Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Chess in Parsippany

After my morning class tomorrow I will be leaving for sunny Parsippany, NJ. As every chess fan knows, this is the weekend of the annual U.S. Amateur Team East, the epickest most stupendously wonderful chess tournament of the year. (Only the World Open can give it a run for its money, but in the end it's no contest). The tournament typically attracts well over one thousand players, and I will be one of them. Regular blogging will resume on Monday.

Dean on Lynn

Discovery Institute blogger Seth Copper is a busy fellow. He hasn't the time to develop his own bad arguments in response to Barry Lynn's excellent op-ed from the Houston Chronicle today. So he relies instead on blogger Darrick Dean to do the heavy lifting for him. You can find Dean's thoughts on the subject here. Let's consider some excerpts:

The Rev. Barry W. Lynn is executive director of the far left, anti-religion, anti-constitution – yet patriotic sounding – Americans United for the Separation of Church of State. This isn’t the place to discuss the fact that “Separation of Church of State” isn’t in the Constitution, but this is the place to discuss Lynn’s recent factless editorial attacking intelligent design.

As soon as someone whips out the canard about “Separation of Church and State” not being in the Constitution, I know I'm not dealing with a serious person. Sure, the phrase “Separation of Church and State” isn't in the Constitution, but the idea is certainly there. After all, if the Founders had wanted church and state to mix, why does the foundational document of the state, the Constitution, make no mention of the church?

Dean is just being silly, SOP for ID proponents, when he asserts that Lynn's op-ed is factless. Here are a few facts I noticed just from a cursory reading:

  • Intelligent design claims that life on Earth is so complex that it must have been designed by a higher power. Its advocates don't often name the higher power, but they've offered no serious option other than God.

  • Phillip Johnson, a former law professor who pioneered intelligent design, told a conservative religious audience a few years ago that his goal is to use intelligent design to spread doubts about evolution and then introduce people to “the truth” of the Bible and “the question of sin.” Ultimately, Johnson said, he wants people to be &;ldquo;introduced to Jesus.”

  • In public universities across the land, evolution is taught in science classes without controversy.

  • Conservative religious activists have been unable to ban the teaching of evolution outright or give “equal time” to creationism in public schools. The U.S. Supreme Court slammed the door on those gambits in 1968 and 1987 decisions.

Is Dean disputing any of these points?

I could go on, of course. Lynn's piece is long on opinion, certainly, but that's not so unreasonable considering, you know, that it was an op-ed.

Lynn’s article is virtually a verbatim regurgitation of the naturalist evangelism talking points. I’m getting tired of addressing the same points over and over. Don’t these people think for themselves? Can’t they find some new material?

When ignorant malcontents like Dean and Cooper stop parroting the same tired ID lies, then people like Lynn will move on to more interesting fare. If Dean is really getting tired of addressing these points, then I invite him to take a break from the activity.

He makes the usual irrational claim that because ID points to a designer it is religion, and God-forbid we even acknowledge in the classroom that religion exists. If science points to a designer, then that is where it leads. It’s still science, albeit science that has implications for religion (hasn’t science always had an impact on religious beliefs?). Lynn and his fellow naturalist evangelists like to redefine science to find the conclusions that best fit their personal beliefs. This isn’t science, this is the realm of cold fusion and UFOs.

You will search Lynn's editorial in vain for anything close to the claim Dean is putting into his mouth here. Here is what Lynn actually said:

Phillip Johnson, a former law professor who pioneered intelligent design, told a conservative religious audience a few years ago that his goal is to use intelligent design to spread doubts about evolution and then introduce people to “the truth” of the Bible and “the question of sin.” Ultimately, Johnson said, he wants people to be “introduced to Jesus.”

If the end result of what you are doing is aimed at religious conversion, then it's evangelism, not science. It belongs in a house of worship, not a public school.

It is clear from the provided quote that Johnson, at least, has little interest in uisng ID to learn interesting new facts about nature. For him it is a tool to use in evangelistic outreach. The same point is made in countless other ID publications. If Dean wants to claim that Johnson is not representative of ID folks on this point, he is free to do so. But Lynn's statement is exactly right. That is why Dean had to distort it totally before responding.

As for Lynn's personal beliefs, I really shouldn't have to point out that Lynn is a practicing Christian. He is quite open about his theism.

And where, exactly, did Lynn redefine science? Lynn simply understands that science is what you do when you're interested in learning about the workings of nature. Evangelism is what you do when you're interested in persuading someone to accept your religion. Those are clearly different things, and it is obvious from Johnson's quote above (and countless others Lynn might have chosen to illustrate the same point) that Johnson is more interested in evangelism.

