Friday, August 26, 2005

Idiocy from The American Thinker

With a name as pretentious as The American Thinker, you just know it has to be the product of right-wing cranks. You can check out their archives here.

They recently published this ridiculous essay by Jonah Avriel Cohen, entitled “Why Intelligent Design Ought to be Taught.”

Of the many reasons why intelligent design – an argument I reject – ought to be taught alongside evolution in our public schools, perhaps none is more compelling than the ignorance and demagoguery which is evident in our current national debate over the issue. Below are four myths you frequently come across while reading the political literature on the subject, followed by the facts.

It's always suspicious when a writer begins by disavowing the viewpoint he is about to defend. But let's leave that aside and consider his supposed myths:

Myth: The theory of intelligent design is a modern version of Creationism.

As examples of people perpetuating this myth, Cohen offers quotes from Charles Krauthammer, Jerry Coyne and Richard Dawkins. Then he writes:

Fact: The theory of intelligent design goes back at least as far as classical Greece and it has been debated in nearly every century since then.

Our century is no different. Those who advocate intelligent design are not “disguising” anything; they are not furtive men. They are offering for your consideration an idea that has intrigued the minds of everyone from Plato to Kant, an idea that possibly began when Socrates asked:

“With such signs of forethought in the design of living creatures, can you doubt they are the work of choice or design?”

Now, because the design argument can be found in Plato’s dialogues, we can deduce that the theory not only predates the theory of creationism – which was but one religious response to Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) – it is also not wedded to Judeo-Christian scripture.

Krauthammer, Coyne and Dawkins are wrong here.

Certainly, there have been updated versions of the intelligent design theory – see, for example, Oxford professor Richard Swinburne’s article, “The Argument from Design” in Philosophy, vol. 43 (1968) – but the design hypothesis is no more modern than the Epicurean hypothesis that the universe consists solely of particles in random motion.

Let's begin with the obvious: The Old Testament, which is, after all, the founding document of creationism, came well before Plato's dialogues. See what I mean about idiocy?

More to the point, of course people throughout history have wondered whether there is a designer behind the workings of nature. But some generic design hypothesis is not what anyone is talking about in the current debate, such as it is. People who advocate teaching ID are not saying we need more discussion of Plato's philosophy. What they have in mind is a specific set of scientific assertions intended to discredit evolution and show that design is by far the most likely explanation for the complexity of the living world. And if you believe ID's leading practitioners, the arguments they have in mind are not only new, but will revolutionize science in the very near future.

As it happens, however, anyone familiar with the literature of “Scientific Creationism” will recognize that the arguments of ID's are different only in style, not in substance, from those of the YEC's. Furthermore, ID hit the scene shortly after YEC suffered several court defeats during the eighties. And considering the copious writings from the Discovery Institute and leading ID proponents about wanting to destroy naturalism and restore their version of a Christian worldview to intellectual respectability, it is not at all unfair to describe ID as a form of creationism.

Here's Cohen's second myth:

Myth: The theory of intelligent design claims that the designer is the God described in the Bible.

Actually, I don't know anyone on my side who makes this claim. Everyone agrees that as a matter of logic the designer suggested by ID could be any one of a number of entities. The claim that is made by people on my side is that ID folks are just being coy when they leave open the possibility of super-intelligent aliens and the like. This reticence to identify the designer is born out of political necessity, not scientific open-mindedness. The quote Cohen provides backs up my claim:

ID advocates are also coy about the identity of the designer, claiming that it doesn’t have to be God. But, token allusions to the possibility of extraterrestrial or time-traveling biochemists notwithstanding, no one is fooled into thinking that the designer is not the Designer: God.

This is from a recent op-ed by Eugenie Scott and Glenn Branch. They are perfectly clear that ID makes no necessary claim about the identity of the designer, but the fact remains that everyone knows who they have in mind.

Cohen's subsequent analysis adds nothing to this point.

