Bobby and Bobby are very foolish boys

There’s a popular scam among creationists: they offer big prizes to anyone who can “prove” that evolution is true. They never award these prizes, and I suspect they usually don’t even have the cash on hand, because they’ve got an ace up their sleeves. They set unreachable criteria. For example, to win Joseph Mastropaolo’s evolution prize, one must present evidence that persuades a team of judges — judges who are hand-picked by Mastropaolo. I think the game is stacked.

Now look who is playing a similar game: Robert Kennedy Jr. and Robert De Niro are offering a $100,000 prize for proof that vaccines are safe. I don’t quite know what they expect would constitute proof, since they seem to disregard the extensive clinical trials that have been carried out, or the lack of significant numbers of dead babies from their shots (almost 90% of infants get a thorough series of vaccinations, yet somehow we don’t have piles of dead babies), or the historical evidence (visit a 19th century graveyard, and you will find those piles of dead babies…modern graveyards are mostly full of old dead people), or the remarkable improvement in public health with the introduction of, for instance, the polio vaccine, and the effective eradication of smallpox, or that measles kills about 100,000 people a year (but very few in the US), all of which would be preventable by vaccines.

You know, that $100,000 prize would help a lot in vaccinating all the people in Asia and Africa who are suffering from measles — about 20 million people each year.

So what are the criteria for winning this prize?

Kennedy explained that the WMP will pay $100,000 to the first journalist, or other individual, who can find a peer-reviewed scientific study demonstrating that thimerosal is safe in the amounts contained in vaccines currently being administered to American children and pregnant women. Kennedy believes that even “a meager effort at homework” will expose that contention as unsupported by science.

Hold your horses, everyone! <rushes to the PubMed link I always keep handy>

Early exposure to the combined measles-mumps-rubella vaccine and thimerosal-containing vaccines and risk of autism spectrum disorder.

No convincing evidence was found in this study that MMR vaccination and increasing thimerosal dose were associated with an increased risk of ASD onset.

Administration of thimerosal-containing vaccines to infant rhesus macaques does not result in autism-like behavior or neuropathology.

These data indicate that administration of TCVs and/or the MMR vaccine to rhesus macaques does not result in neuropathological abnormalities, or aberrant behaviors, like those observed in ASD.

Vaccines and autism in primate model.

Administration of thimerosal-containing vaccines to infant rhesus macaques does not result in autism-like behavior or neuropathology.

GIMME MY MONEY, BOBBY2. Those were a few papers that turned up in just the first page of a search — there were 180 more pages, but I didn’t bother looking, because I like the idea of winning a couple of years’ salary for the minimal amount of work. I wonder — could I be even lazier and just send them a link to PubMed?

I suspect that I won’t get paid, because there are other, mysterious excuses they’ll have for rejecting the evidence, just like the creationists do. The stated criteria are just to obvious and simple and have been met over and over in decades of peer-reviewed research.

They won’t pay up, because like the creationists, they’re only going to accept ‘evidence’ that supports their presuppositions, and the purpose of the reward is not to get information delivered to them — that information is freely available already — but to promote a lie. “We offered all this money, and no one could provide evidence, therefore you know that evolution/vaccines are false!” It’s a pretty tacky tactic.

It’s sad, too. I’ve liked many of De Niro’s movies. Now I’ll never be able to watch them again without being conscious that the actor is a colossal dumbass.

Fake news

Here’s a story that got a lot of play in Germany:

On Feb. 6, Germany’s most-read newspaper reported that dozens of Arab men, presumed to be refugees, had rampaged through the city of Frankfurt on New Year’s Eve. The men were said to have sexually assaulted women as they went through the streets; the newspaper dubbed them the Fressgass “sex mob,” referring to an upmarket shopping street in the city.

Oh no! See, you just can’t trust those dirty refugees. It’s not bigotry if it’s true, right?

Except…we ought to always question stories like that that feed into stereotypes and biases, biases that are almost entirely unjustified.

