Thursday, June 10, 2004

Brandt on Seebach In my post for April 5 I mentioned this column by Linda Seebach, published in the Rocky Mountain News. Seebach was critical of ID, and quoted me as an authority for the proposition that ID could not properly be considered scientific.

Christian blogger Randy Brandt maintains the website Contend 4 the Faith. He was amused neither by Seebach's argument, nor by my words of wisdom quoted in the article. You can find the post here. It is the usual childish, indignant, creationist table-pounding, but I do feel compelled to comment on the brief section in which I am mentioned:

Seebach, with a little help from a Jason Rosenhouse, insists that ID is not scientific:

Intelligent design is not so obviously wrong, but it's not scientific either. Jason Rosenhouse (at evolutionblog. says, “What does relegate ID to the land of religion is its reliance on supernatural forces to explain aspects of the natural world. Until they can tell us how the action of the supernatural designer manifests itself in the world in some predictable way, ID will not be scientific.”

Surreptitiously appealing to methodological naturalism rules out ID by definition. Since methodological naturalism a priori rejects anything supernatural, even if the actual evidence overwhelmingly favors design, adherents must emotionally insist that their complex brains and minds are the cumulation of nothing at all becoming everything through no fault of its own. If in reality there is an intelligent design behind our universe, methodological naturalists like Seebach are barred from ever finding the truth by the close-minded intolerance of their narrow worldview.

First, we should point out that Brandt's open admission that ID involves the supernatural is a major faux pas among ID folks. ID's more mainstream proponents insist that while the designer could be supernatural, it could just as easily be superintelligent aliens or some such nonsense.

Moving on, as far as I know I am the only Jason Rosenhouse in the blogosphere. For that reason I find it amusing to be referred to as “a Jason Rosenhouse.”

Now, down to business. Brandt's assertion here is common among ID proponents. It is a bizarre argument for them to make, since it implies that the methods of science are the only valid ways of learning the truth about nature. I happen to believe that is the case, but people like Brandt certainly don't. There is no shortage of scientists who believe that appeals to the supernatural are not useful for doing science, but who nonetheless believe in God. Barred from finding the truth, indeed.

I am consistently amazed that creationists seem completely unable to grasp the idea that science has far more to do with finding useful theories than it does with capital-T Truth. Scientists do not cling desperately to any old theory out of some irrational fear of the supernatural. When no viable naturalistic explanation for a phenomenon is at hand, scientists are happy to admit as much. Gaps in our knowledge are what keep them in business, after all.

And methodological naturalism does not reject anything a priori. In fact, it makes no statement about how the world actually is. It is simply an acknowledgement of the fact that in the centuries-long history of science it has never once happened that scientific progress was made by invoking the supernatural.

That was the point I was making in the quote used by Seebach. For a theory to be useful it has to make definite predictions that can be tested in the field or the lab. Evolution does that. ID does not. ID proponents insist that their theory entails nothing about the characteristics or motives of the designer. Their theory, in its entirety, is that at some undisclosed point in time, some sort of designer did something that influenced the course of life's development. That may be true, but it is definitely not useful to anyone doing scientific research.

When ID's claim to have evidence for an intelligent deisgner, what they mean is that they believe they have shot enough holes in existing naturalistic theories to establish design by default. That is not a style of argument scientists have much confidence in.

Like most creationists, Brandt is not content simply to make his bad argument and be done with it. Instead, he feels compelled to lard up his writing with silly banalities like “even if the actual evidence overwhelmingly favors design, adherents must emotionally insist that their complex brains and minds are the cumulation of nothing at all becoming everything through no fault of its own.” You will search the biological literature in vain for anyone who believes that nothing at all became everything through no fault of its own. What you will actually find are people who believe that a relatively simple form of life evolved, via well-understood natural mechanisms, into the complex forms of life we see today.

Is it really asking too much for people like Brandt to make an honest effort at understanding the arguments of his opponents?

Wilkins Enters the Blogosphere! Philosopher of Science John Wilkins now has his own blog: Evolving Thoughts. Having read his magisterial take-down of ID windbag William Dembski (co-authored with Welsey Elsberry), published in the journal Biology and Philosophy, I have little doubt that he wil have interesting things to say on a regular basis. Wilkins is also a contributor to The Panda's Thumb.

Currently he has an interesting post up about how evolutionary theory can shed some insight into the age old question of why mathematics is such an effective tool for describing reality. Here's an excerpt:

In the late 19thC and early 20thC, thinkers like Gottlob Frege and Bertrand Russell held a view sometimes known as “logicism” - that mathematics reduces to logic. Under this view, the reason why maths works is that logic works, and the world is fundamentally logical. But what are these logical truths on which we build our mathematical edifices? Plato's account, as exemplified by the slave boy he tricks into working out a mathematical truth by asking leading questions, is that we remember them from before we were born, when we, or at any rate our souls, existed among the eternal forms.

