City Mileage

I’ve known forever that city mileage for cars is worse than highway mileage, but I never knew why. But it’s a bit like riding a bike.

When you ride a bike, you have to put in a lot of work at the beginning, getting up to speed. And after that, you can mostly coast. Assuming you’re on flat ground, you have to pedal a bit because friction is slowing you down, but it’s nowhere near how hard you had to work getting up to speed.

And then you stop at a red light, and you throw away all the energy you had, so that when the light turns green, you have to put in another burst of work getting up to speed. And, of course, in the city you’re stopping like this all the time. Every few blocks, you throw away all your accumulated energy, and have to start over. This applies to cars the same way as to bikes, except that on your bike, you immediately sense this in your legs, not at the end of the week when the tank is empty.

So it’s not that highways somehow enhance your mileage. Rather, it’s cities that make for wasteful driving. It’s a bit embarrassing that it took me this long to figure it out, but better late than never.

FTC Removes Exception for Homeopathic Drugs

Well, here’s a bit of good news for a change: the Federal Trade Commission has just decided that the same standards apply to homeopathic drugs as to any other medical product. The National Law Review highlights the following passage:

No convincing reasons have been advanced either in the comments or the workshop as to why efficacy and safety claims for OTC homeopathic drugs should not be held to the same truth-in-advertising standards as other products claiming health benefits.

In other words, as I understand it, homeopathic products will be held to the same advertising standards as other medical products; basically, if you claim your product provides a medical benefit, you’re going to have to show some evidence.

As I understand it, way back when, the government carved out a big exemption for homeopathy in federal regulations, because of the influence of a senator(?) who was into homeopathy and managed to convince the government that the homeopathic community would police itself.

Bear in mind, the policy change above comes from the FTC, not the FDA. The FDA held hearings last year and is still debating what to do about regulating homeopathy. But it’s also been a thorn in the FTC’s side, because the exeption made advertising standards inconsistent: if a pharmaceutical company has a drug that helps with hay fever, it can’t put out an ad saying so unless they have evidence — that is, in practice, unless they’ve conducted experiments that show that their drug works the way they say. But if you slapped the word “homeopathic” on the label, all of a sudden, a much more lax set of criteria applied. So this is a step in the right direction.

Now, I don’t expect that this will seriously discourage homeopaths. Rather, I expect they’ll just follow the same path as makers of glucosamine and other dietary supplements: they’ll rewrite the labels to give the impression that it works, without actually coming out and saying so.

To see what I mean, take a look through GNC’s Vitamins & Supplements section. The strongest, most concrete claims, like “Improves joint comfort” all seem to have a footnote saying that the FDA hasn’t actually checked to see if that’s true. Unfootnoted statements say things like “Clinical-strength doses of <whatever>”, which doesn’t tell you whether it works or not.

Or just list various health benefits on their own: “Antioxidants • Heart Health • Prostate Health • Mental Sharpness”. Presumably these are intended in the same way as a Bernie Sanders bumper sticker on the car: a statement that Bernie is good, not that he’s actually inside the car.

It’s Too Soon to Ask for Evidence, and What Is Evidence, Anyway?

Let’s take a peek over at Eve Keneinan’s post Keeping Track, which recounts a Twitter discussion between her, @MrOzAtheist, and Mark Houlsby, about Houlsby’s assertion that

There is no evidence for God. Therefore God does not exist.

Here’s a representative excerpt from Keneinan’s recap/rebuttal:

But evidence is an epistemological concept, pertaining to knowledge, to how we know that something exists or not, and what its properties are. Existence on the other hand is a metaphysical or ontological concept.

And another:

His claim that MH1: There is no evidence for God is already defeated by AMH1: It is possible there is evidence of God that has not yet be discovered.  I of course hold there is evidence for God, and plenty of it, [and so on, and so on]

And this (emphasis added):

I and others have attempted to refute this argument by arguing “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” We proffered plausible counterexamples: such things as protons (at one time), intelligent life in the Andromeda galaxy, and black holes (at one time). We argued that it is overwhelmingly likely that there are things for which we do not yet have evidence.

