Thursday, September 30, 2004

Mooney on Fire

Be sure to have a look at this excellent article from Chris Mooney about the increasing use of bogus science by the religious right. Whether the issue is creationism, health risks to women from abortion, or stem cell use, religious conservative now routinely cast their arguments in scientific terms. In one sense, the fact that they must fight on science's turf in making their case is a big defeat for religion. But the fact remains that it's very easy to blind people with science, especially when you're claiming to provide scientifc legitimacy for moral assertions people believe anyway.

Here are too excerpts:

Brind's story provides a case study in how religious conservatives have shifted gears in their battles over science and policy. Instead of simply lecturing about the moral evils of abortion, they've increasingly depicted the procedure as damaging to women's health. And on a range of other issues, Christian conservatives have similarly adopted the veneer of scientific and technical expertise instead of merely asserting their heartfelt beliefs. Their claims--that abortion causes mental problems in women, that condoms aren't very effective in preventing HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, that adult stem cells have more research promise than embryonic ones, and so on--now frequently comprise the right's chief arguments on these issues. Granted, the Christian right's new “science” generally remains on the fringe of the scientific community. But since conservative funders have managed to underwrite a variety of think tanks and advocacy groups that push these arguments, it has nevertheless influenced policy at the state and federal level.


All told, Christian conservatives have gone a long way towards creating their own scientific counter-establishment. Indeed, the religious right's “science” represents just the most recent manifestation of the gradual conservative Christian political awakening that has so dramatically shaped our politics over the past several decades. “They're saying that their faith is not just a pietistic private exercise, but that it has implications in the world of education, or politics, or the world of science,” notes Michael Cromartie, an expert on the religious right at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. And by providing a scientific cover--albeit a thin one--for religiously-inspired policies, this appropriation of science has at least temporary benefits for groups seeking to promote them. After all, the scientific method is inherently open to abuse. Because it encourages open publication, continual challenges to the conventional wisdom, and a presumption of good faith on the part of researchers, those who would deliberately slant their interpretations or cherry-pick their facts find plenty of running room.

This is straight Lysenkoism, and we all know how that turned out. Fighting this stuff needs to be part of every scientist's job description.

Kramnik 2.5-Leko 1.5

Four games down in the World Chess Championship. Two more draws in games three and four. Kramnik got an advantage on the white side of the Ruy Lopez in gane four and even managed to win a pawn. Sadly, this proved inadequate to win the resulting four rook endgame.

The quick draw in game three did not look good for Leko. At the grandmaster level, it is much easier to win with white than with black. So every chance to play the white pieces is precious in match of this sort. It was essential for Leko to at least put some pressure on Kramnik in game three. Instead he simply repeated the same line of the Petroff Defense he used in game one. Kramnik used about eight minutes for his first twnety moves and drew the game effortlessly.

So far it's been very clear that Kramnik's opening preparation has been far superior to Leko's. Recall that opening preparation was crucial in Kramnik's win over Kasparov in 2000. There Kramnik trotted out the Berlin variation of the Ruy Lopez, which hadn't been played in top level chess for decades. Kramnik had prepared thoroughly, however, and Kasparov could not possibly have anticiapted that Kramnik would use such a line.

The Petroff Defense is similar to the Berlin variation in that in both cases black accepts a position that on the one hand is passive and offers few counterchances, but on the other hand is very solid and tough to break down. It is typical of Kramnik's match strategy. In tournaments Kramnik has often preferred the Sicilian Defense, especially the exciting Sveshnikov and Najdorf variations. I guess he figures those opening are too risky for a match like this.

Did Myers Really Just Say That?

P.Z Myers of Pharyngula is one of the best science bloggers in the business. His is the first site I check out every morning when I do my daily round-up of news sites and blogs, and I always feel like I come away learning something new.

