Saturday, February 28, 2009


When in Rome

Stephen Meyer, a cofounder of the Discoveryless Institute and director of its Center for Science and Culture, is on a road trip:

An American scientist and co-founder of the renowned Discovery Institute says Shrewsbury should be proud of its most famous son Charles Darwin - despite disagreeing with many of his ideas.

Although being among those responsible for forming the intelligent design movement, which challenges Darwin's theory of evolution, Stephen Meyer, of Seattle, said he had huge respect for the work carried out by the naturalist.

First of all, Meyer is not a "scientist" (unless undergraduate degrees in physics and geology and a stint at Atlantic Richfield Company hunting for oil counts). His Ph.D. is in the philosophy and history of science. This is a mistake that appears in the popular press often enough to make you wonder if it is entirely accidental.

And the DI is "renowned" in about the same way Bonnie and Clyde were.

But mostly I wonder just how proud Meyer really thinks Shrewsburyians should be of Darwin, considering what the DI keeps saying about him and his work, as in this example:

Richard Weikart: Darwinism was a central, guiding principle of Nazi ideology, especially of Hitler's own world view.

Of course, as part of the ploy, Weikart and the DI will equivocate about the role of Darwin or evolutionary theory in the Holocaust, depending on which audience they are addressing. But the implication is clear throughout: you should only be proud of Darwin if you think genocide is a good thing.

Janus would be proud.

Friday, February 27, 2009


Of Two Mouths

Dr. Terry Mortenson, of Answers in Genesis, described as an "apologetics ministry" rather than a scientific organization, places science and the Bible in direct conflict:

"The Bible says the earth was created before the sun, moon, and stars -- contrary to the big-bang theory. The Bible says that plants were created before sea creatures -- contrary to…evolutionary theory," Mortenson points out.

"And then the Bible says that there was no death before Adam's sin -- no animal death, no human death. But evolution says there were hundreds of millions of years of death in the physical world. So you have to ignore the details of the Bible to accept evolution."
But it's not just biology and evolution or cosmology and the Big Bang, but astronomy (which clearly shows that the Earth did not come into existence before our own Sun, much less our galaxy, much less the most ancient galaxies), physics (speed of light, radiometric dating, etc.), and geology (age of the Earth, order and age of fossils, no Flood, etc.) and their numerous sub-disciplines that have to be handwaved away.

Naturally, Mortenson claims that there is "an enormous amount of scientific evidence that supports that God created separate kinds of plants and animals ... and there's an enormous, massive amount of evidence in the geological record for Noah's flood."

But as we already know, that "scientific" evidence is evidence only if you ignore the "evidentialist approach" and, instead, adopt presuppositionalism by starting with the authority of the Word of God instead of with the "authority of human reasoning." In short, there is scientific evidence for the biblical account if, and only if, you start by assuming the Bible is true. Besides the danger of his disappearing up his own butt running in such tight circles, Mortenson is being less than honest in not explaining that the "evidence" is not coming from actual evidence but from assuming his conclusion from the outset.

But if we do take him at his word, then science has definitively disproven the Bible and could he please close down that ridiculous "museum"?

Thursday, February 26, 2009


First Light

Hugh Ross, an astronomer and old-Earth creationist, seems to be moving further away from the Intelligent Design Movement. In the past he has described himself as "a Discovery Institute ally," though he has chided IDers to stop "attempt[ing] to walk a middle ground between evolution and creationism," which results, he says, in that "you make theology weak and you make science weak."

Now, in an article in the Christian Examiner he has a rather harsher assessment:

Perhaps you've already observed that "evolution bashing" tends to backfire. Claims that creation or intelligent design must be right because of flaws and shortcomings in the evolution scenario typically go nowhere, and for good reason. Scientists freely acknowledge that no theory comes forth perfect and complete. The investigation of flaws and weaknesses is the process that propels science forward toward more precise understandings of the natural world.

What's more, researchers and theoreticians interpret such complaints as a smoke screen, an attempt to cover up a lack of tangible, valid evidence for creation or, equally bad, an attempt to shield the biblical creation scenario from any meaningful evaluation and critique.

To gain a voice in the public arena, we cannot and need not stay "religiously neutral." We cannot ask for recognition of an unidentified intelligent designer who played an undefined role in bringing about the observable history of life on Earth. This lack of definition will prevent us from being taken seriously as scientists.
It's nice to see a creationist decry the "teach the weaknesses" ploy that is the latest refuge of the scoundrels at the DI. Of course, it is pretty hard to take Ross seriously as a scientist either, with stuff like this:

General relativity theory, which gave rise to the big bang, stipulates that the universe had a beginning and specifically a "transcendent" beginning. The space-time theorem of general relativity states that matter, energy, and all the space-time dimensions associated with the universe began in finite time, and that the Cause of the universe brings all the matter, energy, and space-time dimensions of the universe into existence from a reality beyond matter, energy, space, and time. The extreme fine-tuning of the big bang parameters that are necessary for physical life to be possible in the universe exceeds by many orders of magnitude the design capabilities of human beings. The worldview significance of these conclusions cannot be avoided. No philosophical system or religious doctrines in the world fits them as does the Bible. It not only fits them, it anticipates them by several thousand years.
Naturally, "the worldview significance" of the Big Bang rather strongly depends on the worldview you bring to the table:

Properly understood, God's Word (Scripture) and God's world (nature), as two revelations (one verbal, one physical) from the same God, will never contradict each other.
In other words, nothing can constitute a critical test of the truth or falsity of his creationism because any apparent contradiction is simply a bad interpretation of the evidence or of the Bible or both. Thus, the mere fact that some ancient text can be, in one way or another, interpreted to comport with modern science can hardly be taken as scientific evidence for the truth of the text. After all, without the presupposition that the Bible is right, the interpretation that makes it appear compatible with science could just as easily be wrong as the one that leaves them incompatible, and there is no way to empirically test which is the right way to look at it.

While I'll welcome any breakup of "the big tent," this is just a case of pot, kettle, black.


Aping Science

Oh, by the way, speaking of the religious nature of Intelligent Design Creationism, Troy Britain, at Playing Chess with Pigeons* has noticed the link I missed between Uncommon Descent, William Dembski's sycophant-fest ... er ... blog and the young-Earth creationist blog, Science and Values, that James McGrath (himself a Christian and a biblical scholar) accuses of "tactics used by deceitful individuals determined not only to attack science without warrant, but to give Christianity a bad name in the process." The particular link is Andrew Sibley, an avowed "creation scientist" who has posting rights at UD and is also a listed author at SaV.

At both venues Sibley raised the New York Post cartoon of a 'gunned-down chimp' that has been taken as a racist depiction of President Obama. Troy notes, however, that Sibley, in the "best" traditions of "cdesign proponentsists," decries racism at SaV based on the Genesis account of descent from Noah and family after the Flood but, at UD, he strips the biblical references and sticks to the old (and false) claim that that evolution is inherently racist.

As Troy notes:

To forestall the inevitable indignant objections, yes I know that many, if not most, of the leaders of the ID creationism movement are not young earth creationists, but many are (hi Paul**) as is much of their constituency. It matters little; whether they are young earth creationists or some variation of old earth creationist, they are religiously motivated antievolutionists, i.e. creationists.


* "Debating creationists on the topic of evolution is rather like trying to play chess with a pigeon — it knocks the pieces over, craps on the board, and flies back to its flock to claim victory."

