Sunday, September 30, 2007


Digging Science

Misery loves company. But it is getting too damned crowded in here!

Archeologists have long suffered from ideologues looking to make religious points in the area of so-called "Biblical archeology." Now they are learning the joys of amateur enthusiasts, who make up for their lack of proper training with the output of vanity presses, television, and the Internet. Eric H. Cline, chair of the department of classical and Semitic languages and literature at the George Washington University and author of From Eden to Exile: Unraveling Mysteries of the Bible, has an interesting article on the situation in the Boston Globe entitled "Raiders of the faux ark."

We are living in a time of exciting discoveries in biblical archeology. We are also living in a time of widespread biblical fraud, dubious science, and crackpot theorizing. ...

[A]mateurs are taking in the public's money to support ventures that offer little chance of furthering the cause of knowledge. With their grand claims, and all the ensuing attention, they divert the public's attention from the scientific study of the Holy Land -- and bring confusion, and even discredit, to biblical archeology.
There's no great surprise here. No one who has followed the creationist assault on science could possible be surprised by or unaware of similar deprecations on archeology. But the important part of Cline's story is the need for the scientific community to wake up to the danger:

Unfortunately, when fantastic claims are made, they largely go unchallenged by academics. There have been some obvious exceptions, such as the recent film "The Lost Tomb of Jesus," which inspired an outcry from scholars by claiming that archeologists had found, but not recognized, the tomb of Jesus more than 20 years ago. But much more common is a vast and echoing silence reminiscent of the early days of the debate over "intelligent design," when biologists were reluctant to respond to the neocreationist challenge. Archeologists, too, are often reluctant to be seen as challenging deeply held religious beliefs. And so the professionals are allowing a PR disaster to slowly unfold: yielding a field of tremendous importance to pseudoscientists, amateur enthusiasts, and irresponsible documentary filmmakers.
As Cline relates the history of archeolgy in this area, investigation in the Middle East's "Holy Land" was first conducted in the 19th century by theologians rather than professional archeologists, a field that didn't really exist at the time. By the mid-20th century, on the other hand, professionalism was firmly in charge and today, strict standards concerning excavations in all Middle Eastern countries are in force, with requirements for peer review, detailed research plans, sufficient funding, and strategies for conservation of the site once excavation is complete.

Despite that, there has arisen a shadow culture of self-described "scholars" like Bob Cornuke, who has claimed to have found boat-shaped rocks at an altitude of 13,000 feet on Mount Suleiman in Iran's Elburz mountain range; Michael Sanders, who claims to have used NASA satellite photos to help locate Sodom and Gomorrah, the Garden of Eden and the Tower of Babel; and filmmaker/journalist Simcha Jacobovici, who calls himself "The Naked Archeologist" in a television series on the History Channel, but who is perhaps most famous for his involvement in the sensationalistic "Lost Tomb of Jesus." As Cline says:

In short, the amateur arena is full of deeply flawed junk science. Important issues are cloaked in legitimate-sounding terminology, little attention is paid to the investigative process, and contrary evidence is ignored.

Biblical archeologists are suddenly finding themselves in a position similar to the evolutionary biologists fighting intelligent design -- an entire parallel version of their field is being driven by religious belief, not research principles. The biologists' situation makes the risk clear -- they did not deign to mount a public refutation of the "science" of intelligent design for years, until it was almost too late, and thus anti-evolutionary science began making its way into the public schools.
Of course, any archeology in the Holy Land is going to be pregnant with religious connotations:

Religious archeologists and secular archeologists frequently work side by side in the Holy Land. Among the top ranks of researchers, there are evangelical Christians, orthodox Jews, and people of many denominations. It is not religious views that are the issue here; it is whether good science is being done. Biblical archeology is a field in which people of good will, and all religions, can join under the banner of the scientific process.
But Cline puts it all in proper perspective:

The data and opinions that we provide may not end any debates, but they will introduce genuine archeological and historical data and considerations into the mix. We owe it to the ancient world, and to the people who inhabited it, to do no less.

Saturday, September 29, 2007


Denouncing the Sacerdotal

It has been a while since I've had a mystery guest. This man was a soldier, who fought in the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny, until he gave up soldiering for biology and geology. He eventually became a member of the Royal Society and a university lecturer and professor in New Zealand. Darwin himself commented on how our guest was one of the few people who realized and accepted that evolution cannot be directly proved and, instead, must be demonstrated through the ability of the theory to group and explain diverse phenomena.

David L. Hull, in his book, Darwin and His Critics: The Reception of Darwin's Theory of Evolution by the Scientific Community, points out that our guest's review of the Origin was notable for the way he attacked those who criticized Darwin's work on religious grounds, particularly taking on Adam Sedgwick. The following is from that review. It has all too much relevancy for today:

Time was, and not so long since, either, when fossils were enigmas even to the learned; when thoughtful and sapient men discussed with heat of temper and with angry tones whether such organic remains of past creations embedded in the soil were really shells, and bones, and plants, or whether they were plastic forms modelled in the dark recesses of the ground. Even now a-days some literary adventurers and crack-brained sages -- and we are sorry to say, some men too, of better note but mistaken views -- now and then attempt to palm off this long ago exploded whim under a specious guise upon an intelligent world. The danger from such productions is small, and few indeed of those worth caring for would think a fossil bone or shell aught else than the treasured fragment of some ancient living being.

More dangerous, however, are the wilful perverters who argue with a specious show of knowledge; and such detractors Darwin's theory, like every other, is sure to bring forward against itself. "Species have been constant," says one, "ever since they first existed; change the conditions, and the old species would disappear. New species would come in and flourish. But how? by what causation? By creation. What is meant by creation? The operation of a power quite beyond the power of a pigeon fancier, a cross-breeder, or a hybridizer, in which one can believe by the legitimate conclusion of sound reason drawn from the laws and harmonies of nature, and, believing, can have no difficulty in the repetition of new species."

Dickens, in one of his novel, very shrewdly remarks that the advice given to street-boys about to fight "to go in and win" is very excellent if they only knew how to follow it; and when one naturally asks how new species which geology shows us appearing from time to time first began, the answer, by creation is as easy to give and about as useless as the advice offered to the street-boys. It is, after all, a mere assertion, an evasion of the question, a cloak for ignorance.
Now, who might that describe?


Friday, September 28, 2007



Here is something kind of neat. The Perception Laboratory's Face Transformer from the University of St. Andrews School of Psychology. That's a certain reprobate, Botticelli-ized. There are other artists, ethnicities and even a different species to try out.


Fire Burn and Caldron Bubble

There must be something mystical about the number seventy.

That's because the 70th edition of the Skeptic's Circle has opted to convene inside something looking more like a pentagram.
And that's drawn on the floor of the Conspiracy Factory, where all sorts of apparitions are ... um ... popping up.

Be that as it may, not much seems to escaping the chants of the practitioners of the dark arts, which sounds for all the world a lot like " ... you really believe that?"


Down and Dirty

Tonight being the big mud wrestling match between the "framers" (Chris Mooney and Matthew Nisbet) versus the "anti-framers" (Greg Laden and PZ Myers), it is only fit and right to bring up this article in the Daily Princetonian by philosophy major and columnist, Matt Hoberg.

Hoberg begins by discussing the informal ban in Saudi Arabia of women driving. He then discusses "the difference between the West and Saudi Arabia on human rights [where the] West thinks that all universal frameworks are secular, and Saudi Arabia thinks that all secular frameworks are incompatible with conservative interpretations of Sharia." While that is, itself, an important discussion, what may bear on the framing debate is this:

How do we escape this impasse and reach a universally accepted framework of human rights?

