Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Paleoanthropology Breaks a Finger Nail...Cordova Claims a Mortal Wound

In a mind-numbing display of intellectually vapid arrogance, Sal Cordova, who couldn't identify a fossil hominid if it bit him on the ass, has the audacity to accuse Richard Leakey of deliberately reconstructing the 1470 skull to appear more human-like. All of this is derived from reports of Tim Bromage's recent reconstruction of the skull based on computer modeling, which makes its face more protruding and brain size somewhat smaller than Leakey originally reconstructed. The immediate implication of this is that all fossil reconstructions must be hiding something (including I'm sure, the fossils that aren't actually reconstructions) and intelligent design is somehow vindicated. It is absolutely amazing the extent to which Intelligent Design proponents really need to cling to every change in scientific thinking and publicly decry it as a failure in order to prop up their own failed methods. Assuming for the moment that Tim Bromage's reconstruction actually holds up (which may or may not happen - it was presented as a poster at a conference and my bet is the full range of the method and data have not been presented, or more importantly, formally reviewed by other experts in the field), what we have here is another case of scientists continually asking questions, formulating hypothesis and testing them against new methods of analysis or new theoretical approaches in order to find more parsimonious explanations of the world around them. Just what does Cordova think he has? The death nell of early hominid evolution? Geez, Sal...wake up from your ID dilusion and have an honest gander at the voluminous (and annually mounting) evidence of the fact that humans and chimps share a common ancestor and were not specialy designed. Since intelligent design proponents don't actually work with data, theoretical perspective or hypothesis testing I suppose I can understand how these concepts are foreign to you, but even you and your band of driveling Ovis can't possibly think a single modified reconstruction is a mortal blow to fact that we have a ton of early hominid ancestors, all at various stages of transition between apes and humans. I mean, you have readers who think Piltdown is still a valid argument against evolution, for Christ sake!

Jonathan Wells is not vindicated by this issue, Sal (he can't even acurately discuss the early hominid evidence). If this holds true, it actually clarifies some issues in paleoanthropology. So keep bailing water out of that sinking ID ship , Sal...

Intelligent Design Forced to Seek Fungus in Cracks at the Bottom of the Barrel

Michael Egnor can't get any intellectually lower than by completely fabricating the history of Mendelian genetics and evolutionary theory.

At least I don't think he can....

McCook Community College to Offer Creation Science

I see that instructor Jim Garretson of McCook Community College in Nebraska will be introducing "Physics 2990: Creation Science" to the college's science curriculum this fall. Here are a few of the topics instructor Garretson will be introducing to students during the course:

The class we will explore many topics relating to many different areas of science including:
· The age of the earth, the earth’s beginning, and where the earth is heading
· The Garden of Eden and life on earth before the flood and the major changes which have taken place since that time
· Dinosaurs in the past as well as in the present
· The flood, ice ages, mountain formation, coal and oil formation, and the Grand Canyon
· History of evolution through the ages and the effect it has had on the world as well as many very influential people
· What is taught in school textbooks, without factual supportive evidence?

Of his motive for proposing the course, Garretson says the following:

“I’m not going to attack Evolutionists and I’m not going to try and convert people to the Creationist view, I just want offer a different viewpoint,” Garretson said. “Presenting opposing viewpoints is just part of being an educator.”

Most of us who teach are all in favor of teaching alternative viewpoints to students. The question of course, lies in determining the level of intellectual and educational responsibility necessary for making a distinction between legitimate alternatives related to the topic and flights of fancy. Like creationism, I can think of many "alternatives" that could (at some minimal intellectual level) be considered for teaching alongside more mainstream ideas:

- in History class we could teach the alternative viewpoint that the Holocaust was a fantasy created by Jews and has no historical validity;

- in Biology class we could teach the alternative viewpoint that AIDS is an intelligently designed flaw in the immune system of some groups of (gay) people and doctors have no business attempting to cure the disease as it would be an affront to the purposes of the designer;

- in Astronomy class we could teach geocentrism as an alternative to heliocentrism;

- in History class we could avoid the entire problem of whether the Egyptians or the Israelites built the pyramids and teach the alternative that they were actually constructed by beings from another planet;

- in Sociology class we could teach the alternative view that 18th century Negro slaves actually preferred a life of slavery over that of freedom and the whole Civil War thing was misguided.

Clearly, there are many, many "alternatives" to a host of topics kids learn in class these days. Of course we don't teach these alternatives because we know that to do so means lying about the currently prevalent ideas to make them look weak and ineffectual, fabricating data to make it fit our "alternative", and not mentioning any data in support of the prevalent idea. The students in instructor Garretson's class are going to be lied to about the nature of evolutionary theory; they are going to be presented with fabricated data in support of creationism; and they will not learn anything that legitimate science has had to say on the issue. It is not a matter of differeing perspective. It is a matter of being intellectually honest about the nature of the data.

I certainly hope that universities take a hard look at transcripts from McCook Community College and refuse to credit Physics 2990 as a science class.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

LCT Review Coming Up...

