Sunday, January 31, 2010


Alternatives to Thinking

A thought:

One frequent delusion of ID proponents asserts, implicitly or explicitly, that if evolution fails to explain some biological phenomenon, intelligent design must be the correct explanation. This is a misunderstanding of the scientific process. If one explanation fails, it does not necessarily follow that some other explanation is correct. Explanations must stand on their own evidence, not on the failure of their alternatives. Scientific explanations or hypotheses are creations of the mind, conjectures, imaginative exploits about the makeup and operations of the natural world. It is the imaginative preconception of what might be true in a particular case that guides observations and experiments designed to test whether the hypothesis is correct. The degree of acceptance of a hypothesis is related to the severity of the tests that it has passed.

The discovery of oxygen did not simply happen because it was shown that phlogiston does not exist. Nor is the periodic table of chemical elements accepted just because chemical substances react and yield a variety of components. Similarly, Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection became generally accepted by scientists because it has sustained innumerable tests and has been fertile in yielding new knowledge. Other evolutionary theories, such as Lamarck's, have failed the tests of science. For a theory to be accepted, it is not sufficient for some alternative theory to have failed.

-Francisco J. Ayala, Darwin and Intelligent Design

Saturday, January 30, 2010


Religious Science

Casey Luskin is at it again.

He is putting up bits and pieces of his law review article in the Hamline University Law Review, about "teaching biological origins," at the Discoveryless Institute's Ministry of Misinformation. Timothy Sandefur has already commented on one such snippet. If you want to subject yourself to 64 pages of tedious tapdancing around the law, you can see the whole thing in a pdf file here.

This time Luskin is featuring the Minnesota Court of Appeals decision in LeVake v. Independent School District. What Luskin mentions but fails to follow up on is that LeVake's main claim was that he was being denied his right under the Constitution to freely exercise his religion by not being allowed, while on the public payroll, to spout such creationist bafflegab (taken from a "white paper" LeVake wrote at the request of the school district on what he intended to teach) as:

"[N]either evolution or creation can be considered a science because neither are [sic] observable at the present."

"[P]roponents of either interpretation must accept it as a matter of faith."

"The process of evolution itself is not only impossible from a biochemical, anatomical, and physiological standpoint, but the theory of evolution has no evidence to show that it actually occurred."

"the amazing lack of transitional forms in the fossil record."

"the mutation changing a leg into a wing could [not] be beneficial for the creature who possessed it."

"The theory of evolution is in clear violation of [the Second Law of Thermodynamics]."

"Natural selection occurs, but it is inadequate to produce 'macroevolution'"
LeVake also included more standard ID claims, including a list of things exhibiting "incredible complexity" that supposedly cannot be explained by evolution, such as:

"The structure of the microscopic bacterial flagella [sic]."

"The woodpecker's tongue and shock absorber."

"The complete metamorphosis of a caterpillar to a butterfly."
But remember folks (say it all together now!) ID has nothing to do with religion!

Amazingly, Luskin says, with a straight face: "There was no indication that Mr. LeVake intended to teach creationism or intelligent design." No indication but his own words, that is.

Luskin does make the point that "the Minnesota Court of Appeals did NOT find it was illegal to offer scientific critiques of evolution" but, instead, found "that administrators may exercise tight control over the curriculum." This, according to Luskin is good and sufficient reason "for clear legislative protection of academic freedom for teachers to assert such rights [to teach scientific critiques of evolution]." But then you have to accept that what LeVake was trying to inflict on the innocent minds of his students were "scientific critiques of evolution" and that state legislators and Kindergarten through 12th grade teachers are better able to decide what scientific critiques are than the scientific community is.

The consensus of biologists is that Rodney LeVake is full of shit. Why should government employees be allowed to pour intellectual feces into the minds of children because of the teacher's religious beliefs?


Friday, January 29, 2010


Butting Heads

It's funny, but in America it is always the "right" that is accused of censorship. Whenever implications of burning books or attempts at squelching free speech are made, it is always the "conservatives" that get the blame. ...

The left are the most intolerant, mean-spirited, unfair vermin that one could ever associate with. Their whole philosophy is based on lies, and the perpetuation of those lies, no matter what the evidence shows.

Viewpoint discrimination is the club that the intolerant-ones wield. If they don't agree with your position they simply prevent it from being presented. The idea of "informed debate" is something that is anathema to them. Not only won't they allow "the other side" to be presented, they deny there is another side. Their ideas win the day because they only allow their ideas on the field.
In the land of the delusional, the irate man is king.

And no one is more irate than Dave Daubenmire. What triggered his high dudgeon? Why, the attempt to "censor" Tim Tebow's mom. So what government agency has stepped in to shut up the mother of an athlete? Why, none, of course. It seems that Focus on the Family is going to air an antiabortion ad during the Super Bowl and Women's Media Center, the National Organization for Women, the Feminist Majority and other groups are protesting and asking CBS not to air the ad.

Amusingly, there is another tizzy over Super Bowl advertising going on:

After days of deliberations on whether to run a controversial Super Bowl ad from gay dating site, CBS has not yet reached a decision.

The 30-second spot shows two men excitedly watching the game, before their hands brush as they both reach into a bowl of chips. Suddenly, the two begin making out, much to the shock of a guy sitting close by.

According to a rep for the dating site, which operates under the slogan "Where Many Many Many Men Come Out to Play," the ad was submitted on Monday, January 18th. When the site followed up on the status of the ad on Friday, January 22nd, they were told by CBS that "the spot hadn't been officially approved yet" by network standards, and that "all the Super Bowl spots were sold out."
So what does the religious right (specifically, Donald Wildmon's American Family Association) do? Why, just what those liberal vermin do:

A gay dating website is trying to get an ad run during the Superbowl that promotes a day dating website. The ad features two men making out. I can't imagine CBS would be dumb enough to actually approve this ad, but if they do, the backlash will be huge. ...

The ad most likely won't air, even if approved, but there is a chance that it will be approved and will be shown during the Superbowl.

If you want to contact CBS to complain about this ad send an email to [CBS Audience Services].
Pot. Kettle. Black.

There is, or course, much other lunacy in Daubenmire's screed, not least his take on ID, which was what attracted my attention in the first place:

Look at education. The left, which has a death grip on education policy, has elevated “viewpoint discrimination” to a new level. Ponder these examples and ask yourself why we allow this bilge to go unchallenged.

The idea that a Creator is responsible for our existence on this planet is not even permitted to be discussed in the classroom. Hiding behind the “religion is not science” argument the Darwin-worshippers will not even permit the mention of Intelligent Design to be uttered in our “public schools.” Although recent studies show that over 75% of the public believe that they were “created”, the left will still not even allow the theory to be discussed along side their own “closely held religious beliefs.”
Of course the idea that God is responsible for the creation of the world can be discussed in public schools ... public schools just can't give preference to any one religious belief over another or over non-belief. There are these things called "comparative religion classes" that Daubenmire seems ignorant of (along with more than his fair share of other things).

And ID can be discussed in those sorts of classes or in social studies classes or even in classes on the history or philosophy of science. Just not in science classes for the obvious reason that ID ain't science.

But, then again, Daubenmire apparently thinks there is no such thing as science ... there's only “closely held religious beliefs,” into which he lumps the science of evolution.

Daubenmire is so obsessed with religion that everything begins to looks like it to him.


37 Minutes to Justice


A Kansas jury deliberated just 37 minutes before convicting an anti-abortion activist of first-degree murder in the fatal shooting of an abortion provider.

The jury found Scott Roeder, 51, guilty of gunning down Dr. George Tiller, who operated a clinic in Wichita where late-term abortions were performed. Roeder, 51, faces life in prison when he is sentenced on March 9.

