Friday, October 13, 2017

Understanding Evolution - The Big Picture of Geologic Time

Geological Time SpiralThe Earth is old. Very old. You may have heard that it's 4.5 billion years old. But 4.5 may not sound like a huge number. The United States federal budget is nearly $4,000 billion. That's a bigger number than 4.5 billion, and it's something the government deals with on a yearly basis. So how old can 4.5 billion years really be?

This is the problem. Us humans aren't very good at dealing with really big or really small numbers. We're good at dealing with things on a human scale, whether it's size or age. When it gets to things that fall outside that range, we have a hard time wrapping our heads around it.

One of the better analogies I've seen is to imagine compressing 4.5 billion years down into one year, and then looking at how long things would take at that time scale. (It's not a big difference, but let's use a 365 day year, not a leap year.)

Let's start off by calibrating ourselves to something we're used to. Count to 1 second. That's 150 years - twice an average lifetime. If you're close to 40 like me, you only need to count to a third of a second to account for your entire life. Learning to walk, ride a bike, drive, my first job, my wedding day, watching my daughter grow up and graduate from high school. That all fits into 0.3 seconds in our compressed timescale.

For a slightly longer calibration point, let's go back to a big milestone - 1 AD. Well, maybe that's only a big milestone in hindsight since nobody at the time was actually changing their calendars, but it's still a number we can relate to - 2016 years ago. In our compressed calendar, that would have been a mere 14.13 seconds ago.

Keep those numbers in mind - 0.3 seconds for 40 years, 1 second for 150 years, or 14 seconds for 2000 years.

Okay, so now let's start going through the calendar. Keep in mind that a lot of these time periods and dates aren't known exactly, so in our 4.5 billion year year, they may have really been a few days or even weeks earlier or later.


Days 1 - 41, January 1 - Febrauary 10 (4.5 - 4.0 BYA)
Protoplanetary DiscFor the first 40 days or so, there wasn't much recognizable as the Earth as we know it. The cloud of dust and debris around the sun would have coalesced into the protoplanetary disc, with clumps forming and sticking together, until eventually some of the clumps got big enough to be early planets. Some time during this period, when the 'Earth' wasn't quite as big as it is now, it collided with another early planet about the size of Mars. This was a gargantuan impact, throwing out huge amounts of debris, some which coalesced to form the moon.


Days 41 - 57, February 11 - February 26 (4.0 - 3.8 BYA)
There were still a lot of asteroids out there at this point, so for roughly another two weeks, the Earth continued to get pummeled by these bodies, in what's known as the Late Heavy Bombardment.

Some time during those two weeks, the very first life got started. It would have been comparatively very simple, and certainly single celled. It would have been the type of life now known as prokaryotes - the archaea and bacteria. For the next 5 months or so, until August 3rd, these archaea and bacteria will reign supreme as the only type of life on the planet. Of course, they were evolving - replicating, mutating, and adapting, but they remained prokaryotes.

By the way, there was no oxygen in the atmosphere, yet. All the bacteria and archaea alive at this point are anaerobic.


Day 122, May 2 (3.0 BYA)

CyanobateriaCyanobacteria evolved. Forms of photosynthesis had evolved much earlier, but cyanobacteria evolved a new, more efficient method that created oxygen as a byproduct. Since oxygen is so reactive, at first any oxygen these cyanobacteria created would have reacted with iron to make rust. There was a lot of iron for the oxygen to react with, so for a while yet, there still wouldn't be much oxygen in the atmosphere. Until...


Day 163, June 12 (2.5 BYA)

The Great Oxygenation Event. Once all the free iron on Earth had reacted with the oxygen that cyanobacteria were making, there was nothing left to capture that oxygen, and it built up in the atmosphere very rapidly. But because oxygen is so reactive, it was actually poisonous to many organisms that hadn't evolved to handle it (antioxidants are still important even for us oxygen breathers - we don't want extra, unaccounted for oxygen running amock in our cells). This probably caused the first mass extinction on Earth (though it doesn't get as much press as other mass extinction events since no multi-cellular life was involved).


Day 215, August 3 (1.85 BYA)

YeastEukaryotes evolved. Okay, if you don't read about biology as much as me (or actual biologists), you may not know what a eukaryote is. They're the types of organisms that have a nucleus in their cells, and store all their DNA in chromosomes in that nucleus. They also have 'organelles', specialized little parts inside their cells with specific functions. One of the most famous is mitochondria, so often referred to as 'cellular powerhouses' for making the ATP that powers the rest of the cell. Amazingly, the most likely way this happened was symbiosis - a type of bacteria that would eventually become the mitochondria living alongside/inside some other species.

By the way, we're eukaryotes ourselves, but it will still be a while before we appear in this calendar.


Day 301, October 28 (800 MYA)

The first multicellular life appeared. Colonies of eukaryotes (and prokaryotes) would have been around before this, but these were the first eukaryotes to nudge past the distinction between a colony of clones and a group of clones considered a single organism.


Day 318 - 325, November 14 - November 21 (580 - 505 MYA)

Cambrian ExplosionThis was the famed Cambrian 'Explosion'. But it barely counts as an explosion even in our compressed calendar. Remember that in reality, this period lasted some 75 million years. It was during this time that complex multicellular life evolved, and branched out into many of the major groups that are still around. Granted, most of these organisms would have looked fairly primitive, but there at least would have been organisms big enough for a person to see with their naked eye (assuming you had a time machine), and recognizable as animals.


Day 326, November 22 (485 MYA)

Early FishThe first vertebrates with actual bones evolved, the jawless fishes. These jawless fish would eventually give rise to all the vertebrates alive today.


Day 330, November 26 (434 MYA)

The first land plants evolved. These first plants wouldn't have been particularly impressive, probably looking more like lichens. But over the coming ages, they would evolve more and more traits that benefitted their terrestrial lives.


Day 336, December 2 (363 MYA)

CarboniferousWell, it's the second day of the last month of our Earth history year. And by now, the Earth finally looks fairly recognizable. There are sharks and other fish swimming in the ocean, insects crawling around on land, feeding on plants with stems and leaves. It's round about this time that the first tetrapods took to the land. Sure, there are many types of plants and animals that haven't yet appeared, but if you went back in a time machine, you wouldn't feel like you were on a completely alien world.


Day 340, December 6 (320 MYA)
This was when some species of animals split into two, one of whose descendants would go on to become the synapsids (which includes us), and one of which would go on to become the sauropsids, which includes lizards and birds. But at the time, those two sister species would still have looked practically identical.


Day 343, December 9 (280 MYA)
The first seed-bearing plants evolved.


Day 347, December 13 (225 MYA)
The first dinosaurs evolved sometime around now, and just a few million years later (no more than a day or two in this compressed calendar), the first mammals also evolved. For the time being, both remained rather minor groups of animals, with therapsids and non-dinosaur archosaurs being the most dominant land animals for now.


Day 349, December 15 (200 MYA)
A mass extinction occurred, killing off most of the synapsids. After today, the dinosaurs would diversify and come to dominate the planet. Mammals still remained small.


