the classroom and in their textbooks! For instance, one of their textbooks has a section that presents a day-age version of Genesis, illustrating each of the ‘days’ of Genesis and pretending to correlate them with the scientific evidence (they don’t line up, no matter how hard you try; the sloppy folk taxonomy of the Bible cannot be made to correspond to any pattern of evolutionary ancestry or the evidence of the fossil record).

They have two exercises described. One is to regurgitate the Genesis sequence alongside the scientific evidence, as if they have parity. The other is to have a classroom debate, splitting the class in two with one side taking the scientific view and the other the theological position.

This is very bad pedagogy. In a science class, you have to approach everything from the perspective of the material evidence, the observations and experiments that lead to a reasonable conclusion. The theologians have none, so this exercise has only two possible results: you either put half your class into the position of being humiliating failures for an hour, or you have to cripple the scientific side so much in order to give both an equal chance that you’ve compromised on the scientific instruction.

Both are bad. I’d never do such a thing to my students; my struggle has always been to give the creationist students enough shelter that they can freely express their ideas (where they can then be examined and corrected) without being eaten alive by the majority of students in the class. You do not ever elevate wrong ideas to equal status with good ones, and you also do nothing to turn students in your class into punching bags!

This is what the religious influence on the Romanian government has done, though: the theologians are cheerfully pushing superstition into the science classes, and no doubt expecting that these bad ideas will be treated deferentially. It’s good to see the Romanian Humanist Association fighting back, at least.

Amsterdam is a cesspool of corruption

If you believe Bill O’Reilly and Fox News, that is. They’ve been fond of claiming that that very liberal European nation’s experiment with tolerance and personal freedom is a complete failure, that the Netherlands is collapsing in anarchy. So an Amsterdam resident made a short clip documenting cultural armageddon.

That was beautiful, an extremely effective rebuttal. If the Netherlands is in decay, the comparison of the statistics between that country and the US must mean that Bill O’Reilly really despises America.

Now I want to move to Amsterdam.

Republicans have become certifiably insane

The other day, one of those routine, empty resolutions came up in congress: a Hawaiian representative brought up a nice fluffy little resolution recognizing the 50th anniversary of Hawaii’s statehood, which contained a collection of whereas’s listing notable features of the state. Bland stuff, nothing controversial, except maybe one line, if you’re a kook: one of the points of pride is that Hawaii has now contributed a native son to the White House.

Need a kook? Minnesota’s own Michele Bachmann stood up to shoulder the honor. She bravely blocked the vote. (The resolution has since been passed.)

I could accept the occasional wacko, even if they do come from my own state, but it goes deeper than that. A huge chunk of the Republican contingent at the capitol is either buying into this ‘birther’ nonsense, or is so afraid of losing the far right wing vote that they won’t speak out against it. This is a hilarious video of Mike Stark interviewing Republican representatives, asking them if they believe Obama was a natural born citizen who could legitimately serve as president…and most of them dodge the question.

These people are nuts.

More geology!

Not long ago, we had a story about the University of Wyoming shutting down their geology museum. Now the issue has become…an online poll! We know what to do with online polls, don’t we, boys and girls?

Should UW put funds into keeping the Geological Museum open?

Yes, it needs to be open all the time.
(935 Votes, 60%)
Yes, but they were right to open it part-time to save money.
(516 Votes, 33%)
No, they need to close whatever keeps them financially sound.
(72 Votes, 5%)
They should turn the museum into a skate park and make some cash instead.
(29 Votes, 2%)

AT&T vs. 4chan

Imagine a titanic battle. No, not T. rex vs. a killer whale, but something more alarming, like T. rex vs. a massive bacterial infection. Which side do you think will win?

Something similar is going on right now. AT&T, the T. rex of the story, is going after 4chan, the infamous nest of /b/tards and fierce crackers and hackers, an unstoppable plague of corruption. AT&T is doomed if they continue.

AT&T has been sneakily trying to silence 4chan by quietly dropping access requests to the site by users on their network. I am not a great fan of 4chan (actually, I tremble in fear at even mentioning them, so I have to respect them—I’d rather piss off the Catholic Church than 4chan), but in this case I have to be on their side without reservation. AT&T is violating net neutrality and trying to censor voices on the web…and even if they succeeded in completely silencing one site on the web, the net is fluid, and they’ll just emerge elsewhere. With a grudge and a cause.

