Thursday, April 29, 2004

Yet Another ID Screed In his famously vicious review of Pierre de Chardin's book The Phenomenon of Man, Nobel laureate P.B. Medawar wrote:

Yet the greater part of it, I shall show, is nonsense, tricked out by a variety of metaphysical conceits, and its author can be excused of dishonesty only on the grounds that before deceiving others he has taken great pains to deceive himself. The Phenomenon of Man cannot be read without a feeling of suffocation, a gasping and flailing around for sense. There is an argument in it, to be sure - a feeble argument, abominably expressed - and this I shall expound in due course; but consider first the style, because it is the style that creates the illusion of content, and which is in some part the cause as well as merely the symptom of Teilhard's alarming apocalyptic seizures.

Chardin was not a creationist (just a terribly confused evolutionist), but Medawar's remarks apply wih equal force to almost any piece of modern creationist writing.

As an example, have a look at this embarrassing column from something called The Washington Dispatch. The Dispatch describes itself as “An objective source for social and political commentary”. Silly slogans like that are a sure sign you've arrived at a source of hard-core, right-wing baloney. (Think of Fox News as another example).

In this case the headline tells the tale: “Praying at the Alter of the Shaved Ape ”. Might as well stop right there. Nothing worth reading has ever followed a headline like that.

Happily, Ed Brayton has offered this magnificent refutation. It's worth slogging through the original article for the pleasure of seeing Ed's masterful take-down. You'll find yourself learning quite a bit about paleontology in the process.

Wednesday, April 28, 2004

How Pathetic is This? From the right-wing, Moonie-owned newspaper The Washington Times comes this breathless report of the latest salvo in the culture wars:

Rep. Jim McDermott, Washington Democrat, yesterday did not say the words “under God” as he led the House in its daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance.

Rep. Pete Sessions, Texas Republican, accused Mr. McDermott of “embarrassing the House” and proving that “he and those like him stand more for the liberal left than they do for our friends and neighbors.”

“The liberal wing of the Democrat Party launched yet another salvo today in its ongoing battle to drive a wedge between Americans and the values and ideals we hold dear,” Mr. Sessions said in a statement last night.

Chilling, don't you think? Apparently Mr. McDermott blieves that you should be able to pledge loyalty to your country without also pledging loyalty to God. The horror! Mr. Sessions, careful to distinguish the “liberal left” from “our friends and neighbors”, is outraged. If we ever manage to elect an openly atheistic representative, look for Mr. Sessions to exist in a perpetual state of embarrassment.

The Times goes on to enlighten us about McDermott's sordid past:

The House has overwhelmingly approved two resolutions expressing outrage at the June 2002 decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that it is unconstitutional to have schoolchildren recite the Pledge in class because it includes the words “under God.”

Mr. McDermott was one of seven Democrats who voted against a March 2003 House resolution — approved 400-7 — that condemned the 9th Circuit decision as inconsistent with the Supreme Court's interpretation of the First Amendment. The House passed a similar resolution, 416-2 in June 2002, immediately after the court's decision, and Mr. McDermott joined 10 Democrats in voting “present.”

My opinion of Mr. McDermott keeps going up. Voting against such overwhelmingly popular measures reflects a sort of political courage that is all to rare nowadays.

Since the typical Times reader has a child-like attention span, the article goes on to remind everyone of Mr. Sessions' view of the matter:

“Congressman McDermott already knew that he had a problem with the words 'under God,' based on two votes he cast. The question is why he put himself in the position of embarrassing the House in this way,” Mr. Sessions said.

Alas, my opinion of Mr. McDermott did take a small dip when I read the remarks of his spokesperson on the matter:

When asked about yesterday's Pledge incident, Mr. McDermott's spokesman, Mike DeCesare, said his boss “hesitated, unsure of what he should do because the words 'under God' are under court review.” Mr. DeCesare confirmed that his boss did omit the words.

Incident, indeed. It is a pity that Mr. DeCesare didn't say something like, “My boss believes that patriotism does not entail any particular religious belief. We're sorry if Mr. Sessions was embarrassed. We invite him to take his cogent and eloquent objections and blow them out his effete, Republican ass.”.

