Archive for December 2007

Dog bites man: More Huckabee Hates Science

December 31, 2007

It is kind of pointless to keep on harping on how much Huckabee is clueless about the all the important stuff, but this man really cannot be allowed to be President. Along with everything else, decades of American leadership in science and its wealth-creating applications will be held hostage.That’s hardly news: Biblical literalism and scientific inquiry are incompatible, full stop. But from Daily Kos’s excellent science diarist DarkSyde comes the latest completely predictable folly:

Where would an avowed Creationist get to spout unchallenged about scientific accuracy, let alone biology, with any credibility? If you’re Mike Huckabee in America 2007, that would be on Meet the Press this weekend:

In that interview, Huckabee states that it is a settled matter scientifically that life begins at conception — a claim so muddled, as DarkSyde documents in detail, that in the famous contemptuous line, it’s not even wrong. (It’s meaningless.) Dog bites man; what else would one expect in this context?Huckabee, I think, is rapidly becoming a sideshow. The longer he lasts in the primary campaign, the better, I believe for the Democrats. But he points to a deeper problem: the US, its media elites at least, are complacent in their ignorance of science. Huckabee and his less overtly outrageous fellow travellers in the rest of the GOP field deepen that well of false “knowledge” every time they speak with authority and deliberate error on science. The more people believe that science is just what they say it is, the more rapid and irreversible will be the inevitable American decline.Apocalypse, eh? What can I say. It’s been a very bad year.Here’s hoping for better to come. Happy New Year everyone.

Huckabee, homosexuality, necrophilia — stealing scientific langauge to make your head explode.

December 31, 2007

This post comes late, just to clear up some stray thoughts that have been bouncing around in my head this holiday season. One of the themes of this blog centers on “scientism” — think of it as the scientific version of truthiness. The election period is high season for egregious appropriations of the trappings of science for all kind of knavery, and there was one example of a couple of weeks ago that I did not want to leave alone as we head into Iowa and all the rest. To no one’s surprise, most likely, the culprit is a Republican, and one committed to a worldview that regards science as purely instrumental, handy, but entirely malleable in service of higher truth. Here’s what was said:

In an interview with TPM Election Central, Joe Carter, Huckabee’s director of research, argued that while Huckabee does think both fall in the category of “aberrant behavior,” he’s not arguing that they’re the same and sees them as being at “opposite ends of the spectrum” of such behavior. (from TPM Election Central)

Lots of people have taken aim [I could go on with the link fest, but you get the idea, and you can google “Huckabee Necrophilia” yourself, just for the pleasure of putting those two search terms together] at Huckabee for the vile substance of what he said — and for the fact that this is something he seems really to believe. After all, he wrote the book in which he made the link between sex between consenting adults and rape of the dead in 1998. That’s a decade of provenance for this garbage.

It’s important to hit him hard, repeatedly. Should he get the GOP nomination (unlikely, IMHO) he needs to be squashed like a bug — Goldwater-like; McGovern-like — to help drain this particular reservoir of pus out of the American body politic.

But beside all that, I found myself irritated and worse by one word that Huckabee’s mouthpiece used to try and slide past the consequences of his master’s rank bigotry. Huckabee, apparently, didn’t think that homosexuality and necrophilia were really identical — just similar, sharing space on a “spectrum.”

That’s got the ring of science to it and a kind of apologetic rigor as well: Huckabee wasn’t just shooting off his mouth. He’d considered the matter, studied it, and recognized that although that homosexuality and corpse-sex aren’t similar in every detail, they share something significant, residence in a common neighborhood, a spectrum, and you have to take that “fact” seriously because, after all, we know about spectra.

Except, of course, that the attempt to steal the authority of a science-sounding word is bullshit. The word spectrum has a distinct meaning in science, as readers of this blog certainly know. The electromagnetic spectrum describes how a single phenomenon — light, photons, electromagnetic radiation, depending on your pleasure — varies in its observed behavior as one specific quality, wavelength varies from short to long. Power spectra measure distributions of a specific quantity, energy for example, over the frequencies contained within a given signal…and so on.