** Paul Nelson, a Fellow of the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture and a young-Earth creationist.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009


Turning Over Political Rocks

Poor Casey Luskin. Here he expends all the time and effort to try to paint the opposition to Iowa's version of the Discovery Institute's "academic freedom" legislation as unfairly characterizing the bill as attempting to inject religion into public classrooms and along comes one of his "allies" and blows his cover:

Norman Pawlewski, representing the Christian Alliance and one of two state lobbyists registered in favor of HF 183, said, "Why shouldn't teachers and students be able to decide among all the science-related information? God created science, after all."

That "science-related" is a nice touch. Basically, the bill's supporters see it as including anything that anyone might take it into his head to say about science ... oh, like fossils all originated in the Flood. And, of course, this bill has nothing at all to do with religion ... which is why the lobbyist in favor of it mentions God and science in the same breath.

Hector Avalos, Iowa State University professor of religious studies; James W. Demastes, University of Iowa associate professor of biology; and Tara C. Smith, University of Iowa assistant professor of epidemiology, have organized a petition by over 200 faculty members from Iowa State University, the University of Iowa and the University of Northern Iowa, as well as from 17 other Iowa universities, colleges and community colleges, seven primary and secondary schools, and three research organizations. You might note that this petition, solely from the state of Iowa, has over a quarter of the number of signers that the Discovery Institute's bogus "Dissent From Darwinism" list has collected worldwide. On top of Pawlewski's admission, the organizers made the following observation:

Demastes, Smith and Avalos say support for HF 183 comes from "mostly conservative religious groups," such as the Iowa Christian Alliance, and not from "legitimate scientific or educational organizations," such as the Iowa State Education Association and the Iowa Department of Education, which oppose HF 183.

So all Casey can do is keep pounding the less-than-credible line that all the DI wants to do is allow teachers to discuss the "weaknesses" of evolution which, for some reason, are never spelled out. Could it be that they are all the same ol' arguments that it makes in favor of ID?

Well, as a "Darwinist," I guess it's time for me to say something nasty about Luskin to subject him to "ridicule, intimidation, or worse" ...

Ahem: From the evidence of this article, Luskin is less forthcoming, less honest about his motives, than a registered lobbyist.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009


Mental At Least

What do you do with a feel-good article about tears?

Therese J. Borchard writes a column called "Beyond Blue" for BeliefNet that, if "The Healing Properties of Tears: 7 Good Reasons to Cry Your Eyes Out" is a fair sampling, should give treacle a run for its money.

Well, first thing you do is notice is that her "research" is an article by Jerry Bergman at Answers in Genesis. Now, I have no idea if the "facts" she lifted from Bergman are true or not but, since it is in aid of one of those non sequitur-fests, where a list of good adaptations are trotted out as "miracles which work so well that ... it is one more reason to realize that our marvellous body is not the result of evolutionary trial and error," there is probably some basis for them in reality. Except, of course, that the same creationists will turn around and admit that natural selection does lead to adaptation ... but just a little bit.

The next thing you do is notice this:

In her "Science Digest" article, writer Ashley Montagu argued that crying not only contributes to good health, but it also builds community.

Um ... if you Googled "Ashley Montagu," the very first hit that comes up is the Wikipedia article with "her" picture prominently displayed. Okay, it is presently a commonly a female name in the US (and you know what poor Evelyn Waugh must suffer in American culture nowadays) and I probably don't Google every author who I make reference to but know little or nothing about. But if I started an advice column and based my advice on something someone wrote, I hope I'd do at least a little research on that person's qualifications.

Worse yet, according to her biography, her column also shows up on The Huffington Post, woo-meister to the Left, and flies under the colors of "mental health."

All right. I'm grumpy and it's a slow night in the news I usually follow. But you have to wonder if there really are people out there who look to this woman for solutions to their problems and whether they know what their getting.

Monday, February 23, 2009


Pressing Concerns

If you would like to see how not to conduct an interview and maintain a shred of journalistic objectivity, go look at Suzan Mazur's attempt to chivvy David H. Koch (wealthy industrialist and major backer of PBS' Nova) into strong-arming the program to run something on her fantasized imminent collapse of the "Darwinian paradigm."

Mazur, you may remember, is the Geraldo Rivera of evolutionary science who has never found an interesting idea she can't hype beyond any recognition or met a kook, like Stuart Pivar, who she can't confuse with a real scientist. Needless to say, she keeps trying to shine klieg lights into empty vaults. Mazur created such overblown rhetoric about the "Altenberg 16" meeting, organized by Massimo Pigliucci, that it lent much comfort to creationists, not unlike the "Darwin Was Wrong" cover at New Scientist."

As far as her interviewing "skills," she can't seem to ask a question without appending to it a long personal (and pointless) anecdote or an extended diatribe about her Secretariat-like hobbyhorse. Many of her questions are longer than any of the answers that Koch gave and you can practically hear the wheels turning in his head going "how did I wind up in a room with this woman?" Koch sidestepped most of her claims of the impending end-of-evolution-as-we-know-it by saying that he was unaware of her "examples" or unqualified to assess the science or by making reassuring but noncommittal noises about how the public is served by knowing more about the subject. Asked if "we are now witnessing a sea change in evolutionary thinking?" he rather sensibly answered:

No. I don't think it's a sea change. The sea change occurred back when Darwin published his evolutionary theories, backed up by massive, overwhelming evidence. What's happened since is that there's been a rather steady progressive acceptance of the concepts of evolution in the general public. It's amazing to me that in America a large faction of the population still doesn't believe in it.

Not so amazing if this type of "journalism" is where they are getting their information from.

Any questions, Chris Mooney?

Sunday, February 22, 2009


Secular Thought

A thought:

[T]here was a good deal of misunderstanding ... respecting the import of the word secular. There is no uncertainty about it. There is not a better defined word in the English language. Secular is whatever has reference to this life. Secular instruction is instruction respecting the concerns of this life. Secular subjects therefore are all subjects except religion. All the arts and sciences are secular knowledge. To say that secular means irreligious implies that all the arts and sciences are irreligious, and is very like saying that all professions except that of the law are illegal. There is a difference between irreligious and not religious, however it may suit the purposes of many persons to confound it. Now on the principles of religious freedom which we were led to believe that it was the purpose of this Association to accept, instruction on subjects not religious is as much the right of those who will not accept religious instruction as of those who will. To know the laws of the physical world, the properties of their own bodies and minds, the past history of their species, is as much a benefit to the Jew, the Mussulman, the Deist, the Atheist, as to the orthodox churchman ; and it is as iniquitous to withhold it from them. Education provided by the public must be education for all, and to be education for all it must be purely secular education.

-John Stuart Mill, "Speech on Secular Education," 1849


In the Ranks

A thought:

I'm all for exposing students to some of the philosophical, religious and political issues surrounding the challenges to evolution -- as part of studying the history of science, for example. But at a time when American high school students rank 27th among students from developed nations in scientific literacy, and in the face of environmental crisis and economic uncertainty, the United States can't afford for biology classrooms to be church-state war zones.

- Charles C. Haynes, senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, "Stick to science," Montgomery (Alabama) Advertiser, February 21, 2009

Saturday, February 21, 2009


Ready ... Aim ...

James McGrath has an interesting take on the New Scientist "Darwin Was Wrong" cover, which he thinks, ultimately, does more good than harm. His contention is that:

1. It shows that there is no "atheistic conspiracy" to shield Darwin from criticism;

2. The "tree of life" and the diagram in Darwin's notebook (labeled "I think") are not about something that is central to evolution and which he could not have known about anyway; and

3. Since it was about something that the IDeologists had not anticipated, it merely highlights the lack of research and adherence to the scientific method by the ID crowd.

