Friday, March 31, 2006

Teenagers Being Arrogant - So What Else is New?

Today's Los Angeles Times has this vaguely annoying article. The subject is high school biology students parroting creationist talking points they don't understand and generally making obnoxious pests of themselves in the process:

Monday morning, Room 207: First day of a unit on the origins of life. Veteran biology teacher Al Frisby switches on the overhead projector and braces himself.

As his students rummage for their notebooks, Frisby introduces his central theme: Every creature on Earth has been shaped by random mutation and natural selection — in a word, by evolution.

The challenges begin at once.

“Isn't it true that mutations only make an animal weaker?” sophomore Chris Willett demands. “'Cause I was watching one time on CNN and they mutated monkeys to see if they could get one to become human and they couldn't.”

Frisby tries to explain that evolution takes millions of years, but Willett isn't listening. “I feel a tail growing!” he calls to his friends, drawing laughter.

Unruffled, Frisby puts up a transparency tracing the evolution of the whale, from its ancient origins as a hoofed land animal through two lumbering transitional species and finally into the sea. He's about to start on the fossil evidence when sophomore Jeff Paul interrupts: “How are you 100% sure that those bones belong to those animals? It could just be some deformed raccoon.”

From the back of the room, sophomore Melissa Brooks chimes in: “Those are real bones that someone actually found? You're not just making this up?”

Pretty standard stuff, these days. I know I should probably be angry at these kids, but mostly I just feel sorry for them. Consider this:

Two decades of political and legal maneuvering on evolution has spilled over into public schools, and biology teachers are struggling to respond. Loyal to the accounts they've learned in church, students are taking it upon themselves to wedge creationism into the classroom, sometimes with snide comments but also with sophisticated questions — and a fervent faith.

As sophomore Daniel Read put it: “I'm going to say as much about God as I can in school, even if the teachers can't.”

Or this:

Daniel Read, for instance, considers it his Christian duty to expose his classmates to the truths he finds in the Bible, starting with the six days of creation. It's his way, he said, of counterbalancing the textbook, which devotes three chapters to evolution but just one paragraph to creationism. A soft-spoken teen with shaggy hair and baggy pants, Daniel prepares carefully for his mission in this well-educated, affluent and conservative suburb of 28,000, just outside Kansas City, Mo. He studies DVDs distributed by Answers in Genesis, a “creation evangelism” ministry devoted to training children to question evolution.

Other students gather ammunition from sermons at church, or from the dozens of websites that criticize evolution as a God-denying sham. They interrupt lectures to expound on the inaccuracies of carbon dating; to disparage transitional fossils as frauds; to show photos of ancient footprints that they think prove humans and dinosaurs walked side by side.

How is it that these kids hear a preacher say something in church, and it never occurs to them that maybe the preacher doesn't know what he is talking about? When their science teacher tells them something that conflicts with what they hear in church, they not only assume the teacher is wrong but apparently feel the need to get snarky and obnoxious as well. Even for a teenager it's pretty arrogant to think they've already solved all the mysteries of existence.

I think the reason is that from a very young age they are told not simply the basic assertions of their religion, but also that the whole idea of questioning those assertions is dangerous and immoral. That sort of relentless indoctrination is very hard to shake off. And that's why I feel more sorry for them than angry at them. We're talking about kids who have no higher ambition in life than to parrot the ignorant talking points they receive from the frauds at Answers in Genesis. Kids who have been raised in an environment that praises blind obedience to undeserving authority figures, rather than open-mindedness and education. Kids who have no idea how to distinguish between reliable sources of information, and unreliable sources of information. These kids are victims of their parents' ingorance. And once you appreciate that, some of Richard Dawkins' more florid statements likening religious indoctrination of children to child abuse suddenly don't seem so unreasonable.

Of course, let's not go overboard with our sympathy. Victims they may be, but the fact remains that they are also snotty ignoramuses who don't know anything about anything. Ultimately, they have to be dealt with aggressively and contemptuously. For their own good. They have to have it explained to them in no uncertain terms that their preachers frequently don't know what they are talking about, and that science should be learned from scientists, not clerics. Sadly, it is unlikely that any public school teacher could both administer the requisite tongue-lashing and also hope to keep his job.

Anyway, the whole article is worth reading. But not if you're currently in a good mood.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Wise Words from the RTD

The Richmond Times-Dispatch (that's Richmond, VA), is no one's idea of a liberal newspaper. Today's edition featured this brief, but excellent, editorial. The Williams being referred to is the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams:

Williams makes two essential points:

  • Creationism (or its derivative, intelligent design) does not belong in public classrooms.
  • Supporters of creationism distort the scientific meaning of “theory” when they sneer at the “theory of evolution” even as they diminish the Bible and religious faith when they describe creationism and ID as theories in competition with Darwinism.

The Archbishop of Canterbury may not be infallible, but in this instance he has it exactly right.

Well said.

Chess in Staunton, Part Two

For the first part of this tournament report, go here.

Round Three saw me move a little higher up the food chain. Happily, my opponent let his guard down and blundered away a pawn in the opening:

JR (1932) - Edward McLoughlin (1700)

Position After 9. ... Bc8-b7

This came out of an unusual line of the Sicilian Defense. I played 10. Nxb5! which pockets the pawn, thanks to the double attack on the black queen on c7 and the unprotected bishop on b4. This wouldn't have worked a move ago, because at that time my king was on e1, meaning that black could have played Bxd2 with check.

Dismayed by this development, my opponent tried to get his pawn back with 10. ... axb5 11. Bxb4 Bxe4 12. Bxe4 Nxe4, but now it's curtains after 13. Qg4! Black tried 13. ... Qc6 14. Qxg7 Qf6 15. Qxf6 Nxf6 16. Re1. Since black is about to lose the e-pawn, and probably the b-pawn shortly thereafter, he resigned after a few more moves. I was rather pleased with myself, until the computer pointed out to me that 14. Re1 is an even cleaner win.

This set up my final round game against the one master in the event. The game was filled with errors from both of us, and it ended somewhat appropriately with the following double blunder:

JR - Thomas Magar (2200)

Position After 32. ... e5-e4.

This position came after a very complicated middlegame which computer analysis showed was played, well, less than perfectly by both of us. We both had under ten minutes on the clock and we were consequently moving very quickly.

My opponent had just moved his pawn to e4. Play continued 33. dxe4 Qxe4??, which overlooked the reply 34. Re3!, which I promptly banged out. At this point my opponent noticed that the bishop on c5 is covering e3, providing yet another example of the old adage that backward diagonal moves are the hardest to spot. Black had no choice but to go for 34. ... Qxe3 35. Bxe3 Rde7 and now it was my time to return the favor. Incredibly, in my haste I overlooked that 36. Qa2+ gets out of the pin and wins easily. Instead I played 36. Qf3?? and after 36. ... Rxe3 37. Qf7+ Kh8 38. Qd7 R3e7 we agreed to a draw.

This gave both of 3.5 points. Another fellow won in the last round to catch up to us, and the three of us tied for first place.

All in all, a successful weekend. My thanks to the organizers for putting together such a pleasant tournament.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Wilkins on Dennett/Dawkins/Ruse

John Wilkins offers these wise words about the recent brou ha ha surrounding Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins and Michael Ruse. Here's an excerpt:

Ruse appears to think that there is an ideological movement called “Darwinism”. I'm not sure why, apart from the tendency of historians and philosophers to reify abstract positions with labels that have capital letters. There have been any number of people who have called their views “Darwinism” - I'm thinking of the despicable views in the early 20thC of Benjamin Kidd and John B. Haycraft - but calling it “Darwinism” doesn't make it so. The term has also been employed in many contexts within science, usually to mean just an emphasis on natural selection. But there are people in the evolutionary field whose views differ enough from other people I would call Darwinian that we need a more differentiating name than “Darwinism”. Gould and Eldredge tried to revive some terms of Darwin's student George Romanes used against Weismann and Wallace: “ultra Darwinian” and “neo Darwinian”. Dennett and Dawkins appear to enjoy being so tarred. Fine. Even this phrasing is insufficient to bring out the actual nuances in the debates.

Well said. Go read the whole thing.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Chess in Staunton, Part One

Your humble blogger had a successful weekend at the chessboard. I finished in a three-way tie for first place in the Staunton Open Chess Tournament. Pocketed $125 for my trouble. Went home, turned on the television, saw two guys playing poker for a stack of cash that represents more money than I will make in my entire life. Hmmmm. Maybe I'm playing the wrong game.

Thirty-seven players showed up, which was quite a good turnout for this area. Everyone played in the same section, meaning there were some serious rating mismatches in the early rounds.

