Friday, March 31, 2006

Teenagers Being Arrogant - So What Else is New?

Today's Los Angeles Times has this vaguely annoying article. The subject is high school biology students parroting creationist talking points they don't understand and generally making obnoxious pests of themselves in the process:

Monday morning, Room 207: First day of a unit on the origins of life. Veteran biology teacher Al Frisby switches on the overhead projector and braces himself.

As his students rummage for their notebooks, Frisby introduces his central theme: Every creature on Earth has been shaped by random mutation and natural selection — in a word, by evolution.

The challenges begin at once.

“Isn't it true that mutations only make an animal weaker?” sophomore Chris Willett demands. “'Cause I was watching one time on CNN and they mutated monkeys to see if they could get one to become human and they couldn't.”

Frisby tries to explain that evolution takes millions of years, but Willett isn't listening. “I feel a tail growing!” he calls to his friends, drawing laughter.

Unruffled, Frisby puts up a transparency tracing the evolution of the whale, from its ancient origins as a hoofed land animal through two lumbering transitional species and finally into the sea. He's about to start on the fossil evidence when sophomore Jeff Paul interrupts: “How are you 100% sure that those bones belong to those animals? It could just be some deformed raccoon.”

From the back of the room, sophomore Melissa Brooks chimes in: “Those are real bones that someone actually found? You're not just making this up?”

Pretty standard stuff, these days. I know I should probably be angry at these kids, but mostly I just feel sorry for them. Consider this:

Two decades of political and legal maneuvering on evolution has spilled over into public schools, and biology teachers are struggling to respond. Loyal to the accounts they've learned in church, students are taking it upon themselves to wedge creationism into the classroom, sometimes with snide comments but also with sophisticated questions — and a fervent faith.

As sophomore Daniel Read put it: “I'm going to say as much about God as I can in school, even if the teachers can't.”

Or this:

Daniel Read, for instance, considers it his Christian duty to expose his classmates to the truths he finds in the Bible, starting with the six days of creation. It's his way, he said, of counterbalancing the textbook, which devotes three chapters to evolution but just one paragraph to creationism. A soft-spoken teen with shaggy hair and baggy pants, Daniel prepares carefully for his mission in this well-educated, affluent and conservative suburb of 28,000, just outside Kansas City, Mo. He studies DVDs distributed by Answers in Genesis, a “creation evangelism” ministry devoted to training children to question evolution.

Other students gather ammunition from sermons at church, or from the dozens of websites that criticize evolution as a God-denying sham. They interrupt lectures to expound on the inaccuracies of carbon dating; to disparage transitional fossils as frauds; to show photos of ancient footprints that they think prove humans and dinosaurs walked side by side.

How is it that these kids hear a preacher say something in church, and it never occurs to them that maybe the preacher doesn't know what he is talking about? When their science teacher tells them something that conflicts with what they hear in church, they not only assume the teacher is wrong but apparently feel the need to get snarky and obnoxious as well. Even for a teenager it's pretty arrogant to think they've already solved all the mysteries of existence.

I think the reason is that from a very young age they are told not simply the basic assertions of their religion, but also that the whole idea of questioning those assertions is dangerous and immoral. That sort of relentless indoctrination is very hard to shake off. And that's why I feel more sorry for them than angry at them. We're talking about kids who have no higher ambition in life than to parrot the ignorant talking points they receive from the frauds at Answers in Genesis. Kids who have been raised in an environment that praises blind obedience to undeserving authority figures, rather than open-mindedness and education. Kids who have no idea how to distinguish between reliable sources of information, and unreliable sources of information. These kids are victims of their parents' ingorance. And once you appreciate that, some of Richard Dawkins' more florid statements likening religious indoctrination of children to child abuse suddenly don't seem so unreasonable.

Of course, let's not go overboard with our sympathy. Victims they may be, but the fact remains that they are also snotty ignoramuses who don't know anything about anything. Ultimately, they have to be dealt with aggressively and contemptuously. For their own good. They have to have it explained to them in no uncertain terms that their preachers frequently don't know what they are talking about, and that science should be learned from scientists, not clerics. Sadly, it is unlikely that any public school teacher could both administer the requisite tongue-lashing and also hope to keep his job.