So how is it possible that someone so smart has actually concluded that those awful, white, dry-erase boards are superior to good, old-fashioned chalk on slate:

Eh. I don’t have a lot of sympathy. There is a tactile difference to chalk and dry erase markers, but I think it’s largely more a matter of familiarity and personal comfort and obstinate resistance to change that’s fueling the opposition, not anything necessary to teaching. And math in particular—it’s strings of symbols on a surface. Dry erase markers produce higher contrast, bolder lines; I would think that they would be superior to chalk, once the instructor gets used to them. I can use either, and tend to favor video projection, anyway.

I can't believe Myers would actually write something so absurd. He must have had a guest blogger sitting in for the day.

Chalkboards are superior in every conceivable way to dry-erase boards. Dry-erase boards are usually way too small and can not be erased with your hand. The markers dry up after about two uses and they fade out on you if you try to draw a long, straight line. Geometric figures are far easier to draw with chalk than with markers. It's a lot easier to wash chalk dust off your hands than that skanky marker residue. Dry-erase erasers get filthy pretty quickly and are impossible to clean. Chalk gives you more control over thickness and emphasis when you're writing. Chalk makes a pleasing clacking noise it makes contact with the board. Dry-erase markers smell bad and get you high. As for higher contrast, bolder lines; please. On Bizarro world, maybe. Here on planet Earth white chalk on black slate provides plenty of contrast.

And math is just strings of symbols on a surface? Yeah, and biology's just a matter of reading the book and memorizing lots of jargon.

I invite Myers to spend one term teaching multivariable calculus on a dry-erase board. The first time he tries to do one of those miserable multiple integral problems (the ones that begin: Find the volume of the first octant part of the solid bounded by the cylinders...) he'll come to his senses.

And video projection? Freakin' video projection?? Seriously.

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Me and Mr. Ham

Update: Sunday, October 3, 2004: One of my readers has pointed out to me that there is a bit more to the Dawkins story, quoted in this post, than I realized. Have a look at this post from Ed Brayton's blog. I don't entirely agree with the conclusions Ed draws, but it does show that Dawkins was not exactly blameless in what happened.

I had my own run-in with Ken Ham several years ago. I attended a homeschooler's conference in Wichita, KS at which he was the keynote speaker (which tells you something about the home schooling community in Kansas). After his talk, which consisted almost entirely of smears against scientists and distortions of the facts of elementary biology (interrupted periodically by the appreciative cheers of the audience), a group of audience members went up on stage to ask him questions (there was no formal Q&A session). After mentally determining the fastest route to the exit, I decided to go up on stage as well.

One of the main themes of Ham's talk was that biologists have no explanation for how information growth can occur in the course of evolution. The idea is that evolution supposedly began with simple bacteria possessing small genomes, and later produced humans with big genomes. So where did all of that extra genetic information come from? The argument is usually fleshed out with a lot of biology jargon that's guaranteed to impress ignorant audiences.

This question might be cute coming from a first-year biology major, but from someone passing himself off as an expert in these things it's just silly. There are quite a few natural mechanisms that can lead to information growth, such as duplication with subsequent divergence, lateral gene transfer, symbiosis, and polyploidy. The first one has probably been the most important in evolution since the Cambrian, the next two were especially important in the early stages of evolution, while the fourth occurs primarily in plants.

During his talk Ham showed the now infamous video of Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins “failing” to answer this question (about information growth in the genome). For those not familiar with this, here's Dawkins' brief description of the experience:

In September 1997, I allowed an Australian film crew into my house in Oxford without realising that their purpose was creationist propaganda. In the course of a suspiciously amateurish interview, they issued a truculent challenge to me to “give an example of a genetic mutation or an evolutionary process which can be seen to increase the information in the genome.” It is the kind of question only a creationist would ask in that way, and it was at this point I tumbled to the fact that I had been duped into granting an interview to creationists - a thing I normally don't do, for good reasons. In my anger I refused to discuss the question further, and told them to stop the camera. However, I eventually withdrew my peremptory termination of the interview as a whole. This was solely because they pleaded with me that they had come all the way from Australia specifically in order to interview me. Even if this was a considerable exaggeration, it seemed, on reflection, ungenerous to tear up the legal release form and throw them out. I therefore relented.

