Friday, 24 August 2012

Party poopers

Anonymous has an interesting response to something I posted a while back:
Today's Tea Party is the product of infiltration by imposters, such as Beck, Sarah Palin, and even Willard the puppet Romney claims a piece of the pie.

The movement was begun by real Patriots predominantly those in the Ron Paul Revolution, all completely grassroots. This was of course extremely undesirable for those who wished to maintain control over the brainwashed masses, and infiltration has been the modus operandi since the communists moved here to America, just as Welch predicted they would, just as nearly every single thing he predicted they would do they have done.
The internecine feuding and all-enveloping paranoia will ring bells with anybody who remembers the far-left groupuscules of yore, as channelled via the Life of Brian. Happy days.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

The minotaur cyclops...

... is a faintly disturbing corkscrew that I just found when clearing out a drawer. Somebody probably brought it back from a holiday in Spain way back in the mists of time. Quite striking in its own starkly sinister way, no?

The rape troll as martyr

Republican congressman and anti-abortion fundamentalist, Todd Akin, who believes that women should be denied abortion, even when the reason for abortion is to terminate a pregnancy resulting from rape, is so extreme that he's not even wanted on Mittens Romney's travelling freak show any more. Akin made a disastrous attempt at what I can only assume was meant to be a calculated piece of liberal-baiting, to rally the troops on the religious right ('It seems to me, from what I understand from doctors, that [pregnancy resulting from rape] is really rare ... If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down...').

Akin's views were widely criticised and challenged. Unable to rise to the challenge, Akin rapidly faded from rising star of the liberal-trolling right to an object of pity for Sarah Palin  ('Bless his heart, I don't want to pile on Todd Akin'). Hasta la vista, credibility.

Except, that is, among folk whose life's work consists of trying to shift the Overton Window in the direction of an American Ayatollah-style misogynist theocracy, in which case Todd's a heroic martyr to political correctness. Steve Kellmeyer, come on down:
Everyone is jumping on Akins because he said something wrong. Nobody has really demonstrated exactly what his error is. Either what he said is true or it is not. That is, either raped women get pregnant at lower rates than the general population of sexually active women or they do not. 
Steve then goes on to torture some logic until it gives up and screams, 'Todd was right!'

The proposition, remember, is that after  a 'legitimate' rape, women's bodies have 'ways to try to shut that whole thing down'. First, Steve looks at the results of two studies of pregnancy in rape victims which, by his own admission, don't provide any evidence that rape victims are any less likely to become pregnant than women who have unprotected consensual sex with men.

Undaunted, Steve reasons that 'rapists disproportionately pick fertile females' therefore, ceteris paribus, the rate of pregnancies arising from rape should exceed the rate arising from women having unprotected consensual sex with men.The fact that it doesn't shows that raped women might be shutting down their pregnancies and lets poor, maligned, Todd Akin off the hook, at least according to Steve Kellmeyer ...

Well, I'll give this guy something - at least he clutches at straws in an original way. Steve provides an actual citation to support his assertion that rapists disproportionately pick fertile females. The article in Live Science is about variations in female libido over the course of the menstrual cycle and how men respond to those changes in fertility/libido. You could crudely sum up the article as follows. On the whole, women are more promiscuous, or at least randy, during the fertile part of their cycle. Men seem able to detect when women are in this phase of their cycle and find them correspondingly more attractive. Read the whole thing here.

Whether the results cited in Live Science are reliable or not, one obvious thing stands out. The article isn't about rapists. It's about women and men in the general population. From the context, you can infer that it's about females who are in their fertile years and men who are, exclusively or partly, heterosexual.

You might also reasonably infer that, since guys who dig the ladies prefer fertile females, straight rapists might share that preference, but there's absolutely nothing here to support the assertion that rapists have any more of a thing for fertile women than the population of straight guys in general. This article neither supports nor undermines Todd Akin's assertion, but is completely irrelevant.

In a passing moment of lucidity, Kellmeyer seems to have had an inkling that he hasn't really made his case, as he concludes that 'To my knowledge, no one has done a study to determine if rapists target fertile women during their most fertile periods, so I can't tell if Akins is wrong, but no one else seems able to prove he's wrong either [my italics]'. I guess you have to come from a deeply religious perspective to roll with that one. In general, if you make an assertion, you own it and it's up to you to back it up, but the seriously pious seem to imagine that their deeply held a priori beliefs constitute an exception to this rule and that the burden of proof (or disproof) always lies with somebody else.

