Sunday, May 30, 2010

Francisco Ayala: Evolution is "not just a theory"

Francisco Ayala, biologist at the University of California at Irvine, recipient of the National Medal of Science, and recent winner of the Templeton Prize, has an article in Standpoint Magazine in which he confuses the relationship between science and religion (not too surprising, since the Templeton Prize is awarded for "Outstanding contributions in affirming life's spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works").  PZ Myers at Pharyngula has done a nice job of dealing with this aspect of the article: I want to focus on something else for a moment. In the article, Ayala writes:
That evolution has occurred is, in ordinary language, a fact, not just a theory.
 He's right about the fact part, of course; evolution is a fact in the same sense that the Earth revolves around the Sun is a fact. But it's sad to see him contrast fact with theory, as is regularly done in popular usage where theory means an idea for which there is no good evidence, an unsupported guess.  As I wrote on this blog some time back:
For scientists, a theory is a set of interconnected hypotheses that describe and/or explain some aspect of the world. The hypotheses must be logical, falsifiable, and above all constructed from the analysis of data collected by way of systematic, objective investigation of the empirical world
It does the scientific literacy of the public no good to place theory and fact in opposition to one another in this way, and it's especially disappointing to see this done by someone with Ayala's prestige. People are confused enough as it is.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Another change!

OK, I think I like this template better. It's the same as the last one, except that the sidebar is on the left side of the page, and posts are on the right. The template is called "Minima Lefty Stretch"; I wonder why I like it...  As before I may play with the fonts and colors.

Thursday, May 27, 2010


So, I have changed the blog template. I like this one because it stretches out, letting you see embedded videos that were partly hidden in the old template. I might still fiddle a bit with the fonts and colors, but basically I think I like it. Let me know what you think.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Catching up...

So many weird things have been happening lately, it's hard to keep up and sometimes the AAADD (Age Affected Attention Deficit Disorder) just halts you in your tracks. But here's an attempt:

Last Tuesday, Kentucky voters, a perpetually clueless lot apparently, chose eye surgeon Randal "Rand" Paul, son of Ron Paul, as the Republican candidate for the US Senatorial elections to be held later this year.  The next day, in a painfully witless performance on The Rachel Maddow Show, Rand stuck to his position that owners of private businesses, like, say, restaurants, should be able to refuse service to African Americans or anyone else, all the while insisting that he, himself, would not frequent such establishments and that the "free market" would take care of them. I wonder...  He also suggested that the Americans with Disabilities Act should be repealed. And, just to put the ass in dumbass, he claimed that President Obama is being too harsh in blaming British Petroleum for the Gulf of Mexico clustershag that, as I write, is destroying the wetlands around the Mississippi River delta and moving east toward Florida. After all, he said, accidents do happen. As someone else (I've lost track) responded, that's just what you want to hear from the person who's performing surgery on your eyes.

And for good measure, John Stossel, one-time champion for consumers' rights but now a pathetic media whore for FAUX News, backed up Paul, saying that he thought that part of the 1964 Civil Rights Act should be repealed.

The Paul's, and Stossel, claim to be "libertarians," but they're the wrong kind of libertarian. They belong to the selfish, hyper-individualistic, anti-social Ayn Rand-inspired right-libertarians. There are other libertarians, the left-libertarians or libertarian socialists, who combine a desire for reasonable individual freedom with the realization that humans are social animals and that there are many social functions and problems that can only be handled at the scale of government.

Moving on...  Also this week, the Texas State School Board voted to doom Texas schoolchildren to a right-wing revisionist fantasy view of history that, among other things, ignores Thomas Jefferson while making a hero of Joe McCarthy, claims that the Founders intended the US to be a christian nation, and suggests that the United Nations challenges US sovereignty. They also tried to replace "Atlantic Slave Trade" with "Atlantic Triangular Trade," I suppose because that sounds so much more, you know, bloodless, but that, at least, failed to make it into the new history standards.

I wonder what'll happen next week...

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Does Palin know what she's talking about? You betcha... Not!

