Friday, January 20, 2006

Is ID Just a Matter of Time?

Over at the pro-ID blog Telic Thoughts, Krauze has this amusing post suggesting that ID today is in the same place evolution was about a century ago. Evolution had some interesting ideas, but was hardly a well-developed science. The inspiration for the post was an excerpt from Michael Ruse's recent book The Evolution/Creation Struggle, in which Ruse recounted the fits and starts of evolution's early days. Krauze writes:

It wasn’t until the 1930’s, more than 60 years after Darwin had published Origin of the Species, that an actual theory of evolution was proposed, dubbed “the synthetic theory”. The mathematicians Ronald A. Fisher and Sewall Wright did the work necessary to make the effects of natural selection quantifiable, the journal Evolution was founded, and empiricists like Bernard Kettlewell and Ernst Mayr could carry out their field work, studying evolution in the wild.

In Ruse’s terminology, evolution only gradually arose from pseudoscience, through popular science, before finally becoming a professional science in the 1930’s. You could say that evolution evolved. Similarly, intelligent design has passed from being expressed in creationist pamphlets as a flimsy support for apologetics, to being expressed in popular science books. ID critcs often inquire as to why intelligent design still isn’t doing any research, “10 years after Behe published Darwin’s Black Box”. However, they should remember the lesson taught to us by Darwin’s followers: Big ideas take time.

Alas, there are several problems with this analysis.

  • First, while it is true that a well-developed theory for how evolution occurs had to wait for the synthesis of the thirties and forties, the fact remains that Darwin convinced just about everyone that common descent was a reality. The evidence for that proposition only got stronger with discoveries made in the years following publication of The Origin. The overwhelming evidence for common descent gave scientists good reason to believe that their search for a mechanism of evolution would not be in vain. ID can claim nothing similar. Their entire theory, such as it is, rests entirely upon two pillars: irreducible complexity and complex specified information. Both of these ideas are utterly and irretrievably wrong-headed. Nothing the ID folks build upon such a foundation will ever produce anything but poisonous fruit.

  • It is manifestly untrue, however, that there were no proposed theories of evolution prior to the synthesis. Quite the contrary. There were rather a lot of viable theories, such as Lamarckism and mutationism. These theories were viable in those days because so little was known about the nature of inheritance. Significant progress in evolution could not occur until genetics was placed on a more solid foundation.

  • The idea that ID has evolved over the years is nonsense. ID is today what it has always been: A political and legal strategy for uniting various schools of creationism under one banner acceptable to all. Young-Earth creationism was solidly defeated as a legal strategy in the eighties, and ID sprang up, in an act of spontaneous generation, in its wake. ID is making almost precisely the same arguments today as it was making a decade ago. And the few novel items (like Dembski's abuse of the No Free Lunch Theorems), hardly constitute progress).

  • But for all of that, I'd be willing to give ID all the time it wants, if only its propoents were willing to meet me half way. Krauze believes that ID is an infant science that simply requires time to blossom fully? Fine. Let him tell the main proponents of ID to stop writing books with titles like “The Design Revolution.” Tell them they should stop comparing their accomplishments to the work of Galileo, Newton and Einstein. Tell them to stop preaching that evolution is a dying theory, soon to be replaced by their own brand of theistic science. And most of all, tell them to stop pressuring school boards to include their drivel in high school science classrooms.

ID is reviled among knowledgable people because the embarrassing emptiness of its arguments is matched only by the boundless arrogance of its leading proponents. If more time were all they wanted, everyone would be happy to give it to them. But no one who has been following the last ten years of ID activity could possibly believe that scientific progress rates highly on its list of priorities.

Dennett in The Chronicle Review

Daniel Dennett's essay “Common-Sense Religion” has just appeared in the current issue of The Chronicle Review (a supplement to The Chronicle of Higher Education). It is adapted from his forthcoming book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. Here are some excerpts:

So what is the prevailing attitude today among those who call themselves religious but vigorously advocate tolerance? There are three main options:

  • The disingenuous Machiavellian: As a matter of political strategy, the time is not ripe for candid declarations of religious superiority, so we should temporize and let sleeping dogs lie in hopes that those of other faiths can gently be brought around over the centuries.
  • The truly tolerant: It really doesn't matter which religion you swear allegiance to, as long as you have some religion.
  • The benign neglecters: Religion is just too dear to too many to think of discarding it, even though it really doesn't do any good and is simply an empty historical legacy we can afford to maintain until it quietly extinguishes itself sometime in the unforeseeable future.