In a later update to his post Kellmeyer cites a slightly more credible hypothesis (albeit suggested by an entity calling itself zendog64 that sounds more like a baby sub-Limbaugh troll than any medical authority you've ever heard of). There might be something to the notion that stress might be a mechanism that stops pregnancies proceeding. It's widely accepted that stress hormones can interfere with conception and it has also been suggested that raised cortisol levels could be be related to miscarriage, although the exact role of stress hormones after conception is disputed.

It's hardly enough to warrant a claim that Akin was right all along, though. It just shows that stress might have some measurable effect on what percentage of rape victims go on to have viable pregnancies. But Todd Akin wasn't making some cautious, qualified statement about what might happen in some cases. He wouldn't be in so much trouble if he had.

He made a bold claim about a mechanism that was so effective in 'shutting down' pregnancies resulting from rape that it was 'really rare' for a woman to become pregnant as a result of rape and also implied that medical opinion was on his side ('I understand from doctors'). Only such a bold claim would make any sense in the context of the abortion debate - the effect would have to be pretty dramatic for women to rely on rape-related pregnancies spontaneously failing to proceed, rather than seeking an early abortion, should they not want to bear the rapist's child.

When asked to put up or shut up, he wasn't able to back up his confident claim, but instead asked voters to forgive him for using the 'wrong words the wrong way'. He voiced an extreme opinion and he wasn't able to back it up. His apologists have tried to back it up, but have failed, too. They still own the burden of proof and they've still failed to make their case.

Friday, 17 August 2012

The 'F-word' 3 ('But it's not FAIR!!!')

The degree of inequality in society troubles a lot of people towards the left-ish end of the spectrum. As Anna Chen says:
MP Michael Meacher's letter to the press has been doing the rounds and points out that the richest 1,000 people make up only 0.003% of the population and yet they have made £155bn extra in the past three years, in the depths of the recession. If they paid off the entire deficit they'd still have £30bn with which to console themselves.
It doesn't seem fair, does it? More thoughtful rightists and libertarians respond that inequality, broadly speaking, is fair. It's fair, they argue, for hard-working and skillful people to enjoy greater rewards than the lazy and untalented. That's a reasonable response, up to a point, although it still leaves a hell of a lot to argue about.*

More selfish and thoughtless rightists, libertarians and trolls simply deny that fairness is an issue at all and respond to the issue with the following knee-jerk slogans:
  • A mocking 'But it's not FAIR!!!', implying that anyone who mentions perceived unfairness is just like a whiny teenager, outraged at being asked to clean his or her room.
  • 'Life's not fair - welcome to the real world'.
The first slogan is just incoherent name-calling, but the second articulates what passes for a point among such people. It's a snappy slogan that would fit nicely on a t-shirt, but it's also more or less completely beside the point.

Life is unfair - but it's generally not "life" that people are complaining about. Most arguments about unfairness are about the perceived unfairness of people, or of institutions made by people.

Take two similar children, born at the same time, in similar circumstances. One is healthy and grows up to live a long, happy and fulfilling life. The other succumbs to a rare, unanticipated, incurable genetic illness, dying in early childhood after a short life, filled with pain and suffering. That's life being unfair. If you were insensitive to a sociopathic degree, you could truthfully lecture the distraught family about life being unfair (welcome to the real world), but your comments, although accurate, would be as pointless as they were cruel.

Humans and the institutions they create can also be unfair. But humans, unlike diseases, natural disasters, random accidents and other mindless things, are conscious moral agents. They can make choices. It might be pointless to expect fairness from blind, indifferent nature, but it's perfectly reasonable to expect, want and try to obtain fairness from people and from the institutions that people create.

When it comes to their own lives, your rightists, libertarians and trolls of the selfish and thoughtless persuasion have no difficulty in detecting unfairness. If they're buying or selling something and somebody dupes them or rips them off, the unfairness of the transaction is obvious and they'll, quite reasonably, complain, try to get restitution, invoke the sanctity of contract, invoke the law, tell their friends not to have any dealings with the offender and so on, just like any ordinary person.

It's only when you come across one of these people on the Internet, defending an apparently indefensible injustice with the Pavlovian taunt that life just isn't fair and only a spoilt child or a simpleton would expect things to be any different, that you realise that they seem to be selectively blind to any form of injustice that doesn't affect them personally, or which arises from what they see as the unquestionably just operations of the market.