My generosity was rewarded in a fashion that anyone familiar with fundamentalist tactics might have predicted. When I eventually saw the film a year later, I found that it had been edited to give the false impression that I was incapable of answering the question about information content. In fairness, this may not have been quite as intentionally deceitful as it sounds. You have to understand that these people really believe that their question cannot be answered! Pathetic as it sounds, their entire journey from Australia seems to have been a quest to film an evolutionist failing to answer it.

The quote above comes from this article, in which Dawkins goes on to address the question of information growth in some detail (focussing on duplication and divergence).

Anyway, when it came to be my turn I very politely asked, in front of a group of about thirty or more audience members, why he persisted in repeating this charge even after biologists had responded to it many times. I rattled off several mechanisms by which information could increase and asked why he had not mentioned them in his talk. I finished by pointing out that since most of Dawkins' books address, at least indirectly, the subject of information growth, it was rather unfair to make it appear that he had no answer to the question.

Ham stuttered a bit and finally suggested I walk over to the book exhibit and pick up a copy of the book In the Beginning was Information by Werner Gitt, where I would find answers to all my questions. I politely thanked him for the suggestion and walked away. Happily, quite a few of the other audience members came with me and asked me some follow-up questions. I was more than happy to answer them.

Feeling masochistic I bought and skimmed through Gitt's book. It parroted the same bogus charges Ham had made in his talk, but made no mention of any of the standard mechanisms I mentioned previously. I decided it might be fun to go another round with Mr. Ham.

My chance came as I saw Ham by himself walking across the convention floor. I fell into step next to him and politely showed him that I had bought Gitt's book, as he had suggested. I then pointed out that Gitt makes no mention of any the standard mechanisms biologists cite to explain information growth. Since these mechanisms figure prominently in any textbook on genetics, it seemed like poor form for Gitt to not even address them in the course of a two hundred page book.

Ham spent a lot of time in his talk trying to explain to his adoring audience why the secular world so often refuses to take the young-Earth viewpoint seriously. Ham's answer had a lot to do with people rebelling against God and preferring to wallow in sin. I suggested that perhaps the real reason the secular world doesn't take people like him seriously is that he doesn't bother to get his facts straight before shooting off his mouth. I suggested this very politely, of course.

It was just the two of us at this point so I guess he decided the gloves were off. He called me arrogant and suggested I change my attitude. I told him my attitude had nothing to do with the fact that he hadn't the faintest idea what he was talking about. Then I asked him if he felt any shame in facing his audiences and telling them bald-faced lies. He grunted and walked away.

Time well spent, I thought.

Taking Ham to Task

Dedicated creationist-watchers will be well-familiar with the antics of Answers in Genesis leader Ken Ham. Ham's writings combine maximum scientific ignorance with maximum viciousness towards dissenters from his particular brand of fundamentalist Christianity. Like many creationists, he especially despises theistic evolutionists and old-Earth creationists for their compromises with modernity.

So it is nice to see the Chrisitan blog Reasons Why take Ham to task for some especially venemous remarks about defenders of the old-Earth view:

Ken Ham, the proprietor of Answers In Genesis, sends out a little love towards his opponents in the “old earth” camp. Keep in mind these are fellow believers he's talking about :
In Numbers 22–24 we read how the Moabite King Balak tried to get Balaam to curse the people of Israel, to destroy their effectiveness in warfare. However, God would not allow Balaam to do this. But in Numbers 25, we read that the Israelites sinned against God and so God judged them accordingly—thousands died. What caused this?
Balaam wanted God to be angry with the people of Israel, so he advised Balak to get some of the most beautiful women in his kingdom to draw the men of Israel into unclean and idolatrous practices.

