Monday, June 30, 2008


We're Doomed

Thanks to a great present from my wife of a generously large gift card to Barnes & Noble, which just opened a two-story location in our local mini-mega-mall, I spent a pleasant hour+ becoming acquainted with its wares this evening (David Quammen's The Reluctant Mr. Darwin and an inexpensive copy of Thomas Paine's The Age of Reason, if you must know, as an appetizer).

However, as always, I came away from a visit to one of these bastions of current American taste in reading rather depressed. The science section was excruciatingly small and tucked away in the farthest corner from the door. Not counting "Idiot Guides" and their kin, there was no more than four six-foot-high, four-foot-wide shelves devoted to books on science. A good portion of those were biographies, such as Quammen's, and most of the rest were popularizations of science. There were little or no "hard" science, though, to be fair, they may have been shelved in the "Reference" section, which I did not peruse. And then you had the gross mis-shelving, such as Guillermo Gonzalez' The Privileged Planet, flying under false science colors.

On the other hand, there were three of the same sized shelves of Bibles alone. Add to that four shelves of "Christian Inspiration" and four more of just plain "Christian" books and science was greatly outgunned by one religion alone. Add to that sections on "Eastern Religions," "New Age," "Astrology," and the like, and science was swamped by purveyors of faith. And we need not even count the ordinary woo, such as "Alternative Medicine." Heck, even one sub-category of Japanese animation known as "Manga" had more shelf space than science.

It's not like Americans don't have some sort of interest in science -- the science fiction section was five times larger than the science area. We just like to read about fantastic futures we won't be participating in.

The only hopeful sign was that there were a large selection of low-cost Barnes & Noble editions of great literature that were being pushed as "summer reading." Maybe future generations of Americans will at least be reading the classics during lulls in serving up hamburgers to the Chinese and Indian tourists.

Sunday, June 29, 2008


Nothin' Gets Past These Guys!

The United States Army Combat Studies Institute at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, has released a history of the Iraq war during the period from May 2003 to January 2005. Donald P. Wright, Col. Timothy R. Reese and the Army's Contemporary Operations Study Team concluded:

The transition to a new campaign was not well thought out, planned for, and prepared for before it began. Additionally, the assumptions about the nature of post-Saddam Iraq on which the transition was planned proved to be largely incorrect.

In short, the U.S. led forces lacked an operational and strategic plan for post-Saddam Iraq and, in any event, lacked the resources to carry one out. The report further warns that the Army National Guard and Reserves, which are essential components of our armed forces, are being expended in ways that are not sustainable.

Well, at least the Army's hindsight is 20/20.

So what we have is a Republican administration that couldn't plan its way out of a paper bag; that won a war nobody thought we could lose but lost the peace; and which has been expending an immense amount of treasure, thousands of American lives and untold numbers of Iraqi lives, while breaking our Army in the process, to try to make up for the fact that they're stupid.

Remind me again why people think that Republicans are better on foreign affairs and national security ...

Saturday, June 28, 2008


PZ Myers for Pope!

Anthropologist James W. Dow, a professor emeritus at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, is studying what some neo-Darwinians find to be a puzzle:

Why ... would early humankind sacrifice valuable meat to an unseen god, or practice dangerous forms of ritual mutilation? It might be required by religious faith, but it's a risky way to spend limited time and resources.

In other words, on an adaptationist account of the evolution of religion, why would seemingly costly rituals that produce no reproductive benefit survive selection? Dow has devised a computer simulation called "evogod" that he thinks may answer the question:

Dow populated his simulated society with two groups of people: one that professed a belief in things unseen and unverifiable (think: spirits, gods, etc.), and another that did not. Dow assumes religious faith is a hereditary trait.

In the beginning of the simulation, the groups who talked about "unreal" things, as Dow terms it, died out every time. Bottom line: They weren't paying enough attention to their environment to survive.

Yet when the program was tweaked and realists began to help the imaginative, believers survived. In other words, a "realist" can provide vital information about the environment ("Hey, beware of the lion's den over there") to help the believers survive.

So people like PZ, who regularly ... and loudly ... remind believers of the facts of the real world around them, may actually be helping believers to reproduce more successfully. In return for this help, providing a job and a title would not be remiss.

Of course, not everyone agrees with Dow's scientific claims:

Some scholars, such as Luther H. Martin of the University of Vermont, think religion is a byproduct of brain functions that evolved for other purposes.

If scholars can't even agree on what defines "religion," he says, it makes little sense to look for it in genes. "It's difficult to know what's evolving, what's being talked about," Martin says.

And, naturally, not everyone agrees that the question is amenable to science at all:

Georgetown University theologian John F. Haught says, "Dow's paper is one more attempt to provide a purely naturalistic explanation of religion."

"I accept Darwinian evolution," he says, "I have no doubt that religion can be adaptive, but that doesn't mean it's not true. Its truth lies at a level of depth that science cannot grasp."

Still, it might be amusing to see what uses PZ would put that shepherd's crook to.


Coming Back to Harbor

The Second Carnival of Elitist Bastards has set sail from the Carnival's own blog.

The contribution by Dana Hunter, our own Vice Admiral (and I couldn't think of anyone better to be in charge of Vice), is entitled "The American Electorate: 'I'm Voting for Stupid.'" It tells the sad tale of the fall of American politics. From a start not only graced by the likes of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and James Madison, but where a sizable portion of the electorate read the newly proposed Constitution and The Federalist Papers and seriously and intellectually debated the merits of our form of government, to a place where George Bush gets elected by pitching sound bites geared at a seventh grade reading level to a populace disinterested in facts, most of whom probably wouldn't recognize the Constitution if they were given a three day head start.

That explains why I chose JMW Turner's The Fighting Temeraire Tugged to Her Last Berth to Be Broken Up 1838 to illustrate this.


Friday, June 27, 2008


The Man of the Hour!




As you've probably heard, Gov. Bobby ("What Me Worry?") Jindal has signed the Bogalusa Bill into law. Then there was what, at first sight, appeared to be strange reaction by the Discovery Institute:

West said critics misunderstand the bill, which he said is not about creationism or intelligent design. Rather, he said, it's about clarifying that teachers are free to expose their students to the debates that Darwinian scientists have among themselves.

Instead, too many public school students get a "watered-down" discussion of evolutionary theory or nothing at all from teachers, and administrators are too concerned with not angering parents.

That sounds downright reasonable! ... Which is the cue to start searching for the rat! And John Timmer at Ars Technica may hove found just the place to start looking. Noting that the law permits use of "supplementary materials," Timmer continues:

Discovery, conveniently, has made just such a supplemental text available. As we noted in our earlier analysis, Discovery hopes to use these bills as a way to push its own textbook into the classroom. Having now read the text of the book, it is clear that our earlier analysis was correct; the book badly misrepresents the scientific community's understanding of evolution in order to suggest that the basics of the theory are questioned by biologists. In doing so, it ignores many of the specific questions about evolution that are actively debated by scientists.

