That was fun

Several people have notified me of this amusing editorial by the editor of the Colorado Springs Gazette, which compares me to a diseased pig and insists on addressing me as “Little Paul” throughout. It’s poorly written and mostly pointless (well, other than its demand that we censor youtube), and I think there is only one virtue to it. It gives Bryan Appleyard an example to follow in his ongoing efforts to improve his writing.

Oldie moldies that are pretty darned fascinating

The Royal Society of London is releasing free pdfs of some of its best-known papers — and we’re talking real classics. Check out their timeline which lets you scan for papers in chronological order; the oldest are a pair for 1666-1667 by Robert Boyle and Robert Hook(e), which will horrify modern audiences: they describe experiments in blood transfusions and examinations of the lungs in dogs. I would not have wanted to be a dog in 17th century London, that’s for sure.

One that is particularly interesting is this account of a new technique in preventative medicine from 1736: “An Account of Inoculation by Sir Hans Sloane, Bart. Given to Mr. Ranby, to be Published, Anno 1736. Communicated by Thomas Birch, D. D. Secret. R. S.” It describes the use of small pox vaccinations, and contains this prescient closer:


He’s using “wonderful” in an archaic sense of “strange and astonishing”. And isn’t it strange that still today we have people fighting vaccination through “dread of other diſtempers being inculcated with it, and other unreaſonable prejudices”?

My favorite paper of the bunch, and the one that ought to be required reading for biologists, is The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptationist Programme”. If you haven’t read it yet, you should…maybe right after you finish browsing the collection of olde curiosities on that page.

Republicans want to purify their lunacy yet further

Hang on here—the same wingnuts who are up in arms about the University of Minnesota proposing to screen out bigots from teaching are proposing an ideological litmus test for their own party?

Ten members of the Republican National Committee are proposing a resolution demanding candidates embrace at least eight of 10 conservative principles if they hope to receive financial support and an official endorsement from the RNC. The “Proposed RNC Resolution on Reagan’s Unity Principle for Support of Candidates,” is designed to force candidates to prove that they support “conservative principles” while opposing “Obama’s socialist agenda,” according to The New York Times’ Caucus blog. The proposal highlights the ongoing tug-of-war for the ideological soul of the Republican party, and has been met with skepticism both inside and outside of the party.

While I’m sympathetic to the idea that a political party should have some principles, the ones they are pushing seem ideal for marginalizing Republicans even further as the party of kooks. Case in point: anyone who talks about “Obama’s socialist agenda” cannot be taken seriously. Obama is a moderate-to-conservative centrist! Does no one know anything of Eugene Debs? There was a socialist American.

Get your geek on for Thursday

I’m going to be opening my mouth again on Thursday in Minneapolis — I’ll be giving a talk in MCB 3-120 on the Minneapolis campus at 7:30 on Thursday, 3 December. This will be open to the public, and it will also be an all-science talk, geared for a general audience. I’d say they were going to check your nerd credentials at the door, but just showing up means you’re already fully qualified.

The subject of the talk is my 3 big interests: a) evolution, or how we got here over multiple generations, b) development, or how we got here in a single generation, and c) the nervous system, the most complicated tissue we have. I intend to give a rough outline of how nervous tissue works, how it is assembled into a working brain, and how something so elaborate could have evolved. All in one hour. Wheee!

Afterwards, we’ll be joining the CASH gang for refreshments, somewhere. They haven’t told me yet where, but I know they’re fond of pizza.

Appleyard must be fishing for more traffic

I am deeply, horribly ashamed. On the principle that one’s reputation is known by the quality of one’s enemies…I have the pathetic Bryan Appleyard acting as if he is my nemesis. You know a post is worthless when it begins with “Please note that at the end of this post P.Z.Myers will still be a jerk and I still won’t be,” and then goes downhill from there. But then, Andrew Sullivan thinks there’s some substance to Appleyard’s bilious nonsense, so I tried hard to see if there was some reasonable argument somewhere in his pouty whine. There isn’t; it’s mostly excuses for why his science writing is such godawful tripe and wrong-headed babble.

His big point, if he has one, is that evolution has become an ideology. In that he shares common ground with the ideologues of the Discovery Institute, and also reveals that he doesn’t know anything about science.