An update direct from 4chan:

For the past three weeks, 4chan has been under a constant DDoS attack.
We were able to filter this specific type of attack in a fashion that
was more or less transparent to the end user.

Unfortunately, as an unintended consequence of the method used, some
Internet users received errant traffic from one of our network
switches. A handful happened to be AT&T customers.

In response, AT&T filtered all traffic to and from our
IPs (which serve /b/ & /r9k/) for their entire network, instead of only
the affected customers. AT&T did not contact us prior to implementing
the block. Here is their statement regarding the matter.

In the end, this wasn’t a sinister act of censorship, but rather a bit
of a mistake and a poorly executed, disproportionate response on AT&T’s
part. Whoever pulled the trigger on blackholing the site probably
didn’t anticipate [nor intend] the consequences of doing so.

We’re glad to see this short-lived debacle has prompted renewed
interest and debate over net neutrality and internet censorship?two
very important issues that don’t get nearly enough attention?so
perhaps this was all just a blessing in disguise.

Aside from that, I’ll also add that there is some big news due later
this week. Keep an eye on the News page, Twitter, and global message
for updates.

Monday must be Pick On Francis Collins Day!

Sam Harris seems to have triggered some kind of reflex, because there is discussion going on all over the place.

Jerry Coyne has a long piece up that chews over that awful talk Collins gave at Berkeley. He has the full recording of the whole talk — it was titled “The Language of God: Intellectual Reflections of a Christian Geneticist”, and I’m pretty sure the fifth word slipped in there entirely by mistake — and it is a genuinely appalling load of rubbish. It’s two hours long, but I could only make it through the first half hour before having to give up. I thought I had a strong stomach from years of wading through the creationist literature, but I guess I have limits.

I ran away in exasperation at the point where he starts babbling about the fine-tuning argument, claiming that there are only two possible choices: either there is a multiverse with an infinite number of possibilities to explore, or the cosmic constants were chosen by his god. What about chance? There’s nothing impossible about the fact that our universe was the product of a chance event: after all, I am the product of a chance event, a randomized mixture of the genes of two people equally the product of chance. You can’t simply rule out the importance of chance events in the history of individuals or the universe, but Collins does. And what about necessity? It may be that a universe can only exist if it possesses an interlocked set of constants…that, in fact, all the parameters of the universe are co-contingent and co-dependent.

Anyway, I’ve read his book, but I hadn’t experienced the full force of his looniness until I’d seen that presentation. The man is a flaming idjit.

US New and World Report weighs in, too, and asks a couple of reasonable questions that I have to answer in the negative.

But isn’t it possible that Collins’s faith might be valuable for NIH beyond its PR power?

From spending some time with him, it appears that Collins’s scientific curiosity is at least partially motivated by a faith-based desire to understand what he believes is God’s universe. Isn’t that a net positive, given that it helped him lead the team that decoded the human genome?

And might not his faith lend guidance on inevitable questions he’ll face around scientific ethics? Don’t those ethics have to be rooted in some moral or religious system that transcends pure science?

Curiosity is a fine thing and I have to encourage any wellspring for it. However, the defining feature of Collins’ faith, and that part of it that makes it objectionable, is that he uses it to wall off parts of the human world from curiosity. The human genome project was a technological exercise, a sustained, disciplined effort to apply developing tools to a specific, narrow problem. It opens up new avenues for science, but in itself was not a demonstration of scientific competence. His administrative ability led the work to a conclusion, not his scientific skill set.

And what has he done with it afterwards? Declared the genome a divine artifact, decreed that certain domains, such as human behavior and morality, are exempt from scientific scrutiny, and proposed a succession of freakish Christian dogmas as substitutes for reasoned analysis. At this point, where the real science takes over, his faith only gets in the way.

And please, don’t ever equate faith with ethics. They have nothing to do with each other, except, perhaps, that faith is a commonly used escape clause to get away from the requirements of human morality. Science itself is a tool, as amoral as a hammer, and it certainly can be misused, but don’t go crawling to the priests for guidance. Let’s hear from philosophers, psychologists, sociologists, and lawyers long, long before we consult with theologians—I can’t imagine a worse fate for scientific ethics than for it to fall under the sway of a dogmatic Christian.

Russell Blackford takes a pragmatic approach: we’re stuck with Collins, there isn’t much we can do to oppose his appointment, and we can’t even make the argument that he’s a crummy bureaucrat — he’ll do a competent job in the office. I agree completely. There really are no plans for the godless horde to march on Washington, there will be no effigies burnt, we aren’t going to even throw rotten tomatoes at the NIH building. We will sigh and go on.