While it is worth considering, I can't say that I agree ... though that could be due to my cynicism after following the creationism/evolution "debate" for over two decades.

First of all, it is inherent in conspiracy theorists of all sorts that all evidence, even exposés, will morph into proof of a cover-up ... "sure, they will admit things, when they can't help it, just to mislead us." Creationists regularly trot out quote mines from "atheist," "agnostic" or "Darwinist" scientists "admitting" that evolution is "wrong," without for a second taking that as evidence that those same scientists aren't still engaged in a conspiracy to hide the bankruptcy of evolutionary theory.

Nor are creationists (or casual observers whose eyes glaze over at science) likely to understand that the legitimate issues with the Tree of Life really have no relevance to common descent, which is what most people think of when they think of evolution. Certainly, biblical literalists, whose whole theology revolves the notion that the Bible has to be perfectly true or it is useless, are not likely to consider any nuances about how "wrong" Darwin was. That's no reason to hide the truth, of course, but neither is there any reason for the victim to clean and load the creationists' rifles for them, even before they assemble their intellectual firing squad.

Finally, anyone who hasn't already noticed that the IDers aren't doing science is unlikely to tumble to the fact from this fairly arcane example, especially amidst all the shouting. Like all good sleight-of-hand artists, the IDers will be waiving that cover around so vigorously that most of the audience not already attuned to the trick will be unlikely to see it even right under their noses.

It's interesting that James is simultaneously engaged with a blog, Science and Values, exhibiting the sort of creationist tactics "used by deceitful individuals determined not only to attack science without warrant, but to give Christianity a bad name in the process." It is those very tactics that will, I think, at least in part, negate any good outcome from the New Scientist cover. He's likely to get ganged up on over there, so, if you have a minute or two, stop by to introduce the inhabitants to some real science.


More Quote Mines From Texas

Jeremy Mohn, who has already done yeoman's work, in his "Collapse of a Texas Quote Mine," uncovering the quote-mining of the creationists on the Texas State Board of Education, has found more examples, this time by the truly execrable Terri Leo. Her method in this instance is the tried-and-untrue method of cutting off the quote before the thought is complete:

If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed, which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down. But I can find out no such case.

Ironically, Ms. Leo performs her surgery in support of her alleged anticensorship.





Rave Reviews

The Jacksonville Florida Times-Union has a column called "Rants & Raves," which prints short anonymous letters to the editor. This one caught my eye:

Because the recent ranter against intelligent design doesn't mention whether he holds a Nobel Prize, I'm going to have to go with people who have achieved that distinction and do believe in intelligent design: Charles Townes, George Smoot and Leon Lederman, to name a few. Additionally, a man named Albert Einstein was no slouch in science and he believed in intelligent design as well.
First of all, I see your four Nobel laureates and raise you thirty-four. More seriously, the business about Einstein and his religious beliefs, or lack thereof, has been hashed out so often that it need not be gone into here. The notion that he would, as IDeologists claim to be doing, credit an unnamed "Designer" as an empiric conclusion about the universe is laughable.

But I got to wondering about the other three names. So I spent a little time on a Saturday morning Googling about. Most of that time I spent on Leon Lederman, who likely made the list, at least in part, for the title of his popular book, The God Particle, referring to the Higgs Boson. I did not find any definitive answer about his views on ID before I grew bored with the exercise (though his having been a Fellow of CSICOP -- now CSI -- may be a good hint).

Answers on the other two came quickly, however.

Charles Townes, winner of a Nobel Prize in Physics and the inventor of the maser (Microwave Amplification by Stimulated Emission), which amplifies microwaves to produce an intense beam, is a self-described "very progressive" Protestant Christian. In an interview with the UC Berkeley News, he states his view of science and religion in the somewhat mystical terms so common among physicists:

As Western science grew, Newtonian mechanics had scientists thinking that everything is predictable, meaning there's no room for God - so-called determinism. Religious people didn't want to agree with that. Then Darwin came along, and they really didn't want to agree with what he was saying, because it seemed to negate the idea of a creator. So there was a real clash for a while between science and religions.

But science has been digging deeper and deeper, and as it has done so, particularly in the basic sciences like physics and astronomy, we have begun to understand more. We have found that the world is not deterministic: quantum mechanics has revolutionized physics by showing that things are not completely predictable. That doesn't mean that we've found just where God comes in, but we know now that things are not as predictable as we thought and that there are things we don't understand.
Townes clearly accepts the "Anthropic Argument" based on the concept of the "fine-tuning" of our universe but on the issue of evolution, his views are clearly not in sympathy with today's Intelligent Design Movement and is more in accord with the notion, accepted by Darwin, at least at times in his life, of a God that designed the physical laws of the universe that, as they worked themselves out, resulted in the evolution of life:

Now, that design could include evolution perfectly well. It's very clear that there is evolution, and it's important. Evolution is here, and intelligent design is here, and they're both consistent.

They don't have to negate each other, you're saying. God could have created the universe, set the parameters for the laws of physics and chemistry and biology, and set the evolutionary process in motion, But that's not what the Christian fundamentalists are arguing should be taught in Kansas.

People who want to exclude evolution on the basis of intelligent design, I guess they're saying, "Everything is made at once and then nothing can change." But there's no reason the universe can't allow for changes and plan for them, too. People who are anti-evolution are working very hard for some excuse to be against it. I think that whole argument is a stupid one. Maybe that's a bad word to use in public, but it's just a shame that the argument is coming up that way, because it's very misleading.

Stupid and misleading are words I'd also use for ID.

George Smoot, also a winner of the Nobel prize for physics, is the astronomer who proposed the Cosmic Background Explorer Satellite and used it to discover tiny fluctuations in the cosmic microwave background radiation. In a press conference announcing the discovery, he called it something "which, if you're religious, is like looking at God." In an interview with New Scientist, he explains his choice of words:

A lot was said in that press conference when I announced the discovery, but that was the bit that got picked out. I got grief from some of my colleagues, one of whom said he wished "to hell" that I hadn't said it. That just shows how we use language unconsciously. But it helped generate a lot of good press, and some people got to hear about the big bang when they might not have done otherwise.
On his view of science he said:

To be a scientist you have to be an optimist. We've tied down a huge portion of the universe, from today and the near future right back to a fraction of a second after the big bang 13.7 billion years ago. Of course, people want to go back further - past God if you like. My extreme optimism is that the universe can ultimately be reduced to something simple. It has been a powerful business model so far.
Asked if he is as optimistic about humanity as he is about science, he replied:

Somehow we're going to fumble our way out of global warming, and society will continue stumbling along and improving. During the last century, life expectancy increased by one year per decade. We've mapped the human genome and are beginning to master genetic engineering. You soon realise that humans will easily live to 1000 once we've fixed the errors in DNA replication. But we have to guard against dark ages. The difference between what we call a growing and a recessing society is just a few per cent, and things like intelligent design aren't helping.
ID as driving us back towards the dark ages hardly sounds like a ringing endorsement.

It wasn't hard to find those articles. It took me less than a half-hour. Basic fact-checking is apparently not a consideration with creationists.

Oh, there was also one other rant on that page of note:

It is very sad that people consider creationism a fairy tale. It's a lot easier to believe that an almighty God created the heavens and the earth than to believe I was once a tadpole that started walking and talking later on.

