Thursday, April 22, 2004

Conservative Insanity If you ever find yourself forgetting just how mendacious and arrogant conservative columnists can be, stop by sometime. There you will find an almost endless stream of vitriol aimed at anyone who doesn't have an orgasm every time the President opens his mouth.

Take this contribution from Dennis Prager, who fancies himself an intelligent-man's Rush Limbaugh. In a column littered with gross stereotypes and absurd generalizations, Prager uncorks this:

I love learning and revere the title of "professor," but with few exceptions, universities, too, merit contempt. The vast majority of professors who take positions on social issues are moral fools. They teach millions of students that America and Israel are villains and that the enemies of those decent societies are merely misunderstood victims who are often justified in their hatred. And they loathe the American Judeo-Christian value system that has made the United States the world's land of opportunity and beacon of liberty.

Vast majority? Is that based on anything beyond Prager's own desire that it be true? The American Judeo-Christian value system? I shudder to think what that's supposed to mean. Of course, to people like Prager, viewing America as anything other than on a mission from God to rid the world of evil is tantamount to thinking America is a villain.

I suspect you could count on one hand the number of professors who actually take the extreme views Prager attributes to them. And to the extent that there are professors who believe such things, they are almost exclusively in the humanities, not in the sciences.

And then there is certified lunatic Ann Coulter, who wrote this in a column bashing Republican senator Arlen Specter:

When Reagan was president, he threatened to appoint justices who would not discover nonexistent "penumbras," which mysteriously read like a People for the American Way press release, and to return these issues to voters. The uneducated bumpkin Reagan's radical notion was that judges don't write laws, they interpret them.

Liberals exploded in righteous anger – an emotion they've never mustered toward Islamic terrorists, I note. Still, all their theatrics would have been for naught and we would already have our democracy back – but for Arlen Specter.

Yeah. Righteous anger is the exclusive domain of right-wingers. Conservatives have been very successful at painting opposition to the war in Iraq (or opposition to anything else the president chooses to do) as being motivated by a fondness for terrorists. For them, righteous anger is nothing more than a debating point. Everyone was outraged by 9/11, and everyone continues to be outraged about the routine acts of terrorism that take place around the world. The difference is that liberals think that righteous anger needs to be channelled into paths likely to end in success, and not into justifications for a war its proponents were eager to launch for other reasons.

John Maynard Smith, RIP By way of numerous other bloggers, I have been made aware of the sad fact that John Maynard Smith, one of the giants of twentieth-century evolutionary biology, has died at the age of 84.

Follow this link to learn more about Smith's many contributions to biology. Two of the books I read when I became interested in learning about evolutionary biology was his aptly titled The Theory of Evolution, and his textbook Evolutionary Genetics. His writing was so clear and easy to follow, I could only weep with envy. Here's an excerpt from Richard Dawkins' introduction to the reprint of The Theory of Evolution:

He sometimes quaintly poses as a workaday engineer who doesnt know anything about animals and plants. He was originally trained as an engineer, and the mathematical outlook and skills of his old vocation invigorate his present one. But he has been a professional biologist for a good forty years and a naturalist since childhood. He is leagues away from that familiar menace: the brash physical scientist who thinks he can wade in and clean up biology because, no matter how poorly he shows up against his fellow physicists, he at least knows more mathematics than the average biologist. John does know more mathematics, more physics and more engineering than the average biologist. But he also knows more biology than the average biologist. And he is incomparably more gifted in the arts of clear thinking and communicating than most physicists or biologists or anybody else.

Smith is particularly famous for his pioneering use of game theory in evolution. As a mathematician I particularly noticed and appreciated the fact that he tended to explain things the way mathematicians like them explained. As Dawkins says elsewhere in his introduction, Smith is someone who, upon reading a few paragraphs of anything he has written, immediately strikes you as someone whose opinions you should care about. He will be sorely missed.