- "Activist Roeder convicted of abortion provider's murder," CNN, January 29, 2010


ID Ain't Got No Religion

John Lynch at a simple prop has another amusing example of the two faces of ID:

Expelled is now available in the UK., so sayeth the Discovery Institute. And the link on ENV goes to …. a site called But ID has nothing to do with religion. Repeat after me …
So I thought I'd gather together more or less the first ten examples of similar gaffes I came across in a search of my blog:

But ID Has Nothing to Do With Religion

Dr. Egnor Outs ID

Luskin's Pick of the Nits

Checking the Designer's ID

Monkey See

What Does the NAS Know About Science?

The Empty Cat Bag

Careful What You Wish For

Flapping In the Wind

Publishing After Perishing

And some people wonder why we call ID apologists dishonest.


Thursday, January 28, 2010


We're Growing a Strange Crop of Skeptics This Year*

Here is some interesting news: Ken Miller, a professor of biology at Brown University, lead witness for the plaintiffs in the Kitzmiller case that banned Intelligent Design Creationism from Dover science classes ... and devout Catholic and author of Finding Darwin's God ... has been elected the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, publisher of Skeptical Inquirer.

The letter the group sent to Miller inviting him to become a fellow of the committee read, “Members of the committee have long been impressed with your commitment to science, rational inquiry, and public education.” Miller has published two well-known books about evolution, and co-authored a biology textbook that, according to Miller, 30 to 40 percent of U.S. high schools use.

“I have watched (Miller’s) career with admiration,” said Kendrick Frazier, the editor of Skeptical Inquirer. “He has been an effective proponent of good science and the teaching of evolution and an equally extraordinarily effective opponent of bad science and efforts to introduce creationism into the classroom and the public arena.”

Miller said he was extremely pleased to be chosen as one of the committee’s 16 fellows. Although his position does not have any outlined responsibilities, Miller said it is a huge honor and he sees himself becoming involved in the committee’s conferences and the production of newsletters and articles.

At the same time, Massimo Pigliucci, chair of the department of philosophy at CUNY-Lehman College and blogger at Rationally Speaking, was also named to the committee.


* Bonus points if you can identify the source of this paraphrase.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010


Tossing Around a Football

There is an interesting article by Jonathan Dee in the New York Times Magazine, entitled "Right-Wing Flame War!," about Charles Johnson of Little Green Footballs. Johnson, former darling of the far right, who has now denounced erstwhile allies as "fascists," expressed support for abortion rights, showed contempt for creationism and denounced the religious right, claims that:

... all these beliefs ... are elements of the "classical liberalism" he has always believed in but previously opted not to write about. Why now? The answer is so heretical it seems destined to raise the tizzy-level among his former followers to new heights: "It's not that the war on terror has finished," he said. "It's never going to be finished, but I think things have reached the point now where it's not as pressing as it was. Some of the measures we took to protect ourselves against extremists have been pretty effective. And so I realized, you know, that maybe it's time to tell people that I'm not onboard with a lot of this social-conservative agenda.

What's interesting to me is this by Dee:

[P]erhaps I am, as many suggested to me, just another liberal dupe. Perhaps I even fell for the pretense that Johnson lives in the modest home where I visited him, which bore none of the trappings his supposed sellout would suggest. The U.P.S. man who delivered packages to his door while I was there, and his truck, may have been hired for the day just to snow me; the decidedly un-Mata-Hari-like woman he introduced to me as his fiancée, who brought us water and fruit as we talked in his small home office, may have been a member of the Trilateral Commission. It would be just like a representative of the Mainstream Media to get caught believing his eyes like that.

A more accurate description of the loony right could hardly be penned. If Johnson is a "classical liberal" who only became a favorite of such people because of his desire to respond strongly against terrorists, it just goes to show the wisdom of the old saying: "lay down with dogs, get up with fleas."

Still, I'm not sure liberals should welcome Johnson with open arms. If the article is right, Johnson disappears comments on his blog he doesn't like, bans people for merely disagreeing with him, allows favorite commenters to police his site and may give them the power to ban others.

That sounds a lot like another blog I know ... if I could only remember the name.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010


Coming Up Big ... Or Not

Hey, our old friend, the Rev. Tony Breeden, is back pushing his Creation Letter Project that tries to counter the Clergy Letter Project, which includes this statement:

We the undersigned, Christian clergy from many different traditions, believe that the timeless truths of the Bible and the discoveries of modern science may comfortably coexist. We believe that the theory of evolution is a foundational scientific truth, one that has stood up to rigorous scrutiny and upon which much of human knowledge and achievement rests. To reject this truth or to treat it as “one theory among others” is to deliberately embrace scientific ignorance and transmit such ignorance to our children. We believe that among God’s good gifts are human minds capable of critical thought and that the failure to fully employ this gift is a rejection of the will of our Creator.

The Creation Letter, on the other hand, contains the same creationist bafflegab we have come to know and laugh at and contains this statement:

We the undersigned affirm the truth of a Biblical, literal 6-day Creation and strongly discourage any Bible-believing Christian from endorsing or celebrating an Evolution Sunday. Evolution is a lie which undermines both Biblical authority and the foundational basis of the Gospel.

Breeden is also once again urging that churches hold a "Creation Sunday" this February 14th to counter the Clergy Letter Project's "Evolution Sunday."

Let's see how he's doing:

The last time we looked in on The Rev, on April 14, 2009, his Creation Letter had 112 signatures. The Clergy Letter had 11,891.

Nine months along and the Creation Letter has 170 signatures and the Clergy Letter has 12,376.

Hey! That's a 52% increase in the Creation Letter signatories to only a 4% increase in the Clergy Letter signatories!

The Rev is catching up! It should only take him ... um ... ah ... nope, I can't count that high.

Monday, January 25, 2010


Dusting It Off

The Dishonesty Institute is at it again.

It is launching the 2nd "Annual Academic Freedom Day" with the same quote mine they used last year.

It seems rather desultory. There is no video contest as there was last year. There is a petition to sign but no crowing about the number that have inked it as there is with the "Dissent from Darwinism" list. There are a couple of T-shirts to buy.

In short, nothing much at all.

Sunday, January 24, 2010


Realism or Antirealism

A thought:

If we accept the idea that science really does give us some sort of knowledge then we must examine what scientific theories tell us about how the world is, and decide what is the scope of scientific knowledge. The modern scientific picture of the world seems to tell us a great deal, not just about how things are now, but how they were millions and even billions of years ago. Astrophysics tells us about the formation of the Earth, the solar system and even the universe, geophysics tells us about the development of mountains, continents and oceans, and biochemistry and evolutionary biology tell us about the development of life itself. Such scientific theories tell us more about familiar things, so, for example, we may learn where a particular river used to flow or how bees pollinate flowers. However, scientific theories, especially those in physics and chemistry, also describe entities that are not part of our everyday experience, such as molecules, atoms, electromagnetic waves, black holes, and so on. Such theories raise particular problems and questions in the philosophy of science; for example, should we believe in the existence of such esoteric and unobservable entities, and if so, what is to count as evidence for their existence and how do we manage to refer to them?

Of course, science does not just describe the world; it also gives us explanations of how and why things are as they are. Often this involves describing unobservable causes of things we observe. Hence, Newton is not famous for discovering that unsupported objects fall to the Earth, he is famous for explaining why they do so (the gravitational force is what causes apples to fall out of trees), and for giving us a law that allows us to calculate the rate at which they do so. Newton's mechanics, like many scientific theories, is formulated in terms of a few fundamental principles or laws. Central to our understanding of science is this idea of laws of nature; for example, it is supposed to be a law of nature that all metals expand when heated. So science seems to tell us about the ultimate nature of things, what the world is made of and how it works. It has even been thought that science has replaced metaphysics not just by telling us about what exists, and explaining what happens in terms of laws of nature and causation, but also by answering other fundamental philosophical questions about, say, the nature of space and time. But what exactly is a law of nature, and what does it mean to say that something has caused something else? What is it to explain something?

