Thursday, March 03, 2005

Spring Break in Boca!

Next week I will be attending The Thirty-Sixth Southeastern International Conference on Combinatorics, Graph Theory, and Computing, at Florida Atlantic University. While there I will give a rousing, twenty-minute talk about certain obscure problems in algebraic graph theory. Happily, they are a little less obscure thanks to some recent work by myself and my research collaborator. If you're curious to see what it is that I do when I'm not doing this blog, and if you are planning to be in Boca Raton next week, feel free to stop by.

As a result of my travels I will be taking the next week off. Regular blogging will resume on March 14.

According to the good people at Site Meter, EvolutionBlog is now averaging over six hundred hits a day. When I started this blog a little more than a year ago, I never imagined that so many people would actually be interested in reading my long-winded rants. A heartfelt thanks to everyone who has stopped by.

Let me also thank all the people who have left comments (even the critical ones). Lack of time prevents me from replying to most of them, but all of them are read and pondered.

See you in ten days!

Schwarzenegger is Starting to Win Me Over

If only more Republicans were like this:

The ABC anchor then moved to religion noting that Schwarzenegger is a Catholic and asking, “How do you reconcile your political positions on abortion, on gay rights, on the death penalty? They're opposed to the positions of the Catholic Church, the pronouncements of the pope. How do you reconcile that?”

Schwarzenegger said it was “easy” and that he never experienced a “sleepless night” over supposed conflicts between religious dogma he professes to and his political actions.

“I'm representing the people of California,” Schwarzenegger explained. “The people of California, all of them are not Catholics so, therefore, I do not bring in my religion into this whole thing. As a matter of fact, religion should have no effect on politics.”

No effect at all, Stephanopoulos asked.

“I think it should not,” the governor continued. “I mean, if you make a decision, it should not be based on your religious beliefs. It should be based on what is it how can you represent the people of California the best possible way? And we have a combination. We have Jews, we have Christians and we have Hindus. We have Buddhists. We have all kinds of different religions here and there's 140 some religions in this state.”

Seemingly surprised or somewhat dubious, Stephanopoulos continued, “So your faith plays no role in the forming of your political philosophy?”

“Not for me,” Schwarzenegger said.

Moreover, the governor proclaimed that he was a staunch supporter of the First Amendment principle of keeping church and government separate.

“Absolutely,” the governor declared. “I'm a big believer in separation of church and state, and I think that's what also, you know, the law is. It's what we all ought to do.”

Letters About Dembski

The Louisville Courier-Journal, a Kentucky newspaper, recently ran this article about William Dembski's arrival at the Southern Baptist Theological Assembly.

They have now run three excellent letters to the editor on the subject. You can find them here.

In the first one we find this worthy sentiment:

Puleeze! With all of the things we have to be embarrassed about, it was entirely unnecessary for you to headline the coming of William Dembski to Louisville. Your quote of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president R. Albert Mohler Jr., without immediate qualification, saying that Dembski is “one of the most skilled philosophers of science in this generation” was a brief affront to the truth. Dembski is a scientist like Elmer Fudd is a hunter.

Well said. I also liked this excerpt from the second letter:

The bad news is that William Dembski, a clever creationist, is coming to town. The good news is at least he landed a job where he belongs, at a Bible school instead of a real university.

And from later in the same letter:

Why are so many U.S citizens scientifically illiterate? First, religious fundamentalists constantly agitate to insert anti-evolution propaganda in textbooks and school curricula. Second, teachers practice self-censorship. Cornelia Dean, writing in the Feb. 5 New York Times, documented that teachers fail to teach evolution in order to avoid the wrath of anti-evolution zealots. The battle to keep religion out of our public schools is never-ending.

Go read the rest of these letters, and the third one as well. They are definitely worth the few minutes it will take you to read them.

