Thursday, May 12, 2005

Now For Something Important

Well, the blogging's been rather heavy this week. So for today's post I thought I'd spend some time discussing something truly important:

Star Trek: Good science fiction or bad?

Science fiction icon Orson Scott Card weighed in on this subject for the Los Angeles Times. The occasion was the impending conclusion of the UPN series Enterprise, a Star Trek prequel that somehow never really took off. Once it leaves the air, there will be no Star Trek series on television. And since there is currently no film in production, that means we will, at least temporarily, be living in a Trekless universe.

Card is pleased by this. He writes:

So they've gone and killed “Star Trek.” And it's about time.

They tried it before, remember. The network flushed William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy down into the great septic tank of broadcast waste, from which no traveler…. No, wait, let's get this right: from which rotting ideas and aging actors return with depressing regularity.

And later:

The original “Star Trek,” created by Gene Roddenberry, was, with a few exceptions, bad in every way that a science fiction television show could be bad. Nimoy was the only charismatic actor in the cast and, ironically, he played the only character not allowed to register emotion.

This was in the days before series characters were allowed to grow and change, before episodic television was allowed to have a through line. So it didn't matter which episode you might be watching, from which year — the characters were exactly the same.

As science fiction, the series was trapped in the 1930s — a throwback to spaceship adventure stories with little regard for science or deeper ideas. It was sci-fi as seen by Hollywood: all spectacle, no substance.

Now, I went through a period in graduate school when I was a big fan of Orson Scott Card. I started to lose interest in him when I noticed that many of his novels were devoted to pushing certain political and religious views that I found objectionable. (As a little kid I had a similar falling out with C.S. Lewis. Turned out Aslan the Lion was a Christ substitute. Who knew?) I'm afraid on this one, he's all wet.

First of all, there is only one Star Trek. That's the one with William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and the rest. The subsequent pseudotreks certainly had their moments, but no one would mistake them for the real thing.

So was Star Trek as terrible as Card says? By modern standards, yes. Science fiction has come a long way since the sixties, and nothing as hokey as Star Trek would last long today. Good science fiction has good science at its core, but Trek could never seem to get the hang of it. They never actually explained which part of general relativity was wrong to make it possible for large objects to travel many times the speed of light. They also never explained which part of Newtonian mechanics was wrong to make it possible to go from light speed to dead stop in two seconds, without flying head first through that little viewscreen Lieutenant Sulu had to be ordered to turn on.

And they certainly had some funny ideas about logic. Who could forget Mr. Spock intoning “Without facts there can be no logic. You must trust your human emotion.” (Episode 55: Assignment: Earth, and yes, that is only an approximate quote).

But for all of that Star Trek also had some real triumphs. They did the very best anti-racism episode ever done on television (Episode 70: Let That be Your Last Battlefield). That's the one where Frank “The Riddler” Gorshin plays an alien from planet Ariannus whose face is black on the right side and white on the left. He is sent to apprehend a traitor from his planet who comes from a race that is white on the right side and black on the left. This difference had led to centuries of civil unrest back on Ariannus. Long story short, the Enterprise gets sucked into this dispute and ends up journeying back to Ariannus. They discover that the race hatred on the planet has led to the complete destruction of the entire Ariannun civilization. Are the two aliens on the Enterprise moved to reconsider by this devlopment? Not at all. They are only moved to despise each other even more. Who could forget the episode's final moments, in which scenes of destruction on the planet below are intercut with shots of the two aliens continuing their endless blood feud on the ship above?

I know it's just a television show, but that's friggin powerful.

Star Trek put on what I still consider to be one of the most suspenseful hours of television in history (though the Locutus of Borg episode of the Next Generation is a close second). That would be Episode 3: The Corbomite Maneuver. This is the one where the Enterprise is stopped dead in its tracks by - are you sitting down? - a giant golf ball. That's what it looked like anyway. Special effects have improved since the sixties as well. The Enterprise was informed that it had tresspassed in alien space and would be destroyed as a result. The Enterprise is hopelessly outgunned by the golf ball and the alien (played by Clint Howard, brother of Ron) refuses to talk to them. Even Mr. Spock declares their situation hopeless. What to do? Well, I won't give away the ending, but you might guess it from this classic example of William Shatner's unusual approach to line delivery: “You're playing the wrong game.....Mr Spock. Not chess......Poker......You know the game?”

And while it is true that characters were not developed much during the season, who could deny that Star Trek provided some of the most memorable characters in the history of television? Leonard Nimoy was so good as Mr. Spock that it looked downright weired to watch him emote during his brief stint on Mission: Impossible.