Day 353, December 19 (155 MYA)
Archaeopteryx - Berlin SpecimenThis may not be the most significant event in the history of the planet, but it's one I'm interested in personally - Archaeopteryx evolved. And since Archaeopteryx was either one of the first birds, or a very close relative of the first birds, it was right around this time that birds evolved.


Day 355, December 21 (130 MYA)
Flowers evolved. Just think about that. We're two thirds of the way through December, and the first flowers are just now appearing.


Day 360, December 26 (65 MYA)
K-Pg Impact EventA gigantic asteroid collided with the Earth, causing a massive explosion and cataclysmic devastation on the planet. With only a few exceptions, no land animals over 50 lbs survived. All of the non-bird dinosaurs went extinct, though plenty of bird species were wiped out, as well. In fact, species from pretty much every major branch of life went extinct - mammals, marine reptiles, insects, plants, fish, all the pterosaurs, etc. In the wake of this devastation, the remaining mammals would diversify to become the dominant large animals on land.


Day 365, December 31, 12:00 noon (6 MYA)
ProconsulOn noon of the last day of our compressed year, an ancient species of ape split into two species. The descendants of one of those species would remain in the forests, and eventually give rise to chimpanzees and bonobos. The descendants of the other would gradually move out to the savannahs, eventually giving rising to us - but not for a little while, yet.


Day 365, December 31, 11:48 pm (100,000 YA)
Modern humans appeared about a quarter of an hour till midnight. This gets a little into semantics on which of our ancestors you're willing to say are 'human' vs. 'pre-human', so give or take a few minutes here to allow for the fuzziness of this transition.


Day 365, December 31, 11:58:50 pm (10,000 YA)
The first human civilizations started some time around now.


Day 365, December 31, 11:59:25 pm (5,000 YA)
Early WritingThe famous ball in times square is about halfway through its drop, and humans have just developed writing.


Day 365, December 31, 11:59:46 pm (2,016 YA)
The year 1 AD.


Day 366, January 1, 12:00 midnight (Now)
And now, at the stroke of midnight, we've reached the present day.


So, it may seem like things really started accelerating there towards the end of the year, but that's mostly due to our own bias of being more interested in those particular events, and the bias of the geologic record in containing more younger fossils and artifacts than older ones. Just as much was happening 100 million years ago as a few thousand years ago, just without us humans around to see it.

And even if it seems like a lot was happening in a few mere days, recall what these time scales really mean. On this condensed calendar, a human lifespan is less than a second. The last two millenia were a mere 13 seconds, and all of humanity's time on Earth is no more than a few minutes*. Start counting out seconds, trying to imagine entire generations passing with each count, to get an idea of just how vast these timescales are. Then, try to imagine continuing that count for a whole day, and just how much time that really represents. And then, think back to what you were doing a year ago, and how many seconds have passed since that moment, and maybe you'll start to get an idea of how long 4.5 billion years really is.

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*To be fair, most species haven't been around very long on a geologic scale, even if humanity is a bit on the young side. Species last maybe a million years or so before either going extinct, or evolving into something else. Life is constantly changing and adapting.

Image Sources:

Friday, September 29, 2017

Creationists' Weird Concepts of Hyper-Evolution

Note: This entry adapted from Quora.

While some creationists may be of the sort convinced by the saying, "The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it," many more want to show that the their beliefs are rational and supported by evidence. In this search for rational explanations, many of the more intellectual creationists actually do accept evolution in certain forms, though they'll often refuse to say so. For example, here's an example from Answers in Genesis, Speciation, Yes; Evolution, No. The title says it all. The writer comes out and says that certain phenomena that are part of evolution actually occur, but then denies that this is 'evolution'.

It even included this figure:

AiG 'Adaptation', not 'Evolution'
Image Source: Answers in Genesis, Click to embiggen

It looks almost like the branching pattern you see in mainstream biology textbooks, with the big difference being that they've decided to stop going back any further than the 'kinds' that were created in the Garden of Eden.

In fact, for creationists who take the Noah's Ark story seriously, and have given any thought at all to what it would take to fit representatives of all the world's animals on the ark, it becomes very obvious that there's no possible way to fit every single species. So, they focus on the word 'kind', claiming that kind is more akin to families instead of species, and that Noah only had to take representatives of the different kinds. Then, once the flood waters dried up, the descendants of those rescued animals would go on to 'adapt' (not evolve, of course) into many new species.

Here's another example from Answers in Genesis, this one from the page, Reimagining Ark Animals.

AiG - Cat 'Adaptation', not 'Evolution'
Image Source: Answers in Genesis, Click to embiggen

Yes. Creationists are proposing that all living cats have a common ancestor.

And here are a few photos people took at The Creation Museum:

AiG Horse 'Adaptation', not 'Evolution'
Image Source: RationalityNow.com, Click to embiggen

Image Source: RationalityNow.com - Creation Museum Part 5

AiG Dog 'Adaptation', not 'Evolution'
Image Source: GasFoodNoLodging.com, Click to embiggen

These particular creationists are proposing some rather large 'adaptations' over the generations.

Granted, it does get a little hard to explain creationist rationale since it's not always fully coherent. For example, in that first article I linked to (Speciation, Yes; Evolution, No), the writer says that this type of adaptation is possible thanks to a large gene pools with already existing variation. In fact, I'll include one last figure to show the claim:

AiG 'Adaptation', not 'Evolution'
Image Source: Answers in Genesis

And creationists are very fond of saying that no new information can be created through genetic mutation. But look at the types of adaptation Answers in Genesis was proposing for all those animals after the flood. Even with clean animals that had 7 pairs instead of just 1 pair, there's no way their genomes would have had all the variation necessary to produce the varied offspring Answers in Genesis is claiming. And the time scales they're proposing (remember - the flood was only a few thousand years ago) are far more rapid than anything from actual science. It's almost funny that the creationists who deny 'evolution' so vehemently, go on to propose this type of hyper evolution.

But even with this hyper evolution, creationists claim that adaptation can only go so far, and that animals of a certain kind will only ever go on to have descendants of the same kind, as if there's some kind of magic stop sign in the genome.

Anyway, many creationists don't actually deny certain evolutionary principles. In fact, many creationists amp those principles up to 11 to deal with other inconvenient facets of creationism. But, they'll steadfastly refuse to acknowledge that it's 'evolution'. I mean, one breeding pair of cats evolving into lions, tigers, ocelots, bobcats, jaguars, and all the other cats in a mere 6000 years is perfectly reasonable. But a common ancestor between cats and dogs would just be silly.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Friday Trump & Politics Roundup - 20

Donald TrumpThis is my semi-regular feature to post links to articles about Donald Trump along with excerpts from those articles. Trump has the potential to cause so much damage to our country and the world that it's every citizen's responsibility to keep pressure on him and our other elected officials to try to minimize the damage. To read previous entries in this series and other Trump related posts, check out my Trump archives.

Prior to last week, it had been a little while since I've done one of these posts. But like I write in the introduction to every post in this series, it is every citizen's responsibility to keep pressure on Trump and our other elected officials to try to minimize the damage, so I can't just let these abuses and bad decisions slip through the cracks. Though to be honest, there's so much that's negative coming out of this administration that I can't keep up with all of it.


