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Friday, February 25, 2011

Book Review - God- or Gorilla?, Introduction & Chapter 1

This entry is part of a series. For a bit of an introduction and an index of all entries in the series, go here.

God or Gorilla PicI said that I'd do a post a week in this series, but I don't think that introduction counts as much of a post. So today, I'm also going to post the first real review entry, which will cover the introduction and Chapter 1 - Making the Piltdown Man.


Right off in the introduction, McCann gives us a taste of the longest running falsehood in creationism, implying that evolution had already peaked and was on its way out of the scientific establishment.

Reaching its climax in 1921, the ape-man hoax took the form of a seemingly spontaneous movement to reestablish the theory of man's monkey-origin. (McCann, vii)

It's been nearly 9 decades since McCann penned this book, and I think we can see how well the various theories of evolution are doing.

We also get an admission right up front that he was going to quote mine (though I don't think it was known by that term back in the '20s).

Many scientific men will be angry of course, but as they, themselves ared oing [sic, jrl] the talking and as they, themselves, are quoted by chapter, verse and page, they cannot be angry, except with themselves. (McCann, ix)

Of course, anyone who's followed creationism is aware that this a common tactic of creationists today (for example, see my entry, Ray Comfort - Quote Miner Extraordinaire). This shows that it has a long history.

Chapter 1

McCann really seemed to have it in for Henry Fairfield Osborn. In the opening line of the opening chapter, "Making the Piltdown Man," McCann mentioned him by name.

In four glass cases in the Hall of the Age of Man, American Museum of Natural History, New York City, Professor Henry Fairfield Osborn exhibits "evidence" of man's ape origin.

McCann went on to criticize Osborn throughout the book. Admittedly, the Wikipedia entry for Osborn quotes The American Historical Review, describing Osborn as "a first-rate science administrator and a third-rate scientist." But McCann focused on Osborn so much that many sections of the book became more of a personal attack on Osborn rather than a criticism of evolution, in general. Anyway, I didn't want to get into too much detail on this, but the personal vendetta against Osborn was very obvious and worth mentioning.

McCann didn't seem to like conditional statements:

...(note the persistence of that if, if,if, even though no sense of shame accompanies it)... (McCann, 12)

and just a little later on the same page:

In spite of all the evidence to the contrary, they start all over again, fresh and undismayed, with a new premise of if, if, if, and immediately in the same sentence the conclusion drawn from the "if" shoots itself like a projectile from a gun, "This discovery is most valuable!!!" (McCann, 12)

What's wrong with conditional statements? That's just how deductive reasoning works. You lay out your premises, and if all those premises are true, then the conclusion follows. Maybe we're just more used to these types of statements in the age of computers, thanks to all the If Then statements we use in programming. But deductive reasoning has been around for a long time.

In this specific example, though, McCann got the gist of Osborn's argument completely wrong. McCann went on to quote Osborn in the very next paragraph:

But it appears rather that we have here two types of man which lived in Chellean times...

In other words, Osborn was saying something to the effect of, 'If Boule's interpretation were right, it would be an incredible discovery, but it appears that his interpretation is wrong.'

Stay tuned for next week's review of Chapter 2 - The Trinil Ape-man.

Proceed to Chapter 2

Book Review - God- or Gorilla?, First Part of a Series

God or Gorilla PicMy parents bought me an interesting present for Christmas a couple years ago. It was an old book published in 1922, titled God- or Gorilla? How the Monkey Theory of Evolution Exposes Its Own Methods, Refutes Its Own Principles, Denies Its Own Inferences, Disproves Its own Case. As you can guess, the author, Alfred W. McCann, was not a big fan of universal common descent. (For those of you who may be wondering, my parents aren't creationists - they bought the book because they knew I'd find it interesting.)

After reading the book, I knew I wanted to do a review of it on this blog, but I wasn't exactly sure how. McCann's not really a household name, so I didn't feel like he had a strong influence that needed to be countered. I also do have a bit of sympathy for his position, in that the evidence for evolution wasn't quite as strong in the '20s as it is today (it was still pretty strong, though). He also spent a good deal of time debunking the Piltdown Man, which is now widely acknowledged as a hoax. However, one of the things that struck me about the book is that many of the arguments that McCann used are still being used by creationists today, so refuting those arguments is still relevant.

