Friday, August 19, 2005

Chess in Washington

I'm off to our nation's capitol to spend the weekend participating in the Atlantic Open chess tournament. Wish me luck!

The Standard Dilemma

I often comment at this blog that scientists wishing to challenge ID face a dilemma. If you try to ignore the subject you get accused of being bigoted and closed-minded. But if you engage the subject you risk elevating ID to respectability.

William Dembski, kissing up to the boss no doubt, has linked to this piece by Al Mohler. The subject is the recent cover story on ID in The New Republic:

What's going on at The New Republic? The current issue of the magazine features two broadside attacks on the movement known as Intelligent Design [ID], and the magazine's online edition adds a third. The articles are filled with rhetoric, vitriol and urgency. Clearly, panic is setting in in some quarters -- and that panic is over evolution.

This is a twist on the standard dilemma: If you engage ID you get accused of panicking. That's quite a debate tactic:

CREATIONIST: Evolution is atheistic nonsense. It's part of a scientific controversy to rob your children of their souls. The scientific evidence is on the side of biblical literalism.

EVOLUTIONIST: That's not true, and here's 13,000+ words explaining in great detail why that isn't true.

CREATIONIST: You see! The evolutionists are panicking!

Mohler never gets around to saying very much. Though his essay is fairly long, it's composed entirely of the usual taunting and silliness. He certainly never responds to any of the arguments actually made in the articles in question.

So instead of providing any further reply to him, let me take this opportunity to thank The New Republic for the excellent articles by Jerry Coyne and Leon Wieseltier that appeared in their most recent issue. I have been very critical of the left-leaning press for not paying attention to this issue. I think everyone on my side of this is grateful that TNR not only addressed the issue, but provided enough space to really say something of substance about it.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Sense From McCain

Since I so rarely get to say anything nice about Republicans, I was pleased to see this brief article from AOL News:

Anyone doubting the effects of human activity on global climate change should talk to the people it affects in Alaska and the Yukon, U.S. Sen. John McCain said Wednesday.

Fresh from a trip to Barrow, America's northernmost city, McCain said anecdotes from Alaskans and residents of the Yukon Territory confirm scientific evidence of global warming.

“We are convinced that the overwhelming scientific evidence indicated that climate change is taking place and human activities play a very large role,” McCain said.

McCain, accompanied by Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., spoke to villagers in Canada whose spruce trees are being attacked by the northward spread of spruce beetles. On Alaska's northern coast, they met Native Alaskans dealing with melting permafrost and coastal erosion.

“I don't think there is any doubt left for anyone who actually looks at the science,” Clinton said. “There are still some holdouts, but they are fighting a losing battle. The science is overwhelming, but what is deeply concerning is that climate change is accelerating.”

New CSICOP Column

My most recent column for CSICOP's Creation Watch website is now available. I'm talking about mathematics for a change, specifically the attempts by creationists to use probability theory to refute evolution. Be warned, however, that this is part one of a two-part column. So don't be too annoyed by the cliffhanger at the end!

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

That's Mighty Selective Quoting, Salvador

My occasional sparring partner Salvador Cordova just provided me with an abject lesson in why it is important to never, ever, say anything remotely nice about an ID proponent.

In yesterday's post I briefly discussed one of William Dembski's recent technical mathematics papers. Dembski has been promoting these papers as a solid mathematical foundation for his bloviations about ID.

I focussed on the main result from one of these papers, and argued that it had no relevance at all to evolution. I also said that he has merely translated into fancy math jargon the bad argument he previously made in one of his popular level books. Then I suggested that Dembski writes these papers for the sole purpose of insulating himself from critics. Want to criticize me? Slog through all of this technical math and then we'll talk.

All in all, not a very flattering post. But I also observed that Dembski's theorem, as a statement in formal mathematics, appears to be unobjectionable. I further noted that I never questioned Dembski's ability to manipulate symbols with reasonable facility.

