Saturday, July 26, 2008

Staring into the abyss of stupidity

Back when I started this blog, I would frequently take apart articles and comments made by people ignorant about the subject they talked about. Most often, the subject at hand would be evolution. As time went by, I stopped doing it quite as often, and lately I haven't done it at all. However, I've come across an article so stupid, so ignorant, that it virtually begged to be fisked, so here we go again.

How Dawkins Misrepresents Evolution! by Babu Ranganathan

Wow, that's a really strong title - note the exclamation mark and everything. This article got to be written by someone who really feels strongly about the subject, and which obviously must know a lot about it, to tell us how a renowned biologist like Dawkins is misrepresent his area of expertise.

Scrolling down to the end of the article, I found this description of the author:

The author, Babu G. Ranganathan, is an experienced Christian writer. Mr. Ranganathan has his B.A. degree with concentrations in theology and biology. As a religion and science writer he has been recognized in the 24th edition of Marquis Who's Who In The East. The author's articles have been published in various publications including Russia's Pravda and South Korea's The Seoul Times.

Uhmmm..... OK, maybe his credentials are not exactly as impressive as one would have expected, but still, he might be on to something. Let's give it a chance.

As a creationist, I often get statements from individuals that natural selection doesn't work by chance.

Well, at least he is honest from the start. Admitting that he is a creationist won't go over well with people versed in science, but his particular ideas are not the subject at hand - rather it's Dawkins' misrepresentation of evolution. Still, given the fact that he is a creationist, we might worry about his ability to actually evaluate other peoples' description of evolution.

I realize the fact that natural selection doesn't work by chance, but natural selection doesn't design or produce biological traits and variations. Genes produce biological variations. Natural selection simply "selects" those variations from genes that help with survival. Evolutionists believe that chance mutations in the genetic code will produce the variations that natural selection can act upon.

This is a quite accurate (if simplistic) description of how natural selection works together with other factors in making evolution happen. That's a pleasant surprise. However, then the paragraph continues in a way which is, shall we say, less accurate.

There is no evidence that chance mutations in the genetic code will produce more complex genes for natural selection to "select" or act upon. Thanks to the popular writings of evolutionst Richard Dawkins, these individuals are confusing natural selection with genetic mutations. They do not understand the difference.

First of all, I wonder what Ranganathan means by the words "more complex genes". I guess he means that they have more sequences, but that's a simplistic way of defining complexity in organisms. See e.g. Szathmáry et al for a description of other ways to look at complexity in organisms (unfortunately behind a pay-wall). As the abstract explains, there is very little difference between the fly genome (25000 genes) and the homo sapient genome (35000 genes), yet we tend to think of humans as much more complex than flies. Some of this is of course due to specieism, but there are quite obviously more complex processes going on in a human.

Anyway, this is an old Creationist claim, which TalkOrigins has addressed. There are several ways in which mutations can do the very thing that Ranganathan claims it can't do. Of course, he obviously hasn't read TalkOrigins, or he might have come across the article The Evolution of Improved Fitness - By Random Mutation Plus Selection, which deals with this very subject.

Oh, and the fact that someone who has read Dawkins confuses natural selection and mutations can hardly be blamed on Dawkins, unless of course this is a general condition among those who has read his works (something which doesn't seem to be the case).

The biological variations have to come first before "natural selection" can do anything. Evolutionists must depend on chance mutations in the genetic code to provide natural selection with entirely new and more complex genes and not just variations of already existing genes. But, again, there is no evidence that chance mutations can or will provide increasingly more complex genes for natural selection to act upon so that evolution would be possible from simpler species to more complex ones.

This is one of the most tortured understandings of natural selection that I've seen in a long time. Variations over already existing genes can have huge impacts on the survival chances of an individual (look at genetic diseases to get my point). Any population that has an overweight of such negative impact traits compared to other populations will end up not surviving.

Oh, and "more complex genes" are often just variations of already existing genes. They have just been put together in new ways. Just like existing features change into new features

Regarding the "no evidence" part: repeating a mistake doesn't make it more correct. I refer again to the TalkOrigins article I linked above.

Furthermore, a partially-evolved organ, even if it could evolve by chance, would have no survival value so it would never be "selected" by natural selection. Species cannot wait millions of years to evolve organs that are necessary for survival!

Of all moronic things to say, this is moronic at epic levels. It's true that a partially-evolved organ is not as good as a fully-evolved organ, but they are quite often better than non-evolved organs. A good examples of such is the eye.