Why Don't American Newspapers Publish Anything this Sensible? Panda's Thumb reader Shiva Pennathur provides this link to a fine editorial in the Indian newspaper The Hindu. Many American newspapers have published editorials hostile to ID and other forms of creationism, but they are nearly always watered down with claims of respect for the views of the creationists. It's almost inconceivable that any American newspaper would publish something this hard-hitting. Here's an excerpt:

Strangely, it is in the United States-the hub for much of the world's frontline research in biology and its application in biotechnology-that there has been sustained public resistance to evolution and specifically to the teaching of evolution in schools. The issue of whether it was constitutional to ban the teaching of evolution in schools surfaced during "The Monkey Trial" in 1925 when a high school biology teacher in Tennessee, John Scopes, faced charges of illegally teaching the theory of evolution. Despite acceptance of evolution among scientists, demands to limit the teaching of evolution in schools and allow `creationism' to be taught as well have continued to receive considerable public support in many parts of the United States. When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1987 that creationism was religion and therefore could not be taught in science classes, the anti-evolution movement countered with the notion of `intelligent design'. Proponents of this over-the-top doctrine use popular misconceptions about science in order to appear to attack evolution on scientific grounds. They argue that complex living systems could not have been created by natural laws and chance alone. It is a measure of their success that proposals to encourage the teaching of creationism and intelligent design have, according to a recent report in the journal Science, been advanced since 2001 in 37 of the 50 American States. But there is a larger issue too in this clash between science and religious obscurantism. At the Scopes trial, denouncing efforts to make the teaching of evolution a crime, America's most famous defence lawyer of the time, Clarence Darrow, thundered: "Ignorance and fanaticism is ever busy and needs feeding." Unfortunately, that is still true today.

An historical side note: John Scopes volunteered to serve as the defendant in a test case brought by the ACLU with the intention of challenging the constitutionality of Tennessee's anti-evolution statute. This statute specifically outlawed the teaching of any theory that was in conflict with the Bible. The ACLU intended for the trial itself to be a formality (Scopes was clearly guilty, after all). The real action was supposed to take place in front of the Tennessee Supreme Court (TSC), where the law's constitutionality would be addressed.

That's not quite how it happened. Once Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan got involved the trial became a media circus. Scopes was finally found guilty and sentenced by the judge to pay a fine of one hundred dollars. When the case finally made it to the TSC two years later, the court punted on the constitutionality question. They reversed Scopes' conviction on the grounds that, by Tennessee law, judges are not allowed to levy any fine larger than fifty dollars.

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Limbaugh on Atheism No, not Rush. I'm talking about his brother David, who uses this recent column to praise the book I Don't Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist, by Norman Geisler and Frank Turek. You might recognize Geisler as one of the people who testified in support of the Arkansas “Equal Time” statute when the ACLU challenged it in 1981. This was the same trial at which Stephen Jay Gould and Michael Ruse testified for the good guys.

I have not read the present book, but if it's anything like Geisler's earlier book, When Skeptics Ask (cowritten with Ronald Brooks), then I expect to be supremely unimpressed. Limbaugh's brief summary of the book does not inspire confidence.

Limbaugh chooses to focus on the argument from design in his column. He writes:

They note, for example, that naturalistic biologists claim "that life generated spontaneously from nonliving chemicals by natural laws without any intelligent intervention."

These scientists believe that a "one-celled animal known as an amoeba (or something like it) came together by spontaneous generation?" But we now know there is incredible complexity in "the message found in the DNA of a one-celled amoeba (a creature so small, several hundred could be lined up in an inch)."

"The message found in just the cell nucleus of a tiny amoeba is more than all 30 volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica combined, and the entire amoeba has as much information in its DNA as 1,000 complete sets of the Encyclopedia Britannica." And "we must emphasize that these 1,000 encyclopedias do not consist of random letters but of letters in a very specific order -- just like real encyclopedias."

You get the point: Atheists have to have enormous faith to believe that such complex messages exist in the absence of intelligent design.

It never ceases to amaze me that so many people who use the design argument to defend the reality of God manage to get very basic details wrong. No one believes that the amoeba (or anything like it) formed by spontaneous generation. Amoebae are eukaryotic, meaning they possess a nucleus. The first unambiguously living thing is usually described as having been bacteria-like. Bacteria, you see, have virtually nothing in the way of internal structure. For that matter, this first creature was almost certainly simpler than any modern bacterium.

And while most biologists do believe that the first life form came about by natural means, it is probably misleading to call it “spontaneous generation”. That gives the impression that life originated in a rapid burst, in which the line between life and non-life is clearly drawn. It is unlikely that it happened that way.

It is true that we now know of the enormous complexity of the ameoba genome. It is also true that we have known this for decades. Richard Dawkins glories in this fact in much of his writing, for example. It would indeed be hard to explain this information as the result of spontaneous generation. But as the end product of billions of years of evolution it is rather less mysterious.

Though ID's deny it, we know of several genetic mechanisms that can account for information growth in the genome over time. It requires tremendous ignorance of modern science to argue that the phenomena of biological complexity can only be explained in terms of a vastly more complex designing intelligence.

Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Comments The readers of The Panda's Thumb have made some interesting comments on yesterday's post.

Reader Dene Bebbington has directed me to this page at the creationist website Answers in Genesis at which Kelly Hollowell's qualifications are listed in more detail. (Hollowell was the author of the column I was responding to in yesterday's post). According to AiG, Hollowell's PhD is from the University of Miami. Hardly Ivy League, but respectable nonetheless. I'm surprised Hollowell didn't mention this fact in her Science Ministries bio.

Along the same lines, reader Dan Someone provides this link to Hollowell's (then Kelly Bodden) PhD thesis listing in the University of Miami library.

Steve Reuland points out that acceptance of evolution is far higher in Europe and East Asia, but both of those regions have far less violent crime than we do. An excellent point, Steve! Rest assured I would have made that point myself, if, er, I had thought of it.

Concerning the rocket mentioned in Hollowell's article, several readers filled in some information there. Loren Petrich provided this highly useful link that lays out the basic information. Many thanks!

Monday, April 19, 2004

The Conservative Assault on Science Continues By way of Pharyngula I have been made aware of this column by Kelly Hollowell. It was published at the arch-conservative website WorldNetDaily and bears the alarming title Distorting Science for the Secular Agenda. It is one more example of the recent conservative antipathy toward science.

Let us consider Hollowell's article in full:

The last decade was riddled with headlines of children killing other children in the classroom and schoolyard, teen pregnancy and drug abuse on the rise. According to the Educational Testing Service, studies show between 75 and 98 percent of college students surveyed each year report cheating in high school. One study asked 1,700 sixth- to ninth-grade students to share their attitudes about rape. Sixty-five percent of the boys and 47 percent of the girls said that forced sex was acceptable if a couple dated six months. Even in a debate over the war in Iraq, students on campuses nationwide are arguing whether terrorism is wrong and the fight against terrorism is right, suggesting "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter."

These head scratchers are best explained by the nation's overwhelming embrace of moral relativism, which rests on the teaching that values are subjective and ethics depend on the situation. In other words, there is no such thing as right or wrong, good or evil.

So far there is nothing here that hasn't appeared in countless right-wing op-eds over the years. Hollowell feels no need to justify her statement that an abstract philosophical position - moral relativism - is behind any of the statistics she mentioned. Accepting her statistics as correct (a dubious proposition, to be sure) there are other explanations for the facts she cites. The propensity of students to cheat does not imply that they think cheating is morally right. Sometimes people do things they know to be wrong in the hopes of gaining some more immediate reward. And debating the merits of the war in Iraq, or occasionally placing yourself in the shoes of those on the other side, is hardly evidence of great moral perfidy. That one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter is a simple statement of fact about how different people can have different perceptions of the same situation. It does not imply that equal moral merit is being attached to both sides.

So where did moral relativism gain its footing in a nation founded on Judeo-Christian principles?

It actually started in the 1920s when a belief began to circulate in the U.S. that there were no longer any absolutes, specifically, of time and space, of good and evil, of knowledge and above all of human value. This belief system was built on the work of at least two prominent scientists: Albert Einstein and Charles Darwin.

The work of these scientists ultimately conveyed the same singular message: That the world was not what it seemed, so old rules, philosophies and ways of life no longer applied.

Loyal readers of this blog could probably write the remainder of Hollowell's column without looking at the original. That Darwin's theory; seen by ignorant, benighted, militantly atheistic scientists as one of the great leaps forward in our understanding of biology; was in reality a calamity for generations of impressionable youth is old hat for conservatives. But Einstein?

Wait a minute. Surely she's not about to argue that since Einstein talked about relativity, and that sort of sounds like relativism, that Einstein was promoting a particular view of morality? I mean, that would be too stupid even for a conservative, right?

The basis of Einstein's life-changing view called the theory of relativity can be summed this way: Time is not constant. Both velocity and gravity can distort time. Nearly nine decades ago, this surprising discovery shook the very foundation of human perception, understanding and reality.

Mistakenly, in the minds of many, the theory of relativity became relativism. So it was in the 1920s and still today that the popular interpreter of Einstein's work finds himself saying "All things are relative" and thinks that he is voicing a scientific discovery. This notion of "all things relative" moved from the laboratory into the public domain, creating an era in which all absolutes disappeared. Relativism has become the prevailing spirit of thought and action in our modern culture, but that is just half the equation.

Holy shit! She went and did it. Once again Hollowell presents no evidence for the proposition that generations of amoral teenage zombies have been taking their marching orders from Einstein. At least Hollowell distances herself from this view. Very big of her.

