Saturday, May 07, 2005

Maybe I'm Too Hard on Cable News...

Here's Ron Reagan commenting on intelligent design at the close of his MSNBC show Connected Coast to Coast:

The state of Kansas is poised to vacate the Age of Reason. If all goes according to brain-addled plan, the Kansas school board will soon vote to water down the state’s public school science curriculum, minimizing Darwinian evolution and giving credence to a half-baked, non-scientific notion variously called “creationism” or “intelligent design.”

We dealt with the issue recently on our show and I got a little steamed, as I’m prone to do when faced with shameless lies told at the expense of innocent children. Evolution, of course, has mountains of evidence on its side—the fossil record; genetics; observations of rapidly mutating species in nature in the lab, as well as some compelling new computer models. I challenged our creationist guest to provide similar evidence for his point of view. He couldn’t... because there isn’t any. But it got me thinking: education that ignores the facts could be a lot more fun.

For instance, generations of school kids have been taught that George Washington and his troops defeated the British after crossing the Delaware River in wooden rowboats. Plenty of scholarship backs that up. But we don’t have any of the actual boats, do we? Who’s to say that Washington didn’t ditch the watercraft and instead cross the river on the backs of specially trained dinosaurs? No evidence for that - but in Kansas, we don’t need no stinkin’ evidence.

How about math? The diameter of a circle equals twice the radius? Nah, in my new new math, the diameter of a circle equals time to order out for pizza. Doesn’t sound like mathematical science to you? Yeah... and what’s your point?

All that’s necessary for ignorance to triumph is that people who know better step aside and get out of its way. We might want to consider that as we sit back twiddling our thumbs and playing politics while Kansas spirals into the Dark Ages, dragging its unwitting children with it.

That's the most intelligent thing I've ever heard from cable news.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

In Which I praise Town Hall for the Second Time in a Week

In last Thursday's post I linked to a very sensible column about global warming that appeared at the normally cartoonishly right-wing website Town Hall.

Well, they've done it again! For the second time in a week they have published something intelligent. This time it's from George Will (!!) Some excerpts:

The state of America's political discourse is such that the president has felt it necessary to declare that unbelievers can be good Americans. In last week's prime-time news conference, he said: “If you choose not to worship, you're equally as patriotic as somebody who does worship.”

So Mark Twain, Oliver Wendell Holmes and a long, luminous list of other skeptics can be spared the posthumous ignominy of being stricken from the rolls of exemplary Americans. And almost 30 million living Americans welcomed that presidential benediction.

According to the American Religious Identification Survey, Americans who answer “none” when asked to identify their religion numbered 29.4 million in 2001, more than double the 14.3 million in 1990. If unbelievers had their own state -- the state of None -- its population would be more than twice that of New England's six states, and None would be the nation's second-largest state:

California, 34.5 million.

None, 29.4 million.

Texas, 21.3 million.

Of course, it goes without saying that Bush would not have made his remark about non-worshippers if his advisors did not think it politically prudent to do so. I love the fact that the Bush administration now believes that at least some grudging acknowledgement of atheists is warranted.

Later, Will writes:

Some Christians should practice the magnanimity of the strong rather than cultivate the grievances of the weak. But many Christians are joining today's scramble for the status of victims. There is much lamentation about various “assaults” on “people of faith.” Christians are indeed experiencing some petty insults and indignities concerning things such as restrictions on school Christmas observances. But their persecution complex is unbecoming because it is unrealistic.

Wow! If only Will were always so sensible.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Can I Call Him a Pathological Liar Now?

In Monday's post (cross-posted at The Panda's Thumb) I discussed a blatant example of quote-mining by William Dembski. Dembski had quoted paleontologist Peter Ward to the effect that the Cambrain explosion posed a serious problem for evolution. In reply, I demonstrated that Ward's clearly stated intention was exactly the opposite of what Dembski implied.

