September 2010 Archives

This is a news website article about a scientific paper

It’s amazing, clear, and sums up the industry. A must read.

According to an article, “Basic religion test stumps many Americans,” in yesterday’s New York Times, atheists and agnostics scored better than “protheists” on a basic religion test administered by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. The Pew Forum telephoned 3400 people and asked them 32 questions concerning the Bible, world religions, well-known religious figures, and “the constitutional principles governing religion in public life.” According to the Times article, atheists and agnostics, Jews, and Mormons, with an average of 20-21 correct answers out of 32, scored significantly better than the rest of the population, even after the results were corrected for demographic factors. The majority of people answered barely half the questions correctly, and many could not even answer questions about their own religion.

98.77% Wrong

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by Joe Felsenstein,

Over at Uncommon Descent (in this thread) “niwrad” presents a calculation, lengthily explained, showing that the assertion that human and chimp genomes differ by 1% in their base sequence is wrong.

What “niwrad” does is extraordinary. Choosing random places in one genome (doing this separately for each chromosome) “niward” takes 30-base chunks, and then looks over into the other genome to see whether or not there is a perfect match of all 30 bases. This turns out to occur between 41.60% of the time and 69.06% of the time in autosomes (it varies from chromosome to chromosome). The median is about 65%.

So the difference is really 35%, not 1%, right? Not so fast. If two sequences differ by 1.23% (the actual figure from the chimp genome paper), a one-base chunk will match 98.77% of the time. A two-base chunk will perfectly match (0.9877 x 0.9877) of the time. And so on. A 30-base chunk will match a fraction of the time which is the 30th power of 0.9877. That’s 0.6898 of the time.

So the 65% figure is pretty close to what is expected from a difference of 1.23% at the single-base level. However the penny hasn’t dropped yet over there (as of this writing, anyway). One commenter (“CharlesJ”) has asked whether there isn’t about a 1 in 4 chance of a 30-base mismatch if the difference is really 1%. That’s correct, and “niwrad” has (somewhat incorrectly) replied that it’s actually 1 in 3. This is a bit wrong but one way or the other the whole article goes up in smoke. “niwrad” has not figured that out yet.

Of course what creationists never do when they get upset about the 1% figure and claim it is Much Higher Than That is to compare that figure with the percentage difference with the orang genome or the rhesus macacque genome (gorilla isn’t available yet). Those are of course higher yet, no matter how you calculate the figure, leaving the chimp as our closest relative.



Photograph by Roger Lambert.

Photography contest, Honorable Mention.

Lambert - Entropy Shore Formation.jpg

Entropy – scene from an eroding shoreline on Lake Champlain, Vermont, demonstrating a naturally ordered stone deposition being disarrayed by the natural disorder of the tree roots above it.

Florida has more sense than Texas


According to a short article in the Orlando Sentinel, a textbook publisher has agreed to remove 2 pages that include creationist material from editions of a high school textbook sold in Florida. Apparently, the textbook contains a box, or sidebar, that makes a number of errors and also states some incorrect creationist claims (please excuse me if that phrase is redundant). I do not know the history, but it looks as though Joe Wolf, the president of Florida Citizens for Science, alerted the Florida Department of Education, which in turn took action. The National Center for Science Education reports,

Freshwater: Hearing documents up at NCSE


UPDATE It turns out that the documents were not officially released. I have therefore asked NCSE to take them down and they’ve done so. I was misled by a posting on Accountability in the Media which said Hamilton’s brief “was released Thursday” (Sep 17). I inferred that it had been released by R. Lee Shepherd, the referee and that all the documents were publishable. It now turns out that’s not the case; Shepherd has not yet released the documents.


The five final documents submitted to the referee of the administrative hearing on John Freshwater’s termination are up on NCSE’s site. They are the Board of Education’s summary brief, Freshwater’s summary brief, the Board’s reply to Freshwater’s summary, Freshwater’s reply to the Board’s summary, and an amicus brief submitted by the Dennises.

Happy reading!

Cytisus scoparius


Photograph by Paul Funk.

Photography contest, Honorable Mention.


Cytisus scopariusScotch broom, invading a power-line cut on Vancouver Island. Scotch broom is an escaped ornamental that colonizes disturbed areas and competes with conifer seedlings and forage plants.

Freshwater: A Christian Conspiracy Theory


I haven’t re-read R. Kelly Hamilton’s summary brief in order to write a comprehensive post yet (and I may gouge my eyes out in order to avoid doing so), but one of the more interesting (and paranoid) parts of the brief is his invocation of conspiracies to account for the jam Freshwater is in. I’ll sketch one of them below the fold to give the flavor of the reasoning (I use that term loosely) Hamilton engages in.

