Friday, February 19, 2010

Plate Tectonics Redux

A while ago I wrote a rather sarcastic post on plate tectonic denialists. I got a reply from Harry Dale Huffman, who claimed that plate tectonics was easily disproved and directed me to one of his blog posts. Go take a minute and read it. I'll be waiting after the jump.

Okay. Done with that? Let's talk about it. First I want to discuss warning signs, then logistical problems, and finally the actual content of the post. Maybe I should do this in reverse order, but at the moment I don't want to do it that way. I'll say at the beginning this is not an ad hominem, because I will discuss the actual content of his claims, but, if you want to claim poisoning the well...I'll partially accept it. However, I do believe that Mr. Huffman falls into the larger category of, to put it bluntly, quacks. If you read through that post, you get a lot of references to paradigm changes, that this is obvious if only people open their eyes, that these has been denied or dismissed by scientists, etc, etc. This should be a red flag for most people, it's the kind of language that you hear most often among the quack or pseudo-scientific community, be it evolution deniers, climate change deniers, HIV-AIDS deniers, etc. This is not to say that Mr. Huffman is not an intelligent man and cannot do actual research. I am sure he is quite competent, but it is to say that in this particular area, he is a bit of a quack.

It is interesting, if not particularly surprising, that many intelligent design supporters tend to be engineers. People who actually work in the field of biology see through ID rather quickly and don't accept arguments about design because, very simplistically, biological units don't follow the same rules and processes of man-made objects. There are some superficial similarities, of course, but deeper study reveals that this is a false analogy. Call it a special case of functional fixedness - after working for so long on design and being trained to look for elements of design, it isn't hard to see that these people often try to import their views on design into natural systems. So, yes, we tend to be rather wary when people start talking about design in natural systems - it hasn't really panned out yet.

As to logistical problems - there are a few problems. First, he claims that "seeing is believing." The short response to this is easy: "Wrong." The more detailed response is, as should be expected, more complex. Indeed, in some ways, seeing is believing. However, it is very easy to be wrong about what you believe, or what you believe you are seeing. Optical illusions are the easiest example of this - I would presume that Mr. Huffman would not argue that these illusions represent the reality of the situation. Likewise, perhaps Mr. Huffman would like to look at the Face on Mars (from the 1970's observation) and explain why that is or is not evidence of advanced civilizations and design on Mars. Perhaps Mr. Huffman also believes that the fractal patterns of ice crystals is also evidence of intelligent design of ice, or perhaps not. I would also question him about just how far he wants to take this statement - should we deny the rest of the electromagnetic spectrum outside of visible light because it is not readily apparent to the naked eye? Also, if this were really so evident as Mr. Huffman wants to claim, why is it that only he has noticed it, and that this "evidence" has completely escaped the best minds of the planet for centuries? This is a rather common issue among quacks - they always claim some secret knowledge that is "readily apparent," "completely obvious," "denied by modern science," and "discovered by hard work under the oppression of the establishment."

On another point, Mr. Huffman isn't really clear about how the whole movement of continents worked in the past and why it won't continue now. He doesn't deny that the continents have moved, he merely wants to argue that they have been purposefully moved and now, apparently they have stopped moving. As that I've gotten a lot of hits on this blog from the last plate tectonics post, and as that most of those hits are from queries that are looking for evidence specifically to disprove plate tectonics, I think it is important review some of that evidence here. This does not necessarily bear directly on Mr. Huffman's arguments, as he does not seem to deny previous continental movement, but we'll get to that.

First, we have the overall shapes of the continents. It isn't hard to see that they seem to be pieces of a large jigsaw puzzle and that they could be all fitted together. This was the original impetus for the theory of continental drift, but originally there was no mechanism identified for why the continents should move. Secondly, we have fossil distribution. The distribution of fossils of the same type and same edge along the edges of continents (and sometimes across continents like Antarctica) only makes sense with the assumption that at some point in the distance class the continents were either connected or vastly closer together. Third we have paleomagnetism. When a rock is formed, its magnetic alignment is frozen. We can see that looking at rocks of a certain age, if we draw the lines of their alignment now, they align somewhere in space above the earth, or are misaligned. If we assume the same continental placement/distribution that makes fossil dispersion make sense, then the magnetic alignments converge on the poles. This is a nice finding. We also have the evidence of the distribution and types of earthquakes and volcanoes - the majority occur along the proposed plate lines and actually serve to define these lines rather well. Likewise, at the proposed sites of new upheaval, such as the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, we see the expected gradient of age in rocks as you move further from the Ridge. That is to say, the youngest rocks are along the ridge and they get progressively older the farther away you move from the ridge. Likewise, we have the continued growth of mountain ridges where plates are grinding against one another. There are also symmetrical magnetic bands on either sides of these ridges, showing evidence of the previous polarity reversals and weakenings in earth's history. These are all converging lines of evidence that point towards the movements of the continents, and point toward plate tectonics, but as that Mr. Huffman does not directly disagree with previous movement of continents, they do not particularly bear on his points.

