Friday, December 31, 2010


Ruse de Guerre

I had meant to blog about this before but now John Wilkins, with his usual perspicacity, has done so already.

Anyway, a mini war against Michael Ruse has broken out over his article, "From a Curriculum Standpoint, Is Science Religion?" Mark Perakh, Jerry Coyne and Ophelia Benson have all disparaged Ruse for his suggestion that, when a prominent scientist, such as David Barash, says "anyone who claims to espouse both science and religion is being intellectually dishonest or else lazy, and is necessarily short-changing one perspective or the other," then you have to:

... ask yourself. If "God exists" is a religious claim (and it surely is), why then is "God does not exist" not a religious claim? And if Creationism implies God exists and cannot therefore be taught [under the US Constitution], why then should science which implies God does not exist be taught?
Jason Rosenhouse weighed in with a much more nuanced response. After noting that Barash "went overboard," Jason says:

When I read someone like Ken Miller, for example, I fail to see how he is shortchanging either science or religion. When he talks about evolution he sounds much like Richard Dawkins. When he talks about his faith it is clear that he is not describing some watered-down version of the real thing. Personally I don't think his religious beliefs are very plausible, but surely that's a matter of opinion. Disagreements should not automatically lead to charges of dishonesty.
Jason goes on to state, quite correctly from a constitutional perspective:

It is obvious that the standard cannot be that it is unconstitutional to teach anything that conflicts with anyone's religious beliefs. That would render public education impossible, since anyone could then form a religion of one to object to any particular bit of the curriculum.
But there is a subtle though, perhaps, I admit, ultimately unimportant distinction to be made here. It is quite true that the mere fact that scientific results overwhelmingly argue against, for example, a 6,000 year old Earth, does not prevent, under the US Constitution, our teaching the results of science about the age of the Earth.

Some scientists are not content with that, however.

Jerry Coyne, for example, wants to dub "science" as a "worldview" that cannot be held (consistently) with theism*, much as Barash does. Larry Moran thinks that science can go beyond merely reporting the facts of the world, which may, or may not, imply things about god(s) but, instead, can directly address the question of the existence of god(s).

Ruse's question was, of course, addressed to the latter sort of scientists. To be clear, Ruse's position, if deemed an argument, instead of a conditional, is a sort of argument from consequences and, therefore, a logical fallacy. On the other hand, it is also true that a majority of scientists, as Jason (and, recently, Coyne, apparently) hold, would reject the notion that "science" does any such thing. It is not a logical fallacy to engage in an reductio ad absurdum to show that the positions of others are faulty.

So, Ruse, taken at his word, is not asking if science can be taught if it has implications for the existence of particular god(s), but, whether, the implications some scientists draw about the results of science makes the scientific enterprise a philosophy/theology that cannot be taught as science.

Fortunately, the legal analysis of what is constitutional in this regard is neither as simplistic as Ruse'.s question nor the philosophy of those who prompted the question. A few scientists regarding science as a "worldview" is not enough for American courts to rule it as such. Naturally, that is not, as Jason notes, any guarantee as to what the courts will do in the future and Ruse is right to hope that scientists will learn more about philosophy.


* In fairness, Coyne has recently exhibited a possible backing-away from that position.


Time Goes By


I miss you, hon.


Monday, December 27, 2010


Be Careful What You Wish For

Well, when I fractured my heel, I realized I was going to need a better way to shovel out my driveway, which is 50 feet long and runs between two walls going from 5 feet high to 2 feet high.

So I ponied up $300 for a much more powerful snow thrower than I had before.

Having gotten my new toy, I wanted a chance to test it.

I should have known better.

The blizzard in the New York area was overkill by Mother Nature.

That's not my driveway but, after 3 hours of work, it is depressingly familiar looking.

Sunday, December 26, 2010


On the Shoulders

Thony C., at The Renaissance Mathematicus, reminds us that scorn can be a two edged sword.

The Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland, James Ussher (1625 – 1656), is unjustifiably cited today by Biblical literalists as support for the notion that the Earth is some 6,000 years old. On the other hand, some supporters of science, sometimes called Gnu Atheists, have reveled in Ussher's Biblical chronology as an object lesson of the stupidity of religion.

