2010: FTSOS in review, July to September

This is the third installment of the 2010 review of FTSOS. See the first two here and here.

Some of the smaller posts I’ve made that I think deserve a little more attention are the ones where I emphasize that biology is all about shape. The article I wrote about the fight against HIV is one of those posts. Research earlier this year found at least one location on HIV molecules that remains a consistent shape between individual viruses. This is important because HIV’s ability to be differently shaped in different parts of a single body makes it difficult to combat.

I also wrote about the difference between atheists, new atheists, and anti-theists. One of the public relation problems for atheism is that it is viewed as a dirty word. People assume it means absolute certainty, and that is seen as arrogant. It’s ironic because belief in God usually comes with certainty and that isn’t seen as being so arrogant, but I digress. Atheism is not certainty. Furthermore, where it is involved in new atheism and anti-theism, atheism acts as a descriptive base; new atheism and anti-theism are normative positions.

One of my all-time favorite posts is the one about photolyase and cancer. Photolyase is a protein that captures light and uses two of its constituents (a single proton and single electron) to force contorted nucleotides back into place. It is not present in humans, but is common in plants and other animals, helping to keep their genes functioning properly. This may be one reason we’re more susceptible to cancer than many of our fellow organisms.

This was a skimpy month for FTSOS. I was away on a couple vacations for the bulk of the month, so the majority of the posts were either from my “Thought of the day” series or they were pictures/YouTube videos. But for what was there, I couldn’t resist pointing out and expanding on a fantastic quote from the judge who said Prop 8 in California is unconstitutional. In his quote he said a ban on gays getting married fails to advance any rational cause. I compared that sentiment to the idea that the majority cannot be allowed to discriminate simply because it is the majority.

I also made a post about a website devoted to philosophical thought experiments. The thought experiment I chose to highlight was Judith Jarvis Thompson’s Trolley Problem. My big motivator was a recent discussion with another blogger who laughably claimed that the trolley experiment was merely a logistical exercise, not an exercise about morality. To date he is still the only person in the world to believe that.

I also went through a few theistic arguments that are obviously failures. The most notable in my mind is the argument that says everything has a cause, therefore the Universe had a cause. There are two major problems with this. First, then why not just say a sort of ‘exo-nature’ caused the Universe? There is no need for consciousness – in fact, that only makes the theistic argument less probable. Second, the whole basis for this argument rests in the idea that forces result in reactions. For instance, if I push a chair, that chair moves; I applied a force. This is basic physics. But the whole shebang of forces and equal and opposite reactions? We’re talking about the science of what we know that happens within the Universe. And all we know necessarily breaks down prior to the Big Bang. The First Cause argument cannot be used because it rests about an unwarranted extension of science. Religion abusing science? Crazy, I know.

The beginning of September was just as skimpy as the end of August because I was still on vacation. But while I never gave a huge post on the subject, the defining moment of the month (and year and decade and…) for me was my hike of Kilimanjaro. I have started writing about it at this point – just not for FTSOS. But in lieu of that you can read the account of the journey from my fellow group member and current Facebook buddy Jim Hodgson.

I also gave a very lengthy post on why prostitution ought to be legal. No one seemed to care, but I put a lot of effort into, so I thought I would mention it here. Basically, we make the practice illegal because of our own discomfort with sex as a society. We also draw false correlations between it and other illegal activities: of course one illegal thing will bring with it other illegal things if it’s something people want. Finally, for the safety and health of all involved, it would be better to legalize and regulate prostitution than keep the old system we have now.

One of the most popular posts on FTSOS that people found via search engines was the one where I lamented low science and math scores in the United States. A lack of funding relative to other areas, hostility towards science, and a general anti-intellectual trend in the U.S. all contribute to the decline of America on the world stage in education.

Another lament was my post about the anti-vax crowd causing deaths. The fact is, people who advocate against vaccines or for made-up alternatives to vaccines are making the world a more dangerous place, making people sick and even causing deaths. Get vaccinated – and, if you have them, especially get your children vaccinated.

