That’s an unimpeachable authority

Creationists often bring up Piltdown Man* as an example of an evolutionary fraud, and claim that it was the foundation of huge volumes of research. It was a fraud, and it did linger unpleasantly in the scientific literature for far too long, but you’d be hard pressed to find a serious work of science that used it any more. Until now. That genius of the modern era, L. Ron Hubbard, cited Piltdown in Scientology: A History of Man.

*By the way, if you haven’t been reading Richard Harter’s World, you should. It’s a sort of antediluvian blog, with none of the conventions we’ve grown accustomed to, but it’s an amazing pile of entertaining and random oddities…including the Piltdown information, monthly joke collections, bits of math and poetry. It’ll keep you busy for days, at least—the archives go back to 1996.

Follow the links round and round

As long as we’re dealing with rebuttals to criticism, Joe Carter has reacted to my previous rejection of his incoherent complaints. Don’t bother reading Carter, though, who is babbling and whining as usual…instead, just read this rebuttal to the rebuttal of my criticisms. Even if it is from a Christian (or especially since it is from a Christian, depending on the flavor of your biases).

Po-mo pro and con

My complaints about that post-modernist screed against evidence-based medicine have elicited some responses.

First up is a Calvinist post-modernist who defends the work by mischaracterizing the criticisms of various bloggers, including me, as:

“Chuckle, chuckle… stupid postmodernists… Sokal… grain of truth surrounded by words I don’t understand… chuckle, chuckle… ridiculous… stupid postmodernists… QED.”

Umm, no. I don’t see that in any of the posts about it. In my own, I said that the accusations of fascism were over the top, that I had read it and found it full of jargon (that does not mean I didn’t understand it), and my primary complaint was that despite making a plea for alternative ways of understanding medicine than evidence-based models, the paper did not propose any positive arguments for any specific alternative. It’s intellectually empty.

Just like our po-mo Calvinist’s complaints. He’s a creationist, so I guess it’s just an ingrained reflex to immediately raise a straw man and start flailing at it.

Much more satisfying, even if he does open the article by damning me (that’s so redundant, anyway), is Orac’s scourging. Call it the Passion of the Post-Modernist—watch that whip fly, see the gobbets of flesh splatter, observe the beads of oily sweat on Orac’s muscular arms as he wields the cat pitilessly. In other words, you might not want to look if you’re at all squeamish.

I’m in the right lane, headed for work


Less than two weeks until classes begin again, and it’s time to juggle syllabi, attend meetings and workshops, and scoot the kids off to school. I’m making another airport run tomorrow to pick up Skatje, whose vacation is ending. Next week, I get to deposit Connlann back in Madison (I didn’t do the traditional knife fight last year, but I like Bérubé’s idea of just booting him out the car door during a rolling stop—could I catch up on tradition if I then throw a bunch of knives after him?) This week I’ve got a division meeting, various campus-wide events, and next week it’s the faculty retreat.

And then, classes. I’m teaching part of our introductory biology course again (syllabus is done, my lectures are all ready to go for that one, and developmental biology…which would be ready to go, except that I added a new supplemental book to the course this year, and need to work up how that’s going to be integrated into the lectures. It’s Endless Forms Most Beautiful (amzn/b&n/abe/pwll), by the way—I think it’s going to fit in perfectly.

Krauss on Kansas

Although I do think Lawrence Krauss’s op-ed in today’s NY Times, How to Make Sure Children Are Scientifically Illiterate, is a good, strong piece of work, it doesn’t go quite far enough. He’s specifically targeting a couple of the Kansas state school board members for ridicule. First he slams Steve Abrams:

The chairman of the school board, Dr. Steve Abrams, a veterinarian, is not merely a strict creationist. He has openly stated that he believes that God created the universe 6,500 years ago, although he was quoted in The New York Times this month as saying that his personal faith “doesn’t have anything to do with science.”

Then he takes on John Bacon:

Another member of the board, who unfortunately survived a primary challenge, is John Bacon. In spite of his name, Mr. Bacon is no friend of science. In a 1999 debate about the removal of evolution and the Big Bang from science standards, Mr. Bacon said he was baffled about the objections of scientists. “I can’t understand what they’re squealing about,” he is quoted as saying. “I wasn’t here, and neither were they.”

And then he explains how science works, and that their complaints are fallacious.

However, he also waffles and misses the major lesson of the problem of creationism. Abrams and Bacon are advancing these complaints about evolution for religious reasons, but Krauss backs away from that battle.

I have recently been criticized by some for strenuously objecting in print to what I believe are scientifically inappropriate attempts by some scientists to discredit the religious faith of others. However, the age of the earth, and the universe, is no more a matter of religious faith than is the question of whether or not the earth is flat.

Ah, you see, when it’s a matter of physics and astronomy, the professor of physics and astronomy resolves the problem of conflict with faith by declaring his domain to be a non-religious question, and therefore those who argue otherwise are not doing so out of faith, but out of ignorance. That’s fine, I agree, but I also think the whole of our understanding of the natural world is completely outside the purview of religion—they have an ugly history of always getting it wrong, you know—and that clearly the root cause of Abrams’ and Bacon’s ignorance is their faith. And that’s an observation he’d like to hide away, because it knocks his conclusion all cockeyed.

But when we win minor skirmishes, as we did in Kansas, we must remember that the issue is far deeper than this. We must hold our elected school officials to certain basic standards of knowledge about the world. The battle is not against faith, but against ignorance.

