Thursday, July 15, 2004

Germond on Politics  One of my favorite liberal pundits has always been Jack Germond.  He has a new book out called Fat Man Fed Up: How American Politics Went Bad.  Germond opens the book with the following quote from Adlai Stevenson

In America anybody can become president.  That's just one of the risks you take.

In light of the current administration, I think Stevenson was a genius.
I also appreciated Germond's thoughts on why conservatives dominate  forums like talk radio:

It isn't difficult to see why conservatives dominate the talk shows and the little magazines-it's called moral certitude.  They are so sure not only that they are right but that their opponents are wrong and, in many cases, morally corrupt.  For some reason lost on me, the rise of conservatism has come hand in hand with an increase in the number of journalists who have gone public with their religious fundamentalism.  (P. 48)

And later:

On the other hand, liberals by definition seem less positive abou the rightness of their positions.  Their ethic includes tolerance of other views, something that does not burden the Limbaughs or Snatorums of the world.  (P. 48)

Exactly right.

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

What's an RSS Feed? A number of readers have asked me whether EvolutionBlog has an RSS feed. I'm afraid I have no idea what an RSS feed is or how to get one. I'd appreciate it if someone could educate me on the matter. Thanks.

Even a Stopped Clock is Right Twice a Day WorldNetDaily columnist Tom Ambrose is unhappy with the Republican party. He writes:

It's time for a major reality check: The GOP doesn't walk on water, nor has it been anointed by God as His personal ambassador to Washington, D.C.

Today, many people feel the Republican Party is at least as corrupt as the Democratic Party. There are good reasons why large numbers of conservatives are leaving the Republican Party. Indeed, why any religious conservatives still continue to support the GOP is difficult to comprehend, since the GOP not only supports the same causes as Democrats, they also lie about what they really stand for.

I can hear the howls of protest even as I write this, but just so you know where I'm coming from, I twice was an elected member of a large Republican county central committee. Nobody wanted to see the Republican Party succeed more than I did.

But the facts are clear: The GOP only pretends to support conservative values.

The WorldNetDaily publishes some of the most comically extreme right-wing rhetoric to be found on the internet, and this column proves to be no exception. Here is the list of offenses Ambrose provides to back up his claims about the GOP's perfidy:

Since Bush has been in office and the Republicans have controlled the House and Senate, here are just a few of the most egregious things that God's Party has done for America:

  • continued to support the United Nations, which seeks control over America.
  • continued to allow the Internal Revenue Service to destroy the lives of U.S. citizens.
  • continued to allow judges to use the U.S. Constitution as toilet paper.
  • continued the cover-up of the attack on TWA Flight 800.
  • continued the cover-up of the Oklahoma City bombing.
  • continued to pay lip service to protecting U.S. borders, while actually inviting more illegal immigration.

Ambrose is obviously insane. I also wonder about the connection between any of his six issues and belief in God.

However, it's nice to see a conservative point out that the GOP is completely full of it when they present themselves as the party of fundamentalist Christianity.

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Americans United Has a Blog! Americans United for the Separation of Church and State now has a blog! Actually, it has existed for several months, but I have only just become aware of it. I have added it to my blog roll on the right, and expect to be checking it out regularly. I encourage you to do the same.

Their current entry tells the story of Margaret Sayre, an elderly Maryland resident who was in the habit of having lunch at a local, government-funded senior center. Sayre objected to the fact that the meals opened with a Christian prayer. She started seeking advice from various local officials and atheist groups. Somehow, one of her e-mails ended up in the hands of Maryland delegate Don Dwyer. Dwyer was not amused. Mayhem ensued.

I recommend reading the entire entry, but I was particularly amused by the following exchange:

Local officials and other state lawmakers declined to stand up for Sayre, but word of Dwyer's rude missive soon began circulating on the web. Michael Nord, an Americans United member in Virginia, decided to take Dwyer to task. In an e-mail message to the legislator, Nord pointed out that the U.S. Constitution guarantees separation of church and state. He went on to chide Dwyer for attacking an elderly woman.

“Way to go, attacking a little old lady who is asking for your help,” Nord wrote. “Did you kick some puppies today too? I'd hope that the people of Maryland would have higher standards for their public servants.”

