Bad memories

I had to look high and low to find a copy of that old debate I had with Geoffrey Simmons, because I wanted to reference something he said, so once I found a copy, I put it where I’d more easily find it in the future, on YouTube. Some of you old-timers will remember that debate — I blogged about it at the time, and there was a follow-up, too.

It was disillusioning for me at the time. I knew that creationists misrepresent the facts all the time, but this guy was just right there in my face, pretending he was an authority on the fossil evidence when he wasn’t, and also flat out lying about that evidence. He claimed that the entirety of the whale fossil evidence consisted of five bones — “five or so fossil pieces from dog-size animals”! Debate really doesn’t work as a tool to get at the truth when one side’s sole tactic is to lie brazenly, as we’ve also learned from Republican politics.

It’s also frustrating when the debate format doesn’t allow you to bring out the evidence and rub your opponents face in it, and if you point out that he’s lying he gets all indignant and smarmily whines about tone, and the moderators are both grossly biased and using your appearance as a gimmick to sell tours to the Creation “Museum”.

We’ve all known that guy

The latest accuser speaking up about Kavanaugh has a horrific tale to tell, but the most horrific thing about it is that it seems entirely plausible.

Swetnick, in the affidavit posted on Twitter by Avenatti, claims that she saw Kavanaugh, as a high school student in Maryland in the early 1980s, and others spike the drinks of girls at house parties with grain alcohol and/or drugs to “cause girls to lose inhibitions and their ability to say ‘No.’ ”

Swetnick said these efforts by Kavanaugh and his buddy Mark Judge were done so the girls “could then be ‘gang raped’ in a side room or bedroom by a ‘train’ of numerous boys.”

“I have a firm recollection of seeing boys lined up outside rooms at many of these parties waiting for their ‘turn’ with a girl inside the room. These boys included Mark Judge and Brett Kavanaugh,” Swetnick said.

She also said in her affidavit sent to the Senate Judiciary Committee that in approximately 1982 “I became the victim of one of these ‘gang’ or ‘train’ rapes where Mark Judge and Brett Kavanaugh were present.”

I’ve mentioned that I was ‘rushed’ by a fraternity once upon a time. It was a whole house packed full of these guys, so I can believe it.

When will this genetic determinism dinosaur die already?

Robert Plomin, a psychologist, has a new book out, and it looks like he intentionally picked the title to a) make him look stupid, b) align with the alt-right, or c) stir up controversy for sales, because jeez, it’s possibly one of the most backward, unaware, ignorant titles yet: Blueprint: How DNA Makes Us Who We Are. What do you do with a book that has a title that is so wrong?

I guess you ask Nathaniel Comfort to review it.

And yet, here we are again with Blueprint, by educational psychologist Robert Plomin. Although Plomin frequently uses more civil, progressive language than did his predecessors, the book’s message is vintage genetic determinism: “DNA isn’t all that matters but it matters more than everything else put together”. “Nice parents have nice children because they are all nice genetically.” And it’s not just any nucleic acid that matters; it is human chromosomal DNA. Sorry, microbiologists, epigeneticists, RNA experts, developmental biologists: you’re not part of Plomin’s picture.

Crude hereditarianism often re-emerges after major advances in biological knowledge: Darwinism begat eugenics; Mendelism begat worse eugenics. The flowering of medical genetics in the 1950s led to the notorious, now-debunked idea that men with an extra Y chromosome (XYY genotype) were prone to violence. Hereditarian books such as Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein’s The Bell Curve (1994) and Nicholas Wade’s 2014 A Troublesome Inheritance (see N. Comfort Nature 513, 306–307; 2014) exploited their respective scientific and cultural moments, leveraging the cultural authority of science to advance a discredited, undemocratic agenda. Although Blueprint is cut from different ideological cloth, the consequences could be just as grave.

It seems that Plomin believes GATTACA was a documentary for a utopia. You might be wondering what the consequences could be.

Ultimately, if unintentionally, Blueprint is a road map for regressive social policy. Nothing here seems overtly hostile, to schoolchildren or anyone else. But Plomin’s argument provides live ammunition for those who would abandon proven methods of improving academic achievement among socio-economically deprived children. His utopia is a forensic world, dictated by polygenic algorithms and the whims of those who know how to use them. People would be defined at birth by their DNA. Expectations would be set, and opportunities, resources and experiences would be doled out — and withheld — a priori, before anyone has had a chance to show their mettle.