There is no easy answer. Taking the ban on women driving as an example, there are two ways that a westerner like me can come to agree with a conservative cleric on this issue: Either the cleric has to let my secular arguments trump his religious conception of rights, or I have to let his religious arguments trump my secular conception of rights. But for either of those things to happen, one of us is going to have to adopt what William James calls a dead hypothesis — we'd have to believe something that "refuses to scintillate with any credibility at all" and give up beliefs that we see as central to our identity and our place in the world. No matter how hard we try, we may never be able to agree.

This is a sobering situation, but it is by no means unique to the question of human rights; it is precisely the same situation with advocates of intelligent design and evolution, or abortion and choice or you and the firebrand in your precept. This is the fundamental quandary of the public square — the possibility of irreconcilable differences that no amount of dialogue can solve. Dialogue can, however, identify which differences are irreconcilable.
Once we identify irreconcilable differences though, that then?

When we reach the limits of conversation, the only way to press beyond those limits is to engage more moderate voices in the discussion. Therefore, while we should genuinely hope that the West and the most radical conservatives in Saudi Arabia come to agree on fundamental questions of human rights, we need to realize that agreement may be impossible so long as radicals have power.
But that begs the question of how, and if, the radicals are best gotten out of power.

Thursday, September 27, 2007



There is an interesting short piece in the Daily Californian, an independent student newspaper at the University of California Berkeley campus, about a talk by Garry Wills, Pulitzer Prize winner for his book, Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America.

Lincoln widely used Biblical references and other religious images in his speeches but, according to Wills, he was "elusive" when it came to pinning down his spiritual profile.

... Lincoln both related to what Wills called “the Biblical sense of the struggle for freedom” and separated himself from the evangelical movement of the 19th century, instead drawing from transcendentalists like Ralph Waldo Emerson.

“He was the champion of the common people, but he didn’t share their religion,” Wills said. “He was an uncommon man with a radically different mind.”
Relating Lincoln to our own time, Wills said:

This too is a time of great trouble in many ways. ... There have been some hellish things about religion and politics lately. Lincoln was always trying to calm people down in times of religious fervor. He tried to expel fanaticism in times of war.
As might be expected from a historian of Lincoln, our own circumstances do not come off well in comparison:

Wills sometimes criticized President Bush and his administration. Asked how Lincoln would handle the conflict in Iraq, Wills replied that "he never would have gotten us into it."
Now, that's understatement.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007


British Understatement

... is not much in evidence, at least in this case. Ekklesia, a liberal "Christian think-tank" in the United Kingdom and our own National Center for Science Education are reporting that the UK Department of Children, Schools, and Families has issued guidance for teachers on how to discuss creationism, specifically including Intelligent Design Creationism. The statement reads:

There has been much debate recently about the teaching of creationism and intelligent design in the science curriculum. The 'Truth in Science' pack, which had been sent to all secondary schools, also generated media interest.

Intelligent Design is a creationist belief that suggests that the biological complexity of human beings is evidence for presence of a God or an 'intelligent designer'. It is sometimes erroneously advanced as scientific theory but has no underpinning scientific principles or explanations supporting it and it is not accepted by the international scientific community.

Creationism and intelligent design are not part of the National Curriculum for science, but there is scope for schools to discuss creationism as part of Religious Education -- a component of the basic school curriculum -- in developing pupils' knowledge and understanding of Christianity and other religions. This guidance is designed to clarify the place of these concepts within the National Curriculum.
Makes me want to order up a big plate of bangers and mash while we await the inevitable whining from the Discovery Institute!

Tuesday, September 25, 2007


Expectations Fulfilled

While my own technology is still on the fritz, here are more good reasons to bring back the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, as set out in Chris Mooney's and Mark Hoofnagle's further posts on the subject.
Mark, in particular, gives an extensive history of the OTA, based on The Politics of Expertise in Congress by Bruce Bimber.

Our government actually had a good idea and, after they saw how good it was, they killed it.

Oh, wait a minute ... it is our government, isn't it?

Monday, September 24, 2007


Viewing Religiously

Here it is folks ... the elusive evidence of a miracle you've all been waiting for:

Joan Dixon slowed as she drove down Lewis Street in Minersville [Pennsylvania] Wednesday. She was looking for the spot where some say a holy image appears around 5:30 p.m. every day. Dixon believes in miracles.

"In 2000 I gave my husband a kidney and not in a million years did I think I would be a match, so I believe in things like that, definitely," Dixon said.
Some skeptics think the image is a reflection off of a statue in the window of the owner of the garage, the door of which is the site of the glowing apparition. While David Drazenovich agrees that the image is a reflection of light, nonetheless:

... Drazenovich said he's had those windows open all summer. The image began appearing, witnesses say, on Aug. 15, the day of the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Allentown Catholic Diocese spokesman Matt Kerr said the diocese has no plans to investigate the image.

But Kerr said it shows that people's beliefs and convictions remain strong.

I think it's a testament to the faith of the people of Minersville and the surrounding area that they look at this with faith-filled eyes and see the Blessed Mother. They draw strength from that, and that's to be commended.
Norman Girardot, a professor at Lehigh University and expert on comparative religion, had a slightly different take:

It is interesting that we have a spectrum of beliefs or interpretations. That is, religious believers who are convinced that it's a miraculous apparition of the Blessed Virgin, skeptics who simply dismiss it as ridiculous, and the 'ghostbusters' who see it as a quasi-scientific expression of electromagnetic anomalies.
Um ... two woos against one reality?

Sunday, September 23, 2007


Reaction Time

Iowa holds a unique place in American politics.

For those of you who are un-American enough to have been born someplace else and stubbornly stayed there, Iowa is one of those states in the upper middle of the U.S., just below the Great Lakes on our Northern Hemispherianist maps. Its most identifying characteristic is that it is kinda boxy. With some prompting, a sizable minority of Americans could probably find it on a map.

In any event, Iowa has long served, along with New Hampshire, as a remote place with a higher than normal ratio of non-human to human multicellular organisms, where politicians who want to be president (which, in any sane world, would automatically disqualify a person from getting the job) can be safely confined, in a kind of quarantine, away from the larger population, until the prospect of an election can no longer be ignored. It is one of the signs of the decline of American politics (if not of the Apocalypse) that other states are now vying to have politicians bombard their citizens with campaign commercials, town meetings, policy statements, and other forms of toxic waste, in place of Iowa and New Hampshire.

But the very nature of the place we have counted on to protect the rest of us, as long as possible, from political discharge may give an acute insight into why our politics are the way they are. For quite contrary to the claims of the Discovery Institute and the editing and special effects to be employed in next year's fantasy movie, Expelled, the reality in the Heartland is hardly that of evil Darwinist professors imposing evolutionary theory on unwilling undergraduates. Quite the contrary ... at least in Red Oak, Iowa, a community of 6,000 residents situated along the euphonious Nishnabotna River:

A college instructor in Red Oak claims he was fired after he told his students that the biblical story of Adam and Eve is a fairy tale and should not be interpreted literally.

