29 December, 2005

The Man Has Clearly Never Read A Good Book.

On Sadly, No! Brad R. has posted a categorical mockery of David Kupelian's compassionate attempt to save our souls from the propaganda implicit in fiction the novel video games movies, able to overwhelm and beguile the unwary human mind as no other media before it. Being long accustomed to the enlightened musings of America's finest on politics, I have to say that I'd rather they stick to what they're best at: hating people, and discussing extramarital fellatio - the latter seemingly being the primary policy concern of conservatives worldwide. It's fine when the usual suspects spread aminosity and bigotry amongst their countrymen - God knows people are too happy these days. But culture -- the analysis of which requires more factual knowledge than, say, biology -- isn't really their strongpoint.

Kupelian asks repeatedly what our reaction would be if an incestual relationship, one between an adult and minor, or one between drug dealer and addict were crafted with the players 'humanised'. Alas, until Hollywood's drive to normalise perverted sexual acts first overcomes the hurdle of humanising homosexuality, we may never know what the result of such movies would be. I fear such idle musing is fruitless and laughable, hurting the credibility of his wider argument.

'...when you leave the theater, unless you're really objective to what you've experienced, you've been changed - even if just a little bit,'
states Kupelian in a powerfully moving moment. A wretched, small part of myself must agree, and his openness with his readership forces me to be similarly frank. While watching American Beauty I ached - ached! - to be a man comfortably in his middle age, agonising over his lust for a teenage girl. Who can forget Hitler: the Rise of Evil? The passion, the fear, the intensity of Robert Carlyle's performance swept me up in its despicably liberal detailing of Hitler's humanity - I could already hear those thousands of jack boots marching all for me, the sound of Communists being bludgeoned in the streets for the benefit of my personal ideology. Watching What Lies Beneath forced me to see, to hear, to feel the love and compassion of a man who is also a murderer - and I desired, oh how I desired so very strongly to turn off the television, because it's a terrible movie.

And that's what makes Kupelian's overarching point so beautiful, for all of Brad's nitpicking. Seeing that the most vile people who will touch our lives and leave their mark upon history are not fictional monsters crafted to scare us away with a clear moral message, but human - with terrifyingly familiar motives, loves, passions, beliefs, fears and vulnerabilities - makes it that much harder to stick to our principles. Ethics are fragile, darling little things, requiring constant nourishment and support. Nothing threatens to shatter their frail yet clear-cut frames more than the dark shadow of understanding, which could blacken and overwhelm our ways of thinking every time we watch movies, unless they in any way involve Mel Gibson because he turns everything he touches to mindless, entertaining dross. As Kupelian argues so vociferously, the darkest knowledge is that which constitutes reality and disagrees with our existing conceptions. Learning could even convince us that our belief in a certain action, concept, way of life or person being evil might not be correct, a heart chilling admission second only in its horror to admitting that we are wrong.

Doubt and the world around us are the worst enemies of the landscape of our minds; the reason derived from such knowledge is the foe of our God given nature.

Oh and our God given nature should not be regarded as sinful in this instance because hating homosexuals is a prejudice society will not ostracise me for having. Otherwise we're inherently wicked, constant struggle with inner evil, etc. etc. Goodnight.

-The Rev. Schmitt.

25 December, 2005


This'll be brief because damn it chaps I'm posting on Christmas day! Also I am sleepy.

Merry Christmas, and happy holidays to those of you wacky enough for such things. Although I haven't had the time to do as much blogging as I would have liked (university and an almost pathological laziness are considerably inconsiderate about the things which truly matter,) this has been a fun couple of months. Here is a baby aye-aye.

I have met a bizarre and polyamorous collective, and apparently bothered a jolly amusing guy enough for them to post actual comments, the very lifeblood of what we do here at this veritable institution of serious business. These are both good things. I also consider getting to page two a major success, one which in my estimation goes unparalleled in the entire history of blogging.

Oh God so sleepy.

