Tag Archives: Falsehoods II

Falsehood: “Voters are kept from political involvement by the rules”

Voting is not party involvement.

We hear a lot of talk these days about “voters” being repressed in their attempt to be involved in the Democratic primary process. There may be something to that, and it might be nice to make it easier for people to wake up on some (usually) Tuesday morning and go and vote in a Democratic or Republican primary or visit a caucus. But there is a difference between a desire for a reform and the meaningful understanding of that reform — why we want it, how to do it, and what it will get us — that makes it important to do what we Anthropologists sometimes call “problemetizing the concept.”

We can start with the statement that in the primary system, “Voters should not be kept from involvement by rules that make it impossible for them to engage in the democratic (small “d”) process.” That sentence seems reasonable, even important, and is essentially a call for open, instead of closed, primaries, or in some cases, for replacing a caucus with a primary.

The first part of the sentence that is problematic is the word “voters.” Yes, people who vote in a primary are voting, and thus voters, but that is not really what a voter is in our democratic system. A voter is a person who votes in the general election for a constitutional candidate. The constitutional candidates got on the ballot, usually, through our party system in which a formally recognized party puts someone on the ballot by filling out the right paper work and following a bunch of law-based rules and some other rules that the party itself makes up. The person who goes and votes in a primary is doing something subtly but importantly different. They are participating in the party’s process of selecting a candidate. In theory, this could be done with no voting. It could be done by people meeting several times to pick surrogates, who will be delegates to a convention. Even when it seems like one is visiting a polling location and casting a vote for a candidate, that is not really what you are doing. You are actually casting a vote that will be put together with all of the other votes cast in that state for use in a formula that will cause chosen delegates to vote a certain way on the first ballot at a national convention, after which they can do (more or less) what they want.

I’ve seen people use the word “elect” and “election” in reference to what people are doing during the primary process. But we are not doing that. The statement that “Voters should not be kept from involvement by rules that make it impossible for them to engage in the democratic process.” is improperly framed, because what happens in the primary process does not really involve voters, but rather, individuals who are participating in a party’s process in a way that often involves casting a ballot, but really not a ballot for a particular candidate.

Now lets travel down the sentence a bit farther until we get to the phrase “kept from.”

There are a lot of ways to keep someone from casting a ballot or caucusing that are bad and that should be fixed. In Minnesota we cast our presidential preference ballot during a one hour time period at a large building (usually a school) with inadequate parking, often far from where people live, not on a bus route, in the dark (lots of people don’t drive in the dark), under conditions that are dauntingly chaotic. It is assumed, almost certainly correctly, that this causes a lot of people to not even show up. If an insufficient number of polling places is arranged so it takes hours of waiting to pick your candidate, or if you show up and somehow you are not allowed to vote because your name has been incorrectly removed from the registration list, or something along those lines, then you are being kept out. These and similar things are bad and should be fixed.

But a lot of the “kept from” stuff is not about any of that. Rather, it is about the particular rules a party uses (or all the parties in a state, in some cases) that the participant must know about and follow in order to be involved in the process. In New York you have to be registered in a party to vote in that party’s primary. In New Hampshire it, a registered Democrat must vote in the Democratic Primary, a registered Republican can vote in the Republican primary, and a registered Independent can pick at the last second which of those two party’s primary to vote in. I’ll discuss in a moment why these rules a) should be changed and b) shouldn’t be changed. For now, though, we need to recognize that these are not things done to keep one from involvement. They are simply the rules for being involved. Potential party primary participants who are kept out of the process because of these rules are, essentially, repressing themselves (sadly).

Now let’s go even further down the sentence (“Voters should not be kept from involvement by rules that make it impossible for them to engage in the democratic process.”) and look at the word “involvement.”

I’ve already implied that involvement in the primary or caucus process is not the same thing as voting, even if you think you are voting at the time, because you really aren’t quite voting for a candidate (I quickly add that yes, this is true with the Electoral College as well, but generally we feel that we have an inalienable right to vote in the general election for all sorts of candidates, and only one of those offices is somewhat indirect, and perhaps it shouldn’t be).

Involvement is not casting a ballot in a primary or standing on a table holding up a sign in a caucus one time. Involvement is bigger than that.

Consider Sorkin’s Rule “Decisions are made by those who show up.” That is actually not true. Important decisions about complicated things require multiple conversations, meetings, etc. The actual rule should be “Decisions are made by those who show up. And then show up a few more times.”

