Thursday, January 31, 2008


R.I.P. When Education Died in Lafayette

Above are the perpetrators, posing for their mug shots, obviously drunk on Kool-Aid. As the Mayo Free Press/Suwanee Democrat related the gory details:

The Lafayette County School Board unanimously adopted a resolution in protest of a proposed Florida Department of Education revision of the science portion of the Sunshine State Standards at a special meeting on Jan. 25.

According to Fred Ward, Lafayette County superintendent of schools, FDOE is considering new standards which would make the teaching of evolution mandatory in every school and to disallow the teaching of any other explanation about how the earth, universe, and man came into existence.

“The new Sunshine State Standards for Science no longer present evolution as theory but as scientific fact,” Robert Koon, chairperson, said.

Well, evolution is both a fact and a theory. But it is most disheartening that any chairperson of a school board in 21st century America would have such an ignorant notion of what a "theory" is in science. That there are so many such people in charge of innocent children's education in this country is simply horrible.

Via Greg Laden and Florida Citizens for Science.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008


... no, flunked!

There is a perhaps subtle but still good piece of journalism in the Des Moines Register about the fantasy epic, starring Ben Stein, wrongly entitled "Expelled."

On the surface, it might appear to suffer from the "balance" mania modern media is prone to, where "both sides" of a dispute are treated as if they are of equal weight, without any critical examination of the underlying claims. Guillermo Gonzalez, the astronomer and Intelligent Design advocate recently denied tenure at Iowa State, is trotted out as the real star of the movie. Gonzales said:

I'm convinced that I was denied tenure because of my intelligent design research.
On the other side, Hector Avalos, an ISU professor of religious studies, who lead a petition drive denouncing ID, is quoted as well, saying that Expelled is a:

... revenge film meant to create political and public support for those who unsuccessfully attempted to present (intelligent design) as science in our educational system.
After introducing the Discovery Institute as an organization that "supports discussion of intelligent design in the classroom" (which will likely drive the DI's Media Complaint Division into a frenzy), the story goes on to say:

The Discovery Institute's motivations were part of the high-profile Dover, Pa., school district court case in 2005, in which U.S. District Judge John Jones quoted in his opinion one of the organization's fundraising proposals, which he referred to as the "Wedge Document." Jones wrote that the document stated that the intelligent design movement aims to replace science as currently practiced with science consistent with "theistic and Christian science."
And here is the subtle part: earlier in the story Mark Mathis, an associate producer of the movie, is quoted as saying:

[A]cademic suppression ... is going on to anybody that does not faithfully adhere to the monopolistic view within academia of atheistic neo-Darwinism.
This nicely demonstrates that the motivation of ID is, in fact, to change science into something that is not empirically objective but, instead, Christian apologetics.

It would have been nice if the article went a step further and explained that the empiric evidence is that evolutionary theory is not "atheistic," say by pointing to the many religious scientists, such as contemporary examples, Ken Miller and Francis Collins, or even some of the giants of evolutionary biology, such as R.A. Fisher and Theodosius Dobzhansky, who have accepted and strongly supported the scientific evidence for common descent. It might also have mentioned the acceptance of the science by such religious figures as Pope John Paul II and the 11,000 signors of The Clergy Letter Project.

But, hey! Nobody's perfect.


Passing Grade

The Baptist Press has a story on the continuing campaign against the proposed grade and high school science standards in Florida. As might be expected, it gives much space to the usual anti-science palaver: evolution is a religion; only experimental science, repeatable in the lab, counts as science and evolution (i.e. common descent) can't be demonstrated experimentally (damn, there goes astronomy!); the standards call for evolution to be taught as dogma; and so on in dreary repetition.

There was a bright spot from David Campbell, one of the writers of the proposed standards and a self-described "lifelong Christian." Campbell, who spoke before the Clay County school board before it decided unanimously to drink the creationist Kool-Aid, pointed out that "Evolution is not presented as dogma." But within the scientific community, he said, there is no argument about the specifics of evolution. Then came the really good stuff:

Did we eliminate other concepts? Yes, we did. We did not include Intelligent Design based on legal work and on decisions made earlier. I would also point out that we eliminated dogmatic ideas like flat earth, astrology, geocentrism and the prospect that canals on Mars were actually constructed by intelligent life.

The standards we prepared are designed to prepare students for the real world -- advanced high school courses, college courses and ultimately the real world in life.

Biology without evolution is like physics without movement, like chemistry without the periodic table. It's the glue that holds our subject together.
Give that man an "A+."

Tuesday, January 29, 2008


Sun Burn

As if poor Florida didn't have enough trouble trying to teach 21st century science in its schools!

Now a minion of Dubya's not-much-smarter brother is trying to gut the Florida Constitution's guarantee of separation of church and state, which, as it stands, is admirably clear: "No revenue of the state or any political subdivision or agency thereof shall ever be taken from the public treasury directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution."

As revealed by Stephen Goldstein of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Patricia Levesque, Jeb Bush's top education adviser while he was governor and a graduate of Bob Jones University, now heads two of the younger Bush's foundations. But that's not all she does:

Though influencing legislation appears to jeopardize the tax-exempt status of the nonprofits she heads, as a member of the state Taxation and Budget Reform Commission she is now not only lobbying, but proposing a constitutional amendment to turn Florida into a religious state, in the image of her God -- not yours. ...

Levesque/Jeb "would create exceptions to two existing provisions in the Florida Constitution by saying that the Legislature can enact programs using private providers 'in every field as permitted by law' without regard to their religious nature." In addition, "the commission proposal ... would lift an existing constitutional ban against direct or indirect state aid of any kind to churches and other religious organizations and institutions."

Ostensibly intended to permit restoration of Bush's school voucher program, struck down by the Florida Supreme Court as unconstitutional, and to provide "choice for health care, for elder care, for juvenile justice care, for substance abuse, for homelessness," Goldstein sees it -- to coin a phrase -- as the thin edge of the wedge:

But jumpin' Jesus, she's staging a coup d'etat! As every kindergartner knows, the constitutional firewall between religion and the state isn't discrimination, but protection — from zealots like Levesque/Jeb who want to subvert the state to their/any church.

In addition, don't let all that neutral talk about "choice for health care and elder care" and other care fool you. If the Levesque/Jeb amendment passes, it will open the floodgates so your tax dollars fund the religious radicals' comprehensive reactionary agenda: blocking stem cell research; depriving women of their reproductive rights; putting youths at risk of infectious disease by insisting upon abstinence-only sex education programs, which are proven failures. Before long, they'll see to it that "Intelligent Design" is the only theory of life Florida schools may teach.

What they need in Florida now isn't a better sun block ... it's a better dumb block!


Biological Premonition

A thought:

Natural science must be exact; it must rigidly avoid everything which oversteps the limit of the finite and the intelligible, and which is transcendental; it must proceed in a strictly materialistic manner, because its sole object is finite, force-endowed matter; and it must not forget that this true materialism is an empirical and not a philosophical one, and that it is bounded by the same limits as those of the domain upon which it moves.

I do not wish to say by this that the naturalist is not allowed to philosophise, that he is forbidden to move in ideal and transcendental domains. But he ceases to be a naturalist, and the only thing, which from his vocation is perhaps of advantage to him, is that he keeps both domains strictly apart; that he knows how to treat the one as the pure domain of investigation and knowledge, and the other, while he frees it from everything finite, as the hidden domain of the presentiment.

Karl von Nägeli, "The Limits of Natural Knowledge," Nature, October 25, 1877


Monday, January 28, 2008


Sundays With Charles

Michael Zimmerman, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and professor of biology at Butler University in Indianapolis, is the founder of The Clergy Letter Project. He has a piece in the Houston Chronicle about the Project and Evolution Weekend Feb. 8-10.

[T]he scientific community has begun to take notice of the activity of religious colleagues and they've started to work collaboratively with clergy. When the National Academy of Sciences recently released its new book (Science, Evolution and Creationism) defending evolution and explaining why it's imperative that it be taught in science classes, for example, it pointed to The Letter as evidence that evolutionary teaching needn't be a controversial topic.