James Doohan was equally memorable as Scotty (“I can't change the laws of physics, Captain! I have to have th-ahr-ty minutes!” Episode 7: The Naked Time. Long story short, it turned out they didn't really need thirty minutes). And only the genius of William Shatner could turn bad acting into the stalwart Captain Kirk. DeForest Kelly's Dr. McCoy was an excellent counterpoint to Mr. Spock.

And, best of all, let's not forget that Star Trek gave us what is perhaps the finest moment of defiant secularism in the face of religious feebleness ever seen on television. It came in Episode 33: Who Mourns for Adonais? This is the one where the Enterprise is stopped dead in its tracks, by a large green hand this time, and is forced to beam most of its senior officers to the planet below. There they meet Apollo. Yes, that Apollo (turns out those Greek gods were just really powerful aliens. Clever gimmick! The ID folks would be proud).

Anyway, Apollo informs them they will remain on this planet to worship him, and shows off a few parlor tricks (making himself thirty feet tall, shooting lightning bolts from his fingers) to show off how powerful he is. Totally unimpressed, Kirk is all “What else can you do?” and Apollo is like “You will worship me!” and Kirk is all “Unlikely, dude. We beat that giant golf ball and we can sure as heck beat you.”

Anyway, the episode concludes with the discovery that Apollo's power source comes from a Parthenon-like structure that Spock procedes to destroy with a sustained phaser blast. A now powerless and defeated Apollo truns to Kirk and says something like “Was it so much that I asked? I would have given you everything. I would have loved you like my own children.” The actor who played Apollo was so moving and convincing that I was all set to bow in front of the television and worship him myself.

Kirk was less impressed. He uttered one of the finest lines ever uttered on a major television show: “We've outgrown you,” he said. Ah, if only that were true.

I could go on like this (believe me, I could go on for a very long time indeed like this) but hopefully the point is made. Star Trek was a genuine milestone in the history of television and it was far better than any science fiction show that came before it or for twenty years after it. Considering that the science fiction of the seventies brought us such dreck as Buck Rogers and Battlestar Galactica, I think Card should pay Star Trek a little more respect.

Besides, if it weren't for all those Star Trek fans Card sees fit to deride, it is unlikely that he would be able to make a living as a science-fiction writer today. So there!

Wednesday, May 11, 2005


Sorry for the grim title, but it was the only word that came to mind after reading William Saletan's abysmal article for Slate on the Kansas evolution hearings. Here's the opining paragraph:

This week, the Kansas State Board of Education will wrap up hearings on “intelligent design,” a theistic alternative to the theory of evolution. Scientists have refused to testify, dismissing ID as tarted-up creationism. Newspapers are comparing the hearings to the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial. Liberals, editorialists, and biologists wonder aloud how people can refuse to see evolution when it's staring them in the face. Maybe they should ask themselves. It's the creationists in Kansas who are evolving. And it's the evolutionists who can't see it.

Ugh. ID is indeed “tarted-up creationism,” but that's not the reason scientists are refusing to testify. Rather, the reason is that scientists have no desire to participate in a kangaroo court whose verdict was decided a long time ago.

No one is wondering aloud about how people can refuse to see evolution when it is staring them in the face. I'm not even sure what it means to say evolution is staring them in the face. What biologists and the like do wonder about is why so many people are buying into anti-science arguments that are plainly false.

And, what the heck, we might as well point out that officially intelligent design is not a theistic alternative to evolution. Not the way its supporters present it anyway.

Now, what is it, exactly, that evolutionists are not seeing?

To understand the fight in Kansas, you have to study what evolutionists accuse creationists of neglecting: the historical record. In the Scopes trial, creationists defended a ban on the teaching of evolution. That was the early, authoritarian stage of creationism—the equivalent of Australopithecus, the earliest hominid. Gradually, evolution gained the upper hand. In 1987, the Supreme Court ruled that states couldn't even require equal treatment of evolution and creationism. By 1999, creationists were asking the Kansas board not to rule out their beliefs entirely. This was creationism's more advanced Homo erectus phase: pluralism.

Six years later, evolutionists in Kansas are under attack again. They think the old creationism is back. They're mistaken. Homo erectus—the defense, on pluralist grounds, of the literal account of Genesis—is beginning to die out. The new challenger, ID, differs fundamentally from fundamentalism. Like its creationist forebears, ID is theistic. But unlike them, it abandons Biblical literalism, embraces open-minded inquiry, and accepts falsification, not authority, as the ultimate test. These concessions, sincere or not, define a new species of creationism—Homo sapiens—that fatally undermines its ancestors. Creationists aren't threatening us. They're becoming us.

