Monthly Archives: February 2016

Have they no shame?

Why Evolution Is True

I recently posted the only existing video of Anne Frank, a Dutch Jew who lived in hiding from 1942 until 1944. She, as well as her family and others cloistered in the “secret annex” of a friend’s house, were arrested in 1944 and transported to the camps. Of the seven arrested, only one (Otto, Anne’s father) survived. Anne and her sister Margot died of typhus in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in April 1945, only a few weeks before it was liberated by the Allies.  Anne was 15, Margot 19.

Anne intended that book she composed in hiding, now called The Diary of a Young Girl, would be published as a novel after the war, but of course she never saw that. Her grieving father ensured that it was published, and it’s well worth reading. Predictably, there were “diary deniers,” who asserted that the entire composition was a fabrication. But…

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Pinker opposes BDS boycott of Israel by American Anthropological Association

Why Evolution Is True

Various universities, student organizations, and academic associations have been joining the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS), urging a boycott of Israeli academics. Their recomendations range from complete non-interaction with Israeli academics to milder “sanctions”, including boycotting of institutions rather than scholars (i.e., you could invite an Israeli academic to speak at your university).

The American Anthropological Association (AAA) is about to vote on a resolution supporting the BDS by imposing a boycott of Israeli academic institutions, based on these principles, outlined in the linked pdf:

Whereas, The AAA’s 1999 Declaration on Anthropology and Human Rights states, “Anthropology as a profession is committed to the promotion and protection of the right of people and peoples everywhere to the full realization of their humanity” and “the AAA has an ethical responsibility to protest and oppose… deprivation;” and whereas the AAA has historically upheld those rights, including the right to education and academic…

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The weird little symphony you never knew existed

Why Evolution Is True

by Grania

This is a whimsical track put together from Windows XP and 98 audio sounds – the dings and clicks the Operating System plays when commands run or don’t run as luck and the laws of physics would have it.

I don’t know the original source. I found it on Computers Are Sad Too tumblr.

Click on the white arrow to play.

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If Islamic State is based on religion, why is it so violent?

The Conversation

Aaron W. Hughes, Philip S. Bernstein Professor of Jewish Studies, University of Rochester

Islamic State’s seemingly sudden prominence has led to much speculation about the group’s origins: how do we account for forces and events that paved the way for its emergence?

In today’s instalment of our series on the origins of Islamic State, religious studies scholar Aaron Hughes considers whether this jihadist group’s violence is inherent to Islam.

Despite what we’re told, religion isn’t inherently peaceful. The assumption is largely based on the Protestant idea that religion is something spiritual and internal to the individual and that it’s corrupted by politics and other mundane matters.

But people kill in the name of religion, just as they love in its name. To claim that one of these alternatives is more authentic than the other is not only problematic, it’s historically incorrect.

The Crusades, attacks at abortion clinics, some political assassinations, and price-tag attacks – to name only a few examples – were and are all motivated by religion.

This is because religion is based on the metaphysical notion that there are believers (in one’s own religion) and non-believers. This distinction is predicated on “good” versus “evil”, and can be neatly packaged into a narrative to be used and abused by various groups.

An imagined past

One such group is Islamic State (IS), which is inherently violent and claims it mirrors the Islam of the Prophet Muhammad. In this, it’s like other reformist movements in Islam that seek to recreate in the modern period what they imagine to have been the political framework and society that Muhammad (570-632 CE) and his immediate followers lived in and created in seventh-century Arabia.

The problem is that we know very little about this society, except what, often, much later sources – such as the Biography (Sira) of Muhammad and the work of historians such as al-Tabari (839-923 CE) – tell us it was like.

A central ideal for IS is that of restoring the caliphate. A geopolitical entity, the caliphate was the Islamic empire that stretched from Morocco and Spain in the West, to India in the East. It symbolises Islam at its most powerful.