But the way Plato gets this result is in itself a hint about what is really going on. Maths is a language, and what can be expressed in it, is what we need to express, based on how we live; what Wittgenstein called out “forms of life”, both biological and cultural. Hamming assumes that our biology is paramount - but I think he overestimates the biological implications of logic. And so we come to the book that inspires this little essay:

William S. Cooper, in a book entitled The Evolution of Reason: Logic as a Branch of Biology (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge UK, 2001, ISBN 0-521-79196-0), makes an even more remarkable claim - maths may reduce to logic, but there are a number of logics, and at base is decision theory, which is reducible to “life-history strategy theory”, which is reducible to evolutionary theory.

Logic works, in short, because it is an abstraction out of the principles of the way evolution works.

Wednesday, June 09, 2004

Fundamentalists, Indeed In yesterday's postings I mentioned that sometimes you can tell just from the title of a book or an essay that you are about to read the ravings of a right-wing hack. Here's one more such title: “Who are the real fundamentalist, extremist zealots?”

This is the title of a recent column by Joseph Farah at the right-wing website WorldNetDaily. He's all up in arms about the recent decision of the shcool board in Roseville, California not to contaminate their science curriculum with creationist bullshit. Here's an article, from the Sacramento Bee, describing what actually happened.

Farah's column is unusually bad, even when judged by the standards of pro-ID hackery. He manages to hit all the usual talking points, but never gets around to saying anything specific. Here are some excerpts:

Parent Larry Caldwell had an idea to bring more diversity into the education of his child and fellow students of the Roseville, Calif., Joint Union High School District.

Months ago, he observed, the district's biology textbook failed to point out any of the weaknesses of the theory of evolution – teaching it instead as a matter of fact.

Saying he was not interested in injecting religious views of creation into the curriculum, only providing more objectivity and balance when it comes to teaching about Charles Darwin and his theory, Caldwell added: “There's mainstream science that's been systematically censored from the classroom from my perspective.”

Yawn. The biology textbook did not mention the weaknesses of the theory of evolution because there are none. I've never met Caldwell, but I say with confidence that he is very interested in injecting religious views of creation into the classroom. There's no such mainstream science as Caldwell describes.

Note, though, that Farah is using a popular ID debating tactic. Specifically, he is setting the courageous and decent, free-thinking individual against the cold, unfeeling powers of the state. Who really wants to be on the side of the state in such a situation?

The school board came up with a compromise plan to retain the textbooks, but to encourage teachers to present the scientific information that challenges the theory of evolution. Resource centers in the school libraries would be started to provide other points of view. Parents would have received letters stating “a growing minority of scientists question the ability of Darwin's theory to provide an adequate scientific explanation for the origin and diversity of life on Earth.”

Would Farah support a similar compromise to make students aware of rival theories concerning the shape of the Earth? Such a compromise would be about as reasonable.

Actually, this is all preamble. Farah is just warming up:

The plan seemed eminently reasonable and accommodating to all viewpoints – which is why the real intolerant, fundamentalist, extremist, Taliban-like, religious zealots shot it down.

By a 3-2 vote, the school board decided there would be no dissent permitted on an article of faith like evolution.

Ahem. A while back I gave a public lecture about evolution and creationism to an audience of college students at Kansas State University. Towards the end of the lecture I was discussing the creationist propensity for presenting evolution not merely as wrong, but as an evil theory promoted by evil scientists (or at least, scientists serving as the unwitting dupes of evil). I asked the audience, “When you think of really evil people througout history, what group comes to mind first?” Some audience member obligingly offered the Nazis for that honor. I immediately whipped out a quote (one out of many I could have chosen) in which a prominent creationist writer compared evolutionists to Nazis. Then I asked for another group of people commonly depicted as evil. The audience served up Communists. I immediately produced a quote in which evolutionists were likened to Communists.

Of course, ever since 9/11 we have a new face for evil. So it is unsurprising that creationists would immediately seek to liken evolutionists to Islamic terrorists.

As far as I know, the first person to use this tactic was Ken Cumming, the dean of the graduate school at the Institute for Creation Research (!!!). He wrote the following in a review of the PBS special on evolution released in 2001:

Only 13 days after the act of terrorism on NewYork, Public Broadcasting Stations delivered a different, but another event of grave importance that was witnessed by millions of Americans—a seven-part, eight hour special entitled “Evolution.” PBS, with the aid of WGBH in Boston and Clear Blue Sky Productions televised one of the boldest assaults yet upon both our public schools with the millions of innocent school children and the foundational worldview on which our nation was built.

These two “assaults” have similar histories and goals. The public was unaware of the deliberate preparation that was schemed over the past few years leading up to these events. And while the public now understands from President Bush that, “We're at War” with militant Islamics around the world, they don't have a clue that America is being attacked from within through its public schools by a militant religious movement of philosophical naturalists (i.e., atheists) under the guise of secular Darwinism. Both desire to alter the life and thinking of our nation.

Later, Farah says:

When people accept the theory of evolution as an article of faith and teach it as a matter of fact and permit no dissent whatsoever from their doctrine, let me tell you: Those are religious people pushing religious views.