Humans and the institutions and rules they create are clearly not always fair. But human unfairness isn't like the inescapable, random unfairness of "life", something that other humans just have to acquire the wisdom and forbearance to accept. Human unfairness has demonstrably been successfully challenged, corrected and mitigated on numerous occasions. Faced with blatant unfairness, Rosa Parks didn't just shut up and get to the back of the bus. There doesn't seem to be any point when Nelson Mandela decided, on mature reflection, that 'this apartheid business seems a bit unfair but I mustn't keep banging on about it - after all, it wouldn't make any difference if I did'. History isn't exactly on the side of those men who wished that female suffragists would stop endlessly bending their ears about how unfair it was to be denied the vote and just get real.

Not every example of perceived unfairness is as gross and clear cut as racial discrimination, or barring half the population from exercising a vote, but practically every example of the 'life's unfair - welcome to reality' trope in social and political debates boils down to somebody using a lazy cliché that sounds sort of clever, but isn't, in place of a substantive argument.

*Just for starters, some individuals prosper not just through hard work and virtue, but through inherited or other unearned advantages, or luck, or a callous lack of empathy and moral restraint, or duplicity, or exploitation, - and, while we're at it, what's so 'fair' about the invisible hand of the market when it values the refuse collectors who keep our civilisation from drowning in a vermin-infested sea of its own waste, or the junior nurses, tasked with keeping suffering people alive and cleaning up their blood, piss, pus, shit and tears at every kind of antisocial hour of the day or night, at an insultingly tiny fraction of the 'going rate' for a potato-headed buffoon whose sole outstanding talent happens to involve kicking a football about, or some deeply unpleasant numpty who turned to be particularly useless at running a bank ?

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

The 'F-word' 2 (you gotta have faith)

It's valid, but not particularly original, to comment on the way religion is increasingly being re-branded under the warmer and more positive-sounding label of "faith". It certainly sounds more friendly and inclusive, but what does the shift mean?

The word "faith" has two distinct meanings:
  1. Complete trust or confidence in someone or something.
  2. Strong belief in God or in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof.
I wonder whether what's going on here is a spin-savvy conflation of these two meanings, so that definition 2. can hijack the positive associations that should really only attach to meaning 1.

The first definition generally refers to faith in indisputably real people, or things, or ideas. You might have faith in a friend, or a spouse, or a relative, or a colleague, or an organisation, or a way of doing something, or a product. This faith isn't based on one hundred per cent certain knowledge. Just because your friend, colleague, spouse, preferred way of doing things, favourite, brand of car has never let you down so far, there is no guarantee that the person or thing you have faith in won't let you down at some point in the future.

But it's also true that faith in such people and things isn't generally baseless. In the real world, we don't have one hundred per cent certainty because we don't have one hundred percent knowledge. But we do have some knowledge and it's reasonable working assumption that if your friend, colleague, spouse, preferred way of doing things, favourite brand of car, has a track record of reliability, you've got some reason to have faith in that person or thing. Even without direct past experience, it's possible to make judgements - there's often circumstantial evidence to suggest that a person, thing or idea is likely to be reliable and, likewise, there are often warning signs that alert us when someone, or something, is a bit dodgy.

Because it's a matter of judgement, people occasionally find that their faith has been misplaced. Circumstances can change, crucial information can be unavailable to the person who chooses to trust in x, deception happens and some people are just gullible. On the whole, though, people's faith in real world things is a reasonable judgement call based on incomplete evidence.

Most of us have got pretty good grounds for having some faith in other people. After all, we all started out as small, helpless beings, completely dependent on other humans for our very survival. And (with a few horrific exceptions) in most cases, parents and guardians manage to care, more or less effectively, for the powerless infants in their care. As we grow up we encounter people in a society that may be significantly less than perfect, but which (with a few horrific exceptions), is a long way from the Hobbesian war of all against all.

You're most likely lucky enough to have encountered at least some people you can reasonably rely on. Just as important, you've probably experienced somebody putting their faith in you. It's these bonds of mutual trust that help to make everyday life tolerable. The alternative - selfish mistrust of everybody else - leads to the dystopia of Hobbes-world. In general, being reasonably trusting and trustworthy (as opposed to the extreme of being entirely gullible), provokes similar behaviour in others and leads to a virtuous circle of reasonable behaviour. It's no wonder that we, rightly, value justified faith in those we trust most and the faith they have in us. Likewise, it's no wonder we're so outraged when we encounter the exceptions - lies, abuse of trust, or cheating.

