Tuesday, 31 July 2012

The best defence is not offence

Jerry Coyne recent(ish)ly posted on WEIT "A note on courtesy and posting behavior". It's a great post and I won't repeat it here, except to say that I think we all need to be reminded from time to time to just calm down, especially when discussing topics that have a tendency to make people either angry or defensive, such as Creationism and religion. There seems to be a little cluster of posts on this general topic at the moment (in my blogosphere at least), so I thought it a good time to try and spit out a post that has been actually been brewing for a while, giving my own twopenneth on the matter.

I've commented before that I sometimes feel the WEIT website sometimes bashes religion a bit too much for my tastes - one of Jerry's oft-repeated tag lines is "religion poisons everything". On the whole, though, I think he does a very good job at targeting his clear passion and, sometimes, warranted anger at the specific people responsible for certain public comments or ideas. I also tend to agree with his position. My only discomfort comes from the fact that I know a lot of religious people will be put off visiting the site due to the clear stance against religion, and I really want them to go there and read the evolution posts! (If they are even slightly on the fence regarding Creationism.)

Some of the other blogs out there sail a bit too close to the wind, perhaps. Another one of my regular reads and favourites is Larry Moran's Sandwalk, although the tagline to the blog - "strolling with skeptical biochemist" implies a relaxed air that often seems to be lacking. In a recent post, Ophelia, Daniel, I Respectfully Disagree, Larry outlines why he thinks the use of "insulting words to describe stupid people" is OK in some circumstances:
"When I use the word "IDiot" I fully intend to bash the IDiots for their stupid ideas. Why? Because their ideas are stupid and they really are idiots.

I don't expect to convince the IDiots of the error of their ways any more than they intend to convince scientists by using insulting terms like "Darwinist," "materialist," and "stupid." There's no such thing as "constructive discourse" with creationists.

My audience is not the creationists I'm debating, it's the readers who might not have made up their minds about Intelligent Design Creationism. They will read the viscous attacks of these creationists on scientists (Darwinists) and wonder whether there's some truth behind them."
(There is a more than this but I suggest you read the post and comments to get the full argument.)

I definitely see where people are coming from when they use the term "IDiot". It is very appealing. As Larry says, the Intelligent Design arguments are stupid and often disingenuous. I have a big problems with widespread use of the term, though. This is because, while I think "Intelligent Design" is an intellectually bankrupt position devoid of any scientific merit (and Young Earth Creationism is so far from having scientific merit that it genuinely scares me that people promote it), not all believers in Intelligent Design or Young Earth Creationism are stupid. Note that Larry is not actually saying they are in the quote above - he says that their ideas are stupid and they are idiots - but I think calling someone an IDiot gives a strong impression that you think that they are just as stupid as their ideas. Another famous evolution blogger, who shall remain nameless, is so aggressive and rude to his critics that I had to stop following him on Twitter. It was just unpleasant. (As a result, I also never visit his blog unless it is flagged up elsewhere, which is probably my loss.)

I feel this is counter-productive for a couple of reasons.

The first is that it seems to rule out the very real possibility - indeed, likelihood - that far from repeating these ideas due to stupidity, there are certain intelligent people out there being knowingly disenginuous and telling lies in an attempt to indoctrinate people or sell stuff. A good example of this is the film Expelled! No Intelligence Allowed. The signs of this are the blatant repetition and promotion of ideas that have long since been thoroughly debunked. A similar thing happened recently with YEC supporter during Giant's Causewaygate - I recommend reading Dr Stephen Moreton's short piece in Issue 6 of the Earth Science Ireland magazine (P37-P39), "Facts meet fantasies at the Giant's Causeway" for some more examples. (Or just look at essentially any Creationist propaganda.) The fact that these people are usually selling a book or DVD gives a financial motivation for dishonesty above the usual motive for lying in the name of religion, namely power.

Indeed, those claiming to be "Creation Scientists" are sometimes very forthright about their lack of scientific integrity. A line in a piece entitled Tree ring dating (dendrochronology) lays out the true Creationist position quite explicitly:
"However, when the interpretation of scientific data contradicts the true history of the world as revealed in the Bible, then it’s the interpretation of the data that is at fault."
This is often (as in this case) then accompanied by some very creative pseudo-scientific justification as to why all of the world's experts studying, for example, dendrochronology are actually wrong and why an interpretation of the data that fits nicely with all the other (literal) mountains of evidence for an old Earth must also be wrong because these trees cannot actually be older than the Biblical Flood. To come up with these explanations shows a severe lack of scientific integrity and, often, desperation but it frequently does not reveal an underlying stupidity. (In some ways, it would be much less sad if it did.)

Larry is right that there is no such thing as "constructive discourse" with this set of Creationists because they are explicitly charged (and indeed may even believe themselves to be called by the Almighty) to twist, ignore and invent data as needed to bolster their pre-existing worldview. They are beyond hope until they start basing truth on reality rather than vice versa.

The problem is, however, there is a second set of non-stupid Creationists who are not beyond hope. I know because I used to be one and I have old friends who might still be in such a position. And herein lies my second big problem with referring to people that have bought into Intelligent Design as IDiots - it instantly makes anyone currently holding that view feel defensive. If you give them a choice of you being wrong or them being stupid, obviously you are going to be wrong! If you give them a choice of you being wrong or them being misinformed, they are more likely to give the idea some attention - and for many people misinformation rather than stupidity really is the problem.

To understand this, you have to put yourself in the position of someone who has been brought up their whole life to believe that a particular book - and sometimes a particular interpretation of said book - is the ultimate window to truth. Anything disagreeing with that is wrong or possibly evil. Indeed, the Devil is out there trying to confuse us all with his sneaky lies. They are then confronted by two sides, who BOTH claim that the other is lying and BOTH present claims of scientific explanations.

