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I am a former middle and high school science teacher pursuing a doctorate in Science Ed. at George Mason University, with a concentration in cognitive science and the evolution of cognition and learning. Postings on this blog represent my own views, not those of my employer or school. All writing displayed on this page is original work unless otherwise noted, and thus copyrighted.

29 December 2009

Definition of Irony

Ben Stein has been the root of games of creationist 'whack-a-mole' and here he is referencing it in his commercial for Free Score. Incidentally, this isn't the legitimate site for free credit reports, so don't buy into his BS. Anyone out there who can verify Stein's credentials as an economist, because I haven't seen him in anything other than commercials, Expelled, and The Wonder Years ?

08 December 2009

I was starting to feel a bit stupid...

Donald Hoffman provies what he regards as a strong criticism to Dehaene on the Edge.org site here. The initial attempts at refutation revolve around the idea of quantum computation, wherein Hoffman states that quantum computation (citing a study in Nature in 2007) is responsible for photosynthesis in plants and green sulfur bacteria, and therefore could be coopted by natural selection for other purposes, such as consciousness. Well, that's a nice thought, but doesn't that bold an assertion require some sort of proof? Perhaps beyond the contributions of evolutionary game theory to thought experiments, which is what is proposed by Hoffman? If Hoffman wants to claim that the brain is a quantum computer, regardless of objections made by Dehaene about quantum computers not functioning at the temperatures needed for organisms to maintain chemical reactions (i.e. life), then Hoffman, or someone who does more than theoretical masturbation, might want to examine the human (or some other supposedly conscious creature's) brain for the wave functions and transmissions thereof that are the hallmark of quantum computing. That is, after all, what those researchers who published to Nature did.
No, the portion that made me feel stupid for a moment was Hoffman's referral back to his 2006 paper on "The Scrambling Theorem" (Science Direct Link). This beast reads like a post-modern masterpiece, and with good reason despite the claims of empiricism: He has nothing on which to actually base his argument. I don't mean he doesn't have much evidence, I mean that he literally hasn't a shred. Hoffman merely states the following: to disprove reductive functionalism in consciousness (the idea that one can reduce a cognitive process to the mathematical function, however complex, that explains it. In effect, that cognitive processes are mathematical functions carried out by neurons), one simply needs to be able to imagine that consciousness can work in another manner, thus making it logically possible (anyone see the flaw in that one?). He then goes on to say how, if he can logically and mathematically demonstrate that people can have different colour experiences from the same stimuli, yet perform the same on colour tasks, then he has effectively disproved reductive functionalism. Beautiful... and here's where I thought I was lost. Hoffman then jumps directly into a model that supposedly backs his claim, but fails to demonstrate how any of the pieces of his model are tied to reality, and that's purely because, as he admits later, they aren't empirically tied to anything at all. Translation from academia to English: Hoffman made this up, out of his own imagination, which brings us right back to the argument he claims he wasn't using. Sorry Donald, but just because I can dream up another way that might coffee might brew or my herb garden might grow doesn't mean that the manner in which we understand those processes is incorrect because of it. I can fully imagine Hoffman's paper being written by a 16 year old with a thesaurus and a horrendous grasp of elementary logic, but that doesn't make it so, althought it does, to some degree, resemble the product.
The invocation of probability at the end doesn't make this any better; If we want to show that Jack sees orange when Jill sees blue, we need to measure the signals coming from both of their optic nerves upon viewing identical wavelengths of light, and then test how each individual responds to the stimuli. ("what colour do you see?" "orange"). Hoffman's general point is that we can't tell, even from that sort of experiment, that Jack and Jill are in fact experiencing the same stimuli, and I suppose that's correct. It is, however, certainly not correct that it then precludes the conscious experience of either of them from being the same as the function used to represent that experience, it simply means that we've somehow substituted, via the internal system of the mind, a different value in the function for each of them. Hoffman, then, has demonstrated that we can't use the same function for each person, and that's about as useful as Hume demonstrating that we, logically, can't know anything. It isn't, at all.

* Whenever someone chooses to use an analogy on the internet, it is, shortly afterward, demonstrated just how poorly constructed that analogy actually is. If that doesn't occur in this case, I'll put it down to a lack of readership.*

04 December 2009

Discussion of "Signatures of Consciousness", Stanislaus Dehaene

Edge discussion and original talk here.

Stan Dehaene always deals with interesting, deep problems in a novel and efficient manner. His last two publications deal with the evolution of a number sense in primates and the evolution of reading ability (a proposed volutionary change based on a cultural phenomenon), and now Dehaene attacks the problem of consciousness in terms of a global neuronal workspace. The quick and dirty version of his argument is that, based on fMRI and temporal EEG measures, it seems the consciousness exists as a kind of neural workspace in the mind; consciousness is something that parallels (or is?) our working memory and exists independently of neural processes and responses, following behind the initial response to stimuli by an average of a quarter second.
I have great respect and admiration for Dehaene, but there's a major flaw in his discussion (and since his talk is speculative, that's acceptable): He explains well the purpose of consciousness, and perhaps even what we might define as conscious, but he fails in any meaningful manner to demonstrate what causes it.
Sam Harris has a critique of Dehaene's points in terms quantum computers, which I won't even attempt to address.

30 November 2009

Wen the Eternally Surprised?

My first post in a month, and it's pure, unadulterated fluff. Literally.

Then again, the cat is exhibiting the only correct reaction, as we have never experienced each moment until it occurs. Buddha has claws...

31 October 2009

Happy Hallowe'en, don't eat the candy!

This would be hilarious if it were a joke... unfortunately someone actually believes this.

29 October 2009

Chirality and Life

Marcelo Gleiser is, if not more intelligent, certainly more educated than I am. Thus I'm a but surprised to find such fundamental errors of thinking in his latest SEED article, here. Gleiser states, quite correctly, that all the proteins that make up life could, chemically, be right-oriented or left-oriented. He also cites his and colleagues' research that the early Earth appears to have contained molecules of both chiralities, and then asks why life only has left oriented molecules present. Marcelo, how is this not at least semi-obvious?
Let's start with a fundamental assumption; Life began once and only once on our planet, created from (insert correct answer here, we don't have it yet) to form self-replicating strands of nucleic acids and the proteins for which they code, somewhat like viruses or prions. This isn't that poor of an assumption, given the low probablity of spontaneous generation of life in the first place. It had to happen somewhere, given the numbers of stars and planets, and obviously it happened here or we couldn't write and read blogs written by graduate students of no current academic importance, but proposing it occured multiple times is a bit of a mathematical stretch. If you'd like, we can concede that life was unlikely to start more than once at a time, allowing the possibility that early life began several times sequentially, and that will not affect this dicussion at all. So, given that life occured once, or once to start, then the proteins incorporated in that first organism were likely of one chirality, given the simplicity of early life-like molecules and the coding for proteins written into whichever nucleic acid (likely RNA, from current evidence) was employed. That life had to replicate, using the available amino acids, proteins, and other molecules, and would replicate using the same structure without fundamental changes in the RNA (mutations). Molecules of the wrong chirality couldn't even interact chemically with those of early life, it'd be life trying to use the mirror image of a key. (Gleiser uses the mirror analogy to describe chiral molecules first, and it's apt, so I'm stealing it. Thanks Marcelo, you'll never likely see this, but I'm giving credit anyway)
Briefly, then, what we're seeing in the exclusivity of "left-handed" proteins is a what Dawkins calls a frozen accident, the vestige of the structure of our most distant ancestors and the necessary structures for their replication and survival, all the way down to us. There's no reason to suppose that life on other planets would necessarily follow this blueprint, and actually finding samples would be a requirement for making any statements of that kind.

Gleiser states it thusly:
If one traces life’s origins from its earliest stages, it’s hard to see how life began without molecular building blocks that were “chirally pure,” consisting solely of left- or right-handed molecules. Indeed, many models show how chirally pure amino acids may link to form precursors of the first protein-like chains. But what could have selected left-handed over right-handed amino acids? My group’s research suggests that early Earth’s violent environmental upheavals caused many episodes of chiral flip-flopping. The observed left-handedness of terrestrial amino acids is probably a local fluke.

Obviously we're not far apart on most of this view, it's the "it's hard to see how" statement that vexes me... his local fluke may be much more local than he believes, as in local to the particular location on the planet where life began.

19 October 2009

Sham Charity...


