Monday, August 27, 2007

The Evolution of Mike Huckabee

During a Republican presidential debate in May, Mike Huckabee raised his hand when asked by the moderator which candidates did not believe in evolution. Huckabee's been deflecting flak about that hand-raise ever since. Most recently, Huckabee appeared on Real Time with Bill Maher, where Maher asked him about evolution. As he had several times since the May debate, Huckabee seemed to back-pedal, and to embrace a form of theistic evolution. Besides, Huckabee said, the question was "utterly silly," since he was running for president and not for eighth-grade science teacher (he's made this claim before). However, unlike Wolf Blitzer during a June debate, Maher called Huckabee on this:
Why shouldn't it be part of a political discussion? If someone believes that the earth is 6000 years old, when every scientist in the world tells us it's billions of years old, why shouldn't I take that into account when I'm assessing the rationality of someone I'm going to put into the highest office in the land?
Huckabee had no cogent answer; he said that the point was that "we don't know."

Why not give Huckabee the benefit of the doubt? Perhaps he really does believe in theistic evolution--the idea that evolution occurred, but that it is controlled by God. As Max Brantley of the Arkansas Times likes to point out, Huckabee is adept at running from his record. He's distanced himself from reasonable tax increases he supported as governor, and disowned the one or two good programs that he ought to be claiming. Why should anyone believe that his recent open-mindedness about evolution is anything but pandering to the moderates who may see Huckabee as an alternative to the less-than-inspiring Republican front-runners? Note that Huckabee made his concessions on the Bill Maher show, and on New Hampshire Public Radio. He's not exactly going to offend the conservative Republican base in either of those arenas.

No, much like Sam Brownback, Huckabee has realized--or had someone point out to him--that sane, educated people don't doubt the theory of evolution. Even though he's denied it throughout his career, at least allowing for the possibility of evolution might make him appear reasonable enough to be palatable to thinking Republicans. There will be plenty of time to insert creationism into school curricula after he's president. Don't think he would? How about this quote:
I think that the state ought to give students exposure to all points of view. And I would hope that that would be all points of view and not only evolution. I think that they also should be given exposure to the theories not only of evolution but to the basis of those who believe in creationism …
Why in heaven's name should we believe that Huckabee has changed his ideas on creationism? (You can read more about Huckabee's record on teaching creationism in the schools in an excellent Arkansas Times article here.)

Methinks the Larry Doth Protest Too Much

The cliche is that homophobia is a symptom of repressed homosexual urges. Lately, the Republican Party is living the cliche. Senator Larry Craig, R-Idaho, was arrested in a Minneapolis men's room for "disorderly conduct." According to the arresting officer, Craig made several gestures that the officer recognized as signals used by persons wishing to engage in lewd conduct.

Craig has repeatedly voted against gay rights measures in the Senate, and has gotten high marks from "family values" groups. On his website, Craig says, "I...still believe the appropriate definition of marriage is a union between one man and one woman." His website doesn't really say what is defined by bathroom-stall shenanigans.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

A Philosophy Dressed Up as Science

There seems to be a relationship between right-wing politics and ignorance about science. Here, Tom Bethell in the conservative tabloid The American Spectator displays a complete lack of understanding of basic evolutionary theory (or willfully obfuscates evolutionary science for political reasons). Bethell is a journalist who feels that he has the expertise to declare that HIV doesn't cause AIDS, that global warming is a lie, and that evolution is "best seen as a 19th Century philosphy--materialism--dressed up as science."

In his article, Bethell derides evolution in part because it can be used in "support of any cause whatsoever." Indeed this is true. It is also true that Christianity, which is the opposite of evolution in Mr. Bethell's estimation, has been used to justify war, slavery, genocide, rape, and any number of crimes against humanity. Bethell would be horrified--and rightly so--if I claimed that Christianity is to blame for every evil perpetrated by its adherents. His invocation of misuse of evolutionary theory is a non sequitur.

Bethell's treatise is loaded with such non sequiturs, along with misconceptions and fabrications about evolutionary theory. The most egregious:
The underlying problem is that a key Darwinian term is not defined. Darwinism supposedly explains how organisms become more "fit," or better adapted to their environment. But fitness is not and cannot be defined except in terms of existence. If an animal exists, it is "fit" (otherwise it wouldn't exist). It is not possible to specify all the useful parts of that animal in order to give an exhaustive causal account of fitness. If an organism possesses features that appear on the surface to be inconvenient-such as the peacock's tail or the top-heavy antlers of a stag-the existence of stags and peacocks proves that these animals are in fact fit. So the Darwinian theory is not falsifiable by any observation. It "explains" everything, and therefore nothing. It barely qualifies as a scientific theory for that reason.
This same tripe has been trotted out in creationist arguments before. It might be convincing if it were correct, but unfortunately for Bethell, it isn't the least bit true. Scientists don't define fitness as a quality or trait that allows an organism to be successful--such a quality is an adaptation. Fitness has a precise definition: the ability of an organism to get its genes into the next generation. Such an ability can be quantified and measured. Adaptations may contribute to fitness, but they're not the same thing. (Wikipedia has a pretty decent explanation of fitness.)

