Friday, June 30, 2006


Carrying a Torch

Murray Peshkin, a theoretical physicist at Argonne National Laboratory, has a most interesting article, "Addressing the public about science and religion," at Physics Today.

He has been speaking to such diverse organizations as such as Rotary clubs, groups of high-school and college students involved in science and journalism, school-based community events, League of Women Voters chapters, a Unitarian church, and a microscopy club about the intersection of science and religion, specifically the ongoing national debate about the teaching of evolution.

As he explains his goals:

I am not trying to convert the convinced anti-evolutionist. I am trying to inform people about the issues and their importance. That goal is important for scientists because the integrity of science teaching in our public schools is under serious attack. So far, the courts have mostly come to the rescue, but in the end public opinion will carry the day. Reasonable people need to know what science is about, especially what an established scientific theory is and how scientists know when it's right.

And as justification for going out of his way, he says:

The current prosperity in the US derives in large part from 20th-century advances in physics, such as the transistor. In the 21st century, the driving force may well be biology. The anticipated advances in medicine and other practical applications of biology will happen, but not necessarily in this country. We can't afford to degrade biology in our schools.

Peshkin has what appears to be good advice for other scientists who might be interested in reaching out in this way, including this explanation:

I always discuss the words "It's only a theory" by saying that for practical purposes that's the same as saying "It's only science," and the price we can pay for such contempt for science is high. Belief in Newton's mechanics within its domain of validity is not optional, at least not if you design airplanes or bridges. The sad history of Trofim Lysenko and the calamities he caused illustrates why belief in the right theory, evolution in that case, is also not optional. Agricultural practices based on Lysenko's theories, which contradicted Darwin's evolution, contributed to disastrous crop failures in the Soviet Union in the 1930s and in China in the 1950s.

While his experience is that the majority of people in the audience are uncomfortable with the assertion that there is no conflict between the Bible and evolution, he claims the response to his talks is almost uniformly positive. That, of course, may have to do with his approach:

None of what I am saying threatens religion. No observational evidence can disprove some subtle supernatural intervention in cosmological or biological evolution that would leave us with the evidence we see. That possibility is important to some scientists. It does not interest me, but I cannot argue against it within the logic of science.

If more scientists were to make the effort to present a reasonable face of science to the general public in such person-to-person settings, I think the populace of America would have a much better opinion of the field.

Swift Justice

On the meaning of the Supreme Court decision in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, ruling that the war on terrorism is no excuse for abandoning fair trials:

It means that we can't be scared out of who we are. And that's victory, folks. - Lt. Cmdr. Charles Swift, the appointed military attorney for Salim Ahmed Hamdan, the plaintiff in the case.

Sometimes I'm proud to be a lawyer.


Thursday, June 29, 2006


Showing Some Cojones on Stem Cell Research

Science & Theology News is reporting that German researchers have found cells in the testes of mice that can behave like embryonic stem cells. Such stem cells give rise to virtually all tissue in the body and may offer treatment for conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, diabetes and spinal cord injuries. Their use is controversial in some quarters because harvesting the cells involves the destruction of human embryos in some stage of development under presently available technology.
Dr. Gerd Hasenfuss, director of the department of cardiology and pneumology at the Georg-August University of Goettingen in Germany, announced the discovery that certain mouse cells closely mimicked the behavior of embryonic stem cells. If human testicular cells can be found that will do the same, "then we have resolved the ethical problem with human embryonic stem cells," Dr. Hasenfuss said.
In unrelated research, it has also been reported that mouse stem cells have been coaxed into producing both eggs and sperm, raising the possibility, if the work can be applied to humans, that men might be able to produce eggs, and women sperm.
Cells cultured from a male mouse embryo were grown into hollow balls called "embryoid bodies," which resemble early embryos. After two weeks, both eggs and sperm were produced.
Cells on the outside of the embryoid bodies turned into mature, elongated sperm, whereas cells on the inside formed follicles, which released eggs. The eggs developed into embryo-like structures called blastocysts that then 'hatched', a process that normally occurs just before an embryo implants into the uterus wall.
Irina Kerkis from the Roger Abdelmassih Clinic in Sao Paolo, Brazil said, according to the article, that:
[T]he embryos probably formed by a process known as parthenogenesis, in which an unfertilized egg can develop into an embryo-like structure. In mammals, such 'parthenotes' never develop past implantation. But because mature sperm were present in the same dish, Kerkis claims it's possible they could have fertilized the eggs. Although she admits it is unlikely, she is currently carrying out tests to investigate whether it occurred.
The article in Nature notes that eggs produced in this manner in the lab might be used to produce embryonic stem-cell lines for further research. The possibility of parthenogenesis raises interesting issues because much of the religious opposition to stem cell research is at least nominally based on the claim that a human being comes into existence at the "moment of conception." Parthenogenesis, in dispensing with conception, would put that rationale to the test.
Squirming can be forecast.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006


Conquering Divide

Sen. Barack Obama's address to religious progressives at the Call to Renewal Conference can be found here. He has much to say about the proper role of religion in politics that will upset people on both sides. First, what qualifications does Sen. Obama have to expound on this issue? There is this:

[T]owards the end of the [2004 Senate] campaign, [Alan] Keyes said that, "Jesus Christ would not vote for Barack Obama. Christ would not vote for Barack Obama because Barack Obama has behaved in a way that it is inconceivable for Christ to have behaved." ...

Mr. Keyes implicit accusation that I was not a true Christian nagged at me, and I was also aware that my answer [that this is a pluralistic society and we can't impose our religious views on others] didn't adequately address the role my faith has in guiding my own values and beliefs.
He eventually came to the conclusion that:

[S]ecularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square. Frederick Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, Williams Jennings Bryant (sic), Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King - indeed, the majority of great reformers in American history - were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause. To say that men and women should not inject their "personal morality" into public policy debates is a practical absurdity; our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition.
On the other hand:

[Conservative leaders of the Religious Right] need to understand the critical role that the separation of church and state has played in preserving not only our democracy, but the robustness of our religious practice. That during our founding, it was not the atheists or the civil libertarians who were the most effective champions of this separation; it was the persecuted religious minorities, Baptists like John Leland, who were most concerned that any state-sponsored religion might hinder their ability to practice their faith.

. . . Whatever we once were, we are no longer just a Christian nation; we are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, a Hindu nation, and a nation of nonbelievers.

And even if we did have only Christians within our borders, who's Christianity would we teach in the schools? . . . Which passages of Scripture should guide our public policy? Should we go with Levitacus, which suggests slavery is ok and that eating shellfish is abomination? How about Deuteronomy, which suggests stoning your child if he strays from the faith? Or should we just stick to the Sermon on the Mount - a passage so radical that it's doubtful that our Defense Department would survive its application?
As Sen. Obama points out:

[T]he single biggest "gap" in party affiliation among white Americans today is not between men and women, or those who reside in so-called Red States and those who reside in Blue, but between those who attend church regularly and those who don't.
How can the gap between the religious and the secular be bridged?

Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God's will. ...

This may be difficult for those who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, as many evangelicals do. But in a pluralistic democracy, we have no choice. Politics depends on our ability to persuade each other of common aims based on a common reality. It involves the compromise, the art of the possible. ...
While I think the Senator has correctly identified a serious problem that is driving American politics into bitter and so far intractable division, the "solution" he presents is far easier to express than implement. A start would be if liberals could learn reach across the divide in their own ranks.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006


Going By the Numbers

There has been a fair amount of negative comment in the science-friendly blogosphere about a recent interview by Ronald Numbers, a historian of science and medicine at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and the author of the definitive history of the creationist movement, The Creationists.