I have made a lot of posts about evolution and through sheer force of will (the aforementioned laziness) resisted the urge to turn the blog into a parody of itself and everything I hold dear. The latter is perhaps my greatest accomplishment. The former is something I'll probably continue to do, but I'm going to have to force myself to find anything else going on in the world interesting before I typecast myself, and thereby lose dignity as persons as persons. On that note:

So in summary: 25th of December, fun, consentual love between many adults, and a stolen joke.

Have a good one all.

-The Rev. Schmitt.

20 December, 2005

Take A Bow, Dr Behe - This Victory Is All Yours!

I am currently at home, and so will probably end up blogging lightly (if a lower posting rate is even possible.) But! Something amusing this way comes!

Kiztmiller et al, v Dover Area School District et al is the first legal challenge to the teaching of Intelligent Design in schools. Specifically, the Dover Board of Education decided in 2004 that this statement would have to be read out whenever evolution was taught:

The Pennsylvania Academic Standards require students to learn about Darwin’s theory of evolution and eventually to take a standardized test of which evolution is a part.

Because Darwin's Theory is a theory, it is still being tested as new evidence is discovered. The Theory is not a fact. Gaps in the Theory exist for which there is no evidence. A theory is defined as a well-tested explanation that unifies a broad range of observations.

Intelligent design is an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin's view. The reference book, Of Pandas and People is available for students to see if they would like to explore this view in an effort to gain an understanding of what intelligent design actually involves.

As is true with any theory, students are encouraged to keep an open mind. The school leaves the discussion of the origins of life to individual students and their families. As a standards-driven district, class instruction focuses upon preparing students to achieve proficiency on standards-based assessments
Several Board members resigned in protest, and all bar one of Dover's science teachers refused to read out the statement, forcing administrators to do it. Several parents sued the District in response.

During the trial numerous very funny things happened, some of which I'll have to cut for brevity. For instance Discovery Institute leading light Michael Behe - probably the most qualified Intelligent Design proponent - attempted to redefine the scientific jargon term 'theory' in such a fashion that it was indistinguishable from the term 'hypothesis'. Upon questioning he admitted that astrology would, under his rubrick, be considered a scientific theory - ironic since astrology actually makes testable predictions, making it more scientific than Intelligent Design. But that's okay. More than one of the defendents was caught with sudden amnesia, or lying. As the trial was ongoing the creationists on the Dover board were all voted out of office and replaced entirely by science-minded Republicans running as Democrats.

The results are in. The teaching of Intelligent Design in state schools was ruled unconstitutional. For all following quotes: the bold is mine, the hilarious snark and spirited defense of the first amendment all U.S. District Judge John E. Jones II.

The concept of intelligent design (hereinafter “ID”), in its current form, came into existence after the Edwards case was decided in 1987. For the reasons that follow, we conclude that the religious nature of ID would be readily apparent to an objective observer, adult or child….

The overwhelming evidence at trial established that ID is a religious view, a mere re-labeling of creationism, and not a scientific theory.
Which is pretty much the decision scientists were hoping for. Intelligent Design is simply creationism with a few arguments dropped to make it seem more scientific and less religious than other forms of creationism - a ploy which is repeatedly belied by the statements of many proponents of Intelligent Design, and their infamous Wedge Document, an internal memo of the Discovery Institute's Centre For The Renewal of Science and Culture. During the trial it was revealed all the more blatantly and profoundly that Intelligent Design really was just a word substitute for creationism.

To be sure, Darwin's theory of evolution is imperfect. However, the fact that a scientific theory cannot yet render an explanation on every point should not be used as a pretext to thrust an untestable alternative hypothesis grounded in religion into the science classroom or to misrepresent well-established scientific propositions.

The citizens of the Dover area were poorly served by the members of the Board who voted for the ID Policy. It is ironic that several of these individuals, who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would time and again lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the ID Policy.