Except…we ought to take note that crimes committed by white men are never reported as rampages committed by their race or gender. Funny, that. It creates a twisted perspective.

Except…this story was totally false.

Frankfurt police were taken aback by the article — they had not heard of any large-scale assaults taking place in the area on New Year’s Eve — but a number of news outlets published aggregated versions of the story, spreading it further.

When local newspapers tried to report more on the story, local business owners said they had never seen any kind of “sex mob” or mass sexual assault on New Year’s Eve. “It was absolutely peaceful,” one staff member at a Fressgass bar not far from Mai’s establishment told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

On Tuesday, police released a damning statement on the incident that suggested the reports published in Bild were without foundation. “The interrogations of the witnesses, guests, and staff have created considerable doubts about the portrayal of events,” the statement read, adding that “a person allegedly affected by the actions was not in the city at all when the crime occurred.”

There are people actively spreading lies to promote hatred and conflict, and these are the worst kinds of people: racists, bigots, neo-Nazis, the so-called “alt-right”. There are also so-called journalists who happily promote these kinds of lies without basic checking of the facts, because it sells newspapers and ads. And as neo-Nazis are given greater prominence (hey, we’ve got a crop of them running the USA!), they become even more effective at spreading those destructive lies. Und so weiter.

It’s going to get worse. Self-promoting death spirals always do.

I find out about these things at the last minute…

There’s a convention going on this weekend, right here on the Morris campus? I may swing by, briefly. Briefly only because I hate to intrude on student events…but it sounds fun.

Cougar Con

Cougar Con is the Morris Fan Convention where we invite students to come and share their love of TV shows, movies, books, video games, and the list goes on. We have some games ready for you to play and show off your knowledge of popular fandoms. There will be a few showings of some movies and there will be a dance.

Apparently they had one last year and I missed it completely.

Someone needs to start a foundation to help victims of Physicist Syndrome

William Happer is a distinguished emeritus professor of physics. His specialty is optics and spectroscopy, but he’s got Physicist Syndrome bad — he thinks he’s an expert in everything to the point that he can disagree with distinguished professors in other fields, on their specialty. Yes, he’s that kind of idiot.

And he’s being considered for the position of Science Advisor to Donald Trump. Are you surprised? Trump’s chief skill seems to be in ferreting out the worst people and elevating them to positions where they can do the most damage. If you’re wondering why Trump is at all interested in this crank professor, it’s because he’s already been bought and paid for by the fossil fuel industry.

William Happer has accepted funding from the fossil fuel industry in the past. In a Minnesota state hearing on the impacts of carbon dioxide, Peabody Energy paid him $8,000 which was routed through the CO2 Coalition.

In 2015 undercover investigation by Greenpeace, Happer told Greenpeace reporters that he would be willing to produce research promoting the benefits of carbon dioxide for $250 per hour, while the funding sources could be similarly concealed by routing them through the CO2 Coalition.

But make up your own mind. Here’s an interview with the sublimely confident Dr Happer. Let’s start with something I can agree with.

Well, I guess where I see the big problem in our country is science illiteracy in the general population. If I were King, I would figure out some way to get better science teaching into the schools, you know, K through 12, and especially middle school and high school. It’s a disgrace that people get out with high school degrees knowing as little as they do. And I think it’s getting worse. I think it was much better in the ‘30s than it is today. And teaching makes a difference.

I often tell the people this anecdote — I once asked Edward Teller [a key architect of the hydrogen bomb] how it was possible that there were all these Hungarians, you know, there was him and Eugene Wigner and Szilard, von Neumann — a real constellation. They were all about the same age, and made enormous contributions to science. It was easy, he said. We all had the same high school teacher in the Fasori Gimnázium in Budapest. So there’s an example. Whoever this teacher was deserves a medal, you know. Nobody pays any attention to him. But at least in Hungarian society, teaching was an honorable profession, so that this really good guy — probably better than most university professors — produced this galaxy of stars. So I think we should seriously think about improving general education.