Whatever. No one holds evolution as an article of faith and students or anyone else can dissent from it all they want. Does Farah strike you as someone who cares overmuch about the facts of the matter?

The theory of evolution is now being treated like Holy Writ. That's not science, it's religion.

If something in science suddenly becomes so sacrosanct that you can't question it, then it ceases to be science. It's actually a contradiction of the principles of science and the scientific method, which requires testing, evidence, proof.

And that's what is happening all over the country – not just in Roseville, Calif. There's a new wave of sweeping intolerance and rigid conformity being required of teachers and students.

Now Farah is simply repeating himself. His article continues in this vain for quite a while. Go have a look at the whole thing, and then decide which side is interested in science, and which side is interested in self-righteous bloviating.

O'Reilly Loses It Fox News Talking Head Bill O'Reilly was in rare form yesterday. He's outraged that the “far left” is taking the opportunity of Reagan's death to remind people that he was something other than the Second Coming. In his Talking Points Memo on Tuesday's show he chose three examples of far left viciousness to excoriate:

Fearing that President Bush will capitalize on the emotional outpouring of respect for President Reagan, some left wing ideologues are venting long and loud. Some examples: our buddy [columnist] Robert Scheer in The Los Angeles Times says, “Reagan allowed AIDS to spread for the same reason he pointedly savaged programs to help the poor.”

Allowed AIDS to spread? Is this guy kidding? No human being could have stopped that epidemic. And during the Reagan administration, $6 billion was spent fighting AIDS. Some of that money led to the discovery of anti-viral drugs. Once again, Scheer is ridiculous.

But it gets worse. An editorial in The Philadelphia Inquirer says, “The moralizing poet of family values had been divorced and was estranged from several of his children.”

Is that nasty or what? Is that necessary during the time the nation is mourning a patriotic man?

And writing in The New York Times, Clyde Haberman puts forth, “(Reagan) administration's policies on public housing, job training, welfare, mass transit, AIDS treatment-nearly all dealt severe blows not only to New York but also to cities across the country.”

This outpouring of liberal anger is predictable, but not appropriate during the week of Mr. Reagan's burial. The left is desperate to again regain power in America and impose a secular entitlement culture on the country.

Let's take them in order. Here's a link to Scheer's column. It begins as follows:

I liked Ronald Reagan, despite the huge divide between us politically. Reagan was a charming old pro who gave me hours of his time in a series of interviews beginning in 1966 when he was running for governor, simply because he enjoyed the give and take. In fact, I often found myself defending the Gipper whenever I was confronted with an East Coast pundit determined to denigrate anyone, particularly actors, from my adopted state. Yet, looking back at his record, I am appalled that I warmed to the man as much as I did.

The quote O'Reilly used comes here:

And his legendary ability to effectively project an upbeat, confident worldview managed to obscure many of the negative consequences of his policies. For example, he made the terrible mistake of willfully ignoring the burgeoning AIDS epidemic at a time when action could have saved millions. Unlike many conservatives, however, he was not driven by homophobia. Instead, Reagan allowed AIDS to spread for the same reason he pointedly savaged programs to help the poor: He was genuinely convinced that government programs exacerbated problems -- unless they catered to the needs of the businessmen he had come to revere.

Scheer's point is clear and correct. Reagan did indeed ignore the AIDS epidemic, when public education campagns and medical research could have mitigated things considerably. The six billion dollars Reagan eventually spent on AIDS research came only after it became politically untenable for him to ignore it any longer. Of course he couldn't have stopped the disease, that's just O'Reilly's ridiculous caricature of Scheer's point.

Scheer can perhaps be faulted for dismissing homophobia as an explanation for Reagan's do-nothingism on AIDS. As conservative blogger (and Reagan booster) Andrew Sullivan notes:

For the record: Reagan didn't give me HIV. Another gay man did, with my unwitting consent. I did practise safer sex, but it obviously failed. That is my responsibility and bad luck - no one else's. But it is equally true that Reagan's silence for so long was inexcusable. He was silent because he and Bill Bennett and Gary Bauer believed that gay lives were not worth as much as straight ones. There is no other explanation. If an epidemic had broken out affecting, say, elderly women, is it conceivable Reagan would have said nothing for four and a half years? Nope. In my practical defense of the Reagan administration, I do not mean to provide a moral defense. As even Jesse Helms came to realize, there is none.

The Philadelphia Inquirer editorial is available here (you might need to register). I quote it at length, with O'Reilly's rather selective quotation in boldface:

Ronald Reagan died yesterday.

Yet today, Americans still live inside the myth of America's promise and mission that he wove so masterfully.

Anyone who inhabited the presidency of the United States as fully, as forcefully, as Ronald Reagan did for eight years would leave a mark, a roster of deeds great and dubious. But Reagan's legacy goes well beyond the sum of his policies.

Reagan did something that only one other president of the 20th century, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, had done.

