Archive for July 2008

Mental Health Break: Ornithology edition

July 28, 2008

As the the ever reliable xkcd confirms, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing:


The Data Matter: Does John McCain Hate Kids dept.

July 28, 2008

Trying even harder on the keep-it-short imperative, just a quick hit on McCain’s fumbling anti-gay adoption stance as expressed yesterday to George Stephanopolous on ABC.

Three rapid thoughts:

1. What else did anyone expect him to say? If he comes out embracing, or even tolerating gay adoption, he loses the election in July, IMHO — given what such a stand would do to his support, such as it is, among the 20% or so of the GOP base made up of social and religious conservatives.

2. Just to make the absurdity of his fumbling explanation a little more obvious, someone in the media should ask him, pressing him for a specific answer: would he prefer unmarried, single parent adoptions as long as the man or woman were straight, to placing children in two-parent, same-sex couples?

3. Most seriously: this is another case of McCain being either ignorant — unaware of the scientific data on the question he addresses — or else being simply expedient (what a polite word!), willing to sacrifice children in order to win an election. McCain said

I’m running for president of the United States, because I want to help with family values. And I think that family values are important, when we have two parent — families that are of parents that are the traditional family.

The rest of his answer is similarly incoherent, but the point he seems to be trying to make is that there is a moral and social benefit that accrues when only male-female couples raise children. Unfortunately, as a matter of empirical investigation, this is wrong. Consider:

A study released in May 2007 by the Department of Justice (Canada), Children’s Development of Social Competence Across Family Types, points out that “A few studies suggest that children with two lesbian mothers may have marginally better social competence than children in ‘traditional nuclear’ families, even fewer studies show the opposite, and most studies fail to find any differences.”[32]

There are a host of other studies confirming and broadening this conclusion. There are a few that challenge it. Strangely, they all seem to derive from groups that have a polemical interest in that outcome.

The inference becomes more clear when you consider the question McCain was actually asked: is it better for children to linger in foster care or to be raised in two parent, same gender families? To him, no. In the real world, where children without parents actually live — not just moral feeling, but the data suggest (strongly) otherwise.

Program Notes: NPR/Nancy Pelosi edition + a little housekeeping

July 28, 2008

Housekeeping first:

I got another vacation coming — this one a honker of a trip to South Africa (family/animals — the key test will be making sure I keep the differences between the two groups clear in my head). I’ll be gone most of August. This blog will keep ticking over — with some help from at least one guest blogger. But I can’t pretend that Inverse Square will be operating on all cylinders (mixed metaphor alert) for the next few weeks. Nothin’ much will be happening anyway.

Anyway — for the month, the style of the blog is going to shift a little — more quick hit posts, fewer illustrations. In that spirit:

Check out this interview with Nancy Pelosi on NPR’s Morning Edition, July 28 edition. It’s a mostly conventional, uncontroversial conversation centered on the release of Pelosi’s new book.

Pelosi went off the rails, for me at least, at the very end of the piece. There, she spoke of how a woman in power would be able to say this:

“I think in an intuitive way and that special quality and that special grace that women bring to it all is something that would be such a source of strength to our country.”

Now, there has been a wealth of research, some of it even reputable, about differences in cognition and other brain functions between the genders. See this, if you want to begin tiptoeing into that field.

Note also that all of the population studies in the world do next to nothing to help you guage the capacity of an individual man or woman. John McCain’s analytical and quantitative skills — categories sometimes trumpeted as strengths of male minds — have not been anything to write home about on this campaign. Hilary Clinton’s mastery of policy analysis was widely seen as a distinction to be drawn against her primary and the putative general election opponent. (As you’ll see from the headline on that link, Brad DeLong’s mantra: “Why, oh why…” has retrospective power

But the point isn’t that individuals are all, by definition, exceptional in some way. It is that it is not intuitive reasoning that women bring to the table as a particular strength — after all, that master of gut knowledge, George Bush, has put thinking by feel into justifiably ill repute as a qualification for the Presidency

No — Pelosi actually got it right the sentence before the one quoted above. It is the distinctive experience of women that would give a female President something new and valuable to bring to the table. Everything to pay disparities to a grasp of what it takes to maintain the daily logistics of families in which men, on average, still do not carry an equal load.

