Adnan Oktar goes crying to the courts

20 08 2007

Adnan Oktar (AKA Harun Yahya), author of the massive & misguided Atlas of Creation, is having a hissy-fit because some WordPress blogs have brought attention to his creationist tomfoolery (thanks to Ed Darell for initially bringing this to everyone’s attention). Indeed, it appears that all access to WordPress has been blocked in Turkey, as per the ruling of the “Fatih 2nd Civil Court of First Instance, number 2007/195.” Luckily, some people have figured out how to get around the block (thanks to PZ for mentioning the resource), but this whole thing is a complete farce. As Ed has already pointed out, it’s hard to believe that the whole of WordPress is blocked in Turkey because Oktar can’t take criticism about his poorly-researched work.

This isn’t the first time Oktar has gone crying to the courts and got his way, either. As reported by IFEX, in April of this year Oktar restricted access to online forums/sites where the comments threads contained “defamatory” comments about him, the sites in question ultimately removing the content that so offends. I guess his actions show Oktar for what he really is, though; an arrogant creationist who wants to stamp out any other opinion through a court system that isn’t wise enough to understand the importance and value of free expression. I hope the WordPress admins will stand up for the freedom of speech and expression on here and not give Oktar an inch, especially since one of the most active spots I can see on my little clustrmap is Turkey and their is a solid blogging community from that region.





Speaking of science…

9 07 2007

It’s odd that I was just contemplating the overall neglect/bad press evolutionary biology often gets after reading Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World last night; today Bora has posted an e-mail interview with senator (and presidential hopeful) John Edwards that is somewhat revealing about the problems with science and politics. In response to the first question, (essentially about whether Edwards has taken any interest in science in the past and where he gets his information about science today), Edwards says;

However, I do believe that science is the key to innovation in the American economy, the key to improving our standard of living. We see the impact of science everyday–from biotechnology to smart bombs, from satellite Global Positioning Systems to the Internet.

The Office of Science and Technology Policy will play a central role when I’m president. We need to encourage science, and do it honestly and openly. It’s unfortunate the Bush administration hasn’t shared that view. The censorship and suppression of science on climate change, on air pollution, on stem cell research–all to advance a political agenda–is wrong. Policy should be science driven; science shouldn’t be politics driven.

As I noted yesterday, science essentially = technology in this view. Science is viewed as something to improve the “standard of living” and the economy, not as something that should be valued and encouraged for it’s own sake. This is a mistake, and while researching new technologies, medical treatments, etc. are important, they are hardly the whole of science. Like Sagan mentioned in his book, I worry about government support of only the sciences that seem to have an economic or technological goal in mind (Sagan’s example was the Queen of England commissioning what equated to television in the 19th century), support for sciences not deemed especially economically fruitful being diminished. This has happened before, and although I do not have the reference with me to go into the detail I would like to, one of the great results of the great American “Bone Wars” between E.D. Cope and O.C. Marsh was that paleontology and geology were considered frivolous by Congress, government funding to surveys being lost for a time.

Mind you, Edwards does not answer the actual (and important) question of where he gets his science information from. I would be a bit surprised if he read Nature or Science on a regular basis, but he essentially gave the political answer without illuminating why I should trust him when it comes to science. I don’t care so much about whether he agrees with me about global climate change as much as I care about where, exactly, is he getting his information on the subject and whether he is scientifically literate (or just gives the impression of being so).

On a similar note is Edwards’ response to this question;

3. If elected President, how would you balance the scientific research at NASA with the manned spaceflight program which, arguably, has dubious scientific value?

I am a strong supporter of our space program. It reflects the best of the American spirit of optimism, discovery and progress.

We need a balanced space and aeronautics program. We need to support solar system exploration as an important goal for our human and robotic programs, but only as one goal among several. And we need to invite other countries to share in a meaningful way in both the adventure and the cost of space exploration.

