Don’t give creationists power of attorney

Just giving everyone a heads up. If you’re an atheist and you’re starting to get a little demented make sure someone is there to protect you from religious people with an axe to grind. The story of the so-called turning of Antony Flew is sad, and really very cruel, as IDers and religious ideologues have clearly exploited a man in decline.

TWO YEARS LATER, Flew’s doubts have disappeared, and the philosopher has a reinvigorated faith in his theistic friends. In his new book, he freely cites Schroeder, Haldane and Varghese. And the author who two years ago was forgetting his Hume is, in the forthcoming volume, deeply read in many philosophers — John Leslie, John Foster, Thomas Tracy, Brian Leftow — rarely if ever mentioned in his letters, articles or books. It’s as if he’s a new man.

In August, I visited Flew in Reading. His house, sparsely furnished, sits on a small plot on a busy street, hard against its neighbors. It could belong to a retired government clerk or to a career military man who at last has resettled in the mother country. Inside, it seems very English, with the worn, muted colors of a BBC production from the 1970s. The house may lack an Internet connection, but it does have one very friendly cat, who sat beside me on the sofa. I visited on two consecutive days, and each day Annis, Flew’s wife of 55 years, served me a glass of water and left me in the sitting room to ask her husband a series of tough, indeed rather cruel, questions.

In “There Is a God,” Flew quotes extensively from a conversation he had with Leftow, a professor at Oxford. So I asked Flew, “Do you know Brian Leftow?”

“No,” he said. “I don’t think I do.”

“Do you know the work of the philosopher John Leslie?” Leslie is discussed extensively in the book.

Flew paused, seeming unsure. “I think he’s quite good.” But he said he did not remember the specifics of Leslie’s work.

“Have you ever run across the philosopher Paul Davies?” In his book, Flew calls Paul Davies “arguably the most influential contemporary expositor of modern science.”

“I’m afraid this is a spectacle of my not remembering!”

He said this with a laugh. When we began the interview, he warned me, with merry self-deprecation, that he suffers from “nominal aphasia,” or the inability to reproduce names. But he forgot more than names. He didn’t remember talking with Paul Kurtz about his introduction to “God and Philosophy” just two years ago. There were words in his book, like “abiogenesis,” that now he could not define. When I asked about Gary Habermas, who told me that he and Flew had been friends for 22 years and exchanged “dozens” of letters, Flew said, “He and I met at a debate, I think.” I pointed out to him that in his earlier philosophical work he argued that the mere concept of God was incoherent, so if he was now a theist, he must reject huge chunks of his old philosophy. “Yes, maybe there’s a major inconsistency there,” he said, seeming grateful for my insight. And he seemed generally uninterested in the content of his book — he spent far more time talking about the dangers of unchecked Muslim immigration and his embrace of the anti-E.U. United Kingdom Independence Party.

As he himself conceded, he had not written his book.

“This is really Roy’s doing,” he said, before I had even figured out a polite way to ask. “He showed it to me, and I said O.K. I’m too old for this kind of work!”

When I asked Varghese, he freely admitted that the book was his idea and that he had done all the original writing for it. But he made the book sound like more of a joint effort — slightly more, anyway. “There was stuff he had written before, and some of that was adapted to this,” Varghese said. “There is stuff he’d written to me in correspondence, and I organized a lot of it. And I had interviews with him. So those three elements went into it. Oh, and I exposed him to certain authors and got his views on them. We pulled it together. And then to make it more reader-friendly, HarperCollins had a more popular author go through it.”

So even the ghostwriter had a ghostwriter: Bob Hostetler, an evangelical pastor and author from Ohio, rewrote many passages, especially in the section that narrates Flew’s childhood. With three authors, how much Flew was left in the book? “He went through everything, was happy with everything,” Varghese said.

Cynthia DiTiberio, the editor who acquired “There Is a God” for HarperOne, told me that Hostetler’s work was limited; she called him “an extensive copy editor.” “He did the kind of thing I would have done if I had the time,” DiTiberio said, “but editors don’t get any editing done in the office; we have to do that in our own time.”

I then asked DiTiberio if it was ethical to publish a book under Flew’s name that cites sources Flew doesn’t know well enough to discuss. “I see your struggle and confusion,” she said, but she maintained that the book is an accurate presentation of Flew’s views. “I don’t think Tony would have allowed us to put in anything he was not comfortable with or familiar with,” she said. “I mean, it is hard to tell at this point how much is him getting older. In my communications with him, there are times you have to say things a couple times. I’m not sure what that is. I wish I could tell you more. . . We were hindered by the fact that he is older, but it would do the world a disservice not to have the book out there, regardless of how it was made.”