It is no use asking people which they choose, since the extremes are so undiplomatic we can predict in advance that most people will go for some version of ecumenical tolerance, whether they believe it or not.

So we've got ourselves caught in a hypocrisy trap, and there is no clear path out. Are we like the families in which the adults go through all the motions of believing in Santa Claus for the sake of the kids, and the kids all pretend still to believe in Santa Claus so as not to spoil the adults' fun? If only our current predicament were as innocuous and even comical as that! In the adult world of religion, people are dying and killing, with the moderates cowed into silence by the intransigence of the radicals in their own faiths, and many adherents afraid to acknowledge what they actually believe for fear of breaking Granny's heart, or offending their neighbors to the point of getting run out of town, or worse.

If that is the precious meaning our lives are vouchsafed thanks to our allegiance to one religion or another, it is not such a bargain. Is that the best we can do? Is it not tragic that so many people around the world find themselves enlisted against their will in a conspiracy of silence?

And later:

The argument is straightforward. Suppose I have a friend, Fred, who is (in my carefully considered opinion) always right. If I tell you I'm against stem-cell research because "my friend Fred says it's wrong, and that's all there is to it," you will just look at me as if I were missing the point of the discussion. I have not given you a reason that, in good faith, I could expect you to appreciate. Suppose you believe that stem-cell research is wrong because God has told you so. Even if you are right — that is, even if God does exist and has, personally, told you that stem-cell research is wrong — you cannot reasonably expect others who do not share your faith or experience to accept that as a reason. The fact that your faith is so strong that you cannot do otherwise just shows (if you really can't) that you are disabled for moral persuasion, a sort of robotic slave to a meme that you are unable to evaluate. And if you reply that you can, but you won't consider reasons for and against your conviction (because it is God's word, and it would be sacrilegious even to consider whether it might be in error), you avow your willful refusal to abide by the minimal conditions of rational discussion. Either way, your declarations of your deeply held views are posturings that are out of place, part of the problem, not part of the solution, and we others will just have to work around you as best we can.

And later still:

It is time for the reasonable adherents of all faiths to find the courage and stamina to reverse the tradition that honors helpless love of God — in any tradition. Far from being honorable, it is not even excusable. It is shameful. Here is what we should say to people who follow such a tradition: There is only one way to respect the substance of any purported God-given moral edict. Consider it conscientiously in the full light of reason, using all the evidence at our command. No God pleased by displays of unreasoning love is worthy of worship.

Well said. I can't wait to read the book.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

The Vatican on Evolution (Again)

Have a look at this interesting article from today's New York Times:

The official Vatican newspaper published an article this week labeling as “correct” the recent decision by a judge in Pennsylvania that intelligent design should not be taught as a scientific alternative to evolution.

“If the model proposed by Darwin is not considered sufficient, one should search for another,” Fiorenzo Facchini, a professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Bologna, wrote in the Jan. 16-17 edition of the paper, L'Osservatore Romano.

“But it is not correct from a methodological point of view to stray from the field of science while pretending to do science,” he wrote, calling intelligent design unscientific. “It only creates confusion between the scientific plane and those that are philosophical or religious.”

The article was not presented as an official church position. But in the subtle and purposely ambiguous world of the Vatican, the comments seemed notable, given their strength on a delicate question much debated under the new pope, Benedict XVI.

This is certainly welcome news, but it still leaves something to be desired. I will cut Facchini some slack for saying, “The model proposed by Darwin...” I'm sure he's perfectly aware that modern evolutionary theory is substantially different from anything Darwin proposed. But I'd still like to know if the Church believes there is, indeed, some fundamental deficiency in modern theory.

The article goes on to say

At least twice, Pope Benedict has signaled concern about the issue, prompting questions about his views. In April, when he was formally installed as pope, he said human beings "are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution." In November, he called the creation of the universe an "intelligent project," wording welcomed by supporters of intelligent design.

