Category Archives: Science

Suggested Improvements to the UC Merced “Expanding Your Horizons” Event

This is an open letter to the Expanding Your Horizons network, and to the Women in Science and Engineering of UC Merced, in regards to the disappointing experience we had with the Expanding Your Horizons Conference for girls in junior and high school, offered at the UC Merced campus on Saturday, February 22, 2014, which was sufficiently poor that we decided to leave before the workshops had even started—even though we had pre-registered and paid for the event, and driven for an hour to arrive there, on time.

But first, I want to start by expressing my gratitude for your organizations, for the programs you offer, and for working to encourage girls and young women to enter fields in science and engineering. Women are clearly underrepresented in those fields, and I firmly support any effort made to close the gap between the current state of science engineering, and a more diverse population of scientists, engineers, and other workers in related fields.

And the fact that you are able to offer such events at the ridiculously low cost of $5 per participant (covering both a tee shirt and a lunch), is simply amazing, and I want to express my deep gratitude to your respective donors for making such a thing possible, as clearly that is not nearly sufficient to cover the costs of putting on a program such as this, and offering low entry costs makes your program accessible to girls of all income brackets.

My 7th-grade daughter, Joy, who turns 14 next week, has long been very interested in pursuing a career in entomology (bugs), or possibly a related field such as biological illustration (she is a gifted artist). Geeky, exuberant girls with a love for science and discovery tend to find today that they have trouble finding people, whether adults or peers, that can easily relate to them, or who can encourage (or even just abstain from discouraging) them in their interests and life goals, so both she and I were very excited to learn about this even taking place near to us.

Unfortunately, as I said, we found our immediate experience at the event to be so off-putting, that she elected for us to turn around and head back on the hour trek home (making some mood-restoring stops along the way). To be sure, I bear at least some responsibility for this, as some aspects of our experience would have been improved had I made a greater effort to contact your organizations to fill in some of the information gaps left by the event website and confirmation emails.

But I would definitely like to make both organizations aware of some suggestions for improvements to future program events, that I believe would have made for a much, much more positive experience for my daughter and myself. These suggestions are, ordered by our expectations of greatest improvement to students’ experience:

  • To strive harder to match participants with workshops suited to their expressed interests, or when this is not possible, to provide advance notification to that effect.
  • To be able to more quickly inform registrants who’ve received their name badges regarding what workshops they have been assigned.
  • To include better information (quantity, quality, and accuracy) about the program and its workshops and activities on the website. In particular, to more accurately describe how participants are matched to workshops, and to reflect what level of participation is permitted to young students’ parents and guardians.
  • To provide directions, signs, or maps, to the event location within the campus.
  • To better train and inform the staff about the program and its particulars, with particular stress on providing as overwhelmingly welcoming an environment as possible.

To communicate why I believe there are improvements to be made in these areas, I will give an outline of our experience.

I heard about the program through local news sources in the areas surrounding Merced. I found the local event website, but was disappointed by the fact that there were really only about three paragraphs of information about the event taking place, along with a list of topics that would be covered. I would very much have liked to find more details about subtopics covered within those broad subjects, or descriptions of what sorts of activities would be involved or included in those workshops. Ideally, bios about the workshop leaders would be nice too.

The website was not explicit about it, but seemed to me to indicate that parents/guardians could attend the workshops with their daughters (which I later learned was not the case). After further consideration of the website and the pre-registration process, I can see some signs that perhaps should have led me to suspect this, but I still feel justified in having interpreted the information on the website the way I did (further explanation some paragraphs below), and would appreciate it if your organizations would take care to be more explicit about this matter. Of course, I should also have verified my mistaken assumptions by explicitly contacting you.

When we arrived on the UC Merced campus, there were helpful signs clearly directing us where to find parking. However, there were no signs or staff within sight at the parking lot to give us any further direction as to where we should go on campus to find the event. Directions had been provided via an email link, but only to UC Merced itself, and not to any point within the campus.

So we charged into the campus for a while, deciding we were probably amongst dormitory apartments, and ended up circling back to the parking lot. At this point, we did encounter two staff members, who were stationed at the farthest point from the parking entry, and were not particularly visible from anywhere that timely arrivals were likely to be. We also would not have identified them as event staff, though they were wearing event tee shirts, as the coloring on the staff tee shirts makes it difficult to make out the design unless you are very close by.

