Friday, December 30, 2005

New Creation Watch Column

If you're just dying to know what Judge Jones actually wrote in his 139 page opinion, but for some reason you don't want to slog through the whole thing, feel free to have a look at my Cliff's Notes version. I go through the entire opinion, summarizing every major point from page one to page 139. Enjoy!

Himmelfarb in The New Republic

The December 12 issue of The New Republic featured a lengthy review of two new anthologies of Darwin's work. The anthologies are significant mostly for the fact that one features an introduction by E.O. Wilson while the other features an introduction by James Watson. The article is not freely available online.

The review was written by Gertrude Himmelfarb, author of Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution. I have never read any of her work, but she has a very bad reputation among evolutionists. I've been told that in the past she has bought into some of the hoariest anti-evolution cliches. That didn't make me optimistic about this review, and I was right not to get my hopes up.

The review really has very little to say at all. Mostly it's just tediously building up to the final paragraphs, in which Wilson and Watson are chided for their alleged “scientism.” Not very original.

The frustrating part of the review is that in many places it becomes clear that Himmelfarb doesn't really understand what she is talking about. Consider the opening two pargaraphs:

In 1958, at a cocktail party in London, I was introduced to Sir Julian Huxley, one of England's most eminent scientists. (He had just been knighted). My hostess, seeking, in good English fashon, to esptablish some common denominator between her two guests, told him that I was writing a book on Darwin, and then, perhaps to provoke him, went on to say that the book might put evolution in a new light. “New!” Huxley protested. “There is nothing new to say about evolution. Everything that needs saying has already been said. The theory is incontrovertible.” That was the end of that conversation, Huxley promptly going off to find a more congenial drawing-room partner.

I have had occasion to be reminded often of that remark in the almost half-century since, as scientists discovered many new things about fossils, mutations, and genetics, all of which have prompted some adaptation of Darwinism, in token of which the doctrine is now known as “The Modern Synthesis.” Julian Huxley would no doubt have been pleased with most of these findings.

Ahem. The term “Modern Synthesis” comes from a book published in 1942 with the title Evolution: The Modern Synthesis. The author of that book? Julian Huxley.

So here we have a supposed scholar of Darwin and his work who apparently believes that the Modern Synthesis was based on developments occurring after 1958. On top of that, she is unaware that it was Huxley himself who coined the term. Yet she is allowed to discourse at length on the significance of evolution in high-brow venues like The New Republic. Lovely.

Here's another one:

Both editors are eminent scientists: Edward O. Wilson is best known as the proponent of sociobiology, and James D. Watson as the co-discoverer of the DNA molecule.

Watson and Crick, of course, did not discover the DNA molecule. Everyone knew long before 1953 that our genes were made of the stuff. Actually, their accomplishment was to elucidate the physcial structure of that molecule: the famous double helix.

Edward O. Wilson, meanwhile, is not the proponent of sociobiology. He is a proponent of the subject. Sociobiology is nowadays a perfectly mainstream branch of biology that has shed a lot of light on the behavior of a lot of different critters. Wilson gets credit for coining the term and for being the first to assemble a large quantity of data in support of its importance. His main contribution was to see connections across broad swaths of biology and unite them into one discipline. His study of the famously social ants led him to some of these insights. Curiously, his role in the development of sociobiology is similar to Julian Huxley's role with respect to the Modern Synthesis.

I'm sorry if this seems petty, but when you're writing about science it's important to be precise. Somehow Himmelfarb's sloppiness here reminds me of a story my older brother told me about his eighth grade science class. It seems the teacher described Einstein's famous equation e=mc^2 by saying that energy is equal to mass times light squared. My brother raised an eyebrow and pointed out that light is not the sort of thing that can be squared, and that surely she meant the speed of light squared. No, the teacher insisted. It was the light itself that got squared.

One more:

Natural selection, then, not evolution, was Darwin's claim to fame, evolution having achieved scientific status, so to speak, only by virtue of the mechanism that brought it about. This was how it appeared to Darwin and to his contemporaries - his critics as well as his admirers.

Total nonsense. As Himmelfarb described previously in the essay, other people throughout history had suggested that species were not immutable. But prior to Darwin, very few people really believed it. Darwin's great success in the Origin was to amass overwhelming evidence for the reality that species had evolved through time, tracing out a branching tree as they did so. The evidence he presented was sufficient to convince just about everyone that evolution had, indeed, occurred. But his proposal of natural selection as its mechanism was not well-received at the time or for decades afterwards. Indeed, it was the Modern Synthesis that represented Darwin's vindication on this count.

Anyway, the essay meanders on in this vein. At every turn Himmelfarb reveals that she does not really care about the fine points of the science, she is just concerned to remind everyone that science isn't everything. Fine. I just wish she had said that at the beginning instead of making us wade through her rambling and incoherent precis of this subject.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Bloom in The Atlantic

The December issue of The Atlantic has a lengthy article called “Is God an Accident.” Its author is Paul Bloom, a professor of psychology and linguistics at Yale. The article is only available online to subscribers, so I will have to make do with transcribing some representative quotations.

Bloom begins by describing the inadequacies of some older attempts to explain religion. In particular he considers Marx's idea that religion is an opiate that makes it easier to deal with the unpleasantness of daily life, and the idea that religion promotes social cohesiveness which in turn is favored by natural selection. He then describes his main premise:

Enthusiasm is building among scientists for a quite different view - that religion emerged not to serve a purpose but by acident.

This is not a value judgment. Many of the good things in life are, from an evolutionary perspective, accidents. People sometimes give money, time, and even blood to help unknown strangers in faraway countries whom they will never see. From the perspective of one's genes this is disastrous - the suicidal squandering of resources for no benefit. But its origin is not magical; long-distance altruism is most likely a by-product of other, more adaptive traits, such as empathy and abstract reasoning. Similarly, there is no reproductive advantage to the pleasure we get from paintings or movies. It just so happens that our eyes and brains, which evolved to react to three-dimensional objects in the real world, can respond to two-dimensional projections on a canvas or a screen.

Supernatural beliefs might be explained in a similar way. This is the religion-as-accident theory that emerges from my work, and the work of cognitive scientists such as Scott Atran, Pascal Boyer, Justin Barrett, and Deborah Keleman. One version of this theory begins with the notion that a dstinction between the physical and the psychological is fundamental to human thought. Purely physical things, such as rocks and trees, are subject to the pitiless laws of Newton. Throw a rock, and it will fly through space on a certain path; if you put a branch on the ground, it will not disappear, scamper away, or fly into space. Psychological things, such as people, possess minds, intentions, beliefs, goals, and desires. They move unexpectedly, according to volition and whim; they can chase or run away. There is a moral difference as well: a rock cannot be evil or kind; a person can.

Is this distinction something that is learned, or is it something that is hard-wired into the brain? Bloom presents evidence that this distinction between the physical and the psychological is actually an inherent part of human nature. For example, he describes various experiments that were performed with babies and children to justify his conclusion.

By itself, the fact that this distinction is hard-wired into the brain does not explain religious beliefs. It is when these natural predilections go wrong that we get religion:

At this point the religion-as-accident theory says nothing about supernatural beliefs. Babies have two systems that work in a cold-bloodedly rational way to help them anticipate and understand - and, when they get older, to manipulate - physical and social entities. In other words, both these systems are biological adaptations that give human beings a badly needed head start in dealing with objects and people. But these systems go awry in two important ways that are the foundations of religion. First, we perceive the world of objects as essentially separate from the world of minds, making it possible for us to envision soulless bodies and bodiless souls. This helps explain why we believe in gods and an afterlife. Second, as we will see, our system of social understanding overshoots, inferring goals and desires where none exits. This makes us animists and creationists.

As I said, the article is quite long, so let me just add two more excerpts:

This notion of an immaterial soul potentially separable from the body clashes starkly with the scientific view. For psychologists and neuroscientists, the brain is the source of mental life; our consciousness, emotions, and will are the products of neural processes. As the claim is sometimes put, The mind is what the brain deos. I don't want to overstate the consensus here; there is no accepted theory as to precisely how this happens, and some scholars are skeptical that we will ever develop such a theory. But no scientist takes seriously Cartesian dualism, which posits that thinking need not involve the brain. There is just too much evidence against it.

Still, it feels right, even to those who have never had religious training, and even to young children. This became particularly clear to me one night when I was arguing with my six-year-old son, Max. I was telling him that he had to go to bed, and he said “You can make me go to bed, but you can't make me go to sleep. It's my brain!” This piqued my interest, so I began to ask him questions about what the brain does and does not do. His answers showed an intresting split. He insisted that the brain was involved in perception - in seeing, hearing, tasting and smelling - and he was adamant that it was responsible for thinking. But, he said, the brain was not essential for dreaming, for feeling sad, or for loving his brother. “That's what I do,” Max said, “though my brain might help me out.” (Empahsis in original).


But the real problem with natural selection is that it makes no intuitive sense. It is like quantum physics; we may intellectually grasp it, but it will never feel right to us. When we see a complex structure, we see it as the product of beliefs and goals and desires. Our social mode of understanding leaves it difficult for us to make sense of it any other way. Our gut feeling is that design requires a designer - a fact that is understandably exploited by those who argue against Darwin.

