A hugely pathetic understanding of evolution

One of the creationists favorite pieces of bullshit rhetoric is to say to anyone who accepts the facts of evolution, “You are beholden to your evolutionary past! Why would you do anything good if the point of life is to merely survive? Checkmate, atheists.” It’s an awful line that just won’t go away, but I figure if I make a post like this, at least I will have an easy stock response on hand. So here’s why it’s so awful.

First, it is a conflation of descriptive and normative claims. (I am thoroughly convinced most Christians do not understand the difference.) Evolution deals with the facts of biology as discovered via the powerful methodology of science. It’s a description of observation; it does not have a say on how one ought to act. Morality, on the other hand, is nothing but normative claims. It is the way in which we say what is right and wrong. It is the precise opposite of descriptive claims like those made by science.

Second, it reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of evolution. Simply because the history of all life is marked with ruthless struggle does not mean that we must display such ruthlessness at all times. Or any times. In fact, I think we would want to do just the opposite at most times. But none of that is really pertinent. The facts of our evolution do not mean we must act in this way or that way. It would be like saying all Americans must love the French now and forever because we got so buddy-buddy with them during the Revolutionary War. Could you imagine how upset FOX Noise would be if that were true?

This line of argumentation from creationists is really just an excuse to disengage. Rather than openly debate the merits of this or that moral position, they just appeal to a red herring of an argument. And it isn’t merely creationists. The same tactic is often used by theistic evolutionists. It does a disservice to logical, philosophical debate, but perhaps worse, it undercuts the science at the heart of it all. Ultimately, it is a misunderstanding of the issues: Evolution is a descriptive fact; morality is normative. No matter what moral conclusions one draws, evolution still remains true. Even if one draws conclusions about morality (i.e., not moral positions, but ideas concerning the concept of morality) which conflict with the descriptive fact of evolution, Mr. Darwin’s great idea, with all its modern day modifications, still remains true. And should someone think that evolution leads to particular consequences such as ruthlessness and mayhem (which, incidentally, is an invalid reason to reject acceptance of evolution), even that is immaterial. In addition to those people being wrong on the facts, evolution, once again, still remains true.

So, no, logically inept creationists and friends, you haven’t added anything of value here. As usual. Evolution is descriptive and so has no say on morality. Moreover, even if it did dictate how we ought to live, we would not therefore be beholden to our past anyway. Even if you were right, you’re still wrong. Or as I really need to say more often, you’re wrong in your wrongness.

Stanislaw Burzynski is a quack

A family in the UK has a young child with an inoperable brain tumor. Naturally, they are looking to do anything and everything that may save their daughter’s life. Unfortunately, that includes getting suckered for huge sums of money by Stanislaw Burzynski and his quacking Burzynski clinic of Texas:

Unfortunately, the treatment they want to give her is antineoplaston therapy: it’s pure bunk. The clinic that is trying to suck large sums of money away from the family of a dying child is the Burzynski clinic. So in addition to being a quack, Burzynski is now a vampire, exploiting sick children for profit.

The total sum of money this quackery clinic is seeking to get from this family is around $310,000. What a waste. I find it awful when any amount of money is spent on false hope, but this is abhorrent. This constitutes a massive loss of cash which could otherwise be used on what narrow chances of survival do exist. Nothing the Burzynski clinic does with this bunk therapy is going to help. Like with all quackery, they lack evidence.

What’s more, the people from this clinic took to responding to critical articles out on the Interwebblings by threatening libel suits, proving once again how amazing it is that so many quacks don’t seem to know about the Streisand Effect. Look, quacks, the Internet does not take kindly to sham medicine. Just wait. A current Google search yields favorable results for the clinic, but give it a day. I promise Burzynski isn’t going to like what he sees. (Though I’m sure he is used to seeing plenty of negative results.)

Brownback apologizes

That dopey governor of Kansas who went after a teenager for Tweeting mean things about him has realized his error:

Gov. Sam Brownback apologized Monday for his office’s reaction to a Kansas high school senior’s disparaging tweet about the Republican during a visit to the Statehouse…

“My staff over-reacted to this tweet and for that I apologize,” Brownback said. “Freedom of speech is among our most treasured freedoms.”

Well, it is once you get caught doing something stupid.

The science you won’t hear

Apparently a few global warming denialists skeptics have released some more DAMNING! emails from climate scientists. It appears that they’re actually from the same crop of hacked emails that were released awhile ago, but is anyone going to care? I make it a point to avoid FOX “News”, but I have no doubt that that station along with the other Republican propaganda machines out there will have no problem taking more things out of context whilst simultaneously presenting this stuff as brand new. Of course, what they won’t mention is this:

Climate-change skeptics have pointed to the emails as evidence that researchers were manipulating data to make global warming look more serious than it is. Multiple investigations by UEA, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the National Science Foundation, the British House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, several independent panels and [climate scientist Michael] Mann’s home institution, Pennsylvania State University, found no evidence that these claims were true. The House of Commons did criticize the scientists and UEA for not releasing raw data and for handling freedom-of-information requests poorly. A 2011 parliamentary report concluded that it was time to “move on” from Climategate.