Of course Lynn throws out the standard “ID has no mainstream scientific evidence.” This patently unoriginal line is patently false. The ID movement is made up of accomplished “mainstream” scientists. Of course you must realize that “mainstream” in the eyes of naturalists are only those who rationalize science to support naturalism, not scientists who practice logical science.

Since Dean decided to use quotation marks here, we should point out that Lynn did not say that ID has no mainstream scientific evidence, whatever that means. He actually said, accurately, that ID has no mainstream scientific support.

A crackpot idea doesn't gain credibility when a handful of PhD's embrace it. The way you know that ID has no mainstream scientific support is that no one is using “ID theory” to guide research or produce results. Evolution does both of those things, as a quick browse through any university science library will show you.

In reality, those leading the fight against intelligent design are some of academia’s most ardent atheists (and nataualism is their only hope for validation). So let’s not pretend their cause is about science. They want to continue to be able to rationalize science to their personal beliefs. The naturalists want to continue to replace good science with personal philosophy. ID states “Go ahead and discuss evolution. But stop pretending all scientists, including evolutionists, are in agreement.” Naturalists are intolerant of any discussion of competing theories or on debates that exist on their own theory.

I have no idea who Dean is quoting here.

And who, exactly, are these ardent atheists Dean has in mind? I am certainly an atheist, but I hardly think I qualify as a leader of the fight. P. Z. Myers is an atheist, and I've heard that Eugenie Scott is as well. But when I think of the most outspoken critics of ID I think of people like Ken Miller, Howard Van Till, Robert Pennock, Keith Miller, John Polkinghorne, Owen Gingerich, Arthur Peacocke, Denis Lamoureaux and countless others. These are people who underestand that ID is not only lousy science, but lousy theology as well. Once you have God intervening directly in nature to craft a flagellum or fine-tune a blood clotting cascade, you must also lay at God's feet all of the cruelty and ugliness of nature. Any God who directly created the biosphere as we know it would have to be a monster; and certainly not the omnibenevolent God of Christianity.

ID wants the philosophy and rationalization of naturalism left out of the classroom as much as pseudoscientific forms of creationism. Intelligent design differs from past forms of creationism in that it draws from empirical science. It also forms models and makes predictions. The “scientific content” of ID far exceeds that of naturalism.

Far be it from me to defend “past forms of creationism,” but I feel compelled to point out that Dean is, once again, full of it. The “scientific creationism” of Henry Morris, Duane Gish and others was and continues to be based entirely on empirical science. That was kind of the point.

Of course, the Young-Earthers routinely show an embarrassing lack of understanding of the empirical science they cite, and frequently misrepresent the work of real scientists. But in this hardly distinguishes them from ID folks.

For Lynn to claim “evolution is the basis for much of modern biology” is to claim a great absurdity. When a theory fails to explain virtually everything (irreducible complexity, information in DNA, appearance of new phyla, appearance of man…) how can it be the basis for anything? Good luck with that one.

Had enough? Seth Cooper took Lynn to task for not addressing Behe's scientific arguments. Yet he praises Dean, who gives no consideration to the massive scientific literature addressing all four of the issues Dean says evolution fails to explain. As for evolution being the basis for much of modern biology, I don't need to take Lynn's word for it. What scientists do is recorded for me in countless journals and web sites, and I can see for myself that evolution plays a major role in nearly every branch of biology.

As I have said before, ID folks combine maximum ignorance with maximum arrogance. People like Dean are a perfect example of this principle.

Cooper Demurs

Discovery Institute blogger Seth Cooper did not like Barry Lynn's op-ed as much as I did. His thoughts on the usbject are available here. Here's an excerpt:

The Rev. Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State continues to serve in the Ministry of Dis-Information when it comes to intelligent design theory. A dogmatic opponent of intelligent design, the Rev. Lynn recently authored an op-ed that dismisses ID out of hand--not even bothering to take on any of the empirical, scientific claims made by Dr. Michael Behe or any other ID theorists.

Cooper does not offer a single example of Dis-Information from Lynn's op-ed. That's because Lynn, as always, was relentlessly accurate in what he wrote. As for not addressing the scientific arguments of ID, no doubt Lynn considered a brief op-ed the wrong forum for discussing the minutiae of blood clotting or immune system evolution.

Cooper does, however, link to another blogger for a more detailed treatment of Lynn's piece. It is a highly instructive blog entry indeed, for it shows the level of lunacy and dishonesty ID proponents are willing to embrace. We consider it in our next post.

Lynn States it Plain

From Barry Lynn, of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, comes this Houston Chronicle op-ed about the merits, or lack thereof, of teaching ID in science classrooms. His op-ed is so blessedly clear, it should serve as a model for anyone else wading into this area. Here's an excerpt:

Intelligent design proponents say their idea is a serious challenge to Darwinism. Yet intelligent design has no mainstream scientific support. We do our children a disservice by pretending unconventional ideas are accepted in science when they are not.