Go read, or at least skim, the whole thing if you’re curious.

In my experience, this sort of argument isn’t at all unusual for the more intellectual, ivory-tower sort of apologist. But here’s the thing: Keneinan says that “at one time” there wasn’t evidence for black holes. That “at one time” was on the order of a century: it was 101 years ago that Karl Schwarzschild discovered the radius around a collapsed star that bears his name.

A hundred years ago, we couldn’t sequence DNA because we didn’t know its shape and didn’t understand its role in reproduction. Hell, we hadn’t even isolated insulin yet.

Keneinan uses the word “galaxy” in the full knowledge that everyone knows what that is, and why it’s difficult to find life there. But a hundred years ago, we didn’t know that those fuzzy blobs in telescopes were in fact other cosmic islands of stars like our Milky Way. We didn’t know about the expanding universe or the Big Bang.

Meanwhile, we’ve had Islam for 1400 years, Christianity for 2000, Judaism for over 3000, and they’re still stuck on “well, you can’t disprove God” and “what constitutes evidence, anyway?”

You’d think that if there were any solid evidence for God, it would’ve shown up by now.

A Mother’s Day Sermon

I ran across “Mother and Grandmother”, a Mother’s Day sermon by one Edwin Whitney Bishop from May 14, 1911, about a hundred years ago, and was curious to see what it might say.

The first surprise came in the first sentence:

A VERY decided attempt is being made in many quarters to have this second Sunday in May set apart as Mother’s Day, or perhaps better as Parent’s Day, as a counterbalance to the very wide spread observance of the second Sunday in June as Children’s Day,

I would have placed the origin of Mother’s Day some time in the 1950s or 1960s, and I certainly didn’t know that it was preceded by  Children’s Day.

After a couple of pages about the importance of raising children properly, like bred roses or horses, he starts railing against people who shouldn’t have kids:

It is perfectly permissible for consumptives, habitual criminals, and feeble minded to marry at will and populate the hospitals and alms houses, and no one shall say them nay. We pass laws to cut down peach trees that have the yellows and we eliminate cattle that have the hoof and mouth disease, but we have thought nothing of having diseased people transmit certain terrible tendencies to the third and fourth generation.

Bishop was clearly an advocate of eugenics. He cites the cost to society of having murderers, beggars, convicts, children born out of wedlock, and people leading “disreputable lives”, something that he sees as being passed down from parent to child, genetically as we would say today. “And yet there are those who insist that the State has no interest in who shall be parents !”, he exclaims.

No doubt there are creationists who would love to claim that this man of God was corrupted by the Great Satan, Darwin. So here you go:

For whether you are a disciple of Spencer and Darwin, or a disciple of Häckel and Weissman as to the way the facts shall be interpreted, the facts themselves are beyond question.

And a bit later,

Endless life is promised by evolution as well as by Christ only to the righteous. It may take millions of years to bring it about, but it is sure to come — the evil self-destructive in its own nature and therefore self-limiting will annihilate itself out, and the good which always has in itself the embryo of eternal life will flower in richest perfection.


Henry Drummond in his book, entitled : “The Ascent of Man,” has in it a remarkable chapter, called : “The evolution of a mother.” He shows how motherhood comes to its own only in the human race.

(passages emphasizes in bold to tweak Ken Ham.)

The interesting thing to me about this passage is that in Grand Rapids in 1911, a preacher seemed to consider evolution to be settled science, at least in its broad outlines, and that the only areas on which educated laymen might disagree concerned the particular hypotheses being hashed out.