The facts struck me as so clear and so unambiguous that I didn't think Dembski had a leg to stand on. Nonetheless, I was curious to see if Dembski would try to defend his actions. He did so (well, kind of) in this recent post at his blog. And I was right, he has no substantive point to make at all. He begins as follows:

It was gratifying to see the response by evolutionists to my post about quote-mining on this blog a few days ago (April 26). The quote by Peter Ward that served as my point of departure elicited the usual reaction from evolutionists, for whom justifying evolution means supplying enough words and irrelevant details to cover their ignorance. My post took a few minutes to write up. Evolutionists wrote detailed responses many times its length on places like the Pandasthumb to justify that the problem with the Cambrian explosion was not really a problem. Look: if it wasn’t a problem, we wouldn’t be discussing it.

Interesting defense.

Let's start with the small stuff. There is no discussion of the Cambrian explosion going on here. What is going on is that Dembski is telling lies and other bloggers are calling him on it.

The next point is that Dembski has inadvertantly given us some insight into his creepy little brain. Apparently he considers it a victory when he can write something at his blog that provokes a response that is longer than what he wrote. That's a big difference between us. Personally, I consider it a victory when I can show that facts, logic and science are on my side.

Moving on, the only blog Dembski mentions specifically is The Pandas Thumb. There were two entries posted there about Dembski's use of the Ward quote: One was by me, the other was this post by Gary Hurd. Neither one of us made an argument one way or the other about whether the Cambrian explosion was a problem for evolution. Dembski simply lied when he characterized our pieces in that way.

What was plainly at issue was whether Dembski used Ward's quotation properly. He clearly did not. The facts Hurd and I produced (the “irrelevant details” Dembski refers to) made that perfectly clear. Since Dembski can't possibly defend his actions in this case, he must resort to further lies and petty taunts.

But Dembski wasn't finished:

Here’s another choice morsel for you evolutionists who think the Cambrian explosion is a non-problem, this one by Stephen Jay Gould:

Nonetheless, these exciting finds in Precambrian paleontology do not remove the problem of the Cambrian explosion, for they include only the simple bacteria and blue-green algae, and some higher plants such as green algae. The evolution of complex Metazoa seems as sudden as ever. (A single Precambrian fauna has been found at Ediacara in Australia. It includes some relatives of modern fan corals, jellyfish, wormlike creatures, arthropods, and two cryptic forms unlike anything alive today. Yet the Ediacara rocks lie just below the base of the Cambrian and qualify as Precambrian only by the slimmest margin. A few more isolated finds from other areas around the world are likewise just barely Precambrian.) If anything, the problem is increased because exhaustive study of more and more Precambrian rocks destroys the old and popular argument that complex Metazoa are really there, but we just haven’t found them yet.

Quoted from Stephen Jay Gould, Ever Since Darwin: Reflections in Natural History (New York: W. W. Norton 1977), 121.

I await your detailed, petulant responses.

So Dembski is pretty much admitting that his main goal is not to make any serious scientific point, but rather to waste the time of people who have conscience enough to care about getting their facts right. I've long suspected as much. Nonetheless, I will take the plunge.

Let's consider the quote. It's from 1977. Enough said.

But, just to make Dembski really happy, let's say a bit more. Paleontology in general, and the paleontology of the Cambrian explosion in particular, have come a long way since 1977. I notice that Gary Hurd has provided a few examples of recent work on this subject in his own reply to Dembski's latest post. The simple fact is that many of the things Gould wrote about the Cambrian explosion in 1977, and even in his 1989 book Wonderful Life, are now outdated.

As for the quote itself, Gould, like Ward, was simply setting up a discussion of possible explanations for the Cambrian explosion. As I have noted before at this blog, the Cambrian explosion is a problem for evolution only in the sense that there are many possible explanations for it but too little data for deciding between them. Gould goes on to describe what he believes is the correct explanation.

Dembski is deliberately equivocating regarding the use of the word “problem.” For someone like Gould, the word refers to an open question, one where there is no clear scientific consensus on its resolution.

But for Dembski it means something quite different. For him a “problem” with evolution is something that is fundamentally impossible to explain by naturalistic causes alone.

Evolution has plenty of open questions. That is why people continue to do research after all. But the problem evolutionists face is never “How could this possibly be explained naturally?” but rather “Of the many possible naturalistic explanations, which is the correct one?” That is precisely the situation with the Cambrian explosion.