Steve Bitterman, 60, said officials at Southwestern Community College sided with a handful of students who threatened legal action over his remarks in a western civilization class Tuesday.
As Bitterman explained:

I put the Hebrew religion on the same plane as any other religion. Their god wasn't given any more credibility than any other god. I told them it was an extremely meaningful story, but you had to see it in a poetic, metaphoric or symbolic sense, that if you took it literally, that you were going to miss a whole lot of meaning there.
According to the news story, Bitterman used the term "fairy tale" in a conversation with a student after the class and some students complained that he had "belittled their religion."

Hector Avalos, a professor of religion at Iowa State University and a participant in the recent flap about the denial of tenure to Guillermo Gonzalez, said Bitterman's free speech rights were violated if he was fired over his comments about Adam and Eve.

If he's teaching something about the Bible and says it is a myth, he shouldn't be fired for that because most academic scholars do believe this is a myth, the story of Adam and Eve. So it'd be no different than saying the world was not created in six days in science class. You don't fire professors for giving you a scientific answer.
However, as the Gonzalez case shows, the legal issues aren't quite that clear. For one thing, there is potentially a difference in implication between "myth" and "fairy tale" that might run afoul of the Establishment Clause when uttered by a government employee acting in his official capacity.

The telling part of the story, however, is the severity of the reaction of the administration and the alacrity with which it was imposed, compared to the Gonzalez case, where there were appeals processes and fully laid out guidelines for tenure applications. Clearly, the administration of Southwestern Community College thought that it was improper to even expose its students to ideas that might contradict their most cherished ideologies. And, instead of trying to clarify the situation and negotiate any ambiguities, the people in charge went straight to the most dire solution they had available.

Is it any wonder then that we have people like the current crop of official drones in Washington?
By the way, Ed Brayton at Disptches From the Culture Wars has more on the story, including some non-statements by the administration.

Saturday, September 22, 2007


We Are Having Technical Problems


We are experiencing computer problems, relegating our signal to an ancient machine of dubious power. This may curtail our participation in the various blogging wars for some time. We regret any inconvenience.

Friday, September 21, 2007


Public Institutions

Hoo boy! Here we go again:

About four years ago, Waupaca resident Bill Mielke stumbled upon some startling information while browsing the Web. After digging deeper, Mielke showed the material to his son-in-law, who was an atheist.

"We watched a few videos and then gave them to him and he says, 'I never heard anything about this before,'" Mielke recalls. "And he completely did a flip-around and I saw the value in this stuff."

What Mielke found was government-recognized artifacts that he believes seriously challenge evolution by depicting dinosaurs and humans living side-by-side.

And what might that "material" be?

Mielke said Charles Hapgood, a university professor, found artifacts at Acambaro in Mexico and thought, "this has got to be fake." In turn, he asked crime drama writer Earl Stanley Gardner to investigate. In turn, he wrote a book on their authenticity.

"They've looked at fossils — let's say a fish that was supposed to be around before dinosaurs — when you look at that DNA and the way it's designed, they are not primitive creatures and they are highly developed," Mielke said. "There was a trilobite in a busted piece of rock with a sandal print above it. On the sandal print, it showed the sandal stepped on the trilobite and its eye is so high-tech, it is not just a primitive life form."

The authority of Earl Stanley Gardner, the fact that some organisms before dinosaurs were highly developed and variations on the Paluxy "man tracks"?!? What atheistic Darwinist couldn't be converted by the sheer mass of that evidence?!?

Oh, and don't forget to throw in a little Kent ("Don't Bend Over to Pick Up the Soap") Hovind and a more than usually mangled quote mine:

With a hefty pile of books in his clutches, Mielke shuffles through them to find a statement from a private group that offers $250,000 to anyone who can provide evidence of transitional life forms and missing links. A few sheets deeper, he reaches in for statements from Nobel prize winners.

"Even Nobel Prize winners are saying this is a big joke," he said. "There's a huge number of people out there saying this thing is a dead horse." As he reads one biologist's statement, "We cannot accept that on a psychological ground and for personal reasons, therefore we choose to believe in the impossible — that life arose spontaneously by chance."

So what does any good conspiracy theorist do? Why, open a museum, of course! And with what to fill it up?

"Because this is becoming so popular now, people are manufacturing copies of these artifacts," he said. "So you can buy these, and that's where a lot of this stuff came from."

Such irony can be painful.


Thursday, September 20, 2007


Matching Shouts

Okay, I've counted to ten a few dozen times since Larry Moran took such great offense at the opening of a recent post of mine. Let me see if I can clarify my position, which has, so far, eluded Larry, on the current argument between the "framers" and the "anti-framers."

I have not been closely following the framing "debate" (if it can charitably be called that), so the nuances (if there are any) are not what I'm interested in. For example, if Larry wants to claim that the framers are telling him and the other "New Atheists" to "shut up," I'm content to go with that, even though my impression is that they are simply calling for a change in tone and the careful distinction, in public, between science and atheism ... something that is not always done.

I think that the tone of the "New Atheists," particularly calling the people they purportedly want to persuade "deluded" and worse, is probably counterproductive to their stated cause. But, if I'm right, selection, as always*, will take care of it. And I think that giving the general public the notion that science and atheism are one and the same thing is probably harmful to science education, especially in the United States, since that falsehood will likely turn a significant portion of the population away from learning about science. But if I cannot persuade Larry and his ilk of the correctness of that position, the solution is simply to be as loud or louder than they are.

What is laughable for anyone who has known Larry and his debating style over the years is the thought of Larry claiming that it is unfair, unethical and even reprehensible for anyone to so much as suggest that he "shut up." Let me be clear, if someone tries to use the power of government to stop Larry from talking, I'll be on the ramparts right next to him. If someone writes to his employer trying to get him fired for his message, I'll be happy to write to say that would be wrong. But the spectacle of Larry, of all people, whining about others saying mean things to him is surreal comedy worthy of Monty Python!

And that goes for the rest of the "New Atheists." After all, they get called "new" precisely because they are loud enough and persistent enough, in the face of much worse than what the framers are suggesting, to have finally impinged to some degree on the general public's consciousness. If they were the type of shrinking violets who might need some protection from the rough-and-tumble of public debate, there'd be no debate to be had in the first place.

Stop whining about the Mooneys and Nisbets of the world and get on with making your case. Meanwhile the Mooneys and Nisbets will get on with making their case and the general public will get on with deciding if they give a damn at all.

Less sound and fury and more substance would be the best framing of all.

* It is possible this joke is too subtle.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007


Luskin's Lips Are Moving ... Again!

Casey Luskin is at it again, doing what Intelligent Design Creationists do best ... misrepresenting others.

Luskin is over at The Discovery Institute's Complaint Department, in an article entitled "Scientific Journals Promoting Evolution alongside Materialism," kvetching about scientists expressing their opinions about religion. The details of the scientists' statements are not all that important, though at least some appear to be in direct response to the misrepresentations of science by ID advocates. The heart of Luskin's complaint is that "some theists might find that such descriptions of evolution contravene their religious beliefs."

Well, so what? Some descriptions of capitalism or democracy contravene some people's religious beliefs. Neither point constitutes a cogent argument against evolution or the American political system. So far, Luskin is saying nothing more than 'my religion requires me to be ignorant and I like it that way.'

It is at the end that Luskin trots out the dishonesty:

[I]t seems that [these scientists] are nonetheless working hard to disprove Judge Jones's Kitzmiller ruling that held it is "utterly false" to believe that "evolutionary theory is antithetical to a belief in the existence of a supreme being."
Of course, Judge Jones never said that evolutionary theory couldn't contradict any religious beliefs. As I've pointed out many times before (here's one example), what the judge said was:

Both Defendants and many of the leading proponents of ID make a bedrock assumption which is utterly false. Their presupposition is that evolutionary theory is antithetical to a belief in the existence of a supreme being and to religion in general. Repeatedly in this trial, Plaintiffs' scientific experts testified that the theory of evolution represents good science, is overwhelmingly accepted by the scientific community, and that it in no way conflicts with, nor does it deny, the existence of a divine creator.

