Friday, 31 May 2013

Now It's Transitional Turtle Fossils

BBC News - How the turtle got its unique hard shell

What an appalling day for Creationists!

What with pebbles on Mars showing how Mars is very old and the 'Goldilocks zone' is much wider that they like to pretend, transitional fossils showing how cretaceous amphibians evolved, the discovery of rapid recent evolution in Brazilian palm trees and news that scientists at CERN are getting closer to explaining why matter exists, the news of the discovery of a transitional turtle fossil must be devastating.

CERN - Unweaving Reality. No Gods Found.

Scientists find clues to why everything exists -

Scientists using the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN are getting closer to understanding why there is matter in the Universe. So far, they have not detected any gods, nor found any need to include them in any hypotheses.

We have long known that pairs of virtual particles arise spontaneously (that is, unpredictably and without cause) inside a quantum vacuum. These pairs always consist of matter-antimatter pairs which exist for a fraction of a second and then mutually annihilate, releasing energy.

We're reaching into the fabric of the Universe at a level we've never done before. We've kind of completed one particle's story. ... Now we're way out on the edge of a new exploration. This could be the only part of the story that's left, or we could open a whole new realm of discovery.

Professor Joe Incandela, University of California at Santa Barbara
This can be demonstrated with the Casimir Effect where a pair of uncharged metal plated placed a few micrometers apart in a vacuum can exhibit attraction or repulsion depending on their arrangement. This is explained by virtual particles spontaneously forming between the plates.

Incidentally, the spontaneous generation of these particle/antiparticle pairs is an example of an uncaused event, so giving the lie to the Cosmological Argument beloved of religious apologists, that everything that begins to exists must have a cause. This is demonstrably not so with quantum events such as this - and the Big Bang was a quantum event.

But the mystery was why, if there were equal numbers of matter and antimatter particles formed in the initial instant of the Big Bang, why they didn't all annihilate one another almost instantaneously, leaving nothing behind but energy. In other words, why was there an apparent surplus of matter over antimatter when there should have been perfect symmetry.

Now scientists at CERN are beginning to unravel that conundrum. As PC Computerworld US's Sharon Gaudin reports:

CERN reported that when scientists there smashed protons together inside the underground collider, they have been able to create conditions similar to the period soon after the Big Bang. That means they have seen some anti-matter particles.

CERN said they discovered a subatomic particle, dubbed BOs, which decays unevenly into matter and anti-matter. The anti-matter part decays faster than the matter.

It is only the fourth subatomic particle known to exhibit such behavior, scientists noted.

"By studying subtle differences in the behavior of particle and antiparticles, experiments at the [Large Hadron Collider] are seeking to cast light on this dominance of matter over antimatter," CERN reported on Wednesday. "The results are based on the analysis of data collected by the experiment in 2011."

This comes close on a report last month that equipment attached to the International Space Station may have detected particles that could be the building blocks of dark matter which is thought to make up about one quarter of the Universe's mass but which is almost undetectable other than by observing the gravity its mass exerts because it is made of of particles which interact only weakly, if at all, with other particles.

Very gradually, methodically, and without fuss, science is unweaving reality and find no trace of gods or supernatural entities. In fact they have found not the slightest trace, either directly or implicitly, of a supernatural realm at all.

But then, no scientific progress was ever made by anyone who gave up looking and declared it must have been the locally popular deity which did it. Science long ago abandoned Bronze-Age guesswork and declaration of truth by fiat. The result is the modern world which can build such machines as the LHC at CERN.

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Creationism Refuted - By Newts!

Tiny but feisty prehistoric wesserpeton amphibian discovered - Nature - Environment - The Independent.

Can it get any worse for Creationists? The last couple of weeks have seen evidence of a transitional species between chimpanzees and humans in the earliest known human ancestor, evidence lining up the fossil record with the molecular evidence of a split between apes and monkeys in Africa about 26-27 million years ago, and evidence that humans were establishes in South American by at least 20,000 BCE. Now comes news that another transitional fossil has been found, this time transitional between two early groups of amphibians.

Rapid Evolution in Brazil

Functional Extinction of Birds Drives Rapid Evolutionary Changes in Seed Size

Yet another example of observed rapid evolution is published in this week's Science. This time it is rapid evolution in Brazilian palm trees due to human activity with no evidence whatsoever of any intelligence being involved in the process, nor of any being required.
Local extinctions have cascading effects on ecosystem functions, yet little is known about the potential for the rapid evolutionary change of species in human-modified scenarios. We show that the functional extinction of large-gape seed dispersers in the Brazilian Atlantic forest is associated with the consistent reduction of the seed size of a keystone palm species. Among 22 palm populations, areas deprived of large avian frugivores for several decades present smaller seeds than nondefaunated forests, with negative consequences for palm regeneration. Coalescence and phenotypic selection models indicate that seed size reduction most likely occurred within the past 100 years, associated with human-driven fragmentation. The fast-paced defaunation of large vertebrates is most likely causing unprecedented changes in the evolutionary trajectories and community composition of tropical forests.
Functional Extinction of Birds Drives Rapid Evolutionary Changes in Seed Size; Mauro Galetti, et al.
Science 31 May 2013: 340 (6136), 1086-1090. [DOI:10.1126/science.1233774]
This is a lovely example of how evolutionary change will occur without any new mutation arising simply because the environment has changed. I have shown before how it is not necessarily the information contained in the genome which needs to change but the meaning of that information as determined in the context of the environment in which it finds itself. See Evolution - The Meaning of Information and Rapid Human Evolution.

Over time, these Brazilian palms had evolved to have their seeds dispersed by a range of bird species by being eaten by them and excreted some distance away (neatly giving the seed a little fresh fertiliser to start in on its way in the process). Larger seeds obviously produce larger seedlings and so will have been favoured in areas where 'large-gape' birds were present because these birds could swallow large seeds whole, but, with other bird species present, which could disperse smaller seeds, there would have been little pressure on palms towards producing only large seeds; instead they produce a range of seed sizes.

But, in several areas, under human pressure in the last 100 years or so, many of these large-gape bird species have become locally extinct making it impossible for palms with larger seeds to get dispersed. Not surprisingly, in these areas, as this paper has demonstrated, palms have evolved to produce smaller seeds. With this human-induced environmental change, the relative frequency of alleles of genes favouring smaller seeds in these Brazilian palm trees has shifted - and that is all evolution is.

