Friday, November 30, 2007

Texas science ed director resigns over ID-creationist pressure

Texas’ state science education commissioner, Chris Comer, has resigned in what she calls a forced resignation over her refusal to turn a blind eye to possible evolution and intelligent design politics and spread.
Comer, who held her position for nine years, said she believes evolution politics were behind her ousting.

“None of the other reasons they gave are, in and of themselves, firing offenses,” she said.

The Texas Education Agency put Comer on 30 days’ paid administrative leave in late October, resulting in what she described as a forced resignation.

The move came shortly after Comer forwarded an e-mail announcing a presentation being given by the author of “Inside Creationism's Trojan Horse.” In the book, author Barbara Forrest says creationist politics are behind the movement to get intelligent design theory taught in public schools. Ms. Comer sent the e-mail to several individuals and a few online communities.

Here’s TEA’s spin:
Comer's e-mail implies endorsement of the speaker and implies that TEA endorses the speaker's position on a subject on which the agency must remain neutral," the officials said.

The officials said that forwarding the e-mail conflicted with Ms. Comer's job responsibilities. The e-mail also violated a directive for her not to communicate with anyone outside the agency regarding the upcoming science curriculum review, officials said in the documents.

The documents show that Lizzette Reynolds, the agency's senior adviser on statewide initiatives, started the push to fire Ms. Comer over the e-mail.

"This is something that the State Board, the Governor's Office and members of the Legislature would be extremely upset to see because it assumes this is a subject that the agency supports," Ms. Reynolds said in an e-mail to Ms. Comer's supervisors.

Ms. Reynolds joined the agency in January and previously worked in the U.S. Department of Education and as a deputy legislative director during President Bush's term as governor.

Note that neither TEA officials nor Reynolds claims to have an e-mail showing Comer officially endorsed Forrest’s book. The idea that it implies endorsement of the speaker may be true in the real world, but the TEA knows it’s not legally provable.

But, that’s small potatoes.

Why WOULDN’T Comer endorse Forrest’s book indeed?

For the TEA and Reynolds to say something is wrong with that leads to the inference they see nothing wrong with creationists trying to foist intelligent design — as already rejected by federal court in Dover, Pa. — as perfectly acceptable.

And, it’s pretty clear that is exactly what they believe.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Aggressive woman gets the guy

At least in the antelope world. I wonder how some of the more sexist practitioners of Evolutionary Psychology (vs. real proponents of evolutionary psychology), such as Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer, will spin this challenge to their metaphysical beliefs.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Shouldn’t churches be rendering unto Caesar rather than building shopping malls, etc?

I look askance on churches entering the business world, even if their for-profit operations pay property, sales and other taxes.

The “success Gospel” obviously doesn’t give a damn whose image is on the denarius anyway.

Oh, and why should churches in their actual church operations get to avoid unemployment taxes as well as property taxes?

Does God do bloopers? Now online: GodTube

Or, at least, does people’s idea of God do bloopers? Find out at GodTube.

Lemme see, for Christians:

1. Mary trying to explaing “and the Holy Spirit shall overshadow you” to a Joseph who alternates looking like he wants to strangle her and to laughing his head off.
2. A picture of this big boxy boat running out of room for two of every species of nonswimming animal in the world.
3. Jesus trying a miracle and failing, and saying, “Dammit, I saw Kreskin do this. Now I’ll NEVER get that James Randi money.”

Saturday, November 17, 2007

FBI criminal profiling – little more than psychics’ “cold reading”

Why the FBI needs even more reform than just being dragged into the Computer Era

Cold reading is what pseudo-telepathic frauds like James van Praagh and John Edward use to make gullible people believe that they can actually read their minds. It’s obviously unscientific. A practitioner makes vague, open-ended statements to fish for information. With the exception of fishing for information, your newspaper horoscope is the same thing, of course.

Well, Skeptic’s Dictionary author Bob Carroll, following up on a New Yorker article by psychosocial insight guru Malcolm Gladwell and an actual statistical survey (PDF) by the University of Liverpool, argues that FBI criminal profiling is little more than bogus cold reading.

Carroll notes about the Liverpool study:
First, the psychologists argue that profiling won't work the way the F.B.I. does it. (F.B.I. profiling assumes a stable relationship between configurations of offense behaviors and background characteristics, which is not supported by the research evidence.) Second, they note that the F.B.I. claims a high degree of accuracy for the method that supposedly shouldn't work. Then, they explain the illusion of accuracy as due to subjective validation.

And then, about the actual FBI profiling study Liverpool analyzed:
It also turns out that it shouldn't be surprising that the profile is bogus. It wasn't based on a representative sample. According to Gladwell, the F.B.I. profilers who came up with the serial killer profile, John Douglas and Robert Ressler, chatted only with convicts who were in prison in California. Furthermore, they had no standardized protocol for interviewing their subjects.

The FBI had been operating under the premise that serial killers fall into two types. Those who preplan their individual killings, based on victim age, race, sex, etc., for some particular psychological fix, and those who kill at random. They then assumed that each type of serial killer had a profile based on a different personality type.

