Baseball writer suspended from Twitter by ESPN after defending evolution against famous pitcher

I got this from a gazillion readers, but the first two to inform me were Jason and Scott, with thanks to all the rest. But the story isn’t pretty.  Curt Shilling was a great pitcher who played with the Red Sox, the Arizona Diamondbacks, and the Philadelphia Phillies. Since 2010 he’s been a broadcast analyst for the sports network ESPN, with a break for treatment for mouth cancer, caused by his constant use of smokeless tobacco (the powdery stuff you use like chewing tobacco).

He may have been a great player and now a good broadcaster, but he doesn’t know squat about evolution. Nevertheless, he’s been tw**ting about it constantly, getting into something I cannot abide: Twi**er fights. Here are some of his tw**ts, and you can see more at Deadspin.

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Oy gewalt, he’s fallen for that old chestnut? Why are there still apes?

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I’m not sure what he means by “misses,” but there are plenty of fossils of creatures that went extinct without leaving descendants (trilobites are a famous case). And of course we have gazillions of transitional forms; you should all know about these by now.

Well, Schilling’s clearly an ignorant creationist (I’d like to send him my book), and so deserves some correction.

Unfortunately, that correction came from his ESPN colleague, senior baseball writer (and Harvard grad) Keith Law, who engaged in a twi**ter battle with Schilling and others, ardently defending evolution. Here are some of the exchanges, and Deadspin has another article showing more of them:

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Law’s last comment is very good, but of course if Twi**er allowed more characters he could have explained about transitional forms, like “dino-birds” with teeth and feathers.

But after this social-media fracas ESPN suspended Law from using Twi**er (we don’t know how long the ban will last).  Now it’s not clear whether evolution had anything to do with this: as reports, ESPN denies it:

ESPN has issued the following statement to AA on Law’s suspension:

“Keith’s Twitter suspension had absolutely nothing to do with his opinions on the subject.”

But that wording suggests that ESPN suspended him simply for squabbling with Schilling.  What other reason could there be for a Twi**er suspension? But that’s not fair, either, for Schilling was also engaged in that squabble. Right now, it’s a mystery, but if “squabbling” is the cause, Schilling should be suspended—and longer, because of his science denialism and embarrassing ignorance!

If you still want to complain to ESPN, or defend Law’s right to tw**t about what is, after all, scientific truth, there’s a simple form here (you needn’t register, just fill in the form and give them a piece of your mind). I think it’s important to let this important t.v. network know that defending good science is not something that deserves censorship.

h/t: Jason, Scott

Another messed-up sign

Okay, this sign, which appeared in the elevator of my building, is messed up. How many errors can you find? There’s one big one that is common and always peeves me.

(No fair telling me that it’s all okay because, after all, you can understand what it means. Read Pinker’s new book to see the problem with accepting such usage).


Caturday felids: a rare male tortoiseshell cat, a paper-obsessed cat, and cats giving high fives,

You know why virtually all tortoiseshell cats are female, right? It’s all due to genetics.  Well, maybe some of you don’t, so a quick explanation is in order to introduce today’s felids.

Tortoiseshell cats, or “torties,” are cats with patches of orange and black fur, and sometimes a bit of white. Here’s one:


How do they differ from calico cats? Only because calicos have more white in their fur.  But, like torties, calicos are almost always female.  Here’s a calico:


Why are these cats nearly always female? It’s because, as in humans, female cats have two similar sex chromosomes (XX), while males are XY, with the Y chromosome largely genetically inert (it does carry sex-determining genes).  It turns out that the X chromosome (but not the depauperate Y) carries a gene that affects fur color, and that gene has two forms, a “black” form and an “orange” form.

The other thing you need to know is that, during development of females, one X chromosome is completely inactivated in each cell. That has evolved to keep the “dosage” of gene products identical between the sexes. So an XY male produces product from one X chromosome, and so do XX females, because one X is switched off in each cell (this mechanism is called “dosage compensation”).

The inactivation occurs at different stages of development, and is random, so, for example, early in development one cat embryo cell will have one of its X’s inactivated, and all the descendants of that cell will have the same X inactivated.  But since inactivation doesn’t occur at the very beginning, a live female cat will be a mosaic, with one of the X’s inactivated in part of its body and the other X in other parts. Which X is inactivated seems to be random.

