Friday, July 31, 2009


Ophelia Swoons

Ophelia Benson has been making much of some commenter at Chris Mooney's and Sheril Kirshenbaum's blog, going by the 'nym "TB", stating that Benson was "lying" about Mooney and Kirshenbaum not having evidence for their assertions in their book. Benson has even demanded that the comments be removed by Mooney and Kirshenbaum and, in a different instance, Sheril apparently ... cough ... accommodated her.

In the United States, calling someone a liar is an expression of opinion protected by the Freedom of Speech clause of the First Amendment and does not, without more*, constitute defamation, unless the statement "implies the allegation of undisclosed defamatory fact as the basis for the opinion."** In other words, if the statement gives the basis for the person thinking the other party is a liar, so the hearers/readers can judge for themselves, calling the person a "liar" is a matter of opinion and not actionable. Here the commenter disclosed the basis of his claim and the statement is, therefore, opinion and not libel.

There are other elements of libel that Benson probably cannot meet. She needs to prove that she was financially damaged by being called a liar by an anonymous person in a comment section of a blog and, as an author engaged in a very public dispute with authors of another book on the same general topic as one of her own, she is, for all intents and purposes, a "public figure" and must prove "actual malice" in making the statement or "reckless disregard" for its truth or falsity. That is a very difficult burden to meet.

Of course, as always, truth is a perfect defense to defamation.

Benson "justifies" her outrage because she doesn't allow such charges to be made at her blog, not so much because it is wrong but because it might get her and co-blogger (who I gather lives in Britain) sued. It's certainly true that anyone living in Britain, where it is apparently libelous to say that chiropractic treatments are "bogus," needs to be careful in what one says or publishes. But I rather thought that the rationalist blogosphere considered that to be a bad thing. Surely Benson has no intention of becoming the British Chiropractic Association of the "New Atheist" movement ... in which case, it is hard to see why she feels justified in demanding the removal of these third-party comments from Mooney's and Kirshenbaum's blog.

More importantly, as part of a movement that claims the right and duty to engage in rhetorical combat to the death, with no holds barred, against religion and anyone who might give consideration to the feelings of religionists, it seems incongruous, to say the least, for Benson to suddenly get the vapors over being on the receiving end of some nasty rhetoric.

Is it really worse to be accused of lying than to be accused of being a "faitheist"?


* Calling someone a perjurer, since perjury is a crime, may automatically be defamation depending on the circumstances.

** From the Restatement Second of Torts, a kind of "model code" widely followed in the US.


Thursday, July 30, 2009


The Eyes Have It

There is a point-counterpoint in the Los Angeles Times between Francisco Ayala and Michael Shermer over the appropriateness of Francis Collins' appointment to head the National Institutes of Health. The most notable thing is this from Ayala:

Do I expect Collins to use his office as NIH director to promote religion? No. His past career -- both scientific and administrative -- justifies this expectation. Would I be concerned that a lapsed Catholic or a fully convinced atheist, if one were appointed NIH director, would use the office to promote atheism or attack religion? I wouldn't, as long as their resumes would not show such transgressions in the past or give reason to anticipate them in the future.

In his 2006 book, "The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief," Collins proclaims his Christian faith and how it inspires and fulfills his life. This is his privilege as long as he does not use his office to advance religious goals or misuse science for religious purposes.

It looks like Collins will be closely watched by friend and foe alike.


Cultured Journalism

A couple of months ago, after Larry Moran had announced that he was attending the "Two Cultures" meeting in New York, I stumbled across Mike Treder's (of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies) live blogging of the event. Mike described a panel discussion on "How to More Effectively Communicate Science Issues to the Public" where an unnamed "scientist and educator" asked why all of the panelists in the session were science journalists and expressing the dismay many scientists feel at the job that science journalists do. Larry having expressed his opinion on the subject often, I guessed that the scientist was Larry being ... well ... Larry* (which is why I like him so much, even if I piss him off on an all-too-regular basis).

It has now been confirmed. You can go here and see the panel discussion (Larry is at 47:10).

I didn't think then that Larry liked Andrew Revkin's answer very much. I was right about that too.

* Despite his curmudgeonly demeanor at his blog and before that at, Larry, not unlike PZ Myearshertz, is mild-mannered in person ... if this clip is representative.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009


Montezuma's Revenge

A thought:

It was clear to Paley and to other defenders of the organismic design argument that the intelligent designer who built organisms must have been far more intelligent and efficacious than any human being could ever be. This is why the organismic design argument was for them an argument for the existence of God. I predict that it will eventually become clear that the organismic design argument should never have been understood in this way. This is because I expect that human beings will eventually build organisms from nonliving materials. This achievement will not close down the question of whether the organisms that human beings observe were created by intelligent design or by mindless natural processes; in fact, it will give that question a practical significance, since the organisms we will see around us will be of both kinds. However, it will be abundantly clear that the fact of organismic adaptation has nothing to do with whether God exists. When the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the New World, several indigenous peoples thought these intruders were gods, so powerful was the technology that the intruders possessed. The locals were mistaken; they did not realize that these beings with guns and horses were merely human beings. The organismic design argument for the existence of God embodies the same mistake. If my prediction is correct, our descendants will someday look back on Paley and see him and Montezuma in the same light.

- Elliott Sober, Evidence and Evolution: The Logic Behind the Science


Tuesday, July 28, 2009


Scientific Sleuthing

Ian Musgrave has a good post up at The Panda's Thumb on William Dembski's science envy. What caught my eye was Ian's responce to Dembski's claim that there is a "powerful new caste of scientists who have appointed themselves the guardians of humanity and the priests of a new social order," based on the scientific community's consensus about anthropogenic global warming. Ian replies:

Stand in awe at the power of us scientists, we only have to use big words, show lots of data, click our fingers and politicians will um, er, well .…. ignore us actually (see also here). Until real disaster actually does strike.

Take air pollution: Scientists had been pointing out the issues with air pollution for years, but nothing really started getting underway until the killer smogs hit London. With acid rain, it was only after large swaths of forests began dying and lakes became sterile did anybody actually take action on scientists warnings. Collapsing fisheries? Scientists keep on warning about the consequences of overfishing but people tend to take notice only after a fishery has collapsed, and then don’t even put in decent fishing controls. Ozone hole? Despite well researched chemistry no one really listened until the ozone hole appeared over the Antarctic, then they scurried moved sluggishly, until finally we have bans on most ozone destroying CFC’s.

The true pattern is that scientists find an important issue, back it up with careful research, and have to fight persistently to get governments, businesses and the general public to take notice. Global warming is a case in point.

Maybe we should call this dance of ignoring warnings given by scientists until it too late "The Musgrave Ritual."

Monday, July 27, 2009


The Day the Argument Stood Still

Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum are in Time humping their book Unscientific America (nothing wrong with that -- good ol' American free enterprise) when they just about ended any chance I'll like the thing.

Part of your book talks about the depiction of "mad scientists" in Hollywood films. Do you think film and television producers can realistically portray scientists considering they have to sometimes use stereotypes or exaggeration to get people to watch what they produce?

I don't think that we can demand incredibly high levels of fidelity to what scientists actually do. What I think we can shoot for is positive role model figures who are scientists. That's what really leaves audiences with a positive outlook on the scientific world is if the smart character is actually heroic for being smart. In The Day the Earth Stood Still, Jennifer Connelly is a scientist. It definitely cuts against stereotypes in a lot of ways. First of all, she's a woman and not an old man. She's not nerdy. She's a hero.

