Thursday, March 11, 2004

Brief Blog Break I will be out of town until Monday, March 15. Regular blogging will resume then.

Eldredge and Cornets From the New York Times comes this profile of paleontologist Niles Eldredge. After a career studying trilobites (anceint, obscure invertebrates that are so prolifically represented in the fossil record that they are useful tools for studyign evolution) Eldredge has turned his attention to studying the evolution of cornets (the horn, that is).

Eldredge, now 59 is the senior curator for invertebrates at the Museum of Natural History in New York. He is most famous for developing, with Stephen Jay Gould, the theory of punctuated equilibirum. This theory suggested that evolution is characterized by long periods of stasis, during which species evolve very little, punctuated by rapid bursts of change concentrated around speciation events (i.e. events during which a new species is produced.) This was in contrast to the steady gradualism emphasized by more orthodox Neo-Darwinians.

This talk about rapid change was eagerly siezed upon by creationists, since it smacks of the miraculous. Also, since natural selection is famous for the leisurely pace it takes to affect significant change, it seemed to be suggesting that natural selection was not the driving force behind evolution. This misconception was aided by the fact that Gould, in other contexts, had also been critical of the idea that natural selection was as ubiquitous as many biologists claimed. Gould's criticism was not that natural selection could not craft complex structures. Rather it was that other forces were at work in evolution as well, and that these forces had been slighted by the overemphasis on selection.

Like most creationist arguments, the idea that punctuated equilibirum posed any threat to evolution was based on a simple misunderstanding of the theory. Gould and Eldredge were completely unambiguous that natural selection should still be regarded as the dominant force in evolutionary change. They claimed merely that the tempo and mode with which this change took place was something different from what was previously thought. When they referred to ``rapid'' change, they meant rapid when measured on geological time scales. A transformation requiring fifty thousand years to occur would be considered rapid in this sense.

Anyway, nowadays punctuated equilibrium is regarded as an interesting variation on traditional Neo-Darwinism, but nothing revolutionary or shocking. Gould subsequently became so famous for his essays and popular writing that Eldredge was sometimes overlooked. It's nice to see him getting some well-deserved attention now.

Wednesday, March 10, 2004

ID Blitz Continues The ID media blitz continues. Today it's the Cincinnati Enquirer, which published this charming editorial by ID propagandist Benjamin Wiker. It's the usual litany of false claims and misleading rhetoric. Here's one example:

I also told the board about a book just published by MIT press, The Origination of Organismal Form. This book critically analyzes many of the key claims of neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory, the standard textbook theory. Its two lead authors, the Viennese biologist Gurd M?ller and Yale biologist Stuart Newman, conclude that the problem that Darwin set out to solve in 1859 - namely, how fundamentally new forms of life arise - remains unsolved.

M?ller and Newman list four tables of open questions and unsolved problems in evolutionary biology. As it happens, many of these questions and problems are addressed directly in the model curriculum's lesson plan on the critical analysis of evolution. M?ller and Newman have nothing to do with Intelligent Design. I doubt they have even heard of it.

This is another standard ID ploy. They find places where there is genuine controversy among scientists, and then use that as evidence that evolution generally is collapsing. The questions cited in the book Wiker mentions are unsolved in the sense that there are many possible answers to them, but too little evidence for making a determination at this time. The ID people want to give the impression that they are fundamentally unanswerable without invoking miracles. That is a fundamentally different thing.

Eloquent Letter As far as I can tell, the Kansas City Star has not published any replies to the pro-ID editorial I reported on yesterday. I sent them a letter a myself, but have received no reply.

However, I did come across the following letter in reply to an earlier, pro-creationist letter writer:

Brian Casey's letter (3/2) is an eloquent statement of the neo-creationist view that “evolution happens,” but that “it is irrefutable that our creator God gave birth to life.”

However, he misses the point that the “irrefutable” nature of his statement is precisely what excludes it from the realm of science.

The potential for refutation is what distinguishes scientific hypotheses from those in the less restrictive realms of philosophy and religion.

He also points out that we currently lack rational explanations for some observations of the physical universe. Science sees this as an opportunity for further investigation, but Mr. Casey would have us use it as evidence for divine intervention. History shows that such circumstances are much more likely to reflect human ignorance than the hand of God.