So the idea appears to be that the DI will pretend to be speaking for "Darwinists" and have the ersatz version declare their own theory unworkable. In other words, if you can't beat 'em, dress up in their clothes and make believe they are being beaten.

Another great plan from the Acme Public Relations Company and School of Science.

Thursday, June 26, 2008


Goin' North

Gee, I wonder how Expelled is doing in Canada?

Matthew Hays, Montreal Mirror:

But the toughest pill to swallow is the historical context of the timing of the release of Expelled. Now, at the ebb of the Bush double term, at a time when a Republican administration did their very best to suppress information that got in the way of their various ideological goals—whether it was about global warming or the threat Saddam Hussein posed — a Republican makes a film claiming victim status. You got it — that stench in the cinemas is of rat.
Chris Knight, National Post:

Intelligent Design is not synonymous with the six-days-and-then-He-rested liturgy of creationism, but it's not far off. Proponents believe life is too complex to have arisen randomly, and the universe too unlikely for it to be a chance occurrence. (Although if life hadn't arisen, we wouldn't be making films about how unlikely it is.) DNA is a program, they contend, so where's the programmer? Unfortunately, any theory that rests on the axiom "Well, somebody must have made all this!" lacks a certain scientific rigour, never mind experimental validation.
Brian D. Johnson, Macleans:

I found this film so distasteful I hesitate to dignify it with even a thumbnail review.
Sounds like it's a hit!

And some more:

Ken Eisner, Georgia Straight:

Truth begins and ends with the title of Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, a semislick advertorial for "intelligent design", the sanitized public mask of creationism, itself invented by Christians who think their God is too stupid to have come up with evolution on his own.
Bill Brownstein, The Montreal Gazette:

[V]iewers are treated to gruesome shots of Nazi death camps. This is, to say the least, rather disingenuous and a really low blow.

It's not outside the realm of possibility that Darwinians are downright arrogant in promoting their views. But Nazis?

Ultimately, with this sort of trash talk, Stein does an intellectual disservice to Darwinians as well as Creationists.
Jay Stone, Vancouver Sun:

[Darwinism] leads to abortion, birth control, euthanasia and, at its extreme, Dachau, according to the film. These scenes, which include shots of Stein covering his face at the horrors of the thought, are both false and dishonest: it's as if you tried to prove the impossibility of God by showing the torture chambers of the Inquisition.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008


Overloading Information

A thought:

Don't want to believe in evolution? No problem - you can find support for intelligent design and creationism in magazines, on websites, and in all kinds of books written by people with PhDs. Want to believe aliens came to Earth and abducted people? It's easy to find theories about how governments have covered up information on extraterrestrial aliens. Think human-induced climate change is junk science? Well, if you choose to read only certain national newspapers and magazines and listen only to certain popular commentators on television or radio, you'll never have to change your mind. And so it goes. The challenge today is that there is a huge volume of information out there, much of it biased or deliberately distorted. As I think about my grandson, his hopes and dreams and the immense issues my generation has bequeathed him, I realize what he and all young people need most are the tools of skepticism, critical thinking, the ability to assess the credibility of sources, and the humility to realize we all possess beliefs and values that must constantly be reexamined.

- David Suzuki, "What a difference 50 years makes," Canadian Online Explorer

Tuesday, June 24, 2008


Put On Your Running Shoes

Uh, oh!

Cue the religious mobs of anti-elitists!

Stupid people are more likely than eggheads to believe in God, a controversial new study claims.

... [A] British psychologist says he has found a link between having a high IQ and being an atheist.

The discovery helps explain why university academics are less likely to be religious than almost anyone else, he says.
Prof. Richard Lynn, a retired academic at the University of Ulster, in a study published in the journal Intelligence, compared religious belief and average national IQs in 137 countries.

Prof. Lynn found that in only 17 per cent of countries did the proportion of people who believe in God fall below 80 per cent.

'These are virtually all the higher IQ countries,' he said. ...

Countries with a lower national IQ tended to have the most believers.
Needless to say, there is some dissent:

Prof. Gordon Lynch of Birkbeck College, London, said the study had failed to take into account complicated economic, historical and social factors that explained different IQ and 'faith' levels in countries.

'Linking religious belief and intelligence in this way could reflect a dangerous trend, developing a simplistic characterisation of religion as primitive,' he said.
Not to mention anomalous results:

One of the few exceptions was America - a high IQ country where only 10 per cent of people don't believe in God.
Frankly, I don't buy it!

Who can believe America is a high IQ country? ... especially after the last eight years!

Monday, June 23, 2008


Double Cross


Robert Robert Crowther is over at the Discovery Institute's Ministry of Misinformation doing the truly unexpected. Crowther praises the New York Times' editorial board's take on the pending Louisiana "academic freedom" law because the board "understand[s] what it says and does." Specifically, he cites the following, among other things, from the editorial for praise:

The new bill doesn't mention either creationism or its close cousin, intelligent design.

Who wouda thunk they'd cross us up this way and start telling the truth?


Goodnight and Thanks For Coming



Sunday, June 22, 2008


Ham Handed

Ken Ham is not a "wackaloon"!

"Wackaloon" is a word that should be reserved for something cuddly and basically harmless -- maybe a cartoon character named "Wackaloon Smurf." It has a sound appropriate for crazy Uncle Charley, the adult who made the other adults cluck disapprovingly but who treated all 10 year olds as if they were real people. That's not Ken Ham and PZ wasn't on his game the day he called Ham that.

I won't try to compete with Dana in creative -- and decidedly colorful -- invective. But the very worst epithet in my lexicon applies to Ken Ham. He is a diseducator. He leaves people stupider in his wake; less knowledgeable, less aware of the glories of nature; less familiar with the hard-won learning that is the greatest achievement of our species. He steals the most valuable coin people have and leaves their purse truly empty.

Instead, I'd like to look at what Ham's real complaint is. The occasion for PZ's comment was Ken Ham's appearance at a prayer breakfast at the Pentagon. Ham sees nothing wrong with that:

What's he so worked up about anyway? If he's right, God doesn't exist -- so prayer can't do anything and, therefore, can't harm anything.

Of course PZ isn't concerned about God answering those prayers. He is concerned that humans will answer them. He is concerned that there are people in high positions in our military who are willing to ignore basic, easily confirmed, objective facts about the world because those facts contradict one cramped interpretation of one bronze age mythos. That any people with regular practice in self-delusion are in custody of any part of our massive machinery of war is a matter of concern no less real than a two year-old being in custody of a loaded gun ... but of much greater moment.

Nor does Ham's diseducation end with science:

But, then, who cares about harm in a world without moral absolutes? It's the survival of the fittest; so, evolution will inexorably eliminate these weak-minded "idiots" at the Pentagon. If they nuke some people along the way, so what? That's just the death of the weakest in this purposeless accidental existence of ours; sooner or later the more fit will triumph, and the world will be more evolved. So, what's Myers concerned about? This is all just time and chance and the laws of nature at work. What is, is. There are and can be no "oughts."

