Friday, February 24, 2006

Publisher Waters Down Biology Textbook

From the South Florida Sun-Sentinel comes this annoying, but typical, example of a textbook publisher caving in to creationist pressure:

High school biology students in Broward County will use a textbook next year that watered-down passages about Charles Darwin and evolution theory.

Science teachers picked Florida Holt Biology this month in a countywide vote, favoring it over another book that discussed the controversial idea of intelligent design.

The Holt textbook stays away from intelligent design, the idea that a god or other guiding force caused the development of life on Earth. Mainstream scientists have discredited the theory as a repackaged form of old-school creationism.

But publisher Holt, Rinehart and Winston did edit several sections at the request of the Discovery Institute, a Seattle think tank that has peddled intelligent design around the country for years.

The changes were “kind of a merging of philosophies to get something that everyone was satisfied with,” said Broward science curriculum supervisor J.P. Keener.

“What came out in the book was scientifically correct,” Keener said. “That's the bottom line.”

Does anyone honestly think that scientific correctness represents the bottom line for Mr. Keener? Or do you think maybe he's perfectly willing to water down the science to sell a few more books?

The article goes on to describe a few of the changes:

A review by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel found that on one edited page, Holt agreed to give Darwin less credit for shaping modern biology. In another section it inserted descriptions that conservative Christians believe challenge evolution theory.

Previous editions of the textbook said Darwin's theory “is the essence of biology.”

In the Broward edition, students will read instead that Darwin's theory “provides a consistent explanation for life's diversity.”

And later:

But Holt also added one section that introduced students to the “Cambrian Explosion,” a period in early earth's history that suggests species aren't the result of gradual change over time, as Darwin thought.

“That was a key change,” Discovery Institute spokesman John West said. “We want to keep the textbooks honest.”

Let's take these in reverse order. The idea that the Cambrian Explosion suggests that species aren't the result of gradual change over time is pure nonsense. If the article accurately describes what is in the book, then Keener was mistaken when he claimed the book was scientifically correct.

Describing Darwin's theory as the essence of modern biology sounds a little odd, but describing it as a consistent explanation for life's diversity isn't much of an improvement. (We'll leave aside the infelicity of referring to modern evolutionary biology as Darwin's theory.) The trouble is that “consistent” is a rather flabby word, and putting the emphasis on explaining “life's diversity,” doesn't really capture the most important aspects of evolution. Why not describe it the way it is: A theory supported by copious evidence that asserts that all modern species descended from common ancestors via numerous well-understood genetic mechanisms?

And considering that evolution now underlies virtually every branch of modern biology, it seems a little rich to downplay Darwin's significance.

In his State of the Union address President Bush talked about the need for quality science education. Now his brother's state is allowing a group of religiously motivated ignoramuses to dictate the content of their science books. Lovely.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Replying to Abbey

Just in case you were fretting about The Stanford Dialy's willingness to publish brain-dead pro-ID letters, rest assured that they also publish magnificent replies like this one. It comes from Jai Ranganathan, who is a graduate student in the biological sciences:

Intelligent design proponents would have you think that there is a raging debate within the scientific community between evolution and intelligent design. Don’t believe the hype. The validity of evolution comes as close to consensus as any concept in science ever gets, which is why the National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and every other major scientific society in the United States has officially endorsed the centrality of evolution to the field of biology.

The scientific-seeming arguments for intelligent design have been totally refuted time and time again by the scientific community. Why then, do proponents of intelligent design keep trotting out the same old tired warhorses and insisting on the need to “teach the debate”? The reason is that the point of intelligent design is not, and has never been, scientific debate. A memo leaked in 2000 from a right-wing think tank known as the Discovery Institute, one of the leaders for intelligent design, indicated that this concept is actually a Trojan horse existing solely as a vehicle to inject a greater degree of extremist religious beliefs into American society as a whole. According to the memo, the purpose of intelligent design is “nothing less than the overthrow of materialism and its cultural legacies.”

It's hard to improve on that.