Frankly, I think most of the wailing and gnashing of teeth is a little overplayed, perhaps the result of a feeling of "where do we get our kicks, now that Kitzmiller did ID in?" The criticisms of Numbers seem to have more to do with sloppy language on his part, that is hardly unexpected in oral interviews, than it does with any "heretical" thoughts. Be that as it may, Jason Rosenhouse at Evolutionblog has taken Numbers to task for a passage that includes:

[Creationists] hate the fact that science has been hijacked by agnostics and atheists to offer such speculative theories as organic evolution.

One of the comments asked:

"Hijacked by agnostics"? How does that even work? Is there, like, a group of militant agnostics that run around forcefully not knowing things?

To which "ivyprivy" replied: "No one expects the Unitarian Jihad!"

Never one to pass up a free membership, henceforth my Unitarian Jihad Name is:

The Jackhammer of Courteous Debate.

Get yours here.



Dealing with Deflation

By now Rush Limbaugh's latest problem has probably risen to the attention of most readers. I wouldn't want to seen as hammering this home with a pile driver, since Rush is such a stand-up kinda guy, but I think all his admirers should let him know that they won't let him down.
A Growing list:

Red State Rabble:

Why Rush Limbaugh Won't Go Soft on Liberals
Hard Times for Rush Limbaugh
Rush Limbaugh: A Stand Up Guy
Rush Stands Firm
Rush to Judgement
Prosecutors Go Limp on Rush

Dispatches from the Culture War:

Viagra Works Wonders


I hate to do this...
So that's what Limbaugh was up to...

Monday, June 26, 2006


If You Can't Make It There . . .

My home state of New York has avoided any serious consideration, much less passage of, the Intelligent Design legislation that was introduced in the State Assembly (our lower house).

According to the National Center for Science Education report, Republican Assemblyman Daniel L. Hooker's intention in introducing the bill was more to spark discussion than to pass the bill, which he admitted was "religion based."
Moreover, Hooker is not planning on seeking a third term in the Assembly due to his military commitments: he is expected to be on active duty with the Marine Corps until at least early 2007.
Despite any disagreement about I might have with him about science, I wish him well and hope he returns safe and sound from his service.

Sunday, June 25, 2006


The Light Grows Dimmer

In a trend being noticed in financial circles, creationism, in the form of the Intelligent Design movement, is now sprouting in Germany.

[U]nlike some of the American "intelligent design" groups, Germany’s most vocal "intelligent design" advocates, Wort und Wissen ("Word and Knowledge"), so far are not trying to make creationism a part of the school curriculum. German educators don’t expect this debate to become "a major issue," either.

Of course, several years ago, few Americans thought things could’ve gone as far as they did, too. In Germany and Europe generally, things are just getting warmed up – but they are warming up fast. Just in May, German chancellor Angela Merkel said that, "…God and the Christian belief should be included into the EU constitution" – a statement that could "potentially reopen one of the most bitter debates surrounding the drawing up of the document four years ago" (EUobserver).

The article, by a stock trading advice organization has this to say about the roots of this upsurge:

One key ingredient for creationism to become a prominent topic in Germany seems already in place – namely, society’s growing polarization on the subject of religion. ...

There is a moral polarity developing in the world. On one hand are the anything-goes amoralists and artists pushing the envelope, and on the other are the we-want-to-control-you moralists – religious, social and economic – and the soaring popularity of fundamentalist religion worldwide. Even creationism is making a comeback.

Connecting these phenomena with bear markets may be more than a little questionable, but it is hard to see how a move by American-style creationism, with its anti-intellectualism and anti-Enlightenment politics, into the European Union can be good news for the West.

The next big question may be whether to start learning Mandarin or Cantonese.

Saturday, June 24, 2006


A Tale of Two Quotes

The Berkeley Science Review has an article on Kevin Padian, Phillip Johnson and Dean Kenyon, all "Berkeleyans" who have been involved in the Intelligent Design movement. Padian was a witness for the plaintiffs in Kitzmiller v. Dover School Board against the teaching of ID; Johnson is the generally acknowledged "Godfather" of the ID movement, having made it a popular anti-evolution strategy beginning in the 1990s with his book, Darwinism on Trial; and Kenyon was co-author of the ID "textbook," Of Pandas and People.

The article is interesting in its own right, but I particularly like two quotes from it. First from Padian on why he objected to the reading of the statement mandated by the Dover School Board:

I think it makes people stupid. I think essentially it makes them ignorant. It confuses them unnecessarily about things that are well understood in science, about which there is no controversy... I can do paleontology with people in Morocco, in Zimbabwe, in South Africa, in China, in India, any place around the world …We don't all share the same religious faith. We don't share the same philosophical outlook, but one thing is clear, and that is when we sit down at the table and do science, we put the rest of the stuff behind.

Then there is this from Johnson:

I also don't think that there is really a theory of intelligent design at the present time to propose as a comparable alternative to the Darwinian theory, which is, whatever errors it might contain, a fully worked out scheme. There is no intelligent design theory that's comparable. Working out a positive theory is the job of the scientific people that we have affiliated with the movement. Some of them are quite convinced that it's doable, but that's for them to prove . . . No product is ready for competition in the educational world.
This time it's hard to see where to disagree . . .


Charlie's Angel

In case you missed it, Harriet, a 176-year-old giant Galapagos tortoise who may have been studied by Darwin himself, has died in the Australia Zoo after a short illness.
Rest in peace.

Friday, June 23, 2006


How To Get a Little Tail


. .

Does creating art improve your chances of getting laid?

That is the provocative question posed by the article "Peacock's tail fans our flames" by Simon Caterson. More mundanely, the article is reporting on . . . more accurately, attacking . . . a "growing academic movement that is trying to apply Darwinian principles to the study of art and literature." Specifically, New Zealand-based philosopher Denis Dutton has argued in a recent article that the arts "echo the sexual display that accompanies Darwinian selection":

If what Dutton is saying is true, then the famous claim by the French artist Renoir that he painted with his penis is not some idle macho boast but a profoundly knowledgeable and serious aesthetic statement.

Predictably, "[n]ot everyone is convinced that evolutionary theory can be applied so readily to the arts." John Armstrong, who teaches philosophy at the University of Melbourne "points out that the Darwinian explanation of art has the same shortcomings as the theory of natural selection itself."

It is actually very hard to trace the explanatory links between humanity evolving by chance due to the laws of physics and what that tells us about our personal lives or our system of values. ...

We can see that there are these kinds of display for attracting a mate, but these are unconscious and not instrumental. There are also a lot of impostors in the animal world, and it is true that you can easily impress stupid people with a display like that of a rock star strutting on the stage and meeting groupies afterwards. ...

All Darwin tells us is what succeeds. One thing that is very distinctive about human beings is that we care about what things ought to succeed not just what does succeed. Once you introduce that move, then we are beginning to shape our conscious choices and the way we live our lives. We're shaping the patterns of success and failure. ...

The idea that at an individual level the artist is trying to reproduce by creating art is hopeless. It is an occult fantasy. What is totally wrong with the populist Darwinian picture is that things are trying to do anything. Fish are not trying to become land creatures and do not want to pass on their genes. All that evolutionary theory records is that the DNA got transmitted. It has no bearing on motivation.

While I have a certain sympathy for that argument and against the strong adaptionist program, Armstrong (and Caterson, who is clearly on Armstrong's side) cannot help overstating their objection, trotting out the strawman of "Darwinism" and proclaiming it "a substitute for religious faith." Caterson displays appropriate ignorance of evolutionary theory in support of his imaginary religion:

Human beings overall may be progressing as a species thanks to natural selection, using their brains to become better adapted to their environment, living longer and growing stronger, but if the Darwinian theory of art were correct, art would also be showing a gradual but inexorable improvement. This is where the analogy fails. The history of art, unlike human evolution, is not a grand narrative of progress.

Having built his argument on this heap of sand, nothing much following in Mr. Caterson's article makes any sense. Too bad, because it has the seeds of an interesting discussion.


Quote Of the Week

On Ann Coulter:

She foments a kind of civic stupidity in my opinion.

...............................- Judge John E. Jones, III.