Now, for anyone (like me) who cares enough to actually learn the science well enough to make an informed decision, the evidence screams for itself. There is only one "side" that shows scientific integrity and has a consistent, well supported position. The mistake is thinking that everyone has enough knowledge to make an informed decision and is therefore "stupid" if they make the wrong decision. For many people, they are presented with the choice of believing someone they have been brought up to trust versus someone they have been brought up not to trust. If you alienate them by calling them stupid - or calling those they have been taught to admire stupid - there is a real risk that they are not going to start looking into the facts. You have validated the lie that evolution is just promoted by people who hate religious people and think that they are stupid. To them, and to the neutral (or even the squeamish supporter), it looks like you are attacking their ideas because you think they are stupid and not that you think they are stupid because of their ideas. People might assume that you haven't really bothered to look at or consider what the "IDiot" has actually said because you already know they're an IDiot and therefore must be wrong.

Happily, I got a proper education before ID came along but I was brainwashed into being a Creationist (and even seriously contemplating YEC) as a teenager despite being academically far from stupid. I was simply too poorly equipped to recognise which side was right and which side was lying until I learnt more. It was clearly laid out facts and solid debunking of Creationist myths that saved me, not aggressively attacking those who had brainwashed me - most of those people themselves had been duped (and were not scientists) and were repeating that nonsense with good intentions because people they trusted had, in turn, mislead them.

When the actual facts come out, Creationism (& ID) is such a weak position that it really does not need to be attacked so aggressively. I have never met anyone who had "not made up their mind" about Creationism versus evolution and ever opted for Creationism after looking into it. (I've met lots of people that simply don't care but that's a different matter.) I have, on the other hand, met a lot of people who have made up their mind to believe in Creationism because of what they have been taught/indoctrinated with (or been sucked in following religious conversion) but, at the same time, have the intellectual integrity (and capacity) to question whether that position is right and look into it further.

The thing that needs to be attacked with vigour is the apparent right of religious institutions to brainwash the next generation with all sorts of gibberish. Again, though, the people involved are not necessarily stupid - they are often themselves the victims of a giant multi-generational scam that has left them too invested in an untenable position to easily let go.

The final thing that I would say is that (in my experience) fundamentalist Christianity comes with a built-in persecution complex. If you attack them directly (i.e. attack them and not their ideas), they see this as a sign that they are doing something right and that they are being "persecuted" for being holy. Rather than damaging them, you are validating them and giving them material with which to brainwash the next generation.

Monday, 30 July 2012

From the ancient Greeks to the modern Geeks - the #Nerdlympics

This weekend I joined with people from all over the world to witness Olympic history in the making. It was a pleasure to see science and technology celebrated on the world stage and pay a wonderful tribute to the creation of the World Wide Web.

No, I am not talking about the opening ceremony (although I did very much like the cauldron). I am, of course, referring to the #Nerdlympics on Twitter!

I've been on Twitter for a while now and contribute to a couple of trending topics but never got in on one at the beginning and watch it take off before.

Perhaps ironically, I had not really checked my Twitter feed for a while when I logged on last night, Alex Wild (@Myrmecos) had just posted a couple of geeky Olympic event puns with the hashtag #Nerdlympics. ("Star Trek and Field" was one of the early ones.) Never one to resist a good pun (as readers of The Cabbages of Doom could testify!), I tweeted "PCRchery" back (an event to be held in the velodrome with the rest of the thermal cycling). There were then a trickle of tweets, including some of my own contributions:
☺"Modem pentathlon"
☺"Circadian Rhythym Gymnastics" and
☺"Geeko-Roman Wrestling".
A couple of my favourites were tweeted at this time, including:
☺"Periodic table tennis" (@Myrmecos),
☺"Kreb's Cycling" (also @Myrmecos),
☺"Higgs Field Hockey" (@paulcoxon) and
☺<table>Tennis</table> (@gr33ndata).
Then, it suddenly took off and tweets were flying in, causing Alex to tweet:
The good news is, I've finally created my first successful hashtag. The bad news is, it's #Nerdlympics
As I replied at the time - I don't see the bad news here! Top work, Alex - you gave many nerds (including me) an entertaining evening.

It was quite interesting to see the different approaches taken. I was definitely of the "pun" class but there was a clear set of proposed events from an actual Nerdlympic competition. (Alex himself posted both types, e.g. "Synchronized Centrifuging".) At this point it became hard to keep up but here are a few more of my favourites (in no particular order):
@artologica: Tenure Track and Field,
@SuzeMarsupial: Basketball Galactica
@RalphCipolla: Heavy Water Polo
‏☺@skepticCanary: Petri Discus.
@CarolMorton: Beach bucky ball
@eric_andersen: Angry Birdminton
@abdelrahmanG: Spammer throw
‏☺@scientelle: Logarithmic Gymnastics
@marvel_matt: TATA-Boxing
@JamieBeach: Floppy Discus Throw
@JoeyMcMorrow1: Molecular weight lifting
Well done, all! It made me proud to be a nerd.

I am sure that there were some other classics that I have missed. To get a few more, try searching Twitter for #Nerdlympics - the early posts are all events but then later posts start referring to summaries of the event (recursive trending?) - or check out the Storify summaries by Bug Girl and Tarek Amr.

Saturday, 28 July 2012

Marvellous Mollusca

Arestorides argusIt's not just rocks that have crazy and beautiful patterns - shells do too. The Oxford University Museum of Natural History has a great collection of such shells and this one stands out as a particularly fine example. It's labelled Cypraea argus, now known as
Arestorides argus - a.k.a. the "eyed cowrie", a species of sea snail.

Whilst undeniably pretty, the eyed cowry is not my favourite part of the Mollusca exhibit at OUMNH, though. That honour goes to the phylogenetic tree of Molluscan Classes made out of mollusc shells. How cool is that‽ (As a marine gastropod, Arestorides argus would join this particular party in the top left.)
mollusca treePerhaps the craziest molluscs of all, however, are the Cephalopods, which include octopuses and squid (including both flying and glow-in-the-dark varieties). These guys have lost their shells (or only retain small internal parts), though, so they can't contribute to this particular tree.

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Geology rocks!