So imagine a female cat with two X chromosomes, one carrying the gene coding for black fur, and the other for orange.  If the black-gene-carrying X is inactivated, those epidermal cells will express only the orange gene, producing orange fur. If the “orange” X is inactivated, the cat makes black fur. If a female carries both forms of the gene (i.e. she’s a “heterozygote” for black-X and red-X), the random inactivation of X’s will lead to a cat having patches of red and black fur, i.e., a tortie.  Males, having only one X, cannot be mosaics, and so will be either all black or all red. That is why male calicos and torties are almost nonexistent.

What about the calicos? Well, to be a calico you still have to have red and black patches, ergo you have to be female, but some of these cats have an additional gene, called “piebald”, which is not on the sex chromosomes. That gene has a form, S, causing white spotting (Hili has it), and is dominant over the alternative form “s”, so if you have two copies of the piebald form (S/S) you get white patches, if one copy (S/s) copies you have smaller white patches, and if you have no copies (s/s) you don’t have any white.  The only difference between calicos and torties, then, is that calicos have at least one S form of the gene as well as being heterozygous for the X-linked black and red genes.  Male cats, of course, can also show piebaldness, since the gene is not on a sex chromosome.

If you want this all explained with diagrams, go here, or go here for a longer explanation.

That is a long-winded but necessary introduction to a true rarity, a male tortoiseshell cat named Harry who has shown up at a cat shelter in Bonnyrigg, Scotland; his owners were allergic to his fur. Here’s the cutie, just a 3-month-old kitten:

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Harry with Nicola Zelent from Lothian Cat rescue, photos from the Daily Record (link above):Screen Shot 2014-11-22 at 8.48.42 AM

How can you have a male tortoiseshell cat? It has to have two X chromosomes to get that fur pattern. But it also needs a Y chromosome to be a male. And, indeed, the rare male torties have the chromosome constitution XXY, and are heterozygous for the X-linked fur-color genes. But because their sex chromosome balance is messed up, these male cats are sterile; they are, in effect, “intersexes,” but I suspect are identified as males because they have male-like genitals.  To quote from the article:

Margaret Riddell [the vet] said: “When I heard the cat was called Harry, I said to the owners, ‘I think that might have to be a Harriet’.

“I had to change my words when I discovered it was male. I’ve never seen one before and I’ve been a vet for more than 30 years.”

Well, it’s not really a “male” in the conventional sense; it’s an intersex. But no matter, it’s rare, it’s cute, and the good news is that it doesn’t have to be neutered.

The XXY condition occurs in humans, too, though rarely (in roughly 1 in 1000 individuals identified as male). It produces what’s called Klinefelter Syndrome. Because of the unbalanced sex chromosomes, that condition, as in cats, produces sterile males as well as a variety of traits described by the NIH:

Affected individuals typically have small testes that do not produce as much testosterone as usual. Testosterone is the hormone that directs male sexual development before birth and during puberty. A shortage of testosterone can lead to delayed or incomplete puberty, breast enlargement (gynecomastia), reduced facial and body hair, and an inability to have biological children (infertility). Some affected individuals also have genital differences including undescended testes (cryptorchidism), the opening of the urethra on the underside of the penis (hypospadias), or an unusually small penis (micropenis).

I suspect that an inspection of Harry’s willy (note the two royal names) would show abnormal but male-looking genitals.


Okay, enough biology for the morning. Here’s a cat with paper-related OCD in a video that’s garnered 1.8 million views in the last nine days. Who knows what it’s up to?


College Humor has a series of gifs showing cats giving high fives. Here are a few:






Finally, as lagniappe, at the latest Oatmeal the cats get their back:



Readers’ wildlife photographs

First I have two photos from the reader known as “the shorteared owl,” but sadly I’ve lost the IDs and notes. But readers (or the photographer) can help identify these lepidopterans:



Two birds from Stephen Barnard in Idaho:

Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) with landing gear retracted. I was photographing some mallards when he flew over the flock looking for cripples. (It’s hunting season.) I’m thinking that the photo I sent you of a Northern Harrier attacking a merganser was a case of mistaken identity on the part of the hawk. Megansers ride low in the water, and I think the harrier mistook it for a mallard cripple. It was in the middle of a bunch of mallards. Mallards are very strong fliers. I’ve never seen  a hawk attack a healthy one.