You would think that saying that the only thing that Dembski, who does, after all, have a PhD in mathematics, got right was his symbol manipulation would not be cause for celebration. But Salvador was quite excited. In a comment to this post over at Dembski's blog (scroll down to comment 18) he wrote the following:

I should note, Jason Rosenhouse thinks your calculations are impeccable.

“As an exercise in formal mathematics the paper seems unobjectionable. I have never questioned Dembski’s ability to manipulate symbols in accordance with the rules of algebra and calculus.”

Salvador, you might at least have mentioned that this was a prelude to a harsh criticism of Dembski's theorem.

But since you have decided to quote me so selectively, you could at least have gotten it right. I did not say Dembski's calculations are impeccable. I said his formal manipulations seem unbjectionable. That's hardly the same.

I should also point out that I have not personally chased through every line of Dembski's proof. The theorem itself seems correct, given the idiosyncratic way in which Dembski defined his terms, and I was simply assuming that he possesses some bare minimum level of competence in mathematics.

On the other hand, not everyone has the same confidence in Dembski's ability to manipulate symbols that I have. See David Wilson's critical commentary regarding one of Dembski's earlier papers.

Another Young-Earth Conference

I highly recommend this humorous account from Skip Evans about a Young-Earth event he recently attended in Idaho. Judging from his description, it sounds almost exactly like what I experienced in Lynchburg (see here for links to my writings on that subject.)

Skip writes in particular about creationist speaker Carl Kerby:

Like many creationist speakers, he began by assuring his audience that having absolutely no formal background is no hindrance to speaking with authority on scientific topics. What always amazes me about these guys is that a retired air traffic controller like Kerby really believes he can speak as an expert on subjects like astronomy, geology, paleontology, and just about any discipline that contradicts their own interpretation of the Bible.

Kerby established a friendly, humorous rapport with his audience right off the bat with an earthy approach and welcomed digs at those elitist scientists who think only they can understand evolution. “I'm a simple person,” he told them. “It's amazing how simple these issues are.”

And indeed, the absurd statements he made were incredibly simple, and also pathetically uninformed. Because fossils don't come with labels telling us how old they are all radiometric dating is useless.

Later he describes this charming scene:

This young man here was asking Kerby a few questions after the talk. (That's Kerby on the left and his inquisitor on the right. They look like brothers, don't they?) I wasn't quite sure just what the young man was getting at. He seemed to be challenging Kerby but his line of questioning was not clear to me. I'm pretty sure he was trying to ask about the geologic column compared to what we would find if a global flood had really taken place, so I chimed in and rephrased the question more along those lines, “Why don't we ever find modern looking mammals in with dinosaur fossils if they were all just jumbled together in a global flood?” Much to my surprise, Kerby said that we do! He said with folding and other geological shifting, etc, we find the fossil record all jumbled up. I'm pretty sure I heard Homer behind me...“D'oh!”

I wanted to pursue this one a bit further to be sure I actually heard him correctly, but the young man wanted to talk about mass extinctions and asked Kerby if he knew we were in the midst of one now. Kerby took the opportunity to explain why environmentalists irk him. If evolution is a biological fact, he explained, wiping out 50% or more of all species on the earth is no big deal, and apparently environmentally conscious people are just a bunch of hypocrites.

“That is absolutely absurd,” I said and Kerby retorted, “No, it's not. Why?” Since he asked 'why' I took that to mean he actually wanted to hear my explanation. Boy, howdy, I could not have been more wrong. No sooner did I begin to point out that if we are truly losing species at that rate then it is definitely something we should look into when Kerby cut me off again. He simply restated we shouldn't care, and after several attempts to ask to finish my point I realized that, to Kerby, ears are not what you use to listen to someone else's view, they're for storing your bubble gum when you're not chewing it.

The Kerbster really needs to work on his listening skills.

The man that had explained to me why a young earth is important to evangelizing then reiterated the point that evolutionists don't care if a mass extinction is taking place. I asked him to name the biologists he's read that hold that view, and he admitted that he couldn't.

That was exactly he sort of thing I enocuntered in Lynchburg.