An organisation called Orphan Outreach runs volunteer trips to the Dominican Republic, many of which are taken by public schools. This, at first glance, sounds like a wonderful idea. The issue I derive from this is that the founders of O.O. are not only religious (that's immaterial), but that they require the orphans to attend Pentecostal Church services nightly, according to their volunteer guide. Volunteers, of course, aren't mandated to attend, but then again they aren't the target here. On top of that, the volunteers are required to not only pay for the trip ($1600 for a week) and their own airfare, they're expected to bring a 50lb. suitcase of food to donate and give any flight coupons that might be received if they're bumped on a flight. Hmm... not that I have a problem with supporting the orphanage, but if I chose to go and volunteer, what would I have to pay $1600 for a week's worth of beans and rice and a place to sleep under a mosquito net in an open air building? What exactly does that money cover? Not to mention that fact that I would then get to pass through customs in a third world nation with 50lbs of food, and then identify myself as an American for a nice trip through an area where we're advised by the State Department not to travel alone or after dark. It sounds to me like, under the guise of a good cause, those who run this programme are financially exploiting the charitably minded and seeking to convert young children to their religion.

02 October 2009

Pat Condell's latest...

Patriotic Jackassery

Someone will disagree with this, but, hell, someone disagrees with everything else I write as well. At the outset of a school pep rally today, our athletic director threw out two male Hispanic students who refused to stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. They weren't disruptive or disrespectful, in fact they weren't even speaking, they simply didn't stand and say the pledge. I was told, by the athletic director, to take them to our version of in-school suspension for that "offence", which I refused to do. Rather, I let the students stand just outside the gym doors and watch until I could get the attention of an administrator who promptly took them back in to be seated. The AD is furious that I went over his head (and that I took the students' side on this).
As I explained to the AD, I also refuse to say the pledge, although not for the same reasons as the students. Unless our government sees fit to remove the blatant and unconstitutional endorsement of religion from that document, I will continue to refuse to say the pledge, and if that were to happen I would still have reservations in publicly swearing allegiance to a piece of cloth and the nation. I have no intention of betraying the nation in which I live, and there are a number of things about this country that I admire and support, not least the fact that I have the freedom/right to decide whether or not I wish to say something like the Pledge of Allegiance because of the way our government was constructed. The students actually refused because they aren't yet citizens of the U.S., although they are here legally. That two adolescents (17 and 18 respectively) chose not to swear allegiance to a nation, of which they are not citizens (and that, at times, treats those of their ethnicity rather unjustly, to say the least), does not offend me in the least as a citizen of that nation. The athletic director, on the other hand, was absolutely incensed both with their conduct and my failure to condemn it.
A little research turns up this gem: 1943 West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, in which the Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional for the government, schools included, to compel speech in the manner of the Pledge. This at the height of World War Two, no less. Attempts since then to challenge the constitutionality of the words "under God" in the pledge, as they expressly support monotheism as a religious belief, have not resulted in Supreme Court rulings ( Newdow v. California was dismissed because the plaintiff was deemed not to have parental standing in the case). There are a number of more recent rulings that uphold the opinion that coercion of speech is not constitutional.
Basically, Wake Co. schools should be thanking me for saving them a lawsuit. Somehow I doubt I'll ever hear that thanks.

20 September 2009

Teh Stoopid, it Burnz

Warning: This will be lengthy

I received this email a few days ago, forwarded by a childhood friend of mine who is quite intelligent, and , I thought, fairly reasonable and rational. As she's not the author of the illogical piece of trash I'll quote in a moment, I'll reserve any judgement and simply consider that she probably shares the neo-con political views of her parents. Needless to say, I do not, a fact of which she is apparently not aware when forwarding this drivel.

The Truth About the Health
Care Bills - Michael Connelly, Ret. Constitutional Attorney

Well, I have done it! I have read
the entire text of proposed House Bill 3200: The Affordable Health Care
Choices Act of 2009. I studied it with particular emphasis from my area
of expertise, constitutional law. I was frankly concerned that parts of
the proposed law that were being discussed might be unconstitutional.
What I found was far worse than what I had heard or expected.

To begin with, much of what has been said
about the law and its implications is in fact true, despite what the Democrats
and the media are saying. The law does provide for
rationing of health care, particularly where senior citizens and other
classes of citizens are involved, free health care for illegal immigrants,
free abortion services, and probably forced participation in abortions by
members of the medical profession.

The Bill will also eventually force
private insurance companies out of business, and put everyone into a
government run system. All decisions about personal health care will
ultimately be made by federal bureaucrats, and most of them will not be health
care professionals. Hospital admissions, payments to physicians, and
allocations of necessary medical devices will be strictly controlled by the

However, as scary as all of that is, it
just scratches the surface. In fact, I have concluded that this
legislation really has no intention of providing affordable health care
choices. Instead it is a convenient cover for the most massive transfer
of power to the Executive Branch of government that has ever occurred, or even
been contemplated. If this law or a similar one is adopted, major
portions of the Constitution of the United States will effectively have been

The first thing to go will be the
masterfully crafted balance of power between the Executive, Legislative, and
Judicial branches of the U.S. Government. The Congress will be
transferring to the Obama Administration authority in a number of different
areas over the lives of the American people, and the businesses they own.

The irony is that the Congress doesn't
have any authority to legislate in most of those areas to begin
with! I defy anyone to read the text of the U.S. Constitution and find
any authority granted to the members of Congress to regulate health care.

This legislation also provides for
access, by the appointees of the Obama administration, of all of your personal
health care information, your personal financial information, and the
information of your employer, physician, and hospital. All of this is a
direct violation of the specific provisions of the 4th Amendment to the
Constitution protecting against unreasonable searches and seizures. You
can also forget about the right to privacy. That will have been
legislated into oblivion regardless of what the 3rd and 4th Amendments may

If you decide not to have
health care insurance, or if you have private insurance that is not deemed
acceptable to the Health Choices Administrator appointed by Obama, there will
be a tax imposed on you. It is called a tax instead of a fine because of
the intent to avoid application of the due process clause of the 5th
Amendment. However, that doesn't work because since there is nothing in the
law that allows you to contest or appeal the imposition of the tax,
it is definitely depriving someone of property without the due
process of law.

So, there are three of those pesky
amendments that the far left hate so much, out the original ten in the Bill of
Rights, that are effectively nullified by this law. It doesn't stop
there though.

The 9th Amendment that provides: The
enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to
deny or disparage others retained by the people;

The 10th Amendment states: The powers not
delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to
the States, are preserved to the States respectively, or to the people.
Under the provisions of this piece of Congressional handiwork neither the
people nor the states are going to have any rights or powers at all in many
areas that once were theirs to control.

I could write many more pages about this
legislation, but I think you get the idea. This is not about health
care; it is about seizing power and limiting rights. Article 6 of the
Constitution requires the members of both houses of Congress to "be bound by
oath or affirmation to support the Constitution." If I was a member of
Congress I would not be able to vote for this legislation or anything like it,
without feeling I was violating that sacred oath or affirmation. If I
voted for it anyway, I would hope the American people would hold me

For those who might doubt the nature of
this threat, I suggest they consult the source, the US Constitution, and Bill
of Rights. There you can see exactly what we are about to have taken from us.

