Thursday, February 24, 2005

Responding to Diepenbrock

George Diepenbrock is a writer for the Southwest Daily Times, a newspaper published out of Liberal, Kansas (yes, that is actually the name of the town). He concluded this recent article with the following challenge:

Obviously Kline has indicated he would support a change in school science standards by requiring some other life science theory in addition to evolution be taught. In that case, the attorney general would side with the six conservative board members who are wanting to make the change.

This scares opponents to death because they are more worried about Kansas gaining criticism from national media as it did in 1999.

Instead opponents should come up with a good argument on why teaching only the evolution theory does not violate the state education science mission statement to make all students lifelong learners who can use science to make reasoned decisions.

Presenting only one life science theory in classes without alternatives breeds ignorance and violates the mission statement.

In this entry I propose to answer Diepenbrock's challenge.

Doing so is not so easy, however, because Dipenbrock never gets around to explaining what alternative theory he has in mind. The closest he comes is this paragraph:

But after the August 2004 election, conservatives now have regained a 6-4 edge, and it appears they are pursuing avenues to change state science standards again to teach other theories, mainly intelligent design, in addition to evolution.

It would have been helpful if Diepenbrock had told us what, precisely, teaching Intelligent Design entails.

Let us also consider the last line of the article. How does presenting only one theory breed ignorance? If there is only one theory that is supported by the available evidence, then surely it breeds ignorance to present anything other than that theory. High school physics classes generally only discuss the Copernican model of the Solar System. The alternative, Ptolemaic model is accorded no respect. If it is mentioned at all it is only for its historical significance. Does Diepenbrock believe physics classes are breeding ignorance?

We might say that presenting only one theory would, indeed, breed ignorance if there were other theories of equal merit that were not being presented. I assume that Diepenbrock believes that to be the case. And since the only rival theory Diepenbrock mentions is Intelligent Design, we will consider the merits of presenting it in science classes.

What are the chief claims of Intelligent Design Theory? It can't simply be that there is some higher intelligence responsible for the presence and structure of life on Earth, for that idea is entirely consistent with evolution. If that is all Diepenbrock has in mind then he has not presented an alternative to evolution.

Surely he has in mind the stronger claim that there are certain biological structures that are so complex that it is simply impossible to attribute them to nonintelligent causes. That being the case, there simply must be a higher intelligence that is responsible for them. That claim has been defended by people like Michael Behe and William Dembski. Is that the alternative to evolution Diepnbrock wants presented?

If it is, then the reason for excluding it is very simple: the claim is false. I'm sure Diepenbrock, and all sensible people, agree that we should not be presenting false information in science classes.

For example, Michael Behe claims that if a biomolecular system is made of several well-matched parts such that the removal of any one part results in the non-functionality of the system, then it is irreducibly complex and could not have evolved by gradual accretion. This claim is wrong as a simple matter of logic. The fact that every part is necessary for the system to operate in its present environment does not imply that every part was necessary in every stage of the system's evolution. It is possible that initially a particular part was beneficial, but not necessary, for the system to function. Later changes might then have rendered the new part essential. Another possibility is that irreducible complexity could arise by the elimination of redundancy.

Since Behe is claiming that the complexity of biochemical systems is utterly beyond the capabilities of natural causes, it is for him to explain why the scenarios above are not possible. Since known genetic processes can result in either scenario, it is unsurprising that he has been unable to do so to date.

The situation gets even worse for Behe when you consider that, contrary to his frequent assertions, the biological literature contains plausible evolutionary trajectories for a variety of biochemical systems. Consequently, Behe is simply wrong to claim that these systems are utterly inexplicable by natural causes.

As for Dembski, I will simply point out that when it comes time for him to apply his mathematical arguments to actual biological systems he makes essential use of Behe's claim that irreducibly complex systems can not evolve gradually. Since that claim is false, so are Dembski's arguments based on that claim. It is no exaggeration at all to say that Dembski's work contributes absolutely nothing to the discussion of evolution and intelligent design. Everything is riding on Behe's claim, and that claim is false.

But perhaps Diepenbrock could offer the following reply to my argument: Sure, he could say, I claim that Behe and Dembski are wrong, but other people say they are right. Clearly there is a controversy here, and students should be made aware of that fact.

But is there a controversy? Suppose I decide that I believe the Ptolemaic system is more plausible than the Copernican system. Does that mean there is now a controversy among scientists about the proper theory to teach in physics classes? Suppose I get a handful of my PhD holding friends to go along with me. Maybe we even write a book presenting our ideas. Is that enough to have the Ptolemaic system taught with respect in science classes?