There is one place, though, where Skip's experiecne was different from mine:

Then why go? Well, I must say I always come away with a feeling like I've learned something more about creationism, the motives behind it, and the folks who peddle it. But this time I came away thinking quite a bit about the audience and the congregation at North County Chapel.

I must say these are really good people. I've never been to a creationist event where I wasn't welcomed and treated with respect. Maybe that would change if they knew I was not a fellow traveller, but I sincerely hope not. Even the guy who asked to search my backpack was polite and I was not in the least put off being asked to open it up and show him the contents.

Sorry, Skip, but if my experiences are typical then their behavior towards you most definitely would change if they discovered you were not a fellow traveller. Not that they would turn violent or anything melodramatic like that. But the temperature in the room would immediately drop ten degrees and they would continue talking to you only for as long as they thought there was any hope of converting you. What they absolutely will not do is engage any counter argument you offer, no matter how clearly you express yourself.

In this, I must say, they are different from the people I have met at ID conferences.

Now go read the whole thing and look at the pictures!

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Dembski and Perakh

Physicist Mark Perakh, who maintains the excellent website Talk Reason, has written this interesting post over at The Panda's Thumb. In it, he discusses a recent essay of his, published in the new issue of Skeptic, in which he provdes an excellent summary of the major deficiencies in William Dembski's work.

The article is not yet available online (when it is, I will link to it and provide further commentary). Nonetheless, Dembski has written this brief response to Perakh blog entry. For reasons that are obscure, he refers to Perakh as “The Boris Yeltsin” of higher education. Here, in its entirety, is what Dembski has to say:

Mark Perakh, the Boris Yeltsin of higher learning, has weighed in with yet another screed against me (go here). The man is out of his element. I’m still awaiting his detailed critique of “Searching Large Spaces” — does he even understand the relevant math?

I do not know if Mark has bothered to slog through Dembski's paper,available here. But I have. At some point I might write a lengthy critique of the paper, though with the start of the school year coming up that's definitely a low priority project.

Here's the short version. As an exercise in formal mathematics the paper seems unobjectionable. I have never questioned Dembski's ability to manipulate symbols in accordance with the rules of algebra and calculus. In mathematics you can establish whatver definitions and axioms you like and then prove whatever theorems follow from them. The tricky part is getting your mathematical formalism to correspond to anything in reality.

And that is where Dembski fails completely. He certainly has not modelled anything remotely like Darwinian evolution. His pride and joy, “The Displacement Theorem” (which he has immodestly dubbed The Fundamental Theorem of Intelligent Design), contains so many abstract symbols lacking real-world counterparts that there is no way to apply it in any biological context.

The fact is, Dembski's recent series of technical mathematics papers exist for the sole purpose of providing a shield against would-be critics. You can see Dembski employing the strategy in his brief remarks above. Rather than respond to Perakh's cogent arguments, he simply refers to his technical papers and says Perakh should be rpelying to them instead. It's as if we're supposed to ignore his seemingly endless output of popular-level tripe. No doubt if Perakh, or anyone else, does respond to Dembski's papers, then Dembski will simply produce something new and say, “Now you must reply to this one.”

Dembski's displacement theorem does not in any way further the argument he made in section 4.7 of No Free Lunch. He has simply translated the argument he made there into symbols. But an argument that is inane in everyday language remains inane when translated into math-ese.

Zimmer on Virtual E. coli

Carl Zimmer has another excellent article in today's New York Times. The subject this time is the attempts by scientists to create a perfect computer simulation of E. coli:

Michael Ellison has a dream: to reconstruct a living thing inside a computer, down to every last molecule. It is, he said, "the ultimate goal in biology to be able to do this."

Skip to next paragraph

Dr. Kari Lounatmaa/Photo Researchers
Even a simple organism like E. coli bacteria will be difficult to re-create.

Jason Scott for The New York Times
Researchers at the University of Alberta, top, are trying to program a stripped-down virtual version of a common bacteria, E. coli. The surface of the cell is at left, and the cross sections show different stages in the formation of the membrane.
It's a dream that Dr. Ellison, a biologist at the University of Alberta, shares with other scientists, who have imagined such an achievement for decades.

