Thursday, July 31, 2008


Next Stool Over

PZ Myers has a review of Ken Miller's Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America's Soul in Nature, a portion of which you can read even if you don't have a subscription. The review is favorable but PZ has at least one prominent criticism:

Only a Theory deals poorly with one central aspect of this battle: why this problem is so much greater in the United States than elsewhere. Miller's rationalizations are sometimes painful to read. Europe's relative freedom from the scourge of creationism is explained with a condescending anecdote: a British colleague offers that any outbreak of such nonsense is rapidly quashed by "dispatch[ing] a couple of dons from Oxford or Cambridge" to overawe the locals with their prestigious degrees, to which the populace will defer. The popularity of creationism in the United States is ascribed to independence and rebelliousness rather than religiosity, which, as someone who has dealt with many creationists, I find disingenuous. The hallmark of almost any creationist argument is the tireless bleating of the same points we have rebutted since the trial of teacher John Scopes in Tennessee in 1925, which tested the law on teaching Darwinian evolutionary theory; the only twists come from new creationist authorities that enter the fray. An equivalent US variant of Miller's British anecdote is that the enemies of science need only dispatch Dembski or Behe from the Discovery Institute in Seattle, Washington, to stir up more doctrinaire creationism among school boards and in elections and churches. To call US citizens more independent-minded than European citizens flatters the creationists too much and demeans Europeans.

While the point is hardly a major one in Miller's book, there is a certain truth to Miller's claim, I think, and it is only demeaning to Europeans if being "independent-minded," in the sense I take Miller to mean, is assumed to be a good thing.

America is at least idealized by its citizens as an egalitarian society. Every person's opinion is, so the mythos goes, as good as anyone else's. As a political prescription, that is common liberal democratic (small "d") theory. But as a theory of how to evaluate knowledge, it is a disaster. I am not equal to PZ in determining what is true and false when it comes to biology and he is not my equal when it comes to judging the law. That is not because PZ couldn't learn the law or I biology, it is mostly a result of our present level of learning.

And yet, there is a strong streak in Americans to discount expertise and to think that anyone can, no matter how little they have studied a subject, with perhaps some minimal "input" from some supposed "expert" (whose qualifications they are just as unqualified to judge), reach a considered opinion on some complex subject like evolutionary theory or global warming or the best energy policy.

This is, I think, the source of the trope that the Carnival of Elitist Bastards was founded to fight, that academics and intellectuals are "elites" who unjustifiably dominate issues in their field. Americans who have read one or two books from authors of dubious expertise and objectivity nonetheless feel comfortable in publicly pronouncing such things as "there is no evidence for evolution." Sometimes minds get so independent that they wander off and are never heard of again.

While I won't venture an opinion as to what extent Europeans suffer or avoid this tendency (European culture not being my field, you see), I think it is fair to say that the distaste that Americans have for class distinctions plays into this phenomenon, where experts are often viewed as no more reliable a source of information than some guy down at the corner bar. If Europeans have avoided that, they are to be congratulated.


Wednesday, July 30, 2008



Scientists have at least partially deciphered the purpose of the Antikythera Mechanism.

[T]he device not only predicted solar eclipses but also organized the calendar in the four-year cycles of the Olympiad, forerunner of the modern Olympic Games.

Discovered in 1901 is a sunken ship off the island of Antikythera, north of Crete, the device was believed to have built between 140 and 100 BCE. Using high-resolution imaging systems and three-dimensional X-ray tomography, the researchers have now made out inscriptions on the mechanism and reconstructed the functions of the bronze gears.

Dr. Michael Egnor, one of the Discovery Institute's Intelligent Design Creationists, has attempted to claim that the device is proof that the "design inference" can be made solely from an object, without reference to who may have constructed it:

[E]xamination of this device, called the Antikythera mechanism, including x-ray and CT studies, shows it to be a remarkable assembly of precisely designed gears. Many scientists believe that it was a device for predicting eclipses and planetary motion, but its precise function is still a mystery. Its resemblance to an analog computer is striking (an x-ray image is shown above). Archeologists believe that the technology to produce such a device didn't emerge until at least the 14th century A.D. They have no evidence as to who designed it, and no evidence even of who could have designed it. Yet the inference to design is obvious, and no archeologist doubts that it is a designed artifact. Design can be inferred from an artifact alone, regardless of the obscurity or the implausibility of a designer.

Quite apart from the fact that no one had any reason to doubt from the outset that it was a human construct, giving us sufficient information to assess whether it was designed, this latest work clearly differentiates between science and ID. Instead of throwing up their hands after inferring design, as creationists do, refusing to investigate who the designers were, what their abilities were or what its intentions were, the scientists went about finding all they could about the creators of the mechanism:

The latest research has revealed details of dials on the instrument's back side, including the names of all 12 months of an ancient calendar. ...

The months inscribed on the instrument, they wrote, are "practically a complete match" with those on calendars from Illyria and Epirus in northwestern Greece and with the island of Corfu. Seven months suggest a possible link with Syracuse.

At least until they are willing to do that, the unscientific nature of ID and of its practitioners will remain as clear as their "Designer's" identity.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008


Religious Intolerance Is Good For You

According to a study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, Biological Sciences by Dr. Corey Fincher and Prof. Randy Thornhill of the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, tropical regions have more religions than temperate areas.

The reason is that religion helps to divide people and reduce the spread of diseases, which are more common the hotter the country, the research suggests.
Supposedly this works because the adoption of a religion increases group cohesion, reduces migration and dispersal and generally increases cultural isolation. Besides supposedly reducing transmission of disease, the isolation may lead to genetic differences that, even if only slight, might confer some immunity to disease. According to the authors:

[W]e found that religion diversity is the highest where disease diversity is also the highest and the lowest where disease diversity is also the lowest. To our knowledge, previous evolutionary models do not offer an explanation for why religion diversity varies spatially across the globe.

Our analysis suggests that the nature of religion needs to be reconsidered. Although religion apparently is for establishing a social marker of group alliance and allegiance, at the most fundamental level, it may be for the avoidance and management of infectious disease.
I wonder if constructing just-so stories has a similar effect?

Monday, July 28, 2008


Extra! Extra!

This just in!


Film at eleven!

Actually, there is a bit of news involved. It seems that word of the penchants of the Seattle Spew is starting to reach the more rational Right. John Derbyshire of National Review has been on board for a while and now Charles Johnson at Little Green Footballs is catching on to something that anyone who pays any attention to the activities of creationists has known for a long time.

Of course, it is of interest that what the DI is lying about is its connection with Islamic creationists. Bruce Chapman swats at strawmen but there's this from the DI's Muslim point man, David Berlinski:

There's a long interesting tradition of design theoretic arguments within Islamic theology that goes straight back to the 9th century. And there are outstanding figures within Islamic theology who participated in these discussions ... there's no reason to be surprised, this is a very rich tradition. We need to get together, we need to talk. There needs to be an exchange, a current needs to flow.

This is a hot issue. We're in the midst of a world-wide religious revival. I mean, historians 500 years from now will talk about the religious revival of the late 20th, early 21st century. There are a billion Muslims out there who are taking Islamic doctrine very seriously. Christianity too.

But wait! ...theology? ... revival? ... That can't be right. ID is all about the science! It has nothing to do with religion!

I know because the Disco told me so.



Standing Tall

PZ Mxyzptlk has pointed the way to the Third Carnival of Elitist Bastards.

Having slipped on a surgical glove and manually examined the entries thoroughly, he naturally finds them wanting, as any Elitist Bastard would.

It's a shame, therefore, to report that his criticisms failed to finger the real failings of the entries and merely touched on some incidentals.