His third “myth” is the most ridiculous of them all:

Myth: Conservatives and Christians necessarily accept the intelligent design argument.

The quote Cohen uses to back up this “myth” comes from blogger Jean Chen. Prepare to snicker:

Intelligent design is just another strategy from conservative Christians to ban evolution.

Yes, you read that right. The “conservative Christians” of Chen's quote became the “Conservatives and Christians” of Cohen's myth.

And just in case you think I am being unfair to Cohen, he makes things explicit in his next paragraph:

Fact: You can consistently be a political conservative or a devout Christian and still totally reject the argument from intelligent design.

Indeed. Many people describing themselves as conservative come from the libertarian side of things, and many of them reject ID. Likewise, there are a great many Christians who have no problem with evolution. Absolutely no one is confused on this point.

But what you will almost never find are people who describe themselves as conservative Christians who accept evolution. I have no doubt that such people exist, but they are a tiny minority. There's a reason that every single school board dust-up on this subject is instigated by religious right organizations and supported by the Republican politicans who pander to them.

We could stop there, but Cohen's next paragraph is so delightfully condescending that we ought to look at it:

How many are aware that, of the many critics of the design argument,
none were more formidable than a political conservative, on the one
hand, and a Christian fundamentalist, on the other?

He's about to lecture us about David Hume and Soren Kierkegaard, but that's beside the point. I have often said that frequently you can spot a crank even if you know very little about the subject in question. And the line above could only have been written by a major league crank.

You see, to the crank the really important thing is not discerning the truth of a situation. It is not weighing the evidence in a sensible way to arrive at a correct conclusion. No. The important thing is establishing the crank's intellectual superiority over anyone who takes a different view. That is why debating a crank is usually a very frustrating experience. While you are busy trying to conjure up sound arguments and clear logic, the crank is going through his aresenal of obscure, out-of context facts, looking for one he can use to shut you up.

That is why Cohen expresses his point in the tone of a teacher lecturing a small child. It is why he begins by announcing to the world that he is in possession of an obscure fact that refutes some bit of conventional wisdom held by the masses.

Incidentally, applying modern labels to people like Hume and Kierkegaard is a highly dubious proposition. Kierkegaard's religious views were far more nuanced and subtle than what we nowadays refer to as “fundamentalism” And it has little meaning to apply the modern label “conservative” to someone like Hume.

Cohen's fourth myth is a change of pace. He gets this one right:

Myth: The theory of evolution and monotheism are logically at odds or, at least, inimical.

This one I agree with. Cohen backs it up with a quote from the Jacob Weisberg essay I skewered in this previous post.

Cohen begins his conclusion as follows:

The dispute between intelligent design versus a randomly ordered cosmos is age-old and fascinating and still unresolved. That smart and honest writers are now busy promulgating sheer fictions about this debate suggests that we are indeed in need of education on this topic. And that is a sufficient reason, in my opinion, for it to be taught in our schools, perhaps not in biology classes, but at least in mandatory philosophy classes, something our school systems do not demand to our national shame. (Emphasis Added)

Now he tells us. Sadly, the whole argument is about what to teach in science classes. That's what all the school board flare-ups are about. That's what all of the recent and pending legal activity is all about. Yes, of course, you should teach such things in philosophy classes. Who has ever said otherwise?

As I said, standard crank. In his attempt to show how clear-headed and above it all he is, Cohen has merely demonstrated that he has no understanding of what people are arguing about.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

O'Reilly Just Keeps Topping Himself

FOX News blowhard Bill O'Reilly had Rick Sternberg on as a guest last night. Sternberg, you will recall, is the disgraced former editor of the Procedings of the Biological Society of Washington. Disgraced because he abused his position as editor to circumvent the journal's normal procedures to publish this piece of worthless anti-scientific garbage, by the Discovery Institute's Stephen Meyer.

