Archive for category Misinformation

Bill Nye is not appropriate for Creationist Blood Pressure

Recently, Bill Nye [the science guy] produced a video called “creationism is not appropriate for children”. It’s fairly short and he doesn’t go into much detail: mostly a bunch of assertions on Bill Nye [the science guy]’s part. From what I’ve seen it shouldn’t be difficult to support those assertions with evidence (they’re nothing particularly controversial), but Bill Nye [the science guy] doesn’t bother: he simply presents them as is. Really, it’s more a presentation of an opinion, rather than a particularly detailed or thorough takedown of creationism.

Now I’m Australian, so until recently I’d never heard of Bill Nye [the science guy] (Note: I have been assured that “the science guy” is a mandatory part of his name and that if you don’t use it he magically scientifically appears and beats you over the head with a Bunsen burner). I understand he’s a science communicator and used to have his own TV show, but the remainder of my understanding of who he is and what he does comes almost entirely from Randall Munroe.

So what I find interesting about this case isn’t Bill Nye [the science guy]’s opinions on creationism. I don’t know the guy, and his opinions are really pretty standard stuff amongst people with any understanding of science: the video itself is about as controversial as a NASA engineer saying the moon-landing hoaxers are a bunch of loons. What I find interesting has been the denialsphere’s reaction to Bill Nye [the science guy]’s opinions on creationism. It seems like every creationist of note suddenly went critical.

There’s enough atomic energy stored in creationists to melt the crust off the earth. (it’s funny ’cause it’s true)

Various creoblogs have been tearing ineffectively at him, and there have been more than a few video responses, including white-background parody’s from groups as well known in the misinformation sphere as Answers In Genesis.

“… the complete lack of a genetic mechanism that allows organisms to gain information”? If this blog was a drinking game, I’d be insisting everybody take a shot right now.

So what I want to know is: why is it that this particular video of a guy on a white background garnered such a reaction? There are plenty of more vehement, more eloquent, more thorough and more fact-oriented video’s on YouTube condemning creationism, some of them from well known and popular people. But it’s Bill Nye [the science guy] that gets all this attention. Why?

It can’t be the format: a YouTube interview is hardly anything new.

I think it might be partly the content. Bill Nye [the science guy] provides an emotional argument: a plea to get back to real science in America. This is in many ways more persuasive than a step-wise, fact-based argument… but it’s also the creationist community’s home turf, which allows them to engage on their own terms. Since Bill Nye [the science guy] didn’t provide immediate facts to back up his assertions, the creationist responses can be simple denial: they are under no burden to prove otherwise, and the audience for all their exposure to “both sides of the argument” is no more informed than they were before.

Mainly, though I think it’s a matter of the source. Bill Nye [the science guy] is well known, and not in the same way that evolutionary scientists like Dawkins are well known. He is a scientist, yes. But far more importantly to the denialists, he’s a TV personality.

Bill Nye [the science guy] isn’t an authority on scientific matters: one of the “experts”. Denialists have done a fine job of slandering the very concept of expertise over the years, to the point where amongst their audience scientific experts are less trusted than weathermen (and in the case of climate change, I mean that literally). But Bill Nye [the science guy] is more than just one of the faceless experts: he’s someone that introduced people to science, showing them how it worked and that it worked. He showed people the side of science that wasn’t the dry academia we’d seen in school. It’s easy to accuse a faceless consensus of experts of lying to you, but Bill Nye was someone people came to know and trust. And that, I think, is why the denialists are so apoplectic about Nye: they have plenty of experience denying facts, but it’s harder to combat the opinions of someone your audience knows and trusts.

Interestingly, this hypothesis means it’s Bill Nye [the science guy]’s status as a science communicator, not his status as a scientist, that so scares the denialist community. This makes sense: almost all scientists in relevant fields support evolution without hesitation and have done so for a long time, but this means very little to the denialists: they are far more concerned with convincing the public than convincing the scientists. It’s the science communicators who are in direct competition with them for the trust of the public.

In some ways, science communication is a science unto itself (or maybe an art?) but communicating science is certainly not the same thing as teaching it. Successfully communicating science…. hmm… actually, there’s too much down that damn rabbit hole to go into in the last few paragraphs of this post, so I’ll leave Communicating Science as a topic for a later blog post. Suffice it to say, I think that at the point our society is at, science communication is almost as important as science itself.

Certainly science communication makes me hope that my work on Species will create something more lasting than an interesting game. Plus, if I can piss off the denialist community by even a fraction of the amount Bill Nye has done with his video, I’ll be laughing.

Oh wait I forgot to AAAARGH PLEASE NO NO NO NOT THE BUNSEN BUR-
Qu.

“Serious Question: in a fight between Bill Nye and Adam Savage, who would win?”

(EDIT)

Dammit, now I’m wondering just how much energy really is contained in creationists. Let’s find out:

(We’ll confine ourself to American creationists since the statistics are better and, as Bill Nye [the science guy] says, modern creationism is a primarily an American phenomena)

Average Human Weight (male, US) = 88.6 kg
Average Human Weight (female, US) = 77.2 kg
Average Human Weight (US) = (88.6 + 77.2) / 2 = 82.9 kg

US population = 314,289,000 people (2012)
Creationist Percent of the US population = 43% (2007)
Number of US Creationists = (314,289,000 * 0.43) = 135,144,000 people

Mass of US Creationists = 135,144,000 * 82.9 = 11,203,440,000 kg

c = 299,792,458 m / s

E = mc^2 = (11 203 440 000) * (299 792 458) ^ 2
= 1.00e+27 joules
= 239 000 teratons

For comparison, the Chixlub impact that wiped out the dinosaurs has been estimated at a mere 100 teratons (a teraton is one million megatons). So for the sake of a comprehensible mental image, imagine more than 2000 “world killer” meteorites hitting America at the same time. (And in case you were wondering, this math puts the energy yield of a single person at 1780 megatons: our largest nuclear weapons (the full-yield tsar bomba) don’t even come close at 150 megatons).