Judge Jones was in no way saying that there are no believers who find evolution contrary to their religion. Nor was he calling their beliefs false -- he takes some pains to say that he was not deciding the truth of ID, merely its status as science or non-science. The Judge was saying rather clearly that the "presupposition . . . that evolutionary theory is antithetical to a belief in the existence of a supreme being and to religion in general" is not true. He was summing up in that section and stating the well-known fact that many believers have no trouble reconciling evolution and their faith in a divine creator. Even Luskin's own complaint admits that fact: If some theists find that evolution contravenes their religious beliefs, that necessarily means others do not find it does.

Maybe the judge should have gone on to say that any assumption that religious zealots like Luskin would find lying antithetical to their religion is also utterly false.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007


By the Light ...


I missed what well might have been the best show on television this season!

It had everything! Drama, comedy, pathos, slapstick, game show suspense ... it had it all!

Of course, I 'm talking about the Values Voter Presidential Debate!

Thanks to Janet L. Folger, president of Faith2Action and one of the questioners at the debate, we have the questions asked by, among others, Phyllis Schlafly, Mat Staver, Rick Scarborough, Richard Thompson and "Judge" Roy Bean ... er ... Moore.

Here are some of my favorites:

Tom DeRosa, president of Creation Studies Institute:
Today, as in the past, academic freedom has been threatened when questioning the theory of evolution as in the case of Iowa State Astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez. His tenure was denied because of his work in Intelligent Design this May 2007. Censoring alternative theories and punishing those who hold them, dogmatic indoctrination has replaced scientific methods of inquiry. Will your office support and encourage a more open approach to education in the presentation of scientific facts that contradict the theory of evolution?
So much for the idea that it was unfair to ask the question if the candidates believed in evolution in an earlier debate.

Buddy Smith, American Family Association:
Recently a federal judge ordered the Indiana Legislature to censor their prayers. Specifically, the federal judge ordered the Indiana Legislature to never allow anyone to offer an invocation prayer in Jesus' name. Will you, as president, consider impeachment a possible remedy for this judicial activism?
Um ... Presidents don't impeach. And who are you calling an activist judge, given the fact that he or she was following Supreme Court precedent? But other than that, the question was fine ... lunacy. But I love the name, Mr. Smith!

Phyllis Schlafly, Eagle Forum:
At President Bush's press conference in Canada last month, Fox News asked him this question: "Can you say today that the Security and Prosperity Partnership is NOT a prelude to a North American Union, similar to a European Union?" Bush did NOT deny that goal; he just ridiculed the question. Will you assure us that you will abolish all plans to promote the economic integration of North America, which consists of open borders among the United States, Canada and Mexico?
Well, there's your problem Phyllis! Instead of asking Bush and the candidates about crazy stuff, you should've been trying to find out if they will be willing to shoot down the black helicopters from the U.N.!

And how could I end without a whopping dollop of paranoia from Judge Roy?

Roy Moore, the Foundation for Moral Law:
Do you support the NAFTA Superhighway presently under construction from Mexico to Canada, portions of which shall be under foreign control?
So that's what all those black helicopters have been doing! Bringing in prefabricated highway sections!

An entire auditorium full of moonbeams must have been a sight!

Monday, September 17, 2007


Without a Cue

The ink was barely dry ... um ... the electrons had barely cooled down ... whatever ... on my post about Jules R. Benjamin's article at History News Network, entitled "What is Wrong with Quotas? Equality, Democracy, Bias, and Balance in American Society," when the Paranoia Patrol of the Righteous Right popped up like a Jack-in-the-box at the end of its tune.

After bemoaning the fact that Billy Dembski, Francis Beckwith and Robert Marks have been greeted with less than open arms by Baylor University while they are wagging their Intelligent Design Creationism tails behind them, this article from Crosswalk goes on to say:

Even sadder is the fact that Baylor, as a Christian-based school, is not alone As Casey Luskin of the Discovery Institute explains, "In the academic world, if you question evolution, you come under attack. There's been a pattern of discrimination against ID all over the nation in the past couple years."
As Professor Benjamin pointed out, removing such discrimination would also have the beneficial effect of drawing "many bright flat-earth natural scientists to departments of Geology."

How about a rousing chorus of "Pop Goes the Weasel"?


Scientizing Congress

At the suggestion of Mark Hoofnagle (and we kid about mispelling PZ Myearshertz' name!) I sent the following (shamelessly plagiarized from Mark) to my Congressional delegation:

Congress is currently operating without any independent scientific analysis of policy. Any member can introduce legislation based on whatever set of "facts" any partisan "think tank" produces, even if by cherry-picking the scientific literature to suit its ideological agenda.

The Office of Technology Assessment was an invaluable, nonpartisan resource for both the Congress and the public that should be revived to counter the Republican war on science and the proliferation of junk science in general.

Our government should be operating from one set of facts, ideally those investigated by an independent body that is strictly nonpolitical and that operates with a mandate to at least set the bounds of the legitimate scientific issues our nation faces. Setting national policy based upon sound scientific grounds is the very least the public should expect from our government.

My entire delegation is Democratic so, if you want to plagiarize this plagiarization, you might want to ixnay the Republican war on science bit, depending on your situation.
P.S. Hillary Clinton has the fastest automated reply to emails ... in case you wanted to know.

Sunday, September 16, 2007


Academic Affirmative Action

Jules R. Benjamin has [cough] cracked the problem of appropriate "balance" so often called for in academia and our wider society. Here is a sampling from his article at History News Network, entitled "What is Wrong with Quotas? Equality, Democracy, Bias, and Balance in American Society." Not much commentary is needed:

Conservative scholars have discovered the secret control of liberal arts departments by, of all people, liberals. The remedy suggested is balance, achieved by ending the liberal bias of current hiring and tenure decisions. Who can oppose balance or support bias? ...

Departments of Physics would greatly benefit by replacement of the terribly warped theory of space-time derived from the work of a mere clerk in the Swiss Patent Office. (And for this phlogiston was sacrificed!) ...

Due respect for the fossil evidence supporting intelligent design would remove a major roadblock to hiring someone with a dissertation on "Darwinism: The Problem from Hell," or on "The Devil is the One and Only Other." ...

Removing bias would draw many bright flat-earth natural scientists to departments of Geology. Plate Tectonics would finally face a serious challenge opening the way for the new Tsunami theory based on path breaking bathtub studies based on recent work by Archimedes. ...

Outside of the academy, signs of bias abound as well. Liberal bias is most shocking when one examines so-called "civil rights" organizations. A poll of the members of the ACLU found only three percent (3%) who opposed free speech. This in an organization that prides itself on support for minority opinion! ...

Replace the vacuous debate over the existence of the Holocaust by a compromise between semitic and anti-semitic authors. In the name of balance, they might settle their differences by agreeing that three instead of six million Jews were killed. A similar bargain could be struck between materialists and people of faith by declaring that evolution is the cause of 50% of the nature of human beings while the other 50% is the work of god.
Now all we need is an opinion from someone opposed to balance to balance Benjamin's call for balance.