And, when The Clergy Letter Project created a list of scientific consultants, experts willing to answer questions posed by clerical colleagues, more than 500 scientists representing every state and 29 countries quickly signed up.
I can almost hear the Discovery Institute now: You criticized us for publishing in a sectarian religious magazine, but it's okay for "Darwinists" to become advisers to equally sectarian groups?

And my answer is: Yes. The reason for the distinction is that these religious leaders came to scientists asking to better understand science as it is, not asking that scientists engage in dishonest PR attempts to redefine science to better fit their religious dogma by removing its "materialistic bias" (otherwise known as its objectivity), as is the case with ID. And, of course, scientists actually do science. Advising the religious about what science says is a very minor part of what scientists do. Proselytizing is all that the IDeologist do.

It is the simple difference between education and propaganda.

Update: Here is more on Evolution Weekend from Episcopal Life, including information on appearances by Sandra D. Michael, SUNY Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Binghamton University in New York, at St. John's Episcopal Church in Northampton, Massachusetts and Thomas J. Lindell, professor emeritus in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology at the University of Arizona, at St. Philip's in the Hills, Tucson, Arizona.

Sunday, January 27, 2008


Lie Down With Dogs ...

I noted before that Rob Crowther at the Discovery Institute's Media Complaints Department might not be keeping up with events when he claimed that "there is no proposal to teach intelligent design" in Florida. In fact, a number of the local school board resolutions include demands for "alternatives" to be taught along with evolutionary theory, presumably including the Intelligent Design Creationism mentioned by many of the supporters of ignorance in education.

Who says you can't teach a dishonest dog new tricks? Turning his attention to the upcoming confrontation in Texas over its science standards, Crowther has modified his schtick to: "No serious participants in this debate are proposing that ID be mandated in Texas schools."

In other words, please ignore the unwashed hoi polloi who can't understand the need for a "nudge, nudge, wink, wink, know what I mean" when trying to sneak sectarian religion into taxpayer supported schools. Despite the misdirection, the real message remains clear:

[S]tudents would be best served to learn more about evolution, including the scientific evidence that challenges the theory. That's a far cry from teaching intelligent design.
Except there is nothing to ID, besides some analogies discredited for 200 years or more, outside the thoroughly debunked "evidence" borrowed wholesale from "creation science" by the "cdesign proponentsists" of ID. Teaching the lame leftovers of creation science as if they constitute scientific evidence against evolution is teaching ID.

To quote a great philosopher: "Stupid is as stupid does."

Mike Dunford at The Questionable Authority is even less impressed with Crowther than I am.


Advance Placement Theology Class

Here is a troubling story from my home (supposedly "blue") state of New York. Maria Salva, a senior at Susquehanna Valley High School, in Conklin, New York, just outside Binghamton, tells of project taken on by her AP Biology class:

In November, we produced a collaborative project on the origin of life: a large bulletin board in the science hallway illustrating some of the major theories. As time passed, some suggested including intelligent design, the new and still fully unscientific face for creationism, as a scientific "theory." After a few days, it seemed imminent that about half of the board would be dedicated to creationism, rather than additional science. Throughout this process, I was the only active opponent to the addition of intelligent design or creationism. It seems that if not for time limits, creationism probably would have been included as its own "theory," made to appear equally valid as the findings from the scientific method.
After briefly recounting the history of ID and the motivations for it revealed in the Wedge Document, she continues:

My experience working on the collaborative "origin of life" presentation has led me to suspect that the Wedge strategy has exerted some influence. Active opposition was minimal to creating a publicly visible presentation that, among the rest of the students in the school, would grant false intellectual validity to a propagandistic pseudoscience. It's quite troubling, but the AP group seemed to consider intelligent design an acceptable theory.
Unfortunately, she does not give the reaction of her teacher or the administration to this, though her being "the only active opponent" may be suggestive.

There is hope, of course. Ms. Salva's maturity is heartening. Her recognition that the willingness to substitute dogma and wishful thinking for science and logic can lead to such disasters as the war in Iraq and our national failure to face up to global warming, and her willingness to stand up against "the crowd," demonstrate that we haven't completely failed the next generation.

Saturday, January 26, 2008


Remaking God

Last week's Chicago Tribune Magazine had an interesting piece on "theistic evolutionism," a not very good term for what is admittedly a theological position. In essence, it entails attempts, mostly by religious scientists, to reconcile a belief in God with the scientific facts of biology in particular and with science in general. Among the major figures in this effort ... I hesitate to call it a "movement" ... are the familiar names of Kenneth Miller and Francis Collins (though I have my doubts Collins really belongs). Less well known perhaps are Howard Van Till, Simon Conway Morris and theologian John Haught (who testified for the plaintiffs in the Kitzmiller case).

The article is instructive and everyone, atheists included, should be aware that the theological reaction to science is not exhausted by the likes of young-Earth creationism and the dishonest machinations of Intelligent Design. Indeed, the theistic evolutionists make the point that ID is, as far as they are concerned, not only bad science but bad theology:

Intelligent design's shortcomings as science are immense, but its theological problems may be just as profound. The God of intelligent design is a master craftsman who leaves virtually nothing to chance. That's unsatisfying to Cambridge University paleontologist Simon Conway Morris, who says many of his objections to intelligent design stem from his Christian faith. "It's theology for control freaks, with God as an engineer."

The image of God as a micro-managing autocrat leads to some awkward paradoxes. For example, supporters of intelligent design often point to the flagellum, the complex molecular motor that allows bacteria to move, as an example of something that evolution could not have produced. Yet if God designed even the tiny flagellum, why stop there? Intelligent design implies that the creator's blueprint knows no limits. And if God designed every last element of life, that makes him minutely responsible for nature's cruelty and failures as well as its beauty.

"It gives you a God who cared enough to make the motors for bacteria, but wouldn't stop the motors of the planes on 9/11," Van Till says.

Instead of seeing the apparent randomness of the variation that fuels evolution as an argument against a personal God, theists of Haught's and Miller's stripe see it as an expression of God's love for his creation:

A detailed design would have limited the paths that living things could take. Instead, [Haught] says, God's love led to a world that's always open to new directions for life, without the need for overpowering divine supervision. ...

"Love persuades, it doesn't force," Haught says. "God doesn't compel the world to be a certain way, and that's because of how love works. God lets things be, and lets the weeds grow up with the wheat."

Irony rears its head at this point.

Many boosters of intelligent design find the self-humbling God of evolution too weak and passive to inspire belief. Somewhat oddly, many scientific atheists feel the same way.

"The only kind of theism that's reconcilable with evolution is one in which everything happened without any supernatural intervention," says Jerry Coyne of the U. of C. "You strip the specialness of human beings out of it, you strip the origin of life out of it, the soul." For Coyne, the only God worth believing in is one whom modern science has rendered implausible.

A theology of evolution risks turning God into an "attenuated deity," says William Dembski, one of the founding architects of intelligent design. Haught "sees God's hands in creation as fundamentally tied" ...

In a very real sense, these atheists and creationists share the same theology and only disagree about its viability. They agree, however, that the more nuanced theology of the theistic evolutionists does not satisfy their needs in this cultural clash and both wind up attacking those who try to reconcile science and their beliefs.

Me, I'm mostly on Darwin's side, who perhaps deserves the last word on this, given his place in engendering the argument:

I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance. Not that this notion at all satisfies me. I feel most deeply that the whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton. Let each man hope and believe what he can.


Peering at the Review

Well, at long last! Intelligent Design scientists are finally getting around to publishing their results! Robert Crowther is over at the Discovery Institute's Whine and Jeez blog crowing about the plethora of articles by "a veritable who's who of intelligent design scientists and scholars" that was just published in that well-known science journal, Salvo magazine.

What? You haven't heard about that bastion of fair-minded, peer-reviewed scientific articles? Well, read all about it at its "About" page:

Blasting holes in scientific naturalism, marveling at the intricate design of the universe, and promoting life in a culture of death;

Critiquing art, music, film, television, and literature, interrupting mass media influence, and questioning the sanity of our consumerist lifestyle;

Countering destructive ideologies, replacing revisionist fictions with undeniable facts, and paring away political correctness;

Debunking the cultural myths that have undercut human dignity, all but destroyed the notions of virtue and morality, and slowly eroded our appetite for transcendence;

Recovering the one worldview that actually works.
And what might that "worldview" be? Maybe a peek at the listed publisher, The Fellowship of St. James, will give a clue:

The Fellowship of St. James (FSJ) was incorporated in the early 1970's to uphold biblical, orthodox Christianity. It has three goals: (1) to promote and defend classical Christian doctrine, (2) to encourage the life in Christ, (3) and to foster a united witness to biblical Christian truth to a secular society. ...

