02/11/14

Feb. 12: Happy Darwin Day


Charles DarwinFebruary 12 is international Darwin Day, the day when we collectively celebrate science and reason. And, of course, we recognize Charles Darwin’s birthday: February 12, 1809 (the same birthdate as Abraham Lincoln, by the way).

If Collingwood made such declarations, I would propose we recognize the day in our municipality. Other Canadian municipalities have done so. Maybe we could raise a flag with Darwin’s face on it outside town hall.

Darwin Day was first celebrated in 1995 and has been growing in recognition and popularity ever since. As Darwinday.org tells us the celebration was:

…initiated by Dr. Robert (“Bob”) Stephens and took place at Stanford University. The first EVENT sponsored by the Stanford Humanists student group and the Humanist Community, was held on April 22, 1995. The famous anthropologist Dr. Donald Johanson, who discovered the early fossil human called ‘Lucy’, gave a lecture entitled “Darwin and Human Origins” to over 600 people in the Kresge Auditorium.

In subsequent years the location and date of the celebration was changed to coincide with Darwin’s birthday and was held on, or near, February 12 each year. The success of the venture is reflected in the list of speakers which include Richard Dawkins, 1996; Paul Berg, 1997; Robert Sapolsky, 1998; Douglas Hofstadter, 1999; Michael Shermer, 2001; Robert Stephens and Arthur Jackson, 2003; Robert and Lola Stephens, 2004; and Eugenie Scott, 2005.

And, as the site also adds, “Celebrating Science and Humanity within our various cultures throughout the world is an idea that is overdue…”

I would hope, too, that people would take some time out of their busy days to read something of Darwin’s, even if only a few pages. He wrote beautifully, albeit rather obtusely at times.

Of course, I don’t expect creationists will break out of their cult mentality and celebrate science today: they haven’t in more than 150 years since Darwin’s Origin of Species was published. But while we celebrate Darwin, we should give some thought to creationism on this day, not just to critical thinking, if for nothing else than to remind us that we still have a long way to go to get universal appreciation of science and reason.

Especially, it seems, in the USA, where 43 percent of Americans believe in young-earth creationism. Not entirely bad news, given that figure has dropped from 54 percent in 2009. But still very, very scary.*

On Facebook today there were a couple of links to articles about creationism worth reading on this Darwin Day.

Creationism museum displayFirst is a cutely risible piece on Buzzfeed called “45 Things I Learned At The Creation Museum.” For those who don’t know it, the Creation Museum in Kentucky is where Bill Nye recently successfully debated creationist Ken Ham. It’s probably the most strenuous effort to rationalize away science ever constructed.

If I ever get to Kentucky, I will pay a visit, but I expect I’ll get escorted out for laughing too loudly at the exhibits. And if you’re like me, you will probably enjoy the virtual tour in the Buzzfeed article more than actually being there, because you don’t risk being ejected. After all, how can you keep a straight face when confronted with a sign that claims all dinosaurs were vegetarians before Adam?

Uh, and those razor-edged, pointed, cutting, slashing teeth were for… broccoli? Okay, stop snickering or they won’t let you in the museum either.

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12/28/13

Psychics 2013: the silly, the scams, the failed predictions


Joke...Action News, an ABC affiliate, ran a late-year story with the headline “Psychics interpret pets’ thoughts.” No, it’s not April Fools’ Day: this was December 26. Yet the reporter treated it seriously; just like it was a real story; actual news, rather than a steaming heap of superstitious dung. That reporters for any media outlet treat would such codswallop as “news” calls into question their ability, their competence and their education.

Lorrie The Pet Psychic has been tuning into the thoughts of animals for 18 years, appearing on Oprah after she helped locate a local dog who was blown away by a storm and then found alive.
“I feel very honored, you know, because I get to give animals a voice. Especially with the older pets that are getting ready to cross over and their owners get to say goodbye,” said Lorrie.

I don’t know whether to laugh at Lorrie’s ludicrous statements, or weep at the gullibility of people who have used her “services” for 18 years.

“Cross over”? You mean die. Kick the bucket. Shuffle off this mortal coil. Run down the curtain and joined the bleedin’ choir invisible. Pet ghosts talking to former masters? Sheesh… if dead pets could talk, why don’t these “:psychics” get messages from dead raccoons, or other roadkill? The mouse that died in the trap? the bird caught by your cat? Wouldn’t the afterlife ether just crackle with that noise?