Talking Dialogue

John F. Haught is the Landegger Distinguished Professor of Theology at Georgetown University. and a Roman Catholic theologian* of some note. For the wider public, he is notable as the sole expert witness on theology to testify in the Kitzmiller case. Judge Jones said that Professor Haught:

... succinctly explained to the Court that the argument for ID is not a new scientific argument, but is rather an old religious argument for the existence of God. He traced this argument back to at least Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century ... [and] in the 19th century by Reverend Paley ... The only apparent difference between the argument made by Paley and the argument for ID ... is that ID's "official position" does not acknowledge that the designer is God ... [though] anyone familiar with Western religious thought would immediately make the association ... (Judge Jones' decision, pp. 24-25)

I have been reading Professor Haught's book, Science & Religion: From Conflict to Conversation (1995, Paulist Press, New York). Professor Haught does, in spades, what some people have criticized Richard Dawkins' much more widely known book, The God Delusion, for failing to do. Haught set out to discuss whether modern science is compatible with those religious beliefs that are more sophisticated than fundamentalism and creationism. Haught, if nothing else, produced a thought-producing ... and, no doubt, a blood pressure testing ... book in which most everybody will find something to hate.

Haught's approach, in a throwback to dialogues like Hume's, is to take certain issues nominally dividing science and religion and have proponents of four different views make their cases. The four viewpoints are:

1) Conflict: the view that religion is utterly opposed to science, with science invalidating religion -- essentially the atheist viewpoint;

2) Contrast: the position that religion and science are so completely different that conflict is logically impossible; both are valid but are or should be rigorously separated -- similar to Stephen Jay Gould's non-overlapping magesteria (NOMA);

3) Contact: religion and science are distinct, each has implications for the other, inevitably interacting, with religion necessarily adapting to new developments in science; and

4) Confirmation: similar to but supposedly distinct from the Contact model, holding religion as subtly but positively supporting scientific discovery, actually paving the way for some of science's ideas and even "blessing" science's search for "truth."

The issues examined include: "Is Religion Opposed to Science?", "Does Science Rule Out a Personal God?" and "Is Life Reducible to Chemistry?" The dangers of this approach are many. The attempt to break down complex views about a broad subject into only four categories is bound to result in blurred borders, a problem Haught acknowledges. For example, the most stark division -- atheism vs. theism -- crowds out any other in Haught's book. All Haught's advocates except the atheistic Conflict supporter, speak of their theology's relation to science. My own agnosticism, tending to the Contrast view, with dollops of Contact and Conflict, finds no voice in the dialogue. But that is a relatively small point, easily enough filled in by the reader.

A larger danger is failing to fairly represent the arguments of one's opponent's -- the charge that has been made against Dawkins. Haught admits his preference for the Contact view, supplemented by Confirmation. He sees that as the "most fruitful and reasonable response to the unfortunate tension that has held so many scientists away from an appreciation of religion and an even larger number of religious people from enjoying the discoveries of science." Needless to say, many will reject even the attempt.

There is no way, of course, that Haught could perfectly succeed in representing all sides. Proponents of atheism will, no doubt, complain that Haught has missed the nuances of their arguments and many religious advocates may object that he has given too much credit to science. In fact, Haught hopes that the "polemical edge" he gave each proponent won't serve as an indicator of dead-end hostility but only as an inducement to discussion. In my opinion, Haught has, despite the dangers, produced a stimulating and valuable work that belies the notion that there are no sophisticated arguments for theism. But, as Haught himself states, it is less a conversation than a prologue to a conversation.

Now, if we can only get somebody interested in listening.


* In the interests of full disclosure, I was raised in the Roman Catholic religion and attended Catholic schools for sixteen years, through college, the latter under the gentle tutelage of Jesuits. I had lost what faith I might ever have had well before the end of that time but it is possible, as my wife often says, that "you can take the boy out of the Church but you can't take the Church out of the boy." In any event, during those years, I met many people who struck me as possessing both a deep faith and considerable intellectual rigor . Those experiences no doubt resulted in my being less disdainful of believers than I might otherwise have been and less certain of the righteousness of my own infidelity.


The Incredulous Bunch

A bunch of the boys were whooping it up at the Skeptic's Circle Saloon.

The kid that handles the music-box was hitting a jag-time tune.

Back of the bar, in a solo game, sat Dangerous Brent Rasmussen.

And everyone there knew, sooner than soon, that makers of woo

Were about to meet up with the likes of a master assassin.

Saturday, September 15, 2007


Harebrained Hairpins

Now this is interesting ... in a strange sort of way.

I'm not overly sympathetic to the complaints of the "New Atheists" that they are unfairly being told to mute their criticism of religion lest they drive religious people further away from science in particular and rationalism in general. In my opinion, science is definitely not coextensive with atheism. And atheism, far from having a lock on rationalism, is, in fundamental ways arational, at least, if not outright irrational at times. And, it seems to me, if a dialogue is what you intend in which you hope to convince the religious to become atheists, starting off calling them delusional may be a tad counterproductive.

But Mary Jordan, in a report entitled "In Europe and U.S., Nonbelievers Are Increasingly Vocal" for the Washington Post Foreign Service, has gone completely round the bend! She notes that:

On both sides of the Atlantic, membership in once-quiet groups of nonbelievers is rising, and books attempting to debunk religion have been surprise bestsellers ...

New groups of nonbelievers are sprouting on college campuses, anti-religious blogs are expanding across the Internet, and in general, more people are publicly saying they have no religious faith.
One reason for this surge in outspokenness, that has, in turn, led to the "New Atheist" label, is suggested by the article:

Many analysts trace the rise of what some are calling the "nonreligious movement" to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The sight of religious fanatics killing 3,000 people caused many to begin questioning -- and rejecting -- all religion.
While I have my doubts about the role that 9/11 and the other high profile terrorist attacks cited in the article really have on this trend, Ms. Jordon makes the assertion that:

The majority of nonbelievers say they are speaking out only because of religious fanatics. But some atheists are also extreme, urging people, for example, to blot out the words "In God We Trust" from every dollar bill they carry.
Excuse me? ... "also extreme"? Perpetrating minor defacement of currency is the same as killing 3,000 people by hijacking commercial airliners for attacks deliberately aimed mostly at civilians? It is the same as planting bombs on commuter buses or trains?

I have no qualms about criticizing atheists and their tactics ... but get a grip!

Friday, September 14, 2007


A Technological Fix for Congress

Okay, I'll add my squeak to the bloggy great roar.

Dick the Butcher famously said, "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers." Newt, the Gingrich Who Stole Congress, said that the first thing the Republicans should do in their war on science is make sure there was no pesky scientists hanging around interfering in their truly American right to believe any ol' codswallop. As Mark Hoofnagle said:

[F]or about 30 years (from 1974 to 1995), there was an office on the Hill, named the Office of Technology Assessment, which worked for the legislative branch and provided non-partisan scientific reports relevant to policy discussions. ... Chris Mooney described [doing away with] it as Congress engaging in "a stunning act of self-lobotomy" in his book The Republican War on Science ...
[O]ur government is currently operating without any real scientific analysis of policy. Any member can introduce whatever set of facts they want, by employing some crank think tank to cherry-pick the scientific literature to suit any ideological agenda. This is truly should be a non-partisan issue. Everybody should want the government to be operating from one set of facts, ideally facts investigated by an independent body within the congress that is fiercely non-partisan ...
No, there are many politicians who most decidedly don't want facts to be determined by non-partisan experts in their fields. It gets altogether too much in the way of politics as usual. That alone is good enough reason to campaign to bring back the OTA.