The enterprise is founded in a shared belief in the fundamental doctrines of the faith as revealed in Holy Scripture and summarized in the ancient creeds of the Church.
But remember folks! ID has nothing to do with religion, nosirree Bob! It's just science!

Friday, January 25, 2008


Another Brick on the Load

Well, this looks like required reading:

In The Age of American Unreason, journalist Susan Jacoby examines just how isolated today's secular thinkers feel. Jacoby's collage of intelligent-design proponents, crusaders against childhood immunisation, and inarticulate politicians ... adds up to an image of monumental disrespect for the life of the mind and the primacy of logic.

... Jacoby, author of the critically praised Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism(2004), picks up where historian Richard Hofstadter left off. In Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1964), Hofstadter argued that, centuries before anyone styled themselves as "intellectual", currents in agrarian American thought (particularly the populist resistance to the hierarchies ingrained in Puritan society) fostered a violent opposition to bookish learning. Waves of revivalist tent meetings galvanised the late-18th-century backwoods citizenry into an ersatz republic founded on camp-side, fire-and-brimstone, anti-elitist notions of community. Jacoby traces the long, deleterious afterlife of that moment, which seems to pop up again and again.

Anti-intellectualism appeared during the period in the 1960s which was still a time of promise rather than a moment of political violence, bungled military adventures, and the eventual dashing of hopes. For Jacoby the decade is key to her story of cultural decline. Conservatives made much of the supposed lack of law and order; college deans tossed out academic standards in favour of ethnic-studies sops. Worse, youth culture gave rise to both a new, noxious form of celebrity worship (gravely anti-intellectual) and an inability to appreciate critical authority (ditto).

The decade, as a whole, "marked the beginning of the eclipse of print culture by the culture of video; the political street theatre of the late sixties was perfectly suited to video, and vice versa". Meanwhile, the fundamentalist right built a network of institutions that burst on to the scene with Ronald Reagan in 1980. For Jacoby, this is as much the legacy of the 1960s as Woodstock. Either way, neither the counterculture nor the counter-counterculture did much to stanch the haemorrhaging of intellectual life.
The reviewer finds Jacoby's list of our present woes overstated.

... faith-based politics; "junk thought", which hucksters can foist on to scientifically illiterate consumers to cast doubt on the reality of global warming or to promote dubious but fashionable ideas; digital culture, "whether … the tunes on an iPod, a picture flashing briefly on a home page, a text message, a video game, or the latest offering of 'reality' TV", which downgrades contemplative reading and conversation. The chapter titled "The Culture of Distraction" is impressive for the sheer number of targets at which Jacoby swings her assault-on-reason stick – from book packagers to the decline of grammar, Sesame Street to Baby Einstein, blogs and Google to YouTube and too much homework for kids.
Some are obviously worse than others, but overstated? ...


Mad Ave.

This slipped by me at the time but there has been some recent agitation within the Orthodox Jewish community in support of Intelligent Design Creationism. Specifically, at the Sixth Miami International Conference on Torah and Science last December in December 2006, where about 1,000 Jewish researchers, intellectuals, teachers and students gathered, a number of participants were urging such support:

... Moshe Tendler, an influential Orthodox rabbi and Yeshiva University biology professor, ambled onto the stage at Kovens Conference Center in North Miami. A stately figure with a wispy white beard and heavy glasses, he surveyed the 300-strong crowd of scientists and intellectuals -- most clad in yarmulkes and dark suits with tallith tassels dangling about their waists -- and urged them to spread the word that Darwin was wrong. "It is our task to inform the world [about intelligent design]," he implored. "Or the child growing up will grow up with unintelligent design Unintelligent design is our ignorance, our stupidity."
Another was Sholom Lipskar of the Shul of Bal Harbour, described as among Miami's most influential rabbis, who said:

The fundamental question the theory answers is, accidental or intentional? If it's accidental, then what's the point? But if there's design, we're here for a reason. It should be taught together with chemistry and physics [in Jewish classrooms].
The president of Miami's Center for the Advancement of Jewish Education, Chaim Botwinick, said:

Many Jewish schools are beginning to discuss making intelligent design an integral part of their curriculum.
There was hardly unanimity, however:

As soon as Tendler finished speaking, biologist Sheldon Gottlieb rushed to one of two microphones perched in the aisles. "We all know evolution is not random," he grumbled. "It goes through the filter of natural selection You cannot use those arguments with this audience." Tendler and Gottlieb sparred for about five minutes. Meanwhile, long lines began to form at the mikes. But the moderator cut the question-and-answer session short and sent the crowd home.
William Dembski was on hand to give a talk, quite literally "spinning" a tale of the bacteria flagellum. He too received less than an open-armed reception:

After about 45 minutes, Dembski wrapped up his talk, and dozens of attendees swarmed the microphones again, many of them eager to air their objections. "Our speaker has fuzzied the main issue," complained Nathan Aviezar, who teaches physics at Bar Ilan University in Israel. "The whole enterprise of science is to explain life without invoking supernatural explanations. Intelligent design is not science, it's religion, and it shouldn't be taught in science class."

The contentious Q&A lasted 25 minutes. When it was over, dozens of scientists rushed to the front to pelt Dembski with questions. The hubbub lasted so long that Sholom Lipskar of the Shul was pushed off the agenda.
Dembski showed what ID was really all about though. Saying that he hopes the conversation that began at the conference will continue, and that some Jewish scientists will eventually lend their talents to the intelligent design movement:

It would be huge in terms of PR because it would give lie to this idea that this is just a conservative Christian thing. It would also expand our talent pool immensely.
PR is ID's real name, of course. And creationism is, as we already know from Harun Yahya, a conservative Muslim thing as well as a conservative Christian thing. If it also became a conservative Jewish thing there'd be no great surprise.

As for ID's talent pool, any expansion over zero must seem immense.

Thursday, January 24, 2008


Philosophical Laws

The following is from an opinion piece in the Yale Daily News by Gabriel Michael, a graduate student in the Divinity School. Entitled "Popular anti-religion creates false dichotomy," it is at least worth consideration.

No one will debate the numerous horrors that have been perpetrated in the name of various religions, the intolerance preached from various pulpits around the world or the irrationality so often confused with faith. ...

The problem with the sort of atheism found in the popular press is that, despite its scientific trappings, its proponents are essentially playing philosophers. Not content with exposing Kent Hovind-style charlatans, popular atheism fallaciously argues that because science presupposes naturalism (the idea that everything can be explained through recourse to natural causes, as opposed to supernatural causes), it is therefore only rational to hold to physicalism (the idea that physical things are the only things that exist), which of course excludes any concept of the supernatural.

But physicalism is a philosophical position, not a scientific one. Other similar propositions, such as "scientific knowledge is the only form of knowledge," are also scientifically unprovable. ...

The late Stephen Jay Gould's famous description of science and religion as two "non-overlapping magisteria" is apt. The National Academy of Sciences espoused a similar view in a booklet entitled "Science, Evolution and Creationism" published earlier this month: "Science and religion are separate and address aspects of human understanding in different ways. ..."

[On the other hand,] those offering critiques of popular atheism often fail to differentiate between the science and the philosophy of their opponents. Throwing out the baby with the bath water, they concoct pseudoscientific explanations such as creationism and intelligent design. ...

It's wishful thinking to dismiss these people as poorly educated, backward folk. Some of my high school and undergraduate classmates now hold degrees from various well-respected universities and are also fervent proponents of intelligent design. ... [A]ppeals to Augustine, Francis Collins, various popes and other Christians who see no conflict between science and religion fall on deaf ears. These people have rejected science because they see in it an inevitable implication of atheism. Their stubbornness is exacerbated by the like of Dawkins and Hitchens.