While at the SCA meetings, I found I missed a couple of interesting commentaries in last week's Lassen County Times - several people asked if I was going to comment on them. I certainly will. The first is Barbara France's editorial on protecting the environment in which she references a blogger who doesn't think Christians make very good conservationists. Yes, that would be me. But the editorial glosses over some important points that I was trying to make. The second is an editorial by Lake Almanor Community Church pastor Todd Dubord on the recent documentary on the "Lost Tomb of Jesus". I've stayed away from the controversy largely because a number of other bloggers have covered it very well; however, since Pastor Dubord brought the issue up locally (and got a lot of facts wrong in the process!), I'll have to wade into the controversy and correct the legion of errors once again promulgated by our scientifically naive pastoral leaders and regurgitated by the local paper.

I'm working on the responses, so more to come....

Back Up and Online

Finally got the main computer up and running again and connected to the Internet, although it took a couple of days (not near the problem Duane is having!). In the meantime, I also invested in a laptop and wireless router - as long as I keep the data off the main system I shouldn't have too much trouble staying connected if the hard drive crashes again (unless I'm unlucky enough to have BOTH computers crash!)...

SCA Return

Returned from the Society for California Archaeology meetings this past weekend. Great symposia, including one moderated by a University of Wisconsin classmate of mine (we defended our dissertations about a week apart) on new interpretations of plant and animal remains. As usual, most of the best conversations occurred around the bar after the day ended...and archaeologists easily trump college basketball fans when it comes to alcohol consumption (the hotel was also sponsoring some events for the NCAA tournament).

A great week, with lots of great science being reported, lots of friendships renewed, and new issues to think about in the coming year.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Meat for Sex...And Intelligent Design

This morning’s symposium on "Human Behavioral Ecology and California Archaeology" at the Society for California Archaeology meetings comprised a number of papers on the use, abuse and differenting perspectives on the nature of evolutionary ecology models for interpreting the archaeological record. Much of this started a year or so ago, with the argument put forth by Kelly McGuire and Bill Hildebrand (both friends of mine) that the ascendancy of artiodoctyl hunting in California might have arisen not, as some suggest, as the result of simple caloric returns (larger mammals are a bigger package of meat, and therefore more “worth the effort” to find, hunt and process them than are smaller animals like rabbits), but rather as the advent of “signaling” by individual hunters, who through increased hunting success, “signal” to females that they are good providers and should therefore seek them as mates. (McGuire sardonically referred to the latter idea this morning as the “meat for sex” model!).

Regardless of which side of the debate one falls on (and a good range of issues on both sides was discussed) several things struck me listening to the papers this morning. The first is that archaeology is clearly a scientific discipline – there is far more to it than just digging square holes in the ground! All papers presented clearly presented well-developed theoretical approaches, which also clearly guided collection and interpretation of the data itself. The link between solid theory, hypothesis testing and data interpretation could not have been stronger. I have always argued that this is the true nature of archaeological research (developing a theoretical structure in which to frame and test problems is as critical as data recovery), but it was highly satisfying to see the two mesh so well this morning.

The symposium also highlighted the fact that the best innovations in archaeological thinking and interpretation derive from the rigorous application of evolutionary theory. Other theoretical perspectives have been tried, but explanations of archaeological data are best explained by evolutionary theory. I would argue that the advancement of “Syro-Palestinian” archaeology (read “Bible” archaeology) would also be better served by a solid dose of evolutionary theory instead of a misguided depdendence on humanly written texts (another discussion, I suppose….).

To the extent that the symposium demonstrated archaeology’s commitment to interpretation of data within a rigorously defined theory, it also showed archaeology’s commitment to science. Over and over again, I heard the broad “If/Then” statements so critical to developing testable hypotheses and then actually demonstrating whether or not the data fit the expectations suggested by the model. I couldn’t help but think of the great extent to which Intelligent Design is both theory and data derived. Papers presented this morning generally took the following form:

1) Here are the basic concepts behind theoretical approach X;

2) If theoretical approach X is an appropriate model, we would expect A, B and C in the archaeological record;

3) Here are the data from the archaeological record;

4) Data are best explained by the proposed model; or if not, it was identified precisely where the theoretical approach or the data may not have been adequate, or fit the expectations of a different model;

5) Here’s where additional research would be helpful;

In contrast, I would bet that the upcoming Darwin vs. Design Conference will proceed more along these lines:

1) Darwin/evolution/natural selection is bad;

2) Darwin/evolution/natural selection is bad and wrong;

3) Darwin/evolution/natural selection is bad, wrong, and has a deleterious effect on morals;

4) Therefore, we should all accept Intelligent Design.

I was also reminded that when McGuire and Hildebrand proposed the idea of signaling as a better explanation for certain archaeological trends we were seeing in California, they received a significant drubbing from the foraging theory community. In response, McGuire and Hildebrand did not whine about the “militant foraging theorists” dominating the discipline, write op-ed pieces for the various newspapers complaining about how they were being picked on, or outright lie about the nature of foraging theory. Instead, they wrote additional papers, clarifying their ideas, responding to specific arguments and more importantly, they developed testable hypotheses and collected more data. Whether or not they have offered a better theoretical approach, the fact that 13 scientists got together this morning to present data and tests on the idea of “meat for sex” shows that they are successfully engaging in that most precious commodity that still eludes Intelligent Design: good science.

