Aliens among us

I simply do not understand some people’s attitudes towards sex. I’m a fairly conservative guy in that department, I thought, happily involved in a long term and conventional relationship, but these stories I’m hearing about the new breed of American puritanism are simply incomprehensible to me. This Kansas law to criminalize consensual amorous activities between teenagers sounds so freakily Talibanish to me.

While Kansas is one of 12 states in which sex under a certain age—16, 17, or 18—is always presumed illegal, regardless of consent or the age difference between the partners, Kline’s written interpretation of Kansas’ reporting law makes it the only state requiring that doctors, nurses, counselors, and all other care providers report—as abuse—any sexual interaction between teens under 16. Failure to report is a misdemeanor. Under Kline’s view, professionals must report even when the sex is consensual, committed with partners their age, and where there is no suspicion of injury. The plaintiffs who filed suit—a group of doctors, nurses, and counselors—contend that under Kline’s policy, even evidence of teen necking must be reported.

Then there’s this weird new commenter on this site: start here and read down, looking for comments by “B”. He has the most convoluted rationale for opposing any kind of contraception that I’ve ever heard. Apparently, you’re only supposed to have sex if there is some chance, no matter how remote, of the woman getting pregnant. You can reduce the odds by ‘natural’ methods, but there always has to be this lingering possibility…it’s sex as Russian roulette. It’s not worth doing unless there’s a round in one chamber.

I AM saying that people should always have sex that provides for the possibility of new life. Using artificial contraception removes that possibility. Therefore the act becomes solely for pleasure. Using someone to merely satisfy your own means is wrong. It’s so wrong, in fact, that people don’t even need to be told that it’s wrong.

That’s completely backwards. People having a good time together is perfectly normal and natural, and you have to be indoctrinated into believing it is wrong.

Here, for instance, is a perfect example of an irrationally warped attitude.

…harming yourself and your loved one by using artificial contraception to avoid said pregnancy is not healthy.

I think Mr B really needs to move to Kansas, unless he’s already there.

Curtsinger on creationism

Kristine Harley attended James Curtsinger‘s lecture at UMTC last night, and passed along an abbreviated copy of her notes. I wish I could have gone—it sounds like it was an informative evening—but living out here in the wilderness, I have to plan those long drives into the Big City with some care.

Curtsinger’s talk was only very loosely organized around the theme of “ten things,” and was mostly a comprehensive overview of the various forms of creationism from Archbishop Ussher (1581-1656) to Michael Behe’s embarrassing performance at the Dover trial. I would say that there were around 20-25 people in attendance, most of them members of the organization and U of M students (unlike me, an alumna). He covered a great deal of historical ground that will be familiar to those of us who know the history of American creationism, which he admitted was, for him, “oddly stimulating, like Victorian pornography.”

He first made the distinction between “young earth” and “old earth” creationists, and described Ussher’s backdating of the earth to 4004 BCE. To the surprise of many in the audience, he mentioned that William Jennings Bryan was actually not a young earth creationist. However, Young-Earth Creationism experience a resurgence in the 1960s with the help of Henry Morris and Duane Gish, men of some learning who came up with the theory of the biblical Flood causing fossils to be deposited through a combination of hydrologic sorting (marine invertebrates that lived in the lower elevations ended up in the lower strata, etc.), differential escape (human fossils were found last because they ran uphill to escape the floodwaters, etc.), and ecological zonation. He went on to describe the various problems with this theory.

He went through the Arkansas “Balanced Treatment Act” of 1981 and the Louisiana Creatonism Act of 1981, both of which were struck down, and the latter appealed to the Supreme Court where it was ruled unconstitutional. He went on to summarize the history of Intelligent Design and the most prominent personalities in the movement (Johnson, Dembski, Behe) as well as Dr. Dean Kenyon and Dr. Chris Macosko, their biographies, their arguments, and the problems with their conclusions.

Curtsinger stated that the real battleground for adequate science instruction in the United States is in the public high schools for one really good reason—the parents of the children who attend these schools have real influence over the curriculum. Curtsinger noted with alarm that, by the time a student has reached the sophomore level in college, his or her beliefs about evolution have been solidified, so that it is imperative that evolution is taught, and taught properly, in our nation’s high schools. While Curtsinger is not opposed to students exploring their own beliefs and values, and asking questions about creationism in a social or historical context even in high school, he notes that 20% of Minnesota public high school biology teachers teach creationism as science, which is illegal.

His most controversial point, that “Evangelical atheists make the problem worse,” was heard with a great deal of openness and even sympathy from this group and from me. I was initially troubled when I read this statement in the online calendar, but came away willing to accede his position. Curtsinger expressed himself well on this point. He noted that this was a very personal concern for him. I do not have the expertise to agree or dispute his assertion that Richard Dawkins “was never a particularly important scientist,” but I cannot disagree that Dawkins is “an aggressive atheist” who does “hit people over the head” with his disgust for religious superstition (how should I deny this when I admire Dawkins for it?).

Curtsinger called Richard Lewontin “a friend of mine, and a very important scientist” who nevertheless has stated (according to Curtsinger) that, “The purpose of science is to eliminate God from human consciousness.” Well, yes—naturally I don’t agree that that is the purpose of science, no matter how much I wish it would happen. Science is not about “Truth” with a capital “t” as is so often proclaimed by troubled deists and other philosophical romantics, so therefore it is not about “disproving God” either, although I certainly think that the methodical accounting for phenomena renders supernaturalist claims more and more dubious. Of course such a statement by Lewontin would “provide ammunition for Johnson,” and for people like him and the Discovery Institute. The group in attendance were, naturally, most if not all atheists, and I do not agree that if atheists disappeared from the earth tomorrow the creationists would likewise go out of business (far from it!) but I took Curtsinger’s point to mean, “Don’t make enemies unnecessarily.” Point taken. There are theists out there who accept the reality of evolution.