I will remind you all that the title of Krauss’s piece is “How to Make Sure Children Are Scientifically Illiterate.” He’s right that one way is to elect school board officials who are raving ignoramuses who advocate the insertion of nonsense into public school curricula. But he’s missing an even more pernicious and common way to make children scientifically illiterate: raise them in a household that values faith above reason. He’s choosing to fight the symptom rather than the disease, and I think his approach is doomed to ineffectuality.

So this is news?

This is absolutely no surprise: a newspaper article reports that church-based scams are costing the country big bucks.

Between 1984 and 1989, about $450 million was stolen in religion-related scams, the association says. In its latest count — from 1998 to 2001 — the toll had risen to $2 billion. Rip-offs have only become more common since.

Small potatoes. They’re only counting rip-offs like Ponzi schemes and other non-religious con games. I’m sure that what people willingly toss into collection plates adds up to a far larger act of wholesale robbery; a clerical collar is just a genteel swindler’s uniform.


Here’s an interesting leak, if true. Someone (“Yellow Rose”, or YR) is a mole within a religious group trying to subvert the Wikipedia:

YR gathered intell on a baker’s dozen fundamentalist techno-geeks, resembling a cult within a cult, who have become Wikipedians. Lacking a Y chromosome and being thus subordinated to menial church chores, she could not herself get closer than the loneliest of the 13 guys, but the Pentecostal sexual prohibitions at least afforded her the ability to avoid sacrifices espionage agents often have to make. YR emphasizes that their names mean nothing, and their ages mean less, and that the country they come from is called Texas. They were brought up there and taught there the church to abide, and that the worldview they live, by has God on its side. Empowered by God, and led by a charismatic, MIT, computer science sophomore (who also plays lead guitar in a Christian rock band), this squad-size cohort of Christian soldiers is chipping away at Wikiscience, in subject areas entirely predictable. Clever they are too, in taking advantage of Wikiethics, specifically NPOV (i.e., Neutral Point of View), where all views must be represented, even if demonstrably incorrect; any fundamentalist worth his salt can drive a truck threw such a loop hole, and they have begun doing so. Intelligent design and biblical floods are being commingled with Darwin and DNA. The process is so far more apparent on the discussion pages than on actual pages, where God’s soldiers employ a Pentecostal version of good cop, bad cop. The bad cop is an apparent Christian trying to interject religion where science contradicts his worldview, and the good cop(s) is disguised as an atheist lending support by invoking the NPOV rule.

This wouldn’t be at all surprising. Creationists really aren’t necessarily stupid—just wrong, deluded, and dedicated to advocating a stupid point of view.

I’m safe from all temptation here in Minnesota


On this day 172 years ago, Richard Dana set sail. About 35 years ago, I discovered Two Years Before the Mast in my local library, and it turned me into a sea story junkie. I read Forester and Sabatini and Melville (of course!)—fortunately, Melville got me more interested in the biology of those creatures that lived in the sea, so I didn’t stow away in the next brigantine that docked in the Seattle harbor.

Two Years Before the Mast is still a great read, but the romance of the sea is sure buried deep beneath the appalling misery and social injustice—the tales of flogging and sudden accidental death are grim—but still…

Notwithstanding all that has been said about the beauty of a ship under full sail, there are very few who have ever seen a ship, literally, under all her sail. A ship coming in or going out of port, with her ordinary sails, and perhaps two of three studding-sails, is commonly said to be under full sail; but a ship never has all her sail upon her, except when she has a light, steady breeze, very nearly, but not quite, dead aft, and so regular that it can be trusted, and is likely to last for some time. Then, with all her sails, light and heavy, and studding-sails, on each side, alow and aloft, she is the most glorious moving object in the world. Such a sight, very few, even some who have been at sea a great deal, have ever beheld; for from the deck of your own vessel you cannot see her, as you would a separate object.

One night, while we were in these tropics, I went out to the end of the flying-jib-boom, upon some duty, and, having finished it, turned round, and lay over the boom for a long time, admiring the beauty of the sight before me. Being so far out from the deck, I could look at the ship, as at a separate vessel;-and there rose up from the water, supported only by the small black hull, a pyramid of canvas, spreading out far beyond the hull, and towering up almost, as it seemed in the indistinct night air, to the clouds. The sea was as still as an inland lake; the light trade-wind was gently and steadily breathing from astern; the dark blue sky was studded with the tropical stars; there was no sound but the rippling of the water under the stem; and the sails were spread out, wide and high;-the two lower studding-sails stretching, on each side, far beyond the deck; the topmast studding-sails, like wings to the topsails; the top-gallant studding-sails spreading fearlessly out above them; still higher, the two royal studding-sails, looking like two kites flying from the same string; and, highest of all, the little skysail, the apex of the pyramid, seeming actually to touch the stars, and to be out of reach of human hand. So quiet, too, was the sea, and so steady the breeze, that if these sails had been sculptured marble, they could not have been more motionless. Not a ripple upon the surface of the canvas; not even a quivering of the extreme edges of the sail-so perfectly were they distended by the breeze. I was so lost in the sight, that I forgot the presence of the man who came out with me, until he said, (for he, too, rough old man-of-war’s-man as he was, had been gazing at the show,) half to himself, still looking at the marble sails-“How quietly they do their work!”