Opening Day at the Society for California Archaeology

Last night at the Plenary Session this year's Society for California Archaeology meetings officially opened. This morning's symposium on "Human Behavioral Ecology and California Archaeology" was absolutely outstanding, featuring some good friends of mine (Frank Bayham (CSU Chico), Jack Broughton (University of Utah) and Erick Bartelink (CSU Chico); I also caught up with my old undergraduate professor from UC Davis, Robert Bettinger, who opened the symposium with a discussion on what we're doing wrong and right with the application of foraging theory to interpreting the archaeological record. More thoughts on the symposium later...

I briefly sat with Dwight Simons, California zooarchaeologist extraordinaire, who I've known for some time. Dwight is the kind of zooarchaeologist we all aspire to be, with an absolutely astounding, encyclopedic understanding of issues and data in California zooarchaeology. During a break between papers, he turns to me and says, "Oh and I want to thank you for the Northstate Science blog!"...Wow, I was certainly surprised (and more than pleased!) that he regular reads the posts here. It also turns out, that his sister-in-law is none other than Molleen Matsumura, a name familiar to me and others for her work with National Center for Science Education, The Council for Secular Humanism, and her book, Voices For Evolution.

Small world, even for us archaeologists....

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Upcoming Alpha/Omega Conference on Creationism in the Northstate

Northern California blogger Tim Hearden has been recently touting the upcoming Alpha/Omega Conference on Creationism and End Time Prophecy sponsored by Shasta Bible College in Redding. The conference is apparently the "Fourth Annual" version, so the college has been doing this for several years now. This year's conference featured speakers will include John Whitcomb, who co-authored The Genesis Flood with well known creationist Henry Morris. Among the presentations to be made by Whitcomb are the following:

7:00 pm: Dr. John Whitcomb: "The Origin of the Solar System"

10:00 am: Dr. John Whitcomb: "The Creation of Mankind and questions about Noah’s Flood"

8:00 pm: Dr. John Whitcomb: "Dinosaurs and Men"

11:00 am: Dr. John Whitcomb: "The Genesis Flood and Modern Geology"

6:30 pm: Dr. John Whitcomb: "The Tower of Babel and the Dispersion of Mankind"

Of the Creationism conference Hearden says:

I've attended the conference for the past several years and the topics are interesting. Whether or not you agree with all the theology that's presented, the presentations make you think -- which is, of course, the mission of a college-sponsored event.

I will be unable to attend, but I certainly hope transcripts of the presentations are made available. I don't know about the theology to be presented, but I'll make some predictions regarding the "science" that will be presented:

- I predict that just about every comment made about evolution, Darwinists, and the evidence for evolution will be absolutely false;

- I predict that all real scientific evidence for evolution will be missing from the presentation;

- You can expect a good amount of positive and self-affirming discussion on the "Darwin = evolution = Hitler" thing;

- I predict some discussion on the "archaeology is proving the Bible" topic; I predict almost no factual evidence presented by qualified archaeologists on this matter;

- You can expect that any positive evidence for creation is either fabricated, or leaves out significant contextual information necessary to interpret the "evidence";

In short, you can expect presentations based on marginal science with limited factual data but nonetheless welcomed by the audience as "truth" because they lack the education (and truth-seeking conviction) necessary to question the tripe they'll be fed.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Down For The Count

Well, after years of successfully putting my own computers together with few issues, I finally experienced the ultimate computer geek horror and fried my hard-drive on Saturday morning! I would like to say all is well, but I am not yet fully back online (the desktop unit, anyway). I had planned on a number of posts over the weekend, but spent it trying to get up and running again. Fortunately, most of my data files are actually on a separate, external drive, so not much was lost (I did, however, loose my "potential blog posts" file, so I have to resurrect some ideas I had). I am also behind in some emails (Kambiz, I wasn't ignoring HD crashed shortly after reading your last email! Short answer: I'm not going to SAA this year...).

For once, my blogging absence has been due to technical errors and not out-of-town meetings...

I think I have finally found the solution to both, however, and expect to be blogging this week. I am currently in San Jose for the Society for California Archaeology meetings and hope to post a bit about them over the week (the first few days are actually federal heritage program managers meetings for the Forest Service and BLM - SCA starts on Thursday).

More to come...

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Are We Out To Destroy Christianity? Hardly.

Red State Rabble has always been one of my favorite, not just for its interesting perspective on issues like science and religion, but also because I find it to be very well written. RSR also possesses the uncanny ability to dig straight through the handwringing vagueness that accompanies most efforts at trying to get a point across and get to the heart of the matter.

This post has kept me thinking for the last several days, largely because I believe RSR is dead center on with it. He begins by addressing the furor over the Jesus Tomb and the fundamentalist claims that Hollywood is out to destroy religion, but moves beyond it to find the core. Some snippets:

Forget, for now, the fact that the Cameron documentary, which purported to have discovered the bones of Jesus, made absolutely no impression on anyone outside the fundamentalist movement.