A partial transcript of the segment is available here. Let's consider it in full:

BILL O'REILLY: In the “'Factor' follow-up” segment tonight. As you may know, there's a bitter debate over whether public schools should be allowed to teach students an alternative to Darwin's theory of evolution, a concept called Intelligent Design.

That concept puts forth that a higher power oversaw the evolutionary process. And that's why man will never completely understand it.

One year ago, the editor of a scientific journal called Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington ran an article by Dr. Stephen Meyer of Cambridge University in England that stated intelligent design should be taken seriously as a theory. Well, since that time, Dr. Richard Sternberg's life has been hell. He joins us now from Washington.

Well, I just want to tell everybody that, you know, the federal government investigated your situation and found that you had been harassed because you allowed this article to be printed. I want to know what happened to you? What form did the Harris men take?

Note: That's exactly how things appear in the posted transcript, but I'm sure “Harris men” is supposed to be harassment.

O'Reilly was rather impressed by Cambridge University. Later he said:

O'REILLY: But the bottom line is they wanted to ruin you for simply running an article by a scholar. I mean, Cambridge University is one of the most prestigious universities in the world.

In light of this, someone ought to point out that Stephen Meyer is not “of Cambridge University.” He holds a PhD in the history and philosophy of science from Cambridge, but his current academic affiliation is with the evangelical Palm Beach Atlantic University. He is also the director of the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture.

That's a big difference, wouldn't you say? Not quite so prestigious after all. But if O'Reilly were to pay attention to so simple a fact he would not be able to bloviate with quite as much enthusiasm.

Likewise, O'Reilly can not afford to mention that the peer-review process used to support the publication of the Meyer paper was almost certainly corrupt.

And the real story of what “the federal government” (in this case the highly politicized Office of Special Counsel) found is substantially different from what O'Reilly describes. Over at The Panda's Thumb, Nick Matzke has a good summary of some of the odd points in the OSC's finding:

In essence, the OSC opinion, authored by Bush appointee James McVey, seems designed to give the religious right another talking point about how any criticism of ID or the ID movement’s actions amounts to religious discrimination by the evil secular scientific establishment, even though ID is allegedly science, not religion. Somehow, it manages to do this (1) while telling Sternberg that OSC doesn’t have jurisdiction, (2) without any contrasting opinion from the accused parties, and (3) without documenting any actual injury to Sternberg, who still has his unpaid research position, an office, keys, and access to the collections. The opinion is therefore a pretty strange document to read.

Let's return to the transcript. So what form did the harassment take?

RICHARD STEINBERG, FEDERAL SCIENTIST AND EDITOR: Well, it took a number of forms, Bill. First of all, immediately after the article was published, there was a very tepid reaction with a museum.

However, a number of outside groups and individuals began writing e- mails, letters of protests, phoning the museum, phoning my employer, demanding my ouster for this. Apparently, there was an unstated rule that you do not accept a manuscript for per review that counters Darwinism, or seriously counters Darwinism.

And furthermore, I was a gatekeeper. I allowed the paper to be peer reviewed and furthermore, I committed the terribly sin of allowing it to be published.

And so the retaliation that followed took the form of the spreading of misinformation, such that, you know, my degrees were in religion and philosophy, not in science, that there was actually no per review, that I had accepted money under the table. That I...

Apparently what happened is that many people, angered by Sternberg's obvious abuse of power, contacted the Smithsonian to protest. That's not harassment. In response to this we are expected to believe that the Smithsonian engaged in a systematic campaign of misinformation concerning points that are easily checked. That's ridiculous on its face.

No doubt what we are really talking about here are a handful of e-mails from his colleagues wondering how such an intellectually corrupt gentleman ever managed to emerge as the editor of their journal.

O'Reilly then summed it up for us:

O'REILLY: So they came after you viciously. And I know how that is; they do that to me every day. But who is behind this?

STERNBERG: Well, it was...

O'REILLY: Go ahead.

