09 June 2006

Moving on up, to the East Side...

The Island of Doubt has moved. Please direct yourself to:


which is a collection of blogs overseen by SEED magazine.

08 June 2006

Tangled Bank 54

The latest and greatest science blogging is available at Tangled Bank 54, hosted this fortnight by Get Busy Livin', or Get Busy Bloggin'.

This is will be my final post at islandofdoubt.blogspot.com. I know I've promised that before, but it looks like the webheads at my new home, Scienceblogs.com, are finally ready to launch their new collection of science bloggers. Beginning noon EDT, Friday, June 2, 2006, The Island of Doubt moves to scienceblogs.com/islandofdoubt.

I will also switch the autoforwarding for islandofdoubt.net to the new page.

06 June 2006

Ann Coulter: Court Jester

Via the J-Walk Blog and John Lynch's Stranger Fruit, comes the latest eruption from Ann Coulter, who's got yet another book out today. I've always considered Coulter one of the wackier examples of right-wing winnuttery, but worth paying attention to because so many other people do just that.

I don't know what to think of her latest comments on evolution, as told to her ideological compatriots at the Cybercast New Service. If they came from anyone else, I'd dismiss them as parody. So convoluted are her answers that we'd best take them one a time.
Cybercast News Service: Most people consider evolution to be a branch of science, or at least a scientific theory, yet in "Godless," you refer to it as a "cult" and a "fetish." What is your basis for calling it that?

Ann Coulter: There is no evidence that it is true. The fossil record contradicts it, and it is a theory that cannot be disproved. Whatever happens is said to "prove" evolution. This is the very definition of a pseudoscience, like astrology. (Of course, I would say that. I'm just a Capricorn, aren't I?
Rarely has there been just a sweeping dismissal of an entire field of knowledge. No evidence at all. Usually we're just told that the evidence is weak. We don't have enough fossils, the missing links are still missing, that sort thing. But not Ann. There is no evidence. Period.

Then we're told it's not disprovable. We all know that's not true. But I must at least acknowledge that Ann may be familiar with the Popperian notion of falsifiability. She doesn't understand it, but she must have read it somewhere, and that puts her ahead of most of the creationists.

Part two, now:
Cybercast News Service: Creationism is not considered a science because it can't be observed or empirically tested. You assert in your book that the theory of evolution has the same problems. Why then has the U.S. public school system been willing to accept the theory of evolution, but snubbed creationism?

Ann Coulter: Because evolution is the official state religion. Although it is possible to believe in God and evolution, it is not possible to not believe in God without believing in evolution -- otherwise, atheists have no explanation for why we are here. Thus, it's very important for the liberal clergy to force small school children to believe in a discredited mystery religion from the 19th century -- evolution -- in order to prepare them to believe in the nonexistence of God, one of the main goals of the American public education system.
Hmmm. First, it would appear that evolution has a lock on the public education because, well, it has a lock on public education. A tautology at least is easy to analyze. But then we learn that it is not possible to not believe in god without believing in evolution. So everyone who doesn't believe in god must believe in evolution. So if you are too young or too poor or too ignorant to know about evolution, you have to believe in God? Wow. That's amazing. What a great way to get rid of atheists: just stop teaching them anything.

Or maybe I just don't understand Ann's diabolical logic. Maybe I'll have to buy her book and parse her arguments. Right.

I'd rather stick needles in my eyes.

02 June 2006

Wind power vs. the War Machine

In a sure sign of desperation, the NIMBY forces aligned against wind power -- wherever it might be -- have enlisted the support of the Department of Defense. According to the Chicago Tribune's Michael Hawthorne, "The federal government has stopped work on more than a dozen wind farms planned across the Midwest, saying research is needed on whether the giant turbines could interfere with military radar."