As is frequently the case, the facts of history are not so clear cut ... and the Gnu Atheists, as proponents of reason and evidence, are more culpable, in my opinion, for engaging in cardboard history than their opponents.

Ussher, in his historical context, was, as Thony points out (as did Stephen Jay Gould before him), laboring honestly, and with no little intellectual rigor, in a field that attracted such now revered figures as Johannes Kepler, Robert Hooke, Jacob Bernoulli and "the most renowned British chronologist after Ussher, Sir Isaac Newton."

If we heap scorn on Ussher (instead of those who continue to cite him for his outdated ideas), how can we cite Kepler, Hooke, Bernoulli and Newton as the progenitors of science without equal scorn?

Ussher was deeply and seriously wrong, though, given the evidence of his age, not any more wrong than those we deem "giants" upon whose shoulders we now stand.

Saturday, December 25, 2010


Seasons Greetings!

Happy Holidays!

Good Solstice!

Happy Kwanzaa!

Super Saturnalia!

Merry Chanukah!

Have I forgotten anything?

Oh ... and to my sane Christian friends:

Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 24, 2010


"Creepy" Doesn't Capture It!

From Candace Chellew-Hodge at Religion Dispatches:

In a video by the outfit ["Repent Amarillo"] (who, by the way, "abhor violence") Santa's list of "heinous crimes against the Lord our God" are read out before the execution. Among them "idolatry" for replacing himself with Jesus Christ, and for being a "stumbling block to parents who lie to their children that you exist to bring them gifts."

Then, before the violence begins, Santa is told: "We would plead that the Lord have mercy on your soul, but you have no soul, as you exist only as a lie and nothing more."

Then, the video gets really chilling and creepy as parents are instructed to bring their children to the screen to witness Santa's final moments. Then the shooting starts as three people lock and load and empty their guns into Santa several times. Then, the "coup de grace" (pronounced "coo-dee-grace" on the video), as one goes in to take a final couple of close in shots to finish off the jolly fat man. The video shows just the barrel of the shotgun as two shots are fired pointblank into Santa's head.

With the gun powder still thick in the air, we're told that they're "doing this all in good fun ..."

Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010


Of God and Gallup

Repeat after me ... "Intelligent Design is all about science and has nothing to do with religion!"

We know that, of course, because the Discoveryless Institute tells us that ... ad nauseam.

Except when they don't.

Jay Richards, no stranger to liberating felines from bags, is over at the Ministry of Misinformation discussing the traditional Gallup poll questions about evolution:

Which of the following statements comes closest to your of the development of human beings?

1) Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process, 2) Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God had no part in this process, 3) God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.
After noting that option 3 is mostly, though not necessarily exclusively, for young-Earth creationists and 2 is mostly, though not necessarily exclusively, for atheists, Richards goes on to say:

Option 1 is essentially a view of God-guided or teleological evolution. Human beings evolved from other organisms over a long period of time, but God guided the process. Although Gallup describes this view as "theistic evolution," it is an intelligent design view (though, of course, an evolutionary one). It subtly contradicts the views articulated by theistic evolutionists/evolutionary creationists such as Karl Giberson, Denis Lamoureux, and perhaps Francis Collins. ...

Because the three questions fail to cover all the positions that people actually hold, I've always been hesitant to make very much of these polls. Even with its problems, however, it's still clear that the vast majority of Americans hold a theistic and intelligent design view when it comes to the origin of human beings.
The "subtle" contradiction between the views of Biologos and option 1 is, as far as I can tell, that many, if not most, of the people who opt for it probably aren't familiar enough with science to know that God is not a scientific explanation ... which is what the DI is hoping for. But it is clear that Richards is fully aware that Intelligent Design is a theistic view masquerading as science.

Maybe if he and the rest of the DI 'droids were more honest about it, they wouldn't garner such contempt.

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Monday, December 20, 2010


Merry Kitzmas!

Holiday by The Sensuous Curmudgeon.

Image by look up via The Dispersal of Darwin.

Sunday, December 19, 2010


Better Late

Another small step towards a rational and truly free society.

