Friday, February 03, 2006

Vedantam on Evolution and Morality, Part One

The Washington Post has posted this article about evolution and morality, by Shankar Vedantam. It is very long and very mixed. Parts of it are good, but the article manages to get a lot of important things wrong. Since there is so much to comment on, I will devote several blog entries to it.

It gets off to a good start. Here's the headline and subhead:

Eden and Evolution:
Religious critics of evolution are wrong about its flaws. But are they right that it threatens belief in a loving God?

Sadly, it now launches into a lengthy, and uncritical, description of pro-ID biologist Caroline Crocker. Here's an excerpt:

Crocker was about to establish a small beachhead for an insurgency that ultimately aims to topple Darwin's view that humans and apes are distant cousins. The lecture she was to deliver had caused her to lose a job at a previous university, she told me earlier, and she was taking a risk by delivering it again. As a nontenured professor, she had little institutional protection. But this highly trained biologist wanted students to know what she herself deeply believed: that the scientific establishment was perpetrating fraud, hunting down critics of evolution to ruin them and disguising an atheistic view of life in the garb of science.


Ripples of excitement spread through the class. Crocker took the students on a tour of experiments that she said were supposed to prove evolution. In the 1950s, she said, scientists Stanley Miller and Harold Urey ran electricity through a soup of chemicals to show how chemicals on the early Earth could assemble themselves into the building blocks of life.

“Anyone read about it?” she asked.

“It's in our book,” a student said.

Crocker said that subsequent research had shown that chemicals used in the experiment did not exist on Earth 4 billion years ago. “The experiment is irrelevant, but you still find it in your books,” she said.

She cited another experiment, involving researcher Bernard Kettlewell, who produced pictures of variously colored peppered moths on tree trunks to show that when the moths were not well camouflaged, they were more likely to be eaten by birds -- a process of natural selection that influenced the color of the moths. “This comes from your book -- it is not actually true,” Crocker said. “The experiment was falsified. He glued his moths to the trees.”

“There really is not a lot of evidence for evolution,” says biology professor Caroline Crocker, who supports the theory of intelligent design. (D.A. Peterson )

Gasps and giggles burst out. Why was the experiment still in the textbook? Crocker said the authors' answer was, “because it makes the point . . . The problem with evolution is that it is all supposition -- this evolved into this -- but there is no evidence.”


Nguyen was among the first students to speak. “With so many things disproving evolution and evolution having no proof, why is it still taught?” he asked.

“Right now, in our society, we have an underlying philosophy of naturalism, that there is a material explanation for everything,” Crocker replied. “Evolution came with that philosophy.”

Carolyn Flitcroft, a student in one of the front rows, said: “So far, we have only learned that evolution is true. This is the first time I have ever heard it isn't.”

“I lost my job at George Mason University for teaching the problems with evolution,” said Crocker, a charge that the university denies. “Lots of scientists question evolution, but they would lose their jobs if they spoke out.”

There's much more to this section than I have quoted. But Vedantam presents it all uncritically, with no indication that Crocker will be taking a fall later in the article. Anyone who simply skims the beginning of the article - a large percentage of the Post's readership I suspect - will come away thinking that Crocker is a reputable source. You have to go pretty far into the article before you come to anything that challenges her litany of nonsense, and even then we get only a short paragraph:

Crocker's arguments are part of a familiar litany of half-truths and errors, said Alan Gishlick, a research affiliate at the National Center for Science Education. The Miller-Urey experiment was not intended to be evidence for evolution but part of a research program into how biological mechanisms might arise from nonbiological chemical reactions. As for gluing moths to trees, Gishlick said, researcher Kettlewell affixed the moths to trees to determine how birds spot moths of different hues. The photos were illustrations and never meant to be depictions of real life.

“They put us in a position that we have to defend things that don't need defending, and then they come back and say, Why are you defending things that we know are wrong?” Gishlick told me, his voice rising.

Good for Alan. His voice should rise when dealing with people like Crocker.