Michael Connelly

Retired attorney,

Constitutional Law Instructor

Carrollton , Texas

Well, there are some issues I can't argue here, since Mr. Connelly wasn't kind enough to actually link the bill itself. For one, I can't imagine how he could be privy to that information being a Constitutional Law instructor at where ever he may be (There are no accredited colleges or universities listed in Carrollton, TX)Since that's an argument from personal ignorance, let's give credit where none is likely due and pass over that issue altogether.
If by rationing of health care the author means that health care will be provided only to those who actually need that care, as determined by a medical professional, he's probably right, and I fail to see a problem with this. I personally don't want to pay for health care that I don't need, nor, I assume, would he. Other nations with nationalised health care actually provide services for everyone who's there, so giving care to "illegal immigrants" is a certainty if we follow working models. There's something rather inhumane about denying someone needed medical services because they talk funny, or were born elsewhere, so I invite you to consider the motives behind the author's complaint. I'd guess he doesn't like brown people much, but that's a bit hasty, we can find that out from further conversation (or could if he'd bothered to allow a way to respond personally to his diatribe). Abortion happens to be legal in this country, courtesy of Roe v. Wade, so the complaint that a new system would fund abortion is likely motivated religiously. Likewise the complaint that health care providers will be forced to provide a legal service to their constituents. "Family Planning" clinics that don't provide abortions, and even fail to refer patients to places who do, aren't all that scarce. Perhaps we can lift the misogyny long enough to correct this? I somehow doubt that Mr. Connelly has ever been in the position to require one himself, so it's not like he can add a valid viewpoint to the discussion. Alas, that complaint seems to be seated in the political and religious viewpoint that has respect for embryonic life but none for humans that can actually walk and talk.
Health care is currently regulated by insurance bureaucrats, most of whom are not health care professionals but paper-pushing clerks who are trying to maximise their profits. Comparing this to the proposed system wherein government bureaucrats would take their place, it amounts to a draw at worst. It's also possible that the government version, not driven by profits, might be just a bit less obnoxious to deal with and result in fewer medical expenses for the patient.
The author asserts that the balance of power between the branches of government will be compromised by a new health care system. He fails to supply anything resembling evidence for this assertion, so I can dismiss it with a similar lack of evidence.
For an instructor of constitutional law, this man's grasp of the constitution seems rather poor (so does his logic for a former attorney, for that matter). I'd speculate that he chased ambulances for a living, but ad homenem aside, we can simply examine his arguments as they stand.
3rd and 4th Amendments> The author maintains that the government having access to your healthcare records, in an effort to maintain that care, amounts to unreasonable search and seizure. Search and seizure of what, exactly? This bases itself on the assumption that there is something sinister involved here, rather than the exact same forces in play that your current health insurance apply. If we really want to get snarky, we can always consider that the Patriot Act did the same thing for any form of electronic communication you might have used while it applied. I'm siginicantly less concerned about the Obama administration having access to my medical records than I am (or was) about Bush and his theocrats having access to anything someone who might not agree with them said on the phone or in an email.
5th Amendment> The argument amounts to stating that paying taxes is tantamount to seizure or property without due process. While that may be a typical Libertarian view, it hasn't been applied to the rest of our tax system, and it's a function of a governed capitalist society that the government has to have money to operate. Somehow I don't see the author of that email donating to them.
The responses to the 9th and 10th Amendments are rather telling, as is the "I defy anyone to show me where it says in the Constitution that the government can regulate health care". Well, Mr. Connelly, since the medical profession in 1789 was also the same profession that was quite capable of giving you a nice shave and a haircut, whilst chopping off a limb or bleeding you because of poor "humours" in the blood, I imagine the founders didn't even consider giving that power explicitly to anyone; Nor did they implicitly give the federal government the power to regulate any other industry, say drug and food safety or worker's rights. As an instructor of Constitutional law, you must surely understand these things we call "implied powers"? We've been using them for about two centuries now.
It's entirely possible that the good lawyer is simply a genuine State's Rights man, of the sort that thinks they should still own slaves and lost a certain war over state's rights about 150 years ago. If so, he should consider encouraging his god-bot infested hellhole of a state to secede again. We wouldn't miss them, and I certainly wouldn't miss the bullshit arguments that he thinks he's provided.

Perhaps the map isn't so far off, but at least that little nation within a nation has shrunk since the map was designed.

Addendum In the interest of fairness, whomever originated the email left off the contact info, not the author. Michael Connelly can be contacted at mrobertc@hotmail.com , and his blog can be found here.

18 September 2009

Review of The New Atheism, Victor Stenger

The New Atheism fills a needed gap in the literature begun by Sam Harris in End of Faith, in that it actually addresses all the fleas, and attempts at legitimate rebuttal, that have surfaced in response to the books by Dawkins et. al.. Stenger begins with a solid summary of the works of the "Four Horseman", as well as those by himself and Dan Barker, that also incorporates census data on just how many nonbelievers exist worldwide. This portion of the book, and those dealing with suffering and morality, aren't novel, although they serve to round out the scope of the material.
The key portions of Stenger's book are the rebuttals of Haught, D'Souza, and the ilk who have made legitimate attempts to address the arguments of the New Atheists (at least tried to blow enough smoke in front of them so as to create doubt in those arguments). As I had no interest in purchasing or reading the drivel perpetuated by religious apologists, it is useful to see from whence their arguments might come, as well as to have those arguments examined in clear language. Stenger is concise to the point of almost being too brief in some parts, but manages to address a number of apologetic claims. One can almost imagine a Gish gallop of religious argument that demands rebuttal as the author replies to them. Perhaps more importantly, and more interestingly, Stenger addresses the fine-tuning arguments from physics that previous atheist authors have not touched, ably eliminating that from the viable apologetic arsenal. For clarity's sake, Stenger's refutation amounts to pointing out the the apologists' argument fails to take into account that varying one physical constant actually varies the others and leads to conditions that are still suitable for the organisation of matter and life in some form, although not necessarily life as we know it. The assertion of the theists is thus reduced to special pleading based on the anthropic principle. Furthermore, Stenger poses the multiverse theory, among others, as a manner to resolve the problem of fine tuning. He also points out that the idea of a pre-Big Bang singularity, the point where theists like to insert a deity as a first cause, has been dis-proven in physics since Hawking's Brief History of Time in 1988. William Craig Lane and Dinesh D'Souza still cling to this argument, as do many of their supporters, so Stenger's submission of quantum tunneling from yet another universe as the cause of this universe, supported by publications of both his own and Hawking's, serves as an important nail in that coffin. By simply citing a zero energy beginning to the universe, which is empirically supported, much of the fine tuning argument evaporates of its own accord.
Stenger also devotes a chapter to the mind, as he believes that may be the last real battleground where theists seek to insert god. While scientific notions of mind still have explanatory work to do, Stenger asserts that, as with the evidence of an interventionist deity, the presence of a dualistic mind, that is a mind that arises separately from the matter of the brain, absence of evidence is indeed evidence of absence. The latter phrase is useful in maintaining an agnostic stance toward natural phenomena, however the author makes the valid point that the absence of evidence that should be there if a hypothesis were true disconfirms that hypothesis. This holds true both for a deity that intervenes in the universe and the existence of a (insert religious term for soul here).
The remainder of Stenger's book is devoted to explaining the nature of science, debunking Mormonism and explaining the history of religious phenomena, placing Christianity and Jesus in the proper historical context of an axial age (wherein numerous cultures at the same stage of civilisation had thinkers who professed moral codes), and, surprisingly, agreeing with Sam Harris that Eastern philosophy, once stripped of supernatural pretence, serves as a viable source of morality. In particular, the author seems to admire the eightfold path of Buddhism as a moral code, although he also supports the aspects of Hinduism and Taoism that demand a reduction of ego as a means of living a morally fulfilled life.
While not entirely novel, Stenger's work is concise and well-written, with enough newly presented notions to be worthy of a read. Thanks for the early birthday gift, Mom.

15 September 2009

Well, Last Time it Was Sarcastic

... but apparently I am a bit too harsh. A professor in the PhD programme chose tonight to discuss what she terms "professional discourse". I'll boil down her points as I understood them, and then I'll give my take on them.
1. It's not OK to directly confront wrong notions, ideas, and statements. Instead, you need to phrase a rhetorical question or frame the response in such a way that you sound as if you're only giving your view on the subject.
2. Asking for evidence to support an assertion is unreasonable because "we don't have the books in front of us."
3. You need to refrain from using big words, or if you do you should explain what they mean. Using big words make you sound like a know-it-all.
4. Don't dominate the discussion, but don't sit there silent either. By dominating the discussion you're silencing someone else who might want to talk, and sitting silently isn't contributing.

To be fair, I see nothing terribly wrong with #4 provided that other people do actually want to talk. The other three are a bit of an annoyance, and rely upon some poor reasoning.
It's perfectly acceptable to confront some one's wrong ideas with empirically supported ideas of your own. This is called debate, and in the absence of being directly handed information, it's how we might actually learn something from a course web discussion. I agree that it's a logical fallacy, and counterproductive, to attack the person themselves. However, since when does professional discourse have to include deference to absolute horseshit? (oops, I just broke #3, again). Calling the idea horseshit is a bit rude, I'll admit, but demonstrating that it's not correct is another story. We have a style over substance fallacy working here, and apparently it's the dominant culture in the course.
Evidence is how we, as rational human beings, actually support what we're saying and manage to establish some measure of veracity for our assertions. Operating under the assumption that I can just assert something and that should be good enough leads to the submission of personal experience and anecdote as proof of (insert concept here), and just doesn't work. These people are PhD students in Science Education, surely they grasp the idea of evidence? All that aside, how frackin' difficult is it to Google something?
The last sentence applies heavily to #3 as well. You don't know a word I used? Really? All right, I can accept that, now open another browser window and use OED to figure out what it means. Still don't get the concept? Wikipedia is full of entries on just about everything; Not necessarily ones that contain loads of perfectly verified information, but I'm not discussing anything particularly controversial here. Alternately, you might try something like searching the name of the person I just cited, and it's just possible that the very source I used will pop up, or something that at least summarises the ideas espoused in that source.
/rant. Perhaps I should have stuck to the actual sciences, or looked into Philosophy despite my scant background in it if I wanted to be able to have real discussions with people in my programme. Or perhaps these people need to grow a thicker skin, take Sagan's advice and not get so attached to their hypotheses, learn to look things up they don't understand, and possibly provide something to back their assertions beyond "Well, in my experience..."

