“Tired and tested” (IQ)

The Hungarian mathematical giant Paul Erdős would meet any reasonable definition of genius. He is so revered in his field that the “Erdős Number” refers to how many degrees of separation one is from having collaborated with the man. A number of 1 is assigned to those privileged enough to have co-authored a paper with him, a person who worked with that co-author would have a number of 2, and so on.

Besides incessant work habits which produced more than 1500 papers, Erdős was also known for his minimalist, transient lifestyle. He had almost no possessions, no significant interest beyond mathematics, and not even a home. Not that he ever wanted for a roof over his head. He traveled extensively to seminars, during which world-class mathematicians competed for the honor of having him stay with them so they could engage in problem-solving pursuits with Erdős.

During one such sojourn, a heavy thunderstorm sent rain shooting through an open window, which caused the somewhat-panicked Erdős to awaken the homeowner and express his alarm and confusion. This, as opposed to shutting the window. A man whose trophy case and walls of accomplishments would be absurdly expansive were he the type to have trophy cases and walls was unable to do what the average soaked dimwit would have done in the situation.

This amusing anecdote highlights one of the problems with Intelligence Quotient tests. They focus on specialties like problem-solving, reasoning, and planning. Erdős would have scored extremely high on such a test, perhaps achieving the most stratospheric number ever. But the test would fail to account for his ability to manage common-sense actions like weather-dependent room adjustments.

Similarly, an IQ test subject may have ingenuity but produce only mediocre grades in established academic classes. Another may struggle with slightly advanced mathematical principles but know how to recognize and exploit business opportunities. The idea that there is a single notion of intelligence, much less a way to adequately test everyone, in untenable.

In the early days of IQ tests, the quotient referenced the subject’s mental age, divided by the actual age. So a 10-year-old who reasoned at what the test considered average for a 15-year-old would score 150.

Later adaptations of the test graded on a curve so that the number represented a placement within the distribution of aggregated scores. So the “quotient” in IQ is no longer literal, although the term is still used.

But the tests fail to adjust for cultural differences and some critics argue that the testing more measures social class than intelligence. There is also the issue of those who don’t “test well,” while having a better ability to analyze and solve problems in real life.

Another drawback is the IQ tests revert perpetually to a normalized measure, with 100 being forever average and 68 percent of testers always scoring between 85 and 115. This keeps the focus on maintaining norms more than it does the stated goal of determining brainpower.

One needn’t be Paul Erdős to know all this doesn’t add up to a meaningful test.

“Points shaken” (Creationism)

In a column for the New York Times, Ross Douthat argues that science supports creationism. However, he never gives scientific support for any intelligent design hypothesis, nor does he explain how a god came to be or which deity is the correct one.

While science has yet to confirm the existence of Yahweh, Vishnu, or Ra, it has explained many phenomena previously attributed to gods, such as extreme weather, healing plants, and eclipses.

Let’s run through Douthat’s five points and examine them.

First, he claims that fine-tuning in the universe proves the existence of God. I am disappointed that he trots out such a hackneyed, many-times-refuted assertion. I enjoy a good intellectual spar and having a New York Times columnist, in a fresh work, resort to something this lame is, well, lame. His thinking is akin to arguing that a puddle holds the precise amount of water that it does is because the water was designed for puddle-filling purposes.

In a more original and thought-provoking point, Douthat posits that the notion of a multiverse strengthens the idea of God since some of those universes – or one of anyway – are suitable for human life.  But University of Chicago biology professor emeritus Jerry Coyne suggests that points away from such a deified notion. Coyne writes, “If God wanted to simply create life, with humans as its apotheosis, why did he go to all the bother of setting up multiverses, many of which don’t allow life?”

Douthat’s third point is that consciousness proves God. He claims physical processes are inadequate to explicate the complexities of consciousness, which run the gamut from comprehending the idea of color to doctoral theses on Greek philosophy.