Thursday, June 22, 2006


State of Confusion

Well I think that it's just - and science is more and more documenting this - is that there are real chinks in the armor of evolution being the only way we came about. The idea of there being a little mud hole and two mosquitoes get together and the next thing you know you have a human being is completely at odds with one of the laws of thermodynamics, which is the law of, of . in essence, destruction.

Whether you think about your bedroom and how messy it gets over time or you think about the decay in the building itself over time. Things don't naturally order themselves towards progression, in the natural order of things. So it's against fairly basic laws of physics and so I would not have a problem in teaching both [evolution and Intelligent Design]. Uh, you saying 'This is one theory and this is another theory.'

That is Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina in an interview with David Stanton of WISTV.

Now I know that transcripts of oral presentations always sound more inarticulate than they actually are. Gestures and facial expressions help to fill in and smooth over gaps in the oral expression of thoughts that stand out like sore thumbs on the page. And no one speaks extemporaneously in complete sentences tightly woven into the coherent paragraphs that good writers aspire to.

But that was gibberish.

A mud hole and a pair of mosquitoes is the closest this man, who is in charge of the government of millions of people, can come to expressing evolutionary theory?

And while he is obviously getting his "knowledge" of the Second Law of Thermodynamics from evolution deniers, he can't even wrap his mind around the "messy room" misrepresentation? Then again, for a guy obviously fairly advanced in the nitty gritty of politics and the spinmeister's art, it never occurs to him to ask how come all those scientists never noticed that evolution "goes against fairly basic laws of physics"?

Do the people who sign contracts with the state take such easy advantage of him as the anti-evolution crowd does?

Wednesday, June 21, 2006


Virtual Unreality

It is getting widespread media play that national science academies of 67 countries have issued a joint statement urging "decision makers, teachers, and parents to educate all children about the methods and discoveries of science and foster an understanding of the science of nature."

The statement was drafted by members of the Inter Academy Panel on International Issues - a global network consisting of 92 science academies. It points out that "within science courses taught in certain public systems of education, scientific evidence, data, and testable theories about the origins and evolution of life on Earth are being concealed, denied, or confused with theories not testable by science". ...

The president of the [United Kingdom's] Royal Society, Martin Rees, said: "There is controversy in some parts of the world about the teaching of evolution to pupils and students, so this is a timely statement that makes clear the views of the scientific community. I hope this statement will help those who are attempting to uphold the rights of young people to have access to accurate scientific knowledge about the origins and evolution of life on Earth."
Meanwhile, as the world's scientific organizations overwhelmingly endorse evolutionary theory, over at the Discovery Institute it is touting its "Dissent From Darwinism" list as having "gone global" because it now:

. . . includes member scientists from National Academies of Science in Russia, Czech Republic, Hungary, India (Hindustan), Nigeria, Poland, Russia and the United States. Many of the signers are professors or researchers at major universities and international research institutions such as Cambridge University, British Museum of Natural History, Moscow State University, Masaryk University in Czech Republic, Hong Kong University, University of Turku in Finland, Autonomous University of Guadalajara in Mexico, University of Stellenbosch in South Africa, Institut de Paléontologie Humaine in France, Chitose Institute of Science & Technology in Japan, Ben-Gurion University in Israel, MIT, The Smithsonian and Princeton.
I have previously written here and here on why the Discovery Institute's list is so pathetic. Among other things, the statement does not contradict present evolutionary theory, since mainstream "Darwinists" are also "skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life," given that genetic drift and other mechanisms are major parts of the present theory. The National Center for Science Education initiated "Project Steve" as a tongue-in-cheek parody of the Discovery Institute list and in much less time was able to get over 700 signatures of scientists limited to those with the name "Steve" or some variation thereof, such as Stephen, Steven, Stephanie, Stefan, and so forth. What is more, the "Steve" list was 61% from the life sciences as opposed to 34% on the DI list. More impressive still was the list compiled by R. Joe Brandon, an archaeologist, where he got 7,733 signatures in 4 days (compared to the over 4 years the DI list has taken), of which 68% work in biology-related fields.

So, back to the new "global" nature of the DI's list . . . taking the DI's representation at face value, they have individuals from or teaching in a total of 16 countries, as far as I can see, compared to the scientific societies in 67 countries, and 610 signers after 4 years compared to thousands of signers in just 4 days.

The truly funny thing is that the Discovery Institute's founder and president, Bruce Chapman, actually has the temerity to say:

Darwinists used to claim that virtually every scientist in the world held that Darwinian evolution was true, but we quickly started finding US scientists that disproved that statement. Now we’re finding that there are hundreds, and probably thousands, of scientists all over the world that don’t subscribe to Darwin’s theory.
Apparently Bruce never bothered to look "virtually" up in the dictionary.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006


Suffer the Children, Or Make Them Suffer?

Perhaps it was all the incredulous looks but the religious right gave up their initial opposition to the approval of a new vaccine against papilloma virus, the cause of some 70% of cervical cancer, fairly easily. They initially opposed it because protecting girls and women from sexually transmitted diseases is, to certain logically challenged minds, the same as saying "Ah, go ahead, f*ck like a bunny!"

As usual, however, the Righteous Right is just popping up elsewhere to attack in a different way. Now that the FDA has approved the vaccine, they are targeting the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, a part of the Centers for Disease Control, which is responsible for establishing the classification of vaccines that the government recommends. In turn, the recommendation usually results in states requiring the vaccination for school children, assures insurance coverage and determines the level of public funding.

Go to the article linked to above to see all the jaw-droppingly stupid comments being made by these people. I'm too depressed to repeat them all. I'll just leave you with one stunner: Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, whose mission statement states that it "promotes the Judeo-Christian worldview as the basis for a just, free, and stable society," said that he would not have his 13 year-old daughter vaccinated.

I must say that it never occurred to me that child neglect could be the basis for a just, free, and stable society.
Via Red State Rabble.

Monday, June 19, 2006



Randall Balmer is a professor of American religious history at Barnard College and his book, Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America: An Evangelical's Lament, is to be published next month by Perseus Books. There is an excerpt from the book at the website of The Chronicle of Higher Education under the title "Jesus Is Not a Republican."

In a very sad commentary, Balmer predicts that:

. . . when my new book on evangelicals appears, the minions of the religious right will seek to discredit me rather than engage the substance of my arguments. The initial wave of criticism, as an old friend who has endured similar attacks reminded me, will be to deny that I am, in fact, really an evangelical Christian. When that fails -- and I'll put up my credentials as an evangelical against anyone's! -- the next approach will be some gratuitous personal attack: that I am a member of the academic elite, spokesman for the Northeastern establishment, misguided liberal, prodigal son, traitor to the faith, or some such. Another evangelical friend with political convictions similar to mine actually endured a heresy trial.

