Archive for February, 2009

Feb 11 2009

Debating Creationists

Published by under Uncategorized

In response to my post from yesterday, several commenters questioned the utility of debating creationists. This is an interesting question, and one that I have faced since my college days of standing on the stoop debating creationists who decided to bang on my door to spread their faith.

My answer is this – it depends upon what your goals are.

My goals in debating creationists have always primarily been understanding the scientific and logical issues. I want to understant what the creationist’s arguments are. It turns out, their arguments are all terrible. It is therefore interesting (at least to me) to drill down to determine exactly what the malfunctions are in their arguments.

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194 responses so far

Feb 10 2009

Creationists are so unimaginative

Published by under Evolution

Recently, a creationist blogger left the following comment on a recent thread here. He is very long on rhetoric and very short on facts and logic.  He does not raise any new points that have not already been demolished many times over (hence the title of this post). But, this week I want to blog about creation and evolution since it is the 150th anniversary of the publication of Origin of Species.

Here is the comment, posted under the name “truthseeker” but who blogs under John Andrew.

Dr. Egnor addresses you guys as “Darwinists” because there’s no better name for you. Darwinists are really atheists who justify their atheism by attributing everything but the kitchen sink to Darwin. What other explanation could there be for the manic pursuit of a dogma that is attributed to a mere human being. Darwin was not a god, yet he is revered as such by you guys. As a mere man, he erred. Yet you geniuses seem unwilling to acknowledge that as a possibility. You are unreasonable, and unreasoning. You are incapable of respectful dialogue with those who have differing views. There’s a saying that if you are a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Could that be the reason the evidence SEEMS to stack up in your favor?

I am not a scientist, but I have read a bit, and I am very much interested in evaluating all ideas according to their merit. I have uncovered questions and challenges to the scientist/naturalist/atheist/whateveryouwanttocallyourself dogma. I wrote a series on my blog, and I was challenged a few times. Yet each time I responded with calm reason, asking questions that seemed to challenge Darwinian dogma, my challengers simply disengaged. All they seemed interested in was yelling, cursing, deriding and name-calling. Once I challenged them to defend their positions rationally, they simply disappeared.

Drop on by and take a look. See if you can answer my questions in the spirit of truth-seeking. That means reason with me. If you think I don’t get it, explain it to me.

Always be suspicious of those who try to grab the mantle of “truth.”  It seems to be a reliable red flag for nonsense.

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43 responses so far

Feb 09 2009

Brian Deer Finds Andrew Wakefield Faked Data

Published by under Uncategorized

In 1998 Andrew Wakefield and others published a small study of only 12 subjects in the Lancet. This small study sparked a huge controversy – Wakefield used it to claim that the MMR (mumps measles and rubella) vaccine caused autism. As a result compliance with the MMR dropped from 92% in the UK down to 85%, and measles cases soared from only 58 cases in 1998 to 1,348 cases in 2008.

Despite the fact that Wakefields paper has been thoroughly discredited, and subsequent studies showed convincingly that there is a lack of association between MMR or vaccines in general and autism, the controversy sparked by Wakefield continues. It has spread to the US as well, where measles cases are also starting to jump. The existing anti-vaccine movement latched onto Wakefield’s study and have been running with the vaccines-cause-autism fear-mongering ever since. While not letting go of MMR, they did shift over to thimerosal (which was never in the MMR vaccine), which has also been cleared from any association with autism (but was removed from vaccines in the US and most countries anyway).

The real story of MMR, thimerosal, vaccines, and autism is a scientific one, and the science has spoken. While further research is always welcome (as long as it is ethical) the question is essentially settled – vaccines do not cause autism. The scientific evidence does not care for the personal saga of Andrew Wakefield, but he has never-the-less become a central figure in this story. He has now been elevated to the status of folk-hero by the antivaccinationists. So while I consider Wakefield a footnote, his story is interesting and instructive.

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14 responses so far

Feb 06 2009

Egnor in Forbes on Evolution

Published by under Evolution

Our favorite creationist neurosurgeon, Michael Egnor, has published his ill-informed and logically-challenged opinions on evolution in a business journal. Darwin’s day is just around the corner (February 12th is the 200th anniversary of his birth and this year is the 150th anniversary of the publication of Origin of the Species), and so it’s a good time for a creationist smack down. As usual Egnor gets everything wrong. He clearly does not understand evolutionary theory, or simply does not care if his straw men are accurate or not as long as he gets to regurgitate the standard anti-evolution propaganda.

