Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Conservapedia and the Earth's Moon

Conservapedia is an attempt at a wiki to write an encyclopedia from a right-wing, Christian perspective. The project was founded by Andrew Schlafly, son of Phyllis Schlafly. Conservapedia is a toxic combination of of political extremism, ignorance and gross stupidity.

Mike Dunford over at The Questionable Authority has found what even by Conservapedia standards takes the prize. This is more extreme than Conservapedia claiming that Barack Obama is a Muslim born outside the United States. This is more extreme than Conservapedia claiming that Leif Erickson never came to America and that the story is a liberal myth designed to undermine the accomplishment of the good Christian Christopher Columbus.

Mike found the following sentence in the article on the Moon:

Atheistic theories of the origin of the Moon, widely taught for decades despite lacking the falsifiability requirement of science (see Philosophy of science), have been proven false.

Let's just contemplate that sentence for a minute. This is the point in a blog post where one would normally eviscerate the quote in question. That's not necessary in this case.

I cannot determine whether the sentence in question was added in as a parody. On the one hand, the editor who made the edit only made a few edits to Conservapedia. This argues that it may have been added by a parodist. Furthermore, even Conservapedia editors are rarely this bad. Conservapedia has a long history of parodists infiltrating the project and producing deliberately extreme views.

On the other hand, the edit was made with an accurate edit summary which would not likely be added by a simple parody. The editor also made other edits to other articles some of which look productive.

On the gripping hand, the edit was made in December of 2007 and has stayed in the article for over a year. Since then the article has been edited by at least 3 Conservapedia sysops as one can see from a glance at the article's history page. So the article about a basic topic has had this sentence in it for over a year. In fact the same editor added an additional sentence repeating the standard misconception that the Moon's phases are caused by the Earth's shadow. After Roger Schlafly, Andrew's smarter and saner brother, attempted to take the claim about the Moon's phases out he was reverted by a Conservapedia sysop who thought that the information was correct. In all this time, no one bothered cleaning up this sentence.

Whether or not its original addition was a parody, the history of this article does not reflect well on Conservapedia. Conservapedia's own editors cannot distinguish between parody, actual Conservapedia beliefs, and simple sloppiness. And thus, Conservapedia remains the laughing-stock of the internet.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Vaccination, Autism and Hasting-Cedillo: A Lesson from Kitzmiller

As many readers are likely aware, a decision was made in last week in the Hastings-Cedillo case. This case was the test case for claims that vaccines, especially the MMR vaccine caused autism and could thus get compensation under the federal Vaccine Injury Compensation Program. To many people watching the case, the issue of whether vaccines contribute to autism was more important than any issues of legal redress. For a long time, the scientific consensus has been that there is zero evidence that vaccines contribute to autism and if anything the evidence strongly suggests that they are not related. The court's decision came down strongly on the side of the scientific consensus:

The petitioners in this case have advanced a causation theory that has several parts, including contentions (1) that thimerosal-containing vaccines can cause immune dysfunction, (2) that the MMR vaccine can cause autism, and (3) that the MMR vaccine can cause chronic gastrointestina dysfunction. However, as to each of those issues, I concluded that the evidence was overwhelmingly contrary to the petitioners’ contentions. The expert witnesses presented by the respondent were far better qualified, far more experienced, and far more persuasive than the petitioners’ experts, concerning most of the key points. The numerous medical studies concerning these issues, performed by medical scientists worldwide, have come down strongly against the petitioners’ contentions. Considering all of the evidence, I found that the petitioners have failed to demonstrate that thimerosal-containing vaccines can contribute to causing immune dysfunction, or that the MMR vaccine can contribute to causing either autism or gastrointestinal dysfunction. I further conclude that while Michelle Cedillo has tragically suffered from autism and other severe conditions, the petitioners have also failed to demonstrate that her vaccinations played any role at all in causing those problems.
The conclusion is even more blunt:
This case, however, is not a close case. The overall weight of the evidence is overwhelmingly contrary to the petitioners’ causation theories. The result of this case would be the same even if I totally ignored the epidemiologic evidence, declined to consider the video evidence, and/or excluded the testimony of Dr. Bustin. The result would be the same if I restricted my consideration to the evidence originally filed into the record of this Cedillo case, disregarding the general causation evidence from the Hazlehurst and Snyder cases. The petitioners’ evidence has been unpersuasive on many different points, concerning virtually all aspects of their causation theories, each such deficiency having been discussed in detail above. The petitioners have failed to persuade me that there is validity to any of their general causation arguments, and have also failed to persuade me that there is any substantial likelihood that Michelle’s MMR vaccination contributed in any way to the causation of any of Michelle’s own disorders. To the contrary, based upon all the evidence that I have reviewed, I find that it is extremely unlikely that any of Michelle’s disorders were in any way causally connected to her MMR vaccination, or any other vaccination.

In short, this is a case in which the evidence is so one-sided that any nuances in the
interpretation of the causation case law would make no difference to the outcome of the case.
In reading the opinion, I could not help but compare it to Kitzmiller v. Dover in which intelligent design was found by a federal court to simply be repackaged creationism. The circumstances are similar; the existence of an issue in which the scientific consensus went one way and popular opinion often went another. A court looked at the issue and agreed with the scientists. The decision is not as well-written as the Kitzmiller decision but the result is similar.