They sent us in the right general direction, but without further signs or indicators we still got a bit lost and nearly entered an entirely different event (which turned out to be for martial arts practitioners).

When we did finally arrive at the event site, she got her name badge and a tee shirt. I had trouble determining how to pay for my own participation (as I expected to do), and they seemed to think the parent can participate, and enjoy the lunch, with just the child’s admission fee (which had been paid online). This seemed unlikely to me, so they said they’d check. But they never got back to me (probably overwhelmed with new registrant arrivals).

So I found someone else to ask, and was then informed that parents are not participants, and must leave the campus after dropping their daughter off. I replied that this contradicted what I’d understood from the website. I was then told that I could accompany her, but could not buy a lunch or tee shirt (which suited me fine).

I then wanted to determine which workshops she’d been assigned, so I could confirm that at least some portion of the day would be spent on subjects of interest to her. They could not immediately determine this information, despite the fact that color-coded dots had been placed on participants’ name badges to identify their group. They had to run and find someone with more information, who then gave them what they needed to look up which group she was in by what color she had, and determine which workshops she would participate in.

I feel it would have been much more helpful to have a large sign in the registration area, indicating which colors included which workshops—or much better, to notify pre-registered participants of their workshops as soon as this information was known.

We were dismayed to discover that none of the workshops she was assigned were in any way related to the interests she’d indicated on her pre-registration form online (Animals, Science, and Computer Science, though that last was really just in order to fill a thirmaked choice). Instead she was assigned to things related to earth mechanics, and design-and-architecture. We expressed our dissatisfaction and lack of interest in these subjects, and the cheery and somewhat dismissive response was, “well, that’s what you’re here for, to learn!”

Which is perhaps an acceptable perspective to take regarding girls who have not yet obtained an interest in science or engineering, or whose interest was still of a general nature, but is to my view, less helpful in nurturing the enthusiasm of a young girl who already has fairly solid ideas about what areas in science (specifically, and not so much engineering) she wants to pursue. We also felt it was a pretty dismissive, unwelcoming response.

To be sure, not greatly unwelcoming, but certainly not positively welcoming and encouraging. And please remember, much of the reason that organizations and events like this are necessary, is that the world is already a decidedly unwelcoming place for women in science, engineering, or technology. And as much as delivering disappointing news and the stress of dealing with hundreds of registrants (others of which must surely have had to be disappointed) is a part of handling events such as these, it seems crucial to me not only to go out of the way to avoid anything that might make a girl feel unwanted or unwelcome, or dismissed, but to strive to provide an overwhelmingly, even ridiculously, safe and welcoming haven for girls to foster their interest in technical fields.

I do not want to overstate the case, of course. While Joy did indicate later that she felt it was unfriendly, I don’t think that she felt actually unwanted or anything like that. Her decision to leave at that point was primarily due to the disconnect between the workshops to which she’d been assigned, and the science-related interests that she actually holds.

Naturally, we do completely understand that it isn’t always possible to closely match students with the interests they had indicated.However, the information we’d been given had clearly and explicitly stated that early arrival would improve the chances of getting into the desired workshops, whereas the programs had already been assigned to students well before anyone’s arrival, since they’d been marked on the students’ name badges before people could come to collect them. A more accurate description of that process would have been greatly appreciated.

And of course, given that these programs had in fact been determined ahead of time, an advance notice of her assigned program would have allowed us to make our decision on whether to participate before conducting an hour-long drive to reach the campus.

Regarding my mistaken impression that parents could participate in the program: this impression was gained mainly from the following sentence from the faqs page:

The student fee is $5 and the adult fee is $5

Now, having later re-examined the website, and finding an empty section on “adult workshops”, I suspect that this line exists because EYH may in fact have other events that do offer adult workshops, and this line is left-over from faqs used to describe such events. Further, I probably should have suspected something when, on being invited to pay for my student, I was not offered an option to pay for myself. I also later found a sentence elsewhere on the website that stated that parents that arrived too late to participate in campus tours, would be asked to sign the liability waiver and then leave the campus—that was not precisely my situation, since I had arrived before 8, but it would have hinted that parents do not participate.