Egnor the 'Baffoon'

Unsatisfied with the damage he first did to one foot, Dr. Michael Egnor has taken careful aim at the other and loosed another barrage. Demonstrating an utter lack of comprehension of the saw that one should 'leave bad enough alone,' Egnor has compounded his previous error by again taking on Jeffrey Shallit at Recursivity (even committing typos in giving the title of Dr. Shallit's previous post). And, again, Dr. Shallit needs no help from me. But there is one attempted point of Egnor's that I think is worth commenting on: his illicit use of analogy.

As I have argued before:

Arguments by analogy or metaphor, when used correctly, are both valid and illuminating. For example, a crucial argument made by Charles Darwin in support of evolution was the analogy between 'artificial selection' by breeders and 'natural selection' by the environment. But such arguments must be internally valid and consistent, as well as carefully crafted so that the analogy truly corresponds to the points purportedly being made.
Egnor thinks he has struck some sort of unanswerable blow by blovating:

If the scientific discovery of a 'blueprint' would justify the design inference, then why is it unreasonable to infer that the genetic code was designed?
Because the genetic code is not a "blueprint," doctor, that's why. Blueprints (which, in the age of Computer Aided Design, have trod the path of the dodo) are drawings made by known agents that consist of manufactured products called "paper" and "ink" with a known source that have a known conscious purpose in a peculiarly human activity called "construction."

All you are missing to make your analogy perfect, doctor, is everything. We know, for example, that genes are "manufactured" by the ordinary processes of chemistry within the bodies of living things, the vast majority of which have, as far as we can tell, no conscious purpose at all, much less a conscious purpose to manufacture DNA. In other words, unlike blueprints, the production of DNA operates by natural law, independent of conscious intent and without conscious purpose on the part of the producer. Blueprints, unlike DNA, have never been known to be spontaneously produced by the chemistry of, say, bacteria. Nothing supports the appropriateness of the attempted analogy, except Dr. Egnor's preconceived biases.

To claim that DNA is purposefully designed for some conscious purpose by analogy to known human artifacts is simply to beg the question on the issue Egnor is trying to prove -- the existence of a designer. But I've been through that before too.

Oh, but wait ... that's all Intelligent Design Creationists have going for them in the first place ... smoke and mirrors ... isn't it? Never mind ...

Thursday, September 13, 2007


Poor Grades

Okay, yesterday I was talking about the hopeful signs that the religious right was losing its political cohesion and clout. That was the good news. Naturally, next must come the bad ... this time courtesy of a new poll by the First Amendment Center national survey, "State of the First Amendment 2007," released today.

As Charles Haynes of the Center put it:

While the survey shows Americans highly value religious freedom, a significant number support privileging the religion of the majority, especially in public schools. Four decades after the Supreme Court declared state-sponsored religious practices unconstitutional in public schools, 58% of respondents support teacher-led prayers and 43% favor school holiday programs that are entirely Christian. Moreover, 50% would allow schools to teach the Bible as a factual text in a history class.

The strong support for official recognition of the majority faith appears to be grounded in a belief that the United States was founded as a Christian nation, in spite of the fact that the Constitution nowhere mentions God or Christianity. Of course, people define "Christian nation" in various ways — ranging from a nation that reflects Christian values to a nation where the government favors the Christian faith. But almost one-third of respondents appear to believe that the religious views of the majority should rule: 28% would deny freedom to worship to any group that the majority considers 'extreme or on the fringe.'
Other results about religion include 65% of Americans believing that America's founders intended it to be a Christian nation and 55% under the delusion that the Constitution establishes a Christian nation.

There are also results in other areas, such as freedom of the press, students' right to expression and even the lack of knowledge of Americans as to just what their First Amendment rights are, that are less than comforting.
And so it goes ...

Wednesday, September 12, 2007


Heavenly Omens

The Charleston (West Virginia) Gazette has this interesting opinion piece about the decline of the political power of the Religious Right. As evidence of this trend, the article points to a commentary that just appeared in Time, entitled "The Religious Right's Era Is Over," by Jim Wallis, the founder of Sojourners, an organization that lists its mission as "to articulate the biblical call to social justice." Wallis says:

We have now entered the post-Religious Right era. ... [A] combination of deeper compassion and better theology has moved many pastors and congregations away from the partisan politics of the Religious Right. ...

Evangelicals — especially the new generation of pastors and young people — are deserting the Religious Right in droves. The evangelical social agenda is now much broader and deeper, engaging issues like poverty and economic justice, global warming, HIV/AIDS, sex trafficking, genocide in Darfur and the ethics of the war in Iraq. Catholics are returning to their social teaching; mainline Protestants are asserting their faith more aggressively; a new generation of young black and Latino pastors are putting the focus on social justice; a Jewish renewal movement and more moderate Islam are also growing; and a whole new denomination has emerged, which might be called the "spiritual but not religious."
Other signs of the possible ebbing of the Righteous Right's clout is the lack of consequence that Barack Obama has incurred from accusing the Christian right of promoting hate and denying that "Christian values" are integral to American society.

Even the Voice of America issued a treatise titled "Republican Party Losing Hold on Christian Conservative Base." It said evangelicals are distressed because "Republicans in Congress have not lived up to their commitments on issues such as restricting abortion or banning gay marriage."
Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter also attributes the decline to the spate of sexual and financial scandals that have disproportionately hit Republicans of late. But as the op-ed says:

White evangelicals remain a major segment of the U.S. electorate and wield significant power. But it will be a blessing if they gradually identify less with GOP puritanism and more with the humanitarian goals of Jesus.
From their mouths to God's ears!

Tuesday, September 11, 2007


Ride to La Mancha

Jeffrey Shallit at Recursivity is having fun with Tom Bethell (already badly mauled by John Derbyshire at The American Spectator) and, thereafter, with Bethell's knight in shining armor, Michael Egnor (about the very definition of "with friends like these ... "), who rode with more chutzpah than competence to Bethell's defense. Shallit needs no help from me but I thought I'd drop a bit more information about Bethell on anyone who may not be old enough to know how long he has been flogging the moribund Equidae that is creationism.

Bethell has been at this for a while. Also, besides being a candidate for for inclusion as one of the oldest living members of Glenn Morton's Longest Running Falsehood in Creationism club (Bethell: "Darwin's theory, I believe, is on the verge of collapse ... ", 1976; "The Party of Darwin is failing, and the party leaders are beginning to get very angry about it", 2007), he is an experienced quote miner.

Apparently, Bethell's motto runs something like: "31 years of being wrong is just not enough."

Monday, September 10, 2007


Childhood's End

Francisco J. Ayala is the Donald Bren Professor of Biological Sciences, Ecology & Evolutionary Biology and Professor of Logic and the Philosophy of Science at the University of California, Irvine. He has written a slim, low cost volume called Darwin And Intelligent Design that gives a no-frills summation of the nature of Intelligent Design Creationism, and why it isn't science, that is sufficient to give most people enough information to understand the issues without overwhelming them.

One nice discussion Ayala presents is about the nature of the "Darwinian Revolution" in comparison to the "Copernican Revolution." Ayala states, rightly I think, that the standard account -- that the Copernican Revolution consisted of displacing the earth from its position as the center of the universe, while the Darwinian Revolution consisted of displacing humans from their place at the center of life on earth -- is wrong in its emphasis.