I'd originally intended to quote just a few passages to give the flavor of the book, with a little commentary and links to the relevant entries in the Index to Creationist Claims where appropriate. However, once I started skimming through the book and pulling out interesting quotes, I ended up with 40 pages worth of excerpts! So, I decided to turn this into a series. I'll try to post a new installment to the series every Friday.

McCann's writing style was a bit, shall we say, flamboyant. In fact, it is eerily similar to the kook style you see on Internet forums today. I can only imagine what the book would have looked like if the publisher had allowed multiple fonts, or had the ability to do color printing. I've tried to quote the book faithfully throughout this review. Any italics, bold, or other forms of emphasis, unless specifically noted, were done by McCann himself. On a similar note, McCann was very fond of using '(sic)' in the quotes in his book. To avoid confusion, I'll use '[sic, jrl]' whenever I use the term.

This book is available online through The Internet Archive and Google Books, though without the musty smell and incoherent scribbles in the margins that you get from the real deal. Actually, that's not quite true - the Google copy does have a few scribbles, but not nearly as many as my copy. The Internet Archive edition appears to match the edition I read, while the Google edition lacks the appendices.

Obviously, I'm going to criticize creationism quite a bit in this series of entries, so, let me make the necessary disclaimer right up front. I realize that around half the people in this country are creationists. For most of them, I think it's simply ignorance. I don't mean that as an insult - it's a failure of our country's education system. So, if you're a creationist who's never been exposed to a good discussion of evolution, don't take offense to my comments here. My frustration is directed mainly at people like McCann and his modern day counterparts like Ken Ham or Ray Comfort, who despite being so ignorant of evolution, are actively spreading their misinformation to others. (For a fuller version of this disclaimer, read my entry, Run of the Mill vs. Big Name Creationists.)

To make sure that I didn't stall out mid-book, I actually completed most of the review before I started posting entries. So, I have the advantage of seeing how the entire review turned out, which you readers won't know for a few months. I do think it's interesting, and I hope you enjoy it, but looking back, I'm not sure it was worth the effort I put into it. Had I put the same effort into writing something a little more organized, I probably could have created a better resource for learning about evolution. So, I doubt I'll ever do another review of this depth (I'm no Slacktivist). If you do enjoy this review, savor it.

As one last introductory note, I'll be using this entry as a table of contents for the series. I will make updates here with links to all of the subsequent entries in this review.

Added 2013-01-22 I've slightly reorganized this site, putting all of these entries into their own section. So, if you want to just browse through them all, you can read them at:
God - Or Gorilla? Archive

Proceed to Introduction & Chapter 1

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Happy National Margarita Day

MargaritaToday is National Margarita Day (it's also National Cook a Sweet Potato Day, but that's not as much fun to celebrate). The origin of the margarita isn't exactly known. There are many stories, but most place it some time in the '30s or '40s in Mexico or the southwestern U.S., particularly Texas (more info 1, more info 2). It's currently the most popular mixed drink in the U.S.

If you want a way to celebrate at home, my wife has two very good variants.
Beer Margarita

Monday, February 21, 2011

In Defense of Wikipedia

Wikipedia LogoThe other day talking to my daughter, she asked me about something I didn't know the answer to. So, I told her I was going to look it up on Wikipedia. She instantly told me I shouldn't do that, because you can't trust Wikipedia. Her teachers had told her so. So, after a little back and forth, I told her I'd give her some information she could take to her teachers to show them that Wikipedia wasn't so bad. What I wrote was largely recycling of a comment I left in the entry, Origin of Arabic Numerals - Was It Really for Counting Angles?, but cleaned up a bit. I figured that I'd repost that cleaned up version here in its own entry.

Wikipedia, for anyone unfamiliar with it, is an online encyclopedia. Its unique characteristic is that it’s open to be edited by anybody. This open policy certainly raises suspicions about its quality. However, in practice, it ends up being fairly reliable.

There was a study conducted by Nature in 2005, comparing Wikipedia to Encyclopædia Britannica Online. While Wikipedia was a little less accurate, it wasn't even by an order of magnitude. You have to have a subscription to Nature or pay $32 to read the original article, but cnet has a summary. Nature chose several topics at random, and asked experts to review the Britannica and Nature articles on those topics. Here's how cnet summarized the findings.