Cheddar Gorge
Cheddar GorgeI was exposed to a lot of "Flood Geology" as a teenager and one of the things that always really struck me about real geology (as I alluded to in a previous post) is how much more sense it makes. What's more, the more I visit places with interesting geological features - such as Cheddar Gorge (above & right), which we visited last week, the more true this becomes. When I see the scale of the strata, the deformations of the land, the different shapes of valleys caused by rivers versus glaciers, the stratification (and thickness) of fossil deposits etc. etc., my mind just boggles how anyone can reject the scientific explanation of these things in favour of some desperate smoke-and-mirrors attempt to validate a particular myth from a particular culture as a literal truth despite the literal mountains of evidence to the contrary.

One thing that I don't think I really appreciated until more recently, however, is just how varied and beautiful rocks can be. A great example of this is the Corsi Collection of Decorative Stones at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. (The posts about this museum will keep coming!) The collection features 1,000 polished blocks of different decorative stones. I can't say that they are all different to my untrained eye but the OUMNH website has a great feature where you can browse all 1,000 and see for yourself!

Corsi stones
The decorative stones in the museum do not end there, though. Although it is not too clear from this picture, the pillars around the outside of the main gallery are also made from different stones. In a really nice feature, each column has an inscription at the base saying what it is and where it came from - as with the fossils, many of them seem to be locally sourced.

Combined with the recent Giant's Causeway fiasco and the development of MapTime for visualising Deep Time, I am increasingly interested to find out more when time allows. Geology: it's interesting stuff!

Wednesday, 25 July 2012


One of the things I did during my week off last week was to plant a fledgling fernery in our back garden. (Back row: Dryopteris erythrosora, Adiantum pedatum Miss Sharples, Polystichium setiferum; Front row: Athyrium niponicum var dictum 'Apple Court', Polystichium setiferum Congestum.)

fossil fernI'm not sure why I love ferns so much. Perhaps it's because (as a group) they date back to Devonian times (360+ million years ago) and feature among some of the oldest plant fossils we have. This one (right) is a Carboniferous example from the excellent Oxford University Museum of Natural History. I always feel that there is something a bit prehistoric about places that are rich in ferns. (Grasses did not come on the scene for another 300 million years or so.)
curled fernOn the other hand, it could simply be something to do with how aesthetically pleasing I find them. I love the way that they are all curled up as they grow, such as this great specimen from our honeymoon last year in Belize (left). It also pleases me the way the ends of the fronds are sometimes curled, as in the fern below from our trip to Cheddar Gorge last week (below).

Either way, I am glad that we now have some ferns in our garden and hopefully I can keep them alive! They are all hardy, so fingers crossed. I probably should have paid a bit more attention to which ones were evergreens and planted the two deciduous ones (A. pedatum and A. niponicum) either both at the front or both at the left. The evergreens on the right should look nice in winter with the holly - hopefully the Dryopteris erythrosora won't look too silly when it's two neighbours lose their leaves.
cheddar fern

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

MapTime is back online!

After a minor server hacking incident (not directed at the website itself), the MapTime website (www.maptime.co.uk) is back up and running. This seemed like a good excuse for a quick plug. I've posted before about this useful resource we are developing for visualising "Deep Time" using Google Maps and showed how it could be applied to YEC and Giant's Causeway. There is a more detailed How to use MapTime post on the MapTime blog, or just visit maptime.co.uk and have a play! Feedback and suggestions welcome!

Monday, 23 July 2012

The Oxford University Museum of Natural History

OUMNH OutsideEarlier this week, we visited Oxford and went to the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. (I blogged earlier about on one of their beetle exhibits.) The original plan had been to visit this Museum and the attached Pitt Rivers Museum and then visit the Ashmolean Museum of Art & Archaeology. We never made it to the Ashmolean.

There are so many great things about this museum that I will have to spread them over several posts (and save the Pitt Rivers for one of its own). The thing that struck me above and beyond everything else, though, is how it managed to be a pretty comprehensive Natural History museum looking at the global scale but, at the same time, managed to be all about Oxford and have a real local flavour. I guess it helps that Oxford is a world-renowned seat of learning and that many of the scientists making the big world-changing discoveries were at Oxford. Even so, it was great to see fossils etc. from nearby and see how the local geology helped shaped thoughts about geological time etc.
Debate stoneDarwin
For a start, the building itself has historical significance as it was the site of the famous 1860 debate about evolution featuring Thomas Huxley and Samuel Wilberforce. There are lot of legends associated with that debate and, not having been there, I don't know what actually happened but it is certainly clear that evolution and its supporters have subsequently been thoroughly and (scientifically at least) entirely vindicated. This, perhaps, explains why the statue of Darwin inside is leaning against the pillar so nonchalantly!
OUMNH Inside
The inside of the building is also pretty impressive and really beautiful. Many of the pillars are constructed from different rocks (more on that another day) and have different, distinctive patterns. The displays are also really well laid out and manage to cram a lot in to the building without feeling cramped or crowded.

You get welcomed with the impressive dinosaurs upon entry. The Iguanodon and Tyrannosaurus are not from Oxford but many of the other dinosaur bones and footprints features in the exhibit are local or feature identifications by local Oxford-based scientists. The centre of the room is dominated by these and other animal skeletons etc. and lots of the displays also have interesting regular history along with the natural history. I also like the way that you are able to touch some of the animals and minerals - although obviously nothing too fragile.

Natural History is not just about biology/evolution and there is also a bunch of great stuff on geology - something that I find increasingly interesting the older I get. I am always struck by how much sense the scientific geological explanation makes of different rock formations, strata and fossil patterns. You have to be pretty determined not to accept it.

I won't waffle on here as you can find out lots more at the the museum website. I will post a couple more of my favourite exhibits over the coming days, though. Having browsed the website, however, I do realise that I will have to go back as I managed to miss one of the most famous exhibits - the Oxford Dodo. Given that their logo is a dodo, I'm not sure how I missed this other than the obvious distraction of having so many other interesting things to look at!