Clearly there is only one sensible conclusion to draw from this: creationists are the power-source of the future. Somebody get those buggers running on treadmills!

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Mocking Richard Gunther

Okay, so normally I approach the slightly more difficult denialist arguments and try to give them the benefit of the doubt, so as to constructively critique them and address the fundamental misconceptions that resulted in them, as well as to comment on actual concerns in science communication and on some of the more unintuitive and interesting results of the theory of evolution. [deep breath] But

… sometimes I read something that breaks the stupid barrier so hard the air-molecules in front of it fuse with it and cause a multi-megaton explosion, and I just have to laugh at it, and share it with friends so they can laugh at it, and broadcast it via gravitic waves from a repurposed orbital EMP cannon to finely control the vibrations of every smooth surface on the planet so every sentient being on earth including the reptiles that live thousands of kilometres under the earth can laugh hysterically at it. This is the sort of stupid to which the only real responce is snark: snark so dense that it collapses into a snarkularity and causes the snarkpocalypse, which I’m proposing as an ending for a Darker And Edgier cover of Dr Seuss’s The Cat In The Hat. So here’s an article from Richard Gunther of Living Waters Ministry, Ray Comforts official cartoonist and easily one of the dumbest creationists I’m aware of. Seriously, this guy puts Comfort, Hovind and Ham to shame. He’s in a whole league of his own.

Fair warning, the following makes no attempt at being constructive, persuasive, unbiased or even fair. It is written solely as an exercise in sadistic mockery of the eminantly mockable. And I am going to thoroughly enjoy writing it.

I will, however, refrain from commenting on the HTML layout of his site. Some targets are just too easy.

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A while ago I drew a cartoon as a joke, with the picture of hairy primate and the words to the effect: “If we come from apes, and if apes were “fitter”, then how come there are still apes?”

That would be this cartoon:

Richard Gunther is a professional cartoonist.


(Attribution: Richard Gunther, Living Waters Ministry)

Have you ever wondered what you’d get if you gene spliced an orang-utan, a horse, and a goldfish? Well now you know.

And in answer to the question, an analogous question: “If Australians are descended from Europeans, why are there still Americans?” (The answer, of course, is “Because We Find Them Amusing”)

It was a rather confusing question, unless you followed the assumption followed by Darwin, that the “fittest” would survive – as opposed to the “unfittest” which would become extinct.

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Firstly, Mr Gunther, Thomas Huxley came up with “Survival of the Fittest”. Darwin wasn’t too keen on the term, and would probably have used twenty times as many words anyway.

Secondly, SotF is a 150 year old oversimplification. Everyone else moved on, why didn’t creationists?

Thirdly, Microsoft Word says “unfittest” isn’t a word.

This joke was drawn and written for its humour, not its accuracy, because of course it is downright silly to argue this way.

Alright, fair enough. I suppose it was pretty funny, in a “laugh at the mentally disabled creationist” sort of way… wait, no, that’s not funny at all. But then again, since when are cartoonists expected to have a sense of humour anyway?

Just because one thing came from another does not mean the originator must be gone – just because humans are “fitter” than apes does not mean that apes ought to be extinct. A simple illustration of this is found in dog, or cat, or rabbit, or hen, or pigeon, or horse breeding. The original stock is still with us, while the offspring, hybridised and modified through careful breeding, is also with us. There are also many examples of very “unfit” plants and animals, such as the panda which lives almosty exclusively on bamboo, or the koala which likes mainly eucalyptus. Most unfit” yet they survive.

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There’s a pretty big difference between “specialised” and “unfit”. I’d like to see you survive solely on Eucalyptus, Richard! (Actually, I really would, that would be awesome)

The only reason panda’s and koala’s are ‘unfit’ these days is because we’re destroying their natural habitat faster then they, as extremely specialised animals, can adapt.

Unfortunately, when this cartoon about the humans and apes was posted on a website, it drew a great deal of flak, as several people took it as a serious comment. On the one hand I am pleased to see that there are some intelligent people ‘out there’ in etherland, who know some facts about breeding,

“Breeding”? I assume he meant to say something like “ancestry” or “population dynamics” (or, azathoth forbid, “evolution”), but… “breeding”? Now I’ve got a mental image of Zombie!Gunther staggering about moaning “breeeeeedddinnnnggg”…

(I suppose it makes sense: he certainly has no desire for brainz)

and I must admit I was slightly flattered that anyone would even notice my little cartoon, but on the other hand I was disappointed that the humour in the work was not taken as just that. Humour, satire, irony and other forms of amusement are not supposed to be taken as seriously as, for example, a scientific statement, or a statistical comment.

“If the world is really made entirely from cheese like creationists believe, then what type of cheese is it?”
“Ummm… creationists don’t actually believe the…”
“CAN’T YOU TAKE A JOKE?!”

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It reminded me of a joke I read, where a little kid asked his Dad “If God made us, and we are apes, then God must be an ape too!” Very logical, and based on the original premise being true, quite consistent, but funny, because the whole question is based on a silly premise.

Alright, so if we assume Gunther is claiming this joke is analogous to his, then the “silly premise” in question is… what? A rediculous caricature of the theory of evolution?