Religious faith can certainly inform our view of the meaning of human existence, but our understanding of the natural world will be muddied in myriad ways by the inclusion of Mr. Casey's “design” argument in the realm of science. Such is the goal of the bill currently before the Missouri legislature (HB 911).

Doug Law

Well said, Mr. Law.

Tuesday, March 09, 2004

A Study in ID Dishonesty Amusing editorial from the Kansas City Star today. They might make you register before reading it. It's authors are two fellows named William Harris and John Calvert, and it's worth going through their article line-by-line as a study in the inability of ID people to say anything that's true.

Charles Darwin's core claim is that the apparent design we intuitively observe in nature is an illusion that can be explained by mindless, purposeless, mechanistic and accidental processes.

If Darwin's claim of ``no-design'' is scientific, then it is necessarily scientific to disagree. Further, if Darwin's claim of ?no design? cannot be challenged, then it ceases to be a scientific theory and becomes an ideology

Note the emphasis on what is scientific and what is not. Darwin's claim was not simply ``no design''. Rather, he showed how the hypothesis of common descent mediated by natural selection could make sense out of a wide array of facts. It was also clear how to gain further information from various branches of science to test his ideas. Subsequent discoveries in biochemistry and genetics were entirely in accord with Darwin's ideas. Contrary data from just one of these fields would have been enough to kill the theory. Today, Darwin's ideas continue to produce tangible results in the field and the lab.

ID's assert only that an unspecified intelligent agent did some unspecified thing at some unspeicified point in natural history. That is the extent of their theory. They never tell us what could possibly count as evidence against design, nor do they tell us what empirical consequences follow from their hypothesis of design. At no point do they tell us how their hypothesis explains the patterns we see in paleontology, genetics, anatomy, or any other branch of biology. In what possible sense is that scientific?

Consideration of the case for design is critical if evolution is to be both scientific and credible. Evolution is a historical claim that uses forensic rather than experimental methods to explain the cause of singular unobserved events that occurred millions of years ago.

As acknowledged by the eminent evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr, ``laws and experiments are inappropriate techniques for the explication of such events and processes.'' Instead evolutionary biologists construct ``historical narratives'' or ``plausible explanations'' that are inherently subjective. Since evolution lacks experimental confirmation, its ``historical narratives'' remain only speculations unless its evidence rules out the competing design hypothesis.

The implication here is that scientists dogmatically refuse to consider the case for design. This is nonsense. The case for design has been considered and found wanting. Harris and Calvert don't want to accept that verdict.

Their assertions that evolutionary biology does not rely on experimental evidence and that it seeks to explain singular, unobserved events that occurred millions of years ago are more nonsense. Evolutionists assert that certain biological processes that are known to be acting today, natural selection most notable among them, can explain the data obtained from various relevant branches of science. Experiments conducted in the field and the lab are a major basis for this assertion.

Then we come to a classic case of quote mining. Since Mayr's quote is presented without any context, we have no way of knowing what events and processes he had in mind. Probably he was talking about specific events in the distant past, as opposed to general trends. There is a big difference between saying ``One hundred million years ago gene X mutated and caused a certain effect,'' and saying, ``If natural selection has been operating continuously for the past one hundred million years, then we would expect it to produce results similar to what we find in nature.''

Like crime scene detectives, scientists use objective methodologies to distinguish between designs and accidents of nature. Designs, such as hieroglyphics, are typified by a periodic [sic]message bearing patterns that cannot be reasonably explained by law and chance. Radio and light waves from outer space are being tested for design in search of alien intelligence with negative results. The same tests turns up positive when applied to ``messages'' found in DNA. Gene Myers, a scientist on the Human Genome Project, remarked: ``There's a huge intelligence there.''

Calvert and Harris probably intended ``aperiodic'' instead of ``a periodic''. Here we are seeing another standard rhetorical trick used by ID's. On the one hand they cite examples like the SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) project as examples of how design can be a scientific concept. Then they turn around and accuse scientists of refusing to consider design for philsophical reasons. Well, which is it?