The biggest problem with being an Elitist Bastard is finding anyone qualified to review your work.

The First and Second Carnivals are still available for the hoi polloi to read ... as if they'd understand!


Sunday, July 27, 2008



Florida Citizens for Science has a history of the battle over the state science standards during the last two years, eventually resulting in almost total victory for those in favor of good science education.

The site includes complete video of the Feb. 11, 2008 science standards public hearing in Orlando, including the infamous appearance by Dallas Ellis, who held up an orange and said that because of evolution, he now had irrefutable evidence that an orange was "the first cousin to somebody's pet cat" and "related to human beings" (at Part 1, beginning at minute 53:30). There is also complete video of the Feb. 19, 2008 State Board of Education meeting, where the standards were adopted with what is, at worst, the minor concession of appending the phrase "scientific theory of" to each instance of where "evolution" appears in the standards (as well as to most other "main stream" scientific concepts).

It will be both an object lesson and a valuable resource for similar battles upcoming in other states, most notably Texas.

Saturday, July 26, 2008


Toxic Waste

Our old friend Babu Ranganathan is back with another of his confused screeds. A self-described "experienced Christian writer," Mr. Ranganathan used to boast of a "B.A. with academic concentrations in Bible and Biology from Bob Jones University" but now claims only a "B.A. degree with concentrations in theology and biology," no doubt realizing that his former description revealed only that he knows next to nothing about biology and probably just as little about the Bible.

This time around, in "How Dawkins Misrepresents Evolution!," Babu at least seems to dimly realize that claims that evolutionary theory depends on "random chance" are a misrepresentation of the science, so he sets about adjusting his misrepresentations but without correcting any of them. His arguments (if simple repetitions of bald assertions already assuming his desired conclusions can be called "arguments") are jumbled and their intellectual honesty are well represented by the fact that he calls Walt Brown, a mechanical engineer who nonetheless proposes that the continental plates went skidding around the globe (downhill!) at high speed during and after the flood, a "scientist."

Be warned that attempting to follow along with Babu or Walt may well cause you, in Tantalus Prime's memorable phrase, to want to "remove all the Brodman areas from your brain in numerical order with a grapefruit spoon just so that you will never again have to comprehend something so wrong." We experienced creationism-handlers have learned to draw back well before that point so I will just present one amusing point I discovered before slamming shut and locking the stupid-proof container on Babu's effluvia.

Babu points out that biological variations do not arise from natural selection (doh!), a process that he explicitly admits occurs, and spends the rest of his time repeating the same petitio principii, in slightly different phraseology, that "macroevolution" cannot happen because macroevolution is more than merely the sum of biological variation. All the usual lame analogies about "new information" being impossible are trotted out but Babu makes the mistake of allowing for the possibility of "beneficial mutations":

But, even if a good mutation does occur for every good mutation there will be hundreds of harmful ones with the net result over time being disastrous for the species.

Babu, after his admission of natural selection, seems blissfully unaware (or duplicitously willing to ignore) that selection answers that objection. Tangled up in his confusion may be some idea that "species" (a concept I doubt he even begins to grok) have to evolve as a unit, instead of being the endpoints of historical populations of individual organisms who have been winnowed of those harmful mutations. Forget any consideration on his part of neutral drift or evo-devo or any other concept more complex than Bob-Jones-level science.

To quote a famous vice-president: "what a waste it is to lose one's mind" ... especially over religion.

Friday, July 25, 2008



Well, as is known now by all ("all" being that small subset of humanity familiar with the science blogosphere, instead of the truly important cultural news, such as that surrounding Paris Hilton's latest outing), PZ Myers has carried out his stated intention to destroy a supposedly "consecrated" (i.e. solemnly intoned over) eucharist/cracker.

I've already explained, here and elsewhere, why I think it was legally wrong for PZ to obtain the cracker in the manner he indicated he would. However, I have not attempted to locate it on any scale of wrongness beyond noting that it pales in comparison to death threats, explicit or merely subtly menacing.

Instead, let me tell you about my own act of eucharistic sacrilege. I was raised a Catholic, meaning I was forced to spend a portion of every Sunday in extreme boredom and most of every schoolday being moderately terrorized by nuns. It never seemed to take, however. Despite a few brief bursts of halfhearted piety, I felt neither close to any of the manifestations of the Christian God nor particularly terrified of them.

Indeed, my earliest memory* of personal involvement in religious ceremony was standing in a line in a classroom waiting to be marched off by the nuns to our "First Confession" to have our tender souls shriven in preparation for our "First Communion." As I stood there, I was considering what sins I could lie about committing so that the priest would think I had a "good" confession.

You might say that I never saw the point of religion.

Fast forward some 40 years to when I received a rather desperate call from a close relative. Her daughter was about to undergo her own First Communion and she needed a "sponsor," which required an adult who is not the child's parent. For various reasons, there was no other family member who could serve and the mother was begging me to do it because otherwise the girl would be the only one in her class who would have to have some unrelated stranger "assigned" to be her sponsor. I remembered enough about childhood to know that being the one singled out is rarely a good thing and, in any event, the mother was of the semi-hysterical type who could not help but convey the sense of something being wrong to her child.

I could manage to stand spending some time in church for reasons other than a funeral and I was genuinely fond of the girl. Even if I was not particularly in favor of initiating children into anything before they were close enough to adult to make up their own minds, I knew that nothing I did or refused to do was going to stop the ceremony and I saw no reason it should be a time of stress for the child. The problem was that part of the ceremony is to take communion with the sponsoree. Quite apart from my own rejection of the faith, I had long ago failed to meet the minimum requirements permitting someone to receive the sacrament of communion. In effect, I had been excommunicated by default.

Why should I care? I probably had even less reason than PZ to respect the eucharist, having seen the whole rigmarole up close and having had the medieval scholastic metaphysics drummed into me by oh-so-solemn clergy. The eucharist meant nothing to me. But I had to think long and hard before I would agree.

If you need to wonder why, imagine someone accepting an invitation to a Jewish friend's house for a Seder with the intent of waiting until no one was looking and spitting in Elijah's Glass. I have no need to share in the beliefs of other people to respect them and their persons and their places. I'll be happy to argue with them about theology or public policy or just about anything but, if there is anything such as secular morality, going into peoples' homes or other places of sanctuary and defiling them is wrong ... not to mention counterproductive to the maintenance of a free society.

So, did I do it? Yep.

I don't try to excuse it ... it was wrong. It was a type of desecration, in which I went into a church that was no longer mine, if it ever had been, and made a deliberate mockery of the right of those people in that place at that time to practice their beliefs in peace. But I did it for the most human of reasons: kin. And I saw it, and still see it, as the lesser of two evils -- a judgment I take responsibility for.

I wonder, if someone as clever as PZ had put his mind to it, he could have done better.

* Caveat: Like all early memories it is quite possible that this one is distorted by later wish fulfillment but it is, I think, substantially true.

Thursday, July 24, 2008


Viva La Revolución!

In the aftermath of the "Altenberg 16" meeting and the extravagant claims about the impending death of Evolutionary Theory As We Know It, coming from creationists, sensationalist journalists and even from some within and about the scientific community who should know better, it is apt to review David L. Hull's discussion, in his seminal book, Science as a Process, of the tendency to declare the coming of great revolutions in science.

