Thursday, April 28, 2005

A Conservative gets it Right on Global Warming!

Here'a sentence I never thought I'd type: A columnist for Town Hall actually said something sensible about global warming. The columnist is Kathleen Parker, and her column can be found here.

Here are two excerpts:

Despite opinions that differ by diminishing degrees, the growing consensus is that global warming is real and that man is at least in part responsible. The only debatable points are the extent to which the Earth is heating up and what should be done about it.

And later:

Skeptics nevertheless hold sway among legislative and regulatory bodies. In the absence of unanimity, and given the certainty that politics has damaged the integrity of debate, we might resort to common sense. Given a growing body of evidence that:

- Earth is getting warmer, contributing to weather changes and other well-documented events; and that,

- Man is contributing to global warming by driving gas-guzzling cars (projections are that the number of active cars will increase from 800 million today to 3.25 billion by 2050, thanks mostly to India and China), and by burning coal (half of the electricity generated in the United States and 40 percent of the world's comes from coal);

- And assuming that reducing emissions would reduce warming trends as well as minimize our reliance on foreign oil, some of which finances terrorism . wouldn't it make sublime sense to err on the side of conservation? To provide incentives to produce and buy hybrid cars that get 40 miles per gallon? To offer companies incentives for seeking alternative energy sources?

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Pardi on Anti-ID Hysteria

The Discovery Institute blog has a link up to a blog entry by Paul Pardi criticizing ID critics. The Discovery institute's John West introduces the post this way:

Paul Pardi has an excellent post on his blog discussing the hysterical rhetoric of many critics of intelligent design (ID). Reading Pardi's comments, one has to wonder why the most vocal critics of ID are so bitter, angry, and defensive. If the evidence for their views is so overwhelming, why are they so insecure?

That caught my eye. I'm a pretty vocal critic of ID, but I am neither bitter nor defensive nor insecure. I am angry, however. I think my anger is well-justified by the relentless dishonesty of outfits like The Discovery Institute.

So I was curious to see what Pardi could have said to receive such praise. We will consider a few of his remarks here. Not to ruin the suspence, but I'm about to give Pardi some more ammunition.

After some introductory paragraphs Pardi offers us this:

Criticisms of ID range anywhere from calling the theory “pseudoscience” (see to referring to anyone who suggests that ID should perhaps be considered as idiots or imbeciles. Jay Matthews wrote an article for the Washington Post recently entitled “Who’s Afraid of Intelligent Design.” In a follow up piece entitled, “Intelligent Design, Unintelligent Me,” he describes the scene after the editorial was posted. “Well, the minute the op-ed appeared the e-mails started popping up on my computer, right under the coconut ape with a ball and bat that sits atop my IBM. At last count there were about 400 of them. Most said they had the unfortunate duty to tell me that I was an idiot.” ( He goes on to describe how one reader lumped Matthews in with the rest of the “imbecilic do-gooders” who promote ID. What’s amusing is that Matthews wasn’t really promoting ID at all. He was promoting the debate that ID might create in the classroom. Imagine the response he’d get if he suggested ID might have merit!

So Exhibit A in his case for the hysteria of ID critics is the hearsay testimony of a single Washington Post columnist describing some nameless e-mailers. Strong evidence.

I have no doubt that some of Matthews' e-mailers were quite rude. But the fact remains that Mattehws made several serious errors of fact in his essay; errors that demonstrated that he really didn't understand the issue he was writing about. You can find these errors detailed in this entry over at The Pandas Thumb.

Moving on we come to this:

One of the more amusing bloggers to come down hard on ID is Brian Leiter. Leiter’s histrionics over ID are unparalleled on the web as far as I can tell. He’s called ID theorists pathological liars, propagandists, con men, “scientists,” swindlers, and more. Leiter can’t even see fit to use the proper name of the Discovery Institute without showing his disdain (he always writes the name as Discovery [sic] Institute.) Sort of reminds me of religious popularizers who refer to evolution as “evil-ution.”

Leiter is the only ID critic Pardi mentions by name. Which is peculiar, since Leiter doesn't actually write very much about ID. Typically he simply links to other people (especially P. Z. Myers) who do write about the subject.