I suppose that depends on what you mean by "tadpole."


Creative Naming

Akron Fossils & Science Center.

Sounds impressive, doesn't it? Not so much:

It's a small, one-story building at the corner of Cleveland-Massillon and Minor roads, a couple of miles south of Copley Circle. If you go inside and look around, you will discover a paean to creationism.

The ''science'' being taught includes a huge display quoting the Book of Genesis and purporting to show that scientific research confirms every word of the Scripture.

Impressionable youngsters are being taught that the Earth is only 6,000 years old, rather than the 4.5 billion years estimated by the world's scientists. Humans and dinosaurs walked the planet at the same time, according to the displays.
The reporter on the story, Bob Dyer, asks an obvious question:

[I]f they truly believe what they espouse, why not call the place ''the Akron Creation Museum'' or ''the Akron Intelligent Design Center''?
The answer will give your jaw some exercise:

Josiah Detwiler, the center's operations director, says there's no need for that because his group deserves equal time.

''When you go to the Natural History Museum, it doesn't say, 'The Natural History Museum of Evolution,' '' he says. ''Of course, they're presenting the evolution model of origins there. And so we're making a statement here that, you know, we are presenting science.'' ...

''We're equally as legitimate of an explanation, and that's why we focus the first half of the museum on the science, because the science backs up a supernatural creation,'' he says.
But, wait a minute, weren't we just treated to the instruction by the big brother of Akron Fossils & Science Center (annual visitors, approximately 3,000) not to go the "evidentialism" route and, instead assert "presuppositionaliam?" Hold on:

He claims evolution is a faith-based approach as well, ''because there are unexplainable aspects to it. . . . ''
Ah! Different train, same station.

Unfortunately, at least one public school was suckered into taking field trips there ... for a time:

[Copley High School Assistant Superintendent Brian] Poe says flatly, as of last year, ''we do not take field trips to the Akron Fossils & Science Center.''
In addition, local organizations in Ohio, such as the Cleveland Orchestra, the Center Of Science and Industry in Columbus and the Akron Zoo have all donated tickets to fundraising events for the Akron Fossils & Science Center.

In the end, Mr. Dryer hits the creationist nail on the head. Quoting a brochure for the place:

''Our teachers are eager to help your student learn more about the beauty and order of creation!''
... his reporter's instincts take over:

Most of us spend a lifetime trying to bring order to things that aren't orderly. But that doesn't mean we can.

Friday, February 20, 2009


Err Presumptive

Moral senseRichard B. Hoppe has a wonderful takedown of creationists at The Panda's Thumb (and not just because he links to a post of mine). It involves the "presuppositional" argument claiming that "creation scientists" and (real) scientists use the same evidence, but that they interpret it from different starting points, Biblical creationism and "man's reason." Richard quotes Georgia Purdom, a geneticist in the employ of Answers in Genesis:

I had a friendly "debate" with a gentleman afterwards concerning the merits of presuppositionalism vs. evidentialism. This person believed there was "neutral ground" where evolutionists and creationists can debate the evidence and that the evidentialist approach was better to use with non-Christians. I tried to help him see that neutral ground does not exist because both sides have presuppositions–creationists start with the authority of the Word of God and evolutionists start with the authority of human reasoning. If we as creationists agree to "leave the Bible out of it," then we are starting with the same presuppositions as the evolutionists and will not be effective.

It is amusing to see the tacit admission that "creation science" is ineffectual against evidence and that the only way for it to win is to change the subject. But Richard then takes the creationists' case and runs a bulldozer right through it (in a way that warms the cockles of this lawyer's heart):

Now, the presupposition of the U.S. justice system is (purportedly) that one is presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. But if we adopt the AIG/ICR philosophical/apologetic position regarding presuppositions, no amount of evidence that seems to support guilt can alter the presumption of innocence. Hence if I'm ever charged with a crime, I want AIG creationists on the jury: I'm guaranteed an acquittal, because, you see, evidence doesn't count in evaluating presuppositions! And doing CSI becomes infinitely easier: Decide who's guilty beforehand and simply interpret the evidence appropriately.

My only disagreement is with Richard's (tongue-in-cheek) suggestion that it would be a good thing to have an AiG-packed jury. Based on past experience, I doubt that their "starting point" would be "man's laws," anymore than it is "man's reason." After all, the Constitution of the United States has never seemed to bother them any.

And, if they were rooting around in their Bibles for evidence of my guilt, I'm pretty sure they'd find some.


McLeroy in a Nutshell

There is an interesting article on Don McLeroy, the creationist chairman of the Texas State Board of Education in The Texas Observer that, among other things, reveals that he was lured by the promise of sex into fundamentalist Christianity and creationism ... okay, it was that his future wife wouldn't date him unless he was a Christian and then took him to creationist seminars until he was convinced.

Another quirk of his personality is the black and white thinking that he considers to be "consistency."

He has little respect for scientists like Ken Miller, an orthodox Catholic and popular writer on evolutionary biology who argues that there's no controversy between evolution and religion. They, McLeroy believes, are inconsistent, and he values consistency above all else.

"I would never say that Miller's not a real Christian," he says. "I don't think you have to be one to be the other. But I don't think he's very consistent.

"That's why I like Dawkins so much. He at least takes evolution to where it has to lead—atheism."
But that makes this claim rather hollow:

McLeroy insists he doesn't have any desire to have creationism taught in classrooms. "It's a religious philosophy," he says. "It doesn't belong in schools. Same with intelligent design. Evolution is the scientific consensus, so we'll teach that."

But McLeroy believes that at some point, perhaps in 10 years, perhaps in 50, a new scientific revolution will reveal that "the creationists' crazy ideas" are actually right—just as quantum mechanics and relativity overturned the tidy world of classical physics. McLeroy professes a willingness to keep teaching the scientific consensus until the day comes when it jibes with his beliefs.
That doesn't sound very consistent to me ... but this does:

McLeroy agrees that the debate is, at root, a religious issue. "I know we're the minority, both religiously and scientifically," he says. "But I have faith that we'll prevail."

How can he be so confident, given his lack of training in science, theology, or education?

For the first time in our interview, McLeroy sounds taken aback.

"That's a good question," he says.

He's quiet for a long time.

"Because the truth is on our side," he finally says. "We may not be trained, but I have faith that we're right."
Confident ignorance certainly is a consistent feature of creationists.


Bad Arguments for ID # 2362

From a Letter to the Editor in the Agusta (Georgia) Chronicle:

Science means the testability of a hypothesis -- well, until a scientist can bring me a dragonfly he created out of organic soup, I'll stick with Intelligent Design and an intelligent designer. My faith is built upon better evidence than a king-sized, fossilized soup bone -- or even DNA look-alikes.

Letssee: until a scientist can bring me a star he created out of hydrogen, I won't believe the sun is powered by nuclear fusion generated at its core by gravity, I'll stick with Intelligent Burning and an intelligent burner ...


Bad Arguments for ID # 1656

From a Letter to the Editor in the Pottsville, Pennsylvania, Republican Herald:

Adherents to religion agree that something or someone created the universe. Is it not possible that "God's" creation involved careful design of the hierarchical natural laws that comprise it?

Here's the scenario as I see it: God creates physics, physics dictates chemistry and chemistry dictates the rest —including evolution.

Actually, that part is not unlike Darwin's own beliefs. But wait ...

