Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Not Understanding Nationalism

Nicholas D. Kristof, writing on the Op-Ed page of The New York Times on February 14, 2006, said that
The single biggest mistake we have made since World War II has been the failure to appreciate nationalsm, whether in China, Southest Asia or Latin America -- or, now, Iraq. Given the origins of the U.S -- an insurgency fueled by the maladroit policies of King George III, who never undersood American nationalism -- you'd think we would be more sensitive to such sentiments....
There never was any "American nationalism" until George III created it. Judging from the documents, speeches, and slogans I learned in American History way back when I was in school, the colonists wanted only the same privileges that the king's subjects enjoyed back home in England.

The slogan "taxation without representation is tyranny," attributed to Massachusetts politician James Otis, asks for representation, not national identity. The opening of the Declaration of Independence (1776),
When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another ...
refers to "one people," not "one nation." And its bottom line was
That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be, FREE AND INDEPENDENT STATES; and that as FREE AND INDEPENDENT STATES, they have full Power to levy war ... and do all other Acts and Things which INDEPENDENT STATES may of right do.
Recall that "state" at that time meant a region with its own sovereign goverment, not a portion of a larger region subject to a higher government.

A year later, the Articles of Confederation (1777) read:
Articles of Confederation and perpetual Union between the states of [list]. I. The Stile of this Confederacy shall be "The United States of America". II. Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this Confederation expressly delegated to the United States, in Congress assembled. III. The said States hereby severally enter into a firm league of friendship with each other, for their common defense, the security of their liberties, and their mutual and general welfare....
The colonies were to be sovereign states, "united" for specific purposes only.

Even the Constitution, which begins
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
and then goes directly into formal detail, does not specifically refer to an "American nation."

It wasn't that King George didn't understand American nationalism. There was no American nationalism until the colonists were forced, by his own blundering intransigence, to conclude that the rights they thought they deserved could be obtained only by forming their own nation. George III didn't misunderstand American nationalism, he created it.

So in Iraq, which contains mutually hostile Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds within its borders, the blundering American occupation might unite these factions to create a new Iraqi nationalism.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Kansas evolution

The Kansas State Board of Education recently revised the state's standards for teaching science.

One change they made was the definition of science itself. Their old definition was

Science is the human activity of seeking natural explanations for what we observe in the world around us.

This they changed to

Science is a systematic method of continuing investigation that uses observation, hypothesis testing, measurement, experimentation, logical argument and theory building to lead to more adequate explanations of natural phenomena.

Some critics object that the only reason for removing the phrase "natural explanations" is to allow the introduction of "supernatural explanations." Nonsense. The new definition improves on the old one by listing the elementary processes of the scientific method. These processes, consistently used, do not admit the supernatural.

In fact, most if not all of the changes in the Kansas science teaching standards have to do with evolution. Two of the stated aims of the changes are to:

Exclude intelligent design from the standards, without prohibiting it.

Make it clear that evolution is a theory and not a fact.

Certainly, evolution is theory and not fact. The experimental or observational evidence is fact. Everything else is either hypothesis (conjecture not yet or not adequately supported by fact) or theory (a body of conjecture well supported by fact). Most of science in general is theory and not fact.

As for the supposed neutrality of neither including nor prohibiting the teaching of "intelligent design," there's no neutrality there. The standards still call for the teaching of evolution beginning in grades 5-7, and further detail is called for in grades 8-12, including detailed coverage of variation, adaptation, and inheritance.

But also included in grades 8-12 are some controversial additions. One change is the addition of the statement that

Biological evolution postulates an unguided natural process that has no discernable [sic] direction or goal.

Critics ask why evolution is singled out when all scientific theories postulate an unguided process. I can answer that: many popular scientific explanations refer to adaptations as being guided by an individual's desire to pass on its genes to future generations. According to the scientific theory, there's no such desire. Individuals either survive and reproduce, or they don't, and if they don't, future generations won't have their genes. Any genes we see in currently existing individuals are there because they were passed on, usually because they were either adaptive or at worst neutral. So the unguided nature of the process has to be emphasized.

What I would question, though, is the word "discernable." The theory postulates no direction or goal whatever, discernible or not.

More troubling are the following statements:

The view that living things in all the major kingdoms are modified descendants of a common ancestor (described in the pattern of a branching tree) has been challenged in recent years by:

i. Discrepancies in the molecular evidence (e.g. differences in relatedness inferred from sequence studies of different proteins) previously thought to support that view.

There's no "challenge" here. Molecular evidence is known to be imperfect.

ii. A fossil record that shows sudden bursts of increased complexity (the Cambrian Explosion), long periods of stasis and the absence of abundant transitional forms rather than steady gradual increases in complexity, and

Fossil evidence is also imperfect. And the idea of "steady gradual increases in complexity" belongs to the hypothesis of gradualism, as distinct from the newer hypothesis of punctuated equilibrium (which postulates that species tend to remain stable for far longer than it takes for new species to emerge). The facts challenge gradualism, not evolution.

iii. Studies that show animals follow different rather than identical early stages of embryological development.