A Letter in The Stanford Daily

How bad have things gotten for ID proponents? Apparently it is now a major triumph when a sophomore history major gets a letter to the editor published in a college newspaper.

Discovery Institute blogger Casey Luskin points us towards this letter(scroll down) from The Stanford Daily. Luskin writes:

Abbey blazes past the ad hominems, motivation-mongering, and labels so commonly promulgated by Darwinists to get right to the core issue: there's legitimate scientific dissent from Darwinism, and students deserve to hear about it. Abbey's argument is so simple, and so compelling, that it makes clear-as-day why the efforts of Darwinists must focus so intensely upon making scientific dissent look “illegitimate.”

Golly! Sounds pretty good. Let's take a look.

The letter was written by sophomore history major Tristan Abbey. His goal is to expose three myths about ID. Here's the first:

First, criticizing neo-Darwinism is not the same as promoting intelligent design. While microevolutionary mechanisms, such as the coupling of random mutations and natural selection, have clearly been demonstrated, they fail to explain macroevolutionary changes (e.g., morphological novelty). Neo-Darwinists argue there is no difference between the two kinds of evolution, but that claim is vigorously contested by many developmental biologists and paleontologists.

As a matter of logic it is certainly true that criticizing Neo-Darwinism is not the same as promoting ID. And if by “Neo-Darwinism” you mean some strong statement about natural selection being the sole important mechanism of evolution, then I would even agree with the first sentence here. But if you take “Neo-Darwinism” to mean simply that common descent is true and that natural selection is an especially important mechanism of evolution, then the situation changes. Logic aside, the fact remains that virtually everyone who publicly dissents from that minimal interpretation of Neo-Darwinism is, indeed, an ID proponent.

As for the distinction between micro and macro, such debate as occurs among scientists is far different from anything ID folks are describing. That major morphological novelty can arise via the accumulation of small changes is not in doubt. There is also unambiguous evidence that many of the complex systems ID folks are so fond of evolved in exactly this way. What some paleontologists and developmental biologists do say, however, is that there is more to macroevolution than just accumulated microevolution.

In other words, the debate is not that some scientists say macro is just accumulated micro while others say that macro is a huge mystery that is currently unexplained. Rather it is between the former group and those who claim that specific mechanisms X, Y and Z have been given short shirft by classical Neo-Darwinism. Why do I suspect that Abbey doesn't care about such subtleties?

Abbey's second point:

Second, creationism is not the same as intelligent design. Reasons to Believe, a creationist group which accepts that the earth is billions of years old, dismisses intelligent design as “not science.” The Institute for Creation Research, which argues for a literal six-day interpretation of Genesis, similarly criticizes intelligent design for not being biblical.

Well, I am certainly persuaded that some creationist groups have been critical of certain aspects of ID. But that is neither here nor there. The fact is that creationists and ID folks are virtually indistinguishable with reagrd to either their pro-design or anti-evolution claims, their sleazy use of dishonest rehtoric, their political and educational ambitions, and their reliance on religious extremsists to spread and fund their message. They are, indeed, the same, no matter how badly people like Abbey wish it were not so.

Abbey's third point:

Third, intelligent design theorists, by and large, do not support the mandating of intelligent design in public schools. The real story out of Wisconsin is not the hypothetical “ban on teaching intelligent design,” but the critical approach to science adopted in 2004 by the town of Grantsburg and to which this “ban” is a reaction. Grantsburg’s policy states: “Students shall be able to explain the scientific strengths and weaknesses of evolutionary theory. This policy does not call for the teaching of Creationism or Intelligent Design.” Who could argue with that?

And when someone tells you it's not about the money, you can be sure that it is, in reality, all about the money.

In the context of school board disputes discussion about critically analyzing evolution is purely a subterfuge for promoting some form of creationism. It is willful naivete to argue anything else. Everyone supports making students aware of the strengths and weaknesses of any theory that gets presented in science class. The catch is that those weaknesses must find their foundation in actual data, and not in an elaborate propaganda campaign intended to promote a relgious agenda by lying to school children.