In the first round I gave my lower-rated opponent a lesson in what happens when black dilly-dallies about starting his queenside counterplay in the Dragon variation of the Sicilian:

JR (1932) - Kevin Tapp (1190)

Position After 17. ... Kg8-f8

I met my opponent's Dragon with ye olde Yugoslav Attack, and since my opponent did not put any roadblocks in my way I was able to crash through with the standard kingside attack. I finished the game with an amusing rook maneuver: 18. Rh6!. Black is so tied up in knots that he is strangely helpless against the slow-motion threat of 19. Rg6 and 20. Rg8 mate. The most amusing line is 18. ... Bxd4 19. Rg6 Bxe3+ 20. Kb1, when black is up two pieces but defenseless against the threat of mate. The only possible defense is 18. ... Qc8 19. Rg6 Be6, but then 20. Bxg5 quickly takes care of business. My opponent played 18. ... e5, and resigned after 19. Rg6.

Round two saw me move up the rating ladder a bit. The position below came out of the Geller Gambit in the Slav Defense:

Donald Means (1472) - JR

Postion After 23. Nf3-d2

The Geller Gambit arises after 1. d4 d5 2. c4 c6 3. Nf3 Nf6 4. Nc3 dxc4 and now instead of the usual 5. a4, after which white will round up the c-pawn, restore material equality, and enter a long period of slow maneuvering, white plays 5. e4, gambtiting the pawn. Black generally replies with 5. ... b5, which secures the extra pawn. White is counting on his strong center and superior development to compensate for this fact.

The grandmasterly consensus is that white does not get enough for the pawn, and that black should be able to weather the storm and eventually make use of his extra pawn. But I am not a grandmaster, and I was nonplussed about being placed on the defensive right out of the opening, especially at a time control of game in 60 (meaning that both players had one hour for the whole game, regardless of how many moves the game took.)

Happily, my opponent was not a grandmaster either. He played as if he weren't down a pawn, took too long to put any pressure on me, and allowed me to create a position where my extra pawn actually counts for something.

The black pawns on c4 and b4 make a pleasing impression. After 23. ... b3! black's position is crushing. My opponent played 24. Qb2 c3 25. Qxb3 cxd2 26. Nxd2 and here I set a personal record for latest castling in a game by playing 26. ... 0-0. I duly converted the extra material. Another amusing line is 24. Qd1 c3 25. Nxb3 c2!. The only way for white to prevent the immediate loss of material is with 24. Qc1, but his position is hopeless in this case as well.

I'll cover the last two rounds in a later blog entry. Stay tuned!

Do Dawkins and Dennett Hurt the Cause?

Yes, this subject again. P.Z. Myers offers some excellent commentary on a poorly reasoned op-ed by Madeleine Bunting, published in the British newspaper The Guardian. Bunting writes:

The curious thing is that among those celebrating the prominence of these two Darwinians on both sides of the Atlantic is an unexpected constituency - the American creationist/intelligent-design lobby. Huh? Dawkins, in particular, has become their top pin-up.

How so? William Dembski (one of the leading lights of the US intelligent-design lobby) put it like this in an email to Dawkins: “I know that you personally don't believe in God, but I want to thank you for being such a wonderful foil for theism and for intelligent design more generally. In fact, I regularly tell my colleagues that you and your work are one of God's greatest gifts to the intelligent-design movement. So please, keep at it!”

But while Dembski, Dawkins and Dennett are sipping the champagne for their very different reasons, there is a party pooper. Michael Ruse, a prominent Darwinian philosopher (and an agnostic) based in the US, with a string of books on the subject, is exasperated: “Dawkins and Dennett are really dangerous, both at a moral and a legal level.” The nub of Ruse's argument is that Darwinism does not lead ineluctably to atheism, and to claim that it does (as Dawkins does) provides the intelligent-design lobby with a legal loophole: “If Darwinism equals atheism then it can't be taught in US schools because of the constitutional separation of church and state. It gives the creationists a legal case. Dawkins and Dennett are handing these people a major tool.”

As Myers also points out, neither Dawkins nor Dennett believes that evolution leads ineluctably to atheism. They are both quite explicit about that. Dawkins has written that evolution makes it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist, by which he means that minus a viable theory of evolution there's a major fact of everyday life, namely the existence of complex organisms, that would be awfully hard to explain without referring to God. Dennett has similarly written that evolution effectively destroys the argument from design, thereby removing the underpinnings from the best argument theists have ever offered.

Bunting uncritically accepts Ruse's argument on this subject:

But Ruse has got a point. Across the US, the battle over evolution in science teaching goes on. Just in the past month there have been bills in state legislatures in New York, Mississippi, Nevada and Arkansas promoting intelligent design. Last November the Kansas education board promulgated a new definition of science that allowed for supernatural explanations of natural phenomena. A school district in Kansas rebelled last month, accusing their board of “an utterly false belief that evolutionary science and the scientific method is based on atheistic philosophy. Promoting this false conflict between science and faith erects unnecessary barriers.” At the heart of many of these local controversies is the firmly held belief that Darwinism leads to atheism, indeed that it is atheism. Across the US, a crude and erroneous conflict is being created between science as atheism and religion.

I suspect that to British intellectuals like Bunting, places like Kansas are something of an abstraction. Prior to actually moving to Kansas in 2000, I would probably have made a similar argument. But after you've actually spent some time living in socially conservative areas, you begin to understand the absurdity of laying opposition to evolution at the feet of Dawkins and Dennett.

The only thing your typical Kansas anti-evolutionist knows about Dawkins or Dennett is that their preacher told them they are very bad men. It is almost a sure thing that none of them have read The Selfish Gene or Darwin's Dangerous Idea. It's a common mistake to think, when you're on the outside looking in, that the people promoting the anti-evolution legislation in states like Kansas base their opposition on high-minded arguments and plausible reasoning.

But when you live there for a while you get a very different picture. Turn on the local Christian radio station and listen to the irrational, groundless vitriol that gets hurled at evolution on nearly a daily basis. Then ponder the fact that similar venom is getting spewed every Sunday from the pulpits of the dozen or so churches you drive past on your daily commute. Ponder the fact that the fundamentalist Christian bookstore is the largest bookstore in town. Consider walking into a mainstream bookstore like WaldenBooks and having the first thing you see be not Stephen King or John Grisham, but Tim LeHaye and James Dobson.

While living in Kansas I once had a conversation with a para-educator in a local elementary school. We had just met and we were both observing a first-grade mathematics classroom. Our conversation was ostensibly about what we had observed. Suddenly she goes off for several paragraphs about the importance of doing God's will and looking to the Bible for guidance when you encounter difficult situations in life. From the casual and entirely non-confrontational tone with which she said it I'm sure she was simply taking it for granted that I agreed with her view of life.

Another time I was listening to a call-in show for parents on the Christian radio station. One obviously distraught parent called in and casually likened the trauma of learning that her college-aged son had become an atheist to the trauma of a previous caller whose child had been killed in a car accident.

I could rattle off many other stories just like this. These sorts of things were daily occurrences for me, and they entirely changed the way I look at this issue.

In other words, spend some time immersed in the culture of someplace like Kansas, see the extent to which the most irrational sort of religion is the dominant social force, and then try to argue that Dawkins and Dennett are the problem. If they and every other outspoken atheist disappeared off the face of the Earth how much difference would that make to the attempts to teach creationism in public schools? Answer: Zero. There would just be fewer people fighting against it.

What does hurt the cause, however, are people like Ruse. He's not the dominant source of the problem, but he is a source. How can we explain to people that there is no serious scientific controversy on this subject when Ruse is willing to use his considerable clout to get Cambridge University Press to say that there is one. And then, as if it's not bad enough that he's collaborating with the enemy on such a project, he does a lousy job of assembling essays to represent the evolutionary side of things (but that's a separate blog entry). Ruse is hurting the cause far more than Dawkins and Dennett are.

Let me close with an excellent statement from Myers:

Scientists will never be the close, reassuring father figures that Americans see every week. We will always be threats to the backwards-looking flocks of the majority of the religious, and we will always be railed against from the pulpits—science is an alternative and better way to approach the truth, so we are the competition. The only religion that we can coexist with is one that abandons dogma and scriptural authority, that concedes all explanations of the natural world to the scientific process rather than ancient writ, and to short-circuit the inevitable whining that will follow in the comments thread: those faiths and those individuals are in the minority just as much as we atheists are, and are regarded by the Baptists and the Catholics and the Lutherans and the Mormons and other established sects as just as much of an evil. (Emphasis in original)


Friday, March 24, 2006

What is Science?

Science is best viewed as an activity undertaken with a specific goal in mind. That goal is to understand the way nature works. We measure our understanding by the extent to which we can make nature's phenomena predictable and controllable. Any investigative technique that brings us closer to this goal can reasonably be considered part of science.

All of the standard pieces of the scientific method we learned about in high school - experimentation, hypothesis testing, inductive reasoning and so forth - have their role to play in bringing us closer to our goal of predictability and control. By contrast, hypothesizing the actions of ill-defined supernatural entities such as ghosts or poltergeists do not help us move closer to our goal. Consequently, the actions of supernatural entities play no role in modern scientific discourse. The day someone finds a way to use such an hypothesis to bring clarity to some confusing aspect of nature is the day scientists will embrace the supernatural.