STERNBERG: It was a concerted — it was — the retaliation occurred in concert. It was between the officials of the Smithsonian Institution, curators, various administrators and the National Center for Science and Education, based in Oakland, California.

They — they orchestrated, for example, at least the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) orchestrated a repudiation of the article, actually helped the repudiation to be drafted. That is a statement of retraction. And then turned around and cited it on their web site as evidence, not so much evidence, but allowed them to strongly insinuate editorial malfeasance on my part.

They aided in drafting, for example, a statement by the council that oversees publication of the journal to suggest that somehow I had broken the rules.

O'REILLY: But the bottom line is they wanted to ruin you for simply running an article by a scholar. I mean, Cambridge University is one of the most prestigious universities in the world.


Sternberg surely knows that Meyer is not affiliated with Cambridge University, but he happily ignores that fact here.

Meanwhile, we now have the National Center for Science Education implicated in the conspiracy. Their crime? They helped the editorial board draft the statement condemning the publication of the article. When the editorial board subsequently adopted a modified version of the statement, it was apparently unscrupulous in some way for the NCSE to make note of the fact. The horror of it all!

Of course, the only really important issue here is whether Sternberg did indeed violate the procedures of the journal, and whether the article he published was any good. He did, and it wasn't. Everything else is just politics and PR. O'Reilly's suggestion that Sternberg's critics came after him just for publishing a paper by a scholar is a bit rich coming from someone who boasts of running a no-spin zone.

We continue:

O'REILLY: They said look, you ought — you ought to take a look at this intelligent design and not just throw it out in the garbage.


O'REILLY: So they tried to ruin you for doing that. And I'm not — I'm not quite understanding, is this an anti-religion movement? I mean, what are they afraid of here? What's the bottom line on it?

STERNBERG: Well, it was — it's an attempt, I think, to suppress scientific dissent.

O'REILLY: Why, though? Why? Why? What is it in for these people who would be to brutal toward anyone who might want to just take a look at intelligent design?

O'Reilly's working real hard here, but, doggone it, he just can't figure out why the thinking world was so upset by the publication of Meyer's paper. What could it be? What possible reason could they have for being angered by the publication of a paper whose arguments are complete worthless garbage? Better get Woodward and Bernstein on this one.

And we may as well state for the record that no one objects to anyone looking at anything. The issue is having the basic scientific competence to know a bad argument when you see one; a skill Meyer and Steinberg apparently lack.

O'Reilly wraps things up by explaining the real reason people got so angry with Sternberg:

STERNBERG: There — there is a — I think it's religiously and politically motivated. It's a form of projection. You have groups like the NCSE and others who argue that the intelligent design advocates, the creationists, etc., are trying to suppress information, trying to hinder science. And — and ironically, quite the opposite appears to have occurred in this situation.

They felt that, you know, if, for example, the pros and the cons of the issue are placed on the scientific table, then essentially the whole edifice is going to unravel, and that simply cannot be allowed.

O'REILLY: Well, I think it's more than that. I think this is a concerted effort in a fascist way to punish anyone who might want to inject the higher power into any scientific discussion.

I mean, this is a real — let's get religion out of it completely and never deal with that aspect of it again.

Doctor, thanks so much. We're sorry you had to go through what you went through.

Fascist. Lovely.

O'Reilly started his program last night with his usual “Talking Points Memo.” For those who don't watch the show, this is where O'Reilly lays down the law, talks straight talk, explains what all right-thinking Americans should believe, cuts through all the bull, and tells it like it is. The title of the memo last night was: Are You an Extremist?. Here's part of what he said:

But I think we can safely establish some rules for the road here. An extremist is someone who rejects facts and holds on to opinions no matter what.

And later:

In my opinion, extremists have a neurosis. They really don't want to hear anything other than the conclusion they've arrived at, no matter what the evidence suggests.