24 August 2009

I've been too harsh...

Robert Wright destroys my worldview in an essay in Sunday's NYT. What else could possibly come of such a well written opinion piece that so greatly differs from the views of a "new atheist". Wright states in his gospel:
I bring good news! These two warring groups have more in common than they realize. And, no, it isn’t just that they’re both wrong. It’s that they’re wrong for the same reason. Oddly, an underestimation of natural selection’s creative power clouds the vision not just of the intensely religious but also of the militantly atheistic.

Eureka! I have underestimated the creative power of natural selection! Why, if Wright hadn't pointed it out, I might never have considered that God could have begun the universe, and then stepped back to let it all run through the process that we can detect. When I was a strident, militant, neo-Atheist, I would have simply examined the evidence for natural selection, abiogenesis, and the Big Bang , and posited that they can work without a designer of any sort. In my hasty militaristic scientism, I'd have put down the teleological appearances of evolution as nothing but that: appearances. Yet Wright, by citing that wonderful scientist William Paley, points out that the apparent design is there because life, the universe and everything must have been designed! That's right, Paley was a wonderful scientist, as Wright notes:
There are two morals to the story. One is that it is indeed legitimate, and not at all unscientific, to do what Paley did: inspect a physical system for evidence that it was given some purpose by some higher-order creative process. If scientifically minded theologians want to apply that inspection to the entire system of evolution, they’re free to do so.

What a poor scientist I am, blinded so by my strident, militant, evangelical fundamentalist Atheism as I've caught it from the likes of Dawkins and Dennett! Proof of a designer was there all the time, all I had to do was examine the evidence with the intent of finding evidence of a designer. This, of course, is science at its purest: rifling through all the available evidence to find that which supports your hypothesis and discarding that which does not. Why, any common citizen could tell me as much.

Wright does an even more thorough job with his other salvo: that of destroying my (our, to include other fundagelical militant atheists) strident pretensions that I'm subscribing to pure logic in failing to attribute a designer:
They could acknowledge, first of all, that any god whose creative role ends with the beginning of natural selection is, strictly speaking, logically compatible with Darwinism. (Darwin himself, though not a believer, said as much.) And they might even grant that natural selection’s intrinsic creative power — something they’ve been known to stress in other contexts — adds at least an iota of plausibility to this remotely creative god.
. In my slanted materialistic worldview, coloured as it is by staunch atheism and an unjust tendency to root my tenets in evidence, I've overlooked an important fact; The evidence from evolution and the natural world doesn't entirely rule out the possibility of a deistic, non-interventionist deity. How stridently narrow-minded of me (and all other neo-militant, scientific thinking atheists) to act as if there isn't a behind-the-scenes designer, who obviously could have set all this in motion and is now completely apathetic and non-interventionist towards his/her/its creation.
Wright's dismantling of the evangelical militant mantras of the New Atheists continues:
And, god-talk aside, these atheist biologists could try to appreciate something they still seem not to get: talk of “higher purpose” is not just compatible with science, but engrained [sic] in it.

Why yes, Robert, we've been far too close-minded to see the concept of "higher purpose" embedded in in biology. It's clear, when looking at parasites, predation, and how a population can be culled through simple starvation, that there is a grand design: a power greater than simple selection of the best adapted is in play. How else could such a wonderful array of life come to be on our planet? How could life come to be at all, without a designer? After all, our best and most recent lab experiments are only able to create self-replicating molecules that consist of a simple nucleic acids surrounded by proteins, nothing at all like early life might have been. We can only hope that the others who are so trapped by their narrow beliefs in neo-fundamentalist atheistic science can be freed from their intellectual chains by Wright's sparkling logic and fair open-mindedness towards the possibilities inherent in the evidence.

Here I was about to remark that there must be some sort of law about committing grammatical errors when snarking about the errors of others, and I find that my usage matches OED. (Really, go look).

Nice reponse to the article... the (deliberate?) misunderstanding of the more common "there's no evidence so who really gives a fuck" atheist position is irritating, Wright should know better... And you're right... ruling out the possibility of deities would destroy our favourite hobby of arguing with creationists and such.

03 August 2009

Interesting study...

Richard Dawkins tweeted about this, and I found it interesting, so it's discussion time... A key to analysing this may simply be
funded by the John Templeton Foundation,

but I'll attempt to be fair and reserve judgement.

The study concludes that a) majors in social sciences and humanities become less religious, b) majors in the natural and physical sciences maintain their level of religiosity, and c) education majors tend to harbour the religious and strengthen their convictions. I haven't the data to argue with it, so let's simply examine that of the study.

Source: University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, 2009

Firstly, they've separated the measures for importance and attendance, and consider them of equal value in measuring religiosity. I'm not certain I buy into that... If one considers religion to be of less importance, it follows that one is less religious. Attending services of some form or another occurs for a number of reasons, many of them social (data to back this up might help, I know).

The education numbers frighten me a bit. Clearly, there is an upswing in religiosity, by both measures, after completion of college for those in education majors. The article also states
"Education majors are clearly safe havens for the religious," said U-M economist Miles Kimball, who co-authored the study. "Highly religious people seem to prefer education majors, tend to stay in that major, and tend to become more religious by the time they graduate."

I'd love to see the data that spawned that particular conclusion, as it isn't provided and doesn't seem evident from the methods used in the study. I don't deny the possibility that it's true, but something concrete would be helpful. Religion does tend to have a regrettable tendency to make people want to pass it on, however.

The final conclusion is the one I truly take issue with:
"Our results suggest that it is Postmodernism, not Science, that is the bĂȘte noir of religiosity. One reason may be that the key ideas of Postmodernism are newer than the key scientific ideas that challenge religion. For example, religions have had 150 years to develop resistance or tolerance for the late 19th century idea of Evolution, but much less time to develop resistance or tolerance for the key ideas of Postmodernism, which gained great strength over the course of the 20th century."

There's nothing at all to suggest that this is true, other than the numbers they demonstrate. Is it possible that courses in sociology, philosophy, and comparative religion simply tend to teach rational thinking and, more importantly, demonstrate the cross-cultural tendencies of the religious to attempt to explain/deal with certain life events? Perhaps the ideas of Postmodernism are more difficult for the religious to confront than those of science; After all, Postmodernist thinking doesn't use empiricism as a standard for doctrine either.

Original paper here.

23 July 2009

Accomodationist Drivel

The NCSE has a point... their role is to promote the teaching of evolution/natural selection in public schools in the U.S., and it is therefore detrimental to their goals to estrange theistic evolution supporters. The validity of their argument ends there, however. It is not ethical, much less feasible, to deny reality in the hopes that some theistic evolutionist will then support their attempts to keep creationism out of the classroom. Kevin Padian, of NCSE, states that
Creationists—people who deny evolution because it conflicts with their religious precepts—often tell us that whether we accept a naturalistic or a supernatural explanation of the world around us is a philosophical choice: a belief. They're not wrong. That first decision—what kind of “knowledge” is going to be privileged in your mind—is ultimately a question of belief, a leap of faith, a decision about truth, if you care to use the term at all.

Well, Kevin, you have some serious flaws in your underlying assumptions that you have neglected to examine, or even state. A naturalistic world view is not based on faith or belief, but more accurately disbelief. I, and others who adopt that world view, choose to accept the evidence of our own senses (extended by scientific instruments) rather than one that includes supernatural sources as causes for natural phenomena. This isn't a belief, it's pure rationality. There is no reason to assume a supernatural cause for anything that can be explained by natural causes. Only poor logic or underlying assumptions based on faith would cause someone to make such a leap, and neither of those constitute anything resembling evidence. Likewise, the failure of naturalistic explanations doesn't imply that supernatural explanations are valid, it means that the naturalistic explanations currently available aren't valid. It's a bit sad that someone who deals in science, a study founded purely in reality, feels the need to lend credibility to unreal concepts.