Many of the terms that get thrown around in this discussion - such as testability, falsifiability, or methodological naturalism (MN)- are really just ways of saying that scientists care about predictability and control. Saying that scientists adhere to MN in their work is really just a shorthand way of saying that science is a very pragmatic enterprise, and that the naturalistic hypotheses are the ones that have historically proven useful to scientists. It is a phrase that accurately describes the way scientists approach their work, and it survives because the only alternative - methodological supernaturalism - has proven itself time and again to be utterly ineffective in bringing scientists closer to their goal.

I think my description will seem obvious to any practicing research scientist. Indeed, I think it is obvious to most people who have devoted any thought to the matter, with the possible exception of that small subset of philosophers who see their job as the complexification of fundamentally simple questions.

I was moved to state this plainly because of this bizarre post up at IDtheFuture, written by Paul Nelson. I say bizarre because the arguments he is making are so bad that it is simply impossible to accept that Nelson really believes what he is saying.

Nelson recoutns a visit he received from the historian Ronald Numbers. At that time Numbers was working on his book The Creationists and wished to have a look at some primary source material Nelson possessed reagrding early twentieth century creationists. Early in his post, Nelson writes:

The philosophy of science program at Pitt is one of the best in the world. I had struggled through difficult but deeply rewarding courses with Carl Hempel, Adolf Grünbaum, Jim Lennox, and others, where the question of the definition of science often came up. I observed to Ron that the philosophers (and scientists) I knew best did not agree about whether design by a non-human intelligence qualified as a scientific explanation.

I'm sure Nelson meant to refer to a supernatural intelligence rather than a non-human intelligence. After all, it's perfectly acceptable to refer to animal intelligences in explaining some particular phenomenon.

Could the hypothesis of a supernatural intelligence ever be scientific. I doubt it, but I won't completely rule it out. In principle you could hypothesize a designer with specific supernatural abilities who is also possessed of certain clearly defined motivations and goals. Given such a hypothesis you might be able to say that certain sorts of observations could plausibly be atrributed to the action of this designer while certain other sorts of observations could not be so attributed. You might even be able to make some prediction based on your understanding of the designer's attributes. On the other hand, a carefully circumscribed supernatural designer begins to look an awful lot like a natural law, but still, I won't dismiss this possibility out of hand.

In the context of evolution/ID disputes, however, this is moot. The ID folks are adamant that, to the extent that ID is science, it does not allow any inference to be drawn at all about the nature of the designer. One reason they are adamant on this point is that they know full well that the natural world as we find is not at all consistent with the idea of an all-powerful and all-loving designer. Reconciling the natural world with the Christian God requires so many ad hoc hypotheses that such a designer immeidately loses all value as a scientific hypothesis.

But this is a mere warm-up. The real silly parts are still to come...

On the one hand, Charles Darwin had refuted the theories of special creation of the early 19th century -- and thus such theories were testable, not least because they had been tested and falsified. On the other hand, however, the strong positivism that permeated the atmosphere of the 10th floor of the Cathedral of Learning, the home of the history and philosophy of science program at Pitt, often held that “supernatural” explanations were untestable in principle.

But if such theories were untestable in principle, why did so many of my professors, from both philosophy and biology, talk at length about data that did or did not support Duane Gish's creationism, or “scientific creationism” generally (au courant at the time because of the various “balanced treatment” cases in US federal courts). If Gish's arguments could be countered by evidence, then the dialectic of science was already fully engaged. Whatever evidence can challenge, evidence can support. Right?

The problem, of course, is that Gish made a great many arguments. Some of those arguments dealt with matters of science, and those arguments were both testable and shown to be wrong. Other of his claims dealt with bald assertions of supernatural action, and these were not scientific. For example, Gish was fond of arguing that the best evidence from the relevant branches of science implied that the Earth was on the order of thousands of years old. That's a perfectly scientific assertion, and was shown conclusively to be wrong. Likewise for many of the assertions Gish made about the fossil record. But Gish made other assertions that were plainly not testable. For example, that the universe was created instantaneously by God via mechanisms that are no longer in effect today. That is plainly unscientific.

This point is not complicated, and it has been made times before. I am baffled that Nelson could have overlooked it.

Nelson continues:

Intelligent causation, I said to Ron, seemed to me to have been unjustifiably excluded from the roster of candidate hypotheses for the origin of life. Life could have been designed. That might have happened, as an empirical possibility, and whatever is possible ought not to be excluded from science a priori. (Some possible states of affairs might turn out not to be the case, of course, but that is a matter for empirical inquiry, not definitions.)

Of course design is possible and could have happened, Ron said to me, tucking into his meal. That's not the problem.

This answer stunned me, and today, almost 23 years later, I can still experience the sense of amazement and shock. One grows accustomed to positivism after a while, and the familiar “science” and “religion” categories had been well-buttressed by multiple lines of argument from very bright people indeed on the 10th floor (albeit with the glaring inconsistencies mentioned above, e.g., 'Wait until Duane Gish sees this new transitional fossil!' -- and with a long historical record of shifting definitions and practices of science shoved to one side). I fumbled out a reply to Ron: But that's not fair, I protested. Where was the justification?

Ron shrugged. You're right, he continued, it isn't fair. (Emphasis in original)

Maybe I'm just a closed-minded skeptic, but I don't believe for a second that Nelson was stunned by that answer. After all, what other answer is possible? Has anyone in the history of the universe ever denied the bare possibility that the world is the product of intelligent design? I'm as hard-core an atheist as you're likely to meet, but I think it's such a live possibility that I spend an inordinate amount of time reading what religious people have to say on the subject. And the possibility of design has nothing to do with positivism, or definitions of science and religion or anything else.

So is it unfair that scientists do not accept supernatural design as an acceptable scientific hypothesis? Only in the same sense that it is unfair for a plumber to dismiss out of hand the gremlin theory of drain clogs. The plumber has unclogged a lot of drains, but has never once found it helpful to hypothesize a gremlin in the pipes as the cause of the clog. Likewise scientists have never once found it helpful to invoke a supernatural entity in pursuing their goals. So how is it unfair for them to leave that assumption out of their work?

Sadly, we now come to the part of Neslon's essay that I found especially vexing:

But think about it this way, he went on. Why is it that when a batter in baseball hits a foul ball, he has to stay at home plate (assuming no one catches the ball)? Why can't he run to first base?

If you're going to have a game, he continued, you've got to have some rules. For a long time now -- really from the middle of the 19th century -- one of the rules in science has been that the hypothesis of supernatural design is excluded from scientific discourse as a candidate explanation. Just as in baseball, where the first and third base lines define the field of play, in science one of the defining rules has been that the hypothesis of design, although quite possible, falls wholly outside the lines of admissible discourse.

Ron then referred me to Neil Gillespie's classic treatment, Charles Darwin and the Problem of Creation, where this problem is much discussed. The exclusion of design is long-standing, Ron concluded, and unlikely to change. That's just the way the game is played nowadays.It's not fair, he said, but those are the rules.I couldn't think of any reply to this -- after all, a rule is a rule is a rule -- and so our conversation moved on.

I hope Numbers didn't really say this, but if he did I can only shake my head sadly and suggest to people that they not learn their science from historians. The analogy of science to a game, with MN as an arbitrary rule within that game, is a very bad way of putting things.

Completely left out of Numbers' description is the fact that science has specific goals in mind. As already discussed, the convention of MN is just a reflection of the sorts of hypotheses scientists have found useful in several centuries of work.

Unfortunatly, this failure to recognize that science is a goal-directed enterprise is very common, in my experience, even among otherwise very well-educated people. I have had many religious people present to me the argument that science tries to discover the truth about nature, God is part of that truth, therefore God should be part of science. This fundamentally misses the point. Science isn't really about ultimate truth. It's about a more practical sort of truth.

Two quick examples should help make the point. First, is it true that the planets orbit the Sun and trace out a ellipse as they do so? Well, all we really know is that they hypothesis that they do has allowed us to make so many successful predictions that it seems reasonable to conclude that it is true. That's what I mean by a practical sort of truth.

Second, consider Newton's law of gravitation - the one that says that the gravitational force between two masses is proportional to the product of the masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance separating them. Question: How do we know that 2 is the correct exponent to have on the bottom of that fraction? If used the exponent 2.00000000001 or 1.99999999999 we would get the same predictive consequences, at least as far as our ability to measure things is concerned. So why do we assume that 2 is the correct exponent? Answer: We don't. What we know is that 2 is the simplest exponent we can use that allows us to make accurate predictions. No room for ultimate truth here.

Why do scientists believe that simple theories are better than complicated theories? Not because simple theories are more likely to be true in some uoltimate sense. Rather, it is because simple theories are more likely to be useful than complicated theories.