Many Roman Catholic scientists have criticized intelligent design, among them the Rev. George Coyne, a Jesuit who is director of the Vatican Observatory. “Intelligent design isn't science, even though it pretends to be,” he said in November, as quoted by the Italian news service ANSA. “Intelligent design should be taught when religion or cultural history is taught, not science.”

In October, Cardinal Schönborn sought to clarify his own remarks, saying he meant to question not the science of evolution but what he called evolutionism, an attempt to use the theory to refute the hand of God in creation.

“I see no difficulty in joining belief in the Creator with the theory of evolution, but under the prerequisite that the borders of scientific theory are maintained,” he said in a speech.

The impression that I have from all the recent conflicting statements from prominent Catholics is this: They begrudgingly concede that the evidence for evolution is very strong and that all proposed scientific alternatives to it are bogus. But, like a lot of relgiously inclined people, they just don't like it very much. That's why they're constantly making rather limp statements about how science can't comment on spiritual issues or can't disporve the existence of God.

Perhaps it can't. But that hardly implies the Catholic church has anything worthwhile to say on those subjects.

Saletan on Scalia

William Saletan has this interesting analysis of Justice Scalia's blatant hypocrisy on the subjects of abortion and assisted suicide. Here's an excerpt:

Principle 1 is to beware value judgments disguised as fact or reason. In Casey, Scalia derided his colleagues for reaffirming Roe v. Wade. He accused them of invoking “what the Court calls 'reasoned judgment' ... which turns out to be nothing but philosophical predilection and moral intuition.” In Stenberg, he faulted the other justices for applying a standard that “can not be demonstrated true or false by factual inquiry or legal reasoning. It is a value judgment.”

That was Scalia's principle on abortion. On assisted suicide, however, the principle gets in his way. The latest case, Gonzales v. Oregon, involves a law, directly approved twice by Oregon voters, that lets doctors prescribe drugs so terminally ill people can kill themselves. Years ago, then-Sen. John Ashcroft of Missouri asked then-Attorney General Janet Reno to block the law. She refused, citing states' rights. Ashcroft asked his Senate colleagues to pass legislation to block the law, but they refused, too. So, when President Bush took office, Ashcroft got Reno's job, ordered up an in-house legal memo that said assisted suicide wasn't a “legitimate medical purpose,” and declared that the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 gave him authority to strip the license of any doctor who prescribed lethal drugs under the Oregon law.

Six of Scalia's colleagues conclude that what counts as a “legitimate medical purpose” is a value judgment and that on such questions, a 30-year-old law aimed at hippie stoners doesn't authorize the U.S. attorney general of 2001 to superimpose his moral intuition on the assisted-suicide-policy decision of Oregon voters. Scalia, however, says Ashcroft's definition of “legitimate medical purpose” isn't a value judgment; it's pure reason. He repeatedly calls it the “most natural” and “most reasonable” interpretation of that phrase.

Scalia chides the court's majority for confusing “the normative inquiry of what the boundaries of medicine should be—which it is laudably hesitant to undertake—with the objective inquiry of what the accepted definition of 'medicine' is.” Those silly justices—they applied Scalia's principle when it didn't lead to the result he wanted! To justify Ashcroft's interpretation, you have to spin it as objective, not subjective. Accordingly, Scalia opines, “The use of the word 'legitimate' connotes an objective standard of 'medicine,' and our presumption that the CSA creates a uniform federal law regulating the dispensation of controlled substances ... means that this objective standard must be a federal one.”

Saletan goes on to describe two other examples of Scalia's hypocrisy.

In a lot of circles Sclaia gets presented as the model of a principled justice. He preaches “originalism.” He's not one of those activist judges who just find in the constitution whatever it is they want to do anyway. Some of his more sycophantic admirers are fond of telling stories about how he tracks down dictionaries from two hundred years ago to determine what particular words meant at the time they were written.

In reality he is as much an activist as the people he criticizes. He espouses originalism, one suspects, because most of the time that is the language that provides the best cover for what he thinks the Constitution ought to say. But when abstract legal principles get in the way of his preferred view of the world, as in the Oregon assisted suicide case or in “Bush v. Gore”, the principles go out the window in a hurry.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

The Republican War on Mooney

In September of last year, Chris Mooney published his excellent book The Republican War on Science. Mooney documented in copious detail what any sentient person has suspected for some time: that hostility towards science is an integral part of the modern Republican party.