A nation preoccupied with a losing war in Iraq, we suspect, has more important things to think about than whether or not a set of bones proves or disproves an ancient myth, even if a large section of the population professes to believe it. Although, in all honesty, we can't deny that a large section of the populace seems equally absorbed in the details of Anna Nicole Smith's death and Brittany Spears latest haircut, and that may caution us against imputing any particularly noble intent on the part of the people who inhabit the home of the free and the land of the brave.

With the exception of James Dobson, Jerry Falwell, and the like on the religious right, and Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins and a handful of like-minded "New Atheists," on the other side, everyone else seems perfectly happy to be tolerant of a range of religious belief that extends from traditional Catholics, Jews, and Protestants to a growing acceptance of Buddhists, Muslims, Wiccans and even, in many cases now, skeptics like RSR and friends.

Most of us grew up believing that religious belief belongs in the private sphere of church and family. We're as reluctant to push our own beliefs on others as we are to criticize theirs. That's broken down recently because the religious right insists on pushing their rather peculiar beliefs on the rest of us.

They've made religion into a political issue by demanding that we teach the supposed controversy over evolution while suppressing information about preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease. They say that developing cures for devastating diseases such as Parkinson's is less important than keeping frozen embryos frozen. Inoculating girls against a virus that causes 70 percent of cervical cancer cases -- which kills about 290,000 deaths a year world-wide -- would be immoral, they say.

Moreover, rather than just practicing what they preach and be done with it, they demand that all the rest of us follow the strange dictates of their religious faith rather than our own.

These fundamentalists also have the rather distressing trait of thundering moral condemnation on the beliefs held dear by the rest of us while demanding scrupulous respect for themselves. They can say anything they want about us, but criticism of them is blasphemy.

This is why, people like RSR, who were once comfortable in their own beliefs and would never have thought of criticising the beliefs of others are now speaking up. And, for the most part, were not trying, as Medved would have it, to discredit religion as a whole, but to protect ourselves against an aggressive, self-righteous, fundamentalism.

Emphasis is mine on that last paragraph in part because I'm definitely one of those "people like RSR". Christianity spawned a reaction from me when it became predominately political and less spiritual. Had that not happened, Northstate Science might well still be on my mental list of things to get around to one day.

Egnor's Back, But So Is Actual SCIENCE

Just returned from FS meetings and a couple of wonderful get-togethers with colleagues from UC Davis. From Afarensis' note I see that Egnor was at it again and that both he and Orac continues to rise to the challenge. Well, creationists are counting on an audience of people with no ability to seriously question what they already believe in. This morning I ran across a very apt description of those who I and others frequently challenge on these blogs. From Bring It On!:

These are the people who are anti-science, anti-intellectual, anti-environmentalism, anti-gay, anti-women’s-rights, anti-free-speech, and in general anti-everybody-but-them. They’re the ones who burn books, and occasionally burn people. When they do discuss science, they do it backward: they start with a conclusion and look for evidence to support it and ways to discredit any evidence pointing in any other direction. They turn the word “freedom” inside out – they scream that their freedom is being infringed unless they are allowed to stifle the freedom of others to think, speak, or behave differently from them. If anyone dares to express a view different from theirs, they cry that their beliefs are under attack. When science or plain old everyday reality conflict with their dogma, they blithely insist that the science is worthless and the reality is a trick by God to test people’s belief – their God’s first name is Gotcha, apparently.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Monday, March 12, 2007

Egnor Evolution Malpractice:The Gift That Keeps On Giving

Just when you thought the science blogging community had finished demonstrating Egnor's ignorance regarding evolution, it turns out there's more...a LOT more...

Just read Orac's latest post at Respectful Insolence.

Not much else to say.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Savage and Coulter: Payback Is A Bitch, Isn't It?

Wow...I hadn't seen this...

Via PZ I see that right wing talk show host Michael Savage and right wing "hate crime in high heels" Ann Coulter are finally getting the payback they so richly deserve.

All I can say is...maybe there IS a God!

Happy Birthday PZ!

As usual, I'm late to the fold, but I wanted to wish PZ a Happy Birthday! I suggest, however, that in responding late I am simply following a time-honored tradition in the O'Brien household to celebrate birthdays for an extended period of time and not just on the anniversary date (the kids and I all have birthdays in March, so this month has simply become a "birthday" month in which we celebrate on those days not already absorbed by teaching, class, out of town meetings, vollyball practice or something else that always seems to prevent celebration on the actual day!).
I was also somewhat at a loss as to what kind of cephalopod-related picture I could post in honor of PZ's 50th (not a lot of squid in northeastern California!). However, tucked away in my shed, I remembered I had these. These are fossil belemnoids, Oxyteuthis tehamaensis, from the Lower Cretaceous Paskenta Formation in the northern Sacramento Valley. For those of you who don't already know, belemnoids are...fossil squid! What you see preserved here is (if I recall correctly, it's been a while) the rostrum or "rear end" of the squid; the middle one with the groove is actually the ventral surface of the animal.
I collected these in high school with my biology teacher, Mr. Critchfield (PZ and Critchfield would have gotten along famously - when a local creationist told Mr. C he wanted equal time to talk about creationism in biology class, he is reported to have responded: "I'll let you into my class to teach creationism when I can go into your church and teach evolution". I was fortunate to have had an unapologetic biologist teaching high school biology. My advanced biology class didn't just have a section on evolution - we started with evolution and maintained discussions of biological topics within the context of evolution (which is as biology classes should be taught!).
Happy Birthday PZ!