How do writers like Saletan keep their jobs? ID is the new challenger? It's been around for more than a decade! Trying to pass equal-time laws for creationism is beginning to die out? It died out almost twenty years ago! Kansas evolutionists aren't aware of these facts? Upon what could he possible be basing so ridiculous an assertion? I promise you, every single evolutionist in Kansas understands that ID differs from young-Earth creationism, and the tactics being used now to promote ID are different from the tactics used six years ago.

What's really going on here is that Saletan can see as well as anyone else that the Kansas hearings are a sham, and that ID is bogus science. But stating the obvious would not allow him to puff himself up as a keen political observer who sees past the superficialities that ensnare his journalistic colleagues.

Saletan goes on in this vein, trying to persuade us that the latest crop of ID folks are so much more modest than their fundamentalist brethren. He analyzes in scrupulous detial the changes in the standards that the ID's are trying to implement and compares them to the changes the young-Earthers tried to make six years ago. That this modesty is a sham born out of political necessity has apparently eluded him.

Saletan does show occasional signs of non-brain-deadness:

Essentially, ID proponents are gambling that they can concede evolutionist earth science without conceding evolutionist life science. But they can't. They already acknowledge microevolution—mutation and natural selection within a species. Once you accept conventional fossil dating and four billion years of life, the sequential kinship of species loses its implausibility. You can't fall back on the Bible; you've already admitted it can't always be taken literally. All you're left with is an assortment of gaps in evolutionary theory—how did DNA emerge, what happened between this and that fossil—and the vague default assumption that an “intelligence” might fill in those gaps. Calvert and Harris call this assumption a big tent. But guess what happens to a tent without poles.

Pretty good! If only the whole article were like that. But at this point Saletan remembers that bashing the ID side doesn't make you look insightful. After all, everyone already knows they're idiots. No, bashing the evolutionists for lacking the penetrating insight he, William Saletan, possesses is where the real money is:

Perversely, evolutionists refuse to facilitate this collapse. They prefer to dismiss ID proponents as dead-end Neanderthals. They complain, legitimately, that Calvert and Harris are trying to expand the definition of science beyond “natural explanations.” But have you read the definition Calvert and Harris propose? It would define science as a continuous process of “observation, hypothesis testing, measurement, experimentation, logical argument and theory building to lead to more adequate explanations of natural phenomena.” Abstract creationism can't qualify for such scrutiny. Substantive creationism can't survive it. Or if it can, it should.

It's too bad liberals and scientists don't welcome this test. It's too bad they go around sneering, as censors of science often have, that the new theory is too radical, offensive, or embarrassing to be taken seriously. It's too bad they think good science consists of believing the right things. In the long view—the evolutionary view—good science consists of using evidence and experiment to find out whether what we thought was right is wrong. If they do that in Kansas, by whatever name, that's all that matters.

Scientists don't wlecome this test? I guess Saletan was too busy patting himself on the back for his courage and insightfulness to bother reading books like Finding Darwin's God or Why Intelligent Design Fails. Scientists don't reject ID because its radical, offensive or embarrassing. Saletan just made that up. They reject ID because the arguments made by ID proponents are totally false. Obviously false to people who, unlike Saletan, know what they're talking about. Saletan apparently overlooked that angle.

So why the despair? Because it looks to me like there's almost no one who is willing to stand up for decent science any more. It seems like no one will stand up for a value as fundamental as understanding the basic facts of the scientific discipline you are writing about.

On the one hand you have the organs of the right, like The Weekly Standard, National Review, Commentary and The American Spectator bashing evolution every chance they get. Outlets like The New York Times and The Wshington Post will whip out a good editorial now and then, but in their news coverage they are perfectly happy to treat ID respectfully, and they are perfectly happy to give plenty of room on their op-ed page to the likes of Michael Behe.

Meanwhile, the organs of the left, with the exception of The American Prospect, stare on in stone-faced silence.

Even Nature, one of the most respected science periodicals in the world, feels they have to be respectful towards ID. They recently did a very polite feature article on my occasional sparring partner Salvador Cordova. There are countless scientists toiling away in labs right now trying to push back the frontiers of ignorance just a little bit, and Nature chooses to give polite coverage to someone who prefers the ignorance.

Slate used to be a place you could turn to find sensible center-left commentary. But that was back when Michael Kinsley was editing it. Now its just another rag.

Oh well. What can you do? We're running out of oil, Antarctica's melting, Iran's about to get nukes, and I'll probably get mercury poisoning from that can of tuna I ate earlier today. Maybe I'll dwell on that for a while...

