God vs. Science, again

I’m flying off to Ireland tomorrow to pay rapt attention to the speakers at Empowering Women Through Secularism — you know that four FtB bloggers will be speaking there, right? Me, Taslima, Maryam, and Ophelia. I’ll be the one with the beard.

Now what could I possibly have to say? I’ve got it easy. I’ll be on the Secular Values in Society panel with Leonie Hilliard, Nina Sankari, and Farhana Shakir, and I’ll just point out that religion oppresses both men and women, and that secular values benefit everyone…but that of course, we see patriarchal values distorting the science and evidence in ways that particularly harm women, since much of their nonsense is contrived to regulate reproduction and sex in ways that benefit men.

Oh, dang, wait: David Grimes just said the same thing in The Irish Times.

There have been few debates on social issues in Ireland in which religion did not loom large; whether the topic has been contraception, homosexuality or divorce, theologically derived opinions have often been centre stage. Even now, in debates about abortion and same-sex marriage, these views are still heard. The threatening behaviour of the past may be gone, but it has been replaced by the more insidious ploy of misrepresenting research to lend credibility to discriminatory views.

The abortion debate provides numerous examples of such contrivances. In this paper recently, Breda O’Brien brandished a study by Ferguson et al (2013) and claimed abortion damages women. However, her championing of this study is textbook cherry-picking that fails to withstand even a cursory examination.

I hope Grimes will be at the conference, at least.

Obama says weasel words

Wasn’t it nice of Obama to say a few words about the environment yesterday?

President Barack Obama said Tuesday that the proposed Keystone XL pipeline project from Canada to Texas should only be approved if it doesn’t worsen carbon pollution.

The $7 billion pipeline has become a contentious issue, with Republicans touting the jobs it would create and demanding its approval and environmentalists urging the Obama administration to reject it, because it would carry carbon-intensive oil from Canadian tar sands to the Texas Gulf Coast.

"Allowing the Keystone pipeline to be built requires a finding that doing so would be in our nation’s interests," Obama said in a speech on climate change at Georgetown University. "Our national interest would be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution."

So of course the Keystone XL pipeline will be immediately shut down, because of course building a leaky, fault-prone pipe full of toxic sludge across the country to further feed our appetite for burning carbon based fuel will exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.

You mean he hasn’t shut it down?

I’m betting he’s going to wait for some industry-funded committee to issue a piece of paper with a few token concessions, and then announce that his requirements have been met: “Why, yes, we’ve got this big dirty pipe gurgling petroleum into the nation’s fuel tank, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to burn it.”


Two phrases I like to see together: ‘Creation Museum’ and ‘Financial Trouble’

We’ve been getting rumblings about this for some time now: Ken Ham’s Creation “Museum” is struggling. This is not surprising. It’s initial success was due to novelty and capitalizing on controversy, but all of that is fading.

In a developing story from Kentucky, the Creation Museum is running out of money due to declining attendance, bringing their “Ark Encounter” project to a stand-still because of a lack of funding.

Interestingly, the reason for the slowing traffic seems to be creationism itself, since the main exhibit has literally not changed in 5 years. Most museums’ exhibits change as new discoveries are made, as artifacts travel from other museums to visit, or as adjustments in scientific thinking are made.

Another reason could be the demographic that creationism’s proponents target.

Mark Joseph Stern from Slate.com writes:

A spectacle like the Creation Museum has a pretty limited audience. Sure, 46 percent of Americans profess to believe in creationism, but how many are enthusiastic enough to venture to Kentucky to spend nearly $30 to see a diorama of a little boy palling around with a vegetarian dinosaur? The museum’s target demographic may not be eager to lay down that much money: Belief in creationism correlates to less education, and less education correlates to lower income.

In hopes to draw repeat customers, the museum has added zip-lining and sky bridge courses to their attractions this summer. But when confronted by critics who wonder what the zip-lining and sky bridge attractions have to do with the museum’s message, Mike Zovath, the museums co-founder and vice president, says that the extra activities are irrelevant.

The Ark Encounter is a similar desperate ploy to grab attention — it’s true that you have to spend money to make money, but they’re in the position now of having to pour more wealth into their enterprise than they can get out of it. It’s doomed to the fate of Holy Land USA and Heritage USA.

I’d tell you to go now while you still can, but I don’t want to give it a blip of attendance…it’s time to let it die a peaceful, natural death.

When will CFI’s nightmare end?

They just lost Point of Inquiry…or at least, the main people involved in it.

On Friday, Point of Inquiry’s two co-hosts—Indre Viskontas and Chris Mooney—resigned from their positions at the Center for Inquiry. On Monday, Point of Inquiry producer Adam Isaak followed suit. This note is to explain our reasons for departing CFI and our future plans.