It is clear, reading the article, that they have convinced a man named Antony Flew into accepting these silly arguments from design. They wrote a book, ostensibly about his conversion, and convinced him to put his name on it while he’s completely unable to understand or even remember the contents. It is also clear that this man is not the same one who wrote on atheist philosophy. They may claim this as some great victory that they turned an atheist – which is questionable in this case – but even if they convinced Dawkins or Hitchens it’s all just missing the point. It’s not about dogma and popes and figureheads for atheists. Converting some famous atheist changes nothing with regard to the absence of evidence for their ideas or their pseudoscience. This ultimately will change no one’s mind, if anything the fact that they were willing to exploit an old man in such a tawdry fashion is just a reminder of how wrong these people are. They’re vultures, or as PZ would say, ghouls.

Gullible is not in the dictionary

As either evidence that you can convince idiots of anything to get high, or that police don’t have a sense of humor, check out the Smoking Gun’s coverage of this police bulletin warning of a new drug – Jenkem.

The hilarious part? The drug is supposedly created by fermenting human sewage in the sun, then inhaling the fumes. Slang terms include: Winnie, Shit, Runners, Fruit from Crack Pipe, Leroy Jenkems, Might, Butthash, and Waste. Ha!

Now Snopes has the skinny on this supposedly new epidemic which the memo warns is “now a popular drug in American schools.” Yeah, maybe among kids with cruel older brothers. I think it’s largely a hoax on the Collier County Sheriff’s office. I wouldn’t rule out the possibility you could get high on “biogases”, but I suspect someone is having some fun with the cops.

My question for the readers, what fake drug can you invent to prank the cops with? Or to play a trick on a younger brother?

Read this Post! WSJ on Subliminal Advertising

Cynthia Crossen writes in today’s Journal about subliminal advertising:

At a New York press conference 50 years ago, a market researcher, James Vicary, announced he had invented a way to make people buy things whether they wanted them or not. It was called subliminal advertising.

He had tested the process at a New Jersey movie theater, he said, where he had flashed the words “Eat Popcorn” or “Coca-Cola” on the screen every five seconds as the films played. The words came and went so fast — in three-thousandths of a second — that the audience didn’t know they’d seen them. Yet sales of popcorn and Coke increased significantly.

While this caused some hysteria and promises by networks to not engage in subliminal advertising, eventually testing undermined Vicary’s claims of efficacy:

…People began trying to replicate Mr. Vicary’s experiment.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corp. flashed the message “Telephone now” 352 times on a 30-minute program. Of the more than 500 viewers who responded to a follow-up survey, 51% said they felt compelled to “do something” after watching the show. Many said they felt like having something to eat or drink. Only one said she felt like making a phone call.

In another test in San Francisco, 150 viewers, most of them television and radio broadcasters, watched a 25-minute film with an advertising message flashed every five seconds. The viewers then got a ballot with nine product names from which to identify the advertiser. Only 14 people chose the right name, a soft drink. More than twice as many chose a brand of chewing gum.

The Federal Communications Commission ordered Mr. Vicary to demonstrate his device in Washington before a panel of government officials. The message “Eat Popcorn” was transmitted during an episode of “The Grey Ghost.” Sen. Charles E. Potter (R., Mich.) was heard saying to a colleague, “I think I want a hot dog.”

The advertising industry’s trade publication, Printer’s Ink, observed, “Having gone to see something that is not supposed to be seen, and having not seen it, as forecast, the FCC and Congress seemed satisfied.”

Subliminal ads, supporters assured people, were strictly “reminder” ads. “They might move you to do something you like doing, but they’ll never make a Democrat out of a solid Republican, and they’ll never make a Scotch drinker out of a teetotaler,” one advocate told Gay Talese of the New York Times.

In 1962, Mr. Vicary, in an interview, admitted that he had fabricated the results of the popcorn test to drum up business for his market-research firm. Subliminal ads were tossed into the invention junkyard.

“All I accomplished,” he said, “was to put a new word into common usage.”

Vikings Disprove Global Warming!

It’s the latest idiotic attack on the science of global warming, Joe Queenan tells us it was great for the Vikings! Why the LA Times publishes this crap is beyond me.

So the argument is, the Vikings had a merry old time the last time it was warm like today, therefore, why worry? Global warming is good?

Well, take a look at temperature reconstructions for the last 2 thousand years or so (1):


The Vikings supposedly roamed the northern Atlantic around the year 1000 AD +/- 200 years.