Medium - Carl Zimmer's Speech 'Let's Not Lose Our Minds': "Science, Journalism, and Democracy: Grappling With A New Reality"

I would highly recommend reading the whole article. It's focus is on what science journalists should do, but it's useful for all citizens in an age when the president and dominant political party are so anti-science.

It's been nearly ninety years since that Pravda article about Lysenko was published, helping to launch him on his dismal career. It's been over fifty years since he fell at last. When you hear this story, you may think, "Well, that's appalling, but it happened a long time ago, and in a faraway place. It has no meaning to us today in the United States in 2017."

I disagree. The things we are discussing today at this meeting -- democracy, science, and journalism -- are three valuable institutions that have made life in this country far better than it would be without them. They are worth defending, and worth keeping free of corruption.

We can look back over history to see how, in different places and different times, each of these pillars cracked and sometimes even fell. We should not be smug when we look back at these episodes. We should not be so arrogant as to believe we are so much smarter or nobler that we're immune from these disasters.

The article also included some chilling parallels between Stalin's Soviet Union and the current U.S. government (with some of these points being more parallel than others):

  • A government decided that an important area of research, one that the worldwide scientific community had been working on for decades, was wrong. Instead, they embraced weak evidence to the contrary.
  • It ignored its own best scientists and its scientific academies.
  • It glamorized someone who opposed that mainstream research based on weak research, turning his meager track record into a virtue.
  • It forced scientists to either be political allies or opponents.
  • It personally condemned scientists who supported the worldwide consensus and spoke out against the government's agenda, casting them as bad people hell-bent on harming the nation.
  • The damage to the scientific community rippled far, and lasted for years. It showed hostility to scientists from other countries, isolating them from international partnerships. It also created an atmosphere of fear that led to self-censorship.
  • And by turning away from the best science, a government did harm to its country.


Vox - Trump isn't delivering his own DACA policy because he's cowardly and weak: An evasion of responsibility.

Long before he was a politician, Donald Trump was a showman. So it's telling that on the biggest political story of the week, the great impresario of nativist backlash politics has decided to make himself scarce. Instead of announcing his plan to kill the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program with a six-month delay personally, Trump is letting Jeff Sessions act as the star of the DACA episode of the Trump Show.

That's no comfort to the 800,000 people -- and the millions of family members, friends, and co-workers who depend on them -- whose lives are about to be thrown into chaos. But it's a great reflection of the fundamental cowardice with which Trump has faced this issue. Rather than own up to his own decision and defend it, Trump this morning tweeted an exhortation to Congress to step up and solve the problem for him in some unspecified way.

Trump has let himself get jammed-up by nativist politicians who are more ideologically serious than he is. But rather than owning that decision -- and taking the hit with the broad public and the business community that would entail -- he's trying to punt, fudge, and avoid responsibility.


Bad Astronomy - Climate Science Denier Rep. Jim Bridenstine to be Nominated as NASA's Cheif

But where this really goes wrong is Bridenstine's very loud and strident denial of climate science.

Since he's a Republican from Oklahoma, this perhaps isn't surprising, but the breadth and depth of his denial is cause for great concern. He was elected to Congress in late 2012, and immediately launched into climate science denial grandstanding.

In June 2013, he gave a one-minute speech on the floor of Congress regurgitating straight-up denial propaganda...

But there's more, and this is critical. In 2013, when he had been in Congress just a few months, he sponsored a bill that would have gutted the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's climate research, funneling that money instead into weather warning. While the latter is important, we do spend quite a bit on that already, and at the same time NOAA's research into climate leads the world and is an absolutely critical resource. This bill would have been atrocious and incredibly damaging, but happily it didn't pass.


Washington Post Op-ed - The Justice Department is squandering progress in forensic science

During the past decade, thanks largely to a 2009 report from the National Academy of Sciences, we have made important progress in ridding our nation's courtrooms of such scenarios [faulty convictions]. But the Justice Department's recent decision to not renew the National Commission on Forensic Science -- the primary forum through which scientists, forensic lab technicians, lawyers and judges have worked together to guide the future of forensic science -- threatens to stall and even reverse that progress.


Reveal News - Trump administration suddenly pulls plug on teen pregnancy programs

The Trump administration has quietly axed $213.6 million in teen pregnancy prevention programs and research at more than 80 institutions around the country, including Children's Hospital of Los Angeles and Johns Hopkins University.

The decision by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will end five-year grants awarded by the Obama administration that were designed to find scientifically valid ways to help teenagers make healthy decisions that avoid unwanted pregnancies.

The elimination of two years of funding for the five-year projects shocked the professors and community health officials around the country who run them.

Health officials say cutting off money midway through multiyear research projects is highly unusual and wasteful because it means there can be no scientifically valid findings. The researchers will not have the funds to analyze data they have spent the past two years collecting or incorporate their findings into assistance for teens and their families.


Industrial Equipment News - Blog: Tariffs on Foreign Steel Are a Bad Idea

In order to restore American steel's flagging fortunes, the Trump administration has been exploring increased tariff or quota restrictions on steel imports, citing national security concerns.

Trump upped the ante this month in an exchange with reporters on Air Force One:

"Steel is a big problem... I mean, they're dumping steel. Not only China, but others. We're like a dumping ground, OK? They're dumping steel and destroying our steel industry. They've been doing it for decades, and I'm stopping it. It'll stop."

My research focuses on the politics of trade, including the use of restrictions like tariffs. A look back at the last time a president slapped tariffs on steel is illuminating for the current debate.

The impact of steel tariffs on other domestic manufacturers such as construction and automotive manufacturing is likely to be bad. However, the bigger concern would be that the WTO again rule such tariffs to be in violation of U.S. trade commitments. Such an event would likely touch off a trade war between the U.S. and its major trading partners, particularly the European Union.


Vanity Fair - Trump Wants a "Transparent" Border Wall to Prevent Injuries from Falling "Sacks of Drugs": That way when cartels "throw the large sacks of drugs over," Trump says, agents can see them.

Trump went on to say that the wall needs one thing: transparency. "You have to be able to see through it," he explained. "In other words, if you can't see through that wall--so it could be a steel wall with openings, but you have to have openings because you have to see what's on the other side of the wall."

The wall needs to be see-through, the president continued, because drug dealers may otherwise throw large bags of drugs over the wall to the other side, and hit innocent passers-by. "As horrible as it sounds, when they throw the large sacks of drugs over, and if you have people on the other side of the wall, you don't see them--they hit you on the head with 60 pounds of stuff? It's over," he added. "As crazy as that sounds, you need transparency through that wall. But we have some incredible designs."

How in the hell did this man get elected?


Vox - A new interview reveals Trump's ignorance to be surprisingly wide-ranging: He doesn't know what he doesn't know.

But reading the transcript of Donald Trump's recent interview with three New York Times reporters, two things stand out. One is the sheer range of subjects that Trump does not understand correctly -- from French urban planning to health insurance to Russian military history to where Baltimore is to domestic policy in the 1990s to his own regulatory initiatives. The other is that Trump is determined, across the board, to simply bluff and bluster through rather than admitting to any uncertainty or gaps in his knowledge.
The complete interview is a little bit hard to parse, since Trump keeps ducking off the record and the transcript interrupts. But it really is worth taking in the whole thing -- the scope is breathtaking.