Evangelists for atheism who link their philosophical positions to science end up doing that same science a great disservice by fueling the fire of fundamentalism here and around the world. Calling them evangelists is warranted, because if their true goal were the propagation of the acceptance of science, they simply wouldn't focus so much on non-scientific implications. ... In this argument, both sides lose: Reactionary religion marginalizes itself in the face of the modern scientific world, and evangelical atheism helps to produce more of the very enemies it most despises.
It is well to remember that the Law of Unintended Consequences is an iron one.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008


Stupid Is ...

Josh Rosenau of Thoughts from Kansas and the NCSE has a good refutation of an incredibly ignorant article by someone who, if Josh is right about this person being a liberal Christian, should have known light-years better. Let's look at one of the claims by Tony Campolo, who is described as professor emeritus of sociology at Eastern University and as a pastoral counselor to former President Clinton.

Darwin even argued [in The Descent of Man] that advanced societies should not waste time and money on caring for the mentally ill, or those with birth defects. To him, these unfit members of our species ought not to survive.
Let's look at what Darwin actually said:

With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilised men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment. There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to small-pox. Thus the weak members of civilised societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.

The aid which we feel impelled to give to the helpless is mainly an incidental result of the instinct of sympathy, which was originally acquired as part of the social instincts, but subsequently rendered, in the manner previously indicated, more tender and more widely diffused. Nor could we check our sympathy, if so urged by hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature. The surgeon may harden himself whilst performing an operation, for he knows that he is acting for the good of his patient; but if we were intentionally to neglect the weak and helpless, it could only be for a contingent benefit, with a certain and great present evil.

- The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, 1st edition, Volume 1, p. 168-69
It is clear that Mr. Campolo either did not bother to check out what he read in some secondary source or he is being dishonest about something that is easily checked. Either way, it is hardly a recommendation of his intelligence.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008


Under the Sun

It is, perhaps, part of the human condition to think our circumstances are unique; our problems never before faced. It's almost never true. Consider the following from Neal C. Gillespie's book, Charles Darwin and the Problem of Creation. Gillespie notes, in connection with the change from the theological to the positivist view of nature:

What had separated the developing positive outlook from the traditional one, from its significant beginnings in the seventeenth century on, was not the idea that nature is predictable -- men had known that from neolithic times if not earlier -- but that nature must not be unpredictable. ...

This need for a nature that was predictably certain was the crux of the reaction against miracles that began in natural history with the nomothetic creationists [who believed God acted only through natural law] and came to full flower in positivism where it eventually led to the rejection of any divine role in natural processes or in scientific explanations of them. ...

[The] common idea, held by laymen as well as scientist, that miracles or supernatural interruptions of the order of nature were impossible, was part of the episteme shift represented by the Origin. The impossibility of miracles followed from the implicit metaphysics of positivism: the belief that all events are part of an inviolable web of natural, even material, causation. For [John] Tyndall such a simple prayer as one for good weather implied a rearranging of the forces of nature on a scale that would be miraculous if carried out. All prayers to interfere with the determined course of nature, he said, were prayers for miracles and, as such, were beyond the limits of the possible.
On the other hand:

To be sure, not all subscribed to the idea that miracles were simply impossible. Some, like Huxley, followed David Hume in denying that the so-called laws of nature were anything more than human conventions about the perceived regularity of phenomena and, by themselves, were no justification for rejecting a priori the possibility of preternatural events. For these, the occurrence of events out of the accustomed order of nature was not a matter of possibility but one of probability, of evidence. ...

One might have wondered, with Archbishop Manning (as told by R. H. Hutton), why, with all the emphasis on evidence, skeptics like Huxley did not investigate contemporary miracles where eyewitnesses and scientific evaluation were available. Manning meant Roman Catholic Lourdes, of course ...

To some extent, Huxley took his battles where he found them and, for the most part, he found them in scripture. But even if he had investigated modern miracles thoroughly, he certainly would have found nothing more than a confirmation that the event had happened-which, in theory, he was prepared to admit -- and no evidence at all that the event was supernaturally caused. "We can never," he wrote, "be in a position to set bounds to the possibilities of nature." And, continued [John Stuart] Mill,

if we do not already believe in supernatural agencies, no miracle can prove to us their existence. The miracle itself, considered merely as an extraordinary fact, may be satisfactorily certified by our senses or by testimony; but nothing can ever prove that it is a miracle: there is still another possible hypothesis, that of its being the result of some unknown natural cause. ...
Those who appealed to evidence, therefore, misrepresented the question by suggesting that evidence could settle it. But belief about the miraculous, one way or the other, required a prior belief, that is, an epistemic commitment. "The essential question of miracles," said Baden Powell,

stands quite apart from any consideration of testimony; the question would remain the same, if we had the evidence of our own senses to an alleged miracle, that is, to an extraordinary or inexplicable fact. It is not the mere fact, but the came or explanation of it, which is the point at issue.
Interpretations of such events, he went on, are governed by our preconceptions. A believer in the uniformity of nature would find, in the mere event, no reason to think it a supernatural intervention or miracle.'
There'll be a new sun before there are new arguments under one.


Monday, January 21, 2008


Sailing Off in a Kvetch

The boyz at the Discovery Institute's Media Complaints Department need some time off!

They're actually down to complaining that the Minority Leader of the Florida House of Representatives, Dan Gelber, got "a whopping 393 words ... a full 143 words more than is allowed letter writers by [The Palm Beach Post's] own guidelines" to air his support for the state's new proposed science standards and his opposition to teaching creationism alongside evolution in public schools. Let me be the first to say ... gasp! An influential politician got a few extra words in a newspaper? How incredible!

The semi-serious complaint is that Rep. Gelber attacked Intelligent Design while, supposedly, there is no proposal to teach Intelligent Design.

Unfortunately, the draft Florida standards don't call for teaching students the full story about evolution, which is a shame. The best solution to that problem would be to add more about the scientific weaknesses of evolution, not mandate intelligent design. Never mind, that hasn't kept Darwinists from trying to make intelligent design an issue.
Apparently the boyz haven't been keeping up with the resolutions that local school boards have been passing, such as the one from Madison County that asks the Florida Department of Education to revise the standards "such that evolution is not presented as fact, but as one of several theories."

What might those "other theories" include, do you suppose? But even on the Discovery Institute's own terms, the attempt to keep evolution from being presented as fact by perpetuating long-refuted "scientific weaknesses" borrowed mostly from "creation science" is the entire sum and substance of ID, except for lame updates to William Paley's watch analogy, such as pretending DNA is like a computer program.

Rep. Gelber was exactly correct to finger the IDeologists for encouraging school boards to make fools of themselves ... which is why the DI is reduced to complaining about word counts.

Sunday, January 20, 2008


Emptying Cat Bags

The Beaumont (Texas) Enterprise has an article, "Science war brews," about the Institute for Creation Research's attempt to get authorization from the Texas state government to grant online master's degrees in science education. The Texas Academy of Science -- good for it! -- has gone on record with the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board and Gov. Rick Perry that the Academy opposes the placement of creationism or intelligent design teachings in all levels of science curricula.

The really interesting thing about the article is the quote from Henry Morris III, the ICR's chief executive officer. As I noted before, the ICR tries to make a distinction

... between experimental science (laboratory research) and forensic science (interpretations of present data about historical events). ICR teaches exactly the same experimental science as any university, but we have a very different perspective when it comes to forensic science (origins, pre-history).
Morris expands on that in the following manner:

We are forensically interpreting the data based on our presupposition. The evolutionists do the same thing. They have a presupposition that there is no supernatural intervention of any kind. We have a presupposition that there is supernatural intervention in the past, not in the present.
Quite apart from the question of whether their fellow religionists will find it acceptable that the ICR apparently maintains that God has suddenly declared "hand-off" the material world, just how does its "presupposition" of supernatural intervention not render the course religious rather than scientific, especially in light of Edwards v. Aguillard?

Based on Morris' statement, it seems to me that any action by the state to approve the ICR course to deliver a degree in science education would clearly be an endorsement of a particular (not to mention peculiar) sectarian religious belief in violation of the Constitution's Establishment clause.


