Heads I win, tails they lose

In the last episode of our competition to raise money for Camp Quest, I had elegantly and cunningly turned the tables on Team Beat PZ: after trouncing them thoroughly in all fundraising efforts, I had maneuvered them into desperately offering all kinds of humiliating forfeits if they should win the competition, so I reversed course and urged all of my minions to donate to them. I am now in the enviable position of “pwning” the other team, in Greta Christina’s words, if I raise more money than they do, or of humiliating them, in my words, if they have to carry through with their promised penalties.

They have stepped into my lair and my tentacles enfold them. There is no escape.

Now, though, only $8 separates us in this final day of the race.

My opposition is confused and in disarray, and they don’t know whether to counter my last gambit or to persist in their path to humiliation. I don’t care either way. I’ve already won, no matter which way they stumble. Donate as you will. I’m preparing my victory gloat either way.

I have heard glimmerings that they are planning a final surge, but I am unconcerned. Whatever side the surge occurs on, I am victorious.

Need advice from some of you Brits

Hey, I’ve got a few days free at the tag end of my trip to Ireland and the UK. Would it be a good idea to pop in to visit the Cheltenham Science Festival? Is it easy to get to, and once I get there, will it be easy and reasonable to get lodging for a night? I’d love to see Robin Ince’s Infinite Monkey Cage in particular, but I’d be unhappy to make the trip and then discover I need to book a month in advance and that my only choice is to sleep on a parkbench.

Who says we don’t need bible scholars?

John Loftus criticizes the Courtier’s Reply. How dare he? I thought it was Holy Atheist Writ by now.

But the Courtier’s Reply as an answer for theology needs to be discussed critically. First off, I do not expect anyone to understand any particular theology in order to reject it. We all do this easily. I doubt very much anyone understands all of the religions they reject. I don’t. No one does. We reject them all for the same reasons, because they have not met their own burden of proof. So I agree very much that neither PZ Myers nor Richard Dawkins needs to fully understand the various forms of Christianity in order to reject them all. They can certainly use the Courtier’s Reply, and for them it’s legitimate, as it is for me when rejecting Hinduism, which I know little about. Christians do not fully understand the other Christianities they reject, so why should anyone expect this from skeptics?

But here’s the problem. PZ Meyers and Richard Dawkins, and others, have the clout to recommend those of us who do understand the various Christianities that exist who know how to debunk them on their own terms. But perhaps, and I’m only suggesting perhaps, they are so committed to the Courtier’s Reply when it comes to their own lack of understanding of Christian theology that they don’t realize this will not do if they want to change the religious landscape. If they do, then may I humbly suggest they recommend the work of Biblical scholars like Robert Price, Hector Avalos, Bart Ehrman and others like them, as well as philosophers like John Shook, John Beversluis, Richard Carrier, Keith Parsons, Matt McCormick and others like them. But they can’t do it, because they are committed to the Courtier’s Reply, and that’s a shame. I can embrace the Courtier’s Reply when it comes to religions I reject. But given the power and influence of Christianity in particular, they need to recommend and embrace those of us who know it and argue against it. The Courtier’s Reply may some day be the blanket response to religion. It isn’t yet. Until then let them recommend those of us who do understand the dominant religion of our land, both philosophers and biblical scholars. It takes all of us together with all of our talents, all of our knowledge, and all of our abilities.

No, no, no. Loftus is making the same misinterpretation I’ve heard from creationists and theologians: that the Courtier’s Reply is a call for ignorance and an excuse for not trying to understand religion. It’s not. Rather, it’s an amusing way to tell someone that they haven’t established their premises (the existence of deities), and that all their phantasmagorical elaborations on their fantasies are irrelevant. Cut to the core issue; if you haven’t shown that Jesus even existed, it’s silly to be arguing about the color of his socks.

I have no disagreement with the approach of the scholars listed above; in fact, I’m a big fan, particularly of Carrier and Avalos. They’re taking a different angle: even if we set aside the fundamental fallacy of the premise, we can assay the ramshackle rationalizations and irrational excuses and shoddy scholarship and show that the whole construction is bogus from root to crown.

For me, the Courtier’s Reply is sufficient because I’m not wedded to any particular doctrine; it’s enough for me to see that the core is rotten and hollow. But I entirely agree that for most religious people, the existence of a god isn’t even an issue — it’s assumed and taken for granted. What most people have locked into their brains is a pattern of ritual and dogma and pseudohistory so intricate that it obscures the central assumption, and to chip through that we need Biblical scholars who grapple with the details.

