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Robust McManlyPants on Average Display » science


Ben Stein has a film called Expelled in which he tries to Michael Moore it up on the topic of creationismintelligent design vs. evolution. Unfortunately for him, Scientific American has some minor quibbles.

Were I one of the scientists interviewed under (apparently) false pretenses – say, the always fascinating PZ Myers – I would be pretty tweaked. He’s a classier sort of guy, though, even as he notes a surge in hate-mail received from creationists.

Can I just say how happy I am that Gardasil got approved? I’ve known women affected by everything it helps protect against, and it is a damn fine thing that women can now seek some sort of medical defense against at least some strains of HPV. The thing that blows my mind about it, though, is the wingnut reaction to it. Everywhere (and by everywhere I mean blogs and a letters column on MSNBC.com) I’ve read opposition to it, that opposition has been on the grounds that it promotes promiscuity.

CLUE BULLETIN: Not every young woman who has sex, has sex willingly. Setting aside entirely my utter belief that it’s fundamentally wrong for a Bible-thumper to try to stand between a woman and her doctor, the simple fact is that the ideological dead-end of the belief that Gardasil somehow encourages sex is a belief that HPV and genital warts are a punishment for sex. If that’s the case, then women who are victims of nonconsensual sex – rape, molestation, name your preferred specific variety, it’ll work just fine for this example – somehow deserve to be punished. That? That’s just wicked crazy bullshit. There is no other way to say it. It seems to me, in fact, like the Culture of Life crowd would be clamoring for this as a way to make sure their young women could be sure to make babies later in life even if they’re sexually assaulted. Right? I mean, am I crazy for thinking that?

At any rate, it’s been approved, and it’s about fucking time the FDA got something right in re: women’s health. That Plan B isn’t available OTC yet is a fucking crime, and yet another expression of the wingnut belief that a woman who is a sexual being – even as the object of someone else’s violent power-fantasy – deserves to be punished. This is exactly the sort of thinking that should be expunged by the clear rationale of science, and today, for once, it happened.

So there I am – yesterday, I should note, as I am slow to blog – sitting at work when I get a little email in my inbox from apostropher. The subject line merely reads “FYI” and it contains but a single URL. The URL leads me to a page which says this:

A recent reanalysis of Alfred Kinsey’s data, titled “The Relation Between Sexual Orientation and Penile Size,” found that homosexuals had significantly larger penises than nonhomosexuals, no matter how the measurements were done.

Oh, baby. Let me throw on a little mood music before we start dropping the science.

The science of love.

Now, apostropher of course blogged about this over at Unfogged, and that is well worth mentioning. But what is also well worth mentioning is that this – THIS – must surely be why the fundies hate us so much. Not only do we get to be stylish rebels, demeaning God and marriage with a knowing glance and a swish of the hip – which, I have to say, is in all honesty reward enough on its own – but we get a little extra (or a lot) with which to do so? This really could explain everything.

No wonder that freak who’s the spokesman – I repeat, spokesman, because that drives me insane every time I think about it – for Concerned Women for America is so obsessed with us. No wonder Pat Robertson is so obsessed with us. No wonder Jerry Falwell wanted to blame us for something after 9/11. No wonder the fundies, who are already well-documented as being thoroughly sex-obsessed (why else would they talk about it so much?) are really, really up in arms about us.

Originally I was going to try to come up with a string of salacious puns to end the post. Something like “Bottom* line: these jerk-offs* are engorged* with envy and hard* up* for some satisfaction* for their grievances,” etc., and at the end of the post I’d footnote it with: * Zing!

Unfortunately, I just couldn’t come up with anything funny; largely this was because I was too busy intimidating the right wing with my (apparently) massive gay dick.

That I can post this under “science” is just icing.

I also wanted to come up with something funny to say along the lines of braggartly men writing checks their dicks can’t cash, because let’s all be honest for two shining seconds: those dudes totally exaggerated, and they knew it, and Kinsey knew it* and I know it. A part of my degree work was in surveys, actually, and self-reported data is the absolute worst data of all. Still, it’s fun to bandy about the idea that the right wing is somehow terrified of our massive gay dicks, so what the hell? Let’s just go with it for now. It’s more fun that way. So, if anyone comes up to you and claims teh gayz0rz are a threat to marriage, do us a favor and wipe your brow with one hand and say, “Whew! No kidding! I don’t know if I can ever be satisfied again once I’ve had massive gay dick.” I’m willing to bet the look on their face will be worth it.

