Friday, April 14, 2006

Intercessory Prayer

In Tuesday's post I responded to an op-ed by Episcopal priest Raymond Lawrence on the subject of the recently completed study on intercessory prayer. The study showed that such prayer had no positive impact on the recoveries of recent bypass patients. Lawrence argued that this was welcome news for sincerely religious people, since the whole idea of intercessory prayer was theologically suspect.

One point I made in reply was that Lawrence can talk all he wants about how “credible theologians” (his phrase) think about intercessory prayer, but virtually every religious group of any influence in our society was perfectly happy to promote prior, discredited studies claiming to establish its benefits.

Charles Colson's website Breakpoint has just provided a useful case in point. Consider this commentary, from Breakpoint contirbutor Mark Earley, on the subject:

Naturally, some observers were delighted at the results. They think the study proves conclusively that prayer doesn’t work, and it’s time for men of science to “stop dabbling in the supernatural,” as one academic put it.

But wait a minute. The researchers acknowledged that they could not control for the fact that many “unauthorized” people may have interceded for loved ones in the so-called “unprayed-for” group. And plenty of other studies indicate that intercessory prayer does have an impact. (Emphasis in original)

Lawrence's op-ed argued that the interest in prayer studies seemed to come entirely from scientists, and that this was evidence of their arrogance and lack of recognition of their proper place. But it is not people like Lawrence and his cadre of “credible theologians” who advise the modern Republican party. It is not the moderates who have the ear of the President, or control of numerous Southern and Midwestern state houses. It is people like Colson, and groups like Breakpoint, that set the terms of religious discussion in this country. And they do not share Lawrence's dim view of intercessory prayer.

Incidentally, when I wrote Tuesday's post I was unaware that the funding for this study came from the Templeton Foundation, which devotes itself to projects aimed at reconciling science and religion. It wasn't some arrogant, scientific society that put up the money. You can be sure the Templeton folks were hoping for a different result.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

More Transitional Forms

Thursdays are busy days for me, so I'm afraid I'll have to blog and run. Check out this article from today's New York Times:

In following the fossil tracks of human evolution, scientists have for years searched for links between Australopithecus, the kin of the famous “Lucy” skeleton, and even earlier possible ancestors. Now, they think they have found some connections in Ethiopia.

An international team of paleontologists is reporting the discovery of transitional species superimposed in sediments in the neighborhood of a single site. The findings appear today in the journal Nature.

Tim D. White, a paleontologist at the University of California, Berkeley, who was a team leader, and his colleagues said the 4.1-million-year-old fossils were anatomically intermediate between the earlier species Ardipithecus ramidus and the later species Australopithecus afarensis, the Lucy family. The newfound bones and teeth are the earliest remains of the most primitive Australopithecus, known as anamensis.

I love it. The ID folks boast about their fruitful scientific reasearch program, but spend most of their time desperately trying to prop up the same bad arguments they were making a decade ago. Scientists, meanwhile, seem to make significant discoveries on almost a daily basis.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Presenting Evolution, Part Two

I had intended to get back to the Monty Hall problem today, but then I made the mistake of reading this article from today's New York Times.

The article is about evolutionary biologist Randy Olson, and his recent film Flock of Dodos. The article begins as follows:

If a Harvard-trained evolutionary biologist makes a film about creationism's cousin, intelligent design, and calls it “Flock of Dodos,” you know who he's talking about, right?

Maybe not.

The biologist, Randy Olson, accepts that there is no credible scientific challenge to the theory of evolution as an explanation for the diversity and complexity of life on earth. He agrees that intelligent design's embrace of a supernatural “agent” puts it outside the realm of science.

But when he watches the advocates of intelligent design at work, he sees pleasant people who speak plainly, convincingly and with humor. When scientists he knows talk about evolution, they can be dour, pompous and disagreeable, even with one another. His film challenges them to get off their collective high horse and make their case to ordinary people with — if they can muster it — a smile.

Otherwise, he suggests, they will end up in the collective cultural backwash just like the dodo.