Divine Politics

Mike Huckabee is someone who appears to be a nice man and who is striving hard to present his evangelical Christian beliefs as, at least, somewhat moderate, despite stumbles such as his recent statement:

It's a lot easier to change the Constitution, than it would be to change the word of the living God, and that's what we need to do, is to amend the Constitution so it's in God's standards.
Alex Koppelman and Vincent Rossmeier at Salon, however, have an important article demonstrating Huckabee's ties to prominent voices in the Reconstructionist and Dominionist movements that seek to establish a theocracy, or as near as possible, in the United States. Among those connections are George Grant, the former executive director of D. James Kennedy's Coral Ridge Ministries; Janet Folger, the founder of Faith2Action; Rick Scarborough, the founder of Vision America and self-described "Christocrat;" Michael Farris, the founder and chancellor of Patrick Henry College, the stated mission of which is "to prepare Christian men and women who will lead our nation and shape our culture with timeless biblical values;" and Don Wildmon, the chairman and founder of the American Family Association.

These people, in turn, have connections with the likes of R.J. Rushdoony and his son-in-law Gary North, who advocate stoning as a method of execution, including for the "crimes" of homosexuality, blasphemy and cursing one's parents. The Coalition on Revival is a group that a number of the above people are associated with that produced "The Manifesto for the Christian Church" that includes:

We affirm that the Bible is not only God's statements to us regarding religion, salvation, eternity, and righteousness, but also the final measurement and depository of certain fundamental facts of reality and basic principles that God wants all mankind to know in the spheres of law, government, economics, business, education, arts and communication, medicine, psychology, and science. All theories and practices of these spheres of life are only true, right, and realistic to the degree that they agree with the Bible. The Bible furnishes mankind with the only logical and verbal connection between time and eternity, religion and science, the visible and invisible worlds.
Now, does all this prove that Huckabee is, himself, a Reconstructionist or Dominionist running a stealth campaign to undermine the Constitution and replace our democracy with someone's notion of "God's rule"? No. But the next time you hear Huckabee complain that his religious beliefs have nothing to do with the job of President, just laugh in his face.

Saturday, January 19, 2008


Paranoia Patrol

That bastion of journalistic excellence, the East Valley (Arizona) Tribune has a story on Gary Cass, the "executor (sic) director of the Christian Anti-Defamation Commission." Strangely, the article manages never to use his first name.

The treatment befits the topic in some ways. Cass, an alumni of the late D. James Kennedy's Coral Ridge Ministries, was the head of Kennedy's now defunct Center for Reclaiming America. Kennedy, of course, was the perpetrator of the execrable pseudodocumentary Darwin's Deadly Legacy and was himself a Dominionist, who thought that, as another Kennedy aide put it:

Christians have an obligation, a mandate, a commission, a holy responsibility to reclaim the land for Jesus Christ -- to have dominion in civil structures, just as in every other aspect of life and godliness.

But it is dominion we are after. Not just a voice.
It is dominion we are after. Not just influence.
It is dominion we are after. Not just equal time.
It is dominion we are after.
It may be counterintuitive but one of the tools they employ in this effort is the meme that Christians are being marginalized or belittled by the media elite in the world. The example Cass came up with for the article was an episode of NBC's "Law & Order" in which a police detective called Christians "Bible thumpers" (gasp!) in the course of an investigation into death threats by a college minister against a professor in connection with the minister's opposition to homosexuality.

To allow their protagonists to derisively portray Christians as unenlightened, violent and out of step is galling.
This is amusing because, as pointed out by People For the American Way, Cass took Rudy Giuliani to task for thinking of "the story of Jonah as mere allegory." Unenlightened or out-of-step? Perish the thought!

There is even a bit more irony involved because Cass has himself attacked Mitt Romney's "Mormon dollars" and the church's alleged "hostility to Christianity," in furtherance of his support for the candidacy of former "Law & Order" star Fred Thompson.

Cass also decries the recent hate crime legislation as an attempt to "silence us." In fact, that legislation simply tried to extend the jurisdiction of Federal law enforcement agencies to the use of fires, firearms, explosives or incendiary devices to cause bodily injury to any person based on their gender, sexual orientation or gender identity, to go with the same protection afforded to people for their race, color, national origin and religion.

Finally, Cass invokes the specter of Christians being told to "take our values out of the public square;" which are code words for the claim that they have the right to use the power of the state and the tax money of all citizens to promote their brand of religion to the exclusion of all others.

In short, this "persecuted majority" whine is an attempt to position Christians of Cass' ilk as permitted to use any rhetoric and any means against anyone who they don't like, while anyone who dares to disagree or object can be, at the very least, dismissed as bigoted and un-American.

What was that saying about wolves and sheep apparel?

Friday, January 18, 2008


Evolution Enlightenment

Peter J. Bowler is the author of Evolution: The History of an Idea, Third Edition, which is probably the definitive history of the concept of evolution. He has discussed at length the "Eclipse of Darwin" that occurred roughly beginning in the 1890s and ending only with the triumph of the "neo-Darwinian synthesis" in the 1940s. In his most recent book, Monkey Trials and Gorilla Sermons: Evolution and Christianity from Darwin to Intelligent Design, Bowler explains that much of the Eclipse was due to the reluctance of scientists at the time to embrace the materialism that evolution by random mutation and blind selection seemed to imply.

Even those engaged in restoring Darwinian evolution, such as R.A. Fisher, remained unwilling to embrace completely naturalistic evolution. Another major figure also demurred:

Some of the American founders of the modern Darwinian synthesis displayed a similar lack of enthusiasm for materialism. Most notably, the Russian émigré Theodosius Dobzhansky remained a lifelong member of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Dobzhansky's Genetics and the Origin of Species of 1937 was one of the key texts helping to link the genetics of natural selection with field studies: He recognized the danger that some church leaders might encourage a rejection of scientific advances, but saw no barrier himself between his work as an evolutionist and a liberal Christian faith. In fact, for Dobzhansky, Christianity was an evolutionary religion, since it called for everyone to participate in future human progress. As a refugee from the Soviets, he was particularly concerned to stress the role of human freedom as the essential basis for such participation. His 1967 book The Biology of Ultimate Concern made these commitments in a very explicit way. Like Huxley, he was also attracted to Teilhard de Chardin's evolutionary mysticism. He accepted the need to see evolution rising steadily to ever higher levels of mental and spiritual development, although as a good Darwinian he found it difficult to accept that the specific character of the human species was predetermined. Evolution groped its way forward in an uncertain and unpredictable manner -- it did not run straight toward a fixed goal.
Most everybody has heard of Dobzhanky's saying, taken from the title of a talk, that "Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution." Perhaps less well known is the following from that speech:

Antievolutionists fail to understand how natural selection operates. They fancy that all existing species were generated by supernatural fiat a few thousand years ago, pretty much as we find them today. But what is the sense of having as many as 2 or 3 million species living on earth? If natural selection is the main factor that brings evolution about, any number of species is understandable: natural selection does not work according to a foreordained plan, and species are produced not because they are needed for some purpose but simply because there is an environmental opportunity and genetic wherewithal to make them possible. ... The organic diversity becomes, however, reasonable and understandable if the Creator has created the living world not by caprice but by evolution propelled by natural selection. It is wrong to hold creation and evolution as mutually exclusive alternatives. I am a creationist and an evolutionist. Evolution is God's, or Nature's method of creation. Creation is not an event that happened in 4004 BC; it is a process that began some 10 billion years ago and is still under way.
Surprise also makes sense in the light of evolution.


Thursday, January 17, 2008


Shining Coprolites

David Gibbs' and crew have released their updated memo as promised and it is better written but still devoid of any educational content. You can find links and a good analysis over at Florida Citizens for Science.

The same attempts to water down the science being taught in Florida are rehashed. There is more quote mining, particularly of Ken Miller and, for contrast, Richard Dawkins. Add in Dan Dennett (incorrectly identified as an "evolutionary scientist") and you get the setup for the still disingenuous attempt to cast the teaching of evolutionary theory as a violation of the Establishment Clause:

Ponder carefully that these three evolutionary scientists have summarized the dangerous educational outcomes if Evolution, as a fact, is allowed to become the "fundamental concept" by which all of life is interpreted and understood. It will demand that the concept of "God" be banished from the mind and replaced by atheism; It will displace any idea that there is purpose for man except to discover what it means to be human; It will demonstrate that other species of animal life have as much value and right as man; and it will require a mind devoid of biblical theism -- devoid of any concept of God.