Freshwater: Hearing documents released


In response to several FOIA Public Records Requests, the closing briefs and replies in the administrative hearing on the termination of John Freshwater’s employment as a middle school science teacher in the Mount Vernon City Schools have been released by the referee. We will have all the documents available on the NCSE site sometime in the next few days (NCSE is temporarily short the person who maintains that database). Meanwhile, for your reading pleasure a Freshwater supporter has posted just one of the documents, Freshwater’s summary brief. It runs 180 pages. It’s disjointed, rambling, and on one reading looks like an attempt to fling all the crap Hamilton can find or make up at a wall in the hope that some will stick. There are (at least) two different conspiracy theories embedded in it along with vicious allegations of incompetence, malice, and lying on the part of any number of witnesses. And there is more than enough purple prose to frame the wall of crap twice over.

After all the docs are available online–including the Board’s summary brief, the two sides’ replies to the opposing summary briefs, and an amicus brief from the Dennises–I’ll try to summarize them. That will be a chore, lemme tell you!

Disco ‘Tute has a new apologi… erm…contributor


Josh Rosenau notes that the Disco ‘Tute’s house organ, Evolution News and Views, has a new contributor, Heather Sieger Zieger, currently a research associate at Probe Ministries, a fundamentalist ministry, one of whose co-founders is Jon Buell, publisher of “Of Pandas and People” of “cdesign proponentsists” fame. And there’s a nice wrinkle: The Disco ‘Tute’s description of her completely neglects her four years of apologetics work at Probe Ministries. But it’s all about the science, right?

See Josh’s post for more.

geocentrism_flyerThere’s been a lot of blank disbelief on the blogosphere of late, due to the announcement of a conference on Geocentrism (Galileo was Wrong). Geocentrism is the belief that Earth is the centre of the Universe and everything revolves around it. You would think that, 400+ years after Galileo, people would have cottoned on the the idea that the Earth orbits the sun, the sun orbits the galactic centre and the Milky Way galaxy does … well …complicated stuff with other galaxies, but basically we worked out long ago that the Earth is not the centre of the solar system, let alone the Universe.

Other people, especially Ethan at Starts with a Bang and the Bad Astronomer, have dealt with the technical details (and I have an earlier discussion here and here). My goal is to get you, the ordinary person on the Clapham omnibus (or in my case, the Outer Harbour train, where I am writing this), to try and demonstrate the Earth is heliocentric for yourself and to do so with common household materials. After all, science is at heart a practical endeavour, and non-professionals should be able to find the evidence for themselves.

Chrysopa sp.


Photograph by Adrian Thysse.

Photography contest, Honorable Mention.

Thysse.Green Lace wing(Chrysopa sp.).jpg

Chrysopa sp. – green lacewing.

When skeptics turn dickish (I’m gonna catch hell for this one)


There’s been a lot of talk in the skeptical blogosphere about Phil Plait’s ‘don’t be a dick’ talk at TAM8. Since Phil didn’t quite get around to mentioning just who he was talking about or just what they said to illustrate his point (the sad story of the crying deist at the end doesn’t count), dickishness is not a real clear concept. However, I’m prepared to give an actual example that was (inadvertently, I hope!) provided by Phil himself in his recent appearance on The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe (scroll to episode 267) with Steve Novella, Bob Novella, Rebecca Watson, Jay Novella, and Evan Bernstein.

Near the very end of the podcast, around 1:16:45, they finish the show with a regular feature, an interesting quote from someone. In this particular show the quotation was from Eliezer S. Yudkowsky, who is an interesting character in artificial intelligence and in the Singularity movement. (Full disclosure: I met Yudkowsky briefly after a talk on AI he gave some years ago.) At the end of Jay Novella’s reading of the quotation the Skeptics on the podcast first laugh and giggle and tee-hee about Yudkowsky’s name, and then Steve Novella (I think it was Steve from the voice) paraphrases the quotation, precisely reversing its meaning. There’s more laughing and giggling, and then Phil, joining in the laughter, identifies Yudkowsky as a solipsist: “He’s a solipsist,” and then wanders off into free associations to the Matrix.

And what was the quotation from Yudkowsky that elicited all the skeptical hilarity?

Parenting Beyond Belief Author and the Creationist Teacher


Dale McGowan, author of Parenting Beyond Belief, has encountered a creationism-inclined science teacher in his son’s school and is blogging the progress of his dealing with it. So far there are two posts, Science, Interrupted and Dear Mr. Taylor, Part 1. Some of the commenters on his posts and that on the Friendly Atheist (linked below in the hat tip) are full of bravado and I hope McGowan ignores them. You don’t start with a flame-thrower.