I have a conservative friend who made a big deal out of all this when it was new. (You won’t believe it, but there are conservatives out there who don’t understand a lick of science. Crazy, I know.) Then an early study came out exonerating the scientists of all the nasty claims being made by the anti-science right (sorry to be redundant). He dismissed that study, saying “this if far from over”. I followed up with him as more and more investigations concluded, asking which parts were still alive and kicking. Unfortunately, my follow-ups were all online, so he used the tactic common to many people who are wrong on the Internet – he ran away like a coward. It was really quite symbolic of much of the far right on this issue. And every other scientific issue once they get shown the facts.

And speaking of those who aren’t interested in science, remember the excitement the faster than light neutrino stirred up? No, no, not the genuine scientific excitement. I mean the excitement in the creationist/Christian community. “Why”, they ignorantly said, “this just shows that science doesn’t know what it’s doing!” Yes, yes, we all realize the religious don’t like the fact that science embodies the antithesis of faith. They’re more than happy to abuse the inherent nature of science in order to attack science. If it isn’t dogmatic and sure (based upon nothing more than faith, i.e., an overt lack of evidence), then it just can’t be good, right? That’s probably why this study isn’t likely to show up on too many Christian message boards:

An international team of scientists in Italy studying the same neutrino particles colleagues say appear to have travelled faster than light rejected the startling finding this weekend, saying their tests had shown it must be wrong…

They argue, on the basis of recently published studies by two top U.S. physicists, that the neutrinos pumped down from CERN, near Geneva, should have lost most of their energy if they had travelled at even a tiny fraction faster than light.

But in fact, the ICARUS scientists say, the neutrino beam as tested in their equipment registered an energy spectrum fully corresponding with what it should be for particles traveling at the speed of light and no more.

This doesn’t mark the end of the research on this specific subject, but it does act as a superficial blow to those non-science people who got so excited over all this. I say “superficial” because whether neutrinos can or cannot travel faster than light does no harm to science; the deeper reality is that none of this – absolutely none of it – will favor the religious mindset. But so long as so many people wallow in a fundamental misunderstanding of how science works – it rests upon bodies of evidence, damn it – these new results are unlikely to be promoted by anyone outside the scientific community.

Governor Sam Brownback sucks

Emma Sullivan was on a terrible school field trip to the state capitol building in Kansas when she tweeted this:

Just made mean comments at gov brownback and told him he sucked, in person #heblowsalot

So what did Governor Sam Brownback’s people do? They tattled, of course:

Emma Sullivan, 18, was hauled into her principal’s office and ordered to write letters of apology after one of Governor Sam Brownback’s office contacted the tour organizer to complain about the offending note on the social networking site Twitter.

I believe my letter of apology would have consisted of “And you can go fuck yourself too.”

I’m at a loss about which part of this is worse, the fact that some prick in Brownback’s office told on a high school kid or the fact that Sullivan’s school made her apologize. Maybe this quote can clear things up:

“In general,” spokeswoman Leigh Anne Neal said in an e-mail “students on school-sponsored field trips, in which they are representing the school, would be expected to conduct themselves in accordance with school district policies, including use of electronic devices.

Students may express their personal beliefs, views, and opinions, as long as they do so appropriately and in accordance with school policies.

What a load. In other words, feel free to express yourselves, kids, but only if what you’re saying is stamped and approved. Yeah, Brownback’s people are morons, but the school has handled this like, well, the average high school that is unconcerned with educating children well.

I realize free speech and other basic human rights get ignored in schools because, well, what are kids going to do, amirite, ‘adults’? But regardless, the girl spoke her mind to a public official in person and then Tweeted about it. Good. That’s exactly the sort of thing she ought to be doing. If anything, the school should hold her up as a positive example for the rest of the student body. Of course, if that didn’t happen immediately, it isn’t going to happen now – high school administrators don’t tend to be open to looking like the idiots they usually are. Thank goodness for the Streisand Effect, though:

Governor Sam Brownback sucks.

This is why I hate the NFL

During the Cowboys game on Thanksgiving, a cheerleader got bowled over by a player on his way out-of-bounds. She popped up with a surprised look and a smile on her face, then enjoyed a small bit of fame from the moment. Later she took to Twitter and said these things:

Not hurtin’ today like some of y’all thought I would be! Our TE isn’t as tough as he looks… That or I’m WAY tougher than I look. ;)

I’m not the best at Jason Whitten trust falls. ;)

I see absolutely nothing wrong with any of this. She pretty much nailed how to ‘handle’ the situation: with humility, grace, and humor. Great. Let’s move on, right? Nope:

CNBC’s Darren Rovell reported that Kellerman was forced to delete her Twitter account after posting two messages on Friday morning about the incident.

