Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Woo far and near

Princess Martha Louise of Norway believes she can read people's feelings and talk to angels. She has also opened the "Astarte Education Centre" (page is in Norwegian and I can't find an online translator) to promote alternative therapies. Fortunately for Norway, she's only fourth in line to the throne. At least she's not the heir apparent, unlike a certain well-known New-Ager and alt-med fan who is first in line to become titular Head of State of my country.

It's enough to make one become an anti-monarchist - until I look south and realize that electing one's HoS doesn't necessarily provide much quality assurance.

Much closer to home: a couple in Quebec are refusing chemotherapy for their 3yo son who has cancer of the brain and bone marrow, opting instead to feed him organic vegetables. Organic veggies are great (provided you understand the nutritional values -- like having beans with your cereal to complete the protein), but they're not a substitute for chemo. Regular readers of Respectful Insolence have seen Orac take on cancer alt-therapy woo before (specifically the Cherrix and Wernecke cases). I can almost see his lights blinking in medical indignation from here.....

Technorati picks up a link to the story from Be Lambic or Green (which appears to be written by a British ex-pat currently living in Montreal). What I find noteworthy is the very first comment -- posted a mere two hours after the original post -- making the predictable accusation that the blogger is a doctor in the pay of Big Pharma (a few mouse-clicks would have revealed that he is, in fact, a computer guy).

I'm jealous, though -- what do I have to do to attract some good cranks? That's what this blog really needs!

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Sheesh, what more do you want?

The busses here are now carrying these ads for the Alpha Course. The poster bears the picture[1] at left, with the caption "Is there more to life than this?".

My initial reaction is: "Sheesh, what more do you want?" There can't be many feelings to compare with climbing a mountain, and being rewarded with a view like that. And if you get tired of climbing literal mountains, there are plenty of figurative ones left: like learning about how the universe works, or understanding the great ideas of human thought, or solving world hunger, or...... anyways, seems like there's already plenty of "life" out there, for those who want it.

Of course, the Alpha group's answer would be "Yes: our religion". Obviously, 50yo atheists who've been there and done that aren't really the target demographic. But when I was 16 and naive, this sort of message appealed to me. I think there is a wide-spread desire for what is vaguely termed "the meaning of life" -- some sort of larger context to interpret one's experience; a desire to understand one's place in the universe.

Well hey, Alpha Course guys: I tried it your way for quite a few years, and I eventually figured out a couple of things. One is that the "meaning of your life" is what you make it to be -- no one is going to hand it to you, carved on stone tablets or written in an old book. And the other is that when it comes to finding your place in the cosmos, science and reason beat all the other ways hands down.

So personally, I've found that living in reality is plenty satisfying.

[1] Still captured from the video at, who own the copyright. As far as I'm concerned this is fair use for commentary purposes.

Friday, July 20, 2007

I think they're looking for his head

I shouldn't stoop this low, but really the possibilities are too good to pass up. From the BBC:
President George W Bush is to have a 'routine colonoscopy' on Saturday. More soon.

I've had one of these procedures (being of a Certain Age). They pump several stiff drinks' worth of sedative into you -- you're awake but "feeling no pain", as they say. And you're not allowed to drive or run machinery for 24 hours after.

Hmm....didn't say anything about running a country. I wonder if we'll notice any difference?

Contest time: In comments, give your one-line reaction to that headline (mine is in the Title).
Prize for the funniest one: I'll buy you a drink next time we're in the same venue. (Astute readers will note that I can avoid paying out simply by picking a winner in, like, Australia or something).
(And now I'll find out who really reads this blog)

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Ye English Channel and Ye Fludde

According to a report today on the BBC website, the English Channel was formed when a glacial lake breached a ridge across the present-day Straits of Dover, and rapidly drained through the gap, carving a deep, wide channel. This happened at least 200,000 years ago. (A similar process probably formed the "channelled scablands" of Washington state).

Of course, whenever you have reports of a lot of water happening all at once, certain people prick up their ears, and take it as confirmation of their favorite myth. Wait for it:....three....two....OK, they beat me to it by several months. From the Creation Research site:
This research adds to the abundant evidence all over the earth of catastrophic processes, and it reminds us that massive geological changes do not need big time - they need big process. The movement of large masses of water can account for many landforms we now see on earth....
Apparently this is old news (I'm not sure why the Beeb picked it up only today). I'm also not sure why the creationists think this supports their idea of Noah's Flood. (OK I lied: I have a shrewd guess why in the psychological sense. I just don't know why in the rational sense). There's a straw man being set up here: that "evolutionist" geology tossed out "Biblical" catastrophism around 1830 (presumably when Lyell published Principles of Geology), and it's been all about "atheist" uniformitarianism since.

However, if anything findings like this militate against their position. A catastrophic event at a particular place is not evidence that there was a world-wide catastrophe -- indeed, if the catastrophe was global, we should expect to see that sort of topography everywhere. The fact that we can recognize certain places as being "unusual" tells us that something unusual but localized happened there.

Moreover, the standard rhetoric as I have heard it, is that the "evolutionists' uniformitarian assumptions" rules out catastrophic explanations -- and yet here is a scientist advancing a catastrophic scenario, and having it accepted (at least as respectable, if not definitively proven). The fact is that science has no a priori objection to catastrophes -- as long as there is evidence for them. So much for creationist claims about presuppositions.