Traces of Early Life Here's an interesting news item from Scientific American:

Scientists studying ancient creatures celebrate finds such as an ankle bone or jaw fragment because they help to piece together the varied history of our planet’s past inhabitants. But as investigators reach ever farther back in time, the evidence of early life becomes increasingly difficult to discern. A new discovery may help to fill in some of the blanks. Researchers report that tiny tubes in rocks that are billions of years old further suggest that microbes were eating their way into lava on the ocean floor during Earth’s early history.
Harald Furnes of the University of Bergen in Norway and his colleagues detected the trails in pillow lava from South Africa’s Barberton Greenstone Belt, which dates to 3.5 billion years ago. The diminutive tunnels, just four microns wide and about 50 microns long, look very similar to the product of microbial burrowing seen in modern volcanic rocks. In addition, the scientists detected carbon on the inside of the tubes, which they say is further evidence of the biogenic origin of the structures. The authors conclude that their findings "suggest that microbial life colonized these subaqueous volcanic rocks soon after their eruption almost 3.5 billion years ago."

The new report, which appears in the current issue of the journal Nature, is far from the final word in the search for Earth’s earliest life, however. Alternative processes--such as chemical reactions during decomposition of organic matter--could lead to similar markings. Instead, the new findings join other so-called biomarkers, such as characteristic ratios of carbon or sulfur isotopes and ancient hydrocarbons, found as far a field as Greenland to Australia at the head of the pack of primitive organisms. So scientists will need to continue searching for additional clues to the mystery of life’s origins. --Sarah Graham

One of the reasons the origin-of-life is such a vexing problem for scientists is the extreme rarity of any direct evidence for what conditions were like on the early-Earth. For that reasons, finds like the one described above are crucial.

It's also interesting, however, that there are no completely unambiguous signs of life in the Earth's most ancient rocks. If so much as a fossilized worm were found in rocks of that age, evolutionary theory would receive a serious blow. Happily, no such find has ever been made.

Tuesday, April 27, 2004

Around the Blogs Reed Cartwright has this excellent post up about the ID conference report I described in yesterday's blog entry. Like all creationists, the ID folks are fond of credential-mongering. In this regard they routinely point to Dr. Henry Schaefer, a chemist at the University of Georgia and supporter of ID. Schaefer is routinely described in ID promotional literature as a five-time nominee for the Nobel Prize. Cartwright, a graduate student at Georgia, points out that this is a questionable accolade. Here's a sample:

The idea the Schaefer has been nominated five-times comes from a U.S. News and World Report story from December 23, 1991. That’s right; the authority for Schaefer’s near-Nobel-laureate credentials is the speculation of a weekly news magazine. Not what I’d consider ironclad enough to state as a sure thing.

It is very interesting to watch the evolution of the description of Schaefer’s credentials, as I once did through some googling. Before Schaefer tossed his “weight” into the ID ring, the descriptions of him correctly noted that the five nominations were speculations by US News and World Report. However, as he began to be cited more and more by anti-evolutionists, the source of the five nomination claim was stripped off and their speculated existence became an actual existence. Credential inflating is often used by anti-evolution activists who rely on misplaced appeals to authority to support their anti-scientific agendas.

I am at the same university as Schaefer, and we have the honor of having a world class evolutionary biology program. However, despite Schaefer’s apparent interest in evolution, given his relationship with the anti-evolution movement, I have never seen him at any of our evolutionary biology seminars, which involve major scientists of the discipline. In actually, he is nothing but a devoutly religious and conservative chemistry professor who has no professional experience in evolutionary biology and, as far as I can tell, takes absolutely no advantage of the resources the campus has in the discipline. His objections to evolution are nothing but religiously motivated incredulity.

Please note that Cartwright's excellent blog, De Rerum Natura, has been added to my list of favorite blogs.

Pharyngula also comments on the Biola ID conference with a characteristically clear-headed post. He bases his post on this description of the conference by ID supporter Lee Strobel. Pharyngula has a slightly different take on the idea of an ID lab than I presented yesterday:

The claim of "scientific advances that have pointed more and more toward a Creator"...that's a plain and simple lie. No such advances have occurred. The idea that the DI will "create a laboratory"...dubious at best. They don't have any people who do research, and people are the first and most important element in a lab. I predict that their "lab" will be a room with a computer hooked up to the internet.