There is nothing new in such claims and, perhaps, no area in science is more prone to the phenomena than evolution. In retrospect, sometimes the claims are warranted -- the onset of evolutionary theory itself, popularly initiated by the publication of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation by Robert Chambers in 1844 and put on a scientific footing by Darwin and Wallace, certainly qualified as a major change in scientific thinking. Conversely, as Hull points out, during the so-called "Eclipse of Darwin" at the beginning of the 20th century, "numerous authors argued that area after area of biology was incompatible with Darwinian versions of evolutionary theory," a death every bit as premature as Mark Twain's. Most, of course, fall somewhere in between. The "Modern Synthesis," for example, while it was a correction of the errors of the Eclipse of Darwin, was not, in fact, a monolithic "movement," despite the best efforts of its proponents to portray it as one. Hull quotes A.R. Templeton and L.V. Giddings observation that:

... the Modern Synthesis is often treated as if it were a single, unified view of evolution, yet as is evident to anyone who has read and contrasted the works of Fisher, Haldane, and Wright (three of the principal contributors to the Modern Synthesis from the population genetics viewpoint), there never was a single evolutionary theory.

More recent examples of the phenomenon were the claims sometimes made for "Punctuated Equilibrium" and "Cladism." Quite apart from the validity of such declarations, what is the impetus for scientists to make them? Hull proposes an underlying motivation:

[S]cientists are engaged in the ongoing process of jockeying for recognition in science. Some scientists exaggerate their differences with the received view to emphasize how original their contributions are, while others exaggerate the similarities between their views and those of contemporary Darwinians in order to throw the mantle of the great Darwin around their own shoulders. Their opponents then attempt to unmask these exaggerations. ...

From the beginning of their careers, scientists are presented with a dilemma. They can make their work look as conventional as possible -- just one more brick in the great edifice of science -- or as novel and controversial as possible -- declaring the foundation of a whole new theory or possibly even a whole new science. On the first strategy, their work is likely to be incorporated effortlessly into the greater body of scientific knowledge. If so, then they will get some credit, but not much. On the second strategy, the work is likely to be greeted with silence. If the author is especially lucky, perhaps an authority can be smoked out to attack these radical new views. However, if on the outside chance that these new views become accepted, the author receives considerable credit. The choice is between a safe strategy with minor payoff versus a very dangerous strategy that promises great rewards. From my own reading of the recent history of science, I see no strong correlation between my own estimates of the novelty of an idea and which strategy an author adopts.

What is more, it is common, even among scientists, for scientific theories to be viewed as "timeless and immutable," much like species were considered by early biologists, with each theory having "its own essence, a set of propositions that all, and only, the adherents of this theory accept." Science, along with life itself, is rarely so simple. In Darwin's own case:

... at any one time in his conceptual development Darwin toyed with a variety of mechanisms, settling strongly on one or another only for periods in his life. ... Darwin was not above changing his mind.

150 years of refinements and extensions to Darwin's ideas and massive additions to our store of knowledge have made it difficult, if not impossible, to determine what "Darwinism" is or what a "revolution" in it would look like. There is much justification, therefore, in recent calls to do away with the term Darwinism and its cognates, such as Olivia Judson's, Larry Moran's and John Wilkin's. I have my doubts that that it can be done so easily. Not only will any such move have to await the passing of the tsunami of praise and remembrance for Darwin, justly deserved, that will inundate us over next year, but it will have to overcome the fact that Darwinism has become more than just a scientific theory. As Hull said of the reactions to Darwinism at a conference of historians:

Darwinism was many things to many people. It was rank materialism, an atheistic attack on the Christian faith, unadulterated positivism, a death blow to teleology. Simultaneously it was irresponsible speculation, an outrage against positivistic science, a rebirth of teleology, proof of the beneficent hand of God, a Christian plot to subvert the Muslim faith. It was also an intellectual weapon to use against entrenched aristocracies, a justification for laissez-faire economic policies, an excuse for the powerful to subjugate the weak, and a foundation for Marxian economic theory.

It may never be possible to uncouple that multiplicity of ideas, and the emotions they represent, from either the man or from the science of evolution he has come to represent in our collective consciousness. In the meantime, reports of the looming overthrow of either should be taken with the Bonneville Salt Flats ... or two.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008


Booking a Table

Michael Ruse is making me hungry.

RedOrbit has Ruse's review, originally appearing in American Scientist, of three books on the philosophy of science that are making my mouth water.

On top of my menu is Evidence and Evolution: The Logic Behind the Science by Elliott Sober. Noting Sober's interest in "more traditional philosophical issues, such as epistemology and ethics," my own area of interest, Ruse says:

... his latest work, Evidence and Evolution: The Logic Behind the Science, shows why he commands our attention. He is interested in the question of evidence for theories, and he shows through a careful analysis of statistical thinking (particularly Bayesian thinking) how one can make informed decisions about claims made in biology.

Of particular interest is Sober's critique of "intelligent design" theory. He brings new ideas to the subject, particularly through the application of probability theory, so that one reads and learns things of value quite apart from the critique as such.
Even better, Ruse indicates there is red meat on a savory bone worth gnawing:

Many (Dawkins, for instance) argue that the design-like nature of the world-the hand and the eye-calls out for an explanation, and Dawkins maintains that before Darwin it was impossible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.

... To this day, there is no more withering polemic than that of David Hume, who argues in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion that, if there is a God, given the pains of gout, the deity must be a pretty unpleasant chap. However, against Sober and with Dawkins, I am not convinced that Hume shows that there is nothing at all-or rather, Nothing at All. (Hume himself rather admits this at the end of the dialogues.) For my money, no natural selection, then no atheism. But I agree with Sober against Dawkins that, given natural selection, one does not at once plunge into atheism.
The other books reviewed, looking every bit as appetizing, are Re-Engineering Philosophy for Limited Beings: Piecewise Approximations to Reality by William C. Wimsatt and Integrating Evolution and Development: From Theory to Practice, edited by philosophers Roger Sansom and Robert N. Brandon, a collection of essays on evo-devo. But I've already ordered Sober's book and look forward to devouring it.

As long as whetting appetites is the order of the day, John Wilkin's book on the history of the concept of species, arising out of his Ph.D. thesis that we in played patient midwife to over its decade-long gestation, is heading down the stretch towards publication. What's more, John has another, on the evolution of religion, in the works. Drool on.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008


Delayed Philosophy

Bradley Monton has responded, in part, to Wes Elsberry's original criticism, specifically Wes' criticism that "supernatural hypotheses do nothing to advance science ... , do not themselves represent knowledge, and are known to delay the progress of science." Monton agrees in part but states:

The one I'm not sure about is the claim that supernatural hypotheses are known to delay the progress of science. There are multiple ways of understanding this claim. The strongest claim would be: in every possible situation, introducing a supernatural hypothesis delays the progress of science. ...

The strong claim is surely false: I can imagine a situation where some scientist comes up with a great scientific insight, but she only comes up with that insight as a result of the peculiar religious training she's had — had she not had that religious training, she wouldn't have come up with the insight. Perhaps she frames the insight in supernatural terms, but other scientists see that the supernatural aspect is inessential, and embrace the non-supernatural aspect, thus leading to a major scientific advance.
Wes has now replied to Monton. As before, I would just like to add a few points:

First of all, it has to be noted that few, if any, people claim that a person cannot be religious and be a scientist ... except maybe ID proponents themselves. Certainly, Miller, a devout Catholic, doesn't. Nor is there any doubt that the wellsprings of human inspiration are many and unquantifiable. There is the famous (if possibly apocryphal) story of Friedrich August Kekulé and his daydream of a snake biting its own tail leading to the hypothesis that the benzene molecule was in the form of a ring.