The problem is that scientists studying a particular branch of science get bogged down in the minutia, not contemplating the bigger picture. This is precisely why evolutionary biologists have taken flak before, and will, no doubt, continue to do so.

A scientist tries to understand nature empirically, but not its physical origin; this is, for now, the realm of pseudoscience.

So as not to open a veritable Pandora's box, I'll close with a parable from Thermodynamics Laws: Verse 2. Disorder (or entropy — for those concerned with vernacular) always increases.

How then does life stay together and function, when it's thermodynamically unfavorable even to keep water from evaporating?

From a physical standpoint, judicious invocation of "intelligent design" appears more legitimate than randomness.


Thursday, February 19, 2009


Disappearing Praise

It wasn't my favorite way to celebrate Darwin's Year, but there is something, somewhere, that says we should not steal. Apparently that does not include the "Praise Darwin: Evolve Beyond Belief" billboard. The billboard sign was made of vinyl and Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, said that a representative from Clear Channel Outdoor told her, "It took a long ladder and a lot of determination" to remove the billboard material.

Or one Angel of the Lord.


The Theory of Law

Clive Thompson, a contributing writer at The New York Times Magazine and a former Knight Science-Journalism Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has a theory. Noting that creationists take advantage of the language used by scientists to inculcate doubt in the general public's mind about evolution, he seconds the call of Australian-born physicist Helen Quinn for the scientific community to revise scientific terminology. The obvious example is the use of the term "theory," as seen in this letter in the Tifton (Georgia) Gazette by an otherwise articulate and reasonable-sounding man, who has been obviously mislead about the present state of science by the Discovery Institute and its minions, through such things as its list of "dissenters" from "Darwinism" and the supposed "icons" of evolution. Central to his position, however, is the confusion over the meaning of "theory":

[A]s a parent, a Christian, and a concerned member of society, I simply cannot sit back and see evolutionary theory espoused as "fact" without offering my understanding of "the rest of the story." The truth is that evolution is, and always has been a "theory;" it has never been definitively proven ...

Thompson correctly diagnoses the problem:

[F]or most people, theory means a haphazard guess you've pulled out of your, uh, hat. It's an insult, really, a glib way to dismiss a point of view: "Ah, well, that's just your theory." Scientists use 'theory' in one specific way, the public another -- and opponents of evolution have expertly exploited this disconnect.

The justification for using tentative language in science is obvious:

Last summer, Australian-born physicist Helen Quinn sparked a lively debate with an essay arguing that scientists are too tentative when they discuss scientific knowledge. They're an inherently cautious bunch, she points out. Even when they're 99 per cent certain of a theory, they know there's always the chance that a new discovery could overturn or modify it.

So when scientists talk about well-established bodies of knowledge – particularly in areas like evolution or relativity – they hedge their bets. They say they "believe" something to be true, as in, "We believe that the Jurassic period was characterised by humid tropical weather."

So what do Thompson and Quinn propose:

There is a defence against this: a revamped scientific lexicon. If the anti-evolutionists insist on exploiting the public's misunderstanding of words such as 'theory' and 'believe', then we shouldn't fight it. "We need to be a bit less cautious in public when we're talking about scientific conclusions that are generally agreed upon," Quinn argues.

What does she suggest? For truly solid-gold, well-established science, let's stop using the word 'theory' entirely. Instead, let's revive much more venerable language and refer to such knowledge as 'law'. As with Newton's law of gravity, people intuitively understand that a law is a rule that holds true and must be obeyed. The word law conveys precisely the same sense of authority with the public as 'theory' does with scientists, but without the linguistic baggage. ...

Best of all, it performs a neat bit of linguistic jujitsu. If someone says, "I don't believe in the theory of evolution," they may sound reasonable. However, if they announce, "I don't believe in the law of evolution," they sound insane. It's tantamount to saying, "I don't believe in the law of gravity."

I don't agree. While the boundaries in science between "law," "theory" and "hypothesis" have always been somewhat fluid, a "law" has never been just a "grown-up" theory. Scientific laws are, for the most part, about simple physical relationships that are subject to direct empirical confirmation. Newton's law of gravity describes how two objects act in their mutual gravity fields (under "normal" conditions) and can be repeatedly tested under easy to reproduce conditions. Theories, on the other hand, are mostly broad explanations of the interplay of the many physical properties that go into complex systems and have to be tested piecemeal and, often, indirectly.

What, for example, would the "law of evolution" entail? Common descent? But that's not in any sense a "law," it is a fact about life on Earth that could have arisen from many different, and inconsistent, natural causes, including natural selection, Lamarckism or some sort of development inherent in genetics. That, of course, doesn't even include non-natural causes, such as directed variation or progressive creationism.

Natural selection may come close to being a "law," insofar as, if the proposed conditions exist, the occurrence of selection is a logical conclusion from the premises. But even the strongest adaptationists don't claim that natural selection is coextensive with evolution, which has additional causes, such as genetic drift. It wouldn't be close to correct to call natural selection "the law of evolution."

Worst of all, scientists would have to agree to such a change in terminology and that would necessarily require widespread discussion within the scientific community. How would the creationists be kept from learning of this change and the reasons for it? If their aim is discredit science and dismantle the trust the public generally has in scientists, and it is, what better weapon could scientists hand them but an admission that they were trying to practice semantic jujitsu on the uninitiated?

Not only would calling it "the law of evolution" be incorrect, it would be a public relations nightmare far worse than the present misapprehension of the scientific meaning of "theory." There is no linguistic "magic bullet" for the public misunderstanding of science. And even if there were, it would not lie in sleight of hand or adopting the tactics of creationists. Being as honest and clear as possible and working to improve the science literacy of society may not be easy -- and certainly won't be quick -- but it is the only path consistent with the principles that science itself is practiced by.


Update: John Wilkins has a much more detailed (and accurate) description of the relationship between theory, law and hypothesis in science.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009


Random Thoughts

The National Center for Science Education has a report on the latest entry in the "academic freedom" legislative ploy sweepstakes, House Bill 656, introduced in the Missouri House of Representatives. Besides the excruciatingly vague language usual in these bills, intended to allow individual teachers and local school boards to pour as much creationism into the interpretation of the words as possible, House Bill 656 has an interesting change from the 2008 version, which read:

This section only protects the teaching of scientific information and this section shall not be construed to promote any religious or nonreligious doctrine, promote discrimination for or against a particular set of religious beliefs or nonbeliefs, or promote discrimination for or against religion or nonreligion.

The brand-spanking-new 2009 model on the showroom floor has this substitute feature:

This section only protects the teaching of scientific information and this section shall not be construed to promote philosophical naturalism or biblical theology, promote natural cause or intelligent cause, promote undirected change or purposeful design, promote atheistic or theistic belief, promote discrimination for or against a particular set of religious beliefs or ideas, or promote discrimination for or against religion or nonreligion. Scientific information includes physical evidence and logical inferences based upon evidence.

The contrast between "natural cause or intelligent cause" is of obvious interest, because what non-natural intelligence could it be referring to ... except God? While it's good -- not to mention Constitutional -- for the legislature to refrain from promoting teaching about God in science classes, exactly how can you teach science without "promoting" natural causes for natural phenomenon? Ain't that kinda the whole point of science? Will the legislature really refrain from promoting the teaching of science in science classes?