To paraphrase Lewontin in his 1970 critique of Jensen’s argument, Plomin has made it pretty clear what kind of world he wants.

I oppose him.

An argument from consequences is a fallacy, but the real meat of the review is that Plomin’s evidence is bad, that he consistently misinterprets it, and that he’s ignorant of the broader scope of factors affecting intelligence. It’s also bad science in that he clearly has a desired outcome and is selectively picking his evidence to validate it.

When someone abuses science to justify maintaining their privilege, that’s a dystopian future for the rest of us, and I’ll oppose it too.

Ken Ham, innumerate evolutionist

I visited both the Creation “Museum” and the Ark Park, and one thing that leapt off the displays to me, and to other biologists I’ve shown these things to, is that Ken Ham has evolved to become a kind of hyper-evolutionist. Take a look at this illustration from Answers in Genesis, for instance.

Now compare it to this diagram of cat evolution.

Not that different, are they? They’re both tree diagrams, they both show an ancestral form diverging into multiple modern species, they both imply change and evolution. AiG’s is more cartoony and simplified, the real evolutionary diagram has more species, but the differences are more of style than substance, except for one little thing.

The time scale on the evolution image is 20 million years.

The time scale on the AiG image is 4 thousand years.

It’s weird. Answers in Genesis has gradually gone from complete denial of any evolution at all to arguing for so much evolution so fast that it’s enough to make a population geneticist choke. Does his audience care? I guess not. They’re not used to recognizing the implications in a quantitative chart, I guess, and see no conflict at all in ol’ Ken Ham waving his hands at a phylogram on steroids while claiming evolution is false.

Naturalis Historia has a more detailed discussion of this phenomenon, with a very nice wrap-up.

Would you recognize many of the animals that boarded Noah’s Ark? Not according to Ken Ham and his colleagues. The ark contained only the common ancestors to the great diversity of animals you see today. Giraffes on the ark? No. Chimpanzees? No. Lions? No. etc… One cat pair evolved into more than 100 species of cats most of which went extinct just a few hundred years after the Flood. Yes, Ken Ham has fully embraced Post-Flood Rapid Evolution as a mechanism of creating the amazing variation we see today. As he falls further down the slippery slope into the rabbit hole of radical hyper-evolution Ken Ham is, ironically, more accepting of naturalistic speciation (Darwinian evolution) than Old Earth advocates such as Hugh Ross.

Talk me out of this (or into it)

I’m considering dropping in on some creationists speaking at the Twin Cities campus next week.

Dave and Mary Jo Nutting have been to Minnesota before, but I didn’t bother going — but I wasn’t on sabbatical back then. The Alpha Omega Institute is a rather nutty organization, so maybe I should scribble up some notes on them.

What do you think? I’m on the fence, so I’ll let the comments decide. Also, would any of my Twin Cities peeps want to make an evening of it?

Panic in Spider City

I didn’t update yesterday, and nothing much today either, because I’m new to this spider business and have lots to learn — like planning ahead. I’ve got all these vials full of spider babies right now, and they have eaten all of my flies, every one. I set up four more bottles of flies a bit more than a week ago, and they’re at the stage where I’ve got lots of pupae but the adults haven’t eclosed yet, which should happen any day now. But it means my babies are hungry right now, and I’ve got nothing to give them.

I’m a bad spider daddy.

I set up a bunch more fly bottles today and will start staggering production every 3 or 4 days, but wow, when you’ve got a few hundred spiderlings, the logistics of keeping them supplied with flies is a little more involved than I expected. Also, I don’t quite have the rhythm yet. The goal is to raise just enough to maintain a small colony at a stable productive size, and right now I’m producing to excess because I’m uncertain about mortality and how quickly they’ll be consistently reproducing. At a guess, they reproduce a lot faster than I expected!

The movies in Morris this past week

Last week, I didn’t write up my impressions of The Meg because it was just too depressing. I was first dismayed at the opening sequence and set up because it postulates that there is a whole new, ancient, isolated biome at the bottom of a deep ocean trench, over 10 thousand meters down, and nothing makes sense. There are giant sharks prowling around this lightless, constricted deep? Why? How? They explore it with a surprisingly roomy manned submersible, which is almost plausible — people have gone down almost 11,000 meters in a bathyscaphe — but why, in this modern day, wouldn’t the preliminary observations have been made with an ROV? There’s also a scene where a submarine is damaged by a monster shark at this depth, and…

…it explodes in a giant fireball.