The whole aritcle is fascinating and convincing, and I recommend picking up a copy. Bloom is persuasive that the physical/psychological split is hard-wired into our brains, and that this distinction gives us a natural predilection for religious and supernatural beliefs.

What is left unclear is where this split came from in the first place. Did natural selection for some reason prefer creatures for whom this split was part of their neural hard-wiring? Or is this split itself an accidental by-product of evolution? The second explanation seems more likely, but it raises the obvious question: by-product of what?

Our brains can do a great many things that plainly were not the result of natural selection. For example, with proper training we can solve partial differential equations, but this ability surely did not give certain of our Australopithecine ancestors a survival advantage over their less mathematically inclined brethren. So of all the manifold things our brains can do, which were the ones specifically selected for? A fascinating question, but not one I'm optimistic about answering in a compelling way.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Thomas Talks Sense?

I'm a little pressed for time today, so the periodical survey will continue tomorrow. In the meanime have a look at this surprisingly sensible column from right-wing pundit Cal Thomas. He writes:

The decision by U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III to bar the teaching of “intelligent design” in the Dover, Pennsylvania public school district on grounds it is a thinly veiled effort to introduce a religious view of the world's origins is welcome for at least two reasons.

First, it exposes the sham attempt to take through the back door what proponents have no chance of getting through the front door. Judge Jones rebuked advocates of “intelligent design,” saying they repeatedly lied about their true intentions. He noted many of them had said publicly that their intent was to introduce into the schools a biblical account of creation. Judge Jones properly wondered how people who claim to have such strong religious convictions could lie, thus violating prohibitions in the Book they proclaim as their source of truth and standard for living.

Wow! Couldn't have said it any better myself. And I love the sneer quotes around intelligent design.

These paragraphs are all the more remarkable considering that Thomas is a proud member of the religious right. He is not happy that, for example, prayer has been removed from the public school. But he also believes that Christians make a mistake when they make political power their goal, as this inevitably leads to a corruption of the Christian principles they originally sought to uphold.

Thomas writes:

This leads to the second reason for welcoming Judge Jones' ruling. It should awaken religious conservatives to the futility of trying to make a secular state reflect their beliefs. Too many people have wasted too much time and money since the 1960s, when prayer and Bible reading were outlawed in public schools, trying to get these and a lot of other things restored. The modern secular state should not be expected to teach Genesis 1, or any other book of the Bible, or any other religious text.

That the state once did such things, or at least did not undermine what parents taught their children, is irrelevant. The culture in which we now live no longer reflects the beliefs of our grandparents' generation. For better, or for worse (and a strong case can be made that things are much worse), people who cling to the beliefs of previous generations have been given another chance to do what they should have been doing all along.

Again, well said.

So what should religious conservatives have been doing all along? Home schooling their kids, or placing them in prviate school, of course. And even here, I agree with him. In general I'm highly skeptical of home schooling, and I think all too often it's merely a device for brainwashing children into accepting truly bizarre religious beliefs. I would prefer that every one support the public schools. Frankly, I think that would go a long way towards solving some of the problems the public schools face. But I am enough of a libertarian to accept that in a free society the government can not kidnap your child for most of the day and force him to attend a government run school.

If you really can't abide the idea that sending your kid to public school will result in his exposure to ideas you find objectionable, then the proper response is, indeed, to home school him (or find a private school you can tolerate). What you do not do is try to use the power of the government to promote your preferred religious beliefs. And you definitely don't get to corrupt science education to bring it line with whatever fairy tales you happen to believe.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Schonborn in First Things

Reactions to the Dover decision are coming in thick and fast, but I've had enough of that subject for the time being. Instead I'd like to spend a few days whittling down the big pile of periodicals I have on my desk.

Take this article, by Christoph Cardinal Schonborn, from the January 2006 issue of First Things. You probably recall that Schonborn published an op-ed in the New York Times a while back in which he criticized something called the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution.

The Times piece caused some consternation since it superficially appeared to be a retreat from the Catholic Church's previous position on evolution. In reality it was just a poorly written restatement of the familiar Catholic view: Evolution is fine as long as it sticks to bodies. But only the Church can tell you about the true meaning of things. Nonetheless, the present essay is meant to be a clarification of his views on this subject.

Overall it's just the usual religious simple-mindedness. Science is all well and good, but we shouldn't let it distract us from the self-evident truths that God exists, that humans are the point of it all, and that the Church has something to contribute to a discussion of these topics. Yawn.

But some of the specifics are worth looking at. We begin at the end:

Some may object that my original small essay in the New York Times was misleading because it was too easily misunderstood as an argument about the details of science. As a matter of fact, I expected some initial misunderstanding. Even had it been possible to state in a thousand words a highly qualified and nuanced statement about the relations among modern science, philosophy, and theology, the essay would likely have been dismissed as “mere philosophy,” with no standing to challenge the hegemony of scientism. It was crucially important to communicate a claim about design in nature that was in no way inferior to a “scientific” (in the modern sense) argument. Indeed, my argument was superior to a “scientific” argument since it was based on more certain and enduring truths and principles.

Well, that's just lovely. Scientific in sneer quotes. Arguing from groundless “enduring truths and principles” is better than basing your argument on meticulously collected evidence (science in the modern sense, indeed). Making his Times essay appear to be commenting on science was just a clever ploy to make us not dismiss his argument out of hand.

When used by clerics, expressions like “hegemony of scientism” should be understood as code for the frustration they feel that very few people take them seriously anymore. Everyone realizes that if you want to understand the natural world you look to the methods of science, not revelation, and certainly not the addle-brained musings of clerics who have no basis at all for the assertions they make.

This last point is especially important in light of Schonborn's repeated claims that his is an argument based on reason. He writes (replying to a previous essay by physicist Stephen Barr):

Barr’s essay addresses at some length the question of design in biology, but does not clearly affirm that reason can grasp the reality of design without the aid of faith. If my reading is correct (and I hope I am wrong), in that respect Barr has followed the overwhelming trend of Catholic commentators on the question of neo-Darwinian evolution, who gladly discuss its compatibility with the truths of faith but seldom bother to discuss whether and how it is compatible with the truths of reason. (Emphasis in original).

In light of such statements you might expect Schonborn to provide some reason-based argument for the reality of design in nature. I sure was. But he never provides any such thing. Instead he repeatedly says things like this:

Instead, my argument was based on the natural ability of the human intellect to grasp the intelligible realities that populate the natural world, including most clearly and evidently the world of living substances, living beings. Nothing is intelligible—nothing can be grasped in its essence by our intellects—without first being ordered by a creative intellect. The possibility of modern science is fundamentally grounded on the reality of an underlying creative intellect that makes the natural world what it is. The natural world is nothing less than a mediation between minds: the unlimited mind of the Creator and our limited human minds. Res ergo naturalis inter duos intellectus constituta—“The natural thing is constituted between two intellects,” in the words of St. Thomas. In short, my argument was based on careful examination of the evidence of everyday experience; in other words, on philosophy.

Schonborn seems to think that making bald assertions, about modern science only being possible under a presumption of theism, for example, is the equivalent of making a reasoned argument for those assertions. I find this frustrating.

Let me be more precise. In recent months I have read Brain Greene's book The Fabric of the Universe and Sean Carroll's book Endless Forms Most Beatuiful. Currently I am working my way through Leonard Susskind's book The Cosmic Landscape. The first and last of these are about modern theories of physics, while the middle one is about the role of embryology in evolution. When I read books like these I see scientists going to a great deal of trouble to try to make complex ideas comprehensible to the layman. Chapter after chapter they marshall their facts, discuss the ingenious techniques used to ferret them out, and give you some sense of the history of the ideas they are discussing. After many pages of this foundational material, they offer a few cautious speculations about where things are going.

When I contrast their writing to that of a phony like Schonborn, I am reminded anew of how empty and worthless theology is. It offers nothing beyond mere assertion. It derives its authority solely from the willingness of people to believe it, and not from any agreement with the facts of nature. Scientists try to bring clarity to that which is mysterious. Clerics try desperately to create mystery where there isn't any.

Virtually every paragraph of this essay deserves a response, but let me close with one more excerpt:

The Darwinian biologist looking at the history of life faces a precisely analogous question. If he takes a very narrow view of the supposedly random variation that meets his gaze, it may well be impossible to correlate it to anything interesting, and thus variation remains simply unintelligible. He then summarizes his ignorance of any pattern in variation by means of the rather respectable term “random.” But if he steps back and looks at the sweep of life, he sees an obvious, indeed an overwhelming pattern. The variation that actually occurred in the history of life was exactly the sort needed to bring about the complete set of plants and animals that exist today. In particular, it was exactly the variation needed to give rise to an upward sweep of evolution resulting in human beings. If that is not a powerful and relevant correlation, then I don’t know what could count as evidence against actual randomness in the mind of an observer.