Something doesn’t add up here. Why would a creationist make a parody of a strawman caricature of evolution? I could understand a evolutionist making that parody to mock creationists, and I can understand a creationist making a parody of evolution itself, but in this case we’ve got a creationist parodying a creationist strawman?

Or maybe Richard is just backpedalling because he realises his original cartoon was somewhere between neurodeficient-tapeworm and concussed-housefly on the IQometer.

So taking up this view that it is a good thing to be logical, and consistent with an original premise, let us see where the Darwinian view leads, if we follow it through: Darwin saw Mankind as the product of millions of years of slow development, an increasing trend, from lower to higher levels of intelligence and complexity – a development which he claimed was a normal part of living things.

Well, leaving out the ‘lower to higher’ aspect, which is just silly, (increased complexity and intelligence are merely byproducts of our improved ability to survive), yes. Evolution progresses slowly, over millions of years.

Apply a logical progression to this: If this premise is true we should see:

A continuing improvement in average human phisique, health and resistance to biological opposition over time,
A continuing increase in average human intelligence, and technology,

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Okay, see, the one part I left out, because it was silly? That’s the part you’re focusing on, Richard. Also, you seem to have forgotten the ‘millions of years’ part.

Also, when did human technology start reproducing biologically? You’ve been holding out on me, technologically industry! I want my biotech!

We do not see any of these things. The trend is the other way. Darwin’s theory of evolution upward doesn’t fit the real, observed world.

False Attribution: “Darwins theory of evolution upward” actually refers “Richard Gunthers utterly moronic caricature which he thinks is an accurate description of evolution.”

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Health? Humans are increasingly beset by new diseases (small pox, malaria, cholera, ‘black death’. etc)

,
Black Death? The black death is a new disease? BWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!

The other “new diseases” there would still be lol worthy even without the black death, but… oh my goodness, that’s hilariously idiotic.

I’m subtracting a Headdesk just for that.

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How[sic] Intellect? Increasingly discoveries of ancient civilizations are revealing that those people were actually brighter they we are in many ways (i.e. huge monuments made of incredibly heavy stones, the antikathera, astronomical knowledge, metal-work, more complex languages, etc.

Yep. The people who built great big lumps of triangular rock to bury their dead leaders in were totes smarter than the engineers and experimental physicists who built a perfectly circular tunnel of vaccum under france and italy and just used it to discover the Higgs Bosun. And the zodiac is waaaaay more advanced than hubble. And metal work? I’ll bet the engineers who just landed a rover the size of a mini on another planet with a parachute/hovering VTOL skycrane combo would never have thought of heating up iron.
Any more insights, Professor Gunther?

No, seriously, is he seriously arguing that our intellectual level has followed a downward trend since the bronze age using examples from technology to prove his point? I would understand it if he was using writing and philosophy: that would at least make a certain level of sense, albeit sense not backed up by evidence. But technology?

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Are humans improving ‘morally’? Not at all – we have had more than 5000 years of continuous war, raging at least somewhere on the planet, including the more recent two world wars, a holocaust, and many examples of genocide – some going on right now. Peace on earth? Right now there are millions of people living under oppressive military regimes, or dying of sickness, hunger and/or are in the grip of poverty.

Yeah, and a large percentage of the world population now believes that war, slavery, racism and discrimination is wrong and lives in peaceful democratic countries, where our opinions, beliefs and freedoms are protected and we are all (theoretically) given equal ability to influence how our countries are governed. WE’RE WORSE THAN WE’VE EVER BEEN.

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So this is the opposite to the path set by Darwin’s theory? According to him, evolution for humans is all up and up,

Also according to Darwin according to Gunther: the moon is an eyeball of yog sothoth’s pet unicorn, humans are secretly being controlled by the koala-bear hivemind (but it’s okay because they only want hugs), and germs are actually the tears of fairies who have lost their wings.

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but the reality is down and down. Humans are not smarter, healthier, better. They are either much the same or much worse. Darwin was dreaming.

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All I can think of right now is that quote from The Castle: “Tell ‘im he’s dreamin’!” It’s possible I may have just given myself a concussion.

But there is one last thing to note: one huge and obvious difference between that ape I drew and the average modern human is that apes don’t have an inherited sinful nature.

Bonobo’s have sex for pleasure and chimps eat each other.

If humans really did come from primates, they too would be sinful, but they are not. They have no moral awareness at all.

Several species of apes grieve for lost loved ones, and are capable of altruism.

That makes humans more likely to be special creations, by a moral God, than merely animals – something Darwin apparently refused to notice.

Yep, because Darwin was absolutely incurious about the natural world and didn’t spend decades of his life studying every detail he could find prior to publishing his theory. No, instead he “refused to notice” basic creofacts and wrote On The Origins Of Species after a drunken night on the town, during which he proposed to a 200lb dock-worker and accidentally set fire to his beard. Twice.

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Although, credit where credit is due, it can’t be easy for Richard Gunther to transmit these essays to us across the 5th dimension from the parallel universe he apparently inhabits.

“Pro-tip: never try to hug a koala. Seriously. Furry bastards have claws and a temper.”