I suspect that the majority of people who are pointing at long established party rules and complaining about being kept form involvement really don’t want to be “involved” in the way it takes to really be involved because it takes a fair amount of work. Rather, people seem to want to vote for a candidate and go home, and have that be all there is to it, and have it count. But involvement is actually more complicated than that, and may require more work than that.

For example, consider the recent caucus in Minnesota.

We don’t actually caucus for president here, although it is called that. Rather, we cast a vote (as described above) just like in a primary, but a rather badly done primary. In Minnesota, as well as in other states, that vote ultimately determines only one thing: how will the delegates that the state sends to the national convention vote on the first ballot. If you want a particular candidate to survive an open convention, or if you want your candidate’s party platform planks to be considered, you better send a delegate supporting your candidate to the national convention somehow, and do some other things. To do this, you will have to show up not just once, but a couple or a few times.

In Minnesota, we had that preference ballot, and at the same event (the precinct caucus) people were able to present resolutions, which could ultimately be part of the party platform if approved by enough people. The resolutions that go through this process are the party platform, and the party platform doesn’t come from anywhere else. So resolutions are presented at the precinct caucus, and voted on, and if approved, go on to the next level. Also, at this precinct caucus, delegates are selected to go forward in the process.

A few weeks later, there is a Senate District convention. All the precinct level resolutions are listed on a ballot, and the delegates that moved forward can vote on them. Delegates are welcome to rise in support or opposition of a resolution, and there is discussion among all the delegates of these resolutions. So the voting itself is a democratic process, but that process is enhanced by a conversation at which questions can be raised and answered and issues can be clarified. The resolutions that are passed on will likely become part of the state party’s platform.

A this event, the delegates select among themselves a smaller set of delegates that will go on to the next level (Congressional District or County). Those delegates will form the pool from which the national delegates are ultimately chosen, and they will vote on other party issues at higher levels of the caucus process.

That, folks, is involvement. If you go forward to this level and participate, you have influenced the party platform, and you have influenced which actual people go forward as delegates. Maybe you yourself will even be one of these delegates.

Sticking for a moment with Minnesota, let me tell you what happened at my caucuses, because it is illustrative of a key point I’m trying to make here.

There were about twice as many votes cast in the presidential preference ballot than individuals who stayed in the room to participate. The people in the room were the usual Democrats who show up every two or for years, among whom were several Clinton supporters and several Sanders supporters. I’m pretty sure the two people running the show included one Clinton supporter (my guess) and one Sanders supporter (I know that for a fact. Hi Robin.)

Note to Sanders supporters: Those of you who voted and left gave up an opportunity for involvement. Casing your ballot was easy, and thank you for doing that. But it wasn’t enough.

Also in the room were about a dozen Sanders supporters who I’m pretty sure (and in some cases, I’m certain of this) had not participated in the process before, ever, even though their ages ran from just eligible to vote to mid 40s or so. The chair of the caucus asked for a show of hands of how many people were new to the process. Several hands went up, and the rest of us cheered them and welcomed them. In other words, what some might call the “party insiders” (people who show up again and again) welcomed the noobies, and were very happy to have them there. So this was about a 50-50 mix of Clinton-Sanders supporters cheering on a bunch of new folks who were likely in majority Sanders supporters.

It was interesting to see what happened when resolutions were presented. Some of the resolutions caused these newer folks to take notice and ask questions. Two resolutions asked that various aspects of medical coverage for transgender medicine be restored to the state health plan. These provisions had been removed by the Republicans, and the Democrats wanted them back. The Sanders Noobies said things like “this shouldn’t apply to kids” and “this is a lifestyle choice, why should it be paid for by taxpayer?” and such. They did not understand that those are issues that have long been dealt with by the medical community, and were not concerns. (Much of this was explained to them by a transgender woman who was in the room). Once the Sanders Noobies understood this, they supported the resolutions (mainly, there were a couple of conservatives who voted against several liberal resolutions, which is of course their right). The same thing, roughly, happened with two or three other resolutions having to do with issues of race and racism.

That was fantastic. Sanders supporters, involved in the political process for the first time, were engaged in a conversation in which they became more aware of certain issues, and asked questions, and had a conversation.