That’s right. The Dallas Cowboys told this cheerleader to shut the hell up. If she isn’t participating on some shitty show on CMT, then she just shouldn’t be heard at all, I guess? It’s ridiculous. This shit is why I hate the NFL. It’s such a nancy-soccer league at this point that I would think they should be psyched that their players – and cheerleaders – aren’t taking dives. I’m just surprised a ref didn’t throw a flag for roughing the passer when Kellerman stopped cheering for those few seconds.

Too many journalists do not understand evolution

The primary reason so many Americans reject the theory and fact of evolution is religion. I think that’s pretty undisputed. However, there is a lot of incorrect information out there promulgated by journalists who get in way over their heads, and that is also a contributing factor. For the most recent example, let’s turn to the obituary of Lynn Margulis:

The [endosymbiotic] hypothesis was a direct challenge to the prevailing neo-Darwinist belief that the primary evolutionary mechanism was random mutation.

Rather, Dr. Margulis argued that a more important mechanism was symbiosis; that is, evolution is a function of organisms that are mutually beneficial growing together to become one and reproducing. The theory undermined significant precepts of the study of evolution, underscoring the idea that evolution began at the level of micro-organisms long before it would be visible at the level of species.

This is just awful. Just awful.

Margulis’ theory showed that some organelles – primarily mitochondria and chloroplasts – were once bacteria before being taken up into eukaryotic cells. This did not overturn any major precepts, nor did it shake the biological world. It was a big idea, one that turned out to be correct, and it marked a major turning point in our understanding. But that turning point was more complementary than it was subtracting. That is, it added a good deal of knowledge, it explained some mysteries, and it opened up a lot of avenues of research (as correct ideas often do) while fitting into the broad model of evolution, but it did not diminish the importance of random mutation, natural selection, genetic drift, or any other aspect of the theory.

Moreover, Margulis’ theory did not show that “evolution is a function of organisms that are mutually beneficial growing together to become one and reproducing”. It showed that sometimes endosymbiosis happens. And when it does, it sometimes has huge contingent importance. For instance, without the mitochondria in our cells, the history of life on Earth is not even remotely the same. But there are other hugely important events which, while ultimately reliant upon historic events like moments of endosymbiosis, can be explained without the need to appeal to Margulis’ theory. For example, the rise of mammals. Of course we are eukaryotes and so we depend upon the endosymbiosis event that happened billions of years ago, but that would be like appealing to the formation of Earth to describe the construction of a skyscraper. It just isn’t necessary and, besides, planetary accretion doesn’t happen every time a worker pours some concrete.

Stuff like this is why I say science is so undermined by so many science journalists.

This is what I mean

When I argue that language matters (and get called racist for doing so), this is what I mean:

…style matters.

The register and dialect you use matter. Your word choices matter. Whether you use semi-colons or instead write two separate sentences matters. But it is a stylistic choice, not a grammatical one, and it should be recognized (and criticized) as such.

I like to use semi-colons to link related sentences; other people do not, and argue that this makes it difficult to follow what I’m writing. That is a solid argument. We can have a lovely debate on whether semi-colons are more elegant and more readable than dividing the sentence into two little sentences. However, this debate can only take place if both sides agree that their opinion is more of a guideline than an actual rule.

As the author, Hortensio, goes on, one’s goals (and I would argue intentions) matter as well. Do I want to persuade? Do I want to offend? Do I want to do both? Do I want to comes across as pithy? Ironic? Academic? All of these things matter, and they all require a writer to pay attention to his audience. Writing with only one’s self in mind will likely result in poor writing. Or at least writing no one wishes to read.

Ironically, I have no good way to transition into my next point, so here it is: In the comment section of the above linked post is a discussion on the use of “they”, “s/he”, “one”, and the like. It is only briefly touched upon, but I think the gist is this: do we want to be socially conscious or do we want to be undistracting? That is, neutralizing gendered terms in order to not arbitrarily favor men has been a popular trend in writing for quite some time. However, one result of this trend has been to use the grammatically abhorrent “they” or the aesthetically grotesque “he or she”. This tends to distract because it deviates from the vast majority of writings; I see it and tend to think the writer is making a point to be socially aware, leading me to assume a lack of genuineness. The other option is to consistently use “she” or consistently use “he”. This is my personal preference. I want people to read over my pronouns as if there really exists a gender neutral term in English. I can appreciate the idea behind exposing the lack of awareness everyone has over these sort of issues, but I’m not going to sacrifice the quality of my writing for it.

Now all I need to do is make another 500 posts about language and maybe people will believe me that I really do care about writing.

Brinicle ice finger of death

Well. This is neat.

Occupy Augusta

I was at Occupy Augusta with Nate and other Michael today when the protesters held a general assembly meeting. It turns out the governor (who lives across the street) has said they must obtain a permit starting Monday. It will not include the right to have more than one tent and overnight camping will not be allowed.

More updates to come as things develop.