Many philosophers and scientists take it for granted that the aim of science is not merely to describe what we see, but also to arrive at the truth about the unobservable entities, laws and causes that lie behind the phenomena we observe. On the other hand, there is also a long tradition of disregarding questions about the real nature of things, the laws of nature and so on, and emphasising instead the search for theories that accurately predict what can be observed, without worrying about whether they are true or false beyond that. The question ... is, 'ought we to believe in the unobservable entities postulated by our best scientific theories?', or more crudely, 'do electrons really exist?'.

- James Ladyman, Understanding the Philosophy of Science

Saturday, January 23, 2010


Squirrely Theology

I can buy this:

She is looking for apples.

She takes slices from my hand. Puts her little paws on my fingers, sniffs around (I can feel her whiskers!), then gingerly takes the apple slice in her teeth and backs off to eat it. Ditto the pecan halves.

I get goose bumps every time.

She is the only squirrel among the half dozen or so in my garden who does not flee when I open the door.

But I recognize her mostly because she is very nearly bald.

Skin conditions that cause hair loss in squirrels are not generally fatal (according to Purdue University), but facing a winter without fur can be. Squirrel Girl may die of exposure before spring and I will mourn her passing.

But she will not die of starvation. Not on my watch. ...

There ... are two ways to study Creation: Macrotheology, I maintain, is the study of — the search for — God, the Creator of everything.

Macrotheologists study the holy texts of their culture "religiously." They become conversant in their faith's major tenets. They seek out the greater truths hidden in their temporally bound and sometimes politically charged rhetoric. ...

Microtheology, I maintain, accepts there is much about creation that is outside human understanding: The more we learn the less we know. ...

Microtheologists do not worship nature instead of God. Rather, we have a profound sense of stewardship ... a profound love for all of creation, because of God.

We do not try to mold God in our image to suit political agendas. We make no claim to having God's phone number.

This is microtheology: I may never actually see God, but I can fill the belly of a small squirrel who is in trouble.

Friday, January 22, 2010


Political Correctness


The Kansas State Senate has voted overwhelming to outlaw K2.

Yes, I'm an old fart* and had to go look up what K2 is.

According to this by Peter Rugg at the blog of the Kansas City News, it is a not very potent, short-lasting high vaguely like real marijuana.

So, naturally, it must be stamped out.

And I bet not a few senators went out and congratulated each other for their likely making Kansas the first state to have banned this threat to God and country ... over drinks.


* I went to college in the late sixties and early 70s. I inhaled and liked it.

Thursday, January 21, 2010


God's Own Education

Ed Brayton has the story of a school district in a small town in Ohio which has a "mission statement" which says that the schools "value belief in God." The Freedom From Religion Foundation has threatened a lawsuit and the locals are much agitated*. Faux News is, naturally, out to exacerbate the situation with the ridiculous headline "The Name Of God Is Under Attack In One Local School."

The most telling thing is the actual wording of the mission statement:

We value: Responsibility, honesty, respect, integrity, commitment, belief in God and religious freedom.

A government agency telling its students that it values belief in God at the same time that it values religious freedom shows that it is understands neither.


* The comments to the Faux News story give an idea of how it's going. Perhaps the most clueless response may be this:

This is so sad when we are told we cant worship God! May God have mercy on thier (sic) souls!

Why, no ... you can't use government school policy to worship God. There is this little thing called the Constitution. You might have heard of it ... if you weren't educated in Uniontown, Ohio.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010


Literary Creation

Intelligent Design Creationism defined:

"It is demonstrable," said he, "that things cannot be otherwise than as they are; for as all things have been created for some end, they must necessarily be created for the best end. Observe, for instance, the nose is formed for spectacles, therefore we wear spectacles. The legs are visibly designed for stockings, accordingly we wear stockings. Stones were made to be hewn and to construct castles, therefore My Lord has a magnificent castle; for the greatest baron in the province ought to be the best lodged. Swine were intended to be eaten, therefore we eat pork all the year round: and they, who assert that everything is right, do not express themselves correctly; they should say that everything is best."

- Dr. Pangloss, Candide by Voltaire

Tuesday, January 19, 2010


Pack Animals

There is an interesting story by 17 year-old Esteban Garcia at L.A. Youth about how this young man, who had lost his faith in Catholicism, regained it.

It's not fair to credit too much my "reading between the lines" but I found a striking amount that supports the "social glue" theory of the origin and continuance of religious belief.

Garcia describes losing his faith under the scourge of learning about evolution and his opposition (not lost) to the Church's teachings on gay marriage, contraception, women's equality and the like. Then he attends a retreat in preparation to confirmation (that he cannot avoid because of family pressures). A number of quotes will make my point:

[M]y aunt was the confirmation coordinator and I didn't want to cause any problems ...

The teachers broke us up into groups and told us to draw things that represented the Catholic faith. I'm competitive and wanted to show some leadership, so I suggested a circle because Catholicism teaches about the Church's universality. Everyone agreed and the adult leading our group thanked me.

We moved on to other activities that surprisingly made the day more tolerable. We did an activity with a soccer ball and a few others that stressed the same ideals: team-building, mutual respect and comfort in faith.

[T]hey played a video that showed scenes of teens with their voices in the background, proclaiming, "I'm Catholic!" The video showed five teens explaining the importance of their faith. ... They were people of all ethnicities united by this massive organization, the Catholic Church. In several scenes, they seemed carefree and friendly, as they were running, biking and doing other activities. I couldn't help but have some pride in at one time being a member of such a force.

My reading [of a passage of scripture at Mass] wasn't anything especially moving but being in front of everyone and having to present the words of their faith made me feel included.

I thought back to my First Communion five years before, to my teachers as my first guides, to sitting in the pews of church on Sunday mornings and appreciating the calm and the smells and the warmth of the church.

I felt chills [after reading letters from his "godparents"] but from what I didn't know. It was uncontrollable. Something massive was happening but I still remained reluctant. It was pride. I couldn't accept being absorbed into something I felt I had been disconnected from.

At this point, my eyes were moist. I had goose bumps and my heart was racing. Memories of church, of our nativity scene, of paintings of Christ with his arms outstretched, of reading about Christ walking the Via Dolorosa (the path through Jerusalem on which he carried the cross on the way to his crucifixion), of our rosary prayers, of the excitement of my First Communion, and of my family history so strongly intertwined with the faith danced in my mind.

[B]eing around people united by their shared faith recharges me.

Look, I have no intention of denigrating this young man's "reconversion." We all have to find our own paths through the vicissitudes of life. And this young man has at least learned that it is not wrong to think, and rethink, our solutions. My only point is that we are all subject to the siren call of belonging.

In some ways, he has a leg up on some atheists I know.

Monday, January 18, 2010


World's Worst Headline

That would be the headline "Nashville Christian School teaches science in context."

But here's what the article says:

[A]s far as the private school is concerned, God created the world and all other views are theoretical.

"[Nashville Christian School] teaches creation in addition to the theory of evolution," said Chris McBride, a 2003 NCS graduate and the school's technology coordinator.

"The key is that NCS makes a point of emphasizing that it is only a theory. Teachers explain that evolution is a theory that many people believe. They then go on to explain how we, as Christians, know that the theory is false."
If that is what is being taught -- that science is merely, in common parlance, a guess or an unfounded belief -- then it is not possible that they are teaching the context of science that includes tons of empiric evidence in favor of evolution. If they are teaching science in context of a religious belief in which empiric evidence is disregarded in favor of revelation, then they aren't teaching science at all.

Either way, the words "teaches," "context" and "science" do not combine in any way to represent what the story reveals.