Unsurprisingly, this thesis hasn't played well among Republicans and conservatives, and they have written some nasty reviews of Mooney's book. Two in particular have recently caught my eye.

Mooney can take care of himself, so I will leave it up to him to decide whether a full-blooded reply to these silly reviews is warranted. Here I will only address one point made by both reviewers.

Mooney devotes a chapter to the subject of ID. Writing in Commentary, Kevin Shapiro takes exception to this:

Even the few credible examples of alleged right-wing scientific distortion in the book hardly rise to the level of genuine political abuse. Intelligent Design is an unscientific theory, but the Republican party has hardly made a systematic effort to promote it; the effort has instead been spearheaded by private institutions with only vague ties to some conservative politicians.

Meanwhile, in an essay published in National Review last October, Adam Keiper offered this defense:

The chapter on evolution and intelligent design provides some interesting historical background, but in the end Mooney fails to put the debate in its proper perspective. Conservatives are not politically unified in, not especially motivated by, and in a great many cases simply annoyed at, the intelligent-design debate.

Interesting. Here are two high-profile, right-wing venues trying hard to distance themselves, and the Republican Party, from ID. If only there were more of this coming from conservatives these days.

Sadly, this defense is bogus. Virtually every prominent Republican has come out in support of teaching ID in schools. President Bush supports it. Senators like Bill First, John McCain, Rick Santorum, Sam Brownback and many others openly support it as well. The only Republican senator I know of who has spoken against ID is Chris Shays of Connecticut, and he is frequently derided as a RINO (Republican in name only) by his right-wing colleagues. In the House we find that Ohio representative John Boehner, currently one of the three main candidates to replace Tom DeLay (himself an outspoken, and amazingly ignorant, critic of evolution), wrote a letter to the Ohio state school board pressuring them to include ID in their science classes on the fallacious grounds that the No Child Left Behind Act requires it. He was joined in this effort by Ohio Republican Steve Chabot.

Of course, the Religious Right is four-square behind ID (actually, many of them prefer young-Earth creationism), and since they are a large part of the Rpeublican base their opinions hold great sway over the party generally. Every prominent conservative magazine has published articles either ciritical of evolution or supportive of ID (or both). I don't know of a single one that has published a major article defending evolution. No, an occasional column by George Will or Charles Krauthammer doesn't count.

The main think tank promoting ID is the Discovery Institute, which was founded by ex-Reagan administration people and has its fingers in a wide variety of conservative pies. It is staffed and funded entirely by Republicans. I know of know conservative of any prominence who has criticized them specifically for their activities.

Most damning of all, in every state where anti-evolution measures have been brought before the school board, it has been Republicans who were behind it. I don't know of a single Democrat in any state legislature (we're talking recently, of course, just in case any petulant commenter was planning to throw William Jennings Bryan at me) who has ever introduced an anti-evolution measure.

So it's nice that Keiper and Shapiro want to distance conservatives from ID. Alas, they are a small minority in the modern Republican party.

A Friend in Need

My trip to Texas has left me a bit behind in my blog and e-mail reading. So I have only just become aware, by way of Ed Brayton, that Panda's Thumb contributor Mark Perakh lost his house and most of his personal possessions to a fire. Fortunately, Mark, his wife and their two dogs all got out of the house unharmed.

I have never met Mark but I have exchanged a great deal of e-mail with him. He has been a personal hero of mine ever since I discovered his excellent website TalkReason. His book Unintelligent Design and his contributions to Why Intelligent Design Fails revealed to me levels of stupidity in ID arguments that had slipped past me in my own readings of ID literature. I have benefitted immensely from my conversations with him, and I hope things will return to normal for him soon.