Also, a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) living up to its nickname of shitepoke.


And two flies (yay!) from reader Dom:

The dipterans are Empididae – ‘dance’ flies, whose males give insect gifts to get females to mate with them – no dead insect, no union!  I would guess that these are females from the pointed abdomen but I really am not sure.  The species is probably Empis opaca, but it is I think only the red femur is all that distinguishes it from Empis tessellata.  Dipteran experts can correct me!

Empid 1

Extra points for knowing what species the flowers are – I thought field scabious – Knautia arvensis - but I am not terribly good with flowers…

Empid 2



Extra points for knowing what species the flowers are – I thought field scabious – Knautia arvensis - but I am not terribly good with flowers…


Saturday: Hili dialogue

I think Hili is messing with Andrzej, but you have to admit she’s cute:

Hili: Ceiling Cat appeared on the window pane!
A: I don’t see anything from this side.
Hili: Your faith is not strong enough.


In Polish:
Hili: Ceiling Cat pokazał się na szybie!
Ja: Z tej strony nic nie widzę.
Hili: Twoja wiara nie jest dość mocna.

Giant panda plays in the snow

I guess I always end the work week with a cute animal video. That’s for me, as I need it.  Here’s a good one from the Toronto Zoo via VetSTREET, showing what they describe as “bear bogganing”. The scientific name of the giant panda is Ailuropoda melanoleuca, which I translate as “black and white cat-footed animal.” There’s not much felinity in this lumbering beast, though.

As heavy, wet snow began to come down Monday morning, security cameras caught the 6-year-old giant panda romping, playing and sliding down hills in the white stuff. He made a snack out of it, too. The bear, who arrived at the zoo with his partner, Er Shun, in March 2013, showed his love for snow last winter, too. The zoo has dubbed his antics “bear-bogganing.”

Perhaps this isn’t play, but just a bear that can’t keep its footing. Whaddya think?

h/t: Diane G

A distinction without a difference: Montgomery County schools keep Jewish and Christian holidays, but remove their names

Religiously-based holidays like Christmas and Easter are too deeply ingrained in the American school system to remove the breaks they offer for students; it would be daft to try to eliminate them, even though, I suppose, you could make a legal case that it’s favoring religion.  Those holidays also offend some of those of other faiths, like Jews and Muslims. (Some schools now let students off on Jewish holidays like Yom Kippur.)

Muslims, though, don’t get a break. They asked the Montgomery County, Maryland school board to give time off (and highlight) their own religious holiday of Eid al-Adha, the “Feast of Sacrifice” that, bizarrely, honors Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son Isaac on orders of Yahweh (or Allah). In other words, this is a holiday celebrating the brutality and solipsism of the Old Testament God, and humans’ submission to insane divine orders.

But that wasn’t a concern for Montgomery County, for the school board had to deal with the problem of religious equality and Muslim anger.

The solution: they just kept the holidays but struck the religious names off the calendar. According to the Washington Post:

Montgomery’s Board of Education voted 7 to 1 Tuesday to eliminate references to all religious holidays on the published calendar for 2015-2016, a decision that followed a request from Muslim community leaders to give equal billing to the Muslim holy day of Eid al-Adha.

In practical terms, Montgomery schools will still be closed for the Christian and Jewish holidays, as in previous years, and students will still get the same days off, as planned.

Board members said Tuesday that the new calendar will reflect days the state requires the system to be closed and that it will close on other days that have shown a high level of student and staff absenteeism. Though those days happen to coincide with major Christian and Jewish holidays, board members made clear that the days off are not meant to observe those religious holidays, which they say is not legally permitted.

Here are the new names:

School officials said the time off in December would become “winter break,” while the time off around the Easter holiday would be called “spring break.” Other days, such as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, would be simply listed as a day when there is “no school for students and teachers.”

That, of course, is meaningless. For the holidays will always fall within the break. Yom Kippur and Easter move from year to year, and the “breaks” will always move with the movable holidays.

