Monday, October 31, 2005

Rolling Stone on the Dover Trial

From Rolling Stone comes this snarky take, by Matt Taibbi, on the Dover trial. The article is well worth reading, but I take issue with certain things as well.

Muise was part of the legal team donated to the defense by a group bearing the impressively pretentious name of the Thomas More Law Center, a sort of Christian version of the ACLU. The group considers itself the vanguard of the anti-Darwinist movement -- its understated slogan is “The Sword and Shield of People of Faith.”

The lawyer had come to Harrisburg with these fellow knights-errant of the anti-evolution movement to defend one of the very stupidest concepts ever to get a hearing in an American courtroom: an alternative to evolution called Intelligent Design.

The theory, called “ID” for short, posits that life on earth was simply too complex to be explained by the random and undirected natural processes described in Darwin's theories. The chief innovation of ID was that it did not call God by the name “God” but instead referred vaguely to an “intelligent designer.”

The essence of its scientific claims was that biology was just too intense, dude, to be an accident. A local columnist mocked the theory as resembling a teenage stoner looking at the back of his hand and being too amazed to deal.

Well, it doesn't get much better than that.

But I didn't care for this part:

But Muise wasn't here to win. He was here to make a point, and he made it when he started asking Alters about statements made by certain prominent scientists.

“Dr. Alters,” he said, “were you aware that Professor Steven Weinberg once said that 'I personally feel that the teaching of modern science is corrosive to religious belief, and I'm all for that!'”

“An unfortunate remark,” said Alters, shaking his head and squirming. The look on his face said, “Can we move on?”

But Muise didn't: He rattled off more quotes from prominent scientists, including one from Gould (“Before Darwin, we thought that a benevolent God had created us”) -- who, Muise noted with obvious pleasure, had once written a foreword to one of Alters' books. Alters shrugged it off, calmly sticking to his contention that evolution was not an indictment of religion.

As Alters gave his denials, Muise turned to the gallery and, for the first time that afternoon, evinced a small smile. That smile spoke volumes. It said, “At least my clients know when they're full of shit. But these eggheads . . .”

Muise had a point. His defendants and their ID theory had come under attack for an obvious reason: Just because you say in a court of law that you're not creationists doesn't make it true.

Now Muise got to say the same thing to those superior-sounding intellectuals who flew into God's country and insisted, under oath, that they weren't enemies of religion. You can yell it at us till you're blue in the face, the lawyer seemed to be saying, but we who really believe know better.

There's rather a lot wrong with that excerpt. First, Muise's clients do not know they are full of shit. They think they are wise and learned and well-informed.

More importantly, it is certainly true that some people draw anti-theistic conclusions from science. I am one of those people. But it is not evolution in particular that leads to atheism. It is a willingness to accept science as a route to reliable knowledge that does that. Science does not make it logically impossible that God exists, but it certainly makes Him seem superfluous.

But it is equally true that a great many people do not agree with me on that point. There are rather a lot of people who find their faith strengthened by their understanding of modern science. Two such people are Ken Miller and John Haught, both of whom testified at the Dover trial. For some reason Taibbi didn't mention them.

Anyway, go read the whole thing. I think there are places where Taibbi is more interested in being clever than being right, but he has a lot of interesting things to say as well.

Paulos on ID

Last week I mentioned meeting John Allen Paulos when he spoke at the University of Virginia. Now he weighs in on ID with this excellent column from the British newspaper The Guardian.

But the theory of evolution does explain the evolution of complex biological organisms and phenomena, and the argument from design, which dates from the 18th century, has been decisively refuted. Rehashing the refutation is not my goal. Those who reject evolution are usually immune to such arguments.

Rather, my intention here is to develop some loose analogies between these biological issues and related economic ones and to show that these analogies point to a surprising crossing of political lines. Let me begin by asking how it is that modern free market economies are as complex as they are, boasting amazingly elaborate production, distribution and communication systems? Go into almost any drug store and you can find your favourite candy bar. And what's true at the personal level is true at the industrial level. Somehow there are enough ball bearings and computer chips in just the right places in factories all over the country. The physical infrastructure and communication networks are also marvels of integrated complexity. Fuel supplies are, by and large, where they're needed. Email reaches you in Miami as well as in Milwaukee, not to mention Barcelona and Bangkok.

The natural question, discussed first by Adam Smith and later by Friedrich Hayek and Karl Popper among others, is who designed this marvel of complexity? Which commissar decreed the number of packets of dental floss for each retail outlet? The answer, of course, is that no economic god designed this system. It emerged and grew by itself. No one argues that all the components of the candy bar distribution system must have been put into place at once, or else there would be no Snickers at the corner store.

So far, so good. What is more than a bit odd, however, is that some of the most ardent opponents of Darwinian evolution - for example, many fundamentalist Christians - are among the most ardent supporters of the free market. They accept the market's complexity without qualm, yet insist the complexity of biological phenomena requires a designer.

And later

These analogies prompt two final questions. What would you think of someone who studied economic entities and their interactions in a modern free market economy and insisted that they were, despite a perfectly reasonable and empirically supported Smithian account of their development, the consequence of some all-powerful, detail-obsessed economic law-giver? You might deem such a person a conspiracy theorist.

And what would you think of someone who studied biological processes and organisms and insisted that they were, despite an perfectly reasonable and empirically supported Darwinian account of their development, the consequence of some all-powerful, detail-obsessed biological law-giver?

Exactly right, and there's an important theological point in that last paragraph. The scientific fallacies of ID are enough to reject it, but the theological problems are even worse. Portraying God as a micromanager constantly fiddling with his creation to bring abou His desired ends is not a view of the Almighty that fits comfortably within a Christian worldview.

Friday, October 28, 2005

New Issue of Skeptical Inquirer

Speaking of fine coverage of the Evolution/ID issue, check out the November/December issue of Skeptical Inquirer, now at newsstands. Mark Perakh offers an interesting variation on the imperfection argument. He points out that a complex system that loses its function when a single part is removed or damaged is not well designed. Consequently, the very feature that tells us (according to ID proponents) that a system must have been designed immediately implies that it was badly designed. Not too sensible. David Morrison offers some wise words about the proper way to frame the debate, such as it is. My own article about William Dembski's blatant misues of a quotation from paleontologist Peter Ward appears next, followed by some remarks from Lawrence Krauss about the Catholic Church and evolution. Then there's an excerpt from Sean Carroll's excellent book Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo-Devo. Lawrence Lerner wraps things up with an analysis of the polling data on evolution and creationism. Good stuff.

Brayton Nails Behe

At the big ID trial in Dover, Michael Behe claimed that his popular book Darwin's Black Box, went through a peer review process that was even more rgiorous than that of a paper in a journal. Now it turns out, this is untrue. Surprise!

Ed Brayton has the full story here. See also this previous post on the same subject.

Kudos to Ed for this and all his other excellent coverage of the Dover trial.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Meeting Mooney and Paulos in Charlottesville

Wow! What a great night! Not only did I meet two of my personal heroes, but I also finally managed to track down the UVA Visitor's Parking Lot. What more could one ask for?

First up was Chris Mooney, who spoke to the College Democrats about his magnificent, if hugely depressing, book The Republican War on Science. I got to speak to him briefly after the talk, and he was kind enough to autograph my copy of his book. Very cool.

Mooney's presentation concluded at around 7:00. Happily, I happened to notice a flier hanging up announcing that John Allen Paulos was speaking. That night. At 7:30!

Golly! What are the chances that both talks would be on the same night, scheduled in a way that made it possible to attend both, with very little dead time in between? Must have been intelligently designed just for me!

Who's John Allen Paulos? Well, he's a professor of mathematics at Temple University, but he's better known as the author of Innumeracy, and many other books. Most recently he is the author of A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper. He gave an excellent talk about common mathematical fallacies that routinely arise in the news media.

Two points that arose were especially relevant to this blog. During his talk he mentioned that all of the fancy mathematics in the world can not salvage a bad model. If the assumptions that go into your model are false, then any inferences you draw from them will be worthless. I had to laugh, since that is exactly what William Dembski has been doing in his preposterous series of articles allegedly on the mathematical foundations of ID.

The other point came during the Q&A. Someone in the audience, I swear it wasn't me, asked what he thought of people who argue that life is too complex to have evolved by natural means. The questioner specifically mentioned ID. Paulos was withering in his contempt for that attitude. Sadly, I did not record his exact words, but as I recall he described it as scary that so many people buy into such arguments.

I had the chance to exchange a few words with him after the talk, and I mentioned that creationist probability arguments are a classic example of fancy mathematics being employed in the service of bad assumptions. He agreed.

I'll definitely have to go buy his book.

All in all, a very successful evening.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

More on Gould

Recall that in yesterday's post I discussed claims, made by someone named Stuart Pivar and posted at Denyse O'Leary's pro-ID blog, that Stephen Jay Gould rejected the idea that natural selection could craft complex adaptations. There was the further claim that Gould believed that natural selection was a weak force in evolution and that consequently he would not have signed the “Steves List” maintained by the NCSE.

I debunked that claim in the most direct way I could think of: By finding several quotes in Gould's writing where he unambiguously rejected the claims being attributed to him.