That's how he started the show. About a half hour later he does a segment with Mr. Sternberg in which he omits every relevant fact that runs counter to his preferred narrative. It is almost a sure thing that he understands none of the scientific issues involved in the evolution/ID dust-up, but he is quite sure that scientific opposition to ID stems from religious bigotry and fascistic tendencies. The irony of his memo giving an almost perfect description of the ID folks is apparently lost him.

By his own definition, O'Reilly is an extremist. Even worse, he is a dishonest charlatan more interested in promoting his blinkered view of things than in getting at the truth. Worse still, millions of people not only watch him every night, but take him seriously as well.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Hitchens on Teaching the Controversy

Over at Slate, Christopher Hitchens has posted this essay facetiously supporting a “Teach the Controversy” approach to evolution and ID:

We do not and we should not teach rubbish and superstition alongside science. "Intelligent design" is not even a theory. It is more like a mentality. It admits of no verification or falsity and does not deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as a series of hypotheses and experiments that have served us well in analyzing the fossil record, the record of molecular biology, and—through the unraveling of the DNA strings—our kinship with other species. And this is to say nothing of the possibility of medical advances that may astonish us in our own lifetimes. To put astrology on the same blackboard as the Hubble telescope would be an approximate analogy. I was sent, this week, an article on “Intelligent Falling,” wherein certain advocates of “intelligent design” said that gravity was not a natural law because it did not explain matters such as angel flight or the fall of Satan from heaven, the latter of which was mandated rather than gravitational. As is so often the case with pieces that appear in the Onion, I honestly could not decide whether this was a clever hoax or not—the arguments were almost exactly as stupid as the real thing.

See the original for links.

Well said! Later he writes:

To my point, then. Why not make schoolchildren study the history of the argument? It would show them how to weigh and balance evidence, and it would remind them of the scarcely believable idiocy of the ancestors of “intelligent design.” The tale is both amusing and instructive, and it is a vital part of the history of the 19th and 20th centuries. How could intelligent scientific secularism lose if this were part of the curriculum? (Emphasis in Original).

Of course, if “Teaching the Controversy” meant presenting various discredited design arguments for the purpose of showing how science continually progresses towards better explanations for natural phenomena, then I would be all for it. What I oppose is any presenatation of ID as if it were a scientfic theory with any merit at all, much less a legitimate rival for modern evolutionary biology. Hitchens, obviously, opposes that as well.

He concludes with this:

If we take the president up on his deceptively fair-minded idea of “teaching the argument,” I think we could advance the ball a little further in other directions also. Houses of worship that do not provide space for leaflets and pamphlets favoring evolution (not necessarily Darwinism, which is only one of the theories of evolution and thus another proof of its scientific status) should be denied tax-exempt status and any access to public funding originating in the White House's “faith-based” initiative. Congress should restore its past practice of giving a copy of Thomas Jefferson's expurgated Bible—free of all incredible or supernatural claims—to each newly elected member. The same version of the Bible should be obligatory for study in all classes that affect to teach “divinity.”

Hitchens' writing has been very uneven over the last few years, to put it mildly. But on these sorts of issues he is always spot on.

Serves Me Right For Praising a Republican

In this post from last Thursday I praised Republican senator John McCain for accepting the scientific consensus on global warming.

And this is how he thanks me:

On Tuesday, though, he sided with the president on two issues that have made headlines recently: teaching intelligent design in schools and Cindy Sheehan, the grieving mother who has come to personify the anti-war movement.

McCain told the Star that, like Bush, he believes “all points of view” should be available to students studying the origins of mankind.

The theory of intelligent design says life is too complex to have developed through evolution, and that a higher power must have had a hand in guiding it.

That's it. He just lost my vote!

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Chang's Article

As I mentioned yesterday, Kenneth Chang of The New York Times wrote this lengthy article for yesterday's edition. My side of the blogosphere was not amused. P.Z. Myers weighs in here (be sure to go well into the comments to see Chang's response), Chris Mooney offers his thoughts here, and Arthur Silber weighs in here.