It would have been quite a bit easier if the website had explicitly stated this information. The consistently repeated language on the website was that parents and guardians “do not have to” remain for the event, but there was no place that made it clear that they could not.

Again, please understand that I hold both of your organizations in high regard, and am excited about the work you are doing and have done. I understand that my situation may well be an isolated case (though I suspect that many participants and their parents experienced at least a few of the same issues, particularly in regards to lack of website information, and directions within the campus), and hope that the overall experience was a very positive one to the many other young girls who came to learn about science and technical fields. And I do hope you return to provide this excellent event again in the future, particularly if you choose to implement some of the suggested improvements that I’ve offered.

Sincere Regards,
Micah John Cowan.

Evidence for Macroevolution

On Facebook recently, my brother asked why, if “macroevolution” is real, there aren’t more variety “in between” the species that exist today. I thought the answer to that question might be worth posting here.

The context of the question, was as comments to a tweet in which I thanked Richard Dawkins, citing his The Selfish Gene and The Ancestors Tales as having been instrumental in my scientific re-education, coming from a creationist homeschooler’s background (which my brother shares).

Among other things, all those in-between species did exist, and we’ve found scads and scads and scads of their fossiles. Most didn’t survive to today (except as fossils), because they were far less fit to compete with both descendents and cousins who were much better suited to their respective environments than today. Evolutionary jumps tend to happen when something in the environment or situation changes in a way that effects survival rates. This tends to provide strong death rates in the members that are poorly suited to deal with the change, providing a huge opportunity for members who are even just slightly better-suited to reproduce exponentially. Every small variation that is introduced that provides any sort of benefit in the new environment, reproduces quickly, because of its usefulness.

But the biggest evidence is in our genes. Continue reading

A Whole ’Nother Logic?

If man bases ideas on his logic, than all he says will be all there is. Mans Logic is Man’s, where as Gods Logic, though given to some men, is Gods. So, either choose logic given by man, or logic given by God.

Found in the “Favorite Quotes” section of my brother Joseph Cowan’s Facebook profile. I suspect it’s of his own authorship.

I was going to comment further on it here, but thought better of it after realizing it’s a waste of breath. But really, if you can’t instantly find several glaring things wrong with this *cough* logic, then you are already beyond hope. You are a slave to your emotions, and have no ability, or even the desire, to use the mind “God gave you”.

All that logic is is a definition of the words “true” and “false”: those words have no meaning outside of “man’s logic”. You can say that the existence of God is “true”, or that God exists outside/defies logic¹, but to attempt to claim both simultaneously is to not even know what the word “true” means. What can I do at that point? It’s exactly like trying to convince someone that 1 + 2 isn’t 6¾: if they won’t accept your definitions of 1, 2, and +, there’s nothing further to say.

¹ Although, the latter amounts to meaninglessness, while the former is actually provably incorrect for any meaningful definition of God.

These sorts of quotes always get my goat, because one of the few things in this world that can consistently and reliably piss me off is irresponsible ignorance, especially willful ignorance. Quotes like this are like saying, “I’m fine with my ignorance, I have no interest in thinking about anything. I’ll believe whatever I want to, whether it adds up or not, simply because it’s what I want to believe in.”

Thoughts on the Future of Human Evolution

Prefacing disclaimer: obviously, I’m not a geneticist, biologist, or any other expert qualified to speak authoritatively about evolution.

My attention was caught by the title of a recent lecture from University College of London Professor of Genetics Steve Jones: Human Evolution is Over (here and here), which I first found via Digg. I was disappointed by the lecture, or at any rate by summaries of the lecture in the news, since I can’t find the text of the actual lecture; but it caught my attention because I’d actually been thinking for a while about human evolution, and the rather unique spot we find ourselves in now.

According to the articles, the lecture essentially makes the argument that human evolution is at a near-standstill, because natural selection pressures are low, and because older fathers aren’t as commonplace as they once were (older fathers’ sperm-manufacturing cells being the product of more cell divisions, giving greater opportunity for genetic mutation).

