Science


Oh the irony… this is all over teh Interwebs now, so who am I to avoid jumping on the bandwagon?

PZ Myers was expelled from a screening of the Creationist propaganda movie Expelled. Some background: some time ago, Myers, Richard Dawkins and a number of other high-profile scientists were interviewed for a movie due to be called Crossroads. The movie, so it was claimed, was supposed to explain some of the principles of evolutionary biology. Alas, it seems to have been a ruse, because Crossroads turned into an anti-evolution polemic. Hardly the first time that Creationists have misrepresented themselves when filming scientists.

After Myers booked tickets for the screening — under his own name, via their web interface, just like all the other viewers — he was threatened with arrest and tossed out. And this is despite Myers being thanked profusely in the movie credits for his assistance!

Amusingly, the film-makers didn’t notice Richard Dawkins, who has written more about the incident and the movie itself:

Now, to the Good Friday Fiasco itself, Mathis’ extraordinary and costly lapse of judgment. Just think about it. His entire film is devoted to the notion that American scientists are being hounded and expelled from their jobs because of opinions that they hold. The film works hard at pressing (no, belabouring with a sledgehammer) all the favourite hot buttons of free speech, freedom of thought, the right of dissent, the right to be heard, the right to discuss issues rather than suppress argument. These are the topics that the film sets out to raise, with particular reference to evolution and ‘intelligent design’ (wittily described by someone as creationism in a cheap tuxedo). In the course of this film, Mathis tricked a number of scientists, including PZ Myers and me, into taking prominent parts in the film, and both of us are handsomely thanked in the closing credits.

Seemingly oblivious to the irony, Mathis instructed some uniformed goon to evict Myers while he was standing in line with his family to enter the theatre, and threaten him with arrest if he didn’t immediately leave the premises. […]

More sinister than the artless Lord Privy Seals, and the self-indulgent and wholly illicit playing of the Nazi trump card, the film goes shamelessly for cheap laughs at the expense of scientists and scholars who are making honest attempts to explain difficult points. Cheap laughs that could only be raised in an audience of scientific ignoramuses (and here Mathis’ propaganda instincts cannot be faulted: he certainly knows his target audience). One example is the treatment of the philosopher Michael Ruse[…]

Asked to explain the origin of life, Ruse acknowledged that it was a difficult question, one that modern science has barely scratched the surface of, but suggested that a possible candidate might be something like the theory of Graham Cairns-Smith that modern organic life bootstrapped itself from replicating crystals on the surface of inorganic clays. Even if Cairns-Smith’s theory is wrong in detail — and it would be amazing if it were not — it demonstrates the critical properties of any successful theory for the origin of life: it must show how complex, complicated organic molecules can evolve from simple, robust, common inorganic molecules.

Dawkins continues:

Stein just loved it. Mud! MUD! The sarcasm in his grating, nasal voice was palpable. Maybe this was when Ruse realised that he had been had. Certainly it was at this point that he started to show signs of exasperation, although he may still have thought that Stein was merely stupid, rather than pursuing a malevolent and clandestine agenda.

Curiously, the mostly Christian Fundamentalist audience who finds nothing strange about the idea that God created mankind from clay and dust and ashes, finds it laughable that organic life might have its origin in… clay and dust and ashes. Go figure.

PZ Myers has more about the dishonesty of the Creationists involved, but the funniest comment comes from the jokers at the Landover Baptist Church:

Shocking information has reached us that PZ Myers trophy wife (paid for by the tax payers of state of Minnesota) was taking names of the movie goers to, and I quote her words, “be put first in line for the gas chambers once we overthrow the Constitution”. That is correct, this state funded mistress was making a list of local Christians for eventual extermination.

to which Myers simply replied:

All that money invested in her ninja training, wasted.

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Here’s a trick question for those who find the Monty Hall Problem too easy.

Suppose you have two five-card poker hands dealt from separate decks. You are told that the first hand contains at least one ace, and that the second hand contains the ace of spades. Which hand is more likely to contain at least one more ace?

(Problem courtesy of the Quantum Pontiff, with the solution found here.)

People’s guesses over at the Quantum Pontiff site typically were that the probabilities would be the same, or that the first hand would be more likely to contain one more ace. Typical reasoning is something like this:

In the first hand, we’re told that it contains an ace, but not which one. So it could be the ace of spades: the answer for the first hand includes the answer for the second, so must be bigger.

Intuitively obvious, but incorrect.

One commentator makes an excellent point:

Here’s my general rule that I also try to get my students to use (especially the pre-med folks I teach in my intro. class).

Rule #1 (I have others): Don’t overthink the problem!! Note this is really just a variation on K.I.S.S. (keep it simple, stupid)
[…]
Before asking the question, I try to get my students to learn Rule #2: Make sure you ask the right question.

Ask the right question, and you find that the actual answer is the opposite of intuition: the second hand is more likely to contain another ace.

Unintuitive, but if you do the maths, it is absolutely correct. I’m not going to reproduce the maths here — follow the links for it. And remember: this is why ordinary blokes will never beat the casino in the long term: they hire mathematicians to work this stuff out, we try to guess.

If you’re still not convinced, I created a little quick-and-dirty simulation in Python. Here are the results:
Total of 10000 trials.
Number of trials where an ace was drawn: 3412
Given there is an ace in the hand, what is the probability of another ace? 0.124853458382
Given there is the Ace of Spades in the hand, what is the probability of another ace? 0.228758169935

Sure enough, the second hand is more likely to contain another ace.

(Note that the probabilities found in that run of the program are not the same as the exact probabilities. The program calculates the probability based on a random sample, not an exact value based on every possible result.)

For those interested in this sort of thing, after the cut I have included the source code of the program so you can play with it yourself.

(more…)

Over on my regular blog back in December I discussed the Ulas family of Turkey. Five of the nineteen siblings in the Kurdish family have a genetic disorder that leads them to walk on all fours in a fashion that has been described as “the bear-crawl”.

I was quite skeptical of the theory put forward by Turkish scientist Uner Tan, that they are a throwback to an earlier stage of human evolution. Part of the argument, made by British evolutionary psychologist Nicholas Humphrey, is that the Ulas siblings walk in a particular fashion unlike our nearest cousins, the great apes: the apes knuckle-walk, the Ulas siblings hold their fingers up in the air and walk on their wrists.

I was very skeptical about that claim, and I’m glad to note that whatever doubt I might have had is now gone. I’ve found videos of the Ulas siblings on YouTube, and there is no doubt in my mind that they are walking on the entire hand, palm and fingers alike.

See, for example, these YouTube videos:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0gNKNo55jdE

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tr1oAeFEcFQ

I remain utterly unconvinced that this is a throwback to ancient pre-human ancestors.