I myself have found it hard at times to justify the time, energy, and money spent on certain space programs, especially when over $125,000,000 is flushed down the toilet because someone didn’t do the proper conversions, but I do feel that the overall exploration of our solar system, detecting of nearby asteroids/comets, exploration of Mars, etc. are important for us to continue if we are to understand the universe and our place in it. Edwards, however, doesn’t do much here other than say “I support space exploration.”

Likewise, Edwards acknowledges that we have a huge problem when it comes to science education and critical thinking skills in this country, but the only potential plan he mentions is a one year of college tuition free for about 2,000,000 students. That’s good, definitely an encouragement, but we need to start much, much earlier. I feel that much of the science education battle is being lost at the elementary school level, and merely hiring more teachers or throwing more money at schools does not necessarily equal a better science education.

I also have to agree with what PZ mentions in reaction to the interview on Pharyngula;

He also supports one major boondoggle: ethanol. It’s a farm subsidy, not an answer to our energy problems.

“Biofuels” seems to be a pretty popular political buzzword, but I hardly see it being an answer to our pressing needs (and it will likely be a source of even more problems). When any candidate starts talking about the virtues of biofuels or hydrogen fuel cells, I distinctly come away with the impression that they actually have no commitment to researching claims or understanding science. You can’t merely say “Big oil bad, biofuels good” and have that be the end of it; endorsing “alternative” technologies that do little to reduce our overall energy uptake are not the answer. Doesn’t anyone else find it odd that in the oil vs. biofuel “debate” we’re really choosing between the products of fossil plant deposits and living plants? Even on top of that, I find it unsettling that we would devote dwindling farm space to fueling vehicles rather than creating food crops, in the process probably helping out the same huge factory farms that Edwards claims to be against. I see nothing but trouble coming from the pursuit of biofuel technology.

Returning to the issue of just how Edwards is going to tell the “good eggs” from the “bad eggs” when it comes to science, he again sidesteps the issue;

7. If elected President, what do you intend to do to make sure that you receive trustworthy scientific information and that your policies are based on the best available empirical knowledge about the world?

This is a good question. As I said before, the disregard of science by the Bush administration — the censorship of data and analysis of global warming, the treatment of stem cell research, mercury emissions and other subjects – has been shameful.

As president, I will ensure that government professionals charged with the collection and analysis of scientific data–from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to the EPA–are insulated from political influence. Period.

Yes, we understand Bush is a fool, but what are you going to do that’s better, Senator Edwards? All he’s really said here is “I’ll do better, I promise” and seems to have no actual plan. Given this is an e-mail interview and he actually had some amount of time to think about/edit his answers (rather than just spit out the first thing that came to his mind), I see no reason to put faith in empty promises about understanding science or even conducting sound science when he doesn’t have any sort of plan to do so. I’m not buying it.

Continuing in the same vein Edwards is asked about the overall decline of research and scientific prowess in the U.S. Edwards, unsurprisingly, concludes this way;

We need to strengthen scientific education in this country. We need to send more kids to college and invest in graduate programs to create a new generation of scientists who will continue to make America stronger and lead the way for the rest of the world.

Simply sending more high school graduates to college is not the solution; it barely even addresses the problem that our public schools are in a state of disarray. Even if we assume that they are not, merely sending a greater number of students to college does not mean you’ll automatically gain a greater proportion of scientists; Edwards apparently has no clue where to get good scientific information or how to foster it in America. Sure, he’ll pontificate about biofuels, global climate change, how little science the president knows, but he doesn’t seem to be very different from the Republicans he despises; the politics of the science seem of greater influence than the truth of science.

As has been pointed out by others, evolution was not mentioned anywhere in this interview either, which I found rather surprising. Again, this ties into my concerns about sciences that are not deemed profitable will gain little support and little will be done to foster science for the sake of understanding the universe and how we got here. I’m not suggesting that evolution has no technological or medical applications, but rather it seems that Edwards is caught up in the trivial and political realms of science, where the public face of “science” is welcomed but not actually understood. The continuation of this trend, essentially settling for politicians being willing to be influenced by the public face of science based upon their personal political affiliation, is not acceptable and will further undermine science education in this country.