Some may object: This is a pure tautology, not scientific knowledge. I have assumed the conclusion, “rigged the game,” and so forth. But that is not true. I have simply related two indisputable facts: Evolution happened (or so we will presume, for purposes of this analysis), and our present biosphere is the result. The two sets of facts correlate perfectly. Facts are not tautologies simply because they are indisputably true. If the modern biologist chooses to ignore this indubitable correlation, I have no objection. He is free to define his special science on terms as narrow as he finds useful for gaining a certain kind of knowledge. But he may not then turn around and demand that the rest of us, unrestricted by his methodological self-limitation, ignore obvious truths about reality, such as the clearly teleological nature of evolution.

Number me among the objectors. This is a classic case of assuming what you are tyring to prove. Yes, of course, if you start from the assumption that human beings are the point of it all, then it is remarkable indeed that the vicissitudes of four billion years of evolution brought us right where we wanted to be. But Schonborn has no basis for that assumption. I could more plausible argue (following Stephen Jay Gould), that nature was designed to provide an hospitable place for bacteria, with large species like humans and elephants being an occasional aberration. But the overwhelmingly dominant life forms on the planet, today as it has always been, are the bacteria. What are we to conclude from that.

What it really comes down to is this. Scientists have certain facts to confront. They look at our extensive fossil record and see that random mass extinctions play a pivotal role in the direction of natural history. They find no general trend toward increasing braininess, or even increasing complexity. Geneticists have a good grasp of the mechanisms of genetic variation, and can find no directional or guiding principle in any of it. Field biologists find that the trajectory of evolution is crucially shaped by environmental changes, and these changes are unpredictable as far as we can tell. Anatomists tell us that there is nothing in our physical make-up to distinguish us from the other animals, and that we are the product of the same evolutionary forces as every other species. Based on all of this evidence, scientists begrudgingly conclude that evolution has no overall direction or purpose, and that human beings are just one more species among many.

And in reply people like Schonberg come along and accuse scientists of arrogance. They assert that it is completely obvious that humans were designed, the evidence notwithstanding. Just look at their big brains! They say this is obvious to anyyone who has not been blinded by the limitations of science. Then they tell us the Catholic church is the only outfit that can reliably guide us on questions about morality, God, and our fate in the afterlife.

As Richard Dawkins once said, scientists are amateurs at arrogance.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Tidbits from the Decision, Part Three

From page 121-122 (citations omitted):

In fact, one unfortunate theme in this case is the striking ignorance concerning the concept of ID amongst Board members. Conspicuously, Board members who voted for the curriculum change testified at trial that they had utterly no grasp of ID. To illustrate, consider that Geesey testified she did not understand the substance of the curriculum change, yet she voted for it. Moreover, as she indicated on multiple occasions, in voting for the curriculum change, Gesey deferred completely to Bonsell and Buckingham. Second, Buckingham, Chair of the Curriculum Committee at the time admitted that he had no basis to know whether ID amounted to good science as of the time of his first deposition which was two and a half months after the ID policy was approved, yet he voted for the curriculum change. Third, Cleaver voted for the curriculum change despite the teachers' objections, based upon assurances from Bonsell. Cleaver admittedly knew nothing about ID, including the words comprising the phrase, as she consistently referred to ID as “intelligence design” throughout her testimony. In addition, Cleaver was bereft of any understanding of Pandas except that Spahr had said it was not a good science book which should not be used in high school. In addition, Superintendant Nilsen's entire understanding of ID was that “evolution has a design.”

Despite this collective failure to understand the concept of ID, which six Board members nonetheless felt was appropriate to add to ninth grade biology class to improve science education, the Board never heard from any person or ogranization with scientific expertise about the curriculum change, save for consistent but unwelcome advices from the District's science teachers who uniformly opposed the change. In disregarding the teachers' views, the Board ignored undeviating opposition to the curriculum change by the one resource with scientific expertise immediately at its disposal.

I have often written that the only thing creationists know about evolution is that someone told them once that it contradicts the Bible. Now it seems they know scarcely more about ID. The unbelievable arrogance of thinking that major changes to science curricula should be made without any input from scientifically knowledgable people, or in voting for such changes wihtout actually understanding what they entail, pretty much defies comment.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Saletan's Silliness

In this blog entry from last May, I criticized Slate's science writer William Saletan for caring more about puffing himself up than in saying anything worthwhile on the subject of evolution and ID. He's written several articels on the subject since then, of varying levels of quality. But in this essay about the Dover decision we find him reverting to form.

The essay begins:

In his 139-page ruling on the Dover, Pa., “intelligent design” case, federal district Judge John E. Jones sets out to kill ID's scientific pretensions once and for all. “After a six-week trial that spanned twenty-one days and included countless hours of detailed expert witness presentations, the Court is confident that no other tribunal in the United States is in a better position than are we to traipse into this controversial area,” he writes. Jones proceeds to tear ID limb from limb “in the hope that it may prevent the obvious waste of judicial and other resources which would be occasioned by a subsequent trial” on the same question.

Scientifically, Jones settles the issue. Culturally, he fails. And until we learn the difference, the fight over creationism in schools and courts will go on.

See the original for links.

“Culturally, he fails?” What on Earth could that possibly mean? Jones was settling a legal question: Did the Dover ID policy violate the constitution? In answering that question thoroughly he was forced to consider whether ID was science. He showed conclusively that it was not. That's all. There was no cultural issue before him.

Who, exactly, are these people who don't understand the difference between the cultural and scientific aspects of this issue? And how will educating those people about the difference bring about an end to the fight over biology curricula? Saletan's statement makes no sense.

Of course, the subtext here is not hard to spot. Saletan can't bring himself to write a column in which he states the obvious: That Judge Jones flawlessly exposed the scientific vacuity of ID and rightly overturned a blatantly unconstitutional policy. No, he has to find some angle that will make him look keen and insightful and totally able to see beyond his own biases (which, as he has made clear in other essays, are entirely anti-ID and pro-evolution).

So what, precisely, did Jones get wrong? Saletan has one point to make in this regard:

The “contrived dualism” objection pretty much captures what's wrong with ID. But it also captures what's wrong with Jones' opinion. “Since ID is not science, the conclusion is inescapable that the only real effect of the [Dover] ID policy is the advancement of religion,” he writes. The effect of the policy, in which the Dover school board instructed ninth-grade biology teachers to criticize evolution and mention ID, “was to impose a religious view of biological origins into the biology course, in violation of the Establishment Clause.” Note the dualism. ID theorists assume evidence against evolution is evidence for ID; Jones assumes any unscientific theory is religious and therefore forbidden.

See the original for links.

We can concede Saletan's small point without conceding his big one. Taken by itself the sentence he cites is, indeed, inartfully worded and does suggest a false dichotomy between science and religion. But in the context of the entire decision it was a reasonable thing to say.

First, as already mentioned the question before Judge Jones was the constitutionality of the Dover ID policy. Answering that question required that he make a determination about whether the policy served any legitimate secular purpose. There were only two purposes suggested to him at trial. The Defense argued that ID was a valid scientific theory, and as such its presentation served the secular purpose of advancing science education. The Plaintiff's argued that the purpose was to promote a particular religious belief. No one was arguing that ID fell into some third, ill-defined category. So in the context of all the evidence presented at trial, it was reasonable for Jones to frame his decision in terms of a science/religion dichotomy.

Second, and more importantly, Jones presents dozens of pages of evidence backing up the charge that the purpose of the ID policy was to promote a particular religion. It is quite clear that his ruling was not based on any simplistic dichotomies. To repeat, at issue was the constitutionality of the Dover policy. The scientific status of ID was being discussed solely for its relevance in settling the constitutional question. The finding that ID is not science is only one small piece in a very long argument.

So as a criticism of Jones' ruling, Saletan's essay falls flat. But perhaps he has another point:

Jones acts like it's no big deal to declare ID unscientific, since science is just one kind of learning. “Supernatural explanations may be important and have merit,” he says. “ID arguments may be true,” could have “veracity,” and possibly “should continue to be studied, debated, and discussed.” But if unscientific theories are religious, and religion can't be taught, it's unclear how notions related to ID could be debated in schools, or how their truth or merit could be entertained. And that's bad news for science, because it offers people with creationist sympathies—roughly half the American public—no outlet in the public education system outside of the science classroom.

This is parody of Jones' findings. Jones found, in effect, that it is unconstitutional to lie to students about the status of various scientific theories for the purpose of promoting a particular religious world view. I don't think Saletan really disagrees with that.

But if he is really concerned about America's creationists having an outlet for their views in public schools then I would ask him to make a concrete suggestion. What, exactly, should we do to accommodate them? Should we water down biology education because some people find evolution offensive? Should we provide sympathetic coverage to the scientific nonsense of creationism simply because a large fraction of a scientifically ignorant public finds it appealing?

When Saletan makes a concrete suggestion for how to placate the creationists without compromising science education I will happily consider it. Wihtout such a suggestion this paragraph is nothing more than a cheap talking point.

We can worry about the long-term cultural implications later. For now we should simply be happy that Judge Jones produced a lonely and long overdue victory for science and common sense.

Nelson's Desperation

In this blog entry for the pro-ID blog IDtheFuture, Paul Nelson tries desperately to find anything in Judge Jones' opinion to be not depressed about:

In surveying the ecstatic reactions yesterday around the blogosphere to Jones' opinion, I didn't see any mention of problems with the reasoning. Endorphin rushes do that to one: oh we wow we won won WON.