He changed the American political conversation utterly.

He redirected it so powerfully that, ever since, it has navigated according to the fixed stars of his philosophy:

Government is not the solution; it's the problem.

It is always better to cut taxes than to raise them.

Free markets and free men will always find the right path.

America is the shining city on the hill, the world's beacon of freedom and justice. It should pursue its destiny without apology or shirking.

Many Americans, to be sure, dispute some or all of those tenets. But anyone with eyes to see knows that Reagan's vision is the orthodoxy any challenger must confront. Today, for most people under 35, Reagan's suspicion of government is the baseline of political consciousness.

The Reagan myth still rules.

Please do not take myth to mean “falsehood.” A myth is a story that expresses emotional truths that a people hold dear. Ronald Reagan was a master storyteller. He embodied the American penchant for optimism, for reinvention, for renewable innocence.

So, most Americans loved him. And many who disagreed with his policies couldn't bring themselves to hate him.

Here is one paradox of the Reagan enterprise. He admired FDR and emulated him as a leader, but set as a central task of his presidency the dismantling of FDR's New Deal programs, philosophy and coalition.

Reagan was a bundle of paradoxes.

The moralizing poet of family values had been divorced and was estranged from several of his children.

The apostle of small government and balanced budgets let non-defense spending grow 16 percent in constant dollars during his tenure, and allowed historic deficits to mushroom.

The tax-cutter who put “supply-side” economics into the nation's vocabulary approved what was, in 1982, the largest peacetime tax increase ever.

The man who gave voice and vigor to the conservative vision governed mostly as a pragmatist who recognized the limits of how far he could advance his social agenda with a Democratic Congress.

The man who proclaimed that America must be stalwart in the face of terrorism skulked out of Lebanon after the Marine barracks blew up, and traded arms to Iran in a deal to release American hostages.

The editorial concludes with the statement:

The trick now will be to give this memorable president his balanced due. Let us avoid the overeager hagiography that already plasters his name on buildings and airports. But let us also refuse to smear Ronald Reagan's legacy, particularly out of displaced scorn for the poor imitator who now occupies the White House.

Hardly the left-wing hatchet job O'Reilly describes.

And here is the link for the Haberman piece. O'Reilly, content to argue at the level of platitudes and invective, does not mention that Haberman also provided some specifics to back up his charges:

Some numbers speak for themselves. On Mr. Reagan's watch, federal spending for subsidized housing programs was sliced by about 75 percent, to $8 billion in 1988 from $33 billion in 1981.

Reductions in all kinds of assistance, especially early on, "were felt pretty sharply in New York," said Charles Brecher, research director of the Citizens Budget Commission, a business-supported policy group in the city. From 1981 to 1983, federal aid to New York City fell by $560 million, or 21 percent. More than 1.1 million New Yorkers had food stamp benefits reduced or eliminated. Rent increases affected 450,000 people living in public housing.

On the other hand, Mr. Brecher noted, New Yorkers' federal tax bill in the same two-year period declined by $699 million. Then as now, the main beneficiaries were the wealthy.

The fact that everything Haberman said about Reagan was true means nothing to O'Reilly.

Things got really surreal during O'Reilly's first interview of the night, with columnist Clarence Page. I could not find an online transcript of this interview, so I will be doing this from memory.

Most of the interview focussed on Scheer's column. Scheer is a frequent target of O'Reilly's vitriol. Several times O'Reilly paraphrased Scheer as having said that Reagan spread AIDS, and then defied Page to defend something so ludicrous. This came up in the opening salvo of the interview, moments after having completed his Talking Points Memo. Page responded that he didn't think Scheer had said that Reagan personally spread AIDS, but rather that he was slow to react to the AIDS epidemic. Neither of them got the quote right, but Page was obviously much closer to Scheer's point. O'Reilly, apparently having forgotten what he had read moment's earlier, started shuffling through his notes muttering something like “No, no. Let's find the quote.” When he subsequently found the quote and discovered that Page was much closer than he was, he quickly moved on to something else.

But he did come back to it later, repeating the charge that Scheer said that Reagan spread AIDS. Page, unsurprisingly, repeated that Scheer actually said merely that Reagan allowed AIDS to spread.

In reply, O'Reilly accused Page of “Parsing”

Page acquitted himself tolerably well during the interview, but he is too nice a guy to take on O'Reilly in full dudgeon.

O'Reilly did manage to mention that some conservatives have not behaved appropriately:

While it is certainly true that some conservative commentators have canonized Ronald Reagan and are using his legacy to justify right wing positions, there's no excuse for inappropriate overreaction.

Surely the attempt by right-wing columnists to score political points via Reagan's death constitutes inappropriate overreaction. Somehow that doesn't seem to bother O'Reilly so much.

Tuesday, June 08, 2004

The Day After Tomorrow *****Spoiler Alert***** It may be a preposterous bit of pseudoscience, but it is a movie nonetheless and I will be revealing certain details of the plot that you may not want to read if you're planning on seeing it. So stop reading now if you don't want to know how it turns out.