The evangelical subculture, which prizes conformity above all else, doesn't suffer rebels gladly, and it is especially intolerant of anyone with the temerity to challenge the shibboleths of the religious right. I understand that. Despite their putative claims to the faith, the leaders of the religious right are vicious toward anyone who refuses to kowtow to their version of orthodoxy, and their machinery of vilification strikes with ruthless, dispassionate efficiency. Longtime friends (and not a few family members) will shuffle uneasily around me and studiously avoid any sort of substantive conversation about the issues I raise — and then quietly strike my name from their Christmas-card lists. Circle the wagons. Brook no dissent.
And what could bring down the disapproval of even his friends and relatives? The title the Chronicle gives the excerpt says it all. Suggesting that the Republican Party might not actually be taking the proper Christian position on issues may now count as heresy to the American religious right. Balmer sees the mutual grasping toward power as serving the following goals:

. . . an expansion of tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, the continued prosecution of a war in the Middle East that enraged our longtime allies and would not meet even the barest of just-war criteria, and a rejiggering of Social Security, the effect of which, most observers agree, would be to fray the social-safety net for the poorest among us. Public education is very much imperiled by Republican policies, to the evident satisfaction of the religious right, and it seeks to replace science curricula with theology, thereby transforming students into catechumens.
Balmer's reasons for thinking that list is counter to Christ's own teachings, while certainly not ironclad, are interesting and largely persuasive. Similarly, his examples of Republican doctrine that Christ surely would have been against but which brings no condemnation from the religious right, such as the reservation of the right to use torture, carries much weight and his list of purveyors of public moralism who themselves have feet of ethical clay is nothing if not entertaining.
But Balmer's real and most important point is that the religious right's attempt to impose orthodoxy on everyone will eventually backfire. Citing the example of the Congregationalists, who, in the early 1800s, resisted the disestablishment of their church as the official religion in Connecticut and Massachusetts, only to find that, when it came, it caused a revival in its followers, Balmer notes:

America has been kind to religion, but not because the government has imposed religious faith or practice on its citizens. Quite the opposite. Religion has flourished because religious belief and expression have been voluntary, not compulsory. We are a religious people precisely because we have recognized the rights of our citizens to be religious in a different way from us, or even not to be religious at all.
Finally, he urges his fellow evangelicals to:

. . . take into account the pluralistic context of American society and recognize the genius of the First Amendment. That requires respect for the canons of democracy and for the importance of public education to ensure its future. It acknowledges, for example, that the proper venue for the teaching of creationism or intelligent design is the home or the Sunday-school classroom, not the science curriculum. It means refusing to identify the symbols of the faith -- the Bible, prayer, the Decalogue -- with the political order. In short, our best hope for the recovery of an evangelical social and political ethic lies with recognizing that the faith functions best independent of the political order.
Not to mention being the best chance to keep democracy alive in the nation that is already the most dangerous one on the face of the Earth.


Ignorance is Strength

There is an article on the rumored but supposedly impossible independent candidacy of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg for President of the United States, which is based on his alleged hint that he would run in that he denied any such intent but at the same time acknowledged that such a denial is just what you'd expect if he was running.

And if that isn't amusingly Byzantine enough for you, you can consider the less humorous but more "Bizzaro" statement:

A recent New York Times editorial noted how "the button-down chief executive suddenly became the master of the explosive sound bite," calling gun control legislation in Washington "God-awful" and intelligent design theory "creationism by another name."

Now, it is pretty clear that Bloomberg, a lifelong Democrat who ran as a Republican mainly because it was easier to obtain the nomination that way, and who is barred by term limits from running again, is now merely taking the opportunity, since his landslide reelection, to use his bully pulpit to say what he couldn't say before.

Setting aside gun control, when did saying ID is creationism become "explosive?" When William Dembski is touting Ann Coulter's latest as accurate on the subject of ID (proudly taking credit for that), where she sets out to make a fortune labeling anyone who accepts the science of evolution as "Godless," what the heck else could ID be but religion?

Tomorrow's lesson: The NSA's new motto: Freedom is Slavery.

Saturday, June 17, 2006


ID Has Left the Building

This is my reply to Part III of Casey Luskin's response to the New England Journal of Medicine article, "Intelligent Judging -- Evolution in the Classroom and the Courtroom" by George J. Annas about the decision in Kitzmiller v. Dover School District. My reply to the first part: "New England Journal of Medicine Traipses Into the Kitzmiller Decision (Part I)" can be found here and the reply to Part II can be found here.

I admit I cannot work up much enthusiasm at this point but it does not appear that Luskin could either. The last part of his screed seems to have run low on steam. The sophistry is still there but the fire is burning down.

The first complaint Luskin makes is about how Mr. Annas reports the account Judge Jones gave of the evolution of the Intelligent Design "textbook," Of Pandas an People. The history of the testimony of Barbara Forrest on this issue is too familiar to go into here.
As is the case throughout these articles, Luskin's complaint is not really about Mr. Annas' reporting. This whole exercise is mostly an excuse to rehash complaints about the decision that the Discovery Institute has already made and which it hopes will gain strength by repetition despite the deficiencies of the arguments in the areas of fact and logic.

Luskin transparently whines that "the legal relevance" of the use of the term "creationism" by the various drafts of Pandas (previously entitled Creation Biology, Biology and Creation and Biology and Origin) is "murky at best" "[g]iven that this term was never used in the published version of the book." Well, as I noted in my response to Part I, one major issue in the case was whether or not ID was a sham, intended to improperly inject theology into public school science classes. Clearly, the motives and intent of the authors the "textbook" that was being recommended in a public school biology classroom as an alternative to evolutionary theory is relevant circumstantial evidence on that issue as well as on the motives of the school board that selected it.

Now, when John West of the Discovery Institute was rehearsing this argument back in the direct aftermath of the decision (as I noted, there is nothing new in Luskin's kvetching), he tried to distance ID from Pandas:

If this case were being argued in 1989, Pandas might be more dispositive as an authoritative guide to the theory of intelligent design. But there is now more than 15 years of scholarship by scientists and philosophers of science who think there are empirical means to detect design in nature. Pandas predates most of the major works of the contemporary design movement in science, including monographs by Cambridge University Press, and technical articles in peer-reviewed science and philosophy of science journals. The primary guide to the beliefs and views of intelligent design scholars today should be this record of scholarly and scientific and technical articles, not a supplementary high school textbook written more than a decade-and-a-half ago.
The problem with that stance, of course, is that it points out that there still is no textbook on the "theory" of ID, despite all the supposed advances over the last 15 years. The Discovery Institute, as late as November 2005 was still insisting that the proper way to deal with ID is contained in "Intelligent Design in Public School Science Curricula: A Legal Guidebook" by David K. DeWolf, Stephen C. Meyer, Mark E. DeForrest, which prominently says:

[S]chool boards have the authority to permit, and even encourage, teaching about design theory as an alternative to Darwinian evolution-and this includes the use of textbooks such as Of Pandas and People that present evidence for the theory of intelligent design.
So the Discovery Institute, still recommending the use of Pandas to school boards even after the testimony in Dover about the motivations that drove it, is in no position to pretend that those motives are irrelevant.

Luskin then turns to an attempt to show that the motive of Pandas' authors wasn't to advance creationism. He gives three "excerpts," supposedly from the "pre-publication drafts of Of Pandas and People" (without giving a hint of where they came from, any citation or page number or any other identifying information) though they seem likely to have come from the "early 1987" version that John West discusses in his article linked to above. It should first be noted that it can hardly be said that there were no indications at that point that "creation science" was in Constitutional trouble. There was more than enough circumstances at that time to suggest that "evasive maneuvers" were in order if you were intent on getting creationism into public schools by hook or by crook.

Luskin alleges that these three short sections somehow demonstrate "that the idea of "creation" discussed in pre-publication drafts of Pandas was "specifically NOT trying to postulate a supernatural creator." (Emphasis in the original) I would suggest that the proper emphasis would be that Pandas' authors were 'specifically trying NOT to postulate a supernatural creator,' even though that was the clear intent. That was the Judge's point in Kitzmiller: Pandas was a sham attempting to hide the authors' actual intentions.

All these excerpts demonstrate is that the authors present a formularistic denial that science can infer the supernatural, while still strongly suggesting just that inference by positing a "master intellect" at the same time as it makes several mentions of "the supernatural." Nor do these few snippets offset the effect that having about 150 mentions of "intelligent design" in the place of "creation" and its cognates must have on the children targeted by this cynical exercise.

