The Panspermia Mafia strikes again!

A reader informed me that I was mentioned in a British magazine, and sent me a scan of the relevant bit. It’s not so much my brief mention that interested me, as that it’s another example of the Panspermia Mafia in action. It’s an article about a recently elected Conservative MP, Jamie Wallis, who has a science degree…or does he?

Dominic Cummings has bemoaned the fact that many MPs “did degrees such as English, history, and PPE. They operate with…little maths or science.” Thankfully, Dr Jamie Wallis, the new Conservative MP for Bridgend, is that rarest of things: an MP with not just a science degree, but a PhD in “astrobiology” to boot.

Where it gets interesting is that he obtained a PhD from, I presume, Cardiff University, which was NC Wickramasinghe’s former affiliation, although he has since ensconced himself at the Buckingham Centre for Astrobiology. There is reason to doubt that Wallis actually did the caliber of work we expect in a PhD thesis.

Completing a PhD while co-directing several companies is quite an achievement. Wallis’s thesis, “Evidence of Panspermia: From Astronomy to Meteorites”, is devoted to the niche and widely rejected theories of his supervisor, one NC Wickramasinghe. Notoriously, Wickramasinghe maintains not only that life on earth arrived on comets, but that organisms continue to regularly arrive by this method. (Just last week, he wrote to the Lancet helpfully suggesting the novel coronavirus COVID-19 arrived in China from space.)

Why does the Lancet, or any respectable journal, continue to publish crank letters from Wickramasinghe? But OK, I think it’s established that Wallis’s degree was somehow earned under the supervision of a well-known fringe kook, and that it’s questionable how much work he actually invested in the project, which sounds like some kind of review involving no independent research.

But why do I call this the Panspermia Mafia? They use their connections to promote a small family of fellow travelers.

Appropriately, given that the theory of cosmic panspermia is about origins, involvement with Wickramasinghe seems to be a Wallis family affair. A typical thesis might produce several publications. Wallis Jnr’s thesis lists an astonishing 21 with him as an author — mostly not in peer-reviewed journals — 16 of which include his dad in the author list. And of the eight publications that supposedly have been peer-reviewed, six are in the highly dubious Journal of Cosmology. Wickramasinghe is the “executive editor” for astrobiology for the journal, described by US scientist PZ Myers as the “ginned-up website of a small group of crank academics”.

Yeah, that’s about it — it’s so inbred that it relies on the one guy who has a name and connections but very little credibility, Wickramasinghe, to promote the members of his cabal in a roster of fake journals. This article didn’t examine them in detail, but I suspect that all 21 of the articles are rehashed, recycled, barely rewritten examples of frantic self-plagiarism. To say you got a degree with Wickramasinghe is the British equivalent of saying you’re a colleague of Kent Hovind.

Isn’t it nice that he provides a pipeline for Conservatives to claim they have the authority of science? Just in case you’re wondering, no, they don’t.

Whoa…Norma McCorvey confesses that it was all an act

Norma McCorvey, who fought for the right to an abortion in Roe v. Wade, and then flipped to crusade against abortion under the influence of evangelicals, flipped again before her death — she was bought and paid for by the Religious Right.

In the final third of director Nick Sweeney’s 79-minute documentary, featuring many end-of-life reflections from McCorvey—who grew up queer, poor, and was sexually abused by a family member her mother sent her to live with after leaving reform school—the former Jane Roe admits that her later turn to the anti-abortion camp as a born-again Christian was “all an act.”

“This is my deathbed confession,” she chuckles, sitting in a chair in her nursing home room, on oxygen. Sweeney asks McCorvey, “Did [the evangelicals] use you as a trophy?” “Of course,” she replies. “I was the Big Fish.” “Do you think you would say that you used them?” Sweeney responds. “Well,” says McCorvey, “I think it was a mutual thing. I took their money and they took me out in front of the cameras and told me what to say. That’s what I’d say.” She even gives an example of her scripted anti-abortion lines. “I’m a good actress,” she points out. “Of course, I’m not acting now.”

The two jackhole Christians who ran the scam are both horrified, but split: one because the end justifies the means, the other because he actually has some moral principles.

Reverend Schenck, the much more reasonable of the two evangelical leaders featured in the film, also watches the confession and is taken aback. But he’s not surprised, and easily corroborates, saying, “I had never heard her say anything like this… But I knew what we were doing. And there were times when I was sure she knew. And I wondered, Is she playing us? What I didn’t have the guts to say was, because I know damn well we’re playing her.” Reverend Schenck admits that McCorvey was “a target,” a “needy” person in need of love and protection, and that “as clergy,” people like Schenck and Benham were “used to those personalities” and thus easily able to exploit her weaknesses. He also confirms that she was “coached on what to say” in her anti-abortion speeches. Benham denies McCorvey was paid; Schenck insists she was, saying that “at a few points, she was actually on the payroll, as it were.” AKA Jane Roe finds documents disclosing at least $456,911 in “benevolent gifts” from the anti-abortion movement to McCorvey.