Given the Religious Right's -- opps, sorry, the Religious Lunatic Fringe's -- general definition of "discrimination" against their beliefs as "anything that anyone does that in anyway contradicts or even questions our beliefs," the provision against construing the bill to allow "discrimination for or against a particular set of religious beliefs or ideas" will doubtless get a good workout if this should become law.

Including "logical inferences based upon evidence" within science might seem uncontroversial but, given the history of "creation science" and ID, recently exemplified in Wild Bill Dembski's claim that the "fact" that "no human engineer has designed technology that can hold as much information in such a compact way as the DNA found in cells" is somehow a scientific inference in favor of a "Designer," the term "logical" is likely to have a very loose definition. Expect to see the IDeologists' very favorite "logical" inference, "whatever casts any doubt on any aspect of evolutionary theory, past or present, is evidence for ID," to proliferate in Missouri classrooms in the unfortunate circumstance, for Missouri students, that this bill is signed into law.

But, nerd that I am, the item that interests me most is the provision about not promoting either "undirected change or purposeful design." This plays into a notion that I've had for some time about the endless debate over creationism and evolution. Anyone who has followed it even casually will be familiar with the scene: creationist (ID advocate, promoter of "academic freedom," "controversy" teacher, etc.) calls down doubt (logically, of course) on the power of random evolution to bring into existence the "amazingly" complex vertebrate eye (bacterial flagellum, human mind, etc.). Scientist (science nerd, rational human being, etc.) points out that evolution is not random because natural selection takes the random variations in organisms and promotes the ones best fitted to the environment while tending to eliminate the less fit.

The scientist (science nerd, rational human being, etc.) is thinking of "random" in the "Epicurean" sense: of atoms moving aimlessly about suddenly coalescing into some object -- the tornado in a junkyard assembling a 747 example -- that is certainly a part of creationist thinking. After all, it was Epicureanism that William Paley was arguing against and why should creationists, 150 years behind in their science, be anymore up to date in what they think they are opposing?

But I think creationists are mainly using a different sense of "random," which accounts for their seeming blindness to the nonrandom nature of natural selection. And that other sense of "random" is neatly summarized in this bill. More often than not, when a creationist (ID advocate, promoter of "academic freedom," "controversy" teacher, etc.) uses the term "random," what they mean is "unintended." To them, anything which is "undirected" and not "purposeful" is "random."

I'm not sure if the recognition of this different usage by creationists will be of any use to our side. I doubt that pointing it out to creationists will change their minds or arguments one little bit -- if logic and consistency was of any concern to them, they wouldn't be creationists in the first place. Maybe it would have some impact on the vast majority of people in the middle who have no opinions on evolution that are clearly thought out or firmly held but, if their eyes didn't glaze over at the nuances of the science and the "debate," they probably wouldn't be sitting on the fence anyway.

Still, it is always good to understand one's opponents better ... if for no other reason, that it reduces the head-scratching you have to do.


Update: John Wilkins has a nice post on the different meanings of the related term "chance" and what Darwin intended by the term, which was not the "Epicurean" sense of chance.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009


Of Chickens and Roosts

Stephen Moss in the Guardian has a nice comprehensive piece about the young-Earth creationism movement in the United Kingdom that is well worth reading.

While the movement is still the poor country cousin to the YEC brigade in the US, there has been some growth in their ranks in the past few years. It is certain that they have learned their lessons well and all the standard arguments from the Institute for Creation Research and Answers in Genesis come trippingly to the tongue of UK creationists. One particular argument is notable:

The theme of pastor John Benton's sermon [at the Chertsey Street baptist church in Guildford] in the evening is "Genesis and Evolution: Do They Fit Together?" He holds up a recent New Scientist cover, headlined "Darwin was wrong," as evidence that the scientific base for evolution is crumbling, that the Darwinian tree of life can be uprooted.

[Australian creationist John] Mackay, too, is clutching a copy of that issue of New Scientist when I meet him. This is manna from heaven - the science establishment offering up gifts to the creationists.

Nice going guys!


What Does the NAS Know About Science?

Well, that does it!

All these years the vast and overwhelming majority of scientists have thought that evolution was a scientific theory ... you know, one of those things the National Academy of Sciences calls "a comprehensive explanation of an important feature of nature that is supported by many facts gathered over time." Why the NAS has even said that "Evolution stands on an equally solid foundation of observation, experiment, and confirming evidence" as the theory of gravity.

How embarrassing, then, to have to be corrected by William Dembski!

Despite this widespread support of Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection, Dembski noted that it is a hypothesis. A theory, he said, should both explain what a scientist observes while also gaining support from independent evidence.

"In fact, there is very little evidence for the power of natural selection," Dembski said, adding that the existing evidence concerns small-scale evolutionary changes like the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

You see, there is a better explanation than evolution and natural selection for the nature of life on Earth:

According to Dembski, every worldview involves a creation story, a problem, a solution for that problem and an expected culmination. For Christians, this involves a world created by a wise God and marred by the sinfulness of man. As the solution to sin, the Son of God entered the world as Jesus Christ and died for the redemption of man. In the end, Christ will return and the creation will be renewed.

... "If you get your starting points wrong, you can count on everything downstream going amiss as well." As a result, some theistic evolutionists, who believe in God while also supporting Darwin's theory of evolution, hold to an unbiblical theology. For example, some have denied the fall of mankind and argue that man's problem is a selfishness caused by the process of natural selection, Dembski said.

But ID has nothing to do with religion, it's all about the science ... or sumthin' ...

As for Intelligent Design, "It is not creationism," Dembski said. "It's engineering." ID entails research that seeks to discover evidence of design, or engineering, within nature. For example, no human engineer has designed technology that can hold as much information in such a compact way as the DNA found in cells, he said.

That's the ticket! It's engineering!

Now, about that bit "no human engineer has designed technology that can hold as much information in such a compact way as the DNA found in cells," I don't know whether that's true or not -- certainly, there seems to be a lot of space in most genomes that is taken up in useless "information" -- but the question is why is that supposed factoid in any way relevant to whether DNA is designed?

Maybe I'm being dense but why would the fact that humans can't design something be evidence that something else did? Ain't that one of those non sequitur thingies?

Monday, February 16, 2009


Return of the Whore

First, there was Dr. R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary ... now, the truly indescribable Ray Comfort:

In challenging a report by Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi, head of the Pontifical Council for Culture, saying Darwin's theory is compatible with Christianity, Ray Comfort, author of the hottest Christian book on Amazon, "You Can Lead an Atheist to Evidence But You Can't Make Him Think," points out Jesus himself backed up the Genesis account of Creation when he said, "In the beginning God created them male and female."

"But the Vatican has chosen to officially believe Darwin rather than Jesus," added Comfort. "That belief reveals a shallow understanding of the claims of atheistic evolution. ...

"The Vatican, in essence, is saying, 'Don't believe Jesus or Genesis. Believe Darwin instead,'" Comfort said. "God made man in his own image, and God is not a primate. In the name of diversity, the Vatican is encouraging atheism, and that's a terrible betrayal of Christianity."

"It seems strange that the Vatican can stand without wavering on the subject of abortion, and cave in on the subject of evolution," added Comfort. "They know the issues when it comes to abortion, but my guess is that they don't understand the issues when it comes to Darwinian evolution.
And, hey! It's not just the Pope and all those Jesuits who have shallow understanding:

God gave us six senses, and the sixth one is common sense. That one doesn't get used when it comes to Darwin's theory. And that's the problem – its devoted believers don't think too deeply.
You can take that to the bank! After all, it's coming from the guy who came up with the devastating argument that bananas prove the existence of God!