Balaam knew that if the Israelites adopted pagan ways, God would not bless them as He had done. And so, the Israelites let the pagans influence them, instead of standing firm on the sure Word of God and His Holy Law! Satan has used this ‘trick’ time and time again. The church at Pergamos had committed spiritual ‘fornication’ in allowing people to compromise the Word of God—allowing pagan ideas to be adopted into the church. 2 Peter 2:15 and Jude 11 also refer to people who have rebelled against God and are compared to Balaam.

Now what has all this to do with millions and billions of years? I believe Satan has used the same trick on the church today, as many Christian leaders have committed a form of ‘spiritual fornication’ in compromising with the world and thus have undermined the authority of the Word of the living God.”

(from Millions of years and the 'doctrine of Balaam')

Contrary to what Mr. Ham thinks, most old-earthers are very serious about interpreting God's word correctly. These are not heretics who deny the essentials of the faith. Rather, they are very concerned with seeing that the witness of creation and the witness of God's Word line up with each other. Could the old-earthers be wrong? Yes, definitely. But that does not mean that they are commiting “spiritual fornication” or compromising with pagan ideas.

Ken Ham should be ashamed of himself.


Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Eat Your Heart Out Mr. Giraffe

It seems that school is shutting down early today, out of respect for the huge quantities of water currently falling from the sky. While I prepare myself psychologically for the long, miserable walk to my car, you can all have a look at this amusing news brief from Scientific American:

Scientists have unearthed the fossil of an ancient aquatic reptile that sported a neck almost twice as long as its meter-long body. The 1.7-meter-long neck appears to have been too rigid to twist around in search of prey, however, so its function was at first uncertain. “This animal was one of those things that comes along and says 'wait a minute, you don't know as much as you thought you did'” about what long necks are good for, says Michael LaBarbera of the University of Chicago, one of the authors of a paper detailing the find published today in Science.

Monday, September 27, 2004

Sternberg Replies

The editor responsible for the publication of Meyer's paper, mentioned in the previous post, was Richard von Sternberg. He has set up this website to answer the charges that have been levelled against him.

I have no inside information about the workings of the Biological Society of Washington. All I can do is read what he has written and draw my own conclusions. And it seems to me that he has left a lot of unanswered questions. At times his phrasing strikes me as a bit too cagey, and I think there is more going on here than he has described.

Sternberg begins with a summary of the key points. He writes:

In the case of the Meyer paper I followed all the standard procedures for publication in the Proceedings. As managing editor it was my prerogative to choose the editor who would work directly on the paper, and as I was best qualified among the editors I chose myself, something I had done before in other appropriate cases. In order to avoid making a unilateral decision on a potentially controversial paper, however, I discussed the paper on at least three occasions with another member of the Council of the Biological Society of Washington (BSW), a scientist at the National Museum of Natural History. Each time, this colleague encouraged me to publish the paper despite possible controversy.

This statement is contradicted by this statement from the BSW mentioned in the previous post. They state that:

The paper by Stephen C. Meyer in the Proceedings (“The origin of biological information and the higher taxonomic categories,” vol. 117, no. 2, pp. 213-239) represents a significant departure from the nearly purely taxonomic content for which this journal has been known throughout its 124-year history. It was published without the prior knowledge of the Council, which includes officers, elected councilors, and past presidents, or the associate editors. We have met and determined that all of us would have deemed this paper inappropriate for the pages of the Proceedings.

I'd say there's something to be resolved here. It is possible, however, that the Council member Sternberg mentions is no longer with the BSW. Perhaps the person Sternberg is referring to here would be willing to step forward.

Also, the issue at this point was not whether the content of the paper would be controversial, but whether its subject matter was appropriate for the journal. According to the journal's home page, the PBSW:

contains papers bearing on systematics in the biological sciences (botany, zoology, and paleontology), and notices of business transacted at meetings of the Society.