Incidentally, even as a two-sentence description of relativity it will not do to write “Time is not constant. Both velocity and gravity can distort time”. I'm not even sure what it means to describe time as constant. What she really means is something like our perception of time will change depending on the velocity at which we are traveling. Or that it is possible for observers in different frames of reference to observe the same phenomenon but have different perceptions of the duration of the phenomenon. Putting it that way, of course, would have made it far more difficult to draw simplistic moral conclusions.

The other half is provided by Darwin, who left us with the teaching that all of life arose by accident. If that is true, the human race has no unifying meaning or purpose. And if we have no unified meaning, then we have no inherent duty, obligations or responsibility. Worse, we have no inherent value except that which is assigned by the ever-changing opinions of a fickle society.

Actually, Darwin showed that chance was one factor in determining which life forms would be around four billion years after the first primordial sort of life arose in some unknown way. Hollowell thinks this implies that “we have no unified meaning” because she equates “meaning” with the existence of God and equates “evolution” with the non-existence of God. Suffice it to say that this is hardly the only philosophical interpretation of Darwin's work.

Together then, the misapplied and false doctrines of relativity and evolution have delivered a one-two punch to the American way of life, giving birth to moral relativism and severing cultural ties to traditional Judeo Christian principles.

Substituting repetition for evidence is a favorite rhetorical trick of conservatives.

But what if Darwin's theory is wrong? And what if Einstein's theory of relativity were rightly understood apart from the concept of relativism? Could we regain our moral hold on the value of life? Could we assure ourselves and our children that right and wrong still exist? The answer is yes, but how do we turn back the indoctrination of nearly 100 years?

Despite the paucity of evidence in support of evolutionary theory, secular advocacy has made it the mainstay of our academic institutions. Its impact on the devaluation of human life can be seen in a broad array of practices including shooting sprees, abortion, human experimentation, euthanasia, physician assisted suicide, embryonic stem-cell research and therapeutic cloning. The list goes on.

In reading this last statement keep in mind that Hollowell writes about “the paucity of evidence in support of evolutionary theory” not because she has actually studied biology and considered the evidence but rather because she knows that in conservative circles it is safe to make such claims. She probably recalls hearing once that “relativity has been proved” whereas evolution is “just a theory”. Otherwise she would simply have dismissed relativity along with evolution, instead of graciously conceding the possibility that Einstein's theory can be interpreted in a way that does not endorse moral relativism (Ya think?).

At the risk of repeating myself, why does Hollowell feel no need to back up the statement that evolution has been responsible for shooting sprees, abortions, human experimentation, and other sorts of badness? Do you think she would be impressed by the argument that religion has been responsible for pogroms, crusades, and inquisitions?

Actually, stem-cell research and therapeutic cloning probably do owe something to evolution, since the science undergirding both of those practices originated from evolutionary thinking (the same could be said for most aspects of modern biology). The people wanting to pursue stem-cell research are generally motivated by a desire to cure diseases and ameliorate the suffering of sick people. Moral relativism indeed.

It is also clear that the misunderstanding and/or deliberate misuse of Einstein's theory of relativity has convinced a majority of society that there are no absolutes. If anyone dares to claim otherwise, they are labeled by secularists as self-righteous, backward-thinking, fanatics.

More repetition, this time coupled with another favorite conservative rhetorical trick: Putting words in the mouths of their caricatured opponents.

Sadly, the church has largely abandoned its post on these issues as well. They retreated years ago under the pressures of arrogant academics who claimed the church wasn't smart enough to understand science and needed religion as compensation for their inability to reason. Even today, few pastors will speak from the pulpit on the issues and impact of relativity and evolution.

The problem isn't that “the church” isn't smart enough to understand science. It is that all too many people, speaking in the name of religion, have not bothered to obtain even a high school level understanding of the relevant scientific concepts.

I currently live in Virginia, but before moving here I lived in Kansas for three years. While I was there I listened to the local Christian radio station almost every day. The pastors on that station seemed perfectly happy to spew the most hateful, ignorant venom in Darwin's general direction. I wish the churches they represented had been more reticent about talking about evolution! They didn't talk about relativity much, but that was probably because that nifty connection between relativity and relativism hadn't occurred to them.

So it is left to individuals to educate themselves and those around them.

I agree completely. If only the whole column had been so lucid. Alas, I suspect that she is using the phrase “educate themselves” in the Orwellian sense of making yourself completely impervious to facts and logic.