Note to Sanders supporters: Those of you who stayed at the caucus meeting contributed to the conversation and learned more about the issues. That was involvement. Thank you for doing that.

At the Senate caucus, the resolutions were available to vote on, and there was extensive conversation about them. The conversation was so extensive that the chair of the caucus noted that he had never seen such involvement. Oh, and by the way, he also asked for a show of hands of those who were there for the first time. There were many, and the rest of us applauded and cheered them, and thanked them.

The Senate District Caucus, as noted, selects a subset of delegates to go forward. This was done as a walking caucus, and because of the way a walking caucus works, people were divided up into groups that had a candidate’s name (or uncommitted) along with an issue. For example, “Sanders and wealth inequality” or “Clinton and health care” or “Uncommitted and education,” etc.

The number of delegates that were elected to go on were about 50-50 Sanders vs. Clinton. (Slightly more for Clinton than Sanders.) In other words, a Sanders win in the presidential ballot preference (at the Precinct Caucus) was erased with respect to the delegates that went forward. Our Precinct caucus was allowed to send some 12 delegates forward, but only about 6 people volunteered, and of those, only two showed up at the Senate District Caucus.

Decisions are made by those who show up. Multiple times.

So the outcome of this process was that the ratio of Sanders to Clinton delegates who would support one of the candidates in a second ballot, or in convention business, or with the party platform, from our caucus, does not reflect the presidential ballot exactly because Sanders supporters did not show up. I checked on some other Senate District Caucuses, and others had better numbers for Sanders, but I think the final outcome is close to 50-50.

Note to Sanders supporters: Showing up at the precinct caucus to cast a presidential ballot, and then not showing up again, was not enough.

A walking caucus is a bit complicated, and there is a way to do it to maximize a preferred outcome in terms of delegates passed on to the next level. I note that the Clinton supporters at that event did so, but the Sanders supporters probably lost one delegate because the were imperfect in their strategy. Why were thy imperfect? Because this process, which is highly democratic, grass roots, conversational, and all that, is also a little complicated. In order to do it right, it is helpful to have a number of people who know what they are doing (because they did it once or twice before, or got a half hour of lessons form someone who knows how to do it … very doable) on your side. The Sanders Noobs, bless their pointy heads, may have lost one delegate because they did not show up multiple times over the long term (from year to year) and the Sanders campaign did not bother to engage in the “ground game” in Minnesota.

This illustrates a problem with democracy. The problem is not that the process is necessarily complicated so the good guys lose. The problem is that having a real conversation and real involvement is not simple, and requires a little more effort. This puts a small disadvantage on the insurgent, but only a small one. The outcome is that people show up, talk, listen, learn, influence, make things happen.

A word about New Hampshire, as promised.

In New Hampshire, you register for a party (Democratic or Republican) or as an independent. This registration then limits your choices for what happens in a primary (so it is a semi-closed primary). People who say they want the rules changed to allow better involvement object to this. If you are a Republican who decides you prefer a Democrat, you can’t vote for the Democrat. That is, of course, not really true because this is not the general election, it is the primary, but whatever.

Here’s the thing, though. If you are an independent in New Hampshire, you are a special political snowflake. The activists and campaigners in both major parties have your name (you are registered) and will court you and buy you coffee and talk to you and visit you and call you on the phone and give you a lot of attention, and pay careful attention to what you say. You are the subset of people who will determine the outcome of the primary, in many cases. This is a situation where the rules, which are restrictive, actually enhance and amplify involvement for those who register in this manner.

Something like this happens at a different level of intensity with party registration in general. Even where there is no registration in a party (like in Minnesota, we don’t register here), there is a list of probable party supporters. This underlies strategies for mailings, coffee clutches in homes, door to door visits, etc. Here’s a hint: If you want to have a bit more influence in the process, donate five dollars to a candidate. You and your views will be attended to, at least to some extent.

A word about party platforms. People say, without evidence generally, that party platforms are not important, that no one pays attention to them. At the state level, this is simply not true. The party platform is the legislative agenda of the party. The success of a party’s effort during a legislative session is measured by the degree to which the party platform, which was determined by the people who showed up — multiple times — was put into effect. Seated legislators and governors take credit for their implementation of the platform, or find reasons to explain (often blaming the other party) why planks from the platform were not implemented, in their campaign speeches, campaign literature, and appeals for funding.