Only the discredited hypothesis that "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny" demands that all species have identical early embryonic forms. In the theory of evolution, the form of the embryo is (like any other trait) subject to adaptation.

None of these facts "challenge" the theory of evolution.

Here's another troubling statement:

Whether microevolution (change within a species) can be extrapolated to explain macroevolutionary changes (such as new complex organs or body plans and new biochemical systems which appear irreducibly complex) is controversial. These kinds of macroevolutionary explanations generally are not based on direct observations and often reflect historical narratives based on inferences from indirect or circumstantial evidence.

There's something left out here. If "microevolution" is change within a species, then "macroevolution" should be the formation of new species, and perhaps "megaevolution" would be the emergence of new body plans or complex organs.

As to the emergence of new species, Darwin found his observations of the finches he found on the Galapagos Islands quite compelling. The only reasonable explanation was that a single stock of finches came to the islands and diverged to form several new species.

As to the emergence of new body plans and complex organs, there's no evidence that it could not happen. There's even a hypothetical description in a recent Scientific American of how fish evolved into quadrupeds. Really, the notion of "irreducible complexity" does not exist in the theory of evolution. There's no criterion for when complexity would become "irreducible," because there's no reason to suppose that it ever would be "irreducible." Within the theory there are systematic efforts to reduce the evolution of amazingly complex organs to sequences of less amazing adaptations. Not every such sequence has been described, but progress is being made.

I wish the Kansas State Board of Education had subjected the hypothesis of "intelligent design" to the same criticism that they applied to evolution, since then they would have prohibited it. There is in fact no empirical evidence of a designer, beyond an unwillingness to believe that species could have evolved without one, nor is there any explanation of how the designer could have executed the designs. "Intelligent design" is simply not science. But I'm afraid it would have been politically impossible for them to say so.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Where's Telavir?

If you look at the bottom of the page you'll see a line that says "Visit my alter ego Angry Old Man." Today, that link leads to an error message: www.angryoldman.us can't be found. And my "photo," which is hosted on the same site, is missing.

The site is hosted by Telavir. The name server is also hosted on telavir.com, so if the site server shuts down, the name server also shuts down, and the site isn't just down, it's nonexistent.

If anybody knows what happened to Telavir, whether it went out of business or was wiped out by hurricane Katrina or whatever, please write a comment on it.

Eight / twenty-nine / oh five

Remember the Alamo. Remember the Maine. Remember Pearl Harbor. Remember the World Trade Center by the mnemonic code 9/11 (through its similarity to the emergency phone number 911).

But how will we remember New Orleans, practically destroyed when hurricane Katrina struck it and and dumped Lake Pontchartrain into it on August 29, 2005?

Eight / twenty-nine / oh five was not an unforeseen natural disaster. Last year Joel K. Bourne, Jr. predicted the event with terrifying accuracy in the October 2004 National Geographic. He even told the month it would happen. Only the year was left to the reader's imagination. It was not a question of whether it would happen; it was only a queston of when.

For decades, plans to halt the erosion of the delta, or strengthen the levees that kept New Orleans dry, or both, were made and then curtailed or abandoned for lack of money. Now the plans are moot, the cost of the destruction is far greater than the cost would have been to prevent it, and the death toll may well exceed that of 9/11.

How does New Orleans today resemble Iraq?
  • Planning was inadequate.
  • Financing was and is inadequate.
  • There aren't enough National Guard people.
  • Necessary resources are not being provided.
  • There's no official civilian body count.
  • It didn't have to happen.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Unprecedented in England

Did England just revert to the Dark Ages? An unprecendented event occurred in London on Friday: British police chased down a frightened, unarmed man until he fell to the ground, then shot five bullets into him as he lay there, killing him instantly. His only offense was that he had emerged from a house they were watching, while wearing more clothing than they thought was appropriate for the weather.

Compared to some events that have occurred in New York, the British actually look better than we Americans. This was no case of police officers mistaking a wallet for a weapon and shooting to kill when they should at worst have aimed to disable. London had just been subjected to two series of suicide bombings. The police had reason to believe that the man they were chasing might have been connected to those bombings. The man could have been carrying a bomb under his coat, he was acting as though he might detonate the bomb at any moment, and nothing short of killing him would ensure that he could not do so. The killing of an innocent man was unfortunate, but under the circumstances it was done according to official policy.

But do you see what has happened? The terrorists succeeded in creating a situation in which the British police were compelled to do what they had never done before (at least not in recent history): hunt down and kill an innocent man in cold blood.