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Pounding the Table

There is a saying among lawyers: “When the facts are on your side pound the facts. When the law is on your side pound the law. When neither is on your side pound the table.”

This is a lesson ID proponents have learned well. Since the basic facts of science are unambiguously on the side of evolution, they must make do with pounding the table.

Take, for example, this essay by ID proponent Jonathan Witt that recently appeared in The Kansas City Star.

It seems that Witt is too busy to come up with his own bad arguments, so he chooses instead to parrot Jonathan Wells' arguments from Icons of Evolution. In doing so Witt has chosen not to be hindered by petty considerations like a concern for the truth. Consider:

More than 140 years of assiduous fossil collecting has only aggravated the problem. Instead of slight differences appearing first, then greater differences emerging later, the greatest differences appear right at the start — numerous and radically disparate anatomies leaping together onto the Cambrian stage. These aren't just distinct species but distinct phyla, categories so large that man and bat occupy not only the same phylum but the same subphylum. Later geological periods show similar patterns of sudden appearance, stasis and persistent chasms of difference between major groups.

Let's begin with the obvious: The Cambrian fossils are not “right at the start” of anything. Life already had a roughly three billion year history on Earth prior to the Cambrian era. In particular, we now have numerous Precambrian fossils that show clear relationships with those from the Cambrian.

The next point is that every fossil, Cambrian or otherwise, is a species and that is all. It represents the remains of a long dead organism that was making a living in some bygone era. That every fossil must be classed within some phylum is simply an artifact of our system of taxonomy. The conventions of paleontology require that when a new fossil is found it must be assigned to some phylum; either to one that already exists or to a new one created just for that fossil. This creates an illusion of “Top Down” design that freshman geology majors find easy to penetrate, but which is apparently too powerful for people like Witt.

To see this another way, try to picture the tree of life. It begins with the universal common ancestor (whether this ancestor was a single species or a community of gene-trading cells will not concern us here). From this point life begins to diversify and spread out. We can imagine drawing this tree in some systematic way so that the distance between branches is roughly correlated with the morphological differences between the organisms at the ends of those branches.

Picture the species at the earliest branching points in the tree. Though they go on to produce wildly different branches of life's, at this point they are still very similar.

Millions of years later human beings arrive on the scene. Life has now diversified to the point where we have wildly different sorts of life, such as humans, fungi and bacteria. In their attempt to impose some order on this chaos humans invent a system of taxonomy and use it to classify existing organisms.

These humans then discover that the fossil record supplies copious examples of species that no longer exist. It seems natural to nonetheless try to fit them in to the taxonomic hierarchy that works reasonably well for living organisms. This involves assigning each fossil to a phylum. To do that, you look for features of particular fossils that in modern organisms are representative of different phyla. Minus any such features, you assign the fossil its own, brand-new phylum.

What will be the effect of this process? When we look back at the ancient fossils of the Cambrian we find some have features sufficiently distinct to allow us to place them in modern phyla. But in terms of the tree of life, all of the species that existed during the Cambrian were evolutionarily very close to each other. That they may have possessed certain features that, millions of years later will be used by humans as diagnostic of different phyla does not change the fact that they were still evolutionarily very close.

So the idea that placing different Cambrian fossils in different phyla implies that they are as different from each other as humans are from bats is simply ridiculous. If my explanation was too long-winded, have a look at this excellent summary by Alan Gishlik, available here:

Another reason why the “higher” taxonomic groups appear at the Cambrian Explosion is because the Cambrian Explosion organisms are often the first to show features that allow us to relate them to living groups. The Cambrian Explosion, for example, is the first time we are able to distinguish a chordate from an arthropod. This does not mean that the chordate or arthropod lineages evolved then, only that they then became recognizable as such. For a simple example, consider the turtle. How do you know a turtle is a turtle? By the shell. How would you recognize the ancestors of the living turtle, before they evolved the shell? That is more complicated. Because its ancestors would have lacked the diagnostic feature of a shell, ancestral turtles may be hard to recognize (Lee, 1993). In order to locate the remote ancestors of turtles, other, more subtle, features must be found.

Similarly, before the Cambrian Explosion, there were lots of “worms,” now preserved as trace fossils (i.e., there is evidence of burrowing in the sediments). However, we cannot distinguish the chordate “worms” from the mollusc “worms” from the arthropod “worms” from the worm “worms.” Evolution predicts that the ancestor of all these groups was worm-like, but which worm evolved the notochord, and which the jointed appendages?

Witt simply has no basis for his claim that the fossils of the Cambrian were radically different from one another.