Sandefur on Kaplinski

Over at The Panda's Thumb, Tim Sandefur offers some further thoughts on the Kaplinski article. He writes:

I would certainly agree that there is just as much quackery and hoodooism on the left as on the right—I live in Northern California, so I should know—and I agree that the tendency to ignore what a person says on the grounds that “he’s funded by so-and-so” is an illogical and childish attitude that is all too common. But the problem isn’t just hostility to people who claim authority. Such hostility can actually be pretty helpful; I understand the motto of the Royal Society is “On the Words of No One,” which is a pretty anti-authoritarian sentiment. Rather, the problem (other than simple ignorance) is hostility to reason and objective science. That hostility takes the form of both traditional fundamentalism (by which reason and science subvert the unquestioning faith demanded of us by God and society) and newfangled Pomo tergiversation (by which science is exploitative, inherently racist, and part of an intellectual scheme to oppress the proletariat and deprive them of their health insurance coverage).

Go to the original post for additional links.

Sorry, but there is far more quackery and hoodooism on the right than on the left. And the Christian right has far more power, and is far more active, than the anti-science left.

And while there may be a handful of postmodern academics trumpeting the “science is exploitative and racist” line, they are not the ones lobbying school boards to include creationism in science classes. In every state where this has become an issue it is the Republicans who have made it so. It is always and everywhere conservatives who try to influence public policy on this issue. That is why, in the context of evolution and creationism, it is mostly a red herring to discuss postmodernism.

Postmodernism and Fundamentalism

Joe Kaplinski has written a lengthy and interesting article about ID for the online magazine Spiked. You can find it here. It's a mixed bag of an article. At times I think Kaplinski hits it out of the park. At other times I think he's trying to hard to find something original to say on this subject.

I liked this excerpt:

The newest manifestation of creationism is a theory called 'intelligent design'. According to intelligent design theory the complexity of the living world is evidence that it was deliberately designed by a Creator. The novelty lies in the false claim that the evidence of design is scientific evidence and that it can be studied scientifically.

Intelligent design contains no new ideas about our origins. The 'argument from design' in its most basic form goes back at least to Aristotle. It was taken up by Christian philosophers and eventually disposed of by the Enlightenment thinkers Immanuel Kant and David Hume, who pointed out that there was no necessary link between puzzling complexity in the world and supernatural origins, let alone Christian theology.

On examination intelligent design's only novelty turns out to be not a grounding in science, but a promotional strategy. Its supposed scientific legitimacy rests on the work of biochemist Michael Behe and mathematician William Dembski. However, neither Behe nor Dembski (nor anyone else) have published on intelligent design in peer reviewed journals. This is unsurprising, since their work is nothing but rehashes of old creationist arguments.

And this one:

No doubt taking up intelligent design is a dispiriting business. The slightest attention from scientists, no matter how critical, is trumpeted as proof that intelligent design is being taken seriously and that it is making a contribution to science. The more vigorously intelligent design is refuted, the more this is claimed as evidence that there really is an important 'debate' that needs to be taught in classrooms. Detailed refutations are met with the response that the real argument to be met is contained within a forthcoming publication.

All this is bluster and noise. It is designed to convince the creationists' base that Darwinism is on the point of collapse (although strangely it never quite falls), and to convey an impression to the wider public that there is some substance to their criticisms. There is nothing else to it. It must be tempting to spend one's time more productively than sorting through this junk. Fortunately there are enough teachers and scientists prepared to take up the work.

But Kaplinski's main point is that the widespread public sympathy for creationism is explained not by religious zealotry, but rather by a suspicion of experts and authority generally. And this suspicion, he argues, is the result of certain liberal educational policies that have undermined the notion of scientific truth.

For example, he writes:

It is important to understand what is behind the recent attacks on evolution, and to keep the supposed rise of the Christian right in perspective. The recent attacks on evolution have been coordinated by a small group of well-organised and moderately well-funded Christians, whose 'wedge' strategy sees questioning of evolution as the first step on the road to a theocratic society.

But in historical terms creationism is weaker than ever before. Christianity has long been a powerful force in US culture. It is hard to make the case that it exists today in a more fundamentalist, or a more right-wing, politically influential, form. The intelligent design activists play off widespread Christian faith, but they also play off a wider culture that is sceptical of the claims of science.

Actually, I think it's easy to make the case that American Christianity is far more fundamentalist, right-wing, and influential today than at any other time in recent history. This is reflected in the number of Congressional sympathizers with the religious right, the respectful press coverage given to representatives of the most right-wing elements of Christianity, the increasing percentage of the evangelical and Catholic votes that have gone to Republicans in recent elections, and in other ways as well.

