“Oh no, my sensibilities are offended!”

PZ Myers points and laughs at Carlin Romano’s review of Massimo Pigliucci’s new book:

Quoth the Romano,

Tone matters. And sarcasm is not science.

PZ has effectively addressed the first sentence, and I will answer the second.

Sarcasm is not science per se, but sarcasm can be legitimately effective communication. Some claims are ultimately so ridiculous that mocking is not only acceptable, but in fact is the most appropriate response.

Furthermore, good manners are no substitute for sound logic. Either a claim is scientifically valid, or it isn’t. Either an argument makes sense, or it doesn’t. The relative rudeness or politeness involved in expressing an argument does not affect its validity.  IOW, derision is not a logical fallacy.

Why I love to read Dawkins

An example:

Here, it seems to me, lies the best answer to those petty-minded scrooges who are always asking what is the use of science. In one of those mythic remarks of uncertain authorship, Michael Faraday is alleged to have been asked what was the use of science. ‘Sir,’ Faraday replied. ‘Of what use is a new-born child?’

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We are not alone…

Via RD.net, Irene Klotz at Discovery News offers evidence that there is more out there than our universe.

Kashlinsky and colleagues have spent years building up evidence for what they call “the dark flow.” They look at how the relic radiation from the Big Bang explosion scatters as it passes through gases in galaxy clusters, a process that is something akin to looking at stars through the bubble of Earth’s atmosphere.

The dark flow suggests that our universe is moving at a steady clip relative to something larger than itself.

It’s like our universe is a box and everything that it contains is inside it like milk in a carton, physicist Laura Mersini-Houghton with University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, told Discovery News.

“If our universe is all that’s there, then the liquid in the box shouldn’t be sliding. Whatever is pulling it has to be bigger than the size of the box,” she said. “There is a structure beyond the horizon of our universe and that structure is exerting a force on our universe and creating this flow.”

So…what could it be that’s pulling our universe along?

“At this point we don’t have enough information to see what it is, or to constrain it. We can only say with certainty that somewhere very far away the world is very different than what we see locally. Whether it’s ‘another universe’ or a different fabric of space-time we don’t know,” Alexander Kashlinsky at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., told Discovery News.

I really enjoy the idea of there being a different fabric of space-time, personally, but either way, this information could yield some extremely viable, testable theories on the origin of the universe that we call home. And in the meantime, I expect that it’ll also spawn a lot of science fiction stories. Win-win!

“But there are no transitional fossils!”

(Okay, the title is a cheap shot. Sue me.)

Via RD.net, we get news from Science Daily of a new prehistoric critter!

The fossil skull, found in 2004 near Pittsburgh International Airport, was recovered from rocks deposited approximately 300 million years ago during the Late Pennsylvanian Period. Named Fedexia striegeli, it is one of only a very few relatively large amphibian fossils to display evidence of a predominantly terrestrial (land-based) life history so early in geologic time.

Oh, Fedexia. You have a stupid name, but you’re a beautiful animal.

How did Fedexia thrive back then, but not now?

At the time of Fedexia‘s preservation, the earth’s climate was in a period of transition. Immense glaciers in Earth’s southern polar region produced rapidly fluctuating global climates. Western Pennsylvania, which was near the equator at that time, experienced tremendous amounts of rain. Swamps which would later develop into coal developed, and amphibians — which are dependent on moist conditions — flourished; in fact, the Pennsylvanian Period is known as the “Age of Amphibians.”

The idea of western Pennsylvania having a tropical climate and filling up with coal while near the equator makes me happy for reasons I can’t quite articulate.

Congratulations, Mr. Striegel! You have an amphibian species to your name!

In which I am snowed in:

Unfortunately, being trapped in the house does not help me come up with an interesting blog post.

Here in the Mid-Atlantic/Northeast region, we’re getting back-to-back blizzards and cannot go anywhere more interesting than the front yard, and there only with a shovel and rock salt.