Headings from the article:

  • Trump doesn't seem to know what health insurance is
  • Trump confuses two different Napoleons
  • Trump misdescribes his tax plan
  • Trump doesn't know American political history
  • Trump makes lots of weird, trivial errors
  • Trump's combination of ignorance and arrogance is dangerous

Friday, September 1, 2017

Friday Trump & Politics Roundup - 19, The Disgraceful Arpaio Pardon

Donald TrumpThis is my semi-regular feature to post links to articles about Donald Trump along with excerpts from those articles. Trump has the potential to cause so much damage to our country and the world that it's every citizen's responsibility to keep pressure on him and our other elected officials to try to minimize the damage. To read previous entries in this series and other Trump related posts, check out my Trump archives.

It's been a little while since I've done one of these posts, partly because I was on vacation, and partly because I've been busy with other things. I have a back log of articles to post in the next entry, but right now, there's one act by Trump so disgraceful and worrying that I'm going to focus solely on it - the pardon of Joe Arpaio.

New York Magazine - Trump Flaunts His Indifference to the Rule of Law

Even a week later, the stench of it hangs in the air. The pardon of Sheriff Joe Arpaio is one of the more chilling authoritarian moves that Trump has made so far. I say this not simply because Arpaio treated prisoners in his charge in barbaric ways; not just because the president described this brutality as Arpaio simply "doing his job"; not even because Arpaio proudly and constantly engaged in racial profiling, making Latino citizens and noncitizens alike afraid to leave their own homes. I say it for a simpler reason: because it is Trump's deepest indication yet that the rule of law means nothing to him.
It is a pardon seemingly designed to blow a raspberry at the court system, and tell anyone in law enforcement or border control or ICE or anywhere for that matter that, if you commit brutal or illegal acts, the big man has your back. / This is government as an unaccountable, legally immune thug.


Rolling Stone - Why Trump's Arpaio Pardon Is So Terrifying: This isn't how things are supposed to work in a country that adheres to the rule of law

Before getting to the egregiousness of the misdemeanor pardon, it's worth briefly surveying Arpaio's violations of the Constitution and other abuses of power. For example, he violated the Eighth Amendment's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment by subjecting pre-trial detainees - that is, people who have not been convicted of a crime and are presumed innocent - to dangerously high temperatures and contaminated food. Arpaio erected an outdoor jail in Phoenix known as Tent City that he himself referred to as a "concentration camp" and which remained in use for more than two decades. Numerous prisoners died in his jails, and the county paid out millions of dollars in wrongful death damages and settlements. Arpaio also had critics in government and the media arrested, resulting in the county having to make further payouts. (There's more; for a fuller picture, see the Phoenix New Times' reporting highlights.)
By pardoning someone with Arpaio's history of illegally targeting racial minorities, Trump endorsed the use of policing practices to deprive people of color of their rights under the Constitution. Furthermore, by pardoning Arpaio for the specific crime of defying a court order, Trump announced his intention to free his cronies from accountability for lawbreaking, raising the possibility that he will discourage his campaign associates from providing evidence in the Russia investigation with the promise of pardons if they are held in contempt of Congress or the courts.
That is precisely the opposite of how things are supposed to work in a country that adheres to the rule of law, in which the rules are supposed to apply to even those with the most power and connections. The U.S. system of checks and balances is designed to constrain the power of elected officials. But Trump appears prepared to use his pardon power to make an end run around the judiciary, gutting its ability to enforce its orders that the Constitution be obeyed. The pardon power is broad, but if Trump is going to use it to obstruct justice, Congress needs to stop him.


The Daily Show

And here's why Trump's pardon is an even bigger deal than merely condoning Arpaio's illegal actions. Remember how the three branches of government are supposed to be equal? Well, convicting someone of contempt is the one and only way the judicial branch can put muscle behind its decisions. So when the President of the United States steps in and pardons someone's contempt conviction, he's essentially rendering the courts powerless.
It feels like Trump did this, not just to reward Arpaio's loyalty, but to send a message to all his other cronies from the campaign, 'Hey guys, good news. We get our own set of laws. You don't need to cooperate with Mueller in the Russia investigation. I'll just pardon you.'

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

A Parable of Puppies and God

PuppyImagine that you have a puppy that you know likes to chew on garden hoses (yes, that's personal experience). You've tried training him, and maybe he's even been getting better, but you know he's still not perfect. Well, you've been using the hose for a day's worth of chores in the back yard. And when you're all finished up with the chores, you see the hose laying out, and it crosses your mind that if you leave the puppy unattended in the backyard, there's a good chance he's going to chew on the hose and ruin it. But you're tired and don't really feel like rolling up the hose, so you take your chances. You go inside to relax in the a/c and have a beer or two, while you leave the puppy playing outside. Well, later that night, you go out to find the hose destroyed because the puppy chewed on it. Is the puppy really entirely to blame for the situation? Sure, what he did was wrong, and he was disobedient to the way you'd been training him. But you knew that was one of the puppy's shortcomings, and you left the hose out there, anyway. The whole situation could have been avoided if you'd just put the hose away and not tempted the puppy.

The Bible tells the story of an all knowing and all powerful god, who created a garden of paradise with everything every creature would ever need. And he created humans, knowing their faults even better than you knew the puppy's (faults that he must have created on purpose, since he is, after all, all knowing and all powerful). And then, this god put the one thing that could wreck the entire situation right in the middle of the garden - the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. And then, he just tells these innocents not to eat from it. Hell, he hadn't even given his newly created humans any sense of good and evil, because they could only get that by eating from the tree. He didn't even put a fence around it! Oh, and he also created a serpent that he must have had a good idea would try to tempt his humans.

So, the 'unexpected' (cough, cough) happened, and the humans were tempted into eating the fruit of this tree. And God found out. Now, if you found a ruined hose that your puppy had chewed, you might be tempted to scold him or yell at him. But you sure as hell wouldn't physically injure the dog. But what did God do? He cursed ALL women, not just the one who ate the fruit, to have painful childbirth, and to be ruled over by their husbands. And he cursed ALL men to endless days of toil. And, he kicked humanity out of the garden. And according to certain fundamentalist religions, the Fall precipitated all manner of other negative consequences on the whole universe. And remember, this was supposed to be an all knowing God. So, unless he was completely incompetent, it seems like he was setting Adam and Eve up for failure on purpose.

And it doesn't get any better. Throughout the rest of the Bible, there are all types of other examples of this character acting cruelly - the massacre of Noah's flood, the plagues of Egypt (remember, God himself hardened Pharaoh's heart on several occasions to prolong this suffering just so that God could show off - and he punished all Egyptians, even their slaves), Job, the genocides when the Israelites conquered the promised land, and worst of all, Hell to punish souls for eternity for finite sins.