Reverend Benham then blurts out, “Yeah, but she chose to be used. That’s called work. That’s what you’re paid to be doing!” Schenck’s thinking is quite different: “For Christians like me, there is no more important or authoritative voice than Jesus,” he explains. “And he said, ‘What does it profit in the end if he should gain the whole world and lose his soul?’ When you do what we did to Norma, you lose your soul.”

In fact, Reverend Schenck underlines his own conversion, which took place in the last decade: “I still identify as an evangelical, but I like to think of myself as lovingly critical of my community. I guess in some ways I’d like to use whatever years I have remaining to undo the damage that I did and that many movement leaders did on the pro-life side. I used to think that Roe v. Wade would never be overturned. I think Roe v. Wade could be overturned now. And I think the result of that would be chaos and pain. And to impose that kind of crisis on a woman is unthinkable.”

Fortunately, the pro-choice cause does not rely on the bought testimony of individuals, but on the autonomy of all women.

Proud Boys reveal their true character

Spokane has had about 30 COVID-19 deaths, so a memorial was put together at the city hall, a Christian memorial with a collection of crosses. I’m not so keen on that — do the non-Christians not count? — but OK, it’s harmless and generous and acknowledges the people who died, even if it is a bit presumptuous. I wouldn’t be upset about it at all.

Then someone trashed it. We know who, because they took credit for it. It was the Proud Boys who were quite proud to demolish a memorial, and who have been upset with anyone who tries to protect themselves from the virus.

In another video posted on Facebook, Proud Boys members and other protesters are seen mocking and harassing Robinson as he stands in front of the memorial. He repeatedly asks them to step away and respect his social distance.

The video includes profanity.

“This is what Proud Boys do,” Robinson is heard saying in the video.

One of the Proud Boys members, who identifies himself as “Milkshake,” said he came to the protest from western Washington. He and other protesters repeatedly tell Robinson in the video to remove his mask.

Oh, yeah, personal liberty for us, but not for you!

Also at the demonstration: far-right Christian fanatic and Spokane representative Matt Shea. We had a lot of unkind stereotypes about the inhabitants of the eastern side of the state when I was growing up, and Shea personifies all of them, cranked up to 11.

The nicest grocery store in the universe

I want to shop here now.

A problematic customer walks up to a store with a clearly marked policy that you must wear a mask, and everyone cheerfully informs her of everything they can do to help her: they can get her whatever she wants (she refuses, she claims she needs “personal things”, which is silly since she has to inform the store about what she’s buying when she checks out), that they can take her credit card and pay for it for her (she objects that they’d get her financial info, which they do every time she swipes the card herself anyway), yet she just generally makes an ass of herself…and the staff are as obliging as they can be. Stores should use this as a training video for how to deal with a bad customer.

The woman’s name is Shelley Lewis, and she suffers from a severe case of entitled dumbassery. catalogued the Twitter background checks that began popping up Sunday about Lewis, who seems from her Facebook presence to be a real prize.

Among the topics of conversation are some conspiracy crazy greatest hits, including 5G towers, 9/11, fake moon landings, and the Earth is flat. And, as Twitter quickly found, Lewis is loud and proud in her belief system, having appeared on this Jubilee Media discussion on YouTube, arguing with scientists about whether Earth is flat.

“I live in Dana Point,” she says at one point in this video. “We see too far… I can see San Clemente Island, which is 60 miles away.” She also contends that as ships disappear she can still see them with a zoom lens.

Lewis was a speaker at the Flat Earth International Conference last year, and in her bio it states, “She holds a Bachelor of Science degree from the United States Military Academy at West Point, where she entertained hopes of becoming an AstroNOT.” It further says she was discharged from the military after being diagnosed with lupus, and she now treats the condition with a vegan lifestyle and alternative medicine.

The problem with America is that we’ve allowed this kind of inanity to flourish unchecked, to the point where Entitle Dumbassery can run for president and win.

He’s lying

Trump claims to be taking hydroxychloroquine.

President Trump told reporters Monday that he has been taking hydroxychloroquine for about a week and a half and that the White House physician knows he is taking the anti-malaria drug despite the fact that he continues to test negative for the coronavirus.