* Apparently, though, Kinsey was hung like a stallion, so for all I know he got back all those cards and sighed and said, “Poor bastards…” in a quiet whisper.

Is this what had Bush, er, I mean, Dear Leader so worked up about human-animal (manimal to those in the scene) hybrids?

It’s worth noting, because I haven’t yet worked out a good color for links and also because it is so fun to say it: by “this” I mean “that the characters depicted on DHS’s own ‘readiness’ page for kids are in fact human-animal hybrids.”

You know that shrill whinnying you hear in the distance? That’s me laughing my ass off at this.

Or is it…? After all, it could be a maniacal manimal!


(First pointed out by the totally-worth-reading Overcompensating.)

I read a really interesting reader response (if you follow the link, scroll up, not down from where it takes you) to the Cosmic Log blog on MSNBC.com from a scientist who is a Christian and is bothered by the whole “Intelligent Design” fiasco. It came from a reader in Austin, TX, and it started thusly:

I’m both Christian by decision and a physicist and computer scientist by training. Science is nothing more than the attempt to discover how things work. Period. Religion is the attempt to understand why things work.

There you have it. There will never be a better, more succinct way of putting it, for my money. And that, ultimately, is the big problem I have with religionists trying to force their way into the science classroom to make science teachers preach on their behalf. Mr. Capps goes on to say this:

As a scientist, using the methods I have been trained in, I cannot tell whether there is a God or not. Nor does the question come up in that setting, as I am pursuing how, not why. As a Christian, I believe because I believe, I have faith because I have faith. I feel that I am correct. As Christian scientist, I am not arrogant enough to tell God how he did things. I will look and try to build honest models that tell me how. Right now evolution is the best model going, so I accept it. Since the majority of the evidence says this model works, to do otherwise would be to raise myself above God and tell God that He could not have used evolution to do His work.

I deeply admire the attitude he’s taken – a self-aware acknowledgement of the absolute and distinct difference between religion and science. Whenever I think about the ID yahoos – and that’s what they are, so for all my presupposed rational thought and diplomatic ways, that’s what I’m calling them – I am reminded of people’s frequent confusion over morals and ethics. Morals are why we do things, ethics are how we do things. They may be related for some people, but they don’t have to be. I am honest when I do my taxes in part because that’s the proper way to prepare them (ethics) and in part because I think it’s wrong to do so (morals). Some people don’t commit murder for profit because they think it’s wrong (morals), but some don’t commit murder for profit only because they’re afraid of being caught – and that, I would argue is ethics, and that this divide is fundamental to our society.

If we stop and think about it, our entire legal system – the skeleton from which hang the tissues of our secular society – is based on ethics, not morals. Sure, there are laws against things that are largely considered wrong (murder remains a fine example), but the laws do not enforce morality per se. The law does not require that we be trained from birth to regard life as valuable. Rather, the law enforces how and when it is not acceptable – or, in instances of self-defense or war, acceptable – to commit murder. The why of murder is not addressed. The how is addressed. I realize it’s possible to point back into this paragraph and say, Oh, but you just said the law addresses when it’s acceptable, such as self-defense, and isn’t that a why? Not really. Were someone to break into my house and threaten my life, and in the hair’s breadth of time I had to consider it I decided that the only way to preserve my life was to take theirs, the questions the police would ask would all have to do with circumstances: Did they threaten you? Were you in immediate danger? Were they in your house, or near it? Were they armed? Where was the gun pointed? Never once would a badged officer ask me how I felt about it, whether I had enjoyed it or felt guilty afterwards – at least, not as a legal matter. Even in our language we don’t speak of why the law is applied, we speak of how.

Morals are, after all, purely internal. They are the little voice in our head that tells us why a thing is or is not acceptable and they can never be fully explained. They are tied up with experience, philosophy and emotion so tightly that nothing purely objective can be drawn out of them. Ethics, on the other hand, are observable and testable and demonstrable, can be proven to have been followed or not followed (sometimes). They are external and definable and subject to the senses we use to measure the material world.

And you know what? I am A-OK with that. Our laws are not meant to enforce our morals. They are meant to enforce our ethics. The vast majority of the infrastructure of our society works on the same principle. Regulating agencies tell us how things are done. That there are very good why’s are secondary, and that there are often moral reasons for the how‘s our society enforces are largely, I think, happy accidents.

In the same way, science and its study and teaching are not meant to tell us why. They are meant to tell us how. The question of why will be irrelevant until someone finds a signature in one corner of the universe.