With that said, we do not question that many of the leading advocates of ID have bona fide and deeply held beliefs which drive their scholarly endeavors. Nor do we controvert that ID should continue to be studied, debated, and discussed. As stated, our conclusion today is that it is unconstitutional to teach ID as an alternative to evolution in a public school science classroom.
That last paragraph explains that Intelligent Design isn't being barred from any research programmes - God knows scientists would love Intelligent Design proponents to actually practise science - and it isn't being censored. Intelligent Design isn't science and favouring it in any way represents the teaching of religious ideas for religious reasons, so doesn't belong in state run classrooms.

After a searching review of the record and applicable caselaw, we find that while ID arguments may be true, a proposition on which the Court takes no position, ID is not science. We find that ID fails on three different levels, any one of which is sufficient to preclude a determination that ID is science. They are: (1) ID violates the centuries-old ground rules of science by invoking and permitting supernatural causation; (2) the argument of irreducible complexity, central to ID, employs the same flawed and illogical contrived dualism that doomed creation science in the 1980’s; and (3) ID’s negative attacks on evolution have been refuted by the scientific community. As we will discuss in more detail below, it is additionally important to note that ID has failed to gain acceptance in the scientific community, it has not generated peer-reviewed publications, nor has it been the subject of testing and research.
There's even an appropriately scathing prolepsis against the charge of 'judicial activism', an accusation which annoys me at the best of times for it essentially lambasting the courts for doing their job.
Those who disagree with our holding will likely mark it as the product of an activist judge. If so, they will have erred as this is manifestly not an activist Court. Rather, this case came to us as the result of the activism of an ill-informed faction on a school board, aided by a national public interest law firm eager to find a constitutional test case on ID, who in combination drove the Board to adopt an imprudent and ultimately unconstitutional policy. The breathtaking inanity of the Board’s decision is evident when considered against the factual backdrop which has now been fully revealed through this trial. The students, parents, and teachers of the Dover Area School District deserved better than to be dragged into this legal maelstrom, with its resulting utter waste of monetary and personal resources.
All around, a cracking result.

And, lest I forget - while we must thank Dr Behe for his spirited defense of Intelligent Design, which added more nails to Dover's coffin - but the ACLU, NCSE, the plaintiffs; parents standing up for the rights of their children, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, and other defenders of science put in a horrendous amount of work for a damned good result. Cheers!

-The Rev. Schmitt.

14 December, 2005

Nontheistic Christians: an Exercise in Hilarity

Another cross post from an earlier, diary thing, once again with minor edits.

These statistics have been around for a while now, but are still rather relevent. I knew about the UK government census results regarding Britain's religious beliefs - 72% Christian, 14-23%+ atheist or agnostic, and the largest minority religion is Islam, at approximately 3%.

Based on the YouGov poll results 35% of Britons don't believe in God, while 44% do. I've heard before the idea that most self identified Christians in Britain are largely just describing their vague idea of ethics and morality; that they don't even necessarily believe in God or Christ. The Telegraph - that epitome of reliable reporting - mournfully makes the same point here about the discrepency between the census (which simply asked people what their religion was,) and YouGov results, which asked about specific beliefs. The explanation sounds vaguely reasonable, too, given how few people regularly attend Church (approximately 7%.)

Some of those questions in the YouGov poll and the responses are bizarre. Do people believe in a Supreme Being other than God? One is forced to speculate how long a certain Church has been covertly infiltrating British society. And the number of atheists/agnostics who still want the Queen to be Protector of the Faith and head of the Anglican Church is extremely bizarre. Again, there seems to be a genuine sense amongst people that Christianity is simply what it means to be good, rather than a specific religion with its own dogmas and appeals to magic.

We lack America's constitutional prohibition against religious entanglement in government, though one of our traditions is, loosely, religious freedom and equality. So, regarding the YouGov's multiple choice questions about faith schools, the lack of option about getting rid of state funded faith-based schools because they're ruddy crazy at the best of times strikes me as a severe ommission.

