29 October 2005

Missing the Point

I was just looking at an interesting article in the Brunswick (Maine) Times-Record. It seems that the president of the Bowdoin College Democrats, Alex Cornell du Houx, is off to Iraq. He is a member of the Marine Reserves, and his unit has been activated in preparation for a December deployment to Iraq. Despite his vocal opposition to the war, Cornell du Hoax is putting his uniform on, putting his political aspirations on hold, and doing his duty. (Something similar happened out here in Hawaii last year with one of the members of the State Legislature.)

The president of the Bowdoin College Republicans (who is also the secretary for their national organization) made some amazingly petty and small-minded comments about Cornell du Houx's pending deployment:
Daniel Schuberth, a leader of the Bowdoin College Republicans and College Republican national secretary, said, "I applaud Mr. Houx for his service, just as I applaud any other soldier who is brave enough to take up arms in defense of his country. I find it troubling, however, that one of the most vocal opponents of our president, our country and our mission in Iraq has chosen to fight for a cause he claims is wrong. Mr. Houx's rhetoric against the war on terror places him in agreement with the most radical fringes of the Democratic Party, and I am left to question his logic and motivation."

Although I've already seen some progressive blogs beating up on Schuberth, I've actually heard similar sentiments from people who are far to his left when talking about my own family situation. A couple of people have actually said things to me along the lines of, "but if you are opposed to the war, how can you let your wife go off and fight there? if she is opposed to the war, why is she going?"

Anyone who raises such questions demonstrates a lack of understanding of the proper relationship between the military and the civil power in a democracy. In order to for a nation to remain a democracy, the military must be subordinate to the civil power. To put it bluntly, the military does not get to decide if they want to fight somewhere. They are told to, by the politicians. If it works the other way around, it isn't a democracy. It's a military dictatorship.

People who have a committment to the military, and who fulfill their committment despite their opposition to the war, are acting in the finest traditions of the United States. By acting in this allegedly illogical manner, they are doing their part to protect our country. In fact, they are doing so twice - from enemies foreign, and from enemies domestic.

28 October 2005

Another dry spell coming up.

I'm going to be off-island for the next few days, cut off from the internet. I'll be living in a tent, out in the wilds and the weather, isolated from the civilized world, doing fieldwork - generously giving of myself to advance science. Unfortunately, I don't get much sympathy for the sacrifice, since I'll be doing all of this on Maui.

I get back to Oahu on Tuesday evening. Updates will resume shortly thereafter.

Lying under oath

Scooter Libby really should have taken lessons from former Dover School Board Member Bill Buckingham. You really can tell obvious, outrageous lies under oath. Just make sure that you have a well-documented OxyContin addition to fall back on to protect you from the perjury charges later.

27 October 2005

And there I thought I was at least a little bit scientific.

You fit in with:

Your ideals mostly resemble that of a Humanist. Although you do not have a lot of faith, you are devoted to making this world better, in the short time that you have to live. Humanists do not generally believe in an afterlife, and therefore, are committed to making the world a better place for themselves and future generations.

0% scientific.
80% reason-oriented.

Take this quiz at QuizGalaxy.com

Of course, after all the fun we had putting together my first research proposal a couple of weeks back, my advisor might agree with that 0% thing.

Shamelessly mooching my first meme-like project.

I just finished setting up an online map of Questionable Authority readers over at Flappr. If you click on the link, you can add yourself to the map.

I've mooched this from Pharyngula, who mooched it from Crooked Timber.

Evolutionary Trees

David, over at Science and Sensibility, has used the blog family tree that The Commissar to form the basis for a phylogenetic tree. Phylogenies are tree-like diagrams of evolutionary relationships. They are a very common tool in science, and David does a really fantastic job at explaining them. It's definitely worth a look.

Hat Tip: Pharyngula

(Postscript:) In the unlikely event that anyone is interested in knowing, I group with the Pharyngulids.

24 October 2005

Absolutely unforgiveable

The New York Times reports that the White House is threatening to veto any anti-torture legislation that reaches the president's desk without an exemption for the CIA. Such a bill, sponsored by Republican senator John McCain, was recently attached as an ammendment to a military spending bill. The ammendment passed the senate with a 90-9 vote.

The White House is reportedly opposed to the ammendment because, "the president needed maximum flexibility in dealing with the global war on terrorism." Personally, I vote with the 90 senators who feel that presidential flexibility to deal with terrorists should stop short of the kind of things normally seen in bad S&M spam.

The courage to do the right thing...

...does not come easily, and it does not come without a price. We should always remember that, and we should always remember with the greatest respect those true heroes who have the courage needed to stand up for what they know to be right, even in the face of their own government.

Rosa Parks, who passed away last night, had the courage to face the consequences for doing the right thing. In the process, she proved that a single person, doing the right thing, can change the world for the better. I can think of no higher praise, and no better legacy, than that.

Behe, positive arguments, and negative arguments

If you've been following the posts at Panda's Thumb and other pro-science web establishments lately, you've seen a lot of criticism of Behe's testimony at the Dover trial. You will probably see more, as more of the transcripts become available. It's not so much a matter of piling on as it is a matter of the transcripts having so many different bad points to comment on. It's like a really bad blog article, but one that took place over three solid days of testimony.