As for the claim that "There is a lot of good science in the pipeline"—true, but misleading. None of the good science is coming from the Intelligent Design camp, and it's all putting the creationists to shame

Of course, I'm sure Pharyngula is right about this. My remark that the creation of an ID lab was probably a good thing was intended ironically.

Strobel, incidentally, is the author of The Case for Faith and The Case for Christ. I have read both books and am still an atheist. Enough said. I'm not optimistic about his more recent book The Case for a Creator.

Finally, Stranger Fruit also weighs in with some thoughts on the ID conference:

Just as well, because there has been bugger all in the five plus years since the Wedge was launched. Remember the key scientific research objective from the Wedge document?

“One hundred scientific, academic and technical articles by our fellows”

Still waiting. Search the scientific citation indices for works by Behe, Dembski, Meyer, Wells, Nelson et al. for primary research that explicitly supports ‘design’ or even tests design as a null hypothesis. Have one beer for every paper you find. Come back here. You’ll be stone-cold sober.

It’s worth pointing out that some of their other objective have been met - “Thirty published books on design and its cultural implications” and “Significant coverage in national media”. Indeed they even have had some success in making “states begin to rectify ideological imbalance in their science curricula & include design theory”. Just no science.

Monday, April 26, 2004

ID Research Labs? Have a look at this brief and mostly uninformative description of a recent pro-ID conference held at Biola University in California. The description is written by an ID supporter, and consists mostly of raw descriptions of what took place at the conference. Still, there was one item that caught my eye:

There was news that the intelligent design paradigm is leading to fresh ideas and progress for science. New books, like The Privileged Planet by Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay Wesley Richards, research by Jonathan Wells, and news of several new ID-based research labs alluded to by the Discovery Institute in Seattle, give great hope that the evidence Darwinists have been demanding from ID to produce a fruitful research program and not just a rhetorical exercise may be just around the corner. (Emphasis Added)

Actually, I rather like the subtle implication that until now ID has been mostly a rhetorical exercise.

The existence of “several new ID-based research labs” is news to me, but if they're serious then this is probably good news. I believe that all of the major claims made by ID proponents are incorrect. They feel differently. Fine. The ultimate test of any scientific theory is whether it produces useful results in the field and the lab. If ID people manage to produce genuine results by following their methods, results that would probably not have been obtained by scientists following more orthodox approaches, then I will reconsider my position.

In the past ID folks have always protested that the scientific establishment is so biased against them that their ideas could not receive a fair hearing. If it is true that they now have several labs in which to do their research unhindered by bias from the mainstream, then they will have no excuse when, inevitably, they fail to produce results.

Only time will tell whether an ID lab can produce anything of substance. I'm not holding my breath.

Friedman on Science Here's an excellent column from Thomas Friedman, published on April 22 in the New York Times. In it he argues that several recent trends are compromising America's ability to compete in the scientific marketplace. Among other points, he argues that the government's investment is basic scientific research has been flagging recently. Additionally, post-9/11 immigration restrictions are making it much more difficult for talented, non-American scientists to work in this country. Here's an excerpt:

Several executives explained to me that they were opening new plants in Asia — not because of cheaper labor. Labor is a small component now in an automated high-tech manufacturing plant. It is because governments in these countries are so eager for employment and the transfer of technology to their young populations that they are offering huge tax holidays for U.S. manufacturers who will set up shop. Because most of these countries also offer some form of national health insurance, U.S. companies shed that huge open liability as well.

Other executives complained bitterly that the Department of Homeland Security is making it so hard for legitimate foreigners to get visas to study or work in America that many have given up the age-old dream of coming here. Instead, they are studying in England and other Western European nations, and even China. This is leading to a twofold disaster.

First, one of America's greatest assets — its ability to skim the cream off the first-round intellectual draft choices from around the world and bring them to our shores to innovate — will be diminished, and that in turn will shrink our talent pool. And second, we could lose a whole generation of foreigners who would normally come here to study, and then would take American ideas and American relationships back home. In a decade we will feel that loss in America's standing around the world.