But back to the Catholic Church ... shall we start a pool on when The Whore of Babylon returns?


Oklahoma OK!

As originally reported by Abbie at ERV, the Oklahoma version of the "academic freedom" ploy was killed in committee today (and just why were they working on President's Day, anyway? -- Commies!):

The vote was 7-6 on Monday in the Senate Education Committee against Sen. Randy Brogdon's Scientific Education and Academic Freedom Act.

The Owasso Republican says teachers in his district fear retribution for bringing up alternative theories on a wide range of subjects, such as evolution and stem cell research.

But McAlester Democrat Sen. Richard Lerblance calls the bill a subterfuge that would lead to teaching of theories based on religious viewpoints and not science.

Seven ... count 'em ... rational legislators in Oklahoma! That puts the state high up on the national list.

Amusingly, the report from KFSM 5News, without any apparent prompting, connects Intelligent Design to the "academic freedom" ploy and gets its purpose right:

The theory that there is an intelligent design to the universe and life has been advanced to counter court rulings prohibiting the teaching of creationism as science.


A Start On All the Truth That's Fit To Print

Heh! I commented the other day on an alleged news story in the Lynchburg (Virginia) News Advance entitled "Liberty University refuting evolution."

It seems the editorial staff has seen the light and the web story has now been renamed as "Liberty University disputing evolution."

Now, if only we can only get the news media to include all the facts ... such as "these loons are morons" ... when reporting on creationism.


What Does It Prophet a Man?

It's not just his own department at Lehigh University that stands against Michael Behe.

Darwin's theory of natural selection plays a key role in most Lehigh Valley public school science curricula.

None of the public schools interviewed for this article includes the controversial idea of intelligent design, a theory that living organisms are so complex a higher power must have created them.

"The only place I would see a place for it in the curriculum would be if we had a comparative religions class," said Bethlehem Area School District Science Supervisor Eric Smith. "It is not really science so we keep it out of the science curriculum."

Behe's reaction:

Behe said he believes intelligent design is an empirical conclusion based on the physical evidence of life that's been discovered in the last 50 years.

"It might be friendly to some religions but it comes through empirical reasoning, observation and experiment," said Behe, who testified in the 2005 Dover Area School District intelligent design trial.

Scientific ideas are constantly evolving and things that half a century ago seemed impossible, such as the genetic code, are now accepted, Behe said.

"There is no reason other than prejudice to deny intelligence in biology," he said.

Well, that and the fact that the IDeologists haven't come up with actual evidence of design like we have for the genetic code, just claims that natural selection is not sufficient to explain all of evolution (which we've known for some time, a la genetic drift and neutral evolution) and a ridiculous analogy to human technology debunked before Paley ever uttered it. Mr. Smith has this part right:

There is no controversy," Smith said. "Intelligent design is not a scientific theory. I didn't teach 'Hamlet' in my physics class because it's not physics."

The best Behe can do is say that Hamlet -- and religion -- are out there:

Behe said he feels students should be given "the blunt truth" that there are many ideas out there.

Sure there are. The question is why they should be taught in science classes.

I suppose Behe can comfort himself with the notion that "a prophet is not without honour, save in his own country, and in his own house."

But the same might be said about a loon.

Sunday, February 15, 2009


Mohler's Choice

Let's see ...

"If you understand Christianity or even Theism – the belief of a sovereign creator God – and evolutionary theory in its dominant form , I find it impossible to reconcile the two," Dr. R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said on his radio program Thursday, the 200th birthday anniversary of Charles Darwin.

Interestingly, the article in The Christian Post that recounts Mohler's opinion also notes:

The Catholic Church accepts theistic evolution, which asserts that evolution occurred but was a process created and planned by God.

... which implies that neither the Catholic Church nor the Pope understand Christianity or Theism, a position of no small theological arrogance. Mohler goes on to say:

"God was not merely fashioning the creation of what was already pre-existent, nor was He merely working with a process in order to guide it in some generalized way, nor was He waiting to see how it would turn out," said Mohler.

"As Genesis indicates, He created the world in order that the world might be the theater of His glory for the demonstration of the Gospel of Christ and He created human beings as the only beings made in His image, as His covenant partner," the Protestant theologian explained.

The best evidence he can give for rejecting evolution, outside of his particular interpretation of the Bible, is an argument that manages to combine not just one but two logical fallacies: argumentum ad populum and argument from personal incredulity:

A Gallup poll released on Feb. 11 found that 200 years after Darwin most Americans still don't believe in evolution, with only 4 out of 10 Americans saying they accepted the theory.

"I believe the reason why they cannot believe in evolution is because when they look in the mirror they cannot see an accident," remarked Mohler.

Anyway, Mohler is giving us a Hobson's Choice: either accept ignorance or forget about his God. The only mystery here is why so many people have any problem making the right choice.


Fire Sale

You know it's going to be painful when an alleged news story is titled "Liberty University refuting evolution."* The "refuter" is "Neuroscientist" David DeWitt, who claims:

"I show them side-by-side — Here's the human. Here's the chimpanzee," he said. "If I would not present evolution and their best evidence and arguments, then I would not be a scholar and I would not be providing the best service for the students.

"I actually teach more about evolution than I received in my undergraduate (biochemistry) program at Michigan State (University). I also teach a lot more about creationism."

So let's see how well he is representing the science (and if Michigan State has an action for defamation):

This is an advanced section of the course, and many of the students are biology majors. Neuroscientist David DeWitt, their professor, leads a lecture on natural selection.

He draws on an example from the documentary film "March of the Penguins" that shows female penguins journeying to find food, and then a seal singling out one to attack.

"Which penguin gets eaten?" he asks. "The one that's genetically inferior, or the one that's in the wrong place at the wrong time?"

That element of chance, he argues, begins to unravel the idea of natural selection, or "survival of the fittest," a key mechanism in the theory of evolution.

At the front of the class, a slide on DeWitt's presentation displays a biblical passage from Ecclesiastes 9:11.

"I have seen something else under the sun," it states. "The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong; nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all."

Uh huh. And some organisms get hit by lightning or caught in landslides. But if those chance elements are truly random, what difference would it make to natural selection, which, after all, was never proposed as an iron rule of "the fittest" inevitably surviving in every circumstance? It is a statistical tendency over time, where the issue is whether, on balance, some organisms with certain traits leave more progeny over generations.

And it isn't as simple as DeWitt paints it, because there could be genetic factors that put that individual penguin in position to be in the path of that seal. Penguins will often gather at the shore, hesitating to enter waters where seals may be lurking. Those with a tendency to enter early may have an advantage in their own hunting but raise their risk of being caught themselves. In any event, as noted before, creationists are constantly assuring us that they accept "microevolution" by selection, so how would chance factors begin to "unravel the idea of natural selection," when they supposedly accept it anyway. After all, if chance negates natural selection it would have to negate its "microevolutionary" effects as well as its "macroevolutionary" ones.

Amazingly, DeWitt claims not to be denigrating science, while apparently supporting Liberty's preference for young-Earth creationism, which denies just about all of science, including astronomy, physics, biology and geology, to name just a few. The truly scary thing is that Liberty is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools to award degrees in biology, biochemistry, and molecular biology, as well as nursing, psychology, engineering, health sciences and kinesiology. The graduates in the former studies will probably wind up teaching in places like Liberty or "Christian academies" or, worse, public schools, given that they cannot legitimately find employment in the sciences. And, while the latter graduates might not directly need evolutionary biology in their work, it is still worrying that people in health fields, who have a deep distrust in science, will be loosed upon an unsuspecting public.