When it was spreading across the Middle East and the Mediterranean region in the seventh century, Islam was highly apocalyptic. Many early sources, such as the second caliph Umar’s letter to the Byzantine Emperor Leo III, as well as contemporaneous non-Muslim sources, such as the mid-eighth-century Jewish apocalypse The Secrets of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai and the seventh-century polemic Doctrina Jacobi, speak about the coming destruction of the world as we know it.

The destruction is to begin with a battle between the forces of good (Muslim) versus those of evil. And IS has adopted this apocalyptic vision.

Again, though, it’s worth noting two things. The first is that the majority of Muslims today don’t buy into this apocalyptic vision; it’s mainly something recycled by groups such as Islamic State.

Second, such an “end of days” vision is by no means unique to Islam; we also see it in Judaism and Christianity. In these other two traditions, as in Islam, such groups certainly do not represent orthodox belief.

Medieval tolerance

But apocalypse aside, was Islam particularly violent in the seventh century? One could certainly point to three of the first four of Muhammad’s successors (caliphs) having been assassinated.

One could also point to the tremendous theological debates over who was or was not a Muslim. And such debates included the status of the soul of grave sinners. Was such a sinner a Muslim or did his sin put him outside the community of believers?

What would become mainstream Muslim opinion is that it was up to God to decide and not humans. But groups such as Islamic State want to make this distinction for God. In this, they certainly stray from orthodox Muslim belief.

While this doesn’t make them “un-Islamic”, to say groups such as IS represent medieval interpretations of Islam is not fair to medieval Islam.

Manuscript with depiction by Yahya ibn Vaseti found in the Maqama of Hariri depicts the image of a library with pupils in it, Baghdad 1237.
Wikimedia Commons

The eighth century, for example, witnessed the establishment, in Baghdad, of the Bayt al-Hikma (The House of Wisdom), which symbolised the so-called golden age of Islamic civilisation. This period witnessed, among other things, Muslim, Jewish and Christian scholars studying the philosophical and scientific texts of Greek antiquity.

These scholars also made many advances in disciplines, such as mathematics, astronomy, medicine, alchemy and chemistry, to name only a few. Within a century of its founding, Islam represented a cosmopolitan empire that was nothing like the rigid and dogmatic interpretation of the religion seen in the likes of IS.

A powerful tool

Observers in the West who want to claim that Islam is to blame for IS and use it as further proof that the religion is inherently violent, ignore other root causes of the moment.

These include the history of European colonialism in the area; US and European support for a number of ruthless Middle Eastern dictators; and the instability created by the American invasion of Iraq after the events of September 11, 2001.

It’s juxtaposed against these recent events that groups such as IS dream of reconstituting what they romantically imagine as the powerful Islamic caliphate.

The fact is that religion’s ability to neatly differentiate between “believer” and unbeliever”, and between “right” and “wrong”, makes it a powerful ideology. In the hands of demagogues, religious discourses – used selectively and manipulated to achieve a set of desired ends – are very powerful.

While it would be incorrect to say that the discourses used by IS are un-Islamic, it’s important to note it represents one particular Islamic discourse and that it’s not the mainstream one.

This article is the third in our series on understanding Islamic State. Look out for more stories on the theme in the coming days.

Aaron will be online for an Author Q&A between 9 and 10am AEDT on Thursday, February 18, 2016. Post your questions in the comments section below.

The ConversationAaron W. Hughes, Philip S. Bernstein Professor of Jewish Studies, University of Rochester

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.


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Thinking of Becoming a Vegetarian? Well, You Can’t.

An novel point of view.

Drexel News Blog

SmithVegCoverWe all have that one snooty friend who is always talking about the ethical reasons for his vegetarianism. Well, now you can prove him wrong.

A new book by Andrew Smith, PhD, an assistant professor of philosophy in Drexel’s College of Arts and Sciences who specializes in environmental philosophy, makes the case that there isn’t a morally defensible argument for vegetarianism, and in fact, you can’t even actually be vegetarian. The book,  “A Critique of the Moral Defense of Vegetarianism,” was released by Palgrave Macmillan this month.

