Tuesday, June 27, 2006


Flag burning amendment defeated

Via Ed Brayton, Flag amendment apparently stalls in Senate. The amendment failed to pass by one vote. I'm happy it did.

I love seeing the flag flying. I'm very particular about how I fly it too - I don't fly it at night unless it's illuminated, I don't fly it in the rain, and so on. I love facing the flag and singing the National Anthem - one of my most powerful memories is going to my parents' church on Sept. 12, 2001 and singing "The Star Spangled Banner." The flag symbolizes a lot of very precious ideals for me. But ultimately the flag is just a piece of cloth - the flag is not the same thing as the ideals the flag represents. Those ideals and freedoms are more precious than the flag. Burning the flag disgusts me, but my feelings are irrelvent. I don't have the right not to be offended, and neither does anyone else.

I think this amendment and the utterly despicable Gay Marriage amendment were attempts by Congress to distract Americans. In the case of the Gay Marriage amendment I view it as an attempt by the Republicans who control Congress to distract us from corruption scandals like Tom Delay's. In the case of the Flag Burning amendment I think it was a multilateral attempt to appeal to people's emotions so that when election day runs around the politicans can distract us with claims to be "Patriotic Americans" (or more importantly to avoid handing a potential weapon to their opponents who'd say "Don't vote for so-and-so because they hate America). Good PR was more important than taking a potentially unpopular (but very just) stand even if that meant degrading our liberty. I don't know how Congress prioritizes the things they decide to work on, but I don't think they're doing a good job.

Sunday, June 25, 2006


A rambling post for a Sunday afternoon

A very brief post by PZ Myers at The Pandas Thumb (PT) earlier today has generated more than 300 comments today. It turns out that most of them are trash (literally the sort of bickering that I recall from the playground at grade school), but the original post itself, and some of the comments, are worthwhile. Here's Myers' post (links removed):

In case anyone is interested, there is an interview and article with and about Ron Numbers, historian of science and author of The Creationists, available at the U of Wisconsin. He offers a fairly standard perspective on the creationism wars, one that is commonly expressed here…but I have to confess, I disliked it intensely, and think it represents much that is wrong in the usual conciliatory approach too many people favor.
(Yes! That is an invitation to argue!)

Those of you familiar with Myers will know that's he's generally disparaging of religion (for those of you who aren't familiar with him, visit his blog Pharyngula). Myers writes some of the best articles about biology in the blogosphere, but his hostility toward religion is off-putting for me. My understanding of Myers' position is that he's willing to work with theists, but he wants to be able to criticize their theism, which he regards as irrational (I hope I'm mischaracterizing his position). Here is a comment from the PT thread:

Comment #107858
Posted by PZ Myers on June 24, 2006 02:28 PM (e)
Lenny is part of the problem.
I think you should read more carefully what I wrote. In particular, that bit where I mention that accusing scientists of arrogance is absurd, when we’ve got plenty of theists spreading arrogance far and wide. I should have mentioned condescension, too — do you think I know nothing about religion? I was brought up in one, I live in a highly religious culture, I get religion chucked at me every single day. I’ve read religious books with far more critical thought than I see from most of the people who demand automatic respect for religion. I see religion day after day, I see people practicing their religion regularly, I get to share my mornings at the coffee shop with the men’s bible study group that meets there…and everyone tells me that none of that is religion.
It gets annoying. Religion, apparently, is some ineffable ideal that floats in a space of perfect perfection, unsmeared by grubby human hands, and no, no one gets to criticize it. It’s too pure. And if you do criticize it, you don’t know anything about it, because if you did, you wouldn’t complain.

Here are a couple of other interesting comments:

Comment #107914
Posted by vhutchison on June 24, 2006 05:27 PM (e)
I understand both sides of this argument, but I must agree with Lenny on one point. I respect the views on both sides. The battle with ID IS POLITICAL and attacks by scientists on persons of faith who do support evolution are a major impediment in the political process. In Oklahoma we have just escaped creationist legislation for the sixth year in a row. Without the hard work and support of mainline religious people and organizations such as the Interfith Alliances of Oklahoma City and Tulsa and Oklahoma Manistream Baptists, we likely would not have prevented state laws requiring some form of ID/creationism. Members of these groups were far more energetic and active in lobbying the legislature, writing letters, holding press conferences, etc., than were scientists. The attempt to place religious material in the Tulsa Zoo made the national news. The defeat of the proposal was due largely to the Tulsa Interfaith Alliance and an organization, Friends of Religion and Science, the Alliance organized.
The mainstream faith community made a valuable impact and we need these folks, even if we do not agree with their faiths. We may not like the political process, but that is where we will win or lose. The bottom line: as scientists we need all the assistance we can get. I guess that this is like the adage ‘Any enemy of my enemies is my friend’?
Those who have been actively engaged in the political process in other states generally agree, as do many of the national leaders of organizations supporting evolution. I have discussed the need for support from religious groups with these leaders (readers would recognize the names if I listed them). Several are atheists and readily say so, but recognize the value of support from faith-based individuals and organizations.

Comment #107918
Posted by Nick (Matzke) on June 24, 2006 05:41 PM (e)
Whoo hoo! A pointless thread on unresolvable metaphysical questions! Somehow, we usually manage to avoid these.
All I can say is, while (1) I have the utmost scientific respect for PZ Myers, and (2) he and other in-your-face atheists have every right as private citizens to freely promote their views on religion (just like everyone else), the fight with the creationists is primarily about whether or not to teach science in public school science classrooms. Creationists pretend their views on religion are scientific in order to get them into science classrooms. We don’t need the anti-creationists going and mixing their views on religion into their science. In fact, this is probably the surest path to disaster politically and in the courts. Anyone who wants to do this has the right to do it, but it ain’t helpful or particularly smart.
Having a natural explanation for the origin of species is logically no more threatening to, or helpful to, Christianity than having a natural explanation for the weather. IMHO.