This reminds me of a similar though more drastic example of how humans can disturb a balanced ecosystem from the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius where several large frugivores (fruit eaters), including the Dodo and a species of giant tortoise have been exterminated by man, resulting in the near-extinction of several plants that depended on them. One such example was the relationship between the tambalacoque (Sideroxylon grandiflorum) or 'Dodo Tree' which was reported in 1973 as being near extinct with only 13 specimens having germinated since the Dodo went extinct 300 years earlier. This was an over-simplification and exaggerated the problem but never-the-less it serves to illustrate the point:
In 1973, the tambalacoque, also known as the "Dodo tree", was thought to be dying out on Mauritus, to which it is endemic. There were supposedly only 13 specimens left, all estimated to be about 300 years old. Stanley Temple hypothesised that it depended on the Dodo for its propagation, and that its seeds would germinate only after passing through the bird's digestive tract. He claimed that the tambalacoque was now nearly coextinct because of the disappearance of the Dodo. Temple overlooked reports from the 1940s that found that tambalacoque seeds germinated, albeit very rarely, without being abraded during digestion. Others have contested his hypothesis and suggested that the decline of the tree was exaggerated, or seeds were also distributed by other extinct animals such as Cylindraspis tortoises, fruit bats or the Broad-billed Parrot. According to Wendy Strahm and Anthony Cheke, two experts in the ecology of the Mascarene Islands, the tree, while rare, has germinated since the demise of the Dodo and numbers several hundred, not 13 as claimed by Temple, hence discrediting Temple's view as to the Dodo and the tree's sole survival relationship.

It has also been suggested that the Broad-billed Parrot may have depended on Dodos and Cylindraspis tortoises to eat palm fruits and excrete their seeds, which became food for the parrots. Anodorhynchus macaws depended on now-extinct South American megafauna in the same way, but now rely on domesticated cattle for this service.

Just another example of evolution in progress, driven as always by the environment selecting for fitness to survive in that environment and environmental change producing a change in allele frequency. If the Brazilian palms in question had not existed in the presence of a range of frugivorous birds but had been forced down an evolutionary path dictated by a single, or small number of, large-gaped species of birds, we would now be looking at impending local extinctions of these trees.

All in all, no evidence there of intelligent design, and all of it easily explained by Darwinian Evolution.

Functional Extinction of Birds Drives Rapid Evolutionary Changes in Seed Size
Mauro Galetti, Roger Guevara, Marina C. Côrtes, Rodrigo Fadini, Sandro Von Matter, Abraão B. Leite, Fábio Labecca, Thiago Ribeiro, Carolina S. Carvalho, Rosane G. Collevatti, Mathias M. Pires, Paulo R. Guimarães Jr., Pedro H. Brancalion, Milton C. Ribeiro, and Pedro Jordano
Science 31 May 2013: 340 (6136), 1086-1090. [DOI:10.1126/science.1233774]

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Creationists Hit By Pebbles From Mars

Martian Fluvial Conglomerates at Gale Crater

Fascinating observations from Mars reported in this weeks edition of Science
Observations by the Mars Science Laboratory Mast Camera (Mastcam) in Gale crater reveal isolated outcrops of cemented pebbles (2 to 40 millimeters in diameter) and sand grains with textures typical of fluvial sedimentary conglomerates. Rounded pebbles in the conglomerates indicate substantial fluvial abrasion. ChemCam emission spectra at one outcrop show a predominantly feldspathic composition, consistent with minimal aqueous alteration of sediments. Sediment was mobilized in ancient water flows that likely exceeded the threshold conditions (depth 0.03 to 0.9 meter, average velocity 0.20 to 0.75 meter per second) required to transport the pebbles. Climate conditions at the time sediment was transported must have differed substantially from the cold, hyper-arid modern environment to permit aqueous flows across several kilometers.

What this means is that at some point in its history, Mars had flowing water with enough power to transport rocks and turn them into pebbles. Pebbles are formed as rocks rolling along in water knock against each other, wearing away any irregularities on their surface to make them smooth and rounded.

The pebbles on Mars have been there long enough to have become incorporated into concretions formed over time from the sand particles they were deposited in.

This has major implications for young-earth creationists who desperately cling to the biblical myth that Earth was created simultaneously with the rest of the Universe between six and ten thousand years ago and everything in the Universe was created exactly as we see it today.

One of their favourite claims is the Earth must have been specially and intelligently designed because it occupies the 'Goldilocks zone' around the Sun where water can exist in each of its three physical states - solid (ice), liquid (water) and gas (water vapour). Creationists claim that the probability of Earth occupying just this 'narrow' band around the Sun is vastly unlikely. This of course ignores the fact that life has evolved on Earth because Earth has the conditions for it to have evolved, and that it fits the conditions on Earth like a hand in a glove because that's what evolution by natural selection causes, as is explained by the Theory of Evolution.

Flowing water on Mars means these conditions existed there at some time too, so widening the 'Goldilocks zone' to include the orbit of Mars and so giving the lie to Creation pseudo-scientist calculations that the 'Goldilocks zone' is very narrow. In fact, the occurance of water in its three physical states on Earth are largely because of Earth's geology and meteorology - mass/gravity, atmosphere, atmospheric pressure, etc - just as when they existed on Mars it was due largely to Mars's geology and meteorology not Mars's distance from the Sun.

The existence of pebbles, which do not form over night, and, more importantly their inclusion in concretions of sand particles, formed with "minimal aqueous alteration" (i.e. after the water had either evaporated due to Mars's low gravity and thin atmosphere, or had become locked up in subterranean permafrost, speaks of a very old Mars, and certainly one more than a few thousand years old. This evidence for liquid water also raises the possibility of the Creationists' nightmare scenario of simple life having evolved on Mars. The search for that continues...

Creationists try to explain away deposits such as these on Earth as due to the Noachin Flood, sent by their god in a fit of temper, to kill all living things because of their 'wickedness'. Do they suppose a similar flood once killed all living things on Mars too, but their god didn't tell a Martian to build an Ark?

Or maybe the Flood reached up higher than the highest mountain on Earth and deluged the inner planets too, but avoiding the Moon which shows no such signs of flowing water.

I dare say one of their 'brilliant scientists' can explain it all...

Don't laugh. It isn't nice.

Martian Fluvial Conglomerates at Gale Crater
R. M. E. Williams, J. P. Grotzinger, W. E. Dietrich, S. Gupta, D. Y. Sumner, R. C. Wiens, N. Mangold, M. C. Malin, K. S. Edgett, S. Maurice, O. Forni, O. Gasnault, A. Ollila, H. E. Newsom, G. Dromart, M. C. Palucis, R. A. Yingst, R. B. Anderson, K. E. Herkenhoff, S. Le Mouélic, W. Goetz, M. B. Madsen, A. Koefoed, J. K. Jensen, J. C. Bridges, S. P. Schwenzer, K. W. Lewis, K. M. Stack, D. Rubin, L. C. Kah, J. F. Bell III, J. D. Farmer, R. Sullivan, T. Van Beek, D. L. Blaney, O. Pariser, R. G. Deen, and MSL Science Team
Science 31 May 2013: 340 (6136), 1068-1072. [DOI:10.1126/science.1237317]

Life's a Beach: Rover Finds Mars Pebbles; Ian O'Neill, 31-May-2013.

