Are you thinking of trusting the internet?

Don’t. I stumbled across this on Quora, a site that seems to specialize in collecting uninformed questions from ignorant people, and allowing other ignorant people to provide misinformation.

You may notice that it has 513 views. It also had about 40 upvotes, meaning 40 people read this and came away thinking they’d learned something.

It’s very confusing. So, if I’m planning a cannibal meal, and a right-handed person eats my left-handed victim, does everything just pass through (great if you’re trying to lose weight!), or does it turn all my dinner guests left-handed?

No, I never heard of him before

I got an email bringing this guy, Owen Benjamin, to my attention and asking if I’d ever heard of him.

No, I had not.

Now I have, and I regret it greatly. He’s a conspiracy theorist who is a fan of Jordan Peterson, thinks we never landed on the moon, that the arguments for a flat earth are reasonable, and that evolution is false. Watch this excerpt in which he brags incessantly about his high IQ, greater than that of any scientist, and then bumbles about claiming that macroevolution couldn’t have happened.

Warning: this video brings on an “expert” to debunk him, and that “expert” is Jean-François Gariépy, a lousy fascist/racist white-ethnostate crusader who doesn’t understand evolution, either. It’s generally a hot mess of ugly.

I had to resocket my jaw after watching that, so I figure it’s only fair that I inflict him on everyone else, too. Jeez, but YouTube is a hothouse for growing the worst people on Earth.

David Klinghoffer thinks Science had to gang up on Behe

For even more fun, David Klinghoffer has written his own criticism of the Science review. His take is even more petty and ridiculous: he thinks science is having a panic attack over the book, because they got three scientists to write the review.

So here we have Science, the most prestigious technical science journal published in the United States, getting out ahead of the release of Darwin Devolves, recruiting a National Academy of Sciences member and two lesser scientists, the latter known primarily for their critiques of intelligent design (Swamidass) or complaints about the “poor design” of the human body (Lents).

Lesser scientists? What does that make Behe?

I guarantee you that Lenski does not think of his colleagues as lesser, and that the Science editors did not recruit a group to triple-team Behe because he’s so darned scary and tough. It’s much more likely that a trio of colleagues were discussing the book, and each contributed cogent criticisms, so they got equal billing in the write-up. That’s how real science works, when it works well — collaborative groups contributing to the work.

Behe might not be aware of this because he’s been ostracized by real scientists, and he only bounces ideas off fellow ideologues at the Discovery Institute, who tend to get horny over anything critical of evolution, no matter how ridiculous. The collaborative nature of science might be difficult for the DI pundits to comprehend.

Oh, and even us lesser scientists are quite capable of seeing how bad Behe’s arguments have always been.

Michael Behe declares victory after being stomped flat

Behe is crowing over the Science review of his new book. The man is deeply delusional.

…the overwhelmingly important point to notice right up front is that the reviewers (Lenski plus Josh Swamidass over at Peaceful Science and John Jay College biologist Nathan Lents) have absolutely no response to the very central argument of the book. The argument that I summarized as an epigraph on the first page of the book so no one could miss it. The one that I included in the title of a 2010 Quarterly Review of Biology article upon which the book is based. The one for which I chose the most in-your-face moniker that I could think of (consistent with the professional literature) to goad a response: The First Rule of Adaptive Evolution: Break or blunt any gene whose loss would increase the number of offspring. The rule summarizes the fact that the overwhelming tendency of random mutation is to degrade genes, and that very often is helpful. Thus natural selection itself acts as a powerful de-volutionary force, increasing helpful broken and degraded genes in the population.
And they had no response! That’s because there is in fact nothing that can alleviate that fatal flaw in Darwinism.

So the central claim of his book is that sometimes, gene loss can be adaptive, something that no competent evolutionary biologist would consider a remarkable claim. Of course, they would disagree with his implication that that is the only process allowed or that no mutation could increase complexity or that novel functions can not increase the fitness of an individual. Contrary to Behe’s laughable claim that Lents, Swamidass, and Lenski had no response to his central tenet, they did: they pointed out that he ignores the various ways evolution proceeds (it’s not just by “breaking” genes), and that he runs away from the evidence of clear examples of mutations that increase complexity.

Behe is skeptical that gene duplication followed by random mutation and selection can contribute to evolutionary innovation. Yet there is overwhelming evidence that this underlies trichromatic vision in primates, olfaction in mammals, and developmental innovations in all metazoans through the diversification of HOX genes. And in 2012, Andersson et al. showed that new functions can rapidly evolve in a suitable environment. Behe acknowledges none of these studies, declaring an absence of evidence for the role of duplications in innovation.

Because they politely pointed out instances where his First Rule of Adaptive Evolution falls flat on its face without explicitly saying it’s wrong by name, Behe thinks they didn’t respond to it — I guess he needs it said literally. So here, I’ll help, I’m not very polite. Behe’s First Rule of Adaptive Evolution is stupid and wrong, isn’t a real rule, and we have multiple examples that refute it, which Behe doesn’t comprehend, because he’s an ignoramus about evolution.