Who? I remember Professor Barnhardt. He might have been old and nerdy but he was someone a pre-teenager could look up to. I remember the brave Helen Benson, who was a hero. Mostly, I remember an antiwar, anti-nuclear-weapons message that was pretty gutsy in the paranoiac America of the early 1950s.

Oh! ... Mooney and Kirshenbaum are talking about an incoherent remake of a minor classic starring a third-rate actor and carrying no discernible message other than "special effects are fun." And they are touting it for no better reason than it has up-to-date stereotypes rather than the ones that seem as creaky as the original black and white film and primitive special effects. If we can't even demand thoughtful film making, can we hope to encourage a thoughtful appreciation of science?

If this is the best we can do, we'd better hope Gort isn't still in orbit.

Klaatu barada nikto!

Sunday, July 26, 2009


Ground Control to Major Tom

Craig Nelson, author of Rocket Men – The Epic Story of the First Men on the Moon, on conspiracy theories that deny that American astronauts landed on the moon:

"Those people have a religion and no facts will undo them," Nelson said. His favorite response to conspiracy groups comes from Armstrong who said it was easier to just go to the moon than it would have been to fake it. And what about the 400,000 people who worked on Apollo 11? "What percentage of them are in on the conspiracy and do you really think 100,000 people could really keep this quiet for forty years?" he asked.

This is the same mentality that allows people to think that the millions of scientists who have worked on evolutionary theory might have, say, overlooked something as fundamental as the Second Law of Thermodynamics. It is a short trip from questioning shadows in pictures from the moon to claiming that wrist bones don't exist.

In the end, ID is just another lunatic conspiracy theory.


Bastards On the Beach

The Fifteenth Carnival of Elitist Bastards is lounging about the beach at The Coffee-Stained Writer.

Stephanie Zvan at Quiche Moraine has an interesting take on the framing/accommodationist/incompatiblist debate that centers on the claim by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum in their book, Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future:

Dawkins and some other scientists fail to grasp that in Hollywood, the story is paramount—that narrative, drama, and character development will trump mere factual accuracy every time, and by a very long shot.

Stephanie, like I, has not read the book, so caveats apply that nuances may exist in Mooney's and Kirshenbaum's treatment not conveyed by the quote. But Stephanie recalls a wonderful rejection letter phrase used by Marion Zimmer Bradley:

Willing suspension of disbelief does not mean hanging it by its neck until dead.

As Stephanie explains:

Accuracy has an important role to play in building world, plot and character. Every time we flub or cheat a detail, we're making our audience, at least part of which will catch any inaccuracy, do more work. In writerly terms, it's called throwing our audience out of the story. It means that something has gone wrong enough to remind an audience that the story is only a story. In order to get back to the point where the story is a world that the audience is visiting, the process of suspending disbelief has to start all over again.

Every time another inaccuracy is noticed, the process starts once more, and upholding that disbelief gets harder and harder. Some readers or viewers will give up on us completely. They'll give up on the story because it asks too much of them–not in thinking but in forgiveness.

Yes, there is a kind of movie that can get away with flubbing all the details. Details aren't why people go to summer action extravaganzas, those movies in which everything explodes, even the water. They're not looking for accuracy. On the other hand, they're not going to these movies looking for story either.

Now, the problem may well be that religion is that summer action extravaganza, with heroes who are all good, despite or even because of their faults, villains who are all evil, and nothing in between. Action is paramount, while doubt and introspection are weaknesses to be avoided. Therefore, consistency and accuracy are superfluous and can be not only hanged but drawn and quartered, as is the case with young-Earth creationism.

Can science match the allure of a summer blockbuster or, more importantly, does it need to?

Setting up story and accuracy as a dichotomy also ignores the richness that accuracy can add to a story. In fact, whole stories can be built from closely observed detail. Juno is one of those stories. It doesn't have a suspenseful plot. The characters don't change much from beginning to end, although a few of the relationships do. What we get instead is messy, accurate observations of the complexities of life, and that was enough to win Diablo Cody an Oscar to garner an impressive return for the movie.

If that is not enough to match the box office that religion generates, that may just be a fact of human economy. As Stephanie says:

There's very little Richard Dawkins or any other scientist will have to say about it, no matter accommodating they are.


Saturday, July 25, 2009


The First Plagiarism on the Moon

Gary Peach, a retired British scientist who was working at the Tidbinbilla satellite tracking station near Canberra, Australia at the time of the Apollo lunar landing, claims to have come up with astronaut Neil Armstrong's famous statement upon setting foot on the moon: "That's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind."

"The day before the Apollo mission, I was doing some final tests on the equipment," Peach told the Daily Mail newspaper on Wednesday.

"I was approached by the director, a Mr Monkton. He was an American who was in contact with Apollo. I told him I was worried about what would be said when they landed on the moon.

"I thought, being Americans, they might say: `Holy chicken s**t look at all that f***ing dust'. I felt that would not be a suitable thing to be quoted in history books until eternity.

"He asked me what should be said. I had been thinking about this. I told him: `One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind'. And I definitely said `a man'.

"What he did with my suggestion I have no idea, but he did leave immediately and at a greater pace than he had entered the room."

Armstrong has insisted all along that he thought it up all by himself and, after 40 years, there's no likelihood of definitively confirming or denying Peach's claim, though it is tenuous at best.

But I strongly protest that there was any danger of Armstrong saying anything like `Holy chicken s**t look at all that f***ing dust'. Our astronauts were too well schooled in public relations for that.

"Hey, this'd be a great place for a McDonalds," on the other hand ...

Friday, July 24, 2009


Setting the World on Fire


I think it takes more faith to believe in evolution and the increasing order of things in the universe than creationism. Evolution directly opposes the repeated, scientifically-proven Second Law of Thermodynamics, which states that everything moves from a beginning state of highly organized order (which supports intelligent design) to a latter state of random disorder. This is observed and proven each time something decomposes, ages, breaks down or rusts. I'm surprised science teachers and professors, knowing this fact, still promote this unproven theory. You don't have to be a genius. Einstein, though he never professed Christianity, believed in intelligent design! Go figure.

It's a good thing the author doesn't need to be a genius.

It would be nice, however, if Wayne DesLattes, a member of The Shreveport (Louisiana) Times Community Board, had enough intelligence to avoid babbling in public until he knew what he was talking about.

Here's another:

Did you know every middle to major-sized people group in the world has, in their earliest history, a record about a great deluge? Coincidental, huh?

Not particularly, since many if not most major cultures have arisen in river valleys.

There's more but that's not why I bothered with this. Mr. DesLattes is another believer who either didn't get or could not understand the Discovery Institute's memo "Ix-nay on the Od-gay."

The Louisiana Science Education Act was viewed by some science educators as a sole attempt to allow creationism to only be taught. I support creationism and hope teachers take advantage of the opportunity. After all, if evolution and its nonbelief are allowed, why shouldn't intelligent design with its belief be allowed?

What was that about "worst enemies"?


Update: The Sensuous Curmudgeon does more on Mr. DesLattes, as does his commentariat.



Insulted Insulter

David Klinghoffer is whining again ... and, as usual, in a totally clueless fashion:

In a post with the exquisitely ironic title "Why Darwinists Have a Hard Time Being Civil," he compounds his insulting use of "Darwinists" with even worse incivility:

What you have to understand about these people -- I mean, those committed to Darwinism -- is that many operate in a world of academics, would-be academics, and failed academics. The last is most common of all, I'd bet. Others are, quite simply, unemployed, which poses its own challenges. ...