In twenty years, the vast majority of Americans will scratch their heads about why there was any controversy about it at all. Like a racially integrated military or the right of people to marry those of another race or the right and duty of women to serve in the armed services, it will seem like a holdover from times long past and it will come as a shock how long this prejudice persisted. Those who continue to oppose it will, in the future, be viewed as the same sort of fringe lunatics as the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis.

Contrary to what John McCain asserts, we are not doing "great damage" to our military, we are undoing great damage to the ideals of America. There may, indeed, be some "growing pains" involved. But imagine what America would be like if we shrank from the difficulties of increasing human freedom! If McCain was in the Continental Congress, what would be his counsel on the dangers of taking on the greatest empire in the world? How would he react to the Emancipation Proclamation? Or the sending of Federal troops to Little Rock to enforce integration?

It is worthwhile to review this wonderful editorial by Ted Olson, a conservatives' conservative, in the slightly different context of gay marriage:

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.
Unfortunately, McCain, once the hope for a rational conservatism, has been driven to the wrong side of this battle, the wrong side of the law, and the wrong side of history by partisan politics.

Thursday, December 16, 2010


Taking No Prisoners

A thought [re: Larry Laudan's criticism of the McLean decision and demarcation in general]:

If Laudan's view were indeed the norm in philosophy of science, then it is little wonder that some say philosophy is irrelevant to any matters of practical consequence. Is philosophy going to be so removed from the realities of the world that it has nothing of value to say even on topics that ostensibly are its core concerns? It would be a sad commentary on our profession if philosophers could not recognize the difference between real science and a sectarian religious view masquerading as science. When squinting philosophers like Laudan, Quinn and their imitators such as Monton and George purport that there is no way to distinguish between science and pseudoscience or religion they bring to mind Hume's observation that "Generally speaking, the errors in religion are dangerous; those in philosophy only ridiculous." Unfortunately, in giving succor, inadvertently or not, to creation-science and now to ID, such philosophers compound the error, making the ridiculous dangerous.

- Robert T. Pennock, "Can't philosophers tell the difference between science and religion?: Demarcation revisited," Synthese, Volume 178, Number 2 / January 2011

Wednesday, December 15, 2010


Cheap Thinks!

Woo hoo!

To incredibly nerdy people like me, who think that philosophy is fun, there's great news! Synthese, An International Journal for Epistemology, Methodology and Philosophy of Science has an entire volume dedicated to "Evolution and Its Rivals." And what a lineup it has:

"Introduction" by Glenn Branch

"Can’t philosophers tell the difference between science and religion?: Demarcation revisited" by Robert T. Pennock

"Are creationists rational?" by John S. Wilkins

"Foiling the Black Knight" by Kelly C. Smith

"Information theory, evolutionary computation, and Dembski’s 'complex specified information'” by Wesley Elsberry and Jeffrey Shallit

"Design and its discontents" by Bruce H. Weber

"The science question in intelligent design" Sahotra Sarkar

"Intelligent design in theological perspective" by Niall Shanks and Keith Green

"The non-epistemology of intelligent design: its implications for public policy" by Barbara Forrest

"Evolution and atheism: Has Griffin reconciled science and religion?" by James H. Fetzer

What's better is that there is free access ... but only until December 31, 2010!

Better get over there and get your free holiday reading!


Via Leiter Reports.

Sunday, December 12, 2010


Oh So Polite

The atheists have come to Kamloops, British Columbia. Typically for our northern neighbors, the whole thing is rather polite. The "strident" atheists are putting up signs on local buses saying:

There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.

Even the local religious right, in the person of Mel DeCook, can't muster very much in the way of high dudgeon:

If the school board can ban the use of the word "Christmas" from the Christmas holiday season because it may offend someone, I find it unconscionable that the City or Province would allow religious signs promoting atheism on the public transit system.

That business about "banning" Christmas apparently refers to the Kamloops-Thompson school trustees decision to politely refuse to rename the December "winter break" as the "Christmas break," on the grounds that:

"We're so multicultural. It's not Christmas to some people," vice chairwoman Diane Dosch said ...

DeCook continues:

I for one object to my taxpayer's money to allow them the use of our buses as a billboard and will never use transit if allowed.