As far as the mainstream scientific community is concerned, the issue is settled: Evolution is the basis for much of modern biology. Scientists readily acknowledge that debate continues on the details, as it does regarding gravity, plate tectonics and other scientific theories.

In public universities across the land, evolution is taught in science classes without controversy. Public schools in European and Asian nations teach evolution without pretending there is an equally valid view called “intelligent design” — and their youngsters will leave ours behind in an increasingly scientific age if we do otherwise.

Conservative religious activists have been unable to ban the teaching of evolution outright or give “equal time” to creationism in public schools. The U.S. Supreme Court slammed the door on those gambits in 1968 and 1987 decisions. Intelligent design is merely the latest effort to circumvent the Constitution and the courts.

This crusade operates mainly through political channels. Religious conservatives are pressuring local school boards around the country to water down instruction about evolution. They want the political system to give them what the scientific community won't.

Go read the whole thing. Right now!

God Bless Bill Maher, Part II

From Scarborough Country, last night:

SCARBOROUGH: So, anyway, let‘s talk about something that Gary Wills wrote. And I think Maureen Dowd echoed with sentiment.

After the election when we found out that 22 percent of Americans, based on some exit polls, said morality was their top issue, Gary Wills said that any country with evangelicals that voted for George Bush who believe in the virgin birth more than they believe in evolution can‘t be an enlightened nation.

And Gary Wills basically compared America to al Qaeda. That‘s a little harsh, isn‘t it?

MAHER: That is too harsh.

SCARBOROUGH: People of faith can step forward, get involved in the process, believe in Jesus, and still vote for George Bush without being an ignorant peasant, can‘t they?

MAHER: Well, I think comparing them to al Qaeda is too harsh, but that‘s because al Qaeda is a terrorist organization.

But do we have more in common—and I am not the first one to say this. I have read this many times. We have more in common with the people, some of the nations who we are aligned against, when you look at beliefs in such things as, do you go to heaven, is there a devil, we have more in common with Turkey and Iran and Syria than we do with European nations and Canada and nations that, yes, I would consider more enlightened than us.

Yes, we are a nation that is unenlightened because of religion. I do believe that. I think that religion stops people from thinking. I think it justifies crazies. I think flying planes into a building was a faith-based initiative. I think religion is a neurological disorder. If you look at it logically, it‘s something that was drilled into your head when you were a small child. It certainly was drilled into mine at that age. And you really can‘t be responsible when you are a kid for what adults put into your head.

But when you become an adult, you can then have it drilled out. And you should.

SCARBOROUGH: So, you are saying that the millions and millions of Americans who go to church every week or go to synagogue...


MAHER: Have a neurological disorder, yes.

Have a neurological disorder? That's a bit far even for me. I like the rest of it though.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

God Bless Bill Maher

From Larry King Live, last night:

MAHER: They really do. They love the idea that a guy who was drunk until he was 40, but then through the love of a good woman and Jesus Christ, he found his calling of his life.

KING: But why is he...

MAHER: Destroying the ecosystem of planet Earth. But go ahead.

KING: But if that's true, he believes it to be true, stopped him from drinking, saved his marriage, why is that bad?

MAHER: It's not bad. Except that he's the leader of the free world. I don't think the rest of us should have to undergo the same sort of conversion, and I don't know if it's the best guiding principle for policy. You know, I read very disturbing things about how in this country they're not even teaching evolution anymore, or they have to teach two versions of evolution. You know, the one that is agreed by every scientist in the world, and the other one that has to do with snakes and naked ladies. What century are we living in? What country is this? We have to pretend in this idea of what do they call it? Some -- I can't remember the phrase, but they have some word for -- intelligent design, which is a sneaky way of saying, OK, you know, we sort of believe in evolution, but really it's God. God's involved.

Whatever. You know, why don't you just tell me that water boils at 400 degrees? It's a nice, even number. It's just not scientifically true. Why can't we have a country that's run by science? Why can't we have just one of those parties? That's what I mean about the Democrats. Why can't we have one party that says, OK, we're going to run it by God and religion and one party that says, you know, we have another way, science and rationality. That's who we are as Democrats. But I don't see...

Monday, February 14, 2005

The Washington Times Backs Sternberg. Surprise!

The Washington Times is well known for the rightward bias of its reporting. So it is no surprise that they would give highly sympathetic coverage to Richard Sternberg, the disgraced former editor of The Procedings of the Biological Society of Washington.

As I have previously mentioned (see here and here, Sternberg has filed a complaint with the Office of Special Council alledging religious discrimination by the Smithsonian Institution. Sternberg's supervisor at the Smithsonian has categorically denied the charges. That is all we know for the moment, a fac that hasn't stopped countless right-wing and Christian bloggers from running with the story.