Well, now William Dembski has gotten into the act with this post, under the provactive title “Stephen Jay Gould - Master of Equivocation.&rdquo (Yes, I do see the irony in William Dembski having the nerve to accuse others of equivocation.) After a paragraph in which he introduces the subject, Dembski writes:

In particular, O’Leary cites a friend of Stephen Jay’s, Stuart Pivar, who is urging the NCSE to remove from its Project Steve statement an overemphasis on the role of natural selection in biological evolution. Pivar writes: “A main point in Goulds message to us regarding how evolution works is that natural selection is not responsible for form, playing only a minor, eliminative role in the selection among a choice of forms produced by other means. You might consider installing the words ‘or that natural structural processes and heterochony are the major mechanisms in its occurence.’”

Compare this to Stephen Jay Gould’s claim in his 1999 Rocks of Ages (pp. 56-57): “My colleagues in evolutionary theory are presently engaged in a healthy debate about whether a limited amount of Lamarckian evolution may be occurring for restricted phenomena in bacteria. Yet the fascination and intensity of this question does not change the well-documented conclusion that Darwinian processes dominate in the general run of evolutionary matters.” Does it need to be added that natural selection is the central mechanism in any Darwinian process?

Having read this far and ignoring the title, I was all set to praise Dembski for stating the obvious. He described the charge levelled at Gould, and then produced a quote in which Gould explicitly rejects the view being attributed to him. Well done!

Sadly, then I read the comments. The first comment says, “So, you disagree with O’Leary and Pivar, then?”

Yes, obviously Dembski does. But then Dembski replied with, “I’m saying Gould played the staunch Darwinian when it suited him.”

What? How is that conclusion justified by anything Dembski wrote previously? For that matter, how does anything Dembski wrote show that Gould equivocated on this point?

I had temporarily forgotten, you see, that this was William Dembski's blog. That means all its posts come straight from Neptune. That means he feels free to hurl what ever smears he wants without having to justify them with anything. The fact is that Gould was clear, consistent, and unambiguous on this point through several decades of published writing.

We will return to Dembski's commenters in a moment, but first let's pause to take a look at Red State Rabble's take on the subject. See also this post.

In reply to Pat Hayes' (RSR's author) sage words on this matter, RSR was actually favored with a response from Ms. O'Leary:

Well, Pat, Gould's friend is making the noise. Right? Wrong? Either way, it's a story. But my money's on the friend. I don't make this up. I couldn't. Incidentally, the peppered moth example you cited is just the sort of minor change that Pivar said Gould WOULD allow to natural selection, but he denied that it could do the huge things that, for example, Dawkins would credit it with.

Indeed, it is a story. But the story is that Gould's friend is making statements that are easily shown to be false. But O'Leary can't be troubled to actually let any facts enter in to her reporting. Right? Wrong? Not for her decide, though her money is on the friend.

Let's review. Pivar attributed to Gould the view that natural selection is a minor force in evolution, and can not account for complex adaptations. Gould explicitly rejected this idea over and over again in his writing. It was easily shown that Pivar was wrong merely by picking up almost any of Gould's books and looking for references to natural selection in the index. O'Leary did not bother to do this. Instead, she repeated the claims, pretended there's some genuine mystery about Gould's views on the matter, and now is putting her money on the friend.

Everything clear?

Why do scientists get so angry with ID proponents? Because they are, vritually without exception, entirely devoid of conscience.

O'Leary added more spice to the brew with this comment to Dembski's post:

For the record, I am not personally disputing it. My source Pivar is disputing it.

Pivar told me - and gave me permission to publish it - that Gould did not admit what he really thought because he did not want to acknowledge how weak the evidence for Darwinism is, in from [sic] of creatinists and ID people.

Is Pivar right? Wrong? He knew the guy, so I can’t discount it. I figured, run it up the flagpole and see who salutes.

My preferred outcome would be a conference examining structuralism vs. Darwinism vs. ID.

You will search O'Leary's post in vain for any ghost of skepticism about what Pivar is telling her. And we know she has put her money on him.

And now we have Pivar claiming that Gould, who had one consistent message through more than thirty years of writing on this subject, was actualy lying through his teeth because he was worried about creationist response. So when Gould stated over and over again that natural selection was a major force in evolution and was responsible for complex adaptations, that was all a subterfuge. When he allowed himself to be filmed for high-profile documentaries happily discussing the conventional scenario of how vertebrate eyes evolved gradually via natural selection, that was all just a cover for his real beliefs.

For heaven's sake, the very idea that Gould would shy away from making provocative charges out of fear of what a handful of creationists would do is just too ridiculous to be contemplated.

What's really going on here is simple. Pivar is a pathetic little charlatan who was lucky enough to be friends with one of the twentieth century's greatest scientists. He is now betraying that friendship out of a cynical desire to call attention to himself. He found a useful idiot in Denyse O'Leary to parrot his obviously false charges. And since people like O'Leary and Dembski have precisely zero shame, they are perfectly happy to ignore the evidence presnted here and at other blogs that shows how laughably false Pivar's claims really are.

Any questions?

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Would Gould Have Signed the Steves List?

For several years now The National Center for Science Education has maintained Project Steve. This is a list of scientists who signed their name in support of a statement defending evolution and opposing creationism and ID. The catch is that only scientists named Steve are eligbile to sign it.

The list was intended as a parody of the standard creationist tactic of producing lists of scientists said to oppose evolution. You see, NCSE's list has, at last count, 649 signatories. That is far higher than any pathetic list the creos could produce. And, obviously, scientists named Steve represent a tiny fraction of the scientific community generally.

Here is the statement the signatories endorse:

Evolution is a vital, well-supported, unifying principle of the biological sciences, and the scientific evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of the idea that all living things share a common ancestry. Although there are legitimate debates about the patterns and processes of evolution, there is no serious scientific doubt that evolution occurred or that natural selection is a major mechanism in its occurrence. It is scientifically inappropriate and pedagogically irresponsible for creationist pseudoscience, including but not limited to “intelligent design,” to be introduced into the science curricula of our nation's public schools.

The list was named after the late Stephen Jay Gould. Gould was an ardent supporter of the NCSE during his life and an equally ardent foe of creationism in all its forms.

Now here comes someone named Stuart Pivar, who describes himself as a friend of Gould's, claiming that Gould would not have signed that list. Pivar maintains this website, which coopts Gould's name in an attempt to promote a theory of non-Darwinian evolution.

Now, there's no question about Gould's anti-creationist credentials. And there is also no question that Gould was a big fan of evolutionary theory. So why wouldn't he have signed the list?

At her pro-ID blog, Denyse O'Leary reports on a conversation she had with Pivar. She quotes Pivar saying the following:

steve and ronda would spend weekends at my beach house. we were close friends for years. i officiated at his funeral service.

steve lifes work was to understand evolution. His message was that natural selection was merely an eliminative force with no creative role, capable of choosing for survival among preexisting forms which are produced by other natural structural processes.

(Note: I have reproduced this quote precisely as it appears at O'Leary's blog. The capitalization and punctuation errors are from the original.)

And later:

Steve Gould (the Ursteve of the famous Steve list of the NCSE) clearly did not believe in natural selection as the primary cause of evolutionary change.

The 600 listed scientists named Steve claim the belief that evolution happened, and that natural selection is the mechanical process which causes it. Stephen Jay Gould would not have signed this list.

In this post O'Leary presents a further quote from Pivar:

Steve Goulds life work featured the debunking of natural selection as the cause of anything more important than the differences in the beaks of finches, in his investigation of the causes of evolution. The Steve List is the appropriation of his name in the propagation of a theory which he opposed his entire life long. Every statement SJG ever made rejects natural selection, and none can be found in its support. Is this colossal misunderstanding innocent incompetence, or a soviet style paradigm takeover?

The excessively strong lnaguage, the gratuitous reference to the old Soviet Union, and the reduction of Gould's complex views of evolution to a few simple sentences are all standard crank devices. Anyone who knows anything about Gould's work is laughing at this point. Every statement SJG ever made rejects natural selection? We'll see.

We might begin our analysis of these statements by pointing out the obvious: No signatory of the Steves list said that natural selection is the mechanical process which causes evolution. They agreed simply that natural selection is a major mechanism of evolutionary change. That's an important difference. (Incidentally, O'Leary herself points this out. But she gets it wrong as well. She writes: “...the list says that natural selection is a major mechanical process, not the mechanical process.” Actually, the statement makes no reference at all to mechanical processes. Get the details right.)

So is Pivar right? Of course not. Consider this statement from Gould's famous essay “Darwinian Fundamentalism”:

Darwin clearly loved his distinctive theory of natural selection—the powerful idea that he often identified in letters as his dear “child.” But, like any good parent, he understood limits and imposed discipline. He knew that the complex and comprehensive phenomena of evolution could not be fully rendered by any single cause, even one so ubiquitous and powerful as his own brainchild.

Ubiquitous and powerful. Case closed, right? Well, let's keep going anyway.