Abbey has one more paragraph to go, and this is where he gives the game away. It's a funny thing about ID proponents. No matter how reasonable they try to sound, no matter how hard they try to keep their voice level and their arguments reasoned, they just can't keep the mask on for very long. Here's Abbey's conclusion:

Sadly, neo-Darwinists do argue with that by stereotyping critics of evolutionary theory as religious zealots, by reducing the debate to the simplistic but familiar terms of science vs. faith, and by persecuting researchers like the Smithsonian’s Rick Sternberg for keeping an open mind. Pernicious caricatures notwithstanding, the signatories to the Scientific Dissent from Darwinism now stand at over 500 scientists, including several who earned their doctorates from Stanford. As science advances, why has this number continued to grow?

Persecution? Please. Concerning Rick Sternberg, what happened is this: Sternberg abused his position as editor of a small biology journal to publish a pro-ID article that was very bad on the merits, went through a very quesitonable peer-review process, and was plainly inappropriate for the journal in which it appeared. By doing this he humiliated his colleagues and put a major dent in the reputation of the journal. Those colleagues replied by sending some angry e-mails among themselves, by being unfriendly towards him when they saw him in the hall and ... well that's it actually. This they call persecution. More sensible people call it suffering the consequences of your actions.

As for the “Scientific Dissent from Darwinism” Abbey is just parroting Discovery Institute talking points. It is not the march of science that explains the glacial rate at which the number of its signatories is growing. Rather, it is the march of the DI's propaganda efforts that explains it.

Hopefully Abbey will use his college years to expose himself to some actual science, as opposed to the silly talking points of people like Luskin and outfits like the Discovery Institute.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

The Dennett-Ruse Affair

Michael Ruse and Daniel Dennett are two of the most prominent philosophers writing about issues related to evolution. It seems they have been engaging in a bit of e-mail correspondence on the side.

How do I know this? Because Ruse inexplicably sent the entire correspondence to William Dembski. I say this is inexplicable because there is no indication that Dennett consented to have his private e-mails made public. For Ruse to make public e-mails that were intended as part of a private correpsondence is an incredible breach of professional ethics.

Of course, it was also shameless of Dembski to publish the e-mails without asking Dennett first, but we already knew he lacks both scruples and conscience.

I have written before about the problems with Ruse's latest assertions and arguments. I have also written about my disagreements with some of his recent behavior, such as his decision to edit a book with William Dembski. But until this I had viewed him as someone I was happy to have on my side despite my differences with him.

But this crosses a line. Handing over private e-mails to someone Dennett surely would not have wanted to have them is obnoxious and petty. Not that Dennett comes off looking especially bad in the exchange. Compared to Ruse's profanity laden and semi-coherent rant in reply Dennett comes off looking quite good, actually. Still, I can't imagine why Ruse would do such a thing.

Let's consider some excerpts. Dennett writes:

I’m afraid you are being enlisted on the side of the forces of darkness. You may want to try to extricate yourself, since you are certainly losing ground fast in the evolutionary community that I am in touch with. As you will see, I do lump your coinage in with “reductionism” and “scientism” etc. and think you are doing a disservice to the cause of taking science seriously. Are you among the Wieseltiers? I’d like to think not, but you are certainly being pulled in by them.

The reference in the question near the end is to New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier, who wrote a nasty, and mostly inaccurate, review of Dennett's new book for the New York Times. I will probably blog about that review at a later date.

The fears about Ruse that Dennett is expressing here are hardly original to him. Over the past few years it has become obvious that Ruse is motivated by rather more than a desire to make good arguments about important subjects. Instead he seems more interested in self-promotion, which he achieves by tweaking the noses of both scientists and the ID folks. Dennett is quite right to worry that Ruse is becoming a tool of the ID folks he claims to be fighting against.