During my recent vacation I took some time to see the film. Not bad. It certainly holds your interest for two hours, which is all I really expect from mindless, big-budget disaster flicks. The special effects are good, particularly the one where a giant tidal wave destroys New York City, and the characters are just interesting enough to make you overlook their largely preposterous dialogue.

You'd have to be made of stone not to get a little choked up when Dennis Quaid, after trekking through arctic-like conditions for hundreds of miles (a trek during which one of his closest friends manages to die very heroically) to keep a promise he made to his son, arrives at the New York Public Library and finds that his son is still alive.

Early in the film, dozens of people take shelter in the library to avoid the tidal wave. When there seems to be a break in the storm, most of those people leave in at attempt to get out of Manhattan. They do this despite the fact that Dennis Quaid's son warns them that his father (a paleoclimatologist) has told him (in a telephone call they completed before the phones went dead), that the storm is about to get much worse, and that anyone who leaves the library will freeze to death. It later becomes clear that everyone who left the library did, indeed, freeze to death. Message: Ignore the scientist, and YOU DIE! A fine moral message, I'd say.

You also have to love the fact that is an openly atheistic character who sees the importance of preserving a copy of the Guttenburg Bible. He says (roughly) “If Western civilization as we know it is about to be destroyed, then I am going to preserve one little piece of it.”

I didn't care for the fact that Bush is presented as strong and decisive. But Cheney is quite properly presented as evil and short-sighted.

Of course, this movie has garnered so much attention because it sort of deals with global warming. Some have been trying to use the film as a warning about the reality of global warming, while others have argued that the scenario the film describes is so absurd that it will lead to a backlash against more realistic scenarios of global warming.

I must say, while watching the movie itself such arguments seem kind of silly. There is very little science, pseudo or otherwise, in the movie. Occasionally a character will look at a bizarre computer graphic and look alarmed, saying something like “ My God! It's pulling air directly from the upper troposphere!” but that's about it. Mostly it's dopey, escapist fun, and it's hard to believe anyone who has actually seen the film dwelling on it for very long after leaving the theater.

But the Right is clearly worried. Using tones normally reserved for “liberals” “media elites” and “secularists”, they have piled on this movie with gusto.

Phylis Schlafly warns that

Global warming isn't science; it's leftist propaganda to promote global regulation of our economy. If the predictions of the movie were true, it is obvious that absolutely nothing we could do - even abandoning every automobile in America - would make any difference.

Fellow Town Hall columnist Rich Lowry doesn't entirely agree, commenting that:

That said, global warming is a fact. The surface temperature has gone up roughly 1 degree Celsius since the mid-19th century. The warming during the past 30 years might even be partly a result of manmade emissions. But we're talking very small and gradual changes that aren't causing the disruptions environmentalists sometimes hype, like extreme weather or dangerously rising sea levels.

Of course, the whole point is to deal with global warming before the changes become dramatic enough to be noticeable.

Lowry quickly descends into silliness, however, by writing:

Any regulatory fix will have only the slightest effect. Climatologist Patrick Michaels estimates that the Kyoto Treaty -- McCain-Lieberman is a watered-down version of the treaty -- would prevent only 0.07 degrees Celsius of warming over the next 50 years.

As soon as you see a right-winger quote Patrick Michaels, stop reading. He exists solely as a credentialed source for anti-global warming propaganda. The Climate Network has the goods on him:

Michaels has disputed that the hundreds of thousands of dollars he receives in funding from the fossil fuel industry results in scientific bias. His so-called "research reviews" are aimed at influencing policy makers and the general public but are funded by the Western Fuels Association. He has also accepted funding from Edison Electric Institute, the German Coal Mining Association and Cyprus Minerals Company.

In 1991 Michaels was on the Science Advisory Panel of the former Information Council on the Environment (ICE), an organization whose goal was “to reposition global warming as theory (not fact)”. The Southern Company, Western Fuels Association and Edison Electric Company ran ICE specifically to target key congressional districts in the US with misinformation about climate change.

Scientifically, Michaels' credibility barely passes muster. His work on pattern detection of climate change is seriously flawed, according to peer review by the IPCC. Michaels believes that there is no signal for human induced climate change in the observed data. IPCC scientists, however, conclude “There are a number of serious problems with this [Michaels'] analysis”, and presented a detailed discussion of the matter in WG1 of the SAR.

In a recent statement, Dr. Tom Wigley, a lead author of WGI Chapter 8, says: “Michaels' arguments are irrelevant, and merely expose his ignorance or deliberate misrepresentation” of the science. Wigley eloquently remarks, “Michaels' misguided attempt to shoot down a single swallow will not make the summer go away.”

Michaels' real motivation is shown by his statement to the Coal Producer's Conference in Australia in May 1996: “Any attempt to force emissions reductions will impose further stringencies on economic machines that are already well-oiled. There is clearly advantage to some, decadally stagnant economies [referring to European countries] if they can by force of the UN or other international law reduce the productivity of the competition [referring to the USA and Australia].”