It might be true that these things matter less at the national level, but there are some good reasons for that. National policy implementation is often more reactionary than at the state level because politics are often shaped by unexpected international events or an uncooperative economy. But it still matters.

Now, back to Minnesota for a moment, for another stab at problematizing the premise. All that caucus stuff I’m talking about allows involvement by citizens to shape the political future at the local, state, and national levels. But we often hear that a simple primary, where you just vote and go home, counts as better, or more real, or more meaningful involvement in the political process. (This of course ignores the fact that voting in a primary does not influence the party platform or other party issues.)

In Minnesota we also have a primary. It happens late in the process. One of the main objectives of the caucus system is to endorse candidates for Congress, and rat the state level and below (but not municipal, usually). The caucuses can endorse a candidate, but that endorsement does not mean that the candidate is put forward by the party. The candidate is only put forward if they get the majority of votes in the primary. Often, probably almost all the time in fact, the various candidates for a particular office fight for the endorsement, then drop out if they don’t get it. But sometimes one of those candidates, or an entirely different candidate that was not even involved in the endorsement process, puts their name in the primary and runs.

The reason this is interesting and important vis-a-vis the key points I’m making here is this. The system that many seem to prefer because they think it is true involvement (and anyone can vote in either primary, there are no restrictions, in Minnesota) actually has the potential to circumvent and obviate the grass roots endorsement process. It allows a person with means to swoop in and become the party’s nominee. This happened recently two times. In one case, a person of means swooped in and took the party’s nomination form the endorsed candidate for governor. He won the election and became one of the best governors we’ve ever had. In a different case, a person with means swooped in to try to take the party’s nomination at the primary from a highly regarded much loved State Auditor, who had been endorsed. In that case, the swooper spent piles of money on the primary but was roundly shellacked, losing in an historic landslide.

Note to those who want to switch to having a simple primary for everything because it allows for more democratic involvement by the citizens; No, it doesn’t.

“Voters should not be kept from involvement by rules that make it impossible for them to engage in the democratic (small “d”) process.”

It is not a simple truth that closed primaries or caucuses limit involvement. That can happen, but limitations (i.e., as in New Hampshire) can increase involvement. Citizens who want to be involved but found this difficult because they did not know or follow the rules have repressed their own involvement. Personally, I would advocate for open caucuses or open primaries, so I don’t disagree with the proposals being made so vocally these days. But I think that many who are calling for such reform do not really understand why we want it, how to do it, and what it will get us, and what we might in some cases lose from it.

The caucus system is better than the primary system in many ways, because it encourages and allows a lot of involvement. But in those instances were we are basically voting for a preference, the caucus system can be stifling. We need to ask what we want, how to do it, and what it will get us, at a more detailed level, and then find solutions that may in some cases be hybrids, or may in some cases require only minor tweaking in the system.

I think people need to ask themselves why they are independents. Some people are independents because they dislike the party system, but I’m sure they are wrong to think that. Parties are organizations that give voice and power to regular people. We should work towards enhancing that effect, not tossing it like bathwater out the window. Others recognize that being independent gives them a bit more political power than being a party member, in some cases. Those folks have a problem in states where not being registered in a party takes you out of the primary process. Those individuals have to decide if they want to engage in a party system for a given year or not, or they need to advocate for an open system in their state. I recommend following the first strategy immediately — learn the rules and use the party system when appropriate — while advocating long term for the second strategy. What I do not recommend is complaining about a system you don’t fully understand and demanding specific changes that would actually reduce, rather than increase, your involvement.

I also suggest that people do two other things. One is to remember that the primary system is a totally different process than the general election. In a way, you can’t actually suppress voting in a primary, because a primary (or caucus) is a way a party, which could select nominees in any of a number of ways, reaches out the the people. Furthermore, you are not really voting for a candidate, but for delegates, and by voting and walking away, you are not really even doing that.

The other thing is to understand the numbers better. This is a bit of a digression from the main points of this post, but important. Remember my comments above about percentages of Sanders vs. Clinton supporters in various subsets of people at these events. It is not the case that the “party faithful” or “established Democrats” (people who show up multiple times) are Clinton supporters and the Noobs are Sanders supporters. Yes, there are differences in proportion, but evidence from Minnesota belies this oversimplification. My best guess is that about half the established Democrats (we call ourselves DFLers here) in Minnesota are for Sanders, and half are for Clinton, but Sanders won the presidential preference ballot because some extra people who were mainly Sanders supporters showed up. But then many of those Sanders supporters did not show up multiple times. The influence they had was to put the state in the Sanders win column, but remember the numbers. Sanders only got a couple of more national delegates than Clinton, and in the end the two candidates will have the same number of supporters, I predict, at the convention. So, the only influence there is in one — critical but singular — event at the convention, the first ballot.

