Wednesday, May 31, 2006


Gone Fishing

You may remember the attempts by the present Administration to muzzle NASA scientists by preventing any untoward comments on global warming and requiring the Big Bang to be referred to only as "a theory."
Well, it seems salmon have joined the list of politically sensitive topics that the Administration would prefer that government scientists not be in a position to make comments about that might prove embarrassing because they are true.
According to an article, "Questions About Salmon Are Directed Upstream" by Blaine Harden in the Washington Post, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is responsible for protecting endangered salmon, has instructed its scientists to route all media questions about salmon back to three political appointees, who are now the only agency personnel authorized to speak of salmon.

At NOAA headquarters in Washington, spokesman Jeff Donald said the order came down because "some folks were trying to consolidate a little bit and make sure everything we were putting out was accurate and as up to date as possible."

Yeah, the last people you'd want to go to for the most up-to-date and accurate information are the scientists involved. Everybody knows politicians are the best source for that!


Lawyer in Kitzmiller Case Dies

Joseph M. Farber, 34, an attorney with the law firm Pepper Hamilton in Philadelphia and a member of the team of lawyers that won the court decision in Kitzmiller v. Dover School District barring the teaching of intelligent design, died of a brain tumor on May 22.

[Eric] Rothschild said Mr. Farber uncovered key evidence at a deposition that a Dover school board member collected money from his church congregation to buy 60 copies of the intelligent design textbook Of Pandas and People, for use in the school district.

Mr. Farber is survived by his wife Carol; sons Nathaniel and Samuel; parents David and Gloria Farber; and a brother.

A memorial service will be held at 3:30 Sunday at Haverford Friends Meeting, 855 Buck Lane, Haverford.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006


Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Timothy Birdnow, who famously said that scientists are "trying to blind us with science" and who is the poster child for "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing but not nearly as dangerous as no knowledge at all," is at it yet again. Once more braving the Middle Finger Minions, Mr. Birdnow claims he had "been planning to write a lengthy piece (for publication) on the connection between Darwinism, Eugenics, and Nazism." However, we are to be spared what, based on past performance, doubtless would have been a mind-numbingly inane exercise, because Mr. Birdnow has, a little over two years after it was originally published, suddenly discovered the book, Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany. Authored by Richard Weikart, a fellow at the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture, it is an exercise in fallacies such as argument from consequences and guilt by association, rhetorical tricks such as wielding a broad brush and dishonesty by quote mine.

Speaking of all of the above, Birdnow gives us this bit:

For those of you who are unaware, Darwin turned against Christianity after the death of his non-believing father and brother, calling it "a damnable doctrine" because Christian dogma consigned them to hell. He then went on to create a purely mechanistic theory of evolution which could be used as a weapon against the Church. His cousin Francis Galton was one of the founders of the Eugenics movement, a movement which sought to apply Darwinian Evolutionary principles to improve the human breeding stock. Eugenics was the core principle of Nazismsm, and Christian Fundamentalism was born in part as a response to the rise of Eugenics.

For those of you who are unaware, Mr. Birdnow is a real estate manager with a desperate need to pontificate on matters he is utterly ignorant about. The above is an excellent example. Darwin did lose his Christian faith and he did use the phrase "damnable doctrine." But what was the context? In describing the, well, evolution of his beliefs, Darwin wrote the following:

Whilst on board the Beagle I was quite orthodox, and I remember being heartily laughed at by several of the officers (although themselves orthodox) for quoting the Bible as an unanswerable authority on some point of morality. I suppose it was the novelty of the argument that amused them. But I had gradually come by this time, i.e. 1836 to 1839, to see that the Old Testament from its manifestly false history of the world, with the Tower of Babel, the rainbow at sign, &c., &c., and from its attributing to God the feelings of a revengeful tyrant, was no more to be trusted than the sacred books of the Hindoos, or the beliefs of any barbarian. The question then continually rose, before my mind and would not be banished, -- is it credible that if God were now to make a revelation to the Hindoos, he would permit it to be connected with the belief in Vishnu, Siva, &c., as Christianity is connected with the Old Testament? This appeared to me utterly incredible.

By further reflecting that the clearest evidence would be requisite to make any sane man believe in the miracles by which Christianity is supported, -- and that the more we know of the fixed laws of nature the more incredible do miracles become, -- that the men at that time were ignorant and credulous to a degree almost uncomprehensible by us, -- that the Gospels cannot be proved to have been written simultaneously with the events, -- that they differ in many important details, far too important, as it seemed to me, to be admitted as the usual inaccuracies of eyewitnesses; -- by such reflections as these, which I give not as having the least novelty or value, but as they influenced me, I gradually came to disbelieve in Christianity as a divine revelation. The fact that many false religions have spread over large portions of the earth like wild-fire had some weight with me. Beautiful as is the morality of the New Testament, it can be hardly denied that its perfection depends in part on the interpretation which we now put on metaphors and allegories.

But I was very unwilling to give up my belief; I feel sure of this, for I can well remember often and often inventing day-dreams of old letters between distinguished Romans, and manuscripts being discovered at Pompeii or elsewhere, which confirmed in the most striking manner all that was written in the Gospels. But I found it more and more difficult, with free scope given to my imagination, to invent evidence which would suffice to convince me. Thus disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but was at last complete. The rate was so slow that I felt no distress, and have never since doubted even for a single second that my conclusion was correct. I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother and almost all of my friends, will be everlastingly punished.

And this is a damnable doctrine.

First of all, Darwin obviously was not calling Christianity a damnable doctrine but only the idea that mere unbelief results in condemnation to hell. And, instead of an implacable enemy of Christianity, his words reveal someone who struggled to maintain his faith in the face of doubt raised by the obvious non-historicity of the Bible.

Amusingly, Darwin's wife, who always was a pious Christian and never lost her faith, asked that the above passage, from "and have never since doubted" up to "damnable doctrine," be omitted from his posthumously published autobiography and the reason she gave was:

I should dislike the passage in brackets to be published. It seems to me raw. Nothing can be said too severe upon the doctrine of everlasting punishment for disbelief -- but very few now wd. call that 'Christianity,' (tho' the words are there.) There is the question of verbal inspiration comes in too. E.D.

In other words, Emma thought that Charles was taking the Bible too literally.

Beyond that, Birdnow is clearly ignorant of the history of Darwin and his theory. Charles' father, Robert Darwin, died in 1848 and his brother, Erasmus Alvey Darwin (named after their famous grandfather), did not die until 1881. Furthermore, it is generally believed by Darwin scholars that the deathblow to his faith was the lingering, painful death of his beloved daughter, Annie, in 1851.

Darwin's theory of natural selection was first formulated in 1838, back when Charles was struggling with his faith but well before he lost it. He had fleshed out his theory in a "sketch" by 1842 and, in 1844, had penned an "essay" to preserve his theory, with instructions to Emma to have it published after his death, should he die before he finished his researches and felt ready to publish it in full.

So Darwin did not "create a purely mechanistic theory of evolution which could be used as a weapon against the Church" after the death of his father and brother. That is clearly demonstrated by the fact that his father was living when Darwin first devised his theory and Darwin's brother lived for two decades after the publication of the Origin of Species. Birdnow's kind of cardboard history is the product of rank ignorance that demeans the perpetrator more than it does the intended victim.

Even worse, though, is the incredible statement that "His cousin Francis Galton was one of the founders of the Eugenics movement, a movement which sought to apply Darwinian Evolutionary principles to improve the human breeding stock." That Galton was Darwin's cousin is the only connection Birdnow can make between Darwin and eugenics and he seems blissfully unaware that guilt by association is a blatant logical fallacy. Worse, the disproof of the contention is right under his nose, but Mr. Birdnow is too clueless to see it. Eugenics was, indeed, an attempt "to improve the human breeding stock." Perhaps Mr. Birdnow is also ignorant of the fact that animal husbandry was around for some little time before Darwin was born. Eugenics owes it aspirations not to Darwin's implacable forces of nature forming new species but to the idea that existing species of plants and animals could be "intelligently designed" for human purposes by modification through breeding by human beings. The attempt to apply breeding techniques to humans goes back at least as far as Sparta in ancient Greece. Trying to lay that at Darwin's door is nothing but dissembling.