Overall, I was not impressed (and even became a bit more wary of Edwards). It’s absolutely wonderful that Bora was able to interview Edwards and post the reactions of a prominent political figure to questions about the dire need for better science education and understanding in America, but I feel that Edwards did not effectively answer the questions posed to him in the least. Science should not be a system of belief tied to a political affiliation, but the impression I got from this interview was that Edwards harbors exactly that.





Blog Against Theocracy, Part Deux

25 06 2007

Blue Gal has announced that the Blog Against Theocracy blogswarm will be back from July 1-4 with the theme “Separation of church and state is patriotic.” You can get all the details at the main page here.





Evolution Survey Nonsense

8 06 2007

Every time I see a new national survey about evolution, I cringe. Hell, there are so many of the things that you can cite just about any percentage, it seems, and there will be some poll to back you up. The latest, which came to my attention through Pharyngula and Stranger Fruit, suggests that that more Americans think evolution is wrong than think it is accurate (the term “percent” doesn’t seem to be used on the page, so I’m tentative about saying that 66% of Americans are YEC’s). Of further interest is that most people surveyed seemed to say the issue of evolution/creationism isn’t important to the current presidential race, and that reflects the reaction of many people I’ve spoken to on the topic, the most usual reaction I hear being “Who cares? Why is it important?”

But can we really say this poll speaks for all Americans? There are so many, and I given the information supplied on the USA Today/Gallop Poll website, I don’t think this one tells us anything significant at all. According to the website, the number of U.S. adult (people aged 18 and up) polled was 1,007, a pretty paltry number for a survey, especially if people are going to claim it speaks for the whole nation. Driving on Rt 1 to work every day I probably pass 1,007 people, but let’s put that number in proper perspective.

According to the U.S. Cenus population projection for 2005 (I’m trying to be conservative in the estimate, although you could try the same simple calculation with the 2010 estimates), there should be approximately 221,868,077 people over 18 in the United States at the moment, a pretty big number if you ask me. In fact, if you quickly do the division, the national population of people over 18 is 220,325.8 times larger than the survey sample size, so it would be pretty foolish to think that such a minuscule and superficial survey spoke for everyone.

Over the past few weeks especially, I’ve run into plenty of people who’ve never seriously considered evolution because they don’t know anything about it or never followed up on creationist claims they heard at church; their intuition is their “default setting” but if you engage them about evolution and science, they are interested. I don’t have a poll of my own to back this up, but I suspect that there are plenty of people who just don’t know enough about evolution that they default to creationism or intelligent design because it’s what’s comfortable and not-in-conflict with their beliefs. There are a lot of people who do take creationism seriously and are very adamant about their beliefs on the matter, but if we’re to base our entire reaction to creationism based upon misleading surveys spat out by crappy newspapers, we’re not too smart. Not only do we need to combat creationism, but we need to work to make sure evolution is being taught effectively and accurately in schools around the country, and I can’t help but wonder if part of the current “creationist crisis” stems from our failure on this issue. For more on the topic of effective evolution education, check out this post from Chris Harrison (who is now a big-time science reviewer, congratulations Chris!)





What’s Grape Ape doing in Korea?

6 06 2007

You have got to be kidding me;

As the author Gene Expression points out, it just goes to show that irrationality, kooky claims, and susperstition will continue regardless of organized religion.

