Posts Tagged 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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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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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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Misinformation

Non Chonological

Also in the murky primordial soup that makes up societies perception of evolution are the claims of the denialists: those who, for religous, political or financial reasons, peddle lies and falsehoods to undermine the claims of science. I’m not going to try to dignify these lies by pretending they are honest mistakes, or alternative interpretations of the evidence. Those who originally came up with them knew they were lying, and even if they didn’t: this is the information age. If they couldn’t spare the time to fact check their claims, if they weren’t willing to listen to the many internet skeptics who are drawn to their beacons of stupidity like peppered moths to flame, they were being willfully ignorant or worse.

So to summarise: if you believe and repeat the claims of the denialists, you are misinformed. But if you are one of those who make up the claims of the denialists in the first place, you are a liar. And as much as my tactful nature is telling me not to post this, that accusing actual people of actual, willful dishonesty is too actually offensive and not accommodating enough for a polite conversation with my opponents, I’m not going to water it down. I’m not going to sacrifice clarity for nicey niceness and ponies. This needs to be said, and it needs to be said in an authoritive and commanding tone of voice. Since I’m not actually capable of that, I’m just going to put in all-caps:

THE VAST MAJORITY OF ANTI-EVOLUTION CLAIMS ARE LIES. GREAT, BIG, GREEN, PIMPLY LIES.

There are a rather rediculous number of them out there, both the lies and the liars, so I’ll be contributing my personal action to the noble and valiant fight for truth by either screaming wildly and frothing at the mouth, or bashing my head repeatedly against the nearest solid object. This seems like both a constructive and intellectually valid debate tactic.

Alternatively, I suppose could just go and savagely refute some of them on a random blog on the internet. You know, to save on head trauma costs and time wasted in a mental asylum…

Unleash the teddy bear.
Qu

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