In the end, the journal found just eight serious errors, such as general misunderstandings of vital concepts, in the articles. Of those, four came from each site. They did, however, discover a series of factual errors, omissions or misleading statements. All told, Wikipedia had 162 such problems, while Britannica had 123.

That averages out to 2.92 mistakes per article for Britannica and 3.86 for Wikipedia.

Not surprisingly, considering that Britannica makes money by selling encyclopedias, they contested the study. Nature, for its part, has responded to Britannica's criticisms. You can read Britannica's criticisms and Nature's response by going to Nature's page for the article (unlike the original article, those portions are free).

One common complaint I’ve heard regarding Wikipedia is the problem of referencing it as a source when it's constantly changing. In fact, you can reference static versions of pages that will never change. You simply go to the ‘Toolbox’ section in the left hand column of an article, and choose ‘Permanent Link’. This allows one to see exactly what version of a page someone was using as a source. Here’s an example:

Wikipedia is also much better about referencing and citations than it was in its early days. You can scroll to the bottom of an article and go to the original sources yourself, if so inclined. If you're planning on doing in depth analysis of a topic, Wikipedia can be a good starting point for this reason.

Wikipedia does share one problem with information sources in general – they all contain mistakes. There's no simple way to get 100% accurate information. It's up to every individual to evaluate information from any given source, and compare it to other sources. In fact, this is one of the reasons why I like Wikipedia. Conventional print encyclopedias have a hidden editorial process. Wikipedia puts it out there in the open, making it easier to evaluate information on the more controversial topics.

In my own personal experience, I've found Wikipedia to be pretty reliable, especially on non-controversial or apolitical topics. The revision history and links to sources make it easier to evaluate the reliability of the content. Wikipedia is usually the first place I go to when researching a topic I’m not already familiar with.

Friday, February 18, 2011

First Female Wrestlers in Iowa State Tournament

WrestlingI wrestled back in middle school and high school. I was never great, but I wrestled varsity many of those years and won more matches than I lost*. My senior year, two girls decided to join the team. This was the first time it had ever happened at my high school. Before the season started, the rest of the team talked about it a bit. We wondered if it was appropriate to wrestle a girl, and whether or not they should be on the team. Well, as soon as practices started up, it just kind of fell into place. They were just two more wrestlers, and were treated just about like everybody else on the team (with the exception of using a different locker room and getting weighed in separately). It turned out to not be a big deal at all. One of the girls was pretty good for her first year. Obviously, they were wrestling JV, but this girl won a lot of her matches, and even pinned a couple of her opponents. This was all about 15 years ago.

Fast forward to the present day, and two girls share the honor of being the first female wrestlers to make it to the Iowa state tournament, Cassy Herkelman and Megan Black, both in the 112 lb weight class. Making it to the state tournament is a big accomplishment anywhere, but especially in Iowa where wrestling is so popular.

Unfortunately, not everyone is happy about girls wrestling. Sophomore, Joel Northrup, Herkelman's opponent in the first round, refused to wrestle her. Afterwards, he had the following to say.

I have a tremendous amount of respect for Cassy and Megan and their accomplishments. However, wrestling is a combat sport and it can get violent at times. As a matter of conscience and faith, I do not believe that it is appropriate for a boy to engage a girl in this manner. It is unfortunate that I have been placed in a situation not seen in most other high school sports in Iowa.

So, some kid's citing his religion to refuse to wrestle his opponent, and then playing the victim card to try to gain sympathy.

Look. Girls who go into wrestling understand the risks just like boys do. They've made the decision that they accept those risks. And girls such as Herkelman and Black have obviously put in a lot of effort. You don't make it to the state tournament just by signing up. You have to practice, practice, practice, and then practice some more, not to mention all the conditioning. Herkelman and Black are legitimate opponents. And don't forget that wrestling is done by weight class. It's not as if 112 pound girls are wrestling 200 pound boys. Everybody wrestles opponents similar to their own weight. Northrup's refusal to wrestle Herkelman simply because she's female is more than a little patronizing.

I don't think it's unfortunate at all that Northrup was put in the position he was. Actually, I take that back. I think it's unfortunate that he was raised the way he was to think he had to react the way he did. If he had been raised to see women as equals, instead of inferior specimens in need of protection, he wouldn't have had a problem wrestling Herkelman. So yes, it is a shame that the circumstances in this boy's life have led to this situation. But it's not unfortunate at all that girls are now being successful enough to qualify for the state tournament.