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Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Another Victory For Human Decency

BBC News - Six Bosnian Croat ex-leaders convicted of war crimes

Hard on the heels of a victory for human rights in the European Court yesterday, when it was confirmed that being a Christian does not excuse abusing others and denying them human rights, comes confirmation that war crimes, even when committed in the name of religion, are not to be accepted in civilised societies.

The War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague today handed down sentences of between 10 and 25 years to six Bosnian Croat Orthodox Christians who had been convicted of war crimes against Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) and others in the former Yugoslav republic of Croatia during a series of conflicts following the breakup of Yugoslavia. The plan had been to 'ethnically cleanse' a mini state in Croatia in preparation for its incorporation into a 'Greater Bosnia'.

Those convicted were:
  • Jadranko Prlic - leader of the self-proclaimed state of Herceg-Bosna - 25 years in jail.
  • Bruno Stojic - former defence minister of the breakaway Herceg-Bosna - 20 years.
  • Slobodan Praljak - former militia head - 20 years.
  • Milivoj Petkovic - former militia head - 20 years.
  • Valentin Coric - former commander of Bosnian Croat military police - 16 years.
  • Berislav Pusic - ex-head of prisoner exchanges and detention facilities - 10 years.

As BBC Reporter Anna Holligan reports:
The judges ruled that murders, persecutions, rape and torture of Muslims "were not committed in a random manner by a few undisciplined soldiers" but were part of the plan to remove Muslims from the self-proclaimed Herceg-Bosna state in 1993-94.

They also said it was a religiously-motivated campaign, describing how mosques were blown up and Muslim prisoners were forced to recite Christian prayers.

Referring to the forcible expulsion of the Muslim population from the eastern part of the city of Mostar, the panel said: "Muslims were woken up in the middle of the night, beaten and forced to leave their apartments, often still in their pyjamas. Many women, including a girl of 16, were raped by HVO (Croatian Defence Council) soldiers".
The trial, which began in 2006, is the War Crimes Tribunal's longest running case. It represents yet another example of how religion is quickly losing its privileged position in Europe and abuses in its name will no longer be tolerated. The Humanist position, that all people deserve to be treated with respect and dignity by virtue of the simple fact that they are human beings, is quickly becoming the social norm and accepted as the only basis for a civilised society.

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Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Christianity Is No Excuse - ECHR

European Court of Human Rights refuses to hear appeals in three ‘Christian persecution’ cases » British Humanist Association:

Congratulations to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) on confirming that even Christians can't deny basic human rights to others, at least in signatory countries to the European Human Rights Convention (EHRC). This will no doubt come as a great shock to many of them who still take for granted their former privileged place in Western society and who still assume their 'faith' gives them the right to persecute and oppress those with whom they disagree.

It get really Byzantine, so bear with me:

The (refused) appeal was by three Christians who lost their original case in the ECHR when they claimed it infringed their human rights to deny them the right to deny services to others on the grounds that they are Christians. They have previously claimed for unfair dismissal when they were sacked for refusing to treat people equally in the provision of services, and had lost in the English Courts. Britons have the right to take their case to the ECHR if they feel their human rights, as outlined in the EHRC, have been infringed. The ECHR is the final court of appeal for signatory countries.

Sunday, 26 May 2013

Human Gene-Meme Co-Evolution

Culture and genetics intertwined.

Credit: Adapted from a sketch by Josh
In an article in this week's Science Journal, scientists Simon E. Fisher and Matt Ridley make a case for some aspects of human genetic evolution in the last 200,000 years to be the consequence of cultural evolution rather than, as is generally assumed, cultural evolution to be the consequence of genetic mutation.
State-of-the-art DNA sequencing is providing ever more detailed insights into the genomes of humans, extant apes, and even extinct hominins (1–3), offering unprecedented opportunities to uncover the molecular variants that make us human. A common assumption is that the emergence of behaviorally modern humans after 200,000 years ago required—and followed—a specific biological change triggered by one or more genetic mutations. For example, Klein has argued that the dawn of human culture stemmed from a single genetic change that “fostered the uniquely modern ability to adapt to a remarkable range of natural and social circumstance” (4). But are evolutionary changes in our genome a cause or a consequence of cultural innovation.

They cite examples such as Richard Wrangham's study showing how the discovery of cooking led to a change in the size of the human gut, the spread of the lactase-persistence gene facilitated by the availability of cattle milk as a consequence of cattle-herding about which I have previously blogged in Lacatose Tolerance and Creation 'Science' and higher alcohol tolerance among Europeans as a result of greater alcohol consumption in Europe, as compared to Asians.

Saturday, 25 May 2013

Building Walls

Robert Frost
(March 26, 1874 – January 29, 1963
Just been helping a neighbour repair a larch-lap fence between our gardens which the winds a few days ago brought down. It made me think of the poem "Mending Walls" by Robert Frost, about how we build walls between us and how acts of unspeakable brutality such as we saw in Woolwich, London last Wednesday are both caused by those walls and act to reinforce and 'mend' them.

Mending Walls

Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
'Stay where you are until our backs are turned!'
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, 'Good fences make good neighbors'.
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
'Why do they make good neighbors? Isn't it
Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down.' I could say 'Elves' to him,
But it's not elves exactly, and I'd rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father's saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, "Good fences make good neighbors."

Robert Frost
What we saw in Woolwich was the result of alienation and disengagement; the result of generations of wall-building between the white and black communities in Britain. In the 1960s, disaffected youths found an outlet in gangs of 'Mods' and 'Rockers' or, with some of us, in extremist politics of the various brands of ultra-left 'Marxist' groups like the Stalinists, Leninists, Trotskyites and Maoists. In the 1930 it had been the Communists and the Fascists, in the 1950's the Teddy Boys and the Beatniks.

In Northern Ireland throughout most of the second half of the twentieth century, it had been Nationalism and 'the armed struggle' or Loyalism and Protestant Supremacy. We happily fragmented into Beatles fans, Rolling Stones fans, Bob Dylan fans, Folk, Blues, R&B, Jazz. You name it we could form an exclusive little group around it. Sometimes these were political; sometimes cultural.

Sometimes they ended up with people being killed because we forgot that, despite whatever group we identify with, the group to which we all belong is the Human group.

Human beings form groups. It's what we do. If we hadn't evolved that basic behaviour on the plains of East Africa a few million years ago, very probably before we were even humans, we wouldn't have survived. As lone individuals we would have been leopard food, scraping a living looking for roots and grubs and scavenging scraps from hyena and lion kills - if we were lucky and the vultures didn't beat us to them.

We are motivated to affiliate with like-minded people. We need to belong. (See Whatever Possesses Religious People.) Our affiliative needs come just above our basic needs for shelter, food, safety and security in Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, cutting across the need for esteem and and friendship.

