Friday, December 16, 2005


The combination of a vicious ice storm here in Harrisonburg and a big pile of final exams that isn't getting graded on its own has kept me away from the blog for a few days. Regular posting will resume on Monday.

In the meantime, feast your eyes on some novel anti-evolution arguments from the charming folks at The Eagle Forum:

Fact v. Fiction #1: Some evolutionists who claim to be Christians — but also evolutionists who label themselves “theistic evolutionists” — argue that God could have used the evolutionary process hypothesized by Darwin to create the universe. But evolutionism reduces man to an animal. Theism, conversely presents man as made in the image of God. If man is an animal, but man is also made in the image of God, what does that make God?


Fact v. Fiction #2: Evolutionists claim that their battle against creation-science is primarily a “scientific” issue, not a constitutional question. But our treasured U. S. Constitution is written by persons and for persons. If man is an animal, the Constitution was written by animals and for animals. This preposterous conclusion destroys the Constitution. The Aguillard Humanists leave us with no Constitution and no constitutional rights of any kind if they allow us to teach only that man is an animal

Emphasis in original.

I leave the refutations of these arguments as an exercise for the reader.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

On Cranks and Playbooks

In the comments to this previous post science writer John Farrell sent me a link to an article he wrote for Salon. It describes the antics of a handful of crackpots hostile to Einstein's theory of relativity, and uses this as a springboard for discussing scientific cranks in general. Though the article is five years old, it contains much of relevance today.

Consider this:

Van Flandern was hired to do some consulting work for the physics department at the University of Maryland on the global positioning system (GPS), the ring of 24 satellites circling the Earth, which, among other convenient attributes, will be able to pinpoint precise locations for befuddled automobile drivers anywhere on the planet. According to him, the confusing “rigmarole” of relativity isn't needed to maintain the GPS, even though it clearly should be.

Van Flandern has argued that because of Einstein's theory of relativity, clock rates on GPS satellites should need to be adjusted continuously to keep them in sync with users on Earth. But they're not, he told the American Spectator (April 1999). The GPS programmers don't need relativity. “They have basically blown off Einstein,” Van Flandern says.

Is this true? Could this be a real crack in the “temple” of Einstein's theory?

I asked Neil Ashby, a professor of physics who works at the University of Colorado and specializes in theoretical general relativity with practical applications. “I am acquainted with Tom Van Flandern and his view,” he told me. “It is incorrect to claim that no relativistic corrections are used after launch. Actually because GPS satellites are in eccentric orbits, they suffer frequency variations due to their varying speeds and varying heights above the Earth's surface. Information is transmitted down to the receivers from each satellite, which enables receivers to make a relativistic correction which accounts for these effects.”

He added: “Einstein has not been 'blown off.' On the contrary, a great deal of thought has gone into the problem and all of the known special and general relativistic effects have been accounted for if they are predicted to be big enough to be important.”

Other gravitation specialists, such as Charles Misner at the University of Maryland, Lawrence Mead of the University of Southern Mississippi, Clifford Will of the University of Washington in St. Louis and Steve Carlip of the University of California at Davis, confirm that special and general relativity are built into the software for GPS.

So typical. Cranks can't be troubled to get the simplest facts right. How many times have we seen precisely this from creationists? Cranks all read from the same playbook.

The article goes on to describe various (uniformly unsuccessful) attempts to prove that Einstein himself was dishonest in some way. This, too, is typical. For some reason cranks consider it terribly important not simply to show that certian ideas are wrong, but also to show that major figures in the history of those ideas were rotten. So what if it turned out that Einstein really was dishonest in some way? Would that change the fact that modern relativity theory has been tested over and over again in ways Einstein never dreamed of?

It's exactly this logic that leads creationists to spend so much time trying to destroy Darwin's reputation. Consider this recent, sleazy example from the Discovery Institute's blog. It's as if they think that discrediting an individual scientist can tear down more than a century's worth of painstaking scientific progress.