Of course, there's a big difference between what crime scene detectives do and what ID's are asking biologists to do. When a crime scene detective rules that a person's death, say, was the result of intelligent-design (murder) as opposed to accident or suicide, he doesn't just stop there and call his job complete. He then uses what he knows about the nature of the designer to investigate the crime. That's precisely what ID's refuse to do.

They close the paragraph with yet another quote stripped of its context.

Myers' view is ignored, not because of the evidence, but because it violates an unwritten philosophical ``rule,'' which requires the absence of design in nature and effectively suppresses criticisms of evolutionary theory. It robs evolution of its theoretical status and makes it an ideology.

Use of the rule brings religion into science. Suppressing the evidence of design to keep the ``supernatural'' out necessarily promotes nontheistic religions (e.g., secular humanism) and denigrates traditional theistic religions (e.g., Judaism, Islam and Christianity).

Notice that Calvert and Harris are explicitly equating ``design'' with ``supernatural'' here. This is significant, since they routinely argue in other venues that it is not a consequence of their theory that the designer be supernatural (this is a further rhetorical trick to avoid the charge that they are smuggling in religion.) Again, which is it?

Once again, the assertion here is totally false. The only bias in science is towards useful theories. Since supernatural theories have never once proven to be useful in actual scientific work, scientists generally take a dim view of them. But if there were genuine evidence that supernatural forces had been at work scientists would embrace them in a heartbeat.

The rejection of design as an explanation of biological data has to do with the fact that the arguments offered and "evidence" cited by design proponents are simply wrong. Scientists will consider any sort of explanation for a phenomenon, but they will not accept bad arguments.

Needless to say there is no evidence being ``suppressed'' here.

The problems evaporate when evolution's claim of no-design is kept theoretical rather than dogmatic. This allows for a rigorous and really interesting competition between both ideas per the scientific method. Keeping evolution theoretical will also ensure that publicly funded science education remains ``secular, neutral and non-ideological'' as required by the First Amendment and recent legislation.

Darwin longed for the day when ?young and rising naturalists will be able to view both sides of the question with impartiality.? So do we.

Here we come to our final trick. Evolution should be labelled as a ``theory'' not a ``fact''. Actually, it should be labelled as the best explanation anyone has come up with for the biological data collected by various disciplines. It should also be labelled as a theory supported by so much evidence that it is a fact in precisely the same sense that it is a fact that the Earth goes around the Sun.

Monday, March 08, 2004

Home-Schoolers in Wichita On the subject of home-schooling, I am reminded of a home-schoolers conference I attended in Wichita a while back. All of the keynote speakers at the conference were noted creationists. All of them explained in lurid detail how evolution, sometimes falsely presented as a scientific theory developed by Charles Darwin in the mid-ninteenth century, is actually a pernicious religious doctrine based on hostility to God that goes back to the fall of Adam.

There were numerous booths set-up for parents to pick up the latest in home-school textbooks and materials. Most of these volumes preached the most ridiculous styles of know-nothingism; making a virtue out of blind loyalty to the Bible. There's something disturbing about the idea of parents being able to keep their children out of school and teach them literally anything it occurs to them to teach. Can you imagine if everyone did this?

Incidentally, I recognize that fundamentalists make up only about two-thirds of all home schoolers. I have no quarrel with the other one-third, most of whom have perfectly sensible reasons for home-schooling that have nothing to do with indoctrinating their kids into whatever species of boneheadedness they happen to find appealing.

But those other two-thirds, I firmly believe, are dangerous.

Patrick Henry College? Just in case you're in too good a mood today, here's a thoroughly depressing article from the New York Times. The article is about Patrick henry College, a right-wing Chrisitian college established explicitly for home-schooled students. The article describes how the college serves in large part as a conduit into conservative politics:

As one of 12 siblings taught at home by their parents in St. Croix Falls, Wis., Abram Olmstead knew he would fit right in at Patrick Henry College, the first college primarily for evangelical Christian home-schoolers. But what really sold him was the school's pipeline into conservative politics.