Human beings have always functioned in groups. The most basic human group is the family, centered around the pairing of a male and female for the purpose of procreation and the raising of children. This pairing forms the nuclear family, which soon becomes linked to other pairs through a network of relationships between siblings through several generations, thus creating an extended family. This group is held together by a strong bond of cohesion referred to as kinship. While kinship is often thought of in relation to blood ties, what is more important is the common sense of identity by which all the individuals are bonded to the group. This sense of identity causes the individual's self-conception to be inseparable from the group. It is a bonding at an emotional and psychological level which is a powerful motivation usually enduring throughout the individual's life. His or her sense of well-being is intimately related to the integrity and status of the group. Betrayal of the group by an individual member is a most unpardonable sin, involving deep feelings of guilt, and the most severe punishments.

Kinship is, therefore, the most powerful of cohesive forces binding the human group together. It has played an essential role throughout human history in enabling human beings to function and, indeed, to survive. This is as true in the twentieth century as it was in prehistorical times. But it is not the only type of group cohesion. It exists in conjunction with other cohesive forms, and some groups are held together without kinship. It is important to realize, however, that groups which lack the kinship bond will not cohere as well, nor are they as likely to endure.

Behavioral expectations within the group are defined by the culture; norms and roles are established over time, usually in response to needs, and challenges of the environment. Tradition and practice strengthen these expectations, religion sanctifies them, and law codifies them. Institutions develop to enforce them. These are all necessary functional responses to the need for the group to operate efficiently. Over time, however, circumstances will change so that the religious, legal, and institutional responses may no longer be functional. It becomes necessary then for the behavioral expectations to be modified, and new emphases be placed in response to the changing situation. This always creates a friction with old expectations and traditional institutions. Much of the conflict in human history revolves about this process of change. In any case, the religion, the law, and the institutions which develop, themselves become cohesive forces holding the group together, and even make it possible for types of groups to form which lack the kinship bond.

An interesting exercise is to write down all the groups you identify as belonging to. One group you will belong to is those who read blogs such as this one. If you are reading this one because you follow me as an Atheist and/or a Humanist, you will also belong to those groups (groups don't need to be formal). If you're reading this because you disagree with me you will probably be a member of a religious group. If you're the latter, although you belong to the group of people who are religious, there are probably stronger walls between you and members of other religious groups than there are between you and me, even though you are also members of the same group.

And of course, we are both almost certainly members of the same English-speaking group, unless you are reading a translation of this blog.

Walls are part of the means by which we define ourselves and our group. Without walls, the other group's cows might stray over and eat our apples.

We maintain these walls by all sorts of means, and we build them from both sides. We build walls to keep the others in and the others build walls to keep us out; and we all end up inside our own bastions convinced those outside are trying to get in.

And we build walls when none are needed and we maintain those which are no longer required. Just like Robert Frost's primitive neighbour, we need the walls to stop our apples trees wandering over and eating his pine cones, but "good fences make good neighbours!".

Ah, when to the heart of man
Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things,
To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
Of a love or a season?

Reluctance; Robert Frost
Frost recognises the primitive, stupidity of this futile exercise and sees how his neighbour is only doing it because his father did and he is proud of his father's 'wisdom' which he has inherited without "looking beneath it". In other words, the wall is often there for cultural tradition and for no other purpose. How much of the walls we build because of religion are built because we are proud of our father's 'wisdom', and not because they are necessary?

In fact, a better question is, if not for religion and because of the religion we inherited from our fathers why are any of these walls there? And how much are we responsible for the walls we built around the alienated black and Asian kids of today who are looking to Islam, the 'subversive' religion of the West, just as in times gone by, Leninism, Trotskyism and Maoism were the subversive political philosophies of the West, for an outlet and an identity so they can be somebody and have some control over their own destiny?

Don't ever take a fence down until you know why it was put up.

Robert Frost
As Robert Frost observed, this is artificial. There is nothing natural about man-made walls. "Something there is that doesn't love a wall That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it, And spills the upper boulders in the sun, And makes gaps even two can pass abreast".

How hard we work to build up those walls that nothing wants, that serve no purpose other than to honour our dead ancestors and which serve only to spread division, distrust, death and destruction amongst us, as we saw in Woolwich on Wednesday and as we have seen so often in so many places throughout human history.

"But good fences make good neighbours!"

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Circular Reasoning

I'm amazed that anyone needs to explain the logical fallacy of the circular argument but the frequency with which you see it being employed, often in all seriousness by (presumably) otherwise normally functioning adults to defend religion, suggest many people either genuinely don't understand it, or are using in dishonestly, hoping their audience won't understand it.
Circular reasoning (also known as paradoxical thinking or circular logic), is a logical fallacy in which "the reasoner begins with what he or she is trying to end up with". The individual components of a circular argument will sometimes be logically valid because if the premises are true, the conclusion must be true, and will not lack relevance. Circular logic cannot prove a conclusion because, if the conclusion is doubted, the premise which leads to it will also be doubted. Begging the question is a form of circular reasoning.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Two Emails

Compare and contrast there two emails: one from Conservative MP, Nicola Blackwood; the other from Labour MP, Tom Watson.

Nicola Blackwood, MP; Conservative.
The first is from my MP, Nicola Blackwood, Conservative MP for Oxford West West and Abingdon, in reply to an email from me urging her to vote for the third reading of Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill.
Dear ***************,

Thank you for writing to me about the third reading of Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill. In the event, I reluctantly voted against the Bill.

I have taken a great deal of time to engage closely with the detail of this Bill and met with constituents on all sides of the argument, including equal rights campaigners, religious leaders and Ministers to discuss concerns about the Bill's drafting and implications before coming to a conclusion about how to vote.

From the beginning my concerns have not centred on the issues surrounding the definition of marriage. As a strong supporter of civil partnerships and opponent of discrimination in all its forms, I have no principled objection to equal marriage in secular institutions. I abstained from voting in the Second Reading because although I support the principle of the Bill, my concerns about details of the legislation meant I felt I could not vote for it before there was a chance to address these concerns through debate and amendments.

Initially I was disappointed that this Bill did not extend civil partnerships to heterosexual couples and that is why I voted for amendments NC16 and NC16(a) which will provide a prompt review of civil partnerships legislation. I am pleased that this compromise has been reached as it gives hope to many couples who are currently excluded from civil partnerships and unprotected by the legal rights it offers. My only remaining concern on this issue is that the timeframe and scope of this review remain unclear at this point.

Unfortunately, however, my other concerns about the detail of the Bill, and its potential unintended consequences, have remained unresolved.

In particular, although I voted for two amendments that sought to ensure protection of religious freedom, these did not pass and were not accepted by the Government. In the light of this, and given the vastly contradictory legal opinions offered by Aidan O'Neil QC and Karon Monaghan QC of Matrix Chambers, two of the most pre-eminent human rights barristers in this country, about the strength of the protections provided to religious institutions by the Bill, I am not convinced that these protections will work if challenged in the ECtHR, as is very likely. If you would like me to send you a copy of these legal opinions I would be delighted to do so.