The article also contains some wise words about scientific cranks in general:

In his book “Cranks, Quarks and the Cosmos,” science writer and physicist Jeremy Bernstein points out that one of the criteria that always defines crank science is its lack of correspondence with the body of scientific knowledge that has gone before it. “I would insist that any proposal for a radically new theory in physics, or in any other science, contain a clear explanation of why the precedent science worked,” he wrote. Einstein did this, as the first page of his paper on special relativity, “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies,” illustrates perfectly.

In contrast, “The crank,” Bernstein wrote, “is a scientific solipsist who lives in his own little world. He has no understanding nor appreciation of the scientific matrix in which his work is embedded ... In my dealings with cranks, I have discovered that this kind of discussion is of no interest to them.”

The article is quite long and has numerous other quotable tidbits. I recommend reading the whole thing.

Incidentally, why did Farrell think to inlcude this link in a post about Tom Bethell's silly anti-evolution musings? Here's why:

Van Flandern told the American Spectator's Washington correspondent, Tom Bethell, that he had reason to believe Einstein manipulated his field equations for one of his most momentous predictions: the advance of the perihelion of Mercury, the point in orbit where a planet is closest to the sun. Astronomers have long observed that this point, like the oval end of an ellipse drawn with a spirograph, is itself subject to motion, and over the years revolves around the sun just like the planet itself. In the case of Mercury, this effect is pronounced. It was assumed to be due to gravity and the closeness of the planet to the sun, but Newtonian theory could never predict its advance accurately. It was a classic problem by the time Einstein came along, and his general theory of relativity solved it immediately.

Too brilliantly, for some.

According to the Spectator's account, Van Flandern “asked a colleague at the University of Maryland, who as a young man had overlapped with Einstein at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study, how, in his opinion, Einstein had arrived at the correct multiplier. This man said it was his impression that, 'knowing the answer,' Einstein had 'jiggered the arguments until they came out with the right value.'”

Go to the article if you want to see how that little claim panned out. Short version: Van Flandern was full of it, and Bethell was duped (willingly, one suspects).

So, if you have any sort of pseudoscientific gibberish you want to peddle and if it can be presented in a way that makes the scientific mainstream look bad, let me suggest you seek out Mr. Bethell.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Saletan on Creationism's Retreat

Since it is part of my daily routine to read large quantities of anti-evolution nonsense, I sometimes end up with an exaggerated view of the threat creationism poses. So it's nice to have Slate's William Saletan put things in perspective. He is describing a conference of journalists discussing issues related to religion and public life.

Nobody here is a candidate for FetishNite. But nobody seems horrified by it, either, just as nobody really doubts evolution. What used to be shocking is now just fun or silly, even to those of us who think of ourselves as believers. Fundamentalists have lost the media, the colleges, and the science academies. The battleground has been reduced to public schools, and creationism has been reduced to intelligent design—a pathetic, agnostic, empty shell. Creationists can't teach a dogma, so they “teach the controversy.” They accept more and more of Darwin's theory, narrowing the dispute to isolated systems—the eye, the flagellum, the blood-clotting system—that they say Darwinism can't explain. They just want science to stop short of denying God's possibility. A little bit of mystery, a parcel of unspoiled divine wilderness, is all they ask.

See the original for links.

I'm not as sanguine as Saletan on this subject, but his point is well-taken.

Over at The Panda's Thumb, Steve Reuland has some some further links and commentary.

Dawkins Interview at BeliefNet

The good folks at Belief Net have posted this interview with Richard Dawkins. There are a lot of interesting tidbits, but here's one that caught my eye:

You criticize intelligent design, saying that “the theistic answer”--pointing to God as designer--“is deeply unsatisfying”--presumably you mean on a logical, scientific level.

Yes, because it doesn’t explain where the designer comes from. If they’re going to emphasize the statistical improbability of biological organs—“these are so complicated, how could they have evolved?”--well, if they’re so complicated, how could they possibly have been designed? Because the designer would have to be even more complicated.

The old “Who Designed the Designer?” question. Simple and devastating. The main response of ID folks to this argument is that in many cases we can be certain that something was designed even without understanding anything about the designers. The trouble is that in the case of biological design we have no independent evidence that there is a designer capable of performing the feats attributed to Him. If the existence of specified complexity is the evidence you're using to infer the existence of the designer, then the very same evidence demands that the designer himself be designed. It's inescapable.