Protesting by not using public transit "if allowed," when Canadian courts have already decided the issue, is so polite. Of course, the transit system is, undoubtedly, not using taxpayer's money to finance the ads. Rather, it is collecting money from the atheists.

If the transit authority allows this they will have to allow all forms of religion the same right.

Based on the story about the ads above, the Canadian Supreme Court would require the transit authority to politely do exactly that.

DeCook politely floats Pascal's Wager as his parting shot:

Either there is a God or there is not. At least believers in God have the conviction of their faith. Maybe they're just trying to cover all bets.

I really think God can figure this out.

So, there's not much reason to be anything but polite.


Unreasonable Doubt

Ryan E. Gatti is an attorney (to my shame), who lives in Bossier City, Louisiana. He attempts, in the Shreveport Times to construct an argument against evolutionary science while forgetting the first rule of lawyers ... you damn well better know your opponent's argument as well as you know your own. His failure to heed that rule leads him to make a transparently foolish (although not, unfortunately, judging by the comments, transparent to people as ignorant of science as himself) set of "questions," only the first of which I'll bother to address:

What evolved first, mammalian bone marrow or bones? Were hollowed-out femur bones simply sitting around and bone marrow crawled into them, or was bone marrow sitting on the ground making red blood cells and the femur formed around it? Is there some observable, testable, repeatable and falsifiable science we can all watch in the lab that will help us on this one?

First of all, Gatti appears to have fallen prey to the same silly notion of evolution that Ray Comfort has ... the idea that each species (or in Gatti's case, each class) has to evolve all their traits from scratch. The simple answer to Gatti's question is: mammals didn't have to evolve "bone marrow or bones," they inherited them in the first place from their reptilian synapsid ancestors, who inherited them from their ancestral amphibians, who inherited them from fish, etc. The interesting question, even if Gatti is too ignorant of science to know it, is "how did bones evolve?".

It doesn't take a science degree to explore that question ... only Google. There is a nice post at NeuroDojo, the blog of Zen Faulkes, Associate Professor in Biology at The University of Texas-Pan American, about that. It took me all of 30 seconds to find it.

Worse, as far as a lawyer goes, is his misconception about what counts as "evidence," particularly scientific evidence, and/or his failure to know what evidence the other side has. As Professor Faulkes points out, the evidence for the origin of bones comes from fossil and genetic studies, all of which are observable, testable, repeatable and even falsifiable (though few philosophers of science think Popper was right about that latter point). And that evidence is every bit as good as footprints, blood typing and DNA evidence, which we use to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, the guilt of a murderer, even if no one actually witnessed the crime. And before we get a recitation of all we don't know about the precise path of evolution, do we need to know all the exact actions of a perpetrator for the week before the murder or the exact path he or she took to the scene of the crime in order to convict?

There's only two reasons Gatti doesn't accept science: he doesn't understand what it is, and his doubt is not reasonable.

Friday, December 10, 2010



One W. Edward Murphy, writing in a section of the Alvin (Texas) Sun-Advertiser dubbed "Views From The Right," penned an article entitled "Whom Should I Believe, Jesus or Darwin?"

You know already it isn't going to be pretty, right?

Let's see:

Darwinian evolution = atheism = "Marxism, Naziism, Socialism, and every other evil 'ism'" ... check!

There are no transitional fossils ... particularly "reptile" to bird transitionals ... because a book from 1960 said so ... check!

All the fossils found "are perfectly formed, and not one shows any sign of being a transitional creature" because, after all, Darwin proposed that transitionals would be unfit organisms that nonetheless survived to reproduce ... check!

"Missing links" ... check!

Quote mine of Darwin about the vertebrate eye ... check!

But Mr. Murphy does surprise in a couple of places:

Michael Behe, microbiologist, abandoned Darwin's theory, and is now an advocate of Intelligent Design (paradoxically he doesn't believe in an Intelligent Designer-he's an Atheist!).
That may just be because Behe is one of those Cath-O-Licks ... a spawn of the Whore of Babylon ... and automatically not a True BelieverTM.

However, Mr. Murphy's insistence that the Texas School Board has decided "to teach only evolution s the basis of life" shows a deep inability to pay attention.