And the idea that creationism is weaker than ever before is just plain batty. Belief in the hard-core, young-Earth, Noah's flood version of creationism has not flagged in the slightest according to every poll I've seen. The embrace of ID does not reflect a retreat by creationists. It merely reflects their increasing savviness in presenting their case. I suspect if you put it to a vote you would have young-Earth creationism taught respectfully in most of the South and Midwest, and in a distressingly high percentage of blue-state counties as well.

Another example of Kaplinsky missing the boat is this excerpt:

Forrest and Gross present such uncompromising Christianity as evidence that the threat of intelligent design is more alarming than it appears. But though they have established that the individuals associated with the intelligent design network are motivated by sincere Christian faith, they don't engage with why it is that the creationists cannot publicly argue on that basis.

The obvious barrier presented by the Constitutional separation between church and state is not sufficient explanation. After all, it needs to be explained why it is that the constitutional rule has only made itself felt since the late 1960s, and why the legal setbacks of the creationists have become steadily worse.

The formulation of the intelligent design strategy as the thin end of a wedge itself recognises the creationists' current weakness. They recognise that they cannot openly admit their full Christian programme. Such an attempt could not make headway in contemporary American culture. The wedgers may dream of a theocratic United States, but there is no chance of this coming about.

We should point out that Paul Gross certainly can not be accused of overlooking the pernicious role of liberal anti-science. After all, he is the coauthor of Hgher Superstition (with Norman Levitt) and the coeditor of The Flight From Science and Reason (with Norman Levitt and Martin Lewis).

As for the point Kaplinsky is making, I think the Constitutional barrier is indeed the complete explanation for why the creationists have scaled back their ambitions. Why did these legal challenges not make themselves felt until the 1960's? Because there was almost no mention of evolution in science classes before that time. It was in the sixties, in response to the Sputnik launch, that evolution was again reinstated as a major part of the science curriculum. Before that time it was almost universally ignored. On top of this, most of the church/state separation cases that angered fundamentalists occurred in the sixties and beyond. There was little legal activity before the sixties because the fundamentalists did not see it as necessary. Since Kaplinsky discusses this hsitory, I'm not sure why he ignores it in this section.

And I'm also not sure what he means when he says that creationist legal defeats have gotten progressively worse. Creationists have tried a variety of legal strategies and so far none has worked. Someday they will find one that will work. Until that time, one defeat is as bad as another.

Anyway, it is only the courts that would object to an overtly Christian message being taught in the schools. In most parts of the country that message would be welcomed.

I think Kaplinsky is correct that a sort of left-wing relativism about truth and authority is part of the problem. He is surely correct to say

But even on a seemingly clear-cut issue such as creationism, the division is not so sharp. Liberals have often been at the forefront of questioning the authority of science. It is liberals who have argued that science education should respect cultural differences and that the curriculum should be immediately relevant to everyday life of students. Creationists have leapt at the opportunity presented by educational theories to put the knowledge of pupils on the same level as that as scientists, by putting forward the demand to 'teach the controversy'.

Basically, Kaplinsky is arguing that this sort of left-wing relativism and Christian fundamentalism are both threats to good science education. I agree. He further argues that the former is a bigger threat than the latter. It is there that we disagree.

But I have only commented on a small portion of Kaplinsky's article, and I encourage you to go read the whole thing.

Gross Weighs In

The always excellent Paul Gross states it plain in this op-ed for The Blatimore Sun. Free registration is required to read the whole thing.

The description of those processes is not just a theory. There are hundreds of cases of evolutionary change observed in progress and dozens of observed speciations, with mechanisms perfectly clear. That the results of such changes over eons of time - at least 3.5 billion years - include complex molecular machinery is no surprise, except to those trying to manufacture belief in a world conspiracy of scientists against faith, or to scientific illiterates.

There is no scientific evidence for intelligent agency behind biological design. But evidence for the making of designs by natural processes is as strong as any scientific evidence we have - in any field of science.