Sunday, January 17, 2010


Viscount Show

Christopher Monckton, 3rd Viscount Monckton of Brenchley, doyen of the climate change denialists, has a truly bizarre screed up at the blog of the Science and Public Policy Institute. Monckton starts off with a perfectly reasonable (if debatable) discussion of the intersection of science and religion, making these claims:

~ There is not the slightest point in any religionist trying to scientifically prove that God created the world; nor is possible to prove that God intended the universe to unfold precisely as it does, by intelligent design.

~ Conversely, science can never prove wrong the proposition that it was God who, directly or indirectly, caused the Big Bang to occur and thus brought our universe into existence.

~ A scientist may legitimately demonstrate that all religions except one, to the extent that they teach matters that are contradictory to one another, must be false; may legitimately believe -- though it is only a belief, for it is not testable -- that all religions without any exception are false but has no scientific basis for saying anything more than that none of them can be proven to be true.

But then things start to turn weird:

According to al-Haytham, the scientist – the seeker after truth – does not place his trust in any consensus, however broad or however venerable. Instead, he subjects what he has learned of it to his own hard-won scientific knowledge, and he tests it, and tests it, and tests it again. As al-Haytham put it, "The road to the truth is long and hard, but that is the road that we must follow."

That's simplistic, of course. No consensus in science is sacrosanct and all are open to questioning on the same basis that formed them in the first place -- empiric evidence. But science builds on our present knowledge and it would be impossible to do science in our present state of knowledge if everything had to be individually confirmed by every scientist before going into new areas. Even more importantly, there is no reason to doubt our present knowledge simply because there is a consensus. But that is precisely what Monckton proceeds to try to demonstrate by citing the following alleged "facts":

~ Scientists led by Sir Fred Hoyle at Cambridge University tried to disprove the Big Bang, first proposed by Georges leMaitre, a Catholic priest, because they objected to the idea that a single moment of creation had actually occurred.

~ There was a misguided and hateful consensus as to the desirability of eugenics that led to the Nazi horrors.

~ Lysenkoism was a consensus, agreed to by the governing class of the day.

~ HIV was not treated with the "standard policy response" to a new, fatal, incurable infection, by testing everyone repeatedly, and isolating all carriers of the infection immediately, compulsorily and permanently, because a particular "pressure-group" lobbied heavily to prevent the usual public-health measures from being put into place created a consensus in the "governing class."

~ DDT, harmful only to the mosquitoes that cause malaria and yellow fever, was banned worldwide, on entirely specious, pseudo-scientific grounds.

The fact that the scientific consensus quickly accepted the Big Bang, while Hoyle fought a losing rear guard campaign against it, makes that instance, even if Mockton's characterization of Hoyle is correct, an example against his case that consensus is untrustworthy. Lysenkoism was never a scientific consensus, but one enforced at the end of a gun under one, and only one, repressive regime. Absence the threat of the Gulag, there is no reason whatsoever to compare Lysenkoism with the consensus on climate change. Besides the hint of homophobia in his claims about HIV, it is hardly true that we treat infectious diseases with permanent quarantine. Leper colonies are a thing of the past and hepatitis C patients walk the streets. His claims about DDT are, charitably, overblown, in that it was never banned for disease vector control and, in any case, it was was already succumbing to insect resistance due to its overuse as an agricultural pesticide. While science has much to be ashamed of in the case of eugenics, it is at least questionable if there was a scientific consensus on what should be actually done, as in involuntary sterilization. Even if it was a consensus, a single example is insufficient to carry Monkton's claims.

But then he gets truly weird:

Precisely because the worst sort of scientists are prone to say, intolerantly, that religion is not a legitimate pastime for any scientist, many scientists have come to the view that they no longer need to adhere to any moral precept at all. Morality, they say, is the province of religion and not of science. We, they say, can do what we like as long as we can get away with it, and there is no such distinction any more as true or false, right or wrong, just or unjust.

Perhaps, therefore, no one should be allowed to practice in any of the sciences, particularly in those sciences that have become the mere political footballs of the leading pressure-groups, unless he can certify that he adheres to one of those major religions – Christianity outstanding among them – that preach the necessity of morality, and the reality of the distinction between that which is so and that which is not. For science without the morality that perhaps religion alone can give is nothing.

Amusingly, the advocates of ID, almost entirely religious believers, are constantly engaged in dishonest tactics in support of the very thing that Monckton states is impossible: to produce scientific evidence for God.

Morality being the necessary and exclusive province of the religious is a joke ... a condition Monckton also seems to suffer from.


Via Open Parachute


P.S. As Dave has helpfully pointed out in the comments, there was wide support among Christians, who, according to Monckton "preach the necessity of morality," for eugenics in America, a fact that the United Methodist General Conference admitted and apologized for in 2008. That in no way expiates whatever scientific support there was for eugenics but it clearly contradicts Monckton's claim that religion is some sort of antidote to the immoral use of the trappings of science.

Saturday, January 16, 2010



A thought:

The eighteenth century, as everybody knows -- this is a platitude -- was the age of the great triumph of science. The great victories of science are the most phenomenal event of that period; and the most profound revolution in human sentiment which occurred in that age was the result of the destruction of older forms -- the result of the attack both upon the established religion on the part of organised natural science, and upon the old medieval hierarchy by the new secular State.

At the same time, without doubt, the rationalism went so far that, as always happens in such cases, the human sentiment which is blocked by rationalism of this type sought for some kind of egress in other directions. When the Olympian gods become too tame, too rational and too normal, people naturally enough begin to incline towards darker, more chthonian deities. This is what happened in the third century BC in Greece, and what began happening in the eighteenth century. ...

There is no doubt that, while perhaps happiness and order might be provided by the new scientific philosophy, the irrational desires of men, the whole realm of those unconscious drives of which the twentieth century has made us so very acutely aware, began to breed some kind of satisfactions of their own. So, perhaps somewhat to the surprise of people who believe the eighteenth century to have been a harmonious, symmetrical, infinitely rational, elegant, glassy sort of century, a kind of peaceful mirror of human reason and human beauty not disturbed by anything deeper or darker, we find that never in the history of Europe had so many irrational persons wandered over its surface claiming adherence. It is in the eighteenth century that the Masonic and the Rosicrucian sects thrive. It is then that all kinds of charlatans and wanderers begin to have an appeal -- particularly in the second half of the century. It is then that Cagliostro appears in Paris and gets involved in the highest circles. It is then that Mesmer begins talking about animal spirits. This is the favoured age of all kinds of necromancers and chiromancers and hydromancers, whose various nostrums engage the attention and indeed capture the faith of a great many otherwise apparently sane and rational persons. Certainly the experiments in the occult of the Kings of Sweden and of Denmark, of the Duchess of Devonshire and of the Cardinal de Rohan, would have been surprising in the seventeenth century, and unknown in the nineteenth. It is the eighteenth century in which these things begin to spread.

Isaiah Berlin, "The True Fathers of Romanticism," The Roots of Romanticism

Friday, January 15, 2010


Blinded By the Light

A group of people get together to observe an eclipse and have some lunch and an angry mob shows up.

The programme began at 11:30 am, just about the time the solar eclipse became visible in Hyderabad [India], with the public being encouraged to view the eclipse through filters and dark glasses. People were then treated to a sumptuous meal comsisting of vegetable fried rice as well as vegetrian and non-vegetarian curries.
The problem?

"We have organised this programme to clear the air and make people aware about blind beliefs that are myths.

For example, it is believed that one should not venture out during the eclipse. Hence we have encouraged people to come out and witness this spectacular event. Also, there is a belief that one should not consume food during the eclipse. To prove that there is no harm in eating or drinking during the eclipse we have arranged lunch and are inviting people," explained Varadaraju Reddy, general secretary of Manava Vikasa Vedika.