Most damning is the last excerpt itself:

The point of clarification to be made is this. We can know from uniform sensory experience, and thus from science, about the material world. But there are two things about which we cannot learn through uniform sensory experience. One is supernatural, and so to teach it in science classes would be out of place. The other thing we cannot learn through uniform sensory experience is that there is no supernatural, i.e., that natural causes identified through sensory experience exhaust reality. (Emphasis in original) We cannot detect evidence for philosophical naturalism. To teach either of these two -- even by the presumption of excluding the other -- is to yield the classroom to apologetics, either the apologetics or (sic) theism of (sic) the apologetics of philosophical naturalism. Thus science can identify the intellect, but it is powerless to tell us that intellect is within the universe or beyond it.
These points are, of course, perfectly defensible philosophy and theology. But they have nothing to do with science unless the authors are trying to make the invalid philosophical argument that science is the equivalent of "philosophical naturalism." As an example of just such an argument and how invested in religious dogma it is, just go over to William Dembski's blog for his excoriation of his fellow theologian, Alan Padgett, for suggesting that science and religion don't conflict. Dembski says:

Science and theology are intimately related. People, for instance, by and large don’t reject the resurrection of Christ because the veracity of the biblical witnesses is in question (notwithstanding the Gnostic gospels, which are dated several generations later than the biblical witnesses and are rightly dismissed as not holding any historiographical weight). They reject it because science, we are told, views the world as a closed causal nexus and therefore precludes such miracles.
Dembski, of course, is the one making that assertion, not scientists or K-12 teachers. He and other ID advocates are free to make their arguments against science in their churches and homes but they cannot insist on taxpayer funding for their apologetics.

For similar reasons, Luskin's claim that Panda's definition of intelligent design is not a religious claim fails. Pandas defined ID in these terms:

Intelligent design means that various forms of life began abruptly, through an intelligent agency, with their distinctive features already intact – fish with fins and scales, birds with feathers, beaks, and wings, etc.
Luskin alleges that such a definition does not indicate a religious intent merely because it speaks of "abrupt" appearance of fully-formed biological structures. That is because, he says, that abrupt appearance "is simply a common observation about the fossil record." Much as Pandas does with the meaning of "naturalism," Luskin is conflating different meanings of the word "abrupt." The scientists Luskin quotes on that point have a definition of "abrupt" that means tens or hundreds of thousands of years and not the "instantaneous" meaning Pandas clearly tries to convey. And nowhere do scientists assert that the fossil record contains any empiric evidence that those structures are the result of "an intelligent agency." If ID advocates have any such evidence, they are hiding it well.

On top of that, Luskin, as the Discovery Institute has attempted all along, insists on trying to limit the decision in Edwards v. Aguillard to the narrowest possible definition of "creationism" as only including straightforward assertions of supernatural causation. Courts are not required to be so naive. To sum up, the best that Luskin can do is weaseling and quote mining.

Finally, as to Luskin's recital of Seth Cooper's denial of the Discovery Institute pushing Dover to pass its policy, we should remember that William Buckingham had a slightly different perspective. According to Buckingham, Cooper was at first enthusiastic about the policy but then cooled to the idea:

He was afraid we were going to lose the case. And he thought, if we did lose the case, it was going to set intelligent design back for years.

He just didn't think we were the proper people to be pushing this at this time.
But Buckingham isn't my idea of a reliable witness (though he was, no doubt, a fine pawn) and the Discovery Institute did come out as soon as the suit was filed as being against the policy. In fact, it so successfully distanced itself from the case, that its claims that it and its augments were improperly ignored by the Judge are false on their face.

The Discovery Institute fled from the case, knowing it could not be won, but hoping that the Judge would ignore the evidence enough to leave open a back door for its ploy, set forth in the article "Intelligent Design in Public School Science Curricula" above, of having individual teachers impose their religious beliefs on their students, with or without the complicity of the school board, by teaching ID outside of the official curriculum.

Somebody should have told the Discovery Institute that sometimes those who run away find out that there is no more fight to be had another day.

Friday, June 16, 2006


Against the Tide of Babble

The judiciary is a bulwark and a check preventing the popular will from overwhelming the laws of the Constitution.

But it's clear to me from the criticism and the public consumption of the criticism that we're not doing a very good job as judges educating the public how we work.
Once again, Federal Judge John E. Jones III, author of the decision holding Intelligent Design to be impermissible in public school science classes under the Constitution, is trying to correct the public's ignorance of the judiciary's proper role in a democracy, this time by speaking at the annual meeting of the Anti-Defamation League at Temple Emanuel in Denver. Noting that he had been the subject of political attacks by conservative commentators such as Ann Coulter, Phyllis Schlafly and Bill O'Reilly (who called Jones a "fascist" the night of the decision), Jones has been speaking out about the importance of judicial independence.

He just goes on making sense.

Thursday, June 15, 2006


Free Speech - Sometimes You Get What You Pay For

The Carlisle, Pennsylvania Sentinel has this item on a Cumberland Valley High School student who "wants to reignite the debate over teaching intelligent design in public schools."

Kimberly Fikse says people shouldn’t stop talking about the theory that life began with an "intelligent designer" just because a federal judge ruled teaching it unconstitutional.

"Wouldn’t it be nice if a student could hear all views?" Fikse said in a prepared speech to Cumberland Valley School Board June 5. ...

She thinks both intelligent design and evolution theories could be taught on their scientific basis in biology classes.

According to the article, Fikse siad she would like to be a physicist or "some form of engineer, but not a biological scientist."

Biology dodges another bullet . . .


Doing a Dover

This little item passed under my radar, at least. It seems that a public high school in Ohio was, until recently, opening the school day with a recitation of the Lord's Prayer over the public address system. The practice only stopped when a local newspaper got wind of it and questioned school district officials about whether it was a violation of the Establishment clause of the Constitution.

Superintendent Mike Hanshaw says none of the 300 students at Mineral Ridge High School was required to say the prayer -- and none had complained.

It makes you wonder if the Mineral Ridge civics course taught that robbery is only wrong if you get caught.

More frightening still is the response from a Florida-based outfit calling itself "Liberty Counsel," which makes the Thomas More Legal Center, that helped set the Dover School District back a cool million bucks, look like positively responsible advisors. The president and general counsel of Liberty Counsel, Mat Staver, says he believes that there is a distinction between what the Supreme Court has said on the issue of separation of church and state and what the U.S. Constitution actually means. Maybe we should have a term for advice like that. "Doing a Dover" sounds about right.

The attorney acknowledges that under the current interpretation of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, the practice of reciting the Lord's Prayer over the intercom likely is unconstitutional. "[But] on the other hand," he adds, "that's clearly not the intent or purpose of the Constitution itself."
While Staver goes on to make the reasonable observations that moments of silence at the start of the school day or students praying together in Bible clubs meet Constitutional muster, you have to ask yourself if some school district out there is going to wind up paying a whole lot of money because of advice they get from Liberty Counsel. Would you trust your Constitution to this man?

Wednesday, June 14, 2006


"Not Guilty," He Ejaculated . . .

A former Oklahoma judge has been accused of indecent exposure for allegedly using a "penis pump" while presiding at trials in open court.

Thompson served for more than two decades on the bench in eastern Oklahoma before his retirement in 2004 amid allegations he had exposed himself by using a sex toy during courtroom testimony. ...

Thompson's longtime court clerk testified in his preliminary hearing that she saw the judge use a device called a "penis pump" during several trials, including the murder trial of a man accused of shaking a toddler to death. ...

The article abounds with (presumably unintentional) humor. For example, the murder trial noted above is revealed to have "ended in a hung jury." The judge is described as one of the "most powerful men" in the county. And prosecutor Richard Smothermon said "it will be a relief to everybody to resolve this case."

If I had to guess about the outcome of the charge, I think the judge is going to beat it.
Thanks to Ed Brayton at Dispatches from the Culture Wars for this.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006


The House Is Tumbling Down

This is my reply to the second part of the Discovery Institute's response to the New England Journal of Medicine article, "Intelligent Judging -- Evolution in the Classroom and the Courtroom" by George J. Annas. My reply to the first part: "New England Journal of Medicine Traipses Into the Kitzmiller Decision (Part I)" can be found here.

The second part of Casey Luskin's response to Mr. Annas' article is more of the same, though perhaps even more disingenuous, if possible.