In the Bible, God is always the source of the worst suffering and atrocities in the stories. Sure, the stories are told from the point of view of people afraid of that god and groveling lest they suffer even more, but it's pretty clear who the Big Bad is. From a reality viewpoint, I'm not mad at God, because God's not real. But in the framework of the fictional stories written about him, God's the villain, and you would like to see him get his comeuppance (which, thanks to another fictional story, His Dark Materials, we do finally get to see).

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

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This entry was adapted from a Quora answer, How mad are atheists at God, on a scale of 1 to 10?

Monday, August 21, 2017

Eclipse Watching

I was all set to break out my daughter's Astroscan telescope with the sun viewing screen for the eclipse. But when I went to go grab the sun viewing screen last night, it wasn't where I thought it was. And for a variety of home improvement & other reasons, our house is a bit of a mess right now, so further searching for the screen proved fruitless. But, at least I still had the telescope itself and the lenses. And I happened to come across a creative idea on Google this morning - a homemade sun funnel (directions from NASA). So I took a bit of an early lunch break, ran to Walmart, and bought everything I'd need to make it, then came back, and with the help of a co-worker (I have a broken foot right now and didn't want to go tramping around the shop), got it all put together just in time for the eclipse. Here are a few photos of what we saw here in Wichita Falls - the first showing our setup, the second at the max obscuration, and the third a little later, but with my camera's brightness adjusted to make the sun spots more clear.

Eclipse Viewing Setup
Eclipse at Max Obscuration for Wichita Falls
Eclipse Viewing Setup
(Click on images to embiggen.)

Since we're engineers, we also couldn't resist taking measurements. We pulled out a tape measure, and took the following measurements from the image projected on the screen:

Eclipse 2017 Measurements in Wichita Falls

Assuming the same diameter for the moon and sun, those measurements correspond to a max obscuration of 82.5%. According to NASA, max obscuration where we were watching was 77.44% - not too bad for our less than precise methods.

Anyway, it was a nice little diversion today at work, going out every half hour or so to check on the eclipse's progress. One guy's wife and son even showed up to take a look. And the homemade sun funnel worked great - though I already have ideas for minor improvements before the next eclipse.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Why I Like Wichita Falls

The Falls of Wichita FallsI just recently came across and answered a Quora question, Do you like Wichita falls, TX?. Out of all the answers I've written for Quora, I suspect this is one of the most niche answers. So, to help maybe a few more people see it, and for anybody who might be interested, here's my answer (slightly edited).

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Yes, I like Wichita Falls, Texas. I moved here back in 2001, in my early 20s. As a point of reference, before that, I'd grown up / lived in Pennsylvania (outside of Pottstown, on the edge of Pennsylvania Dutch Country), Maryland (outside Frederick, before it built up like it is now), and inside the D.C. beltway (College Park and Greenbelt, and working in Crystal City and Alexandria).

Now, I'm not one of those people who says, I wasn't born in Texas, but I got here as fast as I could. I mean, if I could by magic live back in the northeast but instantly arrive in Texas for my job and to visit my friends/family here whenever I wanted, I'd probably do it. And Wichita Falls was certainly a culture shock coming straight from D.C. But Wichita Falls grows on you.


The Good:

Perfect Sized City - Wichita Falls has around 100,000 people. That's big enough that there are enough major stores to support everything you need - Walmart (obviously), Kohls, Penney's, Lowes, Home Depot, Sam's, Ross, Academy, O'Reilly's, Autozone, furniture stores, etc. There are also plenty of restaurants, both chains and local places. Granted, we don't have every major store or restaurant chain, but we have enough.

Barbecue - Speaking of restaurants, if you're comparing Wichita Falls to cities in the northeast or the West Coast, barbecue is one of America's greatest culinary gifts to the world. Smoked brisket and sausage are delicious, and there are a few good local places around here to get it. Or, once you make a few friends, you'll probably meet someone with their own smoker.

No Traffic - Compared to bigger cities, traffic in Wichita Falls is minimal. There are a few shopping areas where the traffic has picked up a bit in the time I've been here, but nothing too bad. We always joke that you can get anywhere in Wichita Falls, from anywhere else in Wichita Falls, in less than 10 minutes (some trips may be more like 15). Compared to my in-laws down in the DFW metroplex, that's great. It can take them 10 minutes just to get to the closest grocery store.

No Crowds - Last time I visited my parents up in Maryland and went shopping at Costco, I was overwhelmed by the crowds. No matter where I tried to stand, I could never find an out of the way corner. It was just people, people, everywhere. Wichita Falls is much more laid back. You can shop in relative peace no matter where you go, or walk down the sidewalks in downtown without being caught up in a sea of people.

Generally Helpful People - I've always been the type of person to stop and help someone broken down in an intersection. But here in Wichita Falls, by the time I pull over and make my way over to their car, there's usually a group of other people who've done the same thing, so we end up with a team of people to push the car somewhere safer.

Major Cities Nearby - Making up for the lack of major cultural attractions in Wichita Falls, we have bigger cities within a 2 hr drive - Oklahoma City to the north, and the DFW metroplex to the southeast. DFW is actually the 4th largest metropolitan area in the U.S., behind only New York, L.A., and Chicago, so you know that DFW is going to have a lot of everything - museums, theater, stores, zoos, restaurants, Six Flags, major leage sports, etc.

Local Cultural Attractions - The previous point doesn't mean that Wichita Falls doesn't have anything like that. We have two community theaters, several local museums, an indoor football team, a reviving downtown and art scene, etc. If you keep an eye out for announcements, there's almost always something going on. It's just that a lot of it isn't quite to the same caliber as what you'd find in a bigger city. (Sadly, we no longer have an ice hockey team - they just announced in April that this was their final season - End of era for Wildcats and their loyal supporters).

Local Traditions - A town like Wichita Falls has a lot of local traditions - the Old High vs. Rider football game, mums, Midwestern State University's homecomeing celebrations, debutantes, cotillion (this, not the dance), etc. My daughter has grown up her whole life here, so she really gets to be a part of all these traditions.

More Multicultural Than You'd Expect - There are two reasons for this. There's a NATO Training Air Force Base in town, so we have a large number of foreign military personnel and their families. The local university, Midwestern State, also actively recruits from foreign countries, especially the Caribbean. So, the Caribbean Student Union puts on a CaribFest every year. The Germans host an OktoberFest every year. The Dutch host the Queen's Birthday. There's a lot more multiculturalism than you'd expect from a smallish Texas town.

Inexpensive Cost of Living - Here's a link - Wichita Falls, Texas Cost of Living. Housing, especially, is less expensive in Wichita Falls than many other areas around the country. I love the house we have, but know it would cost a fortune back in the regions where I grew up.


The Bad:

Politics - Wichita Falls is about as red as you can get. Maybe that would be a plus for some people, but it drives me up the wall. For example, here are the Wichita County 2016 Election results. Straight Party tickets were 15,302 Republican vs. 4,870 Democratic. Trump won 27,609 votes, compared to only 8,752 for Clinton. Our representative in the State Board of Education has pushed for creationism in the classroom. Related to that (and religion - see below), we also have one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the nation.