A part of the event was to prove that the eclipse holds no ill effect on pregnant woman and they are free to go about their normal routine. A few pregnant women have cut vegetables and also consumed food against the popular belief that refrains pregnant woman from taking up any such activity during the eclipse.

Uh oh. Challenging religious beliefs out in the open?

Trouble erupted soon with a mob objecting to the programme and branding it as anti-Hindu and raising Jai Sri Ram slogans.

"These organisations come into picture only to criticise Hindu customs and beliefs.

Why can't they do the same with other religious beliefs?'' said a furious Srikanth K.

"We suspect that the pregant women and other participants in the programme belong to other religions,'' he added.

The organizers are not exactly repentant:

Taking strong objection to the allegations levelled against the organisation, Reddy said, "We are not against any religion. We support science and want to show that science is universal.

If we study the past we learn that religion has always been a hindrance to science and development. It is sad that instead of supporting the awareness programme, a few people wanted to create a nuisance,'' he remarked.

The organizers obviously have never heard of "framing." After all, belief in the magical effects of eclipses is compatible with science, isn't it?

Thursday, January 14, 2010


Haiti's School Board Elections

Remember when Pat Robertson told the people of Dover, Pennsylvania that:

I'd like to say to the good citizens of Dover: if there is a disaster in your area, don't turn to God, you just rejected Him from your city.

And don't wonder why He hasn't helped you when problems begin, if they begin. I'm not saying they will, but if they do, just remember, you just voted God out of your city. And if that's the case, don't ask for His help because he might not be there.

Well, it seems that the people of Haiti also have only themselves to blame:

And you know, Kristi, something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it. They were under the heel of the French, uh, you know Napoleon the 3rd and whatever, and they got together and swore a pact to the Devil. They said, 'We will serve you if you'll get us free from the French.' True story. And so the Devil said, 'Okay, it's a deal.' And, uh, they kicked the French out, you know, with Haitians revolted and got themselves free. But ever since they have been cursed by, by one thing after another, desperately poor. That island of Hispaniola is one island. It's cut down the middle. On the one side is Haiti on the other side is the Dominican Republican. Dominican Republic is, is prosperous, healthy, full of resorts, etcetera. Haiti is in desperate poverty. Same island. They need to have and we need to pray for them a great turning to God and out of this tragedy I'm optimistic something good may come.

Uh huh.

While Haiti is tied for the most poverty stricken country in the world, to call the Dominican Republic "prosperous," with 42% of its population under the poverty line, is a cruel joke. But maybe worse than that is Pat's thinking that the earthquake is a "blessing in disguise" because it might cause a "massive rebuilding" of the county's infrastructure, a concept that his own drones, such as Bill Horan, seem to be shocked at. Buildings are worth more than people?

I've argued that we can't know what "evil" is from the perspective of an infinite omniscient being but there is no doubt that we can tell what is evil from a human perspective.

And Pat Robertson is it.


Via James McGrath at Exploring Our Matrix


Update: In the face of increasing criticism, Robertson has now "explained" his comment. It has to do with Dutty Boukman, a voodou priest who was captured and beheaded by the French shortly after the slave revolt began. As Wikipedia explains:

On 22 August 1791, Boukman presided in the role of houngan (priest) together with an African-born priestess and conducted a ceremony at the Bois Caïman and prophesied that the slaves Jean François, Biassou, and Jeannot would be leaders of a slave revolt that would free the slaves of Saint-Domingue. A pig, which symbolized the wild, free, and untamable spiritual power of the forest and the ancestors, was sacrificed, an oath was taken, and Boukman and the priestess exhorted the listeners to fight bravely against their oppressors. Days later the Haitian Revolution began. Boukman was not the first to attempt a slave uprising in Saint-Domingue, as he was preceded by others, such as Padrejean in 1676, and François Mackandal in 1757. However, his large size, warrior-like appearance, and fearsome temper made him an effective leader and helped spark the Haitian Revolution.

This ceremony has long been referenced as the "pact with the devil" that began the Haitian revolution. This negative branding of the ceremony at the Bois Caïman was possibly instigated by either the French who fled Haiti, or the Christian missionaries who were in competition with the local Vodou beliefs.

According to Robertson's statement:

This history, combined with the horrible state of the country, has led countless scholars and religious figures over the centuries to believe the country is cursed.

I'm willing to bet that the number of "scholars" who have concluded that Haiti is cursed by God is "countless" because you can't count zero.

More importantly, in typical fashion, Robertson's "God" proceeds to smite people who had nothing to do with the supposed "sin."

Some "God."

Wednesday, January 13, 2010


We Hold These Truths

Ed Brayton has pointed out a wonderful editorial by Theodore Olson, conservative heavyweight and lead counsel, along with David Boies, in the trial in Federal District court seeking to overturn California's Proposition 8 denial of gay marriage. Olson demolishes the "arguments" against gay marriage invoked like mantras by the intolerant Right and makes a conservative argument in favor of it. But here is the real heart of the matter:

We once tolerated laws throughout this nation that prohibited marriage between persons of different races. California's Supreme Court was the first to find that discrimination unconstitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously agreed 20 years later, in 1967, in a case called Loving v. Virginia. It seems inconceivable today that only 40 years ago there were places in this country where a black woman could not legally marry a white man. And it was only 50 years ago that 17 states mandated segregated public education -- until the Supreme Court unanimously struck down that practice in Brown v. Board of Education. Most Americans are proud of these decisions and the fact that the discriminatory state laws that spawned them have been discredited. I am convinced that Americans will be equally proud when we no longer discriminate against gays and lesbians and welcome them into our society.

Reactions to our lawsuit have reinforced for me these essential truths. I have certainly heard anger, resentment, and hostility, and words like "betrayal" and other pointedly graphic criticism. But mostly I have been overwhelmed by expressions of gratitude and good will from persons in all walks of life, including, I might add, from many conservatives and libertarians whose names might surprise. I have been particularly moved by many personal renditions of how lonely and personally destructive it is to be treated as an outcast and how meaningful it will be to be respected by our laws and civil institutions as an American, entitled to equality and dignity. I have no doubt that we are on the right side of this battle, the right side of the law, and the right side of history.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010


Continental Drift

The Texas Freedom Network has organized some religious opposition to the plans of the theocratic wing of the Texas State Board of Education to inject their mythology into the state's new social science curriculum standards that the US is a Christian nation:

"What violates the Constitution is presenting material that either prefers Christianity over other faiths or depicts the Untied States as a Christian nation in some legal sense or constitutional sense," warned Derek Davis, dean of the Humanities department at the Baptist-based University of Mary Hardin-Baylor and director of the school's Center for Religious Liberty.

It's debatable whether society has become over-secularized, as some Christians complain, he said. But to assume it's happening and "to blame it on the separation of church and state, which they claim is hostile to the Founders' intentions, is patently false," Davis said.

The Rev. Marcus McFaul, senior pastor at Highland Park Baptist Church in Austin, said "the instruction of religious faith, discipleship and a life of service — one shaped by devotion and piety — is the responsibility of each faith community, whether church, synagogue or mosque. It is the responsibility of parents and parishes, not public schools."
Naturally, rational voices, even from fellow evangelical Christians, are not about to deter the theocrats:

Board member David Bradley, R-Beaumont, a leader of the board's seven members who are social conservatives, said he respected the Baptist theologians "but I listen to my own pastor."
Not to mention the voices in head:

Bradley said he's certain "there will be efforts (by board members making amendments) to preserve, protect and strengthen America's godly heritage."
If it was only Texas, that would be bad enough. But there's more to it than that:

Until recently, Texas's influence was balanced to some degree by the more-liberal pull of California, the nation's largest textbook market. But its economy is in such shambles that California has put off buying new books until at least 2014. This means that [Board member Don] McLeroy and his ultraconservative crew have unparalleled power to shape the textbooks that children around the country read for years to come.
A Texas-level education is coming to a school near you.