Luskin starts off Part II with more whining about the findings of fact that the Judge reached after reviewing massive amounts of evidence. He points to an article by Michael Behe, after the fact, and one by Luskin himself as "rebuttal" to the decision. Behe had his chance to testify cogently in the first place and, if he failed (and he did in the opinion of most knowledgeable people outside, perhaps, ID and astrological circles), that is hardly the Judge's fault. And if Luskin thinks he could have done better on the stand, where was he and Dembski and Meyer and Wells when the trial was proceeding? If they want to dispute the result the Court reached, let them make their case under cross examination like any other witness. Of course, it is going on two decades now since they first searched-and-replaced God with the Designer without any sign of their being able to make a case good enough even for a high school curriculum, so there is no reason for anyone to hold their breath.

Luskin objects to even bringing up the fact that ID has failed to gain acceptance in the scientific community (though he does not deny that is the case). Instead, he tries to argue that such a fact is, in effect, unimportant. He bases that on the Supreme Court case of Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, 509 U.S. 579 (1993), which he quotes to the effect that nothing in the Federal Rules of Evidence establishes "general acceptance in the scientific community" as an absolute prerequisite to admissibility in Federal court trials. He also cites to a Amici Curiae (friend of the court) Brief submitted in Daubert that was signed, among others, by Stephen Jay Gould. That Brief argued against "orthodoxy" as a test for admission of scientific evidence. Despite the fact that both the decision and the Brief are on the web, Luskin does not give links to them, for reasons I'll leave to the imagination of the reader. The Daubert case can be found here and the Brief is here.

Luskin quotes the following from the Brief:

Judgments based on scientific evidence, whether made in a laboratory or a courtroom, are undermined by a categorical refusal even to consider research or views that contradict someone's notion of the prevailing "consensus" of scientific opinion. . . . Automatically rejecting dissenting views that challenge the conventional wisdom is a dangerous fallacy, for almost every generally accepted view was once deemed eccentric or heretical. Perpetuating the reign of a supposed scientific orthodoxy in this way, whether in a research laboratory or in a courtroom, is profoundly inimical to the search for truth. A categorical refusal even to examine and consider scientific evidence that conflicts with some ill-defined notion of majority opinion is a recipe for error in any forum. . . . The quality of a scientific approach or opinion depends on the strength of its factual premises and on the depth and consistency of its reasoning, not on its appearance in a particular journal or on its popularity among other scientists.
The ellipses are interesting. The first leaves out a single short sentence:

Science progresses as much or more by the replacement of old views as by the gradual accumulation of incremental knowledge.
It seems a strange omission until you remember just what it was that Darwin's theory replaced. Perhaps Luskin felt that the faithful, set to thinking along those lines, might realize that it was ID, in its earlier and more honest manifestation as Natural Theology, that was the dominant view that was displaced by evolutionary theory.

The text represented by the second ellipsis is much more extensive, covering several paragraphs and moving into a completely different section of the Brief. Normal conventions for quoting would have at least had the text following the second ellipsis set off in its own paragraph. Among those issues omitted along with the missing text is the fact that the Brief is complaining about the Circuit court relying solely on whether or not a proposition has made it into the scientific literature as a mechanistic test of its admissibility. As the Brief put it:

The [Circuit] court thereby converted that editorial tool into something no scientist or journal editor ever meant it to be: a litmus test for scientific truth. This is not the way scientists work in their laboratories and symposia, and it is not the way that science should be used in the courtroom if the goal is to ensure the most accurate and valid judgments possible.
Specifically, the Brief complained that the:

. . . Court of Appeals did not even purport to investigate the soundness or professionalism of the expert's approach. Instead, it simply asserted, without reference to any authority drawn from the scientific community, that [a procedure] is "generally accepted by the scientific community" only when it is subject to peer-review and published.
This is completely different from what Judge Jones did. While Luskin admits, "The Court [in Daubert] did note that "general acceptance" can be used as one factor to consider in a determination of whether something is admissible as scientific evidence under the [rules of evidence], but it is not the dispositive factor," he fails to note that Judge Jones never claimed that the lack of acceptance or the paucity of peer-reviewed publication was dispositive. In fact the Judge wrote:

After a searching review of the record and applicable caselaw, we find that while ID arguments may be true, a proposition on which the Court takes no position, ID is not science. We find that ID fails on three different levels, any one of which is sufficient to preclude a determination that ID is science. They are: (1) ID violates the centuries-old ground rules of science by invoking and permitting supernatural causation; (2) the argument of irreducible complexity, central to ID, employs the same flawed and illogical contrived dualism that doomed creation science in the 1980's; and (3) ID’s negative attacks on evolution have been refuted by the scientific community. As we will discuss in more detail below, it is additionally important to note that ID has failed to gain acceptance in the scientific community, it has not generated peer-reviewed publications, nor has it been the subject of testing and research. [p. 64] (Emphasis added)
Judge Jones goes [on p. 83] to note that "an overwhelming number of scientists, as reflected by every scientific association that has spoken on the matter, have rejected the ID proponents’ challenge to evolution" and relates that to the fact that "ID proponents insist that evolution is unsupported by empirical evidence," and, therefore, "distort and misrepresent scientific knowledge in making their anti-evolution argument."

So Luskin's invocation of the Brief in Daubert is actually a non sequitur, dangerously close to quote mining, since Judge Jones' treatment of the import of ID's failure to achieve acceptance in the scientific community or to publish substantively is completely different than the evidentiary ruling the Brief was complaining about. In any case, Luskin fails to mention that the Court addressed the concerns of the Amicus Brief that Gould joined in:

They [the signers of the Brief] suggest that recognition of a screening role for the judge that allows for the exclusion of "invalid" evidence will sanction a stifling and repressive scientific orthodoxy and will be inimical to the search for truth. It is true that open debate is an essential part of both legal and scientific analyses. Yet there are important differences between the quest for truth in the courtroom and the quest for truth in the laboratory. Scientific conclusions are subject to perpetual revision. Law, on the other hand, must resolve disputes finally and quickly.
The Discovery Institute likes to explain its failure to come up with a teachable curriculum in Ohio by admitting that "[i]ntelligent design isn't established enough yet" to be mandated in high school science classes. The issues before Judge Jones could not wait for ID to become a science, even assuming it has a chance to do so someday, somehow. The ID advocates could not make a case that ID is science in Dover and Judge Jones would have been remiss not to rule as he did in that case with that mountain of evidence in front of him. Instead of being a "science stopper," as Luskin alleges, Judge Jones merely found what the Discovery Institute itself admits in its rare moments of candor: ID is not science now and that makes it, when there is any pretense to the contrary, what every non-science in sheep's clothing is: pseudoscience.

Next Luskin kvetches about Annas stating that "[ID] has not generated any peer-reviewed publications." As I have pointed out before, the Judge was not saying there was no literature in scientific publications that ID advocates claim as support of ID, he was saying the cited articles merely question the adequacy of some evolutionary mechanisms to explain some feature of life. Sparse attacks on some parts of evolutionary theory do not qualify ID as itself a science but are merely the manifestation of the updated "contrived dualism," borrowed from "creation science," that claims that everything that fails to support evolution is evidence of design.

More importantly, the articles Luskin points to were not presented as evidence in the Kitzmiller case. The Appendix to the Discovery Institute's Amicus Brief that Luskin cites is not evidence in a trial and Luskin, as an attorney, must know that. The Discovery Institute distanced itself from the case in Dover and it has to live with that tactical decision. Besides, as I showed before, those articles fail in the same way as the ones that were considered by Judge Jones during the trial or are not really peer reviewed or both.

Annas was writing a short summation of the case and might be forgiven for not including every nuance involved. What is Luskin's excuse for glossing over facts relevant to the very argument he is trying to make?