This is at once the god of the gaps fallacy and special pleading. Further, Coyne notes that naturalism has shaped our understanding of consciousness, specifically, “the parts of the brain that are necessary for the phenomenon to appear in our species, the chemicals that can take it away and bring it back, and so on.” Moreover, science is an ongoing process that admits it doesn’t know everything and continues to search for answers. As Coyne explained, “Consciousness will be explained when we know all the parts required, and how they interact, for a being to become conscious.

Onto point four. Douthat feels that the comprehensibility of the universe itself proves God. However, this is more special pleading since whatever created God would have to  have instilled that comprehensibility in him, then the even more advanced god have done the same before that, ad infinitum.

He next argues that reputed sightings of demons, along with near-death experiences and feelings of overwhelming spirituality vindicate the notion of god. But if this is the case then ALL gods are real, along with ghosts, aliens, Bigfoot, and psychic powers. 

What’s more, these experiences can be replicated with drugs, chemical mixtures, and deep meditation. Astronauts in training often report mental and physical reactions similar to near-death experiences. Persons with psychosis or other severe mental issues also report profound, very-real-to-them accounts like this.

Finally, Douthat thinks that because evolution leads us to believe in things that are real and true, a ubiquitous belief in God points to his existence. However, no amount of belief makes something true.

Taken in totality, Douthat’s work breaks little new ground and the few original tidbits fail to satisfy the book’s stated goal of proving God through science.

“Broken bat” (COVID origins)

For several years, political partisans have played armchair historian and asserted that whomever is currently occupying the White House is either the best or worst president of all-time. Which of these two it is depends solely on the person’s political leanings and is not based on policy, accomplishments, ability to build consensus, or to craft compromise.

But genuine historians, as opposed to the armchair variety, will tell us that it can take upwards of 50 years to determine a president’s performance. That much time is required to judge the impact of his policies and decisions. For example, the Marshall Plan is the brightest feather in Truman’s cap, but this would not have been obvious in 1946.

Similarly, the idea that we can ascertain right now the origins of COVID-19 is a mistaken notion based on a misunderstanding of virology. Skeptic and medical writer David Gorski explained that when a virus migrates from animals to humans, it can take years to determine the origin. Epidemiologists are still uncertain which animal Ebola came from and it has been around since the U.S. bicentennial.

To deduce the origin, scientific sleuths must sample wild animals and sequence the viruses they carry to find a close genetic relative, a task Gorski likens to “haystacks within haystacks. So the fact that scientists don’t know where the relatively new coronavirus comes from is not evidence that it came from a laboratory. Still, there are some who excitedly claim it came from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, either engineered as a bioweapon or having leaked out.

Gorski wrote, “While it is possible to create genetic sequences without, for instance, typical restriction enzyme sites of the sort that were frequently used to insert sequences into genomes…it is more difficult than conspiracy theorists let on. To them these nefarious Chinese scientists were supposedly so clever that they not only did something that’s not at all trivial but did it without leaving behind any telltale signs in the sequence of genetic manipulation.”

Theorists also argue that a natural virus pandemic would gradually mutate and become more infectious but less deadly. Virologist Angela Rasmussen said this is wrong, that those in her field would not necessarily anticipate this. Further, the virus’ low fatality rate, combined with the fact that a significant number of those infected are asymptomatic, would mean there is little selective pressure for mutations that make it less deadly, particularly when it’s still widespread.

Moreover, several studies show the virus likely evolved from previously existing coronaviruses and is continuing to evolve as is spreads.

By contrast, the conspiracy theory assumes abilities beyond the capabilities of even the most advanced research teams. It further assumes that whoever created this would know what effects it would have on humans without having tested it.

Virologists can predict what impact mutations might have, but these are highly-educated guesses and not certainties.

Scientists from the Wuhan Institute of Virology previously determined that bats in the area carried coronavirus varieties. But that’s a very different thing from proof that the pandemic came from a leaked source as opposed to free bats.