We just don’t need Bible scholars who layer on more crud.

In which creationists make me giddily, joyfully gleeful!

Oh boy oh boy oh boy oh boy. This is wonderful news, happy happy joy joy, gosha’mighty, I’m wiggling in my chair like a tickled puppy. What has made me so happy, you might ask?

A week from today I’m going to be speaking at the Crystal Palace in Glasgow, Scotland. I’ll be talking about the developmental evidence for evolution, and it should be great fun.

But that’s not the exciting news.

Glasgow has its very own Centre for Intelligent Design, and a fine collection of know-nothings it is. And they are being encouraged to attend my talk! So maybe there will be a contingent of critics present — and they can’t be as dumb as Rabbi Moshe Averick, can they? Yeah, they probably can be.

But that’s not the thrilling news, either.

The fun part is that the nitwits at Uncommon Descent have posted 10 + 1 Questions For Professor Myers, and are urging the Scottish creationists to show up and confront me with their stumpers.


I read them with increasing disbelief: every single one of them was trivial and inane, and do nothing but reveal the ignorance and arrogance of the questioner. Every single one. Every one is built around some bizarre creationist misconception, too.

Please please please please please please, O Creationists, show up and ask me these questions. Pick any of them. Pick the one you are absolutely certain will make me squirt hot tears of frustration and despair right there on the stage. I’m begging you. Give me the opportunity to give you a public spanking. Oh, happy monkey, I will be delirious with joy if you try to make me suffer with these questions. They’re like a gift, a gift of idiocy.

Now I’m not going to answer them here just yet — I want to give the creationists a chance to slam me with ’em first. But I’ll post the answers next week, after they’ve taken their shot. If they do. I’m afraid they’ll be too cowardly to announce themselves in public like that.

Just so you can see them without going to that cloaca of creationism, Uncommon Descent, I’ve also posted the full set of questions below the fold. Go ahead and try to answer them if you’d like, but really, all of the answers to everyone of them was already tripping off my brain as I read them.

Hey, and show up in Glasgow. I can tell already it’s going to be a blast.

[Read more…]

Networking is good

I feel a little bit guilty saying this: every time I write about Jonah Lehrer, it seems to be about jumping on his ideas, even though I think he’s a good writer and his other ideas, the ones I don’t carp about, are interesting. The last time was when I criticized his noise about how science is falling, and now he’s gotten on the “The internet is making us stupider” bandwagon. I think it is a silly argument; it’s essentially saying that making the exchange of ideas more free leads to greater ignorance about the diversity of opinions out there.

It’s just not true. I’m an admitted lefty liberal type, but one thing the internet has done is made it possible for me to see what righty rethuglicans are saying, and I do read them…usually so I can point and laugh, but still, I’m more aware of the range of ideas fermenting in American culture than I was 20 years ago.

But I can stop picking on Lehrer now. John Hawks does a fabulous job of dismantling the argument. Letting the arguments bloom does not mean that we’re suddenly blinded!

Very tangentially related, I also recommend this fascinating analysis of the size of social networks. It argues that there are measurable cognitive limits to the size of social groupings primates can recognize, and it’s correlated with brain size. From our cranial capacity and studies of other primates, it’s predicted that we ought to be able to cope with roughly 150 friends at a time, and an analysis of social networks shows that that is actually about right — people on Twitter typically maintain interactive contact with between 100 and 200 people at most, and any more than that is overwhelming.

So I checked my Twitter account, and I see that I’m following precisely…167 people. I feel so average now.

Further panning of the arsenic life claims

Science magazine has published the formal criticisms of the claim to have found extremophiles that substituted arsenic for phosphorus in their chemistry. It’s a thorough drubbing, and the most disappointing part is that Wolfe-Simon’s rebuttal simply insists that they were right, and doesn’t even acknowledge that many valid criticisms of the study were made. That’s not how you do it. Instead, she should answer the complaints by saying that they will do the experiments in a way that specifically addresses the perceived shortcomings of the study; she and her lab have their credibility invested in this research now, and the answer to the barrage is not to batten down the hatches and do nothing, but to do more experiments to show that the critics are wrong.

Nature also has a discussion of the issues, and this article bothered me in other ways. It rationalizes not doing anything to replicate or refute the work.

However, most labs are too busy with their own work to spend time replicating work that they feel is fundamentally flawed, and it’s not likely to be published in high-impact journals. So principal investigators are reluctant to spend their resources, and their students’ time, replicating the work.