But Monton's thesis is that ID is science, or so his website says. Is everything in any person's life that might give inspiration to a idea that leads eventually to some scientific advance (made by someone else in Monton's example) now supposed to be dubbed "science"? Do we then say that daydreaming is part of the scientific method? More pointedly, if a powerful political lobby attempted to require public schools to teach K-12 students that daydreaming is as valid a method of doing scientific research as empiric testing, should the scientific community acquiesce?

Another related problem is that Monton equivocates about the levels of "science" he is discussing at any point. When challenged over the detriment supernaturalism does to scientific progress, Monton drops to the level of an individual scientist and presents a hypothetical "example" of someone coming up with a scientifically valid idea based on unspecified "religious training," that she then fumbles away by attributing its action to God, ending her pursuit of it. Her idea is then supposedly rescued by the scientific community at large, which is, apparently, scanning religious literature* for scientific ideas, given that they have so little to read in their own journals.

In short, Monton seems to be saying that science can get by without any one scientist and it's no great loss if she throws away the chance to make real progress, simply because she insists on appending what even Monton calls an "inessential" hypothesis to an otherwise good idea. (Never mind how an idea inessential to science somehow becomes science.) The whole of the scientific community will be there to (eventually) pick it up.

But isn't that delay enough? Monton likes to play parsing games where any situation, real or imagined, that does not absolutely support the strictest possible reading of some statement supposedly proves it "false." Well, unless those "other scientists" pick up her idea immediately, then science has been delayed and Monton has been proved wrong.

More importantly, isn't the waste of the chance for the original scientist to pursue her own idea reason enough to try to prevent it? And, turning again to the larger issue, what if ID proponents succeed politically in having an entire generation of potential scientists taught to bring whatever good ideas they may have from whatever source to a screeching halt whenever they choose (or were indoctrinated to choose) to see God behind the curtain pulling on the levers? How many individuals lost to good scientific practice will it take to make a real, and potentially tragic, delay in science; a real lost to humankind?

There is more that could be said but, as noted by Wes, there is much that is ad hoc in Monton's approach to criticism and there is only so much time.

* Or maybe scientific journals are supposed to give up peer review and start publishing religious tracts. Monton is not clear on that point.

Monday, July 21, 2008


Out and About the Intertubes

Pressure Platform:

The Anti-Defamation League submitted a statement of policy priorities to the platform committees of both the Democratic and Republican National Committees. Under the category "Protecting Church-State Separation," the ADL expresses its concerns about Faith-Based Initiatives, voucher programs and religious harassment and unwelcome proselytizing in the military. As to recent attempts to inject creationism into the public school curriculum, the ADL states:

Creationism, creation science and "intelligent design" theory are three religious theories of creation offered to explain the origins of the universe and are based on varying interpretations of the Bible. Any attempt to supplant or supplement the teaching of evolution – a theory supported by overwhelming scientific evidence – in public schools in order to accommodate students' beliefs in creationism, creation science or "intelligent design" would have a religious purpose. Advocating the right of students to learn science independently of religious doctrine honors the purpose and the promise of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Salamander Standup

Christopher Hitchens has an article in Slate that promises to show how blind salamanders make nonsense of creationists' claims. I'll leave it up to you to decide if he delivers. (Richard Dawkins seems a little dubious.)

Big Time Politics

Well, the time is coming for the all important election season and I suppose it's time for me to start focusing on the contest that will shape our world for the next few years:

The Kansas State Board of Education!

Okay, so maybe that election won't be deciding what happens next in Iraq and Afghanistan, who will sit on the Supreme Court shaping the nation's laws, the fate of health care or how the government reacts to our economic woes. But it could decide what the next generation of children in Kansas will learn about science and, through ripple effects, what children across broad swaths of our country will learn. And, in terms of long-term influences on the fate of the United States, few if any will be more important than our ability to produce scientists and a citizenry able to intelligently deal with the difficult issues that science and technology will present the nation over the next decades.

The Lawrence Journal World has a summary of the contests. It reportedly looks good for maintaining a sane board ... unless Alan Detrich wins.

Sunday, July 20, 2008


The Philosophy of Confusion

Wes Elsberry at The Austringer has a post up, entitled "Intelligent Design: Philosophical Bogosity," about Bradley Monton, a philosopher at the University of Colorado at Bolder and a self-described atheist, who is humping a manuscript of a book about Intelligent Design that argues that ID is science. Given that the title is tentatively "An Atheist Defends Intelligent Design," the Discovery Institute will no doubt be more than helpful with contacts to such publishers as the Foundation for Thought and Ethics, one of William Dembski's favorites.

Be that as it may, Wes investigates Monton's blog for some idea of what we are in store for and finds Monton criticizing Ken Miller's book, Only a Theory for calling ID a "science stopper." Monton endorses a response proposed by Alvin Plantinga:

[W]hile theistic scientists could choose to stop investigating the world, and be satisfied with the answer "God did it", they need not. What theistic scientists can do is investigate the questions: "what did God do?" "What structure did God choose to give the world?" As long as scientists are willing to investigate those questions, then science can go on in pretty much the standard way. Allowing supernatural hypotheses won't really change anything.
Wes correctly responds:

The essential point is conceded by Plantinga and Monton in this summary: the supernatural explanation fails to explain, and explanation must await someone willing to seek a naturalistic secondary cause that will itself actually explain the phenomena of interest. The mere possibility that someone working in a theistic science could choose to do so does not validate "theistic science" as something good and to be desired.
Go read Wes' post for his further cogent arguments as to the superfluous nature of ID vis a vis science. What I want to discuss is the category error that Monton and the IDers make but you'll have to hang in while I set the stage.

In another post, Monton criticizes Miller claim, as Menton puts it:

... that the intelligent design movement doesn't just want to "win the battle against Darwin"; the intelligent design movement wants to "win the greater war against science itself" (p. 183).
Menton states that "as far as I can tell" the only evidence that Miller gives for that "strong claim" is a passage from William Dembski:

The implications of intelligent design are radical in the true sense of this much overused word. The question posed by intelligent design is not how we should do science and theology in light of the triumph of Enlightenment rationalism and scientific naturalism. The question is rather how we should do science and theology in light of the impending collapse of Enlightenment rationalism and scientific naturalism. These ideologies are on their way out … because they are bankrupt. (p. 190)
This itself raises questions of Menton's agenda since, on p. 183, in the very paragraph before the one Menton quotes in connection with Miller's claim, Miller cited to the Wedge Document, which makes all the same arguments Dembski does in the cited passage. But to continue just on the issue of ID's status as science, Menton gives two "interpretations" of Dembski, one Menton calls "anti-science" and one "pro-science." Here is the "pro-science" interpretation:

On the pro-science way of reading the passage, one would hold that naturalism is a key part of Enlightenment rationalism, and there is a style of science where one takes an assumption of naturalism to be part of the methodology of science. One would hold that intelligent design is opposed to the naturalism in Enlightenment rationalism, and naturalistic science, but one would not hold that intelligent design is opposed to science itself.

It is pretty clear to me, judging from everything I've read by Dembski, that he intends the latter, pro-science, reading. ... ([I]n my opinion, at least) it becomes clear that Dembski is pro-science; he's just not pro-naturalism, and hence he's not pro-naturalism-as-a-scientific-methodology. Now, Miller apparently thinks that if one drops methodological naturalism, then science will stop, because one can simply appeal to God as an explanation of any scientific phenomenon.
So, let's follow along: It's okay to posit a supernatural cause for natural phenomenon because a scientist can freely choose to ignore his own, science stopping, "hypothesis" about God and continue seeking naturalistic causes "pretty much the standard way." Then what does it mean to be "pro-science" if one rejects "naturalism-as-a-scientific-methodology"? What, pray tell, is non-naturalistic science anyway, if supernaturalist explanations are admittedly "science stoppers"? If science only advances through ignoring the supernatural, how can rejecting methodological naturalism be a part of science?