Now, does this mean that science has no role to play in making a case for atheism? Well, yes and no. But we'll save that for a future blog entry.

Nelson concludes with his standard complaints about scientists rigging the game and about how naturalists try to rule out ID by definitional fiat and about how people should let the evidence decide. Blah blah blah.

The situation is actually very simple. If Nelson or any other ID advocate believes that science ought to introduce supernatural thinking into its standard repertoire than the test they have to pass is very simple: Go discover something. Stop with the abstract philosophizing, stop levelling bogus charges about the bigotry and closed-mindedness of mainstream scientists, and stop whining about just wanting to follow the evidence wherever it leads. Scientists have given all due consideration to such evidence as ID folks provide, and they have rightly found it worthless. If Nelson believes they have made an error, let him go into the lab and prove them wrong in the only currency scientists care about: progress towards taming the chaos of nature.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Bolton Weighs In

As a companion piece to yesterday's blog entry, consider these thoughts from Warren Bolton, Associate Editor of the South Carolina newspaper The State:

A FEW YEARS ago, a friend of mine and his family took a trip to the Grand Canyon.

He was awed by the cavernous wonder. A tour guide said it took a billion-plus years for the canyon to form. “My Bible tells me God formed it in six days,” my friend said to himself.

Each day his family rose early to have devotion at the edge of the canyon. They wanted to worship and praise God, whom they saw in his magnificent creation.
My Sunday school class is studying various Psalms that recognize God as creator. Psalm 8 says God’s name is “excellent in all the earth” and that he gave man a special place in creation. “When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him? For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour.”

Psalm 104 says God covers himself with light as with a garment and “stretchest out the heavens like a curtain.” He “laid the foundations of the earth, that it should not be removed for ever.” Psalm 139 says we’re “fearfully and wonderfully made.”

One Sunday, a class member raised concern about the growing debate over whether evolution and/or intelligent design should be taught in schools. We didn’t come to a conclusion, but we acknowledged that our studies provide a sound argument in support of intelligent design that easily trumps the theory of accidental creation and random evolution of man. Darwin’s theory of evolution can’t begin to fully explain the complexity of the origins of life.

As far as I can tell, the only studies he undertook, and the only argument he has offered, relate to what the Bible has to say. Does anyone believe for a second that Mr. Bolton could give a coherent description of what evolution actually says, or could summarize what origins of life researchers have discovered?

The more I read things like this the more I come to believe that sheer laziness has a lot to do with the preference for blind faith over actually following the evidence. Learning biology is hard work. Mindlessly pounding the Bible is so much easier.

Later Bolton writes:

You either believe the Genesis story is true or you don’t. I believe the story that God created man and woman for one another. I believe man fell because Adam and Eve ate of forbidden fruit, making all humans sinners and in need of salvation, available through Jesus Christ. If that story isn’t true, then the Bible — from the first to the 66th book — isn’t the literal, infallible word of God.

Attacks against creation casts doubt on scriptural authority. If we question the Bible’s account of creation, what does that say about the existence of original sin? What does it say about Jesus Christ, the risen savior, and man’s need to be saved?

I’ve got no beef with science. It serves its purpose. But God is bigger than science. Science can’t poke and prod and explain him. It can’t challenge his authority, disprove his existence, ascertain his location or calculate his spiritual density. Those who discount intelligent design say there is no scientific proof that an intelligent being spoke creation into existence. But the Bible says not only did God create the ends of the earth, “there is no searching of his understanding.” While we humans toil to put an age and date to everything, scripture tells us that, to God, a day is as a thousand years and a thousand years as a day. Our thoughts don’t come close to matching his; our ways fall far short of his.

Translation: Your puny evidence is no match for my groundless delusions!

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Creech on Insanity

Here's the Reverend Mark Creech, columnist for for the Christian news outlet Agape Press, lecturing us about the nature of insanity:

Only those whose judgment has been profoundly diminished -- whose ability to think and carefully weigh the facts, after witnessing the rioting of Muslims around the world over something as silly as a cartoon -- would still believe Islam is essentially a peaceful religion. Only those who are not thinking straight would believe redefining marriage to allow same-sex couples to marry could ever be in the best interest of the nation. Only those who've been brainwashed by the screwy philosophies of our time would defend abortion, pornography, euthanasia, gambling, premarital sex, stem-cell research on embryos, the legalization of drugs and prostitution, removing the influence of prayer, Bible reading, and the Ten Commandments from public life. This is all a form of madness!

And later:

Real wisdom comes from God. Those who turn from their sins to Christ, the living Word, find it. And those who live by the inerrant written Word, the Bible, discover it. Other voices are simply unreliable and can lead to a darkened understanding, a defiled mind and conscience -- much like what's demonstrated in the many arguments of the atheists, the evolutionists, the theological modernists, and the secular humanists of today.

This is usually the point where some well-meaning commenter feels compelled to explain to me that actually people like Creech are a fringe minority, that they only speak for a small percentage of religious believers, and that I shouldn't get so worked up about the fanatics.

Spare me. I've heard it before. It isn't true. Creechism is the dominant religious view in many parts of this country. Try living in Kansas for a while if you don't believe me. Walk into almost any Christian bookstore and it is Creechism you will find being promoted. It wasn't theologically moderate people who made the Left Behind series so successful. It wasn't theological moderates our President was thinking about when he struggled to answer an audience member's question about whether the rise of terrorism is a sign of the apocalypse. It wasn't theological moderates that Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee was appealing to when he complained that faith plays too small a role in modern American discourse. It wasn't moderates who proposed a resolution making Christianity the official religion of the state of Missouri, and it wasn't moderates who allowed that resolution to make it to a floor vote.

I could go on. The fact is that the Creechists of this country are so numerous and politically powerful that every Republican of any prominence is either one of them, or bends over backward to make everyone think he's one of them. The genuine theological moderates need to wake up and realize that, in terms of deciding public policy, they have far more in common with the atheists and secular humanists than they do with the religious right.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

V for Vendetta

Excellent movie. Go see it immediately. Not quite a masterpiece, but very good nonetheless.

Hunter's Distortions

Over at IDtheFuture, Cornelius Hunter offers this piece of drivel about the low standard of evidence scientists adhere to in defending evolution. The target of his ire is this paper, about the evolution of “electric organs” in certain fish, published in the Proceedings of the National Acdemy of Science.

I have posted my reply over at The Panda's Thumb. I'm sure you'll be shokced to learn that Hunter's arguments run the usual ID gamut from bad to laughably bad. Go have a look!

Friday, March 17, 2006

Cool Juggling

Check this out.

Good Math Blog

Computer scientist Mark Chu-Carroll has started an excellent blog called Good Math, Bad Math. I've only been able to skim his posts so far, but it looks like he has some first-rate essays ripping into creationist mathematics. I know what I'm going to be reading this weekend!

Klugman on God

I'm a big Jack Klugman fan. Twelve Angry Men is one of my favorite movies. He was in some terrific Twilight Zone episodes. (I especially like that one with Jonathan Winters in the pool hall). And television definitely hit a high-water mark with Quincy.

But I must take issue with part of this brief essay from The Huffington Post:

I'll come back to what the movie says about God in a minute -- now I'm gonna get political for you. Remember, I'm a lifelong Democrat. Never vote any other way. And as a Democrat, I want to say this to the Democratic Party, "GOD IS NOT A REPUBLICAN!" Get that? Heard me clearly? Read it again. That's why I wrote it in capital letters.

We live in a religious country. Get over it. And not only that, but religion is not a superstitious bromide for the ignorant. There is tremendous wisdom, accumulated over centuries of deep thought, in all the major traditions, and all those folks who invest their time and energy in faith are NOT idiots. Why is this a political thought? Because our party has set itself up as the party that's against God, and as long as it does that, we will keep losing power. If we were to do all the same things we're doing now, however, and somehow extend an olive branch to the faithful, we could swing the Washington pendulum hard and fast to our side. Think about it. There are plenty of religious people who respect women's rights and believe in evolution - that's not the point. The point is, as Abraham Lincoln said, “Both sides pray to the same God.” God is not a Republican, and it's about time we gave Him equal opportunity on our platform.

For the purpose of this blog entry I will accept the premise that Democrats lose elections because they don't appeal to religious people.

My question is: what form does the olive branch take? The Democratic party believes in a strong separation of church and state. It believes that the decision to terminate a pregnancy should reside with the mother in most cases. It believes that science and rationality are sounder bases for public policy than religious faith. It believes in full civil rights for homosexuals. Granted, the party has not always been as steadfast in defense of these principles as it should have been. Individual Democrats might dissent from one or more of these ideas (or various other issues I could have listed). But the fact remains that these are things that Democrats have historically stood for. Does Klugman believe that Democrats should compromise these principles?