Curtsinger wrapped up with a summary on why universities are not generally in a good position to help on the issue. Professors are rewarded for the research, for which they spend a good 50% of their time, and for their teaching, which accounts for 40%, leaving a whopping 10% left for outreach—however one wants to go about doing that. Most science faculty pay little or no attention to creationism, anyway, allowing the problem to fester. What is needed are scientists working together with high school educators and with concerned citizens—atheists and theists alike.

Curtsinger wrapped up with a dig at Pat Robertson’s “God will smite thee” quote, and encouraged everyone to check out H.L. Mencken’s obituary for William Jennings Bryan to see how well it fits Robertson. Curtsinger also stated that he was, with Ed Hessler of Hamline University and Judy Boudreau of Minnetonka, forming the Minnesota Citizens for Science Education. He received a lot of applause and there was a good Q-and-A afterward. I spoke with Curtsinger afterward about our volunteer programs at the museum, in which we partner with the Minneapolis Public Schools to have trained facilitators visit the classroom and lead discussions that employ and teach critical thinking. These programs are arts-based, but I asked Curtsinger if it would be beneficial for universities to have similar volunteers make high school classroom visits to facilitate discussions with the students about science, stereotypes, evolution, and other subjects. Curtsinger seemed very enthusiastic about the idea and I left my contact information with him.

I think the most important point there is that the problem sets in long before the students get to college, and where we need to take action is with public school teachers and parents. I’m glad to hear that there is a science education advocacy group forming, and those three will be excellent people to lead it.

Chickens, roads, crossing thereof

If you can only read one thing today, make it Skeptico’s answers to Why did the chicken cross the road?

It’s dead-on funny—read the hypothetical answers from all the skeptics and loons like John Edward and O’Reilly and Icke and many others, which are just perfect—I’m stealing Behe’s answer!

A chicken crossing a road has:



a road

the other side

If any one of those irreducibly complex parts is missing the chicken will be unable to cross the road, so if it looks, walks (across roads) and clucks like a chicken, then, absent compelling evidence to the contrary, it’s an intelligently designed chicken. Its legs are molecular machines, literally outboard motors. Look at Mount Rushmore…

And then he takes it up a notch and starts poking fun at his fellow skeptical bloggers. Fantastic!

Did Watterson ever do squid?

Here’s a spiffy picture.


It’s almost ruined for me by the artist’s description, though.

Here, raw sexual aggression is symbolized by the sperm whale, while the squid acts as a thinly-disguised metaphor for the multi-armed oligarchies of Rockefeller, Hearst, and Morgan. Their battle plays against the backdrop of the sea, standing in for—what else?—the vastness of the unconscious mind.

He can’t possibly be serious. It reminded me more of this:


Forget the metaphors and monopolies and minds…it’s just cooooool.

I guess Bush really didn’t mean anything

Bush didn’t really mean we were going to try and reduce our dependency on Middle East oil.

Bush didn’t really mean we were going to invest more in alternative energy research.

In this thread, I’ve got Bush apologists trying to tell me he didn’t really mean that he was going to prohibit a wide range of reproductive biotechnologies.

Now look at this analysis. Bush apparently proposed to increase the numbers of math and science teachers by 70,000 over four years. But what he actually seems to have meant was retraining 70,000 existing teachers, but without saying anything about ever paying for it.

Did he say anything in that speech that was actually true? I’m beginning to suspect that if he started by saying, “My fellow Americans…,” that it might be fruitful to check into the INS records and see if he actually is a citizen.

I am certain now that the media stuck the label “serial exaggerator” on the wrong man in the 2000 election.

The real truth about the Sasquatch

As a proud native of the great Pacific Northwest, when an article on one of our noblest creatures was mentioned to me, I had to read it. Here’s the center of the story.

In July 2005, nine residents of Teslin, Yukon,
witnessed through a kitchen window a large bipedal
animal moving through the brush. The next morning, they
collected a tuft of coarse, dark hair and also observed a
footprint measuring 43 cm in length and 11.5 cm in width.

That’s right: physical evidence, a footprint and hair, from…Bigfoot. The Sasquatch. A sample captured in the wild and brought into the lab. Pinned against the wall, trapped and unable to escape the probing appendages of an implacable, intrusive Science.

So they extracted DNA from the hair and amplified conserved mammalian sequences. They sequenced fragments of the DNA and compared them against sequences in the databases, and got a shocking answer. Prepare yourself: here is a diagram of the phylogenetic relationship of Sasquatch to other mammalian species.

Maximum parsimony tree illustrating the position of the Sasquatch hair sample. Bootstrap support values are given at the nodes. The species and GenBank accession numbers are water buffalo Bubalus bubalis*, yak Bos mutus, cow Bos taurus, wisent Bos bonasus, and
North American bison Bison bison.

The scientists squirm and try to avoid the obvious conclusions of their results, inventing foolish excuses rather than facing reality.

There are several possible explanations for these
results. First, as suggested from molecular analysis of
hair from a suspected Yeti, the Sasquatch might be a
highly elusive ungulate that exhibits surprising morphological convergence with primates
. Alternately, the hair
might have originated from a real bison and be unrelated
to the Sasquatch. Parsimony would favor the second
interpretation, in which case, the identity and taxonomy
of this enigmatic and elusive creature remains a mystery.

I wonder what Radical Sasquatch will think of this.

*Wait a minute…the scientific name for the water buffalo is Bubalus bubalis? Bubalus bubalis? No wonder they’re so mean.

Coltman D, Davis C (2006) Molecular cryptozoology meets the Sasquatch . Trends in Ecology and Evolution 21(2):60-61.