Natural selection is not an active force. It is a passive process in Nature. Only those variations that have survival value will be "selected" or be preserved. Once a variation has survival value then, of course, it's not by chance that it is 'selected'. But, natural selection, itself, does not produce or design those biological variations. The term "natural selection" is simply a figure of speech. Nature does not do any active or conscious selecting. It is an entirely passive process. 'Natural selection' is just another way of saying 'natural survival'. If a biological change occurs that helps a species to survive then that species, obviously, will survive (i.e. be 'selected').

It's not quite as obvious as some might think. Or rather, it so simple that anyone can understand it, but what people doesn't seem to get, is that something which appears to be a advantage can actually turn out to not be it when conditions change, which means that species that are too specialized will do very great at some stage, but will often end out extinct faster than species that appears less "fit".

Still, I'll give him points for not mangling the principles too much.

Again, thanks to Dawkins, many have confused natural selection with evolution itself. Natural selection works with evolution but it is not evolution itself. Again, since natural selection can only "select" from biological variations that are possible, the real question to be asking is what kind of biological variations are naturally possible. How much biological variation (or how much evolution) is naturally possible in Nature?

Actually, natural selection is one of the mechanisms by which evolution works. So, while it's true that natural selection isn't evolution, it's wrong to say that it's somehow apart from evolution.

The evidence from science shows that only microevolution (variations within a biological "kind" such as the varieties of dogs, cats, horses, cows, etc.) is possible but not macroevolution (variations across biological "kinds", especially from simpler kinds to more complex ones). The only evolution that occurs in Nature is microevolution (or horizontal evolution) but not macroevolution (vertical evolution).

I don't think "evidence" means what you think it means. I cannot think of any way in which someone could find evidence for "macro-evolution" being impossible. While there are such things as proving something to be impossible in science, this would certainly not be a case where it could be easily done. That's not surprising though, since we have plenty of evidence for evolution happening. E.g. we have the fossil records, which shows us how evolution has happened in the past - and we have even made prediction of which kind of fossils we would find, and they have so far all turned out to be correct. We also have evidence of speciation going on. Most recently we saw it in E. Coli.

And since we keep running into the artificial distinction between micro and macro evolution, let's try to make this clear. There is no difference between these things - it's all evolution. If we want to make a distinction, we could say that macro evolution is the result of a lot of micro evolution, but that's a rather silly way of looking at it.

Oh, and the terms "horizontal" and "vertical" evolution makes no sense at all. I guess it's an artifact of the standard presentation of how species diversify, but it's gibberish. Some times "horizontal evolution" is used to describe evolution that crosses species boundaries (e.g. this example), but that's very different from the usage in this case. Vertical evolution is just inherited evolution - or rather, how evolution is commonly understood. Both types that Ranganathan mentions (micro and macro) falls squarely into the vertical type of evolution.

As a side note; looking for an example of horizontal evolution, I came across this article, which explains that horizontal evolution might have played a pretty big role. Look quite interesting.

The genetic ability for microevolution exists in Nature but not the genetic ability for macroevolution. The genes (chemical and genetic instructions or programs) for microevolution exist in every species but not the genes for macroevolution. Unless Nature has the intelligence and ability to perform genetic engineering (to construct entirely new genes and not just to produce variations and new combinations of already existing genes) then macroevolution will never be possible in Nature.

It must be wonderful to be able to babble on about something you don't know anything about, mustn't it? As I've already stated, there is no difference between micro and macro when it comes to evolution. It's just a matter of time perspective.

Nature doesn't need intelligence to mutate existing genes into new genes - that comes quite naturally. There are huge numbers of mutations going on, some of which will result in new sequences, some of which will result in an increase in survivability. Nothing fancy about that, and quite well documented. Again, go read the TalkOrigins article.

We have varieties of dogs today that we didn't have a couple of hundred years ago. All of this is just another example of microevolution (horizontal evolution) in Nature.

Unless the variety in dog types are caused by some weird way, which has somehow escaped our notice, it's pretty standard evolution as we know it. Nothing "horizontal" about that.

No matter how many varieties of dogs come into being they will always remain dogs and not change or evolve into some other kind of animal.

I think most people are aware that dogs originally were breed from wolves. And most people are probably also aware that dingos have evolved from the dogs that the Aboriginals had with them when they came to Australia. There is quite a difference between dingos and wolves...

Even the formation of an entirely new species of plant or animal from hybridization will not support Darwinian evolution since such hybridization does not involve any production of new genetic information but merely the recombination of already existing genes.

There is nothing in the Theory of Evolution that requires new genetic information to be created (though it some times happens). The species that are created through hybridization are as valid an evidence for evolution as species that develop through new genetic information.