I’m baffled by the argument that the pressures of natural selection from extremes of heat and cold, or famine, are nullified by modern heating and air conditioning, and food plentifulness. Current heating and AC technologies are not so perfect as to effectively nullify the selective effects of environmental extremes (and anyway not everyone in the world has access to these technologies), and food is far from universally “plentiful”. Even ignoring those, there is plenty of opportunity for competition and natural selection, through population growth pressures present in many areas, and epidemics of disease in many corners of the world.

Meanwhile, the argument that younger fathers have eradicated the opportunity for genetic mutation rather ignores how we got where we are, and the fact that a 35-year-old father has more years than the entire lifespan of the bulk of our ancestors; in many cases by a huge margin. Though it is true that our cells’ mechanisms for guarding against infidelity in genetic copying have become more advanced now.

And yet, despite these flaws in the arguments (at least as represented in news sources), I wonder whether there’s still some (limited) truth to the conclusion?

We’re in a weird place in evolutionary history—really, completely-uncharted territory. We are the first creatures to have become aware of the underlying mechanisms of our evolution, the first to be in a position to actually manipulate genetic material directly—both our own material and that of other plants and creatures. I wonder whether natural selection will soon be made irrelevant through our own increased powers of artificial auto-selection.

Even aside from our fledgeling ability to govern our own genetics, our modern medical technology is already starting to turn the tide of natural selection through artificial compensations. I suspect penecillin, which might at first glance seem to be a good example, is actually a poor one: it’s not an example of our ability to conquer natural selection, but only our latest short-term triumph against it in our perpetual battle with disease. After all, it’s only been around for eighty years, and there are already plenty of examples of diseases that have evolved immunities to it. Before too long, we’ll have to invent it all over again. And again.

On the other hand, in a world where prosthetic legs are available, the effects of natural selection on a “clumsiness” gene that makes people more apt to lose a leg is diminished (though not if the “clumsiness” also produces greater risk of direct loss of life 🙂 ). Genes that would otherwise have become extinct due to unpleasant aesthetic effects (lessening sexual desirability) are given a reprieve by cosmetics and (in more extreme cases) cosmetic surgery.

We already screen fetuses for common genetic diseases; how long before we start ensuring their absence through direct manipulation, a lá Gattaca? I don’t really think we’ll ever find ourselves in a world where, as in the movie, genetic discrimination ensures that unmanipulated individuals cannot obtain white-collar jobs or decent girlfriends; but I do think it’s likely that at some point, it will become somewhat routine for parents to screen their children’s genes, or the genes that they contribute toward child-bearing.

And that, in itself, disturbs me. Not because it’s unethical or somehow violates the sanctity of natural human reproduction, but because, from an evolutionary standpoint, it’s probably a really bad idea. The genes that we would tend to filter out because they’re responsible for sickle-cell anaemia or cystic fibrosis, when we are unlucky enough to obtain that gene from both of our parents, provide protection against malaria and cholera when we obtain just one copy of the gene. In our zeal to weed out genes that confer confirmed negative effects, we are very likely to strain out genes whose undiscovered positive effects actually outweigh their known negative effects in some environments.

The problem is that artificial selection is guesswork: we presume to be able to deduce when our manipulations are for the best, but we rely on faulty human reason and incomplete understanding to make these decisions. Natural selection, on the other hand, has complete understanding and flawless, unconscious reason, in that it always guarantees that the surviving genes (over sufficient spans of time) are those that confer the greatest advantages

Of course, natural selection’s perfect ability to decide which genes should be eliminated and which survive, comes at a price. For one thing, it’s awfully slow, and the knowledge that natural selection will provide us with an immunity to such-and-such a disease over the course of a number of generations is small consolation when we’re dying from it now. For another thing, it comes at the cold and calloused cost of human lives. Natural selection depends on death, in combination with reproduction and variation, to achieve its ends. There is no selection, natural or artificial, if some things aren’t dying while others survive.

Human sensibilities, meanwhile, demand that all human life is sacred, and not just those that nature would select. So of course we will continue to intervene on individuals’ behalfs—we must. To not do so would be unfeeling, uncaring, and more than a little reminiscent of Nazi eugenics.