Oh man, yes. There was one teacher I’d name as extremely influential in getting me to pursue a career in science — thanks, Mr Thompson, and that chemistry class my junior year in high school. I think we all know of strong teachers who confirmed our commitment to do this thing…we here at the college level are mainly dealing with young men and women who’ve already made up their minds. We should pay public school teachers more, don’t you think?

But then he mounts his high horse.

I don’t know. First of all, just the term denier to someone like me is extremely offensive because it’s carefully chosen to make me look like a Nazi sympathizer. And you know, I dodged Nazi submarines when I was a kid [on a ship carrying immigrants to the United States] and my father fought against them and my mother worked on the Manhattan Project, and I found it profoundly offensive, you know, and many other people feel the same.

I think toning down the rhetoric would help a lot. And it has been very uneven — for example under the previous eight years the President and secretary of state kept talking about the deniers, you know, about the baskets of deplorables, the knuckle draggers, the Neanderthals. That was me they’re talking about.

I don’t think it was the anti-Nazi science kook they are talking about. It’s the, you know, Nazis. Literal Nazis. The people who do Nazi salutes, talk about white supremacy, and voted for Trump — the guy considering you for science advisor. I’m more than a little tired of indignant people who profess their contempt for Nazis while embracing the political party that counts on Nazi/racist support to get elected.

But also it’s impossible to take his concerns about toning down the rhetoric seriously when he just said this:

“There’s a whole area of climate so-called science that is really more like a cult,” Happer told the Guardian. “It’s like Hare Krishna or something like that. They’re glassy-eyed and they chant. It will potentially harm the image of all science.”

But even worse is the simplistic crackpot science he is peddling.

I see the CO2 as good, you know. Let me be clear. I don’t think it’s a problem at all, I think it’s a good thing. It’s just incredible when people keep talking about carbon pollution when you and I are sitting here breathing out, you know, 40,000 parts per million of CO2 with every exhalation. So I mean it’s shameful to do all of this propaganda on what’s a beneficial natural part of the atmosphere that has never been stable but most of the time much higher than now.

You know what else I’m pumping out as I sit here? Water. It’s just oozing out of my pores, evaporating out of my breath. Water is good, right? So more of it would be better. Let’s dump Happer in a big vat of water and let him paddle there, bathing in the life-giving fluid.

Another natural product of my metabolism is urea. I’m going to be even more generous and suggest that he be immersed in a vat of urine. More is better, always, right? So water plus urine has to be an improvement. Also, plants love water, and they love nitrogen. Therefore, it’s even more beneficial and natural.

OK, I forgot. He also likes gasses. We’ll top off the vat with pure, natural, healthful CO2. It’s a win:win!

I would like to remind Dr Happer of an old familiar (and true) phrase: the dose makes the poison. No one is going to deny that CO2 (and water, and nitrogen) are necessary components of a healthy atmosphere for life as it exists on earth. But we need balance in all things: just the right amount of carbon and nitrogen and water, balanced dynamically in cycles of renewal and reuse. That’s how we maximize growth in a sustainable way. Happer thinks throwing the balance out of wack is just as good as a balanced cycle. That ain’t gonna work.

Furthermore, he denies all the chaos and disruption as we roll our atmosphere back to the state it was in during the Carboniferous — which was admittedly a very nice environment for the plants and animals adapted to the Carboniferous, but probably isn’t as favorable to a species that evolved out of the ice ages.

He also ignores the possibility that we have no check on a runaway greenhouse effect — there is no guarantee climate change will stop at a swampy, hot, carbon-rich Carboniferous. I don’t think we’re predicting a roll-back to the Hadean, but it doesn’t take much change to make human life uncomfortable and possibly untenable.