Faith in demonstrably real people or things doesn't depend on absolute certainty, but it is a provisional thing based on reasonable, though sometimes fallible, assumptions about reality and probability. It depends on judgement and wisdom and has real, testable, outcomes in the real world. If we're wise enough to have faith in the right people and things and sound enough and lucky enough to have other people putting their faith in us, our lives are enriched. It's no wonder that people rightly value the idea of faith in this sense. (which is almost synonymous with confidence).

Definition 2. - religious faith -  is an entirely different proposition. Definition 1. involves incomplete empirical knowledge of people or things and some form of judgement about how reliable (for want of a better word) those people or things are. Definition 2. involves having an a priori "faith" that, by definition, precedes any empirical knowledge of the thing (God, gods, a spiritual realm) you have faith in. Yet, although this version of faith is founded on absolutely no empirical information (as opposed to some provisional knowledge) adherents are supposed to have absolute certainty about the thing they can't even demonstrate the existence of. In religious faith there seems to be an almost perfectly inverse relationship between the amount of evidence you have for believing in something and the strength of your belief in that thing.

You night argue that some people hold on to type 1. faith just as strongly and irrationally as others hold on to their type 2. faith. The thing is, even if we doubt the wisdom of somebody's type 1. faith in x, x is at least somebody, or something we can all agree actually exists. As for the irrational strength of that faith, I'm sure there are people whose faith in their friend/spouse/colleague is as strong as others' faith in their god. The other thing is, faith in tangible people or things is subject to a reality check. If your judgement is good and your faith in someone or something is justified, you'll observably not be let down by that person or thing. Misplaced faith is painfully obvious if your friend leaves you in the lurch, your spouse runs off with your best friend, your trusted colleague gets caught embezzling, or your pride and joy, that classic car you bought from Honest John's Motors, turns out to be a resprayed, rusting, cut n' shut death trap.

If belief is supposed to precede evidence, there's no equivalent way to test your spiritual beliefs. However life treats you, your God/gods/spiritual realm remain(s) just as invisible and intangible as ever. And the effects of the invisible and intangible spiritual realm are often so inscrutable as to be indistinguishable from plain old chance or contingency. 'God', as William Cowper put it, 'moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform'. A reality check on the things that are intangible and act in inscrutable ways is, as near as makes no difference, impossible.

Take the so-called "problem of evil". Theologians and clerics of various faiths waste oceans of ink and hours of sermonising over this one, despite their holy books, prophets and predecessors having already provided multiple answers to the problem of why bad things happen to good people. Some of the obvious answers (within religions' own internal logic) include:
  • We just don't know why - God's wisdom and reasons transcend human understanding (see William Cowper, above).
  • The people suffering aren't really innocent but have sinned in thought, word, or deed (humans being imperfect there's probably always some sin, as defined in your holy book, that nobody could escape committing).
  • Even if we can't imagine how an individual might have deserved to suffer, we might all be intrinsically sinful whatever we do or don't do (see the doctrine of original sin).
  • Even if we can't imagine how an individual might have deserved to suffer, maybe that individual did bad things in a previous life which he or she can't actually remember, but which has an effect on that person's current life (see reincarnation, karma, etc.).
  • Maybe the misfortune is all part of God's greater plan for your welfare. Say you don't get a promotion at work, At first, this seems like a real bummer. Six months later, the post you were trying to get promoted to is axed due to budget cuts, but the one you're in stays safe. Hallelujah! God was looking out for you and you didn't even know it (pity about the people who got downsized, but they were obviously either sinners who deserved it, or good folk who God will do right by in the end).
  • Maybe God's just testing your faith (see Job).
  • Maybe there's no apparent justice to what happens to you on this earth, but God's plan involves an eternal afterlife in which the just are rewarded and the wicked punished. There will be jam tomorrow (and for ever after).
And so on... With so many possibilities, it's pretty near impossible to test whether type 2. faith in a god or some higher spiritual reality matches the truth, since almost any circumstance you care to mention might conceivably represent the working out of some divine plan or other - or might alternatively (and far more plausibly) be down to chance, coincidence, sheer dumb luck and the working out of the everyday laws of nature that govern the tangible world around us.

In short, any sufficiently inscrutable god is indistinguishable from no god at all.

There are, I think, a few good reasons for the positive connotations that attach themselves to the word "faith".  I just don't think that they apply to faith of the religious sort.