However, we will continue to make quiet complaint, and we will be scrutinizing his actions carefully.

The situation is this: the White House has picked for high office a well-known scientist with a good track record in management who wears clown shoes. Worse, this scientist likes to stroll about with his clown shoes going squeak-squeak-squeak, pointing them out to everyone, and bragging about how red and shiny and gosh-darned big his shoes are, and tut-tutting at the apparent lack of fine fashion sense exhibited by his peers who wear rather less flamboyant footwear.

I would rather Obama had appointed someone who wore practical shoes, and didn’t make much of a fuss about them, anyway. And excuse me, but I don’t want American science to be represented by a clown.

Another review of Unscientific America

As is his habit, Jason Rosenhouse has begun a long review of Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s book. It won’t be giving too much away to say that he gives it a “Mixed, but generally negative” review. I know M&K will only present the positive side on their site (as I’m only going to emphasize the negative), but overall I think “Mixed, but generally negative” is the growing consensus about their book.

I know Mooney has the ability to put together a solid story, as he showed in The Republican War on Science and Storm World — it’s too bad he chose to go the shallow and substanceless route in this book. I hope he does better in his next.

Sam Harris on Collins’ appointment

Sam Harris has published a piece in the New York Times decrying the appointment of Francis Collins to head the NIH. It’s strong stuff; he points out that Collins isn’t just a Christian, he’s an active science-denier who has set aside whole blocks of scientific inquiry as inaccessible to study because they are a product of a divine being. As he asks at the end, “Must we really entrust the future of biomedical research in the United States to a man who sincerely believes that a scientific understanding of human nature is impossible?”

The strongest part of the essay, in my opinion, was that Harris directly quotes Collins’ own words, and they are not encouraging. Most specifically, he includes the text of slides from a talk Collins gave at UC Berkeley in 2008:

Slide 1: “Almighty God, who is not limited in space or time, created a universe 13.7 billion years ago with its parameters precisely tuned to allow the development of complexity over long periods of time.”

Slide 2: “God’s plan included the mechanism of evolution to create the marvelous diversity of living things on our planet. Most especially, that creative plan included human beings.”

Slide 3: “After evolution had prepared a sufficiently advanced ‘house’ (the human brain), God gifted humanity with the knowledge of good and evil (the moral law), with free will, and with an immortal soul.”

Slide 4: “We humans used our free will to break the moral law, leading to our estrangement from God. For Christians, Jesus is the solution to that estrangement.”

Slide 5: “If the moral law is just a side effect of evolution, then there is no such thing as good or evil. It’s all an illusion. We’ve been hoodwinked. Are any of us, especially the strong atheists, really prepared to live our lives within that worldview?”

My jaw just dropped when I read that. It is breathtakingly vacuous. How does Francis Collins know any of that? Those conclusions are not anything we could draw from any scientific evidence, and there’s the head of the human genome project throwing around quaint Christian dogma as if it were reasonable and valid.

That last one really irritates, too — it’s the familiar anti-atheist canard that atheists cannot know any truly moral behavior, that the only genuine sense of morality arises out of obedience to an authority, especially an invisible but omnipotent authority. Collins is a man who does not trust the godless people in his communities because, to his mind, they are blind to good and evil.

I know evil when I see it. A priest taking advantage of his presumed moral authority to take young boys into the dark and private rooms of his church to rape them is evil, I think. Not because a god has whispered a rule into my head, but because I know that the successful relationships that build a cooperative network within the framework of my society are all formed on mutual trust, and that is a violation. We test these bonds of mutual support all the time, we rely on them, and we know from history that their loss contributes to social decay.

We also contain biological imperatives that strengthen those bonds. We know good when we see it, too: kindness, self-sacrifice, and charity move us, not because we are ordered to do so by an imaginary god, but because we can feel empathy for others, and yes, evolution has shaped individuals to respond with affirmation to actions that reinforce the community. That’s how we survive and succeed.

I have to turn Collins’ statement around against him. If god does not exist, if religion is a byproduct of the evolution of the mind, then there is no reason to obey him. It’s all an illusion. You’ve been hoodwinked. Are you devout Christians really prepared to live your lives in reality? And if you aren’t, why should we trust you in positions of power?