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Evolving Reproduction

Sorry this post is a day late. Administrative stuff has been occupying a lot of my spare time. Hopefully I’ll have a few surprises for you guys in time for the release… [ominous smile]

It’s been a while since I did an evolution/misinformation post. Better get onto that…

This claim probably qualifies as picking the low hanging fruit, but I’ve heard it enough times recently to finally lose my cool and deal with it. Those who use it prominently, evangelists like Ray Comfort and Eric Hovind, are surprisingly popular despite being some of the least intimidating intellectuals amongst the anti-evolutionist movement, so I feel the need express my awareness that this is kind of like picking on the special needs kid at school. I’ll will make an attempt to increase the local level of intellectualism somewhat by dealing with the fundamental disbelief that motivates this claim, but quite frankly, it seems likely I’ll descend into the incoherent noises of someone suffering first degree WTF.

The claim, to quote the aforementioned Mr Comfort, goes something like this:

“For example, evolution has no explanation as to why and how around 1.4 million species of animals evolved as male and female. No one even goes near explaining how and why each species managed to reproduce (during the millions of years the female was supposedly evolving to maturity) without the right reproductive machinery.” – Ray Comfort

The ignorance required to even make this claim is breathtaking. I get phantom keyboard pains in my forehead just thinking about it. Where to even start?

I suppose the first point to make here is fairly blatantly obvious to anyone who didn’t fall onto their head from the top of a ten story building: the theory predicts that sexual selection evolved once in the common ancestor of those “1.4 million species of animals”. I don’t know how Ray Comfort got to the end of the sentence without realising that this is obviously what the theory must predict, but he has somehow managed that weirdly impressive feat many times since: for several years he frequently made this bizarre argument, hundreds of times over. As far as I know Comfort himself finally seems to have stopped using the argument, but his followers most certainly have not.

The claim, despite being the equivalent of a lobotomised guppy in a swimming pool full of sharks, does have a more interesting basis: general disbelief in the evolution of sexual reproduction. Explaining the origins of dedicated sexual reproduction is a tricky one with few concrete answers, so seeing creationists asking gotcha questions about it online is not uncommon.

The first point is that, as is often the case, we can see a continuum of creatures in the ecosystem already. Plenty of asexual and hermaphroditic organisms exist, and there are a variety of creatures that fall somewhere in between. Even amongst our own species gender is hardly a binary male/female trait, and the animal kingdom makes the even the most varied among us look positively mundane. It’s not that hard to draw a line from the asexual to the sexual organisms once you gather up enough dots.

For sexual reproduction to evolve, it needs two things: a viable evolutionary pathway via multiple, progressive mutations (similar to the metaphorical line I wrote about above), and a benefit to following this pathway.

The benefit to sexual reproduction isn’t immediately apparent. Sexual creatures as individuals don’t survive any better than their asexual cousins: indeed, the necessity of finding a mate is quite a harsh impact on an individual’s ability to reproduce. But evolution isn’t about individuals: it’s about populations, and genes. A lot of people think of evolution in simple ‘faster leopard catches more food, faster leopard survives’ terms, when it often doesn’t work like that.

The benefit to sexual reproduction (well, okay, one of several) isn’t that the creature that mates survives, it’s that the population of creatures that mate can take advantage of beneficial mutations more efficiently than the populations that don’t. Amongst asexual creatures, every creature is in direct competition. In order for it’s genes to survive in the long term, it isn’t enough for creature A to survive and reproduce: creature A’s descendants have to survive and reproduce and continue to survive and reproduce, out-competing and avoiding being out-competed by the descendants of creatures B and C.

Assuming creature A’s lineage out-competes lineage B and C, any beneficial mutations amongst B and C will be lost.

Sexual reproduction introduces an entirely new dynamic: co-operation, rather than competition. Creature A’s lineage doesn’t have to out-compete B and C’s: instead they interbreed, merging their three lineages into one. This means that the beneficial mutations of all three creatures can make it into the descendant population. This co-operation is a surprisingly powerful benefit: so powerful that it prompted the development of a requirement to breed prior to reproducing.

The evolutionary pressure in favour of sexual selection, then, is that it increases the efficiency of evolution itself. Populations that evolve faster and more efficiently will, over time, be able to out-compete slower populations.

This is a large advantage to macroscopic creatures, for which the cost of reproduction is high. Microscopic creatures like bacteria and viruses see less benefit from this: they can easily compensate for the lack of efficiency by cranking out ridiculous numbers of offspring at a rapid pace.

All of this is fairly theoretical and abstract, but one of the things I’ve been very happy to see is that it is replicated in at least some form in Species. Individual species usually do become more amorous over time, without me ever having had to implement any direct advantage to mating.

My hope is that tools in future versions of the game will help us dig down even further, to establish exactly why this is the case, by (for example) comparing the most successful half of the population to the less successful half, and highlighting the largest changes.

Another hope for future versions of the game is to improve the evolution of sex. Currently, all creatures can reproduce sexually, and their ‘amorousness’ behavioural modifier increases the chance they’ll mate upon encountering another of their kind. When they mate, both creatures take a copy of the others genetic code. Whenever they subsequently reproduce, they blend their own genetic code randomly with that of their mate to produce the offspring.

So they can and do evolve from asexual (never mates) to sexual (mates whenever given the chance), but it’s a very simple spectrum, and even the most sexual creatures are still capable of reproducing without mating. Adding additional complexity in this system, like possible birthing restrictions and maybe even gender differentiation, would be worthwhile.

As a friend said recently, the feature creep potential for this game is practically infinite. Good thing I’m not trying to implement everything before release!

Cheers!
Qu

Hmm… I had actually meant to do a thought experiment fr this post: try to work out the most likely evolutionary pathway from basic splitting to gender differentiation. Oh well, some other time I guess.