Meanwhile, the most interesting part of Ruse's reply is this:

Fifth, I think that you and Richard [Dawkins] are absolute disasters in the fight against intelligent design – we are losing this battle, not the least of which is the two new supreme court justices who are certainly going to vote to let it into classrooms – what we need is not knee-jerk atheism but serious grappling with the issues – neither of you are willing to study Christianity seriously and to engage with the ideas – it is just plain silly and grotesquely immoral to claim that Christianity is simply a force for evil, as Richard claims – more than this, we are in a fight, and we need to make allies in the fight, not simply alienate everyone of good will.

Now, I happen to share Dennett's and Dawkins' contemptuos attitude towards Christianity, but that's not the part I want to comment on. Rather, I want to challenge this idea that the atheism of Dawkins and Dennett hurts the cause of promoting quality science education.

This assertion is frequently made but it is never backed up with anything. Is it really true that the strident atheism of people like Dennett and Dawkins negatively influences the way people look at evolution? If that's true, it certainly paints a bleak picture of many religious people. If I argued that I would be symapthetic to evolution, except that I see people like Ken Miller, John Haught and Simon Conway Morris drawing theistic conclusions from it, I don't think Ruse would show me much respect. After all, evolution should sink or swim on the basis of the relevant evidence. If that evidence is strong, it should not matter what Dawkins or Dennett (or Haught or Miller or Conway Morris) thinks.

Arguing that strident atheism hurts the cause is remarkably condescending towards religious people. It's saying that they are too emotional to understand and think seriously about the evidence. It's saying that those people can't be expected to provide an honest assessment of the evidence because mean old Richard Dawkins made a snide remark about their religious views.

When I encounter people like Ken Miller or Simon Conway Morris I say simply that they are right about the science but wrong about the metaphysical stuff. Why can't religious people be expected to have the same reaction towards Dawkins and Dennett?

And when it comes to hurting the cause, I can't think of anything more harmful than Ruse running around trying to legitimize ID folks by editing books with them published by prestigious publishers. Why shouldn't a lay person conclude that there is a serious debate going on when a noted philosopher says that there is, and gets Cambridge University Press to back up the assertion. That's harmful.

Anyway, I hope Ruse comes to his senses soon. I have benefitted greatly from his writing in the past and every evolutionist will be grateful to him for his hard work as an expert witness in the 1982 Arkansas creationism trial.

At the end of his e-mail Ruse writes:

Ok, enough preaching for a Sunday – I really like you and Richard, but my liking for you and respect for what you two have done matters not a bit with respect to what I think that I, Michael Ruse, should do – I would be ashamed of myself if I thought and acted otherwise.

Indeed. I have never met Michael Ruse, but I suspect I would like him. But the fact remains that this sentiment leaves unchanged the fact that he has embarrassed himself repeatedly in the last few years. Hopefully he will, as Dennett suggests, be able to extricate himself shortly.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

U. S. Amateur Team East

We'll get back to evolution tomorrow, but let's do some chess today.

The U.S. Amateur Team East is the largest and most enjoyable tournament of the year. The comraderie of playing with three or four teammates coupled with the lack of cash prizes (and consequent very low entry fee) make everyone just a little more mellow than usual.

The tournament works as follows: You play as part of a team of four. You are allowed one alternate, if one of your players can't make it one particular round. In each round your team gets paired against another team of four. Four individual games of chess ensue, as the top rated players from each meet, then the next highest and so on. This is referred to as Board One, Board Two and so on. For each of the individual games your team wins you get one point. A draw counts for half a point. After all four games are finished, you total the team points for each side. All that matters is which team has more points (things could also end in a 2-2 tie). Winning the team match 4-0 counts the same as winning 2.5-1.5. In other words, all that matters is the team score, not the individual scores.

I was on Board One. On Saturday my friends Andy and David were on boards two and three. Fourth Board was held down by Andy's friend Colin, who I met for the first time that day.

So we sat down for Round One. Andy, smarter than I, did his losing quickly by blundering out of the gate. Oops. Colin got the best of both worlds, winning his game with impressive speed. That left David and me still playing. I spurned a forced draw in an attempt to go for the win, missed a trick, and lost. David soon followed suit, and we went down to defeat.