Understanding how all of the parts of an organism work together would lift biology to a new level, they argue. Biologists would be able to understand life as deeply as engineers understand the bridges and airplanes that they build.

“You can sit down at a computer, and you can design experiments, and you can see the performance of this thing, and then you can figure out why it's done what it's done,” Dr. Ellison said. “You're not going to recognize the full return of the biological revolution until you can simulate a living organism.”

Fascinating stuff.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Maybe I Should be a Right-Winger

My life would be so much easier if I were a right-wing crank. For example, I contribute a monthly column to CSICOP's Creation Watch website. I just sent off to them my latest essay, in which I discuss some of the ways creationists abuse probability theory. Though it is not an especially long essay, it took me several days and numerous drafts to complete it. I agonized over every word. Were my arguments clear and correct? Will readers be able to follow my chain of thought? Have I given fair consideration to the best arguments from the other side?

But if I were to become a right-winger, I could ignore such difficulties. As a right-winger I could publish columns like this one, from Town Hall columnist David Limbaugh. I could labor unencumbered by any need to actually learn some science before commenting authoritatively on the subject. I could simply make my living by parroting standard talking points.

Here's Limbuagh:

The main players in the ID movement are not even insisting on that much. Discovery Institute, for example, opposes the mandatory teaching of ID in public schools but favors requiring students to be exposed to criticisms of Darwin's theory.

As a right-wing hack, Limbuagh feels no need to observe the obvious: That the reticence of the DI to require teaching ID is nothing more than a strategic decision born out of a fear of constitutional challenges.

But whether you believe ID theory ought to get equal billing with Darwinian theory, some lesser treatment, or that students should at least be apprised of alleged chinks in the Darwinian armor, what's all the fuss about?

Don't academics purport to champion free and open inquiry? What, then, are they so afraid of regarding the innocuous introduction into the classroom of legitimate questions concerning Darwinism?

Their defensiveness toward challenges to their dogma is inexplicable unless you understand their attitude as springing from a worldview steeped in strong, secular predispositions that must be guarded with a blind religious fervor.

Of course, that has to be the explanation. I mean, it couldn't possibly be that scientists merely object to a load of religiously-motivated lies being presented as science. And obviously free inquiry means teaching any old pile of nonsense to students, in the hopes that they will figure it out for themselves.

Indeed, it appears many Darwinists are guilty of precisely that of which they accuse ID proponents: having a set of preconceived assumptions that taint their scientific objectivity.

Don't take my word for it. Consider the words of Darwinist Richard Lewontin of Harvard. “Our willingness,” confessed Lewontin, “to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to understanding the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for the unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment to materialism. … materialism is absolute for we cannot allow a divine foot in the door.”

Every paragraph a cliche! This Lewontin quote is a creationist favorite. I'd be surprised if Limbuagh actually read the book review this quote came from. As a right-wing hack, he has no time for such things. All you have to do is keep a little rolodex of useful quotes at hand, to be whipped out at the appropriate time.

Limbuagh hits most of the other cliches: ID is science-based, the science establishment is repressive, there's that list of 400 scientists the DI keeps promoting, blah blah blah.

Later Limbaugh says,

And, if their science were unassailable, would they so vigorously resist its subjection to academic scrutiny by scientists no longer drinking the Darwin Kool-Aid? It's no secret that scientists who have broken from Darwinian orthodoxy have been ridiculed, suppressed and ostracized by much of the Orwellian scientific establishment.

You see, as a right-wing hack it is perfectly acceptable to smear large groups of people with no evidence at all. Of course, in reality the scientific establishment is teeming with people who dissent from Darwinian orthodoxy. What gets you ostracized is not dissenting from orthodoxy. It is parroting ignorant, incompetent talking points that gets you ostracized. It is telling lies about the state of modern science, misrepresenting the words of your colleagues, and making arguments that a freshman bio major could see through that gets you ridiculed.

I gotta tell ya, I really think I'm working too hard.