Here’s something we found while Googling around for the relevant Ray Comfort quote”: “Darwin theorized that mankind (both male and female) evolved alongside each other over millions of years, both reproducing after their own kind before the ability to physically have sex evolved. They did this through “asexuality” (“without sexual desire or activity or lacking any apparent sex or sex organs”). Each of them split in half (“Asexual organisms reproduce by fission (splitting in half).” – Ray Comfort.

The Banana Man, ladies and gentlemen. Accept no subtitute.

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There Hasn’t Been Enough Time

Yes there has. Period.

This particular anti-evolutionist argument pops up in two variations: “4 billion years isn’t long enough”, and “Millions of Years is a hoax”. Both are different arguments, and require different rebuttals.

The former is an argument that evolution as we see it today is too slow a process to result in the amount of biodiversity we see on earth. While this may seem respectable on the surface, the only way it can be made is to completely ignore the incomprehensible amount of time that is “four billion years,” and the similarly incomprehensible amount of area that is “on earth”.

To attempt to put that into perspective, that’s an entire planets chemical and biological ecosystem running for fifty million times as long as your entire life, for four-hundred thousand times as long as human civilisation itself, or for thirteen hundred times the amount of time it took us to evolve from tree-dwelling apes. In the face of such extreme time spans, the only real response to “not enough time” is “wait, you’re serious?”.

The speed of evolution we’ve directly observed in nature is most assuredly not too slow for such a massive amount of time: here in reality, the speeds we’ve seen are quite a few orders of magnitude faster than what common descent would require. The reasons for it being so much faster are a combination of selective reporting (we only see evolution that happens fast enough for us to record in our lifetimes, which is the very fastest sub-group of evolution), and genetic variation (modern, sexual species can adapt very fast simply by leveraging the variation within their population and the power of recessive genes).

What this argument usually boils down to is not “four billion years isn’t long enough”, it’s “no amount of time is long enough,” aka the Argument from Incredulity. Aside from being a logical fallacy, this particular argument would require some mechanism that will prevent the accumulation of mutations from resulting in large amounts of macroscopic change over enough time: the elusive “kind-barrier” for which anti-evolutionists never seem to be able to produce evidence of existence.

The second and far more common variation on this argument is a religiously motivated one. Several religions, including Christianity and Islam, have creation narratives that imply that humans were created early in the piece, and started going through the whole “civilisation” phase very shortly after that, which rather contradicts what science has to say on the matter and caps the maximum age of the planet at somewhere between 6 and 15 thousand years old.

Now before I go into the reasons this is untenable on a level that puts simple evolutionism-denialism to shame, I want to draw attention to the word “narrative” above. Religious creation stories are stories, they were written as stories, and I have heard highly convincing theological arguments from religious individuals that they should be read as such. It’s beyond the scope of this blog to go into those arguments, but suffice it to say I don’t think being a Christian means (or should mean) being a Young Earth Creationist (and likewise for Islam, and any other religion with a Young Earth subset). Young Earth Creationism might be religiously motivated, but it is not religion, and by trashing it here I mean no offense to the actual religious views it parasites off of (on the other hand, if you want to offend religious viewpoints that’s absolutely fine by me too. Total apathy means I’m pretty easy to get along with).

Shorter me: I don’t believe any religion is perfectly compatible with an acceptance of reality, else I’d belong to that religion, but I do believe many of them are not incompatible, double-negative notwithstanding.

Now, there’s lots of reasons Young Earthism is flipping bullcriminy: far too many for a single post on the matter, so I may intersperse Young Earth arguments with my anti-evolution misinformation posts in future. But for now, I think I’ll take some advice and go with Meteorites. (This is actually an argument I’d been using long before I read that post, but it has an awesome moon picture, hense the link)

That’s a map of the major meteorite impact craters on earth… well, the ones we know about and can positively identify as impact structures. As you can see, there’s loads: 160, to be exact. And they’re almost all on land, because it’s a lot harder to find underwater craters. Not taking into account erosion and tectonic plate movement or the fact that a water impact doesn’t leave a mark, 450 impacts would be a very conservative estimate.

Here’s an even more dramatic illustration of what I’m getting at:

That’s the far side of the moon. The moon has 1/6th of our gravity, so it’s likely only been hit by 1/6th the number of meteorites as us. There are over 250 craters with a diameter of 100 km or more on the moon. The math isn’t terribly difficult, and it gives a number 3 times larger than 450 (using a huge cut-off, too. 250 OVER 100km wide), giving us a good idea of how thoroughly erosion has affected our plant.

Now, on a young earth, even the tiny value of 450 impacts is one impact every two decades or so. And yet we’ve only seen a small number of confirmed meteorite strikes in all of recorded history, and never of the size we’re talking about here. So that doesn’t make sense for a start.

The other option for Young Earthers, and one a few denialist organisation have gladly clung to, is that the impacts all occurred all at once in some sort of global catastrophe. Indeed, a few creation stories conveniently describe catastrophic events that can be have meteors shanghaied in with a bit of imagination. But many of these impacts would be enough to cause a dramatic local extinction: several are big enough to cause a global extinction, and one or two are large enough to scythe all life bigger than an insect off the planet. All of these at once would make the earth completely unliveable for millennia. Bacteria would have a hard time surviving. Roaches wouldn’t stand a chance.

(And of course there is the question of why the creation narratives failed to mention the country-sized rocks falling from the sky. You’d think something like that would elicit comment)

Life on a young earth would have been pummelled into submission years ago. The earth is old. More than old enough to support evolution and common descent.

And unlike biological evolution, which requires a bit of thought to understand, the evidence for an old earth is as simple and incontrovertible as “Rocks Fall Everyone Dies”.