Charles Darwin often remarked that his revolutionary work had two distinct aims: first, to demonstrate the fact of evolution (the genealogical connection of all organisms and a history of life regulated by “descent with modification”); second, to advance the theory of natural selection as the most important mechanism of evolution. Darwin triumphed in his first aim (American creationism of the Christian far right notwithstanding). Virtually all thinking people accept the factuality of evolution, and no conclusion in science enjoys better documentation. Darwin also succeeded substantially in his second aim. Natural selection, an immensely powerful idea with radical philosophical implications, is surely a major cause of evolution, as validated in theory and demonstrated by countless experiments. But is natural selection as ubiquitous and effectively exclusive as the ultras propose? (Emphasis Added)

So there's Gould endorsing natural selection as a major mechanism of evolution. Exactly as the NCSE statement says.

Gould believed that natural selection did nothing more than regulate the size of finch beaks? Hardly. Consider this:

Modern evolutionists cite the same plays and players; only the rules have changed. We are now told, with equal wonder and admiration, that natural selection is the agent of exquisite design. As an intellectual descendant of Darwin, I do not doubt this attribution. (Ever Since Darwin, Essay 12.)

Or this:

In fact, each of Darwin's books played its part in the grand and coherent scheme of his life's work - demonstrating the fact of evolution and defending natural selection as its primary mechanism. ...Thus, the paradox, and the common theme of this trilogy of essays: Our textbooks like to illustrate evolution with examples of optimal design - nearly perfect mimicry of a dead leaf by a butterfly or of a poisonous species by a palatable relative. But ideal design is a lousy argument for evolution, for it mimics the postulated action of an omnipotent creator. Odd arrangements and funny solutions are the proof of evolution - paths that a sensible God would never tread but that a natural process, constrained by history, follows perforce. (The Pandas Thumb, Essay 1)

Please note that the ellipsis in the middle represents several paragraphs in which Gould describes Darwin's work on orchids as a specific example of the general principle he describes at the end of the quote above.

In the domain of organisms and their good designs, we have litle reason to doubt the strong, probably dominant influence of deterministic forces like natural selection. The intricate, highly adapted forms of organisms - the wing of a bird or the mimicry of a dead twig by an insect - are too complex to arise as long sequences of sheer good fortune under the simplest random models. (Eight Little Piggies, Essay 28)

Finally, after a brief discussion of Darwin's logic in defending the importance of natural selection, Gould writes:

The impeccable logic of this formulation can help critics by clarifying how any potential argument against this hegemony of natural selection must proceed. At the functional vertex, one would have to identify other important mecahnisms in addition to natural selection - and none have been proposed, at least to the satisfaction of this author (although the argument for “a little bit of bacterial Lamrackism” - as I like to characterize the controversial claims of Cairns et al. - may have some merit in a limited domain. (The Structure of Evoluitionary Theory, pp. 1053)

These are just a few quotes that I found by the ingenious device of pulling random Gould volumes off my bookshelf and looking up “natural selection” in their indices. It has taken me longer to transcribe them then it did to find them. The fact is the creative power of natural selection was a major theme of Gould's essays. In Ever Since Darwin he describes the role of natural selection in crafting the complex “decoy fish” of a certain fresh water mussel (Essay 12). In The Panda's Thumb he discusses selection's role in crafting - surprise! - the panda's thumb (Essay 1). In Eight Little Piggies he describes selection's role in the evolution of the mammalian inner ear from jaw bones found in reptiles. And let's not forget that in PBS's recent Evolution documentary, Gould is shown discussing the intermediate stages in the evolution of the vertebrate eye. On and on it goes.

So it is clear that Gould had no trouble at all with the idea that complex adaptations evolve gradually under the aegis of natural selection. He certainly had no trouble describing natural selection as a major mechanism of evolution, which is what is at issue here.

There were many issues where Gould's view of evolution differed from the mainstream.

Gould believed that adaptation, while important, was less pervasive in evolution than many biologists believed. He thought that functional constraints and accidents of history played a greater role in evolution than they were given credit for. He believed that natural selection acted hierarchically (at the level of the gene, the organism, the local population, the species and so forth) and that the long term result of all this action were the evolutionary trends described in the theory of punctuated equilibrium. He believed that macroevolution was more than just accumulated microevolution, and that certain evolutionary mechanisms made themselves felt over the course of geologic time in ways that were not noticeable over shorter time spans. And all of these make for interesting discussions, and all of them represent small alterations in standard evolutionary thinking.

But none of them have to do with rejecting natural selection. Gould would have happily signed the NCSE list, a fact that becomes obvious by opening virtually any of his books to a random page.

Actually, there's one more aspect of this to comment on. After breathlessly reproducing Pivar's statements about how Gould did not believe that natural selection was a creative force, O'Leary writes the following:

If so, this is a major upset in the current intelligent design wars that will surely damage NCSE's case for teaching Darwinism only in American schools. (Emphasis in Original)

If so? She acts like Gould's theories about evolution are a great mystery, something we can only learn about via the testimony of those who knew him well.

But the fact is that Gould was one of the most prolific writers in the history of science. If you want to know what Gould thought, the solution is to go to the library, retrieve one of his books, and read it.

O'Leary did not do that because she does not care one way or the other what Gould actually thought about anything. She only cares about having a regular supply of chum to present to the ID sharks who read her blog. Pivar was singing the song she wanted to hear, so she mindlessly repeated it at her blog. I suspect it never occurred to her to check out for herself what Gould believed.

As for Pivar himself, it seems that in this case Gould did not pick his friends wisely (I'll assume that Pivar is not inventing the story about officiating at Gould's funeral). If Pivar was as friendly with Gould as he suggests, he would surely have been aware of Gould's support for the NCSE. Consequently, if he sincerely thought the NCSE was using Gould's name in ways he would not have approved, he would simply have contacted the NCSE privately. But he did not do that.

Instead he spoke to a prominent ID hack and made blatantly false and exaggerated statements, stated in incendiary language. He was clearly motivated in part by a desire to promote his website. A site, incidentally, at which he coopts Gould's name for unsavory purposes of his own. What a lovely fellow.

Let me close with this. As I mentioned, I found these quotes after just a little bit of searching. I have no doubt there are many other quotes I might have used in this essay. If anyone reading this would like to leave further quotes, either in the comments or in personal e-mails to me, I would certainly appreciate it. Just make sure to leave enough bibliographic information so I can check out the quotes myself. Thanks!

Monday, October 24, 2005

Oh, The Irony!

No sooner do I finish my response to John Calvert's “Are We Liars?” essay, then I come across this post from Jack Krebs over at The Panda's Thumb. Here's the opening of the post:

I don’t use the word “lie” loosely. I know it means deliberately saying something that one knows not to be true.

But in this case, I am willing to claim that John Calvert lied to the audience at his presentation at a conference hosted by the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington D.C. this past week. I hope to write more about Calvert’s presentation there, which was in conjunction with a speech by Barbara Forrest, but here I want to concentrate on one comment made by Calvert concerning Kansas Citizens for Science.

Go read the rest!

Calvert on Lying

By way of William Dembski's blog, I've come across this amusing document (PDF format) by ID proponent John Calvert. It is entitled, “Are We Liars?” thereby showing a level of introspection I thought was beyond most ID proponents.

There are a few nuggets here that merit a response:

Our real motivation is relevant, because, we may actually have motive X but be asking for Y, when we expect eventually to get X by first getting Y. To advance this kind of cause we must manipulate and misinform.

It seems that adversaries of ID are particularly guilty of this. They claim to want to do good science but they actually want to promote the ideology of materialism. We know this to be the case because the EFFECT of their behavior is to allow only a materialistic explanation at the expense of doing bad historical science (science that does not allow objective consideration of the principle competing possibility).

The insanity of this argument becomes obvious if you imagine making it with regard to any other scientific theory. Are we promoting the ideology of materialism when we teach students the germ theory of disease? Or the heliocentric model of the universe? Of course not.

The fact is that materialism is a philosophy that holds that material forces are all there are, and that there is nothing that is outside nature. Evolution is a theory that explains how complex organisms can arise, via well-understood natural mechanisms, from a population of relatively simple organisms billions of years ago. These are plainly not the same. In fact, they have little to do with one another.

Before moving on, we should also note Calvert's blatant logical error in this paragraph. The effects of an action do not necessarily tell us anything about the motives of the people taking that action. Duh.

Now when we claim that we have no religious motive and just want to do good science, I think we appear to be like those we criticize. Even though we may have no intention to replace materialism with theism, it looks like that is what we really want to do. Now we genuinely do not want to do that, in science. Maybe in the culture through honest competitions, but not in science. I think we all agree that science must always remain tentative and objective. What we want to do is to replace an ideology that is damaging credible science with objectivity that will restore its respect as an effective investigative institution. We do not want to replace an ideology with another ideology.

A more accurate statement would be to say that they don't really care about scientific investigation one way or the other. Instead they care about coopting some of science's prestige as a tool for promoting their own religious views in the culture.

I invite Calvert to explain how ID can be used to promote effective investigations into scientific questions. As I have pointed out many times in this blog, scientists are among the most pragmatic people in the world. They believe in whatever works. Contrary to the bloviations of hacks like Calvert, evolution survives only because it consistently leads to results in the field and the lab. It has this in common with every other scientific theory used by professionals in their work. ID, by contrast, has never enlightened anyone about anything.