“If you extended the results to show there is no detectable arsenic, where could you publish that?” said Simon Silver of the University of Illinois at Chicago, who critiqued the work in FEMS Microbiology Letters in January and on 24 May at the annual meeting of the American Society for Microbiology in New Orleans. “How could the young person who was asked to do that work ever get a job?” Silver said.

It’s true that this ought to be a relatively low priority for labs that are busy with good research, but it’s depressing to see that 1) whether something is publishable in high impact journals is such an important criterion for what we do, 2) skeptical science that replicates and refutes is considered a waste of effort, and 3) students are discouraged from carrying out such work, because there is some strange bias that will hurt their chances of employment.

I’m not disagreeing with those arguments, but I’m suggesting that they are symptoms of something rotten in the world of science. Testing claims ought to be what we do. If the journals are going to fill up with positive claims thanks to the file-drawer effect, and if nobody ever wants to evaluate those claims, and if negative results are unpublishable, the literature is going to decline in utility for lack of rigor and evaluation.

Of course, there is one group that has real incentive to get in there and get their hands dirty refining the results: the Wolfe-Simon lab. But her response implies she’s not going to make the effort (although I hope she really is doing something). And this attitude above suggests that, while the positive claim received a lot of media hoopla, any discovery of alternative explanations is going to get ignored. Methinks I see a ratchet at work.

I also notice that Rosie Redfield, brilliant genius that she is, has a relatively simple test of the claims. It’s not my field and I’m not equipped to do any of it, but I don’t see why anyone would find it a waste of effort to assign that project to a first-year grad student, as an exercise in techniques and skill, and as a way to get a quick (I know, low impact!) publication.

And I’m still bewildered that the scientific community would consider tests of a hypothesis a poor investment of its resources. This isn’t like creationism; Wolfe-Simon has a very specific claim that can be evaluated with standard laboratory techniques.

Prime example of delusional thinking

The Creation “Museum” is 4 years old, and co-founder Mark Looy was interviewed.

“The number-one comment we get, whether it’s from a Christian or a non-Christian, is that this place exceeded their expectations,” he reports. “The quality of the exhibits, the special effects theatre, the state-of-the-art planetarium, the animatronics dinosaurs — this is a museum unlike any other in the world.”

Mark Looy (Answers in Genesis)But the museum is not just unique because it rejects evolution and proclaims creationism, says Looy, who notes it also “presents the history of the Bible in a fun and entertaining way.” Non-Christians have toured the museum, including one group that consisted of 285 atheists. That, says the spokesman, is one reason why the facility is designed to be evangelistic.

I would agree that it is a “museum” unlike any other, because it isn’t one. It’s disneyfied fundamentalism, and it’s more like a Hell House than a museum. But he noticed our visit from 2009, and misrepresented us: it did not exceed our expectations, unless you mean we expected some bullshit, and we received a mountain of bullshit and lies and paranoia and craziness.

Sure, it’s evangelistic. Everyone I know who visited that heap were further convinced that these loons are nuts. So it’s doing a fine job of evangelizing for atheism.

Another reason to dread the airport

On my last flight, I sat next to a woman who had the worst case of fear of flying I’ve ever seen. She spent the entire trip clutching the armrests and breaking into frequent bouts of tears; when I asked if there was anything I could do, she said, no, she knew it was completely irrational, but she just felt extreme terror every time she got in an airplane.

I wonder if she’d pass this new ridiculous test Homeland Security is installing in airports?

Future Attribute Screening Technology (FAST), a US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) programme designed to spot people who are intending to commit a terrorist act, has in the past few months completed its first round of field tests at an undisclosed location in the northeast, Nature has learned.

Like a lie detector, FAST measures a variety of physiological indicators, ranging from heart rate to the steadiness of a person’s gaze, to judge a subject’s state of mind. But there are major differences from the polygraph. FAST relies on non-contact sensors, so it can measure indicators as someone walks through a corridor at an airport, and it does not depend on active questioning of the subject.

Feeling anxious about the job interview you’re flying to? You will be strip-searched. Angry because the incompetent boob at the ticket counter bumped you from your flight? Your body cavities must be inspected. Steely in your resolve, forthright in your determination to strike the infidel? Welcome aboard!

I predict that, like most of the security theater we go through now, there will be huge numbers of false positives to keep TSA busy, and there will be no real terrorists caught. It’s like the tiger repellent rock from the Simpsons…

Only difference is that this rock is going to cost us at least tens of millions of dollars.

I don’t want any more magic gadgets. I’m just hoping for the day that they come to their senses and let us keep our shoes on.