Thursday, March 24, 2005

The Hammesfahr Affair

On Tuesday, The Daily Howler published this essay about Dr. William Hammesfahr. The previous night Hammesfahr had appeared on MSNBC's Scarborough Country to speak on behalf of the parents of Terry Schiavo. The good doctor was described as a “Nobel Prize nominee” and he proceeded to contradict all of the medical facts you've heard reproted elsewhere.

It turns out Hammesfahr is not quite so impressive as he seems. As reported by the Howler:

Like last night, for example. Consider the impressive Hammesfahr, the brilliant Nobel Prize nominee. Here’s what we found when we ran a search: Three years ago, David Sommer of the St. Petersburg Times reported that Hammesfahr “advertises himself as a nominee for a Nobel Prize based on a letter his congressman wrote to the Nobel committee.” Yes, Hammesfahr was “nominated” for the Nobel Prize by his Republican congressman, Peter Bilirakis, back in 1999! And uh-oh! In 2003, William Levesque of the St. Peterburg Times described more of Hammesfahr’s brilliance:

LEVESQUE (10/25/03): In a 2002 order by Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge George Greer ruling that Mrs. Schiavo could not recover, Greer labeled Hammesfahr a “self-promoter.”

The judge noted that Hammesfahr testified that he had treated patients worse off than Mrs. Schiavo yet “offered no names, no case studies, no videos and no test results to support his claim.”

Of course, viewers weren’t told that in Scarborough Country, just as they weren’t told that the brilliant expert’s “Nobel nomination” came from his local Republican hack. We’ve lived in two Americas for years. This week has been no exception.

Ed Brayton has further details here:

As if that isn't bad enough, the man also had his license suspended for 6 months by the Florida Board of Medicine in 2003 for ethical violations. You can read their ruling here. Naturally, Hammesfahr has been trotted out to repeat his nonsense all over the conservative media, from the 700 Club to Hannity and Colmes. And he's also been cited by our old pals at the Discovery Institute, who call him a “world-renowned expert in cases such as Terri's — and a Nobel Prize nominee”. Credulity, thou art a useful muse.

See the originals for links.

Pretty standard stuff. The right-wing media is relying on frauds and cranks to make its case. So what else is new?

Well, every once in a while an ignorance peddler like Scarborough gets called on his lack of journalistic standards. That happened on last night's Scarborough Country, in a discussion between Scarborough and guest Al Franken:

FRANKEN: I’ll tell you how we’re taking care of this lady.

Most people in the polling that’s been done would not want to live like she’s living. She brain-dead. Now, here’s where a lot of misinformation has been passed, including by you, Joe. The other night, you said this and you said it four times. This is how you teased this. “And a Nobel Prize-nominated neurologist who has treated Terri Schiavo, he says Terri should live and that her husband is perpetrating a hoax that is just aimed at killing his wife.”

This Dr. Hammesfahr is not a Nobel Prize nominee. You said that four times. He did not treat her. You said that four times. You have to do your research, Joe. There is no such thing as a Nobel Prize nominee. Now, he claims to be a Nobel Prize nominee because a letter was written to the Nobel Committee by Representative Mike Bilirakis. Is that how you pronounce his...

SCARBOROUGH: I know you want to get down in the weeds. And if you want to come back on some other night...

FRANKEN: This is not getting down in the weeds.

SCARBOROUGH: ... and you want to debate me on Dr. Hammesfahr, who—it’s amazing. He had a great reputation until he went after Schiavo’s husband.

FRANKEN: This is not getting down in the weeds, Joe.

SCARBOROUGH: And then, all of a sudden, he got attacked. People that filed affidavits against Schiavo got attacked.

So Scarborough puts on a dishonest quack to distort the medical facts in an attempt to justify his own view of the matter, and Franken is the one who is getting down in the weeds for pointing it out. Lovely.

Creation Watch

The good folks at CSICOP have put up a website by that name. It is another excellent resource for information on evolution and creationism. Best of all, I will be writing essays for them on a roughly monthly basis. My first one is now up. Enjoy!