Ultimately, though, his problem is that he’s not as bright as he thinks he is, and that he has a limited, one-dimensional view of geophysics, ecology, biology, and climate…yet, as a victim of Physicist Syndrome, he still thinks his narrow perspective trumps that of geophysicists, ecologists, biologists, and climatologists. That makes him a perfect Trump advisor, although it may chafe when he discovers that Trump thinks he’s even smarter than physicists.

Yet another TERFy oversimplification of reality

One does have to wonder if gender feminists and transgender activists are undermining science. One does, I guess, if one is going to properly apply critical thinking to these question. Unfortunately, that article by Debra Soh doesn’t seem to be interested in doing that, but instead on throwing around mischaracterizations of her critics. She fully embraces a tactic that Steven Pinker used in his book, The Blank Slate: let’s accuse those damnable “blank slaters” of believing that genes and biology play absolutely no role in brain and behavior, so that every bit of evidence that brains are made of meat refutes the cartoon extremists he is babbling about. He could have gone further, you know, and argued that the “blank slaters” believe that the skull contains nothing but cotton candy and whipped cream and meringue, so that any photograph of a brain in a bucket is a thorough disproof.

Debra Soh does the same thing. Let the strawmanning begin!

Gender feminists — who are distinct from traditional equity feminists — refuse to acknowledge the role of evolution in shaping the human brain, and instead promote the idea that sex differences are caused by a socialization process that begins at birth. Gender, according to them, is a construct; we are born as blank slates and it is parents and society at large that produce the differences we see between women and men in adulthood.

No. See, this is the difficult thing about dealing with these people: they immediately make a stark dichotomy, trying to pretend that one side, theirs, recognizes the importance of biology to the human mind, while the other side simply denies any role at all by biology and genetics. It’s annoying. I just have to say that the nature:nurture debate is fucking dead, that all influences are significant and inseparable in generating the complexity of the organism, and that these people with an inflamed notion of the black and white nature of the contributions to development belong back in the 19th century.

Gender is a construct built around probabilities in the disposition of traits associated with sex; most of the stereotypes are nothing but cultural impositions. There is no biological basis for girls wearing dresses and having long hair; boys don’t have a genetic predisposition to wearing pants and having their hair cut shorter. But there certainly are biases in brain development generated by hormones, for instance, biases that can also be overwhelmed by cultural influences. Could girls have a lesser potential for doing higher mathematics, on average? Maybe. But the evidence isn’t available, because social constraints have discouraged women from pursuing math for generations. Women could be better, on average, than men at math, but we wouldn’t know it because of all the baggage they’ve been forced to carry.

By the way, she does include a link to her claim that gender feminists refuse to acknowledge the role of evolution in shaping the human brain — again, I don’t know anyone who would make such an absurd claim, but it’s a staple of the kind of false characterization constantly perpetrated by the biological determinists (see? I can use misleading labels as well as they can). You might imagine it would be a link to some feminist claiming that brains are made of cotton candy and whipped cream and meringue, but no — it is to an evolutionary psychology journal article that also claims that feminists fails to consider evolutionary accounts of psychological sex differences. No evidence given.

I will tender the hypothesis, however, that gender feminists have evolved to avoid circle jerks.

Let us continue to see the caricatures drawn…

The idea that our brains are identical sounds lovely…

What? Why? I like the fact that people are different. And also, I don’t know anyone who argues that all brains are identical.

but the scientific evidence suggests otherwise. Many studies, for instance, have documented the masculinizing effects of prenatal testosterone on the developing brain. And a recent study in the journal Nature’s Scientific Reports showed that testosterone exposure alters the programming of neural stem cells responsible for brain growth and sex differences.

Yes, yes, we all know this. These facts are only relevant if you’re arguing with your cartoon feminist who thinks brains are not influenced by genes or hormones.

Gender feminists often point to a single study, published in 2015, which claimed it isn’t possible to tell apart male and female brains. But when a group of researchers reanalyzed the underlying data, they found that brains could be correctly identified as female or male with 69% to 77% accuracy. In another study, published in 2016, researchers used a larger sample in conjunction with higher-resolution neuroimaging and were able to successfully classify a brain by its sex 93% of the time.