It's clear enough that the only way you can hold these two contradictory ideas together is by smearing science together with philosophy and/or theology and denying it has its own status separate and apart from them. It is a simple category error and a failure of proper definition. It borders, at least, on the post-modernist maneuver of claiming that science is only a "social construct" no different than the IDers' theological musings.

You can see this impulse to trample the borders between science and philosophy, in an example given by Miller, at Dembski's blog, Uncommon Descent. Dembski cites to a "fire rainbow," a phenomenon he, himself, gives a naturalistic explanation for:

Clouds have to be cirrus, at least four miles in the air, with just the right amount of ice crystals; and the sun has to hit the clouds at 58 degrees.
But Dembski goes on to say "It's the gratuitousness of such [beauty] that leads me to rebel against materialism." There is no conceivable way that the "gratuitousness" of beauty can be measured scientifically, nor can the conclusion that materialism is wrong on that grounds be tested by scientific means. Dembski is, of course, free to make whatever philosophical conclusions he wants but if he wants to do science, he must restrict himself to ice crystals and the refraction of light in naturalistic interaction that can be tested by scientific methods.

The main objection to ID is not that it lacks "arguments," as Menton seems to think. After all, it is an ancient concept dating back as far as Empedocles (c. 490 – 430 BCE), at least, and has been kicked around by philosophers ever since. The objection is that the arguments are not scientific or amenable to scientific testing, which means that calling it science only confuses. No one seriously objects to teaching about ID in history or religion or philosophy classes, even classes on the history and philosophy of science. The objection is against teaching that ID is science, instead of philosophy or theology.

But get to know the name of Bradley Monton. He's going to be the next star of the Intelligent Design movement ... whether he wants to be or not.

Saturday, July 19, 2008


Mosaic Rationales

A thought:

Why it has been called the Mosaic account of the creation, I am at a loss to conceive. Moses, I believe was too good a judge of such subjects to put his name to that account. He had been educated among the Egyptians, who were a people as well skilled in science, and particularly in astronomy, as any people of their day; and the silence and caution that Moses observes, in not authenticating the account, is a good negative evidence that he neither told it nor believed it. -- The case is, that every nation of people has been world makers, and the Israelites had as much right to set up the trade of world-making as any of the rest; and as Moses was not an Israelite, he might not choose to contradict the tradition. The account, however, is harmless; and this is more than can be said for many other parts of the Bible.

- Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason

Friday, July 18, 2008


Present Chapeaus!

Ohhh! Ron Bailey really punctured the Discovery Institute contingent at Freedomfest!

The DI never admits defeat and never admits it has no response to any argument. In response to Michael Shermer pointing out that IDers have produced no science, Robert Crowther actually replies:

I guess he's not familiar with the Biologic Institute, or the lab research being done by scientists like Scott Minnich, Ralph Seelke and others.

Why, no, Shermer isn't and neither is anyone else for the simple reason that no peer-reviewed research has come out of there, certainly none that demonstrates the existence of any "Designer." Thus, we see that lameness is no bar to what the DI will throw up against the wall in hopes it will stick.

But the best that Crowther can do with Bailey is call the "Designer" he proposed to discuss -- super-intelligent purple space squids -- "purple people eaters" and huff that Bailey's tack "disrespected his audience," presumably by taking ID less than seriously. But nobody in the scientific community takes ID seriously as science, not even the IDers themselves, given that they have to propose a change in the definition of science in order to get it included. What was "disrespected" -- when the term is interpreted to mean "exposed as inane" -- was ID itself.

Leaving the DI speechless is an accomplishment few if any have achieved. My hat's off, sir!

Thursday, July 17, 2008


You Can't Keep A Good Film Down

It seems you can't kill a stinker either:

The controversial film "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed" will be re-released theatrically this summer across the United States to celebrate the film's legal victory over Yoko Ono, according to the documentary's producers. ...

"We had many individuals and groups who had planned to see the film, but decided not to because the cloud of doubt this lawsuit brought to the film," noted one of the film's producers, John Sullivan.
A lawsuit about a copyright is a "cloud"? In any event, the producers seem to have a little difficulty with numbers:

"We came out of the gate with strong momentum only to have our integrity questioned by this frivolous lawsuit. While we're thrilled with the film's having earned nearly $8 million during its first run; we've heard from enough people and groups who want to see it in their theaters that we've agreed to re-release it this time without an undeserved cloud over its head." ...

"We will not be silenced. In fact it will have the opposite effect: we will re-release it and allow millions of Americans to go to the box office and register their vote against Ms. Ono and her attempt to keep them from watching our film."
Now let's see ... at an average of $8 a ticket nowadays (even now the producers say that the film "will be made available to any group of 250-300 people at a cost of low as $6 per ticket"), it seems that millions didn't pay to see it the first time, despite that alleged "strong momentum." Why it would be expected to do any better the second time around is anyone's guess. Nor is it clear that they are actually distributing it to theaters. They may just be making prints available for private groups to show at rented theaters.

Still, it demonstrates that the producers have made the judgment that there is a ready market for stupid ... and that they're just the people to meet the demand.



You may have heard of Todd Bentley, the latest in a long line of Pentecostal Christian "healers" who have aroused controversy. Besides Bentley's ... um ... unique personal appearance -- close-shorn head, multiple tattoos, body piercings, etc., rather than gaudy suits, pinkie rings and overdoses of hair spray -- he has a ... how shall I put it? ... surprising method of laying on hands ... balled in a fist. Bentley regularly punches and kicks the sick people who come to him to be cured, allegedly at the direct instruction of the Holy Spirit. He has even kicked a man with stage IV colon cancer in the gut. Orac gives the medical view of such a procedure, which is, as you might imagine, more than dim.

This story from the Louisville Courier-Journal gives an overview of Bentley's "ministry" and the criticism, from both inside and out of the Pentecostal movement, that surrounds it. What caught my eye was this:

One person unimpressed with Bentley is William Dembski, a former professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, who is best-known as a proponent of the "Intelligent Design" theory as an alternative to evolution.

Dembski, of Texas, said in a Baptist Press column that he and his wife drove 130 miles with their 7-year-old autistic son to a service led by Bentley, hoping for a divine healing.

But after hours of music and preaching, the family was turned away when they tried to bring their son up for prayer, Dembski said, though others were allowed up.

The family left at midnight, feeling exploited, Dembski wrote.

"Nowhere in Bentley's message did I see an emphasis on the love and compassion of God -- that healing is an expression of God's goodness and care for humanity," Dembski wrote. "Rather, the emphasis throughout was on power."

There are a lot of jokes to be had in there but, frankly, it makes me sad rather than gleeful. No matter our differences on science and education, I wish Dembski well in his personal life and hope for the best for his family.

P.S. Here is Dembski's article in the Baptist Press. It ends:

We found ourselves avoiding talking about the event until the children fell asleep. Then, as they drifted off in the early morning, we talked in hushed tones about how easily religion can be abused, in this case to exploit our family. What do we tell our children? I'm still working on that one.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008



Mostly lost in the manufactroversy that was the tenure denial of Guillermo Gonzalez was a real firing that had to do with a college instructor's positions being contrary to the majority view.

Steve Bitterman, was teaching at Southwestern Community College when some students in his class threatened legal action over Bitterman's remarks in a western civilization class. It seems that he told some of his students that the Hebrew religion (and, presumably, the Old Testament) had extremely meaningful stories, but that it was proper to see it in a poetic, metaphoric or symbolic sense. If, instead, you took it literally, you were going to miss a great deal of the meaning. According to the news story, Bitterman used the term "fairy tale" in a conversation with a student after the class and some students complained that he had "belittled their religion."