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

"An inordinate fondness for beetles"

Move over jar of moles, the board of beetles is here! The caption reads:
"An inordinate fondness for beetles" ...reply of the British polymath J.B.S. Haldane (1892-1964), when asked what could be inferred about the mind of he Creator from a study of the works of Creation.
Yesterday, we went to the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. More on this fantastic museum in a future post but one of my favourite exhibits was this board showing just a fraction of the vast array of beetle species.

Just one of the many, many, many things that taking the Biblical Creation myth literally fails to explain is the (literally) awesome diversity of beetles. (Over one fifth of all described organisms - at least before Metagenomics came along - are beetles.) Haldane's explanation seems to be the only viable one and yet this is sadly out of kilter with the rest of the narrative - I don't remember beetles featuring in the Bible at all, and certainly not as major players in parables etc.

Still, the important point is not so much the paucity of that account, so much as how much diversity of form and function can evolve from the same basic body plan - just one of the many awe-inspiring displays in this fantastic museum.

Of course, evolutionary biologists have no specific explanation for why there are so many beetle species, although suggestions have been made. It is certainly entirely consistent with evolution, though: it stands to reason that some body plans will be more versatile than others and, due to the underlying genetics of development, more prone to morphological phenotypic change. It also stands to reason that some lifestyles and features - such as small size, versatility, and flight - are more likely to frequently open up or encounter new niches than others. Put the two together, and you have 350,000 beetles species and counting! (And a lot more if you widen this out to include all insects, which together make up over 90% of known animal species.)

As to the nature of the diversity... Understanding the evolutionary history and selective pressures behind all 350,000 plus species will keep Naturalists busy for a long time! (You'd probably have to be an omnipotent immortal being with an inordinate fondness for beetles to stand a chance!) Some are quite obvious, as they are clearly camouflage or other adaptations that help exploit their particular niche. Others, such as the Stag Beetle's "antlers" are likely to be driven by sexual selection. It also cannot be ruled out that many of the specific morphological traits have initially spread or become fixed purely by random drift. (Some would argue with this - another discussion for another day.)

For now, though, just marvel at one of the wonders of nature! (I'm not sure how many beetle species there are on that board precisely but I estimate it's around 300 - imagine 1000 or more of these boards, side by side!)

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Still life with lobster by John Nolan

Ten days or so ago, we found ourselves having coffee in Wrights of Howth and were taken with some artwork on the wall by John Nolan.

The picture we particularly liked was "Still life with lobster" (thumbnail left) but there is loads of other good stuff on his website, so I encourage you to check it out! Time to start saving, I think...

(We also had lunch in the Oar House in Howth, which is still fantastic! Mmmmm... buffalo prawns and crab claws...)

Sunday, 15 July 2012

What If? (XKCD+)

For those who haven't already seen it, the outstanding XKCD comic now has a weekly "What If?" section,
"answering your hypothetical questions with Physics, every Tuesday"
or, as the main site puts it:
"abusing science to answer hypothetical questions".
I prefer this second description as the second question answered ("What if everyone who took the SAT guessed on every multiple-choice question? How many perfect scores would there be?") does not seem to have much to do with Physics. The inaugarul entry, however, "What would happen if you tried to hit a baseball pitched at 90% the speed of light?", has a definite Physics theme and is highly entertaining, complete with great XKCD illustrations. (The footnote at the end is also most excellent but I won't spoil the punchline here!)

Lymington market rules!

It's another rainy Saturday in July, which has me wistfully thinking back to recent Saturdays that were not so wet - and catching up with some queued blog posts before they are completely out of date.

The week before our friends left for America (and after they had sold their car), we asked them if there was anywhere they wanted to go one last time, and Lymington was that somewhere. I thought that I had blogged about Lymington before but it seems that I haven't. It's a lovely little town on the south coast of Hampshire in the New Forest district. In addition to some nice walks nearby (particularly around the mudflats to the west), a large open air saltwater swimming pool, and a ferry to the Isle of Wight, Lymington has a market on the High Street every Saturday.

We'd been looking for some salad hands for ages and that Saturday, we found some! (Of course, now that we have some (a) they seem to be everywhere and (b) the weather has refused to provide any decent salad weather.) The stall from which we bought our salad hands had loads of lovely carved products and was just one of the local craft and food stalls. The market also features a load of general household goods stalls but rather than (or, perhaps, in addition to) the usual tat that I associate with such things, they tend to be selling really useful stuff at great prices. As well as our beautiful salad hands, we also managed to get half a dozen other odds and sods between us that we had been looking for elsewhere.

My favourite eatery in Lymington, the Vanilla Pod cafe, has sadly closed down, so I can no longer recommend a trip incorporating a fantastic brunch. Nevertheless, there are plenty of nice places to eat and the sandwiches and cakes in the Driftwood Cafe - a small takeaway-only cafe in the cobbled are of the town centre where we got some coffee - looked particularly good. If you are in the area and the sun should ever decide to grace us with its presence again (or, I suppose, the clouds decide to let it), I thoroughly recommend a visit.

Friday, 13 July 2012

Facts meet fantasies at the Giant's Causeway

I posted earlier about the scale of the Young Earth Creationist error about the age of Giant's Causeway in terms of scale but did not go into the science behind it, largely because I am not a geologist (or had geological training) and there are others who are (or have) who have done a much better job.

One such person is Dr Stephen Moreton, who wrote a piece on this very subject in Issue 6 of the Earth Science Ireland magazine (P37-P39), entitled "Facts meet fantasies at the Giant's Causeway". It's short, free, referenced, really well written and exposes a number of YEC lies and glaring errors.

I'd love to reproduce it all here (maybe I will ask Dr Moreton if I can) but this is probably my favourite quote:
"The plant flora also presents a problem for creationists... In the case of animals creationists say the observed ordering is in part a consequence of how fast they could swim, run or fly to escape the rising water... Perhaps the Palaeocene cedars and pines could run faster than the Carboniferous ferns and mosses."
And when you examine YEC claims in detail, they really are on this level of silliness. The saddest thing is that, despite the clear debunking of their claims (such as dodgy radiometric dating), they keep turning out the same rubbish.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Mystic Mog and the Exploding Tortoise: The Plan

My recent posts have been a bit dominated by the great National Trust YEC fiasco of late, so now for something completely different and altogether not-so-serious. Observant ones among you may have spotted a new "page" appear in the side-bar, linking to a new blog: Mystic Mog and the Exploding Tortoise. This is cross-post from that new blog, explaining what's going on - or hopefully will be going on, at least...