Later we have this:

“Flock of Dodos” does not attack intelligent design. Dr. Olson just lets its adherents talk. His view, expressed as a Latin motto at the start of the film, is “res ipsa loquitur” — the thing speaks for itself.

But he also lets the scientists talk. Asked to come up with a slogan to match intelligent design's “teach the controversy,” they fumble. Asked to make the case for evolution, they get into arguments or discuss it in terms so fancy they require on-screen definitions. (“I did not realize 'mendacity' was a 50-cent word,” Dr. Olson said. “That's what academic life has done to me.”)

Where to begin? The case for evolution has been laid out in countless books and at countless websites. It is a long and detailed case, and requires a certain amount of effort to fully assimilate. But the facts are readily available to anyone who wants to take the time to learn them.

So the issue is not that scientists need to get off their high horses and present evolution to the public. What Olson is really saying is that scientists need to dumb down their message so it can compete with pre-digested ID pabulum. Of course scientists fumbled when asked to come up with a slogan to rival “Teach the Controversy!” After all, that slogan is a fraud designed both to conceal the religious motivations of those who promote it, and to obscure simple scientific facts. Even the best slogans exist to reduce complex issues to simplistic and memorable catchphrases. Scientists, who tend to see subtlety in everything, are especially ill-suited to that activity.

If Olson is simply making a crass political point, then I might be willing to go along with him. If he is saying that it is frustrating that things have to be dumbed down so much when presented to the public, but that is simply what must be done to promote evolution effectively, then he might have a point. But I get the impression that he sees himself as being on the side of the angels against the arrogant, pretentious scientists.

For example, take his casual remark about the word “mendacity.” He didn't know it was a fifty cent word! That's what academia had done to him! But of course, it's not a fifty cent word. It's a perfectly good word that everyone should know how to use in a sentence. Dictionaries are readily available for those who do not know the word but are willing to invest thirty seconds in educating themselves.

Obviously, there's no shame in not knowing a particular word. The shame comes in pretending that it is the person who used the word who did something wrong. Olson's casual remark about what academic life had done to him is standard anti-intellectualism. It is very disappointing that a scientist would say such a thing.

Scientists, you see, tend to have large vocabularies. They use this vocabulary to express theselves with a level of precision that is foreign to everyday life but essential if one is to think clearly about complex issues. That so many lay people prefer cheap sloganeering to careful thought is a maddening fact of life, not something to sympathize with.

And what about that part about ID advocates being charming, pleasant people? Well, again, if Olson is saying simply that ID folks are good at PR then we have no quarrel. If he's saying that ID folks have to be good at PR because of the emptiness of their arguments, then I agree completely. But it sounds to me like he's saying that the charm offensive ID advocates put on in public is not a facade, but rather a genuine reflection of who they actually are. If my interpretation is correct, then I can only shake my head sadly at his naivete.

ID advocates are perfectly happy to level outrageous charges of fraud and deceit towards scientists. When someone like Jonathan Wells writes a book called Icons of Evolution, in which evolutionary biologists are likened to mafia kingpins and whose every major assertion is demonstrably false, he becomes a hero of the movement. ID advocates present laughable caricatures of scientific work, routinely quote scientists out of context, are perfectly happy to lay Nazism and other horrors at evolution's doorstep, and defend their position with arguments that are flatly wrong.

Apparently none of that matters to Olson. In public, ID advocates smile a lot and tell a lot of jokes. What pleasant fellows they are! If only scientists could be more like that!!

Of course scientists should be more skillful in presenting their arguments to the public. I said as much myself in Monday's post. But the solution isn't dumbing down the subject to appeal to the lowest common denominator. It likewise isn't pretending that ID advocates are charming folks who just want to have an engaging discussion about science, while ignoring their breathtaking sleaziness as soon as they get away from the camera.

If Olson really believes that ID speaks for itself, then why all his emphasis on scientists presenting themselves more effectively? It's precisely because ID does not speak for itself that we have the problems we do. ID presents itself as one thing but is really something else entirely. Its advocates are sufficiently skillful at this that many lay people, already sympathetic to the basic message of ID (that God exists), find it difficult to pierce the fog.