That is: it is a mug’s game to claim for women special fitness for office because of a presumed, at least partially magical quality of how their brains work. Just think of the counter argument, substitute men for women, and rational for intuitive, and think of the justified howls that would result. It is a perfectly legitimate claim to say that women’s lives are different than those of men in the aggregate and in particular — and that such experience is relevant to governance, leadership and policy.

Image: Jean-Baptiste Simeon Chardin, “The Kitchen Maid.” Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday Stuff 1: Cosmology meets New Age Nonesense — Karadzic edition

July 27, 2008

Sean Carroll finds perverse pleasure — which I share in war criminal/face of evil* Radovan Karadzic’s reinvention of himself as a new-age healer.

Sean notes the quantum connection that Karadzic tried to make in his spiel — and this appropriation of a remarkably hard-headed body of science is an unfortunate byproduct of the fact that the language in which quantum theory is often popularized lends itself to all kinds of folly.

But I was struck by what seemed to me a new wrinkle in nonsense. Sean rightly snorts at the parody of quantification in this passage:

“It is widely believed our senses and mind can recognise only 1% of whatever exists around us. Three per cent we understand with our hearts. All that remains is shrouded in secrecy, out of the reach of our five senses; however, it is within our reach in the extra-sensory manner,” he [Karadzic] wrote in one article.

This is familiar enough — one of the standard moves used when purveying such stuff is to cloak it in trappings that suggest a science-like precision. But Sean missed a more specific potential source for the “numbers” (sic) in Karadzic’s “analysis” (sic-er) — one that now joins quantum theory as the unintential wellspring for silly-season stuff in our culture.

It’s all cosmology’s fault, of course. WMAP’s, in particular.

One of the most reported findings from the first round of analysis of the WMAP plot of the CMB was that the particular details of the hot and cold spots on that map permit a calculation of the composition of the universe — how much of the mass-energy it contains came in particular forms. It turned out that, rounding off as the early press did, 73 percent came in the form of dark energy; 23 percent or so as dark matter, and the remainder, roughly 4 percent, is ordinary matter.

You can see where this is going, can’t you?

Karadzic allows human capacity — senses and heart, to perceive four percent of reality. The rest is beyond our direct observation, and must be accessed by magic.

I can understand why Sean, a cosmologist, would shy away from this hideous conclusion: but what if modern cosmology, an extraordinary intellectual and technological achievement, making measurements at a precision that a generation or two ago would have been pure fantasy, producing observations about nature with exceptional rigor (which cannot be said of every branch of physics, at least not yet)…what if all this great work is just so much fodder for murderous quacks.

More to do on public engagement with science I would say…but then I would say that, wouldn’t I?

*Karadzic may be the face of evil. According to American negotiator Richard Holbrook, evil itself comes personified in the form of Ratko Mladic, Karadzic’s partner in crimes against humanity.

Mladic is still at large.

Image: WMAP Five Year Microwave Sky.

Quicky addendum to Bishops and Biology…

July 26, 2008

This is why the kind of rhetorical shenanigans discussed below matter.   PZ Myers links to the latest follies from the Texas State Board of Education. For a report from the front lines about the damage done by asserting false equivalences between challenges to religious and scientific claims, read this.

Image:  Charles Darwin as an ape in Hornet Magazine, 1871.  Source:  Wikimedia Commons.

Words Matter: Bishops and Biology Edition

July 26, 2008

It’s about time this blog actually turned to an subject square in the middle of its stated theme, to look at science in public life.

In today’s episode: What John Habgood, retired Anglican Archbishop of York had to say in this review of Ronald Numbers’ history of creationism and the “intelligent design” movement. (h/t Patrick Appel)

I’m sure that there are plenty of folks around the science blogosphere who would take issue of the former second-ranking cleric in the Church of England’s claim that “all assertions about the objectivity and truth of science must themselves depend on belief in some form of reality which is simply “given”.

But that point in Habgood’s lede is something of a throwaway; he’s concerned with creationism, which he contrasts to a more general belief in creation, and which he says “is much more specific and much less plausible.” Again, I’m sure this will also piss some people off — including many of his own flock, for whom his quite abstract vision of God will be just as unsatisfying as his assertion of the necessity of the concept of God will be to the non-believing reader.