The courts have decreed that evolution is not a religion, but even its own advocates declare that it is antireligious and atheistic leaving no room for religion in the life of the mind. It is not a religion -- but if it is allowed to become educational Benchmarks -- it will be a government sanctioned anti-religious movement designed to replace God, a Biblical worldview, and spiritual and ethical values in the minds of our children.
As I noted before, the Gibbs' cohort are engaged in nothing more than sleight-of-hand. The standards are talking about how evolution is the fundamental concept within the science of biology. That is a simple fact. Biologist have considered evolution to be the organizing idea for understanding biology for 150 years now. ID hasn't made a dent in that because it can't come up with the goods.

Gibbs et al. conflate the Standard's recognition of this state of science with "an interpretive system" that goes outside science and demands that the very concept of God "be banished from the mind and replaced by atheism." It is only the opponents of science who are trying to turn evolution into a religion here. In any event, many people, including Miller, don't think evolution could serve to banish God.

But Dan Dennett is right. Ideas are dangerous ... especially when all that oppose them are ancient myths.


News Flasher!

Breaking Story!

There is some bullcrap that Ben Stein won't eat!

Venturing out as far as the friendly confines of "Cybercast News Service," the bastard stepchild of an even more doubtful enterprise called "Media Research Center," both of which were founded by L. Brent Bozell III, a nephew of William F. Buckley and a member of the board of Bill Donohue's Catholic League, Stein gave an interview with the usual quotient of disingenuous blather about the poor, oppressed IDeologists not being allowed to make up their own version of science. But the interviewer, one Kevin Mooney (okay, I'm piously passing that one up), asked Stein about:

... Jon Wells, who indicate[s] that given how the cells are put together, with eye toward intelligent design, and with the idea that animal cells have tiny turbines - or if viewed as tiny turbines - he was able to formulate a theory that said in the event these things malfunction and don't properly shut down and could break apart, this is the first step on the way to cancer. He seemed to be suggesting that intelligent design theory could open up a lot of possibilities into improving the human condition. He doesn't explicitly say 'a cure for cancer,' but at least providing additional insight into new areas of treatment or a better understanding of how cancer is formed.
No doubt stunned by the journalistic excellence of the ... um ... question, Stein forgets to put his brain on hold and replies:

Well, I think, I wouldn't say, if you say intelligent design is the answer and we're all created by an intelligent designer - that does not by itself provide the cure to cancer or any other disease or does not provide any ideas about how to deal with a stroke or with the heart hammering blood into the brain. But I would say, if you accept a broader, an even broader premise than intelligent design, namely, don't foreclose anything in your study of the human body and of the cell, then you are a lot more likely to get somewhere. I'd put it like that. I don't think saying intelligent design just automatically gets you anywhere.
Well, Ben, after some 400 years that ID has been around without it leading to anything, I'd have to agree that you're on to something there! (And if you're interested in what Wells is really up to, see Ian Musgrave's explanation at the Panda's Thumb.)

Then Ben is asked if ID is creationism and he comes up with this doozy:

Well, I would say it's creationism by someone. For me, I've always believed that there was a God. I've always believed that God created the heavens and earth - so, for me it's not a huge leap from there to intelligent design. I think for some of the people who work on intelligent design, they're not as long-time believers as I am. So, I would answer that question, in brief, by saying, I believe in God and God created the heavens and the earth and all the life on the earth. But what other people, who are intelligent design people, think, I could not characterize.

Finally, there is the obligatory conspiracy theory. Asked why the very idea or suggestion of intelligent design is so antagonistic to scientists, Stein responds:

[I]f they are Darwinists and they owe their jobs to being Darwinists, they are not going to challenge the orthodoxy because that would challenge the whole basis of their jobs and their lives. So they are not going to challenge the ideology that has given them lush positions in real life.
I keep telling PZ not to tool around in that Ferrari Testarossa! Quietly enjoying one's Dom Perignon at home should be sufficient lording it over the proletariat for anyone!

Wednesday, January 16, 2008



One of the educational train wrecks that were threatening to happen in Texas has apparently been shunted onto a siding for the moment. According to Scott Jaschik at Inside Higher Ed:

The Institute for Creation Research, which received preliminary approval last month from an advisory committee to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board [to teach a masters program in science education], asked the commission not to consider the matter at this month's meeting. The institute acted after the commissioner of higher education sent the institute a series of questions about its program — questions that weren't considered in the initial review.
Raymund A. Paredes, commissioner of higher education for Texas, revealed that he had posed 3 questions to the ICR:

Online learning. "Given all the research that demonstrates that science is best learned by actually doing it, how are you going to give students the proper exposure to the experimentation side of science online?" Parades said that this question is one he would ask of any online science program and wasn't related specifically to creationism.

Curriculum. "Their curriculum doesn't line up very well with the curriculum available in conventional master of science programs here in Texas," he said. "I wanted them to either revise the curriculum or explain why it departed from the norm."

Research. Paredes said that the institute "claims that their faculty do actual research," so he asked for "material that documented the research activities under way" and that show the research to be "based on solid scientific research."
None of them are easy but the last two have to be killers for the ICR. Indeed, it is doing what any condemned man might do: praying ... literally:

Pray for the THECB Commissioner, Dr. Raymund Paredes, and his staff, that they will see the difference between experimental science (laboratory research) and forensic science (interpretations of present data about historical events). ICR teaches exactly the same experimental science as any university, but we have a very different perspective when it comes to forensic science (origins, pre-history). Pray that such distinctions will be made clear.
Steven Schafersman of Texas Citizens for Science has already written a good refutation of that alleged "distinction." But the ICR's blather just emphasizes how much trouble it will have answering the second question posed by Paredes. After all, if the ICR is making a distinction that normal science education programs don't make, why should ICR be allowed to give the same degree as the others?

Now if we can just find a siding to park Don McLeroy on.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008


Q Is for Quixotic

For a bit more on David Gibbs III and his tilt at the windmill of evolution, you can find his original memo to the Florida Board of Education about the proposed science standards on evolution in a pdf copy here. Both Florida Citizens for Science and the St. Petersburg Times education blog, The Gradebook, have further posts about Gibbs. But be aware that Gibbs and his law firm claim to be in the process of revising it. Nonetheless, it is an interesting document in its own right.

Mostly, it is comprised of quibbles about language; an attempt to inject doubt (or should I say "wiggle room"?) where there is little or none. It is all so predictable: trying to erect some barrier between "microeveolution" and "the change of one species to another species," the emphasis on the "origin of life" and the exaggerated distinction between "fact" and "theory."

For a student, like myself, of the dishonest machinations of creationists, the memo doesn't get interesting until page 4:

The final category of the Proposed Science Standards that we suggest should be reconsidered is the opening paragraph in the Grades 9 - 2 Standards entitled Evolution and Diversify: A. Evolution is the fundamental concept underlying all of biology and is supported by multiple forms of scientific evidence. B. Organisms are classified based on their evolutionary history. C. Natural selection is the primary mechanism leading to evolutionary change.

This statement declares matter-of-factly that Evolution is the only basis of an interpretive system for understanding all of life-science. This unscientific conclusory statement, devoid of underlying evidence, moves Florida's science standards outside the realm of traditional science and enters, instead, into the discipline of philosophy as the construct for defining a worldview. A worldview addresses, not only the field of science, but the philosophical purview of how to identify the four components of reality. The problem here is that Florida's science standards now force upon students only one of several potential interpretive worldview systems without providing any philosophical instruction as to how students may evaluate and distinguish between the various worldviews that inform and identify the four components of reality -- god, life, matter and time.

The proposed science standards now leave the field of science and give students only one unexplained construct for defining a worldview. Forcing the student to see all of life philosophically from one undefined and unexplained philosophical worldview -- a worldview that affirms there is no god; that matter is either eternal or has spontaneously appeared from non-matter; that life has spontaneously generated from non-living matter; and that time is but a segment of unmeasurable duration.