If you’re in similar circumstances, then I can only hope your house has reliable electricity. We lost ours for most of Saturday; it sucked. I don’t want to think about what it’s like to be one of those people who’ve been in the dark for days now. Anyway, the point is, if you’re snowed in, but the basic needs of heat, light and food are covered, then now would be a good time to read a book.

This is not a good time to order any print books online, either; we haven’t had mail delivery at my house since Friday. BUT, if you have an ebook reader, then now is a good time to fill that sucker up and hunker down on the couch under a bunch of blankets.

If you don’t have an ebook reader, I don’t recommend going outside even if you do have a good bookstore within what you like to think is walking distance. There’s always the next blizzard, though.

Either way, I wish to recommend a book to read as long as you’re snowed in: Why Is Sex Fun?, by Jared Diamond. Same guy who wrote Guns, Germs and Steel. Here he brings a scientist’s inquisitiveness to the question of human sexuality, as compared to other animals. He explores the possibilities of how differently we could have evolved, and why we ended up the way we did.

If you don’t have an ebook reader, though, then for Pete’s sake, just read something you’ve had waiting on the shelves for a while. I don’t want to hear about anyone slipping on the ice and breaking their neck on the way to Borders.

The social costs of the failure to accept reality

Andrew Sullivan explores the relationship between Christian fundamentalism and meth:

Well, since I’m not a Marxist, I do not believe that rigid fundamentalism is a simple by-product of poverty. But I do agree with my reader that economic decline, unemployment and cultural alienation undoubtedly fuel meth and probably contribute to fundamentalism’s growth. But the interaction is almost certainly complex and two ways, creating a mixture of economic despair, collapse of self-confidence, bewilderment at modernity and the lack of a traditional Christianity that, at its best, really did help people confront the ordeal of living.

Fundamentalism’s failure to encourage genuine, humble and humane faith that can finally come to terms with science and history is critical to this, which is why, increasingly, I think a reform of Christianity is central to preserving the liberal constitutional state. What has replaced real faith is, in fact, a form of neurotic attachment to literalism in Scripture (effectively debunked by scholarship), to authority figures who enforce order, if not coherence, onto otherwise chaotic lives (think Dobson or Ratzinger or Warren), rigid attachment to untruths in human history (as in denial of evolution), or the insistence of maintaining the appearance of Godliness to avoid confronting real human sin (think Ted Haggard or the countless child-abusing priests). None of this helps anyone actually cope with modern life, because it is too opposed to modern life. And so fundamentalism as a coping mechanism in fact makes it all much worse, as rising rates of dysfunction, family breakdown, illegitimacy, abortion, HIV transmission, and drug abuse in the Christianist states reveal – just as the sexual dysfunction in Islamist societies cripples and immiserates them. If you want to find Ground Zero for this confluence of poverty, isolation, Christianism and meth, take a trip to Wasilla, Alaska, whence the new Esther has emerged.

First of all, I agree with most of Mr. Sullivan’s analysis.

The part that gives me pause is his reference to a “traditional Christianity” that “really did help people confront the ordeal of living.” It sounds a lot like the “good old days” reminiscing from traditionalists about a golden era that never really existed. That said, I won’t dispute the accuracy of the remark on traditional Christianity. I don’t claim to be an expert on religion, and perhaps this era really did exist at some not-too-distant point in time, and at that time, having faith in God really did make people’s lives better than they would otherwise have been. I will assume, for the purposes of this entry, that this analysis is accurate.

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I will eat you, and snake your genes!

LiveScience brings us news of a sea slug that has pilfered genes from algae:

The sea slugs live in salt marshes in New England and Canada. In addition to burglarizing the genes needed to make the green pigment chlorophyll, the slugs also steal tiny cell parts called chloroplasts, which they use to conduct photosynthesis. The chloroplasts use the chlorophyl to convert sunlight into energy, just as plants do, eliminating the need to eat food to gain energy.