Unlike the case of Gonzalez, who was merely denied a guaranteed lifetime contract and then only after having clear guidelines for what was required for tenure and at least two appeal processes, Bitterman was fired by the administration posthaste.

Well, as they say, fire in haste, repent in leisure:

An Iowa community college has reached a financial settlement with a professor who was fired last fall after he told students that the biblical story of Adam and Eve should not be taken literally. ...

The school's lawyer, Patrick Smith, said Bitterman is no longer on the Southwestern faculty and that a settlement should be finalized this week. He did not disclose the amount.
On the other hand, the attorney for Bitterman, Brad Schroeder, said:

What was for him a purely objective, academic exercise in studying the religious beliefs of different western civilizations became a group of fundamentalist students taking exception when it came time for their God to be put under the microscope.
Interestingly, Bitterman recently "taught on the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower in Norfolk, Va., through Central Texas College's Instructor At Sea program for sailors."

That's one way to get used to firings.

Update: It is now being reported in the Des Moines Register that the settlement was $20,000.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008


Purple Pain

Ronald Bailey of Reason magazine has a version available of his remarks during the FreedomFest 2008 debate: "Is There Scientific Evidence for Intelligent Design in Nature?" They are good reading.

One point well worth emulating when discussing the subject with doubtful but still open minded people is Bailey's skillful weaving together of various forms of evidence from the fossil record, genetics and development to make a multifaceted case for evolution that is neither too complex to be understood by people with no particular expertise nor too simple to convey the true richness of the evidence for evolution.

In this instance, though, that part of Bailey's case is only the substrate to his real aim. Noting the Discovery Institute's statement: "Unlike creationism, the scientific theory of intelligent design is agnostic regarding the source of design and has no commitment to defending Genesis, the Bible or any other sacred text," Bailey sets the stage:

Near the end of the silly new anti-evolution film, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed—in which fellow panelist Steve Meyer appeared—host Ben Stein asks Richard Dawkins, who is arguably the best-known living evolutionary biologist on the planet, if he could think of any circumstances under which intelligent design might have occurred. Incautiously, Dawkins brings up the idea that aliens might have seeded life on earth; so-called directed panspermia. This idea was suggested by biologists Francis Crick and Leslie Orgel back in the 1970s. In the film, Stein acts like this is a great "gotcha," like it's the silliest thing he's ever heard. Of course, the irony is that this is precisely what proponents of intelligent design are claiming—that a higher intelligence has repeatedly created life on earth.

So, since our esteemed opponents are agnostic with regard to the "source of design," and because intelligent design cannot rule out the hypothesis that super-intelligent purple space squids are not the "source of design" of life on earth, I will provisionally accept that hypothesis for the remainder of my talk.

Besides defusing a minor embarrassment, Mr. Bailey forges the issue of aliens into a cudgel with which to bludgeon the Intelligent Design Creationists:

As I understand it, intelligent design proponents—such as our distinguished Discovery Institute panelists here—fully accept the fact that the earth is around 4.5 billion years old and that some form of life has existed on earth for about 3 billion or so years. If that is the case, it would seem the record shows that the intelligent designers—which I am hypothesizing are super-intelligent purple space squids—evidently spent more than 2 billion years tinkering with single-cell algae and bacteria before they got around to creating multi-cellular species. Do intelligent design proponents have a theory to explain that? Were the space squid creators just lazy?

Trust me. It goes down hill for the IDers after that. Better yet, don't trust me ... go read it yourself.

Monday, July 14, 2008


Time and Tide

One of the more interesting phenomena to arise out of the Great Frackin' Cracker Flap is the seeming fixation that some Christians (I gather mostly of the conservative bent) have with getting the "New Atheists" to pick on Muslims. Some of them, such as the crude and threatening anonymous correspondents PZ has revealed, apparently think that it is a cheap and safe way to play Henry II and be rid of a troublesome anti-priest. So great is the reflexive fear response of the right, after seven years of Bush playing their nerves like a five year-old sawing on a violin for the first time, that some seem to think that a mere sideways glance at a Muslim is the equivalent of a death sentence.

A step up from there -- in that he uses his real name ... nobody would make up "Rod Dreher" -- is the "Crunchy Con," who delivers, under the title "P.Z. Myers, coward," this alleged, and profane, sarcasm under BeliefNet's banner of "Inspiration. Spirituality. Faith.":

If P.Z. Myers had any guts, he would put out a call for someone to send him a Koran so he could blow his nose and wrap fish in it. After all, it's nothing but frackin' ink on paper, right? So what's stopping you, Big Man? It's easy to shit on what Catholics regard as sacred. But just try doing the same thing to what Muslims regard as sacred. Let's see what you're made of.

Crunchy seems to be operating, however, mostly under a persecution/inferiority complex as revealed by his closing:

Besides which, I think we all know if a professor at a major American university had issued a public call for people to send him a Koran or a Torah for the purpose of desecrating them, it would be front page news. Does anybody doubt that?

Slightly less delusional than the first example, but with an equally ridiculous taste in pseudonyms as the second, is Vox Day, who is also trying to chivvy PZ into what he considers a self-destructive act. Day actually repeats the old canard that "there are no atheists in foxholes." I've always wondered at how people fail to recognized the illogic in that. If someone is a believer in the providence of God -- that not a sparrow falls -- then they should be confident that no bullet can hurt them, if God has not yet decreed that their time on Earth is closed. Conversely, if a provident God calls their name, not the deepest bunker can save them. In short, there are no true believers in foxholes, since foxholes are superfluous to the will of God.

My final exhibit is the truly erudite Francis Beckwith, who should know better, but who at least displays some subtlety. Professor Beckwith dredges up an old post of PZ's which actually defended the outrage that Muslims felt over the Danish cartoons of Mohammed and notes that PZ didn't say "It's Just a Frackin' Cartoon." But Professor Beckwith stopped just short in the quotation of where PZ said:

It also doesn't help that their riots are confirming the caricatures rather than opposing them. Once again, religiosity turns people into mindless frenzied zombies, and once again it interferes with progress.

It's strange -- or not -- that so many religionists would wish the selfsame treatment they themselves complain so bitterly about on other believers.

On the other hand, it can't be helped that there is a certain irony in the fact, given that this all started because of the supposed "over reaction" of Catholics to reports of a college student's actions with a eucharist, that PZ has had to append to his post about his emails a prominent and emboldened plea to his own supporters:

Please STOP SENDING EMAIL TO THESE INDIVIDUALS. There are too many of you, the over-reaction is excessive, and you are not doing our reputation any favor.

Ah Tempora! Ah Mores!


Initiating Faith

Here is a pretty good op-ed piece by Reg Henry of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (via the Nashua Telegraph) on Barak Obama's suggestion that he will continue Bush's "faith-based initiatives":

What next? Will he promise federal funding to facilitate the rapture? Turn the Erie Canal into a national baptismal font?
Mr. Henry makes the basic point that the wall of separation between church and state was intended to protect religion and has done the job so well that the US is the most religious of the developed nations by far. He correctly notes the wall:

... is the best friend religion in America has ever had. We only have to look at the example of Britain to see what the dead hand of government sponsorship has done to church attendance. Churches in England are often where old people go to feel more lonely.
Putting it humorously doesn't diminish the essential danger involved:

I do not want Episcopalians punching people who dare to use the wrong dinner fork, Presbyterians feeling predestined to punch back, Baptists throwing cold water in all directions, Catholics getting feisty for fear of being left out, and Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Rastafarians and Druids also joining the fray in the interest of inclusiveness. I do not want the Unitarians, who take a broader view, giving everyone a good sulking.
And I'd add that I wouldn't want atheists skulking in churches hoping to purloin communion wafers.