Still others pointed out that the percentage of Americans graduating with bachelor's degrees in science and engineering is less than half of the comparable percentage in China and Japan, and that U.S. government investments are flagging in basic research in physics, chemistry and engineering. Anyone who thinks that all the Indian and Chinese techies are doing is answering call-center phones or solving tech problems for Dell customers is sadly mistaken. U.S. firms are moving serious research and development to India and China.

Sunday, April 25, 2004

Darwinists to Pandas: Drop Dead! Not really, of course. But according to this breathtakingly silly column from former Watergate conspirator Charles Colson, that's exactly what evolutionists would say if they were consistent in their beliefs:

In other words, if the giant panda survives, it will only be because human beings made its survival a priority. Human beings will refrain from activities that hurt the panda?s chances of survival and will take active measures, like breeding programs, to perpetuate the species.

This is the right thing to do, but it?s not the Darwinian thing. It wouldn?t be happening if human beings were, as Darwinists like Richard Dawkins tell us, ?just another animal.? If we took Dawkins?s worldview seriously, the giant panda would merely be another species that was out-competed into extinction by a more adaptable contender. There would be no more reason to regret the panda?s demise than there is to lament that there are no wooly mammoths in downtown Denver.

Among the millions of species on Earth, only humans ponder their obligations to other species. As Leon Kass of the University of Chicago has written, this fact is the obvious reply to people who insist that we are ?just another animal.? We intervene for animals like the panda because we instinctively know that man has a moral obligation to act as a steward of nature?an obligation that arises from a biblical, not a Darwinian, understanding of man and our place in the world.

Apparently Colson does not understand the distinction between “is” and “ought”. Scientific theories allow us to render the natural world predictable and controllable. They provide information about what is. By themselves they tell us nothing about morality or proper behavior. Evolution by natural selection is something that happens in the world. There's nothing in modern biology that says we need to take pleasure in that observation.

You've got to admire a clueless, self-contradictory sentence like &ldquoWe intervene for animals like the panda because we instinctively know that man has a moral obligation to act as a steward of nature?an obligation that arises from a biblical, not a Darwinian, understanding of man and our place in the world.” Things you know instinctively are also things you don't learn from studying the Bible. But even taken on its own terms, the sentence is ridiculous.

Taking evolution seriously implies that we are the descendants of a long line of animal ancestors. It tells us that there was no specific moment in history before which humans did not exist, and after which humans did exist. Consequently, any attempt to draw moral lines between humans and animals based on differences in biology is doomed to failure.

By contrast, the biblical view is that animals were created for the purpose of serving man. There is nothing in the Bible to suggest that animals have intrinsic value. On the other hand, the Bible does suggest that the Earth is little more than a temporary receptacle for souls awaiting their judgment. It's not clear to me where animal protection fits into this view.

There is nothing in either the Bible or evolution to tell us what measures we should take in saving the giant panda. But it seems to me that evolutionary science provides a far sounder basis for defending animal rights than the sort of biblical worldview Colson envisions.

If you're curious to know what Dawkins actually thinks on the subject of animal rights, read this fine essay on the subject. Here's an excerpt:

The speciesist assumption that lurks here is very simple. Humans are humans and gorillas are animals. There is such an unquestioned yawning gulf between them that the life of a single human child is worth more than the lives of all the gorillas in the world. The worth of an animal's life is just its replacement cost to its owner - or, in the case of a rare species, to humanity. But tie the label Homo sapiens even to a tiny piece of insensible, embryonic tissue, and its life suddenly leaps to infinite uncomputable value.

This way of thinking characterises what I want to call the discontinuous mind. We would all agree that a six-foot woman is tall, and a five-foot woman is not. Words like "tall" and "short" tempt us to force the world into qualitative classes, but this doesn't mean that the world really is discontinuously distributed. Were you to tell me that a woman is five feet nine inches tall, and ask me to decide whether she should therefore be called tall or not, I'd shrug and say: "She's five foot nine, doesn't that tell you what you need to know?" But the discontinuous mind, to caricature it a little, would go to court (probably at great expense) to decide whether the woman was tall or short. Indeed, I hardly need to say caricature. For years, South African courts have done a brisk trade adjudicating whether particular individuals of mixed parentage count as white, black, or coloured.