A final point. Dembski wishes to persuade us that the Cambrian explosion is a “gaping hole” for evolution. He believes the proper way to do this is by trotting out quotations from his scientific betters. Someone more interested in science than in propaganda would prefer to actually present some facts.

I suppose I can look forward to a gloating reply from Dembski about how just a handful of lies from him provoked this lengthy response from me. Well, let him gloat. It is evident that we are writing for two different audiences. He writes for simpletons who know nothing about science, but enjoy seeing someone smarter than they parrot the idiocies they already believe. I prefer to write for people who wish to obtain some facts about the current state of evolutionary science.

Monday, May 02, 2005

A Study in ID Duplicity

UPDATE: May 3, 2005: In the original version of this post I consistently misspelled Dave Mullenix's last name. I have now corrected that error. I have also corrected various other typos and stylistic infelicities.

On April 26, William Dembski posted this brief essay at his blog. He was responding to the charge that ID proponents, himself included, routinely quote scientists out of context in order to distort their intended meaning. Since I have levelled that charge myself, I was curious to see how Dembski would reply. The blog entry begins as follows:

Unlike the serious sciences (e.g., quantum electrodynamics, which is accurate up to 14 decimal places), evolution has become an exercise in filling holes by digging others. Fortunately, the cognitive dissonance associated with this exercise can’t be suppressed indefinitely, so occasionally evolutionists fess-up that some gaping hole really is there and can’t be filled simply by digging another hole. Such admissions, of course, provide ready material for evolution critics like me. Indeed, it’s one of the few pleasures in this business sticking it to the evolutionists when they make some particularly egregious admission.

Tough talk! From here the essay went on to discuss a particular instance of alleged ID quote-mining. The quotation in question was taken from paleontologist Peter Ward. We will come to the details in a moment, but first the relevant links:

Dembski first invoked the quote in this essay (PDF format).

He was called on it by Gary Hurd and Dave Mullenix in this essay posted at The Panda's Thumb.

Now, as it happens, prior to preparing this blog entry I had not read Dembski's essay (entitled “Five Questions Darwinists Would Rather Dodge”). I also had not read Hurd and Mullenix's response. And while we're at it, let me mention that I had never heard of Peter Ward and had not read his book.

So I was able to enter into this with no preconceived notions. I knew that by simply gathering the relevant documents I could see for myself whether it was Dembski, or his critics, who were telling me the straight story.

I began with Dembski's original essay. Dembski was making the case that evolutionists would prefer to dodge the question of whether the fossil record provides strong evidence for evolution. The relevant passage is the following:

The challenge that here confronts evolution is not isolated but pervasive, and
comes up most flagrantly in what’s called the Cambrian Explosion. In a very brief
window of time during the geological period known as the Cambrian, virtually all
the basic animal types appeared suddenly in the fossil record with no trace of
evolutionary ancestors. The Cambrian Explosion so flies in the face of evolution
that paleontologist Peter Ward wrote, “If ever there was evidence suggesting
Divine Creation, surely the Precambrian and Cambrian transition, known from
numerous localities across the face of the earth, is it.” Note that Ward is not a creationist.

Already a question emerges. The quoted sentence from Ward gives the impression that he believes the Cambrian explosion to be srong evidence for Divine Creation. If that is an accurate description of what Ward believes, then why isn't he a creationist?

But no matter. Dembski clearly believes that the Cambrian explosion provides a fundamental challenge to evolution. He is asking us to believe that Peter Ward concurs with that assessment, even if Ward does not agree with Dembski's antievolutionary conclusions.

The next step seemed clear. The Ward quote came from his 1992 book On Methuselah's Trail. One thing I love about working at a university is that I can count on the library to have books like Ward's. I took a walk over to the library, and five minutes later walked out with the book.

I flipped to page 29 and found that Ward had indeed written the words attributed to him by Dembski. They come at the beginning of a section entitled “The Base of the Cambrian.” In this section Ward gives a brief history of what is known about the Precambrian to Cambrian transition.

So I decided to read the rest of the section. After the quote Dembski cited, Ward goes on to describe Darwin's own concerns about the Cambrian explosion (though that term did not exist in Darwin's time). He also discusses various explanations offered by some of Darwin's contemporaries, such as Roger Murchison and Adam Sedgwick, and shows how those explanations fared in the face of subsequent discoveries.