We can learn from the impact of Kitzmiller to hypothesize what this decision will have. After Kitzmilker, intelligent design is still going strong, and many people still believe that ID is distinct from creationism and that ID is a scientific theory that should be taught in our public schools. The Cedillo decision will almost certainly not have a substantial impact on popular opinion. If anything, Cedillo will likely have even less impact than Kitzmiller had. With intelligent design, the main conflict occurs from proponents attempting to add ID into our public school biology classes. Kitzmiller set a precedent that teaching ID is unconstitutional and that trying to do so makes a school board lose time and money. Such a precedent has real weight when communities consider adding ID to the school curriculum. However, with vaccination, the issue of monetary compensation for families with autistic children has always been a side issue. The direct conflict occurs primarily with new parents debating whether they should have their children vaccinated. A legal decision such as Cedillo will not have as much impact on peoples' behavior. If the general public is to be convinced that vaccines are safe, they must be convinced through education, not legal decisions.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Yet more gratuitous promotion of family members

My twin has two baseball related pieces up in which readers may be interested. The first is a piece at the Sports Law Blog about what A-Rod should do to redeem himself. The second is a piece at the Huffington Post arguing that the prosecution of Miguel Tejada is both unfair and sets a dangerous precedent. The piece about Tejada is very worth reading even if one is not a fan of baseball. It highlights possibe serious abuses of federal law.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Greg Egan and Commutative Diagrams

A commutative diagram is a diagram illustrating how different series of functions can have the same result when composed. We draw arrows to represent functions. To follow a path of arrows means that we perform each function as we get to the corresponding arrow. If we always get the same result no matter what we started with then we say the diagram commutes. For example, in the below diagram one could label the top arrow f(x)=2x, the left arrow g(x)=x^2, the right arrow h(x)=x^2 and the bottom arrow j(x)=4x.

Now, no matter what number we start with (starting in the upper left corner) when, either path we take to get to the bottom right corner will give us the same result. The diagram reflects that h(f(x))=j(g(x)). That is, that (2x)^2= 4(x^2). Not all commutative diagrams form a square. Others might form a triangle or other shapes. Stated this way commutative diagrams might seem trivial. But they are not trivial at all. Many examples of commutative diagrams show up in higher areas of mathematics especially in algebra. Mathematicians are very fond of commutative diagrams because they are an efficient way of describing deep structure between functions or sets.

Why am I thinking about commutative diagrams? I happened to be reading a science fiction story by author Greg Egan titled Glory. The story involved an advanced, now extinct alien species, that was very skilled at mathematics. To give a taste of their mathematical prowess, Egan correctly described the idea of a commutative diagram and then stated that one of the species' theorems took the form of a commutative diagram that could be best thought of as a 7 dimension hypercube. When I read this I was amazed. This is an excellent idea for a theorem that an extremely advanced species might prove. I had read some of Egan's works before and had heard good things about others but seeing this description I was pleasantly surprised. Often when people write science fiction they merely fill in buzzwords or string together words that sound good. If all science fiction writers could write like Greg Egan I doubt that the genre would have any trouble being taken seriously.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Blogroll Amnesty Day, 2 days late

Monday was Blogroll Amnesty Day. Blogroll Amnesty Day is a day where bloggers link to 5 other blogs with low traffic that they think deserve more attention. In theory, these blogs should have lower traffic than your own blog. I intended to post an entry on Monday but was too busy. However, this delay is fortuitous since I was recently linked to by Pharyngula, which has caused my traffic to jump. Thus, I have a much larger set of blogs I can plausibly include for my late Blogroll Amnesty Day if I look at the short-term traffic numbers.

I'm adding two criteria I've added to make my choices easier: I'm not including any blogs that are already on my blogroll or that I am following. That means that this entry will not include plugs for No. Rice. for You. which is a blog by a friend of mine about her time spent in China. Similarly, I will not put in a plug for Treehouses although Kurt's thoughts are often fascinating. Also, I will not be including any blogs that are primarily devoted to the author's daily activities. Thus for example, I will not plug The Chronicles of Harry even though Harry also has many entries on interesting mathematics.

So given these restrictions, here are the five I've chosen:

Prerogative of Harlots is a new blog by Chris Norris who runs the vertebrate collection at the Peabody Museum in New Haven. He only started blogging a few days ago and so far the results look fascinating.

Ted's blog on evolution and creationism is a good read. If you aren't getting enough of this already, then add this to your reading list.

Exploring Our Matrix is the blog of James McGrath who is a professor of religion at Butler University. The blog focuses on issues of Biblical exegesis, source criticism of Biblical texts, related topics and whatever comes to McGrath's mind today. He may well be the only person on the planet who still watches Lost.

Liquid Thinker is a blog about religion and politics with science and technology posts thrown in to keep you on your toes. The writer has a PhD in physics, but now works in software. This is reflected in the political and science coverage.

Life Before Death is by a biology student in Sweden discussing both biology and politics. I disagree with many of Felicia's opinions, but they are frequently worth reading.