John Wilkins has, coincidentally (or perhaps not), just posted an excellent meditation on the claim that God is necessary for morality, "The evolution of morality." Dana, in the more direct language of the non-philosopher has made much the same points. The bottom line, as John put it, is:

[T]o answer the question why we are moral, it is because our ancestors, who were apes and shared the common ape heritage of being social animals of a certain kind, were rule followers, and had to cooperate to survive and gain mating opportunities. And then we evolved language.

That may not satisfy Ham -- and that dissatisfaction, and the expression of it, is his right. But spreading the lie that such explanations of morality do not exist is more damage he does to those who listen to him and who put their trust in him.

If a God exists, I cannot help but wonder what she will think about Ham going around breaking the brains of her greatest creation in this corner of the cosmos.

Saturday, June 21, 2008


Drinking Steins

Can you stand one more word about Expelled?

Lucky Canadians are getting a chance to see what happens to IQs when subjected to certain versions of religious belief that require that brains be put on hold so as to not get in the way. Peter McKnight of the Vancouver Sun, who I've found to be a reliably intelligent and sensible voice on the topic of science and religion, has a look into Stein's misshapen stepchild and turns up some interesting -- and highly amusing -- tidbits.

The deprecations of the movie are now familiar but McKnight recounts them well and clearly. The interest starts to go up with mention of the Holocaust, however:

Nowhere does Stein mention the centuries of anti-Semitism before Darwin -- in fact, Expelled all but ignores anti-Semitism as a reason for the Holocaust. Consequently, the Anti-Defamation League issued a statement saying, "Using the Holocaust in order to tarnish those who promote the theory of evolution is outrageous and trivializes the complex factors that led to the mass extermination of European Jewry."

When I asked Stein about this statement, his response revealed his hostility toward the Anti-Defamation League more than anything else, as he told me bluntly, "It's none of their f---ing business."
Really, Ben? The rhetorical uses people put the Holocaust to and the effect those uses have on history's view of the Holocaust as both a memorial to the dead and a moral lesson to future generations is none of the Anti-Defamation League's business, f---ing or otherwise?

But then there's this to show why Stein could have such an ignorant opinion in the first place:

[T]o support the Darwin-Nazi thesis, Stein quotes a passage from Darwin's The Descent of Man, which supposedly indicates Darwin's support for eugenics: "With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated. We civilized 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, thus the weak members of civilized 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. Hardly anyone is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed."

Now the first thing to observe here is that this is not a literal quote -- parts of sentences are excised so the passage effectively says the opposite of what Darwin said. Further, Stein fails to quote the very next passage, which includes the lines: "Nor could we check our sympathy, even at the urging of hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature . . . if we were intentionally to neglect the weak and helpless, it could only be for a contingent benefit, with an overwhelming present evil." ...

When I alerted him to the alteration of the Darwin quote and read him the full passage, he said he was "kind of dismayed if that's true."
So here's Ben Stein, self-proclaimed member of the intelligentsia, and he can't even find a copy of The Descent of Man to check out a quote he uses on camera in a movie he is listed as a writer on?

But McKnight, tongue in cheek or not, is being unreasonable if he expects this:

[Stein] also said he would check it out, so I look forward to Stein disavowing at least that part of the movie.


In the Jungle

Before I go take a shower or three, let me report on my foray into the ... um ... "minds" of people like John Freshwater and his incubus/ sycophant/ coach, Dave Daubenmire. You can get a preview of Freshwater's "defense" ... where else? ... in WingNutDaily.

What about the infamous crosses made in student's flesh with an electrical device? Why, that was a ... a ... scientific experiment! Yeah, that's the ticket! Hey, kids, let's experiment and see if electricity hurts!

And they weren't crosses ... they were "X marks!" They couldn't be crosses! After all, as Daubenmire himself says:

They tried to make it out to be a cross, because it made him look like some kind of idiot.

See! We do have common ground!

And speaking of Daubenmire, what a fine upstanding specimen of Christian morality he is! He runs something called "Minutemen United," the very name of which is sure to send a frisson or two down the spine of any civil libertarian.

But let's take a look at Daubenmire's own story a bit. As he tells it:

Dave Daubenmire, a veteran 25 year high school football coach, was spurred to action when attacked and eventually sued by the ACLU in the late 1990's for alledgedly (sic) mixing prayer with his coaching. After a two year battle for his 1st amendment rights and a determination to not back down, the ACLU relented and offered coach an out of court settlement. God honored his stand and the ACLU backed off.

As People For the American Way point out, that's true ... if "backing off" includes Daubenmire being ordered to stop leading religious activities at school and the school board agreeing to pay an estimated $18,000 settlement.

I don't know if Daubenmire and Freshwater are merely delusional or are deliberate liars and charlatans. More importantly, I don't care.

Friday, June 20, 2008


Out and About the Intertubes

Good Riddance:

John Freshwater, the Mount Vernon, Ohio "science teacher" who burned crosses into the arms of his students with laboratory equipment and continued to undermine the teaching of evolution in his classes, despite instructions to stick to the curriculum, has been put on track to be fired. The school board voted 5-0 to begin the process. Freshwater has two weeks in which to appear before the board and give reasons why he should not be fired.

To see the reasons he fully deserves to be, take a look at the report of the investigation by an independent consultant.

Run It Up the Poll:

The Gallup folks are back with their trusty poll that, despite the different numbers in the recent FASEB survey, continues to give essentially the same numbers on the evolution/creationism divide as it has for the past 26 years: 44% creationists, 36% "theistic evolutionists;" and 14% evolution without divine intervention.

Perhaps the most interesting numbers are those by political party. Republicans are 60% creationists, while Independents are 40% and Democrats are 38%. Reality doesn't do too well in Republican ranks, whether it comes to government or science.

Oh! Riiiight!:

Democrats have their own (smaller) share of reality-challenged party stalwarts, though. One of the most challenged at the moment is Louisiana State Senator Ben Nevers, who sponsored that state's "academic freedom" law that is on the verge of becoming law. Just to demonstrate his disconnect, Nevers said recently that he didn't think lawsuits would be filed because of the legislation.

Say, Senator, do you think you can take a trip up here to New York? There's this bridge I think you'll really like ...


Goin' Poll to Poll

Some more from the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology survey:

The pollsters conclude that the public respects scientists, science teachers, and medical professionals on issues of science:

The public wants to hear from scientists and other professionals on issues of science education. When presented with a list of people who might explain science to the public:

When it comes to evolution, creationism, and intelligent design, the respondents' preferences for people to explain the issues were:

Which, of course, is why creationists are desperate to portray their claims as scientific and themselves as scientists.

The survey authors conclude that: "These data indicate that Americans respect the expertise of science and education professionals and also look to clergy for guidance on scientific issues of potential relevance to religion."

Finally, the authors have some advice on "framing" that sounds pretty sensible:

In communicating the value of science, scientists must emphasize the outcomes that matter to people -- advancing medicine, improving health, fostering critical thinking -- and they must do so clearly and understandably. Technical expositions on scientific topics will not get the attention of the public or policymakers who lack relevant expertise. If researchers cannot communicate their findings in ways that are comprehensible, meaningful, and relevant to non-scientists, their message to the public -- and their effectiveness as spokespeople for science -- is lost. There are ample opportunities for scientists to develop and exercise their communication skills, and whether writing letters to local newspapers, speaking with school boards or community groups, or partnering with educators to design curricula, many scientific and professional societies have trained staff or other resources to help.