Can you see the problem? We’re at happy Viking now (and that’s if you except the top, end of the distribution and not the mean at 1000AD) and ramping up. If we were to stop here, maybe you could make this argument, but the fact is we’re traveling into the unknown, and if paleoclimatology is right about anything, we’re likely heading towards disaster.

Yet another poorly-thought out argument to justify complacency. Anyone who reads my blog realizes I’m anti-alarmist, but that doesn’t mean we should sit around looking for non-existent silver-linings like this twit.

1. Jones, P.D., M. New, D.E. Parker, S. Martin, and I.G. Rigor, Surface air temperature and its changes over the past 150 years, Reviews of Geophysics, 37, 173-199, 1999.

Ben Stein loses all intellectual credibility

On his blog Stein espouses one of the weakest attacks I’ve heard yet against evolution, and not even original. It’s a pathetic set of logical fallacies. Basically, he starts from the assumption that scientific theories arise if they serve the prevailing ideology of the time period, and because “Darwinism” was developed during the Victorian/imperialist age, it represents nothing but the worst aspects of that era.

Let’s make this short and sweet. It would be taken for granted by any serious historian that any ideology or worldview would partake of the culture in which it grew up and would also be largely influenced by the personality of the writer of the theory.

In other words, major theories do not arise out of thin air. They come from the era in which they arose and are influenced greatly by the personality and background of the writer.

Darwinism, the notion that the history of organisms was the story of the survival of the fittest and most hardy, and that organisms evolve because they are stronger and more dominant than others, is a perfect example of the age from which it came: the age of Imperialism. When Darwin wrote, it was received wisdom that the white, northern European man was destined to rule the world. This could have been rationalized as greed-i.e., Europeans simply taking the resources of nations and tribes less well organized than they were. It could have been worked out as a form of amusement of the upper classes and a place for them to realize their martial fantasies. (Was it Shaw who called Imperialism “…outdoor relief for the upper classes?”)

But it fell to a true Imperialist, from a wealthy British family on both sides, married to a wealthy British woman, writing at the height of Imperialism in the UK, when a huge hunk of Africa and Asia was “owned” (literally, owned, by Great Britain) to create a scientific theory that rationalized Imperialism. By explaining that Imperialism worked from the level of the most modest organic life up to man, and that in every organic situation, the strong dominated the weak and eventually wiped them out,

Darwin offered the most compelling argument yet for Imperialism. It was neither good nor bad, neither Liberal nor Conservative, but simply a fact of nature. In dominating Africa and Asia, Britain was simply acting in accordance with the dictates of life itself. He was the ultimate pitchman for Imperialism.

Alas, Darwinism has had a far bloodier life span than Imperialism. Darwinism, perhaps mixed with Imperialism, gave us Social Darwinism, a form of racism so vicious that it countenanced the Holocaust against the Jews and mass murder of many other groups in the name of speeding along the evolutionary process.

Wow. There are so many fallacies here I don’t know quite how to start. For one, if one assumed that his assumptions were correct, this would just be a genetic fallacy. But since we know this is absurd, and that evolution has persisted as a theory because of the consistency of the theory with observation of the natural world, we can reject this idiocy out of hand. But then he devolves into the fallacy of appeal to consequences – again based on false premises. Including the pathetic Darwin lead to Hitler canard. Again, even if this were true, it would be like saying we shouldn’t believe in physics because it leads to nuclear weapons. However, it decidedly isn’t true, and as we’ve discussed previously, is based on a disingenuous reading of history that the ADL has attacked as disturbing tactic to try to shift blame for the holocaust from anti-antisemitism to science. This is a doubly disgusting tactic. It attempts to shift the blame for the holocaust away from the antisemitic ideology of Hitler and Nazism (suggesting antisemitism is scientifically justified by evolution!), while simultaneously trying to exploit the victims of the holocaust for the benefit of the anti-evolution cause. Stein should be ashamed.

The Origin of HIV in the Americas

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchThe mainstream media has been reporting on this paper (open access at PNAS) on the hunt for the origin of HIV in the Americas.

The surprising result was the finding that HIV first came to the United States from Haiti (rather than the previous origin which was thought to be a flight attendant from Canada) between 1966 and 1972, and flew under the radar of public health authorities for over a decade. The infection, spread initially by heterosexuals from Haiti, went undetected from as early as 1966 until 1981 and then only because it had jumped into a highly susceptible population. This article is rather humbling, because in perhaps the medically advanced country in the world, it evaded detection for so long until it finally created an epidemic in the male homosexual population.