Well, profiles were somewhat off in many cases, and egregiously off in many others. Gladwell says that in Britain, the Home Office studies 184 criminal cases which had profilers involved, and the success rate was 2.7 percent.

More below the fold (pretty long):

The problem is even worse than that, Gladwell points out. Ultimately, the FBI method of developing details that are supposed to belong to a certain type of profile, such as one type of serial killer versus the other, is unscientific:
(FBI agents) Douglas and Ressler didn’t interview a representative sample of serial killers to come up with their typology. They talked to whoever happened to be in the neighborhood. Nor did they interview their subjects according to a standardized protocol. They just sat down and chatted, which isn’t a particularly firm foundation for a psychological system. So you might wonder whether serial killers can really be categorized by their level of organization.

The Liverpool study went back and analyzed a number of specific killings committed by serial killers. They started with the idea that traits that fit in the profile or organized killer, or disorganized killer, would “interlock” with one another.

Not true. Most the crimes had specific factors that were a mix of both profile types.

And, here’s exactly how it’s like cold reading:
A few years ago, Laurence Alison, one of the leaders of the Liverpool group and the author of “The Forensic Psychologist’s Casebook,” went back to the case of the teacher who was murdered on the roof of her building in the Bronx. He wanted to know why, if the F.B.I.’s approach to criminal profiling was based on such simplistic psychology, it continues to have such a sterling reputation. The answer, he suspected, lay in the way the profiles were written, and, sure enough, when he broke down the rooftop-killer analysis, sentence by sentence, he found that it was so full of unverifiable and contradictory and ambiguous language that it could support virtually any interpretation.

Gladwell begins his article by noting that profiling has many of its roots in Freudian psychiatry, which means that, beyond being cold reading fishing expeditions, actual profiling work-ups are also often wrong in the same way that Freudian psychiatry is.

We of course have seen FBI profiling go tragically wrong three notable times in recent years, first in falsely implicating Richard Jewell as the Atlanta Olympics bomber. the failure to consider blacks as sniper-type serial killers, as was disproved by John Allan Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo, and finally, getting the Wichita, Kan. BTK serial killer incredibly misprofiled while he remained at large for decades. Note this FBI profiling of BTK, vs. the reality, from 1984:
The best minds in the F.B.I. had given the Wichita detectives a blueprint for their investigation. Look for an American male with a possible connection to the military. His I.Q. will be above 105. He will like to masturbate, and will be aloof and selfish in bed. He will drive a decent car. He will be a “now” person. He won’t be comfortable with women. But he may have women friends. He will be a lone wolf. But he will be able to function in social settings. He won’t be unmemorable. But he will be unknowable. He will be either never married, divorced, or married, and if he was or is married his wife will be younger or older. He may or may not live in a rental, and might be lower class, upper lower class, lower middle class or middle class. And he will be crazy like a fox, as opposed to being mental. If you’re keeping score, that’s a Jacques Statement, two Barnum Statements, four Rainbow Ruses, a Good Chance Guess, two predictions that aren’t really predictions because they could never be verified—and nothing even close to the salient fact that BTK was a pillar of his community, the president of his church and the married father of two.

Now that we have strong academic reasons for saying FBI profiling (not to mention movies based on it like “Silence of the Lambs”) is pretty much full of shit, we need to get the Attorney General in the next administration to get the FBI’s badly needed technological updates to be done in a way to push seat of the pants, cold-reading “criminal profiling” to the fringes of the Bureau.

Let’s put this in the “War on Terror” context. We could have false profiles of terror bombers (witness Jewell for a past sample of that). Or note that Transportation Security “watch lists” are based n about the same level of scientific credibility.

Shoe leather detective work is one thing. But seat-of-the-pants hunches and guesswork gussied up as “profiling” is another thing altogether.

Thursday, November 15, 2007


When I was younger,
I believed in the Platonic ideal.
I especially believed in the ideal of myself;
Perfect, and so, incorporeal.
The Platonic equivalent
Of the Pauline spiritual body.
Was it a love of Platonic philosophy,
Or rather a Pauline loathing of the physical?
I believe the latter.
Not only had I internalized
Augustinian angst about concupiscence,
I also had been buffeted by childhood slings and arrows.
Bullying by neighborhood acquaintances,
Abuse of various types at home,
Asthma, allergies and other breathing problems,
A bit of a lisp,
Late growth and skinniness.
What shy, quiet, lonely, hurting boy
Wouldn’t harbor Platonic thoughts
As a secret dream of salvation
From the curse and burden of the physical,
Deliverance from a body
That brought nothing but pain?

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Top books: Amazon readers weigh in

And, so do Amazon’s editors. Read both their lists of top-100 books. From the editors, on the nonfiction side, there’s sublists of top-10s in current events, history and general nonfiction. Customers have top-10 lists of biographies, history and general nonfiction.

A definite favorite of mine, Chistopher Hitchens’ “God is Not Great,” was No. 5 among all books, on the customers’ top 100. Say what you will about Hitch on the Iraq War, this was better than Richard Dawkins, a fair amount better than Dan Dennett, and far, far better than Sam Harris on the last year or two’s spate of atheism apologias.