Now, I hate the fact that the Times is covering this at all. In a better world cranks and charlatans would simply be ignored. But the fact is that numerous state school boards have had to deal with this over the last few years, and that fact makes it news.

Given that the Times is covering it, I would prefer an outright hatchet job on the ID folks. But that is likewise not realistic. Journalistically it would reflect badly on the reporter to present such an obviously biased account, and politically the Times is very touchy about being perceived as a left-wing organ.

So I think Chang did a reasonable job given the constraints he was working under. What I liked about the article was that in every case real scientists were given the last word. Many of the commenters to P.Z. Myers' blog entry on the article complained that it was standard he said-she said journalism, which in this case accords too much respect to the ID folks. I didn't read it that way. To me it looked more like, “ID folks claim X, but here's why they're wrong.”

I also liked the fact that Chang makes it perfectly clear that the restriction of science to natural causes is purely practical, and that evolution is accepted because it consistently produces results:

“One of the rules of science is, no miracles allowed,” said Douglas H. Erwin, a paleobiologist at the Smithsonian Institution. “That's a fundamental presumption of what we do.”

That does not mean that scientists do not believe in God. Many do. But they see science as an effort to find out how the material world works, with nothing to say about why we are here or how we should live.

And in that quest, they say, there is no need to resort to otherworldly explanations. So much evidence has been provided by evolutionary studies that biologists are able to explain even the most complex natural phenomena and to fill in whatever blanks remain with solid theories.

It's not all good news; there's certainly ample fodder for complaints:

Mainstream scientists say that intelligent design represents a more sophisticated - and thus more seductive - attack on evolution. Unlike creationists, design proponents accept many of the conclusions of modern science. They agree with cosmologists that the age of the universe is 13.6 billion years, not fewer than 10,000 years, as a literal reading of the Bible would suggest. They accept that mutation and natural selection, the central mechanisms of evolution, have acted on the natural world in small ways, for example, leading to the decay of eyes in certain salamanders that live underground.

That's totally wrong, I'm afraid. Officially ID folks take no stand on the age of the Earth. Many ID proponents accept it, but others, like Paul Nelson, are traditional YEC's. The fact that ID refuses to take a stand on this fundamental issue is highly significant, since it helps make obvious the fact that ID is nothing but a big-tent for creationists of all stripes, as opposed to a serious attempt to understand the world.

Furthermore, a willingness to accept “microevolution” in no way distinguishes the ID folks from the young-Earthers. YEC's also accept that mutation and narual selection can lead to evolutionary change.

But for all of that I don't see how anyone could come away from the article thinking that ID has any scientific merit at all. That's especially true of people who, unlike readers of this blog, are not completely immersed in this issue. Most people reading the article will not be familiar with the minutiae of the debate. They will come away from this article seeing the ID folks as the ones wanting to give up on, and attribute to God, any remorely puzzling aspect of natural history. In Chang's article the ID folks come off as the religiously motivated simpletons, while real scientists come off as the ones genuinely trying to solve problems.

If I had written the article it would have looked much different. It would have been far more condemnatory of the ID folks, and much of the scientific discussion would have been phrased much differently. But I also think people on my side of this are being too hasty in dumping on Mr. Chang.

From the other side of things, you can find ID proponent Jonathan Witt weighing in here. In the course of trying to persuade people that Chang's article is somehow helpful to them he writes:

Despite getting plenty of ink, the Darwinists don't come off looking so well in Kenneth Chang's story about intelligent design in the Science section of today's New York Times.

Imagine intelligent design is an elephant in the next room. A cat lies crushed on the floor before us, with the clear mark of an elephant's toe imprinted on his poor, flat, fuzzy body.

You say, “I hear and smell an elephant in the next room. I say the most likely culprit is the elephant.”