But this part is fun. Darwin, you see, was not "a true scientist" because "[h]is theory is unproven, and unable to be proved." Besides, Mr. Murphy has knockdown proof that evolution is wrong:

Every one of us have a father who can be traced back as far as the skill of a genealogist can determine. In other words we are historical beings - we are from history.

Jesus is unique; He has no human father. He is not from history like every other human being who has ever lived. He came into history, blowing Darwin's theory to bits - namely that all life came from a simple cell.
... since, after all, we are able to prove, and have proved, that Jesus had no human father.

Rather needlessly, Mr. Murphy ends with:

By the way, I believe Jesus!

Thursday, December 09, 2010


The State of Science Education in the US

This just about says it all:

The state board's decision has some southwest Louisiana parents across the state afraid that the textbooks will fail to explain the many scientific challenges to evolution.

"I think it goes along with this intelligent design that they want to teach and it's not scientifically backed up," said Amanda Trahan, a concerned parent from Grand Lake. "It has no proof and that scientific proof should be taught in the classroom."

The poor woman hasn't a clue what "intelligent design" is and, of course, even less about what science is.


Funny Discovery

PZ Myearshertz has a post about the quote mining by the Discovery [sic] Institute of a paper, "Impact of temperature on the time required for the establishment of primordial biochemistry, and for the evolution of enzymes" in PNAS. They are, of course, engaging in the time-honored creationist tradition of quoting a scientist setting up a problem and failing to quote the scientist's solution ... just as they quote Darwin about the seeming impossibility of the vertebrate eye evolving but leave out his explanation as to how it could.

To their faint credit, the DI at least hints at the scientists' solution:

Another way to speed up a reaction is to add energy, usually in the form of heat. The authors of this article propose that many of these biological reactions which are prohibitively slow are sped up if they are in a hot environment, such as boiling water. They justify their theory by showing how reaction rates of certain biologically essential reactions, such as OMP decarboxylation or DNA phosphodiester hydrolysis decreases significantly at 100oC compared to 25oC. Furthermore, the authors point out that the slowest uncatalyzed reactions are most sensitive to temperature.
But then comes the really dishonest (and unintentionally funny) part:

It is really speculation, which is interesting, but not compelling without additional explanation for how exactly these catalysts were formed, how the original biological reactions happened, and how the energy added through heat is harnessed and controlled in such a way as to protect the intermediates and products of the reactions from degradation or unhelpful side reactions.
This from the people whose entire argument amounts to "Look at this complex thing! I can't imagine how it could evolve, so it must have been designed because people design things"? Moreover, they resolutely refuse to even hypothesize how or when this "Designer" translated his/her/its design into living organisms, its motives for doing so or why its "designs" so often seem Rube Goldberg-ish.

For people who think fuzzy generalizations and hand-waving count as "science," they have a lot of chutzpah to demand such detail from others, about something we are unlikely ever to know for sure. At best, we will find a workable way that life could have arisen by natural means but probably will never be able to conclude that was the way it happened.

Perhaps even funnier is that they complain that "origin-of-life chemists are [addressing] each and every step in such a piecemeal fashion." But that's how science works! ... by painstakingly sorting through all the possibilities and testing whether they work or not. The DI's failure or refusal to do such work is why they have such a dismal record of publishing in the scientific literature and definitively demonstrates why ID is not science.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010


Hypothetical Gods

Steve Novella has a good discussion of "anomaly hunting," which bears, I think, on the question of whether science can ever be brought to bear on the existence of god(s):

[A]nomalies are the beginning of discovery and of the generation of new hypotheses. But by themselves they are not evidence for any particular conclusion.

When an anomaly is encountered in science the first step is to make sure it is an actual anomaly. The simplest answer is always that there is an error in measurement and observation, so that has to be ruled out first. When the measurements are all triple-checked and scientists can be as certain as possible that the anomaly is real, then all possible explanations need to be sought within our current scientific theories or paradigms. Only when an exhaustive attempt to explain the apparent anomaly within conventional theories fails, should scientists conclude that they have a genuine anomaly on their hands.