He does hold a misconception that’s still widespread, though: after talking about reptiles and birds, he says that “[l]ions are higher up in the scale”. Throughout his sermon, he seems to take for granted that there is a Great Chain of Being, with some above (and better than) others: reptiles above insects, birds above reptiles, humans above lions. I wouldn’t be surprised if he considered some humans to be above others on this scale.

Happy Mother’s Day, everyone!

“Looks like I was wrong for 30 years”

Yesterday, thanks to @Monahan_PJ (via the incomparable @edyong209), I ran across this paper in Science:

No buts about it, the butthole is one of the finest innovations in the past 
540 million years of animal evolution. The first animals that arose seem to have literally had potty mouths: Their modern-day descendants, such as sea sponges, sea anemones, and jellyfish, all lack an anus and must eat and excrete through the same hole. Once an independent exit evolved, however, animals diversified into the majority of species alive today, ranging from earthworms
 to humans.

So go read it, because it’s interesting. In case you didn’t, the tl;dr of it is that there are animals who eat and excrete using different orifices, like we do, and there are those that use the same orifice for ingestion and excretion. These box jellyfish were thought to be in the latter category, but it turns out they’re not (with a twist).

And then, there’s a throwaway line about halfway down:

“Looks like I’ve been wrong for 30 years,” said George Matsumoto, a marine bio
logist at Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in Moss Landing, California, after he saw Browne’s talk.

That’s a remarkable thing to say, and I congratulate Dr. Matsumoto on his honesty.

But it also made me realize that while I’ve heard scientists make this sort of statement (not often enough, but on a regular basis), and sometimes even politicians (see, for instance, Barack Obama’s and Hillary Clinton’s reversals on gay marriage), I don’t remember ever hearing a theologian (or cleric engaging in theology) say this.

Yes, plenty of people have changed their religious affiliation, and the “I was a wretched sinful atheist heathen gay pagan until I found Jesus” story is a genre unto itself. And I’ve heard plenty of stories of people switching denominations because their old church was too repressive, not serious enough about its faith, or whatever. But these are largely matters of opinion.

Find me people changing their mind on small matters of fact. Take a look at Wikipedia’s list of Christian heresies and show me the ones that were resolved through observation and reason, rather than bloodshed.

It just doesn’t happen. In religion, there’s no reality check, no way to see that your beliefs are completely out of line with reality.

Young Americans Are Finally Figuring out Evolution

According to Slate, a Pew Research poll has found that a bare majority of millennials accept evolution as described by scientists. This is in contrast to findings from the last few decades, that a significant number of Americans favor a magic-based or -friendly explanation of where human beings came from. Oddly enough, this seems to go hand in hand with the fact that young people are increasingly non-religious. Go figure.

Is ISIS’s popularity low? Hard to Tell

The Washington Post reported on a Pew survey of countries with a significant Muslim population, asking whether people there have a positive or negative view of ISIS:

Pew survey of countries with a significant Muslim population, spring 2015.

As the graph shows, in every country, ISIS is unpopular, by huge margins (and I find it interesting that according to the same survey, attitudes vary more from country to country and between religions; but I’m not sure that’s important right now).

But there’s low, and then there’s low. I wouldn’t drink water that was “only” 1% arsenic (the EPA limit is a million times smaller than that), and if there were “only” a 1% chance of crashing every time I got on the Beltway, I’d likely be dead within a year. So there’s small and then there’s small.

If the KKK enjoyed the same level of popularity in Alabama as ISIS does in Turkey, above, it wouldn’t be reported as “KKK only has minority support”. It would be reported as “One in 13 Alabamans still supports KKK”.

So I’d like to see some figures for comparison: how popular is ISIS compared to, say, the Lord’s Resistance Army, or Nazis, or the Tutsi army? Maybe they have comparable levels of popularity, and the double-digit favorability numbers are statistical artifacts. And in fact, it seems that the fact that its popularity varies more from country to country, than from religion to religion within the same country, points at this explanation.

But my fear is that ISIS really does enjoy insufficiently-low popularity.