Dwyer wrote back, accusing Nord of being ignorant of the Constitution and adding, “Fortunately in Maryland our constitution under the Declaration of Rights article 36 still states that in order to serve in elected office you have to believe in God. Isn't that great!!!”

Dwyer is apparently ignorant of the fact that the provision he cites was declared null and void by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1961 decision Torcaso v. Watkins. That ruling, brought by a Maryland resident who refused to affirm a belief in God as a condition of becoming a notary public, ended “religious tests” for public office in the handful of state constitutions that retained them.

Dembski's Introduction to Uncommon Dissent Over at The Panda's Thumb I have posted a few remarks about William Dembski's intoduction to his anthology Uncommon Dissent. Go have a look!

Monday, July 12, 2004

Koons, Part 3 In the previous posts of this series I considered Koons' arguments that modern evolutionary theory cannot account for biological complexity. I pointed out that whereas Koons pretends that natural selection is an abstract, all-purpose explanation that allows scientists to avoid dealing with the problem of complexity, in reality it allows scientists to form testable hypotheses about the formation of complex systems. I also showed that Koons has no understanding of basic concepts of biology and that he has made no attempt to understand the biological literature. Finally, I outlined the explanatory hurdles Koons believes evolutionists must jump through and showed that they are preposterous.

In this installment I consider a further aspect of Koons' argument. It is his contention that in understanding the origin of species the presumption should be in favor of ID. In his telling, evolution and ID are not rival scientific explanations; rather, ID is king of the hill and evolution is the young upstart trying to knock it off its perch. He writes:

The Western philosophical tradition has thus bequeathed to us two competing metaphysical models: one in which everything is to be explained ultimately in terms of blind and purposeless forces (the materialistic model); and one in which purposefulness is a fundamental and irreducible reality (the teleological model). The most important question, from an epistemological point of view, is this: where should we locate the burden of proof? There are compelling grounds for placing the burden of proof on the materialistic model. ...Only familiarity dulls our sense of wonder at the craftsmanship of nature. (P. 7)

And later:

As attractive as such agnosticism might be, this argument for epistemological equivalency seems to overlook the central fact that I have been trying to press home in this essay: that the natural presumption about the cause of life lies with the intelligent agency position. Darwinism must progress to stage three or four before this presumption can be overcome. The intelligent agency position faces no such imperative since the inference from complex, interdependent functionality to intelligent agency is the natural, default position. (P. 17)

What these excerpts make clear is that Koons has no interest at all in doing science. As far as a scientist is concerned, Koons' preferred teleological explanation is no different from saying “I don't know how it happened”. This is a simple fact that most creationists seem utterly incapable of grasping.

At no point does Koons get around to telling us what, exactly, scientists should be doing differently in their day-to-day work. He's just sore that most scientists find evolutionary explanations to be convincing, while he does not. The purpose of his essay is to provide excuses for people who want to brush aside the evidence for evolution.

As I have argued before in this blog, science is about predicitability and control. It is not about ultimate truth. That Koons does not understand this simple fact is made obvious by his comments on methodological maturalism. For example:

Methodological naturalism, the rule that the natural sciences must proceed without invoking intelligent causes, would be justified if Darwinists first provided adequate, independent grounds for clieving that natural, unintelligent causes produced may of the sophisticated biological functions we observe. (P. 3)


In the twentieth century, the most important factor contributing to confusion about the epistemological status of Darwin's program has been the widespread adoption of “methodological naturalism”, a dogmatic definition of the very essence of science that excludes by fiat any reference to any explanatory principle that doesn't pass muster within the materialistic, anti-teleological model of metaphysics. The term “methodological naturalism” is itself a rhetorical tour de force. First, by appropriating the label “natural” for the materialistic tradition it subtly excludes the Aristotelian and Augustinian view, which sees nature as intrinsically and irreducibly teleological. Second, it has seduced many who subscribe to the teleological worldview as a matter of private conviction into embracing a merely “methodological” naturalism that supposedly poses no threat to their teleological ontology. (P. 14)

Koons' arguments collapse as soon as you understand that science is about rendering nature predictable and controllable. Koons wants to know about ultimate reality. Wouldn't we all. But science can't give that to us.

Methodological naturalism is not a rule, and it is not a dogmatic definition of the very essence of science. It is a simple acknowledgement of the fact that in the entire history of science it has never once happened that invoking non-natural explanations has enabled us to bring some aspect of nature under our control. That supernatural explanations are completely and totally worthless is obvious to anyone who has ever entered a lab in the hopes of obtaining a useful result. Koons, I suspect, has never done that.