I voted against the Bill quite simply because I could not be sure that the measures in the Bill for the protection of religious freedom would work in the way the Government intends and because the amendments designed to strengthen these protections were not accepted.

I felt as though this Bill, through poor drafting and rushed consultation, had become a choice between religious freedom and equality. In the end, as a supporter of both, I could not find a way to support a Bill that did not guarantee the protection of both.
I do hope that this helps to explain my position. Please do get back in touch with me if I can be of further assistance on this or any other topic.

Kindest regards
Needless to say, I have expressed my disappointment to Nicola Blackwood.

Tom Watson, MP; Labour.
The second is from Tom Watson, MP, sent to me as a Labour Party member.

It was wonderful to finally see the gay marriage bill pass through the House of Commons last night. I am delighted that we are so close to having equal marriage in our country, and so very proud of our party.

In the spirit of celebration, I wanted to share with you the story of one couple -- Emma and Hannah -- who are now looking forward to their wedding and to married life together. Their story, in their own words, is below.

Today is absolutely a day to celebrate, but we have a long road ahead of us.

Help us continue our fight for a fair, equal, one nation Britain: make a donation to the Labour Party now.

Thank you for all your support and hard work.

Best wishes,


It's been eight years since I met my partner Hannah.

Since then, we've had the joy of watching some of our closest friends and family members get married. The one sadness for us was not knowing when -- or even if -- we would ever be able to make that commitment ourselves.

All we have ever wanted is for our relationship to be seen as equal and today we can see a future where we too will be able to get married.

To see the equal marriage legislation pass through the House of Commons yesterday was a huge moment for us, and we are incredibly grateful to all the politicians who supported it.

We know this moment would never have come without the Labour Party's unwavering support for and leadership on gay equality -- from repealing Section 28 to introducing civil partnerships.

We have never been more proud to be members of this party, and we just wanted to say thank you to everyone who's campaigned for and supported this bill.

With thanks,

Emma Norris and Hannah Stoddart

(Emma on the left in the photo, Hannah on the right)
These emails probably illustrate the fundamental differences between the Conservative and Labour Parties on the issue of Human rights and equality before the law.

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Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Evolution Of A Plague of Locusts

Magicicada adults and final stage nymphs.
Photo credit: Arthur D. Guilani
If it hasn't happened already, and you live in the Eastern USA, you are in for a rare treat very soon. Rare, that is if you regard once every 17 years as rare, and a treat if you like fair-sized insects that can make a sound approaching the decibel level of a pneumatic drill.

I'm talking about the emergence of the so-called 17-year locust. Actually, it isn't a locust at all, which is a member of the grass-hopper and cricket family, but a cicada, which is closer to the aphids. The first Europeans in America to witness an emergence had heard of biblical plagues of locusts but had no real idea what a locust was, and assumed they were witnessing a similar biblical plague and called the cicadas locusts.

Saturday, 18 May 2013

No Theists in Foxholes

Amazingly, theists seem to imagine that trotting out the aphorism, "There are no Atheists in Foxholes" somehow vindicates their irrational belief in an imaginary friend in the sky. The argument seems to be that, if other people are irrational under stress, it makes my irrational superstition, which I have even when not under stress, somehow more rational.

But what more can we expect from those who base their beliefs not on the rational but on irrational, evidence-free superstition, usually for no reason other than that their mummy and daddy did.

If you ever find yourself falling off a high building there are two things you should do:

  • First, scream! Scream loud and scream all the way down. It won't help you survive but you might as well improve the chance of the paramedics finding your body!
  • Second, flap your arms. No human has ever flown but you just might be the first! What have you got to lose?

When the rational won't work, be irrational. At least you'll have something to think about on the way down.

There are no atheists in foxholes' is not an argument against atheism, it's an argument against foxholes.

James Morrow
Surprisingly, it doesn't seem to have been until the mid 20th century that anyone thought to come up with this defensive slogan for theists even though foxholes were more a feature of World War I. This is possibly because the conditions of warfare, and the evidence of the random nature of mass slaughter made very many people question their faith. They may not have been Atheists when they went into the foxholes, but many of then came out Atheist. Similarly, of those who survived, many Jews came out of the death camps having asked where God is, and found he wasn't there.

The slogan's origins is slightly obscure:

The origin of the quotation is uncertain. U. S. Military Chaplain William T. Cummings may have said it in a field sermon during the Battle of Bataan in 1942. Other sources credit Lieutenant Colonel Warren J. Clear, who was also at Bataan, or Lieutenant Colonel William Casey. But the phrase is most often attributed to war correspondent Ernie Pyle. It was also quoted by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in remarks broadcast from the White House as part of a February 7, 1954 American Legion Program.

The lie to the claim, since it is stated as an absolute, can be given by a single example:

Joe Simpson, author of Touching the Void, addresses the issue in the film adaptation of his nearly fatal climb up the Siula Grande mountain. Referring to the moment when he lay at the bottom of a deep crevasse, dehydrated, alone, and with a broken leg, he states: '"I was totally convinced I was on my own, that no one was coming to get me. I was brought up as a devout Catholic. I'd long since stopped believing in God. I always wondered if things really hit the fan, whether I would, under pressure, turn round and say a few Hail Marys and say 'Get me out of here'. It never once occurred to me. It meant that I really don't believe and I really do think that when you die, you die, that's it, there's no afterlife."

Several atheist organizations object to the phrase. The Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers has adopted the catch-phrase "Atheists in Foxholes" to emphasize that the original statement is just an aphorism and not a fact. The over 200 members of this organization publicly display their military service in order to show that there are atheists in foxholes, and on ships, and in planes [here]. The religious convictions of current U.S. military personnel are similar to those of the general American population, though studies suggest [page 25] that members of the military are slightly less religious.

So much for the truth of the claim - which is rarely a consideration for theists. How about the logic of it?

Maybe there are only atheists in foxholes. If the faithful truly and fully believe in a protective deity, why would they dive into a foxhole to protect themseleves from the bullets whizzing by? A part of their brain knows damn well that if they do not protect themselves, the bullets will hardly discriminate between those who claim faith and those who reject it.

J. Anderson Thomson, Jr., MD;
Why We Believe In God(s) – 2011
As I showed in Why Religious people Behave Like Atheists, for the most part, and for most of their lives, even devoutly religious people act like perfectly normal Atheists. Like Atheists, they will get into the lifeboats if the ship is sinking and won't expect a magic invisible friend to reach down from about the sky to lift them clear. They will check before crossing the road and won't assume an invisible force is protecting them.

Just so on a battle-field. Like perfectly sensible Atheists, religious people, even the most fanatical, will take cover in the foxholes and will effectively abandon any belief that the invisible friend is looking after them or that it has a plan for them and decides when it's time for them to die. If they really believed that they would believe that diving into a foxhole would make not the slightest bit of difference to the outcome.

In actuality, there are no Christians in foxholes. What part of "thou shalt not kill" don't you understand?

