Archive for March, 2009

Richard Nisbett: Intelligence mostly varies due to the environment, not genes

| March 31, 2009 | 4 Replies
Richard Nisbett:  Intelligence mostly varies due to the environment, not genes

The dominant hereditarian view of intelligence holds that intelligence is mostly fixed by the genes. Richard Nisbett has dismantled the evidence on which the hereditarian theory is based. In his new book, Intelligence and How to Get It, Nesbitt argues that the twin studies on which the hereditarian view is based are deeply flawed. The main problem is that the adoptive homes in which those separated twins often find themselves are uniformly enriched learning environments. Nisbett’s book was reviewed by Jim Holt of the NYT Book Review:

Nisbett bridles at the hereditarian claim that I.Q. is 75 to 85 percent heritable; the real figure, he thinks, is less than 50 percent. Estimates come from comparing the I.Q.’s of blood relatives — identical twins, fraternal twins, siblings — growing up in different adoptive families. But there is a snare here. As Nisbett observes, “adoptive families, like Tolstoy’s happy families, are all alike.” Not only are they more affluent than average, they also tend to give children lots of cognitive stimulation. Thus data from them yield erroneously high estimates of I.Q. heritability. (Think: if we all grew up in exactly the same environment, I.Q. differences would appear to be 100 percent genetic.) This underscores an important point: there is no fixed value for heritability. The notion makes sense only relative to a population. Heritability of I.Q. is higher for upper-class families than for lower-class families, because lower-class families provide a wider range of cognitive environments, from terrible to pretty good.

What does Nisbett’s book have to say about race and intelligence? That the differences among the “races” are not genetic. Evidence in point: The “racial” IQ gap has been shrinking. “Over the last 30 years, the measured I.Q. difference between black and white 12-year-olds has dropped from 15 points to 9.5 points.”

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Boats for free

| March 31, 2009 | Reply
Boats for free

The NYT reports that many people are dumping their boats–simply abandoning them:

Some of those disposing of their boats are in the same bind as overstretched homeowners: they face steep payments on an asset that is diminishing in value and decide not to continue. They either default on the debt or take bolder measures.

Marina and maritime officials around the country say they believe, however, that most of the abandoned vessels cluttering their waters are fully paid for. They are expensive-to-maintain toys that have lost their appeal.

This story reminds me of something my friend Gary once told me:

Gary: What’s the second-happiest day in a person’s life?

Me: I don’t know.

Gary: The day they buy a boat. What’s the happiest day in a person’s life?

Me: I don’t know.

Gary: The day they selltheir boat.

This abandonment of playthings reminds me of the 20-foot Python problem that could someday take over 1/3 of the U.S.

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How I Got Into John McCain’s Pants

| March 31, 2009 | 1 Reply
How I Got Into John McCain’s Pants

Well, it was this John W. McCain, and he wasn’t in them at the time. We were in Cincinnati for a dance weekend, the Pigtown Fling. That’s the same event that I mentioned last year when I didn’t go to the Creation Museum. I didn’t go there this time, either.

But how did I get into John McCain’s Pants? Well, dancing is hot work. It’s like doing aerobics or jogging, but with hot and cold hotter running women flowing through your arms all night. So by the end of the evening, I was quite het up. It didn’t occur to me to pull on long pants.

We drove to our hosts house in the rainy wee hours. (Short dashboard video of driving “home” to the tune of “Hello, I must be Going”)

As we arrived and cooled down, I discovered that I had left my long pants back at the gym. I’d get cold knees in the morning. After a couple of hours of conversation, I got a good night’s sleep. Note: At a dance weekend, anything over 4 hours is phenomenal.

In the morning I got up to shower. When I returned to my guest room, I spied a pair of unfamiliar slacks neatly lain at the foot of my bed. I’d had a visit from The Trouser Fairy! No host was in sight; he apparently returned to sleep in.

So I started my day in John McCain’s pants. They eerily reminded me of a pair I’d owned some years back. Who’d’a thunk that Big John wore nearly my size?

Here’s a video of our group dancing during Earth Hour, the next night:

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At It Again

| March 31, 2009 | 2 Replies
At It Again

Oh please, is there no respite from this sort of thing? Over on Pharyngula is this little bit on the Vatican’s newest attempt to recruit an ideal priesthood, this time free of gays.

Now, the Catholic Church has done screening for centuries. They actually work hard to dissuade people from attempting to be priests because they know how difficult the various vows are to keep. I don’t doubt for a minute that some of this screening is responsible, in kind of an unfortunate “unintended consequences” way, with the number of child sexual abuse cases that seem rampant more in the Catholic Church than in any other. You screen for people who have “normal” sexual proclivities and eliminate the ones who probably won’t be able to maintain celibacy, you end up with (probably) a higher percentage of those who exhibit a lower than average normal sex drive (however you decide to define that), but may have a higher, shall we say, alternative proclivity…

Anyway, that’s just my opinion. But apparently the Vatican has decided there’s something to looking at alternative sexualities as a deal breaker, but for goodness sake the question still needs to be asked, just what is it they find so offensive and, we assume, dangerous about gays?

By and large, the Catholic Church, for all its faults, possesses one of the more sophisticated philosophical approaches to life in all its manifestations among the various sects. As a philosophy teacher of mine said once, “they seem to have a handle on what life is all about.” Despite the very public embarrassments that emerge from the high profile conservative and reactionary elements within it, the Catholic Church probably has the healthiest worldview of the lot. (I was a Lutheran in my childhood and believe me, in the matter of guilt the Catholics have nothing on Lutherans.)

But they have been electing popes who seem bent on turning the clock back to a more intolerant and altogether less sophisticated age, as if the burden of dealing with humanity in its manifold variation is just too much for them. They pine for the days when priests could lay down the law and the parish would snap to. They do not want to deal with humanity in the abstract because it means abandoning certain absolutes—or the concrete—in lieu of a more gestalt understanding. It would be hard work.