Democracy is great, and democracy is hard. There are reforms that are necessary, but gravitating towards easy, thinking that enhances democracy, is foolish. If you make it too easy it will not be as great.

And, really, it isn’t all that hard.

Ethanol Falsehood Examined

Learning is easy. Getting it right is harder. Expunging falsehoods is hardest, but most rewarding.

There is a “meme” (using the definition of a meme as something most people in a certain community think whether it is true or not) that to produce one gallon of Ethanol for fuel you have to use some larger number (I’ve heard two, and I’ve heard five) gallons of gasoline.

In an ideal world there would be farms with giant solar collectors and wind generators. These devices would produce electricity to run distilling machines and hybrid tractors and such. On the farm would be grown GMO plants designed specifically to maximize ethanol output per acre of crop, with minimal energy input, and producing as a byproduct a carbon-trapping substance that could be spread on the fields where the GMO crop was grown, though a portion of it might be eaten by the workers on the farm some of whom might be cyborgs. Ethanol produced on this farm would thus be entirely solar, in a sense. Some of the ethanol would be used to run the farm, but there would always be a surplus. The surplus would be shipped in tanker trucks … hybrid tanker trucks charged from the farm’s solar and wind generators and using biofuels produced on the farm … to nearby distribution centers so people could fill up their flex-fuel hybrids. Oh, and the fields are covered with glass (or, better, invisible aluminum, like the clear material covering your smart phone or tablet), so water is recycled within the farm rather than lost as vapor to the atmosphere, and the growing season would be lengthened. The farm would be like a giant alga-endocrine cell chimera, with most of the energy trapping and using processes involved in the cell’s life cycle, but a reliable and abundant secretion of liquid humans can burn. There would probably be some biodiesel production as a sideline.

In that case, there would be zero “gasoline” (or whatever) used in the process of turing sunlight into human transport.

But even without that ideal cell-farm, the “meme” is wrong. It is wrong for two reasons.

First, as is the case with so much thoughtless critique of “alternative” energy forms, the comparison is unfair. If it takes X gallons of fuel (such as gasoline) to produce one gallon of ethanol, how many gallons of fuel does it take to produce one gallon of gasoline? In other words, the meme seems to assume that ethanol production is an energy-consuming process while gasoline appears spontaneously, with no energy input at all, at the point where you buy it and pump it into your car. This, of course, is not how it happens.

Anyway, all along I’ve wondered if someone should do a study that looks at the energy inputs and outputs of corn-based ethanol production, and it turns out a friend of mine did exactly this study a few years ago and never even mentioned it to me! (Well, I never asked him either, to be fair). And today, he, John Abraham, put up a blog post about this at The Guardian.

This is the blog post: Global warming, ethanol, and will-o-wisp solutions. Go and read this to find out how many gallons of gasoline it takes to produce a gallon of ethanol! (And other important things.) The abstract of the peer reviewed study done by John and his student, Fushcia-Ann Hoover is here.

Why Do Men Hunt and Women Shop?

The title of this post is, of course, a parody of the sociobiological, or in modern parlance, the “evolutionary psychology” argument linking behaviors that evolved in our species during the long slog known as The Pleistocene with today’s behavior in the modern predator-free food-rich world. And, it is a very sound argument. If, by “sound” you mean “sounds good unless you listen really hard.”

I list this argument among the falsehoods that I write about, but really, this is a category of argument with numerous little sub-arguments, and one about which I could write as many blog posts as I have fingers and toes, which means, at least twenty. (Apparently there was some pentaldactylsim in my ancestry, and I must admit that I’ll never really know what they cut off when I was born, if anything.)