I was chatting to a friend recently about writing fiction and he asked me how I controlled the characters as they had a tendency, in his experience, to go off and do their own thing. Well, in the case of The Cabbages of Doom, I guess the answer is that I didn't! The whole thing started life as a random email to a friend as a bit of light relief, which was followed up the next day by another that picked up where it left off, and then another and another... until I found myself writing a novella. (Too long to be a short story but too short to be a proper novel!) I don't think it was until about half-way through that I really knew how it was going to end and, even then, it took the characters rather longer than expected to get themselves to that end!

The sequel started life almost as randomly, as a title: "Mystic Mog and the Exploding Tortoise". I can't remember how or why that title became fixed - it happened when I was a PhD student before the first story was even finished - but now it has become quite established and the story has grown (or continues to grow) around it. Finishing Cabbages gave me a bit more time to dwell on the plot of the sequel, so I have an approximate plan this time of where it is going, although some things - such as the end - are still lacking. What is really lacking, though, is the writing! Things were a bit slow with my iPad because it's not that great for heavy text input but now I have a MacBook Air, I am hoping this will improve.

I am still finding it a bit hard to make the time, though, particularly as I am stuck in a bit of tricky spot - over 44,000 words are already written but not for quite a long time, so I need to try and refresh my memory (and edit) somewhat before really launching back into it. With so much of the story still to go, however, I have this "will I ever finish it?" feeling that keeps clawing me back.

Time to take action, and that action is to serialise it in the Mystic Mog blog! I've never blogged a story before, so I am not entirely sure how, or even if, this is going to work but the rough plan is essentially to follow the original genesis of The Cabbages of Doom, releasing one "episode" (snippet) each day or so until completion. I have fifty or so such snippets largely ready to go (with a bit of neatening and editing) and a whole 'nother bunch planned, so I should have enough to keep going for a while. The hope is that, in the meantime, I can write some more and keep ahead of myself. (I probably won't post every day.) If nothing else, the commitment will hopefully keep me going!

Once it's "finished", much like with The Cabbages of Doom, I imagine I will go back over it and edit out the bits that don't work, fix a few continuity errors, flesh out some weak bits and whack it out as another eBook. So, if you liked the first one, or just want to help be a "muse" (and, with luck, amused), do sign up and join me on my journey to more madness. I hope to post the first snippet in a day or so.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Withdrawing my support: where the National Trust went wrong

I am a member of the National Trust and I think they do a lot of excellent work around the country, preserving both historical and natural sites. I am also an evolutionary biologist and dead set against representing Creationism in any of its forms as science.

The recent debacle concerning the reference to Young Earth Creationism (YEC) at the new Giant's Causeway visitor centre has therefore caused a mixture of emotions. Although I still think that some people might be over-reacting (the NT is not "promoting" Creationism), it gives me great confidence for the future of mankind that there are so many people prepared to over-react. At the same time, though, I am saddened to think that the NT might lose money and members due to this. I am also increasingly convinced that the Trust have made some big mistakes here and need to make some changes to fix the damage.

Facts first. The National Trust does not support or promote the YEC position. They have made that clear throughout. The original press release does not mention YEC at all and the only science I can find linked to by the NT is the real stuff, while the only myths they talk about are the traditional legendary giants. They clearly consider the contentious exhibit to be a small part of the overall centre - you can read their view of the interpretation of their blog and a second post highlights the overall number of exhibits in the centre.

It is also clear that the Caleb Foundation misrepresented their relationship, according to a NT spokesman on the blog. He denied "that the Trust has worked closely with the Caleb Foundation over many months":
"No – Caleb were one of a number of groups consulted on the exhibition. We do not support their views and none of the language in the exhibition came from them."
He also denied that the Trust accepts "the assertion that the new visitor centre includes an acknowledgement of the ‘legitimacy’ of the ‘ongoing debate’ around the creationist position":
"No – The National Trust fully supports and promotes the science in relation to the formation of the Giant’s Causeway and the age of the earth. All of the information presented to visitors clearly reflects science and that the Causeway stones are 60 million years old."
Fairly unequivocal stuff.


It is clear from the comments in response to both posts that people are not impressed. Having read many more of the comments - and many from NT members - it is both much clearer to me what specifically has got people cross and also much less clear to me whether I was right to initially support the National Trust. Earlier, I revisited that support and said that the context was vital. The second NT blog post summarises this context (with detail in the first post):
Lastly there is the ‘debating characters’ exhibit, which sparked the discussion. This exhibit consists of five different audio samples triggered by buttons. It is designed to give a flavour of the historical debates there have been over the Causeway’s formation – starting with arguments between Sir Thomas Molyneux and a mystery correspondent (probably George Ashe) over whether the columns were fossil or mineral. The next clip sets out a flavour of the argument between Vulcanists and Neptunists. The next clip details how James Hutton’s work opened the way for definitive proof of an ancient earth. The fourth clip mentions a theory published in the 1800s that the Causeway was fossilised bamboo. Then the final clip states that Young Earth Creationists exist who wish to continue the debate today, as they believe the earth is only 6000 years old.
The problem here is that the first four debates seem to be genuine scientific discussions of their age. Young Earth Creationism is not. It was a genuine scientific discussion of a by-gone age but the age question is one long-settled by science and the YEC stance is wildly inaccurate. To suggest that the debate continues in this context does imply it is a scientific debate. It is not. The fact that the audio subsequently makes it clear that the debate only continues for "some people ... based on a specific interpretation of the Bible" does not entirely undo this initial error. Although I am willing to believe that this is an accident and the NT did not mean to imply that the scientific debate continues, the fact that some people interpret it this way is reason enough, in my book, to change it. This was the first big mistake.