Why? Two reasons.

First is that you get Hitch’s acerbic wit.

Second is that, unlike Dawkins and Dennett, who generally go light on Eastern religions, and Harris, who positively cozies up to Buddhism, Hitchens is ready to say the Dalai Lama has just as much no clothes as the Pope or Pat Robinson.

Gore’s “Assault on Reason” was No. 14 with customers; Greenspan’s book was the only higher-ranked political book.

Jeffrey Toobin’s “The Nine” topped editors’ current events top 10. Greenspan was second, followed by Robert Draper’s new W bio.

Colbert’s “I Am America,” at No. 10, was tops among political books on the editors’ top-100. They had Hitch at No. 22.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Karma, karma-lite and evolutionary psychology

I’ve blogged elsewhere before about my take on full-blown karma, that it’s both as illogical as western monotheism’s heaven/hell, and personally, at least as offensive.

But, what about “karma-lite,” the non-metaphysical, or less-metaphysical, generic claim that “what goes around, comes around”?

There’s a better, scientific explanation from evolutionary psychology. It’s called “reciprocal altruism,” or, in even easier layperson’s terms, “tit for tat.”

Animals with enough memory intelligence to remember past good or bad actions by their fellows and attribute them to specific actors, especially amongst highly social animals, can and do practice this. In the case of bad actors, it’s the old “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me” schtick. Intelligence social animals can and do remember who cheats in the old game of back-scratching and won’t let Mr. or Ms. Cad play in any more reindeer games.

It’s that simple. Nothing metaphysical needed.

And, scientists are finding the first genetic support for reciprocal altruism. The gene in question appears linked to dopamine production and a similar gene in voles that promote social bonding, which makes sense to me. Reciprocal altruism certainly promotes social bonds, and a dopamine-based “feel good” feeling for doing it would be the reward individuals get to be good group members.

So, do altruism cheaters lack a copy, or good expression, of this gene?

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Fall is the time for poignant reflections

North Texas is not Michigan or Washington State. The days of fall, on average, don’t become perceptibly more overcast as they shorten. Nor does the amount of daylight in each day lose three or four minutes, unlike these northern locations.

In short, our area does not feel like it’s becoming sunlight-deprived as October rushes into November, with December looming on the horizon. So, the area is not a prime location to produce sufferers of Seasonal Affective Disorder, normally known by its acronym of SAD.

Nonetheless, this is a time of year I get poignant, to use a nice, high-dollar word.


In a word, or two acronyms, it’s the change from CDT to CST.

Our annual time to pay the piper for all those extra evenings of summer sunlight is now upon us, as we prepare to “fall back” to Standard Time.

I’m not awake early enough in the spring to notice my “lost” hour of dawn at the start of Daylight Saving Time, just my “gained” hour of evening.

I think a loss gets noticed more easily than a gain, though. And, being a night owl, not a morning person, I’m more likely to notice an evening loss, too.

To sound a bit John Madden-like, all of a sudden, BOOM, there goes an hour of daylight. And, I’m left feeling, well, poignant, among other things.

I hate using the word “ineffable” about the word “poignant.” Nonetheless, I think a complex emotional state like poignancy has to be experienced, has to be felt, to be fully understood; words alone can’t do it justice.

And, with the change from Daylight Saving Time to Standard Time being pushed a week later this year, I will probably have that feeling of poignancy intensified a little bit this year.

Even though I just said that “poignancy” might not be easily definable to a person who has not felt poignant, I’ll nonetheless make an effort at it, and perhaps wax a bit poetic in the process.

To me, it contains wistfulness at the process of change, whether that’s change in seasons and sunlight, or other changes. It also contains a bit of melancholy, a gentle tinge of sadness as I once wrote in a poem, at how life is passing onward. But it also has a warm glow from memories provoked by thinking about life’s ever-changing flow.

So, no, the complex emotion of poignancy isn’t a “bad” emotion, not that “bad” emotions are bad, anyway, when felt at appropriate times and expressed appropriately. It’s a very human emotion, one that distinguishes us from lower life forms as much as our abstract-reasoning human intelligence does.

In other words, poignancy is an emotion about being alive, fully alive. It’s about being aware of life as it surrounds us, of how changes in life impinge upon us, and how we can awarely interact with our larger world. Either other people or changes in the natural world can stir it up in me.

And, with that said, I can think of two reasons why I think the one-week delay in the change back to standard time may increase those feelings.

One is that the daylight will be a little bit shorter with the time change a week later than it has been in the past.

The second is that, with the time change occurring another week into fall, more fall foliage changes will be out there for me to see. A few more leaves will be yellow, orange or maybe brown. A few more will be falling from their branches, pinwheeling and tumbling to the ground. The smell of various types of red oaks, and their decaying leaves, will provide an aromatic fall backdrop, accompanied by the aural filigree of the sound of those leaves, and the occasional acorn or pecan, crunching underfoot.

Fall may not be a season of hope in the way that spring is. But, it can be a time of taking stock, of appreciating and accepting where our journey of life has us at right now, a nature-based equivalent of Marcel Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past.”

And that, in a native pecan nutshell, is what poignancy is about.