“Wrong number” (Human Design)

Human Design is a form of numerology made up by Alan Krakower, who heard a voice telling him how it works, with the voice apparently encouraging him to charge others for access to the information.

Consumers input their name, precise minute of birth, and time zone born in. In return, they receive a hodgepodge of numbers, symbols, and shapes, along with a nine-item list that allegedly describes the person. The items are vague personality attributes, not testable claims or specific facts. They contain no precise details, such as dates and locations of education or employment, which would give the graph credibility.

Still, some people embrace Human Design and its promise of easy life answers sprinkled with eastern mysticism verbiage. Skeptoid’s Brian Dunning noted that while those who embrace such notions have an affinity for the Appeal to Antiquity fallacy, it is not absolute. He wrote, “Compare two concepts of the human body: First, the four bodily humors, which nobody believes in today; and second, qi, which is widely believed today.”

The difference, Dunning continued, is that one is physical, the other metaphysical. The latter is more vague, while the former could be searched for physically, not found, and therefore be disproven.

Therefore, physical claims are dismissed and metaphysical claims embraced, especially when they purport to provide a blueprint for success without any accompanying effort.

“Sad Finch” (Michael Behe)

While efforts to foist creationism on public school biology students have failed, such attempts continually arise like The Phoenix, a bird with as much claim to being real as any creationist argument.

While the legal losses have been declarative, adherents have latched onto a solitary, isolated line from a 1987 defeat and have sucked it dry for more than 30 years. The sentence suggested teachings about human origins which fail to incorporate biology may be permissible if the purpose is secular.

There is no such animal, literally or figuratively, but proponents used this single utterance to invent the notion of Intelligent Design. In this concept, any deity or higher being, not necessarily the Biblical one, could have created life. The façade is so transparent that no follower of any religious subset besides U.S. evangelical Christians have ever embraced the idea, and a publication lauding Intelligent Design has as its cover Leonardo DaVinci’s The Creation of Adam.

ID proponents include virtually no biologists, and we could count on one evolved opposable-digit hand how many of them have done molecular biology research. While ID proponents are nowhere to be found in peer-reviewed journals, their banter is a regular feature on Christian media. There, biologists are portrayed as confused, stubborn, disillusioned, frustrated, or immoral, which even if all true, would be ad homimen attacks unrelated to the scientists’ research, findings, or writings.

Proponents embrace the god of the gaps fallacy, gleefully plugging their favored deity into any crevice science has yet to fully explain. But our focus today is on one of those who is among that literal handful of molecular biologists who endorse ID: Lehigh University biochemist Michael Behe. He accepts that microevolution through random mutation diversifies organisms into species and genera, and perhaps even families. But he feels something more is needed to explain large-scale evolutionary transitions. Into this gap, which he creates from feelings and not evidence, he wedges the Christian god. He never says that verbatim, but he does allow his evangelical Christian followers to accept this interpretation and promote it.

In a review of Behe’s latest book, Darwin Devolves, John Jay College biology professor Nathan Lents writes that Behe purportedly undertakes to prove that evolutionary processes are insufficient to generate adaptive innovations, yet the author spends precious little time addressing this.

Further, Behe dedicates precious few paragraphs addressing key evolutionary mechanisms that serve to undermine his thesis. Consider horizontal gene transfer, which occurs when genetic material moves from one species to another, usually through a virus. For example, Lents explains, deer ticks evolved defenses against bacteria through genes that came from those bacteria.

While uncommon, such horizontal gene transfer can have profound effects on a species’ eventual lineage. Behe dedicates nary a word to this in Darwin Devolves.

Also unmentioned by Behe is exaptation, which refers to an organism co-opting a structure for a new function. Lents cites the example of mammalian middle ear bones that were adapted from jaw bones in our reptilian ancestors.

Now, when Behe writes that natural selection cannot fully account for the planet’s molecular biodiversity, he is right. But we know that because of scientific discoveries made since Darwin, not because of ancient religious texts or the writings of an iconoclastic microbiology professor who bypasses peer review.