You certainly can't argue that the designer himself lacks the property of specified complexity, for then you would have such complexity arising where none was before. That's precisely what ID folks tell us is impossible. The only way out of this is to retreat into metaphysical speculation about God being outside of nature. Take that route if you wish, but you certainly can't pretend to be doing science after doing so.

I also liked this:

Is atheism the logical extension of believing in evolution?

They clearly can’t be irrevocably linked because a very large number of theologians believe in evolution. In fact, any respectable theologian of the Catholic or Anglican or any other sensible church believes in evolution. Similarly, a very large number of evolutionary scientists are also religious. My personal feeling is that understanding evolution led me to atheism. (Emphasis in original)

This was the impression I had of Dawkins' views based on other things he has written. It's nice to see him spell it out clearly here. You often hear people say that Dawkins believes that evolution implies atheism. Clearly, he does not.

Monday, December 12, 2005

More Bethell Bashing!

On the subject of Tom Bethell not having the faintest idea what he is talking about, check out Chris Mooney's review of Bethell's new book The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science.

The book starts with two strikes against it even before we come to its substance. First, anyone who insists on bragging about being politically incorrect can be dismissed out of hand. That's so passe. Second, Bethell's book was published by the ultra right-wing Regnery Publishing. They're the delightful folks who brought us Jonathan Wells' Icons of Evolution, and the anti-John Kerry sleaze fest Unfit for Command, by John O'Neill and Jerome Corsi. Let me suggest that when you see Regnery's imprint on the spine, you should assume the book is a pack of lies.

Mooney writes:

Initially, the question of whether or not to even write this column gave me pause. In criticizing Tom Bethell--author of the conservative Regnery Press's Politically Incorrect Guide to Science, which misrepresents the state of scientific knowledge on issues ranging from global warming to the vulnerability of endangered species to evolution--I wondered whether I would simply wind up bestowing upon its author more attention than he ultimately deserves.

It was a serious fear, but I decided to overcome it, for two reasons. First, Bethell's book is already getting plenty of attention. It's selling well, and one prominent conservative outlet, the Heritage Foundation, has even sponsored an event to promote it. And second, precisely because of its misleading content, the publication of Bethell's book represents a highly significant development that's well worth remarking upon. The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science takes what is already a well-documented war on scientific knowledge from the political right in this country to a new level of intensity. In the process, it flushes out into the open the anti-science sentiments that are unfortunately nourished by all too many conservative Republicans today (although rarely by the party's moderates).

Sadly, the ones running the show in the Republican party these days are also the ones who are most virulently anti-science. To them, science is just one more stumbling block standing in the way of doing what they want to do. They treat science exactly as they would any other political opponent. It's nice that the moderates don't share this view. When they start challenging their leadership publicly I'll be impressed.

But let me give the final word to Mooney, who offers this eloquent summary of the state of affairs:

Overall, then, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science is a very saddening and depressing read. While they have undoubtedly made mistakes, and certainly nourish individual biases just like all the rest of us, scientists in universities and in government have generally worked very hard and have--thanks to the scientific process--come up with a great deal of important and relevant knowledge. But along comes someone like Bethell and, in a book that's likely to be read by a lot of people, radically distorts and undermines their conclusions and findings, while whipping up resentment of the scientific community among rank-and-file political conservatives. That Bethell is finding such a ready audience underscores the severe threat to the role of science in modern American life and, most importantly, in political decision-making.

Susskind on Science

Just picked up a copy of The Cosmic Landscape: String Theory and the Illusion of Intelligent Design, by Stanford University physicist Leonard Susskind. I've only read the preface so far, but if the following passage is typical of the rest of the book I think I'm going to like it:

Let me be up front and state my own prejudices right here. I thoroughly believe that real science requires explanations that do not involve supernatural agents. I believe that the eye evolved by Darwinian mechanisms. Furthermore, I believe that physicists and cosmologists must also find a natural explanation of our world, including the amazing lucky accidents that conspired to make our own existence possible. I believe that when people substitute magic for rational explanation, they are not doing science no matter how loudly they claim otherwise.

My kind of guy!