In university life, the pinnacle is tenure, where you are thenceforth free to be a jerk to people because you have a guaranteed job. That's the ideal! Everything leading up to it consists of a ruthless scrabble for preference. It's all terribly destructive.
I'm sure he'd complain that calling him "clueless" is uncivil but how else to describe someone who will pepper a complaint about incivility with such insulting stereotypes of an entire profession and the unfortunate victims of an economic downturn they had no control over. What goes unsaid here, but is a frequent topic of Klinghoffer's, is the supposed complicity of "Darwinists" in the Holocaust and every other evil thing that he cares to mention ... which he does, early and often.

Of course, being clueless doesn't mean he is without a certain low cunning. The whole exercise is turned into an attack on those "elitist" academics who insist that science is done better without the aid of Biblical exegesis:

So to the extent that Darwinism is the creation of an academic Guild -- and that extent is about 97 percent -- you are going to find that its defenders are challenged when it comes to being civil.
Just plain folks don't need to listen to them pointed-headed proffesser-types tellin' 'em theys related to monkeys, no siree!

And the whiny bit is this:

Their purpose is intimidation. Normal people don't enjoy dealing with rudeness, so they are understandably reluctant to enter into the comment thread discourse. Do you not find this to be true?
What he really means is that his comments section is regularly overflowing not with foul-mouthed "Darwinists" (there a some, but far fewer than you might expect given Klinghoffer's disingenuousness, of which this example is the merest tip of the iceberg) but, rather, with people who calmly and dispassionately dissect his logical shortcomings, his tendency to make his blog a veracity-free zone and his overall status as a poseur.

He'd dearly like his religious readers -- the ones not already embarrassed to have him on "their side" -- to think that, but for the mean and nasty "Darwinists," there would be hordes of "normal" citizens congratulating him on his insightful and convincing defense of Intelligent Design, instead of a plethora of people handing him his intellectual ass on a platter on what would be a depressingly regular basis for anyone who had any shame.


Update: The Sensuous Curmudgeon documents a litany of Klinghoffer's attacks on "Darwinists," purporting to link them with everything evil from Hitler and Stalin to the shootings at Columbine and the Holocaust Museum.

The Curmudgeon sums it up nicely: "But David wonders why 'Darwinists' don’t like him. It’s a great puzzlement."

Thursday, July 23, 2009


False Spring

Michael Barton has a very interesting post at his excellent blog, The Dispersal of Darwin about an instance of multiple quote mining of John Tyndall, the 19th century Irish physicist and prominent supporter of evolution and Darwin. In the usual fashion, a scientist is made to look like he opposes evolution when, in fact, the opposite is true. As John Wilkins says: "It seems that the dishonesty is unchanging."

What also is of interest is another example of a prediction of the imminent demise of "Darwinism." This one wasn't in Glenn Morton's collection so I passed it along to him. It involves a lecture, at the meeting house of the Society of Friends in New York on November 24, 1884, given by one Thomas Kimber, apparently an author of several works on the history and theology of Quakers. The anonymous article in the New York Times, “Turn in the Tide of Thought: Thomas Kimber’s Lecture on Science in Relation to Divine Truths,” a pdf copy of which can be found here, describes Kimber as saying:

[T]he lecturer spoke of evolution's failure as a strong theory and the downfall of Darwinism. When the theory came out it was seized upon with avidity, and most of the great scholars examined it and accepted it. Now they had given it up.
Not only is dishonesty unchanging, but hope against hope springs eternal.


Wednesday, July 22, 2009


The Fall of Mann

I just wanted to note this for future reference. A recent (and probably temporary) addition to my commentariat (hat tip: Dr. Isis), one Daniel Mann, an instructor at the New York School of the Bible, going under the nym "Mann'sWord," has again made the connection between ID and religion clear.

I mocked the Discovery Institute's breathless hyperbole in promoting the latest attempt to make good on The Imminent Demise of Evolution: The Longest Running Falsehood in Creationism, Stephen Meyer's Signature in the Cell, which the DI pronounced "The Book That Changes Everything!". In comments, Mr. Mann, while making the same old, tired arguments for ID, claimed:

However, as a paradigm, ID has some great advantages. It is both adequate to explain the phenomena within its domain and it's parsimonious. Furthermore, a life centralized in God has many psychological advantages.
Thus neatly demonstrating just who the "Designer" is universally understood to be, despite transparent lies to the contrary. He then went on to seamlessly say:

The biblical revelation of a God of order and beauty who truly wants His subjects to know Him has understandably inspired many seekers to attempt to plummet (sic) the depths of His ways. I would suggest that you acquaint yourselves with this revelation. You hopefully will find that everything that our God reveals about Himself is not only beneficial for doing science but also for living life. I would like to challenge you in this regard.
So, ID is not only religious in nature and intent, but it is a proselytizing tool. I knew you'd want to be the first to hear this "revelation."




It's time for Carnival!

Carnival of the Elitist Bastards, that is! We've got a short month this time and entries are due this Friday, July 24!

Given the little uptick in traffic I've had of late, I'm going to take this opportunity to urge everyone with a blog or webpage friendly to bastardly elitism to scour the place for suitable take-downs of stupidity, cupidity and general mopery or, if you prefer, affirmations of the good things that a little education and erudition can bring to life.

On the other hand, now that I've seen you hanging around, be warned that we do resort to press gangs when needed and you may find yourself aboard with a nasty hangover and no memory of volunteering an entry.

Submit your bastardliness to or go here and follow instructions as well as any elitist can.



Steven Pinker responded to Stephen Meyer's dishonest attempt to hijack Thomas Jefferson as an IDeologist by pointing out that Judge Jones (a conservative Republican) after a six-week trial where the IDers were given every chance to defend ID's supposedly scientific status, ruled that it is religion in disguise.

Now Wild Bill Dembski, who was supposed to be a witness at that trial but backed out, has this to say about Pinker's point:

Is this vapid appeal to authority all the Darwinians have left?

That's from the guy, let's not forget, who said:

Intelligent design is just the Logos theology of John's Gospel restated in the idiom of information theory.

For somebody who is such an expert in the field, you'd think he'd be better at recognizing them.


And, of course, as the inestimable TomS points out, the whole attempt to hijack Jefferson was, itself, a vapid appeal to authority.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009


God Slinging

Well, the Spencer (Iowa) School Board is back at it, further discussing a Draft Policy on Religion that is bound to get them in trouble. School Board member Rev. Barb Van Wyk, one of the drafters of the policy, went so far as to say:

"We are looking for common ground here, not battle ground," added Van Wyk, one of the policy's writers. "And in our community, I think it's a really good thing to have a healthy discussion about this - because we all know that there is a spiritual component to our lives..."

So I think it's important for us as a school district to look at having a policy, because we are interested in educating the whole person, the whole student. And to totally avoid the spiritual component because we're afraid to do so because it's going to cause more trouble, and everyone's afraid of the trouble it might cause, I think we are doing a disservice to our students. That's why I'm eager to see a policy adopted that would bring it out."

No, WE don't all know that there is a spiritual component to OUR lives. Quite a few of US deny that, and a whole lot of US don't want YOU using OUR tax money teaching spiritual stuff to OTHER PEOPLE'S kids anyway.

They appear to be getting basically good advice from Steve Avery, apparently the board's attorney. After noting that no other school district in the state has a similar policy, he advised among other things:

... the public district cannot, under the First Amendment, promote one school of thought or one secular [sectarian?] belief - and cannot prevent an individual from expressing his or her free expression of religious belief.