Luskin reserves his most bizarre claim for last: that ID has been the subject of testing or research. He bases this assertion on Scott Minnich's testimony about identifying genes that code for parts of the bacterial flagellum that, when one gene or another is disabled, results in non-motile flagella. First of all, the dispute isn't whether or not there are structures which, if a part is removed, no longer function as they presently do. So Minnich's research, while useful in identifying the particular genes coding for certain structures in the flagellum, is totally irrelevant to the dispute between evolutionary biologists and ID advocates. The issue isn't whether "irreducibly complex" (IC) structures or processes (defined as those that cease to perform its current function if certain parts are removed) exist; the issue is whether they can evolve by naturalistic means. Needless to say, biologists think they can.

More importantly for Luskin's argument, however, discovering IC structures is, at most, evidence that our present understanding of evolution is not accurate. The existence of IC structures is not evidence for a Designer, unless you are playing that "any evidence against evolution is evidence for a Designer" game that Luskin denied ID is appealing to in Part I of his screed. Evidence against present evolutionary theory isn't what ID is about . . . or so Luskin claims. But the only research he can cite to is just that sort of negative evidence in support of a contrived dualism.

One possible explanation, giving Luskin the benefit of the doubt, is that his faith has blinded him to this obvious fallacy in his argument. Another is that he hopes that you are too blind or too stupid to see it. Either way, it leaves little to recommend his article.
These are my replies to Part I and Part III.

Practically a Necessity

Here is a review of a book, The Evolving World: Evolution in Everyday Life, by University of Michigan professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, David Mindell, that promises to answer the common creationist canard that evolution theory is "useless." Even if the importance of knowledge could be measured by its economic or human "output," evolution is not without its practical benefits. As Mindell points out:
Mindell explains the purpose of his book as follows:

What I was after there was to show people that when you have really big important ideas - there is a small number of ideas in the history of science that have had such a big impact on the way that humans see themselves, a relative handful of ideas - they have all taken a long time. It's not just evolution. I wanted to make the case that it takes some of these important ideas a very long time to percolate through society until they reach acceptance not just by people who have more of a naturalistic world view, as opposed to a supernatural world view.

And his conclusion as to what fuels that change is:

[W]hen something is useful, people quit all the ideology. Ideology is generally trumped by utility. People will still remain ideologues of some sort, but they realize they just can't push it here because it's just useful. And every time it's used it vindicates all the methods that underlie it.

While I doubt that the examples given in the review are about to make instant converts out of the likes of Henry Morris, Ken Ham or Kent Hovind, perhaps, as the knowledge of the practical contribution of evolutionary theory to our lives becomes more widely known, there will be a wider appreciation of the intellectual grandeur of this view of life.


Lesson for the Day

Sometimes you just wish certain thoughts would occur to some people:
I fear you do not fully comprehend the danger of abridging the liberties of the people. Nothing but the very sternest necessity can ever justify it. A government had better go to the very extreme of toleration, than to do aught that could be construed into an interference with, or to jeopardize in any degree, the common rights of its citizens. - Abraham Lincoln, sixteenth President of the United States (1861-1865)

Sunday, June 11, 2006


Is There a Lawyer In the House?

Well, I predicted that The New England Journal of Medicine article, "Intelligent Judging -- Evolution in the Classroom and the Courtroom" by George J. Annas would draw the ire of the Discovery Institute. It took a little longer than I expected for the foaming to hit the mouths in Seattle but we get a double dose of spume (with a promise of a third) in compensation. (Someday the DI folks might want to consider why they are so predictable.)

Anyway, Casey Luskin now has two articles up at Evolution News & Views: "New England Journal of Medicine Traipses Into the Kitzmiller Decision" (Part I) and (Part II). I can only take so much dissembling at one sitting so here is a response to Part I:

It doesn't take long to find out how things are going to go. Before I could even settle in with my popcorn and soda, Luskin was carping about the Judge using the word "traipse" in his decision and making an argumentum ad dictionary to the effect that one definition of the word is "To walk about idly or intrusively" and, therefore ... well, something or other. Piled on top of this is the ever popular (in DI circles, at least) argumentum ad anonymous authority:

Many legal scholars with whom I have spoken have similarly found this statement by Judge Jones to be an incredible overreach for a district court judge.
You see, because Judge Jones said:

After a six week trial that spanned twenty-one days and included countless hours of detailed expert witness presentation, the court is confident that no other tribunal in the United States is in a better position than are we to traipse into this controversial area [and] ... in the hope that it may prevent the obvious waste of judicial and other resources which would be occasioned by a subsequent trial involving the precise question which is before us.
Luskin thinks (or at least wants you to not to think and just accept on his word) that Judge Jones "is trying to behave like the U.S. Supreme Court -- the highest court in the land -- and the only one that is supposed to decide an issue for all other courts." Now, of course, anyone who can read English recognizes instantly that Jones is saying that, given the huge amount of time already taken and the incredible amount of evidence he had presented to him, having more trials involving the precise issues would be a waste of time.

Since Luskin is a lawyer, he can't possibly think that the Supreme Court is in the trial business.* And, of course, Judge Jones was not saying that upper courts wouldn't have the right to review his decision, including his findings of fact. He was merely saying that, after spending an enormous amount of time and effort becoming as familiar with the arguments for and against ID as any judge in the country, if not any human being, he was in the best position to decide the issues he decided. The only way that Judge Jones' statement can be false is if you deny that the decision should be made based on facts and should be, instead, decided on other considerations. We know that Phyllis Schlafly and others think that but if the DI is now taking that position, they should at least be more honest about it.

Luskin then goes on to argue that the facts Judge Jones' laid out at length were "either patently untrue or largely irrelevant to a determination of whether ID is science." That is the usual DI bluster.

To begin, Luskin complains that Judge Jones found that ID requires supernatural causation, supposedly ignoring "extensive evidence showing precisely the opposite." The "evidence" Luskin offers up, however, is a bit of Scott Minnich's testimony where, asked if, in his opinion, intelligent design requires the action of a supernatural creator, he tersely replied "It does not." According to Luskin, Judge Jones should have "permit[ed] the proponents of intelligent design to define their own theory ... [not] let evolutionist Ken Miller define ID."

Perhaps Luskin missed the point that one major issue in the case was whether or not ID was a sham, intelligently designed to improperly inject theology into public school science classes. The ID proponents have no more right to peremptorily decide that issue than a person accused of a homicide would have to decide whether or not his actions met the legal definition of "justified killing." After receiving reams of evidence, the Judge found that the definition ID advocates offer is not accurate.

Next, in response to Mr. Annas' statement that the decision found that ID uses the "failed arguments of creationism," Luskin quotes Jones to the effect that ID employs "the same flawed and illogical contrived dualism that doomed creation science in the 1980's." Luskin goes on to say:

What Judge Jones means is that ID is simply a negative argument against evolution, which supposedly says that evidence against evolution therefore counts in favor of ID. Again, Judge Jones simply adopts Ken Miller's false version of ID, which says it's just a negative argument against evolution ...
As I've noted before, ID proponent's do make arguments from ignorance on top of a contrived dualism, as in the case of Stephen Meyer’s article "Not by chance" which argues:

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."
Luskin repeats some double talk Minnich and Meyer wrote but it is nicely summed up with this bit:

That we have encountered systems that tax our own capacities as design engineers, justifiably lead us to question whether these systems are the product of undirected, un-purposed, chance and necessity.
That's it folks. Their big "positive" evidence is an argument from hubris: because we can't design it, then natural processes couldn't produce it. A nicer non sequitur is hard to imagine but how is the claim that "we can't think of any other way it can get here other than by design" not an argument from ignorance? The best they can do with that is:

Molecular machines display a key signature or hallmark of design, namely, irreducible complexity. In all irreducibly complex systems in which the cause of the system is known by experience or observation, intelligent design or engineering played a role the origin of the system.
In other words, the "positive evidence" is merely begging the question (and circular reasoning to boot) in the form "we deny irreducibly complex systems can arise naturally, therefore all irreducibly complex systems must be designed because they don't arise naturally."