And of course, it's okay to refer to people as “pathological liars, propagandists and con men” if that is what they actually are. It has been documented over and over again that almost nothing the major ID proponents are saying is true. It has been shown time and again that they routinely misrepresent the ideas of prominent scientists. Calling them liars and the like is not an idle insult. It's a simple and clear statement of the truth.

But since Pardi's delicate little ears shrivel at the sound of some harsh rhetoric, I'm sure we can look forward to a subsequent post where he takes the ID folks to task for their own frequent, and, yes, entirely unjustified, name-calling.

The fact is, what matters are the merits of the arguments each side is making. Pardi doesn't get into that at all. He sees some name-calling from my side and never even considers whether the names are justified.

Pardi then tries to figure out just what it is about ID folks that have people on my side of this so angry. Since he seems to dismiss out of hand the possibility that it is the grotesque distortion of the basic facts of biology so common in ID writing that has my side angry, he tries out two other explanations:

First, it seems that people see ID as religion in new clothing. It’s Creationism sexied up for the new millennium. Many people view the popularizing of ID as introducing religion into the cultural dialogue under the auspices (and perhaps using the language of) science. What’s interesting is that the emotion that’s generated isn’t curiosity but fear and anger. Again, these are the same emotions that so many religious people felt when evolution started to take hold. Its déjà vu all over again only with the players on the opposite sides of the field. Just as the religious saw evolution as a threat and bitterly attacked the idea, so Darwinists (and certainly other groups) are attacking the idea of ID as a dangerous poison that shouldn’t even be considered. Many that do consider it do so not in an even-handed, rigorous evaluation of the theory but with the goal of showing that it is obviously wrong. Many times it seems the judgment on ID is made before the view is even considered.

Who are these people Pardi is talking about? I, for one, have spent a ridiculous amount of time over the last few years reading just about every book and essay ID proponents have put out. It is not lack of curiosity that leads me to write this blog or spend so much time refuting ID arguments. My emotions are riled up because to anyone who knows even a little bit about biology and mathematics it is clear that the arguments offered by ID folks are ridiculous. ID arguments ARE obviously wrong.

And absolutely no one is arguing that “the idea of ID” is a dangerous poison. At the risk of being repetitive, it is specific arguments about irreducible complexity and complex specified information and the like that are being argued against.

You'll notice that Pardi does not give a single example of someone on my side of this behaving in the manner he describes. What he is doing is assuming a pose that is common among people who want to seem very learned but who actually do not know what they are talking about. Rather than do the hard work of figuring out who is right and who is wrong about the basic facts of biology, he simply turns up his nose and attacks the rhetoric of one side. So cheap. So lazy.

So what's the second reason?

The second main reason for the reaction is that some apparently see ID as a direct assault on the neo-Darwinian model and on science itself. ID is by definition non-scientific (so the claim goes) and so to introduce the theory as a possible alternate to evolution is to compare apes with angels. “Imagine what would happen to sound reasoning” the Darwinian defender might wonder “if we attempted to argue scientific facts with the religious as if they were in the same class of knowledge claims?” So the lines tend to be drawn: the modern (which, of course, is always good), reasonable, scientifically-minded, evolutionist on the one side and the archaic, faith-driven, fantasy-minded intelligent design theorists on the other. Putting ID on the same footing as evolution is like attempting to decide cases of law by using the Old Testament.

ID is rather explicitly an attack on the Neo-Darwinan model of evolution and it is indeed unscientific. But that's not why it shouldn't be introduced as an alternative to evolution. It shouldn't be so introduced because (A) It's main claims are completely false and (B) It offers no alternative explanation for anything beyond the assertion that God did some unspecified thing at some unspecified point in time.

After that, Pardi simply descends into some slurs of his own. He objects that ID critics are being unfair to their opponents, but thinks nothing of invoking the hoariest stereotypes of people on my side of this. Lovely.