In what sense is the Democratic party hostile to God or religious people? Certainly they are hostile to using the government to promote particular religious ideologies, but any religious person who sees no distinction there is not someone we want to court. Has any Democrat of any prominence made statements hostile to religion? Has any Democrat proposed legislation that is hostile to religion? Is there any plank in the Democratic platform that is hostile to religion? I fear that Klugman has simply absorbed a standard Republican talking point (no doubt because of its frequent repetition.)

Democrats believe that religion is a personal matter and should not be used as the basis for public policy. If extending an olive branch to religious people means sacrificing that principle, then I would prefer to lose elections.

Barrow Wins Templeton Prize

From The New York Times:

Continuing a recent trend in which the world's richest religion prize has gone to scientists, John D. Barrow, a British cosmologist whose work has explored the relationship between life and the laws of physics, was named the winner yesterday of the 2006 Templeton Prize for progress or research in spiritual matters.

Dr. Barrow will receive the $1.4 million prize during a ceremony at Buckingham Palace on May 3. The prize was created in 1972 by the philanthropist Sir John Marks Templeton, who specified that its monetary value always exceed that of the Nobel Prize. Five of the last six winners have been scientists. Asked about this, Dr. Barrow said, “Maybe they ask the most interesting questions.”

Dr. Barrow, 53, a mathematical sciences professor at the University of Cambridge, is best known for his work on the anthropic principle, which has been the subject of debate in physics circles in recent years. Life as we know it would be impossible, he and others have pointed out, if certain constants of nature — numbers denoting the relative strengths of fundamental forces and masses of elementary particles — had values much different from the ones they have, leading to the appearance that the universe was “well tuned for life,” as Dr. Barrow put it.


Make the commonplace and trivial observation that the universe is congenial to our sort of life, assert this is evidence for God, ignore rival explanations that can claim at least some evidential support, win $1.4 million. Lovely.

The Times article closes with:

Noting that Charles Darwin is buried in Westminster Abbey, Dr. Barrow said that in contrast with the so-called culture wars in America, science and religion had long coexisted peaceably in England. “The concept of a lawful universe with order that can be understood and relied upon emerged largely out of religious beliefs about the nature of God,” he said.

That last claim gets repeated a lot, but it sounds like nonsense to me. The concept of a lawful universe with order that can be understood and relied upon seems amply justified by our everyday experience. Adding God to the mix only creates a reason not to have confidence in the regularities of mature.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Round Two with Cordova

UPDATE: March 17. 2006.: Salvador has replied to this post. You will find his reply as comment seven here. I will let him have the last word.

Salvador has now replied to yesterday's post. You will find his reply as comment six.

Here's a quick recap of the argument thus far: On Tuesday evening I attended a talk given by John Angus Campbell on the subject of teaching ID in schools. During his talk Campbell argued that Darwin contrasted his ideas about common descent against rival ideas that we would nowadays refer to as ID. I criticized this on the grounds that there was an equivocation in the use of the term ID. The thing with which Darwin contrasted common descent was the idea that species were special creations of God and fixed through time. That is not what the term ID means today. Therefore, this was not a good argument for defending the inclusion of modern ID in science classes.

Salvador replied by providing a few quotes from Darwin in which Darwin explicitly refers to creation or design. This, sadly, completely missed the point. The question was whether what Darwin had in mind by those terms was equivalent to what modern ID folks have in mind. I went on to show, by placing Salvador's Darwin quotes in their proper context, that Darwin was not talking about ID as that term is understood today.

Apparently Salvador continues to miss the point. He writes:

Rosenhouse objects by saying that Darwin was arguing for common descent and the mutability of species as the conclusion of the theory. However, Rosenhouse misses the fact that Darwin had to use anti-Design arguments, particularly in chapter six to justify his conclusion. Also his writing was targeted at the pro-Design culture of the time. To arrive at that conclusion, Darwin had to make anti-Design arguments. One will see his writings anticipate design arguments of his day and today:

In Chapter 6

Organs of extreme perfection and complication.
It is scarcely possible to avoid comparing the eye to a telescope. We know that this instrument has been perfected by the long-continued efforts of the highest human intellects; and we naturally infer that the eye has been formed by a somewhat analogous process. But may not this inference be presumptuous? Have we any right to assume that the Creator works by intellectual powers like those of man?
may we not believe that a living optical instrument might thus be formed as superior to one of glass, as the works of the Creator are to those of man?

If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed, which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down.

“It is scarcely possible to avoid comparing the eye to a telescope,” and in the modern day it is scarecly possible to avoid comparing the flagellum to an outboard motor, or some parts of the cellular machinery with a computer, or biological clock with clocks. Darwin recognized he had to address the design argument for his anti-creationist theory to be received.

Darwin would not reach Chapter 14 had he not felt he offered a sufficient designer substitute. I think Jason is underestimating the importance of the anti-design arguments which are in Darwin’s work. Darwin recognizes that the problem of design in “organs of extreme perfection” could sink his whole theory. And that is very much the same battle ground being fought today!

First off, in my original blog entry I was explicitly talking about Darwin's arguments in favor of common descent. Salvador's first reply used quotes related to that subject as well. He has now changed the subject to the question of how Darwin defended natural selection as the mechanism of evolution. This is a different issue.

Of more import, however, is that Salvador has once again misrepresented what Darwin said. Let's look at the full context of that “telescope” line:

He who will go thus far, if he find on finishing this treatise that large bodies of facts, otherwise inexplicable, can be explained by the theory of descent, ought not to hesitate to go further, and to admit that a structure even as perfect as the eye of an eagle might be formed by natural selection, although in this case he does not know any of the transitional grades. His reason ought to conquer his imagination; though I have felt the difficulty far too keenly to be surprised at any degree of hesitation in extending the principle of natural selection to such startling lengths.

It is scarcely possible to avoid comparing the eye to a telescope. We know that this instrument has been perfected by the long-continued efforts of the highest human intellects; and we naturally infer that the eye has been formed by a somewhat analogous process. But may not this inference be presumptuous? Have we any right to assume that the Creator works by intellectual powers like those of man? If we must compare the eye to an optical instrument, we ought in imagination to take a thick layer of transparent tissue, with a nerve sensitive to light beneath, and then suppose every part of this layer to be continually changing slowly in density, so as to separate into layers of different densities and thicknesses, placed at different distances from each other, and with the surfaces of each layer slowly changing in form. Further we must suppose that there is a power always intently watching each slight accidental alteration in the transparent layers; and carefully selecting each alteration which, under varied circumstances, may in any way, or in any degree, tend to produce a distincter image. We must suppose each new state of the instrument to be multiplied by the million; and each to be preserved till a better be produced, and then the old ones to be destroyed. In living bodies, variation will cause the slight alterations, generation will multiply them almost infinitely, and natural selection will pick out with unerring skill each improvement. Let this process go on for millions on millions of years; and during each year on millions of individuals of many kinds; and may we not believe that a living optical instrument might thus be formed as superior to one of glass, as the works of the Creator are to those of man? (Emphasis Added)

Note that first bold face statement, in which Darwin explicitly separates the question of common descent from the question of natural selection as the mechanism of that descent.

Now look at the final bold face statement. This makes it obvious that Darwin has no problem with the idea of intelligent design in the abstract. There is evidently nothing in his arguments that rules out the existence of a Creator who produces various works. It is, therefore, far too simplistic (to put it kindly) to say that Darwin was presenting anti-design arguments.

Now look at the middle bold face statement. What he is criticizing there is not the idea that there is a Creator who creates, but rather the presumption that such a Creator would produce his works by the same mechanisms through which human designers produce theirs. In other words, he is criticizing the idea that the eye (in this example) was produced by divine planning and fiat, as opposed to appearing via a gradual process presumably set in motion by the Creator.

Or to put it yet another way, he is not criticizing design in some vague sense, but rather the idea of the special creation of species with all of their structures in their present form. This is exactly what I argued in my previous post.

The only way Salvador's argument makes sense is if you construe the design argument as merely the claim that the complexity of certain anatomical structures, all by itself, implies they must have been designed. In that case, your argument is identical to the one offered by William Paley, and you should call it natural theology, not ID. Modern ID, as proposed by people like William Dembski and Michael Behe, was supposed to be a huge leap forward from Paley. They claimed to have produced a rigorous, quantifiable procedure for proving to a certainty that certain structures were designed. This was said to be an improvement over Paley's mostly analogical arguments.

The claim that Darwin set his arguments in opposition to ID can only be defended by defining ID in a way that ignores everything that modern ID proponents claim to have produced. But then you are left with the statement that Darwin set his arguments in opposition to Paley's earlier arguments, which everyone already knew.

So let's turn this in to something productive. If by “teaching ID” you mean that you should say that before Darwin it was very common for people to analogize complex anatomical structures to machines and conclude that they were designed directly by God, but then Darwin came along and showed that this analogy is seriously deficient, then I am all in favor of teaching ID. But if by “teaching ID” you mean that we should give respectful mention to things like irreducible complexity or complex specified information, then I am opposed to that, for the simple reason that we shoudn't be presenting false information to children.