Cheers,
Qu

“Assuming nothing catastophically stupid happens, the third Dev Video should be up by this time next week, week after that at the latest.”
i

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Interlocking Complexity

Sooner or later, any discussion with a modern anti-evolutionist will come around to some variant of Michael Behe’s hypothesis of “irreducible complexity.” For those who don’t follow the peculiar antics of Creation Scientists Intelligent Design Theorists, Behe posited that there was no way an ‘irreducibly complex’ feature or system could evolve, because such a system would fail in its function if even one of its parts didn’t exist during the evolutionary process. He then went on to provide a few examples of irreducible, like the bacterial flagellum.

I’m not going to savage any of those particular examples in any depth here, as they have been so thoroughly debunked by every internet skeptic and her dog/cat/drop-bear that it would be fair to say they have no bunk left. They are bunkless. Their quantity of bunk is conspicuous by it’s absence. (and yet, the page header for Uncommon Descent is still the bacterial flagellum. There’s a difference between science and pseudoscience right there: science acknowledges when it was wrong)

There are two aspects of the Irreducibly Complex argument I want to deal with, and just to be different to everyone else they’re not going to be “irreducibly” and “complex”. The first aspect is that of a feature for which no viable evolutionary predecessors exist.

This is actually a perfectly reasonable argument. Such a feature could exist, and if found would provide major problems for the theory of universal common descent. It’s one of the ways the theory could be falsified.

But where evolutionists and pseudo scientists differ is our take on what to do about such a find. Anti-evolutionists are, for unscientific reasons, eager to find the silver bullet or garlic sausage that will kill the theory in one hit. So whenever they find something that looks even slightly silvery, or smells just a little garlicky, they proudly load it in their monster-hunting gun and fire. This causes quite a mess when it turns out to have been a radish sausage, and the big evolutionary monster just gives them a funny look and wanders off. Seriously, who carries a sausage gun around anyway? (Note to self: build a sausage gun. That sounds totally badass and not at all Freudian)

Scientists, on the other hand, apply the scientific method and come up with more than one viable hypothesis. Yeah, maybe it’s silver, but maybe it’s just shiny lead or nickel or mercury at -40 degrees Celsius. So they go looking for the viable evolutionary predecessors the anti-evolutionists are so quick to claim don’t exist. And so far, they have a pretty good track record when it comes to finding them.

The second concept behind Irreducible Complexity is the claim that a feature is recognisable as having no viable predecessors: the claim that if it fits into certain parameters, it can’t possibly have evolved naturally.

To avoid slandering the good name of Behe, because he’s certainly done an excellent job of it without my help, I’ll quote him directly here rather than paraphrasing:

“By irreducibly complex I mean a single system composed of several well-matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning. An irreducibly complex system cannot be produced directly (that is, by continuously improving the initial function, which continues to work by the same mechanism) by slight, successive modifications of a precursor system, because any precursor to an irreducibly complex system that is missing a part is by definition nonfunctional. An irreducibly complex biological system, if there is such a thing, would be a powerful challenge to Darwinian evolution. (Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution, p. 39)”

Now, credit where credit is due, this concept of a group of parts none of which can be removed without resulting in the collapse of the system, didn’t originate with Behe. Nobel Prize winner H. J. Muller beat him to it by a few years: seventy-eight, to be exact.

Oh, one other difference between Muller and Behe: Muller posited this sort of complexity as an expected consequence of evolutionary mechanisms. That’s right: irreducible complexity is a prediction of the theory of evolution. Here’s what Muller wrote in 1918:

“… thus a complicated machine was gradually built up whose effective working was dependent upon the interlocking action of very numerous different elementary parts or factors, and many of the characters and factors which, when new, were originally merely an asset finally became necessary because other necessary characters and factors had subsequently become changed so as to be dependent on the former. It must result, in consequence, that a dropping out of, or even a slight change in any one of these parts is very likely to disturb fatally the whole machinery; for this reason we should expect very many, if not most, mutations to result in lethal factors …” (Muller, H. J. (1918) “Genetic variability, twin hybrids and constant hybrids, in a case of balanced lethal factors.” Genetics 3:422-499. [Free Text, Genetics Online] )

(Yeah, I’m quoting stuff from TalkOrigins. Normally I’d be more original, but I’m pressed for time and they’ve already said much of what I wanted to say. Nonetheless, extensive copy/pasting makes me feel like an internet troll, so I apologise most emphatically and promise to commit sepuku as soon as I get my hands on an appropriately oriental-looking sword.)

Shorter Muller: Interlocking Complexity can evolve gradually if you add an unnecessary part that aids the basic function, and then make it necessary by changing or removing other parts to require it.

For a ridiculously simple example of this (yes, I’m going to thief an example from that TalkOrigins article again. I’m so cheap), imagine three stepping-stones making a causeway across the river. Adding a plank of wood across the top of them allows you to get across without having to jump from stone to stone. Now removing the middle stone allows the water to flow underneath the plank, so it won’t overwhelm the bridge. This simple bridge: two stones and a plank, is an example of interlocking complexity: remove any part and the bridge ceases to function. Yet, even using a ridiculously oversimplified and limited version of evolution, in which the only available mutations are ‘add’ and ‘remove’ (what happened to incremental modification?), it’s possible to evolve it from simpler precursors.

My favourite example of this sort of analogy, despite (okay, ‘because’) it’s long, overly complicated, and kind of ridiculous, is the evolving mousetrap.

