Friday, February 17, 2006

Chess in Parsippany

I'm off to sunny Parsippany, NJ this weekend to participate in the 36th annual U.S. Amateur Team Championship, East. As every chess enthusiast knows, this is the biggest and most enjoyable chess tournament of the year. Regular blogging will resume upon my return.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

The Times Weighs in on Ohio

Here's the New York Times reporting on Ohio's decision to eliminate their lesson plan “critically analyzing” evolution:

The Ohio Board of Education voted 11 to 4 Tuesday to toss out a mandate that 10th-grade biology classes include critical analysis of evolution and an accompanying model lesson plan, dealing the intelligent design movement its second serious defeat in two months.

Ohio Expected to Rein In Class Linked to Intelligent Design (Feb. 14, 2006)The board, which became the first in the nation to single out evolution for special scrutiny under the academic standards it adopted in 2002, stripped the language from the curriculum partly out of fear of a lawsuit in the wake of a December ruling by a federal judge that teaching intelligent design in the Dover, Pa., public schools was unconstitutional.

While the Ohio lesson plan does not mention intelligent design, which posits that life is too complex to be explained by evolution alone, critics contend that the critical analysis language is simply design in disguise.

“This lesson is bad news, the 'critically analyze' wording is bad news,” Martha W. Wise, the board member who offered the emergency motion, told her colleagues during 90 minutes of contentious debate here Tuesday afternoon. “It is deeply unfair to the children of this state to mislead them about the nature of science.”

Also included is the predictable response from the Discovery Institute:

“It's an outrageous slap in the face to the citizens of Ohio,” said John G. West, associate director of the Center for Science and Culture at the institute, referring to several polls that show public support for criticism of evolution in science classes. “The effort to try to suppress ideas that you dislike, to use the government to suppress ideas you dislike, has a failed history,” Mr. West said. “Do they really want to be on the side of the people who didn't want to let John Scopes talk or who tried to censor Galileo?”

Speaking only for myself, I prefer to be on the side of presenting science accurately and against those who believe lying to schoolchildren is an appropriate way of disseminating their message.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

The Tribune States it Plain

Yesterday's Chicago Tribune contained this excellent article about the utter vacuity of ID:

To advocates of intelligent design, the human sperm's tiny tail bears potent evidence that Charles Darwin was wrong--it is, they say, a molecular machine so complex that only God could have produced it.

But biologists now are starting to piece together how such intricate bits of biochemistry evolved. Although the basic research was not meant as a response to intelligent design, it is unraveling the very riddles that proponents said could not be solved.

In contrast, intelligent design advocates admit they still lack any way of using hard evidence to test their theories, which many biologists find revealing.

The new insights on evolution at its smallest scale were a major yet little-noticed reason why a federal judge late last year struck down a plan in Dover, Pa., that would have put intelligent design in public school classrooms. The findings the judge cited will provide the ultimate test of ideas about the origins of life, more lasting than court rulings or the politics of the moment.

Most scientists have long rejected intelligent design, or ID, on the grounds that it is a religious proposal not grounded in observation. ID adherents say biochemistry actually supports their view. They argue that many tiny mechanisms--the tails of sperm and bacteria, the immune system, blood clotting--are so elaborate they must have been purposely designed.

Yet biologists have made major strides on each of those phenomena since the first ID books were published in the mid-1990s.

Well said. Go read the whole article.

Ohio Kills Lesson Plan

According to this news brief, the Ohio state school board has voted to kill a lesson plan that would have encouraged students to “critically analyze” evolution:

The state school board on Tuesday voted to eliminate a lesson plan and science standards that critics said opened the door to teaching intelligent design, a form of creationism.

The Ohio Board of Education voted 11-4 to delete material encouraging students to seek evidence for and against certain elements of evolutionary science.

The board also directed a committee to study whether a replacement lesson was needed.

The vote was a reversal of a 9-8 decision a month ago to keep the lesson plan. But three board members who voted in January to keep the plan in place were absent Tuesday, and supporters of the science material pledged to force a new vote to return the material soon.