That is: common uses of the term spectrum in the physical sciences apply to descriptions of a single phenomenon or object of interest that displays a range of values over some parameter.

Think what that means when applied to Huckabee’s defense.

His flack seemed to be softening Huckabee’s original published statement: the two activities being compared weren’t the same, they were merely linked by virtue of being on a spectrum. But of course, that was just a fancy way of saying exactly what Huckabee had said before: homosexuality and necrophilia are in their essentials the same.

It’s a nasty, but very old rhetorical trick. “I’m not calling you a liar, sir! I am merely pointing out that you are a diagnosed mythomaniac.”

Such a trope always reveals bad faith. It’s pretty clear what Huckabee wants to do: continue to signal to the worst of his supporters that he stands with them in terror at the thought that there are other ways of living and loving than the one he likes, while gulling just enough of the rest of us into thinking he does not really mean what he says.

Again — I know that the politics of this are obvious to anyone paying attention, as is the rhetorical sleight of hand being used. But the one thing I am trying to add is to point out that science and its concepts are particularly vulnerable to this kind of confidence trick, because of the authority a scientistic frame gives to otherwise unsupportable garbage. If four out five doctors recommend … if someone has gone out and studied the spectrum…

And the worst of it is, that this kind of thing also makes it harder to get the real stuff across. The more what sounds like science turns into rhetoric, the less its actual ideas and results will be seen as actual knowledge. After all, Huckabee has his spectrum, and someone else has theirs, and who are we to say who’s is better or worse.

This battle never ends.

Image: Qing Dynasty actors. Source: Wikipedia Commons.

Necessary gloating

December 30, 2007

This is so far off the theme of this blog I have no excuse — but I wouldn’t be from Boston if I didn’t take this moment to run up the score:

16 down, 3 to go.

Go Patriots!

Because reality is really awful just now…

December 28, 2007

An old hoch-geek Calvin and Hobbes offers a moment’s respite:

Ron Paul may not believe in evolution, but….

December 28, 2007

the question is, does evolution believe in Ron Paul?

Ed Brayton over at Dispatches from the Culture Wars just posted this Ron Paul video, in which the good doctor declared his sure knowledge of the creator and his dismissal of the theory of evolution as that old fraud, “just” a theory.

I’m sure that all the usual good voices will rip Paul the various new orifices indicated on the larger issue that his views on evolution are nonsense.

In any event, I think selection will take care of this pretty quickly anyway — I see nothing that suggests Paul will survive too long in the political ecosystem he now inhabits, and I think that the attention he has begun to bring on American libertarianism’s ugly sides — its strains of racism; its “I got mine, Jack” unloveliness; its flat earth economics and so on — will help reduce the fitness landscape for his faction as well.

But just to repeat what needs to be said everytime this kind of garbage comes up: a theory is not a guess, goddammit!

Listen up, political boys and girls: The word “theory” in the sense used to modify words like “quantum;” “gravity;” “solid state;” and…wait for it…”evolution” — has a specific meaning in science. It refers to a body of knowledge that has identified specific patterns in nature whose behaviour can be shown to obey law-like statements.

Such theories make specific predictions that can be confirmed by observation and experiment. Theories in this sense have been shown to be valid to the limits of current observation and experiment. They are superceded when (a) new abstractions come along that successfully encompass the older theory in a framework that can explain more of nature than the prior version; and/or (b) when new observations or experiments establish the limiting cases beyond which the older theory cannot account for what has been measured.

Short form: a “theory” is something that tells us a lot about some part of the material world. It expresses real knowledge, “truth,” up to quite clearly defined limits of error or ignorance.

Paul is or was a doctor, so my guess is that he knows this perfectly well. Even the minimal real scientific education required to get into med school gets you this far — so much for his straight shooter’s rep.