And then one reads the opinion carefully, the next day, in a more sober frame of mind. Propositions such as the following (p. 66) jump up, looking not so felicitous as the day before:

This rigorous attachment to 'natural' explanations is an essential attribute to science by definition and by convention.

By definition and by convention. Let the words settle into your field of conscious attention. Did the convention of naturalism come first, as an historically contingent shift in practice...and then the definition followed? So science wasn't always defined as applied naturalism? If so, could practice shift again, in the light of new evidence, bringing a new convention, and hence a new definition? Then how can science be “rigorously attached” to any definition, given its history? (Emphasis in original).

I can't imagine what point Nelson thinks he's making here. How else could you define science but by examining its practical conventions? People have to be doing science for a while before you can give a definition of what it is, exactly, they are doing.

Of course scientific practice could shift in the light of new evidence. So what? The fact remains that the current conventions of science, in which people try to understand the natural world via experimentation and inductive reasoning (among other methods) have been in place for centuries. Surely that simple fact justifies the Judge's remark quoted above.

It's a bad sign that Nelson chose to quote only a single sentence from the decision. If we scamper back a bit to page 64 we find the Judge explaining some of the points I just made (citations omitted):

Expert testimony reveals that since the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries, science has been limited to the search for natural causes to explain natural phenomena. This revolution entailed the rejection of the appeal to authority, and by extension, revelation, in favor of empirical evidence. Since that time period, science has been a discipline in which testability, rather than any ecclesiastical authority or philosophical coherence, has been the measure of a scientific idea's worth. In deliberately omitting theological or “ultimate” explanations for the existence or characteristics of the natural world, science does not consider issues of “meaning” and “purpose” in the world. While supernatural explanations may be important and have merit, they are not part of science. This self-imposed convention of science, which limits inquiry to testable, natural explanations about the natural world, is referred to by philosophers as “methodological naturalism&rduqo; and is sometimes known as the scientific method. Methodological naturalism is a “ground rule” of science today which requires scientists to seek explanations in the world around us based upon what we can observe, test, replicate, and verify.

As the National Academy of Sciences (hereinafter NAS) was recognized by experts for both parties as the “most prestigious” scientific association in this country, we will accordingly cite to its opinion where appropriate. NAS is in agreement that science is limited to empirical, observable and ultimately testable data: “Science is a particular way of knowing about the world. In science, explanations are restricted to those that can be inferred from the confirmable data - the results obtained through observations and experiments that can be substantiated by other scientists. Anything that can be observed or measured is amenable to scientific investigation. Explanations that cannot be based upon empirical evidence are not part of science.”

In light of this, I'm afraid Nelson will have to explain in more detail precisely what error he thinks the Judge has made. The only way Nelson's point makes any sense is if you think “rigorously attached” means that notions of what is considered scientific are eternal and unchanging. It is clear, however, that that is not what the Judge has in mind.

Of course, in a better world none of this would matter. What really ought to happen is that everyone examines the specific arguments ID folks are making, comes to the obvious conclusion that they are complete worthless nonsense, and then moves on with their lives.

Unfortunatly, in a legal context that is not adequate. The Judge's finding that ID is not science comes in a section of the opinion devoted to assessing whether the Dover ID policy constitutes an endorsement of religion. If ID could plausibly be called science (notwithstanding the religious motivations of the Board members or the theological implications of ID arguments) then it is possible the policy would pass constitutional muster. So one essential plank in the argument that the ID policy is an endorsement of religion is the fact that it is not science, as that term is currently understood.

But determining whether something is science requires an understanding of what science means. The Judge heard expert testimony on that question and came to the only reasonable conclusion.

Nelson will have to better if he wants to discredit the decision in this case.

Cooper Protests Too Much

Seth Cooper is a former attorney for the Discovery Institute (DI). He makes a brief appearance on page 100 of the Court's decision in the Dover case (citations omitted):

At some point before June 2004, Seth Cooper, an attorney with the Discovery Institute contacted Buckingham and two subsequent calls occurred between the Discovery Institute and Buckingham. Although Buckingham testified that he only sought legal advice which was provided in the phone calls, for which Defendants asserted attorney-client privilege, Buckingham and Cooper discussed the legality of teaching ID and gaps in Darwin's theory. The Discovery Institute forwarded Buckingham a DVD, videotape, and book which he provided to Nilsen to give the science teachers. Late in the 2003-04 school year, Baksa arranged for the science teachers to watch a video from the Discovery Institute entitled “Icons of Evolution” and at a subsequent point, two lawyers from the Discovery Institute made a legal presentation to the Board in executive session.

Buckingham refers to School Board member William Buckingham.

Cooper is not happy about this. In this indignant essay, posted at the DI's blog, Cooper presents his objections. He writes:

The opinion of the federal court judge in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School Board mischaracterized my role and actions on behalf of Discovery Institute in matters at issue in the case, making it necessary for me to set the record straight.

Sounds serious. It isn't. First, consider Cooper's own version of his contacts with Buckingham:

In the spring of 2004, through an e-mailed newspaper article, I became aware of the controversy in Dover Township, PA, concerning the teaching of evolution. Proceeding to call Dover Board Member William Buckingham, I told him that his Board would run afoul of the First Amendment of the Constitution should it choose to require students to learn about creationism or to censor the teaching of the contemporary version of Darwin's theory or chemical origin of life scenarios. I also made clear to Buckingham that Discovery Institute does not support the mandating of the theory of intelligent design. Although our phone conversations touched upon matters of legality, they also concerned matters of education policy and curriculum that I did not consider privileged. I clearly and unequivocally identified myself as a legal and policy analyst for the Discovery Institute.

In the hopes of persuading Buckingham away from leading the Dover Board on any unconstitutional and unwise course of action concerning the teaching of evolution, I sent Buckingham a DVD titled Icons of Evolution, along with a companion study guide. Those materials do not include arguments for the theory of intelligent design, but instead contain critiques of textbook treatments of the contemporary version of Darwin's theory and the chemical origin of the first life. The content of the materials is in keeping with the U.S. Supreme Court's pronouncement in Edwards v. Aguillard (1987) that public school students may be taught prevailing scientific theories along with “scientific critiques of prevailing scientific theories.” Even so, I never advocated that the material in Icons be given a preferred position in the curriculum or that it even be given “equal time.”

I defy you to find any difference between the Court's description of Cooper's actions and Copper's own description of those same actions.

We should also point out the extreme disingenuousness of arguing that the Icons of Evolution DVD only critiques textbook treatments of evolution but does not make arguments in favor of ID. As the Court discusses explicitly in its decision, ID is based almost entirely on a “contrived dualism” in which evidence against evolution is immediately interpreted as evidence for ID. There is no important distinction between the two.

So where is the mischaracterization? Well, Cooper insists his communications with Buckingham were not privileged. But then, the Court only states that the Defense asserted this privilege, not that the assertion was correct.

More to the point, thorughout his essay Cooper is very concerned that people understand that he advised the Dover Board against their ID policy. He writes:

Also, these references by the Judge leave open the impression that Discovery Institute somehow advised the Dover Board to adopt its ID policy. But that is completely false. The strong suggestions I gave to Buckingham prior to that vote touched upon legal matters, but my recommendations were disharmonious and completely at odds with the ID policy that the Board eventually adopted. Neither I nor anyone at Discovery Institute had any knowledge or role whatsoever in the drafting of the ID policy that the Dover Board adopted.

But there is nothing in the decision that says otherwise. In fact, the nature of the advice Cooper chose to give is totally irrelevant to any point the Court was making.

The statement from page 100 of the decision, given above, comes near the beginning of a long section in which the Court is reconstructing, based on the testimony and exhibits presented at trial, the actions of various Board members. The goal of this reconstruction was to determine whether the Board's ID policy had any legitimate secular purpose. Such a determination is necessary in applying the relevant precedents to cases of this sort.

The issue in the quoted passage was Buckingham's actions, not Cooper's. The Court was making the point that in seeking outside advice regarding the ID policy, Buckingham contacted only two organizations: The Discovery Institute and The Thomas More Law Center. Both of these groups have clear religious goals, and both were contacted in the hopes of receiving legal, not scientific advice. The significance of this becomes clear later, when the Judge summarizes his conclusions:

We initially note that the Supreme Court has instructed that while courts are
“normally deferential to a State’s articulation of a secular purpose, it is required that the statement of such purpose be sincere and not a sham.” Although as noted Defendants have consistently asserted that the ID Policy was enacted for the secular purposes of improving science education and encouraging students to exercise critical thinking skills, the Board took none of the steps that school officials would take if these stated goals had truly been their objective. The Board consulted no scientific materials. The Board contacted no scientists or scientific organizations. The Board failed to consider the views of the District’s science teachers. The Board relied solely on legal advice from two organizations with demonstrably religious, cultural, and legal missions, the Discovery Institute and the TMLC. Moreover, Defendants’ asserted secular purpose of improving science education is belied by the fact that most if not all of the Board members who voted in favor of the biology curriculum change conceded that they still do not know, nor have they ever known, precisely what ID is. To assert a secular purpose against this backdrop is ludicrous. (Emphasis added.) (p. 130-131)

Elsewhere in his essay, Cooper writes:

I take strong exception to the Judge's characterization of Discovery Institute--a secular public-policy think-tank and emphatically not a party to the lawsuit--as a culturally religious organization.