I trust that no one is fooled by weasel language like “critically analyze evolution” or “seek evidence for and against evolution.” These circumlocutions exist solely to mask the blatantly unconsitutional motives of those who actively promote such things.

This is a developing story, so there may be more news soon. For now, though, it is a major victory for the good guys.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Eldredge in VQR

Virginia Quarterly Review will be devoting an upcoming issue to the evolution and ID. Niles Eldredge has contributed this lengthy essay to the issue.

Much of the essay deals with Edlredge's involvement with the American Museum of Natural History's Darwin exhibit. But the essay also includes this interesting paragraph:

I take being called anti-Darwinian very personally. It has always hurt, for I have always thought of myself as more or less a knee-jerk neo-Darwinian, someone who thinks the basic mechanism underlying evolutionary change, including the origin, modification, and maintenance of adaptations, resides squarely in the domain of natural selection. And I have always felt that, with one or two major exceptions, my version of how the evolutionary process works lines up very well with Darwin’s. Take natural selection, for example: I see natural selection just as Darwin originally did—as the statistical effect that relative success in the economic sphere (obtaining energy resources, warding off predators and disease, etc.) has on an organism’s success in reproducing. This conservative view contrasts strongly with the modern tendency to see natural selection as a matter of competition among genes to leave copies of themselves to the next generation—a position I take to be hopelessly teleological, obfuscating the real interactive dynamics of economic and reproductive organismic behavior driving the evolutionary process.

The first part of this paragraph is yet another useful reminder that punctuated equilibrium, created by Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould, has nothing to do with whether natural selection can craft complex adaptations.

But the remainder of the paragraph is bizarre. The view of natural selection as a statistical effect produced by competition among organisms does not contrast sharply with the gene's eye view of things. In reality, they are just two sides of the same coin, just like the classical view and the statistical mechanical view are two different ways of understanding the phenomena of thermodynamics. Dawkins, who is the primary defender of the gene-centric view, made this perfectly clear in the first chapter of The Extended Phenotype. There he describes the idea that evolution should be viewed as competition among genes as merely one way of looking at evolution, not as the sole correct way to understand biological phenomena.

Thus, the statistical effect produced by competing organisms in the economic sphere is simply reflected in certain genes increasing or decreasing their representation in the population. And certain complex biological problems, especially in ethology, are just easier to understand if you take the gene-centric view. So I think Eldredge is wrong in his characterization of natural selection.

Eldredge's essay is well worth reading, but I must confess to one other small frustration. It seems that every time journal editors decide to wade in to this issue they keep going to the same people. I'll read anything Eldredge writes, but the fact remians that much of this essay is recycled from his past writing. I notice that Michael Ruse, who has been on auto-pilot for quite some time, will also be contributing an essay.

But somehow arguments over punctuated equilibria or selfish genes seem so late twentieth century. Surely there are other angles to this issue that can be mined. For example, how about an essay or two about the role that blogging plays in disseminating information on this subject? Why not get someone like P.Z. Myers to do an article on current issues in evolution? Instead of yet another biographical sketch about Darwin, why not an article about the ways Darwin's writing continues to be relevant to current research. I'll look forward to reading the entire issue of VQR when it comes out, but it also seems like an opportunity missed.

Fawning Over Ham

It seems like every couple of months the LA Times discovers there are young-Earth creationists out there. And every time they make this discovery they feel compelled to write bemused but respectful articles about them.

Here's their latest foray into this genre. The subject is Answers in Gensis front man Ken Ham:

Evangelist Ken Ham smiled at the 2,300 elementary students packed into pews, their faces rapt. With dinosaur puppets and silly cartoons, he was training them to reject much of geology, paleontology and evolutionary biology as a sinister tangle of lies.

“Boys and girls,” Ham said. If a teacher so much as mentions evolution, or the Big Bang, or an era when dinosaurs ruled the Earth, “you put your hand up and you say, 'Excuse me, were you there?' Can you remember that?”