Meanwhile, you have to go all the way to the end of the article to get GMU's reply to her charges:

GMU spokesman Daniel Walsch denied that the school had fired Crocker. She was a part-time faculty member, he said, and was let go at the end of her contract period for reasons unrelated to her views on intelligent design. “We wholeheartedly support academic freedom,” he said. But teachers also have a responsibility to stick to subjects they were hired to teach, he added, and intelligent design belonged in a religion class, not biology. Does academic freedom “literally give you the right to talk about anything, whether it has anything to do with the subject matter or not? The answer is no.”

Actually, what Crocker did was far worse than straying from the mandated syallabus. Assuming the beginning of this article paints an accurate picture of what she really said, Crocker was simply presenting a mountain of blatantly false information.

Did Bernard Kettlewell falsify his experiment (whatever that means)? No. The photographs of the moths on the trees was not part of the experiment itself. It was intended merely to illustrate the color contrast between different types of moths resting on tree bark. After all, how many people have ever seen a peppered moth outside of a high school biology textbook? And this experiment is in all the textbooks (a) because of its historical significance (it was one of the first detailed confirmations of natural selection in the wild) and (b) because of its relative simplicity. By itself it proves little and no one has ever claimed that it does. But in one simple experiment it illustrates most of the major ideas about how natural selection works. Furthermore, Crocker acts as if Kettlewell is the only one who ever did an experiment on peppered moths. In reality Kettlewell's experiments have been repeated many times, and his results have been confirmed.

So here we have Crocker not only presenting false information, but also impugning the integrity of a specific individual, Kettlewell, as well as the scientific community generally for relying on his work. Alan Gishlick himself has written a detailed refutation of Crocker's arguments here.

Is she on any better ground with the Miller-Urey experiment? No. As Gishlick points out, the Miller-Urey experiment had nothing to do with evolution. And the problem was not that it relied on chemicals that did not exist on the early Earth. The problem was that theories of the composition of the early atmosphere changed in the years after the Miller-Urey experiment. That is why variations on the Miller-Urey experiment have been conducted in the light of our new understanding of the early atmosphere. And these more recent experiments have produced results comparable to the original. Again, I refer you to Gishlick's excellent summary of the basic facts of the situation.

On and on it goes. None of Crocker's arguments are even close to being correct. Her assertions are not merely false, but false in ways that indicate both a complete disregard for the truth, and a complete lack of respect for her scientific colleagues. Her behavior as described here is the equivalent of me going into one of my math classes and telling the students that not only does 1+1 not equal 2, but actually that myth persists only because an authoritarian regime of arrogant, atheist mathematicians has conspired to squelch dissenting voices.

Would anyone argue that a mathematician seriously making such a claim in a classroom should keep his job?

As I said, there is much more to this article, but we will save that for future blog entries.


At 9:01 AM, Anonymous Joe Shelby said...

I find it very satisfying that each "page" of the article's online version includes a link to a transcript of the Post's recent session with Chris Mooney, with a clear picture of his book's cover.

But the article itself is presented as "one vs one", she-said-he-said, so once again scientific facts are debated as if they were political opinions, equally valid. *sigh*

At 9:40 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sounds like Crocker is using Wells' "Icons of Evolution" as the course's textbook. Her students should demand their money back.

At 5:28 AM, Blogger Ginger Yellow said...

What annoys me about stories like these (not just on science, but politics and economics) is that the fundamental principle of news writing is never to assume the reader is going to carry on. The dirty secret of news is that on average 90% of your readers stop reading after the first paragraph. Obviously the count differs for the prominence of the story and the subject matter, but it's still remarkably high for a front page story on a controversial subject. Consequently everything important should go to the top of the article. If the contradiction of a piece of spin is important and/or valid, it should be placed with the spin so that a reader who stops reading after a paragraph.

Journalists know this because it is drummed into them at journalism school and by their editors, who want to be able to cut a story from the bottom quickly without losing valuable information. Yet again and again I see stories where you have to wade through to the tenth paragraph to find the really newsworthy information.

At 9:14 PM, Blogger Foxy said...

The Evolution 'debate' has bothered me for a long time, and I have been frustrated with my inability to respond to those kinds of arguments you usually hear from ID people.

So, as a first time reader, thanks for putting all this out there in one spot. It gives me hope.

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