Anyway, that's enough of that particular F-word. The next F-word to be filleted on the chopping board of my blog will be "fair"...

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Common people

In September of 1190, King Richard I, AKA Lionheart, was on his way to the Third Crusade, travelling down the toe of Italy, en route to his next stopover in Sicily. He'd sent his servants on ahead when he heard the cry of a hawk coming from a village hovel. Enraged that anyone so low-born should own a hunting bird, Richard seized the anomalous raptor.

The exasperated local peasants responded by throwing sticks and stones at him. Richard drew his sword and things escalated into a bad-tempered ruck ('Come and see the violence inherent in the system. Help! Help! I'm being repressed!'). The Lionheart gave the stroppiest peasant an almighty whack with the flat of his sword - which promptly snapped in two. Alone and deprived of his broadsword the Lionheart narrowly escaped with his life, but was decisively seen off by the angry mob).*

Sadly, my Ladybird biography of Richard I delayed the onset of political consciousness by omitting this interesting piece of medieval class warfare in favour of a couple of wholly imaginary fairy tales (an alleged meeting between Richard and Saladin and some stuff about the, probably fictional, Minstrel Blondel singing his way round Europe's castles in search of his kidnapped liege lord).

*This anecdote comes from the chronicles of Roger of Howden, via Frank McLynn's counter-revisionist take on the careers of King Richard I and King John, Lionheart and Lackland. I don't entirely buy McLynn's rehabilitation of Richard, although I'm willing to concede that he had specific talents and virtues not shared by members of his immediate family. If a similar incident had befallen Henry II, he'd have probably chopped the offending peasant in half, rather than using the flat of his sword, before returning with his army to exterminate the villagers. Brave King John would have most likely have bravely turned his tail and fled, before returning with his army to exterminate the villagers.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Vampire cannibals versus the raiders of Noah's Ark

In the course of a recent controversy about (allegedly) Creationist-run free schools someone's raised a really good question which made me stop and think:*
But I was wondering more generally - what is it about creationism that matters so much?  We're only talking about a couple of (contradictory) chapters of Genesis here and believing these doesn't strike me as any more or less irrational than believing in the doctrine of transubstantiation, yet the Catholic Church already runs many more schools than 'creationists'.
Yes, a belief in transubstantiation certainly seems every bit as irrational as basing your notions of geology, biology, prehistory and paleontology on Genesis:
If you wake up tomorrow morning thinking that saying a few Latin words over your pancakes will turn them into the body of Elvis Presley you have lost your mind. But if you think more or less the same thing about a cracker and the body of Jesus, you’re just a Catholic.
Clearly, the two beliefs are every bit as bonkers as one another. But there is an important difference that makes Creationism (AKA Intelligent Design) more pernicious and disruptive in the classroom. The difference is that there are people who believe in the doctrine of transubstantiation, but they don't have an organised alternative theory of 'Transubstantiationism' that sets itself up to challenge and overturn an established body of evidence-based knowledge. Let's recap what the Catholic Church has to say on the subject:
The Council of Trent summarizes the Catholic faith by declaring:

"Because Christ our Redeemer said that it was truly his body that he was offering under the species of bread, it has always been the conviction of the Church of God, and this holy Council now declares again, that by the consecration of the bread and wine there takes place a change of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of his blood. This change the holy Catholic Church has fittingly and properly called Transubstantiation".
Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1376
Somewhere in this process, wafer and wine, apparently, becomes flesh and blood, in a way that is both literal yet also completely undetectable. After all, you don't see people at the altar rail gagging and spluttering as the taste in their mouth changes from indifferent house red to the unmistakable metallic tang of blood. Neither do they chow down on a bland wafer and sense their teeth closing on a gobbet of raw flesh. Nope, the Real Presence is both literally the body and blood of Christ, but also physically indistinguishable from plain old bread and wine:
Finally, transubstantiation describes how the physical qualities of bread and wine ‑ their color, texture, taste and whatever else is perceived by the senses ‑ remain, but they lose their substance. The qualities of bread and wine remain, but their substance is replaced by the whole Christ ... Since transubstantiation means the Real Presence of Christ, it also means the real absence of bread and wine.

An impressive trick - if you're the sort of person who'd be impressed by a stage magician who claims to be pulling invisible rabbits out of hats.