There is more of this at Birdnow's blog, all of the same value. Here is one last one to close with. Birdnow quotes from a review of Weikart's book by Anne Barbeau Gardiner:

Friedrich Hellwald and Alexander Tille saw evolution as doing away with inherent human rights. Once Darwin made the "biological inequality" of humans a matter of science, some individuals began to be labeled as "less valuable" than others.

Lord knows where these people (if Gardiner, Weikert and/or Birdnow are reporting correctly) got the notion that "Darwin made the 'biological inequality' of humans a matter of science" but, if we are to accept arguments from consequences, what do we do then with the history of Christianity and the sanctioning of slavery and the support for anti-Semitism and the waging of the Crusades and the burning of witches and all the other things people have used Christianity as an excuse for? I'd blame the people who claimed they were Christians while not acting like it and I'm pretty sure Darwin would have too.
Too bad people like Birdnow and Weikert don't have the moral or intellectual integrity to return the favor.


Monday, May 29, 2006


Pass in Review

My wife and I, among the half dozen or so people left in America who have not read the book, went to see "The Da Vinci Code" last night. I think I can sum up the movie as follows:

It didn't suck.

A brief mention of the actors: Tom Hanks seemed preternaturally calm for an academic who is suddenly accused of multiple homicides, chased by sinister characters as well as by the police and shot at by all and sundry. Perhaps he saw his character as heavily sedated, which would also explain why he was so avuncular with the beautiful young lady by his side who, for no discernible reason, insisted on saving his life multiple times. As for Audrey Tautou, she admirably fulfilled the part of the beautiful young lady by Tom Hanks side. That's not quite fair; she certainly brought more fire to the movie than Mr. Hanks but, unfortunately, she only seemed able to express it by pouting. Needless to say then, Sir Ian McKellen neatly tucked the movie under his coat and, with a sly smile, stole away with it. It is only partially the fault of the plot that the movie crashed to a halt when Sir Ian's character left for good.

And about that plot . . . The late great Alfred Hitchcock, who knew a thing or two about creating suspense on the screen, used to speak of "the McGuffin." This was the plot device that set up the human interaction that truly drove the suspense. What the McGuffin consisted of was ultimately unimportant, as long as the audience could believe that the characters cared enough about it to make them do what they do in the movie. As a McGuffin, the Holy Grail should work, as Indiana Jones recently demonstrated in a slightly different genre. That the Grail is (and I hope this isn't revealing too much) a living person, should enhance its uses in the plot, if anything.

The problem, it seems to me, is that the McGuffin ate the movie. Even someone who hadn't read the book could hardly escape the hoopla about the plot. The anticipation became less concerned with the characters and their reaction to the McGuffin but the McGuffin itself; how was it going to be set up and how scandalous (in all the meanings of the word) was it going to be? Also, while Hitchcock proved repeatedly that surprise is not the same as suspense, it certainly didn't help the movie any that the two major plot twists were telegraphed well in advance.

Another indication of how the McGuffin warped the movie is that, after all the action had been decided and all the suspense had drained out of the evening, the movie insisted on limping along, for what seemed as long as the secret had been kept by the Priory of Sion, in order to tie up loose ends that were already obvious.

A great director on his game might have been able to overcome all that but, Ron Howard, as good as he has been on occasion, was not that director or didn't have that game this time.

Sunday, May 28, 2006


Royal Pretender

Lord Rees, Astronomer Royal and head of the Royal Society, Britain's famous scientific institution, has been reported as taking the following stance:

In an apparent swipe at colleagues such as Richard Dawkins and Lewis Wolpert who have launched blistering attacks on religion, Lord Rees said he felt it was "not helpful" to cast religion as anti-science. "Among scientists there are adherents to a variety of religions. Creationism is not compatible with science, but many people hold to religious views and religious attitudes which are fully compatible ... There should be, at the very least, peaceful coexistence between science and most organised religion." Lord Rees describes himself as a "practising, but non-believing Christian". Church-going "was a custom of my tribe and I stick with it".

I don't know. I think I would rather have an open opponent of my beliefs than one who "coexists" with them by keeping to the form only, while disbelieving in them.

Saturday, May 27, 2006


Commence the Healing

I recently blogged on the article by Robert Bazell, Chief science and health correspondent for NBC News, where he related that the thought came to him, while attending his son’s medical school commencement, that "[s]cientists should stop whining about threats to the teaching of evolution and spend more time discussing values." It was my opinion that one did not seem to preclude the other.

It has become fairly obvious that Mr. Bazell's son was not graduating from Johns Hopkins. Well, that, or Mr. Bazell slept through one of the best examples I've seen of an often execrable literary form: the commencement speech. Michael Bloomberg, billionaire Wall Street Mogul turned Republican Mayor of New York City delivered a pointed and poignant speech that shows how science and ethics, while not mutually dependent, are hardly unrelated. A transcript of the speech can be found here.

As has already been reported widely, Mayor Bloomberg excoriated the "War Against Science" in no uncertain terms:

Today, we are seeing hundreds of years of scientific discovery being challenged by people who simply disregard facts that don't happen to agree with their agendas. Some call it "pseudo-science," others call it "faith-based science," but when you notice where this negligence tends to take place, you might as well call it "political science."

You can see "political science" at work when it comes to global warming. ...You can see "political science" at work with respect to stem cell research. ... "Political science" knows no limits. Was there anything more inappropriate than watching political science try to override medical science in the Terry Schiavo case?

And it boggles the mind that nearly two centuries after Darwin, and 80 years after John Scopes was put on trial, this country is still debating the validity of evolution. In Kansas, Mississippi, and elsewhere, school districts are now proposing to teach "intelligent design" -- which is really just creationism by another name -- in science classes alongside evolution. Think about it! This not only devalues science, it cheapens theology. As well as condemning these students to an inferior education, it ultimately hurts their professional opportunities.

Hopkins' motto is Veritas vos liberabit - "the truth shall set you free" - not that "you shall be free to set the truth!" I've always wondered which science those legislators who create their own truths pick when their families need life-saving medical treatment.

The Discovery Institute has predictably complained that the Mayor is mistaken about Kansas or Mississippi or any other jurisdiction proposing to teach intelligent design. Instead, according to the Discovery Institute, these jurisdictions merely seek to "teach the scientific evidence for and against Darwin's theory of evolution." Of course, that is what ID has been all along: feeble attempts to show that some way, somehow, somewhere, something is wrong with the science of evolution. Whatever pretense ID may have once had for a real scientific program collapsed long ago to the point that the Discovery Institute admits that they have nothing suitable to be taught in high schools.

As I've noted before, their best claims to "positive" evidence for design, such as Stephen Meyer’s article "Not by chance," are nothing but negative arguments wreathed in smoke and mirrors. All the ID advocates have to offer are misrepresentations of the science and philosophical objections cloaked in a patina of scientific-sounding rhetoric. This program of misdirection is the totality of ID. Bloomberg is not mistaken about what is intended to be taught, he merely refuses to be taken in by dissembling.

But back to the Mayor's message. He noted that "[i]t may sound obvious that the goal of every doctor and scientist is to use knowledge to improve the lives of others, but this cannot be taken for granted anymore" because some recent federal and state policies in medical and scientific areas were not about helping the patient. To drive home what he sees as the proper role of doctors and science, he told the following story:

Last November, a young New York City police officer was gunned down during a traffic stop on the streets of Brooklyn. He was rushed to Kings County Hospital, where doctors heroically tried to save him. But despite their best efforts, the officer's massive heart wounds were too severe and he died on the operating table.

Moments later, Dr. Robert Kurtz -- the hospital's Co-Director of Trauma Surgery, who also worked at Johns Hopkins Hospital during the late 1960s -- joined me and our Police Commissioner to address the press. The doctor was exhausted, still in his scrubs, which were covered in blood.

First, he talked about his patient. He calmly and professionally explained how his team had tried to save the officer... how they had reopened the young man's chest after the first surgery had failed ... how he had held the officer's heart in his hands. All to no avail.