A local religious program, course or materials, he warned, "needs to be very broad brush."

"You do need to be certain that there's no agenda with regard to the course or the materials...You will not be successful avoiding, in my opinion, litigation if you adopt a secular [sectarian?] view or a course material that only would be supported by one type of thinking or one group.

He warned that graduation and extra curriculars are areas that will attract lots of attention and litigation if religion is included.

"To have a prayer as a portion of a program is not going to pass muster," Avery said, as opposed to students voluntarily gathering for a baccalaureate... "watch out there."

On distributing religious materials on schoolgrounds, Avery warns to "use the same policy for all organizations, no matter what they are."

Are they going to listen? One of the drafters of the policy, David Schlichtemeier, said this:

"It's all over the news that we're talking about a religious liberty policy. If we just drop it now, the message will be that God is a four letter word."

Cost the local taxpayers millions of dollars in a hopeless legal wrangle and the board member's names will be a three letter word: mud.

Monday, July 20, 2009


"Modern" Intelligent Design

Not content with the Discovery Institute's attempt to hijack Thomas Jefferson into the ranks of IDeologists, despite his death some 33 years before he could consider Darwin's first exposition of natural selection as a mechanism to explain evolution, David Klinghoffer has decided to go medieval. The latest hijackee is Moses Maimonides (1135-1204 C.E.).

[T]he relatively new and admirably lucid Maimonides biography by Joel L. Kraemer at the University of Chicago, Maimonides: The Life and World of One of Civilization's Greatest Minds (Doubleday) ... asks what should a student of Rambam (Maimonides) like himself reply if asked, "What is the most important idea taught by Maimonides in his scientific and philosophic writings?"

Answers Kraemer: "A good answer would be that it is the idea of an orderly universe governed by laws of a cosmic intelligence." Contemporary relevance, please?

Replies Kraemer:

Maimonides grasped the great divide between monotheists, who believe that an intelligence guides the universe, and Epicureans, who believe that everything happens by chance. The argument continues nowadays between intelligent adherents of intelligent design and Darwinian atheists who believe in chance mutation.

Epicureans? What do they have to do with Darwin, much less modern evolutionary theory? Oh, yes! As Elliott Sober explained in his book, Evidence and Evolution: The Logic Behind the Science (p. 116):

Until 1859, the main alternative [design advocates] considered was Epicureanism; here I don't mean the philosophy of eat, drink, and be merry, but the hypothesis due to Epicurus and his followers that physical particles whirling at random in the void eventually combine to produce orderly, stable, and functional arrangements.

1859? Why does that date ring a bell? Oh, yes! That's when Darwin did away with the need for pure chance as a natural explanation of the life we see around us.

So why do the Discovery drones keep dragging up such examples? Oh, yes! They are humping medieval notions of monotheistic theology as if they have contemporary relevance to science.

Sunday, July 19, 2009


Get Writing

Uh, oh.

The new atheism is over and done, and its angry tone of voice will not be missed.

That's according to Byron R. McCane, Albert C. Outler Professor of Religion and chair of the Department of Religion at Wofford College. According to Dr. McCane, the new atheists ignored important facts about religion in America today:

First, they dramatically overestimated the number of unbelievers. According to the American Religious Identification Survey, 15 percent of Americans are not currently members of any religious organization. This finding led to the claim that one in six Americans is now an unbeliever. But the data actually show that three quarters of the people in that 15 percent are "in between" religious commitments. ...

At any given moment, 15 percent of us may be unaffiliated, but most of those are believers. In a recent Pew Forum survey, in fact, only 1.6 percent of respondents identified themselves as atheists.

Second, the new atheists thought that books about science and logic would convince Americans to stop believing in God. They tried to use evidence and reason to change American hearts. But in the Pew survey, only 2 percent of respondents said that science and logic play any role their religious choices.

... We opt for religious affiliations that help us with our personal spiritual quests. When one stops working, we begin looking for another. ...

Yet the new atheists' biggest mistake, by far, was to be openly intolerant of religion. They mocked, derided and made fun of it. But Americans today are overwhelmingly committed to religious tolerance. ... Some of us do not believe in God, but virtually all of us agree that personal religious choices should be respected. The angry hostility of the new atheists struck exactly the wrong note.

But never fear, atheists! Dr. McCane is here to help you:

[I]n America today, tolerance and freedom are stronger than narrow-mindedness and prejudice. And it opens the way for a kinder, gentler, more American brand of atheism. In our spiritual marketplace, there is plenty of room for atheist groups that can attract seekers by presenting unbelief as a practical option along life's way. Perhaps non-belief can be re-framed as a productive hiatus during the busy life of a spiritual migrant, or as a thoughtful expression of principled religious dissent. In these ways, atheists might begin to work with, instead of against, important facts about religion in America.

If you can't beat 'em, just become another form of spirituality.

Now, Dr. McCane has some facts right. The number of religiously "unaffiliated" is clearly not the same as the number of "atheists." Moreover, Americans as a group are "cafeteria religionists" moving between sects and even religions easily and often. And, I think he's right that Americans generally are in favor of tolerance towards other religious beliefs ... as long as they are religious beliefs and not too different than their own.

But I forgot to give you the evidence he thinks demonstrates that new atheism is passé:

Sales of atheist books have fallen off the charts, literally. Months have gone by since one appeared on the best-seller list.

Argumentum ad populum libri.

Saturday, July 18, 2009



Well, here it is at last! The creationists are about to deliver at last on their old (old, old, old, old, old) promise of the demise of evolution. It is:

The Book That Changes Everything!

That would be Signature in the Cell by the Discovery Institute's own Stephen Meyer.

"It's only in the past decade that the information age has finally come to biology. We now know that biology at its root is digital code information," states Dr. Meyer. "In the cell, information is carried by DNA, which functions like a software program. The signature in the cell is that of the master programmer of life."
Only in the past decade that biology learned about DNA? Oh, well, I'm sure he'll explain that right along with who the "master programmer" is.


Requiescat In Pace

And That's The Way It Was ...

Friday, July 17, 2009


Catching the Religious

In no surprise whatsoever, Jerry Coyne has also endorsed Sean Carroll's attempt at a de novo philosophy of science, without regard to the work of generations of philosophers and scientists who have come before. Coyne's adoption of Carrollism has some amusing aspects.

Carroll cites, as a central example of his particularly muscular version of "inference to the best explanation," the theory of quantum uncertainty and its defeat of the theory of determinism. And yet, it was not very long ago that Coyne was complaining that Francis Collins was allowing "his scientific statements and beliefs to be infected with religion" because Collins had the temerity to point out that quantum uncertainty was an area of the world, as revealed by science, in which a God could act without our being able to detect such action or to even be able to say that that such action is against "the laws of nature." Coyne plaintively complained that theists would not give up their beliefs if we eventually find out that what appear to be totally unpredictable events entailed in quantum uncertainty really do have a deterministic causation. Coyne, of course, does not ask that of Carroll.

Which brings us to the mind-numbingly ironic part. If theists appealing to the facts of the world as revealed by science are "infecting" or "contaminating" their science with metaphysics, what is Carroll doing when he says:

In the real world, by far the most compelling theoretical framework consistent with the data is one in which everything that happens is perfectly accounted for by natural phenomena. No virgin human births, no coming back after being dead for three days, no afterlife in Heaven, no supernatural tinkering with the course of evolution. You can define "religion" however you like, but you can't deny the power of science to reach far-reaching conclusions about how reality works.