So, much as creationist like to make out these stories as being something radical and paradigm-overturning, the fact is: sometimes geophysical processes happen fast, and sometimes they happen slowly, and competent geologists (ie, who don't have a pre-determined conclusion to support) actually are smart enough to tell the difference. And guess what? Virtually all the world's geologists (the only exceptions of which I'm aware being fundamentalist Christians) find ample evidence that the earth is ancient, and no evidence of a global inundation in the past half-billion years.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

The Physics of Transubstantiation

We have very strange dinner conversations at our house, especially when the kids are home from college. Tonight's observation, from #2 Son (20yo):

Transubstantiation cannot violate the law of conservation of mass. So when you convert the wine to blood, the wine has to go somewhere, right?

Which means that Jesus is pretty sloshed most of the time.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Paul Nelson lies, but Jerry Coyne nails him good

I just watched Paul Nelson, fellow of the Discovery Institute and young-earth creationist, baldly lie about the views of W. Ford Doolittle, onTVO's The Agenda with Steve Paikin. We don't usually watch the show, but we happened to click into it while looking for something else, to see Paikin interviewing none other than Jerry Coyne, professor of ecology and evolution at the University of Chicago, and sometime critic of creationism and its offspring Intelligent Design. We only caught the final few minutes of the interview, with Coyne giving a good overview about evolution and the evidence -- fossils, mol-bio, bio-geography, isotope dating, etc. Following this was a panel debate in which the participants were Coyne; Denis Lamoureux (professor of science and religion at U. of Alberta); James Robert Brown (a philosophy prof from U of T) and Paul Nelson.

Obviously, we had to watch this, the way some people have to watch pro wrestling.

Actually, we didn't watch the whole thing, but the fun started right away, with Nelson reacting to something Coyne had said in the previous interview segment about common ancestry, to wit: that Doolittle (a Canadian -- note the appeal to the audience's national pride), who has recently been elected as a foreign member of the National Academy of Sciences (note the build-up of the prestige of the authority he's about to (mis)quote) is on record as saying that the traditional evolutionary "tree of life" was a pattern imposed on the data, and that it is not true that all life comes from a common ancestor.

[KeanuReeves]Whoa[/KeanuReeves]. Doolittle denies common descent? That's certainly what Nelson seems to be saying (and no doubt what he expected the TV audience to take away).

Well, once you've been in this fight for a while, you get so you can smell a selective citation from a mile off. Since my laptop pretty much lives by my easy chair, it took me all of a minute to get the straight goods on Doolittle. First clue is his university homepage, which reveals his research area as the evolution of genomes, particularly trying to unravel the early history of single-celled critters -- organisms that are known to swap genes promiscuously. This Google hit, where Doolittle expands at some length about his views, clinches it -- this isn't about Darwin being all wrong, there's no evidence for evolution, we aren't descended from apes, yadda yadda. It's just that, when you get down to the smallest organisms -- the bacteria and archea -- which also probably means getting back to the earliest ones (since something like that undoubtedly came long before us big multi-cellular hulks), sorting out the relationships is complicated by their habit of swapping genes -- "lateral transfer" as it's called. In fact, it's not even clear what it means to to say that B is descended from A in such a situation. This graphic shows Doolittle's revised "tree of life" (compare to the more traditional iconography). Note that all he's done (not that it's a minor change, if you're in that field) is to replace the strict branching pattern of descent with a network that branches and rejoins. But note also that the revision is entirely confined to the prokaryotes -- the Eukarya (which includes just about everything you can see without a microscope, including us) looks strictly branching. All the really "important" (ie. from our perspective - or the area where the evo/cre debate usually takes place, like human descent from apes) is left alone. The metazoa just don't do lateral transfer (or not so much, anyway) -- and even if they did, we'd still be descended from something else.

Do you think Nelson knows what Doolittle's real views are? (Almost certainly)
Do you think Nelson was just trying to raise a technical point for the sake of informing the TV audience of the fascination of biology? (If you do, I have this bridge for sale....)
Or was he just trying the familiar creationist line of "Big-shot scientist doubts some aspect of the current view of evolution, therefore our pseudoscientific ideologically-motivated views deserve a respectful hearing".

I can't recall the details of the conversation, but Coyne didn't let Nelson get away with it, nor with much else that he said. Philosopher Brown, an atheist, also got in a few good licks. Nelson yammered about molecular machines and how we have no idea how the first cell could have originated, and the only reason Coyne insisted on a naturalistic origin of life was because of his materialist philosophy. Coyne was having none of it: he was interested in the evidence, and naturalism is good because it works -- saying "God did it" every time we don't understand something has never lead to any new knowledge -- after all, it is within living memory that we didn't know that the Sun was powered by fusion. Should the astrophysicists have just given up and gone to church?

Lamoureux, an evangelical Christian who describes himself as an "evolutionary creationist", said some solid things about science, but then spoiled it by giving Coyne an altar call.

But Nelson just lied his head off the whole damn time.

(Podcasts of the interview and debate available here).