Instead of making a commercial film chiding scientists for sometimes seeming like fuddy-duddies and criticizing them for not dumbing down their message sufficiently to appeal to people who refuse to educate themselves, why not make a slick, mass-market film pointing out the flaws in ID?

Actually, I think I know the answer to that one. A film pointing out the flaws in ID would be difficult to market. Promoting crass stereotypes of scientists by making them look clueless and aloof on the other hand...

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

That Prayer Study

Today's New York Times has has this interesting op-ed from Raymond Lawrence, an episcopal priest and director of pastoral care at New York Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center. The subject is that major, recently completed study that showed that intercessory prayer is ineffective. William Saletan provides a useful summary of the basic facts of the situation here.

Lawrence gets off to a good start. Early on he writes:

The results of the study, led by Dr. Herbert Benson, a cardiologist and director of the Mind/Body Medical Institute near Boston, came as welcome news. That may sound odd coming from an ordained minister. But if it could ever be persuasively demonstrated that such prayer “works,” our religious institutions and meeting places would be degraded to a kind of commercial enterprise, like Burger King, where one expects to get what one pays for.

Historically, religions have promoted many kinds of prayer. Prayers of praise, thanksgiving and repentance have been highly esteemed, while intercessions of the kind done in the Benson study — appeals to God to take some action — are of lesser importance. They represent a less-respected magical wing of religion.

In fact, many theologians reject out of hand the notion that any person or group can effectively intercede with God in any respect. Paul Tillich and Karl Barth, the two major Christian theologians of the 20th century (and certainly no opponents of prayer) would have scoffed at the idea. The Lord's Prayer, the central prayer of Christendom, contains no plea for God to influence specific events in people's lives.

Pretty good. I'd point out, however, that while many theologians dismiss intercessory prayer out of hand, many others do not. We will return to this in a moment.

Lawrence also includes this:

Doctors in particular should be pleased that the Benson study demonstrated no benefit from intercessory prayer by strangers. Recently, a colleague told me about a devout, well-educated woman who accused a doctor of malpractice in his treatment of her husband. During her husband's dying days, she charged, the doctor had failed to pray for him. If prayer could be scientifically shown to help, every doctor would be obligated to pray with patients, or at least provide such service, and those who declined to do so would properly be subject to charges of malpractice.

I would assume the accusation did not go anywhere, but these days you can never tell.

Of course, since this is a priest talking he can't resist a comment to the effect that theologians know things that scientists don't:

We should note that the impetus for this recent research has come almost entirely from scientists, not from religious leaders. It seems that no credible theologian has been involved in planning, directing or even consulting on such studies. But scientists who conduct research on religious practice should at least consult reputable theologians. Had they done so to begin with a considerable amount of money could have been saved. Scientists who undertake the work of theologians are as reckless as theologians who pretend to be scientists.

Nonsense. Many of the most important Christian organiations in this country routinely extol the virtues of intercessory prayer. For example, here's Agape Press praising an effort to pray for the protection of Mayo Clinic patients from the pernicious influence of the Dalai Lama's forthcoming visit. When prior, less-rigorous studies seemed to show that there was some health benefit related to intercessory prayer, outfits like Focus on the Family and the 700 Club were crowing from the rooftops. The fact is that every Christian organization of any influence in this country was perfectly happy to tell its flock about how science has proven that prayer is effective. That was the impetus for carrying out research like this.

And, frankly, even many of those “credible theologians” were happy to take a limp, fence-sitting position with regard to those earlier studies. Sure, the whole idea is theologically suspect. God makes decisions about a person's health based on what another person asks Him to do? But the fact remains that such things are good for business. I don't have any quotes handy, but I certainly recall plenty of people like Lawrence going on television to express skepticism about the study on the one hand, while simultaneously using it to promote the value of their religion on the other. Furthermore, scientists were not undertaking the work of theologians. They were putting to the test a specific, testable claim endoresed by many of America's most important religious leaders.