There is a clear need for scientists to become involved in promoting science education. Challenges to teaching science undermine students' understanding of the scientific method, how scientific consensus develops, and the distinction between scientific and non-scientific explanations of natural phenomena. If our nation is to continue to develop the talent necessary to advance scientific and medical research, we must ensure that high standards in science education are maintained and that efforts to introduce non-science into science classes do not succeed. Failure to reach out effectively to a public that is supportive of science and open to information from the scientific community is not just a missed opportunity, it is a disservice to the scientific enterprise.

Thursday, June 19, 2008


Questioning Questionnaires

The Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology has released a new and frankly heartening survey that found, among other things, that among likely American voters:

  • 61% accepted that "all living things" have evolved over time and 36% of those who accepted evolution thought that all living things "evolved due to natural processes such as natural selection," and 25% thought "a supreme being guided the evolution.
When a different question was put to another group:

  • 53% accepted that "humans and other living things" evolved and of those accepting evolution, 32% accepted that humans and other living things evolved through natural processes and 21% thought they had evolved with guidance.
This survey found weaker support for creationism than previous surveys:

  • 28% and 31% respectively agreed with statements that "all living things" or "humans and other living things" were created in their present form, while 16% percent of respondents who were asked about the evolution of "humans and other living things" and 11% of those asked about the evolution of "all living things" did not know or would not disclose their views.
Those "don't know/won't answer" numbers seem high but, assuming that they all eventually prove accurate, it is a nice change from the steady-state that creationism has held over the last 40 years or more.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008


150 Years Ago

On June 18, 1858, Charles Darwin received a manuscript from an obscure naturalist on an extended stay in the Indonesian Archipelago as a freelance collector of specimens for shipment back to England.

The paper by Alfred Russel Wallace, "On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type," later to become generally known as the "Ternate Paper" for the island it was written on, was intended for transmittal to Darwin's friend and mentor, Charles Lyell. Having corresponded with Darwin on a few occasions and having been encouraged by the older man, Wallace made so bold as to ask Darwin to send along the paper to the great man.

The story from there is familiar enough. One interesting fact, less well known, is that there was significant differences between Wallace's version of natural selection and Darwin's. Wallace saw selection acting mostly at the species level, improving the reproductive success of species as a whole, while Darwin saw selection working at the level of individual organisms. While Darwin won the day on that point and it is still the predominant view, the notion of "species selection" has not gone away and many believe it is a significant evolutionary mechanism.

There is no question that Darwin was the greater scientist of the two, but no matter. Between them they had a great effect on human understanding. That's enough reason to remember nice round numbers like today.

Via The Dispersal of Darwin.


We've Got a Little List

PZ Mxyzptlk has a list and he's not even checking it once. Dana swipes disdainfully at it. It is another of those "arguments against atheism" screeds that do so much to lower respect for the intellect of at least a certain segment of Christians. There are some totally undigested bits of respectable (if not convincing) arguments in this woman's list but most are pathetically embarrassing. These interested me for historical reasons:

17. What/who knew that had Earth been set nearer to the sun, we would burn up?

18. What/who knew that had Earth been set any further from the sun, we would freeze up?

19. What/who knew that had Earth been built larger or smaller, its atmosphere would be one where it would not be possible for us to breathe?

20. What/who knew that we require the oxygen of plants, just as plants require the carbon dioxide of us?

These are variations on arguments that Darwin himself commented on in his notebooks:

Mayo (Philosoph. of Living) quotes Whewell as profound because he says length of days adapted to duration of sleep of man!!! whole universe so adapted!!! & not man to Planets. — instance of arrogance!!

As Sir Gavin de Beer, in his commentary to Darwin's Notebooks, describes the argument Darwin makes fun of:

William Whewell. "The Length of the Day", The Bridgewater Treatises on the Power Wisdom and Goodness of God as manifested in the Creation, Treatise III, On Astronomy and General Physics, p. 38. On p. 39:—" … Man, in like manner, in all nations and ages, takes his principal rest once in twentyfour hours; and the regularity of this practice seems most suitable to his health, though the duration of the time allotted to repose is extremely different in different cases. So far as we can judge, this period is of a length beneficial to the human frame, independent of the effect of external agents. In the voyages recently made into the high northern latitudes, where the sun did not rise for three months, the crews of ships were made to adhere, with the utmost punctuality to the habit of retiring to rest at nine, and rising a quarter before six; and they enjoyed, under circumstances apparently the most trying, a state of salubrity quite remarkable. This shows, that according to the common constitution of such men, the cycle of twenty-four hours is very commodious, though not imposed on them by external circumstances.

Similarly, Whewell pointed to the adaptation of the length of the seasons to the life cycles of plants. Whewell was a bit more nuanced than Darwin gave him credit for, arguing that the direction of adaptation -- seasons to plants or plants to seasons -- could not be determined by science and thus were evidence of the Providence of God either way. Darwin ended that by giving a mechanism by which the direction of the adaptation became clear and the need for Providence became superfluous.

As always, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008


Aid and Comfort

A thought:

It used to be said, both for [Montesquieu] and against him, that he was content merely to observe and describe -- the politically committed, whether in Montesquieu's day or ours, probably find so much detachment morally almost sinister, perhaps even dangerous -- but this is an illusion. Montesquieu's tone is moderate; his words were intended, as he once remarked, to afford the reader the pleasure of watching grave and dignified theologians not thrown roughly on the ground, but sliding gently into the abyss.

- Isaiah Berlin, "Montesquieu," in Against the Current: Essays in the History of Ideas


Being Framed

Leah Ceccarelli, an associate professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Washington and the author of the book, Shaping Science with Rhetoric, has a good article in the Seattle Times. She outlines some of the recent areas in science in which manufactured controversies, or "manufactroversies," have been created, including global warming, AIDS and, of course, Intelligent Design Creationism. Professor Ceccarelli identifies three methods by which such manufactroversies are wrought:

[M]odern-day sophists skillfully invoke values that are shared by the scientific community and the public, such as free speech, skeptical inquiry and the revolutionary force of new ideas against a repressive orthodoxy. It is difficult to argue against someone who draws on these values without seeming unscientific or un-American.

Second, the modern sophists exploit the gap between the technical and public spheres. Scientific experts who can't spare the time for public communication are then surprised when the public distrusts them.

Third, today's sophists exploit a public misconception about what science is, portraying it as a structure of complete consensus built from the steady accumulation of unassailable data. Any dissent is cited as evidence that there's no consensus, and thus that truth must not have been discovered yet.

Anyone familiar with the Discovery Institute will have seen its frequent claims that the very fact that scientists dispute its claims demonstrates that there is a controversy. On the other hand, as Professor Ceccarelli points out, "to cede the public stage in the naive hope that no one will pay attention" won't work either, putting scientists and their supporters in a bind of the creationists' making. The tactic is as old as the Greek Sophists and Aristotle's attempts to counter them.

