2010: FTSOS in review, October to December

This is the fourth and final installment in the 2010 review of FTSOS. See the other three here and here and here.

The most important post I think I have ever made was the one about Tyler Clementi. He was the Rutgers student who was outed as gay by his roommate. As a result – and as a result of a bigoted society – he killed himself. His death was an unnecessary tragedy that ought to bring shame to anyone who has ever voted against civil rights for gays or anyone who has ever made one moment of a gay person’s life more difficult directly because that person was gay.

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, so it was disconcerting to read that a few high school refs were being threatened with punishment for trying to support breast cancer research. They wore some pink whistles during football playoff games in order to raise awareness; they were later told they were in violation of some petty dress code and therefore may be facing suspension – including suspension of the pay they had planned to donate to the Susan G. Komen Foundation. After the blogosphere erupted, the organization that oversees refs in that area (Washington state) backed down.

I also went to some length to explain a few basic things about religion that conflict with science. Miracles, directed evolution, intercessory prayer, and the belief that faith is a virtue are all things which science rejects. It simply isn’t possible for someone to hold belief in any of those things and also logically claim he has no conflict with science.

This was the month the board which oversees local quack Christopher Maloney agreed with me that by not referring to himself as a naturopathic doctor, he was creating confusion; people might think of him as a real doctor. Except for when he insists on putting himself in the spotlight or when there is a special occasion (such as this), I consider the issue he created to be done. He lost.

In this month I used the Socratic Method to explain our likely basis for morality. I largely pointed to our common ancestry and the obvious survival benefits that cooperation offers. I also talked about why we ought to act certain ways. We all use ultimately subjective reasoning, and that’s okay: Most of us share a number of values inherent in our nature. We use these values as our common basis for saying what is right or wrong. It’s sort of like a stand-in for objectivity. And we all have it.

I also used Edwin Hubble’s calculations for the age of the Universe to demonstrate a key point about science. One of the most enduring and annoying criticisms of science by people poorly versed in the sciences is that the practice has a history of being wrong. If it has been wrong about so many things in the past, why should anyone believe it now? Except science really doesn’t have the history everyone seems to think it does. The issue is with poor or limited data (such as what Hubble had). The scientific method actually has no limitations in and of itself. The limits come from our own minds.

I also discussed a paper from Nature which a number of creationists butchered. My focus was a particular creationist familiar to FTSOS readers, but a quick search at the time showed that a whole slew of creationists had fundamentally misunderstood the paper. This is understandable since it is unlikely any of them even read the paper (not that they would be able to understand most of it anyway), merely taking their cues from other creationists. In short, the paper was a study of how alleles become fixed in asexual populations versus sexually reproducing populations . In the former, alleles, if they are particularly advantageous, tend to spread through populations rapidly, quickly becoming fixed. But in drosophila, researchers found that for alleles to spread and become important, fixation was not necessarily required. Alleles act in much more complicated systems in sexually reproducing populations than in asexual organisms, so the way their frequency rises or falls is also more complicated.

Since I mentioned FTSOS hitting the arbitrary number of 100,000 hits in an earlier installment of this review, I suppose I will also mention that it hit 200,000 hits in December. There isn’t much more to add to this, though, is there?

In a more significant post, I pointed out that the Catholic Church thinks (probably without realizing it) that Double Effect is wrong. The Church stripped a hospital in Arizona of its affiliation because the hospital made the correct choice to save a woman’s life at the expense of the not-a-human-being fetus she was carrying. This is pretty much the example textbooks give in order to illustrate the very concept of Double Effect.

I also wrote about a local (real) doctor who supports some quackery. Dustin Sulak is from Hallowell, Maine and he has been making a living making out marijuana prescriptions. That’s all fine and dandy (and I’m sure he is being responsible with his power), but he also supports Reiki. That whole ‘field’ is just a bunch of malarkey that has no place in medicine. I find it unfortunate that a perfectly qualified medical professional would lend credence to something so obviously made-up like that.

Finally, I lamented the fact that Republicans were holding up three extremely important bills this month. All three – the repeal of DADT, the New START treaty, and the 9/11 First Responders health care bill – were eventually passed or ratified. The whole hub-bub was a political creation: the Republicans want to embarrass the President, not get anything done. I don’t think the Democrats are by any means wonderful, but at least they tend to be at least half-way pragmatic. And they want 9/11 First Responders to have fucking health care.

So this concludes my review of FTSOS for 2010. Hopefully the next dozen months will be even better.

Lisa Benson doesn’t understand basic science

Lisa Benson is a doltish political cartoonist. Given the most recent cartoon of hers I saw, I presume she watches a lot of Sean Hannity.

How are people so ignorant that they manage to confuse weather and climate after the age of 7?

That said, there is an aspect of this cartoon I appreciate. What a lot of Christian right-wingers do is when they perceive something as bad, they call it a religion. This is obviously ironic because religion is fundamental to their lives; they clearly think at least their religion is good. Of course, I’m all for calling religion bad – because it is – but I don’t see that being a strong point to make for people who might want to promote their own religious beliefs.

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.

Twins who have different fathers

I wasn’t aware this really happened.