Once again I really want to highlight a fourth post here. In this case, it is the one I made about the Problem of Evil. This has forever been an issue that no Christian (or other relevant believer) has been able to resolve. If God is good and evil exists, then we need to answer why. Appealing to free will fails because while God is necessarily good, free will does not need to necessarily exist. In other words, God is required to be good; he is not required to create free will.

Expect October to December tomorrow.

2010: FTSOS in review, April to June

Here is the second installment of the 2010 FTSOS review. See the first installment here.

Easily the top post of the month (in fact, it is number 5 all time) was the one about the topless march in Farmington. It resulted in a lot of people clicking the Photography tab on FTSOS in search of all the topless women who were marching through the small town of Farmington up here in Maine. Because I guess topless women are rare.

When I set up this blog, I never had the intention of giving a good focus to quacks and charlatans. But I just had to write about the scumbag Lawrence Stowe. The guy was caught on a CBS special stealing from the sick and desperate. He was ought ruining lives and families, laughing all the way to the bank. The guy is easily one of the biggest pieces of shit about whom I have ever read.

There was also the issue of FTSOS commenter Jack Hudson chiding a family member of mine through texts. I made mention of the issue on his blog, but he very quickly edited my comment so as not to reflect his misdeed. As a result – and being someone who hates dishonesty – I had to make a post on FTSOS explaining what had happened. This caused Jack to first deny his actions and then vow never to return to this blog. I later granted the small possibility that he was not guilty, but that did nothing to dampen the hissy-fit. Of course, since the texts came from Minnesota (which is where Jack lives) and since they all referenced a specific Facebook interaction he had with my family member, I had to remain unwilling to retract anything. I stand by that.

The big science news of the month was that Craig Venter created synthetic DNA that worked when put in a cell. It is a phenomenal technical achievement that opens up the door to a whole world of synthetic creations. We can now, at least in theory, go into a computer program, change a few amino acids and come up with new genes and gene products. I suspect this will prove invaluable to cancer research.

About midway through the month I decided to tackle, for the nth time, the idea of objective morality. The truth is, even if theists are right that there is an objective morality, they do not arrive at their conclusions objectively. People are always picking and choosing what they want to believe, how to interpret the things they use for their beliefs, and how those things fit into what they already believe. As I said back in May, even a claim of objective morality is a subjective position.

I also talked about the fact that atheism has never been responsible for an act of evil. Two things arise from this. First, people often go back to that old chestnut, “Ideas don’t hurt people! People hurt people!” Of course, this just ignores the fact that people are composed of ideas. If we are not willing to say that ideas lead to actions, then it is no longer clear that we can even say ideas are good or bad. And what does it even mean to say people – explicitly not ideas – are responsible for actions? If people are not just packages of ideas, then what are they? What does it mean to say “Joe punched Suzy” if we deny that underlying that statement is that Joe had the idea to move his fist towards Suzy? Second, people will point to Stalin, Hitler, etc and say “What about those atheists?” This is silly first because Hitler was an evolution-denying, Christian creationist. The silliness then continues when we look at Stalin (and any other leader who was an atheist) because atheism is not a normative position. Since it is purely descriptive, it does not result in any “ought” or “ought not”; it says nothing of what we should or should not do. Stalin and co never acted out of atheism. It is not logically possible.

The most popular post of the month had to be the one where I told people not to talk to the cops. If the police suspect a person of something, it serves the interests of the police, not the suspect, to get a discussion going. The job of the police is to find out information they can use against people. And even innocent people are at risk. The best way to avoid the whole mess? Don’t talk to the cops. Seriously.

In the race for governor of Maine, we learned that the eventual winner of the election, Republican Paul LePage, is a creationist. He later danced, obfuscated, and dodged the issue. The fact is, the guy is not going to object one bit when some Maine school board thinks it will be a good idea to teach creationism to students.

In skin cancer news, researchers found a certain drug, ipilimumab, which allows the immune system to run free and more effectively fight cancer. Responses to the drug were impressive for those with late stage skin cancers and it is hoped that the treatments can be improved. It was thought the FDA might approve the drug for use this year, but it looks like the decision date is going to be March 26, 2011.