In the first quote above, Koons equates methodological naturalism with the idea that science must not invoke intelligent causes. He should tell that to William Dembski, who routinely informs us that many branches of science (such as forensic pathology) are based on distiniguishing intelligent from non-intelligent causes. It is fine to invoke intelligent causes in science, as long as the intelligence in question is known to exist, and as long as something is known about the sort of capabilities the intelligent agent possesses. What you can not do is concoct out of thin air an omnipotent intelligent who acts in ways that are utterly mysterious.

The only reason science poses any threat to teleological views of the world is that it has been so successful for so long, that non-natural explanations now seem superfluous. It is not that any particular finding of science shows that God does not exist. Rather, it is that the relentless march of scientific progress has made God seem unnecessary as an explanatory principle.

That's how I see it, anyway. Plenty of other people are perfectly happy to leave God out of their scientific papers, but attend church on Sunday nonetheless. No seduction there.

Koons makes a weak attempt to address this point by pointing to cases where a teleological viewpoint has aided scientific progress. He writes:

In medicine and anatomy, the progress achieved by Andreas Vesalius and William Harvey depended not only on their willingness to go beyond Aristotle but also upon their continued efforts to build on the foundations that Aristotle had laid. Harvey discovered the circulation of the blood because he believed in a divine architect who had created all things “for a certain purpose, and to some good end”. Such teleological thinking has proved indispensable in biology until the present day. To identify a protein as an “enzyme” or a DNA molecule as a “code” is to use irreducibly teleological concepts, as is any reference to adaptations or disease. (P. 16)

I can't imagine what point Koons thinks he's making here. He is simply confusing the manner in which a scientist is led to formulate an hypothesis with the hypothesis itself. So what if Harvey's discovery of the circulation of the blood was motivated by his belief in God? The fact remains there is nothing non-natural in his description of blood circulation.

Of course modern biology is filled with teleological thinking of the sort Koons describes. Again, so what? In explaining the formation of complex, biological systems it is often helpful to act as if the system was designed for a purpose. This is because the prolonged action of natural selection effectively mimics many of the attributes we expect of an intelligent designer. That doesn't change the fact tbat there is nothing supernatural in modern biological explanations.

Koons writes as if calling upon some vague notion of teleology in forming hypotheses is somehow equivalent to accepting the reality of God. Of course, they are entirely different notions.

Incidentally, no one describes a DNA molecule as a code. A DNA molecule lying on the sidewalk is in no way code-like. This is just another example of Koons using scientific terminology he doesn't really understand.

For someone who makes his living writing about the philosophy of science, Koons seems strangely uninterested in considering the problems scientists face in the field and the lab. He seems far more interested in propping up his own assumptions, and with finding reasons for rejecting uncomfortable facts. There is nothing in his essay to suggest that modern biology needs to change what it has been doing. Even worse, there is nothing to suggest that today's crowd of anti-evolutionists has anything useful or interesting to say.

Sunday, July 11, 2004

The View From New Zealand Here's a review of William Dembski's book The Design Revolution. It appeared at the webiste of the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa, New Zealand. It's author, Alistair McBride, is described as a minister with training in chemistry. The review is decidedly lukewarm, to put it kindly:

For me the book is characterised by a great deal of polemic and special pleading which makes it difficult to tread a path through the argumentation.

His real target is something he calls Darwinism. As I read the chapter “The Only Game in Town” I found he tries to narrow the debate down to a particular understanding of what Darwin wrote. “Darwin’s claim to fame was to argue that natural forces, lacking any purposiveness or prevision of future possibilities, likewise have the power to choose via natural selection.”(p. 263)

The introduction of the phrase “power to choose” in my view anthropomorphises “natural forces.” Choice, as I understands it, is exercised by an agent able to comprehend the differences between options offered. Here one can get lost in the argumentation and many others have contributed to the debate, but it drove me back to the original On the Origin of the Species. Darwin in his chapters on Natural Selection and the Laws of Variation does not make or infer such claims. In fact Darwin tries to eschew the place of “chance”, explaining that it serves to acknowledge our ignorance. From my reading, the branch of evolutionary biology has come to see that “natural selection” plays only a part in the overall scheme of the theory of evolution and to argue solely against a narrowly defined Darwinist position obfuscates the issues being discussed in the wider scientific community.