We see a precursor of such mischief every time a school board, in a fit of religiously inspired creative deception, attempts to introduce creationism into a curriculum under the guise of intelligent design. Fistfights would be breaking out more often if lawsuits were not more fun.
I'd add that, without the recognition by the courts of the wall of separation, there'd be no alternative to fistfights.

On the practical side:

Obama should shore that wall up, not seek to curry favor of those who would knock it down.

He hasn't got a prayer of getting their vote anyway.

Sunday, July 13, 2008


Catching Up

Here is a nice story by Bronislaus B. Kush in the Worcester (Massachusetts) Telegram & Gazette giving an update on Matt LaClair

Matthew LaClair looked forward to taking his accelerated 11th-grade American history class, hoping to learn how the founding fathers, among other things, framed the U.S. Constitution to guarantee that the government would be free of religious influences.

The 16-year-old got more than he had hoped for — becoming the focus of a lingering separation of church and state controversy that some feel will be discussed for years to come in constitutional law classes.

You'll remember Matt as the brave young man who took on a popular teacher in his high school who was improperly proselytizing in class.

He was surprised that most people in Kearny ended up supporting Mr. Paszkiewicz, a well-liked 16-year veteran of the school system.

Mr. LaClair said that even many longtime friends turned against him. One student sent him a death threat. ...

Frustrated with a lack of response, Mr. LaClair told his story to the local newspaper. He said he was surprised with the response, with many charging that he had set up the teacher and that he had an "agenda" that he wanted to pursue.

It wasn't until The New York Times reported the issue a month later that Mr. LaClair said he finally started to get some support.

The case was eventually settled by an agreement whereby the school would instruct teachers and students in proper separation of church and state, as well as in the difference between the science of evolution and the religious belief in creationism, and the school board agreed to commend Matt for his "courage and integrity."

Matt will be attending the New School in New York City this fall, aiming to become a broadcast journalist. If he does, he will likely become a considerable asset to that profession. But whatever path he takes, he has already done greater service to his country than most people and I wish him well.

Picture adapted from the article.

Saturday, July 12, 2008



Here's a story that might tickle, though given the Associated Press' recent tantrum, I'll relate it in my own words and won't link to the AP piece:

A man alleges that he was so stricken by the Holy Spirit that he was caused to fall and be injured when his fellow congregants failed to catch him. Therefore, Matt Lincoln of Knoxville, Tennessee's Lakewind Church is suing the church for $2.5 million for injuries to his back and legs, supposedly resulting in two subsequent surgeries.

The Church's defense will apparently be that Mr. Lincoln didn't take care to insure that someone was behind him to catch him before he started praying (and that he wasn't really injured by the fall, since he was supposedly seen laughing afterwards).

In the law, we have a concept called "proximate cause." There is no exact definition but roughly it refers to those causes that people of ordinary sensibilities would consider to be the actual cause of an incident. An illustration might help: a person is driving along and a squirrel runs in front of her car. She swerves, loses control and runs down someone on the sidewalk. The victim doesn't have to sue the squirrel.

Now, it seems to me (but, of course, I'm no ordinary person) that, if Mr. Lincoln was really stricken by God's spirit, which is presumably unpredictable, it is God's fault for not waiting until someone was there to catch him and Mr. Lincoln has sued the wrong party. The congregation can't be expected to know the mind of God and anticipate His actions. On the other hand, if Mr. Lincoln was just playing a social game of demonstrating his "righteousness" to his fellow churchgoers by flopping about, then the onus was on him to make sure that the other congregants were ready for his act. In any event, the lawyers, if no one else, are going to have an entertaining time.

Finally, Mr. Lincoln was reported to have said that he was praying for "a real experience." Which makes this just another data point in favor of "be careful what you wish for."

P.S. The Ridger at The Greenbelt has an account from a less money-grubbing news outlet. Ridger has much the same reaction as I did to the story but makes an additional good point:

And his pain and suffering? I don't doubt it's real, like his lost income and medical bills. But isn't it the will of his God? Surely if his God had wanted to slay him in the spirit he could have done it without injuring his body. Lincoln should be looking for the purpose here, not seeking someone to blame. God's will, after all, is done, isn't it? This is just another of those mysterious ways, one of those crooked lines with which God draws straight.
Oh ye of little faith!

Friday, July 11, 2008


Religion's Everest

There are certain obstacles one has to climb in order to maintain, as I do, that religion doesn't make people stupid.

And one of the biggest this side of Kent Hovind is Bill Donahue. PZ has already dealt with Donahue's insistence that the entire Republican party is afraid of one vocal, but otherwise mild-mannered, professor of biology. But another part of Donahue's paranoid fantasy is also threatening to peg the needle on the stupid dial hard enough to make it a dangerous missile:

[PZ] Myers went on Houston radio station KPFT last night saying that Bill Donohue has 'declared a fatwa' against him. He should know better -— I don't need others to do the fighting for me. I'm quite good at it myself.

So why exactly was he telling everyone just the day before to "Contact President Robert Bruininks," the head of PZ's university, if he didn't need any help?

Then this:

But [PZ had] better be careful what he says, because if I get any death threats, it won't be hard to connect the dots.

Let's see ... yesterday Donahue issued his fatwah ... er ... press release and by that very afternoon PZ had received 4 death threats. Now, Bill, go ahead and show off your dot-connecting prowess!


Thursday, July 10, 2008



Eighty-three years ago today, the Scopes "Monkey Trial" began in Dayton, Tennessee and ran over 12 days, though surprisingly little of that was actually trial time. Anyone who missed my series of daily posts from last year (and who is interested), can read them here.


A Letter to the President of the University of Minnesota, Morris

Dear President Bruininks:

I write to you in support of Professor Paul Myers, a man who I have known through various forms of correspondence over many years.

I know him to be a passionate and more than capable teacher, as he has been exceedingly generous with his time and knowledge and I have learned much from him during that time. I know him to be a man of staunch moral principles and, while I have disagreed with him on some of his stands, he has never left me with the slightest doubt that the notion of harming any of his fellow human beings is utterly abhorrent to him.

It is inevitable that such men as Dr. Myers will engender enmity from those in our society who view knowledge and freedom of thought only as a danger and who think that all but their moral code must be stamped out. Such are the people who have initiated the present writing campaign against Dr. Myers. Those people are as much enemies of the university and what it stands for as they are of Dr. Myers. It would be ironic indeed if the university was chivvied by these people into aiding in its own destruction by targeting Dr. Myers.

I urge you in the strongest possible terms to ignore this ugly campaign against Dr. Myers and to continue to support him with the full weight and resources of the university he has served so well to date.

Very truly yours,

John T. Pieret, Esq.

(Address and Phone #)



Once again an evolutionary puzzle has been illuminated by an expedition into one of deepest, darkest regions known to humankind: museum drawers.

The Chicago Tribune is reporting, based on an article, "The Evolutionary Origin of Flatfish Asymmetry," appearing in Thursday's edition of the science journal Nature, that the issue of how the eyes of flatfish, such as sole, plaice, turbot, flounder and halibut, wound up on the same side of their head.