Modifications and new combinations of already existing genes for already existing traits have been shown to occur in nature but never the production of entirely new genes or new traits. This is true even with genetic mutations. For example, mutations in the genes for human hair may change the genes so that another type of human hair develops, but the mutations won't change the genes for human hair so that feathers, wings, or entirely new traits develop. Mutations may even cause duplication of already existing traits (i.e. an extra finger, toe, etc. even in another part of the body!), but none of these things qualify as new traits.

Ahem. E. Coli. And there are of course other examples.

Evolutionists believe that, if given enough time, random or chance mutations in the genetic code caused by random environmental forces such as radiation will produce entirely new genes for entirely new traits which natural selection can act upon or preserve.

Actually, scientists believe that such forces can affect these things. However, they don't think that if you radiate something it will result in comic-book style mutations (sorry, no X-men). What's more, they also understand that evolution works with what already exist, so new traits are not entirely new, rather they are just manifested in some novel way. E.g. front legs turn into arms or wings.

However, there is no scientific evidence whatsoever that random mutations have the ability to generate entirely new genes which would program for the development of entirely new traits in species. It would require genetic engineering to accomplish such a feat. Random genetic mutations caused by the environment will never qualify as genetic engineering!

The correctness of your statement doesn't change no matter how often you keep repeating the same things. Keeping repeating the same basic mistake doesn't make the argument more sound, and it's quite frankly boring. Read The Evolution of Improved Fitness - By Random Mutation Plus Selection - maybe it will make you realize how stupid your arguments are (though I doubt it).

Mutations are accidents in the sequential molecular structure of the genetic code and they are almost always harmful, as would be expected from accidents. Of course, just like some earthquakes that don't do any damage to buildings, there are also mutations that don't do any biological harm. But, even if a good mutation does occur for every good mutation there will be hundreds of harmful ones with the net result over time being disastrous for the species.

Is there any old Creationist claim that you won't drag out? Yes, there are more harmful mutations than beneficial, but most mutations are neutral in their effect. Harmful mutations results in the individual dying young, while beneficial mutations are added to the species as a whole - this means that beneficial mutations will potentially affect more individuals than harmful ones. of course, this is not always the case, and the species will die out - something that's happened to countless species through history.

Furthermore, only those mutations produced in the genes of reproductive cells, such as sperm in the male and ovum (or egg cell) in the female, are passed on to offspring. Mutations and any changes produced in other body cells are not transmitted. For example, if a woman were to lose a finger it would not result in her baby being born with a missing finger. Similarly, even if an ape ever learned to walk upright, it could not pass this characteristic on to its descendants. Thus, modern biology has disproved the once-held theory that acquired characteristics from the environment can be transmitted into the genetic code of offspring.

Say what? Is this some kind of argument against the Theory of Evolution? We are quite aware that Lamarck was generally wrong - one of the reasons why Darwin's ideas was so widely accepted was that they fitted the facts better than Lamarck's did.

I should perhaps also point out that Ranganathan seems to be confused about what a mutation is.

Most biological variations within a biological kind (i.e. varieties of humans, dogs, cats, horses, mice, etc.) are the result of new combinations of already existing genes and not because of mutations.

What do you think mutations are? When someone has a new bloodtype, that's a mutation, even if it's just a "new combinations of already existing genes"

If you're going to go on at great length about how someone else is misrepresenting something, then get the basic concepts right. It's not that hard, and it's certainly not too much to ask.

For those who are not read-up on their biology, a little information on genes would be helpful here. What we call "genes" are actually segments of the DNA molecule. DNA, or the genetic code, is composed of a molecular string of various nucleic acids (chemical letters) which are arranged in a sequence just like the letters found in the words and sentences of a book. It is this sequence of nucleic acids in DNA that tells the cells of our body how to construct (or build) various proteins, tissues, and organs such as nose, eyes, brain, etc. If the nucleic acids in the genetic code are not in the correct sequence then malfunctioning, or even worse, harmful proteins may form causing serious health problems and even death.

John Wilkins maintains a post about basic concepts in science. In the biology section, there are several references to definitions of genes, which are quite worth reading. There is even a link to Larry Moran's explanation of why he feels that Dawkins' definition of a gene is "seriously flawed". I mention this last part to show how one could go about talking about mistakes in Dawkins' presentation of evolution.

There is no law in science that nucleic acids have to come together in a particular sequence. Any nucleic acid can just as easily bond with any other. The only reason for why nucleic acids are found in a particular sequence in the DNA of the cells of our bodies is because they are directed to do so by previously existing DNA. When new cells form in our bodies the DNA of the old cells direct the formation of the DNA in the new cells.

Actually, there are some well understood rules on how the nucleic acids will pair with each other. The Wikipedia article on genes explains this in a fairly accessible way.