In May of 2013, when the Women in Secularism II conference took place in Washington, D.C., Point of Inquiry—the flagship podcast of the Center for Inquiry—was more successful that it has ever been. Following a format change in 2010, our audience has increased by 60 percent and our growth rate has doubled in the last year and a half. We’d recently done a highly successful live show featuring Steven Pinker before a packed room at the 2013 American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting, and interviewed guests like Oliver Sacks, Jared Diamond, Paul Krugman, and Mary Roach. We had started to incorporate new, successful video content. 2013 featured our most listened-to show ever and we were averaging well over 2 million total downloads per year.

Then came the events at that conference—including a widely criticized speech by Center for Inquiry President & CEO Ronald Lindsay. Lindsay then went further, writing a blog post which referred to a post by one of his critics—Rebecca Watson—as follows: “It may be the most intellectually dishonest piece of writing since the last communique issued by North Korea.”

In response to public criticism of Lindsay’s speech and blog post, CFI’s Board of Directors issued an ambiguous statement regretting the controversy, but going no further than that.

These actions have generated much discussion, criticism and polarization within our community. In addition, they created an environment at CFI that made it very difficult for our producer, Adam Isaak, to continue working there.

We, like others, welcome Lindsay’s recent apology. That apology, however, was not followed by any direct effort to retain Chris or Indre, nor did it make up for the very real toll this controversy has taken upon our podcast and our ability to produce it.

The actions of Lindsay and the Board have made it overwhelmingly difficult for us to continue in our goal to provide thoughtful and compelling content, including coverage of feminist issues, as in past interviews with guests like Amanda Marcotte, Katha Pollitt, MG Lord, and Carol Tavris.

The Center for Inquiry has supported us in the past and has asked Chris and Indre to speak at many of its conferences. We are thankful for that. But we’re a team and we do this together. We believe that this controversy has impaired our ability to produce the highest quality podcast under the auspices of CFI and that our talents will be put to better use elsewhere.

To that end, we are in the process of formalizing a new podcast that will allow us to continue to provide the in-depth interviews with leading intellectuals that made Point of Inquiry such a success. We’ll announce the name and more details about the new podcast shortly but as of right now, we can already announce something we’re all incredibly excited about: the new show will be produced in collaboration with the nonprofit news organization Mother Jones. You can follow @MotherJones on Twitter to get the latest updates on the show’s official launch. We all look forward to turning our attention to the work at hand, and leaving this controversy behind.

Adam Isaak, Indre Viskontas, and Chris Mooney

You mean this stuff helps?

Sue Black recounts her experiences as a woman in computer science.

Carrying out research for a PhD in computer science and going to academic conferences I was very much in a minority as a woman. The ratio was around 2:8 female to male, or lower, and sometimes this made things a bit uncomfortable. I remember going to one conference where, after being told by my supervisor that I needed to network at conferences, I approached a couple of guys during a break to discuss the previous session. I plucked up courage and said something friendly about the last speaker to start a conversation with them. They looked me up and down, and then started talking to each other as if I hadn’t said anything. I stood there feeling really silly, realized after about thirty seconds that they were going to continue to ignore me, and then walked away feeling absolutely mortified.

I had a few other encounters similar to this, and of course some good ones too, but I never felt completely at ease in that type of situation. That was until I went to a conference in Brussels for women in science. This time there were about one hundred women and two men. As I walked into the conference room and stood looking around wondering where to go and sit, a woman came over and started talking to me. We had a great chat and joined a conversation with some other women, probably about why we were at the conference and what we hoped to get out of it. What an amazing difference. I met some truly amazing, inspiring and supportive women. That conference changed my life.

I had thought that it was me, and my lack of social skills, that was preventing me from enjoying academic life to the full. Now I realized that wasn’t the case.

Read the whole thing. You know that stuff about women doing it in high heels and backwards? Try getting a Ph.D. as a single parent with 3, later 4, kids.

Another reason to hope there isn’t an afterlife

An Egyptian statuette in a museum in Manchester was said to be actually moving on its own — so the museum installed a time-lapse camera and discovered that it actually did rotate slowly.

I looked at that and thought that obviously it was vibrations from the traffic that was causing it to wobble and gradually shift, but no, a representative from the museum had a different explanation.

Who’s to say that the spirit of this individual hasn’t re-entered this statue, and that’s what’s causing it to move?

Oh, what a nightmare! That’s a horrifying explanation! So if someone makes a little figurine of me, thousands of years from now my frustrated, impotent spirit will be straining to make it wiggle, and the best I’ll be able to do is an imperceptible, slow twist that requires some technology to detect? We’re going to spend eternity trapped in locked-in syndrome?