From here Calvert launches in to the usual blather about institutional discrimination and the like. Nothing new here, just the usual nonsense about how oppressed Christians are in this country.

Then we come to this:

When we say that the data does not identify the designer that is a true statement when your focus is only on the science. DNA dose not bear a signature or copyright notice. Furthermore, because all scientific claims are tentative and because the singular events in question are remote unobserved and unobservable events that are not amenable to experimental testing one can not even be certain that the system is designed, from a scientific standpoint. To say that we know who the designer is, in my mind, a purely religious and not scientific claim. So, we should not be quarreling among ourselves about who the designer is when we are asking science to get rid of an irrefutable materialistic prejudice.

Did Calvert just give away the store here? We can't be certain, from a scientific standpoint, that a system really was designed? That's certainly not what people like Michael Behe and William Dembski have been telling us all these years. Their line is that the identity of the designer and the existence of the designer are two separate questions, the former being unanswerable, the latter having been answered with a definitive yes.

Perhaps Calvert is making the general point that “scientific certainty” is simply not something you can reasonably have about events from the past. If that is his point, then he is simply wrong. After all, we routinely send people to jail based entirely on circumstantial evidence. I'm sure Calvert believes that we can have so much evidence about what happened in the past that it is reasonable to talk about certainty.

Concerning the identity of the designer, we should remind Calvert that the designer of ID is said to be responsible for jiggering with the fundamental constants of the universe. He is therefore not bound by natural laws, and can change them at his will. So ID does tell us something about the designer, specifically that he is supernatural. That may not be the God of Christianity, but it is certainly God in some sense. The unwillingness of ID folks to be forthright on this point (as shown by their embarrassing insistence that space aliens are a viable option for the role of designer) does indeed amount to dishonesty.

Finally, we come to this:

My guess is that some believe that once the playing field is level, that scientific theories based on religious claims will not be given an opportunity to be heard. That could be the case. However, the opportunity for a careful, competitive and truly scientific examination of radiometric dating, common ancestry and similar issues will then never be greater. If the playing field is truly level, then we should want all legitimate scientific views represented on the field so that those views can be rigorously tested per a scientific method not laden with preconceptions.

Back here on planet Earth, ideas like radiometric dating and common ancestry have, indeed, been put through the ringer and they have emerged victorious. Creationist arguments and theories have not been ignored, and they have not bee refuted by appeal to some materialist preconception. The fact is that if it were discovered that evolution as we know it is totally and irretrievably wrong, it wouldn't change the fact that creationists are raving scientific ignoramuses.

It's interesting, though, that radiometric dating is put alongside common ancestry as something that is currently not being given a truly scientific examination. I trust this will put to rest the idea that ID folks accept the ancient Earth, in contradistinction with their more ignorant creationist forebears.

There's a bit more to the article than I have quoted here, so go have a look. Calvert is merely repeating standard ID talking points. As with most of ID's mindless parrots, his criticisms of modern science reside not upon a foundation of actual experience in professional scientific work, but rather in a handful of media-tested buzzwords and catchphrases. Typical ID shamelessness.

Mooney in Charlottesville

Chris Mooney, author of the magnificent The Republican War on Science will be speaking in Charolttesville, VA, at the University of Virginia, this Wednesday. According to his website, he will be speaking in Clark Hall, Room 108, starting at 6:00 pm. Charlottesville! That's just down the road from Harrisonburg. Looks like I have plans Wednesday night...

Friday, October 21, 2005

The Other Esquire Article

In addition to the article I described on Wednesday, the current issue of Esquire has a second article about ID, entitled “The Case for Intelligent Design,” by Tom Junod. It's not a case William Dembski or Michael Behe are likely to appreciate, however. Since it is not freely available online, here are a few excerpts:

Religion can't change science because it can't change the terms of creation, and science is creation's handmaiden. Can science change religion? Of course it can; everything can change religion, which is one of the reasons religion is so pissed off. History, economics, immigration, epidemics, art, music, even literature: Religion is the opposite of science in that it is a wholly human endeavor, and so it responds to the touch of other human endeavors. Indeed, religion's success - and harrowing lack of success - may be measured by how responsive or how resistant it has been to the challenge of new interpretations. As a matter of fact, religion has never responded particularly well to the challenge of science and has often resisted in the only way it knows how - by taking recourse in fundamentalism. In its effort to teach intelligent design as sceince, intelligent design is often seen as a tool of fundamentalism, and it may very well be. But by melding religion and science - by teaching science as religion, if you will, - intelligent design may provide the undoing of the fundamentalism it is said to serve and open the way to a subversive, even heretical understanding of the Judeo-Christian God. (Emphasis in Original)

Junod is building up to an argument that will be familiar to regular readers of this blog: That by invoking God to explain specific things like flagellae and blood clotting cascades, the ID folks are laying at God's feet all of the examples of poor design in nature. This is a serious theological problem for the ID folks. They have no remotely plausible answer for it. Theistic evolutionists can avoid the problem by arguing, for example, that an evolutionary process of the sort we observe was necessary if the creation was to be separate from God himself. Young-Earthers can get around the problem by blaming the sin of Adam and Eve for causing the world to become corrupted. But ID folks can't use either of these options.

Junod writes:

He is unknowable scientifically; in the topsy-turvy logic of intelligent design, that's how we know he's there. But he is also unknowable theologically, a supernatural being that exists to engage in experiments of nature. And so intelligent design, which started as a challenge to Darwinian orthodoxy, turns out to be a challenge to the orthodoxy of Western religion, because its Designer is not just really, really smart but also really, really limited, morally. We are used to framing our supreme beings in terms of absolutes. But the Designer of intelligent design can either be absolutely intelligent or absolutely innocent of the earth's own suffering. He can never be both.

Quite right. The problem with Junod's argument, however, is that it gives fundamentalism too much credit for self-reflection and serious thought. Fundamentalists support ID as a compromise forced on them by numerous hostile court decisions. They would prefer to teach a more overt sort of creationism, but that is currently not possible. So they embrace ID as the best they can do right now.

Junod goes on to describe his own idiosyncratic take on Christianity:

I remained a Christian - I remain a Christian; nominal, provisional, skeptical, but a Christian nevertheless - simply because the universe does not feel dumb and mechanistic to me, and because the countless minor miracles from which I've benefitted do not feel like dumb luck. The universe feels intelligent to me, and it feels generous (though not necessarily benificent), and the miracles, such as they are, feel like functions of the universe's generosity, which is to say they feel like dispensations of grace. And grace feels mysteriously aligned to the alignment of the world described by Jesus Christ in the Sermon on the Mount - that is, a world turned upside down by the unsettling element of love. Of course, with all this talk about feeling I'm well aware that I would probably feel differently about the universe were I starving to death and watching my children starve to death in a land stricken by famine and war. But here I am, for no other reason than that I'm here, and I remain Christian for much the same reason that the scientists behind intelligent design have ended up professintg their nonscientific heresy: because the universe feels different than Darwinan orthodoxy says it should, and seems to make different demands.

I suspect that Junod is here expressing the views of a great many sensible religious people. They are views I couldn't disagree with more. I agree with Richard Dawkins, who has famously said:

The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.

Junod is making a huge concession when he implies that his sense that the universe is intelligent and purposeful is really just a function of his status in life. He believes the countless “minor miracles” he has experienced are evidence of divine purpose. Would the starving people he mentions be justified in viewing their suffering as an argument against divine purpose, or as evidence that God is evil? If not, then what becomes of his argument?

I suspect that Junod's argument is a classic example of remembering the hits and forgetting the misses. He describes the countless minor miracles in his life as evidence of purpose, but I'm sure he could come up with other instances in his life where rotten luck prevented him for obtaining some good outcome. What conclusions does he draw from those experiences?

Let me close this blog entry by reproducing Junod's closing:

It's trippy, sure. But it's the theology for the Cult of the Really, Really Smart God. And hey I'm in. For 150 years, Christians have responded to the revelation of Charles Darwin either by trying to beat it back with their Bibles or by remaining agnostic to its implications - “I as a Christian have no trouble believing that God used evolution to make me.” Well, dammit, you should, because Christian orthodoxy and Darwinian orthodoxy simply cannot coexist as orthodoxies: One of them has to give. And intelligent design is the first indication that one of them is. For all its problems, it should be taken seriously, and the Christians who so glibly advocate its teaching should be aware of the questions it raises. Should intelligent design be taught in schools? Hell yes, but not as science, because it's not science. It's theology, and should be taught as such - as an attempt to fashon a new understanding of God from the persuasive challenge of evolutionary theory. Evolution not only creates; it keeps creating. The God of intelligent design is a new God - the God of the new, new covenant if you will - in that he takes the rap. He is the old God the God of the Bible and the God of Cavalry, in that he also takes the fall.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

The Bell Curve Revisited

In Monday's post I criticized conservative blogger Andrew Sullivan for his unwarranted smears of academics. I concluded the entry by pointing out the irony of arguing on the one hand that academia is “value-free” (on the grounds that certain scholars studying Middle East issues used the term “altruism,” in a peculiar technical sense, in descriptions of suicide bombers) while passionately defending a piece of scientific malarkey like Murray and Herrnstein's The Bell Curve.