Lowry concludes by noting:

“The Day After Tomorrow” might not be much of a movie, but it is useful for providing a glimpse into the soul of left-wing environmentalism. Pretty chilling.

Actually, Michaels himself offers his own thoughts in the USA TODAY:

This isn't Hollywood's first attempt to scare people into its way of thinking. How about Jane Fonda in the 1979 anti-nuclear-power flick, The China Syndrome?

Twelve days after its release, the accident at Three Mile Island occurred. Despite the fact that it released only tiny amounts of radiation, the politics of that hysteria effectively killed any new nuclear plant.

Analogize the Western drought to Three Mile Island, and you get the idea.

Or how about the 1983 movie The Day After, whose purpose was to strengthen the nuclear-freeze movement. It failed.

The Day After Tomorrow is only one more day than The Day After, and it deserves the same fate. Lies cloaked as science should never determine how we live our lives.

No one who has seen the movie would claim that anything in it is cloaked as science. Incidentally, the small author bio at the end of this article points out that Michaels has a new book coming out, entitled Meltdown: The Predictable Distortion of Global Warming by Scientists, Politicians and the Media. You can put this book right alongside Dinesh D'Souza's, mentioned in the previous post. Titles like this are the trademark of books written by right-wing hacks.

Compare this overwrought hand-wringing with Al Gore's entirely sensible comment on the same issue:

There are two sets of fiction to deal with. One is the movie, the other is the Bush administration's presentation of global warming.

Exactly right.

Oh What A Circus Since its pretty far outside the usual purview of this blog, I have not commented so far on the death of Ronald Reagan. Frequent readers of this blog will be unsurprised to learn that I am among those who think that Reagan did far more harm than good during his eight years as president. I will not rehash his record here; that has already been done by people far more able than me. Let me just remind you of his comment on evolution, made during the 1980 presidential campaign:

Well, it is a theory. It is a scientific theory only, and it has in recent years been challenged in the world of science - that is, not believed in the scientific community to be as infallible as it once was.

At the time this was taken to be a reference to punctuated equilibrium, which enjoyed a spate of publicity in 1980. Suffice it to say, Reagan's interpretation of “punk eek” is debatable.

Still, it's hard not to be a little taken aback be the ridiculous hero worship shown by many conservatives since Reagan's death. Conservatives may hate government (more precisely, they may hate government when it spends money in ways that doesn't benefit them directly), but they love their politicians. I'm reminded of the song “Oh What A Circus” from Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical Evita:

Oh what a circus, oh what a show
Argentina has gone to town
Over the death of an actress called Eva Peron
We've all gone crazy
Mourning all day and mourning all night
Falling over ourselves to get all of the misery right

Oh what an exit, that's how to go
When they're ringing your curtain down
Demand to be buried like Eva Peron
It's quite a sunset
And good for the country in a roundabout way
We've made the front page of all the world's papers today

But who is this Santa Evita?
Why all this howling, hysterical sorrow?
What kind of goddess has lived among us?
How will we ever get by without her?

She had her moments, she had some style
The best show in town was the crowd
Outside the Casa Rosada crying, "Eva Peron"
But that's all gone now
As soon as the smoke from the funeral clears
We're all gonna see and how, she did nothing for years

Obviously, the song is about Eva Peron. But most of the sentiments apply with equal strength to Reagan.

Over at Slate, you can find this debate (from 1997) between Dinesh D'Souza and E.J. Dionne about Reagan's legacy. D'Souza is the author of a book called Ronald Reagan: How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary Leader. The mere fact that he could devise a title so simpering and pathetic tells you all you need to know about him. In my completely unbiased opinion, Dionne mops the floor with him. What particularly struck me about the debate was that while D'Souza never got beyond the level of cheap slogans and simplistic hagiography, Dionne had the nerve to talk specifics. I recommend reading the whole thing, but here's one brief exchange:

First, D'Souza:

On the tax-reform bill of 1986: I didn't address this issue earlier because I didn't think your point here was especially strong. The Reagan administration introduced the bill shortly after Treasury Secretary Donald Regan informed Reagan that a review of tax returns had showed that many major corporations had taken advantage of tax loopholes to pay no taxes at all. Both men agreed it was wrong and that further reform of the Internal Revenue Code was required.

At the time, most pundits felt that after the landmark tax changes of 1981, another major effort at tax reform was never going to succeed. But Reagan knew that some Democrats, such as Bill Bradley and Dan Rostenkowski, supported a restructuring of the tax code. The Reagan administration negotiated a compromise: Republicans would agree to close loopholes if Democrats would agree to lower tax rates. And the top marginal rate, which was 70 percent when Reagan came to office and had been lowered to 50 percent in 1981, was further reduced to 28 percent.