This discussion goes on for several pages. Eventually Ward comes to more modern views of the subject. And this, sadly, is where it becomes clear that Dembski blatantly misrepresented Ward's views of the subject.

On page 35 Ward writes this:

Until almost 1950 the absence of metazoan fossils older than Cambrian age continued to puzzle evolutionists and earth historians alike. Other than the remains of single-celled creatures and the matlike stromatolites, it did indeed look as if larger creatures had arisen with a swiftness that made a mockery of Darwin's theory of evolution. This notion was finally put to rest, however, by the discovery of the Ediacarian and Vendian fossil faunas of latest Precambrian age.

And on page 36 we find:

Intensive searching of strata immediately underlying the well-known basal Cambrian deposits in the years between 1950 and 1980 showed that the larger skeletonized fossils (such as the trilobites and brachipods) that supposedly appeared so suddenly were in fact preceded by skeletonized forms so small as to be easily overlooked by the pioneering geologists.

And just in case there is still any doubt, Ward closes the section with the following statement:

The long-acepted theory of the sudden appearance of skeletal metazoans at the base of the Cambrian was incorrect: the basal Cambrian boundary marked only the first apearance of relatively large skeleton-bearing forms, such as the brachipods and trilobites, rather than the first appearance of skeletonized metazoans. Darwin would have been satisfied. The fossil record bore out his conviction that the trilobites and brachipods appeared only after a long period of evolution of ancestral forms. (pages 36-37)

These quotes make it obvious that Ward does not believe the Cambrain explosion poses any problem for evolution. Indeed, the final statement show that Ward views recent discoveries about the Precambrian to Cambrian transition to be a vindication for Darwin.

Seen in context, the statement quoted by Dembski, about the Cambrian explosion being evidence for Divine Creation, was not a statement about what Ward or any modern scientist believes. Rather, it was a statement about how things seemed at the time Darwin entered the scene.

So it's clear that Dembski misrepresented Ward. Dembski used Ward's statement to imply that even evolutionary biologists admit that the Cambrian explosion is a big problem, when in reality Ward's view is exactly the opposite. Nonetheless, I forged ahead.

The next step was to read what Hurd and Mullenix had to say on the subject.

They began with a lengthy discussion in which they showed that Dembski's statements about the Cambrian explosion, quoted above, are quite false.

They next discuss the Ward quote, and came to the same conclusion I did. They even used two of the same quotes that I found.

Hurd and Mullenix then go on to point out that after distorting Ward's statement, Dembski goes on to distort a statement from Stephen Jay Gould. Hurd and Mullenix defended these assertions with copious evidence. I invite you to follow the link I provided and see for yourself what they wrote.

Let's review. Dembski tried to imply that the non-creationist Peter Ward nonetheless agrees with Dembski's view that the Cambrian explosion is a problem for evolution. In reality, Ward's clearly stated view is that while the Cambrian explosion used to be viewed as a problem for evolution, recent fossil discoveries actually show that it is a vindication for Darwin. Hurd and Mullenix pointed this out, showing in great detail that Dembski had not only distorted Ward, but had done likewise to Gould. They also show that Dembski's version of the facts is simply wrong.

And that brings us back to Dembski's blog entry. How would he respond to these facts? We resume the action from the point where my opening quote left off:

Consider the following admission by Peter Ward (Ward is a well-known expert on ammonite fossils and does not favor a ID-based view):

The seemingly sudden appearance of skeletonized life has been one of the most perplexing puzzles of the fossil record. How is it that animals as complex as trilobites and brachiopods could spring forth so suddenly, completely formed, without a trace of their ancestors in the underlying strata? If ever there was evidence suggesting Divine Creation, surely the Precambrian and Cambrian transition, known from numerous localities across the face of the earth, is it.
— Peter Douglas Ward, On Methuselah’s Trail: Living Fossils and the Great Extinctions (New York: W. H. Freeman, 1992), 29.

Pretty convincing indicator that the Cambrian explosion poses a challenge to conventional evolutionary theory, wouldn’t you say? Note that this is not a misquote: I indicate clearly that Ward does not support ID and there’s sufficient unedited material here to make clear that he really is saying that the Cambrian explosion poses a challenge to conventional evolutionary theory.