Clinical trials, academic research and scientific analysis indicate that the danger of the drug is a significantly increased risk of death for certain patients, particularly those with heart problems. Trump dismissed those concerns, saying he has heard about the drug’s benefits from doctors and others he has spoken with.

You have to be closely monitored if you take this dangerous drug — there are all kinds of potential side effects. So we know he’s lying his ass off.

It’s also a lie that can get other people killed, if they believe him and try to emulate him.

On the other hand if he’s not lying, I hope he decides to quadruple his dose. Please.

My first Raspberry Pi

We put it together today, me and my nerdy daughter and my very excited granddaughter, who had to inspect each of the components.

She had to teach me a little (very little) Python, but we got it working with a little script to take time lapse images. That’s the camera at the top, and the two eyeballs are IR LEDs. The plan is to do a test run when I get back and see if we can record night-time spider activity with it. The spiders are very sneaky, and when I see them during the day they’re usually lounging about, doing little unless some prey falls into their web, but every morning I see the cages more densely matted with cobwebs, so it would be nice to watch them at work.

The images aren’t bad for such a minuscule lens. The test will be to see if I can get enough depth of field to get a sense of their 3-dimensional construction methods.

(If you’re curious, that’s the CanaKit Raspberry Pi 4 4GB Starter Kit and the UNIROI Raspberry Pi Camera Module.)

Not my usual welcome

Last night, I walked in the door of Iliana’s home. She was taken aback — there’s a strange man in the house! Then she figured it out. “Bopba?” she said. Then, “Phone?”. Once she figured out I was just the manifestation of the floating head she sees on the phone, she was alright with me. Also, I brought toys.

This is a weird time in human history.

I made it to Colorado!

As I’ve mentioned before, my wife has been isolated in Colorado — bad timing, she was visiting our family in late February, and all the stay-at-home orders started crashing down in mid-March — so yesterday was the day I was finally free of other obligations to make the long drive down to bring her back home. So here I am. Yeesh, was it a long drive. 14 hours from my door to Longmont, Colorado.

I had something to entertain me, though. The dullest portion of the trip was several hundred miles on I90 in South Dakota, which ought to be embarrassing to South Dakotans, since it exposes the soul of the state. It’s nothing but billboards, big ugly billboards, and they’re all advertising garbage. The most frequent billboards along that stretch of highway are:

  • Wall Drug Wall Drug Wall Drug Wall Drug Wall Drug Wall Drug Wall Drug Wall Drug Wall Drug Wall Drug Wall Drug Wall Drug Wall Drug Wall Drug Wall Drug Wall Drug. Every mile or two there’s another sign to let you know Wall Drug is 292 miles (or whatever) ahead of you, sometimes mentioning some feature you will find there…Western Paintings or Dinosaurs or Cowboy Boots, or to let you know they were mentioned in Reader’s Digest or the New York Times or People magazine.

    I’ve been there, once, almost 20 years ago. It’s a hole-in-the-wall in the middle of nowhere. It’s a rustic strip mall, splattered with kitsch. No, you do not want to visit Wall Drug, unless you have a burning desire for a plastic key chain with your name on it, or want to buy a bad cup of coffee for 5 cents.

  • 1880 Town. Never been there, but jeez they must be desperate. So many signs begging you to come see their blacksmith shop or kids, come get a deputy’s badge from the sheriff.

  • The Gutzom Borglum Story. Apparently, he has a museum somewhere near Mt Rushmore. It’s apparently very patriotic. I guess you could say the creator of that iconic eyesore is patriotic, if taking over native lands, appropriating a beautiful natural mountain, and dynamiting it until it looks like a quartet of politicians is a sublimely American version of patriotism. Been there once, too. Never again.

It does tell you what works in advertising, though. It’s not quality, or cleverness, or information — it’s just straight up mindless repetition. Drill your brand into people’s brains until they think it’s only natural to stop at Wall Drug and see what all the fuss is about. It’s awful. I hate it. It’s a blight on a lovely countryside, and I guarantee you that if those businesses didn’t have thousands of signs poisoning traveler’s brains, no one would bother to stop at those pointless places, and they would dry up and blow away. The demand is entirely artificial.

Which makes it amusing that as I got closer to each of them, their billboards started sporting “CLOSED” notices.

Also amusing: frequently, but with nowhere near the frequency of those tourist traps, landowners along the route started emulating the capitalist advertising policies and putting up their own little advertisements: “JESUS DIED FOR YOUR SINS” was popular. The comparison does not help their cause. It seems that repeating a meaningless mantra is effective at getting people to parrot it back, but it also cheapens it. Jesus is the Wall Drug of religion: cheesy schlock for the masses that is ultimately disappointing, building a following on empty reiteration of slogans.