And the sequence is not "directed" by previously existing DNA - rather new DNA is (sometimes flawed) copies of existing DNA.

The common belief among evolutionists is that, if given millions of years, radiation and other environmental forces will cause enough random changes (mutations) to occur in the sequential structure of the genetic code of a species so that entirely new sequences for entirely new genes will develop which in turn will program for the formation of entirely new biological traits, organs, and structures that natural selection can then act upon.

Dude, you're repeating yourself. Seriously. And you still haven't understood the subject you're talking about.

Would it be rational to believe that by randomly changing the sequence of letters in a cookbook that you will eventually get a book on astronomy? Of course not! And if the book were a living being it would have died in the process of such random changes.

So short a paragraph, so many errors. Yes, changing the words in a cookbook might result in a book on astronomy, especially if you can add and remove letters. This is, however, a stupid example, since it changes the thing from something specific to some other specific thing, and seems to indicate that there is a goal for evolution.

Rather the example should be: if I have a book full of letters, could I by randomly changing letters (some times adding or removing some) end up with a book that made sense? And would it be easier if the random process is not entirely random, but rather keeps meaningful words and sentences, mostly working on the garbled parts of the text?

Another mistake in the paragraph is the lack of understanding of the difference between a species and an individual. Yes, many changes on an individual would kill it - on a species, not so much.

Such changes, as transforming one book into another or the DNA of one species into the DNA of another, especially one more complex, simply cannot occur by random or chance alterations. It would require intelligent planning and design to change one book into another or to change the DNA of a simpler species into the DNA of a more complex one.

Do I really need to address the same mistakes again? How many times have he made them by now? Yes, they can occur by random alterations, and they do happen by such.

Yes, it is true that the raw biological materials and chemicals to make entirely new genes exist in every species, but the problem is that the random forces of nature (i.e. radiation, etc.) simply have no ability to rearrange those chemicals and biological materials into entirely new genes programming for entirely new traits. Again, mutations only have the ability to produce variations of already existing traits. It would require intelligent manipulation of genetic material (genetic engineering) to turn a fish into a human being. The random forces of the environment cannot perform such genetic engineering!

Please, step away from the comic books. You simply don't understand how mutations work, and thus your mutterings end up being utter nonsense. The above paragraph is a good example. In evolution, the environment is most often the agent for natural selection, not the cause of mutations.

Furthermore, a half-evolved and useless organ waiting millions of years to be completed by random mutations would be a liability and hindrance to a species - not exactly a prime candidate for natural selection. In fact, how could species have survived over, supposedly, millions of years while their vital (or necessary) organs were still in the process of evolving!

Half-evolved organs are not useless. They are just not as functional as fully evolved organs (if there can be said to be such a thing).
And organs because necessary/vital as the species evolve - they are not required before (otherwise the species wouldn't live at all).

How, for example, were animals breathing, eating, and reproducing if their respiratory, digestive, and reproductive organs were still incomplete and evolving? How were species fighting off possibly life-threatening germs if their immune system hadn't fully evolved yet?

Animals were not considered animals until those very organs existed. Much like bacteria today are not considered animals.

Scientist and creationist Dr. Walt Brown, in his fantastic book "In The Beginning", makes this point by saying, "All species appear fully developed, not partially developed. They show design. There are no examples of half-developed feathers, eyes, skin, tubes (arteries, veins, intestines, etc.), or any of thousands of other vital organs. Tubes that are not 100% complete are a liability; so are partially developed organs and some body parts. For example, if a leg of a reptile were to evolve into a wing of a bird, it would become a bad leg long before it became a good wing."

While I am sure Walter Brown is an excellent mechanical engineer, I fail to see why we should consider him an expert of evolution. He has no qualifications in the field, and his self-published book's full title is In the Beginning: Compelling Evidence for Creation and the Flood. I wonder why Ranganathan left out the last part of the title.

Usually what is meant by the term "biological kind" is a natural species but this may not always be the case. The key to keep in mind here is that in order for evolution in nature to occur from one biological "kind" to another biological "kind" entirely new genes would have to be generated and not just merely modifications and/or recombination of already existing genes. If, for example, offspring are produced which cannot be crossed back with the original stock then there is, indeed, a new species but if no new genes or traits developed then there is no macro-evolution (variation across biological kinds) and the two distinct species would continue to belong to the same "kind".

Could you please stop torturing scientific terms? There is no such thing as a "biological kind" in biology, and even the concept of species are suspect, and under much debate.

Thinking that offspring can't breed with the original stock shows that you haven't understood evolution at all.