In his article he makes a number of wrong or misleading statements, some in question form. He substitues assertion for evidence, and fallacies for logic. His objections to evolution begin with this:

The fossil record shows sharp discontinuity between species, not the gradual transitions that Darwinism inherently predicts.

Wrong.  First, I must point out that Egnor insists on referring to evolutionary theory as “Darwinism.” As many others have pointed out before, this is a propaganda tactic to attempt to diminish evolutionary theory to the quaint ideas of one guy. It is also misleading, for the modern synthesis of evolutionary theory differs in significant ways from strict Darwinian theory.

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60 responses so far

Feb 05 2009

Neurons and Computer Chips

Published by under Skepticism

Edinburgh University researchers have developed a technique whereby they can grow neurons in a specific pattern determined by a silicon chip. This is yet another small advance in this area of research – the interface between biology and computers.

The researchers were able to etch a pattern in silicon and then bath that chip in a bath of specific proteins. The proteins – likely including some growth factors and other hormones – coaxed the neurons to grow along the pre-determined pathways.

This represents an incremental technological step, but an important one. There are several research programs working on aspects of this technology – getting cells, whether neurons or stem cells, to grow how they want them to. Others are working on the interface of neurons and computer chips – getting them to talk to each other.

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44 responses so far

Feb 04 2009

Smallest Exoplanet Discovered

Published by under Uncategorized

One of the coolest scientific advances of my lifetime has been the development of the ability to find exoplanets – planets around other stars. I remember Carl Sagan talking about the techniques astronomers planned to use to find such planets back in the 1980’s. Then, in 1995 these plans came to fruition with the first discovery of an exoplanet – 51 Pegasi b, a Jovian planet around a star 50 light years away.

This discovery was just the first. In the last 14 years a total of 339 exoplanets have been discovered, and this number is growing every week. Frequently we hear about the largest exoplanet, the hottest, the closest to its parent star, and the smallest. New superlatives are being made on a regular basis. It’s all very exciting.

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8 responses so far

Feb 03 2009

Singularity University

Published by under Skepticism

Skeptics by nature take a conservative approach to scientific conclusions – they should reasonably track with plausibility and evidence. Annoyingly often, however, paranormal enthusiasts and other targets of skeptical critique misinterpret this skeptical conservatism as applying to the generation of new ideas and scientific research.

Quite the opposite is true. Science is often about exuberant exploration, tearing down existing ideas and paradigms, challenging authority, and flights of imaginative speculation. At the leading edge of science is creative chaos which rewards imagination, the ability to think in new ways, and to challenge assumptions. It also rewards risks, which means that most new ideas will be wrong – and that’s OK, even necessary.

Great science balances these two imperatives – rigorous, methodical and conservative testing with rebellious imagination. Without the former, ideas are disconnected from reality and will tend to spin off into fantasy land. Without the latter, ideas are stuck in neutral and progress is stalled.

All too often when skeptics point out the need for rigorous testing of ideas they are criticized by those who dislike their conclusions as being against new ideas themselves. It’s a deceptive straw man that just won’t go away.

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52 responses so far

Feb 02 2009

How Not to Argue

Published by under Uncategorized

Darwin once described The Origin of Species as one long argument. Much of science and skepticism, in fact, is the art and logic of arguing, and most of these blog posts on NeuroLogica are just long written arguments.

How to argue logically is therefore one of the core intellectual skill-sets of scientific skepticism. It is why skeptics will frequently whip out their logical fallacy detectors when arguing with defenders of not-so-critical thinking or true-beliefs. Even in everyday conversations we commit and encounter countless errors in logic. It is therefore highly valuable to be familiar with the common ways in which human logic goes astray.

Also the internet has resulted in an explosion of human communication, especially, it seems, arguing. Much of the social constraints are lifted when typing over the intertubes under a pseudonym. Knowledge of good and bad arguing are therefore more essential than ever for the computer literati and wannabe internet flame warriors.

I recently was pointed to this website, which reprints an internet meme that has been going around for a while. It presents 38 Ways To Win An Argument by Arthur Schopenhauer, and offers advice on how to intentionally use logical fallacies in order to flummox your opponent, deceive your audience, and thereby win arguments. The person who pointed me to that website, however, missed the fact that the advice is satirical – it is meant to expose these tactics, not recommend them.

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34 responses so far

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