Stoopid in Stereo

March 6, 2009

Wow. How many O’s in STOOOOPID?

In Illinois, new legislation before the Senate declares Pluto a planet. Why? Because Clyde Tombaugh was born there, and they feel robbed. What’s next, Ohio declaring the moon a planet ’cause Neil Armstrong walked on it?

No, Oklahoma trying to ban Richard Dawkins. That’s right – being offended that Dawkins pushes back against creationist woo, Oklahoma legislators are trying to ban him from entering the state, because he offends “most of the citizens of Oklahoma”.

The document goes on to say “THAT the Oklahoma House of Representatives encourages the University of Oklahoma to engage in an open, dignified, and fair discussion of the Darwinian theory of evolution and all other scientific theories which is the approach that a public institution should be engaged in and which represents the desire and interest of the citizens of Oklahoma.” Of course, since there currently ARE no other scientific theories for evolution, that part of the curriculum will be very brief. Next.

Of course, with this stooopidity going on in Oklahoma and Illinois, poor Missouri is stuck right in the middle…

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Vatican leaves creationists out in the cold

March 6, 2009

The Vatican is holding a conference on science, philosophy and theology to mark the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s Origin of Species. It turns out the Vatican thinks that ID is none of these. 

http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,505385,00.html


Freedom is Good. Right?

February 23, 2009

Freedom is important. The Revolutionary and Civil Wars were fought over it. The First and Second World Wars were fought to defend it. The United States was founded with the Charters of Freedom, and Freedom of Speech is entrenched in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

So freedom is always a good thing, right?

Right?

No. Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom are terms that have been misused and co-opted for the purpose of inflicting unfounded revisionism on an unsuspecting public. Holocaust deniers, for example, have used the banner of freedom of speech to present outright lies as “theory”. If there were no bounds to freedom of speech and academic freedom, there would be little to prevent anti-Semitism from being taught in schools by those with an ideological agenda.

The argument is often made that we should “teach both sides of the issue, and let people decide for themselves”. This seems like a reasonable suggestion. But face it, some people do not have the tools to “decide for themselves” what is historical fact and what is fiction. School children, in particular, soak up facts like sponges, and have a strong tendency to accept what is taught by their teachers as fact, as it carries the weight of authority. In addition, information that is learned is difficult to unlearn, even if it is wrong. It’s human nature, I’m afraid.

Imagine if the following were accepted into the school curriculum:

  • Claims have been made that the Holocaust did not occur, and it is all a conspiracy. Let’s teach both sides of the issue, and let the students decide.
  • Many historians believe that Jesus, Moses, and other biblical characters are either completely fictitious, or composites of many individuals. Let’s teach both sides of the issue, and let the students decide.
  • The Flat Earth Society has presented theories and evidence to prove a flat earth. Let’s teach both sides of the issue, and let the students decide.
  • Young Earthers claim the Earth is only 6,000 years old, because of the biblical genealogical dating methods of Archbishop Usher in 1654, despite historical records of civilizations older than that, let alone a mass of geological and astronomical data. Let’s teach both sides of the issue, and let the students decide.
  • Fox aired a special in 2001 claiming the moon landings were a hoax, and that we couldn’t possibly have made the voyage. Let’s teach both sides of the issue, and let the students decide.
  • A large number of people daily check their horoscopes, because they believe that the position of the planets in the sky at the time of their birth has an impact on their fate that can be used to predict events. Let’s teach both sides of the issue, and let the students decide.
  • Many people are under the impression that evolution is a whimsical and dangerous notion with no supporting evidence or basis in science. Let’s teach both sides of the issue, and let the students decide.

In fact, for just about anything you can find crackpot ideas that someone has espoused. Which of these do we spend time examining? Do we spend any time examining them at all? How do we know which to believe? The answer, remarkably, is simple. Ask an expert. For information on the Earth, ask a geologist. For information about history, ask a historian. For information about biology, ask a biologist. For information about the universe, ask an astronomer. The validity of ideas presented by these people can be usually ascertained by the number of peer-reviewed articles they have published, and by the number of references their articles receive.

You don’t consult your baker when you slip a disk in your back. You don’t consult your vet when you want to know which wild mushrooms are edible. So why would you trust a spin doctor or religious ideologue to tell you about biological processes or the history of life on this planet? The simple – but unpleasant – answer is that people will tend to listen to other people who share the same beliefs. Existing beliefs are reinforced, and nothing new is learned.

The current push for “Academic Freedom” is a smokescreen. It sounds like a good thing, because freedom is ingrained in our culture as a Good Thing. However, the entire purpose of the recent “Academic Freedom” bills is not to present alternate legitimate ideas, but to inject principles of creationism into the curriculum. Under the guise of “freedom”, misinformation is foist upon unsuspecting students, who then accept this misinformation as fact, because it is presented by an authority figure. This is an extremely dangerous path.

Those who promote this type of “freedom” ask us to think critically. Think on this – evolution is singled out for exposing students to “alternate views”, but the only “alternate views” are unsupported creationist ideas, masquerading as science, put forward by people masquerading as scientists. Using your powers of critical thinking, would you consider this type of “freedom” to be a good thing?

Me neither.

 


Thought of the day – Oberg’s Maxim.

February 11, 2009

“It’s good to have an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out.”

James Oberg

At least, I think it is attributable to Oberg. As an exercise in hunting down primary sources, you can read the whole tale here.


Fact or Friction

November 27, 2008

Recently, I found myself in a discussion of the contributions of various scientists, and  Darwin’s contribution to evolutionary thought. As is often the case when evolution is discussed, there was some dissent. Although the dissenter did not espouse creationist views, he kept saying that evolution was not fact, but dogma.

Sigh.