More Egnor Fallout

Lots of fallout from Egnor's comments on the illusionary lack of evolutionary biology to be found in medicine. Panda's Thumb and ERV have more to say. And that Afarensis fellow, damn him, once again has his thumb on the anthropology literature to an extent that would make a graduate student feel chagrined. He points out all those wonderful doctors who are combining research in medicine and human evolution! (How could I have forgotten? I'm feeling particularly absent-minded, since I also just realized I have an upcoming lecture in my Anthropology class on identification of hypervitaminosis A in an East African Homo erectus skeleton by Alan Walker (who was a professor of anatomy and cell biology at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine)).

I happened to think of one more: anyone remember publication of the Paleolithic Prescription by Boyd et al. in the late 1980s? The authors are medical doctors who specifically used knowledge of human evolution to understand why our current diets are so mal-adaptive and the cause of a significant number of ailments. The following entry in Wikipedia sums it up best:

Those who advocate that contemporary humans should regularly consume a Paleolithic diet base their advocacy on the premise that natural selection had 2 million or more years to genetically adapt the metabolism and physiology of the various human species to such a diet, and that in the 10,000 years since the invention of agriculture and its consequent major change in the human diet, natural selection has had too little time to make the optimal genetic adaptations to the new diet. According to those advocates, physiological and metabolic maladaptations result from those suboptimal genetic adaptations, which in turn contribute to many of the so-called diseases of civilization.

Boy, it sure looks like evolutionary biology has no implications for the practice of modern medicine does it? To not understand the relationship between human evolution and medicine is to, as a commenter (a medical doctor, no less!) on my previous Egnor post put it, "...have your head up a very dark and presumably tight place".

If I were Egnor, I'd consider a new line of work...

Lassen County Times In Review (Another Late Edition)

I have been somewhat remiss in posting my weekly "Lassen County Times In Review" section, largely because there really hasn't been all that much in the paper to catch my eye. The week before last (Feb 27 edition) there were, however, two Letters To The Editor that caught my eye.

First a good buddy of mine, Phil Nemir wrote in regarding Congressman Doolittle's recent visit to Susanville and the subsequent "town hall meeting", where residents are supposed to get the opportunity to ask questions of their local representative. For those of you unfamiliar with northeastern California, Doolittle is one of those professional politicians who conservatives absolutely despise when the politician happens to be Democrat, but absolutely love when they happen to be a Republican.

Phil notes, however, that the congressman's effort to meet his brochure marketing ploy (...your views are important - please share them with the congressman and his staff at one of the following listening sessions) fell flat on its face. As Phil notes, after a paltry half hour of questions,

One of his aides stopped the questions before everyone had a chance to speak because the Congressman had other stops, at the Lassen County Times, and an "invitation only" luncheon.

I'm not really surprised at the Lassen County Times stop...perhaps a chance to discuss the Book of Revelations and the Iraq war? Phil wanted to ask how the Congressman could still talk about tax cuts while we are waging an apparent "war on terrorism" - a good question and one that I'd like to know. Apparently, the congressman wasn't interested in answering questions.

In a second letter, Diane Baxley whines that "Our Forest Service needs help!" and complains that salvage timber hasn't been cut in several areas after several catastrophic wildfires in recent years (this is one of those Forest Service issues I want to start commenting on, hence my previous "disclaimer" post). She specifically refers to the Antelope (actually the Boulder Complex) fires that occurred last summer and wonders why the burnt trees are still standing, the wood is rotting and they pose a hazard. My issue is not that Diane is wrong about needing to salvage - I wholeheartedly agree that salvaging timber is necessary, for a variety of reasons, after a fire. But her information on Antelope is at least a couple of months old! The acreage around Antelope lake was salvaged recently and efforts are still under way to rehab the area - I should know, I signed the Decision Memo to conduct the operations while detailing as a District Ranger. The fire occurred in July and harvesting operations, as I understand it, ended a week or so ago (about 7 months later). Diane and others may bemoan the time it takes, but Forest Service management goes through an open, public process, that gives the agency the time to make the best science-based decisions possible. The district personnel (me included) spent a lot of time talking to people, understanding the environmental issues and making the decision to salvage and re-plant. The decision was appealed by an environmental group, but the decision was backed by solid science, was upheld on appeal, and now the work is being done to regain the forest.

Contrary to Diane's comments, the Antelope effort was US Forest Service policies and public input working perfectly to come to the most defensible decision. And not just because I signed the memo authorizing the project - the district folks had most of the hard work ahead of them after my detail ended and they saw it through...

The Lassen County Times really ought to do a major story on the Boulder Complex fire, its aftermath, why the environmental group (Earth Island Institute) was wrong in its appeal, and how active management is going to get most of the Antelope basin back to healthy forest conditions.