And yet, interference comes with a price of its own. As we relieve the effects of natural selection on individuals through our efforts to use technology to cure humankind’s ills, we condemn ourselves to evolve dependencies on those same technologies. Preventing natural selection from filtering out weak genes through quicker death to the possessors or, alternatively, taking nature’s responsibilities on ourselves and doing a lesser job of filtering out weak genes before birth, ensures that weak genes will proliferate where they otherwise would not. This in turn forces us to continue to use our medical technologies perpetually, lest we suffer nature’s belated compensation for our weakened genetic resilience.

Meanwhile, natural selection will continue to have its way with those peoples for whom the wonders of modern technology are out of reach. After all, all these arguments from modern medical and genetics technology suffer the same flaws I noted for Jones’ arguments from central heating and plentiful food: they can’t completely eliminate natural selection, and (more importantly) not everyone has them. While the middle- and upper-classes of  the affluent nations of the world develop a dependence on their savior technologies, those who can’t afford these miracles will continue to depend on nature to provide them with the protections they need, the hard way. But, interbreeding between the privileged and unprivileged will help reintroduce healthy genes to the “privileged” who otherwise might find themselves in an ever-escalating battle against their own degrading DNA, and beginning to dwindle in numbers in comparison to the healthier “unprivileged”.

Whether or not human evolution has effectively ceased (cough), our tools have certainly been evolving lately at a much higher rate than we ourselves have been. Perhaps the tools we have created will increasingly exert selective pressures of their own on human survival statistics, resulting in an accidental artificial selection. There are those that suggest that this has already played a large role in guiding our evolution to the current state; we start using a tool that benefits us, and suddenly the people best equipped to be using these tools have the best chances for survival.

In our current digital age, more and more professionals are finding themselves having to think about multiple tasks simultaneously (or as nearly so as we are currently capable), and of dealing with multiple channels of information. These are both things that we are currently fairly poor at handling, as a species; but perhaps evolution will produce people with true multitasking capabilities, handling multiple simultaneous conscious thoughts, or at least able to take better advantage of what multitasking capabilities the subconscious mind already posseses. Could the human brain eventually become “multicore”? 🙂

As our tools continue to evolve, I expect we’ll eventually do away with such impediments as keyboards, and be capable of communicating thoughts much closer to the speed at which we actually think them. In that event I imagine that rapid thought might become an evolutionarily favored trait. That might in turn result in an eventual (very eventual) reduction in the complexity of our vocal capabilities, as they fall out of necessity, much in the same way that we lost our (external) tails, or that whales lost their legs.

…I worry that, contrary to popular belief, human powers of reason may not be especially favored by evolution. A lot of people believe that humans are more intelligent because we are “more evolved”; but of course on reflection that’s simply not the case. We are not “more evolved” than chimpanzees, because we did not evolve from chimpanzees; chimpanzees and ourselves both evolved from some common ancestor, which means that we have had precisely as much time to evolve from that point as chimpanzees have had. We are both the result of generations of adaptations to become quite well-suited to our respective, different environments. Ours just so happened to favor greater intelligence. It doesn’t follow that we’re “more evolved”, just because the thing we’re most proud of happened to be favored (after all, it’s what we’re most proud of because it’s what natural selection favored).

And humans are not especially logical. We may be much more so than our evolutionary cousins, but we’re still not especially bright. Evolution appears to have favored quite a few mental aberrations over and above any favor given to logic and reason. Our brains are built to strongly prefer

  • conclusions that align well with beliefs we already hold
  • conclusions that facilitate a positive self-image
  • conclusions that facilitate our desires
  • conclusions that align with our emotional reactions to things
  • conclusions that provide us with hope and a positive outlook, even when such an outlook is unrealistic

All of these, over conclusions that arise logically from the available facts. If the available facts are in conflict with any of these—especially the top couple—it may be a minor miracle when we actually manage to arrive at the truth. Add to these a propensity for finding patterns, that is so strong that we regularly find them where they don’t actually exist (number “patterns” in sequences of random numbers, faces of religious figures in food items, tree knots, and whatnot…), and tendencies for weighting some data far too greatly, and other data too lightly (“Counting the hits but not the misses”, leading to convinctions of prophetic truths, or miraculous answers to prayer, etc).