But then some guy who hates cats almost as much as he hates elephants--and therefore doesn't want to give the elephant credit for killing the cat--insists there is no elephant. When it's finally clear that the empirical evidence for the elephant can no longer be ignored or denied, the elephant denier disappears and comes back with a large stuffed elephant and begins literally beating the straw out of it. He's trying to tell you the elephant isn't worth bothering with, isn't up to snuff.

If you desperately want to ignore the real elephant, then you'll find this ridiculous display quite convincing. Everyone else will know immediately that the man hasn't torn the real elephant to shreds but only a straw mock-up of the creature. This is what we find the Darwinists doing in the Kenneth Chang article. They set up strawmen of several intelligent design arguments, then dismember them most effectively.

Of course, this is a ludicrous presentation of what the article says. Consider what Chang actually wrote:

  • He began by describing Behe's hand-waving argument about the irreducible complexity of the blood clotting cascade. This is followed by a fairly detailed description of a possible scenario for blood-clotting coupled with a quote from Russell Doolittle about the evidence for this scenario being rock-solid.

  • In the next section he quotes several design proponents in ways that make it perfectly clear that they are motivated by religious considerations, and have concerns that go far beyond science. This is followed up by making it clear that science has the far more mundane goal of explaining the natural world, and that design hypotheses are rejected simply for lack of evidence.

  • Next comes Meyer's bloviations about the Cambrain explosion. Chang makes it perfectly clear that since the fossil record is inevitably imperfect, it's rather poor form to base an argument entirely on missing fossils. He also mentions some recent discoveries in genetics and paloentology that shed light on the problem. Once again, it's the design proponents throwing up their hands in the face of something mysterious, and real scientists doing the hard work of figuring out what is going on.

I could continue in this way, but I think the point is made. Who's going to read this and come away thinking that it's the evolutionists who are responding to straw men, while the ID folks are interested in evidence?

Witt goes on to cite two examples of evolutionists refuting straw men from the article. Here's one of those examples:

I'll offer just two of several instances here. A brief summary of Stephen Meyer's argument for design as the best explanation for the Cambrian explosion of animal forms some 530 million years ago is rebutted by this passage:

But molecular biologists have found genes that control the function of other genes, switching them on and off. Small mutations in these controller genes could produce new species. In addition, new fossils are being found and scientists now know that many changes occurred in the era before the Cambrian - a period that may have lasted 100 million years - providing more time for change.

However, Meyer's argument takes both these points into account, and his rebuttals are based on well-established evidence in the peer-reviewed literature. One of his articles on the subject was edited by a biologist with two Ph.D.s in evolutionary biology, and peer-reviewed by three scientists with relevant Ph.D.s from well-respected institutions here and in Europe. If Meyer had not addressed those points, they no doubt would have insisted that he do so.

Of course, Witt is vamping here. Anyone who actually follows these things knows that the Meyer article being referred to above was worthless garbage regardless of how many PhD's the editor of the journal had. And the legitimacy of the peer-review process that led to the article being published is very much in question, to put it mildly. Meyer's arguments about the Cambrian, expressed in that paper, were wrong as a simple matter of fact.

But more to the point, the only people who are going to react the way Witt suggests are those who are already firmly on the ID side. Normal people will know nothing about Meyer's silly paper, or much about the Cambrain explosion at all for that matter. All they will see is Meyer waving his hands in a desperate attempt to find someplace to insert God into our understanding of natural history, while real scientists produce the evidence that can provide real resolutions to such mysteries as exist.

In fact, that all sounds so convincing that I'm feeling better about Chang's article now than I did when I started this blog entry!

Monday, August 22, 2005

Casserley on Creationism

While in Washington this weekend I took a browse through Second Story Books in Dupont Circle. I came across a book entitled The Christian in Philosophy by J. V. Langmead Casserley, identified on the book flap as “Rector of Manhead, near Exeter, and also Lecturer in Sociology at University College, Exeter.” If I have interpreted the Roman numerals correctly, the book was published in 1949.

