Like plums? Do something right away!

This is the first I’ve heard of this, but there is a devastating disease called Plum Pox Virus that kills trees bearing stone fruits, like plums and peaches, and the only way to deal with infected plants is to rip them out of the ground and destroy them. There has been a recent outbreak in Pennsylvania; don’t rush out to buy the last of the fruits in an apocalyptic terror, it’s just a hint of a potential problem for the future, but you can worry a little bit. And maybe you can promote some science that will help.

A new variety of plum called the Honey Sweet has been genetically engineered that is completely resistant to the virus. It is just now in the process of being deregulated by the EPA, and they’re looking for public comment (it’s a confusing site: look for “Public Participation for Coat Protein Gene of Plum Pox Virus”, and “Comment Due”; click on it and you can tell the government what they should do).

Work fast, this is the last day for input. For the plums!

Catholic priorities

John C. Nienstedt is the Archbishop of the Diocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis, which makes him the ranking Catholic god-botherer in the region, I guess. We’re supposed to call him “Most Reverend” — priests are really good at attaching laudatory titles to themselves — but I won’t be doing that, ever. “Most Intolerant,” maybe, or “Most Boneheaded”.

Anyway, he has an op-ed in the Star Tribune. The Catholic Church is facing some rough times right now, with declining attendance, a dearth of priests, and a scary percentage of the people willing to become priests being clearly socially and sexually dysfunctional, so you’d expect him to write something about the real problems the Catholics are grappling with right now, doing something to bolster the flagging reputation of the priesthood. And I guess he thought he did: he wrote about gay marriage.

Those gays, getting married—it just wrecks my thrillingly heterosexual marriage to think that two men or two women might be having fun out there, together. And now it’s wrecking the church, too!

Actually, Nienstedt just makes the same boring and false arguments against gay marriage that they always do. This is probably more a matter of distraction.

Citizen: “Hey, there’s a priest raping a child, stop him!”

Priest: “No, look over there: there are two adults trying to engage in consensual sexual activities in the context of shared legal and social obligations! Stop them, quick, before they get insurance! It’s an EMERGENCY!!!

And really, Nienstedt makes some pathetic arguments. He’s promoting a Minnesota marriage amendment that would dictate that the only true and valid long-term relationships to be recognized by the state involve strictly one (1) man and one (1) woman. Look at what he claims:

We might learn caution from experience. Back in the early 1970s, the experts told us that no-fault divorce would liberate women from bad marriages without affecting anyone else. We now know that as many as one-third of women fall into poverty with their children as a result of divorce. Social science caught up late with the common-sense wisdom that children need a mom and a dad working together to protect them.

…says Father Nienstedt, high-ranking member of a blatantly patriarchal hierarchy. Why do women fall into poverty after a divorce? Because they are discriminated against in the workplace, because they get the bulk of the financial obligation in caring for any children, and because many men (and, I suspect, especially the men women want to divorce) fail to meet their responsibilities in contributing to child care. The problem isn’t divorce, the problem is a patriarchal culture, which the church does nothing to reverse and actually promotes, and the male privilege that allows fathers to escape with diminished responsibility.

Divorce is a good and reasonable solution to marital unhappiness, unless, of course, you’re part of a culture that wants to keep women dependent on a mate.

Hey, maybe one tack we should take in promoting gay marriage is to instead play up gay divorce: we have to give gay men and lesbians the ability to break their bonds with their partners. Oh, and by the way, we’ll have to let them get married first before they can divorce.

Throughout history, human beings in virtually every society have recognized that, to make a marriage, one needs a man and a woman. What is more, it has long been acknowledged that marriage is not just about the happiness of adults but concerns the well-being of society — that is, the common good. Marriage exists in civil law primarily in order to provide communal support for bringing mothers and fathers together to care for their children. Same-sex unions cannot serve this public purpose.

Forget the ignorant ahistorical argument in the first part — gay marriage hasn’t been that unusual, and it’s particularly surprising that a Christian priest would fail to have noticed the frequency of polygamy in the Old Testament — and let’s consider his “common good” argument. I would actually concede that one essential function of a stable human society is that it provide a mechanism to care for our offspring, with their ridiculously long period of dependency. Marriage is one method for accomplishing that, by pairing two people together to share the burden of child-rearing. One method…so does this priest support the idea of communes? That’s even more efficient, and I can tell you that just two people, separated from other family support by the demands of their jobs, really have to struggle to keep their sanity. This is hard work, not that a celibate bureaucrat would know.

And I think that if you look back over history, most cultures have seen it as the responsibility of a whole tribe to help raise children, not just two people. This convention of assigning all responsibility to just two and only two, who are necessarily in a heterosexual relationship, is new and weird.