Surely not. Surely the fact that the enormous majority of scientists is on one side of the issue, while it is only I and a handful of friends on the other, counts for something. Surely an idea has to gain some currency within the scientific community before it is presented respectfully in science classes.

The fact is that every scientific theory presented as orthodoxy in science classes began in exactly the place ID finds itself now: A heresy believed by a handul of people dissatisfied with the orthodox view. In no case, however, did the adherents of the heresy earn their place in the curriculum by appealing directly to schools boards and state legislatures. In every case the heresy won out by producing evidence adequate to convince a large majority of scientists.

And that is exactly what ID proponents refuse to do. The arguments they are making now are identical to the ones they were making a decade ago. As a scientific enterprise they have made no progress at all. At no point have they shown how their theory accounts for the data of the fossil record, or the findings of genetics, or the evidence from embryology, or the data from any other branch of science. Evolution accounts for all of that data. Nor have they described, let alone carried out, any innovative research program based on their ideas.

If we present ID respectfully in science classes we are saying that the mere existence of a handful of dissenters from the orthodox view is enough to have the dissent presented in science classes.

It is a standard that would be laughed at in any context other than evolution. There are millions of people in this country, some of them with PhD's, who believe astrology is legitimate. No one seriously argues that is sufficient reason to present astrology respectfully in science classes. Why not? Surely the reason is that very few scientists believe astrology has merit, coupled with the fact that astrologers have not been able to produce any useful insights based on their theories.

So that is why ID should not be taught: The overwhelming majority of the scientific community believes its claims to be false, its defenders have not shown that their theory can account for any of the data evolution accounts for, and they have not provided any reason for believing that their theory even has the potential to produce anything useful to science.

If Diepenbrock believes that I should be employing different standards in deciding what should get presented in science classes, I invite him to tell me what those standards are.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Marburger on ID

Bush science advisor John Marburger has taken a lot of well deserved heat for lending credibility to the administration's ongoing efforts to abuse science to suit their needs. But backing Intelligent Design is too much even for him. Chris Mooney has the story:

Speaking at the annual conference of the National Association of Science Writers, Marburger fielded an audience question about “Intelligent Design” (ID), the latest supposedly scientific alternative to Charles Darwin's theory of descent with modification. The White House's chief scientist stated point blank, “Intelligent Design is not a scientific theory.” And that's not all -- as if to ram the point home, Marburger soon continued, “I don't regard Intelligent Design as a scientific topic.”

Preparing for the Rapture

Heard about this website on The Daily Show yesterday:

The rapture: When all the believers in Jesus Christ, who have been born again, are
taken up to heaven.

After the rapture, there will be a lot of speculation as to why millions of people have
just disappeared. Unfortunately, after the rapture, only non believers will be left to come up with answers. You probably have family and friends that you have witnessed to and they just won't listen. After the rapture they probably will, but who will tell them?

We have written a computer program to do just that. It will send an Electronic Message (e-mail) to whomever you want after the rapture has taken place, and you and I have been taken to heaven.

How is this accomplished, you might ask. It's a dead man switch that will automatically send the emails when it is not reset.

If you wish to do something now that will help your unbelieving friends and family after the rapture, you need to add those persons email address to our database. Their names will be stored indefinitely and a letter will be sent out to each of them on the first Friday after the rapture. Then they will receive another letter every friday after that.

This rapture letter service is FREE and will hopefully gain the person you send it to an eternity in heaven.

No comment.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

World's World

In several recent blog entries (click here and here) I have reported on the case of Richard Sternberg. He was the fellow who, as editor of The Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, decided to publish a pro-ID survey paper in his journal. As I have documented previously, he did this in contravention of the standard editorial practices of the journal, and has left real questions about the legitimacy of the peer-review process he employed in choosing to publish the article. Click here and here for the details.

Sternberg has now filed a complaint with the Office of Special Council alledging that the Smithsonian Institution has discriminated against him on the basis of his religious beliefs. Outside of the participants themselves, all anybody knows about the case is that Sternberg has levelled some accusations and the Smithsonian has denied them categorically.

But the right-wing media doesn't care about subtelties like that. They are perfectly happy to report as fact Sternberg's unsubstantiated side of the story. One of the most egregious examples of this is this recent article from World magazine. They have created an entire alternate reality for their readers. We consider it in full:

Science is typically praised as open-ended and free, pursuing the evidence wherever it leads. Scientific conclusions are falsifiable, open to further inquiry, and revised as new data emerge. Science is free of dogma, intolerance, censorship, and persecution.

By these standards, Darwinists have become the dogmatists. Scientists at the Smithsonian Institute, supported by American taxpayers, are punishing one of their own simply for publishing an article about Intelligent Design.