They seldom publish review articles and certainly not review articles about evolutionary biology. Evolution certainly has a role to play in botany, zoology, and paleontology, but it is clear that this is not a journal devoted to evolutionary issues.

This relates directly to Sternberg's next point:

According to the official description of the Proceedings published in each issue, the journal “contains papers bearing on systematics in the biological sciences (botany, zoology, and paleontology).” The journal has published in areas such as comparative cytogenetics, phylogenetic hypotheses and classifications, developmental studies, and reviews of faunal groups. In addition, evolutionary scenarios are frequently presented at the end of basic systematic studies. Even a casual survey of papers published in the Proceedings and the occasional Bulletin of the Biological Society of Washington will reveal many titles in such areas. Thus, the topic of Meyer's paper was well within the scope of the journal.

The logic here seems to be that since the journal has published papers addressing evolutionary subjects, it is appropriate to publish a critical review article of the entire field. The difficulty with this argument is not hard to spot. Any journal dealing with biological subjects will inevitably include discussions of issues related to evolution. It is impossible to avoid evolutionary questions when doing research in biology. But that doesn't mean that any biology journal would be an appropriate venue for the sort of article Meyer wrote.

Recently I co-wrote a research paper addressing certain problems in combinatorics. I sent it to a well-known journal in the field, entitled Discrete Mathematics. My paper used some ideas from differential geometry, but Discrete Mathematics did not become a differential geometry journal when they published the paper. And if I decided to write a review article in which I criticized the foundations of modern differential geometry, there isn't a mathematician in the world who would think Discrete Mathematics was an appropriate venue for it.

To back-up his claim that the journal does deal with evolution, Sternberg offers five recent articles. You can find them here. The titles suggest precisely the scenario I am describing: They use some ideas and methodologies of evolutionary biology, but they are not primarily about evolution. All of them are primarily papers about systematics and taxonomy.

Sternberg's next point is:

The Meyer paper underwent a standard peer review process by three qualified scientists, all of whom are evolutionary and molecular biologists teaching at well-known institutions. The reviewers provided substantial criticism and feedback to Dr. Meyer, who then made significant changes to the paper in response. Subsequently, after the controversy arose, Dr. Roy McDiarmid, President of the Council of the BSW, reviewed the peer-review file and concluded that all was in order. As Dr. McDiarmid informed me in an email message on August 25th, 2004, “Finally, I got the [peer] reviews and agree that they are in support of your decision [to publish the article].”

It seems unlikely to me that a small journal like PBSW routinely has its articles reviewed by three separate reviewers. Far more likely is that articles are sent to one outside reviewer, maybe two. If I am right about this, then the paper did not follow the standard processes of the journal. The fact that Sternberg felt he needed to get three independent assessments of the paper makes it all the more odd that he did not bring the paper to the attention of the full Council before proceding with it. That is assuming, of course, that the review process was as above-board as Sternberg is suggesting. I have some doubts.

The final sentence is also interesting. Apparently Dr. McDiarmid was shown a file and concluded that the reviews agreed with the decision to publish the paper. Was that really the issue? No one has suggested that Sternberg misinterpreted the conclusions of the reviewers. The real question is whether these reviewers were chosen for their qualifications or whether they were already known to be sympathetic to ID.

Sternberg elborates further on the review process later:

After the initial positive conversation with my Council member colleague, I sent the paper out for review to four experts. Three reviewers were willing to review the paper; all are experts in relevant aspects of evolutionary and molecular biology and hold full-time faculty positions in major research institutions, one at an Ivy League university, another at a major North American public university, a third on a well-known overseas research faculty. There was substantial feedback from reviewers to the author, resulting in significant changes to the paper. The reviewers did not necessarily agree with Dr. Meyer's arguments or his conclusion but all found the paper meritorious and concluded that it warranted publication. The reviewers felt that the issues raised by Meyer were worthy of scientific debate. I too disagreed with many aspects of the Meyer paper but I agreed with their overall assessment and accepted the paper for publication. Thus, four well-qualified biologists with five PhDs in relevant disciplines were of the professional opinion that the paper was worthy of publication.