Then scientists can start to generate new hypotheses to explain the anomaly, usually requiring a revision to existing theories. Kuhn characterized this phase as "revolutionary science" in which one paradigm will shift to another in order to resolve the anomalies. He thought such shifts were large and rare. But later philosophers criticized this position as being a false dichotomy – revisions to theories in order to resolve anomalies are actually quite common and range the spectrum from minor tweaks to wholesale replacement with no sharp demarcation at any point.

Further, often revisions to theories involve not replacing old ideas but deepening them – adding layers of complexity that are compatible with the simpler theories but increase their precision and predictive power. Again – a perfect example is the progress from Newtonian mechanics to relativity. Newtonian mechanics still work in most situations, but at high velocities and gravities relativistic effects become important and measurable.

The role of anomalies, therefore, is entirely within the context of discovery and generating new hypotheses. Anomaly hunting refers to the misapplication of anomalies to the testing of hypotheses. The process involves generating a hypothesis then pointing to apparent anomalies as if their existence supports the specific hypothesis.

At best the mere presence of anomalies would indicate weaknesses in the current theory, but would not support any particular new hypothesis. That would require demonstrating that the new hypothesis resolves the anomalies. Even then this would only indicate that the new hypothesis is plausible and interesting – but it would need to make predictions that are later validated in order to be truly scientific.

So, even if you were somehow able to confirm that the supposedly "supernatural" phenomena was real and not hallucinations or some other error in measurement and observation, merely pointing to apparent anomalies under our present understanding does not support the specific hypothesis of god(s) as the cause. Even if the god(s) hypothesis resolves all the anomalies, it would only indicate that it is plausible and interesting. You would need to show the hypothesis' predictive power.

But the very nature of the god(s) hypothesis is such that reliably predicting their action is not possible. At best you would be piling anomalies on anomalies as new unexpected phenomena arose. Or, if you could reliably predict the actions of god(s), that would actually point to the phenomenon being something impersonal and law-like ... in other words, what we call "natural causes."

Sometimes you just can't get there from here.


Tuesday, December 07, 2010


Ooh! Tell Us About It!

The Advocate of Baton Rouge has a Letter to the Editor from Gene Mills, the president of the Louisiana Family Forum that has a fascinating admission.

Most of the letter is an argumentum ad hominem against Barbara Forrest, who insists on making clear the LFF's machinations to subvert science education in Louisiana. As such, it hardly needs comment.

This is the interesting part:

Barbara Forrest, it seems, has made it her life mission to put the religious belief of all Louisianians on trial. Her conclusion: LFF advocates the teaching of religious creationism in the science classroom alongside evolution.

But that's an impermissible objective under the LFF-authored Louisiana Science Education Act, as it discourages any action "to promote any religious doctrine, promote discrimination for or against a particular set of religious beliefs, or promote discrimination for or against religion or non-religion."

But back in 2009, a committee of the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education was preparing policy language to be included in the state school administrators' handbook for determining what supplemental teaching materials can be used under the new law:

Proposed for discussion at the December meeting were requirements that any information in the supplemental material be "supported by empirical evidence." The proposed language also said religious beliefs "shall not be advanced under the guise of encouraging critical thinking" and that materials "that teach creationism or intelligent design or that advance the religious belief that a supernatural being created humankind shall be prohibited in science classes."

At that time, Mills objected:

"I would just summarize it this way," [Gene Mills of the Louisiana Family Forum] said. "I would think that it left religious neutrality and took a tone of religious hostility. Or at least it could be interpreted by some to have done that."

It could only be interpreted that way if certain religious organizations (such as the LFF) intended to advance religious beliefs under the guise of encouraging critical thinking using materials unsupported by empirical evidence that teach creationism or intelligent design or that advance the religious belief that a supernatural being created humankind.

But that's still not the interesting part of Mills' letter. What is interesting, and potentially useful in any lawsuit that arises out of the Louisiana law, is Mills' admission that the law was authored by the LFF. There can't be a much more excessive government entanglement with religion than having a religious organization authoring the laws of the state. Nor is a claim that the law has a legitimate secular legislative purpose helped by the fact that it is doing the will of a sectarian organization.

I know I'm keeping a copy.


Update: The committee of the BESE voted 6-1 to adopt the textbooks unaltered and without a disclaimer. While the full 11 member board has yet to vote, the 6 aye votes are already a majority and, without a change by one or more of the committee members, the board should approve the books.