It didn't look like my kind of book, but on a whim I decided to look up “Darwin” in the index. I quickly came across the following quote:

Not until Darwin and the triumph of the new evolutionary biology was it possible to fulfil the intellectual expectations aroused by the theological idea of the Divine Agent of creation who is `always being begotten' in the scientific picture of an `open' creation which is always being created. It is true that evolutionary biology was not accepted with proper and becoming gratitude by theologians who seemed more concerned to uphold the preposterous, and superfluous, hypothesis of the historicity of biblical myth than to illustrate and verify the truth of Christian dogma in new fields of inquiry, but we should not allow their ineptitude to conceal from us the real ancestry and theological affinities of the idea of evolution. (Emphasis in Original)

Damn straight. I don't see those theological affinties myself, but I have no objection to others seeing things this way.

I bought the book.

Safire Weighs In

William Safire has devoted his most recent language column to the history of the word creationism. Unlike his political columns, his language columns are nearly always interesting and worth reading. This one is no exception. Here's an excerpt:

The word creationism, coined in 1868 in opposition to what was then called Darwinism or evolutionism, had fallen on hard times. The proponents of a theory faithfully attributing the origin of matter to God, “the creator,” were seemingly overwhelmed by the theory put forward by Charles Darwin and bolstered with much evidence by 20th century scientists. As a result, the noun creationism (like its predecessor, teleology, the study of purposeful design in nature) gained a musty connotation while evolutionism modishly lost its -ism.

Then along came the phrase intelligent design, and evolution had fresh linguistic competition. Though the phrase can be found in an 1847 issue of Scientific American and in an 1868 book, it was probably coined in its present sense in “Humanism,” a 1903 book by Ferdinand Canning Scott Schiller: “It will not be possible to rule out the supposition that the process of evolution may be guided by an intelligent design.” (Emphasis in Original)

The article ends with a quote from Nobel Laureate Leon Cooper, of the Brown University Dept. of Physics:

I will leave the last word on this old controversy with its new phraseology to the neuroscientist Leon Cooper, a Nobel laureate at Brown University. He tells all of today's red-faced disputants: “If we could all lighten up a bit perhaps, we could have some fun in the classroom discussing the evidence and the proposed explanations -- just as we do at scientific conferences.”

Ugh. What's especially annoying about this is that I'm sure Cooper sees himself as the clear-thinking moderate surrounded by extremists of both sides. I suspect he has not read much of the ID literature, and has little sense of just how brain-dead ID's scientific assertions really are. I further suspect he has spent little time investigating the political dimensions of the issue, since he seems to think that treating a science classroom like a small scientific conference will settle the problem.

It's standard appeasement. Give a little ground to the crazy people and everything will be all right. But it's not as if the Discovery Institute would pack up and go away if we introduced “Teach the Controversy” into every science classroom in the country. They would simply use that as the first step in their broader campaign to use the tools of government to promote their religious views.

Those NYT Articles

The New York Times has now published two major articles on ID, available here and here. The first one is by Jodi Wilgoren, the second by Kenneth Chang.

I'll post more detailed comments later in the week, but here's the short version: I agree with P.Z. Myers on the Wilgoren article (not a bad article but could have been better), but I disagree with him on the Chang article (Myers hated it, I would do a lot of nitpicking, but overall I think it was a better article than some on my side have suggested).

I should point out, however, that I was one of the sources on Chang's article, so I'm slightly biased.

I'll comment further later in the week.

Chess Sucks

It doesn't look too bad on paper: I broke even with two wins, two losses and one draw. After the tiebreaks were calculated I actually emerged in 15th place out of 49 players. But the two losses were probably the most frustrating tournament games I've played in a long time, while one of the wins came against a little kid who was eye-level with the pieces (which didn't stop me from pounding him mercilessly, over the board that is). One of these days I'm really going to have to figure out how to play this game.

Final results avaiable here. I was in the under 2000 section.

So, did anything evolution related happen this weekend?