Category: politics

There’s nothing to intelligent design creationism

flagellum electron micrograph
Composite electron micrograph of the flagellum basal body and hook, produced by rotational averaging (Francis et al., 1994).

Stephen M. Barr has an article in First Things, The End of Intelligent Design?. Unfortunately, Barr is looking to rescue something from intelligent design (ID) so his criticisms are muted. His main interest is whether ID has been useful in advancing religion and theology. In a faux even-handed approach he criticizes ID for not proving it’s claims but then tosses in criticism of scientists for unspecified excesses. He also tries to win favor with a religious audience by claiming that “the ID movement has been treated atrociously and that it has been lied about by many scientists”, a judgment he doesn’t substantiate.

The readership of First Things is a strange group, many of the comments go off in philosophical directions but no one is talks about the central issue–whether ID is true or false. Is there good evidence for it? Is it likely to be true? Could it be true? Or is it known to be false?

Barr’s article starts well, it is true that there’s “not a single phenomenon that we understand better today” through ID. To restate that, there is no evidence at all for ID and that is the reason ID has been dismissed by biologists.

When the idea that certain biological structures are “irreducibly complex” was proposed several examples were given: the bacterial flagellum, the immune system, the blood clotting cascade, the vertebrate eye, the Krebs cycle, etc. In fact, biologists have evolutionary models and physical evidence of how each of these things has evolved. No “irreducibly complex” structures were proposed and then proven to be so. In truth, none of the proposed examples are even open questions, things that puzzle biologists that could possibly be shown to be “irreducibly complex” in the future.

And the case for ID is really worse that what I’ve described. It’s not that ID theorists proposed structures that biologists didn’t have good evolutionary models for, structures that could have turned out to be “irreducibly complex”. When these examples were given, there was already published research explaining the evolutionary origins of each example. For example, biologists reviewing Behe’s book were able to look up and reference the research discounting his examples. No better “irreducibly complex” examples have come to light since then.

Scientific consensus

In a meta discussion about AGW, Eric Raymond writes about how the term scientific consensus is used in public science debates. He seems to misunderstand it, and think it is an ‘appeal to authority’ type of argument and thus a sign that the party that raises it has no more convincing arguments.

It certainly can be that sort of poor argument, but typically when raised by scientists it is something different. The scientific consensus on a topic is mentioned as a shorthand way of communicating what’s understood by scientists working the field to the public. Scientists are trying to communicate that certain things are known, and that contrary arguments that pick one or two studies and argue that the contrary opinion is *really* true or at least that no consensus exists are misleading. Either the study is part of a technical debate in the field among researchers who all understand and believe the consensus that is being misconstrued or too much weight is being given to the opinion of a rare contrarian.

The contrarians can be further divided into 1) cranks of various sorts and 2) scientists working on a contrary idea who understand that the evidence still favors the consensus but hope to make discoveries that will eventually tip the balance of evidence in favor of their idea. The second scientist will happily talk up his idea if asked about it, but if asked about the consensus will acknowledge that it is currently overall the best explanation.

So scientists will mention the scientific consensus on an issue to the public to ground the discussion with the fundamentals of what is known. With the fundamentals set down, scientists can then explain the details of how things are known, what discussions within the field are about, or discuss contrarians.

Strange land

The typical Republican answers yes to four of the questions in this survey* (or four out ten answer yes to all these questions, or some mix of the two). And people in the US used to worry about Russians slipping LSD in the water supply.

Question Yes No Not Sure
Should Barack Obama be impeached? 39 32 29
Do you believe Barack Obama was born in the United States? 42 36 22
Do you think Barack Obama is a socialist? 63 21 16
Do you believe Barack Obama wants the terrorists to win? 24 43 33
Do you believe ACORN stole the2008 election? 21 24 55
Do you believe Sarah Palin is more qualified to be president than Barack Obama? 53 14 33
Do you believe Barack Obama is a racist who hates white people? 31 36 33
Do you believe your state should secede from the United States? 23 58 19
Should openly gay men and women be allowed to teach in public schools? 8 73 19
Should contraceptive use be outlawed? 31 56 13
Do you believe the birth control pill is abortion? 34 48 18

*Flipping yes/no for the gay teacher question.