Unlike in his original essay, Dembski now gives the entire paragraph from which the “Divine Creation” statement appeared. He then asserts that this clearly indicates that the Cambrian explosion poses a challenge to conventional evolutionary theory. As we have seen, it does not. In context, it is clear that Ward was simply setting up the ensuing discussion.

Dembski then asserts that this is not a misquote on the grounds that (a) he indicates clearly that Ward does not support ID and (b) he includes enough material here to show Ward's true intention.

We have already shown that (b) is false. This paragraph by itself does not give an accurate presentation of Ward's views. In fact, Dembski uses it to imply the opposite of Ward's opinion.

And (a) is totally irrelevant. At issue is not whether Ward is a creationist or an evolutionist. The question here is what he thinks of the Cambrian explosion.

Incidentally, Dembski's original essay asserts only that Ward is not a creationist. He made no mention of ID at that time. This suggests that Dembski, despite his frequent public statements to the contrary, does not really believe there is any important difference between ID and creationism.

Moving on, we return to Dembski:

You’d think, therefore, that the evolutionary community might be grateful to evolution critics for drawing their attention to this problem, treating it as an incentive to get the lead out and figure out just what happened during the Cambrian. But that’s not what happens. Rather, evolution critics are charged with “quote mining,” misrepresenting the true state of evolutionary theory by focusing on a few scattered problems rather than toeing the party line and admitting that evolution is overwhelmingly confirmed.

What nerve! Peter Ward devotes close to ten pages of his book to explaining what happened during the Cambrian explosion, as revealed through fossil discoveries over the last hundred years. He concludes this discussion with the unambiguous statement that Darwin has been vindicated. He opens the discussion with a rhetorical flourish to make the problem seem utterly insurmountable, so as to make the ultimate solution seem all the more dramatic.

Dembski presents the flourish as if it represents Ward's view on the subject. He then ignores Ward's discussion in its entirety and accuses evolutionists of being uninterested in finding out what happened during the Cambrian.

He even gets the little things wrong. People like Dembski do indeed misrperesent the state of evolutionary science, but that is not what the charge of quote-mining is about. Quote-mining has to do with misrepresenting the views of specific scientists, not the state of evolutionary theory generally.

Furthermore, the issue is not that ID folks focus on a few scattered problems. It is that the things they identify as problems for evolution, such as the Cambrian explosion, are, in reality, not problems.

Moving on, we find that in a footnote to their essay, Hurd and Mullinex point out that they contacted Peter Ward for comment on Dembski's misuse of his words. Here's Dembski's response:

And, as is now standard operating procedure, the original author of the quote is contacted for comment on being “quote-mined.” Predictably, the author (in this case Ward) is shocked and dismayed at being quoted by evolution critics for being critical of evolution. Evolutionists may not know much about what actually happened in the course of natural history, but they have this script down:

We [i.e., Gary Hurd et al.] emailed and then telephoned Peter Ward to ask him for a citation to this quote. He actually couldn’t recall where he had written this. Ultimately we had to ask William Dembski for the citation, which he promptly provided. We would like to thank him publicly for this courtesy. Professor Ward was not at all pleased, and wished us to convey to Dr. Dembski his displeasure at his writing being manipulated in this fashion. We consider this as done herein.

Word of advice: if you are an evolutionist and don’t want to be quoted by evolution critics for being critical of evolution, resist the urge — don’t criticize it. If tempted, even if the reality of evolution’s gaping holes is staring you in the face, close your eyes and repeat the phrase “overwhelming evidence” or “nothing in biology makes sense apart from evolution.”

As we have already pointed out, Ward was not being critical of evolution. Quite the contrary.

The facts here are perfectly unambiguous. Dembski twisted Ward's words to make them appear to mean exactly the opposite of Ward's clearly stated intention. When that was pointed out to him he responded with further distortions and tons of arrogance.

The next time you read someone whining about the strong rhetoric from people on my side of this issue, think about this case. Then think about whether maybe it's perfectly reasonable to refer to the major proponents of ID as frauds and liars.