Behe…yeah, he’s over and done with

When Michael Behe published Darwin’s Black Box, there was a loud “Huzzah!” from the creationists — they had new buzzwords, like “irreducible complexity”, for the first time in 50 years, and they had a scientist with a legitimate Ph.D. to cite as an authority claiming evolution couldn’t happen. The “science” was crap, but it was a strong rhetorical play, and we had to respond vigorously to it. It was garbage, but all the back-and-forth enhanced Behe’s reputation. I read it thoroughly and contributed to online discussions about the fallacies in it.

Then he came out with a second book, The Edge of Creation, and the creationists all went “huzzah?”, because there was nothing new in it, no spark of rhetorical flourish they could use in debates, but there was an implication that caused them worries. Behe was claiming you could see the hand of the Designer in ongoing processes, and that It was actively engineering diseases and parasites to kill us right now. Whoops. It was still garbage, but it didn’t trigger a surge of creationist activity that needed refutation. I skimmed it, threw it aside, ignored it.

Now he has a third book, Darwin Devolves, where he returns to the same old stagnant, tainted well and says the same old things, and it’s only going to inspire the die-hard Behe fanchildren, and isn’t going to challenge any scientists at all. I’m not going to pick up a copy. Not going to read it. Not going to critique it. Everything has already been said, he has nothing new that we need to refute, and he’s nothing but yet another crackpot…just one who has a tenured position at a legitimate university, even if he is something of a pariah to his colleagues.

But because he got creationists excited 20 years ago, someone had to suffer through his book for Science magazine, and the sacrificial victims are Nathan Lents, Joshua Swamidass, and Richard Lenski, who write that a biochemist’s crusade to overturn evolution misrepresents theory and ignores evidence.

Behe is skeptical that gene duplication followed by random mutation and selection can contribute to evolutionary innovation. Yet there is overwhelming evidence that this underlies trichromatic vision in primates, olfaction in mammals, and developmental innovations in all metazoans through the diversification of HOX genes. And in 2012, Andersson et al. showed that new functions can rapidly evolve in a suitable environment. Behe acknowledges none of these studies, declaring an absence of evidence for the role of duplications in innovation.

Behe asserts that new functions only arise through “purposeful design” of new genetic information, a claim that cannot be tested. By contrast, modern evolutionary theory provides a coherent set of processes—mutation, recombination, drift, and selection—that can be observed in the laboratory and modeled mathematically and are consistent with the fossil record and comparative genomics.

Deja vu, man. These are exactly the complaints everyone made about Darwin’s Black Box: he didn’t seem to understand modern evolutionary theory, he ignored the multiple mechanisms of evolutionary change, he blithely pretended the evidence against his thesis didn’t exist, and he just sailed on, smug in his ignorance. Nothing has changed. His formula is the same. The same counter-arguments still apply.

Let’s all just ignore this rehash, OK?

The rifts were widening everywhere

How interesting — Arun reports that the history of atheism in India was pretty much like it was here. A surge of interest sparked by The God Delusion (say what you want about Dawkins, that was an influential book), with an emergent split as one group saw social justice as an essential component of the movement, while another group “expressed abhorrence to the word feminism and propagated the myth that women are inherently irrational”, leading to a current divided movement.

I suspect it’s a reflection of a fault line that was there all along, and not at all unique to atheism. All you have to do is look at the American electorate and see a division that is somewhat independent of religious ideas.

The New Atheism gets another bashing

Last week, I posted about my deep regrets at ever being involved with New Atheism, and oh boy, have I been getting the hate mail. The most amusing thing was seeing an atheist facebook group filling up with complaints about how awful I am, and simultaneously whining that they never heard of this New Atheism thing, what four horsemen, and hey, wasn’t that just some nasty slur the theists threw at us? Memories are so short, and so easily diverted into safe and easy denial.

But I am not alone in my rejection of the Old Guard. The Guardian is asking “Whatever happened to New Atheism?” as if we didn’t know. I’ll tell you what happened: it foundered on the egos of its leaders, and their desire to steer it onto the shoals of misogyny, racism, and war. Hmm…maybe the “Four Horsemen” were appropriately named after all.

The article tears into the Four Horsemen, but especially into Harris (Hitchens was spared the worst of it by dying, I would guess).

The intellectual path followed by Harris is most balefully illustrative of the poisonous seeds that were always present in New Atheism. At one point here, the men admire themselves for their willingness to consider truths that might be politically dangerous. For instance, Hitchens says, if the notorious hypothesis of the 1994 book by Richard J Herrnstein and Charles Murray, The Bell Curve – that black people are genetically inferior in intelligence to white people – were true, it shouldn’t be ignored. Luckily, Hitchens hastens to add, that example is not viable. Later on, however, Harris brings up the argument again. “If there were reliable differences in intelligence between races or genders,” he begins, before Hitchens cuts him off dismissively. “But I don’t think any of us here do think that that’s the case.”