Warning sign again: she doesn’t link to that single study which we often point to. I don’t think I’ve ever pointed to such a study. I participated in a histological study of mouse brains way back when I was a student, and we found a measurable, statistical difference in the size of cells in a certain area of the brain between males and females. The curious thing is that I spent month staring into a microscope measuring sections — I was the data collection grunt — and at no point could I have sexed a mouse brain from looking at it. I did trust that the statistics were valid, though.

So I’m a bit doubtful about their claims of accuracy. I believe there are statistically detectable differences, but that they’re not as absolute as claimed.

But even if as accurate as claimed, there’s a problem. Even if you can classify a brain successfully 93% of the time, what about the other 7%? Those ambiguous brains? What do they mean? When the estimates of the size of the transgender population range from 0.3% to almost 0.8%, saying that your magic MRI machine has a wobble of 7% leaves a lot of leeway.

Further, I would not claim that the 0.8% is embedded somewhere in that unclassifiable 7%; I suspect a lot of transgender individuals, when scored by the anatomical metric of their brain, just as if we scored them by their genitals, would be ranked as solidly male or female…on that one metric, which says nothing about how their brains function. What are you going to do, deny that someone’s sexual orientation is valid because their nucleus magnocellularis lit up on one MRI reading?

That’s the whole problem with this approach: deny the whole because of your interpretation of a part. You have a Y chromosome, therefore you are male. You have a vagina, therefore you are female. You like football, therefore you are male. Your brain has this particular shape, therefore you are female. It’s ridiculous. Just the fact that there are a thousand easily measured parameters for gender, and they are only loosely correlated with one another, ought to tell you that trying to find the one, single, infallible metric is a fool’s errand.

Soh has more shoehorning to do, though.

In my experience, proponents touting the “blank slate” view are willing to agree, in private conversations, that neurological sex differences do exist, but they fear that acknowledging as much publicly will justify female oppression. This is backward. As it stands, female-typical traits are seen as inferior and less worthy of respect. This is the real issue the movement fails to address: Nobody wants to be female-typical, not even women.

Wrong again. There are no “blank slaters”. There are people who will publicly assert that there are both cultural and biological elements to sex and gender — they’re not going to whisper that as a dirty secret to you in private. And the claim that we see female-typical behaviors as inferior is false. What is objectionable is the belief, so blithely taken for granted by people like Soh, that you can tell someone what is typical. No one wants to be female-typical, as defined by the determinists, because they stuff that definition with a lot of crap, so that they can have it both ways: If you’re typical, you’re weak, passive, a good help-meet to your spouse; but if you’re strong, assertive, and independent, you’re not typical, that is you are bad at being a woman. You cannot win.

Unlike gender feminists, transgender activists firmly believe that gender is a biological, rather than social, reality — but of course they don’t believe that it’s necessarily tied to sex at birth. They also believe that gender identity is quite stable early on, warranting a transition not only for transgender adults, but also young children who say they were born in the wrong body.

I give up. Has this person actually talked with any transgender activistås? Because they’ll have a range of perspectives, and will almost always recognize that these issues are complex — there is absolutely no one-size-fits-all formula for how people manage their gender identity. Yet here is Soh, acting as if they’re a uniform ideological bloc. It’s dishonest and demeaning.

But then, this kind of dishonesty is exactly like what comes out of right-wing think tanks: cast doubt on the complexity of the real science, while insisting that their bogus, overly-simplified version of reality is the True Science. We also get that from creationists, claiming the scientific high ground while puking up total bullshit. That’s what makes these kinds of claims galling:

Distortion of science hinders progress. When gender feminists start refuting basic biology, people stop listening, and the larger point about equality is lost.

Yes, Ms Soh, distortion of science hinders progress. So stop doing it, OK?

You also punch yourself in the face when you try to imply that gender is merely basic biology. It’s not. It’s advanced and complex neurobiology, psychology, and sociology, and it’s your reductive attitude that it’s simply biology that is the grandest distortion of science.