Advocates of intelligent design, such as the Discovery Institute in Seattle, have been selling the same specious anti-evolution argument as though it were valid science for more than a decade. They have convinced not a single widely recognized evolutionary biologist. Yet they prate of “scientists” agreeing with them.

Only the naive, or those indifferent to the rules of serious scientific inquiry, are convinced. Children ought not to be misled about what is good science and what is not.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Shermer on Consilience

While you're over at the Scientific American site, have a look at Michael Shermer's latest column. It will probably be old hat to most readers of this blog, but it never hurts to be reminded of the basics:

Nineteenth-century English social scientist Herbert Spencer made this prescient observation: “Those who cavalierly reject the Theory of Evolution, as not adequately supported by facts, seem quite to forget that their own theory is supported by no facts at all.” Well over a century later nothing has changed. When I debate creationists, they present not one fact in favor of creation and instead demand “just one transitional fossil” that proves evolution. When I do offer evidence (for example, Ambulocetus natans, a transitional fossil between ancient land mammals and modern whales), they respond that there are now two gaps in the fossil record.

This is a clever debate retort, but it reveals a profound error that I call the Fossil Fallacy: the belief that a “single fossil”--one bit of data--constitutes proof of a multifarious process or historical sequence. In fact, proof is derived through a convergence of evidence from numerous lines of inquiry--multiple, independent inductions, all of which point to an unmistakable conclusion.

Shermer goes on to discuss some recent work on dog evolution. Go have a look!

I'm Not Sure What to Make of This...

From Scientific American:

Agnès Lacreuse of Emory University and her colleagues worked with 90 adult rhesus monkeys to test their spatial memories. The animals fell into three age groups ranging from young (less than 15 years old) to middle aged (between 15 and 20 years) to old (more than 20 years old). Rhesus monkeys “are useful in the study of possible sex differences in cognitive aging because they provide a model that is not confounded by sex differences in longevity or dementia,” Lacreuse says. The researchers had the monkeys track the location of food hidden under 18 identical covers on a tray and found that young adult male monkeys performed the best at the task. This pattern of male supremacy did not hold across age groups, however: older males and females performed equally well. In addition, a second experiment with 22 monkeys indicated that training young female rhesus monkeys closes the gender gap. Whereas training had no impact on how well young males performed at locating the food, young females raised their abilities to match those of males after they were trained using a simpler version of the challenge. The authors posit that the training helped focus the females' attention on the spatial nature of the task, whereas males may be more naturally attuned to its spatial features.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

More on Teaching the Controversy

D. Allen Kerr is a columnist for the Portsmouth Herald, a New Hampshire newspaper. He has recently written two columns, available here and here, about evolution and creationism. It seems he is firmly on the evolution side, but also thinks that “teaching the controversy” is a worthwhile approach.

His first column has a few interesting parts. I liked this paragraph:

For those who are equally out-of-touch, intelligent design is basically a term coined to give creationism a more scientific sheen. The name itself, of course, is meant to suggest there is some form of purposeful design behind our existence, rather than the gradual accident of science proposed by evolutionists. One book on the topic — by Barbara Forrest and Paul Gross — calls the concept Creationism's Trojan Horse, a way of pretty much sneaking religious beliefs into our classrooms under the guise of scholarship.

I was less enthusiastic about this paragraph:

I'm guessing proponents of creationism were eager to shed this image of backwoods ignorance opponents tend to associate with their theories, and leaped to embrace this new spin. But since the credibility of both the evolution and creation arguments carry gaping black holes it might behoove the curious to cast aside the more ridiculous notions of each theory and concentrate on their strengths instead. Even then, it's likely this is one puzzle that can never fully be solved in our lifetimes. And maybe that's part of the design too.

Sorry, but there are no gaping black holes in evolutionary theory. There are unanswered questions, certainly, and there are places where the available data is insufficient for drawing a firm conclusion. But there is nothing in nature, ID bloviations notwithstanding, to challenge the essential soundness of evolution. ID, by contrast, is one big black hole. It explains nothing at all.

It would have been helpful if Kerr had given an example of what he considers a ridiculous notion of evolutionary theory.