Before going into this discussion I think it is wise, if against my nature, to tell you what the outcome will be: There is not a good argument to be found in the realm of behavioral biology for why American Women shop while their husbands sit on the bench in the mall outside the women’s fashion store fantasizing about a larger TV on which to watch the game. At the same time, there is a good argument to be made that men and women should have different hard wired behavioral proclivities, if there are any hard wired behavioral proclivities in our species. And, I’m afraid, the validity from an individual’s perspective of the various arguments that men and women are genetically programmed to be different (in ways that make biological sense) is normally determined by the background and politics of the observer and not the science. I am trained in behavioral biology, I was taught by the leading sociobiologists, I’ve carried out research in this area, and I was even present, somewhat admiringly, at the very birth of Evolutionary Psychology, in Room 14A in the Peabody Museum at Harvard, in the 1980s. So, if anyone is going to be a supporter of evolutionary psychology, it’s me.

But I’m not. Let me ‘splain….
Continue reading Why Do Men Hunt and Women Shop?

There is no fruit in a BLT

First, I want to say that tomatoes are a fruit. Here is a scientific definition of fruit:

Fruit noun, plural: fruits

(1) (botany) The seed-bearing structure in angiosperms formed from the ovary after flowering.


See? Tomato is a fruit.

Having said that, in common English parlance we do not call a tomato a fruit. We put the tomatoes in with the vegetables. Is this because we are unknowledgeable? No. It is because we are wise. Anyone who reads Fortune Cookies knows this:

Knowledge is knowing that a Tomato is a Fruit. Wisdom is not putting a Tomato in the Fruit Salad.

There are two things that bother me about this. First, we don’t do this with cucumbers. Cucumbers are also a fruit. Or butternut squash. That’s also a fruit. Or peppers. Fruit. We only do this “I’m a smart skeptic look how smart I am” thing with tomatoes. Why? Perhaps because of all the “vegetables” that are “fruit,” tomatoes are the most fruit-esque, more near the vegetable-fruit line, more positioned, as it were, to challenge the common knowledge. Or, maybe the “knowledgeable” who like to make fun of the villagers by pointing out that this vegetable is a fruit don’t know that a lufa sponge is also a fruit. Personally, I think it is because tomatoes are red, and so are a LOT of fruits. (Most of which are inedible, it seems, but that’s another story.)

So, the first thing that bothers me is that it isn’t taken far enough. The second thing that bothers me is that it is taken too far. Tomatoes are not fruit, they are vegetables, as are summer and winter squash, carrots, lettuce, and onions. Why? Because that is what we call them in English. Oh, the scientists? They have a different set of terms for these things. In fact, scientists have a huge big pile of terms related to plants…Achene, Laevigate, Inframedial, Staminode, and Spinescent to name a few…and among those terms there are two that look a lot like common English words and that have overlapping definitions: Fruit and flower. Just as the word “fruit” in English does not overlap with the scientific term “fruit,” the English word “flower” does not overlap with the scientific term. You do know, for instance, that those showy red flowery things on Poinsettias are not flowers. Those are just red leaves. Yet, they are flowers. When you visit Grandma at Christmas time and she’s got a big Poinsettia sitting there on the side table, you don’t say “Oh my, Grandmother, what large and pretty leaves you have there!”

So, the second thing that bothers me is this: The “fact” that tomatoes are “fruit” is not true. In English, they are vegetables. They are in the vegetable section, separate from the fruit, in the store. We treat them as vegetables. They taste like vegetables. There is no fruit in a BLT. Oh, sure, in Science Tomatoes are “fruit” … I know this because I wrote my PhD thesis in Science on Fruit so I’m a total expert on the subject. But I also wrote my PhD thesis in Anthropology of human-plant interactions. And I noticed that while the scientific lexicon and the natural language lexicon often overlap, they are not the same. I’m not big on “separate magisteria” because that’s a bunch of crap. But if we see the world as having One True Terminology, then we see the world without its culture. That would be wrong, boring, and close minded.

So, this is the thing: Science can’t communicate by standing on a box and shouting out its rules and insisting that variance between science and culture is indicative of culture being wrong. Tomatoes are not fruit, and the word “theory” means an idea that is weak. In English. Scientists and science boosters can insist as hard as they want that everyone who believes these things are wrong, and if they insist hard enough, in intro science classes an on the Intertubes, then everyone will eventually get it and use proper botanical terms and make correct reference to The Scientific Method when talking about their’ boyfriend’s chance of getting a job at the Target. Not.

Besides. Did you ever ponder the scientific meaning of the term “Vegetable? Turns out, Tomatoes are vegetables if we consider that “The noun vegetable means an edible plant or part of a plant.” Vegetarians eat vegetables, including strawberries.

Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit. Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a vegetable. Wisdom is understanding that a seeming contradiction is not a contradiction at all, but rather, a reflection of the cultural complexity of science and the scientific complexity of culture.

Image by Nina Matthews

“We can know nothing about the origin of life”


Sometimes people say this because it seems reasonable to them … what, with life originating so long ago and so much geological mushing-around happening since then. But sometimes people say this, and sound quite innocent saying it, because they want to throw the average person off track and make them think that Evolutionary Biology has this big gap — at the beginning — in which any-old kind of story can fit, including a supernatural or religious story, or even just a spiritual Jungian story, or anything but a story about molecules interacting.

So, the purpose of this blog post is to be handy, to point to, to produce a link to, in answer to that question. Every time somebody says “We can know nothing about the origin of life bla bla bla” you respond with a link to this post. In the meantime, if you think there is something missing in this post that should be conveyed to anyone making that argument, please add it to the comments.

Here’s the code to copy and past to link to this post:

<a href=”http://scienceblogs.com/gregladen/2011/07/we_can_know_nothing_about_the.php”>”We can know nothing about the origin of life”</a>

Below are two lists. The first list is a set of blog posts by a variety of science bloggers about the origin of life. The second list is the bibliography my installation of Mendeley (reference management software) spit out at me when I asked it to find all the references to “Origin of Life” on my hard drive or nearby localities. This includes only a subset (about 5%) of my PDF files and none of my paper files (of which there are about 5,000) of which, in turn, probably only 1 or 2% address this issue, as it is not my field.

So, the reference list is provisional and just to get your stared, but also serves the purpose of demonstrating how there is quite a bit of work on the topic.

At present, we know something about the origin of life. I think we could know a lot more, and I think we will eventually. The assertion that we can’t because it isn’t happening now and happened a long time ago is wrong for several reasons: 1) Are you sure it is not happening now?; 2) It could be replicated in the lab; 3) It might be happening somewhere else, or evidence of it could be found on another celestial object; and 4) Yes, indeed, it turns out that we actually can reconstruct things through inference from ancient data, modeling, and experiment that happened in the past, and do so scientifically. If you hear someone telling you that you can’t, that this is not science, that it violates the scientific method, then you are hearing the words of a person who either knows nothing about science or is telling you a lie, because science can and does address the past.

So, without further ado, the lists:

Continue reading “We can know nothing about the origin of life”

Falsehoods: Human Universals

There are human universals. There, I said it. Now give me about a half hour to explain why this is both correct and a Falsehood. But first, some background and definition.
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Falsehood: Is it ever OK to use the term “Missing Link”?

Today’s falsehood1 is the idea of “The Missing Link.” You’ve heard about The Missing Link. You’ll hear that some palaeontologist has discovered something and they tell us it is “The Missing Link.” Often, it is a supposed “link” between some ancestor of humans (a fossil ape, a monkey, whatever) and us humans. And often, you’ll also find that when the press reports a “missing link” the science blogosphere erupts with a torrent flowing over the phrase and the concept, about how there really is no such thing as “The Missing Link,” or that this particular report of such a link is spurious, or something else bad.
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Falsehood: Humans evolved from apes

Is it a Falsehood that Humans Evolve from Apes?

How about this one: Is it a Falsehood that Humans did NOT evolve from Apes????

Yes and no. Humans descend from a population of primates from which other apes also descended (minimally the two species of living chimps) and which was part of the panoply of late Miocene forms, all related to each other, that we call apes. So yes, humans evolved from apes.
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A run in my stocking is not a worn out salmon: Response to Mark Liberman

I’m very please that my discussion of the “we can’t ever know what a word is” Internet meme has elicited a response from Mark Liberman at Language Log. (here) Mark was very systematic in his comments, so I will be very systematic in my responses.

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Minifalsehood: We can’t tell what a word is!?!?

I am looking at the question: How many words are there in a language? I’d like to know for languages in general, comparatively, and for pedagogical reasons, in some well known western language which may as well be English.

What I found quite incidentally is a hornets nest of curmudgeonistic pedanticmaniacal jibberishosity. (There. Whatever the count was, it is now N+3)

(For more Falsehoods, click here. Also, listen to “Everything You Know is Sort of Wrong,” on Skeptically Speaking Talk Radio. )
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