Note the sleight-of-hand: the standards are talking about science and how evolution is the fundamental concept within the science of biology. Gibbs and crew, however, are suddenly talking about "an interpretive system" on the same level or above science, having to do with their personal defintion of "reality": "god, life, matter and time." Now, the phrase, "interpretive system," may be taken from some corner of the standards (which I cannot find online now that public comment has been closed), but the point is that they are tying to present the standard's correct report of the current state of science as if it is proposed as a philosophical/theological assertion that precludes all other such beliefs. This conflation is made, if possible, even more clear by a comment reported at The Gradebook. Barbara Weller, one of the Sancho Panzas at Gibbs' firm and the Christian Law Association, is quoted as saying:

When you take that leap and call (Darwin's theory) a fundamental concept … you're moving beyond what science actually knows. This is the only field of science where people are not allowed to propose other ways of looking at things.
That's wrong on several counts. All fields of science have "fundamental concepts" that are, in the absence of any new information to bring them into question, accepted as true. Astronomy accepts as a fundamental concept that the Sun is at the center of the solar system; chemistry and physics accept that matter is made of atoms and medicine accepts that germs cause disease. On the other hand, science stands ready to listen if someone can present real empiric evidence countering one of these fundamental concepts, though it won't be easy. They are "fundamental concepts" in the first place because they have massive amounts of evidence on their side. Recycling long refuted claims from "creation science" or arguments from analogies that were demolished before Paley ever uttered them won’t do the trick.

Nor does science forbid anyone from looking at things in different, nonscientific, ways. What people like Gibbs don't have the right to do, either within science itself or, under our Constitution, in taxpayer supported schools, is to mislabel sectarian-inspired pseudoscience as "science."


Calculating Lite

David Gibbs III of the Christian Law Association, who conspired to keep Terri Schiavo's brain-dead body alive long past decency, and who is well known for taking even loopier legal stances, is back in the news, tempting one or more Florida citizens to make legal asses of themselves. Gibbs has argued in a five-page memo sent to the state Board of Education that the proposed science standards could face a legal challenge for violating the constitutional separation of church and state.

Pinellas lawyer David C. Gibbs III wrote in a recent legal memo that by singling out Darwin's theory of evolution as the sole pillar of modern biology, the proposed standards leave no room for other philosophical perspectives and cross the line between science and faith.
So, let's see ... science, which is not a philosophy but a method of investigating the material universe, because it is so successful at that objective, "leaves no room" for theological ... opps ... "philosophical" explanations of the material universe? Is that about right, Mr. Gibbs? The real complaint is that those nasty scientists keep showing that your Bronze Age understanding of how the world works is ludicrously wrong, isn't it?

Becky Steele, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, called Gibbs' claim "cockamamy."
I think she was being kind. She may also be naive about a certain brand of Christian:

"He claims that teaching science, based on well-accepted theories backed by factual evidence, is somehow promoting a particular religion in public school," she said in an e-mail. "Imagine them arguing that the Establishment Clause would be violated by teaching a calculus class that only expresses the 'worldview' of mathematics without any sense of the divine."
Oh, it doesn't take much imagination.

Bob Jones University Press: "Who needs a Christian math book? You do."

... "2 + 2 equals 4 whether you're a Christian or not," right? To most people that phrase sums up their belief that in certain areas there need be no difference between a Christian textbook and a non-Christian one. But what 2 + 2 equals is only a tiny piece of math. Far more important questions in math would be "Why does 2 + 2 = 4" or "Why does it matter?" Questions like those are the stuff of a worldview, something all textbooks -- even math ones -- communicate, and those questions will be answered differently by different worldviews.

Monday, January 14, 2008


Biblical Passages

Here's an interesting development: Georgia passed a law opening up public schools to the teaching of courses on the Bible ... and (almost) nobody came.

According to L'Angra Webster, a spokeswoman for the Hancock County school system:

We found that since many of our students have such a strong spiritual upbringing that is firmly grounded in Christianity, there was very little interest on the part of the students to take such a class.
Other districts are pleading poverty, an already overcrowded curriculum or the need to focus on new graduation requirements. Joe McDaniel, associate pastor at Mabel White Memorial Baptist Church, sees other considerations:

I think it's easier for systems to duck that issue than deal with the legal issues that accompany church and state and religion. Although it is the Bible Belt, there are different denominations and faiths here. We've become so multicultural, and something said that is kind or unkind about one religion may bring issues. It's easy for some systems not to touch it.
Oh, my! You'd almost think that the purpose of the Establishment clause was to protect religions by telling the government to keep hands-off!

The National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools, that has created a bible study program supposedly suitable for public classes, reports that only seven Georgia schools last year adopted courses on the Bible. But the NCBC may be having a little problem with some of the concepts in the subject matter.

First of all, they boast in the article that its courses "have never been challenged legally because it presents the Bible objectively and as part of the regular program of public school education." That's a little fib. Moreno v. Ector County Independent School District was one such challenge. It also displays a little inconsistency right on the front page of its own website. First it says:

The program is concerned with education rather than indoctrination of students. The central approach of the class is simply to study the Bible as a foundation document of society, and that approach is altogether appropriate in a comprehensive program of secular education.
But the very next sentence is:

The world is watching to see if we will be motivated to impact our culture, to deal with the moral crises in our society, and reclaim our families and children.
Huh? Secular study is reclaiming children from a moral crisis? And where have I heard that phrase about impacting the culture before? ...

You'd think that people so hot to teach the Bible might learn something about what it supposedly forbids.

Sunday, January 13, 2008


Of Morals and Heavens

Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the oftener and more steadily we reflect on them, the starry heavens above and the moral law within.
- Immanuel Kant
Steven Pinker has a long article on the nature and origin of the "moral sense" in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. This intuitive reaction to life is a bone of contention between secularists and theists but whatever its origin, the mechanics of moral calculation is fascinating.

Which of the following people would you say is the most admirable: Mother Teresa, Bill Gates or Norman Borlaug? And which do you think is the least admirable? For most people, it's an easy question. Mother Teresa, famous for ministering to the poor in Calcutta, has been beatified by the Vatican, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and ranked in an American poll as the most admired person of the 20th century. Bill Gates, infamous for giving us the Microsoft dancing paper clip and the blue screen of death, has been decapitated in effigy in "I Hate Gates" Web sites and hit with a pie in the face. As for Norman Borlaug . . . who the heck is Norman Borlaug?
Well, Borlaug is widely considered to be the father of the "Green Revolution" and may have saved a billion people from starvation and disease. Gates has set about giving away much of his fortune in ways that may be the most effective yet for really changing poor persons' lives. Mother Teresa, on the other hand, has been accused of offering the sick in her missions few analgesics and dangerously primitive medical care in furtherance of what she saw as the virtue of suffering.

It seems we may all be vulnerable to moral illusions the ethical equivalent of the bending lines that trick the eye on cereal boxes and in psychology textbooks. Illusions are a favorite tool of perception scientists for exposing the workings of the five senses, and of philosophers for shaking people out of the naïve belief that our minds give us a transparent window onto the world (since if our eyes can be fooled by an illusion, why should we trust them at other times?).
Pinker observes that moral judgments are different than other opinions we arrive at:

Moralization is a psychological state that can be turned on and off like a switch, and when it is on, a distinctive mind-set commandeers our thinking. This is the mind-set that makes us deem actions immoral ("killing is wrong"), rather than merely disagreeable ("I hate brussels sprouts"), unfashionable ("bell-bottoms are out") or imprudent ("don't scratch mosquito bites").

The first hallmark of moralization is that the rules it invokes are felt to be universal. Prohibitions of rape and murder, for example, are felt not to be matters of local custom but to be universally and objectively warranted. ...

The other hallmark is that people feel that those who commit immoral acts deserve to be punished. Not only is it allowable to inflict pain on a person who has broken a moral rule; it is wrong not to, to "let them get away with it." People are thus untroubled in inviting divine retribution or the power of the state to harm other people they deem immoral. Bertrand Russell wrote, "The infliction of cruelty with a good conscience is a delight to moralists — that is why they invented hell."

