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Amused Muse

Inspiring dissent and debate and the love of dissonance

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Location: Surreality, Have Fun Will Travel, Past Midnight before a Workday

Master's Degree holder, telecommuting from the hot tub, proud Darwinian Dawkobot, and pirate librarian belly-dancer bohemian secret agent scribe on a mission to rescue bloggers from the wholesome clutches of the pious backstabbing girl fridays of the world.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Weaving False Rainbows

John Danaher has a take down of this now famous quote by Richard Dawkins:

We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds, how dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior state from which the vast majority have never stirred?

While acknowledging the beauty and power of this sentiment, Danaher replies:

If we stripped away the lyrical writing, what would we be left with? To be more precise, what kind of argument would we be left with? 

Lyricism aside? I almost laughed aloud at my computer as I read this. The beauty in language for human beings is often in the language itself; stripped of its beauty, if there is an argument to be made (and there is here, of course), that can be examined, and Danaher is right to do so—but lyricism aside, what would religion, or even science, or anything, be left with?

But let us examined the kernel of argument in this flowering prose.

It is rather amusing to see atheists accused of having no sense of humor, then taken so literally when they joke or employ a colloquialism. I did not see Dawkins’ use of the word “lucky” as an argument strictly championing existence over nonexistence—he is merely stating that the latter is far more likely than the former. We are “privileged” by the mere fact of being the less likely ones, the elite, as it were. Dawkins is making an observation, not a judgment, for the real focus of his quote is not nonexistence, but the ordeal, and consciousness of, our impending deaths.

It is death that gives teeth to the statement of our fortune. My evidence for this is, would Dawkins have made this statement if we, the lucky living, were to live forever? The obvious answer is, of course not. Dawkins is not really concerned with being “grateful” for existing, but with putting death, much as it looms over our lives, into proper perspective. Danaher has missed the point.

Moreover, it is not against the fear of death against which Dawkins warns. When interviewed by physicist Brian Greene, who admitted speaking to his dead father despite knowing that no ear heard him, Dawkins is hardly surprised. I see no evidence of any exhortation to “quit whining.” Rather, it is against the construction of a fantasy afterlife which motivated Richard Dawkins to make this statement.

The response to the reality of death does not have to be “gratitude,” and for Danaher to cast it as such leads us perilously toward another tiresome design argument (to whom, or to what, shall we show “gratitude?”). Be grateful, or not; be angry, or not; feel the fear, acknowledge the fear, but the point is, however one reacts to death, no cri de coeur should ever result in a denial of death’s reality and the subsequent exploitation of our natural human fears by those who pretend to be travel agents for the “next world.” (As Susan Sontag once said, “This world! As if there were any other.”)

Dawkins is, as always, arguing not against human feeling, but against fraud.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

See, I Did Take Biology, but I Took a Different Kind of Biology, the One with the Creationism and the Private Truths!

It was not a good week for Bobby Jindal, of "The GOP should stop being the Party of Stupid" fame:

But what happens when a highly educated guy who did study science in college wants to run for national office in a party that increasingly stands against facts and science? In the case of Louisiana Governor and perennial presidential wannabee Bobby Jindal (R), you act dumb and make tortuous statements.

 How dumb?

At a breakfast organized by The Christian Monitor, Jindal was introduced as a biology major, Rhodes Scholar, and former President of the University of Louisiana System. Naturally, at one point HuffPost’s Howard Fineman said, “I want to ask a couple of science questions.” Jindal cluelessly fails to see what’s coming and excitedly interjects “I’m a biology major.”

Fineman is happy to repeat that point and, of course, then asks him a bunch of obvious science questions, including whether he accepts evolution.

 So Jindal now feels compelled to explain, “I was not an evolutionary biologist.” Yeah, Jindal apparently got one of those Biology degrees from Brown University (with honors at the age of 20!) that doesn’t require learning about evolution — the central organizing principle of modern biology.