RationalWikki - Foxhole Atheists
And why is that Muslims will pray to Allah, Christians will pray God (or to Jesus, Mary or one of their other demi-gods) and Hindus will pray to Krishna, Ganesh or Shiva, or one of their multiplicity of deities. In times gone by warriors in battle would have prayed to Wotan, Zeus, Apollo, Isis, or Osiris, or any one of a myriad other gods. Did that validate the existence of those gods, or justify a superstitious belief in them, or does the logic only hold for the god you are trying to justify believing in with no evidence? As I've said before, every argument for your god can be used for every other god too, and every argument against those other gods can be used against yours. That's no less true for this absurdly condescending aphorism. If you think it is, you don't understand confirmation bias.

In fact, even though they're not honest enough to admit it, there are no true theists in foxholes. There may be people who are pretending to be theists just in case it turns out to be true, but their actions tell a different story. Their actions tell us they don't believe what they preach.

By the way, if you're thinking of using the 'God helps those who helps themselves' excuse, are you really telling people that your god prefers people who behave like Atheists? That goes against everything your faith teaches - whichever one you are defending. It certainly goes against what the Christian Bible says (Luke 11:9).

So, the foxholes aren't so much full of theists as full of frightened hypocrites behaving like Atheists but pretending to be theists, just in case. All in all, not a good role model, excusable though their irrational behaviour might be in the circumstances.

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Friday, 17 May 2013

More Evidence For a Human Ring Species

Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology
Relationship between modern humans, Neanderthals and Devisovans
(to which now needs to be added a fourth species)
Creationist loons and the professional liars of the Discovery Institute must dread a publication from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. After the recent confirmation that modern humans (Homo sapiens) and Neanderthals (H. neaderthalensis (or should that be H. s. neanderthalensis?)), interbred and that H.sapiens also interbred with the recently discovered Neanderthal relatives, the 'Denisovans', to form what amounted to an incompletely speciated 'ring species' only a few thousand years ago, the Institute has now dealt another blow to Creationism.

At the Biology of Genomes meeting last week, reported in Science, Svante Pääbo's team announced that DNA analysis of samples obtained from Neanderthal and Denisovan bones found in the Denisova cave in Siberia, using a new technique, has yielded a nearly complete, high coverage of the genomes of our closest cousins which not only confirms the previously reported interbreeding but strongly suggests a fourth, so far undiscovered species of Homo involved in the complex.

So far as I am aware, this is the first case of a new distinct group of Homo being identified on the basis of the DNA it contributed to another species with which it occasionally interbred.

It is amazing that, in the face of this blizzard of information confirming the scientific view of human origins, in full accord with the Darwinian Theory of Evolution, frauds, loons and politically-motivated liars still maintain their anti-science stance. One can only assume they feel the monetary rewards and the hoped-for political rewards justify this abandonment of pure reason and sacrifice of intellectual integrity. The Discovery Institute's ambition is of course well known. Their 'Wedge Strategy' is to insert Biblical Creationism into public schools disguised as science, and all areas of public policy to soften up the American people and prepare the way for abandoning the secular Constitution (and democratic freedoms which that guarantees), in preparation for installing a fundamentalist, Taliban-style Christian autocracy complete with rigid enforcement of the Old Testament Laws of Leviticus and Deuteronomy through the Christian equivalent of Sharia courts.

The Wedge Strategy includes propagandising against the basic philosophy of science whilst creating the false impression in the minds of the scientifically illiterate that the Theory of Evolution is a theory in crisis and that serious biologists are now rejecting it in favour of Creationist alternatives such as 'Intelligent Design' despite the latter being declared a non-science and merely a cover for Biblical creationism in 2005 in the Kitzmillar vs Dover Area School District Trial and as reluctantly admitted under cross-examination by Discovery Institute champion and Christian fundamentalist, Michael Behe, in the same trial.

More Genomes From Denisova Cave Show Mixing of Early Human Groups
Elizabeth Pennisi, Science 17 May 2013: 340 (6134), 799. [DOI:10.1126/science.340.6134.799]
See also:
When The Conclusion Is Sacred Facts Must Be Ignored.
A Human Ring Species?
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Monkeying With Creationist Fossils

Rukwapithecus (foreground) and Nsungwepithecus (background).
Credit: Mauricio Anton
Creationism has taken such a battering recently that one is almost tempted to feel sorry for frauds like Ken Ham, Eric Hovind, Dwayne Gish and the professional liars at the Discovery Institute. It must be a bit like standing in a tornado trying to shelter under an umbrella just to keep the ignorant loons who give them money from finding out the truth.

Hot on the heels of the news that modern non-African peoples interbred with Neanderthals and Denisovans to form a possible human ring-species, showing that human speciation was in progress only a few thousand years ago, and the news that a seven million year-old earliest human fossil had been found showing intermediate 'transitional' characteristics between humans and chimpanzees, comes news that the earliest common ancestor of both apes and Old World monkeys has now been found. It's a delicious irony that today's slap in the face for primitive Creationists is news about the evolution of humans from monkeys.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Self-Righteous Bigots Are Whining Again

When Christians become a 'hated minority' – CNN Belief Blog - Blogs

I had to laugh when I read this blog by John Blake of CNN.
When Peter Sprigg speaks publicly about his opposition to homosexuality, something odd often happens.

During his speeches, people raise their hands to challenge his assertions that the Bible condemns homosexuality, but no Christians speak out to defend him.

"But after it is over, they will come over to talk to me and whisper in my ear, 'I agree with everything you said,'" says Sprigg, a spokesman for The Family Research Council, a powerful, conservative Christian lobbying group.
So we have the phenomenon of the shy Christian, or should that be shy homophobe hiding behind Christianity?

The hypocrisy of someone who wants to repress a minority complaining about being a repressed minority is all to obvious but it positively shouts out in the very next paragraph:
We’ve heard of the 'down-low' gay person who keeps his or her sexual identity secret for fear of public scorn. But Sprigg and other evangelicals say changing attitudes toward homosexuality have created a new victim: closeted Christians who believe the Bible condemns homosexuality but will not say so publicly for fear of being labeled a hateful bigot.
So closeted gays are perfectly okay and just as it should be, but imagine the effrontery of expecting a Christian to keep his/her bigotry and hate private? The very idea?

Obviously, Christians should be entitled to bully, harass, offend and deny human rights to anyone they wish provided they can find the necessary excuse in their Big Book of Excuses, aka, the Holy Bible. What's the point of a religion if you can't use it to feel better about yourself by elevating yourself above others and pretending to be their moral superior?

But what's interesting is not the usual Christian hypocrisy, inhumanity, double standards and over-inflated sense of entitlement but what these changing times tell us about two things:
  1. The state of Christianity and how it's losing its former status.
  2. How society's ethics and morality is developing whilst Christianity, like other religions, is trying to act as a break on human cultural progress and moral development.
On that last point, religion is not, and has never been, a source of morality. Religion and morality coexist and to a great extent, morality precedes and, in the early stages, informs religion. No popular religion ever formed around a god or an idea that was repugnant to the majority of people.