This man's devotion to his patient was palpable, and powerful. And so was his commitment to the truth. At that moment, having seen too many gunshot victims in his ER over the years, he felt compelled to speak out forcefully and publicly, to tell the assembled politicians and press the truth about the problem of guns on our streets.

There's no question this single act did a great deal to spark a renewed commitment in our fight against illegal guns, a scourge that has created a true public health crisis in our city, and all cities. Dr. Kurtz could have left the advocacy to others. He could have said that wasn't his job. But leadership is part of his job, and part of the job of all doctors.

Telling the truth, even when it contradicts the cherished beliefs of others or even (perhaps especially) our own, is a moral value too.

Friday, May 26, 2006


Answering the Call of God

Liz Langley, Pop Culture columnist for the Orlando (Florida) Sentinel, has the Funny Bit of the Day Award (so far). Talking about Pat Robertson's latest attack of foot-in-mouth, she starts off:

My mother always said that God watches over the simpletons of the world. She never said who looked out for those of us who had to put up with said simpletons. Presumably some minor deity who only works part time and takes a lot of smoke breaks.

Conceding that "Pat Robertson is no simpleton" (everyone is entitled to be wrong some of the time) she nonetheless goes on to point out:

Robertson said that God told him some terrible storms would hit the U.S. coast this year. The Associated Press quotes Robertson as saying, "If I heard the Lord right about 2006, the coasts of America will be lashed by storms," and "there well may be something as bad as a tsunami in the Pacific Northwest."

Now, it's not the weather forecast that makes this a special episode of It's Pat! It's the qualifier: "if." If he heard the Lord right? What happened, lousy cell reception? This is a pretty important interview not to screw up, or so you would think. If a god, any god, condescended to talk to you, you should probably pay attention, perhaps even grab a pencil, especially if you're a fan.

As she sums up Robertson nicely:

It's never a question of if the guy is going to pop out of the clock and yell "Cuckoo!" it's just a question of when.

Can you hear me now?

Thursday, May 25, 2006


Appealing Omens

The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals has vacated the decision of Judge Clarence Cooper in the Cobb County, Georgia "textbook sticker" case, Selman v. Cobb County School District, and sent the case back to Judge Cooper for further proceedings. The facts of the case can be found in the lower court decision here.

The rather lengthy decision from the Court of Appeals, authored by Circuit Judge Edward Earl Carnes, can be found here.
At the outset, there is this disclaimer by Judge Carnes:

In vacating the district court’s judgment and remanding the case for additional proceedings, we want to make it clear that we do not intend to make any implicit rulings on any of the legal issues that arise from the facts once they are found on remand. We intend no holding on any of the legal premises that may have shaped the district court’s conclusions on the three Lemon prongs. [p. 42]
The purported reason for this remand is that the Record on Appeal, for whatever reason, is apparently missing items that the Circuit Court finds to be crucial for its decision. The Circuit Court has not restricted Judge Cooper's response to the remand and he can either try to recreate the original record or he can hold a whole new trial. The Circuit Court has suggested that Judge Cooper issue an entirely new set of findings of fact and conclusions of law, however.

For those who enjoy poking through chicken entrails, the Circuit Court presented Judge Cooper with a list of suggested factual issues to address, starting at page 35 and running to page 42 of the decision.

A bit of background is in order, however. Judge Cooper found that the policy of the school board had a sufficient "secular purpose" under the "Lemon test" but that it failed the second prong in that "the Sticker communicates to those who endorse evolution that they are political outsiders, while the Sticker communicates to the Christian fundamentalists and creationists who pushed for a disclaimer that they are political insiders." Judge Cooper also found a violation of the third prong but, as least as the Circuit Court sees it, he based that on the same facts as for his finding of a violation of the second prong, meaning they stand or fall together. Applying Justice O'Connor's "Endorsement Test," Judge Cooper held that, based on "the historical opposition to evolution by Christian fundamentalists and creationists in Cobb County and throughout the Nation, the informed, reasonable observer would infer the School Board’s problem with evolution to be that evolution does not acknowledge a creator" and that such an observer "would interpret the Sticker to convey a message of endorsement of religion."

The Circuit Court expressed it concerns as follows:
[T]he [lower] court’s decision that the sticker violated the Establishment Clause turned on its conclusion that the adoption and use of the sticker had the effect of advancing and endorsing religion. That conclusion was heavily influenced by the court’s findings about the sequence of events that led to the adoption of the sticker. [pp.19-20]
The factual areas that the Circuit Court wants clarified are those that support a finding of an endorsement of religion. The Courts of Appeal usually accord great weight to the facts found in the lower courts. That this panel wants such detail in the record suggests to me that there will have to be a very clear showing that the sticker in fact conveys an endorsement and that they may want to tie it to the particular facts in Cobb County, rather than basing it on general principles. In other words, that "informed, reasonable observer" is going to have to be a person living in Cobb County, who knows the actual facts, not merely what is reported in the news media or what might be inferred, and those facts will have to be relevant only to the actions of the board and proved by competent evidence in court. That could be a quite difficult case to make. On the other hand, Judge Cooper has plenty of reason to make his original decision (you should pardon the expression) stick.

My record of success in reading the tea leaves left over in appellate cups is poor enough that even I wouldn't put much store in my guesses. Maybe after the new findings of fact (assuming Judge Cooper rules the same way) we will be able to get a better handle on things. Until then, it isn't much use trying to work out all the "what ifs."
The Discovery Institute's rather pathetic celebration over this decision is out already. Any good news in a storm, I suppose . . .
The NCSE has also reacted to the decision here.


Diagnosing ID

The New England Journal of Medicine has an article, "Intelligent Judging -- Evolution in the Classroom and the Courtroom" by George J. Annas, that gives a (very) thumbnail history of anti-evolution legislation in America. Annas breaks that history down into three "waves:"
As part of his explanation of the Third Wave, he gives a summary of the decision in the case of Kitzmiller v. Dover School District that, in a way, buys into the Discovery Institute's claim that Judge John E. Jones III went beyond what was needed in order to decide the case, supposedly making him, in the DI's blatant political appeal, an "activist judge," despite the fact that such a spin goes against the meaning of the term the right has always given before [See Judge Jones' own take on the "activist" label here]. Annas describes Barbara Forrest's evidence showing how the book Of Pandas and People morphed from a "creation science textbook" into an ID "textbook" by a simple expedient:

. . . cognates of the word creation (creationism and creationist) which appeared approximately 150 times were deliberately and systematically replaced with the phrase ID . . .

Coupled with the fact that this change was made shortly after Edwards v. Aguillard outlawed the teaching of creation science in public schools, "[t]he judge concluded that 'this compelling evidence strongly supports plaintiff's assertion that ID is creationism re-labeled'."

But Annas goes on to say: "The judge could have stopped there but decided instead to answer the question of whether intelligent design is science . . . " While it is perhaps strictly correct that Judge Jones "could have stopped there," as I've pointed out before, it is a rare case indeed that a judge, enjoying multiple grounds in support of his or her decision, relies on only one. The simple fact is that the policy in Dover and ID in general fail the test of the Establishment clause in spectacular fashion and it is fully the duty of a judge to set that case out in its entirety. Annas' formulation elides that duty and unfortunately plays, at least potentially, into the Discovery Institute's game of "kill the messenger."

Another quibble is that Annas is not, perhaps, as familiar with the state of ID as he could be. As far as the future is concerned, he says:

. . . there will undoubtedly be a fourth wave that will feature yet another strategy to promote creationism by questioning evolution. It looks as if this next wave will jettison the creationist and intelligent-design baggage and concentrate exclusively on a "teach the controversy" strategy. That this controversy is one largely manufactured by the proponents of creationism and intelligent design may not matter, and as long as the controversy is taught in classes on current affairs, politics, or religion, and not in science classes, neither scientists nor citizens should be concerned.

He is, of course, rather behind the times here, as the Discovery Institute has pushed the "teach the controversy" ploy, aimed most definitely at science classes, for some time now. It was, in fact, the basis of their position in Ohio and, depending on which side of their collective mouth they are speaking out of at any particular time, teaching that there is something, somehow, somewhere wrong with the science of evolution is all the Discovery Institute aspires to. Of course, given that Annas labels ID as creationism and the article appears in a prominent publication, we can expect some foaming to shortly come from the direction of Seattle, if it hasn't already in the time it has taken me to type this up.