Likewise, if “teaching the controversy” means that we should teach so much about evolution that we actually come to those esoteric issues that professionals actually argue about, then I am all in favor of it. But if by “teaching the controversy” you mean we should present respectfully the sort of bogus anti-evolution arguments offered by, say, Jonathan Wells, then I am against it.

Campbell himself was a bit confusing on these points. At times he seemed to be advocating the first option in these two paragraphs. Other times he seemed to prefer the second. Salvador appears to be defending the first in his reply. If that was his intention, then we don't disagree on very much, but he is abusing language in a serious way to describe that as teaching ID. But if actually he thinks that anything produced by contemporary ID advocates, most notably William Dembski and Michael Behe, is relevant to understanidng any of Darwin's arguments, then he is terribly confused.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Cordova on Campbell

Yesterday I offered up this account of John Angus Campbell's presentation at James Madison University. Salvador Cordova was also in the audience, and he has offered his account here.

Cordova describes his blog entry as a competing account to what I wrote, but he actually only challenges one thing that I said. Cordova writes:

Campbell argued that Darwin’s idea can’t be fully understood without understanding the idea Darwin was seeking to replace, namely (using today’s jargon) intelligent design. Thus to learn about Darwin correctly, one must learn about intelligent design.

Darwin explicitly points out he’s going after “special creation”, “plan of creation” or “unity of design”. (See Chapter 14.)

It is so easy to hide our ignorance under such expressions as the `plan of creation,’ `unity of design,’ &c.,

This grand fact of the grouping of all organic beings seems to me utterly inexplicable on the theory of creation.

What is the proper relationship of special creation to intelligent design? Intelligent design is a necessary but not sufficient condition for special creation. This logically implies that if one can negate the design argument through a designer substitute (Darwinian mechanisms), one can destroy not only the design argument, but also the case for special creation.

To illustrate, a typical car needs fuel to run. Fuel is a necessary, but not sufficient condition for a car to run (a lot of other things like electricity and oil are needed to make a car run, not just fuel). But if there is no fuel, the car doesn’t run.

In like manner, if there is no intelligent design, there is no special creation. In fact, since intelligent design is a necessary condition for theories like Front Loading, PEH, etc., they (in addition to special creation) would be swept away if Darwin’s hypothesis were true.

Total poppycock, I'm afraid.

First off, since Cordova presents this as an account that is competing with my own, I assume he thinks this is a counter to what I wrote in my blog entry on this subject:

Another point that arose in our conversation was the role of ID in the Origin. I pointed out that Darwin did not contrast evolution with ID as that term is understood today. Instead he contrasted the idea of common descent with the idea that species were fixed through time. That is a specific hypothesis with different predictive consequences from common descent. Consequently, it was not a good argument to say that we should present ID in science class because that is how Darwin did it in his own work. (Emphasis added)

ID as that term is understood today. Salvador seems to have overlooked that part.

When Darwin spoke of the theory of creation, he had in mind the idea that each species was a separate and independent creation. To put it another way, he was contrasting the idea of descent with modification with the alternative hypothesis that species were fixed through time. This is made clear throughout the Origin, including in the few sentences that precede the one Cordova so selectively quoted:

This tendency in the large groups to go on increasing in size and diverging in character, together with the almost inevitable contingency of much extinction, explains the arrangement of all the forms of life, in groups subordinate to groups, all within a few great classes, which we now see everywhere around us, and which has prevailed throughout all time. This grand fact of the grouping of all organic beings seems to me utterly inexplicable on the theory of creation.

This fact is made even clearer in this statement, from earlier in Chapter 14 of the Origin:

On the view that species are only strongly marked and permanent varieties, and that each species first existed as a variety, we can see why it is that no line of demarcation can be drawn between species, commonly supposed to have been produced by special acts of creation, and varieties which are acknowledged to have been produced by secondary laws. On this same view we can understand how it is that in each region where many species of a genus have been produced, and where they now flourish, these same species should present many varieties; for where the manufactory of species has been active, we might expect, as a general rule, to find it still in action; and this is the case if varieties be incipient species. Moreover, the species of the large genera, which afford the greater number of varieties or incipient species, retain to a certain degree the character of varieties; for they differ from each other by a less amount of difference than do the species of smaller genera. The closely allied species also of the larger genera apparently have restricted ranges, and they are clustered in little groups round other species -- in which respects they resemble varieties. These are strange relations on the view of each species having been independently created, but are intelligible if all species first existed as varieties. (Emphasis added)

The ideas that each species was specially created and that species are fixed through time are manifestly not ones that the leading proponents of ID attempt to defend. In fact, they typically distance themselves from them, pointing out that one can accept both common descent and ID. Darwin's only comment about things like irreducible complexity or complex specified information, the pillars of modern ID, was to note that we shouldn't be so cavalier about saying that this or that complex structure could not have evolved gradually.

No one objects to showing how common descent provides a better explanation for the facts of nature than the rival hypothesis of species fixity. More than that, I agree with Campbell that it is almost impossible to present evolution effectively without making this comparison. I don't know anyone who disagrees with this. That Campbell seems to think that is what is at issue suggests to me that he doesn't really understand the modern evolution/ID debate. That is why I said in my previous entry that he should stick to talking about science education, where his ideas have some merit, and stay away from evolution, where they do not.

If Darwin is correct then the idea that each species was created in its present form, in a puff of smoke, with one waggle of God's finger, is out the window. This has nothing to do with front-loading, or the PEH, or any other idea that takes a more nuanced view of God's action. Mind you, I think front-loading and the PEH are silly ideas for other reasons, but they are not ruled out by accepting the hypotheses of common descent and natural selection. Indeed, the PEH is the brainchild of John Davison, who accepts common descent. Likewise, front-loading has been seriously proposed by Michael Behe, who also accepts common descent.

We see, as usual, that Salavdor is talking through his hat.

Incidentally, let me note that Salvador's headline for his blog entry was:

Rosenhouse Praises Discovery Institute Fellow John Angus Campbell.

Pretty misleading, don't you think? I praised certain aspects of Campbell's remarks about science education, but also criticized much of his take on evolution and ID. And considering that I specifically singled out our differing views of the Discovery Institute as one of our main points of disagreement, it was rather poor form to imply that by saying something nice about Campbell I was liekwise praising his involvement with the DI.

One suspects that if I had written a slash and burn post ripping in to Campbell, but then paused to note that he had good taste in clothes, Salvador would have used the same headline.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Campbell at JMU

I just got back from a public presentation given by John Angus Campbell on the subject of what to teach in high school biology classes. You may recognize Campbell as the coeditor (with Stephen Meyer) of the Michigan State University Press anthology Darwinism, Design and Public Education. I reviewed this book a while back for Skeptic magazine. You can read my (mostly negative) review (PDF format) here.

I agreed with most of what Campbell had to say. He began by extolling the virtues of civil discourse and respecting those with whom we disagree. No argument there. He had nothing but praise for Charles Darwin, both as a scientist and as a writer. He mentioned also that he was himself a Darwinist, which he reiterated to me in our conversation after the talk (more on that later). I liked all of that.

Eventually he got to his main point, which was that science education should emphasize the role of argument and intepretation of evidence in its presentation. There should also be enough philosophy introduced to help students understand the distinction between science and nonscience. He argued that in The Origin Darwin frequently contrasted evolution with the rival idea of ID, and as a result it was impossible to understand Darwin's argument without discussing the rival ideas prevalent at the time. It was in this context that ID had a role in science classes.

After the talk I had the opportunity to talk to him semi-privately (there were a few other people hanging around who also offered some thoughts). I pointed out to him that I agreed with nearly everything he said, but that I thought he had avoided most of the issues that cause all the heat. What gets scientists angry is not the idea that there should be more discussion of the nature of science and the role of argumentation and interpretaion of evidence within it. Nor is anyone bothered by the idea of presenting Darwin's work in the historical context of the times in which he was writing.

Rather, the problem comes in presenting the modern incarnation of ID as a legitimate scientific theory alongside evolution. I argued that we should not do that because the arguments ID proponents make are totally false. I also pointed out that civility is a two-way street, and that considering that all of the leading ID proponents engage in sleazy, dishonest rhetoric, it was a little galling that I was expected to be civil towards them.

Campbell didn't seem to disagree with any of this. In the end, I was a little confused about what role ID was playing in his argument. After all, he made it clear during his talk that it was not his intention to single out evolution for special treatment. Rather, he was making suggestions for fundamentally rethinking the way science gets taught. I suggested to him that he shouldn't be casting his argument in the context of evolution and ID, but rather as a more general talk about the nature of science education. He even seemed to agree with that!

Another point that arose in our conversation was the role of ID in the Origin. I pointed out that Darwin did not contrast evolution with ID as that term is understood today. Instead he contrasted the idea of common descent with the idea that species were fixed through time. That is a specific hypothesis with different predictive consequences from common descent. Consequently, it was not a good argument to say that we should present ID in science class because that is how Darwin did it in his own work.