Most of the review is in fact quite good — a clear and useful review of the competing strands of creationism at the birth of the movement. He calls out ID for the nonsense it is — as theology as well as science — and if he annoys me (as he does) for urging a fairly typical “both sides need reform” argument –asking “some scientists to be more conscious and critical of their own materialistic assumptions” — it is important to remember who is writing here. Habgood is/was a bishop, after all, and writes from certain assumptions into a particular structure of thought.

Rather — I want to take issue with just two words as Habgood misuses them. The first is “Darwinism” and the second is “orthodoxy” used in combination with the modifier “scientific.”

On Darwinism: Last week, Olivia Judson dissected the mixture of foolishness and bad-faith polemic contained in the use of the word as a synonym for evolutionary biology. Habgood uses the term once more or less appropriately, as the thing opposed in the early days of creationist attacks on Darwin’s idea. It’s still misleading to assert that all that was known and being done in the second half of the nineteenth century could be contained under the umbrella of the devil’s chaplain’s name — but there is a clear historical context to opposition to Darwin and his ideas by name, and in discussing that history, “Darwinism” is not the worst shorthand to use.

But now? It’s a nonsense. Just to reduce this to the absurdity it is: does anyone out there think “Newtonianism” is a good term to describe the branch of knowledge that enables us, inter alia to calculate the trajectory of a comet? How about Daltonism to describe that discipline that studies the different combinations into which different species of matter can form? That’s actually a historically appropriate analogy — for Daltonism could be used to describe nineteenth chemists’ commitment to the reality of atoms and molecules, despite some physicists resistance to the atomic idea for many decades more. But in 2008? Come on.

The problem for Habgood specifically in using the word “Darwinism” in such a fundamentally wrong-headed way is that it betrays a perhaps unconscious affinity for the ideas he overtly criticizes here.

The word as employed in this piece is purely polemical, and, as Judson pointed out, its use represents an attempt to redefine the playing field. If Darwin could be shown wrong, then Darwinism falls — except of course, Darwin was wrong about lots of individual bits and pieces, and yet created a body of ideas and an approach that has fostered a branch of science that is very well indeed, thank you very much. Habgood plays on the wrong side of the pitch when he uses this word.

The same kind of bad faith appears in his odd choice to use the word “orthodoxy.” Habgood twice refers to “scientific orthodoxy” — once in the context of a discussion of clever people “riven to reject current scientific orthodoxy” and again in warning of creationism/ID’s “a serious threat to scientific orthodoxy, particularly in the field of biology.”

I suspect that the reason the use of the word orthodoxy is malicious (in result even if not intent) is pretty obvious to those reading this.

But just to show blogger due-diligence: orthodoxy is a term of art with specific meanings in the religious discussion. Those meanings do not describe the practice of science, which turns on various methods to guage the reliability of its claims.

The use of the word in conjunction with science is at best a sociological claim — that as a human activity, scientists can form shared assumptions that seem analogous to a credo. Even here, it makes a highly imperfect comparison to the use of the same terms — both orthodoxy and affirmations of belief — in the religious context.

At worst, the word is clearly designed to play a very nasty set of mental chimes. Orthodoxy is readily turned into a term of abuse, to mean unthinking commitment to unsupportable ideas: women, derived from Adam’s rib, are intended by God to serve men; human beings are descended from ancestors common to their primate kin.

There — that should make the sleight of hand obvious. Habgood’s rhetoric is designed to create a false equivalence between science and religion, and a false sharing of blame for the spread of nonsensical notions to the fundamentalists who cannot read their bible as Habgood reads his, and to those blinkered orthodox scientists, who cannot appreciate Habgood’s vision of the mysterious.

Habgood surely knows the weight of language; his life has been spent parsing the Word in great detail, and with great distinction within his community. He is responsible for this abuse of meaning.

Update: minor edits to produce something resembling grammar in a few sentences.

Image: Yorkminster spire. This file is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License.

Australia Attacks US!

July 24, 2008

This just in:

(Actually, Australian Defense Force footage of a torpedo test using a decommissioned US warship as a target.)