If you don’t get why that was incredibly stupid, then maybe this is the movie for you. I just couldn’t get past the absence of any acknowledgment of pressure in a movie that has subs shuttling like yo-yos between the bottom of the ocean and the surface, and that has a giant shark found in a marginal habitat that can survive being squirted straight up to terrorize coastal waters.

I guess there were supposed to be some jump scares in there, but I was unable to recover any ability to suspend disbelief after the first 5 minutes. Also, I just didn’t care about any of the characters, except to hope they got eaten. I was mostly disappointed there, too. It made me so cranky I even wanted the stupid little dog to get inhaled, and once again, no joy.

This week, I saw Operation Finale, which wasn’t bad at all. It’s basically a vehicle for the two stars, Oscar Isaac and Ben Kingsley, to reverberate off each other, and they were both good. It’s the tale of the Israeli operation to extract Adolph Eichmann from Argentina in the early 1960s so that he could face justice for his role in engineering the Holocaust, so it’s very much a good vs. evil story…but it’s a complex difficult good vs. a deceitful, slimy evil, so it isn’t at all cartoonish.

It helps that I hate Nazis. I didn’t have much trouble believing this story.

Also playing this week: The Predator. I just said no. It’s getting easier to avoid some bad movies now that we have a two screen theater and have more choices.

Usually more choices, that is. Next week we’re getting Unbroken: Path to Redemption, some treacly Christian movie directed by Harold Cronk, of the God’s Not Dead series. That’s a fuck no from me. The other choice is The Nun, a supernatural horror movie, which makes for an interesting combination. I’m just hoping some devout Christian fanatic attends both on the basis of the titles, and ends up running screaming from the theater. As for me, though, it looks like I’ll be sitting out the next week.

It’s a technical term

I was reading outside my discipline, which is always good for a surprise. It was a paper titled “Something’s Going on Here: Psychological Predictors of Belief in Conspiracy Theories“, which isn’t that far outside my interests, and was actually rather interesting. Here’s the abstract:

Research on individual-difference factors predicting belief in conspiracy theories has proceeded along several independent lines that converge on a profile of conspiracy believers as individuals who are relatively untrusting, ideologically eccentric, concerned about personal safety, and prone to perceiving agency in actions and profundity in bullshit. The present research represents the first attempt at an integrative approach to testing the independent contributions of these diverse factors to conspiratorial thinking. Two studies (N=1,253) found that schizotypy, dangerous-world beliefs, and bullshit receptivity independently and additively predict endorsement of generic (i.e., nonpartisan) conspiracy beliefs. Results suggest that “hyperactive” agency detection and political orientation (and related variables) might also play a role. The studies found no effects of situational threats (mortality salience or a sense of powerlessness)—though it remains to be seen whether real-world instantiations of situational threats might move some people to seek refuge in conspiratorial ideation.

One phrase leapt off the page at me: “bullshit receptivity”. This is a thing? They have a way to measure it? They do!

Bullshit receptivity. Participants’ receptivity to superficially profound statements was measured using the Bullshit Receptivity Scale (Pennycook et al., 2015). This measure consists of nine seemingly impressive statements that follow rules of syntax and contain fancy words, but do not have any intentional meaning (e.g., “Wholeness quiets infinite phenomena”; “Imagination is inside exponential space time events”). Participants rated each of the items’ profoundness on a scale from 1 (Not at all profound) to 5 (Very profound). They were given the following definition of profound for reference: “of deep meaning; of great and broadly inclusive significance.”

I love the name. I love that they have to define “profound” for their subjects. I also found their result interesting:

Exploratory regression analyses showed that the association between agency detection and conspiracy belief dropped most markedly when controlling for bullshit receptivity (and to some extent dangerous world beliefs). This suggests that a tendency toward agency detection might contribute to bullshit receptivity, or that they share a common psychological substrate in relation to their association with conspiracy belief.

Spurious belief in agency and conspiracies is associated with an acceptance of pseudo-profundities? I am not surprised. That explains a lot.

Now I want to see the Bullshit Receptivity measured in fans of Deepak Chopra and Jordan Peterson. It’s got to be off the scale.