It would be nice if the referree's reports could be released. I'd like to know specificlly which parts of the paper the reviewers found meritorious. It's probably asking too much that the names of the reviewers be released. On the other hand, they must surely be aware of the controversy surrounding the paper, so perhaps they would be willing to come forward and join the fray.

There's something else odd here: the term “full-time faculty position”. That term could include post-docs and adjuncts. Since Sternberg is trying to impress us with the credentials of the reviewers, it seems strange that he did not describe them as tenured faculty members. Having tenure is an instant sign of credibility, so I think he would have mentioned that had the reviewers been tenured. He also chooses to emphasize the numerous degrees held by the reviewers. But again, post-docs have PhD's and adjuncts frequently do. But no one would consider a post-doc to be an appropriate reviewer of this paper.

It is possible that I am reading too much into this. But Sternberg's phrasing is suspicious, and I think there are a lot of unanswered questions about the peer-review process for this paper.

Another paragraph that struck me as odd was this one:

The Meyer paper was submitted to the Proceedings in early 2004. Since systematics and evolutionary theory are among my primary areas of interest and expertise (as mentioned above, I hold two PhDs in different aspects of evolutionary biology), and there was no associate editor with equivalent qualifications, I took direct editorial responsibility for the paper. As discussed above, the Council of the BSW had given me, the managing editor, the discretion to decide how a paper was to be reviewed and edited as well as the final decision on whether it would be published. I had previously chosen on several occasions to handle certain papers directly and that was accepted as a normal practice by everyone involved with the Proceedings. (This was confirmed even after the controversy over the Meyer paper arose. In a description of a Council meeting called to discuss the controversy, President Dr. McDiarmid told me by email, “The question came up as to why you didn't pass the ms [manuscript] on to an associate editor and several examples were mentioned of past editorial activities where a manuscript was dealt with directly by the editor and did not go to an associate editor and no one seemed to be bothered...”)

Am I the only one who wants to see the rest of that last sentence? I have no doubt that for an ordinary, run-of-the-mill paper addressing technical issues in taxonomy and systematics the editorial board would indeed have no problem. But the situation is quite different when the paper is a review article outside of the journal's usual domain that is sure to generate a lot of controversy and bad publicity. Somehow I think that for that kind of article the rest of the Council would have appreciated a heads-up.

As I mentioned at the start, I have no inside information about what went on during the processing of this paper. I can only read what Sternberg has written and make a judgment based on that. And it seems to me that he has left himself enough wiggle room to make me suspicious about just how above-board this review process was.

That's really the crux of the whole matter, I think. Were the reviewers honest brokers with stellar credentials as Sternberg suggests, or were they hand-chosen because they were sure to give a positive response. What did they actually say in their reports?

If the paper was so good that it could survive the rigorous review process Sternberg described, then why didn't Meyer send it to a more appropriate journal? Are we to believe that only at PBSW could the paper be given a fair shake? If four qualified biologists with five PhD's thought the paper merited publication, why didn't Sternberg trust his Council enough to let them know what was coming?

I don't think we've reached the end of this story.

The Meyer Fiasco, Overview

Recently ID proponent Stephen Meyer got an explicitly pro-ID paper published in the peer-reviewed journal Procedings of the Biological Society of Washington. The paper contained no original research, but was simply a review article criticizing aspects of current evolutionary thinking. It was a major propaganda victory for the ID folks.

