Biography

RWP was born in Manchester, in the north of England, in the late 1950s, so he is very old. He really liked the north of England, which by 1965 was hip and had three TV channels, and where he went to a coed school. His parents, for reasons best known to themselves, then yanked him away, to Belfast and then Dublin, which had one TV channel that started up at 6 pm with the Angelus (Catholic call to prayer). He also had to go to an all boys school, where he realized he really missed girls. This probably let him focus on schoolwork, though, and at age 19, after he had finished college, he set off for America, where he still resides. He has a bachelors degree in biochemistry and a Ph.D. from Harvard in biophysics, and has lived also in Mainz, Germany, Setauket NY, and Richland WA. He currently divides his time between Nebraska, Rosslyn VA, and Florida.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Yet more racist news reporting at the Lincoln Journal Star

The Lincoln Journal Star claims it has a policy of not publishing criminal suspect descriptions if the descriptions are 'generic'. Its real policy is not to publish suspect descriptions if the perpetrators are African American. I've documented this many times in the past, but here's one more data point. Today:
Two masked men robbed a south Lincoln cellphone store with a handgun and a stun gun Tuesday morning, police said. Lincoln Police Capt. David Beggs said the men, described as white and wearing baggy, dark clothing, entered Z Wireless at 2525 Pine Lake Road about 9:51 a.m.
That looks pretty darn generic, no? Let's contrast it with a recent convenience store armed robbery (February 20):
Two men robbed a gas station at gunpoint Thursday morning in northwest Lincoln, police said. The robbers, one of them armed with a rifle, went into Casey’s General Store, 2500 N.W. 12th St., about 5:30 a.m., Lincoln Police Officer Katie Flood said. They made off with an undisclosed amount of cash, but the two employees working at the time didn’t see where they went, Flood said.
...but maybe, you say, the police didn't have a description. Well, yes they did; this is from the KLKN-TV report of the same robbery
Authorities were called to the Casey's General Store near W. Cornhusker Hwy. and NW 12th street, a little after 5:30 this morning. Lincoln police say the suspects are described as two black males, one was wearing a black hat and black clothing. The other was dressed in gray clothing and dark shoes. Police say one of the men was armed with a gun.
How many instances need to be documented?
5:52 p.m.; after someone asked in the comments section why they only report the race of suspects if they're white, the LJS memory-holed the description. Heh heh heh.
Oops they did it again!
Scanner traffic said police were responding to a report that two white men in their late teens or early 20s with scruffy facial hair, wearing Nebraska sweatshirts and black sweatpants had tied up employees at Computer Hardware, 235 S. 70th St.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Can creationists be scientists?

A quick piece because I find twitter discussions incredibly constricting.

A piece on Salon by Sean McElwee, which suffers from an unfortunate headline (not his) and a bad last sentence, leads me to re-ask the title question. And the answer is, of course, yes. Richard Smalley, Nobel prizewinner in Chemistry for the discovery of fullerenes, was a creationist. I know he had serious problems with evolution because I discussed it with him on a visit he made here at Nebraska. It's also a matter of public record.

Henry Schaefer III probably one of the worlds top 5 living quantum chemists, and is another. he's laid out his problems with evolution quite articulately, and he's a fellow of the 'Intelligent design'-promoting Discovery Institute, which almost all evolutionary scientists consider a creationist Trojan Horse.

After an inflammatory letter I wrote to the local newspaper about the local Seventh Day Adventist college (I'm trying to be nicer, really!) I was invited by a physics professor there to present a lecture on the 'atheist view of the origin of life' to his 'Origins' course. He asked me to promise I wouldn't curse or blaspheme. After we'd gotten around that (apparently unintentional) piece of rudeness, I agreed to do it, as long as the title was changed to 'the scientific view of the origin of life'. I gave a lecture, it was well received, several students asked intelligent questions, and then we went to lunch.