Religion - This is another that depends on your personal views, but Wichita Falls is way too religious for my taste (I happen to be an atheist - which I don't volunteer freely to just anyone I meet here given the). Just about any public dinner, whether a school function, Girl Scouts, an Air Force event, or anything else, starts with a prayer, not to mention PTA meetings, and even during an emergency city council meeting a couple years ago. Wednesday night church services are common, in addition to going on Sunday. My daughter's high school biology teacher started off the unit on evolution by saying that she was a Christian and didn't believe in it, but it was part of the curriculum so they had to get through it. On the plus side, going to Walmart on a Sunday morning means absolutely no lines at the cash register.

Racism - Yes, I know racism is an issue everywhere. Back where I lived in Maryland, the local KKK headquarters was just a few towns north of me. And not everybody here is a racist. But the people who are racist are much more open about it. I had a guy at a bar complain to me about "n*ggers" right after a black guy sitting next to us got up to leave. I've had coworkers complain about good white girls dating black guys. I was at a party a few miles out of town in the country where a few guys started talking about whether or not to go burn a cross in a house where a black family had just moved in (they didn't, but guess where I've never gone back). Iowa Park, a town about 15 minutes away, is even worse. My wife and her black friend were refused service at a restaurant. Some black friends of ours who used to live there always came to Wichita Falls to grocery shop because of all the stares they got in Iowa Park (they were military, and didn't realize the town's reputation before moving in).

Climate - It's not quite the desert, but it's right on the edge. It gets hot in the summer. One year, we had over 100 days in a row where the high exceeded 100°F, and you can usually expect at least a few days every summer to exceed 110°F. The all time high was 117°F. Though, I will say that you get used to it. 100° days don't really phase me anymore. And it also means you get plenty of use out of a swimming pool - not like my friends' pools in PA growing up.

It's also pretty dry. If you want to grow a garden or flowers, you definitely have to water, since you can't rely on the rain. We just got out of a horrible drought, that was so bad we resorted to recycling treated waste water directly back into the drinking water supply ("Toilet to tap" wastewater recycling begins in Texas city). And with global warming, I only suspect droughts like that will become more common.

But when it does rain, especially in the summer, it can come in buckets. The rains that ended the last major drought actually caused flooding, and we were one forecasted storm away from a catastrophic flood (the reason for the aforementioned emergency city council meeting).

Winters aren't great, either. The thermometer shows a warmer temperature than the areas where I grew up, but the wind just cuts right through you. It's cold enough to make you uncomfortable, but not quite cold enough to give you much snow to have fun in. Though, you can expect one good snowfall per winter - just don't expect the snow to last more than a day or two before it melts. And since snow and freezing rain are so uncommon, the local governments don't invest much in equipment to handle it, so the roads are really bad when it does happen.

Geography - There are a few tiny hills around town, but not many. We're in the North Central Plains. So, if you like variation, head down to the Texas Hill Country, or North to the Wichita Mountains (a great day trip), but don't expect to see too much of interest in Wichita Falls. And don't expect to see many real trees outside what people have planted in their yards. Mesquite has taken over just about everywhere, along with not uncommon patches of cactus.

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So, on the whole, I like it in Wichita Falls. It may not have been my first choice, but now that I have roots here, I plan to stay a while. I'd much rather be here than anywhere in the DFW Metroplex. Wichita Falls has the feel of a big small town, where you know or know of just about everybody, but with enough amenities to be comfortable. And even though there are some racists, bigots, and religious zealots, there are enough good people to counter them (and everywhere has their fair share, anyway). And there are big cities close enough by to get your fill of 'culture' without having to deal with the traffic on a day to day basis.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Friday Trump & Politics Roundup - 18

Donald TrumpThis is my semi-regular feature to post links to articles about Donald Trump along with excerpts from those articles. Trump has the potential to cause so much damage to our country and the world that it's every citizen's responsibility to keep pressure on him and our other elected officials to try to minimize the damage. To read previous entries in this series and other Trump related posts, check out my Trump archives.

Obviously, there's a lot more news that I haven't included here. Bad news comes out of the Trump administration and Republican controlled House and Senate too fast for me to keep up with it all. (I wonder if that's a strategy - overwhelm the public with so much that people can't be outraged about everything.)

And damn, these posts are so freakin' depressing. If I just quit giving a damn about other people, I suppose I could ignore Trump and all the damage he's causing and just enjoy my own comfortable little bubble. But these are literally life and death stakes. His Mexico City policy is going to kill tens of thousands of people. The new Republican healthcare bill could kill tens of thousands per year more.

How in the hell did we get here as a nation where we've voted in such horrible politicians? The 4th of July is coming up in just a couple weeks, and I'm struggling with how to celebrate pride in America when I'm so disgusted and embarrassed with the current state of government. Setting off fireworks and waving flags seem hollow when an incompetent proto-fascist demagogue like Trump is leading the nation.


HAI Press Release - Helicopter Association International Strongly Opposes President Trump's Air Traffic Control Privatization Plan

Helicopter Association International (HAI) today joined other national organizations in opposing privatization of the nation's air traffic control (ATC) system.

These organizations signed a joint letter to President Donald Trump, expressing concerns that the plan would directly and significantly benefit the airline industry while destabilizing the current successful ATC system and raising costs through user fees that would be passed on to consumers.

"All stakeholders on both sides of this issue acknowledge that we already have the safest, most efficient air traffic control system in the world," said Matt Zuccaro, president and CEO of HAI. "So what problem are they trying to solve?"

"This initiative appears to be an effort by the airlines for more control of the airspace and the airports," continued Zuccaro. "As we all witness the airlines struggling with their own internal technology issues and related problems, does it really make sense to hand over control of the best ATC system in the world to them?"

Related: Joint Letter from 16 Aviation Associations Regarding Trump's Proposal to Privatize Air Traffic Control (the letter mentioned above)

Related: PR Newswire - Airline Passenger Group Says Airline Control Of FAA Not The Answer

Related: National Air Transportation Association - Myths and Facts Surrounding Air Traffic Control Corporatization


Newsweek - Will Trump Visit U.K? After attack on Sadiq Khan, Theresa May Faces Calls to Cancel State Trip

[This was particularly shameful behavior from Trump. And baffling. How can you screw up foreign relations so badly with the U.K.? Who criticizes a mayor in the immediate aftermath of a terrorist attack?]

President Donald Trump's already controversial planned state visit to the United Kingdom has just become a whole lot more contentious. Multiple tweets attacking London mayor Sadiq Khan in the wake of Saturday's attack in London that left seven people dead have led several leading British politicians to call for Prime Minister Theresa May to cancel the invitation.

"Sadiq Khan has shown dignity and leadership," said Tim Farron, the leader of the Liberal Democrats. "Theresa May absolutely must withdraw the state visit. This is a man insulting our national values at a time of introspection and mourning."

Those comments were slammed by senior Labour member of Parliament David Lammy.

"You are truly beneath contempt," he said in a series of tweets in reply to Trump. "You are just a troll. Show some bottle please PM. Cancel the state visit and tell Trump where to get off.

"You demean your office by misquoting and smearing the Mayor of a city that has just been attacked and is also the capital of your close ally. You besmirch the presidency, you taint previous Presidents with your behavior & you bring shame on your great country and its great people."