Daniel Quinn, author of the award-winning philosophical novel “Ishmael,” said of the book: “This is one of the most important books I’ve read in the past two decades, and I think you’ll agree, whether you’re vegetarian, vegan or neither. It will change your mind in significant ways (it did mine), and you’ll enjoy the process, even if it means relinquishing some assumptions…

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Beware of the mutant spiders!

Why Evolution Is True

From Facebook:


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Nathan Lean cowardly ducks a question about why he attacks Muslim reformers

Why Evolution Is True

We’ve encountered Asra Nomani before: in a post I put up showing her short television debate with Jonathan Alter about whether women should be segregated from men in mosques. Nomani, founder of the Muslim Reform Movement, has no truck with the ingrained misogyny of her faith, and handily won the exchange (video here). I have immense respect for the women, both apostates and ex-Muslims, who fight the sexism of Islam, for they face even more opprobrium from other Muslims (including death threats) than do men. So first a salute to women like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Mayram Namazie, Sarah Haider, Eiynah “Nice Mangos,” and, of course, Asra Nomani.

Over at his website Godless Spellchecker’s Blog, Stephen Knight presented a video of an encounter between Nomani and the odious Nathan Lean, the writer who not only produced a ridiculous hit piece on Maajid Nawaz for The New Republic, but…

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Should scientists engage with pseudo-science or anti-science?

The Conversation

Rod Lamberts, Australian National University and Will J Grant, Australian National University

The ABC’s flagship science journalism TV programme, Catalyst, has riled the scientific community once again. And, in a similar vein to Catalyst’s controversial 2013 report on the link between statins, cholesterol and heart disease, it has now turned its quasi-scientific attention to a supposed new peril.

Its “Wi-Fried?” segment last week raised concerns about the ever-increasing “electronic air pollution” that surrounds us in our daily lives, exploiting a number of age-old, fear-inspiring tropes.

There are already plenty of robust critiques of the arguments and evidence, so exploring where they got the science wrong is not our goal.

Instead, we’re interested in using the segment as inspiration to revisit an ongoing question about scientists’ engagement with the public: how should the scientific community respond to issues like this?

Should scientists dive in and engage head-on, appearing face-to-face with those they believe do science a disservice? Should they shun such engagement and redress bad science after the fact in other forums? Or should they disengage entirely and let the story run its course?

There are many of examples of what scientists could do, but to keep it simple we focus here just on the responses to “Wi-Fried” by two eminent Professors, Simon Chapman and Bernard Stewart, both of whom declined to be a part of the ABC segment, and use this case to consider what scientists should do.

Just say no

In an interview about their decision to not participate, Chapman and Stewart independently expressed concerns about the evidence, tone and balance in the “Wi-Fried” segment. According to Chapman it “contained many ‘simply wrong’ claims that would make viewers unnecessarily afraid”.

Stewart labelled the episode “scientifically bankrupt” and “without scientific merit”. He added:

I think the tone of the reporting was wrong, I think that the reporter did not fairly draw on both sides, and I use the word “sides” here reluctantly.

Indeed, in situations like this, many suggest that by appearing in the media alongside people who represent fringe thinkers and bad science, respected experts lend them unwarranted credibility and legitimacy.

Continuing with this logic, association with such a topic would mean implicitly endorsing poor science and bad reasoning, and contribute to an un-evidenced escalation of public fears.

But is it really that straightforward?

The concerns Chapman and Stewart expressed about the show could equally be used to argue that experts in their position should have agreed to be interviewed, if only to present a scientifically sound position to counter questionable claims.

In this line, you could easily argue it’s better for experts to appear whenever and wherever spurious claims are raised, the better to immediately refute and dismiss them.

On the other hand, if scientific experts refuse to engage with “scientifically bankrupt” arguments, this could send a more potent message: that the fringe claims are irrelevant, not even worth wasting the time to refute. So this would mean they shouldn’t engage with this kind of popular science story.

On the third hand, their refusal to engage could be re-framed to characterise the experts as remote, arrogant or even afraid, casting doubt on the veracity of the scientific position. So to avoid this impression, experts should engage.

But wait, there’s more.