Since this was a civil discussion, I carefully explained about the process of evolution versus the fossil record. He persisted with evolution being dogma, not fact. He went as far as to say that since no one has witnessed “evolution” (by which he actually meant macroevolution), it was only speculation – one possible explanation. I drew upon lessons, analogies, comparisons, and everything else I could think of. I wouldn’t have, and perhaps shouldn’t have, but he seemed so otherwise reasonable. But he persisted. And so, I would like to make my case once and for all, so I can refer back to it as necessary…

Let me begin by defining the term “fact”. I will not attempt to reinvent the wheel, but will instead cite Wikipedia:

Generally, a fact is defined as something that is true, something that actually exists, or something having objective reality that can be verified according to an established standard of evaluation. There is a range of other uses, depending on the context. For example, fact may be argued under authority of a specific pedagogy, such as scientific facts or historical facts. Rhetorical assertion of fact is often forwarded without an implied or express basis of authority. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fact)

From Merriam-Webster (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/fact):

1: a thing done: as a obsolete : feat b: crime <accessory after the fact> c archaic : action
2 archaic : performance , doing
3: the quality of being actual : actuality <a question of fact hinges on evidence>
4 a: something that has actual existence <space exploration is now a fact> b: an actual occurrence <prove the fact of damage>
5: a piece of information presented as having objective reality

And for the sake of argument, here is the definition of dogma:

Dogma is the established belief or doctrine held by a religion, ideology or any kind of organization, thought to be authoritative and not to be disputed, doubted or diverged from. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dogma)

And from Merriam-Webster:

1 a: something held as an established opinion ; especially : a definite authoritative tenet b: a code of such tenets <pedagogical dogma> c: a point of view or tenet put forth as authoritative without adequate grounds
2: a doctrine or body of doctrines concerning faith or morals formally stated and authoritatively proclaimed by a church
(http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/dogma)

From these four definitions, I can but conclude that by “dogma”, what was meant was “A piece of information put forward as established belief on the basis of authority, not to be disputed, but without proper substantiation”. This is just so wrong on so many levels.

First off, let me just say that despite the many individual scientists who may be sufficiently egotistical to argue a point based on authority, science, as a whole, would collapse if individual authority were the sole basis of our understanding of the world. If you can show, reproducibly, that a tenet of science is false, that tenet will fall. Period.

Now, on to the argument.

The statement that evolution is not “fact” because no one has witnessed it implies two things; first, that things not witnessed by humans can not be proven to be factual, and indirectly that things witnessed by humans can be taken to be factual. In other words, human perception is the arbiter of factualness. Factuality. Factishness. You know what I mean. This implies that since I have seen Criss Angel hover through the air without visible support, I am in a position to assert that the laws of physics are not absolute, and do not apply to this individual.

No? Why not? Is it because Newton was such an authority that we have to believe him? No, it is because gravity is a fact. We know its behaviour from experience, and from scientific observations from the very small to galaxy clusters. Our perceptions, therefore, can be fooled into seeing things that are not factual.

It is also possible to know that things are true – factual – without ever having been witnessed. If you come across a dry riverbed, for instance, you can say with certainty that a river once ran in that riverbed, since nothing else produces that kind of mark on the land – though you did not witness the river flowing. We can say with certainty that Meteor Crater was caused by a meteor, despite a lack of witnesses. And we can say that the core of the sun is fusing hydrogen – yet no one has been there. So to say that something cannot be factual because it has not been witnessed is plainly false. We can say that an event or phenomenon is factual if we see the dircet effect, or a clear record, of that event.

The technical definition of evolution is a change in allele frequency in a population – or, more simply, change over time. There is no implied directionality (ie that evolution always produces more complex life from less complex life). The same mechanisms that drive small changes (microevolution) also drive more significant changes (macroevolution), but I will save that for a later post. This post is to argue that change over time – and significant, macroevolutionary change – can be called factual without ever having been witnessed.

The first line of evidence for the fact of evolution is the fossil record. The age of exposed rock formations can be determined to within 1% or better through radioactive decay dating methods. These dating methods are not only self-consistent, but follow from our understanding of nuclear physics. By examining sedimentary strata of different ages on a worldwide scale, we get a snapshot of the differences in the flora and fauna in different times. In some locations we have millions of years worth of almost continuous deposition exposed, and we can see progressive change in the animals and plants fossilized in these layers. Although an individual snapshot does not in itself show change, a sequence of snapshots begins to provide a framework – in this case that flora and fauna are similar, but with distinct differences – in different strata separated by time. The greater the number of samples we find, the finer the resolution of our picture of what is happening. Just as a series of individual images, if taken close together, can produce moving images on a screen that accurately reflect what has happened, so too can a good sequence of fossils accurately reflect what has happened over time. And we have museum collections full of good fossil sequences.

The second line of evidence is homology. This, in simple terms, is the recognition that shared features indicate a common shared ancestor. Just as you and a sibling may look alike, having inherited similar features from your parents, so too can features such as skeletal structures, tetrapodal body plan, arrangement of crannial nerves etc. be said to be inherited from a common ancestor. You inherit skeletal and nervous structures from your parents, as they are encoded genetically. The fact that you share those inherited traits with chimps and bats and lizards implies strongly that you share a common ancestry with those animals. More recently, DNA sequences have added weight to the homology argument, as many genes are shared among even distantly related organisms. The real strength of these lines of evidence, however, is that they corroborate the sequence of snapshots in the fossil record, and in some cases fill in the gaps even more.

Thus, I argue, we have no witnesses to a macroevolutionary event, but a mountain of evidence. It is more than fair to say that evolution, change over time in living things, meets the criteria of “something having objective reality that can be verified according to an established standard of evaluation”. Evolution is a fact – it is an actual occurence that has objective reality.