Most likely anyone who reads this blog knows it too, so I apologize for preaching to the choir.

But most journalists don’t, and certainly lots of our fellow citizens do not either.So tedious as it is to correct the same mistake forever and ever, amen…

It has to be done.

Image: Heinrich Harder,”Hadrosaurs” 1916 — a painting for a set of 30 collector’s cards in a set titled “Tiere der Urwelt” (Animals of the Prehistoric World). Source: Wikipedia Commons.

Christmas Eve (Isaac) Newton blogging: My man Izzy’s War on Christmas.

December 25, 2007

Isaac Newton should be a Christmas icon. Born on December 25, 1642, it seemed unlikely that he would live to see Epiphany. He was tiny — possibly premature — and in his old age told a family connection that “he was so little they could put him into a quart pot.” Initially, he was thought so little likely to live that he was not baptized until he was seen to be out of immediate danger, on January 1, 1643.He came into the world already a half an orphan — his father, also Isaac, had died three months earlier, leaving the infant with another symbolic connection to Jesus, being born of woman in the absence of a visible father. So — a Christmas birth for the greatest scientific mind in history. Or not…England was late, slow, backward, and even as late as 1641, still preferred the old Julian calendar instead of the Gregorian one we now use. To any of his European colleagues, his birthday would have been January 4, 1643, a day on which neither Western Christians nor Orthodox ones celebrated the birth of the Son of Man. Still, Isaac himself would have marked his birthday on the day his countrymen celebrated Christmas — which fuels the irony of Isaac’s view of the more famous figure with whom he shared the day. Isaac Newton was a heretic — specifically, an Arian. He very quietly but emphatically denied Jesus’s co-equal divinity with God the Father. He conceded the special status of Jesus, “next in dignity to God.” Jesus was the redeemer, the lamb of God, the greatest of all the Father’s servants — but not consubstantial, not equivalent to the almighty ruler of all heaven and earth. (This is not to say that Newton was in any form an atheist. His belief in an all powerful God was absolute, confirmed, for him, in all the details of the system of the world his science allowed him to discover. He denied the Trinity, in its orthodox form — but never God.) Had Newton’s heretical views become public knowledge, it would have gone hard with him; he would have lost his university position at the very least, with worse, possibly to follow. He kept his views secret, writing only to highly trusted friends — John Locke for one — and shunning in public those with whom he agreed in private, but who had so far forgot themselves as to let their unorthodoxy become known. All of which means that if one wanted to be wholly anachronistic, and snark from the past: Isaac Newton had his own personal war on Christmas, if that day were viewed as the birthday of that part of the Trinity that lived and died on earth.It’s true then: Newtonian gravity, and modern science in general derive from someone whose view of the meaning of Christmas is entirely at odds with that of Bill O’Reilly…for which I, as a minor Newtonian, am on this day, truly grateful. Happy Birthday Isaac! (Now or the fourth — I don’t care.)

Hi. I’m from Harvard and I’m here to help.

December 23, 2007

Great moments in pretention this Friday: I was on my way to Widener Library, (one of the seven wonders of the modern world — really) on another Isaac Newton run when I had to jump out of the way of a truck bent on serious business inside Harvard Yard. As it sped by through the slush I read its mission on its rear door. The vehicle was on a mission from — and I’m not kidding — Harvard University’s “Culinary Support Group.”

Culinary Support Group? As in, your hollandaise is separating and I’m here to help? Does the meat squad wear Julia Child t-shirts? Is there a 24 hour phone center in Bangalore to provide user support (at $35 a call) for silverware malfunctions?

Harvard’s website reveals that their culinary swat team actually work in a prepared food kitchen/blast chiller on campus, and I guess I can see sort of what they were trying to say with the name…but it still seems to me to be a bit of classic Harvardiana. Just calling it a central kitchen would have been, perhaps, a little too infra dig.