(Hat-tips to Gene Expression and Anthropology.net)





Brownback is back…

31 05 2007

Sam Brownback has an opinion piece in today’s New York Times elaborating on his disbelief in evolution. We’ve got him all wrong, he says; he’s not a creationist, he’s… well, a creationist. Hope that cleared things up for you. Quote the *gag* Kansas Senator;

While no stone should be left unturned in seeking to discover the nature of man’s origins, we can say with conviction that we know with certainty at least part of the outcome. Man was not an accident and reflects an image and likeness unique in the created order. Those aspects of evolutionary theory compatible with this truth are a welcome addition to human knowledge. Aspects of these theories that undermine this truth, however, should be firmly rejected as an atheistic theology posing as science.

So science can keep moving along, just so long as it supports the “created order.” Sounds awfully familiar, but certainly it’s a new take on the debate in an attempt to compromise, right? What I can’t stand is all the posturing by creationists about how much they “love” science, but whenever something conflicts with their faith, they try and shove it under the rug. Why? Because “faith” (faith in what? That you’re right 100% of the time based upon your own interpretation of an ancient and mutated book?) trumps reason and observation every time. Quote the Senator;

People of faith should be rational, using the gift of reason that God has given us. At the same time, reason itself cannot answer every question. Faith seeks to purify reason so that we might be able to see more clearly, not less. Faith supplements the scientific method by providing an understanding of values, meaning and purpose. More than that, faith — not science — can help us understand the breadth of human suffering or the depth of human love.

[emphasis mine]

Yes, faith has always led the way to new discovery, rather than hanging back, trying to pull us backward into dogmatic, tribal religion. I’m sure that in Brownback’s view, however, some faith is more equal than others; I don’t suppose he’ll be looking to Norse creation mythology to help us “see more clearly.” I also like how he threw in some baraminology for good measure; species can change, but they were all “created kinds.” He’s not a “creationist,” no; he just believes that there were some created kinds, created by a creator who sustains his creation. Why don’t we ask Brownback how old the earth is and watch his head spin.

Evolution is something of an issue at the moment, but like others I don’t see it being even a little-ticket item in (as the Daily Show aptly puts it) the clusterf#@k to the White House. Even so, I just don’t understand why people like Brownback think they’ve got any kind of scientific authority on the issue; even candidates who accept evolution seem to do so because of political strategy and beliefs, so don’t go asking John McCain to tell you what a hox gene is or what he thinks of Pakicetus. If a candidate accepts evolution, great, but I would much rather see them refer to good scientists than trying and filter what is or is not true through their theological (and hence political) beliefs. Steve Reuland at The Panda’s Thumb also chronicles Brownback’s battle against gravity, and I can only wonder if any of the other candidates that do not accept evolution will volunteer some editorials in which they’ll proceed to fall all over themselves, muttering about faith and reason.





Today in New Jersey: Attempted terrorism & the death penalty

8 05 2007

A lot has been going on in New Jersey lately, what with a radio hosts asinine remarks about a Rutgers basketball team, our Governor showing us why buckling-up is the law, and today news about a foiled terrorist plot to kill soldiers at Ft. Dix plus consideration is being given to actually acting like civilized people and doing away with the death penalty. As for the death penalty story, I found one opponent’s comment particularly interesting. Sen. Nicholas Asselta (R-NJ) had this pearl to share with us;

How can you not impose the death penalty on people like
Osama bin Laden?

I didn’t know we had found him and he was to be executed by the state of New Jersey. Indeed folks, the first three letters of his last name is all the description needed for this particular senator.

The foiled terrorist plot story, however, is something different entirely. Thanks to a vigilant store employee reported something suspicious when some men asked for a tape of them shooting automatic weapons and shouting “Allah Akbar” to DVD; the 6 men were caught when they tried to purchase AK-47′s and other heavy weapons from an FBI agent. At the moment they don’t seem to have any international affiliations to terrorist organizations, but it is disturbing nonetheless.

What most interested me comes at the tail of the article, where Sohail Mohammed (a lawyer who represented Muslims detained after the Sept. 11th terrorist attacks) was quoted as follows;

“But when the government says `Islamic militants,’ it sends a message to the public that Islam and militancy are synonymous. Don’t equate actions with religion.”