One of the key issues is the understanding of how he approaches Intelligent Design. It is, for him, the science that studies signs of intelligence. His fundamental claim is “there are natural systems that cannot be adequately explained in terms of undirected natural forces and that exhibit features which in any other circumstance we would attribute to intelligence.” (P.27)

In the end the argument does not convince me because we are left with a process which can have all the steps measurable or observable except one, the one where “information/design” is put in. That appears to be outside of measurable scientific method, and requires in essence some form of a “leap of faith” which is no different from some of the creationist theories or the extraterrestrial theories about.

I was also disappointed to see the paucity of British theologian-scientists like Polkinghorne and Peacockes or the Australian Charles Birch who have made significant contributions to the debate being totally ignored.

Gee on ID Don't miss this short article from Nature magazine about yet another problem with ID theory. It's author is paleontologist Henry Gee. Here's an excerpt:

The fact that the work seems so surprising exposes another, more dangerous conceit that scientists are prone to. Dangerous, because it leaves science wide open to the temptations of so-called 'Intelligent Design'. Advocates of this view object to evolution by invoking what Richard Dawkins has called the 'Argument from Incredulity' – that is, if I don't believe that something is possible, it cannot happen. Philosopher William Paley in his Natural Theology famously used this argument when he compared the delicate designs of nature with a pocket watch. Pocket watches are not made spontaneously, so if the existence of a functioning, integrated watch implies a watchmaker, then the same must surely apply to a living creature.

More than a century later, proponents of Intelligent Design use the same reasoning when they marvel at the intricate design of, say, a bacterial flagellar motor. How can one ever give credence to the view that the sophisticated mechanism of the flagellar motor could have evolved to such precision without a guiding hand, when the tiniest of changes to its apparently irreducible complexity might render it useless?

I was discussing the problem with two polymathic friends of mine, reproductive biologist Jack Cohen and mathematician Ian Stewart, co-authors of Figments of Reality, Evolving the Alien and The Science of Discworld. They are working on their next book, Appearance of Design (to be published by Penguin next year) and Cohen sent me a draft chapter containing a devastating response to the challenge of Intelligent Design. It arrived on my desk at about the time that the work on the lamprey immune system was making waves in the Nature office, so it struck a particular chord with me.

Cohen argues that the fallacy in the Intelligent-Design argument about the flagellar motor (or any other system), is that proponents present the motor we see as The Motor, the exemplar, the only one possible, and, what's more the best possible, surely optimized by a Designing Hand. But when Cohen searched the literature, he found that a wide variety of flagellar motors have been described, each arranged in its own way, each its own solution to effective rotary motion in the microworld. There is no such thing as The Motor, no Platonic perfection enforced on bacteria by Divine fiat. Instead we see ad hoc solutions that are not perfect, but idiosyncratic and eclectic – just what you would expect if evolution were working on its own, without a Designer.

ID proponents, most notably William Dembski, tell us that it is the combination of complexity and specification that prove that something was designed. To 'specify' the biomolecular systems they focus on, they rely on the functionality of those systems. Gee is pointing out that there are invariably many ways to design a biomolecular system to perform a given function. Any probability calculation purporting to measure the likelihood of obtaining a given system in the course of evolution must take this into consideration.

Dembski wants you to believe that evolving the particular bacterial flagella used by the bacterium E. coli (his favorite example) is an event that is comparable to flipping a fair coin one thousand times and getting heads every time. What the biological literature actually shows is that evolving this particular flagellum is more like tossing the arbitrary collection of heads and tails we expect to get when we flip a coin one thousand times. The particular sequence we get is doubtless highly improbable, but since something had to happen we don't regard it as suspicious.

Farenheit 9/11 I finally saw this movie yesterday, and all I have to say about it is that it is much more interesting and serious than the right-wingers want you to think. I suggest ignoring everything you read about it (especially anything written by Christopher Hitchens or Andrew Sullivan) and seeing it for yourself.

Pharyngula has more.

World Open Results The World Open was as enjoyable as ever. I scored a respectable, if not spectacular, 4 wins, 2 draws, and 3 losses. Full results are available here.