My heartfelt lament about government established and funded religions aside - and understanding full well that the ways that people view themselves do not necessarily reflect how they behave - I do like this conclusion, regardless of how poor the evidence supporting it is:

'Taken as a whole, YouGov's findings suggest that "live and let live" is the dominant British approach to religious belief as to so many things. The relative absence of religious passion in Britain probably helps to foster this country's atmosphere of easy-going religious toleration.'

Well, mostly. There are instances in which I think that religion is given a pass not granted to other webs of beliefs and philosophies, a pass it shouldn't have. For instance the United States of America has a rather nasty habit of exempting Christian Scientists, Jehovah's Witnesses and others from child negligence laws (both groups refuse certain medical treatments for their children - blood transfusions in the case of the Jehovah's Witnesses, and everything in the case of the Christian Scientists. Many States in America specifically allow people from significantly large religions - but no others - to deny such treatment to children.)

Faith healing and prayers don't work medical miracles; they don't save lives or salve maladies, it's that simple. Even when belief simply isn't true I think it should be protected; people should always be allowed the option to hope, to believe, even to pray for others to get better. All of these things can help in the same way, and for the same reasons: knowing that people care and want to help can make a difference (albeit often senstationalised and grossly over-stated,) in peoples' recovery.

However, antivaccine nuts should not be allowed to put their own children and others at risk for the causes of pseudoscience, ignorance and dishonesty; children should not be allowed to die for lies or untested, even incorrect beliefs. Most people, religious people certainly included, would agree, too. Is there any reason this shouldn't apply to religious beliefs, too? There are standards of knowledge and understanding, and the best one; that is to say the one with the most successes, the one most adept at fixing its own mistakes, capable of overthrowing its own long-held ideas in the face of evidence, which can be carried out and replicated by all people, is science. Further, if we decide as a society that there should be limits to the way legal guardians treat their children - that they shouldn't beat or sexually abuse them, for example, and that they have a responsibility to make informed decisions on their charges' behalf - why should religion over any other individual belief be granted special dispensation in these same areas?

But yes, Britain has a Hell of a lot of self-identified Christians who don't believe in God, and atheists who want Christianity to be bound up in government (and one certainly hopes a lack of Straussian ethics involved with that last point.) Human beings are bizarre.

-The Rev. Schmitt.

08 December, 2005

The State of the Science Standards Address

The Panda's Thumb reports the science standard rankings (and in order of score) as determined by the Fordham Foundation. (Iowa is missing because it does not have statewide science standards.)

Bear in mind these don't necessarily reflect the quality of science education in the separate states - they just represent the quality of the published science standards. Kansas' recent antievolution (and eventually antiscience) changes make it something of an anomaly - the .pdf file's analysis discusses the early tinkerings with the science standards, rather than the original draft (generally regarded as extremely good,) which was overturned by creationists, or the final slaughter against intelligence wrought by those very same creationists. Gotta love metaphysical science!

Congratulations California! May you destroy us all with your ridiculously well developed, accurate, and appropriate standards.

-The Rev. Schmitt.

02 December, 2005

The Urvogel, The Transitional Fossils and The Wardrobe

Archaeopteryx is an extinct bird. The first bird, in fact. All Archaeopteryx fossils have been discovered in limestone deposits in Solnhofen, Germany. They date from the late Jurassic era of the Mesozoic, during the zenith of the age of dinosaurs. Many of the previously discovered and described fossils of the first bird have been beautifully preserved, displaying incredibly detailed imprints of feathers, though often the skeletal structure has been distorted during fossilisation which has made skull and foot analysis difficult (and as a result of a new find that link I just provided is a touch outdated - though I'll get to that in a bit.)

Origin of Species had only been published for two years before the first discovery of Archaeopteryx lithographica, (the fossil in question still resides in London's Natural History Museum, and I have seen it, so nyah,) and it was a powerful strike in favour of the Darwinian model of evolution. This post will concern sexually reproducing organisms; asexual critters are a bit more complicated.