The author of the article, Gene Edward Veith, has only Sternberg's word for it that this discrimination ever took place. Despite this, he feels no shame in reporting these accusations as fact. He never even gets around to mentioning that the Smithsonian has denied the charges.

Veith now goes on to give a summary of the pro-ID article Sternberg published. Needless to say, he simply parrots the usual ID talking points about the Cambrian explosion, without bothering to mention that they are total nonsense. Veith then continues:

Mr. Meyer submitted his paper to the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, a scientific journal affiliated with the Smithsonian Institute's National Museum of Natural History. The editor, Rick Sternberg, a researcher at the museum with two Ph.D.s in biology, forwarded the article to a panel of three peer reviewers. In scientific and other academic scholarship, submitting research to the judgment of other experts in the field ensures that published articles have genuine merit. Each of the reviewers recommended that, with revisions, the article should be published. Mr. Meyer made the revisions and the article was published last August.

Of course, peer review only ensures quality when the process is not corrupted by an editor seeking a preordained conclusion. As I argued in the links given at the start of this post, there is ample reason to believe that Sternberg did precisely that.

Whereupon major academic publications—Science, Nature, Chronicles of Higher Education—expressed outrage. The anger was focused not on the substance of the article, but on the mere fact that a peer-reviewed scientific journal would print such an article.

Total nonsense. In fact, the anger over the article was primarily related to the fact that it was utter dreck as a work of science. Meyer's arguments were so bad and have been so often refuted, that it is hard to believe that whatever review process the article went through was as above-board as people like Veith wish to claim.

That was the primary reason for the outrage. Secondary reasons were the fact that Sternberg clearly abused his authority as editor, thereby giving the once-reputable PBSW a major black-eye, and the fact that by publishing the article he gave science's enemies cover to push their agenda.

So the wrath of the Darwinists fell on Mr. Sternberg, the editor. Although he had stepped down from the editorship, his supervisors at the Smithsonian took away his office, made him turn in his keys, and cut him off from access to the collections he needs for his research. He is also being subjected to the sectarian religious discipline of “shunning.” His colleagues are refusing to talk to him or even greet him in the hallways.

Note the implication that Sternberg stepped down from his editorship of the journal because of the controversy he created. In reality he stepped down because his term as editor was up. Nonetheless, this has become a standard part of the right-wing version of this story.

More impotrantly, once again Veith has only Sternberg's word for it that his “supervisors” (in reality, as pointed out here, he has only one supervisor at the Smithsonian) have done any of the things attributed to them here. At the risk of being reptitive, Sternberg's supervisor has unambiguously denied all of these charges.

As for the shunning, I'm not surprised that Sternberg's colleagues believe he has betrayed them. He abused his authority as editor in a way that makes it more difficult for real scientists to do their jobs.

His supervisors also staged an inquisition about Mr. Sternberg's religious and even political beliefs. Mr. Sternberg, who describes himself as a Catholic with lots of questions, has filed a case alleging discrimination not just on the grounds of religion but “perceived” religion.

Rather trivializes the real Inquisition, don't you think? It's been wisely said that the first person to compare his opponent to the Nazis immediately loses the argument. The same could be said for bringing up the Inquisition.

Critics of Mr. Sternberg say that the article should not have been published because the American Association for the Advancement of Science has proclaimed that Intelligent Design is “unscientific by definition.” As Mr. Meyer points out: “Rather than critique the paper on its scientific merits, they appeal to a doctrinal statement.”

I'd be surprised if Veith could produce even one person who argued that the paper should not have been published because ID is unscientific by definition. ID is, indeed, unscientific, but that was not the reason the paper should have been rejected. Contrary to Veith's assertion, the scientific merits of the paper were severely and deservedly criticized in a variety of outlets. It was the poor scholarship and incorrect arguments in the paper that rendered it unfit for publication.

Historically, said Mr. Meyer, science has sought “the best explanation, period, wherever the evidence leads.” But now the scientific establishment is requiring something else: “the best materialistic explanation for phenomenon.” That rules out non-materialistic explanations from the onset, demanding adherence to the worldview that presumes the material realm is all that exists.

People like Veith and Meyer have no shame at all. The idea that science's reliance on naturalistic explanations is some recent contrivance to keep anyone from discussing the supernatural is ludicrous in a way I thought was beyond even an ID proponent. The point of science is today, as it has always been, to learn useful facts about the workings of nature. The way you know you have discovered something useful about nature is by testing your theories against data produced in the field and the lab. Naturalistic theories are precisely the ones that can be so tested. Supernatural theories can not be tested in that way. That's what the word “supernatural” means, for heaven's sake. As soon as the Meyers of the world can describe a method for testing a supernatural theory, scientists will embrace it.