Survey details here.

The GOP fiscal plan

Or rather the lack of one. One after another, GOP statements on what they want in a budget hit the same points again and again. Republicans have decided this year that the federal budget deficit is terrible and must be curbed immediately. Ignore for a moment the Hooverism–that cutting federal spending today will prolong the recession and increase unemployment.

Look at the Republican plan–balance the budget by cutting taxes, increasing defense spending, and leaving Social Security and Medicare intact, and cutting other unspecified programs. The remaining budget, discretionary spending excluding defense only totals $5-600 billion and includes everything from road construction to federal courts to food stamps. With the permanent budget deficit about $600 billion (the 2008-9 bank bailouts and stimulus are one time costs), balancing the budget under the Republican plan doesn’t add up. Adding tax cuts and increased defense spending just make it extra impossible.

Sometimes the impossible can be done in small steps. The Senate voted this week on PAYGO, the deficit reduction measure that allowed Clinton to balance the federal budget in the 90’s. But no, every Republican voted against it.

Stan Collender sums it up in a blog post collecting GOP statements on the federal budget . Here are the bits:

Item 2. All Senate Republicans voted against re-establishing the pay-as-you go rules, which would have required that, with certain exceptions, any new mandatory spending or revenue legislation not increase the deficit. The rules were adopted with only Democratic support.

Item 4. Republican Chairman Michael Steele is saying so often that Republicans are against cuts in Medicare that it’s starting to sound like a mantra. Add to that their stated opposition to revenue increases (see #1 above), military spending reductions, homeland security reductions, and the extremely low possibility that, if Medicare is too hot to handle, they’ll go anywhere near Social Security, and the deficit reduction math becomes totally impossible.

There have been recent fantasy GOP budget proposals along these lines. See Tim Pawlenty’s (Gov. of MN and 2012 Presidential candidate) editorial in Politico. Or the budget proposal by Rep. Paul Ryan, ranking Republican on the House Budget Committee.

Even conservative economist Bruce Bartlett is unimpressed:

Like all Republicans these days, Pawlenty wants to have it every possible way: complain about the deficit while ignoring everything his party did to create it (Medicare Part D, two unfunded wars, TARP, earmarks galore, tax cuts up the wazoo, irresponsible regulatory and monetary policies that created the recession that created the deficit, etc.), illogically insisting that tax cuts are a necessary part of deficit reduction, and never proposing any specific spending cuts.

It would hardly be fair for me to fail the Republican proposals without offering my own. So here it is:
1) The federal government should spend an additional $600 billion a year until unemployment is down under 6%. Send at least half of it directly to states where it can be spent quickly, spend the rest on unemployment, food stamps, long neglected infrastructure, and a massive New Deal class jobs program.

2) Raise taxes. First, let the Bush tax cuts on income over $200K, capital gains, and large inheritances expire. Second, make the banks pay for their bailout with a combination of financial transaction taxes, an end the hedge fund income tax special treatment, etc, to total $150 billion a year. Third, add progressive tax brackets at the high end, and extra 1% for income over $1 million, $5 million, and $10 million. End a few of the large corporation tax breaks that leave many of them paying essentially no taxes. These modest tax increases are enough to put the budget in the green.

3) Cut total war/security/defense spending back so it equals what the entire rest of the world spends, about $500 billion a year–that would be a cut of $150 billion a year. End the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, saving $150 billion a year.

4) Whoa, now the federal budget has a $200 billion surplus!