Here's Dionne's reply:

Dinesh, I'm sorry, but you're just wrong about Reagan taking a strong leadership role on tax reform. You credit Reagan for negotiating a compromise. “Republicans would agree to close loopholes if Democrats would agree to lower tax rates.” That wasn't Reagan's idea. It's what Sen. Bill Bradley and Rep. Dick Gephardt suggested. And the pressure for tax reform came when outside groups exposed the impact of Reagan's own tax program.

Don't believe me on this. In Showdown at Gucci Gulch, their definitive and widely praised account of the battle for tax reform, Jeffrey Birnbaum and Alan Murray (both, at the time, of the Wall Street Journal) note that Bradley began pushing for tax reform in 1981. They also note that it was a report by Bob McIntyre of Citizens for Tax Justice that set off the battle. McIntyre was (and remains) a sharp critic of the original Reagan tax program. In October 1984, he issued a report finding that 128 of 250 large and profitable companies “paid no federal income taxes in at least one year between 1981 and 1983.” Seventeen of the companies paid no taxes whatsoever in all three years.

Yes, Reagan, shrewd politician that he was, responded to the pressure. He called for reform in his State of the Union address in January of 1984, but immediately undercut his own rhetoric. As Birnbaum and Murray note, “those watching the president might have been convinced by the president's sincerity, had it not been for the very next line” of his speech. Reagan said, “I have asked that specific recommendations, consistent with these objectives, be presented to me by December 1984.” They further note: “The presidential election was in November, and the president's promise seemed no more than a cynical ploy to deflect the issue until the election had passed. ... Tax reform seemed no more than a joke.” Even when the president actually proposed reform in his 1985 State of the Union address, he gave an interview to the Wall Street Journal the very next day backing away from corporate tax increases that were part of his own plan. Birnbaum and Murray wrote: “The president seemed to misunderstand the very heart of the 'excellent reform plan' he had praised the night before.”

I don't want to take away from the fact that Reagan eventually signed the law or that some important people in his administration did good work on tax reform. I dwell on this to underscore the fact that you seem less interested in the history of what actually happened in the Reagan years than in canonizing your man. The tax-reform battle underscores many of his weaknesses, even if he did end up supporting what his advisers, in cooperation with Bradley and Gephardt, came up with.

Monday, June 07, 2004

Branch Weighs In The always excellent Glenn Branch of the National Center for Science Education has written this fine editorial for Seed Magazine. In it he discusses the recent attempts by ID folks to bully school boards into adopting a “Teach the Controversy” approach to biology. By this they mean that science teachers should introduce students to false and misleading information in the hopes of convincing them that evolution is a lot of nonsense. Here's an excerpt:

“Teach the controversy” was pioneered in the wake of the Supreme Court's 1987 decision in Edwards v. Aguillard. At issue in the case—between Edwin Edwards, the governor of Louisiana, and Don Aguillard, a science teacher who happened to be alphabetically first in the list of plaintiffs—was Louisiana's “Creationism Act,” which prohibited the teaching of evolution in the state's public schools unless it was accompanied by instruction in “creation science.” The Court ruled that teaching “creation science” in public schools is a form of religious advocacy and thus prohibited by the Constitution. The decision was a blow to creation scientists, who believe that evolution is impossible because living things reproduce “after their own kind,” as the Bible says. Regrouping, the Institute for Creation Research recommended that “school boards and teachers should be strongly encouraged at least to stress the scientific evidences and arguments against evolution in their classes... even if they don't wish to recognize these as evidences and arguments for creation.”

The latest incarnation of anti-evolutionism is intelligent design, which, say its advocates, is not traditional, Bible-based creationism. Rather, it claims that there is scientific evidence for the handiwork of a “designer” in the world, particularly in living things. By not basing their anti-evolutionism explicitly on the Bible, proponents of intelligent design hope to circumvent the decision in Edwards. Yet despite token references to the possibility of alien or time-traveling designers, it is clear they have God in mind.

Sunday, June 06, 2004

Have you Considered the Possibility that your Case is too Strong? This delightful bit of inanity appeared as a guest column in the Fort-Wayne News Sentinel on May 26. It was written by David Emmons, who is described as a resident of Fort Wayne. We consider his musings in full:

Why is it that they want to teach religion in the public schools? As I hear of the debate going on about teaching evolution or intelligent design, I have to protest. There are those who want to teach creationism from Genesis. No one wants this, as this is not science. Let's leave history to the historians, religion to those trained in theology and science to scientists. I do not want my child being taught religion, of any sort, by anyone but a member of the clergy -- one whom I have approved of. My neighbor may pick someone else. This is as it should be.

Talking Points One and Two: ID is different from Creationism. Also, ID is genuine science. I would also point out that there are plenty of people who want biblical literalism taught in public schools, by the way.

When it comes to science, we assume that our children are being taught the scientific method, from the development of a hypothesis, to the gathering of evidence to the formulation of a working theory. Science knows that most things cannot be established as absolute fact. It works with reasonable theories that more often than not hold true under scrutiny. So far, science.