Of the nearly 100 interns working in the White House this semester, 7 are from the roughly 240 students enrolled in the four-year-old Patrick Henry College, in Purcellville. An eighth intern works for the president's re-election campaign. A former Patrick Henry intern now works on the paid staff of the president's top political adviser, Karl Rove. Over the last four years, 22 conservative members of Congress have employed one or more Patrick Henry interns in their offices or on their campaigns, according to the school's records.

"I would definitely like to be active in the government of our country and stuff," Mr. Olmstead, 19, said as he sat in a Christian coffeehouse near the campus, looking up from a copy of Plato's "Republic." "I would love to be able to be a foreign ambassador, and I would really like to move into the Senate later in my career."

The college's knack for political job placement testifies to the increasing influence that Christian home-schooling families are building within the conservative movement. Only about half a million families around the country home-school their children and only about two-thirds identify themselves as evangelical Christians, home-schooling advocates say. But they have passionate political views, a close-knit grass-roots network and the financial support of a handful of wealthy patrons. For all those reasons, home-schoolers have captured the attention of a wide swath of conservative politicians, many of whom are eager to hire Patrick Henry students.

The article only gets more depressing from here.

So let's see if we understand the situation. The Christian home-schooling movement started as a way for fundamentalist parents to "protect" their kids from the pernicious influences of sex ed, religious tolerance, and evolution. Not content with brainwashing their kids from birth through their teenage years, they then pack them off to a college where the brainwashing will continue. Picture Warren Beatty in The Parallax View.

And what does a throughly brainwashed, know-nothing, 22-year old, ignoramous do with his total lack of marketable skills? Serve his right-wing masters with a level of zeal and arrogance attained only by the deeply ignorant, of course. Lovely.

Sunday, March 07, 2004

It's a Miracle! One of the most prominent organizations advocating the Young-Earth Creationist viewpoint is Answers in Genesis. I subscribe to their free e-newsletter, which invariably contains items of prurient interest. One of the main features of this newsletter is a question of the week, typically some potential challenge to creationism, followed by a real sockdolager of an answer with which to bludgeon the atheist scum who dared raise the challenge in the first place. I reproduce this week's Q&A in full:

Q: The Bible tells us that all the land animals that God sent to Noah stayed on the Ark for a whole year. How could they have survived ‘cooped up’ for that long?

This is a good question. If Noah had all of these land animals on board, including dinosaurs, how could he feed and take care of them? In fact, many skeptics challenge Christians with this question to discredit the truth of this account.

The Bible doesn’t reveal all the details about what happened on the Ark, but we do know that God was in total control of the situation. In fact, there’s a verse in Genesis that states, ‘And God remembered Noah.’ There’s no doubt that God supernaturally looked after the Ark and its precious cargo.

Having observed the behavior of animals, we can offer some suggestions. Biologists know that most animals seem to have the ability to hibernate. It’s possible that for some animals God supernaturally intensified this ability during the time of the Flood so that the animals’ body functions were at a minimum and their food requirements would have been very small. They probably would have slept most of the time. And there may have been other techniques.

Whatever the question, it’s vital to believe the book of Genesis!

Ahem. Of course, the idea of Noah leading two Brontasaurases onto an ark with the dimensions described in the Bible is almost too amusing to contemplate. And the leap from "And God remembered Noah" (he could hardly do otherwise, since he's freakin' omnipotent!) to "God supernaturally looked after the Ark" is enough to give even the strongest among us a good whack of vertigo. You might also amuse yourself with the picture of Noah and his family tiptoeing around all those sleeping animals.

But more to the point, surely this illustrates the absurdity of invoking miracles in the name of science. The creationists want us to imagine that the story of the ark presented in the Bible is literally true. They write books with titles like Noah's Ark: A Feasibility Study. But as soon as they are presented with an objection having no rational answer they simply invoke miracles. How could Noah's Ark not be feasible if God simply intervenes to overcome any obstacles we encounter?

And just in case the invocation of a miracle to get around a perfectly reasonable objection to a literal interpretation of what is obviously an allegory does not convince you, the good folks at AiG then exhort us to believe the Bible anyway. They might as well have said that at the beginning, and spared us the balderdash about animal hibernation and God's memory.

Do you begin to understand why creationists annoy me so much? Do you begin to see the total lunacy of letting these people have any say over school science curricula?