In the end, I can not improve on Ed Brayton's excellent commentary both on Mark's remarkable life and on the brain-dead viciousness levelled at him by one of ID's dimmer bulbs. I encourage you to go read it.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Colson on ID Supporters

In the course of replying to a recent New York Times article about H.L. Mencken, Charles Colson offered these thoughts on scientists sympathetic to to ID:

The Times also exposed its ignorance of the kind of people who espouse intelligent design. Does it realize it is calling Albert Einstein a boob? Einstein once said: “God does not play dice with the cosmos”—he found design in the universe. Scientist Fritz Schaefer—four times nominated for a Nobel Prize—is another “boob” who believes in the intelligent design theory. So does Professor Michael Behe, the Lehigh biochemist who has proven the “irreducible complexity” of the human cell structure. And then there is Oxford Professor Antony Flew, the famous British philosopher. Throughout his long career, Flew argued that there was a “presumption of atheism”—that is, the existence of a creator could not be proved. Intelligent design caused Flew, at the age of 81, to reverse himself and acknowledge God as creator. Flew is “ignorant”?

Stephen Jay Gould once observed that “creationists are singularly devoid of shame” in parroting any favorable argument that anyone has ever raised, no matter how nonsensical or frequently refuted. Here we have a case in point.

First, Einstein (who actually said “God does not play dice with the universe”) did not believe in any religious notion of God. In fact, he once ridiculed the notion of a personal God as a childish delusion. His occasional references to God, like the one above, were just shorthand for a general sense of awe at the laws of physics. He certainly would not have accepted any notion that we must allow supernatural explanations to be a legitimate part of science.

Second, describing Fritz Schaefer as a four-time nominee (strangely, most anti-evolution sites describe him as a five-time nominee) is just the sort of cheap, empty talking point of which creationists are so fond. It is not necessarily a great accomplishment to be nominated for the Nobel Prize. Nominations for the prize come from a variety of sources, and since the whole process is secret we have no way of knowing how seriously Schaefer's nomination was taken. For more on this, click here.

As for Antony Flew, Wikipedia has a good rundown of all the contradictory things he has said on this subject in the last few years. After initially saying that he had switched from atheism to deism on the grounds that there was no plausible naturalistic explanation for the origin of DNA, he later said he had made a fool of himself on that subject and admitted that he had not kept up with the relevant science. He also said that he was impressed in large part by the arguments of Gerald Schroeder, but then had to admit that he was unfamiliar with the many devastating refutations of Scroeder's arguments. And throughout all of this Flew has been unambiguous that he does not believe in anything beyond an especially limp sort of deism.

Which leaves Michael Behe. He's the genuine article, a scientist who believes there is evidence of design in the universe. But given his disastrous involvement in the Dover trial, I don't think many ID proponents want to brag about having him on their side.

Which brings us, actually, to the most important point of them all. For ake a look at the Times quote that led to Colson's little rant:

Sanity has triumphed in Dover, Pennsylvania, where the boobs who tried to foist intelligent design on the local lyceums have been soundly thrashed . . . Would that this victory were permanent. It will take more than jurisprudence to retire the forces of ignorance. Meanwhile, we can only hope they engage in less egregious forms of buncombe—like installing the Ten Commandments in public squares, or speaking in tongues.

This was intended to be written in the style of H.L. Mencken. What is obvious is that the boobs being referred to were not people who believe in ID, but rather the people in Dover who tried to froce the ideas into public schools.

So let's review. Colson begins by misrepresenting what the Times writer said. He then replies to his own distortion by providing four prominent people who believe in ID. In three of those four cases, what he wrote was either misleading or incorrect.


Asimov on 1 Kings 7:23

As we discussed in this blog entry, 1 Kings 7:23, taken on its face, implies that pi equals three.

Just out of curiousity, I thumbed through my copy of Asimov's Guide to the Bible, by Isaac Asimov, just to see what he had to say on the subject. I reproduce his brief analysis in full:

The exact function of the “molten sea” is not stated, though it seems most likely that it was a container for water used in the various rituals. The interesting point is that its upper rim seems to be circular in shape with a diameter of ten cubits and a circumference of thirty cubits. This is impossible, for the ratio of the circumference to the diameter (a ratio called “pi” by mathematicians) is given here as 30/10=3, whereas the real value of pi is an unending decimal which begins 3.14159... If the molten sea were really ten cubits in diameter it would have to be just under thirty-one and a half cubits in circumference.

The explanation is, of course, that the Biblical writers were not mathematicians or even interested in mathematics and were merely giving approximate figures. Still, to those who are obsessed with the notion that every word in the Bible is infallible (and who know a little mathematics) it is bound to come as a shock to be told that the Bible says that the value of pi is 3.

Exactly right, and, as I recall, almost exactly what I said.