It is a neat Catch-22. Theists who are scientists cannot so much as point to any aspect of science that might be congenial to their beliefs upon pain of being declared polluters of that noble calling, while "atheist-scientists," as Coyne calls them, can appeal to science with complete abandon, even based on what can only be charitably designated dubious philosophy, to support their metaphysics.

The only real question is whether this Catch-22 is forged in cluelessness or shamelessness.


Thursday, July 16, 2009



PZ Myers points to Sean Carroll's article as if it is a good thing, demonstrating that Carroll is not alone among scientists who concurrently do not understand philosophy but, nonetheless, deride it -- much as Ray Comfort treats evolutionary biology. Interestingly, PZ also points to Daniel Dennett's article on the belief in belief. I'll leave it to the reader to judge how well he makes the case that belief in religious belief is not necessary (though, inevitably, he does better than Carroll did). What I find interesting is this:

"[B]elief in belief" is a common phenomenon not restricted to religions. Economists realise that a sound currency depends on people believing that the currency is sound, and scientists recognise that the actual objectivity of scientific studies on global warming is politically impotent unless people believe in that objectivity, so economists and scientists (among others) take steps to foster and protect such beliefs that they think are benign. That's acting on belief in belief.

A belief in the objectivity of science in general is necessary not only for its political effectiveness (including maintaining its own funding) but for it to be an effective force in the education of lay people about how the natural world works and the very real consequences those workings have, in turn, on social policy.

But if the public sees scientists asserting what are clearly their own metaphysical beliefs but labeling those beliefs as "science," will not that fact hurt the belief in the belief of science's objectivity?


Wednesday, July 15, 2009


Good Science, Bad Philosophy


Here we go again. Scientists are justly upset with people who have no experience or knowledge in their field nonetheless presuming to lecture them on science. For some reason, scientists who have obviously never put much effort into studying philosophy think themselves competent to babble on about it.

The latest to fall victim, in a rather spectacular way, to this syndrome is the physicist Sean Carroll, who is admittedly uninterested in philosophy, but who does not let that stop him. He gets off on the wrong foot (the one with the bullet in it) by claiming that, on the issue of what sort of questions science is competent to answer:

... one popular but very bad strategy for answering this question [is]: first, attempt to distill the essence of "science" down to some punchy motto, and then ask what questions fall under the purview of that motto. At various points throughout history, popular mottos of choice might have been "the Baconian scientific method" or "logical positivism" or "Popperian falsificationism" or "methodological naturalism." But this tactic always leads to trouble. Science is a messy human endeavor, notoriously hard to boil down to cut-and-dried procedures.
I'm quite sure that the generations of philosophers (and scientists interested in philosophy) who have formulated, studied, critiqued and attempted to improve on those systems of thought over hundreds of years, would have been, and are, quite surprised to learn that they've only been working on "punchy mottoes."

I'm afraid that it doesn't take any great skill in prediction to surmise that anyone who thinks those philosophical systems are just popular mottoes, unsuitable to cover the "hard to boil down to cut-and-dried procedures" of science, is getting ready to boil science down to some cut-and-dried procedure embodied in something very like a motto. Carroll does not disappoint the prognosticator, even if he disappoints those who hope that scientists might be a bit more cogent and self-aware thinkers.

Carroll sweeps all those mottoes aside by first presenting an example:

Here is my favorite example question. Alpha Centauri A is a G-type star a little over four light years away. Now pick some very particular moment one billion years ago, and zoom in to the precise center of the star. Protons and electrons are colliding with each other all the time. Consider the collision of two electrons nearest to that exact time and that precise point in space. Now let's ask: was momentum conserved in that collision? ...

... The scientific answer to this question is: of course, the momentum was conserved. Conservation of momentum is a principle of science that has been tested to very high accuracy by all sorts of experiments, we have every reason to believe it held true in that particular collision, and absolutely no reason to doubt it; therefore, it's perfectly reasonable to say that momentum was conserved.
Let's just stop here and note that Carroll is appealing to induction as a process that delivers "truth." But how does he know that? Over 200 hundred years ago, one of those motto producers, David Hume, pointed out that anyone who looks to empiricism cannot justify the truth-delivering qualities of induction because the only possible empiric evidence on the subject comes from experience -- in other words, from induction. We "know" induction produces truth because, in our experience, induction produces truth. That itself is an induction and trying to justify induction by an induction is circular reasoning, a logical fallacy. No one has solved this conundrum in the time since Hume but that doesn't bother Carroll, probably because he is unaware of it and ignorance is bliss.

Carroll continues:

[S]cience does not proceed phenomenon by phenomenon. Science constructs theories, and then compares them to empirically-collected data, and decides which theories provide better fits to the data. The definition of "better" is notoriously slippery in this case, but one thing is clear: if two theories make the same kinds of predictions for observable phenomena, but one is much simpler, we're always going to prefer the simpler one.
This is, of course, Occam's Razor, which is far closer to an empty motto than the Baconian method, logical positivism, falsificationism or methodological naturalism. In fact the razor is a rule of thumb for making a first approximation (less formally known as "a guess"). Carroll cites to the replacement of determinism with quantum uncertainty as an example of science appealing to "the inference to the best explanation." I'd dearly like to know by what metric he determined quantum mechanics to be "simpler" than determinism. In any event, what guarantee of truth does the razor deliver even if you can manage to wield it rationally? As Samir Okasha's Philosophy of Science: A Very Short Introduction states:

The idea that simplicity or parsimony is the mark of a good explanation is quite appealing, and certainly helps flesh out the idea of [the inference to the best explanation]. But if scientists use simplicity as a guide to inference, this raises a problem. For how do we know that the universe is simple rather than complex? Preferring a theory that explains the data in terms of the fewest number of causes does seem sensible. But is there any objective reason for thinking that such a theory is more likely to be true than a less simple theory? Philosophers of science do not agree on the answer to this difficult question.
Simplicity is surely attractive to those who want to think simplistically but does it have any truth-delivering capability? After all, it is the inference to best explanation and Occam's razor that the Intelligent Design Creationists appeal to. As Carroll notes, the IDers, like Carroll, don't see methodological naturalism as standing in their way:

There's no obstacle in principle to imagining that the normal progress of science could one day conclude that the invocation of a supernatural component was the best way of understanding the universe. Indeed, this scenario is basically the hope of most proponents of Intelligent Design.
Carroll may not understand, or may not care, but, if his account of science is correct, then ID cannot be barred from American public classrooms. It is, under his version of science, a valid attempt at science and, even if he thinks it is wrong or unsupported, it cannot be barred from public classrooms just because it has religious implications. Nor is there any basis under our law to bar it just because it is "bad" science. Of course, simply because it will have bad consequences doesn't mean that Carroll's definition of science is wrong but, if your version of science includes something so clearly not science, it may be time to reexamine your definition.

But Carroll isn't done with the razor. Based on it he declares:

In the real world, by far the most compelling theoretical framework consistent with the data is one in which everything that happens is perfectly accounted for by natural phenomena. No virgin human births, no coming back after being dead for three days, no afterlife in Heaven, no supernatural tinkering with the course of evolution. You can define "religion" however you like, but you can't deny the power of science to reach far-reaching conclusions about how reality works.
In short, Carroll is maintaining that philosophical naturalism is a scientific result. I wonder when he will be publishing this in the scientific literature? I'd suggest he try publishing in a philosophical journal but I think philosophers would take him even less seriously.