Recently I've been writing quite a bit about why evolutionists get so angry when dealing with ID folks. So far I've been focussing on the creationist habit of removing quotes from their proper context, and that is certainly one big reason for the anger. But another reason is that ID folks routinely mangle very basic points of evolutionary theory. It is a lot easier to spew nonsense than it is to correct it. This fact, coupled with the complete shamelessness of ID proponents, works to ID's advantage in the PR battle.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Irony Alert

Over at ID the Future prominent ID booster Paul Nelson has a post up complaining - are you sitting down? - that people have been quoting him unfairly.

As Nelson tells it, he made the following statement in an interview for the Christian magazine Touchstone last year:

Easily the biggest challenge facing the ID community is to develop a full-fledged theory of biological design. We don't have such a theory now, and that's a real problem. Without a theory it's very hard to know where to direct your research focus. Right now we've got a bag of powerful intuitions, and a handful of notions such as “irreducible complexity” and “specified complexity” - but as yet no general theory of biological design.

Note that this is Nelson quoting himself, so we can be sure there is enough material here to form an accurate impression of his intent.

Seems pretty straightforward to me: Here's an ID proponent, in a rare moment of honesty, stating bluntly that ID has very little to offer in the way of scientific accomplishments. “Powerful intuitions” won't even buy you a contributed talk at a low-level conference, while “notions” is an admirably dismissive way of describing irreducible complexity and specified complexity.

Nelson goes on at some length from here. His point seems to be, well, that my interpretation is pretty much right. Minus the snide remarks about rare moments of honesty, of course. Go check it out for yourself!

One excerpt in particular caught my eye:

At the moment, we -- that's all the people who care, both design theorists and anti-design theorists -- are in the midst of the first major cycle of proposed refutations. Two design hypotheses, namely, irreducible complexity and specified complexity, are undergoing critical evaluation.

In the space of a few paragraphs “irreducible complexity” and “specified complexity” have been elevated from notions to hypotheses. But they are not hypotheses. Irreducible complexity (IC) is a property that a functional, multi-part system, biological or otherwise, may or may not possess. Likewise, specified complexity (SC) is something that any event or object may or may not possess.

Now, I assume the hypotheses Nelson has in mind are that in the biological realm, IC systems can not evolve gradually via natural selection, and that SC can only be explained as the result of action taken by an intelligent agent. If these are the hypotheses, then the critical evaluation is complete.

Both ideas have been around for several years, yet there is not a single scientist using IC or SC to solve problems of scientific interest. There is good reason for this. The claim that IC systems can't evolve gradually is false both in theory and practice. (In other words, there are numerous scenarios using known mechanisms through which IC systems could evolve gradually, and there is ample evidence that these scenarios (such as the possibility that IC is the result of the removal of redundancy) have played out in practice). As for SC, since it relies on probability calculations that would require God-like knowledge to have any legitimacy, it is worthless as a tool for detecting design.

Time to move on to the next step, Mr. Nelson.

Curiously, Bill Dembski was sufficiently embarrassed by Nelson's blunt admission that he felt the need to tell us all what Nelson meant:

Evolutionists are just as fond of quote-mining as their ID counterparts. A quote of Paul Nelson's has lately been making the rounds, appearing even in the New York Times. At a meeting of Biola University last year, Nelson remarked, “Easily the biggest challenge facing the ID community is to develop a full-fledged theory of biological design. We don’t have such a theory right now, and that’s a problem”

Evolutionists are now taking this as a grand admission that ID is scientifically deficient. Nelson’s own take on this line by evolutionists can be found at IDthefuture. My own take is that Nelson’s statement reflects a profound malaise within the scientific community about the absence of a general theory of biological form and design — period. Scientific theories vary in their scope and power. As a theory of design detection and technological evolution, intelligent design is now well in hand. But as a general theory of biological form, ID has a long way to go.

Intelligent design, however, is hardly alone in this regard. Consider the following admissions about the lack of a general theory of biological form by mainstream biologists and scientists:

See the original for the links.

After that last line Dembski went deep into his mine to whip out six(!!) quotes from scientists that supposedly make his point. Anyone want to guess what I'll find if I investigate their context?

Dembski attributes Nelson's statement to a talk given at Biola University. Nelson was actually considering a fuller version of the quote from an interview with Touchstone magazine. That is just an aside.

Dembski suggests that Nelson's statement reflects a profound malaise within the scientific community blah blah blah. Of course, wback here on planet Earth we know that was not Nelson's intention, and the way we know it is that Nelson told us in considerable detail what he meant! Nowhere in Nelson's lengthy post does he discuss any sort of malaise, profound or otherwise. Dembski simply made that up.

ID folks complaining about being misquoted. Ya gotta love it.