Anyway, the whole article is worth reading. But not if you're currently in a good mood.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Wise Words from the RTD

The Richmond Times-Dispatch (that's Richmond, VA), is no one's idea of a liberal newspaper. Today's edition featured this brief, but excellent, editorial. The Williams being referred to is the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams:

Williams makes two essential points:

  • Creationism (or its derivative, intelligent design) does not belong in public classrooms.
  • Supporters of creationism distort the scientific meaning of “theory” when they sneer at the “theory of evolution” even as they diminish the Bible and religious faith when they describe creationism and ID as theories in competition with Darwinism.

The Archbishop of Canterbury may not be infallible, but in this instance he has it exactly right.

Well said.

Chess in Staunton, Part Two

For the first part of this tournament report, go here.

Round Three saw me move a little higher up the food chain. Happily, my opponent let his guard down and blundered away a pawn in the opening:

JR (1932) - Edward McLoughlin (1700)

Position After 9. ... Bc8-b7

This came out of an unusual line of the Sicilian Defense. I played 10. Nxb5! which pockets the pawn, thanks to the double attack on the black queen on c7 and the unprotected bishop on b4. This wouldn't have worked a move ago, because at that time my king was on e1, meaning that black could have played Bxd2 with check.

Dismayed by this development, my opponent tried to get his pawn back with 10. ... axb5 11. Bxb4 Bxe4 12. Bxe4 Nxe4, but now it's curtains after 13. Qg4! Black tried 13. ... Qc6 14. Qxg7 Qf6 15. Qxf6 Nxf6 16. Re1. Since black is about to lose the e-pawn, and probably the b-pawn shortly thereafter, he resigned after a few more moves. I was rather pleased with myself, until the computer pointed out to me that 14. Re1 is an even cleaner win.

This set up my final round game against the one master in the event. The game was filled with errors from both of us, and it ended somewhat appropriately with the following double blunder:

JR - Thomas Magar (2200)

Position After 32. ... e5-e4.

This position came after a very complicated middlegame which computer analysis showed was played, well, less than perfectly by both of us. We both had under ten minutes on the clock and we were consequently moving very quickly.

My opponent had just moved his pawn to e4. Play continued 33. dxe4 Qxe4??, which overlooked the reply 34. Re3!, which I promptly banged out. At this point my opponent noticed that the bishop on c5 is covering e3, providing yet another example of the old adage that backward diagonal moves are the hardest to spot. Black had no choice but to go for 34. ... Qxe3 35. Bxe3 Rde7 and now it was my time to return the favor. Incredibly, in my haste I overlooked that 36. Qa2+ gets out of the pin and wins easily. Instead I played 36. Qf3?? and after 36. ... Rxe3 37. Qf7+ Kh8 38. Qd7 R3e7 we agreed to a draw.

This gave both of 3.5 points. Another fellow won in the last round to catch up to us, and the three of us tied for first place.

All in all, a successful weekend. My thanks to the organizers for putting together such a pleasant tournament.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Wilkins on Dennett/Dawkins/Ruse

John Wilkins offers these wise words about the recent brou ha ha surrounding Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins and Michael Ruse. Here's an excerpt:

Ruse appears to think that there is an ideological movement called “Darwinism”. I'm not sure why, apart from the tendency of historians and philosophers to reify abstract positions with labels that have capital letters. There have been any number of people who have called their views “Darwinism” - I'm thinking of the despicable views in the early 20thC of Benjamin Kidd and John B. Haycraft - but calling it “Darwinism” doesn't make it so. The term has also been employed in many contexts within science, usually to mean just an emphasis on natural selection. But there are people in the evolutionary field whose views differ enough from other people I would call Darwinian that we need a more differentiating name than “Darwinism”. Gould and Eldredge tried to revive some terms of Darwin's student George Romanes used against Weismann and Wallace: “ultra Darwinian” and “neo Darwinian”. Dennett and Dawkins appear to enjoy being so tarred. Fine. Even this phrasing is insufficient to bring out the actual nuances in the debates.

Well said. Go read the whole thing.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Chess in Staunton, Part One

Your humble blogger had a successful weekend at the chessboard. I finished in a three-way tie for first place in the Staunton Open Chess Tournament. Pocketed $125 for my trouble. Went home, turned on the television, saw two guys playing poker for a stack of cash that represents more money than I will make in my entire life. Hmmmm. Maybe I'm playing the wrong game.

Thirty-seven players showed up, which was quite a good turnout for this area. Everyone played in the same section, meaning there were some serious rating mismatches in the early rounds.