Also deserving comment was this paragraph:

Still, I'm glad students got the opportunity to hear both sides of the debate. The effort to include creationism into the classroom has continued pretty much unabated for decades now, and I personally don't see the harm in it. After all, it's likely the two explanations are not exclusive of one another — in other words, who's to say God can't be the force behind evolution? Kids should be allowed to explore both sides of the issue and make their own informed conclusion. It's not as if science has provided all the answers.

There's a standard equivocation going on here about the meaning of the term “creationism.” The minimalist definition of the term, that there is a higher power responsible for the existence of life on Earth, is entirely consistent with evolution. Of course, science has nothing to say one way or the other about the existence of a higher power, so it goes without saying that they are consistent.

But that minimalist definition is not what the argument is about. When poeple like me oppose teaching creationism, what we are opposing are certain specific assertions made by outfits like the Discovery institute or Answers in Genesis. They assert that evolution runs afoul of the laws of thermodynamics, or that probability theory militates against it, or that certain structures are too complex to have evolved naturally, or sundry other, equally false claims. To give respectful treatment to such claims would be to lie to students. I very much doubt that Kerr would argue that we should give respectful treatment to holocaust deniers in teaching about WWII, or to the view of the KKK in discussing Martin Luther King. Why not let students make up their own minds about those issues too?

Surely the reason is that it is hard enough to teach students the things they need to know, without wasting a lot of time exploring nonsense.

Actually, though, it was the second column that really caught my eye. Here's the beginning:

For a group so dismissive of the creation argument, some evolutionists sure seem petrified of sharing the same platform.

Just a couple of weeks ago, a column in this space (on Feb. 14) mentioned a creation-versus-evolution debate that took place in my kid's Newmarket High School science class. I mainly wrote about the incident because I was amused to hear creationism had wrapped itself within a new argument called "intelligent design." Now I find myself surprised by the outright paranoia of some in the scientific community.

I had thought it was a good idea to bring some intelligent design proponents into the classroom so students could hear both sides of the debate. Apparently this was naive and downright asinine of me, because allowing creationists in our schools is just two steps away from exposing our kids to the Putrid Fiery HOWLING CHASMS OF HELL ITSELF!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I think everyone has had a “Get off my side!” experience. That's when you hear a viewpoint you generally agree with defended so badly, or in such an obnoxious way, that you are embarrassed on behalf of the cause. There are a handful of commenters over at The Panda's Thumb who make me cringe despite the fact that they are defending evolution. It's a feeling I often get listening to people like Michael Moore or Noam Chomsky as well.

The NCSE, however, is a group that I am happy to align myself with. Yet it is the NCSE to which Kerr turns first:

An organization called the National Center for Science Education circulated an e-mail regarding the column, wondering just “what is going on in biology classes at this high school.” Was the teacher promoting creationism? Was he caving in to parental demands? Were ritual sacrifices involved?

“It's not as if we don't have enough to do already here at NCSE dealing with anti-evolutionism around the country,” the e-mail declared. “However, if there is a problem in this district, we would be glad to try to help local parents/citizens to deal with it.”

Thank God such resources were available during this trying ordeal.

I see no evidence of paranoia here, and Kerr's sarcasm is misplaced. What the NCSE knows, that perhaps Kerr doesn't know, is that debating evolution and creationism is often just code for teaching creationism. Based on the quotes Kerr provides, it sounds like the NCSE was simply making people aware that if they think the teacher crossed the line into promoting creationism, then there are resources available to help them fight back.

What's wrong with that?

But what really got to me is this paragraph:

I also heard from creation advocates, and was somewhat surprised at how reasonable some of their arguments sounded. A lot of it seemed scientific, but then I don't know squat about science so therefore can't tell the difference between valid points and genuine cockamamie. One guy, describing evolution as the theory of chance, mentioned the analogy of a million monkeys attempting to type Shakespeare and the unlikelihood of even a protein molecule forming itself by accident. I'm not sure I followed it all as closely as I would like. It would be great to get a bunch of these folks into the same room and listen to them go at it, trading body blows of knowledge for knowledge, so they can refute each other's arguments in person. But of course that equal billing would give creationists credibility the evolutionists are loath to share. I guess that's what caused such a stir in the Newmarket classroom in the first place.