Still, this article will be a useful quick reference for those doctors who Robert Bazell thinks are too busy with moral issues to think deeply about the ramifications for their profession of the attack on science by certain religious groups, evolution being only the more visible part of that iceberg. Understanding this assault may be more urgent than some people think.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006


The Haze Over Ham

Vatican astronomer Guy Consolmagno has apparently struck a nerve* with Ken Ham, not necessarily an easy thing to do with someone sporting a creationist's neural system.
Anyway, Ham, who is president of the young-Earth creationist "ministry," Answers in Genesis took umbrage at Consolmagno's recent comparison of creationism to a form of paganism, harking back to the days of "nature gods" who were responsible for natural events.

The article about Ham's reaction, "Creationist Defends Stance Against Vatican Astronomer" has Ham repeatedly claiming (without explaining) that there is a difference between "observational science" and "historical science." Since Ham can't be bothered, why should I? Suffice it to say that it is a totally bogus ad hoc distinction intended to permit the creationist to, as Ham admits, "use God to explain anything with regard to the universe." Does it need to be pointed out that using God to "explain" any part of the universe is the same as saying "I don't have to explain it, God can do anything he wants"?

Anyway, you can almost hear Ham stamping his feet when he says:

But paganism is the opposite of Christianity, Ham points out, noting that in Acts 17 the Apostle Paul preached against the paganism of the Greeks. Clearly, the Answers in Genesis spokesman notes, Consolmagno is confused when he makes comments comparing Christian creationists with pagans. "He doesn't understand that those of us who believe in six-day creation are taking the revelation that God has given us in His Word," Ham says, "and we're saying that explains what happened in the past so we can understand the present."

Well, I suppose if you can insist the Scriptures are valid scientific evidence, you can insist that the fact that Paul used the word "pagan" to describe something he was against proves that Ham isn't a pagan . . . somehow.

Be that as it may, here are some more interesting "arguments"/admissions from Ham:

[S]cientific "facts" do not speak for themselves, but must be interpreted. That is, the competing theories of evolution and creation are not based on separate sets of evidence but are derived from the same evidence -- i.e., observable phenomena, the fossil record, animal biology, et cetera -- but the different conclusions about origins result from the different ways people interpret what they study.

My, my . . . the same evidence you say? What might that be?

Ham describes the Bible as the "history book of the universe," and he contends that scripture provides a reliable, eyewitness account of the beginning of all things, which can be trusted to reveal the truth in all areas it touches on. Therefore, he asserts, scientists are able to use the Bible to help them make sense of the world, the origins of the universe and life, and the natural history and age of the Earth.

Dang! You mean that them evolutionists are using the Bible too? Or maybe Ham misspoke when he said that creation is derived from the same evidence as evolution. Or maybe even Ham can't see what he is saying for the smoke and mirrors.

Oh, well. If there wasn't drivel in the world, how would we know how good the good stuff really is?
* Via Red State Rabble.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006


Jump Down, Spin Around . . .

There is a rather strange article at MSNBC's site, a commentary by Robert Bazell, Chief science and health correspondent for NBC News, called "Stop whining about intelligent design." He starts off by saying:

Scientists should stop whining about threats to the teaching of evolution and spend more time discussing values. The thought occurred to me recently when I was attending my son’s medical school commencement.

Following the well-trod path of a graduation speech, the dean, a highly regarded physician and scientist, told the new MDs they would face many challenges. These included, he said, a world where science endured constant assault as evidenced by the recent attempts to bring "intelligent design" into the curricula of Dover, Pa., and other high school districts.

He correctly notes that, when it comes to facing up to such questions as balancing the extraordinary expense of some treatment against the length and quality of life it will (or will not) provide the patient; deciding the proper relationship doctors should have to pharmaceutical companies that ply them with gifts; and issues of human experimentation, whether of not evolutionary theory is taught in high schools is of little importance to the individual doctors who have to make such decisions.

He fails to note, however, the dilemma that such doctors, who know that certain treatments or procedures or devices are safe, effective and of benefit to the patient, might face in the future when a meddlesome government, fueled by the anti-scientism of certain religious groups, makes them choose between their Hippocratic oath and staying within a sectarian-inspired law.

Bazell then proceeds to make a pretty good case for the importance of teaching evolution in high schools, only making a few slips along the way. One such is stating that "'survival of the fittest', or natural selection" was relied on by Hitler "as rationale for his racial horrors." In fact, what Hitler advocated was a kind of artificial selection, a form of animal breeding of H. sapiens, that is rooted in the domestication of plants and stock for farming and which has been applied to humans at least as far back as the Spartans.

But he correctly assesses William Jennings Bryan, his anachronistic politics by the standards of today's conservative religionists and at least partially understands the source of Bryan's distaste for evolution as based on the claims of German intellectuals and militarists in World War I for a peculiar doctrine of natural selection supposedly at work among nations.

He then starts his wind up with the banal thought:

Science is something very specific. It is a means of understanding the world around us by posing hypotheses that can be tested with experiments or observations. But science can never help us make moral or value judgments like those the new physicians will face.

Then he turns around and notes that, given such things as the H5N1 bird flu virus:

Serious efforts in biology and medicine can no more ignore evolution than airplane designers can ignore gravity.

And spins one more time to say:

It is far more difficult to know what moral values should guide our decisions, and perhaps we should put more effort into helping students grasp that reality.

Gee, maybe we should spend some time teaching doctors and Chief science and health correspondents that it is actually physically possible to walk and chew gum at the same time.
P.S. For some more views on this article see this from PZ Myers and the others he links to here.

Monday, May 22, 2006


Kingdom of the Blind

Michelle Goldberg, a writer for and the author of the just published Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism, has a post over at TPMCafe that discusses the subject of her book. Some interesting bits:

What I describe as Christian nationalism is not synonymous with evangelical Christianity or even Christian fundamentalism. It is, rather, a movement that purports to have extrapolated a complete governing program from the bible, and that claims divine sanction for its campaign of national renewal. It promotes a revisionist history in which the founders were conservative Christians who never meant to separate church and state, and in which America's true Christian character has been subverted by several generations of God-hating leftists. It explicitly condemns the Enlightenment and denies that Enlightenment values had anything to do with our nation's original ideals. ...

You don't just see it in the federal government -- if anything, it's even more pronounced on the state and local level, where I've often heard officials cite fake facts from Christian nationalist books at contentious school board meetings and the like. Indeed, the teaching of Christian nationalist history may turn out to be the next big educational battle after intelligent design -- a curriculum developed by several leaders in the movement has already been introduced in school districts nationwide.

Don't forget that Michael Baksa, the Assistant Superintendent of the Dover School District, testified that board member Alan Bonsell gave Superintendent Richard Nilsen the book The Myth of Separation by David Barton that calls separation of church and state "absurd."

Goldberg concludes:

What I try to describe in "Kingdom Coming" is a subtle but powerful change in the way our country works -- the slow encroachment of conservative religious doctrines into government policy, the increasing sectarianism pervading politics and public institutions, the shift in the very way our society apprehends truth. As I write in the book, "As Christian nationalism gains influence, it is changing our country in troubling ways, and its leaders say they've only just begun. It is up to all Americans to decide how far they can go."

Okay. I'm officially scared.

Sunday, May 21, 2006


A Reasonable Providence

There is an Associated Press story that is being widely reported, including here, about Judge John E. Jones, III and the commencement address he gave at his alma mater, Dickinson College. First of all, he discussed the Founding Fathers' attitude toward organized religion:

The founders believed that true religion was not something handed down by a church or contained in a Bible, but was to be found through free, rational inquiry. ...
They possessed a great confidence in an individual's ability to understand the world and its most fundamental laws through the exercise of his or her reason.

This core set of beliefs led the founders, who constantly engaged and questioned things, to secure their idea of religious freedom by barring any alliance between church and state.