After all this, I wonder what Pardi's take on this subject is:

My take is that anyone who considers the matter and has done even a modicum of research in this area should clearly see that pure ID is not a religious hypothesis (it may have THEISTIC implications but it’s certainly not RELIGIOUS in its core proposal). Further, ID is not some fringe theory like denying the holocaust or belief in alien abductions. You may not agree with people like Dembski but you can’t reasonably suggest that the guy is a fringe nitwit. His The Design Inference is about as rigorous and challenging a book as one can find. I will also go so far as to say that ID really in no way threatens reasonable belief in evolution. Dawkins observed that evolution at least has the appearance of being guided and directed. Holding that this appearance might be attributable to an intelligence somewhere along the way doesn't seem to threaten the core tenets of evolutionary theory. I know many theistic evolutionists who hold both very consistently.

What ID does threaten is naturalism. And it is this threat that elicits the religious fervor in those that oppose ID in my opinion. (All Caps in original)

See my previous comment about Pardi not knowing what he is talking about.

First, evolution is barely mentioned at all in The Design Inference. In that book Dembski was laying out an eleaborate, quasi-mathematical framework for determining if a particular object or event had to be attributed to intelligent design. Demsbki makes no attempt to apply his apparatus to biological problems in that book. Since the gravest (but hardly the only) fault with Dembski's work is the impossibility of applying his ideas to any nontrivial real-world problem, citing TDI does nothing to suggest that ID is a serious scientific theory.

And, as numerous critics pointed out at the time, TDI was hardly “rigorous.” What Pardi meant to say was “technical.”

Second, sometimes fringe nitwits write challenging books. Indeed, one of the trademarks of fringe nitwittery is a desire to make one's writing as complicated as possible (to create the illusion of importance).

From there Pardi goes on to commit the classic equivocation over the term “Intelligent Design.” If, by that phrase, you mean simply that there is an intelligent force behind the order of the cosmos, then of course ID poses no threat to evolution.

But of course, that's not what Dembski and co. mean when they use the term. They have in mind a broad attack on the whole idea of common descent. And that, obviously is a threat to a reasonable belief in evolution.

Be very suspicious any time you read an essay attacking the rhetoric of unnamed people. It is a sure sign of intellectual laziness.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Orr in the NYRB

A new essay by H. Allen Orr in the New York Review of Books is always cause for celebration. Few people write about modern biology as clearly and engagingly as he does. This time he is reviewing three recent book about the role of genetics in sex differences. The bulk of the review is given over to Bryan Sykes' recent book Adam's Curse: A Future Without Men.

One of Sykes' main arguments, as described by Orr is:

Although Sykes doesn't describe this impending disaster until fairly late in his book, the subtitle to Adam's Curse gives it right away: we face a future without men. Sykes is convinced that the male of the species is doomed. Unless something is done—and soon— men face an “inevitable eventual extinction.” You won't be surprised to learn that the alleged causes of this crisis reside in the Y chromosome. Sykes's publishers have, predictably, latched on to this dire news and the cover of his book speaks in ominous tones of the certain extinction of half of humanity. Also not surprisingly, the press has played along, with pieces in The New York Times and The Guardian warning that men may be a thing of the past.

Oh no! This is terrible. What to do? Dare we hope that Sykes is wrong:

The bottom line is that Sykes's alarmist talk of the extinction of men is just that—alarmist—and I wouldn't lose too much sleep over the possibility. And I certainly wouldn't give much thought (much less funding) to his technological fix to this nonproblem. There are enough real problems out there.


Monday, April 25, 2005

Berlinski's Descent Continues

I offered some thoughts about David Berlinski in this previous post. He has been active since then.

First came this essay for The Daily Californian on April 1, 2005. I am assuming Berlinski intended it to be taken seriously, despite the date of its publication. The essay begins as follows:

Wearing pink tasseled slippers and conical hats covered in polka dots, Darwinian biologists are persuaded that a plot is afoot to make them look silly. At Internet web sites such as The Panda's Thumb or Talk Reason, where various eminences repair to assure one another that all is well, it is considered clever beyond measure to attack critics of Darwin's theory such as William Dembski by misspelling his name as William Dumbski.

Now, I am a contributor to both The Panda's Thumb and Talk Reason. I can say with some confidence that no one affilitated with either of those sites considers it even slightly clever, let alone clever without measure, to misspell William Dembski's name.