Round Two got off to a good start when I won a funky new digital chess clock simply by being the first to run to the stage with a Virginia driver's license. Sadly, things took a nasty turn when I blundered in a better position and lost my game. Ugh. Two losses. Colin took care of business on board four, and Dave won as well. Andy then took a draw, since that was enough to clinch the match for our side.

Sunday morning saw me make my best move of the tournament:

JR (1932) - Max Weiss (1630)

Position After 10. ... Ng4-h6

This came out of the Bishop's opening. Black opted for one of the lines with a quick Bc5 and Ng4, planning the big fork on f2 and the win of the rook in the corner. This is actually a known line of the opening, and I played the standard plan of f5, allowing black to win the rook but confronting him with a massive counter-attack and nearly impossible defensive task. Anyway, my opponent got nervous by my brazen willingness to part with the rook, and decided not to take it.

Instead he made some passive defensive moves leading to the position above. Given my development lead and his Swiss cheese kingside, I figured something dramatic was called for.

I played 11. Ng5!. Actually, the silicon monster tells me that while this move is okay, most of the less flahy alternatives were better. I don't care. When you're smarting after two losses the day before, there's nothing like playing a move like this to wash the taste out of your mouth. Everyone on the boards near mine looked over when I banged this move down. They were all quiet and poker-faced, but I could tell they were impressed.

Black should accept the knight sacrifice with 11. ... fxg5 and try to weather the storm after 12. Qxh5 Kf8 13. Bxg5 Qe8 14. Rf1. Instead my opponent tried the counter attack 11. ... Nxf5, but I got the last laugh with 12. Nf7 Ng3 13. Qf3 when white wins material in all lines. Score one for me!

Charlie, who didn't want to play on Saturday for religious reasons, was now on Board Two. He made a quick draw. Andy and David took care of business on the remaining boards and we won the match easily.

Round four saw my second best move of the tournament:

Jonathan Williams (1809)-JR

Position after 15. Qd2-e2

My opponent had just moved his queen off the d-file, thereby avoiding the cheapo with Bxe5, when white runs into problems with the pin on the d-file after Rxe5, Qxe5, dxe5 and Rxd2. Sadly, he avoided one trick only to fall into another.

Since my opponent's last move left both his b2 and d4 pawns unguarded, I played 15. ... Qb6, winning one of the pawns. My opponent opted to give up the d-pawn and play continued 16. Bb3 Qxd4 17. Nc4 Bb8 18. Qf3 Qf4!, when the threat on h2 forces a queen trade. I managed to win the endgame a few hours later. I don't recall the individual results of my teammates, but we did manage to win the match.

This left us with three out of four team points heading into Monday's rounds. We feared we would be facing one of the monster teams on Monday morning, and we were right. My opponent was an International Master of some renown, which didn't make me optimistic about my chances. Andy and Charlie went down quickly on Boards Two and Three, meaning that David and I had to win for us to tie the match. And that low-pressure situation led to my worst move of the tournament:

JR - IM Larry Kaufman (2359)

Position after 28. ... f4

After twenty-eight moves I had inexplicably reached this excellent position. My silicon friend tells me that I would keep a large advantage with either 29. Ne5 or 29. Nd8. Sadly, in mutual time pressure, I went for the greedy 29. Rxc6?? There followed 29. ... f3 30. g4 Be8 31. Rc5 Rc1+. The good news is I had actually reached this position in my mental analysis from about four moves previously. The bad news is that I suddenly realized that my intended 32. Kg1, stopping the black f-pawn and looking forward to ramming my extra pawns down his throat, was sadly illegal. Aaaargh. Sometimes I can't imagine why I keep playing this game. I was forced to play 32. Kh2. A few moves later my knight returned form c4 to stop the f-pawn. He was quickly dispatched to the glue factory for his trouble. Heavy sigh.

Happily, the team got back to business and we won our final round match. This left us with four points out of six. As of when we left the hotel it was still mathematically possible, though unlikely, that that would be sufficient to win our rating class.

I got to see a lot of old friends, made some new ones, and generally had a great time. Come to think of it, I guess that's why I keep playing this game.