As an example of an argument that sounds plausible and scientific Kerr chooses the one about evolution being a theory of chance. This is genuine cockamamie, to borrow his term. In fact, this is elementary cockamamie. If you know even the most basic elements of evolution then you know that this argument is garbage. And it is not a matter of opinion that it is garbage. It is garbage in the same sense that claiming that 1+1=3 is garbage.

But Kerr longs to see “a bunch of these folks” trading body blows on the subject. In his child's classroom. Aside from the obvious problem here, that trading (presumably metaphorical) body blows is hardly the best way to get at the truth of anything, there is a practical problem.

To make the creationist argument, you need only point to a long protein or gene sequence, whip out a very small number you claim represents the probability of that protein or gene evolving by chance, and then assert that the whole idea is insane.

Here's what's involved in refuting that argument, if you are going to do it properly: (1) First you have to explain basic probability theory. (2) Then you have to explain the mechanics of natural selection. (3) After that you have to point out the unwarranted assumptions that go into the creationist calculation. (4) Next you explain how the action of natural selection alters the probability calculation. (5) Finally, you can flesh all of this out with specific biological examples.

The fact is that it is a lot easier to spew nonsense than it is to refute it. That's why people on my side are generally suspicious of debates.

Also troublesome is Kerr's proud admission that he knows squat about science. If that is true, then why does he believe there is a legitimate controversy here. Would he respond to holocaust deniers by saying, “Well, I don't know squat about history, but a lot of their arguments sound plausible so let's put them in a classroom to trade body blows with their opponents. You know, let the kids sort it out.” I agree with Kerr's last sentence. Putting creationists in the classroom would give them a legitimacy they don't desrve and have not earned.

Instead of accusing the scientific community of paranoia and fear, perhaps Kerr should try educating himself about science. By doing so I think he would see for himself that the ID folks have only money and power on their side, not scientific merit. Then he would understand why scientists are rather nonplussed by the idea of having to take time away from their work to go argue with people who haven't the faintest idea what they are talking about.

Monday, February 28, 2005

This is Depressing

You know what I hate most about the evolution/creation debate? It isn't the ignorance peddlers of the Discvoery Institute or the gibbering insanity of Answers in Genesis. It's not the semi-literate know-nothings who pollute the comment boards of blogs with their reptitive drivel. It isn't even the fawning press coverage these dangerous right-wing ideologues occasionally receive.

No. What I really hate is the child-like naivete of some scientists who really ought to know better.

Take Richard Gallagher, for example.

He is the editor of The Scientist, a usually very good science magazine. He wrote this editorial(registration reauired) for the current issue endorsing the teaching of ID alongside evolution in science classrooms. As with all such editorials he is remarkably vague about what teaching ID actually entails.

We consider his remarks in full.

The current frenzied attack on the teaching of evolution in public schools in school boards across the United States is to be welcomed.

There, I've said it. And no, I'm not a fundamental Christian, a creationist, or a right-wing ideologue. What I am is someone who sees an outstanding opportunity to exchange views with the naysayers, and a rare public examination of a set of ideas that are pretty much taken as Gospel – sorry for the blurring of metaphors, but it drives home my point – by us in the scientific community. Played the right way, everyone – yes, including scientists – should come out enriched by the interaction.

So we should be happy that a group of lying ignoramuses, motivated entirely by religious and political concerns, are wasting the time of school boards that have real issues to deal with? Were we lacking in opportunities to exchange views with the naysayers prior to their assault on science education?

I'm all in favor of engaging the naysayers. That's why I do this blog, after all. I just don't think science classes are the right venue for that engagement.

And does Gallagher really not understand that the public examination of evolution he finds so nifty does not, for the most part, involve the public actually educating themselves about what scientists do or why they believe what they believe? That instead it involves them responding to cheap soundbites about teaching the controversy or opposing censorship or presenting all sides? Does he really think that the widespread public opposition to evolution is simply the result of people not having heard a clear presentation of the evidence on both sides?

For those who haven't been following developments, here's a précis: Conservative forces, likely buoyed by the recent election, are applying pressure on the science education system to adopt the teaching of a theory called “Intelligent Design.” The nub of intelligent design is that Earth and particularly the life on it are much too complex to have evolved; simply, it must be the work of an intelligent creator.