A pair of twins born in Poland have different fathers, Polish media reported Monday — in apparently only the seventh such case in the world.

The twins’ mother became pregnant while she was having relations with her husband and also having an affair, reported broadcaster TVN 24.

The woman, whose name was not given, filed for a divorce after giving birth to the twins, one male and one female.

The woman later conducted tests to prove her husband was not the father of either child.

The tests showed, however, that the husband was the father of the baby boy, while the other man was the baby girl’s father.

Such rare cases are possible when a woman produces two eggs and has sex with another partner while she’s ovulating, local media reported.

This beats Monday’s blizzard, don’t you think?

The blizzard that hit the Northeast this past Monday has nothing on the Japanese Alps.

The conservative refrain

The most recent refrain being utilized by conservative pundits is to preface something awful they want to say with something like this:

And I know, I know. Liberals out there are going to be all over me for this because it must be racist, but…

And then the pundit proceeds to say something racist. Just today I heard some conservative host going on and on about Kwanzaa being a fake, awful, evil holiday that shouldn’t be celebrated. Why, heck, if blacks want to celebrate something, they have the WHOLE month of February! The guy even managed to have a real point here and there, but he covered everything he had to say with racism.

I guess I just don’t understand how saying “I’m not racist” makes it okay to then say something racist.

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.

Women and sports

I read a short opinion piece today that listed a number reasons why women’s sports are not as successful as men’s sports. I am unable to find that article, but this very similar article lists the points:

  • Men form the core of sports fans and they are not watching women’s sports.
  • Women also do not watch.
  • When young, women do not receive enough support and encouragement from friends and family.
  • There is little media coverage.
  • Culture discourages women from entering sports.

The one point that is severely missed here is the most obvious: On the whole, men are better at sports. And people want to watch the best of the best.

I raised this point in an all-female environment and the most prominent counter-argument was that men and women cannot be fairly compared. But of course they can. I can compare any group to any other group if my point is to see which performs better at sports. Ten year olds versus twelve year olds at baseball? The older kids are going to be better on average – they’re bigger, stronger, and faster.

If a woman is able to perform at the level required to play at the professional level of the NHL, MLB, NFL, or NBA, then of course she is going to be signed in a minute. Those leagues are about the sports for the fan, but for the owners, it’s all just a business. If a woman can hit .300, run, throw, and catch, she is going to be playing for an MLB team sooner than later. That’s going to bring in a whole lot of cash.

We’ve seen women break or attempt to break into big time male-dominated sports. Danica Patrick has had a successful career as a driver (though, for the record, neither she nor any of her male colleagues are athletes). Michelle Wie certainly wasn’t stopped from attempting to move from women’s golf to men’s. She got into one men’s tournament and failed to qualify for the PGA tour, but our culture, her past encouragement, a lack of viewers, media coverage, etc, had nothing to do with her inability to compete. The fact is, she is at a competitive disadvantage to men. This is all the more true for sports like football and hockey.

The barrier here is in physical ability, on the whole. We see individual women sometimes succeed because some women can be better than most men at sports – but most men are still better than most women. And more importantly, the top male athletes are better than the top female athletes. Even if we could get rid of all the things that make women less likely to go into sports than men, men are still going to be the top performers because speed, agility, strength, and size are all greatly increased by higher testosterone levels.

I just wish we could all be a little honest. Men, on the whole, are better at sports than women, on the whole. We have these systems that rely on the ability to perform to a certain level – most runs, most points, most goals. And the best male athletes are going to be able to reach these levels better than the best female athletes. This is a big reason why women’s sports flounder. Is this so wrong? I really have no desire to watch a basketball league where it is big news that one of its players managed to actually dunk. (This really was big news for the WNBA a year or two ago.) So we can’t just give a blanket blame to society and culture and biases and discrimination, even if all those things might play a role. Sports are about top performance. If a woman can compete with the best men, great. But she’s the exception, not the rule.

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.

Thought of the day

One of the biggest whines I hear about science blogs is that they are not enough about science. Of course, this whine only arises when the focus of the blog is pro-atheism. This leads me to conclude two things:

  • This is just another way for people tell atheists to shut; it’s disingenuous.
  • People do not understand any of the arguments being put forth by these pro-atheist blogs.

The reason a lot of pro-atheist science blogs focus on issues which, at least at first glance, do not appear to be very science-y is that conveying the latest research is not the only way to defend and promote science. For instance, having a wider appeal is going to gain a wider audience. If PZ only wrote about research like this, how many people would read about it? The reason more than a handful of individuals even know it exists is that they are already reading Pharyngula for a lot of the other content.

Another way to defend and therefore promote science is to attack religion. It is a fact that religious thinking harms science on the whole. (Please note “on the whole”. I have little doubt that something like “A-ha! But what about Excellent Scientist X? He’s religious!” just popped through at least a couple heads.) We have people who believe the Earth is 6,000 years old. We have those who deny the fact of evolution. We have parents who believe faith healing is okay. We have restrictions on research for bogus ethical concerns. All these things are a direct result of religion. For anyone who believes science deserves the highest mantle, talking about the harms of religion is one extremely effective method towards bringing science up to its proper place.