Yet another point that came up was the role of the courts. Campbell fretted that it was a bad idea to look to the courts to resolve this issue, since that leads to ill will from non-scientists who dislike being told what they can and can not teach in schools. Curiously, though, Campbell was adamant that he did not favor any sort of equal-time treatment of evolution and creationism or ID.

So I pointed out that the equal time question was precisely the one the courts were adjudicating. This was explicit in the 1982 Arkansas trial, and implicit in the recent Dover trial. The courts only come into this to prevent people from taking over science classrooms to teach their preferred religious views. Again Campbell didn't seem to disagree, but argued instead that it should be possible to develop a scientifically rigorous curriculum along the more ecumenical lines he was suggesting.

One genuine point of disagreement was the role of the Discovery Institute in all of this. I tend to see the DI as a sinkhole of darkness and rottenness, whereas Campbell seems to think they want something along the lines of what he is suggesting. I argued that the DI might go along with Campbell's ideas, but only as a stepping stone towards their real agenda of having their religious views taught in public schools.

One final point that came up was when Campbell quoted from the book The Evolution of Darwinism by Timothy Shanahan. In the quote Shanahan was talking about debates from within Darwinism on certain fundamental issues about evolution. Campbell suggested that in light of this scientists shouldn't be so quick to say that there is no controversy.

I have not read Shanahan's book, but from the nature of the quote that was read I surmised that he wasn't talking about anything the creationists or ID folks are pointing out, but rather about more esoteric points. Judging from the blurb linked to above, I believe I had it right. So I replied that such controversy as exists among biologists on the subject of evolution has nothing to do with those portions of it that get taught in high schools. The hypotheses of common descent with natural selection as a major mechanism of evolution are, indeed, noncontroversial. Anyway, we didn't have time to discuss this in much depth.

All in all, it was an interesting night. Initially I was annoyed that he had been invited as the only guest to lecture publicly on this, since I knew him only from the awful anthology he coedited. But I was pleasantly surprised by his talk and found that he had a lot of interesting things to say. I think he has some interesting ideas about science education but shouldn't really be talking about evolution and ID at all.

An enjoyable evening nonetheless.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Nakamura in Salon

Today's issue of Salon features this profile of U.S. Chess phenom Hikaru Nakamura. He is undoubtedly the most talented American chessplayer on the scene today, and with a little more experience could probably compete at the highest level. He won the U.S. Chess Championship in 2005, though he failed to defend that title in the recently completed 2006 version of the event.

Sadly, Nakamura will probably have to give up competitive chess because it is virtually impossible to make a living at it.

Nakamura's potent brew of balls and brains has earned him the obvious comparison: Bobby Fischer. But for Nakamura, Fischer, the wunderkind who became a wild-eyed, long-bearded paranoid, who vanished mysteriously during his prime, serves also as a cautionary tale. “He played too much chess and went crazy,” says Nakamura. “I'm not a mad genius.”

But his experience serves as a sort of modern parable about the game. Nakamura rode the fuel of new technologies to become a powerhouse player. But his hard, fast rise has left him feeling burned out and, unlike his coddled peers in Europe, ready to pull the plug. “When it's this hard to make a living,” he says, “you're not going to keep the talent in the game. Eventually, they have to go into other things.”

Actually, concerning Fischer, it has been wisely said that it wasn't that chess drove him crazy, it was that he was always crazy and chess was the only thing keeping him sane.

The whole article is worht reading for its comments about the scene at the thighest levels of competitive chess. Experienced chess players will role their eyes a bit at some of the comments the author makes, but it is mostly an accurate and engaging read. Here's one more excerpt:

But America is another story. The cost of living is high, the respect is nil, and the sponsorships nonexistent. Nakamura explodes when he talks about the other players' sponsors because, despite being the U.S. champion, he has none. “Any other young person who devotes his life to becoming the best in the world at something is making millions of dollars!” he fumes. He's exaggerating, but the point is well taken. He's the best, and for this he has given up plenty. Before he goes onstage, he likes to slip on his iPod and crank up his theme song. “It's by Green Day,” he says. “'Boulevard of Broken Dreams.'”

Notable Book Reviews

The current issue of Quarterly Review of Biology has a couple of book reviews that are worth looking at.

First, Christoph Adami rips into Hubert Yockey's new book Information Theory, Evolution and the Origin of Life. Yockey will be familiar to devotees of evolution/creationism disputes because of his endorsement of various probability arguments against naturalistic explanations of the origin of ife. Yockey's arguments are considerably more sophisticated than the ones offered by the creationists, but they are no less wrong for that.

Anyway, Adami is very unimpressed with the present volume:

These are only mild idiosyncrasies compared to the author's serious departures from accepted scientific standards of conduct. To begin with, at least half of the (poorly edited) book is a nearly verbatim copy—including typographical errors—of the author's previous volume, Information Theory and Molecular Biology (1992. Cambridge (UK): Cambridge University Press). This information is disclosed nowhere in the current book. The parts that are new to this volume are a mixture of historical and philosophical notes on origin-of-life research and researchers (in a section entitled The Life of Walther Löb, we learn the names and ages of the four daughters of the electrochemist at the time of his death), and reiterations of the same points already put forth in the older material. Even worse, some literature sources are either changed to conform or falsified. The sequence data for much of the presentation in Chapter 6—unchanged since its 1992 inception—is ostensibly from the Protein Information Resource 2003, but checking with the 1992 book reveals that the source is a 1986 paper. Despite its appearance as rigorous by the use of mathematical jargon, many derivations in this book (all of them already present in the 1992 version) are deeply flawed either mathematically, or by the use of inappropriate biological assumptions, or both. What is most surprising is that such a volume could pass an impartial peer review process. Cambridge University Press would do well to examine the circumstances of this and the previous book's approval and editing process. (Emphasis Added)

Phony rigor to disguise mathematical emptiness? Small wonder creationists like Yockey so much.

The comments about peer review are also well-taken. Passing peer-review is a necessary condition for meriting serious consideration from knowledgeable people. Sadly, it is far from sufficient.

There is also this review, by philosopher Evan Selinger, of Michael Ruse's The Evolution-Creation Struggle.

Ruse provides a historical framework for understanding the current and seemingly interminable clash between proponents and detractors of evolution. In a manner reminiscent of Paul Feyerabend, Ruse even wants to examine the seemingly dogmatic (if not downright fundamentalist) position on evolution that some of its staunchest proponents take. He declares, “[e]volutionism— making evolution into something more than a science—is the cause of the trouble” (p 281). To articulate such a proposition is to create some conceptual space for symmetrical inquiry—and this, in turn, provides a diplomatic opening from which to get beyond the denunciatory platitudes that often render discussions of the topic incendiary and redundant. (Emphasis Added)

Selinger gives Ruse a mostly positive review, but I would like to address that bold-face sentence. I have blogged about this recently, but it bears repeating. If the trouble being referred to here is the widespread rejection of evolution and acceptance of various forms of creationism, then I suspect Ruse is wrong. And if he's right then the implication is that religious believers are so emotional and irrational that they can't be expected to base their opinions on an understanding of the basic facts of biology. Rather, they just hear some snide remarks from Richard Dawkins or E. O. Wilson, and run screaming to the other side.

As for denunciatory platitudes, here are a few more. There is a simple fact that people like Selinger never get around to discussing. In the evolution/creation dispute, the evolutionists are arguing from more than a century's worth of meticulously collected scientific data while the creationists are arguing almost exclusively from ignorance, religious extremism, and sleazy rhetoric. Selinger can talk all he wants about conceptual space and symmetrical inquiry, but the fact remains that there is nothing of any substance at all in creationist arguments or literature. Surely that fact needs to figure prominently in any philosophical analysis of this conflict.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Math in Boca Raton

On Monday I'll be flying to Florida to participate in the Thirty-Seventh Southeastern International Conference on Combinatorics, Graph Theory and Computing, at Florida Atlantic University. As you can see from the list of abstracts, I will be delivering a scintillating, edge-of-your-seat, rhetorical masterpiece of a talk with the alluring title, “Group Actions on Arithmetic Riemann Surfaces.”

Sadly, this means I will be out of town all next week. Regular blogging will resume upon my return.

Thermodynamics, Again

Over at his blog Uncommon Descent, William Dembski is linking to an online lecture by mathematician Granville Sewell arguing that evolution runs afoul of the second law of thermodynamics. The lecture is thirteen minutes long, but it does not contain anything that Sewell has not said before.

It is significant that Dembski is linking so enthusiastically to this argument. You see, the thermodynamics argument is one of the very worst creationists have ever used. It is wrong, of course. But more than that it is wrong in a way that betrays an extreme simple-mindedness about science in general and physics in particular.