The second big mistake was the use of the word "mainstream" in the sentence: "This debate continues today for some people, who have an understanding of the formation of the earth which is different from that of current mainstream science." Again, although this is immediately followed by a sentence that makes it clear that these people have a different understanding for religious (not scientific) reasons, I find myself agreeing with those commentors who see this sentence as implying that there is some other kind of science that disagrees with the current "understanding of the formation of the earth". There isn't. This is misleading and, even if not giving YEC legitimacy, it reduces the legitimacy of the NT exhibit.

I stand by my original view that the words themselves are true but it is clear that the context and exact choice of phrase - whether deliberate or accidental - is not giving an impression that is consistent with the Trust's stated position on this topic. For this reason alone, they must revise the wording of the exhibit, even if they do not drop the YEC reference altogether. Given the context of that exhibit, though - as a present-day continuation of legitimate debate rather than an historical view that is still held by some folks despite the evidence to the contrary - I find it hard to justify how they can keep the exhibit at all. When it comes to educational resources, good intentions ultimately count for nothing, I'm afraid. It's the consequences that count.

I do not regret my initial support for the National Trust and reluctance to jump on the complaints band-wagon but neither am I too proud to admit that I was wrong. I won't be cancelling my membership just yet - they do too much good - but if this turns out not to be an isolated mistake then I will be reversing that position too.

How wrong is the Young Earth Creationist age for the Giant's Causeway?

I've made a couple of posts recently about the National Trust having a part of their Giant's Causeway visitor centre exhibit that mentioned the Young Earth Creationist (YEC) belief that the causeway was created during the Flood, rather than approx. 60 million years ago as the scientific evidence supports - first, in support of the National Trust and then revisiting that support in the light of more information.

For balance, and just to emphasise my general lack of support for the YEC position, I want to highlight why so many scientists (including me) get upset if Young Earth Creationism is ever presented as science. There is no scientific controversy over the age of the Giant's Causeway or the Earth, at least not at the level of disparity that YECs are talking about. Opinions may differ by a few million years - it is not possible to date with zero margins of error - but this is not the same as saying that a "Biblical" Young Earth or "Flood Geology" has any scientific support at all. It simply doesn't.

Just in case there is any confusion about just how wrong the Young Earth Creationist position is, here is a MapTime illustration (click to enlarge) of the age of the Earth using the journey from St Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin (as an arbitrary famous landmark) to the Giant's Causeway (or as close as you can get by road). Taking the driving route recommended by Google, this is a journey of 263.14km.
The current implementation of MapTime only supports one TimeLine, so I was not able to plot exactly the Biblical Flood at 4359 years ago or the geological age of the Causeway at 50-60 million years ago but I have left the earliest writing (5000 years ago) and the K/T Extinction (65 mya) marked.

There are couple of things to notice. One, is that even though the Giant's Causeway seems old to us - and over 10,000 times older than YECs claim - it is actually quite young by Earth standards and would not appear on the journey from Dublin until just past Bushmills, about 2.51km - 3.13km south of the Causeway:

The Earth is old.

The second thing is not so clear from the map but can be gleaned from the table of distances, below: if I was to put my size 11 foot down, I would have already over-shot the Biblical flood, which lies about 25.3 centimetres away, by a few centimetres. Literal Biblical creation itself falls only 46.4cm away from the end of the 263km journey. The YEC error is like confusing something 2.5km long with something 25cm long. That's quite a big error. (It's worse than Father Ted explaining perspective to Dougal.)

Present Day0 mm2012 AD
Cold War Ends1.33 mm1989 AD
Hiroshima3.88 mm1945 AD
Writing29.0 cm5 kya
Biblical Creation46.4 cm6000 BC
K/T Extinction3.77 km65 mya
Permian Extinction14.5 km250 mya
Cambrian Explosion31.0 km535 mya
Multicellularity52.2 km900 mya
First Eukaryotic Cells115.9 km2 bya
Single Celled Life202.9 km3.5 bya
Formation of Earth263.1 km4.54 bya

We are not talking about some minor reinterpretations of data, here. We are talking about a total disregard for the accumulated scientific knowledge of decades to centuries. This is why it is so important that YEC is represented for what it is: a religious position, not a scientific one.

(Created using MapTime. See the MapTime Blog for instructions how to visualise Deep Time on a journey with more relevance to you.)

Revisiting my support for the National Trust

Yesterday, I posted in support of the National Trust over the "Young Earth Creationism" controversy. I stand by what I wrote yesterday but, as I acknowledged yesterday, I have not visited the centre and assumed that the National Secular Society had put the worst quotes etc. in their article opposing the exhibit.

It has since been drawn to my attention that they may not, in fact, have highlighted the worst aspect and that the audio - which clearly refers to "the debate" only being ongoing for "some people... based on a specific interpretation of the Bible" - is triggered by a button that simply reads "The debate continues".

Context is everything, and the key thing (for me) here is where does this button sit? If the context, like the audio transcript, makes it clear that this is not a scientific debate, then I still have no real grounds for complaint that I can see - the text in the transcript is true. If, on the other hand, the implication of the display (as opposed to the audio) is that it is a scientific debate, then this is very different.

The YEC versus science debate is one of whether a specific interpretation of an ancient text is a legitimate source of truth, even in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary. There is no scientific debate.

As I have made clear all along, if the National Trust exhibit says otherwise, I will complain as a National Trust member and a scientist. The National Trust quote indicates that they do not feel that they are not challenging the science:
"We reflect, in a small part of the exhibition, that the Causeway played a role in the historic debate about the formation of the earth, and that for some people this debate continues today.

"The National Trust fully supports the scientific explanation for the creation of the stones 60 million years ago."
I have been sent a link to one picture but, unfortunately, I cannot really see the context of the display.

Given the clear possibility that I am wrong, I think I will write a letter to the National Trust anyway but not accuse them of anything but just make it very clear where, as a scientist and an NT member, I think the line should be drawn. Rather than remove the mention of YEC, I would personally prefer it if they strengthen the clarity with which they present the fact that it is a religious, not scientific, position and is unsupported by science. (Not "mainstream science"... science.)