If this study had turned out the other way Lawrence would not be writing articles for the Times telling us about how worthless the whole undertaking was. He would be prattling instead about how now even arrogant scientist types had to concede there was something to all this religion stuff. Since that's not how things turned out, he fell back on the other standard bit of theological blather. The one where they desperately explain away the inability of anyone to detect a tangible effect of God's alleged dominion over the world.

Monday, April 10, 2006

New CSICOP Column

My new column for CSICOP's Creation Watch website is now available. It's my take on the latest version of the thermodynamics argument against evolution.

If you're really keen on this subject, you should also have a look at Mark Perakh's evisceration of some of the same arguments. Enjoy!

Snakes on a Plane

Three words: Opening night, baby.

Presenting Evolution

The last two weeks have been very good ones for evolution. First, there was the discovery of the fossil Tiktaalik. This fossil is so clearly transitional between ancient fish and land-dwelling tetrapods that it is probably destined for a permanent place in the biology textbooks. It is one more in a long line of stinging rebukes to creationist claims about the paucity of transitional forms in the fossil record. Nick Matzke provides this excellent post showing how the creationist textbook Of Pandas and People makes gaps in the fossil record a major part of its case, and specfically cites the gap between ancient fish and amphibians as especially significant.

Then came word that another complex biological system has now yielded to an evolutionary explanation. Ian Musgrave has all the details here.

Evolutionists have been handed two major coups in as many weeks, both of which are receiving signficiant media attention. So how would we capitalize on this bout of good publicity?

Not too well, I'm afraid. Two recent events have left me once again vexed at the inability of some on my side of this issue to present themselves effectively.

The first came on Friday night's installment of the MSNBC show Countdown. This show is unique among cable news chat shows in being vaguely left-leaning. It's regular host, Keith Olbermann, is the only cable news host worth watching. Friday's show featured a segment on Tiktaalik. Also on tap was the claim by one exceptionally ignorant person that a recently publicized photo of a kitten born with only one eye and no nose represented evidence for creationism. Evolution says animals are getting better, but this unfortunate kitty was clearly worse, you see.

And what guest did they get to discuss these issues? Bill Nye! The science guy! I was giddy. Like all sensible people, I'm a big fan of Bill Nye. It's hard to imagine someone who has done more to popularize science in innovative ways. Surely, I thought, Nye will hit it out of the park.

So here we had a segment with a stand-alone, articulate, pro-science guest being interviewed by a sympathetic host (not Olbermann, but his guest host Brian Unger). How often does that happen?

Sadly, Nye didn't hit it out of the park. In fact, for much of the interview I couldn't figure out what he was talking about.

The first minute or so of the intervew was wasted on a discussion of Nye's run-in with some unruly audience members at a recent public presentation. P.Z. Myers discussed the incident here. Nye remarked that he didn't feel like he had been heckled, but it was impossible to discern from the ensuing conversation what actually happened.

Finally they got around to Tiktaalik and that's when this exchange took place.

UNGER: Was this still a fish?

NYE: No. It may have been. But the thing is it's going to be a big deal fossil, like the famous archaeopteryx, the feathered bird. It's going to be, as we look through history in the fossil record, this is going to be a significant discovery, because tiktaalik has some fancy feet. There's the famous archaeopteryx, or one of them yeah, it's where they found—we found feathers on an ancient dinosaur, which is a big deal. A significant thing. It tells you a lot about what happened in history in the history of life on earth. And the same will be of this tiktaalik. It's got some unusual wrist bones and unusual crossover between paws and feet and fins.

UNGER: Bill, I know that men of science love pedestrian observations like the one I'm going to make right now, but it kind of looks like a crocodile to me. Could it be a relative of the crocodile that we just didn't discover until now?

NYE: It certainly could be.

UNGER: Why are we calling it...

NYE: You're on your way to becoming a naturalist. That's right. It looks kind of like a crocodile.

UNGER: I am? That sounds obscene, Bill?

NYE: But if you look closely—it sounds obscene if you were somehow embarrassed about nature.