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Fischer Update

The Bobby Fischer saga seems to be drawing to a close. When last we saw him he was wallowing in a Japanese prison for trying to leave the country on an invalid passport. Fischer has been a fugitive from the United States since 1992 for violating trade sanctions against the then Yugoslavia.

Now it seems that the Parliament of Iceland has granted citizenship to Fischer, and that he should be released from prison before long.

Iceland's Parliament voted Monday to grant citizenship to the American chess star Bobby Fischer, laying the groundwork, his supporters said, for his release from the Japanese prison where he has been held since last summer.

“We are most happy,” said Einar Einarsson, a spokesman for a committee that has been trying to free Mr. Fischer from Japan, where he is being detained while he fights deportation to the United States.

Mr. Einarsson, who called Mr. Fischer “part of our modern saga and part of our recent history,” said that the 62-year-old chess champion might be released “in only a few days” and that an Icelandic delegation planned to travel to Tokyo to escort him back to Reykjavik.

Why Iceland? It was in Reykjavik in 1972 that Fischer defeated then World Chess Champion Boris Spassky in what is inarguably the most famous chess match in history. As the article goes on to explain:

But while the United States - which is also investigating the possibility of charging him with tax evasion - regards Mr. Fischer as a fugitive from justice, in Iceland he is seen as a national hero. It was in Reykjavik in 1972 that he defeated the Russian world champion, Boris Spassky, in an electrifying cold war chess contest that pitted East against West.

As much as the African-American track star Jesse Owens's defeat of Hitler's Aryan athletes did at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Mr. Fischer's victory in Iceland seemed to symbolize nothing less than the triumph of one way of life over another - in this case, democracy over Communism.

Happy Birthday to The Panda's Thumb!

The Panda's Thumb has now neen online for a full year. In that short time it has established itself as one of the most important internet resources for information on evolution and creationism. I am honored to be a part of it. The always excellent Wesley Elsberry has posted some further thoughts on the subject in this post.

Moore on Proper Medical Training

The following conversation took place on MSNBC's Hardball last night. The full transcript is available here. The host of the show is Chris Matthews. He was speaking to Roy Moore, the Alabama judge who was forced to remove a monument of the Ten Commandments from the rotunda of his courthouse.

MATTHEWS: You go back to Genesis.


MATTHEWS: Do you think Genesis should be part of our public life? Should we believe in it as written?


MOORE: I think Genesis was the basis upon which life, liberty, and property were put in the Fifth and 14th Amendments to the United States Constitution. For example, life was defined out of Genesis as the immediate gift of God, a right inherent nature in every individual, and it begins in contemplation of law as soon as the infant stirs in its mother‘s womb. There were similar definitions for liberty and...

MATTHEWS: But when we create public schools that have to teach science...

MOORE: Sure.

MATTHEWS: Usually by high school level, teach biology, for example.

MOORE: Sure.

MATTHEWS: How do you teach Genesis as true biology, true science?

MOORE: I don‘t think you teach Genesis as the science. You teach the creationism.

MATTHEWS: Well, creationism. Well, isn‘t that—is that a scientific belief?


MOORE: That is a scientific belief in many opinions, yes.

MATTHEWS: Not opinions, but is it scientific belief? In other words, if you send someone to medical school, would you want them to study creationism as part of their biology testing and education?

MOORE: I would. I sure would.

MATTHEWS: You would want them to study creationism?

MOORE: Sure. Sure.

MATTHEWS: What value would that have in their training?


MOORE: Because there‘s no—there‘s no scientific evidence of evolution. Evolution is a theory and has been recognized so by many. You have always heard of the missing link, haven‘t you?


MOORE: It is still missing. In other words, they can‘t explain how male and female came and every species from one atom or one amoeba.

MATTHEWS: So, when you study all the kingdoms and you study all those things in schools.

MOORE: Sure.

MATTHEWS: You had to study it, too, like I did, right?

MOORE: Sure.

MATTHEWS: You have Homo sapiens. Do you believe in those distinctions, man and there‘s certainly—there‘s the primates.


MOORE: ... you‘re asking my personal belief...