Professor Ceccarelli's recommendation:

Science will continue to be the victim of anti-science sophistry until the defenders of science learn to use my field — rhetoric — to achieve what Aristotle envisioned for it: to make strong arguments carry the day before an audience of non-experts.

That is, naturally, a species of the dreaded "framing," the specifics of which we seem intent on endlessly debating -- while science burns. Nonetheless, some way, by some method, science supporters are going to have to do a better job of educating the public about the real nature of science.

Monday, June 16, 2008


Digging Theories

A thought:

Nothing in science -- nothing in life, for that matter -- makes sense without theory. It is our nature to put all knowledge into context in order to tell a story, and to re-create the world by this means. ...

[It is] a word hobbled by multiple meanings. Taken alone without a or the, it resonates with erudition. Taken in everyday context, it is shot through with corrupting ambiguity. We often hear that such and such an assertion is only a theory. Anyone can have a theory; pay your money and take your choice among the theories that compete for your attention. Voodoo priests sacrificing chickens to please spirits of the dead are working with a theory. So are millenarian cultists watching the Idaho skies for signs of the Second Coming. Because scientific theories contain speculation, they too may seem just more guesswork, and therefore built on sand. That, I suspect, is the usual postmodernist conception: Everyone's theory has validity and is interesting. Scientific theories, however, are fundamentally different. They are constructed specifically to be blown apart if proved wrong, and if so destined, the sooner the better. "Make your mistakes quickly" is a rule in the practice of science. I grant that scientists often fall in love with their own constructions. I know; I have. They may spend a lifetime vainly trying to shore them up. A few squander their prestige and academic political capital in the effort. In that case -- as the economist Paul Samuelson once quipped -- funeral by funeral, theory advances.

- Edward O. Wilson, Consilience

Sunday, June 15, 2008


Intellectual Welfare

I've already referred to the post on Panda's Thumb about the blurbs to Ken Miller's and Willaim Dembski's new books. "JJ" noted in the comments to that post that Miller, in an interview on NPR's "Science Friday" uses the term, "intellectual welfare" to describe the "academic freedom" laws now being humped by creationists across the nation. (The interview can be heard here, by clicking on "God vs. Science: Keeping Creationism out of School.")

Miller's point is that evolution's "strengths and weakness" these laws all refer to have already been assessed by the scientific community and the "weaknesses" that creationists want taught have all lost in the free market of ideas. Therefore, inserting them by law into K-12 education is nothing more than welfare for ideas that cannot make it on their own.

It is a tough, clear and accurate description that could be effective if used widely. I wonder, though, given the political persuasion of most, if not all, of the supporters of these laws, whether it might sting more if we called it "intellectual affirmative action."


Familiar Waters

A thought:

Opposition to the central ideas of the French Enlightenment, and of its allies and disciples in other European countries, is as old as the movement itself. The proclamation of the autonomy of reason and the methods of the natural sciences, based on observation as the sole reliable method of knowledge, and the consequent rejection of the authority of revelation, sacred writings and their accepted interpreters, tradition, prescription, and every form of non-rational and transcendent source of knowledge, was naturally opposed by the churches and religious thinkers of many persuasions. But such opposition, largely because of the absence of common ground between them and the philosophers of the Enlightenment, made relatively little headway, save by stimulating repressive steps against the spreading of ideas regarded as dangerous to the authority of church or state. More formidable was the relativist and sceptical tradition that went back to the ancient world. The central doctrines of the progressive French thinkers, whatever their disagreements among themselves, rested on the belief, rooted in the ancient doctrine of natural law, that human nature was fundamentally the same in all times and places ...

It was further believed that methods similar to those of Newtonian physics, which had achieved such triumphs in the realm of inanimate nature, could be applied with equal success to the fields of ethics, politics and human relationships in general, in which little progress had been made; with the corollary that once this had been effected, it would sweep away irrational and oppressive legal systems and economic policies the replacement of which by the rule of reason would rescue men from political and moral injustice and misery and set them on the path of wisdom, happiness and virtue. Against this, there persisted the doctrine that went back to the Greek sophists, Protagoras, Antiphon and Critias, that beliefs involving value-judgements, and the institutions founded upon them, rested not on discoveries of objective and unalterable natural facts, but on human opinion, which was variable and differed between different societies and at different times; that moral and political values, and in particular justice and social arrangements in general, rested on fluctuating human convention. ... It seemed to follow that no universal truths, established by scientific methods, that is, truths that anyone could verify by the use of proper methods, anywhere, at any time, could in principle be established in human affairs.

- Isaiah Berlin, "The Counter-Enlightenment," in Against the Current: Essays in the History of Ideas

Saturday, June 14, 2008


The Grand Delusion

The silliness just keeps rollin' on!

Richard B. Hoppe has a post up at the Panda's Thumb about a blurb for William Dembski's new book (compared to one for Ken Miller's Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America's Soul).

Dembski's book, Understanding Intelligent Design: Everything You Need to Know in Plain Language, is co-authored by Sean McDowell, the head of the Bible Department at Capistrano Valley Christian Schools. No doubt the choice of a another theologian as co-author and the promise that it will be in language that won't tax the reader's intellect are wise choices, given their target audience.

But the truly hilarious part is the blurb for Dembski's tome by that noted scholar and intellectual, Ann Coulter:

Liberals respond to critics of their religion like Cotton Mather to Salem's "witches." With this book, two more witches present themselves for burning: Sean McDowell, whose gift is communicating with young people, and Bill Dembski, often called the Isaac Newton of intelligent design. I think Dembski is more like the Dick Butkus of Intelligent Design.

Comparing Dembski to Isaac Newton was merely ludicrous. Comparing him to Dick Butkus is slapstick comedy that makes me wonder if Coulter isn't being slier than I ever gave her credit for.


Honoring God


A good thought:

Torture violates the basic dignity of the human person that all religions, in their highest ideals, hold dear. It degrades everyone involved -- policy-makers, perpetrators and victims. It contradicts our nation's most cherished ideals. Any policies that permit torture and inhumane treatment are shocking and morally intolerable.

[The National Religious Campaign Against Torture's] definition of torture is the same as that contained in the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which defines torture as "any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions."

Nothing less is at stake in the torture abuse crisis than the soul of our nation. What does it signify if torture is condemned in word but allowed in deed? Let America abolish torture now -- without exceptions.

- "Torture is a Moral Issue" Statement of Conscience

In a country where the majority religion centers on the horrors and evil of torture, you'd think this sentiment would be wider spread.

Via The Carpetbagger Report


A Fish Out of Water

Michael Dowd is hitting the big time. For months now I've been seeing news reports on the local appearances of the faintly quixotic traveling minister and his message of "Thank God for Evolution." Literally an itinerant preacher for the last six years, Dowd and his wife Connie Barlow, who has authored several popular science books, have lived entirely "on the road" while spreading the message to believers that "understanding and accepting evolution will bring them closer to spiritual fulfillment."