I think also that if you actually look at civil law, most of the reasons for getting married are economic. Children are just one aspect of that law. If marriage just exists in the law to promote children, then what about all those marriages that are childless? Are they invalid? Maybe it’s not obvious to a priest, but people do like to be together for reasons other than procreation. I’m done with having children, my youngest daughter graduates from college in two weeks, and no, my marriage will not be dissolving at that moment. Or ten years from that moment. It won’t be over until I drop dead. And you know what? I like it!

As for the claim that “same-sex unions cannot serve this public purpose”: why not? Lesbians have it easy, artificial insemination can get them pregnant; gay men don’t have that option yet (give the biologists a few more years, though…), but even so, adoption is possible, and sometimes, gay men even have children by previous relationships. Two men, two women, a man and a woman, a cooperative commune of many men and women…they can all serve that public purpose. Oh, and in all those cases, who is having sex with whom is pretty much irrelevant to the children, since these typically are not Catholic Sunday schools, so the children won’t be participating in the sex. This argument is a complete non-starter.

Would you believe Nienstedt’s argument gets even worse?

What will happen to children growing up in a world where the law teaches them that moms and dads are interchangeable and therefore unnecessary, and that marriage has nothing intrinsically to do with the bearing and raising of children? Do we really want first-graders to be taught that gay marriage is OK, or that the influence of a mother and a father on the development of a child somehow doesn’t matter?

I think a world where moms and dads are interchangeable in their roles and responsibilities in child-raising would be a fine place to live. Aside from nursing (and again, biologists will fix that someday, too), men and women can change diapers, attend PTA meetings, play ball, give hugs, cook, and read bedtime stories equally well, with individual variation. Interchangeability does not imply that they are unnecessary. I grew up with a mom and dad who could both read to me; that did not imply to my mind that they were therefore both superfluous.

We already know that marriage is not intrinsically about having kids. People have them without getting married, married people stay married without having them. Children grow up just fine with that simple fact; I know I did.

And dear sweet jebus yes, I want first-graders to be taught that gay marriage is OK! Teach them that gay people are fine and normal and ordinary, that old limiting stereotypes are hateful and foolish, and that only beastly decrepit bigots sit around whining that someone else might be finding happiness in life. Let’s steer young kids away from the hypocritical joylessness so well represented in Catholicism at an early age!

And finally, that last line…it’s a lie. No one is planning to teach that parents don’t matter, since they do — parents matter profoundly. I do think, though, that we can’t let repressed celibate jerks dictate who can be parents, and deprive people who might want to be parents of the privilege simply because a priest does not approve of their love.

They aren’t doing the right tests!

Some yogi in India claims that he hasn’t eaten, drunk, or used a bathroom in 70 years.

Yeah, right.

Now the Indian military is studying him because, obviously, soldiers who don’t need to be provisioned would be rather useful…which assumes that this nonsense is even worth studying.

Two cameras have been set up in his room, while a mobile camera films him when he goes outside, guaranteeing round-the-clock observation.

His body will be scanned and his brain and heart activity measured with electrodes.

“The observation from this study may throw light on human survival without food and water,” said Dr G. Ilavazahagan, who is directing the research.

That short description already tells me they’re going at this all wrong. He goes outside? Where? How secure is this test?

And they’re plugging him into electrodes and recording EMGs and EEGs? Why? That’s not interesting at all. The interesting claim is the idea that he doesn’t eat or drink. Those don’t test that in the slightest, but do lend a pseudo-sciencey air to the proceedings.

They claim he has been observed closely for a week, and hasn’t ingested or excreted anything at all. I don’t believe it. I suspect that there have been some very sloppy procedures going on, or that the guy has an accomplice or assistant, or both.

What they really need is a James Randi. If I were in charge, I’d give the yogi a very nice single room with books and a meditation mat and whatever non-edible, non-drinkable luxury items he wanted…and I’d put him in there for four weeks, monitored by video cameras, and lock the door. Just to be nice, I’d also put a couple of bottles of water in the room, in case he breaks. But if he is really able to live without sustenance, that’s the ability we have to test first, and test well.

If he came out after a month, perfectly healthy, the water in the room untouched, the video cameras showing no untoward intervention, then we can talk about fancy-pants physiological testing.

Tim Minchin serenades the Pope

Tim Minchin has a new and utterly delightful little song about the Pope. Warning: it’s catchy. You might end up singing it around the house.

Oh, and also…it’s a teeny bit naughty. Maybe not safe for work, unless you work in a Catholic office — then you should turn it up loud.

Also, if you’re one of those people who fret over “tone”: insert your name where ever Tim says “Pope”.