If you doubt that, ask yourself if you would think of a god as good or bad if it told you to kill babies? Is killing babies wrong because your god says so, or does your god say it's wrong because it's wrong? How do you think Christianity would have fared if those who made up the Jesus stories wrote about a man who told you to be unkind to old ladies and to kill kittens for fun?

Yes, yes! I know the Old Testament god was a monster - which is why the early Christians had to invent a nicer one when the Bronze-Age Hebrews came into contact with the culturally more advanced Greeks and Romans. Under the influence of newer ideas, 1st century Palestine was on the verge of abandoning Yahweh and becoming Yahwatheist, which is why Christianity was invented.

No matter how much humanism there is in nascent religions, the problem is that religion then becomes a dogma which can only be changed slowly and with great effort, whilst society continues to develop and reassess and re-formulates its morality. In the last few generations we have seen massive changes in our cultures and ethics. We have stopped buying and selling 'lesser races' as slaves; we no longer colonise and deny democratic and human rights to third-world people; we no longer deny working people and women the vote; we no longer fight wars with massive armies slaughtering one another to see who is the last one standing. We now see it as wrong to deny access to goods, services and opportunity to the disable.

Christianity has normally opposed every one of those improvements in human rights for ordinary people. At the very least, religions and theologians have always 'discovered' a perfectly sound theological reason to justify not changing. God created it that way for a reason and ours is not to reason why.

And now we no longer deny people basic human rights because of their gender and sexuality. This is the last bastion of Christian control. Christians like to believe they own marriage, and the ability to exercise what little control they have left is too precious to them to give it up without a fight. No area of human activity is out of bounds for their interference and meddling, even what consenting adults do in private.

Let's look at the excuse they use for this abuse:

Strangely, Jesus was entirely silent on the subject and yet this is the very Jesus whom these same gay-abusing Christians will tell you introduced a new covenant and effectively abolished the laws in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. But only the laws they find inconvenient, it seems.

First, the usual passage:
Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.
Leaving aside the question of whether gay men actually DO lie with one another 'as with a woman', which would be physically impossible unless anal intercourse with a woman was the norm when Leviticus was written, since neither of them have the right female equipment, why take this law in isolation and ignore so many of the others?

This 'Letter to Dr Laura (Schlessinger) has been around the Internet for many years. I first saw it on a Compuserve forum in about 1997.
Dear Dr. Laura,

Thank you for doing so much to educate people regarding God's Law. I have learned a great deal from your show, and I try to share that knowledge with as many people as I can. When someone tries to defend the homosexual lifestyle, for example, I simply remind him that Leviticus 18:22 clearly
states it to be an abomination. End of debate.

I do need some advice from you, however, regarding some of the specific laws and how to best follow them.
  1. When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice, I know it creates a pleasing odor for the Lord (Lev 1:9). The problem is my neighbors. They claim the odor is not pleasing to them. Should I smite them?
  2. I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her?
  3. I know that I am allowed no contact with a woman while she is in her period of menstrual uncleanliness (Lev 15:19-24). The problem is, how do I tell? I have tried asking, but most women take offense.
  4. Lev. 25:44 states that I may indeed possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are purchased from neighboring nations. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans, but not Canadians. Can you clarify? Why can't I own Canadians?
  5. I have a neighbor who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself?
  6. A friend of mine feels that even though eating shellfish is an Abomination (Lev 11:10), it is a lesser abomination than homosexuality. I don't agree. Can you settle this?
  7. Lev 21:20 states that I may not approach the altar of God if I have a defect in my sight. I have to admit that I wear reading glasses. Does my vision have to be 20/20, or is there some wiggle room here?
  8. Most of my male friends get their hair trimmed, including the hair around their temples, even though this is expressly forbidden by Lev 19:27. How should they die?
  9. I know from Lev 11:6-8 that touching the skin of a dead pig makes me unclean, but may I still play football if I wear gloves?
  10. My uncle has a farm. He violates Lev 19:19 by planting two different crops in the same field, as does his wife by wearing garments made of two different kinds of thread (cotton/polyester blend). He also tends to curse and blaspheme a lot. Is it really necessary that we go to all the trouble of getting the whole town together to stone them? (Lev 24:10-16) Couldn't we just burn them to death at a private family affair like we do with people who sleep with their in-laws? (Lev. 20:14)
I know you have studied these things extensively, so I am confident you can help.

Thank you again for reminding us that God's word is eternal and unchanging.

Your devoted disciple and adoring fan.
I think that makes the point better than I ever could.

What we are witnessing now is the end-game for Christianity. The tension on the elastic band keeping us tethered to the Bronze-Age is at breaking point. Society has progress to the point where hysterical Christian attempts to hold it back simply make it worse for Christianity by making them stand out as reactionary bigots merely using an outmoded superstition to try to cling on to the last vestiges of the power they have abused for so long.

Where once you could cross the road to avoid Christians shouting abuse at strangers and threatening them with their god, or the mad person standing in stained underwear shouting Bible verses and abuse from his or her window, we now only need to log on to Twitter or do a quick Google search to find today's batch of religious nutters and Dunning-Kruger simpletons telling the world what God thinks and how science has got it all wrong - with a computer.

Christianity on the Internet is now represented by lunatics, bullies, hate-filled bigots and frauds from which decent, humanitarian, compassionate human beings are recoiling and which is causing people to question the basis of their faith if it can produce people like the repugnant religious fundamentalists we now encounter daily. Consequently, most developed countries are witnessing a phenomenal rise in the numbers of people admitting to having no religious belief, many of whom are coming out of the closet Christians would dearly love to keep them in along with gays. In many European countries Atheists/Agnostics are now the majority and even in staunchly Catholic countries, church attendance is falling rapidly.

The whining Christians complaining about not being allowed to repress a minority any more, and needing to feel ashamed of their bigotry, is merely a symptom of that terminal decline. I'm pleased that they are at least feeling shame for their hate-filled bigotry and are becoming embarrassed to show it in public, when once they would have been proud of it and made sure we all knew it. This is a sign that they are subconsciously adopting humanist morality.

[Update 19 May 2013] Yesterday France became the fourteen nation to abandon yet another inhumane piece if Christian dogma when it legalised same-sex marriages.

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Sunday, 12 May 2013

Dunning-Kruger Creationists

Science doesn't invent things, that's the job of technology. Science merely discovers things.

Sometimes though, science doesn't so much discover new things as put what is already known into scientific language together with the evidence and data underpinning it. Take, for example the understandable annoyance by Patrick Matthew that credit for describing evolution by natural selection had gone to Darwin and Wallace when he had mentioned it in an obscure book on forestry, assuming that it was such obvious idea that he couldn't have been the first to think of it, so never made much of it until Darwin and Wallace, who were completely unaware of Matthew or his book, were receiving all the credit - and praise for their genius.