Expect July to September tomorrow.

2010: FTSOS in review, January to March

Yes, this is one of those lists. And there are going to be four parts. Deal.

There was some good stories from this month, but I can only focus on a couple. One of my favorites was the discovery that pushed tetrapod evolution back 18 million years. This was a quantitative change – not a qualitative one. That means that the discovery did nothing to change the relations scientists have constructed for species at and around that time (397 million years ago); it only increased the time frame in which we recognize tetrapods to have lived.

This was also the month when I was attacked by a bunch of caricature feminists. The whole issue arose over my position that a picture of two fat women on CNN was an objectification of fat people (because it accompanied an article about fat women). The caricature feminists took this to mean that I hate women, don’t think they should have any rights, and as I recently saw in an unrelated thread on an unrelated blog 11 months after the fact, that apparently I’m also racist.

And then there was the first threat of the Maloney Mess. It is not clear how the maker of that threat knows Maloney, but she apparently knows him well enough to be aware of the profession of his wife. (Everyone now knows she’s a lawyer since she amateurishly issued a cease-and-desist request, but that happened only recently.)

The big hubbub during this month was the suspension of FTSOS. The reason had to do with Andreas Moritz and Christopher Maloney. I hardly need to go into great detail at this point, but briefly: I made a post criticizing Moritz nearly a year earlier. I later made a post criticizing Maloney. The two got in contact with each other as a direct result. Moritz emailed WordPress with information provided to him by Maloney. The claim was that Maloney was a doctor (not true) and I said he was not a doctor (true). Since there was a threat of a lawsuit, WordPress demanded I change or delete my statement. I did. But I was suspended anyway. As it turns out, Maloney is a naturopathic doctor, not a real doctor, so I was always in the right. But that wasn’t important to anyone at the time. Well, except Simon Singh, Richard Dawkins, PZ Myers and a number of other defenders of real science who helped publicize the censorship. And presto, I am back.

This was also the month when FTSOS hit the arbitrary mark of 100,000 views. I have always been open about the fact that I am fortunate to have images show up in Google Image, but the vast majority of views come from posts with substance. And really, that has always been the trick: Put up content that interests people and they will read it.

One of the biggest non-Moritz/Maloney posts was the one about circumcision. I always feel the reactions to these sort of posts end up very skewed because much of the absurdly vehement opposition is just that – absurd and vehement. It is a vocal minority being vocal. But they do have legitimate concerns. In fact, I suspect if I wrote that article again, it would go through some significant revision. But I do not see myself ever sharing the inane passion against circumcision that the anti-snip crowd displays.

My favorite post from this month was the one on mitochondria and microsatellites. I wrote about the difference between how the two are utilized in studies on populations and evolution. Mitochondria is good for the long-term, but microsatellites can be very useful over short periods, perhaps over a few thousands generations. In the post I cited one study on the spatial and temporal structures of populations of Atlantic cod off the coast of Canada and Maine, extending to Nantucket Shoals.

There was also the heartbreaking story of Constance McMillen. Her bigoted southern school would not allow her to attend her prom with her girlfriend because, well, it was a bigoted school. A judge ruled as much, but the school then encouraged parents to create a private prom to which Constance would not be invited. Constance has since moved on, receiving scholarships from celebrities and others who respect her for being a human being who matters.

Another heartbreaker comes from the post about Kelly Glossip. Kelly was in a relationship with Dennis Engelhard, a police officer who died while on duty. And even though they had long shared their lives together, Kelly was not allowed to receive any sort of survivor benefits because the two were legally prevented from entering a same-sex marriage. I think if more people bothered to realize how their anti-gay, pro-bigot stances hurt real human beings, we would start to see a lot less opposition to equality.

Finally, I have to break with the short-lived tradition of only featuring three posts per month because I just have to mention my article about the reasonableness of absolute uncertainty. I wanted to explain what atheists mean when they say “There’s probably no God” since so many people seem to think atheism is the same as certainty. It is not.

Expect April to June tomorrow.


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