It's not surprising that Bethell doesn't understand the difference between adaptation and fitness; it's clear from his writing he doesn't understand the difference between science and religion. He claims that Intelligent Design is "informed" by science, and if by that he means that it uses scientific words to dress up pseudo-scientfic mumbo-jumbo, then I guess it is. So is astrology. Bethell toes the company line on Intelligent Design "theory":
Intelligent design is...aggressive and therefore potentially dangerous. It says to the Darwinians: "You don't have the evidence to support your claims. Your lab results and fossils don't support your theory. Organisms are way too complex to have arisen by chance. Take all the time you want, it won't be enough. Even though we don't know how it happened, these critters must have been designed somehow."
Bethell is right--the IDers are aggressive. Their idea is also dangerous, since it threatens the teaching of real science in public schools. ID makes provocative claims about evolution, but they're easily shown to be baseless--fossils don't support evolutionary theory? Such a thing would be said only by someone who's never looked at a fossil. Complexity as an argument against evolution is nothing more than an argument from incredulity: "I don't believe anything so complex could possibly evolve." Intelligent design is indeed a philosophy dressed up as science. Here is another part of the intelligent design movement that Bethell gets right: They "don't know how it happened." That's the difference between IDers and evolutionary biologists. We do know how it happened.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Colbert Gives Huckabee an Opposable Thumbs Up

Mike Huckabee was on The Colbert Report again last night, this time trying to capitalize on his over-hyped second-place showing in the Iowa straw poll. (The whole segment from the Colbert Report is available here.) Huckabee was smart enough to try to play the whole thing for laughs. Colbert, for his part, made it clear just how seriously he takes Huckabee:
In one of the republican debates, sir, the candidates were asked, if they did not believe in evolution, to raise their hand. Now you raised your hand. Did you raise your hand to indicate you did not believe in evolution, or were you raising your hand simply to show off your opposable thumb?
Sooner or later, you'd think it would occur to potential guests that no matter how good a sport they are, Colbert's going to call them on their stupidity.

Again, it's important that people look past Huckabee's seemingly pleasant demeanor and understand the crooked politician that's lurking behind the smile. Huckabee fervently supports the Iraq war. As governor of Arkansas, he was anti-environment and pro-death penalty, he accepted huge amounts of gifts from supporters, ignored the state Ethics Commission, flew the Arkansas Highway Department airplane around to political events and book signings, embarrassed the state on numerous occasions, and then punished reporters for asking him about his misdeeds. Yeah, Huckabee's a laugh riot.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007


Ender, a resident of my little corner of cyberspace, has started a new blog here. I'm damned if I can figure out what it's about, but the date involved (1-18-08) is my birthday. Perhaps Ender's planning a surprise party for me?

Friday, August 10, 2007

We Get Letters

Last month, I wrote a post about the release of Earl Washington, Jr. from Virginia's death row. Washington was coerced into confessing to a murder that another man, Kenneth Tinsley, committed. DNA evidence exonerated Washington and implicated Tinsley, who pled guilty to the murder earlier this year. My original post said:
The Commonwealth of Virginia this week attempted to right a wrong, and declared Earl Washington, Jr. innocent of a rape and murder that DNA evidence determined that he didn't commit. Even though this evidence was uncovered six years ago--and another man was convicted of the crimes--a special prosecutor in the case insisted for years that Washington was still a suspect. That's right--the prosecutor, James Camblos, would rather see an innocent man convicted than admit that he had erred in the case. (This might have something to do with the fact that Camblos once acted as a defense attorney for the real killer, Kenneth Tinsley). At one point, Washington was only days away from execution for a crime he didn't commit.
Today, a reader who calls himself Factchecker commented on my original post:
This would be a chilling story if our transitional fossil had bothered to check his facts and make sure what he was reporting was accurate. James Camblos was not the original prosecutor of Earl Washington. As a matter of fact Mr. Camblos wasn't even a prosecutor when Mr. Washington was errouneously convicted in Culpeper (not Albemarle where Mr. Camblos is the chief prosecutor). When the case was returned to Culpeper after Mr. Washington was released, Mr. Camblos was selected to special prosecute any potential retrial. It quickly became evident that the real suspect was Mr. Tinsley, a man that Mr. Camblos had defended when he worked as a defense attorney before his election to Commonwealth's Attorney. For Mr. Camblos to continue the investigation and prosecution would have been an ethical violation, so he appointed his deputy (Richard Moore) who then went on to successfully prosecute Mr. Tinsley. The only reason Mr. Camblos could not come out and declare Mr. Washington's innocence and Mr. Tinsley's guilt was his ethical obligation due to a conflict of interest from his previous job defending Mr. Tinsley on an unrelated matter. To have done otherwise could have resulted in disciplinary action against Mr. Camblos. I would suggest that next time you decide to besmirch a public official, that you at least check your facts before writing inflammatory rhetoric. This type of behavior is exactly why bloggers get a bad rap. If you are going to pretend to be a journalist, at least act like one.
First, I don't believe I've ever claimed to be a journalist; I merely comment on news items from other sources, and in this case, the sources were clearly linked. My original post does say that Mr Camblos was a special prosecutor, but incorrectly implies that the original error was committed by Camblos. This is not true--the original prosecutor on the case was John Bennett. I apologize for the inaccuracy, and I'll amend the original blog post to reflect the facts.