“Don’t equate actions with religion” eh? I’m not about to suggest that all Muslims are militants and wish to impose an Islamic theocracy on the world (that would be a bold-faced lie), but it does strike me as odd than many Muslim men are prone to violence and claim they want to kill others in the name of their god. If someone claims to be pious and finds a scriptural basis for killing others, their actions cannot be totally disassociated from religion; religion is not some free-floating thing that is an ideal where we can all pick and choose who really gets it and who doesn’t. To me, the actions of practitioners of a religion often speak to the values of that particular belief system, and while I agree that not all Muslims are extremists or fundamentalists we can’t keep sweeping religiously-based terrorism under the rug and say “Well, they just didn’t get it.”





Let’s not have a real-life Idiocracy

3 05 2007

While I was studying for my exams my wife attempted to tune in the Republican debate on the computer, but for one reason or another it didn’t work. I did get to hear some of the “pre-game” commentary, however, and it was absolutely amazing how Ronald Reagan was put on a pedestal as if he were some sort of saint. There was plenty of talk about who is going to take up the legacy or Reagan, who was going to restore the Republican party to the glory days under Reagan, but do we even want that? If Republicans consider the Reagan-era to be the highlight of the party’s career than that’s merely another measure for how backwards and idiotic Republicans have become.

Another big issue that I’m glad got mentioned was evolution, and Crooks and Liars has a snippet of video on the response of the candidates in attendance (McCain says he “believes” in evolution, Tancredo, Brownback, and Huckabee do not [shocking, I know]). I heard that McCain qualified his “yes” with some statement about the Grand Canyon, but I’ll wait until tomorrow when what was said will be up on YouTube or being passed around the blogosphere. I don’t think the evolution issue is going to be as important as the war, stem cells, abortion, gay marriage, and other republican faves, but it will be interesting if evolution gets drawn into the larger political debate (perhaps opening up some spots for scientists to get the word out to people at a time when it’s relevant).

In any event, I wasn’t planning on voting Republican in the next election anyhow and even the candidates I had some measure of respect for (like McCain) I like less and less every time they open their mouths. This isn’t to say that the Democrats are doing much better (I’m not really impressed by any of them), but as Howard Dean mentioned;

The Republican presidential contenders are only offering more of the same failed leadership and misplaced priorities that
President Bush brought to the White House.

Indeed, they’re not looking to good lately, that is unless the ghost of Ronald Reagan is going to show up to smite all opposing Democrats, and it certainly seems that with all the glorifying of Reagan that was done tonight, Republicans are hoping that he’ll be their patron saint in the upcoming election :P





More Endangered Species Idiocy

2 05 2007

There’s been plenty news about the potential de-listing of various endangered species over the past few months (i.e. grizzly bears, wolves, manatees, and american crocodile, to name a few), and the plan to further strip the Endangered Species Act of any power whatsoever has not gone unnoticed. According to this LiveScience article, more than 36 scientists have signed a letter protesting the removal of important species from protection, as well as pointing out that further restrictions on the ESA would further harm endangered populations.

While the some species (like those listed above) seem to have come back from the brink of extinction, now is hardly the time to open up hunting on such animals (as is the case with wolves and bears, some states wanting to reduce wolf populations by as much as 2/3) or to allow irresponsible behavior in critical habitat (like making speeding laws more lax in Florida’s waterways where manatees live). If anything, these animals should get continued protection to ensure that their populations are in fact stable and healthy, not merely open up hunting again when some arbitrary number is reached. Have we learned nothing about extinction from the heath hen?