Monday, 9 July 2012

In support of the National Trust and the "Creationist Exhibit" at Giant's Causeway

I don't think that this is a new story but it seems to have resurfaced recently with a recent article by the National Secular Society, blogged on the Why Evolution Is True website under the rather provocative title of "U.K.’s National Trust promotes creationism!" (The original title of the National Secular Society article was a slightly less zealous "National Trust puts creationism on show at new visitor centre".) The articles report that
The National Trust has come under fire for including an exhibit in the new Giants' Causeway Visitors' Centre acknowledging the creationist view of how the world-famous stones were formed.
The point of contention seems to be that:
A transcript from an audio exhibit in the visitor centre reads:
"Like many natural phenomena around the world, the Giant's Causeway has raised questions and prompted debate about how it was formed.

"This debate has ebbed and flowed since the discovery of the Causeway to science and, historically, the Causeway became part of a global debate about how the earth's rocks were formed.

"This debate continues today for some people, who have an understanding of the formation of the earth which is different from that of current mainstream science.
Young Earth Creationists believe that the earth was created some 6000 years ago. This is based on a specific interpretation of the Bible and in particular the account of creation in the book of Genesis.

"Some people around the world, and specifically here in Northern Ireland, share this perspective.

"Young Earth Creationists continue to debate questions about the age of the earth. As we have seen from the past, and understand today, perhaps the Giant's Causeway will continue to prompt awe and wonder, and arouse debate and challenging questions for as long as visitors come to see it."
This is turn has triggered a widespread response, including a Facebook Group for removing the display and the call from WEIT to send complaints to the National Trust.

I would like to preface the rest of this post by saying that I am 100% unequivocally against representing Creationism as science under any circumstances. It is not science and there is nothing scientific about it. It is, in fact, anti-science. If, therefore, I thought that the National Trust was "promoting" Creationism or presenting the Creationist view as a viable alternative to the "mainstream science" position, I would be dead against it and most definitely write to the National Trust and complain. (I am a National Trust member.)

The thing is, though, this is not what they are doing. The National Trust made their position clear, quoted in the same National Secular Society article:
"The interpretation in the visitor centre showcases the science of how the stones were formed, the history of this special place and the stories of local characters.

"We reflect, in a small part of the exhibition, that the Causeway played a role in the historic debate about the formation of the earth, and that for some people this debate continues today.

"The National Trust fully supports the scientific explanation for the creation of the stones 60 million years ago."
A lot of Irish history is steeped in myths and legends of various sources. The Giant’s Causeway itself is named because legend has it that it was created by an Irish giant, Fionn mac Cumhaill. Are people suggesting that by keeping that name, or having a Fionn mac Cumhaill exhibit in the visitor centre, the National Trust are promoting belief in giants? I suspect not.

I am not sure how new the "new visitor centre" is but I visited the Causeway in 2008 and certainly don’t remember seeing anything that outlandish. If the transcript on the National Secular Society page is as bad as it gets (and why not quote the worst bit?), it is clear that the National Trust are not giving the Creationist position any legitimacy beyond saying that it exists.

Apart from the reactionaries, the only person who seems to believe this is the case is a Creationst:
Wallace Thompson, chairman of the creationist Caleb Foundation said he was pleased with the inclusion of the creationist view:
"We have worked closely with the National Trust over many months with a view to ensuring that the new Causeway Visitor Centre includes an acknowledgement both of the legitimacy of the creationist position on the origins of the unique Causeway stones and of the ongoing debate around this."
Well, Creationists make claims like this all the time and, frankly, regularly lie and misrepresent reality - their position is so untenable, they have to. The only thing being given legitimacy by opposing this display so strongly, it seems, is this bogus position that the National Trust are giving Creationsim legitimacy.

One important point to remember here is the purpose of the National Trust as an organisation. From their website, they are:
a UK conservation charity, protecting historic places and green spaces, and opening them up for ever, for everyone.
They are not a scientific organisation and their primary focus is history, not science. That does not, of course, mean that they can get the science wrong. What it means, however, is that the science should not be the sole focus of their visitor centres, even for their "natural monuments". Acknowledging the existence of the Creationist belief is giving them historical legitimacy, not scientific legitimacy.

As far as I can see, everything that the National Trust has said about the Creationist position is true. Furthermore, I think it is important that we have the myths and legends alongside the science – not as equal points of view regarding truth but as examples of how our beliefs and knowledge have matured through time. How many people are going to visit the exhibit and think “Wow, the Flood must have happened, how blind have I been?” versus, “Crikey, Creationists still believe that?!”

And here is a second important point in favour of the exhibit, even if it is not the intention of those apparently lobbying for it. Young Earth Creationism is often held up as some kind of straw man argument that atheist scientists like to argue against as an example of how religious faith can cause belief in quite non-sensical things despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. The fact is, it is not a straw man. There really are lots of people out there who, due to their religion, believe it. There are a lot of people lying out their to support that belief. Only by acknowledging its existence in the context of exhibits that also explain why it is wrong - essentially the rest of the visitor centre at Giant's Causeway, as far as I can tell - can we really combat this kind of thinking. Young Earth Creationsim is a myth, not science. It should be discussed by an organisation that discuss myths and legends, like the National Trust.

The final reason that I support the National Trust in this instance is that opposing it lends credence to another Creationist lie - that their "science" is somehow being repressed by some giant scientific conspiracy. If we react in an over-the-top fashion any time anyone acknowledges that other views exist, we just feed this myth. These ideas are just nonsense and we should not be seen to be running scared from them. Put them alongside the science along with all the other myths (such as stones being hurled into place by giants) and it is quickly apparent which position provides any actual explanation of the phenomenon. If we complain about stuff that the National Trust is not actually doing, such as "promoting Creationsim", then we’re just like the boy who cried wolf and it will erode our legitimacy when there is something really worth complaining about.

Please see "Revisiting my support for the National Trust" and "Withdrawing my support: where the National Trust went wrong" for updates, and "How wrong is the Young Earth Creationist age for the Giant's Causeway?" if you are not sure why people are making a fuss.