Tuesday, July 14, 2009


Skilling the Messenger

Okay, I've made my case for the overreaching of the "incompatiblists." Now it's time to turn to the "accommodationists," in particular Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum. At their blog, The Intersection, they say this:

Science and religion are not mutually exclusive and must not continue to be portrayed as such. Though some very vocal voices in the science community disagree, I assure you they are not representative of the whole. I continue to work day to day with scientists who hold a very broad array of beliefs across fields from molecular biology to physiology to conservation. And when it comes to issues like climate change and ocean acidification, everyone must be engaged if we're to get anywhere. The new atheist movement takes an adversarial approach, but only succeeds in alienating the majority of the planet away from science. When it comes to enacting sound policies on what really matters, this will always be a losing strategy.

While I agree that science and religion are not necessarily mutually exclusive, it is certainly true that some religions and religious beliefs are in such conflict with science that glossing over that fact is not helpful to reaching any general accommodation between science and the religious. In fact, scientists not only have the right but, I think, the duty to portray, for example, young-Earth creationism, as deeply unscientific and harmful to the country's well-being, insofar at that depends on the public understanding of science.

Just as I think that it is unrealistic for some "atheist-scientists" to think that religion will go away soon, Mooney and Kirshenbaum are being unrealistic to think the atheists and their harsh criticism of religion is going anywhere either. A significant group are going to continue to portray science and religion as mutually exclusive and Mooney and Kirshenbaum need to deal with it. Their continual whining (and that is, I'm afraid, what it is) over that fact is exactly what they claim the atheists are engaged in: a losing strategy. It is an adversarial relationship that only succeeds in alienating people who, by all objective measures, are already the kind of effective communicators that Mooney and Kirshenbaum wish more scientists were. That, in turn, actually draws more attention to the atheists' position and makes the controversy loom larger in the public consciousness.

If, in fact, as Mooney and Kirshenbaum imply, there is a wellspring of accommodationists in the scientific community, their time would be much better spent encouraging those scientists to speak out and giving them the kind of communication skills Mooney and Kirshenbaum are so fond of talking about, rather than in hectoring atheists.


Monday, July 13, 2009


Designing Design

Okay, this is just cute:

"There have been 23 elephant-like animals in history, and yet only two survive today (and we add, they're not doing very well). Clearly, this is the mark of an all-powerful creator who is stuck on the same stupid idea and can't figure out why the hell they keep dying off. Hmm, perhaps it's because giant, big-eared mammals with huge, prehensile noses are ridiculous? I mean, WTF? A giant, powerful, grasping... nose? It looks like something a preschooler would make up."

You know how there are some people who think there is a good Designer and an evil Designer and I wondered which one was responsible for inept design in the world? Now maybe we need to posit a third Designer, who we could call the Dusfus Designer. As RaulVB at Daily Kos points out, the DD would have a tailor-made spokesperson who just happens to be between jobs ...

Sunday, July 12, 2009


Of Methods and Madness

Here is a bit more on the "incompatiblist" position on religion and science. An "Anonymous" commenter [Konrad Scheffler] on my last post stated this:

As often with this sort of debate, it seems to come down to quibbling about definitions. The word "science" is commonly used to denote at least four distinct concepts:

1. A body of knowledge
2. An "establishment" consisting of people and organizations, and an associated set of rough consensus views
3. A methodology for producing knowledge
4. A philosophical system of thought.

John (as well as, I assume, most religious scientists) is using definition 3; Larry et al (along with, I hope, a majority of scientists) are using definition 4.

The point is somewhat moot because most non-scientists use other definitions such as 1 or 2 (in which case "science" is obviously compatible with all but the most fundamentalist religions - no debate required).

While the commenter is certainly correct that there are many ways that the word "science" is used and, moreover, that more than one definition is "correct," what we are discussing is the proper nature of the process of science, which is the area that the incompatiblists claim is in conflict with religion. It could hardly be said to be incorrect to speak of "science" as "a body of knowledge" or as "the scientific community and its consensus views." Some, but not all, religious beliefs conflict with some, but not all, of that body of knowledge and/or the consensus of the scientific community.

However, the commenter expresses a preference for the process of science being viewed as "a philosophical system of thought." I disagree strongly for at least two reasons.

First of all, I do not think that is an accurate description of how the scientific process works. Let's start with a thought experiment: suppose Michael Behe were, tomorrow, to come out with some original and important work in biochemistry that happened to be valuable to Larry Moran's area of research (I know you said you are a teacher now, rather than a researcher, Larry, but it is a thought experiment). Would Larry ignore Behe's work because he has the "wrong" philosophy? Certainly, because Behe has trashed his own reputation within the scientific community over the past decade by doing pseudoscience, Larry would likely want to check the work very carefully, perhaps going to the trouble of recreating the work in its entirely, since merely citing to Behe's work might not be enough to convince other scientists in the field. But, assuming that Larry was convinced that Behe's work was accurate and useful to Larry's scientific work, would Larry refuse to use it? In short, what is more important, the science or the scientist? I think it is obvious that it is the scientific results that are more important to the process of science and to Larry's work within that process.

This shows, I believe, that the process of science is a methodology, where it is the results that count, not the "right-thinking" of the researcher. Nor is my belief founded only on thought experiments. Theodosius Dobzhansky is generally regarded as one of the giants of evolutionary biology of the 20th Century and rightly so. He is, of course, well known for his phrase: "Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution," from a speech by that title. Less well known is that, in the same speech, he said: "I am a creationist and an evolutionist," by which he meant he was what we now call a "theistic evolutionist." Do contemporary biologists, such as Jerry Coyne, ignore Dobzhansky's work because he did not share Coyne's "approach to the world" or his "worldview" or his "scientific attitude" or whatever else Coyne is calling his personal philosophy today? Other important scientists did not or do not share Coyne's personal philosophy, such as R.A. Fisher and, contemporarily, Francisco Ayala.

As I said before, these examples are not given to show that their philosophies/theologies are compatible with Jerry Coyne's philosophy; they are given to show that even Jerry Coyne treats science as a methodology instead of a philosophy, where good scientific work is an equalizer that makes personal opinions unimportant.

The other reason not to conceive of science as a philosophy is that there is no way to objectively determine which is the "proper" philosophy and, therefore, no way insure that the philosophy in any one community of scientists or in the scientific community as a whole is actually conducive to good science. The result can be Lysenkoism or Nazi "racial science" or "Republican science" or less obvious, but no less damaging, distortions of the process of science. Jerry Coyne's philosophy might not damage the scientific process but, once science is just another philosophy, there is no guarantee that such will always be the case. On the other hand, if science is judged only on the empiric results at hand, there is an objective test of good science that does not depend on the vagaries of the currently popular philosophy.




Thony C., the longtime and generally rational commenter on John Wilkins' blog, Evolving Thoughts, has taken the deeply irrational step of starting his own blog, The Renaissance Mathematicus -- the intellectual equivalent of owning a boat, i.e. a hole in the water into which you pour all your money. Thony will now be pouring all his thought into a hole in his time (as I well know). The reason he gives for that decision:

The doorbell rang and when I opened the door this albino gorilla with a thick Aussie accent said, "Yer should start yer own effin blog or I'll sit on yer!" so here I am…

... at least has the merit of avoiding mayhem. And Thony's loss is the gain for the rest of us ... once you find the place, which it has taken me a month to do* ... meaning I'm going to be losing more time catching up.

Drat it!


* Hat tip to John Farrell, whose blogs are also worth a perusal.