The way I see it, the human race has finally become just intelligent enough to begun to realize just how unintelligent we really are.

And many of these impediments to intelligence and reason appear to be the result of natural selection, indicating that these are flaws in human reason that tend to increase chances of survival, in which case there’s small hope to reach higher levels of reason until whatever selective pressures produced these flaws cease (or are overruled by still greater selective pressures, and perhaps that is already the case).

Criticizing Evolution

The following is reposted, with permission, from The Barefoot Bum; it makes some good points that I’d have liked to have made here at some time, except that he’s already done an excellent job of it, so why bother? It includes a list of several examples of both items that proponents of Intelligent Design believe that evolutionists believe or teach (but, in fact, don’t), such as radio-carbon dating; and items that they believe are true (but which, in fact, are false), such as the myth that evolution from one species into another hasn’t been observed. These are very widely spread myths in the creationist community, and it’s nice to debunk a few of the most common of them. Most of these items don’t have links or citations; however, you can find a wealth of information about them at TalkOrigins (which has a longer list, and citations to back up its claims). [Update: reworded the above to more accurately represent the list of creationist myths.]

I don’t understand why any individual amateur would choose to criticize evolution. Any amateur is hopelessly outnumbered, probably by a factor of 10,000 or 100,000 to 1. Scientists have been working on the various hypotheses and theories under the evolutionary paradigm for more than fifteen decades. Even if they were completely, egregiously wrong, the attempt to prove them wrong seems a Sisyphean task for any individual, much less an amateur. Of course it doesn’t help that organizations such as the Discovery Institute, Answers in Genesis and Harun Yahya have been so frequently caught in inexcusable sloppiness and outright lies. But amateurs do try to criticize evolution, so it’s worthwhile going over some basic points.First, The Barefoot Bum is a philosophy blog, not a science blog. Although I’m scientifically literate, I’m not a professional scientist: I’m a professional engineer and an amateur philosopher. Professional scientists such as PZ Myers, Shalini and the denizens of the IIDB Evolution/Creation forum (and many others) have forgotten more biology than ten people like me will ever learn. If you want to discuss evolution here, I’m much more interested in discussing things like scientific epistemology, metaphysical naturalism, and the ethical implications of evolution. Still, I am scientifically literate, and I’m willing to discuss the science of evolution.If you’re going to criticize what scientists say, it’s very important to criticize what scientists actually say, rather than what you want them to say. I understand that demolishing a straw man is easy and satisfying. But straw men are not only fallacious: evolution and its criticism have been around long enough that there is simply no excuse for misrepresenting the scientific position. Misrepresentation is justifiably characterized as a lie.

There’s also the pernicious practice of quote mining, taking a statement made by a scientist or philosopher out of context and thus changing its meaning to be critical of evolution. Any time an advocate of evolution seems to say something deeply critical of the endeavor, any reasonable person must be suspicious that something is amiss. Quote mining is lying.

I have better things to do with my time than correct lies about evolution. If you want to lie, do it on your own blog or in a more appropriate venue; I refuse to publish lies.

Here are some specifics:

Evolution is not a scientific theory about the origin of terrestrial life. The origin of terrestrial life is an interesting scientific field in itself (all the more interesting because the evidence is buried under billions of years of history), but it has nothing to do with evolution. Even if the first living thing were intentionally created by a space alien, a deity or the systems administrator of the computer we’re all inhabiting, evolutionary theory would not change at all.

No scientific theory in the field of evolution says that the characteristics of modern organisms arose by chance alone. All evolutionary theories discuss the interplay between chance changes to organisms and natural selection; natural selection is driven by physical law, the opposite of chance.

Yes, there have been instances of scientific fraud as well as honest mistakes. Science is an error-correcting endeavor, precisely because errors do arise. What “error” actually means and how errors are corrected is an interesting topic of philosophical inquiry, but Piltdown Man and Haeckel’s embryology are not by themselves probative of anything… except perhaps in the sense that scientists have actually discovered and corrected such errors.

Scientists have actually observed speciation.