Now Dowd is the subject of a piece in the New York Times Sunday Magazine and his book Thank God for Evolution, which was originally published by Council Oak Books last November, has been acquired by Viking Penguin for $750,000.

He has also been attracting notice from longtime warriors on the creation/evolution front as well. Ken Ham, founder of the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, finds no religious value in Dowd's positions:

"What's his message?" Ham asks. "Who is God? Is the universe God? What is our purpose and meaning? What is good and evil? Who determines our future? The Bible gives us very specific answers." Ham says that what Dowd is telling his audience is "no different from what an evolutionary atheist would preach" with some of Dowd's merely subjective feelings "mixed in."

Daniel Dennett, one of the leading lights of the "New Atheists," is somewhat ambivalent when he:

... maintains that Dowd is right that self-knowledge gleaned from evolution "can and should temper our judgments about our morality and immorality." But even though he applauds Dowd's "effort at diplomatic teaching" of evolution, he worries that evangelical followers may be less likely to pursue Darwinism further than to develop a "healthy distrust" for such obvious "sugar-coating."

Steven Case of the University of Kansas

... says that Dowd's message has the potential to confuse listeners about where scientific explanation ends and religious interpretation begins. That could eventually hurt science, Case says, making society less willing to ask theologically discomfiting yet scientifically legitimate questions like when the human race might become extinct.

Still, it's hard not to have a sneaking admiration for people who, whether they are ultimately right or wrong about the relationship of science and religion, want to reconcile them so much that they give up the easy comfort of a parish to travel the country in a van displaying an image of two fish kissing each other -- one labeled Jesus, the other Darwin.

Friday, June 13, 2008


That’s All For Today


I haven't been a political junkie since the days when Richard Nixon's impeachment was in the air. I rarely watch the Sunday Washington interview fests and find politicians of all stripes almost too painful to contemplate. A thoroughly depressing number of those who govern us deserve to be turned out of office in handcuffs and elections are almost entirely exercises in identifying the very worst to be replaced by the marginally better.

But one constant in American political life over the last two decades was the fiercely intelligent, relentlessly evenhanded, doggedly determined but, nonetheless, unfailingly measured and civil pursuit of the truth from and about our politicians by Tim Russert. He will be sorely missed.


Paradise by a Dashboard Light

If you are reading this, stop at once as you are dead.

The House of Yahweh outside of Abilene Texas (no relation to the House of Blues or the International House of Pancakes) has announced that doomsday is to arrive on June 12, 2008.

Yahweh leader Yisrayl Hawkins says a nuclear holocaust will come June 12th and only members of his group will be saved.
Since this will automatically post at 12:01 am Central time and the only people left alive will be the House of Yahweh faithful, who had dang well better be praying, it is safe to assume that you are dead ... especially given the track record of these predictions.

Hawkins has predicted a doomsday twice before. He's also accused of having two dozen wives, and is facing bigamy charges.
Now, if I had two dozen wives, I might be praying for the end of the world too.

Via Dispatches From the Culture Wars and En Tequila Es Verdad.

Thursday, June 12, 2008


The Rule of Law Returns

The Supreme Court, in a 5 to 4 ruling in Boumediene v. Bush, has delivered a resounding rebuke to the Administration's detainment program at Guantanamo.

One basis for the Administration's claim that the Constitution does not apply to these detainees was that they are noncitizens being held in "foreign" territory. The Court noted that the United States was ceded control of Cuba at the end of the Spanish American War. When the Cuban Republic was established, the US entered into a lease agreement by which it continued to maintain the same plenary control it had enjoyed since 1898 over Guantanamo. As Justice Kennedy wrote:

Yet the Government's view is that the Constitution had no effect there, at least as to noncitizens, because the United States disclaimed sovereignty in the formal sense of the term. The necessary implication of the argument is that by surrendering formal sovereignty over any unincorporated territory to a third party, while at the same time entering into a lease that grants total control over the territory back to the United States, it would be possible for the political branches to govern without legal constraint.

Our basic charter cannot be contracted away like this. The Constitution grants Congress and the President the power to acquire, dispose of, and govern territory, not the power to decide when and where its terms apply. Even when the United States acts outside its borders, its powers are not "absolute and unlimited" but are subject "to such restrictions as are expressed in the Constitution." ... Abstaining from questions involving formal sovereignty and territorial governance is one thing. To hold the political branches have the power to switch the Constitution on or off at will is quite another.
Too long we have tolerated an Administration that has wanted to switch off the basic rights that are the very reason for defending this country in the first place. The craven willingness of all too many people to give up our rights whenever some politician cries "danger," is the surest course we can chart to dictatorship.


Voting For a Change

James McGrath has a post at his blog, Exploring the Matrix that details the feeling among some apocalyptic-oriented Evangelicals that Barack Obama is the Antichrist. James, of course, insists on being rational about the whole thing, almost overlooking the potential humor involved.

I think we should encourage this turn of events. After all, if Israel can take advantage of Apocalypse-lusting religious loons, why shouldn't Democrats? Think of the slogans we could have! Obama Comes Once, Jesus Comes Again! Obama '08, Rapture '09! Obama Gets In, Armageddon!

And, since McCain tossed over John Hagee, one of the strongest of the support-Israel-and-bring-on-the-end-of-timers, we can cast McCain as the Antiantichrist, out to frustrate the will of God!

Some may object that this would debase American politics ... but only if they haven't been paying attention to American politics.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008


Unwanted Suitors

Americans United for Separation of Church and State is promising a reprise of its successful suit against the injection of Intelligent Design Creationism into the Dover, Pennsylvania public schools, should Louisiana follow the same path.

Louisiana's House of Representatives today approved the so-called "Science Education Act," which is generally expected to be signed by Gov. Bobby Jindal. As I've explained before, this version of the "academic freedom" bills, of all the ones proposed so far, is most conducive to effective monitoring by groups supportive of good science education. In particular, "supplemental textbooks and other instructional materials" are supposed to be used only after the material in approved textbooks is taught. The supplemental materials must first be approved by the local public school board and the State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education can prohibit the use of any particular materials. Therefore, there are several procedures that provide notice of what materials are about to be used and both the local and state boards can be sued for approving or permitting the use of creationist materials, instead of having to chase after individual teachers as other versions of this legislation threatened to make necessary.

On the other hand, it's good to see Americans United putting the various authorities on notice that science supporters aren't going to just roll over and let them quietly slip religion into science classes. There could be another fun trial in the works.

And it's not like Americans United has to spend a lot monitoring the whole state. If some school board is going to try to use this law to teach creationism, it probably will be Tangipahoa Parish's which, at last count, had wracked up seven lawsuits by the ACLU, all of which it lost or had to settle.

All Americans United has to do is wait.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008


A Challenge, Part Deux

Uh, oh! Another challenge to atheists!

And boy! Are you guys in trouble now! 'Cause this time it comes from a business planner!

Anyway, Yomin Postelnik says he has simple proofs that no atheist has ever been able to counter effectively. Indeed, he says that "even after much debate on the issue I have yet to meet an atheist who can make even a feeble argument to counter any of these points."