UNGER: But is it a missing link, because it looks sort of like a crocodile? It takes a .

NYE: Well, the word missing link is charged with connotations that you may not want to carry with. But what it is is it's something that's very fishlike, very land animal-like, but has aspects of both and it was discovered on a remote island in the Arctic. I don't know what you do with your day, but I don't go looking for fossils in the Arctic. There are people who do.

If you were learning about this fossil for the first time from this segment, would you have any idea what Nye was talking about? They're well into the conversation before Nye finally gets around to mentioning that Tiktaalik is transitional between fish and land-dwellers, though even here his explanation is hard to follow. And he never gets around to saying that the fossil was found in rocks of exactly the right age, in exactly the right kind of environment. Meanwhile, he kept talking about Archaeopteryx wihtout ever really saying clearly why that particular fossil was so significant. And he never pointed out that actually this is just one more in a long line of transitional forms.

From here the conversation turned to that deformed kitten. Nye did better here, but it was still difficult to ferret out his main points. Opportunity missed.

How about that excellent paper showing, at an unprecedented level of detail, how a particular complex molecular system evolved? Sadly, the press release from the University of Oregon (where the work in question was done) sounds entirely the wrong note:

Using new techniques for resurrecting ancient genes, scientists have for the first time reconstructed the Darwinian evolution of an apparently “irreducibly complex” molecular system.

The research was led by Joe Thornton, assistant professor of biology at the University of Oregon’s Center for Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, and will be published in the April 7 issue of SCIENCE.

How natural selection can drive the evolution of complex molecular systems—those in which the function of each part depends on its interactions with the other parts—has been an unsolved issue in evolutionary biology. Advocates of Intelligent Design argue that such systems are “irreducibly complex” and thus incompatible with gradual evolution by natural selection.

“Our work demonstrates a fundamental error in the current challenges to Darwinism,” said Thornton. “New techniques allowed us to see how ancient genes and their functions evolved hundreds of millions of years ago. We found that complexity evolved piecemeal through a process of Molecular Exploitation—old genes, constrained by selection for entirely different functions, have been recruited by evolution to participate in new interactions and new functions.”

Oh, brother. The fundamental error(s) in current challenges to Darwinism have been laid bare for about a decade now. Behe's “irreducible complexity” argument was a total nonstarter. It was faulty as a matter of logic, since it is a triviality to imagine scenarios whereby known evolutionary mechanisms lead to IC systems. And it was wrong biologically, since there are quite a few complex biological systems whose evolution has been unravelled.

Yet here comes these fellows from the University of Oregon to tell people that Behe used to have a good point, but not any more because of this new work. I don't think that was their intention, but that was the message this silly press release sent.

In his Commentary (I'm not sure if a subscription is required to read this) for Science magazine on this subject, Christoph Adami did a better, though still inadequate, job of putting things in perspective. Here's his closing paragraph:

The Bridgham et al. and Lenski et al. (4) studies are of particular scientific interest, given the political attention given to intelligent design lately. Although these authors have not directly addressed this controversy in the discussion of their work--because the work itself is intrinsically interesting to biologists--such studies solidly refute all parts of the intelligent design argument. Those “alternate” ideas, unlike the hypotheses investigated in these papers, remain thoroughly untested. Consequently, whatever debate remains must be characterized as purely political.

It's good that Adami makes it clear that this work was not motivated by anything the ID folks are saying. The proper way to present this story is to state the results obtained, that the evolution of a complex molecular system has been explained at an impressive level of detail, and add as an afterthought that this puts yet another nail in the ID coffin.

But why oh why is Adami saying that ID ideas have not been thoroughly tested? They have been, at great length, and have been shown to range from false to worthless. Behe's arguments were wrong on the day he first made them, a fact that was obvious to anyone who knew a little biology and could think clearly for a few minutes. Dembski's arguments were vague and worthless from the day he introduced them. Likewise for every other ID proponent.

And Adami's article appears under the headline “Reducible Complexity,” thereby repeating the error from the U of O press release.

Very aggravating.