This is the problem: Our children are being taught that evolution is a fact. There simply is not enough evidence to even make it a theory. At best it is a hypothesis. This is fine, but this is not how it is presented. Anyone remember the TV show Cosmos? Carl Sagan said that evolution is a fact. By saying this, he was telling us about his faith and belief, but not science.

Talking Points Three and Four: The evidence does not support evolution and believing it is an exerciese in faith, not science. Also, Carl Sagan was atheist scum.

Intelligent design is science. Let's take it out and away from Genesis and leave it there so that we can explore scientifically a body of evidence. Even many scientists have decided that life here on Earth was seeded by an alien race, as the data just does not support Darwinian evolution. Not one link to bridge any species-to-species jump has turned up.

Talking Point Five, with an encore performance of Talking Point Two: Hey, we're all just honest seekers of scientific truth here, right? And ID is to science, dammit.

Of course, this paragraph is silly. You can count on one hand the number of scientists who think life was seeded by an alien race. The problem of the origin of life is entirely separate from the question of its subsequent evolution. Even if it were true that there were no links “to bridge any species-to-species jump”, that would not be evidence for an extraterrestrial origin of life. And species-to-species jumps, called “speciation” in the biz, are common and explainable by a vairety of mechanisms. Creationists are usually more careful about distinguishing between microevolution and macroevolution at this point.

Intelligent design is based on information theory. Information theory states that the least bit of randomness introduced to an information system creates chaos and destroys that system. It will never lead to positive change.

It really sucks that your average newspaper editor can't look at three sentences like this and conclude that their author is a retard. First, “information system” is not a term used by information theorists. This is a typical example of a creationist using jargon he does not understand for the purpose of pretending that he knows what he is talking about. His statement about randomness never leading to positive change is so blatantly false that I suspect most creationists would not endorse it. Whatever you think of evolution, it is a simple fact that DNA does mutate, these mutations are random with respect to the needs of the organism, and sometimes these mutations lead to physiological improvements. I'd give Mr. Emmons a lecture on evolutionary computation, but I suspect he wouldn't have the patience for it.

Our DNA is an information system, and all life has it. Mathematics sides with design rather than chance. The probability for chance to create such great diversity of life, let alone one strand of DNA, on this planet is very close to impossible. Design, on the other hand, is most highly probable.

All this is science and ought to be taught. Just because it requires a super-intelligence is of no concern to science. There are many things we have discovered that are bigger than we are. Not all things can be known.

Talking Points Six and Seven, with yet another performance by Talking Point Two: You can prove mathematically that evolution is impossible, and the probability of creating DNA by chance is vanishingly small. And, gosh darn it, ID is science. Really!

I won't rehash here the problems with the probability calculations used by creationists. I also will not pounce on the grammatical infelicity of describing the probability of something as being close to impossible. But I would really like to know the basis for the assertion that design is highly probable.

And the fact that ID requires a super-intelligence with unspecified powers and unclear motives makes it almost completely worthless to scientists, regardless of whether it is true. I'm not sure what Emmons has in mind when he talks about “things we have discovered that are bigger than we are” but science only deals with things we understand sufficiently to develop testable hypotheses.

I wish humanity would get off this arrogant kick that it can get its little finite and mortal brain around everything.

Why can't there be something far bigger and superior in the universe (or outside it) that we never can explain? Let's deal with what we do have and look at it scientifically.

Emmons is full of the proverbial shit. What could be more arrogant than pouncing on some currently unsolved problem in science (the origin of life, say) and declaring that since no one has solved the problem yet we have to chalk it up to the work of an omnipotent super-being? And who, exactly, thinks that humanity can get its little finite and mortal brain around everything?

Evolution has simply become a religion -- the opiate of the masses. It takes faith to believe in something that lacks so much in evidence to support it. Let it become extinct with the dinosaur. We have invested so much time and money into it, but it is time to be honest and let it go. As a great society that leads the world in its information technology, we ought to turn this talent to good use. The wonders of life have the imprint of a great mind, which we ought to be thrilled to investigate.

Nothing here that merits a response.

I sometimes wonder if people like Emmons ever stop to consider the possibility that their case is too strong. Everyone seems to agree that the overwhelming majority of scientists accept evolution. The peope in the relevant fields of science use it in their day-to-day research to produce results in the field and the lab. There are dozens of journals devoted to evolution and its related disciplines and these journals are not hurting for quality papers to publish.

It is possible that evolution is worng nonetheless. The fact that large numbers of scientists have accepted evolution for several generations does not make the theory true. But it does count for something. It means that evolution is not a crazy idea, and it's not going to be refuted by any two-line argument that any high-school student could grasp. Emmons has the nerve to lecture us about arrogance, but he is the one who thinks scientists have overlooked simple arguments that he, himself, has noticed.

Is it Unconstitutional Not to Teach ID? I have a lengthy post up at The Panda's Thumb addressing this audacious question. It is based on an essay by philosopher Warren Nord in the anthology Darwinism, Design and Public Education, edited by John Angus Campbell and Stephen C. Meyer. Read the whole thing here.