Let me summarize for our intrepid challenger. Essentially it boils down to the "self-evident" conclusion that an entire universe, containing all of the billions of elements necessary for life to form, could not have come about without a "builder." Like all arguments, the proof is in the details, where, I'm sure, you will find the most interest:

[Atheists] believe that not only did whole planets appear spontaneously, but also believe that the fact that these planets do not collide as meteors do, that they have gravity, that they contain the proper atmospheric conditions for life to take hold and contain sustenance to sustain this life all happened by mere fluke.

Hah! Left you speechless, didn't he? Wait! He's just getting started:

Even if all the planets somehow formed themselves, all somehow staying in perfect orbit and possessing gravity, even take for granted that all the chemicals needed for life were so[me] how there as well, by sheer happenstance, would it then be possible for billions of species to spontaneously come about, each with a male and female of each kind so that they could exist in the long run?

I bet it'll be some time before you can catch your breath after that! But there's more:

Even if this were possible, would the simplest of animals have been able to survive were it missing even one essential organ? Would human beings survive if one organ or cavity was missing or displaced, even after somehow being otherwise perfectly formed with no designer? The simple fact is that even if humans were so perfectly formed, if food, water, sunlight or any one of a host of details necessary for life to exist were somehow missing, human life would have lasted on this planet for a maximum of a few days.

Yomin's on a roll and he's not going to show you atheists any mercy:

The contention of atheists, that life simply adapted to the conditions it found itself in is also irrational, as were this to be the case we'd have animals that could solely subsist on snow and ice in some regions.

But mostly Yomin has you guys pegged psychologically:

Just as a man who spends years coming up with a thousand reasons why an elephant is really a duck will not be persuaded of his error without first addressing all of his complicated fallacies, so too the atheist's contentions must be addressed in detail.

When you all get up off the floor, I'm sure Yomin would be willing to accept your surrender.

Truth in advertising: I confess to being one of those godless people who thinks there are sophisticated -- though, obviously, unconvincing -- arguments for god(s). But Lordy! These ain't them!

Monday, June 09, 2008


Anxiety and Obloquy Enough

The ACLU has already raised $258 Million from various private sources and is now looking to increase that to $335 million in gifts from the public. The initiative, entitled "Leading Freedom Forward: The ACLU Campaign for the Future" is an effort to build the organization's infrastructure and secure the ACLU's financial funding for years to come. It also seeks to substantially increase the ACLU's presence and effectiveness in states where civil liberties violations are most egregious and opportunities for change most promising, including Florida, Texas, New Mexico, Montana, Mississippi, Michigan, Missouri, and Tennessee.

One part of the campaign of that particularly interests me is a partnership with the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers to form the John Adams Project to provide expert teams of civilian defense lawyers to assist the under-resourced military defense counsel assigned to Guantanamo detainees.

Having myself, in a former life, toiled as a defense counsel in the Army and knowing the challenges faced by them even in the best of times, I have nothing but the deepest admiration for people like Lt. Cmdr. Charles Swift, who labor against all the administrative and legal roadblocks common enough in the military system but which have been amplified beyond all reason by an Administration that is nothing short of criminal in its disregard of the rule of law. Providing support to level the playing field, even if only a bit, for the men and women who give their all to defend the despised, often at peril to their reputations and careers, is a cause of the highest merit.

And no better patron name could be given the project than John Adams'. Those who saw the recent HBO series on Adams' life will have some inkling of the courage it took for Adams to defend the officer and soldiers involved in the "Boston Massacre." The series telescoped events in the cases that Adams defended but the truth was no less dramatic and remains worthy of admiration down to our own times. Adams was right when, looking back at a lifetime of exemplary service, he said of his actions then:

The Part I took in Defense of Captain Preston and the Soldiers, procured me Anxiety, and Obloquy enough. It was, however, one of the most gallant, generous, manly and disinterested Actions of my whole Life, and one of the best Pieces of Service I ever rendered my Country.

Render a service yourself and contribute.

Sunday, June 08, 2008


The Dark at Noon

The Houston Chronicle has a nice editorial about the clouds gathering like a 1930s dust storm over Texas education. After explaining that the battle will be fought over implementing already existing "strengths and weaknesses" language in the state standards, the editorial goes on:

It sounds reasonable. Who's against fair and balanced? But critics are alarmed that this is the latest chapter in what has become a national strategy of evolution's foes — a "teach the controversy" approach, whereby religion is propounded under the guise of scientific inquiry.

Given the recent comments of both the chairman and the vice chairman of the board, there is ample reason for alarm. As reported by The New York Times, the chairman, Don McLeroy, a Bryan dentist, described the debate as being between two systems of science.

"You've got a creationist system and a naturalist system," he said. ...

Vice Chairman David Bradley, R-Beaumont, told the Chronicle, "Evolution is not a fact. Evolution is a theory and, as such, cannot be proved. Students need to be able to jump to their own conclusions." ...

Creationism is not a "system of science." It is a religious belief and as such has no place in a science curriculum.

Furthermore, evolution is not a theory that "cannot be proved." A scientific theory is not a guess, but a tested explanation of how and why a natural phenomenon occurs. There is no doubt among mainstream scientists that evolution is a well-documented and easily observed phenomenon.

The editorial's conclusion is fully justified:

All people are entitled to their private religious beliefs, but nobody is entitled to use the state's public education system to promote them. What chance do Texas students have of competing in the 21st century if their learning of science is warped and stunted by such benighted leadership?

The children of Texas deserve better than to be left groping in the dark.


Tales of Creation

Jim Chen, dean and professor of law at the University of Louisville, has an article entitled "The greatest story ever told" at Jurisdynamics, one of the several excellent sites he has has founded, including The Scientific Lawyer and Biolaw.

Humanity, so it seems, demands a story of origins. If we need a creation myth, and the emotional reality of human existence evidently demands no less, then let's tell the greatest story ever told: the real story of earth, from its Hadean origins to the sixth great extinction spasm of the Phanerozoic.
It happens that I am just reading E.O. Wilson's On Human Nature, where he makes much the same point:

[T]he evolutionary epic is probably the best myth we will ever have. It can be adjusted until it comes as close to truth as the human mind is constructed to judge the truth. ... [T]he mythopoetic requirements of the mind must somehow be met by scientific materialism so as to reinvest our superb energies.
I am not sure that science can actually work as a substitute for myth. For one thing, science lacks the certainty that religious people seem to crave and myth provides. Still, there is nothing wrong in playing to the grand sweep and epic subject matter of science.

After all, there is a grandeur in this view of life ...

Saturday, June 07, 2008


A Perfect Fit

Sometimes people get it so right that you have to take your hat off ... even when what they're so right about is why they're wrong.

Al Clemens of Springfield, Missouri, in a letter to the editor of the Springfield News-Leader, has had such a perfect insight:

[T]he biggest problem for the evolutionist is the "supposedly spontaneous generation of life from nonlife." The creationists do not lie awake wondering. They accept their God and his mysteries.

