29 October 2014

Pope Francis swerves toward a more scientific outlook

The Creationist camp is getting smaller by the day. Pope Francis recently declared that evolution and the Big Bang theory are true and that God isn't a "magician with a magic wand."  Of course, as Lawrence Krauss often points out, it isn't clear what the God theory explains. If people can get on with their entire lives and can create completely consistent pictures of our world without God, we may ask what the point is. In this light, theistic religions seem to be at an impasse. On the one hand, a belief in God as a "magician" is highly problematic because we simply don't see a reality that shows the signs of constant intervention. Anyone familiar with science realizes that statistical tests of sufficiently large collections of data will reveal significant effects. If amputees who pray (vs. those who don't) were to occasional regrow limbs, it wouldn't take a high number for us to notice a significant effect at 95% certainty (the lowest standard used in most science). On the other hand, if we demote God to just the warm fuzzy feeling we get when we're nice to our neighbor, it isn't clear why that myth is preferable to any other. As a staunch atheist, I fortunately don't have to worry about how religion is going to get out of its current box. That said, I salute the decisions of the current pope. The warm fuzzy God is preferable to complete irrationality. Fundamentalists in the U.S. (as elsewhere) are deeply damaged by cognitive dissonance--the need to acknowledge science which explains an ever greater range of phenomena, balanced against the need to believe in the ark, recent dinosaurs, an Earth several thousand years old and all sorts of other untenable tenets of faith.

27 October 2014

Voter fraud, compliance assistance, and making mountains from mole hills

Contrary Brin has a good post on the Republican push for tighter voter registration requirements. The key paragraphs have been copied below:

According to the conservative thinkers and agendas going back to Buckley and Goldwater, regulations that are onerously placed on business should be accompanied by assistance so those businesses can meet and comply with these new regulations. This is standard conservative dogma.
compliance-assistanceIndeed, Democrats agree! Almost always, whenever new and onerous regulations are applied to business, there are allocations of money to set up offices, call-lines, visiting experts and grace periods with the aim of helping corporations – and the rich – comply with the new regulations. It’s called compliance assistance.
You can see how this applies to the topic at-hand. The fundamental test here is this: In any of the red states that have passed new Voter ID laws, or other laws that restrict the ability of poor people young people, women and so on to exercise their franchise, were any significant funds appropriated or allocated for compliance assistance?
Brin answers this rhetorical question with "not one red cent." (Nice pun on the word "red.") I'd go further than Brin. Since voter fraud occurs in about one out of every 15 million votes, the push for tighter regulations is clearly a farce. Since it virtually never occurs, we should be more concerned about how to offset the cost of the ink used to sign the bills into law (let alone all the time and money it will require for people to get the appropriate ideas and to put the new regulations into law.) The fact that voter fraud garners news time shows how misinformed the U.S. public has become. And as always, it shows how hostile the Republican Party has become towards the poor, who are most affected by such requirements.

24 October 2014

Early contact among South Americans and Easter Islanders

There are now two separate pieces of evidence (appearing in two separate studies) that suggest that the Polynesians of Easter Island mixed with the natives of South America. One study reports two Polynesian skulls that were found in Brazil among the indigenous Botocudo tribe. (Yes, you read that correctly, Brazil!) The other study, shows that the Rapa Nui (Easter Islanders) have 10% South American ancestry, which has been traced back 19-23 generations. I wonder if this explains how the sweet potato made it to south-east Asia. In a related paper by Goncalves et al., we find the following:

New evidence from human and nonhuman material has become available since then. For example, there were archeological findings of Polynesian chicken bones in the Arauco Peninsula, in Chile and evidence has been found in Easter Island of pre-Columbian presence of sweet potato and bottle gourd, both typical of South America. Independent of the plausibility or implausibility of the pre-Columbian arrival of Polynesians to the South American Pacific coast, there still would remain the need to explain how these migrants crossed the Andes and ended up in Minas Gerais, Brazil. We feel that such a scenario is too unlikely to be seriously entertained.

So the sweet potato may have made it to Easter Island at least. The Goncalves et al. paper, which discusses possible explanations for the two skulls, also considers the possibility that they're from Madagascar slaves. (Madagascar was originally settled by Polynesians.)

21 October 2014

11 October 2014

A dame


6 October 2014

Seattle: The new paragon of cool

Seattle has definitely become the coolest place in the U.S. as can be seen in their recent decision to dump Columbus Day for a day celebrating indigenous peoples. The move has been too long coming. (In fact, I wrote a long screed about this way back in 2006). This is from an account of the period following Columbus's "discovery" of the Americas:

When he arrived on Hispaniola in 1508, Las Casas says, "there were 60,000 people living on this island, including the Indians; so that from 1494 to 1508, over three million people had perished from war, slavery, and the mines". 

To put this in some perspective, if the numbers are accurate, we're talking about a death-toll roughly half that of the Holocaust. (And all this without modern weapons and bureaucracies!) Columbus Day is the equivalent of a Celebrate Hitler Day.

3 October 2014

Is God a good theory?

I enjoyed listening to this talk by Sean Carroll on why God isn't a good theory. Carroll's a physicist, so he dwells mostly on physics. The final part of the talk where he talks about how our world isn't what we'd expect if God (the way he's typically imagined and described) existed could be expanded into another talk.