But there doesn't seem to be any elaborate theory about how God/Jesus does this stealth magic trick. It's just a mystery, a miracle. You don't get devout Catholic physics or chemistry teachers wanting to teach an alternative set of truths about the physical world and rubbish what the textbooks say about covalent bonds or the conservation of energy, in order to  push a more transubstantiation-friendly explanation of how the world works. As far as I can see, you can believe in transubstantiation and also believe that the world obeys the same set of physical laws accepted by scientists, educators and just about everybody else who paid attention in school. You just happen to believe that there's also a being who can suspend those laws at will and turn wine into blood that looks and tastes just like wine, but is absolutely, definitely, in a very real sense, blood, or make bread into flesh that that still looks like bread, but totally isn't, in a way that you can't really explain. That 'also' may be completely crackers, but it doesn't affect how you use a prism to demonstrate optics, or how you make a battery out of a lemon, or teach kids about any of the other phenomena of the non-supernatural world.

The late Stephen Jay Gould had a phrase that almost fits - non-overlapping magisteria. He believed that science and religion weren't necessarily incompatible, because "the magisterium of science covers the empirical realm: what the Universe is made of (fact) and why does it work in this way (theory). The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry (consider, for example, the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty)."

I've never bought into this argument myself, because, as far as I can see, religion explicitly claims to be more than just a mashup of metaphysics, epistemology and moral philosophy. As I read it, religion does make very specific claims about certain things being factually true and bases its authority and its moral teachings on those alleged truths. But, in some specific areas, there's a grain of truth in the notion of non-overlapping magisteria. The doctrine of transubstantiation, for example, scarcely overlaps with science or treads on its toes at all. It doesn't have anything to say about how the world normally works, but just makes an apparently untestable claim that there also exists an additional, inexplicable, undetectable piece of magic. Wafer and wine are somehow literally replaced by flesh and blood, but without undergoing any observable change. Unlike Creationism, transubstantiation is more or less untestable, un-disprovable and beyond the scope of scientific enquiry. Transubstantiation is just an odd conviction that exists within its own little self-contained bubble of faith, hardly impinging on the outside world or on the magisteria of science or education.

Creationism impinges big time, though. Even Stephen Jay Gould, who decided that his scientific world view didn't conflict with religion in general, got pretty riled when Creationists invaded his magisterium and parked their tanks on his lawn. Unlike transubstantiation fans, Creationists want to turn the curriculum upside down and replace a sound and successful evidence-based theory with their own bizarre attempts to make an incoherent bronze-age myth sound science-y.

And those attempts do get pretty bizarre. For example, it still astonishes me that some Creationists, in rejecting the existence of deep time and denying Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection, have ended up coming up with their own idiosyncratic theory (theories?) of evolution. In their own words:
Organic evolution, as theorized, is a naturally occurring, beneficial change that produces increasing and inheritable complexity. Increased complexity would be shown if the offspring of one form of life had a different and improved set of vital organs. This is sometimes called the molecules-to-man theory—or macroevolution. Microevolution, on the other hand, does not involve increasing complexity. It involves changes only in size, shape, or color, or minor genetic alterations caused by a few mutations. Each example of macroevolution would require thousands of “just right” mutations. Microevolution can be thought of as horizontal (or even downward) change, whereas macroevolution, if it were ever observed, would involve an upward, beneficial change in complexity. Therefore, microevolution plus time will not produce macroevolution. (micro + time ≠ macro) 

Creationists and evolutionists agree that microevolution (and natural selection) occur. Minor change has been observed since history began. But notice how often evolutionists give evidence for microevolution to support macroevolution. It is macroevolution—which requires new abilities and increasing complexity, resulting from new genetic information—that is at the center of the creation-evolution controversy. Therefore, in this book, the term “organic evolution” will mean macroevolution. 
Center for Scientific Creation

I've added the bold type to highlight what I think are the key parts of this passage. Creationists know that people have undeniably seen changes in livings over time, in wheat, sweet peas, pedigree dogs, prize pigeons, fruit flies, peppered moths, bacteria and so on, so they are obliged to admit the existence of what they define (incorrectly) as 'microevolution'. They then go on to dispute the existence of 'macroevolution', (evolution by natural selection over longer periods aggregating small changes over long periods of time, leading, in combination with geographical isolation, to speciation). They don't believe in 'macroevolution' on the grounds that they can't imagine how 'changes only in size, shape, or color, or minor genetic alterations caused by a few mutations' could ever lead to increasing complexity or beneficial changes.