Padian continues
And that brings us to the students who never learned much about science, but were brought up with conservative religious views. Will it make sense to them to tell them that “evolution is true,” even if you give them a lot of examples of evolution at work? Will they listen in the first place, particularly if they think that your teaching is going to be hostile to their beliefs?

Well, perhaps it isn't enough to tell someone who hasn't been exposed to the science that evolution is "true" and then simply guide them through the evidence. It is quite likely, from anecdotal experience at least, that they will simply shut their mind if not their ears to the evidence as it is presented, or that they will co-opt it to fit their beliefs where appropriate. Does that mean we shouldn't present the evidence? Some people will refuse to accept evidence of a number of things, even if it is painfully obvious, if said evidence conflicts with dearly held beliefs. Yet, there are those that it may eventually reach. Are we to abandon that attempt because people choose to be willfully ignorant?
Addressing the last point, I would have to say no. There are people who will cling to their beliefs in the teeth of the prevailing evidence, and there may be no reaching them. So be it. A course in logic and reasoning might be a better way of beginning that discussion than the evidence for evolution, but fundies demonstrate a profound inability to identify their own logical fallacies whilst attempting to point out those of other people. Pretending that there is a way to reconcile (insert creation story here) with the science is doing a disservice to those people who might actually want to learn something. I'm not saying we demand that they abandon their belief systems all at once, but I don't agree with the need to coddle them: educational curricula aren't determined democratically.
Then again, what should I have expected from an article/book review that begins thus"

John is the only one of the four evangelists who recounts Jesus' (possibly apocryphal) statement to Pilate that he was in fact a king whose role was “to bear witness to the truth; and all who are on the side of truth listen to my voice.” Pilate is said to have replied to this, “What is truth?”

What is truth Kevin Padian? Something which you aren't interested in promoting...


21 July 2009

Cybernetics? Well, not quite...

... but it's still pretty cool. Cognitive Science and computer researchers at UC Berkeley have managed to teacher monkey to manipulate a computer cursor and a robotic arm. Not so smoothly at first, but smoothly and through the desired path after practice.
As also evident in Figure 2A, there was a similar monotonic decrease in the mean time to reach targets. Whereas the initial cursor trajectories meandered, they became more direct with practice (Figure 2D, comparison of representative trajectories from day 3 and day 13 for Monkey P). It is important to note that the subjects were not required to follow a straight path from the center to each target. Interestingly, the mean trajectory to each target became increasingly stereotyped over time, suggesting that a relatively stable solution emerged for the path to each target. We quantified the similarity between each set of daily mean trajectories by performing pairwise correlations (see Materials and Methods). As illustrated by the color map in Figure 2D, the correlation between the mean paths for each day initially increased and then stabilized. Similar results were obtained for Monkey R (see Figure S3)

Basically, they get better at moving the exoskeleton and/or cursor over time, they way a human does when learning a new physical skill. The possible extensions of this technology are somewhat apparent to anyone who had an interest in science fiction as a kid: once approved for human use, this same technology can be used to control artificial limbs, or to operate a computer (or other computer driven object) without having to use your hands. You can read the original article here for free.

07 July 2009

Obligatory MJ post.

Fuck Michael Jackson, and all the overblown media coverage of a the demise of a mentally-deranged pederast. Yes, his dad abused him and it caused him all sorts of troubles, I'm not downplaying that.. but enough already

Satire as only the British can do it

The Case for God by Karen Armstrong

by John Crace - The Guardian


May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart make Dawkins and Hitchens burn in Hell, O Lord my Rock and my Redeemer. Amen.

blankMuch of what we say about God these days is facile. The concept of God is meant to be hard. Too often we get lost in what Greeks called logos (reason) rather than interpreting him through mythoi - those things we know to be eternally true but can't prove. Like Santa Claus. Religion is not about belief or faith; it is a skill. Self-deceit does not always come easily, so we have to work at it.

Our ancestors, who were obviously right, would have been surprised by the crude empiricism that reduces faith to fundamentalism or atheism. I have no intention of rubbishing anyone's beliefs, so help me God, but Dawkins's critique of God is unbelievably shallow. God is transcendent, clever clogs. So we obviously can't understand him. Duh!

I'm going to spend the next 250 pages on a quick trawl of comparative religion from the pre-modern to the present day. It won't help make the case for God, but it will make me look clever and keep the publishers happy, so let's hope no one notices!
Continue reading and to audio

Taken from RDnet... Hilarious book review.

05 July 2009

At least they figured something out...


WCPSS isn't going to cough up 6 grand a day for the consultant from Canada I talked about in earlier posts, although they declined to comment on why. O'Connor claims that it's due to budget constraints, which is understandable. I'm hoping it's because they realised that he's a complete and utter fraud, but we'll see about that.

02 July 2009

Sharia Law in the Swat Valley


A summary? A teenage girl/woman was seen in public with a man to whom she was not married or related, and was publicly flogged for it... "religion of peace", my ass.

27 June 2009

I get email...

It isn't nearly as deranged or interesting as the stuff PZ gets, but it's deluded in its own way.
Hey David, how have you been? We've missed you. We have been wondering what we have done for you to not talk with us or your dad, for so long. Could you possibly call your dad sometime soon, and fix things ?
He talks about you often and wonders what he did for you to not talk to him.
We sold the condo last year and we got your grandmothers house. We moved in June 27th. Can't believe it's a year tomorrow.
Are you teaching anywhere?
Are you dating anyone now?
What are you doing this summer, if your still a teacher?
Do you come up to NY often?
We would really love to hear from you soon
Love Dee

Wow, where to start... So this is my step-mother, who I've met perhaps 5 times. She's playing the step-motherly peacemaker role, which I can understand. What bemuses me is that she, and more so my father, fail to understand why I don't speak with him. I'll preface this next bit of vitriol with the fact that she and my step-sisters don't know me well enough to have done anything to me... therefore this is not aimed at them. Rather they're being ignored by proxy.
The man who physically and emotionally abused me doesn't grasp why it is that I won't talk to him. I find that both comical and sad... Does he honestly think I'd want to? By way of apology, he once said "Sometimes I feel like I didn't do a very good job with you." Awesome. Try for some actual remorse, and we might have somewhere to begin. In all reality, I'm not sure that a sobbing, legitimate apology would elicit anything other than disgust on my part at this point in my life. There are things for which I can forgive, but forgetting and moving into a normal father-son relationship isn't going to happen. So there lies the crux of this issue. No, Dee I can't call and fix things, that's well out of my hands, and out of the question.
The rest of this is step-motherly (faux?) concern banter. They don't miss me, as they don't know me. The search for information is awkward, as some of these questions have answers they can easily surmise: No, I don't go to NY often, I haven't since I left. Painting herself and my father as the victims is an interesting twist on a guilt trip, but doesn't make it any more likely to work.
There's something a bit ghoulish about living in the house in which you grew up after your parents have died and left it, at least to me. It's a situation I'll never face, as neither of those houses are the property of my family now, but I still find it odd that my father (or anyone) would choose to do that. He must have really wanted out of that condo.
At least they're reading the nephew I didn't know I had fairy tales, she states on her Facebook that she's "teaching him about the love of Jesus".

10 June 2009

Proctor and Proctologist have the same root...

for a damn good reason... both are expected to ignore all the shit they happen to come across in the course of their duties.

Ok, for the actual point of this post: The poor woman who proctored for an exam I had to give yesterday (a re-test for a course I don't teach, lovely) chose to expound to me on why she feels that creationism needs to be taught in science classes. Other than because she's a creationist, of course. A summary of her argument could be this:

1.) I just can't see how the Big Bang and all that knows to make me different from you, and one trees leaves different from another.
2.) Well, all creation stories have the same basis, so teaching one would at least let the kids know that there are other points of view out there.
3.) (In response to "Faith based concepts don't belong in a science class because they aren't science.") Well, there's an answer to that, I just don't remember it. I had a brain trauma, so I don't always remember or understand things.