A Disclaimer

One of those areas of interest to me that I have largely avoided discussing is the US Forest Service. The reason for this is, of course, because I work for the organization and like most employees work very hard at maintaining a distinction between my official duties and my personal opinions, beliefs, etc. (Contrary to what most “civilians” think, codes of ethics are drilled into us constantly and almost all public employees I know adhere to that strict code, often to the point of restricting their own personal freedoms outside of the workplace. The same cannot be said for politicians, however; despite being public employees under the same restrictions as the rest of us who work in government, I am constantly amazed at the daily egregious breeches of ethical behavior exhibited by politicians of all party affiliations. There is clearly a double standard at work…but I digress…). What few Forest Service issues I have directly commented on have been limited to those bits of information found easily on the internet – by anyone.

I may have to re-think staying away from Forest Service and other land management agency issues, however. In doing so, I must follow RangerX’s lead and post a disclaimer (I also hope that RangerX understands that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and won't mind that I used many of the same phrases in developing my own disclaimer!). The basic tenets of ethical conduct demand that I a) don’t use my position for financial gain (not bloody likely with blogging anyway!); b) don’t disclose “inside” agency information not already generally available to the public – more specifically, that I don’t use agency information (unavailable elsewhere) to entice new readers to my blog!; and c) that I don’t speak for the agency. Of course, with federal rules and regulations it’s never that simple (hey, this is the government!) but that’s the gist. I would also note, that for those of us on the bottom rungs of the government network, we must not only avoid the strictly legal definitions of ethics violations, we must also avoid the “appearance” of un-ethical behavior (something politicians don’t apparently have to sweat…just as long as they don’t violate the letter of the law! – most government employees have a higher ethical standard they need to abide by). So if it’s even potentially perceivable as an ethical lapse in judgment, I won’t be discussing it on this blog.

All this does not mean that I can’t have an opinion on Forest Service policies, activities, etc. I am covered by free speech rights as much as the next person. In fact, I think government employees often remain too tight lipped on issues, particularly when it comes to suffering criticism from outside the agency. Many members of the public feel free to criticize government employees, usually because it’s a “safe” thing to do. Most public employees won’t react, so a critic can bluff a lot of people with unsubstantiated BS and not worry about getting called on the carpet for it. I think it’s time to start calling the bluff. Feel free to criticize (it’s your right!) but prepared to do so only at your own intellectual risk. You’ll still probably win – most employees, even if they know you’re an idiot, won’t get in a public pissing match if only to avoid embarrassing the agency (again, public employees maintain a higher moral standard).

So, after all that, I point you to the disclaimer in my personal profile.

The Real Question Is Would You Want Egnor As Your Doctor?

Our esteemed creationist M.D., Michael Egnor, continues distorting evolutionary theory and its relationship to medicine. In a Evolution News and Views piece yesterday, Egnor makes fun of an Alliance for Science essay contest for high school students where they are asked to answer the follwoing question: "Why would I have wanted my doctor to have studied evolution?". PZ (several times) and Orac (again, several times) demonstrate Egnor's ignorance on the topic of evolution as well as the relationship between evolutionary biology and medicine. In this piece Egnor suggests the following point-blank:

I am a professor of neurosurgery, I work and teach at a medical school, I do brain research, and in 20 years I’ve performed over 4000 brain operations. I never use evolutionary biology in my work. Would I be a better surgeon if I assumed that the brain arose by random events? Of course not. Doctors are detectives. We look for patterns, and in the human body, patterns look very much like they were designed. Doctors know that, from the intricate structure of the human brain to the genetic code, our bodies show astonishing evidence of design. That’s why most doctors—nearly two-thirds according to national polls—don’t believe that human beings arose merely by chance and natural selection. Most doctors don’t accept evolutionary biology as an adequate explanation for life. Doctors see, first-hand, the design of life.

I do use many kinds of science related to changes in organisms over time. Genetics is very important, as are population biology and microbiology. But evolutionary biology itself, as distinct from these scientific fields, contributes nothing to modern medicine.

Egnor also trots out the "Darwin = Eugenics = Hitler" BS again although that has been debunked time and again and shown for what it is: a marketing ploy creationists use to try to get the stupid to believe evolutionary biology is evil. But, just in case you haven't heard the argument, Orac provides a quick synopsis:

Aaagh! I can't believe he's invoking the whole "Darwinism equals eugenics" canard. That's about as idiotic as it comes. Even if it were true that eugenicists used evolutionary theory to justify their vile activities in the early 20th century and the whole concept of "racial hygiene," it would be irrelevant. Just because some people put a scientific theory to evil use does not say anything whatsoever about whether that scientific theory is valid or not. One might just as well condemn Einstein, Neils Bohr, and all the physicists whose work formed the basis for the construction of the atomic bomb for the use to which their work was put.

As for that last line, I recently made the same point when our northstate's creationist lawyer Larry Caldwell propped up the same old tired connection:

It seems likely to me that Goethe's eugenics views were underwritten not by Darwinian evolution, but by biblical teaching. We certainly know that, contrary to creationist claims, Hitler, Himmler and most of the Nazis used the guise of Christian religion to justify their behavior. Eugenics might be a theoretical derivative of evolution...but its application is driven by religious worldviews. In his zeal to tag evolution with the mark of human atrocity, Caldwell misses the more fundamental connection.