Participation in these kinds of popular science shows could also tarnish the reputation of the expert. But not appearing means missing the opportunity to thwart the potential harm caused by fringe, false or non-scientific claims.

And what about an expert’s obligation to defend their science, to set the record straight, and to help ensure people are not mislead by poor evidence and shonky reasoning? Is this best done by engaging directly with dubious media offerings like “Wi-Fried”, or should relevant experts find other venues?

Should scientists engage anti-science?

Well, this depends on what they think they might achieve. And if one thing stands out in all the to-ing and fro-ing over what scientists should do in such cases, it’s this: the majority of proponents both for and against getting involved seem convinced that popular representations of science will change people’s behaviour.

But there is rarely any hard evidence presented in the myriad “scientists should” arguments out there. Sticking with the Catalyst example, there is really only one, far-from-convincing, study from 2013 suggesting the show has such influence.

If you really want to make a robust, evidence-based decision about what experts should do in these situations, don’t start with the science being discussed. In the case of Catalyst, you’d start with research on the show’s relationship with its audience(s).

  • What kinds of people watch Catalyst?
  • Why do they watch it?
  • To what extent are their attitudes influenced by the show?
  • If their attitudes are actually influenced, how long does this influence last?
  • If this influence does last, does it lead people to change their behaviours accordingly?

Of course, we applaud the motives of people who are driven to set the scientific record straight, and especially by those who are genuinely concerned about public welfare.

But to simply assume, without solid evidence, that programmes like Catalyst push people into harmful behaviour changes is misguided at best. At worst, it’s actually bad science.

The ConversationRod Lamberts, Deputy Director, Australian National Centre for Public Awareness of Science, Australian National University and Will J Grant, Researcher / Lecturer, Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.


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2015: “Kimono Wednesdays” cancelled at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts on grounds of cultural appropriation

Why Evolution Is True

Here’s one of the more ludicrous recent protests against “cultural appropriation”, one that actually succeeded in cowing a famous museum last year: the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. It was a harbinger of the “cultural appropriation wars” that are now raging on college campuses, in which, for example, improperly prepared General Tso’s chicken is deemed a cultural offense by Asian students (the dish is actually Asian-American, unknown in China).

The BMFA had scheduled what they call “Kimono Wednesdays,” in which visitors would be able to try on a kimono in front of Monet’s picture “La Japonaise,” a portrait of his wife Camille dressed in a kimono. The painting:

Screen Shot 2016-02-24 at 7.00.17 AM

As the BBC and Boston Globe reported in July of last year, as part of a celebration for the departing director of the Museum, visitors were encouraged to pose in front of the painting wearing a replica of the kimono worn…

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FactCheck: do Australians with an average seafood diet ingest 11,000 pieces of plastic a year?

The Conversation

Britta Denise Hardesty, CSIRO

Well, if you’ve got an average seafood diet in Australia today, you’re probably ingesting about 11,000 pieces of plastic every year. – Dave West, National Policy Director and founder of environmental group, Boomerang Alliance, speaking with a Fairfax video journalist.

Australians are growing increasingly aware of the real danger posed by the vast amount of plastic dumped in our seas every year. It’s an important issue, so it’s crucial we get the facts right.

Ahead of a Senate committee hearing on the threat of marine plastic pollution in Australia, Dave West from the environmental group Boomerang Alliance told a Fairfax video journalist that an average seafood diet in Australia would result in ingesting about 11,000 pieces of plastic a year.

Is that accurate?

Checking the source

When asked for a source to support his assertion, West referred The Conversation to a BBC article published in October 2015 that said:

Prof Tamara Galloway of Exeter University quotes research estimating that anyone consuming an average amount of seafood would ingest about 11,000 plastic particles a year.

The Conversation asked Galloway, a professor of ecotoxicology, to clarify and provide sources. She said by email:

The stats came from another published paper, by [Belgium-based researchers] Van Cauwenberghe and Janssen in which the authors had made a Fermi estimate (or order of magnitude estimate) based on their field data for cultured shellfish.