Evolution describes branching lineages radiating outwards from species of organisms, which will themselves branch outwards ad infinitum unless a particular lineage goes extinct (which happens extremely frequently.) Isolated populations within a species will evolve into different organisms. The species to which these populations belong may continue to exist; it is only each isolated population which will evolve in a given way, separated from and unable to breed with the rest of their species, and the ancestral species common to these branches may or may not itself go extinct.

Transitional species are those which link what are generally regarded as two different kinds of organisms. Our understanding of gradualism in evolution makes the notion of 'kind' problematic: evolutionary adaptations and features are accumulated by isolated populations over large periods of time (though in geologic terms this may be an extremely short period of time relative to the age of the Earth) and changes from generation to generation are extremely small. Therefore the difference from one species to its descendent - and its close relative lineages - can also be extremely minor, and the methodology by which we group animals into 'species' is often case dependent on what a particular scientist or group of scientists is looking at.

So calling Archaeopteryx the 'first bird' was a bit of a cheeky assertion, because the evolution from non avian dinosaur to modern bird took many transitional species and lineages (the vast majority of which have gone extinct,) and the difference between bird and non avian dinosaur is a very blurry distinction indeed. Archaeopteryx probably never gave rise to any contemporary lineage of bird, and many of the strongest demarcations between bird and reptile have found their way into both sides of the fence. Due to the powerful morphological (that is, structural and functional) similarities between birds and dinosaurs modern phylogenic analyses (that is, analyses which describe evolutionary history and relationships,) group birds as a clade within the dinosauria; birds are dinosaurs.

Now I mentioned that Archaeopteryx probably isn't the ancestor to any contemporary lineage of bird. What makes Archaeopteryx transitional is the blend of features normally associated with two broad classes of animals, rather than its necessarily being a stepping stone from extinct reptile to modern bird. It is closely related to the late Jurassic animals which would give rise to modern birds, and probably descended from the same common ancestor (or they are descended from closely related lineages at least.) Ultimately, we may never discover the true ancestor to common birds which was hopping, gliding or flying about at the same time as Archaeopteryx - and even if we did, we will not know that it is the common ancestor for certain. But our knowledge of evolution means that this ultimately doesn't matter. Archaeopterx as a transitional serves as powerful proof of the relatedness of birds and reptiles, though we now know of a couple of other birds which also strongly support this relationship.

In summary Archaeopteryx shares many features previously thought reserved solely for birds and reptiles respectively, and is
therefore a jolly good demonstration that animals are in a continuous state of change. A few of these are, broadly:

Bird features:

  • Feathers
  • Wishbone
  • Clavicle
  • Bones with air sacs

(nb. All of these features have been found in some Theropod dinosaurs subsequent to Archaeopteryx's discovery. Ergo these could all feasibly settle neatly in 'transitional features'.)

Reptilian and generally non-avian features:

  • Lack of beak
  • Teeth
  • Dinosaurian brain shape
  • Vertebrae meets rear of skull (All contemporary birds, like humans, have vertebrae which enter the bottom of the skull.)
  • Bony tail
  • Flexible wrist joint

Transitional features:

  • Pubic bone shape and structure
  • Two free fingers, one fused (adult bird digits are fused.)
Now I did say that these features are on both sides of the fence. As well as Archaeopteryx, Sinornis, Confuciusornis and other early birds with reptilian features, we have a plethora of feathered and bird-like dinosaurs that have been discovered in recent years in the Liaoning Province of China. The skeletal similarities between Theropods (particularly dromaeosaurs) and birds is so striking that a relation was suggested even before the discovery of Archaeopteryx, and many subsequent discoveries have served to shore up this connection to a severe degree.

With the latest description of a tenth Archaeopteryx fossil this link is even stronger, outdating a couple of the points in the Talk Origins bird-reptile comparison I linked at the top of this post. Remember the skeletal distortions in other fossils I mentioned earlier? A large part of the confusion and ambiguity these caused has been cleared up with the description of this fossil, which showed the top of the skull and wonderfully preserved the specimen's feet. The feet indicate that rather than the grasping, opposable first digit of modern birds, Archaeopteryx had a reduced toe facing the same direction as the rest of its feet, as per Theropods. Rather than the perching second digit of birds, it had an extendable toe, like the big claw on Velociraptor. Combined these suggest that Archaeopteryx was less arboreal than previously thought, that it spent most of its time on the ground and would have been rather awkward on branches. The skull and brain are even closer to those of dromaeosaurs than previously thought - narrow and tapering, though still blunter than dromaeosaurs.