This is laughable, of course. At no point does the Court imply in any way that the Discovery Institute was a party to the lawsuit. And anyone who knows the history of the Discovery Institute knows perfectly well that they are hardly a secular think-tank. But just in case you're not aware of the DI's history, I would direct you to pages 28 and 68 of the decision, where the Court supplies ample justification for referring to the religious mission of the DI.

In fairness to Cooper, he is right that the Discovery Institute has spent the last few months distancing itself as much as possible from the Dover School Board. They know a budding legal fiasco when they see one. But his embarrassment over advising the losing side does not constitute a mischaracterization on the part of the Court.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Dover Round-Up

Just about every media outlet and the entire blogosphere is weighing in on the big Dover decision. I am currently working on a Cliff's Notes version of the entire thing for my next CSICOP column, and I hope to finish that tonight. In the meantime, though, here's a round-up of things that particularly caught my eye:

  • Pride of place must surely go to to this article from The New York Times. They assembled a truly stellar, first-rate panel of experts to provide quotes for the pro-evolution side:

    Mainstream scientists who have maintained that no controversy exists in the scientific community over evolution were elated by Judge Jones's ruling.

    “Jubilation,” said Kenneth R. Miller, a professor of biology at Brown University who has actively sparred with intelligent design proponents and testified in the Dover case. “I think the judge nailed it.”

    Dr. Miller said he was glad that the judge did not just rule narrowly.

    Jason D. Rosenhouse, a professor of mathematics at James Madison University in Virginia and a fervent pro-evolution blogger said: “I was laughing as I read it because I don't think a scientist could explain it any better. His logic is flawless, and he hit all of the points that scientists have been making for years.”

    Heh heh heh.

    Also interesting from the Times article was William Dembski's reaction:

    William A. Dembski, a mathematician who argues that mathematics can show the presence of design in the development of life, predicted that intelligent design would become much stronger within 5 to 10 years.

    Both Dr. Behe and Dr. Dembski are fellows with the Discovery Institute, a leading proponent of intelligent design.

    “I think the big lesson is, let's go to work and really develop this theory and not try to win this in the court of public opinion,” Dr. Dembski said. “The burden is on us to produce.”

    Indeed it is. So far all they've produced is a lot of very bad arguments.

  • Salon has this interesting article on the subject:

    Intelligent design did not spread through culture on its scientific merits. It got a big push from religious and political advocates. Funded by millions of dollars from some of the same religious supporters that helped put President Bush in the White House (conservatives like Philip F. Anschutz, Richard Mellon Scaife, and Howard and Roberta Ahmanson), the Discovery Institute has pushed a fringe academic movement onto virtually all the front pages and TV sets in the country. The New York Times has reported that the institute has granted $3.6 million in fellowships to 50 researchers since 1996. Those investments produced 50 books on intelligent design, innumerable articles, and two I.D. documentaries that were broadcast on public television.

    Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins has said that Darwin's theory of evolution made it possible to be an intellectually satisfied atheist. Intelligent design, it seems, has made it possible for many fundamentalists to be intellectually satisfied creationists. Wesley Elsberry, a biologist at the National Center for Science Education, says millions of evangelical Christians craved a more science-like, sophisticated yet Bible-friendly theory to explain the diversity of life on earth.

  • P.Z. Myers' commentary on the Salon article is more important than the article itself.

    The Salon article mentions a series of public presentations, one on science, one on creationism, and one on ID. The science talk was given by Wesley Elsberry, mentioned above. The article's conclusion is that the creationism talks were more engaging than the science talks. Myers nails the important points:

    It's true: we aren't trained to be showmen. We are very good at talking to other scientists—I'm sure Wesley's talk would have been a pleasure for me to listen to, and I would have learned much and been appreciative of the substance—but most of it would have whooshed over the heads of a lay audience. I wrestle with this in my public talks, too. There's always this stuff that I am very excited about and that I know my peers think is really nifty and that gets right down to the heart of the joy and wonder of biology, but it's so far from the perspective of the audience that it is well nigh impossible to communicate. And I know that when I try, I usually fail.

    Another problem is that we're used to giving lectures that people are required to attend in order to absorb the raw information they need to do well on a test. I don't think my students show up for the visceral joy of hearing me talk.

    The two creationists in the series, on the other hand, are simple and clear (and the young earth creationist has the advantage of being entertainingly insane). They don't have any complex data to explain, so they aren't tempted to try, and they put everything in terms everyone can follow. An absence of evidence can be an advantage in a talk, because then everything rests on well-honed rhetoric; the scientist's reliance on actual information means we often skimp on the presentation.

    That's exactly right. I've attended enough creationist conferences to know that their speakers operate unencumbered by any sense of shame or conscience. This allows them to speak freely and enthusiastically on subjects they know nothing about.

    Any mathematician who has ever tried to explain the Monty Hall problem to a lay audience knows the frustration Myers is describing. It reminds me of something a professor told me in preparation for the first math class I ever taught. It was a low-level introduction to calculus for students with weak math backgrounds. The professor said something like, “Prepare yourself for a certain amount of frustration when you're teaching. There will be times when you think you are being so clear and explaining things in such simple terms that there is no way anyone could misunderstand you. Then you'll be hit by question straight from Mars.”

  • Anyway, moving on with the round-up, Ed Brayton has some favorable reactions from legal scholars on the decision. Of course, The Panda's Thumb has quite a few posts up on the subject as well.

  • And if that's still not enough, Tony Galucci gathers some more links here, as does Mike Dunford here.


Tuesday, December 20, 2005

250,000 Hits!

Major evolution-related court decisions sure are good for business! EvolutionBlog just recorded the quarter-millionth hit of its not quite two-year existence. A heartfelt thanks to everyone who has stopped by.

Tidbits from the Decision, Part Two

From page 64:

After a searching review of the record and applicable caselaw, we find that while ID arguments may be true, a proposition on which the Court takes no position, ID is not science. We find that ID fails on three different levels, any one of which is sufficient to preclude a determination that ID is science. They are (1) ID violates the centuries-old ground rules of science by invoking and permitting supernatural causation; (2) the argument of irreducible complexity, central to ID, employs the same flawed and illogical contrived dualism that doomed creation science in the 1980's; and (3) ID's negative attacks on evolution have been refuted by the scientific community. As we will discuss in more detail below, it is additionally important to note that ID has failed to gain acceptance in the scientific community, it has not generated peer-reviewed publications, nor has it been the subject of testing and research.

This is exactly what scientific critics of ID have been saying for years. In fact, as I read through the opinion, I am struck by the extent to which Judge Jones' opinion, based entirely on the evidence before him and the relevant caselaw, matches almost perfectly what people on my side of this have been saying for years.

This is highly significant. Evolutionists are constantly being accused of being unwilling to engage proponents of ID. We are besieged by juvenile taunts like, “If the evidence for evolution is as strong as you say, then why are you so afraid to let a dissenting voice be heard?” Such bleats were especially loud in the wake of the decision by scientists to boycott the Kansas evolution hearings a while back.

We now see what nonsense this really is. Evolutionists are perfectly happy to engage their opponents, as long as the venue is one in which facts and evidence will be the basis for the verdict. Public debates in front of lay audiences are primarily about good theater and flashy rhetoric. The Kansas evolution hearings were about providing scientific cover for the foregone conclusion of an anti-science school board.

The people flinging the taunts are not really interested in having a fair and open hearing of the facts. Instead they are only interested in having a ready supply of cheap talking points to hurl in lieu of actually learning some scientists.

Tidbits From the Decision, Part One

I'm working my way through the 139 page opinion in the Dover case. It's too wonderful to take in fully in one sitting. There's just no substitute for reading the whole thing. Nonetheless, over the next few posts I will highlight certain portions of the opinion I found expecially cool.

Like this, from page 82:

This inference to design based upon the appearance of a “purposeful arrangement of parts” is a completely subjective proposition, determined in the eye of each beholder and his/her viewpoint concerning the complexity of a system. Although both Professors Behe and Minnich assert there is a quantitative aspect to the inference, on cross-examination they admitted that there is no quantitative criteria for determining the degree of complexity or number of parts that bespeak design, rather than a natural process.

Of course, such a quantitative criterion for detecting design is precisely what William Dembski claims to have produced. You might recall that at one time Dembski was slated to appear as an expert witness for the forces of darkness in this trial. I wonder if he's regretting that decision now.


By now I'm sure everyone has heard that the Dover evolution case has ended in a stunning defeat for the ID folks. The judge has ruled unambiguously not only that the Dover School Board acted unconstitutionally, but that ID is not science. A quick run-down of the facts is available in this brief article from The New York Times. From that article:

The plaintiffs challenging the policy argued that intelligent design amounts to a secular repackaging of creationism, which the courts have already ruled cannot be taught in public schools. The judge agreed.

“We find that the secular purposes claimed by the Board amount to a pretext for the Board's real purpose, which was to promote religion in the public school classroom,” he wrote in his 139-page opinion.