The children roared their assent.

“Sometimes people will answer, 'No, but you weren't there either,'” Ham told them. “Then you say, 'No, I wasn't, but I know someone who was, and I have his book about the history of the world.'” He waved his Bible in the air.

“Who's the only one who's always been there?” Ham asked.

“God!” the boys and girls shouted.

“Who's the only one who knows everything?”


“So who should you always trust, God or the scientists?”

The children answered with a thundering: “God!”

For some reason this reminds me of a scene near the end of the movie Firestarter. Drew Barrymore plays an eight-year old with the power to start fires with her mind. She and her father (who has some gnarly superpowers of his own) are captured by some obscure, and thoroughly evil, government organization that wants to use her as a weapon. One especially evil fellow, played by George C. Scott, poses as a janitor and manages, via a series of cleverly planned subterfuges, to win Barrymore's trust. He then uses that trust to manipulate her into cooperating with the government types.

One thing leads to another and Barrymore's father, played by David Keith, contrives a clever escape plan that culminates with Barrymore and Keith touchingly reunited in a barn. It looks like they're going to get away with it. But then Barrymore casually mentions that her friend the janitor wants to come with them. Keith's face melts in horror since he knows, I forget how, that the janitor is one of the bad guys. He realizes that Barrymore has told Scott about their plan.

Scott is concealed behind some bales of hey on the second floor of the barn. Keith turns, his horror turning to anger, and yells something like, “Congratulations! You managed to fool an eight-year old. You proud of yourself?”

That's all Ham is doing. He's shamelessly fooling children. And the Times' editors believe that such a man deserves respectful coverage in a major article.

Don't expect the Times to make it clear that everything Ham says is nonsense. Certainly not. They're too busy being bemused and above it all:

In two 90-minute workshops for children, Ham adopted a much lighter tone, mocking scientists who think birds evolved from dinosaurs (“if that were true, I'd be worried about my Thanksgiving turkey!”).

He showed the children a photo of a fossilized hat found in a mine to prove it doesn't take millions of years to create ancient-looking artifacts. He pointed out cave drawings of a creature resembling a brachiosaur to make the case that man lived alongside dinosaurs after God created all the land animals on Day 6.

In a bit that brought the house down, Ham flashed a picture of a chimpanzee. “Did your grandfather look like this?” he demanded.

“Noooooo!” the children called.

“And did your grandmother look like that?” Ham displayed a photo of the same chimp wearing lipstick. The children erupted in giggles. “Noooooo!”

“We are not just an animal,” Ham said. He had the children repeat that, their small voices rising in unison: “We are not just an animal. We are made in the image of God.”

The children have an excuse. They don't know any better. But how is it possible that there are adults in this country unable to see how mind-numbingly stupid that is?

The article does, inadvertently, manage to get at something important:

As the session ended, Nicole Ableson, 34, rounded up her four young children. “This shows your kids that there are other people who are out there who believe what you believe, and who have done the research,” she said. “So they don't think 'This is just my parents believing in fairy tales.' ”

I've made precisely this point myself. For the rank and file creationists, the service offered by people like Ham has nothing to do with providing scientific information. Do you think for one second that Ableson really cares about paleontology or genetics?

These people know they believe the Biblical account, but they also understand that they don't really know anything about science. So here come people like Ham to give slick, polished performances with the right balance of jargon and folksiness to sound both scientific and approachable at the same time. What service does Ham provide? He allows people like Ableson to be content in their ignorance, confident that there are people smarter and more knowledgable than they who share their beliefs.

I'll close with one more quote:

Emily Maynard, 12, was also delighted with Ham's presentation. Home-schooled and voraciously curious, she had recently read an encyclopedia for fun — and caught herself almost believing the entry on evolution. “They were explaining about apes standing up, evolving to man, and I could kind of see that's how it could happen,” she said.

Ham convinced her otherwise. As her mother beamed, Emily repeated Ham's mantra: “The Bible is the history book of the universe.”

Caught herself almost believing the entry on evolution. Charming.