As a result, the thermodynamics argument has become a symbol for the sort of mind-numbing ignorance that is the stock-in-trade of creationists. How could anyone take creationists seriously when they parroted such obvious nonsense about thermodynamics?

And it was precisely this level of silliness that ID proponents were keen to avoid. Until recently. Now we have William Dembski, who provides most of the tiny amount of intellectual oomph the ID folks can claim, supporting this ridiculous argument.

The basic argument is this: The second law states that a spontaneous, natural process can only lead to an increase in the entropy of a system. Entropy is roughly a measure of disorder or complexity. So the second law implies that natural processes can only cause things to become more disordered and less complex over time. But evolution asserts that natural processes have caused organisms to grow more complex over time. This is a contradiction, and since no one is inclined to abandon the second law, evolution must not be correct.

But this is a cartoon version of the second law. After all, you don't need fancy principles of thermodynamics to argue that the growth in complexity of organisms over time is something that requires a special sort of explanation. It is a simple fact of everyday life that without maintenance things tend to break down and fall apart.

Everyone agrees that the growth in complexity that evolutionists claim took place over the course of natural history requires an explanation. And biologists have one. Many generations of natural selection acting on random genetic variations can cause the average complexity of organisms to increase.

This is not theoretical. Natural selection has demonstrated its ability, in both the field and the lab, to increase the level of order and complexity in organisms. The same principle is at work in artificial life experiments, and in the use of evolutionary algorithms in engineering problems. Granted, the experiments I am referring to tend to show relatively small increases in order, but that is enough to establish that no principle of thermodynamics prohibits known evolutionary mechanisms from increasing biological complexity.

Sewell himself inadvertantly concedes this. When it comes time for him to explain why natural selection is not an adequate explanation for the growth of biological complexity, thermodynamics goes out the window. Instead he simply parrots the irreducible complexity argument of which ID folks are so fond. That argument is incorrect, but of more relevance to this discussion is the fact that it has nothing to do with thermodynamics.

Let me make things even simpler. Things that are thermodynamically impossible do not occur. But natural selection is certainly capable in principle of explaining increases in biological complexity. Therefore, there is no principle of thermodynamics that says that evolution is an incorrect theory.

But let's push this a bit further. In certain physical situations it can be useful to think of the second law as a statement about order and disorder. Really, though, the second law is a mathematical statement. It says that the change in entropy of a system in going between two states must be larger than a certain mathematical quantity (the integral of dQ over T, for those who know some calculus and some thermo notation). The technical details of what this means need not detain us here.

If you make the added assumption that your system is completely isolated from the outside world, so that neither matter nor energy is crossing the boundary of the system, then the integral I mentioned ends up having the value zero, and the second law tells us that the change in entropy must be positive. In other words, the entropy must increase in this situation.

Creationists of old tended to ignore this assumption, and argued simply that the second law rules out any possibility of natural forces causing order to increase. Consequently, scientists generally replied that the Earth is not an isolated system, since we receive copious amounts of energy from the Sun. That's certainly an important observation, and it does, indeed, refute some primitive versions of the second law argument.

But the second law still applies when energy is crossing the boundary of the system, and in this case it says that the change in entropy must be larger than the mathematical function I mentioned previously. Entropy can, indeed, decrease in this situation, but the second law still makes a definite statement about the magnitude of that decrease. Sewell understands this, and gives a tolerable, if highly nontechnical, description of this fact.

Which makes his unwillingness to follow through all the more annoying. You see, any claim that evolution violates the second law must be backed up with a calculation. Sewell believes that the second law is a problem for evolution? Fine. Let him evaluate the integral I mentioned and show that the change in entropy has been smaller than it should be. Anything short of that is no longer an argument based on thermodynamics. It is just ye olde argument from personal incredulity, in which Sewell is expressing nothing more than his own disbelief that biological complexity could have evolved naturally.

The reason Sewell will not carry out this calculation is that he can not. No one can. Entropy calculations are always carried out in the context of a reversible process, and no one has the faintest idea how to describe a reversible process for assembling an organism from it's component atoms. That is why serious scientists do not try to apply the second law to biological processes in the simple-minded ways ID folks prefer.

But Sewell has another trick up his sleeve. He is fond of recasting the second law as a statement about probability. In his American Spectator article he writes:

Natural forces, such as corrosion, erosion, fire and explosions, do not create order, they destroy it. The second law is all about probability, it uses probability at the microscopic level to predict macroscopic change: the reason carbon distributes itself more and more uniformly in an insulated solid is, that is what the laws of probability predict when diffusion alone is operative.

What Sewell is really doing here is taking a statistical mechanics view of things. The basic idea is this: Given a box that is filled with gas and has been sitting, untouched, for some time, we expect the gas molecules to be distributed roughly evenly throughout the box. We would be very surprised to find all of the gas on one side of the box with empty space on the other. We can explain this in terms of probability: There are vastly more configurations in which the molecules are distributed roughly evenly than there are where all the molecules are on one side of the box. So other things being equal, we can say that it is vastly more likely that we will encounter one of the even distributions. And the distributions in which the gas is evenly distributed can plausibly be said to be less ordered, and therefore have higher entropy, then the highly uneven distributions. This permits a probabilistic interpretation of the second law.

Sewell sums up his thinking here with the following formulation:

In these simple examples, I assumed nothing but heat conduction or diffusion was going on, but for more general situations, I offered the tautology that “if an increase in order is extremely improbable when a system is closed, it is still extremely improbable when the system is open, unless something is entering which makes it not extremely improbable.” (Emphasis in original)

Yes, of course. But so what? In his podcast Sewell describes evolution as being a “film running backwards” by which he means that we see complexity increasing in apparent violation of the second law (just like in a movie run backwards you might see the shattered pieces of a broken coffee cup reassemble themselves into a functional mug).

If he wants us to take this claim seriously, he needs to follow the dictates of his own theorizing. Does evolution require us to believe that something incredibly improbable has occurred in the course of natural history? Let Sewell carry out the probability calculation that shows that to be the case. Then let him explain what significance his calculation is supposed to have. (Improbable things happen all the time, after all). Once he has done that, he will have an actual argument, and we can revisit this subject at that time. Without such a calculation, he has only a lot of polysyllabic bluster.

The solar energy that enters the Earth every day fuels the chemical reactions that allow living organisms to survive and reproduce. This cycle of survival and reproduction ultimately leads to natural selection, which can, in turn, lead to increases in biological complexity. Minus that energy living organisms would quickly go extinct and evolution would not occur. So, to use Sewell's idiosyncratic phrasing, something is indeed crossing the boundary that makes an increase in biological complexity more likely.

If Sewell wants to retreat to the question of the origin of life, then he will have to confront the simple fact that the various sources of energy bathing the early Earth would have fueled the numerous chemical reactions that are believed to have led to the first primitive life forms. Once again, it is for him to back up his claims about probability with something more substantive than his own beliefs.

Sewell will have no more luck carrying out these probability calculations than he had with the prior, entropy calculation. And that is because these sorts of probabilities are effectively impossible to calculate. The probability of any particular set of outcomes of several billion years of evolution depends on far more variables than can possibly be included in a practical calculation. Probability theory finds many applications in biology, but this is not one of them. There is a reason real scientists do not talk about probabilty calculations in Sewell's haphazard manner.

The pattern in Sewell's arguments is now rapidly becoming clear. When he wants to impress us with the rigor of his argument, he talks about entropy and order and probability and the history of thermodynamics. But when it comes time to apply any of this to evolution he retreats to simple-minded arguments about films running backwards and atoms arranging themselves into microchips. The reason he does this is that, in reality, thermodynamics and probability play no role at all in his argument. As already discussed, he contributes nothing to the discussion beyond his own incredulity.

Sewell closes both his essay and his podcast as follows:

The development of life may have only violated one law of science, but that was the one Sir Arthur Eddington called the “supreme” law of Nature, and it has violated that in a most spectacular way. At least that is my opinion, but perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps it only seems extremely improbable, but really isn't, that, under the right conditions, the influx of stellar energy into a planet could cause atoms to rearrange themselves into nuclear power plants and spaceships and computers. But one would think that at least this would be considered an open question, and those who argue that it really is extremely improbable, and thus contrary to the basic principle underlying the second law, would be given a measure of respect, and taken seriously by their colleagues, but we aren't. (Emphasis in original).

But knowledgable people will not show any respect for Sewell's argument, because he has produced virtually no argument at all. He describes it as his opinion that evolution violates the second law. But this is not the sort of thing about which scientists are supposed to have opinions. We have ample evidence that evolution happened and that natural selection was the driving force of it. Biologists find evolutionary thinking to be very helpful in their research. If Sewell believes that it runs afoul of the second law nevertheless, then he needs to carry out the calculations that show that to be case. Otherwise he has only an opinion based on nothing.

These sorts of considerations should be obvious to anyone with a modicum of mathematical or scientific training. That they are not obvious to Sewell is another reason his quest for respect will be in vain.