How to win friends and crush your enemies into the dust

At last, some research in communicating evolution that I can agree with, because it corresponds to my prior experience and biases! Which is exactly the wrong reason to agree with it, of course, but it’s a start, and with some significant reservations, is an interesting foundation to argue over.

Here’s the abstract. It’s a paper describing general strategies for winning over participants in public debates about science, which basically says, in terms more familiar to us, that waffling accommodationists are losers.

Public debates driven by incomplete scientific data where nobody can claim absolute certainty, due to current state of scientific knowledge, are studied. The cases of evolution theory, global warming and H1N1 pandemic influenza are investigated. The first two are of controversial impact while the third is more neutral and resolved. To adopt a cautious balanced attitude based on clear but inconclusive data appears to be a lose-out strategy. In contrast overstating arguments with wrong claims which cannot be scientifically refuted appear to be necessary but not sufficient to eventually win a public debate. The underlying key mechanism of these puzzling and unfortunate conclusions are identified using the Galam sequential probabilistic model of opinion dynamics. It reveals that the existence of inflexible agents and their respective proportions are the instrumental parameters to determine the faith of incomplete scientific data public debates. Acting on one’s own inflexible proportion modifies the topology of the flow diagram, which in turn can make irrelevant initial supports. On the contrary focusing on open-minded agents may be useless given some topologies. When the evidence is not as strong as claimed, the inflexibles rather than the data are found to drive the opinion of the population. The results shed a new but disturbing light on designing adequate strategies to win a public debate.

So when you’ve got an argument going, and one side has the evidence but the other side has an inflexible certainty that the evidence is wrong, the inflexibles tend to distort the normal process of weighing the evidence and drawing reasonable conclusions — they suck in more uncommitted participants (called ‘floaters’) to their way of thinking, generating more inflexibles, strengthing the position of the anti-science side, leading to greater attraction to being wrong. The counter-strategy, suggested later in the paper, is to ‘get more inflexibles’ — winning over floaters so they drift over to your side has little long-term impact, it’s far better to build a larger army of forceful advocates for your position.

Now for the reservations, though. This isn’t real social science: dig into the paper deeper and you discover it is entirely theoretical, based on a mathematical model of human behavior. Hmmm. It’s all well and good to say that a population of autonomous agents with properties X, Y, and Z will behave in a particular way in a simulation, but, well, people tend to be very messy beings. I don’t have a background in this field to be able to say whether the model has good empirical support or not, so I’m not going to be able to say that the Pharyngula model for arguing over evolution, that is, by unreserved and loud advocacy that steamrollers the opposition as much as possible, has been proven to be correct.

But that’s what this paper says I should do anyway! If I want to persuade, it’s best to avoid those fuzzy little tentative words, go gung ho for the answer you want. Which in a lot of ways is undesirable, actually.

The results shed a new but disturbing light on Designing adequate strategies to eventually win public debates. To produce inflexibles in one’s own side is thus critical to win a public argument whatever the rigor cost and the associated epistemological paradoxes. At odds, to focus on convincing open-minded agents is useless. In summary, when the scientific evidence is not as strong as claimed, the inflexibles rather than the data are found to drive the collective opinion of the population. Consequences on Designing adequate strategies to win a public debate are discussed.

OK. We need more positive inflexibles. Got it. (Oh, and by the way, the paper has an annoying trait of capitalizing “Design” wherever it occurs. Don’t know why, it may just be grep run amuck.)

However, I have another reservation. What’s this “when the scientific evidence is not as strong as claimed” business? The author has his own peculiar blindspot, where he thinks biologists have been overstating the evidence for evolution. That isn’t true at all.

However the major outcome of our modeling is to confirm the rightness in overstating the validity of Darwin theory to oppose Intelligent Design in terms of success in the public debate. Afterwards our results suggest that in case opponents to Intelligent Design had been more circumspect about the “status” of Darwin theory, they would have lost the public debate. It is a somehow disturbing hypothesis with an embarrassing result for an honest scientist.

Except, no, we have not been insufficienctly circumspect at all. The evidence for evolution really is overwhelmingly in its favor. It isn’t proven in a mathematical sense, there is no illusion that we have accounted for every single possible mechanism, and there is still active exploration of all the details, but there is no doubt anywhere sensible that evolution, that populations change over time driven by natural processes, and that all life on earth shares a common ancestry, is a fact, amply confirmed and tested.

There’s nothing to be embarrassed about open advocacy of a well-demonstrated scientific position at all, and no one is hiding the interesting controversies within the boundaries of that truth. What this really is about is good debating strategies. You do not open a discussion by saying, “Well, we aren’t certain about the relative contributions of chance and selection, and maybe chemical properties dictate some of the outcomes of biological processes, but we’re pretty certain evolution happens.” That puts all the emphasis on doubt. No, you start by saying positively that “Evolution happens, period.” Then you can discuss, if necessary, the ragged edges of the science. The important point, though, is the reality of that core idea, and you have to realize that in many arguments with creationists, it’s not the ragged edges they’re talking about — it’s precisely that scientifically indisputable central fact.