If the environment doesn't possess the ability to perform genetic engineering and if macro-evolution really did not occur then how else can one explain the genetic and biological similarities which exist between various species and, indeed, all of life. Although it cannot be scientifically proven, creationists believe that the only rational explanation for the genetic and biological similarities between all forms of life is due to a common Designer who designed and created similar functions for similar purposes and different functions for different purposes in all of the various forms of life from the simplest to the most complex. Even humans employ this principle of common design in planning the varied architecture of buildings!

Nature is not an entity, so of course it doesn't possess an ability. And what this nitwit terms "macro-evolution" happens continuously.

If humans must use intelligence to perform genetic engineering, to meaningfully manipulate the genetic code, then what does that say about the origin of the genetic code itself!

It tells us nothing. Like the fact that we can modify mountains doesn't tell us anything about the origins of mountains.

Young people, and even adults, often wonder how all the varieties or "races" of people could come from the same human ancestors. Well, in principle, that's no different than asking how children with different color hair ( i.e., blond, brunette, brown, red ) can come from the same parents who both have black hair.

Just as some individuals today carry genes to produce descendants with different color hair and eyes, humanity's first parents possessed genes to produce all the variety and races of men. You and I today may not carry the genes to produce every variety or race of humans, but humanity's first parents did possess such genes.

What a load of bull. There is surprisingly little genetic variation between different groups of humans, so it's hardly surprising that we can all share common ancestors. However, that doesn't mean that we can say that those ancestors had all those genes - the different groups of people just mutated differently, adapting to their local environment.

OK. Snipping some more nonsense about hair colors and stuff.

Science cannot prove we're here by creation, but neither can science prove we're here by chance or macro-evolution. No one has observed either. They are both accepted on faith. The issue is which faith, Darwinian macro-evolutionary theory or creation, has better scientific support.

We have observed evolution. Actually, we still do. It happens all the time. And we have this nice fossil record, showing us what happened in the past. There is not one iota of evidence for any creation happening at any time. Nothing.

If some astronauts from Earth discovered figures of persons similar to Mt. Rushmore on an uninhabited planet there would be no way to scientifically prove the carved figures originated by design or by chance processes of erosion. Neither position is science, but scientific arguments may be made to support one or the other.

Since we understand how erosion works on rock surfaces, we could quite easily see that there must be some other source of such structures. It might not be designed, but we would know to look for likely causes. That's the scientific stance.

What we believe about life's origins does influence our philosophy and value of life as well as our view of ourselves and others. This is no small issue!

But it has nothing to do with science.

Just because the laws of science can explain how life and the universe operate and work doesn't mean there is no Maker. Would it be rational to believe that there's no designer behind airplanes because the laws of science can explain how airplanes operate and work?

There is quite a lot of evidence for the creation of airplanes, even if one doesn't know for sure this being the case. One simple example is the continuous appearance of new ones, even though the have no means of reproducing.

The same cannot be said about living beings.

Natural laws are adequate to explain how the order in life, the universe, and even a microwave oven operates, but mere undirected natural laws can never fully explain the origin of such order.

Natural laws are descriptive, so they are never directed. Given the fact that they are descriptive, there is no "origin" as such.

Of course, once there is a complete and living cell then the genetic program and biological mechanisms exist to direct and organize molecules to form into more cells. The question is how did life come into being when there was no directing mechanism in Nature. An excellent article to read by scientist and biochemist Dr. Duane T. Gish is "A Few Reasons An Evolutionary Origin of Life Is Impossible" (

You mean, Creationist Duane T. Gish? I've read his article, and am less than impressed. For a better article on the origins of life, I recommend this TalkOrigins article.

There is, of course, much more to be said on this subject. Scientist, creationist, debater, writer, and lecturer, Dr. Walt Brown covers various scientific issues ( i.e. fossils, "transitional" links, biological variation and diversity, the origin of life, comparative anatomy and embryology, the issue of vestigial organs, the age of the earth, etc. ) at greater depth on his website at

On his website, Dr. Brown even discusses the possibility of any remains of life on Mars as having originated from the Earth due to great geological disturbances in the Earth's past which easily could have spewed thousands of tons of rock and dirt containing microbes into space. In fact, A Newsweek article of September 21, 1998, p.12 mentions exactly this possibility.

Brown is a mechanical engineer, and knows nothing about the subjects he writes about. Much like our current writer, come to think of it.

An excellent source of information from highly qualified scientists who are creationists is the Institute for Creation Research ( in San Diego, California. Also, the reader may find answers to many difficult questions concerning the Bible (including questions on creation and evolution, Noah's Ark, how dinosaurs fit into the Bible, etc.)at

I thought the dinosaurs were left behind. Or didn't they attack the ark, or something? The whole concept of Noah's ark is nonsense - there is not geological evidence of a world-wide flood, and there are numerous other problems with the whole concept.