MATTHEWS: No, I‘m asking what your scientific belief is, what we should teach our doctors.

MOORE: My scientific belief is that we were created. And it is clearly evident in the system of the universe.

MATTHEWS: In the days of creation.

MOORE: That‘s my personal belief, yes.

MATTHEWS: No, but, see, you can‘t have that—you can‘t have that institutionalized belief in terms of a society. You can‘t hold to the fact that we were created in seven days if there was no such thing as seven days until there was a sun and there was an Earth. That‘s what a day is.

MOORE: There are different beliefs.

MATTHEWS: The relationships—no, no.


MATTHEWS: The definition of a day is the relation between the Earth and the sun.

MOORE: Yes, sure.

MATTHEWS: Before God—God couldn‘t have operated under a calendar of days before he created the sun.

MOORE: Sure. I don‘t...

MATTHEWS: How can he do that? It doesn‘t make any logical sense.

MOORE: Well, my personal belief is literal, that there were seven days. But...

MATTHEWS: You‘re holding to a reverence for belief. I understand completely.


MATTHEWS: Religion is about belief.


MATTHEWS: But is it something you can teach in terms of science in school?

MOORE: I think creationism is something you can teach in terms of science in school. Yes, I do.

MATTHEWS: Well, how can you teach that it is scientifically possible to have days before there‘s a sun?

MOORE: Well, when you‘re talking about creationism, how can you teach that there wasn‘t? How can you teach the negative?

MATTHEWS: No, I‘m just saying...


MATTHEWS: I‘m just talking about logic. I‘m just...


MATTHEWS: This is obviously very sensitive to many people.

MOORE: Sure.

MATTHEWS: I agree that two out of five Americans believe in the days of creation as written in Genesis verbatim. I accept that.

MOORE: I think...

MATTHEWS: But I‘m talking about public schools and how you organize, how you teach kids to be doctors, how you train them to think logically for law and other practices. Can you do that in the context of a complete fundamentalist religious commitment? Can you do that? Or do you have to separate?


MOORE: No, I don‘t think you separate God from the state, the God that created man from the state.


MOORE: That‘s not separation of church and state.

And I think, in a state nation which was begun on the premise that we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, it absolutely makes no sense for the government to mandate that there is no creation. The very basis of the Declaration was that God give us rights and government was to secure those rights. If you teach there is no God, there‘s no creation...


Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Congress' Shame

How disgusting has Congress been in its handling of the Terry Schiavo case? Check out this fine essay by Slate's Dahlia Lithwick:

Whether Terri Schiavo will live or die in the coming days has come down to this: Can federal district judge James Whittemore set aside virtually every bedrock constitutional principle on which this nation was founded, just so members of the United States Congress may constitutionalize the nowhere-to-be-found legal principle that a “culture of life” is a good thing?

This morning's decision by Congress and President Bush—to authorize new federal legislation that will obliterate years of state court litigation, and justify re-inserting a feeding tube into Terri Schiavo, based on new and illusory federal constitutional claims—is not about law. It is congressional activism, plain and simple; legislative overreaching and hubris taken to absurd extremes.

Let's be clear: The piece of legislation passed late last night, the so-called “Palm Sunday Compromise,” has nothing whatever to do with the rule of law. The rule of law in this country holds that this is a federalist system—in which private domestic matters are litigated in state, not federal courts. The rule of law has long provided that such domestic decisions are generally made by competent spouses, as opposed to parents, elected officials, popular referendum, or the demands of Randall Terry. The rule of law also requires a fundamental separation of powers—in which legislatures do not override final, binding court decisions solely because the outcome is not the one they like. The rule of law requires comity between state and federal courts—wherein each respects and upholds the jurisdiction and authority of the other. The rule of law requires that we look skeptically at legislation aimed at mucking around with just one life to the exclusion of any and all similarly situated individuals.

See the original for links. Since this was written, Judge Whittemore has ruled against Schiavo's parents

You might also have a look at this column, by Robert Scheer writing for the Los Angeles Times:

I cannot remember a time when Congress and the president have acted with more egregious political opportunism and shameless trafficking in human misery than last weekend, leaping into the 15-year-long Terri Schiavo saga at the last possible moment as grandstanding defenders of the defenseless.