Darwin, of course, graciously acknowledged Matthew's prior claim, pointing only to the obscurity of his choice of publication as the excuse for his (and the entire scientific establishment's) ignorance of it.

The Dunning-Kruger effect occurs when incompetent people not only fail to realise their incompetence, but consider themselves much more competent than everyone else. Basically, they're too stupid to know that they're stupid.

RationalWiki - Dunning-Kruger effect
Just so with the Dunning-Kruger effect. One of my old mother's sayings - and she had many - was, "They're too daft to know they're silly!" She used it particularly for religious fundamentalists and fanatics but also for the idiot sons of the aristocracy and nouveaux riches who assumed they had the right to govern us and who populated the Tory benches at Westminster and kindly ran the local councils for us. It wasn't her own saying; she had learned it from her parents who were the product of countless generations of the English agricultural working class.

The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.

Bertrand Russell, The triumph of Stupidity
But Dunning and Kruger, in Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments showed the underpinning data, put it into the language of science and published it - and so claimed the title for its discovery. Which is fair enough really because the experiments they conducted were designed to sort the wheat of wisdom from the chaff of prejudice and ignorance, which are also to be found in those pearls of ancient wisdom. Science is a methodology for ensuring we are right by more than simple chance.

Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it.

Kruger J, Dunning D.;
J Pers Soc Psychol. 1999 Dec;77(6):1121-34.
Which is a slightly convoluted lead in to a short blog on the Dunning-Kruger effect which I was prompted to look into in an attempt to understand the antics of a particularly obnoxious individual who seems to think that the best way to convince the world of his genius is to put on a daily display of ignorance and stupidity and that the best way to promote his religion is to be as obnoxious and abusive as possible in its name. Maybe it's just hate and frustration at his own social ineptitude and consequent social isolation which motivates him - certainly he shows the social skills of the sociopath - but equally possibly he could be a classic Dunning-Kruger simpleton, too daft to know he's silly.

Basically, Dunning and Kruger found that clever people tend to underestimate their own potential, usually assuming that, if they find a task easy, so will others. Asked to rank their expected performance in a test, clever people will tend to underestimate their relative performance. Stupid people, on the other hand, often over-estimate their own abilities assuming themselves to be experts on very little actual knowledge, assuming that this little knowledge is all that is required to be an expert. They tend to rank themselves higher than they actually perform.

Sound familiar? If not, spend a while on Twitter, especially following the hastags such as #Evolution, #TeamJesus, #Atheism or #Science to see a daily parade of people who know little or nothing of the subjects of either theology or science but who are eager to tell the world that science or biology has got it all wrong, or that there is definitely proof of whatever god they believe in because it says so in a holy book that they know for a fact is never wrong about anything. Few if any of them will have studied science or theology.

To be a dedicated Dunning-Kruger performer one has also to have the ability to wave away anything in the way of logic or facts which contradicts one's absolute certainty that one knows everything there is to know about a given subject. Either the information is obviously wrong - otherwise I'd know about it! - or the opponent is clearly mad, stupid, ignorant or evil. It is simply impossible that the information or logical reasoning could be correct, and who could possibly know or understand the subject better than one of the world's leading experts who knows everything about the subject, having once read a blog or watched a TV program, or read a few pages in a book, or simply thought about it once and decided it was all wrong?

Obviously, if you can't say when a monkey last gave birth to a human or a crocodile turned into a duck, like 'Darwin claimed', or you can't produce all the transitional fossils on which the Theory of Evolution (which is no more than a guess anyway) depends, Evolution is a lie and a religion, and science requires more faith that believing Jesus rose from the dead, that snakes can talk, or that Mohammed flew about on a winged horse.

Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.

Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man
So the Dunning-Kruger Creationists imagine they've won the argument and proved their god must have done it all by magic, impressing the world with their brilliance and settling the argument once and for all. Can't think what all those scientists are wasting all their time and money on when it's all so obvious! And what's the point of learning any more when you know it's all wrong anyway? Why is everyone else so stupid!?

This phenomenon was investigated by Helmuth Nyborg of the University of Aarhus, Denmark:
The present study examined whether IQ relates systematically to denomination and income within the framework of the g nexus, using representative data from the National Longitudinal Study of Youth (NLSY97). Atheists score 1.95 IQ points higher than Agnostics, 3.82 points higher than Liberal persuasions, and 5.89 IQ points higher than Dogmatic persuasions. Denominations differ significantly in IQ and income. Religiosity declines between ages 12 to 17. It is suggested that IQ makes an individual likely to gravitate toward a denomination and level of achievement that best fit his or hers particular level of cognitive complexity. Ontogenetically speaking this means that contemporary denominations are rank ordered by largely hereditary variations in brain efficiency (i.e. IQ). In terms of evolution, modern Atheists are reacting rationally to cognitive and emotional challenges, whereas Liberals and, in particular Dogmatics, still rely on ancient, pre-rational, supernatural and wishful thinking. [My empasis]

As RationalWiki explains, the tendency of clever people to under-estimate their potential is a form of psychological projection: those who found the tasks easy (and thus scored highly) mistakenly thought that they would also be easy for others. This is similar to the "impostor syndrome" whereby high achievers fail to recognise their talents as they think that others must be equally good.

He [Paul Revere] who warned, uh, the British that they weren't gonna be takin' away our arms, uh, by ringing those bells, and um, makin' sure as he's riding his horse through town to send those warning shots and bells that we were going to be sure and we were going to be free, and we were going to be armed.

Sarah Palin, on Paul Revere's midnight ride,
June 3, 2011
It's a supreme irony that, whilst intelligent people can underestimate their ability because they have the intelligence to realise they could be wrong, unintelligent people can stupidly over-estimate their own ability because they lack the intellect to realise they could be wrong. People impressed by displays of self-confidence will often vote for stupid people whereas what we should be looking for in our politicians and leading industrialist, bankers, and generals is healthy self-doubt. Perhaps the single most important achievement of ultra-patriotic American Christian right is that people who are both educated and honest (i.e. the scientists and intellectuals) who should be amongst the best able and qualified to govern America, are effectively debarred from holding public office. Instead, America is governed by what often look like Dunning-Kruger syndrome sufferers.

The Internet at times seems to be crawling with religious loons, creationists and science deniers all confidently telling us, from a position of almost complete ignorance and with absolute certainty, that something is indisputably wrong or indisputably right, and who, when questioned, become abusive or simply dismiss you as a fool, and who never ever take the risk of accepting the answer to the questions they keep throwing out or reading anything which would disturb their cosy certainty and cause a little self doubt.
Refference: Kruger, Justin; David Dunning (1999). Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 77 (6): 1121–34.
doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.77.6.1121
. PMID 10626367

Wikipedia - Dunning-Kruger effect.

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