While it is always tricky when speaking of an amorphous group like the "Founding Fathers" in collective terms, I think it is fair to say that the most famous of the people who are associated with the creation of the United States -- Franklin, Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Hamilton -- most certainly were, as Jones says, products of the Enlightenment who looked to reason rather than authority, either institutional or scriptural, to support a belief in the divine.
Also interesting is this from the article:

Jones credited his liberal arts education at Dickinson, more than his law school years, for preparing him for what he calls his "Dover moment."

"It was my liberal arts education ... that provided me with the best ability to handle the rather monumental task of deciding the Dover case," he said.

Uh, oh! Now he's done it. It's that liberal education that made him become an activist judge! No good Republican needs to listen to him* anymore!

* Via PZ Myers at Pharyngula.

Saturday, May 20, 2006


Off to Be in the Bosom of the Lord


As Mike Cubelo says, if you are a bosom buddy of the Lord, you can:

Abraham Lincoln, in the middle of the bloodiest war Americans ever fought, because it was the one they fought among themselves, knew better than to proclaim that he was a bosom buddy of the Lord:

Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.

If any man at any time had the right to claim the justice of heaven, it was that man and that cause. And yet he did not. Instead, he invoked malice toward none and charity toward all.

But he was a giant . . .


True Lies

Tim Rutten, media columnist for the Los Angeles Times, has a hilarious take on The Da Vinci Code, both book and movie, that is also wise in the ways of creationists.

Discussing the rather tepid response of the Catholic Church and its effect on the media play ("Dammit, how are we gonna sell this story if we can’t get some pictures of red-faced Cardinals?"), Rutten explains:

The collective Catholic response to the book and film probably were best summed up by a Jesuit theologian who responded to an earnest radio interviewer's long and suggestive question this way: "I don't mean to sound obtuse, but are you asking me whether a novel is true?"

[Without delving into the deep recesses of my shady past, having labored myself under the ministrations of the Jesuits, I can just hear the delicate balance of sarcasm and faux innocence that no doubt dripped from the delivery of that line.]

Noting the regrettable tendency to find himself trapped at parties with people who want to tell him all about how "they made over their yoga studio to include a ‘meditation altar’ with crystals, Buddha and Virgin of Guadalupe icon," Ruttan observes:

[T]he problem with Americans is not that they don't believe anything; it's that so many think they can believe anything -- and that believing one thing doesn't preclude belief in another.

. . . Americans are religious because they've come to treat belief as an adjunct to the consumer society, sort of like the potato chip aisle in the local grocery.

In such an inner landscape, why not entertain the possibility that Jesus scored? After all, it could have happened.

And this kind of blithe ignorance goes beyond the New Agers and those who describe themselves as "spiritual":

. . . Brown's scam is that he insists that his story is based on fact, insisting in the face of all credible evidence that several other book-length frauds are true and that patently unreliable ancient manuscripts are trustworthy and, more important, say things that they don't.

Brown's claims for his book and, by extension, the film adaptation belong to a strong new current in American life -- the culture of assertion, which increasingly pushes logical argument out of our public conversation. According to this schema, things are true because I believe they are true and you have to respect that, because it's what I believe. Thus, the same sensibility most likely to take offense at this film -- that of the religious assertionists -- is the same one that makes things like creationism an issue in our schools and the demands of biblical literalism a force in our politics.

It is this claim to a right to "balance" knowledge, nuance and logic with ignorance fueled by simplistic appeals to emotion -- the phony "tolerance" of "other viewpoints" that the Intelligent Design Movement has no choice but to appeal to, since it has no substance -- that powers the political success of the anti-evolutionists as well as the cultural panache of The Da Vinci Code that they, at the same time, probably abhor.

To quote Robert Heinlein, himself no stranger to cultural phenomena, "Stupidity, if left untreated, is self-correcting."

Friday, May 19, 2006


New Oxymoron: Government Science

In one of those convergences that just go to reinforce fears for the future of America, no sooner do I blog about the warning from Patricia Princehouse about evolution being:

. . . just the tip of the iceberg or, as the creationists put it, the leading edge of "the wedge" . . . they are seeking to drive through the heart of American democracy . . .

then there came a story about people more concerned with controlling their children’s sexual activity than whether or not the children get cancer.

Now we have this piece from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution about how, at a conference on the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, part of the Department of Health and Human Services, a panel entitled: "Are Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Programs a Threat to Public Health?" was canceled in favor of one entitled "Public Health Strategies of Abstinence Programs for Youth." Furthermore, one critic of abstinence-only educational programs was removed from the schedule and replaced by two proponents, one of whom states his intent is to "serve the Lord through medical missions and the preaching of the Gospel."
The program change at the conference reportedly occurred as a result of pressure from U.S. Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.), an outspoken opponent of contraception and comprehensive sex education, who claimed that the program lacked "balance," a complaint highly reminiscent of the call for evolution to be "balanced" in the classroom by teaching intelligent design.
As Jay Dyckman, director of a program on censorship and science at the National Coalition Against Censorship, says:

It should probably come as no surprise that the government censored a critic of abstinence-only sex ed. After all, abstinence-only education is itself a form of government censorship, by which certain facts — about contraception, sexually transmitted disease, same-sex relationships and abortion — are simply suppressed or distorted to fit an ideological agenda: the view that only married people should be sexually active.

The parallels to creationism are certainly obvious:

As with intelligent design, the scientific community has long since reached consensus, but certain politicians don't like the conclusion. A lengthy trial before a federal judge a few months ago presumably disposed of the claim that intelligent design competes scientifically with evolution, for purposes of determining the content of public education. ...

Instead of addressing the question of whether abstinence education poses a public health threat as a medical and scientific question, politicians devoted to the cause of abstinence decided to stack the deck, change the question and predetermine the answer. The participants were rejected and selected based on their viewpoint rather than their expertise. ...

The notion of "balance" is appealing in the abstract, but it has specific meaning at a scientific conference, where an invitation to speak has long been premised on whether a scientist's findings have withstood the scrutiny of the peer review process. Invoking "balance" in this situation, then, is merely a political ploy, a smokescreen for suppressing or diluting unwanted voices, regardless of the truth they may convey. And, even worse, it is an outright assault on the public's right to valid and reliable scientific information.

When tax supported agencies supposedly dedicated to the disinterested pursuit of the public good feel free to distort science at the behest one political group, there is little, if anything, left to trust in our government.

Thursday, May 18, 2006


When Will They Have a Shot to Prevent Stupidity?

In the "Excuse me, is my mouth still open?" category:

A Food and Drug Administration panel is meeting today to discuss a promising new vaccine that could stop viruses that cause nearly 70 percent of all cervical cancers and genital warts, but the potential distribution of the vaccine is causing political and cultural controversy.

Merck & Co. is seeking FDA approval for its Gardasal vaccine against four types of human papilloma virus. Doctors are calling the vaccine a monumental advance. ...

But conservative family groups say parents should have a choice.

"This is a disease that's sexually transmitted," said Linda Klepacki, spokeswoman for Focus on the Family. "Because of that, this is a very personal subject and we feel parents should make that decision for their children."

Other opponents go further. Hal Wallace, head of the Physicians Consortium, says the vaccine would send kids a message that, "you just take this shot and you can be as sexually promiscuous as you want."

That is presumably somehow worse than the message "if you make the mistake of having sex, your parents hope you die an agonizing death of cancer."

Bizarrely, "a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found 11 percent of physicians worried that the vaccine might encourage more risky sexual behavior." Fortunately, that means the vast majority of doctors have not traded in their Hippocratic Oaths for self-righteousness. As Dr. Carolyn Runowicz, president of the American Cancer Society, said:

Data has shown if you give kids a helmet it doesn't make them fall off [their bike] and it doesn't make them drive crazy.

But maybe crazy bike riding without a helmet explains the opposition to the vaccine.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006


Dung Deal

Patricia Princehouse is a philosopher of science and an evolutionary biologist at Case Western Reserve University who helped found Ohio Citizens for Science, an organization of scientists, teachers, clergy, and other concerned citizens, that has fought to preserve science education in Ohio's public schools. On May 11, 2006, she was awarded a Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Award from the Playboy Foundation. There is a trancript of her acceptance speech at The Nation magazine's website.