Of course the Muslims are peeved: they still get no days off for their holidays, only “excused absences.” As one Muslim leader observed, correctly,

“They would remove the Christian holidays and they would remove the Jewish holidays from the calendar before they would consider adding the Muslim holiday to the calendar,” she said.

And Christians are angry, too: how dare the county “cancel Christmas”? Of course, the kids will still be home for Christmas, but the holiday won’t be officially named “Christmas.” There are over 2600 comments on the Post piece. The Post took a poll asking readers “Do you support the decision to remove religious holiday names from the calendar.” The results as of today (I had to vote “yes” to see the results):

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God bless America!

I don’t have a solution, nor do I want to offer one, but the problem will become more pressing as our nation becomes more multicultural. Right now I just want to snicker at Montgomery County’s perspicacious solution to the problem.

h/t: Stephen Muth

John Loftus’s recent book on the Outsider Test for Faith

I’ve finally finished reading theology, though I suspect I’ll dip into it now and again when my stomach feels strong enough. Now I can cleanse my brain by reading some heathen literature, and have just finished John Loftus’s book, The Outsider Test for Faith: How to Know Which Religion is Really True (Prometheus, published March, 2013).  I recommend it to readers, particularly those who haven’t followed John’s scattered writings about this idea:


I’ve written about the Outsider Test for Faith (OTF) before, and you can read an early version of John’s idea here. It’s a simple idea, but one that nobody had formally proposed as a way to gauge whether one’s religious beliefs are “correct.” In this book, John present the theory in extenso and discusses (and rebuts) some of the criticisms offered by religionists like Alvin Plantinga.

As Thomas Henry Huxley remarked when hearing about Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and the idea of natural selection, “How extremely stupid not to have thought of that.” That’s the way I felt when I heard about the OTF. Loftus first notes that the vast majority of believers get their religion from their geographic location, for that’s where one’s parents, peers, and clerics are. If you’re born in Saudi Arabia, chances are high you’ll be a Sunni Muslim; if you’re born in Brazil, in all likelihood you’ll be a Catholic (see the map below).

That means that virtually no people choose their religion after weighing all possible religions or even more than one religion (in fact, in some Muslim countries you can be killed for choosing anything but Islam). Rather, people assume a faith by simply inheriting their beliefs, largely through indoctrination.  Is that any way to choose something that people consider of the greatest import? After all, if you choose wrongly, many religions say you’ll be consigned to the pit of Hell. Other religions maintain that only their adherents (and not all of them) will go to Paradise, while others simply vanish into nothingness after death. Very few religions claim that they’re no truer than any other religion.

So isn’t it the rational thing to do to scrutinize existing faiths before you choose one? That’s the basis for John’s OTF, which is summarized below, from pp. 16-17 of his book:

It is highly likely that any given religious faith is false and quite possibly that they could all be false. At best there can only be one religious faith that is true. At worst they could all be false.

. . . So I propose that: . . . The only way to rationally test one’s culturally adopted religious faith is from the perspective of an outsider with the same level of reasonable skepticism believers already use to examine the other religious faiths they reject. This expresses the Outsider Test for Faith (OTF).

Of course, if you do that properly, you’re going to wind up an atheist, for every believer dismisses all other faiths as lacking evidence. If you take that attitude towards your own faith, you should abandon that, too. And that is the point. The beliefs most important to people are, as we know, not only irrational in content, but irrational in how they were chosen.

A lot of the book is occupied by John’s discussion of challenges from believers, including those who think the OTF shows that their religion really is best (Plantinga is one of these) and those who claim that there should be an “outsider test for atheism” (that’s ridiculous given that atheism is based on the view that one requires evidence for belief).

The book ends with two cute maps, showing the difference between disparate and divisive religious beliefs and the unifying nature of scientific inquiry. The colored maps below come from John’s website, Debunking Christianity:

Modern Distribution of World Religions

World Distribution of Modern Science




The Republican punishment of Obama begins

Actually, this has surely been in the works for a while, but was just announced this last hour on CNN. House Speaker John Boehner says that House Republicans have filed a lawsuit against Obamacare, in particular faulting Obama’s “unilateral actions” in pushing it.  I know nothing about the allegations that would lead to a real lawsuit, but presumably they’re claiming that the President somehow violated the law.