Their failure of imagination, though, doesn't add up to a demolition of the theory of evolution  by natural selection. It just proves that they've failed to understand the the theory. If this was because the theory was way too complicated for ordinary people to understand, I might have some sympathy. However, the basic outline they're wilfully failing to grasp here isn't advanced string theory and has been patiently explained by experts and educators time and time again, in terms that can be understood by any moderately intelligent adult with a basic education.

The Creationists' problem, remember, is that they can't imagine how random mutations could lead to beneficial changes or to increased complexity. The beneficial changes bit is easy. Mutations are random and can be harmful, neutral or beneficial, but need to pass through the survivability filter. Harmful changes will naturally tend to be weeded out because they'll make it less likely for an organism to survive and reproduce. Beneficial changes will help an organism to thrive and increase its chances of reproducing, so will tend to be passed on. Mutations that have no effect on survivability may also be passed on by default.

As for increasing complexity arising out of random changes, Stephen Jay Gould explained this one with a lovely metaphor that a child could understand. Imagine a drunk being thrown out of a bar, into the street. He's too hammered even to get himself the traditional tattoo or kebab, and can only stagger and lurch around in more or less random way. His random staggerings can take him in any direction, towards the brick wall and closed door of the bar from which he's been ejected, forward or back along the road, or over towards the other side of the street, or at any random angle to the above. If his staggers take him away from the bar, or on a path parallel with its wall, or veering away from it at an angle, he meets no resistance. If he staggers back towards the side of the bar, he crashes into the wall and can go no further.

The drunk's random staggerings represent random changes in organisms. These can randomly lead in the direction of greater complexity, less complexity, or no change in complexity. The wall of the bar is the 'wall of minimum complexity'. You start off with a simple, primordial organism, about as simple as a thing can get whilst still being independently alive. This organism can undergo random changes, but it's already about as simple as it can be, so changes can't go in the direction of greater simplicity. If it (or one of its offspring) tries to get any more simple than the simplest possible organism, it's going in a direction where it hits a wall, just like the rambling drunk. At any other point, organisms can go in any random direction - towards more complexity or less. Sometimes, ones that have already blundered far away from the wall will randomly move even further away, but there's no innate, underlying, drive towards greater complexity, just movement after movement in more or less random directions, with some happening to head towards greater complexity, a view that fits with the world as we see it, where there are a few very complex organisms a long way from the wall of minimum complexity, but the majority of lifeforms are still simple bacteria, diversifying away in their own random directions, somewhere near the wall.

Having rhetorically failed to imagine understand or imagine how evolution by natural selection might work, some Creationists then proceed to push credulity to the max with an account of what their version of evolution can allegedly accomplish in a few thousand years. For those Creationists who are also Biblical literalists, this all arises from the problem of how Noah got all those animals into his Ark. They start from the assumption that the Ark was obviously a real vessel, because it was in the Bible. They also notice that the number of terrestrial animal species that must have survived the deluge runs into many thousands.** How did Noah get them all in? Answers in Genesis kicks off by estimating the size of the ark, thus:
 The length of the ark shall be three hundred cubits, its width fifty cubits, and its height thirty cubits (Genesis 6:15)...

 The dimensions of the Ark are convincing for two reasons: the proportions are like that of a modern cargo ship, and it is about as large as a wooden ship can be built. The cubit gives us a good indication of size. With the cubit’s measurement, we know that the Ark must have been at least 450 feet (137 m) long, 75 feet (23 m) wide, and 45 feet (14 m) high. In the Western world, wooden sailing ships never got much longer than about 330 feet (100 m), yet the ancient Greeks built vessels at least this size 2,000 years earlier. China built huge wooden ships in the 1400s that may have been as large as the Ark. The biblical Ark is one of the largest wooden ships of all time—a mid-sized cargo ship by today’s standards.
Big, but still not big enough to accommodate tens of thousands of species of terrestrial vertebrates, the best part of a million insect species, plus assorted other land-dwelling invertebrates.This is where the Creationist version of 'microevolution' comes to the rescue:
In the book Noah’s Ark: A Feasibility Study,*** creationist researcher John Woodmorappe suggests that, at most, 16,000 animals were all that were needed to preserve the created kinds that God brought into the Ark.

The Ark did not need to carry every kind of animal—nor did God command it. It carried only air-breathing, land-dwelling animals, creeping things, and winged animals such as birds. Aquatic life (fish, whales, etc.) and many amphibious creatures could have survived in sufficient numbers outside the Ark. This cuts down significantly the total number of animals that needed to be on board.