The Times article mentions early on that the Smithsonian denies the charges. But from there it does everything in its power to imply that Sternberg is the aggrieved victim. For example:

Mr. Sternberg said his troubles started after the appearance of the August 2004 issue of the journal, which included a peer-reviewed article by Stephen C. Meyer. The article, titled, “The Origin of Biological Information and the Higher Taxonomic Categories,” made the case for a theory known as intelligent design, or ID.

ID contends that the origins of some biological forms are better explained by an unspecified intelligent agent than by natural processes, such as natural selection and genetic mutation, which are hallmarks of Darwinism.

Actually, I think you would be hard pressed to argue that “an unspecified intelligent agent” is superior even to total ignorance as a possible explanation. More to the point however, there are serious questions about how above-board the review process was. The fact that the article was sent to three reviewers (as will be mentioned in a later paragraph from the article) is suspicious in and of itself. It's very unlikely that a small journal like PBSW routinely goes to such lengths. It is almost certainly the case that the three reviewers were chosen specifically for their sympathy to ID and not for their scientific credentials. I suspect that Sternberg sent the paper to so many people just so he could later brag about the extensive peer-review of the paper. The fact is, if he sincerely believed the paper needed serious scrutiny, it becomes hard to understand why he never mentioned its existence to anyone else on the editorial board.

In his report, Mr. Meyer, a fellow at the Discovery Institute in Seattle, argues that ID is a more likely explanation than evolution for the biodiversity in the Cambrian period about 530 million years ago. He points to the “explosion” of phyla, which “suddenly appeared within a narrow 5- to 10-million-year window of geological time” during that period.

“To say that the fauna of the Cambrian period appeared in a geologically sudden manner ... implies the absence of clear transitional intermediate forms connecting Cambrian animals with simpler pre-Cambrian forms,” Mr. Meyer wrote in his defense of ID.

Of course, the specific claims made by Meyer in his article have no relevance to an article about Sternberg's travails. But if the article is going to discuss specific scientific assertions, it really should have quoted someone pointing out that Meyer is simply wrong here. For one thing, there are a respectable number of clear transitional forms linking the Precambrian to the Cambrian. See this essay by geologist Keith Miller for details. Also, there is the fact that the Cambrian explosion spanned a period of at least ten million years. Even by geological standards that's a long time.

The fact is that the Cambrian explosion is only a problem for evolution in the sense that there are many possible explanations for it, but insufficient data for deciding between them. In reality, the Cambrian explosion is just a talking point ID folks can use to sound scientific when addressing lay audiences; audiences that often include sympathetic right-wing journalists.

The report was “peer-reviewed” by three outside scientists, Mr. Sternberg said, “but employees at the Smithsonian, who had a sharply negative reaction to the report, insinuated that editorial malfeasance occurred on my end. I protested vigorously.”

See previous paragraph.

He says he gave up his post as managing editor of Proceedings in September but continued to be harassed by Smithsonian officials. Mr. Sternberg says he was penalized by the museum's Department of Zoology, which limited his access to research collections and told him his associateship at the museum would not be renewed because no one could be found to sponsor him for another three-year term.

Note the clear implication that Sternberg resigned his editorship in response to harassment from the Smithsonian. In reality, his term as editor was simply up. We should also remind everyone that Sternberg's supervisor has specifically denied the allegation being made here.

The article prattles on like this for a few more paragraphs. The next time you hear a right-winger blubber about left-wing bias in the media, keep in mind that the article above is their idea of fair and balanced journalism.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

The Age of the Universe

Andrew Fraknoi, who chairs the Astronomy Dept. at Foothill College in California, has pointed me towards this website of the American Astronomical Society. They have prepared a twenty-page booklet explaining how we know the universe is ancient. The booklet is entirely non-technical, and is intended primarily for school boards, students parents and teachers. The booklet is available for download, in PDF format, at the link above. I have only read a small piece of it so far, but it looks excellent. Here's a brief excerpt from the introduction:

In the past 150 years, scientists have greatly advanced our understanding of the natural world. We know that we live on an ancient planet, that life on Earth has evolved in its diversity and complexity, and that the universe itself has evolved from a hot and dense early state. These assertions are supported by a web of evidence, and the ideas behind them can be and have been tested, with a wide range of experiments. The understanding of our place in the universe and our place in the scheme of living creatures is one of the greatest achievments of the human intellect.

Many good books and articles have been published for teachers and the public on the scientific basis for evolutionary ideas in biology. But rather little is available to help explain how we know that the galaxies, stars and planets are really old. In this booklet we want to give you some of the background on how scientists have been able to measure ages so vast that human history is a mere blink of an eye in comparison. We also provide some references to classroom activities, and resources for further exploration of some of the astronomical ideas we discuss.