This version of the two revolutions is inadequate: what it says is true, but it misses what is most important about these two intellectual revolutions, namely, that they ushered in the beginning of science in the modern sense of the word. These two revolutions may jointly be seen as the one scientific revolution, with two stages, the Copernican and the Darwinian.

The discoveries of Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Newton, and others in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries had gradually ushered in a conception of the universe as matter in motion governed by natural laws.
With some trepidation -- though less than the iconic tale of Galileo might indicate -- European society accepted a mechanistic account of the universe ... except in the case of living things.

The advances of physical science brought about by the Copernican revolution had driven humankind's conception of the universe to a split-personality state of affairs, which persisted well into the mid-nineteenth century. By that time, scientific explanations derived from natural laws accounted for the world of nonliving matter, on the earth as well as in the heavens. Supernatural explanations, such as Paley's explanation of design, depending on the unfathomable deeds of the Creator, accounted for the origin and configuration of living creatures -- the most diversified, complex, and interesting realities of the world.
In this context, Darwin's work was not just another blow delivered by science against traditional beliefs but the culmination of a long retreat, ending in ignominious defeat, away from the notion that God's fingerprints on the world were self-evident to human reason.

It was Darwin's genius to resolve this conceptual bifurcation. Darwin completed the Copernican revolution by drawing out for biology the notion of nature as a lawful system of matter in motion that human reason can explain without recourse to extra-natural agencies.
Another way of thinking of it is that Darwin made it much more difficult to be an intellectually satisfied theist. That is why, I believe, Dawkins' crowing about his own satisfaction is so bitter in the mouths of some believers.


Mohammed Saves!

The Slidell, Louisiana case of a portrait of Jesus and the Bible hung in the lobby of the City Courthouse over a sign that says "To Know Peace, Obey These Laws" is apparently over.

After a hearing that was scheduled to address the issue of whether a temporary injunction should be granted, Federal District Judge Ivan Lemelle has apparently ruled that, while the original display was unconstitutional, the present display, with the images of fifteen other people in "legal history" added, including Charlemagne, Napoleon, and King Louis IX of France, meets constitutional muster.

The image which should be most instructive to the good people of southern Louisiana is that of Mohammed, who is shown holding the Koran.

Most amusing is the response of Mike Johnson, the lawyer from the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian legal organization representing the City, who said "I think the message today is the ACLU cannot bully local officials" ... except to the extent that it can get those officials' Christian legal defense firm to advise them to install a picture extolling the role Mohammed and the Koran had in the American legal system.

Also amusing was the continued record of honesty and openness displayed by the Righteous Right in pursuing its agenda:

The former judge who bought the picture said in a sworn statement that he had no idea that it had any religious significance. "To me at the time it appeared to be a depiction of a lawgiver," retired Judge James R. Strain Jr. said.

Lemelle, who noted several times during the hearing that the picture showed someone with a halo, said he wasn't questioning Strain's veracity.

"But it's a halo. You can tell him I said that," he told Johnson.

Judge Jones, in his decision in the Kitzmiller case, noted:

It is ironic that several of these individuals, who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would time and again lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the ID Policy.

Sounds like the same can be said of people in favor of touting their religious beliefs at taxpayer expense.

It's not really clear why the Louisiana chapter of the ACLU would accept this compromise but it is notable that the Judge also said that the City could be liable to the ACLU for its legal fees to date because the group's lawsuit was what prompted the change in the display. On the other hand, that would tend to shift the risk of bearing its legal costs back onto the ACLU, if the new display is found constitutional.

Too bad. I'm sure that, if the trial had gone forward, it would have been a great source of amusement.

Via Dispatches From the Culture Wars.

Sunday, September 09, 2007


Random Neuron Firings

John Wilkins has an interesting, and typically informative, post on the definition of "life," which is no simple problem. One (though perhaps not defining) aspect of life is metabolism -- the use of free (in the sense of "available") energy to reduce local entropy. Um ... living things eat.

A phrase John used struck me as potentially representing one of those small sayings that seem to capture large truths in one bite. Here is how I rendered it:

The purpose of life is to ensure that entropy is increased somewhere else.

Saturday, September 08, 2007



Going on a bit more about David Hume while I'm at it, his manner of facing his own death was notable. He, himself, described its approach a few months before its arrival:

In spring 1775, I was struck with a disorder in my bowels, which at first gave me no alarm, but has since, as I apprehend it, become mortal and incurable. I now reckon upon a speedy dissolution. I have suffered very little pain from my disorder; and what is more strange, have, notwithstanding the great decline of my person, never suffered a moment's abatement of my spirits; insomuch, that were I to name the period of my life, which I should most choose to pass over again, I might be tempted to point to this later period. I possess the same ardour as ever in study, and the I same gaiety in company. I consider, besides, that a man of sixty-five, by dying, cuts off only a few years of infirmities; and though I see many symptoms of my literary reputation's breaking out at last with additional lustre, I knew that I could have but few years to enjoy it. It is difficult to be more detached from life than I am at present.
Hume's great friend, Adam Smith, describes one of his last visits to Hume:

He said that he felt that satisfaction [at leaving all his friends and his brother's family in great prosperity] so sensibly, that when he was reading a few days before, Lucian's Dialogues of the Dead, among all the excuses which are alleged to Charon for not entering readily into his boat, he could not find one that fitted him; he had no house to finish, he had no daughter to provide for, he had no enemies upon whom he wished to revenge himself. "I could not well imagine," said he, "what excuse I could make to Charon in order to obtain a little delay. I have done every thing of consequence which I ever meant to do, and I could at no time expect to leave my relations and friends in a better situation than that in which I am now likely to leave them; I, therefore, have all reason to die contented." He then diverted himself with inventing several jocular excuses, which he supposed he might make to Charon, and with imagining the very surly answers which it might suit the character of Charon to return to them. "Upon further consideration," said he, "I thought I might say to him, 'Good Charon, I have been correcting my works for a new edition. Allow me a little time, that I may see how the Public receives the alterations.' But Charon would answer, 'When you have seen the effect of these, you will be for making other alterations. There will be no end of such excuses; so, honest friend, please step into the boat.' But I might still urge, 'Have a little patience, good Charon, I have been endeavouring to open the eyes of the Public. If I live a few years longer, I may have the satisfaction of seeing the downfal (sic) of some of the prevailing systems of superstition.' But Charon would then lose all temper and decency. 'You loitering rogue, that will not happen these many hundred years. Do you fancy I will grant you a lease for so long a term? Get into the boat this instant, you lazy loitering rogue.'"
With such a face turned towards death, who can doubt Hume's boast, if it be that:

[T]hough most men any wise eminent, have found reason to complain of calumny, I never was touched, or even attacked by her baleful tooth; and though I wantonly exposed myself to the rage of both civil and religious factions, they seemed to be disarmed in my behalf of their wonted fury. My friends never had occasion to vindicate any one circumstance of my character and conduct; not but that the zealots, we may well suppose, would have been glad to invent and propagate any story to my disadvantage, but they could never find any which they thought would wear the face of probability. I cannot say there is no vanity in making this funeral oration of myself, but I hope it is not a misplaced one; and this is a matter of fact which is easily cleared and ascertained.


Anthropomorphites Strut Upon the Stage

Reading David Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion again (and, with an able assist from the commentary of Norman Kemp Smith, actually getting all the way through), I was struck with Hume's demolition of the anthropomorphic arguments of the Natural Theologians, who are, after all, the source of the Intelligent Design Creationists' claims.