I think both vhutchinson and Matzke are right. Politically it is a very bad idea to intertwine anticreationism with antitheism. The evolution/antievolution debate shouldn't be turned into a Christianity vs. atheism debate. I also think that it's not necessarily a good thing to do scientifically, with a few caveats. A religion that tries to base itself on science is unavoidably in conflict with science. For example, if a religion claims that it can detect the fingerprints of God in the Creation (and this is what the ID movement does), then those claims are subject to scientific testing and refutation. When those claims are refuted, that religion is refuted. For this reason I think it is just plain dangerous for people to try to frame Christianity in scientific terms. For example, if a person is taught that the geologic record is evidence of Noah's Flood then when that person is confronted with evidence that the geologic record is incompatible with Noah's Flood that evidence will also be evidence that their faith is wrong. Of course, the question then becomes "what should faith be based on?" I'll tell you right now that I don't have a 100% satisfactory answer for that. One of the aspects of Christianity that appeals to me is that a personal relationship with God is a major component of that religion. So I think that forming a personal relationship with God should be one of the main objectives of Christianity. The way to do that is trickier, and I don't have a good answer. I can see things like prayer, meditation, awe through the observation of nature, can play an important role, but the problem is that these concepts are really subjective. I can't think of a way to effectively describe the results of prayer, communion, etc., with others, and therefore I can't really fault them for not accepting my point of view. That's where I stand at the present. If anyone wants to leave any comments I'd appreciate them.

Friday, June 09, 2006


The Hayward Fault Exposed

The Hayward Fault (a Google Earth add on about the Hayward Fault can be found here) is a major member of the San Andreas Fault System that passes through the East Bay. It extends from near Milpitas (where it intersects the Calaveras Fault) in the south to near Petaluma in the north (where it encounters the Rodgers Creek Fault).

The Hayward fault has one of the greatest seismic hazards of the faults in the Bay Area. This is because it cuts through a lot of heavily populated areas, and also has not had a significant earthquake for quite some time. The Hayward Fault isn't long enough to generate an M 7.8 1906-like event, but it does generate events that are roughly the size of the 1989 Loma Prieta quake (The probability of an M 6.7+ event along the Hayward Fault in the next 30 years is 27%).

The 1906 Centennial Alliance has sponsored an educational exhibit on the Hayward Fault. The focal point of the exhibit is a trench across the fault that was excavated to expose the active Hayward Fault. The exhibit is called The Hayward Fault Exposed! An Interpretive Viewing and Educational Exhibit, and is open until the end of June. My wife and I, along with some friends, visited the exhibit a few weeks ago.

The modern trench was dug at the same location as a scientific trench that was dug in 1987. Once the 1987 trench was mapped it was filled in, but the outline is still visible in the modern pit. One of the more interesting things I learned is that most trenches are around 30" wide, which is the width of a backhoe scoop (I'm sure that's not the correct name, but hopefully you know what I mean). The modern trench, fortunately, is much more accessible.

The platform at the bottom of the pit is on the NE side of the fault, and the wall facing the platform is mostly on the SW side of the fault.

The picture above is a close up of the active trace of the Hayward fault (the dashed red line).

The last major earthquake on the Hayward Fault was a M 6.8 in 1868. It is possible to roughly determine the recurrence interval of earthquakes like this by integrating data from many trenches along the fault. This is done through dating of lithologic horizons that were offset by fault motion. Studies like this indicate that an earthquake that is approximately like the 1868 event occur roughly every 150 years. You can read about the trenching along the Hayward Fault here.

The preceding picture shows a curb in the parking lot near the exhibit that has been deformed by creep along the fault (I blogged about creep along the San Andreas fault here). The following pictures show more dramatic examples of deformation caused by creep.

The kink in the curb by the feet of the guy in the photo was caused by creep along the fault. The photo below shows what the road surface and the curb on the opposite side of that street look like.

The cracks in the above photo are another manifiestation of the creep along the Hayward Fault.

The final photo shows another curb that's been offset by motion along the fault. By tracing offset curbs like this you can see that the Hayward Fault cuts through a lot of houses and apartment buildings.

If you're curious about faults in urban areas you should definitely visit the exhibit before it closes. It's a great chance to learn about faults and how they're studied, not to mention ways that you can be prepared for an earthquake.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006


Judge Jones on judicial independence

John Jones, the U.S. District judge who presided over the Kitzmiller case, was recently interviewed by the Philadephia Inquirer about his thoughts on judicial independence, and some of the criticisms he encountered based on his ruling in the Dover case.

One particularly strident commentary piece by conservative columnist Phyllis Schlafly, published a week after the ruling, really set Jones off.

Schlafly wrote that Jones, a career Republican appointed to the federal bench by President Bush in 2002, wouldn't be a judge if not for the "millions of evangelical Christians" who supported Bush in 2000. His ruling, she wrote, "stuck the knife in the backs of those who brought him to the dance in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District."

"The implication was that I should throw one for the home team," Jones said. "There were people who said during trial they could not accept, and did not anticipate, that a Republican judge appointed by a Republican president could do anything other than rule in the favor of the defendants."

I blogged about Schlafly's article in January. Schalfly's comments were despicable, plain and simple. Jones' loyalty should rightly be to U.S. law and not to any of his (former?) supporters.

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