Another factor which greatly reduces the space requirements is the fact that the tremendous variety in species we see today did not exist in the days of Noah. Only the parent “kinds” of these species were required to be on board in order to repopulate the earth. For example, only two dogs were needed to give rise to all the dog species that exist today. 

Creationist estimates for the maximum number of animals that would have been necessary to come on board the Ark have ranged from a few thousand to 35,000, but they may be as few as two thousand if the biblical kind is approximately the same as the modern family classification. 
Creationist 'microevolution' seems to do two things in Creationist theory (theories?). On the one hand it's a slow, difficult process that can't produce significant change and 'disproves' the Darwinian contention that evolution can ever produce immense diversity ('Microevolution ... does not involve increasing complexity. It involves changes only in size, shape, or color, or minor genetic alterations caused by a few mutations. Each example of macroevolution would require thousands of “just right” mutations ... whereas macroevolution, if it were ever observed, would involve an upward, beneficial change in complexity').

On the other hand Creationist 'microevolution' is an efficient, speedy process that produced immense numbers of new species from the limited number of 'kinds' ('families?') of animal packed into the Ark in a Noachian explosion of speciation, which happened over a mere 6,000-odd years. And these are the same folk who claim to find the idea of Darwinian evolution by natural selection over millions of years unbelievable?

Yes, and they're also the same folk who, in order to get around the problem of how Noah and his family cared for and provisioned a minimum of two thousands species for months on end, not to mention processing the inevitable tons of manure, hypothesise that the animals probably went into some form of shock-induced hibernation for the duration of the voyage:
Creation scientists suggest that God gave the animals the ability to hibernate, as we see in many species today. Most animals react to natural disasters in ways that were designed to help them survive. It’s very possible many animals did hibernate, perhaps even supernaturally intensified by God.
If you need any more convincing that these people have clearly lost their minds, these two excellent vids by 'Non-Stamp Collector', (which I've linked to before), should finsh the job:

All of this would be as amusingly irrelevant as transubstantiation, except for the fact that Creationists insist in bringing this rubbish into classrooms where important subjects are being taught. Transubstantiation is a piece of extra-curricular lunacy that doesn't interfere with teaching. Creationism is not only trying to muscle its way into how the life sciences are taught, but aims to replace the teaching of our best approximation of what is true with patent nonsense. Transubstantiation doesn't make an appearance in the classroom (except in religious education, and in the occasional historical reference,  where it belongs), so can be safely ignored. You can no more ignore people trying to push Creationism than you can ignore a delinquent teenager who persistently disrupts classes (in fact, I've more got sympathy with delinquent teens, who sometimes have valid excuses like immaturity, broken homes and raging hormones, unlike Creationists, who should be old enough to know better).

It's a distinction that all teachers should be able to get. Perhaps the fact that some don't is due to the fact that Creation 'science' doesn't impact all subjects equally. The historicity of Genesis, for example, may be highly questionable, but dodgy Near Eastern prehistory doesn't tend to put Creationists into direct conflict with history teachers trying to give kids the straight dope on Tudors and Nazis, or whatever the history curriculum consists of these days. As far as I'm concerned, an attack on one branch of knowledge is an attack on all. On that basis, I'm for excluding those delinquent Creationists from the classroom.

* Update - I've just edited and shortened the opening section of this post as the original, written in a hurry, took way too long to get to the point. As someone once said, 'I'm sorry I wrote you such a long letter; I didn't have time to write a short one'.

** Well spotted, guys, but there's another thing that bothers me about your theory. There are also quite a few plant species that wouldn't survive a lengthy immersion in salt water (I'm helpfully assuming that the rising world ocean was still quite salty, as the problem of keeping relatively few fresh water species alive through a global flood would be a lot smaller than the difficulty you'd get if you had to fit the Ark with an oceanarium big enough to save all the creatures adapted to live in the salty oceans that cover 70% of the earth's surface). Yet I don't hear much about the ark as a floating garden centre. Sure, a few hardy seeds might have survived, but ask any arable farmer, keen gardener or allotment holder what chance their plants would have of surviving under several hundred metres of salty water for a few months and you can see a bit of a problem. How come pictures of the ark don't look like the floating gardens of Babylon?

*** This one must have made the short list for the world's' oddest  book title prize.