As I've written before on this issue, the only question in these cases is whether the School Board in question has managed to hide its real intentions with sufficient cleverness to survive a constitutional challenge. It's comforting that Judge Jones, a George W. Bush appointee, seems to have had little trouble getting to the truth.

I'll say more after I've had a chance to read the decision. In the meantime, Ed Brayton has some excerpts from it here and here. Here's a taste, from Jones' conclusion:

The proper application of both the endorsement and Lemon tests to the facts of this case makes it abundantly clear that the Board’s ID Policy violates the Establishment Clause. In making this determination, we have addressed the seminal question of whether ID is science. We have concluded that it is not, and moreover that ID cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents.


To be sure, Darwin’s theory of evolution is imperfect. However, the fact that a scientific theory cannot yet render an explanation on every point should not be used as a pretext to thrust an untestable alternative hypothesis grounded in religion into the science classroom or to misrepresent well-established scientific propositions. The citizens of the Dover area were poorly served by the members of the Board who voted for the ID Policy. It is ironic that several of these individuals, who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would time and again lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the ID Policy.


Of particular interest is this:

Those who disagree with our holding will likely mark it as the product of an activist judge. If so, they will have erred as this is manifestly not an activist Court. Rather, this case came to us as the result of the activism of an ill-informed faction on a school board, aided by a national public interest law firm eager to find a constitutional test case on ID, who in combination drove the Board to adopt an imprudent and ultimately unconstitutional policy. The breathtaking inanity of the Board’s decision is evident when considered against the factual backdrop which has now been fully revealed through this trial. The students, parents, and teachers of the Dover Area School District deserved better than to be dragged into this legal maelstrom, with its resulting utter waste of monetary and personal resources.

I say this is of particular interest because, while the decision is only a few hours old, the Discovery Institute already its spin:

“The Dover decision is an attempt by an activist federal judge to stop the spread of a scientific idea and even to prevent criticism of Darwinian evolution through government-imposed censorship rather than open debate, and it won't work,” said Dr. John West, Associate Director of the Center for Science and Culture at Discovery Institute, the nation's leading think tank researching the scientific theory known as intelligent design. “He has conflated Discovery Institute’s position with that of the Dover school board, and he totally misrepresents intelligent design and the motivations of the scientists who research it.”


I believe it was Stephen Jay Gould who pointed out that while creationists do well in public debates in front of lay audiences, they are lousy in court. Courts, you see, have strict rules of evidence and are, generally speaking, completely devoid of theatrical flash. In such an environment, creationism can't win.

Monday, December 19, 2005

The Mirecki Situation

Update: December 20, 2005

In my original version of this post I included a sentence in which I accused the University of Kansas of caving in to outside pressure in relieving Prof. Mirecki of his chairmanship. While I suspect that sentence was accurate, I have decided upon further reflection that I can not back up that statement at this time. Consequently, I decided to remove it. This change does not alter the point I was making: that Kansas is currently a very inhospitable place for scholars to do their work.

Also, P. Z. Myers has offered his take on the issue. For the record, I disagree with all of his major conclusions.

Ed Brayton has an important post up about the Paul Mirecki situation. For those who do not know what I am referring to, here is Ed's introduction:

For those who may not know, Mirecki was, until recently, the chairman of the religious studies department at Kansas University. He was planning to teach a class there next year about ID as mythology, which caused quite a bit of controversy, especially when someone released several emails that he had written on the listserv of a campus skeptic's group that were rather crude and unprofessional. The ensuing brouhaha hit its crescendo when Mirecki ended up in the hospital after getting beaten up, and claimed it was done by two men who told him it was because of his views on intelligent design.

After learning the basic facts I was all set to do a bare-knuckles post about the evils of religious fundamentalism. But then I was told by people closer to the situation than I that there were some plausible reasons to be skeptical of Mirecki's account. Since I like having my facts straight before maligning large groups of people, I decided to hold off.

By now it has become clear that Mirecki was, indeed, attacked (some irresponsible bloggers had suggested, based on nothing, that Mirecki had faked his injuries). But whether the motive for the attack was his anti-creationist views or something else entirely is still obscure. At the moment I am not optimistic that this question will ever be resolved to my satisfaction.

Readers of this blog are aware that I am a contributor to The Panda's Thumb. As Ed describes, there was a great deal of discussion among the contributors about how PT should address the situation. Roughly speaking, one camp argued that the murkiness of things warranted a moderate approach, while the other argued that we should be coming to the aid of someone who was an ally in the fight against ID and creationism. I was in the moderate camp.

One person who was on the other side was Gary Hurd, who posted this mixed-bag of an essay on the subject. Hurd opens his post well, gathering together some of the more incendiary statements, particularly from those on the right, that had been made against Mirecki. Most notable was his collection of anti-Mirecki quotations coming from various Kansas politicians. These statements were infinitely more disturbing than any prattling in the blogosphere, and the speak volumes about the current environment in Kansas.

Sadly, Hurd then went a bit crazy, calling Mirecki a sissy for not making a better show of himself during the attack, and then launching into a groundless conspiracy theory about people in Kansas law enforcement being implicated in Mirecki's beating. Furthermore, Hurd was so incensed that other PT contributors would deign to disagree with him on this issue, that he has decided to end his association with the blog. His parting shot that, “There are contributors to PT whose personal politics are far closer to the rightist mob revealed above than to people with whom I will remain associated.” is completely untrue and uncalled for.

In comments left at other blogs I have seen some people wondering why PT would leave this post up, when so many contributors do not agree with it. The answer is simple. PT is a confederation of individual bloggers. There is no central authority, and no contributor has ever been censored in any way. We are united solely by our love of science, our concern for good science education, and our contempt for creationism in all its forms. As a group we agree on little else. Despite the heated exchange of e-mails on this issue, I still regard this as one of PT's great strengths.

On potentially incendiary issues we often have some discussion among ourselves about the best way to handle things. But in the end, the decision about what to say in a given blog entry lies entirely with the author of the post. As much as I dislike Gary's post, I think the precedent of having some central authority vote to take it down would be far worse than simply leaving it up.

Let me end on a personal note. My first job out of graduate school was a post-doc in the Mathematics Department at Kansas State University (not to be confused with The University of Kansas, where Mirecki works). I spent three very happy years there. But the fact remains that I would not even consider accepting a permanent position at a Kansas university right now. In fact, it's hard to imagine any young scientist accepting a position at KU if he or she had any options at all (and anyone KU is likely to find attractive will almost certainly have options). Regardless of whether the religious right has any culpability in Mirecki's beating, the fact remains that the current environment in Kansas is so right-wing and so hostile to science that I don't see how a scientist of any sort could feel comfortable working there. Apparently, merely being impolite towards the religious right is enough to get you condemned by high government officials in Kansas. Is there a scholar in the world who would consider Kansas a congenial place to work?

Friday, December 16, 2005


The combination of a vicious ice storm here in Harrisonburg and a big pile of final exams that isn't getting graded on its own has kept me away from the blog for a few days. Regular posting will resume on Monday.

In the meantime, feast your eyes on some novel anti-evolution arguments from the charming folks at The Eagle Forum:

Fact v. Fiction #1: Some evolutionists who claim to be Christians — but also evolutionists who label themselves “theistic evolutionists” — argue that God could have used the evolutionary process hypothesized by Darwin to create the universe. But evolutionism reduces man to an animal. Theism, conversely presents man as made in the image of God. If man is an animal, but man is also made in the image of God, what does that make God?


Fact v. Fiction #2: Evolutionists claim that their battle against creation-science is primarily a “scientific” issue, not a constitutional question. But our treasured U. S. Constitution is written by persons and for persons. If man is an animal, the Constitution was written by animals and for animals. This preposterous conclusion destroys the Constitution. The Aguillard Humanists leave us with no Constitution and no constitutional rights of any kind if they allow us to teach only that man is an animal

Emphasis in original.

I leave the refutations of these arguments as an exercise for the reader.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

On Cranks and Playbooks

In the comments to this previous post science writer John Farrell sent me a link to an article he wrote for Salon. It describes the antics of a handful of crackpots hostile to Einstein's theory of relativity, and uses this as a springboard for discussing scientific cranks in general. Though the article is five years old, it contains much of relevance today.

Consider this:

Van Flandern was hired to do some consulting work for the physics department at the University of Maryland on the global positioning system (GPS), the ring of 24 satellites circling the Earth, which, among other convenient attributes, will be able to pinpoint precise locations for befuddled automobile drivers anywhere on the planet. According to him, the confusing “rigmarole” of relativity isn't needed to maintain the GPS, even though it clearly should be.

Van Flandern has argued that because of Einstein's theory of relativity, clock rates on GPS satellites should need to be adjusted continuously to keep them in sync with users on Earth. But they're not, he told the American Spectator (April 1999). The GPS programmers don't need relativity. “They have basically blown off Einstein,” Van Flandern says.

Is this true? Could this be a real crack in the “temple” of Einstein's theory?

I asked Neil Ashby, a professor of physics who works at the University of Colorado and specializes in theoretical general relativity with practical applications. “I am acquainted with Tom Van Flandern and his view,” he told me. “It is incorrect to claim that no relativistic corrections are used after launch. Actually because GPS satellites are in eccentric orbits, they suffer frequency variations due to their varying speeds and varying heights above the Earth's surface. Information is transmitted down to the receivers from each satellite, which enables receivers to make a relativistic correction which accounts for these effects.”