Joint Philosophies

That well-known New Agnostic, Larry Moran, has once again entered the Accommodationist-Incompatiblist fray with at least something new (to me, that is, as far as my memory goes), the so-called "Doctrine of Joint Belief." Larry cites to a short piece by Clay Shirky at The Edge on "Religion and Science" that asserts that:

The idea that religious scientists prove that religion and science are compatible is ridiculous, and I'm embarrassed that I ever believed it. Having believed for so long, however, I understand its attraction, and its fatal weaknesses.

The Doctrine of Joint Belief isn't evidence of harmony between two systems of thought. It simply offers permission to ignore the clash between them. Skeptics aren't convinced by the doctrine, unsurprisingly, because it offers no testable proposition. What is surprising is that its supposed adherents don't believe it either. If joint beliefs were compatible beliefs, there could be no such thing as heresy. Christianity would be compatible not just with science, but with astrology (roughly as many Americans believe in astrology as evolution), with racism (because of the number of churches who use the "Curse of Ham" to justify racial segregation), and on through the list of every pair of beliefs held by practicing Christians.

The unstated premise, of course, is that "science" is a "system of thought" on the same level as theology, i.e. that science is a philosophy or a belief. Philosophies and beliefs can be "heresies" because they go to the same level as the theology resides at. And, of course, some theologies (such as young-Earth creationism) can and do make the methodology of investigation of the natural world part of their theologies and, therefore, are incompatible with science. But other theologies don't, including Catholicism, the single largest religion in the world. It is also true that, as is the case of all philosophies, they can be misunderstood or misapplied so that there may be confusions in particular cases but the very reason for discussing these issues is to clarify them and, perhaps, reduce the tensions between scientists and the lay public.

Contrary to Larry's claim, however, if you don't accept the premise that science is a philosophy or belief, there is no logical fallacy in "Joint Belief" because no method need be applied to everything, anymore than all tools need to be hammers. The point of giving examples of religious scientists who consistently employ the scientific method to science is to demonstrate that, contrary to the claims of the incompatibilists, the method is not a philosophy.

There is no question that the method of science is "incompatible" with the "method," such as it is, that the philosophy/theology of religion employs ... a fact admitted by the "accommodationists," who clearly state that religious claims cannot be "scientific." Nor is there any question that religion is incompatible with the philosophies of some scientists.

The question is and has always been whether the philosophies of some scientists are the same thing as "science." Thus, unlike Larry, I do not see Jerry Coyne, in his post "Eugenie Scott and Chris Mooney dissemble about accommodationism," as exhibiting "a great deal of patience when he explains, for about the millionth time, why the doctrine is logically absurd." In fact, Coyne is, once again, simply asserting that his personal philosophy* is coextensive with science, without justifying that claim or reconciling it with the methodological naturalism of science that he has (sometimes) recognized.

Merely repeating the same assertions without addressing the real claim involved, as Coyne does, is not addressing the logic of anything. Instead, it bears more in common with the sort of blind assertion we expect from creationists.

That Coyne asserts that disagreeing with him on this point is "dissembling" is symptomatic of his level of intellectual discourse.


P.S. Larry has said, in response to a comment of mine at his place:

[T]he logical fallacy has nothing do do with whether science and religion are compatible. It has to do with whether the existence of Francis Collins proves that science and religion must be compatible. Or, for that matter, whether the existence of Jerry Coyne proves that science and religion are NOT compatible.
Although I did address that above, let me expand on it yet some more. The existence of religious scientists who scrupulously apply the scientific method to science (without any objective signs of the much-misunderstood concept of "cognitive dissonance," so let's not go there) is not offered to show that science (when conceived of as a philosophy) is consistent with the philosophy/theology of religion. It is offered, instead, as evidence that science is not a philosophy but a methodology that can be utilized appropriately by many different people who have very different philosophies. Larry, Shirky and Coyne are misconstruing what the evidence is being offered for and, therefore, have not identified any logical error but their own.


* Coyne has added yet another descriptor for his personal philosophy, "approach to the world," to go with his previous "worldview" and "scientific attitude."


Saturday, July 11, 2009


Novel Religion

Sometimes I think David Klinghoffer is more un-self-conciously honest than the other Discovery Institute drones because he is more literary and, therefore, cannot help but reveal himself through the stories he uses as tropes. The latest, and perhaps the funniest, is his "argument" against Simon Conway Morris' claim, adopted as well by Ken Miller, that the well-known cases of convergence in evolution (multiple evolutionary origins of eyes and wings, for example) suggest that an intelligent creature was bound to arise somewhere in the universe through evolution.

The argument goes that our own example -- going from an obscure and highly localized primate on the edge of extinction to world-spanning, environment manipulating and resource dominating super-organism, in a few tens or hundreds of thousands years -- is a testament to the selectionist power of intelligence. The importance of this, theologically, to Conway Morris and Miller is that it suggests that there may be at least some sort of directionality to evolution which, in turn, would make it more "suitable" for use by a provident god as a means of creating creatures "in his image."

Needless to say, there are many objections to this notion. Atheists such as Jerry Coyne are against it as much as conservative theists are, and for much the same reason: neither want evolution to be seen as compatible with religion. There is certainly something appealing about the notion that, once we "hit" upon intelligence (actually, a combination of intelligence, social organization, ability to manipulate the environment, particularly through fire, and who knows what other traits), we were destined to be an evolutionary success. The problem is that there is no way to settle the argument as long as life on Earth is our only example. Determining whether we are a fluke or inevitable based on a single instance of developing life is like trying to determine if a coin is fair or rigged on a single toss.

But Klinghoffer's attempt to answer the question is, shall we say, telling:

Picture a majestic T. rex receiving the tablets of the Ten Commandments in its undersized forelimbs, or an elegant octopus crucified on an old rugged cross with four crossbars instead of one.

Such images are what Kenneth Miller presumably has in mind with his comforting Darwinist thought that intelligent creatures were guaranteed to pop up even in the course of an evolutionary process of purely unguided, purposeless churning. ...

He and others (such as Obama's favorite geneticist, Francis Collins) invite us to imagine God being delighted with such creatures, noble and impressive in their way, as the culmination of the evolutionary process that He chose not to guide. But what if the intelligent creature that resulted from all the purposeless churning, and that was intended to reflect God's own image, had been something really horrible. [Emphasis in original]

And what example does Klinghoffer choose to illustrate that possibility? Why, the deliciously frightful fiction of H.P. Lovecraft:

Sure, they're just stories -- and often kind of silly ones at that, though wickedly entertaining. Yet after reading him, you can't comfortably go back to the naïve Ken Miller way of thinking that Darwinian evolutionary was somehow certain to provide God with children over whom He would approve with the Biblical formulation, "And behold it was very good."

But what is the Bible but just stories -- often silly ones at that -- that only the naïve could take, given the genocide, casual cruelty, hateful bigotry, murder, et al., it details, as representing the "very good"? As one commenter, "JPL," pointed out:

Of course, to us Cthulhu, with his tentacles and such, would appear grotesque and abhorrent. However, to such a being, WE would doubtless prove to appear the same.

Obviously there is no particular cosmic standard of beauty between squid and man, snake and bird, dolphin and planaria. Even within traditional theology, beauty remains a subjective concept in the eye of the beholder, at least at the physical level.

As for the non-physical, of course Cthulhu would seem abhorrent to us...he is opposed to our very existence. (Although honestly, he's simply indifferent to matters not to the Great Old Ones, just as ants matter little to man.) Of course, you can rest assured that to animals in factory farms, or deer on the run from hunters, we too seem terrifying and abhorrent. This is nothing more than a matter of perspective.