One place where Sullivan defended Murray and Herrnstein is this post, from August 26:

One of my proudest moments in journalism was publishing an expanded extract of a chapter from “The Bell Curve” in the New Republic before anyone else dared touch it. I published it along with multiple critiques (hey, I believed magazines were supposed to open rather than close debates) - but the book held up, and still holds up as one of the most insightful and careful of the last decade.

I remember that issue of TNR. Sullivan is being a bit disingenuous when he talks about publishing multiple replies to Muuray and Herrnstein. What he actually did was publish a ten+ page excerpt/article from the book, which is a huge amount of space in a slim magazine like TNR. Most of the multiple replies were from the magazine's usual contributors, not experts in statistics or IQ research. And most of them were just a few paragraphs, not detailed critiques.

Anyway, over at Slate, Stephen Metcalf has a good discussion of why The Bell Curve is actually dreck:

Far from having held up as a “careful” work of scholarship, The Bell Curve has inspired a lot of suspicion on the part of the properly accredited. In his own book on human intelligence, The Mismeasure of Man, Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould pointed out that Herrnstein and Murray had buried key data in remote appendices. Upon closer inspection, that data appeared to demolish one of their core claims, that low IQ correlates highly with anti-social behaviors, more highly even than low socioeconomic status. (Apparently they didn't plot “the scatter of variation” around their own “regression curves” and didn't “square their correlation coefficients” to statistics what the layup and jump shot are to basketball.) Do I know if Gould was right? Of course not. But I do know that in response to The Bell Curve, the widely esteemed Harvard sociologist Christopher Jencks organized a yearlong faculty workshop on IQ and meritocracy at the University of Chicago. The dozens of resulting papers were presented by the Brookings Institute in a book, The Black-White Test Score Gap, whose conclusion was summarized by Jencks in the forward: “Despite endless speculation, no one has found genetic evidence indicating that blacks have less intellectual ability than whites. Thus while it is clear that eliminating the test score gap would require enormous effort by both blacks and whites and would probably take more than one generation, we believe it can be done.”

Metcalf also does a good job of showing that many of the people Murray and Herrnstein relied on in their book have strong connections to overtly racist organizations. Of course, that is not directly relevant to evaluating the merits of Murray and Herrnstein's arguments. But I do find some interesting parallels here with other sorts of pseudoscholarship.

Metcalf describes how many of the people on Murray and Herrnstein's side of this claim to be courageous scholars, doggedly following the data wherever it leads in a selfless pursuit of the turth on a sensitive question. But go just a little bit beneath the surface and you find the usual cadre of racist organizations and unrepentant bigots.

So it is with holocaust denial. In public they are just courageous historians. But get them away from the cameras and the cartoonish, overt anti-semitism comes percolating up to the surface.

And so it is with creationists, who publicly claim to be intellectually honest scientists, but who privately descend into the silliest sorts of religious extremism.

As I've commented before: cranks all read from the same playbook.

As for Murray and Herrnstein, a friend of mine recently summed up the situation very well. They are trying to use sociological data to draw a biological conclusion. That never ends well.

The Dover Trial

There are a number of good posts up at other blogs about the trial. The ACLU blog has this post about some embarrassment suffered by ID proponent Michael Behe, who is testifying for the forces of darkness. Short version: Behe claimed that his popular book Darwin's Black Box went through a rigorous peer-review process prior to publication. The Plaintiff's attorney was able to produce a document showing that this was false. D'oh!

Meanwhile, writing in the York Daily Record, Mike Argento offers some further information about Behe's testimony:

Dr. Michael Behe, leading intellectual light of the intelligent design movement, faced a dilemma.

In order to call intelligent design a “scientific theory,” he had to change the definition of the term. It seemed the definition offered by the National Academy of Science, the largest and most prestigious organization of scientists in the Western world, was inadequate to contain the scope and splendor and just plain gee-willigerness of intelligent design.

So he devised his own definition of theory, expanding upon the definition of those stuck-in-the-21st-century scientists, those scientists who ridicule him and call his “theory” creationism in a cheap suit.

He'd show them. He'd come up with his own definition.

Details aside, his definition was broader and more inclusive of ideas that are “outside the box.”

So, as we learned Tuesday, during Day 11 of the Dover Panda Trial, under his definition of a scientific theory, astrology would be a scientific theory.


Who knew that Jacqueline Bigar, syndicated astrology columnist, was on par with Lehigh University biochemist Michael Behe?

Eric Rothschild, attorney for the plaintiffs, asked Behe about whether astrology was science. And Behe, after hemming and hawing and launching into an abbreviated history of astrology and science, said, under his definition, it is. He said he wasn't a science historian, but the definition of astrology in the dictionary referred to its 15th-century roots, when it was equated with astronomy, which, according to the National Academy of Science, is a science.

So, taking a short logical leap, something Behe would certainly endorse since he does it a lot himself, you could say that intelligent design is on par with 15th-century science.

Sounds about right.

And if you're really a glutton for punishment, you can find the trial transcripts here.

After reading multiple accounts of the trial from people on both sides of this, and after browsing through some of the transcripts, it looks like things are going well for the good guys. As Stephen Jay Gould once pointed out, creationists do well in public debates, where the emphasis is on theater and showmanship. But they are lousy in court, where they must adhere to strict rules of evidence and must rely on substance rather than style.

If the judge rules against ID, it will be a serious setback for their side. With clear court rulings against them in both the Cobb County trial and now the Dover trial, very few School Boards will have the stomach to undertake this fight.

But will the judge rule for the good guys? Who knows? The judge is a W appointee, which means he is probably at least somewhat sympathetic to ID. On top of that, the legal bar the Dover policy has to clear is not terribly high. If the judge is so inclned he can ignore the fact that the Dover policy was plainly motivated by religious concerns, and find that it serves the secular purpose of informing students about scientific alternatives. And he could buy the ID line that ID is science with theological implications, as opposed to the brain-dead religious twaddle it actually is.

As the conservatives are so fond of reminding us, judges can do pretty much whatever they please. On the merits it looks to me like the ID folks don't have a leg to stand on. Hopefully the judge will see things the same way.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

The Best Magazine Article Ever

Here's something I never thought I'd write: I bought the latest issue of Esquire magazine at the newsstand the other day. The reason for this unlikely step was a headline on the cover that read “Creationists and Other Idiots.” The rather fetching picture of actress Jessica Biel on the cover didn't hurt either.

The article's author is Charles Pierce, and its title is “Greeting from Idiot America.” The subhead reads:

Creationism. Intelligent design. Faith-based this. Trust-your-gut that. There's never been a better time to espouse, profit from, and believe in utter, unadulterated crap. And the crap is rising so high, it's getting dangerous.

I don't know of any other magazine that has had the courage to state the truth so bluntly. Sadly, it's not freely available online. So allow to me to transcribe a few choice nuggets for you.

After describing a visit to the nascent creationism museum being built in Kentucky, which features a dinosaur exhibit in which the fearsome creatures are wearing saddles, he describes some of the obvious contradictions in the museum exhibits. Then Pierce writes:

These are impolite questions. Nobody asks them here by the cool pond tucked into a gentle hillside. Increasingly, nobody asks them outside the gates either. It is impolite to wonder why our parents sent us to college, and why generations of immigrants sweated and bled so their children could be educated, if it wasn't so that we would all one day feel confident enough to look at a museum filled with dinosaurs rigged to run six furlongs at Belmont and make the not unreasonable point that it is all batshit crazy and that anyone who believes this righteous hooey should be kept away from sharp objects and his own moeny.

Dinosaurs with saddles?

Dinosaurs on Noah's Ark?

Welcome to your new Eden.

Welcome to Idiot America.

And later, still talking about creationism:

This is how Idiot America engages the great issues of the day. It decides, en masse, with a thousand keystrokes and clicks of the remote control, that because there are two sides to every question, they must both be right, or at least not wrong. And the poor biologist's words carry no more wieght than the thunderations of some turkey-neck preacher out of the Church of Christ's Own Parking Facility in DeLand, Florida. Less weight, in fact, because our scientist is an “expert” and, therefore, an “elitist.” Nobody buys his books. Nobody puts him on cable. He's brilliant surely, but his Gut's the same as ours. He just ignores it, poor fool.

Later still:

The “debate,” of course, is nothing of the sort, because two sides are required for a debate. Nevertheless, the very notion of it is a measure of how scientific discourse, and the way the country educates itself, has slipped through lassitude and inattention across the border into Idiot America - where fact is merely that which enough people believe, and truth is measured only by how fervently they believe it.

If we have abdicated our birthright to scientific progress, we have done so by moving the debate into the realm of political and cultural argument, where we all feel more confident, because it is here that the Gut rules. Held to this standard, any scientific theory is rendered mere opinion. Scientific fact is no more immutable than a polling sample. This is how there's a “debate” over global warming, even though the preponderance of fact among those who actually have studied the phenomenon renders the “debate” quite silly. The debate is about making people feel better about driving SUV's. The debate is less about climatology than it is about guiltlessly topping off your tank and voting in tax incentives for oil companies.