And what about all the dead people who don’t have magic enchanted representations of themselves to play with?

Alternatively, I suppose that babbling person could just be full of shit.

It’s summer head-asplodey time!

Gang, don’t try this at home. I’m a trained professional, so I can get away with it, although I do face extreme risk of brain damage.

I am reading two books at once. OK, that part isn’t too scary, I’m actually just alternating between the two — an hour with one at lunch time, an hour or two with another before bed. I trust you all are able to do this, no problem.

It’s the pairing that is the killer. In one corner, I’m reading the marvelously detailed, juicy, thought-provoking The Cambrian Explosion: The Construction of Animal Biodiversity by the highly regarded scientists, Erwin and Valentine. In the other corner, the tedious and misleading Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design by the highly self-regarded philosopher and creationist apologist, Stephen Meyer.

Some would say I’m mad to do this; others would say the shock of the combination will drive me mad. They are both right, I fear.

I’m only a few chapters into each so far. The Erwin & Valentine book is terrific — a bit dense and technical, but full of the right stuff. I’m learning a great deal; it starts with material I’m not at all familiar with, the geochemistry of the pre-Cambrian. The point is to set the stage, to explain the environment in which the Cambrian explosion will occur, and also most importantly, to explain how scientists know what the world was like between a billion and 500 million years ago.

It also discusses real controversies and real science. For example, there was a world-wide shift in ocean and atmospheric chemistry during this period: was it primarily an abiotic process, or did the expansion of bacterial forms and the emergence of multicellular life contribute significantly?

We haven’t even gotten to the fossils yet, let alone the biology! I’m appreciating the education, though — the story simply cannot be understood without this background material. It’s also fueling an interest in, of all things, geology. I may have to read more about this subject.

The Meyer book, on the other hand…maybe it’s best that I am reading it in conjunction with some real science. The contrast is jarring and enlightening.

The first bit of this book is an extended whine about how no one understood his last book, Signature in the Cell, which was another gloppy bit of tripe from a mediocre mind with a magnificent ego. That book was entirely about the origin of life, he says, and how it’s impossible to create new information with undirected processes; everyone thought it was about how undirected processes can add information to existing organisms, but it wasn’t, and this new book about the Darwin’s Doubt and the Cambrian explosion is the one that is going to show that’s impossible, too. So he begins by repetitively reciting the same bogus assertions he made in his previous book.

The type of information present in living cells — that is, “specified” information in which the sequence of characters matters to the function of the sequence as a whole — has generated an acute mystery. No undirected physical or chemical process has demonstrated the capacity to produce specified information, starting from “purely physical or chemical precursors”. For this reason, chemical evolutionary theories have failed to solve the mystery of the origin of first life—a claim that few mainstream evolutionary theorists now dispute.

Simply rebutted: random peptides exhibit catalytic activity. There’s a process that starts from “purely physical or chemical” precursors and uses the information defined by the sequence of amino acids to produce a naturally selectable function. And I’m sorry, but what is an example of a non-physical, non-chemical process in biology?

Are we done yet?

Of course not. Meyer is going to drool out a few hundred pages of drivel that will only convince the gullible, the ignorant, and the already dedicated creationists. There is not one bit of substance in the book so far; just rehashed Intelligent Design creationist talking points. This “specified information” of which he speaks is undefined and unmeasurable — it’s the phrase they flap at anyone who challenges their claim of have concrete evidence against evolution.

Meyer then dives into more misleading statements, such as that the Cambrian biota just erupted abruptly into the fossil record, with no precursors — surely you don’t expect a creationist to explain the geological and biological context of the pre-Cambrian/Cambrian, as Erwin and Valentine do? That would take work and knowledge, which Meyer lacks. Nick Matzke at the Panda’s Thumb has torn into the superficiality and wrongness of Meyer’s arguments already — go read that if you want to see ID arguments taken down a notch.

Otherwise, wait a bit and somewhere in my looming frantic schedule I’ll be reading deeper into The Cambrian Explosion…and I see that the next section is titled “The Record of Early Metazoan Evolution”. I think I’ll trust Ervin and Valentine’s competence over Meyer’s religiously driven ignorance.

If this combo does not hurl me down the stairs of madness into the abyss of total chaotic brain-scrambling, there’s a third book gazing ominously at me from the bookshelf. I’ve been asked to consult with Tony Ortega, who runs an anti-scientology website on a public evisceration of Scientology: A History of Man by L. Ron Hubbard. It’s a “cold-blooded and factual history of your last 76 trillion years” — it contains Scientology’s version of evolution. I’m pretty sure I’ll be curled into a fetal ball, gibbering, by August.