In an attempt to bolster his view that natural selection in insufficient, Behe writes that that Richard Lenski’s e. coli experiment shows that mutation and natural selection serve only to “break or blunt genes.” But Behe misinterprets the experiment and ignores that its controlled environment is deliberately artificial. Lents notes that bacteria in the experiment have access to unlimited food, static temperatures, high oxygen, and are without competitors, pathogens, or threats to their immune system.

Behe also dismisses finch diversification, announcing he is unimpressed with their becoming about 18 species across five genera. He compares finch diversification to the adaptive radiation of animals during the Cambrian explosion more than 500 million years ago. He gloats that finches failed to become a new phylum, class, or even order.

Lents answers that the Cambrian explosion took place over a much longer time and involved simpler animals which produce much faster than finches.

With an online treasure trove of overwhelming evidence available, lay persons who latch onto a favored position in lieu of science are without excuse. But a harsher criticism should be leveled at anyone whose experience and education should be used to correct those lay persons instead of comforting them.

“The White Stuff” (Engineered snow)

No event is too routine to be exempt from conspiracy theorist thought. A minor Internet splash this winter has centered on the insinuation that snow, at least in some places, is actually something else.

Precisely what it is, who is responsible, and how malevolent it is, varies by claimant, but the key point is that “they” are up to something again. The excited proponents most frequently cite Bill Gates as the responsible villain. The software pioneer has achieved Rothschild/Bohemian Grove/Bilderberger status when it comes to being tabbed for every evil ever foisted upon Mankind.

In these videos, which are remarkably similar in terms of content and low production value, speakers ask three primary questions about this supposed snow. Asking questions is fine, if based on genuine curiosity. It’s another matter when questions are thinly-veiled accusations which serve as a precursor to considering those answering them to be in on the plot.

These plotters include the eminently delightful Emily Calandrelli, who explained what’s going on in these videos. In the one Calandrelli responded to, the narrator wields a butane lighter and wonders why this makes the snow char, why the snow smells like plastic, and why it melts so slowly.

It chars because of incomplete combustion from the butane lighter. Butane comprises carbon and hydrogen and the resultant black smudge represents leftover carbon from incomplete combustion.

Calandrelli used a glass to demonstrate that the same soot results when butane lighters are applied to other objects. So unless the video producer is prepared to launch a tirade against phony drinking receptacles, this answer suffices.

With regard to the plascity aroma, Calandrelli explains the funny smell is the consequence of the chemicals concentrating during the burning.

Finally, the white precipitation melts slower than expected for two reasons. First, most of the water is being absorbed into the snowball. Second, it sublimates, meaning it goes directly from solid to gas. Besides, it takes more heat than most people might think. You’d get the same surprisingly slow result from using fire to try and melt an ice cube.

These succinct, scientific explanations contract mightily to the open-ended nightmarish scenarios suggested by the other side.

Writing for Yahoo!, Caroline Delbert reminded readers that weather control has a long history in paranoid circles. Manifestations of this have included HAARP, chemtrails, and seeded rain clouds.

In this case, conspiracy theorists might believe increased snowfall indicates something about climate change, which they say is part of a global agenda to push government restrictions onto residents,” Delbert wrote.

Theorists paint Gates and the Chinese government beneficiaries of a world blanketed by pretend snow. What the white stuff actually is or how it benefits two already immensely powerful entities is unexplained. Sounds like a snow job to me.

“Amazon bungle” (5G blocking)

Some Amazon consumers have purchased what are described as Faraday Cages, but which can more accurately be described as simple wire-mesh containers. A Faraday Cage is an enclosure intended to block electromagnetic signals, one example of which is WiFi.

The products are advertised as having the ability to deflect 5G signals, which the purchasers believe cause harm to humans. This is a misnomer, as 5G signals are too low on the EMF spectrum to do us damage.

The containers “work” in the sense that signals are deflected when routers are placed inside them. But those signals are necessary for WiFi to function. One would get the same self-defeating effect by unplugging the router or foregoing Internet use altogether.