It is only fair that evidence supporting intelligent design or creation be presented to students alongside of evolutionary theory, especially in public schools which receive funding from taxpayers who are on both sides of the issue. Also, no one is being forced to believe in God or adopt a particular religion so there is no true violation of separation of church and state. As a religion and science writer, I encourage all to read my Internet article "The Natural Limits of Evolution" at my website for more in-depth study of the issue.

I would not mind evidence supporting those position be presented. However, there isn't any. Until there is, there is nothing to present, and trying to imply that there is some kind of problems with the Theory of Evolution (there isn't) doesn't substitute for such.

Given how the title of this article was about Dawkins, and how he misrepresented evolution, the article dealt surprisingly little with Dawkins and what he has written. There was a lot of misrepresenting of evolution going on, but it was entirely by the author of the article.

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Monday, July 21, 2008

Now this is an interesting twist of fate

There is a Welsh place called Aberystwyth, where they banned Monty Python's classic comedy movie Life of Brian back when it first came out. The ban has never been lifted.

Now the new mayor of the place wants to lift the ban.

This is in itself only somewhat interesting for the rest of us, who can only shake our heads and wonder why the ban wasn't lifted a long time ago. Or rather, it would only be that, if it wasn't because of why the mayor is. The new mayor of Aberystwyth is Sue Jones-Davies, a former actress, probably best known for her role as Judith Iscariot, in (you guessed it) Life of Brian. If you can't remember the name of the character, it was the girlfriend of Brian.

So, she became the mayor of a place where her most well-known role cannot be seen.

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Saturday, July 19, 2008

Cleaning up on my harddisk

I came across this old comic strip, and thought I'd share.

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Lazy linking

I have a very firm deadline at the end of this month, so I am not much on the internet these days. Still, I've come across a few things that I thought I'd share.

Judge Returns Gray Wolves to Endangered List in NY Times

Allison Martell, a guest blogger over at Feminsite, writes about The puzzle of female entrepreneurs

The Electronics Junkyard Dismantlers of Guiyu

30 Creepiest Trees on Earth [pics]

Gallery: From Tiny Machines to Security, the Future of Nano-Fabrication

The 91st Skeptics’ Circle is up at Sorting Out Science

Epi Wonk’s Intro to Data Analysis

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Evidence for meteorite hypothesis of the Tunguska catastrophe

This is an interesting piece of news. ScienceDaily has the story.

Tunguska Catastrophe: Evidence Of Acid Rain Supports Meteorite Theory

The Tunguska catastrophe in 1908 evidently led to high levels of acid rain. This is the conclusion reached by Russian, Italian and German researchers based on the results of analyses of peat profiles taken from the disaster region. In peat samples corresponded to 1908 permafrost boundary they found significantly higher levels of the heavy nitrogen and carbon isotopes 15N and 13C.

As far as I know, the meteorite hypothesis is pretty well accepted, but it's still good to get more evidence for this.

If you are unaware of what the Tunguska Catastrophe is, I recommend the Wikipedia article on the subject.

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Are hydrogen vehicles really the way to go?

ScienceDaily reports on a new report from the National Research Council on how hydrogen vehicles can reduce the US dependency on oil, and help reduce greenhouse gases etc.

Hydrogen Vehicles Coming Soon? Two Million Could Be On Roads By 2020

A transition to hydrogen vehicles could greatly reduce U.S. oil dependence and carbon dioxide emissions, says a new congressionally mandated report from the National Research Council, but making hydrogen vehicles competitive in the automotive market will not be easy. While the development of fuel cell and hydrogen production technology over the past several years has been impressive, challenges remain.

The report can be found over at The National Academies, which both sells it, and allows people to read it online for free. With appendixes, the report is over 230 pages long, and even without, it's more than 200 pages, so I haven't read it yet.

Still, I got a few comments. As the abstract makes clear, the switch to hydrogen vehicles (when they are available) will take a lot of work, since the infrastructure is not in place yet. Until that's done, it won't be possible.

Given this, and given the relatively small numbers of hydrogen vehicles (it's estimated that there is at least 250 million passenger vehicles in the US), I would tend to think that an investment in a public transportation system would be of greater benefit.

Trains can run on electricity, which can be made carbon neutral, which means that a switch from a car to a train seat will reduce the dependency on oil and reduce the outlet of carbon.

I am not saying that it's a bad idea to look into other venues, such as the hydrogen vehicles, however given the fact that we already have some available technology that can help, why not start there?

Still, I am happy to see that the US is starting to take AGW serious. Some would say it's too little, too late, but the alternative is nothing, ever.