It is not only worthy of your attention because of the tale of how flung elephant dung led to the discovery of an Australopithecus afarensis trackway but for her (correct) take on why everyone should fight the attempt to harness the teaching of science to sectarian theological concerns: it is to protect freedom of religion, which is, in turn, "the bedrock foundation of liberty in this country."

The Constitution is not self-executing:

I used to think the US Constitution was fixed, an absolute guarantee of freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press in this country. The past five years have shown me that the Constitution is valuable only insofar as people are willing to stand up for the rights it protects. Our freedoms are guaranteed only as long as ordinary, everyday people are willing to claim them -- indeed, to insist on them.

James Madison, as responsible for our Constitution as anyone, doubted that a "parchment barrier" would suffice to secure our liberties and questioned the need for a Bill of Rights. He came to realize though, that without a ringing statement of those rights to rally the common citizen to protect those liberties, it would be all too easy to surrender them piecemeal or at the first sign of danger.

No one in the world today can wrest those freedoms from us but all too many of us are willing to relinquish them without a thought and even more are too indifferent or too ignorant to care.

If we allow certain special-interest religious groups to co-opt the public school science classroom, to use it as a vehicle for converting children to religious views their parents don't hold, if we allow them to spout outright lies about the nature and content of science, what do we really have left? If you can lie about science and get away with it, you can lie about anything.

Evolution is just the tip of the iceberg or, as the creationists put it, the leading edge of "the wedge." The wedge they are seeking to drive through the heart of American democracy. The lies about science are not limited to evolution. Every day more lies about science seep into public consciousness. Lies about stem cell biology, lies about global warming, about clean air and water, lies about sexuality, about conception and contraception, lies about the effects of hurricanes on metropolitan infrastructure.

But of course, they won't say that:

The enemies of democracy use the language of tolerance to attack it from inside. Why, they ask, are we "censoring" the evidence for "intelligent design"? Why do we deny our teachers the "right" to use their "academic freedom" to teach "critical analysis" of evolution. Isn't it only fair to teach both the evidence for and against evolution? All these clever ploys play well in the media on this issue ...

That means all people who care for their liberties must, as Madison foresaw, be willing to take up the fight, no matter how difficult and unpleasant:

So the rhetorical battle is pitched and the enemy is well armed. But it turns out that standing up for freedom and democracy is a lot like doing science. You start with noble principles and do the best you can, but when you get right down to it, you spend a lot of time dodging elephant dung.

Defending the Constitution is a messy business, but is it worth it? You betcha. Our future depends on it.


Tuesday, May 16, 2006


Categories of Bishops

The Vatican has announced that Bishop Donald Wuerl of Pittsburgh will be named to replace Theodore Cardinal McCarrick as archbishop of Washington DC, considered one of the "red hat" dioceses in the US, the archbishop of which is customarily made a cardinal. In an article last year in the Pittsburgh diocesan paper, he came down on the side of Intelligent Design as "a middle ground." The tone is perhaps set by the bishop’s statement that "Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection in 1855."

Things get no better with his assertion that there is a "recent insistence that only the Darwinian theory of evolution should be taught to young people as they study the origin of the cosmos and human life." It is beyond me why someone who has presumably been able to wrestle the doctrine of the transubstantiation to the ground, rather than vice versa, can fail to be able to recognize such a simple category error.

No one is saying that children should be taught only evolution or only science. Philosophy, history, comparative religion, ethics, art, literature, music, poetry and dozens more subjects are appropriate and necessary topics in the public schools. That fair and balanced instruction in religion can be done with the support of those interested in protecting the secular and nonsectarian nature of our government is amply demonstrated by the program conducted for the last six years in the Modesto California public schools. Ninth graders are required to take a nine-week course on world religions, beginning with two weeks of study of First Amendment and the U.S. history of religious liberty. People for the American Way is one group that has supported the program.

Ultimately, the bishop’s article is not arguing for Intelligent Design as practiced by the political movement, but for a kind of theistic evolution where the natural aspects of the universe are accepted as they are but with an acknowledgment of a divine sustenance and guidance.

Still, the bishop should certainly be able to grasp the difference between philosophy and theology on the one hand and science on the other. Simple common sense says we should not teach pig Latin in a French class, pretending it is French. Just so, science should be taught in science classes and philosophy in philosophy classes. And, under our Constitution, the truth claims of any theology should be taught in the churches and the homes of America, where they can best be kept safe from government intrusion.

Monday, May 15, 2006


Coming to Peace with Evangelism

There is an interesting piece in Science & Theology News (a worthwhile source of news about the intersection of science and religion) by Darrel Falk, author of the book, Coming to Peace with Science: Bridging the Worlds between Faith and Biology. The aim of his book is to lay out his reasons why he thinks the evangelical Christian Church:

must come to grips with the fact that there does not need to be this growing dichotomy between the world of evangelicalism and the parallel world of science. Just as I had personally come to peace with biology, I felt that the church ought to be able to come to peace with it as well.

In the article, Falk tells the story of the fallout caused when someone widely distributed an early version the manuscript of his book within his denomination. He faced possible expulsion from his teaching position at Point Loma Nazarene University but not only did he receive support from within the university but more generally within his church as well. Falk then relates the story of how:

Some time ago, I met for the first time the person who copied and mass distributed the early draft of my manuscript. It was a social situation and no mention was made of the fact that he had been part of a group that had worked for my removal from the faculty of my university. We talked about other things and enjoyed our visit together.

He puts that down to the work of Christ in the church. He credits the same source for the fact that:

The intelligent design leaders have been especially kind to me. Within the context of their big-umbrella philosophy, one of their leaders has indicated that he likes to think of me as one of their own, even though we differ on a major premise — the notion that one can expect to be able to prove the existence of the designer through scientific study.

Now my cynical mind might put that reaction down to the fact that the leader knows that ID never had anything to do with scientific study and their differences are for show only. But I wish Falk well. It is nice to see that evangelicalism and science are not inevitable enemies.

Sunday, May 14, 2006


Hunting Big Game

Bill Nye (The Science Guy) gave a presentation to a group of students in grades 5 through 8, at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute's Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies in Troy, New York. While he set out to be entertaining, that wasn’t all it was about:

[T]he message Nye brought was a serious one: that the nation needs more scientists and engineers, that if the younger generation doesn't pursue these careers, "life is going to be miserable."

He described the role of increasing atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide in global warming, and how science needed to tackle that problem. Later, after the kids had moved to specialized sessions focusing on everything from video games to genomics, Nye talked with a reporter about how science has been devalued.

"We have this weird thing right now, where people are marginalizing science, claiming that intelligent design is an alternative to evolution," Nye said as he packed up his experiments. "It's such an antiquated point of view."

Many people, he said, don't understand science so they accept intelligent design, which claims life and other aspects of nature were created by an intelligent being.

Science isn't even part of the standards contained in the federal No Child Left Behind act, he said.

"The kids love science. That's not the problem," he said. "We're not funding science education."

Well, maybe. On the other hand, there was this too:

Perhaps the most popular breakout session was one conducted by several video game designers from Troy-based Vicarious Visions. The students peppered the designers with questions about games that failed, their own personal favorite games and whether they ever got tired of playing.

But attendance was limited. Jonathan Oki, a North Colonie fifth-grader, ended up in a session on health care instead.

While he enjoyed the event and said that Nye's presentation was "pretty cool," he added that "I wanted to go to Vicarious Visions."

Now if someone can only come up with a dynamite video game about genetic drift . . .


Science Without the Pesky Science

There is a report in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on the presentations, titled "Fascinating Facts About Origins," given by Mike Riddle, a biblical creationist from Answers in Genesis, at the Potosi, Missouri public high and middle schools. Unfortunately, there is little on the actual substance (using the word advisedly) of the talks. However, there was the following that may be telling in that regard:

Bill Mayberry, Potosi High's science department chair, said he "expressed concerns about this program from day one." But after seeing Riddle's presentation he was less concerned. "The questions (Riddle) raised were exactly the kinds of questions I raise in class," he said. "I want these kids to think outside of the box. We can accept scientific fact, but we also accept that things can change ... facts can change." ...