No compromise of the science is required, only a recognition of the actual point being discussed. Where scientists are often handicapped is that they don’t recognized the depth of the denial on the other side, and that their opponents really are happily butting their heads against the rock hard foundation of the science. We tend to assume the creationists can’t really be that stupid, and figure they must have some legitimate complaint about some aspect of evolution with which we can sympathize. They don’t. They really are that nuts.

(via Ben Goldacre)

Oslo in June

The word is out: on my way to the Gods & Politics conference in Copenhagen, I’m taking a little detour to visit Oslo, as this forum article mentions.

It’s true! It’s true! Tidenes happening før Skepsikonferansen 2010! En ravende, sinna, og nysgjerrig teddybjørn av en ateist og skeptiker kommer til vårt fagre land i noen dager før Ateistkonferansen i København 18-20. juni.

Han skal være her 16. juni, og skal holde en talk på Litteraturhuset 15.30 -17; om noe om Science Communication. Skal dele link til info når den kommer opp.

Dessuten overleveres han til mine klamme hender når han er ferdig med å skravle med UiO-pampene, og da skal vi finne på noe trivelig. Forvent moro. Hold av kvelden. Dere som liker ham da.

Vi takker CEES for at de inviterte ham, og nyopprettede Studentenes Skeptikerlag Oslo for å dele  ham med folket etter foredraget.

I have no idea what she said…but wait, did she call me a “teddybjørn”? Somebody will have to translate the rest for me, or since only Norwegians are going to care, maybe you don’t have to translate at all. Just let me know if there are secret plans in there to have me publicly crucified when I arrive.

Barring any Christian berserkers assaulting me when I arrive (not likely, given Norway’s godlesÃ¥s socialist reputation), it should be fun. The Trophy Wife™ is joining me on this trip, no doubt drawn by the call of the Motherland — her maiden name is good ol’ Norse, Gjerness, and while I’m mongrel American with my maternal Swedish/Norwegian roots muddled with a father who was just about everything else European, she’s one of those purebred Scandinavians. She may also be coming along to keep an eye on me, because she knows from experience that I’ve got a thing for Scandinavian goddesses.

We will be getting out for some social time while we’re there, too. I fear, though, a visit to a nation where beer may be replaced with akevitt. I don’t know if I’ll have the stamina.

Let’s not give England all our attention today — look at France!

This story about the desperation of the French priesthood to recruit new victims has some interesting statistics.

There are around 24,000 priests in France today, down from 42,000 in 1975. The number of Catholics entering the diocese has declined as well, from 116 ordainments in 1999 to 89 in 2009.

While 64 percent of the French population, or 41.6 million of the country’s 65 million inhabitants, identifies itself as Catholic, only a little more than 2 million attend church each week, said Jacques Carton, a representative from the Bishops Conference in France.

How desperate are they? Most of the story is about how they’re putting up posters and advertising on Facebook to convince young men to give up sex and commit their lives to sitting in churches and prancing through rituals. Yeah, that’ll work. Why not go all the way and put personals on Craigslist? That would at least sucker a lot of people into contacting them, because they’d all assume it must be something really perverse.

Wait! Maybe Britain needs to keep Lord Justice Laws

I suggested in jest that maybe we should put England’s sensible Lord Justice Laws on our Supreme Court, but maybe they still need rationalists over there. The Guardian has been using a stellar pro-science panel (Goldacre and Singh, to name two members) to quiz representatives of various political parties on their science stance. They just interviewed the United Kingdom Independence Party, whose representative was…Viscount Monckton of Brenchley. You have got to be kidding; that man is a raving loon. So the UKIP rejects the science of global warming, but advocates for homeopathy.

My favorite part, though, was their position on stem cell research.

Wherever stem cells can be obtained by means other than the killing of very small children, it is ethical only to obtain the stem cells by means that do not involve the loss of little lives. On this basis, there is no reason why Britain should not play a leading part in stem cell research.

That’s completely batty. Why, how can science proceed if we are not free to charge into schoolyards, butchering little tykes so we can harvest a few grams of cells from their guts? The summary of their science policy is damning.

Ukip is the only significant party to support homeopathy, and the only party apart from the BNP still in denial over climate change. The appointment of Viscount Monckton as a science spokesman adds to the air of a party of old British eccentrics.


The one sad bit of this lunatic party is that Pat Condell supports them. Say it ain’t so, Pat — how can anyone defend a party run by refugees from the looney bin?