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Sunday, July 06, 2008

New interesting fossil find

I came across this ScienceDaily article

Two-ton, 500 Million-year-old Fossil Of Stromatolite Discovered In Virginia, U.S.

My first thought was, "wow, two tons", that's a big fossil. My second thought was, "what the hell is a Stromatolite?".

Luckily the article explains that.

Stromatolites are among the earliest known life forms, and are important in helping scientists understand more about environments that existed in the past.

A stromatolite is a mound produced in shallow water by mats of algae that trap mud and sand particles. Another mat grows on the trapped sediment layer and this traps another layer of sediment, growing gradually over time. Stromatolites can grow to heights of a meter or more. They are uncommon today but their fossils are among the earliest evidence for living things.

The fossil is apparently in a rare good condition, so this find is quite exciting.

There is a bit more over at the Virginia Museum of Natural History


The state of mental health care in the US

As regular readers might have noticed, I'm not too impressed with health care in the US (being it mental or physical). Americans get very little for their astronomical costs. This was demonstrated when a woman died in the psychiatric emergency room at Kings County Hospital Center, without anyone noticing before it was too late.

Turns out that the reason they didn't notice, was because there was nothing unusual going on.

Some psych patients wait days in hospital ERs

When staffers at a Brooklyn hospital spotted a middle-aged woman lying face-down on a waiting room floor last month, it hardly seemed like cause for alarm.

The sight, after all, was common in the psychiatric emergency room at Kings County Hospital Center. The unit is so routinely backed up with people waiting hours, or even days, for services that patients often spend the night nodding in chairs or sprawled in a corner.

It took an hour before a nurse realized the prone woman was in trouble. By then, she was dead.

Because of lack of facilities, patients are often put into the emergency room to wait until some facilities can be found for them.

A survey of hundreds of U.S. hospitals released last month by the American College of Emergency Physicians found that 79 percent reported that they routinely "boarded" psychiatric patients in their waiting rooms for at least some period of time because of the unavailability of immediate services.

One-third reported that those stays averaged at least eight hours, and 6 percent said they had average waits of more than 24 hours for the next step in a patient's care.

This points to a very serious problem. Waiting for 24 hours in an emergency room, is not a good way of treating people who needs psychological help.

After the incident, steps are being taken to get more facilities. But that's local measures, not national, so I guess it's only a question of time before it happens again in a different location.

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Speaking about the dead

Generally, people seem to adhere to the old principle that one shouldn't speak bad about the dead. Especially not when they are recently dead.

To some degree I concur with this - when someone is dead, it's not possible for them to defend themselves, and it brings anguish to those people left behind. However, that doesn't mean that one shouldn't speak truthfully about the dead, and make clear what kind of person they were - especially not if it was a public person.

Why do I bring this up? Well, because of Jesse Helms.

Like when Jerry Falwell died, a lot of people seem to be busy with saying good things about Jesse Helms, and his contributions to US politics. Others, being more realistic, tries to tell the truth about his politics, but to say nice things about his personality.

A good example of the first group, is President Bush, who has praised Helms saying that he was a "unwavering champion of those struggling for liberty". Here, I presume Bush means "as long as they were not Gay or People of Color", whose liberty Helms' had a long record of opposing.

To the second groups belongs the New York Times, who in their obit of Helms goes to great pains to portrait him as a likable man, even while describing his politics fairly accurately.

Well, I am sorry, but Helms' record speaks for itself. He opposed the liberty of homosexuals and minorities, and his attempt to stop funding for AIDS research did real harm to a lot of people. There is nothing good to be said about the man, and while I'm sorry for his family, I think the US is a better place for him not being there any longer.

For a better obit of Helms, I recommend the one in the Guardian, which contains passages like this one.

What is beyond question is the malign impact of Helms's innovation on all subsequent American politics. He inaugurated the age of massive back-door political donations, now euphemistically known as "soft money". In his own 1984 re-election battle, he spent $16.5m, then the most expensive Senate campaign in American history (and the federal election commission twice penalised him for using illegal contributions). Sixteen years later, a New Jersey candidate would lavish $60m on gaining a Senate seat, making it evident how effectively Helms's initiative had opened political office to the highest bidder.

Given the age of these people, I guess that we will have a lot of this sort of obits in the next few years.

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Blogroll issues

As people might have noticed, I've got a quite long blogroll here, which I unfortunately only rarely update. This is due to the fact that I manually go into the html and change it to include the new/updated links, which is a little too time consuming.

I'm sure that there are easier ways to do this, even in blogger, and would love to get any suggestions.