The big point is that […]ideology has migrated from politics to religion and science. This is bad for religion and very bad for science.
The minor reason it’s bad for science is it generates public confusion and mistrust. So, for example, mention intelligent design and the likes of Myers will be hurling abuse. But I gather from reading John Gribbin’s superb exposition In Search of the Multiverse that ID is, in fact, a perfectly respectable hypothesis among some physicists – the designer would not be a deity but a more technically advanced civilisation. So the world is ‘designed’ then? ‘No!’ howls Myers; ‘Maybe,’ murmur the physicists.

ID is also a perfectly respectable hypothesis among some biologists — the ones on the crank side of the spectrum. Most of the physicists I know are fairly sensible on the matter, and reject Intelligent Design creationism; the physicists aren’t murmuring “Maybe,” they’re walking quietly away from loons like Appleyard.

I thought Gribbin’s book was awful. Basically, he believes that if there are multiple universes, then all things are possible…and that maybe our universe is the creation of semi-god-like beings in another universe. This is not convincing. It’s simply deistic wishful thinking. Citing Gribbin as representative of common thought in the physics community is a bad idea.

It also misses the point. Sure, you can invent science fiction scenarios — the Big Bang was a science experiment in a grander metaverse, life was concocted in an alien laboratory and inoculated into our oceans 4 billion years ago — but these fantasies ignore the reality. Life was not designed, because we have the evidence of the processes that formed it and we see the relationships in living forms today. Appleyard is comparing hypothetical speculation about gaps in our knowledge with the concrete facts of life’s evolution on earth and pretending that his guesswork about physics is as good as the solid body of evidence in the scientific literature…of which he is completely oblivious.

This isn’t ideology. It’s the simple, plain fact that we can see in the molecules of our body our relationship to the weirdest marine annelid you can find, and that we can trace eons of history without invoking a single angelic intervention, yet can still explain in rough outline our origins. We are the progeny of worms, not clever cosmonauts from another dimension. Any physicist who tries to argue that ID is ‘respectable’ is an arrogant ignoramus with no knowledge of biology; even Gribbin is not arguing for intelligent design, but for a rather fuzzy version of pseudoscientific deism.

Not that Appleyard would be able to tell the difference. He’s a fellow whose mind is as muddled as a plate of scrambled eggs, and he thinks this is a virtue.

I was in the middle of writing on Friday when I noticed, as if for the first time, a habit of mine. For pace and economy I often set up a point of view without reservation or comment from me. Thus, for example, ‘Hitler was right. Arnold Bonkers says….’. This seems to confuse people. Furthermore, I tend to write hybrid pieces – typically about 20 per cent column and 80 per cent news feature. The latter involves transmission of information, but not for the purpose of illustrating my own approval of disapproval of something or other. This further confuses people. On top of that, I had to shorten the Darwin piece that all this fuss was about by about 40 per cent at the last minute. It happens. This required me to tighten up my economy and pace habit even further. This definitely confuses people.

To be clear: I have no problem with the plausibility and coherence of a Darwinian explanation of the development of the eye. Indeed, to be honest, I don’t care one way or another: it’s not on my agenda or within my realm of competence, though I do regard myself as free to report the views of those who do find it unconvincing.

So evolution isn’t within his ‘realm of competence,’ and he has just noticed that his writing style is confusing, but he insists on writing about the subject. That’s a plain admission that a) he’s ignorant, and b) his writing sucks. Which is what I’ve been saying all along.

At last! We agree on something!

A poll to advocate a strong response to climate change

Those kooky climate change denialists are at it again — we’ve been beaten to the poll-skewing punch on this one, a site that is collecting votes to use in demanding a strong response by the government to the challenges of global warming. We’re behind by many thousands already, so it may take some work to bring it up — but give it a shot.

“I’ve seen the evidence. And I want the government to prove they’re serious about climate change by negotiating a strong, effective, fair deal at Copenhagen.”

5477 agree
8423 disagree

Dennett, Harris, Hitchens vs. Boteach, D’Souza, Taleb vs. Wright

Got a few hours to spare? Here’s another recent debate, this time between Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens vs. Boteach, D’Souza, and Taleb in Mexico, with Robert Wright stuck in the middle. The sound quality is OK, but very low…so crank it up to hear it.

Don’t want to listen? Here’s a quick summary.

Shmuley Boteach: Yeesh. What an awful, screechy person. There is a god because evolution is impossible, and god is the only reason people are moral. Oh, and Hitler. Tiresome and cliched.