Although Schiavo's relatives on both sides of the issue are assuredly acting in good faith, national politicians certainly are not.

That was clear even before ABC News revealed the contents of a memo circulating among Senate Republicans that trilled over how exploiting this complex case in the most simplistic way would “excite” the GOP base and would be “a great political issue.”

Otherwise, they would have taken up this tortuous issue in earnest long ago. Better yet, they should have trusted the Florida state legal system and doctors who have examined Schiavo's case over and over again.

Instead, facing a media storm dominated by heart-rending but inconclusive video clips of Schiavo, Republican demagogues led by Rep. Tom DeLay (D-Texas) — who is battling ethics problems — took the easy, cynical way out. They rushed through a bill, past cowed Democrats, that moves the case to federal court and applies only to Schiavo's parents.

And to complete the trifecta, have a look at this post from Ed Brayton about the always vile Tom DeLay:

Such moral myopia. Such narcissism. Yeah, Tom, it's all about you and your political beliefs. God was so concerned about the future of your political movement that he decided to strike this woman down in the prime of her life, beginning a decade and a half of anguish for everyone who cared about her. He planted the thoughts in the minds of her husband and her parents to start a big legal battle over it so it would blow up into a political issue just so that you and your pals could fight back against your political enemies. Because after all, it's all about you. And God loves you so much he's willing to necrotize the brain of an innocent victim just to help you score some political points later on.

What could DeLay have said to trigger this entirely appropriate response? Go check it out for yourself!

Insanity from ARN. Surprise!

Every time I think the Access Research Network has published the dumbest thing imaginable, they go publish something new to prove me wrong.

The following brief missive was written by ARN contirbutor Tom Magnussen, whose gift for imaginative stupidity will be well-familiar to loyal ARN readers. Magnussen is charged with providing brief summaries for the news articles ARN sees fit to link to.

Magnussen was discussing this PBS interview with Harvard biology professor Andy Knoll. Here, in their entirety, are Magnussen's comments, exactly as they originally appeared:

While this interview on PBS occurred last year, no new discoveries have been made since. Andrew Knoll is a professor of biology at Harvard University.

Dr. Knoll stated a number of times that we do not know how life came about on planet earth. In science, since he CANNOT even consider extra-natural means, he MUST use the evolutionary paradigm as the creation story. If he have no idea how it happened, how does he know that it happened? Because we're here!...and Darwinism just has to be true! How convincing!

Darwinists often become irritated when it is pointed out that we have NO idea how life started. This fact is a defeater of evolution. They say that Darwinism is not about how life got started, but rather, how life evolved. Sorry, but they need to explain the kick off as well.

So if we do not know how something happened we can not be certain that it happened at all? That's going to come as news to people like William Dembski, whose writings routinely assert that we can infer the action of a designer in nature without knowing anything about who the designer is or how he carried out his will. Since ID folks steadfastly refuse to tell us anything at all about the designer or his actions, Magnussen's ridicule applies with equal force to them.

Of course, it's ridiculous to claim that we have no idea how life started. As described here, we know quite a bit about the likely steps that led to the first living organism. There is no shortage of possible scenarios to explain the emergence of life. These scenarios are united by the fact that they hypothesize nothing that is known to be impossible, and that is enough to refute the claim that supernatural action must be invoked to explain life's origin.

But let's suppose we genuinely had no idea how life emerged. Would that justify Magnussen's comment about evolution being defeated? Of course not, and for precisely the reason he mentions. Evolution has nothing to do with the origin of life. Magnussen's statement that “evolution must explain the kickoff as well” makes as much sense as suggesting that since evolution does not enable us to predict eclipses, it must be arrant nonsense.

For heaven's sake, what could Magnussen possibly be suggesting here? That we should simply discard all the evidence for common descent and natural selection because we have not yet explained the origin of life? The fossil evidence, the studies in comparitive genomics and anatomy, the embryological evidence, the field studies of natural selection and observed instances of evolution in the wild, and the many other branches of science that suggest common descent count for nothing because the origin of life has not been explained? Is that what Magnussen believes?