I puked on Evolutionary Psychology before it was cool to puke on Evolutionary Psychology

I rejected it because it’s panadaptationist nonsense, among other things. But I’m always happy to see more arguments for why it is garbage, such as this criticism from a philosopher.

Evolutionary psychologists’ thought is that, for at least some of our behaviors, they believe that we have—dare I use this term—hard-wired cognitive structures that are operating in all of us contemporary human beings the same way they did for our ancestors on the savannas. The idea is that, in the modern world, we have sort of modern skulls, but the wiring—the cognitive structure of the brain itself—is not being modified, because enough evolutionary time hasn’t passed. This goes for evolutionary functions like mate selection, parental care, predator avoidance—that our brains were pretty much in the same state as our ancestors’ brains. The sameness in how our brains work is on account of genetic selection for particular modules that are still functional in our environment today. [Editor’s note: These “modules” refer to the idea that the brain can be divided up into discrete structures with specific functions.]

The matching problem is really the core issue that evolutionary psychologists have to show that they can meet: that there is really a match between our modules and the modules of the prehistoric ancestors; that they’re working the same way then as now; and that these modules are working the same way because they are descended from the same functional lineage or causal lineage. But I don’t see any way that these charges can be answered.

True, that. But just watch — evolutionary psychologists will rapidly retreat from those core ideas of “environment of evolutionary adaptation” and “modules” to find safety in the uncontroversial idea that the brain evolved.

We still get buckets of baloney about evolution from people who should know better. Have you heard of the pugilism hypothesis? This is the idea that men’s beards evolved to absorb a punch to the jaw. You only have to think about it for a moment to realize that getting socked in the face was a small factor in human evolution — 10,000 years ago, I would have been more concerned about starvation, getting a disease, breaking an arm while hunting, or getting thwocked in the back of the head with a rock by a bad guy. That facial hair might have provided a slight cushion to facial injuries doesn’t seem like the kind of thing for which there was much selection pressure, and I could also sit here and imagine all kinds of drawbacks to furry faces.

But it’s been tested! Except no, it hasn’t.

Because facial hair is one of the most sexually dimorphic features of humans (Homo sapiens) and is often perceived as an indicator of masculinity and social dominance, human facial hair has been suggested to play a role in male contest competition. Some authors have proposed that the beard may function similar to the long hair of a lion’s mane, serving to protect vital areas like the throat and jaw from lethal attacks. This is consistent with the observation that the mandible, which is superficially covered by the beard, is one of the most commonly fractured facial bones in interpersonal violence. We hypothesized that beards protect the skin and bones of the face when human males fight by absorbing and dispersing the energy of a blunt impact. We tested this hypothesis by measuring impact force and energy absorbed by a fiber epoxy composite, which served as a bone analog, when it was covered with skin that had thick hair (referred to here as “furred”) versus skin with no hair (referred to here as “sheared” and “plucked”). We covered the epoxy composite with segments of skin dissected from domestic sheep (Ovis aries), and used a drop weight impact tester affixed with a load cell to collect force versus time data. Tissue samples were prepared in three conditions: furred (n = 20), plucked (n = 20), and sheared (n = 20). We found that fully furred samples were capable of absorbing more energy than plucked and sheared samples. For example, peak force was 16% greater and total energy absorbed was 37% greater in the furred compared to the plucked samples. These differences were due in part to a longer time frame of force delivery in the furred samples. These data support the hypothesis that human beards protect vulnerable regions of the facial skeleton from damaging strikes.

I would concede even before testing it that a layer of hair over the face would reduce the force of impacts to some degree. But that’s not testing an evolutionary hypothesis! You need to show that this ‘padding’ had a measurable effect on survival and reproductive success. They merely looked at one superficial phenomenon and decided that dissipating the force of a punch to the jaw allowed beardy guys to thrive, in a world without the Marquis of Queensbury rules. It seems his beard didn’t save Otzi from the arrow that killed him.

There are a few people — thankfully few — that go wacko over their single comprehensive explanation. Apparently, humans evolved to be boxers.

More broadly, the results of this study add to a growing body of evidence suggesting that specialization for male fighting has played a significant role in the evolution of the musculoskeletal system of humans. For example, the short limbs (Carrier 2007), plantigrade foot posture (Carrier and Cunningham 2017), and bipedal posture of our earliest hominins ancestors (Carrier 2011), and the force–velocity tuning (Carrier et al. 2011) and size (Carrier et al. 2015) of the muscles of the human leg may also be associated with improved fighting performance.

Ugh. Umbrella Hypothesis alert.