Responses to this load of collops? 1 is an argument from personal incredulity, the reason for which I refer you to #3. Her second point is arguable on philosophical grounds, but to appease her I offered to discuss Norse creation myth in my class alongside evolution. After all, according to her it's enlightening students to the fact that there are other points of view. When this didn't mollify her, it became clear that she only wanted Xian creation taught... funny how that always seems to be a sticking point. The simplest demolition of her second point is this: the kids are aware there are other points of view. They can't walk 50 feet, drive 5 blocks, or turn on any form of media in the country for any length of time without being reminded about teh Jebus.
And the key to this entire discussion? statement #3... Lady, you had a brain trauma that you admit impairs your memory and cognitive abilities... and I'm supposed to take your opinion on something you aren't even trained in seriously?
For a bit of colour: This woman claimed repeatedly that private schools give a better education than public, because when she transferred from St. Pederast the Buggerer or Our Lady of Intolerance in the 9th grade, she took 11th and 12th grade classes, and then had nothing to take but "her major", which she claims is chemistry. Firstly, I completely fail to believe that story without seeing 3 years worth of transcript that says Chemistry, 1 credit, and nothing else. More importantly, one instance of anything does not count as evidence of the same... but she wasn't about to win any prizes for polysyllabic cogitation. There are possibly a number of private schools that offer a better education than a number of public schools in this country. Having seen the state of some of our public schools, and knowing the private schools can't remain open without tuition, I should hope so. When all else fails, refer her back to #3 above. It's not an ad hominem if it literally means you can't think for yourself anymore.

07 June 2009

They live in Lotus Land, all right...


So, Wilhelm Bartholt examines lotus leaves, because they appear to be free of dirt at nearly all times, and discovers what he calls the "lotus effect", a combination of hydrophobic waxes and bumps on the leaves that cause water to bead up rapidly and run-off, cleaning the leaves as it goes. He's applied this useful phenomenon to fabrics, and hopes to do so to other materials. None of this is in contention, and is a commercially useful application of nanotechnology.
The issue arises when people attempt to explain the evolutionary reason for the lotus effect, and continue to focus on the self-cleaning aspect of the plants. Let's have a cursory examination of the ecology of the lotus: The water lotus grows in India, China, and Southeast Asia, and as you might gather from the name, it's aquatic. It also happens to be a perennial, meaning that the tubers under the sediment at the bottom of the water regrow into full plants yearly. It is known for purity because it grows only in clear water and its leaves are always clean. Some scientists have proposed that the self-cleaning adaptation in lotus' has evolved because there is an advantage to removing dust and dirt from the leaves, ostensibly for photosynthesis. While this sounds reasonable at first, shall we consider the environment of the lotus before we make such a pronouncement? How much dust would you say the average aquatic plant contends with? This isn't something that grows in a desert oasis, it's a subtropical to tropical (Burma) plant the grows in slow pools in rivers, naturally. So why decide that the lotus is trying to be clean? Well, there are insects that use a similar effect on their wings to keep them clean, dry, and ready for flight... and this seems to be reasonable as well until we understand that those are desert insects, who have to contend with immense amounts of dust in many cases. Indeed, dry seems to be the key here: aquatic plants, especially those that live on the surface, don't need to cleanse themselves of dust, they need to get water off of their leaves as fast as possible. Light attenuates with water depth, and even liquid water increases the albedo of a surface that, in this case, is supposed to be absorbing light. On top of that, the lotus grows only in clear pools, indicating that it has a low tolerance for low light levels (it also grows in areas that may already be shaded, which decreases available light intensity. The self cleaning effect of the hydrophobic leaf surfaces is a spandrel, a structure that happened to evolve along with a selected trait. The spandrel is the commercially viable aspect of that property, but that doesn't mean that the plant is trying to remain clean, it's simply trying to keep it's leaves on the surface and free of reflective water during heavy rains to maximise photosynthetic potential. A brief study in the light intensity reaching the leaves under a) conditions where the leaves have some dust on them and b) the leaves are free of dust but subject to pooling water or submersion would likely bury this silliness for good. Or, it may actually prove me wrong, but at least there would be some evidential basis for the adaptation story, which flies in the face of photo-physics and ecology.

05 June 2009

Random Drug Tests are Unreasonable Search/Seizure?


That's what an NC Appeals court ruled when the issue of random drug testing of teachers in Graham, NC was brought before it. I'm not sure about the constitutionality here, but I do have an opinion of random drug tests in general.
Random tests are going to catch two kinds of users: people with serious chronic drug problems, and someone who occasionally uses marijuana. I'm just fine with someone catching the first, as they don't need to be responsible for the care of children while under the influence, and are likely to have difficulty regulating their drug use/abuse enough to not be high at work. However, I'm not ok with penalising someone who smokes a joint in their basement on a Saturday with Pink Floyd playing in the same manner. The issue here is the marijuana a) stays in someone's system a lot longer than more dangerous substances (a couple weeks to a month, from most sources, as compared to a matter of hours or a day.), and b) not nearly as harmful a substance physically/mentally as things that aren't going to be caught (like the teacher who decides that weekends=cocaine). Drug testing someone because they do something stupid or appear to be high at work, now that I'm fine with.
This may be a case of my pro-hippie bias coming through. From my personal experience, and most statistics I've seen, potheads aren't aggressive or harmful to other people, they're simply lazy. Don't get me wrong, I wouldn't want a chronic pot user teaching my kids, if I had any, because I can't picture that being an effective teacher.

28 May 2009

Thread from Sandwalk (well..maybe)

If you were part of that discussion, or have something to add, feel free to continue it here.

I'll have to address responses here, because there's something screwy with the comment box, at least here at work.

@ Eugene> well... here's the thing, I don't actually have to disprove that someone who was dead for 3 days happened to rise again, walk around for a while longer, and then rose bodily into the sky, because the whole idea is preposterous. From the repeated experiences of mankind, it is obvious that this simply doesn't happen, so the burden of evidence for that is on you... one might think it would be recorded more accurately and closer to the time of occurrence that the canonical gospels (or those that are apocryphal for that matter). I can however, offer evidence that throws the whole scenario into doubt apart from "well, that just doesn't happen". There are several religions from that area, that predate Christianity, that have a deity who is the son a virgin, who also happens to be resurrected and preach salvation: Mithras, Adonis, and Osiris, to claim three that predate Christianity. The myth of Hercules also predates Christianity and shares some of the elements of the story of Jesus. The Norse legends of Odin don't predate Christianity, but hail from a time prior to the introduction of the Christian religion to that part of the world. Are all of those, particularly Osiris and Mithras (whose stories are nearly identical to those of Jesus, and in the same region hundreds of years prior) also true? Or is it more likely that early Christians latched onto existing myths of the time in order to add a certain panache to their forming religion. December 25th, incidentally, was the date of the Roman Feast of the Sun, and the supposed birthday of Mithras, recorded in Roman histories BCE... The theft of ideas is rather obvious if you can look at it unbiased. So what needs to be asked of you is simply this: why is your story more likely to be true than the ones that preceded it or mimicked it?
It can also be demonstrated that there are reasonable, natural, explanations for purported miracles... Lazarus was dead and resurrected? or had goatherds in Palestine 2000 years ago perhaps never heard of a coma, if the event happened at all?

And if a hypothetical claim of super-nature intervening in the workings of nature cannot be ruled out on the basis of the generally observed regularities of the natural sciences or abstract philosophy, the only possible evaluation left is direct examination of the phenomenon to see if it is entirely explicable with reference to purely naturalistic causes.

Correct, science lies fully in the realm of the natural and the observable. Don't neglect that observing the effect of an event is still empirical observation, and can lead to knowledge of the event itself. Science and reason, which is intertwined with science if your a scientist worthy of the name, demand that unnecessary explanations be stripped away. I don't need to hypothesize a creator if I know how, or approximately how, something came about without one. Theistic evolution is exactly that: adding an unnecesssary and logically untenable element to an explanation that stands on its own.
Smijer responded quite well to the god of the gaps argument, so I'll let that lie.

As for what can be empirically disproven, the creation story/stories in Genesis can be demonstrated to be false, Ussher's claim of the age of the Earth is clearly false, and modern day "miracles" are explainable by other means that the supernatural ones, many of which have also been shown to be flat-out hoaxes.

Smijer> When something is that far out of the realm of observation, one has to use reason rather than empiricism. However, defending an idea by saying "well you can't prove it didn't happen is making your stand on some rather shaky ground. He also can't prove it did, and I can easily call into question the validity of the Bible as a historical document, by the age of the writing and the evidence that it has numerous, unrelated authors.
So you define religion, in your sense, as the social aspect? Once you strip away rituals, you're left with a social club. A college fraternity would then be a religion, by your definition, even more so because they still include ritual of some form or other.. all they lack is a professed doctrine in the supernatural.

Eugene Curry
On what basis, then, can one say with any sort of confidence that "[r]eason tells us" that super-nature cannot (theoretically) impinge on the workings of nature?