Image: Maria Fyodorovna, “Still Life,” 1868. Source: Wikipedia Commons

Death of the American Republic

December 20, 2007

Read it and weep.

An Icelandic tourist gets thrown into the black hole of “we don’t need no stinking habeas corpus.”  If her story does not make you mad, you’re not breathing.

(h/t Andrew Sullivan).

The only science that seems relevant here is this famous experiment.

I want my country back.

Missing details on a good book to come

December 20, 2007

I realize that in a post below, I forgot the crucial info.

Masha Gessen’s new book, Blood Matters, is coming in April from Harcourt. You can see the minimal catalogue copy here. I’ve just read it galleys, and it’s simply wonderful — a book that begins as memoir and then rides that story through to the complexity, human struggles with and implications of contemporary genetic medicine. This is what science writing can do when it is done right.

I’ll blog in more detail on the book nearer its pub date. Full disclosure: I have never met Gessen, nor have I read any of her other work, but she and I share both a publisher and an editor.

Does Torture Work? Why don’t we know?

December 20, 2007

Phil Carter at Intel-Dump is one of my favorite bloggers. Smart, thoughtful, deliberate in his analysis, he writes about US military matters as well as anyone in the blogosphere.

That said, his post on Tuesday (December 18, 2007) displays the limits of the virtues that make his blog so good. Carter explores the questions raised by the disagreement between the CIA and the FBI on the effectiveness of torturing Abu Zabaida. The argument has been all around the press, but Carter focuses on the Washington Post’s coverage.

Faced with the question of two interested parties stating exactly opposite conclusions — that torturing Zabaida either saved many American lives or was worthless brutality — Carter states what he sees as the central intellectual problem:

In general, I think that arguments on torture break down into two camps: the moral arguments, and the practical arguments. Those who make the practical arguments are sometimes called “consequentialists.” One of the problems with being a consequentialist on this problem is that it’s really hard to be a good one. Aside from a few popular articles and books on the subject, there just ain’t a lot of data out there on the torture question.

That’s true — as the study reported on here in January also concluded. The question Carter does not ask is why that data is unavailable. After all, this is at least conceptually a fairly simple question: interrogators make records (and much of the time, at least, don’t destroy them in the face of a court order). One could imagine the design of a (classified) study that would, you know, look at what was done; what was said in response to what was done, and what intelligence emerged from different practices. You’d need an untortured control group, and it would be difficult to ensure that the populations in the various groups were in fact equivalent (you know–twelve front line al-Qaeda types in the waterboarding group; eleven in the sleep-deprivation/electroshock group; eleven more in the conventional interrogation sample and so on.)

I haven’t seen anything like this out in the literature. Have you? A negative proves nothing — but the unwillingness or inability to come up with more than a “trust me, it works” support for the practice suggests that those who have most to gain from such proof are not confident (to put it too kindly) of the outcome of the experiment.

(PS — I hope y’all recognize the evil inherant in the above, but if you don’t, remember that this is a reductio ad absurdum thought experiment, not a proposal for some DARPA funded research — o.k.)

In that context, Carter’s sense of frustration at the lack of real data is misplaced. There is data here, both specific and general. Lots of interrogators have in fact provided information about their experiences of intelligence gathering; there have been some psychological studies of torture and so on. The preponderance of such reports suggests that torture is not effective, especially in the ticking time bomb scenario beloved of its defenders.And in the specific case of Abu Zabaida?

Carter’s a lawyer. He knows about weighing the credibility of witnesses. We have an action here that goes to the heart of the question of guilty conscience: the CIA destroyed the videotapes whose absence Carter bemoans. That event is itself a piece of data. No one destroys exculpatory evidence.

What do we know? For certain — as Carter notes — not much. With confidence short of certainty — quite a bit, thank you very much.

Image: Dieric Bouts, “The Martydom of St. Hippolyte” after 1468. Source: Wikipedia Commons.