But Factchecker's comment prompted me to dig a little further into the matter. Again, I have no special knowledge of this case; I'm not a journalist--just a guy with a computer with access to Google. Here's an excerpt from an article from the Newport News Daily Press (summary here on the Daily Press site, complete article here):
Tinsley, who remains in prison on the rape conviction, is considered a suspect, said James L. Camblos III, an Albemarle County prosecutor who was appointed in August to review the case for state police. But so is Washington, he said this week, noting that he couldn't rule out that the two may have worked together. "There are a lot of crimes that are committed by more than one person, but you get physical evidence from only one of them," Camblos said.

Washington's lawyers dispute Camblos' theory of two attackers - before she died, Williams said she was attacked by a lone black man with a beard, according to police records.

Hall also criticized how state police were reviewing the case. Camblos once represented Tinsley as he appealed his rape conviction in 1985. When asked about his history with Tinsley, the prosecutor said he had no memory of it. Camblos removed himself from the case anyway, handing it over to his deputy, Richard Moore, this past week.
The date on the story is March 18, 2004, four years after Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore pardoned Washington. Indeed, as Factchecker states, Camblos stepped down from the case, but only after Washington's attorneys filed a suit to have him removed. Factchecker would have us believe that Camblos knew that Tinsley was the murderer, and was doing his duty as a defense lawyer by not proclaiming Washington's innocence; if that were so, it seems to me that a simple "No comment," would have been sufficient, and not a fabricated theory of how Washington might have been involved. But let us assume that Camblos, and Bennett, and all the police involved in Washington's trial and near-execution were acting in good faith. In that case, mistakes were made, and an innocent, but not very smart, man confessed to a crime he didn't commit. He was days away from execution.

And that was exactly my original point.

Cat Salvage

The picture to the left is Howard. The only thing that keeps him from being a true albino is the amber color of his eyes. Howard showed up on the porch of my weekday residence. I tried to convince him that he didn't belong to me, that I already had three cats and no more room, but after a day or two, he convinced me that maybe I belonged to him. When I headed to my regular home, a 90-mile car trip, Howie slept in my lap, waking up a time or two to put his forepaws on my chest and nuzzle my nose. His mere presence caused a ruckus at my house--my wife was delighted, my resident cats somewhat less so. The next day, we went to the vet. I was already attached to the little guy, and nearly made myself sick waiting for the results of his feline leukemia and FIV tests. Fortunately for Howard (and my other cats) the tests were negative. It's been a couple of days, and Howie's incredibly friendly demeanor has won over the other cats.

That demeanor has made me pretty angry, too. Howie was obviously not a feral cat. Somebody dumped this kitten. Had he not appeared on my porch, he would have starved, or been run over, or killed by a dog, or a hawk, or another cat. Had he survived, he would have fathered countless unwanted kittens, killed innumerable birds, lizards, and rodents, and spread diseases to other feral cats, pets, and even to people. Dumping unwanted pets is irresponsible--and loathsome.

It's pretty easy to say you're against ditching animals, I guess. But I'm doing my part to solve the problem (and Hipparchia is doing hers). Animal shelters are full of cats and dogs that need homes. Who doesn't have room for one more?

Friday, August 3, 2007

Colbert 1, Behe 0

Stephen Colbert is not a fundamentalist zealot--he just plays one on TV. He's also not an economist, or a politician, or a scientist, but he has the ability to look right through specious arguments of these people and skewer them to humourous effect on basic cable television. His victim last night was Michael Behe, the grand poobah of the Intelligent Design movement. Behe was on Colbert's show plugging his new book, which better minds than mine have already torn to shreds (here and here, for instance). Behe's a jovial sort, and he seemed relaxed and in his element; after all, Colbert had said twice that all he wished to do was agree with Behe that God had created the universe in its present form. Behe apparently has never seen the Colbert Report. He launched into his tired (and repeatedly discredited) mousetrap analogy--that even a simple mousetrap is useless if one of its parts is removed, and so is an example of irreducible complexity.

Colbert is not an athiest--he famously teaches a Sunday School class at his church--but he's also not a fool. When Behe stated that dismantling a mousetrap would leave only a wire, a spring, and a block of wood, Colbert gave exactly the right response: "And of course we know, none of those things is even remotely useful." This gets right to the heart of the problem with irreducible complexity. Even if it is true (and it usually isn't) that some complex structure or metabolic pathway won't work without all its components, it doesn't mean that those components are useless in and of themselves. For instance, one of the favorite targets of the ID crowd is the bacterial flagellum, a structure seemingly so complex that it can't possibly work without all the parts. However, recent study indicates that parts of the flagellum are identical to mechanisms used by some bacteria to attack others. In other words, the flagellum was put together out of parts of other mechanisms being used for unrelated purposes. It should be obvious to any idiot that the individual parts of a mousetrap have other uses. It was obvious to Colbert; it wasn't obvious to Behe.