For those not familiar with the story, the heath hen was a rather distinctive subspecies of the Greater Prairie Chicken, having a range from Virginia to New Hampshire. Being rather plentiful and easily available, the birds were hunted until they existed nowhere except the island of Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts (the locale where the film Jaws was shot), and eventually the population got as low as 70. Thankfully, there was a ban on hunting on the area in which the heath hens resided became protected, eventually allowing the populations to rise to approximately 2,000 individuals. Such numbers alone, however, would not save the heath hen from extinction. Because the birds were restricted to such a small area a harsh brush fire was absolutely devastating to them, combined with harsh winters, increased predation by raptors (the birds, not the dinosaurs), disease, a higher ratio of males:females, and low genetic diversity as a result of inbreeding all did their part in making these birds extinct by 1932 (protection started around 1908).

What can we learn from our folly in trying to save the heath hen? Perhaps the most important idea (which is almost never discussed) is that when you parcel out land and restrict species to a small patch they become more vulnerable to extinction. If the heath hens had the chance to spread out they may have survived, but being restricted to a small area meant that one severe fire or breakout of disease would be utterly catastrophic. Keeping species enclosed in a certain area also decreases gene flow as members are not leaving to new areas and creating differing gene flows; all the breeding has to take place within one population that is already inbred. These facts also make us realize that just because the number of individuals goes up does not mean that all is well; without the genetic diversity to back those numbers up a species can still be quite vulnerable, especially to disease. You would think that the extinction of the heath hen would have been paid attention to more closely and impact the way we attempt to manage species today, but it appears that this isn’t the case.

While I’m glad many species are doing well I worry that they’ll soon be in dire straits if the government lifts protection, the efforts made under the ESA merely putting off extinction rather than removing it as a threat altogether. If we’re going to save species we need to create corridors and pathways along which they can move and proliferate; creating little conservation islands isn’t going to work and will only make the species we tried so hard to save more vulnerable. These are fairly obvious facts, things that I would expect the Fish and Wildlife Service to know, but yet they seem to pay attention only to the numbers and don’t really seem to care about the long-term health or stability of species.





Army to bomb dinosaurs into the stone age?

18 04 2007

Hypothetical battles between the US Military and dinosaurs/assorted monsters have long been a staple of comic books (here’s a page from Star Spangled War Stories), but now it seems that the modern American military may yet blow up some dinosaurs, although it’s more akin to “[bombing] a dead horse”. Indeed, as stated on page 20 of the May 2007 issue of National Geographic, Colorado’s Fort Carson is looking to expand its current holdings into territory now containing private lands, Comanche Natioanl Grassland, and the site of some of the best dinosaur trackways ever discovered.

From agriculture to paleontology, everyone is going to lose if the Fort Carson expansion goes ahead as planned through the use of perhaps one of the most dishonest forms of land acquisition; eminent domain. So far, however, the army hasn’t exactly been forthcoming in its plans and claims that it would prefer to obtain new land from willing sellers rather than force it, but I don’t think anyone can blame me if I’m a bit skeptical about the military’s intentions. Why does the military need more land at all? So far I’ve seen excuses ranging from an increase in troops at the base to the need for training dealing with longer-range combat, but overall the officials involved have been secretive about their dealings and ideas for any expansion.

Needless to say, many farmers and people who live in towns that would be engulfed by the expansion (as far as we understand it, that is) aren’t too happy about this, and have set up the Pinan Canyon Expansion Opposition Coaltion (it could use a less awkward title, but it says what it is). While I am concerned about people being forced off their own land by the government, I also worry about the ecological impact of an expanded army base as well as the great loss such an expansion would be to paleontology. All we have left from the Mesozoic is in the ground, and if the army is allowed to destroy the trackways and skeletons found in the area, those resources will be forever lost. Hell, it’s already happening already, fossils being found throughout the area (even within the existing base) and who knows what else might be in the rock.

Simply put, the expansion of Fort Carson is unnecessary, unwanted, and dangerous; a huge mistake in the making. The army must be prevented from gaining more ground in the area, for the people, ecology, and even fossils of the area are far more valuable and important than some extra elbow room for soldiers.








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