Hawthorne's story quotes wind power advocates who allege the radar argument is really a smoke screen for "a group of wealthy vacationers who think a proposed wind farm off the coast of Cape Cod in Massachusetts would spoil the view at their summer homes." There's no solid evidence for that, but it's as good a guess as anything else, given the weakeness of the radar claim.

Big nasty wind turbines, so the argument goes, casts a "radar shadow"that could make it impossible for nearby military -- and civilian -- airport radar systems to detect aircraft. If that strikes you as a little dodgy, give yourself a gold star. The same complaints were raised in the U.K. a while back, and so the eggheads at the people's R&D corporation, Qinetiq, were asked to look into it.

This they did. And what did they find? You can read a summary of their report here. The short answer is, not much. While there is a theoretical threat of interference with conventional radar arrays, careful design, orientation and siting should be able to take care of any problem:
Single wind turbines do not create a significant ‘radar shadow’. Any shadow region is only dark to a distance of a few hundred metres behind the turbine. Beyond this there is some reduction of the radar power, and a time-variation, but these will not prevent detection except possibly for very small targets.
Of course, the radar shadow presented by any wind farm is proportional to the number of turbines. And some of the proposals on the drawing board, including the Nantucket project that so enrages Ted Kennedy et al., involve large numbers of turbines. But to freeze development of a dozen different projects is overreacting.

A little consultation with the local military brass, a few computer simulations and Bob's your uncle-- potential conflicts resolved. Instead, everything's ground to a halt, thanks in large part to U.S. Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), a Cape Wind opponent who happens to chair the Senate Armed Services Committee. According to the Trib, he recently added a one-sentence amendment to a congressional order that directs the DoD to study "whether wind towers could mask the radar signals of small aircraft."

I have to agree with Michael Vickerman, executive director of RENEW Wisconsin, a non-profit group that promotes renewable power."This is a big, ugly political maneuver by a handful of people who are undermining America's energy security," he said.

Wind power isn't the answer to all our energy woes. But it could play a significant role in a medley of alternatives that are just waiting for the chance to compete fairly with heavily-subsidized fossil fuels. In any event, don't you think the military has more important things to do these days?

Science 'Toons

The Union of Concerned Scientists is running a contest for editorial cartoonists:
Science Idol: the Scientific Integrity Editorial Cartoon Contest

The subject of the cartoons must relate to political interference in science in the federal government. UCS defines political interference in science as action by elected officials or political appointees to manipulate, alter, or suppress independent government science or inappropriately restrict or censor government scientists. This definition is distinct from the ethics of scientists themselves; direct corporate influence over science; or more ethical debates on issues like stem cell research.

Cartoons may address many aspects of scientific integrity, including:

* Freedom of scientific speech
* Suppression, distortion, and manipulation of scientific information
* Examples of how science has been misused
* The tension between politics and science
* The importance of science to our health, safety, and environment
* The effect of political interference on our nation's scientific capacity
* The impact of the abuse of science on our everyday lives
* The idea of scientific openness
* Any other related issue

Cartoons may address political interference in science in general; specific misuses of science on environmental, public health, safety and security, or other topics; the treatment and rights of federal government scientists; or other related issues.
The visual arts aren't really my strength. Quite the opposite. But I'm sure there's more than a few candidates hip to the science culture wars.

01 June 2006

What's the point of arguing?

The 1997 recipient of the Royal Society's Michael Faraday prize for communicating science to the public isn't going to take it any more:
A leading British scientist said yesterday that he had given up trying to persuade creationists that Darwin's theory is correct after repeatedly being misrepresented and, he said, branded a liar.

Speaking at the Guardian Hay festival at Hay-on-Wye, the evolutionary biologist Steve Jones spoke of his frustrations when trying to debate with religious opponents.

"I don't engage with creationists directly," he said, saying that, when he had, they had frequently quoted him out of context or accused him of lying. "If somebody has decided to believe something - whatever the evidence - then there is nothing you can do about it."

That from the Guardian of May 30. So where does that leave British biologists hoping to stem the rising tide of silliness?