So far McGowan is handling it well, emailing the teacher first (he’s using email to retain a record of the interaction), and asking polite but clear questions. What he has not done, or at least not mentioned he has done, is contact NCSE for advice, counsel, and support. I’ve urged that in a comment on one of his posts and I here urge it publicly: Contact NCSE now, Dale! There’s no need to re-invent a wheel that’s already on the ground and rolling. NCSE exists specifically for this kind of situation.

McGowan’s experience reinforces the fact that stealth creationists are wide-spread in the public schools, busily infecting students with doubt about honest science. As one of the students who testified in the Freshwater hearing said, what he learned from Freshwater is that science can’t be trusted. And it’s public school teachers like Freshwater and McGowan’s “Mr. Taylor” who fan that mistrust.


Dale McGowan has quite properly (and gently) chastised me for implying that he didn’t know about NCSE. See this comment on his post.

Hat tip to The Friendly Atheist.

Agapornis roseicollis


Photograph by Pete Moulton.

Photography contest, Honorable Mention.


Agapornis roseicollisRosy-faced Lovebirds. A. roseicollis have established a large and growing feral population in the Phoenix metro area. The Sonoran desert habitats serve them very well, and they’re thriving on a diet composed largely of mesquite beans and nesting in cavities in the saguaros or in the spaces under roof tiles.

The Institute for Creation Research has apparently closed its graduate school after being denied the authority to offer a master’s degree in science education. See the concession by Henry Morris III. The National Center for Science Education reports, however, that the ICR is opening instead a School of Biblical Apologetics, which will offer a master’s degree in Christian education, as well as a minor in creation research. The graduate school may be exempt from licensing requirements as long as it offers purely religious degrees.

Wrapup of photography contest


The photography contest had three categories and, owing to a problem that Reed Cartwright cleverly called hanging chads, four winners. You may see the winning photographs here, here, here.

The winners were offered a choice of Why Evolution Works (and Creationism Fails), The Ancestor’s Tale, and Monkey Girl. The TalkOrigins Archive Foundation has generously agreed to finance the purchase of WEW, and the National Center for Science Education offered to provide copies of AT and MG.

I blush to tell you that all 4 winners selected WEW(&CF), by me and Paul Strode. I plan to bike over to my local independent bookseller and buy four copies later today. I will mail them after I get them autographed.

A very large fraction if not a majority of the remaining entries were themselves splendid photographs, and it was uncommonly difficult to choose a mere eighteen as finalists. We will continue to post other entries as part of our 1000 Words feature under the rubric of Honorable Mention.

Acknowledgment. Thanks to all those who entered the contest, to Glenn Branch of NCSE, to Wesley Elsberry of TO Origins Foundation, and especially profuse thanks to Reed Cartwright for the actual mechanics of running the polls and other major contributions.

Reminder: Columbus Science Pub & Marion Science Cafe


Columbus Science Pub

Central Ohioans, remember the Science Pub in Columbus on Tuesday September 7 at 7:00 pm in the basement of Hampton’s on King right by the OSU campus in Columbus.

The speaker will be Tara C. Smith, Assistant Professor of Epidemiology in the College of Public Health at the University of Iowa, Deputy Director of the University of Iowa Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases, founder of Iowa Citizens for Science, author of the Scienceblog Aetiology, and a participant in the Panda’s Thumb field trip to the Creomuseum. Tara will be talking on “Science Denial and the Internet.” More info on the Science Pub’s Facebook page.

Marion Science Cafe

Also, a foreshadowing: the Marion Science Cafe, now in its fourth year under the leadership of Brian McEnnis of OSU Marion, will have its first meeting on Tuesday, October 5, with guest speaker Mike Elzinga, a regular PT commenter. Mike will be talking about “Order, Disorder, and Entropy: Misconceptions and Misuses of Thermodynamics.” I’ll post a reminder a few days before it. Unfortunately that conflicts with the second Science Pub meeting. I know the principals have been in contact in an attempt to work that out, but have no news yet.

And there are adult beverages available there, too.

In a past life, I was a frog. Then I was kissed by a princess, and eventually I became the King of France. Or was it the Duke of York? No matter. At the time, I had 10,000 men, and I marched them up to the top of the hill, and then I marched them down again. When they were up, they were up, and when they were down, they were down. But when they were only halfway up, they were neither up nor down. With details like that, how can you doubt my story?

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