Related: The Guardian Editorial - The Guardian view on Trump's state visit to the UK: his invitation should be rescinded

Related: The Guardian - Trump's state visit to Britain put on hold: US president told Theresa May he did not want trip to go ahead if there were large-scale public protests


Industrial Equipment News - Energy Chief: Carbon Dioxide Not Prime Driver of Warming: His view is contrary to mainstream climate science.

Asked on CNBC's "Squawk Box" whether carbon emissions are primarily responsible for climate change, Perry said no, adding that "most likely the primary control knob is the ocean waters and this environment that we live in."

Perry's view is contrary to mainstream climate science, including analyses by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The EPA under President Donald Trump recently removed a web page that declared "carbon dioxide is the primary greenhouse gas that is contributing to recent climate change."


Nature Op-ed - Fight the silencing of gun research

In the half-century since the assassination of Martin Luther King, more civilians in the United States have been killed with guns than American soldiers have died in all US wars since the nation was founded in 1776. Currently, on an average day, about 300 Americans are shot and 100 die from gunshot wounds -- in murders, attempted suicides or accidents (see go.nature.com/2qnp4m2).
Yet the US government, at the behest of the gun lobby, limits the collection of data, prevents researchers from obtaining much of the data that are collected and severely restricts the funds available for research on guns. I have watched this first-hand, being one of a half-dozen or so gun researchers in the United States who has continuously published in this field over the past two decades.
Because of a two-decade stranglehold on US gun research, there are few, if any, scientific studies for people to refer to when promoting or countering proposed changes to gun control. Policymakers are essentially flying blind for what is currently classified as the third leading cause of US injury and death, after motor vehicles and opioids (see go.nature.com/2rpky2y).
Alarmingly, the gun lobby is increasingly aligning itself with a broad political movement that sees science not as a search for truth and understanding, but as a tool for promoting partisan agendas (see go.nature.com/2sderwh). The American Bar Association and many medical societies have spoken out on the firearm funding limitations imposed by Congress. Now all scientific associations need to add their voices.


Vox - World leaders tell jokes about Trump. But the implications aren't funny at all.

It's one thing when American late-night TV show hosts and online commenters make fun of President Donald Trump. It becomes something completely different -- and, frankly, alarming -- when world leaders mock the president.
But even though Turnbull thought his comments were off the record, he was still mocking the US president as a pompous clown in front of a room full of journalists and fellow politicians. When viewed in a wider context, that's more than a bit unnerving. This is an ally of the United States blatantly demonstrating that he doesn't take the president seriously.


Washington Post Op-ed - Trump said foreign leaders wouldn't laugh at the U.S. Now they're laughing at him.

"In the private conversations I've had with heads of states and ministers of foreign relations ... they all feel what Turnbull just basically came out and said: This is, by far, the least capable person ever to sit in the office and it's appalling they have to deal with him," said Ian Bremmer, president of Eurasia Group, a global risk-assessment firm. "Even in a country that really needs to have a good relationship with the United States, you're just not willing to deal with it. Your own ego will say, 'Screw this guy.' "


Vox - Trump wants to deport Iraqi Christians. A federal judge may have just saved them.: ICE officials arrested dozens of Iraqi Christian nationals over the weekend of June 10th in Michigan. The ACLU is fighting to keep them home.

When more than 100 Iraqi Chaldean Christians in Michigan were arrested and threatened with immediate deportation the weekend of June 10th, the Trump administration's oft-repeated promises to protect Christians around the world rang not just darkly hollow but demonstrably false. After all, local activists argued, deporting Christians back to the war zones of Iraq was tantamount to a death sentence.
"Not only is it immoral to send people to a country where they are likely to be violently persecuted, it expressly violates United States and international law and treaties," Kary Moss, the executive director of the ACLU of Michigan told the Huffington Post soon after the arrests. "Our immigration policy shouldn't amount to a death sentence for anyone."


Vox - John Oliver: it's time for Trump to stop lying to coal miners

Oliver points out that the coal industry employs fewer people than JC Penny ("I didn't even know JC Penny had employees anymore!") but, to his credit, takes the suffering of coal communities seriously.

In fact, he takes it so seriously that he dares to tell them the truth. Oliver does two things that are rare in mainstream media reports about coal. First, he cites research showing that competition from natural gas and renewables, not Obama regulations, is killing US coal.

Second, he makes clear that the interests of coal miners and coal executives often diverge -- that it's coal CEOs, not coal miners, that Trump is close to. In fact, coal executives are in the process of trying to screw over retired miners as we speak.

Related: Washington Post Fact Checker - Pruitt's claim that 'almost 50,000 jobs' have been gained in coal [Spoiler - It's a lie.]


NY Times Op-ed - Paul Krugman - Pure Class Warfare, With Extra Contempt

he Senate version of Trumpcare - the Better Care Reconciliation Act - is out. The substance is terrible: tens of millions of people will experience financial distress if this passes, and tens if not hundreds of thousands will die premature deaths, all for the sake of tax cuts for a handful of wealthy people. What's even more amazing is that Republicans are making almost no effort to justify this massive upward redistribution of income. They're doing it because they can, because they believe that the tribalism of their voters is strong enough that they will continue to support politicians who are ruining their lives.
This bill does nothing to reduce health care costs. It does nothing to improve the functioning of health insurance markets - in fact, it will send them into death spirals by reducing subsidies and eliminating the individual mandate. There is nothing at all in the bill that will make health care more affordable for those currently having trouble paying for it. And it will gradually squeeze Medicaid, eventually destroying any possibility of insurance for millions.

Who benefits? It's all about the tax cuts, almost half of which will go to people with incomes over $1 million, the great bulk to people with incomes over 200K.

Related: Vox - The Better Care Reconciliation Act: the Senate bill to repeal and replace Obamacare, explained


Vox - The health bill might pass because Trump has launched the era of Nothing Matters politics

Since taking office, his signature values -- showmanship, shamelessness, and corruption -- have spread like kudzu in official Washington. It's now a country where Cabinet secretaries go on television to lie and claim that a $600 billion cut to Medicaid won't cause anyone to lose coverage. It's a country where the speaker of the House introduces an amendment to erode protections for patients with preexisting conditions and then immediately tweets that it's just been "VERIFIED" (by whom?) that the opposite is happening. Republican senators who a couple of months ago were criticizing the House bill's Medicaid cuts as too harsh are now warming up to a Senate bill whose cuts are even harsher.

The watchwords of Trump-era politics are "LOL nothing matters." If you're in a jam, you just lie about it. If you're caught in an embarrassing situation, you create a new provocation and hope that people move on. Everything is founded, most of all, on the assumption that the basic tribal impulses of negative partisanship will keep everyone on their side, while knowing that gerrymandering means Republicans will win every toss-up election. If you happened to believe that Republicans in office would deliver on their health care promises, well, you might be interested in a degree from Trump University.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Responding to Article - Atheists Aren't Dogmatic

eSkepticThe latest issue of Skeptic magazine had an article with a few things I disagree with. Skeptic recently shared the article in their eSkeptic section, so you can read it even if you aren't a member of the Skeptics Society. Here's the link:

The Three Shades of Atheism: How Atheists Differ in Their Views on God

The authors conducted a survey to try to help categorize atheist beliefs and the percentage of atheists with those beliefs. They came up with 4 categories to characterize atheist responses. Unfortunately, I think their categories are flawed.