Cracks started to appear pretty quickly. Alan Gishlik, Nicholas Matzke and Wesley Elsberry wrote a scathing critique of the article, available here. They pointed out that all of Meyer's major arguments were simply wrong, that he overlooked many relevant papers, and misrepresented many of the papers he did cite. Nearly all of their 6000+ word reply dealt specifically with the scientific claims of Meyer's paper. This fact did not stop the ID folks claiming that the Darwinian establishment was replying with slurs and ad hominems. The Discovery Institute's thoughts on the subject can be found here. Also typical are these bloviations from Agape Press. As far as I know, neither Meyer nor any of his supporters have offered any detailed reply to the scientific criticisms made by Gishlik, Matzke and Elsberry (though there have been a few blog entries in pro-ID blogs about it).

The next blow to land was this statement from the Biological Society of Washington (BSW). They pointed out that a review article of the sort Meyer wrote was outside the usual province of the journal. They further asserted that, save for the editor responsible for the publication of the paper, the entire Council felt the paper was inappropriate for the journal. They also pointed out that they did not know about the paper until it was actually published. This seemed a trifle unusual, to say the least.

The latest development is that the editor of the journal responsible for publishing the paper, Richard von Sternberg, has now set up a website replying to some of the criticisms that have been made. That is the subject of the next post.

Insults vs. Ad Hominems

Brian Leiter has this useful post up about the difference between an unkind remark and an ad hominem attack:

Many names have descriptive and referential content: this goes for “criminal,” “moral cretin,&^rdquo; “moron,” and “liar.” Many of these names (e.g., “moral cretin”) can, of course, also be used metaphorically, though so used, they still have cognitive content, and the individuals to whom the names are attached either do or do not satisfy the descriptive content of the name metaphorically used.

The use of “names” is not an “ad hominem.”

An “ad hominem” is a kind of argument, that is fallacious (though, in some contexts, may actually be fairly reliable: more on that in a moment). The argument has the following structure: X asserts Y; you attack X to undermine Y, e.g., you argue that because X is a certain kind of person, Y is false and/or ought not to be believed. (Note: the fallacy, strictly speaking, would be to conclude from facts about X that Y is false; concluding that Y ought not to be believed based on an attack on X can be reasonable, a point to which we'll return.)

Sunday, September 26, 2004

Wisdom From Gingerich

Owen Gingerich contributed an essay to the 1983 anthology Is God a Creationist. This was an anthology of religious objections to scientific creationisn. If you can find a copy, it provides much food for thought.

Gingerich's essay was particularly interesting, and I felt the following passge was worth transcribing:

In our country today there is a vocal minority which is confused by the separate roles of the scientific way of building up a worldview and the biblical story of creation. Somehow these people feel threatened by the ascendancy of a system of looking at the world that does not explicitly include the designing hand of God in the construction. Science is, by its very nature, godless. It is a mechanistic system, contrived to show how things work, and unable to say anything about the who, the designer. I can sympathize if a deeply religious person finds this incomplete and unsatisfying, and I can even sympathize mildly with the frustration of creationists, who wish that some broader philosophical framework could be placed into biology textbooks. But they are mistaken when they take scientific explanations as such to be anti-God or atheistic, they are wrong when they think that the Genesis account can substitute for the “how” of scientific explanations, and they err when they think that a meaningful tack is to brand evolution as a “mere hypothesis”. In a certain sense all of the theoretical explanations of sciece, the weft that holds the tapestry together, are hypotheses, and to unthread one section risks destroying the entire fabric.

Exactly right.

Gingerich at EMU

On Friday I had the pleasure of listening to Harvard astronomer Owen Gingerich speak about science and religion at Eastern Mennonite University, which happens to be just down the road from my own digs at JMU. Here are a few of my impressions of the talk:

Gingerich is himself a practicing Christian. I liked much of what he had to say. He made a useful distinction between Intelligent Design and intelligent design. He described the former as primarily a political movement having little to do with science, while the latter simply reflects his own belief that there is a supreme intelligence behind the orderliness of nature. He pointed out that as a practical matter science must be based on methodological naturalism (the idea that science should not invoke spuernatural entities in crafting its explanations). He also pointed out that evolution should be viewed as dealing with the problem of efficient causes in nature, as opposed to final causes. By this he meant that evolution can tell us how some particular adaptation came to be, but should not be viewed as addressing questions of the purpose behind some aspect of creation. By contrast, intelligent design as he sees it is about final causes, not efficient causes.