As for Knoll, I guess we can all feel some sympathy for the guy, being constitutionally unable to even conceive that supernatural forces were responsible for life's origin. On the other hand, we ought to least show him the courtesy of letting him say for himself what he thinks about the origins of life:

NOVA: What is the recipe for life?

Knoll: The recipe for life is not that complicated. There are a limited number of elements inside your body. Most of your mass is carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, sulfur, plus some nitrogen and phosphorous. There are a couple dozen other elements that are in there in trace amounts, but to a first approximation you're just a bag of carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen.

Now, it turns out that the atmosphere is a bag of carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen as well, and it's not living. So the real issue here is, how do you take that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (or methane in an early atmosphere) and water vapor and other sources of hydrogen—how do you take those simple, inorganic precursors and make them into the building blocks of life?

There was a famous experiment done by Stanley Miller when he was a graduate student at the University of Chicago in the early 1950s. Miller essentially put methane, or natural gas, ammonia, hydrogen gas, and water vapor into a beaker. That wasn't a random mixture; at the time he did the experiment, that was at least one view of what the primordial atmosphere would have looked like.

Then he did a brilliant thing. He simply put an electric charge through that mixture to simulate lightning going through an early atmosphere. After sitting around for a couple of days, all of a sudden there was this brown goo all over the reaction vessel. When he analyzed what was in the vessel, rather than only having methane and ammonia, he actually had amino acids, which are the building blocks of proteins. In fact, he had them in just about the same proportions you would find if you looked at organic matter in a meteorite. So the chemistry that Miller was discovering in this wonderful experiment was not some improbable chemistry, but a chemistry that is widely distributed throughout our solar system.

NOVA: So life is really chemistry.

Knoll: Life really is a form of chemistry, a particular form in which the chemicals can lead to their own reproduction. But the important thing, I think, is that when we think about the origin of life this way, it isn't that life is somehow different from the rest of the planet. Life is something that emerges on a developing planetary surface as part and parcel of the chemistry of that surface.

Life is also sustained by the planet itself. That is, all of the nutrients that go into the oceans and end up getting incorporated into biology, at first they're locked up in rocks and then they are eroded from rocks, enter the oceans, and take part in a complex recycling that ensures that there's always carbon and nitrogen and phosphorous available for each new generation of organisms.

The most interesting thought of all is that not only does life arise as a product of planetary processes, but in the fullness of time, on this planet at least, life emerged as a suite of planetary processes that are important in their own right. We're sitting here today breathing an oxygen-rich mixture of air. We couldn't be here without that oxygen, but that oxygen wasn't present on the early Earth, and it only became present because of the activity of photosynthetic organisms. So in a nutshell, life is really part of the fabric of a planet like Earth.

Knoll says much more beyond this, and I recommend reading the whole interview.

Comparing Knoll's remarks to Magnussen's makes very clear what pathetic simpletons ID proponents really are. People like Magnussen do not even try to explain the origin of life. To them, ignorance of nature's workings is a good thing, since it then becomes easier to believe in God. They see the progress of science as alarming, since each new discovery seems to make God that much more superfluous. For them God's glory is found not in the ability of humans to learn, via hard work and long hours, the workings of nature, but rather in the inability of humans to solve fundamental problems. Forgive me if I am not inspired by such a God.

I'll throw my hat in with Knoll, thank you very much. Will the origin of life ever yield to scientific study? I don't know. But I do know that no mystery of nature has ever yielded to anything other than scientific study. I know that history is littered with countless examples of cowards and simpletons drawing intellectual lines in the sand only to have those lines crossed by people smarter and more imaginative than they. And I know that science is indeed making progress on the problem, Manussen's expectorations notwithstanding. Now that's inspiring.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Slamming Milbank and Broder

The Daily Howler is essential reading for anyone who needs to be convinced of just how mind-numbingly awful the American press corps really is. In today's essay they take the Wahington Posts's Dana Milbank to task for a breathtakingly stupid but entirely typical instance of phony Both-Sides-Do-It-Ism:

The press corps’ alleged bias is constantly flogged. But often, it’s harder for people to comprehend how dumb the corps really is. How big a lightweight is the Post’s Dana Milbank? In Sunday’s Outlook section, Milbank confesses to what his headline calls a “bias for mainstream news.” The scribe’s worry? “Partisans on the left and right have formed cottage industries devoted to discrediting what they dismissively call the ‘mainstream media,’” he writes. “[T]he consequences are ominous for the country,” the troubled scribe quickly explains:

MILBANK (3/20/05): Consider a poll two weeks before the 2004 election by the University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes: The survey found that 72 percent of President Bush's supporters believed that, at the time of the U.S. invasion, Iraq had stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction or at least major illegal weapons programs. It also found that 75 percent of Bush voters believed that Iraq either gave al Qaeda “substantial support” or was directly involved in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Further, majorities of Bush supporters believed that U.S. weapons inspector Charles Duelfer and the 9/11 commission backed them up on these points.

“It’s fine to argue about the merits of the Iraq war, but these views are just plain wrong,” Milbank writes. But we think you know the brain-dead rules that drive the work of Milbank’s cohort. If you say that conservatives are grossly misinformed, you must instantly say the same thing about liberals! Just like that, Milbank delivers:

MILBANK: This is not to pick on Bush followers. Many on the left harbor their own fantasies that they consider fact—about how Bush knew of 9/11 in advance, or how he was coached during one of the presidential debates via a transmitter between his shoulder blades.

Two decades ago, the late senator-scholar Daniel Patrick Moynihan remarked that “everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” Now, ideologues are claiming their own facts as well.

But how many people “on the left” believe that Bush “knew of 9/11 in advance?” Is it anything like 75 percent, the number Milbank has just cited in discussing those disinformed Bush supporters? And how many people “on the left” actually believe, as a matter of fact, that Bush was coached during that debate? In these cases, Milbank cites no polling data, because there is no poll on the face of the earth which would produce anything like the type of equivalence he so slavishly seeks here. Could liberals be as factually deluded, one fine day, as conservatives currently are? Of course they could, but that day hasn’t come. But so what? Milbank presents nonsense about Bush and 9/11 because it supports a gutless approach his flyweight cohort insists on. (Emphasis in original; See original post for links)

Exactly right. What makes this even more disturbing is that Milbank isn't a lightweight. Back when he wrote for The New Republic he was a consistently sensible commentater on political issues. Since moving to the Post, however, he has been forced to water down his writing with the sort of nonsense the Howler commented on above.

They go on to bash the always worthless David Broder for his latest bit of inanity. Go have a look!

The Schiavo Case

Ed Brayton has spared me the trouble of commenting on the Terry Schiavo case, since he has gotten it exactly right in this post (as has Radley Balko here).

Two highlights:

Congress is engaged in shameless grandstanding with their absurd efforts to intervene in a situation where they simply have no authority. Balko also correctly points out that this grandstanding is being done by the very people who advocate federalism and judicial restraint, yet here they are frantically trying to get the federal courts to intervene where they have no authority. The Supreme Court rightly refused to get involved.


You have to feel for the parents and family who want to keep her alive. But they are acting purely on emotion. You can understand their emotions, certainly, but that doesn't mean the courts should act on those emotions. They have to act on the facts of the case, and at least 6 courts have now viewed that evidence and reached the same conclusion - that she is in a persistent vegitative state and will never recover, and that she had clearly expressed her desire not to be kept alive in such a circumstance.

Brayton and Balko also make the point that allowing someone to be starved to death, but not allowing active euthanasia in such a case, is monstrous. I agree completely. I see no moral distinction between allowing a person to starve to death by removing a feeding tube and simply injecting them with a drug that will kill them almost immediately. In fact, the latter strkies me as far more humane.

P. Z. Myers has the cat scan of Schiavo's brain here. That really should end the part of the debate about whether Schiavo can recover. She can't. It is an absolute travesty that the worhtless political chat shows that have been discussing the issues don't start every show with that image.