Saturday, January 24, 2004

Cracraft on Creationism From the latest issue of BioScience, the official publication of the American Insititute of Biological Sciences, comes this excellent editorial about the menace of Creationism.

Cracraft mentions that there is some good news-one recent poll has shown for the first time that more than half (53%) of people now accept the reality of human evolution. That was news to me. It is a welcome development.

Inidentally, Joel Cracraft is an evolutionary biologist who has worked closely with Niles Eldredge (co-creator, with Stephen Jay Gould, of punctuated equilibrium). He was an early champion of cladistics in paleontology, which at the time was a new approach to studying questions in that subject. Briefly, cladists argue that paleontology should not be devoted to resolving specific lines of ancestor-descendent relations. Rather, paleontology should resolve questions of relative relatedness. In other words, instead of arguing that pile of bones A is a direct descendent of pile of bones B, they should argue that pile of bones A and pile of bones B shared a common ancestor more recently than either one did with pile of bones C. The techniques used in cladistic analysis are far more mathematical than in traditional paleontology, so, for obvious reasons, I find it rather appealing.

Cladistics, which started out as an unpopular view held by a minority of scientists is now the mainstream view of paleontologists. It earned its place in the mainstream by producing results in the lab. It did not earn its place by lobbying politicians to have its views taught in science classrooms.

People like Cracraft, Gould and Eldredge are proof that you can have a long and happy career in science even if you dissent from the mainstream views of evolutionary biology. The difference between them and the ID folks is that they didn't stop with mere dissent. They took the trouble of knowing what the hell they were talking about!

Friday, January 23, 2004

Creationism's Trojan Horse That is the title of a new book by biologist Paul Gross and philosopher Barbara Forrest. The book is published by Oxford University Press, and I heartily recommend it to anyone interested in understanding what ID theory is really all about. Gross and Forrest argue persuasively that ID is far more about religion and political power than it is about science. All of their claims are meticulously documented, and speaking as someone who has read most of the primary documents I can say that they have cited nothing out of context. In the interest of full disclosure, I should add that they give favorable mention to several of my own articles!

The book is available from here. Buy it today!

Thursday, January 22, 2004

More Phony Statistics The folks over at Agape Press have posted this article with the alarming headline "Study: Liberal Professors Suppress Opposing Views in Class." As evidence they point to a study conducted by the Independent Women's Forum.

Now, the Independent Women's Forum is a hard-right organization, which all by itself calls into question the results of the study. But if you then follow the links to the study itself, you realize just how silly this headline is.

The opening paragraph of the study is as follows:

"Over a four-day period in early winter 2003, the Independent Women’s Forum (IWF) conducted an Internet study of the attitudes and political ideologies of today’s college students. We collected 727 Internet surveys from a nationally representative sample of men and women between the ages of 18 and 24 providing fascinating insight into the 2004 Presidential Election, George W. Bush’s job performance, and ideological diversity in the classroom. "

Nothing in the subsequent pages of data gives any indication of how these 727 students were chosen, the colleges they represent, or the majors they have chosen to pursue, all of which are relevant to an assesment of political bias in the classroom. One also gets the impression that this was a voluntary response survey. On day two of any statistics class students are, quite properly, taught to disregard such surveys. They only measure the responses of people who care enough to actually respond to an internet survey, and those people tend to be losers anyway.

I can't speak with any confidence about humanities classes, but in math and science classes professors are usually thirlled to have their students say anything in class, even if it is just to disagree with some opinion the professor offered. The folks at Agape Press probably consider it a form of oppression any time evolution is brought up, without giving equal time to the latest creationist balderdash. Somehow, I suspect they "knew" the results of the survey before it was actually conducted.

Faith-Based Parks?There is a controversy brewing over a creationist book being sold at one of the official bookstores at the Grand Canyon National Park. As described in this article from the Salt Lake Tribune, the book, entitled Grand Canyon: A Different View promotes the view that the Grand Canyon was not formed by gradual erosion over millions of years. Actually, it was formed in the aftermath of Noah's flood. In other words, rather than being formed by a small amount of water operating over a large expanse of time, it was actually formed by a large amount of water over a short period of time.

An initial compromise was struck in which the bookstore agreed to continue selling the book, but would place it in the "Inspirational" section as opposed to the "Science" section. Various conservative legal groups have threatened to sue over this, and it is not yet clear how the situation will be resolved.

Of course, there are differing opinions over the formation of the Grand Canyon only in the sense that there are differing opinions over the shape of the Earth - some people saying it's round with others syaing it's flat. Unfortunatly, when covering such stories newspapers feel they have to bend over backward to be fair to both sides. One example comes in the opening line of the article, "Traditional scientists and Christian creationists have lined up on either side of a dispute over sales of a new book at Grand Canyon National Park that claims the canyon dates to the biblical flood of Genesis rather than millions of years ago."