If you want to read more about this, you can read the articles from Fox Sports or Yahoo. The Fox Sports article even had a poll on whether boys should wrestle girls. Around 3/4 of the respondents don't think they should. I wouldn't recommend reading the comments from the articles, though. It's not good for the blood pressure.

So, congratulations to Cassy Herkelman, Megan Black, and all the other wrestlers who have made the tournament. Good luck, and may the best wrestlers win.

* To brag just a little, I wrestled varsity my last year of middle school, once or twice my freshman year of high school when the older boy in my weight class got injured, and then my sophomore, junior, and senior years, lettering those last three years, and placing 3rd place in the county tournament my junior year (plus a few 3rd and 4th place finishes in other tournaments throughout my 'career'). I got injured towards the end of my senior year, so I didn't finish out that season, and didn't get to wrestle in the county tournament that year. So, I was a little better than average, but not near good enough to go on to wrestle in college. All of the wrestlers mentioned in this entry are far better than I ever was.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Double Blind Gaze

Skeptic Society UFOI've gotten permission from The Skeptics Society to post one of their old articles on this site. The article is:

The Double-Blind Gaze: How the Double-Blind Experimental Protocol Changed Science.

If you've never read this article before, I highly recommend that you do so now. It focuses mainly on medicine, but also shows how it can be difficult to determine the truth of reality, and why the scientific method is so important.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Reliance on Bible Translations

ScribeI'm currently in the process of reading Hector Avalos's book, The End of Biblical Studies. One of the things I was struck by reading the first chapter is just how dependent most of us are on translators when reading the Bible. After all, the good book wasn't written in English, and most us can't speak ancient Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic, so we really do put a lot of trust in translators to deliver a text that accurately reflects what the original writers intended.

Sometimes, however, there's reason to question that accuracy. Avalos discussed the passage in Genesis 2:18-19. Here are three popular translations of that passage. Pay close attention to the timing of the events described.

From the New International Version (NIV):

18 The LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.”

19 Now the LORD God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name.

From the King James Version (KJV):

18 And the LORD God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him.

19 And out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.

From the New Living Translation (NLT):

18 Then the Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper who is just right for him.” 19 So the Lord God formed from the ground all the wild animals and all the birds of the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would call them, and the man chose a name for each one.

From the NIV translation, using the tense 'had formed' in verse 19, makes the timing a bit ambiguous. It's not clear whether God created the animals before or after he created Adam. The KJV definitely seems to imply that the creation of the animals came after Adam. And according to the the NLT, it's quite obvious that Adam came first. Of course, if the NLT is accurate, it would be a contradiction with the creation story presented in the first chapter of Genesis, where animals and birds were created before humans. Something as seemingly minor as verb tense can have major implications for the varying interpretations of the Bible.

Discussing the NIV translation, after making the same points I did above, here's what Avalos had to say.

However, when speaking of the origin of the human male in verse 7, the NIV translates as a simple past tense (formed) the same Hebrew form of the verb (yatzar; [Hebrew characters]) found in verse 19. Since the Hebrew shows no difference in the form of the verb, the inconsistency in the NIV's translation seems solely motivated by an attempt at nullifying the contradiction.

So, if we're to trust Avalos, it looks like the NIV has translated the same word in two different ways, for no apparent reason other than trying to hide a contradiction. At the very least, we can say that separate teams of translators have come up with different interpretations of the same passage.

Avalos discussed other examples besides the creation stories. It really emphasized for me how much of an impact translators can have on the meaning of passages. It certainly showed me how naive I was in simply accepting that modern day translators had faithfully reconstructed the meaning of the ancient texts.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Another Example of the Free Market Failing Society

CaduceusI've blogged previously about how a free market doesn't necessarily produce the best results for society at large. In particular, I mentioned how new antibiotics weren't being developed because they just don't offer the same return on investment to pharmaceutical companies as other types of drugs. To reuse the same quote from an article from Innovations-Report.com:

FDA approvals of new antibiotics declined 56 percent during the past 20 years (1998-2002 versus 1983-1987). Looking to the future, the researchers found only six new antibiotics in the R&D pipeline out of 506 drugs being developed.