Update II: The full board has adopted the textbooks.

Sunday, December 05, 2010


The Scientia of Science

Massimo Pigliucci has a good post on the nature of science, "Why plumbing ain't science," the title of which, Pigliucci explains, "is a reference to Jerry Coyne's occasional remark that there is no substantial difference between plumbing and science because plumbers test hypotheses based on empirical evidence." The gist, I think, of Pigliucci's argument is:

What separates science from other human activities is, I suggest, its extremely more refined methods, its sociological structure, and its historical context. ...

Graduate students learn the art (yes, I'm using the term on purpose ...) of setting up controlled experiments, analyzing massive amounts of data using sophisticated statistical techniques, and writing cogent papers to present their results to the world. None of this is done by plumbers, and for good reasons.

[S]cience is a particular type of social activity, certainly as conceived and practiced today. It has a complex — and necessary — structure of peer review, edited journals, funding agencies, academic positions, laboratories, and so on. Of course science has not always been practiced this way (see my next point about history), but a good argument can be made that it has evolved into a mature discipline precisely when these sort of social structures came to be implemented. ...

The history of science is a fascinating illustration of how a practice that initially truly was barely distinguishable from plumbing eventually became a major branch of philosophy (natural philosophy), and then flourished spectacularly as an independent type of inquiry beginning in the 16th and 17th centuries (Galileo and Newton), culminating in the 19th and 20th centuries (modern physics, biology after Darwin) and beyond. ...

As Pigliucci notes, "there are no sharp demarcation lines dividing science from pseudoscience and non-science — but hopefully we'll agree that no sharp demarcation does not mean that there are no significant differences."

[T]here is of course a sense in which science and philosophy, and indeed math and logic, are connected. ... William Whewell ... coined the term scientist. He got it from the Latin word scientia, which means knowledge in the broadest sense. ... I think it is reasonable to see the totality of third-person knowledge (as opposed to first-person, phenomenological knowledge) along a rough continuum from completely or almost completely abstract (logic and math ...) at one end, to necessarily coupled to empirical evidence (science), passing via an intermediate field where empirical evidence is relevant but most of the work is done via analysis and logic (philosophy).

This is the sense in which I think scientia, but not science sensu stricto, can reject the supernatural (Coyne's and Dawkins' project), or arrive at non arbitrary moral judgments (Harris' project). ... [I]t is in this sense — the continuity and yet individuality of these disciplines within the broader category of scientia — that I argue that plumbing ain't science, as honorable and necessary as that trade is to our everyday lives.

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Linking to Those Missing the Point

While awaiting my copy of Brian Switek's book, Written in Stone: Evolution, the Fossil Record, and Our Place in Nature (and figuring out how I can get the author to autograph it), there are some things to wile away the time. Besides his blogs at Wired and Smithsonian, there is this nice review of his book by Jennifer Ouellette and, especially, his guest post at Scientific American:

I hate the phrase "missing link". It immediately sends up a red flag in my mind, and is almost always a sure indicator that the person employing it has only a very superficial understanding of the way evolution works. To understand why this is, however, we have to inspect the intellectual baggage that the phrase carries with it.

Long before the explosion of evolutionary ideas during the mid-19th century, scholars of various stripes arranged all of nature according to an intricately graded scale called the Great Chain of Being. (Arthur Lovejoy's book by the same name remains one of the most comprehensive studies of this concept through history.) Rooted in the ruminations of Plato and Aristotle, but most famously adopted by Medieval theologians and Renaissance thinkers, this concept ranked the natural world into a static hierarchy which elucidated the character of the Almighty. ...

This is the scientific context in which the phrase "missing link" became popular, especially in reference to human evolution. ...

Be it straight-up young-Earth creationism or its insidious sibling intelligent design, fundamentalism-fueled views of science and nature abound. ... When the fossils and stratigraphy are laid out so plainly, how can any reasonable person deny that evolution is a reality? Yet, by preferring this antiquated mode of imagery, we may have hamstrung ourselves. Given all that we have gleaned about evolution from the fossil record—especially the major pattern of contingent radiations cut back by extinction before bursting into numerous splendid forms all over again—why not bring this wonderful "tangled bank" imagery to the public?