The squeeze is on in legislatures and school boards in at least 18 states, from Alabama to Alaska. The movement is even becoming a US export to the United Kingdom, according to a story on page 12 of this issue.

As with most people who endorse “teaching the controversy” Gallagher never gets around to telling us what, exactly, he wants taught. If I satnd in front of a classroom and say “Some people believe that life is too complex to have evolved by natural means alone,” have I just taught ID? Or am I supposed to say something else?

I have no objection to the assertions of ID proponents being raised in science classes. I would only object to those ideas being presented respectfully. Indded, I'm not sure what it would even mena to present them respectfully. I imagine the conversation going something like this:

ID'ist: Certain biochemical structures are irreducibly complex, meaning they are composed of several, well-matched indispensable parts. Therefore thy could not have evolved gradually.

Evolutionist: That's not true. Here are three or four scenarios for how irreducible complexity could arise gradually. Here are specific examples like the blood clotting cascade or the mammalian ear structure to show how those scenarios play out in practice. Here are computer simulations that model evolution and show that irreducible complexity frequently arises by gradual processes.

ID'ist: Well, I still don't believe it.

The fact is that ID consists of nothing more than a bunch of people folding their arms and shaking their heads. If Gallagher has in mind something like what I just described, then I'm all for it. If he has something else in mind, I'd appreciate it if he would tell us what it is.

Opponents have two possible responses. The dominant one is something close to panic: fear that a generation will be brainwashed into accepting intelligent design and that science itself is under threat throughout the country. That response results in avoiding the topic altogether and refusing to debate. In fact, some scientists regret using words such as “design” in published studies, for fear it will be used by intelligent-design advocates (see p. 12).

The dominant reaction is not panic, it is disgust. And it is a simple fact that science is under threat from conservative forces; “teaching the controversy” is the least of their ambitions. As for refusing to debate, that's just silly. Countless scientists have been willing to engage and debate the ideas of ID proponents. The issue here, again, is whether that debate should take place in science classes.

The other response is to accept the challenge and rise to it, even to relish it. That's the approach I would urge, and here's why:

Gallagher now gives three reasons for “accepting the challenge” whatever that means. Here's the first:

It's rare to have a full-blooded public debate about the school curriculum. And one about the science curriculum is as rare as rocking-horse droppings. We should play it for all it's worth, bringing a clearer sense of evolution to a wide cross-section of the population.

I've read these three sentences a dozen times and I'm still not sure what point Gallagher is making. The debate, such as it is, about the school curriculum, takes place in front of school boards and on the op-ed pages of local newspapers. Many scientists have been using those venues to get the message out as best they can, but those are hardly the appropriate settings for genuine scientific discussion. In a battle of 800 word op-eds, the creationists win just by showing up.

The phrase “We should play it for all its worth,” is the sort of vague silliness that gets me so frustrated with people like Gallagher. What, precisely, should we be playing for all its worth? What does Gallagher think scientists should be doing that they are not currently doing?

I believe that popularization should be part of every scientist's job description. I would even go so far as to say that the scientific community deserves a small measure of the blame for the public's ignorance of what scientists do, since as a culture they tend to look down on popularization, and popularizers. But that hardly implies that a shouting match in front of a school board, especially one in which the anti-evolution side operates completely divorced from any sense of conscience or integrity, is a good thing for science.

While some of the commentary, with headlines such as “Religious right fights science for the heart of America,”1 suggests that the heart of America is some kind of science utopia, this could hardly be further from the truth. With the exception of isolated pockets of excellence, the heart of America could do well with engaging a lot more with science, and this is a chance to make headway. Debates can be won as well as lost!

Gallagher continues to miss the point. How is “this” a chance to make headway? How does forcing a school board to listen to a load of pseudo-scientific nonsense they are unqualified to judge, coming from people more interested in politics and religion than they are in science, provide an opportunity to educate people about evolution?

Gallagher would do well to heed Stephen Jay Gould's maxim that “The truth is only one weapon, seldom the best, in the debater's aresenal.” Having said that, I have written elsewhere that under the right circumstances I am in favor of scientists debating creationists. The issue, however, is the proper forum in which to do this.