Radiocarbon dating is accurate to only tens of thousands of years. Scientists employ other methods, including other types of radiometric dating, to establish ages on the order of mega- and giga-years. The validity of radiometric dating is established primarily by nuclear physics and quantum mechanics.

Charles Darwin was not baffled by the eye. His “bafflement” in The Origin of Species was a rhetorical device: he goes on to explain how the eye actually did evolve. This assertion is probably the most famous instance of quote mining. Nor did Darwin renounce evolution on his deathbed. This claim is an outright lie.

Regardless, science is not theology, and no scientist is an authority. Nothing in science is believed just because some scientist, however well-respected, has asserted it. Even Newton, Einstein, Darwin and Feynman had to show their work, and the idea stands or falls on its own merits, independent of the reputation of the person. Darwin himself made mistakes, and those mistakes have been discovered and corrected.

The attitude of scientists and scientific philosophy regarding the “supernatural” is not unique to evolution. I’m more than happy to discuss scientific philosophy, methodological and metaphysical naturalism, in as much (or more) detail as you wish, but philosophically, any argument concerning naturalism applies to all science, not just the sciences of biology, archeology, paleontology, genetics, ecology, etc. which adopt an evolutionary paradigm.

In general, I’m going to evaluate any criticism of evolution by first investigating what Talk.Origins has to say about it. I don’t demand that anyone accept Talk.Origins uncritically or at all, but you will save us both a lot of time if you examine their arguments before you comment, and address them within your comment.

And, lastly, the complaint that scientists and advocates of science tend to bury criticism in a flood of information is a non-starter. Rational people settle these sorts of arguments by evaluating the evidence. If there’s a ton of evidence against your position, boo hoo, too bad for you.

A Lack of Basic Understanding

As I mentioned previously, I have recently subscribed to Answers magazine, produced by Answers In Genesis, famous for their recent opening of the Creation Museum.

I received my first issue a couple months ago. The chief reason I subscribed was that I wanted to keep abreast of anti-evolutionary arguments, and Creationist reactions to recent scientific discoveries as they occurred. The issue I first received was almost entirely dedicated to the stories of the global flood and Noah’s Ark.

I was rather disappointed to discover that there was actually rather little in the magazine for me to actually evaluate, as most of the writing offered no references to back up their claims and assertions; thus, there was nothing for me to reason about—only rhetoric. I have just received the next issue, which I have not yet opened; I’m hoping there will be more interesting arguments in that one, and hopefully some references to back up a few of the claims.

However, I was struck by this very brief snippet of an article (it was, IIRC, less than half of a page in length). I think it illustrates rather well the extreme lack of understanding of basic principles of evolutionary theory or mechanics, or even terminology:

The textbook authors recognize that the resistance is already present in the bacterial population (Fig. 15.5) and then claim that selection for resistant bacteria in a population is direct evidence for evolution. Selecting for something that is already present does not provide support for the information-gaining change required for evolution.

Of course, this text completely ignores the question, how did the variations between resistant and non-resistant bacteria arise in the first place? No biology textbook will claim that the selection itself is how an individual organism becomes stronger: selection only explains why the percentage of resistant bacteria will tend to get stronger. But, evolution does explain how the variation arose that allowed some of the population to become more resistant than the others.

Of course, I have to wonder about a group who struggles with the idea that a colony of bacteria can develop minute changes allowing some of them to become resistant to antibiotics, but clings to the concept that lions and house cats evolved from the same animal “kind” (which was represented by a population of two to seven on Noah’s ark), and dogs and foxes from another, in the last 4,000 years, while, of course, rejecting the idea that evolution could have caused any transition from one “kind” to another.

The article also claims that evolutionary biology textbooks say there is support for the claim “that molecules can change into completely different kinds of creatures.” So much for proof-reading.

It appears I may have been a tad optimistic in expecting to find some shred of reasoned argument in this periodical…

Intolerance of the Intolerant = Hypocrisy?