Well, now a new article from Nature News, Pfizer slashes R&D, gives more depressing news on the failure of free markets when it comes to new medicines. To quote two passages from Nature's article:

Yet the dire consequences for drug research — and the scientists behind it — still took many by surprise last week. With key patents about to expire, Pfizer, the world's largest pharmaceutical company in terms of sales, unveiled plans to slash its research and development (R&D) spending by billions and cut thousands of jobs.
"The pharma industry is deciding its core capabilities are marketing and dealing with regulatory bodies," says Judy Slinn, a business historian at Oxford Brooks University, UK. "Pharma companies will still do development work. They won't do discovery."

So, now it's not just research into new antibiotics that's going to suffer. Research into all new types of medicine is going to suffer, because it's just not profitable enough.

I would think that we as a society would like to see new medicines be developed, and it seems that some type of government intervention is necessary if we want to see development continue at the pace it has been. So, to echo my questions from my previous entry, what type of intervention should that be? Regulations? Tax breaks? Direct investment of public funds? Whatever the case, the free market is failing us in this regard.

Don't take this entry the wrong way. I'm not against capitalism. I think there are many, many ways that capitalism and free markets do provide good results to society. Competition does force companies to improve their products and services. However, I think it's naïve to assume that a free market will always produce outcomes that are best for society, so government intervention is sometimes called for.

Friday, February 4, 2011

What Are the Odds

BingoThis isn't the type of story I usually tell on this blog, but it was too good to pass up. It happened to a couple of friends of mine. I've changed the names of those involved, but everything else happened just like I've told it (or, as accurately as I comprehended and retold it).

Bob and Mary have been having a lot of problems recently - burglaries, harassing phone calls, identity theft, having utilities shut off, etc. They couldn't figure out who they might have pissed off to harass them so much. They've finally figured out who was doing it.

Mary's last name is Smith. There just happens to be a Marianne Smith living nearby who also goes by Mary. Bob and Mary owned a green Windstar minivan. Marianne had been dating some guy who had a green Windstar minivan. This guy left Marianne for Angela Jackson for a while, and then left Angela to go back to Marianne. Angela was none too happy about losing this guy, so she started harassing Marianne. It was bad enough that Marianne moved twice trying to get away from this lady. Well, I guess that after Marianne's latest move, Angela found a house with a green Windstar minivan in the driveway that belonged to Mary Smith, and figured she'd found Marianne, and that's when all the trouble started for Bob and Mary.

They finally got it all figured out when Mary learned that someone at the casino was winning jackpots in her name. After the casino looked into it, they realized that their system was confusing her with Marianne Smith, probably because Marianne hadn't given them her SSN. Anyway, once they realized the mixup and talked to Marianne, Bob and Mary got the full story. Apparently, Marianne even got a phone call asking her if she was going to miss her laptop, right after Bob and Mary's had been stolen. It also looks like Angela was the one responsible for their identity theft, thinking she was stealing from Marianne.

So, this Angela finally got caught going too far. It seems she went to a bar looking for Marianne, and was arrested and charged with aggravated assault. She's looking at 20 years. Even with parole, she won't be able to bother anyone for a while.

Website Update - Top 10 Page List for January 2011

Top 10 ListI've had my look through the server logs for the past month. Last month, I'd mentioned that it looked like my traffic had plateaued. Well, the total visits to my site increased roughly 10% since last month. Maybe my site has finally hit some critical mass, and it's getting forwarded and forwarded to all the countless masses who just can't wait to read my pearls of wisdom on evolution, politics, and religion. Or maybe the spammers are just getting more prolific (I had 524 junked comments in the past 24 hour).

As far as what pages were most popular, they're all pages that have made the list before. Here were the top 10 pages on this site during January:

  1. Autogyro History & Theory
  2. Blog - A Skeptical Look at MBT Shoes
  3. Blog - Origin of Arabic Numerals - Was It Really for Counting Angles?
  4. Blog - My Favorite Airplanes
  5. Blog - Running AutoCAD R14 in XP Pro 64
  6. Programming
  7. Blog - Ray Comfort - Still Ignorant on Evolution
  8. Blog - Response to Anti-Liberal Article by Gary Hubbell
  9. Blog - Letter to Pharmacy about MBT Shoes
  10. Blog - The Texas Republican Platform, or Why I'm Not a Republican

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