He added: “Einstein has not been 'blown off.' On the contrary, a great deal of thought has gone into the problem and all of the known special and general relativistic effects have been accounted for if they are predicted to be big enough to be important.”

Other gravitation specialists, such as Charles Misner at the University of Maryland, Lawrence Mead of the University of Southern Mississippi, Clifford Will of the University of Washington in St. Louis and Steve Carlip of the University of California at Davis, confirm that special and general relativity are built into the software for GPS.

So typical. Cranks can't be troubled to get the simplest facts right. How many times have we seen precisely this from creationists? Cranks all read from the same playbook.

The article goes on to describe various (uniformly unsuccessful) attempts to prove that Einstein himself was dishonest in some way. This, too, is typical. For some reason cranks consider it terribly important not simply to show that certian ideas are wrong, but also to show that major figures in the history of those ideas were rotten. So what if it turned out that Einstein really was dishonest in some way? Would that change the fact that modern relativity theory has been tested over and over again in ways Einstein never dreamed of?

It's exactly this logic that leads creationists to spend so much time trying to destroy Darwin's reputation. Consider this recent, sleazy example from the Discovery Institute's blog. It's as if they think that discrediting an individual scientist can tear down more than a century's worth of painstaking scientific progress.

The article also contains some wise words about scientific cranks in general:

In his book “Cranks, Quarks and the Cosmos,” science writer and physicist Jeremy Bernstein points out that one of the criteria that always defines crank science is its lack of correspondence with the body of scientific knowledge that has gone before it. “I would insist that any proposal for a radically new theory in physics, or in any other science, contain a clear explanation of why the precedent science worked,” he wrote. Einstein did this, as the first page of his paper on special relativity, “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies,” illustrates perfectly.

In contrast, “The crank,” Bernstein wrote, “is a scientific solipsist who lives in his own little world. He has no understanding nor appreciation of the scientific matrix in which his work is embedded ... In my dealings with cranks, I have discovered that this kind of discussion is of no interest to them.”

The article is quite long and has numerous other quotable tidbits. I recommend reading the whole thing.

Incidentally, why did Farrell think to inlcude this link in a post about Tom Bethell's silly anti-evolution musings? Here's why:

Van Flandern told the American Spectator's Washington correspondent, Tom Bethell, that he had reason to believe Einstein manipulated his field equations for one of his most momentous predictions: the advance of the perihelion of Mercury, the point in orbit where a planet is closest to the sun. Astronomers have long observed that this point, like the oval end of an ellipse drawn with a spirograph, is itself subject to motion, and over the years revolves around the sun just like the planet itself. In the case of Mercury, this effect is pronounced. It was assumed to be due to gravity and the closeness of the planet to the sun, but Newtonian theory could never predict its advance accurately. It was a classic problem by the time Einstein came along, and his general theory of relativity solved it immediately.

Too brilliantly, for some.

According to the Spectator's account, Van Flandern “asked a colleague at the University of Maryland, who as a young man had overlapped with Einstein at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study, how, in his opinion, Einstein had arrived at the correct multiplier. This man said it was his impression that, 'knowing the answer,' Einstein had 'jiggered the arguments until they came out with the right value.'”

Go to the article if you want to see how that little claim panned out. Short version: Van Flandern was full of it, and Bethell was duped (willingly, one suspects).

So, if you have any sort of pseudoscientific gibberish you want to peddle and if it can be presented in a way that makes the scientific mainstream look bad, let me suggest you seek out Mr. Bethell.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Saletan on Creationism's Retreat

Since it is part of my daily routine to read large quantities of anti-evolution nonsense, I sometimes end up with an exaggerated view of the threat creationism poses. So it's nice to have Slate's William Saletan put things in perspective. He is describing a conference of journalists discussing issues related to religion and public life.

Nobody here is a candidate for FetishNite. But nobody seems horrified by it, either, just as nobody really doubts evolution. What used to be shocking is now just fun or silly, even to those of us who think of ourselves as believers. Fundamentalists have lost the media, the colleges, and the science academies. The battleground has been reduced to public schools, and creationism has been reduced to intelligent design—a pathetic, agnostic, empty shell. Creationists can't teach a dogma, so they “teach the controversy.” They accept more and more of Darwin's theory, narrowing the dispute to isolated systems—the eye, the flagellum, the blood-clotting system—that they say Darwinism can't explain. They just want science to stop short of denying God's possibility. A little bit of mystery, a parcel of unspoiled divine wilderness, is all they ask.

See the original for links.

I'm not as sanguine as Saletan on this subject, but his point is well-taken.

Over at The Panda's Thumb, Steve Reuland has some some further links and commentary.

Dawkins Interview at BeliefNet

The good folks at Belief Net have posted this interview with Richard Dawkins. There are a lot of interesting tidbits, but here's one that caught my eye:

You criticize intelligent design, saying that “the theistic answer”--pointing to God as designer--“is deeply unsatisfying”--presumably you mean on a logical, scientific level.

Yes, because it doesn’t explain where the designer comes from. If they’re going to emphasize the statistical improbability of biological organs—“these are so complicated, how could they have evolved?”--well, if they’re so complicated, how could they possibly have been designed? Because the designer would have to be even more complicated.

The old “Who Designed the Designer?” question. Simple and devastating. The main response of ID folks to this argument is that in many cases we can be certain that something was designed even without understanding anything about the designers. The trouble is that in the case of biological design we have no independent evidence that there is a designer capable of performing the feats attributed to Him. If the existence of specified complexity is the evidence you're using to infer the existence of the designer, then the very same evidence demands that the designer himself be designed. It's inescapable.

You certainly can't argue that the designer himself lacks the property of specified complexity, for then you would have such complexity arising where none was before. That's precisely what ID folks tell us is impossible. The only way out of this is to retreat into metaphysical speculation about God being outside of nature. Take that route if you wish, but you certainly can't pretend to be doing science after doing so.

I also liked this:

Is atheism the logical extension of believing in evolution?

They clearly can’t be irrevocably linked because a very large number of theologians believe in evolution. In fact, any respectable theologian of the Catholic or Anglican or any other sensible church believes in evolution. Similarly, a very large number of evolutionary scientists are also religious. My personal feeling is that understanding evolution led me to atheism. (Emphasis in original)

This was the impression I had of Dawkins' views based on other things he has written. It's nice to see him spell it out clearly here. You often hear people say that Dawkins believes that evolution implies atheism. Clearly, he does not.

Monday, December 12, 2005

More Bethell Bashing!

On the subject of Tom Bethell not having the faintest idea what he is talking about, check out Chris Mooney's review of Bethell's new book The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science.

The book starts with two strikes against it even before we come to its substance. First, anyone who insists on bragging about being politically incorrect can be dismissed out of hand. That's so passe. Second, Bethell's book was published by the ultra right-wing Regnery Publishing. They're the delightful folks who brought us Jonathan Wells' Icons of Evolution, and the anti-John Kerry sleaze fest Unfit for Command, by John O'Neill and Jerome Corsi. Let me suggest that when you see Regnery's imprint on the spine, you should assume the book is a pack of lies.

Mooney writes:

Initially, the question of whether or not to even write this column gave me pause. In criticizing Tom Bethell--author of the conservative Regnery Press's Politically Incorrect Guide to Science, which misrepresents the state of scientific knowledge on issues ranging from global warming to the vulnerability of endangered species to evolution--I wondered whether I would simply wind up bestowing upon its author more attention than he ultimately deserves.

It was a serious fear, but I decided to overcome it, for two reasons. First, Bethell's book is already getting plenty of attention. It's selling well, and one prominent conservative outlet, the Heritage Foundation, has even sponsored an event to promote it. And second, precisely because of its misleading content, the publication of Bethell's book represents a highly significant development that's well worth remarking upon. The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science takes what is already a well-documented war on scientific knowledge from the political right in this country to a new level of intensity. In the process, it flushes out into the open the anti-science sentiments that are unfortunately nourished by all too many conservative Republicans today (although rarely by the party's moderates).

Sadly, the ones running the show in the Republican party these days are also the ones who are most virulently anti-science. To them, science is just one more stumbling block standing in the way of doing what they want to do. They treat science exactly as they would any other political opponent. It's nice that the moderates don't share this view. When they start challenging their leadership publicly I'll be impressed.

But let me give the final word to Mooney, who offers this eloquent summary of the state of affairs:

Overall, then, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science is a very saddening and depressing read. While they have undoubtedly made mistakes, and certainly nourish individual biases just like all the rest of us, scientists in universities and in government have generally worked very hard and have--thanks to the scientific process--come up with a great deal of important and relevant knowledge. But along comes someone like Bethell and, in a book that's likely to be read by a lot of people, radically distorts and undermines their conclusions and findings, while whipping up resentment of the scientific community among rank-and-file political conservatives. That Bethell is finding such a ready audience underscores the severe threat to the role of science in modern American life and, most importantly, in political decision-making.