Psychics and so-called clairvoyants feed on people’s fear of mortality; they create a culture of alternate realities and other worlds populated with dead people (and pets – or is it all animals?) in order to suck the money from your wallet when they pretend to be in contact with people who “cross over.” Now, it seems, they can contact pets, too, living and dead.

“I think he likes his hair a little longer,” said Psychic Eve. “He prefers it that way. He feels more, I don’t know, macho more desirable.”

That’s what another self-described “psychic” told the credulous reporter, who dutifully wrote it down and printed it. Come on – a dog being “macho” over its hair? What journalism school taught you to be so naive?

To add insult to intellectual injury, the reporter then lists contact information so the simple-minded readers can call these “psychics” and give them their money.

If you want to know what sort of justification “pet psychics” give to their clients before denuding them of their finances, on How Stuff Works, you can get pages full of their gibberish:

According to most pet psychics, you communicate with your pets telepathically all the time, without even knowing it. Your cat hides and your dog gets ready to play because of signals you send with your mind, not because of your actions… According to pet psychics, electromagnetic energy surrounds and penetrates everything in the universe, much like the force in “Star Wars.” This energy is part of the radio spectrum, but scientists haven’t figured out how to detect it. Pet psychics can use energy to contact animals, no matter how far away the animals are or whether they are still living.

Enough to make your brain hurt, isn’t it? The real message, though, is buried in the article:

For a fee, they then relay telepathic messages to and from pets. The pets don’t even have to be present — often, psychics use photographs or descriptions to make contact.

There’s the hook in the worm: a fee. Of course they charge a fee because they make their living fleecing the gullible.

I have a tough time telling my black cats apart some days even when they’re sitting side by side. Who would be dim enough yet willing to pay someone to “telepathically” converse with a photograph of a black cat?

Here’s what my dog would say if a “pet psychic” could communicate with it:

Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark.

Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark.

Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark.

And I learned that without shelling out money to a “psychic!”
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12/19/13

American belief in evolution is growing: poll


Alien SaintA new Harris poll released this month shows that Americans apparently are losing their belief in miracles and gaining it in science. The recent poll showed that American belief in evolution had risen to 47% from its previous poll level of 42%, in 2005.

True, it’s not an overwhelming increase, and it’s still less than half the population, but it is an improvement. Belief in creationism dropped 3% during that time, to 36%. Good news, of course, but don’t break out the champagne yet. There’s other data and it’s not all so good.

At the same time more Americans are believing in the science of evolution, American belief in many religious teachings is falling. Belief in miracles, heaven and others has dropped since the last poll:

  • 72% believe in miracles, down from 79 percent in 2005;
  • 68% believe in heaven, down from 75%;
  • 68% believe that Jesus is God or the Son of God, down from 72%;
  • 65% believes in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, down from 70%;
  • 64% believe in the survival of the soul after death, down from 69%;
  • 58% believe in the devil and hell, down from 62%;
  • 57% believe in the Virgin birth, down from 60%.

CNS News also tells us the poll shows:

  • Absolute certainty that there is a God is down vs. 10 years ago (54% vs. 66% in 2003).
  • Outside of specific religious samples, the groups most likely to be absolutely certain there is a God include blacks (70%), Republicans (65%), older Americans (62%), Baby Boomers (60%), Southerners (61%) and Midwesterners (58%), and those with a high school education or less (60%).
  • There continues to be no consensus as to whether God is a man or a woman. Nearly 4 in 10 Americans (39%) think God is male, while only 1% of U.S. adults believe God is female. However, notable minorities believe God is neither male nor female (31%) or both male and female (10%).
  • 19 percent of Americans describe themselves are “very” religious, with an additional four in ten (40%) describing themselves as “somewhat” religious (down from 49% in 2007). Nearly one-fourth of Americans (23%) identify themselves as “not at all” religious – a figure that has nearly doubled since 2007, when it was at 12%.

The Harris Poll has some not-so-good news to report, as well. According to the pollsters, more Americans believe in ghosts, reincarnation and UFOs than in 2005:

  • Reincarnation: 25%, up 3%
  • Ghosts 42%, up 1%
  • UFOs 36%, up 1%

I’m not sure whether to blame this lapse in critical thinking on ‘reality” TV or the internet. Either way, it’s troubling.