End the US occupation of Afghanistan today

At the beginning of October, it was reported that eight US soldiers were killed in Nuristan province in Afghanistan. Hearing it at the time, I thought nothing in Nuristan can be worth the life of an American soldier, yet eight of them fought and died there. Afghanistan is literally half way around the world from the US, and Nuristan is the middle of nowhere even for Afghanistan. The US has occupied Afghanistan for eight years already and the current plan is for an ongoing, pointless occupation for at least another five or ten years. President Obama is even considering pouring more US troops into the country, a truly feckless plan.

Then this November the US installed ruler of Afghanistan, ‘President’ Karzai, finished stealing the national election and declared himself President. It was also reported that his brother runs a big piece of the heroin trade and has immunity from US anti-drug efforts because he works for the CIA. Why are US soldiers fighting and dying to support the Karzai family dictatorship?

And the US war effort is still febrile. Eight years into the occupation of Afghanistan, the Pentagon is still talking about ‘ramping up’ the training of translators. US translators who speak Dari or Pashto, the major languages of the country, are so few in number that the translators at NATO headquarters in Kabul are all Afghans. Translators are thin on the ground and the US relies mainly on Afghan locals. How is the US going to run a counterinsurgency and nation-building campaign in country where almost no US troops speak the language?

What is the US doing in Afghanistan? The few thousand Al Qaeda fighters that were in Afghanistan in 2001 were killed by the US or fled to Pakistan. Even the Taliban fighters in Afghanistan don’t want them back.

Nothing is accomplished by continuing the US occupation of Afghanistan. It’s costing the US the lives of our soldiers and $100-200 billion a year. End the US occupation today!

Update: President Obama announced today he will escalate the war in Afghanistan, sending an additional 30,000 troops, for a total escalation of 51,000 troops since he took office. What an incredibly foolhardy and poor decision, one that will kill thousands of people and waste hundreds of billions of dollars. In related news, Middle East scholar Juan Cole provides a thumbnail portrait of the corrupt and fragmentary nature of the Afghan government to which the US has pinned its plans.

Where’s Phil Agre?

Phil Agre ran the Red Rock Eater mailing list for many years, it was active during the 90’s. I think I started reading it in the late 90’s. The emails ran down to a trickle in 2002, in part I think due to Phil getting a permanent position at UCLA. The mailing list archive indicates it ran up to Jan 2005.

Phil Agre’s mailing list in essence was one of the first blogs. The content was mainly links and commentary by Phil with occasional longer essays. He was one of the best people thinking about what the internet could be used for and how it was changing the world.

After 2002, the Red Rock Eater list went into abeyance then seemed to have stopped for good. Phil Agre seems to have dropped off the net. In this comment thread a UCLA student says he was ill. I fear it is very serious to keep him off line so long.

His essays, “Advice for undergraduates considering graduate school” and “How to be a leader in your field” are internet classics.

Here is an essay I found interesting titled What Is Conservatism and What Is Wrong with It?

Update: He’s literally missing. This site is run by friends looking for him.
Update 1/31/09: UCLA police talked with him. He’s alive, though not well.

The lost decade, or thanks for nothing!

Census data on median income change between 2000 and 2008 by way of USA Today:

Median income 2000-8

US GDP in constant dollars per capita grew 9.7% over this period, so the country grew 10% richer and if it was distributed evenly everyone’s income would have grown roughly 10%. But not–instead most of the $$ went to a small slice of the population, and that doesn’t show up in this table.

Socialism watch

Keeping track of the rising tide of socialism in the US under that fiend Obama:

0.21% socialist so far!

Still a way to go, but it is never too early to raise the alarm.

Second domestic terrorist attack in two weeks

Today the US had another domestic terrorist attack, the second in two weeks. This time, a long time right-winger, an anti-semite, white supremacist, and anti-Obama birther attacked the Holocaust Museum in DC. Like the guy last week, today’s shooter had a previous conviction for domestic terrorism.

I was listening to right-wing talker Sean Hannity and a listener called in and told a ‘joke’ that was basically death-wish for the Pres. and VP, wouldn’t it be great if they both died, ha ha. Hannity had a laugh along with the caller. I wonder when these right-wing talkers will stop encouraging the violent talk?