Of course, ID proponents generally don't care that scientists have a job to do. They don't care that scientists are expected to come out of their labs with useful results, and that they use scientific theories as tools to help them do that. If they did, they'd be doing ID research to prove to the world that their ideas have merit. After all, every mainstream scientific theory began as a heresy against orthodoxy. And every one of those theories earned their acceptance in the same way, by producing useful results. Since ID is a sham as science, its proponents will never be able to produce the results that would win scientists to their cause. Consequently, they can only hope to promote their case by taking advantage of the public's ignorance of science.

David Klinghoffer broke the story of Mr. Sternberg's mistreatment in The Wall Street Journal. The attempts to discredit him, Mr. Meyer said, have resulted in hundreds of scientists from around the world requesting and downloading the paper (available from

Mr. Meyer said that many scientists secretly agree with elements of Intelligent Design but are afraid to go public. Critics tried to force Mr. Sternberg to reveal the names of the peer reviewers—which are supposed to remain anonymous—but he refused. Darwinists shifted the discussions to evolution as a worldview, while avoiding its admitted failures to account for what Darwin purported to explain, namely, the origin of species.

The virulence of the attempts to suppress Intelligent Design demonstrates the Darwinists' insecurity. “You don't resort to authoritarianism,” observed Mr. Meyer, “if you can answer it.”

More of the same.

This article provides an especially striking example of a certain pathology that is ubiquitous in the right-wing media. As they see it, journalism is not about learning the facts of a situation and reporting them accurately. Instead, journalism is about telling a story. For the right it is an article of faith that scientists are dogmatic atheists with the will and the power to crush anyone who dissents from orthodoxy. They are completely evidence-proof on this point. Veith can get away with this ridiculous article because he is writing for an audience that prefers the story to the facts.

Sandefur on Eminent Domain

The Washington Times is not a publication I usually cite favorably, but even they manage to publish worthwhile things from time to time. My fellow Panda's Thumber Tim Sandefur has written this interesting op-ed for them about government abuses of eminent domain. I don't know enough about the cases he cites to comment with any authority, but I have no trouble believing that the government is abusing its power in the ways Sandefur describes. Here's an excerpt:

Government's power to take property against the owner's will is called eminent domain, and it is the subject of a case the U.S. Supreme Court will hear on Feb. 22. In Kelo vs. New London, the court will consider whether the Constitution places any limits on eminent domain.

The Fifth Amendment says private property may only be taken for “public use,” which in the past meant highways or government buildings. But in the Kelo case, a Connecticut town decided to “revitalize” by taking several properties and replacing them with a hotel, a health club and a marina, to accompany a new research facility for the Pfizer Inc., the pharmaceutical company. Health clubs and corporate research are private uses, not public uses.

But the city argues “revitalization” would increase tax revenue and “create jobs.” And a public benefit, the city says, is all the Constitution requires. The problem with that argument is most businesses benefit the public.

If our homes can be taken away whenever bureaucrats decide somebody else would use them more effectively, our property rights are rendered meaningless.

Brayton on Me on Dean on Lynn on ID

Ed Brayton has weighed in with some further comments about the Darrick Dean blog entry I fisked in in this prior post. He says all the things I wish I had thought of on the separation of church and state. Here's an excerpt:

This is a common argument from the religious right, that support for strict separation of church and state makes one “anti-religion”, but the argument is patently false and betrays a far reaching ignorance of history. Leaving aside the fact that it seems rather idiotic to accuse Barry Lynn, a United Church of Christ minister, of being anti-religion, we can certainly ask the question of whether one must be against religion in order to be in favor of a strict separation of church and state. The answer to that question, if one knows anything at all about the roots of the idea in American history, is quite obviously no. The metaphor of a wall of separation between church and state was in fact invented by the devout Christian founder of Rhode Island, Roger Williams. Thomas Jefferson borrowed the metaphor as a description of the first amendment, as did James Madison, neither of whom were “anti-religion” (though Jefferson was certainly against many aspects of religion, particularly Judaism and Christianity).

Go read the whole thing.

Monday, February 21, 2005

U. S. Amateur Team East

My excursion to Parsippany went very well. The U.S. Amateur Team East is one of the most enjoyable tournaments of the year. Rather than competing as an individual, you compete as part of a four player team. This does not mean that the four people confer about what move to play in any given position. Instead, each of the four players plays his own game against his counterpart on the other team. But only the team score (one point for each win, half a point for each draw, zero points for a loss) matters in the end. Thus, if all four players on your team win, then you win the match 4-0. If two of your guys win, one draws, and the other loses, you still win the match, this time by a score of 2.5-1.5. The fact that this is a much smaller margin of victory has no relevance to your team's tournament score.