Gnostic-Atheism: Any explicit or implied characterization of the participant's position as certain or definite.

Agnostic-Atheism: Any effort made to distinguish between a "belief" and "knowledge" position; or participants who indicate that they are open to evidence: they describe their belief as malleable and open to changing based on new information, evidence, or "proof."

Ambivalent-Atheism: Any use of the phrase "I don't know" or "I am not sure," or similar characterizations of belief, without further explanation.

Other: Any statement that does not fit the criteria of the other categories.

The problem is, their definitions for 'gnostic-atheism' and 'agnostic-atheism' aren't mutually exclusive. You can be certain of something based on all the evidence you've seen so far, but still open to changing your mind if new evidence comes to light. I discussed this in detail in my essay, Confidence in Scientific Knowledge, so for this entry, let's just look at a few other knowledge claims as examples.

  • I am certain the Earth revolves around the Sun. However, if somebody showed me convincing evidence to the contrary (and it would take a hell of a lot of evidence at this point), I could be convinced to change my mind.
  • I am certain that the American Revolution took place in the late 1700s. However, with sufficient evidence, I could be convinced to believe that all of our history books were wrong.
  • I am certain garden fairies don't exist. However, I could be swayed by convincing evidence.

As long as we're using language in the normal way, 'certain' just means very, very high confidence. And there are lots of things were reasonably certain about, but could be convinced to change our minds on given sufficient contrary evidence.

The conclusion was especially galling:

Gnostic-theists would be individuals who equate their beliefs with facts, dogmatically insisting that they have positive knowledge of God's existence. Agnostic-theists would be individuals who accept the distinction between belief and knowledge, thereby demonstrating a degree of skepticism about their own position, and would indicate that their belief is based on faith, intuition, or an interpretation of natural phenomena. A 5-level, bipolar scale relating theistic and atheistic beliefs would be:
  1. Gnostic-Atheism
  2. Agnostic-Atheism
  3. Nonbelief
  4. Agnostic-Theism
  5. Gnostic-Theism

The scale represents maximum darkness at both ends, the domains of dogmatic thinking. Maintaining a skeptical attitude toward one's own beliefs can be a challenge but, as the achievements of science have shown, it is a better route to enlightenment.

Were any of my previous examples 'dogmatic'? Is it dogmatic to be certain the Earth orbits the Sun? Is it dogmatic to be certain that fairies don't exist? Is it dogmatic to be certain that leprechauns aren't real? Is it dogmatic to be certain magic unicorns are just fantasy? Why, out of all the mythical and imagined possibilities dreamt up by humans, do gods get treated differently, and why does saying you're reasonably certain that gods don't exist get you labeled 'dogmatic'?

Image Source: Skeptics Society eSkeptic

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Related Reading:
Answer to the Question - How sure are you that your atheism is correct?
 

Friday, June 16, 2017

Evolution in Action - Visualizing Bacteria Evolving Antibiotic Resistance

e. coliNot too long ago, I came across a question on Quora, Evolutionary biologists usually say that organisms adapt to their environment. Does this not contradict Darwinism?. It seemed like a good opportunity to explain how natural selection adapts organisms to their environments, and especially to use a recent experiment involving e. coli. Here's what I wrote, with some very minor edits.

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I'm going to assume that by 'Darwinism', you mean natural selection. Organisms adapting to their environments is pretty much textbook natural selection, but let's go through an example to see what this means.

There was a very interesting experiment/demonstration last year involving bacteria and antibiotics. A team of researchers from Harvard Medical School and Technion - Israel Institute of Technology made in effect a giant petri dish - a rectangle 2 ft x 4 ft. The unique aspect of this petri dish, besides its size, was that it was divided into regions with varying concentrations of an antibiotic. Either end of the rectangle was free of antibiotic. The next region in had the minimum concentration to kill the e. coli bacteria that were the subject of the experiment. Each subsequent region moving in increased the concentration ten fold, until the center region, which had a concentration 1000 times higher than what would normally kill e. coli.

e. coli experiment setup
Image Source: Screen Capture from Video Shown Below
(Click to embiggen)


So, the researchers seeded the antibiotic free ends with e. coli, and then let them grow, taking periodic photos of the petri dish, and combinging them all into a time lapse movie. I'd really recommend watching the whole thing. It's really very interesting, with more explanation than what I've provided here, and only 2 minutes long.


So, let's take a closer look at one instant to see what exactly is going on. At one point, the tray looked like this:

e. coli experiment screenshot 1
Image Source: Screen Capture from Video Shown Above
(Click to embiggen)


So, the antibiotic free ends are completely colonized by bacteria. The two regions with the lowest concentration of antibiotic have just begun to be colonized. There are several small resistant colonies, and you can see where each one of those colonies got their starts. What happened was that the original e. coli, with no antibiotic resistance spread across the agar until they hit the antibiotic. Since they weren't resistant, that was as far as they could go without dying. But those e. coli kept on living and reproducing, with mutations appearing throughout the population. In bacteria that just happened to be at the boundary of the antibiotic, who also happened to acquire just the right mutations to make them resistant to the antibiotic, they now had a whole new environment opened up to them and their descendants.

Notice that there's really no pattern to where those colonies got their starts. It was basically random, because mutations are random. No bacteria were trying to evolve. No bacteria were attempting to figure out a strategy to survive the antibiotic. Bacteria don't even have brains to try to do any of that. It was just whatever bacteria happened to be lucky enough to acquire the appropriate mutations by chance, an error at the chemical level when copying DNA.

Once those first resistant bacteria entered this new region, they spread. Then, once they hit the region with 10x the antibiotic concentration, they were contained again, until a few more bacteria happened to acquire the proper mutations by luck, and had a new environment opened up to them and their descendants. This repeated, until the bacteria were eventually colonizing the region with 1000x the concentration of antibiotic that would have killed the original e. coli that seeded the plate:

e. coli experiment screenshot 2
Image Source: Screen Capture from Video Shown Above
(Click to embiggen)


So, these e. coli were adapting to their environment. However, it wasn't any conscious intent, or Lamarckian type of use and disuse. It was random mutations creating variation in the e. coli populations. Whichever e. coli happened to be lucky enough to have mutations to survive the antibiotic were the ones that thrived. Any e. coli that weren't lucky enough to have those mutations were limited to their existing environments.

This experiment had a pretty strong selection pressure with the antibiotic, but the same principles are at work in nature with other selection pressures. Whatever individuals happen to be lucky enough to acquire by chance the mutations best suited to an environment will be the ones that have the most offspring, increasing the frequency of whatever mutation that benefited them. Multiply this over generations, with natural selection 'ratcheting' additional mutations, so that the population becomes better and better suited to the environment. That is what is meant by saying that organisms adapt to their environment.

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More info on the e. coli experiment:

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

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