So, I recently subscribed to the Answers in Genesis magazine, a publication dedicated to spreading the creationist and Bible-literalist viewpoints, and refuting new evidence that comes to light that supports the evolutionary standpoint. I’ve done this because, being a former Bible literalist and creationist myself, I was shocked to discover the degree to which information was carefully filtered, and evolutionist arguments were twisted or removed from context, in order to bring me to the desired conclusion: that (macro-)evolution is a hoax, and creationism is the only standpoint that makes any sense.

So now that I’ve come to see just how contrary to the truth creationism actually is, I’m trying to keep myself abreast of current thought and misinformation that is spread from some of the major sources of creationist propoganda, so I can research them properly, and compare them with the actual information they purport to be refuting (strawman arguments seem to be the most common way to argue against evolution—that is, refuting positions that the opponent isn’t actually arguing—so the easiest way to discredit many of the arguments is to actually look up the original sources, verify quotes, and put them in their context).

Anyway, I just received a copy of Answers Update, a “monthly newsletter equipping Christians to uphold the authority of the Bible from the very first verse,” and I started reading the very first article, Goose-stepping to Zion?, which defends the Answers in Genesis organization against direct attacks from a new book, American Fascists: the Christian right and the war on America, by Chris Hedges, who, according to the article, draws comparisons between Bible literalists and Hitler-era Nazis. But, I couldn’t believe my eyes as I came across this passage:

Who are the people manifesting fascist tendencies 60 years after Nazi Germany? It’s those who, in the name of tolerance, will refuse to tolerate those who are perceived as intolerant (i.e., those who hold to absolute standards, such as Bible-believing Christians).

In fact, Hedges quotes (sympathetically) the late philosopher Karl Popper, who once wrote that we can “therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to be tolerant of the intolerant” (p. 1).

The inconsistency is so glaring to us. Hedges’ self-proclaimed open-mindedness and tolerance absolutely falls apart when he attempts to rationalize his (clearly obvious) hypocrisy.…

He also does not appear to understand that while he howls at Christians’ attempts to impose their views on society, Hedges wants to see that it’s his views that should be imposed.

Now, it may be that Hedges’ viewpoint is on the extreme-side: some of the quote that I’ve elided with an ellipsis includes the claim that Hedges has “publicly chastised liberal humanists who believe in inclusiveness and who express any willingness to dialogue with evangelicals,” which, if true, would be a rather extreme viewpoint.

However, I’m simply amazed that someone could find “intolerance of intolerance” to be hypocritical; there’s no such thing as “absolute” tolerance. If one were tolerant of intolerance, that one would in a very real way be passively approving the intolerance, and therefore not a true tolerance at all.

Moreover, it’s abundantly clear that even the most tolerant of people cannot tolerate every viewpoint: it would be insanity to call it hypocrisy for one to simultaneously claim tolerance and yet at the same time refuse to tolerate child molestation.

How unfortunate that they choose to attack Karl Popper’s conclusion, without bothering to even mention his very reasonable supporting arguments, in apparent violation of the popular evangelical exhortation, that in Biblical studies, “whenever we see the word ‘therefore,’ we should check to see what it is there for.”

You can read the full article online at AnswersInGenesis.Com, which was co-authored by the founder and CEO of Answers In Genesis.

Global Warming A Myth After All?

(Sorry I haven’t posted in a month; I’ve been busy with programming projects. I’ll post more about them when I’m more ready. This article seemed worth citing.)

Summary: Despite Gore’s “vast majority of scientists” agreeing, the actual community of scientists whose profession and experience actually have to do with understanding climate change are in disagreement regarding the existence of global warming as a phenomenon.

Update: if you look at the comments, you’ll see that I was pretty much immediately notified that the article’s veracity is in question. Thanks to Bruce Perens for doing a follow-up and looking closer, and to thickslab for bringing Bruce’s retraction to my attention (otherwise, I wouldn’t have noticed until the next Crypto-Gram!).

I had wondered how that tied in with observations I’d heard from people who really are in the climate-change-causes field. Though, the article only claims that that community of scientists have not reached a “consensus,” not that they all think that global warming is bunk.

Here’s a rebuttal to the content of the article.

While it would be an ad hominem argument to discount the article entirely merely because it turns out that its author is a paid political PR agent, and the article does actually raise some important points, it also seems clear that some of the points are deliberately misleading. Take it with about a pound of salt…