Monday, January 11, 2010


When Not To Keep Up With the Joneses

The Shelbyville, Tennessee Times-Gazette has a piece entitled "Why Do We Choose to Homeschool?" by one Shawna Jones. Now, I have no particularly strong feelings one way or the other about homeschooling. True, the quality of the education of a homeschooled child will depend on the abilities and dedication of the parents but that same can be said of the local public school and teachers. It's a bit of a crap shoot for the children either way. But Jones seems well positioned, as she claims:

My husband and I are both college educated. I have a dual major B.A. and A.A from an accredited university. I worked in the California public school system and passed the California C-BEST exam on my first attempt. I currently teach Spanish, algebra and drama with the Bedford County Homeschool Enrichment Program (HEP), and formally taught Spanish in an industrial setting for a local fortune 500.
Ms. Jones says all the right things too:

Our children are actively involved in local recreation sports activities and events. They play on socially diverse teams, and study other cultures and ways of life in their "world geography and cultures" coursework.

Our children attend the Bedford County Homeschool Enrichment Program (HEP) co-op. They meet one day a week and attend classes in a structured classroom setting, go on field trips, and are involved in community events, such as the recent 2009 Festival of trees "Christmas around the world" at The Fly cultural arts center.

Again, my children are taught to understand other cultures and way of life; are actively involved in social public activities, such as soccer; and observe the world around us with interest and curiosity.
Well, almost all the right things:

Unlike most parents who choose to home school, we did not make the decision for religious reasons. Bedford county schools, while keeping to the laws regarding separation of Church and State, do offer a great deal of leeway with regard to prayer at sporting events, upon news of a tragedy, etc., even allowing the Gideon's into the classroom. We are satisfied with the amount of [Christianity] religious freedom the schools here me, the public school I attended in southern California allowed no religious flexibility.
As the ACLU recently convinced another Tennessee school district, allowing the Gideon's into the classroom is no wheres near keeping to the laws regarding separation of Church and State. Already there's doubt that Ms. Jones' children will learn an accurate picture of our Constitution, not to mention current events. But then there's this:

While I wish the days of prayer before class still existed, I do not think my children need to mix religious beliefs with classroom our opinion, that' what bible study and Sunday school at church is for. Think about it, if we allow religious studies into the public classrooms it will not be limited to Christianity. Personally, I prefer my children not study and learn the Koran, Vodou, Judaism, etc., even it does mean a trade out to allow in the open study of Christianity in public schools.
Um ... Does Ms. Jones know where the Old Testament comes from? Does she really not want her children to learn about Judaism? And what about her children learning about other cultures and ways of life?

Oh, well. Maybe the Jones' kids will take it on themselves to learn.


P.S.: I don't know how I forgot to mention this (except that I was really tired):

We tailor our academic material to coincide closely with the public schools', and even cover controversial material, such as Darwin's theory of Evolution. Yes, we are a Christian household. But we are also a "realist" household, and as such I believe my children should be aware of significant scientific events/theories within the world as a whole...that does not mean they have to believe it. Darwin's theory of Evolution is just that...a theory. If I don't arm my children with this controversial knowledge, then what becomes of them in college where they are expected to know it? I also teach them about other theories, including Creationism...again, just a theory. This is where we differ most from the "typical" home school family.
All too "typical," I'm afraid.

Sunday, January 10, 2010


Changing Morals

The Bishop of the Diocese of Des Moines, Iowa has fired a transgendered woman who worked part time as parish housekeeper and who, as an independent social worker, had local permission to use parish offices to provide counseling for transgendered clients.

Susan McIntyre (nee Jim Ford) had gender-reassignment surgery in 1988. McIntyre already had a master's degree in social work and a desire to "work with the sickest of the sick and the poorest of the poor." She converted to Catholicism after her surgery.

The diocese is claiming the firing was due to McIntyre using a letterhead for her counseling services that included the center's name and address, thus possibly opening the church up to liability for any malpractice claims against McIntyre. As some of the parishioners pointed out, that didn't justify firing McIntyre as a housekeeper. Instead, she could have just been denied permission to conduct her counseling on church property.

A much more likely explanation of the firing comes to mind:

[Richard] Pates [bishop of Des Moines] said the church's views on homosexuality and transgenderism fall in line with two millennia of teaching, part and parcel with its overall stance on human sexuality: that sex should be reserved for marriage between a man and a woman, and in cooperation.
Excuse me? Wouldn't that also preclude priests having sex with children? But the Church rather notoriously was willing to overlook that and keep the perpetrators employed, often just sending them to other parishes where their "indiscretions" were unknown. Maybe the diocese should offer to transfer Ms. McIntyre to clean another parish.

To the credit of some of the parishioners, nearly 100 of them have organized separate prayer services instead of going to Mass because they said they sought a welcoming place for all.

A good first step.


Carnival XX

The good ship Carnival of Elitist Bastards has set sail a little late ... okay, a lot late ... but, given all the end of the year libations to the returning sun, it is no small accomplishment to get a crew aboard at all.

To see how ridiculous climate change deniers can become, check out the story of how Build-A-Bear was attacked for having videos on its website in which little animals learn about manmade global warming and the dangers it holds for the North Pole and then teach Santa Claus about the problem. Build-A-Bear was accused of "politicizing" the issue.

There's no indication that the management of Build-A-Bear is part of any doctrinaire environmentalist movement ... they quickly pulled the videos in response to the complaints ... but, instead, were simply responding to the scientific consensus on the issue to "inspire children, through the voices of our animal characters, to make a difference in their own individual ways."

It is the deniers who have politicized the issue, insisting that the matter is to be determined not on the basis of the science but, rather, on the basis of ideology and that children should not even know what the scientific conclusions are. It is another case of projection.


Saturday, January 09, 2010


Creative Creationists

In the category of "What a Surprise," Wild Bill Dembski admits to being a creationist.

Josh Rosenau has the details at Thoughts From Kansas. A retired Baptist minister reviewed Dembski's latest book, The End of Christianity, at a blog called Our Sovereign Joy and thought that he was advocating "theistic evolution." As is common knowledge, creationists hate theistic evolutionists even more than secular or atheistic supporters of evolution, so Dembski raced to "clear" his "good name":

Johnny T. Helms' concerns about my book THE END OF CHRISTIANITY as well as his concerns about my role as a seminary professor in the SBC are unfounded. I subscribe to the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 as well as the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. I believe Adam and Eve were literal historical persons specially created by God. I am not, as he claims, a theistic evolutionist. Within the Southern Baptist seminaries, both old-earth and young-earth creationism are accepted positions. True, young-earth creationism remains the majority view in the SBC, but it is not a litmus test for Christian orthodoxy within the SBC. I'm an old-earth creationist and the two SBC seminaries at which I've taught (Southern in Louisville and Southwestern in Ft. Worth) both were fully apprised of my views here in hiring me.
Not all creationists are buying "the big tent," however. A commenter had this to say:

As an Old Earth Creationist, Dr. Dembski clearly disagrees with the Biblical timeline. This is an insult to God.

As an intelligent design creationist, Dr. Dembski insults God. The creators of intelligent design creationism deliberately left God out of the picture in their effort to get around the US Supreme Court's 1987 decision prohibiting the teaching of "creation science" in public schools - because it is obviously religion.

The intelligent design creationists took all mention of God and Adam and Eve and Noah and all the good parts out of the creation story, and proposed an anonymous invisible supernatural "intelligent designer," publicly denying for years that it was the Creator God of Genesis.