Okay, first of all: THAT’S FUCKING AWESOME.

Second: when are these scientists going to show me how to appropriate fish genes and grow myself a set of gills?

ETA: How long until we start hearing that such a useful and fascinating feature as this could only have come from an Intelligent Designer and since the researchers don’t (yet) understand how the slugs appropriated the algae genes, the mechanism proves that evolution is false? Days? Hours?

Science is anarchy, it is not a democracy.

Shorter response: I Agree With This Comment.

Longer: The argument that science teachers should “teach the controversy” surrounding scientific theories stems from a confusion of a cultural controversy with a scientific controversy.

There is a significant difference between questions of should and questions of is, between ideas with popular appeal and with explanatory power, and between culture war and scientific debate.

For the “should” questions over matters of opinion, teaching the controversy is appropriate in those subjects where such questions are likely to surface. For the natural science disciplines, however, public opinion should not set the course syllabus, as science is not a democracy. It isn’t a dictatorship, either; the most appropriate metaphor would probably be an anarchy. Nothing is in charge except the evidence. Empirical reality is not up for a popular vote. The fact that 44% of Americans (or whatever the percentage is) think that God created the heavens and Earth within the last 10,000 years or so does not make it an even remotely supportable hypothesis. At the time when most Europeans believed the Earth was the center of the solar system, the idea was nonetheless wrong. At the time when people thought disease was caused by demon possession of imbalances of the four humors, such explanations were the best they had but eventually gave way to more reality-based physiology and germ theory. Evolution by natural selection is a controversial theory because it offends a lot of sensibilities, but science is ultimately not concerned with telling people what they want to hear. The controversy over the validity of the overall theory is not between the scientists who do the research and experiments in the study of biology; it’s between cultural forces with some very big dogs in the fight. It is a controversy maintained by people who have every incentive to perpetuate confusion and doubt regardless of where the information leads. That confusion and doubt may be explored in classes on sociology, history, or comparative religion, but it does not constitute a scientific controversy which merits discussion in science class. This is not a difference of opinion over should/could/would, like abortion rights or marriage equality or immigration law. This is a question of did/does/will, of a falsifiable theory with explanatory power. Acknowledge the cultural conflict, but don’t mistake it for science.

I demand you return those goalposts at once!

PZ Myers continues to field creationists’ demands for debate with scientists:

Carl Wieland, the creationist clown from Australia, wrote a bitter article denouncing atheists and scientists for refusing to give him a platform to yodel nonsense on, and one of the things he did was link to my my public refusal to debate him. Unfortunately, what that meant is that all of his Too-Stupid-To-Know-They’re-Stupid acolytes came charging over to declare that creationism was too scientific, evolutionism is a religion, scientists are afraid to debate their pet idiots, you’re all mean poopyheads who call us names, yadda yadda yadda. It’s turned into a regular storm of argument that has filled up the thread with over 1100 comments.

I don’t have much to add to the discussion of whether scientists should debate creationists. I’m just going to indulge in a tangent off Prof. Myers’s paraphrasing of creationist assertions that creationism is too scientific and that evolutionism is a religion.

Specifically, I want to talk about the claim of evolutionary theory as religion.

My question–and I’ve been wondering about this for some time–is, what is that supposed to mean, “evolutionism is a religion”? Is religion supposed to be a good thing, or is it not?

Why is it that “religion” means a belief or idea is sacred, moral and exempt from criticism, if it involves going to a place called a church (or any recognized house of worship) to worship God, but, when the “religion” in question takes place in a laboratory and examines evidence, then “religion” means it has no truth value and can be dismissed without evidence?

Why is it that we’re horrible, shrill, strident, intolerant people for examining the religion of a person who believes the Earth is roughly 6,000 years old, but evolutionary theory (or biology, or science in general) is “just a religion” as if it’s no more valid than anyone else’s opinion?

In fact, here’s another question that’s been bugging me for some time now:

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