There are no cash prizes in the tournament, which tends to make everyone calm down a notch. Also, the comraderie of playing with your teammates, who in my case were old friends I only get to see at these tournaments, makes for a very enjoyable tournament. There is also a lrage chess bookstore on hand, where you can check out the latest offerings.

The tournament is always the Saturday, Sunday and Monday of President's weekend. Sadly, I was only able to play on Saturday. This was not a problem, since every team is allowed one alternate. In other words, someone simply took my place on Sunday and Monday.

I played Board Three , meaning I was the third highest rated player on the team. On board two was my good friend U.S. Correspondence Champion (meaning postal chess, meaning you write your move on a postcard, put it in the mail, then wait for a good long time until you get a reply) Jon Edwards, whose chess website has a lot of great stuff. Board four was staffed by Andy Mishra, who I've known since I was a little kid chessplayer. Board one was friend of a friend Richard Mattern, who I met for the first time at this tournament. He played very well indeed, despite some brutal pairings.

Our team was named “Meet the Sackers.” Not the most inspired pun perhaps, but good enough. In round one we played “Beauties and the Beast.” The Beast was Grandmaster Gennady Sagalchik, who promptly gave Richard a lesson in the proper technique for queen vs. two rook endgames. The Beauties were Mrs. Sagalchik on board two and their two daughters, who were about eye-level with the pieces, on boards three and four. Since Mrs. Sagalchik is a very strong player in her own right, this meant that Richard and Jon had their work cut out for them, while Andy and I got to coast against the cherubs. Showing no mercy, Andy and I took care of business and waited for the results on boards one and two.

Sadly, the writing was on the wall on board one, as the grandmaster proved to be too strong. Happily, Jon held a draw comfortably, and we won the match 2.5-1.5.

Our win in round one resulted in our playing “Behind the Ropes” in round two. It is an experience every USATE veteran lives for. The top ten matches are played far over on one side of the ballroom, separated from the rabble by velvet ropes. These games are always popular among the spectators, who have to stand, ha ha, behind the ropes. For one round at least, you get to feel llike royalty.

Sadly, playing behind the ropes means you face one of the monster teams. Those are the ones who believe they have a good chance to win the tournament, unlike most of the teams, like mine, who are just in it for fun.

This time our opponents were the aptly named “My Sixty Anti-Semitic Rants;” a parody on the title of the famously anti-semitic Bobby Fischer's book My Sixty Memorable Games. They had an international master on Board One, a mere master on Board Two, a strong expert on Board Three (that was my guy!) and a class B player on board four.

Sadly, we went down to defeat by a 3-1 score. Jon played well to get a comfortable draw on board two. Richard held his own against the IM, but overstepped the time limit and lost. Andy was on the wrong side of a vicious king-side attack and went down to defeat. Meanwhile, I managed to find a reasonably clever move to salvage a draw in my game:


White: J. R. (1901)

Black: Evan Rosenberg (2160)

Position after 33. ... f7-f5

This position arose after 33 moves. I was playing white. Those four digit numbers next to our names are our ratings. Without going into detail, the higher the rating the better. So I was happy to be holding my own against a much higher-rated player.

We were both in severe time pressure, with black having about two minutes to reach move forty, while I had about four minutes. I had been on the defensive for most of the game as the result of some lackadasical opening play, and for a while I thought I would lose. But as strong as black's position looked throughout the middlegame, my opponent couldn't manage to find a breakthrough.

In the position above there had just been a flurry of exchanges. Black has just banged out 33. ... f7-f5. This looks good, since it seems to force 34. Qc2, which is the only move to protect both my queen and my pawn on g2. White would have a very passive position after this move. The only alternative would be 34. Qf3, which fails to 34. ... g4+ 35. Qf4 Qxf4+ 36. Kxf4 Rxg2, with a big advantage for black. Happily, I managed to find a shot.

The move is 34. Rxf5! This caught my opponent off guard, but he quickly saw the point. After the forced 34. ... exf5, I can force a perpetual check with 35. Qe8+ Kc7 36. Qe7+. As a result, the game ended in a draw.

Lot's of other old friends were there, including tournament organizer exraordinaire Steve Doyle. All in all, a mightily enjoyable experience. Way more enjoyable than grading calculus exams, which is what was waiting for me upon my return.

My apologies for the personal post. I'll get back to yelling at creationists tomorrow!