The problem, I think, is that many people in our society look to religion and spirituality as a way to find answers to big questions, questions of why and questions of how, and that is entirely their right. However, when they confuse the two, lose track of the line between why and how in their spiritual path, they start to blue that line everywhere else in their world. Over time, the questions of why does God do this and how can God do this become the same. I don’t think it’s intentional, I think it’s just the way we are, the way we talk, the things that happen in a living language.

That said, I think there are many people who use this confusion of why and how to their advantage, people who know that their followers – the folks who vote for a school board that wants to inject creationism into the science classroom and don’t understand that why the universe was made is in fact an entirely different question from how it has come to be and how its laws work and how we can observe and test its limitations – can be tricked into incorrect thinking about the questions by playing with the meanings of words and redirecting their thoughts to questions Science wasn’t meant to answer. I think these people know that they are confusing the issues, choose to confuse the issues because it advances their personal agendas.

The sad thing is that it is all too easy for their followers to be thusly confused. Leaving aside how they phrase their questions, those who pursue religion in our society often do so as a way to find explicit answers to questions rather than as a way to find the right questions in the first place. Rather than look to spiritual tools as a way to test and understand spiritual ideas and ideals, they look to the spirit to explain away all the nagging questions of both spirit and flesh. This is simply lazy of them, in my opinion. It’s easier than thinking, though, so many choose it as their preferred method.

Do I believe that the universe was designed by an intelligent force? Sort of. It’s hard for me to decide whether I believe that the gods created all of this or were created with all of this – or maybe even created because of all of this. I believe absolutely in a higher intelligence that is as aware of our plight as it is alien to our existence. I believe absolutely that some things – but not all, and not even very many – happen “for a reason,” that there are purposes greater than one individual’s or group’s subjective goals which are served by the course of events from time to time. I also believe that many things – perhaps most – just happen, and that there’s no more Divinity at work in these things than in where a leaf lands on the back deck in the fall. I have had opportunity in my life to wish I could grab the gods themselves and shake them back and forth and ask why the fuck something happened the way it did, as well, and sometimes I have felt that I found an answer and sometimes I have simply been left to question. I have sometimes – but not always – come to decide that the questioning itself was more valuable than any answer I might have received.

That’s OK with me, though, because those are my questions to answer and no one else’s. Questions of why are purely internal, purely meant for me, no one else. Questions of how are ones we can all ask and find one answer that satisfies all – that car ran the red light because its brakes went out, that avalanche happened because it snowed too much, that stock trade is illegal because someone gave the buyer or the seller information to which they should not have had access. Questions of why are almost always impossible to fully comprehend, much less agree on as a society – God hated that driver? God hated that skier? That buyer or seller is inherently evil because they chose to profit rather than risk their family’s future? No one is ever going to agree on those why’s. To ask them as though they are testable, as though they have objective answers that will fully satisfy, is simply a fallacy. In fact, I would argue that in many cases where we get full disclosures of why, such as in the case of a serial killer who confesses his crimes in full, we are often left less satisfied than before, whereas in your average murder mystery the revelation of how it was done – Colonel Mustard, in the library, with the candlestick – is a moment of satisfaction rather than frustration. This is exactly the problem with trying to apply a religious explanation to a question of science. How was the universe created is not answered in a testable, satisfying way for all (or most or even many) of us by Because God felt like it anymore than How did Colonel Mustard kill Mr. Body is answered by Because he was being blackmailed. That’s simply not a legitimate way to respond.

And thus, I am not going to invite Mrs. Atkins, my 9th grade science teacher, to come to ritual anytime soon and expect her to do a lesson on how the God and Goddess relate to one another as reaper and sower of life, or why Katrina happened, or why I’ve lost people whom I loved because that is not her job. If I want answers to those questions – and I consider it entirely valid not to ask those questions, or to think those questions are silly or unnecessary, as well – I have to find the answers myself. I have to struggle with them, try to expand my own cosmology to encompass these events, try to reframe the gods as beings who can allow this to happen, or are powerless to stop it, or have a Big Reason to allow such things, and I have to do it entirely on my own time. The answers I get are going to be mine alone, after all, and looking elsewhere for those answers is just confusing the issue, perhaps even running from the questions themselves, more than anything else.