Hitchens might have been too generous. In 2018, Harris caused a storm by inviting Murray on to his podcast for a weirdly uncritical two-hour conversation. Murray, Harris claimed, had been the victim of a terrible “academic injustice” for the way in which his notions about the inherent cognitive inferiority of some “races” had been rejected by the scientific establishment. (Lest you worry about Murray, be reassured that he is still a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, which is funded by the ultra-conservative billionaire Koch brothers.)

This is where the preeningly fearless insistence on entertaining uncomfortable questions can so easily lead. Harris ended up in the company of the “alt-right” and the so-called “intellectual dark web”, populated by people who portray themselves as valiant enough to say what you’re not allowed to say any more, and are constantly invited on rightwing talk shows to say it. For some, New Atheism was never about God at all, but just a topical subgenre of the rightwing backlash against the supposedly suffocating atmosphere of “political correctness”. In its messianic conviction that it alone serves the cause of truth, this too is a faith as noxious as any other.

This was the gigantic strategic error of the New Atheism. The time was right to make a strong appeal to humanist values and grow a movement around basic decency and fairness, and instead, the most influential voices decided to draw on the nascent alt-right and get rich quick off regressive values — they aimed the ship of atheism straight into the Trumpkin swamp, a mob of people who are explicitly anti-anti-religious, and now all they can do to maintain some popularity is to double-down on the ignorance and racism and sexism that that group likes. Reason and rationality have been turned into empty buzzwords. It’s a real shame.

Inference: Dracula is a creationist and climate change denialist

When this new online “science” journal, Inference, came out, no one was fooled. The first issue featured an article by the notorious crank creationist, Michael Denton, so it wasn’t as if it wasn’t obvious. Jeffrey Shallit wrote the first expose, I think, noticing that the grubby fingerprints of David Berlinski were all over it. Ho hum, yet another attempt by creationists to create a pet journal, to feed the illusion that they’re actually doing credible, peer-reviewed work. But then another mystery has arisen: where is all their money coming from?

When Inference first approached me, the offer was appealing: up to $4,000 for a 4,000- to 6,000-word essay. According to their website, the Nobel-Prize-winning physicist Sheldon Glashow was on the editorial staff, which—as a physicist myself and a fan of Glashow’s work—was almost enough for me to accept on the spot. But a declaration in italics on their masthead gave me pause: “We have no ideological, political, or religious agendas whatsoever.” This struck me as unusual over-emphasis, so I did a little digging and came across a 2014 blog post by the computer scientist Jeffrey Shallit, where he muses on the first issue of this new “science” publication, adding: “the weirdness is strong—very strong—with this one.”

When someone claims they have “no ideological, political, or religious agendas whatsoever”, they’re lying. What they’re really claiming is that their biases aren’t biases at all, which is a real danger, because it means they aren’t thinking and challenging their own assumptions.

But wow. That’s some nice pocket change for an article — I am so used to just writing stuff for free. That adds up over multiple issues with multiple articles, and it isn’t funded by ads, so there has to be a pipeline somewhere that’s pouring cash into the enterprise. This article did some digging and found out who: it’s Peter Thiel.

Those tax returns reveal that Inference’s entire operating budget came from $1.7 million in donations during its first three years (through August 2017, the latest reports available). These donations came from a single donor: Auzen LLC. Looking at corporate tax reports and other registration documents, it’s unclear whether Auzen LLC and another entity, Auzen Corporation, are involved in activities other than funding Inference. But those documents make it clear that Auzen LLC and Auzen Corporation are run by the same people — and they also state that the sole director of Auzen Corporation is Peter Thiel.

Ah, another billionaire poisoning the world. “No ideological, political, or religious agendas whatsoever”…bullshit. He’s a libertarian wanna-be vampire and climate change denier who loves Donald Trump and thinks letting women vote was a bad idea. His agenda is devious but transparent.

Not all of Inference‘s articles are junk science. About 90 percent of the articles in the publication appear to be accurate, written by genuine scientists and science writers—at least several of whom weren’t aware of the publication’s record on evolution or climate change, or the source of its funding.

But whatever Inference’s actual intentions, one thing is clear: The inclusion of demonstrably pseudoscientific writing alongside the work of highly regarded researchers puts the two on equal footing—a false equivalence that gives creationism and climate denial an air of legitimacy that is not only unwarranted, but misleading to readers. Add in the fact that the enterprise is apparently funded by a billionaire with close ties to President Donald J. Trump—whose administration has a clear history of attacking and undermining science—and there seems ample reason to question just what it is that Inference and its backer are hoping to accomplish.

Note to self: When the revolution comes, make sure some of the people storming the citadel of malignant capitalism are carrying wooden stakes. Also, do it during the day so Thiel can’t flap away.