In the first round I gave my lower-rated opponent a lesson in what happens when black dilly-dallies about starting his queenside counterplay in the Dragon variation of the Sicilian:

JR (1932) - Kevin Tapp (1190)

Position After 17. ... Kg8-f8

I met my opponent's Dragon with ye olde Yugoslav Attack, and since my opponent did not put any roadblocks in my way I was able to crash through with the standard kingside attack. I finished the game with an amusing rook maneuver: 18. Rh6!. Black is so tied up in knots that he is strangely helpless against the slow-motion threat of 19. Rg6 and 20. Rg8 mate. The most amusing line is 18. ... Bxd4 19. Rg6 Bxe3+ 20. Kb1, when black is up two pieces but defenseless against the threat of mate. The only possible defense is 18. ... Qc8 19. Rg6 Be6, but then 20. Bxg5 quickly takes care of business. My opponent played 18. ... e5, and resigned after 19. Rg6.

Round two saw me move up the rating ladder a bit. The position below came out of the Geller Gambit in the Slav Defense:

Donald Means (1472) - JR

Postion After 23. Nf3-d2

The Geller Gambit arises after 1. d4 d5 2. c4 c6 3. Nf3 Nf6 4. Nc3 dxc4 and now instead of the usual 5. a4, after which white will round up the c-pawn, restore material equality, and enter a long period of slow maneuvering, white plays 5. e4, gambtiting the pawn. Black generally replies with 5. ... b5, which secures the extra pawn. White is counting on his strong center and superior development to compensate for this fact.

The grandmasterly consensus is that white does not get enough for the pawn, and that black should be able to weather the storm and eventually make use of his extra pawn. But I am not a grandmaster, and I was nonplussed about being placed on the defensive right out of the opening, especially at a time control of game in 60 (meaning that both players had one hour for the whole game, regardless of how many moves the game took.)

Happily, my opponent was not a grandmaster either. He played as if he weren't down a pawn, took too long to put any pressure on me, and allowed me to create a position where my extra pawn actually counts for something.

The black pawns on c4 and b4 make a pleasing impression. After 23. ... b3! black's position is crushing. My opponent played 24. Qb2 c3 25. Qxb3 cxd2 26. Nxd2 and here I set a personal record for latest castling in a game by playing 26. ... 0-0. I duly converted the extra material. Another amusing line is 24. Qd1 c3 25. Nxb3 c2!. The only way for white to prevent the immediate loss of material is with 24. Qc1, but his position is hopeless in this case as well.

I'll cover the last two rounds in a later blog entry. Stay tuned!

Do Dawkins and Dennett Hurt the Cause?

Yes, this subject again. P.Z. Myers offers some excellent commentary on a poorly reasoned op-ed by Madeleine Bunting, published in the British newspaper The Guardian. Bunting writes:

The curious thing is that among those celebrating the prominence of these two Darwinians on both sides of the Atlantic is an unexpected constituency - the American creationist/intelligent-design lobby. Huh? Dawkins, in particular, has become their top pin-up.

How so? William Dembski (one of the leading lights of the US intelligent-design lobby) put it like this in an email to Dawkins: “I know that you personally don't believe in God, but I want to thank you for being such a wonderful foil for theism and for intelligent design more generally. In fact, I regularly tell my colleagues that you and your work are one of God's greatest gifts to the intelligent-design movement. So please, keep at it!”

But while Dembski, Dawkins and Dennett are sipping the champagne for their very different reasons, there is a party pooper. Michael Ruse, a prominent Darwinian philosopher (and an agnostic) based in the US, with a string of books on the subject, is exasperated: “Dawkins and Dennett are really dangerous, both at a moral and a legal level.” The nub of Ruse's argument is that Darwinism does not lead ineluctably to atheism, and to claim that it does (as Dawkins does) provides the intelligent-design lobby with a legal loophole: “If Darwinism equals atheism then it can't be taught in US schools because of the constitutional separation of church and state. It gives the creationists a legal case. Dawkins and Dennett are handing these people a major tool.”

As Myers also points out, neither Dawkins nor Dennett believes that evolution leads ineluctably to atheism. They are both quite explicit about that. Dawkins has written that evolution makes it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist, by which he means that minus a viable theory of evolution there's a major fact of everyday life, namely the existence of complex organisms, that would be awfully hard to explain without referring to God. Dennett has similarly written that evolution effectively destroys the argument from design, thereby removing the underpinnings from the best argument theists have ever offered.