My 11th grade biology teacher was the wife of a conservative, charismatic Baptist minister. When she started the unit on evolution, she said a few words about evolution beforehand. Unlike Dover, PA, though, this is what she said. I do not remember it word for word except for a few specific phrases, so I will paraphrase. Suffice to say, she was eloquent and intelligent and commanding, and I will fail to capture that moment when she said (roughly) the following: “I am going to teach evolution in this class, and I am not going to argue with anyone about it. If you have a problem with evolution because of your religious beliefs, I suggest you take it up with your preacher. However, I am a preacher’s wife, with my own beliefs, and no one is going to tell me not to teach this. As my husband has always said of the curriculum I teach, I do not want to tell your school what to do, because when that happens I open the door to the school telling me how to run my church and there is no way in Hell I am going to let that happen. So if you don’t like this, I suggest you study it, take your test, get your grade and then talk about it in Sunday School because we are not going to talk about it here.”

Now, why is that so hard for people?

So, not to start my posting for the day with terrifying tales of environmental destruction, but check this from MSNBC.com:

Up to 90 percent of the permafrost at the surface of the Northern Hemisphere could melt by the end of this century, leaving gaping holes in the ground and collapsed structures, roads and railways in northern regions.

In what scientists predict to be a vicious cycle, the thaw will release more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, further exacerbating global warming.

Yeah, you heard it. “Perma” frost is going to need a new marketing consultant because it’s not so “perma” anymore. By the end of this century, according to the scientists involved in the various studies this article covers, a huge quantity of soil that hasn’t thawed in, oh, a few tens of thousands of years – according to various sources, the last ice age started 70,000 years ago and ended 10,000 years ago – is suddenly releasing its stored ice. When the story quoted above says “leaving gaping holes in the ground,” they’re not kidding. Follow the link and you’ll see a couple kids in Alaska standing next to one of the smaller examples of this.

The fun thing is, all that ice is filled with carbon. As it melts, the carbon goes into the environment and ends up adding to global warming. We’re not talking about a little bit here, we’re talking 30% of the world’s carbon. In the end, the contribution melting permafrost makes to the ongoing cycle of global warming will exceed that made by our current levels of fossil fuel consumption. In the end, the environment will be the environment’s own worst enemy, and it’s all because we didn’t stop and take seriously shit like this twenty or thirty or five years ago. At this point, the conservative skeptics who are too busy lighting their cigars with glowing chunks of coal fresh from their strip mines will finally decide to do something, and that “something” will be to waddle inland and throw another baby seal on the fire.

Toss in the extra water entering the oceans from arctic melt and Chapel Hill stops looking like beachfront property waiting to happen and starts looking more like Atlantis. Fun!

And, though I am no immunologist, I am forced to wonder… we know microbes can be kept suspended, even live, in worse conditions than a ball of ice buried in the ground. And if there are microbes in there, and they haven’t been released in 70,000 years, we’re not exactly going to have a lot of immunity to them. And if people get worried about things like, say, smallpox on the basis that a generation or two without immunity to a disease makes the disease more dangerous than ever to those currently alive, then what kind of danger are we in when some 70,000 year old bug comes oozing out of the ground in Siberia ten years from now (or, you know, yesterday) and someone picks it up?

I need to stop reading the news.

On the other hand, this does give me an idea to explain zombies in the stories I’m working on…

I’m a sick, sick man.

For anyone who has seen American Astronaut, MSNBC.com offers this:

Ceres has long been considered one of the tens
of thousands of asteroids that make up the asteroid belt between Mars
and Jupiter. At 580 miles (930 km) in diameter — about the size of
Texas — it’s the largest asteroid in the belt, accounting for about 25
percent of the belt’s total mass.

Astronomers had thought Ceres might never have been heated enough to create layers of material.

computer models now suggest Ceres has a differentiated interior — dense
material in the core and lighter stuff near the surface. Possible
configurations include a mantle rich in water ice around a rocky core.

this mantle is composed of at least 25 percent water, Ceres would have
more fresh water than Earth, according to a statement released by the
Space Telescope Science Institute, which operates Hubble for NASA and
the European Space Agency.

So now we know:  they can open a bar there.  Rock.


Scientific American has up a fantastic article debunking 15 common talking points of creation “science”.  It’s well worth reading for the science, but don’t miss the editorial commentary at the end:

“Creation science” is a contradiction in terms. A central tenet of
modern science is methodological naturalism–it seeks to explain the
universe purely in terms of observed or testable natural mechanisms.
Thus, physics describes the atomic nucleus with specific concepts
governing matter and energy, and it tests those descriptions
experimentally. Physicists introduce new particles, such as quarks, to
flesh out their theories only when data show that the previous
descriptions cannot adequately explain observed phenomena. The new
particles do not have arbitrary properties, moreover–their definitions
are tightly constrained, because the new particles must fit within the
existing framework of physics.