And they have an image problem. I mean, if you’re going to let people be people, then what’s the point of joining an elite group when there are no restrictions of the concept of what encompasses human?

But really…this is just embarrassing.

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The extent of the remedy for our financial ailments

| March 31, 2009 | Reply
The extent of the remedy for our financial ailments

How much public money is at stake in the attempt to fix our financial woes? Bloomberg adds it up:

The U.S. government and the Federal Reserve have spent, lent or guaranteed $12.8 trillion, an amount that approaches the value of everything produced in the country last year, to stem the longest recession since the 1930s.

New pledges from the Fed, the Treasury Department and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. include $1 trillion for the Public-Private Investment Program, designed to help investors buy distressed loans and other assets from U.S. banks. The money works out to $42,105 for every man, woman and child in the U.S. and 14 times the $899.8 billion of currency in circulation. The nation’s gross domestic product was $14.2 trillion in 2008.

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Economists versus economists

| March 30, 2009 | 2 Replies
Economists versus economists

I wish a consensus would emerge among the economists, so that we could have some idea of whether we’re even going in the right direction regarding Geithner’s plans. Unfortunately, there is no consensus.

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The not-simple question of defining “species”?

| March 30, 2009 | 3 Replies
The not-simple question of defining “species”?

There are a lot of simple things out there that aren’t really simple once you start trying to understand and explain them. The concept of “species” is one of those non-simple concepts. I had assumed that I had a good gut understanding of “species” until I read an article called “Speciation,” by Andrew P. Hendry, published in the March 12, 2009 edition of Nature (available online only to subscribers). Hendry suggests that the term “species” as a technical classification in the field of biology is “ambiguous and amorphous.” He starts by quoting Darwin, from on the origin of species:

In short, we shall have to treat species in the same manner as those naturalists treat genera, who admit that genera are merrily artificial combinations made for convenience. This may not be a cheering prospect; but we shall at least be free from the vain search for the undiscovered and undiscoverable essence of the term species.

Hendry suggests that modern biological research has proved Darwin. No universal easily applicable concept of “species” exists; instead, more than two dozen approaches exist with regard to “species.” The most common version is the “biological species concept” (BSC). This definition holds that species are “groups of actually or potentially interbreeding individuals that are reproductively isolated from other such groups (that is, they exchange few genes). Hendry elaborates:

The BSC is sometimes interpreted to imply the extreme situation where two groups are separate species only when successful hybrids cannot ever be produced-and any two such groups certainly are separate species. But many other groups that are widely accepted to represent separate species frequently violate the strict criteria; for example, some estimates hold that 25% of all plant species and 10% of all animal species hybridize successfully with at least one other species. Probably for this reason, the BSC is often relaxed to the point that different groups are considered separate species if they can maintain their genetic integrity and nature. This more useful, albeit more ambiguous, criterion allows for some genetic exchange (gene flow) between species as long as they do not become homogenized.

Hendry then goes on to discuss various challenges to BSC.

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JREF Censored on YouTube via DMCA

| March 30, 2009 | 5 Replies
JREF Censored on YouTube via DMCA

YouTube has suspended the James Randi Education Foundation channel, The FriendlySkeptic. JREF hopes to get it back soon.

From the video information:

To complain to YouTube follow this link
Scroll to the very bottom and click on “new issue”
Select “suspended account” from the options and express your opinion.

Download the video above from MediaFire

The DMCA is a wonderful 1990’s Act of Congress that lets printer manufacturers file a copyright to block third party ink refills in the name of protecting children from pornography. Clause after clause of this act are getting struck down by the Supremes, but still it limps along frustrating mostly legitimate users who run into it.

Anyway, DCMA forces YouTube to suspend an account if anyone makes a claim that something uploaded violates a copyright held by another. Then, after cautious investigation, the account may be reinstated. Technically the filer of a false claim is liable to criminal charges. But this has apparently never been executed.

The closest case I know of was Thunderf00t vs. VenomfangX, where a Creationist made a false claim of infringement on the author of the “Why People Laugh At Creationists” series.

Meanwhile another prominent bastion of proper skepticism has been banned from YouTube.

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The Limits of Reason

| March 30, 2009 | 6 Replies
The Limits of Reason

The antipathy with which fundamentalists hold science and reason is difficult to understand. The emotional backlash, more storm than counter argument, often surprises. A simple statement can bring about the most strident denunciations, the pitch and timbre of the debate oscillating out of proportion to the content being discussed. Or so it seems.

In the course of debating the truth, validity, utility, or relevance of certain topics, the nondogmatic must come to a point of fatigue by the seeming impossibility of finding common ground. At which time the debate either fizzles, the rationalist yields out of frustration, or the fundamentalist (of whatever stripe, on whatever topic) is ignored and bypassed. This last leads to a situation wherein the argument festers like an infection. It does not go away, often to the dismay of those watching and certainly to those who thought it without merit.

You can flip this on its head and make the same claim in the other direction. At least, up to a point.

Consider the following statements:

  • (1) I am not descended from a monkey.
  • (2) God gave us dominion over the earth.
  • (3) Homosexuality is an abomination.
  • (4) The earth is only 6000 years old.
  • (5) The Bible is the inerrant word of God.

What is the one common, salient feature of each one of these statements? They are each one unqualified and utterly emotional statements. They are statements made in reference to personal belief, without reference to any external corroborative evidence or comparative context. They are, with the single exception of the Earth’s age, unanswerable in any reasonable way.

Taken one at a time, therefore:

(1) Of course you aren’t. It’s obvious. You’re descended from earlier generations of homo sapiens sapiens.

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