Bunting uncritically accepts Ruse's argument on this subject:

But Ruse has got a point. Across the US, the battle over evolution in science teaching goes on. Just in the past month there have been bills in state legislatures in New York, Mississippi, Nevada and Arkansas promoting intelligent design. Last November the Kansas education board promulgated a new definition of science that allowed for supernatural explanations of natural phenomena. A school district in Kansas rebelled last month, accusing their board of “an utterly false belief that evolutionary science and the scientific method is based on atheistic philosophy. Promoting this false conflict between science and faith erects unnecessary barriers.” At the heart of many of these local controversies is the firmly held belief that Darwinism leads to atheism, indeed that it is atheism. Across the US, a crude and erroneous conflict is being created between science as atheism and religion.

I suspect that to British intellectuals like Bunting, places like Kansas are something of an abstraction. Prior to actually moving to Kansas in 2000, I would probably have made a similar argument. But after you've actually spent some time living in socially conservative areas, you begin to understand the absurdity of laying opposition to evolution at the feet of Dawkins and Dennett.

The only thing your typical Kansas anti-evolutionist knows about Dawkins or Dennett is that their preacher told them they are very bad men. It is almost a sure thing that none of them have read The Selfish Gene or Darwin's Dangerous Idea. It's a common mistake to think, when you're on the outside looking in, that the people promoting the anti-evolution legislation in states like Kansas base their opposition on high-minded arguments and plausible reasoning.

But when you live there for a while you get a very different picture. Turn on the local Christian radio station and listen to the irrational, groundless vitriol that gets hurled at evolution on nearly a daily basis. Then ponder the fact that similar venom is getting spewed every Sunday from the pulpits of the dozen or so churches you drive past on your daily commute. Ponder the fact that the fundamentalist Christian bookstore is the largest bookstore in town. Consider walking into a mainstream bookstore like WaldenBooks and having the first thing you see be not Stephen King or John Grisham, but Tim LeHaye and James Dobson.

While living in Kansas I once had a conversation with a para-educator in a local elementary school. We had just met and we were both observing a first-grade mathematics classroom. Our conversation was ostensibly about what we had observed. Suddenly she goes off for several paragraphs about the importance of doing God's will and looking to the Bible for guidance when you encounter difficult situations in life. From the casual and entirely non-confrontational tone with which she said it I'm sure she was simply taking it for granted that I agreed with her view of life.

Another time I was listening to a call-in show for parents on the Christian radio station. One obviously distraught parent called in and casually likened the trauma of learning that her college-aged son had become an atheist to the trauma of a previous caller whose child had been killed in a car accident.

I could rattle off many other stories just like this. These sorts of things were daily occurrences for me, and they entirely changed the way I look at this issue.

In other words, spend some time immersed in the culture of someplace like Kansas, see the extent to which the most irrational sort of religion is the dominant social force, and then try to argue that Dawkins and Dennett are the problem. If they and every other outspoken atheist disappeared off the face of the Earth how much difference would that make to the attempts to teach creationism in public schools? Answer: Zero. There would just be fewer people fighting against it.

What does hurt the cause, however, are people like Ruse. He's not the dominant source of the problem, but he is a source. How can we explain to people that there is no serious scientific controversy on this subject when Ruse is willing to use his considerable clout to get Cambridge University Press to say that there is one. And then, as if it's not bad enough that he's collaborating with the enemy on such a project, he does a lousy job of assembling essays to represent the evolutionary side of things (but that's a separate blog entry). Ruse is hurting the cause far more than Dawkins and Dennett are.

Let me close with an excellent statement from Myers:

Scientists will never be the close, reassuring father figures that Americans see every week. We will always be threats to the backwards-looking flocks of the majority of the religious, and we will always be railed against from the pulpits—science is an alternative and better way to approach the truth, so we are the competition. The only religion that we can coexist with is one that abandons dogma and scriptural authority, that concedes all explanations of the natural world to the scientific process rather than ancient writ, and to short-circuit the inevitable whining that will follow in the comments thread: those faiths and those individuals are in the minority just as much as we atheists are, and are regarded by the Baptists and the Catholics and the Lutherans and the Mormons and other established sects as just as much of an evil. (Emphasis in original)