We all know what it feels like when the moralization switch flips inside us — the righteous glow, the burning dudgeon, the drive to recruit others to the cause.
One important question is whether we reach our moral judgments by reason or merely rationalize them after the fact. If you think it is easy, take these examples:

Julie is traveling in France on summer vacation from college with her brother Mark. One night they decide that it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love. Julie was already taking birth-control pills, but Mark uses a condom, too, just to be safe. They both enjoy the sex but decide not to do it again. They keep the night as a special secret, which makes them feel closer to each other. What do you think about that — was it O.K. for them to make love?

A woman is cleaning out her closet and she finds her old American flag. She doesn't want the flag anymore, so she cuts it up into pieces and uses the rags to clean her bathroom.

A family's dog is killed by a car in front of their house. They heard that dog meat was delicious, so they cut up the dog's body and cook it and eat it for dinner.
Or consider this pair of problems:

[Y]ou see a trolley car hurtling down the track, the conductor slumped over the controls. In the path of the trolley are five men working on the track, oblivious to the danger. You are standing at a fork in the track and can pull a lever that will divert the trolley onto a spur, saving the five men. Unfortunately, the trolley would then run over a single worker who is laboring on the spur.

You are on a bridge overlooking the tracks and have spotted the runaway trolley bearing down on the five workers. Now the only way to stop the trolley is to throw a heavy object in its path. And the only heavy object within reach is a fat man standing next to you.
Is it moral to throw the switch and is it moral to throw the fat man in front of the trolley? Both have the same "outcome," five lives are saved at the cost of one life, but are they moral equivalents?

There is much more in the article to ponder, no matter which side you take on the origin of morality. It's well worth reading.

Saturday, January 12, 2008


'Round and 'Round the Mulberry Bush ...

Anyone who has followed Casey Luskin's "career" ("ministry" would be a better word) knows that nuance is either beyond him or is bludgeoned to death in furtherance of the propagation of the faith. The Discovery Institute's Gofer General is back with a triple play this time. In a screed entitled "Nature Fulfilling Its Charter to Defend Evolution at all Costs," Luskin complains about an editorial in Nature (which he does not bother to link to) praising the new National Academy of Sciences booklet, Science, Evolution, and Creationism (available for free download at the NAS site or here).

Luskin begins by quote mining Peter J. Bowler, the author of probably the definitive history of the notion of biological evolution, Evolution: The History of an Idea, Third Edition. But the quote mine is more subtle than most Luskin has perpetrated and the true story behind Bowler's discussion is not completely flattering to the players on science's side. Luskin quotes Bowler as follows:

By exploiting their position in this network, Huxley and his friends ensured that Darwinism had come to stay. (Ruse, 1979a). They controlled the scientific journals -- the journal Nature was founded in part to promote the campaign -- and manipulated academic appointments. Hull (1978) has stressed how important these rhetorical and political skills were in creating a scientific revolution. The Darwinists adopted a flexible approach which deflected opposition, minimized infighting among themselves, and made it easy for others to join their campaign. Many, like Huxley himself, were not rigidly committed to the theory of natural selection; they were simply anxious to promote the case for evolution.

(Peter J. Bowler, Evolution: The History of an Idea, pg. 185 (University of California Press, 3rd ed., 2003).)
All of which is correctly quoted, ellipses-free and, surprisingly, includes the page number. All that's missing is the history.

British society at the time Darwin published the Origin was still in the throes of the Industrial Revolution and the wrenching changes it was bringing to society. The social order, that had for so long been dominated by class, was breaking up and forming again along new lines. The landed gentry, attempting to hold out against the mercantile elite, were losing ground. The established Church of England had slipped into a bureaucratic slumber where piety was slightly discreditable. The new middle class of technocrats were struggling to carve out a place separate (and above) the proletariat, who were, in turn, beginning to pay some heed to the voices demanding the destruction of the old ways altogether.

One reason Darwin was so ready to see what he did see was that he was positioned at the nexus of these competing forces. As the son and grandson of prominent doctors, he was not unfamiliar with the nobility and could move among them on somewhat even terms. Of course, he was related both by blood and, eventually, by marriage, to the Wedgwoods, who were prominent members of the rising industrial gentry. His experience among the dons at Cambridge was so comfortable he was not adverse to a life, as envisioned by his father, in a country parsonage. Finally, he was thrown into the closest possible proximity to the working and technocratic classes aboard the Beagle for five years.

Huxley, on the other hand, had come from a poor background and would have stayed there, despite his medical degree, if Britain's old class system could have had its way. As Bowler describes it in his most recent book, Monkey Trials and Gorilla Sermons: Evolution and Christianity from Darwin to Intelligent Design (p. 76):

Like Darwin he traveled the world aboard a Royal Navy survey ship, but where Darwin was the captain's companion on the Beagle, Huxley was a lowly naval surgeon on HMS Rattlesnake. Still, he had made a reputation for himself describing and classifying the exotic marine creatures they had dredged up, and in the 1850s he was desperately struggling to establish a career as a professional scientist. This was still not easy -- there were few properly paid jobs, and Huxley was lucky to get a lectureship in paleontology at the newly established Royal School of Mines. Once secure, Huxley threw himself into the campaign to establish science as the main source of expertise that the government of an industrial country should call upon to solve its social problems.
It was this desire to "professionalize" science, which, up to then, had largely been the province of the wealthy and of churchmen with the leisure to pursue it as a hobby, that drove much of Huxley's public activities. Which brings us back to Luskin's quote mine. With the exception of two sentences about Huxley's sitting on government commissions and his leading role in the "X Club," a group of like-minded backers of a new scientific establishment, the following appears directly before the bit quoted by Luskin:

Given that the details of the theory were controversial, the outcome of the debate would be determined not only by the evidence but also by the rhetorical and organizational skills of the rival parties. As a member of the new generation of professional scientists, Huxley was determined to wrest intellectual authority away from its traditional sources. Evolution was useful because it demonstrated that science could now determine the truth in an area once claimed by theology.
So it was certainly true that Huxley had motivations beyond the strict scientific issues of biology. What separates Huxley and his supporters from the IDeologists was that they remained interested in the science and, in opening it up to all capable practitioners, they were, in fact, seeking to improve it. Unlike the drones from the Discovery Institute, the newly professionalized scientific establishment continued to do actual science.

Which leads us to the second, and unintentionally funny, of Luskin's deprecations against sense. Luskin laments

... the National Academy of Science's new version of Science, Evolution, and Creationism because it [in Nature's words] "summarize[s] the reasons why evolution is in effect as much a scientific fact as the existence of atoms or the orbiting of Earth round the Sun." Such statements are saddening because they elevate evolution to the status of an unquestionable dogma and thus threaten the prestige of science as an objective voice in society.
I was unaware that the existence of atoms or the orbiting of the Earth around the Sun were "dogma," unquestionable or otherwise. Similarly, he kvetchs:

... what are scientists who do question Neo-Darwinism supposed to do when the top scientific organization in the U.S. proclaims that evolution is as unquestionable as the existence of atoms or the heliocentric model of the solar system?
Well, the honest thing to do would be to come up with a theory which explains the evidence better than those theories, which can continue to be tested empirically and which can then be used to explain even more of the natural universe -- in the same manner the scientific community did by integrating genetics with evolution or relativity with classical mechanics. Or, on the other hand, you can skip the science part and just go straight to rhetoric, the way the DI does.

Finally, and most weasel-like, Luskin notes that the title of Nature's editorial is "Spread the word: Evolution is a scientific fact, and every organization whose research depends on it should explain why."

Again, we see politics at work: they think scientists should defend evolution because their "research depends on it."
Luskin would have the unwary think that the title is a threat of the "or else" sort but, in fact, as the editorial says:

Evolution is of profound importance to modern biology and medicine. Accordingly, anyone who has the ability to explain the evidence behind this fact to their students, their friends and relatives should be given the ammunition to do so. Between now and the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth on 12 February 2009, every science academy and society with a stake in the credibility of evolution should summarize evidence for it on their website and take every opportunity to promote it.
It is not an attempt to intimidate; it is a request for everyone who uses evolutionary theory in their daily work to do for science and truth what the DI is willing to do for a lie: to speak out forcefully, though with more clarity and honesty, in the public square.

Labels: ,

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

. . . . .


How to Support Science Education