The main point of disagreement I had with his talk revolved around the anthropic principle; the idea that the “fine-tuning” of the universe for life is evidence of intelligent design. He thinks that's a pretty nifty little argument. I think its a lot of unsubstantiated and probably false assumptions meant to lead to a conclusion Gingerich already believes for other reasons.

In the Q&A after the talk I raised a few obvious objections to the anthropic principle. I pointed out that Gingerich was simply assuming that ours was the only universe there was (the idea being that if there are many universes and the constants are different in each one, then it is inevitable that some universe will have constans conducive to life), and he was also assuming that there isn't some natural law that explains why the constants have to be what they are. I don't think either of those assumptions are justified. I also pointed out that invoking an intelligent-designer does not really explain anything. It simply replaces one mystery with a far greater mystery, namely, where did the designer come from? If something as mundane as the ratio of the mass of a proton to the mass of an electron needs an explanation as extravagant as God, then how much greater an explanation does God Himself require? In fact, I think this leads to an infinite regress of designers.

He argued in reply that belief in multiple universes requires an extraordinary leap of faith, since those other universes are forever inaccessible to our senses. He then went on to make a few other points in reply to what I had said. I'm afraid I don't quite recall what those other points were. You see, it took me a few minutes to deal with the fact that someone suggesting the universe sprang into existence with one act of the will of an omnipotent intelligence had actually just criticized my suggestion for requiring a leap of faith.

Seriously, it seems to me that to believe in multiple universes you only have to accept the idea that whatever forces were responsible for bringing our universe into being also brought other universes into being. Seen that way, is there any particular reason to assume that ours is the only universe? Against this suggestion Gingerich offers the existence of an intelligent agent capable of feats that are utterly incomprehensible to us. Not all leaps of faith are created equal, my friend.

Some of the other questions were interesting as well. One questioner sniffed that the scientific establishment was so biased against design that it was impossible to get design-centered papers published. Gingerich politely laughed in his face. He pointed out that the paper whose ideas he had just presented had gotten published. He also pointed out that scientists expect publishable papers to have results in them, and that if the questioner had interesting results that depended on a design hypothesis he would have little difficulty getting them published. Another questioner asked about Behe's ideas about irreducible complexity, though his description of what that was suggested that he didn't really understand the subject. In reply Gingerich gave favorable mention to Ken Miller's refutation of Behe in Finding Darwin's God.

All in all, an enjoyable and thought-provoking afternoon.

Kramnik 1.5-Leko .5

With two games down in the World Chess Championship between Vladimir Kramnik and Peter Leko, Kramnik has jumped out to an early lead. He won with the black pieces in game one, which bodes ill indeed for Leko's chances. Twenty moves into a Petroff's Defense, Kramnik sacrificed his queen for a rook and bishop, thereby bringing about an endgame in which many of the grandmaster commentators felt Leko had a small edge. After some passive play by Leko, however, Kramnik was able to bring about a Q vs. 2 R situation (he had the rooks). His endgame technique was flawless, and he brought home the point. Game two was a quick draw. You can find more details over at The Week in Chess.

The rules are such that if the match ends in a tie, then Kramnik keeps his title. That means Leko will have to win at least two games out of the remaining twelve, while not losing any. A tall order, but not impossible.

Meeting Cordova

This past Thursday I got to meet in person my occasional sparring partner Salvador Cordova at a meeting of the JMU Freethinkers group. We had a very enjoyable conversation. Since internet exchanges sometimes get a little heated it's always nice to be reminded there's actually another person out there.

Salvador has rather graciously concluded that I'm a nice guy (see here (scroll down)) and I am happy to report that the feeling is mutual. Hopefully the news won't become wider spread. I do have an image to think about...