The whole article is quite long, and it covers a lot more than just creationism. The tone of the article is exactly right and long overdue.

The next time you hear some condescending pseudoliberal columnist peddle cheap excuses for the fundamentalists; the next time you hear someone say they are just responding to misperceived threats to their faith or to an overzealous atheist like Richard Dawkins; the next time you hear some postmodern nonsense about people basing their worldviews on different assumptions; just remember the wise words of this article. Religious fundamentalism is born out of laziness and cowardice. It is the province of people who can't be troubled to educate themselves about anything, and who have no higher ambition in life than to be led by a charismatic preacher. It is nothing more noble than that.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

The Arrogance of Youth

By way of Pharyngula I came across this essay by University of Iowa junior Stacey Perk. It provides some insight into the breathtaking arrogance and short-sightedness teachers at all levels are forced to deal with. We consider it in full:

I loved high school. I loved the memories I have of parties, football games, and hanging out with my friends. These are the things I have taken with me, not the useless information acquired in the classroom.

I remember complaining about how I'd never use knowledge I gained in the classroom in real life. I regretted all the time I devoted to school because, in the end, I didn't remember the algebraic equations, historical dates, or the periodic table.

A problem exists within the high-school education system: It doesn't prepare students for their careers. When I decided in high school that my major was going to be journalism, I took the only class offered by my school in hopes of learning the journalistic writing style. I didn't learn anything from that class. My teacher was not a journalism teacher; she was an English teacher. We spent every class silent reading instead of learning about the inverted pyramid.

There's a reason high school doesn't prepare students for their future careers: High school isn't job training. First of all, nobody (Perk included) knows what career she will pursue as a high school freshman. Secondly, Perk seems to have the strange idea that knowledge is only useful if it in some way directly helps you get a job later on.

I've heard this lament so many times from students (and, frankly, I think I levelled it myself a few times in my educational babyhood) that I have my reply down to a single sentence: “It's useful to know stuff.” Not just because the odd fact that you pick up here or there turns out to be precisely what you need to impress a job interviewer (though that has happened to me). But also because there's more to education than facts.

Perk thinks she wants to be a journalist. Fine. That will involve a lot of writing, and one way you learn how to write is to read a lot of good writing. Pass your eyes over enough well-crafted sentences and you begin to write a few yourself. And high school English classes are a good place to pass your eyes over some very good sentences indeed. As a journalist she will be exposed to a lot of people trying to get her to believe nonsense. The logic and clear thinking she learned in her math and science classes will provide a good antidote for that. And whatever aspect of society she finds herself reporting on will inevitably have been influenced by its past. Simply understanding a bit about how America has arrived where it is requires learning about its history.

Education isn't primarily about facts or job training. It's about exposing yourself to all of the things human beings have been up to for the last few thousand years. You read the works of the ancient Greek playwrights not because you really care about their nifty plots, but because by reading those works you immediately realize that the concerns of people thousands of years ago are pretty much the same as their concerns now. You read Dickens or Shakepeare or Hemingway (or Agatha Christie or Stephen King (yes, they belong in the canon too!)) because by doing so you appreciate for a moment what the English language can be made to do. You learn science partly for the specific facts you learn (you really ought to know that the Earth orbits the Sun an not vice versa), but mainly so that you can marvel for a moment at the sheer ingenuity, persistence, hard work and cleverness that went into figuring all this stuff out. You learn history not just because you should know when the Civil War was fought or what the Mayflower compact was, but because everything that happens today finds its raison d'etre in the past, and knowing something about the past can not help but make it easier to make good decisions today.

It's precisely because you will not be learning these things when you're out of school, and encumbered with the demands of work and family, that you should study them in school. If you do not learn history and science and math and all the rest in school, then you will never learn about these things.

And if you're inclined to give me the whiny, childish, petulant answer, “Who cares if I never learn them! I don't like history and science and the rest!” then I will reply with the obvoius answer: “How do you know you don't like them, if you haven't even tried them?”

Perk continues:

The school system needs a reality check; most students aren't going to be mathematicians, historians, or chemists. So why do we have to take these classes? If students know at an early age what they want to do for their careers, then high schools should offer classes in that area. This would make me feel that the time I spent in the high-school classrooms wasn't a waste.

As I said, breathtaking arrogance. The very idea that anyone needs a reality check from a college junior is almost too rich to ponder.

Since I have already answered her other points here, allow me to relate a quick anecdote from my school days. I was a high school junior and my English teacher, Ms. Goodman, had assigned the book My Antonia, by Willa Cather. We were given two weeks to read it, at the end of which we would be given a “reading test.” This was a multiple-choice test whose purpose was to ensure that we actually had read the book.

As it happens, these tests were generally very difficult. Ms. Goodman took great pride in her reading tests. She would rent the movie of whatever book we were reading, find the places where the movie differed from the book, and make sure that precisely those points were raised on the test. She would get the Cliff's Notes and make sure that most of the questions on the test addressed things not covered in the notes. And, frnakly, some of her questions involved points that were so obscure, you wouldn't pick up on them after a dozen readings. (What color were the buckles on Hester Prynne's shoes in the opening scence of The Scarlet Letter? That sort of thing).

Nonetheless, I generally did tolerably well on these tests. But not the one for My Antonia. That one I failed. Failed hard. The sort of failure where you can just feel yourself failing as your taking the test.

Later that day I ran into Ms. Goodman in the hall. By this time she had graded the tests, and was therefore well aware of the new standard of suck I pioneered in her class. Since this was a dramatic departure from my usual stellar performance (the paper I wrote for her on Randall Patrick McMurphy's shifting motivations in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is still rightly regarded as a modern classic) she asked me, with evident concern, to explain myself.

In retrospect I think her question was motivated by a genuine worry about my well-being. I seem to recall having had a truly disgusting pilonidal cyst removed from my tuchus shortly before this test. So she was probably relieved by the answer I gave her. I'm sure I didn't put it quite this way, but here's basically what I said:

My Antonia is a boring, ponderous, overwritten piece of dreck and you should be ashamed of yourself for including it in the curriculum. Sure, I read the book. But I found it so hard to pay attention to any of the wearisome banalities taking place on its pages that I overlooked all those trivial, picayune, unimportant details you so glory in on your straight out of the Marquis de Sade reading tests. So what do you think about that? Huh?”

She was neither impressed nor amused. I sucked it up and reread the book.

And to think, our clever U. of Iowa student would probably read that story and conclude that I was the noble one, while Ms. Goodman was the obnoxious goober.

Perk continues:

When I got to college, the education system did a better job of focusing on students' career goals. But even then, I found myself stressing over statistical equations and astronomy facts during my first two years. Why? I was never going to use that information. For open majors, the general-education requirements are great. For me, they were a waste of time and tuition.

Not only did the gen-ed classes waste my time and money, but they also hurt my GPA. Being forced to take classes makes them less interesting. If they aren't interesting, you won't do well in them. Statistics and astronomy bored me, so I opted not to attend class and neglected to study for them. These gen-ed classes caused my GPA to plummet. I worried that these classes - ones that I would never use - were going to hurt my chances of getting into the journalism school, which has a 3.0 GPA requirement. As it turned out, my GPA was below 3.0 after my first year. I had to take summer classes to raise it, and luckily, I was eventually admitted to the J-school. I can not imagine what I would have done if I were not admitted. I would have had to change my major.

How is this fair? I shouldn't have to give up my dream of working at Glamour magazine because my GPA was low - all because of some stupid gen-ed classes that I was forced to take. Let's just get rid of them.

Ah! So now we see what this is really all about.

It's total nonsense that if you don't find a class interesting you won't do well in it. But doing well does require a modicum of hard work and basic maturity. Perk is bummed out because she had to suffer the consequences of the bad decisions she made regarding her gen ed classes. Sounds like maybe she has learned a valuable life lesson.

Actually, Ms. Perk, you should have to give up your dream of working for Glamour if, as a college junior, you are so opinionated and set in your ways that you can't even drag yourself to class three times a week to pull off a decent grade. I very much doubt that your low GPA resulted from a lack of brainpower. It resulted from a fundamental lack of discipline, and if that deficiency is not remedied you will not find many employers taking an interest in you. Your low GPA resulted from your unwillingness to learn one of life's most important lessons: Sometime you have to do things you'd rather not do.

So grow the heck up and go learn something!

Rosin on Behe

Over at Slate, Hannah Rosin has a good run-down of Michael Behe's testimony in the Dover ID trial. She writes:

But when he gets any closer to explaining how one would actually go about proving the existence of intelligent design, Behe starts chasing his tail. Design, he says over and over, is merely the “purposeful arrangement of parts.” We can detect it when “separate, interacting components are ordered in such a way as to accomplish a function beyond the individual components.” This is a perfectly tautological argument. It is reasonable to infer design, he argues, when something seems well designed. In his writings, Behe argues that the theory can be falsified and suggests an experiment: Place a bacterial species without a flagellum under selective pressure, grow it for 10,000 generations (about two years), and see whether a system as complex as a flagellum is produced. It's a circular experiment, as William Saletan has explained. To that I add: Why wouldn't Mr. Designer, whoever he is, just go to work on that Petri dish? I need look no further than myself for counter-evidence: weak ankles, diabetes, high probability of future death. If there is a designer, she doesn't seem so intelligent.