However, Mr. Huffman does want to deny current or future movement. He argues that the mechanisms of plate tectonics are physically impossible. Currently, the mechanism is described as convection zones of heat underneath the crust. This heat originates from (in a very small way) residual heat from the formation of the earth, and, more importantly, from the continued radioactive decay within the earth. A large problem with Mr. Huffman's ideas is that he would have to account for how this heat is going to be released if not through the movement of the plates. A bigger problem is whether or not he have a mechanism at all for previous movement, if not from the release of this built up heat. I would be very interested to know his ideas on how previous movement occurred and why it should stop now without catastrophic results, or perhaps he intends this.

Mr. Huffman's main argument seems to be a recapitulation of Pythagorean and Platonic ideas about geometric shapes and how they are reflected in the world or universe. Johannes Kepler struggled with this idea for a long time before eventually rejecting it - realizing that no matter how much the mathematics, design, and beauty of it all looked, the evidence just didn't back it up. I think this is largely the same case. Mr. Huffman wants the design to work out so badly that he's willing to flub some of his "data." Look again at his drawing of the prime lines that bisect the globe. Notice how there's not really much consistency in how far away some of these lines stray from the actual coast lines. Some are very close or even cross land, while others are pretty far into the ocean. His "Asian" line is drawn out to the coast of Japan, while his "African" line avoids Madagascar. Why are islands considered part of the coast line only some of the time? Why are his South American and North American lines allowed to cross land at certain points? Why is the Gulf of Mexico's coast line ignored while cowing the importance of the line's proximity to the Yucatan peninsula? Why, after discussing how important it is that these lines align along the east coasts of landmasses, does he note the importance of how close the fifth line comes to the ~west~ coast of New Zealand, which is not even a continent? What does Mr. Huffman have to say about the continued movement of the continents, continued subduction, continued growth of mountain ranges along the plate lines, and continued expansion along places like the Mid-Atlantic Ridge? Why is this moment in time, when these lines are possible to draw, so important?

It seems after all of this that Mr. Huffman is perpetuating two errors - 1) Confirmation bias, and 2) anomaly hunting. First, Mr. Huffman is dismissive of any evidence that would invalidate his claims, or even where his own method doesn't particularly work (e.g., his fifth line), but is quick to jump on anything that helps his bias towards ancient geometric traditions. Secondly, Mr. Huffman's argument doesn't go much beyond "isn't this interesting?" and taking what would appear to be a coincidence (if it is even that) to something very meaningful. These sorts of anomalies are to be expected in any system that is large enough or complex enough. In fact, it would be much more interesting if they ~weren't~ present. Mr. Huffman also falls into the same sort of argument that many evolution denialists fall into - the use of odds. These are almost always red flags and are typically quite misleading. Let us look at any crystal formation - the odds of each atom being in exactly the place it occupies is extremely low. The odds of being able to place, at random, each atom into its correct position are so low as to be past the point of being fathomable. However, these crystals exist - they have to take some state. This sort of argument is contained within the field of statistical dynamics, as stated in a previous post. What other system is Mr. Huffman considering when he calculates the odds of the continents being in their present location?

So, in conclusion, I would like to hear Mr. Huffman's explanation of why the continents are still moving, why mountain ranges like the Himalayas are still rising, and why new material is still appearing at mid ocean ridges, as well as to explain the inconsistencies within his own presentation. I do not agree with him, clearly, and I do not think that his case is anywhere near as self evidence as he would like to claim.


Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Tea Parties, Oath Keepers, and the Radicalization of the Right

The Tea Party movement's radicalization is continuing to organize itself evermore around Oath Keepers, Glen Beck, and the memory of Waco and Ruby Ridge. That's the story from this morning's The New York Times. The Times writer weaves in the narratives of everyday, middle class people awakening to the conspiracy theories of Beck and Adam Jones (of infowars) through their participation in their local Tea Parties. More editorially, the writer focuses on these newly radicalized groups in Western Washington/Idaho where Ruby Ridge took place and Waco, Texas; among other locales. In September, I wrote a post about this reemergence arguing that, while the election this Fall will be about the energy of the Tea Party, the power and actions of the militant right will largely continue until a Republican victory or another Oklahoma City. While I don't mean to rehash that line of thought, I wanted to revise it in lieu of the movement's current state and add to it a sociological approach to why people radicalize.