Of course, the vast majority of "evolutionists" (a term proper only to evolutionary biologists) don't lay awake wondering how life began. Most of them are too busy figuring out how the life that obviously does exist has changed over time. Some scientists do wonder about how life began but any worrying they do at night is over how to better experiment on the problem the coming day.

Al's perfection comes in seeing that what creationists want above all is certainty. It doesn't matter if the "answer" is right or wrong or even if it is an answer at all. It can be nothing more than an assurance, in the form of a "mystery," that no answer is needed in order to be certain.

And therein lies the difference between creationists on the one hand and scientists and those who value science on the other. For certainty is the enemy of learning; the antithesis of asking "why?" and "how?" Certainty is an excuse not to think; the rationale against reason. Certainty needs no testing and, if you can keep your eyes screwed tight enough shut, your fingers buried deep enough in your ears and hum loud enough, certainty will permit no chance of your ever being wrong.

Do it just right and you'll never experience a troubling thought again.



The New York Times has an editorial that almost nails it perfectly. Except for an unfortunate implication that only young-Earth creationists can be included in the term "creationists," a misnomer that the Discovery Institute endlessly attempts to exploit, the editorial expertly dissects the situation looming in Texas:

When it comes to science, creationists tend to struggle with reality. They believe, after all, that evolution by means of natural selection is false and that Earth is only a few thousand years old. They also believe that students who are taught a creationist view of biology — or who are taught to disregard the Darwinist view — are not being disadvantaged.

The editorial correctly identifies the likely intention of the board's creationist members to railroad through (see the tactics used in the recent last-minute rewrite of English standards) some actual changes in the state's textbooks and/or practices, to implement the heretofore toothless mention of the "strengths and weaknesses" of evolution, thrown as a sop to creationists at the last rewrite of the science standards.

The chairman of the Texas board, a dentist named Don McLeroy, advocates the "strengths and weaknesses" approach, as does a near majority of the board. The system accommodates what Dr. McLeroy calls two systems of science, creationist and "naturalist."

The trouble is, a creationist system of science is not science at all. It is faith. All science is "naturalist" to the extent that it tries to understand the laws of nature and the character of the universe on their own terms, without reference to a divine creator. Every student who hopes to understand the scientific reality of life will sooner or later need to accept the elegant truth of evolution as it has itself evolved since it was first postulated by Darwin. If the creationist view prevails in Texas, students interested in learning how science really works and what scientists really understand about life will first have to overcome the handicap of their own education.

Scientists are always probing the strengths and weakness of their hypotheses. That is the very nature of the enterprise. But evolution is no longer a hypothesis. It is a theory rigorously supported by abundant evidence. The weaknesses that creationists hope to teach as a way of refuting evolution are themselves antiquated, long since filed away as solved.

One last point:

The religious faith underlying creationism has a place, in church and social studies courses. Science belongs in science classrooms.
While it may seem strange that ignorance, stupidity and dishonesty have "a place" in church or in public discourse of any sort, the only possible definition of "freedom" that means spit includes the freedom to be wrong, especially spectacularly so.

Friday, June 06, 2008


Improving Education

Here is some stuff on the latest entry in the Our State Is the Stupidest Sweepstakes: Michigan.

First, the background:

State Sen. Bill Hardiman (R., Grand Rapids) and State Rep. John Moolenaar (R., Midland) have introduced so-called "academic freedom" legislation that would require teachers and students to explore the "strengths and weakness" of evolutionary theory.

Then there are the standard lies:

"This is about science and helping prepare the best scientists of the future for our state and country," said Mr. Moolenaar. He added that he wants students to have the "academic freedom to explore and critically examine scientific theories."

Then there's some good sense:

What is really going on is one more attempt by the religious right to drag in "intelligent design" as an alternative to evolution. Nor is this something limited to Michigan. The bills introduced in Lansing are very similar to those introduced in half-a-dozen other states.

All of them closely follow a template prepared by the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, the leading center for anti-evolution strategy. ...

You don't have to be a rocket scientist, or even an evolutionary biologist, to know that positioning Michigan as America's leading anti-science state isn't exactly likely to be good for business.

History shows that lawmakers meddling with school curricula is almost never a good idea. Which raises the question: Don't these legislators have better things to do?

But then there's the opposite:

Dr. Ryan Kelly is the head of curriculum at Rockford Public Schools. ...

"It's a theory, there are other theories and if you want to discuss that as a class, as a whole [teachers at Rockford are] open to do that," said Kelly.

But there's some good news:

[Dr. Kelly is] a former biology teacher.

No doubt the best thing he ever did for science education.

Thursday, June 05, 2008


Flaming Assets

Sometimes it's nice to know there are some verities in life -- things that can be counted on to be rock steady when everything around you is spinning past at an accelerating rate.

And sometimes not.

An example of the latter is the way that the Discovery Institute has never seen a disingenuous spin they didn't like. The DI can be counted on all right -- to distort anything and everything it touches.

The latest example is almost funny though. Robert Crowther is over at the Ministry of Misinformation complaining about the New York Times article, "Opponents of Evolution Adopting a New Strategy," that focuses on the upcoming battle over the science standards about to be considered by the Texas Board of Education.

Crowther's complaint that the author, Laura Beil, is wrong to think the "strengths and weaknesses" ploy is new, not only misses the point of the article but ain't much of a defense in any case.

But here's where the giggles come in: Crowther kvetches that Beil interviewed "quite a few" opponents of the standards (four by my count), "as opposed to the one single person she spoke to that favors the current science standards." But that one unnamed proponent just happens to be the chairman of the state education board, Dr. Don McLeroy, who gets about as much of his views into the article as his opponents combined.

But it isn't hard to see why the Discovery Institute isn't happy. After all these years denying that they are pushing creationism, along comes Doctor Don:

The chairman of the state education board, Dr. Don McLeroy, a dentist in Central Texas, denies that the phrase ["strength and weaknesses"] "is subterfuge for bringing in creationism."

"Why in the world would anybody not want to include weaknesses?" Dr. McLeroy said. ...

Dr. McLeroy, the board chairman, sees the debate as being between "two systems of science."

"You've got a creationist system and a naturalist system," he said.

Dr. McLeroy believes that Earth's appearance is a recent geologic event — thousands of years old, not 4.5 billion. "I believe a lot of incredible things," he said, "The most incredible thing I believe is the Christmas story. That little baby born in the manger was the god that created the universe."

But Dr. McLeroy says his rejection of evolution — "I just don't think it's true or it's ever happened" — is not based on religious grounds. Courts have clearly ruled that teachings of faith are not allowed in a science classroom, but when he considers the case for evolution, Dr. McLeroy said, "it's just not there."

"My personal religious beliefs are going to make no difference in how well our students are going to learn science," he said.

No, of course not! Just because he believes in creation science ... um ... a creationist system of science ... won't effect what "weaknesses" he, a dentist, sees in evolutionary theory when the overwhelming majority of biologists see none. Right! The courts won't think twice before buying that!

No wonder the DI wants to forget McLeroy's name.

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