So how did they figure this out?
Continue reading “The Origin of HIV in the Americas”

Animal Rights Extremists Wreck Scientist’s House

The latest pathetic assault on a scientist came from ALF against UCLA scientist Edyth London. Using a garden hose they flooded her home, causing tens of thousands in damage. However, rather than intimidating her out of performing research in addiction she has written an article for the LA Times, defending animal research.

For years, I have watched with growing concern as my UCLA colleagues have been subjected to increasing harassment, violence and threats by animal rights extremists. In the last 15 months, these attempts at intimidation have included the placement of a Molotov cocktail-type device at a colleague’s home and another under a colleague’s car — thankfully, they didn’t ignite — as well as rocks thrown through windows, phone and e-mail threats, banging on doors in the middle of the night and, on several occasions, direct confrontations with young children.

Then, several weeks ago, an article in the San Francisco Chronicle about the work I have been doing to understand and treat nicotine addition among adolescents informed readers that some of my research is done on primates. I was instantly on my guard. Would I be the next victim? Would the more extremist elements of the animal rights movement now turn their sights on me?

The answer came this week when the Animal Liberation Front claimed responsibility for vandalism that caused between $20,000 and $30,000 worth of damage to my home after extremists broke a window and inserted a garden hose, flooding the interior. Later, in a public statement addressed to me, the extremists said they had been torn between flooding my house or setting it afire. Maybe I should feel lucky.

Having come to the United States as the child of Holocaust survivors who had lost almost everything, I appreciate that perhaps “only in America” could I have fulfilled my dream of becoming a biomedical scientist, supported in doing research to reduce human suffering. But it is difficult for me to understand why the same country that was founded on the idea of freedom for all gives rise to an organization like the Animal Liberation Front, a shadowy group identified by the FBI as a domestic terrorism threat, which threatens the safety of researchers engaged in animal studies that are crucial to moving medicine forward.

I have devoted my career to understanding how nicotine, methamphetamine and other drugs can hijack brain chemistry and leave the affected individual at the mercy of his or her addiction. My personal connection to addiction is rooted in the untimely death of my father, who died of complications of nicotine dependence. My work on the neurobiology of addiction has spanned three decades of my life — most of this time as a senior scientist at the National Institutes of Health. To me, nothing could be more important than solving the mysteries of addiction and learning how we can restore a person’s control over his or her own life. Addiction robs young people of their futures, destroys families and places a tremendous burden on society.

Animal studies allow us to test potential treatments without confounding factors, such as prior drug use and other experiences that complicate human studies. Even more important, they allow us to test possibly life-saving treatments before they are considered safe to test in humans. Our animal studies address the effects of chronic drug use on brain functions, such as decision-making and self-control, that are impaired in human addicts. We are also testing potential treatments, and all of our studies comply with federal laws designed to ensure humane care.

While monkeys receive drugs in the laboratory, they do not become “addicted” in the same sense that humans become addicted. Still, we are able to see how changes in brain chemistry alter the way the brain works — knowledge that is vital to the design of effective medications.

My colleagues and I place a huge value on the welfare of our research subjects. We constantly strive to minimize the risk to them; however, a certain amount of risk is necessary to provide us with the information we need in a rigorously scientific manner. Since the incident at my house, our research has gotten a lot of attention. Some anti-smoking groups have raised questions about the fact that our work was funded by Philip Morris USA. Is it moral to allow the tobacco industry to fund research on addiction? My view is that the problem of tobacco dependence is enormous, and the resources available for research on the problem are limited. It would, therefore, be immoral to decline an opportunity to increase our knowledge about addiction and develop new treatments for quitting smoking, especially when teens are involved. Few people are untouched by the scourge of addiction in their friends or family. It is through work like ours that the understanding of addiction expands and gives rise to hope that we can help people like my father live longer, healthier lives.

Thousands of other scientists use laboratory animals in other research, giving hope to those afflicted with a wide variety of ailments. Already, one scientist at UCLA has announced that he will not pursue potentially important studies involving how the brain receives information from the retina, for fear of the violence that animal rights radicals might visit on his family. We must not allow these extremists to stop important research that advances the human condition.

Edythe London is a professor of psychiatry and bio-behavioral sciences and of molecular and medical pharmacology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

The reason I consider animal rights extremists denialists is because like other ideologues with an anti-science agenda, they lie about science to accomplish their goals. They routinely assert there is no need for animals to be used in research, that animals don’t relate valuable information, or exaggerate claims and examples of abuse to malign scientists as a whole. That they also use physical intimidation, threats against scientists, and violence just makes them that much worse.