Mayberry admitted that he "doesn't teach the e-word," referring to evolution. "We talk about natural selection instead," he said.

In other words, the chair of the high school science department is afraid to use the word "evolution" in class and probably limits himself to the kind of adaptation that won’t offend his students’ religious sensibilities, shortchanging them educationally.

Perhaps the most interesting thing to come from the article was a quote from Ken Ham, the founder of AiG:

All scientists start with presuppositions. If you're starting point is 'we can explain the origin of the universe without the supernatural,' that's a bias.

Of course, what that bias is called is "science" and Ham is ag’in it. That he claims he isn't tells you all anyone needs to know about his version of science and maybe all you need to know about his religion as well.

Saturday, May 13, 2006


No True Creationist

There is another datapoint on the loose flaps on the "big tent." John Mackay, an Australian young-Earth creationist, whose tour of Great Britain has been garnering unusual attention this year, possibly linked to the Dover decision in the U.S. and the possibility of creationism being taught in "faith schools" in England.

An interview with a less-than-serious columnist at The Scotsman reveals that:

. . . Mackay is very sniffy about ID. It's creationism by the back-door, he says. Which is what everyone else says as well. What is the point of having an intelligent designer and then not saying it is God? He could be a little green man, or anyone.

Boy, nobody can get anything past him!

Friday, May 12, 2006


On Fathers and Bastards

There was a not-completely-puff piece on the doyen of the ID movement, Phillip Johnson, in The Sacramento Bee yesterday. One notable comment was from Michael Ruse:

"I think the whole [ID] position is socially and internationally dangerous, as well as wrong," Ruse said.

But Ruse said he and Johnson share a mutual respect after years of traveling in the same circles and debating publicly. He describes Johnson as friendly, intelligent and fond of stories, as well as the occasional drink.

"I do like the guy," he said, adding with a hearty laugh, "At another level, I don't trust him as far as I can see him."

But perhaps more typical of the article is this:

But many who read "Darwin on Trial" say the book made a "devastating case" against the widely held theory. Among them is Johnson's former colleague Michael Smith, also a retired Berkeley law professor.

"I would have thought the weight of the so-called scientific consensus would have buried any dissension," Smith said. "But it hasn't buried" the intelligent design movement.

Well, no, it hasn’t. But, then again, you’d also think the weight of the scientific consensus would have buried astrology by now, too. But pick up any newspaper in the United States and the overwhelming odds are that you will find an "In Your Stars" column somewhere inside. The persistence of astrology has much in common with the persistence of ID (as Michael Behe will tell you in his more candid moments under an oath to tell the whole truth). If persistence among those uneducated in science is what the ID crowd is aiming for, they are setting the bar way low.

Finally of note is this:

[Johnson’s] main disappointment is that the issue hasn't made more headway in the mainstream scientific community.

Johnson said his intent never was to use public school education as the forum for his ideas. In fact, he said he opposed the efforts by the "well-intentioned but foolish" school board in Dover, Pa., to require teachers to present intelligent design as a viable scientific theory.

Instead, he hoped to ignite a debate in universities and the higher echelon of scientific thinkers.

But Johnson said he takes comfort knowing he helped fuel the debate that has taken place so far. "Perhaps we've done as much as we can do in one generation."

"Do to" might be the more apt phrase and, as they say: "From his mouth to God’s ear . . . "

Thursday, May 11, 2006


Was That "Critics" or "Crickets"?

You may have seen John Rennie's post over at Scientific American's blog about the rigging of the supposed challenge to ID's superstars by "critics" that is scheduled to take place tomorrow, May 12th. Not only is it taking place at Biola (as in "Bible Institute of Los Angeles") University, already much associated with ID and presumably a friendly venue, but the critics are of doubtful ability. After noting that a number of the ID advocates, including Behe, Gonzalez and Wells, are scientifically trained and even Steve Meyer has some background in geophysics, Rennie compares that to the list of critics:
I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of the questioners, but am skeptical of their qualifications and readiness to participate in this event . . . [The] questioners, on the other hand, consist of one biochemist (Weber), a journalist, and three philosophers/theologians. The critics do not sound well qualified to push the scientific argument against ID, and if the ID panel responds with a lot of scientistic sophistry, I don't think they'll be called on it.
Today there is more information about how this panel of "critics" came to be. It seems that Michael Shermer, noted skeptic and someone who has already debated Dembski, Nelson, and Meyer at universities around the country, was asked by the organizer of this event if he would participate but he was told that he would have to sit in the audience and would only be allowed to ask one question. As Shermer puts it:
I again explained that not only have I debated all these guys, and have a book coming out in August that presents all of their arguments and all of the critiques of those arguments, but that I even have a powerpoint presentation ready to go that presents their arguments one by one, numbered, labeled, and with pretty pictures of flagella, which I had recently presented for the Caltech biology department. And I told him that I thought his so-called "critics" were hardly the A-list of ID skeptics. I even told him that I'd do it for free, and that Biola is less than an hour's drive from my home.

But no, he explained, I was not quite what they are looking for in a panelist. I'm quite sure I understand what he means....
Yeah, like it comes as a surprise . . . .

Wednesday, May 10, 2006


Gall Call

Michael Francisco, who is the Discovery Institute’s designated law student, is displaying less than astute legal reasoning again. Perhaps stung by the criticism he received for the rather thoughtless support he gave to a truly legally clueless article by Seth Cooper and Joe Manzari, "ACLU Demands and Dover Designs," Francisco has returned to the claim that there was the potential in the Kitzmiller case for the new school board, elected just as the trial ended, to effect a dismissal of the case and avoid the legal fees of $1 million because the case would then be moot.

Wounded pride is a likely motive, since there doesn’t seem to be any other reason to revisit this lead balloon a month after it initially crashed and burned. This is especially the case when the best Francisco can do to counter the "voluntary cessation" argument is to claim that the new board couldn’t "reasonably have been expected to re-pass the ID policy had Judge Jones declared the case moot," totally ignoring the possibility of another turnaround, just as sweeping, at the next election. The election results were actually close, with only a few percentage points separating the highest vote getters from the lowest, and convictions ran strong on both sides. The courts have made clear that the test of whether subsequent circumstances have rendered a case moot is a "stringent" one and it must be absolutely clear that the wrongful action cannot reasonably be expected to recur.

Besides the utter grasping at legal straws that it takes to think any judge or any appellate court would render a case moot or deny legal fees after a six week trial, it takes a special kind of chutzpah to try to blame the outcome on the new board when you consider that, back when the case was first filed and while the district’s own lawyer was recommending that it not go through with the policy, the old board rejected an offer by the plaintiffs to drop the suit without legal fees if the policy was rescinded.
Francisco and the rest of the DI really have no shame.
Timothy Sandefur over at the Panda's Thumb and Ed Brayton at Dispatches from the Culture Wars have responded at length to Francisco, which is only appropriate since he singled them out for criticism.
Frankly, it is a mildly amusing but ultimately pointless exercise with much akin to a game of whack-a-mole. No matter how emotionally satisfying it is for a time to pound someone like Francisco about the head, the imperviousness of such people to either embarrassment or moral suasion permits them to keep popping their noggins up for more.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006


Old Cons for Neocons

There is an interesting article entitled "Misplaced Sympathies" by Kevin Shapiro, a researcher in neuroscience at Harvard, in the Wall Street Journal (hurry, it may only be available without a subscription until Wednesday). Subtitled "Darwin isn't the enemy. Conservatives do no service to their cause by treating him as one," it addresses the phenomena of conservatives outside of the Religious Right, including mainline Christians, supporting anti-evolutionism.

After noting the unease that a number of neoconservatives, epitomized by Gertrude Himmelfarb and Irving Kristol, have with natural selection, Shapiro opines that:

. . . part of the neoconservative position has to do less with particular intellectual claims than with the special sensitivities of a broadly conservative coalition. The writer David Frum has said that, though he himself believes in evolution, he doesn't "believe that public schools should embark on teaching anything that offends Christian principle."

Why would these non-religious and frequently Jewish thinkers worry about offending "Christian Principle"? Because they support the traditionalist side in the culture wars, of course.