This installment in the increasing body of work addressing Behe's substandard arguments will examine some of the things that he said on the stand about there being positive arguments for intelligent design. The material that I will be commenting on can be found during his direct testimony. The transcript is available in pdf format here.

There are two separate, relevant quotes. I'll provide them first, then comment on them. The first brief exchange is found on page 86. The questioner is Mr. Muise of the Thomas Moore Law Center. The answer is from Behe:
Q. Do you have an opinion as to whether intelligent design posits a positive argument for design?

A. Yes, I do.

Q. What is that opinion?

A. Yes, it does.

The second quote is a bit longer. It begins on page 90, and continues on 91:
Q. Now I want to review with you the intelligent design argument. Have you prepared a slide for this?

A. Yes, I have. On the next slide is a short summary of the intelligent design argument. The first point is that, we infer design when we see that parts appear to be arranged for a purpose. The second point is that the strength of the inference, how confident we are in it, is quantitative. The more parts that are arranged, and the more intricately they interact, the stronger is our confidence in design. The third point is that the appearance of design in aspects of biology is overwhelming.

The fourth point then is that, since nothing other than an intelligent cause has been demonstrated to be able to yield such a strong appearance of design, Darwinian claims notwithstanding, the conclusion that the design seen in life is real design is rationally justified.

Although Behe claimed that ID makes a positive argument, his summary of "the intelligent design argument" is fundamentally a negative argument. That is, inferring design is justified due to a lack of evidence for natural causes rather than as a necessary inferrence from the evidence. This becomes obvious here:
...since nothing other than an intelligent cause has been demonstrated to be able to yield such a strong appearance of design, Darwinian claims notwithstanding, the conclusion that the design seen in life is real design is rationally justified. [emphasis added]

That's not only a negative argument, it's two separate negative arguments. Concluding design is justified, according to Behe, because (a) no natural cause has (in Behe's unhumble opinion) been shown to be capable of creating the appearance of design; and because (b) the explanations offered by modern evolutionary theory are not sufficient (again in his unhumble opinion) to qualify as a natural cause capable of explaining the appearance of design.

Perhaps someday someone will make a positive argument for design. The argument made by Behe, however, was not (his testimony of a few minutes earlier notwithstanding).

This morning's dose of hypocrisy

It would appear that Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson, Republican of Texas, thinks that perjury is a crime when a Democrat does it, but a "technicality" when committed by a Republican. Isn't it nice that our country is being lead right now by people with such firm moral standards?

23 October 2005

A couple of thoughts on Intelligent Design and Blame

The current success of the Intelligent Design movement in the United States is not entirely the fault of scientists and science educators. But, sadly, we really haven't done all that much to hinder their social, political, and cultural progress. A heroic few - Genie Scott, Wes Elsberry, Nick Matzke, and the rest of the full time staff at NCSE - have worked full-time at opposing anti-evolutionists. A number of other scientists and academics have invested a large amount of time into fighting anti-evolutionism. Their work has been fantastic, but the focus of the work has been a bit narrow.

I don't mean that as a criticism of NCSE and the others who have been working to fight the anti-evolutionists. There are a lot of anti-evolutionists out there, they spew forth massive volumes of misleading garbage, they are threatening the education of children all over the United States, and they desparately need to be opposed.
With the number of people working at opposing them so small and their resources so limited, there is no way that NCSE could have any other focus than on responding to the anti-evolutionists.

Unfortunately, reacting to the anti-evolutionists is not going to be enough to win the day. Anti-evolutionism is a popular position these days, and it is being promoted heavily on many religious fronts. Tactical victories in courtrooms will not change this, and such victories might not even be enough to shift the initiative away from the anti-evolutionists.

If we continue as we have been, we will lose this fight. It does not matter if we have the weight of all of scientific evidence on our side. It does not matter that we are right. It does not matter that their position is anti-scientific. It does not matter that their outlook on reason is pre-rationalist. It does not even matter that their efforts to integrate their own religious perspective into all aspects of American culture is entirely counter to the vision that the founding fathers had for a republic without a state religion. Those things should matter, of course, but sometimes the popularity of a movement matters more than whether or not the views that it advances are intelligent, healthy, or correct.

Although the enemies of science claim that this is a scientific debate, we know that this is not the case. We understand that their opposition is primarily based in religious beliefs, and in a deep philosophical distaste for the concept of having a cousin swinging from a frame in a zoo while eating bananas. What we don't seem to grasp, however, is that treating this as simply a matter of science versus nonsense is not going to work in the long term. We must begin to treat this as what it is: a battle for the hearts and minds of the next generation.

At the moment, we are losing this battle. Mostly, this is because we haven't been showing up. The Christian right has youth ministers. They have services targeted entirely for young adults. They have tried, and largely succeeded, in creating an environment where it is cool to be a young, conservative Christian. For the most part, our outreach has been absent. We recruit scientists as we always have, and we do very little to make sure that we are exposing everyone to the joys of science from a young age.

This is where we need to do more. We need to get scientists into all classrooms at all levels. We particularly need to get scientists into classrooms in areas that are distant from the academic habitats that we are usually restricted to. We need a real grassroots effort at selling science to the public. I have never met a scientist that was not addicted to science. I have never met a scientist who did not have a true love for the process of discovery. Unfortunately, we are very good at hiding our love of nature behind the clinical language of science. That's the one thing that we need to get worse at.