Because by definition, once something has a measurable impact on the natural world, it can be empirically observed, and is now part of nature.

And given an unbiased historical examination, the resurrection of Jesus proves extraodinarily resistent to naturalistic explanations.

Yes, I agree... however, given unbiased historical examination, the evidence that Jesus even lived, much less did or said anything attributed to him, is debatable. If one chooses, for sake of this discussion, to accept that he was indeed a real person, then we're left with second and third-hand accounts of his deeds, at best. Do you happen to recall the supposed miracles at Fatima, Portugal, in 1917? We had live eyewitnesses for those, and know them to be false, or naturally explainable. Honestly, how reliable would you consider a first century source, which has been transcribed and translated multiple times before reaching you, to be on a topic that was not a matter of your faith? How about if the oldest extant copy was, most definitely, a copy, with items clearly added afterward, and dated from several hundred years after the supposed date of the original manuscript?


Smijer> The comment box is only wonky on my blog, it works on other people's... bizzare, and something I need to resolve. (Although I rarely have commenters to reply to, so it doesn't usually matter).
I understand, and can respect, the idea of using church for a social gathering if that is your only source. That is indeed the reason why many people don't completely leave religion, per se, and the UU churches I've seen are the most tolerable for me by far. I attend a couple of meet-up groups in this area that fill that role, and have previously used my rugby team for that sort of outlet (not a whole lot of thought going on there, to be sure). I'm not one to claim that every aspect of every religion is bad... I do claim that a number of heinous things are done in the name of some deity or other, and the the spurious supernatural claims of religion are exactly that. I'd love a place to sit down with people, play some chess (or air-hockey, or another game of your preference), have a nice intellectual discussion, and possibly drink a few Guiness's... Providing a setting that matches the similar needs of others apart from church involvement is something that will have to come with the growing numbers of non-believers in the country.


Eugene> At the risk of making this incredibly long...

1) extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. 'nuff said. You presume that I wouldn't accept such evidence if it were presented because of my wording, I can assure you (who's opinion on the matter I frankly don't value) that I would. I know my own mind best... Flew's opinion isn't worth a whole lot to me because he's an addlepated, waffling twit; Ehrman's is generally sound and he accepts that there was a historical Jesus (yes, I did more research).
Also, something of which you are likely aware and not considering: just because it's written down doesn't mean it's true.

2) Paul was most certainly evangelising for Christianity, which, incidentally, he stood to gain a great deal from spreading. That doesn't mean that he's outright lying, but it does shed reasonable doubt on his motives. Six of the 13 Epistles aren't accepted as being authored by Paul in the first place, although Corinthians, which you quoted, isn't one of these.

3) Your analogy is off here... It is reasonable to assume that at some point a black man could be president of the US. It is an element of mythology to assume parthenogenesis in primates, because it doesn't happen in nature, but it is a common thread in a number of myths/religions throughout human culture both before and after Jesus. If we're going to discuss ideological biases, is it possible for you, as a Baptist preacher, to view Christianity objectively? Can you really evaluate its claims as if it were, say, Hinduism?

4) Can you prove the resurrection using unbiased sources? Moreover, I'd say the base of your religion is the existence of a deity at all. Thusly, please demonstrate the following:

a)The Universe was created

b)The creation was performed by a deity

c)The deity is interventionist and keeps interfering in the universe

d)The deity happens to be that of an iron-age Semitic people from one region of a small planet circling a star in a galaxy of some 100 billion others, the galaxy being one of some 150 billion others

e)All of this is documented in the "holy book" of that particular set of people

It might also be helpful to your case to demonstrate these auxiliaries:

f)The deity is omni-maximal, i.e. omniscient, omnipotent and omni-benevolent

g)All other creation myths, gods, demi-urges and supernatural beings are false

You agreed that the burden of proof lies with you, I eagerly await your explanations.

5). You're conflating evolution with abiogenesis, and further conflating it with the Big Bang and cosmic development. If I can demonstrate that abiogenesis is possible, which some current experiments are rather close to doing, is your god then reduced to starting the universe and stepping back? Otherwise, it has been conclusively demonstrated that no outside interference is necessary for evolution to occur, so positing a designer is indeed superfluous.

6). I think I mistakenly dealt with this in 1. I don't have serious doubts the man existed, I do have serious doubts that most of what is attributed to him isn't fabricated to make him sound better. My personal view of the historical Jesus is along the lines of Gandhi, or Siddhartha Gautama (without all the nirvana hooey). Rational skepticism of anything, especially something written from an oral history, re-written, and translated as many times as much of the Bible has been would expect numerous errors; The fact that it's also prone to exaggerations and outright mendacity only compounds this problem. You accuse me of not applying skepticism to my own ideology; On what basis should I give more credibility to your particular brand of religion/mythology than someone else's?

to simply say that the traditional super-natural explanation of the early belief in Jesus' resurrection is incorrect is not to provide a naturalistic explanation. One has to actually offer an alternative positive theory. And it is here that the difficulty lies because no positive and comprehensive naturalistic theory withstands scrutiny.

It isn't necessary to provide a plausible alternate hypothesis for something that didn't happen, or can't be demonstrated to have happened. The reason this applies to evolution and not to resurrection is that one is a naturally observed phenomena (the diversityof life on Earth), and one is claimed to have occurred once and only once, and it beyond attempts at empirical observation.

My base position is this, for the resurrection, the existence of any deity, and anything else that lacks evidence: If an entity X is postulated to exist, and no substantive evidence capable of withstanding intense critical scrutiny is present to support the postulated existence of entity X, then the default position is to regard entity X as not existing until said supporting evidence materialises.

Contrary to popular opinion, this is de facto atheism, not agnosticism, and is the stance that many/most atheists with whom I've spoken take.

Yes, please?


The graduation rate for NC high school students is 60%. That number would be less depressing if they mentioned that it means that 60% graduate with their original cohort, rather than at all. Unfortunately, the state means graduated, period, when it cites that statistic. The good news? NC doesn't bother to count all the students who graduate from a non-traditional high school setting. The thousands of students who earn a GED each year count against a school's dropout rate. What impact does that have? Well, in the case of my particular school and district, it means that we fight to keep students who are 2 and 3 years behind their original graduating class in school, and that we have 19 and 20 year old students taking the freshman classes they still need to graduate. Yes, that's right, 19 and 20, sitting in class in the fall next to 13 and 14 year old freshmen... hm... does that sound like a wise idea to you?
So what is NC going to do about it? Well, the state legislature is considering not counting students who leave a traditional high school for a GED programme as dropouts. This needs to happen, and soon, for the sake of the students who are leaving (or should), if nothing else. If you happen to live in NC and read this, email/call/write/harass your local rep.

14 May 2009

Who does vote for these dishonest shitheads?


The SC legislature has voted to create a programme in grades 6-12 that would be aimed at curbing dating violence... this is certainly a good idea. However, they've specifically removed language that would include LGBT partnerships in the training. Their reasoning?

"I do not want the Department of Education or school districts teaching our children in grades six through 12 about same-sex relationships," said Rep. Greg Delleney, a Chester Republican who pushed to make the violence prevention program apply only to heterosexual relationships. "I'm sure it would develop into that."

Yeah, that's an ethical decision that doesn't reflect archaic Biblical bullshit. Well done SC.

In a better attempt at defending their decision, this is offered:
Bill sponsor Rep. Joan Brady said excluding gay relationships is fine and declared that, "Traditional domestic violence occurs in a man-woman, boy-girl situation."
"The fact is, this is a gender-specific, abusive behavior. The overwhelming predominance of dating abuse occurs in a traditional or heterosexual relationship," said Brady, R-Columbia.

Hmm.. maybe she's right.. wait, wait, there's this:
a 2004 Journal of Adolescent Health study found that youths involved in same-sex dating are just as likely to experience dating violence as those in relationships with members of the opposite sex.

So yes, fewer LGBT's are subjected to dating violence than heterosexuals. This I can completely understand, as there are fewer LGBT's than heterosexuals. Either these people are seriously misunderstanding the statistics involved (which wouldn't be surprising in the least), or their homophobia is getting the better of their decisions. Either way, SC citizens are losing out.


The News and Observer posted an article related to my last post... WCPSS is bringing in the author of the book I discussed as a 6K a day consultant for next school year. That's great and all, but they're also laying off a number of teachers, citing economic reasons. hmm... 6K times 8 days of consulting = $48K... oh wait, that's more than I make a year! Someone's position has been sacrificed to pay for training in the latest fad in education, that's lovely.