With that in mind, scientists will soon launch a rocket to test Einstein's general theory of relativity in space. Regardless of the results, we should take this opportunity to explain to our friends, our children and anyone who will listen, the difference between relativity and moral relativism.

It's time to stop the distorted use of science by advocates of the secular agenda because the impact on our children and our nation is very bad.

I'm not sure what rocket Hollowell has in mind, but I'm all in favor of explaining the difference between relativity and relativism.

And what better way of closing this entirely evidence-free column than by repeating the familiar charge one more time.

Actually, at this point we are given an author bio for Ms. Hollowell:

Kelly Hollowell, J.D., Ph.D., is a scientist, patent attorney and adjunct law professor of bioethics. She is also a nationally recognized conference speaker and founder of Science Ministries Inc.

There's a lot here to parse. First, be suspicious of anyone described simply as a scientist. If they really had any qualifications in this regard they would be described by a more specific term like physicist, or chemist, or biologist. Also be suspicious of anyone who is described as a professor but does not provide the name of the institution at which they teach. Trust me, professors teaching at reputable schools are eager to let you know that fact.

I followed the link to Science Ministries, and found the following paragraph about Ms. Hollowell:

My writing and speaking engagements are rooted in a unique ministry. I hold a PhD in molecular, cellular pharmacology (DNA Technology and analysis) and a law degree from Regent University (the only ABA accredited Christian law school in the world).

This from Ms. Hollowell herself. It makes me very suspicious that she hasn't told us the school from which her PhD was obtained; that's SOP when you are describing your qualifications. The biology jargon is also suspicious. She knows it will mean nothing to most of the people reading it, yet she makes no attempt to explain what it means. It is there only to impress nonscientists. Finally, Regent University is closely affiliated with Pat Robertson. It's not just Christianity that it teaches, but a particular strain of Protestant fundamentalism.

Spend a few moments at the Science Ministries website and you quickly realize that the emphasis is on “Ministries” not “science”.

Sunday, April 18, 2004

More News From the Home Fromt In Thursday's post I reported on an editorial that ran in the student newspapser of my home base, James Madison University. That article can be found here. They have now graciously published my letter to the editor in reply to this article, available here. Here's an excerpt:

[The author of the original article] claims support for his allegations from paleontologists Colin Patterson, Stephen Jay Gould, and George Gaylord Simpson. He has misrepresented all three of them — none were addressing the general questions of whether the fossil record was consistent with evolution, or whether there were transitional forms between major groups of animals such as reptiles and mammals. Instead, the issues they were discussing were more esoteric issues of interest primarily to researchers.

For example, Gould has written, "… it is infuriating to be quoted again and again by creationists — whether through design or stupidity, I do not know — as admitting that the fossil record includes no transitional forms. Transitional forms are generally lacking at the species level, but they are abundant between larger groups." I wonder why Anderson didn’t cite that quote.

Patterson wrote, "In several animal and plant groups, enough fossils are known to bridge the wide gaps between existing types. In mammals, for example, the gap between horses, asses and zebras (genus Equus) and their closest living relatives, the rhinoceroses and tapirs, is filled by an extensive series of fossils extending back 60 million years to a small animal, Hyracotherium, which can only be distinguished from the rhinoceros-tapir group by one or two horse-like details of the skull."

This Just In: Americans Embrace Evil! From Agape Press comes this cheery editorial about the moral decline of the United States. It's author is a fellow named Michael DePrimo, and here are his ruminations on the thorny question of whether Americans hate evil:

We as a society today do not hate evil. On the contrary, we embrace it. This is seen not only in the acceptance and celebration of homosexuality, but also in the country's acceptance of abortion and pornography. It is seen, too, in the rejection of the knowledge of God. In the past 40 years, prayer and Bible study have been removed from public schools; the truth of Creation has been replaced with the theory of evolution; the Ten Commandments and nativity scenes have been banned from the public square; and a federal court of appeals has stricken the words "under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance. All because men love darkness, and hate light. This is what the Apostle Paul meant when he said, in the end times, the enemies of Christ would "glory in their shame" (Phil. 3:19). And same-sex marriage may be the ultimate shame because it is a blasphemous counterfeit of the God-ordained institution of heterosexual marriage which, Paul tells us, is a temporal manifestation of the eternal mystery of the union of Christ and His Church (Eph. 5:31-32). (Emphasis Added)

Yeah, it's a scientific dispute. And I've got a bridge to sell you.

I encourage you to read the whole article, but resist the temptation to dismiss it as a parody.