Sam Harris (about 9 minutes in): There are only 3 ways to defend god: 1) argue that your specific religion is true; 2) or you argue that religion is useful; or 3) you attack atheism. Only (1) is valid. He brings up a beautiful metaphor: what would you think of a friend who announced that he was so happy because he was destined to marry Angeline Jolie? The usefulness of this belief, or the idea that it makes him happy, is irrelevant against the falsity of the claim, yet this is the kind of argument defenders of religion always make.

Dinesh D’Souza (20 min): Claims to rise to Harris’s challenge to speak about the truth of religion in a 21st century way…so he chooses to talk about life after death. Tries to argue that believers in an afterlife and those who don’t believe are in exactly the same state of ignorance. Then he says there is empirical evidence for life after death, which I anxiously await.

Wait…he says that the Big Bang proves the existence of other realms, therefore there is a heaven? Dark matter and dark energy could be where are immortal post-death souls are stored? This guy is nuts. Oh, and Pascal’s Wager.

Christopher Hitchens (29 min): What matters is not what you think, but how you think, and discovery has come from non-religious thinking. Religious arguments are useless and unverifiable. Refutes the fine-tuning argument by pointing out the fate or our planet, our sun, and our galaxy is destruction. D’Souza’s argument of equivalence is false: we don’t claim absolute knowledge, we say that the theists have failed to provide any evidence.

Robert Wright (39 min): Doesn’t want to be on either side. Muddled as always.

Nassim Taleb (47 min): Can’t track reality with science and equations. Religion is not about belief. We were wiser before the Enlightenment, because we knew how to take knowledge from incomplete information, and now we live in a world of epistemic arrogance. Religious people have a way of dealing with ignorance, by saying “God knows”. At least he’s making a novel argument, but he’s still full of bullshit.

Daniel Dennett (54 min): This is familiar, from his talk at AAI. He discusses his study of priests who have become atheists, but remain in the pulpit. Theology evolved as a way to accommodate theologians’ personal integrity with what society told them they had to believe in their religion. The idea that you can’t be good without god is the biggest lie spread by religion.

Second round!

Shmuley Boteach (60 min): Hitler. Hitler, Hitler, Hitler. Evolution can’t have love. Evolution leads to racism. All morality comes from religion. Man, this guy is a scumbag.

Sam Harris (64 min): Points out that the other side hasn’t provided any evidence for their position — they’re using the arrogance of their iron age faith, only. The real issue is the veracity of the textual narrative of the Bible, which is clearly a clumsy pastiche.

Dinesh D’Souza (69 min): Why is there a universe? Why are we here? Where are we going? Science doesn’t have an answer to any of them. Has this fathead ever considered the possibility that they’re bad questions? See Harris’s first discussion: D’Souza is arguing his point 3. Finally resorts to misstating scientific claims about life on other planets. Total moron.

Christopher Hitchens (73 min): Call’s D’Souza’s argument “piffle”, and that he’s misleading people about science. Science can say what will make us stop accepting an idea; theists do not have anything equivalent to ‘rabbits in the precambrian’. Theists make positive and entirely implausible claims about what god is telling us to do. A wager: Name a moral action that a believer will take that he can’t.

Nassim Taleb (77 min): Until about 70 years ago, visiting a doctor would reduce your chance of living. From this, he leaps to the conclusion that science hasn’t been good at dealing with evidence. Even now, doctors kill us — fewer people die when hospitals go on strike. WTF? This guy is a real crank. If you remove religion, what will you replace it with?

Daniel Dennett (82 min): We are going to replace religion with secular morality, without the dogma of religion. How has religion proceeded? Not one person in this room would choose to live by old testament morality. We’ve worked together to adjust our morality, we make these adjustments.

Robert Wright (86 min): Argues with everyone. Accomplishes nothing. Oh, and the New Atheists are fundamentalists. FU too, Wright.

The rest of the event seems to be commentary in Spanish…I turned it off. I hung in there long enough, and should have bailed out the instant Boteach opened his mouth.

How not to end the scourge of HIV

Uganda’s solution is rather shocking: throw any gay people into prison for life, and execute any who are HIV-positive.

Don’t blame it on those ‘primitive’ Africans, though: I can think of a few loud Americans who would find that a reasonable way to address the problem.

I am deeply ashamed to discover that this bill isn’t just hypothetically the kind of thing a few Americans would sponsor — it is literally a product of that wretched American ‘brain’ trust, The Family.