See the original for links.

I especially liked this part:

I've met biologists who are strict Biblical literalists. Usually they exhibit a certain humility and reconcile their twin beliefs by admitting that there are many mysteries of creation the tools of science can never explain. Behe utterly lacks that deference. In his book, he writes that ID should be ranked as “one of the greatest achievements in the history of science,” rivaling “Newton and Einstein, Lavoisier and Schrodinger, Pasteur and Darwin.” The evidence of design is all around us, and any honest scientist would embrace that as the obvious Ur-Explanation.

My 4-year-old daughter feels this way, too. She marvels at how a katydid looks exactly like a leaf, or how stars really do twinkle in the sky. But I'm hoping by ninth grade her thinking will have evolved.

Monday, October 17, 2005

More Conservative Phoniness

As David Gelernter was desperately searching for something, anything, to excoriate the left for, conservative blogger Andrew Sullivan was getting all worked up about this news brief from Science and Theology News. The brief describes recent speculation that suicide bombers are motivated by “altruism.” The brief begins:

Researchers’ attempts to understand suicide terror have revived a controversial theory of “altruistic suicide,” the act of killing oneself so that one’s community might live.

Altruism — a counterintuitive and little-studied motive for suicide — suggests that suicide terrorism is a phenomenon of group psychology and organizational behavior, rather than an outgrowth of fundamentalist religious beliefs.

The distinction could prove important, researchers say.

“Motivations for terrorism need to be clearly understood, rather than perceived stereotypically, so that they can be effectively counteracted,” said Karen Larson, an expert on the political ramifications of terrorism and an anthropology professor at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn.

Such understanding may, for instance, enable Muslim organizations to “promote a group identity that will help prevent recruitment of youth into radical organizations,” she said.

Later, we get a more explicit definition of what is meant by the term altruism in this context:

“The concept of altruism is based solely on sacrifice for the betterment of the group,” said Jeffrey Riemer, a retired Tennessee Technological University sociology professor. Riemer’s seminal 1998 study, “Durkheim’s Heroic Suicide in Military Combat,” helped revive a 19th-century theory to explain a 21st-century scourge. “Essentially, altruistic suicide is taking one’s life for the benefit of the group,” he said.

As is typical from news briefs of this sort, it is difficult to really get a good picture of the argument being made. But that doesn't stop Sullivan from drawing sweeping conclusions.

To Sullivan, you see, this is evidence of the great moral perfidy of modern academics. Under the headline, “Suicide bombing as - Altruism?” Sullivan writes:

That's a new “theory” on the motivations of suicide bombers. Read the piece detailing the study and see if you can find a distinction between martyrdom - which kills only oneself - and suicide-bombing, which, of course, kills others. Money quote:

There follows a quote from the news brief linked to above. Sullivan continues:

It seems to me that if Islamic fascists wanted merely to blow themselves up, few of us would object. In fact, it might be worth encouraging. Win-win: they go to “heaven”, we get to ride the subway in peace. But these people are mass-murderers. I guess it takes an academic to see that as altruism.

Sullivan has obviously missed the point, right? There is no value judgment being made in describing suicide bombers as altruistic. That's why I used the scare quotes earlier. As described in the quotes above, altruism has a precise technical meaning here. Once that is understood, it is also clear that Sullivan's distinction between martyrdom and suicide bombing is totally irrelevant.

But wait! The story continues. An e-mailer pointed out the obvious to Sullivan:

You're being somewhat unfair to the researchers who attribute suicide terror to “altruism.” We generally use the word “altruism” in a positive sense -- an “unselfish concern for the welfare of others,” as defined in The American Heritage Dictionary. However the same dictionary defines the scientific term “altruism” as “instinctive cooperative behavior that is detrimental to the individual but contributes to the survival of the species.” There are no value judgments inherent in this scientific definition, which seems clearly to be the meaning intended by the researchers in the article to which you link. The conclusions reached by the researchers may or may not be accurate, but understanding the mind of the suicide bomber is both a worthy and necessary goal.

Looks pretty clear to me. But Sullivan absolutely refuses to get it:

Huh? Let's concede for the sake of argument that altruism in this sense means precisely “instinctive cooperative behavior that is detrimental to the individual but contributes to the survival of the species.” You're saying that the murderers of 9/11 were exhibiting “cooperative behavior” for the “survival of the species”? Suicide bombing is an upper-middle class form of mass murder, attached to a psychotic, narcissistic version of religious faith. If someone wants to martyr himself as a protest, that's one thing. If he wants to take other innocent people with him, it's quite another. I would think that distinction is an obvious one. Within the confines of today's value-free academia, it apparently isn't.

Sullivan insists on seeing a moral connotation to the term “altruism.” That's why he thinks that describing suicide bombing as an upper-middle class form of mass murder somehow contradicts the statement that bombers are motivated by altruism, in the technical sense of that word.

The distinction between martyrdom and suicide bombing is obvious if your goal is to pass moral judgment on the actions of terrorists. But since for the moment the issue is the motivation for their actions, it is a completely irrlevant distinction.

The really amusing part of this is that Sullivan has elsewhere expressed his admiration for Murray and Herrnstein's infamous book The Bell Curve. This is the book where the authors tried to use messy sociological data to draw biological conclusions about IQ differences between races.

So when conservative academics use an obviously defective procedure to draw incendiary conclusions about race and IQ, Sullivan sees that as courageous and admirable. But when someone suggests that suicide bombers might be motivated more by group psychology than by religious fanaticism, Sullivan sees this as evidence of the lack of values among academics.

Ask me again why there aren't more conservative academics.

The Problem with Conservative Academics

If you want to understand why there are so few conservative academics, consider the latest piece of drivel from Yale computer scientist David Gelernter. It appeared in a recent issue of the Los Angeles Times. It carries the title “Adrift in a Sea of Phoniness,” and the subtitle “American political discourse -- especially on the left -- has abandoned logic, reason and honesty for a pack of nasty lies.”

Now, when I think of the abandonment of logic and reason in modern politcial discourse, I think of things like the Republican party's wholesale embrace of creationism, or their fanaticism on the subject of abstinence-only sex education. When I think of dishonesty I think of all the misleading and false arguments they made to justify the war in Iraq, not to mention the unbelievably sleazy campaigns they ran in 2000 and 2004.

But Gelernter can't be bothered with such trivialities. Instead he gives three examples of leftist dishonesty and illogic. His first example is far too vague to be assessed:

Recently, Vice President Cheney and Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) disagreed. Rangel denounced Cheney, rudely. The VP denounced him back. Rangel's response: Cheney must apologize.

First, why should Cheney apologize and not Rangel? More important, note the ever more popular idea that politicians must apologize on cue like trained seals whenever a noisy enough group orders them to. Yet every 5-year-old knows that a coerced apology has got to be insincere. Otherwise it wouldn't need to be coerced.

Am I really expected to assess this situation based on Gelernter's four sentence description of it? If I am going to determine who owes whom an apology, wouldn't I need to know what each person said? Gelernter doesn't even tell us what the subject of discussion was, for heaven's sake.

And the point of a coercing an apology out of a politician is not to get a sincere declaration of remorse. The point is to so embarrass the politician in question that other people will think twice about offending the interest group in question. Every five-year old knows that. When the politician has said something genuinely offensive, this can be quite a good result. When it's a matter of a narrow interest group being hypersensitive, then it's not so good.

Here's Gelernter's second example:

A few weeks ago, [conservative radio talk show host Bill] Bennett said on his radio program that X is a stupid idea; then he said that if you believe X, you might as well believe Y. But Y is “impossible, ridiculous and morally reprehensible.” One thing we know for sure: Bennett is against Y. He thinks that Y is “impossible,” is “ridiculous,” is “morally reprehensible.” “Y” was the idea that aborting all black babies would cut the crime rate.

So the left jumped all over him. Bizarrely enough, the White House chimed in. (A Republican White House opening fire on Bennett is like the Joint Chiefs bombing their own front lines.) Yet no one who read or heard Bennett's actual statement in context could possibly have believed that Bennett is racist or had talked like a racist. (Emphasis in original).

Once again, no one not already familiar with the Bennett situation will have the slightest idea what Gelernter is talking about. As it happens, though, this time I do know the details. So let me remind you that recently Bill Bennett said the following on his show, as described in in this article from Slate:

“I do know that it's true that if you wanted to reduce crime, you could—if that were your sole purpose—you could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down,” Bennett volunteered. “That would be an impossible, ridiculous, and morally reprehensible thing to do, but your crime rate would go down. So, these far-out, these far-reaching, extensive extrapolations are, I think, tricky.”

Incidentally, the Slate article linked to above has a good run-down of all the issues related to Bennett's statement. In particular, they point to several examples of right-wing pundits telling lies about what Bennett actually said. But seeing major television pundits lie to protect a colleague doesn't seem to bother Gelernter.