Until that happens though, I guess I won't be updating the blogroll very often, and that's a pity, since there are so many good blogs out there that I come across all the time.

To compensate for this, I'm going to make some posts once in a while, where I point out blogs that I think are worth reading.

These link-posts will probably be themed (e.g. feminist blogs, science blogs etc.), but should certainly not be considered an indication that those blogs are the only ones worth reading on those issues (or that they only deal with those issues).

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Exchange rates and oil prices

This post is mostly an informational post, and is kinda trigged by this post by Paul Krugman about the sky-rocketing of real oil prices.

Given the fact that oil prices are calculated in dollars, I couldn't help wonder how much the exchange rates affected the cost for those of us who lives in Europe. Or, said in a different way, I wondered if the free fall of the dollar compared to the euro, has insulated Europeans somewhat against the rising costs.

Well, there was only one way to find out - do some number crushing.

I got the oil prices from here (a page on the site for the Energy Information Administration), and I got the exchange rates from here.

What I did was taking the weekly prices for oil, and turn them into average monthly prices (by the basic means of adding the weekly prices together, and divide with the number of weeks in the month).

dollar per barrel of oil

The start of the graph is a bit misleading, as it only contains two months from 1995 and 1996. However, from 1997 onwards, all months are there, until June 2008.

As you can see the oil prices have had a general upwards trend, but it's only the last 1½ year that the prices have really taken off.

Then there is the dollar-euro exchange rate, which I found for the same months that I got the oil prices for. What I looked at was how many euro a dollar was worth in each of these months, and then I mapped it.

euro per dollar

As you can see, the dollar has become worth less compared to the euro in the same period as the oil has skyrocketed. That alone tells me that the price increase had affected the US more than the EU. However, for good measure, I calculated the oil prices in euro, and mapped this together with the dollar prices.

oil prices

As the graph shows, the exchange rate has somewhat protected Europeans against the skyrocketing of oil prices, even though Europeans have been heavily affected as well.

To illustrate this better, I've also made a figure that shows the change in prices compared to the prices in January 1997. I used this month because it was the first month after which all months were covered in the graph.

changes in oil prices

As you can see, oil prices in dollar, are more than five and a half times higher than they were in January 1997, while oil prices in euro are less than four and a half times higher.

This posses a big challenge for US economy if it wants to keep up with European economy.

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Lazy linking

Again a few links that I thought might be of interest to others.

Mike over at Tangled Up in Blue has a Spontaneous Carnival of Modern Logic

Paul Krugman's newest op-ed in NY Times: Rove’s Third Term
Seems like McCain is just a continuation of Bush in just about every way.

National Post has an article on Islam's original feminist. Depressing how little has changed in the last 100 years.

Over at Feministe, Jill writes about the death of Jesse Helms: I’m not one to be happy someone’s dead, but.

Also at Feministe, guest-blogger Ashley, posted two important links in her goodbye post.

The first is this series, of articles and videos in Slate, on the myths of biological differences between men and woman.

The second is this link to a database over school sexual assault policies, maintained by Students Active For Ending Rape (SAFER).

A lot of you probably already know this, but the great skeptic site Skepchick has a teen branch now: Teen Skepchick. One of the teen bloggers there, is the brilliant Splendid Elles.

The 90th Skeptics' Circle is up at The Millenium Project

There is a new link aggregation on nature blogs, called Nature Blog Network. Perhaps aggregation is the wrong word, rather it could be called a ranking system. Anyway, it's a handy place to get links to the top nature blogs out there.

ERV takes on the newest over-optimistic story about a soon-to-be-had AIDS cure: Personalized HIV therapy within reach?

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Saturday, July 05, 2008

Economy and political parties in the US

One of the arguments Republicans always use to get people to vote for them rather than Democrats, is that government spending will spin out of control when Democrats are in power. Those of us, who are a bit more grounded in reality, know that this is not exactly something that there is any historical evidence for. Rather, it seems like, that when Democrats are in power, the economy is doing better, and when Republicans are in power, the spending is out of control.

Of course, this is only obvious when looking at the party who holds the presidency, and many argue that the sound economics under Democratic presidents are more due to Republican influence from the Congress. This claim is much harder to evaluate, and most of us don't get around to doing that. Thankfully, someone has gotten around to make full in-dept analysis of the correlation between political parties in power, and the US economy, which also takes such things into consideration.

United States National Debt (1938 to Present) - An Analysis of the Presidents Who Are Responsible for the Borrowing by Steve McGourty

It was last updated in May, 2007, but I assure you that the picture hasn't changed much since then.

Unsurprisingly, it turns out that when Republicans have power of both the congress (in part or in full) and the presidency, the spending goes up.

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