So, if interlocking complexity can evolve, if it was in fact predicted to evolve using evolutionary mechanics known to Muller almost a century ago, how on earth did Behe, a fully accredited molecular biologist, come up with his hypothesis that it can’t? And why are Intelligent Designists the internet over still pulling out this sad argument in favour of design? [WARNING: ramblings ahead]

That’s a question I simply can’t answer. I could speculate, I could draw from my limited knowledge of psychology to cast unfortunate implications all over their motives and intellectual capacity, I could come up with idea’s and methods to counter the misinformation and attempt to teach them… but I suspect I’m incapable of understanding their reasons on a more base level.

I’m a skeptic: my internal programming, both consciously and subconsciously, does it’s darndest to ensure that that my personal beliefs are influenced solely by reality. I don’t know how to communicate effectively to those who base their beliefs on desire and emotion. I could tell them they’re wrong as much as I like, but if they’re not convinced by reality itself then what effect are my measly words going to have?

Ultimately I think convincing a denialist of the simple truth that reality is what it is, whether they be of the evolution, climate-change, age-of-the-universe or any other varieties, is beyond the communicative abilities of any individual. Deniers gonna deny: the only person who can show them reality is themselves. But something the skeptical community can do is give them access to information. I don’t write posts like this to convince anyone who isn’t already convinced: I fully believe that’s beyond me as an individual. And I also believe that the anti-evolutionists who are willing to approach their own biases with a skeptical eye and a critical mind will sooner or later see reality: no amount of indoctrination can keep a skeptic down forever.

But maybe posts and debates and mainstream skeptical activity are triggering the inner skeptics in others, or helping these people to break free from the denialist mindset sooner. Or maybe it’s just causing them to go into lockdown and man the battle stations to fend off the skeptical invaders… I honestly have no way of knowing.

I guess you can colour me an optimist, though, since I find the former possibility more likely.

Cheers,
Qu

“Drop Bears are a carnivorous relative of the Koala, and they make excellent pets providing you don’t have a house with any flat surfaces above head-height.”

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Abiogenewhat?

Okay, as much as I enjoy telling the development saga, it’s past time for a rant against ignorance. It’s like running for charity, only replace the foot blisters with throat ulcers and the happy children with offended denialists.

Upon what topic of irredeemable stupidity should we feed this rant monster, so it can grow into a big and healthy eldritch abomination whose only desire is to see this world die in internet flame wars? Irreducible complexity? Second law of thermodynamics? Micro vs macro evolution?

No… I’m going to go earlier than that, to a pet hate of mine. The claim: “A cell can’t form by chance.”

From experience, this claim is often accompanied by a bit of good ol’ statistical abuse. The claimant will find a protein, calculate the probability of that protein being that protein, and show off the result as if adding enough to the exponent somehow makes a number important. Here’s a good example from Talk Origins:

”The proteins necessary for life are very complex. The odds of even one simple protein molecule forming by chance are 1 in 10113, and thousands of different proteins are needed to form life.”
Watchtower Bible and Tract Society. 1985. Life–How Did It Get Here? Brooklyn, NY, pg. 44.

Of course, anyone with a basic understanding of statistics and a good pair of heavy boots can kick your ass over this. It’s possible to use the same logic to “prove” that Hydrogen can’t possibly be more common than all the other elements, because each naturally occurring atom only has a 1 in 91 chance of being hydrogen. Besides, the sheer extent of lies upon misinformation upon things-deliberately-overlooked involved in getting these sort of numbers normally indicates the person using them is either a professional charlatan or copy-pasting from the website of a professional charlatan. If you’re interested, check out Lies, Damned Lies, Statistics, and Probability of Abiogenesis Calculations on Talk Origins. I know it’s a little dated, but it’s a fine start. I’ll stay here and deal with the simpler aspect of the claim, using slightly smaller words, not least because I don’t understand all the big ones.

So improbable... not.
(img src: http://www.astrobio.net/pressrelease/83/one-handed-life)

A common answer to the cell-forming-by-chance claim (aside from the fact that the original reproducer is believed to have been far simpler than a modern cell, and was probably little more than a fairly complicated molecule in the right solution to allow it to “reproduce”) is that the forming of the “first cell” has nothing to do with evolution. And that’s perfectly true: this is the domain of abiogenesis, and an acceptance of the still-relatively-young science behind abiogenesis has bugger all to do with accepting the oversized mountains of evidence for evolution. Even if abiogenesis turns out to be a load of rubbish when it comes to explaining the existence of life on earth, evolution remains a highly convincing explanation for the diversity of life on earth.

But that answer is also a cop-out. Abiogenesis is still the most likely method by which life arose on our planet, and as a hypothesis it’s a heck of a lot more complete than the juvenile concept anti-evolutionists so often seem to have of it: namely, that the pieces of a cell “rolled together” purely by chance.

As already stated, the original reproducer was most likely little more than a complicated organic molecule that made copies of itself. Even so, this still sounds like a complex thing to have come about at first, (well, not really: “Self-replicators can be incredibly simple, as simple as a strand of six DNA nucleotides (Sievers and von Kiedrowski 1994)”) until you realise that it didn’t just “come about”: it was the end product of a long chain of natural biochemical reactions, which are far from uncommon. They’re everywhere, reacting with each other and with the results of their own reactions.

Sadly accurate

Given the size of our planet, and the incomprehensible time-frames we’re talking about, is it really so hard to believe that the right sequence of biochemical reactions could result in some sort of imperfect chemical replicator?

Now if you’re a denialist, there’s a good chance you are even now rolling your eyes and saying “it’s all just speculation, he has no evidence”. To which I say: Yes. You’re right, it is speculative. That’s the nature of abiogenesis. We’re talking about microscopic chemical reactions that happened billions of years ago: what “evidence” could we possibly produce aside from a plausible, reproducable path from chemestry to life? We don’t have a TARDIS. But we do have the ability to reason, and sometimes the similarities are striking.