It is not biological theory that leads to human atrocity, it is the politicization of religious faith, absent reason and logic and disdainful of proper science, that promotes and then justifies human atrocities committed in the name of whatever god happens to be convenient.

Orac further trounces Egnor's faulty assertion that evolutionary biology has nothing to do with medicine. I also remember commenting on an article a while back, in which researchers specifically used evolutionary theory to develope new enzymes, some of which will have medical application. Despite the fact that doctors may not themselves apply evolutionary biology in their day-to-day practice, the basic tenets of how organisms are put together and work (or don't work and could be fixed) are evolutionary in origin. Again, follow the links to read the volumes of material Egnor leaves out of his comments on evolution.

Egnor's question did, however, get me to thinking. Not about how much evolution I'd want my doctor to understand, but how much of an Intelligent Design proponent would I want my doctor to be?:
- since my neurosurgeon cannot recite a single actual fact evolutionary biology, should I be cocerned there are a lot of other medical facts he doesn't understand?;

- since my neurosurgeon is willing to distort some science to make way for his personal belief system, perhaps I should question what medical science is being distorted when he operates on me?;

- if my neurosurgeon thinks my particular neuro-pathways were designed, then should I be worried that he won't fix a problem because to doesn't want to interfere with God's handiwork?;

- would my neurosurgeon be open to the implication of his work, that the intelligent designer is not perfect and screws up the design every once and while, and even look for serious problems that I might have?;

- if I am gay (or an atheist), should I be worried that my ID advocating neurosurgeon will simply chock my condition up to whim of an omnipotent deity who wanted me to suffer these problems because I was gay (or an atheist)?

- if new treatments became available because another, less intellectual hamstrung researcher developed them using evolutionary principles, will my ID advocating neurosurgeon not use them because he thinks evolutionary theory and eugenics are the same thing?

Egnor's question gets you to think, doesn't it?

[postscript: I see that PZ caught Egnor's idiocy and responded with "Career Day at the Discovery Institute Preschool"]

The Taliban Are Coming! The Taliban Are Coming!

Don't get too comfortable after last November's election...

The Religious Right is shifting focus to the states and trying to ramrod all kinds of legislation through that would bring us closer to a Taliban-like form of government:

The assaults are by no means limited to efforts to aid religious education. Other bills focus on issues like religion in public schools, controversies related to marriage, the display of religious symbols by government and the teaching of "intelligent design" creationism in public schools.

The spate of new state-based attacks on church-state separation is a stark reminder that the fight to maintain the wall of separation between church and state never ends. The outlook in Congress might be brighter in light of recent political changes, but many states remain roiling cauldrons of controversy.

Don't think this is Talibanesque? How about these?:

At least two states are facing attempts to pass laws approving certain types of government-supported religion.

State Sen. Chris Buttars of Utah wants to pass a state law that he says will expand religious liberty. Critics say it will open a can of worms. S.B. 1171 would ostensibly prevent government from interfering with the free exercise of religion. Opponents say the measure is unnecessary because those rights are already protected by the U.S. and Utah constitutions. They believe Buttars, a longtime proponent of Religious Right causes, is trying to find ways to increase governmental involvement with religion under the guise of religious free exercise.
Buttars' bill passed the Senate Government Operations Committee in January.

Among the most galling measures is a proposed state constitutional amendment in Virginia. HJ 724, introduced by Del. Charles W. Carrico Sr., would amend the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, authored by Thomas Jefferson, to permit government-sanctioned prayer and the recognition of "religious beliefs, heritage, and traditions on public property, including public schools." (The language is lifted from a proposed federal constitutional amendment offered by former U.S. Rep. Ernest Istook of Oklahoma.)

In Kentucky, lawmakers will consider HR 4, a resolution that calls on Congress to pass a bill designed to make it harder for people to bring church-state lawsuits into the federal courts.

A similar but even more extreme measure is pending in Arizona. Sen. Karen Johnson, a Republican from Mesa, is sponsoring a bill that would bar state courts from being able to intervene in any cases that challenge "the acknowledgement of God as the sovereign source of law, liberty or government."

There is no difference between these efforts and what Muslim extremists have nurtured in the Middle East. They are all on the same path, just using two different gods.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

More "Christian Conservationists"?

I have been consistent in my view that fundamentalist Christians cannot claim to be "environmentalists" in any sort of legitimate sense of the word. While Christians can change light bulbs and recycle with the best of us, these activities, although helpful, are not the root of environmental issues that face us. I come to this conclusion largely because our most critical environmental issues require science literacy in general, and specifically fluent knowledge of the evolutionary underpinnings of ecology; both of which are largely rejected by fundamentalist Christians claiming to have discovered the need to "protect" God's creation.