Belief in witches is down to 5% to 25%, and belief in astrology remains unchanged at 29%. Belief in angels is down 6%, but still staggeringly high at 68%. Imaginary beings are losing followers, while pseudoscience still hangs in there. The good news, if one reads it thus, is that belief in the science of evolution is finally higher than the belief in witches, ghosts, UFOs, astrology, creationism and reincarnation. But not angels.

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11/17/13

We have heading up for your net


Spam cartoonI have to admit that I frequently read the spam comments WordPress traps for my moderation, and I often do so with a smile. The clumsy, crazy constructs, the awkward English, butchered punctuation and the twisted word use just make me laugh.

Yes, like everyone else, I detest spam, and I quickly delete the comments into whatever digital wastebin they descend to. But I often chuckle to read them first. They make me wonder: are they deliberately written poorly, are they the sincere efforts of someone struggling to learn English, words strung together in random order by a bot, or are they the result of some Google translation gone awry?

Some have question marks which suggest symbols from other languages that didn’t get through the translation process. or are they just machine constructs dropping in characters at random?

This one is a good example, taken from today’s lot waiting for the delete button:

Of training course exceptional post. We have heading up for your net. Usually publish with your very own encounter and share. Oh! really grateful.

Some read like odd poetry, if you parse them so. Take the above, for example and write it thus:

Of training course exceptional post.
We have heading up for your net.
Usually publish with
your very own encounter
and share.
Oh!
really grateful.

Okay, not great poetry. Reads like computer-generated poetry, though, doesn’t it?

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10/27/13

Anti-Intellectualism: The New Elitism


Anti-intellectualismThere’s a growing – and disturbing – trend in modern culture: anti-intellectual elitism. The dismissal of art, science, culture, philosophy, of rhetoric and debate, of literature and poetry, and their replacement by entertainment, spectacle, self-righteous self ignorance, and deliberate gullibility. These are usually followed by vituperative ridicule and angry caterwauling when anyone challenges the populist ideals or ideologies.

As if having a brain, as if having any aspirations to culture, to art, to learning – or worse, to science – was an evil, malicious thing that must be stomped upon. As if the literati were plotting world domination by quoting Shakespeare or Chaucer. Or Carl Sagan, Charles Darwin, Richard Dawkins.

“The mind of this country, taught to aim at low objects, eats upon itself.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson, oration to the Phi Beta Kappa Society Cambridge, August 31, 1837.

Anti-intellectualism isn’t new – Richard Hofstadter wrote about it in 1963 - but it has become highly visible on the internet where pseudoscience and conspiracy theories have developed unchallenged into popular anti-science and anti-rationalist countercultures, many followed and accepted by millions.

Hofstadter wrote,

Anti-intellectualism is a resentment and suspicion of the life of the mind and of those who are considered to represent it, and a disposition constantly to minimize the value of that life.

He warned in his book that intellectualism was “on the run” in America. It still is.*

Just look at the superstitious Jenny-McCarthyites who fear vaccinations with the same religious fervour medieval peasants feared black cats crossing their paths. Or the muddle-headed practitioners and followers of homeopathy. The chemtrail conspiracists. The anti-wind turbine and the anti-fluoride crowd. Any Scientologist. Or any religious fundamentalist. The list of true believers in the anti-intellectual crowd is huge.

Online technology didn’t create these mythologies, or the gullibility of their followers, but the internet is the great equalizer and the great popularizer. It’s not making us smarter; in fact, it may be dumbing down a lot of folks. That’s because anyone, anywhere, can have his or her say and there’s no way to easily discern the intellectual wheat from the. abundant chaff without doing some hard thinking and analysis.

Technology has created the sense of entitlement that every comment, every opinion is of equal value, regardless of the context and the person making that comment. It’s the ultimate democratizer. But it’s a democracy where communication is reduced to the lowest level: the instant, the brief and the angry retort.

Facebook and Twitter don’t have categories that identify posters as more relevant or more important than others. If the prime minister posts on Facebook, he doesn’t get a gold box around his post that says he’s in charge of the country. If Stephen Hawking weighs into a Facebook debate about the nature of the space-time continuum, he doesn’t get a special icon that lets people know he owns this conversation.***

All messages we post have the same weight, the same gravity. There’s nothing to identify any post as more informed, as factually correct or even relevant. So it becomes easy to derail a discussion by spurious claims and allegations, but innuendo, lies or simply confrontational language.