Lastly, we have this concerning my own field from Matt Staver, the dean of Liberty's law school and someone whose legal expertise is less than overwhelming:

Staver said that the theory of evolution "has impacted everything," including his area of expertise — law.

An evolutionary model for arguing cases, for example, now impacts the creation of law, he said.

Instead of the previously accepted practice of basing arguments on the original source, the U.S. Constitution, Staver said, now lawyers instead use case studies that build upon each other and "evolve" over time.

Quite apart from the fact that the Founders deliberately kept our Constitution minimalistic (as compared, for example, to the Constitution for Europe, that runs to over 800 pages) to avoid our government being too hamstrung by "original intent," Staver seems unaware of the English Common Law, that our system of jurisprudence is based on, and its principles of applying the law to individual cases which then become precedent for later cases. This is certainly an evolutionary process but one that long predated Charles Darwin.

It's bad enough that Liberty will be turning out lawyers ignorant and dismissive of science, but turning out lawyers ignorant of our system of law is inexcusable and will doubtless have the same sort of effect as Pat Robertson's Regent University Law School has had.

I can't help but feel that Liberty University's motto of "Knowledge Aflame" and its logo including a burning book are no accident.


* Since changed.

Saturday, February 14, 2009


Red In Tooth ...

Ian Bell in The Sunday Herald on creationists:

They are otherwise persuaded, despite a ton of evidence. People, as ever, believe what they want to believe. ...

Speaking as a monkey's uncle's less popular nephew, I don't mind. If I have read Darwin half-way right, employing both opposable thumbs to prop up the book, natural selection depends on a majority always missing the point. Then we kill and eat them.



Dogma and Pony Show

It seems that we have all been politically incorrect. According to James Dobson's Focus on the Family, it is name-calling to refer to "the Religious Right."

Terms like 'Religious Right' have been traditionally used in a pejorative way to suggest extremism. The phrase 'socially conservative evangelicals' is not very exciting, but that's certainly the way to do it.

As one wag put it:

If the movement's leaders believe "religious right" has become synonymous with extremism and hatred, perhaps the movement should be less extreme and hateful.

But I think we should bow to their wishes. After all, it's not like they won't honor the preferences of others in matters of names, right?

So from now on, instead of calling them "the Religious Right," I propose that we call them "the Religious Lunatic Fringe."

It's more accurate anyway.


Via Dana Hunter


Dangerous Places

It seems that churches in Arkansas may be too dangerous to enter unarmed.

The Arkansas House of Representatives last Wednesday passed a bill on a 57-42 vote allowing concealed handguns in churches by removing houses of worship from the list of places where concealed handguns are banned. Presently, the only other private establishments where concealed weapons are banned are bars.

The legislation was introduced by Rep. Beverly Pyle, a (surpise!) Republican, supposedly because of a series of church shootings across the country. I take it then that shootings in bars are less frequent than in churches, which is nice to know, given my likelihood of being in either location.

Rep. Pyle said:

It is time we changed our concealed-handgun law to allow law-abiding citizens of the state of Arkansas the right to defend themselves and others, should a situation happen in one of our churches.

I guess you call that "defending the faith."

Friday, February 13, 2009



In the category of excruciating irony, we have this title for a story by Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network: "On Darwin Day, Myths Parade as Fact." It may be ironic but it is certainly true because Pat's propagandists proceed to march out a whole phalanx of them delivered by, who else, that coterie of Discoveryless Institute talking ... um ... heads, Jonathan Wells, Stephen Meyer and John West.

About the only thing said in the piece that has any truth to it at all is that Darwin didn't present any evidence in the Origin for natural selection. The reason, of course, is that he didn't really need to. As the late Mike Majerus pointed out, natural selection is a logical result stemming from four observations, that had already been made as of Darwin's time, and three deductions from those observations:

Observation 1: Organisms produce far more offspring than give rise to mature individuals.

Observation 2: Yet, population sizes remain more or less constant.

Deduction 1: Therefore, there must be a high rate of mortality.

Observation 3: The individuals in a species show variation.

Deduction 2: Therefore, some variants will succeed better than others, and those with beneficial characteristics will be naturally selected to produce the next generation.

Observation 4: There is a hereditary resemblance between parents and offspring.

Deduction 3: Therefore, beneficial traits will be passed to future generations.

The observations were uncontroversial and the deductions follow from them in such a way that that virtually every creationist today will tell you that they accept "microevolution" by selection. Of course they then turn around and deny it again in the same breath, as in the concerted attack on Majerus' Peppered Moths work, but we're talking about creationists and can't expect even minimal consistency.

Also, since Darwin's time, we have had direct empiric evidence of natural selection at work, in the Peppered Moths and the studies of Darwin's finches in the Galapagos, among many others, so the implication that this is a grounds for rejecting evolution is, under the most charitable interpretation, disingenuous.

Of course, Darwin presented massive evidence for "macroevolution," more correctly called "common descent." So much so that, within a mere twenty years, virtually the entire scientific community had accepted the fact of evolution -- an amazing achievement -- though only a small minority of them had adopted Darwin's explanation of why and how it had come about. So, when Wells says:

"The myth is that Darwin provided all kinds of evidence for his theory in 'The Origin of Species.' Actually he didn't provide any at all or just about none at all," he said.

... he is simply lying through his teeth, either about Darwin's work or his expertise in the field. But beyond consistency, creationists, particularly the professional ones like Wells, also lack any sense of shame and they will spare no effort to mislead the flock.

Another myth peddled by this trio is from "scientist" Stephen Meyer (he's a philosopher/historian):

He makes a scientific argument that, "What we know from experience, our uniform and repeated experience which is the basis of all scientific reasoning is that those forms of technology and information technology, and informational coding, invariably arise from one and only one type of cause," Meyer said.

That is not a "scientific" argument, it's an attempt at an analogy. In fact, it is just William Paley's famous "watch analogy" posed in modern gabblespeak. Now, analogy can be part of a scientific argument -- Darwin's analogy of artificial breeding to natural selection is a good example -- but to qualify as a valid argument, it must first compare apples to apples. Both Hume and Kant had demolished the "analogy" of human technology to living organisms well before Paley wrote of it. And to make an analogy a scientific argument, it has to be empirically testable -- you have to be able to test if the analogy holds. In Darwin's case, you can test if nature acts similar to and gets similar results as breeders, since we know the means and motives of breeders. In ID's case, though, they refuse to pose the means of "design" or the motives of the "Designer." Even if we skip the obfuscation, and assume the "Designer" is God, there is nothing that God can't do and, as religionists are wont to say, his ways are mysterious. In the end, the ID formulation isn't even an analogy to human technology, since humans can't do what God can. It's simply pointing at things and saying "that sure looks designed to me!"

Then they trot out the business about the "tree of life" that has already been hashed out at length.

There is one other thing that's said in the article that is true:

Darwin is more widely accepted than ever, especially among scientists. But there are a growing number of critics.

It's just not true in the way they meant it. The theory of evolution (which is not coextensive with "Darwin") is certainly more widely accepted among scientists than ever. That means, however, that the supposedly "growing number of critics" can't be coming from the ranks of scientists.

In effect, they are admitting that ID is not science and its promoters are not acting as scientists when they foist it on a more-or-less unsuspecting public.

They got that part right.

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