According to Matthew Willie at Input, these clueless consumers are leaving negative reviews about the cages, or at least they are when not employing the cages since there’s no getting online when one does so. To be clear, consumers are placing routers in the cages, then getting steamed when the cage blocks the signal the customers are hoping to block! Despite all their rage, they should just take a bat to their cage.

“Down the no-rabbit hole” (Geologic column)

My tween daughter kept asking if we could get a rabbit, figuring the answer would either be yes or no, giving her a 50 percent chance each time she asked. After 28 or so negative replies, I gave in for reasons of peace and my sanity.

It also afforded me the chance to use our new pet as a springboard into a lesson about evolution. Southeastern Oklahoma State University biological sciences professor Stanley Rice wrote that evidence for the field rests on the convergence of multiple independent lines of evidence. He credited early 20th Century British scientist J.B.S. Haldane with noting that evolution could be disproven by means of a Precambrian bunny. The lagomorph in question was just a placeholder animal, so a cat, dog, mouse, elephant, or frog would suffice. In truth, any mammal, amphibian, or land animal appearing amongst other Precambrian fossils would be strong evidence against the current school of evolutionary thought.

Rice reminds us (or informs, for those of us who played tiddlywinks during high school biology) that the Cambrian featured lots of really cool gargantuan creatures they are still making blockbuster movies about more than 500 million years later. By contrast, Precambrian strata have no large animal fossils because no such creatures had yet evolved. If that strata were produced by a flood that wiped out large animals that had been created no later than 2,000 years prior, it should have some giant critters embedded within.

While Noah’s menagerie was floating about, its members’ less fortunate relatives would have eventually became part of the lowest fossil layers. Rice wrote that a worldwide flood would yield a fossil record with mostly fish at the bottom and primarily mammals on top, but that there would be a smattering of exceptions. Or surely at least one. He mused, “The raging flood waters would have drawn large animals down into the bottom layers. Just one. Just one Precambrian bunny. That’s all it would take.”

Alas, there is no such Darwin-defying rabbit.

Now onto rabbit food, the plants. If all plant fossil deposits resulted from a flood, one would expect wetland plants on bottom and their mountain counterparts on top. While this is largely the case, there are exceptions. Rice asks us to “consider the small wetland plants of the Ordovician and Silurian periods. None of them are the flowering plants that are the most abundant plants on the earth today. Find me a Silurian weed from, say, the aster family or the mustard family. Today, wetlands have little pickleweeds in them, from the spinach family of flowering plants. Yet somehow there were no plants that had flowers in the Ordovician or Silurian wetlands.”

The fossil record also reveals one of the strongest individual pieces of evidence for evolution, Tiktaalaik. While any fossil is, strictly speaking, a transitional one, Tiktaalik’s mix of fish and amphibian features make it the type of animal that evolution deniers long insisted would never be found. Further, researchers digging through sedimentary layers found it in the precise place one would expect it to be were it the descendant of fish and an ancestor to amphibians.

These theories work with the tiniest, most simple life forms as well. Single-celled algae called foram are housed in calcium carbonate shells, which linger once the foram cell has died. These shells come in different distinctive shapes and each represents a specific time and place in geologic history. That they appear more or less in order within strata points to evolution, whereas if they had all been wiped out in a flooded, microbiologists would find them randomly scattered.

Then there is the matter of where the surviving animals went after the flood. Endemic species like kangaroos would have had to travel from Turkey to Australia, making for two very determined marsupials. A common creationist retort is that maybe it was the distant offspring of these kangaroos that eventually made their way Down Under. But if so, this hopping ancestral line did so without leaving one fossil behind. And this scenario would had to have repeated for every endemic species, such as Antarctica’s penguins, Papua New Guinea’s cassowaries, and South America’s guanacos.