I guess this is a Valentine’s Day story

It’s about snails looking for love.

But I just have to intrude rudely and mention that handedness in snail shell coiling has been studied for a long time, and we mostly know the answer: the direction is specified by a maternal effect gene, so what matters is the genotype of Jeremy’s mother, not Jeremy’s phenotype. Jeremy and Lefty are almost certainly heterozygous, the product of a homozygous left-coiling mother and a mate who was almost certainly (because this is a rare trait) homozygous for the right-coiling allele, and because they carry the right-coiling allele, all of their little baby snails will be right-coiling. He’s going to have to look in their grandchildren to find more left-coiling snails.

Technical details of the genetics aside, it must be frustrating to have to take chirality into consideration when trying to mate. Imagine a world where being left-handed makes sex with right-handers require all kinds of twisty gymnastics to line the bits up just right.

How do we clean up this administration?

General Wackjob Flynn has resigned overnight, and now new old untrustworty people are being considered for the job of national security advisor; David Petraeus among them. Hey, didn’t he resign under a cloud, for sharing classified material with his mistress? He sounds perfect for the job.

We have a crisis here. The president is manifestly incompetent, he is surrounded by malevolently incompetent advisors, and we don’t seem to have a way to extract him from office. The Electoral College was supposed to be a mechanism to block unsuitable candidates before they took office, but that was exposed as a sham. There is supposed to be a way to trigger impeachment proceedings, but the other branch of our government, congress, is packed with cowards, lackeys, and lickspittles who are going to block any action on that front…and even if they chopped off the head of this monster, there’s a line of succession packed with incompetents.

We’re under the clock. A noted historian says we have maybe one year to fix this predicament.

The marches were very encouraging. These were quite possibly the largest demonstrations in the history of the US, just in sheer numbers on one single day. That sort of initiative has to continue. The constitution is worth saving, the rule of law is worth saving, democracy is worth saving, but these things can and will be lost if everyone waits around for someone else. If we want encouragement out of the Oval Office, we will not get it. We are not getting encouragement thus far from Republicans. They have good reasons to defend the republic but thus far they are not doing so, with a few exceptions. You want to end on a positive note, I know; but I think things have tightened up very fast, we have at most a year to defend the Republic, perhaps less. What happens in the next few weeks is very important.

To stop an onrushing tyranny, we need to check presidential power. How? At this point, we shouldn’t be intimidated by the ugly line of succession, because I think it’s more important to send a message that presidents don’t get to be dictators…and that they ought to be competent at doing their job. (That last requirement ought to send a chill down the spines of every Republican, which may be why they aren’t doing something about the rogue gossamer-haired sphincter running amuck in the White House.)

So what are we going to do?

Clear and present danger

Jebus. All it takes to be qualified to participate in discussions of national security with our Resident* is to cough up for a $200,000 membership to Mar-A-Lago? I’m out. I can’t even imagine having that much money, period, let alone be able to throw it away on a country club. But at a dinner with the Japanese president, the American Resident* basically invited everyone at the table to peer at incoming information about a North Korean missile launch. Suddenly, I’m sure, every foreign intelligence agency has perked up at the idea that they can get access relatively cheaply, just by paying this old clown for the privilege.

I am kind of terrified. Didn’t we just have an election where the far right was shrieking about Clinton’s email server and the possibility that spies might compromise its security? I wonder how much it would cost to buy an email account on that server.

And then, christ, one of the hack fat cats and Trump supporters took photos and bragged of having hung out with the security guy carrying the nuclear football. Said hypothetical spy who bought his way into Mar-A-Lago can now look forward to snatching access to the biggest weapons system on the planet, or at least stealing it to prevent a response.

This is totally bonkers. I’m not normally one of those paranoid doomsday-preppin’ kinds of kooks, but maybe I should start pricing guns and giant tubs of survivalist chow.