Luskin whines again at the end of Part I, "why didn't Judge Jones let the ID proponents define their own theory?" What Luskin doesn't recognize or, more likely, doesn't want to face up to, is that the Judge did let ID advocates define it. The Judge just found, not to put too fine a point on it, that they lied. With performances like Luskin's here, there is little wonder why.
* Actually the Supremes do have a few trial responsibilities -- cases between states being one example -- but they usually farm those out to "special masters" as in the recent litigation between New York and New Jersey over who owned Ellis Island. But nothing in Kitzmiller comes close to qualifying for the Court's original jurisdiction.
These are my replies to Part II and Part III.


Legal Selection

Okay, this one is for lawyers . . .

Daniel J. Solove, Associate Professor of Law George Washington University Law School, asks in his article in the Michigan Law Review, "The Multistate Bar Exam as a Theory of Law," notes that the Multistate Bar Exam is "the most widely read work of jurisprudence by those in the legal system" and asks "But what is its theory of law?"

I doubt his analysis of the MBE as coming out of the school of legal realism, as I think it is more properly placed in the buccal linguistic tradition. However, Solove correctly notes that the MBE is created anew every six months and:

All of us should be very thankful indeed for the great efforts of the anonymous legal philosophers who continue to toil on this evolving jurisprudential masterpiece.
And, in its evolution, the MBE is "a work of jurisprudence that just keeps on giving."

Saturday, June 10, 2006


Science in the Twilight

Arlene Stein, a sociologist at Rutgers University and author of The Stranger Next Door: The Story of a Small Community’s Battle Over Sex, Faith, and Civil Rights (Beacon Press) about one small Oregon town swept up in a bitter battle over gay and lesbian rights, has a very interesting piece at Talk to Action, which describes itself as "a platform for reporting on, learning about, and analyzing and discussing the religious right -- and what to do about it."

Her contention is that the Religious Right has taken up "'stealth' religion, which uses the discourse of science and health to make faith-based arguments."

[W]hen conservative activists speak out against comprehensive sex education and same-sex marriage these days, they rarely if ever invoke arguments based on faith principles. Instead, they present themselves as public health advocates, scientific experts, and all-around concerned citizens . . .

They're using graphs, pie charts, and the language of scientific objectivity to make their case for creationism, abstinence-only sex education, and prohibitions against homosexuality -- even if that means making up their science along the way. ...

[C]onservative strategists know that Americans place great faith in science, and are often turned off by overt religiosity. Beyond the one-quarter to one-third of all Americans who identify as conservative Christians, faith-based arguments can go down like a lead balloon.

She calls the Discovery Institute "[p]erhaps the most visible organization hawking 'stealth religion'" and notes that, while it "steers clear of words like 'creation,' 'creator,' or 'creationism,' its advocates are savvy conservative Christians who are charting a new, secular-sounding course."

She gives examples from other areas as well:
Stein accepts that the strategy of campaigning against same-sex marriages helped George W. Bush win reelection in 2004. Jacob Weisberg makes the case in his article "The Gay Panic Button" at Slate that the strategy, being run out in the form of the Senate vote on a constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union of a man and a woman, won't work this time. While that is a consummation Devoutly to be wished, it won't come from a lack of trying on the Righteous Right's part, pseudoscience doubtless playing a major part in the attempt.

As Stein recognizes, "[a]ll savvy political players use language to their advantage" and '[m]etaphors . . . make language meaningful." But "[r]eligious conservatives . . . believe that by its very nature scientific knowledge is a liberal, secularizing force."

The metaphor the Religious Right is fighting against is the Enlightenment. And, while the confluence of forces going under that name may not have been as great a flowering of political, intellectual and religious freedom as we might wish, those who think such ideas are worth striving for had better realize just how great a threat they are under now.

Friday, June 09, 2006


Monumental Book Sales

Ed Brayton, over at Dispatches From the Cultural Wars, is rightfully slapping Rob Crowther of the Discovery Institute around for more distortions about Judge Jones in the wake of his (to them) devastating decision in the Kitzmiller v. Dover School Board case.

My guess is that sales of their group whine, Traipsing Into Evolution, must be (deservedly) slow and they are trying to hype it in hope that proceeds might at least partially offset the losses they have probably seen in fund raising since the Debacle in Dover.

Amusingly, Crowther accuses the Judge of hubris because he saw the case as "monumental." He (tries to) ridicule the Judge by asking if he was aware of the fact that the case is only binding in the Middle District of Pennsylvania. But there Crowther is, in the same post, peddling the very book they rushed out (in an attempt) to refute this allegedly insignificant decision.

Once again the denizens of the DI show that they are tone-deaf to irony or to reality or both.

Thursday, June 08, 2006


Dyson's Sphere

The New York Review of Books has a review by Freeman J. Dyson of Daniel C. Dennett's new book, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon that is fascinating in no small part because of the wonderful anecdote Dyson tells of G.H. Hardy, a mathematician and what Dyson calls a "passionate atheist" at Trinity College, Cambridge while Dyson was a junior fellow there.

During my tenure, Professor Simpson, one of the old and famous fellows, died. Simpson had a strong sentimental attachment to the college and was a religious believer. He left instructions that he should be cremated and his ashes should be scattered on the bowling green in the fellows' garden where he loved to walk and meditate. A few days after he died, a solemn funeral service was held for him in the college chapel. His many years of faithful service to the college and his exemplary role as a Christian scholar and teacher were duly celebrated.

In the evening of the same day I took my place at the high table. One of the neighboring places at the table was empty. Professor Hardy, contrary to his usual habit, was late for dinner. After we had all sat down and the Latin grace had been said, Hardy strolled into the dining hall, ostentatiously scraping his shoes on the wooden floor and complaining in a loud voice for everyone to hear, "What is this awful stuff they have put on the grass in the fellows' garden? I can't get it off my shoes."

If Dyson's description of Dennett's book is accurate, Dennett thinks religion is something that is worth scraping off the soles of humanity's shoes, though he is trying to be less explicit than that. Dyson, conversely, makes it clear that he has a philosophical bias against Dennett's position and in favor of religion.

To my mind, Dyson's most serious charge against Dennett is that:

Dennett defines scientific inquiry in a narrow way, restricting it to the collection of evidence that is reproducible and testable. He makes a sharp distinction between science on the one hand and the humanistic disciplines of history and theology on the other. He does not accept as scientific the great mass of evidence contained in historical narratives and personal experiences. Since it cannot be reproduced under controlled conditions, it does not belong to science.

This is the same sort of constipated description of scientific inquiry that certain creationists use to deny the empiric examination of the past. While it is hard to imagine Dennett encouraging his audience, Ken Ham-like, to chant "Were you there?", there seems little reason for someone as smart as Dennett to cut out so much potential investigation unless he has an inkling, at least, that he will not like the results some people will claim for it.

On the other hand, Dyson does much the same when he says:

In my opinion, such research [studying religious activities and organizations as social phenomena], looking at religion from the outside, can be helpful but will never throw much light on the central mystery. The central mystery is the perennial sprouting of religious practices and beliefs in all human societies from ancient times until today.

One area of possibly fruitful investigation might be why two such fiercely intelligent people seem to have so much trouble communicating across this particular divide.

Dyson concludes with a section on the kamikaze pilots of World War II Japan, their potential similarity to the 9/11 perpetrators, and how we may misconceive their actions as those of brainwashed zombies, that is worth thinking about if we ever want to understand, rather than just propagandize about, our enemies in the War on Terror.
Jason Rosenhouse has promised to share his thoughts on Dyson's review at his straightforwardly named Evolutionblog before long. He is an outspoken atheist who, I suspect, will be on Dennett's "side" but Jason always has interesting things to say on the subject.
Update: Jason has fulfilled my expectations here.

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