08 May 2009

WCPSS's "Next Big Thing"

O’Connor, Ken (2008).A Repair Kit for Grading.

My Comments in italics.

1. Don’t include student behaviors (effort, participation,
adherence to class rules, etc) in grades; include only

A legitimate way to prevent teachers from grading for something other than achievement (behaviour, for example) is to allow a separate grade or rating scale for those behaviours we consider important. There’s no need to grade for behaviour in an academic grade if we have somewhere else to do it, but without that outlet (and 2 comments on a report card are not sufficient) people will still combine the two.

2. Don’t reduce marks on “work” submitted late;
provide support for the learner.

Claiming that penalties for late work distort the actual achievement level of the student represented by that mark is plausible and fair. The anecdotal evidence regarding the effects of penalties on motivation is nothing more than that, and cannot be reasonably treated as evidence of anything. The plural of anecdote is not data. Allowing students to renegotiate deadlines for turning in work is both excellent for teaching responsibility and problematic if poorly handled. Creating a separate record for these behaviours solves some of the problems, and requiring that all standards be met prior to moving to the next course solves the other (that students attempt to extend deadlines indefinitely).

3. Don’t give points for extra credit or use bonus points;
seek only evidence that more work has resulted in a
higher level of achievement.

Extra credit does indeed distort grades. This can be demonstrated by simple mathematics.

4. Don’t punish academic dishonesty with reduced grades;
apply other consequences and reassess to determine
actual level of achievement.

Punishment should be something other than a grade of 0, but also needs to be both a deterrent and something severe enough to convey the seriousness of the offense. A simple talking-to does not accomplish this for most of our students. The assessment also needs to be completed, without dishonesty, afterward in order for the student to demonstrate their actual achievement level on that standard. The sanctions imposed/recommended by MacDonald high are viable if and only if they apply to the given student (loss of extra-curricular for a student who doesn’t participate isn’t effective.). MacDonald is a private Catholic school, so loss of privilege and expulsion are much more realistic penalties to the students and parents than they might be to ours. (We have a limited 365-suspension/expulsion policy because we have a mandate to provide and education to all, not just to all that can pay the fee).

5. Don’t consider attendance in grade determination;
report absences separately.

O'Connor prescribes that attendance should not be considered in grades, yet WCPSS attendance policy is to fail students who miss more than a certain number of days without excuse. Excused absences do not imply that the student has actually made up the missed material; any more than unexcused absences imply that the student hasn’t mastered the material for which they were present or achieved missed objectives after their return. If we want to be honest with ourselves about our grading conversations, FF’s need to become INC’s until the objectives are met or not met. In addition, Gathercoal (2002) has a valid point: absent is absent, and we do no favours by excusing one form and not another.

6. Don’t include group scores in grades; use only
individual achievement evidence.

The argument against group assessment is valid. Cooperative learning products need to be used as formative assessment, if at all.

7. Don’t organize information in grading records by
assessment methods or simply summarize into a single
grade; organize and report evidence by standards/
learning goals.

Requires revision of our entire grading system, report cards and GPA included, to be worth implementing.

8. Don’t assign grades using inappropriate or unclear
performance standards; provide clear descriptions of
achievement expectations.

Marzano’s suggestions of criterion-referenced grades are no less arbitrary than using a simple % proficient, which is also more immediately communicable to parents and others. Criterion referenced grades need to be based, appropriately, on numeric marks with set levels of achievement needed to reach each one. In our case, these levels need to be predictive of performance on objective, outside examinations (CAT, EOC, Stanford 9’s, etc). Indicating both achievement and growth could be useful for everyone involved in using the grade in the future.

9. Don’t assign grades based on student’s achievement
compared to other students; compare each student’s
performance to preset standards.

Do we actually have people doing this? I’ve seen college profs grade on a Bell curve, but I’m unaware of anyone here who is… if so it certainly needs to be addressed. Achievement marks should, realistically, statistically distribute along something resembling a Bell curve in an on-level course simply because of the normal distribution of abilities. Skews towards high or low achievement are also natural if the students in the course are of skewed ability as well (i.e. a class load of true honors students being marked on the same scale as an on-level course. Or ICR graded in the same manner.)

10. Don’t rely on evidence from assessments that fail to
meet standards of quality; rely only on quality

Right. This is not profound. The difficulty arises in determining what is actually a valid assessment prior to its use. This fix is fairly straight forward for anyone employing a semi-reflective practice. The footnoted Gardner text on time limits is apt yet we also need to convey, in some form or other, a student’s ability to read. Assessments may not need to rely solely on reading skill, nor should they ideally, but this then needs to open the door to oral or performance assessments that are still predictive of the student’s performance on an outside exam, at least until we allow for orally given EOC’s or do away with them altogether.

11. Don’t rely only on the mean; consider
other measures of central tendency and
use professional judgment.

O’Connor’s difficulty with the mean stems from a misunderstanding of the nature of statistics, and an unwillingness to simply drop the outliers. The mean is a valid, probably the most valid, measure of central tendency provided that the component marks are in a normal distribution. http://simon.cs.vt.edu/SoSci/Site/MMM/mmm.html . There may exist students for whom their mean mark does not reflect their level of understanding of a given objective, in which case something else must be done. O’Connor’s evidence for this topic is once again anecdotal at best.

12. Don’t include zeros in grade
determination when evidence is missing or
as punishment; use alternatives, such as
reassessing to determine real achievement
or use “I” for Incomplete or Insufficient

Giving INC’s in place of zeroes is possibly the best alternative for missing assignments I have seen proposed, provided we require the student to eventually demonstrate proficiency on the standard for which the assignment was missed. This would have to extend all the way to receiving an INC for any course in which the student did not demonstrate proficiency on a given standard (not that not demonstrating proficiency is not equal to demonstrating a lack of proficiency). The fact that they assign a numeric value to a grade that lacks a basis in reality is the only valid argument against the assigning of zeroes for missing marks. The other arguments presented are highly emotional and invalid without corroborating evidence. Adjusting to a 5 or 50 point scale brings the mean back toward centre, and towards the probable level of student achievement, but fails to account for missed assessments. For formative this may work out, but it would be an ineffective way of evaluating a student’s summative assessments because it still involves missing data.

13. Don’t use information from formative
assessments and practice to determine grades;
use only summative evidence.

Good, agreed. That’s what formative assessments are for.

14. Don’t summarize evidence accumulated
over time when learning is developmental and
will grow with time and repeated opportunities;
in those instances, emphasize more recent

If the opportunity to use grade replacement (EOC score, or a section of a final summative assessment as applied to a topic which earned a lower mark earlier) were to be legitimately available, it would perhaps be the most accurate way of indicating exactly what a student achieved in a course. EOC data isn’t available rapidly enough for this to work (We’d need a goal by goal item analysis for each student to grade in this manner).

15. Don’t leave students out of the grading
process. Involve students; they can - and should
- play key roles in assessment and grading that
promote achievement.

Involving students in the grading process, at least as far as creating an understanding of that process so that they can monitor their own progress, could potentially provide motivation for those students (if they’re making progress). As with any other use of grades as an extrinsic motivator, it can work either way in the student’s mind. Students and parents, however, should not be left in the dark as to how their (child’s) grade has been determined.

O’Connor’s current work is a re-write of his two earlier works, none of which are based on empirical evidence obtained by O’Connor himself. A limited amount of his suggestions are based on someone else’s empirical evidence, and most are based on anecdotes at best. Some of them are still logically defensible if the initial premise is accepted as valid. The ideas presented are in many cases worth trying if the opportunity is to be fully and realistically given, rather than treated as a half-measure and abandoned after a brief trial period. This would require an overhaul of the grading system district-wide in order to be successful. However, this is once again likely to become something that is systematised to rest the burden solely on the teachers themselves, as our other policies seem to do.
Anonymous> I agree that it does help to establish bad habits if we don't somehow take into account attendance and timeliness of completing assignments. O'Connor proposes establishing a 2nd mark to convey this information, which I would accept at this level, perhaps not at post-secondary. From my personal experiences at university: I failed a course that I missed 6 times (5 absences were allowed). I averaged 98% on all my coursework and scored 100% on the final. Is it truly representative of my knowledge of my material that I received an F and had to retake that? (Yes, I know, I shouldn't have missed the 6th time... I do get that.) Students who miss that much coursework typically aren't going to pass in the first place. Firm deadlines for assignments are something I'm less likely to be lenient about; If an assignment is designed properly, it's intended as practice or assessment at a given point in time, and its usefullness has passed.