The two groups share a profound distaste for materialism, a philosophy of knowledge that leaves no room for phenomena -- like God, the human soul and transcendent morality -- that can't be explained by an appeal to physical principles.

There may be more to it than that, however. As Ronald Bailey reported in his article, "Origin of the Specious," Kristol has said:

There are different kinds of truths for different kinds of people. There are truths appropriate for children; truths that are appropriate for students; truths that are appropriate for educated adults; and truths that are appropriate for highly educated adults, and the notion that there should be one set of truths available to everyone is a modern democratic fallacy. It doesn't work.

Those children and others not within Kristol’s highly educated elite need the opiate of religion . . . presumably to keep them from rolling out tumbrels to accommodate these new philosopher kings.

The problem is that it won’t work:

Richard Owen, a 19th-century English anatomist, privately conceded that "The Origin of Species" was the best explanation "ever published of the manner of formation of species"--but because he thought that natural selection denied the possibility of human uniqueness, he savaged the book in public. ...

At a time when the life sciences are advancing at an astonishing pace, it is simply too late to be taking up Owen's mantle. There is no longer any serious dispute about the evidence for natural selection ...

There is a better way, as Shapiro sees it:

The late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould proposed that science and religion be considered "non-overlapping magisteria," each profiting from dialogue with the other. ... If Gould's idea were to be taken more seriously, the fear of Darwin and natural selection might go the way of [the extinct transitional species] Tiktaalik, without harming society thereby.

The Discovery Institute is already moaning about Shapiro’s article because he makes the observation that:

Proponents of intelligent design, like the mathematician William Dembski, argue that we don't understand the origins of various biological systems and never will, because they can't be broken down into smaller parts that could be explained by natural selection. Therefore, we should give up on Darwin and accept the existence of a designer. Alas, this kind of argumentum ad ignorantium flies in the face of an ever-increasing amount of evidence from molecular biology, and hardly measures up to the neoconseratives' rigorous intellectual standards.

Jonathan Witt again trots out Stephen Meyer’s article "Not by chance" which, even if it provided positive evidence for a designer, does not change the fact that the above-quoted argument is an argument from ignorance. Of course, Meyer’s article does no such thing. In point of fact, its argument is classic ignorance layered over what Judge Jones rightly called a "contrived dualism" :

1) "Either life arose as the result of purely undirected material processes or a guiding intelligence played a role."
2) There is an "appearance of design."
3) This appearance is "unexplained by the mechanism -- natural selection -- that Darwin specifically proposed to replace the design hypothesis."

The only "positive evidence" the article advances can be summed up in this analogy from Meyer:

DNA functions like a software program. We know from experience that software comes from programmers.

Smoke and mirrors is what counts as "evidence" in ID circles.

Monday, May 08, 2006


On Pigs and Pokes

According to the Wall Street Journal (temporarily available online without a subscription) George Gilder, at his peak, had the power to move the markets. However, the Nasdaq meltdown of 2000 and 2001 threw one little monkey wrench into the gears of his influence:

"The trouble with my business is that everyone came in at the peak," Mr. Gilder said in a recent interview. "The typical Gilder subscriber lost all his money and that made it very hard for me to market the newsletter."

Bankrupting your clients can have that unfortunate effect. But never fear, all is not lost:

Mr. Gilder increasingly spends his time advocating intelligent design as an alternative to evolution. Mr. Gilder, who helped found the Discovery Institute, a conservative think thank, is comfortable in the role of social contrarian.

The bankruptcy this time won’t be financial but educational and the victims will be all future generations of Americans, instead of merely those foolish enough to listen to his advice. Let’s hope he is as successful with this enterprise as with his previous one.

Stubborn as a . . .

According to both opponents and proponents of Intelligent Design, Missouri’s "teach the controversy" legislation, though it didn’t make it to the floor of the Missouri General Assembly this year, is far from dead.
The chairwoman of the House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee, where the measure was approved by a 7-6 vote in March, predicts that it will be back next year. Rep. Jane Cunningham, who cast the deciding vote in favor of the bill in the committee, said its sponsors wanted to use this year’s committee hearings to generate momentum for the measure.

I previously analyzed the language of the bill. It essentially requires that "equal to or greater" effort be given to teaching criticisms of evolution than is given to the teaching of evolution itself. It may go further and mandate that such "critical analysis" be conducted in regards to any "historical science," presumably including such things as the age of the Earth and universe.

The science education act also represents a subtle tactical shift by intelligent design proponents, said Jay Wexler, an associate professor of law at Boston University. Since a U.S. district judge in Dover, Pa., ruled in December that a resolution requiring the teaching of intelligent design violates the Constitution, proponents are more aggressively pointing out the gaps in evolutionary theory while attempting to change the definition of science in the classroom.

"Their strategies evolve over time," said Wexler, who thinks the Missouri bill still raises constitutional concerns but says it is more likely to be accepted than the Dover resolution.

Wexler has engaged in a running battle with Francis Beckwith over Beckwith’s attempts to use the case of Edwards v. Aguillard to support the teaching of ID. According to Beckwith, ID is historically and textually distinguishable from Genesis’s accounts and, therefore, from creation science, as if that is the be-all and end-all of the necessary Constitutional analysis.

Of course, "teach the controversy was debuted by the Discovery Institute at least as far back as 1999 in Ohio and the attempt to change the definition of science was part of Phillip Johnson’s arguments almost from the start of the ID movement and is a prominent part of the change in the Kansas curriculum standards. Wexler may be overestimating the novelty of these ploys or, more likely, he may be reacting to what is perhaps the first attempt of a legislature to mandate equal time for the "controversy" in an entire state’s schools. In any event:

Opponents of an intelligent design requirement in Missouri classrooms, such as Rep. Sara Lampe, D-Springfield, say the legislation is more about discrediting evolution than improving standards.

"It’s very clever to come at the intelligent design issue from this angle," Lampe said.

Clever, maybe. Underhanded, certainly. Inconsistent, inevitably. On the one hand you have:

Sen. Bill Alter, R-Jefferson City, who introduced a similar bill in the Senate, said it was necessary to continue discussion of the issue. Alter said both evolution and intelligent design are theories and should be handled as such in the classroom.

"If it’s taught the same as any other science, I’m all for it," he said.

And on the other you have:

. . . Marc Strand, a scientist with Eastman Chemical Co. who lectures on the origins of life as a hobby, told a gathering at Columbia’s Christian Chapel that intelligent design theory marks the halfway point between creationism and evolution. Proponents of intelligent design believe the world is so complex that there had to be a designer, but they stop short of arguing that the designer is God, Strand said.

Neither intelligent design nor evolution can be scientifically tested, he said, and therefore neither should be taught in a science class. Both theories are matters of faith, in his view, and belong in a philosophy or religion studies classroom.

Since there is no actual theory of Intelligent Design, its supporters are free to tailor their description of it to their audience. So the legislator can tell the judges that ID is just science that should be taught with public taxes and doesn’t violate the Constitution. And the "scientist" lecturing at a church can say that ID and evolution are both religious ideas. And William Dembski can write to young-Earth creationists that ID is a "ground-clearing operation" for Christianity. When your entire rationale for your existence as a movement is to say that there is something, somehow, some way, wrong with evolution and any other science that contradicts your religious beliefs, it is easy to be everything and anything to those same believers.

Such attitudes shouldn’t surprise anyone, says Kenneth Miller, a professor at Brown University. Miller, who gave a series of lectures on evolution at MU in April, said the attacks on evolution as a theory obscure the fact that intelligent design lacks any scientific basis whatsoever.

"There is no controversy about evolution in the scientific community," Miller said, "and this particular bit of misrepresentation is simply designed to undermine the teaching of evolution in a way that will aid religiously derived ideas such as intelligent design."

Miller says that evolutionary theory has been subjected to rigorous scientific scrutiny and that if proponents think intelligent design is legitimate science, they should be willing to subject it to the same standard.

"The fact that they seek political means to inject their ideas into the science classroom shows just how threadbare their so-called theories really are," Miller said.

Unfortunately, as Niall Shanks, a professor of history and philosophy of science at Wichita State University, points out, that means:

The matter won’t be settled by scientists; it will be settled by judges in black robes.


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