Furthermore, no one at Talk Reason has ever engaged in that practice. Nor have any of the editors of The Panda's Thumb. It is true that on three occasions commenters at The Panda's Thumb engaged in that activity. But of course, commenters are free to write whatever they want (within certain minimal standards of good taste), and the views expressed in comments belong solely to the person leaving the comment.

So Berlinski began his essay with a bald-faced lie. How would he react when that was pointed out to him?

Berlinski wrote the following e-mail to the editors of Talk Reason, as part of an exchange of letters. Please note that though Berlinski begins by asking that this letter not be posted, he subsequently gave his permission to post it in a later e-mail:

Dear Editors:

Thank you for your response. I am uninterested in posting this letter anywhere. It is intended for your eyes. I am obliged to ask you to
attend precisely to what I, in fact, wrote, and not what you imagine I wrote. The sentence in question is as follows:

1) At Internet web sites such as /The Panda's Thumb /or /Talk Reason/, where various eminences repair to assure one another that all is well, it is considered clever beyond measure to attack a critic of Darwin's theory such as William Dembski by misspelling his name as William Dumbski.

a Note that my reference to /The Panda's Thumb/ and /Talk Reason/ is disjunctive and not conjunctive; and that

b as a matter of logic and English grammar, 1) does /not/ imply that William Dembski's name was misspelled at /either/ The Panda's Thumb /or/ Talk Reason, although, /in fact/, it was misspelled at /The Panda's Thumb /and not /Talk Reason/.

In this regard, compare 1) with

3) At Internet web sites such as /The Panda's Thumb /or /Talk Reason/, where various eminences repair to assure one another that all is well, it is considered clever beyond measure to attack a critic of Darwin's theory such as William Dembski by insisting that his mathematical results are written in Jello.

That Dembski's mathematical results are written in Jello was a claim made at /neither/ The Panda's Thumb /nor/ Talk Reason; still the claim
was considered clever beyond measure at both sites, no doubt because it /was/ clever, if not clever beyond measure.

What is at issue is whether you regard infantile verbal abuse ranging from the distasteful /(William Dumbski, How creationists suck/) to the contemptuous (/The Art of ID Stuntmen/, /Icons of Obfuscation/) as clever. I have no way directly of knowing, of course. For all I know you may collectively wince when you read such stuff. If so, you have not winced conspicuously, the more so, I am minded to add, since you seem either to have written or to endorsed some of the stuff in question.

Sincerely yours,

David Berlinski

Breathtaking, don't you think? “The Art of ID Stuntmen is the title of a collection of 24 essays posted at Talk Reason (Full disclosure: I wrote one of those essays, and a letter to the editor of mine is reprinted there as well). In those essays it is documented in considerable detail that the most prominent ID proponents engage in all manner of intellectually dishonest practices.

The phrase “Icons of Obfuscation” is a parody of the title of Jonathan's Wells' book Icons of Evolution. It has been amply documented elsewhere (see Alan Gishlik's lengthy discussion for one especially good example) that Wells' book was shot through with errors, and was mostly an exercise in propaganda.

The assertion that William Dembski's mathematical results were written in jello comes from this review of Dembski's book No Free Lunch. The author of that review was David Wolpert, who was one of the discoverers of the No Free Lunch theorems referred to in Dembski's title.

Despite this, Berlinski feels that ID is treated with unwarranted contempt by Panda's Thumb and Talk Reason. In his mind, that is sufficient justification for inventing a specific insult out of whole cloth, and claiming that the contributors to those sites consider that invented slur to be clever beyond measure.

This is not a man who should be describing others as wearing pink tasseled slippers and conical hats covered in polka dots.

But just in case you think Berlinski was having an off day when he wrote that ridiculous e-mail, consider his latest missive. It is provided courtesy of Rob Crowther at the Discovery Institute's blog. After providing a quotation from Susan Blackmore in which she gave a brief description of natural selection and lamented the fact that so many people seem not to understand it (no source is given for the quote), Berlinski offers the following:

It is, indeed, odd that so many people seem to miss Darwin’s great insight. What is odder still is that the insight is so easy to demonstrate. All that is required are ten packs of cards and ten friends. Here are the steps involved, which can really be followed by anyone with an open mind:

  1. Distribute one pack of cards to each of your ten friends;
  2. Ask everyone to shuffle their pack seven times (the least number of shuffles required to insure a random deck);
  3. Now ask everyone to select five cards from his or her deck; no peeking;
  4. Then ask everyone to replace from one to four cards in his or her hand with new cards; again, no peeking.
  5. Select.