We’re all equally important on the internet. One person’s belief in magic, superstition or conspiracies gets the same opportunity to be heard and seen as those about science and empirical fact. In the online land of the blind, the one-eyed man has no special significance.

Facebook image

We’re creating a world of dummies. Angry dummies who feel they have the right, the authority and the need not only to comment on everything, but to make sure their voice is heard above the rest, and to drag down any opposing views through personal attacks, loud repetition and confrontation.

When they can’t respond with an intellectual counterargument – as is often the case – the anti-intellectuals respond with the ideology of their peer group (see the religious content of the message in the image taken from Facebook on the left) or ad hominem attacks. Name calling. Belittling and demeaning the opponent.

Bill Keller, writing in the New York Times, said,

The Web culture is simultaneously elitist and anti-authoritarian…

But it’s not an elitism of wisdom, education, experience or knowledge. The new elite are the angry posters, those who can shout loudest and more often, a clique of bullies and malcontents baying together like dogs cornering a fox. Too often it’s a combined elite of the anti-intellectuals and the conspiracy followers – not those who can voice the most cogent, most coherent response.

Together they ferment a rabid culture of anti-rationalism where every fact is suspect; every shadow holds a secret conspiracy. Rational thought is the enemy. Critical thinking is the devil’s tool.

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10/23/13

Survival of the Fittest


Herbert SpencerCharles Darwin has long been associated with the phrase, “survival of the fittest.” For a century and a half people have used it to refer to their understanding of his explanation of how species evolved.

But it wasn’t his. And it has obscured the understanding of Darwin’s own theory.

It came from a contemporary, Herbert Spencer. Spencer was a contemporary of Darwin – an English polymath:  philosopher, biologist, anthropologist, sociologist, economist liberal political theorist, utilitarian – and, by some accounts, an early libertarian. His ideas came from people like Malthus and Adam Smith (read more about his philosophy here). Wikipedia tells us:

For many, the name of Herbert Spencer would be virtually synonymous with Social Darwinism, a social theory that applies the law of the survival of the fittest to society; humanitarian impulses had to be resisted as nothing should be allowed to interfere with nature’s laws, including the social struggle for existence. Spencer desired the elimination of the unfit through their failure to reproduce, rather than coercion or state intervention to initiate their physical annihilation.

He wrote his interpretation of Darwin’s ideas in an 1864 textbook of biology:

“This survival of the fittest, which I have here sought to express in mechanical terms, is that which Mr. Darwin has called ‘natural selection’, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life.”

Spencer was really trying to apply Darwin’s ideas to his own ideas about economics, class struggle, competition and politics. He also believed in Lamarckism – the inheritance of attributes gained in one generation by the next – which has long since been discredited. But whether you agree with Spencer’s views, his reduction of Darwin’s theory to a convenient axiom did the theory an injustice.

In the public mind, Darwin’s ideas about natural selection were confusing and challenging. They became conflated with Spencer’s ideas and somehow the phrase stuck – the Victoria era equivalent of a bumper sticker phrase. It became wildly popular, and was soon applied to social and political phenomena, not simply biological.

It was so popular as a catch phrase that in the 1869  fifth edition of his book, On the Origin of Species, Darwin – unfortunately – added this line:

“But the expression often used by Mr. Herbert Spencer, of the Survival of the Fittest, is more accurate, and is sometimes equally convenient.”

The problem is really in how the word “fittest” is defined. Like its sister term, theory, it has both a common and a scientific meaning.*

Survival of the FittestFittest, in Darwin’s sense, doesn’t mean the biggest, best, toughest, strongest or even the most competitive. It’s not the macho concept of superiority. It isn’t about power, control or brute force.

It means the “best suited for the immediate environment.” It has also been described as a “property of the relationship between the organism and the environment.” That might be a different colour, smaller size, less active. Whatever offers the best opportunity to survive and breed. Having offspring is key.

It’s a far more subtle notion than commonly used. As Wikipedia says:

Modern evolutionary theory defines fitness not by how long an organism lives, but by how successful it is at reproducing. If an organism lives half as long as others of its species, but has twice as many offspring surviving to adulthood, its genes will become more common in the adult population of the next generation.

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