The same pattern holds true for all major animal groups that live on continents that have been separated for millions of years. But it is not true for continents that have been connected relatively recently. Rice explained, “This is why many of the animals of northern Europe and Asia are similar – and in cases, such as reindeer and elk – the same as those in North America. Only about 20,000 years ago, the Bering land bridge connected Asia and North America and allowed large mammals to migrate.”

Plants follow the same pattern. The major plant families of the southern continents are not the same as those of the northern continents. And, once again, Australia its own beast – or fern, maybe, since we’re addressing plants. It has some flora the other continents don’t.

So that’s how we know. Now If I could only get my daughter to listen to this.

“Celling it” (Mobile phones on airplanes)

Flying comes with annoyances like delays, gate changes, removing shoes, taking out laptops, and three-course meals of water, peanuts, and more water.

Then there is being required to turn off cell phones in flight. Six hours cooped in a metal tube would be less taxing with access to social media, game apps, and texting. Alas, this is not to be. The implications and inferences are often that cell phone signals would interfere with the airplane’s systems.

This is a misnomer. The ban on wireless devices instead stems from possible overload of ground cell phone networks. The FCC, not the FAA is the Alphabet Soup Agency responsible for the banned in-flight use of most cell phones and wireless devices and the associated lack of access to Twitter, Yahtzee, and green bean casserole recipes. The evidence for this ground interference is lacking but the ban has nevertheless been policy for nearly three decades.

Airplanes are designed to resist foreign signals and, besides, cell phones operate on different frequencies than airliners. Placing a call to Aunt Polly about that aforementioned green bean casserole from a few miles in the air would mean that the cell phone signal might bounce off multiple towers, rather than just one.

Therefore, the concern is that too many persons placing cell phone calls on airplanes would overload the network. A non-profit called the RTCA serves as the Federal Advisory Committee for the FAA, and it released a detailed report which found cell phones pose no risk to aircraft safety.

Moreover, Boeing and Airbus routinely test their merchandise by bombarding the aircraft in order to harden them against various attacks, be they physical or electronic. If cell phones had the potential to endanger an aircraft, they would be no more allowed onboard than a time bomb, a la Airplane!

“Seedy idea” (Seed patents)

Seed patents are the subject of a nontroversy, which maintains the patents are at the center of the malevolent control of food supplies and that they hamstring honest, hardworking farmers.

Yet these patents are as legitimate as ones on inventions and on copyrights that protect music, paintings, and software. Human molecular geneticist, Dr. Layla Katiraee, explained that to disallow seed patents would enable the competition “to reverse engineer a product at a fraction of the price.”

Officials grant seed patents if the plant variety can be shown to be new, distinct, genetically stable and uniform.

While associated primarily with genetic modification, patented seeds also exist in the plant world. For example, many varieties of orchids are the result of research and experiment.

Few would suggest that the team which achieved the long-sought blue rose should not reap the financial rewards for doing so. Yet, there are those which feel it is unethical to do the same with a seed that is made sturdier or more drought resistant.

Seed piracy is a serious issue. Besides it being ill-gotten gain, it can lead to seeds being sold and planted in regions where they have not been approved and this can cause contamination. Planting them in the wrong climate or soil could lead to devastating crop loss and land damage.

Internet legend holds that GMOs contain a self-destroying terminator gene to ensure farmers have to buy a full seed supply every year. This is false, as there have never been commercially-available terminator genes.

Since GMO Seeds are not sterile, companies prevent the replanting of seeds by having their customers sign a contract whereby they obtain an annual license. Farmers agree not to sell or distribute the product in regions where the product is not registered. None of this ties the farmer to a company for any duration beyond the length of the contract. Further, many farmers buy new seeds each season anyway, even if the seeds are not GMO or are not under a licensing agreement.

Katiraee wrote that this is because “seeds are often sold as hybrids, which have the best of the traits that breeders were looking for. However, once these plants grow and produce seeds of their own, it is unlikely that the latter will have all the beneficial traits present.”

So seed patents serve to protect food supply and distribution, not hamper them.