By the way, students and faculty at Hampshire college in Amherst can do their part to stop terrorist groups like ALF by opposing their “Smash the state crush the cage” conference occurring next week.

I’m sure my other sciencebloggers will agree (unlike the cranks who do no science and presume to tell us our business) that animals are critical for biomedical research. We need to stand up to intimidation and not just attack ARAs when they stoop to violence, but when they misrepresent science and animal research as uneccessary. Groups like Americans for Medical Progress are a good start. But I would like to see scientists and sciencebloggers explain why they use animals and how it is critical for the scientific enterprise. The problem is, by trying to keep our animal work out of the spotlight, it’s made it appear as though we have something to hide, and has confused the public about the critical role of animals in biological research. We need to reverse this trend and inform people so they know that what we do in the lab using animals ultimately benefits humans knowledge in way that saves lives.

I’ll start. I use knockout animals, you know, that unimportant little technology that won the Nobel Prize this year. I use it to study the function of a gene that may be critical for heart development, is involved in pathological hypertrophy and appears to have the capability of turning on the cardiac developmental program in stem cells. One future use is a combined therapy potentially benefiting patients post-myocardial infarction with an autologous stem cell transplant of mesenchymal stem cells activated with this gene. A long way from bench to bedside, but the studies in animals have so far been pretty exciting.

Consider this a tag. If you do science and use animals in research explain on your blog and link back here. No blog? Tell me in the comments.

Update: Two of my scienceblogger colleagues have already recommended their extensive writings on the topic:
Nick Anthis and
But I’d still like to hear from the people who actually do research (you’ll find the sentimental nonsense and hand-wringing mostly from those that don’t) about how animals are necessary for your work, and why you think your work is important. Don’t be afraid to share.

Update 2: Nick Anthis has even more, and for anyone who is foolish enough not to think this is terrorism, read his post and tell me you still think it’s just a prank.

Update 3 ERV contributes to the cause and brings up the point of the importance of clonal or inbred populations.
Shelley at Retrospectacle contributes her 2 cents. As does Orac.

Update 4 – PZ weighs in, Angrytoxicologist gives us a Karmic pass.

Fight on Phenomenon!

Last week you may remember I watched phenomenon with eye out for Uri Geller’s nonsense, and I was pleasantly surprised to find Criss Angel playing the skeptic pretty well.

Well this week’s was awesome! Jim Callahan does a pretty cheesy psychic bit, with some really terrible acting, and it’s so bad that Angel calls him out. Angel starts demanding he (or Geller) show real psychic ability and if he did he’d give him a million dollars. It ends up with them being physically separated – check it out!

Some spoilers below the fold.

Continue reading “Fight on Phenomenon!”

Ask A Scienceblogger – Which parts of the human body could you design better?

i-133b9fea8ea6b307d8c9133b7f3e23bf-dice.jpg The question this month is “Which parts of the human body could you design better?”

This is a great question, because a lot of aspects of the human body represent what worked well enough for survival, not necessarily what works best. Therefore the engineering ends up being rather ramshackle, and convoluted, and sometimes, downright terrible.

For instance, who can look at this image – an anatomical model of human pregnancy at term, and not think this is really, really stupid engineering.

i-ec01c2239e3d4a89de41331d214c2397-Female reproduction.jpg
(image via wikipedia)

The very first thing I would change would be the female reproductive system. Ideally reproductive systems and waste removal equipment shouldn’t share space or have a such proximity to each other increasing risk of infection. The pelvis could do with some widening so women could actually deliver kids without killing themselves a significant portion of the time. Further, pregnancy in humans results in a fetus sitting on the bladder and colon for several months (and vaginal delivery acutely injures these muscles), as a result, post-partum many women have difficulty with urinary incontinence, and with age and with more kids the greater the risk of incontinence (this can not be prevented by c-section – so the damage is likely from positioning of the fetus on top of the bladder rather than acute trauma during birth). This unfortunate arrangement of the uterus appears to be a result of the change from walking on all fours to walking upright, the fetus, which would ordinarily sit mostly on the wall of the abdomen, ends up sitting directly on internal organs.

I’m sure women would like an alternative to monthly period as well. Overall though, the female reproductive system is terrible, involving significant risks of morbidity and mortality with each pregnancy. One of the great benefits of medicine has been the drastic reduction in infant and maternal mortality with labor and delivery – but it would be nice if the system were engineered correctly in the first place.

Much more below the fold…
Continue reading “Ask A Scienceblogger – Which parts of the human body could you design better?”