The ‘evidence’ for abiogenesis is that there is life on earth now, and that it wasn’t always there. From these two facts, we can offer plausible explanations, and try to prove them wrong one by one until we’re left with only one option. This is where denialists fail at science. They offer implausible explanations, then try to prove the plausible ones wrong.

I’m not saying there wasn’t a deity who intervened directly and breathed life onto our dead earth 4 billion years ago, or a race of organic engineers who designed the earliest life, or a temporal traveller who accidentally dropped his sandwich in a rock pool. All of these things are possible, in the same way that me being a brain in a jar, or having been created memories-and-all last Thursday, is possible.

But they are not the most likely, plausible, or scientifically supported explanation. That would be Abiogenesis.

/rant
Qu

* * * * * *

“The year is 2033. The last survivors of the Flame War have fled into underground bunkers beneath the shattered remnants of the once great social networking sites. The surface world is given over to unrestricted porn and 4chan mutants. Humanity teeters on the dark brink of extinction.

But we are those who will never give in to despair. We will return to our shattered internet, though it costs us our lives, our very identities. We do not forgive. We do not forget. But we will rebuild.”

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Mutations Don’t Increase Information

Warning: the following contains high levels of derision, for which Qu apologises. He is apparently not the biggest fan of the Intelligent Design movement. Either that or he’s just grumpy today.

LIKE HELL THEY DON’T

Another fun argument from the antievolutionists who fancy themselves smarter than your average bear, this one has become much more common since the rise and subsequent fall of the Intelligent Design movement and the release of Nazi propaganda film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed*. It’s patently absurd on the very face of it, but that doesn’t stop it from getting about. Here’s a quick, dirty refutation:

AGCT => point mutation => ACCT

This mutation could have all sorts of effects, but it has clearly changed the information content. Of course, how it has changed the information content depends on how you define “information” (something the anti-evolutionists are very careful never to do). There are fewer characters used, so it’s got less information (by one definition). But it’s now more ordered, and it could replace the word “Act” and be legible to an English-reading person, so it’s got more information (by another definition). And there’s still the same number of digits, so it’s got the same amount of information (by yet another definition). But that’s not particularly important for the argument. What is important, is this:

ACCT => point mutation => AGCT

The above can be applied to almost any mutation. Point mutations can be undone by new point mutations, addition and copy mutations can be undone by deletions, deletions can be undone by additions and copies.

Mutations can be undone by subsequent mutations. This is a fact, an observation, a truth, something indisputable. It happens. So if an anti-evolutionist claims that mutations can decrease total information content, then they’re also claiming the inverse: that mutations can increase it.

There is a second even more patently absurd variant of this argument that says “mutations can’t be beneficial”, and usually cites things like sterility and cancer. Yes, cancer. The mutation that causes individual cells to reproduce very rapidly. I would hope I didn’t have to explain that a multicellular organisms “cancer” is a single-celled organisms “beneficial mutation”, but I’ve long since stopped being that naive. The moment you assume a certain level of minimum-intelligence amongst others, one of them will go out of their way to prove you wrong.

“There are two things in the universe that are infinite: the universe, and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former.”
– Albert Einstein

Now, for the sake of fairness, I should point out that the people making this argument do have a glimmering of a smidgeon of a speck of a fraction of a gram of an interesting point, though it’s highly doubtful they actually noticed it. The point in question is this: most mutations are indeed harmful or neutral. Very few are beneficial.

Now for an denialist, that’s enough. Case closed, end of story, entire theory of evolution completely disproven because we found some small problem and didn’t bother/didn’t want to/aren’t capable of thinking about it in any depth. For a scientist, it’s a challenge. Why are most mutations harmful? Why doesn’t this stop anything from evolving?

The answer to the first question is a combination of factors, but the primary one is this: we’re already using most of the beneficial mutations for our environment. We’ve stabilised and plateau’d, at least in comparison to the rapid evolution associated with population explosions. I’m actually seeing this in action with Species right now: creatures will very quickly develop simple legs and features, but evolution will then slow down significantly.

The second question, ”Why doesn’t this stop anything from evolving?” can be answered with two words: natural selection. Natural selection works as a ratchet: allowing movement to the left, but not the right. If a beneficial mutation occurs, it will help its host survive and result in it being kept and propagated throughout the population. The hundreds of negative mutations that also occurred were not kept: their hosts didn’t survive, so they were culled from the population.

Not that any of this means anything to the propaganda artists. “Mutation doesn’t increase information” is a useful soundbite because, as I’ve just demonstrated, it needs quite some time to demonstrate to be false. In the time it takes a scientist to refute it, the denialist can have repeated it and other soundbites like it to hundreds of people.

After all, why drop a perfectly good persuasive soundbite just because it’s dishonest?

So… yeah… meh, I dunno… this post kinda got out of hand… whatever…
Qu

*footnote: Oh dear, I’m sorry. Expelled features lots of images and references to nazi’s and is a propoganda film. These two things are not connected in any way. Well, okay, they are, but not in the way my wording implied. I apologise for any confusion my completely accidental wording may have caused, which is more than the films producers have done.

Uh oh… he got through an entire post without referencing time travel, eldritch abominations, zombie armies, orbital weapons platforms or the end of the world. That’s a bad sign. I’d better go check the cynical bastards not about to do something stupid, like join a secret society or a cult or a political party or all three…

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