Cleanthes, Hume's advocate for Natural Theology, remonstrates Demea, the more traditional theist, for maintaining that the nature of the Deity is mysterious and incomprehensible to humans.

I can readily allow, said Cleanthes, that those who maintain the perfect simplicity of the supreme Being, to the extent in which you have explained it, are complete mystics, and chargeable with all the consequences which I have drawn from their opinion. They are, in a word, atheists, without knowing it. For though it be allowed, that the Deity possesses attributes, of which we have no comprehension; yet ought we never to ascribe to him any attributes, which are absolutely incompatible with that intelligent nature, essential to him. A mind, whose acts and sentiments and ideas are not distinct and successive; one, that is wholly simple, and totally immutable; is a mind which has no thought, no reason, no will, no sentiment, no love, no hatred; or in a word, is no mind at all. ...
Philo, Hume's stand-in, notes the underpinnings of Cleanthes' argument:

Like effects prove like causes. This is the experimental argument; and this, you say too, is the sole theological argument. Now it is certain, that the liker the effects are, which are seen, and the liker the causes, which are inferred, the stronger is the argument.
The sole "evidence" offered in favor of ID is this analogy. ID's central claim is, in reality, an argumentum ad ignorantium, alleging evolutionary theory is incapable of explaining complexity. The best the IDeologists can do in terms of positive arguments for design is summed up in Stephen Meyer's article "Not by chance." But it contains no actual evidence at all. Meyer's contentions are a classic argument from ignorance layered over what Judge Jones rightly called in his decision in Kitzmiller a "contrived dualism":

1) "Either life arose as the result of purely undirected material processes or a guiding intelligence played a role."

2) There is an "appearance of design."

3) This appearance is "unexplained by the mechanism -- natural selection -- that Darwin specifically proposed to replace the design hypothesis."
The only "positive evidence" the article advances can be summed up in this analogy from Meyer:

DNA functions like a software program. We know from experience that software comes from programmers.

Indeed, Casey Luskin has defined ID itself in those very terms:

Luskin said the media often misidentifies intelligent design. He offered this definition: It's "a scientific theory that says some aspects of nature are best explained by an intelligent cause because they are identical to objects we commonly know were designed by human intelligence."

But Hume, long before William Paley codified the ID argument, pointed out the problem:

Every departure on either side [from "likeness" of effect or of inferred cause] diminishes the probability, and renders the experiment less conclusive. You cannot doubt of this principle: Neither ought you to reject its consequences. ...
And those consequences are dire for the IDers:

First, By this method of reasoning, you renounce all claim to infinity in any of the attributes of the Deity. For as the cause ought only to be proportioned to the effect, and the effect, so far as it falls under our cognisance, is not infinite; what pretensions have we, upon your supposition, to ascribe that attribute to the divine Being ? You will still insist, that, by removing him so much from all similarity to human creatures, we give into the most arbitrary hypothesis, and at the same time weaken all proofs of his existence.

Secondly, You have no reason, on your theory, for ascribing perfection to the Deity, even in his finite capacity; or for supposing him free from every error, mistake, or incoherence in his undertakings. There are many inexplicable difficulties in the works of nature, which, if we allow a perfect Author to be proved a priori, are easily solved, and become only seeming difficulties, from the narrow capacity of man, who cannot trace infinite relations. But according to your method of reasoning, these difficulties become all real; and perhaps will be insisted on, as new instances of likeness to human art and contrivance.
Indeed, I have heard Jay Richards, co-author of The Privileged Planet with astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez, and a "Senior Fellow" at the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture, insist that God is subject to design constraints of the same sort that human designers face in balancing speed and memory and display size in laptop computers with the weight and dimensions of the units. Fortunately, God has infinite strength, so He can carry around a few million Crays hooked up in parallel to satisfy His mobile needs.

Another amusing example is this article by Jonathan Witt, also a Senior Fellow at the DI, entitled "Panning God: Darwinism's Defective Argument Against Bad Design." Besides the fact that, since it is aimed at his fellow religionists at the North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention and, therefore, Witt can drop the pretense that "the Designer" is anything other than "the holy God of the Bible, father and shepherd and husband of His people," the infirmity often shown in the universe's design is supposedly "explained" by denying that God is a "hyper-tidy engineer." How, then, we can recognize His engineering in the bacterial flagellum is a point glossed over. Instead, Witt, in keeping with his Ph.D. in English that so qualifies him as an expert in the "science" of ID, invokes an artistic, Shakespearean God who values "variety, imaginative exuberance, freedom, even moral complexity" over "a hyper-constricted and abstract elegance."

But Shakespeare subjected only imaginary characters to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Are we mere players inflicted with cancer and famine, pestilence and war, grief and death to serve as the amusements of a bored playwright? Or do we inhabit some doll house of a world where an immature and ultimately sadistic child tugs at our strings? Hume foresaw this:

[A] man, who follows your hypothesis, is able, perhaps, to assert, or conjecture, that the universe, sometime, arose from something like design: But beyond that position he cannot ascertain one single circumstance, and, is left afterwards to fix every point of his theology, by the utmost licence of fancy and hypothesis. This world, for aught he knows, is very faulty and imperfect, compared to a superior standard; and was only the first rude essay of some infant Deity, who afterwards abandoned it, ashamed of his lame performance; it is the work only of some dependent, inferior Deity; and is the object of derision to his superiors; it is the production of old age and dotage in some superannuated Deity; and ever since his death, has run on at adventures, from the first impulse and active force, which it received from him.
Perhaps it is not surprising that those who need to anthropomorphize God, invariably find a small one.

Friday, September 07, 2007


Fundamental Truthiness

Willaim Dembski and the Discovery Institute's Media Complaints Division are over at the Baptist Press feeding the Righteous Right's cultural paranoia with breathless tales of how even sectarian universities like Baylor have been taken over by Darwinists in a reverse Wedge Strategy.

The tale of the shutdown of Robert Marks' website hosted on Baylor's computers is told well enough by the article, keeping in mind that it is all coming from the IDeologists' side, since the administration is not talking so far. While the administration appears to have been ham-fisted, it's true enough that it has no duty to host a site that is not actually affiliated with the university and that brings, in its judgment, the academic standards of the school into question.

In any event, what Dembski had to say is what interests me:

Dembski, in comments to the Southern Baptist Texan newsjournal Sept. 4, underscored the hypersensitivity surrounding Intelligent Design in scholastic institutions these days.

"You have to understand, in the current academic climate, Intelligent Design is like leprosy or heresy in times past," he said. "To be tagged as an ID supporter is to become an academic pariah, and this holds even at so-called Christian institutions that place a premium on respectability at the expense of truth and the offense of the Gospel."
Huh? If ID is science and only science, this is, at most, a bit of rough-and-tumble in the grand ol' tradition of the science wars of the 1970s and 80s, where torpedoing a web page (if any had existed back then) would have been considered small potatoes. So what's this "offense of the Gospel" and why does that apply to the "science" of ID? Just as strange, however, is:

Intelligent Design "in a sense became a poster child" of what immediate past president Robert Sloan tried to accomplish at Baylor, seeking to rescue the Baptist General Convention of Texas-affiliated school from its slide into secularization before he resigned under pressure in 2005, Dembski noted.
ID is the "poster child" of anti-secularization? Why ... that would make it ... gasp! ... sectarian!

You'd think that lying to pretend that it isn't would be an offense of the Gospel, now wouldn't you?

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