But there ain't no traditional about it. It is scientists of any sort who believe the Grand Canyon is very old, and people who reject science on the other side. If one side wishes to argue that faith and revelation are better than science for ascertaining the age of the canyon they are free to do so. But the fact is their view is not scientific; to place their views in the science section would be false advertising.

This article from the NY Times discusses several other recent incidents of the Bush administration using the national parks to appease religious groups. The headline pretty much says it all: "Critics Say the Park Service Is Letting Religion and Politics Affect Its Policies".

Data Smoothing has been sliding downhill ever since Michael Kinsley stopped editing it. But every once in a while they come through. Check out this article about the Bush administration's use of questionable statistics to make the economy appear healthier than it actually is. Favorite quote: "According to Bush and his supporters, the problem isn't the weak job market. It's the data that suck. "

Tuesday, January 20, 2004

HLR Update The book review in the Harvard Law Review cited in the previous item was, in fact, unsigned. The byline, "By The Harvard Law Review Association" was added by the creationists at ARN. I should have known better than to take their word for anything.

The author of the review was almost certainly some law student who, in the immortal words of Nobel laureate P.B. Medawar, has "been educated far beyond his capacity to undertake analytical thought." It would be interesting to know for certain.

The Constitutionality of Intelligent Design By way of our friends at the creationist web site Access Research Network comes this review of a new book by Francis Beckwith entitled Law, Darwinism & Public Education: The Establishment Clause and the Challenge of Intelligent Design. In it, Beckwith argues for both the constitutionality, and the wisdom, of teaching intelligent design theory (ID) along side evolution in high school science classes.

The review is highly favorable, which is distressing given its appearance in the prestigious Harvard Law Review. It is not clear who wrote the review, the byline reading "The Harvard Law Review Association." Whoever wrote it has uncritically accepted the terms of the debate as set by ID proponents.

Thus, the review consistently refers to "naturalistic evolution", as if other prominent scientific theories are not also naturalistic. It refers to methodological naturalism as "...the philosophical view that scientific analysis must be restricted solely to undirected natural processes," when in reality it is nothing of the kind. Methodological naturalism is nothing more than a description of how science is currently practiced. Supernatural theories are unwelcome in science not because of any bias against them, but because they have never proven to be useful in day-to-day scientific work. If ID people could show how their theories would lead to progress on a single open scientific problem, their work would be embraced very quickly. The reviewer also accepts uncritically the idea that ID is based on solid scientific evidence, as opposed to religion, when in reality their scientifc claims have been overwhelmingly rejected by experts in the relevant fields.

In fact, the reviewer shows no interest at all in science as a problem-solving enterprise, preferring to emphasize instead the use of science to indoctrinate unsuspecting high school students. Teaching evolution, he argues, parroting Beckwith and countless other ID proponents, is nothing more than a way of indoctrinating students in the ways of atheism. That evolution is generally presented as a very small unit within a year-long biology class, and that no public school teacher who cares about his job would dare suggest that evolution has any connection with atheism is ignored.

Even more distressing is the snide tone of the review. For example, in one of his footnotes the reviewer writes

"Some of naturalistic evolution's proponents are adept at employing a "bait and switch" strategy when pressed about the philosophy of methodological naturalism underlying their scientific paradigm. Although promoting naturalistic evolution with all its philosophical trappings, they nimbly revert to "microevolution" when convenient. This most benign definition of evolution - observed natural selection - is empirically verifiable, universally accepted, and not what the ID movement or even creationists find objectionable. "

This is so silly it hardly merits response. Do note, however, the snide tone of the remark, and the imputation of dishonesty and skullduggery among scientists.

The rhetoric of the review so closely mirrors the style and rhetoric of ID writing that it is difficult to believe the review was written by a disinterested party. Beckwith is currently at Princeton University, and it would not surprise me if he has connections among the Harvard Law Review's editors. However this review came about, it is depressing that the HLR would allow itself to be used in this way.

As for the constitutionality of teaching ID, I'll leave that to the legal scholars. As more than one person has pointed out, the constitution prohibits teaching religion, but it does not prohibit teaching bad science.

Monday, January 19, 2004

Gene Networks Here's an interesting, if rather technical, article from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In it, the authors use techniques from evolutionary computation (in which computers are used to simulate processes from biological evolution, specifically natural selection sifting through random genetic variations, with the intention of thereby solving various problems in optimization theory) to understand the evolution of genetic regulatory networks.

By a regulatory network we mean a collection of genes whose primary function is to control the action of other genes. There are many such networks in the human genome, many quite large and complex. The computer algorithms described by the authors shed some light on how these complex networks can evolve from several simpler components.

Does God Really Speak to Pat Robertson? Also from the LA Times is this intriguing column from the always interesting Robert Scheer. He suggests that when Pat Robertson reported that God had informed him that Bush would easily win the November election, he was wrong to conclude that God would be happy about that fact.

The Mars Rover Have a look at this humorous description of the Mars "Spirit" rover from the automobile critic of the Los Angelos Times.