Perhaps there is room for discussion and debate concerning evolution, intelligent design, et. al. But the idea that the specific physical form of man as a bipedal hominid somehow reflects perfect beauty, and the likeness of God, requires the most facile and thoughtless reading of Scripture imaginable.

And, of course, a nuanced reading of Lovecraft is that he was holding a mirror up to our own internal ugliness -- our soul, if you must. What Klinghoffer and other creationists object to about evolution is that it makes it harder to maintain the fiction that we are something noble and impressive in our own right, despite all the evidence to the contrary, and that we need not work -- very hard indeed -- to aspire to even approach our pleasant poetry about ourselves.

Klinghoffer would rather read some cheap, mindless, bubble-gum of a novel that makes him comfortable than face the heart of darkness.


Update: That unreconstructed cephalopodist, PZ Megahertz, has taken a hand ... er ... tentacle, as has John Lynch.

Friday, July 10, 2009


Peter Principle

Are we supposed to take Jerry Coyne seriously?

I understand that he is a great scientist but what are we to make of his primitive philosophy and un-self-aware and contradictory statements on science, religion and atheism? Quite apart from the embarrassment of having Martin Cothran at the Discovery Institute Ministry of Misinformation pointing out his philosophical errors, now there is this on the appointment of Francis Collins:

I expect Collins to resign from BioLogos if he wants to maintain any scientific credibility. Yes, the guy has every right to believe what he wants, but a director of the nation's most prestigious research foundation has to have some standards, and BioLogos is beyond the pale. Mixing science with faith as it does, it gives people the wrong view of what science is all about and gives his official imprimatur to essentially private beliefs. Certainly, private expressions of faith are absolutely fine, but Collins has chosen to make his views public, and discuss their relationship to science.

Um ... this is from the same man who complains bitterly about Chris Mooney, who supposedly "wants the atheists who dislike faith/science accommodationism to simply keep quiet about it, as it's strategically bad."

Sometimes all you can do is shake your head.


P.S. While I think Coyne's take here is hopelessly muddled, that is not to say that there are no valid criticisms of Collins. These by PZ Myers are very pointed:

He's a big-science guy, who headed the National Human Genome Research Institute. I have some concern that he has a mindset that may not promote the diversity of scientific research — he represents a very narrow, gene-jockey style of research, which is valuable and does churn out lots of data, but I've often found exhibits a worrisome lack of understanding of the big picture of biology. I'd have liked to have seen a leader with more breadth: someone with an appreciation of systems biology, or environmental biology, and a little less shackled to the purely biomedical side.

He doesn't understand evolution. He has said that he thinks humans are no longer evolving, that junk DNA is functional, and he can't understand how altruism could have evolved. RPM summarized these deficiencies well. I know he argues well against the specifics of intelligent design, but ultimately, he's following the same gods-of-the-gaps formula that the Discovery Institute does ...
I don't think Collins follows the DI's argument in claiming that, because we don't understand something, therefore God must have done it, except perhaps in the case of the "moral sense" of humans, but it is something of a valid concern.
This is a big one for me: he will use his position to act as a propagandist for Christianity, entirely inappropriately. We already saw this in the announcement of the completion of the draft of the human genome project, where he actually brags about getting Clinton to include religious language in his speech, and where he himself made claims about the DNA sequence being "the language of god".
I'm more sangine about such pious platitutes as "language of God," "the God Particle" and statements by even atheist scientists to the effect that finding fluctuations in the cosmic microwave background is like "looking at God" but Collins' deliberate attempts to co-opt government-funded scientific discovery to religious ends is a justifiable objection.



Compatible Education

PZ speaks:
I recommend something different. Our next generation of great science communicators should be flesh-and-blood people with personalities, every one different and every one with different priorities, all singing out enthusiastically for everything from astronomy to zoology, and they should sometimes be angry and sometimes sorrowful and sometimes deliriously excited. They shouldn't hesitate to say what they think, even if it might make Joe the Plumber surly. If you want to improve American science and the perception of science by the public, teach science first and foremost, because what you'll find is that your discipline is then populated with people who are there because they love the ideas. And, by the way, let them know every step of the way that science is also a performing art, and that they have an obligation as a public intellectual to take their hard-earned learning and share it with the world.
Then Ken Miller's flesh-and-blood personality should be valued, since he is certainly excellent at performing the act of sharing science. And maybe we should have science education first and foremost, rather than arguments over who are the true keepers of the keys to the kingdom.


Thursday, July 09, 2009



The Sensuous Curmudgeon has been following the tentative steps of the Spencer (Iowa) School Board as it prepares to wade into the deep waters of Establishment Clause jurisprudence. The Des Moines Register has provided a copy of the Board's Draft Policy on Religion which can be downloaded here. Some thoughts:

Right from the start there are questions about what's paramount in the Board's mind:

This nation was founded on the idea of religious liberty. A well rounded education must include an understanding of the ideas which molded the nation, many of which were religious.

For many years public education has often gone too far in excluding religious influences for fear of offense. The purpose of this policy is to restore balance to the issues.
Quite aside from the fact that the ideas of our country's founders, and the religious freedom they embraced, arose out of Enlightenment philosophy, particularly that of John Locke, much more than any religious traditions, which tended to support the divine right of kings and the exact opposite of freedom of conscience, why has the Board sought to take on this culture war? Shouldn't the Board properly focus on the children in their system rather than worrying what public education in general is doing?

Next we have this non sequitur:

2. Definitions

a. Religion-a specific system of belief which may or may not include a deity, is not limited to orthodox belief systems or practices.

b. Evolution – The belief that an unguided process of mutation and natural selection resulted in the existence of life on earth.
Why is evolution, a matter of science, being defined in a policy on religion in any case? It strongly suggests the Board is confused about the difference between the two. The definition reinforces that impression, in that it calls evolution a "belief," in direct comparison to religious belief. This is an issue already litigated in Edwards v. Aguillard and the Supreme Court has ruled that the government cannot teach that they are both religious concepts.

The next interesting part is this:

7. Religion in the Curriculum

a. Approach must be academic, not devotional.

1. Curriculum areas that overlap religious faith shall demonstrate respect for affected religious convictions.

2. Electives to be offered at Spencer High School:

a. The Bible in History and Literature

b. Critic of Darwinism, a scientific approach. (provide a balanced review of evidence for and against the theory of evolution, using texts which include "Darwin's Black Box" by M. Behe)
Now, you might expect that I'd focus on Behe's book being used and, indeed, the specification of it is a potential problem for the Board. Has there been a textbook evaluation by the professional staff as to its suitability for the course? Every time a board rushes to some sort of judgment, they are opening themselves up to claims of favoring religion. And will the Board give a "balanced" review of Behe's book by giving a representative sample of the overwhelmingly negative critique (I know the Board would want to know how to spell that) given to Behe's book by the scientific community?

More importantly, in the context of a policy on religion, why are only two electives offered -– one in the Bible and the other supposedly a science course? It would hardly be possible to more strongly signal to objective observers that conservative Christianity of the anti-evolution sort is being catered to by the Board -- short of putting up signs on all the school buildings saying "Proudly Affiliated with Focus on the Family," that is.

Actually much of the policy is a (more or less) correct statement of the First Amendment's requirements -- though, as always, the devil is in the details. When the Board gives details, it shows that it is about to step in the Dover Trap big time.

Last night the Board "tabled the Religious Liberty Policy to be discussed at a later work session." It would be wise if they consulted with the local ACLU and other organizations concerned with the separation of church and state before they take the policy up again.

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How to Support Science Education