Essentially, Matt Friedman, a 28-year-old University of Chicago doctoral candidate, discovered a series of fossil flatfish in museum collections, the significance of which had not been recognized before, that formed a "transitional series" showing one eye socket slowly migrating from near the top of the head towards its modern position, thus favoring a slow evolution of the eye position over some sort of "sudden" appearance of the trait. In a paragraph that will doubtless set Larry Moran's teeth on edge, but which we must remember is the work of a journalist, it is explained:

Scientists have until now largely assumed the asymmetrical, one-sided eye arrangement was a trait that must have arisen suddenly in flatfish because they could not see a benefit for the fish if it took millions of years for an eye to migrate from one side to the other. Even Charles Darwin had trouble answering critics who used flatfish and their strange eyes as an argument against his evolutionary theory after he published it in 1859.

Leaving to Larry's gentle ministrations the scientific issues, there was this of particular interest to me:

In 1871, St. George Jackson Mivart, a Catholic lawyer and zoologist, published "On Genesis of the Species" as a challenge to Darwin, and prominently used the example of flatfish and their eyes in his argument.

"Darwin feebly responded with a scenario that relied on evolution of inherited traits," said Friedman, and the flatfish argument has been an arrow in the quiver of anti-evolutionists ever since.

And, once again, nature leaves the creationists ... um ... floundering.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008


Irrationality Squared

Knowing full well I'm taking on an 800 pound gorilla with nothing more than a popgun, let me explain why I think PZ is only partly right -- and the smaller part -- about this.

First, the background: a student at the University of Central Florida, for reasons not made clear, apparently took communion at a Catholic church, a ritual supposedly reserved for members in good standing in the faith. This involves being given a small piece of unleavened bread officially dubbed "the Eucharist" -- what PZ calls "a cracker." Instead of swallowing the bread, which is a part of the ritual, he carried the eucharist away, supposedly to demonstrate to a friend "what it meant to Catholics." The student apparently succeeded in that objective beyond his wildest expectations, in that Catholics the world over are furious and the young man has even received death threats, despite his having returned the eucharist.

PZ is, of course, one hundred percent correct about death threats being insane and anyone who made one is a demented fuckwit -- though I prefer the more correct technical term "criminal."

Where I disagree with PZ is the notion that the arational nature of the symbolism that Catholics attribute to the eucharist means that others should be able to violate those symbols with impunity. PZ goes as far as to propose to obtain, no questions asked, eucharists for his own purposes:

Can anyone out there score me some consecrated communion wafers? There's no way I can personally get them — my local churches have stakes prepared for me, I'm sure — but if any of you would be willing to do what it takes to get me some, or even one, and mail it to me, I'll show you sacrilege, gladly, and with much fanfare. I won't be tempted to hold it hostage (no, not even if I have a choice between returning the Eucharist and watching Bill Donohue kick the pope in the balls, which would apparently be a more humane act than desecrating a goddamned cracker), but will instead treat it with profound disrespect and heinous cracker abuse, all photographed and presented here on the web. I shall do so joyfully and with laughter in my heart. If you can smuggle some out from under the armed guards and grim nuns hovering over your local communion ceremony, just write to me and I'll send you my home address.

According to PZ, "IT'S A CRACKER."

Quite apart from the fact that eucharists are personal property belonging to the church and it is the church's right to dispose of them with whatever conditions it chooses -- making what PZ proposes technically theft and the receipt of stolen goods -- let's try running another scenario to see if symbolism is meaningless:

Say someone -- Kent Hovind, just for fun -- sent a message to his considerable number of supporters asking them to do what it takes to get him Darwin's notebooks, which Hovind promises to joyfully and with laughter in his heart to treat with profound disrespect and heinous notebook abuse resulting in their destruction. Remember that THEY'RE NOTEBOOKS -- pieces of paper smeared with ink. They have as little intrinsic value as those crackers. Before you start telling me that the notebooks have "historic value," give me a rational definition for that notion. You can't even argue that any of the information would be lost, as the notebooks have all been copied and translated (from Darwin's bad handwriting) and photographed and scanned. Despite all that, when I saw some of Darwin's notebooks at the American Museum of Natural History a few years back, I nonetheless felt a deep emotional and intellectual connection to the man and his work that was not diminished by the fact that I was fully aware the feeling was arational.

Think of all the things we value in our lives far beyond any rational worth they have -- a wedding ring, a deceased parent's picture, an old book. We are a symbol-creating species and, if we have any such thing called "rights," we have as much entitlement to be reasonably secure in our symbols as we have to be secure in our other metaphorical "possessions," such as our "dignity" and our "honor."

Tuesday, July 08, 2008


Economy of Explanation


A thought:

Capitalism, as conservatives never tire of pointing out, produces economic efficiency not by design from above, but from innovation, investment, and self-interest from below. The ability of modern capitalism to invent, adapt, and prosper stands as dramatic testimony against those who would argue that complexity and efficiency cannot arise spontaneously, but must be planned into a system by a supervising authority. Charles Darwin would have loved it.

What impressed Darwin, as well as many others, about living things was how well-suited they are to their environments. Other naturalists could do no better than to attribute this to careful, centralized planning, but Darwin knew better. He supplemented his observations on natural systems with studies of the economic theories of Thomas Malthus and Adam Smith, whose work preceded his by a generation. From economics he gained one of the key insights of his theory: namely, that allowing individuals to struggle for personal gain helps to weed out inefficiencies and produces a balanced system that ultimately benefits society as a whole.

In a certain sense Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection is unadulterated Adam Smith translated into the language of biology. The unthinking acts of individual organisms, seeking no more than survival and reproductive success, produce biological novelty just as surely as venture capitalists foster innovation.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century evolution has won the scientific argument just as surely as capitalism has won the economic one. Ironically, the critics of evolution, who otherwise fashion themselves as conservatives, are the ones who argue for central planning and design in the organization of living systems. By doing so they fail to acknowledge Smith's great lesson that the most intelligent design of all, whether in economics or biology, comes from having the wisdom to let nature work its course.

- Kenneth R. Miller, Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America's Soul

Monday, July 07, 2008



For a bit of the ol' "good news, bad news" meme, there is this review by Scott McKeen in the Edmonton Journal of our favorite cinematic speed bag:

It is aptly titled. But only because you have to check your intelligence at the door to buy this one.

Expelled, a propaganda piece by the religious right, fails to argue justly for a place in science for the divine. Instead, it insults the intelligence by blaming Darwin and evolution for Hitler, Nazis, the Holocaust, eugenics and pretty much every other evil concocted by humankind.

Darwin should be ashamed. But only because the asinine creators of this movie were naturally selected ahead of other possible sperm-egg combinations.

Neatly skewered. But then there is the other half of the equation:

The flaw in Charles Darwin's pre-eminent theory is its failure to explain why some humans de-evolve to infant primates when debating the existence of God.

Put atheists in the same room as the devout and, well, it's back to the sandbox. (There is a God; no there isn't -- is/isn't, is/isn't, is/isn't.)

The combatants are so entrenched in their world views that if God were to arrive one day in the town square, two things would happen: The pious would go "Na-Na Na Na-Na," and the atheists would punch them in the face, then go to hell. ...

[U]ber atheist and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins -- he wrote The God Delusion -- is so dead-set against the idea of a God-soaked universe that he prefers the idea of aliens seeding the Earth with life. ...

Dawkins argues that he's only citing aliens to make a point. But his lack of respect for people of faith is both arrogant and galling.

As an Apathetic Agnostic ("We don't know and we don't care.") myself, I have, on occasion, been moved to remonstrate some of the more outré attacks on religion by atheists. But it seems to me that anyone wielding such an acid pen as McKeen's would be well advised to refrain from charges of arrogance and name-calling.

But, hey! What do I know?

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

. . . . .


How to Support Science Education