First of all, the article nicely exemplifies why some of the common misunderstandings of radicalism are untrue. Radical right-wingers are not all Nazi skinheads or poor rural folks who cling to their guns. While some are, the majority of radicals (this goes for Islamic Terrorists and almost all early movement activists) are from the mainstream middle class. Second, they are not ignorant. While I would argue that many are not long-time political aficionados, they are not the uneducated masses. Third, though they are almost always white in America, this does not automatically imply a racist ideology. Again, in this case, there is a distinction between the ever-present white supremacist groups and the currently ascendant radical right. Yes, there is overlap and, even in this version, a militant anti-immigrant ideology. However, particularly as the movement grows, it will mainstream itself more on anti-government rhetoric than an anti-immigrant platform. That said, why are so many decently educated, relatively economically stable people radicalized by Beck, Jones, and stories of Ruby Ridge?

The only difference between a cult or extremist ideology in their early stages and mainstream liberalism is in ideological degrees. As the Times writer well points out, these people are "awakening" to the radical discourse. It's not that they wake up one day and say, "the government is out to get us." They attend Tea Party meetings, start listening to Glen Beck, and reading infowars. People don't watch one show and say, "death to the fascists." Individuals pick up little pieces here and there from the repertoire of pre-made ideologies and start to build a new world-view. As they start to lend credence to this world-view, they continue to attend meetings and protests and get networked into the more mainstream Tea Party world and find like-minded radicals. Both continue to be a source of both ideological hardening and emotional elaboration which entrench the world-view and shape members into radical activists. Radicals find radicals and then seek converts both directly and indirectly. This emergence then causes the ideology to evolve both for participants and the collective. It is this evolution into hostile separatism that distinguishes the ideology.

This is the process that has been going on since I last wrote in September and the result is a more developed infrastructure of radical organizations linking Tea Party groups, Oath Keepers, Beck's 9/12 groups, the John Birch Society, and Friends of Liberty. It is this organizational embeddedness which is changing the nature of the game. Organizations do much better at surviving in a movement than any individual and can continue to recruit and mobilize supporters even when the political tide ebbs. The Oath Keepers could very well survive a member blowing up a federal building. On the other hand, movement maturation, organizational institutionalization, and political success all tend lead to ideological moderation. Except in the few cases when they don't. In those cases, the movement changes the definition of "mainstream," usurps political control, or gains a dedicated political following which defines a new niche.

These then are my adjusted predictions for the movement. If the movement splinters republicans and democrats maintain control or republicans they don't like win, the movement could become tactically hostile. If there is going to be another Oklahoma City, it would probably be in 2011. Nothing mobilizes radicalism like political inefficacy. If the movement wins in 2010, it will become a more hardened political force. While there's a chance it could fizzle out as grassroots often do after a victory, the extent of grassroots organizations lends me to believe it will not. Also, if their victory does not lead to progress they like, that would further the movement's mobilization and re-energize radicalism. In either instance, the movement does not presage a fortuitous future for this country.

Given what I feel is a need to unwind this movement for our safety, it seems necessary to offer the "policy implications" that good sociologists ought to draw. First, mainstream political voices (particularly Fox News) must denounce any act of violence and any legitimation of violence as they occur. Even mainstream politicians and media outlets have the ability to "wake members up" from their extremism and research has shown that public disavowal reduces support for violence.

Second, any act of state repression, as exemplified by Ruby Ridge and Waco, will surely exacerbate the movement's radical wing. Given that Homeland Security is already monitoring the movement, the best policing strategy is to target the most egregious violations, be immediately open with charges and disconnect them from movement ideologies ("she was a bad apple"), and pursue any arrest in public places (where a protracted arrest process like a hostage situation or Ruby Ridge self-containment is least likely).

Third, the greatest counterbalance to this movement would be a counter-movement. Unfortunately, the left's biggest grassroots organizations are either mainstream or professionally linked in to the mainstream. The radical right's mistrust of ACORN is Exhibit A. However, to unwind the dangerous grassroots organizations requires alternative organizations with more civil ideologies that can absorb the radicals. The ideal counter-movement is indeed the Tea Party itself. If the Tea Party were to take responsibility for it's connections to and role in fomenting radical extremists and make an explicit attempt to bring them into the fold, the radicalism would be quickly exchanged for broader political power.


Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Abstinence-Only Study That Didn't Promote Abstinence-Only

Once again we see the utter FAIL of the media in reporting science. We have a new study, published in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, that nominally has to do with abstinence-only and how it could be a very effective form of sexual education.

Except...not really. The study looked at several different forms of sex education, going from abstinence-only, safer-sex only, and a combination of both (otherwise referred to as comprehensive sex education). They found that the percentage of kids receiving the "abstinence-only" program that had sex after two years was lower than the other groups, with the "safer-sex only" group being the highest. This sounds pretty conclusive! Perhaps!

Unfortunately, there are a lot of specifics to this study that are important to tease out. First, the group of kids that they looked at were 12-14 years old (basically, received education at 12, followed up with a survey at 14). The average age, in the U.S., when people have sex the first time is roughly 16-17. Granted, I don't have the statistics on standard deviation here, but I'm fairly confident that you're looking at a group where the percentage of people who are having sex is going to be...well, I'd be willing to bet outside the first standard deviation. If I'm wrong about this, and if anyone actually does have the full statistics on hand, please, send them my way. So, my first criticism - the age group they're looking at isn't exactly the best for determining long-term effectiveness (also note, 33% of this group had sex anyway. Granted, that's lower than the other two groups, but...we're still talking about a large percentage of the group. Another criticism is that no matter what the sex education, a lot of kids are still going to have sex at a young age. A more important question than whether or not you can prevent them from having sex until they're a few years older may be whether they have the knowledge to do it safely. I wish I could add "smartly" to that, much as I know kids are going to have sex, pretty much no matter what, I don't think it's usually the smart thing to do).

My second, and more important criticism, is that this isn't an abstinence-only program! At least, it's not the sort of A-O program we're used to seeing and that have been funded by the government in previous years. That is to say, this program is abstinence-focused - it suggests that kids hold off on sex until they're "ready," (not necessarily until marriage), it doesn't present the information with any moral overtones, sex is not described as dirty or bad or evil, and while they don't specifically promote contraceptives, they clear up some of the myths associated with them (largely fueled by other A-O programs) and don't disparage them. In short, you have a program that says, "Hey, you know, it's a good idea to wait until you're ready to have sex because it's a big emotional commitment, and there are huge possible consequences. But if you're going to do it, at least be informed about the facts of contraceptives and be safe about it." Hmm...that sounds like a program I could support, and it sure has hell doesn't sound like any A-O program I've ever heard of before.

See, I would actually support this program, but not under the title of "Abstinence-Only." I would totally grant "Abstinence-Focused," but that's a completely different matter. The real problem here is how the study has been reported. Conservatives have been crowing over it since its release (well, to be honest, it's the only study to show any effectiveness for "abstinence-only" education, even if it's just nominally, so I suppose they've been waiting a long time), and, of course, the media is all a buzz, twitterpated, as it were. See, for example, CNN's discussion. Here it's all breathless excitement about a "game-changer," and how abstinence education really works! But as I've already said, no, not really. They mention about halfway through the article that the program doesn't have moral overtones and focuses on abstinence till you're "ready" instead of until marriage, but fails to mention that this kind of program could already receive funding under the current administration's plans and is not disqualified as the disproven A-O claims of other programs.

This isn't difficult, media, really. It takes a little extra effort, a few extra strokes at the keyboard, but...seriously. You're just adding fuel to fire to allow people to call this abstinence only and how it just goes to show that we were right to fund those programs all along (even when they didn't work!). I'm disappointed, but not surprised. Wait, maybe that means I'm not really disappointed, just a bit more jaded. Thanks, Media!

Post-Script Note - My criticisms are primarily directed towards the media reporting of this study, but I will level one major criticism at the study title itself - "Efficacy of a Theory-Based Abstinence-Only Intervention of 24 Months." I don't know if these guys are trying to rebrand abstinence only, which would be okay with me; don't see a problem with playing with the commonly-known conception of the word, which happens a lot in science and is largely forgivable; or are trying to promote other abstinence-only education programs, which don't work, and which I would definitely have a big problem with. I'm going to give them the benefit of a doubt and say that it's potentially one of the first two, but...I guess we'll see. In an extremely positive note, and a bit of good on CNN for including it (though at the very end, of course), the study authors do go on to say that it is not an effective long-term strategy, because the expectation is that eventually, one way or another, people will have sex. Their primary goal seems to be reducing adolescent sexually-transmitted diseases, so, I'm actually rather in favor of these authors...I just really wish they had chosen a different name for the paper. And that the media wouldn't hype it as if all those other A-O programs really worked all along. That's the primary FAIL here.