In contrast, intelligent-design theorists invoke shadowy entities
that conveniently have whatever unconstrained abilities are needed to
solve the mystery at hand. Rather than expanding scientific inquiry,
such answers shut it down.

It keeps going from there and, unsurprisingly, it’s a solid defense of
scientific processes and far more positive than it is negative. 
Unlike the Creationists, SciAm offers something hopeful rather than an
unending stream of criticism, a belief that science always has – and
always will – push ignorance further and further from daily life.

So what were people doing in the absence of the interwebs, cell phones
and 9-to-5 jobs 7,000 years ago?  Apparently they were busy
humpin’ and making images of humpin’.  At least, some of them were:

Stone-age figurines depicting what could be the oldest
pornographic scene in the world have been unearthed in Germany. 
Archaeologists have discovered what they believe to be the
7,200-year-old remnants of a man having intercourse with a woman.

Harald Stäuble of the Archaeological Institute of Saxony, based in
Dresden, discovered the 8cm lower half of a man, which has been named
Adonis von Zschernitz.


He added: “Adonis is bent forward and the female figure is bent forward even more.

“There are two ways of looking at this. The first is that they were
doing a ritual dance, but the other possibility is that the man and
woman were copulating and that he was standing behind her. The
copulation option is far more likely, and would make this the oldest
representation ever of a pornographic scene.”

So there you have it – all the more reason to visit your local museum. (more…)

Lordy, but I’ve been using this new “science” category.  NASA has come out with a denial of reports that two scientists have found what they consider conclusive signs of life on Mars:

News reports on February 16, 2005, that NASA scientists
from Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., have found strong
evidence that life may exist on Mars are incorrect.

NASA does not have any observational data from any current Mars
missions that supports this claim. The work by the scientists mentioned
in the reports cannot be used to directly infer anything about life on
Mars, but may help formulate the strategy for how to search for Martian
life. Their research concerns extreme environments on Earth as analogs
of possible environments on Mars. No research paper has been submitted
by them to any scientific journal asserting Martian life.

Damn.  Of course, there’s still debate over the origin of the
potentially Martian microbes discovered in ’96 and the Viking Labeled
Release experiments designed by Gilbert Levin back in the ’70s. 
So who knows.  I sure as hell don’t.  I made it through 10th grade biology because my lab partner was the son of a veterinarian.  I suck at things like this. (more…)

OK, so I got a “science” category.  No one can now reasonably
claim that global climate change is a fluke or a natural evolution –
and that’s now scientifically certified.  A team of researchers
has declared an end to the debate over the cause of climate change,
having studied seven million data points and determined, conclusively, that humans (and specifically greenhouse gasses) are to blame:

The strongest evidence yet that global warming has been
triggered by human activity has emerged from a major study of rising
temperatures in the world’s oceans.

The present trend of warmer sea temperatures, which have risen by an
average of half a degree Celsius (0.9F) over the past 40 years, can be
explained only if greenhouse gas emissions are responsible, new
research has revealed.

The results are so compelling that they should end controversy about
the causes of climate change, one of the scientists who led the study
said yesterday.

“The debate about whether there is a global warming signal now is over,
at least for rational people,”
(emphasis mine – RMcMP) said Tim Barnett, of the Scripps
Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California. “The models got it
right. If a politician stands up and says the uncertainty is too great
to believe these models, that is no longer tenable.”

It found that natural variation in the Earth’s climate, or changes in
solar activity or volcanic eruptions, which have been suggested as
alternative explanations for rising temperatures, could not explain the
data collected in the real world. Models based on man-made emissions of
greenhouse gases, however, matched the observations almost precisely.

“What absolutely nailed it was the greenhouse model,” Dr Barnett told
the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in
Washington. Two models, one designed in Britain and one here in the US,
got it almost exactly. We were stunned. They did it so well it was
almost unbelieveable.”

There you have it, folks.  Rush, Michael Crichton and that guy who
told Congress in the ’90s that global warming would be a good thing are
all officially morons and there’s science to back it up.  Seven
million data points.  It’ll take Bush about two seconds to
deflect, deny and marginalize it, but whatever.  There is no
arguing with it now, only ignoring it.  Anything but action in
favor of the environment is now, officially, insane. (more…)