They created another creator - another God! A Vatican theologian has stated that this is technically heresy. How any serious creationist could support intelligent design creationism is a mystery.
What is perhaps even stranger than Dembski's aversion to theistic evolution is his theodicy:

My book THE END OF CHRISTIANITY is about theodicy, namely, how a good God can coexist with an evil world. Essential to Christian theodicy has been the doctrine of the Fall, which, in my book, I argue is real. Within old-earth creationism, however, the Fall comes after the appearance of natural evil (e.g., animal sickness and suffering). What I argue in THE END OF CHRISTIANITY is that just as the salvation purchased by Christ on the Cross saves not only forwards but also backwards in time (Old Testament saints were saved through Christ and His Cross), so the effects of the Fall operate forwards and backwards in time (thus animal suffering is a result of the sin of Adam even though, temporally, it comes before). Basically, what I'm trying to do is preserve Christian orthodoxy within an old-earth perspective.
So, God subjected animals to death and disease because he knew Adam and Eve would sin even before he specially created them? But he went ahead and created them anyway, knowing they'd sin and everything in the universe would suffer? And that helps with the problem of evil, how?

And why try to preserve Christian orthodoxy within an old-earth perspective? If you're in for a penny denying the scientific evidence for evolution, why not in for a pound and deny the scientific evidence for an old Earth? How does Dembski decide what parts of science are reliable and what parts aren't?

Friday, January 08, 2010


Clueless in Seattle

The ever ridiculous Casey Luskin is over at the Discovery Institute's Ministry of Misinformation playing a variation on the ol' "if human beings evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?" gambit. Yes, he really is that clueless ... or hopes his target audience is.

The occasion is the discovery of what appear* to be fossil footprints of true tetrapods that date to as much as 20 million years before Tiktaalik, our best example to date of a transitional form between fish and land animals. Naturally, Luskin is now crying: "Tiktaalik is not a transitional fossil!"

PZ Myers puts it in perspective:
[T]he mix of existing fossils tells us that there were viable, long-lasting niches for a diversity of fish, fishapods, and tetrapods that temporally coexisted for a long period of time; the evolution of these animals was not about a constant linear churn, replacing the old model with the new model every year. Comparing them to cars, it's like there was a prolonged window of time in which horse-drawn buggies, Stanley Steamers, Model Ts, Studebakers, Ford Mustangs, and the Honda Civic were all being manufactured simultaneously and were all competitive with each other in specific markets…and that window lasted for 50 million years. Paleontologists are simply sampling bits and pieces of the model line-up and trying to sort out the relationships and timing of their origin.

This, of course, is nothing new. The same situation occurred with Archaeopteryx, a representative of a species or group of species that were clearly reptilian in origin but had developed a number of birdlike traits, including flight feathers. The fact that we have since found earlier "true" birds does not diminish Archaeopteryx's status as a transitional form ... it is an organism that arose from ancestors inhabiting one environmental niche (land animal) and in the process of entering another (flying animal). Nor is it important whether or not Tiktaalik is a direct ancestor of modern tetrapods or Archaeopteryx is a direct ancestor of modern birds. Given the "bushy" nature of evolution, which tends to throw up a number of forms when some group finds a new niche open to them (witness our own multiple possible ancestors), it wasn't all that likely that Tiktaalik was a direct ancestor of tetrapods. In fact, the animals that made the tracks in Poland are also unlikely to be direct ancestors of modern tetrapods. Its line may well have died out with no modern descendants. So what?

Luskin's "argument" depends on there being one and only one transitional form extant at any one time.

But think of what such situations say about Luskin's God ... opps ... "Designer." Why design all the various proto-tetrapods and proto-birds only to see them go extinct? More importantly, why all the proto-humans and other apes? And what's to say we aren't as ready for "the "Designer's" ash heap as Tiktaalik and Archaeopteryx?


* Read the news stories Luskin links to in order to see how real scientists react to such findings ... with a mix of caution and excitement at the opening up of new avenues to explore ... rather than taking a cue from Luskin, who buries his fingers deeper in his ears, screws his eyes tighter shut and hums "Nearer My God to Thee" even louder.


Update: PZ demolishes Luskin.

Thursday, January 07, 2010


Ignorance Is Bliss

... or so says Mark Buckle, pastor of Fernhill Church in City Rise, New Zealand:

We are discovering new things every day.

Technology is advancing and everything useful is getting smaller and cheaper. We seem to be light years ahead of our not-so-distant ancestors who harboured all sorts of irrational fears and superstitions.

That's great . . . or it would be if we were any less afraid than our forebears!

It seems to me that our fears are amplified by our heightened knowledge.

For all the supposed answers, there are just as many fresh questions.

The apparent gains in knowing all this "stuff" don't seem to have brought us any closer to the solutions to life's fundamental needs.

No? Ask the billion or so people who have been saved from starvation by the "Green Revolution" that science engendered. Ask the young children of a mother who didn't die from the cancer that was a death sentence a generation or two ago. Ask the soldier who survived a battle because of body armor, smart bombs, GPS location, radar, and a thousand other applications of science ... heck, ask the soldier who didn't have to go on a dangerous mission because a drone went for him or fired a missle.

Although Pastor Mark admits he's "no scientist and must be careful not to sound like one," he then proceeds to make pronouncements such as these:

Scientific interpretation has been shown to be subject to personal agenda and is of questionable value. ...

Those so desperate to find an alternative to truth that has its origins in God ... have overlooked the fact that the evolutionary argument relies solely on "the theory" of millions and millions of years of accumulated "incidents" that caused slime to evolve into complex human beings.

Why is it that even children know that when a story begins with "Once upon a time a long, long time ago in a land far away", it is a fairy tale, but intelligent and developed human beings accept these theories and incidents as "the origins of species" and continue to speculate?
Why is it that some people can be aware that they don't know what they are talking about but still be willing to make sweeping generalizations born out of nothing but ignorance?

Wednesday, January 06, 2010


Falsehoods About Science

The often ridiculous David Klinghoffer is over at the Discovery Institute's Ministry of Misinformation peddling ... well ... misinformation. That, of course is nothing new and what he's peddling is nothing new either. It is the old "scientists say ID is unscientific because it is unfalsifiable but then say ID has been falsified, therefore it must be scientific" bafflegab. Klinghoffer is committing the Fallacy of Composition and the Fallacy of Division (since he argues the claim both ways).

First of all, Sir Karl Popper's "falsifiability demarcation criterion" for distinguishing science from pseudo-science has generally been deemed a failure as a reliable way to tell science from non-science. However, that does not mean it is useless. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says (citations omitted):

Popper's demarcation criterion has been criticized both for excluding legitimate science and for giving some pseudosciences the status of being scientific. Strictly speaking, his criterion excludes the possibility that there can be a pseudoscientific claim that is refutable. According to Larry Laudan, it "has the untoward consequence of countenancing as 'scientific' every crank claim which makes ascertainably false assertions". Astrology, rightly taken by Popper as an unusually clear example of a pseudoscience, has in fact been tested and thoroughly refuted. Similarly, the major threats to the scientific status of psychoanalysis, another of his major targets, do not come from claims that it is untestable but from claims that it has been tested and failed the tests.

Defenders of Popper have claimed that this criticism relies on an uncharitable interpretation of his ideas. They claim that he should not be interpreted as meaning that falsifiability is a sufficient condition for demarcating science. Some passages seem to suggest that he takes it as only a necessary condition. Other passages suggest that for a theory to be scientific, Popper requires (in addition to falsifiability) that energetic attempts are made to put the theory to test and that negative outcomes of the tests are accepted. A falsification-based demarcation criterion that includes these elements will avoid the most obvious counter-arguments to a criterion based on falsifiability alone.
First of all, a claim that, by its own terms, is unfalsifiable is clearly not science. The classic example is Philip Gosse's "Omphalos hypothesis." Since Gosse (and many young-Earth creationists today) proposed that God made the world with the "appearance of age," the claim cannot be scientific. No amount of empiric evidence can refute the claim that an omnipotent God just chose to make the world look as if it was old. If Klinghoffer is right, then young-Earth creationism is scientific because science has produced reams of evidence that the Earth is old. I'm willing to grant that ID is "scientific" in exactly the same way and to exactly the same extent that young-Earth creationism is.