You can read the entire trainwreck of Bobby-Jindal-as-Private-Benjamin here.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Restoring the Forest

Last year and this one, Rev. Barky and I have been working to eliminate the buckthorn on the property, some of which is virgin Minnesota woods. This year we pulled out the garlic mustard as well, and native species are flourishing on our land once again. We have seen wild strawberry, raspberries, elderberries, honeysuckle (non-native and invasive, but not as bad as the buckthorn because the insects and birds still like it), Solomon's Seal and False Solomon's Seal, grapevines, Virginia Creeper, yarrow, clover, wild violets, and sumac.

Left, before and right, after removal of the garlic mustard in May.

Trillium beside the house, and hostas that I planted last year.


The forest, freed of garlic mustard, puts forth native plants.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Photos from the AAPA (American Association of Physical Anthropology) Teachers' Workshop

Yes, I have been very busy.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

You Miss Me! You Really, Really Miss Me!

Wow, you trolls! Do you come with your own bridge? :-D

Well, your Billie Goat Gruff here has seen through your teasing sarcasm and read the pleas that lurk beneath. You want me to resume posting? Okay, I shall! This is a good a place as any to park some of my new projects, and I never did finish my Galapagos Diary.

Since I last wrote, I have moved twice, finally into our permanent new home last year, and been a librarian and an archivist, working sub and contract, while holding down a steady part time job in eLearning development and APEX-ELM administration. I worked six days a week for nearly a year, ducks, and when I was not working I was throwing logs around and clearing Buckthorn on our new property. (Oh yes, I lost that "grad school thirty.")

I have also been involved in an internationally maintained online archive, and even been writing some fanfic. It's fun.

It is serendipity that a troll unleashed some snark here last week.


Friday, July 22, 2011

It's Time to Shut Down "Uncommon Descent," William Dembski!

Do you really want people like this writing curricula for schools? Barry Arrington at the Uncommon Descent blog writes:

A couple of months ago a young university student contacted my law office seeking help in a dispute she was having with a university here in Colorado. [To protect my client’s privacy, I am using neither her name nor the name of the university. ] The previous week she had voiced opposition to Darwinism to her biology professor, who proceeded to scream at her, denigrate her religious views, and generally demean and humiliate her in front of the rest of the class. After hearing her story I sent a demand letter to the university seeking redress. Good news. We resolved the matter on very favorable terms.

I have my doubts as to whether Mr. Arrington should be airing this story at all if it really happened; doing so could constitute an ethics violation. But if that were not troubling enough, he is holding a contest for the "best reply" to this alleged professor who supposedly dressed down a student for objecting to "Darwinism" (whatever that is).

Then, as if this were not enough navel-gazing, commenter and moderator KairosFocus proclaims this unnamed professor's actions to be rape. That's right - actual rape.

So a real rape victim replies, "As someone who has actually been raped before, I find your 'metaphor' despicable!" As do I. Well, the comment goes up...

...and gets a big dose of "You're a bad, bad girl!"

Oh, who isn't reminded of the actions of Jesse Ventura after Paul Wellstone's memorial? "Violated! *Sniff* I feel violated!"

But what truly pisses me off is that, in an earlier post, this same KairosFocus character claimed that how women dress should affect their rapist's guilt:

Oh yeah, right, KairosFocus.

Naturally, the pro-ID commenters have dug in about how this professor did in this supposedly true story committed "rape." One even found himself "laughing" at the objections to the rape metaphor. Well, do you know something? I do not find this funny at all, and neither would the most religious extremist who truly thought that someone had committed rape.

This blog is the most repulsive example of nihilism I have ever seen. After accusing PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins of "exhorting violence" and shitting repeatedly on the grave of Charles Darwin, they have the effrontery to equate an insult with rape a la Catherine McKinnon.

Intelligent Design cannot even differentiate between words and actions!

William Dembksi, it is time to shut down Uncommon Descent. You have lost the argument. You are done.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Zooniverse is Expanding

On Thursday, June 2, I attended a presentation to the Minnesota Astronomical Society by University of Minnesota professor Lucy Fortson, formerly of the Adler Planetarium in Chicago. The topic of her presentation was, “Birth of the Zooniverse: How Citizen Scientists are Taking on Research from Galaxies to Climate Change.”