Two recent news stories, one noting that Jerry Falwell rejects global warming as a "tool of Satan", and the other a Catholic cardinal claiming the Antichrist will actually be an ecologist simply lends credence to my contention that we cannot trust the earth's (and humanity's) future to the adherents of the Christian religion. But it is more than just their blatant disregard for science; they don't buy into the concept of publicly managed space - it's useless unless it's owned by someone. Their political puppets in the conservative movement have unfunded land management and environmental protection agencies that are the last bastion between humanity and environmental Armageddon. They have attempted to outsource jobs from public workers, who largely maintain a measure of moral responsibility to the environment and people of the earth, to private corporations and companies who have no ethical regard for the long term survival of the human race, only their short term collection of profits. And because their profits are so high and they attend church on a regular basis to assuage their guilt, and in doing so, provide their "cut" to religious organizations, the churches themselves would not dare question the motivations of those with wealth. Economics will always trump morality.

Rightly or wrongly, Christian leaders such as these are the vocal mouthpieces for the Christian religion (or at least their version of it) and therefore "speak" for Christians on these matters. If you don't like being linked to these people then don't bitch to me...get off your ass and start to tell these jokers, loudly and in their face, that they are wrong. Not just that they don't speak for you...but that they are wrong. They are wrong about the conclusions they are drawing from a Bronze Age book; they are wrong about their beliefs; their religion is not "sacred" and in any free society should be challenged openly, even disrespectfully, if they dare bring it into the public sphere; they possess no factual knowledge about modern science; they are largely wastes of genetic material.

These religious figures are a threat to the existence of every man, woman and child on this planet.

Religiosity = Social Dysfunction? Looks That Way...

From Delaware interesting perspective on the relationship between religion and social dysfunction. Sam Harris points out the data suggesting that red states are generally more socially dysfunctional than blue states, despite red state populations claiming the moral high ground in most cases. In a study entitled Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies, author Gregory S. Paul writes:

In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy, and abortion in the prosperous democracies....

...The United States is almost always the most dysfunctional of the developed democracies, sometimes spectacularly so, and almost always scores poorly....

...Indeed, the data examined in this study demonstrates that only the more secular, pro-evolution democracies have, for the first time in history, come closest to achieving practical “cultures of life” that feature low rates of lethal crime, juvenile-adult mortality, sex related dysfunction, and even abortion.

Delaware Watch then asks...are we surprised?

No, not has always forced societies to come to grips with their social problems...only religion is adept at social illusion.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Evolution News and Views Demonstrates Its Intellectual Supremacy Once Again

I recently signed up for "Google Alerts" for key words, such as "evolution", "creationism" and "archaeology". As result, I get a deluge of email daily with notifications of those topics showing up in blog entries, web pages, etc.

My only regret in doing this is that I am forced to wade through a lot of drivel (not dribble, although that word might work here too) like this from the intellectual giants at Evolution News and Views. Whoever Robert Crowther is, he writes poorly, can't get an understandable point across to his audience, completely misses the concept of "law" in science, and clearly has absolutely no fundamental comprehension of evolution whatsoever. Like most of the idiots writing for that website, he depends on stupid people to listen to him.

Lassen County Times in Review - Backtracking A Bit

I was waiting for this....

The week before last, Barbara France, the editor for our local paper, The Lassen County Times, published a column on the goings on at a recent Susanville City Council meeting and specifically discussed the behavior of my favorite local conservative, Kurt Bonham. Kurt, who as many of you know, publishes his blog, Fly At Night, finally responded to Barbara's column.

It is tempting for me to use this opportunity to again lambaste the Lassen County Times, given that in this instance Kurt and I seem to have found common ground against the same adversary. However, I don't attend City Council meetings and since I do not have first hand knowledge of the situation, I'll let Kurt and Barbara hash it out. However, Kurt echoed my main complaint about the Lassen County Times - one I have brought forward in Times editorials, letters to the editor, and here at Northstate Science: their consistent inability to write opinions with any kind of factual basis. Kurt writes:

A reporter should not write articles based upon what she and her friends believe. A dose of facts and some leg-work to visit the source might be of assistance in getting the story straight the first time...France can write what she wants when she wants but I think that it would be refreshing if she were to find a way to gather the facts before spouting off on a subject that she has no knowledge of and can’t possibly comprehend and granting herself the badge of “power” over someone who is simply doing what he campaigned to do.

I don't know whether France is correct in her assessment of City Council meetings (and Kurt in particular) in this instance. I wasn't there and haven't gathered any "facts" to address the issue. But I do think the LCT has a track-record of writing irresponsible opinion pieces in which they cherry-pick information or simply fail to gather any data on an issue at all. I have also accused them of fostering opinion from a particular religious perspective - although the LCT has been quite on this front for a while, I have no doubt there will be ample opportunity to address this issue in the future.

Comments Change on Northstate Science

I'm afraid the spammers have found Northstate Science, so I have started the word verification feature of Blogger; I hate to place obstacles in front of those who would like to comment, but it's getting to the point where I think it's a necessity.

Friday, March 02, 2007

A Really Cool Four Stone Hearth Edition

Carl at Hot Cup of Joe has done an absolutely brilliant job of putting Four Stone Hearth together this week. You HAVE to go visit and see what one commenter called a "totally new dimension" to the blog carnival. I'm really bummed I missed this one....