Here is Alaska half-governor Sarah Palin in a recent interview with Bill O'Really O'Reilly of FAUX News:
I have said all along that America is based on Judeo-Christian beliefs and, you know, nobody has to believe me though. You can just go to our Founding Fathers' early documents and see how they crafted a Declaration of Independence and a Constitution that allows that Judeo-Christian belief to be the foundation of our lives. And our Constitution, of course, essentially acknowledging that our unalienable rights don't come from man; they come from God. So this document is set up to protect us from a government that would ever infringe upon our rights to have freedom of religion and to be able to express our faith freely.
And she is clearly and indisputably wrong. Here is the Preamble to the US Constitution:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

And if you keep reading, there is no mention, not one word, of God or religion. The only place religion is mentioned is in Amendment I of the Bill of Rights, to wit:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
And, for good measure, here is a portion of the Treaty of Tripoli, signed by President John Adams in 1797:
Art. 11. As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion,—as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen,—and as the said States never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.
But, to give her credit, maybe Palin's just reading the wrong documents. Here is the Preamble to the Constitution of the Confederate States of America, March, 1861 (my emphasis):
We, the people of the Confederate States, each State acting in its sovereign and independent character, in order to form a permanent federal government, establish justice, insure domestic tranquillity, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity invoking the favor and guidance of Almighty God do ordain and establish this Constitution for the Confederate States of America.
Could it be that she and the other Teabaggers who insist that the US is a "Christian nation" are reading the wrong documents? It seems implausible. More likely, they just make up whatever fits their agenda, and happily proclaim it to be The Truth.


Wednesday, May 5, 2010

End of semester blues

In the semester just ended, I taught a section of Linguistic Anthropology. An ever-present theme in this course is the concept of linguist relativism: the idea that all human languages are equally good at being human languages, even those we often devalue or disparage, like African American Vernacular English (AAVE, or Ebonics). Complementing this is the idea that languages may have quite different ways of expressing some concept, but that this says nothing about the cognitive capacity of speakers.

So, when I put the following question on the last test, I fully expected it to be a throwaway, a sure couple of percentage points for everyone:
TRUE or FALSE:  When Ebonics (AAVE) speakers say Mary pen for Standard English Mary's pen, they are demonstrating their lack of the concept of possession.
Imagine my surprise when I found that only 67% of the students answered (correctly) "false," while 33% answered (incorrectly) "true."

This is after spending 15 weeks with a professor whose entire research life has been spent investigating, analyzing, writing about, and teaching about "non-standard" languages. A professor whose interest in these languages was jump-started back in the late 1970s by Bill Labov's classic article "The Logic of Non-Standard English," which should have killed these ideas, but obviously didn't.

Another question, this one also a presumed freebie:
According to your professor, the decision to call vernacular forms of language, such as Ebonics or creoles, a "language" or a "dialect" is based primarily on:  (a) science  (b) linguistics  (c) logic  (d) politics.
The correct answer is (d). In this same class, only 39% answered correctly; 61% were incorrect. All those who answered incorrectly chose (b). Again, this after repeated iterations of Max Weinreich's classic aphorism: "A language is a dialect with an army and navy." Plus a discussion of the brouhaha surrounding the Oakland (California) School Board's attempt to designate Ebonics a "language" for educational purposes (the African American community of Oakland does not have its own army and navy).

This same question, with slightly different answer choices, was on the final test in my other class, an introduction to linguistics for English and English Education majors. In this class, 83% gave the correct answer (politics); only 17% were incorrect.

What does all this mean? Are English majors "smarter" than Anthropology majors (and by "smarter" I mean only better at living up to the expectations of professors, nothing more)? I don't think so, generally, but the performance of the Anthropology majors in my class this semester, with a few exceptions, was certainly disappointing. For example, despite my constant needling, threats at testing (some carried out), talking about their importance, etc., they refused to commit to memory the required symbols of the International Phonetic Alphabet. Of course, this was true of some in the English linguistics class as well.

Overall, it was a somewhat frustrating semester.
Labov, W. 1972. Language in the Inner City: Studies in the Black English Vernacular. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. Pages 201-240.