On the further understanding that falsifiability is a necessary criteria for something to be science but not, in and of itself, sufficient to make a proposition scientific, falsifiability (or as it is generally called today to avoid confusion, "testability") is, at the least, a good first approximation of whether something is scientific or not.

Thus, the fact that certain claims made by ID apologists are falsifiable does not mean that it is scientific, any more than the fact that politicians make falsifiable claims turns our political system into a natural science. As I previously noted, Jerry Coyne has made a nice distinction between the testable and non-testable claims of ID. When IDers claim such things as the "abrupt appearance" of organisms in the Cambrian "explosion," those claims can be tested and falsified. When they claim that an unknown agent, with unknown powers and unknown motives did something, sometime by some unknown means, there is no more way to test it than there is to test whether an omnipotent God decided to miraculously make the world look old. In a spasm of unintentional honesty on this point, Casey Luskin has even called the issue of who the "Designer" might be (and, therefore, what abilities and motives he/she/it might have) a "strictly theological question." Therefore, the central claim of ID -- the existence of a "Designer" -- is, by the very nature of the ID apologists claim, unfalsifiable. It hardly needs to be mentioned that that this attitude guarantees that there will be no energetic attempts to test the existence of the "Designer," even if we didn't already know that they mean "God."

As I said before:

To paraphrase a well-known critical bon mot: "what is scientific about ID has been falsified; what hasn't been falsified is not scientific."

Tuesday, January 05, 2010


Some Laws Are Less Asses Than Others

Dr. Steven Novella and Orac have noted that the doyen of the anti-vaccination movement, Barbara Loe Fisher (aka Barbara Loe Arthur), has brought a libel suit against Dr. Paul Offit, reporter Amy Wallace, and Wired Magazine, over the article "An Epidemic of Fear: How Panicked Parents Skipping Shots Endangers Us All." Unfortunately for Fisher (and fortunately for those publicly supporting science against pseudoscience) the laws of libel in the US are not as easy to use as a weapon to silence criticism as those in Britain, which made the British Chiropractic Association's suit against Simon Singh so dangerous.

First of all, in order to support a claim of libel, specific words must be alleged that make a factual claim about a person. Fisher's complaint goes on at length about how the article depicts "anyone not in support of universal and mandatory vaccination is irrational, uneducated, unscientific, controlled by fear and a danger to public health" and, conversely, "lionizes Offit as an altruistic scientist dedicated to child welfare unfairly persecuted by the 'anti-vaccine' movement." Fisher is called the "brains" of the anti-vaccination movement, which she denies she is, since she is not "anti-vaccine" but for safety and informed consent, a tactic already deconstructed by Orac at Respectful Insolence. I think it is safe to say that the "charge" that she has any brains is not the focus of the suit.

In any event, such general and unspecific statements are not actionable and are, as we shall see later, clearly opinion, at worst. Statements of opinion are protected by the freedom of speech clause of the Constitution's Bill of Rights and cannot be the subject of libel suits in any court in the US.

Fisher offers only one statement specifically about her that remotely supports a claim of libel. Offit is quoted as saying of Fisher, "She lies." In context it is:

"Kaflooey theories" make him crazy, especially if they catch on. Fisher, who has long been the media's go-to interview for what some in the autism arena call "parents rights," makes him particularly nuts, as in "You just want to scream." The reason? "She lies," he says flatly.

"Barbara Loe Fisher inflames people against me. And wrongly. I'm in this for the same reason she is. I care about kids. Does she think Merck is paying me to speak about vaccines? Is that the logic?" he asks, exasperated. (Merck is doing no such thing).
To give you an idea of the hurtles that American libel plaintiffs face, let me quote from a 2000 Federal District Court case, Sabratek Corp. v. Keyser:

[A] threshold issue for the court to resolve is whether the alleged statements are reasonably susceptible of the defamatory meaning imputed to them. This threshold inquiry is guided not only by the meaning of the words as they would be commonly understood, but by the words considered in the context of their publication. While assertions of fact may form the basis of a defamation claim, expressions of opinion are not actionable. To determine whether a statement is fact or opinion, the dispositive inquiry is "whether a reasonable reader could have concluded that the publications were conveying facts about the plaintiff." When the defendant's statements, read in context, are readily understood as conjecture, hypothesis, or speculation, this signals the reader that what is said is opinion, not fact.

According to the complaint, [defendant] stated to certain individuals that [plaintiff] is a "pathological liar," "the biggest pathological liar in the world," a "dirty liar," and further said that "that guy is a fraud" and "I have a list of one hundred people you can call that will say that this guy is a dirty liar." Such statements do not constitute defamatory statements of fact, rather, they are appropriately labeled hyperbole and opinion. In Ram v. Moritt [the court] held that statements made regarding the plaintiff ("liar," a "cheat," and a "debtor") in the presence of patients in plaintiff's waiting room were not susceptible of a defamatory meaning; rather they constituted personal opinion and rhetorical hyperbole, not objective fact. [In] Mr. Chow of New York v. Ste. Jour Azur S.A. , [the court] discusses numerous cases where language such as "blackmailing," "traitor," "deceiver," "exploiter," and "liar" were held to be hyperbole and not based in fact. These cases further demonstrate that [defendant's] statements regarding [plaintiff] are mere hyperbole.

Further, ... [t]he court must "consider the publication as a whole," and "not pick out and isolate particular phrases." [T]he meaning of a writing "depends not on isolated or detached statements but on the whole apparent scope and intent"; courts are required to consider "the larger context in which the statements were published, including the nature of the particular forum". Further, statements of opinion which disclose the facts on which they are based are not actionable. [Citations omitted]
In Sabratek, the defendant, the owner of an investment advisory newsletter, called the managers of a corporation liars and frauds. Importantly, the plaintiffs were not considered "public figures," who must meet a much higher standard (malicious intent or reckless disregard for the truth) in order to establish defamation than private citizens. Fisher is almost certainly a public figure in the debate over vaccinations and, therefore, must meet the higher standard.

In the complete context, it is clear that Offit's words, "She lies," is opinion based on Offit's belief that Fisher "inflames people against me." In this regard, Fisher's kvetching about being portrayed as the "bad guy" to Offit's "good guy" actually hurts her case, since it emphasizes that this is a clash of opinion (though, in the case of Offit, well founded opinion fully laid out in the article, as opposed to Fisher's ill-founded opinion about vaccines). Nor is there any hint in the article that Offit had any undisclosed grounds for thinking she lied. His statement is clearly based on what she has said about him and vaccines. Fisher's case will be, just based on the complaint itself, hard pressed to survive an early motion for summary judgment.

Lastly, in an amusing attempt to give some shred of substance to her suit, Fisher alleges a libel per se. Libels per se are, traditionally, statements that a person committed a serious crime; that tend to injure another in his trade, business or profession; that accuse a person of having a loathsome disease; or that impute that a woman is unchaste. Fisher tries to make out a case for injury to her trade, business or profession by alleging she 1) she is the "alter ego" of her supposedly nonprofit organization, the National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC), 2) which is funded by "contributions of public supporters" and that 3) her income is derived from a "small salary" from the NVIC (as well as a pension from her late husband).

In other words, her trade, business or profession is getting the public to donate to a "nonprofit" organization so she can be paid. Kinda makes her complaints about Offit being portrayed as "altruistic" rather hollow, doesn't it?

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