The real "missing link" is our inability to convey the real science of evolution to the public at large.

Saturday, December 04, 2010


Pulp Fiction

The inestimable John Lynch has a review at Whewell's Ghost of the book, The Darwin Myth: The Life and Lies of Charles Darwin, by the all too estimable (all beginning with "hack") Benjamin Wiker:

Wiker begins by telling us “[i]t is high time we understood who Darwin really was, and what he really did” (ix). To Wicker, Darwin was a serial liar and cheat whose “triumph has been to set ideological atheism as the default position of science” (xi). Darwin apparently lied about the motives for his investigations, the evidence for his theory, and the originality of his ideas. He was engaged in a long-term plot to remove God from Victorian science and culture and lied about his own religious belief. ...

Chapter 4 is titled "Hatching the Evolutionary Plot" and offers no substantive discussion of Darwin's work between 1835 and 1859. There is neither mention of why he rose to prominence in scientific circles, nor of his various geological and biological studies (particularly his award-winning and meticulous work on barnacles). One can only wonder whether these omissions are necessary to solidify Wicker's depiction of Darwin as a slacker with little scientific talent but an overarching plan to remove God from sight.
If you want to read fiction dressed out as history, the least you should demand is that it be entertaining. Therefore, instead of wasting your time reading low-class trash by Wiker, you should waste it reading high-class trash, as in:

The TRUTH: Being a TRUE and IMPARTIAL account of the history of that damnable religion, the great EVIL of DARWINISM, also called EVOLUTIONISM and its attempts to bring the downfall of all moral and TRUE CHRISTIANTM virtue. Based on accounts of the events which form this evil history written by the best historians of the evil devices of DARWINISM and EVOLUTIONISM, and based on the best scientific principle of SUBJECTIVITY, and rejecting utterly the ATHEIST doctrine of OBJECTIVITY which clouds the mind of mankind and leads to the rejection of TRUE CHRISTIANITYTM. Written by a TRUE BELIEVER [and unearthed by the inestimable Richard Forrest].
You'll get every bit as accurate a picture of Charles Darwin from either but you'll have a lot more fun reading the latter.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010


What, Me Think?

Sometimes people answer their own questions:

I am a conservative, therefore I am... heartless and stupid?

That's what Layne Hansen wants to know in "I'm not ashamed to be a Conservative" in the Idaho State University Bengal.

I won't opine on the question of Hansen's heart or lack thereof but this neatly answers the other question:

The idea that conservatives are evil comes from liberals' flawed logic that if you don't support social welfare programs or recycle, you're evil. This logic holds true when it comes to evolution, religion and climate change. We're told that denying these things is as obtuse as denying the holocaust or the roundness of the Earth or some such nonsense. ...

For some reason, if you believe in God you're an idiot, but let me point out that it's called Darwin's theory of evolution for a reason. Darwin's theories have never been proven with the scientific method. Every claim otherwise has been proven to be a hoax. But these people can no more disprove God than we can prove Him. You can't prove a negative, and that's precisely what they are trying to do.

Of course, belief in God is not the same thing as idiocy. But babbling on about the "theory" of evolution, as if it is somehow less supported than the "theory of gravity," is an excellent marker for a lack of intelligence ... if, for no other reason, Hansen's willingness to make a fool of himself in public by displaying a woeful misunderstanding of the difference between the meaning of "theory" in science, as opposed to what it may mean to a blowhard in the corner bar. The bit about evolution being a "hoax" displays nothing but extreme gullibility and an unwillingness to actually investigate one's own beliefs.

No, science has never "proved" evolution or, for that matter, anything else. But if you think evolution isn't as well established -- in fact, more so -- than gravity, then maybe you are too stupid to be allowed near any cliff edge. Nor is the intent of the science of evolution to disprove God (though many people think it does) but, rather, to explain the way the world works -- which it does so well.

But the truly sad thing is that Hansen seems to think that the facts of the world somehow depend on one's political philosophy. I can easily imagine a world that does not comport with the way I'd like it to be.

Hansen's inability to do so is the definitive answer to his own question.

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