The rest of the short report:

“Time after time, the president has chosen to ignore the will of the American people and re-write federal law on his own without a vote of Congress. That’s not the way our system of government was designed to work. If this president can get away with making his own laws, future presidents will have the ability to as well. The House has an obligation to stand up for the Constitution, and that is exactly why we are pursuing this course of action,” Boehner said in a statement.

The news came just minutes after Boehner spoke at press conference in Washington on Obama’s executive orders on immigration.

Boehner said he “will not stand idle as the President undermines the rule of law, ” but gave no specifics on how congressional Republicans would respond to the president’s executive action on immigration.

Let me rewrite Boehner’s last words. “Boehner said he ‘will not stand idle as the President allows brown people into this country and tries to get medical care for everyone, including the poor.'”

Lord, what a blight on this land Republicans are.

Immigration reform at last!

I know some readers think Obama is equivalent to Stalin in his policies and actions, but I think that’s completely nuts. In general, he’s been a good President, has gotten the economy moving, gotten health care enacted, and is pulling the U.S. out of our futile entanglements in the Middle East. And really, would you have preferred Romney?

But if he has one overweening failure, it’s his confidence that he could work with the Republicans in Congress to enact bipartisan reform, particularly of immigration.  That was dumb: the Republican agenda consists of four words: Defeat Anything Obama Wants.  It took a while for Obama to realize this, and then he stalled his own action on immigration reform until after the mid-term elections, hoping that this cowardly delay would help the Democrats.

Well, we know how that worked out. So, yesterday, Obama announced a fairly comprehensive plan of immigration reform, to be implemented by executive order. I didn’t watch his speech since the details had already been released, but here are a few provisions as reported in today’s New York Times and CNN:

  • Five million illegal immigrant will be protected from deportation.
  • Four million of those can apply for legal status and receive Social Security cards, so long as they are parents of legal U.S. citizen (children born here or their children who received legal status already), have been in the U.S. five years or longer. and pass background checks. They will be required to pay U.S. taxes but will not (I think) be eligible for “Obamacare”.
  • Children who were brought here illegally (the “dreamers”) will be allowed to stay.
  • A federal program that allowed document checks of people stopped for small offenses like traffic violations will be ended.
  • On the enforcement side, gang members and criminals will be increasingly targeted for prosecution or deportation, and there will be new provisions and funding to stem the flow of illegal immigrants (good luck with that!)

This was the right thing to do.  These immigrants, though often characterized as parasites on the U.S. economy, do many of the necessary but onerous jobs that Americans don’t want. Many busboys and dishwashers in Chicago, for example, are undocumented Hispanics. This gives them a chance to work their way out of poverty and to fulfill something I still believe in: the “American dream.”  There’s no way we can simply prosecute and deport every one of the millions of people who are here illegally.

So chalk one up for the President, even if this action was deferred too long.  He learned his lesson about Republicans the hard way: they have no interest in ruling by consensus with the executive branch.

Two problems remain. First, there’s the goddam Republicans, who, incensed that Obama is letting brown people stay in the country, are threatening reprisal—either further pushback of Democratic legislation or even a shutdown of the government.  That is the action of a petulant child. The only immigration “reform” most Republicans want is to keep all non-white people out of the country.

Second, it will be nearly impossible to stem the tide of immigrants, or so I think. Walls don’t stop them, police don’t stop them; nothing, it seems, will stop them. Life is simply better here—even as a low-wage undocumented worker with a crummy job—than in places like Honduras or much of Mexico. So the flow of immigrants is a problem deferred, not a problem solved.

One thing I noticed in all this debate: “illegal immigrant” or “illegal alien” has been replaced with the term “undocumented immigrant.” I wasn’t aware of this transformation, but I found one report saying that “illegal” is offensive to such people.  I find that bizarre, for they truly did come into this country illegally, and, after all, “undocumented” means “a worker without legal documents.” This is the kind of euphemism, propagated by immigration reformers, that is supposed to defuse the illegality of what happened.  (Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language” gives many examples.) But let us make no mistake; these people came here illegally. Nevertheless, the fact that they broke the law (many out of sheer desperation) is irrelevant to the justice that Obama meted out yesterday.


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