At the level of the students who are, after all, the principles in all this, the study of different explanations for the diversity of life on Earth will make science class more compelling. Clyde Herreid talks on page 10, in this issue's Opinion, about the need for science teaching to connect to the first-hand experiences of students. The evolution-intelligent design debate will fire the interest of bright kids who will see through the paper-thin arguments being set out to discredit evolution.

And here, again, Gallagher needs to tell us what the ID explanation for the diversity of life on Earth actually is.

There is one caveat, and it's a big one: The topics must be taught on a level playing field. Full information on evolution and on intelligent design must be supplied, and there must be no further pressure on curricula or teachers. Given this, I'm in little doubt that the open-minded students of the heart of America will see the strength of evolution as a theory.

Gallagher doesn't seem to understand that for many kids in the “heart” of America, every cultural influence on them supports the creationist view of things. The one place they will ever hear about what science has to say on the subject is in a school science class. And now he wants us to water down that class by presenting respectfully a lot of propaganda and false information.

There is also the practical problem that most biology teachers are not well-enough trained to handle the minutiae of this subject. Presenting full information on ID would presumably mean introducing a lot of information on the Cambrian explosion, or flagellum architecture or “complex specified information” things that most teachers are not in a position to discuss.

The primary effect of teaching ID would not be that students would see ID for the fraud that it is. Rather, the primary effect would be that students would be given the false impression that there is a genuine scientific controversy on this subject. The details would be forgotten shortly after the test, but the phony controversy would remain in their minds.

In addition, scientists should go out of their way to support their local high-school science teachers to present the case for evolution. Scientists must propose their case to as wide an audience as possible. This includes commercial television news, a medium of which scientists have been skeptical.2 Let's get out there and argue!

I'm all in favor of scientists getting the word out, but it is hard to believe that Gallagher has actually watched any news segments on this subject. If he had, he would understand why scientists are so skeptical of it. Let him have a look at how Bill O'Reilly or Joe Scarborough handle these issues, and then say that the problem is just one of scientists getting out there and making their case.

Sunday, February 27, 2005

That's How Science Works...

From Agatha Christie's Murder on the Links (Emphasis in Original):

“My dear Poirot-never mind all that. We must go to the villa at once. There has been another murder!

I have frequently been disappointed when fancying that I was giving news of importance to my friend. Either he has known it already or he has dismissed it as irrelevant to the main issue-and in the latter case events have usually proven him justified. But this time I could not complain of missing my effect. Never have I seen a man so flabbergasted. His jaw dropped. All the jauntiness went out of his bearing. He stared at me open-mouthed.

“What is that you say? Another murder? Ah, then, I am all wrong. I have failed. Giraud may mock himself at me-he will have reason!”

“You did not expect it, then?”

“I? Not the least in the world. It demolishes my theory-it ruins everything-it-ah, no!” He stopped dead, thumping himself on the chest. “It is impossible. I cannot be wrong! The facts, taken methodically and in their proper order, admit of only one explanation. I must be right! I am right!”

“But then-”

He interrupted me.

“Wait, my friend. I must be right, therefore this new murder is impossible unless-unless-oh, wait, I implore you. Say no word-”

He was silent for a moment or two, then, resuming his normal manner, he said in a quiet, assured voice.

“The victim is a man of middle age. His body was found in the locked shed near the scene of the crime and had been dead at least forty-eight hours. And it is most probable that he was stabbed in a similar manner to M. Renault, though not necessarily in the back.”

It was my turn to gape-and gape I did. In all my knowledge of Poirot he had never done anything so amazing as this. And, almost inevitably, a doubt crossed my mind.

“Poirot,” I cried, “you're pulling my leg. You've heard all about it already.”

He turned his earnest gaze on me reproachfully.

“Would I do such a thing? I assure you that I have heard nothing whatsoever. Did you not observe the shock your news was to me?”

“But how on Earth could you know all that?”

“I was right then? But I knew it. The little gray cells, my friend, the little gray cells! They told me. Thus, and in no other way, could there have been a second death. Now tell me all. If we go round to the left here, we can take a short cut across the golf links which will bring us to the back of the Villa Genevieve much more quickly.”