I asked him how he reconciled his Adventism, which insists on the literal truth of the Bible, with what he knows of physics. He said he certainly doesn't reject radioactive dating, etc., but he's constrained to believe the Bible is true. He therefore believes the two are reconcilable, though he doesn't think we know how to do that yet. While I find that unsatisfactory, it's a great improvement over the usual idiotic creationist attempts to shoehorn science into a young-earth-creationist timeframe, slicing off all the toes in the process, or make ridiculous arguments the Second Law forbids evolution, or that there is evidence of intelligent design in cell structure or the human genome.

So can a scientist be a creationist? Of course. The origin of the universe, life or species has zero impact on the structure of organic molecules, quantum physics or, indeed, most of science. Sure, creationists compartmentalize, refusing to use the same evidentiary standards for origins questions that we do in other fields, but so do we all. For example, most of us act as if we are freely choosing entities even though we accept deterministic physics applies to our brains. (I think Dan Dennett has done a reasonable job reconciling the two, but it's still a pretty raw paradox.)

Moreover, I don't think we win by overstating our case, or exaggerating its strength. I'm doing NASA funded research right now on the origin of chirality in living organisms, and it's basically shooting down one current hypothesis, leaving us without any explanation whatsoever. We actually don't understand the origin of life, at all. I'm confident we will, and that the origin will be naturalistic. But that is definitely a gap in which a creationist can temporarily house his god. Good luck to him; it doesn't hurt science, unless he tries to pretend the immense amount of scientific knowledge we actually do have is in his favor.

(clean up and links to be added later; got to set some homework).

Friday, February 7, 2014

Liars, damned liars, and Ecowatch

The American Burying Beetle, Nicrophorus americanus-- we'll call it the ABB -- is a nifty creature. Like all carrion beetles, it and its mate locate the carcass of a small dead animal, bury it, and lay their eggs in an adjacent tunnel. The larvae feed on the decaying carcass for a week, pupate, and then emerge to fly off. The beetles used to range widely across the eastern and midwestern US, but have been much reduced due to habitat loss, and are critically endangered. (Picture and range map from Wikipedia)

Anyway, Ecowatch, the self-described "nation’s leading environmental platform", reported on Thursday

Senior Officials Accused of Skewing Science to Benefit Keystone XL Pipeline
This refers to a case in Oklahoma, where officials of the Fish and Wildlife service apparently manipulated the range map for the ABB. The FWS report is here. Allegedly, two officials produced a range map that was not based on county lines, was inconsistent with FWS policy to err on the side of the endangered species, and chose a model that was incompatible with observations. The resulting range map was about 25% smaller in area. The two scientists published their work in the peer-reviewed literature, and it seems to this observer much close to the observations than the county based map (how can FWS claim the species is present in a county when there are no observations for that county and no suitable habitat in that county?) Nonetheless, there are established procedures, they deviated from established procedures, and I don't dispute that for that reason it was reasonable to find their actions
intentionally circumvented policy that compromised scientific integrity of the endangered species program in Oklahoma, and therefore constitute scientific misconduct
So what's the problem? The problem is that this relates only to Oklahoma. The proposed Keystone XL pipeline will not pass through Oklahoma, or even Kansas, the state contiguous to the north. It runs from the Canadian border to Steele City Nebraska (actually, quite close to my home). Another pipeline section, called the Keystone Cushing extension, runs down to Cushing, OK, close to if not through ABB habitat. But that section is already built and operating, and has been for three years. And the southern branch of Keystone XL. from Cushing to the Gulf Coast, was already approved, has already been built, and is also operating. According to Energy and Environment News, the controversial FWS report was not used in the assessment process for the southern branch. And it has nothing at all to do with the Northern branch.

Nonetheless, in a piece of clearly intentional deception, Ecowatch showed a map of the (non-contiguous) Nebraska population of the ABB in their article.

In fact, the flawed FWS report has no bearing at all on whether or not the northern branch of Keystone XL, the only unbuilt part of the pipeline, is approved.

Having previous spent a lot of time debating Young-Earth Creationists, I'm well aware of how zealots will misrepresent the facts 'for the greater good' (as they see it). Environmental activists are equally guilty of the same sort of behavior, and this incident epitomizes how they will publish deliberate deception in order to achieve their ends.