Friday, 6 July 2012

The Black Rat Restaurant, Winchester

Black Rat cardBlack Rat napkin tie
On Saturday, we went for lunch at The Black Rat Restaurant in Winchester. I'd never been to a Michelin star restaurant before and so I didn't really know what to expect. It was great! The Black Rat is not at all pretentious and despite not really being one of life's smartest people, I did not feel like I was letting the place down. (I hadn't dressed up for it, or anything.)

The food was amazing. Despite never eating in a Michelin star place before, I have eaten in some restaurants that I thought were quite fancy and nice. They were not a shade on this place, though. Suddenly I began to understand what a Michelin star actually means. Afterwards, jparcoeur and I discussed it and we just could not think of any way it could have been better. Quite simply, the food was perfect.

The weekend lunch is also pretty bargainiferous, with three courses (without wine) for £26. There is only limited choice (3 of each course) but that actually suits someone like me just fine - there are few things that I do not like and restaurant decisions can sometimes take me some time when everything sounds so tasty. Even with only three options, I was still a bit indecisive!

In the end, I opted for the Ajo Blanco with Jamon Iberico & green apple granita for starter, and Braised shoulder of Elwy lamb with chickpea puree, chargrilled courgette and lamb croquette for my main course. Delicious beyond words! The accompanying Crozes Hermitage ‘la Matiniere’ Domaine Ferraton Pere et Fil was pretty spectacular too. (Half bottles of wine are such a good idea - that's not a giant glass in the picture below!)
Black Rat dinnerCrozes-Hermitage
Finally, for dessert I had the Valrhona chocolate pave with black pepper crumble and pineapple. Yummy! I'm glad Joel and Karen got to leave the UK on a culinary high! (It's not all bad food here!)
The Black Rat Restaurant

Thursday, 5 July 2012

A trio of piddle

It's American Independence Day and so (for some reason) I thought I should publish a distinctly British post... and what can be more British that a double entendre (no, they don't have to be rude) and some great beer. These fine ales are all products from the Dorset Piddle Brewery. I particularly recommend the Jimmy Riddle and Silent Slasher!

PS. Thanks go to the Flying Fish for the great birthday present! (And apologies for being a dumbass and getting that wrong in the original post. In my defence... beer kills brain cells! :op)

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

The Glossariser 1.0 is here

A while ago, I made a molecular evolution glossary page in case it was of use to anyone. Being a geek and a programmer, rather than actually making the webpage myself, I made a program to make the webpage for me. From a plain text set of terms and definitions, this program will construct a formatted web page, including hyperlinks between terms (if so desired).

As I now need to make another glossary for MapTime, I thought I would throw together a quick cgi script to make the code available online, and the Glossariser was born.

It's rather crude at present and, in particular, contains no documentation - trial and error only, I'm afraid! Input is, again, raw text with a number of delimiter options. (It only splits on the first occurrence of the chosen delimiter, so periods can be used quite happily.) There are currently a limited selection of output styles available. Unless "tabs" is chosen, terms will be split up according to their first letter and output alphabetically:

The "Header" or "bold" style refers to the formatting for the letters A-Z. The "table" output is similar but has each letter in a row of a table. The tabs style was a bit experimental and doesn't really work that well, so I won't bother to explain it here. (Feel free to try it!)

If you just want a standalone HTML page, you can (hopefully) just save the output directly. Otherwise, you will either want to copy and paste the text into a Word document or, to use in Blogger or other existing framework, just "view source" and copy the bits you need. (That's how I made the molecular evolution glossary.)

I have some plans for improvements - there are a few bugs to iron out and I would like to add URLs etc. - but, as with most things, they will probably wait until I, or someone else, really wants them in place. So, if it is useful but doesn't quite do what you want, let me know and I might be able to update it. There's also no reason that its use should be limited to a glossary. Any list of names/keywords and associated short paragraphs will do - perhaps I should make the alphabetical arrangement optional in this case?

The Glossariser is available at: http://bioware.soton.ac.uk/glossariser.html.

(If it ever saves you an evening of writing HTML and you want to say thanks, buy The Cabbages of Doom for just 99p! ☺ (You can't blame a guy for trying!))

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

iPlan with Onzo revisited (and not recommended)

iPlan corrosionI've blogged before about our iPlan energy kit and now that another few months have passed, it's time for an update. Sadly, it's not a good one this time.

Back in April, our receiver died. Opening up the panel, we found that the rechargeable battery had all corroded. When I contacted Southern Electric, they were happy to replace to unit. Good. What was not so good, they informed me that they were aware of the design fault and, as a result, no longer shipped the kits with rechargeable batteries. Perhaps they could have warned users?

The next problem was that, although they did send out a replacement, they did not do it particularly speedily. Judging by the material that came with the replacement kit, which had no mention of being a replacement, I was just added to the new customer schedule and, as such, had to wait a few weeks for it to arrive. As a result, we now have a nice big gap in our usage stats, which is not that great for trying to look at annual consumption as it clearly changes with season. It also neglected to point out that, even though only the receiver was broken, the sensor also needed to be replaced.

This was only a minor irritation and sorted out eventually through trial and error. The major irritation is that, now that it is all set up, the new receiver does not display the current power use properly. There is a obviously a loose connection or something, as squeezing the top a little sort out the problem (temporarily). It does not affect the uploading of data but it does limit the utility of the unit - as does keeping it plugged in to avoid using up the non-rechargable batteries it now needs.
Dodgy iPlan displayActual iPlan display
Although I know that two faulty units might just have been bad luck but it doesn't exactly inspire confidence in the design or build quality of Onzo energy kits.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Good luck, jparcoeur!

Friend, colleague, fellow blogger and MapTime founder, jparcoeur, is moving back to the States where the birds are prettier. I wish him and his wife all the best with the new job and new town! They have been great friends to have in Southampton and will be missed! (Expect a couple of reminiscing blog posts in the near future...) We never did manage to publish a paper together while he was he but still have a few irons in the fire so I hold out hope for the future.