Galaxy Zoo

The Zooniverse grew out of Galaxy Zoo, a scholarly effort to get many pairs of eyes analyze and create a taxonomy for the “data flood” of deep field and ultra deep field galactic images taken by the Hubble observatory. In contrast to the thousands of bright galaxies photographed onto glass plates by the Palomar Sky Survey in the 1950s, the number of digital photographs of bright galaxies needing identification exceeded one million, much more than is possible for any graduate student to handle.

Human beings understand relationships via taxonomies. When a field is largely unknown, and the development of galaxies is still not understood, scientists first gather large amounts of data, then sort and classify it by carefully defined criteria. (Computers also do a wonderful job of storing data, and associating data in relationships that nevertheless must first be defined by human beings.)

Astronomers attempted to have algorithms identify and classify these galaxies, using color as a proxy for shape. Computers, however, are great at crunching numbers but still have only limited success at pattern recognition and matching. Meanwhile, this “data flood” was producing blue ellipticals and red spirals, creating contingencies that crossed the color proxy parameters set for the algorithms. Neural networking also had limited success, and duplicated the same problems. Therefore, the solution was to find volunteers without astronomical knowledge, who would provide fresh eyes, to identify spiral armed, spiral barred, and elliptical galaxies among the images.

In 2007 the astronomers launched a website, Galaxy Zoo, which they expected to gather a few thousand volunteers at most. The response from the public was overwhelming, and it crashed their servers. Hundreds of thousands of ordinary people from around the world participated (the astronomers saw a marked dip in classifications when the Egyptian government shut down the internet for a while), and soon the questions were coming in from the volunteers. Unable to answer them all, the astronomers set up a forum for the volunteers.

Also, in order to eliminate empty clicks, false identifications, and practical jokers or random clicks by children, statistical analysis is applied to the results.

Known unknowns and unknown unknowns

Here is where the project truly becomes interesting for me: unable to get their specific questions answered, this increasingly astronomically literate community, which started out with very limited astronomical knowledge, began to do literature searches of refereed journals. They began to make discoveries celestial objects predicted but not yet observed. One of the volunteers, frustrated with the “hunt and peck” method of going through this “data deluge,” even wrote a query of the Sloan site’s spectral data.

The project has yielded 20 peer-reviewed scientific papers—including the MNRAS papers—and one comic book. (I can’t help but wonder what Guillermo Gonzalez was doing all this time if he was serious about attaining the qualifications for tenure.)

New research projects have been designed around these lessons learned, and thus the Zooniverse was born. New projects include an avian and entomological project with the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, a study of ocean temperatures recorded in British ship logs during World War I (climate change is driven by the oceans, yet most of our data comes from land-based temperature sensors, yet the British recorded the ocean temperature faithfully every four hours), and the reconstruction and translation from the Greek of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri from Egypt.

The role of the citizen scientist

It must be stressed that, when one uses nonexperts as citizen scientists, it is imperative that their roles be clearly defined and coherently limited by a strict definition of “citizen science.” There were also strict parameters set (spiral versus elliptical, etc.). This is not a top-down agenda to employ vulnerable adults seeking assuagement of eschatological fears in a campaign to get “new” (fringe or pseudo-) science into high school curricula, or a one-stop shop for bullet points to provide “corroboration” for a foregone conclusion. For example, though there are an abundance of amateur astronomers, these volunteers were not solicited to gather images, but to identify them based on good faith eyeballing. Eyeballing identifies simple shapes and colors (not “complexity”) and should only be used for this. Naïve eyeballing by nonexperts was expressly sought after in this particular case for a particular reason: to eliminate the bias that experts would show in performing what for them would be considered a menial task.* To the public, however, looking at images of galaxies and identifying their shape was a meaningful exercise that led to open-ended inquiry and, importantly, greater information literacy.

*For example, my eye doctor apologized to me for putting me through glaucoma tests after seeing an abnormal cup size on my optic nerve. He admitted that he had just attended a conference on glaucoma and had been viewing so many abnormal optic nerves that that may have influenced the false positive that he saw in my case.

It happens: despite the fact that the word “archive” [sic] is used many different ways in the vernacular, the second I see that word I focus immediately on it. (Actually, use of the word "archive" is a giveaway, as professionals use "archives" even in the singular.)

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