Susskind on Science

Just picked up a copy of The Cosmic Landscape: String Theory and the Illusion of Intelligent Design, by Stanford University physicist Leonard Susskind. I've only read the preface so far, but if the following passage is typical of the rest of the book I think I'm going to like it:

Let me be up front and state my own prejudices right here. I thoroughly believe that real science requires explanations that do not involve supernatural agents. I believe that the eye evolved by Darwinian mechanisms. Furthermore, I believe that physicists and cosmologists must also find a natural explanation of our world, including the amazing lucky accidents that conspired to make our own existence possible. I believe that when people substitute magic for rational explanation, they are not doing science no matter how loudly they claim otherwise.

My kind of guy!

Saturday, December 10, 2005

What is Population Genetics?

At the end of Wednesday's post I commented that there was one more aspect of “The tautology objection” that is worth discussing.

The basic argument was that “the survival of the fittest” is an empty tautology because the term “fittest” is simple defined as “those that survive.” We have already seen two reasons why this is wrong: (1) There is no abstract principle of natural selection used by biologists. There is nothing tautological about saying, for example, that moths possessing certain sorts of coloration leave more offspring than those lacking that coloration. (2) There are, in fact, criteria of fitness independent of mere survival. Bethell has simply confused the definition of fitness with how it is measured in certain circumstances.

But what about those abstract, mathematical formulations of evolutionary principles that fall under the rubric of population genetics? Is there anything helpful to Bethell there?

In his 1976 essay “Darwin's Mistake”, written for Harper's magazine, Bethell wrote:

The bold act of redefining selection was made by the British statistician and geneticist R. A. Fisher in a widely heralded book called The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection. Moreover, by making certain assumptions about birth and death rates, and combining them with Mendelian genetics, Fisher was able to qualify the resulting rates at which population ratios changed. This was called population genetics and it brought great happiness to the hearts of many biologists, because the mathematical formulae looked so deliciously scientific and seemed to enhance the status of biology, making it more like physics. But here is what Waddington recently said about this development:

The theory of neo-Darwinism is a theory of the evolution of the population in respect to leaving offspring and not in respect to anything else...Everybody has it in the back of his mind that the animals that leave the largest number of offspring are going to be those best adapted also for eating peculiar vegetation, or something of this sort, but this is not explicit in the theory...There you do come to what is, in effect, a vacuous statement: Natural selection is that some things leave more offspring, and there is nothing more to it than that. The whole real guts of evolution - which is how do you come to have horses and tigers and things - is outside the mathematical theory [my italics].

Before getting to the meat of the issue, we should pause to mock Bethell for syaing “qualify” when he surely meant “quantify.”

Bethell is so confused here it's hard to know where to start. Take the italicized portion of Waddington's quote, which Bethell seems to think is so important. Of course the question of how we came to have “horses and tigers and things” is outside the mathematical theory! Who ever said otherwise?

Bethell does not tell us where Waddington made this remark. I'd be curious to see the full context. But for the moment, let's think about mathematical models in general, and population genetics in particular.

The objects that mathematicians study have no physical existence at all. They are abstractly defined quantities or objects that possess only those properties mathematicians choose to bestow upon them. In defining their abstractions mathematicians typically have some real-life situation in mind. There may be no perfect circles in nature, but there are things that are sufficiently circle-like to amount to the same thing.

Students often object that it is precisely this level of abstraction that makes mathematics difficult. They have a point, but in another sense abstraction is what makes mathematics doable at all. It's understanding the real world that's difficult! Abstraction is where you say you're going to ignore most of the complicating factors that make physical phenomena difficult to predict, and instead focus on a handful of variables that you hope are the most important ones.

In population genetics the goal is to understand the short-term flow of genes in a population. In particular, suppose you find that a particular population of organisms possesses a gene we shall call A. What percentage of the organisms in the next generation will possess A?

To build a mathematical model for this situation we would ask what variables are crucial in determining A's representation in the next generation. A few things might occur to you immediately. We would want to know what percentage of organisms currently possess A, for example. We would also want to know what sort of selective advantage or disadvantage A confers on its bearers. If organisms possessing A are generally more fecund than those lacking A, for example, that will certainly be relevant to determining A's representation in the next generation.

Here are some things that are not relevant: What kind of organisms we're studying (in other words, does A occur in a population of monkeys? zebras? lions? Who cares!), or the precise phenotypic effect A has on its possessors (does A cause certain peppered moths to have darker coloration than their competitors? does A lead to more bristles on the legs of a fruit fly? Again, who cares?)

There are other factors we could mention as well.

Thus, within the mathematicla theory of population genetics a “gene” does not refer to a particular strand of DNA found in an actual critter. A gene is simply an abstract, undefined quantity, rather like the notion of a point in geometry. What we know about a gene is that it appears with a certain frequency in a population and that it competes with some number of alternative genes for representation in the next generation. We have certain other assumptions about mating behavior and fitness and so on.

Then we ask, given the assumptions we have made about these genes, what does logic and mathematics tell us about the representation of the gene in subsequent generations? Of course, any assumptions you make about selective advantages and the like are going to be highly time-sensitive. Environments are constantly changing, after all. This means that models of the sort I am describing are only likely to be applicable over relatively short time periods.

Once you begin to understand the abstract nature of mathematical models, you begin to see the absurdity of Bethell italiczing the last part of Waddington's statement. Horses and tigers are real world entities made from large numbers of genes. They evolved over millions of years in changing environments. How could a simple mathematical model that focusses on a handful of genes over short periods of time possibly tell us anything about why we have horses and tigers, as opposed to centaurs and unicorns? The mathematical models were never intended to answer such questions.

So what, then, did Fisher accomplish in The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection? It's almost a sure thing that Bethell never read the book, would not have understood it if he had, and has no sense of its historical significance. Hence his silliness about biologists requiring a handful of mathematical formulae to make them feel good about their subject.

At the time Fisher was writing there was no widespread agreement that natural selection was an important mechanism of evolution. Lamarckism in particular was still a popular contender. The principles of Mendelian genetics were still a new thing. And the origins of genetic variation were not well understood.

As a result evolutionary biology was foundering a bit. It was clear what the questions were, but answers seemed as distant as ever. So part of what Fisher accomplished was to show that the abstract machinery of mathematics could shed some light on what had previously been seen as purely empirical questions. The book actually begins with a discussion of blending versus particulate inheritance. When Darwin wrote blending inheritance was still a viable option. Darwin recognized that it was diffuclt to reconcile his theory of natural selection with blending inheritance, since it implied that new variations would quickly be diluted. But particulate inheritance, which is at the core of Mendelian genetics, is quite different. Thus, natural selection is a viable theory under a Mendelian scheme, but not viable (barring some mechanism for producing vast quantities of new variation) under a blending scheme.

Nowadays that's a commonplace observation, but at the time it was much overlooked. And Fisher put these casual observations onto a firmer footing than had previously been accomplished.

Fisher subsequently devised notions of natural selection and fitness that were amenable to inclusion in mathematical equations. Contrary to the assertions of the tautology mongers like Bethell, he did not define the fittest organisms as being those which survived. Actually, he never talked about the fitness of an organism at all, but rather the fitness of a particular gene. In his equations the greater fitness of one gene relative to another was represented as an increased probability of being represented in future generations.

The result of all this mathematizing was to show that natural selection was unique among proposed evolutionary mechanisms in being able to explain the gradual accumulation of small variations. He was also able to give a precise meaning to the idea of a population increasing its fitness over time. The result of all this was a previoulsy unknown level of rigor in drawing conclusions about evolution, coupled with a demonstration that the then proposed non-Darwinian mechanisms of evolution were theoretically inadequate.

More than this, he inaugurated a new way of thinking about biological questions. Fisher established the field of population genetics, which remains a major area of study today. It provided powerful analytical tools for pracitcing field biologists, and you can find numerous applications of its techinques in any textbook on the subject.

And now we can come full circle and see precisely why Bethell is so full of it. First, Fisher did not redefine selection. Selection meant exactly the same thing after Fisher that it meant beofre Fisher. He merely provided a formulation of it that was amenable to mathematical analysis. He was not trying to explain the origins of specific organisms or even specific adaptations. Rather, his intent was to explore the theoretical implications of Mendelian genetics for various theories of evolution. And even within the mathematical theory, he did not define anything in tautologous ways.

One final point. In applying the theories of population genetics, it is true that the fitness of a gene is measured by its representation in future generations. But this is far different from saying that fitness is defined that way. Fitness refers to a statistical tendency for certain organisms to bear more young than others. There is nothing tautological in that definition. Furthermore, it is a standard result in probability theory that if your sample size is sufficiently large, the measured freqeuncy of the particular gene in the next generation will be a good approximation to its theoretical value. (That's known as the law of large numbers, but that's a separate post). So there's nothing logiclally suspect either in the theory or the practice of population genetics.

Bethell closes his 1976 essay by writing:

Darwin, I suggest, is in the process of being discarded, but perhaps in deference to the venerable old gentleman, resting comfortably in Westminster Abbey next to Sir Isaac Newton, it is being done as discreetly and gently as possible, with a minimum of publicity.

It is now almost exactly thirty years later and even Bethell would have to concede that both evolution in general, and natural selection in particular, are going strong. Ignorant bombast will lose out to simple truth every time.