It is possible that if you go digging around in the darkest corners of the left-wing blogosphere, you might find someone who believes that Bennett supports the wholesale abortion of black children. But back on planet Earth the criticism of Bennett revolved around his bald assertion that aborting all black children would cause the crime rate to go down. That was the statement that brought all of the well-deserved heat.

And what terrible thing happened to Bennett as a result of this fracas? Bennett made an offenisve statement and various interest groups (including the White House, as Gelernter notes) criticized him for it. That's it. Did Bennett lose his show? Was he forced to grovel publicly? Not at all. So what is Gelernter so upset about?

Let's go to his third example:

Richard Lamm is the former Democratic governor of Colorado (1975-1987), now a free-thinking, self-described “progressive conservative” who teaches public policy at the University of Denver. In the journal of the conservative National Assn. of Scholars, Lamm has written about the time he submitted an article about racism to a university publication called the Source — which is run by the administration, not by students.

Lamm's submission compared the harm wrought by racism to the good that comes out of working to overcome obstacles. His article discussed the success of the Japanese, Jews and Cubans in the U.S.; all three have suffered bigotry and prospered. Mexicans in America have done less well. But Mexicans and Cubans are equally Latino and face similar kinds of prejudice. If Cubans have thrived and Mexicans haven't, racism can't possibly be the whole story.

Exactly the sort of provocative, challenging article any university would be proud to publish, right?

Only kidding. Lamm reports that the Source rejected his piece: "too controversial"; then he appealed to the provost, and then the chancellor. They agreed with the editors. Too controversial.

Golly! A journal deciding not to run a controversial article. Censorship at tis worst.

There doesn't seem to be much information available online about The Source, but I was able to find this page. The Source is described as “Denver University's award-winning community newsletter.” It is published not by an academic department, but rather by the Office of Communications and Marketing. This doesn't sound like a journal whose purpose is to hash out difficult sociological issues.

Why aren't there more conservative academics? Because conservatives are far more interested in sriking a martyr's pose than in making a decent argument for their views.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Brief Blog Break

Well, Rochester was a blast! Saw some old friends, made some new ones, ate Indian food at the conference's expense. What more could you ask for? The talk went well. Got enough questions to suggest that people were interested in the problem I'm working on, but nothing I didn't know the answer to. Perfect. The organization was superb, which is no small task with a conference of this size.

Next year the conference will be at Wichita State University in Kansas. My old stomping grounds! Well, actually about a hundred miles South from my old stomping grounds, but close enough.

Sadly, I'm swamped with an unusual amount of work this week, so I will not be updating the blog until next week. Sorry about that!

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Math in Rochester

I'll be leaving for Rochester, New York tomorrow to participate in the 19th Annual Midwest Conference on Combinatorics, Cryptography and Computing. We'll be meeting at the Rochester Institute of Technology. I'll be giving a scintillating, twenty-minute talk about the Cheeger constants of block design graphs (never mind) at 11:40 on Saturday. If I have any readers in Rochester, I'll look forward to seeing you there!

Regular blogging will resume on Monday.

Happy Anniversary to Isaac and Emily

They're my cats, and I brought them home exactly one year ago today. They're the cutest, sweetest, bestest cats ever! Someone's getting tuna fish tonight...

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

The Miers Nomination

Over at The Weekly Standard, conservative pundit William Kristol describes himself as disappointed, depressed and demoralized over the nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court.

The good folks at Red State are even more blunt. Check out comments like this:

Bush thinks he has people instincts. He doesn't. Putin?!

This is pathetic. Air out of my lungs pathetic.

And the thing is, I'm not even sure if the instinct about people we'd hope for is the one he's looking for. Roe (or any other social issue) is simply not on his front burner. I've feared this, and now I'm convinced it's true. In fact, I think he and Rove are intentionally not placing anti-Roe votes on the Court. Roe stands, both Miers and Roberts uphold it (although upholding restrictions) and it becomes clear we have a 7-2 Supreme Court in favor of Roe. At that point, I vote McCain or even Giuliani (although I don't donate) and just don't bother myself with the lost cause on the abortion issue.

Meanwhile, I heard Rush Limbaugh on the radio today protesting that Bush is showing weakness by not nominating a known conservative ot the Court. It makes it look like he wants to avoid a fight, whereas Limbaugh believes he should welcome that fight.

Ordinarily all of this would make me very happy. The trouble is that I don't see any basis for all of this conservative hand-wringing.

In fact, my fear is exactly the opposite. I suspect that Miers is Borkette. She's probably so fanatically right-wing that Bush figured a nominee who openly held Miers' views would surely be voted down, or only confirmed with great difficulty. So he had to find a stealth crazy person with no track record in order to get those views on the Court.

This is one time I hope the consevatives are correct!

Lewontin in the NYRB

The latest issue of The New York Review of Books has this lengthy article from Harvard genetecist Richard Lewontin. His subject is recent books by Michael Ruse, Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd. He writes:

The development of evolutionary biology has induced two opposite reactions, both of which threaten its legitimacy as a natural scientific explana-tion. One, based on religious convictions, rejects the science of evolution in a fit of hostility, attempting to destroy it by challenging its sufficiency as the mechanism that explains the history of life in general and of the material nature of human beings in particular. One demand of those who hold such views is that their competing theories be taught in the schools.

The other reaction, from academics in search of a universal theory of human society and history, embraces Darwinism in a fit of enthusiasm, threatening its status as a natural science by forcing its explanatory scheme to account not simply for the shape of brains but for the shape of ideas. The Evolution–Creation Struggle is concerned with the first challenge, Not By Genes Alone with the second.

Yes, but. One of those is a considerably more important threat than the other. A handful of overzealous academics does not worry me as much as a vast ocean of religious zealots who have control of much of the government.

The whole essay is worth reading, but Lewontin gets some important things wrong:

What, then, is the source of the repeated episodes of active political and social agitation against the assertions of evolutionary science? One apparent answer is that it is the expected product of fundamentalist belief, which rejects the easy compromises of liberal exegesis and insists that every word in Genesis means exactly what it says. Days are days, not eons. But there's the rub. A literal reading of Genesis tells us that it took God only three days to make the physical universe as it now exists, yet nuclear physics and astrophysics claim a very old stellar system and provide the instruments for the dating of bits and pieces of the earth and of fossils spanning hundreds of millions of years. So why aren't Kansas schools under extreme pressure to change the curriculum in physical science courses? Why should physicists be allowed to propagate, unopposed, their godless accounts of the evolution of the physical universe? Something more is at stake than a disagreement over the literal truth of biblical metaphors.

Kansas HAS made changes to its physical science curriculum because of creationist pressure. Last time around the School Board did not just eliminate evolution, but also the Big Bang, from its standards. Furthermore, publishers of geology textbooks used in the state were editing out references to the Earth's great age. I was living in Kansas while this was going on.

The only reason you don't see more agitation in this direction is that biology figures more prominently in the high school curriculum than astronomy and geology.

So Lewontin is wrong to suggest that anti-evolutionism in the heartland is any more complicated than a lot of religious zealots following their beliefs to their logical conclusion.

The following passage is worth considering:

Flowing from his view that scientific evolutionary biology can be turned into a kind of religion, Ruse is worried that the commitment to using only natural phenomena in the attempt to explain the history and variety of organisms is a "slippery slope" down which evolutionists may glide from the firm surface of hard-minded methodology, of which Ruse approves, into the slough of unreflective metaphysical naturalism. We demand that our scientific work be framed with reference only to material mechanisms that can, at least in principle, be observed in nature because any other method would lead us into a hopeless morass of uncheckable speculation that would be the end of science. But we should not, in Ruse's view, confuse that rule of conduct with a revelation of how the world really works. Maybe God is lurking out there somewhere but He doesn't leave any residue in our test tube, so we will be tempted to assume He doesn't exist.

The worry that God exists but leaves no detectable trace is reminiscent of Carl Sagan's dragon analogy. A person comes to you and says there is a dragon in his garage. You say, great, let's go see it. He says you can't see it because the dragon is invisible. You say, let's sprinkle some powder on the floor so that we will detect the dragon's footprints when it steps on the ground. He says that it's a floating dragon that never makes contact with the ground. You say, let's set up heat sensors to detct the dragon's warmth. He says it's an incorporeal dragon that gives off no heat.

At some point, surely, you're allowed to ask how an invisible, floating, incorporeal dragon is different from no dragon at all.

Likewise with God. The basic idea of trying to find in nature some divine signature is not inherently ridiculous. The fact that we do not find one is highly significant. I am, indeed, tempted to conclude that God does not exist because we have failed to discover any empricial trace of Him.

Anyway, go read the whole essay. I'll leave you with Lewontin's wise words about the intellectual vacuity of ID:

But the theory of ID is a transparent subterfuge. The problem is that if the living world is too complex to have arisen without an intelligent designer, then where did the intelligent designer come from? After all, she must have been as complex as the things she designed. If not, then we have evolution! Otherwise we must postulate an intelligent designer who designed the intelligent designer who..., back to the original one who must have been around forever. And who might that be? Like the ancient Hebrews the ID designers fear to pronounce Her name lest they be destroyed, but Her initials are clearly YWH.