Professor Galloway also said she had co-written a commentary article for the journal PNAS which

covers a similar topic, but includes some data from another paper too, in which the authors found even higher concentrations of microplastics in seafood. Clearly, there is going to be variation in the levels of contamination depending on location and local sources of pollution, ocean conditions, etc. This does suggest however, that the Van Cauwenberghe results are not just a one-off.

You can read Professor Galloway’s full reply here.

The 2014 Van Cauwenberghe and Janssen paper to which Galloway refers was published in the journal Environmental Pollution.

However, that paper does not show that anyone consuming an average amount of seafood would ingest about 11,000 plastic particles a year. The figure of 11,000 is an upper-end estimate for Europeans who eat quite a lot of molluscs. The paper estimates that:

European top consumers will ingest up to 11,000 microplastics per year, while minor mollusc consumers still have a dietary exposure of 1800 microplastics year.

In that paper, the researchers note that shellfish consumption differs greatly among countries.

In Europe, for instance, mollusc consumption can differ over a factor of 70 between consumers and non-consumers. European top consumers can be found in Belgium (elderly), with a per capita consumption of 72.1g day, while mollusc consumers in France (adolescents) and Ireland (adults) have the lowest per capita consumption: only 11.8g day for both countries.

The researchers also noted that

The presence of marine microplastics in seafood could pose a threat to food safety, however, due to the complexity of estimating microplastic toxicity, estimations of the potential risks for human health posed by microplastics in food stuffs is not (yet) possible.

What does this mean for the average Australian seafood consumer?

The 11,000 figure applies to an estimate for “European top consumers” of molluscs, not an average Australian seafood diet.

We don’t yet have all the data needed to make a good estimate of how much plastic an average Australian seafood consumer ingests per year.

The Boomerang Alliance’s Dave West acknowledged the limitations of applying the 11,000 figure to Australia, telling The Conversation by email that:

Only comment I’d make is that I agree the comment referring to Australia rather than a generic average seafood diet was clumsy.

Small plastic particles can be ingested by bivalves (such as mussels, cockles, oysters, pipi and scallops) and remain there for some time. And these bivalves can be eaten by larger predators, pushing the plastic up the food chain.

It’s worth noting the important difference between eating fish and shellfish. Unless you’re eating sardines and anchovies, humans don’t typically consume the digestive tract of a fish (where plastics would be found). But if you’re eating molluscs and shellfish, particularly from urban centres, you may be adding plastic to your diet.

Australians are not the world’s top shellfish consumers, trailing behind Belgium, most East Asian countries, the US and many European nations.


There is insufficient published research to support the statement that a person with an average seafood diet in Australia today is probably ingesting about 11,000 pieces of plastic every year.

The 11,000 figure applies to an estimate for “European top consumers” of molluscs, not an average Australian seafood diet. This is an important issue that needs more attention. – Britta Denise Hardesty


This article is factually correct and represents a sound analysis.

In fact, our own studies found levels of microplastics in mussels from the Dutch coast that are one order of magnitude higher than those reported in the 2014 Belgian study by Van Cauwenberghe and Janssen: 13.2 particles per gram of mussel.

However, it should be noted that microplastics are everywhere and that humans are broadly exposed to them through the food. For example, microplastics have been recently detected in a range of terrestrial products such as milk, beer, honey and sea salt. Therefore, an analysis and assessment of the potential health risk of microplastics for humans should comprise dietary exposure from a range of foods across the total diet, in order to assess the contributing risk of contaminated marine food items.

Although it is evident that humans are exposed to microplastics through their diet and the presence of microplastics in seafood could pose a threat to food safety, our understanding of the fate and toxicity of microplastics in humans constitutes a major knowledge gap that deserves special attention. – Dick Vethaak

Have you ever seen a “fact” worth checking? The Conversation’s FactCheck asks academic experts to test claims and see how true they are. We then ask a second academic to review an anonymous copy of the article. You can request a check at Please include the statement you would like us to check, the date it was made, and a link if possible.

The ConversationBritta Denise Hardesty, Senior Research Scientist, Oceans and Atmosphere Flagship, CSIRO

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.


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