That’s it. Nothing more is involved. Design by natural selection should now be obvious. It’s right there in front of your eyes. As Susan Blackmore says, “it simply has to happen.”

This experiment can be performed by high-school students as well as the elderly.

David Berlinski

I repeat, this is not a man who should be describing others as wearing pink tasseled slippers and conical hats covered in polka dots.

The logic behind natural selection is indeed very simple. Even ID proponents like William Dembski and Michael Behe understand it. They have no problem with the idea that natural selection can, in principle, craft complex structures (they claim simply, and wrongly, that there are certain special kinds of complexity found in nature that natural selection can not construct). Yet here is Berlinski mocking the idea that natural selection can craft anything interesting at all.

It is simply unbelievable that a normally serious magazine like Commentary wants anything to do with this guy. But it is entirely understandable that the dishonest buffoons of the Discovery Institute would enjoy his company.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Myers Shows How Its Done

Newspaper op-ed columns typically run from between 600-1000 words. In that short amount of space it is very difficult to say anything sensible about evolutionary biology (or any other branch of science, for that matter).

Unencumbered by empirical content, ID, by contrast, is easily summarized in so small a space.

As a result I sometimes find myself frustrated by pro-evolution op-eds in newspapers. They always seem vague, and some of their precious space is invariably given over to banalities about science and religion. If you have ever tried to respond to a 2,000 word article in a 500 word letter to the editor, you know about this kind of frustration.

P.Z. Myers has an op-ed in today's Minneapolis Star-Tribune. It weighs in at just under 800 words. In that small space he has managed to state a pro-evolution/anti-ID case that is so clear and concise, the rest of us can only weep with envy.

Here are two excerpts:

Intelligent Design (ID) has failed to meet even the minimal standards of evidence and scholarship we should expect of the science we teach our children. Teaching it steals time from more vital subjects in which our kids should be grounded.

Science is a conservative process. Most college-level introductory textbooks contain only material that has stood the test of time and has been confirmed independently. ID proponents have not only failed to provide any evidence for their thesis, they aren't even trying. There are no labs doing research on this subject; all the papers the Discovery Institute has tried to publish are exercises in spin, in which they try to distort biology researchers' work to fit their preconceptions. With no established body of results, no current work, and no promising prospects for future research, why should ID be supported? It's a dead end. It is absurd to propose that our kids learn about a subject that no legitimate scientists are pursuing and that has no utility.

And later:

And what is the state of modern evolutionary biology? Thriving, growing, and more productive than ever. To name a few examples, in paleontology within the last year, we've had the amazing discoveries of Homo floresiensis, the Indonesian "hobbit", and remarkable finds from Dmanisi, Georgia. The human genome project, and genome projects analyzing other organisms, has been yielding research dividends as this wealth of data is analyzed from an evolutionary and comparative perspective. We are beginning to tease apart the genetic differences that make human brains different than those of chimpanzees. Molecular studies of protists are revealing the roots of multicellularity. We study oncogenes, genes that when damaged can cause cancers in humans, in nematode worms. Epidemiologists study looming disease threats, such as bird flu and the Marburg virus, using evolutionary principles.

My own discipline of developmental biology has been revolutionized in the last few decades as we've embraced evolution more fully than before; new papers in the rapidly growing field of evo-devo, or evolutionary developmental biology, pile up on my desk faster than I can read them. This is a genuinely exciting time to be studying biology, at a time when new syntheses of various disciplines with the ideas of evolutionary biology are fueling new innovations, new discoveries, and invigorating evolution yet further. When students ask me about the hot fields that promise great careers, I steer them towards evo-devo (and developmental biology in general, of course), bioinformatics, proteomics, and genomics, all fields in which knowledge of evolution is indispensable.

Now go read the whole thing. And if you find yourself writing something for your local paper, aspire to Myers' example.