The connection between birds and dinosaurs is made stronger with each new discovery, and is almost universally accepted amongst palaeontologists. And old friends to evolution are still turning up strong new evidence in its favour.

More on the new fossil:

New Scientist (May eventually require subscription.)
Live Science


Dr Myers of Pharyngula also did stuff. Good stuff. Foot and skull details are graphically shown and explained.

-The Rev. Schmitt.

01 December, 2005


Most of this post was originally entered elsewhere pretty much word-for-word (there have been some minor edits and additions,) on November the 21st. Bad Science and Skeptico subsequently blogged about this very same BBC article, coincidentally. Their posts are meatier; more substance than spice. Go.

On that note, a certain Orac is a legitimate authority on the weight of testimonials, as he knows things. He speaks with far greater clarity and breadth about the phenomenon of the alternative medicine testimonial than I do.

Without further adieu, a post:

News articles in general are
pretty God damn awful at supplying us humble folks with good science. The BBC, bless her, is no exception.

This is an irresponsible article.

Homeopathy is the general principle that 'like heals like'. What this means is that essentially homeopaths believe that ingredients which cause the same symptoms as the disease they're trying to cure will work to heal a patient of the disease in question. This in of itself is generally pretty silly and not actually based on any empirical research, but on the metaphysical ramblings of a chap named Hahnemann, who was big into medicines which didn't refer in any way to science.

The law of infitessimals is another cornerstone of homeopathy, and the most hilarious. Essentially, homeopaths believe that diluting a curative substance (which wouldn't work) to as high a degree as possible, makes it more potent. This contradicts all known modern medicine and, again, is not supported by any clinical study. The most powerful concotions are supposed to be diluted to such a massive extent that they contain less than one molecule of the original substance - which would a.) be impossibly expensive to produce in mass quantities, suggesting they don't bother even doing this, and b.) mean they are essentially selling incredibly expensive water.

Homeopaths and their lay person supporters (who tend to genuinely not know how bizarre the metaphysical underpinnings of homeopathy are - for example I've known several people who use 'homeopathy' as a synonym for so-called folk remedies,)
tend to complain about being misrepresented, so you can find more information from the horses' mouths here, here and here. About the only claim made which is at all supported by science is that 'homeopathy is safe' or 'easy' - because homeopathic remedies don't actually do anything. If they are taken to the exclusion of conventional medicine, however, they will be a financial drain to little or no purpose.

The article mentions the Lancet clinical study - which is but one of the many clinical studies which powerfully suggest that homeopathy - surprise surprise - is bunk; homeopathy is not, contrary to their claims, supported by clinical study. The 'test' which 'gives [a] boost' to homeopathy is of a ridiculously weak testimonal form which doesn't contradict the placebo explanation anyway. It doesn't even rise to the level of the medical anecdote (which does have legitimate, though limited, uses.) Medical anecdotal reports include careful documentation of the testing in question (both precursory testing and the course of treatment,) symptoms, diagnoses and how they were determined,
and patient opinion. They are used primarily to suggest further areas for research, not as evidence that a treatment works. And bear in mind that not even this was done - patients were just asked if there was any improvement. One question.

If the BBC's editorial team has any medical advisors with any training whatsoever they should know full well that this story was an utter non issue. The homeopath is given equal time to Professor Egger, even though the Professor is speaking from the position of mainstream science and the vast majority of legitimate medical practitioners.

Homeopaths don't even know what science is. There is no theoretical framework for homeopathy, no evidence it is the least bit successful, it would clearly not pass any cost/benefit analysis. It is quackery.

-The Rev. Schmitt.